Nicky learns to debug

Nicky came with me to work this past Wednesday for “Take your kid to work day”. Not only did he see first hand what I do, he even helped me do it.

I showed him the “Database Explorer” software that I’m helping to develop for the next version of SAP HANA. It allows you, among many other things, to execute arbitrary SQL statements against any HANA database. But before he would have any idea what that was good for, I had to tell him what a database was. I simplified it to: a database is a collection of data stored in tables, where a table has a bunch of columns and each column has a type (i.e. text, numbers, dates, etc.). As an example, we created a table called “person”, with columns like “name”, “height”, “weight”, and “birthdate”. I inserted a row for Nicky and one for me.

Then I showed him how we can use the SELECT statement to get the data back. So “select * from person” shows both of us, with our names, heights, weights, and… incorrect birthdates. Each date was off by one day. Hmmm… that’s weird. Perhaps I made a typo on one of them, but not likely both. I updated a row and double-checked the birthdate but when I retrieved the data again, it was still wrong. OK, well, guess what Nick? We get to look through the code, find the error, and fix it. This is what I do.

I knew where the data retrieval code was, so Nicky and I looked it up and found where we get the data from the database and format it for display. I added some code to print out the value we retrieved and found that we were actually retrieving the correct date. This meant that it had nothing to do with the insertion process, and that the database itself wasn’t involved. Then I added a line that displayed the value again after we formatted it and found that it was wrong. So it was definitely our formatting code that was to blame.


This is written in Javascript, and we were creating a Date object from the original value. We looked up what the Date constructor expects, and found that the format we were passing in was incorrect. Then we parsed the year, month, and day out of the date and used those directly to create the Date object. We fired it up again, and presto, it worked. High five, Nick.

Our next task was to write a barrier test. We have a suite of automated tests that run and must pass before anyone is allowed to make any changes to any piece of code. This is to make sure that nobody ever makes a change in the future that causes existing functionality to stop working. I knew there was a file that contained tests for many different data types, so I loaded that up to add a test for dates. Oddly, I found that there was one already there, but commented out. Then I read the comment, which stated that the test was failing but the author didn’t know why, so he was temporarily disabling it until later when he had some time to figure it out. The comment was signed “gperrow”.

I enabled the test, corrected one typo, and presto, we have a fixed bug and a barrier test. High five, Nick.

Nick said that between the bug squashing (he prefers that term to “debugging”) and playing with the Arduino and 3D printer in the morning, he had a really fun day, as did I.


Vacation report: Washington, DC

It’s time for another episode of “Where did the Perrows go?”, also known as “How does Graeme remember all this stuff?” or “You don’t expect me to read all this, do you?” Today, we’re going to the nation’s capital – no, not Ottawa, the capital of our neighbours to the south: Washington, DC. In August of 2016, the four of us drove down to DC for four days of sightseeing. Although much shorter than the 2+ weeks in Florida in 2014, France in 2008, and the UK in 2009, this was a very fun trip and we all had a great time. As per usual, here’s the breakdown of where we went and what we saw. If you’re on Facebook, you should be able to see this photo album of the trip.

Incidentally, Graeme remembers all this stuff because he brings a notebook with him on vacation and writes it all down every night. Otherwise this article would be much shorter.

Monday, August 22 – Safari Niagara

Our first day of vacation had nothing to do with Washington other than the fact that we spent the night in the USA. We left around 9:00am, dropped Shadow off at the “B&B” we board him at when we’re away, and drove to Safari Niagara, where we spent the day with my sister Trudy and her four-year-old daughter Liv. Gail and the boys had been there before, last summer, but I had never been and I loved it. It was big but not massive like the Toronto Zoo, and also spread out but not like Marineland where you have to walk for fifteen minutes before you see anything. We saw flamingos, eagles, tigers, lions, gibbons, monkeys, giraffes, camels, kangaroos, and a few others. The gibbons were unbelievably loud – a sign said that in the jungle, they can be heard several kilometers away and we could easily believe it.

Budgie feedingThe highlight for me was the budgie feeding building, where you can buy popsicle sticks covered with sticky stuff and birdseed for $1 each. The budgies are very tame and will land on the sticks, your hand, or your arm to eat the seed. Gail even had one land on her head for a few seconds. At one point I must have had eight budgies on the stick, on my hand, and on my arm at one time. Other than the one who thought the freckle on my arm was a seed, this was very cool.

