Friday, 31 July 2009

Travelog part VIII

20090729, 7AM. Midga's alarm goes off again. (Why can't he figure out how to turn the silly thing off when he doesn't want it? Next thing he'll be sleeping through it.) I take breakfast in the diner, then mooch back and play with Traal.

11AM. Lunch, again in the diner.

2PM. Arrive NY Penn; get wifi at ClubAcela. The person we were to meet now can't, so all we have to do is get to the airport. People here aren't nearly as helpful or courteous as we've become accustomed to, and the station itself is just way less friendly... still, after a few tries, we find out how to get ourselves to Jamaica Station, which is where the AirTrain departs from.

3:51PM. We're on the AirTrain. This thing is completely driverless... impressive, but leaves me wondering: what happens in a serious emergency? Is anyone monitoring from afar? It's rather neat though. We get a driver's eye view of the entire journey! The train runs at a pretty good clip, but not too fast for us to see the road signs on the way in, and find out that Aer Lingus departs from Terminal 4. Pull-ups at stations are about like a human driver would - definitely no worse, although if a computer is in charge, I would expect some more precision.

3:58PM. Arrival at Terminal 4. Now to find Aer Lingus and check in... we have 1h 47m before the plane departs.

4:25PM. We're through airport security. My prediction was off - I figured it would be less than an hour that we have to "just kill", but here we are, killing an hour twenty. Aer Lingus service is good.

6:08. Another 15 mins to takeoff :(

20090730, 5:15AM (now on GMT+1): We arrive Dublin. Cabin crew seem surprised by the rapid approach.

6:00AM. Midga lost his passport! Ack! Returned to plane in case it was there. Nope. Searched all pockets. Nothing found. We're discussing what to do - can we call on the embassy for help??? - but fortunately the passport turns up, in an unexpected pocket of the jacket. WHEW! Praise God. Meanwhile, I've been looking for wifi (you can do anything as long as you have an internet connection, everyone who watches movies knows that). Airport wifi costs money, but you can get live arrival/departure information without paying. That's a Good Thing, although personally I reckon they shouldn't need to charge at all.

6:30AM. We burn rubber through the customs checks etc and get onto our transiting flight. I misread the boarding pass; it said gate closes 6:15 and plane departs 6:40, but I thought the plane actually departed 6:15, which would have meant we'd have been seriously tight for time. As it happened, we got there at the tail end of regular boarding (even after going to the wrong set of gates, as we had NO idea what gate our flight left from - fortunately any ground crew can pull up that sort of info.) We board; on the AirStairs, there was a terminal with what seemed to be a telnet session for control or information. Midga walks up behind and says "GEEK"! (Me: "Guilty as charged". Crew member who was busily telnetting (to an address in 10.*.*.*, as it happened): Something dismissive, told us to get on board (with a sense of humour).)

6:36AM. Pushback.

6:43AM. Takeoff. (Not as bad congestion as JFK!)

6:51AM. Midga and I have a discussion about airline crews and accents. I think the Canadian and Kiwi accents are the nicest to listen to of all I've heard... airlines (especially countries' official airlines) need to take good care who they hire, not just because their courtesy and helpfulness reflects on the country, but also because of the accent! Incidentally, as regards helpfulness and courtesy, the only city in which we really missed out was New York. We were scurrying around, trying to get from the railway station to the airport, and didn't find anyone who was all that helpful, although we did end up getting the info we needed.

7:00AM. Midga's alarm fires. Duh.

8:04AM. We're down. Now to gunzel our way to Buxton!

9:08AM. Our luggage is missing. Blah. Well, at least it happened on THIS leg, and not one of the earlier ones where we had no time built in. Guess it'll be sent on to our lodgings. We're now sitting on a train about to head to London Victoria, from which we can get to Euston and thence hopefully Manchester.

3:30PM. Adventures, adventures. I've had enough adventures for a while now, can we just settle down please? Sigh. And it totally doesn't help that everything is noisy, full of smokers, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I hate cigarette smoke.

20090731, 1:30PM. Just woke up for the Nth time, but this time I'm actually getting up (rather than logging on to Thresh, poking around, and going back to bed). Time to wake up my voice and ring about the luggage.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Travelog part VII

20090728, 7AM. Midga's alarm goes off. My body flies out of bed and logs on to Thresh.

8:30AM. Wake up again, go back to Thresh.

10:30AM. Properly getting up now. Marah, Midga, and I discuss what to do. There's an expensive theme park right nearby, skip that. There's a much more economical option, but we'll have to hunt it down. All pile into the car with all gear and look for lunch first, amusement second.

11:30AM. We have lunch at Chik-Fil-Adobe (the A in their logo is almost exactly the Adobe icon), during which Marah explains the company to us.

1:30PM. Off to Discovery Place Museum. We got lost a bit on the way, but nobody minds.

