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The trip home from Rehoboth Beach, DE, Sunday evening was a bit too eventful for my tastes.

While zipping along I95 southbound north of Aberdeen, MD, the battery light came on. A minute later, the engine light, oil light and others came on too, and the dash began beeping. As we pulled over onto an exit ramp, we lost power steering. As quickly as possible, we stopped on the shoulder of the ramp and killed the engine.

It's a 2006 Grand Caravan with 175,000 miles on it, so we were prepared for the worst, but after some consideration, we came to our own conclusion that the tensioner for the serpentine belt had broken. With such slackness in the belt, the alternator and other devices weren't functioning as they should.

AAA summoned us a tow truck and we were able to rent a Pacifica to get us and our equipment & luggage home while the PrincessMobile stayed at the garage.

Monday morning, our suspicions about the tensioner were confirmed. And this morning, Kent drove to Aberdeen to return the Pacifica and collect the PrincessMobile. The car repairs were about $320, the car rental $290. In all, it was better than going shopping for a new minivan.
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I'm not planning to die any time soon, or at all. While I'm assured that my death is inevitable in perhaps 40-50 years' time, I'm personally against it. I am by nature a cautious person so it seemed prudent to ensure I'm prepared for my theoretical demise.

We already have wills in place to dispose of my earthly assets. And while I'd prefer to be buried body intact and in a nicely appointed coffin (dark wood finish, brass fixtures, free wifi), getting my hydrocarbons across an international border would require significant effort by my executor, not to mention a great deal of money. It would be vastly easier to cremate me and carry my ashes in one's carry-on bags.

While we were in the Charlton area, I stopped by the township hall to talk with the clerk, Gisele Belanger, to enquire how one goes about being placed in the Brentha Cemetary near my childhood farm.

My parents (also still alive) have a plot there, I-16. Gisele informed us that a plot may contain a coffin & three cremains, or a total of five cremains. My parents are planning to be cremated so as long as my parents stop by the office to officially RSVP me into their plot, my position is guaranteed. There is an administrative fee of $265 if it were to happen today, but otherwise all expenses are covered.

The cemetary contains a lot of childhood memories for me. Rather, it contains a lot of people I knew. I went to school with several occupants. Some I knew through church. Some we shared a telephone party line with, while others were merely neighbours we sometimes saw. There were parents or grandparents of my childhood friends. There was my bus driver for my first & second grade, as well as the fellow who was the janitor of my elementary school, buried with his late wife. There was the couple who owned sold us our farm, and their extended family. There was the local telephone switchboard operator until the systems went digital in the early 1970s. And so on. I could give a mini-biography on nearly 2/3 of the people at rest there. And I'm intrigued by the ones I didn't recognize: there are no more families named Goldstein, Schultz or Kiehna in the area, and I'm curious what brought them, and why happened to their descendants.

Like any good story, I'm left with a lot of answers, but a few extra questions too.
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I currently live in Maryland in the US, but I was raised in northern Ontario, on a dairy farm in Dack Township, near the towns of Charlton and Englehart. My parents still live in the area and since we were coming to Canada this week anyway for my grandmother's birthday, I thought it was a good opportunity to travel the full distance north to visit the homestead.

It's been a bit of an adventure overall. My parents are still living on the farm, but they've had their share of health problems and even they are conceding they can't stay on the farm for many more years before the maintenance simply overwhelms their ability to manage.

Much of the farm itself has changed over the years. There is currently the house and the barn with its attached milk house left. When I was a very young child (pre-school), there was the car garage, tractor garage (the original 1920s homestead), a grainery, a log garage for farm equipment, and the old barn. The house I grew up in burned in 1984; the parents' current house then is the third home on that farm.

The old buildings were mostly cleared away years ago. The old barn was collapsing under its own weight when I was a kid, and we were strictly warned never to go in there. Which we of course then did. There were some ancient farm implements, a couple old horse collars for the plow and little else, but it was fun to explore. It was torn down in 1976 as unsafe, along with the log barn.

My dad built the milk house in 1970 or so. While we haven't had dairy cattle since the 1970s, it has been a comfortable workshop for him since then and as held up pretty well.

The barn was built some time in the 1950s, I think, well before my family bought the property in 1969. It's been remodeled several times over the decades, but dad recently returned it to its original form: slide doors on either side to allow a pass-through for tractors & wagons of hay, and an open loft for unloading the delivered hay. The stalls are more modern but haven't seen cows in years.

The fences are all gone. We had maintained a distinct north field & south field, separated by a fenced cow pasture, and a path to the pond at the edge of the forested area to the back of the property. All traces of that are now gone: it is now one continuous field from the northern edge to the southern edge of the property lines, and it is currently leased to other farms in the area for their use.

Sadly, the ground has been too wet for us to hike back to the uncleared portions of the property along the eastern edge. The underlying rock of the Canadian shield rises above soil level in these spots, over 40 feet in some places. They were fun places to go when I was a kid and I had hoped for clear views of the full farm from there with the absence of leaf cover. The exposed and barely-covered rock surfaces however mean there is little drainage for heavy rains, not to mention melting spring runoff. I'll try again in a dryer season.

Many other surrounding properties have changed too. I noticed some houses where there were none before, older or abandoned structures have been cleared away, some houses & barns have simply vanished entirely.

The Mennonite community has been buying up a number of properties in the area, priced out of the southern Ontario market. Driving at night, it's easy to spot the houses lit by kerosene lamps, and we passed more than a few horses & buggies on the roads. On Monday, we passed several groups of children walking home from their school, the girls in long dresses and white bonnets, the boys in dark trousers & coats with wide-brimmed black hats. Other than their dress, they were perfectly ordinary kids doing perfectly ordinary kid things.

