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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Travel tips: Six ways to save

I clearly enjoy a certain amount of luxury when I travel, so can hardly be called a budget traveler, but I can be an incredible cheapskate about certain things. Like bank charges. And roaming fees.

So here are some ways I found to save on these things. Along with some ways to save your sanity, and maybe do less damage to the planet.

Tip 1: Use a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees

We do tend to use the plastic a lot when traveling, but it only dawned on us recently that we were being charged an extra 2.5% per transaction for the privilege. That’s a lot!

Some web research revealed that there are cards that don’t charge such fees. This motivated me to accepted Amazon.ca’s persistent offers to get their Visa credit card.

Now, I don’t know if it’s the only credit card that offers this perk, but we’ve been happy with it so far. It charges no annual fee, and you earn 1 point per dollar spent in general, 2 points per dollar spent at Amazon. Once you’ve earned enough points, you automatically get a cash back credit of 1% on your credit card.

As with most points credit cards, the interest rate is terrible, so we must always pay it off in full. But by using that on our Seattle trip, I estimate that we saved a good 2.5% in total! And we earned $20 back in points.

Tip 2: Get some foreign currency before you leave

Haven’t yet found a way to avoid out-of-country ATM fees, so we always try to get some foreign currency before we go. Our supplier of choice is Currency Converters, who charge no fees and carry a wide range of currencies, and can order anything not right in stock.

Tip 3: Use a US SIM card in an unlocked phone

My Canadian cell provider offered one week of US service for $40 with unlimited texting and calling, but capped at 250 MB of data.

Or, I found I could buy a Roam Mobility SIM card and pay $4 a day for unlimited texting calling, and 350 MB of data every day! Sold!

In fact, there are a lot of options for US SIM cards, and I don’t know if this one is the best. I did like that I could buy and set it up in advance, (right from my local gas station), and that it could be activated for the exact amount of time needed, down the hour. And unlike some cards, it included calls to Canada, not just the US.

Setting it up couldn’t have been easier (beyond struggle to not lose the tiny SIM cards), and it worked a treat.I totally loved the novelty of not worrying about using data on my phone! The only times I had service issues were in the mountainous regions, which is understandable.

Climbing Mount Storm King

Your cell phone won’t work here.

At Lake Crescent, I had only “emergency service”, and was a bit stunned when my phone started shouting out Amber Alerts. At regular intervals. I finally had to just turn off the phone.

Then when home, I watched Sleepy Hollow, and Ichabob Crane encountered the same phenomenon! So I guess that’s a thing. (Do they not do that here, or would they if we ever had Amber Alerts, but we never do?)

Tip 4: Take the light rail to and from the airport

The train from Seattle airport to downtown, where our hotel was, was $2.75 each. A cab would have been about $55.

Furthermore, the train runs frequently, and traffic in Seattle is terrible, so I’m not sure you’d save much time in the cab, either.

So go LTR.

Tip 5: Consider flying out of Kitchener Airport

OK, this one is perhaps not a money-saving tip, as I’m sure it’s a lot cheaper to fly out of Buffalo.

But it’s much nicer flying out of a tiny airport, where yours is the only flight they have to deal with at that time. And yes, we had to transfer through Chicago, but honestly, I have never had so much assistance with an airport transfer in my life. All along were staff making sure we got in the right line, used the machines effectively, found the right gate.

It was even easier on the way home, when our luggage transferred through and we didn’t have to do double customs and security.

Parking—right at the airport, of course—was only $55. About half the off-airport cost at Pearson. So there’s that…

Tip 6: Rent a Prius!

Did we really save money? I don’t know. It was only $17 the one time we had to fill up, but the rental was slightly more than with a conventional car.

Did we help save the planet? Dubious, given that we also flew across the country.

But how often do you get to drive a Prius? Though I must say your odds are much better in Washington State, because they’re all over the place there. Must be the Prius capital of the continent.

Me and the rental Prisu

The rental Prius

(We also, by the way, stopped and looked at Tesla which was being exhibited in Seattle. Very nice! Of course, they didn’t let us drive it. But they did mention that Washing state was also the Tesla capital of the continent. Bit of a granola state, I guess.)

