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July 18, 2007

To Live in New Jersey: Part 3

When I woke up yesterday, in my hotel room in Secaucus, New Jersey, I was frustrated at my lack of progress in finding an apartment to rent. I headed to Starbucks as I had the previous morning, and with my now-usual tall four-shot americano and one of their tasty multi-grain doughnuts, I booted my laptop, put my engineer's pad on the table, and readied my pen.

Before I went to sleep the previous evening, I had scanned the listings at Apartment Guide for digs in the farther reaches of the suburbs, and they seemed to be worth checking out. So, that was the first place I looked.

Rather than finding seemingly good places in the 60+-minute-commute suburbs, however, some apartment complexes in Newark caught my eye. Upon further investigation, they all turned out to be in the nicer part of Newark, more than five miles north of the big, noisy, polluting Newark International Airport. For a distance comparison, the Robinson suburb of Pittsburgh, with all the chain restaurants and big box stores, is five miles from Pittsburgh International Airport. Houses there are relatively upscale, and there is virtually no airplane noise.

I settled on the northernmost of the three apartment complexes I considered in Newark. My new apartment is on the 12th floor and has a sweeping view of Manhattan and the hills to the north. On clear nights and days, that's going to be super-cool. You'll definitely see some pictures of my view, posted here on my blog.

After applying for a lease on that apartment and having the agent hold it for me, I headed to the Starbucks in downtown Newark, relieved that my search had finally ended and craving a congratulatory couple shots of espresso. For those of you who have spent time in Pittsburgh's east end, you may find it interesting that downtown Newark is like East Liberty but all grown up. And nicer and with lots more grass. The kind of grass you walk on.

Eight or nine hours later, I was back in Pittsburgh, tired and ready for bed.

What's the next step? To decide one of the following three things.

1. To call the apartment complex in Newark and ask for a two-bedroom apartment instead of a one-bedroom apartment so I can store all my stuff there.

2. To ask the big long-distance movers if they can store most of my stuff in a container for six months and only keep a single car-load of stuff at my new apartment.

3. To hire a portable storage company like PODS or SMARTBOX to handle the moving and the storage, again keeping only a car-load of stuff at my new apartment.

4. To rent a storage unit in Pittsburgh or Newark, to and from which two separate moves would be performed, again keeping only a car-load of stuff at my new apartment.

I'm leaning toward option 3, since it seems to balance economics and ease pretty well. Some of those portable storage companies will even pack the container for you! The only problem with those things is you normally have to get city permits to keep them on the street for any amount of time, and I'm sure that's a huge hassle. Then again, if they're professionally packed and unpacked, they wouldn't have to be on the street very long.

Ah, this whole moving process is just a pain. I'll be so incredibly relieved when it's all over!

July 16, 2007

To Live in New Jersey: Part 2

I spent today looking for apartments to rent in the Jersey City and Newport areas, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Unfortunately, Jersey City is too trashy, and Newport is too expensive. One of the Newport high-rises I visited had one-bedroom apartments starting at $2,700. For a place where I'm just going to sleep at night for six months, I'm definitely not paying that much.

I also got terribly lost driving around Jersey City, ending up in a deserted rail yard and later in a really bad part of town. That problem was solved by calling my dad and asking him to figure out directions to the nearest Starbucks for me. Which worked wonderfully, except the Starbucks was closed due to a water main break at the weekend. No big deal, though, since their T-Mobile HotSpot was still active, and that's the real reason I wanted to go there, anyway.

I took a really cool picture of the marina adjacent to that Starbucks with the Manhattan skyline in the background. If I remember, I'll post it when I get back to Pittsburgh on Wednesday (or the wee hours of Thursday morning).

Now that I'm no longer under delusions that I can rent an inexpensive apartment in a nice neighborhood within spitting distance of Manhattan, I will travel to the farther reaches of suburban New York City tomorrow and look for apartments there. Originally, that was the plan, but I got side-tracked by mirages of being in the right place at the right time for some of the nicer properties and being able to swing a sweet deal.

Navigating this part of New Jersey is absolutely awful, and the weather people inside my cell phone say storms will show up tomorrow. That's going to be no fun at all, since I have no idea where I'm going most of the time. Hopefully, the outer suburbs will be somewhat more navigable than the mess of highways and potholes around Secaucus (pronounced SEE-kaw-kus by the locals, by the way).

I need to make a decision about somewhere to live in the next, oh, about 40 hours. Wish me luck tomorrow!

July 15, 2007

To Live in New Jersey: Part 1

Since I wrote here about my trip to New York City less than two weeks ago, I've flown to Massachusetts, back to Pittsburgh, and have now driven to New Jersey. I'm staying in something that resembles a motel but is, perhaps, about one step up from that, and it still costs around $100 per night. Ah, the economics of being near New York City.

I drove here from Pittsburgh today, through really bad rain in western Pennsylvania and again on the New Jersey Turnpike. Google said the trip would take about six hours, but despite driving over 90 mph on some of the straighter sections of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the total time I spent in transit was about six and a half hours. The rain and two brief stops, one for a wholesome Burger King breakfast at the crack of 5:00 this evening and one for gas, were probably the culprits.

I'm here for a few days to look at apartments, houses, condos, townhomes, and cardboard boxes to rent, since I'm going to be moving to this part of the country later in the month. Again, because this is the New York City area, everything is much more expensive than anywhere else I've lived. As a result, I'm trying to balance price against commute time, at least for the first six months I'm here, during which I may well be broke.

So far, I've contacted three landlords in Manhattan, another three or four in Queens, and about 20 in New Jersey. All look promising, and the sizes of the apartments range from a small studio in lower Manhattan to two-bedroom units in New Jersey. The only problem I've encountered at this point is the term of the lease: it seems some owners aren't too keen on leases for less than a year.

Tomorrow, the dirty work begins, as I use roads and rail to get around the NYC metro area to look at potential residences. As exciting as that is, I'm really looking forward to my first cup of coffee in the morning, which will probably be purchased at the Dunkin Donuts across the street.

Wish me luck! I'll try to update you with my findings each night I'm here.

July 07, 2007

New York City Photos

For your perusal, I have some mobile phone photos from this week's trip to New York City.


The Statue of Liberty, as seen from way above

The financial district in Lower Manhattan


Looking south along the east side of Manhattan

Midtown Manhattan


The famous Rikers Island prison (the island in the distance)

A sign along the runway at LaGuardia, welcoming me to the Big Apple


The Metlife building obscuring the Chrysler building

The Empire State Building, as seen from the top of the GE Building


The GE Building at Rockefeller Center

The General Assembly hall at the United Nations

June 22, 2007

A Letter to Doug Parker


My letter to Doug Parker, CEO of US Airways. Click for full PDF
Previously, I wrote about my travels with US Airways on June 16th and on June 20th. I mentioned I would write a letter to US Airways, and I have now done so. The letter is going straight to the top, to the CEO of US Airways, Doug Parker, whose office is in Tempe, Arizona. You can read the full letter by clicking the image to the right.

I would have included quite a few more details in the letter, but I think three pages is pushing my limits a bit already. Ah well, I at least hope I get some kind of reimbursement from them. If I don't, I think I'll start looking for other airlines to handle my travel needs in the future.

So much bitterness was involved with my travels that I wasn't able to write about the good times I had while visiting Houston.

I went for Father's Day, and spending time with my family was, indeed, excellent. We ate Father's Day brunch at Masraff's, which didn't really live up to expectations, but at least the live jazz was fantastic.

The following day, I visited Tamara in Beaumont, and we had great fun eating Mexican food and hanging out at Rocky's Roadhouse (wow, I'm truly surprised they have a web site). Tamara showed me around Lamar University, and I determined all physics departments smell exactly the same; perhaps it's the odor of old men?

Then, I headed back to Houston and had a Boston Legal night with my dad. Many of you know about Boston Legal nights now, but I'll explain a little bit for the newcomers. You see, at the end of every episode of Boston Legal, the two main characters, Alan Shore (James Spader) and Denny Crane (William Shatner), smoke cigars and drink Scotch on the balcony outside Denny's office. They talk about their day, and the conversation is typically pretty insightful.

My dad and I began our own little Boston Legal tradition while I visited him in Argentina in April. Tuesday night, quite firmly on this side of the equator, we smoked cigars, drank malbec port, and brought his telescope into the backyard and looked at the moon, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. We had an absolutely wonderful time.

I would gladly have stayed in Texas longer, were it not for the heat: the cool, dry 60 degree weather struck me as quite novel when I landed in Pittsburgh yesterday. It was certainly a stark contrast to the 95 degree afternoons with nearly 100% humidity I had experienced in Houston.

