Off to the Land of the Rising Sun for a Vacation…Geek Style!

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Tomorrow, I’m off to Japan for two weeks for a real, business-free vacation with Ashley. It’s going to be awesome! I tend not to get excited about vacations until right before they happen, so I’m just starting to get excited. I’m all geeked up, bringing:

  • …the XPS M1330 laptop for photo and video processing (gotta’ have some grunt for processing those raw files)
  • …the Fujitsu P7010D for watching movies on
  • …my Proporta battery for keeping the Fujitsu lasting that 11 hour flight
  • …the Nikon D300 + four lenses (including my new ultra-sharp 24-70 f/2.8) + 32 GB CF card + 3 x 8 GB CF cards
  • …the Canon SD 850 IS (with 8 GB microSD) for snapping casual pics and for videos (damn I wish it did HD videos – I don’t want to bring my Canon HV20)
  • …two Zunes 8’s (one for the wife, one for me)
  • …one pair of Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 EB’s
  • …a TomTom GPS (without maps, just for finding our way back to our starting point GPS coordinates – was going to bring the HP iPAQ GPS, but it crashed and that didn’t make me feel very confident)
  • …iGo Juice with several adaptors, PPC Techs Lil Sync Cable, Lil Sync Mobile USB Power Pack for charging everything
  • My T-Mobile Dash, not to use as a phone, but to look up our travel schedule
  • …a few assorted adaptors and cables

Quick, I don’t leave until tomorrow AM – did I miss anything? 😀

The Blogger Bus & CES 2008

I had this great idea where I was going to write a free verse poem summarizing the last week of my life, but I just don’t have the metal firepower right now…so here it is in point form:

  • I flew to San Francisco last Friday night, took a town car to San Jose, stop and go traffic made me feel rather ill (which never happens to me in a car).
  • Hung out with Robert McLaws on Friday night, went out for Mexican food in a U-Haul truck (how’s that for a rocking ride!).
  • On Saturday I was on a Podtech/Microsoft bus from San Jose to Las Vegas for 12 hours with a bunch of other bloggers (Robert Scoble, Marc Canter, Loic Le Meur, Dan Farber, Tom Foremski, the gang from Mogulus, Scott from AMD, and others). Bus toilet wasn’t “compatible” with toilet paper. Some bloggers were friendly, others completely ignored me. Was surprised the bus had the engine power to move so much ego down the road (including mine). Had some crazy conversations, played a lot of Halo 3, didn’t sleep a wink.
  • CES 2008 was a blur – I was carrying way too much gear, no AC was turned on indoors because Vegas is “cold” because it’s “winter” there. I was drenched in sweat way too often. Yuck. Made a few videos for work while I was there with the Canon HV20. Met some new people, made new contacts, handed out a lot of business cards (though I forgot to bring along my Zune Thoughts cards…doh!)
  • Was up too late, too often, ran down my immune system, and got sick. And it’s not like I was up playing poker or hanging out the sunroof of a limousine, I was just watching TV and working until 3am.
  • I’m now home with a stuffy head/sore throat/chest cold, coughing up yellow phlegm and sounding like Gollum. Email is piling up, and I’m trying not to drown in work. My brain isn’t working, so I’m glad it’s the weekend. I need to rest up and reset my brain.

From The Archives: New York, Day Three

One of the bad habits I have is to start, but not finish, certain things – and unfortunately it tends to be writing projects more often than not. Cleaning out my “Things to Blog & Post” folder, I came across the summary of my third day in New York, the day I came home (day one was already posted). It’s mildly amusing because it wasn’t a great experience, so I share for your general amusement. 😉

From Airport to Hotel: When I booked my car with Carmel a couple of weeks ago, they said that if my flight was leaving at 7:50 am (it seems to be the only direct flight back to Calgary), I should be picked up at 5 am. I figure these people know their business better than I do, so I said sure and mentally prepared myself to wake up at 4 am. When the time came (the morning I’m writing most of this) I dragged my sorry self out of bed at 4 am, had a shower, and made it down to the lobby for 5 am. This time it was a blue town car that picked me up, not a blue mini –van. I would have preferred to have mini-van guy pick up though – the blue town car experience ended up being pretty unpleasant. The car’s signal light made a loud squawking sound whenever it was turned on, which was frequently. Right, left, didn’t matter – squawk, screech, squawk. The driver drove incredibly slow as well. I couldn’t tell if he was doing the speed limit or not, but regardless, every other car on the road passed him. Some cars honked because he was holding up traffic in some places by going so slow. I had to open the window because his body odour was making me nauseous. When we arrived at the airport he asked me to help him read the terminal signs to find Air Canada. I thought it as a bit strange he didn’t know which terminal I’d be leaving from, but ok, I was happy to help. I don’t think he could read English: he was braking hard and not hitting the gas until I told him it wasn’t my gate, even for the gates with signs that only had two airlines listed. We made it to my gate in 26 minutes from the hotel pickup.

