Yucatan 2004 Movie

truk and kath at the Top of the Pyramid at Chitzen ItzaYou would think that, having just returned from the South Island of New Zealand and Sydney, I would be posting more stories, photos, and such from the trip. And I will. However, I wanted to clean up a project from our last big trip, the one we took to the Yucatan in July of 2004. Kath and I took a lot of video from that trip, and I’ve finally finished compiling the best video shots into a ~30 minute movie.

Click here to view the Yucatan 2004 movie [Quicktime required; 74 MB]

After you click the link, please be patient while the movie loads! It can take a few minutes for it to set up to play, but it will start playing. Given its size, you should only attempt to watch the movie on a broadband, such as a cable or DSL, connection. Regardless, if you want to see still images of the trip, click here. You can click the View Slideshow button and watch the images move by at your own pace.

More stories on the December 2005 trip are pending. Please stay tuned…

Back in Memphis With the La Pa Blues Again

Kath and I made it back to Memphis last week, but everything since then has been pretty much a blur. I had to go back to work again the next day, and this past weekend was all about getting caught up on sleep and recovering from the trip. We still aren’t 100% yet, but we are getting back on track.

It has been harder than I expected to come out of the lushness of New Zealand and warmth of Sydney (both temperature and the hospitality of the La Perouse community) and return to Memphis, which not the most attractive or comfortable place in January. I had forgotten how yellow everything gets, when the clouds hang in the sky through the short nine-hour day and all of the chlorophyll has vanished. I know that Spring is only a couple of months away, so we have that to look forward to. I guess I can always hibernate.

New Year’s Day in Sydney, Then Off to Vegas

Kath and truk in VegasKath and I are back in the US now, in Las Vegas, preparing for our flight back to Little Rock tomorrow, where we will pick up our dogs and head back to Memphis for work on Thursday. The last few weeks have been a blur, and I’m thankful that I grabbed a few snapshots along the way to help make the whole experience much more real in hindsight.

Kath by Maori Meeting House



Karen, Justin, and KathWe flew out of Christchurch without any problems, landing in Sydney without a rental car reserved (we waited too long to book a cheap one, as Christmas to New Year’s is the most busy car rental time in Australia). We cabbed over to La Perouse, glad to be back among our friends there. Karen Linnell put us up the whole time we were in Sydney, and we enjoyed spending time with her and her 4-month old son, Justin. Karen’s wonderful generosity and hospitality will not be forgotten…

Click here for photos of the Catlins, Dunedin, Christchurch, and Sydney

Gillian, Kath, and HalWhile we were in Australia, we drove up to Hawk’s Nest (about 3 hours north of Sydney) to spend several days with Gillian and Hal Cowlishaw. Gillian was one of Katherine’s academic advisors on her PhD dissertation and is the author of the authoritative Rednecks, Eggheads, and Blackfellas: A Study of Racial Power and Intimacy in Australia. Hal and Gillian took us on a short bushwalk from their backyard to the ocean and lent us kayaks to explore nearby mangrove trees growing out of an estuary.

New Years Eve

Auntie Marge and Lindsey

New Years at MargesNew Year’s in Sydney was a lot of fun. We rang in the new year at the Yarra Bay Sailing Club, our old haunt when we lived in Sydney during 2001-2002. After that, we headed down to Auntie Marge’s for a feed and few more Victoria Bitters with the gang.

Click here to view photos of Vegas


New York, New York

truk and the Coke bear

trukWe are enjoying Vegas but are experiencing a bit of culture shock after diving into what I would call “Americana on Speed.” The internet connection at the MGM Grand (where we are staying) is not proving to be very reliable, so I will just post a few photos and look forward to seeing all of our Memphis pals in a few days.

Christmas Comes Early to New Zealand

We are currently in Christchurch and it is Christmas Day here. Everything is closed, except one “Email” shop on Cathedral Square, in the “City Centre”. We are doing well in spite of the rain, which came in overnight after a brilliant, sunshiny day yesterday, which we both really needed. Christmas Eve morning found us in Akaroa, a small town on Bank’s Peninsula, right outside of Christchurch. The night before, the wind howled and the rain blew horizontally down the streets while we searched in vain for a cheap place to eat.

An aside: While jet lag wasn’t a big deal on this trip for either of us, the change in the amount of daylight hours has proven to be a little challenging. When we left Memphis, we were used to a sunrise about 7:30 AM and a sunset before 5 PM. However, after landing here, with the change to the Southern Hemisphere so close to their summer solstice, we immediately began (joyfully) experiencing sunrises at around 5:30 AM and sunsets close to 9:30 PM, and the time with daylight actually increased as we moved south down the island. As a result, we found ourselves staying up late, usually after midnight, and then trying to rush to get out of the hostel and on the road by 10 AM the next morning. This also usually pushed back our arrival time in the next place we were going a few hours, which occasionally made the difference between getting to town in time to visit a grocery store (many of which strangely strictly close at 7 or 8 PM, right when a lot of people want to do their shopping) or digging some ramen noodles out of the tucker bag. Several times, we found ourselves in towns full of visitors and people out and about but absolutely no stores available in a 50 KM radius. You would think that one store would open, if only because they would get all of the business of all of the visitors in the town, but, nope, everything was closed.

We really aren’t complaining and we were able to deal with it; after all, this is one of those interesting little cultural things that you experience travelling. But in this world of SuperCenter Wal-Marts and 24-mega malls, you would think that convenience store that stays open to, say 11 PM instead of 8 PM, wouldn’t be that strange. However, in the rural areas here, that is as rare as hen’s teeth.

Christchurch has proven to be a very relaxing place after the hectic nature of Dunedin, which cannot be completely chalked up to pre-Christmas preparations. This place has a must more laid-back style to it, with a lovely stream called the Avon snaking through town and a very accessible botanical garden a few blocks from the very center of the city. The streets are very walkable, and the variety of food on offer is greater than anywhere else we’ve been in New Zealand. It could probably be said that it rivals New York, especially per capita. Malay-Indian fusion food, anyone?

