Vacation report: Moosonee and Moose Factory

The summer of 2016 continues and here is another vacation report, the second of three. Last month we went camping at Darien Lake in New York. This time we went north, then north again, then way north, and then took a train to go even further north.

The destination was the tiny towns of Moosonee and Moose Factory, on the Moose River about 19km southwest of James Bay. In Ontario, this is way the hell up north but in terms of latitude, it’s about the same as Edmonton or London, England. We don’t know anyone who lives in either of these towns so it was not a trip to visit family, and it’s not a big tourist spot but it’s a place we’d never been and a long train trip through the north sounded fun. Also the thought of seeing polar bears and the Northern Lights was a big draw but that ended up being quite different from what we were hoping.

I did not set the trip odometer on the van before we left (and we didn’t drive the whole way anyway) so I don’t know how far we actually travelled, but Moosonee is 885 km from Waterdown as the crow flies, essentially dead north. Google Maps says the drive from home to my parents’ place in Baysville to the motel in Cochrane is 784 km, and the train trip from Cochrane to Moosonee is about 300 km, so we travelled almost 1100km one way – about the same distance from our house as Nashville, TN. And we didn’t even leave Ontario – I don’t imagine there are a lot of states in the US (or entire countries in Europe) where you could travel 1100 km in a straight line and not leave the state/country.

The vacation started on Saturday, July 30, 2016 – my 47th birthday. We drove up to Baysville to stay with my parents for a few days. My sister and her four-year-old daughter Liv were there as well so it was a nice long family weekend. I won’t go into great detail about that part of the trip, but there was some beach time, lots of reading and card games, computer upgrades (I do that a lot at my parents / in-laws’ places…), afternoon naps, and we even went to see Jason Bourne at a theatre in Bracebridge. It was a relaxing four days at the cottage, and then our northern adventure began.

Wednesday, Aug 3

We left the cottage first thing Wednesday morning. By “first thing” I mean 8:30 or so but considering Gail was sleeping until 10:30-11:00 each of the previous few days, this was pretty early. We arrived in Sundridge (chez Matthews) around 9:45 to pick up Gail’s stepmother Jackie and our niece Alison, who accompanied us on the trip. After a brief stop we continued north, stopping for tea in North Bay and lunch at a truck stop called Gilli’s in New Liskeard. We arrived at the ThriftLodge in Cochrane around 4:30. Gail and the boys and I were in one room while Jackie and Alison were next door.

We knew this wasn’t going to be the Ritz-Carlton and it wasn’t but it was a decent place for the price. The beds were fine, there was a TV and fridge in the room, and free wi-fi. We needed a few extra towels and that was no problem. The biggest problem was the heat – it was 31° when we arrived and didn’t get much cooler overnight, which was a problem because the A/C unit was kind of junky. It chugged away all night but didn’t really reduce the temperature very much.

One thing that we thought was amusing was the decor – one of the walls was painted with the lower half purple and the upper half beige, but there was an easily-visible pencil line where the two colours met and the painting at the pencil line was not clean at all. It looked like it wasn’t quite finished. There was also a chain-lock on the door which was broken.

Piano in CochraneRight: The park in Cochrane had two or three pianos scattered around for people to play whenever they feel like it. Neat idea.

After checking in, we drove into town and went to the park next to the lake (Commando Lake). Jackie grew up in northern Ontario, mostly Timmins, but she spent her grade ten year in Cochrane so she pointed out where things used to be, most of which were no longer there. We walked around and over the lake (there’s a bridge across the middle) and then once people started to get hungry, we decided on Subway for dinner. We picked up our sandwiches and went back to the hotel to eat and play Yahtzee. I don’t actually remember who won the game (I think it was me) but it’s important that you all know that I was the only one who actually achieved a Yahtzee.

Thursday, Aug 4

We set an alarm and got up at 7:00. After showers and something quick to eat (Jackie brought muffins and we had some granola bars stashed away), we packed our backpacks. Since we were taking the train to Moosonee, we wouldn’t have the van handy so we had to carry everything we’d need. We drove to the train station around 8:00 and found our seats. The train left at 9:00 and our tickets were collected shortly after that. Once they had our tickets, we were free to move around the train. The train seats were comfortable, though most of the armrests between them were broken. You could raise or lower the armrest but if it was raised, the slightest pressure from leaning on it (i.e. attempting to actually use it for its intended purpose) would lower it anyway. Our car was maybe 1/2 to 3/4 full.

Our car was in between the dining car (to the back) and the observation car. We first headed to the dining car where we bought breakfast. There quite a wide variety of options available: coffee, tea, bagels, fruit, cereal, and various toasted egg sandwiches. It wasn’t the cheapest breakfast ever but the prices were surprisingly reasonable. When you’re selling to people trapped on a train for five hours with no other food options, you could easily charge $4 for a coffee and $10 for an egg sandwich but the prices weren’t bad. After breakfast, we spent most of the trip in the observation car playing cards. I think Jackie, Alison, and Gail each had naps.

The dome car

The scenery from the train was basically the same the whole trip – thousands and thousands of black spruce trees. But this was not a vast field of Christmas trees; the majority were tall and narrow and scrubby-looking. Some looked like 50-foot poles with branches only on the top 10 feet. For part of the trip, there were power lines parallel to the tracks. To build the towers, there was a strip about 50 feet wide next to the tracks where all the trees had been removed. Oddly, every few hundred feet there was a rectangular section beyond that strip where the trees had also been removed. This meant that the tree line following the tracks, if viewed from above, would have looked vaguely like a square waveform.

