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Duffbert's Random Musings is a blog where I talk about whatever happens to be running through my head at any given moment... I'm Thomas Duff, and you can find out more about me here...

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10/30/2011

Stepping Up My Game - Notepad++ (More Than Just A Text Editor)

Category Productivity
Lately I've started to go a bit "old school" when I write shorter pieces.  Rather than firing up Word with all the associated overhead and formatting, I go with a simple text editor to remain focused on what I'm writing.  Normally, that text editor was Notepad.  It was there and did what I needed.  But I finally decided to take my own advice and upgrade to Notepad++.  It's clean and unobtrusive, but there is so much that you can do with it...

With straight text, it really doesn't matter much about formatting.  But say I'm looking at an HTML or XML file.  Notepad++ can format and clean it up for me.  What if I copy over some text from a source that has special characters  like the curly quotes used in Word?  Notepad++ can clean that up for me.  Typing in some C#? Notepad++ will format properly as I enter the code.  Uppercase everything, indent, encode characters, create macros... It's hard to believe that something that looks so basic can do so much.

And it's FREE!

Part of my motivation to move away from Notepad and to Notepad++ is that I have UltraEdit at work.  I find that for a number of the things I do for work, having the extra capabilities of a package like UltraEdit for coding and file manipulation is essential.  Since Notepad++ has those same types of capabilities, I figured that using Notepad++ in both environments would give me a better experience as I move between computers and environments.

Adding Notepad++ to my daily routine should have been a no-brainer a long time ago.  But now that I've finally made the shift, I can't see myself going back to anything less.

10/29/2011

Book Review - Naked Heat by Richard Castle

Category Book Review Richard Castle Naked Heat
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Yeah, I'm a fan of the TV show Castle.  I love the characters and the story lines, and I think the actors have a great rapport with each other.  Having said that, I'm still somewhat embarrassed to admit I decided to read the Nikki Heat novels that "Richard Castle" wrote.  For those of you who haven't watched the show, Richard Castle is the character who's a writer and hangs out with the NYPD as "research" for his next novel.  Detective Kate Beckett is the lead, and she's the inspiration for his Nikki Heat novels that have revived his writing career.  So this novel, Naked Heat, is the real version of the fictional novel by the fictional writer in the fictional TV show.

Got all that?

Anyway... Naked Heat is exactly what I expected it to be in terms of style and content.  It's a fun read that plays out in my mind as an episode of Castle.  Perhaps if you read the novel without having seen the show, you'd end up with a whole different impression.  Regardless, it really doesn't matter.  It's what I would consider a beach read, an entertaining crime novel with good character interaction and plenty of plot twists.  In this "episode", Heat is called on to solve the murder of Cassidy Towne, a gossip columnist who has more than her fair share of enemies for her barbed attacks.  With Rook's help, they find out that Towne was writing a book exposing the truth behind the death of a celebrity who was thought to have died from a drug overdose.  The crime scene indicates that someone would prefer that the book not be written, and they're willing to kill anyone to make sure it never sees the light of day.

Naked Head ended up being more entertaining and solid than I expected (though I didn't expect much), and it was good for a few hours of escape reading before falling asleep.  It's interesting that it's not known who actually writes the novels as "Richard Castle", but whoever it is does a pretty good job.  I'll definitely read the other two that are out as soon as I work my way up on the hold lists at the library.  So long as you go in with the proper expectations, the Heat series is worth the reading time for Castle fans.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

10/29/2011

Book Review - Microsoft SharePoint 2010 Plain and Simple: Learn the simplest ways to get things done with Microsoft SharePoint 2010 By Johnathan Lightfoot and Chris Beckett

Category Book Review Johnathan Lightfoot Chris Beckett Microsoft SharePoint 2010 Plain and Simple: Learn the simplest ways to get things done with Microsoft SharePoint 2010
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This would be the book I'd love to see in the hands of all our employees at work... Microsoft SharePoint 2010 Plain & Simple: Learn the simplest ways to get things done with Microsoft SharePoint 2010 By Johnathan Lightfoot and Chris Beckett.  As we get ready to move from SharePoint 2007 to SharePoint 2010, one of the biggest concerns we have is training people on the changes.  To be honest, trying to hook up current SharePoint users with concise how-to information is also a struggle.  Microsoft SharePoint 2010 Plain & Simple overcomes that with most everything someone would need to know to get the most out of SharePoint 2010 as an end user or power user.

Contents:
About This Book; What's New and Improved in SharePoint 2010?; Getting Started with SharePoint Sites; Organizing and Managing Information; List and Library Essentials; Working with Documents; Working with Media; Using Information Management Policies; Organizing People and Work; Using SharePoint with Office 2010; Collaborating with Blogs; Security Within SharePoint 2010; Using Personal Sites and Social Networking; Searching for Information; Index

This was my first exposure to the Plain & Simple series, and I can understand why they work so well.  Printed in full color, they focus on the essential tasks that a person would want to accomplish with a piece of software.  A brief explanation of the feature is followed by step-by-step instructions on the task.  In addition, there are numerous information "bubbles" throughout, targeting tips, things to try out, references to additional information, and cautions to remember.  If someone is motivated to read and try things out, then this book provides an excellent framework for those activities, making sure that all the essentials tasks and features are covered in a structured manner.

As a developer who works with SharePoint, this was also quite useful.  I got a good feeling for some of the new SharePoint 2010 features, as well as pointers for existing features that have been improved.  As I was reading, I was already making a mental list of enhancements to some of the projects I've built over the last year or so.  I'm also going to start writing SharePoint tips for our company intranet, and the content here will give me a good framework for what content should be covered, as well as the order I should use to write about them.

I have another Plain & Simple book I'm working through as a user (OneNote 2010), and I'm finding it just as useful as the SharePoint 2010 book.  All in all, I would definitely recommend Microsoft SharePoint 2010 Plain & Simple be available (in quantities) for your end users when you move to SharePoint 2010.  The money spent will be more than paid back with increased productivity and happier users.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

10/26/2011

Stepping Up My Game - IDoneThis.com (Keep A Daily Log Of What You Do)

Category Productivity
Over the last couple of weeks, I've become motivated to start "upping my game" when it comes to work-related stuff.  It's one thing to read about sites, software, and techniques that will help you become a better tech geek, but often another to actually start to incorporate it into your daily routine.  At least that's the way it ends up working for me... What I'm going to do over the next few days/weeks is to share some of the things I'm doing to improve myself in that area.

The first thing I recommend to everyone is to start keeping a daily log of what you do.  This single act has had more benefits for me than just about anything else I've done on a regular basis at work.  I started this practice around 15 or so years ago, as a way to remember what I did when it came time for annual reviews.  Yes, it took a while to become an ingrained habit, and there were more misses than hits when I first started.  In fact, many of the days were "Can't remember specifically what I did, as it's been a week now."  But instead of quitting, I'd simply start over again with the current day.  Eventually, the habit stuck, and now I'd be lost without it.

The primary benefit is during review time.  When your boss comes up and asks you for a list of your yearly accomplishments, it normally induces a state of sheer panic as you desperately try and remember what you did last week, much less what you did nine months ago.  As a result, you probably leave out many of the details that add daily value to the organization.  Not a good thing when it comes time to start cutting people...  With this type of journal/log sheet, you can generate that list of accomplishments in less than an hour, complete with supporting documentation.  Believe me, it makes a huge difference!  You may not like to "blow your own horn," but you have to learn how to market yourself effectively in today's corporate environment.  If you don't, you're just another number in the departmental headcount.

