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Middle language Thu, Sep 29, 2011
An interesting thing I noticed while in Italy was that English was used as the middle language between non-native English speakers.  For example, a group of Germans ordered their food in English from an Italian waiter.  The same thing is happening as I write this by a Chinese co-worker who's explaining things to a Korean co-worker. #language

Italy trip review part 2 Tue, Sep 27, 2011
First part 1, now a review of some important topics: 

Food.  I like eating, but I'm not picky, so I wasn't blown away by the food.  The food was good; lots of pizza, pasta, and gelato.  Gelato is the Italian version of ice cream, which people will try to explain as similar but different from ice cream.  Short version:  Gelato is ice cream.  And it's good. 

Wine.  Italy is famous for its red wines, which I'm not really a fan of.  Or at least, I didn't think I was.  Italy's red wines are lively and full of flavor, instead of the typical dry and oaky flavor.  Wendy discovered Brunello di Montalcino, which she'll share with you on a special occasion, and I discovered Raboso, which I'll share with you on my deathbed.  (Just kidding; it's cheap but hard to find.)  Bottom line, we drank wine frequently and never had a bad one, though not many really stood out. 

Art.  I'm not an art fan, and Wendy isn't enough of one to force me to pretend.  That said, we went in several churches which were painted floor to ceiling with frescoes and filled with sculptures, so art was kind of unavoidable. 

Money.  The American dollar is worth a bit less than the Euro, so everything costs more.  But we stayed in cheap hotels and checked menus before entering restaurants.  I'm actually really pleased with my current credit card (Capital One), which charges no foreign transaction fees.  But unfortunately, the very few places that accepted credit cards liked to somewhat angrily remind everyone how high their merchant fees are.  Oh boo hoo; if it costs more, charge me more.  An unexpected benefit of not readily accepting credit cards is that some services were offered at a discount if paid for with cash.  We got an 8% discount on our hotel in Venice, which was nice. 

People.  The Italian people were nice.  They wanted you to drink wine and have a good time.  But one thing that stood out to me was that people had no awareness of their surroundings.  If you were approaching someone on the street, they would walk right into you.  Or if you were walking behind someone, they would suddenly stop walking for no reason.  And the idea of common courtesy was absent.  For example, if you were getting off a crowded plane, people sitting behind you would just plow down the aisle without offering anyone the chance to go before them.  Concerning fellow travelers, a train rider (an Australian) made a comment to her friend about how Italy was so full of American tourists.  If anything, there were more Australians than Americans, and there were quite possibly more Germans than all the rest of us combined.  In other news, Germans smell.  It's nothing personal; they just don't wear deodorant. 

Language.  We learned some Italian from a phrase book on the flight over.  And even though the vast majority of people spoke English, we tried to speak our broken Italian when we could.  I just liked the sound of it.  It's so melodic and sing-songy.  Ferrovia dello strato.  Vino della casa bianchi, per favore. #travel

Miles per dollar Tue, Sep 27, 2011
Not to beat a dead horse, but I was thinking recently that a helpful way to understand how far a dollar will allow you to travel is to calculate miles per dollar, which is just gas mileage divided by the price of a gallon of gas.  So if my car gets 30 miles per gallon and gas costs $3.00 per gallon, that means a dollar will get me 10 miles.  This is helpful if, for example, you're really low on gas and need to figure out if the spare change under your seat can get you home. #travel

Nugget vs. popcorn (1) Tue, Sep 27, 2011
A recent KFC commercial asked, "What part of the chicken is nugget?"  It then proceeded to espouse the wonders of its popcorn chicken versus other restaurants' chicken nuggets.  The obvious counter-argument is, "What part of the chicken is popcorn?"  I get their point; chicken nuggets are made from pureed chicken parts (probably mostly white meat), while popcorn chicken is just fried cuts of white meat.  But either way it's just fried chicken.  It's a stupid argument. #food

Non-science (1) Tue, Sep 27, 2011
I don't like the term "political science."  If anything, politicking is an art form, not a scientific pursuit.  Lumping the two words together is a disgrace to the world of actual science. 

I feel somewhat the same about "food science."  I know there's actual science involved in the interaction between food chemicals and human taste buds, but in practice I just see chefs in a kitchen, which is inherently artistic.  Food scientists can take that as a compliment if they so choose. 

