Using a prepaid Koodo iPhone SIM in Canada (as a traveling American)

Note: This is a guide aimed at getting a fast, semi-cheap, data/voice/text plan for Americans with unlocked phones traveling in Canada and information is up-to-date as of November 2013.

Whenever I travel to another country, about a week before the trip I hit up the prepaid SIM travel wikia page for info on cheap options with the most bandwidth for my phone. Having a data connection is vital when traveling, especially for parents. It’s not just about getting Instagram sunsets at the beach, I need to be able to find my way back to the hotel with my daughter and connect with my wife whenever we are apart in a different country. Maps, Yelp, and Google have been indispensable while traveling and I can’t imagine being in a strange place without their help.

My Verizion phone plan in the US charges way too much for bandwidth in other countries, even when you pay the extra rates (which, last I checked start at $20/mo extra and bandwidth costs extra on top of that, sometimes totalling hundreds of dollars for less than 1Gb of data). Other countries often have “pay as you go” and “prepaid” SIM card options that are ridiculously cheap compared to almost anything in America (a Gb of data can cost as little as $10). The problem with public wikis is the information gets out of date (some pages of that wikia site haven’t been updated in years) and even recent round-ups like this one on iMore are already more than a year old with pricing that doesn’t reflect current rates. I’m going to describe the exact steps I took to get online.

First step: unlocked?

First you’ll need an unlocked American phone, so that means either a Android Nexus phone purchased from Google or a iPhone 5, 5c, or 5s on Verizon (earlier 4 and 4s models can be unlocked by Verizon but it’s a pain as I found out in early 2012). I’m not sure if Sprint or AT&T iPhones can be unlocked. I had a iPhone 5s for my trip to Toronto, and I also had my wife’s unlocked 4s.

Find a Koodo kiosk or shop

I browsed a bunch of information online and decided that Koodo (a Telus subsidiary) offered the most bang for the buck because 1Gb of data was only $30. They won’t ship SIMs, MicroSIMs, or NanoSIMs to the US, so as soon as I landed, I only had free WiFi at airports or hotels until I could find a shop. Luckily, there was a Koodo kiosk in a mall close to my hotel, which I walked to soon after arriving.

You’ll want to ask for a prepaid SIM, and you can take it home and set it all up yourself on a laptop, tablet, or even your phone, and you might even save some money (there was a $20 credit when I was setting things up). Instead, I got my necessary SIM cards (NanoSIM for the iPhone 5 and up, MicroSIMs for earlier models) and paid for the cheapest unlimited text plan ($15), 100 minutes of talk ($10), and 1Gb of data ($30). With tax, each SIM cost me about $60 Canadian and I was given a special code to apply to the cards during sign up. If I could have gotten the SIMs for free and finished setup at home, it would have been $20 cheaper for each phone.

Screenshot 2013-11-14 06.58.12

Activate the SIMs

I fired up my laptop and pointed it at You go through a signup process, and I was sure to pick the same options I already paid for. I applied my PIN from the sales receipt, and everything was complete. Armed with a paperclip from the hotel’s front desk, I opened the SIM door on my phone and slid the Koodo card in. In a few moments it was on the network and a quick test with WiFi turned off revealed that everything was working, and I had a new strange temporary Canadian phone number, which I stored on my wife’s phone (and vice versa) so we could contact each other. iMessage still uses the network, so texting between other iPhone users (including my wife) worked just as it used to.



The bandwidth was impressive for my short trip. In downtown Toronto, I found speeds of 10-15Mb downloads (and even uploads sometimes), faster than my hotel’s WiFi connection. You should monitor your bandwidth use at as I found myself using a couple hundred Mb of data each day (mostly Google Maps or looking up operating hours of museums and restaurants while uploading lots of photos along the way). For my short five day visit, a $60 1Gb plan worked out great and was much cheaper than the alternatives. I only ended up using 781Mb of data and made just one test phone call throughout my stay.

Screenshot 2013-12-03 14.55.09


Screenshot 2013-12-03 14.59.00

I published a little photo gallery of the entire trip on the new Exposure site, featuring photos I took all on my iPhone while out and about.

San Francisco summer trip

I spent the last week of my daughter’s summer vacation taking her to San Francisco to have fun for a few days. What follows is a summary of things I liked, tips, and a few photos from the vacation.

