Thursday, March 29, 2007

MGoun trek put off

A number of factors have caused me to put off my trek to Mount MGoun for a month or so. I'm actually happy, seeing as the weather seems to have made a turn for the worse (the final factor in the decision.)
Some freak cold front has come down from Norway (damn Norwegians!) When I set the dates a few weeks back, the temperature was warming up and the trek was looking good.

Originally, I had about sixteen people on the list to possibly do the trek. I booked it this week so as to coincide with the school spring break and take along my friend's family.
They were the first to cancel due to work related issues.
So we were down to ten, of which four I was still waiting to hear from. One by one, those four said no, also mostly for work related reasons.
So we were down to six.
Monday, three days before the trek, my Peace Corps friends, having given plenty of prior notice to their bosses about wanting to do the trek, were told they could not go.
I have a lot of respect for Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the world. To me, they epidomize the spirit of development work. They go to developing countries, are given a meagre wage to live on, and help the local communities they are placed in. I don't blame these guys at all for cancelling. They had told me from the beginning that there was a slight outside chance that Peace Corps management would say no. (Although the volunteers couldn't possibly imagine why.)
And what did the management say... "No."
Danger was mentioned, and that management wanted to keep track of them, not knowing the area, etc.
Give me a bleeping break.
We're talking about adults, not seven year old kids.
They asked a few weeks in advance. And the management waited until four days before the trek to say no. I could go on and rant for pages, but suffice to say something is wrong, somewhere, and let you figure out the rest.

Before I get myself in trouble by spouting out stories of incompetence, I'll end this piece.

Something is wrong in the NHL.

The playoffs are 'a' approachin'. The great thing about being a Leafs fan at this time of year is that its like the playoffs have already started. The Leafs have six games left, and can't afford to lose many of them. In the Eastern Conference, there are seven teams fighting for four playoff spots.
The Atlanta Thrashers appear to be in the best position, however after losing to lowly Florida last night, I'd be a nervous fan. Tonight, they play the, desperate-and-well-rested, not to mention hot Leafs. If Atlanta loses, they are three points ahead of the other teams, having played one extra game, that means they only have a one point comfort zone and are on a losing streak.
Carolina is in the worst position. On the outside looking in, they lost 6-1 to the Leafs two night ago. And if that wasn't embarassing enough, they dropped a 5-1 decision to the worst team in the league, Philidelphia, last night.
Something that really pisses me off, though, is the rule that first, second and third place in the standings have to be given to one team from each division. It's bad enough when a team is one point behind the first place team (which happens to be in their own division) and gets relegated to fourth. At least they've still got home advantage.
Even worse though, and there is an outside chance that this will happen this year, is say the Leafs, Rangers, Islanders and Canadiens all play their hearts out and gain the points needed to make it into the playoffs.
At the same time, assume Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Carolina all choke, and finish three or four points out of the playoff picture.

That means, in the East, at the end of the season, first through twelfth place "should" look something like this.

1) Buffalo 114
2) New Jersey 106
3) Pittsburgh 105
4) Ottawa 104
5) Rangers 96
6) Islanders 95
7) Montreal 95
8) Toronto 95
(Not in playoffs)
9)Tampa Bay 92
10)Atlanta 92
11)Carolina 89

So Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and Carolina, all cities which I think are marginal hockey markets at best. Cities which should stick to baseball and football and basketball. Cities without enough fan support to even sell out their arenas in the playoffs. Well, (in my scenario) all of them didn't get enough points to crack the top eight. Boo hoo.

Or did they?

Wait just one second! Remember the 1,2,3 rule. First, second, and third have to be from different divisions. And since there is no team from the Southeast division in the playoff picture, it looks like its between Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay has more wins, so congratulations, here is your go-to-third-place-free card, even though you SUCK and don't deserve it.
So, since you get bumped up, someone has to get bumped down. Let's see, three teams tied at 95 points. The Leafs have the fewest wins and most overtime losses. Sorry Toronto, even though statistically you aren't, you are the weakest link - goodbye!

That really sucks! And for more reasons than one.

Look at Toronto's division. They played top teams Buffalo and Ottawa eight times each. They also played higher standing Montreal eight times. The only other non-playoff bound team in their division is Boston, who aren't all that bad.

