My family

House Guests

This summer, my sister-in-law, Kim, and her six-year-old daughter, Emily, came to visit us from Hong Kong. Emily’s school is out for the entire summer, and our girls are tracked out for all of July, so they spent three weeks with us!

Their stay here ended up being divided into three week-long chapters: life at home in Cary, the NC mountains, and the NC beach.


During the first week, Kim and Emily tagged along with our girls to their normal events: swim meets, a sailing class, visits to our local museums and downtown, and more.  I went to work in the daytime, leaving them to their activities.


The second week, we spent in the NC Mountains.  We rented a cabin in the town of Bat Cave, and we ventured out into the surrounding area.  My parents joined us for a couple of days.

On Sunday, we drove to Bat Cave, which is really not much more than a post office and a sign post, with signs saying “Bat Cave, NC” on both sides of the post. We took our time in getting there, arriving the late afternoon.  We drove into the town of Chimney Rock to get our bearings (to pee), and we were surprised to find that the entire town was without electricity. So we snaked our way up the mountain to the cabin, which was a good 1000 feet higher in elevation than the town.  Eventually, the power came back on, and my parents showed up, too.  We settled in, which for some, means unpacking.  For me, it means I set up my Linksys wifi router and started scanning for neighboring networks.  I had high hopes, because although there was only one other home that could be seen from our cabin, it was another rental unit, and they had advertised internet. Contrast that to our rustic accommodations, with satellite TV and a hot tub, but no internet.

On Monday, we drove a little bit father down the valley into Lake Lure.  We took a boat tour of the lake, whose highlights included the site where Dirty Dancing was filmed in 1987, and some nice summer homes (note to self, buy more lottery tickets). We ate a picnic lunch on the shore.  A bit further downstream, we found the Broad River Gems & Mining Co., a curious little operation whose proprietors inadvertently taught us as much about the dangers of smoking as it did about geology. For a hefty $25/bucket, city-slickers like us can rinse away the NC mud to reveal stones that have been imported from around the globe (the mine we visited last year had cheaper buckets with fewer stones, and so it felt a little more like mining, whereas this one seemed more like a muddy piñata than anything else). On the way back to the cabin, we stopped by the side of the road to wade in the cool water of the Broad River.

On Tuesday, Mimi and Pops left, and we headed to Chimney Rock State Park. It was hot and humid, but we were not deterred — we made the brief hike up the outcroppings trail to the Chimney Rock, where we caught our breath and took pictures of the valley.  We cooled off and had lunch at the Sky Lounge Deli, waited out a small rain storm in the Sky Lounge Gift Shop, and then rode the elevator back down into the cool rocky tunnel.  With the rain, the humidity was now well into the 90% range, and we sweated as we hiked along the Hickory Nut Falls trail, which rewards the persistent hiker with a cool 404-foot waterfall.

Wednesday was another steamy day with scattered showers, which we spent at the Biltmore House and Gardens in Asheville.  The house tour is bigger than I remember it (or my memory is smaller than the tour), and we even chatted our way into a ride on the old elevator.  But in the end, I still have to take solace in the fact that my modest house has many more amenities than old George Vanderbilt’s did, and it costs much less to maintain.

On Thursday, we managed to drag our four-hour drive home into some sort of eight-hour marathon, with frequent bathroom breaks, in-flight movies, snack breaks, and a poorly-timed stop at the NC Transportation Museum in Spencer NC (we arrived there ten minutes before closing time, 5:00pm).  I can promise that we’ll return to the NC Transportation Museum some day… that place could easily fill a Saturday!

We spent Friday and Saturday at home, doing laundry and generally recovering from our trip to the mountains.


On Sunday, we packed up and headed out to Atlantic Beach. The drive down was uneventful, and we enjoyed watching videos in the van (I jury-rigged a portable DVD player onto a make-shift shelf in between the front seats).  We got to the beach just in time to see the orange moon rising into the dark blue evening sky in the east… awesome.

On previous trips to the beach, we had usually gone out to the ocean in mid-morning, and then worked our way back to the pool by around lunch time… a recipe for sunburn.  So this week, we tried a new tactic, staying indoors during the peak hours of 10am – 3pm.  So on Monday morning, we woke up and went for a quick walk on the beach in the morning, where we spotted a loggerhead turtle’s nest!  That afternoon, we went to Fort Macon — we were completely stunned to find that it now has a brand new visitors center.  One of the volunteers was wearing a turtle shirt, so we asked him about the nest, and he said that it should hatch any day now!  We left the fort and headed to the Beaufort waterfront, where we ate at Finz and then toured the NC Maritime Museum. Our last stop of the day was at Beaufort’s Michael J. Smith Airport, my attempt at showing Emily that real people can fly small planes in America (there were no planes to see that day… bummer). We returned to the condo for a swim in ocean and then in the pool.  Later that night, I went out to check on the turtle nest… there was a small crowd gathered around, hoping to see them hatch.

On Tuesday, we repeated our successful sun-aversion formula, with a walk on the beach in the morning and mid-day at the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. We explored the marsh area, saw crabs and snakes and sharks, and then attacked the gift shop. On the way out, we found a quick geocache nearby, and then headed off to Professor Hacker’s Lost Treasure Golf and Raceway (we did both, golf and racing).  We finally topped it off with dinner at the Crab Shack, and a walk on the Pine Knoll Shores beach, where we found two more (less mature) turtle nests.  Once again, after we got home, I checked on our turtles.

Wednesday was unusual for a beach day… we did NOTHING until mid-afternoon.  The girls played games, and the adults read books and we all talked.  Then we finally returned to Fort Macon beach to walk along shore at the easternmost tip of the island.  We found hermit crabs and olive snails in the large tide pools, we climbed on the rock jetty, we collected smooth stones on the sand, and we watched an old fisherman catch and release a stingray.  We came home and swam in the pool again.  And again, we checked on our turtles at bedtime.

