Saturday, December 25, 2010

Milford Sound

Our last stop on our New Zealand road trip was Milford Sound. There really isn't much there at Milford Sound apart from the lodge and campground (RV hookups for us) and the quay from which boat tours depart daily. On advice from the campervan people from whom we rented the vehicle I booked a powered site at the lodge (which we later found out was sold out). We also picked the smallest boat tour of Milford. The small boat was the best choice I think—not overcrowded and able to get close to the fjords (to see the waterfalls for example).
The fjords here are truly spectacular, although the weather can be somewhat unpredictable, meaning often cloudy and/or rainy, as it was when we visited. When sunny it must be really fantastic. The way the cliffs line up visually is also interesting: apparently when surveying the coastline, Cook (I think it was Cook) had missed the entry to Milford, not seeing it from the ship. One major annoyance here were the black (sand) flies. They were all over the place. They didn't bite, but were a real nuisance. The Maori legend had it that the flies were there so that tourists wouldn't stay too long and spoil the scenery.
The waterfalls pictured above was one of three (if I remember correctly) to which the boat came close to. So close in fact that at one of them I got pretty soaked when standing on the bow (just for fun). The boat also got close to some of the wildlife in the area. There were supposed to be penguins, and I think I saw three in the distance, but I wasn't sure if they were penguins or seagulls. We did get close to some seals lounging on the rocks. They found a fairly windy perch, which we were told they did to keep the flies off.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Horsing Around Te Anau

A couple more pics from Te Anau (this was me trying to shoot behind me with my left hand). When we were in Queenstown we saw an ad for horseback riding, but since we went on the jetboat, we didn't have time to go on a "horse trek" as they call it. So when we checked in to our campsite in Te Anau, Corey noticed a horseback riding pamphlet and so I called them. We were going to go for a late afternoon ride, but when we called they said they'd pick us up in 15 minutes! So we quickly changed, and walked out to wait for the pickup. I wasn't sure what to expect, since most other "rent-a-horses" I've been on have basically been lazy...they were hard to control and would only pick up some enthusiasm on the return leg. The place we went to, Westray Farm provided me with the best horseback riding experience I've ever had. Not only was the horse nice, responsive to my gentle steering with the reigns, but the trek itself was excellent—it wasn't just a out-and-back half-hour walk, this was a long, circular trek up a hill and around a couple of animal herds. We first walked through a herd of curious cows, and on the way back we split a group of sheep. The terrain was also the most challenging I've ever been on horseback—on the way down there were a few steep parts where I felt I really had to lean back in the saddle. The horses were rescued from a former life of racing. Perhaps that was why they were fairly nice: maybe they were grateful for their new life. Mind you, perhaps because they were race horses in their former life, a few of them were a little flighty. I may have been laughing in the pic below because Corey's horse was one of these (she got stuck with the type of horse that I usually get). She eventually switched with the farm owner's horse who then had to discipline the misbehaving horse (had to give it a whack on the neck to stop acting up :)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Road to Te Anau

After our brief stop in Bluff, we went in search of our next campsite. It was supposed to be some sort of Holiday Road campground close to the beach. The online description sounded good, but when we got there, boy was it ever a dump! And of course only one set of toilets was opened, making them unisex. Corey said no way was she going to be showering there and so off we went in search of the other campground in the proximity that offered a "farm experience". The farm experience was night and day difference—very well maintained place, nice toilets, and baby sheep! So Corey made the right call moving us to this place, as it was most pleasant. The lambs were quite friendly, especially when hungry.

