Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas 2008

So somewhere a long the way the presents from Santa for us have all become gag gifts. Since L.’s brother and wife were visiting that just meant more gag gifts. There was a “Chocolate Factory” made for children but with an extra sticker on the front next to the smiling kids that “Now with extra child labor, child laborer not included”. The next was a statue of an over-sized hand giving a thumbs-up. L. got the Chia “herb” garden. (She had been complaining about Chia and Clapper commercials from being couch-bound for a while.) I got a giant jack (as in playing jacks) that weighs about twice what it looks. Good luck playing with it.
As for the home-made presents, well they made the underside of the tree a little bare. L. gave me a large framed piece of metal to put all the fridge magnets on (Everywhere we travel we buy one since they are small.). It was kind of funny since my present to her was the picture board to get the pictures off the fridge. When I brought it down all wrapped she got mad since she thought I had snooped in her closet and was bringing down my own gift since when wrapped they looked identical. I also gave her the duvet with the promise to finish the cover.
It seems like both of our favorite presents was the duvet this year. I didn’t think that goose down could be so warm. We went from 3 blankets down to the duvet and we still had to turn down the thermostat so we didn’t wake up sweating. Somehow it is just more comfortable and controls our individual temperatures better.
Normally after all the Christmas fun we get bored and see a movie. However we had thought ahead this time and bought tickets for the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall with the Rockettes. The show was understandably cheesy, and over the top but was fun to see, especially on Christmas. I wouldn’t want to make a yearly tradition out of it though. After that we headed out for dinner at where else but Carnegie Deli. It wasn’t a Jewish Holiday so they were still open. It has sort of become a tradition for L. and I to take people that visit there where we then all gorge on giant stacks of meat and see who can find the most obscure person’s picture on the wall. (They are famous for their pastrami sandwiches being 6 inches tall, and there is not a blank space on the wall because of all the famous people that have eaten there.)
I realize this is about as New York of a Christmas as you can get but we had a lot of fun.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Visits

Of course living in NYC one of the things that we had on our list was to go ice skating at Rockefeller Center. We agreed on a time with our friends to meet (They have lived here 8 years and it was still on their to-do list.) and found out when we got there that it was closed for a private party for a couple of hours. So instead we went to lunch. When we got back to Rockefeller Center and got to watch someone propose while we waited in line. Yes, it is crowded. Yes, the area to skate in is small. But, surprisingly it wasn’t as small or crowded as we thought it would be. It ended up being really fun. None of us fell, and after an hour we were all tired but surprisingly not cold until we stopped. There was another private party so we really didn’t have a choice. It was fun for a one time thing but there are cheaper places to skate otherwise.
Of course with every Christmas season it means that people visit, which is good since L. was still recovering. My sister wanted to see NYC at Christmas time. As it ended up she got here right before a huge snowstorm. This is fine as far as we are concerned because the trains still run in the snow. We ended up seeing the tree in Rockefeller. We got to see Santa at Macys with only a 10 minute wait because of the storm. I took them to my favorite pizza place, Lombari’s. Again with front row seats with no wait because of the storm. Now all this was fun but the storm went from rain to hail, sleet, snow, all while we were walking between subway stops with stroller and kids in tow. The next day, since my sister is really into cooking, so I took her to Stew Leonards (stewleonards.com). Among other things we got kits to build Gingerbread houses. It was the funniest thing, my sister’s son is three years old. He would sneak candy and run upstairs to eat it, even though we gave him the OK to eat as much as he wanted.
L.’s brother D. also came to visit. They stayed a little longer so they just bought passes for the train and I gave them a key to the house and they were able to come and go as they pleased. It is nice to have something for guests to do so that you don’t have to entertainment the whole time. In reality it is more along the lines of when they quickly grow bored of me entertaining.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Homemade Christmas

We really didn’t need anything for Christmas and we were no longer in school so we had extra time so this year we decided to make our gifts for each other. It sounds like such a good idea at first. Let people know you really care to spend time on a gift for them. Unfortunately it just didn’t turn out that way.
One of the influencing factors was L. had wanted to learn how to do stained glass. So we bought the supplies we needed and together made a simple piece to hang in the window. Well even a simple 6 inch square took around 9 hours of work from both of us. I thought it was just because it was the first time so I set out to make a stained glass star for the top of the tree. I had one as a child and tried to replicate it. I succeeded but again it took to long. As it turns out we ran out of time and didn’t make anything else out of stained glass.
So it is one thing making presents for other people but it is a whole other matter trying to make something for your spouse and keep it a surprise. There is only so much room and we both use all of it. I also had the problem of trying to figure out something that she could use that I could still make. I also had the problem that it seemed like anything I wanted to make, when I added up the materials list it always ended up costing more than if someone else made it in China.
My first idea was to sew a quilt, but I realized what she really wanted was a duvet, so the idea changed to a duvet cover. I bought the duvet but ran out of time. (A pretty constant theme when it comes around to Christmas time.) The second thing that I thought of to make jewellery using Fimo clay. It is funny, I had the idea in my head for some time, but I have never worked with the clay before. I just never had the time to look up how to use it. I finally pulled it off on Christmas Eve, of course by that time I had to make it in the living room so L. saw the whole process and got a good laugh. My third idea was a picture board. I ended up buying the cloth when I got the cloth for the duvet cover. This is the present that saved my butt. It ended up being easier to make than I thought. A staple-gun really speeds things up.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Winter Trips Into NYC

Last year while my friend and I would work on bikes L. and my friend's wife would go to BAM. (Brooklyn Academy of Music) If you buy the tickets in advance it is about the same price as a movie ($13) but you get the equivalent of a Broadway show. This year we bought tickets for all of us to go.
Woyzeck: A remake of a German play by the same name. Everything was set around a water plant so there was a large glass tank where some of the acting was done under water. The music was amazing and I am still kicking myself for not buying the album.
Meeting with Bodhisattva: A Taiwanese Buddhist drum beating that reminded me of the Japanese Taiko shows. The drums were huge and the beats were so rhythmic and soothing that all of us had a hard time staying awake.
Les 7 planches de la ruse: They used Chinese acrobats and giant Tangrams pieces that they shifted around the stage and built up into giant things. I know it sounds boring but I really got into the skill to balance these huge things while they built them and had people flipping and jumping all over them.
Bamboo Blues: It was supposed to be everything Indian (Asian Indian Culture). They used a lot of cloth so it was very flowy, and they projected a lot of stuff on the cloth as it billowed around the stage. I found it interesting as I am currently working on studying India right now for a project at work.

Also, with winter comes more bad weather, and that leads to more train trips into the city. This leads to more “interesting” interaction with the other people on the train. Of course there are always the drunk people on weekends that need to be dodged like orange cones. It is much better to see them there than trying to drive though.
On one of the trips in the guy next to us started playing music on his phone. He had it turned all the way up so it sounded distorted. I asked him politely to if he could turn it down and he launched into a tirade. I realized he wanted to argue so I figured the best defense was to ignore him. This made him yell more until everyone on the train was telling him to shut up. When he got off we all cheered. On another trip two guys asked a Catholic priest to be blessed for business meeting. Instead of blowing them off he took it seriously and asked about the what the meeting was about. Another time we got to listen to some kids headed back to Yale argue about affirmative action. Boy it is sad to see how disconnected spoiled rich since birth kids can be. While waiting for our train we also got to watch a schizophrenic guy showing card tricks to an invisible friend.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

How to Con People

I have needed to do user testing for some time now on the software I was writing at work and all I can say is lawyers are stupid and annoying. I really can’t go into it further than that. For anyone not familiar with user testing it involves me sitting down with the user with a computer (or maybe paper prototypes) and asking them how they would complete certain actions, what they think, how they are confused, and so on. Basically the goal is to see how where and how confusing the software is to use. Although it seemed like I was supposed to be testing the software since this is my first major user testing where I did everything myself it seemed more like I was instead doing psychology tests on the users to get any answers out of them. While I knew everything I was doing was legitimate, convincing strangers of that is a whole other matter.
Of course like anyone, I had to pay the users for their work. The normal way is just to give them cash but my company wanted to cut them a check, and to do that they had t deal with tax issues, and that meant getting their social security number. If I introduced it as “I’m sorry, I need your SS# for tax reasons” they would not give it to me no matter what I said or did after that. However if I introduced it as “I’m sure the first thing you care about is getting paid” and just handed them the form to fill out they would ask about the SS# but fill it when when I told them it was for tax reasons. Given the goal of money upfront people will hand over personal info, stating something defensive up front and people will not let their guard down.
There was three different forms they had to sign. Since I was testing Senior Citizens for with the software, all the documents I had made up were in large text. Even though they were longer people read them. The ones the lawyers had made up were smaller and harder to read. People would sign them without a second thought. Also, the order of the documents made a difference. Once trust is established later documents were signed without reading. So just think of that the next time you go into a car dealer. All the trust-worthy things that look good will be large and in the first few documents being signed. Things for stuff like under-coatings will be on papers with fine print presented after you are tired of reading legal papers.
One of the funny things I ran into was scheduling around doctors appointments. Everyone I tested seemed to have a doctor appointment that week. I can only guess what the life of senior citizens is like on a weekly basis. But, the good news is that everyone liked it. Of course hearing over and over from people things they don’t like about something you spent so long is hard so I am glad I did not get that much of that.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

We decided to not travel anywhere for Thanksgiving this year and instead visit with L.’s Aunt and Uncle like we did last year. Baking a Thanksgiving dinner for just two people always leads to way to many left overs and this way it allowed us to bake lots of desserts. (What they asked us to bring.) Since we had a little extra time this year I wanted to try to make some of the things from scratch. So for the pumpkin cake I steamed the pumpkins and pealed them. (It gave it a more pumpkin flavor at the same time as making it more bland. I didn’t feel it was worth the extra work.) I also made stuffing from scratch. I think I put to much fresh sage or thyme in there because it was the most spicy stuffing I have had before, but surprisingly good. We also brought pumpkin pie and persimmon pudding.
It was really fun just visiting with everyone. we stayed up late playing Canasta which both L.’s Aunt and Uncle seem to be hooked on. We laughed about all the people that would be miserable in the cold waiting for stores to open for Black Friday deals and in the end we just ended up staying overnight and driving home Friday morning because we stayed up so late talking.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Health Care

