Monday, September 18, 2006


[Started this on September 18, but got sidetracked]

Emily and i left for Spain early on Sunday morning-- San Diego to O'Hare to Madrid by Monday morning. We had to get to Bilbao by Monday evening, so we had already reserved a rental car. In all the times i've been to Europe, i've never driven so that was an adventure. We had a bit of trouble getting out of Madrid, but eventually we just started following signs heading toward Burgos.

The terrain just north of Madrid looks remarkably similar to southern California, including the brown vegetation. The freeway looks similar also, except that the signs are in Spanish. Just what is a "Cambio de sentido", by the way? We stopped in a town called Lerma, just short of Burgos to try to get some lunch. None of the bars, restaurants, tapacerias, whatever, looked particularly inviting, so we just went to a local market and bought some stuff to make sandwiches and we managed to negotiate the purchase of 3 apples and 2 peaches from the produce lady.

North of Burgos the terrain starts to get hillier, until it's basically mountains near Bilbao. As you enter Bilbao it seems like a fairly bustling metropolis, but it's actually a fairly small city that just doesn't really have any outskirts. Nonetheless it took us quite a while to locate the hotel. The whole "grid" idea isn't widely used in European cities, and Bilbao is no exception. I'm sure it all makes sense once you've been there a while, but the combination of round-abouts and apparently random one-way streets reminds me of playing Zork in college.

Eventually we found the Sheraton and tried to take a nap. Couldn't sleep too long though since there was a reception that night at 7. I was tired, but i figured it would be best to go to the reception, have dinner, and try to get on a fairly normal schedule. After the reception, Emily and i and my colleague Todd and his wife and daughter, and several of the employees of the host company went out to dinner at a nearby restaurant. It was only 9pm, which is apparently a bit early by Spanish standards, but they served us anyway. Most of the food was excellent, but i also formed an aversion to a standard north-Spanish dish, which is basically cod (bacalao) in a sauce called "pil-pil".

The next day was the first day of the conference, which included my presentation. It went OK. The afternoon sessions were hard with the jet lag in effect, but i started to feel better toward the end of the day. After the conference we got a guided tour of the Guggenheim. The art was somewhat sparse beyond the permanent displays, but the building is amazing. It looks so bizarre and disorienting from the outside, but it's quite soothing and well-structured inside. The most memorable exhibit inside was the set of giant steel sculptures by Richard Serra. Although you can't touch them and they don't move, it's still an interactive exhibit of sorts, since you can walk around and within the sculptures.

We had dinner that evening at another hotel, although it was not dinner in the sense i'm used to. Basically it was an extended cocktail party with lots of wine and hor d' oeuvres. Not quite tapas, but not quite traditional course either. It was fun. An excellent way to do dinner for a large group of people, since you can move around and change conversation partners.

The highlight of the next day was Chris Anderson of "Long Tail" fame. He's turned the idea into something of a cottage industry; and it does seem like a valuable insight with regard to the Internet's impact on markets. Paul Lamere also gave a fun presentation on his work on content-based recommendation.

I skipped the afternoon session so that Emily and i could have lunch and see some of Bilboa. We went to a place called Victor Montes in the old part of Bilbao. We had pigeon and some nice Rioja. We went for a walk afterwards, trying to find a church called the Basilica Begona,which turned out to be closed. We spent a couple of hours walking around the mall across the street from our hotel, and had dinner in our room.

The next day we got up and started driving back to Madrid. The drive back was pretty much the same as the drive up, until we got to Madrid and got sort of lost. It took us a while but we finally located ourselves on the map. We circled around our hotel on Gran Via for a while until we finally found a parking structure at the Plaza del Carmen. We checked in at the hotel and walked back to the car to get our luggage, whereupon we found that the side street next to our hotel is the workplace for a fairly significant number of prostitutes. So far my opinion of Madrid was low, and i found myself wondering how to say "shithole" in Spanish. We went for another walk and went to the Prado Museum. The art at the Prado was interesting to me with my humanities background, but it was just too much after a day of fighting traffic and trying to get oriented.

The next morning we left plenty early to get to the airport (we thought). We got stuck in a bit of traffic, but nothing too bad, and we managed to get the rental car returned and up to the terminal with about 2 hours to go before the flight. There was a long line for baggage/boarding passes, but we didn't worry too much since we had plenty of time.

We got the ticket counter with just about an hour left before our flight. We started to check in, whereupon the guy at the counter told us that the flight was "closed" and that he couldn't give us boarding passes. We thought he must have mistaken our flight number so we started explaining that we had an hour still, but he told us that they close out the flights 55 minutes before the flight. We screamed and yelled and begged and pleaded, but to make a long story short we missed our flight. Fortunately, there was another flight to New York that day, and we managed to get on it, though of course we'd missed our connection, and my dad was scheduled to leave San Diego the followed.

We ended up spending a night in JFK, but we did get a flight home early the next morning. We had to arrange for some friends to get the kids so that my dad could make his flight. It was not a fun experience, but at least the kids didn't have to go through it. My advice: DO NOT fly Iberia airlines unless you happen to be Iberian.

I like Spain, though i don't think i got to see the best of it. The food and wine are good, the climate is nice, and the people are friendly. I speak just enough Spanish to get myself in trouble, and the Spanish lifestyle fits in nicely with my essentially nocturnal nature. I still want to get to Barcelona and the south of Spain, but this was a nice introduction.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Summery Summary

The problem with blogging is that when there's actually stuff happening in my life, i don't have any time to blog about it. Summer's about over, the kids are back in school, so i figured i'd write myself a brief synopsis of the last month.

Nathan is now in 7th(!) grade and Henry is in 4th. They're both playing soccer again this fall; they've been practicing for about a month, but games don't start until this Saturday (9/9).

My job has been kicking my butt. I finally managed to hire all of the people that i had reqs for, but we still have about 3x as much work as we have capacity for. We also have frequent changes in direction and priority; so much so that even agile methods can't handle the chaos.

Emily and i are going to Spain next week. I was invited to give a presentation at this event, so we decided to make a small vacation out of it. We'd have probably stayed longer, but my dad is coming out to watch the kids and we didn't want to have him away from home too long with my mom still recovering from heart surgery.

I ran the America's Finest City half marathon a couple of weekends ago. I ran my personal best (1:28.12) and my first half-marathon under 1:30. I need to shave off about 3 minutes by November when i plan to run the Silver Strand half.