On Lightfield photography and Lytro

Viewers will find clicking on photos to refocus them to be fun for exactly 17 seconds, after which theyll be bored, not to mention annoyed that theyre being made to do work the photographer should have done already.  As for the folks behind the camera, placing the focus is a creative decision, and in general, photographers arent going to want the end viewer making their creative decisions for them.

Let me be clear, I’m not skeptical about the value of being able to set focus after the fact, I’m only skeptical about the value of letting the viewer set focus after the fact.  Letting the photographer set focus after the fact is fantastic.

via Camera Curiosities: Lytro – Its Aliiiiiive!.

 

I agree with this completely.  I was really excited about the technology that is behind the Lytro camera, but I had never thought of letting the viewer be the one to set focus.  I had intended it to enable more creative control in post-production.  I canceled my Lytro order without a solid reason why, but this article put into words what I had felt.

Rethinking Photography in 2011

Yesterday some mixed feelings and vague thoughts I’ve been having for a long time culminated in the decision to sell all of my photography gear and start over from scratch.

I’ve been a hobbyist photographer for a long time, I got my first camera when I was about 7, but in 2009 I quit my tech job and began putting more focus on doing photography as a career.  What I found out about myself over the course of many months is that I’m not one of those people who likes to go into business for himself, and I wouldn’t be very good at it. I’m too altruistic and have such a relative sense of worth that it’s very hard for me to make money by selling art. Plus I hate selling, greatness should sell itself.

Aside from not being good at business, I found it hard to find people to work with. It seems like so many people talk and dream but few people actually produce. This was incredibly frustrating to me because I wanted to produce night and day, and had had that chance when living at 4211 with a gaggle of fashionistas living next door, the beach a block away, Rob always dragging me to punk rock shows, the rise of flashmob scene, and newbie exploration of the San Francisco festivals. Then after that I went off to travel and found unlimited things to photograph in SE Asia, and came back to America to focus on professional and fashion photography. However, the lack of interested parties and paying clients led me to retreat to the more lucrative technology sector, and the frequency of photo shoots dwindled.

All that while, the landscape of professional photography was changing. The number of decent to good cameras in the hands of average consumers skyrocketed. The iPhone 4 and its awesome camera was released, DSLR prices dropped while sensor technology got better. Micro 4/3 cameras took off. Cameras are now everywhere. This meant the bar to entering photography was lower, and in turn many people showed that they had a natural talent for photography. These people were not professionals but they were posting amazing quality work online, then giving it away for free to companies who would’ve had to pay just a few years earlier. Companies don’t need to pay for photography anymore, they just browse the creative commons area of Flickr, ask for commercial rights and get it. When they do pay, it’s a fraction of what they would’ve had to pay before.

On the flip side, I see people with charisma and capital but little talent for photography out there shooting mediocre work and blogging about it and posting in every Flickr pool that requires comments and fav’s, gathering a following of praising people who don’t know great artistic photography from a computer animated dog food commercial.

Meanwhile I was carrying around a bunch of heavy, expensive, professional, photography gear doing my hobby thing, getting a few paid gigs here and there on the side. I was halfway in my professional photography mindset and halfway in my hobby mindset; living two lives. I feel like this has been a big distraction to my tech profession and my personal life.

Then there is technology advances. Cameras are changing. They have been mostly the same for a long time, but now we have iPhone apps that create panoramas inside of a phone where previously you’d have to take a shift lens or a land camera out to do architectural work. The cameras inside these phones suck compared to SLRs, but things like in-cam HDR generation and auto-stitching apps give them higher level skills. Of course, they aren’t approaching H4D level, but there’s no doubt that the camera on a phone can produce images that are stunning. After all, the best camera is the one you have on you, and now almost everybody has one.

But a lot of it boils down to me taking photography too seriously. I have a serious hobby, but it’s not a profession. Hobbies are supposed to be fun and enriching. With the failure of my attempted photography career, I think it’s time to start over, so that’s what I’m doing.

From Taipei to Saigon, and more importantly, to Tien

On the flight to Saigon I sat next to a nice Vietnamese man from Canada who was going home to visit family. We didn’t talk a whole lot, but he did mention that Saigon is different every time he goes back, always expanding and always building. He’d grown up in Saigon but had been living in Canada for over 20 years, which means he’d seen quite a lot changes.

The flight had the standard in-flight entertainment systems on the back of each chair, and I watched people trying to touch the screens as if they were interactive. Then, miraculously they were interactive. They were so slow to respond it was hardly usable, and you couldn’t do gestures like so many people were trying, but you could in fact touch things. This made up for some of my gripes about this system from my travels last year.

When we landed and gathered our things, waiting for those ahead of us to deplane, the man next to me laughed, opened up a plastic bag he was carrying and pulled out a whopper hamburger. He said he had 9 more in the bag that he brought for his family.

I had arranged for a landing visa when my landlord Brando from my place on Telegraph Hill had suggested it to me. He said it was quicker and cheaper. It was cheaper, and significantly easier, but because there were so many other people waiting for them it didn’t necessarily end up being quicker. It wasn’t the longest I’d had to wait to enter a country though, so I certainly couldn’t complain.

32::AM::121 - Tien in the back of a Saigon TaxiAfter about 45 minutes of waiting I finally made it into the country, fetched my box of gifts and passed through customs without a hitch. I saw Tien before I even made it outside. She was standing in a crowd beyond a glass wall looking beautiful in a black skirt with a bouquet of roses. She spotted me and waved, motioned and ran off through the crowd to get to the fenced area where arrivals are greeted by their loved ones. I set my things down and picked her up in a huge embrace, happy to be back together after more than five months apart. Mai was also there waiting with her, and the three of us caught a taxi back to the Ruby Star. We relaxed for a while and ate some chocolate that I’d brought, then went out for lunch at a place a few doors down that Tien and I had seen but never eaten.

Mai headed home after lunch, and Tien and I spent the rest of the afternoon catching up with lost time and napping. We had dinner and went for a walk through the heart of Pham Ngu Lao. We heard mexican music playing in the park where some people were dancing, and a few other live bands playing english songs, which could’ve been awesome if I’d been gone longer.

Back to Vietnam in 2010

Friday, May 7th was my last day working my contract at GWOS. I had thought my contract ended a week earlier, and had bought a plane ticket for that timeframe. That detail was an oversight on my part, and it cost me nearly the price of a plane ticket just to get it switched. Honestly though I was happy to work the extra week because projects were coming together and I got a lot of work done that week. My boss Dr. Dave Blunt was on vacation in New Zealand, so on Friday I trained a temp guy to pick up some of the slack while another co-worker, Thomas Stocking, was going to be handling the bulk of the IT duties. A few of my co-workers invited me into Thomas’s office for a glass of fine scotch to finish the work day off.

After work I got in my car and headed to REI to pick up a hat and a light colored, long sleeved shirt, two things that are priceless in SE Asia.  I didn’t immediately notice that the hat, like my backpack I’d bought for my first trip, was made in Vietnam.

For dinner I grabbed sushi with Blake and Lily on Castro St, and after that I drove down to Lila’s house to stay with her family for a while. I spent a lot of time there playing on the iPad with Maks and trying to find the best way to pack some gifts for my trip. The best way ended up being to keep my expensive and fragile things in my backpack while putting heavy and liquid things into a cardboard box for check-in at the airport.

32::AM::118The How Weird Street Faire was on Mother’s day, which was Sunday, and I had planned to go but ended up not being able to make it. That’s my favorite SF electronica festival, but it just wasn’t going to fit into my schedule and it wasn’t high enough priority for me to really make it happen. Getting packed for my trip and making sure I had everything I needed was my main focus the last few days. Late Sunday night Lila and Maks dropped me off at SFO. Check in was easy, but the last bar closed at 11pm and I was just a few minutes too late to get any service, so I ended up waiting at the gate, tired but trying to stay awake for the last few hours.