On the advice of Gesile Belanger, the town clerk for Charlton & Dack Township, we went to what is now known at the Heritage Center in Charlton. That building was the town hall when I lived there, built in 1909. It now has a room for community meetings (an artists' group meets there weekly), and houses archives of the area. Looking randomly through official voter lists of the 1950s, I found the names of many people I knew, including the people who owned our farm before us. Sadly, I wasn't able to determine who owned our farm before them, but I didn't have the time to dig as deeply as I wanted. Perhaps the next time.

Overall, the region is recognizable but very different from the place I knew. Charlton is very similar, but Englehart has unquestionably gone downhill over the past two decades. New Liskeard seems a mixed bag, a downtown a bit past its prime but not too far gone, and a burgeoning suburban shopping area, although at the expense of the mall next door.

I could wish to spend more time there, but I think I've had enough for this trip. The next visit should be in the fall, when the local tourist attractions are open, perhaps late enough to see the leaves changing colour.
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It's been 10 days of touring so far, and I should write a few notes about the highlights (and lowlights).

Hop-on/Hop-off bus tours: Yup, you'll see a lot but surface traffic is so horrible that every circuit takes hours. Wear a hat and bring a drink. Best views from the upper deck, of course; the lower deck sees practically nothing.

Buckingham Palace: Great tour, including a temporary exhibit of the Queen's fashions over the decades of her reign. It's the Queen's town home and working residence, as well as reception & welcome halls for state visitors. If you've seen photos of the Queen greeting heads of state, it was probably here. We also saw the changing of the guard, kinda: the interesting stuff is inside the grounds and walled off from public view so regular tourists have to be content with watching the guards come & go.

London Eye: It's a big ferris wheel, but you can't call it that and still charge about $50 USD to go up. It's a half-hour slow revolution with spectacular views. Still, you might get better views from the dome of St Paul's Cathedral for less, if you can handle the stairs.

Walking tour of the Victoria & Albert. I was grateful to have a guide to show off a few highlights of the collection and give a lot of background information about the facility and the exhibits. That said, the place is huge and being part of a tour means that you can't just drop out to examine a gallery which strikes you as fascinating. And did I mention there's no air conditioning, something I find a little horrifying in a museum dedicated to preserving the past? Go, but consider skipping the guided tour.

Jack the Ripper tour: lots of fun! We only visited two of the murder sites as the others have been built over since 1988. Still, the nighttime walk and tour through some of London's legendary back alleys was a thrill.

The Tower: this was one of the best tours I experienced. Yes, the crown jewels are impressive (as well as the other accoutrement of the coronation process) but for me the good stuff was the chapel where you'll find the burial sites of Anne Boleyn, Catharine Howard, Thomas Moore and others, as well as the chance to stand at the site where Anne and Catharine lost their heads. The White Tower, the oldest part at nearly 1000 years, was fascinating in its structure & style. Go do this; personally, the trip would have been worthwhile if I never saw any other tour.

Kensington Palace: huge disappointment. You have a self-guided tour of some of the apartments of George III, Queen Anne and Queen Victoria (she was raised there), but the rooms are unimpressive, the exhibits forgettable and the chronologies of the signs & displays were hopelessly jumbled. You will see little about the day to day life of the residents and nothing at all about the infrastructure of royalty or the work of the non-royal staff. Skip it, but visit Hyde Park around it.

Churchill War Rooms: See this. These are the underground rooms from which Churchill ran his government during the height of World War II, including the map room, communications room, BBC broadcasting room, personal rooms of Churchill and his senior staff, the kitchen of his personal cook, etc.. Bonus: they have a separate hall which is dedicated to a birth-to-grave biography of Churchill.

Walking Tour of Old Westminster. This outdoor walking tour pointed out some interesting items about Westminster Palace (Parliament), the buildings nearby, and some of the side streets. Yes, I learned a lot but I'm unsure still it was worth the money. It's kinda interesting to know that PM Wilson didn't live at 10 Downing Street because his wife objected to being physically close to the secretary with which Wilson had an affair, but I didn't really need that info.

Day trip to Avebury and Stonehenge: OMG, totally worth it! We had a two hours bus drive out a prehistoric grave barrow, now a heritage site, then on to the village of Avebury which is built entirely within a henge of standing stones. Great pub, too, and very scenic. Stonehenge itself was another half-hour away and has an excellent interpretation center and shuttle buses up to the stone structure. It was smaller than I was expecting but very impressive. Go see it.

Walking tour of St Paul's Cathedral: great tour. There was lots of good info, a lot of highlights and, for the brave & strong, a chance to walk 500+ steps up into the dome of St Paul's. It's not actually that hard since the first half gets you to the whisper gallery, a viewing area around the inside of the dome looking into the church's interior. The next 100 steps get you to the spacious lower outdoor viewing platform, and then you can make the final run up to the very narrow and crowded top viewing platform (with a view from a landing directly down into the church, to the very center of the floor a couple of hundred feed below. Completely worth it, just for the views.

"The Mousetrap" I saw this in 1979 or so as dinner theater in Toronto but had long since forgotten the plot and the identity of the murderer. It call came back to me half-way through the first act, but it was a still a fun performance.

Walking tour of the British Museum: same issues as the V&A (too fast, no air conditioning, no chance to pause to examine thing which catch your interest). It didn't help that our tour group was twice as large as it should have been so our guide couldn't be heard from the back, and I think simply gave up on crowd management 20 minutes in. Disappointing. Go see the museum, skip the guided tour.

Whitehall Palace Banquet Hall: The original Whitehall Palace was destroyed by fire centuries ago, but the banquet hall survived. Charles II converted it into a reception hall, moving the masques to another location. He also commissioned Reubens to pain a series of enormous paintings which were then installed in the ceiling of the hall, giving it grandeur and awe-inspiring beauty. It's an odd self-guided tour: just lay back on the provided beanbag chairs and let the pre-recorded audio walk you through the art, the architecture and the history as you take it all in.