So I know I said in a previous post I wouldn’t say more political stuff but there has been some recent events happening that influence how I feel. I work with two people. Both with kids that suddenly pop up with bad nervous system disorders. One of them just moved to Scotland. Of course the UK’s system is very different than here, so hearing the differences were sobering. The first is how hospital beds are handled. When she was feeling better, they said she could go home but they would keep the bed reserved for her through the weekend. It might sound more expensive but people are more likely to leave sooner if they are not worried about returning if needed. Imagine if they were to throw out the revenue per bed model here. The other thing was that the hospitals were built into malls. Imagine reducing the stigma of visiting the doctor down to just being another errand. Doctors catch the problem faster making it cheaper to treat. So what is the verdict. My co-worker’s child in Scotland is on an aggressive drug and is getting better. The co-worker here is still having problems with the insurance company getting authorizations for all the specialists. In Scotland she had to stop being a student temporarily but was still able to get the same care. Here, he couldn’t work so there was also a large delay switching from work insurance to medicare, all the while his father is busy with paperwork, searching out the right specialist, and bills, making two people not being productive. (Trust me, I work with him and was picking up some of the slack.)
Now I am aware that what I am presenting is antidotal evidence, so I can only add my own personal experience: My wife gets a prescription and fills it. After a few weeks it is not working and she is getting worse so she goes back to the doctor. Apparently the pharmacist didn’t fill the prescription correctly because it was not on the insurance formulary. The Insurance company had listed a similar drug which the pharmacist gave without saying anything. The only problem is the two drugs were similar in every way except what my wife needed. Luckily (there could have so many other things gone wrong) it was only 2 extra weeks of being sick and not something more serious, but an insurance accountant should not have a say if my wife gets the medicine she needs.
In another experience she found out she needed to see a specialist. The only problem is that it was specialized enough that they didn’t take insurance. Apparently the insurance companies try to get out of paying the doctors as much as reimbursing patients. So even with full health insurance we were still headed for bankruptcy. (As it turned out by a total fluke, my wife’s work had an extra rider that paid directly to the hospital for that specific specialist. I guess someone high up also needed it and added it to the company health plan.)
I am just saying the system is broken. I think an obvious example is all the pharmacies that find it easier to give some drugs away for free rather than deal with insurance companies. It is not a good idea to give financial incentive to the insurance companies to give worse care to people. The USA pays more than any other country and we still end up 16th in care. (It’s in the 30’s if we count the un/under insured.) I can only guess for other countries that the extra cost of having everyone in a country covered is absorbed by the lower cost of paperwork and catching things sooner is cheaper.
The conservative people I know like to call it “socialist health care”. I like to point out we already have a socialist fire department. They learned long ago that if they were to try to bill people to put out a fire, people would call to late. The fire, or in the case disease, would spread making it more expensive/impossible to control. If other countries pay less, and get better health care, better satisfaction with their medical care, faster service even with “rationing” (Another term I hear a lot.) and still cover everyone, than you can put me down for socialist health care. Now I realize I live in a liberal area and hear a lot more of that side of the issue, but just from personal experience and from the people I know, I just don’t get the arguments for leaving the medical system the way it is. Because the way I see it right now is that we are paying more and getting less.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Post election

So Barack Obama was elected. It seems like the entire election played out just like 2004; at least in my eyes. The loosing political party gets more desperate as the the election gets closer. Doing more and more erratic actions. As I have said before I have a lot of family that is very conservative. A lot of them were saying they were surprised by the outcome. I heard the same thing from some of my friends that are “yellow dog democrats” in the last election. It is funny how people see what they want, with all events backing up already held beliefs.

(edit updated over the next month.)
It has been weird with the outcome of this election. Moving from Oregon to New York I am well aware that I have lived in liberal leaning areas. I have seen stickers for years that said “Bush’s last day 1-20-09” and “Republicans for Voldemort”. Here in New York City I have heard speeches by Obama blaring from radios of street vendors pretty much every time we passed a group of them. I was expecting a positive reaction but not to the level that I have seen. They are still selling the Obama paraphernalia on the streets (some ONLY selling Obama stuff). People are still wearing buttons and hats. I usually see about 7-10 on people a day still. The weirdest one though is the reaction. Time Square the day after the election looked like “Victory in Europe/Japan” war footage. Everyone was smiling, laughing, talking to complete strangers. The one that tops it all is everyone looking each other in the eye. I have had to explain to visiting family that is not Christmas Spirit that is in New York City. It is still post-election glow, at least compared to last year, especially with all the financial problems. I do not think anyone is capable of living up to the hype that is built up to the level that Obama has, especially with the bureaucratic cruft that is our government, but hopefully Obama does not squander the good will he has like Bush did after September 11th.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Voting 2008

Warning this is a political post! Yes, I have political views. However, I hate political blogs because they only show the naivety of the speakers. (As this post will do to me.) So unlike most people I know they all stink so I try to keep them to myself but for one day a year.
First, most of my biases are based around the fact that I really don’t like political parties. Actually, I hate them. has anyone ever heard of someone going into the voting booth and voting the party ticket to get rid of government corruption? Is there really anyone that thinks that all the issues in the world can be boiled down to one of two sides? Has anything been “one for the history book” when the vote in congress is split along party lines? (I am well aware we are doomed to a two party system as long as the constitution allows for “winner take all” voting.)
Debates:
I watched all three presidential debates and the one vice-president one. Really, I didn’t even see two people arguing, much less debate. There was two people saying talking points at the camera. There is a real chicken and egg problem of not letting any 3rd party candidates debate. Without national exposure they will never get votes but without votes they will never get the debate entrance. People think that by putting two people on the stand will debate both sides of a topic. It seems like a lot of topics were never even brought up because they were not derisive enough to split voters. The closest thing to a technology question is when Palin declared she didn’t think humans were the cause of global warming.
I didn’t like the candidates quoting voting records. There are a hundred reasons why someone in congress votes for/against a bill and the spin the other candidate puts on it only confuses and repels voters.
I do like that both sides did try to stay out of negative politics. Of course when McCain was loosing all bets are out the window and seriously I had to laugh at the people that were claiming that comparing McCain to Bush was negative campaigning. (If even his own party thinks Bush is a bad word then it is their fault for supporting him.)
I do not see flip-flopping on issues as a bad thing. I would hope every leader will keep open the choice to change the plan of action should the situation or information change. I think failure to follow this advice is one of the reason that got this country into the trouble it is in now.
The president does not handle the budget that closely. So the biggest voting issue this election, the economy, really says more about who to vote for in Congress. Yet both sides felt the need to describe all the things they would propose... to congress. As if someone else in their party couldn’t also propose the same thing.
McCain:
I really think McCain got some bad luck, enough for him to want to hire a hitman on Bush. After loosing to Bush because of dirty tricks in 2000 he has to deal with the low view of the Republican party here and internationally to the point that a Republican win would anger the world. But by trying to pander to the base by saying they are “real Americans” that means anyone who doesn’t vote Republican isn’t a real American? So the American way is a one party state? I also think that by repeatedly saying he was a maverick at the same time as completely changing his positions to get more votes was pretty scary.
Obama:
Yes racism is alive and well. I heard it every time someone used the excuse they really didn’t know what Obama stood for, or didn’t want to vote because of Hussain as a middle name. Lets follow that to the conclusion and say he was Muslim. What is the problem of having a Muslim president? That being said Obama did spend more time saying happy thoughts and McCain=Bush rather than concrete positions. (Both of them had more facts on their websites. I guess TV news is always looking for soundbites over substance.) It is scary to see how much money Obama raised and spent but I get comfort from it being from individual donors instead of PAC’s.
Really I see the biggest problem is the people who want it to be over. With the crumbling of rights by the current president, I’m curious what it would take for them to want to be involved instead of just something to get past so they can return to their regularly scheduled programming.
So who am I going to vote for? As long as I make an informed decision (which means not listening to advertising and actually taking 5 minutes to look at their platform on their website. Personally I use Open Secrets(opensecrets.org) too. Being able to tell who they accept money from tells a lot more what they will do than campaign promises.) The most important thing is that I will vote, and that will take power away from lobbyists. And that is all I need to know to put a smile on my face on election day.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Bike Ride into NYC

L. was still sick and it was driving me crazy to stay at home so I decided to ride my bike into NYC and see the fall colors along the way. There is a nice trail that I found so I packed up my bike and took off. The main reason was that there were some really pretty fall colors that I drive by every day on my way to work that I wanted to take pictures of. I have also been playing around with creating HDR (High Dynamic Range) photos with the camera and my computer.
As it ended up I would ride for a while pull over take some pictures and then continue. I really wasn’t in any kind of a hurry and was more interested in the idea of just enjoying myself. At one point I saw some columns and couldn’t resist and carried my bike through about 50 feet of underbrush to take some pictures. I think a thorn caught the back tire and put a leak in it. I was so close (2 miles) to the subway stop so I just walk my bike the rest of the way. To finish off the day I spent some time visiting the MOMA garden before they close for the winter.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Halloween 2008

