Friday, August 29, 2008

Thoughts and notes from NYC

A few observations from our time in Der Big Apple:

- Recycling: where is it? I only recall seeing one recycling bin during our whole stateside trip, and that was at the end of the Brooklyn Bridge. We drank pop ("soda") and juice and water and had nowhere sensible to dispose of the bottles and cans other than the garbage. It seemed very wasteful!

- Drinks: not so cold? It could be my imagination, my heat tolerance or something else, but it seemed to me that every time I got a cold beverage, it wasn't nearly as cold as I'd expected. Do Americans set their refrigerators to a different temperature than we do up here?

- Empire State Building vs. Top Of The Rock: Rockefeller Center wins by a long shot. ESB wins the SMB award for this trip. The prices were comparable, but the Rock was by far the better trip. They had timed tickets so you knew when you'd be going up, and you got there fast in a speedy elevator with cool special effects. Staff were courteous and helpful, and the walls were adorned with historical information about the building. The view was fantastic. The observation decks were spacious and beautiful. Contrast that with the ESB which was crowded, aesthetically unpleasant, under renovations, with imponderably long lines, crowded elevators, unsmiling and abrupt staff, and ... well, generally, lame. Lame. Lame. Nice view if you can get to the railing to actually see -- and this was fairly late at night. I hear it's much worse during the day. And they want to charge even more to go to the even-higher-up deck. We chose to walk up a few flights of stairs instead of waiting another 20 minute for the last elevator to the lower-level deck ... seven flights of exhaustion.

- In case you missed the message of the previous paragraph: choose Top Of The Rock instead of the Empire State Building. Yes, I read plenty of opinions online that told me exactly the same thing before we went on the trip, and yes, you'd feel like a sucker for going to NYC and *not* hitting the Empire State Building. But really, you want to feel like a sucker or a chump? You can feel like both if you choose ESB. ESB -- SMB!

- Hotels: good deal! Morning editor Ruth recommended the Hotel Saint James, just off Times Square. Ruth is not the type to put up with bad deals or poor conditions. The price was right -- $170/night -- and the location was perfect. The hotel was livable, with a shower (often with hot water available!) and a toilet (that smelled like a TTC subway bathroom) and a (stiff) bed. All in all, we were very satisfied.

- Hotel: gooder deal! We extended our NYC stay by a night, so needed another hotel. Expedia found me one-night special at the Best Western Convention Centre hotel in Hell's Kitchen for $140. A typical chain hotel with super-comfy beds and everything but a fridge. Location aside, it was a fabulous deal.

- Don't trust Google blindly: we stomped around Manhattan looking for Bath & Body Works. Google via Blackberry pointed us to one on Broadway above Canal. After walking on tired, sore feet to the location found -- we found an Old Navy. Okay, next to the Old Navy was a small B&BW plaque. Yup, we'd found their corporate offices. Crrrrap.

- Mike and Mike, the father-son photo-videographer team who captured the proposal, pointed us to what is said to be the best New York pizza in New York, John's on Bleecker Street. You can't get a slice -- whole pie only, please. We ordered one with roasted garlic, and yesh, it was good.

- Research pays off: printing off information beforehand let us take the most sensible, speedy and economical routes to and from the airport. From LGA, the taxi was the ticket. To Newark, the train did it best. And the Top-Ten guide picked up at the bookstore served us as well on this trip as the same line of books did when we went to Europe.

- Naked cowboy: couldn't find him.

- Panhandlers: remarkably friendly.

- Graffiti: Halifax has more of it.

- Shout-out to the Dunhill Cafe & Catering, right next door to the Hotel Saint James. Great service, great food, great prices. Super-handy to have an excellent short-order joint next to where we were staying.

- The Museum of Television & Radio is no longer the Museum of Television & Radio. Don't go there if you're expecting a museum. I didn't mind paying $10 to see artistic interpretations of Family Guy and watch an old episode of the Muppet Show, but you might.

- A good pair of stay-dry underwear is worth its weight in gold. Possibly more, since it doesn't weigh much at all.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Ring


The Ring, originally uploaded by BigAssSuperBlog.

