Europe 2013, Part 3: Spain

Barcelona

You can see all 90 pictures from Barcelona or the best 10 (mixed with the best pictures from elsewhere on our trip).

After watching stage 8 of the Tour de France, we drove back to Barcelona and picked up the keys from our Airbnb host. The place was OK. It would have been great, except the floor was filthy. No matter—we were located on Plaça Reial, close to La Rambla and close to a subway station.

La Sagrada Família I’ve always liked Barcelona. It’s a fun city. Easy to get around by foot, subway, or taxi. The Gaudí architecture is great. I recommend going in La Sagrada Família—I thought the inside was cooler than the outside. Casa Batlló and Park Güell are also neat, but not required if you find architecture and design boring.

We saw a fantastic flamenco show at Palau de la Música Catalana. We bought our tickets in California before we left and the only seating options were far back or front row. We opted for front row. It was a little awkward, but also a little totally friggen sweet. The dancers were intense, especially the women. Fierce, piercing, angry. The tickets were $100 each and absolutely worth it.

Our only notable meal was at Bodega La Palma. It was great and I recommend it. Creative and delicious food, a friendly and accommodating waiter, and a shitload of wine—we had a great nap after this.

A word of caution: Thieves and pickpockets run rampant in Barcelona. We saw a thief grab a mobile phone from a table and run down an alley. Don’t leave valuables sitting on your table in big cities!

Madrid and Toledo

You can see all 50 pictures from Madrid and Toledo or the best 9 (mixed with the best pictures from elsewhere on our trip). Also check out this photosphere of Plaza Mayor in Madrid.

From Barcelona we took high speed rail to Madrid. It’s 380 miles and would have taken 5.5 hours by car, but takes only 3 by train. Our speed topped out around 300 km/h. We bought the tickets minutes before boarding and they were pricey, €110 each. They would have been half that if we had purchased in advance.

The landscape between Barcelona and Madrid is less interesting than Italy, Japan, Slovenia, or really anywhere else—scattered farms, scrappy big grasses, desert shrubs, and rolling rocky sandy hills. A bit like California, actually.

We stayed at Hotel Moderno, which is in a great location. Immediately next to Plaza Del Sol and a few hundred yards from Plaza Mayor de Madrid. We dropped our bags in the room then grabbed lunch outside.

Emily at the Plaza de Oriente at the Royal Palace of Madrid

After lunch we walked half a mile to the Royal Palace of Madrid, which is totally sweet. It’s a large palace typical of 18th century Europe. Ornate and extravagant. I loved the expansive Plaza de la Armería Courtyard on the south side.

Royal Palace of Madrid

The next day we took a short train ride to Toledo. It’s a walled city on a hill partially surrounded by a river. The city has been known for making bladed steel weapons since 500 BC, and knives and swords are common in gift shops.

The Toledo Cathedral is awesome. So old! Intimidating, big, detailed, precise.

Sevilla

You can see all 55 pictures from Sevilla or the best 6 (mixed with the best pictures from elsewhere on our trip).

The last stop on our trip was Seville, in southern Spain close to the Mediterranean coast. We stayed at El Rey Moro Hotel Boutique and loved it. It’s in a part of town with narrow, winding, cobblestone streets. The building has a lot of character and the rooms are all unique.

Plaza de España, the Alcázar and Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See are all really cool. We had a few good meals along Calle Mateos Gago, near the cathedral.

Plaza de España

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Europe 2013, Part 2: Venice and Le Tour

Venice

You can see all 54 pictures from Venice or the best 8 (mixed with the best pictures from elsewhere on our trip).

From Krk, Croatia we left Amy, Brian, Melanie, and Martin and struck out on our own. We drove back through Slovenia and into Italy. We dropped the rental car off at the Venice airport (on the mainland) and took a shuttle bus to the edge of the islands that make up Venice. From there it was a short walk to our lodging.

As with any city where real estate is at a premium, hotels in Venice are expensive. We chose to rent a room via Airbnb. Nothing special, but it was only $122 per night. Our hostess was friendly. All in all, a positive experience.

Venice at night

Venice! Everyone has seen pictures or movies. I loved seeing it in person and I enjoyed our time here. The city is a maze of canals, bridges, and curving streets. We spent our day and a half here exploring, eating, and drinking wine. We went on a cicchetti and wine walking tour for lunch (cicchetti are small appetizers, similar to Spanish tapas). It was fun, though the high price wasn’t quite justified. The food + walking + wine (especially) led to a multi-hour nap. We ventured out again in the evening and had dinner at a pleasant outdoor cafe along a busy canal.

