Saturday, September 26, 2009

By bicycle through the wineries of Mendoza, Argentina


The province of Mendoza in Argentina is famous for the wine. Mendoza wine can compete with the well known wineries of Napa and Sonoma in California or Bordeaux in France. The main varietal is malbec. In the shade of the Aconcagua, South America's highest mountain, Mendoza offers some dramatic views, pictures and tastes. Mendocinos are also a little different in attitude from the rest of the country. In a pleasant way.

On our recent visit, we stopped by the winery of Di Tommaso. It is the oldest winery open to tourists. It is also where I learned about the wine bicycle tours. Google a bit and you'll find various companies offering a bicycle tour.

Asado Argentino

My friends hear me often explain how they make a barbecue in Argentina. I've posted some pictures before: asado en el campo, asado en Buenos Aries.

Rather then explain it in words, here are the various stages of an Argentinean Asado:

Senatorial Failure

(This blog entry is part of the This American Life* series)


When Justices Roberts and Alito were being questioned by the senate judiciary committee, I followed the proceedings carefully on the radio. I’ve become a constitution-geek. I found the answers by John Roberts interesting, clear and straight-forward.

When many weeks ago Sonia Sotomayor was being questioned, I found it a total waster of time. I wrote this down in the beginning of August, but it got stuck in the draft section of my blog. Jeffrey Toobin in the July 27 New Yorker magazine had a nice write up on the subject.

Answers such as “my judicial philosophy – simple: fidelity to the law” are a dog and pony show. For many cases brought to the Supreme Court, no clear law exists. Justices have to make choices and cast it in the light of their interpretation of the majestic vagueness of the Constitution.

As Jeffrey Toobin put it “The issues are difficult and profound and require a lifetime of study to master, and one would hope that justices arrive with heads full of firm ideas abou the document they are charged with understanding.”

Any observer could have drafted the answers Sotomayor would provide: “follow the law”, “interpret the law”, “don’t legislate from the bench”, “can’t state opinion on hypothetical cases” etc.

So unless the senators start asking real questions probing beyond vague answers, these hearings are a #failure.

When #fail no longer matters

(This blog entry is part of the This American Life* series)

You can not fault her for not trying. On the flight from Washington to Buenos Aires, the person next to me was part of a bigger group, all Korean. I was curious whether they were visiting Argentina as tourist, or visiting family. There is a large Korean population in Argentina. It was neither. They were on all missionaries for a Korean Christian Church.

Thinking back at my visit to Provo, Utah several years ago, I imagined that, like the missionaries of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, they must have prepared well and must be fluent in Spanish. Were they mormons, they might even have specialized in the typical Argentinean pronunciation and studied their culture.

She was no mormon. She did not speak a single word of Spanish and knew almost nothing about the people and the county. On a scale of 1-10, the preparation for their ‘sales’ call, was a lousy 1.

She did have a small booklet, called Amor y Esperanza, containing phrases she was able to pronounce. The plan was to approach people in the street, belch out some phrases and convert the people in this Catholic country to a Korean Christian Church. Knowing the portenos, good luck with that.

The first commandment in their booklet had to be “failure makes you stronger” I admire the effort.

United Check-in Fail

(This blog entry is part of the This American Life* series)

The blue shared shuttle van dropped me of at the United Airlines domestic terminal at San Francisco international terminal two and half hours in advance of my flight to Buenos Aires. The next 30 minutes were a disaster. And I truly hope my fellow passengers will decide with their feet and not their carefully saved up airline miles, when they plan their next trip.

Sure it was a clever automation idea to streamline the check-in procedure. Let’s write some software and allow people to self check-in at touch-screen kiosk. We’ll save the wages of the people normally assisting with the check-in (and perhaps even stick it to the unions).

Step one: let’s get rid of the lovely check-in ladies and men. Keep a couple of baggage handlers to move the luggage onto the conveyer belt. But don’t let the handlers touch the kiosk. Faulty Towers’s Manuel had already provided the script: “Kiosk? I know nothing! I am from Barcelona.”. We might need a few people to assist, but you’ll to go via a special line or you have to show up with your long board or Fluffy in a cage.

The self check-in system doesn’t work. I was at the check-in twice within a week and noticed the same universal frustrations.