3:00PM. A demonstration (part of Disc Place) of various ways of creating light. The presenter (on her own, due to some kind of mix-up - normally she'd have had assistants) was highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic. After the show-show, I asked her about a couple of things; turns out she's a researcher in bioluminescence, investigating when and why fireflies glow, etc. Fun stuff!

4:00PM. Finished with Disc Place, now to look for a chocolatier. Lack of wifi makes it hard, and we get lost a few times, plus the first place we go to is closed anyway. But we find ourselves at Godiva eventually. My evaluation: It's not Sweet As. I pick up a couple of boxes of chocolates for Marah and family anyway, though. We mooch off to a Borders and Marah finds the original "Pride and Prejudice", flips through it, looks over a few passages, and declares that the zombie version was done very well.

10PM. Heading back to Spartanburg.

11PM. Back in Spartanburg, at the railway station. We pile out and get all our stuff ready for when the train arrives. Time now for all the hugs and farewells, of which there are plenty. These people are totally part of our family now.

12:02. Train arrives. We board, and that's really the end of our America trip. Yes, we still have one train trip and one person to meet in NY, but this is it, really. We head to bed.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Travelog part VI

20090727, 9:37AM. ThreshCon is over, really REALLY over, and we're heading home. Some people departed late Sat or early Sun; most people left by the end of Sunday; we and one couple stayed an extra night to relax before the trip home.

Some photos have already been posted (privately until all those concerned give their approval for publication), and more will follow. I'll put a link to the thread when the time comes.

From a bookstore slash cafe near the hotel where we stayed, where we had lunch one of the days, Jodi bought "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", a well-done parody of the famous book. According to the cover blurb, "... Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you'd actually want to read". Midga's getting back into reading aloud in the car... he's out of practice but you'd never know it.

6:06PM. Plans for this evening have just been defenestrated by a phone call. There's been something of a disaster in Marah's family, which needs to be dealt with. (Her children need desperately to learn when not to place requests on their mum, though. It really doesn't help when they're throwing out "Can we this? Can we that?".) We all pile back into the recently-vacated car and head off.

9PM. Turns out the disaster isn't as bad as it could have been (phew!), but it's definitely not good news. We spend the evening talking and praying, mostly.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

ThreshCon

We're now at ThreshCon! The stream-of-consciousness posting will continue under the new title.

Got here at 4pmish, checked in at the hotel, then checked in with Ari. Met people, nattered, waited for people to gather. Eventually went off to tea.

Dinner was fun. Food's cooked in front of you, and it's not just cooking, it's a full-on performance. These guys are experts.

We're now (10:47pm) all gathered at the hotel again, and are nattering more... and talking on cit, too. Funny about that. Looks like Murder Arcanus is about to start, too. I've just been assigned my target. Right oh, [[CENSORED]], you're in trouble now...!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Disney World and Threshers!

It's been a day or two since the last post. Sorry about that, but a lot has happened and I didn't get around to blogging it all.

So we arrived in Florida and met up with Morvinia, and then (when he got home from work) Sanskrista. Great people... really lovely. And loads of fun. Morvi's nephew is staying with her too, and he will be coming with us to Disney World. (Morv does too, of course, although Sans can't.)

We come out Orlando direction and meet up with another thresher, Reshad. He'll be coming with us too. We all pile into Morv's Prius and toddle off to Animal Kingdom to meet Mabel, who works there, then we spend most of the day in Hollywood Studios (because that's the park that the Floridites bought tickets to).

Unsurprisingly, it was hot under the Florida sun. Fortunately, quite a few of the Disney attractions are indoors, and they keep the air con on high; so you wilt outside, then get inside and enjoy even standing in line.

And the attractions are worth it, too. They have a Star Wars exhibit that includes what, from the inside, feels almost like a rollercoaster, but actually goes nowhere (it's a full-on flight sim with acceleration and tilting to give the full impression). Two actual rollercoasters, both with a plot behind them (which means that people don't just wait in line to get on the ride - you first wait in line for the beginning of the plot, then you get shuffled onto the ride; means the waiting time "feels" less). I could have wished they were a lot longer, though. You get through it and think "So that's it?"; especially if you've been waiting an hour or more.

Speaking of waiting an hour, the Fastpass/Standby arrangement is well balanced. You can either join the Standby queue, which operates exactly like any other queue, or you can take a Fastpass and come back later. Standby will get you into the attraction sooner, but Fastpass lets you go away and do other things. The exact time difference between the two varies according to popularity, but the more popular the ride, the more extreme the difference - like, for instance, 80 minutes in Standby versus a 4-hour clock on the Fastpass.

As end of day approached, we all gathered up and made our way back to the hotel. Had dinner, then sat around talking until a couple more Threshers turned up: Alumsaye and Yubae. (We had been hoping to have Mabel join us for dinner, but that didn't work out.) We have a good time of reading funny help files and ooc info, talking a whole lot of rubbish, and enjoying Morvi's excellent ocokies. Actually, this was a pretty good mini-con... and a "drop you in at the deep end" introduction to the wonders of Citizen and Con for those who joined Thresh not two weeks ago!

