Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Thoughts ahead of the 2017 Transcontinental Race

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

Last Sunday I did my final training ride before the Transcontinental Race (TCR), which starts in Geraadsbergen (Belgium) at 10pm this Friday night, July 28, 2017.

In February 2016 I happened across Joe Todd’s extraordinary TCR blog. I was captivated, and stunned to learn that people went on 4,000km cycling races across Europe, riding with very little sleep for two weeks, carrying what looked like almost nothing (see the first photo on Joe’s page). It seemed incredible. I instantly knew that I had to do it too, or at least try.

I couldn’t really sleep for the next two nights. I couldn’t stop thinking about the TCR. Just the name, the Transcontinental, just the sound and the idea of it, was irresistible. It somehow conjured exotic youthful thoughts of the impossibly distant Trans-Siberian Highway, Murder on the Orient Express, etc. The more I read about the race, the better it seemed. I loved the spirit of the event, the honor code, the fact that the riders have a say in what is unsupported (1, 2), the inclusiveness, the lack of rules, the madness of it, and the rawness. The distances these people were covering every day seemed crazy. And they were doing it in the mountains, with bags on their bikes, in snowstorms and baking heat. Getting blown off their bikes. Getting lost. Barely sleeping. Totally unsupported. Totally nuts.

And glorious:

How could you not want to be a part of that? To have that be a part of you?

Entries for 2016 had closed, but I mailed the organizers, Mike Hall and Anna Haslock, to ask if I could possibly still get in. They replied to say no, but that if I volunteered to help on the 2016 edition that I’d have a guaranteed place in 2017. I ended up building them a web site with a map to show information about hundreds of Eastern European border crossings, allowing people to submit comments on them. The site wasn’t really used in the 2016 race as there was just too much going on for the organizers ahead of the race. I got to hang out on Slack with the admin team and got some glimpses into what goes on behind the scenes both ahead of time and during the race. One thing I realized is that if you race the TCR you might (very often) feel like you’re all alone, but in fact you’re not. There are dozens of volunteer “dot watchers” spread around the world, who monitor the rider tracking map around the clock. The dot watchers are dedicated and experienced, and they really care. Every rider is closely monitored. The team of dot watchers are still there, watching, weeks after the first rider finishes the race.

I doubt that a single day has passed in the last 18 months without me thinking about the TCR. And I don’t mean having the odd passing thought once or twice a day. I mean thinking about it all the time. For the last six months, at least, when I wake up in the morning the TCR is in my head within the first minute. The TCR rushes in to fill any idle time in my day. I go to bed thinking about it. It has become an obsession. There’s no better word. I read everything I could find online, slowly accumulating knowledge of people’s experiences, equipment, choices, and so on.

I began to ride longer distances, with more challenges. There were questions and uncertainties that could only be resolved on the road. In 1989, aged 25, I’d cycled from Munich to Madrid, 2100km in a month, happily sleeping by the road, in sheds, and on building sites. That worked out at about 100km a day, with a week of rest days. A couple of years ago I thought I was unlikely to ever regularly do rides of that length again. I started going out on Sunday club rides with the local St Ives Cycling Club, and regularly rode over 100km.

Last year I did an Everesting. I rode to Rotterdam and back a couple of times. I rode to Bonn and back. In 2017 I’ve been going after more distance and more climbing. I’ve been hill-climbing in Wales in the ValleyCat, to Yorkshire, in the Cotswolds, in Scotland, and in the Peak District. Most recently, with David, I did a 430km loop including the Dunwich Dynamo. The daily distances have slowly gone up… 150km, 200km, 300km, 400km. The amount of climbing per day has gone up… 2000m, 3000m, 6000m, and of course the Everesting was 8900m (but was relatively very easy climbing). I’ve learned to ride more slowly, conserving energy, riding for 10, 12, …, 16 hours, combined with some resting, and lots of eating and drinking. I raced in the Tour of Cambridgeshire in 2015, in what seemed like a fast time but which now looks slow. I religiously followed the British Cycling Advanced training plan for 3 months at the start of 2016, riding in the rain and the snow, come what may. Then I did the Tour of Cambridgeshire at a much higher pace in 2016, and 2017. I qualified for the UCI Gran Fondo world championships each year, and even went to Denmark to race it (slowly!) in 2015, representing Australia. In 2016 and 2017 (so far), I’ve covered 22,000km. For the last 7 months I’ve been working out 2 or 3 times a week, doing weights, core exercises, and stretches. I taught myself something about bicycle maintenance. I got a fantastic new MASON Bokeh bike, at great expense.

