Lights back on

I had a busy summer. It’s been quite a while since there’s been a month with no posts on the blog, but alas, here we are.

What was happening? Well, we went to Asheville after school let out and took the kids to the Biltmore Estate, as well as teaching The Girl how to drive a Gator. (That’s the kids with a haybale on my uncle’s field.)

I went to Tanglewood and sang Mahler’s 2nd Symphony for my third time with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, this time under the baton of BSO conductor Andris Nelsons. (It was cool.) I also got to watch a performance of music by Schubert in Ozawa Hall with Emanuel Ax and Peter Serkin accompanying the Tanglewood voice fellows, on a perfect moonlit night.

I took The Girl to hear Chris Colfer read from his latest YA novel.

I made my annual Vegas trip to attend Black Hat, where in addition to all the normal conference stuff I finally visited the Neon Museum, one late night when it was still 95° outside.

I also got to see infosec luminary Jack Daniel memorialized as a tiki god. (Really.)

We took the kids on a ferry ride to Spectacle Island, where they got to see Boston from the harbor…

And we finished the summer with a family trip to Williamsburg, where the kids got to see another side of Colonial American history.

There were many other things that happened, of course, but I’m not ready to talk about Charlottesville just yet.

How Americans implement a class system

After years of flying for work, I have to things that I’ve never had before: pre-check clearance and status on an airline. That means I’m suddenly on the other side of a divide that casual travelers see, but often don’t understand. 

What do these things get you? Not much individually in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but put them together and you get:

  • To go through security without having to undress, or unpack, or wait in line behind someone who has no idea how it all works and takes three times as long, and therefore:
  • To clear security feeling civilized and without sweating through one’s shirt
  • To have a lottery ticket that gives you a shot at a seat in first class
  • To board early and therefore never have to worry if there’ll be room for your bag

That’s a whole different travel experience. And yet I’m conscious that it’s more like flying twenty years ago than anything else (though of course we ran out of overhead storage then too).

But it casts the annoyances of travel in a new light. The security theater is clearly not optional, unless you trade your money and privacy to avoid it. (The questionnaire for Global Entry isn’t arduous, but it gives the government a lot more information about your travel than it would otherwise have.) And the undignified conditions of flying in coach are unavoidable, unless you grit your teeth and stick with a terrible carrier long enough to earn your way past some of them. 

You don’t have to be born to class in America. You just have to trade a tiny amount of your birthright of freedom and choice to acquire it. 

Traveling, day whatever it is

Early in a trip, when I’m traveling away from home, the sleep madness awakens me early and I’m madly productive and I think grand thoughts. 

The best thing that happened today, after delivering my talk, was this lunch:


From left to right, that’s olives and fava beans, a lovely Tempranillo, bread, fried fish, and fried eggplant sticks. Not pictured: anchovy concoction that I gobbled down. 

After that, I got to talk UX with the understatedly funny Victoria from Seoul, and then: 

  • Taxi to airport
  • Mercifully brief flight
  • Almost as long train ride
  • Two Underground trains
  • Ten minute walk to my hotel

I’ve decided that my chief error was in not sleeping well last night. At the moment I feel ready to sleep for a week, but I have to be up in three hours to shower before the next taxi and the next flight. 

Looking forward to being home. 

Real Alcázar de Sevilla

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I had a rare opportunity this morning to play tourist in the center of the old city of Seville, and I took it, visiting the Cathedral, its attached bell tower (and former minaret) the Giralda, and the Reales Alcázares de Sevilla. Like the Giralda, the Alcázar has roots in the Moorish Muslim past of Seville, and it’s unlike any place I’ve visited before, with rooms visible from other rooms in a twisting, labyrinthine layout.

I took a lot of photos and will post more soon.

Travel day: London to Seville

The unspeakable luxury of a sit down dinner last night. The even more unspeakable luxury of awakening at a reasonable hour this morning. 

