convict lake chickpeas

A couple years ago, a friend and I did a hiking trip of the John Muir Trail in eastern California; the trail is 210 miles, from Yosemite in the north to Mt. Whitney, tallest point in the lower 48, in the south. We originally specced it as a full month, August of 2008, right after I (was supposed to have) graduated and right before she started grad school at the University of Washington, though I ended up punting about halfway through and hitching down to Fresno because of problems with my ankle. Anyhow because commercial backpacking fare is uninspiring as food goes, and often doesn't provide enough calories for the level of activity you're doing, my friend put together a nice variety of meals and dried them, and we ate them happily for the trip. (After our first three days, I bought a salt shaker in Tuolomne Meadows, because we were sweating enough that we needed it. Later on we started adding Crisco to them to bulk up the fat and calories, and I still felt a bit hungry for most of the trip, but they were better by far, and packed lighter and tighter, than anything commercial.) After the trip, I got the recipes from her, and then life happened, and it was only in the past few months that I've started to work them into my home cooking.

The first one such (and only so far) is what my hiking partner called Convict Lake Chickpeas (link for recipe), a simple stewed combination of chickpeas and tomatoes. It is, among other things, vegan, and gluten-free if you make it with quinoa as I do.

Crappy cameraphone picture!

The original recipe was, in its entirety,

2 servings:
2/3 can chickpeas
2/3 can tomatoes
2 tbsp dried onions
1.5 cups couscous

(combine all but couscous, cook couscous separately)

So you can see that I have expanded and elaborated on it slightly. It's simple, fast, and tasty and gives lots of room for experimentation if you want it. I tend to find a whole can each chickpeas and tomatoes makes two days' food for a mostly sedentary coder who tends to eat only one non-breakfast meal a day. It is also excellent cold and/or used as a topping for crackers, which is good since it's summer here in Boston, we have no AC, and cold food is significantly more palatable during the heat of the day.

international travel tips

As promised in my last post on this topic, here are some of the tips I picked up for traveling internationally. (You may feel free to read this as “mistakes Kevin made, so you can avoid them,” because that’s mostly accurate.) Without further ado…

  • If you are planning on using your US GSM phone internationally, you should unlock your phone before you leave the States. When in Iceland, I was pleased to discover that my provider, T-Mobile, will provide you with the unlock code for your phone if you just ask. The catch: you need to call T-Mobile. On your phone. You know, the one that doesn’t work in this country. Because it’s locked. Catch-22! I ended up finding a café with free WiFi and using Skype to call T-Mobile and get them to send me the unlock code, which worked, but I don’t recommend it. (Call center agent: “Is there a number I can call you back on?” Me: “…”)
  • VoIP software has been a huge lifesaver for me a couple times when my phone has been dead or otherwise out of commission, so you should find one you like, have it installed on your travel computer, and have credits on it as an Nth-level backup. You should also probably have it installed on your phone for use on WiFi, if your phone supports it. I’ve been happy with Skype. I’ve also had decent luck with Gizmo5, but since they got bought by Google they’ve been in the standard Google post-acquisition signup-freeze hell for going on a year now.
  • While in Iceland, I bought a Vodafone SIM for my phone which I believed would provide me with 3G data, but I could only get voice and SMS to work. I’m not quite sure what was wrong, and I’d be curious to hear other people’s experiences with getting data or not while traveling.
  • An aside: Why do you want to purchase a local SIM or a local prepaid phone while traveling? Because your cell phone provider will charge you frankly outrageous prices for international roaming voice and data. Like, $500 bill outrageous. I expect that this will change eventually, as soon as one of the providers gives it up in an attempt to get an edge on the others (cf. the ridiculous overage charges cell phone providers were charging in the early days of their mainstream popularity), but for the moment we’re stuck with it.
  • I was pretty happy to put all my purchases on my credit card when I was in Iceland. The card I had at the time charged a 1% currency conversion fee, which was totally worth it. It meant I could avoid carrying a ton of cash, and it also made it really easy for me to see how much I spent. Since I’m really new to this “vacation” thing, I’m still calibrating my sense of how expensive it will be. (Obviously having some cash for emergencies and places that don’t take credit is still a good idea.)
  • I didn’t tell my bank I was traveling, and I didn’t have any problem with my bank getting confused because my card was suddenly being used in Iceland. My friend with BoA cards did have trouble, and had to pull a similar trick with Skype to unfreeze them — their fraud protection seems a bit hypervigilant. I used the same card for purchases as I had booked my flights with, which may have helped — looking at my statements, some metadata about where and when I was traveling seems to have passed between the airline and my bank. I can’t find confirmation of this online, but it seems like the kind of clever thing the credit card companies might implement. (You talking to a human agent to tell them you’re leaving the country is expensive for them.)

