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Quibbles with the Cingular 8125


After working with my new Cingular 8125 for a few days, I can say it’s a keeper. As soon as my memory card gets here, I’ll probably even stop carrying my laptop home during the week. I haven’t even started putting 3rd party applications on it yet, but I can say that it’s going to be my primary electronic device outside of the office.

Every single good feature, though, has the oddest drawbacks that point to insufficient testing.

Good: the keyboard buttons are huge and make typing a breeze. Bad: there are so many buttons scattered all over the damn thing that it’s almost impossible to hold without accidentally triggering the camera, voice dialing, comm manager, etc. It’s great for short-term typing, say one paragraph or less, but anything longer than that is risking disaster. It’s just too easy to accidentally start another application right in the middle of typing a paragraph, and then depending on what keys you’re in the middle of pressing, you might trigger disaster. I’ve started phone calls to people, deleted files, taken pictures, etc, all while trying to just type a letter.

Furthermore, with so many multi-purpose buttons liberally slathered all over the phone, why take up onscreen space with visual buttons that have the same purpose? There’s a dedicated hardware button for the Comm Manager – why take up an entire line of the “Today” screen to show one tiny icon for it as well? And don’t get me started about the location of the Power button: when the phone is holstered, the power button is precisely positioned to hit the seat belt socket in a car. Every time I get into the car, I turn the phone on without knowing it, and then as I buckle the seat belt, it places a call. I’m to the point now where I just take the phone off before I get in the car.

Good: two soft keys make it easy to get around in most screens, and HTC even duplicated them above the keyboard for use when the unit is in landscape mode. Bad: these two buttons are so close to the keys that they’re almost impossible to avoid. When composing email, the soft key right above the E will instantly send the email without asking if you’re sure. I looked like an idiot when I sent out three partially completed emails in a row to a group of execs. Not good. If this setup was tested, it was tested by somebody with needles for fingers.

Good: the 8125 comes with a stereo earbud headset with microphone, and it makes a killer wireless walkman. I love walking the dog while listening to Jimmy Buffett’s Radio Margaritaville over the internet, all live. Bad: the earbuds are huge. We’re talking mammoth. I don’t have small ears by any means, but I can’t keep these earbuds in my ears. They pop out at the slightest provocation because they’re apparently designed to fit in Ernie’s ears. There’s no way anybody tested these before deploying them.

Good: the camera takes great pictures for a PDA/phone. The picture you see here was taken outside at dusk with minimal lighting. The camera is very light-sensitive for a simple PDA, and a $300 PDA at that. Bad: despite buttons scattered all over the surface of this device, it’s impossible to change most of the camera settings without getting out the stylus.

Good: underground firmware available on the web enables Microsoft Direct Push email with Exchange. Companies using Exchange Server 2003 with SP2 can enable push email out to PDA’s and phones without paying for GoodLink or Blackberry Enterprise Server setups. It works pretty well out of the box with no configuration. Bad: while the push email does work, it isn’t anywhere near the speed of GoodLink or Blackberry devices. I routinely got emails on my PDA several minutes after they arrived in my inbox – not acceptable for “instant” email. Thankfully, our company uses GoodLink as well, and one of the network guys hooked me up with a GoodLink account. Presto, the emails arrived on my 8125 even before they hit my laptop. That’s what I call push email!

Good: wifi reception is better than I expected. Bad: the phone doesn’t intelligently switch over to WiFi for browsing when available. I’ve even had to manually shut off the GPRS connection just to force all communications to go over the available WiFi connection just to get the fast speed. Totally worth it, though – this device makes for a completely workable web browser from the couch during TV commercials.

Good: the device works pretty well as a phone, and the big screen means the onscreen buttons are large enough to actually work for one-handed dialing. Bad: it doesn’t come with support for A2DP, the new stereo Bluetooth profile for headsets like the droolworthy Jabra BT620. It doesn’t even come with some of the more basic features I expect in an intelligent phone, like the ability to set custom ringtones based on the caller. Come on, man, don’t let my shiny new PocketPC phone get outsmarted by a $50 Nokia.

All of the annoyances I’ve mentioned are minor. The best review comes from everybody who sees this thing in action. They all seem to say the same word: “Whoa.” The screen is big and bright, the keyboard buttons are better than a Treo’s, and it runs Windows Mobile 5. At $300 from Cingular, it’s a heck of a deal. I don’t buy new gadgets as often as I used to, and I’m completely confident in buying this thing right now. It’s the best PocketPC phone on the market today, and it’ll be a long time before anything better hits the stores at this price point.

My first blog entry from a Cingular 8125


Take two.

It’s hard to write a glowing review of a piece of consumer electronics when the damn thing crashes every half hour or so.

As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted by a frozen screen, my new Cingular 8125 has everything from WiFi to Bluetooth to a full-blown keyboard.

Make that a half-baked keyboard. The keyboard, like the rest of this rebadged HTC Wizard, has a few annoyances that mar an otherwise amazing experience.

Take the keyboard backlighting, for example. At first, I was amazed that the keyboard lighting worked so well. After a few minutes, though, I got aggravated by how quickly the backlight turned off. The keyboard doubles up every letter key with punctuation or numbers. The only punctuation mark with its own key is the period. To use a question mark, I have to find it on the keyboard, then hit the modifier key and the key. If I don’t find it in time, the backlight cuts off, and I have to hit some random key to turn it back on, then backspace, and start looking again for my punctuation mark. Typing becomes a sort of masochistic race against the clock.

But who cares, right? I’m lounging on the couch blogging from my phone! I’m even listening to Jimmy Buffett’s Radio Margaritaville streaming audio out of this thing’s stereo speakers WHILE I TYPE! It’s a freaking multitasking phone! This little machine is way more fun than a $300 phone has a right to be. And the camera quality is spectacular. Just look at at the picture attached to this blog entry!

Oh, wait. That’s right. I can’t get the thing to email a decently sized picture because it keeps timing out trying to send an mms message. Another annoyance.

Every feature I’ve tried so far has a similar drawback. Thankfully, it looks like everything has a workaround so far. It crashes unexpectedly, so I’ve already learned to pen my blog entries in Word instead of the web browser, saving them every few minutes as I go. Like any good relationship, it’s all about compromise. You never get exactly what you want. You have to put up with a little flakiness in order to get the good stuff. So far, the Cingular 8125’s a good balance between the two.

Teaching people programming


My new job’s going extremely well, having the time of my life. I’m working with a group of very competent programmers who’ve produced a whole lot of code, but without the luxury of having their own database administrator. As a result, the database is in truly horrendous shape. As an example, I spent about an hour tuning indexes for a nightly job that’s been taking 4-6 hours to run. After tuning, it takes 1-3 minutes. MINUTES.

Does that make the programmers incompetent? Of course not. They’re very good at what they do, but they’re not database administrators. They know enough to be dangerous, but not enough to scale enterprise apps.

Another guy in the company (not you, Carlos, if you’re reading this – it’s another guy) asked me how I became a database administrator. I explained that I got started programming, and eventually took on enough database administration duties to do it full time. It’s a good fit for me because I’m much better with databases than I am with programming – debugging sucks – and I really enjoy it.

The guy then asked, “So if I was going to start becoming a database administrator, what would I do?”

I was kinda caught off guard. I don’t have a good answer for that. I mean, I have plenty of good answers, but only for people who are already doing network administration or programming. If you can do either of those halfway well, then you can be a database administrator. But to start with DBA work, with no prior programming or network administration? I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. It struck me as a get-rich-quick scheme, and further conversations with him have proven that to be his motive.

Today, I read Peter Norvig’s excellent Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years, and it does a fantastic job of explaining my feelings on this subject. Don’t expect to jump into anything – programming, network administration, database administration, etc – and be an expert in 24 hours, regardless of the book titles down at Barnes & Noble.

My new humble abode

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My new office
Change of plans. Southern Wine & Spirits, where I’ve been consulting since October, decided at the last minute that they wanted to bring me on permanently to work directly for them. They’re a fantastic group of people, and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Pictured here is my new cube. It may not even be my permanent cube – there’s a slightly quieter cube available right outside Don’s office, and I’ll probably swipe that one instead.

Squint closely at the picture and you might be able to make out my Dell Latitude D810, Dell flat panel, Cisco VoIP desk phone, and Cisco 802.11b cordless handset. Muhahaha, new toys….

I’ll probably be slacking off on the blog entries this week and next while I get up to speed in my new duties. It’s the same company, but a completely different set of duties.

Job hunters – your web site is your brochure.

Professional Development

Last week I wrote a series of postings for employers, and this week I’ll touch base on things candidates should know.

Candidates: you are a product, and your web site is your brochure.
Managers: read the brochure just as you would a new product.

These days, we buy everything online.  We read the product’s web site, get excited by the marketing, and we’re sold on it even before we walk into the store.  Heck, we might not even walk into the store – we might just pick up the phone or buy it online.

Candidates: your personal web presence is your second chance to build a powerful, persuasive brand.

Managers: before you do a phone screening with a candidate, Google their name and see what comes up.

I’ve hired people strictly based off their web site.  If their web site is engaging, funny, knowledgeable and powerful, then they’re going to represent my company well too.

Candidates: always keep a clean name online – not just when you’re looking for a job.
Managers: check not just their personal site, but their online history through time.

Search for a candidate’s name online, and sometimes their personal postings on message boards show up.  For example, a database administrator candidate may show up in SQL forums asking questions about how replication works.

Here’s where the fun starts: compare the datestamps on their online messages with their resume history.  Are they posting Java questions at a time when they said they were working as a DBA?  Are they posting in-depth questions, or questions that you would have expected them to already know by that point in their career?

I’ve been doing this kind of candidate research since 2000-2001, and while I’m still in the tiny minority, it won’t last long.

Candidates: put your web site in the body of your resume, not at the top.

Recruiters chop off all of the personal contact info at the top and bottom of resumes.  I’m guessing they don’t want the company calling the candidate directly, only going through the recruiter.  Whatever.

The problem is that they keep chopping off the candidate’s web site, which is a big piece of the candidate’s resume.

The secret is to put it in the “Experience” or “Qualifications” section of the resume, like “Posts SQL Tips at”  That way, recruiters won’t be as likely to lop that part off.

If your resume is in a Word doc, make sure the web site is a hyperlink, so it jumps right out in blue text. When a manager sees that link, it’s almost impossible not to click it. It’s like candy for a baby.

Include it in the signature of your personal emails, too, so when you’re corresponding with a recruiter, they’ll be just as tempted.

Don’t look dumbfounded or bashful when someone says they pulled up your website. Be excited and proud. “What did you think? What was your favorite part?” If you’re not excited, the interviewers will believe they stumbled across something secret, and you’ll look like an idiot.

Candidates: add some marketing fluff to your resume.
Managers: assume the resume might have some marketing fluff.

Show your personality and your knowledge in the site. Include pages about your interests to show that you’re a real human being. Don’t be dry and boring in an attempt to be inoffensive.