The other benefit is to show weekly accountability to your boss.  Many groups have to fill out status reports, which are generally hated by all.  Sometimes it's the format, other times it's the hassle.  Either way, it's done with grumbling and complaining.  Lately I've been in more situations where I haven't had to complete a status report... but I still do.  I take my weekly log and email it to my boss and/or project coordinator.  It helps me be accountable for what I've done and what I'm doing, and it also gives them an idea as to what I'm currently working on.  I've actually told them that I don't care if they have a mail rule that sends it straight to Trash... I just want to be held accountable to send that in weekly.  In reality, it's been a great tool for both of us.

It doesn't have to be anything major or formal.  Over the years, I've done my personal logs in Notes, Word, Notepad, and ISPF.  :)  It's usually a line for the date/day of the week and the hours I worked.  What follows are short bullet points (anywhere from three to seven-ish) with a sentence or two about what I did.  It may be a line that says I completed a help desk case for problem XYZ.  It may be a line that says I started the design of Project ABC and I'm on track to deliver on time as promised.  Nothing in the way of major details... just the bare-bones.

All that to get to the website IDoneThis.com.  :)

IDoneThis.com is a "slow Internet" site that allows you to keep track of what you do on a regular basis.  Instead of forcing you to remember to go out and jot stuff down, it sends you a daily email at a time of your choosing.  The email asks you to hit Reply and email your daily stuff.  It then takes that reply and adds it to a personal calendar like you see below.  In my case, I emailed four bullet points for Monday, October 10th:

A picture named M2

You can export the data into a CSV format in order to save and review it.  You can also make it available via RSS feed if that makes it easier for your boss to follow.  In any case, it's an easy daily reminder to log your work, and IDoneThis.com takes care of keeping track of the overall content.

I still keep a Word document with my daily log stuff, as I'll jot stuff in that throughout the day.  I then copy my bullet points at the end of the day into the IDoneThis email and send it back.  I've been working with the site for a couple of months, and I'm close to the point where I'll use that as my sole log sheet instead of keeping the weekly Word document.  Either way, the important thing is that I'm tracking the information.

If you haven't tried keeping a daily log, I'd strongly encourage you to start.  If you need a little more structure and prompts to keep it going, try IDoneThis.com.  I have no doubt that you'll see a huge benefit from getting into this habit, and you may just find that it puts you out front of those you work with in the eyes of your management.

10/23/2011

Book Review - The Affair: A Reacher Novel by Lee Child

Category Book Review Lee Child The Affair
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Normally, a new Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child has me counting the days before it comes in at the library.  That was the case with his latest novel, The Affair, but unfortunately this one didn't click for me.  I don't really know what it was or why I felt that way, but I couldn't get drawn in and absorbed like I normally do.

The story moves back to his Army days, the times when he still had a place he considered "home."  He's sent out to a small town near an Army base to investigate the killing of a woman.  There's a strong likelihood that the death was caused by someone on the base, and he's supposed to work in conjunction with another investigator to figure out if there's any substance to the allegations.  Of course, sending Reacher in undercover to get a feel for the town and manage the locals isn't a great idea, as he's not exactly inconspicuous.  He's made quickly by the town sheriff, who takes more than a professional interest in him.  She's got a murky background that also seems to play into the current investigation, but Reacher may not be entirely rational when it comes to believing her story and assessing her involvement.  When the Army decides to consider the case "closed" and orders Reacher back to base, he decides that he'd rather disobey orders and find out the truth rather than cover it up.  That doesn't set well with some powerful political leaders who are not adverse to silencing Reacher in whatever way is necessary.

As I mentioned above, this installment never hooked me like other ones have.  Reacher was Reacher, with his ability to track time without a clock, anticipate actions, and dish out major bodily harm when necessary.  Maybe it was the investigation into the local deaths and whether they had ties to anyone at the base.  It seemed as if the investigation kept circling over the same facts, and the linkage to the base remained somewhat murky for a long time.  When the plot started to approach the climax, I didn't much care what happened by that time.  When I hit the last page, my first thought was... meh.

I realize that many others thought this one was excellent according to the Amazon reviews.  Maybe if I read it over again, I'd feel different now that I know the context (and the ending).  Your mileage may (and probably will) vary, but for me this was simply average.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

10/23/2011

Book Review - The Undertaker by William Brown

Category Book Review William Brown The Undertaker
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This one was a lot of fun to read... The Undertaker by William Brown.  I hated when I had to recharge my iPad before going further.  Brown wrote a fast-paced thriller that pits a ordinary systems engineer against the mob, corrupt government officials, a deranged doctor, and a few other characters along the way.  The premise was interesting, and Brown's characters made this a joy to read.

Pete Talbott is going about life, minding his own business and trying to get over the loss of his wife during a trip to Mexico.  Things change when a hitman shows up trying to find out why he's alive when his obituary shows him as dead.  Talbot can let that go, but what he can't forgive is the matching obituary for his wife.  No one is allowed to mess with his wife's memory like that.  Contrary to the advice of the guy with the gun, Talbott starts digging into the obituary mixup.  What he finds is that he and his wife are not the only ones who have spurious obits, and all the notices have the same person signing off on the death notices.  The fact that Talbott is still alive is not good news to certain people, and his digging only makes it worse.  He has to figure out why he was "dead", what he might have or know that makes other want to make him really dead, and who he can trust in order to call off the dogs so he can go back to his old life.

Far and away, the strength of this book are the characters and dialogue.  Talbott is a great mix of courage, stubbornness, improvisation, and cluelessness  with an undercurrent of pain and baggage under the surface.  His nemesis, Tinkerton, is truly evil and has tentacles all over the place. Talbott has to be quick to stay one step ahead of him.  And then there's Sandy Kasmarek... She's pulled into the story when Talbott shows up unexpectedly to get some information on her ex-husband who was one of the phony obits, and she quickly becomes yet another loose end that needs to be "tied up."  She's sexy, complex, crazy, and has even more baggage than Talbott.  The more he tries to push her away for her own good, the closer she gets, and she wants much more than Talbott is emotionally ready to give. The action is tight, the dialogue is funny and real, and I couldn't help but care deeply about what happened to them.

The Undertaker is well worth downloading to your Kindle (or Kindle app).  Once you do, block out some time and settle in for some excellent entertainment.  This ended up being one of my favorite recreational reads this year.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free

10/23/2011

Book Review - Code Blood by Kurt Kamm

Category Book Review Kurt Kamm Code Blood
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Is it possible to mix together paramedics, vampires, and bio-researchers and get a good novel?  Actually, yes.  I was sent a copy of Code Blood by Kurt Kamm for review, and I'll admit it was more curiosity to see if a story like this would work.  Kamm does a good job of starting the novel out quickly and drawing the reader in, as well as delving into a dark world of vampire fetish behavior.  I ended up reading this book more quickly than I expected...