So that’s what I learned about traveling internationally. What are your tips?

my travel loadout, part 3: computers and cell phones

As promised in my last post on this subject and at long last, the computing and communication devices (increasingly the same thing) I rely on when traveling.

  • My personal laptop is an Asus EeePC 901, now sadly discontinued. Or at least it began life that way — I’ve now replaced the screen (due to the original cracking) and the original stupid-slow 20GB SSD with a nice fast Intel 60GB SSD. It’s got a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, so it’s no speed demon, but it’s fine for web surfing, e-mail, and SSH, which is most of what I used it for. (And in fact I did all my schoolwork on it last year, mostly using it as a terminal for faster machines located elsewhere.) It’s a wonderful travel machine, 2.5 pounds and easy to toss in a messenger bag with a couple days’ worth of clothes for short trips. It’s also got decent battery life — fourish hours with my usual use (and the modern web is not CPU-light), which is about what I expect, and better than my Macbook Pro, though apparently more modern netbooks can get something like eight or twelve. I’ve considered getting one of the extended batteries for it, but that ups the weight significantly and I don’t care that much day-to-day, so I haven’t bothered for now.

    I absolutely don’t mind the small form-factor for the keyboard, and in fact anyone who knows me well knows that I prefer small keyboards, and will bring one of my several Happy Hacking Lite 2 keyboards to wherever I work when I am forced to work on a desktop machine. I’m sad that nobody sells 9″ formfactor netbooks any more. They all seem supplanted by 10″ and larger netbooks, though I understand that most people don’t have my small-computer fetish. When I’m traveling, I care about every extra pound, and the 901 is an excellent machine for that. (I do wish it had some kind of minimal graphics chipset in it, because there are a lot of games of a certain age I’d like to play that should run fine on it, but then again most of what I play when I’m traveling is Crawl, so I don’t actually need it.)

  • My work laptop is a 13″ unibody Macbook Pro (which, ironically, I use a lot in the same way as a terminal for other systems elsewhere). It’s kind of becoming my primary machine, just because I do appreciate the larger screen (and my, is it a beautiful screen). The unibody has possibly the best build quality of any laptop I’ve encountered ever, which I appreciate a lot — it just feels sturdy. It’s about 5 pounds, and I’m lucky to get three hours of battery life out of it (I think average is more like two or two and a half), so it’s much more a machine which wanders between outlets than a true portable. Most of the things I don’t like about it are impedence mismatches between the software and me, not problems with the hardware, and if I had one of my own I’d definitely try installing Linux on it. (Last I asked around, I think wireless had issues, but these things change fairly fast?) Mostly I like laptops way better with a tiling windowmanager, Linux has a way better handle on multiple desktops than any other OS, and Steve’s Way is otherwise only about 75% congruent with the way I want to use my computer. But it’s being an effecive work machine, so that’s the most important bit right now.
  • My old G1 died a quiet death early this summer, and conveniently T-Mobile had just released the myTouch 3G Slide, which has a hardware keyboard (a requirement for me in a smartphone, since, in what you are no doubt beginning to recognize as a trend, one of my prime uses of it is a SSH terminal). I miss the G1 keyboard, which was about as close to a real, full QWERTY keyboard as I’ve seen anyone do on a phone (a full 5 rows), but I’ve found the Slide’s 4-row keyboard to be acceptable enough that I’m not considering upgrading to one of the newer phones with a physical keyboard. Android 2 is wonderful, and the ability to pull in phone numbers from Facebook is something I didn’t expect to find useful but I like a lot. I am annoyed that T-Mobile discontinued the 300 text message plan I was on, so I’m now paying $60 instead of $50 for the same service, since I never use more than 300 text messages a month anyway. (I’m still on the no-longer open Google Friends and Family plan, thankfully, so I save ~$10/month over what you’d see just starting out new now. I can’t quite see paying iPhone-level prices for the Slide, no matter how much I like it.)