After a busy and fun day, we left around 5:30. Trudy and Liv went back home to Toronto while we crossed the border, went to the Olive Garden in Niagara Falls for dinner (and to pick up Ryan’s hat after he left it there back in July), and then checked into our hotel around the corner. We stayed at the Econolodge near the airport, which was a nice enough place. It was relatively expensive but that’s mostly explained by “near the airport”. After a couple of hands of rummy, we plugged the laptop into the hotel TV and watched a bit of Now You See Me (a fun magic/heist movie) before bed.

Tuesday, August 23 – Driving day #1

The hotel had complementary breakfast, which was your standard cereal, mini-muffins, yogurt, bread, bagels, etc. No eggs, bacon, sausage, or French toast, but they did have a waffle maker which Nicky made use of. After we ate (back in our room since the tiny little breakfast area was full), we packed up the van and got ready to head out. This is when we realized that the GPS in the van was programmed with maps of Ontario plus only a handful of north-eastern states. These included New York and Pennsylvania (which we used on the Hershey trip last year and Darien Lake this year), but not Maryland or Virginia, so we couldn’t find the next two hotels we’d be staying at. Without a specific travel data plan, enabling data on Bell Canada smartphones while in the US is unbelievably expensive (something like $6 / MB – that’s $6 per megabyte, so $6,000 per gigabyte), so I had bought a $20 package that gave me 200 MB of data for while we were away. But firing up the GPS on my phone for this drive would have eaten through that very quickly, so we set up the maps app on the phone while on the hotel’s wifi, then disconnected with the GPS instructions on the screen. This was a little inconvenient but not a big deal.

We drove south through New York and Pennsylvania (I said this in the Hershey article from last year but it’s still true. The highway in New York was terribly bumpy and loud but the second we crossed the border into PA, it was smooth and quiet), stopping for lunch at a Subway in Ridgeway, PA. The boys had brought a bunch of movies to watch on the drive, but were in the middle of bingeing Star Trek: The Next Generation so they watched (and Gail and I listened to) numerous season 2 and 3 episodes on the drive down and back.

We lost the GPS at the Maryland border but continued on to the Comfort Suites in Hagerstown, arriving around dinner time. We checked in and went to find dinner. We were introduced to a chain called Red Robin on our trip to Hershey last year and we loved it, so we made a point of looking for one. There was one not far away and once again we were not disappointed. After a stop at a local Target for some shopping (snacks for the rest of the trip and the obligatory case of Cherry Coke Zero to take home), we went back to the hotel, finished the movie, played some cards and hit the sack.

Wednesday, August 24 – Air and Space museum, Lincoln tour

The Comfort Suites also had complementary breakfast but they had a few more hot options than the Econolodge, including eggs (though Gail suspected they were powdered), sausages and French toast sticks. After breakfast we drove about a hour to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (there’s a name that just rolls off the tongue), which is an air and space museum run by the Smithsonian near Dulles airport. Note that there is another Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in DC, but we’ll get to that on Friday. This place was awesome. It’s one single massive building containing 170 (!!) planes, some helicopters, a space shuttle, and a bunch of other things like pieces of guided missiles and a collection of plane engines. Some of the planes include a Concorde, the Enola Gay (yes, the Enola Gay, not a replica), and a stealth fighter as well as very old biplanes and triplanes, WWI and WWII fighters and even some German warplanes with swastikas on them.

We started in the tower, which is a replica of a real air traffic control tower and gave a great view of Dulles airport and the surrounding area. Then we watched an Imax movie called Journey to Space narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart (I said it was great that they got him to narrate it “because he’s BEEN there, ya know?”) before going into the main part of the museum itself. A tour was just starting so we joined the tour guide. He was clearly retired (he was well over 70) but he knew his stuff, and not just the planes themselves. Someone (possibly Gail) asked how the Stealth fighter got to the speeds that it did and he got right down into the minute details of the engine and how they somehow compressed the engine’s exhaust to increase the speed. I didn’t ask, but I suspect he was a veteran of the Air Force or a Navy pilot or something.

