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Archive for December, 2010

I just got back from a dental appointment this morning.  I hadn’t been to the dentist in a while and… well, it showed.  I had to get some work done.

Now, nobody likes going to the dentist.  It’s something we do because we have to, not because we want to.  Ergo, I decided to go because I had to.  I wasn’t ready for the experience of going to the dentist, because when I went I had 20 x-rays done.  It was at least that many because I counted.  They put this ring in my mouth and my gag reflex started going crazy, and they did it over and over!  What the heck?  I never remembered my former dentist back in Canada having to take so many x-rays!  To be sure, I had them done and the experience totally sucked, but I think I only had 2 or at most 4 done.  I sure as heck never had 20.

The verdict was that I had to have 5 fillings done, 3 on the bottom and 2 on the top – all on the same side.  Blargh.  I also have to have my extra wisdom tooth pulled (that wasn’t news to me).  I currently have zero fillings and have been lucky not to need any for a long time, but I knew it was only a matter of time before I would have to have it done.

Now, I have a fairly strong gag reflex.  What’s worse is that my jaw muscles are tight because my back muscles are tight and that leads to tightness in my shoulders and it all comes down to tightness in my hamstrings.  As a result, I can’t open my jaw that wide.  Massage therapy helps but I haven’t had a massage in nearly 3 and a 1/2 years.  Ergo, it’s not easy for a dentist to work on my teeth.

They ended up putting this plastic thingie in my mouth, clamped some metal ring thing around a tooth, and put a little brace on my opposite side of my mouth in order to prop it open because I just couldn’t hold my jaw open or wide enough for very long.  The muscles get tired and pull it closed.  The metal thingie was lodged far in the back of my mouth and it took a lot of concentration to breathe through my nose.  That’s my tip to all of you – focus on breathing through your nose and it makes the experience better.

They worked on my mouth for a while and stuck me with needles multiple times.  That hurt (it hurts now to open my jaw due to the soreness at the entry points).  But it did numb my mouth, even now I can’t feel 1/3 of my mouth on the bottom.  I only had 3 fillings done and I have to go back for more.  They asked me if I wanted to get the wisdom tooth pulled and I said “Oh, heck no!”

All in all, I was in the office for almost three hours and I am not yet finished!  I have to go back to get the other fillings done (my filling-less streak is over).  It was not the most pleasant medical experience I have had.  In fact, this rates at the bottom.

However, there was some good news.  My teeth color (i.e., the white) looks really good. They asked me if I bleach my teeth or use a coloring toothpaste and I responded in the negative.  They asked me if I used a SonicCare to brush my teeth because my gums were in such good condition, and again I responded in the negative.  Apparently I do a good job of brushing.  Well, that’s a relief.  However, my flossing sucks since all of the cavities where in between my teeth.

All in all, I’d have to say that I don’t enjoy going to the dentist, it’s something that I have to do, not that I want to do.  But, better to go and endure a little (hmm… maybe a significant amount) of discomfort now rather than really paying for it later.

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I was reading some articles on personal finance advisor Dave Ramsey’s site and specifically, his advice on what debts someone should pay off first.  Ramsey’s advice is that given all of your debts, line them up in order of largest to smallest and pay off the smallest one first.  This is regardless of the interest rate.

Why would you do such a thing?  Ramsey claims that this is psychological in nature.  Even though mathematically it makes more sense to pay off the highest rate of interest first since that is the one that will suck you dry and force you to pay the most interest which does not go towards the cost of the item but instead goes straight to the financer, paying off the smallest one first provides the most psychological rewards.  If you have the following:

  1. Debt 1, $15,000, interest rate of 8%
  2. Debt 2, $25,000, interest rate of 4%
  3. Debt 3, $30,000, interest rate of 11%

If you pay off the smallest one, your debt sheet looks like the following:

  1. Debt 2, $25,000, interest rate of 4%
  2. Debt 3, $30,000, interest rate of 11%

You now only have to worry about paying off two of them – your balance sheet is 1/3 smaller!.  Because you have removed one slice of debt from you, it provides positive reinforcement and motivation to keep doing it.  If you pay off the highest interest account first, even though when you do pay it off you’ll save more money, it will take you longer to do.  And if it takes too long to do, you become discouraged and it’s easier to break off the discipline of paying it off because of the lack of noticeable results.

What do I think about this?  Well, I actually happen to agree with Dave Ramsey because that’s what I did.  Earlier this year, I paid off my student loan first because it was the smallest account.  Then I paid off my car loan because it was the next biggest account.  Next up is my condo, which will take me 500 years to pay off.  I did it in that order without ever being aware that this is what Ramsey recommends.  So, I can personally attest to the fact that paying off something actually feels pretty good and provides you with motivation to do more.

I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wants to pay off the highest interest bearing account first because there is some value there, but seeing results does provide positive reinforcement and we, as humans, require that sort of thing in order to keep us motivated in the right direction.

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Secret confession

I have a confession to make.

A year and a half ago, I performed a magic effect at a campout wherein I revealed the secret how it was done.  The effect was every entertaining, and I then revealed how I accomplished it.  The trick is meant to get people to enjoy seeing how it was performed and the techniques I used to pull it off.  At the end, I have a twist ending.  In this case, I performed a book test, and here is a quick rundown:

Initially, I pick someone from the audience and get him to help me out by standing to the side:

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Next, a member of the audience is randomly selected, a selection of three books is presented to the audience, they all vote on it and then this second member of the audience is encouraged to randomly select a word from the book.  At no time do I ever sneak a peek at the book, it is facing away from me the entire time:

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I then go through a few verbal effects and read her mind by using some suggestion techniques.  In the end, I guess what word she picked from the book.  Hooray!

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But, wait!  How did I accomplish the trick?

