Island Hopping in a Car

The last few weekends, M and I went on roadtrips to see friends and family.

First, on July 20, we drove down to Amelia Island in northern Florida to attend the wedding of our good friends Bob and Darci, both sociologists who recently got PhDs from UNC. It was a very nice event… Friday night, there was a dance and mixer in a clubhouse on the marshes, where we saw lots of old friends who’ve since scattered around the country, and met Bob and Darci’s family. The next day we lounged around the beach with friends until the evening ceremony, which was held on yet another island, Fort George Island, linked by bridges (I think there were 2 smaller islands between). It was my kind of ceremony –short and focused on the couple. The reception afterward had delicious food (even if I couldn’t eat most of it), and we had a lot of fun dancing. We also met Bob’s famous movie-star sister Anna. Sunday morning, we went to a bustling brunch, and talked more with Bob’s family and their friends… Bob comes from a line of prominent sociologists, going back 3 generations, and there was interesting conversation. We drove home in record time (unlike our drive down, where we missed our exit and ended up driving in a huge circle around Raleigh… which turned out well, since we discovered we forgot our dress clothes in the hustle, and had to go back for them).

The next weekend, we drove down to the Isle of Palms, near Charleston, South Carolina, to see M’s great-uncle and his sons. They were visiting from Spain, where her grandfather’s brother had emigrated in the 40s. He spoke glowingly about Franco (a first for me) and socialism in general, and held forth on many topics… a fascinating guy. We took midnight walks on the beach with his sons and one’s girlfriend, and by day toured Charleston, where M’s family was once quite prominent, being some of the first Huguenots to settle there.

This past weekend, we saw them again, not on an island but down in the country where M’s family is clustered on their farm spread… her grandparents, her mom, and her aunt each have a house there. We all got together for M’s young cousin’s birthday, and her colorful family was amusing as ever. They are politically Southern, which in this case is a odd mix of individualist independence and progressiveness, and they have surprisingly nuanced views on Federalism and the “War of Northern Aggression”… “The Civil War,” claims her grandfather (or was it his brother?), “was when the American citizens of Britain waged war against England. The War of Northern Aggression was declared and waged between two different countries.” But of course, being rational, they all despise George W. Bush. They’re okay in my book. They also told me ghost stories about their houses that they firmly believe. An odd bunch. Maybe it was an island after all.

Trapped in Tuscany

Okay, Okay, normally I wouldn’t complain about having to spend another day in Tuscany… but I have other plans.   Yesterday I missed my flight, and it had a domino affect that resulted in the worst tangle of travel complications I’ve ever had.  I’ve missed flights before –sometimes my own fault, sometime through circumstances beyond my control (this time it was a combination… the taxi took a long time to get to my hotel, and got trapped behind a slow-moving truck on the way in, but I should have budgeted more time in the morning)– but normally I hop on the next flight and it works out, usually with no fee.

This time was different.

For fare reasons, I had a fairly complicated flight plan, involving a round-trip from RDU to Zurich, and a second round-trip from Zurich to Pisa.  Though they are actually fairly close geographically, there are limited flights out of Pisa, all involving a layover (sometime 12 hours!), and when I missed my flight out of Pisa, there was simply no way of connecting through in time to catch my flight out of Zurich (and there’s only one of those to the States per day).  So half a day later of figuring out how to get in touch with the 4 airlines involved by payphone and Internet, and several outlandish rebooking fees later, I ended up with tickets the next day… for most of my trip.  I now get home 2 hours and an additional layover later on an already tight schedule to go on my vacation back to Missouri for my 20th high school reunion.  After flying for 18 hours, I’m not looking forward to a 15-hour drive nearly as much…

On the lighter side, a colleague drove me in his luxury sports car to Lucca, a nice little medieval city 25 kilometers away.  We strolled around all evening, talked technology and neurology and such, had a nice dinner and a gelato, and snapped pictures of the town.

This morning I snapped awake at 5:30, long before my wake-up call.  You’d better believe I’m making this flight… which is now boarding…. Ciao, y’all.