  • The California Academy of Science is pretty amazing, combining an aquarium, a natural history museum, a bit of a zoo, and a science museum into one. It’s expensive but worth it. Also expensive but worth it, the restaurant in the basement called The Moss Room, run by the chef behind SF’s Sliding Door restaurant.
  • Ghirardelli Square was a bit of a letdown in that there’s no real chocolate factory to tour, it’s basically just a mall and you can buy chocolate and ice cream there as well as other shops. I never went here at a resident of the city and now I know I didn’t miss anything.
  • The cable car system is still a tourist novelty that was down/broken half of our stay and that trains were few and far between making the whole thing feel overpriced and slow.
  • The Clipper Card system was incredible! After living in the Bay Area for several years, I used to be annoyed by having BART tickets, cash for Muni, and separate Caltrain tickets. One clipper card for each of us worked on every system we used (Muni, BART, Caltrain, AC buses) and was easy to refill at any station. It finally felt like SF caught up to what every other major world city offered nearly a decade ago.
  • Visiting Pixar was a treat, but so much of the campus is restricted to outsiders that we basically just got to see how much energy they put into storyboarding movies before they’re ever made. I always knew they spent years on each film, but it didn’t sink in until I was there that storyboarding and tweaking a story is about 80% of the effort going into their movies.
  • About two years ago I stopped renting cars when visiting the Bay Area and this trip felt like the first time that could be permanent for future trips. We went all over San Francisco, down to San Carlos, over to Emeryville, and back to the airport all on quick, easy trains. Mass transit was also possible due to a bunch of handy apps, like Embark, which can tell you down to the minute where the nearest bus or train is heading.
  • The Exploratorium was fun and I love the new location and building they’re in. There are many more exhibits than I recall in the old space, it’s about a 10 minute walk from the Ferry Building, and there are tons of cool demos to entertain and inform kids.
  • Being briefly a single parent during this trip wasn’t as hard as I thought. Plane rides are much easier with iPads, and as someone told me when you’re the only parent around, every parenting decision you make is the correct one.








Glacier National Park, Montana

Last month, I took a family car trip over to Glacier National Park in Montana. I’d never been to Montana before, but since it was within 12 hours of driving from Oregon, I figured it’d be a nice experience for my 8 year-old daughter that mirrored all the mini vacations I took with my parents on long car trips. Below is a selection of photos from the trip, and a quick recap after.

The quick summary is that it was an amazing place. Though 2 million people visit the enormous park annually it didn’t feel at all crowded. The lodging within the park was sold out nearly a year in advance so we ended up at a small B&B just outside the west side entrance called The Great Bear Inn (the included nightly dinner was ah-maze-ing). The park’s season is pretty short, from roughly late-May to late-September, depending on snow melt. The park was really big, we mostly just explored various hikes and stops along the Going To The Sun road (including a day trip white water rafting which I would recommend highly). In four days we didn’t even have time for the northern end of the park (we only saw glaciers from a distance). The animal life was pretty great, we saw bald eagles, mountain goats with baby goats, and lots of other little critters. We didn’t get to see any of the bears we were warned about but that was fine. The scenery was beyond beautiful, with lush green glacier-carved valleys giving way to high peaks that make up the continental divide. Rising temps are melting the glaciers that give the park its namesake — they are now just a couple dozen small glaciers left with estimates that they’ll be gone in 10-15 years.

Overall, it was an extraordinary place and we had a great time. I can’t wait to revisit the place, only this time I’ll try the more northern sections of the park (it extends into Canada as well). On the way there, we spent a night in Spokane, Washington and that was a lot of fun as well.

My trip to Italy


I just returned from Italy, visiting Rome, Florence, and Venice over the course of two weeks. I went with my immediate family, along with my Aunt. Originally, the trip was meant as a sort of “reward” for my mom when she started to get a bad diagnosis about her cancer last year. When she was told a year-long course of chemo was ahead for her, I promised to take her and her sister (my aunt) to Italy to celebrate when she was done with chemo. Unfortunately, that never happened and she died soon after, but at a family gathering around Christmas last year I told my Aunt about the trip and asked if we could maybe go anyway the following summer, as a sort of tribute to my mom. She enthusiastically said yes.

It was my wife and daughter’s first trip to Europe, and my first pure vacation trip there (I’d only been twice previous, for mostly work-related reasons). My Aunt lived in Germany in the early 1970s (my uncle was stationed there in the military at the time) and they had the chance to take short vacations through Italy so she could often compare today to 40 years ago.

