Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category.

In-Cabin Laptop Ban to and from Europe Seems to be Coming

From the terrorists-have-won department:  Apparently, the current in-cabin ban on laptops and tablets the applies to flights originating in certain Middle Eastern countries will soon be extended to flights from Europe.  I am pretty sure that if the US bans laptops on flights from Europe, the EU will ban them in the opposite direction, if nothing else as tit for tat retaliation.  This will make long distance flight a LOT worse, at least for me.  Unlike most folks, apparently, I have no interest in onboard entertainment systems and spend most of my time on these long flights getting work done on my PC or reading books on my iPad.  This will make me a lot less likely to schedule a vacation in Europe, and frankly I am relieved we decided at the last minute not to go there this summer.

New York Museum & Restaurant Recommendation

Large museums can be overwhelming.  I remember a while back, one of the writers at Maggie's Farm blog suggested that the best way to see large museums is to pick one limited section and plan to visit just that section.  I have tried that a couple of times and it is an enjoyable approach, though as a completionist I have trouble walking away when I have not conquered every room (I am that guy, for example, that has to reveal every single square inch of dark space on a Diablo III map).

However, another alternative is just to visit a smaller museum.  Sometimes smaller museums can be disappointing, because the average quality (or at least name-value) of what is being displayed may be lower than in the large museums.  Not so the Frick Museum in New York City.  This is probably my favorite small museum.  The building itself is marvelous, the Fifth Avenue mansion of Henry Frick, Andrew Carnegie's right hand man (among many other ventures).  I first went to the museum years ago because it houses one of my favorite paintings, the Comtesse d'Haussonville by Ingres.  In addition in just 7 or 8 rooms, it has a virtual who's who of western art history, including Rembrandt, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Gainsborough, Turner, Holbein, Goya, Gilbert Stuart, Whistler, and many others.   The ratio of big names to also-rans is just amazing.  Walking the halls is like watching the actor list in the opening credits of the movie "A Bridge to Far".  My only complaint on this visit is that the Comtesse has been moved to a poor spot for viewing.

Another nice small museum nearby we also went to this weekend was the Neue Gallery, which focuses on German and Austrian art.  My wife loves Klimt, which is the reason we went.  The museum has a very good collection of Klimt and Egon Schiele, neither of which are really my cup of tea but for those who enjoy these artists it is a nice destination.  The third small museum we saw as the Museum of Arts and Design, with a great location on Columbus Circle.  We saw an exhibition of American 60's and 70's age-of-Aquarius style clothing.  There are also a few craft studios where one can watch designers work.  It was fun but probably overpriced for what it was.  However, on the 9th floor we went to the restaurant Robert which was really good -- very good food and drop dead gorgeous views of Columbus Circle, the park, and the rest of Manhattan.  We had a window table and this was the view:

On the far left, 4 or 5 floors up, is Per Se, one of the top restaurants in Manhattan and perhaps the country.  Given how hard it is to get a reservation, this is probably as close as I will come to eating there.

Verizon's Much Improved International Plan

Our company generally uses Verizon over other wireless carriers as it is almost always the only  wireless service we can reach in the very rural locations we operate.  But the one thing I have been critical of Verizon (and AT&T) in the past has been their international plans.  Even when paying for the plans, the rates were awful (50 cents per text, and $10 got something like 10MB or something equally pathetic amount of data).  For years I kept a T-Mobile phone, and later a Google Fi phone, in reserve as my international phone.  Sometimes I rented one of those international data cellular modems or smart phone with a sim card for the local country so I paid local non-roaming rates, but this was a hassle and still expensive.

Well, this has all changed, likely due to competition from T-Mobile and others.  Verizon now has a plan that for $10 a day, one can roam internationally and have access to all the same data, text, and talk limits and rates as in their domestic plan.  In other words, travelling international ly is basically seamless now with only a $10 upcharge per day.  And this is not one of those things you have to remember to go into the website to turn on just before the trip and then turn off.  The $10 is billed in any day Verizon sees you use the phone out of the country, otherwise there is no charge.  Our family also has this feature on some of our ipads and on my aircard.

This is simply an enormous improvement over the past, and while $10 a day is real money, it is trivial compared to the other costs of travelling internationally and historic costs of international roaming.

I still like Google Fi, but it is still dependent on domestic cellular networks that are inferior to Verizon's, at least as far as I am concerned spending a lot of time in the boondocks.