We weren’t actively looking for wildlife but we may have seen two birds the entire trip. That’s it. Despite the fact that the train is known as “the Polar Bear Express”, we knew we wouldn’t see polar bears from the train. Bears and moose were also unlikely but we figured we might see something, even if it was just a squirrel in the distance. This lack of wildlife held up the rest of the trip, as we saw a few more birds in Moosonee and Moose Factory, but nothing else.

Welcome to MoosoneeWe arrived in Moosonee right on time, around 2:45, and it was surprisingly hot considering how far north we’d travelled. Just like Cochrane the day before, it was 31° and humid when we arrived. We had booked rooms at a B&B called the Moose River Guest House, which was a five minute walk from the train station. The place was beautiful, quite possibly the nicest B&B we’ve ever stayed at. It had six guest rooms, a common area, dining room, an enclosed outdoor sun room, and a huge kitchen, all of which were at our disposal. It had hardwood floors throughout and was beautifully furnished and decorated. Each room had only one bed, so we had to book three rooms. Ryan and I stayed in one, Gail and Nicky in another, and Jackie and Alison in a third. Jackie & Alison’s room was massive – a queen bed, ensuite bathroom, and a large L-shaped sitting area with a desk, couch, a few chairs including a big recliner, and a bookshelf with lots of books. Our rooms were smaller but still very comfortable.

I can’t say enough good things about our stay at this B&B. The manager, Trudy, was very friendly and accommodating, and the fact that there were no other guests at the time meant that we had the whole house to ourselves. Even after we checked out on the Friday, she said we could keep our bags there until we had to leave for the train, and even come back and make use of the house if we had time to kill.

Moose River Guest House

After checking in and dropping our bags, we headed out into Moosonee. We had been told there wasn’t an awful lot to see so we figured we’d walk down to the river. We were also told that pretty much everything was on the main street so while walking toward the river, we looked for the main street. It wasn’t until we were almost at the river that I realized we were already on the main street. “Everything is on the main street” was referring to the elementary school (in the same building as the Northern College Moosonee campus), the grocery store, hardware store, LCBO, post office, municipal building, and restaurant.

By the time we got to the river, the black flies had gotten so bad that we just turned around. We rarely get black flies at home but the further north you go, the worse they get. In Muskoka, they’re bad in May and June and then that’s it; it’s mostly just mosquitos after that. In Moosonee, the black flies are bad all summer.

There’s only one restaurant in town, called the Sky Ranch. We had planned on having dinner there but when we found the place, it looked like a nasty little hole-in-the-wall and we changed our minds. Perhaps the view from the outside was deceiving and the food was outstanding – I’ve certainly been to places like that before. But we weren’t willing to take that chance. Since we had the use of the kitchen at the B&B, we decided to stop at the grocery store and pick up some stuff for dinner. It was a fully-stocked grocery store but our options were still limited because prices were insane. A bag of chips was $5.99. A case of Coke was $17.99. One box of KD – $1.29 at home, $0.99 on sale – was something like $4.29. Pretty much everything was at least double what we’d pay at home. Welcome to the north.

We were going to grab a box of wings or chicken fingers or something easy but couldn’t justify the cost. We ended up buying a box of fettucine, a couple of jars of alfredo sauce, and a surprisingly inexpensive premade salad. On our way back, we stopped in at Northern College and looked around at the displays of Native culture. There were paintings and sculptures, but also examples of beading and moccasins, various hunting and trapping implements, and other historical information. It was like a mini-museum with classrooms in between the exhibits. We stayed a little while (not gonna lie, we also enjoyed the air conditioning) and then returned to the B&B for dinner.

After dinner we thought about going back out for a walk around town but the torrential rain and gale-force (probably not, but strong) winds make us reconsider. Instead we stayed cozy and dry inside the B&B, playing cards and watching the Jays game until bedtime.

While this far north, we were hoping to strike something off of both Gail’s bucket list and mine: seeing the northern lights. It’s exceptionally rare to see them in the Toronto area, partially because we’re too far south but mostly because of all the light pollution. Apparently Moosonee is a great place to see them, though they’re more prevalent in the winter. We set an alarm and at the stroke of midnight, …

Friday, August 5

…Nicky and I got up and went outside. It had stopped raining so we looked up and immediately were greeted by a very bright street light. Ah, light pollution, we meet again. But it didn’t really matter, since it was far too overcast to see anything. We thought we’d at least get a non-light-polluted look at the Milky Way, but we couldn’t see any stars at all. We were only out for a few minutes before giving up and returning to bed. The rain soon returned and there was lots of thunder overnight.

In the morning, we woke to find that Trudy had set out things for breakfast. There were a few types of cereal, some hard-boiled eggs, bagels, bread, oatmeal, milk, juice, and of course coffee and tea. After eating, we packed up our bags and put them in the sun room, then walked down to the docks. Luckily the black flies weren’t nearly as bad on this day as the previous day. We took a water taxi over to Moose Factory Island. The normal price is $15 per person but our taxi driver (since it’s a boat would it be taxi pilot? taxi captain?) gave us a deal: $10 per person and if we book a ride back later, he’ll give us the same price for the return trip.