Marketers will tell you that you need to build a personal connection with your sales contacts. The more things you have in common with your sales prospects, the more they’ll bond with you. Your own web site should identify as many things as possible that you hold a genuine interest in. My site, for example, covers my travels, turtles, server monitoring, and other wacko things that I love doing.

Managers – caveat emptor.  Not everything on the candidate’s site may be the full truth.  I’ve seen candidates post blog items like books they’ve read recently, only to find out they didn’t actually read the book.  (Very common with business books and trendy tomes.)  I’ve also seen candidates post SQL how-to articles and code snippets, only to find out they completely copy/pasted the content.  If something looks impressive, copy/paste a particularly unique snippet into Google.  See how many other sites have that exact same content, and that’ll help track down plaigarism.

Hiring the Best DBAs: From a DBA Perspective

Professional Development

A few more collected notes from my recent interviews:

Sell Them On Your Company Right Away

In your company’s reception area, have a few pieces of relatively up-to-date reading material about your industry, or even better, about your company in specific.  The company I ended up choosing, had a great marketing booklet describing the relationships between various branches of the company and their clients. That one brochure actually put me in a great frame of mind before walking into the interview, because it gave me a good, positive outlook on the company and how they treat their customers. Marketing material works just as well on prospective employees as it does on prospective customers.

What’s Your Motivation?

During the interview process, ask each candidate what motivates them. It’s a trick question: not only does it tell you about the employee, it tells you what they’re probably not getting in their current position. (I didn’t realize it was a trick question until long after I was done answering – and isn’t that the best gauge of a trick question?)

Do You Help Others?

Ask candidates if they contribute to any open-source projects. It’s a long shot – even in this relatively open-source-friendly age, us contributors are definitely in the very, very small minority – but if the candidate answers yes, you might have found a really big winner. Ask them to talk about what projects they contribute to, why they do it, and what they’ve learned while working on open source projects. There’s no right answer here, but just knowing that a candidate is that fired up about technology tells you something.

Who You Gonna Call?

Ask candidates, “When you face a very tough technical problem, are there any forums or discussion groups that you like to use?” Make exact notes of the sites they quote, and then go to those sites looking for their posts. I know, it sounds slimy, but this will tell you what kinds of questions they ask and what kinds of answers they give to others.

Get A People Person’s Opinion

If your company has salespeople, consider asking one of the people-savviest salespeople to interview the best candidates after they’ve already passed the technical part of the interview. In my humble experience, salespeople tend to be better judges of people than us technical people. The salespeople I’ve worked with could “read” a person in a matter of minutes and catch interesting things about a candidate’s personality that I’d never notice. Salespeople make a living out of judging people’s interest in a product, and they can do a great job of judging a candidates interest in your company.

Move Fast When You Find The Right Candidate

Agile companies, companies that make quick and accurate decisions, will grab the best employees. Slow, lumbering companies with tons of red tape will get the leftovers. Why? Because agile companies quickly decide whether or not they’ve got Mr. or Mrs. Right, and make that candidate an offer without waiting to go through all of the candidates in a metro area. I interviewed with a downtown Miami company who declared I was a great candidate, said they wanted me, but said they wanted to interview a few other people first. I liked their management style, liked their employees quite a bit, and enjoyed spending time with them. I even envisioned my shorter commute with glee. However, they took their sweet time and made me an offer almost a month later – at which time, I’d already taken an offer. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Slow, lumbering companies, on the other hand, will only get the employees that the agile companies passed over.

More Articles on How To Hire and Interview DBAs

Show candidates their work areas, and get their reactions

Professional Development
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When hiring a new IT worker, take a few minutes to give them a tour of the group’s work environment. You don’t have to go so far as to point out, “Here’s the cube where you’d be sitting,” but try to give them a general idea of what the typical work area looks like. At some shops, all of the programmers get their own offices, and at some shops all of the programmers are packed in two to a cube. Showing the general work area sets basic expectations for the candidate.

This is not for the candidate’s sake. Forget the candidate for a moment.

Ask the candidate, “How does this work environment compare to your current company?” Then ask, “And how does this compare to the other companies you’ve interviewed with?”

This is your chance, Imaginary Employer Corporation, to find out how your office looks at a very first glance to a prospective employee – and to a prospective customer! Watch the candidate’s reaction carefully, and read between the lines. Examine what they say, and link it to their current employer’s size, sales, and industry.

I know the dot-com days are long gone. Nobody installs foozball tables or free soda machines anymore, and nobody gives programmers corner offices with a view of Biscayne Bay. But as an employer, how often do you get the chance to tour your competitors’ offices? Because when it comes right down to it, everyone else is competing for the same talent you want. I had one interview where I was mentally calculating how much I’d have to spend in order to make my office livable, and another interview where I was mentally calculating how much of a salary cut I would be willing to take in order to work in a particularly posh environment.

Your office may not be your pride and joy, but it’ll be a part of the job negotiations. If you acknowledge that, and take it into account as part of your offer package, you can make a better offer that the candidate will be more likely to accept.

More Articles on How To Hire and Interview DBAs

When hiring a DBA, test their skills

Professional Development

During my recent job search, I noted a few things about the hiring process for DBA’s, and I figured I’d make a few blog entries out of them. This first one covers technical skill testing – finding out whether a candidate has the experience they claim.

DBAs can be tough people to screen because the skill set is so narrow, because your current in-house programmers don’t have the skills to test a DBA’s technical knowledge, and because with just a little studying, a lot of people can wing it through an interview. If you don’t have a DBA (due to the current one leaving or due to this being your first DBA) you will find it really hard to know for sure that a prospective DBA actually knows their stuff, or if they’re just bluffing.

I’ve interviewed with managers who came to the interview armed with a few generic SQL interview questions they found on Google. These managers need to realize that if they found these questions in ten minutes, the candidates have probably found them as well, and the candidates can parrot out the exact answers.

On the opposite side of the difficulty spectrum, I also interviewed with managers who brought out the toughest technical SQL challenges they’d encountered in the past year. One of the questions involved linked queries against a Sybase server – minutes after I’d specifically said I had zero experience with Sybase. Another question involved heavy, heavy, heavy use of temporary tables by way of select-into, and the developer asked me whether I’d implement multiple TempDB files. TempDB was the heaviest used database in the entire server, to the point where the company implemented clustered database servers thinking they’d get faster TempDB’s. The developer asked how I’d solve it, and I tried to delicately say that I’ve never encountered queries written quite that poorly, and that I’d need to research solutions, but that the real solution is to stop doing select-into with temp tables. She was stunned that I didn’t have an answer off the top of my head, and started asking me about Microsoft’s best practices when implementing multiple TempDB files spread across a cluster. I was just as stunned that she expected me to memorize that scenario, something no DBA should ever have to encounter.

Only one of the companies (out of about half a dozen that I actually interviewed with) gave me a technical test in the form of a Brainbench. As a candidate, I abhor Brainbench tests because they’re so abstract. However, I haven’t seen anything better to test SQL aptitude, it’s better than nothing, and it’s way better than asking ridiculously hard or ridiculously easy SQL questions.

It’s still important to interview a DBA to make sure they get along with the managers and developers, but don’t expect these people to judge a DBA’s technical skills. After all, if they had the technical skills, they’d probably be a DBA – not a manager or a programmer. DBA life is pretty darned good.

More Articles on How To Hire and Interview DBAs

It’s official: Apples run Windows


macxp.jpgIt’s official: Apples run Windows.

Apple’s newest machines use Intel processors, just like regular PC’s from Dell and HP. That meant in theory, we could have Apples that run both Apple software and Windows software. In reality, it took some time and about $13k of bounty money to make the whole thing actually happen. After the instructions are posted, individuals should be able to install Windows on top of Apple machines.

This is exciting for me because I have to use Windows stuff for work, but I’ve always wanted to play around with Mac OSX, and I really like the industrial design of Apple hardware.

It’s still not ready for mass consumption, because it’ll probably take a while for things like device drivers to work. What good is running Windows on an Apple, for example, if you can’t connect to the network? Geeks will hack away to get that stuff into place, and then a lot of us – myself included – will be plunking down $$$ for Apples. In fact, it’s great timing for me personally, because I probably won’t get a laptop in my new job, but I want a laptop for home. Macbook Pro, here I come…

Blogging, privacy, and my new job

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Yesterday, one of my soon-to-be-former coworkers, Kiran, tipped me off to an NPR story on blogging and privacy. Steve Inskeep spoke with a grad student who writes a few Myspace blogs with his personal journal, political ramblings, and – whee – a blog about blogs. The student observed that he doesn’t know anyone who’s been denied employment based on the contents of their blog, but he knew people who had removed blog content with that fear in mind. Kiran said that before he met me, he didn’t know anybody so open about their lives as to maintain a blog.

It’s more than that, though: I don’t just maintain some random MySpace blog under an online name. I run my blog under, my real name, for all to see. I believe that a blog written under a real name gives some credibility, some weight, some authority. It’s less of a blog and more of a personal brand, a personal marketing site. It’s also a historical archive that lends some credence to who I am, and what I’ve been doing for the last several years. It shows that I’m not faking it.

I couldn’t go apply for a job right now with a faked resume saying I graduated from the University of Houston. Well, I could, but good HR folks could Google my name, find my site, read it, and discover that I never finished. Even if I doctored up my site right now to say that I finished, really savvy surfers could dig up an archived version of my site, step back through time to see the different copies, and read how I’d marketed myself differently over the years. Bam, busted.

Whenever a resume crosses my desk, I Google the bejeezus out of that person. I try to find every question they’ve asked on newsgroups, every reference to them and their employer, and their personal hobbies. I know I’m the rarity rather than the norm because my coworkers, managers and HR people are always dumbfounded by the amount of information I come across. You don’t have to write a blog to get busted – all you have to do is post a single question to a newsgroup or forum that shows your email address. “Ah, yeah, this guy posts questions regularly in the MS Access newsgroups, even up to last month. Why’s he still posting Access questions this basic if he’s applying for a SQL Server DBA job, saying he has years of experience?” Bam, busted.

The risk of living a somewhat online life is that if you lie about your life, you can get busted.

The reward is that if you consistently tell the truth, people can verify your history online. It’s almost like a reference check. My future employers can step back through time, look at each company I worked for, see my blog entries, and see what I was doing over the years. Until recently, that wasn’t something I promoted, but Kiran had been so impressed by my blog that he suggested I put a link right on my resume. That worked extremely well and it opened a lot of doors I hadn’t expected.

Enough doors, in fact, that I just gave notice at Kanbay/Adjoined after only five months. My last day will be Friday the 24th.

I cringe as I write this because I know I’m going to have to explain this five-month gig thing later. Years from now, hopefully very very many years from now, if I look for another job, I’ll have to explain why I only stayed five months at a company. I am so not a job-hopper – my last job was six years, and before that two at two years, but both were working with the same guy – I basically followed Wayne West to another company.