Most notable difference on the Prius vs. a gas guzzler? Lack of zoom zoom. Although there is a Power button you can push if you really do need some acceleration in a hurry. And it is a pretty quiet car. It also has these neat displays showing you when you’re drawing on battery power vs. engine power, so that was some built-in entertainment.


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Hurrying toward dictatorship

Our so-called leaders speak
With words they try to jail ya —
They subjugate the meek
But it’s the rhetoric of failure

–The Police, Spirits in the Material World

This week I heard the KW Symphony and Jeans’n’Classics play the music of Sting and The Police. That was fantastic.

I also read a lot of political columns about the federal Conservative government is up to. That was the opposite of fantastic.

Earlier in their majority mandate, pundits wondered, why the rush? Why push so many bills through, and why impose time allocation on all of them?

Now that their agenda is becoming clearer, I think we know:

The Harper revolution has never been about abortion or gay rights. This prime minister has little interest in social conservatism.

Rather, the revolution is economic. It is aimed at eliminating regulations—particularly environmental regulations—that interfere in profit-making. It is aimed at reducing wages (which is why the Conservatives take swipes at unions whenever possible). It is aimed at scaling back any social programs—from Old Age Security to Employment Insurance — that help keep wages up.

–Thomas Walkom, Stephen Harper’s stealthy war against wages and the environment

Not quite what they campaigned on, eh? And even though true believers may applaud the efforts to plunder the natural world—they seem to feel that, with fervent enough belief in the capitalist system, one can overcome those pesky biological needs for clean water, air, and food—I’m not sure they’d be as happy about efforts to impoverish them.

So, the Conservatives really have to get all this done as quickly as possible, stifling debate wherever they can, before opposition can really mobilize. Before most people even notice.

Let’s see how many different outrages we heard about—just this week!

1 Denying medical coverage to refugees

2 Working to increase crime rates by cutting rehabilation programs and encouraging prison overcrowding

When the emphasis moves away from corrections toward more and harsher punishment of both the physical and psychological variety, recidivism rates will increase and real correction will become more difficult. That will likely mean more crime over the long haul in a country that, apart from the United States (which is in a league by itself), has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

— Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail

3 Rejecting all amendments to the new Copyright Act

This is—believe it or not—a largely good piece of legislation, except for a problematic clause on digital locks. Why not consider amending that?  Far as we can tell, only because the opposition parties brought them forward. I mean, God forbid opposition members actually get to do anything for us in return for our tax dollars.

None of [the defeated] amendments were radical or undermined the goals of the legislation. There is much to like in Bill C-11 but the defeat of provisions designed to improve access for the blind, preserve fair dealing, enhance education, and open the door to innovative services hardly seems like something to celebrate.

— Michael Geist

4 Admitted to dismantling an Environmental advisory group because it recommended a carbon tax

The fact is, a carbon tax is the best way to deal with climate change, so any group serious about it has to advocate for one. The Conservatives have, of course, demonized carbon taxes, so they can’t impose them now. So instead they are trying a “regulatory” approach, Communist style, which as we see, doesn’t work. Canada’s carbon emissions just keep going up. Do they care? Apparently, no.

So that’s four pretty big things in one week—but none are the biggest thing. Not by a long shot. No, the biggest thing, quite literally, is the 420-page Omnibus Bill supposedly to “implement the budget”, but in fact, doing a whole lot of other things as well.

(Which, of course, they immediately imposed time allocation on. Why would anyone need any extra time at all to review 420 pages of confusingly worded new laws?)

This bill, among so other things:

  • Repeals the Fair Wage act.  [You didn’t want a fair wage, did ya?]
  • Repeals the Environmental Assessment act.
  • Makes some kind of changes to EI. We’re not sure what, really. We’ll tell you eventually, after this bill is passed. Trust us. It will be great.
    (Rick Mercer: “How can the gov say we will find out what is in the budget after the budget is voted on? Does that work on other planets?”)
  • Re-writes the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act, and the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

There’s a ton of environmental law changes in here. The thrust of most, from what I can tell, is to get rid of informed government bodies who currently regulate these matters, and move them to uninformed Harper Cabinet to decide . I’m serious.

Writer Richard Poplak wonders why Canadians aren’t angrier about this. Why we aren’t mobilizing.

