Taiwan Trip Days 0 and 1

March 14th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Regardless of how you plan a trip to the Far East from New York, there’s no getting around the geographical fact that it it’s over 7,000 miles and takes an entire day to travel from one place to the other. The first leg of our trip by way of Delta Airlines, was a bit late leaving and arriving, and was sorely lacking in food of any sort, but dropped us at LAX with enough time, or so we thought, to grab something to eat before our 11PM flight to Taipei. A quick glance at the departures board by our arrival gate in Terminal 5 indicated “TBT”, which read rather like “TBD” or “TBA”, suggesting that our gate had yet to be assigned. Wrong: TBT, it turns out, is shorthand for “Tom Bradley Terminal”, the giant new structure from which all international flights depart. Alas, it wasn’t until after we’d sat down to eat something that we found out this crucial nugget of information, and had to abandon our table to transfer over. We’d heard that there was better food at the international terminal anyway, so it was with some dismay that we discovered that all the good food is, in fact, before the security line, after which one’s options are reduced to a decrepit sandwich or whatever microwaved fare that the Sam Adams Pub is serving up. Having no other option, we went for the latter, then boarded our China Airlines flight about a half hour later, which was all set to leave on time at 11PM. Unfortunately, a Qantas A380 suffered a blown tire and damaged landing gear directly behind us at the gate, and changing a tire on 1,235,000lbs of aeroplane is neither as simple nor as quick as breaking out a tire iron and a jack in your driveway and popping on a new Michelin, so we were stuck idling at the gate for two and a half hours before finally taking off.

We arrived in Taipei at about 9:00AM local time, apparently when few other international flights show up, so we breezed through immigration and customs, and met Alex’s uncle and cousin who drove us into town to Alex’s aunt’s condo. Alex’s aunt greeted us warmly and, after a much needed shower, gave us some hot tea and some fruit, which Taiwan is famous for, particularly ‘bellfruit’, which look a bit like apples but have a texture more like a pear and are much sweeter. After our snack we headed off into town with Alex’s aunt via the metro, and ran into what appears to be an NYU outpost that may or may not have anything to do with the actual NYU. We had a look around SOGO, a massive, modern department store with an extensive shoe department which is high on Alex’s to-do list later in the week, and ate lunch at Din Tai Fung where we ate what I imagine will be the first of many Xiaolongbao. I’m told that the dumplings at Din Tai Fung are unrivaled and I have no reason to doubt it; the preparation of the dumplings happens in full public view and it seems to be a precise craft involving rolling, filling and finally folding with 18 creases before steaming. We hopped on the train back to the condo for a rest before the evening’s family dinner at Red Bean Hall, which included both of Alex’s aunts, her uncle and his wife, son and daughter, two cousins and a set of in-laws. Thirteen people, all told, and between us we polished off a monumental quantity of fine cuisine, including another round of Xiaolongbao, and fried frog (which, it turns out, is delicious), and a bottle of fine scotch. Finally, we tottered off home, exhausted, but absolutely satisfied, and thrilled to be here.

There should be more pictures coming, but I’ve just realized that I foolishly left my camera’s cable at home, so I’ll have to track down a replacement here, which shouldn’t be too hard. I’ll post them to Flickr when I can.

Heading to Taiwan

March 11th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Tomorrow, Alex and I are heading off to Taipei to visit her family. I’ve never been to Taiwan before, I speak no Mandarin, an I’ve never met any of her mother’s family before (all of whom live in Taiwan). In short, this promises to be an adventure of epic proportions.

I’m going to try and post short daily updates here on what’s going on. There will also likely be photos over at my Flickr page, and a stream of consciousness and flotsam over at Twitter.

We’re flying out tomorrow at 5PM from JFK. Before that, I have to accomplish the following mundane tasks:

  • Get a haircut
  • Make local copies of the reading material I’ll need to complete a rather nasty homework assignment which is due two days after we return
  • Acquire some music to listen to on the aeroplane
  • Tidy up the apartment

Our time in Taiwan may likely be occupied by family-type obligations, but if you have been to Taipei, live in Taipei, or know anyone who has and have recommendations for us while we’re there, drop a comment, tweet a tweet, or send an email.

Mounting a USB Drive in a Consistent Location on Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic)

November 18th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

This is an obtuse and unabashedly geeky post, but I spent several hours trying to solve this irritating problem, so I’m posting my results here in an attempt to shortcut this issue for others.

The Problem: I have an external USB drive on which I store Virtual Machines which I run with the very excellent VirtualBox. I like to keep it mounted at /media/VirtualMachines. My VirtualBox configuration (stored in ~/.VirtualBox/) points to this location, so it’s vital that it remains consistent between reboots, remounts, updates, and the like. Prior to Ubuntu 9.10, one used to be able  to specify a consistent mount point using the GNOME userspace tools by simply right-clicking on the volume on the desktop, navigating to “Volume”, and choosing a location by typing it in. This was possible, because prior to version 9.10, Ubuntu relied upon hal to provide an abstraction layer between hardware devices and the kernel. There’s a fair amount of code in GNOME which allows for quick configuration of functionality provided by hal. hal is now deprecated in favor of DeviceKit, so some of those tools are gone, and this is one.

