Monday, June 26, 2006

Quebec, Quebec

Andrea and I went to Quebec City this past weekend. There was no particular reason for our trip - we just felt the need to get away for a few days. I took care of the hotel arrangements, and booked us into the Hotel Port Royal, in Old Quebec. It's a boutique hotel, and reasonably well appointed. My favorite part was the lobby. it made you feel as though the concierge might turn to you and say, "We've been expecting you, Mr. Bond." Neither of us had a licence to kill, but they did opt to upgrade our room to a suite free of charge.

Parking was $15, and you could elect to order an a-la-carte breakfast each morning for $7 p.p.. I like to sleep in, and don't usually order breakfast at hotels, but the ajoining restaurant (Le 48) served breakfast until 1:30 pm, and had a very respectable selection. A small premium was required for some of the brunch items, but the signature breakfast included two eggs, sausage, bacon, fresh fruit, hash browns, coffee, ham, jam, and baguette. If you need more food than that, then pay the two extra damned dollars.

We'd made our travel arrangements before we found out that it just so happened to be the same weekend as St. Jean Baptiste Day. For those of you who don't know, St. Jean Baptiste is the Patron Saint of French Canadians, for reasons unknown. In practical terms, it means that there are a lot of Quebecois getting absolutely tanked on the plains of Abraham. Good times.

My French isn't exactly stunning, but I had enough to get by. Most of the French you need on St. Jean Baptiste Day can be found in the following phrases:

"Bon St. Jean!"

"St. Jean! St. Jean! St. Jean!"


"Cessez d'uriner sur mon bagage, s'il vous plait."

Seriously, though, it was a great party and everyone was very polite, despite my lack of French language ability. Aside from the plains of Abraham, we spent most of our time wandering around the Old City, trying out restaurants and looking in galleries. I think I'm starting to develop a taste for art, even if I don't have the budget for it quite yet. If anyone ever wins the lottery and wants to buy me something nice, an original painting by Denis Nolet would definitely win some gratitude.

Andrea arranged for reservations at L'Echaude, considered by Frommers to be the best bistro in Quebec City. I was a little taken aback by the scallops (never been a big fan of cold seafood), but quite enjoyed the Stag medallion. Their chocolate pie was very well done, as was their signature champagne cocktail, champagne and creme de cassis.

Later that evening, we visited a random Jazz bar near the Chateau Frontenac. Not sure what the name of it was. Not entirely sure where it was, or how to get there. But they had great music. And they served Leffe Brun. Always a winning combination. (My Google Sense is telling me that it's the lobby bar of the Hotel Clarendon.)

We stopped in at Aux Anciens Canadiennes the next day for their maple syrup pie, which was quite a delicacy. The other thing we really enjoyed was the fact that almost every restaurant had a cheese plate of some description or another. They also had reasonably priced wine and some quality locally-brewed beers, which means that there's not a hell of a lot else that I remember from this particular trip.

I do, however, remember Charbon, which is the steakhouse that we went to the last night that we were there. It's out by the Via station, and they serve some of the best steak I've ever had in my life. I'm sorry, Cattle Baron. We can still be friends, can't we? I had the escargot as a starter, then moved on to the ten ounce New York, with two massive U10 shrimp (I don't know why they're called U10s... probably something to do with the fact that they're nearly big enough to be submarines). Andrea had the Beef Tenderloin, which was smaller, but well flavoured and very tender. We were too full to make it to dessert.

After Charbon, we checked out La Boudoire, a martini bar located a few blocks away. Upstairs was pretty dead, but there was a dance bar downstairs that played some pretty solid music (latin dance, while we were there) and made for great people-watching. The gin and tonic was good, but I ended up getting bits of mint from my mohito stuck between my teeth. We didn't go into any of them, but there were a number of similarly-styled bars in the area. It seemed to be more of a place for locals, rather than tourists, which made it a valuable addition to the itinerary of any self-styled traveller that hates to be lumped in with drawling, butt-pack wearing, camera-toting, tiny-tipping, McDonald's-dining, Coors Lite-ordering tourists.