A gray and lukewarm day today, at least by Massachusetts standards. I relearn the importance of taking trains where possible, after an hour long cab ride at London rates out to Gatwick. 

The bar in the terminal has lunch and American microbrews. I fly British Airways; the language is a shock when I land. 

But the cab from Seville Airport is fixed rate to the city center and the cab driver plays “All Blues.” And the hotel restaurant makes a mean Negroni, which comes with a dish of complementary olives. 

I think I’ll survive this trip. Though it is, once again, making me regret my decision to only study dead languages in high school and college

Good travel planning

Here’s what I had queued up in my Fresh Cuts playlist for this trip:

  • De la Soul “And the Anonymous Nobody”
  • Donnie McCaslin, “Beyond Now”
  • Hoops, “Hoops EP”
  • Jungle Brothers, “Done By the Forces of Nature”
  • Mark Hollis, “Mark Hollis”
  • Sting, “57th and 9th”
  • A Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”
  • XTC, “Nonsuch”

You’d almost think I was planning ahead. 

Travel day again

Another Monday, another international flight. Itineraries are getting harder to construct the more I do this. This time I have an overnight stay in London en route to Seville. 

I’ve never been to Spain. I hope it lives up to the billing. I don’t think I’ll have the same reaction Sylvia Plath apparently did. For one thing, I won’t be going to any  bullfights, though an open source conference might amount to the same thing. 

The poppy appeal

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Traveling on the Great Western Railway along Brunel’s line from Bristol to Paddington, my trip was bookended by brass bands. My Uber driver dropped me off near the front entrance of Bristol Temple Meads, and I noted the red-coated soldiers near the door at about the same time I realized they were holding brass instruments. They began playing a soft ballad as I walked inside to sort out my ticket.

A few minutes later, as the trumpet’s line climbed up to a surprising apex, it became clear: this was no ballad. This was Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”

As I stepped back to the door of the station to listen I realized that the band was surrounded by blue-coated men and women holding poppies and donation boxes. And the context clicked into place for me.

In America, the reason for the association between veterans and the cheap paper poppies on Veterans Day is not top of mind for most. Here, where so many young men died in Flanders Fields almost 100 years ago, it’s never been forgotten. This was the way the British veterans kept the memory of that awful sacrifice alive.

At the other end of the Great Western Railway line in Paddington Station was another brass band in red coats, these wearing the bearskin hats of the Queen’s Guard. They were playing a theme from a TV western. The music lacked the yearning of “Life on Mars?” but it didn’t matter; travelers were donating anyway.

Travel day

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Today was a travel day. I flew from Boston to Halifax to London on Tuesday night and spent much of Wednesday in trains, finishing in Bristol. That’s a stretch of countryside between Reading and Bristol above.

The Bristol Temple Meads railway station is the end of the Great Western Railway line and was my destination for the trip. When I exited, I was struck by the plaque of dedication (below) referencing the founding genius of British railways, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I was also struck by the immense stone façade of the station, looking for all the world as though someone had dropped a passenger terminal into an old church.

As for Bristol itself—I won’t have much chance to explore, which is unfortunate. It feels a little like Boston: the same unplanned maze of streets, the same interesting mix of university, industry and technology. Looking forward to speaking at Bristech.

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Cocktail Friday: the false origin of the Martini

The Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, early 20th century and 2015
The Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, early 20th century and 2015, courtesy MuseumHack.org

I can’t escape cocktails, and cocktail history. Even when I’m traveling for work, they find me. So it is that I find myself staying in a hotel in New York that was once one of the epicenters of pre-Prohibition cocktail culture.