  1. Human help - The line greeter (who kept his/her job) doesn’t disqualify people. You’ll get into a long line and only figure out at the end that you have a passport which is not machine readable.
  2. Easy-flow - The kiosk software lacks a simple flow “what to expect” flow chart. You get peppered with non-essential up-sell questions about legroom or baggage home delivery. The result is that an easy flow to get your boarding pass and dispatch your luggage is lost. (And more thing, how is it that airlines are allowed to monetize on shorter lines to my tax dollars at work: the TSA.)
    The software forgot to let me know what would happen with my luggage before it got back to the first screen. A simple message “Thank you for checking in. Please wait for a friendly baggage handler to pick up your luggage and give you your baggage stub” would avoid many standing there confused and frustrated about what next.
  3. The system might be great for frequent travelers. But the computer illiterate, or many senior citizens can use a little help. There was one representatives for 30 kiosks. It lacks sufficient personnel to get you going. “Welcome, let me help get you started. Call me if you have a question.” The automated checkout machines at Home Deport or Lowe’s have one person for four machines. The difference here is that United already has your money.

It’s time for me to consider a different credit card and not lock in my miles with a single airline. That’s the only way to avoid United Airlines check-in #fail.

Image: courtesy of Chicago Breaking News center in an article about similar United check-in #fail.

This American Life*

For my recent internal trip, I was prepared to travel alone. I was meeting up with my wife and kids, already visiting family in Argentina. I had stocked my iPod with my favorite NPR shows: Wait wait don’t tell me, Fresh air with Terry Gross, All songs considered and This American Life.

This American Life is my favorite radio show. I can honestly state I have donated to keep the podcast going. I could listen to the podcast for free. But why not keep a good thing going. How often can you pay for something you really like. Think about it.

If you are not familiar with the show, it is about an hour long and produced by WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. It is hosted by Ira Glass. His nasal and liveless voice, and his method of story telling is what makes the show fantastic.

The format is simple: every week there are three or more stories of live in America, around a common theme. The stories include interviews and are narrated by various contributors to the show, including David Sedaris, Sara Vowell, Nancy Updike and broken up by music sounding like wallpaper.

On my trip to Buenos Aires, I listed to various saved up podcasts and got inspired to write my own. This American Life*

[Ira reads] Welcome to This American Life, brought to you by WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. Each week we bring you three stories around a common theme. Today: #failure.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Phoning home while on travel through Argentina

1. A simple and cost effective way to phone home in Argentina is from a ‘locutorio’. They often have a big sign of one of the two big phone companies in the Argentina: Telefonica or Telecom. A locutorio offers various booths from where you can call. A meter indicates how much you are spending. Calling to the US costs a little less than 1 peso per minute.

2. Another method to phone home is via skype in one of the many internet cafes. I am hghly virus skeptical about internet cafes aka 'cyber'. Bring a live CD like SLAX to get around that. Many computers are equipped with webcam and microphone.

3. Some cities, like San Luis, offer city wide free WIFI (article). Were you to bring a netbook, you would be set.

4. Many people do not use a long distance plan with their home phone. Instead they purchase a LD phone card at any corner kiosk.

5. The GSM network is well established. Although I have not tried it, you could also purchase a local SIM. (note: oddly you are required to declare/register your cellphone when you enter Argentina).

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Getting around Buenos Aires and beyond

So you’ve decided to marry a girl from Argentina, or just want to visit Buenos Aires and the rest of the country. How do you get around town? I thought I write down some of my experiences.