On Thursday, we woke up and packed to go home. It was starting to rain anyway, so we did not feel so bad about leaving the beach. We took the Cherry Branch / Minnesott Beach ferry across the Neuse River, and drive on up to Aurora to see the Fossil Museum. We spent just a little time inside before the kids were about to bust, so we went out to the dirt pile to dig for a while. As luck would have it, the rain finally caught up with us, so we filled a 5 gallon bucket with that prehistoric dirt and we loaded up the van to head back home.


What a trip. Three weeks in North Carolina, and we did the mountains and beach and all points in between.  We learned about gems, turtles, fossils, trains, sharks, the Civil War, rip currents, airplanes, and 19th century aristocracy.  And we also ate at Waffle House!  I’d call that an educational summer!

The Final Flight of Atlantis

When I was a kid, our family visited the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida. It must have been about 1977. When we were there, we learned about the soon-to-be-built Space Shuttle. I remember buying a deck of playing cards at the souvenir shop — they had an artist’s drawing of what the Space Shuttle was going to look like after it was complete. It seemed like science fiction.

The Space Shuttle program has been active now for three decades. And later this year, the fleet will be retired. With only three more scheduled missions remaining, our family decided to go see the final launch of Atlantis, mission STS-132.

Tickets were sold on the internet, but they always sell out very quickly. I was lucky enough to get SIX tickets to the Visitor Center. I was thrilled… except my friends were expecting me to get NINE tickets! We spent the next two weeks trying to make plans that fit within our new constraint. We decided that our family would use four tickets, and the other two would go to my friend David and his son, Chase.


We took the girls out of school for two days (with the blessing of their principal), and we made the long ten-hour journey south. Scooby Doo kept us company in the van, and we occasionally checked for launch status updates and photos on Twitter — I was following a group called the “NASA Tweetup”, Twitter users who had been selected to go on an in-depth tour of KSC (it’s like the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory story, golden tickets for the super-special tour, but this one was for space geeks instead of sugar addicts).

We arrived in Titusville with a little bit of daylight left, which we used to scout out the area before finding our hotel way down in Melbourne. We had two full days at the Kennedy Space Center. The launch was on Friday afternoon, and Saturday was free to explore the exhibits.


Traffic was heavy on the way in, but we finally got in and met up with David and his son. Along the way, our party had grown. David’s college room-mates had found tickets, so we now totaled nine.

We got off to a slow beginning, wandering around the Rocket Garden with no clue what to do first. But we finally decided to split into two groups. Our crowd wanted lunch, and that’s where we found the best bargain of the weekend: a plastic shuttle-shaped drink bottle with free refills. They cost $7 each, but they were worth every penny. It’s a super tacky souvenir that also keeps you hydrated in the Florida heat!

Lunch time was quickly turning into Launch time. At one point, I heard a loudspeaker announce “T minus ten minutes” and I panicked (before I realized that they do this awkward stopping and starting ritual). So we decided to survey the different viewing areas. The Visitor Center is close (7.4 miles), but it does not have a clear view of the launch pad, so they set up large TV screens in two different areas: one by the Explorer space shuttle mock-up, and one in an open field near the Rocket Garden. The TV’s give you a close-up view of the first few seconds after liftoff, and then you get a live view after the shuttle clears the tree line. Both of those areas were very crowded, and there were lots of trees that block the north-eastern sky.

We chose to forego the TV’s for a spot on the walkway behind the IMAX building. We were against the rail overlooking the pond, and that meant we had a clear view of the sky. I listened to my scanner to know what was going on. Audrey held binoculars, and I had a video camera. Foong and Sydney wandered to a shady spot that still had an open view.

Launch time came quickly… without the TV’s, it was easy for the time to sneak up. The next thing we knew, it was T minus 1 minute. I heard the countdown on the scanner reach zero, and then we waited for what seemed like 20 seconds before we saw a searing light shining through the trees. Atlantis finally popped up over the tree line, trailing behind it what looked like molten gold. The light was so bright, it was as if we were watching a movie of the blue sky, and someone had ripped a small hole in the screen, letting in the outside sunlight. It was very surreal.

As the spacecraft climbed, a helicopter circled over KSC, briefly crossing our view of the shuttle. Then came the sound, a low rumble that sounded like rolling thunder. Atlantis passed behind a small cloud, and continued up, building its pillar of smoke beneath it. Watching the smoke shoot out of the rockets and then hang in the air reminded me of the way you drip wet sand on a sand castle to make spires. It flows and then solidifies in place.

Within a couple minutes, Atlantis arched away from us, out over the Atlantic Ocean. Since we were at the bottom of that arc, we could not see the shuttle through the smoky trail. The solid rocket boosters were released, and so the smoke trail ended. When we saw the shuttle reappear, it was a tiny bright dot against the blue sky. It appeared to be heading downward as it curved its way over the ocean. Its straight downward path cut behind the twisted smoke trail that was beginning to be blown into a zig zag shape.

The scanner reported that Atlantis’s progress. It crossed the point of no return, where it could no longer return to Kennedy if needed. Then it was high enough to make its way into orbit even if one engine failed. Then it was high enough if TWO engines failed. Soon it reached 12,000 miles per hour. In just a couple of minutes, it had traveled 600 miles downrange… the same distance that we had spent all of Thursday driving.

Our attention slowly moved back to the ground. Wow. Those six astronauts were on their way into space. And we had been there to send them off.

We spent the rest of the day touring the Kennedy Space Center. We rode the shuttle simulator (which I would describe more as “cute” than “wild”). We saw an IMAX film about “Walking on the Moon”. And we spent a lot of time (and money) at the gift shop.


