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Sunday, July 15, 2012

12:02PM - the rest of King's Cup 2012


Went to seafood lunch at restaurant A claims is called "J. Ngaw", but he's in the past been way off at what English people call his restaurants, and this is one of those places without an English sign in front of it, or tourists inside, so there may be good reason for it not to be in Google. Had some good food, posted it to Facebook, got good comments. Best part was probably a grilled fish packed with standard Thai seasonings of lemon grass, galangal root and lime leaves, skin heavily salted and then garnished with cilantro, served with a lime-cilantro-chili (and some other stuff) dip.
Back to A's office, worked, posted on FB, watched immense storm roll in, shaking windows on 28th floor, knocking out power for 15 minutes.
Drove out to a wrap party at a restaurant owned by one of A's sisters in Pak Kret, about an hour's drive north around rush hour traffic (mainly by hurtling along shoulders), and about a half hour drive back (by driving at about 150 km/h along 80 km/h roads). The restaurant may be called Ban Bung Tan, according to Google.
He challenges me to a game of Scrabble. Okay. What stakes? I agree to US$10 a game. I beat him easily the first game, with a bit of luck. I think he was going a little easy on me at first, but is surprised to lose. So we play a second game for the second stakes, but this time I draw the bag against him and crush him. So we have to play a third game, and it's starting to feel like I'm playing Chris. This time, it's US$20 for the game, and $0.05 per point. I'm doing fine halfway through, but then he plays dirty, and puts a whole plate of crab curry in front of me. We're playing on 10-minute clocks, and I can't eat crab curry and play quickly at the same time. I go 30 second overtime and it costs me a 9-point game, and $0.45. He hasn't collected yet. On the bright side, I ate a whole plate of crab curry all by myself.
Then we join the rest for dinner, about 20 people. A, continuing evil, serves me an amazing crab dish I've never seen before, looks like it's served in banana leaves, and flavoured with lemon grass and galangal. I shouldn't have told him I had a weakness for galangal. I can only pick at it because I am full of crab curry. There's also a ground chicken dish which appears to be about 50% bird's eye chilis by weight, and is about as spicy as you would imagine. It's the first thing I've eaten this trip that has been uncomfortably spicy. R says it's about a four, but admits that he can't eat anything close to a nine without discomfort.
After dinner, A stages games for his staff, because Thai people need not only to eat, but to compete and gamble to have fun. He tells them the winners will score thousands of bhat (tens of dollars), and the losers get to clean up the office after a week of everyone being too busy to do so.
There are more competitive versions of Connect 4 and Jenga, during which A and I play a fourth game, for higher stakes. We're both playing all out, but I eke out a win with a late-game bingo. I don't tell him my secret, which is that I love playing pass'n'play on the iPhones, which is what we're doing, because you can replay phonies, and my SOWPODS confusion doesn't hurt me. I would have had trouble playing GRAVIDAS with confidence, otherwise.
Then A makes me lead off the karaoke competition, knowing I'm uncomfortable with it (he has an excellent singing voice, I don't), but knowing it will break the ice for some other lousy voices in the competition. I sing first "Ue o muite" (Sukiyaki), then "I want to hold your hand", then some random Japanese enka that he made me sing just to demonstrate I could sight-read Japanese karaoke subtitles, before reassigning me to karaoke judging duty for the others.
The last event was bingo (with some of A's enhancements, which I didn't understand, involving some wildcard chips that featured animals on them). A appointed me the bingo caller, so I got to surprise him by doing it in Thai. I gave credit to N, who taught me to count from 1 to 99 in Thai a few years ago when we were stuck in traffic for an hour driving a few blocks.

Wed 27 Jun 2012 22:00:58 EDT

I got up yesterday morning, packed carefully according to which items needed to go through which security and subsequently be used where, complicated by my intention to leave my bags at the hotel front desk at noon before check-in time rolls around.
R came to pick me up, and we met A's Scrabble posse for seafood lunch at a restaurant specializing in Hainanese chicken (poached, with dipping sauce), but made to Thai tastes, with a wonderful mix of soy sauce, sugar, ginger, chili and garlic in the sauce.
I met A's nephew, and we became iPhone GameCenter buddies, so that we could play A-Math together. As of when I write this, I haven't lost the game in progress, yet. We then went to the nephew's cafe, the oddly named Chimney Brick Toast Coffee house, where R and I spent a productive hour or two developing and testing the Thai edition of the TSH tournament management program.
Then via a brief stop at the Thai Crossword Association offices, overlooking all of Bangkok from their 28-storey height, I went to Siam Square for a 90-minute massage and chiropractic treatment, both much needed.
Then to E. Pochana for the posse to watch me eat another plate of crab curry. Would I like a second one? If I could bring it home to Canada, sure, but I think the food inspection agency would probably seize it at the border. I know I would.
Then to a street stall selling Chinese ginger/tofu dessert soups (not my favourite, but a good way to calm down the stomach, say if you have just single-handedly decimated the crab population of Southeast Asia), and off to the airport with plenty of time to spare, if you drive at twice the posted speed limit and don't hit traffic.
Farewells all round, through security, a quick stop at duty-free to buy T-shirts, an even quicker stop at the Thai Air lounge to shower, brush my teeth and refill myw ater bottle, then to the gate with six minutes to spare for StarAlliance Gold pre-boarding.
I slept okay on the ANA-operated flight from BKK to NRT. This time, the in-flight seat-back video system was working, so I slept through all of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, then woke up with the breakfast announcement and watched the missed bits of an unmemorable film I'd seen 90% of on another flight, where two CIA agents fail to play any Scrabble at all while competing for the affections of Reese Witherspoon.
The breakfast was surprisingly good (okayu, with a variety of well chosen things to put in it), and the flight in general was a positive experience, except that everything in the plane feels about 10% too small for the size of my body. And no electrical power at seats in economy.
On arrival, I was for a change not in a hurry, so I stopped to shave and freshen up even before immigration, then claimed my bags and went through customs. As has happened in the past, the customs inspector looked askance at the amount of luggage I was bringing up from Bangkok, but was so overcome by relief when I explained in Japanese that I was just here to visit relatives that he waved me on through without inspection. (Not that I was carrying any contraband.)
I then sat in the Meeting Place lounge, which had the ideal confluence of electrical power, free WiFi and relative quiet, in between directing tourists who seemed to think Meeting Place meant Information Desk. I got caught up on the night's email, refined my shopping itinerary for the day, then decided I had had enough of the sweltering terminal building and headed off in search of a cooler space.
I picked up a light lunch (three rice balls: cod roe, pollack roe and tuna mayo) to go, with a bottle of green tea, at a Leo Plus convenience store in the terminal building, for about CAD 6.50.
I've found that cooler space now, aboard the SkyLiner, twice-hourly service that takes you straight to Ueno station in Tokyo in less than an hour for about CAD 31. It's air-conditioned, the seats recline more than on an airplane, there's enough legroom to store your suitcases, a seat back tray table and electrical power at your seat.
I'd stay up and work, but as this is the only time I'll have to nap before check-in, that's it for now.

Thu 28 Jun 2012 10:26:35 EDT

... and with that I was out like a light, waking up the sound of a conductor politely telling me that we had arrived at Ueno Station, the end of the line. I gathered my things quickly, found the Hotel New Ueno next to the station without difficulty, and left the bulk of my luggage there, except for an empty carry-on suitcase to fill with shopping and a messenger bag to keep my valuables in.
The desk clerk directed me to the nearest stationer, a place called Okamoto a little east of the JR station. It wasn't entirely what I needed, as it was really an office supplies store rather than a school supplies store, but it was still an easy place to kill an hour. You know you're in the right country to go shopping for office supplies when there's a huge display at the entrance of cool stationery supplies that have recently been reviewed on popular stationery review programmes on television.
After spending a significant amount more than an average customer, I engaged in a social interaction with the store manager that I realized later on might seem odd to a non-Japanese person. As she finished ringing up the purchase, she frowned almost imperceptibly, then inquired delicately if I was from this neighbourhood. Given that I was wearing shorts (not acceptable attire for a Japanese male of my age during business hours), had a suitcase (empty, for loading with purchases), was obsessively taking pictures (okay, the Japanese do that too) with a two-year-old camera (that's the non-Japanese part), and was doing nothing whatsoever to act Japanese, it's hard to say what tipped her off. I can pass with difficulty for Japanese, but see no point in doing so, as it works out better if I look foreign, torque my interlocutor's stress levels a bit as they brace themselves for the social unpredictability of an encounter with a foreigner, then act and speak completely Japanese, so that they're flooded with relief mixing with residual adrenalin, and off-balance for whatever I need to ask them to do; it's a judo thing.
Anyway, I explain what I am doing in her store, shopping for school supplies for my kids, so that they can study Japanese properly in Canada. She lights up (relief! adrenalin! relief! adrenalin!) and says that while normally my purchase would entitle me to a significant number of loyalty card points, she's happy to instead give me a bunch of merchandise for my kids for free instead, because I wouldn't be back in time to spend points. I agree, because it would be awkward to refuse a gift for my kids, and then we're both happy because we're all square.
Just in case you're not Japanese enough to know what I meant by that, here's a more detailed explanation. In most parts of the world, a retail transaction is purely a monetary one. You give the merchant a sum of money which precisely compensates the merchant for the value of the item or service, and you're done. Not in Japan. In Japan, it's a social interaction, and like all social interactions, one party ends up incurring a burden of social obligation. It doesn't matter that I thanked her profusely for having a shop in the right place selling all the right things. If I spend more than the usual customer, I am bringing prosperity to her business, and if she does not act quickly to bring us back into balance, things can very quickly get out of hand. I might mention to a Japanese friend that I had spent a lot of money at this store, but couldn't get points because I was a foreigner. The Japanese friend would see that the manager had behaved improperly in a social interaction, and could therefore not be trusted to behave properly in future, and should therefore not be given any further custom, and so on.
Just one of the many things that I like about Japan, along with the fact that these calculations take place all the time, with exquisite precision and amazing speed.
From Okayama, I was going to go to Yodobashi Camera, but got distracted by a street vendor doing his job attracting customers at the entrance to the Marui department store. I bought a couple of nice hand-made lacquerware bowls for my mom, then went inside and bought some jinbeis for the boys, who have outgrown last year's already.
After a break at the Starbucks in the basement of Marui, I tried again to make it to Yodobashi. This time I got distracted by the Yamashiroya toy shop, which was as big and at least as well supplied as Hakuhinkan on the Ginza. That was another happy hour spent looking for cool stuff. Unlike the store around the corner that advertises "adult toys", this one sells toys for kids that the kids will have great difficulty prying out of their dads' hands.
Then finally to Yodobashi Camera. They finally had iPhone lenses back in stock, and I was finally able to buy the fisheye lens I had wanted for a while. Oddly, the Princeton lenses are now all also sold under the Elecom brand; not sure why. This Yodobashi is significantly smaller than the one at Akihabara though, and does not have a bookshop or stationery department.
Then I got nostalgic, and walked all up and down the Ameyoko market: clothes, pinball, dried goods and seafood. Vendors hawking great big containers of sea urchin or toro or various kinds of seaweed made me rather hungry.
I went to a random noodle shop on the Chuo-dori, put my money in the ticket machine, and had a hiyashi nameko soba. A guy sat down next to me in the bar. I think the demographic at this time of day was travellers killing time before catching a train, and this guy had more luggage than I did. He started arguing with the chef about why his favourite dish wasn't listed anymore (a giant-sized portion of a basic noodle dish). The chef said he hadn't listed it anymore because he couldn't sell it at a price that people wanted to buy it at; the customer said that he was a regular customer that wanted it; the chef said it had been a few years since he had listed it; the customer said he had been away travelling, and they kept going back and forth.
Finally, I had to intervene. I spend too much of my life being either a dad or a tournament director to listen to pointless argument for too long. I told the customer: "Look, if you really like a dish, and it's important to you, you have to go to the restaurant every day and order it, so that the restaurant will keep making it." They both calmed down, and the chef made him the dish in appreciation of the customer's alleged longtime status.
Then back to the hotel to unload and unpack, before getting on the train to Takadanobaba to meet Alan and his friend Francesco for an excellent dinner at a Nepali place called Maya. I don't think I'd ever had really good Nepali food before, but this was certainly it. Spicy momos, some sort of weird chewy giblet dish, and three kinds of curry with naan; along with great dinner conversation about the effect of living and travelling extensively away from home.
The lack of sleep on the flight, followed by the really long day of shopping and dining, left me exhausted when I returned to the hotel. I passed out on the futon the moment I saw it, then woke up about an hour later to get ready for bed properly. I slept soundly.

