Florida 2014: Titusville and Universal


This is part II of my Florida 2014 travelogue. Part I described the planning for the trip, and in this article, I’ll discuss the first eight days of the vacation, starting the day we left home, and finishing the day we left Universal for Disney. Disney World is described in the next article.

Wed, Aug 13: This was a working day for me but everything that needed to go had been collected so Gail and the boys spent the day getting everything packed into the van. Our friends Jeff & Kerri were going to be looking after Shadow while we were gone, so Gail had brought him to their place the day before. I got home from work around 4:30 and we left shortly after that, stopping at Subway for dinner. After crossing at Queenston-Lewiston, we headed for Wal-Mart in Buffalo where we bought a few things for the trip and a few snacks to bring home at the end of the trip. The things to bring home were things we can’t buy in Canada like Cherry Coke Zero.

After our shopping trip, we continued to the Clarion Hotel Buffalo Airport.

Thurs, Aug 14: Early morning and a quick breakfast at the hotel before taking the 7:10 shuttle to the airport. We had an uneventful flight to Baltimore, then a 1½ hour wait before our equally-uneventful flight to Orlando. Southwest offers wifi service but if you want actual internet, you have to pay $8 for it. However they do offer free TV service over the wifi, and Nicky was apparently able to get that working. Ryan tried on his tablet but kept getting “Unable to play video”.

On arrival in Orlando, we picked up our rental car – a silver Nissan Maxima. I really liked this car – it held all the luggage easily, and was comfortable and drove nicely. We didn’t get food on the plane so we stopped at Wendy’s for lunch and then drove 45 minutes east to Titusville. Our hotel was the Hampton Inn Titusville which also featured free hot breakfast (Nicky became well acquainted with the waffle-maker) and also had a pool and weight room, neither of which we used. After checking in, we drove out to the nearby Merritt Island Nature Preserve (north of the Space Center, though we could see the Vehicle Assembly Building). The visitor’s center was closed but we want to the Manatee viewing area where we got eaten alive by “no-see-ums” (tiny little biting flies which we don’t have at home) but managed to see a few manatees in the distance as well as some pelicans, storks, buzzards (or vultures), and little salamanders. On the way back to the hotel, we picked up a pizza from Domino’s for dinner and enjoyed it while watching a movie on Gail’s laptop.

Fri, Aug 15: After breakfast, we drove to Kennedy Space Center. This was not the cheapest place around: $50 admission each. But by the end of the day, we all agreed that it was well worth it. We took a short tour of the “rocket garden”, which contained a number of rockets identical to the ones used by the early astronauts. These were missiles that NASA had bought from the military. They removed the warhead and replaced it with a tiny capsule into which they put a person. This was essentially a ten-story fuel tank with a little box on top. It’s one thing to fly in a big space shuttle where you can move around a little but these early astronauts had nowhere to move.

After that tour, we saw a presentation about the new Orion spacecraft that is being built for future missions to Mars. These won’t launch until 2020 or so but we got a good overview of the capabilities and what kind of hurdles the engineers have to overcome. After this we headed over to the Atlantis building, where we saw a very cool movie about the Space Shuttle program, from its beginnings in the late 60’s (!) to the launch of Columbia in 1981 to the other shuttles. At the end of the movie, the wall with the screen was raised and there it was: the actual shuttle Atlantis hanging from the ceiling. Cool trivia: It looks like the shuttle is hanging on a 45° angle, but the angle is actually 43.21°. Get it? 4-3-2-1 – it’s a countdown! There was a ton of information and pictures about all of the shuttles and their missions, as well as a short movie on the Hubble space telescope and the mission to fix it.

AtlantisAfter lunch we got in line for the bus tour around the facility. It started to rain while we were in line but luckily the line was covered so we didn’t get wet (this was a bit of foreshadowing to Disney). The rain got heavier and then the thunder and lightning started. The lightning was very close by and I can’t explain how or why the thunder sounded different than at home, but it did. By the time we got on the bus, the thunder had stopped but the rain continued. The tour went by the Vehicle Assembly Building and then out to the launch pads that were used for the Apollo and shuttle missions, and it then dropped us off at the Apollo / Saturn V center.

Engines on the Saturn VThis building wasn’t there the last time Gail and I were at the KSC, though that was 17 years ago. There was an entire Saturn V rocket inside, broken up into stages so you could see what each stage was used for. The size of this thing was unbelievable. There were plaques for each of the Apollo missions as well as other memorabilia. There were also movies about an Apollo launch and the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. I’ve heard the Apollo 11 landing story many times but I still learned a lot here – for example, the Eagle lander had less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining when it touched down on the moon’s surface.

After the bus tour, we walked around the Early Space Exploration building, which taught us a lot about the pioneers of the space industry. Many of them died long before the space missions actually started, but their work was instrumental, even if it happened fifty years before the space program existed.

The four of us are definitely science and space geeks, and so we really enjoyed KSC. But even if you’re not as into it as we are, I think there was enough at the visitor’s center to interest almost anyone. Everything was really well done, there were lots of informational plaques and videos and such, and there were plenty of interactive exhibits so even if you didn’t want to read all the information, there were still things to do.

After the Space Center, we stopped at Denny’s for dinner on the way back to the hotel.

Starting today, the boys wore pedometers every day, and every night I recorded how far they walked. Neither of the pedometers were calibrated properly though, and some days the distances travelled were wildly different, so while they weren’t completely accurate, they gave us a pretty good indication of how far we walked. Ryan only told me the number of km he walked, while Nicky included the number of steps as well.

Ryan: 4.39 km
Nicky: 11.19 km, 18661 steps

Sat, Aug 16: After packing up and having breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and drove back to the Merritt Island visitor’s center, since it was closed when we went on Thursday. After perusing the visitor’s center, we went on the nature drive just down the road. This is a 5 mile one way driving path through the preserve, on which we saw lots of water birds (mainly storks, herons, and egrets) and one alligator in the water.