The Eco LodgeHe dropped us off at the Eco Lodge, which is a hotel in suburban Moose Factory. From the web site, somehow I had the impression that the Eco Lodge was more than just a hotel, though I wasn’t sure what. I thought maybe there were exhibits or a small museum or something but no, it was just a hotel. A beautiful-looking hotel, but nothing more. Even the restaurant was closed until dinner time. We walked into town, about 20 minutes, until we arrived at the Thomas Cheechoo Jr. Memorial Complex, located on Jonathan Cheechoo Drive. I believe the street is named for the Jonathan Cheechoo who used to play for the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, and I imagine he’s also related to the building’s namesake.

The complex was the site of the final day of a “Gathering Of Our People” (and we did see signs advertising it as GOOP). Both Moosonee and Moose Factory have large native communities; in fact I heard that something like 80% of the population is Cree. As part of the Gathering there was a powwow, but it was the previous day so we missed it. There was a live band playing; I expected it to be traditional Cree music and was interested to hear that, but to my surprise they launched into a bunch of CCR songs. We grabbed some lunch and Gail, Nicky, and Alison tried their hand at archery.

We planned on heading down to the Cree Cultural Centre but as we started walking in that direction, the rain returned. We decided to head back to the Eco Lodge and wait for the water taxi, since we were getting wet and we wouldn’t have much time at the Cultural Centre anyway. It only really rained for 10-15 minutes and then it got hot so we were mostly dry by the time we got back to the Lodge. After a short wait, our water taxi arrived and returned us back to the mainland. By this time it was raining again so we took a taxi back to the B&B for guess what? More cards!

Around 4:00 we grabbed all of our things and headed to the train station. Being a Friday night, the train was much more full than it had been on the way up. We had dinner on the train, and Jackie, Alison, and the boys spend most of the trip in the dome car again, while Gail and I read / napped.

We arrived back in Cochrane around 9:50pm. We drove back to the Thriftlodge and checked in again. The four of us got exactly the same room we had before while Jackie and Alison were a couple of doors down. Remember I said that our room looked not-quite-finished? That’s because it wasn’t. While watching the Jays game before bed, I happened to look at the wall next to the TV and saw that the pencil line had been covered with wooden trim, and the broken chain lock had been replaced with a gleaming gold bar lock. The room looked much better – clearly they were busy while we were gone.

Saturday, August 6

In the morning, we packed up, checked out, and headed to Tim Horton’s for breakfast. After we ate, we drove over to Cochrane’s main tourist attraction, the Polar Bear Habitat. I was a little worried that it was going to be a crappy little zoo with an old and mistreated polar bear, or maybe two, but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was a lovely place and while it’s true that there were only two polar bears, they were anything but mistreated. The Habitat is not just a place where the public can see polar bears, it’s a place where scientists study and care for polar bears – in fact it’s the only place dedicated to polar bears in the world. We arrived just in time for the “meet the keeper” talk, where a scientist told us all about the facility and the bears. She was clearly Australian, and I thought it was odd that an Australian would want to study polar bears since Australia is about as far from where polar bears live as you can get. She told us that she was studying brown and grizzly bears in BC when this job came up and she couldn’t turn it down.

GanukAnyway, she was full of great information and very accommodating. She must have spent an hour talking to all of the visitors. The two massive bears were both wandering around their enclosures and one even went for a swim. I was amazed at the overall size of the bears but in particular, their paws were enormous. Outside, there was a “heritage” village, recreations of a number of old buildings from the area. One was a railroad station with lots of train memorabilia, including a video of the history of Cochrane and its fires – the town has burned entirely to the ground twice. But they learned: the second time they rebuilt the town, the first thing they built was the fire station.

Here’s a video of Henry the polar bear trying to get into his room. The doors were closed because they were cleaning it, so he couldn’t get in. But he kept checking and every time he found the doors closed, he swung his head around in this hilarious frustrated-looking manner, as if he were saying “my GOD, it’s STILL closed!” We must have watched him do this 20 times.

The Polar Bear Habitat was a great place and a fun way to spend a few hours. After perusing the gift shop, we got in the van and headed south to Sundridge, stopping for lunch at Rolly’s Restaurant near New Liskeard. We also stopped a few times to take pictures of the big statues of things we saw on the way up – a buffalo, a lumberjack, a pickerel, a cow, and in Cochrane, a polar bear.

We spent the night in Sundridge and drove home the next day, thus ending the second of our three mini-vacations this summer.

All in all, I have to say this wasn’t our most exciting vacation ever. Moosonee and Moose Factory are not really tourist towns and there wasn’t really a lot to see. There were no moose and no polar bears (except where we expected them to be but no wild polar bears) – we didn’t even see any squirrels. No northern lights and no view of the Milky Way. And there were bugs and a lot of rain. But we had fun anyway. We spent a lot of time playing cards and reading, and I suppose we could do that at home. But we also got to visit an area of the country that we’d never been to before, stayed in a lovely little B&B, experienced a bit of Native culture, and met a lot of friendly people. We also took a trip on a train (that wasn’t a GO train) which is something we haven’t done since France in 2008. I’m not sure I’ll go back, but I’m glad we went.

