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I've been away from work for two weeks, the longest single vacation I've taken in years, possibly ever.

I've been checking up on office email via my mobile from time to time, sometimes to see if there's any emergency which concerns me, but mostly to trim out the crap so I'm not overwhelmed with 1500 emails the moment I step back into work. I dislike surprises so I wanted to keep abreast of any developments. A lot of peace of mind can be bought for only ten minutes per day.

So far today, I've just been taking care of some outstanding tickets and minor issues which have been ignored in my absence. There is one server issue which has been generating an email message every two minutes for a week now... I'm unsure how that one was ignored all this time but I'll have that fixed shortly.

The HR folks have been busy. The official unlimited vacation policy is now in place, along with the steps for implementation on Sept 15, 2017. To clean up the bank of outstanding vacation days before that start date, the firm is officially shutting down for the week of Thanksgiving and the week of Christmas this year, and the week of Labour Day next year. That wipes out 15 vacation days, whether I want to or not.

I have no concerns though about the compelled vacation. Even after taking two weeks off, I have eight vacation days left in the bank. And with my seniority, I get another 20 vacation days before the policy starts. Even with the forced burn, I'll still have 13 vacation days leftover. Further bonus: the company shutdown days are exactly the date ranges I was planing for anyway.

Since my extra vacation days won't be cashed out, I'll find other uses. I still need to set aside days for my grandmother's upcoming 90th birthday in April, 2017, as well as for the IAGSDC convention in Palm Springs around July 4, 2017.


London Highlights

It's been 10 days of touring so far, and I should write a few notes about the highlights (and lowlights).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our tours are done. Saturday morning, ten hours from now, we depart our hotel and head to Heathrow for our flight home.


London Translations

I knew about some words which needed translation between Canadia (and American) English and British English but a few caught me off guard. Sure, I knew lorrie is a truck, crisps are cookies and mates are friends. There were some surprises...

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

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

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

I'll add more as I recall them.


London, WTF?

Dear London:
Why do you have Pret A Manger on every street? What is this obsession? Not even the US has this many Starbucks.


London, Installment #1

Landing on Wednesday, we did little more than walk around our immediate neighbourhood, then take the hop-on/hop-off bus tours. The bus tours themselves took many hours as street traffic is beyond deplorable. Still, we got to see a lot of places and get a general lay of the land while not pushing our sleep-deprived selves too hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow: The Churchill War Rooms and Westminster Palace tours.


Observations on London

It's been a great trip so far... so many things to see and do! And naturally, so much history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We still have a week to go so there's still so much more to see & experience!


Gym Judginess

I try to be non-judgmental at the gym, but some days my resolve is weaker than circumstances require.

I've been going to the same LA Fitness for over three years, more than long enough to know the regulars and spot the newbies. I hardly notice the muscle-bound guys: I'm focused on my routines, they're focused entirely on theirs, and outside of a greeting glance or patiently waiting for equipment to be available, there's no interaction.

The newbies are easy to spot: they're unsure which equipment they should use next, how precisely to use something new, where to set the seat height, how much weight to configure, etc., not to mention the unspoken etiquette of the gym. They usually watch intently from the sides to see how a regular is using the equpiment then make their way over when the machine is free. I feel for them: it's a daunting environment but I'm so glad they found the courage to at least try. I sometimes offer to help, but I'm also sometimes wary that I might easily scare off the timid. And what they really need is a full workout plan in advance so they can use time on the floor to actually work out rather than mull over the finer points.

Every day, there are people with obvious weight issues feebly lifting weights lighter than my gym bag. My five-year-old self makes ugly jokes, but my mature self recognizes these are people who are working to improve their health and they are to be supported & helped, even if that support just means letting them alone to do their thing. When I started, I couldn't lift heavy either (some would say I still can't... it's relative). Everyone starts somewhere, and some have a longer road to walk than others. I respect their efforts, give them their space and, if we're working similar routines, ensure they get first right of refusal on any equipment I might want to use. And say hi should we make eye contact.

There are the fashion queens & failures. There are a handful with the latest day-glo branded fashions for the gym, always freshly pressed and fitted. There are also a bunch with either no sense of appropriate clothing for the gym or simply don't own any. Here's a hint: jeans and a polo shirt aren't good clothes to select for your workout.

