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What I did on my summer vacation (2009 edition)

September 5, 2009 (8:38 pm) | By: hitch

Ahhh, Bermuda. The land of…well…honestly, not a whole heck of a lot that anyone around here knows about. Which is exactly why it was such a great vacation this time ’round. Please don’t misunderstand – there really is rather a lot to do while you’re there, if you’re so inclined. It’s simply that there’s nothing there that could conceivably be labelled “don’t miss”.
My best short description of the island is that it’s a cleaner, less hot, less touristy Freeport, Bahamas.
Which is saying something, really – I never really thought of Freeport as being all that dirty, and have always generally enjoyed myself.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.
To begin, this vacation was built around removing as much stress as possible. We cruised to Bermuda to avoid dealing with hotel reservations and airplane tickets. We left out of Baltimore Harbor for much the same reason. Ordinarily, this is not a route I would have chosen but Bermuda is uniquely situated to make Baltimore Harbor a perfect departure point for a cruise. In fact, the embarkation was remarkably easy and stress free – aside from a moment when we realized we’d have to put our bags through x-ray machines and walk through metal detectors (a fact which puzzled me as our checked luggage underwent no such searches, and we’d be receiving that baggage on the other end of the exercise. Though this is not the last time my bafflement at security procedures came into play). It was at that time that I realized I had not removed my Leatherman from my pants – specifically because I had not anticipated this step, given the circumstances. After a moment I decided that “it says no knives, not no metal”, and pulled out the leatherman, unfolded it into pliers, and placed it into my camera bag. I decided this would arouse the least concern, and was apparently correct as they didn’t even mention it.DSC02040.jpg

Once onboard, everything went pretty well. We’d arrived quite early, as is our wont, and our stateroom wouldn’t be ready for a few hours. So our first official act was to plop down our carry-on bags and get a drink. We anticipated getting rather a lot of these over the course of the trip.

We actually made it on deck for the departure party – something we missed the last time we cruised due to our insane jet-lag after the transatlantic flight (yet another driver for this particular trip) and proceeded to enjoy ourselves for the evening. Here, however, is where we first realized one of our mistakes.
Our last cruise was a fairly normal cruise. Get on, do stuff, your dinner is at x:00pm, please be there appropriately, etc. This time we were DSC02058.jpgon a Norwegian cruise. Norwegian does something called “Freestyle” cruising. It’s supposed to be the kind of cruise where you can just do your own thing whenever you want and not worry about any set schedule. Which is fine…but I think someone should remind them that when swimmers do “freestyle” everyone still uses the crawl stroke.

Here was our problem: Dinner can be at any time. So what time should we do dinner? By the time we generally were decided, our options had generally been reduced. And in fact that first night I believe just about everything was already closed by the time we even remembered that we had to choose a time for dinner. (Matters were not improved by the fact that, being a smaller boat than before, and the weather being fairly choppy, Sabrina was beginning to feel a tad bit green. Dramamine helped, but her mood had been dampened by that time). I think we could have overcome this in time, but at that point we realized a few other things. One of the things that makes a cruise fun and unique is just that stricture of eating with a group of random strangers that you sit with night after night. Sure it means you have to eat at the same time, but frankly – don’t you generally do that anyway? And you never have to do so. There is always somewhere on board the ship that food can be had, particularly during normal dining hours. All this did was remove from us one of the things we really enjoyed about our last cruise.*DSC02071.jpg

In fact, so pronounced was this effect that we really never met anyone onboard ship that we talked to for more than a few minutes. The effect was compounded by the fact that nowhere did there appear to be a nice, comfortable place where more than say, 2-4 people could sit and chat without being at a show. So we kept mostly to ourselves the entire time we were on board. This was not entirely a bad thing – we enjoy being with each other and appreciated the time alone. But it did and does strike me as a missed opportunity.

The next point at which we realized we weren’t entirely comfortable with Norwegian began at around 10am the next morning. Having just finished breakfast from off our knees in a couple of lounge chairs, the staff started coming to ask if we wanted anything to drink. Approximately every 5 minutes. With no break. I didn’t really want a drink at 10am, I just wanted to relax. After a while we got some water – but they wanted to bring us “bar drinks” – because they automagically add a gratuity to everything, every individual waiter wanted to serve as many individual guests as possible. And so they repeated their requests. Five or six wait staff would make the same circuit around the deck, asking each time if you wanted anything and continuing on – or rushing off to get it for you. When we finally ordered daiquiris just to get them to leave us alone we discovered the sinister truth. They would never leave us alone. With daiquiri in hand we sat while they asked us if we wanted another. Not now? I can bring it out in 10 minutes, just order it now. How about a bucket of beer. If you order it now it will be even colder when you start drinking in 15 minutes! I tried not to make eye contact, to no avail. No eye contact meant they would walk by and spray you with cold water because it made you feel better. And made you put away your book so it didn’t get soaked, and then you made eye contact. More drinks?