Slightly related:  Medicine as art #science

Galaxy S II, Epic 4G Touch Mon, Sep 26, 2011
There's a very popular smartphone made by Samsung called the Galaxy S II, Epic 4G Touch.  That's not a joke.  How do you know when your product is poorly named?  When there's a comma in the middle. #technology

Italy trip review part 1 Mon, Sep 19, 2011
First the recap, now the review of the places we visited: 

Rome.  Rome was an awesome city.  I couldn't get over the fact that you step out of a subway station, and there's the Colosseum, where they used to make prisoners fight wild animals to the death.  Or you walk past a few restaurants and coffee shops, turn a corner, and there's the Pantheon, where people have been worshiping one of various gods for 2000 years.  The mixture of ancient and modern was amazing.  An interesting thing I learned though was that many of the relics, statues, and especially obelisks were actually stolen from conquered enemies (like Egyptians).  I guess that's what you did back then. 

Cinque Terre.  This collection of five fishing and farming villages was full of hikers and backpackers, and for good reason.  The hiking took us up really steep hills, through vineyards and terraced farms, all overlooking the ocean.  And they had nice fresh seafood, which was great after a long, sweaty hike.  The best part about Riomaggiore, the town we stayed in, was their rocky little port which made for a great swimming spot. 

Venice.  I expected Venice to stink, since its streets are made of water and their plumbing systems were created hundreds of years ago.  Turns out Venice had no smell at all, not even a salty water or marsh smell.  The only thing I smelled in Venice were the German tourists.  This city was probably our favorite of the trip, maybe because of its uniqueness, or maybe because we spent a good amount of time sitting around in shady spots.  An interesting thing I learned was that many of the buildings along the main canal are deteriorating due to rising water levels and sinking foundations, but the Venetian government has a lot of restrictions on development and renovation in order to preserve history, so the number of vacant buildings is increasing, and the city's population is shrinking.  The entire city is essentially one large museum. 

Florence.  There was a lot of art to see in Florence, and we saw pretty much none of it, which was fine.  The Duomo was interesting because you could see it no matter where you were.  The view from the top was even better.  We had two separate meals of memorable pizza, one of which had rosemary and olive oil, which was unique. 

Tuscany.  The guided van tour to some wineries in the countryside was quite nice.  Our tour guide was entertaining, and the scenery was excellent.  The wines we sampled were mostly reds, and they were mostly great. 

Siena.  We saw this city at the end of the trip, and we just weren't really feeling into it.  It was similar in style to Florence, which we had just toured around the previous day.  But it had a unique feel because of the contrade, which were different regions of the town that compete in horse races and have their own crests. #travel

SuperPutin Thu, Sep 15, 2011
Here is a collection of 34 pictures of former Russian president Vladimir Putin doing manly things.  Kottke explains in words: 
Watch as Vladimir Putin rides a horse, drives a race car, tags a tiger, does judo, goes on archeological dives, looks at leopards, stands on a boat, arm wrestles, attempts to bend a frying pan, rides a snowmobile, flies a plane, hugs a dog, rides a motorcycle, looks at a bear, swims the butterfly, signs autographs, shoots a whale with a crossbow, plays the piano, feeds a moose, talks with a biker gang, steers a boat, walks through brush with a gun, sits in a tank, blacksmiths, plays hockey, hugs a horse, dives almost a mile in a submersible, and adjusts sunglasses.
I like how several of his activities are done unnecessarily shirtless.  I don't know much about this guy's politics or whatever, but I have a feeling I would vote for him. #politics

Sterquilinus Thu, Sep 15, 2011
Sterquilinus was the ancient Roman god of the fertilization of farming fields, a.k.a. the god of poop. #religion

