Monthly Archives: October 2010

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Au Revoir, Dear Miami.

Ever since the wonderful day I had exploring Miami yesterday I had been dreading this morning, it was time for me to check out of the Viceroy and head back to Orlando. When I first arrived I was a little overwhelmed with the level of service and opulence that was presented before me but after spending just a mere 4 nights there I began to grow accustomed to it, revelling in the luxury. As they say though all good things must come to an end and so it was that I packed up my things and began getting ready to check out. I had the room until 12pm so I thought I’d make the most of it by catching up on the latest news and watching all of the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers on Hulu. This had the unfortunate consequence of alerting me to something dire to my whole reason for being here.

The shuttle launch had been delayed, again.

When I first planned the trip to include my jaunt over here to Florida I had initially budgeted a week (so that Rebecca could have time with her best friend in the world, Laura) for me to hop around and have fun in the Corvette with a couple days at the end for the shuttle launch, some slack to make sure I didn’t miss it due to weather events. The first delay was well within this schedule and whilst it was shocking at the time I could handle it by just booking another rental car to cover the trip out there and back to the airport the next day. This next delay however posed a more serious problem as I would be flying out that day at 12pm and the launch wasn’t scheduled until 3 hours later. After an hour of unmitigated panic I decided I wasn’t going to be fucked by a day and shot an email off to my travel agent hoping to get the flight moved without having to pay out the ass for it. A quick check of the flights shows I could book it on my own for about $120 and another night in a hotel wouldn’t break the budget. I should hopefully hear back from her sometime tomorrow, letting me see the shuttle launch and validating my whole reason for being here.

With that all settled I went downstairs to check out and to grab the Corvette so I could get out of there. It was a pretty uneventful drive back, but it was far more enjoyable than the one down. On the way down I was still fighting off the last little bit of my jet lag making the last hour or so of the drive quite tiresome. Today however I was very well rested and I’d finally grown accustomed to the heat and humidity making the drive that much more pleasurable. I even took a little time out to make a 0-60 video of the corvette and put the top down for the first time since I got it. I should’ve done it sooner because damn, it just looks sexy when it’s topless:

It’s a bit too much when you’re doing 75mph though so I had to put it back down after a couple miles of getting my head blown around. I reconciled to spend the last few days with the top down as much as humanly possible though, it really is quite fun (especially putting it up and down, it’s fully motorised).

The hotel I had chosen for my last few days here in Orlando was the Crown Plaza Universal. The name makes it sound a lot better than it actually is but I guess it’s more oriented to families who are staying here to go to Disney World rather than the strapping male technophile like the Viceroy was. Case in point I had to pay for my Internet connection here where every other hotel I’ve stayed in has provided it free of charge. This place is considerably cheaper than the rest of them though and they still have a gym.

After I got settled in and had a quick work out my mind shifted towards finding some dinner. Firing up Yelp brought up quite a few good locations all within a long walk/short drive away with the best of them unfortunately being lunch only places. I finally settled on the Hanamizuki Japanese restaurant which had quite a few good reviews. After driving over there and waiting about 10 minutes to be seated (they weren’t that busy, but seemed to miss me and the 10 customers standing behind me somehow) I was seated down at the sushi bar and given their extremely large menu. The food was pretty good, definitely worth the price and I’d actually rate it above Zuma. Reason being the people here were actual Japanese nationals, not the wasians at Zuma who spoke (admittedly good) rapid fire Japanese at you. I didn’t think twice when the chef offered me some sashimi in Japanese, thanking him with a quick “arigatoo” to which he responded “doo itashimashite”, which means you’re welcome.

Returning to my car I was reminded of the day I had yesterday and how much good had came from just exploring. The tempreature was still quite nice even at this late hour so I decided to jump in, get the top down and go for a cruise. I set off in one random direction and found myself on the main strip of this part of Orlando with lights and all sorts of things lining the street. It was beautiful in its own way, a tribute to the American way of life. The moment was wholly captured by the instant when I pressed the accelerator just that little harder than I had done before and the corvette let out a note of which I had never heard before. It was beautiful, like a caged lion being released from its bonds into the wild. The second I came to from that moment of pure automobile ecstasy I laughed in a way I haven’t done in years. That pure feeling of joy that comes from doing something so utterly ridiculous that bypasses every other part of your brain and just tickles the pleasure centres. The grin wouldn’t leave my face for almost an hour afterwards.

With that came thoughts of what to do tomorrow. I’m thinking a cruise down to the beach with the top down will be perfect, with the corvette getting a good boot on the way there and back. I think I’ve finally hit that part of the trip where I finally drop all those barriers that I put up to protect myself when I’m in an unknown situation and with that I’m ready to just relax and let the trip happen all on its own.

Damn it feels good :D

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Taking a Leaf Out of Someone Else’s Book.

I didn’t really have anything planned for today, a first for me in this holiday. I usually try to plan at least one thing to do so I don’t spend the whole day in the hotel rotting my brain with TV and bad food. Still I wasn’t in any hurry to plan anything so I decided I’d finally hit up the cafe on the 15th floor for breakfast. The food there was so-so and the coffee was utterly terrible but the view was nice so I slowly made my way through it whilst looking over my Twitter feed. About 10 minutes later I read this tweet which told me that STS-133 would be taking off no sooner than Tuesday next week. As I’d be leaving on Wednesday I immediately flew into a panic knowing that my chances of seeing a shuttle launch were now resting on a hair trigger.