Living within driving distance of the real Sleepy Hollow L. and I could not resist to going to the halloween celebration there. There is a recreation of a colonial times town that is there year round. During October they light it up and have the headless horseman ride around. The real headless horseman bridge is kind of disappointing because as with most roads that have been around 200 years it is a main road and you really don’t realize it is a bridge at all. The wooden bridge in the re-creation is much better. It was a pain to photograph the headless horseman since he was wearing black, on a black horse. So I have a bunch of pictures that look like a floating pumpkin. They had people in period costumes telling ghost stories and giant trees walking around (think french parade). Both L. and I were a little disappointed in the lack of things to do, but neither of us could think of anything else they should have and after the thought that we only paid $5 more than a movie we realized maybe our expectations were to high.
At last year’s NYC Halloween parade we had spent the evening comparing what we thought was the best costume and what would be a good costume for us the next year. Fast forward a year and of course we are all to busy so throw all the elaborate plans out the window. Even the plans of a group costume, we couldn’t agree on anything. So I decide I want to be crafty and build my costume this year. I wanted to try build something out of foam. So Ryuk from Deathnote won out over being a Robotech Veritech or NHK’s Domo because the theme of the parade was ghosts.
Part of my costume was to cut a ping pong ball in half with a hole in the middle and paint them for the eyes. While I could still see it gave me extreme tunnel vision. This made for an interesting night walking around the city. My peripheral vision was replaced by large feathers on my shoulders that acted as “curb feelers” for when I crashed into people or walked to close to walls. The weirdest sensation is that with the loss of vision I had a harder time hearing too even though nothing was covering my ears. I guess my brain was working overtime to keep up on processing information. I did feel lost most of the evening instead just following around L. and my friend D. Not an easy task when there is 3 million people (The largest event all year for NYC, bigger than the ball drop on New Year’s eve).
The thing that caught me the most off guard was how much everyone liked my costume. Tons of people wanted to take their picture with me. I felt like I was famous with all the paparazzi. In truth when someone stepped in front of me and asked I really couldn’t say no and walk around them without crashing into people. It was just good that L. and D. kept an eye open so I didn’t get left behind. My guess is that around 50 people asked to take their picture with me. Another 100 or so just took my picture as we walked by. I had a blast of corse but next year I think I will make a costume that allows me to see all the other costumes so I can participate in the fun more.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Leaf Peeping 2008

After a long hard winter last year L. was determined to get as much enjoyment out of the fall this year before the bleak dead trees were here for another winter. With this in mind we planned our leaf peeping trip. The thing about trips to see leaves is that you need a destination but the destination really isn’t that important as the trip. So for this one L. wanted to see Palmyra, New York for some of the Mormon history there and I wanted to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water in Pennsylvania.
L. was feeling pretty sick so instead of leaving Friday after work we came home from work and went right to sleep. This allowed for us to leave at 4AM while L. caught some more sleep. We had some trouble during the whole trip with our GPS. (I guess you get what you pay for.) For instance to get there it was reporting a 10 hour drive when it should have been 5. As it ended up we depended on the GPS in our phones to check all the directions.
We arrived in Palmyra at 9AM so the first thing we went to see was the Hill Camorah (Place where Joseph Smith said he found and later reburied the golden plates.) It was a pretty steep hill! haha, make L. climb to the top and she can’t complain. (One of L.’s things to say is that any time we travel and there is a mountain, wall, or tower and I want to climb to the top to look down.) It was a great place to see the fall colors of the whole valley. From there we drove over to the Smith family farm where they built a replica of the original log cabin and restored the log house they lived in. The Sacred Grove (Where Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus when they told him not to join other churches) was really peaceful but easy to get lost in. We drove up to the Mormon Temple then into town to the original printing press for the “Book of Mormon”. We were originally expecting to spend the whole weekend here but it was noon and we had seen everything we wanted to. So we drove to what we were planning to see the next weekend, Falling Water.
When we planned out the impromptu drive on the map on our phones. (maximum drive time off of freeways to enjoy more fall colors). We saw that the road went right though Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. We could not resist. We drove though valley after valley of fall leaves as far as the eye could see then stayed there for the night. (I later found out that highway is famous for a good leaf peeping drive.
If you are unfamiliar with Punxsutawney it is famous for Groundhog day. They have “ Punxsutawney Phil” that offically sees his shadow or not. We ended up staying in the same hotel as the movie “Groundhog Day” that is right across from there square where everything was filmed. Phil is housed in the library with a big bay window for anyone to see him any hour of the day or night. The real Gobbler's Knob was in the hills and quite deserted when we went to see it since we were 4 months to early.
Apparently Falling Water is a pretty popular Fall destination. They were all sold out of tours when I called in the morning (the downside of spontaneous travel). So instead we got a grounds pass with the idea that if we felt like there was more to see we could come back. As it turns out the only difference is you just can’t go in the house but you can look in all the windows. Falling Water is all windows. I don’t feel like I missed anything. There just happens to be another Frank Lloyd Wright house nearby called Kentuck Knob. We did go into that one. (less windows so it paid off this time). So my opinion? Frank Lloyd Wright was a Megalomaniac. He didn’t listen to the engineers, people he was designing the house for, or anyone else. He designed the house to look pretty, not be functional, structural, or water proof. So why would I want to see the houses he designed? To me they are like big works of art like museum pieces. I just feel sorry for the people that had to live in them.
The drive home was more beautiful trees. In all it felt like we had taken a 3 day trip instead of just two. I think we might make more of these 4AM departure times.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Economic Downturn

So the economy is going down the tubes. How does that affect me? Well living in New York it is a little more up close. When we were in mid-town I walked past the Lehman Brothers building. The building had a huge video billboard on the outside and only 1 day after its bankruptcy they had already changed the logo to “Barclays”. It took them all of a week to change the 2 story foot tall steel and copper sign to the new logo. (I guess someone paid for a rush job.)
Wall street is a different matter. All the camera crews around remind me of the OJ Simpson trial in Los Angeles. It’s kind of scary that the nations economy is in a similar circus. All the reporters standing around make it seem like a death watch with them waiting for something to happen. There is a lot of extra security though. After September 11th. giant brass blockades were installed so that only police, limos, and Bentleys could drive down Wall Street. (If you think I am joking go there.) Now there are the armed police everywhere with the flack jackets. They all look like cops standing around after a bank has been robbed and all the money is gone. hmmmm.
For the government budget, of course NYC, and New York depended on taxing all the obscene paychecks that you kept hearing about for wall street workers. Now I’ve heard emergency conferences by the Mayor and Governor talking about emergency budget cuts because the people on wall street are not getting their Christmas bonuses. I thought it kind of odd that Christmas bonuses would account for that big of a chunk of a city or state budget until I heard the average bonus is $645,000.
Obviously the company I work for does a lot of business with wall street. Meetings have been rescheduled because people had roommates that worked on wall street that suddenly had to move because of lost jobs. Even though the company I work for is doing fine they, rightly so, have decided that wall street will not be ordering anything new for a while so they have cut travel expenses to offset the lost sales. The silly thing is that I had already bought my ticket,hotel, and conference admission for an upcoming trip, all non-refundable for better prices. They are still reimbursing me for the trip expenses since I bought everything before the freeze, I’m just not going. Right hand meet left hand.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Shopping Trips

One thing we have come to enjoy after living more a more rural setting is living next to a big city, and not just any big city but New York City. It is big enough so that pretty much no matter what we were searching for there has been a store that specializes in only that one thing. L. and I have just taken the train into the city on a Saturday and spent the day walking around.
Big & Tall: Being tall and skinny I usually have a hard time finding clothes and shoes. It seems like a store called “Big & Tall” would cater to that but my experience has always been half of the store title is there so the other half does not feel embarrassed to shop there. Imagine any other store cutting out half their customers for the benefit of the other half. There is a store called Rochester (rochesterclothing.com). Unfortunately they have the same problem. I figure I am doomed that if I can’t find clothes in NYC then I am doomed to internet shopping for clothes.
Daffy’s: (daffys.com) I really like this store. Their slogan is “Clothing Bargains For Millionaires”. Supposedly it is the overstock of all the high fashion brands. I wouldn’t care. They sell good clothes that are usually in European sizing (so usually skinnier clothes than American). However since it is “High fashion” some of the stuff is really bizarre, so a good laugh while shopping is always fun.
Century 21: (c21stores.com) Another clothing store L. likes since they are so huge. They sell mainly mid fashion overstock.
So after shopping clothes of course you have to eat. These places follow the same idea of find one thing and be really good at it.
Mac and Cheese: S’mac (smacnyc.com). Yes, the only dish this restaurant sells is macaroni and cheese. The last time we went I got the sampler platter of all the different flavors and would have to say the 4 cheese or cajun are my favorite.
Rice Pudding: Rice to Riches (ricetoriches.com) I’m not that big of a fan of rice pudding but my friends like it a lot. It is good but I guess I will alway be partial to “Arroz Con Leche” with cinnamon.
French Fries: Pommes Frites (pommesfrites.ws). A restaurant that only serves french fries. Actually they specialize in all of the dipping sauces. The fries are only there to deliver it to your mouth. They are very good but greasy. It is always crowded so they must be doing good.
Chocolate: Max Brenner (maxbrenner.com) Now I know there are a lot of chocolate stores but this is a chocolate restaurant. When L. and I went we got the chocolate pizza, fondue and smores, and chocolate milk (which tasted more like an iced hot chocolate if that is possible.) This seemed like the perfect lunch for a shopping trip with my wife. I was tripping off of the sugar rush so much for the next few hours that nothing could put me in a bad mood.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Update on Goals

So switching over to the new format forced me to go through the posts and convert them. Some of them caught my eye. I decided to give an update on how I’m doing on keeping my goals.
Mind:
Learning French: So umm, yeah. It ended up going on the cruise instead of to France. In truth we only had one French lesson with out friend and never cracked the book we bought. We just couldn’t get into it. So playing to that motivation idea we decided signing up for a class would work better. (I know voluntarily signing up for more school.) L. and I have been going to a Spanish class. The thing is that it is to easy. So either we are just used to Graduate classes where the teachers feel no guilt for assigning more work than hours or we both picked up more Spanish in California than we thought and are now the hated people that are taking the class that already know Spanish.
Electronics: I was going to sign up for an electronics class but when I showed up the first night the teacher went though each of the chapters he was going to cover and I kept thinking, I already know this. So I just bought the book and will review it on my own since the more interesting class next semester uses the same book.