Overall, the trip was an absolute blast. I was worried about culture shock of a new language, new locations, and new food, especially with my young daughter tagging along. Oddly, my two years of high school of Spanish (and occasional use since) made the Italian language feel about 75% readable and it was easy to pick up short phrases (that were mostly tweaked spanish phrases I already knew). The food overall was very good and close to what a lot of high end Italian places serve in the states, and since it was a vacation it was pretty easy to slip into the relaxed Italian lifestyle. I can’t imagine an easier non-English speaking country to visit.



We flew into and out of Rome and knew spending some time there was pretty much mandatory on your first trip to the country. They have a great deal of relics from the original Roman Empire and many other sights and famous buildings in a pretty small section of the city center. Unfortunately for us, while Rome’s late Spring had been pretty mild, the day before we arrived a heat wave blew in from the Sahara and temps hovered around 90-95F the entire time we were there. It was brutally hot and tough to spend more than a couple hours out in the sun doing things before a rest in some air conditioned place was necessary (and two showers a day became the norm).

Our first night was spent in a nice hotel near the Colosseum and we spent the remainder of our time in a nice little apartment a block away. As always, having an apartment was great because we could eat whatever we wanted for breakfast and come and go as we pleased (also helped to have laundry in our unit). I have to mention while we had a small CarreFour grocery store nearby, the best fruit and eggs I’ve ever purchased came from a random convenience store near our apartment. The eggs we got (at the equivalent of your average 7-11 in the States) were as yellow and great tasting as my friend’s organic fed chickens. The quality of basic food at small shops and stores was really something else, feeling farm fresh.

We ended up eating in a lot of nearby restaurants, and being close to the Colosseum meant a lot of bad touristy places that cater to English speakers. Friends on twitter steered me towards the iPhone app “Rome for Foodies” which is a quirky but reliably awesome hand written guide to the best food near you from an American ex-pat living in Rome as a food writer and sommelier. Our best meals were had thanks to that app and we also found some great little bakeries listed in it too. We also had the best tasting lunch of our trip by just walking into a restaurant where the waiter picked antipasto for us for lunch, no menus, which sounded like a tourist scam to drive up the bill but everything that came out was amazing.

On the advice of a friend, we hired a tour guide (from this outfit) to take us through the ancient sites (it helped that our guide was an anthropologist) and the Vatican, both to understand everything we were seeing as well as skipping long tourist lines. The ancient sites are really pretty spectacular and it was hard to even grasp the time period in regards to our own lifespans. I found it hard to make sense of looking at a building completed 1900 years ago and thinking how it survived through such massive political, social, cultural, and even atmospheric changes. And even for an atheist like me, the Vatican was pretty incredible. The art was amazing and the massive cathedral was impressive.

Overall, we had a pretty good time in Rome seeing the sites. If it was a bit cooler out, we could have seen more and walked more places and spent more time outdoors at ancient sites, but I would definitely recommend first time visitors to Italy to not miss Rome.


Florence from our rental flat

Florence was even better than Rome. We spent five days and four nights in Florence and the next time I travel this way I will make it at least a week. Food was almost always incredible, using Yelp reviews was key to finding the best options and it helped that finding great gelato was easy. We also took a side trip to the Tuscan towns Chianti and San Gimignano and both served as a wonderful relief from the heat and the crowds of Florence.

Florence was like a puzzle composed of thousands of pieces, so many streets, alleys, nooks and crannies to explore. Over the course of our time there we visited half a dozen museums and churches and there was still another dozen I wanted to see that we never got a chance to see. Every day we’d travel different paths though the city center and every day we were rewarded with new shops, chapels, and bridges to see. We spent several days exploring and had a full day guided tour on the penultimate day of our stay. We thought we’d seen most of the city center but our guide spent the day showing us streets, attractions, and places we hadn’t even known existed. The food was pretty amazing no matter where we ate, reminding me of my Italian grandmother’s cooking.

We stayed smack dab in the center of town, overlooking the main cathedral and the largest, most crowded city square. It was fun to be in the thick of it and close to everything, but it came at the price of nearly 24hrs of crowd noise outside our windows (ear plugs helped). We didn’t plan on it, but our stay coincided with Florence’s big John the Baptist celebration day which included a big procession and the opening of some doors in the church that only open once a year. That same night, we got to see the most incredible fireworks I’ve ever seen (it helps that the big fireworks companies are often Italian family-owned) over the Arno river. The Euro 2012 soccer series was also going on and we got to enjoy watching Italy win some key matches amid the cheering locals crowded around TVs at bars.

Our brief day trip to Tuscany made it clear why people make such a big deal about the region surrounding Florence. The landscape is amazing with views from every hilltop and the weather was really mild. San Gimignano was known as “medieval Manhattan” and even though it was kind of a cheesy tourist castle-as-city, the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever eaten was there and it was a nice place to catch an afternoon Sunday concert from local players in their city square. Florence was a real gem and I would love to visit it again someday and explore the region more.