Tour of the new Globe Theater. This is a faithful replication of Shakespeare's Globe Theater which was originally located only a few hundred feet away in the early 1600s. We didn't see a play but we did sit in the seats to watch a tech rehearsal, and the exhibition hall was fascinating. If you have any interest in theater or Shakespeare, go see this.

"Kinky Boots" Many friends have loved the show but I knew nothing about the plot or content. It wasn't until the orchestra was warming up that I realized it was a musical (I suspected, but...). It was a great show and members of our group who have seen other productions thought it was a superb presentation.

Windsor Castle: so worth it! We had to take the train from Waterloo station down to Windsor, a trip of nearly an hour. Compared to years of Via Rail and Amtrak, this was the smoothest, quietest and most comfortable train I have ever been on, and it was only about 15 pounds for an open return ticket. The palace itself was everything you'd expect a royal castle & residence to be: extremely awe-inspiring, historic, and beautiful. Hey, Kensington Palace: this is what a real palace looks like! And you must tour St George's Chapel on the castle grounds: so much history!

Westminster Abbey: totally worth it! This was one of the most expensive tours we went on, but it was worth every pence. There are so many famous people buried in the Abbey: I'm still wrapping my head around having stood by the graves of Elizabeth I, Mary I, Mary Queen of Scots, Edward III, Edward the Confessor, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Dirac, Herschel and more. The list is too extensive to place here. My greatest regret is that photography isn't allowed because (a) it's an active church and (b) it would cut into book sales at their shop.

Hampton Court: go visit. It was a half-hour train ride out of Waterloo station but I enjoy the rail system here. We saw the living quarters of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (Wife 1), the public halls, the kitchens and the gardens. We also spent some time in the Georgian wings, where William III had initiated major renovations & updates. Actors walked our group through the investigation & interrogations into Catherine Howard (Wife #5)'s affair with Culpeper, culminating in the death sentences issued by Archbishop Cranmer. (Side note: only three women have been executed at the Tower in London: Anne Boleyn (Wife #2), Catherine Howard (Wife #5) and Lady Rochford, one of Catherine's ladies-in-waiting who was said to have assisted her affair with Culpeper, or at least kept Catherine's secret. Last week, we visited that very site at the Tower.)

Our tours are done. Saturday morning, ten hours from now, we depart our hotel and head to Heathrow for our flight home.
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I knew about some words which needed translation between Canadia (and American) English and British English but a few caught me off guard. Sure, I knew lorrie is a truck, crisps are cookies and mates are friends. There were some surprises...

Signs in the subway aren't "exit," they're "way out." It's more descriptive and closer to spoken English than written form.

The road signs aren't "yield," they're "give way."

I'm accustomed to seeing "no loitering" signs in Canada and the US, but in the UK it's "do not alight here."

I'll add more as I recall them.
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Dear London:
Why do you have Pret A Manger on every street? What is this obsession? Not even the US has this many Starbucks.
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Landing on Wednesday, we did little more than walk around our immediate neighbourhood, then take the hop-on/hop-off bus tours. The bus tours themselves took many hours as street traffic is beyond deplorable. Still, we got to see a lot of places and get a general lay of the land while not pushing our sleep-deprived selves too hard.

Thursday was given to a visit to Buckingham Palace, including the changing of the guard. The halls of the palace were all that one might expect in regal opulence: expensive, impressive, & awe-inspiring. Later in the day, we had a ride on the Eye, walked around the vicinity of Westminster Palace and 10 Downing Street, and a few other sites.

We did a walking tour of the Victoria & Albert Museum Friday morning. It was just a taste of the building rather than an extensive visit but it was impressive nonetheless. The Tower of London, however, was all I had hoped. It was the one must-see site I wanted for this trip. Yes, the crown jewels were amazing, but I was more fascinated by the White Tower, the original tower of the complex now nearly 1000 years old, the chapel where Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey are buried, the room where Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned the last 12 years of his life and so on. Amazing.

Friday closed with an evening walking tour of the Jack the Ripper story. Fortunately, it was not a live re-enactment. Many of the murder sites no longer exist, having been built over in later decades, but we were able to visit at least two spots where bodies were located, as well as see the churchyard and the mission shelter where most of the murdered women frequented.

Our visit today was to Kensington Palace, residence of William of Orange & Queen Mary, William III & Mary II, Queen Anne, childhood home of Queen Victoria, etc.. And frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment. None of the rooms seemed especially regal in any fashion: we could have been visiting any home of any well-to-do family. And the rooms were generally laid out as museum displays rather than as they were as living quarters. Rather than learn something about the lives of the royals who lived there, we just got highlights of their careers and marriages, all of which we could get from any history book or web search. I was hoping for much more and left empty handed. Not recommended.

Because we were in the neighbourhood, we dropped into Harrod's. It was horrifyingly packed and busy: I'm not claustrophobic but I was quite happy to get out of there again as quickly as possible. I will not be returning.

Because of the rain, we decided to simply stay at the hotel and catch up on sleep in the late afternoon. And I finally had the traditional fish & chips at a local pub for dinner: it would be a missed opportunity to be in England and not try that stereotypical dish.

Tomorrow: The Churchill War Rooms and Westminster Palace tours.
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It's been a great trip so far... so many things to see and do! And naturally, so much history.

There's been weird stuff too, things I hadn't considered previously but should have foreseen, as well as somethings which are just off the wall.

I knew people drive on the left side of the road and the driver's seat is on the left side of the car. I should have thought through the logical conclusions: most on-ramps and off-ramps are logically on the left and the fast lanes would be to the right. Obvious, if I had bothered to think.

On the other hand, the entire service industry seems to be Polish, not British: the front desk staff at the hotel, the serving staff in the restaurant, the bartender, the shop clerks, the servers at the local restaurants, even a couple of the tour guides. The only British folks I've encountered were the staff of the Underground, and most of the tour guides.

Having employees from other EU countries is natural, but I don't understand the propensity for Polish workers to come to the UK. Are they also congregating in other EU countries? Why isn't London attracting Greeks, Czechs, Romanians, etc., in the same numbers? Or are they, but I'm not seeing them yet?