Body:
Exercise: I think that I have done the best in this area. I pretty sure I am in better shape that when I ran any of the marathons that I did. (However, I do not feel the need to run another one.) I can say that the endorphin high from doing regular exercise is real.
Riding bikes:This has been a good escape for me. Going kayaking puts me in a more zen state but requires a lot more planning and set up time. As for bikes, just pull them out of the garage and go. It also helps that L. thinks this is one of my less crazy drives and is more willing to join me for this more that anything else.

Spirit:
Playing guitar: Well this one, I fail. I got the guitar for my birthday. I think I have done 3 lessons on the computer. It has sat on its stand in the living room the rest of the time. In my brain every time I have free time my first reaction is what can I add to my plate instead of am I keeping up on what I already have.
Dancing: We had fun doing this on our cruise but that is about as far as we got. Last year we enjoyed being in Central Park for the free Tango lessons. We only picked up the last few lessons and were sure to go to the ones this year. Well now the lessons are over for this year and we didn’t go to a single one.

I guess I know where I need to work on. Only achieving in mind and body and you end up being a boring person that no one wants to talk to.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Lost in Translation

After living here a year here are the new words and phrases we have heard. Which is funny because outside of the soda/pop/coke controversy everywhere we lived on the west coast really didn’t have any different words. (New York is a “soda” state)
waiting in line = waiting on line
garage sale = tag sale
shopping cart = shopping carriage
stroller = pram
purse = pocketbook
freeway = thruway
hoggie, submarine sandwich = wedge

Monday, September 29, 2008

Privacy on a Blog?

I guess everyone has to decide how much information they want about themselves floating around on the Internet. For me, having this journal on the Internet has helped as a motivation for timely entries. I’ve been doing it for just over 3 years now and have averaged about a post a week. (Now why anyone would want to read it? That is harder to answer.) One thing that people ask though is why I use initials instead of names. I think a perfect example just happened in the news.
The current Republican Vice-President nominee, Sarah Palin, somehow had it exposed in the news that she was using a yahoo email account. (I won’t get into the legality of using a private email address for official government purposes because this is not a political blog.) It only took a couple of days before the account was taken over by a college student and everyone was looking at her personal family pictures and reading her business mail. The point was there was no hacking (or cracking) involved. The person used publicly available information on where she had met her husband as the security question to reset the password.
So moral of the story. If you are going to put personal information on the internet such as birthdate don’t link it to your name. Also, don’t use real information for security questions; but that’s another story.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Being a Patron of the Arts

Since we live so close to NYC family and friends like to visit. (...and if I know you, then you are invited because I do like people visiting.) Anyway, L.’s cousin came to visit and bought some friends and were going into the city every day. On Saturday we were planning to go into the city with them to go to MOMA (Museum Of Modern Art).
I got pretty far in my art degree before switching over to computers. Part of it was higher pay, but the main reason I switched was that I hated the idea of working and slaving at my craft to become better but die penniless because some talentless hack was in the right place at the right time and got by on using the word “juxaposed” to describe all of their work. (This is true for everyone I have talked to in art, architecture, writing, dance, music, movie, or any other artistic industry.) The reason for this side tangent is someone had given me some painting canvases and I had some ideas in my head that I felt I could learn some things from Van Gogh’s style.
I had heard about a Van Gogh exhibit that was coming up at MOMA but when I looked it up, it was not opening up until the next day, Sunday. However, if you were a member of the museum then they were having a preview that day. So, $120 membership for me and my wife gets us in and $5 tickets for our visitors. Or, we spend $20 a piece, and L. and I spend another $20 each to come back and see the Van Gogh exhibit when it does open. In this case it was cheaper to get more, plus we now had something to do during the boring winter months.
Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists, but you have to look closely at his paintings. He uses thick brush strokes but the paint is pre-mixed before going onto the brush. Seeing his artwork in person is also very different then pictures since it has a 3D quality with the paint being so thick. A lot of other people like Van Gogh too so even the member preview was busy. However I like standing to the side of the painting (where no one else is anyway) to get the full depth sense of the paintings. Later when it was a little less crowded I enjoyed staring at the painting while walking past it to create a motion parallax effect that made everything in the painting move and really (yes really) seem alive. L. said that I had my signature ear to ear tooth showing grin the whole time we were there. So, yes, I think it was worth the money to get the membership.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Building a Digital Lifestyle

The cobbler’s children have no shoes. I’ve always liked this saying as I can relate. Working with computers every day I try to avoid having none of the computers in my house working. Right now I am in the process of trying to do an upgrade to our home network.
It all started with the phones. We bought iPhones last year, then upgraded them to the new iPhone this year. (At a profit actually since I sold the old ones unlocked on eBay.) With the new phones they could synch calendars between them if you bought a hosting service from Apple. I made the plunge with the justification that I would also use the web hosting. (I am well aware that clicking on entries in the history wasn’t working.) That is the reason for the new look. (If you have been following along). Being able to have our address books synched between our phones and home computer is such a time saver. I don’t know how many times we lost new names or addresses because they would get overwritten.
The next goal was having a home server that holds our pictures and music. So far this has been trusty little mac mini but it has run out of hard drive space and I would really like to have all the important files mirrored onto another hard drive. This means a bigger computer. With a larger case to hold more hard drives, why not copy our movies onto the computer also. This was my downfall that I have been trying to achieve since we moved from Oregon. I installed linux and MythTV and could never quite get them to work reliably enough to take over for the Mac Mini. Then something, I am guessing an electrical surge, knocked out the power supply, motherboard, and one hard drive and they had to be replaced. I replaced the parts but linux did not yet support a lot of the new hardware. I thought Vista Media Center would be mature enough to give me the “just works” solution. However, my best guess is that Microsoft does not want their media center to compete with the cable boxes they sell so media center does not support digital TV, argh! (unencrypted QAM, which is odd since come February and the analog signal is turned off there are a lot of people yelling for this.) Not to mention the headaches I’ve run into with simple things like registration codes and DRM. I would have tried Mac OS X but Apple does not support any TV signal. I guess it is still a dream to have a reliable computer that can handle TV, video, music, and pictures.
...sorry kids, no digital convergence for you.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Niagara Falls

We wanted to go to Niagara Falls before the "bitter cold" of winter set in. So even though we had just gone on a road trip the last week, what is another road trip? This one was more spontaneous with us just doing a quick pack (Our weekend bags still had everything but the clothes) and driving though the night. The agreement was that I would work on the laptop while L. drove. I finished and she was tired so we switched and I drove until about 1AM before getting tired. We found a Ramada, which we thought was a reputable chain, but the place was kind of shady. We were tired and I guess that is the price of spontaneity.
The American side of the falls seems deserted. The city of Niagara Falls has had a lot of buildings torn down so there are a lot of green fields and the buildings left full of empty space.
We found parking and walked over to the island in the middle (goat island). My first impression was that I thought the falls were taller. I realized it was because of the perspective of being on top of them. The sound made up for the difference though. We were told by our waitress at breakfast we had to go to "Cave of the Winds". It ended up being our favorite thing to experience. They give you sandals and a poncho then we took an elevator down to the falls level. From there we walked the platforms that take you around the splashing rocks at the bottom. The water was splashing everywhere and a few of the platforms had water flowing over them. The last platform was supposed to have the same wind and water force of a hurricane. It was strong but fun enough that L. and I stood on the platform a second time after we caught our breath and re-secured our clothes under the flimsy ponchos. It had been sprinkling lightly all morning and the water from the falls felt warm in comparison. Of course when we were done we were still pretty wet from water dripping down our necks and flying up our arms so we decided to head back to the car.
We had brought our folding bikes to ride around so we decided to ride across to Canada. Only problem was we were not aloud to walk our bikes on the pedestrian path and there was no emergency lane so we took up one of the bridge lanes. The toll booth worker took our $0.50 each so it must be pretty regular. It was slightly strange to go though customs while seated on a bike.
In all reality everything was close enough together we didn't need our bikes but it made it fun. We rode to the "Behind the falls" building which looked interesting. We took an elevator down and a tunnel was dug back behind the Waterfall so you could see the back side of it. Outside of being very loud it was not as awe inspiring as it would have been had we just not finished the "Cave of the Winds".
We rode our bikes back and got a hotel on the Canadian side so we entered the country for a second time in a few hours. (I'm sure that is going to put us on a watch list or something.) It is pretty obvious that this place is set up for honeymoons since our hotel room was more the honeymoon suite with the whirlpool tub and everything.
Niagara Falls city on the Canadian side is heavily touristy. (It looks similar to "Universal City Walk" or "Downtown Disney" in California) It was also strange that the US and Canadian dollar are at parity right now. We enjoyed a good dinner, and the display of tourism (Why there needs to be so many spook houses is beyond me) then walked down to the falls to watch the colored lights on the falls at dark.
The next morning was a six hour ride home. It made for a very good weekend.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Road trip

For Labor Day we both were caught up on our work so we decided to hit the road to see some family. We just happened to end up that the maintainance schedules for both our cars for major checkups so both were in good condition but nothing beats driving with the top down so the taking the Miata won out.
We actually left on Wednesday night after taking a nap. This means we got to my sister's house in the middle of the night. I really hate showing up at night but L. was down to the wire on finishing paperwork so we got off later then planned. This was the second time I got to see my 3 year old nephew and he remembered me so was quickly attacking me to play. I have been working out a lot so I no longer had pain in my back and hip so it was really fun being able to wrestle and swing him around. It kept catching me off guard though. My sister and I got some good time in talking which is what seems like what visiting is for. Since this was an unreported vacation for both of us I called in for a meeting and no one was the wiser. (I really like jobs that care about output more then hours.)
From my sister's house we headed further south to North Carolina to visit my brother. Now my brother is a staunch conservative. (He listens to Rush Limbaugh, feels Fox News isn't conservative enough, and has given me books on proof of how liberal the media is.) We disagree on most issues but have had a good relationship based on being able to debate anything with the knowledge that we are not going to change the other person's mind. With his views on a smaller less interfering government I was actually interested to get his views of President Bush which really hasn't done either. (He thinks Bush is a good President that helped the U.S. economy and security. No, I don't understand it so I am left with more questions then when I visited.) L. doesn't want to get involved with the debates so we also finally saw "Kung-Fu Panda" which because of the trip to Europe we ended up missing. But mainly we enjoyed visiting with the whole family.
We then crossed North Carolina to visit L's cousin. He is a mechanic for NASCAR so he took us on a tour of all the garages of the major racing teams. It's funny, I just always assumed that the different teams were spread out over the country. I am sure anyone really into racing would consider it sacrilege that I was in Mooresville, "Race City, USA" without knowing even this basic fact.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Biking through NYC