For those who've been curious, here's Amanda's engagement ring. Custom crafted by Fire Works Gallery in Halifax. Round brilliant ideal-cut Hearts & Arrows diamond in half-bezel setting, white gold.
I love the way it sparkles -- but I'm not fancy-pants photographer enough to be able to capture that detail.

The Stallion rises from the grave

The PC in the dungeon, nickname Stallion, is now back and functioning as best as I can expect.

Fixing the USB problem -- no mouse, no thumbdrive, printer, scanner, external HD, PODxt, camera, etc. -- was easier than expected. I went to Device Manager and opened the USB connections. I opened Properties for the first one on the list and clicked Update Driver. Windows said "oh yeah, right, I forgot about that... you need new drivers for this thing ... gimme a sec" and pulled together a USB 2.0 driver for the whole pile of ports. Ta-da! You have a new mouse! Wanna use it? Oh, and a thumbdrive! How keen!

Now it's on to installing all these Windows updates. IE7 came in smoothly. A couple of security updates installed fine. But Service Pack 3 is giving me the same headaches as SP2. I may just learn to live without it and concentrate on backing stuff up, slipstreaming a new Windows+SP3 install CD and setting fire to the whole C: drive.

Ten years ago today - August 28, 1998

Back in 1998, I tried a little experiment. I tried to write down five things I learned every day.


Here's what I learned on August 28, 1998:


1. Stag parties aren't as wild as I'd thought -- just a bunch of guys playing cards
2. It's the best man's duty to plan the stag
3. Replying to the "remove me" address on spam can get you on another mailing list
4. Stopping distance is usually more than you think
5. There's a collision reporting centre near the west end (Islington). Learned all about collision reporting.


The story? I was out on assignment west of Toronto, doing a story at a truck inspection station. I don't recall what the story was, but it was pretty dull. I was tired and hungry and driving back to Toronto on the QEW with a bit of a headache. I wanted to make decent time because I was going to my first stag party, in honor of then-680News police reporter Jim Morris (RIP)

I was driving the company's Subaru Outback wagon. Suddenly traffic stopped ahead of me. I pressed on the brakes thinking "oh, I have plenty of time to come to a full stop ... lots of time ... stopping now ... oh crap, I'm going to hit this Jeep." I hit the Jeep.

I was afraid a large angry man would emerge and thrash me, but it was a young respirologist in scrubs on her way to St. Michael's Hospital in downtown Toronto. If I hadn't rear-ended the spare tire on her Jeep, we probably would've ended up at the same parking garage.

Damage to the Jeep wasn't much -- nothing visible, even. The only problem was the swinging spare tire wouldn't quite click anymore.


Damage to the Subaru was a little more obvious. The hood was a bit crumpled.


We went to the collision reporting centre and filled out the appropriate paperwork. I don't even remember how I got back downtown after that.

Eventually I made it to Jimmy's stag party in the north end of Toronto. And as you can surmise from the notes above, it was kinda weak. Mostly old guys sitting around playing cards. There was a 50/50 draw, with someone winning a lawnmower. I was honored to be invited, though. Jim was a helluva guy and his death in 2002 was hard to take.


To make matters worse with regard to crashing the company car, the following Monday when I had to take the car to the north-end dealership for repairs, I gouged up the car parked beside me with the sharp edge of the crumpled hood. That made me feel even stupider than the first collision.


I haven't driven many times since then. I mean, sure, I've driven. I've even rented a car and driven it around. But I'm still not a particularly *experienced* driver, even ten years later.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Does my computer work? Here's a hint -- no it doesn't

That's sort of a lie.

I talked to Ravi at Microsoft for a few hours on Sunday and didn't manage to get the damned thing working right. Reinstalled Windows XP Pro -- again, this is the release-day version -- and got the activation issue handled, but I couldn't do a GD thing with the machine because of a can't-find-entry-point error of some kind. Ravi made an appointment for Tuesday night at 9 for a next-level guy to call.

