Iceland

Two months ago, I went on holidays to Iceland. I spent two weeks there, driving around the country, and I had a plan of writing sort of a “travel diary”, describing what I did day by day, with photos, maps etc. I would publish that, but it would also work as a “memory enhancement” (helping me remember the trip).

I think by now I should resign myself to the fact that this is not going to happen, but I still feel like I should write something about the trip. So, here goes.

Getting there

From Sydney, you can either go west and fly through southern Asia and Europe, or go east and fly through the USA. The distance is essentially the same in either direction. I went east mostly because it was less expensive; I flew with Virgin Australia to Los Angeles, then with a small airline (Frontier Airlines) from there to Denver, and then with Icelandair to Reykjavík. It was a long trip, but really not that bad. The flight back was the same thing, reversed.

Being there

As I mentioned, I spent most of the time there driving around the country. I booked a “self-drive tour” with a company called Touris – you choose from a set of itineraries, they book the car and all accommodation for you; your job is to fly there and to drive yourself from one hotel to the next. They even picked me up at the airport, which is when they gave me ridiculous amounts of material for the trip: a 400-page road guide, several maps – personalised maps, with the itinerary and all hotels marked very clearly – plus all vouchers for all hotels. They were very helpful, starting way before the trip, while I was still deciding what to do – they would respond to e-mails with questions very quickly and helpfully. The whole experience went as well as it possibly could.

I should probably mention that, in preparing for the trip, one of the most useful sources of information was a blog called I heart Reykjavík, which has information not only about Reykjavík but the whole country; particularly, the girl who writes the blog did an “around the country” trip just like mine earlier this year, and her descriptions were very useful. That blog is the only reason why I visited Seljavallalaug, and it was a side road worth taking.

Iceland is a very small country, with a very small population – and, just like Australia, most of the population lives near the coast, because the interior of the country is not very hospitable. There is one main road – aptly named Ring Road, Hringvegur (sometimes also Þjóðvegur 1, National Road 1) – that encircles the country, and that’s where I spent most of my time. Reykjavík is on the west side of the country, and I drove from there in the counter-clockwise direction (starting towards the south and east).

Observant souls will have noticed that I went there in the middle of autumn (mid to late October). My intention was to “avoid the crowds”, as most people (understandably) visit Iceland in the summer; it meant fewer people around and cheaper flights and hotels, but it also meant that there was a good chance the weather would not be as good as I’d like. In the end, I was very lucky; other than some rain in the first few days (while I was driving on the south coast) and occasional snow and ice on the ground, most of the time the weather was just great. It was cold, of course, and a heavy jacket and gloves helped a lot in some areas, but at times it was nice enough that a sweatshirt was all you needed. And the days were not as short as you might expect: when I arrived, sunrise was around 8.15am and sunset was at 6.10pm (almost ten hours of daylight); on the day I left, sunrise was at 8.52am and sunset at 5.30pm (a bit over eight and a half hours of daylight). By the way, it feels like sunset and sunrise last forever; the sun never rises too far above the horizon, so the light is always very slanted and it feels like it’s always late in the afternoon. The “golden hour” loved by photographers lasts for most of the day.

“Fewer people around”, however, also meant that lots of places (and even roads) were already closed for the winter. On three stops I was the only guest at the hotel I was staying in (two of them were reasonably large hotels, the other one was a large guesthouse), and in smaller towns the choices of places to eat were quite limited. Visitor centres at some attractions were closed, and even some of the possible itineraries for the tour were not available. Also, many sea birds had already flown away – so, no puffins around. I still think I made the right choice, though; I got to have some taste of the icy side of Iceland (driving through the mountains in the north) and even the major tourist attractions were not full of people at any time. Even Reykjavík seemed like a very quiet country town. I would seriously recommend going either very early (March, April) or very late (September, October) in the season.

Speaking

Icelandic is a Germanic language, so there’s some similarity with English, but you’d only notice that in writing, if at all; it sounds nothing like English (or even German). Thankfully, most people there do speak English very well (and some like to show it; a school-age girl – maybe seven or eight years old – approached me while I was trying to read a poster at a historical site and started explaining to me what the poster said), and even street and road signs are often in English. But not always, and the farther you get from Reykjavík the less English you’ll see (and the better the chance of running into someone who doesn’t speak English).