So that’s basically my current travel loadout. Things that I’m still looking for, and would happily accept suggestions for:

  • Rollerboard luggage, at least the stuff I’ve got, is heavy. Really freaking heavy. Also, after this much travel, getting rather beat up, though I do kind of expect that. (Like, do they make rollerboards with aluminum frames that are any good at all? Because that would be nice.) I’m looking for a sturdy, lightweight, carry-on sized rollerboard.
  • I got a crappy cheap Bluetooth headset with my G1 for something like $10, which was worthwhile to prove the utility of the concept to myself, but not so great for long-term use. Does anyone have a Bluetooth headset they recommend? (I’m tempted by the headsets made by Etymotic Research, and I like their earphones, a pair of which I just got.)

Next time I’ll be posting some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned about international travel. (These are supremely unlikely to be news to my friends who travel a bunch, but I hadn’t known them beforehand, and I pay pretty close attention to you guys’ expriences, so maybe they aren’t well-enough known yet and could use a little publicizing.)

my travel loadout, part 2: shoes and wallets

As promised in my last post, another post about travel gear! This week, shoes and wallets.

  • Given that we seem doomed to walk through the metal detector at the airport in stocking feet for the forseeable future, slip-on shoes are a must to make the process as painless as possible. Slip-ons mean no struggling to pull the shoes off my feet as the rest of the security line makes impatient noises, no fiddling with tiny dress-shoe laces as the agent at my gate on the other side of the terminal announces last call for boarding, no running with shoelaces flapping trying to make my flight — a just plain more pleasant travel experience. For business travel, nice slip-on shoes are a must, so I can go straight from the plane to a meeting if I have to. I ordered a pair of Bostonian Bolton shoes in brown and wore them to Iceland, and they’re quickly becoming my everyday shoes. (I in fact liked them so much that I bought another pair in black — I think of the as latter as “going to dance clubs in foreign countries” shoes.) They’re light, they look great, they fit well, and they’re comfortable to walk long distances in, as I did in Reykjavik — in fact they’re possibly the most comfortable shoes I own. I’m extremely happy with them. (If you expect to walk a lot with them and you like the fit out of the box, do treat them with some kind of waterproofing compound, wax, shine, whatever. I got caught in an unexpected rainstorm and my brown pair got soaked, and they relaxed more than I wanted.)
  • I happened upon BigSkinny, who are Boston-local, at about the same time as my old black leather trifold wallet, a gift my senior year of high school, had started to seriously lose its structural integrity, so I jumped at the chance to replace it. My friends had mentioned struggling to fit (larger) foreign currency in wallets designed for (smaller) US currency, so I bought BigSkinny’s World Bifold Wallet in black leather. The currency wasn’t much of a problem in Iceland, where the bills are about the same size as US bills, but hopefully it will be useful for other travel in the future. It’s big enough for the stuff I need to carry but still encourages me to keep that set to a minimum, it’s solidly made, and it is in fact pretty damn skinny (about a half inch thick, closed).
  • Speaking of wallets, I’ve been appreciating AwardWallet as a service for managing frequent flyer accounts, gift cards, hotel chain points, credit card points, and other loyalty programs. It’s very nice to have a complete list of programs I’m in all in one place, with the balances and expiration dates visible at a glance (especially since, given where I work, I seem doomed to collect the complete set of frequent flyer programs :-). It also acts as a password wallet for the award program web sites, letting me log into any of them with a single click. It’s also under active development, unlike some of the similar sites I looked at. I found and reported a bug, and the developer fixed it in a week or so, though they never said anything to me about it — I had to check back. (But it got fixed! That’s more than I can say for a lot of the bugs I report.) I like their pay-what-you-will Pro account model — basically donating any amount gets you an upgraded account which checks when your points or miles expire — so after the bug I mentioned got fixed, I upgraded to a pro account in thanks. It will also pull your travel plans in from airlines which expose this information and let you associate hotel information with flights and so on, creating a nice itinerary that you can then print or access on the go. As a friend of mine said, it’s way better than a spreadsheet for tracking these things.