So Sanjeev and I hacked at the thing 'til 1am. I re-re-installed XP, applied SP2, he ran the remote helper thingy, ran a script to give me explicit superduperuser access to my own PC, used microtweezers to extract the shattered remnants of Norton Internet Security from the PC ... and it looks like it's back to a working state. Sort of.

Now I can get to the desktop and all my stuff appears to be there.

But it's hard to be sure because my mouse no longer works! None of the USB works! Okay, this'll probably be easy to fix -- I'm going to try uninstalling all the USB drivers, rebooting and hope XP smartens up on awakening.

After all this, I'm thinking of doing a thorough backup, making a list of all the programs I actually use, and wiping the whole C: clean to start fresh.

That, and try this Ubuntu thing I read about in a computer magazine I borrowed from my dad.

It's hard for me to hate Microsoft when they've borne about 9 hours of long-distance charges from India to help me. In reality it's probably Symantec's fault that Norton Internet Security put a poison deathgrip on my registry when I uninstalled it the first time.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

But that's not all I did on vacation ...

The proposal/engagement was a big deal, yeah, but that's not all that happened on the two-week summer vacation.

We started out with a plane trip to Ontario, (on Air Canada with the new seat-back video screens -- nice addition) spending part of a week with Amanda's family in Bradford. They surprised us with a co-birthday party (mine in August, hers coming up in October) featuring Amanda's sisters Amy and Ruth. Amanda got the other big surprise of the trip, with her folks funding a pending laser eye surgery -- so she'll be able to wear sunglasses year-round and see her alarm clock at night. Very big news.

The Bradford leg featured multiple trips to Marble Slab Creamery. It's an ice cream place featuring super-deluxe-premium ice cream in an assortment of interesting flavours, mixed with premium fixin's on a frozen slab of marble. C'est tres yum, ouais.

We got to watch some Olympic coverage, see video of the cool propane explosion in Toronto, comingle with licky dogs and furry cats, and drive around hell's half-acre looking for a decent spot to sight the Perseids meteor shower (no luck on that one). Amanda got some good heart-to-heart time with her mom, and I got a chance to ask her stepdad's permission for the proposal in an old-fashioned way.

We hustled off to Stratford for the my-family leg of the tour -- a quick howdy to my mom, my dad and my sister and her family for the night, then on the Friday we were off to Toronto.

Amanda had lunch with her mom and drove east of Toronto for an afternoon with her aunt. I took the subway down to my old neighbourhood of Yonge and Eglinton to see what was cooking. They're building an addition on the apartment building where I used to live -- looks like I got out at just the right time. And the huge Minto Towers are ... well ... huge. I dropped in for a quick visit with the folks at 680News, then met Sandra downtown for lunch. It's always good to see my old friend Sandra -- we've known each other for nearly half our lives now. We've seen each other grow up, make mistakes, mature, make mistakes, evolve and so on. She's doing great things with bees and co-operative gardening in addition to her day job and excellent life as a homeowner with long-time boyfriend Byron. The day was capped off with a delicious meal of Greek food on the Danforth.

Back to Stratford for more visiting with my sister Shannon, hubby Chris and my nephew Ewan. Gosh, they're a great family. I know she's three years younger than me, but for so many years, she's been light years ahead of me on the journey of life. I'm so proud of her. I got to have a heart-to-heart with her while Amanda visited with her sisters in London. Lots of good eatin' and good laughin' in Stratford. Also visited with my mom and dad -- and I'm happy to report that mom seems to be doing better than anyone can remember for a long time. Keep up the good work!

And then ... then we hit New York City! I guess I'll save some of that for another post.

I just want to thank everyone who made the Ontario portion of the trip so memorable. Some great people generously allowed us into their homes and made us comfortable. We have two terrific families and lots of good friends. I hope to see you all again soon!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Big Ass Superstar engaged to marry

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: (August 25, 2008)

"Vacation turns to engagement for Halifax blogger"
HALIFAX, NS -- BigAssSuperstar.com wishes to congratulate founder and editor Scott Simpson on his engagement to long-time girlfriend Amanda on 08-20-2008 in New York City.