The Solution: I spent a fair amount of time googling about trying to come up with an equivalent. Many of the tutorials that I found were either outdated, or involved diving into the internals of udev/DeviceKit. This seemed like it was a problem best-suited to something simpler. It turns out that you can use plain old /etc/fstab to mount a device in a specific place, using the partition’s UUID instead of a block device path. This is handy, because if it’s a removable device, you won’t know what block device it’ll be assigned when you plug it in, or when the system boots. Because it will mount after boot time, you’ll also have to set the user option to allow gnome to mount the device after you log in — otherwise the action will be restricted to the root user. Be sure also to set auto, so that the OS will automatically mount the drive for you without you having to issue the commands yourself.

The relevant line in /etc/fstab looks like this, for me:

UUID=0e408c42-233a-4d0c-a7be-dac2379092d5 /media/VirtualMachines ext3 rw,auto,user,exec 0 0

You can get the UUID of the relevant partition of your drive by using devicekit-drives:

$ devkit-disks --show-info /dev/sdb1 | grep uuid
 by-id:                     /dev/disk/by-uuid/0e408c42-233a-4d0c-a7be-dac238a1a3e8
 uuid:                        0e408c42-233a-4d0c-a7be-dac238a1a3e8

Of course, substitute /dev/sdb1 for the partition you’re trying to mount.

On Nearly Losing a Phone in New York

October 27th, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

Tonight had all the makings of a disastrous evening. It came arse-clenchingly close, but it did not come to pass.

I left work at 7:00 or so, and decided to take a longer route home, mostly to make a change from the West Side Greenway, which, while fast and convenient, can get a bit tedious after hammering back and forth for days on end. I headed up 8th Avenue, after dodging gaggles of pedestrians who had meandered off the sidewalk, and food vendors dragging hot-dog carts up the street. My plan was to follow the Central Park Drive counter-clockwise from Columbus Circle up to 110th Street.

I hit my stride somewhere around 89th street, near the Guggenheim Museum, cruising along just above 20mph. I had my iPhone in the pocket of my sweater, with the headphones stuffed in on top. Those headphones must have unraveled themselves, because I saw them get wrapped around my handlebars for a split second, before my right leg turned another revolution of the pedals, yanking the iPhone out of my pocket and down to the street.


I slammed on the brakes, and flipped the bike around as quickly as I could without rolling it over. I expected to see the phone on the street, fifty yards back, with the white headphones sprawled out across the asphalt. Maybe with a cracked screen or case. Instead, I found nothing. Not even any fragments of shattered glass or a torn-off earbud.

Double Shit.

OK, I thought. The phone must have bounced to the edge of the street. I zigzagged my bike up and down the street for a hundred yards in either direction, kicking up piles of leaves hoping that my phone was hiding under one of them. Still nothing. I began to think that one of the runners who had passed me had snapped up the phone in the few seconds it took me to stop and turn around.

It had been fifteen or twenty minutes at this point, and, at very least, I knew I would be home much later than antipated. As the ever-prepared computer nerd, I broke out my laptop and Sprint card, fired up Skype, and called Alex to tell her what was going on.

“Should I call your phone?” she asked.

“I don’t think there’s much point. One of the joggers could easily have picked it up and walked off with it. I’m going to keep looking for it here for a while.”

“OK”, she said. We hung up.

I un-clipped the headlamp from my bike and started walking up and down the same bit of roadway, looking for the phone. I was more or less resigned to the fact that my phone was long gone, and tomorrow I’d have to own up to my employer that I’d carelessly thrown their phone on the ground in Central Park and, worse, managed to let someone pinch it, too. I gave myself another ten minutes. If I hadn’t found it by then, I’d give up, then slink off home and begin the tedious process of changing the credentials for all the accounts that had anything stored on that iPhone.

I was in the middle of peering down into a storm drain with my headlight when someone called out to me:

“Are you Guy?”

A woman walked up to me, holding my phone. In perfect condition. I nearly passed out with relief.

It turns out that she was, indeed, one of the joggers, and had seen the phone on the ground. She had lost something in the park recently, too, and thought that she had better take the phone to the Central Park police precinct to turn in. On her way there, the phone rang. It was Alex, calling my phone anyway, just in case. Alex had described me to her (“He’s riding a bike, wears glasses, and speaks with a British accent. If someone says its their phone and doesn’t have an accent, it’s not him”), and the woman had gone back to where she found my phone, and caught up with me. Her name was Claire. I shook her hand, thanked her profusely, and she went on her way.

Anyone could have found that phone, walked off with it, and nobody would be any the wiser. Worse, they could have wreaked a little bit of havoc on my life with my stored data. If New York mythology is to be believed, the city is full of villains and miscreants, none of whom would even think twice about pocketing a valuable find. Rather, Claire bothered to pick it up and send it back to its owner. Whatever it was that she lost in Central Park, she deserves to find it. And I deserve a swift kick in the pants for being so bloody careless.