A non-blogger would give a BS excuse like “I was only a contract employee” or “The new position was a better match” or “I couldn’t stand the Kanbay merger” or something. Here, I find myself under my own spotlight, and I gotta be honest. I’m a permanent employee, I’m going into a similar position, and I think the Kanbay merger is a great move for Adjoined. At the end of the day, I just wasn’t personally fulfilled – this wasn’t the right match for me.

I’m extremely excited about the new company, and I’ll write more about it later. I don’t know their policy on blogging yet or if I have to sign an NDA about the company name, so I’ll keep my big virtual mouth shut until I get those policies cleaned up. After all, blogging is permanent, and you don’t want to screw that stuff up.

Segway is doomed


Ferrari.jpgI get a kick out of seeing quarter-million-dollar cars put in completely mundane positions. I’m not talking about things like Wrecked Exotics, a site that features expensive car accidents, but more like day-to-day tasks like a Rolls Royce at a parking meter.

Sitting at a traffic light today, watching a man load his dry cleaning into the hood of his Ferrari (remember, their engines are generally in the back of the car), I realized that I’m probably in the prime market area for Segways. There’s a ton of money around here, the money is spent on crazy items, everything is almost (but not quite) within walking distance, the city’s laid out for walkers, and the climate is great outside most of the time.

But I’ve never seen a person riding a Segway in South Beach. Not once. Well, there were a couple of women riding Segways and handing out music CD’s for Yahoo, but that doesn’t count because it was their job. I’m talking about people who actually spent their own money on a Segway and actually use it to go places.

I think if Segway can’t succeed here – or even get a single buyer – then they’ve gotta be doomed. People buy the most ridiculously expensive stuff here and flaunt it. I just got back from walking the dog, and I saw half a dozen Hummer H1’s and H2’s all blinged out with huge rims, lots of chrome, big stereos, etc all coming back from the clubs. So where are the Segways?

Software that makes my job easier


The Kanbay-Adjoined merger just got finalized, and the IT staff is asking us to prep our laptops for replacements. I figured I’d make a list of the programs I typically install when I first get a new machine. I’m not including the Microsoft stuff (Office, SQL Server, Visual SourceSafe, etc) that every SQL Server DBA needs, but just the other stuff that I can’t imagine working without. In no particular order:

Flock – awesome web browser based on Firefox, but integrates additional functionality like blog editing, mapping, Flickr uploading, and more.

Total Commander – Explorer shell replacement that resembles the old Norton Commander. Integrated FTP, favorite directories, directory comparison.

UltraEdit – powerful text editor with the ability to do search & replace in files.

Gaim – one client for all instant messaging programs. Better than running half a dozen.

GizmoProject – voice-over-IP. My phone calls come in wherever I’m logged in, and can simultaneously ring on both my computer and my cell phone. Cheaper than Vonage, plus more features.

Acronis TrueImage – backup program that can actually do backups while you’re using Windows. It also builds a separate recovery partition on your hard drive, backs up there, and offers a boot menu to do an emergency restore. Perfect for laptops who need to back up and recover on the road.

Royal TS – open source Remote Desktop client that saves passwords, lets me easily manage lots of connections inside a single window, and resize on the fly.

Case Studio – affordable data modeling tool with almost all of the features of the big boys, like Embarcadero and Erwin. Great support for SQL Server 2005. Very responsive support staff.

Float’s Mobile Agent – Bluetooth utility for Sony Ericsson phones. Syncs my contacts with Outlook, pops up caller ID info on the laptop when my phone rings, lets me send & receive SMS’s on the laptop without hassling with the phone’s keyboard. I’m really looking forward to picking up a Cingular 8125, but I’m a little bummed out that I’ll lose some of the slick SMS integration of FMA.

Attensa – RSS newsreader for Outlook that can sync with their online service. My RSS articles are synced between home and work, and I can access ’em on the road via the web as well. I haven’t started using it for podcasting yet, but when I get the new laptop, that’s definitely my next step. I’m using iTunes right now, but the drawback is that I can only sync at one place, either home OR work, but not both. When I leave work at the end of the day, I want to have the latest podcasts on my iPod for listening on the drive home. With iTunes, that’s not an option unless I use my laptop for my primary iTunes source, and with the size of my music collection, that’s a no-go.

Living on jambalaya out of the box


True story: we were talking entry-level salaries today at work when one of my coworkers said, “I don’t know how anybody can possibly live on $X here in Miami.”

My salary: about $5k below $X.

I immediately busted out laughing and admitted what I make, because I’ve never been the secretive type. And besides, he (and everybody else in the conversation) clearly made well above $X. Poor guy – he immediately backpedaled and said, “Uhhh, I mean, with a family. You don’t have a family.” Well, no, but I’m putting my girlfriend through school, paying for a new Jeep, and living on South Beach with a dog that gets more haircuts than I do. We’re not exactly scraping by on Ramen noodles – although I have to admit I’m eating jambala from a box mix at the moment. It’s not because I don’t have a choice, it’s just that I happen to really like Zatarain’s jambalaya with spicy sausage.

Cost of living isn’t cheap in Miami, but it’s not that bad, with one exception: buying a house. The real estate market here is utterly unreal, completely detached from any reality I’ve ever seen. People here obsess about realty. The guy in the next cubicle talks real estate all day long, trying to buy and sell his rental properties. It’s as if their jobs are just their part-time gigs, and their houses are the real deal.

The Miami Herald recently ran a series across several Sundays talking about the real estate market here. Half of the stories weeped over an upcoming slowdown, and the other half weeped about how people were priced out of the housing market. Add the two together, and you come to the conclusion that even if the market slows down, people will still be buying houses because they can’t afford housing at the current levels. It’s mindboggling.

But try as I might, I can’t get my head around these prices. In the 1949 building where we live, there’s a 2 bedroom, 1 bath condo with 910 square feet for sale for a mere $399k. That’s no garage, no covered parking, no laundry room (the w/d is in the kitchen), and a bathroom the size of my jambalaya box. The view’s pretty good and it comes with access to the rooftop “terrace” here, and we’re only two blocks from the ocean, but – I mean, come on, $399k?!? We’re renting for $1,350 for crying out loud. Why on earth would anybody buy in this market?

This is why people get into the mindset that you can’t scrape by on $X per year – because they’re trying to spend $3,000 a month on a house payment, plus property taxes and insurance. Heaven help you if you want a house with room to raise kids.

Every now and then I look back at the Houston Association of Realtors and check out home prices just to remind myself of what the rest of the US is like. $400k buys one seriously amazing loft in downtown Houston, not to mention a hell of a big house in the ‘burbs.

Maybe a year from now, I’ll look back and kick myself for not buying sooner, but right now, I have absolutely zero remorse for signing a one-year lease on this apartment. I love this neighborhood more and more with every passing day, but paying $400k for this – man, no way. No way.

Doing college homework

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I dropped out of college over a decade ago without having a personal direction in life. Every now and then, other people ask why I don’t go back to college. Last night and this morning, I had the opportunity to do college homework – albeit somebody else’s.

More out of curiosity than anything else, I answered an ad on Craigslist from a college student struggling with a database management course. She was looking for an online tutor, and I thought, sure, why not? The last couple of days, I’ve gone through her homework assignments and gotten a chuckle out of the sheer irony of the whole thing. People tell me to go back to college so I can earn more money – instead, I’m earning money from OTHER people going back to college. Ayuk yuk yuk….

I can’t believe a modern college textbook teaches SQL by doing all joins in the “where” clause. Helloooooo, any graduate who goes out into the real world is going to get their clock cleaned for using that syntax. Mr. Anonymous Professor, it’s called ANSI-92. Look into it.

Resistance to blogging


I’ve encountered two instances this week where people dug in their heels and refused to even think about blogging as a communications medium.

#1: A Michigan friend of mine has been struggling with web development for years while trying to build a site to document his sailing travels. He wants a simple site – the history of the boat, a trip log, places he’s been, a guestbook, that kind of thing. He needs to be able to update the site from anywhere, via dialup or other slow connections. He’s tech-savvy enough that he bought an iPod and a USB hard drive on his own, but he doesn’t do computer work for a living or anything.

To me, that has “blog” written all over it. However, every time I try to show him blog tools, he gets hung up on the presentation quality. Blogs are not the most gorgeous web sites in terms of visual quality, and he wants something with a ton of photos with very specific layouts. So he continues to slog along with programs like FrontPage. He’s going to end up with a static, non-interactive site that doesn’t encourage visitors to keep coming back.

Worse, the site’s going to be tough to keep up-to-date, so he won’t want to keep posting frequent news. People who try to do date-based sites with FrontPage don’t do enough planning initially, so they keep creating new date pages with save-as, and they don’t have easy links between pages. Adding new months or trips becomes a big pain in the butt, and users have to manually update their links all over the place. End result: a site that’s rarely updated, especially as opposed to how easy it is to update a blog. I can update my blog simply by sending a text message from my phone or sending a picture from my phone.

#2: one of my coworkers is looking for ways to disseminate information across the organization. Different people want updates in different ways, and he wants to encourage a group conversation between employees to foster knowledge sharing and growth. Right now, we get information updates via email. When people share their opinion, they’re using reply-to-all. This kind of thing makes me cringe because it alienates people who might otherwise be genuinely interested in the discussion. Like me – I’d rather have this kind of “FYI” info segregated into a separate area where I can examine it at my leisure, as opposed to being shot straight into my email-equipped phone to alert me instantly. (No, I don’t have a properly email-equipped phone yet, but I’m working on that, hahaha.)

This also cries out for a blog. People could subscribe via email, via their RSS reader, or we could start a web-based blog aggregator a la Microsoft Channel 9 or Macromedia NA. Not all blog entries have to be public – they can set up different templates so that some blog categories are public, and some are internal-only.

I haven’t gotten a response back from that coworker, but the time lag suggests that if I haven’t gotten one by now, it’s probably not going to happen.

Why are these two guys alienated by the term “blog”? The friend says blogs have too much information, and that tells me that the “blog” term is too associated with the MySpace type of personal journal – or for that matter, this here blog of mine. But it doesn’t have to be that way: I use my separate survey blog to talk about news and issues in the survey industry, and you’ll never catch any personal stories in that site because it’s not appropriate. I build the site with a blogging tool simply because it’s the best way to build a site quickly, reliably, and with a load of features. I don’t have to worry about things like RSS feeds or building a comment system – it’s all already in there, ready to go.

Saying you don’t like blogs because they’re too personal is like saying you don’t buy DVDs because they’ve got too much porn. Sure, there are adult stores that sell adult DVD’s, but that doesn’t mean all DVDs are dirty. Sure, there are boring personal blogs, but not all blogs have anything to do with personal lives. I subscribe to several dozen blogs, and only a handful are even remotely personal. The rest are strictly business.