Now that I'm back at home, though, I need to continue packing. My cats are in Houston until after I move, so I packed a bunch of their toys and other things today. I miss my kitties, but I'll see them soon enough, I'm sure!

June 21, 2007

Another Canceled Flight

On Saturday, I had an awful experience with flying US Airways to Houston, and today (well, yesterday, at this point) was only slightly better. At least my travel experience didn't involve a four-hour drive in a rental car with a frisky cat!

(As with Saturday's blog entry, I'm writing this post with respect to preserving enough detail to accurately portray my plight in a letter to US Airways.)

According to my itinerary, I was supposed to fly US Airways from Houston, through Philadelphia, to Pittsburgh. When I tried to check into my flight on the web, it wouldn't let me, so I looked at my reservation again to see if anything was wrong. Behold, it appeared like US Airways had invented a non-stop flight to Pittsburgh, numbered 1417. The truth was much more gruesome.

Upon further investigation, it seems US Airways had canceled my flight to Philadelphia and then re-booked me on Continental flight 1417, non-stop from Houston to Pittsburgh, leaving two hours after my original flight would have left. Which is all good and well, but they never told me about this. One would think, as a courtesy, an airline would inform its customer of such a significant change in their flight plan. Apparently not.

I called US Airways to verify the reservation, which fortunately required a phone call of only about five minutes, and the guy on the other end of the line said the reservation was correct and that I should check in with Continental at the airport.

I stood in the line at the ticket counter of Houston's terminal E for quite some time and eventually made my way to the automated checker kiosk thing. Well, I couldn't check in there because I didn't have a valid Continental confirmation code, ticket number, or OnePass account. I asked for assistance from an obviously very unhappy woman, who took my driver's license, dialed someone on the phone, and stood with the phone to her ear, not acknowledging my presence in the slightest way, for the next 15 minutes.

Finally, she got off the phone and told me I had to have a paper ticket. Why would I possibly have a paper ticket, given that every last bit of this reservation was done electronically? I have no idea, but according to her, I absolutely had to have a paper ticket with a ticket number. I looked through all my previous boarding passes and other things in my laptop bag and couldn't find a ticket number.

The only immediate way to remedy this was to make my way over a mile from terminal E to terminal A, where I could talk to someone at the US Airways ticket counter. Which I did, again sweating and wondering whether I was actually going to catch that Continental flight, which at that point was set to depart in about 55 minutes.

At terminal A, the US Airways representative was very kind. I explained my situation to him briefly, gave him my last name, and not more than one minute later, he presented my itinerary in E-ticket form to me, along with a very clear ticket number.

Having seen the madness at the security lines at terminal E (that's Continental's international terminal, and a bunch of long-haul flights leave in the evenings, carrying loads of people), I decided to try my luck with terminal C. At terminal C, I checked in with no problem, using the ticket number on that US Airways itinerary. Someone checked my bag with only about a minute remaining for checking luggage, and I looked at my boarding pass and went agape. I saw a big letter S at the bottom of the boarding pass, flanked by SSSS markings. That only means one thing: a free government massage.

Fortunately, the last time I saw SSSS was nearly two years and about 50 flights ago, but with so little time remaining to board my flight, this was icing on the cake for my stress level. Luckily, I arrived at the security line, and I was, quite seriously, the only person there. What a contrast to the lines at terminal E! Most of the time, terminal E has much shorter lines than terminal C, but since the two are connected, Continental customers and customers of other international carriers are free to choose whichever terminal they prefer for the check-in and security process.

I went through security, and by the time some wise guy patted me down and I put my shoes on, my bag had been tested for explosives, and I was on my way. Really, it was the quickest I've ever experienced the TSA screening process.

After leaving security, I hauled ass to gate C25, and just as soon as I got there, the gate agent opened the door for boarding.

Shortly thereafter, I boarded the hot, humid plane and made myself as comfortable as possible in seat 7C. The flight attendant closed the cabin door, and we pulled back from the gate five minutes behind schedule. But, then, agony struck! We inched ever so slowly away from the jet-way, as the plane became warmer and warmer. Nearly everyone aboard was fanning themselves with the 737 emergency brochure or the Continental magazine or some other bit of bound paper.

The pilot explained we were somewhere around number 15 for take-off, which he then estimated would require about 30 minutes of sitting around and taxiing because air traffic control was requiring a plane to be 15 miles away from the runway before another could take off. All the passengers groaned and sighed, and I think someone even shouted an obscenity.

We sat in the sweltering heat without any flight attendant offering water for 50 long minutes before taking off and, at last, feeling relatively cool air come from the passenger service units above our heads.

Finally, Continental 1417 landed in Pittsburgh 20 minutes late, at 11:35 local time. After another ridiculous 20 minutes of waiting for the luggage carousel to start, my bag was one of the first handful to arrive, and I was, at long last, out the door and on my way home.

Now, I'm writing this from my huge, comfortable, air conditioned bed, pondering the fun I'll have crafting the nasty-gram to US Airways tomorrow. I know we determined customer service is a lost art within the airline industry, but I really hope US Airways has something good to say about all the crap I endured on this trip. Specifically, I want them to refund my entire ticket and also pay for my American Airlines flight and rental car from last Saturday. I wonder... I'll keep you posted.

June 17, 2007

Whoops, I Landed in Dallas

I almost flew to Houston today, but I ended up flying to Dallas, instead.

(Note that this entry may be a little long-winded; that's partially because I plan to write a letter to US Airways about this incident, and I want to be able to include certain specific details in that letter.)

When I fly US Airways, I often fly through Philadelphia or Charlotte because there are only a handful of places to which non-stop flights are available from Pittsburgh. Today, my flights were supposed to be Pittsburgh to Charlotte and then Charlotte to Houston.

I arrived in Charlotte and checked the departures board, only to discover my connecting flight to Houston, the only flight remaining for the day, was canceled, presumably due to bad weather, but I'm not really sure about that. So, I hoofed it over to the flight's gate, and someone had posted a very tacky sign, written in green highlighter on some connected sheets of paper, saying the flight was canceled and affected parties should visit customer service personnel. Handily, the service desk was only a couple gates away, but the queue for it stretched far out into the hallway.

After waiting in line for several minutes, the lady in front of me decided she would go ask a nearby gate agent if another customer service desk was available elsewhere in the airport. I looked after her roller-board bag, which had one of those inflatable neck things around the handle. Inflatable neck thing notwithstanding, she returned with a good deal of information about the situation in quite possibly record time. Notably, they were putting people on standby for flights to Houston beginning the following morning and suggesting passengers pay for their hotel rooms in a couple hotels close to the airport. Apparently, an information desk somewhere in the airport had coupons available for "distressed travelers" that provided some small discount from the hotels' room prices.

We decided not to wait in the line anymore, since nothing could be accomplished then that could not be just as easily accomplished in the morning. Honestly, I think she expected me to suggest we get a room together for the night and split the cost, but I just wished her well and started making phone calls. I'll bet she's still in Charlotte.

I spoke at length with my parents, who unsuccessfully searched for other flights to Houston. The two remaining Continental flights, delayed but not canceled, were apparently full, and we expanded our search to include Dallas, Baton Rouge, Austin, and San Antonio. There was an American Airlines flight leaving for Dallas at 6:30. What time was it just when my mom found that flight? You guessed it, 6:30. But, I looked at the departures board again and noticed that flight was delayed until 7:30. Victory!

It is at this point in the story that I must mention I had my cat, Pixel, with me in the airport. If she had not been with me, I probably would have been more willing to give up and just stay in Charlotte for the night, but Pixel needs cat food and a litter box, and I don't exactly know of any pet stores near the Charlotte airport. So, I pressed onward.

The American Airlines flight to Dallas was clear across the airport from that US Airways customer service desk. I walked quickly, carrying an 11-pound cat and my laptop bag and also talking on the phone with my mom, until I finally reached gate A9, where I stood at the counter, sweating and confused and nearly out of breath. I must have looked like a very distressed traveler.

After some trials and errors, I purchased the last ticket to Dallas. I didn't know exactly what I was going to do when I arrived in Dallas, but at least I would be in the correct state for the night!

I called friends in Dallas about road trip possibilities, accommodations, and so forth, and my parents scoured the web for flights from Dallas to Houston or Austin or anything even slightly closer.

I didn't even know what I would be doing in Dallas when I landed there; it was only after checking my voice mails and making more phone calls that I finally decided I would rent a car and drive to Houston.