And now, I am being dragged out to a swimming pool. Marah wants proof that I'm human; I think she just relishes the idea of a pasty-white geek getting thoroughly sunburned. Well, whatevah. If that's what she wants, I don't mind, but I can't find anywhere what color a sunburn is, so I don't know what to paint myself. I guess I'll have to actually go out into the sun after all.

Travelog part V

20th July, 5:50pm We're at the airport, about to head to FL, and they have free wifi. Alas, their DHCP is failing on me. Eventually Traal settles on an IP address of 196.254.115.68, which geeks will recognize as what you get when there's nothing to get. At this point I really miss my POSIX tools, because "ping 255.255.255.255" doesn't work at all on Windows :( Also I have no ifconfig utility; ipconfig is supposedly the same, but it's not. (Have you ever noticed how Windows has the utilities slightly differently named? You don't configure a networking interface, you configure your IP address. Meh.) I must look so petty here... whimpering because I can't do a real broadcast ping??!

So I'm offline :( But I'll survive. I've managed offline for most of this trip, I'll be alright for another hour. America's weird... I've lost my eternal connection (my 3G one fills in everything between my home and work ones), but when I *do* get online, it's so amazingly fast. The best possible metric for quality of internet connection is the ping time to thresholdrpg.com, and everything at home is over 100ms, but around here it's an average of maybe 30ms. Almost makes me wish I were borging more.

6:10pm. No room to blog while on the plane. Dropping the tray table makes it plausible, but certainly not easy.

21st July, 1:34pm Morvinia met us at the airport last night and we're staying with her. Too busy doing stuffs to blog!

We're going off shopping now, and Morvi takes the car through a car wash. Midga reminds her to make sure all the windows are closed, so of course she opens his just as we enter... although she closes it again before anything gets seriously wet. Meanwhile, Marah ponders the Thresh equivalent of a car wash... maybe it's Thracian weather?

Monday, 20 July 2009

Travelog part IV (short)

19th July 2009 8:40pm.
We dine - J's mom's treat - and since we're sitting outside, a few flies bother us. Naturally we Aussies do our best to deal with them, although it's a bit harder than usual. I discuss possible reasons why, including that these aren't your regular houseflies; we're accustomed to flies moving upward but these things want to go down (between the plates etc). J suggests that it's because we're in the other hemisphere and things go the other way here. Fortunately all the bugs get dispatched before the end of the meal - that's my Boy Scout good deed for the day.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Travelog part III

6:30PM. Fellow passenger Diana, mentioned earlier, is taking a connecting sleeper same as we are, although not the same train. We're all in the ClubAcela lounge. She sees me getting a drink and insists on showing me something: a chocolate bar with Obama's image on it. She also insists on buying it for me. :) We spend a good while talking about politics and such. She's definitely fun to talk to.

7:00PM. Just boarded The Crescent, which will take us to Marah's. Once again, folks are friendly and helpful - people hear that we're Australian and just open chat with us. The connie just informed us that we were about to leave, and would be departing "like a herd of turtles"... picturesque turn of phrase! Dinner will be shortly (they sure don't let us starve!) and sleeper passengers get first service. 7:09, and we're moving. We're heading out through a tunnel that Michael says is most likely original (bluestone walls and such); he says it looks about 1960s-70s. Like most long tunnels, though, it's dark except for a few safety lights, and we're going underneath a lot of the city, so it's not of very great interest.

Just sighted the Capitol building. Okay. Now we can say we've seen it.

Ha! On the back of the ticket stubs, it invites feedback by saying:

How was your trip?
Tell us and enter a sweepstakes to win FREE travel!
You could be one of 10 winners to receive $500 in FREE TRAVEL by completing a simple confidential survey at www.amtraksurvey.com blah blah.
(small print) No purchase necessary.

Very interesting. Very interesting indeed. Not sure whether that means no purchase after I've taken this trip, or if they would solicit trip quality feedback from people who haven't even taken a trip... fascinating. Well, I guess I might throw some feedback their way, if I feel like it. $500 free travel won't do me much good!

7:40PM. We stroll off to the dining car but it's full. We're told to seek back in half an hour. Back to the room for Looney Tunes.

8:05PM. Connie pops his head in to say that there's tables available for dinner. Nice! We stroll on down. The fish option tonight is salmon (rather than the trout that it's been previously), so I go for that. Mmmm. Favorite of the lady of the river, and no surprise. During dinner we notice a strange hot-electrical smell, which waxes and wanes a bit; it seems to be stronger during acceleration, so it's probably not the brakes.

Back to the sleeper after dinner, and we ask the connie to notify us at Gastonia, which is about an hour before our stop. Then a last couple of Looney Tunes and bed.

