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July 28, 2005

Gone Cruising

I know I've been blogging pretty regularly for the past week or so, but that's about to stop for a week as we head off tomorrow on a six-day cruise up the Norwegian coast, all the way up above the Arctic Circle, to Kirkenes. According to the cruise company's website, there's no Internet connectivity on board the ship we'll be taking.

Comment approvals and blog additions will resume once I'm back online again.

Idyllic Ulvik

I wrote a couple of days ago that we were "holed up" in a hotel in Oslo, and the choice of words was pretty apt. The room was tiny, and simple in the extreme, though admittedly clean and secure. The hotel was a half block off of Karl Johansgate, the main pedestrian thoroughfare near the Oslo central train station, so you couldn't really fault it on location, but it was a real step down from the Grand Marina in Helsinki.

Last night, however, was different. After a two-bus trip from Flåm, we ended up at the Rica Brakanes Hotel in Ulvik, at the northern end of a finger of the deservedly well-known Hardanger Fjord.

Check out the photos. The fjord view from our hotel was just transportingly beautiful, carrying us away from all of the hustle and bustle it had taken us to get there. Oh my, what a pretty place, and we only get to spend one night there! What a crime!

Ulvik itself is small and comfortable, fun to wander around in, and completely surrounded by this transcendently beauty. In the winter, we're told, there's a lot of rain, sometimes turning to snow, and everything is very dark and depressing. But in the summer, it's a perfectly lovely place to while away some hours, or days, and leave the nasty real world behind.

NOK, NOK: Kroners are a Queer Currency

Finland uses the European Union's common currency, the "euro", and that's pretty easy for Americans to get used to. Right now, the exchange rate is about 1.2 dollars to the euro, so you can get along OK thinking of the prices as being like ones in the US, but more expensive. Norway isn't a member of the EU, so of course it's still using its own currency, the kroner. There are currently about 6.5 kroner to the dollar, and that's much trickier for us. I'm constantly trying to divide by six (conservatively, to round up the rate), and the arithmetic isn't helped by the fact that food prices are unexpectedly high here. A packaged chocolate muffin is 23 kroner (over $3.50), a slice of cake in the hotel lobby is 55 kroner (almost $8.50), and a chicken entree at a mid-range Oslo cafe is 190 kroner ($29.25)!

The really odd thing about the Norwegian kroner, however, is not the exchange rate itself, but what that implies about prices. With a single kroner worth about 15 cents, it makes sense that most products are priced as an integral number of kroner. Indeed, the smallest Norwegian coin is the copper half-kroner. Grocery stores, though, like more precision than that coin can afford, so they still price everything in units of a tenth of a kroner (e.g, 24.90, 8.30, etc.). So what happens when you get to the checkout stand and the total comes up as 75.70 kroner? How do you pay that last 0.20 kroner when the smallest coin is 0.50? Simple. The cash registers automatically round all totals to the nearest half-kroner. Sometimes you win a few tenths of a kroner, and sometimes you lose, but always the grocery pricers get their illusion of fine-grained control.

Scenic, and Not-So-Scenic, Routes

The Wikitravel article on Oslo describes the Oslo-to-Bergen rail trip as "the most beautiful train journey in the world". We didn't take it the whole way to Bergen, getting off instead in Myrdal, but what we saw was indeed pretty nice.

Initially, on leaving Oslo, we just had the more prosaic beauty of the Oslo suburbs, with lots of greenery on the hillsides surrounding the loosely packed houses. As we got further out, though, the scene became dominated by Norway's seemingly endless supply of trees, densely whipping past the train windows. Every once in a while, through a break in the trees, we'd see lakes. And such lakes! The worst of them was picturesque, and the best were breathtakingly beautiful. As we headed up into the hills and mountains, the highlights shifted. There were still many gorgeous lakes, but now there were also waterfalls. Lots of them. Sometimes small or far away, sometimes right next to the tracks. By this time of the summer, of course, the flow was much lower than it would have been in late spring, during the height of the snowmelt, but that didn't dampen our enjoyment.