Lately I’ve spent tons of time planning the 4000km route. It sometimes feels like a full-time night job. I’ve been over at least double that distance, looking at route alternatives. There are so many tools to help with the job, and yet many (small) sections of the route are unknowable, at least from this great remove. Things will undoubtedly go wrong. They always do. But I’ve spent a ton of time trying to keep them to a minimum. In case you’re curious, here’s what I’ll be packing (still to be pared down a little).

Anyway now, finally, the 2017 TCR is right around the corner!

Here’s the 2017 teaser video, which I wish was a little longer:

This Thursday (July 27, 2017) Derek or David will drive me to Belgium for the start at Geraadsbergen. Here’s a video of the TCR start in 2016. At 10pm 300 riders, more or less, will head off into the night, and I’m so happy I’ll be one of them. Here’s an article giving a bit of an overview of the route.

There are four checkpoints you have to ride through, each with a mandatory parcours section. One is the famous Semonzo ascent of Monte Grappa. Another is the (infamous) Transfăgărășan highway in Romania:

I just found out that the Transfăgărășan is closed to cars from 9pm to 7am each night, though I’ve no idea why. Someone posted that info to Facebook, to which there was this reply:

Bagoly Levente: This is only for motorised traffic. I know cyclists who passed it this weekend from midnight till four in the morning till vidra dam with no problem.

But its quite scary in the dark. Keep in mind that once your up it doesnt mean that your doing 50km/h till the dam. Besides the lake there is many ups and downs which youll climb slowly and after darknes sets it very scary and dangerous because of people leaving garbage all around the place and bears do come down to check it out. I was passing through there around 10pm after a 600km endurance ride and i have to say i almost layed some bricks along the way… Its a good thing if you have a wistle like i did and blow it every now and then. pepper spray wont help against wolves or bears. although between these two only the wolves will hunt on you. bears only attack under few circumstances when you surprise them. thats why a wistlesound which travels dar away will give them a signal and they will get out of your way. bears dont want any trouble. wolves do.

Hopefully I’ll pass through there in the daylight…

If you’d like to follow along, you’ll be able to track riders at either TrackLeaders or FreeRoute. Here’s the rider list; I’m #85. There’s a party in Meteora (Greece) on August 12, which is day 15. To make it to the party you need to average about 266km per day. I think I can do that, but it’s impossible to know. The distance itself would be hard if that was all there was, but my route has about 37km of climbing, and parts of the route will be extremely hot (over 40C / 104F).

Because the race is strictly unsupported, you can’t have any form of help that wouldn’t be available to all riders. So you obviously can’t have friends sending you SMS messages telling you how to get un-lost or making you hotel bookings, or… anything really.

But you can help by sending encouragement during the race. I’m sure I’ll have lots of fun, but it’s also going to be utterly exhausting. By far the physically hardest thing I’ll have ever attempted. Just look at Alexandre Bourgeonnier’s face in this picture taken as he finished the 2015 race.

So please feel free to send some friendly words in the middle of the night, or any time. I gave up on all social media some years ago, but have recently been hanging out on Facebook because there’s a Transcontinental group there, with tons of other TCR racers and ex-racers, and information. So I guess I’ll be posting things on FB. I’ll post progress sections to Strava. I also have a Twitter account that I haven’t used in nearly 5 years and an Instagram one too (similar) – neither of which is likely to get used, but who knows? You can always send me email or SMS. I probably wont be quick to reply, though. I will likely have my phone in aeroplane mode for much of the time (to save battery), so don’t panic if you try to call and you get voicemail or I don’t answer. Also, people’s dots frequently stop moving on the map for a wide variety of reasons, so don’t panic over that either. I stop often. Too often. It’s a bad habit I’m hoping to greatly improve on.

Want to read more about the TCR? You could read more of Joe Todd’s blog. There are many other write ups of people’s experiences here. I’ve read them all. Many are highly amusing. Or just search online for TCR accounts and videos – there’s a ton of them. Chris White, a TCR veteran, has put together a detailed, comprehensive, and authoritative overview of long-distance cycling in general and the TCR specifically, at

Here’s an article from a few days ago with an opening paragraph I can relate to:

For the last I don’t know how long there’s been a dull undercurrent of fear, panic and restlessness. It’s that pre-big-exam dread combined with the giddy stomach waltzer of falling in love. A feeling that’s a sticky apprehension churned together with an itching excitement to create a thick cloying inability to be able to think about anything else. A little bit sick all the time, careering in jolts between abject panic and serene calm without touching anything in-between. And then back again. In minutes.

