The Travelblog Prospectus

— Log opened Wed Feb 02 01:27:21 2005
<vorlon> btw, it seems Skolelinux is interested in sponsoring a physical meeting of folks related to the release process to discuss how we can get Debian to a state of timely, regular releasing. Your name was on the list of people I said should be there. Would you be interested in attending, and if so, what weekends this spring would you be (un)available?
<aj> spring?
<vorlon> … fall for you. :)
<aj> march-may, ym?
<vorlon> yes. :)
<aj> “autumn”

— Log opened Fri Feb 11 11:04:28 2005
<stockholm> please book that flight of yours.

As has been mentioned previously on this blog, Europeans are crazy. Anyway, as a direct consequence of their evil influence on world events, I ended up enjoying a whirlwind trip of New York, New York, Toronto and Vancouver in February/March just gone.

(Technically, I think NUUGF ended up being the sponsors)

You can always pick an exciting overseas trip by noticing that around 24 hours before you leave, you still don’t have your ticket. Or that you haven’t booked, and it’s under a week before you’re planning on leaving, or that you haven’t paid and there’s only a couple of days before you have to have gone through customs. Or it’s under a month before you’ll be overseas, and you don’t even know there’s going to be a trip at all. But hey, three cheers for the modern technologies that make such craziness possible!

Actually, a warning up front. I bought a new camera the day before I left; and while it’s technically vastly superior to my old one (and still wonderfully small and easy to carry around), it also requires a bit more skill in actually taking snapshots. Like being able to hold the camera steady, and press the button all the way down. As such this entry’s artwork may not be as perfect as I might hope.

Anyway, a flight to the US from Australia takes 14 hours at best, and likewise for the return, so I figured on spending slightly more time being vaguely touristy to make the trip a little worthwhile. As it happened, mostly thanks to the short notice, my flight plan to Vancouver ended up having to be pretty much 23rd Feb ’til 9th March, which happily coincided with the tail end of helix’s (aka Erinn’s) plans for FoodConf NYC (pictured right), hosted at chez Mako and Mika in upper Manhattan. Adding in a brief stopover in Toronto to try meeting up with a couple of ex-Brisbanites, and some touring of Vancouver, and all was sorted.

The trip over

The trip over to NYC wasn’t bad as these things go. The flight left at midday Wednesday, arrived in LAX early Wednesday morning. Actually, we left a little late, not starting boarding ’til we were meant to leave; which turned out well, since we spent less time in the plane on the tarmac, which in cattle class on a 747 gets uncomfortably warm pretty quickly. But it was a fairly empty flight — I initially had an entire (four seat) middle row to myself, though by the time we reached cruising altitude someone had moved into the other aisle seat. I ended up not getting any sleep on the plane (we landed at 2am or so Brisbane time, which is about the time I usually want to start drifting off, not wake up), but there were a bunch of decent movies, so that was okay. What was less okay is that, in spite of our late take off, we arrived early. Which you’d think would be a win, except that we were scheduled to arrive when the customs official start work, and we weren’t allowed off the plane until they had. Yay for forty minutes sitting outside the gate, on the plane, doing nothing. Feh.

Once we actually got to see them, LAX customs were fine, and the fingerprinting and photographing were fairly unobtrusive. The baggage handling sucked — they decided it’d be fun to use two carousels for some reason, without any indication which one your bag would come out on. Yay for forcing the entire plane to stand in between them so they can look at both, rather than spreading themselves out around just one. So I collected my bag, walked out the door and through some halls then gave my bag to the security people to check aboard my next flight. Useful! Efficient! Yeesh! Getting my boarding pass with United went fine; getting through security at LAX didn’t. First I have to show my boarding pass to someone. Then I have to watch some guy get glared at for stepping over the sticky tape line before the security scanner. Then I have to take off my jumper because it’s too bulky. Then I have to take my laptop out of it’s wetsuit. Then I have to put my wallet and camera into a different tray to my laptop. Then I have to get my boarding pass back out of my bag to show it to some other guy. Then I have to have my travel documents go through the scanner again because they’re too bulky. Meanwhile the poor guy behind me is evidently running a little late for his flight to wherever and getting stressed out. Gag. And there wasn’t even a Krispy Kreme store to have breakfast at.