Venice during the golden hour

Almost every American I talked to before the trip said we should see Venice but warned us that it would disappoint. Too crowded, too dirty, and too touristy most said. I have to admit the first couple hours in the city weren’t that great. It was very hot, we paid too much for a water taxi, and we ended up lost for 40 minutes trying to find our hotel amid the alleyways. When we finally found it and dropped our bags, our first experience at St. Marks square was being around 10,000 cruise line attendes clamoring for souvenirs.

But every moment after those first couple hours was pure bliss. It was our first relief from the heat wave we’d endured in Rome and Florence. After Florence I had gotten used to the serendipity of wandering back alley paths and Venice was a city that definitely rewarded those that went with it. I found stores, restaurants, and coffee shops I never could find again. When we had to cut across the island to save time we’d see a new museum or specialty shop we loved. The water “bus” system was easy, economical, and fun to use, letting us get from anywhere to almost anywhere else in Venice. We avoided the crowded St. Marks Square for the most part and enjoyed quiet art museums and galleries as well as gardens.

Visiting the San Giorgio tower and getting to see the city from up high was one of the best experiences. It let you see just how fragile the whole city was, this collection of tiny islands with thousands of people in buildings that were nearly a thousand years old, the whole place felt more special and precarious. I have no idea how electricity and fresh water get to the islands, and we frequently saw supplies still delivered by hand cart and construction done via boat.

Our hotel was nice, food was pretty good (Yelp use here is minimal, so I instead switched to the more popular Trip Advisor), but by the end of our time in Venice I think I loved it most of all the places we visited in Italy because it was so relaxing, laid back, and the weather was so mild being on the water. I would highly recommend not only visiting if you get the chance, but spending more than the standard overnight trip (we spent four days/three nights and I could have stayed more).

Some general travel tips

Rome: buying an unlimited Metro pass for the number of days of your stay is a good deal. We found we could get from our apartment to almost anywhere we needed to be in the city using the network of buses and trains. Keep in mind the core area of most attractions in downtown Rome is only a couple miles from end to end so if the weather isn’t too bad and you’re reasonably fit you could walk almost everywhere. The main international airport (FCO) is fairly far out of town and is about 50 euro to taxi into the center of Rome. Yelp was useful and reliable for reviews of restaurants. During siesta time (about 1-4pm) most businesses closed up shop and didn’t post hours. In the heat, we just got used to either resting during this time or visiting a museum.

Florence: there is a plethora of museums and I would highly recommend picking just a handful out and making reservations well in advance if you want to see the original David statue at the Academy Gallery). A tour guide came in handy here to see lots of small things we hadn’t spotted before. Everything we did was walking distance except for our trip to Tuscany, and our tour guide/driver came in handy because I didn’t want to drive in Italy.

Venice: The water bus system was great and time-based unlimited passes were worth the price. During our four day stay, a 72hr unlimited ticket covered all our needs and let us explore the entire length of the grand canal as well as some of the smaller islands. Water Taxis will take you directly where you need to go but will cost a lot (60 euro from the train terminal to St. Marks). The gondola rides are even more expensive (100 euro for 30-40min) but as a tourist you kind of have to do it once for the full experience. The art/museum pass was also a good deal and let us skip lines at the most popular spots.

Nerdery: I had good results from using a microSIM on my iPhone (that was only 20 euro and came with 10Gb of bandwidth), but there was about a 12hr delay until it started working. I couldn’t get their data-only SIM to work in my iPad and instead got one from TIM (which worked instantly, also without a PIN on the SIM), another telephone company in Italy. There were no phone kiosks in the Rome airport, but it was pretty easy to find dedicated phone stores in Rome from Wind, TIM, and Vodafone. WiFi was generally available everywhere for either a fee or you had to ask for the password (free open WiFi was prohibited for the last decade due to anti-terror rules). My iPhone’s battery ran down faster than I remember, probably because I was using Foursquare so much. I eventually dropped my connection down to Edge-only to get a full day out of my phone.

Food: The best meal in Rome was had at Da Danilo. My favorite meal in Florence was at Za Za (which is touristy and crowded but still worth it). The best meal we had in Venice was at La Zucca. Overall, food was generally great everywhere, I had some of the best risotto of the trip at the cafeteria in the Rome train station. In general, I used Yelp to find highly reviewed places near me. At first I realized it was difficult to evaluate restaurants with only Italian reviews I couldn’t read until I realized they were generally better since native Italians were eating there. I used Trip Advisor only when I needed to because their reviews are generally rubbish and untrustworthy (the highest rated place in Florence on TA was almost exactly the same as the food you would honestly get at an Olive Garden in the US. Forgettable crap).