A few months before the trip I bought a book, “Beginner’s Icelandic”, that came with CDs with dialogue and pronunciation guides. I spent several hours studying that and, while I absolutely can’t speak Icelandic and I could not understand a word of what I heard on the radio or TV there, what little I learnt was very useful for understanding road signs, restaurant menus and similarly small bits of text here and there. And Google Translate helped me understand the manual that came with the SIM card I bought.

Eating

I did not try any of the most unusual Icelandic dishes (seriously, fermented shark meat is not something that attracts me). I did have skyr, their yoghurt-like cheese that is sold everywhere in much the same way yoghurt is sold here, and it is pretty good. I also had lamb, of which they eat a lot, and some types of rye bread that tasted amazing. Other than that, I can say that the burgers from the Hamburger Factory in Reykjavík are really, really good.

Driving

Roads are pretty good most of the time, but a small section of the Ring Road on the east coast is not paved; still reasonably good. I had to drive on gravel roads a few other times as well, and they’re usually ok (if a bit scary when icy). Pretty much all bridges have a single lane, so you have to give way if someone else is already on the bridge (another benefit of going late in the season: only once in the whole trip I had to wait to use a bridge). My car was a 4-wheel drive fitted with snow tyres; because it was late in the season, the tour company strongly recommended getting this kind of car, and I think it was a good idea. Fuel is kind of expensive, around A$2.30 a litre, but at least the price didn’t change all that much even in the more remote areas, and finding places to refuel was never a problem.

Looking

You can see every possible type of landscape there, from glacier-covered mountains to geologically-active mud flats (and many, many, many waterfalls). Which reminds me: that is a very geologically-active country, and the whole country smells vaguely of sulphur (I’m not exaggerating; I wish I were). Particularly, hot water is always from geothermal springs, and it definitely smells when it comes out of the shower.

But, back to the landscape, it is a very beautiful country. I stopped very often by the side of the road to take photos or just to look at the sights, and in many places I wish I could have stopped but there was nowhere to. Although, to be fair, in most places I could probably have stopped the car in the middle of the road and walked out to take photos with no problem at all (as I said before, there were not many people around).

Speaking of photos, I came home with nearly 1,400 photos and a few videos. A small selection of photos (130 or so) are in my Google+ page: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4. Many of the photos are geo-tagged, so if you click on “photo details” on the right you’ll see where they were taken. And, if anyone wants to see the other 1,300 or so photos, let me know.

And that’s it. I really, really enjoyed the trip, and I would very much like to go back again (although that probably won’t happen for a while, Iceland is a bit far from Australia). Next time I wish I can do it in a different season; I’d love to see what the country looks like in spring, when it’s waking up after winter. And, to be honest, even winter sounds like an interesting time to visit.

Well, next time.

Time keeps on slipping…

So, what’s the statute of limitations on being able to say “I have a blog”? Can I still do it after 13 months without a single post?

Dates

On the 12th of April, 1981, I was exactly nine and a half years old (half years are important when you’re that young). That was the date of the launch of the first Space Shuttle mission, STS-1, with the Shuttle Columbia spending the next two days in orbit with a small crew of only two astronauts (it was effectively a test flight). I was fairly young, but I do remember watching the news about the launch — it was a big deal at the time. I particularly remember that, differently from later flights, the external fuel tank was white, and not orange — orange is the “natural” colour of the protective foam around the tank, and painting it white added a significant amount of weight to the tank, so they stopped doing it at some point.

On the 28th of January, 1986, I was a bit over 14 years old. That afternoon I was at a friend’s place, his mother had the radio on and I heard something about a rocket exploding after launch in the US, but didn’t pay much attention to it; I didn’t know there was a Shuttle launch on that day, and assumed it had been an unmanned rocket carrying a satellite, or something similar. It wasn’t until I watched the news on TV at night that I knew what had happened to Space Shuttle Challenger, taking off for what was supposed to be mission STS-51-L. I remember being sad on that day and obsessively following the news for weeks after, and I was very happy when Discovery flew the first mission after the accident, in September 1988.