Transit Glorious Sunday

What a day! After a delicious breakfast on the patio with Andreas and J., I rushed off to the airport to travel to Pisa via Munich. Flying over the Alps was astounding. While I was waiting for my bus at the Pisa airport, I noticed a purse that had been left behind on a bench, with noone around. I reckoned it belonged to the Scottish family that had just walked away, so I grabbed it and ran after them… but no. So I took it inside to turn it over to lost and found; I was a little concerned about that, wondering if it would ever turn up in the right hands intact, so I took a shufti inside to see if I could find any contact info in case I could dial directly; nothing obvious, so I went to the police substation. One of them spoke English, but he was busy, so the other one took the bag and signaled me to follow… over to the bag scanner, where they checked it for (presumably) explosives, and where I got a quick lecture on how I shouldn’t have touched the bag. Sad sad. But then it was back to the police office to wait while he shuffled around for the proper form. Then in walked an older couple, and I recognized her from her photo. “Did you lose your purse? Is this it?” I asked… and she burst into tears of relief for a couple of minutes while her husband thanked me and shook my hand. She recovered and hugged me. “It’s our first day of vacation!” She reached into her bag, “Let me give you something!” When I refused, she said she’d give something to a children’s charity, which seems reasonable. The cop asked her to check the bag for anything missing (with an apologetic look to me that I waved away)… she’d had her camera, maybe 100 euros, an address book… all stuff I’d hate to lose myself. They thanked me again, as did the cop, and I felt pretty good… not because I felt I’d done anything exceptional, but because the little bit I’d done clearly meant a lot to her.

But all this was putting me at risk of missing my bus, so I rushed out across the parking lot, just to see my bus pulling away. I ran after it, and luckily it had to make a u-turn. I waved it down and was relieved to see the driver pull over 100 meters down the road. Once I’d thanked him and caught my breath, I showed him the address of my hotel, and he seemed to nod… I wasn’t dead certain he’d signal me, so I later asked the girl sitting front of me if she knew the stop I needed, but she didn’t speak English either. After around 20 minutes, he stopped, opened the door, and waved me out… it was in the middle of nowhere, between towns, but I stepped out. The doors closed, and the girl looked pretty skeptical, but I shrugged and smiled as the bus pulled away, then turned and took stock. A barren dirt road led off the main road, and a couple of old houses stood nearby, but that was pretty much it. I thought I would have to walk into town. But I ambled down the dirt road just to make sure, and saw a “hotel” sign off in the middle of a field in the distance. And sure enough, there was the Airone Pisa Park Hotel! I’d booked it online at the lead of Chris Lilley, who flew ahead, and I was amused and surprised to find it out in the country. It’s secluded and sprawling, with a nice landscape and casual feel.
I checked in and went round to see if Chris was up for dinner (I think I woke him from a nap), and while I waited for him, I wished I’d bought my swim trunks, since the pool was right outside my door… but the last people lounging there were just leaving, so I slipped on my most bathing-suit-like boxers and dived in. I’m not that good a swimmer, so I’m a little self conscious normally, but swimming by myself, and in this setting, was great. I usually just float around, but I actually swam a few of laps, and dived in several times. Then it was out of the pool and into a quick shower (the shower had one of those wall-o-nozzles thingies, which was novel), and a bit of a read on my stoop until Chris showed up.

The buses aren’t frequent on Sunday, so the manager lent us some bikes. It was great fun biking the few kilometers into Pisa to find a restaurant. We went by the Leaning Tower of Pisa (how could I not?!) and Chris indulged me by taking a series of shctick snaps of me pushing, leaning on, and propping up the tower (again, how could I not?). We had dinner at a little trattoria, then a gelato, and headed back in the dark (luckily one bike had a red light on the back). I called M. on the house VOIP phone in the lobby (I wish she were here), and just got back in from a midnight swim to cool down.

Tomorrow it’s back to work, but it’s been a great weekend!

Climbing the Alps

I’ve spent the last week here in Zurich, Switzerland, for an SVG F2F. I’m staying with Andreas Neumann (GIS PhD student, SVG pioneer, and organizer of the SVG Open conference series) and his wife J. (also a cartographer); they’ve been gracious hosts to Erik Dahlstrom and me, providing room and board in their spacious and elegant apartment nestled in a small village outside of Zurich. The weather has been nice, and several times we dined out on their patio, including Friday night when they had the whole Working Group over for dinner. The view is of the Alps is lovely, though Andreas says it’s even better when the sky is clear… they can see higher peaks further away. Yesterday, the four of us took a gloriously scenic train ride down to Lucano, on the shores of Lake Lugano in the Italian part of Switzerland. We hiked up a small mountain and had lunch at a restaurant at the peak. It was somewhat cloudy and rained a bit while we were eating (good timing), but the view was still lovely, and we all had a good time.

Speaking of climbing the Alps, the SVG F2F was a lot like that. We have all been channeling the bulk of our energies for the last several weeks (and to a lesser extent, months) toward preparing for the SVG Tiny 1.2 Test Fest. It’s been like climbing a mountain, with long tedious preparation before the event, culminating in a burst of exertion. Concentrating on the testing, we didn’t have the opportunity to cover as wide a variety of issues as we have in past F2Fs, though we did spend Friday afternoon discussing administrivia, some unresolved issues with the microDOM, and the other specs we’re working on, including Print and Filters.

