Entries by tag: travel

Wine trip – Yakima / Zillah

Went to Yakima a week and a half ago to taste wine. For those who don’t know, it’s a wine region in south central Washington. We were in Zillah, a bit south of Yakima proper, where we visited six different wineries and tasted about 30 wines.

Grape hyacinths are the closest I got to taking any photos of grapes

Before talking about the wine, here’s my rating scheme. Each wine gets between one and four marks, meaning:

  • Four: “Great, I’ll look for this one”,
  • Three: “Nice, I’ll buy this if I see it”
  • Two: “OK, well, I wouldn’t turn it down”
  • One: “Hmm, yeah, maybe I’ll just have water”

This scheme is purely subjective and quite simple, mostly because I’m not terribly good at the descriptive element of wine tasting yet. Nonetheless, it forces me to think a bit and make some sort of judgement, which is really the whole point.

Anyway, on to the wines – here’s what caught my attention:

  • 2008 Two Mountain Riesling: Nice and light, comparatively dry in that it didn’t have a lot of residual sugar, but with sweet honey and floral flavours to make up for it. They noted peach, apricot, and overripe grapefruit in their description, but I could only get peach. They also mention minerality, but I can’t actually distinguish that. Slightly higher acid than normal, too, making for an interesting variation on the riesling theme. Of all the wines we tried, this was probably the best suited for warm summer nights because it was so refreshing. Three summer parasols.
  • 2005 Two Mountain Vinho Vermelho port: This was a find; 100% Touriga Nacional grapes, but with a lot less of the deep musty flavours that some ports wallow in. It was very similar to thick dessert wines and muscats in that it was almost like drinking honey or nectar except, unlike them, it had the complexity and length that makes port worth savouring. Despite being a very young port (only 2005!), it tasted as if it had been in the barrel for at least 10 years. Unfortunately, though, it was fairly expensive ($47), so I wasn’t able to afford any.Four drunken bishops.
  • 2007 Hyatt Black Muscat: Normally, muscat grapes are normally used to make dessert wine; in this case, they were used to make a rosè. Most wines also don’t taste a lot like the grapes from which they’re made; unfortunately, this one did. This doesn’t mean it was boring – in fact, muscatelle grapes have a very interesting flavour that is reminiscent of wine even when fresh, and when my father used to grow these at home, my sister always referred to them as the ‘gross grapes that taste like wine’ and refused to touch them. I, however, loved them, and stole them whenever I had the chance. So, while I was underwhelmed by this wine, I can’t say I didn’t like it. It just wasn’t what I expected from a muscat. Two splodges.
  • 2006 Hyatt Winter Harvest White Wine. Ice wine, divine. With a relatively high amount of residual sugar at 315 g/L, this was as thick and rich as anything else I’ve tried, and, with lots of stonefruit flavours, it was just what I like in an ice wine. Unfortunately, at about $28 for a 375ml bottle, it was too expensive for me. Three fruit salads.
  • Wineglass Cellars. Unfortunately, I lost my sheet of notes from here, which is a pity, because the staff here were some of the most friendly and talkative of the whole trip, and I recall liking several of their wines quite a lot. There were a couple of interesting ones, too; a Sangiovese Rosè, and a Cabernet Franc, both of which I’ve not really tried before. They also had a barrel tasting of 2008 Pinot Noir or Zinfandel that was quite divine. Kicking myself about the lost notes, but will be looking out.
  • 2005 Bonair Grand Reserve Merlot. We tried merlots at each of the wineries we visited, but at Bonair, you got a limited number of tastings, and I didn’t choose this one. However, I stole a sip from someone else’s glass, and learned enough to know this was probably the best merlot of the day, and I missed out. Pity, that. No rating.
  • Paradisos del Sol Angelica G. This was a charming and strange winery complete with random animals and eccentric owner who was really passionate about explaining the tasting of his wines, right down to providing appropriate things to eat with each one. Angelica G was code for a Gewürztraminer dessert wine served with brandied pears. Quite wonderful. Three pears.