Up next week, computers and cell phones!

iceland, gaming, eve online

Last weekend at this time, I was in Iceland. My friend and housemate Matt spent the summer there interning with CCP Games, and I decided to take a long weekend and go visit him on his last full weekend there. (CCP are the people who make EVE Online, the second most popular MMO in the world, and the forthcoming World of Darkness MMO.) Our friend (and soon-to-be housemate) Kate was also there, stopping over on her way back from London.

There were a lot of reasons for me visiting, not least that, in my twenty-five years of existence, I hadn't yet left North America, and I was starting to feel a bit provincial and more importantly a bit bored. Also, I'm a terrible tourist, but surely one can learn these things, right? Besides, it would be fun. And indeed, I had a blast.

The trip was pretty much entirely comprised of me learning the practicalities of navigating a foreign country, more or less effectively, and hanging out with Matt, Kate, and Matt's coworkers at bars, cafes, restaurants, and apartments in Reykjavik. I had lots of good and sometimes unusual food (lamb hot dogs?), I went to the Laugar geothermal pools and soaked, I watched the fireworks on the harbor for Reykjavik Culture Night, and that was pretty much it. The scenery, even just on the bus from the airport to Reykjavik in the morning, was gorgeous, all ocean and mountains and low-angled light. It was a fascinating trip.

I'd read a lot about EVE, the game Matt's company makes, in computer gaming magazines, but being a student I was really scared of getting into anything that I might be more obsessed with than school. (Hear now the archetypal story of the guy or girl who got kicked out of school because they played too much EverQuestWorld of Warcraft.) I'm no longer a student but I'm of course working, and work is very unlikely to ever be replaced as the prime sink of my time, but I feel like I need be less pathologically risk-averse now, and so I've been considering lots of different ways to spend my free time — auditioning them, perhaps. So when Matt sat me down at his desk in Iceland and showed me around EVE a bit, I was paying attention. (Frankly I've been kind of looking for an excuse to give EVE a go.)

There are lots of reasons that EVE is interesting — it's all a single gigantic world, rather than a bunch of parallel worlds like other MMOs; the economy is entirely player-driven; it's set in space rather than some fantasy world; yadda yadda yadda. That's not the most interesting part of EVE for me. Some background — when I was in middle school, I was in the local equivalent of a Talented and Gifted program, because they didn't know what to do with me (a rant for another day). In eighth grade, as sort of a capstone project, we (well, I, mostly, I think) wrote a space computer game. It wasn't much better-specified than that — I had grand visions of hopping from planet to planet, trading commodities, and maybe some space battle, and I eventually got together an interface inspired by the Star Trek computers, some basic movement, and a "market" with random prices. (I was writing this in Visual Basic, if I recall correctly; I was just discovering C and Linux. Shh, we were all fourteen and living in the boonies at the end of a crappy dialup connection once. Well, okay, some of us were.) We had a group of four or five — a friend did some art, I don't remember if it ever got used or not; we theoretically divvied up tasks somehow, but I think I was the only one with significant programming experience. We tried to keep it going and improve it, after we'd met the (low) requirements for the TAG program, but it went the usual way of such projects. At any rate—

Friends, EVE is that game I was dreaming of. Trade, courier, mine, fight, loot — it's all there. EVE is that middle-school space game, made by professionals. I'm not sure quite why I'm primed for those narratives so hard, but I am, and EVE hits those narrative kinks like whoa.

I may be hooked.

Now, history suggests that I may like starting games more than continuing to play them (what can I say, I just really like tutorial missions ;-), so we'll see if I come back to EVE after a week at work. But this is really kind of exciting — perhaps the most excited I've ever been about a game after I finished the tutorial missions. It could be a wild ride. 🙂

another rant for another day: why I faileddropped microecon twice, or, how how we teach economics sucks (hint: students have never interacted with a real market as either a buyer or, particularly, as a seller)

also, I have no point here, I just like to say "New Game Excitement"