Taking on a new challenge after next week

At the end of next week I am taking on a new challenge. Its something I have never tried before. That’s right, I have to move on. Wait…no….not that….I am talking about how I take vacations. Every time I have taken time off in the past, I have gone somewhere. My last few vacations I have spent in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand, Croatia, and other great spots around the world. But this time I am going to try something new. I am going nowhere!!! I am just going to stay in Amsterdam. I am going to be able to do all the things I have been wanting to do here. But I don’t want to just sit on my ass and stare at a wall. So I am trying to come up with a list of things I want to do. I will have plenty of time since I have pretty much the entire month of December. So here is my list so far. Its in no particular order other than the order they came out of my head. Now some of this may look like work, but it isn’t. I just happen to have a job that covers the topics I genuinely enjoy working on.

  • Tweak this site – come up with a blog design that I really like and that isn’t broken in some spots. Make it easier to update and friendlier to you.
  • Read some books I have bought in the last few months (and put them into action) – CSS Anthology, Principles of Beautiful Web Design, Windows Powershell in Action, Pragmatic Unit Testing in C#, etc.
  • Organize my life – Get rid of some of this extra crap in my apartment, get rid of the extra feeds I don’t really read in Google Reader, get rid of the extra crap on all my PCs, etc.
  • Every time I have seen something interesting on the net, I added them to my del.icio.us account. Now I can actually look at them.
  • Prepare for my new apartment – Be a bit more involved in the renovations as they come closer to completion.
  • Write up some reviews of amazing software I use everyday and that I can’t live without – Dash, ClearContext, SpinVox, Trog Bar, etc
  • Learn about new and interesting technologies that I haven’t had a chance to really focus on yet (I could probably spend a month alone on each of these):
    • Sharepoint 2007
    • Facebook and Facebook development
    • Windows Vista Sidebar development
    • Firefox and Thunderbird addon development
    • The new stuff in Visual Studio 2008
    • LINQ
    • Windows Presentation Foundation
    • Windows Communication Foundation
    • Windows Workflow Foundation
    • Silverlight
    • YUI
    • Everything else in .NET 3.5
    • System Center
  • Actually start to use Powershell more often so that I don’t have to relearn it every time.
  • Maybe see a little bit of Amsterdam and the Netherlands. There is so little I have seen of this place. This guide might help.
  • Sleep – I plan to sleep a lot. I haven’t been getting much of that for a while.

OK, so I think I may have a bit more to do that a single month will allow. But that may be a good problem to have.

What I Bring on My Travels

As someone who travels quite a bit, I think I am getting pretty good at it. In fact, I have come up with a list of things I have to take along on every trip. Now occasionally I forget one of these, but usually you will find every single one of these things in my bag or a jacket pocket at any time while I am away from home:

Rick Steves Travel Dreams Sleep Mask – I used to think these things were useless. That’s because every one I tried came in the free bag on some airlines. Those are often made of a single piece of cloth with one or two strands of elastic to hold onto your head. The elastic manages to pull the mask in so tight that it compresses my eyeballs towards the back of my skull…not exactly comfy. And if I open my eyes while covered, the eyelashes scrape against the cloth and it just feels too weird. But then on one of my trips to my parents in Bainbridge Island we took a day trip over to Edmonds, WA and visited the Rick Steves Store. You know, the guy who travels around Europe and has that PBS show. So my mother got excited about their Eye Mask and for some reason I bought one too. It turns out this is the most perfect eye mask ever made. Its a contoured foam mask that bulges out where the eyes go. Yes, it looks goofy, but the only people who are going to see it are the ones who are pissed that they don’t have one because they will see that you are sound asleep while they have to pace the aisles. Its less than 10 dollars. Buy one. Now.

Melatonin – You may be thinking that even if you get one of those masks, you still won’t be able to sleep. Your time zones are all off and even though it is midnight where you are going, its noon where you are coming from so its time for lunch, not napping. Yeah, I had that problem, especially when flying to Sydney or Singapore. Then a colleague told me about Melatonin. Around the same time I saw an article about it in the New York Times. The article presents a schedule which is confusing as hell, but here is the gist of it. Take a dose of this stuff when its night time where you are going. Apparently the effect can wear off if you use it a lot, but I only touch this on the plane. So when I fly to Sydney, usually via the US, I stay awake as long as I can while its daytime in Sydney. Then when I leave Los Angeles, its about 10 or so at night in Sydney so I pop a pill. And then I am out. Until a couple of hours before landing. Its perfect. Last time around I was ready to go that day versus having to sleep for a day in Sydney. But I only take it on the plane, and I only take it when it is time for bed where ever I am going. I don’t understand why it works and I don’t care. When going somewhere that’s 12 hours off my current time, its a godsend. If your country doesn’t allow over-the-counter sales, find an online “pharmacy”, there are plenty willing to sell it.

