Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Enigmas, 9.75, and Jovial Fish

Well, well, well... A Saturday in London to my self.  The only time restraint I have is that I need to be back in Westminster at 8PM to meet someone for keys to their flat as I booked an Airbnb place.  They weren't available at the 3PM check-in time listed in the reservation, but that's fine; I'll find stuff to do.  So what to do in London?
Right! First order of business was to hop on the tube and start heading out of London.  A quick ride to Euston Station and then onto the National Rail for the hour-ish ride for my 40 or so mile trip.  I had thought of this destination after a pint or two watching the Wales/Portugal match debating on what to do for a full day.  I could do all the touristy things in central London, but when I come back with Kari, I would be doing them all again.  Maybe that wouldn't be so bad, but I was trying to think of things she would have no interest in at all.  Interests... geeky stuff...  That's when I started reviewing my hobbies and books I've read and remembered something from Cryptonomicon back in the early 2000s.  The founder of modern computing was from here.  The Association of Computing Machinery that I belonged to at University studied him (as well as several of my courses mentioned him).  Alan Turing.  I'm going to Bletchley Park.
Stepping off the train at the Bletchley Station and looking around, it wasn't much to behold.  I make it out of the station itself which leads pretty much directly on to a road.  Bletchley Park is a mere 1/4 mile away down the road.  As I walked up its previously well-guarded entrance, I'm struck by the serenity of the place.  It's only 9:24AM but the noise, the hustle, the ... movement of the city, of London, has been left far behind.  This place is calm.  I'm sure 75 years ago it was anything but.  These are colliding, juxtaposed thoughts as I stroll up the drive and towards the visitors center where there are about ten others waiting to enter.  It opens at 9:30.  In a few moments time, we are greeted and allowed entry into the queues to pay for entrance.  I also picked up a guidebook for £5, an inexpensive but good souvenir to look through later.  I use it to hold receipts and the map of the area and I walk past the cashier into the first of the dioramas depicting what life was like during World War II.  I see actual print outs of Enigma enciphered text and on the back, glued on is the decrypted strips of German and under that is the English translations.  Amazing...
As I leave the visitors center I'm offered a self-guided audio tour that I can use as I wander the grounds at my own pace and in my own desired direction.  Bletchley Park is wide open and you are free to walk everywhere.  There are certain buildings that there is no public access but some can be accessed.  After listening to the intro on the audio tour, I'm instructed to head to the lake so I do.  However, before I get there and hit the tour's information on the lake, I see Block B - Museum.  I read about this museum.  It houses the largest collection of Enigmas available for viewing.  Choices: go look at a beautiful lake and continue my tour or go look at 70-80 wooden boxes in a museum?  Right, so into the museum I go where a curator very helpfully suggests that I start downstairs where the Enigmas and Bombes are.  I barely manage to control my excitement and rush downstairs and ask about what is upstairs.  Upstairs is the Lorenz history, how the Japanese ciphers were cracked and other bits about Colossus.  The curator also says that they'll be running the Bombe soon but it may not be for another hour or so.  Ho. Ly. Crap.  I knew they had an operational one, but the fact that they demoed it too!  WOOHOO!  So down I went!!
The first thing I see is a massive machine, open in the back
with two people standing around it inside a rope perimeter: a Bombe.  As I take in everything in the room I see a long room divided into sections and the next section I would enter contains glass shelves filled with Enigma devices.  All of them appear slightly different: three- or four- wheel
variations.  Ones for the navy or the army.  Some Italian but most are German.  My concentration remains on the large device and the instructions the older gentleman seems to be giving a lady: operating instructions.  It seems I may not need to wait an hour.  He's describing oiling and the like at the moment and myself and another curious museum goer are standing around excited but obviously we'll be waiting a few minutes so we chat a bit.  A curator is standing very nearby, actually between us and another Enigma machine in plexi-glass case and he answers most of her questions.  She moves on to asking about the Enigma.  I have read about these and have looked into buying one (HA!  One in the condition this is in would be about $350,000.)  Kits to build your own are reasonable and I will probably do that, most of the electronics and wiring is a lot better than the original as well.  We move over to start taking a couple of pictures and that's when the curator asks THE question: "Would you like me to open the case so you don't get any glare for your photos?"  OMG...  YES!!  But I say,
