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Analyzing my London trip decisions: What worked well? What can I improve?

Update: Fixed incomplete sentence regarding Google navigation – thanks to Geoffrey Wiseman for pointing it out!

I’ve just come back from a trip to the UK for an Emacs conference. (Emacs!) While the memories are still fresh, I want to think about what worked and what can be even better next time I travel.

What worked well:

Keeping a close eye on flight fares versus visa paperwork: When the conference date firmed up, I checked the flight prices (~$1200)… and then realized that I still needed to get my visa paperwork sorted out. It took me about a week to gather all the papers, and then another three weeks to get it processed. I didn’t want to book the flight until I got the visa, but I also didn’t want to pay sky-high last-minute prices. Because I wasn’t sure that I’d be granted a visa, I kept a close eye on the flight prices throughout the period. I figured that if it got to two weeks before the trip or flight prices started trending up, I’d book the flight and then deal with the change fees in case I didn’t get the visa after all. Fortunately, I got the visa notification two weeks before the flight, and I booked my flight for ~$1000 – cheaper than it would’ve been if I’d booked it right away. It won’t always work out this neatly, but I’m glad that it did!

Couchsurfing: It was super-nice of the organizer and his wife to let me stay at their place during my trip. Not only did that make it much easier to fit the transatlantic flight into my budget, but it also meant that I got a glimpse of everyday life: buying groceries, walking around the neighbourhood, eating yummy home-cooked food and discovering Serbian tastes. That worked out much better than staying at a hotel.

Oyster card: The Oyster card was my very first purchase, and it worked out wonderfully. I had no problems navigating the London public transit system, which I used to and from the airport and around town. I could probably have loaded 20 pounds on it at the beginning instead of topping it up throughout the trip. I ran into a negative balance at one point and ended up paying the cash fare on the bus because I didn’t want to delay other people. Still, public transit = good! I returned my Oyster card for a refund when I got to Heathrow.

Withdrawing cash from the ATM: I withdrew GBP 50 from an HSBC ATM once I reached Paddington. It worked out to CAD 79.19 plus a CAD 5.00 fee, for an effective total exchange rate of 1 GBP = 1.684 CAD. This was better than the foreign exchange rates posted there, although slightly worse compared to how much it would have cost if I’d gotten my act together and either converted cash through my bank before leaving (penalty: ~$5, which was the bank withdrawal fee) or switched my account to something that doesn’t have international withdrawal fees (but that would cost me maybe $53 in forgone interest per year, and I don’t travel or withdraw enough to make up for that). So it all worked out. It was the right amount of cash to have handy, actually, although I could’ve probably gotten away with GBP 40.

Sketchnotes: I took notes during the conference and I posted them right away. People really liked the notes! I need to go back and add more details so that they’re more understandable even for people who weren’t at the event or who aren’t familiar with the topics, and that will be part of my Emacs Conf followups.

Meeting people: The Emacs conference was incredible. I’d never seen so many Emacs geeks in one place, and it was fantastic to meet all these people I’d gotten to know over IRC and elsewhere. During the rest of my trip, I met several people for coffee. I chatted with Dave, Louise, and Joanne(sp?) about travel, paperwork, comics, and drawing. John Wiegley and I brainstormed ways to make the Emacs community even awesomer. I hung out with Michael Olson while on a walking tour (see below). I didn’t get around to meeting everyone I’d wanted, but it was great meeting lots of people face to face. Such is life!

Walking: I walked to places whenever I could – an hour-long walk along Regent’s Canal from home to Camden Town, another long walk coming home from Covent Garden… Walking around in London is enjoyable because there are plenty of shops and interesting sights, and I felt safe.

Walking tour: Michael Olson suggested meeting up for one of the London Walks, so I did. It was a lot of fun hearing the guide tell stories about the buildings and the people who lived or worked in them. Walking tours might be an excellent way to observe well-polished storytellers.

Offline navigation using Google Maps: I downloaded the map of London, which was handy. Although I couldn’t search for places while offline, I could use the navigation function if I’d already set it up previously. I also used the map to verify that I was walking in the right direction. I also wrote addresses down in my notebook in case I ran out of battery or lost my phone.