So no…I don’t much like “Freestyle Cruising”. I much preferred when our waitstaff was assigned to a particular venue for the duration of the cruise and you built up a relationship with them and the people you liked brought you back to the venues you liked and so they got your tips – and had an incentive to not annoy you. If you couldn’t tell, relationships are important to me. But I digress.

Lest you think that the only thing I took away from this cruise was grousing, let me assure you that this is not the case. It’s merely that comparisons are what spring to mind naturally and this does not compare as favorably as one might have hoped. Then again, it was also far less expensive.

On to the good parts – because that’s what we focused on while we were there.. The weather was absolutely beautiful the entire time we DSC01992.jpgwere out, aside from the slight choppiness the first night and a 10 minute rain on the last day at sea. The sun shone, the water sparkled, and what clouds there were remained white and fluffy. We arrived in Bermuda to the island’s Town Crier and a cannon firing to welcome us into the harbor.

That afternoon was spent just wandering around the St. George’s end of the island in what amounted to some pretty decent heat and humidity, but not much more than we’re used to out here – in fact, on the whole it was far more comfortable than your average DC summer. I found this highly amusing, since Bermuda’s tourist industry recommends staying away from the island in August. I can be extremely hot and humid, they say. It can get into the mid-80’s and up to 80% humidity! Riiight. I’ll keep that in mind as I flee the 100+ heat and 100%+ humidity we usually get around here. According to their websites, the all time high for the entire country is 93. Rock. I’m so there. DSC02148.jpgEspecially since, despite the climate being pretty temperate, the water is wonderfully warm. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We didn’t get to the water for several days. The first afternoon not much was open (much of Bermuda seems to pretty much close down around 6pm, except for restaurants which close at 9) so we wandered around St. George’s and took pictures. Then we wandered out to a fortification and took pictures. I took a lot of pictures. After a while we wandered back and hit one of the local restaurants and, after trying our first round of Dark & Stormy’s, crashed for the night.
Day 2 consisted primarily of hitting as much of the island as possible. We covered the 2 major areas of interest for visitors – the Royal Naval Dockyard and Hamilton, the capital. Hamilton was a fairly major city, if a bit on the smaller side – I don’t really have much to say, even though we spent half the day there. I suspect, though, that if you want “nightlife”, this is where to head

The Royal Naval Dockyard had a feel very similar to Williamsburg, VA in miniature – in the sense that it consisted of a lot of buildings historical to Bermuda, side-by-side with artisan’s shops in buildings either renovated from the same period or constructed to the same specifications. It was actually pretty nice, but due to the fact that everything shuts down so early we had to head back towards St. George having missed the part I was most interested in – the Maritime Museum. We remedied that the next day.DSC02141.jpg

I’d definitely say that this was my favorite portion of the trip. The dolphin area was a great deal of fun – particularly since Sabrina had never seen a dolphin that close before, she was captivated. I always like seeing things again that Sabrina’s never seen before – it reminds me how cool it was the first time and keeps me from getting as jaded as I otherwise might. I mean, come on – dolphins are awesome. The rest of the museum was interesting and the views from some of the fortifications were breathtaking. We finished off with lunch at the Frog & Onion where we had our first bowl of Bermudian Fish Chowder, with our second to follow that evening at dinner. If any of you ever come over for dinner, ask us to make it – if we’re any good at replicating it, you’ll like it, even though it’s hard to describe. I’m not sure how to describe it, really…but I’ll try. Brick red, spicy in both the “well spiced” and “a bit hot” senses, full of local fish cooked into oblivion (thus imparting their flavor to the whole soup), and doused with sherry pepper sauce and Goslings rum. I tried it before & after the pepper sauce and rum…and I can say unequivocally that they are absolutely necessary. Delicious. DSC02092.jpg

After that brief lunch, we made our way back to the ship and finally got our bathing suits, our beach towels & sandals and headed to the nearest beach.