There are the ultra shy folks. I can understand some people are so uptight about nudity (esp their own) that they want to change as quickly as possible and escape the locker room, but it's frankly wierd that anyone would go into the showers fully dressed, doubly so for going into the steam room. Who taught them to be so ashamed of their own body? It's time to unlearn that, whatever kind of body one has.

And then there are some particular characters at my gym...

There are the Smash Brothers. They either use equipment as props while they chat for hours or use the equipment so hard it breaks. These are the guys who load up a machine to a massive weight, push to their extreme, then simply drop the weight at peak, letting the weights fall to the floor or to the machine's rest state. "We're working to failure," they claim. Wrong: working to failure means to exert to the point where one can no longer complete a rep *with good form*. It does not mean complete loss of control. A loud clang or thud should only be heard in cases of medical emergency, not as part of one's regular workout. I ascribe much of the floor damage and out-of-order equpiment to these guys or people like them. They're the reason our gym fees go up.

There's Potion Guy. He brings a duffle bag of his personal workout equipment and a second duffle bag of various protein powders & supplements. He also maintains three lockers in the men's locker room, stuffed with equipment & supplies. He typically takes more than an hour and all counter space in the locker room to mix all of his supplements, drinks, slurries, cleanses and lord knows what else. In all these years, I've never actually seen him on the gym floor working out, just mixing in the locker room. I suspect that if I ever wanted some illicit performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals, he'd be the go-to guy. Now that I think of it, he's pretty chummy with the more muscular regulars...

And there's Kitten. I don't know his real name but he's mid-thirties, 5'4", nice build and totally adorable. I want to adopt him, he's just so precious!

MusclePuppy is also adorable. Again, about 5'4", tiny waist but broad shoulders giving him that classic V torso we'd all strive for if genetics allowed. MP is extremely sociable and says hi to everyone in the gym everytime he works out. He's also very, very christian so he tosses in a few blessings in his rounds. He does seem to be a geniunely nice guy and is easy on the eyes so I chat with him periodically because, yes, I'm that shallow.

And SuperModel. He's about 6'3", slim build, perhaps 5% body fat, thick black wavy hair always perfectly styled. If he doesn't work as a model, he should. SM has his particular supersets and well-defined routines, a mix of cardio and weight lifting. While I'm frequently frustrated by equipment left helter-skelter around the gym, I've come to recognize which are random distributions and which are merely waiting for SuperModel to make a return trip in the next part of his workout cycle. At least he does put his equipment back when he's done and doesn't get territorial about others using those pieces while he's in other parts of his superset.

There are many other special characters, more than I could write here. I'm glad though they're no wierder than they are.


Comprehending Human Time Scale

Yesterday, on a whim, I posted a photo on Facebook for Throwback Thursday, a pic from a time in my past. Many found it amusing because I've changed a lot over the following years: I've lost most of my hair, what I have is more grey than brown (esp the beard), the glasses are a bit dated, and wow, I could wear a pair of tight jeans!

In the hours following, I took a closer look at the photo and came to some moderately disturbing conclusions.
  1. That photo was from July 2, 1992, I would have been 25 at the time. I'm now only a few months away from my 50th birthday so that pic was taken when I was half my current age.
  2. I've had my mustache since the summer of 1985. That makes it 31 years since my upper lip has seen the light of day.
  3. My chin has been bearded since February, 1991: 25 years. (My cheeks were covered from Feb 1991 until July 2000 when I trimmed down to a goatee; I've since grown out the full beard again but can't recall the precise date that happened.)
  4. I still have that watch although I don't wear it any longer.
  5. I still wear glasses, but I got my first contact lenses about a week after that photo, giving me an option on corrective eyewear. Of course, these days both my glasses & contacts are bifocals...
  6. At the time of the photo, I was living in Toronto, maintaining Sun Microsystems equipment for Psychology, University of Toronto. Sun is now a division of Oracle; I'm still maintaining Sun servers albeit newer systems in private industry rather than academia.
  7. John Schrag and I were renting a condo at 15 McMurrich Street, Toronto, but we had become joint homeowners of 222 Berkeley Street (Dundas & Parliament, Toronto) about a week before that photo was taken. Several years later, I sold my share to John as I moved to the US. John later sold that townhouse and now co-owns a house with his husband Chris near Pape & Danforth in Toronto.
  8. In another 1.5 months, it will be 20 years since I moved to the US. It doesn't seem that long ago.