I rushed back to my room and waited patiently for the press conference to start. As it unfolded it became clear that whilst the shuttle had been delayed by one day they were confident that it shouldn’t be delayed any further than that putting the launch time at around 4pm on Tuesday. Relieved I set about finding something to do and over breakfast I had read my good mate (and recently returned blogger)’s post on his recent travels to China. Based on the fact that I had planned anything nor could I be bothered to try and eek something out I took a leaf from his book and decided to just get lost in the town that I was in, taking my camera along for the ride with me.

It was an eye opening experience.

Striding out of the hotel I decided I should go the way I hadn’t really looked at yet, south as far as I could tell. I walked for a little while doing the annoying tourist thing of taking pictures of all the pretty buildings but no less than 30 minutes later did I come across what amounted to a small tropical rainforest, right in the heart of Miami:

Whilst there was little wildlife to speak of (apart from spiders that stretched their webs across every fricking pathway) there were a myriad of different tropical trees, ferns, grasses and other plants that coated this area. Right in the middle of it you’d have trouble remembering that you were in the middle of a metropolis as the dense forest blocked out any sounds of the outside. I spent a good half hour in there just wandering around, well worth the price of admission (free!).

After that I started walking around outside again taking some more pictures of pretty buildings, including one that strangely resembled the dream home I have been building up in my head over the past couple years. It was still well above 30 and 80% humidity so I was quickly becoming dehydrated. Stumbling around I couldn’t find anywhere that was selling bottled water so I made a trek back to my hotel room to cool off and get hydrated again. Once I had done that I thought I’d go and explore the other direction to see what I could dredge up. Realistically I was just going to walk along the shoreline to see if there were any cool shops but what I ended up finding was the Miami outdoor market.

It wasn’t anything special in its own right but it completely blew me away that I had driven past this very spot, twice, and failed to notice it. After purveying the local merchandise I thought I’d grab some lunch. Being a picky bugger I spent the next hour trying to find something finally settling on this place called The Knife which did steaks like Maccas does burgers. I had me a sirloin steak with mashed potatoes and vegetables all for $13. It kind of upset me that that meal was as good if not better than the $40 dinner I had the night before.

Thinking that I had lucked out thus far by just walking randomly I gave it a go again, heading west away from the markets towards what looked like some kind of business centre. On the way I passed the bike rack for an upcoming triathlon with around 500 competitors either bringing their bikes in or getting them repaired at the nearby tents. Off in the distance I spotted a building that looked rather out of place. It was tall but the architecture was nothing like the buildings that surrounded it, I went in for a closer look.

Turns out it’s the high courts of Miami, nothing as amazing as I had made it out to be in my head. Still thanks to the birds circling it and the deliciously climbable exterior I had one of my “Assassin’s Creed” moments where I imagined climbing it and then diving off the side into a bale of hay. With all the lawyers and police present though I didn’t get much closer than the other side of the road, but that didn’t stop me ogling it until it faded from view.

After wandering around for a bit more I headed back to the hotel to workout and then get ready for dinner. I had hunted down a sushi place through Yelp about a 10 minute walk from me. The reviews were good and it wasn’t too pricey so I thought it would be a nice place to have my last dinner here in Miami. The restaurant was well decked out with a giant waterfall feature piece right in the centre of it. The only thing that out did it was the food and the way it was present. Check out how I got my sushi and sashimi combo:

Yeah that’s right, it’s a freaking BOAT! :D The sushi itself wasn’t bad either and the wasabi was some of the most potent I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve been to Japan. They also had a good selection of Japanese beers from which I selected a Kirin Ichiban. I’ve had this particular beer before but this one was a little different to those I’ve had back in Australia. Similar nose and mouthfeel but there was a distinct aftertaste that I don’t remember from the Australian version. I may just have to get me some more to compare ;)

Tomorrow I’m making the trek back up to Orlando in order to get ready for the Shuttle launch. I had planned it so I got settled one night and then headed out to see the launch the next day but that won’t be happening now. Fortunately I’ve heard that there might be an air show on so that might replace fill the time that I had originally planned to spend gawking at the shuttle but I’ve had trouble finding info on it. Anyway failing that I’ll just do what I did today in Orlando as it has served me so well today that I’m very keen to repeat the experiment.

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Getting There Was All The Fun.

This morning greeted me gently, with the warm Miami sun peeking around the small crack I had left in the blinds. I had done that deliberately as I have a horrible tendency to oversleep when I don’t see any natural sunlight. It worked a charm and I was up early enough to make a trip down to Key West viable. Packing up everything I’d need for the day I called the desk to have the valet bring my car around and set about planning the last few details of the trip. I had a couple sites in mind but mostly I was just hoping for a scenic route and maybe a decent beach to have a dip in. This heat was starting to take its toll.

After quickly refuelling I punched in one of the street addresses down in Key West and started following the route. Initially the drive was a bit disappointing as it was basically just a road through the mangroves but I about 30 minutes after getting out of the city limits I was greeted with my first long bridge spanning about half a mile. I was pretty impressive how it rose up from basically nothing but it wasn’t anything to write home about. Along the way though there were some very impressive examples of both past and present, piquing my curiosity. I went to explore a few of them.

This was one of two massive bridges that hasn’t been in use for quite some time. The first section on either side had been removed probably to stop people from trying to use them. Interestingly though not one other sections had fallen into the ocean below signalling that apart from the fact that it’s made of wood it was a pretty stable structure. The other one of these also had 2 sections removed but not at both ends, just at one and another towards the middle. Just before that removed section was a small island with about 5 houses on it. I haven’t had the chance to look it up but it might be some kind of attraction as there were several people walking to and from that little place on that old bridge. I gave it a pass as it was a good 2 mile walk to it and I had a total of 7 hours of driving to do today, not a lot of time for lolly-gagging.