Lamb feedings were at 8am and 6pm (sharp!) with the lambs bleeting rather loudly, reminding everyone when it was time. The lambs got milk bottles while the goat and adult sheep got solid food in pellet form. The farmer/campgroundskeeper gave us quite a bit of info about his farm, number of sheep, etc. One new factoid was that sheep are born with a long tail. But as they are rather poor self-cleaners, the tail gets bobbed, either at birth with some kind of hot iron, or like these lambs, they get a rubber band tightened on the tail, which, due to lack of circulation, eventually drops off. I dunno which method is less painful. On the one hand hot-knifing the tail would hurt, but it'd be over quickly. On the other hand the rubber band has to be worn for a while, and I'm sure it can't be very pleasant. Another interesting observation was that sheep have horizontally-slit eyes (unlike cats who have vertically-slit pupils, weird huh?).
After our most pleasant stay on the farm, we got on the road to Te Anau, which would be something of a staging point for our trip to Milford Sound. It's a good idea to do this as the road to Milford is fairly tricky (think old road to Whistler, especially that old 13 or 17 mile stretch that used to be fairly crappy to drive), and there are no gas stations at Milford. On the way to Te Anau we stopped at this outlook to take a look at the Tasman Sea. It was a pretty blustery day. Later in Te Anau the fellow whose horses we rode told us that out here fishermen can only go out 56 days of the year due to these high winds. Btw, as you can deduce, most of the pictures were taken by Corey.  She got mad at me the other day for using her photos that she took with my camera.  I don't know what the big deal was, but truth be told she does take really good photos, and I've neglected to give credit where it's due.  Sorry about that, hopefully I've now corrected this omission.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Another shot of the camper. This was at a nice "rest area" or kind of lookout on the scenic route to Invercargill. The lookout was out on a meandering river (at right in the image, beyond the trees, so just slightly obscured). It was a pleasant enough place to have lunch.  The road was not very busy and so the place was pretty quiet.  Except for the occasional lamb bleeting.  As (bad) luck would have it, however, we weren't alone at this picnic site for long...just a few minutes later another campervan full of what sounded like French rolled up.  Of course they came out with their Gauloises, or whatever brand they were smoking...stinking up the place (I used to be one of these stinkers—I'm glad I'm not anymore, especially since we used to smoke inside vehicles, I bet the campervan would have stunk if we had kept that up).
Speaking of the campervan (I got up this Thanksgiving morning, fairly lazily, and my mind drifted back to waking up in the campervan, I guess I kind of miss it a bit :) here is what the interior looked like. I have to admit that its creature comforts were quite good.  Behind the driver's seat was the dining table which doubled as a bed although we never set that one up.  Instead, we ended up sleeping above the cab.  You can't quite see it in the pic, but there was a mattress up there and a ladder that would let us crawl up there.  It was a bit squishy, but manageable.  The back of the van had another bed (in all there were three, as this was a 6-berth van) that we mainly used as a sofa.  We slept there the first night but the fridge noise was a bit too loud.  The fridge is under the stove, to the left of the sink.  The tall white door you see is the toilet/shower.  All of this equipment is very similar to a large sailboat, and most of the onboard systems are the same, e.g., electrical, including panel on which you had to turn the water pump on/off, water, with usable and waste water holding tanks, gas, and diesel.  I can't now remember whether the sailboat we were on was the same but I think so—I'm pretty sure it too had a diesel engine and propane for cooking.  The procedure on both, if I remember correctly, was to keep the water pump off unless you were actually using the water as it tends to drain the house battery and pressurizes the water lines.  Everything else could be on, and had to be on, to provide load when the truck was plugged in (to "shore power" as we'd called it on the boat).  The van also had an inverter somewhere which provided alternating current for regular household appliances (like hairdryers or what have you; for me it was iPhone charger, which served as the morning alarm clock).

Later on that day we reached Invercargill, although we actually circumnavigated it, as it were.  Here we are arriving at the "end of the world", well, at least the paved or road-accessible world.  We are at the top of a pedestrian-accessible lookout just south of Invercargill, at a town called Bluff.  From here we could see the town as well as Stewart Island, which I think is the southernmost piece of land before Antarctica.  Behind us was some kind of industrial harbour where we could see large tankers getting loaded.  There may have been an aluminum smelter or something back there, I don't quite recall what the nature of the industry was.  At the end of the road was this signpost on which you can find distances to other destinations, e.g., London (18,958 km), New York (15,008 km), Sydney (2,000 km), etc.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Tautuku Bay

This picture deserves special mention. On the way to Invercargill from Dunedin we stopped at a lookout point: Florence Hill Lookout, with views of Long Point and Tautuku Beach (Bay).  To me this looked like my "Zihuatanejo", a beach that a character in the movie Shawshank Redemption escaped to.  It was meant as kind of a place for retirement.  And at the end of the peninsula you can see little shacks that look idyllic for finally getting away from it's so remote that, according to the wikipedia entry, the huts are only accessible by all-terrain tractor.  It may be that the weather here is likely to be pretty harsh most of the year, but on that day it looked rather inviting.