Thoughts on Language Learning

I went to a good private school (Kinkaid in Houston, if anyone knows it).  I didn't really know how good it was until I went to an Ivy League college and found I was ahead of most of the other students in most every subject.  The thing  I thank Kinkaid for more than anything is that we had to write -- and write, and write.  Every test was an essay test.  By the time I was 18, I could write a well-organized and reasonably coherent (but not well-proofed, as readers will know!) five paragraph persuasive essay in my sleep.   (My ability to communicate was not really advanced at all in college, and I only began to learn more about persuasive, organized communication when I joined McKinsey & Co. and was taught the pyramid principle).

Anyway, that is all background to my one gripe about primary school -- I hated language learning.  Hated it.  I took Spanish from Kindergarten through the 11th grade, but counted the years and months and days to when I could quit.  From when I was 18 until I was about 45, I never had any desire to learn another word of any language again.

But about 10 years ago I picked up a Pimsleur language course (Italian, I think) and I loved it.  Knowing some Italian really enhanced my trip to Italy.  From there on, I have been studying a number of languages.

I want to pause for a minute and reflect on why I hated language learning so much in school but like it now.  It could just be a function of age -- I was bored stiff plowing through Les Miserables in high school but re-read it as an adult and loved it.  But I think there is a bigger problem:  I think schools suck at teaching languages.  My kids, who generally love learning and are good at school, hated language class.  My guess is that people just want to be able to converse, which is what courses like Pimsleur are geared towards.  When I go to Florence, I want to be able to order dinner in Italian and talk to the shopkeepers.   But in high school we seemed to spend a lot of time learning two (!) forms of the pluperfect subjunctive in Spanish.  Great for the AP, but my guess is that the bartender in Barcelona is going to give you a pass for messing up the subjunctive.  "If I were to have a beer, how much would it have cost me yesterday and  how much might if have cost if I had come tomorrow instead?"

So I have taken about 60 hours each of Italian, Spanish, German, and Mandarin.    I seem to be able to remember them all in deep memory but I can only hold one other language in my short-term, immediately-available recall buffer.  So I have to do 5-6 hours of one of these again before I go to the country to shift that language into the top of the memory heap.

I like the Pimsleur approach, which is pure auditory (which matches how I learn, I have a much higher ability to remember what I hear than what I read).  The courses use an approach called spaced repetition that works well for me, and must work for others given that these courses, which are pretty old and predate all the new Internet tools, are still quite popular.  The one oddity about them is that they almost never explain any points of grammar.  For example, they really don't explain the rules of verb conjugation.  You are expected to figure out the rules as you go based on the examples -- essentially you back into the rules based on use.  This works pretty well, though certain situations can drive English speakers crazy.  For example, we are not used to having a command form of verb conjugations, as Spanish and Italian have, so I have seen folks get confused for a while when the verb in "You can come with me" and "Come with me" are conjugated differently.   At some point one needs more structure for grammar, which means I almost always buy a basic grammar book and one of those 501 verb conjugation books for each language I do on Pimsleur.

People always ask me which languages were easiest and hardest.  The answer is that it depends.  Each have hard and easy parts.  Here are a few thoughts on each (all from an English-speaker's perspective):