Well…I tell a lie. We didn’t actuall hit the nearest beach. The nearest beach was Tobacco Bay, a heavily used beach just over the way from the ship, packed from tip to gills with shipmates. About this, we were warned, so we kept walking. About another 10 minutes walk up and over a hill and we made it to our destination, Gates Bay (sorry, no link). Gates Bay is another public beach, but because there are no concessionaires it was not nearly DSC02251.jpgas crowded, despite its small size. This, finally, was the relaxation we’d been waiting for. No one pestering us – but at the same time the people in the water were friendly. The sun was warm but not overpowering, the sand was a bit too hot to be comfortable…until you lay down the towel, at which point it was just what we needed. The water was warm and clear, with beds of seaweed about 100 feet out full of fish of all types and sizes. They were less colorful than I understand you can see at other beaches around the island, but it was still a lot of fun to splash around and follow fish around. I wish I had pictures of the beach, but my camera isn’t exactly waterproof.

That’s pretty much all there is to tell about the trip (aside from a quick recipe for the Dark & Stormy, our favorite new drink). The trip back to Baltimore was mostly relaxed and pleasant, except for the one party which was a heck of a lot of fun. Er…there was also a lot of alcohol. Sabrina says I dance better when I’m relaxed. Heh.

And that was our trip to Bermuda. Summary: We’d definitely go back, as it’s as pleasant and relaxing a place as I’ve ever been. There’s a lot to see, but very little need to rush to see it – especially since it’s so close by (to us) that we’ve got plenty of time to go back and catch what we missed. (And we intend to, soon. And we want to stay here.)

As promised, the Dark & Stormy:
1 part Ginger Beer
1 part Dark Rum
Pour over ice, drink. But be careful, as they go down very easily.

*I feel at this point that I should insert a little wave to Liz & Rachel. Hey there!**

**The fact that in the Golden Age of the Internet you never really completely lose track of all the people you meet on vacation is a topic for another day

Today’s TED – Schools and “Creativity”

September 3, 2009 (8:11 am) | By: hitch

Been a while since one of these, but what the heck – this one grabbed me.

The title of this talk is misleading – it’s not necessarily his position that school is a creativity killer, but rather that the education system is structured in a hierarchical fashion that not only marginalizes but stigmatizes whole areas of “intelligence”

His thesis is that changing this structure is critical to our ability to adapt for the future – a future we clearly don’t see the shape of past 5 or so years out.

Towards the end he shares a story of how a friend of his managed to dodge the system and flourish and he suggests that this story should be more common than it is.

I’m reminded of my own recent realizations that “Failure is Always an Option” (thanks, Adam Savage) and I’m struggling with my own skills and talents, trying to understand exactly what directions I should be taking to best match my aptitudes and interests.

To top it off, he’s an entertaining speaker – with an accent and speech patterns that call to mind Michael Caine – and well worth your time.

Today’s TED Talk, Dan Gilbert on our mistaken expectations

August 25, 2009 (5:17 pm) | By: hitch

Well, I was going to regale you with how cool this one video about gecko tails was and all about intradisciplinary study and how it’s amazingly important.

And then I saw this talk – and remembered once again that what I really find fascinating is our brains and how we think, especially when we get it wrong. And we do. All the time.

It can sometimes seem impossible that we ever manage to make a correct choice. And yet, most of the time our gut judgment on what choices we should make are good enough to get by.

But what is it about how our brains are wired that causes this? What are the heuristics that shape our worldviews? This talk by Dan Gilbert touches on a lot of those topics – even to the point that some of the audience members call into question some of his own assumptions. This is the first of what I suspect will be many talks I share on this topic, as it’s a subject that I find particularly interesting and we’re really only touching the tip of the iceberg here. Hm. I wonder if Bruce Schnier has given a TED Talk? I’ll have to go check on that.

Dan Gilbert on our mistaken expectations

Bermuda pics are up!

August 19, 2009 (1:36 pm) | By: hitch

For those of you who are Facebook Friends, you’ve already seen the highlights – but I’ve put up the Complete Bermuda photoset over here on my blog, which includes high-res shots of pretty much anything I thought was interesting. I’m using a few of these as desktop wallpaper now, and if you’d like to as well you’re welcome to. As usual, all images are Creative Commons Attribution licensed.

How to handle cyclists, and other useful info

August 5, 2009 (11:50 am) | By: hitch

Something that’s been poking the back of my brain for some time now (ow, quit it!) is the topic of how cyclists and motorists should deal with each other on the roads.
There are two major topics that I feel need to be highlighted again and again:
the first is cyclists on a trail at a stop sign
the second is when motorists follow cyclists on the roads

Diving right in:
When I’m on the trail riding my typical morning commute I pass about half a dozen different stop signs, and I probably don’t stop at as many of them as I should (all of them. I should stop at all of them), but I do stop at any sign where I don’t have full visibility of the road on either side of me, or at any stop sign where the road is known to be busy. Or – and this is important, too – any stop sign that I have never been through before and therefore don’t know whether the road is busy or not. This last one doesn’t come up much, but on some of my more recent rides it’s been important.