Eating supermarket food: Quite a few of my meals were from supermarkets and department stores, which worked out wonderfully. One time I snagged a 99-pence chicken tikka masala meal (warmed and ready to go, marked down from 3.50) from Sainsbury Local and ate that in a nearby park. Three pigeons tried to mug me for the food, and about 30 pigeons stared at me throughout the meal. ;) Supermarket food turns out to be tasty and inexpensive. One downside is that I hadn’t realized that self-checkout lanes sometimes don’t give you exact change, and I neglected to ask the assistant for the rest of my change. Oh well.

Free museums: I spent most of Monday at the British Museum, where I got to see the Rosetta Stone and other amazing things. Neato!

Fish and chips: Yummy, crispy fish and chips. I had these with mushy peas for the first time. I could’ve probably walked around a little more and found cheaper fish and chips, but the one I settled on was very filling.

Bank holidays: My trip coincided with the long Easter weekend, which was nice because that meant people were generally relaxed and unhurried, and my hosts had plenty of time to hang out. It meant that many shops were closed, but I wasn’t there for shopping anyway.

Evernote: Evernote worked really well for saving small maps, directions, contact info, and so on.

Technical flexibility: There were some technical issues during the conference, but we managed to make things work. For example, the Mac we were using to project the Google Hangout didn’t pipe its audio out the headphone jack, so we got my laptop into the hangout and routed audio out that way. This meant that taking notes was more awkward, but it was worth it. At one point, I had to write things down on an index card (forward and backward, just in case my webcam was set to mirror!) in order to pass messages along to Steve Yegge, who might not have been monitoring the text chat in the Google Hangout. Audio feedback was a challenge, too, so we ended up typing questions in. Anyway, it all worked out! =)

Weather: I can’t claim any credit for this one, but it was great to have sunny weather throughout the trip. =)

Hat: My black Tilley winter hat was a practical choice – a wide brim to shade me from the sun, and earflaps to keep me warm. I got several compliments on it, too.

Bringing stationery for a thank-you card: It’s always nice to say thanks, and it’s even nicer to not have to raid your host’s stationery stash or write it on plain paper. ;)

Saving the next day for recovery: I kept the day after my trip free of appointments, which was nice because I didn’t have to worry about jetlag. I ended up doing productive stuff anyway, but at least that was completely optional. =)

What I can improve:

Packing: One pair of comfortable winter boots saw me through the whole trip, and my scarf was also really handy.

  • I could probably have packed more thermals, but I compensated by walking faster and the cold didn’t bother me.
  • I didn’t use the headphones or the tablet as much as I had hoped.
  • I forgot the USB cable for my phone, so I conserved power for the first few days. Then I realized I could borrow a cable from Alex, which allowed me to charge my phone and use it more for navigation. Yay!
  • I think I misplaced my tablet USB cable at the conference venue. It must have gotten tangled up with my power cord. No worries!
  • Since I didn’t have anything liquid in my suitcase on the way back, I might have been able to carry it on and so skip waiting for baggage in both Montreal and Toronto. I wasn’t sure if I could get away with it, though. Anyway, I made it through the 1-hour transit in Montreal by asking people in the security line if I could cut in ahead of them. (“I’m so sorry, but my plane is boarding now – can I please go ahead of you?” Everyone said yes.)
  • I didn’t need the foreign cash I brought (USD, EUR, and CAD), siwith the ATM withdrawal worked fine. It would probably have been good to carry one currency just in case.

Roaming: I forgot to enable roaming before flying out to London, so I had to use payphones. This made it harder to coordinate, but I managed. There was one time when I had the opportunity to meet up with Alex and someone else who had flown in for the conference. I received their e-mail while using Michael Olson’s portable hotspot, but that was two hours after they’d met up. I didn’t think of finding a payphone and calling them to see if they were still going to be in the area for a while; instead, I walked around London some more. If I had called them, I’d probably have met up with them instead of walking around as much (although that was fun too!).

Tools: Camtasia Studio crashed and wasn’t able to record my part of the keynote presentation. =( I think it had to do with missing or disabled audio devices. This is the second time this has happened to me, so I have to figure out how to reliably capture my screen. My tablet video capture stopped after a while. The livestream wasn’t working in time for the keynote. It’s a good thing that my phone captured all the audio from the keynote, so at least we have that!