We are having a very relaxed Christmas holiday, sleeping in and enjoying a breakfast cooked by our B & B hosts, Gerald and Pauline. Tomorrow we fly off to hectic Sydney for a week of catching up with our friends there, including taking in a trip out of town to Hawk’s Nest, near Newcastle.

We hope that all of you are with loved ones for the holiday season. Merry Christmas!

Through the Fiords, Over the Hills

Dunedin Town HallWe are currently in Dunedin, which is also pronounced strangely. Say: “Done” and “Eden” together quickly. This city, in the southeast side of the South Island, will always mean rain to us, I bet, because it has been raining for almost 24 hours straight, since we arrived yesterday. It is also cold, or just on the border between cool and cold. The rain has really followed us all over the island. I think that we just caught one of those 2-3 week rain squal periods that we experienced when living in Sydney through the winter. The weather would turn overcast with pretty dramatic blowing rain and gray skies for weeks at a time. It isn’t as depressing as it sounds, but it can be quite annoying, because nothing every gets a chance to dry out.

Road to MilfordRegardless, the past two areas of the South Island that we travelled through may turn out to be the highlight of the trip. From Te Anu, we headed up the road to Milford to spend a night on the edge of a giant fiord. The weather was even more schitzophrenic there, changing from fog to blowing rain to brilliant sunshine, all within an hour period, but the views made it worth it the trouble. We stayed at the Milford Lodge, one of the only places you can stay in Milford, because the flat area where the river meets the sound is rather limited. We took a boat trip into Milford Sound that went all the way into the Tasman Sea and then back to Milford. This got us very close to the walls of the fiord that run almost vertically into the water from more than a thousand meters in the air, at least in place. There are over 300 waterfalls in Milford Sound, and with the rain we were getting throughout most of the boat trip, they were operating in full effect, spewing water everywhere as they slithered down the rock faces and mossy lumps making their way to the water in the sound, which is composed of a layer about 3-4 meters of fresh, tea-colored water on top of a layer of salt water from the ocean.

Our boat went up underneath one of the largest waterfalls I’ve ever seen in my life, much higher than Niagra Falls. Usually, you associate wind pushing water around, causing waves and such. In this case, it was really the water doing the driving of the wind, which rushed off of the place where the waterfall hit after falling several hundred meters in gigantic sheets, blowing thick, heavy mist everywhere. It was difficult to stand in one place or take a breath in because its force was so powerful. As the Milford Sound area gets between 7 and 8 meters of rain per year, they have plenty of water to create all of the waterfalls, but there are only 2 or 3 permanent waterfalls there.

CatlinsAfter only one night in Milford, we decided to move on. We had been planning to spend two nights, but the rain was so relentless and the biting sandflies were taking their toll on us. We drove back to Te Anu and then on into the Catlins, a beautiful hilly area between Invercargill and Dunedin, on the extreme south side of the island. There, we stayed in a wonderful farm hostel called Hilltop in Papatowai, which is really only two houses sitting on a hill in the middle of a sheep farm. The facilities were very nice, so nice that we decided to stay an additional night. The Hilltop proved to be the perfect base for a stroll through the Catlins, and we spent most of our day there trolling through the back roads and looking for sea lions, seals and penguins. (We found all of them, including viewing a rare yellow-eyed penguin, which is a threatened species). The waterfalls and green, gently rolling hills were wonderful, but nothing compared to Nugget Point, a thin peninsula that juts southeast from the Catlins with strange vertically-lined rocks that stick out of the water and trail off into the sea. Topped by a lighthouse, Nugget Point is a great vantage point to take in a 270-degree view of sealife, birds, and rolling sea. The weather even cleared up a bit for us to enjoy our lunch while gazing out over the Pacific. Wonderful.

Nugget Point

We also enjoyed the company of Jean-Marc, a French fellow that also happened to be staying at the Hilltop, in our house. We shared a meal of fresh mussells that Jean-Marc found nearby, and Katherine cooked an Asian stirfry from our remaining tucker box (or bag, in our case) ingredients. The Marlborough wine is still holding out, too, so going to that region at the beginning of the trip was a good idea. We have just enough to get us to the end of our trip.

Curio Shop in PapatowaiWe are about to leave Dunedin for Akaroa, a town on a peninsula outside of Christchurch, where we will spend Christmas in the middle of the city in a pleasant bed-and-breakfast (thanks Mom and Dad Pennington!). Hopefully, the rain will let up a little before then so that we can enjoy some cool sunny skies before the heat of Sydney beats down on us next week.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Sliding Down the West Coast

Kath in Abel TasmanOK, I finally have a complaint about New Zealand. This place completely desensatizes you to beauty on a scale I’ve yet to experience before. Everywhere you look is a postcard, every sunset the best you’ve ever seen, every beer the tastiest, and every walk breathtaking (in more ways than one). As hard as we try, the photos can’t possibly capture it or begin to do it justice. We will just have to be happy with the images in our heads and the memories we are gaining, as well as urge others to go, because words and pictures aren’t enough.

Lake WanakaWe are currently in Wanaka, which, like most places in New Zealand, can be pronounced incorrectly 3 differnet ways and only correctly once. The correct way is Wa-na-ka, with all of the A’s sounding like “ahh,” in case you are wondering. Wanaka is on the side of a lake, appropriately named Lake Wanaka, and it is surrounded by a couple of different mountain ranges, including Mount Aspiring, the tallest mountain in New Zealand other than Mount Cook. You can be sitting on the banks of the lake, warming in the sun, with the waves lapping at your feet, and out in the distance is a snow- and ice-topped mountain peak, just at the horizon.