Sony PRS 500 Portable Reader – Last time I was in the US I saw one of these units and bought it on a lark. I planned to return it before I left because I knew it would suck. It didn’t so I didn’t. This thing has become one of the most important items in my bag. On long flights when I am not sleeping, or watching one of the movies for the tenth time, I read. Before I used to take two books, some magazines, and maybe some printouts of the classes I was scheduled to teach. Add that to a laptop and all the other stuff I carry and the bag was over the legal limit. Now I just take the Sony EReader. The device will last for about a month on a single charge and holds some 70 to 100 books including a few PDFs. I have seen some reviews saying that you can’t read a PDF, but I don’t know what they are talking about. Sure you have to pan around to see it all, but its a helluva lot better than breaking my shoulder. Everyone who sees this thing is amazed at how good it looks and is shocked that they haven’t seen it before. Its thin, light, very high contrast, and reads just like a book. Some people suggest that a PDA or phone is good enough for this task, but those run out of power within a few hours and this thing just keeps going. Seriously, I charge it about once per month. I think there is a new version out now and Amazon has come out with the Kindle which is supposed to be a competitor. But the Kindle relies on an EVDO connection from Sprint which is only available in the US, so it won’t work for me or the many other international ebook readers out there. In order to buy books from the Sony site you have to have a credit card which does not have a non-US address which could be a problem for some. But some international cards don’t allow vendors to verify an address so that may not be a problem. I love this thing and tell everyone who takes long flights to get one immediately.

Shure e5c (discontinued) or Bose QuietComfort headphones – I alternate between these two sets of headphones depending on how much stuff I have to carry on that trip. The Bose are definitely bigger but they are much more comfortable on a long trip. The Shure’s are smaller and they block out far more noise but after 8 hours, can be a bit uncomfortable. The Bose have the additional benefit of being a bit cheaper at about 300 dollars. But if you are spending any time on a plane, its just a required cost. Unfortunately they are not perfect. There is a better solution out there but I can’t afford it right now. Until February that is…thats when I stop paying both rent and mortgage. Then I will definitely be getting a pair of the Ultimate Ears UE11.

REI Flash UL Pack – Whether I need to pick up some basic supplies or want to carry my souvenirs back to the hotel, this small daypack always saves the day. The real benefit is that I use it to line the bottom of my small camera bag so it only comes out when really necessary. When I am home in Amsterdam, this gets my groceries home from Albert Hein.

Status Cards – I never leave home with out my United 1K, Northwest GoldElite, Starwood Platinum, etc cards. Sure, electronically its all in my records, but the cards make it even easier to ensure an upgrade. Plus Lufthansa and some other airlines won’t let me into their lounges without the physical card.

Airport Security cards – Many airports are now offering some sort of card combined with biometrics to make it faster to enter and leave the country. Amsterdam’s Privium often saves me from an endless line to get into the gate area when I am running late for a flight. And with my new EGatecard from United Arab Emirates (don’t bother signing up at the airport, go to the location listed on the site at Sheikh Zayed Road), I went from the taxi to the gate in 20 minutes, including the 10 minute walk to the terminals. That usually takes more like an hour or so. Privium requires an EU passport and 100 Euros per year, EGate is for anyone and costs 200 Dirhams for 2 years, the UK’s IRIS is free but never works.

So that’s my list of basics. I also carry a laptop, some extra drives, cables, camera, etc, but all of those are obvious. I also carry a Zen Vision:M media player for music so that I don’t have to waste my time with that horrible excuse for a software product called iTunes.

Is there anything I have missed? Is there something else I should be carrying that I forgot about? I am always interested in a new gadget…it’ll just have to wait until February when I stop paying rent.

Going to Dubai? Avoid the Airport at Night!

If you can, try to get a flight to Dubai that arrives midday. If you come late at night or early in the morning, then get ready to wait for a very long time to get through customs. Usually I have taken one of KLM’s direct flights from Amsterdam, but this time I did Lufthansa via Munich (less than half the cost). It arrived at 630 this morning and the airport was a zoo. When I arrived at the customs hall, nearly every line was being used (easily 50-70 lines) with at least 40 people in each line. The customs officials are extremely efficient at what they do and the lines move quickly (unless they don’t (I saw that on the plane)).

There are however two quick sets of lines. One is for GCC passports and the other is for EGate. If you don’t know what GCC is, then you don’t have one of their passports. But EGate is a service offered by the government to get you through customs more quickly. Anyone can sign up and it costs 200 Dirhams for 2 years. There is a registration desk inside the customs hall. If you are standing in line, look in the back left corner. But every time I have gone to the desk, there has been no one there.

Today one of my colleagues in Dubai took me round to one of the ECard offices in the city and I was able to sign up within 20 minutes. Apparently, the next time I go through customs, I will be able to scan my card, then press my thumb to the scanner, and be through customs in less than two minutes. I am SOOO looking forward to trying it. From the looks of it, it is almost always up and running too, which is a foreign concept to the similar solution at Heathrow. Another benefit is that I will be able to limit the number of stamps with arabic script in my passport. That always seems to give me grief when I head back to the US.

Its going to get a whole lot worse…

This week I have tried to get home somewhat early so I could take some photos of the new place to post up here. Unfortunately for some reason traffic has been really awful every day this week. Usually my commute from just south of Utrecht to Amsterdam is about 30-40 minutes. But this week it was 2-3 hours each day. Well, on Sunday I was able to get the video done of a walkthrough 1 week into the renovation. Watch out, its scary. I can’t wait for this to be done…