The Concorde was a little smaller than I expected, as it only held about 100 (rich) passengers. I would have liked to have been able to look around inside the Concorde but all the planes were strictly outside-only. No doors were open and the windows on the Concorde were far too high (and small) to see inside. We didn’t get quite as good a view of the shuttle Discovery as we did of the shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center because Atlantis had its cargo bay doors open and was hanging on an angle, whereas Discovery had the doors closed and was sitting on its wheels. It was still awesome to be right next to the actual shuttle.

We had a bit of a time limit, so we left around 3:30 and drove about 40 minutes into the city to the hotel for the rest of our trip. This was the Holiday Inn Rosslyn, which was not actually in Washington but in Arlington, Virginia, just across the river. We were on the 9th floor and had a great view of Georgetown.

The White House

After checking in, we went to Panera Bread just around the corner for dinner, then took the subway (“Metro”) into DC for a tour we had pre-booked. The tour was with DC by Foot, which specializes in walking tours of Washington DC. The kicker here is that the tour costs whatever you want to pay. You are under no obligation to pay anything, but they ask that you pay what you think the tour was worth. This clearly motivates the tour guides to do a good job, and we were very impressed with both of the tours we did with them. Tonight’s tour was the Lincoln Assassination tour, which started in front of the White House and moved around to various places involved in the assassination of President Lincoln. The tour ended at Ford’s Theatre where the President was shot, though he died across the street the next day. Our tour guide was named Rebecca, and she was knowledgeable and fun. We learned a lot on the tour, including things like:

  1. It was actually a conspiracy to kill Lincoln, the vice president, and the Secretary of State, but the other two assassins chickened out.
  2. John Wilkes Booth was a very famous actor at the time. It’d be like Ryan Reynolds killing the President.
  3. Andrew Johnson took over as President after Lincoln died and was very unpopular. He was impeached with only weeks left in his term because the rest of the government couldn’t wait that long to get rid of him.
  4. Lincoln’s son Robert was not there when his father was shot, but eventually became a politician and was there when both James Garfield and William McKinley were shot.

While walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, we came across a bunch of roller bladers playing a road hockey game in front of the Treasury building (right next door to the White House). I imagine having Pennsylvania Ave. closed to traffic makes this convenient.

After the tour, we walked to the nearby Metro station and returned to Rosslyn and bed.

Thursday, August 25 – Engraving and Printing, Castle, Natural History Museum

We got up a little early on this day and took the Metro into DC. We were planning to take a tour of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (i.e. where they print US money). Tickets were free but we had read that they were only available that day, and sometimes were sold out by 9am. We arrived there around 8:30, and once we found the ticket booth, there was no line at all. We had our choice of tickets for any time slot, and decided on 5pm so it wouldn’t break up the day.

Once we had our tickets, we walked over to the Smithsonian Castle, the only museum open before 10:00. We had only had a quick breakfast at the hotel and were a little hungry so we stopped at the cafe inside the Castle. There were two or three employees wandering around, but one of them said something like their shift hadn’t started yet (it was about 8:55 at this point), so someone else would help us. We were looking for breakfast sandwiches (eg. egg and sausage on toast) so it wasn’t just something we could pick up from the rack. After waiting for a few minutes while the employees laughed and joked amongst themselves and ignored us, we just said “never mind” and left. This might have been the only example of terrible service we experienced on this trip.

A tour was just starting so we went along. I knew the Smithsonian Institution was named for a guy named Smithson, who left a bunch of money to the US Government for the establishment of museums, or something like that, but what I didn’t know was that Smithson was a British scientist and never set foot in the US. It was never even clear why he left the money to the US and not Britain, and the US government debated whether or not to accept the money for many years before they did, and then took another ten years to decide what to do with it.

As a bit of an aside, all of the Smithsonian Museums are completely free. There are special exhibits in some of them that cost something, and the Imax and Planetarium shows cost extra too, but the museums themselves are free.

Lucy. No sky, no diamonds.After the tour of the Castle, we crossed the Mall and went to the Museum of Natural History. Just like at every other museum we’ve been to on this trip, a tour was just starting as we got there, so we joined in. The tour guide was another retiree who was very knowledgeable, particularly about evolutionary biology, so we picked his brain a lot about the human origins part of the museum. I used to read Owl magazine back when I was a kid (and both my kids did too), and I remember reading about Lucy, the 3 million year-old Australopithicus afarensis skeleton discovered in Africa, so it was kind of exciting to actually see her. I have to say I was a little disappointed to find that it was a replica and not the real Lucy, which is in Ethiopia. But it was still very cool.