I don’t know if I’ll complete the TCR. I don’t think anyone can know, because there are so many things that can go wrong. People get achilles and knee problems. They get nerve damage in their hands and can’t even hold a knife and fork to eat. They get Shermer’s Neck, back problems, and occasionally food poisoning. Bicycles break. And of course, there are accidents, sometimes tragic.

Here’s a video about the 2016 race:

#171 The Transcontinental Race journey from PEdALED on Vimeo.

Over the last year I’ve tried not to let the talking get ahead of the reality. But now I’m finally there, and about all that’s left to do is to start the thing. I’ve gone from naïvely thinking that of course I could do it (2016), to more realistic thinking there’s no way I could (early 2017), to now being cautiously optimistic that I’ll be fine. I could be fitter and stronger, and I have a couple of niggles (hip, hamstring) that I hope will dissipate, but overall I’m happy with where I am and my level of fitness and confidence. You simply cannot know how it will go, though. Mentally, I don’t know what will happen. I’ve never needed much sleep, but that’s under normal conditions. Maybe I’ll race madly and barely sleep. Maybe I’ll be so exhausted I’ll just give up on the racing and aim to finish by the party. Maybe I’ll give up altogether (though I bloody hope not!). All I can confidently say is that the things I have control over appear to be under control. Now I just have to avoid the wild dog pack attacks in Eastern Europe and Greece, not to mention the wolves and bears in Romania.

Here’s my bike, fully loaded. It weighs 19kg (41.8lbs) with no water or food! Cycling up steep hills or mountains is hard enough even without any bags :-)

And the elevation profile of my route:

THANKS so much to Derek Smith, David Pattinson, Chris Lloyd (of Chris’ Bikes), Duncan Chapman (calves), Arwen Altenberg (wardrobe), Chris White (wheel), Sarah Kelman (weather), Josh, Sam, and Andy at Bicycle Ambulance, Dom Mason and Cal Nicklin at MASON (bike, clothes), Steve Lindley (lock), the friendly members of the FB TCR group, Supernova Lights (40% TCR rider discount), Bethan Roderick and Dafyd (staying up til 3am to feed me after the ValleyCat), Tom Kirkpatrick and the TCR organizational team, the SICC riders who taught me how to ride a bike, and finally to Anna Haslock for her bravery, and the amazing Mike Hall who created the TCR, and who I unfortunately never got to meet.

GMZD: Google Maps Zoom-out Distance

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Here’s a fun and simple measure of distance between any two locations, A and B. First, find A using Google maps and zoom in (centered) as far as you can go, though don’t go into street view as lots of places still don’t have that. Now, if you can already see B on the map, it has a Google Maps Zoom-out Distance (GMZD) of zero because you don’t need to zoom out at all to see B. If you have to zoom out once, then A and B are at distance 1 according to GMZD, etc.

For example, let’s start with Union Square in New York. Fully zoomed in we can see Coffee Shop, so that’s at distance 0. Those things are about a minute’s walk from the center of Union Square. Zooming out one click, we pick up Bowlmor Lanes on University Place and the Whole Foods Market at the South of Union Square. Those things are at GMZD-1. The outer edge of distance 1 is about a few minute’s walk from Union Square. Continuing outwards, Betaworks is at GMZD-4, Central Park at distance 6, Boston and Niagara Falls at distance 12, Florida, Winnipeg, and St John’s, Newfoundland at 14, San Francisco at 15, Barcelona at 16, and Sydney at 17. (Although you can zoom out 18 levels, GMZD-17 seems to be as many as you practically need to see anything.)

You can also think of GMZD as half the number of clicks you’d need to do on Google maps to go from being fully zoomed in on A to being fully zoomed in on B (with some panning in between). When you look at Google maps you can count the number of notches on the little slider (see image on left) above your current zoom level to see the GMZD from the center of the visible map to its outer edges.