Let me just say up front that I don’t care for LAX.

So I then got to wait around in the boarding lounge area for a few hours, getting gradually more and more sleepy. Starbucks provided me with a muffin and some coffee — which generally makes me more sleepy rather than less it seems. Maybe half an hour before my flight was due to leave (on time!) I moved into the proper boarding lounge, and tried not to doze too heavily. I was amused to see a couple of fashionable young hotties appear, who were evidently wait listed for the flight, dressed in short skirts and long boots. Nice, certainly, but they’re flying to New York in winter — not the place or the time to be showing skin, ladies. Anyway, got on board, and find myself sitting in between some huge black guy, and some huge white guy. Fun. Fortunately, by this time I was completely exhausted, and pretty much just spent the five hour flight to JFK airport in NYC asleep.

NYC

NYC was cooooold. Not uncomfortably so — at least if your knees are covered — but enough to warrant wearing a couple of shirts, a jumper and a jacket, at least if you’re acclimatised to summertime Brisbane. The trip to Mako’s was fairly simple: catch the airport train to the train station, then ride the A train for an hour and a half or so all the way to the stop near Mako’s place. And what better introduction to New York than a late night ride on the subway, cold and alone? I certainly couldn’t think of one. Then there was getting off the train, finding the right street, and trudging a block or two in the ice and snow, ringing Mako’s buzzer — the one that won’t actually let you talk through it — and hoping someone’s home and awake and inclined to unlock the door. A click, a few flights of stairs, a knock, and voila! Warmth, and rest, and two lovely ladies in the form of Mika and Erinn. Mako and Andres arrived (from shopping, I think) a little while later.

From there on, things blur a bit: there was a lunch of vegan chinese with mock meat and various NYC Debianites, there was found furniture and beds on the floor with Powerpuff Girls linen, there was the secret completion of my DPL platform and the shocked expressions when it (and others!) were noticed on IRC, there were drinks at a hidden Belgian beer bar, there was the eerie temptations of amateur night at some bawdy bordello, there was washing day in Central Park, there was Times Square, there was a horny dinosaur and light-sabre fights, there was ethiopian food both vegan and with beef, there was vegan caviar, there was a hookah and strange cheeses, there was alcohol, there was pina colada shampoo and hippy shampoo, there was snow on the ground and snow falling from the sky, there was open mic hip hop night at some seedy dive bar in lower Manhattan and black men sharing their souls and their pain with the tiny Sunday night crowd, there were religious folks handing out pamphlets with prayers and asking for donations for orphans, there was the Manhattan subway in all its glory, there was breakdancing in the station and the peak hour commute at the end of the week, there was somethingawful.com, there was staying up ’til 3am drinking spirits and cocktails in a manicurist’s salon that had been converted into the “Beauty Bar”, there was vegan food at an Indian restaurant, there was homecooked vegan food, there was a sword fighting lawyer, there were drunk Australians singing “Waltzing Matilda” across the street, there was GPLed porn, there were weird short films, there was the development of unhappybirthday.com right before our eyes, there were bags of painkillers and birth control pills, there were fine teas and too fine chocolates, there was whisky, there was discussion on the merits of bukkake rice, there was the OMG store and the VIM store and the BONOBOS store, there was the DONUT PUB, there was Union Square at night, there were the projects and the concrete playgrounds, there were the bookshops with the art books and feminist literature and anatomy references and style guides, there were the helpful strangers on the street giving bad directions, there were new words like “sketchy” and “bougie”, and then there was yet more.

I was going to complain about NYC not living up to my expectations of being full of excitement and variety, but for some reason I’m suddenly having second thoughts.

I do strongly recommend foreigners who don’t care for all the fat and supersized portions in American food try going vegan for the stay. It was really orders of magnitude yummier than past food I’ve had in America, though having full-time vegan gourmets helping with the food selection might’ve had some impact too.

Anyway, Andres left (and forgot his new suit) mid-way through my stay, and was replaced by Ari and David. Lunches and dinners variously included folks like the oh-so-posh Clint Adams; SPI lawyer, photographer, book collector, sword fighter, and musician, Greg Pomerantz, and other folks whom I didn’t take pictures of to help remember. Ooops.

