Tag Archives: travel

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Oregon

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We took the Canadian Thanksgiving off and went down the Oregon coast after spending some time at the Great Wolf Lodge in Centralia, Washington.

Here are a few of the pictures:


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Shots in the shower (no not that kind)

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While in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, I took some pics in the shower … of the shower curtain.

Backlit, with a translucent inner layer spotted with water droplets and a patterned back layer, the curtain reminded me of Jupiter or Saturn.

Voila:


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Party @ Zynga headquarters

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After the MobileBeat conference day 1, Zynga invited us over to their San Francisco headquarters for a party. And there are few corporate HQs as awesome as Zynga’s.

Here’s a few of my shots from the evening:


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Memories of Portugal

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Three years ago I was in Portugal, working with Intel on solutions for educational technology in emerging markets. Portugal, of course, is in some ways leading the charge in terms of providing computers for students, having provided millions of netbooks in Portuguese schools.

It was a wonderful trip, including time in both Porto in the north, and Lisbon itself. And it was a great opportunity for photography.

Some of my memories, via Flickr:


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Lessons in life and adventure

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I follow Chris Guillebeau, an author whose mission is to visit every country in the world. Every. Single. One.

He posted 34 things I’ve learned about life and adventure today – on his 34th birthday. Here’s the ones that resonate most with me … any my own thoughts on each of them.

Deadlines & quotas are your friends
There is nothing that focuses your brain like a deadline. Set ’em if you don’t have them, and use their peculiar psychological power to prod you to greater achievement.

My quota for writing is at least 33 minutes a day, usually first thing in the day. I can do more, but that’s minimum. And that gives me the discipline to be 124 pages into my first novel, No Other Gods.

Helping others makes your own life better
It’s why I coach two baseball teams. It’s how any bad day can be made at least somewhat better. You can’t stay miserable when you’re helping other people – it’s almost impossible.

Love the process
The product – the end goal of any project – is a tiny fraction of the totality of your life. Enjoy the road, the means, the path, if you want to enjoy your life.

Be a believer, not a cynic
This is huge. Just huge. Being a believer might sometimes result in disappointment or misadventure. But the reward is the kind of person you become: warmer, nicer, more positive. The world is full of negativity. Focusing on the positive is your best defence.

I’ll take some disappointments for the privilege. It’s the cost of doing business – living life – happily.

Choose active over passive whenever possible
Also super-important. Doing something – almost anything – is usually better than doing nothing. It feels better, it accomplishes something, it goes somewhere, and, even if only psychologically, puts you in a better position for the future.

Ask a lot of questions
This is the most interesting part about other people: they know stuff you don’t. Learning from others is fun and easy … especially when they’re passionate. Someone who is passionate about what they do has a hard time being boring when talking about it.

Say yes more often than no
I know that design requires choices, and business needs focus. And that Steve Jobs is famous for praising the power of no. But personally, saying yes to experiences, options, opportunities opens you up to so much more. No is the word of stasis, seclusion, retreat. Yes is wanting more of life.

That’s only 7 of the 34. I strongly suggest you follow that link and read all of them.


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Montreal

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I was in Montreal for a week recently for meetings. Fortunately I also had the opportunity to do some photo walks in the afternoons and evenings.

Here’s a few of the fruits of my labor:


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SXSW 2011: the slideshow

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The photos I’ve taken so far during South by Southwest 2011, in Austin, Texas:


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Google & HotPot: Google just invented PlaceRank

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We all know PageRank … the product of the mythical Google algorithm that magically assigns each website and webpage a numerical quality score for certain searches. Now Google’s just added “PlaceRank.”

I’m using quotes because they haven’t announced it that way, but that’s essentially what it is. And it’s not all that new … local search companies have essentially been doing similar things for some time. TripAdvisor results, for instance, are ranked by location and recommendations.

The announcement is here, but you actually have to watch the movie to catch the important parts … so I’ve embedded it just below this post.

What Google’s just done is added an Amazon.com “like-ness” feature to the physical world. With HotPot, instead of telling customers that people who purchased X also purchased Y, Google will be telling you that since you loved Bob’s Burgers, you’ll probably also like Diane’s Doughnuts.