Update: I meant to mention that GMZD is not a formal distance metric. It is non-negative (GMZD(A, B) >= 0) and symmetric (GMZD(A, B) = GMZD(B, A)) for all points A and B, but distinct points can be at distance zero and (as a result) the triangle inequality also does not hold (e.g., Union Square is distance zero from Coffee Shop, and Coffee Shop is distance zero from Union Square Cafe, but the distance from Union Square to Union Square Cafe is one. Not being a metric space is what makes it interesting, though :-)

A curiously empty space in the heart of Manhattan

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

empty cup roomI was taken to lunch at the New York Yacht Club today by Ted Carroll of Noson Lawen Partners. By some miracle I happened to be dressed well enough to just scrape in – sans jacket and tie. It’s not the sort of place too many casual NY visitors get to see. Suffice to say, they’re a little on the exclusive side.

After lunch, Ted took me up to the cup room. Or the room that used to be the cup room. You see, there’s a slight problem. No cup. The room was specially built to hold the America’s Cup. It’s perfect, and even has a little viewing platform like the prow of a boat. It’s a beautiful space. And it’s totally empty.

I’m not much of one for nationalistic pride. But I couldn’t resist a little twinge of pleasure recalling that fateful day the Australian boat won the cup after the US had held it for 132 years. Bob Hawke, the Australian Prime Minister, appeared on TV in a bright Green and Gold kangaroo-covered jacket to declare that “any boss who fires a worker for not turning up today is a bum”. It was quite a scene. Good for yachting, I should think, just like when the England cricket team finally beat the Australians a few years ago.

Standing there in the exact spot that the America’s Cup had so immovably and confidently occupied for 132 years was really something. You could almost feel the sense of confusion and cognitive dissonance emanating from that empty space and flowing out to unbalance the entire club building. Ted took photos with his iPhone while I thought of Ozymandias, joked with the staff, and tried to sound like I was from somewhere else.

model roomThen it was upstairs to the banquet hall and model room. There are many hundreds of model yachts on the walls and in glass cases. There are perfect models of every boat to win the America’s Cup, and yes I checked out Ben Lexcen‘s famous winged keel. The accompanying plaque was careful to point out that the boat’s measurements were allowed by the rules. Unwritten: the spirit of yachting itself was shamelessly violated by the genius upstart designer from down under, but, strictly speaking, the boat was legal.

It’s quite a sight.

iPod vending machine

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

iPod vending machineHere’s an iPod vending machine I just passed on Concourse A in the Atlanta airport. It also offers a variety of other audio components, like headphones from Harman Kardon and Bose, laptop chargers, digital cameras (including 2 models more advanced than the one I just bought), etc. I didn’t check on the prices, which are only available on the LCD screen you see the couple using.

San Diego ramblings

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

bonobosA few more rambling thoughts.

I’m wearing glasses today, for the first time in 6 years. It’s really really weird. They’re “progressive” bi- or tri-focals. It turned out one of my eyes was great for distance, one great for close ups, and both with an astigmatism. The glasses fix everything – provided you look through the right part of the glass, which also implies turning your head more than usual. I’ve tried wearing them around, and it’s very odd. Among the oddities is a huge improvement in depth perception. Everything seems so 3D, especially things at a distance. But the buttons on my Mac UI seem to be popping out of the screen too.

I’d forgotten how many pan-handlers there are in San Diego. I sometimes give money to people, and sometimes quite a lot: $150 once, $80 once, over $20 several times, and I once gave a homeless guy my bicycle to his great surprise. But 99% of the time I say no and keep walking. You can’t give money to everyone. They need it, but I need it too. Once a guy used to follow me and get a couple of dollars every day on my way to Sydney Uni, back in ’84 or so. I eventually changed routes to avoid him.

I went to Border’s books on 6th and G. I bought Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq by Michael Scheuer, The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography by Christopher Hitchens, and a boxed set of 5 Jigsaw Jones stories by James Preller (to read to the kids).

I read Scheuer’s then-anonymous Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror and enjoyed it. I know I own, and think I also read Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America. He’s certainly no shrinking violet liberal! I learned a lot about Afghanistan reading his analysis. Russell knows ten times more than I do about almost everything, and agrees that Imperial Hubris is good. We also both like Hitchens a lot. Give me someone who thinks clearly, sincerely tries to weigh evidence, writes well, and speaks his mind any day, no matter how controversial their opinions are. The more the better, in fact. And so I enjoy Orwell, Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes.