As I said, we left that train in Myrdal, to transfer to the wonderful Flåm Railway, established in the early 20th century to provide a link from the Oslo-to-Bergen rail route down to one of the fingers of Sognefjord, and the village of Flåm. Over the course of one hour and 20 kilometers, this train drops from 865 meters above sea level down to just two, in Flåm. At one point, we entered a very unusual switchback, with the tracks leading us into a sharp U-turn entirely within the bulk of the mountain: you enter going one way, with the view on the right, and exit again a few minutes later going the other way, with the view now on the left. It's a pretty weird feeling.

There is a brief stop a bit later at Kjosfossen, easily the most exhilarating waterfall I've ever seen. The railway platform / observation deck there brings you right up to the falls, maybe 10-20 meters away, close enough that the spray from the water's impact on the rocks regularly washes over the viewers, giving you a real sense of its mighty presence.

Kathleen had visited Flåm before, some 25 years ago, and she was dismayed to see how touristy it had become over that time. Her memories were all of brightly painted cottages, each with its window box of geraniums. Some of the cottages are still there, but many have been replaced by newer houses, and the village is now a tourist hub, with fjord cruises, buses, trains, and gift shops dominating the scene. Some friends of ours had stayed in a waterfront cottage in Flåm a few years ago, and loved it, but their stories hadn't prepared us for what we saw.

The bus trip from Flåm to Voss isn't mentioned in Wikitravel, but the first part of it would surely rate pretty high in the ranks of least beautiful routes. We spent 18 of the first 20 minutes of that trip underground, in two different tunnels, each extremely long by American standards; I think one of them was something like 15 kilometers long! Ever the optimist, I tried to find something of interest in the tunnels (aside from their mind-numbing eternity), and I succeeded, noticing that Norwegian auto tunnels show the raw rock, exactly as it was blasted or picked or dug or whatever. Unlike American tunnels, with their geometrically regular wall sections and lighting, Norwegian tunnels display their violent origins, roughmade wounds through the stony flesh of a mountain.

July 26, 2005

Passing through Oslo

We flew from Helsinki to Oslo this evening and are holed up in a simple hotel a couple of blocks from the central train station here. Tomorrow morning, we have an 8:11am train reservation to start our two-day "pre-excursion" overland across Norway to Bergen. We'll be taking two trains, a ferry, and a couple of buses to pass through Flåm, Ulvik, and Hardanger Fjord on the way there. We'll then get a day of sightseeing in Berger before boarding a cruise ship for a six-day trip up the Norwegian coast, almost to the Russian border. Woo-hoo!

On the flight here from Helsinki, there was a packet of sugar in the napkin-and-fork bag with our airline snack. Written on the packet was the following:

     Imagine if it snowed sugar
     It would still look like snow,
     but a lot more people
     would be eating out


July 25, 2005

IPP 25 Puzzle Exchange

Last Saturday, we held one of the three central events of the annual International Puzzle Party here in Helsinki, the Edward Hordern Puzzle Exchange. This is, in many ways, the most highly anticipated event of the party, with most participants beginning to prepare for it starting back in December, if not earlier. This year, we had 91 people taking part in the Exchange, out of about 170 puzzlers attending the party overall.

The Exchange was scheduled to begin at 10am, and we got access to the hall, to prepare, starting at 9:30. Tables had been laid out in long lines across the room, one table and two chairs per exchanger (one chair for each puzzle's presenter, and one for their assistant, if any). Every table had an exchanger's nametag on it, and there was a schematic map at the entrance, to make it easier to find your station. On the stage at the front of the hall, there was another, shorter, line of empty tables, intended to hold samples of all of the exchange puzzles.

At my table, my assistant Michael Powell and I got to work unpacking the big box I'd brought in containing the puzzles I'd had made back home and then shipped ahead of me to Helsinki. We needed to work somewhat quickly, because I'd discovered the previous day that, during shipping, the sharp laser-cut edges of the puzzle trays had rubbed against one another, slicing many of their zip-loc bags into ribbons. We had to check every single bag and, in half or more of the cases, remove the puzzle and repack it into a new bag, purchased the previous day, with some effort, at a Finnish supermarket. (Do you know the Finnish word for "zip-loc"? Me neither.)

By 9:55 or so, we were ready, with one copy of my puzzle tagged and arranged on the samples table, and the other 91 (including one as a thank-you gift for Michael) stacked neatly in front of us on my table. Michael had our exchange checklist ready; all that remained was to wait for the signal to begin.