From Check-in to Gate: After finally figuring out that there was no Air Canada counter, and that I was really flying on United, I used their automated check-in service. It was about 500% faster than the Air Canada system (why am I not surprised?). I had my boarding pass in about 90 seconds, and 30 seconds of that was me trying to figure out how to use the passport scanner. I went through security, and once again my bag was opened for a search. The security guy told me that I should take out my camera next time and put it on the scanner separately, it’s what was triggering the inspection. Good to know for next time! I made it to my gate quickly after that, and it was 5:46 am. I was the only person in that section of the terminal – my flight didn’t leave for another 2 hours. Damn. Could have slept some more. Damn.

It’s Good to be Home

It’s great to be back from Amsterdam, even if I came home to this:

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It’s cold, but being surrounded by my LCD monitors is keeping me warm. 😉 Amsterdam was an interesting place, but it’s not someplace I’d want to go back to. It’s never fair to judge a whole country by your experience in one city, so if I were to return to the Netherlands (I hear it’s beautiful in the spring), I’d skip Amsterdam. Why? Weather comes and goes, but the people stay the same. In the case of Amsterdam, it was the attitude of the people in the service industry, and the incredible number of people who smoke – and I have a story that combines both! Ashley and I are non-smokers, and coming from a city where smoking is all but outlawed, it was a shock to be surrounded by smoke constantly – it was like time-travelling back to the ’70s.

Back to my story: we had read about a Mexican food restaurant called Los Pilones that was supposedly the best in the city – which might not be saying much for someplace so far from Mexico, but we figured we’d try it. That night at 7 PM there was the first Mobius event, the meet and greet, so were going to be eating early. We arrived at the restaurant earlier than we thought, 4:20 PM, but when I saw that they opened at 4 PM I thought we were set. The door was locked. A guy came to the door and said the kitchen wasn’t open yet, that we should come back in 20 minutes. What kind of a restaurant doesn’t open when their sign says they’re supposed to open? A restaurant in Amsterdam!

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We came back at 4:50 PM and were granted admittance, and quite enjoyed the ambiance (pictured above). The menu was simple but everything sounded good, so we ordered and munched on some corn chips and some delicious salsa. When our food arrived a while later, we were still the only customers in the place – so as we started to eat I was surprised to smell smoke. Yes, you guessed it, the bartender (or bus boy, I wasn’t sure which) was smoking. Only two customers in the place, and right as they get their food, this jerk decides to start smoking. Unbelievable. Either the residents of Amsterdam are the rudest people in the world, or they’re so used to the smell of cigarette smoke it doesn’t occur to them that non-smokers might not want their food to taste like smoke. Or maybe it’s both.

And that, in a nutshell, is Amsterdam. We saw some interesting things (I’m still pounding through my pictures from the zoo), but it was really tainted by all the smoke and the rudeness of the people there. I’m all for experiencing the local culture when I visit a new place, and trying to resist the urge to view everything through the eyes of a North American, but some things are universal: non-smokers really don’t like the taste/smell of cigarette smoke. Back to processing my pictures…I’ll post a few when I’m done, perhaps with a few more stories about what I saw and experienced in Amsterdam.

Greetings from The Netherlands

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Welcome to the land of tulips, wooden clogs, marijuana, and bicycles!

I’m writing this from the Netherlands! Ashley and I flew into Amsterdam on Saturday afternoon and it’s now Monday morning, nearly 9am, local time. We’re just about to head out for a day-long tour of the countryside. The weather here has sucked unfortunately: yesterday (Sunday) was our first full day here, and we spend it walking around freezing our toes off and getting quite wet. Normally cold weather doesn’t bother me much, but the wind here is relentless.The pictures I’ve taken so far are up in a gallery.

Travel lessons learned so far? Always have your passport on you if you want to use your credit card: most stores will not accept a credit card without your passport. Some restaurants and most taxi cabs will not accept credit cards, because it cuts into their profit margin (more on that later). Customer service as we understand it in North America doesn’t really apply here. A 43 watt flat iron will not work, even when connected to a 2000 watt converter. Always take Jet Lag pills – adjusting to the local time is a killer (last night was the longest night of my life).

More fun later – Mobius, the Microsoft conference and the reason I’m actually here in Amsterdam, is coming up in a few days.

The Quick New York Trip: Day One

[I’m now at home, and didn’t manage to get this published while in New York, but I figured since I’d written it I might as well publish it!]

Preparation: it’s been about a year since I’ve had a flight last over 90 minutes, so right at the last minute I realized I should have loaded up some DVDs or TV shows to watch on the 4.5 hour flight. Managed to get one ripped DVD onto a USB flash drive before I headed out the door, but that’s it. My wonderful wife got my suitcase packed and off to the airport.