Pixel and I hopped on the Rental Car Center bus outside the lower level of terminal C in Dallas, and off we went to get a Ford Focus and head to Houston. In Irving, right outside the Dallas airport, I stopped at a rather unfortunate grocery store and bought some cat food, bottled water, some sort of plastic tray, trash bags, and cat litter. With these, the back seat of that Focus became a cat's dream come true: food and water in a proper tray and a makeshift litter box made of trash bags.

Four hours later, around 2:30 AM, I arrived, tired but relieved, in front of my parents' house in Houston. Happy Father's Day, Dad!

I still have some loose ends to tie up, though. Specifically, I assume my checked luggage is still in Charlotte, and I'll have to figure out how to get that back in my own possession again. I'm also planning on formally inquiring about why this crazy day happened the way it did, especially when multiple Continental flights to Houston were only delayed by an hour or two and not at all canceled. Oh, and I'll need to buy a new suit tomorrow before our Father's Day brunch, since, you know, the one I packed is somewhere in the Carolinas.

It's been an incredibly long day, and it's definitely time for me to sleep now, since I need to wake up in about six hours to go buy a suit, return that rental car, and eat a fantastic, wonderful brunch with my family.

June 08, 2007

Booking Flights on the Phone

I'm heading to Houston for an extended Father's Day weekend, and I just booked my flights. I wanted to use a $240 credit I gained earlier this year, and I also wanted to be sure they knew I would have a cat on the plane, so I booked the flight over the phone to make sure those two things happened. Otherwise, I would have very gladly booked the flights on the web, as usual.

The phone call took 31 minutes. You'd think "hey, I'd like to fly on this flight on this day and this other flight on this other day, and I'll have a cat, and here's where you can look up my $240 credit, and here's my frequent flyer number, and this is my credit card number" would take, oh, about five minutes. Maximum.

If you thought that, you would be wrong.

When I was traveling extensively on Delta several years ago, I would spend that long on the phone, but most of the time, I would be on hold, just waiting for someone to pick up on the other end while listening to awful music that was terribly choppy coming out of my cell phone's speakers. Then, it would take a mere handful of minutes to confirm my reservation, look up my SkyMiles number, and charge the flights to my credit card. That was that, and most of the time, I could have my speaker-phone enabled and be patiently paying attention for a human voice coming across the line while simultaneously doing something entirely different. (Speaking of Delta, check out their new red logo. Isn't that strange?)

Not so with US Airways, apparently, as nearly the entire 31 minutes of my conversation involved listening to some lady breathing heavily into the other end of the line, listening to her slowly click away at her keyboard, or repeating myself over and over. Calling US Airways is like trying to convince a brick wall to do something other than stand around or fall, and as a rather impatient person in the first place, I grew very agitated with the whole 31-minute process.

Regardless, I have some episodes of Alias waiting for me, courtesy of Netflix, and I'm positively dying to relax with them right now.

June 07, 2007

Jetrosexual


The Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747, Ruby Tuesday
Are you a jetrosexual?

If so, you'll be able to tell me which airport is pictured in the photo at the bottom of the Virgin Atlantic Flights site just by looking at the flight status monitors. Without spending much time figuring it out, take a guess and leave it in the comments section here.

You'll also be able to relate to Virgin Atlantic's 11 Commandments of a Jetrosexual. I especially like #3: Thou shalt have at least one passport stamp from a country that now goes by a different name. They're all excellent traveling rules, though; indeed, nobody should own those silly inflatable neck pillows.

Too bad their Ultimate Jetrosexual competition has ended. That would have been fun to enter!

February 13, 2007

Travel Database (Oh, and My Birthday)

Well, it's been quite some time since I posted anything here... so long, in fact, that up until this entry gets posted, the front page will have been empty for a couple days. Weird.

It's my birthday today (or, rather, it was my birthday yesterday), and I had about 10 text messages and 28 emails when I woke up, most of which had something to do with that particular fact. I spent the day like any other day, with the exception of opening five packages of completely unexpected presents sent from far and wide. Thanks, everybody! I also tried to get my friend Steve to go have Japanese food with me this evening, but it turns out he's at a conference in San Francisco. Alas, we'll perhaps celebrate my birthday this weekend, instead.

In other news, I've stopped hanging onto boarding passes and started collecting data on my travels in a database. Maybe I'll use it to create cool graphs or something in the future, but right now, it's just getting started. The travel databaseI've been able to insert 34 flights into it so far, most of which are from 2006.

I think this database will be interesting to view in the future, when I feel like looking back on a trip to Buenos Aires or that time I smelled cinnamon and cloves in Harvard Yard. Technical graphs of flight frequencies and interfaces to airlines' web sites would be pretty cool to include eventually, too.

I would like to appeal to those of you with whom I've flown in the past: if you have old boarding passes, emails, journal entries, bills of lading, deportation notices, or any other such items that might give me a clue about flights I've taken, I'd love to have that information. For example, I don't have any information on the flights I took back and forth between Texas and Oregon in 2002 and 2003 (hi, Kari!). Nor do I have any data for when I met Tamara in Seattle in July, 2004, or when Katy and I spent Christmas in New England and Texas in 2005. I'm also missing flight numbers for the week I spent in London in 2004 (hi, Uncle John!). Oh, and how about the Thanksgiving trip to New York City, also in 2004? And the various trips to Pittsburgh before I started graduate school in 2005?

All those flights aside, the gold mine, of course, would be to find old information for the flights I took around the world when I was much younger (hey, Mom?). It would be really neat to know which KLM, Pan Am, and Eastern Airlines flights I took when I was a jet set two-year-old. I have my old passports around here somewhere, but those are only going to help so much.

January 21, 2007

Six Airports in Seven Days

I'll soon start a little bouncing across the country, as I go to Massachusetts to hang out with the family and then to Missouri to do some consulting work. The flight plan takes me to Philadelphia, Manchester (New Hampshire), Boston, Pittsburgh again (where I get to sleep in my own bed for a night), Chicago, Springfield (Missouri), back to Chicago, and then back to Pittsburgh. Six different airports in seven days? I've had worse.

One of my Christmas gifts was an iPod Nano, of which I make extensive use currently and which will certainly prove to be incredibly convenient to have during my bouncing. A little music and a good book go a long way toward making a flight seem shorter, as I found out on my most recent Houston-to-Pittsburgh flight. There's nothing like an enjoyable tune to make the time pass.

Are any of you planning any winter getaways? I know Andrew could use a trip to Tokyo...

January 09, 2007

Have A Nice Delay

The United States Department of Transportation has a sub-department called the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which presumably hires a bunch of statistician/actuary types and feeds them giant spreadsheets of travel data. The employees then go blind and insane after staring at only the numbers zero through nine for eight hours every day. But, before they go blind and insane, the data are converted into semi-human-readable statistics which can tell the public rather a lot about, for example, what's happening on the ground and in the air when it comes to airlines.

They have a web application that can retrieve analyses of airline delays, and the things it displays are potentially very interesting to those of us who travel often.

Here is a table I whipped up quickly that compares the delay times among the airlines I frequently fly for the 2006 January 1 to 2006 April 1 time frame. You'll notice American, every Dallas-ite's favorite airline (one of mine, too), takes the cake when it comes to delays. US Airways, which I fly between Pittsburgh and Boston, has the most favorable rating.

AirlineAverage Departure Delay (min.)
American Airlines9.87
Continental Airlines8.87
Delta Air Lines7.97
US Airways5.53

Another interesting statistic I found when compiling this table is that every airline in the list had more than 20% of its flights delayed during that period, except for US Airways, which had only 17.39% of its flights delayed. My experience with US Airways, when I compared it to other airlines, has always been very good, and I guess it's not just me — the numbers back me up.

November 22, 2006

The Travel Season: Part 4

Tomorrow (or, rather, later today), for the next step of this winter's travel itinerary, I will fly to Houston to hang with Amy and the family. Also, there are vague plans for Tamara to visit Andrew at the weekend, so perhaps Amy and I could join them for a casual dinner sort of thing. I anticipate thorough enjoyment of the trip, despite the weather forecasted to be about 40 degrees too warm for my taste (and for November in general, in my opinion!).

Meanwhile, I must tell you about the belligerent idiot from last Sunday's flight. If I could only remember his name...

A quick overview of my flight plan may be divulged thusly: My plane was late to leave Birmingham, so I had a very brief lay-over in Atlanta before flying to Pittsburgh. Fortunately, the flight out of Atlanta was delayed, but we made excellent time nevertheless.

