Sun, 30 Oct 2005

What a Cruise!

Looking over the entries over the past two weeks, we've had the time of our lives. I've posted our pictures over here as well as the raw (read: up to 2MB in size, comprising nearly 350MB)) images over here. If you're interested in all of them, get the ZIP (350MB).

With one exception (Magen's bay, read below), our trip was amazing. We were seated with six other Disney fanatics at the dinner table, and only one of them wasn't an adult! And several of our table companions were fellow computer geeks like us (I found Dana's bio here and found his Subversion from Within slide deck a compelling argument for when to apply scripting languages like Python (or Perl or Ruby, for that matter) in a company).

The food was fantastic (but I'm glad I'm not eating quite so rich with every meal), the islands scenic, the weather wonderful, the Disney shows and entertainment magical, and the two of us completely rested and relaxed, as our nearly 300 photos bear witness (P.S. I'm pretty happy with the Fuji-- the image quality in some shots are not my favorite, but if I had brought the Olympus, I'd probably have a fraction of the images I took). Properly incented (you get a discount when you book the next cruise onboard), we even booked next years' cruise, so if you're inclined to join us (and you really should!) we're setting sail to the Western Carribean next November!

That said, we're happy to be home, and hope you'll join us on our next one. :-)

Fri, 28 Oct 2005

Shop Girl

At 12:01am today, Shop Girl premiered on the Disney Magic, and I was there to catch it in the Walt Disney Theater. First of all, it's pretty cool that Disney is showing first-run, premiere films on board.

Second, go see this movie, particularly if you happen to know somebody named Cale Burr. The character "Jeremy" seems to be based on Cale, or someone like him. For starters, he designs fonts. Second, he's into hard rock. Third, he's a design fanatic. The only character trait that they didn't establish in the first five minutes of the film that was reminiscent of Cale was that he wasn't driving a Celica, and his hair had obviously been recently cut.

There were some narrative passages I thought were laziness on Steve Martin's storytelling part... The audience can read behind the lines if you tell the story in the right way with the right dramatic devices and give your actors the direction they need to get the point across.

To make matters worse, the narrator's voice is Martin's, so it's difficult to figure out if the voice is some impartial narrator, or if it's the voice of Ray (the character Steve plays in the movie). He speaks of Ray in the third person, so you presume it's not him speaking, but I don't think that it would have been any better to hire some narrator to read the passages and introduce a strange voice that hasn't been with the audience during the drama.

All in all, other than unnecessarily patronizing the audience in parts, the movie was thoroughly enjoyable.

Thu, 27 Oct 2005

St. Thomas

We arrived in St. Thomas today. Alas our shore excursion wasn't quite as nice as the day before in St. Maarten. We went to Magen's Bay, which is actually pretty picturesque. However, the first thing we did was walk along the bay, where we crossed a small stream which smelled like sewage, streaming into the bay a steady stream of brown water. I have an adage (I recently made up) which goes like this: "If it smells like sh*t, it's sh*t". Now the contractor who was providing the excursion explained that it was runoff from Wilma which had dumped lots of rain on the island, and indeed, the smell seemed to extend a quarter mile back from the beach and the trees seemed to resemble a recently created swampland. The excursion people mentioned there were mango groves nearby. Fertilizer, sewage, it didn't quite matter to me. And while the water streamed into the bay a quarter mile away, I didn't want to take chances on getting sick in the middle of a cruise.

I'm not aware of other people in the bay who got sick, but we were one of only two parties who left immediately after arriving. Instead, we returned to the ship, had lunch, went swimming in the ship pool, and went shopping for some booze (which is not taxed here). We bought approximately ten liters of rum, Chambord, and vodka at an average price of $10/1L bottle.