The Exchange is a heavily tradition-laden event that grew out of an ad-hoc practice at the earliest puzzle parties. Several of those early invitees brought little puzzle gifts for everyone else and handed them out. As the party grew, over the years, the Exchange was formalized and the key rules were set down. First, not every attendee at the party need take part in the Exchange; it's strictly voluntary, and only allowed for people who've been to at least one party previously. Second, every participant must bring many copies of the same puzzle, one for each other participant and one for the samples table; many people bring more, to offer for sale or trade at the official "Puzzle Party" the next day. Third, all Exchange puzzles must be original, never available before the day of the Exchange. Fourth, and most ambiguously, these must be high quality mechanical puzzles; paper-and-pencil puzzles, like crosswords, and jigsaw puzzles are not included. (The term "high quality" is intended to refer to the puzzle-solving experience, not necessarily to the materials or craftsmanship; in particular, "high quality" does not necessarily imply "high cost".)

At about 10:02am, this year's IPP host Tomas Lindén stepped up to the microphone and gave the signal: the 2005 Exchange was under way.

Over the course of the next five hours, Michael and I walked around the hall, meeting each of the other 90 exchangers, chatting a little bit, describing our puzzles to each other, and finally exchanging them. From time to time, Michael would carry the puzzles we'd received back to my own table and pick up another armload of my puzzles to give away. Since my table this year was off in a back corner of the room, we had a lot more success finding new exchangers by walking around the room ourselves. We tried a few times going back to my table and waiting for others to come to us, but with only marginal results.

By the end of the five hours, we'd checked off everyone on our list and Michael had packed up all of my swag in the boxes I'd brought. Another Exchange had come to an end.

I haven't had a chance yet to really take stock of the puzzles I received this year. There's always a few disappointing ones, and usually some pretty special ones, and I don't expect this year to be any different. I've already solved a few of them (an amusingly misleading tray-packing puzzle, a simple "Finnish thematic" tray puzzle, a level 7-3 three-piece burr, and a 39-move sliding block puzzle), and I've brought a few more with us on our trip to Norway, but the big review will have to wait until we and the boxes I shipped both arrive back home in the States.

What a cool thing to look forward to!

July 22, 2005

Travelling the Wiki Way

Shortly before we left for Helsinki, I rediscovered wikis. In particular, although I'd heard about Wikipedia pretty early on, I hadn't really paid much attention to it until something induced me to go see if anything had been written up there about the London bombings. I was amazed and impressed at the depth of the article there, even just a few days after the event itself.

A link from that article, I think, led me to discover WikiNews, a wiki-based news-coverage site. This is, in some ways, an even more ambitious effort than the Wikipedia, aiming to provide wide-ranging news coverage in as timely a fashion as any of the big commercial outfits. I found it particularly fascinating to page through the early revisions of the first London bombings article, and see preserved there the process of slow realization going on around the world at the time.

While bouncing around between those two wikis, I ended up typing the word "wiki" into the address bar of my browser a bunch, and as usual, IE kept offering me completions for that text based on the URLs of recently visited pages. At some point, I noticed that the top completion offered was for "http://www.wikitravel.org/en/Ashland_(Oregon)", which I must have visited at some point via a Google search for Ashland wireless hotspots.

I didn't remember noticing when I did the search that I'd turned up a wiki-based online travel guide, but there it was, large as life. Now, in my newly wiki-wakened state, I found the idea intriguing. Wikitravel aims to produce high-quality online travel content, suitable for (and available for) republication in paper-based guides (in addition, of course, to use as-is online).

In preparation for our Helsinki trip, and almost constantly while we've been here, I've been making use of, and contributing updates to, the Wikitravel Helsinki article. Its restaurant recommendations, getting-around information, etc., has been invaluable, especially because we forgot to bring along the paper guide we originally bought for this purpose.

Like many of the articles in Wikitravel, most of the content already there was written by locals, not by actual travellers. This is evident from the some of the choices of content, and from the point of view of the authors. This is not a hit against Wikitravel, just an observation. Certainly, there's much to be gained by a traveller from a resident's local knowledge. Of course, the wonderful thing about a wiki is that it makes it so easy to augment what the locals have written with the traveller's on-the-ground experience, and that's what I've been doing.

