Sunday, April 27, 2008

Don't Mess with Texas

I love California, but the tax rate is preposterous. And since my lease is up for renewal (and my landlord raised the rent again - 3rd time in 2 years!), I decided it was good time to look for alternatives. As you may or may not know, state tax differs from state to state in the US, and some states actually have 0% tax rate.

My modus operandi is simple: use my weekends to visit different cities in the US, touring the area and getting some apartments' data.

I've used a trip to Raleigh to get a long weekend in Atlanta, GA. I spent some time with friends and some time surveying some very nice properties. I collected the data and moved on to my next target: it was time to mess with Texas.

I've used a business trip to Dallas to start my trip. Driving south on I35 toward Austin, I stopped at Waco for refreshments (I've only heard of that place before in relationship to crazy cults) and then at Georgetown. I visited an amazing complex, located at a bend in the San Gabriel river - very nice, convenient and affordable - but too far from an airport.

I continued to Austin. I stayed at the university area and started visiting apartment complexes.

Situated in a hilly are, Austin is an amazing city, with rolling hills, rivers and nice urban areas. I still think of some of the places I've seen. The view from some of those is amazing. Another one, called "The Domain", is situated in the midst of an open-air mall. Very modern and comfortable.

From Austin I continued to Houston, and from there I flew home. I intend to visit several other places (Washington state is next on my list) before rendering my final decision.

As always, I suffer from the too-many-options syndrome. To read more about that look no further than this week's recommendation.

I'd like to recommend Barry Schwartz's book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.
The book describes the common problem we all suffer from. Starting in the mid 20th century, we all started having way too many options (from dozens of types of cereal in the supermarket, to job opportunities, to states or even countries, we can work and live in). The writer does his best to explain the root cause of the problem and suggest several solutions.

You can find a link in the Amazon Widget.

Yosemite Park - Day 2


I woke up early and drove to Badger Pass. The route is amazingly beautiful, first going down to the valley and then snaking up the mountain again.

There are several vista points and a mile long tunnel through the rocks. Badger Pass is a ski resort and it was full of skiers and snowboarders, even at 9am.

At the ranger station we met Ranger Dick (don't look at me - that's how he introduced himself), who appointed me to collect a $5 non-mandatory donation from the crowd (everyone paid, although I think most thought it was a price, not a donation).

We each got a pair of snowshoes and a short explanation of how to lace them up. The walk is quite strenuous and is entirely on a slope. Be sure to bring with you sunglasses - the glare from the snow, especially on a sunny day, can be blinding (you get close to 180% sunlight).

I found out again how out of shape I am, and was quite happy I missed the moonlight walk - imagine the same trip at night, where if you drop back, you get stranded in the snow. The funny thing was that despite the mountains of snow and ice around us, everyone were hot. So make sure you wear layers.

I proceeded down the mountain and had some lunch at the village. From there to the Yosemite Lodge, where I took a tour around the main attractions of the park.
I recommend it if you want to see all the highlights and snap some pics in a limited amount of time.

Over the last 2 days I found myself stopping at the side of the road, looking up and inhaling deeply. This park is one of the greatest manifestations of nature I've seen since visiting the Canadian Rockys. I highly recommend it.

Yosemite Park - Day 1

I've decided to use the long weekend ("Good Friday") and get my lazy ass out of the house.

Yosemite park is one of those "must visit" points, and Google Maps showed it was just 170 miles away, so I hit the road.

I intended to follow the GMaps instructions, but my GPS tried pulling me in different directions. It also kept crashing ("uncaught Java exception" - whatever happened to exception handling?) and finally, I took a wrong turn somewhere and when it rebooted, it dragged me an extra 50 miles. And after it served me so well in Quebec...

I got to the Cedar Lodge at El Portal on CA-140, 8 miles outside of the western entrance to the park. The place is nice and clean. On the off season (before May) you could get a room for $79 a night. But since I decided a day in advance and it being a holiday weekend, it came up to $143 a night. I was upgraded to a room with a huge 4 poster bed and a jacuzzi. The building has an indoor pool. I recommend it highly, unless you can book any of the hotels inside the park.

While this time of year is considered off season, with some of the main roads and attractions closed due to snow and avalanches, I lucked into a wonderful clear weather that permitted clear views of the peaks, valleys and waterfalls.

The Drive from the lodge to the park is short and scenic. The Merced river snakes along the road, tall trees shade it, and above them the high cliffs of Yosemite make you feel insignificant. I managed to see Bridalveil fall (short walk from the road - 0.4 miles each way). You can get up close to the fall and get mystified (and by that I mean, get wet by the mist thrown off it).

From there I continued to Yosemite village. Here you can visit the visitors' center, shop at the store, eat a good sandwich at Deegnan's Deli (try the hot roast beef) and visit the Ansel Adams museum. At the Yosemite Lodge (10 minutes walk from the village center) you can register for several guided tours and activities. I registered for a valley floor tour and a snowshoe walk (missed the moonlight walk by 20 minutes - lucky me as I found out later) and returned to the lodge.