Vacation report: Darien Lake

My blog was once a place where I’d post my thoughts on many things. From my family to sports to music to movies and the occasional rant, I was posting 15-20 articles a month at one point. That’s dwindled down to a handful of postings a year, though my lacrosse blog is much more active during lacrosse season. But one thing I still do is vacation reports. These are primarily for us so that we remember some more details about our vacations, but I’ve been told that others find them entertaining as well, so here’s another. I’ll have at least two more before the summer of ’16 is over, so be on the lookout for those.

In this installment, we find our heroes camping at Darien Lake amusement park in New York for a few days. We had been there before but not in many years and we’d never camped there. The campground is right next to the park and we had a pretty good spot so the walk from the park to our site was just a few minutes.

Sunday, July 24

Darien Lake is only about a two-hour drive from home and check-in wasn’t until 2:00, so we took our time in the morning and left home around 11:30. The intention was to cross the border, head to the Olive Garden in Niagara Falls NY for lunch (since we don’t have the Olive Garden in Ontario anymore <sad>), hit Wal-Mart for groceries, and then continue to the park. The grocery part was necessary because we can’t bring fruits, vegetables, or meats into the US from Canada. The timing didn’t work out as we wanted so we ended stopping for lunch at McDonalds on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. After a short border wait, we found Wal-Mart for some shopping.

Shopping took longer than expected so we didn’t get to the park until around 4:30pm. We found our site and got the trailer set up, but then decided to head into the park for dinner since it was too hot (around 32°C and humid) to cook. There are several places to eat in the park but only two were air conditioned so that instantly narrowed our choices: a roadhouse-type place called Beaver Brothers Lakeside Café, and an Italian restaurant called Maria’s. We asked the boys what they preferred and Italian was the response. Since we had skipped our Olive Garden trip, we were OK with this idea. We located Maria’s on the map and headed there. But as soon as we saw the building, Gail and I both stopped in our tracks. We both remembered, at the same time, that we had been very disappointed with the food at Maria’s the last time we were there. We turned around and went to Beaver Brothers, which we had also been to before but had no negative memories.

The food was pretty good and not crazy expensive, though we were less than thrilled with the service. The waitress was new, which explained some of it, but when you arrive at a restaurant around 5:30 or so and it doesn’t close until 10:00, being told that you can’t have soup because “they’ve put the soup away” is a little weird. I ordered fish (which was excellent) and a Caesar salad but was given a garden salad. It was fine so I didn’t complain. The boys both ordered pasta and were told they could have their choice of soup or salad (but they’d “put the soup away” so just salad) and also their choice of fries, mashed potato or mac & cheese. Then after we ordered they were told that because they got the pasta, they didn’t get the second choice at all, just the salad (on reflection, pasta with a side of fries or potatoes does seem a little weird). Then they never got the salad anyway. The waitress took responsibility and was very apologetic and the manager came by and took Gail’s meal off the bill so it really wasn’t that big of a deal in the end.


We walked around the park for a while and the boys did a few rides. We hung out for “Ignite the Night – Colorblast” which is a laser / computer animation / pyrotechnic / firework / music show which we really enjoyed. By the time we returned to the trailer it was quite late so we skipped the campfire and just went to bed.

Monday, July 25

Sometime during the night it started raining and while we didn’t see any lightning, there was certainly thunder – loud enough to wake me at least once. It continued into the morning before letting up around 11 or so. We checked the weather forecast and it called for further rain so we decided not to head into the park and were “rewarded” when it began to rain again an hour later. The rain was torrential for a while. Here’s a short video of the river that ran through our campsite:


During all this time we had both breakfast and lunch while playing Yahtzee and a number of card games. Gail and I play a lot of rummy while camping and the boys had just learned euchre so there were a few games of each of those. Ryan also taught us a card game called Coup that he learned at school but it was very complicated so we only played it once. Not long after lunch, the rain stopped and we headed into the park. We figured all the rides would be wet so the boys played Pokemon Go on their phones. This is a game which had just been released a month before. It’s a sort of augmented-reality geocaching-type thing where  Pokemon are located in various areas (like a geocache) and you have to “catch” them.

After a couple of hours of that and a few rides, we went back to the campsite for dinner. But just a few bites into our burgers, the rain started again. It was very sudden – we heard thunder off in the distance but it gradually got louder. Then we heard the rain in the distance just a few seconds before it got to us. We piled into the trailer quickly and a few minutes after that it was torrential again.

After it stopped, we went back into the park for some more Pokemon Go, a few rides, and the laser show. Again we skipped the campfire. Instead the four of us played a board game called Sequence before heading to bed.

Tuesday, July 26

No more rain but we slept in anyway. After breakfast we all had showers and got ready to head to the water park. While I was in the shower, Gail was back at the site and someone from Darien Lake came by with an envelope for us. Inside was a sheet of 2-for-1 coupons and a $50 Darien Lake gift card! We were pleasantly surprised but it turned out that it was part of the WagJag deal that we used to book the vacation. Since we had forgotten about it, it was kind of a free bonus so we headed into the park and used it to buy lunch. After lunch we went to the water park where we confirmed Gail’s main memory of the water park – COLD. We did one lap of the lazy river but couldn’t stay in the water long enough to do a second. The wave pool was slightly warmer but after 10-15 minutes we bolted out of there as well. We did a few water slides and Nicky and I did the “toilet bowl” (they call it the Tornado), and then Nicky did a slide called “Brain Drain”, where you stand in a vertical tube and the floor drops away.