Podcasting, on the other hand – man, that’s still 99% noise and 1% signal.

Data mart limbo: how low can you go?


There’s a new blog about Dimensional Data Warehouse Architecture & Design written by Nick Galemmo, and his recent entries caught the eye of one of my coworkers. Galemmo asked “What on Earth is a Data Mart?” and comes to the answer:

“The Great Truth in Dimensional Data Warehousing boils down to this: To achieve success in building an integrated dimensional data warehouse, build a series of event specific atomic data marts. Don’t design or even worry about aggregates, those will fall into place later. Just make sure you are collecting the right events.”

I can definitely vouch for that. During the initial design phase of an atomic mart, look closely at each dimension and make sure it’s the most low-level dimension possible. For example, when building a sales data mart, if the lowest level of salesperson dimension is Sales Team #, then it’s not atomic enough. The mart needs to include the exact salesperson, if it’s available in the source. Once the data mart is in place, it’s expensive and time-consuming to revise the atomicity of individual dimensions. You can go higher, but you can’t go lower.

Good employees: cheaper by the dozen?


Chris Messina noted Google’s purchase of Measure Maps and blogged about it:

Kind of makes you wonder: is there room for the independent in The Acquisition Economy 2.0? …Especially when you can buy just an employee and leave his company behind?

I saw that and just had to respond, especially with my employer in the midst of being acquired. With today’s vicious non-compete and non-disclosure agreements, I think there’s less and less ability to buy off an employee you find valuable. If one of Adjoined’s competitors somehow found me irresistibly attractive, they can’t hire me without paying a crazy bounty to Adjoined. If one of Adjoined’s clients loves my work and wants me for life, same deal – or rather, no deal.

Sure, if the right opportunity came up, I could drag lawyers into it, but as an employee, this is not an option I’d want to take.

Furthermore, my hunch is usually that when I admire the work of a single worker, they probably have a good team alongside them. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Good people hire good people – and bad people hire bad people. It’s really damned hard to hire good people these days, so why not make a play for the entire team? If you gamble on a single employee alone, they might not like the new support network, might not like their new coworkers, might not like the new city, etc. Instead, hire ’em all together, and let the rest shake themselves out.

Run traces on your ‘bases


Database admins should run regular traces (aka profiles) on all of their database servers. Audit all login/logout events just to be aware of who’s logging into each server, from which machines, and how often.

Today, I caught one of the production application servers logging into a development database server – a bad combination. I checked with the application guys, and sure enough, someone had misconfigured the app server to hit the wrong database server.

Thankfully I caught it before we lost data, but it could have been worse. We could have run a production app on a tiny development database server for weeks, maybe months, without finding out. The only way we’d have found out is by losing data due to the development box going down – which isn’t backed up – and that would have been horribly bad.

Remember The Milk Review

Remember The Milk
Remember The Milk

Remember The Milk is the killer to-do list app, period. It’s a free web site to help you manage your to-do list. There’s tons of similar task management web apps out there, and here’s why this one is different:

I can set up multiple lists like work, personal, vacation planning, grocery list, etc. It sounds simple, but a lot of task management systems (like Outlook’s task list) don’t make it easy to slot your tasks into different lists. When I’m at work, I only want to look at my work tasks – not the list of chores I need to do at home.

I can share lists or individual tasks with other people. Erika can browse my home to-do list and add tasks. My coworkers can browse my work to-do list. But best, my coworkers can’t browse my home to-do list. These settings can be made at the list level or at the individual task level – so if I set up a task to get Erika a birthday present, I can hide that specific task from her, so she doesn’t see my list of ideas.

My coworkers can access my to-dos with all kinds of software. RememberTheMilk offers Atom RSS feeds and iCal feeds, so these guys don’t have to use RememberTheMilk directly in order to keep tabs with what’s going on with my database servers. They can just add a news feed to their existing RSS newsreaders, or use an Outlook plugin to get the iCal feed.

I can assign tags (aka labels) to my tasks. For example, I might have several tasks that require spending money, and I can tag all of them with the label “budget”. When I want to see all of the upcoming things requiring my not-so-hard-earned moolah, I can quickly search for the “budget” tag and see all matching tasks, regardless of which list they’re in.

I can set up smart lists of tasks. With the above example, I can set up a Smart List with all tasks with the budget tag, and it’s like my own custom report.

I can email myself tasks from my cell phone. I always come up with good (okay, mostly bad) ideas when I’m standing in lines, walking the dog, or going through the grocery store. I can whip out my cell phone, send a text message to my RememberTheMilk email address, and presto, it instantly adds the task to my to-do list. I can even set the priorities, deadlines, reminders, and more all inside the email if I want to get fancy.

I can get reminders anywhere, anytime, when it works for me. Remember The Milk will send reminders via email, instant messaging, and SMS. I can set what time of the day I want my daily reminders, and how many hours in advance I want reminders for tasks with specific due times.

RememberTheMilk is a great example of how software developers should keep an eye on good features in new web applications and software programs, and then figure out how to implement those features in their own applications. No matter what industry a programmer works in, there’s always great features coming out in other seemingly unrelated pieces of software.

The authors of RememberTheMilk drew inspiration from all kinds of other programs: tagging from Delicious, smart lists from iTunes, usability & fast response from Gmail, social bookmarking from – well, that’s from Delicious too, actually. But my point is that a good developer should always try to stay in touch with the cutting edge of software features.

Tagging, social sharing, smart lists, pervasive access – all of these will be a commonly expected feature in software packages by the end of the decade. Everybody’s software will have to have it sooner or later. Software developers that get this stuff out sooner will have a competitive advantage and gain market share. Software developers that don’t, and add it years later as an afterthought, will lose market share in the meantime. The recent release of IE7 will prove this one out, because Firefox and Flock will continue to gain market share as a result of their slick features like tagging and social integration.

Notes from our Caribbean cruise


Me on deck in Martinique

We’re back! We’re back at home with our beloved Ernie, on our beloved land. We had a pretty good and extremely relaxing time on our cruise.

The thing I like about cruising is that it’s so stress-free. We pull into the cruise port, unload our luggage, and we’re done working for ten days. By day two or three, I’m completely carefree, and by day three or four, I can’t remember what day of the week it is. As I write this on Saturday morning, I feel fantastic. That’s the good part.

The things we don’t like about cruising are the food, the very short port stops, and the seasickness.

We’re more the type to dive into local restaurants than go to the same buffet and dining room night after night. Even though they varied the menu, it all had the same mass-produced buffet feel. It wasn’t necessarily cheap, but it felt that way, and we’re probably more into food personality than ingredient cost. All cruise long, Erika and I pined for some good chips and salsa – very cheap, but unattainable in the buffet line or the restaurants.

I would recommend cruise-takers stick with the regular dinner seatings as opposed to the anytime-dining on the Princess “Sun Princess” ship, because it just doesn’t have good dining options to support an anytime-dining plan. It’s an older ship, built just before the anytime-dining craze caught on. Sure, technically there’s a few restaurants, but the poolside grill just serves burgers and brats, the Italian place has a small menu and tiny portions, and the Sterling Steakhouse is a complete joke. Princess separates half of the buffet at night and turns it into a faux steakhouse simply by adding candles to the tables. Come on, guys, gimme a break, we’re still sitting next to the egg station and the ice tea dispenser – lose the $15/person surcharge.

Fishing boat in St. Lucia

On this cruise with its several port stops, the islands seemed to blend together in a blur. They all had things that made them stand out, but the time just flew by. We’ve decided that we’d rather pick a single island, fly to it, and stay in a hotel near our main attractions. After we left Trunk Bay on St. Johns, I spent the rest of the cruise trying to get to another good snorkel spot, and couldn’t pull it off. We were so close! I wish we could have just stayed on that island itself, especially since we talked to another couple who were staying in nearby St. Thomas for a two-week vacation.

The one deal-killer for us, though, is Erika’s seasickness. There’s no point in having a vacation when one person is sick to their stomach half the time. Both of the cruises we’ve taken, she’s gotten seasick, so that’s that. Oddly, I didn’t talk to any other passengers who’d gotten seasick, but I guess if they were seasick, they probably wouldn’t be out all the time on the decks with me, hahaha.

I don’t want to sound like a party pooper. We had a good time, met some nice people, and completely relaxed. But it wasn’t our favorite vacation ever. Erika’s favorite is surprisingly the cruise to Mexico we took in February 2005, because she loved swimming next to the ruins of Tulum. My favorite is our Zihuatanejo, Mexico trip a couple of years ago because the food was so good and it had so much local character. Talking to some of the other cruises, Erika and I are extremely lucky to have seen so much of the world so far, and to have developed our own preferred travel styles and destinations.

The rest of this blog post is my travel notes taken during the cruise. A word of warning: this is way, way overly detailed. This isn’t really written for your own reading as much as it is for mine, so I can go back later and remember everything about the vacation. I’ll start uploading my travel photos Saturday and post a note on here when they’re available. It’ll take a while, because I shot several hundred.

And now, the long story:

Day One – Leaving Fort Lauderdale

Wednesday, December 28, 2005 – Photos from Fort LauderdalePhotos Around the Ship

We drove into Port Everglades in the afternoon and got into what turned out to be the slowest line of the day: the security checkpoint to get into the Port itself. Only two out of the five available lanes were marked “Open”, but drivers were using all five lanes anyway, leading to a last-second-merge with honks and all. Tip: when you drive into Port Everglades, go into the far left lane. Due to the design of the lanes, it’s the only one that doesn’t have to merge with anybody else, so that lane goes much faster. The taxis seem to have figured it out – every taxi I saw was in the far left lane.

After getting into the port, the signage left a lot to be desired. In a nutshell: before you leave home, call ahead to find out if the on-port parking garages are full. If so, use Park-N-Fly by the Fort Lauderdale airport, because nobody’s going to tell you that the garages are full until it’s too late, and you have to drive out of the port to park off site, and then endure the lines again while riding in a Park-N-Fly bus.

If the garages aren’t full, drive directly to your cruise ship’s terminal and drop off all of your luggage. (This is why the cruise lines send luggage tags along with the tickets – use them, and your luggage will cruise with you.) Then drive to the nearest parking garage. Shuttles run from the garages to the terminals every half-hour or so, but do yourself a favor and grab the nearest cab instead. It was $2/person to ride from the parking garage to the terminal – much better than waiting an unknown amount of time for a shuttle. Nobody around us had seen a shuttle, so we didn’t take that as a good sign.

Once we got back to the terminal, processing was very quick and painless. From the time we got in line until the time we stepped on the ship, I’m guessing it took maybe fifteen minutes tops. The only bottleneck: everybody had to line up to get Bahamas immigration forms from a single guy who was moving at the speed of light – light coming from a very dim bulb. Nice guy, though, as was absolutely everybody we came into contact with during the boarding process. Nobody was dull and routine.