Two or three full days here would have been better, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.

Tour de France

You can see all 13 pictures from Le Tour.

From Venice we flew to Barcelona, rented a car, bought some groceries, and set a course for the Pyrenees. I totally dig mountains and I’m happy I got to see the Pyrenees. They’re striking. Dark. Each subsequent peak higher than the one in front of it.

We stayed the night in a hotel in the small country of Andorra, on the border between France and Spain. Andorra, by the way, is basically a big ski town. The next day I made Emily wake up early and we headed into France to see the mountaintop finish of stage 8 of the Tour de France. We parked our car at the base of the mountain, in the town of Ax-les-Thermes, and rode the convenient gondola lift to the ski resort of Ax 3 Domaines at the top of the mountain.

Truth be told, I made Emily wake up a good bit earlier than needed. We would need to wait eight hours before the riders would arrive… so we had some time to kill. We wandered around, Emily bought a t-shirt, we ate the food we’d bought the previous day (Nuttela sandwiches, in honor of Renaud). We walked half a kilometer down the mountain and found a place along the road to watch from. The final kilometer of each mountaintop finish on Le Tour is typically lined with fences to keep out the riffraff. Consequently the riffraff tends to congregate just below this. We were safely above the riffraff, which was maybe less fun, but was calm and we had a great view.

The tour is a serious operation. Many trucks, many workers. Preceding the riders is a publicity caravan of the sponsors of the race. They throw random souvenirs at you—hats, a T-shirt, some bad beignets, coupons, etc. Then a lull. Then team cars, neutral equipment cars, police, camera motorbikes, and finally the riders! After waiting all day, it’s quite exciting. Stage 8 was the first day Froome broke away from the rest of the GC contenders. He claimed first on the stage and wore the yellow jersey for the rest of the tour, eventually winning by 4 minutes and 20 seconds.

One of the last groups of riders

As the last of the riders came through we walked five miles down the mountain to our car. At this finish there isn’t enough room for the team buses at the top, so the riders zip down the same road they just ascended, even as other riders are ascending and pedestrians are making their way downward. It felt very dangerous to me.

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Europe 2013, Part 1: Slovenia and Croatia

At the end of June and into July last year Emily and I went on a two week vacation to Europe. We spent most of our time in Slovenia and Spain, but we also briefly ventured into Croatia, Venice, Andorra, and France.

Slovenia

You can see all 99 pictures from Slovenia or the best 22 (mixed with the best pictures from elsewhere on our trip).

Me and Emily

The Republic of Slovenia is a small country just east of northern Italy. It features rolling hills, some small mountains, is heavily wooded, and has a small coastline along the Adriatic Sea. Slovenia split from Yugoslavia in 1991.

We spent a few days in the capital city, Ljubljana. It’s lovely. It feels like any other typical European city. Smaller, less touristy, and more chill than the well-known cities of Rome, Florence, Nice, Barcelona, and Madrid. Pedestrian and bike friendly. A Saturday farmers’ market. Through the center of the city winds a river flanked by small cafes and outdoor seating.

Melanie and Martin Our primary reason for visiting Slovenia was to attend the wedding of our friends Surabhi and Ziga. We met some California friends in Ljubljana and rode an hour in a shuttle bus to the wedding site: Otočec Castle. There was time before the wedding to take pictures and explore the castle. The ceremony was outside the castle walls, with the reception in the castle courtyard. They got married. It was magical. Good times were had. They lived happily ever after. We spent the night in the castle then headed back to Ljubljana the next day.

Otočec Castle

Random tidbit: Lightning rods are prevalent on buildings in Slovenia and Croatia.

After another night in Ljubljana we left to explore the lands. Amy and Brian had flown in from Switzerland, and Emily and I would be traveling with them, as well as Melanie and Martin, over the next few days. We attempted to visit Postojna Cave, but didn’t allot ourselves enough time slash we got lost. We did stumble upon a cool natural bridge, which we briefly wandered around. Next stop was Bled Castle, which sits atop a cliff overlooking Lake Bled. We skipped going into the castle, as we wanted to get to our lodging in Croatia at a sane hour. We did make time for lunch and a quick jaunt down an alpine roller coaster (something like this).

Bled Lake

Croatia

You can see all 86 pictures from Croatia or the best 14 (mixed with the best pictures from elsewhere on our trip).

Short version

Plitvice Lakes was awesome. The island of Krk was nothing special.