The tour went through the mammals section, human origins, the ocean, bones, dinosaurs, and ended with gemstones and the Hope Diamond. There was so much to see that after a not-very-cheap lunch at the cafe downstairs, we went back through half of those areas again. We also stopped in a section called Q?rius (pronounced “curious”), which was a science hands-on exhibit aimed at teenagers. Both the boys enjoyed it.

It was about 4:00 at this point, so we left the museum to head over to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for our 5:00 tour. It was very hot out (around 34°C, 93°F) so we hoped we would be able to wait inside once we got there. Unfortunately the doors were locked and we had to wait about 20 minutes, but the line was in the shade so it wasn’t so bad. Eventually we got inside. There were lots of panels on the walls full of information, and we learned a lot. The tour itself was also interesting – they make something like $200 million worth of bills every day, 95% of which is used to replace old bills that are worn or damaged and removed from circulation. They stressed at the beginning of the tour that absolutely no videos or photos can be taken inside, but someone tried anyway. When the tour guide saw this, she immediately stopped and very sternly told the guy to stop, or “security will come and take your camera away”. They don’t mess around here.

The tour was only about 20-30 minutes long but pretty fun. After perusing the gift shop briefly, we took the subway back to Rosslyn. One cool thing about the Rosslyn Metro station – the tracks are way underground, so you have to take this super-long escalator down before getting on the train. Wikipedia says the platform is 97 feet below street level, which means the escalator is dropping you almost ten storeys.

We had been told of a good local pizza place called Wise Guys, so we bought a large pizza and took it back to the hotel. It was quite greasy but very good. After a couple of card games, the boys and I went for a swim. There was more “hanging out in the pool” than actual swimming, which was good because we had to get rested up for our major walking day on Friday. After the swim, we read for a while before bed.

Friday, August 26 – Memorial tour

Longest. Walk. Ever.

This was the day of our second DC By Foot tour, a four hour walk through the memorials on the Mall and around the Tidal Basin. The tour started at the Washington Monument, which George Washington himself approved, though it didn’t get started for many years after he died. Construction stopped during the Civil War and resumed ten years later, at which point they found that they couldn’t get the same kind of stone as before. When you’re close to the monument, it’s quite obvious that about 1/4 of the way up, the colour of the stone changes dramatically.

We walked from there to the World War II memorial, a large circular area with a pillar for each state (and a few non-states including the Puerto Rico and the Philippines), and a huge fountain in the middle. Next was the Vietnam Memorial, which was designed by a 21-year-old student to look like a “wound” in the ground. The names of every US serviceman killed or missing in action (all 58,000+ of them) are etched into the wall, and the wall is reflective so that you can see yourself while looking at the names, bringing the present and past together. I personally know nobody who fought in Vietnam and I’m not even American, but I found the memorial very powerful and moving.

Next was the Lincoln Memorial, which was incredible. The building itself is huge and the statue of Abe inside is amazing. The entire Gettysburg Address is carved into one wall, and his second inaugural address is carved into another. From the front, you get a great view of the Mall and Washington Monument (and Capitol building in the distance) and from the back, you can see Arlington National Cemetery across the river.

The Lincoln Memorial

After Lincoln we crossed to the other side of the Mall to the Korean War memorial, which is a set of 19 statues of soldiers as well as a memorial wall similar to the Vietnam one. However instead of names, the faces of hundreds of actual soldiers (from National Archives pictures) are etched into the wall. It is said that one of the faces is Alan Alda from MASH (which took place during the Korean War), and I did see a face that looked like his, but I hope this is coincidental. It seems rather disrespectful to the men and women who actually served in Korea to include the face of someone who only pretended to serve. It is said that no matter where in the memorial you are standing, at least one of the statues is looking at you. The boys and I took this as a challenge but were unable to find anyplace where this wasn’t true.

Next was the Martin Luther King memorial. I knew a bit about the man but almost nothing about the memorial, and it turned out to have been quite controversial. A Chinese architect was chosen to build the memorial and it thus it was actually constructed in China and then brought to the US, and a lot of people were unhappy about that. Further, the sculptor decided to add a quote from MLK onto the side of the sculpture, but shortened the quote to make it fit. However shortening the quote actually changed the context of it and people were so unhappy about it that the quote was removed two years later.