I keep meaning to go see the Bonobos in the San Diego zoo. I like Bonobos. There’s a good TED video here, though with an annoying voice-over and somewhat manipulative-sensationalist background music. I’ve been here multiple times, and I lived here for nearly a year, but have never made it to the zoo.

500 West hotel, San Diego

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

exit signI’ve spent 5 nights, soon to be 6, at the 500 West hotel in San Diego. On the left is a sign they have next to the elevator. I love the action figure going down the stairs at least 3 at a time – and it looks like many more. He or she might not have much of a kneecap left in the next frame. It reminds me of the icons drawn for events at the olympic games.

And yes, I have a new camera. A totally unnecessary purchase, but it was cheap (€100) and it’s absolutely tiny, a Canon PowerShot SD1000. The Office Depot didn’t have my first 4 choices in stock. The SD750 seems to be significantly better, and it was the same price. Whatever.

Thiefhunters in paradise

Friday, February 29th, 2008

My good friend Bambi has finally begun to blog in earnest! Fantastic.

She and her husband/partner Bob Arno have hundreds of true tales of their extraordinary, amazing, adventures all over the world.

They hunt thieves. They travel constantly. They get into all sorts of hot water. Bambi wrote a book: Travel Advisory! How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams While Traveling. And, of course, they have a web site.

I have an interesting literary tale of how I met Bambi & Bob, and our subsequent adventures. But those will have to wait.

Meanwhile, go sign up for Bambi’s blog, Thiefhunters in paradise. I hope it will be a big success. Bambi & Bob have so much engrossing content that they could put online by simply documenting their everyday lives. Lives that I think regular stay-at-home folks will really enjoy experiencing – from a safe distance.

Social Graph foo camp was a blast

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

foo camp logoI spent last weekend at the Open Social Foo camp held on the O’Reilly campus in Sebastopol, CA. The camp was organized by David Recordon and Scott Kveton, with sponsorship from various companies, especially including O’Reilly. I was lucky enough to have my airfare paid for, so lots of thanks to all concerned for that.

The camp was great. Very few people actually camped, almost everyone just found somewhere to sleep in the O’Reilly offices. Many of us didn’t sleep that much anyway.

There’s something about the modern virtual lifestyle that so many of us lead that leaves a real social hole. It’s been about 20 years since I really hung out at all hours with other coders. It’s something I associate most strongly with being an undergrad, with working at Micro Forté, and then in doing a lot of hacking as a grad student at The University of Waterloo in Canada.

So even though it was just 48 hours at the foo camp, it was really great. It’s not often I have the pleasurable feeling of being surrounded by tons of people who know way way more than I do about almost everything under discussion. That’s not meant to sound arrogant – I mean that I don’t get out enough, and I don’t live in SF, etc. It’s nice to have spent many years hanging around universities studying all sorts of relatively obscure and academic topics, and sometimes you wonder what everyone else was doing. Some of those people spent the years hacking really deeply on systems, and their knowledge appears encyclopedic next to the smattering of stuff I picked up along the way. It’s nice to bump into a whole bunch of them at once. It was extremely hard to get a word in in many of the animated conversations, which reminded me at times of discussions at the Santa Fe Institute. That’s a bit of a pain, but it’s still far better than some alternatives – e.g., not having a room full of super confident deeply knowledgeable people who all want to have their say, even if that means trampling all over others, ignoring what the previous speaker said, not leaving even 1/10th of a second conversational gap, and just plain old bull-dozering on while others try to jump in and wrest away control of the conversation.

I could write much more about all this.

I also played werewolf with up to 20 others on the Saturday night. In some ways I don’t really like the game, but it’s fun to sit around with a bunch of smart people of all ages who are all trying to convince each other they’re telling the truth when you know for sure some are lying. I was up until 4:30am that night. I went to the office I slept in on the Friday night, but found it had about 10 people still up, all talking about code. When I got up at 8am the next morning, they were all still there, still talking about code. I felt a bit guilty, like a glutton, for allowing myself three and a half hours sleep. Nice.

Free wifi at Stansted

Friday, January 11th, 2008

I’m at Stansted heading back to Barcelona. There’s free wifi here (on the merula network in the waiting area for gates 1-19), for the first time I’ve seen it. At first I didn’t understand their web page, then I read the login box which clearly says to enter merula as user name and password. It works.

Wifi on a bus

Friday, January 11th, 2008

I’m on the X90 National Express bus from Oxford to London. At the bus stop before we left I pulled out my laptop to do some work on a presentation. I noticed there was an open wifi signal and thought I’d connect quickly to pick up my mail.