Pancake RocksYesterday began with a trip up the coast, north of Greymouth, to the Pancake Rocks, an interesting three-dimensional sculpture slowly being sculpted out of the limestone by the sea. The formation is called Pancake Rocks because that is exactly what it looks like: a very tall stack of pancakes (minus the syrup, of course). As the water rushes in during high tide, it sounds like a locomotive on the tracks as it crashes on the walls and throws spray in the air. From a distance, when you approach the formation through thick folage, it sounds like a creature is beating on the ground below with an irregular thud, trying to break free. Lucky for us, we got away just in time, down the coast toward the Frank Josef and Fox glaciers.

kath and truk at Franz Josef GlacierWe elected for a short trip at the glacier sites, as we wanted to be in Wanaka for the night, but a few hours proved to be long enough. Still, they were well worth the trip and long walks up the hills to approach each glacier’s terminal face. The glaciers have retreated quite a bit over the past 250 years, and they seem like they will continue retreating for some time, melting more ice than what is forming at the top of the mountains. Still, it was cool (literally) to see what millions of tons of ice could do to solid granite. At the Franz Josef, we just took in the view from a distance. However, at the Fox, we moved right up next to the terminal face. Almost a little too close. Those signs noting extreme danger weren’t kidding. A rock the size of our living room chair fell about 40 feet to the stones at the bottom of the terminal face while I was about 25 feet away. The sound was, well, extremely scary. And all the way back to the car, I kept hearing the boulders turning over in the stream that runs away from the glacier from the force of the rushing water, and I kept looking over my shoulder, thinking a massive block of ice had broken free and was rushing down to crush me. But the overall effect of being next to the glacier was like standing next to a giant ice cube. A very scary, noisy, gigantic, dirty ice cube.

We learned a valuable lesson when arriving yesterday evening in Wanaka: Do not arrive in a New Zealand town on a Friday night in the summer without booking some accomodation in advance. Katherine tried to get me to book, but I got distracted and never got around to it, and, well, there was “no place in the inn” as they say. We finally found a small cabin room in a holiday park on the edge of town, and we have booked most of our rooms for the rest of the trip.

Beer TourWe took a very cool trip to the Wanaka Beerworks today to see how they brewed their very natural, fresh, delicious beer. The tour was excellent, and we really enjoyed talking to the owner/brewmaster, Dave, about what it takes to make a microbrew that can do battle with the giants of the NZ brewery industry.

Tomorrow, we are headed into Fiordland, the extreme southwestern part of New Zealand, a World Heritage Area that we have heard more than one time on this trip is “the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.” We are looking to check out that claim for ourselves, but if the drive down the coast from Greymouth to Wanaka is any indication, they may be right.

We probably won’t be able to write for 4-5 days, as we will be in places without good Internet access. In fact, one place we are going told us: “Bring cash and food, and be sure to fill up your gas tank before you show up.”

More photos of this region of New Zealand here 

Camping at Abel Tasman

We are currently in Greymouth, literally a town at the mount of the Grey River, a 1/3rd of the way down the west coast of New Zealand. This morning, we woke up in a campsite in the middle of the Abel Tasman National Park, at the top part of the South Island. We hiked into the park to find our rustic campsite with our own semi-private bay, where swam and watched the waterfowl for hours before dark and then again this morning. Cooking using a single propane burner was interesting, but the limited range of the menu was worth the view and the surroundings. Abel Tasman is an extremely beautiful place. We aren’t currently at an Internet terminal where we can aupload photos, but we will when we get a chance.

We lucked out and caught a water taxi back to our car right when we walked out to the beach at Anchorage and were able to get on the road earlier than expected, so we made it further than expected today. Tomorrow, we are heading up to see the Pancake Rocks, just north of Greymouth, and then we are heading down the coast to see the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers before getting in late at Wanaka, where we plan to spend two days before heading down to Te Anu and on to Milford Sound.

The most hilarious moment today was paying to go over the longest swinging bridge in New Zealand (about 150 meters) and then starting a hike only to have the heavens open up with rain and drench us both before we could find any kind of shelter. We hiked around the in the woods, drenched, emerging at some shelter right when the rain stopped. The beautiful scenery made us forget about being drenched, though, and the water didn’t ruin the digital camera, so all is well. We had fun putting on dry clothes in a parking lot of the side of the highway, though…

From the Vineyards to the Ocean

The ferry ride from Wellington to Picton proved to be beautiful and exhilarating, definitely one of the more beautiful boat rides I’ve ever taken. Wellington Harbor is simply gorgeous, and we were escorted out of the harbor by a floatilla of sailboats, heading for the open ocean. Cook Strait turned out not to be the bumpy monster I had been told, and we spent most of the trip taking in the sights as we bid good-bye to the North Island and turned our gaze to the mountains of the South.

We picked up our car in Picton and headed straight to Blenheim. As it was Sunday, not many shops were open, and the town (one of the larger ones in this region) was mostly quiet. Before leaving on this trip, I was looking at some of the satellite photos on Google Earth with my brother, and the area around Blenheim one of the only areas in New Zealand that offers the 2-meter accuracy (high resolution) imagery. Just messing around, I asked Jaymie to find a tree in Blenheim, and I would go claim a leaf off of that tree for him. He picked one out, near a bridge in a park, next to a stream. Kath and I made a bee-line for it after arriving in Blenheim and found it right away. Google Earth is amazing. It is like a global shrub-cam.

The wineries north and west of Blenheim, focused just north of the tiny hamlet of Renwick, are well worth the visit. We got the chance to taste the latest releases (and some of the reserve stock) at about 8 or 9 of the different cellar doors before heading out of town, back to Highway 1 in Blenheim for the trip south to Kaikoura, a stunningly beautiful place in a peninsula jutting out into the Pacific. What we call New Zealand is really just the tips of some mountains that rise out of the sea were two continental plates collide. A large sea shelf extends from New Zealand’s South Island to the southeast, but right around Kaikoura, a deep sea trench (occasionally as deep as 1600 meters) extends right up to the land directly below the peninsula. This causes a great variety and number of marine life to call this area home, including migrating whales, seals, albatrosses, and dolphins.