  1. To/From the international airport of Ezeiza. The internal airport of Buenos Aires is about an hour from the center of town. (Jorge Newbery airport near the center is for domestic flights only.) I recommend to pay extra and use a car from Manuel Tienda Leon to get to your hotel. It is safe and direct. No need to hop onto a shared shuttle. If you have a lot of luggage, ask for a “Peugeot Partner” small van. Or at a minimum ask for a car without natural gas (un auto sin gas). The gas container in the trunk takes away of lot of space. You don’t want to be split up in different cars.
  2. Taxi – There is a golden rule in Buenos Aires: you pick the taxi. Don’t let the taxi pick you. Often taxis will be driving slowly by the curb. Let them pass. If you found a good taxi or taxi company, ask for a card and call them from your hotel room. The front desk might have some recommended companies as well. It will not be the first time you get robbed within the taxi or you have to surrender your shopping bags or suitcases. It happens even to portenos, the people from Buenos Aires. Overall taxi drivers are courteous and friendly.
  3. Colectivo en Buenos Aires, citybus: bus drivers are notorious assholes. They’ll take of when you’re boarding, or cut of pedestrians. Be ready for a rough and tumble ride. And watch for pick-pockets. And one trick: if you have to take bus #59, note that there are several #59 with different stops and even end destinations. You would think they would label them #59, #60 and #61, but no, that would be too easy. I am sure there must be a reasonable explanation, but it’s definitely not obvious.
  4. Subte, the subway : is an easy to bypass the traffic of the city streets. $1.10
  5. Caminando, walking is my favorite way around town. Just learn a couple of big streets: Cordoba, Belgrano, Callao, Santa Fe, Corrientes, 9de Julio, Pueyrredon for easy orientation.
  6. Tren, the train is not something I recommend. Argentina stopped investing in trains many years ago. The infrastructure reflects this. Tren de la costa is a special train which will take you along the river to areas such as San Isidro, an upscale outskirt of Buenos Aires.
  7. Avion, by plane across the country is fast but can be expensive. They often have different rates for citizens than for tourists. An alternative, yet slower, are the long distance busses.
  8. Omnibus, Long distance busses from Retiro bus station. The bus and train station in Retiro can be a dangerous area: watch out not to be taken for a fool. Retiro is where the trains arrive but also where you find the bus station for the long distance busses. The busses are great. You get a big comfortable seat which recline 45 degrees (ejecutivo) or get one which converts into a bed (con cama entero). Sometimes cama entero means a different bus and a different departure time. So check the different options. Also check various companies. For any given destination there are several companies: Chevalier, Mar Del Plata, Andesmar, Autotransporte San Juan, etc. I do recommend to eat before getting on the bus, as your mileage may vary from bus to bus. I often take the Buenos Aires – San Luis bus: 11 hours drive at night. This is cheaper alternative to a plane ride (1hr + 1-2hr waiting) mid day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Types of cars in Argentina

After having battled and so far survived traffic in Argentina, time for a smuck blog post. I’ve come to conclude there are three types of cars:

[begin smuck comment]

  1. Larga distancia – new cars. Common brands are Renault, Peugeot, Fiat. Recently also VolksWagen and Toyota are popular.
  2. Corta distancia – many old clunkers are clearly for only local drives to the supermarket, or the river. The old Ford falcons are good candidates.
  3. Distancia questionable – there is an entire category of cars from which you don’t know if they will make it to the corner. And yet many make it across the country or even the Andes. But you’re really gambling and should be prepared for anything: doors falling off, no lights, engine overheating, etc.

[end smuck comment]

There is also the fantastic story of Herman and Cande Zapp who took their 75 year old 1928 Graham-Paige from Argentina to Alaska.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Casa de Cambio – bring your Albanian gorilla

In recent years, using traveler checks in Argentina wasn’t a good idea. First, it was expensive to exchange them. Secondly, they were impractical as banks close at 3:30pm.

For the first time, bringing dollars wasn’t a good idea either. On my recent trip, I visited several big banks and non let me exchange them for pesos. “Solamente si sos cliente” – only for clients of the bank.

On Santa Fe, a major shopping street in Buenos Aires, I only found a single ‘casa de cambio’. It was in the back of a small and dim-lit shopping mall. I would attempt to exchange my fistful of dollars, but did not bring my Albanian body guard gorilla to guide me back safely to the street.

Don’t exchange at the guy in the street yelling “Dolares, Euros’. This is Nuevas Reinas/ Nine Queens country after all. Watch out for fake pesos. Or single side printed pesos.

Luckily I do have another option and can ask my brother in law to exchange at his bank.

What do other tourists do? Perhaps there are more casa de cambio near La Florida, the most popular shopping area. But don’t expect great exchange rates, now that they're set by the casa de cambio monopoly.

Monday, August 03, 2009

What do they eat on Friday?

Fish is never the option at a wedding in Argentina. It is either beef, beef or pork. Or perhaps turkey. But mostly beef. This is beef country. Vegetables are definitely optional. This has to be place where Atkins came up with his protein diet.

It is odd that for a country with as much coast line there isn’t that much fishing going on. Fish is hard to come by. On a previous trip I had brought sheets of seaweed to prepare sushi. I was in the middle of the country, in San Luis, but how difficult could it be for a refrigerator truck to make the trip. I ended up making cucumber rolls and rolls with tasteless defrost shrimp bits.