As for Key West itself? Well there wasn’t a heck of a lot to it at first glance, just a bunch of resorts and the shops that would go along with them. It felt a lot like Bateman’s Bay sprawling out in all directions with a good population calling the place home. I headed down to South Beach to see the southern most point of the United States. The beaches were unfortunately nothing amazing and my adventures on the way down had chewed up a lot of daylight so I decided to leg it back to the hotel. Winding my way out I came across the main street that I had managed to somehow miss on my in and it was alive with people. All the shops were decked out in Halloween decorations and it seemed like everyone had somewhere to be. Had I had more time I would’ve spent a couple hours there but my previous adventures had left me tired and wanting for a good sleep, so I headed off back home.

Overall today was pretty uneventful when you compare it to my last few days here in the US. Still it was nice to take the Corvette for a drive and explore some of the relics of days gone by, even if the heat sapped every bit of my strength when I dared to step out of my air conditioned heaven. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do tomorrow, but since my camera died before taking a single picture today I’m probably going to spend tomorrow indulging my photographic nerd. There’s no lack for subjects here either so it could be quite the day.

I did get to enjoy a sunset though :)

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A Lazy Day in the South.

I rolled over and stared at the clock on my bedside table, it’s muted blue display shining the time back into my dreary eyes. 11:48am I had overslept like crazy, waking up 4 hours previously and thinking I’d just take a quick nap before heading out for the day. I had sort of planned to go to Key West today after the suggestion Brett posted in the comments, but with the drive time reaching 3 hours for one way I didn’t want to be getting there late in the afternoon only to leave a couple hours later. I resigned myself to doing that tomorrow.

Still I hadn’t yet hit up South Beach which every travel review site and the bell hop/concierge had recommended to me. The place to start was apparently Ocean Dr which was just a stones throw away from the beach and was apparently littered with shopping, restaurants and bars. I did some quick reconnaissance to make sure there would be somewhere where I could park my car in relative seclusion and punched in the address into the GPS and I was on my merry way.

Or at least, I thought I was.

You see I didn’t make the distinction between Miami and Miami Beach, figuring that the former was a super set of the later. As it turns out that’s not the case and the place it was taking me to was no where near where I thought I was going. Noticing that the area I was in didn’t feel particularly right I pulled out my phone in a desperate attempt to find wifi. Not being able to find any open points with internet access I went off the little scrap of map I had already downloaded last night when I went to Zuma and remembered that Ocean drive was over a bridge. The road that I saw on little map I had turned out to be the port for the cruise and cargo ships of Miami and whilst it was a cool place to visit (the scale of engineering there is damned impressive) it wasn’t the bustling shopping centre I was after. I did come across one of their awesome draw bridges in action however:

After returning to my hotel with my tail between my legs I discovered my mistake and quickly found my way back to my initial destination. After parking my car and getting my gear together I was hit with the humid, unforgiving heat of downtown miami which instantly fogged up my sunglasses. I spent the next hour walking around looking at the various shops and restaurants realising that apart from the Walgreens I had seen pretty much all of them before. There were a few high fashion and boutique outlets but for the most part I had seen nearly all of them before in my previous jaunt to Florida mall. Feeling disappointed I started looking around for something to eat and that’s when my inner shy nerd kicked in.

Even though I’d count myself as an extrovert normally that comes on the proviso that I’m either with friends or in a location I fell comfortable in. As such when I’m out on my own as I have been for the past few days I’m not really the biggest talker and this clashes with the high pressure style of service that is to be had here in Miami. At every location I hadn’t been looking at their menu for a good 10 seconds before I had someone coming over to talk to me, usually just reading the menu items out to me (thanks I can read). This wouldn’t have been so bad if they left right after they saw I wasn’t interested in talking but all of them just stood right next to me in the hopes that I would get a table with them. Had any of them added any value to me reading the menu (like say recommending something or at the very least not being laser focused on my fucking wallet) I might have considered otherwise. With that falling in a crying heap I turned to my faithful servant: Yelp. 30 seconds later I had my target in site, a small sandwich shop called La Sandwicherie.

That my friends is the beef sandwich with all the salads and it cost me all of $8. The ingredients were fresh, the bread soft and the beef was tender. It puts all the subway I’ve had to shame and I can see why it’s earned such a reputation for itself. The place itself is basically just a hole in the wall with some seats around the side crewed by 3 people but they were more than capable of getting everyone’s orders out in under 5 minutes. Satisfied I left the La Sandwicherie and returned to my car and turned the air conditioning to full, my sweat drenched body revelling in the dry cool air.

I didn’t mention this yesterday but I didn’t make it to the gym because, well I couldn’t find the damned thing. They had said that it was on level 14 but after wandering around the entire level I still couldn’t see it. Looking on the guest information system that they have on the TVs (I’ll have to post a video of this thing, it’s really well done) I saw that it was indeed on the 14th floor, just not in my tower. The Viceroy basically has 2 towers, one of them for guests and the other for residents. They’re connected up until the 15th floor where the resident tower continues for another 15 or so stories and where the hotel ends there’s a rooftop pool and courtyard that functions as a walkway between them. After finding this out I found the gym and boy was it impressive. A great view out over the greater Miami area coupled with one of every imaginable workout machine. It might not be that impressive to regular gym go-ers, but for a garage workout junkie like me it was like travelling to the future.