Read on past the fold if you care for a little more detail about the technical stuff…
Continue reading “Climbing the Alps”

W3C 2.0

I’m here in Banff, Canada for the 2007 W3C AC (Advisory Council) meeting. The AC is essentially the company reps to the W3C. I played a small part in one of the panel discussions yesterday.

It was the last presentation of the 2-day conference, and the theme was Web2.0: what it is, and how the W3C is adapting to and enabling it. I gave an overview of what Web2.0ey things WAF and WebAPI WGs are doing. It went well… I made a short SVG slideshow with some geeky in-jokes, and it got some laughs. It may have been slightly overshadowed, however, by the conversation between 2 of the other panelists: Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the creator of the Web) and Tim O’Reilly (a prominent tech publisher who coined the term Web2.0). Tough act to follow.

The conference was a lot of fun, as usual, and I got to meet and talk with a lot of technical luminaries, including Dave Raggett, who’s generously letting Chaals and I crash in his hotel room.

Backpacker’s in Banff

I’m writing in the lobby of a backpacker’s lodge (youth hostel) in Banff, Alberta. The Rockies loom all around the town, and I can see a snow-capped peak out the window. I flew into Calgary (airport code YYC, for some odd reason) and rented a car; the drive here was gorgeous. As I got into town, I saw a fleamarket/auction, and stopped in for the local flavor; I picked up a couple Sarah McLachlan CDs for a loony (1 Canadian dollar) on a lark.

It’s been a while since I stayed in a dorm-style hostel (replete with creaky bunk beds and slightly questionable bathrooms)… not since my days hitchhiking through Europe, if I recall correctly. The place is bustling with young-uns. Naturally, several of them are Australian (the kudzu of travelers), and most of the rest seem to be French-Canadian (though we’re a long way from Quebec). I think most of the residents are here for hiking, snowboarding, and skiing in the mountains. I plan on doing some hiking while I’m here, too, but I’m reluctant to do anything more X-treme, lest I need an X-ray afterward.

SD West

I’ve been out here in Santa Clara, CA, the last couple of days at SD West, a developer conference. There have been a few good classes (I finally met the hyperproductive Elliotte Rusty Harold for the first time), and a couple of great events. David Platt gave a hilarious and insightful talk based on his book, Why Software Sucks, and Google dominated at the geek-themed quiz show, Developer Bowl. 6th Sense was a finalist for the Jolt Awards, which were announced here last night, and I stood in for our marketing guy, since I was going to be here anyway. We didn’t take away the grand prize for our category, but we were one of the runners-up; we got a nice little plexiglass plaque.

I’ll be holding my own class on SVG tomorrow afternoon. I don’t know how well attended it will be… the last day of conferences tends to have a lot of attrition. But it will be fun anyway, and I always enjoy evangelizing SVG. I whipped up a little presentation app in SVG… it uses the powerpoint idiom, but slides around a large canvas between text and interactive examples. I’ve been using SVG slides for a while, but this is a little more interesting… well, interesting to make, I hope it’s interesting to watch. The class will center on workflow using SVG, and I’ll dig into code here and there (this is for developers, after all).

Update:  I’ve put my SVG slideshow up here.

Dining Down Under

I’m no gourmet… in fact, I’m somewhat of an anti-foodie. Dining at expensive restaurants and dedicating one’s self to culinary arts seems like a waste of money and time, respectively. I like good-tasting food, sure, but I don’t think it’s very important. Maybe that’s why I have such an easy time being a vegetarian; it’s just not worth the ethical cost for me to eat meat (also, meat’s kinda gross… I helped butcher my fair share of pigs and deer and, yes, squirrels when I was growing up; I have literally made sausage).

But the very fact that I’m a strict lacto-ovo vegetarian (I eat milk products and eggs) means that I focus on food more than I would otherwise, if only in what I avoid. Is that irony? I guess my exception to this is that while I have a very high tolerance for repetitive meals, I do enjoy novelty in my diet. So, dining in Australia was great for that.

Sometimes when I travel, I find it a little challenging to find food. (My friend Cameron, also a vegetarian, has a pretty sensible policy on this… he suspends his vegetarianism while visiting other countries, in large part to sample the local color; it’s too bad I’m so dang stubborn.) But Australia, for all its meaty reputation, is actually pretty veg-friendly. For one, it has some great Thai restaurants, like the one I mentioned earlier. For another, it has pies.

Yummy, yummy pies…

Now that I think of it, M and I had pies there last year, but we just sorta stumbled on the pie stand. This time, I was with locals, and I was made aware that this was a quintessentially Australian dish. You can get them all over the place. We don’t really have them here in the States… the closest thing we have is what we call “pot pies”, and they’re usually frozen, not something you get in a restaurant. They have whole restaurants that serve nothing else! These aren’t your typical 8-inch fruit pies, but little 5-inch savory pies… and they make veggie pies (also spinach “pasties”). I had these pies for breakfast, and they really hit the spot.

