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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

As the wife and I wandered around in London this past May, we stumbled across Kew Gardens which is a botanical gardens located in the western part of London around 11 miles from where we were staying. We had to take a couple of trains to get there. Most of the sights that the average visitor sees in London are concentrated within a 2 mile radius of the center of London, extending out from the UK Parliament building. But Kew Gardens is not close to that, it takes a little effort to get there. It’s also not one of the places that all the guidebooks tell you to go.

I used to live in England for 18 months, (technically 15 since I spent 3 months traveling around the world and wasn’t in the country) and I had been to London several times (I didn’t live there, I lived in a town about 90 miles west). But I had never heard of Kew Gardens.

We don’t normally visit botanical gardens, so we figured we check this one out.

I was amazed by it. There are lots and lots of little exhibits and greenhouses within it, including one where they grow a bunch of tropical plants despite it being the middle of London – a city not known for its tropical weather, or even nice weather. I thought that was cool.

But the place that blew me away was a little museum house that housed the paintings of a woman/philanthropist that traveled the world in the 19th century, taking pictures of all the places she had been to – The Marianne North Gallery. And, she had been to a lot.

Marianne North created a lot of paintings. According to the website, she did 883. I took a few pictures of some of the various walls.

I was so impressed by Kew Gardens and this museum that every time I hear that friends are going to London, I tell them to check this place out. I don’t think anyone ever does, but that doesn’t stop me from recommending it. It’s cheap to get in, and it’s not that busy.

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In the picture above, you can see all the paintings by Marianne North on one of the walls; each wall had more paintings, and the building has several rooms. You can even go upstairs and look around the top.

The walls are divided into areas of the world, you can see in the picture above that they are divided into Singapore and Japan.

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There’s also a lot of paintings of plants, like flowers, herbs, and trees. So many of them are native to the part of the world she visited.

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I don’t remember what’s going on here, so I assume that this is the wife’s favorite picture.

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Finally, I took a picture against a mosque, but I don’t know what country it’s from. However, it reminds me of the Blue Mosque in Turkey so that’s why I took the photo.

I remember thinking that North’s life work will live on decades and centuries after she has passed on. I then thought to myself that I don’t have anything similar. Sure, I’m fighting spam and malware, but that’s more of a treadmill than something that lasts and which others can admire long after I am gone.


I’m not always this impressed with the places I visit. For sure, I enjoy so much of what I go see – museums, theaters, restaurants, botanical gardens, even mountainous locations. However, what I like is the sense of wonder I get from going to out-of-the-way places that I had no idea even existed, and seeing that there is so much work put into it. I love having my expectations shattered.

That’s one of the best things about traveling.

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Over the past several years, whenever the wife and I have traveled, we’ve mostly stayed in AirBNB’s rather than staying in a hotel. I’ve even used this tactic when I travel (alone) for work in that I sometimes stay (by myself) in an AirBNB rather than a hotel where the conference is taking place. I’ve done this in San Francisco and in Philadelphia.

Yet this year, we’ve discovered that staying in a hotel is not so bad. There are advantages both ways.

For AirBNB:

  • It costs less, which is especially important if you are footing the bill
  • It’s a more authentic experience
  • You can sometimes get more stuff, that is, the host will give you travel tips and brochures

But there are drawbacks:

  • Sometimes you only get a single room in a house where the owner also lives
  • The facilities are sometimes underwhelming (lack of amenities like toilet paper, paper towels, etc.)
  • The location may be quite noisy

The wife always used to eschew hotels, but this year we stayed in one on four separate occasions – in Sonoma, CA in February; in London, England in May; and in New York, NY in September; and in Toronto, Canada in October.

The wife enjoyed the first one because there was a lot of on-site facilities like a spa and she had a free pass to go in and enjoy it. In the second one, it was a last-minute booking (we did it from the airport in London) and it was a nice location. It was in downtown London,  was a good location since it was close to everything, and had nice facilities. The wife keeps asking me “When are we going to stay in a fancy hotel again?”

In both cases, the cost of the hotel was either covered by another company, or by credit card points.

But what we both notice is that we like staying at slightly nicer places. We’ve stayed in lesser-quality places before and while that was fine in the past, we don’t care for it so much anymore. They are too noisy, or too hot, or not that clean, etc. I can put up with it for a while so long as I have free wifi and the place is not cold.

I didn’t think I would get pickier as I got older… yet, here I am.

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As I’ve posted before, this past September the wife and I went to New York City where I was invited to participate in a customer panel (that is, the company I work for is a customer of another company, so they flew a bunch of representatives down to NYC for a couple of days). This was right before we went to Toronto for another conference I attended for work.

For many years, I had heard about New York pizza. I was never sure why it was such a big deal. What differentiated it from normal pizza? Sure, I could have Google/Binged it, but I never did. I don’t eat that much pizza anyhow, so it never was a burning issue for me.

But while I was in New York, I had my first New-York-pizza experience (I had pizza in New York in 2007, but I don’t think it was what’s normally thought-of as New York pizza). What makes it so special? Well, assuming what I ate for lunch was representative of New York pizza and not just some particular restaurant’s style:

  • First, the crust is much thicker. Like, a half-inch thick. Most pizza you get from the store or order from a pizza place (Domino’s, Pizza Hut) is thinner that New York pizza. I had a piece of it that was a regular size, and I was basically full (I ate a 1/2 piece more). It was an ordeal eating the slice of pizza, it was so thick.
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  • Second, it was way saucier than a normal pizza. I had to eat it with a fork and knife, it was so saucy and rich.