“Tell us about the place you know, to discover the places you’ll love.”

In other words, as you recommend places, you’re building Google’s database of not just what’s good in the ‘hood, so to speak … but also Google’s database of what you like. And not just what you like now, but perhaps even more importantly, what you’re likely to like in the future.

Interesting. And inevitable. And smart.

With this addition, Google has gone a little bit beyond what it’s done to date in local search. So far, it’s pretty much added features that everyone else already has. Now, it’s using the Google weapon of choice – the algorithm – to disrupt local search.

See the video announcement:

See additional commentary:


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TripAdvisor & Facebook: the enemy of my enemy is my friend

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Yesterday TripAdvisor launched a new version of their site. The key difference? Enabling Facebook’s instant personalization. This is suspiciously soon after blocking Google from displaying TripAdvisor reviews on google.com … these two events are related.

What does it do
Instant personalization takes your friends to the web with you. All the reviews and activities that your connections on Facebook have engaged in now become part of the website you’re visiting. So for TripAdvisor, I can see that my friends have recently reviewed a hotel, where my friends most popular destinations are, and so on. I can also see cities that my friends have visited – or pinned. It’s very cool, very social, very relevant, very interesting.

How it’s related
Yesterday I posted this on Twitter:

Google vs Facebook is like the cold war: USA vs USSR. I feel like a small African nation in the 70s … which do I choose to align to?

TripAdvisor is making a determination here – very publicly – that Facebook poses less of a challenge to their business model than Google. (Make no mistake … Facebook poses plenty of business challenges to plenty of sites, TripAdvisor included!) I think they’ve made the right call, simply because Google is much closer to centralizing all the features of the purchase decision all in one place, as Bing has recently done in some verticals:

  1. search (find products/services))
  2. comparison (compare products/services)
  3. completion (purchase products/services)

But this is not an easy call. There are two giants here fighting over the future of the web. Just as in the cold-war world … most companies will need to align in some way, shape, or form. Few will remain completely independent.

Google is trying to own the way we organize and find information – all information.

Facebook is trying to own the way we connect to and communicate with people – all people.

Obviously there is increasingly violent convergence between these two imperatives …

Google’s ambitions impinge on vertical sites like TripAdvisor (and many other sites, like that of my company, Canpages) who, guess what, want to also help people find stuff.

Facebook’s ambitions provide an option for sites that Google is squeezing to provide a different, more social, more contextualized, more personal, and potentially more relevant user experience.

The algorithm versus the social graph
Which will win? The cold calculating machines of Google, adding up links and tags and a myriad of other factors and arriving at a calculated relevance score for any given query? The implicit and explicit advice of my social circle?

We live in interesting times!


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Local heats up, starts to get ugly

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Everyone who follows tech and web news today knows that local is the hottest battleground right now. It’s one that I’m intimately engaged in as part of Canpages, one of the leading local search sites in Canada.

The battle just turned up a few degrees.

Today Yahoo! announced their new local focus “neighborhood mix”, now in beta … a combination of local news, events, and – you guessed it – deals. That’s following hot on the heels of Groupon, the poster child for local commerce deals, which recently turned down a $6B takeover deal from Google. And Google of course just announced Hotpot recently, a recommendation engine to add to Places, Google’s hyper-local search/commerce engine.

I haven’t even mentioned Yelp, or Facebook Places, or the entire location-based networks such as FourSquare and Gowalla, or Bing Local. But that’s not what made the battle hotter.

TripAdvisor is the company that turned up the temperature.

TripAdvisor, of course, is the company you turn to in order to find out if the hotel or restaurant you’re going to is any good. They have hundreds of thousands of reviews, most from ordinary people who have gone to the location and reported their findings. I never pick a hotel without checking TripAdvisor first.

Befitting its status as a search engine, Google has always provided easy access to TripAdvisor reviews, ranking them high in search engine result pages (SERPs). But as a local destination and review engine in its own right, Google is not neutral anymore. It’s not even, really, a frenemy. The coopetition is now pretty much competition. And TripAdvisor has decided to stop feeding the troll.