After the Beauty Bar we made it back to Mako’s in the deep darkness of early Monday morning, everyone else went to sleep while I packed up to leave for the airport and my earlyish flight to Toronto. I didn’t manage to get any sleep, but once I’d packed, I did at least manage to hail a cab only a couple of blocks down from Mako’s (I stuck my arm out: I can’t whistle effectively, sadly). From there to the airport was quick and easy and not too expensive, and I was even lucky enough to get bumped to an earlier flight to avoid waiting around in the airport too long. After spending half an hour or so stuck on the ground while air traffic control scheduled us for take off, we spent an hour or so in the air getting to Toronto, Canada, almost all of which I missed, falling asleep shortly after sitting down.

And that was New York, New York — so good they had to name it twice.

Toronto

Hurriedly filling out the immigration form after landing, and waking up a little bit, I made my way to Canadian customs. You would think “better than US customs” wouldn’t be a high bar to set; but apparently it is. Canadian customs were horrible. Sure, it seemed easy enough. There was even an empty line when I walked in, inviting me to just walk up and breeze through.

I should have known it was a trap, a cunning ambush.

But walk up I did. And to the usual questions of “What’re you here for”, I replied “to see some friends here, and head to Vancouver for a meeting to work out what we should do about releasing our operating system in a more timely manner”. She looked at me suspiciously, shrugged, put a pink line through my form, handed it back, and told me to go wait in the queue.

“Fair enough”, thought I, and I wandered over to the queue. And noticed the door to the bags was beside the queue not beyond it, and saw other people just ignoring the queue and walking through. I though “Hrm, well, maybe I should go get my bag first, rather than wait here”, and wandered over to have a look at that. But my bag wasn’t there, so I wandered back to the queue and waited some more.

This must’ve been around 11:58 or so, I think, since there was a guy a few people ahead complaining that he needed to make a 12:00 flight, and that he was being screwed around unnecessarily, and that there weren’t other flights he could take. The security guard said something to the effect of “Well, you’ve missed the plane already, and sorry, it sucks, I know, but I don’t make the rules” and heard his complaints out some more.

The line grew longer, and the queue was bent back upon itself to take up less space.

The line continued to grow. Occassionally it’d move forward.

Someone on a mobile phone rang a friend who hadn’t gone through customs yet, and told them to avoid the woman at the end, who was having a bad day. Ah. That was why the line was so short.

The line edged forward some more.

Fade out, watch the hands of a clock whir by, fade in.

So I get to go talk to some immigration official. He wants to know why I’m here. I say “to work out release issues for Debian”. “Why in Canada?” “Because it’s the easiest place for us all to get to.” “What’s Debian?” “An operating system, a replacement for Windows and Office and such.” “Do you have permission from Microsoft for that?” “…” “You’re replacing Windows, you must need permission from Microsoft for that.” “Uh, no, you don’t.” A brief intermission while an immigration bureaucrat wishes he was a copyright lawyer. “Have you heard of Linux? Debian builds a Linux distribution. We’ve reimplemented all of Windows precisely because we don’t want anything to do with Microsoft.” “You can’t have developed Linux, it’s a huge thing, with lots of people who’ve worked on it.” “Yes, I’m one of them.”

It went on for a while, strangely going more smoothly only after I took off my glasses. My only thought is maybe he thought I was going to try to get a punch in before the security guards tackled me, or something. At any rate, after an idiotic half hour quiz he eventually asked if I had a return ticket, which I showed him, and he let me go to get my bags and leave the hell hole known as Toronto immigration.

HATE.

Anyway, an orange juice and a taxi ride through the falling snow later, and I’m at my plushly appointed hotel in the centre of Toronto. I figured since I’d been sleeping on the floor at Mako’s, and would be sleeping on the floor again at Ryan’s I could justify living it up for a couple of nights in between. I checked in, let the porter carry my bag up to my room on the umpteenth floor, checked out the wireless access, considered trying to catch a bus to Niagara Falls or down to Buffalo back down in the US to visit a friend, considered the heavily falling slow, considered how tired I was, and fell asleep.