Couple of good-to-know facts:

  • Dining options up the mountain are limited. The lodge has a restaurant (5 out of 10) and so does the neighboring lodge. Other options are in the park, or at the bottom of the mountain (20 miles drive which is not fun at night).
  • There's no cell reception anywhere on the mountain (that also means that wireless cards don't work - so no internet for 3 days. Probably a good thing :)). The only place around with cell reception is in the village (for the benefit of the rangers who live there). If you get a flat tire, stand by the side of the road and hope someone pulls over.
  • Something I read before but forgot and paid for - fuel on the mountain is extremely expensive. The difference between Mariposa and El Portal is $1-1.20 per gallon.
  • Expect road delays of up to 30 minutes in some of the park roads. Some are caused by construction, carried out all over the park, and causing some road sections to be reduced to a single lane. Some are caused by traffic jams. And some by Bambi jams. These happen when someone spots a deer and everyone stop helter-skelter to take photos. The deer are very trusting and are used to humans and will allow you to step up and take your shot (which is very sad for the deer, 'cause come hunting season, you can just step up to it, put your gun to its head, and turn a Bambi jam into a Bambi bam).

Read about my second day at the park here. And a serious question: can someone please explain why I had no GPS reception anywhere on the mountain, yet my XM radio worked relatively well (some hiccups in certain areas). Don't both technologies use satellites?

Back on Track

I haven't written in my blog regularly for a while now.

It was an unfortunate combination of extreme case of travelitis, some personal problems, some family health issues and - just to top it off nicely - some problems at work.

Well, most of the health problems are solved, my dentist is about to become a tad richer, I'm resting off my jet lag, and since it's Sunday - work problems are non relevant smile.

Following this post are:
  • 2 Yosemite Park posts (first and second parts)
  • A Texas trip report
  • A Technology digest

Friday, April 18, 2008

November

This weekend finds me in New York City. I decided to treat myself to a Broadway show. After reading the reviews, I saw there's a new play by one of my favorite writers, David Mamet.

November describes 2 days in the last week of a corrupt president, about to lose his re-election. As his aide informs him in the first minute, he's losing because he fu*ked everyone up.

And it gets even better from there. As the list of parallels between the fictional president and a string of real ones becomes evident, we learn this president is not even bothering to hide his personal agenda anymore. I haven't had this much fun in an hour and a half in a long time.

Mamet's dialog is amazingly funny, intelligent and current. Nathan Lane as the president and Dylan Baker as his aide do an excellent job, and the expressions on their faces are priceless.

I managed to score an orchestra level ticket (2nd row) so I got to see the actors up close. (You can get the same at the day of the show at TKTS on 46th st. and 7th Avenue (beware! - cash only)).

At the end of the show, after a well-deserved standing ovation, the actors stepped to the front of the stage and held an impromptu auction of signed material (benefiting an AIDS foundation), It was as funny as the play - Nathan Lane doesn't need a script to be funny.

Recommended.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Save the Sharks

No, this is not a hockey column about the SJ Sharks, my local team smile.

This one is about real sharks. I just finished watching Rob Stewart's amazing film SharkWater, and I'm still shaken to the core. The atrocities committed on sharks and other sea animals, horrifically documented in the film, in the name of "killing monsters", or just plain profit (shark fins industry is second only to drug trafficking in price per pound) can make your stomach turn.

Stewart, a marine biologist, wanted to film the animal he likes the most. He got into confrontations with illegal poachers in the Galapagos underwater reservation, and the mafia in Costa Rica (who apparently profit immensely from shark finning - the act of catching a shark, sawing off its fins and throwing it overboard, still bleeding).

Along the way you learn about the importance of sharks to life in the ocean and on Earth, and meet some of the people who dedicate (and often risk) their lives in the effort to protect wildlife.

The film has some of the most beautiful underwater sequences, with and without sharks. But it's not for kids - because it shows some of the horrible acts committed by the most vicious predator in the world (that's us).

I recommend watching it in theater, or in HD, to get the full effect. You can also get the DVD here.

If you want to know what you can do to save the sharks of this world, go to SavingSharks.com.

And one last fact: more people in the world are killed each year by elephants than sharks.

Monday, April 7, 2008

I'm an Uncle, Again...and Again

I don't usually share my personal life here, but it's not every day one has a niece and a nephew added to his family within the span of 3 weeks.

3 weeks ago, my brother's wife gave birth to a new baby girl. 2 hours ago my sister gave birth to a new baby boy. That makes it a total of 5 kids in this world who call me "Uncle Traveling Tech Guy" ("uncle trav" for short smile).

Now, I'm not going to put any baby pictures in here, partly to protect their privacy (we're all about security on this blog wink) and partly because I believe that the most hated pictures people have to look at are other people's baby pictures (not to mention that they all look the same smile).

So, suffice it to say I'm happy for my brother and sister and am already preparing for that day in the future I'll have to buy 5 gadgets for each family gathering...