As soon as we got back to KSC on Saturday, we went straight bus tour (well, OK, we did stop by the Orbit Cafe to fill those shuttle-shaped drink bottles). The bus tour made three stops.

The first stop was at an observation platform where you could see the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pad. This was a great photo spot, and we got to see a movie about how they assemble the “stack” (shuttle + tank + rockets) in preparation for launch.

The second stop was the Saturn V building, where we saw the actual Apollo launch control room, the humongous Saturn V rocket, and a movie about landing on the moon. We had lunch, did some exploring, and we touched a real moon rock.

The final stop on the bus tour was the International Space Station processing building. This place lacks the polish that the rest of the KSC has — it’s tucked away in the back of a drab federal government building, surrounded by chain link fence, and has a distinct “after-thought” feel to it. There are exhibits showing a history of orbiting labs, from Mir and Skylab to the modern ISS. But the main attraction was the mezzanine that overlooks the clean room where the ISS modules are assembled (during weekdays, I imagine).

We got back to the Visitor Center in time to catch one more IMAX movie, “Hubble 3D” (breathtaking). And then it was time to pry ourselves away and start driving north.

We drove as far as St Augustine and then found a hotel.


Audrey had set a goal to dip her toes in the ocean while we were still in Florida, so we stopped by the St Augustine beach for a quick walk on the shore.

And after that, it was no nonsense for the next 600 miles. The girls did some homework in the car. Scooby Doo was noticeably absent.

To quote my friend Tanner, who saw the previous launch in April: “20 hours of driving. 8 minutes of excitement! TOTALLY worth it!!!” I’ll agree, but I have to add… the rest of the two days at KSC certainly helped tip the scales to the “totally worth it” side.


  • Endless refills on the tacky shuttle-shaped drink bottles.
  • My favorite part of the tour, shuttle astronaut and NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden’s narration of the Shuttle Launch Experience.
  • The hospitality of the KSC staff.
  • The local ham club, who retransmits NASA launch info on their repeater.
  • The kind strangers on Twitter (@Redshift42 & @ageekmom) who hooked us up with one last ticket.


  • The two viewing places with the TV screens did not have a good view of the sky.
  • The non-standard headphone jack on my Yaesu radio meant I had to hold the scanner up to my ear… plugging in the ipod earbuds caused it to transmit continuously!


  • That ISS Building could really use a make-over.

New York City

Since the girls were tracked out for all of April, we decided to take a short trip somewhere, but we were not sure where we wanted to go. Audrey said that she had always wanted to go to New York City, so we pointed the van north and made our way to the Big Apple.

We made reservations at the “Holland Motor Lodge” in Jersey City… it was every bit of classy as it sounds. We could open our window and see the traffic going into the Holland Tunnel.

As we pulled into the hotel, we stopped at the gas station next door to fill up, and a bright yellow Lamborghini pulled up next to our junky old minivan. Look, kids, you don’t see that at home!


We arrived on Wednesday afternoon, so we went on into the city for a first glimpse.  This was our chance to figure out the mass transit system to and from the hotel. Somehow, I managed to get talked into eating at the worst Pizza Hut I have ever been to… blasphemy, in the city with world-famous pizza. As it was getting dark, we made our way to Times Square and inside the huge Toys R Us store.


Thursday was an absolutely beautiful sunny day.

We planned to start Thursday off at the Statue of Liberty, and that’s where we discovered the “City Pass” ticket books, the best deal of our trip: admission to six major attractions for one decent price.  Our tickets included going inside the Statue of Liberty monument, that big block that she stands on (you can forget the crown — that’s a several month long waiting list). The view from the pedestal was great, and it was just enough stairs to be rewarding, and not so much that you felt it later.

Next, we took a subway to the World Trade Center site. To be honest, it was a disappointment. There is not much to see there, and there is no organized guide (maps on street corners, etc) to tell you where you are or what is being built.  For now, it’s just a big construction site. Sad that after nine years, there is still no proper memorial.

We spent the rest of Thursday riding a bus up to Central Park, and then exploring that for a while. The girls enjoyed climbing on the rocks, and I found a geocache.


Friday was significantly cooler than the day before.

First on our agenda was the Empire State Building. Our City Pass got us right past the ticket sales area and up to the observation deck. It was CHILLY up there, but the view was worth it. We spent a long time up there, sometimes coming inside to warm up, and later going back out to look at the city from 1000 feet up.

We had lunch at a nice little deli across from the ESB, and then we headed off to the Museum of Modern Art. I was happy that Audrey recognized a few paintings and artists (most notably, “A Starry Night” and Picasso).

We did not have tickets to get in to the special exhibit of Tim Burton’s work, but the lady at the entrance thought the girls might enjoy it, so she let us in. How nice! But her niceness was complemented by the mean woman who later started yelling at no one in particular (me) about not standing (or letting your kids stand) in the middle of the hallway… duh, then why did they put TV’s showing cartoons on the hallway walls?

My cousin Allison lives and works in Manhattan, and she agreed to meet us and show us around. First up was her office, an advertising firm on 7th Avenue. From there, we took a subway ride and short walk to her apartment on the East side. And last, she took us to John’s Pizzeria in Greenwich Village for a proper NY pizza.

After dinner, we had to part ways. We had tickets to see the Blue Man Group. The show was crazy, and the girls just loved it. You know how, at any show, there’s always some person in the audience with a loud and infections laugh? That person was Sydney. She had a bad case of the giggles that night, and the BMG kept her giggling all night.

Getting home was more of an adventure than it should have been. The show got out at midnight, and we SHOULD have just taken a cab. But we tried our luck with the subway and then the PATH to Jersey City. But the schedules change on the weekends, and it can be difficult to find where to make the transfers, and it looked like we were in for a long wait, and everyone was tired. So I flagged down a cab and $51 later, we were in the luxurious comfort of the Holland Motor Lodge.


