Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category.

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.

What Are You Doing After the Rapture? I'm Going to DisneyWorld

Apparently, certain religious prognosticators are forecasting sunny weather with a chance of rapture this Saturday.  I have decided to enjoy the beginning of the end with my daughter at DisneyWorld.  My hope is that once all the good Christians ascend in to Heaven, the lines will be a lot shorter for those of us left behind.  Besides, perhaps there will be a post-apocalyptic opportunity to play out Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

For a variety of reasons related in part to my dad's company's sponsorship of certain things Disney, I have been to DisneyWorld a ridiculous number of times.  My Disney reviews are here.

Another Problem With TSA Body Scanners

I can't go anywhere without analyzing operations and workflow -- there used to be a bagel store near my house whose work flow was so awful and inefficient it almost caused me physical pain just to be in the store.  In large part I owe my marriage to operations analysis, as I started going out with my wife when I was tutoring her on cycle times and other basic concepts.

So beyond the obvious privacy and invidual rights problems, TSA screening areas have always driven me nuts because they are so inefficient.  Yesterday I was putting on my shoes and belt after another run-in with the visible hand of the state, and it gave me time to watch the full body x-ray scanners for a while.  They had been bought in sufficient quantity to replace the metal detectors one for one, but there seemed to be a problem.

While people flowed through the metal detectors, at a rate of at least 15-20 per minute, the full body scanner seemed really slow.  In fact, I sat down and timed it for a while.  The scanner was working at a rate of 3 people per minute. This was with a queue at the front end so there was no waiting time for a new person to enter when the scanner was ready.  A couple of times it did 3.5 per minute, but never did it do 4 in a minute.    This seems like a real problem -- that capacity per lane has been reduced by a factor of 5 or so from the metal detectors.  Of course, it is a bit more complicated than that, because a parallel process of scanning the luggage in the x-ray machine has to complete simultaneously, and before the new scanners the x-ray was definitely the bottleneck.  But each time I went through this week my luggage sat complete on the x-ray machine before I finished being scanned, which suggests to me that the bottleneck has shifted, and we have spent a lot of money to slow down an already time consuming process.   That is why most airports have kept their metal detectors --they need them for overflow capacity.

Here is a second issue with the scanners -- they appear to take 3 times as much manpower.  The old metal detectors required one person.  The new machines appear to require 3 -- one person is at the machine, giving instructions; a second person watches you in a sort of holding area downstream of the machine as you wait for the scan results; and third person is somewhere out of site, on a radio, presumably looking at monitors and calling in results to the second person.  No wonder the TSA loves this technology - 3 times more staffing!

Italian Rail

After having my car hit 3 times in one week driving in Italy, I swore this time I would do it without the car.  So I tried rail.  I had almost as much trouble with rail as with driving.

First, never, ever, ever buy a Eurail pass for Italy.  It is way too expensive compared to the train fares.  Its a good deal in Switzerland, so I bought one for Italy before doing the research.  It became a running joke in Italy - every single Italian rail employee we had to show the pass to told us we should not have bought it.  So not only did I pay too much, but I got reminded of it twice a day.

Second, all but the smallest and shabbiest trains require advanced reservations, but these reservations are nearly impossible to make if you are not Italian, because the rail site has some kind of weird block on most all American credit cards (much about this around the Internet).  This means that I can't just have get-on-the train and go flexibility, I have to pick a train I want to use in the future and then stand in line at a rail station to purchase the ticket or reservation.    Lines do not move fast in Italian rail stations.

But the classic story comes from my minor infraction of rail policy that ended up costing me money.  I don't know if this is just government or if it they have a lot of problem with cheating.  Apparently, each day you are supposed to fill that days date in the next slot on your Eurail pass before you get on the train.  I forgot to on one trip, so the conductor insisted I owed a 50 euro fine.  Seriously.  I said, let me add the date right now, but she said no.  They had a couple guys lined up to throw us off in the next random Italian town if we did not hand over the money  (reminds me of this story in England).

I will say, once I calmed down, that in retrospect the lecture from the Italian state employee on why it is important to follow every single rule and to trust our betters in government that all the rules are for a good reason was almost worth the 50-euro price of admission.