Airport Check-In: Air Canada’s slogan should be “Giving you the longest lines since 1959”. They’re the worst when it comes to getting people checked in fast. They’ve added electronic check-in, but guess where the machines are located? About 20 people deep into the line for the human-powered check-in. Why wouldn’t they be outside the main line? And when you use the machine, people pass you, so if the machine doesn’t work for you, you’ve lost your place in line. The process was very slow, but it did manage to get me checked in ok. I took my printed boarding pass and went through security, where my D200 camera in my carry-on bag managed to get flagged for a bag search. “Keep smiling even if they’re looking at your underwear” is my motto at security.

Airport Waiting: I think all airports should offer free WiFi. They charge so many damn taxes, the least they could do is provide something useful like WiFi. The Calgary airport has WiFi powered by Telus, our local overcharging-happy communications company, and it’s pretty expensive so I skipped it. I ate some fast-food lunch because the much healthier Jugo Juice is on the other side of the security glass. It’s lame that once you get past security you have to be “partitioned” off.

Technology On The Plane: I don’t know what kind of Air Canada plane I was flying on (it’s either a B777 or a refurbished Beoing 767), but it looked and felt quite new – and it actually had some very cool technological features. A first for me on a North American flight was having laptop power. And we’re not talking some funky airline-only power plug (which is what they normally are), we’re talking a simple three-prong power jack that any North American laptop power supply can connect to. The only problem is that it’s tucked away below the seat, so I had to practically get down on the floor in order to plug my laptop in. There’s also only one port, so I guess if two people had laptops you’d have to take turns. It was mostly for fun anyway, because my Dell XPS M1330 with the extended battery lasts about five hours (I still miss the 10+ hour battery life of my Fujitsu P7010). Strangely enough they’re still using the old dual-prong audio plugs – you can use regular headphones if you don’t connect the jack all the way and find the stereo connection, but a slight touch will put the headphones back to mono. I have an adaptor but never remember to bring it.

The plane also had a 7 inch wide-ratio LCD screen on the back of every seat. It had a touch-screen interface, so I could access movies, TV shows, music, etc. Screen quality wasn’t that good, but it resisted sunlight wash-out quite well. I watched most of Die Hard 4, but the experience was less impressive than it should have been for two reasons: the movie was in a 4:3 ratio, not a wide-screen ratio, and even though I was watching the English version (I confirmed it twice) there were Chinese sub-titles through the whole movie. It also looked overly compressed and mushy. The last cool tech feature was a USB port to the left of the screen, used for recharging any USB-based device (MP3 player, PDA, phone, etc.). That’s an awesome feature that all planes should have – kudos to Air Canada for having it! The only thing missing was connectivity, although sometimes it’s nice to be disconnected for a while. If all planes I flew on had the technology features that this flight had, flying would be much nicer.

Service On The Plane: As impressive as the technology was, the flight was Air Canada all the way. In-flight drinks were served a couple of times, but even on an almost five-hour flight, they served no food. Not even a 25 cent bag of pretzels! They will sell you food, but I’ve always felt it was a rip-off to pay for an expensive flight and not have any food included. Charge $5 more for the ticket and give everyone some basic food. No one will remember saving $5 on a ticket, but they will remember being hungry on a flight. Buying food on a plane has the psychological barrier of seeming expensive, and it’s a hassle to carry cash (they always ask for exact change). At least the flight attendants were nice.

From Airport to Hotel: Because of the looming taxi strike, I called a town car company named Carmel and booked a car to and from the airport in advance. I had only my carry-on bags, so I was ready for car pick-up pretty much as soon as I got off the plane. They told me where to stand so the car would find me, but after 15 minutes of waiting (they said 5 minutes) I phoned to ask where my car was. While I was on hold with Carmel my town car called and asked where I was. I said right where they told me to be and he said “Oh, ok, I’ll be right there”. A few minutes later the driver arrives, and it’s a blue mini-van. Town car my ass. 40 minutes later I arrived at my hotel. I now remember what a noisy city New York is – you can’t go 10 seconds without hearing someone honking at someone else. It’s sure a city that feels alive though!

Continue reading The Quick New York Trip: Day One

Upcoming Travel…

As of a month ago, the only future trip I had planned was going to Japan with Ashley in March – and now that’s tripled. In a couple of weeks I’m going to be heading to New York for a Microsoft event, then in November I’m heading to the next Mobius event…this time it’s in Amsterdam! Last year it was Thailand, which was incredible, and now it’s in a part of Europe I’ve never been to. Ashley will be coming with me (Microsoft pays for one ticket, I’ll pay for the other) and we’re arriving a few days early to get adjusted before the conference starts. What’s going to be cool is that there are a few Thoughts Media team members in the NYC area that I haven’t met in person before, and an ex-team member happens to live in The Netherlands, so I’m hoping to be able to connect with him as well. It’s going to be a fun couple of months!