Boomerang from the top of the ferris wheelOnce we were done in the water park, we got dressed and then watched a live musical show called American Rock. Some of the singers had very powerful voices while others didn’t but we enjoyed the show. After that we went back to the campsite for dinner. After dinner it was back to the park again where we used one of our 2-for-1 coupons on the go karts (Ryan won but he did have a faster kart) (yes he did), did a few other rides until the laser show started (which is when the park closes). We didn’t stay for the show this time but listened to it on the walk back to the campsite.

Wednesday, July 27

Another late morning. We slept until 9:30, then had a quick breakfast before getting packed up. While taking down the dining tent, Nicky was bitten or stung by something, though he never saw what it was. Within minutes he had a red welt a few inches wide on his arm and not long after that he had itchy hives all over his body. He was breathing fine and the hives were not much more than a little irritating so we continued with our packing. There was a camp store not far away so once we were done, we picked up some Benadryl and that cleared up the hives. Something else to add to the packing list so we bring it next time.

We pulled the trailer into a special camper section of the parking lot and went into the park for our final day. The boys did some rides and Gail accompanied Nick on the Boomerang, a forward-and-backwards coaster that we always refer to as the Bat since that’s what it’s called at Canada’s Wonderland. Actually, Gail and I almost always refer to rides by their Wonderland names.

Gail and Nicky on the Boomerang

The biggest coaster at Darien Lake is the 200+ foot high Ride of Steel. Nicky wanted to do this one but as per usual, none of the rest of us were up to the challenge (Gail and I did it many years ago but… that was many years ago) so he went by himself. This turned out to be much more stressful for Gail than for Nicky. Here’s a picture of Nicky going up the first hill. He’s near the back with his arm in the air. The second picture is him near the top.

Nicky on Ride of SteelRide of Steel

We bought a pizza for lunch which was very good and then did some more rides. We even managed to convince Ryan to try the Enterprise Silver Bullet. Nicky finished the day with the final coaster, the Mind Eraser. We left the park around 4:00 and headed back to the Olive Garden in Niagara Falls. This time the timing worked out and we had a lovely dinner. After a short wait at the border, we arrived home around 8:00pm, just in time for me to park the trailer, get changed, and head to my baseball game at 8:30.

Other notes:

  • During the opening of the Ignite the Night show, the announcer said that the show is “live” so people’s whistling, cheering, and clapping would influence the show. We saw it twice and heard it a third time and it was identical each time. The fireworks must have been launched over the campsite since they were much louder there than at the show.
  • Best rides: for me, Motocoaster. A twisty coaster where you sit on motorcycles (picture above). There’s no chain dragging you up the first hill; you are launched from a stop to top speed in a couple of seconds. Ryan said it was his favourite as well. Gail enjoyed the Boomerang, and Nick’s favourite was the Ride of Steel.
  • On many of the rides (and this is true of other parks as well), the ride operator asked people to remain in their seats until the ride “comes to a full and complete stop”. I had to wonder why they needed the stop to be both full and complete. How would the ride come to a full stop that’s not complete, or a complete stop that’s not full?

The chemtrail conspiracy

A surprising number of people believe in something they call chemtrails. This is the belief that the cloud-like lines you see forming behind airplanes are not contrails or vapor trails (i.e. trails of water crystals that form due to water in the engine exhaust and very cold air) but chemicals intentionally released by the airliners. These people believe that the “government” (whether it’s the US government or all governments or that of the “New World Order”) forces airlines to secretly install distribution devices on all aircraft and then spread mind-controlling chemicals over the general public.

Yes, this is really a thing that people believe.

Chem- I mean contrails

Once again, we have a huge conspiracy theory that (a) would have to include thousands of people over many decades with no whistleblowers, (b) has no compelling evidence at all, and (c) has no real reason for existing. It’s not like there’s some huge mystery out there to which this idea is a solution. The followers of this theory want you to believe that the government (again, it must be all governments working together since these trails appear over every country) has the ability to create chemicals that help them control people’s minds but are unable to prevent the chemicals from turning white when dispersed.

Unanswered questions: Why are the people blowing the whistle not being silenced? Why are the web sites allowed to stay active? Why are there chemtrails over the middle of the ocean? Why do pilots and mechanics agree to this when such mind-control chemicals would affect them and their families as well? Why would airlines agree to this at all? Do people really believe that the governments of North Korea and the US are co-operating in this?

But the best argument against this idea is that spreading mind-control chemicals from an airplane seven miles above the ground is just about the least effective way to do it since it would disperse so widely as to be ineffective. If you really wanted to spread mind-controlling chemicals to the general public, a much better way would be to add it to the water supply. If anyone asks, you tell them it’s for their own good, like maybe it’s designed to keep people’s teeth healt—

Oh dear.

The Contac C jerk

There was a commercial that really bugged me when I was a kid in the early 80’s. It’s on YouTube, but here’s what happens. Note that I did this entire transcript from memory before finding the video online. I got maybe two lines wrong. That’s how much TV I watched as a kid.

Scene: a bus stop. A man is sitting on the bench, reading a newspaper. A second man (this guy, one of the cops from Terminator 2) sits down next to him. The second man has a red nose and a handful of tissues. He sneezes into the tissues.