It took me a while to figure out what they were afraid of -- I suppose if you did not write the date in advance, and the conductor never came by, you could get an extra day of travel.  Of course, I had paid extra money for a reservation on that particular train, so it was unlikely I was gaming the system (another reason not to get a Eurail pass in Italy, you still have to pay extra for nearly every train).  And it seemed odd that on a 2-hour train ride they thought it a real risk no conductor would come by, though on the very next day we took a 2-hour ride and there was no conductor, so I suppose it is possible.

In that latter case we were in a car where the AC failed on a hot day, and of course it was the only train we rode on the whole trip where the windows did not open.  No conductor took my ticket, but one did stand at the end of the car the whole trip turning away anyone who wanted to get an open seat in the next car -- after all, we were assigned a specific seat and sitting in another would be against the rules.

More Italy

After several more days and locations (Florence, Cinqueterre via Portovenere) I am left with one question:  Why is it that even supposedly elegant European hotels charging many hundreds of Euros a night for a room are oblivious to the quality of their beds?  I am getting tired of paying tons of cash for rooms with bed linens whose quality is measured in "grit" rather than "threadcount."  The beds are uncomfortable and the pillows are awful.   The blankets are sick polyester jokes that Motel 6 would be embarrassed to offer.  For the price of just one night's room rent I could go to IKEA and outfit the rooms better.  It's not like I am some spoiled princess-and-the-pea sleeper -- I stay in a lot of cheap hotels and I tent camp, for god sakes.  My camping equipment is more comfortable than these beds.  I routinely stay in $70 hotels in the US and never get beds or linens this bad.  Do they not care, or is this what Europeans all sleep on at home?

OK, rant over.  Florence was as great as it always is.  There is way too much stuff to do there ever to get bored, all within just a few minutes walking.   Unlike past visits, we entirely skipped the Uffizi and hit a lot of historic buildings we had missed before (e.g. Medici Palace).  I enjoyed it but if you are on your first visit, the Uffizi is a must.  Also saw a bit of above-average engineering, like this:

Seriously, I wonder if I could have -- without a)  any kind of materials strength data base; b) no structural steel or modern concrete; c) no CAD facility -- designed and built such a thing in the 1400s, even with the Pantheon as a go-by to copy.  Really remarkable.

In Florence, there is a famous bridge called the Ponte Vecchio which is actually covered in buildings:

You can't tell from this picture, but the bridge (open only to pedestrian traffic) is lined with at least 40 jewelry stores.  Seriously, each storefront has bout 6 feet of space, and every one had a window with zillions of gold trinkets.  It got me thinking about the paradox of choice.  It's not hard to buy into the economic theory that too much choice may inhibit purchase while walking along this bridge, though I am told most of these folks do very well (I have never bought into the paradox of choice as social theory -- the one that says people would be happier with fewer choices.  If this were true, we would all be emigrating to North Korea).

Speaking of pedestrian streets, one important takeaway from Italy has been that one should never assume a road is too narrow, even if it is no wider than your pantry door, for a vehicle to come racing through any second.  The other day I was in a really narrow alley I thought was foot-traffic-only when a bus(!) came screaming down the lane like a piston through a cylinder.  Only a well-located doorway got me out of the way, and even then the bus's mirror clipped my arm.

The last few days we have been staying at the port town of Portovenere on the Italian Riviera.

The town itself is attractive with a fair amount to explore for its size.  I experimented some with night photography from my room

I have some other exposures that I want to try with HDR software to try to bring out a bit more of the buildings.   The town was kind of fun on a Saturday night -- in addition to a couple of rowdy weddings, there were also a lot of BIG boats that came in for dinner in the evening.  Very nice (except for my bed).

Portovenere is a convenient gateway to the Cinqueterre, five absurdly picturesque downs laid down in about 1100 AD by Walt Disney to attract American tourists.  You may have not heard their names, but you have likely seen one or all of them the last time you were at an art fair in one of the photo exhibits -- here is one example (though they had the patience to wait for a time of day where the lighting was better, presumably in the early morning).