There’s a bill, called C-38. It’s driven to Parliament on forklifts retrofitted for maximum stealth. This bill, similar at 420 pages in weight and heft to a small pony, is delivered to dead-eyed MPs, behind whom stands the chief whip, taser in hand. The drool-drenched backbenchers nod in unison, and put the bill back on the forklifts for rubber-stamping further down the line.

By not making this the issue of our generation, by not linking this with other efforts calling for responsible governance and respect for democratic institutions–and by not understanding that this trend is not just local, but global–Canadians are rolling over and playing dead.

And why is that?

Well, maybe we’re just a little exhausted from the constant barrage of appalling behavior from our federal government.
Maybe we’re overwhelmed. We just don’t know which of the many outrages to go after first.
Maybe we don’t know how to protest. What would actually work?
Maybe we’re just sick of whole thing. We’ve tuned out. It’s nice out. We have gardening to do.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what Stephen Harper wants.

Speak out against Harper’s budget (NDP)
Harper is ending environmental protection (Liberal)
Environmental Devastation Act (Green Party)
Black Out Speak Out (Environmental groups)
Apologize to the rest of the world


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Only tough on other people’s crimes

You know, I’m more than a little tired of our “law and order” federal government gleefully breaking the law.

Just sayin’.


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Ontario votes

My bold predication for the Ontario election: Elizabeth Witmer, MPP for Kitchener-Waterloo, will retain her seat.

When voters turned against the Mike Harris, when they ran from John Tory’s school funding proposal, Ms Witmer, Progressive Conservative, still handily won her seat. She’s been in there for something like 21 years. She certainly not going to lose now, when the PCs are riding a “we’re tired of the Liberals!” wave.

This means, under our most undemocratic of electoral systems, me voting is just a waste of time. I am not voting PC, but whether I vote Green, Liberal, NDP, or Marxist-Leninist, whether I spoil my ballot or just sit at home watching TV, the result will the same. Ms. Witmer’s most votes will give the whole seat, and the choice I made will make no difference at all in who runs Ontario.

I will say I don’t have any particular issues with Ms. Witmer. Generally, I think she has been a good representative. And if Ontarians had been smart enough to change their electoral system four years ago, when they had a chance, I might have even have considered voting for her as my MPP, while selecting another party with my second vote.

But, Ontarians didn’t want more democracy, so we have the system we have, and a vote for Ms. Witmer is a vote for Tim Hudak. And I can’t do that.

I’ll grant that my distaste for Mr. Hudak was perhaps not on the most solid basis, initially: The man is just horribly boring to listen to. All he does is repeat sound bites, that nearly always contain the word “tax”. Tax grab. Sneaky eco-tax. Taxman. Tax on home heating.

It’s the most excruciating thing to listen to. (I’ve heard that Queen’s Parks reporters routinely leave his press conferences early, since all he does is repeat his boring lines over and over.) Four years of that? Not sure I can handle it.

Since then, though, he’s given some reasons of more substance to not vote for his party.

The numbers don’t work

As pointed out by that paragon of lefty, socialist thinking, The Toronto Sun, the PC’s economic plan doesn’t add up. Tax reductions and no cuts to education and health sounds great, but how do you pay for it? Truth is that after education and health, there isn’t a whole lot left to cut. So what’s the plan, here? Letting the deficit rise exponentially? Praying for miraculous growth in Ontario’s economy?

(Yes, all the parties are being somewhat unrealistic in their fiscal promises. The PCs are just the most so.)

Update: A rather damning and very detailed examination of just how much the numbers don’t work, courtesy of the Centre for Policy Alternatives. Graphs in Conservative Changebook misleading: At least three of the graphs present data that is clearly false. All of the others contain major errors.

Taxes probably will go up under Hudak

I’m not saying he’ll raise provincial taxes or the HST. But as several have pointed, he will not say whether he will continue to take over the cost of certain municipal programs, as the Liberals plan to do. If he does not (and remember he does have to cut somewhere), it is likely our municipal taxes will increase. OK, they always increase. But they will increase more. And unlike with provincial and federal taxes, which give credits for things like RRSP and charitable donations, there’s nothing you can do to protect your income against those ones.