In Search of A Proper Old Fashioned

October 17th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

My good friend Pat and I have a longstanding disagreement, which bubbles to the surface every time we get together for cocktails. It concerns the correct way to make an Old Fashioned. I contend that an Old Fashioned should be merely sugar, water, bourbon, bitters, and some lemon peel, while Pat believes that an Old Fashioned should be bourbon, muddled fruit, bitters, and soda water.

Wikipedia refuses to take a side on the issue, saying:

Most modern recipes top off an Old Fashioned cocktail with soda water. Purists decry this practice, and insist that soda water is never permitted in a true Old Fashioned cocktail.

Many bartenders add fruit, typically an orange slice, and muddle it with the sugar before adding the whiskey…

My boss, Jane, knower of all things cocktail, shares my view that muddled fruit has no place in an Old Fashioned, which, frankly, was more than enough for me. Naturally, this was not enough to convince Pat, and so of course, there was only one way to settle the score for sure, which was to go and sample some Old Fashioneds at several bars across Manhattan. And so last night, that’s what we did, meandering our way across the downtown Manhattan, happily buzzed, stopping in at four establishments.

The rules of the contest:

  • Each participant chooses two bars
  • At least one person must order an Old Fashioned at each bar, without specifying a method of preparation to the bartender.
  • One point to be awarded to Guy for an Old Fashioned served without fruit
  • One point to be awarded to Pat for an Old Fashioned served with fruit

And so, the results:

Round One – Guy’s Choice
The Raines Law Room

48 West 17th Street

Named after legislation which forbade the selling of liquor on Sundays, except in hotels, drinking at The Raines Law Room feels like sipping cocktails in a living room. The bar is furnished with vintage velvet couches, and period pieces like a vintage gramophone. The cocktails are pretty outstanding. My colleague Chris joined us for the first round. I had one of their signature cocktails, the Suffering Bastard, involving Bulleit bourbon, Plymouth gin, lemon, sugar, and ginger, which was simultaneously strong, sweet, and spicy; generally kickass. Chris tried a Champs-Élysées, involving brandy and chartreuse, which was tasty but not really my type of drink. Pat was on Old Fashioned duty, and Raines scored one for me, bringing a simple mix of sugar, water, bourbon and bitters with a single giant cube of ice.

Score after Round One:
Guy 1, Pat 0

Round Two – Guy’s Choice
Little Branch

22 7th Avenue South

Little Branch remains one of my favourite bars in the city. They take their drinks seriously, it’s definitely got the speakeasy feel but the gimmick isn’t overplayed, and the atmosphere is always relaxed. Their bartenders are clearly experts at their craft, and to that end, will choose a drink on your behalf based on rough specifications you provide. Since Pat had never been here before, he took the “Bartenders Choice”, while I ordered up the Old Fashioned. Pat’s specs of a ‘rye-based, fruity’ drink landed him a tasty concoction with fresh squeezed juice and mint, while my Old Fashioned, appropriately, was devoid of both muddled fruit and soda water.

Score after Round Two:
Guy 2, Pat 0

Round Three – Pat’s Choice
Blue Owl

196 2nd Avenue

We strolled over to the East Village to visit Blue Owl, which is hidden just below street level on Second Avenue, underneath one of those shady-looking massage parlours with a video of someone getting a shiatsu on permaloop and about fifty neon signs. It was about nine o’clock when we arrived, and it was still fairly quiet, with just a handful of people at the bar. I had one of their house cocktails, the Jules Winnfield–bourbon, apricot liqueur, and fresh lemon and orange. I’m unsure what made whoever came up with the drink name it after the cinematic hitman with the best sideburns ever, but it was more or less a whisky sour made with fresh ingredients instead of bottled ones. Pat scored his first point of the evening with an Old Fashioned made with muddled lemon, orange, and, for some reason, dried sour cherries, which yielded a drink which tasted, in Pat’s words, “like a Jolly Rancher”.

Score after Round Three:
Guy 2, Pat 1

Round Four – Pat’s Choice
The Dove Parlour

228 Thompson Street

By the time we arrived at The Dove Parlour, it was past ten o’clock and the place was starting to become full. Somehow we managed to find two seats at the bar next to a greasy looking hipster sitting alone and knocking back beer. The house cocktail menu is short, and Pat ordered an Olympia, listed as “Bourbon, bitters, fresh lime juice and a splash of ginger soda”. The resulting greenish drink was incredibly tart, probably from being a bit too heavy on the lime juice. The bartender served me the final Old Fashioned of the evening with orange, cherry, lemon, and sugar, the product being syrupy enough that the sugar refused to dissolve at the bottom of the glass. Nonetheless, it evened up the score for Pat.

Final score after Round Four:
Guy 2, Pat 2

We briefly considered a tiebreaking round, but at four bourbon-based drinks apiece, we felt that a final, tied score was appropriate. Our adventure does seem to suggest that we could both be right — the modern interpretation of an Old Fashioned generally involves some sort of fruity garnish along with the bourbon. The classic version, on the other hand, sticks to the base ingredients. So, we’re back to where we started, I suppose, and Pat and I will just have to continue to regularly needle each other about our taste in cocktails, which I think I can handle, as long as there’s enough bourbon.