We still had a few tickets in our City Pass books, so we knew exactly where to go. First stop was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This one was larger and had a wider focus than MoMA, so we were a little overwhelmed. After wandering a bit through a maze of European art, we found the cafeteria. I ordered a crappy cheeseburger and fries, and only then noticed that they had the most wonderful salad bar — so I got one of those, too. Acting on a suggestion from one of the museum volunteers (and because some of us can be somewhat obsessive), we spent the better part of our afternoon trying to find Hatshepsut, the Egyptian Queen. She did not disappoint.

Since the Met is on the east side of Central Park, and our next stop was on the west side, we decided to take a meandering walk through the middle of the park. Once again, the girls enjoyed climbing on the rocks. In fact, it was difficult to pull them away.

Finally, we made it to the Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, the MoNH closes at 5pm (the Met closes at 9pm — we did that backwards). So we did not have much time to see anything. The charismatic man at the ticket booth spent half of our available time telling me his life story, and then he suggested that we spend the rest of our time at the planetarium show. We did, and it was awesome. Whoopi Goldberg told us all about stars and the sun.

We made our way south, through more of Central Park (and over more and more rocks). We found a little Jewish deli on 7th Avenue where we ordered some supper, but then were told by our very snotty waiter that we ordered all of the wrong things. We made amends by ordering cheesecake. If that guy ever visits NC, I hope he gets the royal Yankee treatment!

By that time, it was dark, and that meant it was time to use our last City Pass ticket at the Top of the Rockefeller Center. Apparently, they were filming Saturday Night Live as we passed by to take the elevator up. The view of the city at night was pretty cool (although I think I like Friday’s daytime view better).

As we were coming down from our high of being in the city for three fun-filled days, the sudden reality hit Sydney that our time was up, and that she was not going to be able to visit the candy store that my cousin had recommended. However, armed with his iphone, Daddy came to the rescue, looking up the store hours, flagging a cab and giving directions to Dylan’s Candy Bar, just 30 minutes before it closed.

The trip home was uneventful. And seeing our own driveway was second only to the warm welcome we had received at the luxurious Holland Motor Lodge.

Snakes of a feather

This time last year, Audrey wrote a computer program in BASIC.  Someone had loaned us an Apple II computer, and I showed her what computers were like when I was a kid.  I wanted her to write a program, and her mother decided that printing a 10 x 10 multiplication table would be a suitable challenge. So Audrey rose to the task.

This year, I decided to repeat the lesson with Sydney.  However, our two girls are very different in personality and interests, and so we had to choose a different approach.

Audrey was motivated by her interest in history, and in learning how Daddy became a nerd.  Sydney was motivated by attaching a prize to the assignment — a “feather” on her Indian Princess vest.  This would count as one of our father-daughter “crafts”.

I also decided that since I did not have the lead-in of the Apple II computer, I could use any language, and not just BASIC.  I went out on a limb and chose Python.

Sydney followed along as we talked about variables and loops, but she was not nearly as engaged as Audrey had been.  In her defense, I think the idea of line numbers in BASIC is a little easier for a kid to grasp than the indented blocks of Python.  And although formatting the output is easier in Python, all of that punctuation was sure to blow a few fuses in that young mind.

In the end, however, she produced a nice multiplication table.

Here’s her program.

import sys

# top line of numbers
print "      " ,
x = 1
while x <= 10:
   print "%3d" % (x) ,
   x = x+1
print ""

# top line of dashes
print "      " ,
x = 1
while x <= 10:
   print "---" ,
   x = x+1
print ""

# ten rows
s = 1
while s <= 10:
   # each row is here
   print "  %2d |" % (s) ,
   x = 1
   while x <= 10:
      print "%3d" % (x*s) ,
      x = x+1
   print ""
   s = s+1
print ""

And here’s what the output looks like:

         1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10
       --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
   1 |   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10
   2 |   2   4   6   8  10  12  14  16  18  20
   3 |   3   6   9  12  15  18  21  24  27  30
   4 |   4   8  12  16  20  24  28  32  36  40
   5 |   5  10  15  20  25  30  35  40  45  50
   6 |   6  12  18  24  30  36  42  48  54  60
   7 |   7  14  21  28  35  42  49  56  63  70
   8 |   8  16  24  32  40  48  56  64  72  80
   9 |   9  18  27  36  45  54  63  72  81  90
  10 |  10  20  30  40  50  60  70  80  90 100

Two days later, Sydney got to show her program to the girls in her Indian Princess tribe.  Needless to say, there were some raised eyebrows coming from some of the dads at that meeting.

Three weeks in Malaysia

I had been stockpiling vacation days for the last year, partly at the request of my company’s management, since we were working on a very big project for a Tier 1 phone carrier. But as that project neared completion, I started making plans for time off. As it turns out, the only time that the girls would be out of school for any length of time was during their October “track out”, a three week break between quarters (their year-round schedule is basically nine weeks on, three weeks off, four times a year). So we decided to take the entire three weeks and visit our family in Malaysia.

Most folks don’t get to take a three week vacation all at once, and so what follows is an account of what we did, just to give an idea of what it was like. As you’ll see, there were a few bursts of activity, but for the most part, we did a lot of “just hanging around”.

All in all, we had a good time. But it seemed like a strange vacation, because we did not really “do much”.


We started off the trip at 4am (ugh). It was very dark, and before we had even left our own doorstep, Foong fell on the steps and hurt her ankle. The journey of 10,000+ miles almost began with a side trip to the emergency room. But she was OK. Her ankle swelled a little, but it was OK in a couple of days.

The plane trips were long, but we kept ourselves entertained. We flew American from Raleigh to New York and then Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur. That long leg from JFK to HKG was 15 hours, and I managed to watch five movies during the flight (Get Smart, The Bucket List, Angels and Demons, Night at the Museum 2, Star Trek XI).