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I then explain to the audience exactly how I accomplished it.  I did it all on the fly.  When I presented the choice of three books to the audience, I used some verbal controls and they were all subconscious.  To illustrate it, if I were to say to you “Don’t think of a black cat”, what do you do?  You think of a back cat because the command “… think of a black cat” was there in the sentence. 

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In a similar manner, when the audience picked the book, I said that “… they could pick the book Alice in Wonderland.”  The command “Pick Alice in Wonderland” was in the sentence, and indeed, most people selected that one.  Then, I randomly chose a word in the book and influenced the second volunteer into picking that random word.  I used some word salad that didn’t make much sense like “see 148 say stop” which subconsciously said to them “When you see the page 148, say stop” and sure enough, when my audience participant saw page 148, she said stop as I was flipping through the book.  I did this a few times and that’s how I got her to pick the word I needed her to pick.  That’s how I explained it to the audience and everyone was impressed at how the trick worked.  It’s one heck of a risk, but if it works it looks amazing!  Just like how a juggler requires a lot of skill, a mentalist using suggestion requires a lot of skill in a high-risk environment like that.  If she doesn’t do what I need her to do, the trick fails.

At the end, I closed with a surprise ending.  My first audience member, the one who has been off to the side the entire time, comes back to me.  I then do the kicker ending – the word that the audience member picked after he had already been up on stage has been written across his arm!  Not my arm, but his arm!  It’s an incredible finish!  How did that happen?!  He is not a stooge.

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So, the effect of the trick is that I go ahead and explain how it was done, and at the end the audience is left wondering “Wow, how in the world did that word get written on the volunteer’s arm?  That’s impossible!”

I have been living with this secret for a year and a half now and I was planning on taking it to my grave and writing this up a secret document in my will so that when I died, they would read this out and people would realize that they had been fooled for the last xx years.  However, I am deciding to unveil this now because I think it’s time for the secret to be revealed, and it’s particularly awesome, and only a few people read this blog anyhow.

Some people don’t want to know how the trick is accomplished.  Indeed, I have found that most people don’t want to know because once they do, it’s no longer as impressive.  To them, it destroys the magic and I agree.  Thus, to them, my trick is still really cool but it’s a bit disappointing that I reveal a small part of it, although still retain the kicker ending.  That still salvages it.  And that part will not be revealed in this secret confession.

For you see, from the audience’s perspective, the trick consists of one secret – how did the word get written onto the arm of the spectator?  That one part of the trick fooled them.

However, from my perspective, the audience has been fooled with three secrets:

  1. The first secret they are aware of.  How did the word get written onto the arm of the spectator?  If you think you know, then I have this to say to you – unless you are a magician you actually don’t know how it was done.
  2. The second secret they are not aware of.  How did I guess the word the spectator was thinking of?  “Oh, that’s easy,” you say, “you explained it with verbal manipulation.”
  3. Or did I?  The third secret is the best secret and only I am aware of it.  The third secret is that I have fooled the audience into thinking I have legitimately revealed the secret of how I did the trick.  But here’s the thing – I didn’t reveal the actual secret! Ha, ha, ha!

    The audience thinks they now know how it was done.  But they don’t actually know because the explanation I gave is not at all true!  It’s complete misdirection.  To be sure, I say all of the things I said during the trick but it is not how I did it.  I said things like “pick Alice In Wonderland” and “see 148 say stop” and “choose journey.”  Yes, I do say all of those things but I say them all in order to tell the audience I said them and that’s how I accomplished the trick.  In other words, the entire trick is a setup in order to fool the audience into not even knowing that they have been fooled! 

    So to summarize, if you think you know how I was correctly able to guess the spectator’s word because I told you how I did it using verbal suggestion then you are wrong.  I tricked you into thinking that!  It’s not at all how I did it!

    And I believe that is the best part of the trick because it is the one that is the most satisfying to me – tricking the entire audience without them even knowing it!  The walk away thinking they know something, but they only know what I want them to know.

Thus, the first secret is still intact and now the second secret that was “revealed” goes back to being a secret.  Surely you don’t think I’d actually give away a secret to muggles, do you?  No, this particular reveal was actually an elaborate misdirection in order to provide a very entertaining trick to the audience (it’s a ton of fun to watch) and an entertaining trick to myself wherein I can admire my own cleverness.  Afterwards, a friend of mine came up to me and said I “Penn and Tellered” it, a reference to the two magicians who reveal how tricks are done.  I agreed with him (still performing even after the trick was done) but in reality I did not do a Penn and Teller because what I said I did was all part of the trick to accomplish a secret effect.

And now, reader, you have been let in to a clever little trick.  If you ever get a chance to see the trick again, maybe you’ll have something else to watch for.

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Well, it’s Christmas time so I thought I would put up a post about the Christmas story.  This is the story that is well known to many of us in the west, it is the story of Jesus’s birth.  We all know the story and it goes something like this:

Mary and Joseph have to leave their home town of Nazareth for a Roman census and report back to their hometowns, in Joseph’s case this is Bethlehem.  They leave Nazareth when Mary is very pregnant and arrive into town but cannot find any hotels (inns) with spare rooms.  One of the innkeepers lets them stay in a stable with the animals and Jesus is born that night.  Later on that night, some shepherds who are tending their flocks receive an announcement from an angel that Jesus has been born, so they head into town to see the new born child.  At about the same time, wise men from the east follow a star into Bethlehem and bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  They all come to worship the newborn king – not a king in earthly terms, but a king in spiritual terms.

That’s the basis of the story, and it’s a nice story.  The problem is that it’s not quite what happened. The reason is that the story of Jesus’s birth has contradictions in it with regards to the timelines, and in my view, these contradictions are irreconcilable.  Fortunately, I don’t think that it matters very much because the point of the stories is not to tell a chronological history but instead to assert a theological point.  You may not agree with my conclusion, and that’s perfectly fine.  However, if you want to check out my timelines the good news is that you can read it yourself in the New Testament and map it out on your own.