We also saw the Princess liner again, although we were docked in another bay and couldn't verify who arrived first or who left last. In any case, there were two Princess liners (along with a Carnival cruise lines ship), which is relatively unusual-- cruise companies avoid two ships in the same ports of call on the same day, but it seemed clear to me that Princess, like Disney, had sent their Western Carribean cruise on an Eastern itinerary for the same reason. Two weeks from now, when the Magic is expected to do another Western Carribean cruise, they'll probably come east like us too, because I suspect Cozumel and Grand Cayman will be mopping up after Wilma for a few more weeks.

Tomorrow we have a day at sea, followed by a day at Castaway Cay, which is appropriately billed as the ultimate day at the beach. Shouldn't be any sewage situations (or Princess cruise liners) there.

Tue, 25 Oct 2005

Cruise Envy

We pulled into St. Maarten/Martin (Maarten is governed by the Dutch; Martin by the French, collectively a single island in the Eastern Carribean) yesterday. The day before was a day at sea on the way to St. Maarten, and I had been avidly watching outside our verandah deck for storms, islands, constellations, and occassionally other ships.

On our port side (the side of the ship we're on) I noticed another cruise ship at approximately 10 o'clock (looking down on our ship where the bow is at 12 o'clock and the stern at 6 o'clock). This sighting was right before dinner at around 8pm. After dinner and evening activities, by 11pm, what appeared to be the same cruise ship was now at a 7 o'clock position.

We were literally cruising along at nearly 30mph. The captain had earlier stated (on the intercom) that he intended to make time on the first half of the journey to get ahead of Tropical Storm Alpha. As a result the top deck (Deck 10) which is most exposed to wind, was enjoying a pretty brisk breeze all evening.

When we first pulled up into port, we were the first cruise ship there. About a half-hour later, I noticed a Princess Cruise Line ship pull into the Phillipsburg harbor and eventually dock next to us on the starboard side. I glanced over and said to Christine, "I bet the children on that ship are saying 'I wish I was on the Disney boat'. Meanwhile I bet there are no kids on the Disney ship saying the opposite".

When we finally disembarked to visit Tintamar island on our excursion, I was struck by the sheer size of the Princess liner. It was nearly twice as wide as the Disney Magic (probably closer to 60% wider) and certainly at least 10-20% taller. Considering the laps I was running around the exercise deck around the Magic are a quarter mile, an equivalent lap around the Princess liner would clearly be a third mile.

I only half-convinced myself that the total number of people on board, the opportunity to obtain a particular shore excursion, crowding at events and pool decks still made Disney the better choice.

By the way, Tintamar was literally a paradise island. Clear azure waters, tropical fish, beautiful soft sand, carribean breeze, palm trees. We then returned to the ship, and after showering we headed into town to tour the shops and visit the French side of the island.

But by the time we returned to Phillipsberg (Dutch) from Marigot (the French side) I was thoroughly convinced Disney was a better choice: while they had arrived an hour later, their departure was at least an hour earlier! Our shore time was nearly ten hours, theirs less than eight. It seems the Disney Magic has a superior power/tonnage ratio based on the fact that we keep passing them on the open seas.

On top of that, prior to dinner, we slowed to approximately five knots to celebrate a Carribean Pirate's party on the top deck. Disney cordoned off a quarter of the rear of the boat, and turned the boat facing South so it could shoot off a fireworks display as part of the party. In the distance a few miles to the west, what should I see but what appeared to be the Princess liner? If any of their passengers saw our fireworks, I'm sure the envy was all theirs. On top of that, before I went to bed, the ship was much closer than it was only an hour prior.

Sun, 23 Oct 2005

Why Carribean Cruises Make Sense

Prior to our cruise, a page on the Disney Cruise Line page provided Wilma updates which stated that the cruise would embark on schedule-- from Ft. Lauderdale instead of Port Canaveral. It seems only the perfect storm (placed centrally between Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral) would deter Disney from launching the cruise, and after stalling around Cancun, Wilma certainly did not qualify. So the only major risk of having our vacation ruined was if Alaskan cancelled any flights, and again, Wilma was too slow to have any effect on anything except our itinerary.