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur at dusk. Foong’s sister drove us home (a little less than an hour), and we greeted everyone and then tried to wind down for bed.

I noticed that my iPhone did not work as a phone. It just said “No Access”.

Day 1 – Tuesday 9/29

Our first official meal in Malaysia was at the food court in my in-laws’ neighborhood. It’s a large open-air eating area with a dozen or more little stands along the edge, each selling something different: noodles, soup, drinks, fruit, stuffed buns. This layout is very common in Malaysia, whether it is in an open-air neighborhood setting, or inside of a shopping mall.

We stayed close to home that first day, exploring the shops in the neighborhood, picking up some essentials like milk, diet soft drinks (no luck), not-so-sugary cereal (no luck). The local stores looked a little more bare than the last time I saw them (in 2004).

I tinkered with their internet connection, an ADSL modem and a wireless router. It was set up in a most unusual way, the DSL modem acting as a bridge, the router acting as a switch, and the client PC doing the PPPoE authentication. Apparently, the local phone company recommended this set-up, and my brother-in-law was led to believe that it was “secure”. I proved that theory wrong by getting on the web using my iphone, and then later by sniffing his network traffic, and showing him how his virus-infected laptop was sending out spam while we watched it.

Now might be a good time to mention that I was planning on attending a hacker’s conference in Kuala Lumpur in a few days.

Foong got a hair cut. Short hair feels good in the hot, humid weather.

Day 2 – Wednesday 9/30

Still adjusting to the time zones, I woke up at 4am. I found that the girls were also up. So we walk around the neighborhood, where we saw old ladies doing Tai Chi in an open lot.

I decided to reconfigure their ADSL modem and router. I set the router up to do the PPPoE, because no one should ever have to set that up on their PC (or iPhone). Then I set a wireless password. And then THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP… I wrote down how it was all set up, and I taped that paper to the router. Most people forget that step.

We had breakfast at a local cafe, typical of Malaysia, a shop with an open front, tile floors, plastic lawn-style tables and chairs, and a kitchen in the back. Then we went shopping at the local fresh market, a large two-story building with an open area where they sell fresh meats and fish (“fresh” means you can pick out a live chicken). There is also an area of small shops selling trinkets, handbags, watches, accessories, flowers, and toys. And finally, there is a food court, which is just like the one in our neighborhood. Same plastic lawn chairs, same assortment of food.

For lack of anything specific to do, we went shopping at Jaya Jusco, a shopping mall in “Seremban 2”, the new side of their town. This mall has a Starbucks… the first place outside of our house where I found an open wifi connection. At the large supermarket in that mall, we finally found some Diet Pepsi.

I was surprised to see a store devoted to selling “Instant-Dict” electronic dictionaries. I have a 1992 model Instant-Dict Chinese-English dictionary which I do not ever use, but I happen to keep my iPhone in the leather sleeve that it came in. It still has the logo on it. I showed it to the girl who was working in the shop — she was just slightly older than that leather sleeve — but she was underwhelmed. Malaysians are not known for small talk.

We walked to a hair salon near our house so the girls could get short hair cuts. US$5 each! (I already started the trip off with short hair, so now we were all prepared for the weather).

Day 3 – Thursday 10/1

Foong’s brother lives in the small town of Mentakab, a couple hours drive away, in the state of Pahang. There’s not much in Mentakab — it’s in the middle of nowhere. We decided to visit his family, even though he was currently on a business trip in China. Foong’s dad (the girls call him “Gong Gong”) drove. He drives fast. The plan was to stay one night.

On the way to Mentakab, we were pulled over in a police speed trap. In Malaysia, the police are not interested in giving you a speeding ticket… they’re looking for small bribes. It’s really sad. However, it seems that having a white boy in your back seat with a big camera hanging around his neck is a “get out of jail free” card.

When we got to Mentakab, we took a tour of my brother-in-law’s furniture factory.

Day 4 – Friday 10/2

I know I said that Mentakab was in the middle of nowhere, but if you drive another half hour further out into the middle of nowhere, you will find the Kuala Gandah National Elephant Conservation Centre and a petting zoo called “Deer Land”. What fun! So we piled the kids into the car and drove to the elephant preserve, only to find that it was not open in the morning. So we went to Deer Land, only to find that it is closed on Fridays. So we drove back to Mentakab, slightly bummed. On the way home, a mother monkey with a baby hanging on around her neck darted across the road, right in front of our car! That brief encounter was the only wildlife we’d see that day.

We went to downtown Mentakab: lunch at McDonald’s and then shopping at a chain store called — get this — “The Store”. It’s like K-mart.

Although we were supposed to go home on Friday, my sister-in-law invited us to stick around for a Moon Cake Festival party that she was hosting for her Lion’s Club chapter. It was a lively party, with traditional candle lanterns, a DJ, games, a lots of food. It was a little surreal to be surrounded by a hundred slightly drunk Chinese-speaking party-goers.

Day 5 – Saturday 10/3

We got up the next morning and drove back to Seremban.

AT&T sent us an email, saying that our phones did not work in Malaysia because they did not activate international roaming on our accounts, because we were “new” customers (we only had 80-some days of service — it takes 90 days to be considered “established”). They wanted us to FAX a copy of our drivers license and a recent utility bill to them so they could establish our long term creditworthiness. Let me get this straight — I am in MALAYSIA, and my phone does not work, and you want me to *fax* you a copy of my *gas bill*??? Against all odds, I happened to have my most recent gas bill in my pocket (thanks to online banking, PDF bills, and my encrypted 4 GB thumb drive). Dang, I felt like MacGyver! So we sent off the fax and waited.

Meanwhile, Foong’s sister and her son arrived from Shanghai.