Just after 1am on May 10th, China Airlines flight 3 from SFO to Taipei boarded, and it would be the most uncomfortable international flight I’d ever taken. The plane was shoddy, the seat was uncomfortable, the food was bad, there were crying babies, there was what seemed like a VHS tape hooked to a 1990′s projection style TV for us to watch a movie on, and no personal entertainment systems on each chair (which was fine by me anyway, those things all suck.) On top of that, I had an aisle seat so people kept running by and brushing my arm or leaning against me to let other people pass.

I slept for most of the flight. I thought about watching a movie on my iPad, or listening in on the in-flight movie, but remembered that it is disconnecting and weird to lose myself in a fictitious plot when I’ve got my own new story going.

I remembered that I’d forgotten to pick up a travel bug to take to Asia. Oh well. Next time.

One good thing I’ll say is that the coffee was good. I think I like Asian coffee more than what we usually get in America. I’d have traded the better than average coffee for a comfortable seat though.

The in-flight GPS display came up on the big screen and showed that we had just flown over almost all of Japan. It then switched to a display of “breathing exercises for relaxation” where a girl was sitting calmly on a chair at the end of a dock on a mirror lake with what looked like Mt. Fuji in the background, though I suspect it was some Chinese mountain. 32::AM::120 - 45 minutes at the Taipei AirportThe video had just begun to explain to us how to relax when the girl was torn from her serene location by static and color glitches commonly seen when you pause a VHS tape. The captain had an announcement.

We landed in an overcast Taipei that was mostly unremarkable. What I could see of the airport outside was foreign and neat, but beyond it was just familiar green vegetation and grey skies. I spent no more than 45 minutes there before being seated on flight CI0781 to Saigon. Maybe I’ll go back for a longer visit some day…

Preparing for my third Asia trip

Time spent on San Francisco trainsRight now I’m on the L-Taraval on my way to the sunset. Rob is in new York looking for a place to live and I’m crashing at his place while he’s gone.

I just finished a crazy, long day at work with network config, server upgrades, Linux active directory authentication problems relating to a windows server meltdown that also caused DNS and VPN meltowns. This infrastructure is not exactly high availability.  It started at 6am and here at 10pm it’s almost over… On top of that I managed to work out the details of a landing visa for my trip to saigon next week and line up a small crew for how weird this Sunday.

It’s such a foreign world here in SF compared to the remote Mekong farm village where Tien grew up and is staying these days. I love technology, and I need to make money, but I have to find a balance.

I need immigration to approve Tiens visa.  It’s been over five months since I last saw Tien, which is a long time to go without seeing anybody, let alone your fiancé. Too long.

Last weekend I went to San Jose for Sadeks birthday and caught up with a ton of folks I hadn’t seen in a long time. I’ve managed to fit in quite a few good visits in my last few weeks here, though unfortunately a few have not come through.

It’s strange to consider the levels of anticipation between my trips. The first time I left I was burned out on work, going into the unknown ready for whatever. The second time I was lovestruck and impatient for things to move on freely. This time I seem exhausted and underwhelmed. I’ve been so focused on projects at work and dealing with the details that I feel like I’ve lost touch with the joys that I’m pursuing.  When I stop to think about the situation I am either emotionally swelled with missing Tien or incredibly frustrated and nearly broken over this ridiculous US immigration saga.

I need a vacation, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll go back to Nha Trang…

It’s weird to think back to a time when I cared where I slept at night.

The trip home from Da Lat

Sunday morning was warm and glorious. Eating breakfast outside was a treat that morning. We hung around the hotel until a van came to pick us up at 12:30 and take us off to our bus. We had expected the van to arrive sooner and give us time to eat while waiting for the bus, but there wasn’t enough time so we boarded and headed out with the expectation that we’d stop in an hour or so where we could find some food. This was not the case.

The first place we stopped was a tea and fruit juice place that had pretty much no food. There were a few things like cakes that you would eat with your tea, so Tien and I got some cakes and ate them on the bus as we headed up a mountain pass that was in the middle of being reconstructed.

The bus had a DVD player and a TV at the front so people could be entertained along the way. This was a home entertainment style DVD player, which means it wasn’t really built to handle being moved along a bumpy dirt road winding through jungly mountains. Needless to say it skipped a lot and they eventually turned it off. I wondered why in a country like this with so many dirt roads a company like Mailinh who had busses that went everywhere didn’t just rip their DVDs into something that could be played from a cheap solid state media player. I wondered about the technological and business aspects of such a proposition, along with my idea to put wifi at popular bus stops, since there never is any and I’m sure people on their netbooks would use it. Perhaps the country just isn’t quite ready for that step…

Tien and I didn’t get a chance to eat until 4:30pm. Hu tieu never tasted so good.

Back on the road, I saw a motorbike with logs about 6 feet long stacked sideways on the back seat so that it took up the full lane of the road. The sunset was beautifully colored, like tropical fruits. There were beautiful green rice paddies illuminated by that gorgeous dusk light, but I had a hard time photographing it and I realized it wasn’t just because we were in a moving vehicle. Vietnam is so flat that you don’t get to see much of the beauty. Trees and lines of buildings block off so much of the natural beauty of the rice paddies and fields, and there are so few mountains that you rarely rise above it so you can look down on it. It’s a shame, really.

Well into the darkness of light we passed over a bridge where there were house boats floating on still water, reflecting their lights all around them. It was magical.

As we were coming into Saigon I saw an airplane on its descent. It was the first airplane I had seen since we left the airport several weeks ago.

I saw a huge billboard at the side of the highway advertising HHH Zippers.

Back in Saigon, we caught a taxi to the Bui Phan but it was full except the most expensive room, so we headed to the Ruby Star and got a cheap, awesome room. WiFi on this floor was a problem, I was unable to get out to the internet. Upon further investigation I discovered multiple cascaded DD-WRT routers all using 192.168.1.0/24 on both their LAN and WAN, and this was keeping me from getting out to the internet. After a few guesses I was into the admin panel and was able to reconfigure them each with their own LAN subnet so that there was no overlapping IP space and I was soon able to actually get out onto the internet. I considered different approaches but settled on this since I was doing all configuration over the air. It was good enough for one day.

Monday morning I woke up and when I signed on I had some more problems with the internet. My computer had switched to a different AP with the same SSID and a different LAN subnet. This was no good. I decided to go ahead and fix this problem once and for all by adding the WAN ports of each router to the switch, disabling DHCP, giving all the APs the same SSID and assigning them static addresses in the DSL modem. This allowed roaming access throughout the hotel, the way it should be. It worked like a charm and I felt pleased with having done something productive. I rather missed the IT world and the puzzle of finding elegant answers to technological problems.

Tien and I grabbed breakfast and decided that rather than stay in Saigon and rent a motorbike, we would return to Binh Hoa. There was potential fun in Saigon but returning home for a few days rest was appealing, and we’d definitely be coming through Saigon again numerous times anyway.

The standard procedure for hotel checkout is playing on computers until it is time to catch a taxi to a bus, then check out of the hotel and head out. This is what we did.

I saw a girl on the back of a motorbike reading a book and my NV240HD failed when I tried to take a photo of her.

I saw a girl with a shirt that said “I swoop want water.”

That evening we were back with the family in Binh Hoa, sharing the details of our trip to Da Lat. The bus trip from Saigon always wears me out because it’s not comfortable and I can’t relax without my body moving into a painful position, Scootretteso after dinner and a little bit of teaching Ngoc english from a book she had we fell fast asleep.