Road to Dunedin

Our first destination was on the east coast: Dunedin (pronounced Doo-nee'-dyn), I think the largest of the cities we would visit. The drive from Queenstown took a couple of hours (was it three?) and it took me a while to get used to driving the big rig. Originally we had booked a two-person van, sort of like a small VW bus. They didn't have them so we went up to the next size, a 4-berth van like the one seen here but a bit smaller. When we got there they said we'd been "upgraded" to this 6-berth behemoth. It was roomy on the inside allright, but was a bit of a pig to drive.
Most of the roads were like the one shown here: pasture after pasture after pasture. And of course most dotted with sheep. In some cases cows or even deer (for venison). And all on the left side naturally. The campervan's steering wheel was on the right with the gearshift (automatic) to my left. I think our first choice was to be a stick shift, but I'm actually glad we ended up with an automatic. I've driven left-handed stick before (in Australia), and although I got used to it fairly quickly, the car I had then was much smaller.
Driving the behemoth was particularly perilous on one of the narrowest roads I've ever driven, Highcliff Road, or something like that, on the way to the royal albatross rookery. I don't think we actually have a shot or video of this road, however. I think my passenger was a bit too freaked out to be shooting camera. I think the GPS was to blame for this road selection because it was a bit of a shortcut over top of the cliff instead of skirting around the shore, like we chose to do on the way back. We didn't stay long at the rookery because in effect it was closed to visitors. This is the only place on earth where the albatross nest on land, or populated land at least. I think they also nest on some uninhabited island somewhere, but this is the only place that you can get to and see them in their natural habitat. So we were greatly disappointed to find out that we had happened to have been there in the three week period when they're nesting young and humans are not allowed to set foot there.
In Dunedin I was also hoping to do some shopping (always on the lookout for a nice jacket), but we got there too late and all the shops were closed by the time we managed to get in to town (this was the evening previous to our rookery excursion). We got to the "holiday" campsite (I think they're all called holiday-something-or-other). It was fairly nice, with fairly good facilities but I suppose it took us a little bit longer than usual to get settled in as it was our first one. And it so happened that the powered site we were to take was already occupied when we got there. So a bit of a mixup. We had powered sites at all four of our campsites. This was a smart move booking everything in advance as I think at least two of the sites were close to being fully booked (the last one surely was). All but one had good pump-out facilities, like the one you see here, where I learned how to dump out both of the campervan's holding tanks (grey and black water both).

Queenstown, NZ

The Rydges is where we stayed the first few nights in Queenstown before taking a few days to drive around the southern part of New Zealand's south island. This is also the hotel where the Asian Conference on Computer Vision was held, where I presented a paper at one of its workshops (on gaze sensing). Although eye tracking depends on computer vision techniques, this workshop was on a slightly different topic, more on eye detection and estimation of the direction of gaze rather than on eye tracking per se. Think of surveillance video, now try to estimate what people in the video are looking at, that's what the workshop's main theme was on. The paper I presented was on an automatic means of distinguishing eye movement patterns made when watching video. The tie-in to computer vision is that we compared eye movements made by humans with those predicted by a computer vision algorithm.

And then we went boating! I think this may have been the same jet boat ride that I once saw in a Warren Miller ski movie many years ago. In the winter Queenstown is a ski village, not unlike Aspen, Telluride, or Kelowna, for a few examples. I think Warren Miller may have filmed some skiing here and so it's likely that he may have also filmed the Shotover jet ride that we went on. It's only a 20 minute or so ride but it's pretty unique. Because the boat has two jet engines (instead of propellers), it can skim over very shallow parts of the river bed. The drivers are also well experienced and they get damn close to the rocky cliffs of the canyon we were in. They also spin the boat 360 degrees like you see here.
Toward the evening we went on a slightly slower craft, the TSS Earnslaw that you see behind me. This boat was constructed in the same year as the Titanic. This one had clearly survived and still sails today between Queenstown and Walter Peak Station, a sheep ranch (station == ranch in Kiwi). At the station, we enjoyed a traditional roast beef and Yorkshire pudding dinner. We missed the sit-down (first class) service and so made due with the buffet. I actually skipped the roast beef and went for the lamb shanks. After dinner we saw sheep dog herding and sheep shearing demonstrations. On the way back I took a look down to the Earnslaw's engine room. The vessel is driven by two coal-powered steam engines and functions as it would have done 100 years ago. There were two guys shoveling coal and an engineer who would control engine speed in response to the captain's commands relayed by the old-fashioned rotary dials (e.g., ahead full, full stop, etc.). After a couple of days in Queenstown we would embark on our road trip around the south island...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Flight to NZ