I'm delighted my credit cards are working well here --what a great time to be alive-- but I thought "pin & chip" tech was more advanced here. Yes, the machines like my chip cards, but then they spit out a receipt and summon an attendant to verify my signature as I sign the slip. WTF?! The UK seems to be the middle tier between Canada (who does it right) and the US (which is paleolithic).

Grocery store are filled with sadness. I have never seen such huge shelf & refrigerator space dedicated to single, prepared meals before. Dinners for singles, not dinners for couples. It is fridge after fridge of loneliness. They should stock the sugar next to them to offset the bitter taste of their dinner.

The Brits seem to adore crowds & queues, even when they don't have to. When given an option to space themselves out in a large room, they still form up in a concentrated smaller space. Groups of friends still cluster together in groups, but then push the clusters against each other rather than taking up the space of the room. Even in stores with multiple registers open, they seem happier to line up behind one rather than spread themselves to the available spaces.

I'm impressed how clean the city is. I haven't seen seen any homeless folks and no one has begged me for spare change: I get accosted multiple times per day when walking in DC, and Toronto is little better.

I rarely hear car horns here. In the instances where I did hear them, the situations were fully justified. By contrast, I wouldn't recognize DC or New York City if the horns ever stopped blaring.

But the traffic! So many cars and so little space for them. I think walking is faster than driving in most instances, and the tube is better than both for distances.

I love the tube. It's well-lit and, well, working, unlike DC. And it doesn't make me want to scrub myself in bleach or use ear plugs like NYC. And it goes practically everywhere, unlike any other place I've ever visited. On the downside, the exact rates seem to be a state secret: no signs are posted anywhere and only some stations are equipped to display your fare charge and remaining balance as you depart the station. It's all distance & zone-based so the calculations are complicated and would be difficult simply display in a poster, but some hint would be nice.

We still have a week to go so there's still so much more to see & experience!
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Today, Michael and I went for our inteviews for the TSA Precheck program (Kent has a different date at a different office, one more convenient to his office). The hope is that having the precheck and "Known Traveller" status will help us get through airport security lines a little faster. Even if the lines don't move faster, at least we won't have to take off our shoes & belts, remove laptops, etc..

The interview itself was fairly bland: the data we entered on the online forms was displayed back to us and we were asked to confirm the contents. Our fingerprints were then scanned, payment of $85 (for five years) was taken, and we were done. The background check will take about 30 days, but the investigation status will be updated online.

Interestingly, about 10% of all applications are rejected. And the fee is non-refundable.

The precheck is good for domestic flights and as it stands, my next two trips are both international. Still, the known traveller status is printed on the boarding passes by the airlines rather than the TSA, so there's always a chance we'll get the precheck line for the security at whichever airport we're using. I'll let you know.

If nothing else, the expedited line will be useful for my future trips to San Francisco, Michael's visits to Cleveland, or Kent's to Florida.
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There isn't much to say about today, travel-wise. We slept in a bit, then joined some of the clan at the Alma Country Diner for lunch.

I've noticed a pattern in Florida dining establishments: When they tell you the wait for a table is X, it is most likely to be 2X. I have never been seated immediately at any establishment, but that says much of our poor timing concerning peak dining hours here (see prior post). My general rule is that I'm willing to wait 15-20 minutes for table; beyond that, I would prefer a different establishment, grab a bite through some fast-food drive-through, or visit a grocery store.

In each instance this weekend, we were quoted a 30 minute wait. The quickest of these waits however was 58 minutes, the longest 74 minutes.

I'm unsure if the staff are blissfully unaware of their actual turnover of tables, or perhaps they lied knowing that customers wouldn't wait an hour. Or perhaps by some random chance we managed to hit a genuine timing mistaken/clerical error with every restaurant visit we made.

Aside from the late lunch, we went to a local manatee preserve to see some of the local wildlife. Alas, the viewing season for the manatees in this location is January-February so we saw nothing but the park itself and its waterfront. At the moment, the river is too warm for the beasts as they prefer temps of 65-70 degrees F, so the manatees are out among the gulf shallows. Still, nice park.

This evening at dusk, we distributed the rest of Kent's mother's ashes. We had previously scattered some in Frederick, MD, an area she loved but at a particularly beautiful site with a view to their home in the distance. Today, we scattered some at the RV park's memorial pavillion and at their RV site. No tears, just happy memories.

Dad will be coming back to Maryland in the first week of April and we will be aggressively preparing the house for sale. I'm sure he just wants the project over & done, although he's not going to be taken for a ride concerning the pricing of the house. There's priced-for-sale and then there's priced-by-a-moron, and he's not a moron. We'll help move some of the contents, distributing pieces to relatives, getting surplus items to charity and shipping the items which Ralph will keep. My personal goal is to ensure everything is ready for a sales close well before Labour Day to get the best possible timing for a good price.

As we returned to our motel room tonight, I noticed yet another cultural activity I had never seen before: some families in our motel had parked charcoal grills in the grassy strip in front of their motel rooms to cook. Interesting.

I have several theories about this but have no information or experience which would indicate which is correct. It could be that the family simply prefers home-cooked meals, perhaps for cultural, religious or dietary reasons. Alternatively, it could be a cost-saving measure as dining out as a family regularly while also paying for a motel may stretch one's resources. Or it could be that some are semi-permament motel residents, sheltered & subsidized here by the county authority, but since the rooms lack a kitchen, this is an improvised way of cooking at home as desired, again saving precious money. Or perhaps it's simply fun, a planned part of a vacation as much as visiting parks or events. Anyone have guidance for me on this?