  • Spanish and Italian are incredibly similar, so similar it can be confusing knowing both, as I forget exactly which word is which when their words for something are very similar.  Both have a lot of borrow words in common with English and have sentence structures and word order reasonably similar to English (except for having adjectives follow rather than precede nouns).  Like other romance languages, they have gendered nouns which are unfamiliar to English speakers and generally I find gendered nouns add complexity without any really gain in meaning.   I consider both Spanish and Italian to be easy languages for an English speaker to learn.  In terms of which of the two is easiest, I have studied Spanish since I was 4 so I can't really be unbiased here, and they are similar in many ways.  Spanish plurals are more natural to English speakers, and I think management of adjectives with the genders is a bit easier and it seems to be more regular.  Italian verb tenses are a bit easier, without as much complexity in past tenses as there are in Spanish.  Overall, though, both are fun and easy to learn.
  • German is a mixed bag but was generally a lot harder for me to learn.   If you hate the two genders in Romance languages, you are going to love having three (!) in German.  German has pretty rigid rules about sentence order which in many cases will be unnatural to English speakers.  For example, there are certain types of sentences where the verb goes at the very end, after everything else (something Mark Twain made fun of).  When you have a list of adverbs or prepositional phrases in a sentence, there is a correct order for them (e.g. time before place).  In English we would consider "I ate in the kitchen in the morning" and "I ate in the morning in the kitchen" to be equally OK but not so in German.  The articles and possessive pronouns not only have different forms based on the 3 genders of the noun, but there are different forms if the noun is in different parts of a sentence, eg the direct or indirect object.  I found myself having to diagram each sentence and plan it out in my head before I let it come out of my mouth.  I can say a fair amount in German, but it never became natural.  The good news about German is that pronunciation is very regular, though there are a few sounds you have to learn to make that we don't have in English.  There are a ton of borrow words, so a lot of vocabulary comes easily.  And verb conjugation is pretty straightforwards, with what seems to be fewer cases in use than in, say, Spanish (never learned a future tense and no special command tense, though I suppose one could be snarky and say all German verbs are in command form.)
  • Mandarin is a mixed bag but it may surprise English speakers that it is easy in some ways.  First the hard parts:  Speaking it is really hard for a westerner, as every sound has at least four possible tones, plus variations such as falling  and rising.  I am a terrible singer and believe I would have done much better at Mandarin if I were good at music, since the hitting the tones right felt a lot like singing to me.   The other hard part about Mandarin is the almost complete and total lack of borrow words.  Every single word is new and unfamiliar.  But there are aspects that are surprisingly easy, such as basic grammar.  There are no gendered nouns, there are really no plurals, and within a tense there seems to be no very conjugation -- For example the form of "to be" for I, you, she, they are all the single same word.  Many things from numbers to prepositions are very logical, in some ways almost like it was designed by a group of scientists.  Past tenses are also surprisingly easy to form.  There are a few quirks, like special count words -- it is not just one beer, but one count of beer, and the word for "count" changes whether you are counting beers or people or something else.  But all in all, a very easy language to learn -- if it were not such a royal pain in the butt to pronounce for westerners.

By the way, I find that being able to speak the languages has different value depending on the language.  People in Italy and Spanish-speaking countries are just absurdly delighted if you can speak any of their language -- there is a big payback in goodwill.  Also, it is far easier in Italy or Latin American (than, say, in Germany) to find oneself in a place where no one speaks English.  In Germany, the homeless people speak better English than my German.  When I insisted on trying to use German, the Germans were generally willing to let me try but you could just see their impatience, knowing they could have finished the exchange two minutes earlier in English.  Mandarin turned out to be a virtual non-starter.  I just did not have enough experience conversing with natives to be comprehensible.  Also, it was easy to run into many other dialects, or other languages like Cantonese.  Others have reported that many Chinese hate when Westerners try to speak Mandarin and will pretend not to understand it -- I can't confirm or deny this, though my Chinese exchange student loves it when I try to speak Mandarin.

Postscript:  Mark Twain on German:

A dog is "der Hund"; a woman is "die Frau"; a horse is "das Pferd"; now you put that dog in the genitive case, and is he the same dog he was before? No, sir; he is "des Hundes"; put him in the dative case and what is he? Why, he is "dem Hund." Now you snatch him into the accusative case and how is it with him? Why, he is "den Hunden." But suppose he happens to be twins and you have to pluralize him- what then? Why, they'll swat that twin dog around through the 4 cases until he'll think he's an entire international dog-show all in is own person. I don't like dogs, but I wouldn't treat a dog like that- I wouldn't even treat a borrowed dog that way. Well, it's just the same with a cat. They start her in at the nominative singular in good health and fair to look upon, and they sweat her through all the 4 cases and the 16 the's and when she limps out through the accusative plural you wouldn't recognize her for the same being. Yes, sir, once the German language gets hold of a cat, it's goodbye cat. That's about the amount of it.
- Mark Twain's Notebook

Much more here.   I would swear I saw a quote from Twain that said he had read a whole book in German but did not know what was happening until he got to all the verbs on the last page, but I can't find the quote.

