Saturday, March 31, 2007

Adventures in New Jersey

Our first night of curling was, shall we say, less than stellar. We lost in spectacular fashion, no doubt attributed to our incredibly poor team play. Our second game wasn't until Friday night, so during the day on Friday we took the opportunity to explore New Jersey. One of the other people I came down here with has some friends who live in Western New Jersey so we went out and visited them. We ate lunch in the nice little town of Clinton, NJ. I took quite a few pictures of the adventure, and once those get up it will be a bit more interesting.

Eventually we made it back and played our second game, which we played far better than the first game, but ultimately came up short in the last end. After two losses, it was time to win. So today (Saturday) at noonish we played our third game which we played spectacularly well and won. Now we're relaxing back at the hotel before we go back to play our next game at 6:45pm. Tonight is also the big pig roast, vegetarians need not apply. This annual event we're playing in is called the Plainfield BonSqueal, the highlight of which is the pig roast feast on Saturday night. I must say, it's starting to smell mighty tasty outside the curling club now.

Last night on the east coast, then back home Sunday evening. Just when I've finally gotten adjusted to Eastern time, I'll have to shift 3 hours back again. Monday's going to be one great day at work.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Whirlwind tour of NYC

After spending Wednesday travelling on what felt like a relatively short 5-hour flight direct from Seattle to Newark, today we don't have our first curling match until 9:30pm or so. So we ventured into the Big Apple for a whirlwind touristy tour of NYC.

We headed over to the Edison, NJ train station and took the train into the city. About 45 minutes later we arrived at Penn Station in New York City. Really, we had very few actual plans for our day, deciding rather to just go with the flow and see what we find. This worked out well, until we decided to actually try to find specific things and were thwarted at every turn. :)

From Penn Station we ventured north, past Macy's and on up to Times Square--not as thrilling as it looks on TV. After we saw what we needed there, we continued on up to Rockefeller Center and decided to take the tour up to the observation deck at the Top of the Rock. From there we had a spectacular view of the city, in all directions. We took lots of pictures, and tried to avoid being blown over by the high winds up on the roof. After that we decided to try to go out to the Statue of Liberty. Here's where the plans started to go awry.

A lady at 30 Rock told us to walk two blocks over to 49th and 7th and catch the R subway train down to the water. This we handled with relative ease. Once we were there we walked along the water until we made it to the mayhem of the Statue of Liberty ferries. Ultimately, we could easily get on a ferry out to the island, but there was no chance of actually going into the Statue of Liberty because all the tickets were gone. Apparently while it costs money to take the ferry out to Liberty Island, the actual tickets to go inside the statue are free, since it's a National Monument. Had we known this, we could have reserved tickets online before we left, but we knew not. After decided it probably wouldn't be worth it to just go over to the island, we instead decided to go visit the USS Intrepid museum, where the WWII aircraft carrier the Intrepid is docked. We took the #1 subway train back up to Times Square, then walked for what seemed to be an eternity (but in actuality about a mile) over to the water where the museum was. Continuing our bad luck, little did we know that the Intrepid museum closed back in October for a 2-year rehab. Ouch, that hurt.

Having had enough of that, we walked back to Penn Station (about a mile and a half adventure) and caught the first train back to New Jersey. That brings us to now, and it's resting time. It was fun, though definitely looking to have a plan of more things to do next time I come to NYC. This was a good once over to get my bearings and understand how the city is laid out and all fits together.

Tonight is our first game... hopefully we still can curl after those miles and miles of walking. Woohoo.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Write it on your hand!

Ever have one of those days where you just seem to forget everything? I'm having one of those weeks already, and when you're getting ready to go on vacation for the rest of the week, forgetting things isn't high on your list of things to do.

Yesterday I had 3 different things I was supposed to do, all of which I completely forgot about. None too critical, I guess, but still just stuff that makes me rework things later to make it all fit.

Then this morning I somehow came to work and left my cell phone at home. So this is probably the least of my worries, but it just feels like I'm missing something without it.