Tampa Bay and Atlanta, instead of playing top teams Ottawa and Buffalo, or New Jersey and Pittsburgh eight times each, got to play lowly Washington and Florida from their own division.

So, despite playing almost half their games against easy teams from their own division, none of the teams in the easiest division (in my scenario) could muster enough points to make the playoffs. Yet, due to the freak of nature rule, one of them gets a guaranteed third place finish.

Something is wrong with the NHL.

Fix it Bettman, before you get a riot in a real hockey town.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

120-year-old math puzzle solved

Associated Press

PALO ALTO, Calif. — An international team of mathematicians has cracked a 120-year-old puzzle that researchers say is so complicated its handwritten solution would cover the island of Manhattan.

The 18-member group of mathematicians and computer scientists was convened by the American Institute of Mathematics in Palo Alto to map a theoretical object known as the “Lie group E8.”

Lie (pronounced Lee) groups were invented by 19th-century Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie in his study of symmetrical objects, especially spheres, and differential calculus.

The E8 group, which dates to 1887, is the most complicated Lie group, with 248 dimensions, and was long considered impossible to solve.

“To say what precisely it is is something even many mathematicians can't understand,” said Jeffrey Adams, the project's leader and a math professor at the University of Maryland.

The problem's proof, announced at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took the researchers four years to find. It involves about 60 times as much data as the Human Genome Project.

When stored in highly compressed form on a computer hard drive, the solution takes up as much space as 45 days of continuous music in MP3 format.

“It's like a Mount Everest of mathematical structures they've climbed now,” said Brian Conrey, director of the institute.

The calculation does not have any obvious practical applications but could help advance theoretical physics and geometry, researchers said.


"Wait, wait, wait, wait, WAIT!" Oh crap, we mixed up an x and a y at the corner of Hudson Street and Eighth Avenue. We're gonna have to start over."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Moroccan vs American highways

In my recent post about America, I did a random count of 100 vehicles on the highway. Breaking it into three categories, Guzzlers, mid size, and economic cars, I just finished a similar count in Morocco.

American cars breakdown
Guzzlers - 58%
midsize - 31%
Economy - 11%

Moroccan cars breakdown
Guzzlers - 13%
Midsize - 29%
Economic - 51%

As you can see, Morocco is almost the polar opposite of the US. Another note, many of the midsize cars here in Morocco served a purpose. Five were Mercedes taxis transporting people, and several others were van-car hybrids transporting goods. In Florida, during the count, I didn't see a single compact (very small) car. Here in Morocco, ten of the 51 cars I counted as economic were compact.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Weekend in Madrid

Booking with Easyjet usually gets you two things, a cheap flight and a bumpy ride. For the price, it's well worth a little high flying stress as the plane shifts and jolts and drops - in fact it adds an element of roller-coaster excitement. Apparantly it was too much for some poor person on our outbound flight. The plane hurried an emergency landing into Madrid airport so they could be taken away by the awaiting paramedics.

We made a few errors, and a few good decisions. Our first good decision was the three-day transit passes we bought for nine Euros each. The passes got us on subways, trains and busses for the entire stay.

My first error was booking a cheap hotel through Easyjet hotels. The Travelodge might have been the lowest cost, however it was nowhere near the airport or the downtown. It took us an hour to get from the airport to our hotel, and forty minutes from the centre of Madrid. As a result of our obscure location, we spent an extra sixty Euros in taxis. Twenty the first night trying to find the hotel from a nearby trainstation. The second night, we missed the last train by a few minutes and ended up wasting two hours searching for an alternate route. In the end, we coughed up forty Euros for a taxi. Point being, do some research and be willing to pay an extra twenty euros per night if it means a more convenient location.
My other mistake was the Sunday shopping conundrum. Living in Morocco, a big reason for going to Spain is to get things that are either not available, or very expensive here. We spent most of Saturday doing the tourist bit, giving ourselves only an hour before 10pm closing to do our shopping between Carrefour and Decathlon. On Sunday, Spanish shops and supermarkets shut down completely - which meant the little things I wanted to hunt for - a camping stove, climbing equipment, and a few other knickknacks were left for another day.

It was predominately a tourism weekend, with a trek around the historic quarter of Madrid and lunches in big Spanish Plazas. We took a tour through the massive rooms of Madrid's Palacio Real (Royal Palace.) It's most amazing feature being its sheer size - 2800 rooms, of which the tour shows around fifty.