On the 1st of February, 2003, I was already an adult, and I was spending a quiet Saturday at home until I happened to look at the news online (I think it was on cnn.com) and read about what had happened to Space Shuttle Columbia, returning to Earth after mission STS-107. I very distinctly remember that my first thought was “not again!” — despite the 17 years that had passed since the previous accident. After that, I turned the TV on and just kept watching for however long they were talking about it. It was another sad day.

On the 21st of July, 2011, I will be nearly 40 years old. It will be 42 years and one day since the first Moon landing, and more than 30 years since that first Columbia flight. That is the scheduled date for the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis, completing mission STS-135 — the final Space Shuttle mission, ever. It’s going to be, again, a sad day. I planned on writing more about it, but I don’t think I can do better than what astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom I had the opportunity to meet twice, and who is a great person to talk to) said on Twitter: “Many lament the shuttle era’s end. But that’s misplaced sentiment. Lament instead the absence of an era to replace it.”

He’s talking, of course, about the lack of a manned space program on the part of NASA for the immediate future (and, with the difficulties it’s been having to get its budget approved, perhaps the not-so-immediate future as well).

Still, NASA goes on, as does space exploration. Just this week, on July 16th, the spacecraft Dawn will go on orbit around asteroid Vesta — it’s the first probe ever to orbit an asteroid, and in the next few years it will become the first probe ever to orbit two different bodies, when it leaves Vesta to go after dwarf planet Ceres. New Horizons is still on the way to Pluto, which it will reach in July 2015. And many other missions are still flying around the solar system – and, with the two Voyagers, even outside it.

Here’s hoping for continued progress, and hoping that in the future we’ll be able to celebrate the Shuttles as a stepping stone, and not as the end of the road.

Random airport notes #2

I was interrupted by the boarding call while writing the last post, and ended up never coming back to it… but there was more I wanted to add:

- still on Virgin America: after we’d been stuck on the tarmac for over an hour (bad weather around JFK, lots of delays) waiting for permission to taxi away from the gate, the captain started an announcement with “good news, everyone” — but it was actually good news

- in the last month, I went through security in large US airports four times; in none of these I was required to go through one of the “nude scanners”, nor was I touched by anyone at any time (but I don’t get why is it that I’m not allowed to go through the metal detector wearing a jacket — jackets, like shoes, need to go through the x-ray)

- Qantas premium economy in their 747s is… good, but not brilliant; however, if you manage to get an exit row seat, you’ll have an amazing amount of leg room (seriously; I’m tall, and I couldn’t touch the seat in front even if I wanted to)

Anyway, I’ll be glad not to see the inside of an airplane again for a while…

Random airport notes

Waiting to board to Sydney in Los Angeles…

- for security screening purposes, an iPad is a laptop at JFK, SFO, LAX domestic, SYD; not a laptop at LAX international, MEL

- Virgin America is probably the only airline where the pre-flight video ask passengers not to have sex in the restrooms (this is in their “we’re all in this together” video, which they don’t seem to show in all flights)

E-readers

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about reading ebooks on my iPod Touch. At the time, the only two practical apps for this were Stanza and eReader Pro, with the latter being my preferred reader then. Interestingly, just a few weeks after that post there was a software update that rendered eReader useless on the iPod (it would crash on startup), and it took a few weeks for a fix to show up – I used this period to switch to Stanza, and I haven’t looked back (but it was only a few weeks ago that I finally uninstalled eReader).

In any case, there are a few more options nowadays, both for apps and for devices, and I thought I would write a bit about what I’ve been doing.