The Knickerbocker Hotel was completed by John Jacob Astor IV, after a development project on land he owned failed. Opening in 1906, it was a destination for after-theatre dining, with decor by Maxfield Parrish (whose Old King Cole mural created for the hotel bar is now at the St. Regis in the King Cole Bar). The reputation of the hotel was largely built on its food and drink, and its social connections; Astor was a bon vivant who was fleeing negative press surrounding the pregnancy of his second (18-year-old) wife when he died in the sinking of the Titanic. (He is said to have remarked, “I asked for ice in my drink, but this is ridiculous.”)

The hotel bartender, one Martini de Arma de Taggia, was said to have created the martini in 1911; mixing dry gin and vermouth, the drink was said to have caught on when it was favored by John D. Rockefeller. Unfortunately for picturesque history, that tale is almost certainly false; John D. Rockefeller was a teetotaler, and the Martini existed well before 1911.

The most likely actual origin for the Martini is in the drink called the Martinez, supposedly invented either in Martinez, California or in San Francisco for a miner who had struck it lucky; it was first documented in 1887. By 1888, the drink first called the Martinez was already being called the Martini. Though the version in Harry Johnson’s New & Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual uses red vermouth rather than dry, and adds Boker’s bitters (a little like modern Angostura), gum syrup and an optional dash of curaçao or absinthe, it’s still gin and vermouth at its roots. The first version using dry gin that I’ve found is the 1909 Dry Martini (II) in Applegreen’s Bar Book—still two years prior to the Knickerbocker’s claim.

Whatever the truth of its connection to the Martini, the hotel today contributes to modern cocktail culture with the St. Cloud rooftop bar. I hope to gather impressions there sometime.

I don’t claim to have anything definitive on “how to make the best martini,” but if you want to try its precursor, here’s the Highball recipe card. Enjoy!

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Travel day

Not much blogging energy today. I’ve been meeting with a lot of software developers, both in a strictly job-related context and in preparing for a conference I’ll be at the next few days.

I can’t emphasize enough how lovely it is to be at a dinner table where someone observes that we have different words for some animals as meat (porkbeef) than we do as animals (pigcow), and why is that, and then someone who’s not me gives the answer, which is that the cuisine words were brought by the Normans and hail from what is now French, where the animal words come from the Anglo-Saxon. These are my people.

A week in Olympia

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As my week in London comes to a close, I thought it might be interesting to learn a little bit about the exhibition hall in which I spent the week. As with everything else in London, the layers of history go a little deeper than you might expect.

The Olympia exhibition hall sits about 4km west of Buckingham Palace in the suburb of Kensington. From the inside it looks a little like a train station, with its glassed in barrel ceiling rising high above the central hall. You might be forgiven for guessing it was built in the early 20th century; in fact, it dates to 1886. It’s survived bombings, repeated requisition to support war needs in World Wars I and II, and (especially early on) dry spells in bookings.

One of the most curious moments in its history came in 1934. It hosted a rally for Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, that turned to violence, appalling and alienating many of Mosley’s supporters; it can be said to have hosted the turning point leading to the decline of fascism as a popular movement in Britain.

Knowing its past, I think I can forgive its uneven air conditioning.

Traveling: London calling

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There’s nothing like an international trip to make you appreciate modern travel. I’m in London this week, so I’ve had planes, trains, and automobiles—the last due to tube maintenance.

There’s always something different when I come for a visit here. This time, it’s the spread of contactless payment. Since the last time I was here, I notice many more Londoners using contactless credit cards to pay at restaurants, pubs, and shops. The technology is the same as that used by Apple Pay, Android Pay and others, but the RFID chip is embedded into a credit card rather than a smart device. Regardless of the reason, it’s nice because it means that most of the places I’m visiting have readers that work with Apple Pay.

It got me thinking about what factors influence the spread of technology. There’s clearly a benefit to end users for widely adopted contactless payment—no swiping or signature. There’s a benefit to issuers as well, given that the contactless payment transmission is harder to intercept than a magstrip swipe, and does not actually transmit the credit card number. Retailers are the long pole in the tent, but the threat of being held liable for credit card losses is convincing them to update the technology.