Random Notes from First Few Days in Europe

  • Bruges was a terrific little town, frozen in time about 400 years ago.
  • Bruges has this sort of computer-game type retail economy, seemingly based on just 3 products:  Chocolate, Beer, and Lace
  • The Lace Museum in Bruges was amazing. I would never have gone on my own, but having been dragged by my wife, it was truly fascinating.  I don't know if I had ever thought of how lace was made but it was more complex than I might have guessed.  There was a local lacing club (for lack of a better word) meeting upstairs and we got to watch a bit of the process.  The examples of extraordinary lace in the museum were simply amazing, I had never seen anything like it.  Likely way more fine and delicate and detailed than you have ever seen.  The machines, which knit clumsier lace products, were also quite a thing to watch in action
  • After Bruges, Amsterdam was an unbelievable contrast.  Despite being a tourist town, Bruges was quite quiet.  Amsterdam is... frenetic.
  • People have written many times about the bicycle thing in Amsterdam, but one does not really get a feel for it until it is actually experienced.  Coming out of the train station there was a storage area with literally thousands of bikes.  Bikes were everywhere.  One had to watch every step to make sure one is not hit by a bike.
  • Amsterdam has some kind of weird Logan's Run things going on -- zillions of people in the street, but they are all under 30.
  • As a libertarian, I love that Amsterdam has legalized marijuana and prostitution.  But as the only city in Europe that has effectively done so, it does create a problem in that it has become to Europe what Las Vegas is to the US.  Its streets are full of bachelor parties and drunken college kids.  The town has a lot of old-world splendor with its stately canal houses but it loses some of its charm as a visitor only casually interested in partaking of the debauchery.

Greetings from Thailand

Actually, I am back, but here is me with two of my college roommates carrying .... something or other in a Thai wedding ceremony in Roi Et.

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Some of you may be familiar with the groom, my friend Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute.  The wedding was amazing and I will try to post some more pictures later.

Thailand was wonderful, and if there is a country that has friendlier people, I have never been to it.  I will post some thoughts on Thailand later, but a few top of head items:

  • Business models can be really, really different in a country with lower-cost labor.  There were dudes in my hotel in Bangkok whose sole job seemed to be to time out my walk toward the elevator and hit the up button at the perfect moment.
  • One sidebar to this is that in restaurants and bars, they have waiters who simply hover around constantly.   They keep the alcohol bottles on a nearby table and essentially every time you take a sip, they fill your beer or scotch back up to the top. It is like drinking from a glass with a transporter beam in the bottom keeping it full.  This makes it virtually impossible to regulate one's drinking.
  • The whole country is like a gentrifying neighborhood in the US.  It is totally normal to see a teeth-achingly modern building right next to a total hovel.

 

Where's Coyote?

I am in Europe for a little bit.  I have not blogged because I either had a good Internet connection, but no time, or vice versa.  I am now on Lake Maggiore at a little town called Gerra for a few days, and watching the rain on the lake (perhaps this is disappointing for other travelers, but for Phoenicians watching a cold rail fall is a treat).  This area is an odd one, barely inside Switzerland.  Most of the folks are bilingual in German and Italian but most speak Italian day to day and most of the road signs are in Italian.  But they price their services in Swiss Francs, so they are no fools.  It all seems to work fine and be a source of pride for local residents.

Here are a few notes so far from our trip:

  • T-Mobile's rock-bottom international roaming rates appear to be the real deal.  I have gotten service everywhere we went and free (if sometimes slow) data.  The only problem so far is I can't send or receive MMS (SMS is fine) so I can't send my kids the usual picture travel-log I like to send.
  • Until today, XCom Global's European roaming wifi hotspot was great.  It worked in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany but failed me in Austria when the separate Austrian unit they sent me turned out to have a bad sim card.  They claim the other unit that works everywhere else will work in Austria as well -- we shall see, but if that is true, why did they send me a separate Austrian unit?
  • The Mercedes plant tour at Sindelfingen, Germany is great.  I could have stayed all day.  I have been on a lot of plant tours, and some have been very intimate with the machinery.  But those tended to be private tours.  This is the most up-close and personal I have ever gotten on a public tour.  The tour covered a large stamping plant and a final assembly line.  We took the 1:00 English tour, which I think is the most complete one.
  • I have never been to Baden Baden, Germany before.  A beautiful town with a 19th century vibe, we stopped there only because we needed to stop somewhere not far from Stuttgart.  We ate an incredible meal at the Michelin one-star Brennar's Park Hotel Restaurant.  Lichtentaler Allee was one of the most beautiful and peaceful public parks I have ever walked.
  • Last night we went to the opera at Bregenz (you may have seen it in Quantum of Solace, or you can google the amazing stages).   I thought the performers were from meh to fine, but not outstanding.  The staging though was gorgeous, probably the most beautiful stage production I have ever seen.

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The London Taxi War

Apparently the London taxi war continues to heat up, with London's mayor apparently siding with the traditional black cabs against Uber and minicabs.  I hope Uber can stay legal long enough for me to visit later this year.  I have really come to appreciate Uber's service when I travel.