Once finished here, we drove back to Orlando where we had lunch reservations at T-Rex in Downtown Disney. If you’ve ever eaten at a Rainforest Cafe, this was very similar except there were animatronic dinosaurs and mammoths and such rather than rainforest animals. I had a proud daddy moment when Nicky pointed out that mammoths lived only 10-15 thousand years ago while the dinosaurs were over 65 million years ago. In another episode of foreshadowing, it began to rain just as we were entering the restaurant. We didn’t get wet, but a few minutes later it was raining hard. Unfortunately, when we left it was still raining pretty hard. Luckily, Gail had packed rain ponchos for all of us. Unluckily, three of the four of them were still in the car. I’ll let you guess who remembered to bring theirs. The boys and I were quite wet when we got back to the parking lot.

After lunch, we drove to the Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal Studios, our home for the next four nights. We parked the car and then went to check in, but our room was not yet ready. They did have a luggage service so we left our bags there and wandered the hotel for a while. There was a very large pool outside as well as a mini water play area, two ping pong tables, and a pool table as well. There was supposed to be shuffleboard but we never found that. There were also at least three restaurants, a weight room, and a small video game room. We played ping pong for a little while and then went back in to check on our room. Still not ready. Half an hour later, we checked a third time, and it was still not ready. By this point, we had been waiting for well over two hours so as an apology, they gave us a voucher for a free dinner at one of the restaurants while we waited. We chose a place called Jake’s, and shortly into the meal (I don’t think our meal had even arrived yet), I got a text message saying that our room was now ready.

After an excellent dinner, we got into our room on the 7th (top) floor. We had a view of the river running through the resort, and could see parts of the theme parks (including some of the rides – see the picture below. Hulk is the coaster in the middle, Dr. Doom’s Fearfall is the two towers to the left of Hulk, and Rip Ride Rocket is on the far right). At night when there were firework shows, we could see them pretty clearly from our window.

View from our windowWhen the boys went to bed, I went out to find a Wal-Mart to buy some milk, cereal, muffins, and snacks to keep in the room for breakfast. Since neither this hotel nor the one at Disney offered free breakfast, we did this the rest of the trip.

Ryan: 9.96 km
Nicky: unknown

Sun, Aug 17: For those of you who haven’t been (or haven’t been in ten years, like us), there are two Universal theme parks: Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. They are right next to each other, and you can get from one to the other (assuming your tickets allow you) on the Hogwarts Express. The entrance to Islands of Adventure was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel, and Universal Studios was about 5 minutes beyond that.

Gail’s back had been bugging her a little each day on the trip up to this point, but she had brought some Robaxicet (muscle relaxant) with her, and that was enough to make the pain go away. But shortly after her shower on Sunday morning, something in her back “popped” and started hurting much more. She took the last of the Robaxicet and we headed out for Islands of Adventure. Early entry was at 8am but we got there at 7:30, and there were plenty of people ahead of us. Once the doors opened at 8, we followed the crowd to Hogsmeade and the most popular ride in that park, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. All four of us are huge Harry Potter fans, so walking through Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts castle was amazing for us. Since we were there so early, there was almost no line. The entrance to the ride was inside the castle, and we actually felt like we were walking through Hogwarts. We saw the Defense against the Dark Arts and Herbology classrooms, the stairway to the headmaster’s office, moving portraits, the Mirror of Erised, the sorting hat, the Fat Lady, and much more.

Forbidden Journey was one of our favourite rides in any of the six parks we visited on this trip. It combined a moving car with a simulation ride to give you the impression you were actually flying. Most of the cast of the movies played parts in the video on the ride as well as the “pre-show” while walking through the castle.

After that, we rode Flight of the Hippogriff (a fairly tame roller coaster) and then went to Ollivander’s Wand Shop where the boys each bought a wand. The wands were interactive, meaning there were places around both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley (in Universal Studios) where you could use your wand to cast spells, and they had fun with that.

The boys at HogwartsAt this point (it was no later than about 10:30), Gail’s back was hurting much more and she had to go back to the hotel to rest. The boys and I rode Dragon Challenge, which was one of the most intense coasters I’ve ever done. It wasn’t huge but very fast and compact, which means the corners and loops were very tight. There were two coasters intertwined, and they were different so it was like two different rides. The lines were still short so Nicky (he of the iron-clad stomach) actually rode it a second time while Ryan and I sat the second one out. The rest of the morning was all rides: Hulk (Nicky only), Spider-Man (similar to Forbidden Journey), Poseidon’s Fury (a show, not a ride, but very fun), and the River Adventure in Jurassic Park (a cool flume ride). Then it was back to Hogsmeade where Nicky rode Dragon Challenge again.

Our friends the Finnigans (Andrew, Gail, Gareth, and Jenna) were at Universal that day as well. They were near the end of their vacation while we were just starting ours, but we managed to meet up for lunch at the Three Broomsticks. It was there that we first tried butterbeer, both the “cold” and “frozen” varieties, as well as pumpkin juice. All of them were really good; I preferred the cold type of butterbeer (sort of a cream soda kind of thing) while the boys preferred the frozen stuff (same but more of a slushie), and I really enjoyed the pumpkin juice which tasted like liquid pumpkin pie. Ryan is our pumpkin pie fanatic (he prefers that to cake on his birthday), but surprisingly, he didn’t really like the pumpkin juice.