The story of Jesus’s birth is found in only two of the gospels – the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke.  It is not found in either of Mark or John, and it is not found in any of Paul’s writings.  Indeed, most of the details of Jesus’s birth are found in Luke’s gospels.  Matthew doesn’t have that much of a story.  It’s a little unfortunate that both of them are mixed together because it then tells a story that neither Matthew nor Luke told, but that’s not really the point of this post.

In Matthew, Joseph is betrothed to Mary when the angel announces to him that Mary is pregnant with child, conceived by the Holy Spirit.  The narrative then moves to Matt 2:1 where it is stated that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  This is not that much an issue at this point and it doesn’t state how they got there, but it implies that this was their home (more on this later).  But after Jesus is born, the wise men from the east come to visit and are paused by King Herod.  They talk to him and Herod becomes angry, secretly plotting to kill Jesus. The wise men continue and arrive at Jesus and worship him.  Note that this takes quite a while because they traveled by caravan, not car.  It takes weeks to months to travel that distance (coming from the east).  Note that Herod orders all infants under two years to be killed.  Why two years and not infants?  No doubt because Jesus had been born some time earlier.

Joseph and Mary hear of this plot and immediately flee to Egypt.  They stay there for about three months and then decide to return to Israel.  But they don’t return to Bethlehem, instead they go to Nazareth because Bethlehem is now ruled by Archelaus, the son of Herod.  So, from this story it appears that Bethlehem was their original home but they go to Nazareth, which was not their original home.  And that’s all we have in the story as retold by Matthew.  There really are not that many details.

The gospel of Luke contains way more details of the story of Jesus’s birth.  To summarize briefly, Mary and Joseph, and their cousins Elisabeth and Zechariah, are clearly living in Nazareth.  An angel appears to Zechariah and announces that Elisabeth will become pregnant with John the Baptist.  Six months later, the angel announces to Mary that she will become pregnant with Jesus.  About 9 months after that, Caesar announces a census and everyone has to return their own town to register.  So, Joseph takes Mary to Bethlehem because that was where he was originally from.  They take the trip and Jesus is born and placed in a manger because there was no room at the inn.  Later that night, an angel appears to the shepherds and announces that Jesus has been born, so the shepherds go and visit the newborn king (can you see so far how much of the Christmas narrative that we think of comes from Luke’s gospel?). 

So far, so good.  But here is where the story continues… On the eight day after Jesus’s birth, Mary and Joseph go to Jerusalem to have the child circumcised.  While there, Jesus is seen by a righteous man named Simeon who praises God that he has seen the child, and a prophetess named Anna who gives thanks.  After Mary and Joseph do everything required by the law (that took about 40 days), they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth (Luke 2:39).

The two stories really don’t have much in common with each other except for the following three points:

  • Jesus was born of a virgin to his mother, Mary
  • Jesus was born in Bethlehem
  • Jesus was brought up in the town of Nazareth

The rest of the details in one story are not found in the other.  This is not a contradiction because one story is telling details that the other does not, but consider the differences:

  • In Matthew, Mary and Joseph’s home town is Bethlehem (it sure appears to be that way) and that’s why they are there.  In Luke, it is Nazareth and they go to Bethlehem only for a short period of time as a temporary stop
  • In Matthew, Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem for a long period of time – long enough for the wise men to come and visit.  This is perhaps 12 – 18 months?  After 12-18 months, they leave.  In Luke, they stay for less than a week and then they leave.
  • In Matthew, Mary and Joseph leave to go to Egypt and remain there for three months (not stated in the story but attested to by scholars regarding how long Herod’s death took).  In Luke, they go to Jerusalem for about 40 days.
  • In Matthew, Mary and Joseph plan to return to Bethlehem but decide not to because they wanted to avoid the ruler who was living nearby, so instead they go to Nazareth.  In Luke, Mary and Joseph plan to return to Nazareth because that’s where they actually live.  Bethlehem was only a pit stop.

You can see that the timelines do not fit.  You can try to mash them and come up with a creative, resolved chronology, but then you have created a story that neither Matthew nor Luke told. 

On the other hand, do the differences matter that much?

It only matters if we think that the gospel writers were interested in telling a literal history.  Matthew, especially, goes to great lengths to prove that Jesus was foretold in the Old Testament.  For example, he quotes Micah 5:2 to show that Jesus was prophesied to come out of Bethlehem.  But it was also well known to contemporaries in Jesus’s day that he was from Nazareth.  Thus, he has a story to show why Jesus was from Bethlehem but was known as Jesus of Nazareth.  His theme is that Jesus was special and chosen by God and foretold in the Old Testament.  Similarly, his point is that Jesus’s birth was divine, not of ordinary human means.  Luke is telling the same thing.  The point is theological – that Jesus was special and that his origins were supernatural in nature.

I view it somewhat like the story of George Washington’s honesty when he cut down the cherry tree (I cannot tell a lie, it was me).  That story is not about whether or not he literally, historically cut down the tree.  Instead, it is a story that highlighting that Washington was honest in his dealings with men.

Thus, contradictions in the Christmas story are only a problem if we insist on reading them as literal histories.  I don’t think that they are exact chronological timelines because the rest of the gospels have differences among them that emphasize different points.  They are conveying a theological point about Jesus; for example, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus’s last words are “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”  but in the gospel of Luke, his last words are “Into your hands I commend my spirit”.  In Luke, Jesus feels abandoned by God, whereas in Luke he is calm and in control.  Why is this?  I think it’s because to Mark’s readers, Christians may have been suffering under persecution and Mark is telling the stories to take heart because even Jesus felt abandoned by God.  If even Jesus felt abandoned on the cross, don’t fear anything because God then raised him from the dead and vindicated.  Whereas for Luke, he is making the point that Jesus’s death was the plan of God and Jesus willingly went to it, knowing full well what his sacrifice was.  That’s why Jesus was calm and in control – because he knew it was his destiny.