The taxi war in London hit me in an odd way the other day.   I was trying to pick out a hotel in London that would not require me to mortgage the house to afford, and was reading reviews on TripAdvisor.   Sprinkled in 4 and 5 star (circle?) reviews on Tripadvisor for hotels that have very good reputations were a bunch of one star reviews.  Many of these said roughly the same thing -- that this was a terrible hotel because a minicab picked them up, or they saw minicabs there, or the hotel called a minicab for someone (minicab meaning "uber" apparently).

Given the passion in the traveling public for Uber, and the fact that it is hard to accidentally get an Uber to pick you up, my hypothesis is that traditional black cab drivers are going into the hotel review sites and giving one star ratings to ones that use (or who have customers who use) Uber.  This seems like a pretty typical labor-dispute-style tactic, but maybe I am missing something?

My Last Run

Well, that is kind of over-dramatic.  I will certainly continue to run sometimes.  I really enjoy running in cities where I travel as much as an exploration tool as for exercise.  But my knees are shot and I barely got through the half-marathon last weekend in 3 hours.  We had a great time though and Disney does a great job running these races.  And just about everyone wears costumes, which is fun.   It was worth the pain to do this event one last time with my daughter before she goes off to college.  Plus I now have another really awesome princess medal.

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IOS App Recommendation -- Tripcase

I really am not a productivity app sort of guy.  I have a lot of games, but most apps strike me as just dedicated browsers for someone's web site.    To date I am a big user of the Kindle app and the Feedly RSS feed reader app and the Gmail app.   Oh, and Google maps (the Apple maps program still sucks).   And that is about it.

But I have been using Tripcase (free) to bring together all my travel info and I really like it.  All one has to do is forward airline, hotel, car rental, restaurant, etc confirmations to a certain email address and the program parses out what information it needs.  The only work is that each confirmation gets set up as a separate trip, but it is easy to merge three or four together to get all of one trip in a single record.  It provides a nice interface with travel information and provides notifications for such things as flight delays and gate changes.

Pimsleur Italian Update, 55 Lessons In

I discussed a while back by decision to try the Pimsleur course over other brands.  So far I have been happy and I feel like I have retained a lot.  However, it is NOT for everyone.  It did not work for my wife, for example.  Here are what I think are two key considerations in committing time to this course / approach:

  1. You have to be able to learn from hearing and speaking.  There is only a little reading and no writing.  This is perfect for me -- taking notes actually interrupts my memory retention process.  But my wife likes to write, take notes, make lists.  She is a memorizer, I am an experiencer, if that makes sense.  By the time she gave up she had this huge long list of words and definitions she kept referring to.  If this is your learning style, it is not going to work well for you.
  2. You have to be a bit of a detective.   This did NOT fit my wife but did fit me (I was someone who would never memorize an equation if I knew I could derive it on the fly if I needed it).   The tapes almost never, ever explain any grammar.  You learn by example, and then are expected to construct the rules yourself in your head from the examples.  For example, never are the rules of verb conjugations given.  You just start noticing that all the first person present tense conjugations tend to end in "o".  I had little trouble with verb conjugations because I learned them in Spanish in a rigorous way and they are fairly similar in Italian. But Italian article and preposition rules are unlike both Spanish and English.  They have a lot of "a vs. an" type rules that can be a bit non-intuitive, and the preposition choices between "a" and "in" and "di" and "da" and "per" can drive English speakers up the wall (for example, you use a different proposition for going to a city vs. going to a country).  Now, most of us learned the "a vs. an" rules just through usage long before we had a grammar class, and a lot does sink in this way just speaking and listening, but I finally had to buy an Italian grammar book to make sure I had the full set of rules.

The other thing I have trouble with is that my hearing is not great and Italian is all about running your words together.  They LOVE contractions and blending ending vowels into beginning vowels of the next word.  I keep a Google translate window open on my desk so I can actually see new words they are using to make sure I am learning them correctly.

Postscript:  I have decided that Italian articles are Fate's revenge on me for years of fake Russian Boris Badanov accents where one makes fun of the tendency to drop articles (e.g. "Ve must get moose and squirrel").  Italians use articles in many circumstances where we typically do not in English.