After lunch, Andrew, Gareth, Jenna, Ryan, and Nicky rode Forbidden Journey again while I called Gail to see how she was. Her back was even worse than before so we left the park and went back to the hotel. On the way back to the hotel, Nicky realized that his phone was missing. He thought maybe he had dropped it on Forbidden Journey but by this point were near the front of the park. I told Nicky we’d check back later on or the next day, but we both figured we’d seen the last of it. “Nicky’s phone” was actually my old Android phone and was not actually activated as a phone, but he had it as a wifi device. We brought it so that if he got lost, he could get in touch with us through email. Ryan had a real phone.

Gail’s back had gotten steadily worse throughout the day and by this point, she was barely able to get out of bed to go to the bathroom and couldn’t move to do anything else. One of my work benefits is out-of-country health coverage, so we called Sun Life to see if they could send a doctor to the hotel. They arranged for a doctor, and an hour or two later, Dr. Almond (“like the nut”) arrived. He was very friendly and helpful, and we didn’t have to pay him a cent (thanks SAP!). It turns out that the drug in Robaxicet is only available in the US by prescription so he gave us one, and I went to get it filled and also picked up some sandwiches for dinner.

After dinner, the boys and I went down to the pool for a while before heading to bed.

Ryan: 11.88 km
Nicky: 14.85 km, 24752 steps

Mon, Aug 18: Another early entry day, this time to Universal Studios. Gail’s back was a little better this morning, but not enough to go anywhere. The boys and I arrived at the park a little later than yesterday and got in at 8am. However Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (the most popular ride at Universal, particularly because it had only been open for a couple of months at this point) was closed. It opened later on, but see the picture below for why we didn’t ride it today. This, plus the fact that almost nothing else in the park was open yet, kind of threw a wrench into our plans but Despicable Me was open so we went and did that one. This turned out to be a good idea since the line for this ride was insane later in the day. After that, we did Transformers and then walked around Diagon Alley where the boys did tried more magic with their wands.

The line for GringottsAfter a while we left Diagon Alley and did some more rides. By lunch we had done Men in Black, The Simpsons, Revenge of the Mummy, Twister, Rip Ride Rocket (Nicky only), and Shrek 4-D. After lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, we took the Hogwarts Express over to Islands of Adventure, where we rode Forbidden Journey and Dragon Challenge once again. We headed to the guest services area to ask about Nicky’s phone. We described it and when and where we lost it, and presto! It had been found and returned, and the lady had it. She told Nicky that if he could unlock it, he could have it. He did, and we walked away with the phone. Nicky was ecstatic, and I was pretty surprised and thankful. It wouldn’t be the last time on this trip that something would get lost and then found.

We took the Hogwarts Express back to Universal Studios where we got an ice cream and a bottle of pumpkin juice to bring back to the hotel for Gail (since she hadn’t had a chance to have any yet). We walked back to the hotel where we found Gail in better shape than in the morning. She could get up and walk around the room a little. It wasn’t much, but it was definite improvement. We hung around the hotel for the rest of the day. We watched the reboot of Robocop and the boys and I went for a swim. Dinner was ad hoc – we had some snacks and leftover sandwiches from the previous day, and I think Ryan had a bowl of cereal.

Ryan: 13.5 km
Nicky: 15.37 km, 25623 steps

Tues, Aug 19: It was a sleep-in day for Gail and Ryan, but Nicky and I were up by 8:00 so we got dressed and left them to sleep. We went for a walk around the hotel and played some ping pong before Gail texted me to tell me that they were awake, around 9:45. Gail was feeling much better this morning – so much so that she wanted to leave the hotel room (for the first time in two full days) and go down to City Walk, an outdoor shopping area in between (but outside) the two theme parks. On the way there, she changed her mind and decided she wanted to go to the Three Broomsticks for lunch, and I was very excited that she felt good enough to go into the park. On the way there, we stopped at the ticket counter. We each had a three day ticket and this was our third day, but since Gail had not used her ticket the day before, she still had an extra day to play with. We stopped to see how much it would cost to add an extra day onto our tickets. The answer: $10 each. This was a no-brainer.

GringottsAfter lunch we went back to Forbidden Journey but just did the castle tour rather than the ride, so we could spend as much time in the castle as we wanted without worrying about the lines. Then we took the Hogwarts Express over to Universal Studios and walked Diagon Alley for a while. The boys and I did a few rides, but Gail wasn’t taking any chances with her back so she sat those out. At this point the line for Gringott’s was under an hour so we decided to do that while Gail went back to the hotel for some more meds. This worked out well since Gail couldn’t ride it anyway. The line moved fairly quickly but it still took about 70 minutes before we actually were on the ride. It was similar to Forbidden Journey but more roller coaster and less simulation.

We met Gail at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company for dinner and had a wonderful meal before heading back to Universal Studios for the Cinematic Spectacular. This was a combination fireworks / laser / water show with movie clips being projected onto a screen of falling water, which was really cool. Of course, it was only Universal movies, but considering the amount of money they spent on Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, it was odd that there were no clips from Harry Potter movies in the show.

Ryan: 14.8 km
Nicky: 9.2 km, 15341 steps

Wed, Aug 20: This was our transition day from Universal to Disney so the first thing we did was pack up, check out, and put everything in the car. But since we had extended our passes by a day, we went back to Universal rather than driving to Disney. We did Despicable Me first, then took the Hogwarts Express over to Islands of Adventure where we wrote some postcards and got them stamped “Owl Post” before mailing them. The boys practiced their magic before watching the Poseidon’s Fury show again and then heading back to Universal. We saw the Terminator 2 show, which has stood up pretty well since Gail and I first saw it 18 years ago, then had lunch at the Leaky Cauldron. A little more wand work in Diagon Alley, a ride on E.T., and we were done.