Now Christine and I were particularly interested in a Western Carribean cruise, so it was a little disappointing to have the itinerary changed, but not nearly any sort of hardship considering what the poor folks who are in a terrestrial resort in Cozumel or Cancun must be experiencing (not to mention the actual residents).

Which brings me finally to my point: If you intend to travel near the Carribean any time during hurricane season, seriously consider a cruise. With flexible options for ports of departure (and arrival), and the ability to change itineraries on a moment's notice, a cruise is practically its own travel insurance. The cruise companies take every effort to reshuffle their ports of call to accomodate the best weather and cruising conditions.

Sat, 22 Oct 2005

Orlando & Cocoa Beach

We arrived in Orlando at 6am today after our red-eye out of Seattle. The flight and landing was smooth, and the weather in Orlando was pleasant. Certainly no sign of a impending hurricane. The first Disney bus to Port Canaveral departed at 9am, so rather than waiting three hours, we rented a car and headed for Cocoa Beach. After a liesurely one hour drive to the Florida coast, we arrived looking for breakfast.

While looking for a decent spot to grab a bite, we spotted a Walgreens, which I recalled seemed to have a decently stocked photo department from my experience back home. While they didn't have any 1GB cards, they did have a 512MB card which cost nearly as much as the 1GB card at Frys.

I spotted a "Waffle House", which Christine informed me is a regional chain. It was new to me, so we had a quick (and surprisingly delicious) bite. Better than any breakfast I've had at a Denny's (or perhaps it was just being so hungry after a long transcontinental flight).

Shortly thereafter we found public access to Cocoa Beach, and quickly filled the 16MB card. It was nearing 11am by this time, so it was time to return the rental and take a shuttle to the cruise terminal. But not without stopping at the legendary "Ron Jon Surf Shop" where I picked up a second pair of swimming trunks (I never expected that one pair would suffice with multiple opportunities to go swimming each day of our cruise) and a souvenir t-shirt.

Fri, 21 Oct 2005


So I forgot to bring my 1GB card with me. With all the hustle and bustle in advance of our trip, the card and the cable to download pictures to my laptop were left behind. My brand new Fuji Z1 is equipped with its completely inadequate stock 16MB card. Considering my first task was to take about six pictures of my cats, that leaves about a dozen more pictures I can take before I run out of space. Looks like I'm going to have to go card shopping before I board the ship! And no, the various in-flight companies at the airport didn't carry xD cards. SD and Memory Stick yes, xD, no. Bummer.

Wilma Part III

Our Western Carribean vacation just became an Eastern Carribean vacation. Disney has changed the itinerary to avoid Wilma. That's a bit of a disappointment, actually, since I was looking forward to visiting Key West, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel. But considering the facts as they are, Cozumel is essentially being hit by Wilma as I type, and Grand Cayman is likely enduring substantial flooding.

So, we'll now be on our way to St. Maarten, St. Thomas, St. John, and Castaway Cay. Of course, none of this would have likely been possible had Wilma not loitered off the Yucatan peninsula. Now we just cross our fingers and hope the Orlando airport won't be closed due to high winds.

I am under the impression that the cloud cover over Florida now are in the stratosphere and wouldn't affect airline travel. This impression is bolstered by this link at MCO.

Name/Blog: Jason
Title: Be Safe!
Comment/Excerpt: Glad to hear that at least the entire trip isn't being cancelled. No matter what, you two are on a cruise. You all get the drink cocktails at any hour. No worries of life, work, and all the crap that we face daily. Enjoy your trip, have fun, and be safe!

Thu, 20 Oct 2005

Mini-Camera shopping

I own an aging, but otherwise excellent digital camera, an Olympus C3030 Zoom, which is a three megapixel camera with 4x optical zoom. Sure, it's showing its age by using four AA batteries, and the ancient Camedia data cards. But specifications and features aside, every camera is worthless if it's too bulky to bring along when a Kodak moment arises. So, I began to look for a mini-digital camera in advance of my impending cruise that I could feel was small enough to not feel obstrusive during our various shore excursions.