Something they are trying new this year in NYC was to close off Park Ave from central park to Brooklyn bridge on a few Saturday mornings to allow people walk and ride bikes. Of course I couldn't pass up the opportunity so we got our folding bikes and met up with some friends at the Brooklyn bridge.
Anyone that has not rode a bike on a deserted city street is really missing something. The tall buildings provide shade and it's the perfect speed to enjoy the sights without being so slow as to make it boring. Apparently they were letting people borrow bikes for free but the line was long so I am glad we had our own.
The weather was perfect and the buildings provided shade. We maneuvered around each other as the conversation changed. Since Park Ave. was closed the block of street leading up to it was really unusable too so people were using the side streets for tennis or exercise classes. When we reached Grand Central Station we got to ride on the bridge that goes through the building. (Which is nice since trying to drive and enjoy the sights just is not possible in that area of town.)
When we reached central park we just kept riding and had reached the top and started heading south before I realized how far we had gone. Some of the people were tired so we laid in the grass and talked until some friends we had met earlier caught up. We bought lunch from a local grocery store and enjoyed it in the park. We finished the loop for central park and decided to ride the path next to the Hudson river. (Fairly new path that you don't have to worry about cross traffic.) By the time we reached 14th St. it was 3PM and the other people were tired so we decided to call it a day.
I would have to say, riding through NYC when it is uncrowded is so much more preferable to the subway but for normal days I would take the subway for safety reasons.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Disconnected from Society

While living in Oregon we had no TV. We sold it because it took up to much space and really we knew it would only be distracter from what we were really there for. Since moving to New York we have bought a new TV. But we bought more as a computer monitor and to watch movies, we have successfully not got back into the habit of watching TV. (Well not entirely true, but the shows we do watch such as "The Daily Show" are downloaded off the Internet.) This means we do not watch commercials. With both of us living less then 4 miles from work there really isn't a chance for that many radio commercials, and I haven't read newspapers in more than 10 years. Also, in the interest of security I have installed ad blocking software on both of our laptops so all the news we read on the internet is ad free. (Yes, websites are not always sure who they sell advertising space to and sometimes it is exploits.)
So this has lead to a real disconnect with what other people seem to already know. New movies just seem to appear in the theater, bands release albums, and movie stars check in and out of rehab; all with little knowledge or regard from me. However, I am bothered by a hard time finding local events. People talk about TV shows events and not only do I not know the current plot line, I hadn't heard of the show. While I feel no need to turn on the TV to do some commercial surfing I do find it funny how much commercials and media have become a part of our life.
This really hit home with the Olympics being on right now. I admit that I have lost interest in the Olympics when I saw first hand the corruption of the Olympic committee for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and then again when we were visiting China in 2001 before they had announced who was to be awarded the 2008 Olympics but they had already started to build the now famous stadium. Personally, I don't think it was worth the lives of people that froze over the last few winters because of the ban on coal burning for a quick fix to try to cut down on pollution. I think it might be worth something if it shined some light on the government but the IOC's blind eye to the government about-face on censorship and protests shows little hope for that (more corruption I'm sure). Now before I get off my soap box, the reality is that I have always been a believer in playing sports instead of watching them. So most likely that is the real reason for my discontent. I have always bristled at people people referring to "their" team. (No, you just pay them for expensive merchandise with their logo. As far as I know only the Green bay Packers can be "their" team because people own shares for them.) I just don't get the concept of the taking credit for other's work just because you watched. Be it "our team won" or "we won so many medals" it was them, you sat on the couch.
I have watched some of the Olympics while at the gym. I found it funny that when I was a kid it used to be all about the competition between USSR's and USA. Now it is all about China medals vs. USA and who has the most gold. The media always has to have a rivalry and it's funny that China's attempt at displaying their arrival as a world power might end up planting them in the psyche of Americans as the enemy.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

New York Renaissance Faire

Growing up in California, every summer you would hear about the Renaissance Faire on the radio. Now that we are living in New York it was weird to hear the same ad until I looked up the website and saw it was the same company that puts on the show in California, then packs it up and does the same thing in New York. I had never been to one and thought what the heck. It was kids get in free weekend so we brought two of L.'s cousins with us that were right at the age that they should find it fun.
When we got there we were surprised at how permanent all the buildings were. I guess I was expecting a lot of fake facades but they had built a whole village (It goes on for a month so I guess it is kind of required.) We got there when they opened so everyone was still congregated at the entrance. It was a little overwhelming with everyone giving their opening spiel. I'm sure it is similar to what it was like with the street merchants but we were happy to get past them and wander the more empty areas. We enjoyed talking with a black smith then watched the opening parade and Queen's morning address. It started what I think was the most interesting part of the whole thing. There were shows throughout the day but they all shared the same storyline so for instance, the person set free at the queens address begs to be in the afternoon jousting match which makes the sheriff angry and he attempts a coup at a human chess game later in the day, the rest of the time the sheriff and his men were wandering the streets looking for Robin hood.
So besides being able to watch the shows like jousting and chainsaw juggling (I know very renaissance, but he was a good comedian and our young cousin convinced us to go to his second show so he could see the water balloons and explosives.) there was also interactive things to do such as a maze and being able to swing all the real types of swords. I threw hatchets, one of the kids threw knives, the other darts, and we all tried to shoot arrows.
So all the activities were reasonable, usually $2 per activity. The food and drinks however made it easy to burn through money fast. I guess we are just not used to paying for others. The thing that did bother me though was the all the people talking with the fake British accent. To me fake accents are like fake tans, they make you seem muddled and annoyingly pretentious. I understand that this is some people's hobby and what they live for but there seems like there is a line between fan and obsessed. We heard that one couple had just spent $900 on clothes while there to get the right look. I guess to each their own. I guess I spend that much on all my hobbies combined each year.
It was huge and we ended up staying there for 6 hours and I don't feel like we were dragging at any time, but by the end our cousins were tired and fell asleep on the way home.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Visiting Playland

My wife and I had a strict rule. Friday night is our date night. It allows us in our mind to procrastinate anything we have to get done for the weekend. The problem being to try to come up with new ideas so we don't get stuck in the rut of just going to dinner and a movie.
This night my wife came up with the idea and we ended up going to Playland! There seem to be amusement parks like this everywhere. It's the county fair or street carnival that decided everything was to hard to pack up so they just stayed where they were. Entrance is free and you just pay for the rides; similar to what I am sure the "E" ticket was like at Disneyland. The funny thing is that when we moved here I saw Playland bumper stickers on all the cars. In California there is a company that makes playground equipment with the same name and logo. I had just assumed they had a factory out here too with a lot of enthusiastic employees.
We both have had a hankering for riding a roller coaster so we bought a $30 pass which allowed us 5 rides each. The house of mirrors ended up being a dud but the "Flying Witch" spook house was sufficiently corny to leave us laughing and confused about some of the hydraulic mannequins. The roller coasters were better. We got to go on a metal one that flipped up upside down in loops and an old wooden roller coaster that we just happened to go on at the right time to see the fireworks while riding. (For a small amusement park they had a surprisingly long firework show.) I would recommend watching a firework show from a roller coaster to everyone but it seems like it would take to much planning to do non-randomly. I even convinced her to go on a spinning ride and she didn't get sick. (She took dramamine before coming and I think that it helped that it was totally inclosed so everything she saw was spinning as well.)
Of course in the interest of having the full experience we had to have funnel cake and cotton candy. (we kept calling it sugar floss because of Tivoli Gardens.) We took our picture in the photo booth which really seemed silly since we both have camera phones but the pictures came out pretty good. She won at Skee-ball but I won at Whack-a-mole so I got to keep my manly pride by presenting her with a cheap stuffed animal. All in all, a fun date. I am sure we got some strange looks for acting like kids but that is the fun part.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In Search of the Perfect Pizza

I, like most people in the USA, like pizza. Actually I admit it, I love it. I considered it partly a pilgrimage to go to Italy for the pizza. When we moved here one of the things that I was looking forward to was the the large Italian population. (They have an all Italian channel instead of the Spanish Univision I am used to.) If I had to give up good Mexican food I felt I was at least going to get good pizza in return.
So one of the things that I have picked up is the search for good pizza. We have been lazy and ordering pizza is a nice way of being on a quest instead of just to lazy to make something for dinner. I found newspaper/web articles on who was supposed to be the best and why. We tried a lot of them. I drove high and low comparing them all, and frankly I was really disappointed with all of them. I realize I may be picky but I am not unsatisfiable. In little Italy in NYC there is Lombardi's Pizza. It's been there since 1905 and they keep winning awards for best pizza. (If going to NYC, go there.) The problem is that they are to far away for the dinner "quest".
I had been tinkering with the idea of trying to make my own. On Earth Day our company gave everyone a plant. I requested sweet basil. Now I just had to try it. The problem was that one of the things that got lost in our move was our pizza pan. While at a cooking store I saw a pizza stone that fits in the oven and bought that instead. With no more excuses I started looking up recipes.
In my mind making dough was a tedious all day affair. I guess it is just from growing up and helping my Mother make 16 loaves of bread, my arms tired from kneading bowl after bowl. In reality when only making one pizza really the only hard part of this recipe is planning far enough in advance to let the dough rise. The hallmark of an excellent pizza is the simplicity of the ingredients; this translates into really easy to make. I was amazed at how easy it all was. No really, as in anyone that can turn on an oven can make pizza better than 99% of the pizza places. I guess it is like cheese cake, it's only tastes good and is easy to make in small batches, it's scaling it up that makes it hard.
So now that I have tried it about 10 times now or so what are the secrets? Well here is what I have learned. More than anything else use fresh ingredients and more than that make sure to use fresh chopped basil. Seriously, having that little basil plant in the window made all the difference. Outside of that... the pizza stone really doesn't help that much, I don't have to spin the dough above my head for less handling, the sauce really is just a tomato, olive oil, and garlic in the blender, and as long as I clean up afterward my wife is OK with the whole obsession. I personally like the crust crusty on the outside with a chewy center and I found that if I short circuit the rising by getting rid of the second kneading then that helps too.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hacker Confrence