Foong spent the rest of the night catching up with her sister, while the kids and I burned stuff in the yard. It started off innocently, lighting Mooncake Festival lanterns, but it does not take long to turn pretty lanterns into pyromania. Eventually, we put out the yard fires and played badminton instead.

Day 6 – Sunday 10/4

We met two of Foong’s high school classmates at McDonald’s for a McReunion breakfast. While we were out, we bought a prepaid SIM card to use for local calls (but not on the SIM-locked iPhone – we used a cheap hand-me-down GSM phone instead).

That afternoon, we crammed into the car and drove to Singapore, a three-hour trip. I spent my time reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Once we got to Singapore, we split up. Foong’s sister stayed in her old neighborhood, Bukit Batok. We stayed with some Malaysian friends who used to live in Apex NC, but who now live in Bedok, a very nice neighborhood in Singapore. We stay up until 1am, catching up with our hosts. They miss Bojangles.

Day 7 – Monday 10/5

The plan was to spend Monday at Sentosa, Singapore’s island resort.

It took half the day to get there, because of ticketing delays, the cable car being renovated, and being suckered into a complimentary lunch at an out-of-the-way restaurant. That free lunch cost us $30 — it turns out that the drinks were not free. Suckers.

While we waited for transportation, Audrey and I found a geocache hidden on a historic train car.  With a “smiley” on the map, we could now say that we had really been to Singapore.

At Sentosa, we went to the aquarium (+), a “simulator” ride (–), a dolphin show (–), a chair lift (S$21!), and an observation tower (S$28!). Sure, it was activity-filled, but a wasted day that could have spent exploring the city.

We met some old friends and a distant relative at Tiong Bahru for dinner — for me, it was just Chinese food in a mall.

Day 8 – Tuesday 10/6

Foong slept until 11:30. We were supposed to meet her sister at the “HDB flats” (government-owned high-rise apartments) for lunch. We panicked for being late, quickly packed up and left by 1pm. We had a late lunch in a typical HDB flat food court, very similar to all of the other food courts, with the same plastic lawn furnture.

Since we had practically blown our entire time in Singapore at Sentosa, we drove by our old house at Watten View so the kids could see it. And then we went by Thomson Medical Centre, where Audrey was born. Her delivery doctor was still there, but she was busy, so we could not say “Hi”.

We made the three-hour drive back to Seremban. The only eventful part of the trip was seeing wild monkeys at the highway rest area.

Day 9 – Wednesday 10/7

I had to wake up early to catch a commuter train into Kuala Lumpur for the “Hack In The Box” security conference.

The conference lasted two days, and I will cover it in a different post. It was basically a day in a super-refrigerated hotel. The speakers were very entertaining. But at the same time, it was lonely.

After the conference, I took the commuter train back to Seremban, and grabbed some supper at Kenny Rogers Restaurant, which is across the Frogger-like road from the train station.

Day 10 – Thursday 10/8

On the second day of Hack In The Box, I was a seasoned pro, as far as public transport goes. So rather than taking the train back to Seremban at the end of the day, we tried a more tricky maneuver. Momma and the kids spent the day at Sunway Lagoon, a mall with a water park. I took a train and a taxi to meet them at the mall, just in time to have dinner with some old high school friends.

We spent the night with one of Foong’s HS buddies in Subang Jaya, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Day 11 – Friday 10/9

We woke up and had a dim sum breakfast with more HS friends. Then we went shopping in the KL Mall “Utama”. The two memorable things about Utama were: the huge ball pit playground, and the fact that the Burger King guys were wearing silly cowboy hats. Believe me, any Malaysian wearing a cowboy hat is going to look a little out of place.

We took a train back to Seremban.

That night, miracle of miracles, I watched the folks at NASA crash the LCROSS spacecraft into the surface of the moon (in an attempt to see if there was water in the impact and debris plume). What makes this so extraordinary is the fact that I watched it on NASA TV… over the internet… from Malaysia.

Day 12 – Saturday 10/10

We spent Saturday in Seremban. We went shopping at Giant, which is Malaysia’s answer to Target. Foong bought a lot of food to bring back to the US.

Day 13 – Sunday 10/11

On Sunday, we drove to KL to see our nephew Hong Bing at his boarding school. We were curious to see what it was like to live at a boarding school. I think he was happy to escape for an afternoon.

We took him to KLCC (the mall at the base of the Petronas Towers), where we ate at Pizza Hut. We could not tour the Petronas Towers that day… you have to make reservations in advance. So we went to the very large (and hot) park behind the building and found a geocache. [I remember taking my parents to the same park in 2001, and my most vivid memory from that trip is also about how hot it was.]

We returned Hong Bing to his school, and then went to the KL Tower (a space needle observation tower). We got our money’s worth at the KL Tower — Audrey could not make up her mind about which souvenir to buy, and so we waited, and waited. She ended up getting a necklace with a small pendant with her name written on a grain of rice.

At the bottom of the KL Tower, they had a lot of add-on attractions: pony rides, a small indoor animal exhibit, and a F1 simulator (well, a video game where you sit in a low seat that looks like a race car).

Day 14 – Monday 10/12

On Monday, we had to pick up Foong’s brother at the airport and take him back to his home town (which you may remember, is in the middle of nowhere). So we decided to kill some time until his plane arrived by driving through “Putrajaya” and “Cyberjaya”.

Putrajaya is Malaysia’s answer to the Washington DC Mall… it was built way outside of Kuala Lumpur to house the government offices, and each building is competing to look more grand than the rest, while retaining some hint of Muslim architecture.  The whole place had a Disneyland-like artificiality to it.

Cyberjaya is Malaysia’s answer to Silicon Valley… or really, it’s more like Research Triangle Park in NC. It’s a concentrated area of high-tech offices, with nearby apartments and some shopping. Once again, a bit contrived, but it looked like a nice office park.