The flight to NZ is quite long: 5 hrs (ATL-LAX) + 12 hrs (LAX-AKL) + 2 hrs (AKL-ZQN) = 19 hrs, and that's just in the air, not counting layovers and time spent going through security. New Zealand's security is fairly strict about food and soil being brought in (I saw a little beagle sniff out some kind of pepperoni in one bag and a small bag of carrots in another—the dog could also sniff out food that was there but recently removed). They gave us a bit of a scolding for not declaring our hiking boots in our bags (which we really consider as running shoes). At left is a shot from the rear window of the plane as we approach NZ. The plane landed at about 07:50 so this is dawn as seen from the plane. The image doesn't do it justice, the eye could pick out the colors of the spectrum fairly easily.

At right is a shot from the plane from Auckland to Queenstown.  The south island has some pretty steep looking mountains, reminiscent of the Rockies, but with less foliage.  Queenstown, as it turns out, is an adventurer's destination.  Beside a couple of ski hills around here (too late for that unfortunately, we're here mid-spring), there is also a large glacier lake here.  So there are various sporting activities one could do here. Queenstown reminds me of a small alpine town, similar to Aspen maybe, or more like Kelowna rather, because it also has a kind of "ye olde British" feel to it, sort of like Victoria. Maybe it's like a blend of all three. I would love to try skiing New Zealand, but the length and cost of the flight really make that rather unlikely.
Below is a pic as we were being driven into tow—the cab driver took us on a scenic route and stopped at a nice vantage point. Below, to the right (at far right), is roughly where our hotel is at.  Across from the little bit of water is a tree-covered peninsula.  That is something like a tiny Stanley Park, that juts out from the town that is at the bottom of the peninsula, and at bottom right, unfortunately just out of the picture.  In town are numerous restaurants, pubs, and various kinds of shops.  Our goal today is go walk around there and look at various things (me, a leather jacket of course :)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Oct.22 Gig at Wingin' It

Our last two gigs were to near-empty audiences. I think at the last gig at Friar's Tavern at one point literally the only person in the audience was our soundman. It was strange but we treated it like practice. We'll be back there Dec.3 and hopefully it'll be more like Wingin' It depicted above at our last gig, Oct.22. I much prefer playing to a full room and at this gig we had a good turnout. In the pic someone wanted to blurt out something over the mic, so I got a couple minutes' break in which I could snap a quick pic on my iPhone. So you get to see what the room looks like from the drummer's point of view. This was probably one of our better gigs: we played well and I think the audience was getting into it, especially during the third set when we tend to play faster, more recognizable stuff. The Allman Brothers' One Way Out has a rather recognizable riff (and ride cymbal) that the audience usually responds to pretty well. I think we played that song particularly well and I had a blast banging out those snare rolls at the end of every verse.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


This past weekend we went to the Dylan concert held on campus in what is normally the basketball arena. An excellent show for which we had pretty decent seats except maybe a bit too close to the stage. It was great seeing Dylan and his band up there, but the sound was, for us, imbalanced as it was mainly directed toward the left ear. The highlight, for me I think, was Ballad of a Thin Man which they played at a pretty fast tempo. Come to think of it, they played most things at a pretty fast pace, which I rather enjoyed. I'm always being told by my band mates to slow down, but I think a slightly faster pace is better enjoyed by the audience.