We’ve only had one prior cruise, a Carnival one going out of New Orleans about six months before Hurricane Katrina hit, and Princess definitely does things much more smoothly than Carnival.

Sun Princess promenade deck

When we stepped aboard the Sun Princess, our positive comparisons to Carnival continued. The Carnival ship felt like a cheap 1980’s hotel with its loud, bright primary colors, neon lights everywhere, and faux-art-deco finishes. The Sun Princess was a mix of historical nautical decor (very dark woods, brass accents) and a mid-priced 1990’s hotel (reserved dark blues and greens, more real artwork, lots of marble). We felt much more at home on the Princess ship.

Our stateroom, an inside cabin on deck 9, was small but well-designed. We found it easy to move around, plenty of storage even for our ten-day cruise. Our steward, Reynaldo (aka Ray), displayed a horrified look on his face when found I’d pushed the two twin beds together. He stammered, “You…I…you….”

“You’re supposed to be the one who does that, right?” We both laughed, and he assured me that he’d come back with a set of sheets, blankets, etc. He chided me and told me I was the one who was on vacation, and he should let me do all the work. That attitude came up several times from different staff members: I really got the genuine impression that they wanted to do their job, and that they wanted to make my vacation worry-free and enjoyable. He didn’t give me any bad attitude at all, and was nothing but friendly.

The room only had one electric outlet, so gadget freaks, bring your USB chargers. I’d guessed this would be the case, so I brought my USB charger for the iPod and my phone. If you’re not familiar with USB chargers, they’re little electric cables that go from your laptop’s USB port to your gadget, and they charge the gadget using your computer’s power. That means you can recharge from the laptop without needing multiple AC outlets. Plus you can recharge from the laptop’s battery, useful in emergency situations.

We hit the buffet before the muster drill, and the food was another improvement from Carnival, although not a night-and-day change like the interior decor. The buffet held more choices, but all of them still seemed like Luby’s food. White fish with butter, beef with red wine sauce, tortellini in tomato sauce, etc. It was like walking down the frozen food aisle and reading off the Stauffer’s boxes. None of the food was bad, at least none that we tried, but we’ve got pretty high standards when it comes to restaurants. The food was tolerable, but I wouldn’t have paid $10 to eat at that buffet. The staff was quick to pick up dirty plates.

The muster drill was a complete joke. They moved our muster station from the Shooting Stars Disco to the casino immediately upstairs, and instructed us to sit anywhere we could – slot machines, roulette tables, the bar, etc. We were all so spread out that we couldn’t hear a thing. The supervisor happened to be the guy who managed the casino, and he spent more time on funny slot machine remarks than he did on life jackets.

Erika and I were more than a little surprised at the number of kids who readily put the life jacket whistles right into their mouth and started blowing. If there’s anything that never gets cleaned on a cruise ship, I gotta bet that’s the one. Norwalk Virus, here we come.

We got in line to talk to the Maitre D at 3pm because our travel agent,, had screwed up our dinner reservations. We wanted to change from anytime-dining to a fixed seating. In order to talk to the Maitre D, we first had to survive a line, then talk to the head waiter and convince him why we wanted to talk to the big cheese. The head waiter’s job appeared to be convincing people that anytime dining was okay, and didn’t suck. “It’s the same food, same waiters, same atmosphere – the only thing different is the color of the chairs.” He’d obviously given this speech more than once, and I sorry enough for him that I didn’t bother to point out that it couldn’t be the same waiters. One waiter doesn’t service dining guests on two different floors at the same time, and since one waiter always serves the same tables every night during a cruise, we would never see a fixed-seating waiter while eating in the anytime dining hall. But anyway, Erika and I gave in and left him to deal with the next irate guest. The couple ahead of us had already busted his chops trying to get a window table, and it was hilariously obvious that the guy was trying to pass the waiter some bills while keeping that unknown to the rest of us. He kept moving around so that his back was to the rest of the line, shielding his illicit transaction from the public. The waiter did his best to be politically correct and not take the moolah.

Leaving Port Everglades

We went above deck to watch the ship leave Fort Lauderdale. I tried getting a glass of wine from one of the deck lounges only to find that the on-deck selection of wine isn’t just limited, it’s non-existent. The poor waiter had to hustle upstairs to the wine lounge, get the glass of wine, and bring it back. And wouldn’t you know it, he brought the wrong kind. I’m not a wine genius by any means, but when I order a glass of Pinot Noir (a red) and the waiter brings back a white wine, I’m pretty sure it’s the wrong one. The waiter was really gracious, ran back upstairs, and fetched back another glass. I wouldn’t have cared what kind of red wine it was at that point – I didn’t want to make him run back a third time! Note to self: when ordering wine from the deck lounge, ask what kinds they have on hand first.

As we made our way out to sea and the sun fell below the horizon, the winds picked up and we figured we’d better go get warm. We headed to our cabin to read and take a nap, and we never came back out. We were both trying to recover from sore throats, so we missed the first night’s activities altogether.

Day Two – Princess Cay

The blue globe is the hand sanitizer

Thursday, December 29, 2005 – Photos from Princess Cay

From our inside cabin, judging by the ship’s motion, I thought we were in rough seas. I could see the bathroom towels swaying, could see the water moving from side to side in the toilet bowl, and guessed Erika would need to take her ginger pills pretty quickly. After showering and heading above deck, I could see that the sea was actually pretty calm, maybe 1-3′ waves. Strong winds, though. Still, I was surprised to see how much the ship moved in such small seas.

Upon entering the Horizon Court buffet for an early breakfast (around 6am), a water-free sanitary hand wash station guilts passersby into cleaning their hands before each trip through the buffet. As if that’s not enough, a staff member stationed nearby catches people and points them back to the hand wash. “Do you want to wash your hands first?” Combine that with the fact that all of the restaurant workers wore plastic gloves, even the bussers, and you get the idea that Princess is pretty serious about sanitation. It reinforces the Luby’s Cafeteria feel, but hey, I’d rather be healthy at Luby’s than be sick at a good restaurant. The Hand Wash Police remained stationed at the front of the buffet for the entire cruise, not just as an introductory-day thing.

The breakfast buffet fare consisted of yogurt, granola, cereals, fruits, and more pastries than I’ve seen at some bakeries. There was an egg station for cooked-to-order omelettes and whatnot. I’m a pastry guy, so I left quite satisfied, but fans of fresh pancakes and waffles should head for the dining room instead of the buffet.

Love Me TenderOur first shore excursion: Princess Cay. It’s not really an island, just a 40-acre stretch of Eleuthera Island. The island doesn’t have a dock of its own, so to get to shore, cruisers have to board a small boat called a tender. The cruise brochure said we’d be at Princess Cay from 9am until 4pm, which is do-able, but in reality, it was more like 10 to 2. They start giving out tender tickets at 9am, and the last tender leaves Princess Cay at 3:30.

I’d initially worried that Princess Cay would suck just because it’s owned and operated by the cruise lines. I couldn’t have been more wrong – it made for a great first day on the beach. The facilities were set up well, plenty of wait staff (brought to land by the cruise ship, evidently), lots of water gear to rent, and plenty of cabanas. It’s not the place to go snorkeling because the shores are rocky and the wildlife nonexistent, but sailors, floaters, and sun worshippers will have a great time.

Princess Cay Beach

Erika and I did absolutely nothing. For a few hours, we shuffled through a few pages of books, but mostly just watched the waves coming ashore, laughed at the little kids getting socked by the waves, and tried not to look at the two very large and aged women in front of us who confidently sunbathed topless. The horror.

The cookout food was apparently brought ashore from the ship and consisted of typical basics – burgers, brats, ribs, etc. Nothing bad, but nothing to get excited about, and certainly nothing island-y.

Erika and I both wanted a fresh coconut, but the closest I could get was pina coladas in coconuts carved up to resemble monkey heads. The monos did not join us in the trip back to the boat.

The tender ride back to the cruise ship was anything but tender: a rollicking, rolling romp through the waves. Thankfully it’s only around five minutes long, because passengers were hooting and hollering with each pounding wave. The lifeboat’s windows leaked water. A lot. Enough that passengers moved around, put up towels, and donned hats.

Bayview Reading Room

Erika found her way to the Bayview Reading Room while I took an afternoon nap. The ship’s library has a row of thick leather chairs with cassette tape players built into the armrests. They may be outdated, but they’re still comfortable, as Erika can attest to after falling asleep in them.

We went into the Marquis Dining Room for our first anytime dinner around seven o’clock. The menu and atmosphere was indeed just as good as the scheduled dining, with the advantage being a slower pace and more individualized service. The wait staff had more time to chat with us about their backgrounds, their time on the ship, and the menu items. The waiter saved me from a dessert choice I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed, but they couldn’t save us from our choice of champagne. We were still getting to know the different brands in the ship’s cellar, and it turned out we didn’t like the full-bodied one we ordered. Ah, well, we’d try something else the next night.

The show of the evening, a production show called Curtains Up, started out pretty badly. Erika and I aren’t exactly fans of musicals – this show is like a “Greatest Hits” for Broadway show tunes – and the two stars were overly cheesy to boot. Lullaby of Broadway has to be one of the dumbest songs I’ve ever heard, but you can’t blame the dancers for what they’ve been given to work with. They threw their hammy hearts into all of the songs, though, and everybody could find something enjoyable. Our favorites were the Cabaret numbers (hubba hubba) and Oklahoma.

Another staff kudo: before the show started, the theater waiter pleasantly took our orders for hot tea (a free beverage) and delivered it back promptly without any fuss. We weren’t trying to be cheap, but we just wanted hot tea to soothe our sore throats.

Note to late-arriving theater guests: either arrive on time, or don’t arrive at all. Under absolutely no circumstances should guests walk into the theater after the lights are out and the show has started. It’s extremely distracting to watch these bozos walk around from aisle to aisle, looking for a few seats grouped together. The show repeats at another time. Better luck next time.

Note to families: get everybody into the theater at the same time. Don’t trickle in one by one, thereby forcing everybody in your aisle to stand up and let you through individually, every three minutes.

The late night buffet at the Horizon Court still leaves a lot to be desired.

Day Three – At Sea

Me up on deck
Friday, December 30, 2005 – Photos at Sea

(If it wasn’t for these notes, I would have absolutely no idea what day it is. Erika and I settled into our cruise ship rhythms last night, and it already feels like home. Man, I’m ready for retirement.)

The morning ocean was as flat as open water could possibly be, and I can’t imagine having a better day at sea.

Every morning I head up on deck with the laptop, and I got a few people stopping to ask questions about it. It spans the extremes: an older gentleman had never seen a laptop before, and a young European crew member talked shop about his laptop’s 17″ wide screen and my Centrino processor, and everybody and their brother asked me if I got WiFi reception all over the ship. (I didn’t – it’s available in the Atrium 5th floor for free, but the signal is very weak.) None of the other guests appear to be morning writers like myself – rather, they’re more the type to lay down in one of the poolside deck chairs and bundle up in a towel in an effort to reserve a few precious chairs for their family. Everybody’s idea of vacation is different.