Tuesday was pretty much a rest day. We did the routine shower and get breakfast at the market. This morning though Thu brought over some mangos and peeled them. They were delicious. I don’t think I had ever eaten mango before, except the dried kind. While we sat there eating mango we planned to go hiking on Mt. Cam and to the floating market in Can Tho. That evening we took a little ride around at sunset and took some photos. That evening Mai made us sweet soup, which is a desert style dish with sweet peas, coconut and some squiggly things made from flour that have the consistency of those tapioca drinks.

Going to Da Lat

Thursday morning when I woke up the first thing I did was plug in my dead hard disk to see if it had yet another life. Luckily it did and I put my laptop to work backing up my photos and music.

When Tien woke up we went next door for breakfast. I was thinking a lot about Colorado and the fact that my brother was now out of the Army. It had been 5 years since we’d had a family Thanksgiving together since he joined the army just before Thanksgiving. I thought about driving straight to CO as soon as I landed in SF, or perhaps switching my flight to land in Denver instead. It would be nice to have a family holiday again, though I was disappointed knowing that Tien wouldn’t be there…

At dinner the previous night Tien and I had decided to go to Da Lat instead of Nha Trang, and after breakfast we went to the travel agency where I’d gotten my ticket for Cambodia and got the information we needed to book a ticket to Da Lat. We went back to the hotel, reserved a ticket on the bus and geeked out for a bit.

We were a bit late checking out of the hotel and the bus service called saying we would miss our noon bus and would have to take the next one leaving at 1pm. We caught a taxi and headed off down Nguyen Cu Trinh to a bus station I’d never been to before.

When we arrived at the bus station, which was a small travel agency in the middle of the city, it was 11:45. Tien talked to some guys on motorbikes who told her we could still catch the 12 o’clock bus if the took us there. She got on one and I got on the other and we sped off through mid day traffic. The ride was quick with a lot of weaving and it reminded me of the ride I took with My just before leaving Bangkok.

The motorbikes took us to a travel agency about 4 blocks from where we had been staying. The problem was that we had booked a ticket with Mailinh and this was not a Mailinh bus. Tien got into a little argument with one of the drivers who demanded that we pay him 100,000 for the ride, which was 4x what our taxi to the 1pm bus cost. When tien gets upset she quits talking in English, even if I ask her to translate, so I didn’t know what was going on until after we were already on the bus, otherwise I would’ve told that guy to get lost because it was not our problem if he impersonated a Mailinh employee with the good intention of getting us to our bus on time. I talked briefly with tien about not clamming up on me so I can help her in situations like that, we accepted a learned lesson and let it go.

The bus was nice. We took off through an area of Saigon I hadn’t seen and I decided we should rent a motorbike when we come back so we can go explore farther. The river was cool and there were new buildings being built. It looked more like a modern civic center.

I read the rest of Iron Orchid. It was a decent book but nothing amazing. The ending wasn’t all that climactic.

Tien began to feel motion sick because she didn’t take her medicine in time. She had some intention of staying awake on the ride and it backfired. I felt really bad and had flashbacks to all those times I’ve spent taking care of really drunk people.

We stopped for food briefly just before turning off of the main highway into the hills. The terrain was immediately different in more than just the hills. The vegetation was more thick and tough. We continued through winding roads for a few hours and then took a longer break. Tien and I got drinks and skipped food thinking the bus ride would soon be over.

Back on the road we headed into some mountains that reminded me of the western approach of monarch pass in Colorado. The sun soon set and I listened to Tom Waits while Tien slept. The evening silhouettes of hills with hose and street light scattered off in the distant darkness were familiar to me.

We arrived in Da Lat after 8 hours. We’d been told the ride would be 5 hours. I was hungry and tired.

The usual group of taxi drivers were waiting when we arrived. The first man to approach me was dressed in quality jeans and a leather coat and a helmet. He said he was with the easy riders and could take me anywhere. I told him I was with Tien and VN conversation continued with a bus driver who ended up being our local transport.

We were let off at a hotel and were greeted by a happy woman. Since we hadn’t arranged a driver or a hotel and had just been scammed in saigon I was very skeptical of what was going on and was ready to walk away if every detail wasn’t good, but it ended up that every detail was fine and so we got a large room on the second floor with breakfast included for half of the price we had been used to paying in Saigon.

One of the first things we noticed once we were finally in our room was that Da Lat was cold. Not cool, but cold. It was also raining gently.

We went to find some dinner and ended up at a Chinese restaurant where I once again ordered something that I expected would have no seafood. We weren’t anywhere near the ocean, but that didn’t stop the ocean gods from frowning on my meal. I just gave the icky parts to tien and hungrily devoured the rest.

Tien was really cold on the way Home so we went hat shopping. We ended up not finding anything and just went back to the hotel. I put my computer to work backing up the files that were on the crashing disk, cuddled up with tien under two heavy blankets and fell fast asleep in the cold and quiet.

Heading out for Nha Trang

Tuesday morning at breakfast Tien’s mom brought over a young boy who was big for his age. His older sister showed up soon afterwards and we all ate some snacks. They were Tiens cousins and I recognized their father from our engagement party when he came to pick them up on his scooter.

We returned home, packed for our trip to Nha Trang, had lunch and caught the bus right outside Tien’s house at 2pm.

The bus was not the usual bus service we take, Mai Linh. It took a different route through narrow back country roads that were more jungly than the main roads. I recognized the route from the trip we took where the man was joking about fighting with me. The bus seemed to be going pretty fast but that may just be because the road was so narrow. After a while we got to an area with muddy dirt roads with huge puddles and many bumps.

The driver turned on some pop Vietnamese music and I wondered what a Vietnamese reggae fusion would sound like.

I got out a book, Iron Orchard, and read. Brianna had found the book on the street and gave it to me. It was entertaining light reading that was good for a trip. After we stopped for a break I continued reading until it was too dark, then I just enjoyed music and watched the lights pass in the darkness.

We came upon an accident, the first serious one I’ve seen in Vietnam so far. The diver of a large truck was standing by the back where a bloody man was wallowing in pain on the ground. His motorbike was stuck between the front and rear axels and there was an anonymous pool of liquid coming from the darkness under the truck. I wasn’t sure if he was the only passenger.

Tien looked at the scene then looked away with a shriek. She looked at me with worried eyes and said “He died.” I thought this was an odd way to say it. Later I came to the conclusion that her phrase told a story from a scene that she hadn’t experienced which was why it sounded weirder than saying “he is dead.” I told her that he hadn’t died. The bus drove on and I never heard a siren or saw an ambulance.

As we came into Saigon it was clear that it had been raining hard. Pools of water were standing near intersections and the sidewalk by the river was reflecting the tail lights of motorbikes that rode down it.

The ride seemed endless and my ass hurt from having my buttock muscle stretched in the same position in that tiny seat for so long. We rode through some interesting neighborhoods in Saigon including going over a bridge that we’d seen near the new roads on our way out of town last time. Eventually we arrived at the bus station where we caught a taxi to a hotel I’d stayed at once before, the Bui Phan. The issue with the bed bugs at the ruby star made us not want to go back there, plus I wanted a bath tub.

The hotel was conveniently right next door to Viva Coffee, so we ate there for dinner. In Vietnam, most cafes are also restaurants. Tien’s mom called up worried and told us that the weather was bad in Nha Trang. Her mom worries about everything, but this time she was right. The latest AP headline read something about 32 people being dead from flooding up towards Hanoi. There was a photo o a man motorbiking in Nha Trang in over a foot of water that covered a whole street, and it was still raining.

Wednesday morning I got out of bed, picked up my laptop and found tiny bugs crawling on it. The Bui Phan had them as well… On top of that there was heavy construction going on outside our hotel.