So I wouldn’t get too worked up about these histories.  But then again, I wouldn’t assert that they actually happened, either.  But then again, let’s not get too worked up about the small stuff.

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Note: This is the second part of a 2-part series.  If you have not yet read part 1, you should do so first otherwise this won’t make sense.

After just having woken up from a ludicrous dream, I looked over and saw my girlfriend next to me.  “Whoa, that was odd,” I thought.  “That was one of the weirdest dreams I have had in a long time.”  I mentally replayed it in my head and then shrugged it off.  I decided to get up and walk around for a bit when I realized that something was off.  “Wait a second,” I said, “this doesn’t look like my house…”

I exited the room we were in (not a master bedroom, or any bedroom for that matter).  I started looking up and down and we were in a house but it wasn’t my home.  In fact, it wasn’t a home of anyone that I recognized at all!  My mind started racing a bit.  Where in the heck were we?  I started asking my girlfriend if she knew where we were, and she responded in the negative.  Somehow, we went to sleep and awoke in a strange place.

I went to the kitchen and tried to get my brain in order.  What should I do?  I know, I should call a friend of mine!  The problem with calling a friend is that I only have two people’s cell phone numbers memorized – my girlfriend’s and another friend (whom I shall refer to as Frank).  I picked up the phone and started dialing his number.  I was panicking a bit because I entered in his number but instead of typing in the final two digits as “44” I hit “45”.  The phone rang and I got an incomplete dial tone.  I hung up the phone and called it again but this time entered in the numbers properly.  The phone rang… and he picked up!

“Frank!” I exclaimed.

He sounded groggy. “What?”  He sounded a little annoyed and I can’t say I blame him, it was 6 am in the morning.

“Don’t hang up!” I answered.  “Something weird is going on and I need your help!  Where am I?”

There was a pause on the other end.  “What?”

“Where am I?”

“Uh, you’re where you’re calling from?”

I wasn’t being very clear.  I calmed myself down.  “Frank, listen to me carefully.  Where do I live?”

He started to laugh.  “You live in the basement of my mom’s house.  You wanted to live there because you got a good deal!”  He started to laugh a bit as this was very amusing to him that I would do such a silly thing.

In the basement of his mom’s place!?!?  WHAT!?!?  Why would I live there?  She lives an hour north of Seattle!  This was some sort of crazy world!  “Dude, you have to come over here!  Right now!  I’m in trouble!”  I don’t remember the rest of the conversation but he agreed to come down and sort things out.  I don’t know how I managed to give him directions to where I was since at this point I was still a stranger in a strange house.

I hung up the phone and started talking to myself (thinking aloud to get my thoughts in order), saying “This is a dream!  This must be a dream!  I want to wake up!”  I then pinched the back of my hand and it hurt… but I didn’t wake up.  I pinched myself again and it hurt again… and I realized that I wasn’t in a dream.  I was in some crazy world and had no idea where I was.  I looked over at my girlfriend who was as confused as I was.

Just then, the family of the place whose house I was in woke up and walked into the kitchen, a little surprised to see us there.  They didn’t freak out, though, which was nice.  We started talking for a bit and we explained the situation and they seemed to understand that we didn’t know how we got there.  They said that they would help us. Oh yeah, one more thing – the couple who owned the house looked like Tina Fey and Steve Martin.

By this time it had gotten light outside and we (my girlfriend and I) walked outside. As we waited around for a minute or two, Frank drove up in his truck.  He was even in his new truck which he just got right before we went to Belize.  At least the dream was up to date with current events.  He got out of his truck and walked up to us, and asked “What’s the emergency?”  I explained things and he agreed that this was very odd.

The story now takes a very bizarre twist.  I mention this next part because it illustrates just how odd this story was.  As we were talking to each other, a random guy walked up from down the street and up to Frank.  The two of them seemed to be, how do we say, very comfortable with each other.  You know, arms around each other and joking and whatnot.  It was pretty obvious that in this different world, Frank was gay.

I took a step back.  Guys will tease each other about this all the time for some reason.  We all do it to each other at some point.  But I knew that in real life Frank was not gay, not by any stretch of the imagination.  In this world, he was.  I immediately knew then and there that something was very off about this situation and that not only were we in a different house, but also in a different world.

We continued to chat with Frank and he conceded that he couldn’t do anything for us, and so he took off.  I sat down next to my girlfriend and we went through everything that had transpired so far.  We both agreed that we didn’t like this new world.

Eventually the couple that owned the house called us in for breakfast.  We figured that we might as well go and do so.  We sat down and prepared to consume some food.  I was reaching for something across the table when my finger accidentally slipped into somebody’s glass of orange juice.  I’m not sure how this happened, how does one accidentally dip their finger into a glass of orange juice?  You have to go out of your way to do it.  I hoped nobody had seen it and started to pull my hand away.  But then I thought better of it and that I may as well switch my untouched glass of juice with the one I had just slipped my finger in.

I rolled my eyes at this situation.  I leaned back into my chair and looked down.  I then closed my eyes and said to myself “I want to wake up.”

And then I woke up.

Just like that.  In my dream-within-dream, I said that I wanted to wake up and BAM!  Right then I woke up.  And as I woke up this time, I took a look around the room.  I was in a cabana.  I could hear the ocean waves rolling.  I looked on the nightstand and saw the book I was reading.  I looked over a short ways and saw my girlfriend.  I was back in Belize!  This time I knew I wasn’t in a dream but heck, I had just had a dream-within-a-dream and it was incredibly vivid.  And I woke up when I wanted to.

I immediately switched on a light, grabbed some post-it notes and started writing it all down.  This was one dream I didn’t want to forget.