It’s really not similar to any pizza I normally eat. I’ve had Domino’s or Pizza Hut that people have ordered in; I’ve cooked frozen pizza I’ve gotten from Trader Joe’s; I’ve had cook-at-home pizza that people gotten from Papa John’s; I’ve gone to restaurants after hiking with the wife and ordered pizza. Not a single one of them was similar to New York pizza.

I don’t know that I would want all pizza I ordered to be like New York pizza, it’s just too rich for me.

But I sure am glad I tried it.

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The picture above I got from Google, and would be an example of a thin-crust version of what I had.

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The eclipse this past summer

As I alluded to in another blog post, the wife and I were down in Hood River, Oregon this past summer. We went down for a wedding on Mt Hood, but this just so happened to coincide with the total eclipse that occurred this year.

Originally, the wife and I were just going to watch it from the place we were staying because it was reasonably close to the zone of totality, and we didn’t want to fight traffic. But I suggested “Look, we’re right here. We’re only an hour away from the zone, and we’re probably going to hiking later on anyway. So why not drive south as far as we can until we get to the zone, and then pull over wherever we can and watch the eclipse?”

And that became the plan. We got in the car in the morning and started driving south, planning to get into the zone of totality and then pulling over to the side of the road. To our surprise, there was basically no traffic. We had heard that there were major traffic problems, but not for us.

I kept track on a map of where we were, and checked NASA’s webpage to see where the zone started. I roughly knew where we had to get to, and when we crossed the zone we found a lake with a whole bunch of others who were similarly there to watch the eclipse.

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We parked in the parking lot with everyone else next to the lake, got out our lawn chairs, and looked up in the sky.

With our dark glasses, of course.

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The above picture was taken about 30 minutes before the total eclipse, when the moon was about 98% covering the sun. I had always thought that it would get super-dark when the sun was almost covered, but it wasn’t. In the picture, it looks like it’s still the middle of the day. In fact, it never did get super dark.

The next picture is when the eclipse was about 20 minutes away, at 99% coverage. As you can see, it looks like dusk.

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Finally, we came to the moment everyone had been waiting for, 100% total eclipse! It never got completely dark, although it was cold.

We were in the zone of totality but not the middle of the zone, so for us the total eclipse lasted around 30 seconds. I had enough time to take off my solar glasses, take this picture, tweet about it, and then it was over.

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We waited around for another 15 minutes as some of the other cars cleared out, it began to warm back up, and then we left to do a day hike.

And that’s the story of the time we saw the total eclipse in Oregon.

 

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Hiking Haleakalā

I haven’t really written that much about it so far, but this past January the wife and I visited the island of Maui in Hawaii.

I had last been to Hawaii in 1995, so 22 years had elapsed between visits (closer to 21 years and 2 months since I went in December 1995, and returned in January 2017).

One of the activities that the wife and I did was go up Haleakalā, which is the tallest mountain on Maui. There’s one road that goes to the top, and it takes about an hour and a half to get up there since the road is fairly narrow and windy. On the way up, you go through multiple climate zones – from lush rainforest at the bottom of Maui, to temperate 2/3 of the way up, to a moonscape at the very top.

The coast of Maui, of course, is at sea level while the top of Haleakalā is at about 10,000 feet. The map below shows you the geography of the island, although obviously there is much more elevation distortion than what you can see on the map. I just couldn’t figure out how to make Google Maps make the elevation even more obvious. The red pin below is the top of the mountain.

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To me, Maui looks like a turtle with the head in the northwest, and the body in the southeast. It has two sets of mountains – Haleakalā in the middle of the big part of the island (the turtle’s body) and then a set of mountains in the northwest (in the turtle’s head). Eventually as sea levels rise, the island will split into two, between the head and the body.

The rainiest part of the island is between Haleakalā and the town of Hana on the far east coast, about halfway up. That is, Hana itself is not nearly as rainy as the rainforest that is halfway up to the top of Haleakalā. This is one of rainiest places on earth, getting more than almost anywhere else in the world. You can see above how dark green it is, while the other edges of the island are more beige indicating how comparatively dry it is. It’s because the big mountain prevents rain clouds from getting over it, so to lighten up they have to dump their precipitation.

Anyhow, at the top of Haleakalā, there is a visitor center and you can go for a hike. But it’s cold. And windy. I brought along a winter jacket, and a couple of tuques, because I knew it would not be pleasant weather conditions at the very top.

I decided to take a picture of me at the top. I’ve done a number of hikes but this is the highest I have ever gone hiking. You can see in the picture below I’ve taken refuge out of the cold to take this picture in the visitor center to prove I’m up at ~10,000 feet above sea level.

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So what’s the top of the mountain like, besides being cold and windy? Well, we went and January but there was no snow, so I’m assuming that snow at the top is rare. But if you wish, you can go for a hike and that’s what we did.

Now, some people for whatever reason can get altitude sickness. This is a general feeling of having the flu – fatigue, nausea, and headaches. I don’t get altitude sickness (at least, not at this height) but the wife did. We went down about 1500 feet on a hike (about 2-3 miles or so, I can’t remember) but on the way back up the wife took way longer than normal whereas I felt fine. There were other people on the trail as well who were clearly feeling the effects of altitude. I don’t know why I felt okay… but I did.