We took the water taxi back to the hotel where we piled into the car and drove to Coronado Springs. After checking in and unpacking, we headed over to the Wilderness Lodge resort for dinner at the Whispering Canyon Cafe. I don’t remember the name of the thing we ordered, but it was essentially a huge plate of food for the four of us to share, including roast beef, BBQ chicken, sausages, ribs, corn, baked beans, mashed potatoes, and roasted veggies. The amount of food was unbelievable and we felt really wasteful not finishing it but it was just way too much and not having a microwave in our room, there was no point in taking it to go. The funny thing is that it was all-you-can-eat, so if we wanted, we could have asked for more.

After dinner we wandered around the Lodge, where we saw a blue heron just a few metres away who caught a fish as we watched. We also saw a rabbit under the boardwalk. Then it was back to Coronado Springs where Gail did laundry while the boys and I went for a swim. Once the boys went to bed, I hit Wal-Mart once again for snacks and breakfast foods.

Ryan: 13.45 km
Nicky: 12.25 km, 20425 steps

Our Disney vacation began in earnest the next day, and that will continue in the next article.

Florida 2014: Planning


In August 2014, we spent two weeks in Florida, spending two days in Titusville and the Kennedy Space Center, four days at the Universal theme parks in Orlando, and eight days at the various Disney World theme parks. You know what that means – it’s that time again! That time when Graeme uses his blog to capture a ton of vacation information that you, dear reader, probably don’t care about. But to be honest, it’s not you I’m writing this for, it’s me. I’ve done this in the past for other vacations, and I find it’s a pretty good way of capturing all of the minutiae of the trip that we’d otherwise forget. I find it fun to read them over again a couple of years later. That said, if you don’t happen to be me, I hope you enjoy it too.

This was a pretty long vacation with no “down” days, so there’s a lot of information here. I’ve broken it up into a number of different articles: the first (this one) talks about the planning of the trip, the second covers Titusville and Universal, the third covers Disney World, the fourth contains some stats about our trip, and the fifth is a comparison of the Universal and Disney experiences (i.e. stuff other than rides).

The castleWe began by booking the flights and hotels back in about April. Once we booked Disney, we were given access to a web site called My Disney Experience, where we could look over our information and bookings as well as do things like book lunch and dinner reservations (and in some cases, even order our food in advance), and even book Fast Passes for rides. Gail had fun doing this, but there was one other web site that she frequented in preparation: touringplans.com. This is a site that allows you to pick the rides you want to go on at a particular park (it covers all of the Disney and Universal parks) and it will tell you what order to do them in so that you’re not spending half the day waiting in line. There are iOS and Android apps so you can see your plans and even update them on the fly, as well as checking out the current wait times for each and every ride. If it sounds like it’s regimenting your day, it kind of is, but in a good way. Plus these are of course only guidelines so if you want to shuffle things around or skip a ride or do one twice because the line is short or whatever, you can. There were some days where we followed the plan reasonably well and others where for one reason or another we ended up doing our own thing, though having the app really helped. Gail really liked that app – to the point where she was checking ride wait times weeks before we even left. “Look, 158 minutes for Gringotts!” “That’s great, dear, but we don’t leave for another month.”

The cheapest flights we could find were out of Buffalo rather than Toronto. We’d never flown out of Buffalo before but lots of our friends have and the flights were far cheaper than out of Toronto. Buffalo is about an hour from home but our flight was at 8:25am so we elected to book a hotel room and use their shuttle service to get to the airport. Most hotels near the airport also offer shuttles as well as parking services, which were generally cheaper than the $50/week that parking at the airport would have been. We chose the Clarion Hotel Buffalo Airport which included 2 weeks of parking, a hot breakfast, and a shuttle to and from the airport for about $89.

We flew on Southwest, which was unusual compared to other airlines for two reasons: (1) Each of us could check up to 2 bags for free, and (2) there are no assigned seats; instead, you check in online 24 hours in advance and you are assigned a “booking order” (A1-A60, B1-B60, or C1-C60). When the flight starts boarding, the A’s go first in numerical order, then the B’s, then the C’s. When it’s time for you to board, you get on the plane and pick whatever available seat you want. Obviously if you’re C20, you’ll have less to choose from than if you’re A10. We couldn’t get a direct flight on the way down (or didn’t want to pay extra for it), so we flew to Baltimore and then to Orlando an hour later. Our return flight was direct to Buffalo.

At Disney, we originally booked the Port Orleans Riverside resort, based on price as well as recommendations from friends. But after we had booked (and paid), Gail heard from her hairdresser (who heard from her cousin) that Disney sometimes offers a free dining plan, and we should check into that. We did, and the free dining plan offer was only good if you arrived after August 31, so it didn’t apply to us. But we kept checking and after a couple of weeks, they moved the date back to before we arrived, so Gail called them. The deal didn’t apply to our hotel, but they said that if we didn’t mind switching hotels, they could give it to us. We said yes immediately, and chose Coronado Springs, since it was on our original short list anyway. The total cost actually ended up about $80 cheaper, and we now had the free dining plan. This was huge and it sounds weird but words cannot express how excited Gail and I were about this.

The dining plan consisted of one “counter service” meal, one “table service” meal, and one “snack” per person, per day. The meals consisted of an entree, a non-alcoholic drink, and a dessert. So basically, other than breakfast and a couple of appetizers and alcoholic drinks, all of our food at Disney was free. We didn’t do the math (since some of the restaurant bills consisted entirely of $0’s) but we figured this saved us close to $1500. This applied to any restaurant (there may have been restrictions, but we never ran into any) in all four theme parks, Downtown Disney, and all of the resorts. Not only did this save us a bunch of money, but it gave us some freedom as well – if Ryan wanted to order the $29.95 salmon, go for it. We ate at an African buffet for one meal, which we may not have otherwise. We didn’t have to order the $16.95 chicken when we really wanted the $28.95 steak. In many cases, we were too full from dinner to get dessert but since it was free anyway, we got it to go and then ate it for breakfast the next day. That way, breakfast ended up being free as well. Of course, having cheesecake or key lime pie for breakfast isn’t necessarily the healthiest choice but hey, we’re on vacation. And really, is it that much worse than a chocolate chip muffin or waffles with syrup?