Hounds at Friar's Tavern

This is a shot from The Hoodoo Hounds' gig on Oct.1. It's a new(ly refurbished) place called Friar's Tavern (the old Explorers'). The stage is pretty small there, but we managed to fit somehow. My drums were right behind our front man who said that I was trying to beat the snare through his head :) I like my snare to snap when I hit it, what can I say? For this gig our front man brought in some fancy equipment that can analyze the room acoustics and automatically balance the output while canceling feedback. It does this by having you stick a microphone in the middle of the room while it sends out white noise through the speakers. Some home theater systems do this as well. I think we sounded pretty good that night, but unfortunately we played to a non-existent audience. It ended up being a practice gig for us with the only person applauding being our sound man...Another gig is coming up this Friday (Oct.22) and hopefully there'll be a larger crowd.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Luggage refit

When traveling on business, I take my favorite piece of luggage, the rolling folding garment bag. I bought this a few years ago, and it's now been on several trips and has been hauled around various city sidewalks in different weather. It's gotten beaten up a fair bit. The last such trip that I remember it was on was Copenhagen in winter time—I remember rolling it to the hotel from the metro on cold, slushy pavement. That did a number on the bag's bottom that tends to drag on the ground when I overstuff it. I've been re-applying duct tape to the bottom as a way to prevent more damage, but having to replace this every trip was becoming a sticky, gooey mess. The last trip I took it on (to San Antonio), the bag came back with the handle screws ripped through the bag's top fabric (maybe the third time this has happened). I knew it would happen, it was only a matter of time. Previously, the plastic backing that was there had broken and so the only thing between the handle bolts (on the outside) and the nuts (on the inside) was fabric. It couldn't last. So for a long time I've been thinking about some kind of backing, but I couldn't decide on what to put in there. Plastic? That would break sooner or later. Wood? No...I can't remember what made me finally think of it, but aluminum was finally what I came up with. At the hardware store I found two cheap pieces of aluminum that seemed just the right size: one for the inside, the other as a kind of guard plate to replace the duct tape. The above pics show one of the plates (trimmed with tin snips) going in. I had to drill four holes and had to get the alignment just right to get the handle to line up. At bottom are two more pics of the outside. The plate took 12 bolts (stainless) to hold in place. I used rubber washers to prevent moisture from seeping in. I used oversized fender washers underneath all the nuts to ensure that they don't rip through the plastic/fabric. Hopefully this will hold for a while.
Oh, I should also add that the wheels you see above are roller-blading wheels that I bought at a sporting goods store. I've replaced the factory-made luggage wheels twice now. Both times they (Victorinox) were good enough to send me a pair for free, but all three pairs (including the original) were fairly cheap plastic things, which these sort of rubber bands glued to the outside. All three pairs wore out rather quickly. The roller-blade wheels are solid, roll pretty well, and hopefully should be more durable. So far so good—the couple of trips they've been on they've performed really well. And they're fairly distinct so picking out the bag from the rest similar black rollies on the luggage carousel was fairly easy. That aluminum backing plate should also help.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Real-time heatmaps

Some of you already know what the above images are about, but I'm so happy about getting this to work, that I thought I'd post a blog about it. It happens to coincide with the end of this year's REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program during which I had 5 undergrads in the lab working on several eye tracking projects. This year it was all about video, which prompted me to develop the program responsible for drawing the above images. Collecting eye movement data (x,y,t) over video is what I worked on in Barcelona. It took me pretty much most of those 6 weeks to get enough C/C++ code together to be able to display video while recording gaze data. Once that was done, I handed the program over to the REUs who then ran four studies and who also extended the program to do various other things. Meanwhile, the whole effort motivated me to figure out how to display the captured data atop the video frames as a means to visualize the recorded gaze data. The algorithm for generating the above heatmaps is pretty straightforward and is well-known. Step 1 involves dropping a Gaussian point-spread function at each gaze location, growing the resultant heightfield with as many gaze points as collected per each video frame. Step 2 requires finding the maximum value in the heightmap. Sounds easy, but for an NxN image, it takes O(N^2) operations. Step 3 then requires normalization of the heightfield (division by the max value). Step 4 then recolors the height (luminance) by mapping it to the rainbow color palette. The last two steps, which can be combined into one, together take another O(N^2) steps. The image above at left was created this way for a data set of 24 scanpaths (sequence of gaze points) on the CPU. Looks good but it's slow (took about a minute). The image at right took only a fraction of a second and looks almost identical. The trick here is to use the GPU to reduce the number of operations form order O(N^2) to O(log(N)) for the max value localization and O(1) for the recoloring. On one particular workstation with a decent graphics card I observed a 700-fold speedup due to these reductions. That just blew me away, which is why I'm so excited about this development. I recently moved that bit of GPU code onto my video playing code and sure enough, even for a fairly large data set (oh, about 8 people or so), the code appears to play the video at real-time (30 Hz) rates. I suppose I should take timings of this just to confirm how long it takes...this could make a nice little paper someplace. Other eye tracking types might like to know how the whole thing is put together...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Reedy River Gig