As it turned out, one of the friends I was trying to visit was too busy to catch up with, and the other couldn’t conveniently make it across the border into Canada to come and visit briefly during the week, so Toronto ended up being a bit of a washout on the planning side of things. I could’ve tried travelling down myself, but with the whole foreign country thing, the snow, the customs fiascos, the already paid for room, and the difficulty of actually making it back in time to catch my flight to Vancouver, well, it didn’t happen.

So instead I caught up on my creature comforts for a day, wandered around Toronto for a day, then left.

Toronto’s pretty awesome: it’s huge and high and fantastic. With heavy snowfall no one’s on the streets, so it feels emptier than NYC, which makes the buildings seem even more imposing. And then there’s the great lake (Lake Ontario?) which makes it feel like you’re on the shore of some strangely placid sea.

Walking around a city in that much snow takes special skills, as it turns out. It’s not just the dangers of slipping on icy footpaths; there are even special challenges just crossing the road. The problem is when you’ve got a metre or so of snow along the kerb most of the way (from the snow ploughs on the road and the snow ploughs on the footpaths), and then metre wide puddles at the intersections. Even better, the puddles are icy and dark enough that you can’t tell how deep they are (a centimetre, and thus safe to just step in? enough to drown your shoes and wet your jeans? who knows!) and wide enough that walking around them is difficult, and if you were to try walking around them, you’d have to walk through the piles of snow, which are freshly fallen and soft, and thus almost as bad as walking through a puddle anyway. Entertaining!

There was also a cool audio-book-store, an interesting sporting goods store, and my introduction to a burger chain that sells burgers by family member: the teen burger, the papa burger, the mama burger, the baby burger and the grandpa burger. Strangely, rather than being pre-cut or mushy, the grandpa burger is actually the biggest of the lot.

Anyway, another taxi ride through the snow to an airport, and voila, off to Vancouver. Well, at least once we’d had the snow and ice cleaned off the aeroplane just before takeover with what looked to be heated anti-freeze. Mmm! Reassuring!

Vancouver

Vancouver, on the upside, wasn’t covered in snow. Temperatures were a fairly mild (at least by comparison) in single digits, Celsius. Arrived at the airport safe and sound, collected my bag, spotted Ryan, with whom I was staying for the week. Got driven to his new house in the sketchy neighbourhood, said hi to Andreas who’d arrived a day or two earlier got onto the wireless LAN to IRC and download mail and such, and tried to figure out when James would arrive, since his flight had been delayed. Eventually he did arrive, and Ryan went off to pick him up, and we went out to eat, then came back to sleep. On the floor, at least for me and James; Ryan obviously had a bed, Andreas the fold out couch.

The next day we got up and did the touristy thing, did Andreas, James and I. Walked through a park taking snapshots, and seeing the sites: including the weird “KIDS DRYER” and a creek that, perhaps prophetically, seemed as though it ran red with blood when photographed. Post park, we took the “Sea Bus” (apparently the word “Ferry” is too complicated) to Vancouver proper, wandered around briefly, then took a bus to Grouse Mountain.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’ve already briefly intimated subsequent events.

In any event, we arrived at the end of the bus route in good health and spirits. Exited the bus, and found ourselves at, well, the bottom of Grouse Mountain, without many options. There was a souvenir shop, a carpark, and a gondola station that’d take you up to the ski resort at the top of the mountain. We checked the prices, and decided $25 each was a bit rich, and thought maybe some bushwalking might be fun. So we walked towards the trees and found ourselves obstructed by a fence. With barbed wire. We decided to pass on that direction and see if there was a more promising avenue elsewhere, and walked back towards the carpark.

Well, we found a gate at least. Unfortunately we found it was locked, and accompanied by a bunch of warning signs. But still, it seemed pretty safe — the warnings signs were for winter conditions, and it had been unseasonably sunny and warm over the past month or so to the point where they almost certainly didn’t apply. And there was no barbed wire. And, perhaps more usefully, there were other people climbing the fence to go up, and there were folks commenting that the gate had been unlocked earlier.

Some trolling ensued, and we found ourselves clambering under the fence, and wandering up the Grouse Grind.

“What,” asked James, “could possibly go wrong?”

There may have been a “Fuck it”, preceeding that remark.