Katherine just returned from a whale watching expedition, while I spent the morning hiking around the head of the Kaikoura peninsula. We are probably going to camp tonight at one of the campgrounds in town, and then head our trans-alpine trek to the north coast of the South Island, what they call “The Top of the South.” We will hike into Abel Tasman National Park, camp overnight, and then take a water-taxi back.

You can view some of the photos of the above events, including a movie clip of a sperm whale diving that Kath captured, by clicking here.

Windy Wacky Wonderful Wellington

Tomorrow morning, Kath and I board the ferry to the South Island, kissing half of this fascinating country good-bye. And we’ve just arrived! Well, the intention of this trip was really to simply see the South Island and focus on its raw nature and emptiness, but after spending a few days on the North Island, in the beautiful capital of this island nation, I’m not so sure that we shouldn’t have allocated part of our time to see the “northland” (as they call it), as well.

First of all, I have to preface this with the fact that Wellington is one of the windiest cities on Earth. Chicago, move over. You have nothing on the sub-Antarctic blasts that rip through this place, adding a bit of chill to what should be the emergence of summer. However, it says a lot about a place that, thanks to the grace of its people and the fascination of its sights, you don’t even notice the weather until a raindrop hits your face or a gust blows you over. And Wellington is just that sort of place.

Wellington Cable CarWe spent our first day simply wandering around and catching some of the better museums. I can recommend to anyone that the first thing you should do in Wellington, so long as it is daytime, is to take the cable car to the top of hill that overlooks the city and then wander through the botanic gardens as you walk downhill back to the city. The part about downhill is very important. Downtown Wellington is shaped like a roughly-shaped bowl, open on the side that faces the harbor. As long as you stay near the water, you will not have to climb too many hills. However, leave the main downtown area and you will really give your legs (and lungs and heart) a work-out. After a couple of days, Kath and I have learned to ask questions of ourselves when planning a particular trek, such as: “How far up will this take us?” or “Is there a similar store that is not over that steep ridge?”

The cable car trip is very pleasant, if a bit short, but it doesn’t prepare you for the absolutely breathtaking view at the top or the stress-reducing and fragrant trip down the hill, meandering through succulants and orchids and prehistoric fern trees and rose gardens, as well as an old (at least for this part of the world) graveyard. We ended up in the main government district, including the national capital building (aptly nicknamed “the beehive”), and the beginning of the harbor museum district. The Wellington, City and Sea, museum is very interesting, with some very dramatic footage of the sinking of the Wahine, a ferry that killed over 50 people when it sunk in Wellington harbor in 1968.

kath in Wellington GardenThe museum that really got me excited about coming to Wellington was Te Papa, the new national museum opened only a few years ago. And, I can say that the museum really doesn’t disappoint, expecially since I mostly wanted to see exhibits concerning the experiences of the Maori people (the native inhabitants of New Zealand). I read several books regarding the inital impact of European culture on Maoris, and since most cultural sites revolving around Maori culture are located in the North Island, in places we weren’t going, I was keen to see what I could, especially if I could glimpse it in the mind’s eye of the “average” New Zealand citizen (or even want they wanted to project to the world). Te Papa does a great job of not only bringing Maori history and culture alive but also showcasing current and relevant Maori struggles in the perspective of the various participants, Maori and non-Maori alike. Te Papa is not scared to address issues that are not really settled yet and are still heavily contended. I learned a lot from the museum that I would have never picked up from books, and I guess that might as well be the definition of an important museum.

Today, Kath and I took the bus to the top of Mount Victoria, on the opposite hill from the cable-car, and wandered back to the city through a more residential neighborhood, which glorious views of the harbor, downtown, and the peninsula containing the airport. Most of the day was simply spent wandering around and soaking it all in; Wellington provides an endless string of interesting things to look at as you move from street-to-street, including artwork installations, innovative architecture infused with solidly classical themes, and rippingly wild weather that swoops over the surrounding hills and invades like an army of cloud ghosts.

truk and kath on Mount Victoria

Tonight, we took some time to provision for the road ahead. As soon as we get off of the ferry, life will probably get a little bit harder and, hopefully, even more rewarding. We have a car rental reserved in Picton, the town where the ferry lands, but we haven’t been able to reserve a room for that night. As it is the high-season, there is a question as to whether we will be able to find an affordable room at all in the surrounding area. Regardless, we are now prepared, with a cooking stove and enough food for a few days, not to mention a tent smuggled through customs and sleeping bags for the cool late-spring nights. Wish us luck as we float away from a jewel of a city, one that I wish we could spend a few more days exploring.

Click here for more photos of our New Zealand trip

Kindness in Wellington

TahitiWe made it to Wellington without incident, connecting through Tahiti and Auckland, as planned. Up to now, we had always flown across the Pacific in a complete leap, starting from Los Angeles or San Francisco and landing in Sydney or Auckland.  In order to get the cheap seats to make this trip possible, we had to fly Air Tahiti Nui, the national airline of Tahiti, which stops for a few hours in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, on the way to Auckland.


Tahiti Coast

We expected to be locked away during the layover and held in some air-conditioned, sterile waiting area in Papeete, unable to get a sense of the paradise that awaited us just outside the thick double-paned glass. Or, at least, I expected that, as I had a similar experience in Iceland with Jeff Parker when we were AirHitching to Europe in 1994 and ended up looking out at what appeared to be the moon, just outside the airport. We both wanted to get out there, if only for the few hours during the layover, but not having a visa and having no place to store our bags held us back.


Tahiti Airport

As in Iceland, Kath and I were restricted to the airport terminal in Papeete. However, we were able to go upstairs, open up a sliding window, and get a real sense of the island from our little perch. We saw huge waves breaking on the coral reefs that surround Tahiti, and we heard the call of a beautiful native bird that flew up close to use and sang to us for minutes at a time. It still would have been nice to have gotten out there, if only for a bit, if only “to dip my feet in the warm ocean water,” as Kath put it. But the entire experience made me happy that we did get to catch a glimpse of this happy little island, and it made me want to return, sometime in the future.