Anyway, on the way up I took a handful of pictures with my phone, and you can see it looks like what I imagine the surface of Mars looks like – all desert-like. The picture below looks pretty bad because I took three different photos and then tried to reconstruct them by globbing them together, whereas I should have just taken a landscape photo.

Oh, well.

The point is that (a) iPhone cameras are merely okay, and (b) the top of Hawaii looks way different than the bottom.

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Believe it or not, the wife is on that long trail downwards. I’m not sure where, but it’s somewhere. Keep in mind that while it looks like a nice, sunny day, I’m wearing a fleece jacket and a pair of tuques to keep my noggin from freezing.

On the other hand, this landscape doesn’t look completely different than other places that we’ve hiked. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this type of geography on other mountains that we’ve climbed in either New Zealand, Patagonia (South America), or even in Oregon or Washington.

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The wife didn’t enjoy this hike nearly as much as I did. I kind of liked being at the top of the world (even though it’s still only 1/3 as high as Mt Everest). We eventually made our way back to the car, and headed back down the mountain where the wife felt better (I was fine the whole time).

And that’s the story of the time we went to the top of the highest mountain in Maui.

 

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Traveling on the cheap(ish)

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how I (and the wife) travel.

Before I met the wife, I did a number of trips:

  1. Italy and Switzerland in 2009
  2. Peru in late 2009
  3. China, Taiwan, South Korea in 2008
  4. Australia and Fiji in 2006
  5. England in 2005

After the wife and I got married in 2011, we did a couple of expensive trips:

  1. New Zealand in 2011
  2. Southeast Asia in early 2012
  3. Argentina and Chile in late 2012

Those three trips were not cheap. We flew regular airfare, stayed in normal hotels (or Vacation Rental by Owner, VRBO), and bought food frequently at restaurants.

Since that time, we’ve done several other trips:

  1. Vienna, Austria and Prague, Czech Republic in 2013
  2. Turkey in 2014
  3. Eastern Europe in 2015
  4. Germany in early 2016
  5. France in late 2016
  6. Hawaii in early 2017

We’ve been much more successful in driving down our costs in the later years than in the earlier years (both when I was single or married).

How?

It’s done through multiple methods.

First, I get to travel for work.

I volunteer to go to conferences, but I also research them and present my bosses with the estimated cost, and the justification for why I should attend. I am also active in the email community so people know me, and they invite me to participate in panels or present at the conference.

When you are asked to present, and if I ask early enough to go, I usually get permission to attend. I understand work’s travel budgeting process, and I really am one of the best people from my team to attend. I bring a lot to the industry, and I bring a lot back.

This means that when me and the wife travel, my flight is covered, and at least part of the food and lodging is, too.

So that reduces part of the cost.

Second, we’ve gotten good at reducing flight costs in other ways.

If you sign up for a credit card, you often get a sign-up bonus of 25,000 to 50,000 (or even 100,000) bonus points once you spend a certain amount within 3 months, which is easy. Sometimes you get a free ticket, or travel companion ticket.

The wife and I have signed up for multiple credit cards over the past couple of years and taken advantage of the airline points (I even flew my sister down on airline points). That also helps to reduce the cost.

It hasn’t affected my credit rating, either. And since I no longer have a mortgage and have no plans to acquire more debt, even if it did I wouldn’t care (unless it meant I couldn’t get another card, but usually it means the interest rate is higher and that’s no problem because I pay in full each month).

That’s another way to reduce the cost of travel.

Third, we don’t stay in hotels most of the time.

For long term trips, nothing racks up your travel costs more than hotel bills. Whereas a flight may be $1000 for a trip to Europe, or $500 domestically, a hotel can run you $200-$250 per day in the United States and Europe. 5 days and you’ve exceeded your flight cost for overseas travel.

To get around this, we now use AirBNB. These are often 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of a hotel. This makes it much easier to slash the cost of your lodging (if you travel to see family, the cost is usually free; but you can’t go see family or friends everywhere you go, and you don’t want to overstay your welcome).

Fourth, the lodging can help reduce the food bill.

Part of the reason traveling is so expensive is that you have to pay for all of your meals, and that costs far more than when you are at home.

To get around this, we again leverage AirBNB. We will stay in places with a kitchen (if long-term) or provide breakfast. If it has a kitchen, we will frequently buy bread, milk, coffee, and fruit so we can eat breakfast in the hotel/AirBNB. Then we also sometimes pack a small lunch, although half the time we eat that are are still hungry by 1 pm.

Still, it reduces the overall cost of food by about 20%.


So there you have it. Using a combination of techniques, we’ve gotten good at international or long-haul domestic trips at keeping costs under control.

I was decent at it before, but we’re really good at it now.

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A few years ago when I was learning about architecture while we were in Europe, I picked up on various styles – Gothic style, Renaissance style, and Baroque style. I thought I was pretty smart for figuring this stuff out.

But this past year, I realized that I wasn’t entirely correct. Whereas I was right that Gothic is a style of architecture that is older than the others, the buildings in Europe that look Gothic are not always the oldest buildings around, they are neo-Gothic.

What do I mean?

Gothic cathedrals are characterized by tall windows that let lights in from certain angles. The following Gothic window is the remains of a church window in Budapest that was bombed in World War II, notice how long it is.

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Here’s another Gothic window in the side of a building in Poland, you can see the building has a high ceiling and a tall window:

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That’s the original, older Gothic style.