Tomorrow, we meet up with the clan for breakfast after we check out of the motel. Our flight home is at 2pm and we should be home by mid-evening. And much laundry will await us.
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I'm currently in Punta Gorda, Florida, here with Michael & Kent for a memorial service for Kent's mother, Zoe Forrester, who passed away last August. Kent's parents and paternal grandparents have wintered here since 1980 and consider it their primary residence (at least for tax and insurance purposes) so it is very fitting that we distribute the last of Zoe's ashes here on what would have been her 80th birthday.

This is my second visit to Florida, the first being the GALA Choruses festival in 1996 in Tampa, just north of here. I didn't see much of Tampa except for the downtown core where the festival was being held, not to mention nothing outside the city. This trip is a bit different.

We always joke about how Florida is God's Waiting Room, a place packed to the rafters with the retired, near-dead and dead. Yup, it's much truer than I knew: In our drives about town, there is a medical clinic or a funeral home on every other block. And the clinics are all hyper-specialized: not just ophthamologists but specialists on cataracts, not just surgeons but specialists in coronary bypass and knee replacements, not just dermatologists but skin cancer treatments, and so on. And huge billboards for no-frills cremations, starting at $650! And I haven't seen a single elementary or secondary school yet.

The senior demographic skews local business in a way I hadn't anticipated: if your customer base doesn't keep/care about office hours, then the routine of the day takes on a new tilt. Meals skew to earlier times: peak dinner hour here seems to be 5-6pm, but DC's is more 7-8pm. We went out for Thai food last night naively thinking we were going to beat the heaviest of the dinner crowd at 6pm but found we were in the trailing edge of a mass of people. Our lunch with family yesterday was 1pm, barely beating a hoard of people arriving after 1:30pm. It's going to take some time to map out other peculiarities of local timing.

One thing very unexpected: cows. As we drove through the rural space between Fort Myers and Punta Gorda, among other places, we passed several open fields of cows. While Florida paid a lot of money to be successfully known as a producer of orange juice, I had no idea it was also a significant player in beef production. Huh.

The past 48 hours have been a bit of a blur, largely because I was fighting off a nasty cold and have been severely medicated to mediate the symptoms enough to let me (barely) function. Today, we're having brunch, picking up some supplies for the memorial service (the cake, some ice cream, flowers, etc.), then heading to the RV park where the family has gathered. I'm hoping for a bit of spare time to lift some weights at their gym and perhaps soak in the pool before the service starts at 4pm.

No one is sure exactly how long the service will run as, well, how to put this delicately... Forresters make god-awful project managers. Seriously. Not a one of them can focus on an agenda item for more than three seconds before willing drifting off onto some unrelated tangent. It's a constant chorus of "Oh, say, that reminds me..." Great for group therapy, lousy for getting things done. Bless their hearts.
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I recently enjoyed a flight on Virgin America. As we taxied out from the terminal to the runway, we the passengers were given our mandatory safety video, the one where they tell us not to smoke, to put away all electronic items, how to operate a seatbelt, etc.. Virgin America's version was, well, diferent:


Now this was kinda catchy the first time, but it's long and, frankly, if you're not into their particular singing/dance style (I *really* hate rap), very, very tedious. It was even more tedious the second time on my return flght, enough that I will be taking earplugs with me the next time so I don't have to be subjected to it. I already know how to operate a seatbelt, etc., so tuning it out won't compromise the safety of our flight: it's just so damned annoying.

Virgin America: Could you consider returning to the old, less exuberant safety video? It would make my flight a lot more comfortable. Besides, do you really want expose your paying packed-like-sardines customers to a mandatory video where actors have more than a foot of space between their seats and four feet between rows? Think about it.
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The joy of travelling is that I can rent a variety of cars, ones which otherwise wouldn't be on my radar for purchase or even test-driving prior to purchase.

In our visit to Seattle for a square dance weekend, we had a reservation with Alamo (they're dirt cheap) for an intermediate-class car. Alamo also lets you pick your choice of car from the litter on offer: you just check out the cars in the class you've booked and drive away with your choice.

Upon arrival, they didn't have any intermediates handy so they gave us a free upgrade to a full-size vehicle so we perused the range of larger cars. And that's when the three of us had to make a decision...

Me: We need a four-door model...
Them: Oooo! That one's pretty!
Me: Does it have enough trunk space for our luggage?
Them: It's red! We like red!
Me: Is there enough leg room for you guys?
Them: It's a shiny red! Let's pick this one!
Me: *sigh*

It was indeed roomy enough and had plenty of trunk space. There was good sightlines around the vehicle from the driver's seat and the dashboard was easier to understand than many other cars I've rented, although I'll confess I never found the trunk release button until the day we returned the car. The analog clock was an interesting stylistic choice.

Overall, I think the fuel efficiency was so-so, as was the general acceleration, sound levels, general comfort and ride. It just nice, not great, not horrid. Nice in a bland and otherwise uninterseting way. I'm sure in a few weeks, the Chrysler 200 will fade completely from my memory.

Still, $75 for four days' rental... I'm good with that. And the boys got a red car for the weekend.
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I landed at San Francisco's airport last Sunday with rainy weather behind me in DC and heavy fogs & rain here in the Bay area. It figures: while I had packed every possible change of clothes --business casual, recreational, square dance club formal, etc.-- I hadn't thought to pack either a waterproof jacket or an umbrella. Doh! At least the "rain" in SF was little more than a heavy drizzle and it all blew out of the area by lunchtime Tuesday.

This first week was dedicated to working at my Dear Employer's new office digs in downtown San Francisco. We occupty the 20th & 21st floors of 301 Howard Street, just a couple of blocks south of the Embarcadero BART subway station. In many ways, it's incredibly convenient. On the downside, corporate policy hasn't caught up with the new reality and I must therefore continue to stay at the officially blessed Hyatt Regency, two miles on the wrong side of the San Francisco airport. Using a rental car, I've been driving a mile to the Millbrae BART station, paying $2/day in parking and spending another $8 or so for the subway ride.