Fri 29 Jun 2012 02:53:51 EDT

Slept in until about 9:30 local time. I still feel like I am on Bangkok time (UTC +7h), but am currently in Tokyo (UTC +9h), and I keep my computer set to Toronto (UTC -4h), so it took me a few minutes to figure out what time it was and whether or not I ought to wake up. I had been thinking about heading over to near Hakusan station before lunch with my uncle, but decided my early morning would be better spent clearing my head, assessing suitcase volumes, and catching up on email. I'll still need to make that trip later on, unless I stumble across a residential neighbourhood with some shops that I haven't found near Ueno, like a supermarket (rather than a glorified convenience store catering to travellers) and a stationer with school rather than business supplies.
Really enjoying the proximity to Ueno station in all other respects though, as anytime I want to get somewhere, it feels like it saves me 10~15 minutes of getting to a major transportation hub. I'm also really impressed with the soundproofing in the hotel, as not only can I not hear any other guests, I hear no street or train noises at all.
Met my Uncle Mikio at the standard meeting point at JR Ueno Station, the statue of winged victory, at 11:00, then went out in search of an early lunch. It's a neighbourhood that we both have a very dated familiarity with; the last time I was living and working in Japan in 1985, the train from Tsukuba went to Ueno, so it was my first place I would go shopping; before Mikio retired, he worked regularly at an office in nearby Asakusa. However, we both quickly realized that while we had planned the early meeting to avoid the lunch rush, none of our favourite restaurants were in fact open yet at 11:00. Also, FWIW, the restaurant industry in Tokyo has taken a double hit from the tsunami reactor failures and the stagnant economy, so with most people taking a packed lunch to work, it's doubtful whether or not there would be a lunch rush.
We ended up at a large sushi-ya on Chuo-douri called Sushi Zanmai, mainly because (1) it was open, and (2) it had freaky, awesome fish in the tanks at the entrance. By large, I mean that it had about six times as much sushi fridge space as a typical sushi-ya back home in Toronto, and all full of stuff that you never see back there. We ordered the two biggest lunch specials (and a special order of Zingiber mioga pickled in sweet vinegar) and ate like kings.
Mikio still had time left over, so he came with me as far as Ikebukuro to help me shop. We walked to Tokyu Hands, went up to the 7th floor (the 8th floor is the cat cafe), then worked our way back down. With his help, I was able to locate a year's worth of stationery supplies in less than an hour, then went down a few levels to find kitchen toys and bento boxes with somewhat less success. Then it was time for him to head home; after we said our goodbyes I finished my shopping there, went downstairs to get my tax refund, and walked over to the Starbucks at Sunshine 60 to take a break and review my shopping list.

Fri 29 Jun 2012 06:04:42 EDT

I have to make a point next time of just coming to Ikebukuro first thing, no matter how tired I am, as I can pretty much do all the shopping I need to at Tokyu Hands, Toys R Us (in Japanese, Toizarasu), and Junkudo (books). It helps that Toys R Us in Japan sells furikake, and has the best selection of Japanese cartoon lunchboxes that I've seen in town so far, and their toy and game selection isn't bad.
I really like the 8th floor at Junkudo. It has a very well stocked foreign language study section for Japan, including a whole bookcase full of books on Latin and classical Greek, and a long-running series of at least 50 volumes of illustrated phrasebooks for wherever one might want to go in the world, including some pretty obscure ones. It also features the kids' section, where I was able to get everything I wanted for the boys and their friends, and the only difficulties were (1) wanting to spend the rest of my trip browsing, and (2) carrying a large basket full of books down to the first floor cash.
They also have an excellent customer reward programme, which consists of coupons that you can redeem at the 4th floor cafe. So two bags full of books got me a free iced Earl Grey tea and two slices of cheesecake, which may end up being dinner, unless somewhere between here and my hotel I find a whole lot of energy and motivation.
I've had a great time shopping today, but the muggy heat (or rather, the lack of air-conditioned respite from it) is starting to get to it, and I'm looking forward to cooling off in my hotel room more than anything else.

Sat 30 Jun 2012 10:24:56 EDT

My fear that last night's dinner would be cheesecake was not borne out, because in order to get back on the train at Ikebukuro station, I had to walk through the Seibu department store food court, and it is impossible to do so and remain hungry for long. I picked up a box of negi-maguro chirashi, a package of inari, and one of unagi nigiri (or as the auto-corrected hotel menu I later saw would have it, unagi Nigeria sushi), and was very happy to eat excellent sushi twice in one day.
I spent the rest of the evening watching Japanese TV (mainly on the rights of the handicapped in Japan, something that would not have been talked about publicly when Iw as little) while repacking for the rest of my trip.
I woke up this morning refreshed, if a bit stiff from sleeping on the Japanese futon. With a good deal of effort, I schlepped my now heroic quantities of luggage (about 55 kg) to the Ueno Shinkansen station, very glad that it wasn't any further, but still drenched in sweat by the time I made it all the way to platform 20 on the fourth basement level of the station, where the relatively new bullet train line runs. I had time to see five trains go by, including one of the Max series of double-decker bullet trains, before boarding mine for a 45-minute ride to Utsunomiya.
I passed the time eating breakfast, in the form of an unagi-don bento bought at the station, complete with a chemical heat pack to serve it piping hot.
At Utsunomiya, I lugged my bags across the street in front of the station to the Chisun hotel, left them with the front desk and waited for my cousin Keiko to pick me up.
I spent the rest of the day reconnecting with Keiko, her husband, and her daughters, who are a year younger than my kids, and who remind me of my cousin when she was younger in different ways. We went for a walk in a nearby park that featured a cool slide for kids, built into a large hill with a sliding surface made of a large number of small rollers. We played ball. I watched the kids play Super Mario Party. They watched Japanese editions of things like Penguins of Madagascar and iCarly. We went out for dinner at a gyoza restaurant at the station (Utsunomiya is renowned for its gyoza); I had the sampler plate and liked best the ume-shiso gyoza, which were outstanding. I kept the girls amused through the meal by playing Madagascar and Shaun the Sheep on my laptop, so the grownups could talk amongst themselves. We bought a few gyoza souvenirs, Keiko helped me rebook my trip tomorrow to Narita (I had originally booked by train via Ueno, but it costs a little less to take a direct bus trip from immediately outside the hotel, and it saves me taking my bags from Ueno JR to Ueno Keisei). Then I talked for a long time with Kristen on Google Voice, and am now ready for bed.

Sun 1 Jul 2012 12:01:40 EDT

Got up at 9:00, bought two Marronnier bus tickets (an adult fare and a child fare, so that I could check a second suitcase), walked to the station, bought strawberry Kitkats and some onigiri and sushi for breakfast and lunch, then back to the hotel to Skype with the family until it was time to go.
Slept on and off on the three-hour bus ride, which followed the Tohoku expressway as far as the outer ring road around Tokyo, then down to Tokyo Harbour, past Tokyo Disneyland and on to Narita. First class check-in went quickly. I took a look at the toy shop, found a surprising number of Godzilla figures, including the newer JPY 6000 premium ones, and some large Gundam models, but nothing I was looking for. At one point, a man walked up to me holding two Transformers toys and asked me if I spoke English. When I said yes, he looked disappointed, and said "But then you can't read Japanese". I didn't entirely follow his logic, but told him it was his lucky day, and translated the packaging for him.
A visit to the bookstore was more productive, picking up a couple of magazines and manga for the boys, though I was horrified to learn that the Shogaku n-nensei manga series has been discontinued; I grew up with them. A visit to the big Akihabara-branded duty free shop turned up boxes of green tea Kitkat, but no senbei.
I was tempted to save a bit of money and just walk right past my favourite sushi bar, Sushi Kyotatu, but then remembered what I'd told the guy in the noodle shop on Friday. Kyotatu didn't look like they would be discontinuing their tuna special anytime soon, but I ordered it to help remind them how good it is. They probably don't need the reminder; they have signs up saying that they get their fish from the top-rated tuna dealer in the Tsukiji fish market, and the five itamae have the swagger of chefs who know they are serving the best. I saved the last piece of chu-toro for the end, and was still savouring its aftertaste as I walked into the ANA lounge.
I picked up some maki to snack on as I settled into my favourite seat (electricity, privacy, plenty of table and bench space, and a line of sight to see when the massage chairs are free), and sorted photos and checked email until it was time to go.
I was one of the first on the plane, and sitting in seat 2G I'll probably be the fourth or fifth one off. I'm going to try to sleep as much as I can, while rewatching boring or familiar movies. Contraband. Young Adult. A Fish Called Wanda. The Usual Suspects. it's worked okay so far.
(and that's about as far as I got before I succumbed to jet lag and travel fatigue for a week.)

Monday, June 18, 2012


It was another Father's Day departure for me on my annual visit to the King's Cup tournament in Bangkok. I knew the traffic and the airport wouldn't be busy, so I left the house an hour later than usual, after breakfast in bed served by my sons, and a quiet couple of hours of making sure that the house was in order for my absence. Transferring downloaded apps and videos onto Jamie's iPod and laptop, for instance. 
The cab driver was a taciturn one for a change, and took an unusual route down Parliament St to the Gardiner Expwy, but it didn't slow us down too much; the check-in process at Air Canada was smooth but left me wondering how next year's frequent flyer class changes will affect my travel experience. (Air Canada is switching from three classes to five, and increasing by 40% the number of miles required to earn most of my favourite perks, including StarAlliance Gold status.)
At international security, they now have three initial lanes, which at this time of day merged into two actual processing lanes. The three were labelled NEXUS, Priority (Air Canada Elite, Super Elite, AmEx, etc.) and presumably everyone else. There was no waiting at the NEXUS lane, and two passengers at Priority. 
I had only 30 minutes at the Maple Leaf Lounge, because of the late departure. I had my customary beef/mushroom ravioli with cream sauce and chili flakes. They seemed to have expanded their menu slightly, or maybe it was just the time of day. In addition to soups and salad, they also had some sort of fruit pastry, and a wider range of sweet snacks. 
I went to the gate at an hour before departure, and found the gate staff starting to process upgrade requests. I asked the wrong one, and she barked at me to sit down until my name was called. It wasn't, so I've got 13 hours ahead of me in economy, but at least it's Air Canada, with on-demand video and, more importantly, power for my MacBook Pro and iPhone. 
I spend the time until takeoff wishing my dad a happy Father's Day, talking to my mom, helping Jamie with his homework, and chatting on Facebook with Kristen. We push back from the gate about 15 minutes late, after a last-minute change to our flight plan. Unlike two weeks ago, on this departure, flight AC 001 manages to successfully take off without losing an engine, having to dump fuel or making an emergency landing. It's possible that earlier problem is part of the reason today's flight was full though; I had a friend who was on that flight who said it took days for him to get rebooked. 