It turns out the wifi network is on the bus.

I’m now speeding down the motorway, it’s gray and raining outside, and I’m sitting here warm and online. I suppose all National Express buses have wifi. One day it will be a rarity not to have network access. Today is the first time I’ve had access from a bus. Nice.

Carrying a knife onto a plane

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

Tonight I carried a pocketknife with a 5cm blade onto a plane in Paris.

At the Le Web conference, the bag they handed out to attendees had a really nice pocketknife in it courtesy of Six Apart. It’s silver, very solid construction, with 11 blades including scissors, screwdriver, corkscrew, etc. It’s not a cheap knife. It’s totally different from any other conference giveaway I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few.

It’s also a pretty odd thing to hand to a bunch of travelers who are in town for 2 days, many of whom will not be checking baggage on their flights. I imagine the bins at CDG will have a fair number of fancy knives in them tonight. But not mine.

I’m not a security threat on an airline. A pocketknife buried in my carry-on bag stashed in an overhead locker probably doesn’t make the flight less safe. You could argue it makes it safer, if you were inclined to argue about it. I’m reminded of a comment Ana made after 9/11. She said the pilot should have a button in the cockpit. In case of hijack the pilot pushes the button and a compartment containing a baseball bat slides open beside every (window seat) passenger.

I don’t agree that if someone gives me a present in Paris that I need to surrender it to the airport authorities because I might be a terrorist. I’m clearly not a terrorist, even if the airport security doesn’t know it. So I put the knife into my carry-on and went through security with no problem at all.

There are plenty of studies, done by people like the TSA, where they test security at airports. The results are invariable dismal, with the checkers missing something like 75% of the weapons and bomb-making materials going through security. If they can get away with it, then why can’t I? Plus I had a plausible excuse – that I had thrown my conference stuff into my bag without thinking. The knife was still in a cardboard box, obviously brand new. And I guess I half wanted to see what would happen if they did find it.

I also don’t bother taking out my toothpaste and deodorant and putting them in a plastic bag. That just seems stupid too and so I decided not to do it. It’s even more ridiculous when you realize that security are basically relying on people to do as they’re told, take out their liquids, put them in a plastic bag, etc. If you don’t, they don’t see it on the scanner. Or maybe they do see something (is a tube of toothpaste highly characteristic when seen in a scanner? I don’t know). What kind of security is that? All the complying regular people are highly inconvenienced, forced to throw things away, find plastic bags, buy tiny amounts of things, just so they can show security that they’re carrying a tube of toothpaste. And what do the terrorists do? If they wanted to commit a crime involving liquids of some form they’d probably just put it in a regular commercial tube of some kind and put that in a plastic bag. They’d breeze through security. The whole thing is designed to limit liquid quantity. Leaving your liquid in your carry-on is probably the best way to indicate you’re not a terrorist. If they do open your bag, which happens to me from time to time, you can say you made a mistake, weren’t thinking, were rushing to the airport, etc.

So there you go, I’m probably a terrorist and I just don’t know it yet. Rules are made to be broken, etc. Most especially if you know for a fact that they do not and should not apply to you. I know, I know, I’m probably reckless or even stupid to do this, and it probably doesn’t work to fight stupidity with stupidity, but… I don’t feel like doing what I’m told in this case. It’s like having a job with a stupid boss. Unbearable.

As I please: pizza margarita & 2 beers

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

I’m in Paris for the Le Web conference. Tonight is the party, at La Scala, which looks like exactly the kind of place I hate. I never understand why people go to loud clubs.

So instead, I went out wandering and found a pizza place, ordered a margarita, drank a couple of Italian beers and took my time savoring more of Orwell. It’s such a pleasure, as with Gore Vidal essays or Proust, to read his thoughts on all manner of things. I’ve been taking my time, slowly working through the 4 volumes of Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (that link is to volume 1).

Here’s the last piece I read tonight, the May 19, 1944 As I Please column. Maybe you wont find it extraordinary, but I do. It probably helps to have the context, to have read the previous volumes (I’m in the middle of vol. 3).

Random travel thoughts

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

Here are some random thoughts on air travel from my last few weeks.

US travel is much much easier than it used to be. In the years immediately post-9/11, it was such a hassle to go anywhere. Despite the fact that we still have to take off our shoes and put liquids into ridiculous transparent bags, it’s much less hassle than it was.