The pic is back from our gig on July 7th. Right in the middle of a heat wave, when it went up to 98F. If I look like I'm trying to concentrate, I was. I don't know whether it was the heat, the Gretsch drums, or something else or a combination of factors, but I was not having a good first set. I think it played ok, but I know I made a couple of flubs here and there. I pulled out my old Gretsch drums but I haven't played on them in a very long time. Lately I've been playing on the Tama rockstar kit I traded for my old Pintech electronic set. I like the Tama's larger toms and I think its compactness—one less floor tom. The Gretsch kit has two floor toms and maybe because of that seems more spread out. I remember missing the right crash symbol because it was out of my immediate reach (had to stretch for it). So after the gig I transferred the bass drum's resonant head (with the band name on it) onto the Tama kit and bagged the Tama kit. I don't think I'll be using the Gretsch kit any more, so it may be time to start looking for a new owner for that kit. Right during setup I busted a resonant head on the small 10" sounded kinda crappy the rest of the night, another reason for a lackluster first set...once I got into the habit of going for the second tom, and the temperature went down, the second set was much better.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Greenville Gig at Reedy River

Tomorrow the Hoodoo Hounds play at the Reedy River Nighttime Concert Series. Just ahead of this gig we got a story on us printed in the Greenville News, our local city paper, as you see above. The full story can be found here.

Monday, July 5, 2010

4th of July

As soon as I got back from Barcelona, it was straight back to work. I was already a week behind on my meetings with this year's REU students, so it's been pretty hectic. Today is the last day of the 4th of July long weekend, and since I'm stuck at home on the couch, I thought I'd update the blog. Somehow I managed to pull my left pec muscle a couple of days ago, which is why I'm sitting here coding and not out on the boat. I guess it must have been lugging the new sailboat battery that did it, but I can't be sure. All I know is my left pec is so painful that it's difficult to breathe. I wanted to get out on the sailboat, give it a nice cleaning, and putt around on it, but I'm having trouble moving around much. It's nice to have caught up to some badly needed coding, but it's really nice outside, too... Hopefully this goes away by tomorrow, because that's when I need to load up the truck with my drum gear for Wednesday's Greenville gig. Tonight is band practice, when I'll see how I can play in this condition. Major annoyance. Anyway, above is a short video of the fireworks that the city of Clemson puts on every year at the YMCA beach. We get out there on the motorboat and sit and watch (a major reason for getting the powerboat back in '03 I think it was—the idea was to have it on the water by July 4th—I think we got it in the water just in time). This is the first video upload I've done on the blog, hopefully it turns out ok. I shot the vid on my iPhone, so it may be a little blurry, although I think it managed to focus itself fairly well.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Although I had the option of taking the train to Barcelona's BCN airport, in the end I decided to cab it. It was either spend 6 hours at the airport or get 6 hours worth of sleep. I went with the sleep and hit the sack at 9pm. Got up at 3am, hailed a cab (lots of them around), paid the 26 euros, and checked-in. The airport was surprisingly busy for 5am—I pissed off some American ladies by cutting in front of them in the queue, but then jumped back out when I saw the "elite" line empty. Due to my frequent flyer miles I am privy to this service and so it took me 5 mins to check in vs. standing in line for what looked like it would take 30 mins–1 hr. Security was fairly smooth throughout the trip, including Amsterdam's Schiphol. The plane closest to the window in the pic at right is at the gate from where I departed and on a similar plane, the Airbus A330.