"That would be brilliant!  Thank you very much!"  So yes, I was inches away from an actual Engima device, I daren't ask if I could touch it but the very fact that I could was amazing.  After a couple of minutes of awe and helping the lady understand how it worked in basic terms, I started hearing buttons and levers being moved behind me on the Bombe and the telltale portion of the instructions like it was time for the device to start working.  Within seconds I was watching an operational Bomb working on deciphering a section of code.  It would find several possible versions of what may be the settings of the Enigma machine.
The Enigma had three or four rotors which had all the letters in the alphabet with each rotor having its letters in a different, mixed order on the rotor.  The rotor itself was wired internally and the wiring would be changed by its ring setting.  Basically you could spin the letters around to a pre-determined setting on the rotor.  So to encrypt a message, the sender and receiver knew the ring setting for each rotor and which rotor was put in which order.  See, you could have it with rotor 1-2-3-4 and encrypt or 2-4-1-3 and encrypt and would get completely different cipher text.  All of this led to Enigma having a total of 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible combinations.  One of its weaknesses though was that no letter enciphered could actually end up as itself.  So if you enciphered 'K', it would never yield 'K'.  Ever.  Once there was a possible code to try, a Typex machine was set up in the Enigma settings and a typist would type in the enciphered text.  If the setting was incorrect, rubbish would come out on the tape on the right side.  However, if the settings were correct, then German would come out.
The bombe works not by trying every single combination, but eliminating the impossible ones.  Several bombes would work in conjunction and get that staggering number down to only about a million possibilities and then down to about 600.  From there it was up to cryptanalysts and clever crib finding (guessing for known words in weather reports, etc.) and discover the Enigma settings for that day... for that branch of military... for that theater of the war.  It was a massive, massive effort.  The Bombe meant they could break the code in hours and not days like it used to take.  The efforts of Turing's and the others' work shortened the War by up to two years which saved countless lives.  It even allowed for the US's success in the Pacific.
Thoroughly humbled by watching that display I head through the rest of the displays of Enigmas and look at history of them.  At one point Germany suspected it was being broken so they decided to change their rotor settings nightly instead of once a month.  The naval Enigmas were the hardest with their fourth rotor and nightly changes from the start.
Upstairs it was a fascinating display about the Colossus and how it was created to help the war effort.  Due to its secrecy most history books credit the ENIAC as being the first electronic computer, but Colossus was running two years before.  They had it up and running a week before Operation Overlord where the Allies invaded at Normandy.  The Lorenz and Japanese history of codebreaking did not have a huge presence but was equally as humbling to witness.  It is understandable that the German side of the museum would hold more pieces and information as that was the main threat to England at the time.
As I head to the lake and press play on the audio tour, its appeal has waned and the tour guide's information no longer seems important.  I decide to wander instead.  I would like to find Huts 3, 6, 8, and 11.  These are where the code breakers worked and where the Bombes originally were housed.
A short walk past very similarly fashioned buildings and I arrive.  Hut 3... this is where deciphered text would be pushed through a wooden chute from Hut 6 to be translated and then enciphered with allied cypher techniques and sent to the appropriate areas as deemed necessary.  What was amazing about this and the other Huts that were open was you could actually walk into them and touch everything in them.  Nothing was behind glass or anything.  Hut 6 was where the decoding work happened.  Before Bombes the would have large sheets of paper and poke holes through them with possible combinations.  After stacking them together, if there was a hole all the way through, then that was a possible valid code to try.