Eating fish caught in the Rio de la Plata is not a healthy idea. But you would presume that the thousand miles of coastline and the Straight of Magellan would give “The deadliest Catch” a run for its money. Or what about the trout from the many lakes in Patagonia?

On my recent trip I set out to find out what do people in this Catholic country on Friday.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Summer project

Every year we tackle a major home project. This year we decided to remodel our bathrooms. Countless weekends later, faucet testing, tile sampling and granite scratching later, we're done.

When we purchased our house it had been a rental property. As a result, the inside of the house was serving a utilitarian purpose and wasn't kept up very nicely. Similarly, our bathrooms were basic bathrooms with plastic tub sides and a cheap vanity. It has done the job since we moved in, but it was time to redo them.

How did we start tackling the remodel?
First we shortcircuited the contractor finding process. We had a great recommendation through some friends: Royal Kitchen and Bath and got a decent quote. A little higher than competitive quotes, but I wanted somebody who was going to see the job through. Some companies were horrible unprofessional, already during the bidding process. You would think that in these though times they would behave like sheep hungry for a design win.

Where did we shop for material?
It is worthwhile to be intimately involved in the material selection and go shop around. Don't just take what the contractor offers. A good contractor will recommend you quality places to visit. We spent many weekends checking out faucets, granite, or vanities. Here's a short list of places in the South Bay we selected from:

Shower and bath material: American Custom Marble, San Jose, CA
Bath tub: rvcloud.com
Shower doors: Blossom Hill Showers
Toilets: Homeclick.com and Home Depot
Faucets: Lowe's
Vanities (Jensen Cabinets): Southern lumber, San Jose, CA
Tiles: Tileshop, Brokaw, San Jose, CA
Molding: The Molding Store, Brokaw, San Jose, CA

What material choices did we make?
  • Steel vs Cast iron vs Acrylic bath tub: the difference is price, comfort and quality. Steel are cheaper. Cast irons are heavy as hell to install and take time to warm up. Plus if they scratch you have a tough time to fix. Acrylic tubs sometimes require a concrete base to be installed to avoid flexing. We selected a solid acrylic tub: Kohler Archer 19" high which is taller than most tubs. But with great back support.
  • Faucet brands range from $30 to $900. We selected a brushed nickel finish and a decent price quality faucet from Delta. If you select the Lowe's or Home Depot model you get a good price. The shower set allows you adjust the temperature, as well as the water flow through two different handles.
  • Tile or wooden baseboards: The joint of tile baseboards with the floor tile might break as a wooden house flexes. We opted for a wooden/MDF baseboard.

What lessons have we learned?
A key lesson we learned is not to order big ceramic items via the internet. We purchased one toilet (Toto Drake) through Homeclick.com. The shipment was arranged through UPS. First of all, two days before the toilet was to arrive, an email update informs me that only part will arrive in time and that the toilet base is delayed 1 week. If I knew this at purchase time I would not have gone this route. Worse was that the toilet base shipment then arrived one week later but damaged and needed to be reshipped. It had broken in pieces due to poor packaging and rought UPS shipment. As a result, the toilet was delayed for 2-3 weeks.

And one more item. As a a geek and Google fan-boy, we managed the project entirely on the net: we planned it via Google Docs and maintained a Bill of Materials in Google Spreadsheets. It was great to do competitive price check and updates from my phone while being in the store. We took pictures and shared them via Picasaweb.

Now we take a break and get ready later this year for our next project.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Le Tour est arrivé

LinkThis picture on the flanks of the Mont Ventoux summarizes the tour for me: Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Andy and Frank Schleck.
  • Contador was simply the best. Excellent in the mountains. Great in the time trails. And with an excellent team Astana, lead by @johanbruyneel.
  • The Schleck brothers made it exciting. They kept attacking in the mountains. Were they better in the time trails, it would have been a different Tour.
  • Lance provided an interesting back story to the tour via Twitter: @lancearmstrong. He also showed a lot of heart. I admit I was rooting for Lance this year, unlike other years. The little video posts from the Giro, and the tweets changed my view on the boss.
  • Surprise: Jurgen Van den Broek (pic - wiki) - hopefully he won't be promoted (yet) to the lead in a small team. Put him as number two in a big team so he can grow. As he did this year when Cadel Evans failed.
  • The course of the Tour also contributed to the excitement. I was exciting until the second to last stage to the Mont Ventoux. Sure perhaps the second week was somewhat boring, when the debate about the radio earpieces was raging. But the slow couple of days provided the needed anticipation for the big days.
  • Disappointments? The brouhaha about Tom Boonen turned out to be a storm in a glass of water and of no consequence. I am glad I did not Yell for Cadel. And where was Sastre? (Didn't think Menchov would do much unless he really felt good. He already sleeps in pink sheets.)
  • How did I follow it all, early in the morning California?
    • Steephill.tv is my landing page to find out what's going on where.
    • Most often I ended up at Versus for the video feed in the US.
    • Sporza Radio provided the excellent commentary in Dutch. The (video) interviews on the Sporza website were also interesting.
For the first time in many years did I watch and follow the Tour again. It was fun waking up early and following it on via internet radio. Now summer really starts as there is nothing going on. Counting down to the Classics and the Tour of next year.