I have three devices I’ve been regularly using as ebook readers, none of which is a dedicated reader: my old iPod Touch (1st gen), an iPad (also 1st gen) and an Android phone (a Nexus S, which has recently replaced a Nexus One). I have (unfortunately) different readers in all three, and more than one on each, for the simple reason that not all readers will let me read all books, not all are available on all devices and, even when they are, not all features are on all devices. Also, the fact that my iPod is too old to run iOS 4 doesn’t help (fragmentation? what fragmentation?). Let’s look at them…

Kindle: the Amazon Kindle app is one of only two I have on all three devices (plus my desktop computer, in fact), and it is by far my preferred reader: the reading experience is great, the integration with a dictionary works flawlessly, annotations are very useful and the synchronisation between devices is very, very nice. But it could be better. Part of the problem is that it does not offer the same features on all devices: for example, you can use it to read books not bought from Amazon as long as they are in the MOBI format — but only on the iPad (and it won’t sync your reading position on those across devices); the integrated dictionary is only in the iOS devices; and, curiously, only the Android version supports reading periodicals (newspapers and magazines). I’m not a great fan of the DRM in the ebooks brought from Amazon, either, but that is more of a philosophical position than a practical consideration right now.

Stanza: this app now also belongs to Amazon, and I wonder whether it will ever merge with the Kindle app. It allows reading ePub books (and a few other formats, I believe) and it has some integration with a few books stores (including O’Reilly and Fictionwise, but this last one has been broken for several months now). This app is iOS only, but it works quite well on both the iPad and the iPod; loading external books is easier on the iPad, but that’s because of iOS 4 features (it would work equally well on a more recent iPod or iPhone). A big problem is the lack of synchronisation between devices, and (despite users asking repeatedly for it) I don’t think it’s coming any time soon. The reading experience itself is very nice, and the appearance is very configurable, so it is a very good app, and I use it for almost anything not in MOBI format.

iBooks: this is iOS 4 only, so I only have it in my iPad; I have never used the iBooks store, but this app doubles as a very good PDF reader, and that’s how I’ve been using it. Loading books is very easy (if you don’t mind iTunes) and the reading experience is reasonably good, but the app seems quite simple – there’s no progress indicator, for example, and I have no idea whether it syncs your position if you use it in multiple devices (I would be honestly surprised if it does so for non-Apple books).

Google Books: this is the other app I have on all devices (and the desktop computer, as a Chrome web app); one of the biggest advantages of this app is that allows one to see both the text of the books and the original scanned pages (where available), which then include all the original illustrations (but may be less readable for some older books). The biggest problem, though, is that for anyone outside the US this app can only be used to read public domain books. I haven’t used it long enough to form an opinion about it, but it seems aesthetically very nice. Another drawback: no way to load books other than from Google.

Kobo: I originally installed this app as a possible replacement for Stanza, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations — at least not enough to make me ditch Stanza on the iOS devices. The iPad app is very flashy, with social network integration, reading statistics, “badges” etc. However, just as with the Kindle app, on my iPod there’s no way to load books I already have other than buying them again (so I don’t bother running the app there); the non-tablet versions are also much less on the flashy side, but that’s not really a bad thing. No cross-device syncing of books not bought with the app, either. Still, it’s my app of choice for non-Kindle books on my Android phone.

And that’s it. I have to say that using the iPad to read has “spoiled” me and I don’t use the the iPod that much anymore (or the phone, but that one ends up getting more use simply because it’s always with me…). In any case, if I could have one wish it would be to be able to use a single app on all devices, with a reasonably similar experience on all of them (and syncing everything across them would be a bonus).

IPv6 ready

$ host -t AAAA www.netwhatever.com
www.netwhatever.com has IPv6 address 2607:f298:1:130::29f:98ed

That’s all for now.

Music and media

I was looking at my iTunes playlist with the 25 most played songs in my collection, and I was a bit surprised at how many of them only are in my playlist at all because of other media (TV, radio, movies); a random sampling:

Either I watch too much TV or I don’t really listen to much music. Or both.