Next to Huts 3 and 6 is 11.  They're working on Hut 11a to make it a display of more Bombe stuff.  Walking into what the women of Bletchley Park that worked in this hut called the Hell Hole, you can smell machine oil and hear the clacking of the bombes.  It's just a demo and there's nothing actually working in here, but you can get a sense of what it was like:  no windows, barely any ventilation, the noise of dozens of Bombes working endlessly for your 8-hour shift.  The heat and noise was probably unbearable which I'm sure lead to its moniker.
Throughly humbled again, I head back (forgetting about Hut 8) and go to the mansion on the ground which is nice to look at.  It has some movie props from The Imitation Game, a movie, by the way I did not initially want to see - fearful of how the Hollywood depiction of Alan Turing and the effort that went on at Bletchley would be portrayed.  It is a decent work and I can only hope it serves to show the world what a brilliant and tragic figure Alan was and how much we owe to him not only from his work at Bletchley but if you use any computer or mobile phone, you have him to thank for that.
I wander back towards the visitors center and resign myself to pick up something from here.  I grab another book, a coaster, and a magnet for the fridge back home.  I make my way back to the station and realize that I'm starting to get hungry.  Time to make plans for lunch.  My return ticket is for Euston and I'm sure I could find something there.  I hop on the train and the train inexplicably is packed.  Meh, I decide once at Euston, that I will walk the 1/2 mile to King's Cross station and eat there.  I've always had a desire to go there ever since hearing the Pet Shop Boys song, King's Cross, back in the late 1980s.
Once I get to King's Cross I realize there are a bunch of "quick bite" kind of places but seeing as I have some time to kill, an appetite to remove, and a thirst for ale to sate, I look for other options.  Ah, Yelp wins through again!  I head over to The Parcel Yard to work on all three aforementioned items.  As I head over there though I see a bewildering site: a massive queue just standing there waiting at a wall.  As I round a pillar to see just what the heck is going on, I see a rickety old trolley near the wall and, in brass on the wall, a big 9 3/4.  Ooooh right!  Harry Potter left from King's Cross!  Neat!  On the other side of the queue is a Harry Potter shop which is understandably crowded, but I go in anyway and look around.  As I'm looking around I spot, behind glass, examples of characters from the movies wands.  Brilliant!  It is a very neat shop.
Stomach reminds me that we are close to food, so I head up the stairs and feast on a pork loin sandwich, London Porter (x2 as they were the best beer I had while in London) and enjoy the cool air for a bit as I text my sister, a Harry Potter nut, about what I've stumbled across.  Unbeknownst to me, London is very high on her bucket list and she is tres jealous.  I tell her just to make a plan, Airbnb it and do it.  Well see if that happens ;)
Lunch done, I hop on the tube for another of my desired locations: Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea FC.  Unlike last night, the walk to this stadium is not that far at all.  I take a couple photos and head into the Mega Superstore of all things Chelsea and see what I can get.  I would like to get a shirt at a minimum.  It takes me a little while to decide on one, but I eventually do and when I head downstairs through some other smaller items, I find a largish box of sunglass bags with a sign proudly proclaiming "Take One".  Not to be told what to do, I take two.  Looking at the time it's about 4PM now and I can waste a bit of time wandering tourist stuff before I head over to The Laughing Halibut for dinner.  So, to that end, I head to the tube and make my way to Westminster Station to wander around Big Ben and Westminster Abbey.
As I exit the underground I am greeted with a throng of people around Big Ben and the Westminster Abbey area.  Oh, right... Saturday.  Well, let's cross over Westminster Bridge to the London Eye instead.  I could wait in the line/queue there for a good view of the city.  As I'm half way across the bridge and get my first good look at the queue, I decide that maybe finding a place to sit and rest would be better.  Yelp locates for me a nice local place: The Camel and Artichoke.  This is a place that tourists would not easily stumble into.  It is much out of the way and I like it all the more for that fact.  I enjoy a pint or two as I let the phone charge back up from my battery pack and plan for my trip across the Thames again to grab my luggage from my hotel, get dinner at the Laughing Halibut, and then head to my Airbnb all of which is 10 minutes' walk away from the hotel.