Man 2: Oh, this cold.
Man 1: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Man 2: No you don’t, you don’t have a cold. [Which is a dumb thing to say anyway. It’s very unlikely that the other guy has never had a cold. Even if he doesn’t right now, he knows how it feels.]
Man 1: Oh, yes I do.
Man 2: You’re not sneezing or sniffling.
Man 1: I was yesterday, but I took Contac C.

Bus arrives. Cut to close-ups of the Contac C box. the pills, etc. Narrator talks about how great Contac C is at reducing your cold symptoms.

Cut to the same bench. Man2 from the previous scene is sitting on the bench, reading a newspaper and looking refreshed. A different man is next to him, and he is sneezing into tissues.

Man 3: Oh, this cold.
Man 2: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Man 3: No you don’t.
Man 2: Oh, yes I do.

Man 2 smiles, then goes back to reading his newspaper.

I remember asking: why didn’t the second guy tell the third guy about Contac C? Some stranger told him just the previous day, and now he’s feeling better. Then he sees someone else suffering the same way but does he pay it forward? No, he thinks “screw you, buddy, I’m not giving you the secret. I’ll just sit here and smirk.” Asshole.

Why mandatory labelling of GMOs makes no sense

Anti GMO person: Foods containing GMOs should be labelled! I should be able to make the decision on whether I want to eat them and not have GMOs forced on me!

Normal person: So what would happen if a company sells a food product made with GMOs but doesn’t label it as such?

A: The product should be pulled from the shelves and the company fined!

N: And who would do the checking of products and levy the fines?

The TomatofishA: The FDA, of course.

N: OK. So you think GMOs are unsafe?

A: Of course! They’re putting fish genes1 in a tomato! How can that be a good idea?

N: If they weren’t safe, the FDA (and equivalents in other countries) wouldn’t allow them to be sold. They make sure that all of our food is safe. That’s why they exist.

A: I don’t trust the FDA! They’re in the pockets of companies like Monsanto!

N: And you have proof of this?

A: Of course not, the government is covering it up!

N: But it’s the FDA you want to check up on these “non-GMO” labels to make sure they’re accurate?

A: People have the right to choose!

1 – there is no such thing as “fish genes”. Tomatoes and fish share something like 60% of their genes already. There are genes in a flounder that have specific characteristics (a resistance to frost), and scientists are trying to give that same frost resistance to tomatoes by transferring that gene – and only that gene. Tomatoes aren’t going to start swimming or taste fishy. We already cross-breed species with the hope that a desired trait in one breed is transferred to the other, but this is clumsy and error-prone, plus this may transfer unwanted traits as well. This has been going on for hundreds of years and nobody complains. With genetic modification, we can copy only the traits that we want. It’s the same thing only much more precise. GMOs that don’t show the desired traits are not sold – this is not “randomly transfer genes, sell them to the public, and see what happens”.

People try to spin the labelling argument as choice, i.e. let the public decide. But this is misleading. If you we really advocating for consumer choice, you’d be advocating for information on the packaging about which ingredients are genetically modified and the details of the modifications. But they don’t want information. All they want is a “This product contains GMOs” banner on the label. This is not about advocating choice, it’s an attempt to incite fear.

But let’s say I buy the “labelling as choice” argument. People have their preferences, and many would prefer not to buy products with GMOs in them. But I have preferences as well. Personally, I don’t want to eat food grown by people with red hair. I want any foods grown by red-haired farmers to be labelled as such – it’s my choice and I don’t want to feed any ginger-grown garbanzo beans to my family. Where’s the labelling there? What are the red-haired famers afraid of? Can you prove that foods grown by red-haired farmers are just as safe as foods from a normal farmer? GMOs have studies that have lasted a decade or more proving that they’re safe, where are the ten-year studies of red-haired farmers?

The only thing that labelling GMO foods will accomplish is to make people afraid of them. Right now the question is “If GMOs are so safe, why shouldn’t we label them?” but if they’re labelled, in a few years the question will be “If GMOs are so safe, why do we have to label them?”

A page from the diary of Severus Snape

Sept 1

The day I have been dreading for ten years has finally arrived. In a few hours, the students will be arriving on the Hogwarts Express and Harry Potter will be among them. Not a day has gone by since that night that I haven’t thought of Lily, and now her son will be one of my students. I can only hope he’s more like his mother than the swine who was his father because I swear, if he comes in here looking like James…

I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on the boy; after all it’s not his fault who his father was. And I shouldn’t really blame him for Lily’s death even though she died protecting him. But though I haven’t seen the boy since that night, anger still wells up inside me whenever I think about him. So many “what ifs” – what if he had been born a month earlier or later? Then perhaps the prophesy might have led the Dark Lord to the Longbottom boy or someone else. What if he hadn’t been born at all? What if Sybil hadn’t made the prophecy in the first place? What if Sirius Black hadn’t betrayed Lily?

I imagine I have spent far too much time over the last ten years thinking about these things, but it’s so hard to let it go. Anyway, I will finally meet him later today, and then the real work begins. I have to protect him without looking like I’m protecting him. And if the Dark Lord ever returns, my job gets infinitely harder. I may even have to convince him and everyone else that I hate the boy. But he’s Lily’s son, is it even possible that I could hate him?

Sept 2

I hate him.