It only took about 4.5 hours to get there from Ottawa, and the highway was clear for most of the way. Getting to Old Quebec was a little bit tricky, but would've been easier if I'd slowed down once we got to the hilly bits. Google Maps provided directions, Expedia the hotel bookings. Beautiful city, had a great time,

Thursday, June 22, 2006

100 Things That Make Me Happy (Continued)

71. A really good scheme.
72. An unexpectedly amazing song on the radio.
73. Having a nap on the grass, under a shady tree.
74. Falling asleep to Loons on the lake.
75. That "Aha!" feeling when I suddenly understand something that I was struggling with a few minutes prior.
76. Black and white footage of World War II, as narrated by a truly ancient British guy.
77. The pair of grey shorts that I should've thrown out years ago, but that I still wear at the cottage.
78. Wine that has to be decanted to be served properly.
79. The beauty of human frailty.
80. The quiet respect between two people who are at the top of their game.
81. Enjoying something that I know I've earned.
82. Getting packages in the mail.
83. Friends that stay in touch, years after you've last seen them.
84. Taking the boat out on the lake to look at the stars.
85. Exceeding expectations.
86. A big mug of tea on a cold morning.
87. Freezies.
88. Getting comments on my travel articles / blog.
89. A really old, comfortable hoodie.
90. Entertaining company.
91. Christmas in Calgary.
92. Breaking out the hip flask while skiing.
93. A big breakfast after a night of heavy drinking.
94. Landing gear touching down.
95. Feeling stiff after a good workout.
96. The Kids in the Hall.
97. Chocolate banana monkeys.
98. Numbered lists.
99. People with sufficient patience to read really long lists.
100. Finishing things, once I've started them.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Words of Wisdom

I really enjoy books that put deep thoughts down on paper, so that the reader can use them as a kind of meditative touchstone to jump-start the cognitive process. Warrior of the Light, by Paulo Coehlo, is one such book. The Hagakure is another. These are beautiful books, relevant and deep at the same time.

I wanted to do something similar, but at the same time I want to do something that has a bit of a different flavour. I want to put down some words of wisdom on record, but I didn't want to put down anything cliche, like "Triumph over adversary" or "A Penny saved is a penny earned". I want my words of wisdom to be relevant to everyday life. I want them to be the kind of primer that I could have used about ten years ago.

So, here we go.

Find a decent drycleaner. When you drop something off, tell them what kind of a stain it is. If they don't get it out, go to a different drycleaner. Keep doing this until you find a good one. Then, never let this person out of your sight.

Your car needs more maintenance than just an oil change. Yes, oil changes are important, but they're just the beginning. Assuming your car still works, drive around until you see some junky hole-in-the-wall with all kinds of crazy-expensive sports cars parked in front. Congratulations, you've just found a good mechanic. Keep your mechanic in the same line of sight as your drycleaner.

Learn how to combine a simple meat dish with a simple side dish and a basic sauce. Then, play around with it until it tastes unique. Unique in a good way, that is. Do this with three or four dishes, and you'll know more about cooking than most people will ever learn.

Never carry a balance on your credit card. Banks are practically pawing over themselves to give people lines of credit these days. If one of the big banks won't do it, try ING or President's Choice, or a credit union if you have to. But whatever you do, don't carry a balance on your credit card. If you have no choice but to carry a balance on your credit card, that's nature's way of telling you that you're living way, way beyond your means.

There's nothing quite so exciting as a good, old-fashioned, hare-brained scheme. There's no shame in losing yourself in a particularly good scheme for a few minutes out of every day. Go on. Imagine what it would be like to try and make a living importing vintage cars from Uruguay, or opening a cigar bar in Fiji. Think about opening your own bed and breakfast on a lake in northern Ontario, or becoming a surf instructor in Costa Rica. Big, crazy ideas have smaller, less-crazy cousins that you can actually incorporate into the less-exciting reality that you're escaping from.