Google Places works by aggregating web content about a location in order to present a searcher as complete a picture as possible (with some restrictions, as they don’t work with Facebook or – now – with TripAdvisor). They’ve had problems before as content providers and creators such as Yelp have felt they are getting cheated as Google essentially uses their content for free. That’s always been the case, of course, but now with Google Places, users may not ever feel the need to click through to any of the other sites to get a fuller picture. Places, in other words, pushes Google over the line from partner and source to direct competition.

And so TripAdvisor has blocked Google Places from showing full reviews. Greg Sterling at Search Engine Land has a great post showing the exact implications of this blocking.

This is a devil’s deal, of course: you’re protecting your interests but also harming them. While protecting their content, TripAdvisor is risking their traffic. They can probably do it – their brand is strong, and their direct-in traffic and repeat traffic is probably also strong.

The question is: will more content providers start doing this as well?


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Find the cheapest flights …

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ITASoftware.com, which provides the technological backbone for many airfare shopping sites, allows users to scan an entire month’s fares for the least expensive rate. (Log in as a “guest” and click on “month-long search.” ) In January, the 28th and 30th were the cheapest dates to fly nonstop to London from New York ($536) for a week’s vacation, according to a recent search. The next best was Saturday, Jan. 23, at $640. To book the ticket, users must go to another site. Kayak.com has a flexible-dates option (registration is required) and a calendar that shows the best fares found by other Kayak users in the last 48 hours. Bing Travel, the Microsoft search engine, offers a similar option, found under “plan trips,” about halfway down the page.

via Practical Traveler – 10 Ways to Cut Your Travel Costs In 2010 – NYTimes.com.


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iLingual: best iPhone app ever?

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This is marvelous – I love it.

iLingual from Lean Mean Fighting Machine is a new translation app for iPhone. Pick your phrase, hold it up to your mouth, and let ‘er rip. Check out this brief – and hilarious – video:

First saw it at the Edible Apple.


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Japanese art

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I recently spent a week in Japan and while there had the opportunity to visit the national gallery in Ueno park, in Tokyo.

The visit was wonderful and I had the chance to see amazing 500-year-old pottery from all over Asia, including this Ming bowl. That, of course, was one of the younger pieces as the gallery has many older pieces, including this incredible 400-year-old jar from the Manjiayoo culture of ancient China:

After touring the Asian sections of the gallery, I went to the Japanese art section, featuring paintings on huge screens or panels – where I was not allowed to take photos. This was fascinating and enjoyable, but … confusing.

I’m used to Western art. While I’m not an expert by any means whatsoever, I can “read” it to a degree … understand it … appreciate it. Japanese painting, on the other hand is very different … in many ways I cannot read it and do not understand it.

Japanese art, especially traditional Japanese art, seems to almost be more about what is not there than what is. In my limited understanding, this does not appear to be negative space in the western architectural sense, though. Rather, the landscape and objects that are not there are not omissions – they are not removed. Rather, my sense of it is that it’s more of a fading away … a merging with the background which is not background but is also foreground.

Later Japanese art from the 20th and 21st centuries seems more detailed, more western. It employs more tricks of perspective to spatially place objects and scenes in a more “realistic” way. It’s more accessible to my Western eye.

Perhaps next time I go to Japan (if I go) I’ll read up on traditional Japanese art and be able to understand it better.

I did notice, however, that other sections of Japanese art, including sculpture and carving, were far more accessible – though I’m certain that I’m missing many things when viewing these as well.


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Good morning Porto

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The dogs are barking and the birds are singing. First light hasn’t yet hit Porto, Portugal today, but I’m awake, a victim of jet lag and an inability to sleep in spite of being dead tired.

Ah well … gives me a chance to catch up on my blogging!