On one hand, it's been a long & crazy ride. On the other, it doesn't seem that long. And I keep thinking, is that all there is/was?

Star Trek Recovery

We saw the latest movie in the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Beyond, on Sunday. General review: Not bad, to my surprise.

I hated the first movie. Beyond what I thought was a calculated snub to Gene Roddenberry and his vision, it simply had so many internal contradictions from bad script writing that watching it makes me cringe even as the endless lens flares make me nauseated. I'm willing to accept some contrivances for the purposes of science fiction (eg. warp drive, artificial gravity, etc.) but I can't ignore stunningly obvious problems (eg. Spock watching the destruction of Vulcan as though he were sitting on a nearby asteroid rather than in another star system several light-years away).

Star Trek Into Darkness was a bit better but tried far too hard to shoe in elements from The Wrath of Khan. It had a couple of nice twists but again it fell down where the physical universe just wouldn't cooperate with film-making: if the Enterprise was crippled some 230,000km from Earth and so close to the moon (visible in the background), it was more likely to fall to the moon than Earth. Even if it did fall towards Earth, it would take days to drift into the atmosphere rather than less than five minutes. I could go on for several pages more, but you get the drift.

Star Trek Beyond had better timing and some good plot twists. We also had some relatively good character development so a few characters finally seemed to be fully-fleshed people instead of two dimentional cardboard replacements of actors from the original TV series.
Spoilers below!Collapse )
And finally, the biggest mystery of all: Why does anyone keep giving James Kirk ships? Has he ever returned one intact? Seriously, I would not lend the man a pen, let alone a car.

Still, it was overall engaging and I can close my eyes for the most egregious issues. And it seemed much truer to Gene's vision than the prior two installments. I think this one could even earn his endorsement if he was still alive. Well done.


Dore Alley Virgin No More!

My office has great timing. hey summonned me to San Francisco for the week of July 25 on annoyingly short notice, but there was a death in the family of my teammate so I was needed in the office while he tended to the funeral in Texas. And then there was the Dore Alley leather festival the following weekend, the day before I was to fly home. So everybody wins --except for Matt's dead relative, I guess.

The leather festival itself was fun, and I'm glad I was there. I felt a little out of place at first as I had packed no leather gear. Practically nothing fits anymore because of the weight lifting & gym work, but I resisted as it takes too much space in a suitcase that contained business clothes for a week. But apparently, jeans, going shirtless and wearing a baseball cap is sufficient to blend in with much of the crowd. How far can you get with just a friendly smile and a hairy chest? Well, pretty far, apparently! :-)

I knew a handful of people: Jeb, Andy, Sam, Chris, Gord, etc., so I wasn't completely on my own. The crowds became pretty overwhelming by 2:30pm so I kept pretty much to the sidelines. And I was out too long so I did get a mild sunburn despite my efforts to stay in shaded areas.

On the unsuspecting side, I got a lot of compliments from complete strangers. One guy said I was the perfect daddy. Another told me his boyfriend was too shy to say but that the BF thought I was the hotest man at the festival and would I be willing to be in a photo with him? A few others asked to take my picture, or approached me following to say that he had snapped a pic and thank me for being there. Many others grinned at eye contact or casually brushed a hand across my chest in passing, or a quick (or not so quick) grope. One guy asked if I would drop my jeans for a cock shot; anytime else, probably not, but hey, it's Dore Alley so I'm happy to please.

It's so nice when people ask to take a photo, especially when it's (IMHO) completely unnecessary: if you don't want your photo taken in a public street while doing various activities in public, you probably should question your concept of public vs private. I figure that if I'm wandering about in the street for all to see, no one needs my permission.

And it was nice to see Jo and his new girlfriend Cindy at the end of the festival and spend some time chatting with them at a nearby cafe. Jo is such a sweetheart hunk and he seems very happy right now, which makes me feel great too. And Cindy is a blast as well... I like her!

I'm glad I attended but I'm not sure I'd make special plans to do so in future unless I knew I could attend with a handful of friends. It's a bit lonely being one in such a crowd despite the sights & sounds. It would be better with a few extras.