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My own personal Inception

This past summer (2010), the movie Inception starring Leonardo di Caprio came out.  Its basic story is a group of people who are able to go into other people’s dreams while they are asleep and attempt to extract secrets from their minds.  The idea is that people are more open to slipping things while they are asleep in a dream then when they are awake.  The main characters in the movie go into the dream of a business man in order to get him to run his business differently.

Where Inception goes to another level is the concept of a dream-within-a-dream.  A character is put to sleep and dreams, and then within that dream, they fall asleep again and they infiltrate another dream (they go two levels deep).  The plot of the movie gets a bit more complicated but it really is a neat concept.

Well, while I was in Belize, I had my own personal dream-within-a-dream.  It was the weirdest thing.  It was so weird (to me, anyhow) that when I woke up I wrote it all down so I wouldn’t forget.  I know that if you have a vivid dream, when you wake up you will lose it if you don’t write it down.  This loss happens within a few minutes.  That’s unfortunate because we all dream every night but do not remember it.  This one I did not forget; after writing it down I managed to commit it to memory.  And now, readers, here is my dream-within-a-dream:

It all began with me working one night in a restaurant a lot like a diner.  I had my regular full time job at a technology company, but I was also working part time in the diner in order to make some extra money.  I had to work that night but I was also supposed to meet somebody later that evening.  I had arranged for them to meet me at the diner wherein my shift would end and then we could meet up.  It wasn’t strictly a social gathering, it was some sort of social gathering mixed with business.

However, I didn’t want this person to know that I needed the extra cash (?) and that I was working in the diner in order to generate the additional cash flow.  I wanted to hide in the back with the rest of the crew and do the dishes that came into the back.  So, me and the others were washing the dishes.  Just then, the person that I was supposed to meet walked into the restaurant and said hello to me.

I kind of froze.  “Shoot!” I thought to myself.  “He knows I work here!”  I didn’t want him to know (actually, now that I think about it, it may have been a she and we were supposed to go out on a date… I actually don’t remember this part).  He/she had come into the restaurant two hours early, way before my shift was supposed to end.

“Uh, hi,” I responded.  I tried to act cool, like my working in the back was no big deal.

“I’m here to meet someone else right now,” he/she said.  “But we can meet up afterwards when we were supposed to.”  They didn’t seem to notice that I was working at the diner, washing dishes, and I didn’t bring the point up.  Maybe I was going to get away with it.

“No problem!” I replied and went back to the dish washing.  I thought I kind of dodged a bullet there, my secret was either still safe or he/she didn’t care about it.  Myself and the rest of the crew continued to wash dishes for a bit, but we managed to finish about half an hour later.  We had nothing else to do.

“Hey!” said one of the guys.  “Who wants to go to a barbecue across town?”  I didn’t really want to go, but seeing as how I had nothing better to do, I agreed to go along with the rest of the guys and girls.  If it sounds like we were abandoning our jobs, well, that’s exactly what happened.  The diner was still open and we could have gotten more dishes, but we all thought it would be a good idea to walk across town and go to a barbecue (whose barbecue it was I do not know, but I assumed someone else did) before our shifts had actually ended.

We walked across town – it was a small town – and we came to a residential area. We started getting closer to the person’s back yard when we looked up into the sky and started seeing a bunch of smoke, a lot like a bunch of smoke signals.  We stood around the entrance to the backyard without going through the fence and started talking about random stuff for way too long.  After some time passed, I started getting bored and insisted we go back.  Our shift was going to end soon and so we should return (yes, I know, I wanted to go back to the diner just as our working shift ended).  We didn’t even go to the barbecue, we just stood around talking about nonsense!  That was something I didn’t really want to continue.

Everyone agreed to come along with me and we started walking back towards the restaurant.  I had about 15 minutes to get back there which was actually plenty of time.  But as we were going back we came across an abandoned washing machine.  Actually, there were a couple of them along with a dryer.  One of the people in our group said “Hey! We should try to fit inside the washing machines!”

“What?” I said.  This was a stupid idea.

“Yeah!” the rest of them agreed.  “Let’s try to fit inside!”  So one by one, they attempted to fit inside the abandoned washing machine.  Here is where the story gets weird (weirder).  One of the washing machines was not empty, it was full of water.  So, these people were trying to fit themselves inside of the washing machine even though it was not empty!  They were getting themselves soaked.

Even more strange, I recognized one of the members of the group.  It was a friend of mine in real life.  To conceal his identity, I’ll just call him Ryan B (to those of you who know a person in real life with those initials, yes,  it is the same person).  I said to myself “What the heck is he doing trying to fit inside a washing machine that is full of water?”  I watched in bewilderment as he tried to squeeze inside but couldn’t quite fit in because he was trying to keep his nose out so he could breathe without drowning, yet he was trying to close the lid at the same time.

I was starting to get really impatient with these clowns.  I had to get back to the diner in order to keep my previous appointment!

And that’s when I woke up.

To be continued in part 2…

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Pictures of the island

Here are some pictures of the island that we went to, the resort was called Off The Wall, and it was on Long Cay, one of the islands in Glover’s Reef Atoll off the coast of Belize.

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Below is a shot of the main part.  The open door is where they store all of the scuba diving equipment.  The blue bin just in the corner there is where we would wash off our equipment after diving to get the salt water off.

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Below is a nice little walkway:

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The kitchen:

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Just outside the kitchen where people could lounge around (we rarely did because it was usually too cool at night):

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That’s our cabana that you can see through the trees:

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This next picture is shot from the same place but just looking a different direction.  The green structure is the showers:

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Below is next to the kitchen and it is the dining area:

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The crabs are funny.  They walk around around but whenever you get close they tuck inside their shells.  I had a lot of fun making them hide like ‘fraidy cats!

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And then finally, here’s me looking off into the distance.  What could I be looking at? Nobody knows!