This ship is quiet. The rooms are quiet: we’ve never heard our neighbors. The deck is quiet: no music, no blaring announcements, and no annoying sales attempts. (They seem to confine the sales pitches to flyers they deposit at your door all day.) This is a heck of a place to relax. The average passenger age appears much older than the Carnival ships, at least evidenced by the very low number of families with kids that I’ve seen. The nightly events cater less to the party animals, and more to the show crowd.

This was the first formal night. I didn’t pack any formalwear, and as we’ve discussed with several other families, guys really get screwed on formal nights. Women can put on anything shimmery and get in, but guys have to get all dolled up in these useless suits and ties. I understand that at one time, cruising was a formal affair, but get with the times. When the restaurant pushes promo shots of booze every night at dinner, we’re not talking about a five-star restaurant here.

At lunchtime, the buffet offered food with a Mexican theme: fajitas, refried beans, chips, salsa, etc. Erika and I were excited at the prospect of good chips and salsa, but the kitchen crew let us down. There is no way to grab intact chips out of a bowl using plastic tongs. We ended up with a bunch of little chip fragments, and some pico de gallo. Hmm. High school cafeteria Mexican.

For evening entertainment, we settled on a comedy show by Don Friezen. He had a strong start, but tapered off into a long routine about a Southwest Airlines pilot on Percocet that didn’t quite make sense. Even the MC, who picked up the mike after him, said she didn’t quite understand that kind of humor.

Day Four – St. Thomas

Saturday, December 31, 2005 – Photos from St. Thomas and St. Johns

Docked in St. Thomas

To get the most out of a vacation, get independent guidebooks for your destination, and read them again and again. These people know what they’re talking about. We picked up the Frommer’s Guide to Caribbean Cruise Ports, and it suggested that the nearby island of St. John holds one of the best beaches in the world. They said going to the Caribbean and skipping Trunk Bay is like touring Europe without going to Paris. Our cruise wasn’t stopping in St. John, but we decided we didn’t want to miss this beach, so we planned our own private excursion.

After disembarking the ship around 10am, we took a private van taxi to Red Hook Bay, where ferries run to the island of St. John every hour. The taxi ride was a thriller in and of itself: tiny two-lane roads are strewn all over the mountainous island of St. Thomas, going up and down hills at crazy angles. We held on for dear life as the taxi driver explained how he’d found God earlier this year in the form of an 84 year old woman who read scriptures. I shall now tell you how I found God in the form of a 50-something taxi driver.

While driving, this guy told us a story about a near-death accident he’d had a few years back. The brakes failed because he hadn’t been maintaining them properly, and he had a vanload full of paying passengers going down a big hill. He held on for dear life, swerved around a lot, and rolled the van over. Thankfully, he said, nobody called his insurance company, and he had the tiniest amount of insurance on the van, just liability, $10k max per person.

He told us this story while we were going up and down hills in his van.

Now, I’m not a marketing guru, but I bet he doesn’t get too many repeat passengers.

Regardless of his driving style, we made it to Red Hook safe and sound. While in line for the $4 ferry tickets, we struck up a conversation with a Nashville couple staying in St. Thomas for a couple of weeks. They were taking a day trip over to St. John to eat at a place known far and wide (okay, maybe not) as the 3rd best cheeseburger in the Caribbean. 3rd best cheeseburger in the Caribbean? What kind of list is that? I suppose if one wants to end up with a best-cheeseburger-in-the-world list, one would have to start by analyzing region-by-region. Bizarre. Regardless, I liked their vacation style, and looking back, that matches our travel ambitions more than a 10-day cruise does.

The ferry and taxi rides exposed the area’s poverty. Residents ferried from one island to another to work, and boarded open safari-bus-style taxis to get to work, shopping, and school. All over both islands, cars just died by the side of the road, never to be resuscitated. I saw one car after another that had blown a tire, and then sat in a state of complete disrepair. Mentally, I kept building pictures of families who were barely scraping by, and then couldn’t afford basic repairs on their cars. Pretty sad.

Erika and I wondered how the islanders really felt about tourism. Sure, we’re bringing in money, but there has to be some bitterness when a steady stream of strangers blow through and blow cash without getting to know the natives.


Enough of that – let’s get back to my selfish vacation. 😀 Trunk Bay was indeed gorgeous, if not a little small. Okay, it was really small, especially compared to our huge, wide swathes of sand back in Miami Beach. As far as beach itself goes, the sand was good, but not plentiful by any means, and at first, I was a little underwhelmed. Sure, the water was clear, but come on – it still wasn’t clear enough for us to identify those rocky things we stepped on.

Then I got into the water, put on my optical-correcting goggles for the first time, and stuck my head underwater.

Holy moly. That’s some clear water, and those rocky things are dead coral!

The US National Park Service maintains Trunk Bay just like any other national park in the US, with guideposts, signs explaining the natural life, helpful trail markers, etc. But here’s the difference: this park is underwater. I snorkeled (again, for the first time) out into the water and started down the underwater coral reef trail. It’s marked with signs, explanations of different kinds of fish, and has helpful buoys where tired snorkelers can catch a breath above water. The coral trail runs from the ocean’s edge out to a nearby island and back.

I was completely amazed. We’re talking life-changing experience. I could see so clearly, so far down underwater, and even more, the underwater world held so many gorgeous living things! The experience was beyond anything I’ve ever seen, and the only thing I can possibly relate it to would be taking a swim through the tropical aquarium at a major US zoo. I’ve always seen those aquariums with their dozens of unique fish species and thought, “Yeah, right. They’re just stuffing all those totally different fish together to simulate what the entire ocean is like. Those diverse fish don’t all hang out in the same ten foot square area.” But they do! I could drift for a few moments and spot a dozen different species of fish all within a space the size of my bed.

I didn’t make it far on my first snorkeling attempt, not more than a hundred feet, and I came straight back to Erika – who stayed in shallow water because she doesn’t swim. I tried to explain how exciting the whole thing was, but I did a pretty bad job because I was still kinda freaked out by the ability to breathe underwater. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t open my eyes in the shower, let alone underwater. Being able to both see AND breathe while scoping out all this cool stuff – well, I was just blown away.

I snorkeled out farther and farther, and I’m hooked. What an incredible time! It was worth the side trip, even though we only got to spend a couple of hours at Trunk Bay versus the four hours of ferry & taxi time it took to get from the cruise ship dock to the bay and back. I would heartily recommend it to anybody – but then again, that’s why we buy guidebooks, read them, and heed them.

High Tide Bar in St. Johns

We had about 45 minutes to kill while waiting to catch the return ferry from St. John to St. Thomas, so we walked over to the High Tide Bar. It’s a friendly, pleasant, open-air bar right next to the Cruz Bay ferry, and the (apparently American) owner was brilliant to set it up there. They got plenty of walk-up business from tourists taking the ferry. The menu offered locally styled food as well as American favorites.

We ordered conch fritters, chips & salsa, and Virgin Islands Pale Ale. I fell madly in love with the food and beer, and I promptly declared it the best food we’d had yet on this vacation. The chips appeared to be made of fried filo dough: soft, yet crispy. I liked the pineapple-based salsa more than Erika did, and we both hankered for some good old fashioned Mexican salsa at some point during this cruise. The Virgin Islands Pale Ale was light and very fruity. I pledged to look it up in my alcohol-distributor client’s database after the vacation to find local places that carried it.

Back on the cruise ship, the New Year’s Eve celebration required formal clothing, and since both Erika and I were pretty tired out, we decided to skip it. We grabbed food from the buffet and hit the bed for a nap at 8pm, saying we’d wake up at 10pm and join the festivities up on deck. At 10pm, we were still zonked, so we slept until 11:45pm. I went up on deck and found the boat completely deserted, including the pool bar – everybody was in the Atrium Lounge for the official party. So much for my impromptu affair. Instead, I hit the Horizon Court buffet and celebrated the countdown with a Filipino waiter – and no, I didn’t kiss him, hahaha. I was the only guest in the restaurant for a few minutes until the partiers came up from the lounge party, at which point I retired back to the room with Erika to watch TV and fall back asleep.

Day Five – Martinique

Sunday, January 1, 2006 – Photos from Martinique

Martinique coastline

This morning, I sat in a deck chair, sipped my latte, and watched the dolphins leaping out of the water in the shadow of the cloud-covered peak of a volcano.

Un-bee-lievable. The whole cruise was worth it for that moment, and you can watch it unfold in a movie I shot with my digital camera. (I’ll link to this later.) That one instant is a perfect example of why I tell everybody to carry a pocket-size digital camera that shoots movies. Play around with it until you’re comfortable enough to pull it out of your pocket at any time and be shooting video within five seconds. Life’s best moments happen at unpredictable times, and you want to be able to remember them forever.


At noon, the ship disembarked at Martinique, and hundreds of cruisers poured out into downtown Fort de France. The silence was deafening. Our Frommer’s guide had warned us that Martinique’s shops would be closed on Sundays, and the fact that it was New Year’s Day didn’t help either. Aside from a handful of t-shirt vendors, there was literally nothing to do. The restaurants were closed, the famous church was closed, the library was closed, etc., etc. This would have been a perfect day to take an excursion snorkeling or sailing, but we’d expected at least a few shops to be open, so we prowled the town. Nothing. We scored some t-shirts and a couple of paintings, and we stepped back onto the ship in less than two hours. Erika and I spent the afternoon lounging on the promenade deck reading and writing.

The ship’s dinner menu and the production shows took clues from French Martinique: both were very French, although the restaurant did a better job than the show. C’est Magnifique consisted of various Paris-inspired numbers meant to tell a story of love won and lost, but the female star’s bad wigs were so distracting that it was hard to keep a straight face. To add insult to injury, she had to do a song by Edith Piaf, one of Erika’s favorite singers, and those are some tough shoes to fill. I liked the outfits and the songs they chose, but – well, let’s just say Erika and I won’t be going to any musicals or revues anytime soon.

The pitching motion of the ship finally caught up with Erika just before the show started. She was uncomfortable enough that she decided to pass on the next day’s shore excursion, an all-day jaunt through St. Lucia via boats and buses – probably the least enjoyable thing possible for someone seasick.

Day Six – St. Lucia

The local pilot boards off St. Lucia

Monday, January 2, 2006 – Photos from St. Lucia

When big boats like freighters and cruise ships pull into local harbors, a local pilot gets on board the ship to help the ship’s captain find his way into the harbor and dock. The local pilots know the ins and outs of how to get the ships in safely.