I try watching John Carter for a bit, but with or without the sound, I find it unwatchable. I switch randomly to Act of Valour, and am rewarded 10 minutes into the film with a good Scrabble scene! They really ought to be mentioned in movie ratings. "Warning: This film may not contain scenes of Scrabble." "Warning: This film contains offensive language not found in OSPD4."
Two CIA Scrabble players are about 2/3 of the way through a game on a current deluxe Hasbro board. The game is apparently being played in Costa Rica, but it is unclear which rules are in effect. I assume NASPA, because of the board brand, and the nationality of the players; it is possible that the players were on a NASPA-sanctioned overseas tour tournament. If so, there are several irregularities. While there is no other equipment visible, the players are playing on a deprecated board (wrong premium square colours), tiles (can be brailled), and racks (cannot count tiles). No clock is being used. No certified official is present, though it is possible that one of the players is certified, or that they have arranged for a director to be nearby or on call. 
Player A plays 13d DUMB from an existing D, gets confused by the dark blue double-letter score as a double-word, and misscores the play as 18 points instead of 11 points. Player B does not catch his error, because she is excited about what DUMB has just set up. (There is no evidence that she has intentionally accepted an incorrect score.) She plays 13c ADUMBRATING through DUMB and an existing T, but completely misscores it, 38 instead of 54 for the rare 11-tile double-double. Player A challenges, and Player B invites him to look it up in a copy of the SCRABBLE Word Building Book, an unsanctioned word reference. 
I'm frustrated by the bad scoring, by the ominous foreboding that their game is going to be violently interrupted before they can recount, and by the fact that every time I try to pause the video to see the board clearly, the on-screen controls am important part of the board. Here's what I've made out so far; I'll have to find a copy of the film later on to fill the rest in. One nagging question, given the H that Player B kept, is whether or not in her haste to play the double-double, she missed the possibility of the bingo HIRAGANA. 
|= . . ' ? . . = . . . ' . . =| 
|. - . . ? " . . . C . . . - .| 
|. . - ? ? ? ? ? L E . . A . .| 
|' . . - . . . S O L V E D . '| 
|. . . ? ? ? . . V . - . U . .| 
|. " . ? . " . . E " . . M " .| 
|. ? ? ? . . ' . L . . . B . .| 
|= ? . ' . ? A N E . . ' R . =| 
|. ? ? ? ? ? ' . S . . . A . .| 
|. ? . O . ? . . S A I N T " .| 
|. . . T - R . . . . - . I . .| 
|' . . E . T . ' . . Y - N . '| 
|. . - . . E ' . ? ? ? . G . .|
|. - . . . ? ? ? ? " ? . . - .| 
|= . . ? ? ? . = ? ? ? ' . . =|
At this point, some kibitzers, apparently disturbed by the haphazard scoring, interrupt the game, and in a serious violation of the NASPA Code of Conduct, not only kill Player A, render Player B unconscious, and abduct her from the scene, but disturb the tiles on the board. No director appears to intervene, which may render a future investigation problematic, as without additional witnesses, it might degenerate quickly into a "he said, she said" situation. If the game being played was part of a sanctioned event, and it is not clear to me why else it would feature so prominently in a big budget movie, then the director would likely face a one-grade demotion in certification standing by the NASPA Club/Diector Committee. 
Fortunately, higher officials take charge of the situation, sending in a team of Navy SEALs to rescue Player B from the kibitzers. In this unusual situation, it's hard to say how the interrupted game ought to be handled. At the point where the kibitzers killed Player A, Rule V.J. (Forfeits and Byes), clause 2, ought to have been applied, as the game could not be resumed at a later point. It seems unlikely that Player A would intentionally have gotten himself killed to assure a prize for another player, so clause 3 does not apply, and no Incident Report needs to be filed against Player A. An alternate resolution would be to assign both players +50 byes for the round, perhaps on the grounds that both players left the playing area in the middle of a game without the permission of an official. In situations where the rules are ambiguous, I would normally explain and propose a ruling and ensure that both players understand and agree with it; this is unfortunately not possible in this particular situation. 

Watched a forgettable movie called Warrior, about a high-stakes single-elimination MMA competition, featuring Jennifer Morrison (whose departure from House marked a shark jump moment) as a pretty face to cut to whenever the cameras would otherwise show an interesting martial arts technique. Wrote about 100 lines of Perl code for TSH while distracted by movie; not very good coding performance. 

Had some instant ramen noodles and a sandwich, then slept through The Smurfs, caught enough scenes from it that I can more knowledgeably discuss it with Liam. Very sleepy, looking for a comfort film now, going to try The Usual Suspects. Who was Kaiser Sose again? Less than five hours left on the flight, wondering what it will be like to do this flight with kids. Catching up on email with GMail Offline. 

Slept even more solidly through 21 Jump Street, about which all I can remember is an overall impression of puerility. Woke up to have some okayu for breakfast (at about 2:00 A.M. ET), feel not too terribly tired. Watching Le Maitre du Grill, an episode about how to make your own maple and beer smoked turkey pastrami, and smoked jerk ribs. 

Arrived more or less on time at NRT, but security was unusually congested, taking about 10 minutes rather than the usual two or three. Then as I got to the ANA Lounge at Terminal 1 Satellite 4, I realized that my departure gate was in Satellite 5, at the other end of a series of long people movers through an underground tunnel. The Satellite 5 Lounge has a much nicer view though, as for unknown reasons they have had to combine the ANA member-only first-class suite lounge with the regular ANA lounge that they open up to StarAlliance partners. The first-class suites need to have a good view of the tarmac, and are therefore on the top (4th) floor, unlike the regular T1S4 SA lounge, which is on the 2nd floor and shut off from daylight. 
Arriving then at the lounge at 16:45, 65 minutes before departure, I was able to squeeze into 35 busy minutes: a shower, some sushi, some tanuki soba, a massage, some more sushi, and then a quick visit to a toy store to see what's available at the airport in case I later experience shopping fail. 
My second flight, from NRT-BKK is operated by ANA for a change, rather than Thai Air. This means that the priority passengers line up in two neat rows, as though they were boarding a Tokyo subway, and then they all get to board before the first regular passenger does. I counted on the way to my seat nine ANA staff bowing at me, welcoming me aboard, and thanking me for my custom. To be fair, a Thai flight would have involved an equivalent amount of wai-ing, but I'm more comfortable with appropriate responses in Japanese culture. For a middle-aged man like me, that would be either a reflexive twitch of a nod, or just brusquely walking by. Actually, I'm not so comfortable with what's socially expected of me, having been raised by a Japanese mother from another century, and being at a point in my career as a dad where I am having to inculcate my own sons. I catch myself asking the flight attendant in polite language if I may use the toilet before the flight departs, before I realize I've been way too polite. The flight attendant is unflappable though, and just smiles and replies politely to set me at ease. 
I sleep for at least four of the six scheduled hours of the flight, along with part of the extra hour added on by runway construction at BKK. It helped that I had two seats to myself. ANA offers seatback video, but weirdly, only two channels: an interactive flight map, and a short program of Japanese news. The coolest feature of the plane is probably the live external video feed from the cockpit, which plays during takeoff and landing. 
I text back and forth with Ravee as I proceed through immigration, baggage claim and customs, step out into the tropical soup that the Thai breathe instead of air, and have no trouble finding his car. Then it's off to get Amnuay and go to Thipsamai for the world's best pad thai. There is some concern as to whether or not they will be open. On the one hand, it's Bangkok, so good food should be available at all hours; on the other, it's 1:00 A.M. by the time we get there. As it turns out, it's not only open, it's almost full with people passing the time until the 1:45 (local time) start of the last Euro 2012 group match, between Spain and Croatia. The quarterfinals take place tomorrow (Tuesday), Thursday and Friday, so there are going to be a lot of tired Thai football fans this week. 
The pad thai is as good as I remembered it from last years, and is the perfect way to reawaken my palate after a year of less satisfying food eaten away from Thailand. It strikes a perfect balance of tartness, heat, sweetness and umami, with an underlying harmonious complexity of flavour that I cannot put into words. 
It's about 2:00 A.M. local time (3:00 P.M. ET) by the time I make it to the Baan Silom Soi 3 hotel, my home away from home for the next nine days. It's a small, quiet, independent boutique hotel in the Silom (central business district), with everything that I need for my stay: WiFi, A/C, a quiet, clean room; and within easy walking distance public transit and a small market. I Skype with the family back home, take a shower, and spend the rest of the night sleeping through movies, just as though I were still on a plane. 

Current mood: full

Friday, June 24, 2011

6:26AM - King's Cup

For those of you who don't know what I'm doing here or how to follow along, here's the link for the King's Cup tournament!

Monday, June 20, 2011

10:51PM - Arrival in Bangkok

Mon 20 Jun 2011 22:29:52 EDT

Not much to report about the ANA flight from Tokyo to Bangkok last night. The food was truly awful, the worst I'd had in an airplane in years. The noodles managed to be simultaneously rubbery and soggy, and there was one dish that did not look at all appetizing which I regret both tasting and not being able to identify, to help warn people away from it in future. I should have brought along takeout from the ANA lounge!

I fell asleep for about four hours, which I'm hoping will help me cope with jet lag, the idea being to have two four-hour sleeps in a 36-hour period while shifting through an 11-hour time difference. When I woke up, I tried again to watch 3:10 To Yuma (the 2007 Russell Crowe version), for I think the third time in an airplane, and got almost all the way to the end (possible spoiler: at the point where they shut down video for landing, the rancher was trying to get the villain from a hotel to a prison train while everyone in the town was shooting at them). I didn't mind too much though, as the overhead monitors then came online with what looked like a live video feed off the landing gear, which was cool to watch. It also helped reassure me that we weren't going to die, after some exceptional turbulence earlier in the flight over Laos, enough for light objects to be thrown about on my seatback tray.

Everything went smoothly as usual at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport. Ravee Joradol met me at our customary rendezvous location, and took me to Thipsamai to meet Amnuay for two plates of the world's best pad thai. Then it was off to my hotel, a quick Skype with my family, and off to bed for another four-hour sleep.

4:21AM - trip photos

See https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100447262269902.2871769.28121638 for photos of my trip so far.

4:04AM - Toronto to Tokyo

Sun 19 Jun 2011 12:04:19 EDT

I'm on my way to Bangkok again for the King's Cup, a little more tired than usual less than a week after the end of the big event of the Canadian Scrabble year, the 2011 Canadian National SCRABBLE Championship. I got my frequent flyer upgrade to Air Canada Executive First class for the 12-hour flight to Tokyo Narita airport, and I'm expecting to spend a good chunk of that time sound asleep in my cubicle (ovoidal?). I persuaded the cab driver to let me off at the near end of YYZ Terminal 1, where the unsigned priority checkin section masquerades behind the domestic departures sign at curbside. I almost lined up at regular security before remembering the existence of the priority lane. I enjoyed being whisked along by the high-speed ThyssenKrupp moving walkway, a good description of which can be found at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moving_walkway .

I'm finally starting to unwind a little while I wait here in the Maple Leaf Lounge. Everything is blandly, modernly familiar, except that they have changed the pasta menu, that had gone unchanged for years and years. The replacement is actually an improvement (four-cheese in striped spinach agnolotti, and mushroom ravioli), but the change is jarring. Even more alarmingly, the signage at the buffet looks suspiciously temporary, and the dishes are labelled "menu du jour". Will there be a different dish each time I pass through here?!

Time to catch up on email and phone calls before the first flight.

Sun 19 Jun 2011 14:59:01 EDT

Boarding is delayed somewhat, as the flight is carrying at least 90% Japanese passengers, none of whom can understand the idea that Air Canada has (1) overbooked the flight by one seat (how can they not know how many seats they've sold and match that to the number of available seats?!) and (2) would like one of them to accept $500 to be bumped to tomorrow's flight (how could someone have so much slack in their personal schedule that they don't care what day they fly?!). Eventually, a non-Japanese passenger is located to accept the offer, and we can board. As I'm heading for the first-class cabin line, a cheery little voice shouts hello - Sasha, one of Jamie's old Hakobune classmates will be flying on the same flight, and has lined up with her mom in the travelling-with-small-children line.

I accept a preflight glass of champagne, and am then first fascinated, then annoyed, then mortified when a shower of extremely fine grained Puerto Morelos beach sand falls out while I stow the sandals I was thinking of wearing in flight and lands in the champagne (ooh, what excellent nucleation sites the sand offers, such effervescence), rendering it undrinkable (hey, I can't fly without champagne!) as well as landing on my neighbours complimentary in-flight amenities kit (oh, the embarrassment, I knew I should have brought that USB vacuum cleaner that Momoha's dad gave me, I'll never travel without it again!)

As far as the amenities in the pod go, they're generally the same as my last flight in this class, but I'm glad to see that they've responded to my complaints (and presumably others') and found a source for Sennheiser headphone foam ear covers that actually fit the headphone earpieces. I'll take the sockettes, toothbrush, toothpaste, lotion, etc. and add them to our guest amenities collection back home.

I'm a little miffed that my electrical outlet isn't working, but it's not the end of the world. The USB outlet is working, and has fully charged my iPhone. I've still got five hours' power left on my MacBookPro battery, and the chief of flight service has kindly offered to find a place to charge it back to full when I go to bed.

A flight attendant comes by and lays out a cloth napkin for me to use as a tablecloth to begin the first meal service. I was torn, but eventually decided the Japanese menu would be too heavy for me, as I wasn't in the mood for beef. Instead I had the "Sauteed Alaskan Black Cod complemented by Lemon Butter, Spinach Risotto, Green Beans and glazed Baby Carrots". It was a little bland at altitude, but well prepared. I preferred the appetizers: "Smoked Atlantic Salmon with Cucumber Carpaccio, Dill Mustard Sauce and Capers" and "Organic Field Greens, Grape Tomatoes and Parmesan with Balsamic Vinaigrette". I've been a fan of in-flight smoked salmon ever since I used to get it regularly from German catering services when flying Frankfurt-Toronto; the thin air dilutes most flavours, but the umami and texture of the salmon are reliable. I declined the cheese plate and chocolate pecan tart, but am thinking about ordering ice cream.