Much rested and feeling good I push through the groups of tourist causing traffic jams and head to the hotel, grab the bag and plug in the address for The Laughing Halibut to make my way there.  Google maps helpfully informs me that it may be closed by the time I get there.  What!?  Looking at the hours, they're open from 11AM - 4PM on Saturday.  You have got to be kidding...  Well, new plan now.  I spot a local pub in the middle of the neighborhood where the Airbnb is and it has decent ratings for its food.  So off I go.
A short walk by a gorgeous park and through old neigborhoods (I don't think London has much of anything but these), and I get to The Royal Oak.  I see there are three other patrons sitting in the common room so I maneuver my bag to an out-of-the-way spot and pull up a chair and look at the menu.  I order the fish and chips knowing they probably won't be as good as The Laughing Halibut's, but alas, it was what I have been craving all day.  It was okay.  The beer was also okay.  I get a message from the Airbnb owner that they'll be about thirty minutes late due to some traffic.  No worries, another beer incoming.
Time being up I head over to the Airbnb and meet the owner, get the instructions on how to open the flat door, where things are in the kitchen, take off shoes when entering the house, she hands me the keys and then heads out.  I've booked a private room with an en suite.  The other two rooms in this flat share a bathroom.  Lucky me!
I step in to use said bathroom and get a wet sock for the effort.  I think little of it thinking that maybe it's left over from cleaning up since I had to check in late and all.  So after I try flushing the toilet and it doesn't work do I realize that the whole edge of the bathroom is covered in water and it's slowly leaking from the toilet.  I quickly message the owner to let them know of the issue so they know it was like that when I arrived and mention that I can use the other bathroom for the remainder of my stay.  It turns out, I did not need it at all, so that was fine.
So for this whole time I didn't hire/rent a vehicle.  Instead work suggested that I use a car service.  Brilliant, it's like a taxi but scheduled and cheaper.  It works a bit like Uber, but a bit more professional.  So, since I had checked in with my flight earlier and knew the terminal I was flying out on, I could book my car as well.  One problem: apparently Sunday morning there will be a 10K in the center of London and all their pre-booked cars are already spoken for.  It mentions I can use the "Book ASAP" feature when I'm ready to leave instead.  So, I have to hope that someone will be around in the morning the pick me up to get me to the airport in time.  I work out a plan for the underground as well, in case there are no cars to pick me up.
In the morning after getting woken up again by texts from the US at insane times, I get ready, look at the app and it says that I could have a car as soon as 15 minutes when I request it.  Brilliant.  So I get everything ready except getting the shoes on and request the car and wait for the text telling me where the car is.  I wait.  Then after some time, I wait some more.  Finally I get the text: they're three minutes way.  Shite!  Well, I gather up, slip the shoes on without tying them and quietly leave so as to not disturb the other residents at 6:15 in the morning.  Out the door (carefully shutting it to not make noise), through another door, down the lift, into the lobby, crash into the locked front door as my car pulls up.  Perfect timing.  Yes, I crash into the door as pushing the handle does nothing on either door.  Ah, locked.  I look around for the button to open it.  Nothing.  I signal the driver and wave to him that it's the idiot in the foyer that is their passenger they're waiting for.  He pops out and asks if I can get out.  I quickly go through the same motions.  There is a spinning deadbolt looking thing on the left door, but it just free spins so that appears useless.  I look all around the lobby for a green button or something.  Eventually I tell my driver that I'm going to see if there is an exit I can use from the basement and I'll meet him on the street.  He asks if there's a lock on the door you can open, I try the free-spinning lock to show him there is but it's useless and that's when I feel some resistance when I spin it clockwise a few times.  After doing that the door magically opens.  Well, the owner never mentioned that part of the process, but that may be a common mode of egress in a lot of buildings so I'm not faulty her.  The driver and I have a bunch of laughs about that whole process and I'm off to Heathrow.
Usually in travelling internationally, something will go not entirely as planned, I'm hoping for my return home, the locked door is the only thing.  It turns out to be true as I find out 23 hours later.  Until next time England...