Tomorrow I’m planning to drive out to Key West and see what they’ve got going out there. Hopefully the speed limits on those roads will be a little more liberal so I can open up the Corvette a bit more as my search for a dragway has thus far proven to be fruitless. Still it’s a lovely car to drive and the addition of free Sirius satellite radio makes driving anywhere quite nice regardless, but I can feel those 400+ horses chomping at the bit to be unleashed. By all accounts it will be a scenic drive anyway which will be a nice break from the last couple days from the Miami rush hour traffic.

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Yes, This Feels Right.

Again my alarm woke me today with its irritating buzzing. This time however I did not shun it into silence repeatedly, I did it once and promptly obeyed the order it gave me. I shot out of bed and started getting ready for the day that lie before me as this was to be the grandest of days in the short yet painful times I have spent absent of my wife. Today I would trade in my red training wheels for a sleek yellow dragon that I would ride for 4 hours down to the tropical location of Miami. Today was the day when I got back to my roots when 15 years earlier I took my first drive by myself in a Datsun 120Y.

Today, I would get me a Chevrolet Corvette.

But before I could get my hands on such untold fun I had to run an errand first. Although I hadn’t gone far in the little red Yaris the day previously I had done enough to use up a noticeable amount of fuel. Plotting the course on Google maps showed that I could do the round trip to the closest 7/11 in just under 15 mins. Guessing that it would take me about 15 mins to fuel up I then doubled my estimate to an hour, thinking that the amount of fail that I had attracted on this trip thus far ensured that should I cut it any closer I wouldn’t have the car back before I got slugged with another days rental. Good thing I did this too as I couldn’t for the life of me find the blasted car, roaming the parking lot aimlessly for a good 30 minutes before realising that I was on the wrong level. With the car fuelled up I returned it to its keepers and went about securing my quarry.

Now when I had first booked my training car the website told me I was getting a Toyota Corolla. The Yaris is roughly identical so there’s no big deal there, but it had me worrying about whether or not I’d get an actual Corvette or something similar (like a Mustang). Not that I would’ve knocked it back but I had been hyping this moment up in my head for quite some time, and not driving a the yellow beast I had imagined would’ve had me feeling like the whole deal was rather pointless. 30 tentative minutes later they radioed someone to bring around my new prize to where I was, and all my fears were laid to rest.

Thanks to my slightly nervous nature I had been bothering the poor Hertz attendants up until they brought the car around. They got their own back though, noting the almost giddy look I had on my face when the Corvette finally rolled around. It too was perfect, a beautiful yellow accented with a single black stripe down the middle, just as I had imagined it. There’s little room to spare in the vehicle though with my bag only just fitting in the boot and having to wind the seats almost all the way down and back to fit my 6 foot frame into it. Still the moment when I pushed the ignition button (yes, like a flippin’ RACE CAR) I forgot all about those worries and set about punching in my first destination on the GPS: the local Walmart. Whilst I can see the irony in taking a rather expensive car to one of the cheapest places on earth I needed to get some supplies before embarking on the 4 hour journey south to Miami and of course I wanted to see Walmart ;)

The GPS got me there without a hitch, proving that I should’ve just got one of the damn things earlier rather than trying to cheap out on something so valuable. Upon entering the Walmart I was struck by how similar it was to Big W we have back in Australia but the similarities were only skin deep. The fact that I could find almost anything that I needed there kind of shocked me, from pharmaceuticals to clothing to even jewellery left me awe struck as I walked slack jawed around this monstrous store. Then I saw the prices, almost unbelievable how they could make money on anything that they sell there. Still you don’t get to be the Fortune number 1 company for nothing so obviously their ability to shift massive volumes means they can get prices that no one else can.

No wonder people fight them whenever they try to set up in their little neighbourhoods.

After grabbing a few things I made my way out and programmed the GPS for my final destination, the Viceroy hotel in Miami. After a few short turns I was out onto the highway where the speed limit is a cool 70 miles an hour. Having only given the car a couple quick boots to see how it would go I wanted to do a standing 0-70 in it and the highway seemed to be the best place to do it. I pulled over to the side of the road and then waited for the traffic to break so I could really put my foot down. A couple minutes later I did and the thrill was nothing short of amazing. The car literally threw my head back into the seat as its 436 horses roared into action, propelling me to 60 in just over 4 seconds with 70 coming in not less than a second later. A quick bit of research shows that this particular breed Corvette, the ZHZ, was specifically built for Hertz themselves and had a few performance tweaks along the way. Having something like that must be a business boon for them, especially with nutjobs like me chomping at the bit to have a go in one of them.

The drive down to Miami was fairly uneventful, as most long drives are. The scenery was familiar yet different with shrubs being the dominant species rather than large eucalypts. I made a couple pit stops at the “Service Centres” which appear to be miniature shopping malls with their own food court and selected shops, mostly perfume and sun glasses. About 15 minutes away from my final destination and the traffic started getting wild, jolting me out of my semi jet-lagged state that had developed over the past 4 hours. Still I arrived at my location safely, and boy was I in for a surprise.

This was my first ever time having a car taken from me by a valet and the whole thing happened so quick that I was inside with all my things before I realised I was out of the car. The bell hop, who appeared to be more of a concierge, took me up to my room and showed me around it. He also gave me some tips on where to go whilst I was staying since I had no idea what I was going to do other than work out in the gym and blog about my mishaps online. I barely listened to him though as the room had me transfixed for the entire time he was there.

No one picture does this room justice, every piece of it just screams high class and opulence of the highest order. The bathroom and main entrance are lavished in marble with chrome accents everywhere. The wardrobe is two giant mirrors covered in wood that hide not only the closet but also a full sink, microwave, stove and coffee machine. It’s bordering on a self contained apartment but for the price I paid (about $500 for 4 nights) I wasn’t expecting this. Hotwire really does earn whatever money they made off me when I made all those bookings.