We are currently ensconced at the Worldwide Backpackers, near downtown Wellington. Upon arriving, we went to plug in our various electrical devices only to find that I bought and brought the totally wrong adapter for the job. (We have about five of the correct adapter at home, from our time of living in Sydney; I just picked out the wrong one because it was easier to carry. This led me on a mad dash to find a plug adapter, and everyone I asked in the hostel and in the nearby stores looked like I was crazy. Finally, I happened on an electrical supply place, which was closed. A man in a truck asked me what I needed, I told him, and he sighed and said, “My wife is going to kill me. I was supposed to be home for dinner a half-hour ago. I’ve sat in my truck three times, trying to leave, but someone’s always come up and needed something.” He perked up when I mentioned that I was from Memphis, and he related what a good time he had in the city when he visited 11 months before. He mentioned the joy of seeing the Mississippi from the top of the Peabody, tasting the ribs at the Rendezvous, and checking out Graceland with a friend. He found me the adapters I needed, and we had a good time chatting about what I should check out on the South Island. I’m sure he was just the first of many “good chaps” we will meet along the way.

Kath and I are off to check out Te Papa (the national museum), as well as a few other spots around town today. We also have tomorrow to roam around Wellington before we take the ferry across the Cook Strait to the South Island on Saturday. All is well, and we are having fun.

More photos of Tahiti and Wellington can be found here

Los Angeles, Waiting

truk in LAXWe arrived in Los Angeles from Little Rock via Houston with little incident. The Air Tahiti Nui flight boards in less than 1 1/2 hours, and the prospect of setting on plane for 8 hours, waiting, 3 hours, and then flying 6 hours more, only to sit in Auckland for 3 hours before flying on to Wellington, is, well, a little daunting. Though I’ve made flights of this duration quite a few times, I’m still a little amazed that it is possible to travel so far, so fast. I guess I should just find my seat, grab a drink, and reflect on how strange it is to be a 33,000 feet … while I’m at 33,000 feet.

Either the main battery or the CMOS battery on the iBook is simply hosed, and it came at a time when there was absolutely nothing that could be done about it. Katherine also experienced a complete battery failure on a machine with a very new battery that was completely impossible to replace in the time remaining. The whole event was very strange; if I had been asked to describe what kind of terrible technical problem could happen and cripple this trip, I probably would have put the failure of these batteries near the top of the list. But, there is nothing that can be done. We will just have to use the devices near power outlets for the next month and live with that. We’ll cope. We’re like that.

I found an interesting book at the end of the Atlanta DAM conference at the Georgia Tech Barnes & Nobles, which I guess doubles as their campus bookstore. I like to read travel books when I am traveling, only that I need the books to cover trips in area so the world totally different from where I am traveling. My current book is The Spice Island Voyage by Tim Severin, the Gold Medal member of the Royal Geographical Society and a guy whose passport is probably as thick as War and Peace. This work tracks Severin’s efforts to follow in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace, a 19th-century naturalist and contemporary of Charles Darwin that can arguably be considered a co-discover of the theory of evolution. Wallace did his most important work in the tiny island chains in the middle of modern-day Indonesia, uncovering hundreds of new species, including the Great Bird of Paradise. Perhaps the greatest message to be drawn from the book is Wallace’s patience and good grace in the face of tremendous challenges and numerous tragedies, any of which would probably send most people off a cliff. Probably a good topic to remember as we board this lengthy series of flights.

Atlanta in the Rear View; New Zealand Looming Large

I just got back tonight from three days in Atlanta, spent at the NITLE Strategic Planning for Digital Asset Management Symposium, held at the Georgia Tech Conference Center, smack in the middle of the city. Fedora, the open source digital archiving toolThe conference was more stimulating and interesting than I expected, and I was honored to be able to share the stage with University of Virginia’s Thornton Staples and Andrew Rouner of the University of Richmond in a session on Fedora, the powerful digital archiving tool. I learned a lot, and I hope that I can hold most of it in my head to be applied in January 2006. However, it was very hard to concentrate through most of the symposium, due to the fact that I knew I would be getting on a plane to New Zealand in only a few days.

I feel prepared and hopelessly not ready for this trip at the same time. We have made most of the critical reservations required when travelling in a very popular country during their high season, including the ferry ride from Wellington to the South Island, a place to stay right after we arrive, and the 16-day car rental that will help us get to all of the places that we want to see. But, a few critical problems are popping up, even before we’ve left the house. My plan for blogging and uploading photos while on the trail is in jeopardy, as the power management unit on my 3-year old iBook appears to have completely failed, meaning that I cannot use the iBook on battery power. And I just can’t knock the sense that I am forgetting something, even though I haven’t even left the house.

Hopefully, these issues will work themselves out over the next couple of days. I’m planning to post as much as I can, whenever I can, in this space so that my friends and family can keep up with our progress.

Evil Petting Zoo on Top, Again!

Well, the trivia team I play on for the Tuesday Night Trivia at the P&H Cafe in midtown Memphis came in first place last night, winning the team $101. I think our comeback and final score surprised everyone on the team, but we’ll definitely take it. Goodness knows we worked hard enough to come up with some of the answers. Special kudos to Matt and Chris for some of the critical sports questions.

Tuesday Night at the P and H Cafe

Here are my top three trivia questions from that night (and it was really hard to narrow it down to three):

1) Which two US Presidents have both first and last names that contain two identical letters in succession?

Millard Fillmore and William Harrison.

Now as for who probably can’t spell or pronounce either of these US Presidents, my bet is the current President, George W. Bush.

Ferris Buellers Day Off2) What is the name of the holiday being celebrated during the parade scene near the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?

Von Stuben Day, which kinda makes no sense, since Ferris talks about graduating in a few months and Von Stuben Day is held on September 17th. But, oh well.

3) The original Magic 8 Ball had how many different sides that could come up to answer a question posed to it?