Colt Lewis is a new paramedic, one that hasn't quite yet figured out how to maintain an emotional distance from those he treats. When called to a nasty accident on the Pacific Coast Highway, he finds a pedestrian near death.  Her foot has been severed in the accident, but there's no sign of it anywhere.  She dies shortly after arriving at the hospital, but Lewis can't let go of the fact that her foot disappeared.  He's compelled to find the foot and reunite it with the rest of her remains, but the only clue he has is a sighting of a guy dressed completely in black, leaving the scene with a bag.

Meanwhile, Markus Draper, the self-styled goth vampire (and albino) discovers that a researcher in the bio-tech company he works for has the holy grail of blood... Bombay blood.  He starts to lay out a plan that involves trapping the researcher and drawing numerous vials of her blood.  But his scheme keeps running into issues, and his lack of money has some nasty characters putting pressure on him to pay back what he owes... or else.  His only hope is to take enough of her blood to satisfy his own bizarre desires and sell off the rest to others of the same bent.

The author's background with fire and rescue workers lends a air of authenticity to the accident scenes.  The descent of Draper's character into a world of pain, paranoia, and desperation gave the story a very dark feel, and I've often wondered how hard it would be for someone in Lewis's position to learn to shut down emotions when it comes to dealing with life and death situations.  The midpoint of the novel seems to lose some focus and ends up drifting for a short time.  But it does pick up the thread again, and the ending has enough pacing and urgency to make up for it.

Code Blood was an interesting read, and I could see myself checking out the first two novels that Kurt Kamm has published.  Now if I could only find more free time...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publicist
Payment: Free

10/23/2011

Book Review - End Malaria by Michael Bungay Stanier

Category Book Review Michael Bungay Stanier End Malaria
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If you look at the title of the book End Malaria by Michael Bungay Stanier, you might think that you're looking at 240 pages of content on how malaria affects millions each year and how it can be eradicated.  But this is a classic case of not being able to tell a book by its cover.  Instead, End Malaria is a book project designed to fund the purchase of mosquito netting for those most in danger from the disease.  $20 of every $25 book purchase goes to that end.  What you get inside the covers for your $25 is more than worth the price.  There are essays and short writings from some of the most influential business writers and speakers today.  It's a book you'll go back to time and time again.

Each essay is a short two to five pages of insight and wisdom, distilled down to the core message with little fluff. From Jon Acuff, I learned that it's better to dream backwards than to move forward.  In essence, instead of thinking about what you want to be and do with your life, think about what you've done in the past that you've loved. That gives you a targeted idea as to what makes you tick and and feel alive.  Michael Bungay Stanier explains how scars are stories, both physical and emotional.  Those stories can be of love or fear, depending on how you look at it.  Instead of your scar being a disability that prevents you from doing things, your scar can be a distinctive element of your personal style, one that drives you, gives you a source of power, and allows you to stand out in a crowd.  Finally, Nancy Duarte reminds me that being bland isn't an option. My ideas need to stand out in order to be noticed.  I need to show the gap between what is and what could be, I need to have a strong and clear position on the situation, and most important, I need passion.

Even if none of the book price went to an excellent cause, End Malaria would be a good purchase.  Of course, the book wouldn't be titled End Malaria in that case. :) But when you look at the value of this book, both for yourself and for the millions who die from mosquito bites every year, purchasing End Malaria becomes a no-brainer.

Contents:
Part 1 - Tap Your Strengths: Kevin Kelly - What You Don't Have To Do; Roger Martin - Thin-slicing; Pam Slim - The Voice in Your Head; Mitch Joel - Personal Branding Is Not Optional; Permal Shah - The Keys to Kiva; John Acuff - Dream Backward To Move Forward; Sir Ken Robinson - Find Your Element; Michael Bungay Stanier - I'm Scarred
Part 2 - Create Freedom: Derik Sivers - In a Perfect World...; Barry Schwartz - The Choices That Matter; Jonah Lehrer - Don't Pay Attention; Danielle LaPorte - What Creative Types Already Know About Productivity; Steven Johnson - Genius Is In the Margins of Your Attention; Steph Corker Irwin - Permission To Be Funny; Josh Linkner - What's Your Idea Schedule?; Jeff Jarvis - Beta-think
Part 3 - Love & Be Kind; Brene Brown - The Strength of Vulnerability; Gary Vaynerchuk - The Best Marketing Strategy Ever; Eileen McDargh - Work Is a Four-Letter Word; Lauryn Ballesteros - Just Make It Up; Sally Hogshead - Here's to the Haters; Scott Stratten - Three Words from Ann Landers; Tom Peters - Pursuing Excellence
Part 4 - Disrupt Normal - Nancy Duarte - Don't Be the Bland Leading the Bland; Ryan Vanderbilt - Thinking Was Ruining My Life; Bill Jensen - The Biggest Distance in the World; Nilofer Merchant - Avoiding Suck-ness and Silence; Rich Fernandez - You the Operating System; Nicholas Carr - Build Bridges; Seth Godin - Heads or Tails?
Part 5 - Take Small Steps: Chris Gillebeau - Ordinary Courage; Jonathan Fields - Dancing with Uncertainty; Robert Biswas-Diener - Stop Complaining and Muster the Courage to Lead; Alexandra Levit - Change Your Career While at Work Today; Chris Brogan - Countdown to Escape Velocity; Dave Ramsey - "Indecisive Leader" Is an Oxymoron; Josh Kaufman - Create a Personal Master Plan
Part 6 - Embrace Systems: David Allen - The Strategic Value of Clear Space; Dan Pink - What's the Matter with Millennials? Richard E. Lapchick - Good Work: Hoops Triumps in Senegal; Gopi Kallayil - Flourishing Inside the Lion's Den; Milissa Daimler - Learning in the New World of Work; Les McKeown - The Power of the Mundane; Scott Belsky - Reconsider Your Approach to Organization
Part 7 - Get Physical: Gwen Bell - Unplug; Kum Kouzes & Barry Pozner - Credibility Is the Foundation of Leadership; Sally Bonneywell, Kim Lafferty & Sue Cruse - How Can We "Do More, Feel Better, Live Longer?"; David Rock - Rewards, Threats, and What Truly Motivates People; Keith Ferrazzi - The 15-Minute Secret; Daymond John - Living the Brand; Tony Schwartz - The 90-Minute Plan
Part 8 - Collaborate: Lynda Gratton - Riding with the Posse; Gina Trapani - Reflections; Gary E. Knell - Muppet Marketing; Charlene Li - The Importance of Failure; Patrick Lencioni - Making Virtual Teams Work; Andy Smith - Make a Difference with Design Thinking; Alan Webber - What Does It Take To Do Great Work?; Ashley Sleep - Hope To Dream

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Amazon
Payment: Purchased

10/22/2011

Our healthcare system is seriously broken...

Category healthcare
This is one of those things that's been eating away at me all week, so I'm going to vent here...

My two nieces were down at Disneyland last week, having a magical time.  They're in the 25 - 35 age range, so we're not talking 7 and 10 with adult supervision.  On Monday of this week, it was hot, very crowded, and they had been going hard hitting rides and attractions.  While in the Haunted Mansion ride, Jess started to feel light-headed.  After they got out, they sat down on a bench to take a rest.  Moments later, Jess had a seizure.  Courtney got help, Disney went into action, ambulance, stretcher, the whole nine yards.  Once in the hospital, they started to run a battery of tests along with a CAT scan.  All that showed... nothing.  The only clue as to a possible issue was the presence of an enzyme that often indicates a heart attack, but there were no other signs.  An aunt and uncle who live down there were able to head over to the hospital and prepare to take her home, but it was late and the doctor wouldn't be able to see her until the morning.  Oh, and did I say she was in the ICU during this time?