I had also decided that I didn’t want to dine in the hotel as my last experience with that hadn’t been too great. Hitting up Yelp on my iPhone I found a local restaurant called Zuma not more than 5 minutes walk from where I was. The reviews were quite spectacular and it was Japanese so I thought I had a slight inkling into what I was getting into. As it turns out this was quite the place to be with the place being packed on this quite Tuesday afternoon and I was only able to be seated at the sushi bar. Still I was going to make the most of it and order a full meal and a Hitachino White Ale to wash it down. I had read in one of the reviews that they were a bit antsy about taking pictures so I refrained but the bottle was a curious one with an anime owl adorning the front. The taste was a clean with a distinctly soapy mouthfeel too it with the trademark wheaty aftertaste. I haven’t had enough wheat beers to say if was any good but it was fitting with the rather eclectic food I had been served.

It was at this sushi bar I got talking with a woman who I only managed to catch the last name of: Mrs Swann. She’s a business development manager working to get companies interested in investing in minority businesses and since I happen to know a little bit about the venture capital market (thankyou start-up future) we hit it off quite well. It was a nice way to end what had started off as a rather awkward night, sitting beside someone for 30 minutes without saying a word to them.

Tomorrow is the first day when I don’t have anything pressing I need to do in the morning, and it feels great. I’ll probably head down to south beach as that’s apparently where everything happens around this place but if I spend a whole day on my ass watching Discovery channel I won’t be surprised. I haven’t not being doing something since I landed here 3 days ago so it might be nice to take a day to catch up on some things. With this blog post fast approaching 1700 words I think I’ll leave it there for tonight and indulge myself in some late night American TV :)

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What a Difference a Day Makes.

4. That’s the number of times I hit the snooze button this morning. The bed in the hotel was so beautifully comfortable that the prospect of leaving it was more than I was willing to bear. Still I had set the alarm for a reason: I had an important task to accomplish today and it had a start time, 10:00am. The alarm dutifully went off at 9am but was slammed into silence multiple times so that I could enjoy just a few more sweet moments sprawled out under the covers. The enormity of the task I had set myself soon began to weigh on me however and I pulled myself out of bed to get ready for this monumental task.

I was going to pick up my first American rental car.

Usually this wouldn’t be much of a big deal but since I’d never driven a car in a country that drives on the wrong side of the road (even though the majority of the world does so) I was on tenterhooks as to how I would cope with it. I tried to soothe myself with some facts like the one that many countries have completely switched from one side to the other with no ill effects, even on the day of the switch. Still those first few moments when I sat in my shiny red Toyota Yaris had me scrambling to figure out which way was up, with blinkers and window wipers going crazy as I tried to gain control over my 68hp beast.

The following couple hours of driving were strikingly uneventful as I drove towards my chosen destination the Florida mall. This was due, in whole, to the fact that I got completely and hopelessly lost for those two hours. It wasn’t for the fact I didn’t know where I was going, I had looked it up before I went. No it was more due to the fact that I had no idea how to interpret 90% of the road signs and missing the other 10%. Thanks to the plentiful McDonalds restaurants that spotted the highway I was able to purloin free wifi Internet to help guide me on my way to the Florida Mall. I arrived there around lunch time and set about hunting down the places I could do the following things:

  • Find something semi-healthy to eat
  • Get some new shoes (casual and formal pairs)
  • Acquire a American cell phone number with a data plan

The first task was relatively easy, despite my tendency to be completely disinterested in most fast food. I eventually found a place that had a decent chicken salad and a juice bar that served up a mean fruit cocktail. Once I was flush with energy from consuming all that I went onto a shoe store called Sketches which I had seen multiple times before in other places. I managed to find two pairs of shoes that I thought were pretty decent and they had a sale going on so I grabbed both of them:

Getting my online self mobile proved to be a little more difficult however. After searching most of the store I couldn’t find anyone that sold AT&T, the only cell provider I knew would support my iPhone with 3G. As it turns out Radioshack stocks them so I hunted down one of their resellers. I had done some research prior to leaving that said all I needed to do was to buy the cheapest handset I could find and then rip the sim out of it and stick it in my phone. It made sense to this former phone salesman so I scored myself a brand new Samsung A107 for a cool $20 (including $15 credit), plus another $15 for credit (required for activation, apparently). After spending 10 minutes with the salesman getting it activated I headed off for the trip back home. On the way I, of course, got myself lost and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to switch out the sim and get the maps working.

As it turns out not only are the phones locked to the AT&T network they also lock the sim to the phone itself. After wrangling with my iPhone to get the new sim in it greeted me with a No Service error and refused to work. That, my friends, was $40 down the toilet and a couple quick Google searches confirmed that AT&T had been doing this for about a year. So much for that plan then. I’m not sure if I’ll bother trying to get an American sim now, it might just be worth grabbing a cheap-o GPS unit like my friend Nick did on his jaunt over a couple months back. That’s basically all I’d need it for anyway (and my next car apparently comes with one for free).

After dealing with my fail I managed to get myself back to the hotel and worked off the aggression with a good workout. I then had dinner at one of the local restaurants where the food was palatable, but nothing to write home about. I took this opportunity to sample one of the local beers, this one being a Sam Adams Octoberfest:

It was a decent brew, easily comparable to some of the more premium Australian lagers. I’ve become more of an Ale man over the past couple years of refining my beer palate so there wasn’t much to write home about this one but it was a decent accompaniment to my meal of skewered beef and roasted vegetables. Hopefully I’ll be able to indulge my inner beer fanatic a bit more when I’m down in Miami as I’ve read that there are some very good restaurants down there.