I would confuse the older style with the newer Gothic style. Below is a picture of Marienplatz in Munich. You can see all the intricate carvings, those are also Gothic:

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And the parliament house in Budapest, Hungary is similarly in neo-Gothic style:

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When I first saw neo-Gothic architecture, I was blown away because I thought “How could those medieval people have constructed such amazing buildings?”

Well, it’s because they didn’t. They may have started in the middle ages (like the Dom Cathedral in Cologne, Germany) but they didn’t finish then. Instead, during the mid-to-late 1800’s, Europe went through its Romantic period, a counter-movement to the Enlightenment that preceded it.

The Romantic period looked back to the past and romanticized it as better than it actually was. The European elite looked to the middle ages as source of inspiration and built their buildings in middle ages and Gothic style. You don’t see too much fancy carvings in original Gothic but you do on neo-Gothic, and that’s because the architects drew their inspiration from all the old legends and stories (e.g., Aesop’s fables, Grimm’s fairy tells) that did contain fanciful creatures like gargoyles. They also put a lot of fancy carvings and images of saints and political leaders as well.

When I first learned that neo-Gothic buildings were new, I was disappointed. What I thought was super-old was actually recent; instead of 800 years it was “merely” 150-200 years old which sounds less impressive.

But it is still impressive. I like neo-Gothic architecture, so much so that I have a mural of the Charles St Bridge in Prague pained on our dining room wall.

So no, it’s not that old. But it does draw inspiration from the past and it is older than any building in Seattle.

And that’s pretty great, too.

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The other day, I wrote that I had to buy a new hat while here in Germany because my current one wasn’t warm enough for a European spring.

24 hours later, I lost it.

I can’t remember exactly where it was, but the wife and I were coming back from the town of Baden-Baden in southwestern Germany. We had a session at the spa (warm water baths, the non-nude one), caught the bus and then caught the train.

While back in Frankfurt, I started looking for my hat. I checked my pockets, and then my backpack.

Nothing.

I must have lost it somewhere on the bus or something.

Even though I was annoyed I lost it, I wasn’t that upset. For one, it only cost me €3. For another, the hat was kind of small. It hurt my head when I put it on. I tried stretching it out but it wasn’t working. Maybe over time it would have expanded a bit. I don’t know. But it was squeezing my head, giving me a headache.

So… meh.

I ended up buying a new one today while in Rothenburg. Fits much better.

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An optical illusion

The other day the wife and I were traveling in Germany along the Mosel River Valley in western Germany where, in one of the towns, we came across a strange sight.

The following street performers were acting as statues, but they are in a position that is impossible to hold due to gravity. Here it is from two different angles:

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As you can see, there’s one guy sitting on the ground and it’s a real person. He’s holding out a ball, and another guy is sit-standing on it. The illusion is that this should be impossible. That’s also a real guy, and it’s his real hand holding the ball… I think.

He’s doing the same thing, holding yet another ball with a third person sitting on that. That ball is definitely his real hand, I could see the fingers moving. The person on top would appear to be a woman. I couldn’t tell for sure, though, I think it’s supposed to look like a woman but I think it’s actually a prop.

I was trying to work out how this worked. My guess is that the lowest ball is a steel support structure that goes to the ground with a platform, and the lower guy is sitting on it to make sure it doesn’t tip. The middle guy is sitting on a chair made of steel and there is a brace which he rests his arm on. The person on top is a prop and is reasonably light.

I like the illusion, it’s hard to see how it works.

A few days later I came across this illusion:

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This one I can figure out, I think that the guy is standing on a platform hidden by his clothes on a pole that goes up to his arm, across to the green pole, and counter-balanced by a base on the bottom which is covered by a blanket. The whole apparatus needs to be strong which suggests that it is heavy.

Looks convincing, though.

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The wife and I are currently traveling in Germany. Before we left, I checked the weather. Since this is currently the end of April (late spring), I figured the weather may be cool.

In Seattle, it was warm the day we left, going up to 24⁰ C. By contrast, the city in Germany we were going to – Cologne – was only going to be around 12-14⁰ C. Less warm, but not so bad. The forecast was less accurate as time passed, but it seemed to be dropping.

Well, we got to Cologne and it was colder. It warmed up during the week but towards the end it started cooling down.

We left Cologne and headed to the Rhine Valley and Mosel Valley in southwest Germany where it got even colder. Below’s a picture of me overlooking one of the castle. I’m wearing all of my warm clothes but I’m still a little uncomfortable.

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Today, we headed to Frankfurt and while walking around town, it was really cold, windy, and rainy. I threw in the towel and bought another toque. The one in the picture is too thin (I lost my thicker one shortly before we left and didn’t have time to replace it).

I was prepared for cold weather. I brought a rain jacket, a heavier(ish) jacket, gloves, and a hat for my head. I also dress up in layers (I’m wearing four on my upper body in the picture). But the fact that didn’t have a warmer hat came back to haunt me. I figured that since it was later into spring I may be able to get away with it, but I was wrong.

I tested out my warmer hat today. It worked. But I hope that today is not the last day I need it.

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As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently went to Taiwan with my wife to visit her parents and extended family. And as I said in my previous post, I was really underwhelmed by the promise of “life in the cloud”.

However, there is one big advantage – when I take pictures with my phone, it syncs it to my OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) automatically; that is, whenever there is an internet connection nearby. My phone does not take pictures as good as a digital camera but I really like that it syncs without me having to transfer from the digital card.