I flew into Lisbon, Portugal yesterday, planning to take the train up the coast to Porto, where I’m attending an Intel eLearning conference. Unfortunately, the flight was delayed, causing me to miss the last train … so I had to rent a car, with interesting challenges:

At about 3AM local time I was finally 300 km farther north and in my Porto hotel room – ready to sleep about 4 hours and then get down to the conference, which is being held in the Alfandega, a converted riverside warehouse. Getting there in my rented car was a little enjoyable, too:

In any case, I’m here, the conference is great, and Porto is an amazing city. Here are just a few photos of things that caught my eye – hopefully there will be many more over the next few days:

Boavista buildings

Yellow gate

Porto hillside


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Japan so far

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This is my experience of Japan so far, in pictures and video:

Note: you can click the little small/big box control to view full-screen.

Also, click through to Flickr to see all picture titles and information.


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Japan!

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I’m sitting in my hotel room on the 30th floor of the Ritz-Carlton in Osaka at 5:35 AM, Sunday morning, reflecting on my Japan experience so far.

Club downFirst impressions are only first, and I have 5 days in Tokyo to add to them, but they tend to last. My first impression is that Japan is by far the most foreign place I have ever visited – foreign in the sense of profoundly different, unknown, out of my experience, and even potentially unknowable.

I’m no Marco Polo, but I’ve been to Romania, many countries in Western Europe, Northern Africa (Egypt), mainland China, Taiwan, and all over the US and Canada. So I’m not unfamiliar with being in places where few if any speak my native language. And it’s not unusual for me to be an ethnic minority when I travel. But there’s something about the incredibly different language, the different characters/letters, and the different social customs that just make Japan qualitatively different.

More than that, there’s something about the monoculture of Japan – those are the words of a native Japanese from a talk at the ACE 2009 conference yesterday – that make Japan the most foreign place I have traveled. I’m used to being the only white guy in a room or a train station. But it’s outside of my experience to hardly see a black person, an Indian, or even different Asian ethnicities.

Evil Budda?Add it all up, and you have countless experiences that your brain just can’t interpret … can’t file away in the right slot … can’t process and understand.

For example, I walked into a shop a couple of days ago, my first day in Osaka, and I could not determine what the store sold. Imagine that – being in a store and not being able to understand what was actually for sale! There were obviously products available for purchase, with price tags, and product information, and people paying, and a cashier – all the familiar archetypes of “store” from my Western, Canadian experience. But the products appeared to be small pieces of paper, or cards – about business card sized. Japanese women shave?They weren’t phone cards, weren’t sports trading cards … and I could not determine what precisely, they might be. Nor could I and the salesperson communicate.

The experience – just one of many similar – stretches your brain’s expectation engine and challenges your ability to understand, predict, and therefore feel a (false) sense of control that tends to put you at ease. So in Japan I am always wandering and wondering: what is this? is it what it seems? is that person speaking heatedly to another angry, or just speaking normally for Japanese? what is this building for? is “arigato” (Harry without the H, French for cake – gateau – with a long O at the end) OK for thanks, or is it too familiar?

Being a complete naif and newbie in Japan means that I can somewhat safely wander around like a medieval village idiot: investigating the obvious, pursuing the mundane, and capturing a gestalt of “japan-ness,” or, to be more honest, “my Japan,” the Japan that I hazily grasp.

Hope you've got good aim!The beautiful and glorious thing about travel like this, of course, is the ability to step out of MY mundane, and MY obvious, and pass through the wormhole to an alien culture and learn and re-learn the world anew. Here I am alien – even gaijin – and therefore I have the freedom of the outsider to observe and see, and the curse of the outsider to always be on the fringe. It is strange and exhilarating and enjoyable and challenging. And it’s also exhausting.

But I wouldn’t miss it for the world.


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Recent videos from Osaka, Japan

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I’m in Osaka to speak at ACE 2009 on Google and intelligence in the modern age (I’ll upload some assets from the presentation sometime next week).

But I had a free afternoon today, and here’s a few things I saw:

Sonezaki Markeplace:

Robo-concierge in the HAL building:

Yodobashi Umeda (electronics store):


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Graduating from Chinglish to Engrish

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I’m looking for hotels in Tokyo for an upcoming speaking trip to Japan, and ran across the Sumisho.