Traveling around: Rome buses were great, especially the tiny electric ones because they went down very small streets and alleys. Rome’s subway was reliable and quick. The national high speed trains were great for going from one town to the next faster than a plane and very cheap considering. The best trip we had was a nonstop from Rome to Florence in a brand new train with lots of room and it was incredibly comfortable. Those trains also offer WiFi if you have a TIM sim card in your phone.

Two things I didn’t get about Italy:

  1. Casual tolerance for tagging-style graffiti. I’m a fan of graffiti art but I find tagging your name on stuff annoying and ugly. We saw some supposedly 14th century graffiti in Florence so maybe people are fine with it for possibly historical reasons, but I found it annoying to see many historical sites with some guy’s name spray painted on it. The subway trains in Rome looked almost like 1980s NYC trains they were covered in so much graffiti.
  2. Most every museum, almost all churches, and even some stores had “NO PHOTOS” signs posted. I understand not wanting camera flashes to annoy patrons in a museum and no one likes a guy with a tripod blocking up a crowded place, but no cameras at all seemed really weird to me. I ended up taking photos of things using my phone, usually acting like I was using my phone and not taking a photo.


Here are some photos from my trip. I also made a video from short clips over two weeks:

Yosemite iOS apps (yes, really)

Half Dome

Last month I had a lovely time in Yosemite with my family. I grew up in Southern California so I’ve been to Yosemite a dozen times before, but I really love going in the Winter because barely anyone is around. You can hike to many places in peace, you can get dinner at every restaurant, and you can enjoy views without having to rush along.

On a lark, the week before we went I searched the App Store for “Yosemite” just to see what came up. I downloaded half a dozen things and most weren’t much help during my trip but there were two apps worth mentioning because I found myself using them many times during our week there.

California State Parks ($0.99) Every time you’re in a California State Park, there are maps. Maps they give you when you go in, maps of shuttles, maps of parking lots, etc. This app had a free downloadable pack of Yosemite maps and I used this daily while in the park. I not only got to see myself as a nice blue dot on any of the maps, when we were pressed for time, I could locate the nearest shuttle bus stop, I could tell where to park near hiking trails, and I could tell which route was shortest to a waterfall. Totally worth the buck and way easier to carry than a stack of maps.

The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite ($6.99) There are lots of photo classes in Yosemite Valley and there are professional courses you can take to learn where to stand and when to take the best shots possible. These classes start at about $100 and go up into the thousands for a several-day outing with the pros. One pro photographer took everything he knew about shooting photos at Yosemite and put them all into this amazing app. You can tell the app when you’re in the park and what time of day it is, and it will tell you the exact places and shots you can get if you follow their tips. It’s really incredible because some of the tips involve windows of only a few days a year where something is lit up just right. I didn’t plan my vacation around this app, but when I had some time in the afternoon, I knew where the best place was to park and get out and take a shot of Half Dome seen above (on a bridge a couple hours before sunset).

That said, Verizon phone coverage was generally pretty spotty in the valley, and even my high end accomodations at the Ahwahnee came with spotty WiFi so getting online or uploading photos was dodgy at best all week. Both of the apps above worked fine offline (once you download the right map pack over WiFi).

SXSWi 2010 recap


Now that I’ve slept it off and a couple days have passed, I feel like I can start processing the past week in Austin Texas for the South By Southwest Interactive Conference. Some quick bits follow.

Huge Crowds

I’d heard this would be the biggest SXSWi ever and I certainly remember not having as much fun the last time I was there in 2007. Back in 2007, I couldn’t find my friends among the crowds and I didn’t know some good friends even attended until after I returned home. This year it was definitely bigger, but I’d have to say Twitter and Foursquare saved the day and made it manageable because they served as a friend filter and handy search device for figuring out where the 50-100 people I know and care about seeing were among the 10,000 anonymous conference attendees.

The first couple days I kind of hated the crowds and how hard it was to find friends in the halls (SXSWi from the previous ten years included years where I’d see more people I knew than didn’t know if I walked down a hallway between panels) but soon I realized everyone I knew was tweeting their location and I could use my friends list in Foursquare to figure out where to go. Heck, even though I complained about 23 things happening at the same time as the panel I was on, the simple web app SitBy.Us worked great for finding friends and panels to enjoy as well.