I don't mind the commute overmuch. The only downside --besides taking 45 minutes per day each way just to travel-- is that I have to get to the Millbrae station around 7am to guarantee finding a parking spot and/or a seat on the train for all the 11 stops and that means the alarm going off at 6am. I'm OK with that but I'm not a morning person. Worse, while showing up at 8am is a Good Thing work-wise because there's no one else in the office, I feel a bit guilty leaving before 5pm with the rest. When I'm on the east coast, I get out of bed at 8:59am to be at my basement computer bunker by 9am. Sometimes I'll even put on clothes. And I can take a few minutes in the middle of the day to sit somewhere comfortable, away from the computer screens, to rest if desired. In short, I'm out of practice with the commuting schedule most normal people have, and which I used to follow when working at all prior employers.

A word on BART. Many of the people I work with don't have a high opinion of the system. Trains too irregular, trains too old, etc.. Having spent many years on Toronto's TTC subway and DC's Metro system, I'll say that BART has some distinct advantages over the other two.

1. The cars are clean, practically spotless. I hardly ride Metro without getting a strong whiff of mildew from the poorly cleaned & maintained AC systems. Most Metro cars desperately need some stain remover on their floors and sometimes the seats.
2. Toronto and DC's subways stop at stations wherever they please. Sometimes the train will advance to the end of the platform, sometimes they crawl just far enough for the trailing car to align with the entrance, most times they just park at some random place along the platform. BART trains stop at distinct locations and there are colored floor tiles at the platform edge to indicate precisely where the doors will be. This pleasant feature allows passengers to queue up on either side to board rather than forming an amorphous blob competing to get in the doors the moment the last departing passenger is clear. And BART passengers do queue up politely. Imagine that: a design inducement for crowd politeness rather than dissuading it.

I was surprised to learn Monday that I have a new Director of Operations. I didn't even known we were hiring such a position, but I'm guessing my VP was finding he needed to delegate more of the day-to-day business so he can focus on the larger picture. Bret seems a pretty nice guy and he seems to know his stuff. This week, he was getting to know all of the people involved, checking out the data center facilities, familiarizing himself with our networks, our fields of specialty, our day-to-day activites and meetings. I took advantage of his first day to piggy-back my own requests for a new office badge so I can get into the office during the off-hours, among other things.

There is one huge downside to working at the San Fran office: excessive visibility. Many of the things I wanted to do have been swamped by fly-by requests and/or urgent matters. Since I'm one of three people on the team (more on that soon), I usually get a stack of these but being on-site increased my percentage significantly. I'm behind on my personal work-related goals for this week.

After several days of minimal sleep, I crashed early last night. Rather, I decided that when I dropped my tablet on my face twice before 9pm when I dozed off while reading, it was a sign I should just call it a night. I slept soundly until about 6am.

[profile] cuyahogarvr and [profile] kent4str are arriving on Virgin America at lunchtime today. I received a couple of confirming text messages from them just prior to boarding that all was well.

Per earlier plans, I drove to the local laundromat to catch up on laundry. I have packed my bags and am ready to check out of the Hyatt at 11am. I'll park the car at Millbrae, then take the BART to SFO to collect the guys and their bags. Once we're together, we'll head downtown to check into the Marriott Marquis for the IAGSDC convention (I've already checked in online) where we're staying until July 8 when the boys return east. I still need to book an alternate hotel in SF for July 8-12, but the last minute deals are only available a week prior to the booking date so I'll worry about that on July 1.

More news as it develops.
bjarvis: (Default)
I escaped the snowy doom of DC this week for a quick trip to visit my corporate overlords in California.

When I booked my tickets back in February, it was going to be a normal trip to visit with the team, work on some joint projects and help out in the Santa Clara data center. Since then, my original manager left the team, the new manager's father died so he's gone to Hawaii to settle the estate and another guy left the firm. Our team of six is now a team of three and I'm filling in as interim manager. This is definitely not a normal trip.

Among other little challenges, the powers-that-be have declared that my official hotel will be the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport, about a four mile drive from the office. I used to stay at the Marriott Courtyard, immediately adjacent to the office so I'm not really keen on the longer commute. Fortunately, it's not turn out to be as bad as it could be.

When I made the hotel reservation, my firm hadn't issued me the group code for our corporate rates so the Hyatt had no clue I was there on business and was therefore going to charge me for both Internet and parking. The kind desk clerk, however, waived both for me, noting that I was a Hyatt Honours member. That I looked like an unkept, sleep-deprived drowned rat at the time might have elicited a small sympathy response too.

My room is on the 6th floor but it faces outwards instead of into the beautiful interior atrium. Not a big deal, but my external view is directly onto 101 and the noise levels are a bother. And the room has feather pillows --I'm allergic to feathers. Still, the pillows were swapped out and the room itself, while not as large as the Courtyard, has a better arrangement of furniture and is definitely a better working space and a more comfortable bathroom & shower.

Yesterday, completely out of the blue, their sales director emailed me to apologize for not realizing I was there on a corporate group account, sent a bottle of wine & sparkling water with glasses to my room with a personalized greeting card, and offered to move me to a room away from the 101 today, as there would be additional rooms available shortly. OK, I can deal with this.

The Hyatt itself is near, well, nothing but more hotels: a Crowne Plaza, a Holiday Inn, a few non-chain places. There's not much available in the way of restaurants or shopping so the food I have in my room I bought at the Safeway near my office during lunch.

It's the commute to & from work which is annoying. There's no escaping some driving on the 101, but [personal profile] pklexton pointed me to Third Street which I can use to minimize the highway congestion. The on/off ramps for my hotel is a nightmare but I figured that out after a few panic attacks. Still, walking 100 feet the Courtyard Marriott to work will always be a tough act to top.

BTW, my car this trip is a Kia Soul, a cube-like car which has actually been pretty nice. It handles well, has a quiet & smooth ride, has great surrounding visibility and appears to be light on fuel although I can't say I've driven it enough to really have a good handle on that quiet yet.