More than the towns, I enjoyed the walking trail in between, which is an attraction in and of itself.  It winds through wilderness and vineyards along the coast.  All through the vineyards I kept seeing what looked like a guide rail for some sort of gear-driven device.  The rail wound up and down the hills and through the vineyards.  I had assumed that it was some sort of irrigation system where the sprinkler moved along the rail (though I could not figure out how the water supply would work).  Then I found this absolutely awesome piece of steampunk-style tech:

It is hard to tell, but its a little one-person monorail that rides on the rail and pulls a couple of carts behind the "engine."  This is why I could not find any roads or really many trails in the vineyards -- they use these cool things to move about, do maintenance, and bring in the crop presumably.  And the rail does not run on the ground, but 4-5 feet in the air, so one can see over all the vines and brush.  Totally awesome.  And not a seatbelt to be found on it, which made me love it all the more.   I loved it so much, here is another shot head-on (sorry it is overexposed, I don't have the energy to edit it right now).

Thoughts on Milan

I don't promise posts every day or even any other day of the trip, but since I have a quiet moment, and my wife is writing in her diary, I thought I would post a few thoughts.

  • Milan is way underrated as a tourist spot, at least for a day or two.  It has the reputation of being a cold industrial town, and much of it may be that way, but the center of the city is quite nice to visit.  It was a legitimate rival to Florence and Venice in the Italian Renaissance.  Lots of good shopping, some good tourist sites, and the streets, particularly at night, are great to walk around.  The weather is wonderful, which helps.
  • Single impression I will hold from Milan:  Very attractive women dressed to the nines in chic outfits wearing 5-inch heels -- all while riding a bicycle.  They are all over the place.  And as for the overall rating for the lady-watching, I don't think any spot will surpass Buenos Aires in my book (with Beverly Hills probably as a #2) but Milan very much held its own in that department.
  • Stayed at the Park Hyatt on points (thank God because it is really expensive).  This is one great hotel, in a fabulous location with the best service I have ever received.
  • If you are coming to Milan, fly into Linate rather than Malpensa if you can -- the difference in time to the center of town is about an hour.
  • Milan is a great place to start your trip in norther Italy.  One can fly here from about any where in the world and they have fast, cheap trains that go everywhere in Italy.
  • Speaking of trains, don't ever, ever buy a Eurail pass for Italy.  I bought one out of habit (the Swiss pass is awesome) and because last time I drove in Italy my car was hit 3 times in 1 week.  But train travel in Italy is so cheap that the pass is not worth it, and almost every good train requires a reservation (and reservation fee) which defeats the "just walk on the train" advantage of the pass.  Also, as an American, the Trenitalia web site is endlessly frustrating, and won't accept most American credit cards, so the only way you can reserve a train in advance (which you must do) is to trudge to a travel agency or train station in Italy.  You can do it from a few US web sites but they add on huge fees.
  • The Cathedral (Duomo) in Milan was right next to our hotel and is the 3rd or 4th largest in Europe.  I found it kind of unexceptional, except for its size (and perhaps the beautifully sculpted front doors).  The interior highlight is probably the large stained glass windows (OK and the body of the saint lying in a room whose design looks like it was pulled right out of the haunted mansion ride at Disneyworld was interesting too).  However, there is one other thing unique about the Duomo that was fun -- you can go up and walk on the roof.  Not just go up in a tower, but walk all over the roof and in between the flying buttresses.  Great view and enjoyable

  • The Sforza Castle, for all its history, is about the bleakest and most overtly military building I have ever seen produced by the Italian Renaissance.  But probably appropriate for their history, given that the Sforza's were top generals to the Milanese Dukes before they took over the succession, and Milan was really home for the Renaissance era defense industry.
  • The Galleria Vittoria Emanuele is is a great Victorian-style glassed arcade near the Duomo.  The structure is cool but unfortunately there is not really anything inside to do it justice.

  • Took a lot of 3-shot photo series with a bracketing of low to high exposures so I could play with some new High Dynamic Range imaging software. This kind of scene above, with lots of texture in the buildings that gets washed out by the sunlight from the glass dome, hopefully will work well.  I will report on results.
  • On to Florence today, where we have a beautiful deck overlooking the Arno and Ponte Veccio and views from the rooftop restaurant all around Florence.  At least if the goofball in the black shirt would stop jumping in front of the camera.