I saw him at the feast last night and he looks exactly like James. The same round glasses, the same wild hair. At one point, I could swear I even saw the same smug look on his face when he looked at me.


This is going to be a nightmare. I have to spend the next seven years, maybe longer, maybe the rest of my life, protecting this boy – the child of the woman who I loved more than anything and the man I hated more than anything. As long as he’s at Hogwarts, I have to make sure no harm comes to this boy who reminds me so much of James that I want to give him the old sectumsempra myself. The first potions class is tomorrow, so I guess we’ll see how smart he is then. Doesn’t matter though. Even if I can’t stand the sight of him, I have to protect him, for Lily’s sake.

Thankfully, there are two things about him that remind me that he’s not James. First, the scar on his forehead. It’s a reminder of what happened ten years ago and what he lost. What I lost.

Second, the eyes. He has Lily’s eyes.

Sept 3

Potions classes began for the first-years today. I gave the Potter boy (I almost want to call him the Evans boy so I can remove James from this whole thing, but it’s far too late for that now. Everyone knows him as Potter) the opportunity to impress us all with his knowledge of potions, but he wasn’t up to the task. First off, he started scribbling as I was talking, and then when I asked him some fairly basic questions (about wolfsbane and bezoars and stuff like that), he had no idea. Truth be told, most of the class probably wouldn’t have known most of that stuff (except for that awful Granger girl), but still. If he’s the “chosen one”, shouldn’t he be just a little better than most? This kid has the best chance of defeating the Dark Lord? Really?

Professor Quirrell is a bit of an odd fellow. First he grabs my job as Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. That nervous stuttering little man is supposed to teach the students how defend themselves against the most evil forms of magic there are? And a turban? What the hell? He’s been even more odd this year so I’ll have to keep an eye on him.

But it’s not just his weird behaviour, there’s something more. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I sense something. A presence I have not felt since…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (SPOILERY review)

WARNING: There are spoilers galore here. If you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, you should just stop reading now. Here’s some newlines for those reading on Facebook. Update: The newlines didn’t work so I removed them.

OK, that should do it. Now on with the review.

Here’s a story. Tell me what movie it describes:

We start on a desert planet, where a droid that can only speak in beeps and whistles and yet exudes personality crashes from an orbiting ship. Our hero (who is strong with the Force but doesn’t know it) saves the droid from a small creature who wants it for parts and finds that the droid is trying to find its master, and the hero agrees to help. It turns out that the droid is carrying some very important information that needs to be taken to the leaders of a group of freedom fighters.

The hero meets up with an older man who acts as a father figure. We travel to a bar that features many individuals from numerous species. Eventually we make our way (in the Millennium Falcon) to the villain’s “lair”, which is actually a huge weapon that contains immense destructive power. It’s shown destroying entire planets. The older man and a younger man attempt to rescue the girl who’s been taken prisoner. She’s actually a strong character, not at all the “helpless damsel in distress”. They rescue her but the older man is killed by the lead villain, a man dressed all in black who wears a mask. He is strong with the Force but has turned to the Dark Side and, it turns out, has a family relation with one of the heroes. It also turns out that the lead villain is not actually in charge; he’s the servant of another, who appears as a huge hologram.

The younger man and the girl escape and rejoin the freedom fighters, and then return to destroy the enemy weapon with their X-Wing fighters. The lead villain survives.

Was it The Force Awakens? Or was it Star Wars (A New Hope) with a couple of things from The Empire Strikes Back mixed in? The answer is yes.


When the prequel trilogy was being written, it seems that Lucas thought “Let’s take the Star Wars universe and add a story that’s nothing like the first three!”. This was a decent idea, but wasn’t terribly well done. Personally, I didn’t hate the prequels as many others did, but there was certainly room for improvement. Jar Jar Binks was worse than useless. Darth Maul was a very cool-looking villain but wasn’t as scary or evil as Vader. Vader was introduced as a leader and it wasn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that you found that he wasn’t actually in charge. The way that was done simply made the Emperor’s power that much more impressive – he can even control Vader! In The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul was introduced as the apprentice so you never thought of him as being as powerful – Maul was essentially a hit-man. Natalie Portman was good and Hayden Christensen was OK (at best) but I didn’t find the chemistry between them was really there, which was unfortunate since their deep passionate love for each other was the supposed reason for Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side. The dialogue was also terrible which didn’t help matters.

The Force Awakens

When writing Episode 7, it seems that J.J. Abrams thought “Let’s take the Star Wars universe and add a story JUST like the first three!” While I don’t think this strategy would have worked for the prequels, it did work for this one. There were a couple of scenes that were a little predictable for this reason, but because I’ve watched the original trilogy so many times over the years, it almost seemed like familiarity rather than predictability. It wasn’t that the writing was lazy so you could tell what was going to happen. The writing was good enough that you knew what was going to happen because it was entirely consistent with what you would expect.

At least, part of me believes that. There is a part of me that thinks it is lazy, since they didn’t have to come up with a story, just adapt one. I haven’t decided which part of me I believe.

Having said that, I do agree with some of this review, particularly when talking about the “How do we destroy the Starkiller planet?” scene. The First Order modifies a planet to be able to absorb the entire mass of a star and then use it as a weapon. First of all, not possible. But suspending our disbelief, this kind of terraforming would be centuries of work, and the rebels resistance figures out how to destroy it in about 3 minutes. If that one building is housing the only thing holding the planet together, perhaps it should have been more heavily fortified, or buried a mile underground?