Heading out to lunch now... more to come later.
bjarvis: (Default)
I'm writing this on my flight from Phoenix back to the DC area. We've been in the air about a half-hour now, and this is the first breathing space I've had in nearly three days.

I had flown to Phoenix to meet with several others with my firm and visit three candidate data centers to replace our Savvis SC4 facility in Santa Clara, CA. The SC4 site is one of the oldest data centers in Silicon Valley and, frankly, it looks it: the air conditioning is subpar, the internal power distribution is insufficient for current-day server densities and so on. The place needs to be gutted and renovated from the ground up. We have our non-production machines housed there and while that was adequate in the past, our future plans require more than SC4 can offer.

Why Phoenix? We already have offices and staff there. There are a number of competing data centers, all cheaper than anything we could find in the Bay area. The climate lacks the hurricanes of the east coast, earthquakes of the west coast, tornadoes of the central south and terrorist threats of the capitol region. Still, I thought it was a bit insane to stuff equipment requiring heavy air conditioning into a desert, but Phoenix has become a regional nexus for a vast amount of cross-continental optical fibre networks: connectivity is easy and cheap here.

The folks in the contracting & purchasing division of our firm had already selected candidate sites; they and my upper management would be making decisions largely weighted by the cost of the facility and the overall negotiated package. My purpose was to was to look to how my systems engineering team would deploy, maintain and decommission equipment and our degree of satisfaction that the facilities each met our minimal power & network redundancy.

After a flurry of meetings and site visits Monday and Tuesday, I'm comfortable putting our equipment into any of these sites: they're well built, well connected, accessible with appropriate levels of security and meet our paycard compliance requirements. That said, each site had interesting quirks of their own.

The first location was CyrusOne, a new facility still under construction in Chandler, AZ. One bay is completed and ready for occupation: if we moved in, we could be among the first. The front office space is still being built out but will be done within a month. As a new building, they've built in a number of interesting architectural features to help channel hot air away from the floor into peaked roofs where the air is collected, chilled and recirculated into pressurized side wall containments which then channel the cool air to the pressurized floor. Rain water is collected for use in the chillers. Solar panels are being considered for supplementary power. It'll be a gorgeous, sexy building when it is completed.

Next, we looked at IO in Phoenix proper. The facility was originally built as a designer bottled water plant, although that firm went bankrupt, killed by its own fraudulent accounting. IO picked up the building for a song and rebuilt the factory floor into an extraordinary data center facility. Wisely, they kept the stunningly opulent lobby and front offices, some of which they rent out to firms with servers on the data center floor. Walking into the building was like walking into a luxury New York hotel.

The building is just down the street from the Van Buren street fibre nexus. Indeed, it's close enough we could get huge bandwidth with only two cans connected by string. Oddly, while we can make connections through this massive meeting point to nearly every major telecom player in North America, Comcast isn't one of them: they don't serve Arizona.

The data center itself had two flavours: the older “phase one,” a traditional data center floor with individually walled cages for each client. Their newer and vastly preferred “phase two” area uses their proprietary modules. These modules look like stainless steel cargo containers: one can install 14 cabinets down the center of the container, power & network connections fed from overhead trays. The air conditioning and power distribution systems are in separate lockers under the floor. This allows the maintenance to be performed on a module without ever entering the customer space above. Each modules has its own fire control system and its own entry lock system (your choice of physical key, badge, fingerprint scanner, iris scanner or any combination thereof). While these modules are all inside a common warehouse, they're designed to be weather resistant and could be deployed remotely as needed. IO also offers a larger version we affectionately called the “double-wide,” but that's larger than we need.

The third facility is a Digital Realty site located next door to the previously mentioned CyrusOne location in Chandler, AZ. It's an older building, originally constructed as a data center by a financial securities firm for their own use. Of all of the sites, this was easily the most bland and unglamourous. That said, it also probably has the longest track record and best uptime record of all of the facilities we examined. Our cage there would look largely like our existing facilities: a standard cage on the data center raised floor inside a nondescript building. What caught our eye with DRT, however, is how transparent and open they are about their maintenance procedures and their logs. They were open to letting us look through any of their log books to examine their past preventative maintenance, corrective actions, root cause analysis and more.

As an older facility, DRT's site wasn't up for LEEDS consideration and they used an open water system for their chillers, taking water off the municipal system and then returning it again after use. I've been burned by that kind of dependency on a constant outside water source at a previous employer and am not keen on that again. That said, they do maintain their own two 60,000 gallon tanks for backups and despite being in operation for years, have never had to tap their stocks.

DRT's facility, like all others, have onsite generators for backup power. They own their own electrical substation instead of simply having the utility's substation on their premises like CyrusOne. Since generators take a few seconds to spin up and reach required power outputs, all facilities have some sort of bridging power, typically a huge bank of batteries to provide up to 30 seconds of continuous megawatt-hours of energy. DRT offered the choice of batteries to bridge the power gap, or hitec flywheel generators. These are 12,000 pound flywheels in constant motion while there is external power: once external power is cut off, the flywheels continue rotating and begin acting as generators themselves while the diesel generators rev up. Personally, I prefer batteries: they're easier to check remotely to ensure they're charged and ready, and they're trivial to replace as they wear out. 12,000 pound flywheels aren't exactly trivial to fix or replace when the bearings go.

At the moment, I have no idea which data enter we'll go with: it'll 80% based on the bottom-line price for each. If Savvis plays ball with us, we might stick with SC4 for one more year but would hit the road in June of 2014. If Savvis doesn't play, we're outta there by June of this year. Exciting times!

In Flight

Feb. 6th, 2013 07:07 pm
bjarvis: (Default)
In other news, the slight sniffle I had over the weekend grew into a sore throat and coughing as my body tried reflexively to eject the crud accumulating in my lungs. As of last night, I wonder if I might have mild bronchitis but today I'm feeling much better –probably due to aspirin and a cough suppressant to make the flight home a bit more comfortable. If this doesn't improve in the next 24 hours, however, it'll be time to visit my local clinic.