2:30AM. The train has stopped. I can't see a station sign though. After lying there for a while, I get up, don shoes, and walk the train in the expectation of finding someone to ask. Uhhh.... nope. The entire train is deserted. Odd, that. On all the previous legs, the lounge has been active or semi-active the whole night - or at least, any time I've looked it has been. This time, everyone's asleep. Also, I try various windows, but no luck seeing any sort of station sign. Eventually a crew person walks in, and I ask him where we are and how far to Gastonia; he says we're at Charleston (I think) and that Gastonia is the next stop once we get moving, 15 minutes away. Five minutes later, we're still not moving.

2:55AM. We're moving now, although I missed noting actual time of departure. No idea what the long stop was for.

4:00AM. Connie just popped in to say we're 15 mins from destination. Yay! Dunno what happened to Gastonia though.

4:15. Here we are!!

5:30AM. Marah! YAY!

Travelog part II

Last night was spent with Ysadri, a Thresher I've known for a number of years online but never till now met in person. She's lovely. :) We dined at a Thai restaurant that she recommended highly, and then spent the evening nattering and poking around on Traal - talking to Skan on the Skype, chatting on Citizen, and so on. Our train TO her town was ten minutes late, and I (thinking as I do of suburban services) thought we ought to ring her and say that we'd be late, but she assured us that ten minutes' lateness isn't all that much. The following day - that is, this morning - we had a northbound service due to leave at 11:35, we thought; turns out it was actually scheduled for 11:08, but it was running late. How late? Uhh..... three hours. (What is the use of timetabling something as accurately as 11:08 if ten minutes late is normal? It's like trying to tell time by the hour hand alone and then give accuracy to the millisecond. Makes no sense whatsoever.) Fortunately we had a fairly free connection with our next service, but it did mean we had only about half an hour in the Chicago first class lounge (yeah, people with sleeper tickets get the top notch treatment), and no time to ride the suburban system, nor even to look around the station, before boarding our next train. However, we're now on board, happily on the way to Washington DC where we will connect with a southbound service.

Dinner on board the "Capitol Limited" train is similar to what we had on the last sleeper, the "Southwest Chief". So are the carriage arrangements; curiously, we got compartment #4 both times. Opposite us (in compartment #3) is a lady named Diana; we got to chatting, and ended up going to dinner together. She's rather fun, has some interesting political ideas (and has thought them through), and knows how to hold a conversation over dinner. Was an enjoyable dinner; plenty to see out the window too, with sailboats (one of her interests) and trains a'plenty. I'm now back in the compartment, and we've crossed the boundary to Eastern Time, so we're now on the only timezone we'll need for the rest of the USA part of this trip. Traal has been informed of this change. I don't know what time Clippy thinks it is.

We're still completely dependant on finding wifi somewhere. The first class lounge has both wifi and power points, and Ysadri had a good connection that we were able to make use of (she has the connection, but no computer to use it with - hers died, it died, it died... I was all ready to build her one on the spot, but we had no idea how much time we'd actually have available (if I'd known the train wouldn't be leaving until nearly 3pm, I might have considered it, but expecting it to be at 11am meant no such opportunity), so she's still comp-less); but outside of those places, there has been nothing reliable. Every time we stop at a town, I check to see if there's any open networks, and once in a while I'm rewarded with one; other than that, we're stuck working offline. I don't so much mind blogging offline, but I'm coming to realise that most of the good Windows games I play actually involve the internet (MTGO, Kong, and of course Thresh) - all my best single-player offline games are written for OS/2 and reside on Stan. Oh well. Plenty of blogging to do, plenty of coding I can poke around with.

Interestingly, Michael's phone often can't pick up 802.11 that I can. So in spite of having been specifically bought to relieve pressure on the Traal, the phone is spending most of its time doing other duties (GPS speedo or compass, games, etc), and Michael's uploading Clippy's Logs from Traal as before. Oh well. Fortunately we get a good connection every day or two. I don't think we could manage else.


6:12AM (EDT). Got up and departed the sleeper (M's still asleep) to drop myself in the lounge. Outside is a lot of greenery; above us is an unbroken grey mass of cloud. There seems to be a lot of mist around, too, or else there's thick fog. Not sure which. There's either a lake or a river beside us, I think, which could cause mist. Anyhow, the upshot is that, while there's greenery in the near distance, all the middle and long distance is pure grey. I'm not sure where we are, although an examination of timetables would probably tell us. (Seems it's a river, as we still have it beside us.)

6:30AM. I'm going to need to get myself a Melbourne-time clock. That probably means coding something up. Hmm. Also, I finally got around to renaming all the RHains MP3s that had sat around all this time. I did a bit of Python to parse the XSPF playlist (which is an XML file) to produce a list of desired filenames, list comprehension on os.listdir() to get a list of current filenames, and then map(os.rename,b,a) to do the actual work. Beautiful. I love Python.

Hmm. For a while, we had left behind the fog or mist or whatever it was, but it's back now. I hadn't noticed us change altitude much, so it can't be that we were above it. Not sure what the cause is.