In the next article, I’ll cover the first week of our trip.

Habitat for Humanity


Every year, SAP has an event called the Month of Service, where every employee is given time off from work to volunteer in one of a number of venues. Some are right in the building and only take a couple of hours, others are outside the building. The participation in this event is impressive – numbers from the Canadian SAP offices varied between 42% (c’mon Calgary!) to 72% in Waterloo to a confusing 129% in Ottawa. Overall, over 60% of Canadian SAP employees participated in some volunteer event and in addition, SAP donated money to some of the charities involved. This is a great event and kudos to SAP for doing this.

Oddly, I don’t remember hearing about this event last year, though I am now aware that many employees did take part. I wanted to do my part and bump up those Waterloo numbers, so I chose Habitat for Humanity. They are doing a build in Kitchener, and an employee who volunteered with them last year was organizing it again this year. I love building stuff but I’m not very knowledgeable about such things, so a place like this is perfect for me: they’ll tell me exactly what to do, they have the tools and equipment available to do it, and they have truly knowledgeable people around to help and advise.

The block we were working onWhen we first bought our house, we had lots of repairs to be done and I always enjoyed doing them. I can do simple electrical stuff and I don’t totally suck at working with wood, though I’m not going to be building a dining room suite anytime soon. I’ve installed phone lines and electrical outlets and replaced light fixtures and such, and I enjoyed helping my father-in-law and brother-in-law build our “cold room” (pantry) and workshop in the basement as well as replacing our deck. One thing I don’t enjoy is plumbing. For some reason I can just never get the hang of plumbing, though I have installed new showerheads a couple of times. That’s brain-dead easy but Gail’s done some more difficult stuff like replacing the kitchen faucets and our bathroom sink and she’s pretty good at it.

But I digress. We arrived on site around 8am where there were some snacks and coffee/tea available. There were about 15 of us from SAP plus a bunch of contractors. At 8:30 they had a safety presentation and after that we all geared up in our borrowed CSA-approved boots and hardhats and headed out to the work site. The area they’re working on is huge (see the picture below, taken from the top of the scaffolding on the new block). The site manager was telling us that if they were to buy just enough land for one house in this area, it would cost near $200,000 – and that’s without a house. Much cheaper to buy a large lot and put up townhouses, which is what they’re doing in Kitchener. There was one block of six houses that were mostly finished, and they’d started another block of four in the back corner, which was where we were working.

We started by bringing a pickup-truck worth of 4’x8′ sheets of plywood down to the site, and then passed them all up to the second floor. Those were later installed on the roof by some of my colleagues. We then installed a couple of 2x4s horizontally through the trusses, which I believe were to be used for running wire between rooms. The trusses needed spacers installed, so that was our next task. While getting ready for that, another contractor came by and asked if we had extra people since he could use a hand. I volunteered and so he and I headed to the other end of the building, where the all of the siding had been done except for the very top pieces. My first task was to install five pieces of J-channel, so I needed to measure the pieces, cut them to length, and nail them in place. Once that was done, I cut the last pieces of siding for each of the five sections – this took a lot longer than I expected and I burned through a couple of utility knife blades doing it. Finally that was done and I was able to install them and screw them into place.

The work siteThat’s it. That’s all I got done all day. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? It was a lot of work though and my shoulders and legs were feeling it over the next couple of days.

There was a 10-15 minute break at 10:45 or so, where they supplied some ham sandwich fixin’s as well as some crackers, cheese, and fruit. Lunch was at 12:30 and was catered by people from a local church. They had brought a bunch of baked potatoes and all kinds of toppings: grated cheese, bacon, onions, diced tomatoes, chili, sour cream, and a bunch more. For dessert there was more fruit as well as brownies, lemon bread, date bread, and banana bread. The food was excellent.

I have lots of kudos to go around. First to my SAP colleagues and particularly Dave Brandow for organizing it. Secondly to the church people for supplying lunch – it was fantastic. Thirdly to Andrew and Darrell and Marcus and the other construction pros who were all helpful and very patient with a bunch of non-pros. Fourth, to the person who gave us the introduction and safety training – I believe her name was Janine but I feel terrible that I don’t remember for sure. She reminded me of Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds – particularly her voice. And finally to all of the Habitat for Humanity people everywhere, those who donate, and those who volunteer. You are doing a great thing and I am looking forward to volunteering again next year.

Manufactured controversy


People love controversies, don’t they? There’s nothing like a good controversy to stir up people’s emotions. But what if you want to stir up emotions on a topic that isn’t controversial? That’s easy: just pretend it’s controversial! This is a popular thing to do on Facebook. There are always people trying to get others to like their page or share their picture in order to drive up ad revenue or visitors to their web site, and making the picture controversial will always work.

I saw one the other day saying something like “I’m proud to wear a poppy to honour our servicemen and I don’t care who that upsets!” Who’s upset about it? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone being upset by the wearing of poppies. But there was a web address to a Facebook page at the bottom of the picture.

Carrie Underwood is prettyAnother was the one about atheists wanting to ban a Carrie Underwood song because it (gasp) talked about God. There have been headlines like “Carrie Underwood’s brand new song making atheists mad as hell” or “Atheists outraged by Carrie Underwood’s latest song” or “Atheists viciously attack Carrie Underwood’s new song, want it banned“. No we don’t. Go ahead – find one atheist who wants to ban the song. Even if we did, what reason could we possibly give for banning it? There is a whole genre of Christian music which includes countless artists and probably millions of songs. No atheists are trying to ban them and no atheist is concerned about this one song. We’re not outraged at all – but you know who is? The Christians who believed this crap. As a commenter on one of those articles said, maybe it should have been “Carrie Underwood’s new song making Christians mad as hell”. But all of this “controversy” has certainly raised the profile of the song, hasn’t it? There are probably tons of Christians out there who are buying the song and/or album just to spite us horrible atheist bastards. Well played, Ms. Underwood, well played.