The crowds reminded me of how people used to say there were too many blogs, and that after a few years people just invented better search and discovery methods to help you find the few blogs that should matter to you. So I didn’t have to talk to 10,000 people and I eventually found ways to find the 100 people that mattered to me.

That all said, one rule I lived by was Never Stand In Line For A Party. When 10,000+ people hear there is a Twitter party, there will be a long ass line to get into a bar that can only hold a few hundred. That means I missed some of the big parties but after spending 45min in lines during 2007 SXSWi to get to a party I stood around in for an hour, I realized party lines are pointless. Instead, I attended nightly events that lacked lines like The Fray Cafe, The Break Bread for Brad get together, The SXSW Web Awards, the 20×2 show, nice dinners with friends, house parties, and Nerdcore Hip Hop Concerts.

Our lovely Austin rental house

Rent a House!

After having a child a few years ago, my family tends to rent houses when vacationing instead of staying in hotels and it’s been great. This year for SXSW I rented a three bedroom modern house in a nice neighborhood just a couple miles from the convention center. It was about the same price as a single hotel room downtown and Team MetaFilter (four people) got to stay in it. It was also great to make my own simple breakfast and get several quiet hours each night to upload photos, write, code, etc. I did have to rent a car and I barely drank because I was driving everyone around but it was really nice to get restful sleep in a calm roomy place. It was a nice change from the drunken stumble home to a tiny $400/night downtown room with people having sex on the floor above at 3am while I’m trying to sleep.

On stage #codingforpleasure

Panels, panels, everywhere

There were certainly a zillion things to go see presented and I have to say unlike my last SXSW visit, I came away with good ideas from the panels and discussions. I wrote a couple pages of notes of things I need to add to my web applications and ideas for new features on sites I run. It was great to come away feeling invigorated and informed instead of merely hearing the same people saying the same things I’d read online already.


I’ve been obsessed lately with what makes a good performer and given the immense rooms most SXSW talks took place in, the only memorable ones were when a speaker could really perform, especially in the cavernous spaces.

I took part in a panel that sort of went so-so because I think we were all three introverts on stage and I was mumbling my thoughts instead of really engaging the audience and speaking from the heart. I felt like we might have over prepared and the easy banter the panel enjoyed when talking beforehand didn’t come across on stage.

Gary Vaynerchuk had a similar message to the one my panel was trying to convey (work on side projects, make them awesome, make a living from them, follow your passions) but he gave his talk in the most amazing way possible — super high energy, super entertaining, and almost more like a celebration or a sermon in places. I used to ignore the Gary Vee love around the internet because I used to think it was mostly marketing types that loved him so he had to be a fake, but after I saw his Web 2.0 Keynote from 2008 online, I became a fan and seeing him give a talk like that in person is almost revolutionary. Gary is the real deal and worth following.

MC Frontalot doing "I hate your blog..."

Always Be Content Creating

I didn’t intend to be doing much while I was in Austin, but I did end up talking MetaFilter inside baseball on the Slappy Pinchbottom radio show with Josh & Jessamyn, as well as my new friend MC Frontalot (his new album is great!). I’ll link to a download of the show whenever I track one down. I also just happened to drop by This Week in Google show and my part starts about 30min into this show where I talk about Fuelly, privacy, and my tumor. I took a bunch of photos while I was out and about, including the super fun Bike Hugger Mobile Social which turned into just about the most efficient group ride I’ve ever done with 700 people at once. Below is some video from the radio show, featuring Josh and Jessamyn singing the “Asshat” song about moderating MetaFilter.

From the moment this year’s SXSW started, I wasn’t sure it was going to be a good time given the size and scope of it after ten years, but I definitely came away inspired, entertained, and exhausted like the best of the previous years.

Disneyland 2010

Fiona enjoying the teacups

Now that I have a child that can really begin to enjoy Disneyland, we've made a couple annual visits to Disneyland and this past week we went there armed with three day passes. 

I grew up about a 20 minute drive from Disneyland, and I've been to the park probably 100 times thanks to having an annual pass when I was a kid. As an adult, I went some time in 1997, once in 2004, and last year. I'd never gone for more than one consecutive visit until this trip. To be honest, even to Fiona three days in a row started to get boring and two days was probably enough (though they don't sell 2-day passes).

Toontown coaster

My daughter loved the Toontown roller coaster so much we went on it probably a dozen times. Eventually we also did the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad which she also loved (we were surprised and thought it might be too much), and she even loved Splash Mountain. She liked most every outdoor ride (dumbo and the tomorrowland rockets) but hated almost all the dark rides.