Resort with Spectacular Views

I don't like to recommend destinations that are really expensive (why get people excited about a place they can't afford to visit) but we splurged this weekend on the Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Arizona.  It is the most spectacular location I have ever seen for a landlocked (ie non ocean-front) resort.  It is almost impossible to do it justice in photos, because it sits at the end of a box canyon and is surrounded on three sides by red rock walls.    Some pictures are here in the google image result.  Expect to pay $300-400 and up for a night, though you will get a very nice room even for the lower rates, and large casitas for higher rates.  As is usual for resorts, meals are crazy expensive -- its hard to get through breakfast, for example, for less than $20 a person.  But the views and hiking and everything else here are just beautiful.

One of the things I enjoyed was the resort had a native american climb onto a local rock outcropping a couple of times a day and play peaceful flute music that echoed around the resort.  You can see a group gathered around to watch (update:  A reader was nice enough to Photoshop out some of the haze using a levels command trick he taught me a while back -- you can compare below to this original)

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It freaked me out for a while because I would here this low-volume music as I walked around the resort and I could not figure out where it was coming from (I kept looking for hidden speakers until I figured it out).

As an added bonus, the night sky is totally dark -- you are out in the wilderness about 15 miles from Sedona and out of site of any other habitation of any sort and almost completely surrounded by canyon walls.  As a result, it is one of the few places where us city folk can see the Milky Way in all its glory (below is my amateur photography (you may have to click to enlarge to really see the Milky Way, but its there).

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The restaurant there is quite good and there are excellent tables on the deck outside to watch the sunset.  But if you want a slightly different Sedona experience (though equally expensive) the Restaurant at the L'Auberge resort right in the town of Sedona on Oak Creek is terrific.  The food is great and the location on the creek is very romantic at night.  Here is the view from my table right around sunset.

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You can't get closer to the water than that!

Postscript:  If you like the idea of creekside dining but don't want to blow a hundred bucks a person for dinner, I have eaten at a much less expensive, much less highbrow restaurant that had a very similar location.  It is the Rapids Lodge Restaurant at Grand Lake, Colorado, and is a great place to eat on a trip through Rocky Mountain National Park before you turn around and head back to Estes Park.  Here is the view from our table there:

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PPS:  Other US resort views I like:  Highlands Inn, near Carmel;  Hapuna Resort, Big Island, Hawaii;  Sanctuary Resort, Phoenix, AZ (though the rooms really need an update);  Trump Hotel, Las Vegas (located right on the bend of the strip so the strip view rooms look straight down the strip at night).

Update:  In the spirit of equal time, a reader writes that the Enchantment Resort ruined Boynton Canyon.  Its impossible for me to say -- I never knew it in its pristine state.  I will say the resort itself does a pretty good job of keeping a low profile in the canyon -- no buildings that I saw over 2 stories tall, most of the old trees are preserved.

On Language Courses

Last time we were in Italy, my wife and I vowed that we would try to learn some Italian before we return (she has some high school French and I have a fair amount of Spanish).   Well, we never did much about it.  I will confess that despite being often skeptical of the paradox of choice, it may actually explain my lack of action.  I could not make up my mind between the various courses.

Then along came my son, who has decided with his roommate that they want to do a semester abroad in Italy next year.  I am not sure why he chose Italy -- I can only assume it had something to do with my euphoric descriptions of finding myself in Milan on Vogue fashion night and being surrounded by Italian models.  You know that language course ad with the guy picking up the Italian course so he can have his one chance at the Italian supermodel?  It's a funny ad, but I fear it may actually hit kind of close to home in my household.

Anyway, my son pushed me over the top to buy a course.  The conflicting online reviews can leave your head spinning, but the general conclusions I came to were:

  • Rosetta Stone is all marketing, but not the best course
  • Pimsleur got the most positive ratings.

So I went with the Pimsleur course.  It is PC-based, which fits how my family works.  It allows four installations, so each family member got one.  And it allows its lessons to be downloaded to mp3 files so you can listen in the car or on your iPod (though you lose out on the other parts of the lesson which are non-audio).

So far, 20 days into the thing, I have been happy.  I have never thought of myself as good at languages but I have decided to trust the process.  So far, I feel like I am learning and retaining a lot.  My son reports that he thinks it is better than Rosetta Stone, which his roommate is using.

The weird part for me, who learned Spanish from a grammar nazi, is to work with verbs without first learning all the conjugation rules.   In fact, the course seems to work this way -- you learn examples and phrases first, then over time go back and learn the grammar behind what you are doing.  It seems to work, for a few reasons.  One is that a lot of the verbs you need early on to say basic things (is, go, like) have non-standard conjugations anyway, so memorizing them is what you would have had to do with any approach.  A second reason is that it is a hell of a lot more fun to say useful things than to spend what I remember to be years farting around with conjugation and use rules for the subjunctive.  After all, I am not trying to write an academic paper in Italian, I am trying to enjoy my tourist experience.  The third reason this is working for me is that I do remember a lot of my old Spanish verb conjugations, and it turns out Italian conjugates (at least in the present tense) very similarly to Spanish.