(Picture courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

ODB-II

Not so long ago, the check engine light of my 11 year old Honda Civic turned on again. I didn't flash, so it was not urgent to have it checked out. Yet the light is right in your face and you can not escape it.

Taking it to a mechanic costs you quickly $90, just to read the computer error code and do an analysis. Last time the diagnosis was: "nothing to worry about, carry on". Cha-ching $90. The time before that the diagnosis was: "your catalyst converter has a misreading. Let me clear the light, if it comes back on, we'll need to probe again. Carry on." Cha-ching $90.

Since many years now, all car computers have a standard connector and a standard protocol to communicate with the car computer. It is called ODB-II.One thing my car lacks is a simple: reset-check-engine-light button. This would allow me to reset the light to verify if it were a temporary event, or whether the failure persists. Honda are you reading this? (likely not)

Your next bet is to purchase an OBB-II reader. These OBD-II readers are available at Kragen and Wallmart and cost you from $60 to a couple of hundred dollars. After reading out the code (indeed, again the catalytic converter), the light hasn't come on again. Saved $90.

Many gas stations provide water and air. How about adding an ODB-II reader?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Slax

I am more and more paranoia about cyber security in public areas or when using public networks. I like to think that using using 3G on my Android phone is more secure although I haven't done much research of whether it is indeed more secure using 3G than using Wifi. I suspect that the tools to snif and gather data over Wifi are more common, as are computers equiped with Wifi.

I don't have anything much to hide, and think my data isn't worth that much (unlike e.g. when your office computer is compromised - just read the anatomy of the twitter attack to get an idea the damage it can do). However, I don't want to have others installing programs on my computer or using it.

Recently at a coffeeshop/internet cafe, I was (naively) surprised to see a couple of people sniffing the network using Wireshark. Now, I use Wireshark professionally, since debugging network middleware is part of my job. But I don't think any Data Distribution Service debugging was going on right there.

Time to burn a Live Linux CD. Rather than booting the computer from a hard drive, a Live CD boots the OS from a CD. It is read-only and thus I can be sure that my programs are clean and that nothing is added behind my back. It still doesn't address the issue when passwords are sent in the clear, but it is at least one worry less.

I looked at a couple of Live CDs: both Linux and Solaris based. I settled on Slax, as the interface to configure and customize the image was very simple. And thus I created a Linux Live CD which of course includes handy dandy network debugging tools, including Wireshark. I am ready and armed to snif around the internet cafe.

PS - If booting from USB was supported by most BIOS, I would put it all on a USB stick.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Gmail tasks' missing features

I've been a big fan of Bob the Monkey or the Cow, depending how you look at it. All my to-do items are tracked withing remember the milk, nicely organized in lists, shared among people, and tagged with something meaningful. The user interface has been the same for a while and can be improved upon.

A recent blog post about Gmail tasks triggered reexamining this feature. While promising, it falls short because it lacks the following features I am used to (correct me if I overlooked how it works with Gmail tasks):
  1. ability to specify a due time and an estimate how long a task will take.
  2. ability to specify recurring tasks: e.g. pay PG&E every 12th of the month
  3. ability to share tasks with others
  4. ability to add a location and map to a task
  5. ability to add a priority to a task
  6. ability to add tags to a task
  7. ability to add contacts to a task
  8. smart lists : e.g. show all work related (tag=work) items due this week
  9. google.com/tasks should provide a great user interface to sort, rearrange and do bulk operations on tasks

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Academy of Sciences

At last, we made it to the new Calafornia Academy of Sciences museum in San Francisco. We criss-crossed the entire museum in about five hours, including two shows. You do need to pick up passes in advance if you want to attend either show or presentation. (plan your visit)

The first show was a 3D movie about bugs. And no, there was no Hollywood happy ending. The movie takes you through the young lives of caterpillar turning butterfly and a praying mantis. At the end, one becomes the dinner of the other.