I watched the local harbor pilot motor up to the ship and try to board. I’d never seen this before, and now I’ve got quite a level of respect for those guys. It’s enough to know how to drive a ship, but the boarding is the tough part: these guys have to jump from a little bobbing boat up onto a rope ladder, climb that, and get into the cruise ship – all in pitching seas. Whitecaps dotted the ocean’s 3-5′ waves. The pilot’s boat appeared to be doing its darndest to avoid bumping into the cruise ship, which was great for the mechanicals of both vessels, but didn’t do much for the poor pilot trying to climb aboard. Over the course of ten minutes, they must have made as many passes. Impressive. Talk about a case of the Mondays.

Due to her bout with seasickness, Erika skipped the shore excursion, The Best of St. Lucia by Land & Sea. We’ve since both agreed this would be the last cruise we take: she’s just too susceptible to motion sickness. I went anyway by myself, and I’m glad she didn’t go, because the van rides on this excursion were the perfect scene to shoot an ad for motion sickness medicine. One hairpin turn followed another, all the while going up and down mountain-side one-and-a-half lane roads with no guardrails and huge drop-offs. Throw in off and on tropical rainstorms, and it was a recipe for an accident.

Hurricane Hole in St. Lucia
Our first stop on the van tour was a photo-op of the bay where our cruise ship docked, and the second stop overlooked Hurricane Harbor, a bay where The Moorings (a charter company) keeps some sailboats. The guide explained boats pile in there during a hurricane because it’s a great place to ride out storms. My mind went back to our recent weathering of Hurricane Wilma in our condo building, with its steel-reinforced concrete walls. The thought of riding out a hurricane in a sailboat, no matter how safe the harbor, sounded utterly ridiculous. The live aboard lifestyle is not for me, no matter how cool it sounds, and no matter how many magazines I subscribe to. I’m a wussie.

The next stop took us into a poor coastal village whose main claim to fame was a clean public restroom. I kid you not. Our van stopped on a short street running along the ocean’s edge, not fifty feet from the water. At one end were the aforementioned restrooms, and along the rest of the street, vendors had set up small booths with t-shirts, banana ketchup, trinkets and hats. These were not big-time vendors – these were women and children clearly just scraping by, sharing street space with roosters and kittens.

Seaside fishing village on St. Lucia

Having sold our first home a few months ago and being just barely in tune with Miami Beach real estate prices, I couldn’t get my head around this little piece of oceanfront property. Call me materialistic, but all I could think about was how much this land was worth. It was half an hour’s drive from an airport and cruise terminals, just around the corner from great snorkeling, and there was the slightest bit of a town forming around it. Granted, getting water and sewage set up would probably present an obstacle, and the builder would have to design in some serious storm protection, but damn, we’re talking about oceanfront property with a street next to it! I’m glad I’m not in the real estate business: I would have been too tempted to call a bank right then and there, trying to scrape together money to buy that little patch. “Who do I need to bribe to make this happen?” Hahahaha.

Throughout the day’s drives, a similar theme kept showing up: guest houses in various states of disrepair dotted the south side of the island, the only side we toured. The guidebooks and our guide said that hotel development is concentrated on the northern side of the island. It looked like people had built mini-hotels all over the south side, without thought to beach access, nearby hiking trails, or any of the other amenities that bring in tourism. Build it and they do not come, unfortunately – takes a little more thought than that. (Kind of why I’m not in real estate – I just know what I don’t know, and I know it’s a lot!)

St.Lucia Drive-In Volcano

The van motored on, this time to Sulfur Springs, touted as the world’s only drive-in volcano. We drove into the crater, true to advertising, and hiked up higher to get a view of the bubbling, liquid-hot magma – oh, wait, turns out it‮s just bubbling black water. It’s really, really hot black water, so at least it’s got that going for it. It’s black because it’s so loaded with iron content, and it stinks because it’s loaded with sulfur. Natural gas companies add sulfur to their product so that customers can smell when there’s a leak. Sulfur’s strong, rotten-egg stench is easily detectable by anyone, anywhere, anytime, and the foul smell drives people away, so it’s perfect to get people out in the event of a natural gas leak.

Did I mention the smell?

Yeah. So, the volcano stank, as evidenced by some visitors covering their mouths and noses with their bandannas, shirts, used baby diapers, and whatever else was available that smelled better. Our guide explained that the sulfur water had healing, medicinal qualities that would make one’s skin look better. Who cares how good you look, though, when you stink this badly? I think I’ll stick with my current skin and scent.

The ever-present street vendors hawked necklaces supposedly made from the volcano’s lava, with the same healing qualities as the sulfur-laden water. Anybody who buys one of those is a true sucker: these necklaces are the exact same necklaces as we’d seen on the past couple of tour stops, made from the same material, and here’s the kicker – the necklaces didn’t stink. I don’t even understand why you’d want a healing necklace that reeks of sulfur, much less a regular necklace with that same smell, but hey – it’s working for the street vendors, and who am I to take away from their livelihood? I said nothing as some of the cruise folks handed over their money.

Fond Doux Plantation cocoa bean drying racks

We stopped at the Fond Doux Plantation, a cocoa and fruit farm, for a tour. The place felt like more of a plant garden than a working farm, but it was well kept-up and showed a lot of interesting plants.

The cocoa beans, 95% of which are sent to Hershey, are dried in open flat trays at two stages during processing. The trays are mounted on wheels so they can be easily slid into the barn when rain comes down, and we got an unintended demonstration of those wheels when an afternoon rainstorm popped up. From that point on, all afternoon, the sky would open up briefly at random times, despite a continuing bright sunshine. That’s the tropics.

Our guide had informed us that unlike other Caribbean islands, water was plentiful on St. Lucia thanks to a reservoir system. A few short minutes later, though, as we approached our next destination, she explained the lunch menu and said the first drink was free, but that we’d have to pay for water. Uhhh, what? I thought it was plentiful – but then again, so are the sucker tourists….

We lunched at The Still, a former rum distillery turned “resort”. Like West Michigan, “resort” seems to mean a hotel with a restaurant and a pool. I loved the open stone buildings on the grounds. If I built a home on St. Lucia, I’d want it to look just like this building. It’d be tough to survive a hurricane, but hey, if I could afford a house in St. Lucia, I could afford to split before the hurricane hit.

St. Lucia Dive Spot

After lunch, we drove to a dock and boarded the large catamaran Sun Kissed for our afternoon snorkeling tour. The crew was fun, the rum was free, and the views were beautiful. The weather wasn’t bad, but with a tight timeline, the crew decided to motor rather than raise sails. I was a little disappointed, because I was looking forward to the chance to see such a big boat under sail, but life goes on.

The catamaran pulled up to our designated swimming spot, the crew dropped the stairway in the bow, and the tour guide announced that we were free to start swimming and snorkeling.

Several people gathered around the ladder and…stood there.

I went up to the bow and found that nobody wanted to be the first one to descend the ladder and discover how cold and how deep the water was! So, being of questionable mind and an unquestionable lack of ability, I went first. I got a huge kick out of that – fifty-some people on this boat, and who’s the only guy willing to step into the unknown water? Me. That’s definitely not the way I see myself, and maybe I need to work on how I see myself. Anyway, down I went, and discovered that the water was bathwater warm and about six feet deep.

I continued my voyage of bravery and stupidity by soldiering off alone in the open ocean looking for coral reefs. Only after I made my way a couple hundred yards from the boat did I realize:

1. The boat had no lifeguard aboard.

2. There was no barrier island to protect me from the ocean waves.

3. I’m a 32 year old overweight guy with less than three hours of swimming time in the last five years.

4. The only other people with snorkeling gear still hadn’t gotten into the water yet, and they looked even less fit than me.

This was beyond “No Fear” territory and was well into “No Brains”. I scaled back my ambitions and confined my snorkeling adventures within a hundred yards of the catamaran.

St. Lucia dive spot

We were on the windward side of St. Lucia, the west side, away from the Atlantic Ocean. The windward side is relatively protected from ocean waves, but still nowhere near as calm as the Trunk Bay inlet at St. Johns. I had a great time just drifting along, face down, watching the waves pull the sand back and forth across the ocean bottom. But that wave action meant the water was cloudier than the crystal-clear St. Johns. I could still see the ocean bottom and the passing fish quite well, but they didn’t have the super-realistic snap, and the colors didn’t pop.

The only type of visible coral within a couple hundred yards of the boat was the yellow tubes. (Sorry, no scientific verbiage here, I’m a newbie at this underwater stuff.)

The fish were completely unafraid and swam within a foot or two of me. The quantity of fish was about the same as Trunk Bay – a few dozen fish for every square yard of ocean bottom – but they weren’t as large. I held discussions with the other snorkelers, and probably since all of us were relative newcomers to snorkeling, we agreed that this was one of the high points of our lives. There was nothing that could compare with sticking your head underwater and seeing a whole new colorful, lively world just below your feet. This wasn’t the excursion to take for people who just wanted to focus on snorkeling; it made a great cap to a day of seeing St. Lucia.

An hour later, the catamaran pulled out of our snorkeling hole and headed back for the cruise ship, plowing through one brief rain shower after another. We did our best to deplete the boat’s stash of rum, and the crew seemed more than willing to assist our efforts.


Out in the ocean, we witnessed a stream of increasingly more courageous fishermen. At first, we marveled at two guys out together in a small 25 foot craft with a single large outboard engine. If that engine failed, they could be in a lot of trouble pretty quickly. Then we saw one guy out alone in a 20 foot boat with a very small outboard engine, maybe 15 horsepower, not much more than a trolling motor. We were stunned that he’d even take on these rolling waves in the rain. If the rain and wind intensified, he could well be swept out to sea without enough power to fight the ocean, and he didn’t have a friend to help out. Clearly, these were people who didn’t want to be out at sea – they had to be. Finally, we saw a guy in a rowboat, pulling in his fishing line by hand! We were dumbfounded. This is the ocean, not some local lake or inlet, but the real, bona fide ocean. The ocean is something to be not just respected, but even feared, and this guy was out in a rowboat. Hats off.

Inside the boat, a member of the crew actually caught a mackerel as we sailed – well, motored – home. The passengers cheered his skill.

All in all, this excursion was worth every penny, and I’d recommend it to anybody with a strong stomach stopping over in St. Lucia. The faint-of-heart should be aware that the roads are winding and dramatic, and between the roads and the catamaran, motion sickness is a real threat.

Back on the cruise ship, the dinner service and food in the Marquis dining room surpassed our expectations, but with Erika’s escalating seasickness, we had to abort just before dessert. We skipped the comedy show as it was being held in the rocking-and-rolling Vista Lounge, very prone to wave motions due to its location in the ship. The evening’s scheduled island-style party up on the pool deck got cancelled due to inclement weather, but of course the rain stopped shortly after the cancellation announcement went over the loudspeakers. I spent the evening out on the promenade deck updating my travel notes and cataloging my photos. That one day alone, I shot over 500 photos!

The Sun Princess holds around 2,000 guests, but it feels much smaller than that by far. I’m not a raging socialite – I don’t even go to the bars – but by evening 6, I continuously ran into people I’d met and talked with. That evening on the promenade deck, several couples stopped and talked to me while I chilled out with the laptop and a glass of wine.