The answer is 20, and the internal polygon is a icosahedron.

OK, and here is a bonus question: How many squiggles (loops) are there on the top of a Hostess Cupcake?

The answer is 7.

Google Free Base

I’ve been playing with yet another Google invention, unveiled only last week, called Google Base. Still in beta and under pretty heavy development, Google Base has the opportunity to become a bigger deal than Google Maps, Google Mail, Google News, Froogle, or any of the other Google tools that I continously (and largely unconsciously) use.

Google Base Logo

What is Google Base? Well, at its essence, it is only a list of things, each with their own sets of attributes, that I control. For the geeks in the house, it is a simple web-based database, configurable and managed via your Google account, using only a web browser. That, in and of itself, is not very exciting; lots of products allow individuals to keep collections of data objects in a manner that is useful to them. What Google Base does beyond this is what makes it so special and gives it the potential to have a huge impact on the way we find information on the Internet.

For one, it is incredibly easy to use. Historically, databases have required some technical skills to design and implement, not to mention resources to put into place so that they are useful to the people that need to store data in them and then use that data in a number of different ways. Google Base allows anyone, anywhere, to create relatively-complex and useful data structures, all without even knowing what they are doing. Are you looking to store recipes? Any grandmother than can get her own email can create a recipe list on Google Base with about as much effort to replying to an email. She gets the benefit of having her recipe anywhere, accessable with a web browser, and the world gets the benefit of knowing her recipe and having it come up as relevant search results in Google.

Recipe example

Most databases are comprised of tables, each comprised of columns and rows, and the tables are linked together in relational schemas that provide for complex queries to retrieve exact sub-sets of the data, useful in a variety of different ways. Amazingly, Google Base offers much the same thing. However, you won’t find instructions in Google Base for setting up tables or providing column datatype or how to create your SQL statements to get the data out of the database. Rather, while you are entering information about the thing, you also enter the attributes about the thing, all done on-the-fly, while you are creating the record. On its face, this violates some of the core concepts of traditional databasing, which requires that you plan ahead of time for how you will store everything, so that you don’t add attributes that are not relevant to the majority of the objects you wish to describe. Google Base turns this idea on its head, pushing you to just get the data in there, under the idea that we can make sense of it later, but it has to be in there to be useful to anyone. I expect Google to release an API (application program interface) soon to help application makers make it even easier to help people store their data in Google Base.

In a way, they already have. Google Base accepts flat-file, RSS (1 and 2), and Atom data feeds. This allows anyone that already has a database, as well as some basic skills about how to get data in and out of it, the ability to easily send their data for inclusion to Google Base, complete with links to the content where it actually lives on the web. This is a big deal, because it underscores exactly while Google has been so successful: they are interested in building value for everyone in what they do, and they understand that money is not the only currency.

For example, I run a little website called Terrascend, where anyone can list farms, land, hunting property, or just about any rural property for sale, anywhere in the world. I allows people to easily submit basic facts about their property, as well as photos and maps, in the hope that they will be able to reach a potential buyer. I sell some basic services to folks that want to allow their Terrascend listings to appear together on their own website, but Terrascend is basically a good free service, something I enjoy doing and can learn from. Since I started Terrascend in late-2001, I haven’t had any trouble getting people that know about the site to use it. The problem has been in letting people know what it is and that it is available for free, no strings attached. For a while, I played around with Google Ad Words and got Terrascend to show up in search results for keywords like “hunting land” and “farm for sale.” However, this quickly became too expensive to do, particularly for a site that isn’t designed to generate a lot of revenue. I’ve been wishing for years that there was a way to let people know about Terrascend and what it can do without paying for placement with search engines. And, now, thanks to Google Base, it is now becoming possible.

From Google’s perspective, they just want to get something out of the arrangement. That something might be money, as they get if you use Ad Words or their other sponsored link programs. But there is something else that is almost as valuable to them (and will help them make even more money): relevancy. Google realizes that people use its various services because the information provided is truly relevant to them and what they want. Next to having someone pay actual money to put a link to their site via keywords, Google wants actual useful data (not just links to useful data) to be returned to people using their search and other services. The more relevant the data returned, the more these people will be inclined to use Google again the next time they need to find something.

In other words, Google has allowed me the option of giving it not just money but relevant data in order to get the word out about the service I offer. As long as I offer more relevant data about what people want to find, Google will show my data in its search results and people can click through to the actual information that I want them to see. If I don’t offer relevant data, then I don’t get any benefit out of it because people don’t find it (and it doesn’t cost Google anything, since they don’t generate the data – I do).

There has been a lot of talk about alternate value systems on the Internet over the past decade. I think that we are on the cusp of a real one, and the conduit through which it flows is Google Base. I would be surprised if Yahoo and Microsoft aren’t hard at work copying this right now.

Rhodes-Sewanee Game Cajun Feast

I took part in what I hope turns into an annual event for my employer/alma mater, Rhodes College: the campus community cook-out before the big game. At Rhodes, there is rarely a bigger football game of the year than the Rhodes vs. Sewanee match up, and this year, some staff members worked to expand the gumbo cooking operation of Joby Dion, a fellow co-worker/alumus that, with several friends, made a habit over the past couple of years of cooking a big pot of gumbo before the home games.

Joby the Chef Cajun Cooks

Joby Dion handled the gumbo, using his own special south Louisiana recipe, while Bud Richey (with the help of sons Allen and JP), whipped up a yummy red beans and rice concoction. Mac McWhirter and Dean Allen Boone showed me the ropes on how to cook jumbo shrimp the authentic cajun way, specially marinated overnight and cooked in a giant pan and eaten immediately.

Everyone involved had a blast, and even though Rhodes ended up losing the football game in sudden-death overtime, the cook-out allowed everyone to get together on a day with fantastic weather. It seems possible that everyone left full and smiling, despite the loss. Thanks to everyone who made the day possible.