It looks like it could be OK, but it’s hard to tell given the Japanese/English fusion (Engrish) it’s written in.

The Nihombashi which stops the vestiges of Edo. As a hotel of peacefulness, Sumisho is nochalant, and it is warm in it, and it has treated the visitor to this ground that is full of rich humaneness.

Please take in everywhere the merit of the sum to which the heart is softened, and though you are hotel form, use as the base of the Tokyo walk by Sumisho which valued the atmosphere of a tasteful hotel, and a place which relieves the tiredness of business.

Well, you can’t beat that!

I’m fairly used to Chinglish after trips to Taiwan and mainland China … but Engrish is a little new to me. I think I like it!


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Portlandia

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Some pictures from my recent trip to Portland, OR …

We were meeting a group of people at Intel, which has a fairly major presence in Portland. It was my third visit to an Intel office – head office in Santa Clara (Silicon Valley), Intel Shanghai offices, and now one of their Portland offices. I had a 4-hour presentation (!!!) which went extremely well, thankfully.

And, as you can see above, I was fortunate enough to have an afternoon in Portland to do a brief photowalk. The side-benefit? It was the first Thursday in the month … and every first Thursday Portland art galleries stay open late. So it was very enjoyable to stroll downtown and stop by at least 15 different galleries.

My favorite painting of the night was this one by Claudio Tschopp:


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Prepping for Tokyo, Osaka … what else?

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I just bought the tickets and confirmed: I’m heading to Japan in October.

So far, I know 3 things:

  1. I’m going to land in Tokyo
  2. I’m going to be in Osaka on the 24th and 25th speaking at ACE 2009
  3. I’m going to fly out of Tokyo

The question is: what else should I do?

Should I try to visit Mount Fuji? How far is it from Tokyo … and how much time would it take to climb? Should I spent all my time in Tokyo – in a city of 12 million or more there’s got to be plenty to do. Questions, questions, questions!

I’ll be researching this in the next week or so – any suggestions would be much appreciated!


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Memories of Shanghai

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I recently traveled to Shanghai, China for meetings with Intel. What an amazing place: 30 million people in one city … always growing, always changing, always building.

Here are some of my memories …


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It's a beautiful night in Shanghai

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It’s a beautiful night in Shanghai.

Lashing rain from the regretful remnants of Typhoon Morakot has now left the region, cleaning the air and drenching the streets. A thin mist is still falling, invigorating evening walkers. And a low fog is blanketing the city, obscuring the tops of skyscrapers and deepening the mystery of this city of almost 20 million.

As if Shanghai needed help in mystifying visitors. Some cities easily foster the illusion that they are known … San Francisco with the TransAmerica and Coit towers serving as beacons and reference points, Chicago defined by the lake and the blank black Mies van der Rohe towers, other cities with definable and visible landmarks.

But Shanghai, like London and other megacities, seems too big and too complex to grasp for the casual visitor. Shanghai, with a million towers under construction … Shanghai, with elevated freeways and expressways and bridgeways like spaghetti in a Salvador Dali painting with even less connection to reality than most.

I’m now back in the mundane if luxurious world of the Shanghai HIlton, just returned from my nightime stroll through Shanghai – or, the tiny fraction of Shanghai within walking distance. Tomorrow I have meetings, and probably the day after, but then I’ll have at least some time to explore this single city that has almost two thirds the population of my entire country, Canada.

But I’m glad I stole a few precious moments from tonight’s pillow time to allow the experience of being in China and being in Shanghai be more than an airport and a hotel.

More later!


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Taipei 101

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I’m in Taipei with a colleague for meetings with Asus.

Fortunately, through a combination of good timing and good luck we’ve been able to see and do a few things while here, including visiting the Taipei 101 (currently the tallest building in the world) and parts of the city.

Here are a couple of the highlights:

Note, if you check the photoset on Flickr, you’ll get the full titles and descriptions …


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Intel HQ in Santa Clara

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I recently visited Intel’s Santa Clara headquarters for meetings with their emerging markets platform group. It’s the first corporate HQ I’ve seen with an integrated museum and gift shop.