Jess's sister and aunt leave, and Jess was there by herself.  About this time, a cardiologist shows up, and starts talking to Jess with a heavy accent.  She can only catch about half of what he's saying, but the bottom line is that he tells her she's had a heart attack, could end up dying, and they have to do an angiogram the next morning.  Not the thing to hear when you've had a really bad day, and you're there all alone trying to process this news... and your parents are freaking out up here in Oregon.  The angiogram takes place the next morning and shows... nothing.  She gets clearance to fly home, leaves the hospital, and both of them get home on Wednesday.

Here's where I start getting irritated...  When they're getting ready to check her out, they present her with the bill... all $55.000 of it.  She'd just started a new job and isn't yet covered on the new plan.  In the course of 48 hours, she's gone from living on a very thin budget to being $55,000 in debt.  Imagine then how she feels when the administrator tells her it's too bad she wasn't hispanic, as they wouldn't charge her anything.  HUH?  BUT... if she can come up with payment within 10 days, they'll cut the bill by 80% and she'll only owe $3000.

Think about this... somehow a hospital can bill you $55,000, yet be willing to settle for $3,000 for immediate payment.  In some cases, you might not get charged at all.  If all this had happened to me (who has insurance), I would have been billed the $55,000, paid maybe $200 in co-payments, and the insurance company would have paid most of the remainder.  

The hospital put her on Plavix (which I can sort of see), as well as a blood pressure medication, even though her blood pressure when laying down was 109 over something equally low.  They even told her that she'd have to be careful, as too much of the drug could cause her to pass out from low blood pressure.  Name brand drugs for this 48 hour experience... over $400.  

We are subject to a health care system that, without warning, can bankrupt you in less than two days if you're out of a job.  Or God forbid that you work 30 hours a week at Wal-mart and you don't qualify for health benefits any longer.  The drug companies are driven by Wall Street profits, so they "have" to charge high rates to meet those growth projections.  Hospitals have state-of-the-art technology that no one can afford without insurance.  Doctors expect high salaries and often need them to pay off educational loans and malpractice insurance.  Health insurance companies have to raise rates to pay for the level of usage of their membership, as well as to account for the spiraling cost of medical care.  If it's a for-profit insurance company, they have Wall Street expectations to meet too.  Health care is one of the few things we "purchase" where we have no clue as to how much things cost, we have little to no control over what's being put in our "shopping cart", and we only find out what we owe when we're finished.

As we debate health care reform, it's obvious that someone will get hurt or will cease to exist if meaningful change is to happen.  Single-payer systems will hurt insurance companies, capped pricing will hurt doctors, hospitals, medical manufacturers, and drug companies.  Do I trust the government to administer a system?  It wouldn't be my first choice.  Conversely, I'm beginning to think that our system is far less appealing than systems in Canada or England.  And don't preach to me about that being socialism (bad) over capitalism (good).  I'm guessing my niece isn't viewing capitalism too fondly right now.  And if you want to see where capitalism leads in pharmaceuticals, read Blood Feud and then talk to me about how competition drives down prices and inefficiencies in the market.  

I don't have any easy answers, because there *are* no easy answers.  I also do not place the blame solely on doctors, drug companies, or insurance companies.  There's plenty of blame to go around.  All I know is that those with the power and money seem to be perfectly happy with the status quo, and those who are at risk are being ignored.  All the political debate and rhetoric is doing nothing more than reinforcing the polar extremes that exist in our society.  Nobody seems to want a solution for all.  Rather, they want a solution that doesn't lead to any sacrifice on their part.  Unless that changes, nothing else will change except by extreme measures that will hurt everyone.

I'll admit I fear for the future of our country...

10/18/2011

Book Review - The Universal Code of (Formerly) Unwritten Rules: From Airline-Armrest Etiquette to Flushing Twice, 251 Uncompromising Laws of Common Civility That We Wish Everyone Knew by Quentin Parker

Category Book Review Quentin Parker The Universal Code of (Formerly) Unwritten Rules: From Airline-Armrest Etiquette to Flushing Twice 251 Uncompromising Laws of Common Civility That We Wish Everyone Knew
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Society in general these days seems to lack common etiquette.  The days of Emily Post are (sadly) gone, but there is hope. Smack someone upside the head with The Universal Code of (Formerly) Unwritten Rules: From Airline-Armrest Etiquette to Flushing Twice, 251 Uncompromising Laws of Common Civility That We Wish Everyone Knew by Quentin Parker, and you'll get your point across.  This was a funny read while at the same time laying down the rules for how people *should* behave in the real world.

Contents:
Unwritten Rules on the Road; Unwritten Rules in the Workplace; Unwritten Rules for Men; Unwritten Rules for Women; Unwritten Rules for Everyone; Unwritten Rules in Written and Spoken Communication; Unwritten Rules in the Home, With Special Attention to Washrooms; Afterword; Index

Ms. Post would certainly approve of the unwritten rules stated here, but I'm pretty sure she'd blanche over the way Mr. Parker explains how they works.  The actual rule is stated in very proper language: "Unwritten Rule #9: If someone signals a desire to get in one's lane, one should always let him or her over."  That's all well and good.  But the lead-in to the rule is "Let People Over, You Jerk."  If that's not enough, it ends with the admonition "Stop being in such a hurry. Your member won't shrivel up if someone gets in front of you."  Yeah, now *that's* the way the general population needs etiquette explained to them. :)

Generally speaking, all of the 251 rules have that same level of snarkiness in the explanation, but they're very entertaining to read.  Parker does express definitive opinions on things that you might not agree with, but I suppose if everyone agreed with him, we wouldn't need this book as society would be well-behaved.  Regardless, at the very least you'll come away having been entertained.  In the best case, you'll have a mirror turned upon some of your less-than-acceptable behavior.  Hopefully, you'll notice your own reflection and change for the better.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

10/13/2011

Book Review - I Am Maru by mugumogu

Category Book Review mugumogu I Am Maru
A picture named M2

As a cat lover (and a heavy Internet user), I think I've watched every Maru YouTube video out there.  I love his "catitude", and rarely do I fail to laugh or smile when watching his fascination with boxes.  I got a copy of I Am Maru by mugumogu from the library when I was last over there, wondering if the online life of Maru would translate well to print.  Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed...

For Maru fans, the book is interesting.  It adds some background in terms of birth date, the kitten years, habits, the meaning of his name, and so forth.  And yes, many of the pictures are cute.  Gotta love that round mound of fluff...  

But beyond that, there's not a lot of substance.  A number of the pictures are minor variations on each other, as well as being on the smallish side.  Including screen images of the different videos is somewhat strange, as you can't click on anything and the URLs to find the videos on YouTube are not included.  The back-and-forth "banter" between Maru and his owner is sort of cute, but again it's rather light in substance.  Add in a fair amount of white space as well as the text being in both English and Japanese, and this book ends up being something you'll breeze through in about 15 minutes.