The AMS-DTW flight was its usual 7-8 hour duration, this time I watched the Academy winning Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, and it was about the only thing left in the selection that I hadn't seen that I was interested in. I'd already seen Sherlock Holmes (very good, btw, if you like Guy Ritchie movies, as I do) and The Book of Eli with Denzel (also pretty decent). Oh I forgot! I hadn't yet seen The Damned United about British football ca. 1967—1974 and about Brian Clough, a coach of that era. It starred the guy who played Frost in Nixon/Frost, and it was surprisingly very good. After that flight, I had sushi at DTW then hopped on to the flight to YOW where I am now. I decided to stay a few nights in the University of Ottawa student dorms to save a few bucks—46 a night is hard to beat, although I have to use the common washroom and I now miss having my own kitchen! Even though I thought that the little kitchen in the Barcelona apartment was pretty dinky, it's particularly good for breakfast items, something my stomach is now demanding :)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

(Temporary) Exit Strategy

Yesterday as I went to the grocery store (yet again—this time I only needed a few things, which seems more like the style of shopping done here: come in for a few things instead of the large, weekly shopping normally done in the US), I thought I'd go in to the Sants Estacio train station to check on trains to the airport. It turns out this station, directly on the route of the airport train, is right across the street from the grocery store I go to. The store happens to be just past the gym where I go work out every morning, which happens to be right in front of the Parc Industriel, a small little park with grass, trees, and water. To get to the water, you walk past this little grove of trees and playground where parents and kids show up in the afternoon. Once you ascend a tall flight of steps, you're then looking down on the water. I suntanned there last Monday where it was a bit quieter than the beech (no nagging masseuses or beer salesmen). Sorry for the poor picture quality, I just used my old cell phone to take them.

The Sants is a fairly large train station, and happens to be the first station I arrived at the first time I visited Barcelona. Back then I had wanted to get to Plaza Catalunya, which meant transferring at this station. Well, suffice it to say that although I succeeded, I was still somewhat confused as to how I managed it. Remember back then I hadn't really fully understood the three train systems that exist here. In fact, back then, I took the Renfe train to Catalunya, never managing to locate the metro lines that also go there (although now that I think about it, on my second visit, I think I did manage to switch to a metro line). Now, of course, on my third visit, this station looks mush less bewildering. And since it's walking distance to my apartment, and I already have a metro train ticket (which works on all three train systems), I think I'll just take the train to the airport Friday night instead of hailing a taxi. It'll save a few euros and kill some time. And it's a good thing I inquired at the station for the schedule, because it turns out there's some kind of strike going on, and so the train schedule's a bit messed up. No problem though, in fact, this Friday it seems to be in my favor as the last train is later than usual, leaving after midnight, which would suit me just fine. One minor issue is that the train station is at the older airport terminal, which means I'll need to catch a bus to Terminal 1 when I get there. Hopefully everything is still running at the airport as I basically intend to spend the night there...that's my "temporary" exit strategy, meaning my exit to Ottawa from where I come back to Barca for one last week (of vacation).

Friday, May 21, 2010

More shopping (and more laundry)

The other day I took the metro to (what I'm guessing is) one of Barcelona's larger malls, the Diagonal Mar. I think it's one of the larger ones, although it wasn't quite as large as Greenville's own Haywood Mall. What's more, Haywood Mall has more "upscale" stores than Diagonal Mar, e.g., the latter lacks stores such as Williams-Sonoma. So I'm thinking there must be other more posh malls around here somewhere. With Barcelona's population of 1.6 M compared to the 1.2 M spread out between Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson, surely there must be another ritzy "Galleria" type place here somewhere, no? Or maybe the stores are just smaller and more spread out throughout the city? There is, for example, a Henckels store devoted to that brand, specializing in cutlery (knives) and personal hygiene products (nail clippers, etc.). It's a pretty ritzy store, but not in any mall, just on a little side-street off Las Ramblas.

Maybe the mall is a North-American concept, I don't know. In contrast, Barcelona has many, many shops, each specializing in particular things. I'm not exactly sure where they're all located, however. There are various "village"-like communities throughout the city. Las Ramblas, for example, has a large number of specialty stores, and just off Las Ramblas there are various higher-end stores like the Henckels shop I mentioned. But Las Ramblas caters to tourists as well as locals, so I'm not sure whether the locals actually do their shopping there. Meanwhile, other "villages" such as where I am (Hostafrancs) has its own number of shops. I was told that each of these "villages" also has its own town hall, or ajuntament (which I think is Catalan) and so it stands to reason that each little area is also its own little shopping district. This is not uncommon, e.g., many large cities have their "little Italies", or "Chinatowns", I'm just not familiar with them all here in Barca. I did, however, find the official FCB store, and bought myself two jerseys. I have the traditional blue-maroon one, and I also bought this neon-yellow sleeveless one. In the pic (rather dark, sorry) I'm wearing the neon-yellow one, just before heading off to the gym in the morning (it's dark because I have the balcony doors closed).