The last few months

Wow. It’s been almost six months. This is what happened to our hero since last time:

Changes: I changed jobs and moved house; I’ve been living in Sydney since early June. I haven’t actually seen much of the city yet, other than the “standard” tourist attractions because…

Travel: …I’ve been travelling. I spent seven weeks in California, from early July to late August. It was summer there, but it was the coldest Californian summer in the last several decades (I understand September was a bit different). I was there for work, but I did take the time to revisit many places in the Bay Area (I lived the in the mid 90s) and to visit a few new ones. There are many pictures in my Picasa albums, and I don’t really expect anyone to have the patience to look at them all (also, the descriptions are in Portuguese); some of the ones I think are the best are on Flickr:

Others will show up there as I get time. Also, while in California…

Election: …I voted, at the Australian Consulate in San Francisco. It was incredibly easy: no queue, no one handing out flyers, all very civilised. And I got to do it two days early because the consulate wouldn’t open on the day of the elections (good thing I called them in advance to make sure).

And that’s pretty much it. Stay tuned!

The last month

So, a list it will be. But it was an interesting month.

Astronomy: late in March I took leave from my job to work for three months on a research project with the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University. The project involves using data mining techniques to search for pulsars in radio data — the idea is to increase the level of automation and to look at large amounts of data to identify good (interesting) candidates more quickly than a person would be able to.

I will write more about this in the future.

Parkes: earlier this month, I had the chance to spend a few days at the Parkes Observatory with astronomers from Swinburne who were there to conduct observations. This was not directly related to the project I described above — I was there to help with the installation and configuration of a new set of servers that will be used to capture and process data coming from the telescope for pulsar studies.

I will write a longer article about that visit; for now, here are some of the pictures I took while there:

Jury service: a while back I received a letter saying I had been selected for jury service. It contained a questionnaire to determine whether I was excused from serving (I wasn’t) and instructions to wait for further instructions. These came early in April, telling me where to go and when. So, on Tuesday last week I went to the Melbourne County Court, together with about a hundred other people, and waited to be selected for a trial (or not – chances are heavily in favour of not being selected, apparently). On arrival you are sent straight to the pool room (and if that’s not funny to you, go watch The Castle) where you sit and wait after watching a short video.

It turns out that, after a 3-hour wait, I was indeed selected for a trial (one of the two starting on that day). A jury consists of 12 people picked a random from the pool, but the number of people selected for a trial is actually larger; some 25 of us were sent into the court room, where’s there’s another ballot to pick the final 12. During this process the lawyers for both sides can reject any juror they don’t like (bearing in mind that the only thing they know about them is their name, occupation and what they look like), and potential jurors can also ask to be excused (in case of a conflict of interest, for example, or if they know any of the parties). And, once again, I was one of the selected (and I wasn’t rejected).

I won’t talk about details of the case other than to mention that it was a criminal case (you can be selected for both criminal and civil trials) and it was very short — shorter than average, we were told. It started after lunch on that day, we were done with the witnesses by the end of the next day and the jury retired to deliberate before lunch on the third day; by the end of the third day we were done. It was an interesting experience, and I actually enjoyed the process. I don’t think I would be saying this if it had lasted for a significantly longer period, though, as it does disrupt your life and is a very intense experience. The deliberations, in particular, were stressful and discussion was heated at times. I think it’s a good experience to go through — once.

Updating…

So it looks like I only manage to write something on my blog when it’s in the form of a list of disjointed items… Rather than doing that, however, I think this time I’ll write a series of shorter, separate items instead.

Gresswell Forest: early in February I participated in a guided tour of the Gresswell Forest Nature Conservation Reserve, in Watsonia; this was part of the Sustainability Festival that happened in and around Melbourne during that month; the guided tour was very interesting, and the guide made a point of stressing how much work they need to do to try to prevent invasive species (of animals and plants) from taking over; they have lots of problems with regular garden herbs (mint, oregano, rosemary etc.) coming into the reserve with the rain water, and while the fences manage to keep most dogs out, cats are much harder to control.

We also had some close encounters with the local population of kangaroos, including a mommy-kangaroo with the joey in the bag. See photos below (click for larger versions):

On double standards

I have just finished watching the first season of Buffy (yes, I am a few years late), and I couldn’t stop myself from comparing Sunnydale High to Hogwarts. (mild spoilers for both series follow)

You see, Hogwarts seemed to be under the constant threat of being closed due to risks to the students. For example, in Chamber of Secrets, after a student is attacked by the basilisk the headmaster is suspended and the school comes very close to being shut down. Similar situations occur later in the series — and this is among people (wizards and witches) who are (or should be) used to magical monsters and risky situations. I mean, Hogwarts is not the safest of places in the best of days; the whomping willow alone is an OHS nightmare, and don’t get me started on the moving stairways. It’s a wonder that they don’t lose several first-year students every year.