Maru fans will like this book and appreciate the additional background info.  Others who don't know the Maru story will wonder what the commotion is about (until they go online and see the videos).  I would have been very disappointed had I paid full price for this book, but given that I got it at the library, I'm willing to say it was "OK."

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

10/12/2011

Book Review - The Unseen Chronicles of Amelia Black by A. G. R. Moore

Category Book Review A. G. R. Moore The Unseen Chronicles of Amelia Black
A picture named M2

There's a reason I stray outside of my normal reading genres on occasion.  By doing so, I find gems like The Unseen Chronicles of Amelia Black by A. G. R. Moore.  This book was brought to my attention by a friend of the author, and I said I'd be happy to read and review it.  Young Adult/Children's fantasy isn't something I normally read, as my own kids are well past that age.  But Moore put together a delightful story that should be appealing for kids, and added characters that made it a fun read for this adult.

Amelia Black is a well-to-do little girl, living in a large mansion with the family butler, Dawson.  Her parents were often off on adventures, but their last one ended tragically as they went missing.  Amelia was crushed by their loss, and her life was a grey existence with little purpose or excitement.  All that comes to an end one night when a wise-cracking pixie (*not* a fairy) named Sid makes an appearance in her bedroom, and he transports Amelia and Dawson to an audience with the King of the Unseen Light.  It's there that she sees things beyond anything she could ever imagine, and finds she has special powers *because* of her imagination.  But the Unseen world is in crisis, and only someone with Amelia's skills can prevent the Unseen Darkness from taking over.  Furthermore, she might also find the answer as to what happened to her parents.  So with many questions and far fewer answers, she heads off on her quest, accompanied by Sid, Dawson, two robots (Towser and Boris), a professor named Sullivan, and a Wolpertinger named Gargh (which is really a quite useful word).  At the end awaits evil powers that will stop at nothing to eliminate Amelia and take over the Kingdom forever.

I'll admit I really thought I'd be reviewing this from a somewhat detached perspective, trying to put myself into the shoes of the "target audience" in order to appreciate it.  But once Sid made his early appearance in the book, I was hooked.  The dialogue between the characters is snappy and consistent with their roles, and I found myself reading "just one more chapter" until I finished the book.  Although the PDF file says 238 pages, the text is double-spaced with a few well-done illustrations scattered throughout.  This would be a perfect book for a teacher to read to her class, a parent to read to a child past the age of 5'ish, or an adult who just wants to escape into a cute fantasy for an afternoon.

Moore is writing a continuation to The Unseen Chronicles, and I'll be honest... I really want to read it. :)  Just because I'm 50 doesn't mean I've grown up completely.  This was definitely worth reading, and I hope Moore goes on to do many more adventures such as these.  

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free

10/10/2011

Change coming for my Lotus Job listings... A new stand-alone site at http://lotusjobs.wordpress.com/

Category Notes Jobs
In order to take my own blog back a bit, I've decided to move the Lotus Job listings to its own site.  Starting on Tuesday, they will start appearing here:

http://lotusjobs.wordpress.com/

Same content, same processes... just a different URL.

Let me know if you have any questions.

10/09/2011

Book Review - The Detachment by Barry Eisler

Category Book Review Barry Eisler The Detachment
A picture named M2

Whenever a new Barry Eisler novel comes out, I'm chomping at the bit to get my hands on it as soon as possible at the library a block away from where I live.  His latest novel, The Detachment, changed the rules a bit, however.  The ebook version on Amazon was available a month before the dead tree version.  Do I wait for the library stock to come in, or do I buy the ebook early?

Duh...  Let's hear it for One-Click purchasing of ebooks. :)

The Detachment was one of the best ebook purchases I've made.  Eisler brings together Rain, Dox, Treven, and Larison in a mission run by Colonel Horton, one that offers a huge payday if they can pull it off.  Horton tells them he's trying to head off a planned coup of the US by "eliminating" key players.  While no one in the group has any issues with wet work and black ops, they're all well aware that Horton is never forthcoming with the entire story.  Given the level of targets and what's at stake, the cost of being wrong will be paid with their lives.  If that's not enough, Rain and Dox are not entirely comfortable with having to work with Treven and Larison (and vice versa).  Can they trust each other long enough to eliminate their targets, collect their payments, *and* still be alive at the end to spend the money? Or instead, will they end up being loose ends that need to be tied up?

It's great to have John Rain back.  Even though Rain and Dox are complete opposites, they form a perfect team.  Treven and Larison don't resonate quite as well for me, but Eisler creates the right level of tension between two teams of killers who are very adept at what they do.  Eisler layers the plot on a number of levels.  There's the question of what Horton is really up to, and whether he can be trusted.  There's the trust factor amongst the team, where loyalty, personal ethics, and money create a constant strain on emotions and planning.  Finally, there's the question as to whether the country is being set up for or saved from a takeover by those who want to make the Constitution a thing of the past.

If you're new to the John Rain series, you should probably read the earlier Rain novels in order to understand the Rain character and the nuances.  If you're already a fan of Eisler's novels, dive right into The Detachment.  Bringing Treven and Rain together is a treat, and I hope it's not the last time Eisler pairs them up.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Amazon
Payment: Purchase

10/09/2011

Book Review - The Buried Sky by Keith Hartman

Category Book Review Keith Hartman The Buried Sky
A picture named M2

I normally don't do young adult novels, but on occasion I'll take up the offer from an author if the topic sounds interesting.  The Buried Sky by Keith Hartman seemed to fit that criteria.  It's a short book at only 146 pages, but it got going quickly and I found I really didn't want to put it down until I was done.  The setting and storyline was different enough to allow for a number of twists and turns along the way.

Buried Sky takes place in an underground city, home to a number of people who paid money to a religious leader to build and stock a shelter to survive the coming Armageddon surrounding Y2K. It's been about 20 years since everyone went underground, the radiation sensors show that it's still lethal to venture outside, and the radio hasn't picked up any signs of life in all that time.  Calvin, one of the children born underground, is now in his teens and isn't part of any of the cliques that have formed over the years.  He's on his third reading of most of the books in the library when he gets the news that his dad was found murdered.  He's not at all close to his father, but the Council (the ruling body that runs the city) has him picked as the lead suspect in the killing.  Even worse, they appear to want the murder resolved rather than finding the actual killer.  Calvin has to try and solve the mystery of his father's murder while also hiding from those who are trying to locate him in order to perform the execution.  In the process, he learns a number of things that some people would prefer remain hidden, and he realizes that not everyone is who they appear to be.

Hartman blends a number of genres in this book.  It'd be easiest to label this a young adult book, but the language and casual sex would seem to indicate it's more for an adult audience.  Mix in some near-future science fiction and murder mystery, and it ends up as a strange mix that works surprisingly well.  The characters, especially Calvin who is the first person storyteller in the book, have some depth that fits well with the fact that many of them have never seen the real world.  The reason behind why the Council wants Calvin dead end up being like an onion, with many layers that unfold as more facts are uncovered.

All in all, The Buried Sky delivered more than I expected, and it put Keith Hartman on my "so what else has he written?" list.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free

10/06/2011

So what types of technical sessions would you like to see at Lotusphere?

Category Lotusphere12 ls12
Hopefully sometime very soon, the call for session abstracts will go out for Lotusphere 2012.  There will be a number of people who will submit numerous abstracts, but there are far more people out there who will simply attend the conference and *hope* that a topic they find interesting will be covered.