Tien and I had a late breakfast and talked about cultural differences like how multicultural different cultures are and how conservative they are. Afterwards we went online and looked up new destinations. Traveling as a pair was expensive and airfare was also looking more expensive because it was nearing time for peoples fall and winter getaways. We thought about going to Thailand and I even got in touch with a friend of a Sara’s whose family owns a resort north of Phuket. We didn’t decide on anything then.

Instead we went out for a walk to look for an external hard disk that I’d meant to install in my laptop before leaving America. As we left the hotel I saw a Yamaha R6 parked at the motorbike shop next door. It was remarkable because nobody rides anything over about 110cc in Vietnam and this was at least 600. Also, almost nobody rides real motorcycles, just scooters which are more practical.

We walked a long way stopping at computer shops and explaining to them what exactly I was looking for, a FireWire 2.5″ SATA external hard drive case. Amazingly this was t all that hard. For one, I had one with me so I could just show them and then point out that I just needed the case, a d two, there were plenty of computer part shops with drive cases. To my dismay, none had FireWire ones so I had to settle for USB. the sad life of a technology enthusiast.

On the way home I saw a shirt that said “Hollister California” and hated fashion. What on earth is so great about Hollister? I’d never liked that brand and I liked it even less knowing that it could be found in Vietnam, knock-off or not.

Back at the hotel a confusing technological coincidence happened where my old 500gb drive had mysteriously quit working while we were out looking for a new case, which meant I didn’t even need a new case. It also meant I had lost all of my photos and music. On top of that, I broke my only screwdriver while I was right in the middle of investigating the problem so I had a pile of computer parts on a hotel bed and no way to assemble them.

Day to day in Binh Hoa

Friday we woke up and did some internet stuff. I was catching up on a lot of Internet in the morning. Tien got me a breakfast sandwich and made me a banana and strawberry smoothie. What a lucky guy I am, my fiance bringing me food at my computer!

Tien found the information we needed about how to get me a drivers license in Vietnam and it was incredibly simple. We headed to Long Xuyen to get the things we needed in order to apply for it: a photograph of 20x23mm and a notarized translation of my CA driver’s license. We also cruised around to look for a DC power adapter since I forgot the one that goes with the WRT54G that I brought from America. We found one near a park, and after buying it I decided to go take some photos in the park. I was looking for high places to photograph down from in order to make the miniature perspective of the tilt/shift work, so we also headed up to the Panda Cafe on the 6th floor of a building overlooking a main intersection and had some drinks and took some more photos from there. We then cruised down to a local market area, past a block full of flower vendors that smelled a lot like San Jose smells in the spring. I told Tien about this as we were passing through. We picked up some stuff for Thu and headed home to spend the evening hanging out with her family. I tried to hook up the WRT54G and found that the power adapter did not work.

Saturday morning we woke up and headed straight to the translation service and then to the police station. It was a day for people to drop things. While we were riding along I saw three people drop things off of their motorbikes. I’ve also noticed that school is in session now because the streets are full of uniformed students. The girls look beautiful in their all-white traditional clothes, and the boys have a classic schoolboy look in their blue pants, white shirts and red ties. Most of them ride bicycles to school, some hitching rides with others or on motorbikes.

When we got to the police station they informed us that they couldn’t give me a driver’s license unless my visa was good for at least 3 more months. This was mildly disappointing and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a subtle attempt at extortion. I didn’t care enough to find out so we left and went to have brunch at a cafe where we often used to go to surf the net. The food was OK and the drinks were great. We talked about our plans to travel to Nha Trang and possibly to Thailand, what else we would do while I was here, and about whether or not I would return to the USA on Nov 25th, which I think is likely.

We went and swapped the power adapter for one that we thought should work even though it was slightly underpowered, cruised the 20 minutes home from Long Xuyen and found that it did not work. I really didn’t think it would be so hard to find a 12v 500mA DC adapter, but surprise surprise, Vietnam is full of surprises.

That evening we went out in the neighborhood for a walk. We stopped at a little cafe where some locals were watching a ridiculous television show. We ate ice cream and mosquitoes ate me. My ice cream was one of those triple flavors, chocolate, mint and durian. That was interesting… it’s the first time I’ve had durian since I knew it was the “stinky fruit.” It definitely has a very, very odd and distinct flavor and scent.

Tien and I ate dinner on the floor with her mom and sister that evening. I was a little melancholy and I think this made them slightly uncomfortable, but it’s not like we could talk about it. The side-effects of not being able to speak to anybody except Tien were beginning to get to me.

Aside from nonverbal communication, another thing that was getting to me was a pain I’d had in my ankle. Ever since I got off the plane in Tokyo I had a pretty significant pain in my left ankle. I thought it might be a pulled muscle or a bruise on my ankle, but the more I had thought about it the more I thought it might be something with my ligaments. It is a pain stretching from the middle of my shin on the inside, down to the top part of my ankle joint, and also is affected by the arch of my foot. Tien gave me a massage and rubbed some Ben Gay™ that her brother in law had brought from america and that made it feel much better, though not healed.

Sunday morning I woke up at 7:15, which is early for me. While Tien and I were at the market having breakfast I saw a shirt that said “Do u know now much plannet u mean to me” and thought that was pretty funny. We talked a bit about where we wanted to go on a trip, and afterwards we headed to Long Xuyen to find yet another power adapter.

After visiting about 10 stores we finally tracked down a 498mA power adapter and decided to buy it even though the man at the shop said it was not very good quality. We took a back road to get back to the main road which I always enjoy because I like seeing new areas. The road took us by the river and on the way we found a crowd of people standing at the waters edge. They weren’t celebrating, but they weren’t frantic either. Tien listened to what they were saying and told me that a child had fallen into the river.

A man away from the crowd began to shout, but nobody payed attention. I thought this was interesting because it seems that Vietnamese people shout a lot. This ended up being one of those “never cry wolf” situations because he was trying to tell them he saw something in the water. A few more people also began shouting and soon a teenage boy ran over and jumped in the water to look for the child there. Several people swam along the shore, which dropped off very steeply, and were diving under looking for the child. We stayed a while but the child was never found…

I had talked to Tien before about how children here are not taught to swim which leads to many of them drowning, and here was a real life example of such a tragedy. I feel stupid and ashamed that I never thought about the fact that the children in Tien’s family can’t swim and it wasn’t until a few days later that one of her other family members suggested that they be put in swimming lessons. Tien couldn’t swim when I met her, and I wondered if anybody else in her family could.

When we got home I tried the power adapter on the wireless router and it was too unstable and thus did not work. I decided to give up on the whole thing, I’ll just mail the power adapter once I get back to the USA.

That night I opened a bottle of Da Lat red and had wine with dinner. It was the first wine I’d had since leaving California and it was delicious and familiar. It felt good to have a familiar taste that is heavily bound to California. That night I slept deeply.

Tien and I had planned to go to Nha Trang on Monday, a beach resort town up towards Danang, but that morning Tien said we weren’t going to go. She had a sore on her mouth and did not want to travel far until it was healed. I wasn’t sure if this was for medical or aesthetic reasons, though I suspected both and agreed.

At breakfast I was trying to teach Ngoc some english words and realized that she had a very difficult time saying words that begin with the letter S. I asked Tien about it and she said there are very few words in Vietnamese that begin with that letter. I thought about phonetics exercises and games that we could do to train her mouth to say english words.

Instead of going to Nha Trang we talked about going back to Mt. Cam where we could hike up the mountain and swim in the pools of the stream that go down from the lake on top of the mountain. We made tentative plans to do this the next day. We also made tentative plans to teach Ngoc and Nhi how to swim in the pool in Long Xuyen.