Or maybe dim sum. I like the idea of on demand dim sum even better than on demand video. Speaking of which, I watched Cedar Rapids, a movie about a mid-Western insurance salesman who has his eyes opened at a convention: it was sweet and funny, and I only fell asleep a few times. Next up after I answer some offline Gmail will be either Limitless or Rango, whichever I think I *can* more easily sleep through, as the lights have been dimmed and all around me I hear the gentle snores of my cabinmates.

I'm having a good time so far, the stress of preparing for the trip is gone, the frenetic excitement of Bangkok is still almost a day away, and I've got nothing to do now but enjoy the ride!

Mon 20 Jun 2011 03:47:27 EDT

I'm at my favourite airline lounge, the ANA business lounge at NRT. Someday I have to find a way into the ANA first class lounge here, but not anytime soon, as it will spoil this place for me.

I watched about half of Limitless before I got bored with the idea of a movie about a writer who takes experimental drugs to boost his intelligence, then behaves stupidly. I handed over my MacBook Pro to the chief of flight service for charging, then put on Rango and tried to get some sleep. Bad mistake: it's an amazing film. At first, I was only watching it to see if my boys would like it. I'm still not sure, as I was too enthralled by what I liked about it to think about watching it through their eyes. I ordered dim sum and ramen in lieu of popcorn and had a great time. It's by far the best animated psychedelic ILM western starring Johnny Depp that I've ever seen, and I'll probably watch it again on the way home.

Eventually, as my normal bedtime approached, I was able to sleep for I think 2-3 hours, woke up for breakfast (congee with a really good variety of pickled seafood) and proceeded without incident through security (no passport control for international connections). I doublechecked that the reason I can't use a Star Alliance upgrade on my flight to Bangkok is the fare class, not just that the request has to be in 24-48 hours before flight time to allow for AC and NH to account for the transfer of miles.

I then headed here to the ANA lounge to refresh myself for my next flight. I showered, used a massage chair for 15 minutes, and helped myself to miso soup, futomaki and inari-zushi from the buffet. I feel at this point the way I do after following up a long day at a Thai crossword game tournament with a late-night visit to a spa, which is to say a little tired but otherwise comfortable. I think I'll skip the noodle and sake bars here in favour of a little more sushi, then check my email before getting ready to board the next flight.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

7:05PM - How I spent my holiday...

The holiday portion of my time in Malta now comes to an end, as Scrabble play resumes tomorrow with the beginning of the Malta International Scrabble Open. I've had a great few days since I last wrote. I finished not quite at the bottom of the unrated tournament at the Broussons, but got to make some nice words against some strong players. As Kevin Synnott keeps reminding me, some of my words were even acceptable, but not FANBOATS. (He could have challenged.) (And Cecil Muscat called it a nice play, which it clearly was, as it stayed on the board.)

Yesterday, I got the Broussons to take me to the Mdina Glass Factory in Ta' Qali for the morning. I skipped the tour of the glass artisans at work, in favour of looking through their extensive gift shop for souvenirs for friends and family. I came back to the hotel for the afternoon, and alternately caught up on my sleep and email from the last few days. Then I had to stay up late to do a ten-minute interview with CKOM 650 in Saskatoon about competitive Scrabble: thank you, Collins and Mattel for all this free publicity with the new word list. In between explaining what it was that we do, and what's up with the new word list anyway, I managed to mention the NASPA club in Saskatoon, their upcoming tournament this weekend, and the fact that their director (George MacAulay) will be coming to Toronto next month for the Canadian National Scrabble Championship.

So I woke up a little groggy this morning, bolted down the default breakfast (I keep meaning to try the "healthy breakfast", but until then, it's sausage, eggs, bread, fruit if there's anything low-salicylate, and tea) and just made it in time for a Scrabble convoy to leave for the island of Gozo. Gozo has about a tenth of the population of Malta, and is considered to be a quieter, friendlier place, and is well worth the 20-minute (?) ferry ride from the west end of the main island. Like Malta, its natural terrain is extremely defensible, consisting of dramatically eroded sandstone hills and shores lined with rubble, and on top of this, the Gozitans (just like the Maltese) have happily spent several millennia building citadels, fortresses, towers, walls, and all other manner of fortifications, all out of the attractive local sandstone.

Our first stop was in Xlendi, a natural harbour with a tiny little beach, where Theresa's dogs were happy to run splash in the water after the short car ride. We had coffee at a scenic cafe right on the waterfront, then went for a walk along a steep staired path on the west side of the harbour to a little seashore grotto, then back again.

I've posted more photos to facebook from today, no registration should be required to view them.

We decided the waterfront restaurant was overpriced, and went around the corner to a little place called Paradise, where we had eaten last year. The food was delicious, though the service was rather slow considering we were the only customers. I had the garlic bread, catch of the day (bream) and grilled calamari (see photos).

We then drove on to Ramla Beach, which unlike most shoreline referred to locally as beach, is actually sandy. I had learned last year that one does not go swimming at the east (right) end of the beach, unless one likes swimming in rough water above slippery boulders. The west end is lovely, the water not too cold (about 20C/68F, I think), and the waves were just high enough to do a little patient bodysurfing. I lay in the sun until I was dry: it didn't take long, given the sun and the wind, then came back to the beach snack bar to cool off in the shade with some ice cream. Amy Byrne and I played a partners game against Cecil Muscat and Helen Gipson. The facebook photo shows our last rack, the unplayable FADEOUT, just before they made a huge endgame Q play to win the game. We then got out a second board, and I played Amy one-on-one. I drew the bag, which was just enough to beat her, and took probably excessive pride in noting that I had just defeated the woman who at the Broussons had defeated the woman who had won the European Open. Definitely excessive pride, but the high point of a pretty good day.

Then it was back to the hotel for dinner (photo). I had rabbit for the first time since last year, along with a calamari salad, green beans, lettuce, and roast potatoes with pearl onions. All pretty good for hotel food, and served at It-Tokk, the Maltese buffet, and a welcome change from the hotel's regular dinner buffet. I then came up to my room and spent the evening working on NASPA and CNSC business. (If you're registered for the CNSC, you should have received automated email from me this evening; contact me if you did not.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

10:46AM - Brousson tournament

Results of the unrated EUR 100 tournament being held at the Brousson residence are being posted to


Congratulations to Amy Byrne on her win!

8:54AM - Tuesday Lunch at It-Tokk

Lunch at It-Tokk, the hotel's Maltese lunch buffet, had an unexpected surprise. For the main course, I chose a low-salicylate selection from the buffet: saffron rice, chicken stewed in tomato sauce (with all the high-salicylate tomato sauce carefully scraped off), deep-fried fish filets (much better than the chicken), and an ad hoc pasta salad I put together from separately offered shell pasta, string beans and tuna salad. All washed down with slightly complimentary "still water", slightly less brackish than the tap water. I celebrated this first leisurely meal since my arrival (no tournament to get back to today, except for the unrated do at the Broussons in half an hour) by going back to see what they had for dessert. I chose an unpromising looking layer cake, and was astounded by the first bite I took.

It alternated very thin layers of cake with thick layers of cream. The cake layers were totally saturated with rum; I could almost feel drops squeezing out onto my tongue with each bite. The cream layers were not the light creamy filling I'm used to, but the consistency of cream cheese, with an intense sweetness and dairy richness. The cake layers were just thick enough to give structural integrity to the cake, and to give your teeth resistance and calibration as they passed through the alternation of cake and cream, and for the alcohol in them to swab the dairy fat out of your mouth before the next bite. I felt transported with the first bite, ate a second bite before I could begin to verbalize the experience, quickly remembered to take a photo of what was left, then slowly savoured the rest. At the end, I decided not to go back for another helping, as I think the overall richness of small piece I had will stay with me until bedtime. I've had a few really outstanding desserts in Malta, and I'm happy to add this one to the list. Photos to follow on Facebook.

7:27AM - After the EOSC

Jane Williams asks how much talk there is about the new Collins word list over here. I'm looking forward to QIN# myself, and will probably have the hardest time stopping playing FOHS, FREON(S), LERNAEAN, ROMAS, TANAISTE(S), TIEROD(S), WASM(S), YOS and ZIMMER(S) myself: these are everyday words, what was Collins thinking?!

I sent out email on the Toronto club mailing list asking how many people wanted me to bring back copies of the new Collins Scrabble Words and Collins Scrabble Lists books; I was surprised (and relieved) that only three people did. The Air Malta connector to Heathrow is a regional airline with miniscule baggage limits.

Amy Byrne, the tournament director, is also the proprietor of Tilefish, so she had a whole bunch of CSWs and CSLs on display at the Tilefish merchandise table. Most people here are going to wait a few months before they start studying; and WSC contenders will probably wait until after the WSC. Theresa though has eagerly downloaded the WESPA pamphlet listing the major changes, and started studying them yesterday in the middle of the European Open. It doesn't seemed to have harmed her play (she was Gibsonized in the last round), so maybe other players will take a cue from her.

Kristen says things have been relatively quiet back home. There was one call from ABC Australia, I'm guessing from the morning show that interviewed me about Scrabulous; she referred them to JDW. One Toronto Star journo managed to track me down directly, and got about 15 minutes of my time. She seemed surprised (though not particularly interested) to learn that by the time CSW2 takes effect worldwide, about 10% of NASPA members will have played in a NASPA CSW tournament. (Somewhere in an alternate reality were Scrabble players rule the world, this is frontpage news.)

I just got up from sleeping with interruptions for about eleven hours, on this my first night between the European Open Scrabble Championship and the Malta International Scrabble Open (mm, MISO...). I had a little bit of trouble getting to sleep, probably due to too much caffeine over the last couple of days, but I'm glad I'm up in time for lunch, and may even have time to do a bit of yoga beforehand.

After we finished tearing down from the Open last night, we looked for somewhere nearby that was open on a Monday night, the usual closing night for restaurants around here. We ended up nextdoor to the hotel at a place called Al Dente, which served either a combination of Italian and Maltese food, or possibly Italian food for Maltese palates, or Maltese food for Italian palets: I would have asked, but I had to go to the restaurant, place my order, go back to the hotel, tear down the Ethernet equipment, take it up to my room, go back to the restaurant, eat my appetizer, go out to call the Toronto Star back, then bolt my risotto while everyone was finishing up. The food was good, though; I enjoyed it a little more than last night's spaghetti with sea urchin and calamari sauce at Avenue in Paceville, which wasn't bad either, just a little too much of a good thing. Photos of both can be found on Facebook (no login should be required), in my trip album.

I'm very much aware at all times of being on an island in the Mediterranean. As if the scenery (see album) weren't enough, we're right next to the water, so you can feel it in the air, and there's something calming in the sound of being next to a large body of water. The tap water is brackish and heavily chlorinated: it is salty to the taste, but sitting in a tub of it smells like sitting in a swimming pool. Potable fresh water is at a premium, and not freely available anywhere except in the Scrabble tournament room when it is in session. And of course the food, which is in the middle of the Mediterranean spectrum, and is palatable even when it's been sitting on a hotel buffet for an hour.

Off to see if I can still get lunch, before leaving at 15:00 to go play and run in an unrated tournament for ten players at Theresa and Geoff's.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

8:33AM - European Open Scrabble Championship

There won't be much for me to report here for the next few days, as I'll be immersed in helping Amy Byrne run the European Open Scrabble Championship, here at the Suncrest Hotel in scenic Qawra, Malta. Any creative energies I have will go toward the commentary and photos at that website during the event. On Tuesday, we're planning a day off to play some Scrabble at Theresa and Geoff's house, then an outing to Gozo on Wednesday or Thursday.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

6:15PM - Toronto to Malta

Thu 5 May 2011 05:15:18 EDT

I'm off to Malta for the European Open and the Malta International
Scrabble Open, then to visit friends in Cambridge for a few days!

I arrived at London Heathrow Terminal 3 after a relatively uneventful
trip. I was sitting in the forward economy cabin on an Air Canada
B-767; the seat was not uncomfortable, and I didn't particularly
regret not upgrading to Executive First: the flight was only six
hours, mostly during early evening hours, and I wouldn't be able
to sleep soundly even if I could recline fully horizontally. I was
sitting next to two Arabic-speaking boys a little older than Jamie;
their dad was keeping a loose eye on them from the row behind, but
he had his hands full with two more kids, so the stewardesses kept
asking me what my boys wanted. Both boys seemed to be suffering
from flu-like symptoms, but kindly refrained from spilling anything
more than water on me until we landed, then narrowly missed bevomiting
me when I got up on landing.