So, here are 10 of pictures from Taiwan from my phone:

1. Me outside Din Tai Fung, one of the best dumpling places in the world. I’ve been to the one in Seattle (Bellevue) and now I can say I’ve been to the one in Taipei. If M3AAWG ever has a session in Taipei, someone should sponsor a night-out here!

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2. The fruit in Asia is better than anything in North America. This is Shakya and it is amazing!

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3. In Taitung on the southeast corner of Taiwan is a Museum of Prehistory. It is one of the best natural history museums I have been to. They used to have elephants in Taiwan, something I never knew!

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4. One of the computers I saw running Windows XP with Internet Explorer 6.

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5. One of the theories about the origins of the people populating Austronesia – the islands stretching as far west as Madagascar and as far east as Easter Island, but excluding New Guinea and Australia – is that they originally descended from Taiwan. This large head is not native to Taiwan but instead pays tribute to the Easter Islanders who may be descendants of the Taiwanese.

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6. Did you ever wonder how they grow rice? Below is a rice field. They’re all like this – slightly flooded.

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7. The Pacific coast of Taiwan.

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8. A busy street in Taichung on the west side of the island.

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9. Checking out some of the street markets in Taichung.

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10. Finally, can anyone translate what this says? The app on my phone says it means “F**k capitalism.” Is that true?

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That’s all for now, thanks for viewing.

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Time zone differences

This past week, I went to the conference in Montreal and took the wife with me. Since we live on the west coast of the United States and Montreal is in eastern Canada, that is a time zone difference of three hours further ahead.

I’ve done a couple of time zone jumps this year:

  • Late last year and coming back this past January, we returned from Argentina which was five hours ahead of Seattle.

  • We went to central Europe this year and it is nine hours ahead of Seattle.

Like anyone, when we got to either of these places, we suffered from jetlag. I don’t have any tricks to getting over it. Some people say drink plenty of water, or don’t go to sleep when you get there, or something else. I don’t do anything special, I just accept that I am going to feel tired and wait until my body catches up. It wasn’t too bad in central Europe; we felt sleepy around 9 pm but that was the extent of it. When getting home, my time shift was about 3 hours again and it took a few days to get over it.

Sure, we felt like zombies after getting there, and back, but we survived.

For this recent trip to Montreal, it’s “only” a 3-hour gap. Yet, for some reason, it was very difficult to get up in the morning. The wife announced that she was going to get up by 6:30 am or 7 am to get going by 8. That was to get a jump on things and see the city.

Well, the first day after we got there (Sunday) we got up at 9:30. Indeed, for the first three days it was tough every single day.

What’s going on?

I expect time zone drags when I make a jump that big, but I didn’t think it would take as long to adjust as it did. It was as difficult as going overseas. Indeed, I’m not sure the wife ever got over it.

It’s a week later and I’m over it now (almost). But jetlag sure is something I’d like to avoid as much as I can.

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You may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging a lot lately. That’s because I have been doing a lot of stuff at work lately. I’m usually busy from the time I get in to the time I leave and when I get home, I just don’t feel like writing because I write so much during the day.

But as a consequence of all that work, it turns out that I have several opportunities to travel.

For you see, my manager and I (mostly me) made a list of conferences that were relevant to people on my team for the year 2013. These included conferences both within North America and also abroad. As our service moves into emerging markets (especially China) we need to increase our presence there.

Typically when I go to conferences, I usually ask my manager a few weeks in advance if I can go. The exceptions are the international ones where I ask a few months before, and even then I only ask if I am presenting at the conference. This time, we had a plan – we would make a list of all the relevant conferences for our team and get approval ahead of time so we wouldn’t have to “last-minute” it.

This is very similar to what the wife does. She makes travel plans 6 months to two years in advance.

On my team (I have been fighting spam for 8.5 years), I go to the most conferences because I ask the most, and I write up in detailed emails what I learned.

However, seeing as how I made up the list of conferences, it also puts me in a good position to travel more. I am not trying to go to every single one, but I won’t deny that planning them out works to my benefit.

So without further ado, here are some I am looking at:

  1. China

    We are looking for places go to in the China (or Asia region) and I just found out that there is a relevant conference in Beijing in April.

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  2. Vienna

    There is a working group that meets three times per year, once on the west coast, once in Europe and once on the east coast. The European one this year is in Vienna in June. I’ve never been to the European one but it makes sense to go this year.

  3. Berlin

    Every year since 2009, in September or October, I have presented at a conference that alternates between Europe and North America. I have a pretty good chance of going this year but at this point, you may be looking through this list and see that I might start getting travel fatigue.

    The wife and I were planning to go to Turkey after, but due to the two above we may rethink those plans.


  4. Montreal

    As if that weren’t enough, the conference above in Vienna meets a third time this year (the first was San Francisco in February) in Montreal in late October.

These are the most relevant work opportunities I have for travel this year. It interferes with the wife’s travel plans a little bit because she was operating on the assumption that I would only go to Berlin in October. But as it turns out, it may make more sense to go to these other ones.

I won’t get to go to all of them, but at the same time, now that I’ve done my homework on them we can make better plans.

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I haven’t written that much so far in 2013. But I haven’t been idle.

No, instead I have been working on another project – launching a project on Kickstarter!

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And my app is going to be awesome! I’m combining great writing, visual aesthetics along with a solid user experience (intuitive, easy to use and never crashes). Trust me, you’ll all like it.