In any case, up we walked, along the nice dirt track, between the wonderful leafy trees, underneath the bright clear sky and the shining winter sun. It was early to mid afternoon (around 2pm or so probably), and we were just figuring on a gentle walk somewhere, then turning around and going home. The signs promised about an hour and a half’s entertainment, which was pretty perfect as far as we were concerned.

So we walked. Or climbed. Or clambered. A little way in we came across another huge yellow warning sign, and an invitation to branch off onto the seven hour walk, or the ninety minute walk we were looking for. We continued the way we were going, while reiterating our slogan.

We began noticing little signs nailed to the trees, saying things like “GG 350″, which we figured was some indication of how far we were, but weren’t quite sure what it was measuring. We figured it was 350m out of 900m or so, and were pleased.

A little further on, after what we figured was probably 45 minutes walking, we came to a big sign saying “1/4″.

I guess, at this point, we realised, deep in our hearts that we were a quarter of the way there, and completely, utterly screwed.

Naturally, we told ourselves and each other that it clearly meant “track one of four” and that we were almost there and there wasn’t any point turning back now anyway.

And continued on.

The walk was tough, but not really that bad, it wasn’t too late in the day, and there were continually other people on the track passing us, so stupid as we were being, it was still fairly safe. Heck, we even had mobile phone reception all the way — to the point of me getting some SMS spam from one of the mobile providers half way up the mountain.

A little ways further on, still clinging to the hope that we were getting pretty far up and must be almost there, and while taking a breather, we were passed by some obvious regulars. They said “How you going?” We said “Exhausted!” They said “Well, buck up, you’re almost half way!” We said “!”

On the upside, we really were almost half way. Another ten minutes got us to a “1/2″ sign. At which point there really wasn’t much point turning around — bush walking downhill is pretty much harder than walking uphill, and ending up at a ski resort where they have food and drink is much nicer than ending up in a carpark with a soft-drink vending machine.

So we kept going. And actually, it was a fair bit easier with the right expectations — actually realising that the signs on the trees were probably “metres above sea-level”, and thus began at 250 or 300, and would end at 1250 or 1300 not 900; and keeping track of time, and thus realising that just because five minutes of climbing felt like half an hour, doesn’t mean it gets you a third of the way there.

Probably about two hours after we climbed under the fence we found ourselves walking out of the forest, onto the snow, and into the sun at the top of the walk. There before us was the resort building, with its promise of food and warmth and somewhere to sit down, and off to our left was an absolutely wonderful view of Vancouver city and the ocean beyond. Thoroughly, thoroughly worth it.

Discerning an appropriate metaphor for the Debian release process is, at this point, left as an exercise for the interested reader.

Anyway, we photographed, bought souvenirs, ate, rested in front of the open fire, then thought about getting back down. Even without the “EXTREME DANGER” sign, or the gathering twilight, there was no chance we were walking down, so we walked over to the Gondola ticket place, and prepared to bite our tongues.

Only to find that the one-way-going-down price was $5.

That is how Grouse Mountain spells respect.

So down in the Gondola we went. We looked at some expensive tracksuits in the (warm) souvenir shop, caught the bus, caught the ferry, and caught another bus back to Ryan’s.

We spent the next day lazing around mostly, with dinner in the evening with the other folks making up the Vancouver Release Team Meeting. The meal was pretty nice, but what you won’t believe is what happened then.

[REDACTED BY ORDER OF THE CABAL]

Okay, okay, that’s not actually true: really I just couldn’t be bothered writing anything more up about the actual meeting; there’s been plenty of bytes spent on that already. Some references for your convenience: the Nybbles announcement, my summary of some of my followups, LWN’s take on the matter, and the applicable list archives.

James, Ryan and I also had a chance to chat some more about ftpmaster stuff, resulting in the eventual reorganisation and additions to the team: having both Joerg and Jeroen present and able to be taught how to actually do things, and to be able to work out ways of having “ftp assistants” who can do useful things without also being able to accidentally screw up the archive completely was pretty helpful.

I also got to chat to Andreas some more about what more needed to be done to get tiffani working. Hopefully that shouldn’t take much longer, as there’s just some random finishing to be done, like tweaking how some options are configured.

There was, of course, also my second rate DPL campaign and the odd night lost to reading and responding to people on -vote.