We had lunch and I wondered about why there were no tuk tuk’s in Vietnam. Tien said that her dad and brother both used to be tuk tuk drivers, but a while back the police said that people weren’t allowed to have them anymore. She couldn’t explain the detailed reasons why, but said that one of the reasons was because there were too many motorbikes. I suspected that the tuk tuks were causing accidents or clogged traffic. I found it hard to believe that anything was limited on the streets of Vietnam, it seems like you can ride whatever you can build on the street.

That afternoon was very uneventful and empty, and the boredom of Binh Hoa began to set in. We were going nowhere and I couldn’t talk to anybody except Tien. I was sitting idle and feeling like I was wasting away. Tien and her sisters decided that evening that we would go to a Catholic All Saints Day festival that was going on up the highway. I wasn’t in much of a mood to go by this point, but it was better than sitting at home and I was up for anything at that point.

The crowd was huge. People were filling up the little two lane highway and vendors came to sell flashy lights, stuffed animals, foods, all sorts of trinkets and just about anything. There were hundreds of people walking along the highway buying things, chatting, riding bikes, talking on cell phones, etc.. Some were going to the graveyard to burn incense and light candles for their loved ones. Very few were going to church to pray.

I felt very uncomfortable in that crowd. It was like being so famous that every single person in the crowd knew me, but I wasn’t famous for necessarily good reasons. And it was like I had a sign around my neck that said “please say hello.” Hundreds of eyes watched me as I did absolutely nothing interesting. People laughed and joked while watching me. Dozens of people shouted “hello” and dozens more said things that I couldn’t understand. If I had been in a better mood I think it might have been OK, but with my frustrations from being so idle I wasn’t really in a good mood for it.

Instead I just tried to take photos of stuff, but was uninspired. The night was also very dark and it was hard to get a clear picture. We went to the church and I took some photographs of that, lamenting that I had no tripod. I resolved to buy one or make one.

The incense at the church smelled wonderful on the air and there was a full moon.

That night I talked briefly with Tien about how I was frustrated with the inability to communicate and the fact that we weren’t finding anything to do except be lazy at home. We decided to go ahead and go to Nha Trang.

Lazy in Laos

Having arrived late to Vientiane and taken the first guesthouse with an opening, Thursday morning I went to find a better option, an option with Internet. That is vital if you want to stay in touch with people who are scattered around the globe.

I checked into a nice looking guesthouse with a huge bed in a pretty good looking room. I signed on to catch up with photos and whatnot and discovered that even though there was wifi, the actual Internet connection was glacial. It was reminiscent of the 14.4 days. Facebook took over 15 minutes to load. Ping times to google were Averaging 5000ms over 20 hops with 8% packet loss and an MTU of 1100. This was terrible… 

On top of that, as the day warmed up there began a breeze that crept in through the window leading out to the tiny alley, bringing with it a pungent aroma of pestilence. 

It was mid day so I left the stench and went for a walk. Just as I was photographing some stuff and fearing getting rained on a nice tuk tuk driver came up and offered to take me to some local sites that were photogenic. He had photos of the laces and they were indeed grand so I agreed and jumped in the back of his tuk tuk. Off we went, the tuk tuk bumping and whining all the way.

The clouds went away without raining and left a hot, humid day. The skies were beautiful blue with an assortment of scattered clouds. I was soon drenched in sweat.

We saw four locations and miraculously ended up by my hotel. I went inside to clean up and cool off, then went to find dinner. I also had to figure out what to do in Laos.

I found a resturant where some kid on the way out said the food was good and ended up being wrong.  Soon after sitting down a local girl started talking to me and invited me to sit with her. I obliged but soon regretted it. She could barely speak conversational English, seemed mentally vacant and just wanted to go to a bar. Soon after sitting down a man came by and offered me Viagra. I paid for my food and left.

I did go to a bar though. I had a delicious coctail and chatted with some backpackers from the UK. They suggested that I go to Veng Viang and showed me photos from the previous day. It was gorgeous and I thought that I’d like to go. Then they said it was a party town and I thought twice. It was gorgeous though…

I had been in Asia for a month so far and was finally getting a bit tired of traveling. I’m not sure if it was loneliness or exhaustion, but it was probably a bit of both. I was tired of having to look so far past the defacto tourist bullshit to find things actually worth doing. Photographing Veng Viang was definitely worth doing, but I’m the end I decided to fly back to Vietnam to be with tien and go to Vung Tau beach, something we had wanted to do previously but were unable to do. I was a little bummed about not getting to spend more time in Laos, but the world has a lot to see and I can always come back.

The next day I checked out of the stinky slow internet room and went to secure my airfare to Vietnam. I couldn’t get a ticket for that same day so I got one for Saturday and went to find my third hotel in Vientiane. This was half the price of the last, had a window looking across a street to a temple and had no Internet. There was an Internet cafe right next door though.

To access the Internet you were supposed to go buy an access card, then log into their web portal and enter the info to get access. I really didn’t feel like leaving my hotel room and took this as another cllaw sharpening tech challenge. Within a few minutes I’d found an open HTTP proxy within their network and used it to get online. The access was much much faster than my previous accomodations but had limitations on allowed protocols. It was fine for my needs and I spent the next few hours trying to circumvent the protocol limitations. I never got anywhere with it, but it was a good exercise and it was good to know that my skills hadn’t dulled in the last month of unemployment.

I got hungry so I went back to the full mooncafe where I’d met the uk backpackers. This place was a branch of the Cambodian Boom Boom Room, a media store specializing in the illicit sale of music and movies to travelers at terribly low prices. One album was $1.50. I bought 5.

Back at the hotel there was smoke in the air as the monks across the street burned leaves they had raked up. This morning, July 4th, they woke me up with drumming and chanting. I think monks may not be great neighbors.

After a delicious breakfast I checked out, found a tuk tuk and headed for the airport. My short stay I Laos is pretty much over, save waiting for my currently delayed flight. I like it here though and I’d like to come back some day and go farther in. Today though it’s airplanes, my girl, a hydrofoil and a beach.

More Thailand

SE Asia has very deep roots in Buddhism. I didn’t know this when I came here. I’m beginning to see that pretty much everything in the history of Asia revolves around politics and religion. I don’t think that there is anything to see that is not modern that isn’t a religious site of some sort.

Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun Today we first went to Bang Pa In. This was a collection of historical buildings. There were many buildings called mansions that were as small as a large apartment. Like many important buildings, you had to take your shoes off. And you weren’t supposed to use your cell phone. And you couldn’t take pictures. All I could think of was “no fun allowed”, and that may have been the case since it wasn’t really a fun place, but just an ornate and awe inspiring place with a rich history.

We had lunch at a restaurant above a river where big collections of plants were floating by. Afterwards we went to a few more temples, then drove home in the rain with a beautiful sunset beyond the scattered towers of Bangkok.

I saw somebody living under a bridge in a makeshift tent with laundry hung out to dry and pictures hung from the laundry wires and posted on the wall of the underpass.

The next morning My and I got up and caught a taxi to the Sky Train and headed downtown to Siam Square. This was a big departure from what I’ve been used to as it involved things that weren’t hundreds of years old. It was a modern train and modern buildings with modern fashion and chain restaurants.Mall shapes There were people going to work in suits and hundreds of school kids dressed in uniforms. There were big theaters with laser lights in the lobby playing techno.

There was a collection of malls, not just a single mall. It was like six malls, all over 6 stories tall. There was so much fashion to shop for I don’t know if some of the girls back home would’ve come out alive. At one point we found ourselves in a market area on one floor filled entirely of mobile phones. I’d never seen so many mobile phones in my life. Literally there were thousands and thousands of mobile phones being sold at hundreds of little shops that were all exactly the same. I thought I was in tech purgatory.

