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Entries in travel (9)


New York City

‘The intern said he had never lived in New York City, and asked me what it was like. I didn’t really have a good answer, but I said, “New York is the kind of place where ten things happen to you every day on the way to the subway that would have qualified as interesting dinner conversation in Bloomington, Indiana, and you don’t pay them any notice.”’

From Joel Spolsky's Introduction to Best Software Writing I

You can always expect people to rave nonsensically about their hometown. Usually they're just ignorant bigots. Sad, but that's life. Sometimes however, they're actually right, and that's when it becomes really irritating.

I'm in New York for the week-end. Around lunchtime, while looking for a good Deli, I saw a priest wearing a $2000 Armani jacket over his frock. He was more than ridiculous, he was a walking insult to good taste, and very probably christianity – although I wouldn't know much about that.

Earlier in the morning I saw a rundown hippie trip and fall upon the dogs he was walking– the biggest, meanest great danes I'd ever seen. I was sure the dogs would panic and drag the poor guy into incoming traffic, but they only looked at him with haughty condescension – not an expression that comes easily to a breed of dog with misshapen ears and overactive salivary glands.

As the evening fell, I passed the Versace store on fifth avenue, where two grossly overweight women were gazing at the predictably anorexic mannequin and arguing on which dress would look best on them.

Had dinner in an Irish pub which proudly welcomes UN workers from the neighborhood. Heard conversations in languages I didn't even recognize. Four different languages I didn't recognize. Oh, I also shook hands with Homer Simpson. And I haven't been here 24 hours.

What's amazing about all these little stories happening around me is that I am not even remotely trying to have an interesting time. I am proofreading a big project proposal and thus spend most of my time in front of a computer, working. But for the facts that I'm doing this in various Starbucks instead of at home, and that I'm sharing a dorm with 11 men I have never met, this could be just another day at the office.

At one point I came across an alternative-looking clothing shop and went for a quick look inside. It was full of rock-and-roll paraphernalia. Old amps. Posters. Alice Cooper's gold and platinum records.

The shop belongs to John Varvatos, a designer from Detroit who recently made it big selling rock-and-roll-inspired quality clothes. He apparently designed many of Cooper's stage outfits and hired him to showcase his current line – in return he got the trophy records as a gift.

As I chatted with the saleswoman, she told me the shop's whole story: it was formerly known as the CGBG club, and the birth place of Punk Rock. The Ramones played there before they were famous. A couple years ago though it was only a shadow of its former glory, and tenants wanted to close it down. Enter John (Varvatos), who walked by it in broad daylight, gazed inside, and thought he could turn it into an underground-looking fashion store with very little work. So he did. It looks awesome. It even has a stage where live concerts happen from time to time.

I was fascinated. And rather shocked that I was only discovering the guy then and there. An award-winning fashion designer who buys run-down Punk Rock clubs and hires Alice Cooper as a model strikes me as someone I should have heard of. But I had not. Come to think of it, I had never seen a platinum record up close either. But now I have. Just because I took a random walk in the east village looking for AC power and a latte.

I love this place.

More photos here.


Just In: Tasty Food Keeps You Thin

While roaming the web for news bits on the health-care reform debate in the US (which can be hysterically funny or very sad, often simultaneously) I stumbled upon a report on various health care statistics in OECD countries.

For me the most interesting part of this report was the last graph, which charts obesity levels across countries. These seem to inverse-correlate perfectly with how good I find the food there. The thinnest countries are those with either superb meat and produce (Switzerland), awesome cuisine (France), or both (Japan). The fattest are those where good food seems rare and wicked expensive (the UK and US).

Obviously this is just my own perception, but how great would it be if there was some general law hidden in there, so that each time you had a really good meal, you could tell yourself that in all likelihood it must also have been really healthy?


What's in the bag?

This morning I had the privilege of speaking at the GeoWeb conference in sunny Vancouver. The conference looks again very promising, but that is not my subject today. Rather, I am writing about what I did before arriving in Vancouver: just to make this trip a bit more challenging, I decided to fly in a little early, visit Seattle and Victoria, go hiking in Olympic National Park, and try to take a few interesting pictures along the way.

If you've ever done any backpacking, you might spot a little logistics challenge here: I need enough photo gear for serious pictures, enough camping gear to survive a few days in the wild, and clothes that won't look entirely out of place at the conference. Obviously I'll be flying in and out, and once there I'll travel only on foot and public transport, as I'm allergic to cars, so I can't take more than I can comfortably carry on my back for days on end. Not trivial.

Below is my solution: everything I'm packing plus the bags I'm carrying it in, photographed and listed in no particular order. If you've ever had to sit on your suitcase to close it, or felt miserable carrying too much stuff on a long trip, I hope you'll find a few useful things in there.

  • One body, two lenses

  • Spare battery, charger

  • 7x 4GB CF Cards

  • 2x 500GB portable hard drive

  • Laptop, USB hub, VGA and AC adapters

  • Cell phone

  • Wallet, passport

  • Tripod with ball-head and leveling base

  • Day pack: unpadded messenger bag (shown rolled)

  • Sleeping bag, liner, sleeping pad

  • Bivy

  • Lots of garbage bags and ziplock bags

  • Tarp

  • First aid kit

  • Towel

  • Rope, compass, knife/multi-tool, spork, headlamp, water purification tablets...