There was a computer hacker conference in NYC so I decided with it right there, I just had to go. It was called "The last HOPE" (Hackers on Planet Earth) because they were going to tear down the the hotel Pennsylvania where it had always been held.
So what did I learn? Anything you put on the internet is there forever. (Hello private investigators!. This is why I am glad I never use names or homes.) You can find out anything about anyone anywhere for around $40 (e.g. voting record, web sites visited, sexual orientation, credit card statements, and buying habits) and this is the information that the lawyers picking juries and the government is buying (so much for privacy). Of course I already knew it but anything in the hands of the public can be hacked. (It is really shameful how bad voting machines are though and anyone who uses one to vote might as well not even go to the polling place.) There were talks on what you can get away with for the post office, and how to do social engineering (get information out of people they shouldn't give up or getting them to do stuff) and there seemed to be a lot of talks on hacking the body. (Trying to alter chemical or neural processes.) I think I got the most out of the electronics talks since I am trying to learn more about micro-controllers with the problems I had with my thesis. There was special talks by Adam Savage from Mythbusters, the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, and the author of the book "Hackers".
The problem I had was that talks went from 10AM to midnight with three tracks and no breaks and there was almost always something I wanted to learn so trying to fit in time for food was a problem. It added to it that all the talks were on the 18th floor of the hotel. At the start one of the speakers had mentioned that it would be nice if someone would hack the elevators to do express trips between the lobby and 18th floor. I think someone tried because about half the elevators didn't work after that and the others had the A/C turned off. They had set up hammocks for people to cash in but I took the train home every night, tried to get what sleep I could before heading back.
So why go if I'm not planning to break laws? Well in this case the gun nuts may be on to something. If this info was outlawed then only the outlaws would have it. I felt it was good to know what and how computers are being used and I am a firm believer in "If I buy it, it is mine to do what I want with it." I also found myself "networking" with the speaker of the "Malicious user interfaces" talk. A lot of the info was directed at catching "script kiddies" (teenagers who use other people's code.) and there were hands on sessions where they had brought in a lot of thrift store toys to take apart and have fun with. There were a lot of public advocacy talks, and tutorials on how to set up your own hacker space, so anyone who thinks it was all anarchists would be wrong.
There was plenty of paranoia to go around (at least one tinfoil hat, a few face masks), but after one of the speakers (who had been arrested at the last conference) explained why it was legal for him to give the info he was giving he stated just for any feds in the audience and he looked at someone in the front row who then shook his head. The guy had a beard and scruffy hair. I would have never guessed him as an FBI agent. The funny thing though was that most of the badges had RFID chips in them and they were tracking everyone everywhere the whole time. They even had a contest to see who could come up with the best visualization of the information. For the most part though there seemed like way to many older people talking about their glory days (with quick interjections of the statute of limitations running out) and how hacking isn't the same these days since the FBI doesn't give them the same priority as they used to. I still don't get bragging about something you don't want to get caught for. Compared to DefCon (the other major hacker conference I have been to) there seemed to be less "quick patch your computer" hack press releases and more "fun things to do with stuff around the house" type talks. Still I now know how to hack London's subway Oyster ticket system (and it looks like someone there did if you read the news.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Surprise concert

L. calls me up at work as I am packing up to come home to ask if I wanted to go to a Billy Joel concert. Her Aunt and Uncle are huge fans and have extra tickets. While I know some of his songs from the radio he was a little bit before my generation. I figured that someone they were going with was sick and had backed out. L. couldn't go because she had thrown her back out and I didn't really want to pay and go by myself. Then I found out they had got the tickets for us from a friend that worked did the lighting for the concert and had asked for tickets for us specifically. Boy, did I feel guilty.
So it ends up that this was the last concert at Shea stadium before it was getting torn down. And, since we were getting the tickets from someone inside they included full access back stage passes. Not to mention that a couple of the seats for the section we were in (middle section, middle row) had gone up on eBay and sold for $100,000. Now, I really felt like the ingrate. (and hated by both Mets and Billy Joel fans.)
We took a tour of all the back stage and stadium areas and grabbed some water bottles for everyone from the catering area then found our seats. It was amusing because the mayor of NYC was sitting in front of us and his secret service were behind us in the aisle. Since I am so tall every time I stood up they had to shift around because they couldn't see Bloomburg anymore. They also said they saw Kelly Ripa but I don't know how she looks so I didn't.
The concert itself was very cool. It was obvious he has been doing this for a long time and I put him at about the same as Peter Gabriel for the level of show he put on. I was surprised at how many songs I recognized and he was singing a lot of Beatles songs since they preformed the first concert there in Shea stadium. There were "surprise" visits from Tony Bennett, John Mayer, Don Henley, and John Melloncamp. All people I would have liked to see in concert and here I was front and center. L.'s aunt and uncle had brought their whole family and Billy Joel music is very much a part of their family since every one of them was singing along with every song. It was really cool to see family bonding happening at a concert.
I bought a CD as my souvenir. (I refuse to buy a new CD outside of a concert venue with how the music industry has been acting, but I do like to buy my CD's at concerts since the money actually goes to the artist then.) Since we had entered through the press entrance I did not get searched and had brought a pretty good camera in with me. I have not been to a concert in a while and it does look like they are a lot more relaxed about the camera issue (I'm guessing because everyone has camera phones.) but the guys sitting next to us asked me to email them our pictures because they didn't have a camera so I guess they were still checking. (He gave me his card and ended up being some CFO for a food company.)
Of course this being a concert in NYC you take the subway there and home. We didn't have to deal with a mash of cars trying to exit the driveway but we did have to deal with a bottleneck of people trying to get up the stairs to the train. Once in the subway station there was no wait since they were running extra express trains to Grand Central for everyone. Because of little waits here and there I didn't get off the train and home until 2AM though.
The only downside was the concert was on a Wednesday and I had to do user testing the next day. Aside from a couple of yawns and crashing onto the bed as soon as I got home I did make it through the day.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Where Does the Time Go?

Since we were on vacation is seems like we missed the start of summer. The first thing we noticed getting back was the humidity. It was kind of hard to miss just walking out of the airport; even at night. Other little things like suddenly seeing fireflies at night again really catch me off guard. (As a side note, growing up on the west coast, I never saw fireflies until I was adult. So many things are described to you and when you see them they let you down. I am glad that fireflies really do live up to their name for how bright they glow.) The one sign of summer that we did seem to get back in time for was the Cicadas. They still seem to be tuning up for later in the summer and only offer an occasional buzz instead of the constant drone that only hundreds can produce in unison.
Of course at work everything had to happen in that two and a half weeks that I was gone. They lost the paperwork for the project I was working on so nothing got done. I got a raise, was switched to a different team and one of my co-workers quit. Also in the first week back I hit my one year anniversary at work. It is weird that I have been working there a whole year already. (I don't feel like I got a years worth of work done.)

Monday, July 07, 2008

End reflections of our trip

After updating my Facebook profile with the new countries I have been to it says I have seen 25% of the world, or 30 countries. This trip I got a few comments that my passport is looking a little full. So am I an expert on traveling? not by a long shot. Especially with this trip, we only got to see one city in each country. The last time we were in Europe we at least got to travel through the countryside, and spend more than a day in one place if the desire was there. The benefits of this trip was letting someone else do the driving. We got to relax in an unpacked cabin while traveling to the next city. While we did get to wake up in a new country most of the days and it was nice being able to lock up our passports in the safe instead of wearing our money belts 23 1/2 hours a day. However, I felt like something was missing every time we used US money to buy something on the ship. There also just was not enough time in each country but it did give us good reason to want to go back and visit them more. The funny thing is that neither of us had a favorite country. We both enjoyed each place for different reasons.
London: Lack of language barrier (hmm, kinda).
Denmark: Bridges and churches.
Germany: Just taking a beach day.
Sweden: Meeting "long lost relatives".
Finland: Great biking and the most interesting people watching.
Russia: Just being in Russia.
Estonia: Preserved medieval town.
I don't think we could have asked for better weather for the trip. Really there was only rain while eating lunch in Russia and a little bit in London. The rest of the time we had nice non-humid cool weather (Which allowed me to wear my jacket to hide stuff in without looking weird). For all the possibilities of us loosing luggage, pickpocketed, getting hurt, or the bikes breaking, or us getting lost and left in a port; none of it happened. Really the only thing that went wrong was L. getting stuck on a crazy bus ride in Dover, and we had the extra day built in for just such a problem.
I do know one thing. I don’t think I will be going on anymore organized tours any time soon. I felt like cattle being herded in Russia and there is no way I want to be associated with inconsiderate people like we met in the Tallinn church. I am proud to say that I blended in good enough that a local person tried to talk to me in every country. (Which is saying a lot since we were in all heavy tourist towns and a lot of the time they would use English to the person right in front of me.) I just dressed the same way as the locals and kept the camera in my pocket when not using it. (We also kept our credit cards and passports in a hidden money belt. We saw plenty of tourists that had their money pouch just hanging around their neck - the one that is supposed to go under the clothes. I mean, I'm guessing they wouldn't hang their wallet from their neck.) I think it also helped to be respectful of the local customs like not talking annoyingly loud. Of course when they did talk to me I had to apologize that I had no idea what they were saying, Only in Finland did the person not know English. When I was in London I saw a guy in a "Hooters" T-shirt and laughed because while I knew he thought he was making a statement I knew there was a better chance of him being bugged by tour vendors, trinket sellers, and pick-pockets. We tried to get the basic words for each country but learned the most Russian words since the least people spoke English there.
I am glad I had a cell phone for the trip. It was annoying that there was the exorbitant price of $0.99 a minute when in reality the cell phone tower does not do any more work than when you are roaming on a different network, but it allowed L. to stay in quick contact with her family through some tough times. I also had a program loaded on to give me the exchange rates of all the currencies since only Germany and Finland were using Euros. (So much for the EU using a common currency.) I had loaded a VOIP program on my phone but the wireless connections I found just weren't fast enough so L. could hear me when I called from London but I could not hear her. I also had all the cruise excursions loaded into my calendar so if we ran out of stuff to do on our bikes we could look up what else tourists wanted to see in the city.
Of course as soon as you go on vacation everything falls apart. The project I was working on crumbled and everyone was trying to get a hold of me even though I had told at least one person on the team the info they needed. For L. all the family trouble seemed to be squeezed into those two weeks.
So, the final cost? $3025 for the cruise tickets + $240 for the auto-tipping they had on the ship, $1830 for our plane tickets, $420 for us to go on the one shore excursion we did, around $500 for train tickets and hotel rooms in Dover and London, and I’m not even going to go into how much was spent on souvenirs. But, the way I look at it, some people have nice cars, collect rare objects, or hobbies like golf. Me, I just travel whenever I can.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Moments