Spanish stereotypes: Blah food. In my opinion, Spain has the most below average food in Europe. The Spanish Paella Siham and I ordered was oily and filled with thin crab legs, shrimp hairs and other not-so-delectable bits. A tuna sandwich Siham ordered on our last night was dripping with oil, as though they didn't bother draining the oil out of the tin before spreading it on the bread.

More Stereotypes - People making out in public came as a bit of a surprise, especially coming from Morocco. The two gay lovers in McDonalds had to take the prize for the biggest double-take moment - are they really doing that?

I don't know if this counts as a Spanish stereotype; it may just be the latest thing on the fashion front. Girls with big guts and low-cut shirts. Maybe some Spanish men find a fat drooping belly on a girl attractive. If not, with all the different Latin and African cultures emerging in Spain, I'm sure there must be some culture who supports the big-burgeoning-belly fashion.

My previous trips to Madrid were as a single guy. With a baby in tow, Siham and I missed out on the Madrid nightlife. There were also many an Irish pub that made me sigh nostagically in passing.

"Siham, can you wait outside while I..."
"Yeah right!"

Live and learn. Next time, I'll book a more convenient central hotel. I'll still buy the transit pass, and we'll dedicate all Saturday evening to do shopping and Sunday to tourism. If I'm lucky, I may even get a chance to sneak out to the Irish pub for a pint.

The flight back was even more turbulent than the flight there. Fortunately, no emergency landings or parmedics were required.

I heard a rumour Easyjet might start transatlantic flights? Seventy Euros instead of seven hundred sounds good to me, even if I have to pack my own meals, and barfbag.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Time to switch banks

I might be spoiled from the quality and modern convenience of Canada's banks. Perhaps, having worked at a bank for a year while living in Canada, I know how a well-run one should operate.
My wife on the other hand might just be unlucky in choosing the absolute worst bank in Morocco.
At her bank, supposedly there is internet banking. Unlike Canada, here you pay a monthly fee and have the right to check your account activity online, but not much else - no paying bills, no transferring to a friend's account. In fact, when Siham ordered the internet banking, it never worked, but she got charged anyway - so perhaps it only works in theory. Again, having the ability to check your balance online, to me, is not considered internet banking.

In Canada, they encourage you to use phone and internet for pretty much everything, from ordering cheques, changing addresses, transferring money, paying bills, etc - it saves time, cuts down on staff costs, etc. Here, if you want anything done, you go directly to the bank, or other insitution.
For instance, to pay the phone bill I go to the local telecom payment outlet, take a number, wait about fifteen minutes, and pay the bill.
Same thing for the utilities.

There are bank machines, but at Siham's bank, they dole out only a thousand dirhams at a time. Around US$110. They don't do much else - no deposits, no paying bills, no transferring between accounts, etc.
At Siham's Moroccan bank, there is no orderly line where you wait so the person in front of you can have some privacy. Instead, there is a jumble of people crowded around the counter like at a busy McDonalds.

This Friday Siham and I were in a hurry to get to the Spanish Embassy and apply for her visa. We got an early start, went to the photo developer for passport photos, and Siham headed for a quick withdrawal of Euros and obtain some bank papers to add to her visa application. It took an hour and a half. The bank also hadn't changed Siham's status from single to married, despite the fact that Siham asked them to almost two years ago.
This time, they couldn't do it. Their systems were down - which is not the first time we'd asked for something and their systems were down.

I don't remember a single time in my history of working at the bank in Canada where the system went down. Systems just don't go down. If I had thousands, or even millions of dollars invested somewhere, it would bother the hell out of me if a system went down, unless it was some scheduled maintenance, in which case it's likely to be either quick, or during non-busy hours.

Siham once went into her bank to make a transfer from her chequing account to her savings. The teller didn't want to do it. Plain and simple, he was just too lazy to make the transfer. Instead, he made the excuse that she needed her bank book. She'd done it many times before without the book. Irate, she was about to close her account, but was talked out of it by the manager.
I think its time we switched banks. This time though, we should research and ask others which bank they reccomend, as well as checking out the local ones. We should then open an account, transfer all the money, switch her work deposits, and leave her crap account with next to nothing in it, but open for a few months just in case there is some contigency we forgot about.