You see, I’ve been able to travel a fair amount in my time, especially over the past few years. I also like to write; I always have. When I was in junior high and high school, I was good at math and science but my highest grades were in Language Arts. When I go back and read some of my old journals, I am impressed by what I wrote way back then.

I decided to combine my two hobbies into an app for iOS and call it Go Somewhere. I wanted my app to have a tactile experience. Not just a website but an app where I can control how the user interacts with it.

It’s kind of like a travel book except I find that travel books have too much information. I just skim it. And they also aren’t personalized enough whereas I like to write in editorial style (the way I do on this blog).

I checked out a couple of apps in the Apple store last year and downloaded them. My favorite is National Geographic’s 50 Places of a Lifetime. I liked the way it went through and talked about all the places in the world and what was neat about them. However, I thought I could do it better:

  1. I could build a better way to navigate through the various places.
  2. The descriptions were good, but not “deep” enough. I wanted to go a bit deeper in each place. For example, for Peru, I wanted to write 6-8 things about Machu Picchu instead of National Geographic’s short blurb.
  3. I also wanted to write about interesting socio-cultural facts such as conditions that led to the downfall of the Incas. Education + Entertainment.
  4. I wanted my writing style to be funnier (you know, like the knee-slapper that is this blog).

I found a couple of other apps like Amazing Earth and Beautiful Planet. The pictures in them are good but the descriptions are too short.

The above icon represents the spirit of Go Somewhere: a silhouette looking out into the background. Where do I (that is, you) want to go next?

The below is the splash screen when you open the app:

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You can navigate through the app with a bunch of countries and places using a map:

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I’m not going to go through the full set of features because you can read about it at the Kickstarter link for Go Somewhere.

I’ve designed most of the app and written or edited all of the little blurbs (so far over 400, with two more places to go before launch, and two more to come by the end of the year). However, I outsourced the development and I didn’t get the quality I needed so I’ve decided to start over.

I’ve gotten some other quotes and they are expensive. I can’t keep putting more money into this without a good understanding of whether or not I’ll see a return (my wife wouldn’t stand for it). So to that end, I’m getting funding on Kickstarter!

Or trying to, anyhow.

I figure this represents a good proxy for whether or not there’d be any demand. If I can raise funds to develop a polished app, then I figure there’s a good chance that this will “sell” (that is, be downloaded. The app is free with some free content and you can purchase to unlock additional content for a low, low price).

Looking out New Zealand

 

So check out Go Somewhere on Kickstarter! And if you feel like it, kick in a little bit of money.

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Hanging around Buenos Aires

For the last bit of December 2012 and the first part of January 2013, the wife and I were traveling in Argentina and Chile in Patagonia, the southern part of the country. The final two days were spent in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina.

I didn’t have many expectations of the place before I got there, I just knew that it was a large city (11 million, one of the top three in South America depending on how you count it, after Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo). But the city is amazing!

Buenos Aires is like a European city with the ridiculous expense of Europe (i.e., everything costs almost double what it costs in North America). Instead, the costs in Buenos Aires are slightly less than North America for some things (restaurants) and much less for others (hostels and the subway).

To give you an idea of the architecture, below is the Casa Rosada which is where the main parliament of the country takes place. It’s located in Plaza de Mayo (that’s may be wrong but I can’t be bothered to look it up right now) which is the main political square of the country, where mass protests regularly take place. There are tours during the day on weekends but since we were there on a Friday, we couldn’t go inside.

The statues in front like this is reminiscent of Spain or Italy:

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Another section of the city houses the Palacio de las Aguas Corrientes (literally: Palace of Water Flows, according to Bing Translator). For some reason, at first I thought it was called Palacio de las Aguas Calientes, or Hot Water Palace. That made me think it was an engineering facility for the city’s water flow.

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I was thinking to myself “Man, that is the nicest public works building in history! Nothing even comes close to it!” It was only later that I discovered my pronunciation was wrong and that it is now a museum. But according to Wikipedia, it originally was built to accommodate supply tanks of running water for the city in the late 19th century.

I don’t know if the story is true or not, but one of the locals told us that the building was designed in Belgium and shipped to Buenos Aires where it was reconstructed locally. If so, that’s amazing. And a lot of effort.

Whenever I’m in South America (and Europe), I like to check out the Catholic churches. I do it because the architecture and art within them is so much nicer than in Protestant churches in the United States and Canada. I may not be Catholic but their churches are way nicer everywhere in the world. Even the Church of England buildings in the UK, which are very nice (Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral) were originally Catholic.

This church is located near the Casa Rosada on the other side of the square. In the picture below you can see me waltzing around acting like such a tourist, snapping photos:

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But my favorite part of the city’s various amusements is the Necropolis – the Recoleta Cemetery. It is a huge square encompassed by high walls and takes up many city blocks. Inside are large graves belonging to very important people within the city – presidents, generals, nobles, and high ranking officials. It takes forever to walk around the place:

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If you’re not thinking “Wow, some of those graves are pretty big!” you should be. I calculated that a few of them were larger than our two-bedroom condos.

And many of them were nicer than our two-bedroom condos. How is it possible that dead people have a better place to live than me?

Along the way I found a lazy cat just kind of lying around. Unlike my cat at home, this one was pretty skinny:

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It took us two days to walk around Buenos Aires and we probably could have easily spent a couple more. It was very hot those two days and that contributed to draining us of energy.

But I liked the city.

And that’s my story of our time sightseeing in Buenos Aires.