I’m in Sunny Florida

I’m down in Florida doing a blog project for Microsoft, and I had to pack up and leave on my birthday (yesterday, the 25th). I wish I could say that I had a great birthday day, but I woke up pretty early (when I think it should be mandatory that you get to sleep in until whenever you want on your birthday), packed my bags, then got on a plane for Orlando. After a very looooong five hour flight sitting next to a family that brought greasy fast food with them onto the plane, I made it to Orlando. I did a poor advance planning job and didn’t prepare any ripped DVDs or TV shows to watch (one of my favourite activities to do on a flight), so I ended up reading a lot of my book, iCon.

Then I had to wait 30 minutes for my bag to show up on the luggage belt. After waiting another 20 minutes in line for a taxi, I got onto a taxi shuttle that went to almost every other hotel before mine first, finally made it to my hotel, waited another 10 minutes in line as the single desk clerk checked in the three people in front of me with Japanese names that he couldn’t spell, stumbled exhausted into my room, then waited an hour for a greasy pizza to show up because I was too tired to be bothered with going out to find food myself. Quite the adventure. I already wish I was back home, but work is work, so once more unto the breech I go!

Back from the MVP Summit, Grand Hyatt Internet Access Sucks

I arrived back in Calgary Thursday night, just before midnight, and man does it feel great to be back home! The MVP Summit was a lot of fun – and I definitely learned a few new things – but it’s always exhausting. This time around Microsoft paid for our hotel room, but we paid for our flights. That’s a change from the past 10 years of MVP Summits, where the Windows Mobile team would cover the travel costs of their MVPs. It’s a sacrifice to take time off work – vacation time for most – to come to the MVP Summit, so eliminating the financial burden was always appreciated by the MVPs. It seems though that the MVPs from other product groups who didn’t get their flights covered whined brought the issue up and the MVP leadership decided to make things “fair” for everyone and banned the product teams from subsidizing any MVP travel expenses. A flight for me to Seattle is pretty cheap – under $400 – but it’s still $400 that I’d rather spend on something else if I had the choice.

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Flights for MVPs from outside North America are much more expensive – one MVP from Australia I know didn’t attend the Summit because his flight would have cost around $3000 AUD ($2300 USD). That’s a lot of cash – the kind you’d spend going on a real vacation, not flying up to a Microsoft event. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of MVPs from Europe and Asia that did attend, but I know in speaking with some of them they were wondering if spending the money was really worth it. I predict the 2008 MVP Summit (already announced as happening in April 2008) will have less of an international presence, which is unfortunate because product teams only receiving input from North American MVPs are missing out greatly on the wealth of knowledge that international MVPs have.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing of the whole Summit was the horrible Internet access at the Grand Hyatt Seattle, the hotel many of the MVPs were staying at. The hotel itself was beautiful – I’d stay there again in a heartbeat – but they simply didn’t have the infrastructure to handle the number of people who wanted to go online. It’s a classic scenario that is mirrored in the way your local ISP (cable or DSL) works: when they’re rolling out their networking hardware, and laying digital pipe, ISPs adopt a model where they only put in enough hardware to handle what they estimate to be the average percentage of users in the neighbourhood that will be online at any one time. Hotels are the same way: if there are 500 rooms in a hotel, they build their network (DNS server, DHCP server, authentication server, total bandwidth pipe) to handle perhaps 20% of that number (100 people) – meaning that when person #101 tries to get online, the system can’t handle them. That’s exactly what happened for the three days I was staying at the Grand Hyatt.

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The first night I got connected after about 30 minutes of trying (mostly fighting to get authenticated, their server kept timing out) and when I finally did get on, Outlook 2007 could not send email. I hadn’t changed any of my SMTP settings, so it should have worked, but it did not. I ended up having to use a public-facing IP address, outside their hardware firewall, before I could send email. Even pulling RSS feeds failed. Strangely enough, the Windows Mail client could send email, just not Outlook 2007. The next night was another 60 minute struggle to get online, and another tech support call, and the third night was the worst of all: it took me two hours to get online, with yet another tech support call, and I had no choice because I needed to check my flight times.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that I was paying $50 per 1 MB of roaming data (auggh!) on my phone so using my Pocket PC wasn’t much of an option.

I’m Off to Seattle for the MVP Summit

Just like the title says. I’m all packed and leaving shortly for the Microsoft MVP Summit in Seattle. I’ll be gone until Thursday night, and connectivity is always a question mark at these events – even in the hotels that offer high-speed access because they rarely have systems equipped to handle 400+ geeky MVP guests who all use lots of bandwidth. If I’m slow to respond to email, that’s why. Off I go!