Casting off the exhaustion of yesterday was a good feeling and whilst my day was filled with fail it still felt good to get out and about around Florida. Tomorrow the real fun begins as I say goodbye to my plucky Yaris and trade up for a more manly set of wheels: a Z06 Corvette. I’ll also be upgrading my hotel from the Hyatt Regency to the Viceroy in Miami and by all accounts it looks to be one heck of a step up. I’m looking forward to living a little bit of the highlife down there as my suit has been aching to get out of the cramped confines of my suitcase. The heat here however has been quite intense so it will probably be a night only affair. Still with the reputation Miami’s night life has I don’t think I’ll be out of place late a night, seeking a classy encounter :)

The United States of America: First Impressions.

It was almost 20 hours ago that I woke up to the rude sound of my alarm, blaring out random garbles in a feeble attempt to wake me from my slumber. Today was the day I’d set out for the USA and my first plane was due to leave at 8am, just 2 hours away. Wait laid before me was a grand total of 20 hours of flight time and an entire day lost to the mere act of travelling. Still my wife and I were excited for our first long trip overseas together, even though we’d be spending the first 10 days of it apart. With all that running through our heads we made¬† our way to the airport thanks to our good friend Danne, who volunteered his services not only as a chaffer but as our house sitter as well as we gallivanted around the lucky country.

The flight over was not as bad as I had expected. I’d been on a long haul flight before, 8 hours to Japan back in 2001, but this was going to be 13 hours and 33 minutes. The prospect was made even more uncomfortable by the fact that upon checking in we were told that there would be a seat between us, and no indication if it was filled or not. Luckily for us it wasn’t and we enjoyed the extra space and convenience that it provided. I was able to get 6 hours or so of sleep but Rebecca, as always, struggled to get even a couple minutes. She didn’t seem any worse for wear because of it though, but I guess after dealing with insomnia for so many years you get used to running on nothing. The food and service was quite good for the ticket price we paid, I was wholly expecting to get nickel and dimed for each and every little thing but Delta Airlines felt almost identical to the Qantas flight we had taken hours earlier.

A long 13 hours later we were in LAX, the thriving hub of transportation that it is. After disembarking we were lead to immigration where they took not only our entire set of fingerprints but also our photo. I’d known for a long time that the USA had been doing this and whilst I didn’t object to doing it, I still didn’t feel completely comfortable with this piece of security theatre. Still it was painless at least and once we were out of there our bags were waiting for us, ready to be picked up. After spending a confusing 30 minutes trying to figure out where each of us had to go (Rebecca is going onto Canada, myself Orlando) we finally found the shuttle Rebecca had to take. Mere minutes later it arrived and she was whisked away to LAX Terminal 2 where she would catch her flight to Canada.

I stumbled around trying to find my way into the terminal that would take me to my final destination on this leg of my journey, getting hopelessly lost in the desolate landscape of LAX. I eventually found my way there through a long corridor that started evoking images of Orwell’s 1984, with a loudspeaker blaring warnings and my footsteps echoing in the lonely fluorescence. Then I was greeted with the friendly face of the TSA and my first ever American airport security check. They went over everyone’s ID with a UV light, took people’s bottles of water, made everyone take off their shoes and frisked about 1 in every 5 passengers. Suddenly the Australian security checks seemed mild in comparison. I got through with barely a second glance, but yet again I had that terrible feeling that my civil liberties were dying as the USA’s paranoia. This country didn’t make the greatest first impression.

I tried fruitlessly to find wifi and a working ATM, the lifeblood of my generation. None of the ATMs could do a cash withdrawal on my cards, even the Westpac one that’s apparently in cahoots with the Bank of America (which I was trying to use). All the wifi hotspots were either secured or paid portals leaving me disconnected and alone. I did nothing for almost an hour before sitting down to write this, thinking there was no point if I couldn’t publish it right away. Still writing is a great way to pass the time and I still had over an hour before my next flight was scheduled to depart.

The flight to Orlando was painful, even though I lucked out with the emergency exit row. Neither of my temporary travel friends were interested in striking up a conversation and the jet lag was setting in with vengeance. Couple that with my bony ass being unable to find comfort in the seats and it was 5 hours in the air that couldn’t go fast enough. I eventually found solace in one of the books I had picked up (Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton) and managed to pass the majority of time without too much fuss. Then came the dreaded moment, would my luggage be there to greet me when I landed?

Although I’ve never lost anything through the airports I still have a healthy paranoia about them. If it’s anything but a direct flight I always think it’s going to get lost in the airport machine, doomed to bounce endlessly around the globe while I lay stranded, devoid of my clothes and other miscellany. 10 minutes after landing however there my bag was, just as I had left it at LAX 6 hours earlier. Flush with the victory of picking up my luggage I made a break for my hotel for the night, the Hyatt Regency at the Orlando airport.

Unbeknownst to me the large atrium I had walked through to get my bags was in fact the hotel itself. After grabbing my keys I went to my room, which as it turns out is quite opulent. After quickly changing into something more comfortable I went to the gym for a quick workout before making my way out for dinner. I decided to try the in hotel restaurant, McCoy’s Bar and Grill. The food was so-so but the Californian wine was quite good and the service was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. This definitely was capitalism taken to the extreme where minimum wage workers fight their way out of there by providing you the ultimate in service. Having dinner out in Australia feels like getting spat in the face by comparison.

And now I’ve resigned myself to finishing off the $30 bottle of wine I have beside me and watching the Discovery channel until I pass out. Hopefully my plan skirts around the horrible jet lag I felt earlier, but either way tomorrow I take on the challenge of trying to drive on the wrong side of the road in a Toyota Corolla, in preparation for one of the reasons I came here: to drive a corvette around Florida for a week.