Jiminy Cricket!

So after my last day in the office, I get to go enjoy a game of cricket!  I must say it was a lot of fun to watch.  There's more going on than baseball and it's pretty exciting.  I walked to the Kia Oval pretty much right after getting dropped off at the hotel and I dropped my stuff in the room.  I was told to check out the boar roast which is basically a pulled pork sandwich for something to eat.  It sounded delicious!  I had no problems following the crowd to the match.  It reminded me a bit of my Broncos rugby match in Brisbane in March 2015, but this was on a much smaller scale and it was much cooler this evening than that muggy night as I recall.  I popped into the stadium and was immediately right next to the roast boar place.  Fortuitous! I ordered my bap (what they called the sandwich) and I headed over to one of many beer stations and order an ale.  It's an extra £1 as a deposit on their one pint cups but you can get that back at the end of your drinking at collection areas or you can drop it in other bins to donate your quid to certain charities.  Beer and food in hand, I dove in and was not overly disappointed only in the portion, but that's to be expected at these types of venues.  It was very tasty though.  I wander around the oval looking for the gift shop to see if I can find a good souvenir like a jersey as I've done from the other rugby games I've gone to when I was down in Australia.  Alas, the room they have for official gear was very small and didn't have a great selection.  I will just have to check online later.  I head to my seat and after a minor issue finding the right way to the section, I find my seat and settle in to enjoy three hours of T20 Cricket between Surrey and Somerset.
It was a great game, Surrey score 154 on 8 wickets and Somerset only 139 on 6 wickets,  So in the parlance of the game: Surrey wins 154-8 by 12 runs.  I can see why this is a popular sport to watch.  Thank you mates in Oz for helping me understand this game more!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Woodies, Airbnb, and Cricket