So, if you could ask for a specific session to appear at Lotusphere, what would it be?  Use the comments to add your opinions and wishes...

10/06/2011

Book Review - Ship For Brains: Cruise Confidential, Book 2 by Brian David Bruns

Category Book Review Brian David Bruns Ship For Brains: Cruise Confidential Book 2
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Ship for Brains by Brian David Bruns is a follow-up to his first book where he told the story of being the first American to complete a full contract in the dining services area on board a cruise ship. It's an area that is normally thought to be "too hard" for Americans due to the low pay and very long hours for weeks on end. It's there that he found his true love Bianca, and he's been trying to get on the same ship with her so that love can flourish (or so he hopes). To do this, he decides to become an art auctioneer for Sundance, the company that does the art auctions for many of the cruise lines. It's an interesting profession, to say the least...

Bruns once again shows a side of the cruise industry you never see. The crew area "below the waterline" is home to most all the crew members of the ship, and it's a less-than-wonderful experience. Tiny cabins shared with others, no privacy, and food that definitely isn't what the passengers are eating. To escape this, many indulge in alcohol and sex, both in copious amounts. Bruns has his own room this time, but it doesn't mean the work is any easier. He covers his art training at the Sundance headquarters, where many of the candidates wash out due to the rather sadistic work of "Lucifer", their trainer. For those that do move on to a ship as an associate, life revolves around each auction as well as meeting extremely high sales goals for each cruise. Bruns gets assigned to the "Widow Maker", a ship with Royal Caribbean that stops in port every day. That leaves scant time to interest people in making art purchases. The auctioneer he works for is burned out (after being rookie of the year just the year before) and lives on Tums. Due to constant shuffling and shakeups, Bruns picks up a couple of different auctioneers and ships in short order, and has a number of interesting stories. But behind it all, he knows he will put up with anything in order to finally get to a place where he can be with Bianca. And there's a lot to put up with... unreasonable sales goals, an auctioneer that wants nothing more than booze and women (and wants Bruns to be his wingman), ship management that seems to only want to make his life miserable, and female crew members who see him as the ultimate prize since he's the only one not hitting on them and the one who wants to remain true to Bianca. Needless to say, there are plenty of laughs and craziness along the way.

Ship for Brains is a fun read, especially when you're reading the book *while* cruising on an RCI ship, and you know the exact parts of the ship he's referencing. I'm really tempted to leave the book in the ship's library before leaving, just to be rebellious. Oh, and for full disclosure, Bruns quotes a line from my review of his first book in this one, and it was a pleasant surprise to run across that.  If you do much cruising, you really should pick up both of his books and see what happens behind the doors marked "Crew Entrance Only."

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free

10/04/2011

Book Review - What The Dog Saw: And Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

Category Book Review Malcolm Gladwell What The Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
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I first ran across What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell while killing time in a bookstore. The one chapter I read there convinced me I needed to read the whole book.  Gladwell does an excellent job in taking a topic, looking at the conventional wisdom surrounding it, and turning the subject matter on its head to view it in a different light. Gladwell spends more time thinking about things than the average person, and he comes up with insights and slants that make for great reading and hours of thought. This book is a series of his essays over the last 15 or so years, and it's interesting to see how well they've stood up over time.

Contents:
Part 1: Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius: The Pitchman; The Ketchup Conundrum; Blowing Up; True Colors; John Rock's Error; What the Dog Saw
Part 2: Theories, Predictions, and Diagnosis: Open Secrets; Million-Dollar Murray; The Picture Problem; Something Borrowed; Connecting the Dots; The Art of Failure; Blowup
Part 3: Personality, Character, and Intelligence: Late Bloomers; Most Likely to Succeed; Dangerous Minds; The Talent Myth; The New-Boy Network; Troublemakers

Having worked at Enron at the time they imploded, I was obviously intrigued by the essays that used Enron as a prime example. Open Secrets talks about how all the information about Enron's lack of actual cash flow was there for anyone to find. The problem is that the information was so voluminous and detailed that you had to dig and work hard to understand it. As such, it could be said that Enron didn't hide anything. They were able to obscure it in such a way that few could find it. That same issue applies to many situations in life. More data does not always equal more information. The other interesting essay along those lines is The Talent Myth. Enron sought out highly intelligent individuals and rewarded them well beyond expectations. They were often allowed to do and create things that had no corporate backing, but they felt the project was "interesting." While some of those worked out well, others failed dramatically. What's even more astounding is that once these people were labeled as "talented", their failures didn't seem to matter any longer.  Failures were simply aggressive moves that showed initiative, and they were then promoted to a higher position (often repeating the same failure there).  Smart does not always equal successful.

Another one I found interesting was the story of John Rock, the inventor of the birth control pill. A staunch Catholic, his creation of the pill put him in direct opposition to church teaching. But as Gladwell shows, the pill might have been accepted without reservation had Rock understood women's health. Studies have shown that "modern culture" subjects a woman to many more periods than what is normal in primitive cultures. This also equates to higher rates of breast and ovarian cancer. One strong line of reasoning is that all the cell divisions that occur during ovulation increase the chance that an abnormal cell division grows out of control (cancer). Since the pill can eliminate the period much like pregnancy and breast feeding did, the pill can be categorized as a way to prevent cancer, with birth control being a by-product of the process and as such not condemned by the church. That's definitely a different way to think about the pill.

What The Dog Saw isn't a book you need to plow through all at once. Each chapter is a different topic, and you can stop there and think through the implications of what Gladwell put forth. There were very few chapters in here that didn't have at least one unique slant or unique insight that caused me to reconsider the ways I thought about a topic.  This is a book well worth reading.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

10/02/2011

Our cruise vacation in review...

Category Everything Else
Edited 10/18/2011 - link to our pictures on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/duffbert/sets/72157627689085891/

On September 24th, my wife and I took a cruise on the Royal Caribbean International ship Jewel of the Sea.  It was a NE/Canada cruise, with the thought that we'd see some of the fall colors.  We didn't see many leaves turning (actually, the weather was incredibly good), but a good time was had by all.  I don't expect too many people to be interested in this journal of our trip, but it'll help me remember it better down the road...

Day 1 - Off We Go
So today was our first day of the cruise. We hung around the Boston hotel (Omni Palmer House) until 11:30, and then headed over to the pier. There sat our home for the next 7 days... NCL's Jewel Of The Sea. Getting checked in sucks, as it's usually in a big hot warehouse (and this was) with long lines (check) and longer waits (actually, not too bad). We left our luggage with a porter, got checked in, and only ended up waiting around 15 minutes to actually board the ship. It was around 1 pm by now, so we headed up to the Windjammer buffet to grab lunch and wait for our room to open up. 1:30 and it was ready, and miracles of miracles, our luggage was already there!  That NEVER happens.  I'll be happy to leave Boston, as it's been wet and muggy.  I just hope the weather is better going forward...