12:53PM. We're approaching Washington DC and the end of this leg of the journey. Over lunch (at 11AM) I got randomly chatting about geography - remarking that I'd seen plains, islands/rivers, mountains, and forests, but no swamps - and discovered that the young lad on the table opposite plays Magic! After lunch I grabbed my box of cards and we went to the lounge for one game. Then back to the sleeper to gather stuff and do final pack up while we pull in to the station.

1:36PM. ClubAcela (first class lounge) facilities open to us, as sleeper passengers. As in Chicago, power and wifi, so I'm happily blogging. Will probably get time to do quite a bit of gunzelling but we're not going to leave the station (on current plans).

Next leg will get us down to Marah's. Wheeeee!

Friday, 17 July 2009

Dining with Amtrak

Since we've been travelling Sleeper all this way, we take our meals in the dining car at no additional cost. (Coach passengers can use the dining car too, but pay for everything. If we'd had to pay for all our meals, it would have worked out to about half the price of our twinnette sleeper right there.) Lunch and dinner are by reservation only (the Dining Car Steward comes round asking what time slot you want to dine, and books you in), but breakfast is first-come, first-serve. In each case, diners are asked to enter the dining car and "wait......... to be seated". Every table seats four people; anyone in a party of three or less (including us) will be seated with strangers, so "You will be making friends all along the journey" (as Anton explained - in a tone that made it sound like "You will, or else!"). So far, we've had five meals; and only once have we been with people we were previously seated with. For breakfast today, Michael and I were separated (he was still asleep, while I was up and about), so I sat with a party of three, which otherwise wouldn't have happened.

We have dined _extremely_ well. There's no way that these Amtrak guys are going to let us go hungry. Sure, we could have gotten around the place quicker and cheaper by air... but the journey has been such fun, and so relaxing. (We do not want to arrive to see someone we've never met before, jet-lagged and exhausted, but this way we get a couple days to sort ourselves out before meeting anyone.)

I'm posting this from the First Class lounge in Chicago Union Station. As sleeper passengers, we get the luxury facilities, including an internet connection with 35ms ping times to Threshold - woooo! (On the flip side, it's 227ms ping time back home. But that's no big deal.) Premium service here, I love it!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

How's America different?

I suppose my loyal readers (both of them!) want to know what I found different about America compared to home. Actually, not very much... not much at all. People are people, helpfulness is helpfulness, and airports seem to be identical the world over. There's a lot of little differences with signage and such (for instance, their pedestrian lights have a countdown in seconds showing how long they'll be red-flashing before they go solid red), but there's that much difference between different councils in Melbourne. Also, of course, I can only compare with Los Angeles, CA, but if anything is contradicted by later experiences I can always comment it.

There were two things that were disconcerting, though. Driving on the wrong side of the road, and - believe it or not - the lack of "tick-tick-tick" alerts on pedestrian lights. Back home, our pedestrian lights give aural feedback - while the light is red, a sharp clear "tick" once every second; when the light turns green, the ticks come rapid-fire. The primary purpose of this is to help vision-impaired people, but it's a great help to the sighted too. You can allow your attention to wander, and then let your ears alert you. The lack of this means that we spent more time at traffic lights, which is a problem when we're trying to catch a bus that's a diagonal cross away from us and the cycle is too short.

Driving on the wrong (yes yes, I know you call it the "right") side of the road is mostly not a problem. I see cars moving, I accept it. There's a couple of times when it becomes more of a problem. The first is when I'm crossing a road that doesn't have any cars on it right this second; I'm used to flicking my head from left to right to see if there's any cars coming, and completely ignoring the side from which cars won't come - I look to the intersection one half, and the road the other half. Now, I'm looking the wrong direction, which is terribly disconcerting. (Incidentally, the trains seem to go the other way. Of the two tracks here, we're going on the left and trains pass us on the right - except once when I think we were shoved into a loop. Hmm. Maybe there's the pass line and the freight line, because the time we were looped it was a pass service. Must ask M if he knows anything about that.) The other time was when I was on the bus, and the driver started doing right turns straight into oncoming traffic (of course, it didn't help that he drove like a maniac and used the horn freely). We're swinging right, I assume that this means passing the oncoming vehicles and going to the patch of road beyond them; but it doesn't, and we slot neatly into the available space _before_ the cars (which looked to me like a left-turning lane or something).

Apart from the direction of driving, the level of unfamiliarity is really no greater than I could find by going elsewhere in Australia. There's a lot of familiar business names, a lot of basic structure of a well laid-out city in the Western world, a lot of universal humanness, that means we can get around quite easily. There seem to be a lot of level crossings here (they ought to grade sep them!), but they look pretty much like ours - except for one odd difference: no bells! Are Americans all so deaf that it's not worth giving that aural feedback? They're missing out on the benefits of additional modes of communication. Well, there's plenty of things we could learn from here, so I guess this balances it out a bit with stuff they could learn from us. So be it.

