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Archived Posts for December 2005

Please note: The posts on this page are at least 3 years old. Links may be broken, information may be out of date, and the views expressed in the posts may no longer be held.
Dec 05


One of my relative’s relatives has an empty apartment in Whistler, so I’m up here with my cousins Brian and Steven for two all too short days of skiing. Well, actually I rented a snowboard for the first time and took lessons today. It’s pretty fun, but since I only have one more day here, I’m going to switch back to skis to explore the mountain tomorrow – Blackcomb and Whistler are pretty huge!

From what I gather about British Columbia, it’s all very outdoorsy and picturesque. This part of Canada is really quite beautiful and it helps that this Christmas season is one of the warmest (if not the warmest) on record. Whistler is only two hours’ drive from Vancouver and it makes me wish that Australia had some decent ski fields. But Australia is such an old continent in geological terms so it’s flat as a tack. I guess the flipside is that the sea has had time to grind up the sand to make some really great beaches. Oh well, can’t have it all I guess.

Dec 05

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone! Christmas is such a different experience in the Northern Hemisphere… much better atmosphere. It’s cold outside, but inside it’s cosy, with a nice roaring fireplace and a real pine tree! And Vancouver is really beautiful (when it’s not raining). More later…

Christmas night at the Cole household

Dec 05

Still jetlagged?

Strangely enough, I think I’m still a little jetlagged. Even though I’ve been going to bed at around midnight (give or take a couple hours), my body has been getting me up at 5 or 6am. Then I lie in bed, awake, until I get bored and a more sane hour arrives. This is only annoying because I get pretty tired around dinner time, and it doesn’t help that dusk starts falling before 5pm here.

Anyway, we’ve met up in Vegas with my cousin and uncle. We’re hiring a car this morning and are driving out to the Grand Canyon, staying one night there to catch the sunset and sunrise. Then it’s back to Vegas to see David Copperfield perform, before setting off to the colder climes of Vancouver in time for Christmas Eve!

Star Trek: The Experience, Las Vegas

It’s safe to say that Vegas is a unique place in the world. Las Vegas Boulevard, better known as “The Strip”, is lined with a whole array of hotels and hispanics passing out fistfuls of cards advertising how carnal pleasures are only a phone call away (they continually slap the cards together to make a characteristic “I have sex cards!” sound, presumably so potential clients can still find them when the Vegas footpaths get too crowded).

It’s all flashy on the outside, especially at night when all the neon, blinking coloured lights and video displays are switched on. Lots of themed hotels, such as the Paris, which has a scaled down version of the Eiffel Tower sticking out the top of it and the Luxor which is done up as a black pyramid with a massive lightbulb at its apex shooting out a shaft of light into the sky. Very tacky, but strangely enough, not in a lame sort of way. The fountain display at the Bellagio is quite impressive, being much, much larger than Ocean’s Eleven would lead you to believe.

Whereas the outsides are varied, the insides of all the hotels are numbingly similar – rows and rows of slot machines, tables and tables of roulette, blackjack, 3-card poker, craps and other usual suspects. Lots of shoddy carpet.

Obviously an essential stop for a Trekkie like me, I took the monorail to the Hilton today to see their Star Trek: The Experience attraction. Half price tickets are available at the Tix4Tonight discount booths, which I picked up earlier in the day. STTE basically consists of two “rides” and an exhibit. The exhibit features a very cool timeline of the Trek franchise (recently extensively refurbished due to the heretical insertion of the Enterprise series into Trek canon) along with numerous display cases featuring props which were actually used in the filming of Trek (most humourously, the Mac used in Star Trek IV which Scotty tries to talk to… “Hello, computer!”).

The first ride I went on was a relatively new one called “Borg Invasion”. It was abysmal. It features an insipid movie which you watch with stereoscopic glasses while sitting in an “interactive chair”. It’s essentially a tiltable massage chair with the capacity to occasionally blast moist air into your face to vaguely simulate what’s happening on the movie screen. During the part where you supposedly get injected with Borg nanoprobes, I almost leapt out of my seat after I received an instant anal probe from several massage chair-style rollers which some sadistic designer had decided to strategically place in the seat bottom. I wandered out of the ride somewhat traumatised.