Long version

Croatia joined the European Union on July 1, 2013, which is the same day we crossed the border from Slovenia. It was painless. We stayed the night at a simple bed and breakfast and made our way to Plitvice Lakes in the morning.

Plitvice Lakes had a similar feel to Yosemite Valley—a popular park on an amazing landscape. The trails crisscross a series of lakes and waterfalls that flow through a lush canyon. It’s a really cool place to hike.

Plitvice Lakes

The road leading to Plitvice Lakes was small and winding. The road we took on the way out even moreso. Our attempt at a direct route to the coast took us through hills lined with “no trespassing — land mines” signs (picture 1, picture 2). A reminder of the war 20 years earlier.

The majority of the coastline that I saw was rocky and steep, similar to the California coast. We crossed from the mainland onto the island of Krk, in the northern Adriatic Sea. There are a few small towns on the island and some scattered beaches. We had dinner in Vrbnik. The old part of the town had narrow, winding, cobble stone sidewalks and overlooked the sea. It reminded me of Cinque Terra in Italy. It seemed like a cool place.

Vrbnik coast

But that’s not where we spent the night. We spent the night in nearby Baška. In the morning we wandered down to the beach and tried swimming. The water was not exactly warm, the beach was packed, and we didn’t linger here.

Our next stop on the island was the city of Krk. It was cool. Neat. Old. Small. There’s a small fortification (Frankopan Castle) dating back to 1191. Also Krk Cathedral, which is at least as old. The beach here was nicer, warmer, and less crowded. Also not as “happening.”

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Bioluminescent Night Kayaking

bioluminescence – (n.) The emission of light by a living organism.

On Sunday Emily and I drove an hour north of San Francisco to Tomales Bay on Point Reyes National Seashore. We had signed up for a night kayaking trip on a recommendation from Chethan and Tara.

Dinner

We stopped for dinner at the Cowgirl Creamery Cantina in the small town of Point Reyes Station. They had run out of the awesome-sounding sandwiches from the menu, so we settled for salads and cheesy bread. Pretty decent. And their ice cream was fantastic. Worth checking out if you’re in the area.

Kayaking

We met our guides an hour and a half before sunset at Miller Park. There were twelve people in our group plus two guides. We donned waterproof jackets and spray skirts and after a quick lesson in kayaking we set off across the bay.

Emily and I shared a two person kayak. As the sky darkened and our group slowly paddled to the opposite shore, our guides gave us lessons in local history, wildlife and geology.

We rested for 30 minutes on the beach drinking tea and hot chocolate and eating cookies and brownies. When the sky was fully dark we set off again in the kayaks.

The Cool Part

The bioluminescence in this case comes from dinoflagellates, which are a type of unicellular organism. When they’re jostled, they give off a small flash of greenish blue light for a tenth of a second. In bulk, it’s pretty freaking sweet.

The water flashes with blue light as the blade of your paddle passes through. I spent a few minutes mesmerized, staring into the water as it lit up when I flicked it with my fingers (don’t tell Emily, who toiled away with her paddle at the front of the kayak).

I may be an abnormally large sucker for nature, but here are some things I really, actually said:

“This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
“I feel like I’m in Avatar.”

An image search might give you a vague idea of what it looks like. In our case the light was not nearly as bright as what’s seen in the photos. Some of the photos are time lapse. Others might just be extreme examples. Not sure.

In any case, it was a great experience and I highly recommend it. Our guides from Point Reyes Outdoors did a great job. There are other companies that lead trips and I’m sure they’re great, too. Or if you’re adventurous you could rent a kayak and go out on your own. Apparently the luminescence in Point Reyes is best May through November. And try to go when the moon is new, rather than full. The darker the better.

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Southern Utah national parks road trip

In late May Emily and I went on a road trip to Southern Utah with her parents, her sister, and her sister’s husband. Mostly you should just look at the pictures (see the “best of” album if you’re normal and don’t feel like looking at 251 photos). I also made a few photospheres.

Emily and I drove there. The other four flew in and we met in Moab. We stayed in rental houses in Moab and Kanab, and a hotel in Springdale (just outside of Zion). We mostly drove to scenic parking areas and did short day hikes. We did do two longer hikes: 10 miles round-trip to see The Wave and 8 miles round-trip to Observation Point in Zion.

Big Country

The most succinct way to describe the places is “big country.” You can see really far and the distant objects are huge. The landscape is mostly barren. There are scattered trees and shrubs and grasses and sparse animal life. The plants and animals are fragile. There’s a lot of sand and rock. Big canyons.