Last day in the office… the team decided to take me to a local favourite pub of theirs: Woodies in New Malden.  This was originally a club house on a cricket pavilion but has been converted into a freehouse.  It’s filled with programs attached in any manner possible to the walls and ceilings from football ranging mainly in the 1960s and 1970s through some early 2000s.  Quite a locals’ place as this was way off the beaten path and through some residential areas.  Well-hidden and a quiet place to enjoy some food and pints.  A very nice lunch with my new friends in New Malden.

Back at work the mood has turned as it usually does after lunch:  food coma time so everyone’s just a bit lethargic, like lizards on ice blocks.  I decide it’s time to research exactly where I’ll be needing to walk tomorrow for my Airbnb room.

As it turns out, it’s only a half mile away from the hotel (a ten minute walk).  It’s also just a three minute walk farther away from where I’ve already been: The Barley Mow.  Well, auspicious luck!  I know where I can go for a pint, if I feel like it but there are new pubs to try out as well.  Also, around the corner is The Laughing Halibut, which is a place I have been told has excellent fish and chips with your choice of fish.  Great, dinner will be an easy decision!

I'll sign off this post with the thought that I'm looking forward to going to my first live cricket match today:  T20 NatBlast Somerset at Surrey in the Kia Oval.  I was hoping to catch a game at Lord’s as that is the oldest field for cricket and a lot of history there.  Last week the national team just finished a five-day test (five-game series rough equivalent) against Sri Lanka and next Thursday is another test against Pakistan which is going to be an awesome match up.  Too bad I wasn’t here during that week.  Though, I’m sure tickets would have been hard to come by.  I heard just hours after I purchased my T20 ticket that it was sold out and that was Wednesday late morning for a smaller, regional game not the big international game.  Well, maybe I’ll be able to catch it back in the States.  Right… Football, the #1 spectator watched sport in the world, not really popular in USA.  Cricket, the #2 most spectator-watched sport in the world, unheard of in the USA with the difficulty of trying to understand it, falls somewhere between quantum field mechanics and plasma-fission boundary flow calculations.  However after watching one match with someone explaining the game a bit so you can understand it, it became a very engaging game and I’m very excited to be going.  Next post should have a couple pictures of the Oval, the field, and some of actual play as well.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Football, Coroners, Soho, Cursed Child, and The Porcupine (oh my!)

On my first evening after work, it was the Wales v. Portugal match in the Euro Cup 2016.  So my plan was to find a pub showing the game and have some fish and chips and a few pints.  I headed down Horseferry Road towards The Barley Mow, where I had some pints the first night I was here.  I got there about 45 minutes before the match and it was pleasantly uncrowded so I ordered my food and beer and sat down at a single table and settled in for the match.

After another thirty minutes, one plate of fish and chips and a pint down, more people starting filling the the rooms in the pub and it started shaping up like a good crowd to watch the match.  There was one guy/bloke at the table behind the railing from me that would watch my little one for me to make sure no one sat there while I popped to the bar for another beer or went to the loo.  He was really nice.  Until... yes, until Wales wasn't doing well and then the expletives at a volume you could hear across the street came out.  He was the most vocal one in the entire bar and all heads would nervously swivel his way when a "feckin hell!" came flying out or whatever his choice words were at the time.

Alas, by the match end Wales was out, but they did have a heck of a go for the entire series.  So I was free to head back to the hotel.  As I headed out, the building across the road caught my eye.  It may be hard to read the sign, but it reads: Coroner's Count. Not sure why they need a court, but there you go.  That wrapped up a somewhat uneventful Wednesday for me.

For Thursday I didn't feel like doing the football thing one more time so I decided I would like to do something else that I may not convince Kari would be fun:  check out a music shop.  I love used music shops and new cities offer a chance to add new items to my music collection.  New cities in new countries are even better.  I found the shop called Fopp on Yelp and decided to give that a go after work.

I figured I would take the tube for my trip to Soho, but my quick check with my travel planner (Google maps) says the best way would be taking a bus.  So the bus would take 26 minutes and walking will take 33 minutes.  So I walk it instead, so worth it.  I get to walk past Parliment, the Abbey, Big Ben, and Downing Street again.

Once I got to Soho and its new sights, I encountered a theatre that really took me for a shock.  Seeing its display got my mind working.  I thought J. K. Rowlings was done with the Harry Potter stories.  However, it looks like there's a play that she's written, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (parts 1 and 2). It will be opening here on 30 July.  Brilliant!  However, it appears I may miss that while I'm here. So too bad about that.  Oh well, on to music!

I shop at the Fopp.  Not much in the way of used music so a slight bit of disappointment.  No worries, I picked up some items that I've been wanting and I even saw a book there that I will want to read eventually.  I just didn't want to have to pack it on the way home.  It's Michael Palin's collection of diary entries.  It should be a pretty interesting read.  I've read the autobiography of John Cleese and was very entertained so this may be just as or more entertaining.

My main task done, the primary concern now became feeding my ever-increasing hunger.  A quick Yelp search revealed nothing immediately around me so I started heading back towards Trafalgar Square.  A block or two down, I stop at an intersection and see a free house (pub) that looks about half full.  A quick Yelp check is very positive and it says it's more of a place where the locals go instead of a tourist place.  Sounds perfect.  Eating and having a pint and a couple of half pints at The Porcupine was a treat.  It's 143 years old, but from where I was sitting, it didn't look a decade over 110.