Probably the best part of traveling is the little moments that just happen. They aren't planned yet they are usually what we remember the most.
London:
-Being in a foreign land by myself.
-Walking the cross walk for Abbey Road.
-Catching myself responding with a British accent.
-Realizing that sight seeing by yourself is boring.

Dover:
-Finally seeing my wife after 5 hours of waiting.
-Seeing the giant ship from across the bay.
-Walking 2 miles to the ship.

On the ship:
-Singing Karaoke
-Swimming in an pool in the middle of the ocean.
-Realizing at 12:30 in the night that the sun was not going down anymore than it was.
-Running down the narrow hallways during rough seas.
-Being refereed to as "The bike people".
-Going on stage to help with the magician's assistant.
-learning to juggle with my rolled up socks in the juggling class.
-Listening to techno music during breakfast.

Copenhagen:
-Getting lost trying to get off the ship with our bikes.
-Realizing in Christiana that if our bikes were stolen, I wasn't really sure there was anyone to go to.
-Just deciding that riding to all the interesting church spires was more interesting than the planned route.
-Riding a ride at an amusement park in another country.
-Getting bloated at Tivoli Gardens because we just had to try the local herring, sausage, ableskievers, and waffles.

Warnemünde:
-Being surprised by naked people on the beach.
-just riding our bikes without a care where we were headed.
-Climbing on the art in the park.
-Swimming in the Baltic Sea.
-Realizing how annoyingly convenient bike commuting is in Europe.

Stockholm:
-Seeing a Volvo limo.
-Walking where Nobel prize winners have walked.
-Having lunch with "long lost family".
-Trying to ride back into town to buy a hat before the boat left and having my chain come off from the hard peddling.

Helsinki:
-Walking the aisles of a foreign flea market and seeing identical clock to one we owned.
-Realizing we had just accidentally rode down the Prime Minister's driveway.
-Finding a house at the folk museum that even L. was to tall for.
-Eating reindeer stew.
-Watching newly-weds leaving the church in a bike taxi.

St. Petersburg:
-Reaching down and touching Russian soil while waiting in the visa line.
-Entering the Hermitage and climbing the stairs.
-Eating Borscht, than ordering it again the next day because it was so good.
-Being annoyed by "the ugly American" tourists in our tour group.
-Learning that one of the people got pick-pocketed in our tour group.
-Pulling L. away from the street vendors so we could catch the bus.
-Riding "the little green bus" with the dock workers.
-Walking into the middle of town based on my memory of the bus trip the previous day.
-L. pronouncing every sign she could read.
-Seeing the price difference between the local and tourist price.
-Avoiding the street vendors because L. decided she did not want to buy a box she had promised she would come back for.
-Taking the local bus tour because we were tired anyway.
-Watching the insanity of the people shopping on the ship because they never got visas.

Tallinn:
-Riding across cobblestone street after street.
-Riding through the deserted streets of the upper town because we had beat the tour groups.
-Leaving a church in disgust because of the annoying tourist.
-Putting out the eternal flame trying to light our candle. (and quickly lighting it again from the flame of another candle.)
-Waiting forever for our lunch and not knowing what to do about it.
-Realizing we had rode to the wrong port and we had 15 minutes to ride 2 miles.

London again:
-Riding on the left side of the streets and bike paths.
-Watching a musical about New York City in London.
-Getting in an argument because we suddenly had so many choices for dinner.
-Seeing the "gay pride" flag waving at the church.
-Getting pulled aside by security at the airport because of a "grenade" in our bag.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

London Again

We arrived in London at around 10:30 in the morning. Luckily our hotel was right next to the train station in Charing Cross. The let us check in early so we could put our bags in our room then we had lunch and went across the street to enjoy the British Portrait Gallery. Since it was the 4th of July we felt a little guilty “fraternizing with the enemy” so we took our picture with the George Washington statue to quiet our guilt. We had enjoyed riding our bikes in all the cities so much we decided to add London to the list so we unfolded our bikes and rode where ever we wanted to. We started by riding to Buckingham Palace. It still was not late enough in the year to tour the place so we continued riding through the extensive network of parks set up for the royal family to previously hunt in I’m guessing, but now it was for horses, bikes, and people walking. It was really sad that the people that were inevitably walking in the bike lane always seemed to be tourists. They really didn't recognize bikes using bike lanes.
We stopped by Harrod’s because I had to show L. just how over the top they really were with their grocery department and the size of everything. From there we wanted to ride along the river so we just took side streets enjoying riding bikes on the left side of the road. (Yes, it kept messing with my brain even though I have previously driven here.) We never did end up riding along the river. We ended up being forced to ride on really busy roads. We noticed something odd though, cars were not crowding the bike riders. So we tried riding and it felt so weird to have polite drivers go around you. Even the bus waited for us when it was trying to pull over to make a stop. It really thew me off to feel safe riding on one of the most busy roads in London. By the time there was a path to ride on we were at the Parliament building, Big Ben, and Westminster Cathedral so there was just to many tourists to crash into. Instead we just walked our bikes along the river then put them back in the hotel room.
In the evening we were glad to find the TKTS booth in Leicester square and bought tickets for the show “Avenue Q”. It was weird being in London watching a show about Brooklyn but the show was hilarious and we both had songs stuck in our head when leaving. We had Indian food for dinner and realized that since we had not eaten at any of the specialty restaurants on the ship this was the first time we were eating food out of the ordinary.
The next morning we put our luggage in the storage room, checked out and headed off to Portobello Road for the Saturday market. We came here last time we were in London and I still get the song from Bed Knobs and Broomsticks stuck in my head. There were tons of antiques and we finally had to call it quits because we could have spent all day there. From there we headed to 221b Baker Road to see the Sherlock Holmes museum. (In all actuality I only felt the need to see the gift shop since it was all made up anyway and the address is really 232 Baker Road. We headed back to our hotel, collected our luggage, and found ourselves in the middle of a gay pride parade there at Trafalgar Square.
Going through the airport security L.’s bag got stopped and there was soon a crowd of security around the screen with them calling more over. I heard someone say the word “Grenade” so I thought it was one of those false positive tests but they were clicking on the screen and every time they did they looked more worried. Soon security asked who’s it was and then asked L. if she had packed anything dense. After searching a little through her mind she realized that the Faberge egg she bought was probably triggering the image recognition in the x-ray machine. The security guy pulled L.’s backpack out of the machine with it blaring sirens and flashing lights. After pulling everything out of the backpack they realized the Faberge egg made up the body of the grenade and handle from a small glass stein made the pull pin and handle when they were stacked vertically in the x-ray. After telling us firmly (with a straight face until he turned around) it probably wasn’t wise to bring that through security. The alarms in my head kept going off every time I said the words grenade and explosives while at the airport. The rest of the flight went off without a hitch.
It was so convenient to be able to take the subway to the airport in London, New York City really needs to stop bowing to the taxi cab union and extend the subway to JFK and LaGuardia airports. Instead we had to take a bus to Grand Central Train Station that cost an extra $15 per person. We got home without any trouble and collapsed into bed almost immediately.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Biking through Europe