I've enjoyed contributing to the Wikitravel Helsinki page, adding information about airport shuttles, more detailed restaurant descriptions, updated taxi fares, etc. I can tell from my own experience that this is work that'll be useful to future travellers, and there's a great feeling of balance, giving back to the very resource that has helped us out in visiting here.

Like blogs and MUDs, wikis provide what Amy Bruckman called an "authentic context for writing", so widely lacking in the pre-Internet age. Certainly I'm enjoying it, anyway.

July 19, 2005

Fighting off jet lag

With ten hours of jet lag to work through, one turns to less demanding tourist activities. Yesterday, Kathleen and I exerted ourselves to the extent of walking through the main Helsinki open-air market on our way to meet a tour bus; even just that almost completely wore us out.

The market, located right on the waterfront near a lot of tour boats of various kinds, breaks down into two specialties. First, there are a lot of booths selling both reasonable-quality local crafts and the usual run of tourist souvenirs, with even the latter having a reassuringly local flavor. Many of the craft booths sell furs and clothing made from furs, even now, in the summer heat and humidity. (It was in the mid-seventies yesterday, but has hit the mid-eighties recently, we're told.)

The second specialty of the market is local produce, and there's a lot of it. Particularly ubiquitous right now is berries and cherries, and it all looks very yummy. Kathleen picked up some wild strawberries that were so tiny, I'd assumed they would be sour, but no, no, really, they're just fine. Also ubiquitous are fresh peas, still in their pods, great huge mounds of them. There are people everywhere eating them, tourists and locals alike, some without even removing them from the

The tour bus had been recommended to us by Expedia when we bought our plane tickets. It's focused on Finland's Art Nouveau period, around the turn of the 20th century. We first drove to Hvitträsk, the home of the architects Eliel Saarinen, Herman Gesellius, and Armas Lindgren. Everything man-made on the grounds was designed by the residents, from the buildings and gardens to the furniture, fixtures, decorations, and textiles. The museum there only really covers the Saarinens' portion of the main house, but that's a lot of fun to see. (Kathleen took a lot of pictures that I've used as an excuse to try out Flickr.)

The tour's other stop was Ainola, the home of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and his wife, Aino (after whom the house is named). Overall, this was much less interesting than Hvitträsk, but I still snapped a couple of pictures.

Fortunately, this kind of tour doesn't involve a great deal of walking or other exercise, because by this time, Kathleen and I were nearly asleep on our feet. After returning to downtown Helsinki, we barely had enough energy to buy and consume a couple of pretty good ice cream cones before making our way back to the hotel to crash.

The jet lag has been getting better today, though.

July 18, 2005

Travel Trials

I enjoy travel, really I do. That is to say, I enjoy being in interesting new places, seeing new things, and meeting people of new cultures. It's the getting there I'm less keen on.

Our flight to Helsinki was the expected interminable sardine experience, with a brief episode of liberty in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, some people whose luggage was checked through failed to check in to the next flight, so our take-off was delayed almost an hour. Naturally, that was an added hour of sardine time, not liberty time. Overall, we left Seattle at about 1:30pm on Sunday and arrived here in Helsinki at about 1:30pm on Monday, essentially losing a full calendar day in fishy fermentation.

But I'm not bitter.

I did make one interesting observation during the trip, though. The bathrooms on our flight to Amsterdam had a feature I've never encountered before, and now I have to wonder why not. There was a tall, thin, cylindrical compartment alongside the door, with a tall, thin, spring-loaded door at the top, labelled with a picture of a hypodermic needle. It's clearly intended to allow diabetics a place to safely dispose of their insulin injectors, which is so obviously a great idea.

Now I'm curious, though: how do diabetics (and other regular hypo users) usually dispose of their used equipment when such a handy option isn't available? Or maybe that's something I don't actually want to know...

Hello from Helsinki!

I'm writing this from my hotel room in Helsinki, at about 5:00am local time. Kathleen and I arrived yesterday afternoon and, of course, the ten-hour jet lag is causing a little sleep-cycle disruption.