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One of the places on my list to visit is the coldest, driest, most desolate place on earth.

No, not Winnipeg.

Antarctica!

It’s that place at the bottom of the world that looks like a sting ray:

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Why would I want to go to Antarctica? There’s nothing there except snow and ice! If I wanted that, I could just go to… Winnipeg.

Well, there’s a couple of reasons:

  1. I want to hit up all the continents – I want to visit every continent in the world. So far, I’ve only hit five. If I want to do them all, I have to hit up the most remote one.

  2. It’s very remote – It’s a badge of honor visit there because nobody does it. Getting there is tough but to say you’ve done it, it’s impressive. People go on Mediterranean cruises all the time. How many do Antarctic cruises?

  3. It is pristine – It’s one of those places that is mostly untouched by humans. You can learn a lot about the health of the planet by going there.

  4. There’s stuff to see – If you want to see the biggest penguins in the world, you need to go to Antarctica. It’s a very scientific journey.

Those are the reasons why. It’s hard to verbalize, but my plan is to go there in January or February 2017 which is the only time of the year that is suitable for regular people to visit. No way I’m going there in the winter when it’s –50 degrees. At least in summer we have a chance of getting above freezing.

What am I going to do when I’m down there? I have no idea. But I’m sure it’ll be an experience of a lifetime. If you wish, you’re welcome to come along. Bet start saving up now, I estimate that it’ll cost about $10,000 US.

It’ll be fun!

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Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken more than my fair share of holidays from work (the wife has dragged me around to various places). Yet I still seem to have days left over. How did I do it?

I started going through my head of all the time off I’ve taken from work. I thought back to a strategy I implemented years ago – carrying time over from the previous year.

You see, when I first moved to the US in September 2007, I never took any holidays during the next one year. That way, whenever I took a day off, I was using the previous year’s vacation so I could build up days in reserve, just in case I needed them.

And as it turns out, I have needed them – in 2011 and in 2012. But because I’ve been at Microsoft so so long, I now earn an extra week. So, I’m able to creatively schedule days off and use up my reserves.

Turns out that my build-up-in-reserve strategy paid off, just like I thought it would.  I thought ahead even when I didn’t have a particular plan.

Not bad, I’d say.

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I’m currently traveling in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada.  When I was a kid, my parents frequently took us west to Kelowna, BC, and we would drive through the Rockies.

At the time, I didn’t really understand the significance of the geography of the drive west. I knew three things:

  1. It was a long drive.

  2. There were waterslides in Kelowna.

  3. The relatives we stayed with in Kelowna were vegetarians and they all lived a long time. Seriously, many of them lived to be 100 years old! The fact that they were so long lived did not convince me to give up meat, though.

My father always liked driving through the mountains, but as a kid the scenery was lost on me. I didn’t like driving through them because heights bothered me. Peering out over the railway made me think of us losing control of the car and crashing down into the cliffs below.  Now that I’m older… I still have that fear (I dislike heights even more since my accident in Fiji) but the roads in BC are not like I remember. There are railings on the side of the road and the drops don’t seem so steep.

Anyhow, today the wife and I visited Grotto Canyon near the city of Canmore, Alberta. Grotto Canyon is significant because:

  1. The hike up the canyon is relatively short and flat, which is perfect for the wife since she’s injured (a year ago this would have been fine for me but now it’s too easy).

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  2. There are pictographs drawn on the side of the wall down in the canyon.

Pictographs are drawings done by the native Aboriginal people several hundred years ago. This distinguishes them from petroglyphs which are carvings in the rock – examples include the carvings that the Mayans did. To differentiate these terms quickly, I think of pictographs as graphics – you draw graphics on a piece of paper (or similar). The point is that they are drawn. This means that glyphs are carved.

Anyhow, Grotto Canyon has interesting rock formations, formed over millions of years but carved out by rivers.  You can see the little slots in the side, but also the varying colors of the sides of the canyon:

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While walking through it, we wondered if the place ever got flash floods? If so, we’d have no where to go:

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We got near the end of the canyon and saw even more interesting rock formations. You can see the limestone (I think) and silt. These rocks are squished down over millions of years, and then uplifted as the earth’s crust shifts and heaves.

You can clearly see the layers in the picture below.

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But while we saw the layers of rock, we also wondered where the pictographs were. Another couple of guys informed us of where they were and apparently we walked right by them. There was a large overhanging tree, and there were rock piles that clearly marked where they were:

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Below are not natural rock formations, someone put it there like that to alert people to where the glyphs are:

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We found these on the way back, but for the life of us we could not figure out where these pictographs were. We looked on the rocks and saw little doodles, but those just turns out to be cracks in the wall.

The wife and I looked and looked and looked… and finally gave up.  The wife was starting to walk back and I figured I would just take a random picture of the wall where those drawings were supposed to be.  Maybe when I got back and looked at the pictures I might be able to “Where’s Waldo” them.

And that’s when it happened.

I looked in the viewfinder and saw the wall. I then saw red smudges on the wall:

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“What the—?” I said. I squinted. Those were the pictographs! They were right in front of us the entire time!!  I must have looked at that spot on the wall five times. It was only when I was about to give up and take my last-ditch effort picture that I saw them (kind of like a magic eye puzzle). I excitedly called to the wife “I found them! I found them!”

You could be forgiven for walking right by them, they just look like smudges unless you know what you are looking for.  Unfortunately the red pictographs are fading and they are difficult to see, but you can still make it out.