Tom recommended several of the Canon Elph series. When I headed to our local Frys, however, several of them were in poor condition. The battery doors, which appeared to be metallic, but were actually flimsy pieces of plastic. Three out of the five models they had on the showroom floor had broken battery doors, which I felt were a disconcerting sign about durability. In the end, I weighed the Canon Elph SD450, a Sony Cybershot DSC-T3, and a Fuji Finepix Z1, each with 5MP and 3X optical zoom.

Ultimately, I decided on the Fuji for several reasons, the primary of which was size. This camera is tiny for a 5MP 3X Optical Zoom camera. It's a bit smaller than a 3G 20GB iPod. In fact, it fits perfectly inside my iPod clip case that came with said iPod, and weighs about the same. While it came with a measly 16MB card, Frys was offering a 1GB card for only $69 (after rebate), and for a total cost (with tax) of under $400 for both, I was sold. One key feature I was looking forward to was using it as a simple video camera (I have a great Panasonic video camera, but like the Olympus, it's so bulky it tends to gather dust rather than seeing any action), hence the need for a 1GB card.

Wed, 19 Oct 2005

Wilma Part II

Yesterday, Wilma was predicted to make landfall on the Western Florida coast on Saturday morning, right about when our flight was expected to land.

Did you hear that? That's a big sigh of relief. Because at this point, when our flight lands, Wilma will have just turned the corner around the tip of Cuba. By the time our ship departs on Saturday afternoon, the storm will be headed toward the Florida Keys, which still presents a problem, which probably means we won't make it to Key West until later in the cruise (it's generally the first port of call).

Considering it could have been much worse, that's not so bad. It certainly will be interesting considering all our ports of call will have just recently encountered hurricane force winds. I'll be sure to take lots of pictures!

Tue, 18 Oct 2005

Bad Timing

A month ago, Christine and I booked a Disney Cruise. At the time we were trying to choose between October and November. November is less convenient because it's closer to the holidays, and holiday weather. October is closer to hurricane season. I suggested October because, at the time, Rita was the season's 18th storm. How many more hurricanes could there be in one season?

Today we found out. Her name is Wilma. The year's 21st hurricane, and the first time since 1933 that we've had as many in one season. Who knew this would be a record setting year?

And Wilma looks like a cruise-buster. Our flight leaves Friday at 11pm, arriving Saturday 5:30am in Orlando. At this point, Wilma is expected to have turned the corner of Western Cuba headed northeast. By the time we're expected to board the boat around 11am, Wilma's winds will already be buffeting Western Florida. The ship is expected to depart Port Canaveral (smack in the middle of the projected hurricane path) at 5pm, as the hurricane makes landfall. Our first scheduled stop is Key West (although if the ship does leave port, they're likely to shift the itinerary around) which again, will be taking a wallop from Wilma.

Will your intrepid travellers be able to board their flight? Will the flight land in Orlando, or be directed elsewhere (Atlanta)? Will they be permitted to board the ship? Will the ship make its first port of call Key West? Will it visit Grand Cayman, battered only days before by Wilma? Stay tuned for this and more in next week's installment of "Unfortunate Timing: The Adventures of Khan & Christine"!

Sun, 16 Oct 2005


The New Passat is upon us. What's also new about the New Passat launch is how it's being launched. I'm talking about alpha:drivers. (news coverage)

And if you figured me the kind of person who'd sign up, you'd be right.

The key perk not mentioned in the news article is that each Alpha:Driver gets up to a $1000 rebate on the purchase or lease of a New Passat.

Which begs the question of what to do when my current lease expires in March. Conventional wisdom states that if the residual value is higher at lease end, buy the car and keep it, or sell it for a profit. Otherwise, if the residual value is lower, walk away since the same car off the market could be had for less.