The first thing that needs to be said to motorists is this:
The reason cyclists hate to stop at stop signs is directly related to how hard it is to get started again. Especially if they have to go up a little hill on the other side – which we usually do. It’s not impossible, but it can be a significant challenge. If we can maintain even a little bit of momentum, it is so much easier to even slow down than to stop. Stopping involves (For most) unclipping from your pedals (or you’ll fall over), downshifting (or you could jam your gears when you start, possibly falling over), making sure you’ve downshifted into the *correct* gear (or you’ll grind your gears when you start – or, worse, have serious difficulty starting and fall over again), and then getting your cleats back into your pedals, starting up, getting up to speed, shifting up again, etc. (If you’re really unlucky, you’ll miss getting your cleats in on the first go-round and fall over)

I don’t care how bad you are at driving a manual transmission, “falling over” is not one of the dangers of getting started. Now, that’s not to say that cyclists are prone to inner ear problems and fall over at the least provocation – it’s just that any given time, these are about a 1-2% chance. Increase the number of times you have to stop and start and you run those from possible up to probable pretty darn fast.

Does that justify us not stopping? No. Definitely not. (but perhaps you can understand the reluctance)

And I’ll get to why in a moment – Yes, cyclists, I’m lecturing you at the end. So stick around.
I told you that story to tell you this one:
It’s hard to stop and get going again – so please pay attention because some people just aren’t going to stop, and when they do stop, please be patient. The patience is really the key.

When I’m stopped at a stop sign – and I do more than not, really – one of two situations will occur.

The first: I sit and sit and sit and wait for traffic to reach a point where I can go through safely (I don’t actually mind this)

The second: I’m there for all of 2 seconds, I’ve just gotten both my feet out of the pedals so that I can grab some water before I keep going, and someone stops to let me cross. On one side. But no one stops on the other side. And then people behind the first guy get mad, I’m trying to frantically get back on my bike, because in a moment the other side will stop, and when it does I’d better be going again because the horns will start up if I don’t, and traffic is now backed up to such a degree that it will be ages before I can cross again without someone stopping for me, and I generally at this point do miss my pedals and look like an idiot and lumber (at best) across the road, all the while looking nothing like the graceful blur of wind and speed that I felt like in the minutes preceding and following this crossing.

Yeah, it kinda sucks.

So if you do see a cyclist at a crossing, please make sure it looks like he really wants to cross right now before you slow down. Or just don’t. The signs are there to alert you to the few idiots that may not stop – you’re not required to let us across. It’ll be okay. Traffic will let up, I promise.

Now – on to passing. Simple rule:

If the road is wide enough to safely do so: Pass me.

No, really. PASS. ME. Do not ride my tail, it will not make me go faster, I am going as fast as my legs can go at the maximum gear ratios I can pull on whatever incline I am on. Cars make me nervous – I am on a bike that weighs less than I do (MUCH LESS) and you are in a multi-ton death machine. If you ride my tail the best case outcome is that I pay attention to you, and I slow down because I can’t pay enough attention to the road, and you slow down too. The worst case outcome is that I will be paying too much attention to you and not enough attention to the road and I will hit something, fall, and you will run me over. I really hope that that is not your intention.

That’s pretty much all there is to this one.

If the road is too narrow to pass me, I’m sorry – In most areas of the country it’s illegal for me to ride on sidewalks, and I’m not going to dodge in and out of parked cars just to give you room (since I don’t fancy the idea of being stuck in between them, possibly running into the back of one – possibly even being injured when someone opens their door unexpectedly). So just try to stay back pretty far, and then pass as soon as you can do so safely.

Now. Cyclists. Your turn. Be courteous, stay out of the way, don’t be jerks – both on and off the bike, and know and obey the bike laws in your area. That means stop signs, that means that if you’re not allowed to ride on the sidwalk, don’t (you can in Loudoun County, VA, which is weird, but just about everywhere else you can’t). Ride with traffic, not against it. Honestly, pretend you’re a “motor vehicle”, because legally you are. And you won’t get the respect of other people on the road if you don’t respect the rules of the road. If you want people to take you seriously as a user of the road, you need to take seriously the road and everyone else on it.

A few months back there was an article about police ticketing cyclists as they blew through stop signs without stopping during a local charity ride. Some of the people in the local bike shop were up in arms about it – but not because the stop was during a charity ride (which I agree is pretty cheap – there were many ways that could’ve been better handled). They were just irritated that they were ticketing at all. Know what? You ride through a stop sign without stopping, you can get ticketed. It’s the chance you take when you break the rules.