Rey is a strong lead and given how masculine the original trilogy was (other than Leia, there were only 3-4 female characters who actually spoke and nobody for more than 30 seconds), I think it’s great that they chose a female lead. I also loved how Finn tried to rush to her rescue when he first met her only to find that she was perfectly capable of handling the situation herself. Her mysterious background was hinted at a few times – who were her parents? Is she Han Solo’s daughter? Doesn’t seem like it. Is she Luke’s daughter? Probably not – this would mean that Luke had fallen in love and had a child at some point, and as a Jedi he’s not supposed to do that. Given what happened to his dad when he fell in love, this sounds like a rule that Luke wouldn’t be likely to break. Personally, I hope she’s the daughter of nobody we know. Not everyone who’s really strong in the Force has to be related to the Skywalkers.

Rey & Finn

Finn is an interesting character and while I like him, he’s one of the biggest mysteries of the film. He’s been training to be a stormtrooper for almost his entire life. During that time (15 years? 20 years?), I can’t imagine the brainwashing that would have to be part of their training in order for them to do what they do. When your superior tells you to murder an entire village of innocent civilians or help operate a weapon that’s going to destroy an entire (inhabited) planet and you do it without hesitation or remorse, that’s some strong mind control. So how did Finn escape it? Thousands upon thousands (if not millions) of stormtroopers are under the complete control of the Empire / First Order, and yet Finn simply says “Nah, don’t think so” and escapes it? Nah, don’t think so.

Poe is a talented-bordering-on-cocky pilot who’s no relation to Han Solo but let’s face it, he’s as much the Han Solo of this movie as Han Solo is.

Kylo Ren is a villain who is a bit of a mystery himself. We know his parentage from fairly early on but we don’t know how old he is until Rey gets him to take his helmet off and we find that he’s not much more than a kid who looks like a young Severus Snape. He’s strong with the Force but obviously not that strong, since the untrained Rey is able to see into his mind while he’s trying to look into hers. He’s also not that skilled with a lightsaber since both Rey (still untrained) and Finn (the Star Wars equivalent of a Muggle) are both able to hold their own in lightsaber battles with him. You could even argue that Rey beat him. Yet he’s been able to become one of the top people in the First Order. During his conversation with Han Solo, it looks as if he’s going to give up the Dark Side and go home with his dad. I admit I didn’t foresee what was about to happen (strong am I with the Force, but not that strong) and so I was a bit disappointed that turning him back to good was this easy. Of course, the thing he had to do but wasn’t sure he was strong enough turned out to be something else, and he was strong enough. Han Solo’s death, while something I didn’t see coming and something I’m still not particularly happy about, was absolutely necessary in the development of Kylo Ren as a villain.

Harrison Ford nailed Han Solo, which is pretty impressive after 30+ years. Chewbacca was Chewbacca. Maz was Yoda with English lessons. Mark Hamill had second billing and was in the movie for maybe a minute and didn’t speak. Marlon Brando is impressed.

Unfortunately, not all of the characters were that effective. The Supreme Leader was too comic book-y as a non-human hologram. C-3P0 was entirely comic relief and R2-D2 was the deus ex machina – we need the rest of the map and R2 just happens to have it, and just happens to wake up at just the right time after years (?) of sitting in “low power mode”. General Phasma was supposed to be the leader of the stormtroopers but the only difference between her and any other stormtrooper was the fancy uniform.


Not only was much of the story similar to Episode IV, there were a number of spoken lines from the original trilogy repeated in this one. Obviously the biggest were “I have a bad feeling about this” and “May the Force be with you”; inclusion of those was required though I’m surprised the latter was only used once. But there were a few throwaway ones as well, ones that wouldn’t have been noticed if you didn’t realize it was a repeated line but are very cool if you do. While on the Starkiller planet, you can hear a stormtrooper in the background say something like “We think they might be splitting up” which is a direct quote from a stormtrooper in a similar situation in A New Hope. Leia’s claim that “There is still light in him” was another, though I thought that was too similar to Luke telling her that there is still good in Vader. A good one was Maz talking to Rey, and telling her “Find your friend”, reminiscent of when Yoda offered to do help Luke do just that on Dagobah. The next line from The Empire Strikes Back is “I’m not looking for a friend, I’m looking for a Jedi Master!” which is accurate in both movies.

Question: Where did Maz get Luke’s light saber from? His first one fell into the clouds on Bespin when Vader cut off his hand. His second one (that he built himself), he threw away once he cut off Vader’s hand. (Aside: Nobody’s limbs were removed in this one. Odd.) I suppose he could have grabbed it again once Vader killed the Emperor but Maz specifically says that it belonged both to Luke and Anakin / Vader so it must have been the one from Bespin. She also said that how she got it was a “story for another time”, so hopefully that other time occurs in Episode VIII or IX.

Had Han really never used Chewie’s crossbow until now? After at least 30 years together?

I guess I can’t give the movie an A++++ since there were some issues with it. But it was fun, it was exciting, it was funny, it was well written (far more than the prequel trilogy), the bad guy was sufficiently bad, and it was reminiscent of the original trilogy. Everything you’d want from a Star Wars movie.

Only a little over 500 days until Episode VIII comes out!