So, you see, upon landing in Atlanta, I had to make the familiar jaunt at ungodly speed down the unnecessarily long corridor of terminal B where Delta has all their gates, and I arrived at the gate for the Pittsburgh flight only to see, to my relief, that nobody was boarding yet.

Over the next five or ten minutes, I caught my breath and observed the throngs, which included a guy standing at the gate agent's counter. The guy seemed obnoxious when he was talking with the gate agent and then even more so when he was talking with a girl who was sitting near the gate a little later. He inquired after the girl's residence, occupation, age, business in Atlanta, and so forth, and she was clearly nonplussed with his prying.

The prying ended soon enough, much to the girl's relief, I'm sure, when the gate opened and we first class passengers were allowed to board the plane. All queued up like good jet set automatons, we stood with boarding passes in hand, when out of nowhere came the idiot guy, shoving his arm across our ranks and yelling, "I'm in first class!" To which the gate agent responded, "yes, yes, you are in first class."

As a result of his urgency, he boarded the plane a minute or so before I did, and he was already seated when I entered the cabin. Guess what? My seat was 1C, and his was 1D, which meant we would invariably share the same arm rest, among other things, for what, at that point, seemed like the rest of my life. "Wonderful," I said to myself, and I rolled my eyes in the general direction of the already-seated passengers.

In the following 15 or 20 minutes, while the rest of the plane boarded, idiot loser guy did a number of things. First, he attempted to be polite and curious with me, which prompted me to tell him I'm an electrical engineer who works on micro-robots at Carnegie Mellon. That turned out to be a horrible idea on my part, but how could I have known? Then, after he established that I had something interesting in my head, he tried to extract it, constantly asking me questions like, "what is nanotechnology?" and "will you help me learn about robots?" To these questions I responded in the general form of, "I'm sorry, but I don't feel like explaining all that right now, and I just want to read my book." Actually, I wanted to spend the next hour or so thinking about my weekend in Birmingham, but by that point, my real motives were quite irrelevant. At any rate, I was never impolite.

At some point after most of the coach cabin had boarded the plane, the guy put his head against the window and pretended like he was asleep, making fake snoring noises and everything. It was at this point that I realized the camaraderie in first class was beginning, since the guys in row 2 started to crack jokes about the snoring moron. The first class steward also started joining the fun, though he had previously been busy and was at that point only beginning to appreciate the entertainment that the guy in 1D would provide for the next hour and a half.

The faux nap did not last very long, and the loser "woke up" in time to be reasonably attentive to the steward's safety demonstration. It was, in fact, during this demonstration that the steward noticed the guy in 1D was chugging a bottle of whiskey and, per FAA regulations, forcibly removed it from his hands. That eventually turned out to be symbolic, anyway, since the bottle the steward retrieved was empty. The steward then informed the moron that he was cut off and he would not be served any alcoholic beverages during the flight. "No problem," was the response.

Remember, the safety demonstration happens just after the plane leaves the gate, so at this point we still had several minutes before the plane could possibly get to the runway, even if it weren't a Sunday evening in Atlanta when a couple tens of thousands of people were trying to get to their road warrior hotels on Delta.

After a while and surely more nanotechnology inquiry, the guy decided it would be a good idea to lower his seat-back, despite the cockpit's previous warning against doing so. The steward requested that the guy return his seat-back to the upright position, and it was done. This happened again about a minute later, with perhaps a little more delay in the idiot's obedience.

The cockpit then came on the horn and announced we were second in line for take-off and we would be availing ourselves of that opportunity shortly. This as a prompt, the steward approached the guy in 1D and ensured him that his alcoholic beverage privileges were suspended. The conversation went roughly like this. "Sir, I just want to be clear that you are cut off from alcoholic beverages for the rest of this flight." ... "uhhh" ... "I want to make sure we aren't going to have a problem if I need to refuse your order for alcohol later" ... *pause* ... "nope, no problem." Well, then, that was settled.

Almost immediately after that little conversation, the guy put his seat-back down again.

Note that at this point, we've obviously turned onto the runway, and the engines are beginning their initial throttle-up or whatever they do.

The steward asks the guy to raise his seat-back again, and after a long pause, the response comes loudly: "Why are you picking on me!" A verbal altercation ensued for 15 or 20 seconds, and the steward grabbed the black phone that connects him to the cockpit. Threats were thrown around, variously about sending the plane back to the gate and calling the police and so forth, and everybody in first class except me was telling the guy, "just shut up so we can get home!" or "shut your mouth!" or "we just want to get to Pittsburgh!" With milliseconds to go, the guy raised his seat-back, the steward hung up the phone, and the wheels left the ground.

Take-off, and we're stuck with this guy for the next hour and a half.

And, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Stay tuned for the continuation of this story, which I hope to write in the next couple days. :)

November 20, 2006

A Flight to Remember

Amy and I had an absolutely fantastic time in Birmingham, wandering from history conference to wine bar to barbecue joint and back again. While four days there was a bit much in terms of the city, I can't wait to fly to Houston this Wednesday and head back out into the fray, to a rock concert, with Amy.

My flights took me through Atlanta because I flew Delta, and the last leg of the journey, this evening's flight from Atlanta to Pittsburgh, was the worst flight I ever could have imagined. Briefly, an incredibly belligerent lunatic happened to have the seat next to mine, and by the time our entire first class cabin banded together in friendly unity after getting cussed out, berated, and yelled at, the Pennsylvania State Police took the loser into custody. The abridged story takes about 20 minutes to tell on the phone, as I've found three times over, so it may take some time for me to get a blog-worthy version of it posted here. I assure you it will be worth the wait.

Meanwhile, check out my new threads! ;)

November 13, 2006

The Travel Season: Part 3

I was recently in Boston, and this week will see me flying to, of all places, Birmingham, Alabama. Next week, I'll be in Houston.

I never thought I'd end up voluntarily going to Alabama, but I intend to do it in full-on southern style: first class flights, on-call limousine service, black tie dinners at various mansions just outside the city limits, ballroom dancing, attendance in the first row of a famous Baptist church on Sunday, and so forth. Well, not really... at least not the part about attending the church service.

Actually, the Journal of Southern History is having a shindig in Birmingham this weekend, and I've decided to join my traveling companion and lady friend Amy there for a few days.

Do any of you have any insight into anything interesting a metropolitan person such as myself might do while in Birmingham? And, another pressing issue... when is last call in Alabama? :)

November 07, 2006

Transit Trickle


Get out and vote!
First, I am obligated to point out that if you are an American citizen presently in the country, you need to take ten minutes and go cast your vote. Go. Right now. You don't need your voter ID card or anything. Just tell them your name when you get there. Go!

And, if you don't know where your polling place is, you can look it up. It's that easy!

Now, then...

A couple times over the past few weeks while riding the venerable 61C bus to and from Carnegie Mellon, I have been approached by a lady who has been handing out surveys to people who utilize the mass transit system in Pittsburgh. The survey is a quick little thing that, in each instance, I've completed and returned before alighting from the bus.

The premise of this survey, apparently, is to gauge system ridership and to become more familiar with particular riders' habits, so as to minimize the inconvenience of an inevitable downsizing due to a lack of public funding. That's right: according to the lady on the bus, the Port Authority has contracted a third party to figure out how best to downsize the bus system.

I've never been particularly fond of the transit system here, as compared to other systems I've used, but I use it often, and it lets me down less frequently now than it did when I lived in Shadyside.

This morning, I received a stern reminder of the plight of Pittsburgh's transit system. After I cast my vote at the polling place in the elementary school down the street from my house, I went to wait at the bus stop where I usually catch my morning buses. I waited there for about 25 minutes before a 61C, overflowing with people, pulled up and opened its door. The driver told us the bus was full and that we'd have to wait for the next one to come along. At that point, my class had just about started, so I figured waiting another 20-30 minutes for the next 61C, 61D, 61F, or 59U would be somewhat pointless. Besides, standing in the cold, damp air had caused last week's respiratory ailments to become irritating again, and that wasn't particularly pleasant. So, here I am, skipping class in the comfort of my study at home, drinking some hot coffee and writing an entry in my blog.

For the sake of all the people who depend on the Port Authority to get them from one place to another every day, I hope the situation here doesn't degrade too badly any time soon, but it certainly doesn't look like it's getting any better right now.

October 24, 2006

The Travel Season: Part 2

My annual travel season will begin sooner than I previously thought. I'll be off to Boston this Thursday, where I will spend several days hoping, among other things, that someone is taking good care of my cats. So as to not impose on Katy, to whom I would entrust their care more readily than anyone else in Pittsburgh, I'll probably just ask my next-door neighbor to feed and watch Dorian and Pixel.