List of Places

  • Arches National Park – Many natural arch formations in rock. The Fiery Furnace tour was cool.
  • Canyonlands National ParkAmazing views of distant canyons.
  • Goosenecks State Park – Basically just a parking area with a great view of a winding river.
  • Antelope Canyon – A beautiful slot canyon on Navajo land. Expensive compared to the other things we did (you have to purchase a guided tour), but I enjoyed it. I liked the challenge of taking pictures more than I was expecting.
  • The Wave – Remote, striped rock formation in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. We didn’t win the lottery for the Coyote Buttes North permit. We decided to enter the wilderness with a Coyote Buttes South permit, which made for a difficult hike.
  • Bryce Canyon National Park – Huge open canyons filled with rock towers called “hoodoos.” High elevation. Woodsier than the others.
  • Zion National Park – An accessible lush canyon. Reminded me of Yosemite with red and white rock instead of black. The Observation Point hike was nice.

Photos

Here are a few representative photos. See my Flickr collection for the rest (especially the “best of” album).

Delicate Arch

Monument Valley

Antelope Canyon

The Wave, North Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona, USA

A flower in Zion National Park

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Net Neutrality, Netflix, and Comcast

Net neutrality is weird and complex. It’s been in the news increasingly more over the past few years. Let’s look at an example.

Netflix recently started paying Comcast (info, more info) so that Comcast would provide customers with a better connection to Netflix. Historically ISPs didn’t take money from websites—they only took money from their subscribers.

What was the problem?

Streaming video uses a lot of bandwidth. Comcast subscribers were “saturating” the network connection between Comcast and Netflix. This means 100% of the available connection was being used. When this happens the Netflix player automatically switches to using a lower quality video stream so that it’s still able to download video fast enough to keep up with the playback speed. This is important when you want to watch a video without intermittent rebuffering.

Why did Comcast ask for money from Netflix?

Because they can. The saturated network connection caused lower quality video but it didn’t obviously break anything. If the network connection was obviously broken people would have complained angrily to Comcast. But with lower quality video people just assume that Netflix sucks.

Why is Comcast able to do this?

It’s in Comcast’s interests to provide the best service possible. If subscribers think Comcast’s service is bad then they’ll switch to another ISP. This is the nature of free markets.

However, there aren’t a lot of options for ISPs. In some areas Comcast may be the only broadband provider.

And Comcast has other incentives to make Netflix look bad: Netflix is a competing product to Comcast’s TV service. If Netflix doesn’t work well it means more people will pay Comcast for TV. Comcast is walking the line between alienating their subscribers and extorting money from Netflix.

What should be done?

That’s a hard question. PR spin can play a big role in how the public perceives this.

Netflix does consume a tremendous amount of bandwidth—perhaps Comcast is justified in asking Netflix to help cover the cost? After all, Comcast wasn’t preventing subscribers from using Netflix… they just weren’t enabling them to use Netflix at an extremely fast speed.

Or perhaps the lack of an effective free market in the ISP space is justification for the government to provide protection to consumers?

What do I think?

Comcast has a network and Netflix has a network. Ultimately both of these networks are paid for by the customers. It doesn’t make sense for Comcast to pay Netflix or Netflix to pay Comcast—that’s just shuffling the customers’ money back and forth. There is overhead associated with shuffling money back and forth: negotiations, contracts, lawyers, PR spin, news coverage. This is waste. I’m an idealist. I hate waste. Maybe that means Comcast needs to charge subscribers more to cover their costs. Fine. I’m happy to pay more for a better Internet connection.

Should the government attempt to regulate this? At least partially, yes. The Internet resembles public utilities like water and power (benefit the public good, high infrastructure cost), and I think some amount of regulation is justified.

Transparency is important. Content providers like Netflix should always be allowed to publicly talk about problems like this. Comcast might attempt to get Netflix to agree to stay quiet about the details of their arrangement, and I think that should be made illegal.

ISPs should be required to publicly post details about whether they block traffic to any third parties. Whether they have saturated links to any third parties. Whether certain types of traffic receive worse treatment than others.

With this information consumers can make an informed choice. Entrant ISPs will have more opportunity to complete. It will encourage the free market.

Should it be illegal for ISPs to solicit money from content providers? Maybe. I don’t think it’s an urgent problem. Enforcing transparency is a good first step. I think we can afford to wait a bit longer to decide whether net neutrality should be a legal requirement.