Here’s a small selection of photos of their facility:


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Cairo

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I recently traveled to Cairo to speak at the Intel Learning Alliance summit.

The conference was great, and I met many, many wonderful people. So was the city, and I made sure to take an extra day or so to ensure I could see at least a few of the sights.

Here’s what my lense captured:


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Amsterdam

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Early this week I had the chance to spend a day in Amsterdam on my way to Cairo for the Intel Learning Alliance Summit.

Amsterdam is (of course) very beautiful, and it’s an amazing walking city. I took the train from Schipol airport to Amsterdam Centraal station, and then booked onto a canal tour. After that I walked around the city for 3-4 hours.

As per usual, I serendipitously happened across the Anne Frank museum and immensely appreciated the opportunity to slowly and contemplatively go through the house where most of the Franks lived their last few years.

Here are a few photos I took:

Note: if you view the photoset on Flickr, you’ll get the photo titles and comments.


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Memories of London

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Here’s a small selection of photos that I took on my recent visit to London:


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People I want to remember from eLiberatica

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I met such great people on my recent trip to Bucharest for eLiberatica 2009. There’s something about conferences and trips: you compress so much experience into so short a period of time that you feel like old friends with people you met just a few days before.

Here’s a few that I want to remember and stay in touch with …

Georg Greve
georg-greveGeorg is passionate about free and open source software … and also passionate about good user experience. Totally unexpectedly, we completely connected, discussed software and life passionately and humorously … spent a lot of time together. It’s funny, but in the way we joked about each other and poked holes in each other’s ego, he kind of felt like a brother.

He’s the president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, a great speaker, and about as smart as they come (he was trained as a physicist and was planning to go into nanotechnology before being seduced by free software).

Anca Luca
Anca is a software developer for Xwiki, a corporate collaboration company/community in Romania and around the world.

She’s wicked smart – working on a better online word processor/text editor than currently exists on the market – and is very definitely totally switched on. (I know something about the challenges about creating word processing capabilities in a browser, as I’ve done that for a past project. I’ll be very thankful not to have to do it again in the future!) She’s also extremely articulate, and I told her she should be on the panel of speakers for eLiberatica 2010.

Jeroen van Meeuwen
jeroenJeroen is a geeks’ geek. VP of the Fedora Linux association for Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, he coordinates a ton of open source development. He’s also very funny and personable … and definitely knows how to party. I’ve heard, however, that trying to out-drink a Finn is like trying to win a land war in Asia: don’t even bother … and I think Jeroen might have discovered this fact.

Monty Widenius
monty-wideniusIf you know open source software, you know Monty. He’s the co-creator of the MySQL database. He’s an extremely successful software developer as well as entrepreneur … but here’s the thing: he has no ego. Zero.

Or maybe I should say attitude. He’s got some programmer’s ego about technical stuff, although he’s always willing to listen to other viewpoints. But he’s got zero I’m-a-bigshot attitude, in spite of having created absolutely iconic software and successfully selling his company to Oracle.

David Axmark
david-axmarkDavid is the other half of the creation of MySQL, and he’s very similar to Monty in that he has absolutely no attitude … he’s a regular guy, approachable and easy to talk to.

He’s a fairly avid photographer – has 6 cameras – and was always taking shots of people from odd angles when least expected.

Oana Iordache
oanna-lordacheOana is part of the Agora team, along with Anca, Marina, and Andreea, who took amazing care of the speakers at eLiberatica 2009, and made everything else in the conference run smoothly as well.

More than that, she’s a funny, patient person who accomplished the gargantuan task of teaching me a couple of dance steps when we all went out Saturday night. As I mentioned on Flickr, when I dance, women faint, strong men weep, and small children run away screaming … but I think I made a scrap of progress that night. Thanks!

Romulus Meier
romulus-meier2Aside from having about the coolest first name you can get in Romania aside from Vlad, Romulus is the general manager of Agora Media, the company that puts on eLiberatica conference. He’s smart, engaged, and isn’t unwilling to have a little fun, too, which is important in a leader.