Mr. Simpson crafted an intricate plot to propose to Amanda in front of the scrolling marquee outside Hershey's Times Square. After feeding her extensive misinformation leading her to believe a proposal might be coming atop Manhattan's famous Empire State Building, Scott led her to 48th and Broadway with the promise of a genuine American chocolate bar.

After exiting the store with chocolate, Amanda was caught off guard when Scott began recording a "video postcard," then handed his camcorder off to an apparent stranger. He pulled out a Canadian flag identical to one the couple had been given by soldiers on Paris' Champs-Elysees on the 60th anniversary of D-Day during their landmark European vacation.

"This flag represents the trips we've taken around the world," said Simpson to a confused Amanda. "And I look forward to taking many more trips around the sun together."

Scott directed Amanda's attention to the pixelboard marquee at the Hershey's store, which showed modified lyrics from a Cub song called New York City, for which Simpson was shooting his own BigAssSuperstar video:

"The streets are paved with diamonds and there's just so much to see;
But the best thing about New York City is ... Marry me?"


Turning around in surprise, she found Mr. Simpson on bended knee with a solitaire engagement ring. She said yes.

The couple emerged from their reverie to discover a second man photographing the unfolding events with a digital SLR. It was then revealed that the photographer and videographer were not strangers. They had been contacted through craigslist for the purpose of capturing the proposal.

Big Ass Superstar extends thanks to NYC photographer Mike Dote and his father for their help in making this event possible, Graeme Ross at Fire Works Gallery for custom-crafting a beautiful ring, Dunhill Cafe & Catering for cooking a tasty and economical breakfast, and family and friends for keeping the scheme under wraps until the big reveal.

The couple has not set a date for the wedding, although considering that the proposal happened on 08-20-2008, Mr. Simpson suggests 09-20-2009 or 09-09-2009 would be easiest to remember.

BigAssSuperstar.com is a Halifax-based blog featuring writing by Scott Simpson on a variety of topics including personal finance, fitness, fatness, technology and miscellany. Mr. Simpson can be contacted through the e-mail link on the blog. Amanda is perpetually available on the social networking web site Facebook.com.

###

More video and photos will be available at a later date, pending repair of the BAS Stallion computer. Until then, enjoy a selection of Mike Dote's photos of the event.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On turning 35

Well, I turned 35 yesterday.

And it's occurred to me that I'm really glad I've spent the last few years making a concerted effort to "grow up" -- 'cuz I'd sure feel like an idiot turning such a grown-up age as 35 if my life were in the same state as it was, say, when I was 30. I feel much more like my life matches my age now than I did at any other landmark birthday.

For reflections on other recent birthdays, see my 2006 thoughts on turning 33 and my 2006 post about birthday wishes. Looks like I didn't write a birthday post last year.

---

Big Ass Summer Vacation Tour 2008 is under way. We're in Bradford Ontario right now, heading to Stratford tomorrow afternoon to dine and BBQ with my sister's family and our parents. Friday takes me to Toronto to visit with Sandra as Amanda sees her aunt. Then back to Stratford for the weekend, and Tuesday we're on to New York City!
Thanks to Barb and Wendall for their patience and generous hospitality so far, and to the rest of the crew: we'll see you soon with much love.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Is this why people buy Macs?

The Stallion is in quarantine.

My main home computer is unusable right now, pending help from Microsoft.

I canned Norton Internet Security after almost two years of saying 'no' to paying for virus updates. I installed Avast! anti-virus software instead.

I don't know why, but Windows woke up and said hey! You've changed so much since first validating Windows that we need you to validate Windows again within three days. I figured that would be no big deal -- it's a legit copy of Windows XP Professional. I got it the day they launched it at the freakin' launch party hosted by Microsoft. It's real, so I expected no problem.

But problem is what I got. The Activate Windows program window opened up a window frame ... and did nothing. The hard drive chugged and chugged, but nothing happened. The program showed as "Not Responding" in Task Manager.

Okay, no big deal, right? Reboot. Same problem.