This Friday, I will be at Harvard, and next Monday, I will be at MIT, speaking at length of nanorobots and doctoral studies and so forth. This weekend has the potential to provide some exciting opportunities for me, though I must admit to being somewhat nervous about it! I imagine I will provide an update on everything that happens there by this time next week, so you'll get to read all about how I've, perhaps, embarassed myself in front of various engineering faculty at two of the world's most prestigious schools. :)

While I'm not bathed in the heady glow of excellence emanating from Cambridge this weekend, I will be able to hang out with Taylor and with my aunt and uncle. Oh, and since it's now cold and dreary and snowy and stuff, I'll clearly have to spend some time in Newburyport at The Grog, rapt in the wonder of their clam chowder. Seems like a good weekend to me!

October 20, 2006

The Travel Season Begins in Minnesota

I travel more than most people I know, and I log more miles per year on airplanes than many people do in their entire lives. The company I keep also has a tendency toward travel, and I enjoy speaking with them about their worldly adventures and comparing our experiences. In addition, new cities and new circumstances are made even better when one is joined by a friend. Perhaps this friend could even be that rare gem among the populous throngs and hoi polloi that happened to pique one's interest while sitting in an adjacent seat on a last-minute flight to a usually dismal place which, at the end of the three-hour journey, seemed newly fresh and bright and quite perfect indeed.

It is through this remark and its poignant meaning and history that I have discovered an overwhelming desire to explore the city of Minneapolis during, perhaps, the second weekend of November. The University of Minnesota provides a number of compelling academic reasons for my travel companion and I to enjoy a long yet brief respite from mutual absence, and this prospective meeting provides more than ample reason to become quite excited. In light of this excitement, it will be with great anticipation that I spend the days and weeks ahead.

August 25, 2006

Where in London?

Because I've been rambling about my server in Los Angeles in the past couple entries, I thought I'd give you something else to view now. First, there's the anonymous aerial photograph of London on the right-hand side of this entry.
The aforementioned anonymous photograph of London
If you can pin down the name of the building on top of which I was standing when I took that photo, you get many bonus points and possibly a free dinner [1]. If you were standing next to me on top of that building, you are disqualified from this particular free dinner but may receive an altogether different one (or two) in about one week's time.

Also, I didn't get to give my talk again today. It's a pity, too, because I was ready for it (again). I missed today's meeting because I had to take Pixel to the vet. She's on antibiotics now for a sore on her hind left leg that looked particularly unpleasant. The doctor says she probably sustained the injury while in the company of aggressive animals at the shelter. Perhaps, indeed.

I'll also not get to give my talk next Friday because I'll be in Boston. Maybe this is the talk that will never be. Alas and alack, but the slides have been distributed, so at least people will be able to read about my research, in lieu of an actual presentation with commentary and so forth.

I'm yawning before 10 PM. What does this mean? Ah, it probably means I only got four hours of sleep last night. Does that have any bearing on when I'll go to sleep tonight? Nope, not at all.

I want a Magic Hat No. 9. Too bad I can't call Katy.

[1] Travel expenses are the responsibility of the winner. While supplies last. Offer ends when I say it ends.

July 22, 2006

Travel Misery

Flying isn't what it used to be. The glamour of hopping on the Concorde to arrive in New York before you left Paris, the jovial types on the Pan Am to Sydney, the Eastern Airlines 747 that took you to London at an hour's notice... these things just don't exist anymore, and neither does the surrounding culture that made air travel the bastion of a thriving society.

I'll bet you know what's coming now, don't you? If you guessed another airline mess, possibly involving Washington, D.C., you'd be quite correct. But, at least it wasn't United this time.

My US Airways flight was supposed to leave Pittsburgh at 3:30, but when I glanced for the first time at a "departures" monitor, I noticed my flight was cancelled. That's right... not delayed, but cancelled. Maybe it was the weather in Boston; my dad's flight was delayed in Houston because of that, but even now, I have no idea why my flight was cancelled.

So, they transferred everyone on the flight to the next flight to New York Laguardia, which was due to leave at 3:55, a scant 25 minutes after the Boston flight. OK, that's cool, I said, and I waited.

We were eventually told the crew on the Laguardia flight was en route from Philadelphia, but there was weather there, so they would be late. So, I waited some more. Then, we were told the connecting flight to Boston would be held for our arrival in New York. That's lovely for us but not so much for the people already in New York. And, I waited.

A while later, around 5:15, a distressed employee engaged the public announcement system and told us Boston passengers to hop on over to another gate and board a flight to Washington Reagan National Airport. So, we did that, and we went to Washington.

Upon landing at Reagan and arriving at gate 40, we Boston passengers hurried about 50 feet across the hall to gate 45, where our flight to Boston was waiting. I arrived at the gate first and boarded the plane, having spent a grand total of about 55 seconds in the terminal — the shortest lay-over ever.

I landed in Boston, safe and sound, and my dad and I followed Route 1 up toward Newbury, grabbed some very garlicky Greek food on the way, and arrived here on the island around 10:30, about four hours later than I originally anticipated.

It's breezy and cool but a bit humid here. The breeze and temperature are a nice change from Pittsburgh, where it has been mostly warm and stale. I'll get back to that on Monday. Meanwhile, I must attend to family and drink lots of coffee.

I'm not really bitter about the flight thing this time, as the wait was comfortable and air conditioned, and I still got to Boston with some time left over to have dinner and chat with my dad and my aunt. I just hope the return flight is somewhat less terrible and somewhat more non-stop.

June 17, 2006

Buenos Aires

The trip to Buenos Aires was amazing. Really, it was. There are few places I've visited that I will remember more fondly than that fantastic city.

My mother, my sister, and I arrived at Ezeiza Airport via the BusinessFirst cabin (the planes don't actually have a real first class cabin) of a Continental Airlines 767. When we met my dad outside customs at the airport and walked outside to wait for our remise, I saw the Argentina I imagined: bustling people, small cars, little traffic control, and many people eager to earn a few pesos by helping in some small way.

As the airport is about 35 km outside the city center, we rode in the remise along a tollway for about half an hour. Much of Buenos Aires I saw during this ride was old high-rise housing, home to many of the metropolitan area's more than 12 million residents. Incidentally, as a result of urban sprawl in the mid-20th century, the Aglomerado Gran Buenos Aires is the eighth largest metropolitan area in the world.

Our flight had arrived around 9:00 AM local time, so by the time we had settled into the hotel (Caesar Park, in La Recoleta) and slept for a couple hours, the prospect of eating lunch loomed in front of us. We wandered to a café through dirty urban streets surrounded by tall, ornate buildings, passing the new embassy of Vatican City on the way.
An outdoor café in San Telmo. Click to enlarge.
Somewhat tired and somewhat confused by the menu, I ended up with a glass of water and, essentially, a ham and butter sandwich.

I will spare you the details of the remaining visits to restaurants, but I would like to make some summary comments.

First, many of the meals we ate had a specific order to them: appetizer, main course, dessert, and then coffee. A meal like this requires a couple hours and involves at least one bottle of wine. Meals also tend to occur a few hours after they do here in the States: lunch-time starts around 1:00, and the beginning of dinner-time ranges from about 8:00 to 11:00. The coffee I drank in Argentina (usually an expresso doble) was some of the best I've ever had, and I never had anything even close to a mediocre cup of coffee there.

Also, Argentina has fantastic beef. The cows are mostly free range, grass fed, and never subjected to chemicals or hormones, so the beef has many very natural flavors that are foreign to much American meat.

And, many restaurants make their own mozzarella cheese and serve it as an appetizer along with sliced fresh tomatos and basil or pesto. This, along with some sort of cured meat plate, usually served as the first part of our meals

Lastly, the Argentines have also developed a wonderful dessert called the Don Pedro. This concoction is basically a Scotch float, topped with whipped cream and nuts. My dad and I had Don Pedros at a steak house the last night we were there (they were not on the dessert menu), and my mom had one on the flight back to Houston.

There is so much more to say about the wonder of Argentine food, but I will leave the exercise of experiencing it to the reader.

The second day we were in Argentina, we went to a tango show. The tango is a form of music and dance that emerged and developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the lower-class districts of Buenos Aires.
A tango store near the port in the district of Boca. Click to enlarge
It has a long and rich history, and it has since branched into two commonly-found styles in Argentina: the traditional tango and the "tourist" tango. The tourist tango, like that which we saw, is glitzy, somewhat like a fast-paced opera, and comes with a nice dinner and lots of wine and champagne. The show we saw at the Carlos Gardel theater (Carlos Gardel is widely known as the father of the tango) contained many very intimate acts and was consistently surprising in terms of the dancers' abilities. Everybody should see a show like this at least once. The pictures we took at the tango show are on my mom's camera, so I'll have to get those from her and display them here.