On the on-demand video, I watched Green Lantern (more fun than I
thought it would be), The Mechanic (less fun), and three episodes
of Hawaii 5-0 (I should probably get the whole series, but then
what would I watch on planes).

I have mixed feelings about London Heathrow Terminal 4. On the one
hand, they do a good job of moving people at a steady pace from
point A to point B. Signage is clear, and if you stand still
anywhere for more than a few minutes, someone will approach you and
ask you if you need help going somewhere else. On the other hand,
if you don't want to go anywhere, say because you're exhausted from
a trans-Atlantic flight, and check-in doesn't open for your connecting
flight for a few hours, there's not enough seating, none of it is
comfortable, the WiFi costs money (though I get it for free with
my Boingo subscription), and there are very few electrical outlets
outside of toilets. If you want to sit and wait for your check-in
counter to open, you're out of luck. There is no seating of any
sort with a line of sight on the check-in counters. And you needn't
rush to go through security: the gates are arranged along a straight
corridor more than 500 metres long, and they won't tell you your
gate assignment until a few minutes before boarding commences. This
appears to be intentional, as there is insufficient seating at each
gate, so if they did announce the gates early, there would be unruly
mobs standing around waiting at each gate. Instead, you get thousands
of tired, cranky travellers, being herded from one end of the terminal
to the other, by cheery, efficient airport staff.

So in the end, I walked to the Starbucks, confirmed that they still
have not heard of matcha green tea, then found a miraculously
unoccupied hard wooden bench in a noisy part of the terminal to
stretch out on for half an hour.

Thu 5 May 2011 16:52:47 EDT

I arrived at Luqa Airport in Malta somewhat refreshed from an unknown
number of twenty-minute naps. The flight from Heathrow was on the
usual Air Malta A320 full of British holidaymakers, somewhat in
need of redecoration (I think I'm referring to the cabin here), but
with friendly, efficient staff. I might have been able to stretch
those naps out to thirty minutes, but didn't notice that I had been
assigned a non-reclining seat just in front of the exit row.

Geoff and Theresa picked me up in their new car, which was spacious
enough to transport the three of us, a substantial quantity of tournament
equipment, and my luggage. We chatted about Scrabble politics around
the world on the short ride to the Suncrest Hotel, where they helped
me check in (saving me about EUR 60/day on WiFi). I arranged with
TD Amy Byrne that I would meet her for dinner if I didn't sleep through
it. Since by this point my body was starting on what it thought was
a day following a missed night's sleep, I wasn't entirely sure how
long I would sleep after I unpacked and bathed. As it turned out,
I woke up at 22:00, after the hotel's last food service closed, but
that gave me an excuse to stretch my legs and walk to the cafe at the
adjoining resort, the Qawra Palace, where I have just finished filling
myself up on my favourite Maltese pea and cheese pastizzi*, while
planning out what to do in the twelve hours or so until tournament
setup time.

(Thanks to Craig for proofreading.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

5:57AM - King's Cup underway

I won't be blogging as much for the next several days, as the event
that is the purpose of my visit to Bangkok has begun, the 25th
BRAND's International Thailand Crossword Games King's Cup 2010,
attracting Scrabble players from across the world in search of the
US$10,000 top prize.

I have posted several of my pre-event photos on the event website at


There is a little food porn there, but it should be SFW.

I don't have time to write about it, and I can't think of the words
to do it justice anyway, but there's a photo of Thai curried crab,
and just the memory of it is making me salivate now.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

12:18AM - Bangkok, part two

Tue 15 Jun 2010 23:35:25 EDT

I have no idea why I never ate breakfast at the Novotel Siam Square the last time I stayed there, and will regret the lost opportunity for the rest of my life. It took me a while to fall asleep last night, I think it must have been 03:00 when I eventually drifted off for the last time, watching reruns of Olympic table tennis, so I wasn't surprised that I slept in until 09:00. I got up, turned on NHK World, checked my email and eventually headed downstairs a little before 10:00.

The buffet at The Square on the second floor of the Novotel is comprehensive and diverse. There's everything you would find at a good hotel breakfast buffet in North America: dozens of kinds of pastries, bread, jams, teas, coffees, fruit juices, bacon, sausage, ham, eggs and omelets cooked to order. Then there are halal, Indian, Chinese (including dim sum), Japanese and Thai sections. I made a beeline for the last two.

I started off gently, with miso soup presented in Thai build-it-yourself style, adding tofu and green onions. It was competently made, with the standard bonito broth, and not bad for something that had been sitting on a buffet for a few hours.

I moved on to the congee, again presented with all the ingredients on the side. I wasn't sure what most of them were, so I tried a little of each. I liked the green onions, pickled vegetables (I think some sort of allium, some sort of zingiber, possibly galanga), the pork rind, and the pickled fish (though I should have only used half as much).

I went back for some vegetable fried rice, unidentified sweet crunchy thing, two types of dim sum dumplings, stir-fried vegetables (mostly leafy brassica) and a promising looking dish labelled simply "pork". Everything tasted fine until I got to the pork. which looked stir-fried with Thai basil and three types of chilis. Tears came to my eyes instantly, so I ran back to the buffet for some white rice. Once I put out the fire in my mouth, I found I was still weeping, no longer from the heat but because the food was so good. As I ate two more bowls of rice with the Thai basil pork, I felt the memories of all the bad food I've eaten since my last trip to Bangkok slip away like the memory of a nightmare fading in the arms of a loved one. I could feel the experience of the food spread from my mouth up into my sinuses and down my throat, into my stomach and out across my body and throughout my pores. I'm happy.

So the reason I had trouble falling asleep last night was not just eleven hours of jet lag. I had managed to stay awake for most of the day yesterday, taking only one brief nap in Amnuay's office in late afternoon while working there setting up for the tournament, and I usually like to take an afternoon catnap even when working at home. No, it was the two-hour Thai massage we went for at 10:00 P.M. last night. If the spa didn't close at midnight, I could easily have slept through the night then. Amnuay was laughing at how much of the massage I slept through; I thought it was pretty funny myself how much of the time he spent on his cellphone. (He's even busier than usual, trying to put together this event in just a few weeks, after the uncertainty of the civil unrest last month.)

I would be remiss not to mention yesterday's meals. I had lunch at a cafe called Chimney, owned by Amnuay's brother. I had tom kha gai, green shrimp curry fried rice and two cha yen (thai iced tea), all excellent. Dinner was at a shabu shabu restaurant, very good, while everyone watched the exciting New Zealand vs. Slovakia World Cup match that ended with NZL scoring the tieing goal in injury time.

Plans for today are to continue to get set up for the event, which begins tomorrow. I'll head out for a walk around the neighbourhood around lunchtime, to get some exercise and sun, and meet up with the event staff in the late afternoon.

Monday, June 14, 2010

11:25PM - Toronto to Bangkok

Sun 13 Jun 2010 13:39:23 EDT

So here I am back again in my familiar home away from home, an Executive First pod on a Boeing 777 aboard Air Canada flight #1 on my way from Toronto to Tokyo, the first leg of my latest adventure, a week and a half in Asia for the King's Cup Scrabble tournament in Bangkok.

It's been more hectic than usual getting ready for this trip, as it's only three weeks since my trip to Europe, not quite enough time to get all of my affairs back in order at home. I had my preflight checklist complete at 1:00 A.M. last night, and got to spend a couple of hours with the boys doing normal Sunday morning things, making and eating breakfast, then playing video games in pyjamas.

The drive to the airport was uneventful, but then I discovered at check-in that I'd left my Aeroplan membership card on my bedside table. Oops. No problems checking in or getting into the Maple Leaf Lounge, but I was warned that I would likely not be able to persuade any Star Alliance partners of Air Canada that I was entitled to anything, so no lounge access in Bangkok or Tokyo. After a few minutes of pointless self-kicking, I decided to call Kristen and ask her for help. She took a photo of my card, posted it to our household server, from whence I was able to print a large facsimile at the business centre in the lounge. Phew.

I'd been too wound up to eat much at home, but forced myself to have some of the delicious cheese tortellini Alfredo in the lounge, as I knew I'd need something in my stomach before my first glass of champagne (Drappier, again) in my pod.

Our polar flight at 36,000 feet is supposed to take us over Inuvik, Alaska and far eastern Russia. So far, it's been extremely turbulent, with the flight attendants popping up whenever there's a brief lull to run snacks and drinks to us, and apologize for the delayed meal service.

I looked up Air Canada's in-flight on-demand video choices for this month before I left, researched them in IMDb and made a shortlist of possibilities to watch. Right now it's "Brooklyn's Finest" (Richard Gere, Don Cheadle), chosen as something I can leave on in the background while I work, might have a few good scenes; and it doesn't disappoint, though the number and identity of characters who survive until the very end surprise me.

I had to listen to it on my iPod earbuds for the first fifteen minutes though, as I destroyed two of the disposable foam covers for the Sennheiser Noiseguard headphones trying to attach them. Note to self: next time, don't clip fingernails short the night before departure.

Lunch is here, "kaiseki-style": about a dozen cold and warm dishes, mostly seafood-based, all involving an intricate degree of preparation and elegant presentation. Followed by a cheese plate and ice cream, yum.

It's 16:00 EDT now, which is 05:00 tomorrow morning in Japan or 3:00 A.M. in Bangkok. They've closed the shades and turned down the lighting, to give passengers who need to sleep a chance to try to get some over the Arctic. I've put on Sex and the City (1, not 2), in an effort to get my brain to shut down and go to sleep in self-defence.

Sun 13 Jun 2010 18:44:40 EDT

It's still quite turbulent, and amusingly the map says we're over Thunder Bay, which is several hours the other side of possible, despite the ferocious headwinds. Then again, the flight info says we've flown 6833 of our 10,388 miles, and the "location indicator" says we're 220 miles north of Fort Yukon. The next time the seatbelt light goes off, I'll go take a look out the bathroom window.

I took a few brief naps during the movie, but my brain keep reeling in horror in between, and I'm going to give the video a little break and catch up on my email instead.

The in-flight entertainment system has a new feature: in addition to telling you how many hours and minutes into the movie you are, it tells you how much longer the flight will be. Six and a half hours, sigh.

Sun 13 Jun 2010 22:33:14 EDT

I must have fallen asleep while watching Brokeback Mountain, because I woke up with a curious desire not to go fishing. Went to the bathroom and looked out the window just in time to see some spectacular scenery between Ajan and Magadan on the Russian east coast: wrinkled snowcapped mountains turning abruptly into nearly tropical turquoise seas.

I asked the flight attendant for instant ramen, which seems to have leapt onto travel menus everywhere in the last couple of years. I expected it to come in its container but no, she put it into a proper-looking bowl and served it on a tablecloth. Terribly posh. :)

Mon 14 Jun 2010 00:38:18 EDT

Only an hour and a bit left. I've now entered the mentally numb state I expect to exist in for the next few days, where I'm not sure what night and day are, my cognitive faculties are somewhat impaired, and I slow down because I keep having to double-check my reasoning.

I've watched From Paris With Love, directed by Luc Besson and directed by John Travolta, and enjoyed it even more than I thought I would. I must watch it again on a larger screen when I'm more awake.

No, that's not right. It's not that I'm not awake. I don't think I could fall asleep now, though I might give it one more try. It's more like not all of my brain is awake. I feel like an albatross, soaring across the skies with half my brain asleep. Note to self: should probably edit out this paragraph.

This has me thinking about how different the experience of sleep deprivation has been over the course of my life. As a parent now, I imagine I was like any other infant at first, born without a knowledge of day and night, happy to sleep only when I had no more presssing needs. I remember being Jamie's age and having the same kinds of nightmares that he's having, unable to wake myself up from them, and being exhausted in the morning. When I hit university, going without sleep was fun and a badge of honour; it seemed like we could all go two days without sleep and catch up from it with a single good night's sleep. When Jamie was born, the sleep deprivation was not a positive thing any more, because it wasn't by choice, and we weren't ever getting those catch-up nights. And now I'm finally, likely briefly, in a position where I could probably get decent sleep many nights, but here I am sabotaging it with jet travel. When will I learn?

Breakfast was a very nice croissant, whipped butter, jam (which I could not eat), a bowl of fresh fruit (ditto, but I nibbled on the pineapple, eschewing the berries), Japanese-style congee (with nameko), and a variety of seafood nibblies* on the side.

They just came by offering customs and immigration forms; I don't need to fill any out, as I'm only in Japan in transit for two hours.