The second presentation was 30 minutes visit into space within the planetarium.

Further, the four story rainforest exhibition is impressive, as well as the big aquaria. The kids loved the funny looking frogs, the geckos, the huge catfish and piranhas. The picture above taken on top of the living roof of the museum building.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Summer visit to Gold Country

Last December, during the cold winter break, we escaped the Bay Area for three days to the California Gold Country. The two highlights of the trip were the Columbia Historic Park and the Railtown 1897 in Jamestown.

The first one is a traditional eighteen hundreds mining town, including a stage coach. During the fourth of July weekend there are a lot of old fashioned games and traditions. We missed the parade but did enjoy greased pole contest and five way tug-o-war. Many also fashion traditional clothing.

We did pan again for gold, but were not as lucky as last time and came home only with fool's gold or pyrite.

The second highlight of our winter trip was Railtown 1897. This historic state park houses various steam engines. While during our winter visit no trains were running, we were able to freely roam the grounds and explore are the areas.

This time steam engine 2 did run between Jamestown and the rock quary. This was a Shay locomotive (geared engine). The geek in me did waste a couple of hours last night browsing wikipedia and steam engine websites on the details about the locomotive. I also came across a transcript of the cannon ball express ride (pdf).

The last stop of the trip is adult only: a sampling of the many wineries in Calaveras county (map). Over the last two days we samples wines from Ironstone, Solomon, Twisted Oak, Frog's Tooth, Broll and Bodega del Sur. The wineries of the Sierra Foothills use different grapes and produces wines uncommon to the Napa or Sonoma valleys: grenache, verdelho, roussanne, mourvedre and tempranillo. I favored the taste of the wines of Broll most.


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Oh darn Twitter (2)

When I wrote Oh darn twitter, I really wanted to create this video to summarize it but CollegeHumor was a tad faster. I'll just drop the reel on the cutting floor and just post their Web Site Story.

Friday, June 26, 2009

When visiting Belgium

I often get asked what to do or what to visit when spending a few days in Belgium. Very often Belgium is not the main destination of the vacation. It is a stop on route from Paris to Amsterdam, or the airport of Brussels is the entry point to Europe. So I'll make it brief:

Cities to visit (in order of my liking): Antwerp (Antwerpen), Bruges (Brugge), Ghent (Gent), Leuven and Brussels (Brussel). If you like to visit a modern vibrant city, start with Antwerp. It combines great history (architecture, paintings, museums, culture) with lots of pubs, restaurants and shops. If you like true medieval history, visit Bruges, also known as the Venice of the North. Ghent was the capital of Europe during the empire of Charles V. It is also a happening university town. However the center of student life occurs in Leuven. And yes, you should also visit Brussels. I typically compare a visit to Brussels to a visit to Washington D.C. If you can only pick one city in the US to visit, would it be Washington? Or San Francisco or New York?

What to drink? A visit to Belgium would not be complete without a visit to a couple of traditional pubs (cafes) and sample some of the 8700 different Belgian beers.

What to eat? Did you know French fries originated in Belgium? You won't be able to avoid them. In every town square, on many corners, you'll find a 'frituur' or small place to get a pointy bag with Belgian fries. Try it with mayonaise rather than ketchup, or try a couple of the various sauces on top of it.

Of course try a real Belgian waffle, the famous chocolates, speculoos, a bucket of mussels with fries, shrimp in tomato, eal in a green herb sauce, real Belgian endives or white asparagus.

Belgium is a cycling country. Many cycling champions came from Belgium. You'll find lots of people on a bicycle during the weekend making trip along the various trails. Checkout the fietsknooppunten blog for a sampling of trails and what to see along the trails. Or request the blog author for some recommended trails.

Leave a comment if you have specific questions about towns, seasons or customs.

On Keyboards

When I read the headline today about how Lenovo starting moving around the Delete key on the keyboard, it thought it is about time for some keyboard layout experimentation. I am sure lots of people will be upset about this. I am not. The key input device to a computer has not evolved in many years.

I first ran into this when visiting Argentina : because of the Spanish keyboard layout, it is very difficult to type important internet symbols.