Ubiquitous free wifi is still a distant dream. It makes sense to offer it as it’s a differentiator, it’s a fairly cheap thing to provide, companies and advertisers can sponsor it, etc. If Samsung and others can set up recharging stations for laptops in many airports, can free wifi be far behind? As I already wrote, I’d choose an airline offering free wifi – even if their tickets are more expensive. Probably dumb, but true.

One on flight (US Air, I think) I pulled down my tray table to see a full-tray advertisement. Never seen that before. The ad was for Sony noise-canceling headphones.

In 2002/3/4 I was Gold on Delta. Even so, I never used their lounges. I still have the Gold membership card and I used it to check-in in Chicago. The woman didn’t look at it, but handed me a invitation to the Air France lounge. So I went in. There’s “free” everything (though not wifi): sandwiches, wine, beer, champagne, newspapers, coffee, etc. Lots of business types. Meanwhile on the other side of the wall the regular punters are sitting in discomfort surrounded by super expensive and bad quality crap food offerings. The frequent flyers board calmly straight from the lounge, first of course.

Esther, who has about 10 million miles with various airlines, told me that in Frankfurt she gets taken to an entirely separate Lufthansa building. From there the “senators” are driven to the plane in a Porsche.

I hate taking Air France through Paris. They’re always a risk – I’ve been hit by strikes about 3 times, had to stay overnight in Paris (far less attractive than it may sound when you’re bussed late at night, after waiting for hours to get things sorted, to the cheapest economy hotel as close to CDG as possible), they’ve lost my bags (temporarily) a few times, etc. BUT, the meal last night out of Chicago was really excellent.

Terminal 2F at CDG is full of ridiculously expensive stores. It’s nuts. I did once buy a watch in one of them, back when I was spending way too much time in airports and I had taken to buying cheap watches in them for some reason. The watch shop in terminal 2F has extremely expensive watches. There are dozens of models for around €3,000. I saw one for €9,950. How many of them would they sell a year? It couldn’t be too many. If you’re going to spend that much on a watch, would you just pick one up at CDG? Or do a little more work and get it elsewhere? I guess if you’re that rich it may not matter to you. And there are plenty of other insanely expensive stores there too, with Hermès scarves, Mont Blanc pens, etc. It feels somehow wrong – I mean economically wrong, as though much more money could be extracted from travelers if they weren’t all selling outrageously expensive stuff.

In the waiting area at CDG for the flight to Barcelona I sat next to an American family. The son was saying how the flight from Paris would go West to get to Barcelona. The father corrected him, saying it went South, and then corrected himself saying it was actually South-East. I guess that’s not too remarkable – I’ve probably been on many flights where I couldn’t have correctly given the direction accurately – but it did make me smile. The conclusion of the conversation had the whole family believing something wrong, just because the father figure had stated it categorically, and then made a correction to make his claim even more precise and authoritative. The act of refining his opinion seemed to the family to lend extra weight to his claim – it wasn’t just South, it was South-East – while simultaneously revealing to others that he didn’t really know.

It still takes bags half an hour to emerge in Barcelona. Vegas is about the same, perhaps with more of an excuse.

I had about a 5 hour delay going in to Vegas. We got in at about 2 in the morning. Outside with my bags there was a queue of about 1000 people waiting for taxis. No kidding. It went back and forth about 4 or 5 times out the front of the terminal, running the whole length of the building. But it was well organized and moved fast. Still, a bit daunting. It was raining but not too cold, and we were covered.

It was about -17C overnight in Chicago on Wednesday. I shoveled snow a few times, for the first time in a long long time. I used to do it for fun in Canada, and do my neighbor’s driveway as well, to their amazement.

The Van Galder bus service out of O’Hare is pretty good. Efficient, not crowded, reasonably priced, easy to find/use etc.

I hired a car from Fox rental cars in Oakland. $16/day for a PT Cruiser. Hard to beat. No GPS though. I’m going to rent a car with GPS next time I do something like that. I made about 5 driving trips with multiple Firefox tabs open on my laptop showing Google maps.

Well, enough for now. I’m very happy to be back in Barcelona. I could live here forever.

Free wifi, with blacklisted IP, in Vegas McCarran airport

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

I’m sitting next to about 70 poker machines at gate B15 at the Los Vegas McCarran airport. They have free wifi, which is great.