WTF Was This Guy Doing: My Refactoring Experience.

It doesn’t take much to sending me on a coding spree. Sometimes is something as simple as an idea that I need to implement now since it fundamentally changes the way the application will evolve and other times it’s something right out of the blue. Last night was the latter as after finishing up some preliminary packing for my trip to the US on Sunday (stay tuned for pictures, posts and vlogs!), playing a couple games of Starcraft 2 I found myself watching the latest episode of the Random Show. In essence it’s just Tim Ferriss (4 Hour Work Week) and Kevin Rose (Digg founder) talking about all sorts of things, but a common theme is always that of entrepreneurship. As someone who’s aspiring to that lifestyle I’m usually fixed firmly to the screen, hoping for some gems that will help me along my merry way. Last night however provided something completely different.

After listening to them for quite a while I looked down at my notepad with a list of features that I’ve slated for integration into Lobaco. I’ve deliberately let them go by the wayside as feature creep is the easiest way to kill a product before it even gets off the ground. Couple that with the fact that I only just recently had the penny drop on iPhone development the less ambitious I make the first iteration of the product the more likely I am to make it solid and usable, rather than a total mess of half done features. Still there are a couple on there that are wholly web client based so feeling the entrepreneurial surge from two web start-up powerhouses I thought I should go ahead an knock a couple of them over.

Boy was I in for a surprise.

One feature which was easy and would make the UI slightly more complete was making the right hand side information section scale dynamically with the browser’s height. In essence this is so you can see more if you’ve got a larger screen and makes the UI look a bit better on smaller screens. Since Silverlight supports dynamic height scaling by simply not specifying a height I thought that all I’d need to do was remove the static height and I’d be done, leaving me to knock over another feature before bed. Changing the property lead to the list box scaling out to its full height and refusing to show a scroll bar, and left me scratching my head as to what was going wrong.

Diving into the code I noticed that whatever I set the height to in the class file would determine the height of the list box. Thinking that it would just be a matter of setting that to the available height would give me the behaviour I wanted I coded up a loop that set that height whenever the size of the browser window changed. This kind of worked but never scaled properly, despite my beautifully crafted logic statements. Something was definitely amiss, but it took me another 2 hours to track down what it was.

Essentially it was a clusterfuck of 3 different coding screw ups. The first was placing the custom class I had designed inside a list box, which was in essence wrapping itself in itself. The second was actually using that class in the first place as it was not required and also duplicated a ton of styling logic thanks to the way Expression Blend messes with your code. Lastly, instead of adding items directly into the list box itself I was creating yet another list box, adding items into that and then adding that entire list box into the main list box (which was wrapped in yet another list box). To get dynamically scaling height in that mess would’ve required setting the height in about 3 different locations consecutively, an expensive process for something that’s supported natively.

The thing is this component was one of the first things to be coded into Lobaco about 3 months ago so this issue has been there almost from day dot. I’ve looked at that code dozens of times over the course of developing this application and not once did it twig that was I was doing was completely ass backward. It’s been almost a month and a half since I did any serious work on the web client and it seems that time away has given me enough perspective to see those obvious mistakes. I think that all developers need time away from their projects in order to get their head out of the problem space and get a clearer perspective on what they’re doing. Hell I’d say that those breaks I took from developing Lobaco were wholly responsible for the 3 code dumps I did and the current polished version that’s on the web today.

In the end the whole development process has been one of the most gratifying learning experiences I’ve ever had. It seems every time I think I’ve got things down pat I learn something new that makes me rethink my past decisions, tweaking things so they’re just that little bit better. Whilst I’m sure that this code base is here to stay it’s definitely evolving as time goes on as each change builds upon the last to provide a better experience for my future users. I won’t be making any progress on it for the next month whilst I travel the US but I’ve got the feeling in that time I’ll get enough perspective to make some incredible changes to Lobaco and hopefully I’ll come back recharged enough to hit development with renewed vigour.

That X-37B Sure is a Wiley One.

About six months ago I wrote a post on the American Department of Defense’s new space craft the X-37B. At the time it was quite the curiosity with it being shrouded in secrecy as to its actual purpose but there was ample information about the craft itself floating around the internet. Since then though there really hadn’t been anything to write home about as the only information we could get about the craft was its orbit. Everything else remained classified.

It’s that one piece of information however that’s sent the satellite watchers into a flurry. The X-37B’s orbit has been well known for quite some time and many amateur astronomers have been tracking its position since launch. 2 months ago however the diminutive cousin of the shuttle changed its orbit significantly, boosting itself a good 29KM higher above the earth’s surface. Amateur astronomers trying to catch a glimpse of the craft soon after the manoeuvres couldn’t find the craft and the hunt was on to find where it had gotten itself off to. It wasn’t too long before they found it however and the reclusive craft disappeared back into seclusion.

Then just a couple weeks ago they lost track of the craft yet again, signalling that it had made yet another in orbit adjustment. Two weeks of searching later and the craft was then spotted again around 54KM lower than it was previously. With the mission time over 180 days at this point the craft, according to specifications provided by the military, still has a good 90 days of in orbit time before it needs to return to the surface. Thus whilst the true nature of this change is not known you can probably bet that it’s not going to be coming home soon, and that brings up the possibility that the last few changes had another purpose in mind.