Mon 14 Jun 2010 20:57:05 EDT

The two hours in Japan were a little showcase of Japanese efficiency. Our flight arrived on time, I disembarked, and saw right away a man holding a sign with my name and connecting flight number, in a small group with others looking for travellers with tight connections. He was prepared to explain in English how exactly to make my connection as efficiently as possible; he seemed only mildly relieved that I asked him to do so in Japanese. Then it was down the escalator and straight through connecting passenger carry-on baggage security (ahead of me was a Quebecois with a suitcase full of duty-free maple syrup bound for Seoul, who looked like he was on his way to talking the liquid contraband through, though when I left he was having to write down his destination to overcome the language barrier), another escalator straight to the Thai Air connecting passenger desk for a boarding pass and then a third escalator to the ANA lounge. The receptionist smiled at the page-sized printed photo of my Aeroplan card that Kristen sent me, and welcomed me.

All that took me just half an hour, leaving me an hour to eat sushi (didn't feel like soba this time), catch up on an accumulated half day's worth of email before returning to the gate to board the flight. Thanks to the recent civil unrest in Bangkok (and despite the USD $10,000 top prize in the upcoming King's Cup tournament), the flight was 2/3 empty, so I was able to stretch out across a row of seats. The aircraft was another B777-300ER, with AC power and on-demand video at each seat. After a pretty good chicken pineapple yellow curry, I tried to stay awake through Men Who Stare At Goats, a hilarious film based on the true story of U.S. military efforts in the late 20th century to develop soldiers with psychic powers, starring George Clooney as a self-proclaimed Jedi warrior. I fell asleep listening to it, then watched most of it again toward the end of the six-hour flight.

We arrived 25 minutes early, and the bag that I had checked in at Toronto 22 hours earlier was priority tagged and the first out onto the carousel. I got to where Ravee Joradol was supposed to meet me and had time to check my email, update my facebook status, and send out email making sure Ravee was on the way to get me before he caught up with me.

He took me to the Reno Hotel, an inexpensive hotel next to the playing venue, where it turns out I'll only be staying one night (the only Internet access is on PCs in the lobby). I dropped off my things, then went out for pad thai with Ravee and Amnuay Ploysangngam at Amnuay's favourite late-night pad thai shop, a post-arrival tradition for the three of us. I didn't think I was hungry (dazed from travel would me a more accurate description), but had no trouble hoovering two plates full. My stomach happily told me I was back in Thailand.

Then I came back to the hotel, I worked online in the lobby for an hour, headed up to my room to take a tepid shower - the coldest water available was room temperature - while I waited for the A/C to reduce the room temperature from 34C (93F) to 20C (68F).

I slept on and off for about six hours, from 2:00 A.M. to 8:00 A.M. local time (1 P.M. to 7 P.M. back home), and am up now and ready to look for breakfast and see what the day will bring me.

Mon 14 Jun 2010 22:06:27 EDT

Breakfast is included in the THB 1000 nightly rate at the Reno, and consists of a choice of four different set menus: fresh fruit (two pieces each of papaya and pineapple), tea/coffee and in my case chicken and pork congee rather than eggs or sausages. The congee was recommended by Karen Richards and Olga Visser, who were checking their email in the lobby as I passed through, and waiting for confirmation of their guess that I wouldn't stay more than one night in a hotel room with no Internet access.

The congee, like any good Thai dish, takes several seconds to unfold its main flavours in my mouth, followed by occasional surprises as a spoonful hits one of the secret ingredients lurking within. Roughly chronology, it's a hot, hearty chicken soup, with rice, salty, with an extra richness from caramelized pork fat, something from the allium family, a crunch as I bite into a tiny piece of something green and oniony, maybe a bit garlicky, a finely diced leafy herb with a bit of a tang, and that heat's not just temperature, there's capsaicin here, and flavours from the chile that provided it, the chicken is chewy but only by comparison with the rice, it gives a little initial resistance to the teeth and then melts away, there's a bit of the allium bulb, and all too soon it's over, and I'm left with a chile chicken aftertaste. Pretty good, all told. I should probably have sweetened the tea I drank with it, to compliment it better.

MBK mall opens in about half an hour, so I'll see if I can either brave the morning heat outside for that long, or find a place that's open early. My plan for a first day of acclimitization is to go shop for an hour, transfer to a different hotel, go out for lunch with Amnuay, then for a Thai massage and then somewhere with air conditioning and WiFi.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

12:28PM - Travelogue: Malta and England

I feel very fortunate now, at the end of a trip to Malta and England, and for reasons which I'll soon go into, I have a little unexpected leisure time to reflect back on it, aboard my flight home from Heathrow.

As I left Toronto nearly two weeks ago, I remember wondering when I would return. Eyjafjallajokull had begun erupting again in Iceland, and European airspace was descending back into turmoil. I didn't sleep much before leaving, nor on the flights over, which took a much more southerly route than usual to avoid the ash cloud. Geoff Brousson picked me up at Malta airport together with Nigel Richards, and drove us to the Hotel Victoria in Sliema, a fishing village-turned-seaside-resort, where Amy Byrne's European Open would take place over the next four days. I took a brief nap in my hotel room, just long enough to regain my mental equilibrium, then spent a few hours setting up the seven Dell laptops and printer (all generously loaned by Dell Malta) that would be used to run the event.


The tournament ran fairly smoothly. The worst glitches were having to move two players from the B division to the A division after Round 1 had started, and therefore having to replace a round robin with a Swiss schedule; and not realizing until the end of the tournament that Amy and I were sitting in the hottest, least comfortable part of the playing room. To nobody's surprise, Nigel Richards not only won the A division, but was Gibsonized early enough to let him spend most of the last day out sightseeing on his bicycle. Jayne MacKenzie, something of a ringer returning to play after a decade's hiatus, was Gibsonized in division B.

I felt more tired after the tournament, but thought I could catch up on rest on my two off days before the Malta International Scrabble Open (MISO) was to begin. I didn't, but I had a lot of fun with Geoff, Theresa and their guests Helen Gipson and Karen Richards instead. Theresa arranged a harbour cruise for forty of us one day, where I got to see for myself what the invading navies in the great siege of Malta in 1565 had to face, then took me to the Mdina Glass factory for gift shopping. The next day, we took the ferry to Gozo, enjoying fresh local seafood at a restaurant in the picturesque town of Xlendi, a tour of the Citadel of Gozo, and a swim at Ramla Bay (the legendary site of Calypso's cave). Next time I return to Ramla Bay, I must remember to go swimming at the sandy part of the beach, especially if the Mediterranean is as rough as it was that day.

All too soon, it was time for the three-day MISO event at the Suncrest Hotel in Qawra. In theory, I had a better room at the Suncrest, but I missed the Victoria, which had all that I wanted: high-speed wired Internet in my guest room, extremely helpful staff and a good restaurant buffet. While my room was an immense suite at the Suncrest, it had slower-than-dialup WiFi (the front desk staff said it had none, and they weren't far off), the TV couldn't be tuned correctly, it took a 15-minute argument to get permission to carry food from the hotel restaurant to the playing room (at the Victoria, the bartender volunteered to bring it to me himself when they were short-staffed), and the buffet food was okay but monotonous.


The event ran fine. The big surprise there was that Nigel didn't win, though he finished in third place. Mohammad Sulaiman from Pakistan had an outstanding tournament, finishing 16-5 +1494, ahead of Craig Beevers on spread and a game ahead of Nigel. Theresa and the Malta Scrabble Club did a fabulous job of recruiting sponsors to help with all aspects of running the tournament. Dell provided all the computer equipment again, Vascas Jewellers donated beautiful prize plates (of which I received one as a thankyou), the Maltese government helped fund my travel, and several other sponsors made in-kind and cash donations.

I managed to squeeze in four games of Scrabble along the way myself. I beat Karen Richards once in a blowout, again in a closer game, then lost a close one to Theresa at her house; then was on the winning side in a Scotland vs. the world team match at Ramla Bay, which to be fair was wone by Theresa's brilliant XENURINE play.


What I enjoyed most about my stay in Malta was the unrelenting hospitality offered to me by my hosts at every possible occasion. My every need was catered to before I was even aware of it, freeing me up to concentrate fully on work, just the way I like it.

A close second I think was getting to know Amy Byrne, Helen Gipson and Karen Richards a little better and a little more personally. I knew they were each truly dedicated to my favourite game, but it's been fun getting to know them as real people too.

But boy, did I feel exhausted by Sunday night. It didn't help that Geoff had passed on internal British Airways gossip that Heathrow would be closed for my return on Monday. At 2:00 A.M. on Sunday morning, I realized that the best thing for me to do would be to change my return flight from Monday morning to Sunday night, to try to beat the ash cloud to London. As of the Sunday morning forecast from the Met Office, it looked like the ash would hit around midnight, so a flight arriving at 22:50 might just make it. Geoff lent me his cellphone for a 15-minute call to Air Malta, and a substantial change fee later, I was all set. I was originally supposed to fly with Helen Gipson; my new flight was with Karen Richards, Ed Martin and Simon Rosenstone.

Theresa drove Ed and me to the airport through heavy end-of-weekend traffic in plenty of time, thanks to her driving acumen and the millisecond reflexes she hones daily on the squash court. We checked in, I enjoyed some pastizzi from the airport cafe where I had breakfast last year, then joined Karen at the gate.

When we arrived at Gatwick, we went our separate ways, promising to keep in touch online. The immigration officer told me he was looking forward to an early night tonight: while I was in the air, NATS had announced that UK airspace would be closed two hours after my arrival; I had made the right decision. I would have an extra day in Cambridge, and not have to deal with a cancelled flight, booking emergency accommodation, rebooking a flight home later and returning with half a suitcase of Cambridge-bound gifts undelivered.

Carl Rasmussen showed up at LGW to pick me up for the two-hour drive to Cambridge before I even had time to Facebook that I was waiting for him. It was eery seeing the M25 deserted (despite the lack of nighttime tolls) (you still have to stop at the tollbooth to be told that you owe no toll), and we made good time, despite a brief stop for fuel along the way, and had fun chatting and catching up during the drive.

I then had two days off at Agnes and Carl's house with their beautiful boys, who are just a little older than hours and always give me a hint of what my future will be like. Their older one, for instance, is sadly beyond the age of hugs, so I'd better get mine in with Jamie before he reaches it too. Both the boys had been eagerly anticipating my annual return. The younger one in particular appears to believe I am superhuman, and was given to saying things about me that reminded me of the Chuck Norris Facts website.


As requested, I picked him up the younger boy from school each day, and we spent a lot of time unlocking levels of New Super Mario Bros. on their Nintendo DS. The older one can play about as well as Liam; the younger one almost as well. I'm sure they would be doing much better, except they have a house rule that video games are only for weekends. My stay was declared to be a weekend for gaming purposes, which confused them a little, as they asked every now and then whether other weekend rules (e.g., no school) also applied for my stay. We also played Super Mario 63 and World of Goo.

The first day, Agnes and I went book-shopping for my family, had lunch at the Michaelhouse Cafe (a church mostly converted into a cafe with a daily changing menu), and walked back home through the Backs (saw a double helix monument to Watson and Crick at Clare College) in time to go punting on the Cam with the boys after school, in a Darwin College punt named the Velociraptor. Carl did almost all of the actual poling of the punt. I gave it a try, but found it surprisingly difficult to get the punt to go in the right direction and stay out of the underbrush overhanging the banks.

I cooked salmon for the family (something of a tradition), accompanied by broccoli, green beans, bok choi and rice (mostly prepared by Agnes). As it was a Monday night, it almost felt like I was visiting Daniel and Ross for our regular Monday salmon grill.

Tuesday, we did a little more shopping, had lunch with Carl at Wagamama (I had the chilli chicken ramen), took a very brief look at the FitzWilliam museum and gift shop (with a mental note to return later), then went back home. Agnes was fighting a cold, so I went to pick up her younger son (the older one was in chess club), and looked after both of them (and their DS) while she took a long nap. For dinner, Agnes and I had venison burgers that I had picked up at a farmers' shop (I cooked), with salad (she prepared) and bread. Yum. (Carl and the boys were at a cub scouts dinner.)

While I repacked for the final time, had dessert, settled accounts, and chatted, we watched an almost campy DVD tour of Cambridge, presented by a woman in a safari suit credited as Lady Julia Ramsbottom. I've been unable to find out anything more about this masterpiece online, but am surprised it isn't a hit cult movie yet.