I was a bit rushed getting to the airport this afternoon. While I left the office in what I thought was a sufficient amount of time, I got stuck in a 1.5 mile long stop-and-go traffic jam because of an accident on the southbound 101. Even after getting past that and making my way to the airport, I discovered the rental car drop-off is nearly 15 minutes' drive on the other side of the airport. At least Enterprise's drop-off was uneventful and the shuttle bus to terminal 4 left almost immediately, but it did take another 15 minutes to get back.

Security was sluggish but I made it to my gate at Southwest just as my boarding group was starting to move (I was A58). I still haven't tied my shoelaces. Whether my suitcase made it on board is still an open question but there's nothing critical in it.
bjarvis: (Default)
This past weekend, the hubbies and I travelled south to North Carolina to visit our longtime friend, Cal, ostensibly to help him de-xmas his house.

Cal has a very large house and has something of an xmas obsession. In all, I believe we stripped down & stored *twelve* trees of various sizes: one 10', two 7', four 4' and the rest 3' or smaller. There were also lights & wreathes around the bushes, shrubs and walkways in the front of the house. And extra figurines, decorations, models, garlands and such along the tops of every cabinet, shelf or display case. Oh, and decorative lights in multiple windows.

Seven of us worked Saturday morning & afternoon to clear the outdoors and have the trees stripped & stored. The three of us plus Cal continued working in different wings of the house on Sunday. We left around 2pm to return to DC but there were still many decorations still scattered in various locations; at least we managed to take down anything which required multiple people or ladders.

Saturday evening, we learned to play "Ticket To Ride." Interesting game! Sadly, I was not able to destroy my competitors. Indeed, while I came in second in one round, I ended last in the second. Not a good trend. Still, I'm learning appropriate strategy and hope to crush my opponents at some future time.

Surprisingly, the traffic returning from North Carolina to DC was relatively light. I expected heavy traffic as everyone rushed home from the weekend if not from an extended holiday vacation but it was not the case. That was a pleasant surprise to wrap up a relaxing weekend.
bjarvis: (Default)
I had a number of things I wanted to do these past four days. Here's the score:
  1. Shop for new square dance music. Done.
  2. Shop for a new laptop. Done: it arrives Friday (hopefully).
  3. Read four books. Done I got through
    • What I Didn't Learn in Business School
    • About the Size of It
    • Stock Trader's Almanac 2011
    • The Most Important Thing
    • Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King

    I didn't get to:
    • The Little Book of Valuation
    • Technical Analysis for Dummies
    • Winning with Futures

  4. Work on a C1 square dance class. Not a single thing. *sigh*
  5. Update my calendar. Done.
  6. Square dance demo team research. Not a single thing.
  7. Square dance flyers to the IAGSDC. In progress.
  8. Web site for [profile] cuyahogarvr, www.getoutexcursions.com Mostly done. Need additional content but worst of the structure is in place.


I really wish I had an extra vacation day to catch up on some domestic stuff, as well as complete my list. With any luck the next couple of days will be light work-wise: outside of teaching a square dance class on Thursday, I have no commitments.
bjarvis: (Default)
Today is Friday. Despite being promoted by many as the date of the Mayan apocalypse, the worst thing to happen was a server reboot 8am this morning, an event I used as a convenient excuse to upgrade the machine from 24GB to 48GB of RAM. Take that, Mayans!

Tuesdays is xmas; the Monday prior is a company holiday. Taken with the weekend, I have four days of vacation time. Here's how I'm going to use it:
  1. Shop for some new music to add to my square dance selections. I've finally broken open an iTunes gift card for $25 which has been sitting on my desk for damn near three years. It's time to put it to use.
  2. Shop for a new laptop. I may not buy one, but there is a computer show & sale locally this weekend and I'm planning a visit on Sunday close to closing time when vendors are more willing to make a sale. My current netbook has been delightful for three years but it's showing its age and has already been expanded to its limit. I have a need for a faster machine with more RAM.
  3. I'm going to read at least four books, one per day. I have a large inventory to choose from, but I've decided this weekend's focus will be business/financial.
  4. I'm going to get off my ass and begin serious planning for a fast-track C1 square dance class. No dancer should have illusions about what they'll accomplish: I've been through enough boot camps to know that a single weekend can't do more than give a flavor of the program. Unless one has local follow-up workshops, it won't stick. I've also been around long enough to know that many dancers (esp. lapsed dancers who need a refresh) don't need a 50+ week long course for a program. I'm inclined to 3-4 six hour sessions on consecutive weekends. More planning & design is required, as well as a survey of the potential market.
  5. I need to update my calendar for 2013.
    • I need to insert all of the 2013 office holidays.
    • I need to plan my San Francisco IAGSDC convention schedule along with work-related visits to the mothership in late June & July.
    • Our trailer weekends to Roseland Resort are already in the calendar but I need to update my team's vacation schedule to ensure I can get those vacation days.
    • I'm also planning to attend the LISA conference in DC next November. My office won't pay for it so I'll need to have some money saved, but they should at least give me the time off work if I request it early enough.
    • Our square dance calendar is largely filled in, but I do need to alert the office to my pending absence for the CALLERLAB convention in Raleigh, NC, in the spring.

  6. I'm still working on a square dance demo team for DC Lambda Squares. This weekend, I should be able to do at least research calls & formations we're going to teach/incorporate, as well as check YouTube for ideas & research.
  7. I need to check with the DC Lambda Squares and Chesapeake Squares boards to see if we have flyers going to the IAGSDC for distribution in their restored bimonthly mailings. The deadline is Jan 6.
  8. I'm going to work on a web site for [profile] user. I've had some aborted attempts over the past number of months but since he's lining up business contacts in Europe as I write this, we need to get this component together and done asap.

That should do it for now. I may add more as time allows.

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