He’s also an amazing dancer, and told me that if I came for 10 eLiberatica’s, then I’d probably be pretty decent as well! I really appreciate the fact that he and the Agor team absolutely made the event an experience to remember for me, and I think all the other speakers as well. And he fed us like kings. Wow …

Danece Cooper
danaceDanece is the “open source diva,” and she had an excellent, excellent talk on open source success stories in government and corporations.

She’s worked for just about everyone in tech … Sun, Microsoft, Apple, and other companies, and is currently with a start-up – a new experience for her. Funny and friendly!

Ismael Alea
ismael-oleaIsmael is the kind of guy that you can meet for 30 seconds and be talking like you’ve known each other all your lives. He’s Spanish, and very definitely has a high-tempo Latin personality … passion, excitement, laughter, and lots and lots of hand talking!

. . .
. . .

There were others as well … I’m thinking of 10 or so people that I met and chatted with during the after-conference party on Saturday night, whose name I either don’t know or can’t remember, and who I don’t have photos of. But they’re in my memory, fondly.

. . .
. . .

Staying in touch is a hard thing to do across a continent. There’s Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, LinkedIn, and more …. but it’s not like face-to-face. Monty won’t be able to try to convince me to have some 60-proof jet fuel online, and Georg and I won’t be able to riff back and forth the way we did in person.

But I’m hoping to stay in touch, and meet each of these people and more in person again. Perhaps eLiberatica 2010?

We’ll see!


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Carpe diem: on spontaneity

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The best things in life happen by accident. Or, at least, partially by accident … to those who are open to opportunity and change.

vladLast Sunday I was wandering around old Bucharest when I happened on the remains of Vlad Tepes’ old castle. It’s a fascinating place, and as I wandered around, checking it out, I struck up a conversation with Radu, part of a troupe of medieval revivalists who put on demonstrations of medieval arts and warfare at the site.

Vlad Tepes, as you probably know, is better known to North Americans as Dracula, and he was an integral figure in fighting off the Turks and helping the region we now know as Romania win its freedom.

For whatever reason, the show didn’t go off that evening, but Radu and I kept chatting. After a while, he offered to give me some lessons in medieval longsword fighting. Hardly believing my luck, I jumped at the chance and spent the next hour learning how to attack and how to defend myself with a 5-kilo training sword.

raduI learned the standard defensive and offensive postures … he taught me the basic arm and upper body techniques for defense, and a couple of different options for offense.

It was hot and we were both sweating profusely by the end, but this was just about the most incredible and wonderful experience of my whole trip.

I also learned that a swordsman never touches the blade of his sword with his bare hand, as the oils and sweat of your skin can corrode the blade. That lesson was rammed home when I inadvertently touched the side of my blade with my hand after a few ringing slashes and parries, and got a piece of Romanian steel inserted under my skin … which I had to dig out with a needle the next day.

steelOn every single trip I’ve made (and it’s got to be close to a hundred by now) I’ve had the most amazing experiences by first learning a bit about the location, thinking of a couple of possible things to do before I even get on the airplane, and then completely going with the flow when I’m actually there.

The pre-work ensures I don’t miss anything that’s an absolutely must-see (from my perspective, not some guidebook), and forms a basic background of knowledge about the destination. Then, when I’m actually on the trip, I have some backstory, some clue, as to what might be a great experience or not. But it can all go in the fire if something that appears better in the moment turns up.

The reality is that you can’t plan for your moods, for who you meet, for the weather, or any of a hundred other factors that play into what will be the most amazing opportunity. So planning a trip – or a project – extensively and sticking to the plan robotically is a waste of time.

I think it was Clauswitz (and if I had internet connection on this airplane I’d verify it) who said, “In battle, planning is essential, and plans are useless.”

I think that’s true about a lot of things in life.


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Bucharest photostream, part 1

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Here’s a selection of my photos from Bucharest.

The first few are people, and if you want the details on who they are and what they do, you might want to go to Flickr to see all the notes. The majority of the photos, however, are of the city and architecture …

Click the expand button to go fullscreen.


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