I felt right at home again on the morning of my departure, as I was woken up by kids quietly (they thought) seeing if I was awake enough to play video games. After a quick breakfast (and yes, DS games), I said goodbye to Carl and the boys, and Agnes and I biked to the National Express stop at Parker's Piece, Cambridge, me on their folding bike following Agnes on her bike pulling a trailer full of luggage.

The bus ride (via Luton) was uneventful and on schedule, taking 2:50 to drop me off at the Heathrow Central Bus Terminal shortly before noon. (The CBT is a short walk from any of Terminals 1, 2 or 3; the bus continues on to the more distant Terminals 4 and 5.) I found the check-in area, went to the bathroom to get changed out of comfortable bus-wear (T-shirt and shorts) and into flight check-in attire (business casual), and repack my carry-on bags with just the things that attract security attention in my canvas bag (laptop, camera, liquids, gels, computer cables, and a dental mirror that looks surprisingly pointy when scanned). I was delayed briefly checking in at the priority desk (65,000 miles flown with Air Canada last year help smooth the way) by an airport quality assurance survey taker who wanted to know how long it had taken me to get to the check-in desk and whether or not I had visited the toilet en route (yes, see above, and I'm old enough not to have to be reminded).

The check-in agent was polite as always, and gave me directions to the London Lounge (a/k/a Airline Lounge B, one of ten at Terminal 3 alone), even though it turned out the route was clearly signed. The only slightly confusing thing in fact is that the actual departure level is one floor above the check-in level. There was no wait at security, and not even any staff at passport control. I first saw unmanned passport desks at CUN, and strongly approve: if the airlines have all our passport information, they might as well pass it on to the government to save us having to line up to show it to a government official.

The London Lounge was at the end of a very large shopping/dining area; I must have walked past fifty (and into a few) shops to get to it. It's operated by SAS for some of their StarAlliance partners including Air Canada, and even if it wasn't clearly signed, you could tell from the Scandinavian interior design and choice of buffet foods. The lounge has an upper and lower level offering many of the same services. I found the most comfortable seating to be on the upper level, where big (possibly IKEA) armchairs alternate with wide side tables and electrical outlets for laptops. If I didn't have my laptop with me, I probably would have sat at one of the dozens of desktop machines. If I had the boys with me, it would have been the kids' theatre area for sure. I picked up a Swedish newspaper for my dad, and the Globe and Mail and the Times for myself. There was a space for Japanese newspapers too, but it was unstocked, possibly because there weren't any Japanese flights due to take off for a while. For lunch, I had a salad, ramen noodles, some sort of yummy Scandinavian dish consisting of unidentified bits in a cold white sauce (possible identification to follow), an apple, and far, far too many stem ginger cookies.

I learn that our aircraft has been replaced, not due to a malfunction as some loungemates speculated, but because a B777 will hold almost 100 more passengers than an A-330, and Air Canada still has a large backlog of ash-stranded passengers from the last couple of days.

At 14:15, 45 minutes before the scheduled 15:00 departure, I pack up and walk for Gate 31. A sign outside warns that it's a 20-minute walk away, but I pay it no heed, as I know that's a worst-case scenario. As it turns out, only one of several moving walkways is out of service, and the walk takes me only ten minutes. As I approach the gate, I see about 300 of the 400 passengers for my flight queued up outside the secure gate area waiting for processing. I walk to the head of the line and flash my Aeroplan Elite card, am waved through and the person who thought he was about to be served sarcastically calls out "Thank you!" I suppress a smirk of schadenfreude. It's nearly boarding time, and I go to sit down to check for Internet access. I hear my name paged, and go back to the counter, checking to see if I've forgotten my boarding pass or passport. No, the agent was just routinely reprinting boarding passes for everyone (hence the queue), because the change of aircraft meant that everyone who had printed up their own boarding passes at home had the wrong seat assignment, a sure recipe for disaster. She checks to see that the boarding pass I was issued at checkin matches the reprint, apologizes, and waves me back.

As I walk back to my seat, another agent, who I had noticed was mesmerized by a scrolling list of passenger manifest updates, calls out my name. Now what? Because all the stranded first-class passengers have already been flown out, Air Canada has a large surplus of economy-class passengers. Would I mind making room for one of them by receiving an upgrade to first class? I suppose I can handle it.

This time I walk straight to the plane and straight to my seat, which is the same kind of pod I am used to flying in on the Toronto-Tokyo run. It's got a larger video screen than usual (I think 12") with a corded remote (handier than one might think, because I have to stretch just a little to reach the touchscreen), an individual 110 VAC outlet (and not one that has to be shared with a seatmate), a seat that adjusts four different ways (back tilt, headrest tilt, four-way lumbar support, foot, footrest tilt, as well as program buttons to put it into full horizontal mode for sleeping or full upright mode for takeoff and landing), a laptop storage pocket that I didn't notice last time, pillow, blanket, water bottle, complimentary accessory kit (toothbrush, toothpaste, blindfold, socks). And glasses rather than plastic cups, and metal utensils. The toilet has a full-length mirror, and a window that fills the room with natural light.

The flight attendant comes by with orange juice and champagne (Champagne Drappier, Carte d'Or Brut, Reims) at the beginning of the flight. I take a glass of champagne. As soon as we're in the air, she comes back to ask for our dinner main course choice (I'll have the lamb, not the chicken, red snapper or risotto) and offer an o-shibori (hot cloth to wipe your face and hands).

The purser just announced "If there are any passengers who have dropped red books with Arabic writing in them, please identify yourselves." I'll refrain from making a stereotypical joke here, as aircraft security is nothing to laugh about.

I peruse the choice of 56 on-demand films but none of them pique my interest. What I really want to do is to watch True Lies yet again, but I'm afraid to make a habit of it. I start to watch a Michael Caine movie called "Harry Brown" in the Avant Garde section, but the opening sequence cinematography is a little too jerky and hyperviolent to my taste. Also, the Sennheiser NoiseGuard headphones are about a centimetre too short to comfortably sit on my head. And I may have seen enough Michael Caine movies. I'll try a Woody Harrelson film called "The Messenger" instead, about soldiers whose duty it is to inform the next-of-kin of slain soldiers.

The flight attendant comes by to offer drinks, munchies and to spread out my tablecloth. Lunch followed in short order. Eschewing menu capitals, I was served: smoked salmon rosettes with lemon, capers and red onion on pumpernickel bread, a salad of mesclun leaves with grated carrots and pine nuts served with balsamic vinaigrette, grilled rack of lamb au jus presented with mustard mash and mixed vegetables, brown bread rolls with semi-salted butter, a cheese plate (Somerset Camembert, Quickes Farmhouse Cheddar, Saint-Paulin), and vanilla Ice Cream (without the warm signature chocolate lava cake).

"The Messenger" turns out to be surprisingly similar to George Clooney's "Up in the Air": they both tell the story about someone learning the job of delivering bad and unexpected news to people. "The Messenger" was much more moving though, with its powerful antiwar message about the effect that war has on families and the stateside social fabric. It was so emotionally heavy, I didn't feel like watching another film right away, so while I was typing this, I left on 30 Rock episodes S4E5 and S4E6.

I think I'm ready for another one now, so I'll try Michael Cera's "Youth In Revolt", which looks promising, especially as it shares Steve Buscemi in common with "The Messenger". It would have been funnier if Air Canada had carried any of the 30 Rock episodes that featured Buscemi.

I liked "Youth In Revolt" as well, though it's hard to say which I preferred of two such different films. Cera's dual role as his good and evil selves is hard to beat; and next to his deadpan acting (in both roles), Buscemi's usual over-the-top performance is even more surreal.

According to "inROUTE(TM) powered by AIRSHOW(TM)", we're flying up the St. Lawrence, halfway between Sept-Iles and Chicoutimi. I was going to try to get a little sleep, but the hot towels just came through again, so I suspect there's food on the way. The menu suggests it may be the "pre-arrival light meal" of a grilled turkey and gruyere croque-monsieur, accompanied by freshly baked cookies, which explains the aroma of chocolate wafting through the cabin.

Absent a James Bond film from the on-demand video repertoire, I've decided to spend the rest of my flight enjoying Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Arnold, Jamie Lee Curtis and a young Eliza Dushku in the movie "True Lies', which I could happily watch once a week. Arnold's talents are wasted in politics.

The rest of the flight and the trip home from the airport were without memorable incident. As I tried to climb the porch steps into my house, a neighbour noticed that I was home and started asking about my trip. The boys heard my voice and came running out of the house to knock me over, then dragged me off to play in the yard for an hour. My parents drove over to greet me. Kristen and Laraine eventually noticed either the commotion outside or the quiet inside and came out to see what was going on. Presents were distributed, acquaintances re-established. I was hoping for a day to try to recover from jet-lag but it doesn't seem like that's in the cards; I'll just try to muddle along as best as I can in this timezone until I've caught up. At some point in the next few days I have to edit down the 800 photos I took down to 40 or so to post online. Thanks for reading this far!

Current mood: happy

Thursday, November 26, 2009

12:39AM - WSC 2009

I'm in Johor Bahru now, at the 2009 World SCRABBLE Championship. I won't be blogging here again until I leave to go back to Tokyo, as most of my writing will be appearing at the event website:


Monday, November 23, 2009

7:52PM - Monday update

Fri 20 Nov 2009 02:14:11 EST

The ANA lounge I'm in at Narita is one of several at the airport,
and I believe it's not even the nicest one, but it surpasses Air Canada's
Maple Leaf Lounge. The noodle bar does as advertised offer complimentary
noodles made to offer in just a couple of minutes; the buffet has a good
mix of Japanese and Western foods, and a well-stocked beer fridge.
They also have a wider selection of newspapers than Air Canada does;
I've taken an IHT and Asahi to read later on in my trip.

The noodles were good comfort food, as were the inari and chicken mayo
maki sushi. I found myself a comfortable niche with a sofa, electrical
outlet, view of the TV wall (sumo, golf and CNN) and tried hiding to see
how long it would take the wait staff to notice my plate was empty and
clear it: about two minutes.

It would be hard to leave this place if I weren't heading to Bangkok,
where I am expecting that all this non-Thai food and non-Thai service,
as good as it is, will be like a bad dream remembered later in the day.

Sat 21 Nov 2009 15:08:00 EST

The flight from Narita to Bangkok in economy class at the back of a
Thai Air 747 was not too uncomfortable, though nothing like what I
was getting used to. My seatmate had a much better seat though, and
I have to remember to ask for it next time. It was a window seat
just where the fuselage narrows so that three seats won't fit any
more on the sides, so you get two seats and a nice area beside the
window where you can stretch out or put your stuff.

I caught up on watching the two most recent episodes of House, MD
and then did some coding and web design for most of the rest of
the six-hour flight. Apple's advertised seven-hour battery life
for this new MacBook Pro seems pretty accurate; I had a good two
hours' worth of charge at the end of the flight.

Ravee met me at the airport and drove me to meet Amnuay at his
favourite pad thai place, where he had taken me the last night
I was in Bangkok in June, and the food was as good as I remembered.
I could feel unused taste buds slowly reawakening as they were bathed
in one sauce after another.

We moved from there to Chinatown for dessert. I was pretty tired at
that point, but enjoyed a rice pudding with unidentified fruit,
intermediate to a chickpea and a green seedless grape in most
respects. I tried one of the fruit and passed on the rest, uncertain
about the effect of its salicylate content on my allergies.

I checked in at the four-star Monthien Riverside hotel, stretched
out on my king-size bed, played with all the bedside remote controls
for the room and began the first of several naps that would constitute
my jet-lagged sleep for the night.

The next morning, as arranged, I called Amnuay at 11:00 to tell him
I was up, waking him in the process. He came to pick me up a couple
of hours later, and we went to eat at the Talay Thai Seafood Market,
a large commercial market about 50 km (?) west of Bangkok in Samut
Sakhon. We walked up and down the retail section looking at a very
wide selection of live and freshly caught fish, squid, crabs,
molluscs and limulids while Sew and Yao (sp?) chose what looked
best and walked it over to a stall that would cook whatever you
brought them. We had fish pancakes (Thai satsuma age), fish fried
rice, boiled crab, very large prawns, deep fried fish with a fruit
chutney, and curried crab, all with sauces/seasonings that brought
out the best of the flavour of the seafood. When our stomachs were
completely full (the three Thai iced teas helped), we drove back
to Bangkok.