Back from the Big Floating Leisure Suit

I am back from the family reunion (my wife's family) which was held on a cruise last week.  The cruise was a really good venue for a family reunion -- small enough that you run into people, but large enough to escape them too.  Every night we had 4 large tables to ourselves in the restaurant.

The cruise itself was a little disappointing, but it was chosen more for being low cost and accesible to the entire group, so I can live with that.   There were way too many people in my space for my personal taste.  Someday I want to take a much smaller boat, maybe in the Greek Isles.

A couple of things amazed me.  One, the port of call in Mexico was really a dump.  And this is from someone who has spent time in Mexico, good places and bad, and has some fondness for the country.  I figured out the reason when I was laying on the deck and saw the Panamanian flag flying form the back of the boat.  By US law, for a non-US flagged ship to leave and return to a port (in this case Long Beach), it must stop in between in another country.  I am sure the cruise line would love to run four day cruises say between San Diego and Santa Barbara or San Francisco, but that would be illegal unless they took on the prohibitive cost of operating a US-flagged ship.  So we stopped in a little industrial town just over the border to make it all legal.

The other thing that amazed me was the decor of the ship.  I would have bet money that the ship was designed in the 1970's.  Our room, which had a balcony, was nice, but the common areas were right out of bad 1970's casino ambiance.  Amazingly, though, the nameplate said it was built in 1998.  Not sure what these guys were thinking.  I called it the great floating leisure suit.

Internet service was $24 per hour, so I did not do any blogging, but the good news is I got a ton of writing done on my new novel.

Cool Places I Didn't Know Existed

Via Scouting NY, restored 19th century domed West Baden Springs Hotel.  In southern Indiana.  I am amazed I never heard of it, because I used to run campgrounds almost next door to it.

Great Moments in Government Process Innovation

I have noticed recently that the TSA has created split lines at many airport security screening posts - one for experienced travelers and one for "casual" travelers - i.e. noobs.

I have no problem with the basic idea.  Long ago I began advocating special lines for public electronic devices (airport boarding pass machines, supermarket self-checkout, ATM's) for people with IQ's over 90 because I always seemed to get behind the person who had never even seen a keyboard in their life.

But the actual execution of this concept in airports is laughable.  In the last 4 airports I have been in, the split between passengers who know what they are doing and those who don't is only through the screener who checks ID.  Even the lamest travel noobs are generally able to cough up an ID and boarding pass without too much trouble (though I will say I always seem to get behind the guy traveling on some bizarre 1930's-era League of Nations passport that seems to take forever to process).  However, after this ID screening the two lines come back together and everyone is mixed again.  Just in time to hit the x-ray screening station, where inexperienced travelers can hold up the line for hours.

Like Some Weird Cargo-Cult Temple

Passed this the other day in Guntersville, Alabama.  Where vending machines go to die.

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I wish I could have shot it from the air.  None of the ground pictures really do the monument justice.

Greetings From London

Despite the fact that there is plenty to blog about right now (I think I have 551 unread articles in my feed reader) I will have to ignore much of it as I spend this week in London.  My son is going to summer school at Cambridge and he and I are spending this week together in London.

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As is typical of flights to London, we arrived at about 8AM.  I tried to share with my son the virtues of my long experience travelling (telling him to gut it out and not sleep on arrival day) but you know how teenagers are about listening to parental wisdom.  So while he napped, I wandered around some areas of Westminster I had never seen before, including Westminster Cathedral:

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I found this to be an odd church.  Byzantine on the outside, the inside is much more reflective of its Victorian heritage, with monolithic brick vaults.  It could have been quite beautiful inside, but the upper reaches of the church, including its domes, are entirely unfinished brick - not even a plaster coating.  The sign said that it was left unfinished for future generations to add murals, but given that about 5 generations have passed since its construction, it is probably time for a bit of decoration.  Right now the ceiling looks like the interior of a coke oven.  I did, however, walk into a mass in progress (which is why I have no interior pictures) and the organ and choir were magnificent.