The following day, Sunday, we hired another remise and visited San Telmo and Boca.
Taylor and my mom in the doorway of the shop full of fantasy crafts. Click to enlarge
Every Sunday, the famous Fería de Antigüedades de San Telmo, an antiques and hand crafts fair, takes place in San Telmo, so we browsed that for a while and then visited some local shops. Taylor and my mom bought some very intricately crafted elven dolls (in U.S. Dollars out of my pocket, no less) in an especially neat shop full of fantasy stuff.

The part of Boca we visited is near the port where ships for the Argentine navy were once built. Much of the leftover paint was used on the sides of the buildings, so the neighborhood is very colorful. One street, in particular, was full of merchants selling art, and the combination of the colors in the art with the colors on the buildings was very pleasant.


A street in the Boca district of Buenos Aires. Click to enlarge


Tango art for sale, on display on a street in Boca. Click to enlarge
We also visited the port in Boca, near where I took the photo of the Caminito Tango shop, and though the water smelled ungodly, I managed to hold my nose and steady my camera (no tripod small enough to fit in my duffel bag, but it would make a nice Christmas present *grin*) long enough to get some photos for Taylor. I believe she's interested in painting some of them and is especially concerned with the reflections of the ships on the water (particularly the photo numbered 0534). The photos are here, and they are the full-size, real deal, not resized for screen resolution, not tweaked in Photoshop, wonderful data that came out of the camera, so please do not rip them off or do anything other than look at them unless you are my sister and I am aware that you are my sister.


La Recoleta Cemetery consuming my dad. Click to enlarge


Me, standing in front of the mausoleum of the Familia Duarte. The nameplate of Eva Perón is visible (top). Click to enlarge
Further adventures in Buenos Aires took my dad and me to La Recoleta Cemetery, where my dad deftly found the way to the mausoleum of Familia Duarte, the tomb under which Eva Perón is buried. It is said there are two sub-basements in the tomb, accessible by secret trap doors, that lead to her coffin. The story of Evita's corpse is very interesting; it includes cutting off her hands, necrophilia, and a number of other exciting things. It is well worth the brief read.

After the cemetery visit, my trip to Argentina was almost at a close. Of course, I have omitted a zillion other things about my trip in this post, but I could write a book just from my experiences there. I flew back to Pittsburgh yesterday evening, after spending two more days in Houston and then finding out how it feels (and smells) to be on a plane whose jet engine is leaking fuel (thanks, Continental!).
The cabin on the return flight, somewhere over Bolivia. Click to enlarge
Today's high temperature was a very ridiculous 88 degrees, so I am now the proud owner of a portable, 10,000 BTU window venting air conditioning unit. It actually feels quite nice in here now, but I'm sure I'll rethink that statement when I go upstairs to go to bed later.

Now, I'm going to read some emails, catch up on my Mensa mailing list, and probably play some World of Warcraft. It has apparently taken me just under three hours to write this entry — wow!

Also, a big Happy Father's Day to my dad, who enabled us to go on this extraordinary trip to Argentina. Kudos!

June 07, 2006

Argentina, Here I Come

I leave this evening for Houston, from where I will depart for Buenos Aires tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to the trip, though I'm not entirely sure what we'll be doing there.
A scene from a tango show
As far as I know, the purpose of this trip is still to go house hunting (or, rather, penthouse hunting), so I imagine Taylor and I will be off doing our own things much of the time. The only performance I'm certain we'll see is a tango show, which promises to be amazing. Fun fun fun! I'm making every effort to remember my camera on this trip.

I'm debating whether I should pick up one of those reference books on conversational Spanish to review on my flight. I think I can probably "wing it" with most of the Spanish I'll need, but it would be nice to have the book to ensure I don't make a fool of myself. Additionally, the dialect of Spanish spoken in Argentina, castellano rioplatense, is different in certain important ways from the Mexican I learned when I was younger. That reference book is sounding better and better...

When I get back from Argentina, I'll likely get back into nanotech mode, possibly get some new Ph.D. research, and maybe co-author a paper or two. In my free time, I suppose I'll play lots of video games. Summer just isn't what it used to be.

Adios!

May 22, 2006

To Houston

Katy and I are flying to Houston tonight, driving to Dallas tomorrow, driving to Houston Thursday, and flying back here next Tuesday.

We have a pretty busy schedule, so I may not be able to update this thing often. Have a great week and weekend!

March 14, 2006

To Massachusetts

I have a flight to Boston this evening, and I'll be spending a few days on the usual coastal island. I'm looking forward to visiting with my family, but I'm not looking forward to having only a couple days to do my nanostructures homework when I get back. No big deal. It will have to be submitted one way or another. I am taking some journal articles related to nanostructures to read on the planes, in hope that some of them may prepare me for the homework.

If you haven't checked out my post from yesterday about the Pittsburgh municipal code's noise provisions, please do so. I'd like to get as much feedback on that as I can, as I imagine I'll have to make use of it at some point this weekend while I'm slogging through my homework. And, if not then, some other time in the near future.

March 01, 2006

CMU Studies Cell Phones in Flight

The Department of Engineering and Public Policy at CMU has determined that cell phones and other electronics that broadcast signals can disrupt airplane electronics even more than previously thought. One of the more important technologies affected is GPS, which is becoming more widely used during landing.

Here's the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.

A few years ago, I stopped turning off my cell phone before flying because I decided the rule prohibiting activated cell phones on flights was ridiculous. The FCC has similar feelings, apparently, as they have recently been thinking about lifting the ban.

The CMU study, however, puts things in a different light, and I think I'll resume turning my cell phone off before flights in the future.

This month's IEEE Spectrum has some more technical information on the study.

January 21, 2006

PennDOT, Oh Yeah

Katy and I are the proud new owners of driver's licenses from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We're about five months late, but oh well. I'm working under the assumption that I was not summoned to jury duty in the past five months, so I don't have a contempt of court warrant for failing to respond to a jury duty summons in Dallas, and as long as that assumption holds up, life is good.

The Carnegie Mellon book store had been closed for 17 minutes when I tried to walk into it and buy the book for my Linear Systems class at 4:17 this afternoon, and Katy is presently locked out of her house after forgetting her keys there last night, so without the resources necessary to do school work, we're just hanging out this evening. She's playing SimCity 4, and I'm surfing the web. We're also drinking tea. Dorian is sleeping on a chair with one of his toy balls curled up in his tail. It's a good day for everyone around here.

Last night, Jay, who is one of Katy's tenants, and his friend Bill from work invited us to go out to the South Side for some drinks. Which we did, and it was a lot of fun. The last place we visited was the Z Lounge, a techno bar I experienced the second time I visited Pittsburgh. They make a fantastic mojito, and drinking two of them in good company was the highlight of my night.

Do any of you have any suggestions for keeping large amounts of paper in a portable container? I'm going to have a lot of research papers to carry around town this semester, and I'd like a convenient way of doing that.

Go Steelers! The AFC and NFC championship games are tomorrow, and it will be fun to watch Pittsburgh go crazy if the Steelers end up at the Super Bowl.

Enough rambling. Time to get these papers off my coffee table.

December 26, 2005

Winter Travels

Katy and I had an absolutely fantastic time in Massachusetts and Maine last week. It was wonderful to visit with my aunt and uncle there, and skiing, relaxing, eating, drinking, listening to books on tape, watching movies, playing in the snow, and solving big jigsaw puzzles were a perfect way to end a stressful few months of school. Every member of my family that has met Katy is completely in love with her, and while I can't blame them and it is certainly deserved, I wasn't really expecting such total adoration. It's a beautiful thing. :)

We're in the suburbs of Houston now, where there is no snow and the temperatures have been in the 70s. Gross. But, our parents and siblings are here, so here we also are, doing the Christmas thing with family.

Christmas went well all around, and I received probably more gifts than ever before (with more on the way), which was quite ridiculous but also pretty neat. Some highlights so far are an automatic meat grinder with which I will make a wide variety of pleasing ground meats and sausages, four Wüsthof Classic steak knives to complement my Wüsthof Classic cutlery, a powerful and portable vacuum cleaner with the assumed specific intent of easily extracting Dorian hair from my rugs, an item of undisclosed description from Tiffany & Co., and a number of sweaters from J. Crew. Also, my uncle John and I received, from my parents, several books and software packages for learning the Japanese language, which will be useful for preparing for our trip to Japan. Like I said, quite ridiculous.