We're here for the 25th annual International Puzzle Party (IPP), an invitational gathering of serious collectors of mechanical puzzles. The definition of "serious" is pretty vague, but is intended to exclude the merely curious. (Though, as anyone here would admit, there are a number of pretty curious people here nonetheless.) To give you a sense of how serious "serious" can be, though, my collection of 600-700 puzzles is well down at the low end of the size distribution. There are many people here with several thousand puzzles, and a few amazing collections of 25,000 or 30,000 puzzles or more, some dating as far back as the 13th century. Believe me, Kathleen's getting off easy in the "whacko spouse" department (as least as regards collections).

The party location rotates every three years among Europe, the United States, and Asia. There will probably be around 200 collectors here, many with their families, from 25-30 countries all over the world.

The party doesn't actually start for a few more days yet, but we decided to come early to give ourselves extra time to explore the area and to get over our jet lag. To our inexplicable surprise, several other folks had the same idea, so the puzzle conversations have already started echoing around the lobby here.

I hope to be posting pretty actively for the next while, so keep checking back for more on Helsinki, puzzles, and Norwegian coastal cruises!

July 11, 2005

There's Something You Don't See Every Day...

Seen while checking on the UPS delivery of a package of mine...


July 04, 2005

Amazing Orbital Imaging from Mars

I read this BBC article on Martian orbital imaging quite some time ago, but haven't gotten around to blogging about it until now.

The coolest thing for me is not actually the point of the article, that scientist Michael Malin and his team may have identified, from images captured by the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor, the spot (literally!) where the Mars Polar Lander crashed to the ground.

Nor is it the coolest thing that Dr. Malin's team has identified from orbit the discarded parachute on which Mars Rover "Spirit" descended to the surface. Indeed, the coolest thing also isn't their identification on the surface of either the so-called "backshield" that protected the rover during atmospheric entry or the rover itself.

To understand how cool the coolest thing actually is, you have to remember how the rovers actually reached the surface: after riding the parachute down for the majority of the trip from orbit, the rover inflated a whole bunch of very tough balloons around itself and then let go of the parachute!

You see, the very coolest thing the Malin team has identified from orbit is the marks on the surface made by the rover as it bounced several times before settling down.

Well, I think it's pretty darned cool, anyway.

July 01, 2005

Recently Added RSS Feeds

I'm completely in love with RSS ("really simple syndication") and my RSS reader, IntraVnews. Now I can track lots of different blogs and other news sources, even really sporadic ones (like this blog) without having to surf all over the place checking on them. I'm just too lazy to want to do that.

Here's a few of my most recently added feeds:

Lindsay Staniforth is a Canadian woodworker and jewelry designer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. Her blog, though only rarely active, offers a nice view behind the scenes of a creative craftsperson. She has a lot in common with my friend Melissa, who's also a woodworker and jewelry designer. Unfortunately, Melissa doesn't yet have a blog...

An acquaintance from my LambdaMOO days, Lynn Cherny, writes Ghostweather Shortform, a fun and eclectic miscellany of short pieces on technology, travel, photography, recent events, and anything else that strikes her fancy.

Meryl Getline is a airline pilot for United Airlines who writes a roughly weekly Q&A column for USA Today, called Ask the Captain, in which she answers all sorts of questions about aircraft and flying. For example, what's that hole at the back of an airplane, how do planes stop so quickly after landing, and how much does a plane fly itself? Captain Getline also has a personal blog, but I didn't find that quite as interesting. (Thanks to Lilly "Girlhacker" Tao for this one!)

Finally, I just learned about PostSecret, an online confessional blog with a cute difference: all confessions must be mailed, via US Mail, on a homemade postcard. The editors then scan that in and post it on the site. Most of the cards resemble ransom notes, but the confessions and the creativity of the authors are genuine and, I find, captivating. I'm a little concerned that the volume may be too much for me to keep up with via RSS, but I'm grateful to the New York Times technology feed for pointing it out.

Things I Couldn't Have Made Up

Two recently encountered items I wish I was creative enough to have made up but that are, amusingly, true. First, from the community bulletin board at an Ashland Safeway:

To help raise awareness of prostate cancer ... we will be sponsoring a "world's cutest baby" contest.

Of course. Naturally. What else?

And from the Ashland Daily Tidings classified ads:

ROOSTER found in back yard. Please call.

Pretty please?