The $1000 rebate makes it tempting to get into a New Passat at the end of the lease, but it's not that simple. First, the entry price for a V6 Passat has climbed steeply. So steep, in fact, that an A3 DSG offers the same key features I'm looking for, for several grand less.

Second, since my last article, I've weighed my priorities in a vehicle, and the breakdown, in order of priority, is fuel economy (used with each revolution of the engine), DSG (used with each gear shift), wagon/hatch (used with the occasional trip home from the hardware store), and 4MOTION (used in only the most extreme driving conditions).

In that light, the vehicles that offer those benefits, in order of preference, are the A3 DSG (with 31mpg, DSG, and hatch), followed by the Jetta TDI DSG (42mpg, DSG, but no hatch or AWD), my current Passat (29mpg, no DSG, but wagon + AWD), and the 2006 Passat 2.0T Wagon (30mpg, no DSG or AWD, but wagon).

When weighing the prices, the cheapest is the Jetta, the most expensive the 2006 Passat even with the $1000 rebate check (which is in last place anyway).

And, by March, it's unlikely that VW will launch a Passat with TDI, or DSG, or 4MOTION. Jalopnik suggests we won't see a Jetta Wagon of any kind well past March either. Which means my next car will probably be one of these configurations:

Vehicle Economy DSG "Avant" AWD MSRP
(closely configured)
'06 Audi A3 27/31 mpg Y Y N ~$28,000
'06 Jetta TDI 35/42 mpg Y N N ~$28,000
'02 VW Passat GLX Wagon 25/29 mpg N Y Torsen N/A
'06 VW Passat 2.0T Wagon 25/30 mpg (est.) N Y N ~$28,000

The question is whether I'm willing to take the Jetta sans hatch in favor of its better fuel economy over the A3, or to remain in the Passat (residual permitting). The $1000 rebate is barely keeping the low-end 2006 Passat Wagon in the running.

To be fair, the Passat is a much larger car, and for those who need that extra space (breeders: I'm looking at you ;-), for those of you for whom a Jetta or A3 is too small, my recommendation is still to seriously consider the Passat. It's A6 quality and features at an A4 price.

Name/Blog: Jason
Title: BMW?
Comment/Excerpt: What about BMW?

Name/Blog: Khan
Title: Why Not BMW?
Comment/Excerpt: The 325ix Sport Wagon starts at $34K, with none cheaper than $30K. They get poor gas mileage (the 325ix sedan gets 20/27mpg), and the entry ticket for SMG is > $40K. The Mercedes C230 is a little bit better. Still, it hovers around $30K, and that's with no Wagon, no 4MATIC, and no SMG. One Euro-hatch/wagon that gets close is the Saab 9-3 Sentronic (SMT) wagon (22/31mpg) at just over $30K. Another is the Mini Cooper-S which can be loaded chock-full of options for $28K including "Agitronic" which might just be a fancy Tiptronic rather than SMG/SMT/DSG...

Name/Blog: Jason
Comment/Excerpt: the Japanese automakers tend to make decent vehicles. What they lack in performance and some styling, they seem to make up for in reliability, price, and fuel economy. No I am not saying go out and get a Honda Civic, or a Hyundai, or some hybrid vehicle, but maybe something that is offered from Acura? Doesn't it seem to you that the 2006 Jetta, Passat, and soon the GTI have all taken some styling from the Japanese auto makers. why? Why would they want to go to the "dark side"? While the Cooper car is fun and has tons of options for you to choose from, bottom line it is more of a hassle. The cost of ownership is crazy! Not to mention you have to drive to Fife just to get the oil change (special computer system that requires dealer reset).

Name/Blog: Khan
Title: Fife?
Comment/Excerpt: Wow you're right! Only one dealer in the area! As far as Acura, again- no DSG, less than decent gas mileage, no 4-door hatches/wagons... I also looked at Lexus, Honda and Mazda. Mostly the same story. For less than $30K, none have DSG, and surprisingly many get dismal gas mileage with few options for AWD.

Khan Klatt

Khan Klatt's photo