Click here for more photos of the Rhodes vs. Sewanee Cajun Feast

Kath’s Birthday a “Smashing” Success

Katherine’s 33rd birthday party was held, strangely enough, on her birthday, Saturday, November 5th. Through a strange confluence of the stars, and the kindness of John’s sister Keri Stephany, Katherine actually got two parties. Both of them turned out to pretty pretty different affairs.

Kath’s first birthday party was held at Billy Hardwick’s All Star Lanes, where some of her most fun friends gathered to knock a few pins around.

Kath and Cake Bowling

Kath actually smashed through the 100-point barrier that haunts her in the bowling alley, and every guest walked away with one of the finest gag/silly gifts that the dollar store down the street could provide. (See-through plastic human body with removable, multi-color organs, anyone?) Anyone feeling a mite bit peckish helped themselves to a cake made of 98 “Fun Size” Milky Way candy bars, covered in “white” icing, and topped with an army of gummy bears. It was a little bit on the sweet side, but at least everyone tried a piece.

After bowling and a little rest, we picked up a pinata at La Espiga, one of the best Mexican joints in Memphis. We took it over to Keri’s party, filled it with candy, and everyone starting taking swings at it.

Dave and Pinata Kath and Pinata

Needless to say, the pinata lost, but we had a blast bashing it open. (Sorry about your broom handle, Keri! I’ll try to remember to get you a new one…)

All in all, everyone had a good time at both events, taking advantage of some outstanding weather for a November in Memphis.

Want to see more? Click here for more photos of the event.

Floating Down the Ghost River the Day Before Halloween

Last Sunday, October 30th, Frank and I took a very enjoyable trip down the Wolf River. Frank owns a kayak. Well, it is more like a canoe, but Frank uses kayak paddles and prefers to call it a kayak, so I’ll call it a kayak, too. Regardless, the boat handled very well.

(In trying to figure out what is the difference between a canoe and a kayak, wonderful Wikipedia reminded me that I had an interest in finding out more about foldable kayaks, such as the one used the Paul Theroux’s excellent book The Happy Isles of Oceania, where he paddles one all over the South Pacific. Finally, I was lead to a great website on folding kayaks, where I finally found a group of suitable candidates. Imagine being able to buy your own water transportation that you can bring with you anywhere in the world. Now imagine being able to fit it on the back of a bicycle. With a collapsible bike, you could just keep traveling on water and land with nothing to stop you… OK, more on that in a later post…)

Frank invited me to take part in the Wolf River Conservancy Fall Color Wolf River Trip, which leaves from the landing south of La Grange, TN, and floats you to the take-out point at Bateman’s Bridge, south of Moscow, TN. While I expected a leasurely trip down river, much like trips I took on the Buffalo and Spring rivers in Arkansas, nothing prepared for the technical skill required to help navigate a kayak through the narrow openings of trees and other obstacles. This was truly the most challenging canoe trip I’ve ever taken, and the sights along the river were definitely worth the effort.

Anyone living in Memphis is familiar with the Wolf River; it flows into the Mississippi River north of Mud Island, bisecting the city on the route to its mouth. However, few Memphians know much about the origin of the Wolf River, or where it flows before it enters Shelby County. Heck, I still don’t know all that much about it. If you are interested, read on here.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Wolf River is called the Ghost River section, the section covered during the Fall Color trip. What makes this section of river so compelling is that, during a 5-6 hour ride, you travel through four distinct ecosystems, each quite different from the one before it.

Hardwood SectionThe first 1/3rd of the trip takes place in a hardwood forest, with a somewhat narrow river channel and a clearly defined river bank. There are plenty of obstacles, above and below the water, and you have to stay sharp in the rather shallow water so as to not take a wrong turn and have to back-track. This is a very smooth part of the river, quiet and majestic, with towering, moss-ringed trees on both sides as you glide by.

Ghost River TreesEventually you reach the beginning of the section that gives the Ghost River its name, a shallow, broad section that flows through a hardwood forest, filled with giant trees and knobs, sometimes with only a few feet between them. Even for a narrow kayak on the approved canoe trail, squeezing through some of the trees proved to be a real problem, especially given the fact that current often runs against the direction of the trail. The canopy above masks the light, and even in the middle of the day, everything gets just a little more spooky. The edges of the bank are usually still in sight but much further away, not that you have time to contemplate how you would get to the bank in your constant struggle to stay on the water path. Think swamp with moving water.

Spirit LakeEventually, the Ghost River Canoe Trail opens up to what is referred to as Spirit Lake, a broad section of the river with fewer trees, a slightly calmer current, lily pads everywhere on the edges of the channel, and more light. The river meanders through the more open forest, allowing a break from the constant struggle to steer experienced in the Ghost River section. In the Fall, this is the section with the most leaf color and other beautiful scenes. You can see beaver dams off in the backwater areas, large birdhouses built for birds of prey, and stands of thicker forest in the distance. The trees all around you remind you of how high the water can rise, with dark moss rings circling all of the trunks at same height.

Takeout PointThe final section before taking out at Bateman’s Bridge resembles an alpine mountain stream. The banks draw in closer together, the river grows deeper, and the current increases quite a bit. Grassy banks leap from the edges of the river, and meadows appear on either side. If you didn’t know that you were on the Wolf River, you might think you were in Colorado in the middle of summer.

All in all, it is wonderful trip, and we are already scheming about how to pull it off with more canoes, um, I mean, kayaks, next Spring. Many thanks to Frank for the invite.

For more images of the Ghost River trip, click here to view the photos I snapped along the way.

Proprietary Software Strikes Back?

Something very interesting has been happening just below the surface in the commercial software world over the past few weeks, something very quiet and timid but something that also has the potential to be as important as Microsoft’s decision to include a web browser with its operating system or the decision of MySQL AB to go open-source or the migration from NCSA to Apache. OK, well, the last two really require a geek’s outlook, but I think they will all stand out as time passes.