Travelog: Beginnings

Hello at last! I had hoped to post constantly, but we had no internet connection, so I've had to queue it all up. I'm now in Kansas City and have found wifi (I'm still on the train, but there's an AP somewhere within range). Here it is, timestamped in local time.

Landed at LAX around about on schedule, 12:30pm local time. From then until 6:40pm we had a few things to do: open a Bank of America account, get onto an internet connection and post to our blogs, sort out telephony, and make our way to Union Station.

The first stop, then, was the bank. Since we had no map (Traal failed to suspend at one point during the flight, and so had to be bombed hard, losing all my loaded tabs), all we could do was guess and go on memory. Went some way, then walked into the first place of business we saw (a car rental place) and inquired. Easy enough; and at the same time, gathered evidence against the assertion that Americans are rude and unhelpful.

Opening the account was fairly painless but took rather longer than we expected, largely because of requirements that we hadn't thought of - for instance, $75 initial deposit, for which we needed to withdraw some Australian dollar funds - but we were served by an extremely helpful and friendly gentleman; his exact position in the bank was not made obvious, but he seemed to be, if not the actual bank manager, definitely a manager of some sort ("new accounts manager" maybe?). His office was right next to the customer areas, giving him the perfect opportunity to be available to serve.

Next stop: Starbucks, a block further north, for hoped-for power and wireless internet. They were out of hot chocolate somehow, so I had an apple-cinnamon variant instead, which was... interesting. Still, we got wifi - although I don't think it was an official Starbucks offering - and power, so we could plan our next moves.

What we planned was to sort out telephony in a hurry, and then take a bus to Union Station. I'll let Midga describe the telephony issues, because it was his phone that had them... and I'll move straight on to the bus trip. If you ever come through LA, do your best to avoid riding the buses. Seriously. They have seats with no padding at all - worse than the worst Melbourne buses by a notable margin - and it's a long trip to the station. Also, our driver was somewhat appalling, although I was assured by a fellow passenger that missing stops that people have tung for is not normal. The driver seemed good friends with the horn. I was not sorry to disembark.

Union Station, and we pick up all our Amtrak tickets (booked via the web). This is the simplest way to do things, and also it's the only way to get hold of tickets for at least one leg, where we can't pick them up at the origin station. This works well.

I'm typing this up from the train (although there's no wifi so I can't post it), where we are partly settled into an extremely compact twinnette sleeper compartment. There'll be room for us both, but not a lot else. There is one power point, so Traal's on power; the compartment isn't lockable, though, so he's coming to dinner with us. He still thinks it's half past noon, but I'll inform him of the vagaries of local time once we reach EST.

The journey has well and truly started.

It's now half past midnight local time - that is to say, California time, because I'm not sure if we've crossed a time border yet. No wifi on the train, but fortunately there's power, so I have a fully active Traal with no internet connection. I dozed off at 9pm local time, woke up at midnight, and decided to take Traal down to the lounge/observation car for a while. There's not a lot to see; the only lights are in the extreme distance, and maybe would be of interest to someone who knows the area, but that someone ain't a'goin' ta be me. A party of three is playing cards at the end of the carriage... I wander over. Turns out they're playing Cheat! I would fain have joined them at the beginning of the next round, but there was no next round, there was no next upkeep.

We've just gone through a tunnel. I know only because the tone changed - it sounded as though a jet had gone overhead, only not quite - and because peering out into the blackness showed back a vaguely grey image instead of black with distant pinpoints.

Every now and then we cross a massive Constructed Container Block Constructed train - double-decked containers (how do you deck someone twice? Whatevah). As one passed, our table companion remarked that they sometimes exceed 100 cars; and on that particular one, I counted 95 cars. We passed probably half a dozen of these services just during dinner... this is some ENORMOUS traffic. If we had that in Australia, we could afford some serious track and motive power investment... unfortunately we won't get that sort of traffic UNTIL we do some serious track and motive power investment. Ah well. I guess we're stuck with the trains we have.

5AM California time. I'm back in the lounge car; there's now a bit of a false dawn, leaving me wondering what the nonsense about the darkest hour being just before dawn means... unless it's just that it's always darkest just before it begins to get lighter, which would be a statement suited to a Dufflepud. It's extremely difficult to try to gauge the speed we're eating miles at - the track doesn't talk to us at all. That could be partly because we're on the upper level, but mostly it's well-maintained track. However, Michael judged our speed to be about sixty, and based on the trees outside the window, I'd be inclined to put it no higher; this is quite a bit slower than a spark.

The lounge car seems to be the place for coach class passengers to sleep. Hardly the most comfortable arrangements, but it's a good bit cheaper than the sleeper accom that we took. (On the other hand, sleeper passengers have all meals included in the price of the ticket. That's pretty good going! The meals are all priced at $16-$25, desserts at $2-$5, etc, etc; if you're in Coach, you have to pay the bill at the end of the meal, but in Sleeper, you just record your car and room number.)