I'll be spending tomorrow (today, rather, after I wake up again) afternoon in Kingwood with Katy and her family. I hope they're as receptive to my existence as my family is to hers. Katy says I was pretty mean to everyone nine or ten years ago, and I hope they don't hold some sort of collective grudge against me. So, I'm nervous, and I'm probably not going to want to spend lots of time there because I'm going to be stressed out. Sigh. I'll get over it eventually.

I can't wait to be back in a place where snow covers the ground, but I'm glad I'm spending time with some of my most important people this week.

December 14, 2005

On Holiday

School is finally over for the year, and I'm getting the hell out of here. Maine, here I come to trample your mountains with my skis.

December 06, 2005

Back from Washington: Part 2

I received a number of responses to my most recent entry in the comments section of the entry and on my Mensa introverts mailing list. Most of the responses said, essentially, that I was obviously at fault because I did not show up to the gate early enough. A Mensan even pointed out the really tiny print on the United web site about boarding closing ten minutes before the departure time. Never mind that I didn't get a copy of that with my ticket purchase, presumably because I did not buy them through United. Really, I looked through all the crap I got with my ticket, and that was nowhere to be found.

So, when did the airlines get so cocky? Was management getting pissed because they weren't meeting their on-time quotas?

I remember distinctly one time I was flying from Boston to Dallas on Delta, and I was eating pizza at Logan Airport, when I heard my name called out over the P.A. system in conjunction with something about needing to hurry over to the gate. I had simply lost track of time in my hunger, and so I ran to the gate, all was well, and we still probably left on time. We definitely arrived on time. The gate people probably weren't even done with their pre-flight paperwork by the time I took my seat on board.

Times have changed, I guess, and we consumers are getting the shaft much more than we did in the past. I'll just add "fear of not being able to get on a flight I've paid to take, despite doing everything I can do to get to the gate on time" to my "culture of fear" awareness list.

December 05, 2005

Back from Washington

I'm back from Washington, but the return trip came at considerable expense to my sanity.

My flight was supposed to leave from Dulles's terminal G, at which one arrives by taking a crappy little bus, at 5:25. I waited for the bus... and waited and waited. And, finally, the bus came, and I sat in it... and sat and sat. And, finally, the bus left the main terminal, and it drove to terminal G... and drove and drove.

Because waiting for the bus, waiting on the non-moving bus, and riding on the bus took so much time, I was a little worried about making my flight when we eventually arrived at the terminal. So, I ran from the bus to the gate and arrived at the gate around 5:17, a full eight minutes before the flight's scheduled departure.

The gate attendant was finishing yelling at someone over her walkie-talkie, so I let her do that, and then I told her I wanted to board the Pittsburgh flight. She said, "it's gone." I said, "what?" She said, "the plane left." I looked up at the board behind her, where the plane was clearly said to depart at 5:25, and I said, "that says 5:25." She said, "boarding closes ten minutes before departure." I said, "what?!" She said, "you'll have to go talk with customer service," and she motioned me to a conveniently located customer service desk, not more than 40 feet away, with a conveniently lengthy line extending from it.

I sort of stomped over to the end of the line and called Katy, who was planning to pick me up in Pittsburgh, to tell her I had just missed a flight because I was eight minutes early for it. After I spoke with her, the guy in front of me in line asked me if I'd just missed the Pittsburgh flight. I said yes, we chatted for a few minutes about how Dulles sucks peoples' souls (in a bad way), etc., and then we stood like good Englishmen. Except I guess neither of us are really good Englishmen, but wow, Englishmen really know how to queue. Anyway...

I got to the customer service desk shortly after the other guy did, and we were both nearly simultaneously finding out that the only other flight to Pittsburgh last night was already full and that we could either be put on standby for that flight or move our flights to the following morning (but not both!). At which point, I asked the customer service idiot, "how long does it take to drive to Pittsburgh?" The guy standing next to me said, "about four hours." Thus began the long trip home.

We had a happy meeting there at the customer service desk and were excited about the prospect of sharing the cost of a rental car and driving away from that airport as quickly as possible. Standby tickets in hand in case something went awry with the car rental, Kurt and I stomped off to stand in line for the bus back to the main terminal.

The plans were in place by the time we got to the main terminal (yet another long bus ride), and there, we searched for somewhere to access rental car companies. There was a line of phones, each connected to a rental car company, near the end of the baggage claim area. Kurt started on one end, and I started on the other.

"Hello?" "I'm interested in renting a car at Washington Dulles and driving it to Pittsburgh tonight. Can you tell me how much that's going to cost in your cheapest car?" "I have a line of 25 people standing on front of me and..." "Just tell me how much it's going to cost." "We don't do one-way rentals." Click.

And so it went.

Of the many car rental companies at Dulles, only Avis and Hertz would rent cars for one-way drives. Hertz said $87, and I believe Avis said $94 (Kurt found Avis.). Off we went to stand in the cold and wait for a Hertz bus.

We were the first people off the Hertz bus, so we had our pick of rental agents oozing faux-innocence when we walked into the office. A guy helped us rent a Corolla for $140 or so (nope, not $87 -- but we could have rented one of those new Mustangs for $180, don't ya know), and soon, we were leaving the airport, maps in hand and caution to the wind.

The four-hour drive was reduced to just over three hours, even with a stop at Boston Market somewhere in Maryland, by pushing 80 m.p.h. the entire way. Hell, it's a rental, and it only snowed for most of the drive.

We drove from Dulles International Airport to Pittsburgh International Airport (I don't think driving is how people normally do that.), replenished the half a tank of gas we used, and returned the car, no more than four hours after renting it.

Kurt had parked in extended parking, so we had to take a bus to get out there from the terminal, and on the way to the bus, we passed the baggage claim where the flight on which we were standby passengers had landed only half an hour or so prior. We were amused.

Having scraped the ice and snow off his car, we [put gas in it at the same place and] drove to Shadyside, where Kurt also happens to live.

So, that was last night. Now, I want to get United to answer these questions for me and, after providing me with satisfactory responses, reimburse me for all my costs last night:

  • Planes do not really leave ten minutes before their departure times. Why did your gate agent lie to me?
  • You knew I was in the airport with a boarding pass. Why did you not wait for me?
  • Did you leave me behind because you had already filled my seat as a result of overbooking the flight?
  • Why would any airline ever instate a policy of closing boarding ten minutes before departure? And, when did you start doing this?
  • Does it bother you, given the current climate of airline bankruptcy and low-fare cost cutting, that I'm never going to fly United again and that I'm going to strongly encourage everyone I know to do the same?

As it turns out, Kurt's a really cool guy doing a post-doc at Pitt, and if I ever have free time in Pittsburgh again, we'll probably do drinks or coffee or dinner or something. And, as it turns out, we may have met each other anyway, because our seats for the flight were 4C and 4D.

United Airlines, I hate you, and you'll be hearing from me soon.

December 01, 2005

Washington

I'm in Washington. Dulles is a horrible airport, and the subway was a bit cruddy, but now that I'm downtown, life is good. Except my arm hurts from carrying my bag from the Foggy Bottom Metro station to my hotel. I do, however, have a turkey club sandwich on the way, and that will probably help things.

TTFN.

September 28, 2005

Full Buses

To get home from Carnegie Mellon, I typically take either the 500 bus or the 71D bus, and in the evenings, they're consistently very full. People are crammed into the bus, often standing in front of the yellow line which delineates the parts of the bus in which it is legal or illegal to stand while in motion. The drivers allow this, seemingly because they just want to move as many people as possible at once. Simultaneously, only a couple people are allowed on the bus, while everyone else is left at the bus stop to wait for the next bus.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that buses become progressively later than their schedule dictates, as the evening grows near. And, occasionally, a bus just won't appear for its scheduled run, leaving us, the passengers, to wait another 20, 30, or 45 minutes for the next bus, also off schedule, to turn up. The inbound 71C bus left me standing in the rain for 45 minutes on Monday, for example, despite scheduled stops 20 minutes apart.

I do not pay fares on the buses because my Carnegie Mellon ID card is the physical manifestation of the transit fees included in my tuition, but the fare is $1.75 per ride for everyone who does not have a similar exception. This is a bit above American standards, as far as I can tell, and the service is far below American standards.

If thousands of people per day are paying $1.75 for their bus rides, I'd think the buses could get a bit better -- at least to the point of not being horribly off-schedule sardine tins.

What gives?