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Popping pills

I never thought I’d be one to take health supplements, but here I am…

As I posted previously, my hip is kind of screwed up.  The doctor has recommended a treatment called viscosupplementation which is where they inject a fluid into my hip joint directly.  The idea is that it will protect the joint and reduce the pain I feel. It is a treatment, not a cure, and the idea is to ease the pain before I get a hip replacement in 20 years, and to avoid further surgery on my otherwise lousy hip.  The problem is that because the treatment is approved on the knee but not on the hip, insurance will not cover the procedure.  Interestingly, the procedure is approved in Canada, but not in the United States (thanks, Food and Drug Administration!).  Also interesting, they have done some studies of viscosupplementation on the hip in the US and the study found that it was effective for most patients, at least in delaying hip replacements in the majority of the participants.

One thing that a couple of people have recommended to me is the use of Glucosamine supplements. Glucosamine is supposed to stimulate the production of cartilage.  In theory, it is supposed to help regrow the damaged cartilage in my hips.  I have never used the substance because after doing some research on the web, I discovered that there really isn’t any evidence to support the notion that Glucosamine is effective in reducing the symptoms of arthritis.  Given that there wasn’t enough evidence to use it, I never have. I even bought a bottle of the capsules but could not discipline myself to take it every day.  What for?  It doesn’t do anything.

However, recently my father sent me some emails about a new treatment for arthritis that is supposed to make people feel better.  This supplement in capsules contains an ingredient called Hyaluronic Acid (HA).  This is the very same fluid that they would inject into my hip with the viscosupplementation.  Could it be that I could avoid the injections and instead take the oral supplements if it contains the same active ingredient?

I did some research.  There is evidence that injections of HA do help relieve the symptoms of arthritis.  However, there hasn’t been any independent research on whether or not taking it orally is effective.  In other words, these health supplements could simply be snake oil.  On the other hand, the studies did say that there was not any downside risk of taking HA and most likely no downside risk of taking it orally.

In addition, I did a bit more research on Glucosamine and Chrondroitin, and while there isn’t any evidence that it helps mild arthritis, one study did find that it helped moderate to severe arthritis.  Another study found that it was no better than a placebo, but it appears that at this time, the jury is still out.  Well, at least it is better than saying it categorically is ineffective.

So, the situation I am in is the following:

  • I need to get an injection into my hip (or surgery).  Insurance won’t pay for the injection.
  • There is an oral supplement that contains the same chemical that they will inject into my hip.  There is no guarantee that this will work, but if it does it should alleviate some pain.  Insurance won’t pay for this either.
  • There doesn’t appear to be any downside to either treatment other than the cost.

Based upon this, I don’t really have anything to lose by trying the pill capsules.  The worst case scenario is that it does nothing.  All I have lost is a little bit of money but that’s nothing compared to a lot of my trades (it’d take 15 bottles to lose what I lost on my last trade).  So, a pill popper I am going to become for the next month.  We shall see if I feel any better in 28 days.

Stay tuned.

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Ouch! My eye!

Last Friday on the island, the second last day we were there, I was walking down to breakfast about 7:30 in the morning when a piece of dust flew up and hit me in the eye.  You know that feeling you get when something is in your eye?  It hurts.  Well, this hurt a lot.

It didn’t go away after 5-10 minutes.  It didn’t even go away after 1-2 hours.  Worse yet, the pain was intense and even more so whenever I closed my eye.  The stabbing pain prevented me from doing anything.

What is interesting is that it didn’t hurt at all when I opened my eye.  “Why is that?” I wondered to myself.  I went to the mirror and looked at my eye.  It turns out that I had a scratch on my cornea (i.e., right on the eyeball itself).  I took a picture of my eye, you can see the scratch on it, it is a discoloration in the white and in the colored part.  I have color coded it in case you can’t see it, it is fairly large.  I experimented with closing my eye until I could pinpoint the part that hurt whenever I closed it.  Sure enough, when I narrowed it down, I could spot the scratch on the surface of it.

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I was able to hold my eye open somewhat fine, but whenever I blinked it would hurt and my eyes would water.  Indeed, the muscles around my eyes were sore the next day from watering up so much.  That pretty much knocked me out of commission that day.

I recovered somewhat on the Saturday although I was only operating at about 60% capacity.  The next day was better and today I think I have recovered… well, most of the way I suppose.  It turns out that the cornea is one of the fastest healing tissues in the human body.  Still, that scratch on my eye is one of the most unpleasant experiences I have had in a long time.  I wonder if LASIK patients undergo that type of discomfort?  If so, they would need a lot of painkillers.  It makes me think twice about having it done.

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Facilities on the island

The island we spent a week on was very remote. It takes an hour and a half to get there by boat, and once you’re there, you’re there. So you might be tempted to think that the plumbing is not all that adequate because of it’s isolation.

To be honest, when I read the website, it said that it had compostable toilets. I was thinking to myself “Oh… great.” I imagined a small box with a surrounded enclosing of maybe four walls like a cubicle with an open top. After all, when I went to Kangaroo Island in Australia in 2002, we didn’t even have that. Not much privacy.

To my surprise, it wasn’t anything like that. It turns out that it was like an outhouse at a 5 star hotel. There were two of them and while the toilets were not flush toilets, they were completely enclosed and clean. They were high up and composting, you put some wood chips down and then do what you have to. There are windows in there to get air flow in going and while it doesn’t smell like a bed of roses, it was better than probably 3/4 of all public restrooms I have ever used. There was also soap and running water to wash your hands, albeit with weak pressure and only cold water. Still, the bathroom facilities were 10x better than what I was envisioning in my head.

But what about showers? Surely a place with limited running water has no good showers, does it? Well, the answer to this inquiry is that they were not as good as the average American is used to, but still decent for an island. It turns out that there was a large cement complex with four shower stalls (it is an open air complex). The entrance to each stall was its own individual entrance, and it was shaped like a circle. In each shower stall, they use rain water with which you use to shower. You turn the faucet and out comes clean water. You are encouraged to shower each time you go swimming, snorkeling or diving in order to rinse off the salt water. I followed that advice.