I've no idea where we are (although an examination of timetables might tell us), but there's only two tracks here. We've come to a halt, and I'm guessing that something's going to flash past us before we move on. There we go. A train just zipped past (another pass service this time, double decker, silver cars - looked like the cars that are streamlined to fit with single deck cars too, as opposed to what we're on which is obviously designed to be a full-height block train), and now we're moving again. Very gentle start; not sure why.

We've just arrived at Flagstaff Station. (Funny... it's not underground.) It's a picturesque country town, like we have back home. If it were in Victoria, I'd say it was a gold rush town - the era of architecture and such seems to hint at it. I don't think we're still in California, though, and I've no idea where else in the US they had gold rushes in the same era we did. There's a few wireless networks around, but nothing that I can connect to. Oh well. (Ah. It seems we might be in Arizona. Was there an Arizona gold rush?)

It's still pre-dawn, the sun hasn't lifted its head over the horizon, but there's plenty of light. We're trotting along lazily, as though there's all the time in the world and plenty of scenery to take in. And what is the scenery? Sprawling country towns, looking very typical of country towns back home, with some personally-owned businesses and some big chains, and a lot of the big chains are international ones (Shell petrol stations, Subway, KFC, etc). And as the Captain said, "Trees - lakes - mountains - seen one, you've seen them all". In fact, the most "different" part of America here is the bit that's coming with us - this full-length double-deck train, running so perfectly smoothly.

Another train of double stacked containers just passed us, this time on our left - that is, we're on the right track now. Peculiar. Incidentally, another oddment of these freighters: There's a lot of slack space between the containers. I can see the entire back of one container before the next one comes in. I've no idea why that might be, but it can't be good for streamlining. The main point of note about it is that it looks as though the train's finished already, and then it's not. We're now stopped while a freighter lazily strolls past, and I can see a lot of gear between coupling and container - in fact, these are well wagons, so I should compare with our own wells. So double stacking doesn't quite give you twice the capacity - it gives you slightly less, if you measure container slots per kilometer of train.

(It seems that trains run on the right same as cars do, so the peculiarity is that we had trains passing on the left during dinner.)

Ah! Sol has lifted his glorious orb. It's truly dawn now, at 5:37 California time (we're in Arizona, which is on the same timezone). Dawn would possibly have been a little earlier than that but there were mountains in the way; the end of the mountains revealed the sun a little above the horizon.

5:56AM. We're now travelling through the Arizona desert. A native Californian chats about the enormous amount of freight moving around (and not just on the trains, they have heaps of 18-wheelers on the roads too) and remarks that they (Cali) feed the world but don't feed their own people - food comes from Mexico. Not just from another state (as is encouraged by the weird sales taxes), but from another country. Seems the US transport industry is one of the absolutely recession-proof ones - if there's this much stuff being carted during economic downtimes (4-5 trains with maybe 200 containers each, just while we were having dinner), it's either recession-ignorant, or an absolute boom the rest of the time. I've not kept track of how many trains have zipped past, but there've been quite a few (some were pass though), and I can see some trucks on the road in the distance too. Ahh, the coffee lady (Shirley) has come on duty - at 6:02, and the announcement last night was that the lounge coffee bar would open at 6AM. The lower section of the lounge car progressively filled with people eager for their morning coffee... there was a "line" (aka queue) of people sitting in random places around the car. Hmm. Since it's now past 6AM, breakfast will probably be being served. I'm going to mooch on up for some.

7:20AM. Breakfast wasn't ready at 6:00, so I went back to the sleeper for a bit and came back for breakfast with Michael. We were tabled with a couple who had visited Australia three times, so we were able to chat about travel through deserts - we've been riding through the Arizona desert, which for once is actually green, rather than its usual burnt brown (which would have looked very familiar to us). As regards timezones, it's rather messy; California is on PDT, but Arizona is on MST - which is the same time - because they don't usually go DST (although I gather there's complications that mean they might sometimes...). Once we hit New Mexico, we change our clocks, even though NM and AZ are both on "mountain time" - because NM observes DST. We'll reach Alberquerque NM at about noon, and sit there for a while; it would seem that the train is going to head north after that, which means we turn left. Whew, looks like we'll get to the right destination.

Noon. We arrive in Alberquerque. Michael and I spend some time getting a few good photos and videos of turning left. After a somewhat late departure, lunch is served, during which we take some rather rough and tight turns, so Michael gets some decent shots of the train itself turning left (we were heading east from LA to Alberquerque, and then began to head northward to reach Chicago). I'm now sitting in the lounge car, and I'm going to add a keyword to all the Looney Tuneses where Bugs makes a reference to the left turn.

Dinner was excellent - I had the trout again - and then M headed back to the compartment while I parked in the lounge to hack Looney Tunes and get editing facilities (double-click the row). Back to M to demonstrate it and play some. I end up crashing out till 6:30AM local time (9:30PM Melbourne time).