The weekend concluded with another yummy dinner, which for me was a delicious “baseball steak”, named for its size, not it’s toughness, texture or taste. It was delish. Post-weekend, we spent some time lazing around and/or hacking. After James left, we went to have dinner with Randall (spaghetti at Randy’s favourite spaghetti joint — Randy had the steak. Randy, apparently, always has the steak). I considered trying for a day or a half day’s skiing the day before I left; at which point the unseasonably clear skies immediately clouded and began to weep, and in any case Grouse Mountain seemed to have already lost enough snow to not be worth the effort anyway. So some more lazing around, a little touristing around Vancouver city, and that was pretty much it.

The trip home

Woke up (having slept!), tried catching a bus to the airport, got off in the city, but evidently too early because I couldn’t find the stop for the connecting bus even after walking for blocks, so caught a cab instead. Which ended up taking the back streets because there were road works and a traffic jam, so it was probably for the best. Got to the air port, checked my luggage, passed through US immigration (“Why are you entering the US?” “To go home!!!! At last!!!! No offense!!!!”) and got on the flight. It’s always nice to see “You are now entering the US” signs in the middle of a Canadian city.

The couple sitting next to me were nice Canadians off to visit their recently married daughter who lived somewhere outside of LA. They spoke of fascinating things about the snow in the East in places like Ottawa, and were generally pleasant.

As such they made a marvelous contrast to LAX.

After collecting my bags, I walked out of the terminal and decided “I know where I am. I should walk… this way.” Apparently I didn’t and shouldn’t have, and after walking a couple of terminals down, came to my senses and caught the shuttle to the right place. At which point I entered, to be greeted by teeming throngs of people right at the door, in strange unmarked queues doing who knows what. I tried joining one, got told the end of the queue was actually way back somewhere else, and thought “screw this for a lark” and tried finding a shorter queue to join that might be appropriate.

While the Qantas queue was, indeed, shorter; it still took about an hour to progress through so I actually got to put my bag in and get my boarding pass. Turns out the other queues were for baggage checking — you go to the airline to get your boarding pass and your bag tag, then you go to the TSA queues to actually get your bag onto the plane. Yay. Efficient.

By this time I was getting hungry, so I skipped the TSA queue for the minute, and went upstairs to eat. Because, being LAX, which is to say, retarded, once you’ve gone through security there’s nowhere to eat. So up I go, and after waiting an interminable amount of time to find someone who’ll actually take my order (as opposed to the bored, milling staff who wouldn’t take my order), and waiting a little longer before actually being given a tiny, expensive, glass of orange juice, I hear something that sounds suspiciously like my name going out over the PA. Well, there were vowel sounds that sounded like me — it was, naturally, unintelligible. So to the outraged stare of my waiter who apparently thinks I’m doing a runner before even getting any food or drink, I lug my bag back downstairs to see what’s going on. At least I don’t have to wait in the queue. As it turns out, they neglected to bother actually putting the tag on my bag — it had just been sitting on the counter, forlorn and forgotten. Idiots. Back up to the food. Drink. Eat. Drink some more. Get the $24.35 bill. Hand over a $20 and two $5s. Get accosted with the comment “There’s only $25.” Refrain from saying “Well the service did stink…” and say instead “There should be $30.” “Oh, thankyou, thankyou.” Retards. $30 USD for a hamburger and a few mouthfuls of orange juice. What a goddamn rip off.

And onto the TSA queue. Which is actually two queues: one queue to let you give them your bag, then another queue to wait while they scan your bag (and the twenty other people who’re also waiting), and then give you a thumbs up so you can be on your way through security proper. Fun.

Then Qantas refuse to let me into their lounge, for love or money, but at least there’s some free wireless leakage in the departure area downstairs. And some hot asian air hostesses too as it happens. Some four or five hours later, I head off to wait to actually board my flight, watch some poor girl throw up all over the carpet, get cramped into the middle seat in the middle aisle of a packed jumbo, and try to sleep on the way home.

Which more or less worked, and was followed up by the lovely short “Australians only” queue, a pleasant immigration official, a pleasant quarantine official, and a walk straight out the door, and home.

By which point I was about as exhausted as you are now, dear reader.

(And, odds on, the singular is singularly appropriate at this point :)

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