In any case, because of the current dearth in consumer ISP choice Netflix probably made the right move in paying Comcast.

Disclaimer: I own stock in Netflix and I hate Comcast (in case they’re listening: I have reasons that I’d be happy to share with anyone important at Comcast).

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Two Interesting Sci-fi Movies

Primer

An indie time travel movie made with a $7,000 budget. It has a Blair Witch feel but with far less nauseating camera movement. The story is really cool and extremely complex. Definitely a solid movie. I loved the understated delivery and steady pace (though these might cause some people to lose interest). I like to think that hipsters would love this movie if only they allowed themselves to enjoy sci-fi.

In Time

Much higher budget and more mainstream than Primer. Fun science fiction idea, high production value, entertaining story, decent acting. Not a masterpiece with a single theme delivered powerfully, but I thought it was different and worth watching. Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who also wrote and directed Gattaca and Lord of War and wrote (but didn’t direct) The Truman Show and The Terminal.

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Men’s Razor Comparison

I’ve tested six different men’s razors from Gillette and Schick over the past few months. My favorite is the Gillette Mach 3, with the Schick Quattro Titanium coming in second.

Executive Summary

  • More blades isn’t strictly better—there are trade-offs.
  • More blades means less pressure-per-blade. You’re less likely to cut yourself, but there is an increased sandpaper effect where the razor tugs at the hair instead of quickly slicing through. The sandpaper effect is neutralized if you shave regularly, but can be irritating if you typically go a few days between shaves.
  • More blades means the blades must be packed closer together to keep the razor head manageably narrow. This causes increased clogging—it’s more difficult to rinse out hair.
  • Not all swivel designs are equal. The older Gillette SensorExcel razor heads pivot in the middle whereas the newer Gillette Mach 3 and Fusion pivot closer to the bottom. The newer design allows the razor head to swing away from your face, which seems to reduce accidental cuts. It also means less pressure on the top-most blade which means a less-close shave around edges.
  • The Schick Quattro Titanium blades seemed to stay sharp a little longer. Aside from that I couldn’t discern any difference in blade life.

Comparison Table

# blades Ability to shave close under nose Rinsability (water flow through the blades)
Gillette SensorExcel 3 great poor
Gillette Mach 3 (winner!) 3 average great
Gillette Fusion 5 below average—swivel design reduces pressure at top-most blade great
Gillette Fusion ProGlide Power 5 below average—swivel design reduces pressure at top-most blade great
Schick Quattro Titanium (runner up!) 4 average average
Schick Hydro 5 5 poor—gel reservoir above blades is very wide average

Details

Gillette SensorExcel

Average. Basic but works well. Three blades. Slight swivel. Not a clear water flow path so it’s a little difficult to rinse/unclog. Close shave, but easy to cut yourself if you’re not careful. Only three blades means the head is small which makes it easier to shave around my mouth and under my nose.

Gillette Mach 3 (winner!)

Pretty great. Three blades. Maybe not as close as the SensorExcel. The swivel design is different than the SensorExcel: The downside is that it’s a little harder to shave around my mouth and under my nose, but the upsides are 1) it’s extremely easy to rinse/unclog and 2) less likely to cut myself, which means I can shave faster. It has a slight “paddle effect” (I think of it like holding a ping pong paddle to your face and sliding), but it’s not bad.

Gillette Fusion

Bad. The razor felt dull—like it was catching on my hair rather than cutting it. Severe sandpaper effect, and I thought it was hard to shave around my mouth and under my nose. To compensate for the top of the blade pivoting away from your face, the Fusion razors include an extra “trimming” blade, which terrifies me.

Gillette Fusion ProGlide Power

Good. Similar to Gillette Fusion, but maybe with better blades? This is the “powered” version. It has a battery and an on/off button, which causes it to vibrate. The vibration seemed silly. I couldn’t tell if it helped, and I definitely found it distracting. It made me nervous.

Schick Quattro Titanium (runner up!)

Pretty good. Similar to the three blade Gillette SensorExcel. Does seem like the blade lasts longer than other razors. Slightly more obstructed water flow path than the Gillette Mach 3, so a little harder to rinse/unclog.

Schick Hydro 5

All in all pretty similar to the Gillette Mach 3. Differences: Slightly more obstructed water flow path, so a little harder to rinse/unclog. Slightly harder to shave around mouth and nose. The “Hydro” means it has “Hydrating Gel Reservoirs.” I don’t like hydrating gel. It feels like a lot of work to make sure I rinse all of it off.

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