At one store I saw what I thought was an iPhone for a really cheap price, so I asked to see it. It was a fake. It looked almost exactly like an iPhone, but it had a micro USB slot instead of a dock slot. And it took two SIM cards. And it had a replaceable battery. And the OS sucked. And it required a stylus. And you had to go into the ugly preferences to configure things like UART. It made me wonder why on earth people would go to such lengths to copy merely the physical style of the iPhone yet miss all of the functionality in the user experience, which is where the money is. But then I looked at those oceans of Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung phones and thought “Apple has no market here anyway…” Then I thought “an app store for something like Nokia would be a huge boon for the Asian market.”

I saw a guy with a shirt that said “I fantasize about the ups man.”

I saw a girl with a shirt that said “I look good when turned upside down.”

I saw a man on the street with no shirt wearing ripped up shorts and gold high heels.

On the way home in the Sky Train I told My about the Bart Swing 2009. The Sky Train is too crowded to actually do something like that, but that didn’t stop us from dreaming up the next iteration on the idea… Sky Cradle 2009™, the best way to catch up on your sleep while commuting home.

Visiting The Emerald Buddha

When I woke up and came down stairs, My’s mother Ratana greeted me. She had been in India for work and arrived while I was sleeping. She was really nice and outgoing and made me feel at home. She was the only one I’d e-mailed with about my visit and it was nice to finally meet her.

We were going to go see Wat Arun, the Emerald Buddha and The Reclining Buddha. It was My, Max, Ratana, Ratana’s sister Jit and I. We got breakfast at the usual and then headed off down the tollway.

The tollway reminded me of the new I-25 through Denver. Wide tarmac, smooth, and the scattered tall buildings were similar to those by the DTC. The city is also very sprawled out like Denver is but more so. What’s different is that the skyscrapers are scattered around as far as you can see instead of mostly grouped together. Traffic was different too. Everywhere I go in Asia it seems like the lines on the street are just suggestions of one way to do things. When traffic got heavy on the tollway people turned the shoulder into a lane.

There were a lot of tall buildings near the tollway, but there were also a lot of shacks cobbled together, some with tin roofs and no glass in the windows. Igor had mentioned that there were a lot of run down, poor areas like this and I hadn’t seen many yet, but here they were next to the highway on the way to downtown. This was more like the SE Asia I knew for the first few weeks I was here.

We passed through the edge of downtown and I got a quick glance at it. It seemed like a normal big city with people playing sports in lots underneath the highway, people waiting for busses, people doing this and that in public places. I thought about how I’d go crazy here with a camera between the people and the expansive urban landscape.

Traffic surrounding downtown was terrible in some places and I thought it was normal until Ratana said that it was because the Red Shirts were protesting today near The Palace, which is where we were headed. We would be taking a boat though and would miss the streets where they were protesting.

We got lost and I instinctually pulled out my iPhone to look at the map, and for the first time since leaving San Francisco it actually worked. The GPS function in my iPhone found us in Bangkok. This further validated my suspicion that it was at least somewhat dependent on the mobile network and not entirely dependent on the actual global positioning system run by the US government as most GPS units are. I used it to find geocaches nearby, one of which was exactly where My and I had gotten lost near the King’s museum the other evening.

This thing points upwards We found our way to Wat Arun. We had a look around the complex and went up as high as you could go on the temple. This provided great views of the surrounding complex, the river, the temples across the river where the Emerald Buddha and Reclining Buddha were, and far off sights like downtown and other skyscrapers scattered around the city.

Afterwards we went down to the river and caught a boat to the other side of the river. River taxis are common here like busses are in some cities. We went through a little market area and walked along next to the palace complex until we got to the front where all of the rest of the tourists were. We went in and saw our way through the sites. I’d love to have something to say here, but most of what was inside were historically significant things specifically related to Buddhism, and I’ve never been good at history and Buddhist history seems really complex. It was all very beautiful though and I took many photos that I’m happy with.

Ratana bought a book for me about the history of the Emerald Buddha. It was discovered when lightning struck a building. It is made out of Jade, emerald is just the translated word for the color of jade. It’s been moved around a lot. It’s been owned by several different SE Asian countries.

We left and went to a mall to get some dinner and so some shopping. The parking lot was really full. So full that aside from the normal american H style parking where cars park end to end two at a time, there was a third row of cars perpendicular to those cars, boxing in the middle cars. I wondered how the hell the boxed in cars would get out.

Bangkok mall constructionHere’s how. The perpendicular cars are left in neutral. People who need to get to their cars find a parking lot attendant to help them or by their self roll the car out of the way. This is what we did to get to a parking spot.

We went inside and found a sukiyaki restaurant. Mint joined us and we had dinner, then went shopping. The mall was great, the stores were a lot different than American malls. There were market areas similar to the market I saw in Hanoi. There was a Dell shop, a Fujitsu shop, camera boutiques, phone boutiques, and then the usual things like clothes and shoes.

I looked for a replacement GPS for my camera, which was still mostly dysfunctional, but found nothing. I got a messenger bag that I should’ve got a month ago, some swimming trunks that I also should’ve gotten several weeks ago, and was unable to find a hat that fit. My head is just too big…

Home again. Geeking out again. Slept.

24 hours from Cambodia to Thailand

As I was planning, and thankfully the hackers were keeping up, I was able to jailbreak my iPhone and install network unlocking software on it which would enable me to use it as a phone outside of AT&T’s network. I downloaded the tools to do this and did so while I was also diagnosing and reconfiguring the shoddy wifi signals at my hotel. I was able to successfully unlock my phone while doing nearly all I could do with the wifi network in order to make access at least a little more than non existent to the 4th floor. There was still one huge core change I wanted to make but didn’t want to risk taking down the upper floor networks due to inaccessible 802.11 APs which were acting as chained repeaters rather than point-to-multipoint bridges, which would’ve been more efficient.

In the end I had chat and e-mail worthy and nearly web surf worthy wireless access in my room, and a jailbroken and unlocked iPhone 3g. With that completed, I headed out to get dinner and to find a SIM card to test out the network unlock. I was already to select from a list of about 10 carriers, but my AT&T card wasn’t working on any of them so they were no more use than information on what was available.

I got dinner at a chain restaurant I’ve seen around here called NYDC which serves east coast American food and offers free wifi to its patrons. I had pizza and my first glass of wine in nearly a month as I played with Cydia, which was somewhere between the glory of my first jailbreak experience and the horror of my second. Some of the things I wanted weren’t immediately available, like iPhysics and Trism.

After dinner I walked around looking for SIM cards and ended up at the Siem Reap night market, which was just like the day market but more cozy and warm and quiet, but with still the same “hello sir, can i help you sir, you buy a t-shirt sir” people. I was offered about 50 tuk tuk rides that I didn’t need, motorbike rides which was maybe a first for Cambodia but was frequent in Vietnam, weed and cocaine among countless trinkets and novelties. I was really just out to see it though, just to verify that there wasn’t anything worth seeing beyond the experience of having visited the night markets in Cambodia. Many people were having fun bartering and buying, but progressive minimalists like myself had no business in a place like that. With that in mind I went to a market, bought a bottle of Singha and an international SIM card and headed home.

I stayed up late chatting with Tien and friends who were waking up on the other side of the planet. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to open the tray that held my AT&T SIM card, so I wasn’t able to try it out. That was OK though, in time I’d figure it out. It was more of an educational experience anyway, I didn’t really need it.