Mobile devices already started experimenting. Take a look at the slide out keyboard of the HTC G1 phone: notice how next to the space bar is the '@' key. No need to shift-2.

An internet / geek's keyboard should have the following keys within easy reach: @ / \ { } ( ) ) , introduce a zoom and search button and make switching between tabs (Ctrl-Tab) and windows easy (Alt-tab).

Picture courtesey of android-phone.org

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

oh darn Twitter

Twitter killed my blog. Not really. Temporarily. However primarily a lack of time and a convenient way to just blurt out 140 characters of opinion have kept me from writing on my blog. I did write a couple of posts on the company blog. Home remodelling, summar planning and a deluge of work kept me from posting to this blog. The light might be dimmer, it ain't out.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Going Native Garden Tour

On a hot spring day (92F/ 33C) we toured a couple of native gardens in the San Jose area. Every year, since 2003, the Go-Native-Garden-Tour has been organized in spring. This year there were about 45 participating gardens. We visited about 5 gardens.

The common thread is that all gardens use California native plants and are designed for water conservation. This is especially important this year since water levels have been extremely low. Nearby reservoirs were near empty at the beginning of the winter. I have never seen them that low.

My front lawn has suffered over the past years. In part because I have 3 big trees in front which suck up all the water. Secondly, one summer vacation without proper watering and I have a large open patch in the lawn.

I decided not to redo or reseed, but to slowly replace it with a native garden. For one maintenance is low. Secondly a native garden uses almost no water. Some of the gardeners mention they water a couple of minutes every 4 to 6 weeks. That's just amazing.

We took plenty of pictures of the plans and their nametags. Almost all gardens had every plant labeled with both their Latin name as their common name.

So, what's next? Step one will be to dig up the front lawn and install a drip grid water system. Step two: figure out a simple design with a couple of rocks. Step three: lots of mulch. Step four will be looking for plants. Perhaps something for the fall.

The backyard is a whole other story. For years the main role has been claimed by Mr Clover and his viral cousins taken over the entire yard.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Crafting your resume

I've been reading and qualifying resumes for an application engineer in my group. I received hundreds of resumes. I have read every single one of them. Being on the reading side of resumes does provide some interesting perspective. Here are a couple of tips. They are really basic, but nevertheless worth repeating.
  • A objective spells it out very clearly why you are applying for the job. Tailor it to the specific job. It is the first thing the hiring manager will read on your resume. Often one of the first questions on a phone interview is "what are you looking for in this job?". The objective should answer that question. Do customize it for the job you are applying for.
  • List when you are a US Citizen or US Person. Especially when the job requirement states that US citizens are desired (e.g. in the defense or intelligence industry).
  • Send your resume in PDF to avoid the layout being screwed up when the hiring manager opens up a Microsoft Word resume.
  • Don't call it resume.pdf. I often saved the resumes in a folder to check later in the day. When you call your firstnameLastnameResume.pdf, I did not have to rename the file plus your name sticks out in the file. Keep your brand up.
  • Spellcheck. Seriously! This sounds obvious but I encountered lots of spelling errors on resumes.
  • Spend a little time on the layout and readability of your resume. When the hiring manager is reading hundreds of resumes, avoid that he or she needs to take a second pass to understand your profile and capabilities.
  • Stick with traditional resume formats, unless you are applying for an artist or graphic designer. 2 pages.
  • When a new grad, listing your courses and specific project work is a plus and a great hook during the phone interview. "In my fly-robot project, I was able to demonstrate ..."
  • When you apply for a computer engineering job, do not list Microsoft Outlook. If you have to highlight that you know how to send and read an email, you are in trouble. Similarly, it is assumed you know how to use a word processor and a spreadsheet. If you created a novel macro for Microsoft Excel, do list it. But detail that is was more than just using Outlook. That's useful.
  • If the submission process allows you to add a cover when submitting your resume, do so. A cover letter allows you to sell yourself. You can use full sentences, rather than the short form often used on a resume.
  • If you do get a phone interview, do follow up with an email afterwards. Ask for the email address. This is a nice touch and shows you really are interested in the job.

Ronde Van Vlaanderen

It is over: Stijn Devolder wins the Tour of Flanders (Ronde Van Vlaanderen). This is the most beautiful of the one-day bicycle races.

I woke up this Sunday at 6:30AM. Why would you want to wake up that early on a Sunday my wife asked. What would you do if Argentina was playing the world cup final against England at 6:30AM?