I am referring to the fact that several of the biggest names in commercial, proprietary software have recently announced “free” editions of the most popular, and profitable, products:

    Oracle announced the 10g Database XE Edition, a free (but crippled – only uses 1 GB of RAM and 1 processor, 4 GB max DB file size) version of their powerful and widely used core database product;

    Microsoft has started pushing its “free” SQL Server 2005 Express Edition, more commonly called its previous name of MSDE.

In the background, you can see the consolidation in the enterprise application space has left few big prized left to claim by large companies looking to expand their revenue streams. Also, MySQL 5 has been called “Production Ready,” bringing stored procedures, views, and triggers to the popular open-source database. And, acting as a dull roar beneath it all, AJAX-based productivity apps are all the buzz, even though one has yet to break out to compete with expensive desktop software, like MS Office.

What is going on here? Well, I think that the big proprietary software companies are actually starting to realize that they actually are starting to compete with tested and proven open source software in a way that really will, eventually affect the bottom line. That’s nothing new, though. Look at Apache and IIS. It is also not necessarily new that the open source product actually out-performs the proprietary offering, making it more desirable, even if price wasn’t an issue. What is new is that customers are running out of features that exist in proprietary software that do not exist in best-of-breed open source offerings. And if customers don’t need it, the developers won’t be willing to split their fees with the big software publishing houses as part of software tax on their development.

Oracle is probably the one that has the most to lose in the short run. More than 90% of its core features now exist in MySQL, and if you were a large software developer looking to choose a database, why would you want make your customer cut a check to Oracle that they could be cutting to you?

It isn’t like this is anything new. Oracle’s strategy of buying firms like PeopleSoft, its development of more tiers of software layers above the database designed to lock you in, and its marketing of “grid” databases (i.e. something that most of its customers couldn’t care less about) rather than focusing on making its security and bug patches easier to apply as been designed for some time to head off and envitable decision: open source your own technology, going into business as a service, or continue to squeeze your customers for every last dime while your stock and company slowly sinks and becomes less relevant. (Novell, anyone?)

And, while Microsoft may be smiling now, the future doesn’t look too good for it, either. Regardless of what the brains in Redmond think, the operating system you run, and even the computing device you use, is becoming less relevant. Subscription software, at least how they would like to sell it, is not the answer to what is probably coming in 8-10 years: a bleed of capital under the weight of a top-heavy organization that was never able to really innovate but poorly copy.

We are witnessing some of the first ripples of what could turn out to be a larger tsunami.

Trivia Tuesday – Nov. 1st, 2005

On most Tuesday nights, I can be found at the P&H Cafe, in midtown Memphis, taking part in what is commonly called Trivia Tuesday. I play on a team called Evil Petting Zoo, and we usually do pretty well (though that is hardly due to my trivia knowledge). On November 1st, we came in 2nd behind Michelobotomy, losing out on the top spot by half a point.

For the uninitiated, Trivia Tuesday consists of teams of 2 to 6 players competing to win a share of the pot, generated by the $3 entry fee per person required to play. Its a lot of fun, and if you think you know a lot of trivia and live in Memphis, you haven’t been tested until you’ve played at the P&H.

Top three trivia questions from November 1st, 2005:

1) What was the first #1 hit for the Rolling Stones in the UK?

2) What Middle East capital translates to “God’s Will”?

3) Whose face is one the mask turned inside out and painted white and used by the killer in the movie Halloween?

Answers will be posted later in the week…

Gallery 2.0 Rocks

I’m continually involved in PHP development for various products. I enjoy programming, particularly using PHP and a very fast database, such as MySQL or Oracle, and part of the enjoyment I get from web application development is the very real sense of building an immediately useful tool, something that someone with a problem to solve could immediately pick up and use. Imagine being at a home construction site full of folks using rocks to bang in nails and you can whip together a hammer. That’s the kind of feeling I crave, and this feeling drives me toward the best tools for any particular job.

Over time, this attitude has made me appreciate projects that have built other solutions, especially using a similar toolset, that far-and-away exceed my expectations and have the ability to change how I accomplish a task. The most recent amazing tool I’ve “discovered” is Gallery 2.0. Or, rather, I guess that I should say that I “rediscovered” it, as I’ve been using the original version of Gallery for years. Gallery version 1 offered a database-free way of uploading, organizing, and displaying collections of digital images. While simplistic in what it offered in comparison to many of the commercial ventures offering the same services, such as Flickr and Shutterfly, and free services, like Yafro, Gallery v1 offered complete control to the webmaster hosting the site and easy integration with free bulletin board software, such as phpNuke and PostNuke.

Amazingly, the project that started as a coding project to allow an individual to post pictures of their kids did not stop there. The Gallery v1 project was such a success that the number of developers contributing code ballooned, and the decision rarely seen with successful commercial software was made: let’s rip it up and start over with a new design. And, amazingly, the result in Gallery 2.0 more than demonstrates the wisdom of this decision.

After being in development for well over a year, Gallery 2.0 was officially moved out of beta earlier this month. A complete rewrite of the code that now requires a MySQL database and includes modular features, Gallery 2.0 is built to scale to hundreds of thousands of images. However, like any fantastic open source project, the magic really shines when you look under the hood. In a world of bloated software and security exploits being released daily, the developers of Gallery 2 have provided an elegant API that can be easily expanded with 3rd-party software that can be enabled or disabled at will. By running as little core code as possible and allowing modules to be turn on or off to provide functionality, the developers simultaneously achieve a smaller, faster application with fewer places for bugs to hide and the support of the best-of-breed external applications and libraries (GD, ImageMagick, NetPBM) to accomplish the very difficult tasks of dealing with image file formats. And. take it from someone who has written a simplistic photo upload/viewing web app, dealing with image files is very hard to get right.

Webmasters, if you are looking for a great image, movie, and audio file cataloging and display web application, look no further than Gallery 2.0. My hat is off to the Gallery 2.0 developers for taking every part of their software to the next level and pushing the envelope without creating an over-powering monster in place of a hard-working mouse. Bravo!