Postscript:  To the early joke about learning Italian to meet women, I will say we were all laughing through about the first 7 lessons of Pimsleur.  If you had designed a course solely to pick up people of the opposite sex, I am not sure one bit of the first few lessons would have been different.  Seriously, we were repeating phases like "do you want to have a drink at your place or mine?"

LineQuest, err Comic-Con Report

Having now been to my first Comic-con International conference in San Diego, I have come up with a new official T-shirt for the event.  It will say on the front, "What is this line for?"

That was the question on everyone's lips.  No matter where you went, either in the exhibit hall or in the meeting room area or outside, there were lines everywhere.  There were lines for giveaways.  There were lines to get in rooms.  There were lines for autographs.  There were even lines to get tickets to have a preferential place in a line later.   One line, for the largest theater that had the hottest programming, was over a mile and a quarter long, with people lined up overnight to get in.  There were so many lines it was often unclear what lines were for.  Five people could likely start a line randomly by simply standing in line at some random spot and people would start getting in behind them.

I have decided that the origin of the word Comic-Con is not actually from Comic-Convention but in fact is actually a corruption of COMECON.  It is an organization that has embraced the old Soviet economy with both arms.  It has bent over backwards to absolutely ensure that no allocation of scarce resources will be based on price -- thus the incredibly complicated process for even obtaining a ticket to the event in the first place.  So all goods are free (or in the case of a 4-day ticket, very inexpensive) and allocation of scarce resources is entirely by queue.

A one-day pass to see the exhibit hall and people-watch the Cosplay is well worth the price, both in money and more importantly in time.  My son and I had a great time.  But any attempt to enjoy any of the programming content will require at least 1 hour of line-standing for every 1 hour of program time.  And if the program has any recognizable person's name in it, or if the title includes the words "Star Wars, Star Trek, or Firefly", then you can count on at least 3 hours of waiting for every one hour of programming.

As an example, my son and I showed up 1-1/2 hours early for an afternoon program called something like "Star Wars vs. Firefly."   We were about 50th in a line that eventually ran to about 600 people.  We thought we were in good shape.  Foolish mortals.  It turns out people showed up at 7 and 8 in the morning for the first program of the day in that room, and then never left, solely to get to the 1:30 Star Wars/Firefly program.  None of us in line outside the door at 1:30 got in.

I am not going to argue resource allocation methodologies here -- this is a private event and they are welcome to do it any way they wish.  And since their target audience tends to be young and perhaps under-employed, then I can see how an allocation methodology based on investing one's time rather than money would be appealing to that audience.  Again, a day at the trade show and people watching the Cosplay is worth it.  As for the rest, if you are someone who will wait in line an hour to save 10 cents on gas, you will probably love it.  If you are someone who thought the FastPass system was the greatest thing ever implemented by Disney, they you should likely give the programming a miss.

A few other notes:

  • One of the shorter lines was for autographs from Stan Lee, which goes to show how far Comic-Con has evolved from its roots
  • Building on the previous observation, I saw only one or two booths on the entire (huge) exhibit floor actually selling vintage comic books
  • The Cosplay is everywhere but the best place to see it is just outside the hall where the photographers are taking pictures of folks coming in.  This is one area Comic-Con is really missing an opportunity.  If I were them I would create a red carpet ala the Oscars for Cosplayers to come in and everyone else to watch.   Put in some grandstands and big screens, maybe even with live commentary or voting
  • The masquerade is very miss-able.  A costume competition but it is run in a tedious manner and the Cosplay on the exhibit floor is better.
  • Fortunately I have a lot of nerds in my clan so I came away with good gifts.  My son got an autographed Summer Glau photo, my daughter an autographed Benedict Cumberbatch photo, and my niece an autograph of the most current Doctor Who (sorry, my first Doctor was Tom Baker and I can't keep track of the new ones).  My son also scored a Disney Princess calendar drawn in that, ahem, fantasy style made famous in publications like Heavy Metal.  It is sure to horrify my wife and daughter, which I assume was half the point.

Off to Comicon

As you could probably tell from the scarcity of posts, I have been on quasi-vacation for a few weeks.  Today I fly off to San Diego to go to Comicon with my son.  Sorry, don't expect any Coyote Cosplay pictures.