You may wonder whether or not the water in the shower was cold. Well, it’s rain water so it isn’t heated. That is not to say that it was cold per se because the sun still heats it naturally, but by no means is it hot. It really isn’t even warm, it was just on the cusp between cool and and warm, leaning more toward cool. The benefit of showering in cool water is that it provides you with motivation to take short showers and conserve water.

But I did not have no warm showers while I was there. Since we are on an island, the weather there is moody. Sometimes it is warm, other times overcast and a little cool. Even though we were in the tropics, the weather on the island was maybe a 7 on a scale of 1 – 10. Ergo, there we a couple of times when we came out of the water and the air temperature would rapidly chill our bodies. Here is the nice part – the owners would anticipate that we would want warm water with which to shower. So, they would fill up a five gallon pail about 2/3 of the way with rainwater, and then the rest with a boiling kettle of water. The result was very warm water with which to shower. You took the pail with you to the shower complex and using a cup that they provided, you gave yourself a warm water bath with which to get clean. I found it a bit of a challenge to get all of the soap out of my hair and off my body with the lack of water pressure using either method, but still, the watering facilities exceeded my expectations by a significant margin.

In this regards, it is certainly true that you are roughing it compared to living at home, but it wasn’t too bad. It’s not like real camping. Indeed, everything was better than real camping – food, bed (no sleeping bags on air mattresses or anything silly like that), lodging, and watering holes. Okay, maybe the showers at various camps are better, that I will admit, but you can’t beat the relative quality at this place when taken in context of its remoteness.

The activities at this place are probably the coup-de-grace… But that is the subject for another post.

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Back from the island

Today I just got back from Glover’s Reef which is a small atoll of islands abut 30 miles off of the coast of Belize, leaving out of the town of Dangriga. We went to a resort on on of the islands called “Off The Wall”, so named because it is in the middle of a coral reef that is about 30 feet in depth before dropping down a sharp, sudden drop of 3000 feet. It forms a wall of coral so if you go diving, you are literally diving off the wall.

The island is only 15 acres or so in total area. It is very small and so you might think that it has few modern conveniences that we have in every day life. The only way to get there is by boat, there isn’t any helicopter or runway. It is quite remote.

Yet for all it’s quaintness, Off The Wall is an absolutely incredible place. We stayed in single room cabanas that were not particularly large, but more than adequate. And the island had electricity! They use solar cells that hold energy and therefore at night you have limited lights with which to read at night. I used it a few times to polish off two books.

However, the food there was amazing. The resort has a maximum of 12 guests, excluding staff. During our week there was only ourselves and one other couple. The food was all included in the cost of the vacation package, and let me tell you… I have never eaten so well in my memory for such a consistent period of time. Because there were was so few of us, this meant no lines at dinner time and we didn’t have to do dishes! Booyah!

There was a chef there who made great food. But on the day they got there, she had made some fudge (that did no contain any chocolate). I don’t eat sugary food… but I got addicted to this stuff. Man, I hope that I did not get too fat while I was out there.

I will have many more tales to tell over the next little while. Stay tuned for more details.

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Heard at lunch today

The following is a snippet of a conversation my girlfriend an I had at lunch today:

Me: I’ll have the barbecued ribs.

My girlfriend: I’ll have the barbecued chicken.

Waiter: Very good.

(time passes)

My girlfriend: I don’t know if I want to have fish for dinner since I am having it for lunch.

Me: You didn’t order fish, you ordered chicken.

My girlfriend: I did?

Me: Yes.

My girlfriend: Oh, yeah.

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My 32nd birthday!

Well, today, here in Belize, I turned 32. So, how do I feel at 32 years of age?

For one thing, when I travel, taking uncomfortable buses are now *out* of the picture! We took a bus from fro San Ignacio to Dangriga. It was not a nice bus, it was an old school bus. There wasn’t a lot of leg room and the seats did not have much padding. Suffice to say, over the two and a half hour ride, my body didn’t feel too great. This manifested itself with an extremely sore lower back last night. Wow, did that hurt. Even today it is still sore and I have to move at a slower pace. Ergo, on future holidays abroad, don’t expect me to use uncomfortable transit. At 32, I’m getting too old for this.

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Cave tour

Three days ago was the four year anniversary of my near death experience in Fiji on the hiking tour where nearly died in the waterfall, on November 28, 2006. So how did I celebrate it this year? By recreating some of the events of that day.

Truth be told, that particular day has more psychological meaning to me than my birthday, which is five days later. So this year in Belize, the two of us did what is called a cave tour. At about 7:30 in the morning, we went out to do a tour with a group of six other people to a cave called Actun Tichmal Mazenkal, or ATM for short. We drove for about an hour and a half. Now, the roads in Belize aren’t great. The paved ones are only one lane in each direction. However this last little bit of road was off-road on gravel. However, it was also covered in water in some places, and was quite muddy in others. It was the worst road I have ever driven on, worse than any road in Winnipeg. Yes, even worse than Mission St between Archibald and Panet, it was that bad. Each time we came to a muddy rut in the road I held my breath and tensed up because I was certain, or at least not confident in our ability to power through, that we would get stuck in the mud and it would be impossible to get through. But yet each time we came to an obstacle, we managed to evade it without incident. I guess 4×4 vehicles are worth something after all.

Anyhow, we got to the site and from there we had to trek about half an hour to the cave. But in order to do that we had to cross the river three times on foot. We waded in and each time it was about waist high or so, maybe a bit lower. The river wasn’t all that fast but the footing was uneven.

We eventually made it to the cave. Now, this cave is a covered cave with virtually no natural light. It also extends or miles although we would be going only about a kilometer or so. Oh, yes, one more thing – the cave has water in it and many times it is chest height… When you are clinging to the sides. Other times you cannot touch bottom at all. And all you have for vision is a helmet with a light on it.