  • Maps, guide book and Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World

  • 2x water bottle

  • Hiking outfit (shell pants + long-sleeved shirt)

  • Town outfit (Slightly classier pants + long-sleeved shirt. Although it doesn't look like one, this is technically also a hiking outfit, and is very comfortable in a variety of conditions.)

  • Spare long-sleeved shirt

  • Light socks

  • Heavy socks

  • Underwear

  • Swimsuit

  • Fleece top

  • Rain jacket

  • Rain pants

  • Hiking shoes (not shown)

  • Hiking poles (not shown)

  • Backpack to hold all of this in

By the way, I am not listing exact model references because I think the general equipment choices are a lot more important than the precise models and brands bought. However, if anyone's interested in exactly what those items are and the rationale behind them I'll be glad to add that information.

The backpack is a 75+10 liters model, definitely on the roomy side although larger ones certainly exist. On planes and city trips, the day pack holds my wallet, passport, photo gear and laptop, while everything else goes inside the backpack. While hiking, I'm using the trekking poles and the tripod gets lashed to the exterior of the backpack, freeing enough space to empty the day pack inside it and carry everything in reasonable comfort -- or at least that was the plan. I'll post a follow-up in a few days about how well it all worked.

'til then, I'll be thinking of my next walk in the woods...


To France

I'll be spending the next few days in the south of France, doing much the same thing I'm doing here but in a place where the wind is warmer and breakfasts are tastier. I'll be traveling by train, partly because it's cheaper and faster than a car and more peaceful than a plane, but mostly because I like it. (The fact that I lack both a car and a driver's license made the decision that much easier.)

As I've learnt over the years, traveling always brings about its fair share of annoyances :

  • Filling up your suitcase is going to take three times longer than you estimated and five times longer than it should.

  • You better pack your luggage so that you can comfortably carry it along three miles of dirt tracks under pouring rain, because you'll probably have to.

  • No matter how early you get to the station, at some point you'll have to run in order to be on the train in time.

  • Although the train/plane is in theory as fine a place as can be to read/relax/play/work, you won't be able to do so because of some small trifling detail that ruins everything (The actual cause is of course never the same. It may be a baby crying like those WW2 air-strike warning sirens, the old man next to you falling asleep with his head on your lap, anyone of the 120 people in the compartment snoring like an asthmatic elephant, an attractive girl sitting in front of you with a pleasing but extremely distracting negligé, or, my own personal nemesis, 75 boy scouts who enter the train twelve minutes after you've chosen your place and spend the next four hours singing heart warming anthems to keep them in high spirits and the rest of the world miserable.)

Except for the last one, which deals with how human beings are by and large extremely irritating creatures, a fact about which the traveller can't do much, all of these can be made inconsequential by simply traveling as light as you possibly can.

This, however, is easier said than done. Especially when there's many things you plan to do on your trip (eg reading, blogging, taking photographs, general nerding, and coming up with a flexible GML schema for VPF data -- in no particular order) and each of them usually requires quite a bit of hardware. Since in about a month I'll be leaving for Switzerland with much of the same objectives in mind, I've tried to use these four days as a test for what I really needed to take with me on a trip like this.

Here's what I elected to take and why :

  • Apple PowerBook G4 12" : working, organizing, storing photos, watching SICP lectures, learning Ruby, and quite a lot of other fun and/or geeky activities.

  • About 300 pages of printed specs : light reading on the train journey, which is a bit longer than my PB's battery life.

  • 60GB iPod : data and photo backups, listening to Notes from a small Island, catching up on TWiT.

  • Sony DSC-T1 + charger : snapshots and visual note taking.

  • Canon EOS-1DMkII with EF16-35/2.8 : so-called "serious" photography.

  • Polarizing filter, 2GB CF card, 1GB SD card : see above.

  • Sleeping bag, clothes, cell-phone etc.

More to the point, here's what I left at home :

  • More books, specs, etc. : well, there's only so much you can comfortably carry on a train. Which in this case is perfectly fine because there's only so much you can read in four days. But had this been a longer trip, I'd have had to rely much more on ebooks, which I find tiresome to read on a computer screen. (I would really like to see an ebook reader with a screen that really looks like ink on paper.)

  • The EOS-1DMkII's charger. This thing is just huge and cumbersome and annoying and I guess the battery life will be good enough for me since I don't have the time to shoot all that much anyway.

  • More lenses for the 1D. My wide-angle zoom gives an EFL of 21-45, or quite-wide to nearly normal. Although this is the focal length range I use most of the time, it's still pretty limited. Oh well, at least I won't have to worry about changing lenses.

  • Tripod : I know I'm going to miss this. But my tripod is big and heavy so it's really difficult to justify on a trip where photography's not the main priority. A light carbon-fiber travel tripod would be really nice, but those aren't cheap.

  • Camera bag : I never use one unless I'm carrying more than two lenses.

  • Portable photo hard drive : I have the powerbook and iPod, and don't intend to travel far, so why bother ?

So here I am, on a train bound for the south of France, with all this stuff in two small bags, and a bunch of things to do. I'll get back to you in a few days to tell you how it all worked out.

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