Whilst it was probably nothing more than just testing their orbit changing capabilities the conspiracy nut in me won’t be satisfied until I dig a little deeper into what they might be doing. We know that the X-37B has a decent payload bay on it but we have no idea whether it was loaded up or not. If it wasn’t that opens up the possibility of the DoD doing some in orbit satellite capture for reconnaissance or possibly bringing down to earth. The orbit of the X-37B is a strange one though with its inclination being 40 degrees, an orbit not shared by a lot of other craft. However there are a few as this site shows but unfortunately for my caged conspiracy nut they’re all at higher orbits and there’s nothing particularly interesting about any of them.

So much for that then.

In all seriousness the mission is more than likely all about testing the longevity of the components that have gone into making the X-37B and little else. The on orbit dancing this craft has been doing verifies that it’s capable of shifting itself around significantly and that the control systems of the craft are still functional after 6 months in high orbit. Had this been launched into a more populated area of space then I might contend that they were testing its ability to intercept other craft but right now it appears that the USA is just making sure their new toy works as it was designed to.

Future missions might be more exciting, however.

Sony DSC-HX5V Review: A Pocket Powerhouse.

I’ve been deep in the social networking world for a long time now and while I’m no expert on how to use them effectively I do recognise their power to drive a product or brand. Most recently this has led me to get involved in the YouTube community, albeit as a consumer more than a producer. Still I couldn’t push back the thought that this was something I’d love to get into, seeing it as a kind of evolution of my blogging efforts of the past couple years. Plus it would give me a great excuse to go gadget shopping and everyone knows I love me a good gadget.

I’d been eyeing off the new Canon DSLRs for quite a while since I’d heard they were capable of doing full HD video recording. Looking over some of the sample videos posted around the Internet the Canon 550D was shaping up to be a good replacement for my 400D, and the camera body by itself could be had quite cheaply. However after bumping into an old friend of my brother he extolled the virtues of the Canon 7D to me, what with its dual processor loveliness and full magnesium body. The camera itself wasn’t too expensive although certainly more than the 550D,¬† and so I resigned myself to get one before our trip over to the USA.

Of course right after that, I started looking at accessories.

Now I’m just a hobbyist photographer and I haven’t invested too much into my kit yet, probably somewhere on the order of $1,500. The 7D by itself would almost double the amount I’d spent thus far but that would still leave me with an expensive camera and only 2 lenses (one of them a not so good kit lens). I then decided I’d need another lens if I was going to do this video thing properly which bumped the total investment up to a point where I started to question just how much I wanted to do this. Thus I decided I should find a cheaper alternative first before sinking almost $3,000 into a hobby that I might not even be interested in.

And so enters the Sony DSC-HX5V.

I had only 2 requirements when I was looking for this camera. The first was that it had to be a compact, not a scaled down DLSR or anything that would be comparable in bulk to my old Canon. Secondly it had to shoot full 1080p HD video as that meant that as long as the quality was at least halfway decent at that resolution I could always scale it down to 720p to get a pretty decent picture. After looking at various Micro 4/3rds and other interchangeable lens cameras I stumbled across Sony’s latest line of compacts and I must say their specs were impressive enough for me to investigate them further.

In particular the HX5V stands out thanks to all the wizardry that they pack into this tiny, pocket sized device. Not only does it support full 1080p video at 50fps but it also does 10 megapixel stills with a 10x optical zoom. Additionally the camera comes equipped with a GPS sensor and a magnetometer so your photos not only have their location in them but also the direction you were facing when you took it. They also managed to fit a stereo microphone on the top of it as well.

Although the camera body is made entirely out of plastic the build quality is good with the whole camera feeling quite solid. The optical zoom action of the camera is quite smooth and is very quiet, great for when you’re using it during video mode. For someone like me with giant hands the camera is actually a bit too small as I can’t hold it comfortably without covering up most of the camera. Still the size lends it to fitting well in your pockets without feeling too bulky so I’m willing to make the trade off for portability. The battery pack is quite adequate for taking hundreds of photos but will run dry rather quickly when recording in full HD video. I think I’ve got about 30~60 minutes total on a full charge, which is pretty reasonable considering its size.

The menu system on the DSC-HX5V is a little confusing at first but most of the regular ones can be found after a few minutes of stumbling around. Thankfully the large LCD on the back informs you what each of the little symbols on the mode dial mean when you switch as some of them (like the auto HDR one) don’t really convey their meaning very well. There’s a button on the back of it to go straight to movie mode which is a nice addition and saves you from having to navigate around unnecessarily.

So how does it shape up as a camera? Well rather than blather on about picture quality and all that I’ll just let the pictures do the talking, below is an album of some pictures I’ve taken over the course of the past month that showcase the camera’s abilities in various conditions:

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Ah but I hear you asking, what about the video? Well you won’t be disappointed I’ve compiled a video of some of the footage I’ve taken as well, although I’ve replaced the sound as there wasn’t anything really worth hearing in any of these videos (highly recommend hitting the 1080p button for this one):

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Overall I’m very satisfied with this little compact. Whilst it wasn’t exactly cheap by any stretch of the imagination, about $400 on Ebay, the capabilities it provides are well worth the price of admission and it’s the perfect substitute for when my DSLR would be overkill. The picture and video quality are quite good and the auto HDR function provides great pictures even in extremely low light situations. If you’re a budding vlogger or film maker I’d highly recommend this camera as a starting point before you sink thousands of dollars into professional kit. It does unfortunately lack some features (external mic in, bluetooth) which would’ve made it a technological dream but for the price I couldn’t find anything to beat the Sony DSC-HX5V in every area consistently. That might change with the product refresh cycle coming around for this holiday season but that would just mean you could pick one of these up for a bargain price, and I’m sure you wouldn’t be disappointed.