Oh... wait a second... there it is. I just had forgotten which pocket I put my cell phone in. Well, now I'm just an idiot. See how easily I could have just gone back and deleted that last paragraph and you wouldn't be the wiser? But no, because I'm here for you, my avid blog readers, and I wouldn't want to let you down. :)

There are several things I have to remember before I leave for New Jersey tomorrow. One of which is that I don't have an e-ticket, but rather a free paper ticket I'm using from a previous bump on Alaska. Must not forget that... maybe I should write it on my hand. But will that really do anything? I never look at my hand anyway, so how am I supposed to use that to remember? Anyone have a good way to remember things? I forgot all of mine.

Monday, March 26, 2007

It only took a month...

I hope you're sitting down... I don't want you to be too shocked, but I finally have my vacation pictures from California online. It only took a month or so... that's pretty good I guess. :)

Joe's Photo Album

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Twelve Angry Men

Broadway doesn't always mean musicals. This is the perfect example. Tonight I attended a performance of Twelve Angry Men, the story of a jury dileberating on a death-penalty homicide case. Picture if you will... one scene, no music, no intermission, and an hour and a half of non-stop dialogue. It was quite an interesting show, and oddly capivating despite the fact that I'm much more interested in the musical theatre, which this definitely was not.

The jury foreman was played by George Wendt, who will probably forever be better known as Norm from Cheers. I think everyone in the theatre was collectively ready to yell "Norm!" as soon as he walked in the door of the jury room, but fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) no one did.

The show had all the drama of a Law and Order episode, complete with emotional outbursts and characters you love to hate. The story alone, however, was pretty predictable once you got your bearings and figured out where it was headed. This would have made for a rather boring show, except for the outstanding acting. All twelve jurors were absolutely amazing, without any weak links whatsoever.

Ratings for this will be short and to the point, yet somewhat counterintuitive.

Cast - 5 stars. These are top-notch actors with a top-notch performance.
Script - 3 stars. A good story, but the strength is really in the character depth.
Overall - 2 stars. It was a good show, but I probably wouldn't go see it again, nor would I have sought it out had I not had season tickets. Ironically enough, the overall rating wasn't saved by the strong marks for cast and script.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Monopoly Money

[This is going to be one of my rare educational blogs where I provide useful information which I have synthesized from across the vast resources of the Internet.]

It's not often I travel outside the US, so until California falls into the ocean and starts printing its own currency, I don't have to worry much about exchanging money. But as the avid readers of my blog may have inferred, I don't like wasting money, or giving more money to "the man" than I absolutely have to. So on my recent trip to Canada, I examined the several ways to pay using their 'monopoly money' (either cash or electronic), to determine the most fiscally-responsible way to beat the system.

There are three main ways to pay for things internationally, cash, debit card (check card), or credit card. As anywhere else in the world, cash is king... assuming you have the local currency in hand. Once you have it, you're all set. Everyone accepts it, and you don't have to worry any more about exchange fees. But how do you get it? There are several options:

1) Exchange your currency for their currency. This is good, in principle, until you look at the rates. Consumer exchange rates are ridiculously high compared to the wholesale exchange rates banks use. For example, last weekend when I was in Canada, the US dollar had a wholesale rate of about .85USD/CAD, but the consumer exchange rate (what you'll likely pay if you walk in off the street) was over .92USD/CAD, a difference of about 7 cents on the dollar! In the short run for small things, probably doesn't make a huge difference, but in the long run, ouch!

$100 CAD = $92.00 USD

If you really want to have the cash in hand as soon as you arrive, you might consider changing it before you go. At home through your bank or online, you'll have the flexibility to shop around for the best rate. You're still going to be paying the inflated consumer rates though. Non-cash options include pre-paid cards (like Visa Travel Money) you load up with money before you go. Though they sound good in principle, but they kill you with fees. First a fee to get the card, then more fees for using it at ATMs, plus the standard exchange fees when using the card. Still a good option if you need lots of money that's safer than carrying around lots of cash, but if you already have a credit/debit card, I'd stay away from it. As far as Traveller's Cheques go, yuck. You'll pay the exchange rates either when you buy them or cash them, plus who uses cheques anymore? People will look at you funny. Cash is king, remember.