The vast majority of scientists know that global climate change is happening and is caused by humans. But a small yet vocal minority of people don’t want to believe that for whatever reason, so they make it a controversy: “Is global warming happening or not? If it is, are we to blame? It’s a scientific controversy!” No it’s not. The scientific consensus is that it’s happening and we’re to blame. Consensus doesn’t mean 100% of scientists, but it does mean that this is the generally accepted position. There is no controversy

Same as evolution, which is also supported by a scientific consensus. In fact, the vast majority of scientists would say we know evolution by natural selection is happening, to the extent that we can ever know anything in science. We can never prove things in science, only disprove them, but bucketloads of evidence supports evolution and no evidence contradicts it. If our current model of evolution is wrong, it ain’t wrong by much. The whole “evolution vs. creationism” controversy isn’t a controversy at all.

You want a real controversy? You need two things: first, don’t make shit up. Second, avoid science altogether. Should abortion / prostitution / marijuana be legal? Should the death penalty be abandoned? Is Obama a good President? The science says… nothing. Find a topic on which the pro or con arguments are entirely based on opinions. Now we have real controversy.

Apparently, I don’t exist


On an episode of Law and Order, a defense attorney is cross-examining a witness (testifying about what killed the deceased) in what looks like a slam-dunk case. The attorney knows the case against his client is very damning, and is trying to find some “reasonable doubt” for the jury to latch on to, with no luck. Finally, in desperation, he asks “It is possible that something else killed him?” The witness replies matter-of-factly, “It’s possible that death rays from Mars killed him. But I don’t think so.”


Noted evangelist Ray Comfort has decided that atheists don’t really exist. Note the way he words it: “There can be no such things [sic] as an atheist.” He’s not just saying that atheists don’t exist, he’s saying they can’t exist. Seeing as I am one, I was curious to know why Mr. Comfort doesn’t believe in me. So I read it.

Comfort is the same guy who once did a video with former actor Kirk Cameron about why the banana is “the atheist’s nightmare” – because it’s conveniently shaped for human hands, it has a non-slip surface, has a biodegradable wrapper, and other nonsensical reasons. Obviously, it must have been designed by God. This is ridiculous on a number of levels. First off, the banana he describes is one of a number of types of banana, and others don’t have the same qualities. Bananas don’t grow all over the world, which you’d think they would if God had designed them to be human food. The coconut was presumably also designed by God but grows in an inconvenient location and the wrapper is much more difficult to get through. There are lots of things that grow on plants that have many of these qualities but are poisonous. But most importantly, the banana he describes was not designed by God at all; it is the way it is because of hundreds of years of domestication – we keep and cultivate only the plants that grow the bananas the way we want them.

(Note that Comfort has since semi-recanted, saying that he now realizes that the argument was invalid because of the way the banana was bred. But now he says that it’s kind of still valid because God gave us the ability to do the breeding in the first place.)

Anyway, his reasoning for why atheists don’t exist is as follows:

To say categorically, “There is no God,” is to make an absolute statement. For the statement to be true, I must know for certain that there is no God in the entire universe. No human being has all knowledge. Therefore, none of us is able to truthfully make this assertion.

While this is undeniably true, it’s also completely meaningless. An atheist is not someone who claims to know for a fact that God does not exist, he’s someone who believes that God does not exist. Even the people who put atheist messages on billboards and buses phrased it as “There’s probably no God.” Not “unequivocally”, not “definitely”. “Probably”. I don’t need to know everything about everything in order to believe this. Can I prove it? No, but I’m not trying to and no atheist has ever (seriously) claimed to be able to. You see evangelists claiming “proof” of God all the time, but none of them has ever actually provided any.

During Bill Nye’s debate on evolution with Ken Ham, each was asked about what would make them change their minds. Nye responded as any skeptic would – if there was actual evidence, I’d change my mind.

We would need just one piece of evidence, we would need the fossil that swam from one layer to another; we would need evidence that the universe is not expanding, we need evidence that the stars appear to be far away, but they’re not. … Bring out any of those things, and you would change me immediately.

Ham responded that nothing possibly could:

And so, as far as the word of God is concerned, no one’s ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true.

So if I were to ask Mr. Ham whether it’s possible that he’s wrong, it’s pretty clear what his answer would be: no, it’s not possible. If Mr. Ham asked me, however, I’d happily admit that it’s possible I’m wrong. It’s definitely possible that there’s a God who created the universe 6000 years ago and then decided to leave no incontrovertible evidence of his existence and make the universe look exactly like it would had it been created in a big bang 14 billion years ago. But I don’t think so.

I am a Whovian, like my children before me


It’s official – I am now a Whovian. I’m pretty new at this – the ink is still wet on my Whovian card – but I am now recording and watching Doctor Who weekly with my family.

A couple of years ago, we visited my mother-in-law. Gail’s brother Stephen was watching Doctor Who, so the boys started watching as well. I was kind of half paying attention but couldn’t keep up with the story. The boys were hooked though, and Stephen gave them a DVD with a bunch of episodes that he had… um… acquired somehow. They couldn’t get enough and started borrowing DVDs from the library and recording the show whenever it was on. They weren’t that thrilled with the older episodes but starting from the Ninth Doctor, they watched everything. Gail and I watched with them here and there and slowly we began to figure out who these people were and who the enemies were, though we didn’t get all the inside jokes that the boys laughed at. (Example: we were watching an episode recently when someone said that he didn’t have a cat because he wasn’t a “cat person”. The Doctor (David Tennant) said, “No, I’ve met cat people and you’re nothing like them.” A throwaway line if you don’t get it but a clever in-joke for those that do. Note that I didn’t get it but the boys did.)

