Valley of Entropy

The elderly woman stoops on her side of the property line behind a utilitarian security gate, eyes quivering. "Entiendo completamente" she says mournfully. "No hay problema."

I'm afraid that if the woman starts crying, her caked-on eye shadow – the same shade of green as the security gate – will start to run. She had a hangdog look when we met and I'm making it worse. I wonder if we'll be the last straw for her.

Read more


Rough Guide to ADFS Setup

So you want to ADFS? My condolences. Perhaps this crib sheet will help you. It was produced using Windows 2012 Server + ADFS 2.1 and should be largely relevant for later versions, too.

Read more


Big Frugal Rocket

Elon Musk has unveiled SpaceX's latest plan to colonize Mars. Despite its insanely optimistic schedule, this year's plan seems more plausible than last year's. SpaceX's long-range plan to pay for the Mars program is particularly outlandish. They want to fly commercial passengers intercontinentally: New York to Shangai in 30 minutes, for example.

Skeptical of this zany idea's cost effectiveness, I ran the numbers to determine cost per passenger. Surprisingly, the best-case result isn't too bad: propellant would cost about $1,000 per passenger. Including all of the other costs, rocket tickets from NYC to Shanghai might be priced around $10,000 – the same price as a first-class plane fare.

Read more


Peril On the Osa

A Tale of Flash Floods, Poisonous Frogs, and Squishy Shoes

The first spatters of warm tropical rain fall on our party of five as we cross the marsh that separates the beachside resorts of Drake Bay from the nearby hamlet of Agujitas. We are embarking on the famous Night Tour, a two-hour walk through the coastal wetlands and primary rainforest of the Osa Peninsula, led by a local naturalist who will point out numerous critters as we go.

Rolando, our guide, has told us to dress for rain and provided everyone with waterproof flashlights. I swing my light back and forth lazily, hopping between the cement-filled tires that form a path through the marsh. Rolando's flashlight motions are somewhat more erratic; his beam darts in all directions, stopping occasionally for a split second to linger on an overhead branch here, a patch of marsh grass there. His light doesn't spend any time pointed forward; he's walking the trail from memory as he rapidly scans the forest for interesting fauna.

Halfway across the marsh, he motions for our single-file line to stop. "Listen," he says. "Do you hear that sound? It is the mating call of a tree frog."

Read more


The Mad Gravedigger of Copenhagen

It was an off day for our intrepid travelers. I was on my last pair of pants and we'd walked across central Copenhagen in search of The Laundromat Cafe, one of a new breed of fusion cafes that serves coffee, drinks and full meals while you wait for your clothes to finish their spin cycle.

After taking care of chores, we decided to check out the nearby Assistens Kierkegaard, Copenhagen's main burial ground where noteworthies such as Hans Christian Andersen are interred. Being that it was only a few blocks from the laundromat, we figured a bit of gravespotting would make for a nice, brief touristy distraction.

At the entrance was a placard with a map of "known peoples' resting places." We figured out approximately where to find Niels Bohr's family plot and headed off to snap some pictures. That's when our troubles began.

Read more

Tower of Babel, Norwegian Style

When we landed in Norway, I began to notice an interesting pattern of interaction between me and the locals. For an example, let's look at how I ask for a table in a restaurant.

Hostess (presumably speaking Norwegian): Mxlkrmf tfiu?
Tony: Hi; we'd like a table.
Hostess: Blw dcij vcdhuhy for two?
Tony: Yeah; for two, please.
Hostess: Trsdj swofiu jasj ic kiscijds dij?
Tony: Sorry? I'm afraid I don't understand much Norwegian.
Hostess: Oh, you're speaking English!

Read more

Crooning for Kroner

Scandinavia is a singular tourist destination for Americans. Everywhere else we go in the world, we face culture shock. Not so in northern Europe. Virtually everyone in a service job here speaks excellent English and has a stunning command of the American slang lexicon (when's the last time you heard a Frenchman say "you should take me up on it" or "where are you headed?") Iceland's national snack food is a hot dog, Norway's most famous chain restaurant is an upmarket Pizza Hut, and all of these countries are immersed in our pop culture.