2) Use your US ATM card at their ATM. Depending on your bank, you'll pay a flat International ATM Fee, plus a International Transaction Fee for converting the money. For myself with Bank of America, that adds up to a flat $5 USD for the ATM fee, plus 1% of the USD conversion amount for the transaction fee. HOWEVER, you're taking the conversion at the bank wholesale rate. At a Canadian ATM:

$100 CAD = $85 USD + $5 fee + $0.85 (1% fee) = $90.85 USD

This equates to an actual rate of around .91USD/CAD, still cheaper than I could do converting cash. Fees vary widely among banks, and it's really hard to find the right information short of calling your bank and asking them what their fees are. One added bonus with Bank of America is that they are a member of the Global ATM Alliance, which is an alliance between banks in the US, Canada, Mexico, UK, France, China and Australia/New Zealand, allowing fee-free ATM use among those banks. In Canada, the alliance member is Scotiabank... so I could use my BofA card in one of their ATMs and get cash for only the 1% conversion fee.

$100 CAD = $85 USD + $0.85 (1% fee) = $85.85 USD

This roughly .86USD/CAD rate is far and beyond the best you're going to be able to do internationally to convert cash. [Note: Bank of America is very vague as to whether or not the 1% fee is charged for Global ATM Alliance withdrawals. I'm assuming it is, and it's just the $5 fee that's waived, just since past experience is that BofA isn't up on giving up too much money.]

3) Use your US credit card to take cash out. This is a bad idea in the US, let alone internationally. Most credit cards charge up to a 3% fee for the conversion, plus cash advance fees and instant interest. I won't even bother with the numbers, it's so ridiculous.

Once you have local currency in your hands, you're all set. But make sure you don't convert more than you need, because the only way to get the cash back to USD is to pay the consumer conversion rates I outlined before. Better off saving it for your next trip, or if you're not going back anytime soon, go on a souvenir shopping spree.

But what if you need to pay for bigger things, perhaps a hotel, or other expensive things that you don't want to pay with large wads of cash. Just like back home, plastic is a good option. But again, most people have multiple options here too:

1) Use your credit card. Visa or Mastercard are accepted in all the civilized parts of the world. Your exchange rate will be the wholesale rate plus a fixed percentage assessed by your card issuer. Most banks charge between 1% - 3% for this fee. My Bank of America card is 3% on international transactions:

$100 CAD = $85 USD + $2.55 (3% fee) = $87.55 USD

This is still significantly cheaper than any other option, short of the fee-free ATM that we found above. Card fees vary widely, however. Visa is actually converting the money, and charging the issuing banks 1% to do so, however the banks then "pass the savings on to you" by charging you anywhere from 1-5%. However, some cards, such as Capital One's credit cards, actually absorb the 1% that Visa is charging them, and have completely fee free cards. This means with one of those you would pay:

$100 CAD = $85.00 USD

That's it, just the straight wholesale rate and nothing else. Makes it almost worth it to put one of these cards in your wallet if you are frequently travelling abroad, or plan on taking a long trip.

2) Use your debit/check card. Oddly enough, I found it nearly impossible to find information about this for my BofA card. Some references show this as just the 1% fee, others 3%. As with most of my other data, you just have to try it and look at the numbers to figure it out. Your mileage may vary. Either way, I wouldn't expect it to be any worse than using your credit card, if not better.

In summary, know what you're paying before you go. Ask the right questions to find out the right answers about the fees you'll pay outside the country. Also know where you're going. The guidelines I found really only apply to the industrialized world, and may not apply if you're travelling to the middle of nowhere. As I constantly implore, cash is king, and there's probably few places in the world where you can't use a US greenback. I'd always keep a few dead presidents buried in that secret spot in your wallet in case of emergency. When changing money, everyone's out there to take a piece of the action... make sure they don't take too much of yours.

Monday, March 19, 2007

What's so wrong with a $1 coin?

This will serve double-duty of recapping my past weekend, and promoting the widespread use of the newest $1 coin. The connection will be made clear shortly.

I had a long, yet exciting weekend this past weekend as I went up to Victoria, BC for a curling bonspiel. Though I had to get up at about 4:30am to get out on the road and head up to Canada, at least I didn't have to drive, so it was a much more relaxing trip. We got on the road at about 6:00am and made it to the border by about 7:30am. There was only one lane open at the border crossing, but fortunately since it was so early even at that there were only 2 cars in front of us in line. I went up with three other guys, one of whom is actually Italian and a student doing his graduate research at the UW. As a result, we were stopped at the border and had to go inside so Canadian immigration could check out his paperwork and US Visa. I don't think they were particularly concerned with letting him in, as much as they wanted to make sure the US would let him back in when we came home. All went smoothly, and we made our way up to take the ferry across from Tsawwassen to Vancouver Island.