Check the web for help. Find some Microsoft knowledge base stuff about tweaking the registry and deleting some files and copying new copies of possibly corrupted files. Reboot. Same problem.

'K, this is getting lame. I call Microsoft. They listen to my problem and put me over to the Activation Centre. The Activation Centre is an automated system that tells me to run the Activate Windows program. Oh, bloody hell.

I figure, maybe if I just hang back and let this program chug away, it'll get somewhere. After about half an hour, it tells me that a script is running slowly and may make the computer unstable if I let it keep going. If I say yes, the program stops. If I say no, the chugging keeps going and nothing happens.

Crap.

So I posted a detailed request on the MS support page. Meantime, time is ticking down for my three days. Within 24 hours, Johnny Microsoft (not his real name) gets back to me and says:

From your description, I understand that The Activate Windows program always 'Not Responding.' No matter what method used. When checking relevant KB articles and other posts, you got some messages and the error code 0x80070002 was received. If I have misunderstood your concern, please do not hesitate to let me know.


Johnny said I should run the Activation program and follow the onscreen instructions. I told Johnny Microsoft that yes, he had misunderstood my concern. I made no mention of such an error code. And the whole point is that running the Activation program does nothing but chug at the hard drive and there *are* no on-screen instructions.

Well, that's the last I heard from Microsoft.

On day three of three, I noticed that my HD was pretty much full. I found a 9.12 GB (!!!) file in C:\WINDOWS called seuptlog.txt. Oh, that's not good. I erased it and tried some more.

I was able to conclude that:
- msoobe.exe seems to be the problem program
- the program is writing an endless series of repeating lines in the setuplog.txt file. The repeating sequence is:

08062008 084856.921,dxpspbasentsetupoobemsobmainapi.cpp,1023,,
SOFTWAREMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionSetupOOBECKPT TOS08062008 084856.921,dxpspbasentsetupoobemsobmainapi.cpp,999,,
DISPID_API_GET_REGVALUE 08062008 084856.921,dxpspbasentsetupoobemsobmainapi.cpp,1023,,
SOFTWAREMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionSetupOOBECKPT 008062008 084856.921,dxpspbasentsetupoobemsobmainapi.cpp,963,,
DISPID_API_SET_REGVALUE 08062008 084856.921,dxpspbasentsetupoobemsobmainapi.cpp,987,,
SOFTWAREMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionSetupOOBECKPT, TOS
08062008 084856.921,dxpspbasentsetupoobemsobmainapi.cpp,1035,,
DISPID_API_DELETEREGVALUE
08062008 084856.921,dxpspbasentsetupoobemsobmainapi.cpp,999,,
DISPID_API_GET_REGVALUE


- it appears that msoobe.exe is trying to delete a registry value but is unable to
- I, also, through regedit, am unable to edit this registry value. It won't let me
- also, Microsoft is pissing me off.

Well, the three days have expired. The Stallion is locked up. Windows won't let me do anything other than start in Safe Mode. Well, I *can* start normally -- if I choose to Activate Windows, which, as we've learned, starts the window to nowhere and fills up C: with a crap log file. Now I can't print -- I think Stallion is my print spooler on the network. I can't finish the song I'm working on. I can't edit video. I can't do anything!

Where's Johnny Microsoft? Sure, they promise a response within 24 hours. I got that response -- the wrong response -- and that's all.

If he writes back and says -- oh, just try reinstalling Windows -- I don't know what shade of purple I'll turn.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Vacation Headache #1 - solved

I spent some time working the phones with the car rental agencies last night. National, Alamo, Enterprise, Avis, Thrifty, Dollar, Budget.

Some of them were helpful -- I talked to National-Alamo's call centre for a while, and the woman was trying to be very helpful. Matt at Laguardia was a decent chap, but couldn't quite believe that it was illegal for me to drive a US rental car into Canada. Matt in Bangor, Maine was likewise accomodating. The fellas in Portland, Maine were polite but less trying-hard.

Budget's toll-free line got me Roger in Fredericton -- nice to talk to a friendly maritimer.

I called Thrifty and got a woman who was ... a pain. I called Dollar and got the same woman!