Learn the basics of how to handle your money. Not to scare you, but here's a test. Read the following words. Dividends. Tax brackets. Interest rates. Money markets. Index funds. Emerging markets. Risk thresholds. There's nothing wrong if you don't understand any of these terms. If you don't understand most of these terms and you're investing money in mutual funds, alarm bells should be going off. If you don't understand all of the terms and you're picking your own stocks, then you should probably either consider a career as a firefighter or a lemming, because you're either very brave or very dumb.

If you're a boy, and you haven't seen a doctor in two years, go see a doctor. As someone who shares a Y chromosome, I sympathize with you, and your genetic belief that a doctor is someone who makes you sick, but seriously, just go. You'll thank yourself for it in the long run.

Here's another one for men: the only kind of shirt that you should ever tuck into your pants is a dress shirt. And if you do tuck in a shirt, wear a belt. If you're ever confused, wear a blue shirt with khakis. The only time you should wear white socks is if you're exercising. Ditto with gym shorts or sweat pants. By the time you're twenty, you should have an analog watch and a pen that doesn't say "Bic" on the lid. If the bottom of your pants are fraying, then take them to your tailor. If you've had the same underwear since junior high, throw them out. You can save one pair for those days when you intend to have no human contact. No one will know. I promise.

There are times when you need to get drunk, and there are times when you need to stay sober. And if you can figure out which is which, you're better at this than I am.

You should have the following kinds of books in your bookcase: a book to give you inspiration (The Alchemist), a book to make you glad that your life isn't worse (1984), a book that makes you laugh like a total fool (Dave Barry Talks Back), a book from your childhood (I Want to Go Home), and a book that's hard to grasp (The Tao of Physics).

Everything that you could possibly buy has three potential attributes. Is it easy to find? Is it reasonably priced? Is it good quality? In almost all cases, you'll be lucky if you get two out of three.

If you're with someone special to you, and you go a few days without seeing him/her, and then you see them again, and your heart doesn't leap, you should probably give some serious thought as to whether you're with the person you're supposed to be with.

You really should have a pretty solid grasp of when the food in your fridge is going to expire. Also, you should have an entire meal that can be prepared from items in your freezer / pantry.

You should have something in your life, that you see every day, that's beautiful and makes you smile.

Seriously, just go out and watch Dirty Rotten Scoundrels some time. You'll thank me for it.

You should know how to do the following in a restaurant without looking like you've spent the past ten years of your life in a cave: taste a bottle of wine, when to set the napkin down on your lap (hint: once you sit down), when you should send your food back, when NOT to send your food back, how to gauge an appropriate tip, at least two different labels of wine that you can pronounce properly, how to offer your dining companion a chair without looking wooden and awkward, and the way to talk to the manager / waiter / waitress / chef if it's a very special occasion.

One kind of exercise that you can do no matter where you are, what the weather is like, or how much you've had to drink the night before.

Not everyone in the world is going to like you, but far fewer will actively dislike you if you accept this and just be who you are. Also, it will drive the people who do dislike you crazy.

When to stop writing long lists of random advice and go to sleep, so you don't look like a zombie at work tomorrow.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

University is Wasted on University Students

... or, to be exact, it was wasted on this university student.

I've decided that, at some point in my life, I'm going to go back to school and get a second degree. It's going to be a degree in General Arts and Science. Perhaps I will major in something a little more specific, but I promise that it will be the least useful subject that I can possibly think of.

Looking back, I realize that I spent most of the academic portion of my university career wishing that I was somewhere else, doing anything but what I was doing. That's the drawback in deciding, midway through, that you have no intention of every applying the vast majority of your coursework to anything practical.

There's a few ways that you can react when you reach this kind of decision. You can change course and go for a different degree, reexamine your field of study until you find something that you are passionate about, or muddle your way the rest of the way through with the minimum amount of work that you need to get by.