Curling went well, we managed to win our first game which was nice, but ultimately ended up 2-3 for the weekend. All close matches though, so we were pretty pleased, especially since the Canadian locals were far more adjusted to the ice than we were. (The differences in the ice make a huge impact on the game.) Our hotel was only about 3 blocks from the curling club, so we could walk back and forth as needed. We had a few spare hours one day that we used to walk down to the inner harbor, er, harbour, which was fun. All in all, a good weekend. We had about an hour wait at the border coming home, despite our best efforts to avoid it. We came across the truck crossing instead of the main I-5 Peace Arch crossing, which apparently had about a 2.5 hour wait. Lots of people trying to come down to the US on Sunday afternoon.

As always happens when I go to Canada, I am reminded how great the $1 and $2 coins are. The US is the only major country in the world to still have small-demonination bills in circulation, but oddly enough, most people seem fine with that. Even with the recently improved Presidential $1 coin that is now available, people still aren't using it. Some frequently-cited polls report that something like 75% of the US population prefer the $1 bill to a $1 coin, but I don't buy it. I think it's just we're stubborn and hate change... in every sense of the word. :) I for one rarely carry any change around whatsoever... but in just two days in Canada I adapted and was carrying change with me because I had to, and you know what, it wasn't that bad. Who really needs their grungy $1 bills anyway? Use the coin! I'd use the coin more, but nobody gives them as change ever, and cashiers look at you funny when you give one to them. Really, I think it's just a vocal minority opposed to eliminating the $1 bill (the same minority who are opposed to eliminating the penny, though I don't mind the penny). I say let's get rid of the $50 bill and 50-cent piece while we're at it... talk about a superfluous piece of money.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Amazing Race 11

[spoiler alert - if you're behind on your TiVo watching of Amazing Race 11, proceed at your own discretion.]

Those of you who have been watching this season of The Amazing Race will appreciate this more than others... but...


Once again, the double-crossing, two-faced, lying, cheating, claw-your-way-to-the-top team fails to prevail! I was convinced I was going to have to suffer through another season with "the team you love to hate," especially after they not only survived but came in 1st place in the first 3 legs of the race. Even when it became apparent that they were going to come in last place this week, I was dreading that it would be a non-elimination leg. But it's all good! Of course, those of you who followed my Amazing Race 7 Travelblog know my fond feeling for Rob and Amber from their first appearance 4 seasons ago.

As for this season of the Amazing Race 11: All Stars edition... I must say it's actually keeping me captivated and watching far more than the previous several seasons have. It's almost even inspiring me to start an AR11 Travelblog... but I think perhaps these commentaries will suffice. And if you're not watching the Amazing Race, it's never too late to start [CBS, Sundays at 8pm]. The excitement really starts to heat up in the second half of the season. There are 12 legs in the race and we're only on the 4th. I have been prediciting for several seasons that an Amazing Race will finally take a trip down to Antarctica, and at the end of the 4th leg of the race they are currently sitting on the southernmost tip of South America. Sounds like a good possibility to me!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Commonly misused phrases? I could care less!

Picture with me now... a dramatic moment in your favorite reality television show. A contestant is fed up with his opponents, and in a moment of high drama, cutaway to an interview clip where he exclaims, "I could care less what they think of me!"

... and... SCENE!

Last night I was watching my DVR'ed episode of The Amazing Race from Sunday and this exact thing happened. All I wanted to say was, "You're an idiot."

Let's face it, we all stumble over words occasionally. And as much as I wish the real world had a backspace key to clean up those little errors, it doesn't. But consider how useless some of these commonly used words and phrases have become. If I were parsing the phrase--not that I do that, well, not too often anyway--I would take "I could care less" as one big chunk and give it the part of speech "meaningless idiom." Phrases like that are so overused, nobody takes them literally anymore. Certainly if they did they'd be as confused as anyone. "So wait a minute. If you could care less, you must still care some."

Now I'll try to assemble as many misused, useless, or generally redundant phrases as possible:

I literally flew off the handle when I couldn't eat nor sleep forever. Like I eluded to prior, it was a very unique experience, most everybody would agree. Due to this affect, I am a man who will be easily aggravated in the forseeable future.

See how many you can find in there. :)