When doing research for the trip I had seen that most of the cities we were going to used bikes heavily for transportation (All cities except St. Petersburg). This made me feel OK with using bikes to get around everywhere but I had no idea how good it would be. To give an idea of the integration bikes had we saw a bride and groom get into a bike taxi at a Helsinki wedding. Some cities even had free bikes for use around the city. (We never used them since we could never guarantee they would be there for ride back to the ship.)
Bike lanes: Not just a part of the road with extra strips for bikes. There was separate roads for bikes complete with traffic signals and lanes sometimes.
Bike rails on stairs: When we had to go up or down stairs there was a metal or cement ramp with a groove for bike tires. While so simple it is such an obvious idea that made using bikes so much easier.
Bike parking: We experienced this a lot, since so many people use bikes the huge bike parking lots full of lock up polls could fill up fast. Since our bike were small all we needed was one pole for both of them and we always found at least that.
Security: London was the only place we saw all bikes locked up. For the rest, about 35% had no locks whatsoever. 50% would just lock the frame to the back tire so someone could not just ride off. The last 15% actually locked their bike to something, usually with a flimsy chain. Since our bikes got so much attention everywhere we went we always locked our bikes up. Mainly out of habit but also it would have thrown a major kink into the works if one had been stolen.
Riding on cobblestone: I had to get the tallest folding bike because of my height. It just so happened that mine came with full suspension. L. was not so lucky and got a little more jostled than I did. However she was never sore enough to not ride the next day.
using maps: I had made sure to buy good maps of most of the cities we were going to. (I could not find Warnemünde or Tallinn.) I was the navigator for the trip so this meant lots of pulling over to look at the map. However it was much easier then a car since it is easy to switch from pedestrian to bike rider quickly if a wrong turn is made. I don’t know how many times we got lost last time we were in Europe because we got stuck on some one way road.
People’s reaction: I was expecting at least some angry people when we took the bike on or off the ship. That was not the case. I guess it was because they were unimposingly small and we rode them slower then normal bikes. We became known as the bike people on the ship. People repeatedly came up to us and asked us about them. In every city kids would say things similar to cool and give us a thumbs up.
Cost: Each bike cost us $350. We figured the cheapest biking, walking, and bus tours cost around $80. So after four days they were paid for. Since they folded up as one of luggage pieces it did not cost any extra to being them with us.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Sea Ride Home

After leaving Tallinn we had two days at sea to get back to Dover. Up until now we only had one day at sea intervals and I had already seen everything on the ship so now it was an exercise in not getting bored or stir crazy.
L. was more that happy to read and take long naps. I read and finished the book I had brought with me and got caught up on these posts I was writing. Luckily there were calm seas so we did not have a repeat of the first day at sea. I enjoyed when I stayed up late hoping to see the Aurora Borealis and instead watched the evening glow shift from west to east as the sun reset. L. had convinced me that we should both get massages. I enjoyed going to the art auctions just to see the art and ended up bidding on a discount for a massage for the both of us.
Of course we had to try everything on the boat to say that we did it. We did play a game of bingo but I lost interest pretty fast. Shuffleboard was fun but I could not get the hang of the rocking ship and L. beat me handily. We tried the golf driving cage but having never golfed I was happy I could even get the ball to leave the platform. L. convinced me to play giant checkers and I enjoyed grabbing my pieces with my feet to truly jump her pieces but the deck was pretty wet and slippery so I didn’t try it to many times. We couldn’t find the basketball or tennis rackets so we never did get to play on those courts. And of course during the day I got in line with all the kids and went down the water slide. It was a little slow and I got stuck half way forcing me to use my legs to keep me moving the rest of the way down.
The last day of the cruise you simply packed up your luggage and left it outside your cabin. So we folded up our bikes that we had been storing next to our bed every night and put them back into their cases. We arrived back in Dover the next morning at 5AM. Our bill for the extra things we had bought on the ship was waiting by our door. We had our last breakfast and headed out. Our luggage was organized by the time you planned to get off the ship. We picked up our bags and got a taxi to take us to the train station. a 10 minute wait and we were on the train back to London.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Tallinn Estonia(+59° 26' 58.53", +24° 45' 46.38")

I had never thought to visit Estonia but I thought it was cool that we were. Tallinn’s claim to fame is how preserved of an old city it has; and even though it was our last city we visited it is true that it impressed us with how medieval it looked. Since we didn’t have anywhere in particular to see we started out trying to do the walking tour but that quickly just gave way to us riding around on our bikes.
We started at the city wall. There was really no escaping riding on cobblestone here so instead we tried to choose our path to the smoothest possible cobblestone. This path led us up the the high city. It was beautiful. We were able to ride around deserted streets since it was still early morning. It was like we had the whole town to ourselves. Of course we had not out-paced the tour groups by much and soon we were surrounded.
We went into the “Old church” and like many churches it has a sign for no photos and to be silent. There were tour groups in there and it was obvious that the tourists didn’t care they were in a church because they were snapping away with flash pictures and talking loudly. I was about to tell someone off but the tour guide beat me to it. That lasted about 30 seconds before people were taking pictures again. We left quickly trying to get away from the tour groups.
We went into the Russian cathedral. There was a service going on so a small group was huddled on one side chanting and singing. There were also bee’s wax candles everywhere that were lit adding a smell somewhere between honey and incense. L. bought and lit a candle (4 Kroon ~ $0.40) for her grandmother who she had just found out was getting a stint in her heart that day.
From there we rode the the Parliament building and castle (One building) It was funny to see how they had just glommed on extra building to the castle as they needed more space. For how official of a building it was I like how hodge-podge it looked.
We rode back down into the lower town and decided on lunch at Olde Hansa, a German medieval building in the middle of town. The food was delicious but it took forever. After waiting an hour the waitress warned us that the desert took some time. We didn’t want to be the rude Americans but after signaling for our check and waiting a half hour we went inside and paid for food so we could leave. I would have like to stay but the deadline of the cruise ship put us under a deadline or we would end up buying a plain ticket back to Dover.
Part of the city wall was used to sell woven clothes. It is known as sweater wall, and looked just like a Renaissance Faire except these people were not dressed in costumes. We also visited a pharmacy that has been in operation since the 1300’s. They had shelves full of old remedies. I can only wonder what current medicine will look like in a few hundred years.
When we headed back to the dock we took a different way with me thinking that it would save time. As it turns out it put us on the wrong side of the dock. With all the other cruise ships hiding ours it gave us a skip that ours had already left. Our bikes came in very handy once we saw our ship. Otherwise we would have had a lot of running to do to get to the other side of the dock in time, As it was it was just a normal bike ride that gave us plenty of time to spare.

Monday, June 30, 2008

St. Petersburg Russia(+59° 53' 26.76", +30° 12' 33.68")

I’m sure that like us, for most people being in Russia was the high point of the trip. Something I never grew up thinking I would do. This of course was tempered by arriving in an industrial port since our ship was to large to park in the river.
This was the only place where we had bought a ship excursion. I didn’t know where the ship would dock and could not find any information about riding bikes in Russia. I had also read a lot of recommendations to use a guided tour for the Hermitage museum since it is so large and it will get you in early.
The warning the tour operators gave us was to expect lines and accept them as part of the experience. Well, it was true. We waited in the auditorium for them to call our tour then followed the line out to go through customs. While waiting there was a band playing American band songs which seemed really odd to me.
The marathon was going on that day so our bus had to re-route around it. We ended up walking about a half mile to get to the Hermitage. It was busy; very busy. There were crowds everywhere and the guide wisked us from room to room. It never really hit me that I was in the Hermitage until we were allowed a short time to wander and I saw a Picasso I had studied in art history. It was very overwhelming since not only is there all the artwork but since it is in former palaces the floors, walls and ceilings are beautiful too.
From the Hermitage we walked across the square to a small cafe where lunch had been arranged. It was a traditional meal with borscht, Stroganoff, and some sort of berry tart. It was the best borscht L. and I have tasted. It had started raining during lunch so we were stuck there while they tried to maneuver the bus closer. It was frustrating to just not walk to the next place since it was so close. Finally everyone grey restless enough to put up with a little rain and walked to where the bus was.
Since we would not be going to Moscow I wanted to see the church of the spilled blood to see the traditional Russian church. It did not disappoint. The outside was full of detail and all the walls on the inside were covered with mosaics. After the tour of the church the guide set us loose on a nearby market.
The problem with being in a tour group is there is no way to escape being a tourist. One of the people in our group got pick pocketed. (L. thinks by a group of 3 guys acting like they are selling books that they were shoving into peoples faces which fits the description.) But such a large group always had to move through a gauntlet of street sellers, and the radio receivers around our necks branded us as tourists like nothing else could. Because of this L. and I decided that it was not that long of a walk (It ended up being 4 miles into town) For the bus ride home I tried to memorize each turn the bus made and took pictures of all the intersections as we headed home. We had bought a map but the ship had docked off of where the map showed. While L. knew enough Russian to read the Cyrillic alphabet all the names still sounded the same so street signs where not much help.
The next day we were able to use our visas that allowed us to come and go as we wanted. We got off to an early start so that we would not have to wait in the line with the tours to get past customs. From our ship we caught the little green bus that offered free rides to the dock workers to get them around the dock. So with a bus full of dock workers we rode to the security gate that saved us about a mile of walking. We had our visas were examined again and we finally were on our own in Russia. We had decided to walk everywhere here since I had not seen any bikes locked up anywhere and the few bike riders I saw were factory workers so I'm guessing could lock up their bikes indoors. Since we were walking into town we got strange looks from all the people headed to work. We stopped at a gas station for L. to use the "WC". While there they would not sell us water bottles but because of the language barrier we could not figure out why.
We decided to head down the main street in town, Nevsky Prospekt. Since we were able to stop in any store we liked we were able to check the tourist price vs. locals price for fur and caviar. It ends up that at the stores specializing in receiving tour busses the prices are about 40% higher (a fur coat was $3000 vs $5000) I really liked walking down Nevsky Prospekt because we saw a lot of the buildings in the pack of post cards we bought to send people.
We stopped for lunch at a local cafe and again enjoyed delicious borscht along with crepes. L. was to tired to keep walking so we bought tickets for the local double-decker tour bus. They gave you headphones and each seat had a plug, you chose the channel for the language. The funny part was that it was around 350 Roubles (~$15) for each of us. The similar tour if we had booked through the cruise ship would have been $80. We were able to see the rest of the city and a lot of the locally important places that might have been skipped otherwise. The bus let us off closer to the ship port than if we had walked but it was still three miles.
The architecture for the whole city seemed like exact copies of each other. All 19th century stone block buildings. It made it easy to get lost. However, by following the rivers we did not get lost. I like the look of soviet cars. They remind me of the VW notchback.
Once the ship left port they had brought aboard souvenirs for people to buy that did not have a chance to buy anything for the tours they had gone on. What unfolded was a crazy scene of people buying stuff on the ship. It was like a day after Thanksgiving sale and they just had to buy something, anything.