Amnuay said he needed a haircut, and I looked like I needed one too.
I declined, but accepted the rest of a spa treatment: shampoo, manicure,
pedicure and ear cleaning. I've always wanted to have my ears done,
ever since I first read of the process; now I have to find a place
to have it done back home. The rest of the experience was relaxing
and rejuvenating: it was nice to just lie back and feel this and that
getting clipped or cleaned. When I get back home, I must see if Kristen
would like a spa day too. :)

Nawapadol then took me to see a show, I think it would be not exaggerating
to call it a spectacular, called Siam Niramit. Inspired by a local
entrepreneur's love of Vegas shows, this features a large cast
(and an elephant) reenacting Thai history and culture on what is
reportedly the tallest (and close to widest) stage in the world,
complete with a river large enough to float boats on, aerial effects,
trapdoors, etc. Each scene was introduced in English and Thai, with
projected translations in Chinese, Japanese and Russian; the scenes
themselves were nonverbal but communicated well. Truth be told, both
Nawapadol and I fell asleep a few times, but only because it was dark,
comfortable, and we were both exhausted.

We joined everyone at a place called the Waterside Resort Restaurant
in what I thought was near the river, but after looking at the map
I realize it's possible to make any place look like it's near the
river when your city is at one metre above sea level: all the seating
was on interconnected piers over a large pond. The food was the usual
fabulous selection of things I wish I could name; Amnuay seemed amused
that Ravee, Nawapadol and I were equally delighted with the free
high-speed WiFi, as the photos indicate.

Got back to the hotel not too late, maybe 1:00 A.M., worked until
3:00 and then took a series of one-hour jet-lagged naps.

Sun 22 Nov 2009 01:54:43 EST

I got up early this morning, after about six hours' sleep, feeling
tired, which is a step up from exhausted. I Skyped the family to
say good night, then went downstairs to see what the hotel breakfast
buffet was like. Breakfast customs differ so much from country to
country, I'm always curious to learn new ones. As far as I can tell
for example, my hosts eat two big meals a day and snack in between.
The hotel buffet had a combination of Western and Indian dishes, without
much that my uneducated eye could identify as Thai. I enjoyed some
saffron rice with tandoori chicken, and had some bacon so my stomach
would think it was breakfast.

Ravee came to pick me up and we went to the Jatujak Weekend Market,
which bills itself as the largest market of its kind in the world,
and it's easy to believe it. There is no particular overall order
to it, just one stall after another as far as the eye can see.
Sometimes it seems like sheer coincidence will throw together a
bunch of similarly themed stores. I was happy to be able to pick
up a good supply of gifts to take back home, which I will refrain
from listing here to maintain a surprise.

We called Amnuay to see if he was done with his radio interview and
could still go to the beach, and as I write this, we're waiting for
someone to unblock his car so that we can get going.

Sun 22 Nov 2009 08:53:58 EST

We headed south out of Bangkok in search of more food and more
relaxation, listening to cowboy music. The city is vast, but but
not boundless, and eventually gives way to aquaculture farms (Bangkok
itself is only one metre above sea level), and then to a curious
landscape I recognize from photographs, with small lush green
mountains scattered across the countryside.

When we got to Bangbaet, we stopped to buy some sticky rice cooked
steamed in bamboo and fish pancakes from street vendors before
continuing to the beach, where we bought chicken cooked in bamboo,
steamed fish and squid. We sat in deck chairs under beach
umbrellas along a not too busy stretch of what must have been at least
a kilometre of beach, deck chairs and beach umbrellas. Vendors
trickled by steadily but were not aggressive. Kids splashed in
the shallows of the Gulf of Thailand, and thrill seekers sat astride
"banana boats": long inflated tubes with handholds for six, pulled
back and forth in the water by motorboats intent on dislodging their

Amnuay describes the chicken with typically accurate hyperbole as the
best in the universe. I'll see if I can describe part of why it's
true. You pick up a chunk, dip it in the sauce and take a bite.
The first tastes to hit your mouth are a volatile citrus note, sweetness,
umami, and a bit of heat from the sauce. Then the taste of the chicken
and its marinade hit you. The chicken has also been cooked in bamboo,
so that it's juicy on the inside and ever so slightly charred on the
outside. As you keep chewing, the fattiness of the skin and the
bitterness of the charring emerge to complete the picture.

This dish is not available anywhere else, which puzzled me when I first
heard about it. As I sat on the beach enjoying the breeze, the company
and the fine food, I came to understand that the food was a product of
the environment, and it would be difficult for anyone who had experienced
living, cooking and eating at the beach to transplant themselves to the
big city , nor would there be any good reason to do so.

After yet another Thai iced tea (I must be up to ten or so in two
days) we drove back to town to Amnuay's favourite massage parlor
for the best Thai massage in town. It being my first experience
with Thai massage, and my having slept through at least two thirds
of the two-hour massage, I can't definitively confirm this, but it
was definitely a superb experience.

Amnuay then wanted to go out for a big meal, but I had reached my
limit for a weekend of fun and gastronomic adventure. I told him
I'd be happy to hang out for a few more hours anywhere he liked,
so we went to a restaurant at the top of the Baiyoke 1 tower,
with a beautiful view of the entire city. We had drinks, snacks,
and talked about Scrabble. About midnight we went back to my hotel,
where I helped Ravee and Nawapadol configure event coverage for their
youth Scrabble event next weekend, then said goodbye, packed and had
two hours' sleep before Amnuay picked me up for my onward flight.

I got to BKK well in advance of my flight so that Amnuay could avoid
rush hour traffic, intending to sleep at the Thai Air lounge, but was
deterred from this by the availability of surprisingly good food.
I should clarify: it was no surprise that the food was good; it was
just that it looked pretty basic (chicken rolls and pork buns), but
it tasted marvellous. So I ate and worked online instead of sleeping.

I passed out briefly on the two-hour flight to Singapore, and ate
a reasonable in-flight Thai Air meal (chicken and rice). Michael
Tang met me at SGP, and fed me spicy chicken curry noodles while
we waited to pick up Leslie Charles from Trinidad and Mark Nyman
from England. He sent us with a driver to Johor Bahru and stayed
to meet other players.

Mon 23 Nov 2009 19:48:44 EST

The trip to Johor Bahru was uneventful, I think less than 45 minutes;
the causeway itself is shorter than I thought it would be, and the
border crossing rapid and efficient. The Zon Regency Hotel does not
have a very good reputation among players, and I'll refrain from
writing much about it here until I find something nice to say. I was
however able to get twelve much-needed hours of sleep last night,
and am looking forward to breakfast, meeting whichever players and
staff have arrived so far, and beginning to set up for the event.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

10:43PM - travel update, back at NRT

Thu 19 Nov 2009 22:36:13 EST

I slept in until about 8:00 A.M. local time, and didn't feel as
tired as I did the night before, so that must mean I'm refreshed.
Forgoing the $40 room service American breakfast, or even the $27
continental one, I snacked on some sembei that I had brought, along
with some green tea I made in the room. I Skyped with the family
until their bathtime, at which point I went downstairs to check

After doing so, I found a well-stocked convenience store in the
lobby, which sold not only souvenirs and travellers' supplies, but
also a decent amount of convenience food, a gastronomic realm in
which the Japanese are sans pareil. After some dithering, I settled
on three different types of dried squid (I might even save some for
the family, unless I get hungry in Johor Bahru) and two cod-roe
rice balls in the nifty dual plastic wrapper that separates the
nori from the rice until you pull off the release tab. I passed
on a wide variety of bento, figuring I would just fill up on free
noodles and sake at the ANA lounge at Narita.

The shuttle bus to the airport left the hotel and arrived at the
airport on time to the minute, according to the published schedule.
On the way into the airport we all had to show our passports to two
security guards who boarded the bus at a checkpoint; that process
took less than a minute including all the necessary bowing.

At the airport however, the ANA check-in staff said that my flight
is actually operated by Thai Air, and while ANA lets you check in
for any flight as early as you want on the same day, Thai won't be
open until three hours before departure. Taihen osore irimasu.

So I had a negi-toro-ikura-don for $12, and it was yummy, and I
could not believe how quickly the donburi was prepared. It came in
less than two minutes, and I think it would take me at least five
minutes even if I had all the ingredients, which in turn would take
me a few hours. But I may have to soak the ANA lounge for *two*
bowls of noodles now.

There is marginally more shopping in the terminal outside security
than in, but it's not a huge difference. There's a tiny branch of
Hakuhinkan (the toy store on the Ginza), and a little bookstore,
neither of which had what I was looking for. Or I could just have
been too tired and hungry to look; I may go back afterward to look
again if I have the time and the energy.

2:58AM - YYZ-NRT

Wed 18 Nov 2009 20:05:26 EST

Got up at eight to see Jamie off to school and spend a bit of time
with Kristen and Liam before the airport limo arrived at 9:15. Late
rush hour traffic delayed my arrival at YYZ until 10:00, still
plenty of time for my noon flight to Narita. I lined up at the Air
Canada international business class check-in counter and had to
wait a shocking seven minutes until a second counter opened. I
passed the time showing the people behind me in line, a couple about
my age taking their two-year-old daughter to Grand Cayman, how to
correctly unfold their Maclaren stroller without risking injury to
their child. This is my first time taking advantage of my Air
Canada Aeroplan "Elite" status, earned at a cost of over 40,000
miles spent in the air so far this year, to upgrade all the way
from the cheapest economy fare to business class.

I had about half an hour at the Maple Leaf Lounge, long enough to
graze the continental breakfast buffet, tinker with my Gmail Offline
settings and resync my email for the flight, and deal with the dozen
email messages that had come in since I left home. I grabbed a
grande green tea frappuccino from Starbucks and went to the gate.
I was told there that because of a staff delay, they could only board
priority passengers for the time being. I felt like they were going
out of their way to make me feel special.

Aboard Air Canada flight #1, 13-hour nonstop service from Toronto
(YYZ) to Tokyo (NRT), the business class section of the Boeing 777
consists of four columns of individual pods separated from each
other by partitions about four feet high and oriented at a 30 degree
angle to two aisles. The seats adjust in five different ways (the
seatback, headrest and footrest go back and forth and the lumbar
support moves in two dimensions), and there are master controls
that bring the seat either to a full upright position or a fully
horizontal position. The Sennheiser NoiseGuard headphones do a
reasonable job of screening out the ambient noise, and I've enjoyed
three movies so far on on-demand video on the 12" screen ahead of
me: The Taking of Pelham 1:23 (good mix of Denzel Washington and
John Travolta, but totally impossible to sleep through), The Brothers
Bloom (fun, but a bit long, and too much Ben Affleck and not quite
enough Rachel Weisz), and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
(still on screen, no verdict yet). The regular three-prong 110 VAC
electrical outlet has enough power for my MacBookPro, and I probably
won't have time to work my way through all the complimentary amenities
in the toiletries kit, though the pillow and blanket have come in

The food and service have been good. I turned down the preflight
orange juice and champagne, had a three-course Japanese meal for
lunch, and have so far had ramen for a snack. I haven't been able
to sleep too well yet, despite the comfort, service and darkness,
mainly because I've had a fairly sedentary day and it is only
19:30 back home. I've had a couple of quick naps, and hope to get
a few more before I get to Tokyo.

Wed 18 Nov 2009 22:01:49 EST

It is possible to sleep through large chunks of Half-Blood Prince
without missing much other than cool graphics, and if you've read
the book the movie takes a very long time to get to its unsatisfying

Snacking on smoked salmon and chicken brochettes (not on the same
sticks, of course). Not photographing night-time snacks, because
I don't want to disturb my fellow passengers with the flash, and
the available light is all blue, which I think is intended to connote
high tech. Oh wait, I can take a picture with this MacBook Pro,
without disturbing people anymore than I already am by typing this
blog. There, done. Half-eaten brochettes, yum.

Can't really seem to get to sleep, so alternating resting with coding,
which is more or less what I'd be doing at this time back home.

Thu 19 Nov 2009 02:52:31 EST

... but local time is 16:52 and I'm trying to stay awake here at the
Hotel ANA Crowne Plaza Narita, catching up on email and listening to
sumo on TV. I ended up watching The Hurt Locker, sort of, and
am reminded of the last time I watched so many movies in one day,
which was probably a long time ago at the Toronto International Film
Festival. Then as now, if I don't take notes, I either don't remember
the individual films, or don't remember them as individual films.
It is definitely possible to fall asleep watching The Hurt Locker,
especially if it's your fourth film of the day, and you're fully
reclined over the Pacific.

The weather is grey and rainy, and only a few degrees warmer than
back home. Not too many other tourists wearing shorts, but I don't
feel like unpacking my dress pants before I really need them.

I have a bunch of photos from my trip so far; I'll likely post them
on Facebook as soon as I have the energy to do so.

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