March 2007

11 Mar 2007 [link to here]
keyed up

Click and Clack say that if you're thinking about replacing your old car with a new one, you might be better off just fixing all the annoying broken things in your old car and having it cleaned and freshly painted. It's a lot cheaper, and it'll feel like new.

I've been thinking about replacing my four-year-old laptop with something faster, but instead I cleaned the keyboard and replaced the pointing stick cozy. It's still not as fast as I'd like, but it sure is shiny and new-feeling.

The mass of dust, lint, hair, and other delightful particulates I removed from under the keys was truly horrifying. I was able to get most of it out with a toothbrush, but I wanted to be thorough, and taking things apart is fun, so I still went ahead and pulled off all the keys.

Having removed all the keys, the obvious question is whether to put them back in the same arrangement. I've been using a Dvorak layout exclusively for nearly twelve years now, so most of the labels on the keys didn't match what turns up on the screen when I press a key. Unfortunately, the connectors on the F G H J and B keys are different, so I wasn't able to Dvorakify the whole keyboard.

Instead I got as close as I could and placed a few stragglers randomly in the spaces left. So now my keyboard looks like a combination of qwerty, Dvorak, and something else. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but it's kind of fun to have most of the labels be accurate for a change, and it's nice not to see qwerty defiling my laptop anymore.

I'm so meta I wore a divot into the left Alt key, so I also went ahead and swapped each left/right pair of Alt, Shift, and Control. As I mentioned a few years ago, I don't seem to use the ones on the right.

Now if only all these changes made it process large images faster, I could stop thinking about replacing it.

18 Mar 2007 [link to here]
personalize your weather

I woke up this morning to the pitter patter of rain on the roof. That sounds rather pleasant at first, but when I say "this morning" I mean 3:30am, and when I say "roof", I mean the tarp I'd rigged up as a makeshift shelter. Pitter patter was not a pleasant sound.

I'm camping in the woods near Big Basin, helping to run this year's advanced navigation class for my search and rescue unit. The weather forecast said nothing about rain, and rain was the last thing on my mind when I set up my shelter. It's possible to make a rain-resistant tarp shelter, and it's always a good idea to prepare for rain no matter what, but the weather was so nice that I just hadn't thought about it. And now it's raining.

I'm still mostly asleep and both brain cells are operating in low gear, but panic is gradually seeping in. Things are getting wet. I drag my backpack and my boots farther into the shelter. I shuffle farther in to get my head completely under cover. I slip in and out of sleep.

Rain smacks the tarp inches above my head and my dreams are twisted and threatening. What if the sun never comes up? What if it never stops raining? How long could I hold out before I succumb to despair?

I wake up a bit more and take stock. Water is pooling all around me. The fleece jacket I'm using for a pillow is a sponge. I hold it outside and wring it out. One of my boots is soaked. My only pair of pants is in a puddle of water, as is my raincoat. The one bit of good fortune is that it was so cold last night that I hauled out my just-in-case bivy sack and put my sleeping bag in it, which is the only reason I'm not swaddled in a cold and soggy mess of feathers. I rearrange things as best I can, seal up the bivy sack, and go back to sleep.

6:00am. Time to get up. It's still pitch black, and it's still raining. Instead of a few hours of sleep, I've had a few hours of misery. I can't remember the last time I felt this low. Kelly cheerfully announces that it's pretty foggy out. Nice understatement. I don't want to get up and face the day, but staying in bed has no appeal either. Using advanced contortion skills, I manage to change into fresh underwear and put on socks, but that's all I can manage inside my tiny shelter. I throw open the tarp and, standing in the rain, I put on my wet pants. I wring out my fleece and climb into it. I get into my wet raincoat. I take a moment to savor my dry hat.

We've still got a course to run, so it'll be at least eight hours before I get to my car, where I failed to stash dry clothes, and another two hours of driving home. Since it's been raining all night, all the firewood will be wet and there won't be a fire. It's going to be a long, wet day. I hope the trainees fared better than I did last night.

I walk into main camp and squeeze out a resigned "good morning" with as much sincerity and optimism as I can muster. Then I notice something odd. Everyone is bundled up for the chilly morning, but no one else looks like they're being rained on. I pull off my hood. It's not raining.

Not raining. Not even a little. And it never was. It wasn't raining when I stood in the rain putting on my wet clothes. It wasn't raining while I endured the water torture pitter patter right above my face all night, and it wasn't rain that flooded my shelter and soaked my gear. It was fog.

Apparently it's called "fog drip". Thick fog condensed on the trees and dripped down. Onto me. All night. I walk back over to my shelter, and it's still raining there.