Part of the reason I couldn’t really get into the show was that I couldn’t get past the Daleks, easily the least frightening or intimidating enemy in all of science fiction. Perhaps they were scary in the early 60’s but compared to Darth Vader and the Borg and the Cylons, the Daleks just didn’t seem all that scary so any time I saw them in an episode, I was a little put off. That said, there was an episode called Asylum of the Daleks which was excellent.

Last year, there was a 50th anniversary special called The Day of the Doctor, which featured both Matt Smith and David Tennant, both of whom I really liked. The boys were looking forward to watching it on TV, so as a surprise we took them to the theatre to see it. We all enjoyed it and I started watching a little more after that, and then we went again to the theatre to watch Peter Capaldi’s first episode as The Doctor. I have yet to form a real opinion on him since we’re only three or four episodes into his first season, but I like him so far. He’s similar to Matt Smith in that he’s a little frenetic and almost hyper, but he seems to be a little more, well rude is probably the best word for it. But he’s rude in a good way, if that’s possible.

I’m not sure what’s drawing me the most about this series:

  • the fascinating character of the Doctor, who can be funny, annoying, charming, obnoxious, brilliant, and naive almost at the same time, or…
  • the very clever writing of the show. It’s not surprising that the lead writer and producer, Steven Moffat, is the same guy that writes and produces the equally clever Sherlock. The second Doctor Who episode of this season, entitled “Listen”, was brilliantly written, complete with one of the most surprising “aha!” moments on TV in recent memory. Or possibly, it’s…
  • the fact that Clara is the most stunningly beautiful woman on TV, possibly the world, and maybe even all of time and space. Never before have I watched a show and missed some crucial plot point because I was too busy just looking at someone’s face. She’s just… wow.

Jenna Coleman

Our tubing nightmare


One of the more popular natural attractions in south central Ontario is the Elora Gorge. It’s a beautiful 2 kilometre long gorge that the Grand River has cut through 70-foot cliffs north of Guelph. The gorge is contained within the Elora Gorge Conservation Area, and they rent big inner tubes for people to ride down the river. There are sections of rapids as well as some more serene “lazy river” sections. We’ve now been camping there twice, and both times have certainly been eventful – once because we didn’t go tubing, and once because we did.

About a year ago (the summer of 2013), we went for a few days to Elora in the hopes of going tubing. But it had rained quite a bit over the previous week. It was OK the day we got there, but then it rained overnight and the next night too. The tubing run is closed when the river flow exceeds 8 cubic metres per second; the day we wanted to go tubing, it was measuring 98 cubic metres per second. That’s not a typo – the river flow was over twelve times higher than their safety limit. One of the two bridges over the gorge was closed entirely because water was flowing over it, to the point where you couldn’t see the bridge. There was no way we were going anywhere near the water. We had a fun camping trip (despite the rain), but we were disappointed that we didn’t get to go tubing.

Let’s try that again

So this year, we decided to go back and try again. We booked the same campsite as we had the previous year and this time Mother Nature played nice. Our first day we slept late and decided to have more of a lazy day, so we played some cards before lunch and did some geocaching in Elora after lunch. The second day was tubing day. Our plan was to do one run, then walk back to our campsite (about halfway up), have lunch, and then do more runs in the afternoon. If Gail or I got tired, one of us could wait at the bottom with the van and drive everyone back to the top. After getting ready, we drove to the rental place and walked with the tubes to the starting point. This was sometime around 11:00.

Here’s a Google map of the tubing run; I wanted to use the satellite view but it was cloudy the day the satellite took the picture so you can’t see much. I’ve marked approximately where the interesting events happened.

Note that this is not a water ride, it’s just a river. They rent you the tubes and they’ve built stairs to get you to the starting point, but the rest is up to you. There are no lifeguards or attendants at the start, end, or anywhere in between.

At the start, a friendly man was there taking pictures of his grandkids, and noticed our confusion as to where to go. He suggested walking a little further up the river and starting from there, so we did. We didn’t plan it this way (we didn’t really plan anything – more on that later) but Ryan went first, then Gail followed him. Nicky went next and I came last. Before I even started, I noticed that Ryan had flipped over going down the first set of “rapids”, but quickly recovered and gave us the thumbs up. As I was approaching the rapids, I managed to get spun around and didn’t see what happened to Gail or Nicky. When I hit the rapids, I flipped over backwards as well. I managed to stand up and grab my tube, and started to get back on it.

That’s when I noticed Gail sitting on a rock on the right bank. No tube.

Problem #1

Nicky was floating down the middle of the river and an empty tube was floating down in front of him. I hadn’t gotten back on my tube yet, so I managed to walk/swim over to the bank where Gail was. The water was still pretty fast here, so it took a fair bit of effort. It turned out that Gail had also flipped over, but while Ryan and I managed to grab our tubes, Gail did not. She got pounded by multiple waves which bounced her off of the rocky bottom a number of times. She was eventually able to grab some rocks on the bottom and pull herself to the side and get out of the river. Both of her knees were scraped up pretty good, as well as her ankles and the side of her right foot. She had lost her sunglasses and had thought for a minute that her contact lenses had also been washed away, though luckily they hadn’t. I stayed with her until we determined that she could stand and walk back to the start (she was shaking too much for the first couple of minutes). We decided that I would continue and once we were done, the boys and I would walk back to the van and then come and get her.