Ah, now I'm losing the light so a brief stop in Trafalgar Square for some obligatory photos and I head back to the hotel.  I should be able to make it for the last half hour of the match and use the two £5 discount vouchers for skipping room cleaning at the lounge for some free-ish beer.  Indeed, my beer was 75p total and the Laphroaig I finished with was £2.20.  So worth not having someone make my bed twice...

Aimful Wanderings

The flight across the pond was uneventful and a little shorter than what I'm used when it comes to international flights.  By the time I finished dinner on the flight I only had about five hours.  I typically would have about seven or, in the case of Australia, fifteen hours more to go which meant plenty of time for another movie or just get some sleep.  I opted for the sleeps as I would be landing in England around 11AM so I would need to have some sort of rest.

Well, I didn't get a whole lot of rest, but I did get some on the plane.  After landing I started my epic 42-day hike from one terminal to where the Border Force checks everyone into their country.  United was awesome and gave me what I original thought to be trash, an invite to their lounge to refresh with a shower and breakfast.  However on the other side of it was an invite to go through passport control into their invite-only expedited service.  What the hell, I've done the electronic version and that's quick enough, let's see what this is all about.

As I said, it's quite the hike to get to passport control and once there, if you veer right, you can enter with the EU/UK folks, also there is the electronic passport control and it looked a bit crowded and filling up fast.  To the far left was my invite/expedited lane.  Choices... I went left and was rewarded with just two people in front of me after handing over my invite slip.  The control officer asked the basic questions and I engaged in some nice conversation after he heard I was interested in going to a cricket match.  More on that hopefully later.  Border Force was completely at ease with this normal bloke at that point so off I went, shoo shoo and into the UK.  Pick up the bag from baggage reclaim and off to meet my ride wherever he's supposed to be.

After a bit of confusion at the car park, I locate my driver from Addison Lee and we're off to Central London, which I am informed expertly by my driver can have shite traffic but we should be good this time of day.  He and I talk about the fun times switching between driving on the left and right sides of the road since he has to go into Europe frequently.  I imagine the head on collision frequency must be high near the exits to the ferries between the UK and Europe.

A pleasant enough journey from outside London into Central London finished, I check in around half noon (local way of saying 12:30) and am informed that my room will not be ready until 3:00 or 3:30.  Well, as they agree to accept my bag, I'm happy to leave it there instead of taking it for a a walk and head out to see some of the local sites.

First on the unexpected list, was the Victoria Tower Gardens and its Burghers of Calais Monument.  Quite a stunning piece of architecture to stumble upon.

After taking the obligatory photos, I spin to see something that I do recognize, although not immediately what it is.  Give me a break, I'm not a royal subject so I have some leeway here.  It turns out to be the House of
Lords.  Parliment, in other words.  That's why it seems so familiar, we've seen it in the news clips, and movies, etc.

I continue among the tourist, therefore blending in, and make my way down Millstreet towards Bridge Street where I'm sure to see more famous sites.  Within a few moments I am rewarded with a very good view of Big Ben near the Carriage Gate.  At no small risk did I get this photo, gentle reader.  There was a security gate with about two inches gap between each bar.  I expertly (nervously) threaded my phone through a gap to my waiting other hand and expertly (barely) managed to take the photo without dropping the phone to its untimely death some 20 feet to the bricks below.  As you can see, it was well worth it!  And if I had walked a mere 10 more yards towards Bridge Street instead of taking a risky (nah) shot with my phone (life link), I could have had the same shot, just with a different angle and no obstructions other than tourons and buses, which could have been timed.  Chalk that one up to experience...

On to the next attraction!  Westminster Abbey!  Oh look a massive queue!  Ugh... well, I don't need to really go into the Abbey.  I'll save that for when I come here with Kari.  I'm just going to hit some highlights for now.  That will probably be the theme of this trip: doing things I would like to do so when I do come back with the wife, I don't feel she's being drug along to Stamford Bridge while I'm all giddy about going to where Chelsea plays football and she's rolling her eyes.  I will save the bigger touristy type of things for when we can come back and do them together.  So without further ado, a picture of Westminster Abbey with the House of Lords photobombing!
I check the time and I have about an hour left.  I'm tired.  It's a good time to head back.  I take some photos of the statues around the park outside the Abbey before the Teachers strike gets under full swing and head back to the hotel to wait in their so-called "executive lounge" until my room is ready.