In the morning I woke and chatted, listened to music, which had surprisingly been missing in my entire Siem Reap experience, showered and headed out for the much needed coffee and breakfast. I found a restaurant I wished I’d have found a few days earlier. It was a little hole in the wall stall across the street from the more ritzy western restaurants, and they had bread, eggs and white coffee for $2. I was delighted. I also managed to find a cool trick to get the SIM tray on an iPhone open without using a paperclip. Just shove a round toothpick into the hole snugly, then pull the tray out. There is enough grip to open the tray, and so I was able to swap my SIM and being trying out this Asian mobile scene.

I couldn’t figure it out. I forgot which provider was mine, and the girl at the restaurant didn’t know the logo.

I was getting tired of Siem Reap and wanted to leave, so I wandered a block and found a travel agency to check out what options I had for leaving. It turned out I could leave to Bangkok in 3 hours for $145. I went back to my hotel, grabbed my passport and three $50′s, checked the SIM card provider info I’d gotten, headed back to the travel agency to buy my ticket and on the way saw a man at a fruit stand showing a tiny ~.22 caliber pistol to a local boy of about 13. What followed was a hurried series of events which involved me paying for my ticket and handing over my passport, hiring a tuk tuk driver to take me back to the hotel and wait, packing my bags as fast as I could because it was exactly check out time and I had to be at the airport in 30 minutes, checking out, going back to the travel agency to pick up my ticket and passport and then heading straight to the airport. To top it off, my tuk tuk driver barely spoke english and drove a slow tuk tuk which was passed by more than one on the way to the airport.

I was happy though. The rush was a little bit of excitement in my very lazy Cambodian experience, and I was finally leaving Siem Reap. It was a western town with lounges and western restaurants and expensive drinks and meals. I was tired of not being able to look people in the eye, trying to avoid contact with people for fear of being hounded instead of smiling and greeting and talking with people.

On the way out of town I saw a kid with a Che Guevara t-shirt on, which was more interesting in Cambodia since he was a communist who murdered hundreds of innocent people senselessly, just like the Khmer Rouge.

On the way out of down town I set my iPhones cellular network to the one correlating to the SIM card I had and it soon began working. I had a phone for the first time since leaving SF almost 4 weeks ago.

We passed many large hotels, bigger hotels than any downtown, five star resort style hotels. I felt like I was driving through Aspen until I saw a guy on a scooter with about 20 dead chickens hanging by their legs. I then saw a Nikon D200 advertisement and wondered if it had really been there for years.

We arrived just after noon which gave me slightly less than the suggestion of checking in two hours before departure. That was ok though because checking in at the airport, passing through security and passing through Cambodian passport control was easy. There were few people there, it was a tiny airport with only 4 gates and only one was in service. There were 3 flights scheduled within the hour. Prices were astronomical, $3 for a small bottle of water, $3.50 for a can of soda. I bought a bottle of Japanese “wine” and found out it was 20% alcoholic soju after I poured a glass. I didn’t bother finishing the bottle since it tasted like vodka and I had no intention of getting wasted. Plus there were ants crawling on the marble bar.

I decided to use my international minutes while I still had the chance and called My, my friend in Bangkok, and told her I was pretty much on my way there. It was short notice, way shorter than I’d planned on giving her, but it was notice all the same and if she couldn’t pick me up I was planning on finding my own way. Luckily she had nothing going on and said she’d see me soon.

Do not wash in the urinals I walked around a bit and looked at the airport. It was a nice building with decent tropical landscaping outside. It felt like the kind of airport you’d see in a tropical resort, and then I remembered that’s pretty much what it was. A sign in the bathroom instructing men not to wash in the urinals reminded me that I was still in a 3rd world country.

I walked around the shops in the airport and as happy that I could actually look people in the eyes without the fear of them aggressively hawking their goods. It was nice. I was tired of having to pass through a crowd as if I saw nobody, it felt alienating and I was the alienator. I took some photos of the airport and as I passed the bar the bartenders teased me about being drunk, but I wasn’t since I hadn’t finished even half of the bottle. It was funny and we laughed about it. I played around with the networks and stuff on my phone, trying to figure out the details of this SIM swapping thing that is so different from the US. At one point two Japanese girls came running by, quickly passed through the gate and ran for an airplane that was out on the tarmac.

I boarded the plane and the flight attendant gave the usual speech about disabling communications devices and I thought about that annoying sound that the iPhone puts into some speaker systems. There was no safety demo and we were quickly in the air. I was sitting underneath the wing with a prop engine outside my window. We had a meal and I ate my first muffin since leaving SF where muffins were a pretty usual breakfast with coffee. I had coffee with my meal and it was the worst coffee I’ve had in years. It reminded me of the hot black tar we’d drink at Actiontec.

As we flew I looked out at the beautiful clouds and remembered my flight from Hanoi. I looked down at the earth and thought about all of the beautiful places that were hidden in those green polygons. I saw the reflection of the sun passing from rice paddy to rice paddy and then the earth disappeared behind a turbulent cloud.

On our descent I noticed that the land surrounding Bangkok was back to the familiar Vietnamese landscape of rice paddies for miles. The next thing I noticed was that people were driving on the left side of the road. I only had time to listen to two orbital songs before I had been told to take my headphones off for landing, the entire flight was less than an hour and at 2:50 I was in Thailand. The new airport in Bangkok is eye catching and modern. Entering the country was very easy and no visa was required.

After passing through passport control I went and found a new SIM card with a phone number that people could call me on. In Thailand, inbound minutes are free. With Skype, you can have an inbound number in any country that they support, and any state in America. I have a California Skype number. I also have an unlimited world calling plan. Those three things together allow people to call my Skype number in California and ring my cell phone in Thailand without incurring any additional fees for international calling. My SIM card also provided data access, which is actually a little irritating since any network activity on my phone will drain my phone balance, and I can’t disable only data. I had a working phone though and I was again thankful that the iPhone cracking team got the 3.0 unlock out just in time for my arrival in Thailand.

I called My on the phone and told her that I was several hours earlier than I had expected and she said she’d be at the airport in 15 minutes. In the time between I walked around and took in the crowd. There were many beautiful girls, many fashionable people, many people who looked like transvestites, and many girls who looked manly kinda scary and made me wonder about this sex change capital of the world.

My was there in the 15 minutes she said and her father whisked us away in a luxury Toyota sedan. I hadn’t been in a car that wasn’t a Saigon taxi in a long time. The highway system was very modern, the airport surroundings were very modern, the landscape was clean. This was very 1st world and it was odd. There wasn’t a single scooter around, which made sense since we were going over 120km/h. When we got off the highway though things started to look more familiar. I saw some bicycles and scooters and cement apartment buildings that weren’t painted and it felt like the SE Asia I know.

My’s family’s place was more modern though, more like what I’d expect to find in Korea given the Korean movies I’ve seen. It was a three story building with air conditioning, several laptops set around on desks, wifi, and a Wii. There was a book called “Engineering Mechanics Dynamics 11th Edition” that was full of complex mathematical algorithms with diagrams applying the principles to real world things like cranes and roller coasters. There was a piece of paper inside with a hand sketched on it and delicate decorations around the word “sleep” and I could tell what My’s classes for her automotive design major were probably like.

We played on her hacked Wii for a bit, did a round of golf and a round of bowling and played Wario something else that was really crazy, then she, her father Max and her sister Mint went to dinner. I hadn’t had a Thai meal in about a month. I quit eating Asian food a week before leaving San Francisco in order to get my fill of American foods so that I wouldn’t crave them, but I love Thai food and had been anticipating eating here. It was delicious. I got a desert and it was also delicious. It was heavenly. I can’t wait to eat again.

We talked about school and America mostly. Mint is My’s younger sister and she will be going to the USA in a few years for a foreign exchange program. This is the same program that introduced My to Alaska and my aunt Wendy, which is how I met her. My said that she travels 2 hours one way to get to school, which I think is ridiculous.