I can't help but notice the unfairness of it all, but mostly I'm relieved. Instead of spending the whole day in wet clothes in the rain, I spend the next two hours in front of the roaring fire, watching the ghost of a rough night float out of my clothes.

28 Mar 2007 [link to here]
sniveling tourists

Today I went to China, which should mean interesting stories for the next couple weeks. At least for me. Maybe I'll even post a few of them.

One thing I was prepared for was bad English translations. I thought the official immigration documents would have gotten enough attention to be immune, but no. Upon entering the country today, I had to fill out a form telling them whether I might be carrying avian flu. They did just ask me straight out, but also asked about symptoms I've exhibited recently, including "sniveling". Always good to keep the snivelers out of the country, I guess.

More exciting was the instant customer feedback I got to provide at customs. While they're looking at my passport, I'm standing in front of four buttons: "very satisfied", "satisfied", "unsatisfied", and "very unsatisfied", which I can press to indicate my (dis)pleasure with my customs agent. There was no indication of what would happen to me during my stay if I said I was unsatisfied, but service was good, so I got to press a happy button.

29 Mar 2007 [link to here]
you heard it here first

Jonathan and I were both amused to discover that the first two things I wrote about my trip were things he'd written about when he was in China a few months ago. His posts about the snivelling tourist exclusion and about a similar customer feedback button panel at a bank had completely slipped my mind. Is this what's meant by "One China"? I'm going to cut my own trip short and will be writing the remainder of my stories based solely on Jonathan's travels. This should save me some time.

Meanwhile, I'm still here, so I'll write about breakfast. Were I at home, posting about breakfast would be cliché and boring, but since I'm in a different country, it's an exciting travel story. My first breakfast in China: cornflakes with soy milk, an apple with homemade peanut butter, and a few milk-chocolate-covered digestives. Ok, maybe not so exciting, but definitely a pleasant way to start the day. And actually, the peanut butter was exciting and exotic, mostly due to the cinnamon, I think. I'll be dumping cinnamon into my peanut butter from now on.

31 Mar 2007 [link to here]
I have the con

I've been learning at home that talking to strangers is rewarding. If I can get myself to break the ice and chat with the unknown, my overtures are usually welcome and everyone's happier for it. When traveling, the potential rewards are even bigger. Embracing opportunity makes crazy adventures possible.

I met lots of people on Thursday. Many of them just wanted money. It's annoying to have people constantly trying to sell me things, but as a white man in China, I have a sign on my head that says "please rip me off". Still, it's just an irritation. They're pushy, but they're honest.

Three times, I was approached by people running the art student scam. They tell you a bogus story in order to get you to look at their art, then they ask you to buy some. It's pretty mild as scams go, since the transaction is explicit and optional, even though the run-up is under false pretenses. If played brilliantly to an unsuspecting mark, it's actually hard to spot the pitch coming (and all the more disappointing when it does). Hypothetically speaking, anyway.

The next morning, I decided to search the net for the local scams. That's when I read about the Beijing tea house scam, and that's when I discovered that in fact I'd been swindled by people I never suspected.

It's simple. Two girls struck up a conversation with me, and then we spent the next two hours chatting and walking around town together, having a fine time. Eventually we decided to sit for a while and drink some tea and eat some snacks in a nice tea shop. After another hour or so of fun conversation, it was time to go. The bill was much higher than I expected, but within the realm of possibility. I think that if it were just me, I'd have taken my time and figured out that I was being screwed, but my local friends didn't seem surprised by the total. We left, walked around together some more, and eventually I had to go. I never figured out that they had colluded with the tea shop to overcharge me. Now I wonder whether they set it up ahead of time or whether they arranged it right under my nose in a language I don't speak.

I'm only out fifty bucks, so it was a cheap education, but it still hit me hard. I was deeply embarrassed to have been hoodwinked, to have so grossly misjudged two people I spent hours talking to, and then, because of that misplaced trust, to have failed to realize what was going on even while I was handing over the money. I used to think I was too cautious or clever to fall for a scam, but they got me, a seasoned traveler on his 21st country. It was my first day and I was tired, but really they just played it well, and I didn't even figure it out until I happened to read about it the next day.

On the bright side, I had a fantastic day, and my idealism and naiveté weren't crushed until the next morning. And although it might occasionally cost me, I think I'm happier being an open and unsuspicious person, at least when the stakes are so small.

On Friday, I walked around with headphones on all day, listening to music, taking pictures, and ignoring everyone who tried to talk to me. That was a pretty good day too, but not as much fun as the first one.