Friday, March 09, 2007

I see Harper's figuring it out.

A while ago I blogged on the embarrassment of an environmental package unveiled by Harper's conservative government.
In the piece, I mentioned how easy it was to please the mass public through simple, but popular environmental projects. From what I've read of late, the government has finally got the idea. A few hundred million here, a few hundred million there, bang, the public is happy, the media is happy, and your environmental image has shot through the roof.
I may still not like Harper for a few terrible stances - namely the Lebanon conflict and the Emerson defection, but at least he hasn't done anything to really irritate me in the last few months.

Climbing in Rabat

For years I'd taken up people on any offer to join them on a climb. I never had any of my own equipment, and was constantly taking advantage of the "extra harness" hospitality.
Now, I've coughed up the money for my own equipment, including extra harnesses, and now enjoy getting out for some excercise on weekends and checking out local beauty spots.
In and around Rabat, there are two sites that I know of, and one that I've yet to find. The first, and apparantly best, is about a 45 minute drive to Benslimane. The route I take to get there is a bit tricky, I'm sure there are other better routes, I just haven't figured them out yet.
GPS points for cliffs near Benslimane - N33.39.428 W007.00.544

On the autoroute between Rabat and Casa, take the Skhirat exit.
In Skhirat, turn right onto the main road running out of town and continue for about thirty minutes. The road turns pretty bad, with potholes everywhere, and gets better again.
When you get near GPS point N33.39.428 W007.04.591 - you turn left onto a wide dirt road with a fence running alongside it. There is a sign, but I can't remember what it says, and a gated entrance to some property at the corner.
Take the dirt road a few kilometres, to where it comes out onto another tarmac road, turn left.
About a kilometre away, you round a corner and find another dirt road running down hill on your right. Follow the road to a parking area. On a weekend, it is likely there are a few families picnicing, a guardian for the cars, and locals selling chapati breads, eggs, and tea.
You see an escarpment on your right and left. I haven't found any sport climbing hooks on the right escarmpent, but you can easily see a couple routes if you want to do some traditional multipitching with wedges and cams.
On the smaller escarpment to the left, head towards it from the parking and follow the trail running alongside it. When you round a corner that heads uphill, you will see some bolted routes up a sheer face. You can start on the easier routes around the bend and uphill, or the harder routes at the bottom.

For the second site (the climb between two bridges,) you take the road that runs parallel to the Casa autoroute. Coming from Rabat, you turn off on the road running past the stadium just as the motorway begins. Continue about twenty kilometres to where you approach a bridge. Park just before the bridge. The spot is on a set of cliffs to the right. Expect to be startled by the rumbling trains which race past every so often.

The third site is somewhere up the Bouregreg River. I've yet to find it, but will update this when I do.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The American vacation

I know I said I'd continue with thoughts about my trip to the US. It took a little longer than expected, but here it is.

One of the joys, and sometimes disappointments of international travel is noticing stereotypes. In London, I was taken aback by the dozens of tabloid newspapers being handed out to passers by. They had shock headlines such as:
“Terrorist finds job on underground,” or, “Suffolk Strangler Strikes Again!”
It was a pleasant surprise, especially coming from Africa where media tends to be watered down facts spun to make the government look good. The tabloids showed a jovial side of England via their massive craving for gossip. After all, in a country plagued by incessant bad weather, there is at least the joys in seeing the world's heros humiliated.

In France, it was something more laughable, even cartoonish, that sticks in my mind. I remember seeing an abundance of blue-or-pink-haired old ladies with poodles tucked under their arms.
Even upon returning home to Canada, I was pleasantly surprised to hear so many people finish their sentences with our stereotypical, "Eh."

My wife, little Zack and I recently got back from visiting my retired parent’s at their second home in Florida. This February was the first time I’ve gone to see them at their sunny getaway, and my first prolonged visit to the US in more than fifteen years.

We flew into Orlando, where my parent’s first glimpse of their two-month-old grandson saw him sleeping in my arms. They hugged us, made cuckoo noises, and later took over cradling duty as I went to collect the baggage.
The first American stereotype wasn’t far away. On the highway running past the airport, I noticed the cars were bigger than those in Europe or Africa. A lot bigger! The majority were either giant gas guzzling pickups with oversized tyres, or roaring SUVs. Even the Sedans, a noticeable minority, tended to be jumbo sized.