As I climbed down to entrance to the cave, I jumped into the water about knee height and my heart started racing a bit. As I walked forward I had to swim across to the first landing and as I did so, my feet could not not touch bottom in the cave. In an instant a wave of panic and anxiety overtook me and I relived my Fijian experience where I had no control and the water carried me forward. I forced myself to swim to the other side where I regained my footing and calmed myself. The panic/anxiety was involuntary, I was not thinking about it at all. It just hit me. Anyhow, I let my nerves ease a bit and only half-listened to the guide. That was the worst of it, though, and from that point forward I was never in a state of panic. I knew that hundreds of people came there all the time and nobody ever died.

Moving forwards, we meandered through the cave slowly. Most times walking through knee or waist high water, and a few times through chest hight water. You had to be in good shape physically because there were a few points that we had to go through tight squeezes an climb around obstacles. Finally, we got to the end where we got to walk on dry land.

Along the way we witnessed interesting geological formations that had taken tens of millions of years to form. As it turns out, this cave had been used by the Maya a thousand years earlier in various capacities. To them, in their religion, caves were seen as an entrance to the realm of the dead. They were considered sacred at some level. We saw lots of ancient Mayan pottery laying strewn about as the Belizean government has decided not to excavate most of the artifacts and instead leave them as they lay.

But that is not all we saw. We also saw some human skulls and entire skeletons (I would post a photo if I were not on my iPad). Why were these remains there? Were they injuries of people who died? Maybe… but the guide believes that they were human sacrifices. They found a few infant remains in there and it is difficult to believe that an infant volunteered to go into the cave and offer themselves up to the Mayan gods. While the first time I went to Mexico the guides claimed that the Mayans did not practice human sacrifice, archaeological evidence suggests otherwise.

Anyhow, we ventured deeper into the cave until it became clear that the Mayans ventured no deeper; they know this because there are no artifacts past that point even though the cave goes much deeper.

When it was done, we turned around and headed back out, climbing down the slippery slopes of rocks and exiting the caves. There is no place to go to the bathroom in there and they ask you not to go in the water inside because it ruins the whole cave experience. My bladder, by that point, was full even though I went before I entered the cave. Ah, what a relief to finish the cave!

All in all, it was a really cool experience.

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Torrential downpour

Yesterday, my girlfriend and I did our fifth outing, a canoe ride up the Mopan river. A guide takes you up the river – and does most of the paddling – and you end up at a little resort. You walk around a bit, have lunch, and the head back. While we were at the resort, it rained a bit.

We got back from the resort to the canoe and headed back. On the way back it started clouding over somewhat. We finally got back to shore and walked back to our hotel, maybe a three minute walk from the river. Literally two minutes after we arrived back, it started to rain again. I don’t mean one of those lame Seattle misty rains, I mean a tropical rainforest torrential downpour that you read about in books or see in movies. Man, did it come down.

And yet we missed it… by two minutes! Can you believe that timing? What a fortunate set of events to get back in time. After all, who can time a canoe ride to get back just before it pours cats and dogs, or in our case, iguanas and foxes? With two minutes to spare, no less.

Sometimes it just works out.

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Guatemala

One of the nice things about traveling as we have is the flexibility to change things up a bit. Originally my girlfriend and I were going to spend 3 days in Guatemala but changed our minds. Instead we did a day trip over there. The. Reason is that we did not really feel the need to stay over there to see the ruins for an extended period of time, and we are so close to it in our current town of San Ignacio. A two hour drive gets us to the place we want to go. So, we shuffled our plans, added two more days in this town and instead did a day trip over to the the Mayan ruins of Tikal.

The ruins of Tikal are ancient ruins that were originally founded abut 800 BC and abandoned around 900AD. They are older than the ruins at Chichen Itza close to Cancun, Mexico, and they are bigger.

The ruins at Tikal cover many square miles and it would take you a long time to walk around to all of them. Fortunately our tour included transportation. We walked up several temples and let me tell you, it is impressive. My iPad prevents me from talking about it more, but suffice to say you cannot help but be impressed with the huge temple complexes they built with limited technology. Some of them are close to 300 feet high. Oh, yeah,here is some trivia. You know in Star Wars episode IV where the rebels are on the moon base off of Yavin 4? And they go to launch the attack on the Death Star? And the scene cuts to a shot where they are launching out of the jungle with the Millenium Falcon taking off? That was filmed at Tikal.

So why was it abandoned? Archaeologists do not know for certain because of the lack of definitive evidence, but one hypothesis is that it got too expensive. Tikal is a mostly ceremonial complex, for religious or royal administrative purposes. It was not for general residency. It simply got got too expensive to maintain and the civilization abandoned it. It did not produce much return and the people as a whole could not support it. So, they left. That theory seems to make some sense.

Who would have thought I would learn on vacation?

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Stuff

Funny how time can change behavior, even if it is only one week later.

The first day we were in Belize my girlfriend was up and rearing to go at 6:00 am. “I’m up! I’m up! I’m up! Let’s get going! Wheeee!” “Woot!” keep in mind that Belize is two hours ahead of our normal time zone.

One week later, as we are preparing to depart the town of San Ignacio, that preference for early morning activities and the ease of doing so has steadily shifted away. Case in point, we were asking what time the express bus leaves to go to Belmopan, where we would have to transfer to go to Dangriga. The clerk told us 7:30.

My girlfriend groaned and replied “7:30? That’s *so* early!”. This is claimed despite the fact it is well over an hour later than when she easily woke up the week before with absolutely no issues.

Funny how that changes (?).

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I downloaded a WordPress for my iPad and it sucks. I have so little flexibility that I switched to using the site directly. I typed up a post and saved it about my adventures in Belize, but now that it is a draft I cannot post it. I hate software that doesn’t work as advertised.

Anyhow, switching over to the actual site, stay tuned for trip details.

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