Look Mom, Swahili

My daughter is in Tanzania this summer for a secular service project.  Her first Swahili:  Jina langu ni Amelia, Ninatoka jimbo la Arizona which I hope means "my name is Amelia, I am from Arizona."

Tailgating at the Opera

I grew up in Texas and I am not sure the concept of tailgating I was weaned on was flexible enough to encompass the opera.  But it's good to try new things.  Here are a couple of photos from my first trip to the Santa Fe Opera

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Didn't see any cornhole games though.

When Divine Omniscience is Not Enough

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Local Celebrity

I just read about a project dedicated to local celebrities, people who are very famous in their own backyard but not known at all beyond a small region.

The one person in this category I could think of (beyond local TV and radio personalities) is Johnny Barnes in Bermuda.   I encountered him around the year 2000 when I went to Bermuda for a job interview -- I was running Internet companies at the time and a group in Bermuda had an idea to combine an Internet B2B model with offshore banking and tax havens.  Transfer pricing games seemed to be prominent in the model.

Anyway, there he was, at a busy traffic circle almost everyone on the island passed when going to work in the morning.  He just stood there saying hello and good morning to everyone.  I found out later he was a Bermuda icon -- if he missed a day the radio stations and government offices would be flooded with calls from people asking if he was OK.  Searching the Internet, I found that someone has made a film about him.

 

JetBlue is Awesome

If the DirecTV at every seat (no extra charge) and extra leg room (extra charge) were not enough, it turns out JetBlue has a great ticket change policy.

We had non-refundable tickets on JetBlue for today that we really wanted to move to an earlier time.  Normally, on about any airline, that would be at least a $100 per ticket fee plus the difference in fair.  The latter portion can be substantial, as the early rate we first received almost certainly is not available today.

But JetBlue has a special policy that on day of travel, you can change coach tickets for $50 each - that's it.  No matter what the fair difference is.  So I waited until 12:01 AM to call and change my flights.  Totally awesome.

A Great Day in Manhattan for $20

I had a great day on Friday in Manhattan for the price of a $20 subway pass.  I did a lot of wandering around and people-watching, but here are three great free activities:

1.  Central Park.  Probably the greatest urban park in the world.  It is gorgeous, and everyone overlooks it.  If you have never strolled the Ramble, you will not believe you are in the middle of Manhattan.

2.  Walk the high-line park.  Another fabulous piece of landscape architecture, an old elevated rail line running north from about 14th street (just a bit south of the Chelsea Market) along the West Side that has been turned into a park and an amazing escape.  You can stroll the waterfront and urban New York without encountering a single car.  It is also incredibly quiet.  And train-lovers will appreciate that the architects kept a lot of the complex track-work as part of the landscape, almost like industrial art.

3.  Walk the Brooklyn Bridge.   I don't know that there is any similar experience anywhere else.  Something New Yorkers and tourists have enjoyed for over a hundred years.

I couldn't stay until magic hour but the view was still tremendous.

In the evening, I did whip out the wallet again and took my daughter to Ellen's Stardust Diner, near 51st and Broadway.  Total tourist trap.  Terrible food.  But an absolute blast every time.  All the waiters are out-of-work Broadway singers and they take turns singing show tunes for the restaurant as they serve.  We have walked out smiling and feeling good every time we have gone.

 

Cute Animal Pictures

I am just about to enter my ninth year on this blog and I realize that I have not participated much in the primary purpose of the Internet -- posting cute animal pictures.  So here is some catch-up, via a recent trip to the San Diego zoo.

 

Agent of the State

Somehow the picture of my son posing with one of Joe Arpaio's new recruits got messed up in an earlier post.  I know you all were desperate to see it, so here is the repaired image.

Disney World's Best Attraction

I am currently sitting in Disney's best attraction, and it is almost empty: The lobby of the Grand Floridian Hotel, with their orchestra playing. Even if you don't stay here, find an excuse to stop here on the monorail one evening. great way to decompress from the running-with-the-bulls experience in the parks, and a better time machine than any of their rides.

Bring on the Financial Apocalypse, I Will Ride it Out Here

Often ranked among the best beaches of the world, this is the beach at the Mauna Kea Resort on the Big Island of Hawaii.  I don't usually take summer vacations given the nature of my business, but we are celebrating my wife's 50th.   Yes, that is the view from my room, thanks to our awesome cousin who is a manager at the resort.