Elora GorgeThe whole time we were sitting there, we had to watch our children float further away from us, down a river that we hadn’t seen before, and that we had already found to be much more dangerous than any of us had realized. The boys are 14 and 12 and have been taking swimming lessons their whole lives; they’re probably better swimmers now than either me or Gail. That plus the fact that they were wearing helmets and life jackets were the only reasons we were nervous but not panicking.

After making sure that Gail could walk back to the start (maybe 30 metres back), I continued down the river in my tube. I had no watch on and so my sense of time is rather hazy, so I have no idea how long it was before I caught up with the boys, but it couldn’t have been more than about 5 or 10 minutes. They had reached an eddy in the river, so Ryan was essentially sitting in the middle of a big circle, not moving, while Nicky was slowly drifting around the circle, holding on to Gail’s tube which he had managed to grab. I grabbed Gail’s tube from Nicky, then we had to kick our feet for a while to get out of the eddy and start heading back downstream. Ryan had somehow managed to get out of it without kicking at all and was ahead of us again.

Just around the corner from the eddy, there was a shallow area that Nicky and I got caught up in. We had to push along the bottom to get free, and that led us to the second set of rapids. I told Nicky to go down first, then I sent Gail’s tube down by itself (since I figured I wouldn’t be able to hold onto it), and then I came last. I drifted to the right side of the rapids, near the canyon wall. Just as I expected to bounce off the wall, I heard a loud bang and immediately sank into the river.

Problem #2

The water wasn’t deep but the current was very strong. It pushed me through the rapids until I managed to grab another rock on the canyon wall with one hand, while holding onto my deflated tube with the other. Nicky saw this and wanted to know if he should stop or try to grab Gail’s tube, but he was still in some pretty fast-moving water. I told him to just keep going, figuring it was more dangerous for him to try to stop. I had no choice here but to walk down the river. Some parts had a rocky shoreline which was easy navigable, but for most of it I had to walk in the river holding on to the cliff face or trees sticking out. Some places were ankle deep and slippery, while others were deeper – the water came up to my shoulders in one place. There was one area where I had to swim about 30 feet and another where I had to climb through a fallen tree. There were a few areas with big rocks that I had to climb over, and I saw one rock with a big spider on it – must have been 3-4 inches across. I hate spiders, so that would have been the worst moment of most normal days, but it barely even registered. I slipped and fell once but luckily just landed on my butt, with nothing more than a bruise to show for it. Sorry, I don’t have any pictures of it.

Eventually, the river got shallow enough that Nicky was able to grab Gail’s tube once again and get out of the water to wait for me. Again, I have no concept of how long it took for me to get to him – fifteen minutes? Forty five? I really don’t know but from the time my tube burst until the time I met up with Nicky again must have been at least 30 minutes. I stopped there for a rest and then we continued down the river, with me floating on Gail’s tube and carrying mine.

The rest of the way was relatively uneventful but frustratingly slow. Not only was I physically exhausted, but I was anxious to get back to make sure Gail was OK. Problem #2 had slowed us down significantly, so I was sure Gail was wondering where we were. I got caught in another eddy where I had to kick continually for several minutes to get through it. Then Nicky and I hit some more shallows where we had to push off the bottom to move. We eventually arrived at the end of the tubing run where we were finally reunited with Ryan who had finished ages before.

We got out of the river and walked back up to the parking area while I filled Ryan in on what had happened. After about a 10-15 minute walk, we got to the rental place, turned in the punctured tube (“No thanks, I don’t need a replacement”), and picked up our van keys. While tying tube #3 onto the top of the van, Gail’s phone (which was in the van) rang. By the time we found the phone, it had stopped ringing but I noticed that there were eleven missed calls from my phone. Gail had walked back to our campsite and was getting pretty worried that we hadn’t yet reached the van. We called her back and reassured her that everyone was OK. It was now 1:38pm. That one single run – that only three of us finished – had taken us about two and a half hours.

We drove back to the camp site and Gail hobbled over to meet us. She was also doing a little better though her left leg was pretty stiff and it was obvious she was going to have some pretty good bruises in a couple of days. I’m writing this a couple of days later and she does indeed have some bruising (see picture) and her legs are still stiff and achy, but it could certainly have been much worse.

Done

The aftermathDuring lunch, we tried to decide what to do the rest of the day. Gail thought about trying again but skipping the first set of rapids (the subsequent rapids weren’t as bumpy as the first), but she decided her legs hurt too much. I wasn’t really in pain but was still nervous about the river because of my tube bursting. There were a couple of areas during my walk down the river where it had taken most of my strength to avoid getting pulled by the current – what if it had been Nicky’s tube that had burst? Would he have had the strength? Would the current have pulled him along, bouncing him off of rocks the whole way, or worse, dragging him under the surface?

I knew this was a pretty rare occurrence and the odds of it happening again were pretty low, but the tube bursting scared me enough that we decided that we were done tubing. The boys were disappointed but understood. We played some more cards and the boys and I kicked a soccer ball around for a while, and we eventually returned the tubes. The boys and I had one run for our $25 each, and Gail spent about $1 per metre of her tubing adventure.

Gail and I are pretty surprised at ourselves for just jumping in (pun intended) before really examining the river and the rapids and having a plan. We did say to the boys before we started that if we get separated, just keep going and we’ll meet up at the bottom, and maybe there really wasn’t much more we could have done. Hundreds of people do this every day and while I know they’ve had accidents, they’re pretty few and far between. I guess subconsciously we didn’t figure that we needed a “what if one of us gets beaten into the rocks?” plan or a “what if a tube bursts?” plan. Perhaps cancelling the rest of the day entirely rather than letting the boys keep going was a bit extreme, but the what-ifs crept into my brain and took over.

Perhaps we’ll stick to water parks from now on.