It was all ultimately futile. Nobody could set us up with a Canadian-plated car to drive from NYC to Halifax.

So we looked at other options.

Train? No go.

Bus? We don't have a hunting knife. (Too soon?)

American rental driven half-way and switched to a Canadian car? Not doable.

Rental driven to Portland or Bar Harbour, then the Cat fast ferry to Yarmouth, then a bus or something to head home? Just too complicated and too expensive. The Portland-Yarmouth ferry is $99/person +$10 border fee, and the only departure is, IIRC, 8am. Just too much hassle.

We briefly considered renting an American to drive the rental car across the border, but figured that could lead to complications beyond our tolerance.

So ... I pitched a new plan ... stay an extra night in NYC and fly home.

Problem was, our hotel couldn't accomodate us for an extra night.

No bother. I hacked away at the keyboard and did some math. Came up with a new hotel for the extra night, worked out a reasonably-priced flight on Delta, and wrote it all down. Ran it past Amanda, who doesn't deserve to be this stressed-out on her first week of vacation, and got the approval.

Booked. Done. Fixed.

An extra day in NYC for about $140 more than flying home the day before. Good deal.

Now we just have to figure how to get to Newark, NJ to get home to YHZ!

Thanks to all the people who suggested strategies for our vacation endgame! And impersonal man-to-computer thanks to Google, Expedia and Orbitz for their assistance today.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Vacation headache #1

Our plan was to fly to Ontario, do the Ontario thing, then fly to New York, do the NYC thing, then rent a car in NYC and drive back to Halifax through Maine and New Brunswick.

Amanda set up the car rental a few weeks ago with National-Alamo, and the only outstanding thing to settle was the discount rate offered through my employer. When sorting *that* out today, the customer service gentleman said he'd heard that Canada Border Services Agency seized American rental cars at the border.

Sounded fishy, but I just called CBSA and they say that's correct.

It's illegal for a Canadian to drive a car with American plates in Canada. So they'd seize the car and give me an ouchy fine.

Alternative solutions that sound good (and by good, I mean in theory, not that I feel sufficiently smart at this exact second to make them work):

- drive a rental from NYC to some border town, then walk, hike, skip or swim across the border to Canadian border town and pick up another rental; or, drive a rental to a border town that deals with these confounded CBSA issues and may have a stock of Canadian cars on the lot
- arrange some kind of car-sharing deal through one of those fuzzy-wuzzy Internet drive-my-car boards
- break down and buy plane tickets from NYC to Halifax. Boo! We wanna shop in Bangor and have a nice night in a Bangor hotel

Helpful (?!) links:
- Car Rental in the USA and Canada (independent site from 2004 -- doesn't mention my plight)
- A message board post at canadavista.com
- Novacarhire.com says so, too

Monday, August 4, 2008

How's that diet going, anyway?

It's been almost a month since I stumbled upon the Hacker's Diet in a pre-weekend fit of self-flagellation over my weight. How's it all going? Well, here's my chart as produced by physicsdiet.com:



The points are my daily weigh-ins. The top wavy line is the rolling weighted average. The straight line is the trend line.

This shows a slow but steady weight loss of 1.39 pounds per week, courtesy of a daily caloric deficit of nearly 700 calories.

This has not been difficult. I have not been exercising all that often -- taekwondo about once a week, walking home most days ('cept for the past week), and regrettably I've yet to ride my bike -- though I did buy a tire pump last weekend while on an excursion away from Amanda's hospital bedside. There's room for more drastic weight loss, but I'm off to a steady start so far.

Some difficulty will be introduced in one week when the Big Ass Summer Tour 2008 begins. We'll be hitting Bradford for a bit, then Stratford, with a day trip to Toronto, back to Stratford and eventually on to New York City and a return haul through Maine and New Brunswick. I'll be away from my regular scale, so any weight measurements I can manage to take will likely vary a little from my regular. But the benefit of the rolling average is that little variations in the weight from Foreign Scale Syndrome may be smoothed out. It still won't correct fluctuations caused by Eating While On Vacation Disorder.