August 07, 2005

Bean-town: Revisited

After spending a mere 36-ish hours in Massachusetts, I have returned to the home which will be a home for only eight more days.

There was a little bit of fallout from the fact that I booked my flights so close to the travel dates.

Most importantly, I ended up flying Hoi Polloi Air, also known as ATA and AirTran, because all the seats on the less crappy airlines were taken. ATA stopped at Chicago Midway on the way to Boston, and that airport ranks up near Cincinnati on my list of bad airports simply because it was muggy, hot, and nasty on the inside of the terminal. Mayor Daley (I know his name because it's plastered all over Chicago) should really install an air conditioner or something there. At least a window unit. AirTran was worse in some ways and better in others; the passengers were more grungy, and the staff was far less friendly, but they had a first class cabin with free drinks, of which I took advantage, but the seats there were some funky (like funk funky, not neato! funky) suede stuff. Ah, well. Again, the question arises: when do I get my private jet?

The actual mini-vacation to Massachusetts was worth the difficult travel experience (the paragraph above doesn't really begin to describe the whole thing), though. Taylor's art show was super-cool, and Taylor's art was particularly awesome. Seeing family is always good, especially in small-to-medium doses. And, the Plum Island beach never fails to provide an instant sense of relaxation and calm. Oh, and Boston is just a really cool city by itself.

I registered for CMU classes while I was there, but I can't remember exactly what they are, and the online registration thingy is closed right now, so I can't find out. I know definitely one is a computer security class, but the other two are vague. Perhaps a VLSI CAD class? I wanted to get into an analog IC design class, but I ended up at the top of the waiting list, instead, so I enrolled in something less interesting, for use in the event of a water landing, er, if I don't get a spot in the class.

Eight days until Pittsburgh. Marvelous. I'm excited, and I think Dorian is finally warming up to the idea, too.

"You have heard of the yeti? The ubanamanamanala snowman? That is, of course, not an animal or a prehuman being. That is originally one of the shamans' gods. The real name is Banjhakri; that means shaman of the forest. So, therefore, nobody will ever find the yeti in nature because you have to go in trance, and then you'll find the yeti easily." -- Unknown; sampled in The Herb Garden by Hallucinogen.

August 04, 2005

Bean-town

I'm going to Boston now, so if you can't find me, that's why.

I just checked their forecast, and tomorrow's high is 91. Today's high is in the 80s, and Saturday's high is in the 70s. But, the only full day I'm going to be there... yep, it's in the 90s. Hooray, weather hates me.

I think that's all I have to say right now. It's hot, and my motivation to do anything is waning. Two more weeks to Pittsburgh.

July 03, 2005

Bye, Pittsburgh

This trip to Pittsburgh has nearly come to a close. I need to leave the hotel for the airport in about an hour.

Yesterday, I checked out the Three Rivers Regatta. It wasn't a regatta like the Harvard-Yale Regatta is a regatta, but it turned out to be cool nonetheless. It took place at the "point", on the downtown side of the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela. They did have a few boat races, but they also had a bass fishing competition, kids rides, terrible food, radio stations, a bunch of U.S. Navy propaganda, and some other stuff. At one point, I heard a gentleman singing Music of the Night (Phantom of the Opera) on behalf of an AM radio station, and that segued into a Sinatra song, and then his last number was Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies, which had most of the audience in tears. That was pretty cool. Overall, the "regatta" was worth the $1 admission fee, but I don't think I stayed any longer than an hour. I think I was the only person there wearing long sleeves and shoes any fancier than cross-trainers.

I started reading Friday by Heinlein on the plane Thursday, and I finished it yesterday. It's an excellent read, as most of Heinlein's works tend to be. If you enjoy science fiction, this is for you.

It's good that older science fiction explores things like future culture. All the new stuff is so dry. It's like creativity in science fiction took a huge hit when Asimov came out of his prime.

Oh, by the way, I'm going to rent the apartment I mentioned here a couple days ago. It'll be on a 17-month lease, which is great for me because I can't guarantee I'll be here any longer than is necessary for a masters degree, but it sucks for the landlady because finding a new tenant in a very university-oriented part of town in the winter is difficult. Because of that, I couldn't talk her down on rent, but I'm also not giving her six months in advance. So, that six months payment will just sit around and earn interest in my hands, instead of in hers. She's obviously not a financial advisor. Sucker.

Well, I need to go pack and then find some way to kill half an hour.

It'll be a pity to leave the clime of Pittsburgh (holy hell, I just looked outside at the building across the street, and it almost looked like it was snowing... alas, it is not), but it's a necessary evil. Back to the daily grind. Bah. At least I have a holiday on the Fourth to readjust to 100+-degree weather.

July 02, 2005

Pittsburgh: Reprise

I'm back in Pittsburgh, and I still think it's a really cool city.

My flights yesterday were almost awful. They weren't delayed or anything, but there were definitely certain elements to them that were particularly undesirable. Mini-rant turn on. I flew coach, so I didn't get free alcoholic beverages (or *any* alcoholic beverages, since my first flight took off at freakin' 6:45 AM, and all I *really* wanted was either sleep or ten shots of espresso), I didn't get any leg room, I didn't get anything near decent service, and I was uncomfortably near the person next to me (who may have been flying for his first time and who had a really stupid haircut). I flew Delta, which severely compounds these issues. I flew through Cincinnati, which must have the most boring airport in the civilized (whereas airports in Irkutsk are managed by Russian prize-fighters, er, I mean military, and thus are not civilized) world. And, I had only slept three hours in as many days, so that again compounded the issues. Mini-rant turn off.

Once I got to Pittsburgh, everything was all good. I rented my car, which for an American car (Chevy Malibu) is pretty decent, but woe be to the person who eventually purchases it. I drove to the Omni downtown, which turned out to be a much nicer hotel than I had expected. The accomodations are nearly like those of the Warwick in New York City, but the elevators actually work! And, there are 12 of them! In fact, I think this hotel in general outdoes the Warwick, but then again, I'm not in New York City, am I?

I ate, I called tons of people about apartments and townhouses, I had a beer, I ate again, I had another beer, I took a long shower, and I crashed. I passed out for something like 14 hours. I woke up sore and ecstatic. I haven't slept that long in at least one age (as in: your dragon is one age old).

I woke up almost late, and I rushed to get ready, get dressed, get coffee at the Starbucks in the lobby (!), and get over to Shadyside to look at an apartment. This is the apartment I want, and from what I can tell, it's a steal for its price (to give you an idea, it's well over $1000/month), but I'm going to try to talk the landlady down from that, given that We (the concerned parties, naturally) are willing to pay six months in advance.

The two-bedroom apartment is on the top floor (plus loft!) of a completely renovated (like, it was stripped down to its frame and then rebuilt) house. It has a private staircase, a landing at the top that serves as a balcony, a sweet view of the surrounding area, soundproofing material between all the units (landlady == architect), hardwood floors, central air and heat, washer and dryer in the unit, etc., etc., and a Whole Foods Market just down the road! Hoooooooray! Plus, the landlady lives in Baltimore, which is far enough away for comfort but not too far away for her to get things done when things need to be done. Oh yeah, and she hires someone to shovel the snow from my staircase and from my parking spot during the winter.

I also saw another apartment today, which was $1200/month and had a landlady who barged right in without prior notice, a stupid coin-op washer and dryer in the basement, and window A/C units that barely worked. No way.

I called the lady in Baltimore and told her I'd like to rent her apartment.

Then, I stopped being productive.

I got a haircut at Salon Nuvo downtown, bought some clothing at Jos. A. Bank across Mellon Park from my hotel, and went to the south side for the evening. There, I visited the Z Lounge, which has tight grooves (DJ something-or-other started spinning around 10:30), a relaxed atmosphere, and, as I hear, the best drinks in Pittsburgh. I had a number of drinks there, and they're certainly excellent, so maybe the reviews are correct. You can't beat $28 for a night of awesome drinks at a trendy martini bar, either.

Hey, Mom, I made it back to the hotel without dying. There was, of course, that unfortunate casualty on the 10th Street Bridge, though...

Or maybe it was a causality. Heh.

That's very roughly how the past two days of my life have gone. So, how are you?

June 22, 2005

Travels

I love to travel, and so does my friend Aidan. He's been romping around southeast Asia this summer and has some photos to share. Find them here.

He sent me an email from Dubai this morning with the Arabic Starbucks menu picture attached. He was only passing through the airport there, but that's pretty cool, nonetheless.

Oh, to be sitting on a beach in Indonesia with nothing to do but drink mai tais and listen to the surf.