Addition: The anti-green energy stance

Mr. Hudak wants a better world for his daughter (which I believe), but he’d cancel every green energy project he could? While there do seem to be some flaws in the Liberals handling of the alternative energy file, from what I’ve read, I still applaud the general direction. I believe it’s one of the most progressive in North America. It’s even earned a rare, specific endorsement from David Suzuki!

Xenophobia

Why are politicians allowed to bald-faced lie during elections campaigns, again? In election ads, which can’t be dismissed as an unfortunate slip of the tongue?

Because nothing, nothing has been more appalling to me than this party’s response to the Liberals plans to give tax credits for immigrants who are having trouble finding jobs in their field.

Hudak calls them “foreign workers”. He says the funding will go “outside Ontario”. “Ontarians need not apply.”

But only Canadian citizens would qualify for this tax credit—being a landed immigrant would not be enough. And it’s only for jobs in Ontario.

Hudak is just lying, and in the most xenophobic, divisive, hateful way possible.

Now, I don’t know that the Liberal plan is that wonderful. That professionals who immigrate have trouble finding work in their field is a real problem; I’m not sure how much this would solve it. And I don’t think comparing the PCs to the Tea Party is all that helpful a response, either.

But I do know that all Canadians are equal, no matter how long they’ve been Canadian. And if one group is being particularly discriminated against, it is reasonable for the government to see if something can be done to rectify that.

I won’t vote a party that promotes near-racism.

Unfortunately, what I do won’t make a difference.

Rest of Ontario: Good luck to you. Sorry I can’t be more help.


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Commuter challenged

Last week I attempted, for the first time, to participate in the Commuter Challenge. More people than I expected haven’t heard of this before, but the idea is that, for a week, you try to get to work by some way other than by driving yourself there. As part of the company “Green Team”, I felt I should try to participate, even though I really like the convenience of driving myself to work and back.

I don’t live far from work — Googlemaps reports that it’s 3.7 km, one way. Cycling would be the most logical alternative mode of transport, likely not taking much longer than the drive in rush hour.

The problem is, I’m not much of a cyclist. I don’t feel in shape for the activity, I do not like driving on the sides of city streets, I don’t want to feel sweaty at work all day, I don’t want to feel obliged to have to bike home again if it’s raining by then.

Next up: the bus. Grand River Transit has developed a new EasyGo system that is pretty cool. You enter your start and end locations and times; it gives you the full bus route to take. Unfortunately, that also revealed a slightly absurd, 30-40 minute itinerary, with one or two transfers.

Telework was an option. While I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to work at home the whole week, I did have a laptop and a method of connecting to the work network, so that was my method for a couple of the days. For the others? I finally went with “get a ride with husband” (which he helpfully pointed out just meant that he had to drive a little farther before going to work), combined with walking. Which took me 40 minutes.

Happy news was that I did get my exercise in, and on days I probably otherwise would not have. The weather proved to be cooperative — didn’t get rained on, wasn’t ever excessively hot or cold. Except for the one spot with the pond Canada geese and their chicks, and the (live) groundhog I saw one day, the walk route itself was rather uninspiring, even boring. But the iPod proved a helpful tool for dealing with that.

The challenges? Well, it made doing errands pretty tricky. Cats ended up chowing down on yellowfish tuna in olive oil because I wasn’t about to cart home a bunch of can cat food from the store near the office, as I usually do. Telework Monday I drove myself to a medical appointment and back; otherwise I would have missed too much work time. Right after walk-home Tuesday I got into my car for an event in downtown. Though the bus route to there was very good, the bus options home were not. Wine bottles to return to the Beer Store near work? That didn’t happen either.

I also had to really downsize the amount of stuff I normally carry. For the most part, this just proves I normally carry way more than I need. But keeping a bag lunch at proper temperature and weight — tricky. The glass bottled water I used as an alternative to plastic? Too heavy to consider. Carrying my laptop and accessories and papers so I can work effectively at home? Not practical — hence my using the ride option as well.

So, unfortunately, I’m unlikely to stay with regular alternative commuting options. But I will work at home more often, as possible. It’s good to know that walking — and even transit — are actually possible on days the car is in for servicing, or whatever. And walking made it clear that plenty of people deal with the busy city streets by riding their bikes on the sidewalk, so though you’re not supposed to do that, it maybe makes biking an option.

It was good to try it out. If you didn’t participate this year, look out for out next time. Gas ain’t getting any cheaper…