The room isn't too bad. It's an inside stateroom, so no windows or balconies for a view. The only drawback is that you have no clue as to what time it is in the morning without a window.  Ship cabins are small, but overall this one is a bit more than we anticipated size-wise. I lost the closet and drawer war (to be expected), but I actually have all my clothes hanging and put away in drawers rather than living out of my suitcase. Exploring the ship came next, as the first scheduled event is the 4:30 pm muster drill. We did a tour of the spa area, which is very nice. The coolest thing is the heated tiled reclining lounges. You lay back on this thing, and it feels great. The heat soaks into your body, and it's surprisingly comfortable. May have to investigate that further...  The muster drill is usually NOT a fun event, as it's hot, you're on deck with your lifejacket on, and you're crunched up among everyone else. To our surprise, they didn't require the lifejackets, so that took some of the pain out of it. Still hot and muggy, but at least not awkward. And with that, we sailed at 5 pm.

With dinner at 5:30 pm, we decided to book some shore excursions. Our first choice in Portland was filled up, so we had to settle for a second choice. We also booked Bay Harbor's excursion for whale watching. The Bay of Fundy Top Ten tour only had one slot left, so we're going to play the odds and hope someone cancels. And for Halifax, we'll probably end up doing the Titanic Mystique tour. Dinner was good, and again we lucked out by having two other couples who are very nice and easy to talk with as our table mates for the week. I think we're the youngest of the group... imagine that! The prime rib was excellent, with the  strawberry palavone (think meringue) with strawberry sauce.

Only one stage show this evening, and we were a little late leaving dinner. Given our lack of sleep in Boston (just couldn't drop off), we decided to call this an  early night and go back to the room and read (and journal with my iPad and ZAGGmate keyboard which I'm doing now). Great ship, comfortable surroundings, and good times ahead. Let's see if I get get up in the morning and actually hit the fitness area before we have breakfast and leave for our tour of Portland... the OTHER Portland.

Day 2 - Portland Maine
Not a wonderful night of sleep, as Sue wasn't sleeping well and I was afraid I was snoring and keeping her up. I had my alarm go off at 5:45 am to do some gym time, but I almost talked myself out of it. Fortunately, no... 30 minutes on elliptical machine to get the day started. Came back, showered, and we headed to breakfast. It would be nice to have that sort of food selection every day. :)

Our tour of the Portland lighthouses started at 8:30, so we headed down to the bus. After a tour of Portland with some incredible views of the fog over Casco Bay, we ended up at the first lighthouse named Bug Light. Small little thing... Then we headed over to the Springpoint Ledge lighthouse. Again, not what you think of when you imagine the windswept lonely lighthouse. Finally we got to the third and final one, the Portland Headlight lighthouse. This is one that shows up in many of the Maine lighthouse pictures and has been around since the late 1700's. Interesting history there. We got back onto the bus and headed back to the ship to get some lunch and take a nap. After a couple of hours of reading and dozing, it was time to start getting ready for the formal dinner. Shirt, tie, and slacks. I haven't worn a tie in a *very* long time. :) The roast duck was excellent, as was the escargot for starters. nom nom nom...

8:30 pm was the start of the show by the singing and dancing group on board. It was a show titled West End to Broadway, with musical numbers from a great many Broadway shows. The set and costume changes were incredible, and the dancing was fabulous. After taking dance lessons, I have a great deal more appreciation for what it takes to do a show like that.

And talking about dancing... I actually was on the dance floor in the Vortex dance club for a few numbers after the show. I'm not sure we ever got a good rumba number to dance to, but we actually looked normal out there.  Major kudos to our dance instructor for making us look semi-coordinated.

Day 3 - Bar Harbor, Maine
Today was our day at Bar Harbor in Maine. Again, weather to die for at the end of September. 75 and sunny, which was good as we were going to be on the open water... We slept in until about 7:30, which means we didn't set the alarm and get up at any particular time. Our excursion didn't begin until 1 pm, but we thought we'd like to wander around the town a bit before that. So we got dressed and grabbed a quick breakfast before getting in line for the tender. Even though the line stretched up the stairs, it went quickly as each boat can take 150 per trip. A quick five minute shuttle, and we were into Bar Harbor by around 10:15.

Bar Harbor is a cute little town, with a main street of shops and restaurants serving the two Maine staples... lobsters and blueberries. We decided to grab a quick lunch around 11 before things got really crowded, and I can now say I've had a lobster roll. Tasty!  After a bit more wandering, we headed back to the pier and boarded the twin hull catamaran for our whale watching tour. After about 45 minutes and 25 miles, we ended up in the area where the shelf drops from 300 to 600 feet and the whales often feed. It was rather slow at first, with only the occasional porpoise showing up. But towards the end, we got pretty close to a smaller humpback that was surfacing about 20 yards away. Spectacular animals! Unfortunately, our time ran out, and we had to head back in to get those of us on the cruise ship back by the last tender run at 4:30. We *just* got back by that time (knowing they couldn't leave without us), but it wasn't a worry... the line for tender back to the ship was around 300 deep. Needless to say, they ran tenders long past 4:30... It was a good time, but I think I'm wearing a fair amount of salt from the boat spray.  I also should have taken a jacket along, as a boat kicking up spray at about 25 mph is cold no matter how you cut it.

What was interesting was the tides. I know that tomorrow's trip to Saint John in New Brunswick, specifically the Bay of Fundy, is known for their incredible tide changes. But Bar Harbor is no slouch in the tide differential measurements. We arrived at a higher tide level, and I must admit I wasn't seeing the "harbor". But when we got back from the whales, it became clear. One whole end of the harbor was now dry land, as the tides had dropped around 10 feet and exposed rocks that weren't there before. Much the same with some other areas around the harbor. It was rather stunning.

So, back on the ship and just about time to head to dinner. But as we got in line, Sue felt underdressed for the dining room, so we got to try what I wanted.... the cafe on deck 12 that served reubens. And they are GOOD! Not large, but very good. Furthermore, the buffet area had sushi on the evening offering, so I picked up a few sushi rolls there. Needless to say, I think my dinner was better than what the dining room was offering.  We decided to skip the show, as it was a comedian who didn't sound like he was going to be all that funny.

Besides, I need to get my last emails and tweets in before I go cold turkey on internet access until we get back to Boston.  :(

Day 4 - Control is but an illusion (Saint John, New Brunswick)
So we made it to Saint John. We were an hour late, and that should have given us an idea as to how the day was going to go...

First off, we were supposed to be here at 7 am. But at that time, we were still approaching the port. Around 7:45, it looked like we were finally here. But "here" and "off" are two different things. First, it was the announcement that we hadn't cleared immigration. 8:30 comes, and we have an excursion that's supposed to start at 8:45. But since no one on the ship is getting off, no big deal. Then it was a crane malfunction with the gangway. Then the ship had to move about 10 feet in order to get the gangway to line up and for us not to be affected by the tides. So around 9:15, we finally were released to go ashore. We found our bus for the Bay of Fundy/Saint John Top Ten tour (yes, we did get lucky with a cancellation). We did the bus ride around parts of the city, and also saw the river that runs in reverse. More on that in a bit...

After that, it was a 45 minute drive to St. Martin on the Bay, where we could look at the caves, have some chowder, and hit a few local craft shops. Lo and behold, our bus now has issues. We're an hour outside the main city (and from where our tour is to resume with lunch and lobster rolls), and they're going to send a bus... all while we wait in an area that really has nothing more to see. Ugh! Sue and I were fortunate enough to volunteer quickly to take two of six spots on a different bus (same tour) that had room. So off we go to continue our tour. And fortunately, things were OK from here on out.