The second ride was “Klingon Encounter”, which although older, was decidedly better. Nonetheless, you still have to put up with actors running around delivering corny dialogue and trying to give an unenthusiastic crowd a Trek “experience” (“remember, the human spirit can never be assimilated!”).

If that was all there was, I would have felt ripped off, even though the ticket price was only $18. However, I paid another $20 to get the “backstage tour”, which is an informal 90-120 minute tour behind the scenes of the $70 million STTE facility. The tour was conducted by a genial guide called Gretchen who had previously worked at Second City, so she made the tour very interesting and humourous, but most importantly, without being the least bit patronising. You get to learn about the mechanics behind the rides, see actors moving between sets in the back corridors, discover how the facility was designed and even get to examine Okudagrams up close (including those in-jokes the Trek crew like to insert onto signage). Along the way, I picked up lots of new pieces of Trek-related trivia which – with my goldfish memory – I’ve unfortunately now seemed to have mostly forgotten (eg, the Bajoran nose piece changed between TNG and DS9 due to practical make-up concerns – the eyebrow ridges in TNG kept coming unglued due to how frequently actors move their eyebrows in making facial expressions).

The backstage tour made the visit quite worthwhile for me in the end – if you go, don’t bother going unless you do the tour as well. However, I would still say that you’d have to be a Trekkie to really get your money’s worth.

Dec 05

Hi. Bye.

In San Fran again. Rainy, but otherwise not so cold.

Dec 05

The Backbench

The 18th and final issue of The Backbench is up.

Dec 05


Words that mean their opposites: sanction, cleave, liege. More contronyms.

Annotated Asterix

I grew up reading a lot of Asterix (and Tintin) comics in primary school. Whenever there was a library period, there’d be a mad dash for the comic book shelf and a bunch of ten year old boys would engage in a violent free for all for any book with more pictures than words. Knowing that Goscinny and Uderzo did not write Asterix in English, I always was curious at how translations were done so as to create the puns we read in English surrounding characters’ names (eg, Potbellix, Alcoholix, Monotonus). Adults always told me how reading mindless comics like Asterix which were “devoid of any intellectual merit” would rot my brain but as the years past, I also began to realise that there were a lot of in-jokes and historical references in it. However, not knowing anything about European history nor being able to read any of the many Latin phrases sprinkled in the comics, I was left to wonder about it all. I just stumbled on the excellent site, The Asterix Annotations which shows just how rich in references Asterix is. I have a few Asterix omnibus volumes and it’s pretty fun going through it all.

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I’m quite looking forward to Brussels. Mainly because they sell a lot of these things. They have a lot of other good food (Asterix in Belgium suddenly makes a lot more sense) and other famous things, but… I’m really there for the pralines!

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Dec 05
Dec 05

Financial management overseas

Once you’ve worked out your budget when travelling overseas, you have to figure out how you are going to access all your money.

Typically, there’s four types of things you can carry: cash, credit cards, debit (ATM) cards and travellers’ cheques. There are other things, such as Suncorp’s Cash Passport, but they are dependant on what financial institution you have an account with. Trying to balance factors such as safety, accessibility and maximisation of money after various exchange rate fees and commissions can be a headache. Often, it depends on where in the world you’re travelling which determines what the best mix of currency is.

Cash is very easy to convert at money changers which are readily available around tourist areas. It is perhaps more difficult to do it at banks – I was told at my local Commonwealth Bank that changing AUD to USD would involve a waiting period of a week or two to get the required currency in. Whether it’s better to convert to a foreign currency when you’re still in your home country, or after you arrive at your destination, requires a bit of research. Typically, the money changer market in Australia is less competitive than, say, Singapore where there is an Indian money changer around every corner. The more competitive the market, the better the cash exchange rates you will receive.

The exchange rate for any given day is called the spot rate. For our purposes, the interbank rate – the exchange rates banks use when swapping money between themselves – is the same as the spot rate. Money changers make profits by selling at a lower rate, and buying at a higher rate. The difference between the buy and sell rates is called the spread, and the larger the spread is, the higher the profit margin of the money changer.

For example, in Canada, money changers may buy your 1 USD for 1.19 CAD, and sell you 1 USD for 1.21 CAD. The spread here is 2 Canadian cents, around the spot rate of 1.20 CAD to the 1 USD. In other words, the spread is about 1.7%.