In contrast, Sunnydale High is supposed to be a regular school somewhere in California; except for the fact that Sunnydale lies on top of the “hellmouth”, it should be pretty much your ordinary small-town school. However, in the first season of Buffy, at least 10 students are killed on school grounds; one principal and one teacher also die (two teachers, if you count the replacement science teacher), not to mention the school mascot and the students who are killed at the dance place — oh, and there’s also the girl who catches on fire, plus several assorted injuries all around. Still, no one seems to care that much. You barely see the police showing up at the school (except for the men in black who take the invisible girl away). At no point there is any threat of closing the school, or even of parents taking their kids out of such a clearly dangerous place.

So, I am not quite sure what to make of this. There seems to be a clear case of double standards at work; either that, or British wizards are much more paranoid that Californian muggles, even where supernatural events and creatures are involved (by the way, wouldn’t Giles know about Hogwarts? Angel should, too). That might make some sense, as the wizards would know how dangerous the supernatural creatures are, while the muggles wouldn’t — but you don’t need to know that to realise that a school where over a dozen people are killed in one year is not a good place to send your kid to.

I guess I will just write that off as the effect of the hellmouth on the Sunnydale residents…

Random notes on a rainy Tuesday

Considering that a book that costs $36 from Borders can be had by just over $14 from the UK, including shipping, I can’t really see what’s the big deal with Amazon charging more for e-books from Australians than from Americans. In fact, a 40% surcharge sounds like a great deal.

The lack of available books, now, that’s a big problem. Not Amazon’s fault, though.


Just over a week ago, I visited the Tesselaar Tulip Festival, up in Silvan. Beautiful flowers, not so beautiful weather… The best pictures are here. (also in the album below, if you have Flash enabled)


I have wondered about this more than once… Why are there no calorie counts on pet food labels? (for reference: dry food is much more caloric than wet food)

Correlation

Apparently, having a Mac causes you to stop writing in your blog. Or not.

Switching

As most of Australia celebrates the WWDC-eve holiday, now in its final hours, I thought it would be interesting to mention that, over the last few days, my primary computer at home has been — for the first time ever — a Mac.

And, you know what? I’m very happy with it. It’s not a very powerful machine, just a lowly Mac Mini, and I don’t have one of those fancy Apple displays, but it simply works.

Granted, there are some teething pains (or “gotchas”), especially for someone who comes from the Windows world:

  • why, why, why can’t the Home and End keys move the cursor to the beginning or the end of the line? and, on a related note, why don’t Page Up and Page Down move the cursor at all? this is very annoying when editing text (yes, I know what key combinations to use to go to the ends of the line; my fingers still go to the “obvious” place, though)
  • command-tab switches between applications, but not between different windows of the same application; confusing at times, ultimately understandable
  • but the key combination to switch between windows of the same application is usually command-` — this is convenient because ` is just above tab on the keyboard… but it doesn’t work at all if you are using an international keyboard configuration similar to Windows’ US-International, with “mute” accent keys

But enough gripes for now. What I like:

  • it is so incredibly silent! not only the computer itself, but the keyboard as well (the DVD drive, though, it’s one the noisiest I know)
  • installing and uninstalling applications is a breeze
  • boots in less than 30 seconds, shuts down even faster
  • I haven’t seen it crash yet (but neither have I seen Windows crash in a long time)
  • I can’t say enough good things about Time Machine; I wish there was something similar for Windows (and Ubuntu)
  • iPhoto — lovely
  • Spaces — I can’t believe Windows still does not ship with something like this out of the box

That’s it for now. I am sure I will have many more things to comment on in the future… maybe even about Snow Leopard, hopefully coming out tomorrow (the WWDC keynote is at 3am on Tuesday, Melbourne time).