We picked up Chee Kin at “LCCT”, the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal, which is much more… basic… than the main international terminal KLIA. We drove to Mentakab and spent the evening at Chee Kin’s house.

Day 15 – Tuesday 10/13

Since we had missed the elephants and other animals two weeks ago, we gave it another try.

The Kuala Gandah National Elephant Conservation Centre did not disappoint. We petted the elephants, watched them bathe in the river, we helped feed them, and then we took a quick bareback ride! Just down the road was “Deer Land”, which was a fully-immersive petting zoo, with deer, ferrets, snakes, hedgehogs, birds, and a large bear!

We drove back to Seremban, and went shopping at Jaya Jusco in Seremban 2. I bought some glasses. As the shopping center was closing, due to some faulty pay-to-park equipment (and some bad advice from the attendants), we got stuck in the parking lot! So we snuck out the back exit.

Day 16 – Wednesday 10/14

Wednesday was a do-nothing day. We spent most of it packing to go home.

Day 17 – Thursday 10/15

It was time to leave Malaysia, and Foong’s family saw us off with a hearty dim sum breakfast. We had a little bit of time to kill, so Audrey and I walked through the neighborhood. We stumbled upon a newly-built Buddhist temple.

The rest of the day was spent in transit: driving to KLIA, flying to Hong Kong, taxi to Po Lam. On the plane, Sydney lost a tooth! That earned her 10 HKD from the Tooth Fairy.

We were excited to see Foong’s sister, and the girls were happy to see their cousin, Emily.  We stayed in their three-bedroom, 700 sq ft apartment.

Day 18 – Friday 10/16

We spent Friday exploring downtown Hong Kong. There is so much to see. We went to the Central-Mid-Levels escalators, a half-mile of escalators that take you up the steep slopes of that area of the city. We took a ferry to Kowloon, and explored the tiny shops. The girls found one shop that had nothing but gumball-style vending machines! We wrapped it up at Temple street, which is a tacky tourist market. I was enjoying the show, but reality set in… we needed to take the long bus ride back to Po Lam, and then try to get some sleep before our early flight back home in the morning.

Day 19 – Saturday 10/17

Our long trip began very early in the morning. Just like on the way over, I watched five movies on the plane (Hancock, Eagle Eye, The Soloist, State of Play, Ice Age 2: Dawn of Dinosaurs).

Our transfer in NYC was uneventful, and from there, it was a short hop back home.

We had Sunday to recover. And then it was back to school and work.

And that is how I wasted three weeks in Malaysia.

Summer vacation in the moutains

We took a week off while the girls were “tracked out” of school, and we went to the mountains.

Saturday 2009-07-18

We eased into our vacation by driving half-way to the mountains, stopping in Winston-Salem to visit my parents. We spent some time with my two grandmothers. And then we came went for a walk around the neighborhood, pointing at all of the houses where my childhood friends used to live, and we caught up on what we had heard from everyone.

Sunday 2009-07-19

We packed up the Family Truckster and headed to the mountains by way of Hiddenite, NC. This town is famous for the minerals found there, and was named after an associate of Thomas Edison, who was sent there to find a particular type of mineral. Instead, he found a completely unknown type of stone, which ended up bearing his name. The town later changed its name as well.

The gem mine in Hiddenite is a lot of fun for smaller kids. But older and more cynical kids might wonder why such large stones can be found in such soft and freshly ground up dirt. One older and more cynical friend took his kids to see a geologist at NC State University, who told them that the rocks they had brought back from the Hiddenite mine were not native to North America. Hmm.

From the mine, we headed up through Lenoir and into Blowing Rock, which would be our home for the next week.

Monday 2009-07-20

Our plan for the day was to head over to Grandfather Mountain, but we were in no hurry to get started. So instead, we explored the local park in Blowing Rock, and we found a couple of geocaches. It had been a long time since we had done that as a family, and the two we found did not disappoint (one “virtual” and one multi-stage cache).

We finally headed out to Grandfather Mountain, where low cloud occasionally obscured the peaks. The swinging bridge seemed even higher than it is because of the visible cloud moisture blowing up one side of the mountain and through the gap between the peaks. Sydney showed no restraint as she ran on the rocks, while the rest of us imagined the impending disaster. We took plenty of pictures, and finally made our way down to the museum, where we saw such attractions as: lunch, bears, a bald eagle, and fudge.

While we were there, we ran into a guy from my office… hey, isn’t that against the rules?

Tuesday 2009-07-21

On Tuesday, we went into Boone to see Mystery Hill, which can best be described as a tacky little tourist trap that aspires to be something bigger than it is. The main attraction is the room that is built at a 45-degree angle, which is a much more compelling optical illusion that you might expect. The rest of it was like a very small science museum, with some funny mirror tricks and a large hula-hoop bubble station. Next door is a museum that houses items from the first half of the 20th century… a good chance to explain things like a record player to my two digital-age children.

The main attraction of the day was Tweetsie Railroad. They had a lot of little shows and shops and carnival-style rides and even a petting zoo. But at center stage was the steam locomotive, which takes a short trip around the park, with a cowboys-and-indians adventure thrown in.

We wrapped up the day with a couple of geocaches, a good way to discover some of the local parks.

Wednesday 2009-07-22

On Wednesday, we decided to get out of town and into the woods, with a day hike at Linville Falls. Our trip the Blue Ridge Parkway was slow because of very thick fog. And when we reached the Linn Cove Viaduct, it seemed like the road just ended at a cliff.

There is a very nice National Park at the Falls, with very wide and comfortable trails that take you to several vantage points to see the falls. This was the perfect setting for a family hike… a fairly high climb, but an easy grade and lots of rewards along the way. We took a lot of pictures at the peak, and then returned back for a picnic lunch.

On the trail back out, I noticed that there was a geocache hidden near one of the overlooks (I did not expect this, since geocaches are usually not allowed on National Park land). So I had to find it. I was rewarded with a geocoin whose last stop had been in the United Arab Emirates.