Below are three figures with their arms extended to the side:

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I think this next one is a bison:

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This next one is the clearest, it’s clearly half a man (?) with his right arm extended. Unfortunately, his left arm has faded away.

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Below is another pictograph, unfortunately I have no idea what it is supposed to be.

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Seeing this now as an adult, I think these are really cool. As a kid, I’m not sure what I would have thought but I probably would have been unimpressed. I would have thought “Well, I guess it’s neat but compared to the computer graphics of today, what’s the big deal? Why do I care about the past?”

Fast forward to today, I care a great deal about the past. I have an amateur interest in archaeology and I enjoy visiting monuments. These drawings are a big deal because they teach us about how people used to live. As a kid, I learned about it in school in my textbook. I didn’t realize that someone had to write those textbooks and they relied upon clues like this in order to create those textbooks.

Now that I understand technology, I have a much greater appreciation of how people lived before modern technology existed (I’m not as impressed by computer technology as I was a decade ago). Creating these drawings was a big deal for these people. We take for granted things like books and Kindles. People back then didn’t have them, they instead spent a lot of time foraging for food. Why should people leave cave drawings at all?

I guess now I just like learning about cultures other than my own, especially ancient cultures.

And that’s the story of the time the wife and I went to Grotto Canyon and saw the pictographs.

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It’s been a while since I wrote about our trip to Bali, Indonesia, but I’m not yet finished writing about it.

While we were staying in the town of Ubud, the first few days we stayed in a hotel that we had to walk to down a long alley of about 500 feet.  It was a very narrow alley, so narrow that if you drove down it in an SUV, you couldn’t open the doors on either side.  How the drivers manage to get in there without scratching their vehicles is a mystery to me.

However, the last part of the week we stayed in a private house a bit further away.  It belonged to a lady who lives in the US most of the year and rents it out to travelers like us when she isn’t using it.

This was a really nice place but you had to exercise to get there.  The house was at the bottom of a hill and to get to it, you had to walk up 100 steps.  I know how many steps it was because I counted.  We tried not to come and go too often because from house to street level was at least a 5 minute journey each way.

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Along the walk there, we passed by several other houses.  The most interesting one was the place with stone Hindu sculptures outside of it, no doubt belonging to another wealthy westerner.

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This place was a risky location to stay because it was located next to a rice field. The wife would sometimes get hungry and try to eat the crops:

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But on to the house itself!  It was private amongst the trees, although we had neighbors that were located about 100 feet away.

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You can see the porch in front of the house in the picture below.

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This house had many of the things you associate with a tropical resort: outdoor facilities, a hammock and a private swimming pool filled with somewhat cold water:

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Here’s a picture of me just kind of lounging in the morning, fiddling on my phone which was connected to the wifi:

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The inside was nice, too.  It had two floors: a bedroom upstairs with a balcony (which is where the hammock was), a porch downstairs (which is where I am in the picture above), and kitchen facilities.  We would often walk the 10 minutes to the grocery store, excluding the time it took to get from the house to the street, to stock up on supplies and then walk back to the house (up the stairs) where we’d make our own food.

Downstairs, the kitchen is on the right (you can see a water jug covered in a cloth):

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Upstairs bedroom:

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But the most interesting part of the house was the bathroom; it wasn’t indoors.  It was an outdoor bathroom!

Now before you curl your lips in disgust, it was a private bathroom.  I went out there and looked around, it was covered from almost all angles.  Looking from pretty much any building you couldn’t see anything.  Here’s a view looking at the sink:

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The big white stone thing on the right is the sink.  You turn a faucet and water comes out.  If you turn it the wrong way, water sprays out at you and soaks you.  I did that five times.

Do you see the little head carving of at the top in the middle of the picture?  That’s the shower faucet.  Above you is nothing.  No roof, no doors, you are completely exposed.  But as I said before, it is covered from almost all angles because the walls are high enough to block anyone’s view and your neighbors are far away.  The only real risk are if someone walks into the bathroom, or Google Earth satellites taking your picture from 155 miles above the planet.  But it’s still a little weird standing stark naked in the outdoors having a shower where you feel like the whole world can see you.

The toilet is around the corner, to the right of that tree.  There is a screen in front of it so you are only exposed from one side.  In fact, from the shower, you can’t even see the toilet and vice versa.

The picture below is the outdoor bathtub taken just in front of the screen which is just in front of the toilet.  We never used this (I’m not sure I want to sit in a stone tub outdoors) but it was interesting nonetheless.

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All in all, this was a neat experience.  Even though it costs more than a regular hotel (although not a 5-star hotel) I recommend that people try the private dwelling.  It’s quiet and it’s almost like living at home, except you’re on vacation!

And that’s where we stayed in Bali.

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Several years ago, I stumbled across the webpage wherethehellismatt.com, created by Seattle resident Matt Harding.  It’s a video of a guy who traveled around the world doing a silly dance.  It’s entertaining because he does it in random places and sometimes random people join in.  It’s very inspirational.  It inspired me to do my own dancing videos: once around Australia and Fiji, once around every building at the Microsoft campus around Puget Sound, and once around the world.

Dancing Matt did his original video in 2003, and then followed it up with another one in 2006 and a third one in 2008.  Since then, he has gotten married and had a kid, but during that time he was working on a fourth dancing video around the world.  This one is his most ambitious one as in it, he does actual dancing moves rather than his crazy jig.

Anyhow, check it out.  You can view it below:

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