Sad to say, I picked door number three.

This isn't to say that there weren't exceptions to this rule. I really shone during my Intro to Rational Choice and Decision Making course, totally 0wnz0r3d Artificial Intelligence and Programming Paradigms, and did a pretty damned good job with my thesis project, the Adaptive Review Agent. On the dark side of that coin lie the Intro to Brain and Behaviour, and the Psychology of Reading.

Don't get me wrong, I know that almost every university student comes across courses that they didn't particularly like or do well at. I just can't help but shake the feeling that I could've done more. I want to go back and learn things because I'm genuinely interested in the subject matter, and not because I'm angling for a better job somewhere along the line. That's not what university is supposed to be about, but we put a premium on practicality in Canadian society. Sometimes, that emphasis can draw focus away from the noble pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake.

I don't regret the way I went through university. To be honest, I think that life is too short to carry any kind of serious regret. But if the opportunity presents itself, I'd like to go back and really soak up the benefits of being at a quality institution of higher learning. Talk to the professors. Spend some time in the Art department, or the English department. Broaden my horizons. I think I got a lot out of my first go 'round, and there's no denying that when the time came, I was ready to leave.

I'm interested to see how the second time around will go, but probably not for another three or four decades.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


The trip to the cottage was a lot of fun, despite abysmal weather that kept us in doors for most of the weekend. If nothing else, it allowed us the chance to get caught up on our movie-watching and food-eating, if there is such a thing as getting behind in those two particular activities.

We're planning to go back out again this weekend, but we're probably not going to have any company out this time around. It's been a while since Andrea and I have had a weekend to ourselves, and I think we're just going to take it easy for a bit. We're still hoping to have more time for entertaining later in the summer.

I've been reading the book Snow Crash recently, and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys any kind of computer-based science fiction. As far as a good hacker story goes, it's pretty hard to beat. Also: its main character is named Hiro Protagonist. Fan-tastic.

Still looking at the Real Estate market off and on, but much more off than on, these days. I still think that the price of housing is over-inflated, and there's a bubble ready to pop in there somewhere. This is perhaps less true of places like Calgary and (hopefully) more true of places like Ottawa. Still thinking that I might want to get into the market by at least buying some raw land or something, but quite comfortable in my current (albeit leaky) apartment.

I've started to run again, but my ambitions of fitness-dom are being dashed by tight fitting shoes that give me blisters whenever I run. My solution to this is to keep running until I build up callouses the size of walnuts on my feet, but perhaps you know a better solution. Years ago, Nubalance was the mark of high quality, respectable footwear. What is it, these days? It's literally been years since I've bought running shoes (and sadly, no, it's not because my current runners are worn out).

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cottage Bound

We're headed down to the cottage this weekend, which'll make this the first weekend of the season that we've been able to spend on the lake. I'm not going to lie to you: there are still a lot of things I miss about cottage life since I moved back to the city. I've discussed them in detail, so I won't go into it again. Suffice it to say, I'm really looking forward to falling asleep to the sound of the loons again.

That is, of course, if the weather is at all reasonable. Weather for Kingston is supposed to be a little cool this weekend. Hard to say what it's going to be like out at the lake. If the north wind kicks up, then it's going to turn into a DVD-watching festival. But, if not, there might be a bit of kayaking and sailing going on. Probably not enough warmth for tube-floating, though.

The visit wih my father and stepmother went well. Contrary to my cynical suspicions, there was no motivation behind the trip other than a desire to visit with my sister, myself, and our respective significant others. Dad seems like he's much more relaxed now that he's no longer working two jobs, and I think he may actually be ready for retirement. Time will tell, though.

Thanks largely to his most recent visit, I've since acquired a new dream car. I think the 1967 Shelby Cobra 427 will always have a special place in my heart, but I need to be realistic here. All I could ever afford would be a replica. The body would be made out of fibreglass, and it would never be quite the same as owning a real one.