After dinner we walked around a little sidewalk market and then went home to do what any wired, high tech group of people does; we geeked out. They have a room that they keep air conditioned where most everything happens. There’s a TV, refrigerator, a few computers, cups, a sound system, a few couches, a few guitars, a bunch of desk toys, etc.. Basically a really playfully packed office living room kitchen. The cool room reminded me of my grandmother’s sitting room in Texas where she would sit and cross-stitch while watching the discovery channel or the movie channel.

My friend George helped me test out the inbound calling setup that I had rigged with Skype and it worked great. We talked for about 30 minutes about life and what we’ve both been up to and it was good to catch up with an old friend one-on-one, essentially off the grid. It was also great to have at least the inbound function of my phone working again. It is also good to be in Thailand. I wasn’t really sure what to expect since I’d heard so much about it and it has so many different reputations. I’m still not entirely sure what to expect, or even what I’ll do tomorrow since My is going to be busy all day, but I’m sure I’ll figure something out. There are certainly more options here than in Siem Reap.

Finally found WiFi

View from my Ha Long Bay hotel porch I’ve been in Vietnam for a week and a half and have finally found wifi. It’s in the lobby of the hotel I’m staying at in Ha Long Bay. It is not in my air conditioned hotel room. The lobby is hot, and they don’t refrigerate their beer so the beer is also hot. I am dripping in sweat drinking a warm beer, and I’m happy to have internet. (A few minutes later I opened the window and let the cool breeze in, eliminating my sweat problem… duh.)

Ha Long Bay is gorgeous. I would absolutely love to take off across it on a jet ski and see all the tiny coves hidden in the cliffs on the opposite shore. My hotel room looks out across the bay from the non-interesting side, so my view is pretty good.

I’ll write more info about my travels from today later, right now I’m going to enjoy this warm beer as best as I can and chat with my brother.

4 Days left

Today is Memorial Day and it will be the most memorable for me because as of today my brother is now out of Iraq forever! He’s finishing his second tour and is now officially out of Iraq, waiting only one day in Kuwait before returning to Germany. So so so stoked about that.

Stow Lake paddleboats Yesterday I didn’t get to go geocaching with Lisa, she forgot it was her last day at work and had to work until 7, so Donna and I went without her. We went to Golden Gate Park with the intent of finding travel bugs for me to take to Asia. We went to two lakes and a waterfall on an island before heading back to the car with a travel bug and a geocoin. Afterwards we went downtown and wandered around taking photos.

As we were walking down Mission near 5th, a photo in a gallery window caught my eye and we went in to see it. It actually didn’t look like a photo at all, more like a painting, but ended up being a photo printed on canvas which made it look more like a painting. We talked to a man working in the gallery and he told us that the photographer, Patrick Davis, teaches photography at San Jose State. When I told him we had to go he invited us to come back and drink wine or coffee and look around the gallery any time we wanted to.

We crossed Mission and went to visit Lisa at work. That was great, I hadn’t seen her in what seems like ages but is probably only a few weeks. Donna and I got coffee and chatted with Lisa a bit, but she was busy working so we let her be and went back outside. Napping in the parkThe weather was still really bleak and we were both tired from walking so much so we went and took a nap in Yerba Buena Garden. I nabbed another geocache real quick, but there were no trackables in it. A while later we got up, walked by the Zeum Carousel and ended up wandering around SOMA for a while trying to find where we’d parked the car, taking more pictures down random alleys where we found several hidden bars and restaurants next to smashed car windows and empty graffitied lots fenced off with chain link.

We eventually found the car. On the way home it was still overcast and we were still tired, but the day had been good. We listened to Claude Debussy. His music has a way of making melancholy wonderful, so it was a nice compliment to the wonderful day Donna and I made despite the melancholy weather. In the Sunset district of San Francisco it’s common for people to leave unwanted things on the street for other people to pick up, and Donna spotted a beautiful, dark wooden dresser carved and colored with birds and branches. Piano melodies poured out of the passenger door into the greyness as we tried to fit this piece of furniture among the belongings I was already been carrying with me. We fit it in the trunk and took it the one block back to 4211, our final treasure found that day.

Back at her home we geeked out and I nearly broke my head trying to figure out some some WordPress plugin stuff before realizing I was trying way too hard. WordPress is pretty awesome. I helped Lauren move some of her stuff across the street to her new apartment then drifted off sipping on wine listening to the music Donna had on while she played online scrabble with her friend in Chicago.

Securing data while traveling

One of the first things people mention when I tell them I’m going to Asia is the possibility of getting robbed or having my possessions stolen. The security minded individual would then immediately consider ways to keep private data private in such an instance, and that is exactly what I did.

I’m still not sure what laptop I’m going to take with me. It’s currently between the two laptops that I own, the 15″ Macbook and the MSI Wind. I prefer OS X to Linux, but the smaller Wind is definitely tempting. I had originally bought it to use as a hackintosh, but once again I decided that with the ease-of-use of the Apple platform, you really do get what you pay for. The Wind sucks for running OS X.

Aside from hardware size, the security features look to be about the same. Both Ubuntu and OS X allow you to encrypt the home folder of your user so you have to be logged in for it to be readable by anybody. Both allow you to require a password to wake it up or come out of screensaver. Restarting will log you out and render your personal data safe and sound from unauthorized eyes. Incidentally, the behind the scenes technology is pretty much the same too. An encrypted disk image is stored in your home folder and is then mounted in place of your directory. No rocket science there, but worth mentioning.

One thing that linux does offer is the ability to have an encrypted partition which could be mounted on /home or wherever. This becomes interesting to me when I think about my personal MediaWiki installation. I want to make sure my mysql tables are not stored in the clear because they contain sensitive info. The problems come in at boot time when mysql starts up because if the password to unlock the encrypted partition hasn’t been entered yet mysql will fail to start. I’m still trying to work out a way to do this gracefully, and may simply not do it at all if there’s no elegant solution.

I’d be interested to hear feedback from anybody who has done a filesystem-level encryption of a mysql db successfully, especially in an environment that isn’t running for months at a time, but is rebooted periodically.

Technological aspects of protanoptic.com

The new site is coming along quickly due to the ease of installation provided by WordPress and the awesome extension and theme communities build around it. Open source software is so rad. :)

I just finished integrating Facebook into the commenting system (via the Disqus.com plugin), which lets you comment on posts without having to make an account or anything silly like that.

One thing I have not yet found a solution for is the ability to geotag each post. In LiveJournal, there is a “location” text entry box when you compose a new post which lets you put any type of location data in there, from a street address to a lat/lon waypoint. I can’t find anything like that for WordPress though and I’d really like to show a map or have a google earth page that shows where I wrote blog entries and where I took photos. Does anybody know of something like that?

I already have the geotagging thing down with the photos via my Flickr map, it’s just a matter of integrating it with wordpress.

Resuming the Journal

A lot has happened since I last updated this journal, and now I feel like resuming this introspective personal outlet for my own benefit. I’m going through some changes in life right now and would like to keep track of the thoughts that are developing in my mind. The two three main things that are going on are:

• I’m quitting my job at SugarCRM. My last day is May 29th.
• I’m going to backpack around SE Asia for two months. I’m leaving on May 29th to Saigon via Tokyo.

• Oh yeah, and I’m homeless as of 4 days ago. I’m living out of my car and a storage unit in San Francisco.

Sooooo, rather than tweet succinct thoughts as they come to my mind I think I’ll speak more completely about what’s going on.

What is going on at this very moment is that I just fried a 750gb hard disk containing a backup of the iMac I had been using before I was homeless. Little things like this are preparing me for the potential pitfalls I may encounter on my journey.