Disneyland's dark rides follow a fairly standard plot: establish a place and characters, put them on a journey, then smack them with a challenge from some evil force, and finish with sudden triumph. I don't know why even stuff like Winne the Pooh has to have some dark evil. The dark rides also suffered from cranked sound levels — if it's hurting my old deaf ears, I can't imagine what the sounds are doing to 2 year olds on the rides, but the loudness seemed mostly there to shock and awe which likely contributed to Fiona saying she never wanted to ride Mr. Toads or Roger Rabbit again.

California Adventure sucked. I'd heard it sucked before but I had no idea. They pipe in rock music from speakers every thousand feet or so for no good reason, there's a very small section designed for kid rides, and the Bug's Life show is insanely age inappropriate for small kids with stuff that would cause an adult to get nightmares. The entry was thrown in free with our passes and after barely an hour there, we skipped back to Disneyland across the sidewalk.

The highlight of the trip was going midweek in January, since it meant the crowds were just about the smallest you could ever find. We ran onto many rides and the longest wait over three days was barely 20 minutes. The weather was great too, with temps in the 65F-70F range with no rain at all.

Wishing stars app

Another highlight of the trip was using the Wishing Stars iPhone app in the park. It's basically a photo and clue-driven scavenger hunt through the park for features and locations. Most of it is pretty simple though some of the arcane history in the harder levels proved difficult. Overall, it was a blast and a fun diversion when standing in a line or walking around the same part of the park for the third time that day. 

There's something kind of amazing about being able to do something social like a scavenger hunt, but asynchronous through the use of this app. I know a few friends are working on similar types of applications (doing previous real-time social events in a new web-enabled asynchronous way) and I think it's going to become a big trend in application development.

Overall, I had a blast though next time I think two days will be quite enough.

Holy shitballs

Back in college, my favorite undergraduate class of my major was Limnology, or the study of lakes and rivers. I loved it so much that I went to grad school and eventually helped teach it as a TA while doing soil and water chemistry of a lake ecosystem.

In the world of limnology, there are three big lakes everyone talks about. It shouldn’t be a surprise that certain lakes always get talked about in a study of the subject since I suspect every English major has to know Chaucer, Math majors gotta know Erdös, and Physicists hear about Newton, Feynman, and Hawking all the time.

So among the limnologists I rolled with, the big three were Lake Tahoe in California (a good demonstration of a glacial lake), Lake Baikal in Siberia (deepest, largest lake by volume on earth), and Crater Lake in Oregon (perfect demonstration of a volcanic lake). I’d grown up in California so I’d been to Tahoe many times, I’d seen/read tons about Baikal but never thought I’d see it in person (though I know someone who has), but I’d always wanted to see Crater Lake in Oregon.

I’ve lived in Oregon for over six years now and I’ve gradually started exploring quite a bit of it, going up and down the entire coast, all over the northwest side, some of the central area around Bend, and much of the far eastern and northern segments, but until today, I’ve never actually gotten to see Crater Lake.

We drove up and stayed the night before about 7 miles outside of Crater Lake in the quaintest little motorlodge straight out of the 1950s. We awoke this morning and headed up, still not knowing exactly which peaks that surrounded the lower valleys contained America’s deepest lake. After a half hour of driving, parking, and walking, I finally crested a path to take in this view and the first thought that came to my mind was this:

“Holy shitballs.”

The morning light was great, the surface was still and there were great reflections and the deep blue water was a deep blue unlike anything I’d seen before. I was in awe. I still am. Sometimes nature is so incredible you left with nothing to say but “Holy shitballs”.

Hawaiian Vacation

I just got back from an insanely relaxing and enjoyable vacation on the big island of Hawaii. I'd previously visited Oahu, Maui, and Kauai before so I was looking forward to seeing a new island. After two previous winter trips to Hawaii, I realized 6-7 days wasn't enough to relax given all the travel time so this trip was planned as a two week trip, only the second one I've taken in my life (my honeymoon in 2001 was the only other time I've been away for that long). Here's a quick rundown of stuff that was great and not so great:

Stuff that was great:

  • The place we rented was amazing. It's called the Zen Cottage and you can check out their website here. It was a quiet, calm place in an absolutely perfect location. If the photos on their site aren't enough, I filmed a quick walk-through the place and put it on vimeo here. I can't recommend the place enough.
  • Renting a house is a great idea if you have a small family with kids. Getting to prepare most meals at home (especially breakfast) makes things easy for kids and you don't feel like you're running around spending loads of money eating unhealthy food.
  • Riding a bike in January on smooth roads while it's hot and sunny was great. I posted some tips here and big thanks to Bike Hugger for steering me to Bike Works and giving hints on where to ride.
  • The big island really does have it all. Volcanoes, wildlife, rainforests, lava flows, black, green, and white sand beaches are just some of the things we got to enjoy. I took over 2,500 photos in two weeks and I posted my favorites on this Flickr set. I also shot about 100 clips and edited them down to a few minutes of various locations and activities here.
  • My favorite places to eat in Kailua-Kona were Island Lava Java (I eventually ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner there and it was great each and every time) and Sushi Shiono (which I found from this flickr photo). The best shave ice was from Scandinavian.
  • This thread about stuff to do in Hawaii on Ask MetaFilter lead me to do the hike to the southern end of the Volcanoes National Park to see the lava hitting the ocean, which was awesome. There are only so many opportunities to see the earth creating new land.
  • I loved Hilo. I took a side trip there and didn't expect much, since there aren't many hotels and it was supposed to rain non-stop during January. We found a great classic Hawaiian city with plenty of history, tons to do and look at, and it didn't rain on us once. The Banyan Street hotels are relics of a bygone era (the place must have been hot in the 1960s), but the recently rennovated Naniloa Volcanoes Resort was pretty nice.
  • Island Naturals is the big island's answer to a hippie grocery store and they stock all the good stuff you'd normally get in the mainland. They make great sandwiches too.

Stuff that wasn't so great:

  • Food at restaurants was generally middling to poor. I guess with a big captive audience expecting to pay top prices, you don't have to compete on quality. The first few days we ate at one lame place after another, all while they were charging $80-100 for lunch and dinner for 4-5 people. I eventually used Yelp and other online review sites to find better places to eat.
  • I was surprised food wasn't typically local. I know being on an island means a lot of stuff is imported, but the big island really is a big island (about the size of connecticutt) and the weather is perfect for growing pretty much anything. Aside from farmer's market fruits and vegetables we got, I don't recall having more than a handful of things locally grown or caught. Most fish seemed to be from New Zealand, eggs were from California, most produce was from South America. It was kind of disappointing that restaurants didn't push local food sources more.

Pile O’ Tips

I’ve been meaning to write up each and every one of these tips for weeks now, but I’ll never get around to fully fleshing them out so instead here’s a bunch of things I’ve learned over the past few months that might help you as well:

  • When picking people up curbside at the airport, tell your friends/family to meet you in departures, not arrivals. Especially on weekends and holidays, the arrivals area at most major airports will back up ridiculously as people hog the lanes and wait for people. A couple days before Christmas, we landed and I went out to fetch the car and pick up the rest of the family, but had to wait in a 15min long line to pick them up. The departures area was dead. I used this tip on Saturday and it worked great, as there were no lines and no waiting.
  • Last year I finally started joining frequent flier programs and when I noticed I was renting cars often, I decided to go with Hertz, and I went beyond the normal program and paid $50/year for the Gold membership. It’s the best money I ever spent. Now when I arrive at a destination, I just walk over to hertz, note my name and parking location on a big lighted board and walk up to my awaiting car and drive off. It literally saves 30-40 minutes of lines, waiting, and more lines every time I use it. For someone that rents cars often, it’s totally worth the $4 and change per month.
  • When you travel with a baby, it helps to have an extra room in your hotel so you can have some separation of space and your child won’t see you and want to be picked up at 3am. It’s not always feasible to get a hotel suite, but I’ve found a real bargain in Embassy Suites. It’s pretty much an average Holiday Inn style room, but it’s about 15ft longer, giving you a living room area in front of the bedroom complete with desks and sofas. We put the baby’s crib in there, and could put her to bed early and still read, talk, or watch TV in the other room while she slept. Plus, we could let her wake up slowly in her own room. Bonus points for this hotel giving a free breakfast buffet for two with every room. The price isn’t much higher than a typical business travel hotel and works wonders for a traveling family.
  • If you give presentations, please drop everything and read Beyond Bullet Points. It is written by someone that worked at Microsoft but hates the standard Powerpoint defaults. He teaches you basic story structure from theater and has a great system for creating dramatic presentations. I read this book and used the lessons to give a talk last year and it was my best talk ever. I got loads of compliments from the audience and I felt really confident and prepared going in (reading them online without any context leaves a lot to be desired but you can probably get the gist of it).