With all of these cultural affinities, we have no problem with culture shock here. In its place, we face sticker shock. Prices here are outrageous!

Read more

Reykjavik Death March

On the morning of our arrival, the temperature in Reykjavik was a bracing -2 C with 90% humidity. Combined with the wind-chill factor due to a stiff breeze, the apparent temperature was, to use a meteorological term, “butt cold.” As we quickly discovered, the best survival stratagem in this kind of weather is to rush frantically between heated indoor spaces. Happily, Reykjavik is equipped with a surplus of cozy street-side cafés that are happy to sell you a $5 cup of coffee, usually with gratis wi-fi and unlimited lingering time included in the price.

Needless to say, the bus driver dropped us off several blocks from our hotel; also, our room wouldn't be ready until 2pm – but the hotel was willing to hold our bags for us until then. We gratefully dumped our stuff and set out for a day of surrealistic, sleep-deprived sightseeing.

Truth be told, I don’t remember much about the museums and cultural sites we visited that day; I was so weary that I could barely keep my eyes open, and my most lucid memories involve sitting in a café drinking coffee, glad to finally be able to feel my face and limbs. Our hours of lingering afforded plenty of people-watching opportunities, and I began to drink in the culture and language of Iceland. Here are a few brief notes.

Read more


Errors of Comedy

I consider myself pretty good with languages, but even I make mistakes. With a language like French, where the slightest change in the pronunciation of a vowel, a consonant substitution or a little slur can mean a big change, it's easy to completely destroy a sentence. At the beginning of this trip, I decided to collect my most knee-slappingly horrendous mistakes for later contemplation. Most French are kind enough not to point out the obvious mistake (it's usually pretty clear what I mean simply from context), but a few of my more unusual gaffes have produced chuckles, grins and once or twice, outright laughter. So, for your edification and for the greater good, I present to you my biggest mistakes over the past two weeks:

  • "Is there somewhere nearby to ride knights?" (cheval vs. chevalier)
  • "I should've run emptier to the store." (vite vs. vide)
  • "A man took a cab for me; are you her?" (apprener vs. appeler)

Read more


Gaijin Roam the Countryside

I just spent four crrrrazy days on the tiny island of Shikoku, driving through the Japanese countryside. We had a car for most of our trip, and I can't praise Max enough for his driving skills. He drives almost as crazy as the locals, which made things much easier (and more rollercoaster-like) on the tiny, one-lane roads that wind through Shikoku's mountainous interior.

Read more

Hip Hop, Nihon and True Respect

Returning to our hostel after a day of exploring Kyoto and soaking in mountain hot springs, we ran into a couple of Scottish girls we'd met earlier in the day. We all spent some time watching TV in the cramped downstairs lounge, which also acts as laundry room, shower room, storage room, and the center of social life at Kyoto Cheapest Inn.

As travellers came home from the day's activities, a bolus of foreigners formed at the table around us, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, sake or green tea. We made repeated trips to the Lawson (7-11 kind of thingie) to buy more alcohol, and the clerk there got more amused with every visit from the obviously drunk gaijin. Somewhere around midnight, the girls decided it would be a grand idea to go out to a night club. Lacking the facilities of reason or higher logic, Max and I decided to join them despite the fact that none of us knew more than a dozen words of Japanese. That was how we found ourselves in a genuine Japanese hip-hop club.

Read more

Temples, Shrines and Blizzards

On a whim, Max and I took a side trip to the small town of Nikko, 100 miles north of Tokyo. Halfway there our train split into segments and we ended up in the wrong car, travelling far north of our goal. A kindly train conductor saved us from an uncertain fate and we arrived in Nikko at 8pm, long after the tourist info center and buses had stopped running. It started to snow on us as we waited outside the station! Then our luck changed.

Read more

First Impressions of Japan

Matt Haas wrote:

What are the buildings and environment like?

In Asakusa, the neighborhood of our hostel, everything is pretty downtempo. Buildings are small, crowds are about what you'd get in LA, and things have a shabby but impeccably clean feeling to them. Much of the Tokyo area is like that. Any neighborhood that wasn't touched by the "economic miracle" of the 1980s still consists of 1950s-era low rise buildings with a few prefab skyscrapers thrown in for good measure.

Read more