Day Seven – Grenada

Tuesday, January 3, 2006 – Photos from Grenada

Laundry day – or at least, laundry morning. The number of daily activities on board and on islands means we change outfits two, three or four times a day, burning through clean clothes at an alarming rate. I had packed about 20 shirts, but by evening six, I was down to three clean ones. I eyed the gift t-shirts we picked up in Martinique, but I decided I’d better do the right thing.

Guests can avoid the laundry room by paying $15 per bag for laundry service, but the bags are quite small while the washers & dryers are full size. I have a hard time paying what amounts to $30 per load for laundry when I have a couple of hours of idle time in the mornings, so I opted to do my own.

Laundry facilities on board the Sun Princess are clean, well-kept, cheap at 75 cents per load, and very small. Our floor had a laundry with two washers and two dryers. (I’ll spare you from pictures.) Erika advised me to go early to avoid the lines, but when I stumbled in with a duffel bag of clothes at 6:00 AM, the two washers were already running. I plopped into a chair with my laptop and waited for the other person’s two loads to finish. After he moved his clothes into the dryer and left, I started loading mine into the washers. As I put in the coins, a woman came in carrying clothes and tried opening the washers. I explained I was using them, and that she could be next. She said disgustedly, “You’re using BOTH of them? Come on.”

Just then, the first guy came back in to add dryer sheets, and thankfully, these two knew each other. “Oh, I should have known!” she exclaimed. “What the hell are you doing washing clothes this early?”

“Hey, you gotta get with it! These things are full 24 hours a day! You gotta get up earlier.” They joked and laughed, and I was off the hook. Whew. She made me promise twice that I’d go knock on her door after my wash finished. These laundry room people are ruthless.

By 8 am, I was done with the laundry, tired of fending off strangers from stealing my washer and dryer. I made my way up onto the deck with a couple of lattes, my iPod playing Jimmy Buffet, and watched the tenders scuttling back and forth to the Grenada shoreline.

With Erika’s bout of seasickness, we decided to skip the van and boat excursions and head for Grand Anse Beach, conveniently located just a couple of miles from the ship’s mooring. We took a $15 car taxi ride over, and we had an interesting question-and-answer session with the driver, a retired police officer. He pointed out some of the more interesting sights, including the former prime minister’s office up on a hill. Back in the 80’s, some Cuban rebels took over the building and the Grenada government asked the US for help. Reagan sent it in the form of a bomb dropped directly on the building. Gotta love that guy. No screwing around there.

Grenada suffered horribly during 2004’s Hurricane Ivan, and the effects were still visible on the vast majority of structures. Churches, libraries, homes and shops all had their roofs blown off and were still unrepaired. I’d guess that 50% of the structures were uninhabitable, and I saw no construction or repair work going on. The economy just won’t support a rebuilding effort yet.

Aside from the friendly driver, the short ride to the beach was pretty brutal. There was no infrastructure to support tourism: the streets all around the cruise ship docks are barely two lanes wide, and shared with locals walking around. Our taxi herked and jerked as it inched through foot and car traffic, usually staying below 5mph. I might recommend the water taxi service to Grand Anse beach over the car service, but frankly, I didn’t like that option either. The water taxis were comprised of skiffs loaded down with so many people that their hulls were maybe a foot over the waterline, if that. I had visions of one strong wave capsizing the boat right over, and I’ve seen too many passengers that couldn’t swim to shore – including me – in the strong currents here.

Me backfloating in Grand Anse

Grand Anse is a long stretch of beach, about 2 miles long. Stay with the side furthest from the cruise ships. Not armed with that piece of knowledge, we avoided the crowds – we’re not people-people at the beach. We went to the end closer to the cruise ships and rented an umbrella and sit-up beach chairs for $9.

Locals prowl up and down the beach hawking every kind of handmade ware you could imagine, along with some you can’t imagine. One guy walked up carrying nothing and said he was the “therapy man”, offering foot massages. Riiiight. While that would indeed be an unforgettable vacation memory, I somehow had to pass. They just don’t stop, either: we were visited by a vendor every 3-5 minutes.

I temporarily avoided the vendors by taking a swim only to discover why people don’t go to the north end of the beach. The first ten feet out are sharp rocks, and past that is thick seaweed. It takes a lot to get me out of the water, especially when the beach is crawling with street vendors, but I can only back float so long without getting bored.

No snorkeling here – the water was way too cloudy, less than a couple of feet of visibility. I would have been rather interested to see this forest of seaweed, too.

We packed up after less than an hour and walked over to the driver’s favorite beachside restaurant, Coconut Beach. I absolutely loved the atmosphere – very casual, right on the beach, sand on the floors – but the service was so casual as to be intolerable. Nobody would talk to us, and we gave up after sitting at a table for ten minutes without so much as a sight of a waitress. The prices on the menu were in Eastern Caribbean dollars, and converted to dollars, they were ridiculously high. The cheapest entree, fried shrimp with no sides, was $25. I can tolerate high prices with good service, but since nobody would talk to us, we walked out and caught a cab back to the docks.

Later that evening, I spoke with other couples who’d taken tours of the island. They came away with similar impressions of the island’s deep poverty and disrepair. One couple saw the national stadium, and it looked like the hurricane hit yesterday, with big chunks of concrete lying around. I wondered to myself how our recovery effort in New Orleans will compare to that.

I’m very much in favor of sustainable tourism, especially helping other cultures profit from their natural resources, but if I had the chance to stop in Grenada again, I doubt I’d get off the boat. I’d rather send an aid check than spend a day of my vacation here. Maybe an aid organization ought to start up something like that – have a virtual vacation in the country of your choice. You send a $200 check, and you get back a bunch of knickknacks, t-shirts and postcards. (Note to relatives: your knickknacks and t-shirts are en route, having been earned the old-fashioned way.)

The ship’s food got markedly better over the last couple of days, especially in the Horizon Court buffet. The past two days have brought good pastas and soups. The meat at the carving station was still burnt to a dry crisp, though: I actually dipped my London Broil in the tomato soup just to make the meat edible.

Day Eight – St. Vincent

Wednesday, January 4, 2006 – Photos from St. Vincent


Every night, the ship’s staff distributes flyers describing the next day’s port. These flyers describe the island’s history, culture, excursions and of course, shopping. Today’s flyer for St. Vincent was very thin on details, and the shopping section read, “The only shopping is in Kingstown.” That’s great, but Kingstown is in the middle of the island, miles away from the port, and we’d need to cross a mountain range to get there. Hmmm.

Erika and I disembarked nonetheless, just to see what we could see. The tiny port held half a dozen knickknack stores, some of which didn’t even accept credit cards. The port was surrounded with barbed wire, and leaving the grounds looked like leaving a government checkpoint. The other side held decrepit buildings, without a store sign or an inviting place in sight, so we turned back and came back on the ship.

We talked to a Canadian couple who’d taken a St. Vincent van tour and enjoyed it quite a bit. In fact, they thought it was the most secure, friendly island they’d seen. They’d also spoken with another couple who paid a taxi driver $20 to take them to a snorkel spot, which turned out to be great. So the word on the street: get far away from the cruise port and you’ll do fine.

The St. Vincent stop only lasted five hours, just long enough for the cruise ship to ring up a few excursions, and then we set sail for Port Everglades.

Afternoon activities at sea included a German Bierfest Buffet from 5:30 until 10. I’m not a big German food fan other than the sausages, but they had brockwurst, knockwurst, and a couple of other varieties, so I was a happy camper.

Days Nine & Ten – At Sea

Thursday – Saturday, January 5-7, 2006 – Photos at Sea

Sunrise on promenade deck

The last couple of days, the ship rocked and rolled more and more. I was impressed that nothing ever seemed to creak or groan with all this moving around – the ship felt screwed together really well – but everything moved around. Our stateroom near the center of the ship jittered from side to side for hours, and further toward either end of the ship, the ride was a big roller coaster. Saturday morning in the Atrium Lounge near the center, the Christmas tree fell over as I sat typing travel notes. I couldn’t understand all the motion, because outside, the wind and waves weren’t bad at all, waves being never more than 4-5′ tall. The only thing I could think was that the stabilizers weren’t working or had been turned off.

At sea, Erika stayed in the room for the most part and read or watched TV. The onboard TV channels don’t include commercials, which was great since we were going through Tivo withdrawal. The live CNN feed showed stock numbers during commercials, and the ship had special feeds for sitcoms, Travel Channel shows, and Discovery shows, all without commercials. Two thumbs up.

I stuck with the promenade deck. Every few minutes as the sun rose, I would climb out of my comfy deck lounge chair, take a few pictures of the sun and clouds for my computer wallpaper collection, and then settle back down.

The cruise staff planned plenty of events all day and night for both days at sea, and there was something for everybody. They pushed the art auctions a lot via nightly junk mail flyers distributed to each room. I’d read complaints from other cruisers about how the art was displayed so prominently around the ship, but it’s really just confined to deck 7 forward, and we enjoyed checking out the collections. I have a hard time complaining about an abundance of art.

Drifting boat off Puerto Rico

A bit of unplanned excitement occurred on Thursday when someone spotted a drifting boat nearby. The captain swung the big ship around to get a closer look, and we maneuvered within a few hundred feet of the tiny dinghy. Thankfully, it was empty. We hoped that the boat had simply drifted away from its mooring, unattended. The captain notified the US Coast Guard in nearby Puerto Rico, and we continued on our way.

The chef ran a sushi demonstration followed by a sushi buffet lunch in the Horizon Court Buffet at 11:30. There was a veritable stampede of guests packed around the small buffet tables – I had not seen that many people packed into a buffet area during the whole trip. The sushi left a lot to be desired, but it was still a refreshing change from more typical buffet food.

One of the funniest parts of the cruise occurred on the last day, Saturday morning, as I sat in the Atrium Lounge polishing up the travel notes. I overheard hilarious conversations between husbands and wives. Funny how ten days of close proximity affects people:

Older woman toting a small suitcase: “I told you I can’t follow you because I keep tripping over that damn big suitcase you’re dragging.” Husband: “Then let’s switch. You take your stuff, and I’ll take mine.”

Canadian woman to her husband: “Stop worrying about the money, eh? They just charge it to the card. Besides, it’s in US dollars. They don’t convert it to Canadian dollars, because they’re both dollars. They just charge it as is, eh?”

Grouchy curmudgeon: “I can’t sit still in this place for another half an hour.” Upbeat wife: “Three laps around the outside deck is a mile. The door’s over there.”

Pre-teen kid to his parents: “This is the part I hate. We see something really nice for once, and we have to leave it.”


It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud. Erika and I have it pretty darned good: our stressed-out part is the start of the vacation, packing and preparing, not the end.

And that was our cruise! The final verdict is up at the top of this, but in a nutshell, I left completely relaxed and rejuvenated. As Erika declared, this last port was our favorite.