I later did a count of one hundred cars we passed on the highway. I’ll provide my findings at the end of this piece, but take a guess now. I’ve divided it into three categories: Big guzzlers; mid range; and economical.

An hour later, we approached the neatly trimmed lawns with well-maintained bushes and flower gardens. My parent’s winter getaway is a retirement community in central Florida called The Villages. Each of the hundred or so neighbourhoods, or Villages as the concept goes, has a quaint name like Spanish Springs, or Village of Duval.

We passed a swimming pool, followed by a golf course, and turned onto their street. Bungalows with aluminium siding were equally spaced. Some homes had separate garages for golf carts. The perfect neighbourhood being another American stereoptype, albeit not a surprising one.

In the supermarket later that week, I noticed a third: a lot of obese people. I contemplated doing a count like with the cars; but to go around and mark down people’s fault’s felt wrong. Instead I just took a quick estimate; about half of the people were noticeably overweight; and about a third of overweight people were grossly overweight. Admittedly, a supermarket filled with food is not the best place to do an accurate census on obesity.

To understand America’s weight problem all I needed to do was glance around. At the front of the supermarket was a display of Valentine’s Day cakes, sweets and chocolates. In the flyer, junk food was on sale throughout its pages. A huge, one pound Hershey chocolate bar cost a dollar.
At home in Morocco, I have a routine of weekly sports and exercise. I eat some junk food, but am not surrounded by a culture with so much of it, so cheap, and so easily obtainable. Naturally, when in America, I wanted to try everything I’d never had before. My mother’s love of baking didn’t help my cause. By the time three weeks had passed, I felt lethargic and unhealthy and had put on five pounds.

America is many things to me. It’s filled with wonderful discoveries and sad realizations. It’s the only remaining world superpower and the reason us good guys won the World Wars. Vietnam and Iraq, however, blemish their hero record.
The US leads the world in innovation and I’m happy to drift in the sail winds of their technological revolution. It’s also the country that put a man on the moon. On the downside, they elected one of my least favourite people, twice – or was that once - it depends on who you talk to.
Florida itself is known as a retirement state. It’s also a great place to take kids to visit Walt Disney World. In my case, it was a good State to take Siham on her first, and possibly last, closed-eyed, teeth-clenched roller coaster ride at Universal Studios.
A few rounds of golf, a trip to a National Park to see alligators and manatees, lots of baby clothes shopping, and a great first visit between baby and grandparents rounded off our Florida vacation.

The biggest impression I’m left with of America is one of the out-of-control consumer. I envision their economy and people to be like the giant ballooning hog.
I understand the desire for the raw power of a massive pickup truck – but I am curious as to how many people ever actually take their rough-and-tough vehicles off road. I also love a purring engine, and know what it’s like to melt into the comfort of a big Cadillac or feel the acceleration of a Corvette – but the economic Honda Civic is what I can afford – in part because gas prices in the rest of the world reflect economic sense, not political gain. America's national debt, if paid off tomorrow, would require $30,000 per man, woman and child - or nearly nine trillion dollars.
I’m tempted by the cakes, the chocolate bars, the potato chips, and the brownies displayed at the front of the supermarkets, gas stations, and even clothing stores.

America’s over consumption is the source of their biggest problems. For better or worse, though, the stereotypical hog has at times propped up the world economy, (and brought it to a crashing halt.) It’s thrilled us with pop culture and cutting edge entertainment. It’s delighted us with Coca Cola and McDonalds and shown unprecedented charity. It’s America, and despite its downfalls, I can’t wait to visit again.

The survey from one-hundred random passing cars on the Florida interstate
Guzzlers 58% - large pickup trucks, large SUVs and large vans
Semi guzzler 31% – large sedans, small SUV’s, small minivans, and small pickups
Economy cars 11% – small sedans, hatchbacks, etc.

I tried to do a similar count on the Moroccan highway, but the oncoming traffic was often obscured by bushes and tall barriers. I'll provide my findings as soon as I can get a decent count.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Rebels News

We lost to the Nomads last Sunday. Let's bounce back against the Warriors and end their streak of softball dominance.

Game time 9h30