Setting aside time for video editing, or finding someone who can do it: We’ve got all these recordings… now what? I’ve volunteered to spend some time slicing them up into talks and getting them out there, and I plan to spend one day a week focused on this and other Emacs goodies.

In general, blocking off time for follow-up: There’s a lot of good stuff to follow up on, and I don’t want it to get buried in the day-to-day.

Publishing presentation: Would probably have been nice to have a Dropbox folder all ready to go. And screenshots/sketches of my own so that I don’t feel weird about the licensing of other people’s images…

More productive use of plane time: I mostly watched a few movies and slept a little bit. On the plane ride to the UK, I had an empty seat beside me, so I knew I wouldn’t be interrupted by anyone who needed to use the facilities. That meant that I could break out my computer and write code. I wrote my presentation code, and it actually worked. =) On the plane ride back, I was next to two people who needed to use the facilities frequently, so I didn’t feel comfortable setting up my notebook or even writing letters. And the Air Canada in-seat entertainment system wasn’t working for me on the ~8-hour trip back. =| Maybe I should use plane time to listen to audiobooks instead?

Better camera? I probably should’ve packed a small camera instead of using my phone. It would also have been nice to remember to take pictures, especially of the conference. I’ll just have to draw from memory.

All in all, an excellent trip!

After Emacs Conf 2013; ideas for Sunday and Monday

Emacs Conf 2013 was a blast! It was super awesome meeting so many Emacs geeks in person, and the talks were fascinating. I’ve posted my sketchnotes and will be revising them to make them easier to read. Some of the other speakers have shared their presentations, so I’ll update that page with links as I come across them. I’m working on pulling together the videos (thanks to jamief for the livestream recording, which I linked on the sketchnotes page). Our keynote wasn’t recorded on video, but I’ve uploaded the audio (also linked on the sketchnotes page).

I’m flying out from London on Tuesday, April 2. The weather forecast for Sunday and Monday looks great and this is the first time I’ve been in a city with a (temporarily) high concentration of Emacs geeks. This is also only the second time I’ve been in London, and the first with an appreciable amount of free time. So I need to decide what to do, otherwise I’ll spend all the time working on Emacs-related follow-ups on the couch.

Possibilities/things to do:

  • Meet up with other Emacs geeks at a coffee shop somewhere. Advantages of doing it in person instead of IRC: higher throughput, fewer tech problems, more ability to move things around or sketch things out? Although many Emacs geeks are still recovering from yesterday… Some possibilities:
    • Braindump things to write about in more depth. (Outline for book? Pages on Emacs Wiki?) Emacs docathon!
    • Hack on various things together. Maybe dig into Org issues? Emacs hackathon!
    • Help people with their configuration files. Emacs configathon!
    • Commiserate with other Windows users and borrow their configuration tweaks. Umm… Emacs unmiserathon?
  • Hang out with other Emacs geeks and do non-Emacsy things, like wandering around London, because people are awesome and it would be great to get to know them.
  • Wander around London for walking exercise. Have fish and chips. Have a good map to navigate my way back. Maybe walk up to Camden Town or take the tube? Go to the Museum of London and marvel at history?
  • Wander around the neighbourhood. Have a good map to navigate my way back.
  • Write letters. Because letters. =)
  • Work on Emacs-related followups: adding more information/colours to sketchnotes, processing video, writing blog posts, working on code… I can theoretically do this when I’m back in Toronto, but there’s value in getting things out reasonably quickly and with good momentum.

Okay. I think the plan is to hang out and enjoy a nice relaxed day over here, meeting up with John Wiegley or other Emacs people if they reach out to the mailing list or through e-mail, and maybe wandering up to Camden Town if not. I’ll snag some postcards and write. Tomorrow, I’ll go to the Museum of London with my trusty notebook and pen, and collect interesting thoughts. I’ll block out some time every week to do Emacs followup, so I can spread it out over time. Should be good!

Getting ready for the Emacs Conference

I’m in London for Emacs Conference 2013 (squee!!), which is tomorrow. John Wiegley and I are starting the day off with a whirlwind tour of Emacs’ past, present, and future. The program looks excellent, and I can’t wait to learn from all these wonderful people. Let’s find out what sketchnotes of an extremely geeky conference look like! =D

I’d worked on this presentation about 9 hours before leaving for London. I wrote most of the presentation code on the airplane (functions to go forward and backward, and to process the current slide).