Currency spreads are not uniform. For example, in Canada the availability of American dollars is much greater than Australian dollars. Because Canadian money changers find it harder to swap Aussie dollars, they make their efforts worthwhile by increasing the spread.

So, 1 AUD may buy 0.87 CAD, but you may need 0.93 CAD to buy 1 AUD. This is a 6 Canadian cent spread (or a 6.7% spread).

In lesser developed countries, swapping anything other than US dollars may incur exorbitant spreads. Money changers in these countries may not have access to up to date information about exchange rates of non-US currencies and thus seek to insulate themselves from currency fluctuations.

In addition to buy/sell rates, some money changers charge commission. For example, after they convert your money, they will pocket a certain percentage for themselves as a “transaction fee”. Look for zero commission money changers, but note that these changers may roll this transaction fee into their spread anyway.

Further, some money changers (eg UOB in Thailand) will give higher rates for US bills with higher denominations. That is, swapping 50s and 100s will give you more Thai Baht than swapping the equivalent amount but in 10s and 20s.

Travellers’ Cheques
Travellers’ Cheques are best known for being secure and widely accepted. If you lose them, you can always replace them within 24 hours, unlike cash. This security comes with a cost, however, and it may be slightly inconvenient to have to produce your passport every time you want to encash your TCs.

TCs are normally bought at banks, or at a branch of Amex or Thomas Cook. When buying travellers’ cheques from a bank, it is sometimes possible to get the conversion done at an interbank rate. However, there will be a commission levied on this (which is essentially payment in exchange for the benefits TCs offer you). Some banks will waive this commission in certain circumstances – for example, being a Gold Mastercard holder at the Commonwealth Bank and being a member of one of their rewards programs allows the waiver of TC fees.

TCs are normally bought in USD, or sometimes Euros.

When you cash in US travellers’ cheques in America, you will normally get back all your money minus a commission of a few percent. So if you encash USD100, you may get back USD98 after a 2% commission. I presume this is because there is some work involved on the bank’s part in claiming back money from the TC vendor. There are some fee-free places where you can encash a TC without commissions – for example, Amex TCs can be encashed without commission at an Amex branch or a bank which is a “fee-free partner” of Amex (eg, Bank of America in the US).

When you encash TCs into another currency, you will receive a certain exchange rate which will be similar to (but rarely the same as) the exchange rate for cash. On top of this, there will be a commission charged (eg in Thailand, there’s government taxes and fees of 33 baht per transaction).

So, in a worst case scenario, you will get charged fees for buying TCs, for selling TCs, and only be able to recoup currency at a money changer’s spread rate.

In the best case scenario, you can buy TCs at the interbank rate and redeem 100% of your money if you are getting out money which is the same currency as the TC.

Debit Cards
Debit cards can be used overseas if they are part of the Maestro or Cirrus networks. Especially in developed countries, ATMs are widespread. However, they will be virtually useless for lesser developed countries or more remote towns which do not have ATMs.

The benefit of debit cards is that money withdrawn is normally debited from your bank account back at home at an interbank exchange rate. However, there is normally a flat fee incurred for withdrawing from an overseas ATM. For example, the Commonwealth Bank charges a flat fee of AUD$5 for each withdrawal from an overseas ATM.

Note that debit cards normally have a daily withdrawal limit. You can get this changed at your bank, but this is set in your home currency. So, if your limit is AUD 1000 per day, you will not be able to withdraw USD 1000 in one day while you’re in America.

If you are travelling with others, you can also save on the withdrawal fee by getting one person to withdraw money for the whole group (subject to daily withdrawal limits). For example, if there are two of you, only having to use the ATM once means you only need to pay a $2.50 withdrawal fee, which is often much more cost effective than using a money changer if you need several hundred Aussie dollars worth of currency. You can reimburse the person withdrawing back at home in your domestic currency, or you can rotate withdrawing duties if you are visiting more than one country.

Credit Cards
Like debit cards, credit card companies will bill you in your local currency after applying an interbank exchange rate. However, most credit cards (eg Mastercard) will charge a 1.5% international transaction fee which appears as a separate amount in your credit card statement. Amex tends to roll this fee into the same line. A 1.5% fee is roughly equivalent to a money changer’s spread of 3%.