There is a long stone wall on either side of the main sculpture with various other quotes from King. All of them were profound, but two of them stood out for me:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.


The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

After the King memorial, we started around the Tidal Basin to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial. FDR was the last President to serve more than two terms; he died shortly into his fourth. He also spend his entire Presidency in a wheelchair thanks to polio, though the public never actually saw the chair because he always had a large cloak draped over himself, covering the chair. The memorial is massive – there are four large “rooms”, one representing each of his terms. Each has a waterfall feature that gets progressively more complex in each room, representing the increasing difficulty of his presidencies in dealing with the Great Depression and World War II.

Next was the Jefferson Memorial, another impressive huge marble building, but this one had a bronze sculpture of the President rather than a marble one. This is where the tour ended. We thanked our guide Ingeborg, who did an outstanding job. We were pretty wiped by this point since we had been walking for four hours on one of the hottest days of the year (34°C again). Our next stop was the Air and Space Museum back on the National Mall, so we completed the circle of the Tidal Basin and headed there. After lunch at the (thankfully air conditioned) food court, we walked around the museum for a while, checking out the exhibit on early flight. We then went to the Albert Einstein planetarium for a show called Dark Universe. It was narrated by one of my favourite scientists, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and was a really interesting show about a topic that I’m really interested in (dark matter and dark energy), but being as tired as I was, sitting in a comfy leaned-back chair in a dark room was too much and I slept through most of it. I have to say I enjoyed my nap, but was disappointed to have missed the movie.

Not long after the show, Gail and I decided we were done for the day. It was after 4:00 and the museum closes at 5:00 so it’s not like we bailed out way early, but we were just too tired to continue walking much more. We took the Metro back to the hotel and just rested for an hour or so – played some cards, read a little, and Gail might have had a short nap. Once we were up to walking again, we went to a place called Pancho Villa for dinner, a Mexican restaurant right next door to the hotel. The food was great and it wasn’t crazy expensive. We all enjoyed our dinners and the fried ice cream after wasn’t bad either.

After dinner, we watched some TV before going to sleep.

I didn’t bring an actual pedometer on this trip, but my phone has an app called S Health which does the same thing. At bedtime, I checked and it had counted 23,187 steps, equating to 21.82 km, on this day alone.

Saturday, August 27 – Spy Museum

Not surprisingly, we slept a little later on this day than the others. We stopped at Panera Bread for breakfast again and ate on the train into the city. Today our destination was the International Spy Museum, just a couple of blocks away from the Mall. This is a non-Smithsonian museum, which means we had to actually pay money to go in but we had a lot of fun so it was worth it. In addition to the museum itself, there were two extra activities: Operation Spy and Spy in the City. The first was an “escape room” sort of thing where the participants had to act together as spies to solve problems and save the world. Gail and I hung out in the gift shop while the boys did that, and they had a great time. Once they were done, we started Spy in the City. This was a sort of geocaching-like scavenger hunt where, again, we had to save the world. We got two Android tablets which contained videos describing our missions, and had to follow clues that took us to various places in the area. This took us about an hour and a half, and we had a lot of fun on this adventure as well.

Next, onto the museum itself. We originally figured we’d be there for an hour or two, but ended up staying until dinner time. There was a lot to see, with information and artefacts about spying from ancient times (China, Greece), through the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and into the Cold War era. Oddly, there was very little recent stuff; for example, there were descriptions of human-hair-sized cameras, but they didn’t have any. There was barely a mention of technology after about 1980 until the very end where they had one room talking about safeguarding the power grid and Internet from terrorists. There was also a large James Bond exhibit with artefacts, pictures, and videos from various movies.

By the time we were done at the Spy Museum, it was dinner time. We stopped at the Shake Shack right next door to the museum. The burgers were very good and though Nicky was the only one who ordered a shake, we all helped him finish it and it was great as well.

Once we were done there, the museums were all closed and we were still pretty tired from yesterday so we headed back to the hotel. Played some cards, watched some TV, the usual bedtime stuff. We also packed up for the trip home tomorrow.