Enter the Caterham Super 7.

Caterham owns the rights to the Lotus Super 7 design. So while it's a continuation of a successful design, it's still a real car, and not a replicar. Also, the body panels are aluminum, which keeps the weight low without diminishing the appearance. Modern cars, such as the Audi A8, BMW 7-series, and the Jaguar XK have all moved to aluminum bodies in the name of performance. Another thing that's notable for Canada: aluminum oxidizes, but it doesn't rust.

Also (and I throw this in purely as an aside), the Caterham Super 7 is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds. That's performance to match or exceed even the most exotic of supercars. Now, we'll forgive it for having a top speed of 155 mph, but considering where it would be running, I think it's understandable. Besides, most supercars are governed well below their top speed in North America... as if you needed a physical reason to not travel at 300 km/h down a Canadian road.

It gets this out of a four-cylinder, 260 HP engine. That makes it much, much better on fuel than a Cobra or comparable vehicle... let alone some 12 cylinder monster from Italy.

The lines aren't quite as sleek as the Cobra, but at least the roll bar covers both driver and passenger. Plus, put in a set of the wheel covers that stretch back to midway through the body and a nice paint job, and you've got yourself a classic sports car.

Of course, I still don't have a garage. Or any need for a second car. Or the spare cash to purchase one. But that's why it's a dream car. But at least it's an obtainable dream...

I'm not going to get my hopes up on the cottage until I know what the weather's like. But I will update on how the trip went, after the fact. Until then, Cheers - and I promise to lay of the car talk for at least a month or so.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Ryan News (in point form)

To begin with, I deeply regret having not blogged in close to a month. I wish I could say that I was distracted by worthwhile pursuits, but more often than not, blogging has been playing second fiddle to downloaded episodes of 24, and Pirate's of the Caribbean (for XBox). I love you all dearly, but perhaps not as much I love raking the deck of a Galleon with grapeshot.

Just kidding, of course.

Of course, not only have I sinned grievously by not updating my own blog, I've also been neglecting all of your blogs as well. So expect to see lots of hits from me in the next few days.

Seeing as a whole month has passed by, there's some catching up to do:

- Andrea moved to Ottawa this past month. She found a beautiful one bedroom apartment that isn't too far from mine, and is in the process of finding a job. I still haven't gotten her a housewarming present yet, but I did happen to notice that her apartment is tragically short on video game consoles and Scotch.

- As part of becoming healthimified, I've started playing tennis (read: whacking a ball back and forth between Andrea and myself once or twice a week) and riding my bike to work. Coincidentally, these past few weeks have been solid rain, followed by ludicrous heat. On the bright side, showing up at work covered in sweat virtually guarantees more personal space in my shared cubicle.

- Take that, Galleon! Pow! Pow! Prepare to be boarded!

- Some good friends of mine were married last weekend. It was a beautiful ceremony, and drew upon Scottish, Lebanese, and French-Canadian culture. We smoked cigars on a balcony and there was, needless to say, an abundance of Scotch. It also featured a buffet with a roast that must've weighed at least 60 pounds. Come to think of it, I still can't figure out why I left without a fight.

- I received an award for the work I did with my previous job in early May. It was a bit of a surprise to everyone at my new part-time-workplace, and a pretty big surprise to me, as well. It's a very nice plaque with a certificate and signatures and everything. It's now at my new workplace, where it's helping me develop some credibility. Thus far, it appears to be working. Or maybe it's just the peanut butter cookies that Andrea baked for everyone. Really, it's quite hard to tell.

- My Dad and stepmother are flying into town this weekend for what must be their first ever visit-without-an-ulterior-purpose. That is to say, they've visited before for graduations or other special occasions, but never just for the sake of visiting. Dad has recently entered semi-retirement, so that is a special occasion of sorts. But is there some additional surprise motive for the visit? Stay tuned to find out...

Thanks to those of you who stuck out my hiatus, and I promise to write more in the days to come.