I finished the rest of the content this morning, then headed out with Alex and his wife Tina. Today I got to experience a slice of regular life over here: a walk through the market, a grocery trip, a yummy home-cooked meal. Alex and Tina have been fantastic hosts! =)

After dinner, I worked a little more on the presentation. I made slides and a PDF just in case my Org presentation doesn’t work out, and helped with nametags and the list of people attending.

I’m looking forward to the conference. I think this will be an excellent adventure! I’ll post my presentation afterwards, so subscribe to my blog or follow the #emacsconf hashtag. If you’re attending tomorrow, come and say hi! I’ll be the short Asian girl bouncing around and possibly hyperventilating at all the awesomeness. I’ll also be drawing sketchnotes on a tablet PC, assuming I don’t give up and stick everything into org-capture instead. =)

Tech report: Living on the T-Mobile 2G network

I was going to be in the US for 14 days, so I picked up a free prepaid SIM card for my phone in order to avoid massive roaming fees. My Samsung Galaxy S3’s compatible with the T-Mobile network, so I opted for the $2 Pay by the Day plan that included unlimited talk, text, and 2G web. A $30 load covered my 14-day trip with a dollar to spare. My parents were going to be there longer, so the $50 unlimited talk/text/web (100MB at 4G speed) was a better fit for them. 

After I put in the SIM card, I confirmed that phone and text worked. The Internet connection wasn’t working, though. The call center agent asked me to make sure airplane mode was off (yup) and packet data was enabled (yup), and she tried resetting my connection to the network. Still no luck, though. Some searching turned up the fact that the 2G network is GSM. The following setting made it possible for me to connect to the Internet using my phone:

Settings > Wireless and networks > More Settings > Mobile networks > Network mode > GSM only

2G was fine for quick map lookups and the occasional web search. I didn’t need to stream video or anything like that, so I didn’t miss the data speeds.

If you’re going to be on a short US trip and you don’t need a lot of data, it might be worth checking this out.

Raiding San Francisco’s Japantown for bento accessories and pens

Japantown was a thirty-minute walk from Union Square along a route that reminded me that yes, San Francisco is built on hills. It was quite a pleasant walk, actually: sunshine, a breeze, and conversation. I wanted to pick up some bento accessories for J-, whose love of all things Japanese might motivate her to prepare and enjoy more creative and healthy lunches in high school. I also wanted to check out the stationary store at which it was rumored that one could find nifty little fountain pens and other imports.

There were lots of cool bento accessories at Ichibankan and Daiso. I promised W- that I wouldn’t go overboard, so I bought just a few items: a few silicone food dividers and cups, a nori punch, and some sauce bottles. That should make the bento box much more fun to fill.

I’d also been looking for an extra-fine fountain pen, and the Internet recommended checking out Maido. When I went to the address given, though, I was somewhat disappointed to find a character stationary shop filled with cute gifts but a tiny selection of pens. Fortunately, the Kinokuniya salesperson directed me to the second floor, where I found the real Maido stationary shop. It was awesome! I got the Pilot Penmanship Fountain Pen and the CON-50 converter. That doesn’t seem to be listed on the Maido website, but here it is on Jetpens.

There’s a small J-town complex in Markham, but it’s nowhere near the scale of the one in San Francisco. =) Glad I got a chance to check this one out!

Stories from the trip: Terminal 3

ccattrib_naia_3_2009_michael_francis_mccarthyFrom October 15: After many hugs, we piled our luggage onto a cart and headed briskly into Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 1.

The security guard looked at our tickets and said, "Congratulations! You’re at the wrong terminal!" – but so cheerfully that it took the edge off my panic.

I scrambled to find my cellphone. I called my parents, who had dropped us off. "Eep! Terminal 3!" Fortunately, they weren’t far off. More hugs, a quick un-pile and re-pile of luggage, and we were at the (relatively) new Terminal 3. We had flown out of and into that terminal for our domestic flights, so I was familiar with it, but this is the first time we’d flown out of it for an international flight.

Anyway, it stuck with me a little. =) It’s fun to see people having fun at work.