We had our picnic lunch, and then headed down into the valley to Linville Caverns (Foong asked me when we stopped what that smell was, and then we realized that it was our burning brake pads). The cavern was cool, in more ways than one.

And as we left, it started raining. Good timing. We took an extremely scenic route back to Blowing Rock. Part of that was due to our GPS being stuck in “shortest distance” mode — it did not seem to matter that part of that route was really some hillbilly’s driveway.

Thursday 2009-07-23

On our last full day in the mountains, we decided not to do any one big thing, but instead to see a bunch of smaller things. So we drove to the small town of Valle Crucis. The big attraction there is an old general store with an entire room devoted to candy (our girls each got one handful of whatever they wanted).

We drove to Fosco, NC, where we found an “Earth cache” — a geocache that is educational, and somehow related to some natural earth formation. This one required us to take a picture of a mountain that looked like it had a face on it.

We went back to Blowing Rock, where we explored the old manor house at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park. Finally, we saw The Blowing Rock, which is a rock outcropping on the windy side of the mountain. This was the last of many, many gift shops that we visited during the week.

Friday 2009-07-24

We woke up on Friday and packed up to leave. We headed back a different way than we came, a route that seemed to be one long ramp that goes straight down the mountain. On the way back, we stopped in Wilkesboro at Moravian Falls, a slide-type waterfall with a small campground next door (and, of course, a geocache).

When we got back to Winston-Salem, we were reunited with our dog, Maggie, and we got to spend another night with Mimi and Pops.

Saturday 2009-07-25

Saturday was “tech support” day, helping Mimi and Pops with digital photos, backups, and how to post to Craigslist. Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the fun and returned home.

When we got home, we gave the girls a rock tumbler, which we used to polish the stones that we had found in the Hiddenite mine.


Please welcome the newest addition to our family, a hermit crab named “Peekaboo”.

He comes from Wings at Atlantic Beach. He lives in a plastic shoe box with a sandy floor, a water dish to bathe in, and LEGO’s to crawl on. He likes to be sprayed with water, and he likes to crawl up Audrey’s arm.


What was I saying?

Now that I am married and have two kids, I find that I have to edit my stories down to under a minute and a half. Otherwise, the end of the story just never makes it out.

“Hi Honey, how was your day at work?”

“I have to tell you about this new tool we discovered today. We were installing our network software on a cluster of machines, which is usually pretty tedious and time consuming. And then one of the guys pulls out this live CD, and …”

“Daddy, is rice a vegetable or a fruit?”

“Hey kids, put that stuff down and wash your hands and face… now!”

“My friend Drew says that Megan won’t talk to Carter because his sister is mean!”

“I think the dog just threw up.”

What was I saying again? Oh yeah, 90 seconds. Sigh.

Dr. Dolittle

Saturday was just packed with activities, but Sydney and I managed to sneak away for an hour to see a performance of Dr. Dolittle at Bond Park in Cary.

This is what their promotional teaser had to say.

Dr. Dolittle is being presented by Sign Stage on Tour, a specialist in Sign Language Theatre in which deaf and hearing actors perform together on stage. Whenever a character speaks, the character speaking uses Sign Language and the audience also hears the voice. The voice comes from a different actor speaking through a microphone, sometimes on-stage and sometimes off-stage. Visually, the stage is filled with the movement of hands and bodies yet every word is spoken to make sure all audience members, both deaf and hearing, don’t miss a thing. It’s a magical blend of language created when performing a play simultaneously in spoken English and in the spatial beauty of American Sign Language.

Dr. Dolittle features the good doctor who gives up treating people, after Polynesia, his parrot, teaches him animal languages. He already knew sign language. His fame in the animal kingdom quickly spreads throughout the world. Using all of his language skills, he sets off to cure a monkey epidemic in Africa, finding all sorts of adventures on the way.

The best part of the performance, by far, was the way that the lines were delivered in sign language by the actor in focus, while being spoken by another actor. It took me a while to realize that the audio was live, and not a recording. At times, you could see one actor delivering his own lines in sign language, and then his partner’s lines by voice.

All of this was accomplished by a team of four very talented individuals, who endured the 90° NC heat to entertain and educate us for an hour.

Happy @1234567890

Computers usually tell time by counting the number of seconds since a certain “epoch” time. Then, before displaying the time to you, they do all of the crazy math that defines days of the year and leap years, and even time zones daylight savings time. On Linux systems, the “epoch” is midnight on January 1st, 1970.

At any time, you can tell how many seconds have passed since the epoch by typing:

date +%s

Tonight, at 6:31:30 pm local time, we reached a magic moment when the date was exactly 1234567890 seconds since epoch.

I took this opportunity to show the kids how computers keep track of the time, and to explain time zones (even though they are comfortable with the fact that is it morning in Malaysia when it’s evening here, they did not know about time zones). At the magic moment, we took time out from our pizza supper to watch the time change on my laptop.

Over the Top

This week, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is in Raleigh, and we took the girls to go see it on opening night.

The show was, as they claimed in one of their songs, “Over the Top”… wild animals, motorcycles, jugglers and acrobats, and plenty of people with no fear of heights.

The Greatest Show on Earth? Possibly. It was certainly worth the (discounted opening night) ticket price.


Today was dominated by two events.

Locally, we woke up to find the ground covered with three inches of snow. Our girls have not experienced too many snow days… the few times it has snowed in recent years, we only got a light dusting. This time, we had enough to enjoy a snowball fight and some disc sledding in our back yard.

On a national scale, we enjoyed watching President Obama’s inauguration (and equally as important, the orderly end of the Bush regime). Our new president had some powerful words to mark the event. For me, the most memorable line of his speech was: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” I welcome our new president, and I look forward to participating in a new America.

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