Some shops will charge you a fee for using a credit card in order to pass on the merchant fee they incur from the bank. Typically, this is 2% for Mastercards and Visas, and 3% for Amex. This is much more prevalent in lesser developed countries where every cent counts, or for businesses with razor thin profit margins.

One advantage of using credit cards is you get frequent flier points. Normally points have a cash value of 50 to 70 cents per 100 points (0.5 to 0.7%), so this will marginally offset the international transaction fee.

Be careful with credit cards in lesser developed countries. Credit card fraud (via theft or “swiping”, where a copy of your card is made without your knowledge) may be a problem, so don’t let your card out of your sight. Most credit card companies offer a fraud protection guarantee, so this is more of an inconvenience than a major problem these days.

Possessive apostrophes

This is a quick and no-thought-required way I’ve always used to check whether a possessive apostrophe’s in the right place. A possessive apostrophe can always be expressed without the apostrophe by flipping the order of the words and inserting “of” between them. For example, “Schapelle’s cannabis” can be rephrased as “the cannabis of Schapelle”. You can do this with any phrase to isolate the subject of the phrase and thus where the apostrophe should go. Some examples:

Where should the apostrophe go in, “She gave him 20 weeks notice“?
Rephrase as: She gave him notice of 20 weeks.
Insert apostrophe: 20 weeks’ notice.

Where should the apostrophe go in, “You could see the whites of the dogs eyes“?
This can be rephrased in two ways. Either, “You could see the whites of the eyes of the dog“, or, “You could see the whites of the eyes of the dogs“.
It becomes clearer which one is appropriate. If you’re about to be mauled by one dog, the former applies and the phrase should be “the dog’s eyes”. If you’re about to be mauled by a pack of dogs, the latter applies and the phrase should be “the dogs’ eyes”.

Where should the apostrophe go in, “Bob was thrown out of the womens toilets“?
Rephrase as: Bob was thrown out of the toilets of the women.
Insert apostrophe: women’s toilets.

The only exception is when you’re using “its” in a possessive sense. No apostrophe is used. For example, “its stomach”.

Dec 05
Dec 05

SmartyBlog Awards

I got a call from someone yesterday telling me that I was one of 11 finalists in the SmartyHost Blog Awards, an Australian blogging competition offering a sizeable cash prize. As with all of these types of competition, it has had its fair share of controversy over selection criteria and judging issues, but that’s unavoidable given its format. Blogs are quite diverse and to compare a newslog with a special interest blog with a general purpose blog (otherwise known as an online diary) is to compare apples and oranges. It’s nonsensical. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for the exposure! I can’t say I’ve ever been linked by the SMH before.

Dec 05
Dec 05

On doing nothing

I used to be a uni bum, but now I’m just a bum. Having zero commitments is a very strange feeling. It actually comes with a bit of guilt and I have to keep reminding myself that this was the plan all along. Haven’t been working towards anything, just treading water, taking each week as it comes. I often have nothing planned for the next week, but by the weekend, the next week has filled up with stuff to do… catching up with friends, movies and a concert, indoor rock climbing, lan parties, getting some exercise in the gym, cooking, reading, catching up on TV episodes, casino scalping, etc… all the sort of stuff that tends to fall by the wayside when there are more things we like to regard as “important” to do. When you have all the time in the world, even the mundane things are pleasant – grocery runs, cleaning – because they’re not stuff you have to get out of the way so you can get on to the “important” stuff. It’s nice to be able to say “yes” to everything. I think it’s an experience everyone should try and not have to wait until retirement to try it. I start work in mid-February.

As you may have realised from the sidebar, I’m travelling around the world again soon. This time I’m with parents which explains my financial ability to go again. I’m with them up until Italy, then I’m splitting off to HK and KL which I’m looking forward to a lot. I think jet lag will be a real problem on this trip since it’s heading eastwards with a couple of 8 hour timezone jumps. There’s meant to be a largish family gathering in freezing-cold Vancouver though it’s with my dad’s sister-in-law’s side of the family so there’ll be lots of new faces. Though through the marvels of the net, I know one of them is a professional poker player which ought to be interesting. Someone also organised a Secret Santa list which will be interesting because I don’t even know the person I’m meant to be buying stuff for – no age, background, nothing except gender.

Dec 05

2017: Jan
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