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Earth Hour - Whatever

A bit over a week ago, people around the world "celebrated" Earth Hour (here's the official site). A bunch of cities around the world volunteered to darken their famous monuments (Opera House in Sydney, Coca Cola sign in Atlanta etc.) and streets for an hour, in an effort to save energy and raise awareness to global warming.

Google, and other companies, darkened the background of their home pages, claiming black pixels consume less energy.

Now, I'm all for the environment and improving the quality of our atmosphere, but this marketing campaign is driving me mad. Here are some facts I find irritating about "Earth Hour":
  1. Turning power on and off at many places at the same time creates power grid fluctuations. Power plants then have to spend more energy to compensate for the fluctuations. Result: more energy is consumed.

  2. Those monuments with their thousands of light bulbs consume a lot of energy all year long. Want to contribute? Turn them off permanently, or at least change the bulbs to LEDs. Turning them off for an hour is as futile as preserving wildlife in captivity.

  3. I watched this "event" at my friend's house in Atlanta. The anchor asked everyone to please turn off all electricity in their home for an hour - but leave all TVs on. Presumably, your TV doesn't consume any electricity (or is it that the news station still needs the revenue from commercials at this hour?).

  4. And then came the sponsor list of Earth Hour: GE - a company that makes money if we waste energy. And Jeep. Jeep!? The company that makes all those gas guzzling SUVs and "all terrain vehicles" (specifically modeled to fit the LA roads)? What do they have to contribute to the earth? Better have those companies work on alternatives to fossil fuel and to gas-driven vehicles.

  5. This "TV event" was followed by many "on-the-scene" reporters, which I'd like to believe arrived at their reporting locations driving their hybrid vehicles. But I presume they just used a huge air-polluting news van.

  6. Finally, let's look at the string of bandwagon-hopping companies that "darkened" their web sites.

    This might have been right in the old CRT days, but an LCD screen (like your laptop monitor, or your flat desktop screen) consumes the same amount of energy, regardless of the pixel color. So sites like Blackle, claiming to save millions of watts, are either plain mistaken, or just feed you BS on purpose.

    Google was asked recently why don't they darken their site permanently, and the cited this research, showing that in a Blackle vs. Google comparison, on average, black background actually consumes more electricity that white background.

    Whoops! Looks like all those site background changes actually got people to consume more energy during Earth Hour. I would have laughed, but studies show laughter consumes more oxygen off the atmosphere...

Friday, April 4, 2008

Fidelity Funds and Genocide

A week a go I wrote about Google's board urging shareholders to vote against resolutions that will make the company more humane (i.e. take human rights into business decisions and refuse to cooperate with censorship). I urged my fellow shareholders to vote FOR the resolutions (read My Vote Counts!)

But Google is not the only company whose share holders would like to see behave more humanly. Today I received an invitation to vote on several Fidelity Funds stocks that I hold. I usually throw out those letters - but this time, this caught my eye:

You see, some people would like the board to screen out stocks of companies that "substantially contribute" to genocide (I guess if you contribute just a little, it's Ok). But the board would like you to vote against this. "We don't care how they make their money, just how much money they make" - should be the new motto.

Needless to say, I voted FOR the proposal. And again I would like to urge my fellow human beings to vote for this or any similar resolution you come across. Take a second to look at what your boards are asking you to vote on - and vote with your conscience.

I re-wrote the title of this post several times, just so I won't end up at the sharp end of a law suite. This is the mildest I could make it.

Hardy Heron Coming Soon

A new version of the Ubuntu OS, dubbed "Hardy Heron" is coming out soon. To celebrate its release, I've added a countdown image on the right hand side. Clicking it will take you to the Ubuntu homepage.

You can test Ubuntu on any machine (32 and 64 bit versions are available for Intel, AMD and Sun Sparc machines), or virtual machine. It has very low hardware requirements. You can also "try-before-you-buy" by using the LiveCD option (it allows you to boot the system and play with it, without installing). And did I mention it's free?

Read my review of the current version of Ubuntu here.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Test Your Anti Virus

Just stumbled upon this tip, tried it and decided to share it with you.
You can never tell whether your AV app is working, until something goes wrong. This harmless test will tell you if it's doing it's job:
  1. Open a text editor (e.g. Notepad).
  2. Copy-paste the following string (one line) into the editor:
    X5O!P%@AP[4\PZX54(P^)7CC)7}$
    EICAR-STANDARD-ANTIVIRUS-TEST-FILE!$H+H*

  3. Save the file as EICAR.COM on your desktop.
  4. Open a CMD window and try to execute this .COM file (or simply double-click the file on Desktop).
  5. At this point, your AV should report the file as suffering from the EICAR virus.
  6. To further test your AV, you can zip the file, send it as an email attachment, etc.
  7. Try sending it to GMail, to see wheteher Google's AV manages to identify it. Repeat with Yahoo, Hotmail etc.
I'm using AVG 8 and it caught it on step 3. As I was saving the text to the file, a popup screen jumped, declared the file infected and moved it to quarantine.

Post a comment and let me know how your AV passed this test. Hopefully we can come up with some interesting results.