My apartment building, all "fresh and clean"

When I first got to the apartment almost a month ago, I was dismayed to find its facade blocked by a scaffolding, covered up by a blue mesh. I suppose I should have taken a picture of it, but instead I took the time to complain to the landlord. Luckily he was both responsive and reasonable and knocked 20% off the rent due to the inconvenience. Well, I couldn't really open the balcony doors cause there were workers out there, I couldn't stand on the balcony without almost hitting my head on one of the scaffolding levels (one of the walkways was right at my eye-level), and I couldn't really see outside due to the blue mesh covering up the whole thing. The landlord had informed me that this would go on till about mid-June. Happily, they finished ahead of schedule, and as of yesterday the scaffolding's gone! Yesterday I enjoyed a couple of Leffe beers on the balcony (mine is the one at bottom-left, obscured by the tree), watching people milling about below in the afternoon sun. The good weather appears to have finally returned as well—I'm in shorts again today, as I was the first week I was here, all the time in between it's been rather chilly and one week it was raining fairly steadily all week long. Saturday there's a 30% chance of rain, but Sunday and Monday look good at 21 C and sunny, and it's a long weekend here, to boot! Should be a nice weekend and then next Saturday it's off to Ottawa!

Apartment cooking

Here's how I make use of my small apartment kitchen. In the pic I'm just getting ready to cook Penne with Calamari and Malvasia. At right is some bread I broke up and that I'm going to toast in the tiny oven just behind the little tray on which the bread sits. On the stove I have water boiling for the Penne, and my main pan for combining the rest: whole canned tomatoes that you see behind the small cutting board on which lies the sliced red onion. To the right of the tomatoes is a tiny little espresso cup that I use for small amounts of spices, in this case there's about a teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes in there. Just behind the pot with water and against the backsplash is the thin, tall bottle of sherry (jerez) that is subbing in for Malvasia wine. This wine was a good choice for this dish as it is sufficiently sweet and so I think a good sub for Malvasia (the bottle itself also makes a good rolling pin!). On the counter, in front of the cutting board is my block of Manchego cheese, the famous Spanish cheese (very good, btw), and behind that at the far corner is my plate of cut up squid (Calamari). All of these ingredients get combined into a very tasty dish that, in this particular instance, made 4 servings. To save some money, I basically at this dish all week :)

The finished dish is shown at left, with the Manchego cheese sprinkled on top—it eventually melts and "gooeys" up the dish. The Calamari was excellent, although I wouldn't recommend extending this dish four days the way I did, I just did that to see how far I could stretch it, next time I'll likely cut the ingredients in half. To the right you see the finished product of the previous weekend's meal, one for which I used the sherry wine as a rolling pin (to roll out the puff pastry), and one of my personal favorites, Beef Wellington, partially because it calls for beef fillet and partially because I liked the way Gordon demonstrated making it on TV; his own excitement is almost inspiration enough to make you want to try making it. The beef makes it somewhat expensive (about 11 euros in this case, but it made two servings), but the result is very tasty, especially if you don't overcook it. I was a bit worried about that with this little oven, because I had trouble with the pizza I made the weekend before. I couldn't get the pizza dough to bake properly, which led me to think that the oven was on the cool side. That may have worked in favor of the Beef Wellington, because the beef turned out good (pink on the inside), but the puff pastry appeared to cook fully. I had more pastry dough than I needed, but I erred on the thin side which I think was wise—the thought of "double-wrapping" had crossed my mind, but fortunately I banished the thought. In retrospect I think double-wrapping could have ruined the dish by potentially undercooking both meat and dough. And, curiously enough, in this oven, the bottom of the dough was more burnt than raw, as it's turned out before back in the oven I've used in the US. All in all, although the kitchen is rather cramped (the stove top burners are too close together and too close to the controls), it's fairly serviceable.