Sunday, August 28 – Driving Day #2

Gail had to be home for a Scouting meeting at 7:00, so we got up around 7:30, checked out, and left. Breakfast was at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Hagerstown, just down the street from the hotel where we had stayed on Tuesday night. Lunch was at a place called Sarina’s in Phillipsburg, PA. I don’t know why you’d ever need to go to Phillipsburg, PA, but if you do, stop in here for some great food. I had a steak sandwich which was excellent, Ryan loved his pasta, and I don’t remember what Gail or Nicky had but they enjoyed them. In particular, the buns were amazing and we picked up some to go.

After a 15 minute stop at the Peace Bridge, we got home around 7:00. It really shouldn’t have been an 11+ hour drive – there weren’t any major delays but we were taking our time. Maybe a little too much. Gail was a few minutes late for her meeting.

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!

Share if you agree

I’m a fan of Facebook. I like that it gives people the ability to communicate with friends and relatives around the world, in a much more interesting way than email or snail mail. For example, thanks to Facebook, I know a lot more about my cousins in the UK than I used to. I can see pictures of their kids, they can see pictures of mine, all that sort of thing that was definitely possible before, but took much more work and just never happened.

But to be more accurate, I’m a fan of what Facebook was intended to be. I’m not so much a fan of what it has become, which is a way for some people to feed their ego by gathering likes. I’m certainly guilty of this myself; I get some satisfaction when I post something and people click “Like” on it. Who wouldn’t want to be told that someone likes something you’ve written or a picture you’ve taken?

If you don't click Like, you're a monsterBut there are people who take this to the extreme. People post pictures with pithy sayings on them, hoping for thousands of likes, shares, and comments. Most of them include URLs where you can go to buy their products or simply generate page views for them so they can charge for advertising. There are millions of these pictures floating around Facebook. In most cases the idea is to get you to visit their website but there are lots from people who just want to generate likes and shares. Maybe just getting the likes is the goal here, or maybe people can charge for advertising on their Facebook page itself (I don’t know how that works). But in general the actual content of the image is secondary, or sometimes completely meaningless. And I’m not even talking about pictures containing blatantly false information, though I’ve seen more than my share of those. In this article, I’m just talking about the useless ones.

Here are a bunch of types of images you’re likely to see from these Facebook pages.

Appeal to emotion

The appeal to emotion is huge. Pictures of people (usually children) suffering from some terrible disease get tons of likes. Same for pictures of injured or abused animals. The “let’s give this kid a bunch of likes” is compelling in that if the kid himself sees thousands of people clicking “Like” on his picture, he would probably feel pretty good about it. But if you’ve posted something that’s been shared and re-shared, you don’t just see a caption saying “This picture has 45,302 likes!”, you’ve got to go looking for it. You have to dig through your “analytics” information to find out how many people liked it, commented on it, and shared it, and how many liked or commented on the shares. And that’s assuming that the kid himself or a member of his family originally posted it, which is almost never the case.

Pictures of military personnel get likes from people eager to show their support for people in the military. I have all kinds of respect for people in the military, but liking a picture on Facebook really does nothing to help them. You’ve probably seen the picture with the caption “let’s get 900k likes for this military dog protecting a sleeping soldier at an airport!” As cute a picture as that is, I guarantee you that neither the dog nor the soldier will give a crap about 900k likes. And why 900k? Why is there a specific target?

Others include “Share this picture if you love your daughter/son/brother/sister” with the implication that if you don’t share it, you obviously don’t love your daughter/son/brother/sister, you heartless bastard.


“Share this picture if you hate cancer!” Why? First off, who doesn’t hate cancer? Secondly, how will it help anyone? This isn’t even useful for “raising awareness”, a concept that is seriously overused in the world of charities.

Save to your timeline

There are lots of pictures, particularly recipes, that say “click share to save this to your timeline”, the idea being that you can retrieve it again later. This is hilarious. Have you ever gone through your timeline looking for something that you’ve shared? In the unlikely event that you have, good freaking luck. If you really want to save a recipe, save the picture on your hard drive or print it. It’s not “click share to save it”, it’s “You should click share so that my sharing stats get bumped and more people go to my website”.