We have telephones now, but nobody knows our numbers but us. As soon as we get an internet connection, I'm going to mail Kate and Jodi with my number. I can't find either of theirs, or I'd ring them. However, I do know that we'll be hitting Chicago during decent hours, so I expect at least one of them will be online. Obviously, once I get one non-internet connection, I can piggyback to others. (My guess is I'll find Jodi online, and ask her to ask Kate to ring.) Jodi has a skype-in number, but I have no idea what it is, because it's always been more sensible for me to just skype her. I've just done a thorough search of my skype history (back as far as the last install) for the word "phone", and not come up with a phone number for her. Ditto 1, but I didn't expect to find one there (there's phone numbers for people at AusThresh, but not US or UK).

There's not really a lot for me to do here at the moment. Without an internet connection, all I can do is pile an awful lot of words onto one blog post, to be dumped onto the web as soon as I get online - which probably means at Chicago - and it'll take you nearly as long to read it all as it took me to write it. Ahh well, at least you'll get up-to-date news (written at the moment it happened), even though it's not constant updates, like I intended for it to be. Once we hit England, of course, it'll be easy - we'll have an internet connection every night, every time we return to the HoR. Hopefully, daily updates and instant reviews of shows!

Finally I get this posted. We're leaving this internet connection behind in about a quarter of an hour, but I'll talk to you again soon!

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Air NZ and the chocolate test

I gave Air NZ the chocolate test on a piece of cheese. With our dinner was a small piece of cheese, which was rather delicious... so afterwards, I asked one of the flight attendants (bearing a name badge "Sharee") if I might have another cheese. The response was a smiling "I'll check what we have". She came back a few minutes later, with a cheese. Chocolate test passed, with flying colours... no pun intended. Thank you Air New Zealand!

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Auckland

Next stop in the travelog is Auckland, NZ. I'm making use of a full on writing desk, with two power points, writing gear, and... an ethernet port. Alas! I left my network cables in checked baggage... so I've paid for the wireless. It's $NZ10 for an hour, which translates into about $A8, significantly cheaper than Melbourne Airport. It's a good connection, and I can thresh on it. On the way home, must remember to have the cat-5 in the backpack, ergo in carry-on!

No complaints about Air NZ service. And in contrast to Emirates, there's no need to say everything in two languages (which instantly doubles the length of every announcement). Everything's working out fine so far, apart from one near-disaster on the train on the way in (which was resolved very efficiently by Connex staff - see Midga's blog for more on that one).

I've just been told (in a lovely Kiwi accent) that our flight will be departing at 1945 local time, instead of 1905 as previously announced - and instead of 1830 as printed on our boarding passes - but I don't mind. Might need to buy meself another hour's internet time, but that's all. This connection is running at a good speed, so I'm pretty happy.

Time to play some Magic: The Gathering!

NZ124 to Auckland

No, this is not posted from several miles above the earth, but it is posted from inside the aircraft. For no particular reason at all, I'm blogging from a 777-200ER about to depart Melbourne Airport for Auckland.

Wireless Internet

I'm posting this from Melbourne Airport, in the cattle-class lounge, near Gate 5. There is an open wireless network in the area, but the airport is all about making money, of course, so they ask $4 for 15 minutes' internet access (or $20 for two hours).

Why? Having installed the infrastructure, they have practically no costs. I'm fortunate enough to have an alternate internet connection (3G), but for people who don't, there's no option. The airport moves huge amounts of money through, why do they have to squeeze an extra few dollars out of what could otherwise be a rather convenient service?

Coffee shops around the world offer internet access for nothing. You don't even have to buy a coffee, although it'd be a bit impolite to regularly use the service without. Does it hurt their business to give without charging? Apparently not, or they'd stop. But of course, the airport has to make money anywhere it can, lest they miss out on some cent of profit that they might have gained.

Stupid policy.

Going overseas!

Two years ago, Michael and I went to England for the G&S Festival. I could say that we immediately promised that we'd return as soon as possible, but it wouldn't be quite accurate... but the fact is, we're now returning. And not only that, but we're going for the entire three weeks... and also attending ThreshCon in America. Yep, it's a big trip... a big trip indeed.

It's currently 4AM. In four hours, we leave home... another four, and we board an Air New Zealand flight to Auckland and thence to Los Angeles. From there, we become guests of Amtrak, in their mobile hotels, riding the trains all around the US until we get to Jodi's. Then it's off again, with her, and ultimately getting to ThreshCon. After that, hop across the Atlantic, land in London, and take the train to Buxton. Finally then, we will actually slow down... and spend three full weeks in one place.

Time enough between now and departure to snatch a short hour of sleep. Hopefully I'll get internet access often enough to keep people updated during the trip - for the few of you who care and aren't on any other form of chat. For those of you who don't care and aren't reading, this blank space is for you.

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