After arching… archerying… shooting arrows, Andrew and I went to another Aussie standby, the sidewalk cafe restaurant/bookstore, where I got (what else?) a gourmet pie. But this one wasn’t as filling as I needed after a bit of a workout, so I ordered a second dish, this one off the kids’ menu. When the waitress served it to me, I kinda hoped she’d say, “Do you come from the land down under?” But she just smiled, and gave me… a vegemite sandwich.

It had butter on it, and was much better for it. Andrew said that’s the only way to eat vegemite. I agree.


My host, Andrew, was around today, and he suggested we engage in one of his weekend hobbies: archery. I’ve always wanted to try archery, and had even signed up for a class in high school (but unfortunately never got the chance… the thuggish coach explained that there wasn’t enough equipment, so the girls would learn archery while the boys “got” to play football; do I sound bitter? I hope so). So we drove to Olympic Park, where the 2000 Olympics took place; the archery range was the site of the Olympic archery competition.

It was a lot of fun: I paid $20 Australian for an hour-and-a-half session, with a droll lesson included, as well as periodic tips throughout. I used a recurved bow with a 20-lb pull; Andrew had his own snazzy collapsible 40-lb bow. We shot around 10 “ends” (rounds of volleys, with six arrows to an end) at a target 20 meters away, and Andrew assured me that I did adequately. My top score was 41, out of a possible 60 (that’s around 68%… a high “D”. Me fail archery? That’s unpossible!). I missed the target completely on a few arrows, but got at least one bullseye (10 points) and several gold-ring shots (9 points). For the last 4 ends, they attached balloons to the bullseye, and while I missed it the first end, I popped it the last 3 rounds. I was pretty happy about that. My technique definitely got better as we progressed, but my arms and fingers got more sore. It’s a surprising amount of work to hold the bowstring back while you’re aiming, compounded (pun partially intended) by the trembling as my strength sapped away, making aiming even harder. I’m not an athletic guy, but if I went again, I think I could make a decent showing when I was fresh.

I think I got a bit of a traveller’s cold, so we laid low the rest of the day back at his place, doing a bit of work, and then walked to his favorite local Thai place for dinner… amusingly enough, called Sawasdee, the name of my favorite Thai place in Raleigh. I had a delicious green curry noodle tofu dish, with just the right amount of spice to leave me glowing and alleviate the cold symptoms.

Opera (Not the Browser)

I worked all morning on until mid afternoon, but I felt a bit silly sitting in front of a computer all day while Sydney was just a short train ride away. I’d flown all this way, and it seemed a shame to waste the chance to do some Australizing. The same urge made me take a dip in the ocean at lunch on Thursday. The water was nice and warm, and the waves at Manly Beach made for a pretty vigorous splashing around. But today I felt a little less ambitious, so I went down to Circular Quay, walked around the harbor, and saw the exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art (which M and I had enjoyed last year). Then I walked around the Opera House into the park area. After a while, I began to recognize some landmarks from last year. Once again, I was stunned by the giant bats that hung like strange fruit from the trees. After walking around for an hour or so, I stumbled onto a grassy area we hadn’t seen… there was a large pond with little islands, and birds all around. I relaxed and read for a while. Towards dusk, the cockatoos got really active, and were screaming and swooping low over the heads of people lounging on the green, and I took a bunch of pictures of them. It’s so odd to see them common in the wild, a sort of context shift from them being relatively rare pets.

When the park was closing down, I strolled back past the Opera House, and the courtyard was fenced off, with a huge crowd on the stairs. I went by the ticket booth to see what was going on, with the idle thought that I might get a ticket (though I was sure the prices would be too rich for my blood). I was a little relieved when the cashier told me it was sold out. But as I passed by the front gate, I heard a loudspeaker announce that they would be letting people into the courtyard to watch that night’s opera, La Traviata, on the giant plasma screen… which is what all the people outside had gathered to see… and, I gathered, paid to do so. So I figured, what the heck, and loitered a few minutes. Sure enough, they opened the gates to rabble of my ilk, and I lay down 20 feet from the screen to watch the concurrent performance.

I have to admit that I’m not an opera fan, but it was worth it for the novelty of seeing an opera at the Sydney Opera House (even if I wasn’t inside). I wasn’t really taken with it… some of the music was nice, but that style of overblown range-roving singing gets on my nerves. Of course, the plot was inane and nonsensical, and (spoiler) the heroine died “tragically” at the end. I think I’ll stick with musicals for my infrequent music-story-mashup fix.

I kept missing M throughout the day… she would have enjoyed it, but with me in a conference the whole week, it didn’t make any sense to bring her along this time.