We then made it back into town, where we saw the river had now started its reversal. We got to the restaurant for the lobster roll, loaded back onto the bus, and hit a park with a fort/tower, the city center market, and O'Leary's Irish pub for a free Moosehead Light beer (bottled in Saint John). We were only 10 minutes late for dinner, and joined one of our table mate couples (Beverly and Wayne) for a very enjoyable meal and some soft-serve ice cream for dessert. Since it's been a long day with a number of "unscheduled events", we decided to just head back to the room where we are relaxing. Here's hoping we sleep better tonight. Tomorrow's a full day at sea, so there's no schedule or need to be anywhere. YAY!

So the Bay of Fundy and the reversing river... The Bay of Fundy has some incredible tidal shifts... like 28 to 30 feet. At high tide, the bay is higher than the river, so the water flows out of the bay and the river runs inland. You then hit what's called the slack tide. At that point, everything is level, and the river just stops going anywhere. Imagine a long lake... Then when low tide starts occurring, the river is higher than the bay, so the river reverses and runs back into the bay. Strange stuff...

I'm glad we went on the tour, as we got a broad exposure to the history of the area, as well as seeing some interesting things. But some things are out your control, and you can either fret and worry, or just smile and go with it. We chose the second and didn't let the problems bother us. In fact, the tour guide on the second bus was really entertaining.  We even learned how to do moose-calling. Yes, that's an actual pastime up there.  You take a large juice can (metal) and a flat shoelace.  You punch a small hole in the bottom of the can, tie a knot in the shoelace, and thread it through the hole.  Wet down the shoelace.  Now you simply use your thumb and forefinger to slide down the length of the shoelace.  The resulting sound drives the male moose wild.  A word of caution... Once the male moose shows up, you're on your own as to what you do from there...

Day 5 - Just Floating Along (At Sea)
Today was our first "day at sea." Those are the days when you don't have a port of call, and you have plenty of time to just kick back, relax, and do some shipboard activities. After yesterday's comedy of errors, it was a welcome change to have nowhere we had to be.

We got up around 8 am and headed up for breakfast. A detour to the casino cost us a bit of money on the slots and video poker, but no big deal. After that, a walk around the decks for a bit. Surprisingly, we saw whales off the starboard side about a quarter mile away. It was hard to mistake them, as they were breaching with large splashes. An incredible sight, even if they're not overly close. Back to the room for some reading, followed by lunch. An exciting life. :)

One of the things I wanted to do this trip is take some time to sit, think, and set some goals for myself. In the day-to-day rush of life, it's hard to take the time to escape to a quiet place with no demands. On board the ship, they have a place called the Solarium, which is a covered pool area for adults only. It's decorated in a Buddist temple decor, with plants and bird noises piped in. The covering is glass, but surprisingly it's not overly hot. I found an open deck chair and got my quiet time. While I was able to find four things I wanted to work on for the next 12 weeks, I also realized I had a hard time coming up with a list of things I wanted to do, be, or accomplish. I think that's a problem in itself, but that topic is for a different time and place. After around 90 minutes, I went back to the room to put on the dancing shoes and head up for a "Latin Impact" dance class. It was 30 minutes of learning a salsa routine. Between all the people on the floor and the impossibility of seeing the person up front showing the steps, it wasn't as good as it could have been, but I was able to make it through. :) Back to the room, some more reading, and then time to get dressed for the 2nd formal night and LOBSTAH! nom nom nom...

To end the evening, we went to the stage show where they did a production called City of Dreams. Some good dancing and singing, and a few excellent stage backgrounds, but the storyline was somewhat non-existent. Oh, well. And with that, it's back to the room for, what else, reading before I get tired and drop off. It's been nice to get some uninterrupted time for reading, as I've read far fewer books this year than any time in the last 15 years. Part of it is writing, and part of it is just not focusing as much (too much time wasting).

Day 6 - Halifax, Nova Scotia
Today was our final port of call in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We signed up for the tour titled Titanic - The Mystique. With a 2 pm start, it was a laid-back morning. A semi-late sleep-in along with meals, relaxing, and reading. We then wandered down to the pier to catch our tour.

The guide, dressed in full kilt regalia, was quite knowledgeable. He gave us a tour of Halifax, along with the story of the explosion of 1917 (I think that was the date) which was the greatest man-made explosion ever seen to date. It was only surpassed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Two ships, one loaded with armaments, collided in the harbor. They caught on fire, and the resulting explosion leveled houses for a quarter mile, burned a significant amount of the city, and broke windows 17 miles away. We then focused on the role that Halifax played in the story of the Titanic in 1912.

When the Titanic sunk, Halifax was the closest port city that could send out ships for the recovery of bodies. They ended up finding 338 bodies that were brought back to Halifax on board three ships. Actually, 122 of them were buried at sea. The White Star line refused to ship the bodies back home, so only 54 were returned to Europe by those who had money. The remainder were buried in Halifax with full funerals.  White Star didn't come out of this accident looking very good, either.  They only had enough life boats and rafts for about 1/4 of the people on board (they actually weren't required to have more than that by law).  They only paid the crew (or the families of crew that was lost) 1/4 of their paychecks as they figured the cruise only made it halfway through the first half of the cruise.  They even had the gall to charge the family of a band member for the non-returned uniform.

We toured the main cemetery where most of the bodies are buried, many of them still unidentified to this day. We saw the grave marker for Jack Dalton, the character played by DiCaprio in the Titanic movie. We also saw the grave marker for the unknown child. All very moving and sobering. We then ended up at the Maritime Museum where they had more Titanic information on display. Overall, it was a very good tour, and one that made you think about how temporary life is.

As we got back to the ship, it finally started to rain. Incredibly, the weather has been extraordinary this week, and tomorrow (our last day at sea) is supposed to be 77 and sunny. Coming back from a NE/Canada cruise with a tan was NOT an expected side effect. :)

Day 7/8 - At Sea/Boston
All good things have to come to an end.  The final full day of the cruise is spent at sea, so we had one last day to try and cram in whatever we felt we'd missed.  In my case, I didn't feel that was too much.  A little time in the casino made enough money for me to feel less guilty for buying a small globe made up of colored gemstones.  I've seen them in Caribbean ports, but I always talked myself out of buying one.  Didn't happen this time. :)

I spent some quiet time doing some writing, walked the decks, and visited with some of our table mates.  We decided to have dinner in the main dining room for the final night, as that's when you normally give the gratuity envelopes to the dining staff.  Then it was back to the room to do the dreaded task of packing up and leaving the suitcases out in the hallway so they can be picked up and moved off the ship for pickup.

When we got back into Boston, we still had one more tour.  Our flight wasn't out until 4:30 pm, so we took a two hour tour of Boston.  Once again, we had a great guide in the bus, and we got a good drive-by tour of Boston and Cambridge.  Although it was pretty foggy, we could still see most of the sights (I'll assume the John Hancock building *is* 66 stories), and I think I'd like to come back some day to explore the history of the city.  It never ceases to amaze me how far back the history of cities on the east coast can go, when on the west coast it's an entirely different story.

Overall, it was a nice cruise and a good week of vacation.  RCI is a very good cruise line, and it's nice to have a ship full of crew who are there to make sure you have a great experience.

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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