Italy trip recap (1) Thu, Sep 15, 2011
Just got back from a long vacation in Italy, where we visited Rome, Venice, Florence, a few small coastal towns, and a Tuscan wine village.  All in all, it was pretty excellent.  Great weather the whole time, amazing sights both historic and modern, good food and wine, and impeccable planning by Wendy.  Here's a daily rundown, more for my records than anything else: 
  1. Long flight through Lisbon with lots of talkative Portuguese people.  Didn't sleep at all.  Came close to missing our connecting flight because of a long line for immigration and customs.  Short flight to Rome with kids kicking my seat, then a long bus ride to the train station, which was within walking distance of our hotel.  Would've been quicker if we didn't walk the wrong way at first.  Walked around Rome a little and saw some history, then stopped at a little pizza place where we got overcharged and lied to about portion sizes.  Back to the hotel room before 6pm for an early bedtime because we were both walking zombies.
  2. Got woken up early by the smell of fresh bread baking after sleeping for almost 13 hours, then had one of the best breakfasts of our lives, with ham and mozzarella on fresh bread and a cappuccino.  Took the subway to the Colosseum and walked around the surrounding area for several hours.  Stopped for lunch at a pizza place with natural vine covering, and had our first Italian table wine.  Took another subway to the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon.  Stopped off for a nice slow sidewalk dinner and polished off a liter of wine.
  3. The Rome transit workers went on strike, so we had to buy a ticket on a tour bus in order to get to Vatican city.  We had a scheduled time and were quite late, but oddly enough the ticket checker didn't care.  We walked around the Sistine Chapel but avoided St. Peter's Basilica because of the line.  Hopped the tour bus to the Pantheon (again) and walked over to Piazza Navona.  Had trouble but eventually got the tour bus back home before going to the Spanish Steps and grabbing a quick bite to eat.
  4. Took the train to Riomaggiore after stopping at our favorite breakfast joint one last time.  Walked around town while waiting for our hotel room to be ready.  Turns out it was on the third floor up quite a few sets of stairs.  Walked down to the "beach" which had rocks of various sizes, before eventually just jumping off some big rocks into the marina, which felt quite nice.  Looked into taking a ferry ride but were told they weren't selling any more round trip tickets because the boat might not come back due to rough weather.  Finished the night with some fresh seafood and local wine, before saying hi to some cats on the way back to our room.
  5. Had some breakfast before hiking uphill to the next town over.  Walked through vineyards and family farms growing figs and olives.  Decided to keep walking through the woods to the following town, passing by a helicopter rescue along the way.  Silly tourists and their inadequate footwear.  Hopped a train to the following town, where we had a huge early dinner after about 4-5 miles of hiking.  Finally took the ferry back to our hotel's town, which dangerously docked near some rocks in choppy water.  Loading and unloading was worth the price of the ferry.  Ended the night with some gelato and a sunset.
  6. Almost missed our train to Venice but caught it after a little uphill running in sandals.  The four hour train ride really wasn't all that bad, since it was broken up by stops.  Arrived in Venice, where we sweated our way on the ferry and to our hotel room.  After cleaning up, rode the ferry around while listening to an audio tour.  Stopped at Piazza San Marco and interacted with some pigeons.  Ate dinner at a wine bar before navigating the maze-like streets back to our hotel.
  7. Toured around Piazza San Marco, walking through Basilico San Marco and going to the top of the Campanile.  Continued using our unlimited ferry ticket and stopped off at several places, including Rialto (where we had really expensive pizza), Santa Maria della Salute (which had nice, cool marble steps that were great for lounging on), and Arsenale.  Made an impromptu stop at a street market before getting some dinner at a nice little place where we bought our first bottle of wine for the trek home.
  8. Caught an early train to Florence, where we dropped our bags at our hotel and then walked around town a little.  Went back to our hotel to get picked up for a wine tour, which stopped at Tenuta Torciano and Fattoria Sant'Appiano in Tuscany before an impromptu stop at a local wine festival.
  9. Walked around Florence some more.  Climbed the steps to the top of the Duomo, walked through several street markets, crossed the river on Monte Vecchio to see Palazzo Pitti, saw some statues in the Piazza della Signoria, and ate lunch in the Piazza della Repubblica.  Ended the day with some gelato in front of the Santa Maria Novella.
  10. Took a morning train to Siena, where we walked to the Piazza del Campo and the Duomo.  We were feeling tired from a week and a half of touring and traveling, so we took the train back to Florence and then to Rome, where we checked into our nice hotel and had dinner.
  11. Flew back home through Lisbon and greeted our house full of pets.
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