One fun little fact after getting into my room:
View from my room:  That's MI5 on the right...  Yeah, that's pretty damn awesome.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Back to Europe

well, here I go. 28 years after the first the I left my home country. I don't count those trips south-of-the-border with my dad just to fill 5-gallon jerrycans with cheaper Mexican gasoline in the 1970s fuel crisis. I'm not counting the trips with Spanish classes to Tijuana or the two trips to Cabo San Lucas. You know why?  Mexico never felt like a foreign country. Sure they spoke a foreign language I didn't understand as a kid but did more and more as I studied. But more I think was that it was just so close. When something is that close it doesn't hold the same mysticism as other locales like Europe, Asia, and Utah.
In the summer of 1988, my parents worked on getting me into an exchange program where we hosted a Spanish guy, Cristián, for a month and then, in turn, they hosted me for a month. So, dear reader, I was able to experience the joys of long haul flights, lack of sleep in coach, and jet lag for the first time. Why the hell am I so tired at noon?  Whatever, I'm 16 let's go swimming!  Oh, and then let's have an unplanned, hardcore nap!  No more jet lag!  So Spain, France, and Andorra were amaze balls and I'm so thankful I got to do that.  Now I'm in the United Club East in the Denver airport about to head back to Europe. This time for work. This time only for six days instead of a month. This time on work's dime. Let's do if I can blog/ Instagram this trip...

Boarding in 3 minutes. Gotta go.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Auspicious Beginnings

The start of my second trip to Japan is starting off much better than the first. For starters, on the way to the airport my flight wasn't cancelled which, for those who fly a lot, is a huge pain to deal with.  I got to the ticket counter for Japan Airlines the recommended 3 hours early. Well a tad more than that and the counters were devoid of helpful staff. Just a sign stating check-in would begin in ... well, 15 minutes. That wasn't too bad!  I spent my time watching the ants mill through the TSA lines. Poor people that don't get the PreCheck on their boarding passes that have to go through all the song and dance and long lines. Some are comically nervous when they get to the TSA agent and their wallets, boarding passes, purses, babies, etc. go flying and falling to the ground. I kid about the babies falling to the ground, but the amount to chaos caused at the agent is astonishing.  After a few minutes of entertainment a half dozen smartly dressed, young women come streaming around the corner as if summoned by some silent alarm the dozen travelers waiting in line are also not aware of.  They confer behind the counter in hushed tones momentarily and flow out in front of the counter, space themselves equally in front of us, bow and greet us in Japanese saying "Welcome and good morning!"  (Much better than the agent a the counter on my first trip basically telling me: "Too bad. Go over to this other airline and buy a ticket last minute and once your whole intineary closes, THEN we'll refund you for canceling your flight. Buh bye now.")  I'm politely handed back my passport, luggage claim tags, and boarding pass. Those that have been to Japan know how they hand items to you...  With more than a little trepidation, I noticed that there no bright, cheery TSA PreCheck staring back at me on my boarding pass. Anywhere. Well, my GlobalEntry will get me to the TSA agent without having to wait and he confirms my suspicions: if it's not printed on your boarding pass, you need to remove your shoes, laptop, etcetera like everyone else. Oh well, a relatively small hassle. Avoiding the long line was the key thing.

Now I'm in the JAL Airspace Lounge enjoying my "layover" until boarding time. This time is a non-stop to Narita on a 787 Dreamliner. I had this chance last year but opted for the upper deck of a 747. It was a good choice and I recommend it if any of you get the chance.