Some of these puzzles are legitimately interesting but most are click-bait. One has a grid of lines and asks “how many squares do you see?” with thousands of answers, all different. Another I saw recently was “Name a CITY that does not have the letter “A” in it. I bet you can’t. ;)” Yeah, this is a toughie. There are thousands of them: London, Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing, Mexico City, New York, Toronto – it took more time to type those than to think about them. This posting had over 118,000 likes, 967,000 comments, and 22,000 shares. I don’t understand how people can see a posting that has almost a million comments on it already and decide to add another one. Do you really think none of the previous million commenters thought of your answer? And who do you think is going to read your comment? Maybe the dozen or so people who comment after you, but that’s it. Either way, why bother?

Also, even if you do the work and figure out an answer (for puzzles that have a single answer), you will likely never know if you’re right. I have never seen the original person who posted the puzzle actually post the answer. And the worst part: if you’re into math or science at all, reading the answers to some of the math ones is likely to depress you. When I see people who I know are adults (and presumably have at least a high school education) posting that 5 + 4 x 0 = 0, I weep not only for humanity but also for whatever school system they went through.


People post pictures that contain “opinions” which are almost always either blatantly obvious or divisive (eg. opinions on gun control) and then say “share if you agree”. I saw one recently that said “This Christmas, I want my family and friends to be happy and healthy. Share if you agree.” Who the hell wouldn’t agree? And why specifically at Christmas? I want my friends and family to be happy and healthy all year round.

The divisive ones are good because they will get shares and likes from those who agree and comments from those who don’t. Tell you what – if I agree with something I’ll share it. But telling me to share it is a great way to ensure that I won’t. And telling me “99% of people won’t share this” to try and guilt me into sharing works even less.

That said, I’ve been known to share the odd picture that contains an opinion I agree with (as long as it’s not something as obvious as “I want my family to be healthy”), as well as a few that I don’t agree with and I explain why I don’t. But that’s OK because all of my Facebook friends want to know my opinion on everything. I know they do.

Magic pictures and codes

“Watch the picture and leave a comment and see what happens”. Right, because Facebook spent time and effort adding the ability to post pictures that somehow react to comments left on them. I even saw one that said “Hold your finger on this image and leave a comment and see what happens” which seemed even more ludicrous, but then I realized that a lot of people would be reading it on a mobile device. Pressing their finger on the picture could in theory have some sort of effect, though it’s unlikely. But how are you supposed to hold your finger on the image and leave a comment at the same time?

I saw one recently that told people to take the last 3 digits of your cell phone number, plug it into some formula, and post the resulting “code” as a comment to get your cell phone’s name. WTF? Do people really think that (a) your cell phone has a “name” and (b) Facebook has integrated a mechanism to retrieve that name into its comment feature? Why on earth would either one of these two things exist?


I’m amazed at the number of people who think that a company is going to send them a gift card or an iPad or something just for liking their page (and usually sharing and commenting as well). Facebook rules prohibit promotions that require you to share a posting to enter, so anything that asks you to do this is bogus. Read the postings closely as well – would Disney really use the name “Disney World.” (with a period at the end) as the name of their page, or have obvious spelling or grammatical errors in their postings? Apple makes bucketloads of money from people buying iPads and iPhones. Why would they give hundreds of them away?


There are lots of pictures of people saying that something good will happen if this picture receives some number of Likes. You’ll see a picture of a kid holding a sign saying “My mom will stop smoking if I get a million likes”. So your mother will not stop smoking if you, her loving child, ask her to, but she will if a million strangers ask? Right. The one that inspired the image above was a picture of a child in a hospital bed with tubes all over him, saying “If we get 100 shares, this kid will get his heart transplant for free!” Now, we all know that anyone can be fooled, so it’s hard to say that you’d have to be stupid to fall for this kind of thing, but if you think about this even for a second or two you should realize that it’s ludicrous.

I realize that people aren’t going to stop sharing or liking these types of pictures. For the most part, it’s not a big enough problem for Facebook to do something about it, and you could even argue that other than cluttering up your timeline, it’s not a problem at all. All I ask is that before you share or like that image, give it a few seconds of skeptical thought first – is this thing true? Is it helpful? I know that not everything has to be helpful but if it’s utterly meaningless, maybe the fact that it’s already been shared 20,000 times is enough.

On the upside, these images do give me something to rant about. And you all want to hear my rants. I know you do.