But the IP address I picked up ( appears in about a dozen blacklists (check your IP address here, for example). As a result, the various mail relays I have access to are rejecting my outgoing email. So I have to resort to blogging.

reCaptcha added

Friday, November 30th, 2007

I’m stuck in the Oakland airport with a 3 hour delay on a flight to Vegas. Bambi, who steadfastly refuses to blog for reasons unknown, has dinner waiting for me there. Bummer.

Meanwhile, Russell, who does blog and makes a mean Irish coffee, tells me I need to add a Captcha to this blog, so I’ve installed the very clever reCaptcha. Enjoy.

All in all a pretty thrilling night here at the airport. Battery #2 is halfway done. Me too.

Elevator status report

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Tonight I caught the BART from San Francisco back to Oakland. Waiting for the train to arrive and then again when I got off, I heard the world’s stupidest public announcement. It was so weird that I took out my laptop and typed it in. Here it is, pretty much word for word:

Elevator status report: all station elevators are currently in service. All station agents please make sure your status boards reflect this information.

This was broadcast to the whole station. It reminds me of town criers of old: “It’s 9pm and all’s well.”

Free Wifi with JetBlue at JFK terminal 6

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

berlin wifi

I’ve never flown with JetBlue before. I’m in Terminal 6 at JFK and JetBlue has free Wifi. That’s so sensible. I’ll even blog about it. I’ll remember it. And next time I have a chance to fly out of here with JetBlue, I will.

Compare that with probably 70 flights I’ve taken out of JFK since 2000. Not a single one has offered free Wifi. It’s always the expensive pay-through-the-nose access.

Compare that with Berlin’s Tegel airport. I was there a couple of weeks ago and there were 5 Wifi providers. But they all operated under the aegis of the airport, and their prices were all outrageous. Four of them charged an identical fee of €5.95 for 30 minutes (USD 8.83), and one was half that. I guess that’s supposed to be competition.

Las Vegas airport is the only other airport I know of with free Wifi. Surely there must be a site one can go to to check on this sort of thing. I’d use it when booking travel. Maybe Kayak or some other modern flight search engine will add it one day as an airline criterion.

At least JetBlue can do something right.

Off to LA

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

I’m off to LA today. I’m staying with an old school friend. I’ve not been blogging much in NY. Yesterday was extremely warm and very unlike November. But I spent most of the day and night inside working. Today it’s cold again. I’m done with laundry, and about to pack. I’m flying Jetblue to Burbank. No doubt all my details will be safely in the hands of the US government before the plane takes off. On Monday after a couple of meetings, it’s up to the bay area.

Airline imponderables

Friday, November 9th, 2007

When landing in an airplane, the stewards go around and ask that people raise the pull-down covers on their windows. Why is that? How can it be so important that one can see out (in?) the windows during landing?

After landing, some airlines (in some cities) tell you to keep your mobile phone switched off until you’re inside the terminal building. On Easyjet they used to say something about it being dangerous because the plane was refueling. Uh, right.

Some of the newest planes have a camera mounted in the tail fin and the live video is shown in the cabin. It’s absolutely great, and passengers are spellbound. But, when you come in to land they turn it off! You can hear the groan go round the cabin. Why shut it off at the most interesting moment? Do passengers throw up or something? I always feel cheated.

Why, when standing waiting for bags to appear on the baggage belt, does everyone have to push to the front? It completely obscures the view for the 75% of people who are not at the front. We all learned in kindergarten to “take two steps backwards so everyone can see” etc. Makes so much sense in this context – you could all see, you could step calmly forward to take your bag when it showed, etc. But no. If you do leave a space, someone will just come and stand in it.

The Germans on my Air Berlin flights were just too calm. On landing, after taxiing to the gate and stopping, the vast majority of them didn’t bounce to their feet to start madly scrabbling for their bags. They just sat there. The aisle was only half full. Seated in a window seat, I nearly had a panic attack at the wasted opportunity to push ahead of a couple of people.

Pizza and a beer in a Berlin restaurant, 5 euros

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

Last night I went out for dinner. I found a small restaurant. It was quite nice, looked like it might be mid-range price, had several tables of well mannered Germans dining quietly. Candles. Cloth napkins and tablecloths. Real knives and forks. All nicely done, nothing cheap about it.

I had a 400ml beer and a pizza margarita. The pizza was small but very good.

When I got the bill I was amazed, and did a cartoon-style double take. €5 in total. Very hard to beat.