The Sporza live video feed did not work. Thus I could not listen to the legendary commentary of Michel Wuyts. Plan B: pick up a video feed on justin.tv and listen to Carl Bertele and co on Sporza radio. In a side window I was following the #rvv tweets. (Next week, I'll try out http://www.tvtweets.be/)

It was a beautiful race. Great weather, fast pace and every second counted. This picture captures a lot. Devolder, in a group of four, attacks on the Muur van Geraardsbergen. Just take a look at the supporters. That's the face (and scream) I made in the kitchen this Sunday morning. Next Sunday : Paris - Roubaix (get details at Steephill.tv)

Friday, March 13, 2009

In Stewart we Trust

Bush is out of office. Obama versus Palin is long over. I wondered what Jon Stewart would be zooming in on next in his Daily Show. The answer : money; crooked money; mad money and the role the "analysts", "financial experts" and financial news shows played in the hype. 

If there is anything I learned from the dotcom bust, it is how venture capitalists and investment banks shared the same bed. Similarly check how many were sharing a bed in the housing bust. 

Thus Stewart went on a mission to critique the financial news channels and found a great poster child in loud mouth Jim Cramer, who hosts the Mad Money show on CNBC

This rest of this blog post is very simple. The video speaks for itself.





Friday, February 13, 2009

Why I shop where I shop

The newspaper sales guy calling me at night tries to hook me on a San Jose Mercury News subscription because it's Sunday newspaper has lots of coupons. Safeway spams with me items on sale this week. The Wednesday mail contains the promotions of a dozen local supermarkets. But I am not using any of them. That's because I shop at Trader Joe's. Here's why:

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Android Exchange support

A key feature missing on my Android phone was direct access to my work email through Exchange. Unlike the iPhone, Android lacks a native Exchange client. 
The Android Market to the rescue! I found a couple of solutions. Some of them were still in private Beta.
I tried out TouchDown from Nitrodesk for free and opted to purchase a full license for $19.99. So far my experience with Touchdown has been good. 
  • Email works great. I am pulling down my email every 15 minutes. There is no support for push email. But that ain't a big issue since I do not want to be pinged with email every minute.
  • The current version doesn't allow you to edit or confirm calendar appointments. A killer feature would be to bridge between the Exchange calendar and my google calendar. 
  • Touchdown does time out when I switch between 3G and WIFI. The error message indicates this is a DNS problem. However I have no issue access the internet via a browser. The error is temporarily as 15 minutes later I am able to pull down my email. 
  • Nitrodesk support has been excellent and fast. 
Other applications which I has installed on my phone are (in order of how often I use them)
  • Twitroid - to twitter from my phone
  • fBook - Facebook application; not bad, but I find myself regularly going to the mobile or main facebook website to comment or access info. 
  • PhoneFlix - manage your Netflix queue from your phone. This is a great application since I typically hear about a great movie from friends, when I am not near my computer. 
  • Skype Lite - to receive and make skype phone calls. When making a skype call to a computer, you do make a local call and will be billed wireless minutes. But that is a cheap price to pay when trying to call my parents in Belgium, or my parents in law in Argentina. 
  • T-mobile HotSpot locator - alerts me of nearby WIFI hotspot locators operated by T-mobile. 
  • Mileage - to keep track of my trips to the pump. Unfortunately this only supports one car. 
  • gIRC, an irc client for Android
  • ConnectBot - secure shell for Android. 
  • Shopsavvy - take a picture of the barcode and find where to best buy it. Seriously! This application has potential. I haven't used it much. The only thing I recently bought was a fridge and it lacked a barcode ;)
  • ToggleBlu - one click bluetooth on/off
So what's missing? 
  • Remember The Milk : my work and personal todo list, groceries and shopping list. The mobile version of the webstie doesn't render well on Android. A native app really would do wonders. (107 replies already on my RTM forum post)
  • Pandora : I am big fan of Pandora and listed to it at least a few hours a day. I do get feeling Tom Conrad from Pandora ain't the biggest fan of Android. Pandora is already on the new PalmOS. I am anxiously awaiting a version for my phone. 
Update: Add one more application to the list: Radio.BE. I just received an email from Nicolas Braem who launched a streaming audio application for Belgian radio stations, such as one of my favorite: Studio Brussel. 

Update 01/27/2009: Version 1.4.051 of Touchdown added a lot of requested features: meeting invites and global addressbook