Of the wineries, Paradisos del Sol had the most character, Wineglass the best wine-conversation, while Silverlake and Hyatt tied for both most commercial winery and cheapest wine.

x-posted from [meme-hazard]. Comment here or there - up to you.

Now established with a room and an increasing quantity of stuff, situated about 5 km from campus. Since last post, have spent bulk of my conscious time in animated conversations about a wide range of topics - I can see I'm not going to get bored here, at least intellectually.

In other important news, it seems my new housemates are, if it's at all possible, even worse than me when it comes to food snobbery. I'm quite pleased with this. I'm also pleased with the range and pricing of good cheese - Jarlsberg at $10 a kilo - insane! A kilo of fresh mozarella at $9! Let the good eating roll.

Either way, for the moment it seems like I've found myself quite a good arrangement.

Next up, acquiring a decent desk, chair, and a new stupid monitor, or maybe two less stupid monitors. We'll see.

Now, coming to you from Seattle, Washington, it's ..!
.. Trond's flying circus.

Well, I've arrived. Nothing exploded and the Qantas food was fairly good, but their entertainment system was awful compared to that on Singapore Air or Air NZ. Foo.

Got about an hours worth of sleep on the plane, and 20 minutes of combined drowsing while sitting about at LAX. Arrived in Seattle somewhat sleep deprived, then partook in a ridiculous 2 hour circus, getting lost rather than driving straight to my hotel.

This was at least partly my fault; the airport pickup was greatly complicated by the fact that neither I, nor Suzanne, who had kindly volunteered to pick me up then forgot, actually know what the other looks like, nor did I remember to describe myself, or even stand at the place I'd said I'd be waiting for pickup. Then, on the way back into town, we got on the wrong freeway, and ended up in Tukwila, one of the various satellite cities attached to the south end of Seattle.

Anyway. Sitting now in the computer room at the College Inn, a little hostel next to the UW campus. About to be picked up in 30 minutes to head over to where I'll probably be living for at least the next month or two. Then, this afternoon, shopping. For stuff I'm sure I'll need, even though I don't know what it is yet.

Leaving tomorrow from Christchurch at 3pm. Will be lurking at airport from 12:30 till about 2:30 if anyone wants to see me off.

Flying Qantas - wish me luck - I don't particularly want to explode in midair..

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Got in this morning at about 8am, took the bus into town. Stopped in at work for a bit, stared blearily at my monitor to check email, vaguely recall conversing with people, though not sure what about. Slept through most of the afternoon, catching up on my feeds.

Maybe I should have tried to sleep more on the flight. Foo.

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Days 4-6 - Columbus, Athens (Ohio), Seattle

The last few days raced past. Day 4 was Ohio State University, a campus of over 50,000 students. There, we visited a bunch of labs, mostly looking at the 'innovative learning spaces' I mentioned earlier, and thus, not of a great deal of interest to me. We did, however, gather a good list of Second Life references from the some of the graduate students we spoke with.

Day 5 was a mission. I'd previously discovered that Mick had confused Ohio State University with Ohio University, the latter being about 70 miles away in a town called Athens (gotta love the creativity). Consequently, we hired a car and drove. This was actually really cool - the countryside was covered with snow and we drove amongst trees with branches frozen into crisp white fingers clawing at the sky. Furthermore, I got to try driving on the wrong side of the road. In the afternoon, we met researchers from the ViTAL group who have created educational games in Second Life to support education on a wide range of topics for kids around 10-12 years. What was probably most impressive was their sheer output. There were other SL projects going on, as well; of particular note was a masters student who'd been using XMLRPC to connect Second Life to a subversion repository with the eventual intent of then visualizing code changes and project progress. It was early work, but with interesting potential.

That evening, our flight was cancelled due to the weather in Chicago so we were routed through Dallas instead, meaning an extra hour or two in the air. Consequently, we didn't arrive at our hotel until about 1:30am.

Day 6 started with a meeting at UW with an eclectic but really cool bunch of people. Unlike the demo sessions some of our previous meetings turned into, this one became more of a vigorous discussion of SL, virtual environments, education, social networking, and a host of other topics, many unrelated. There were a few quite interesting ideas floated in the meeting, and it looks like we've dug up some good opportunities for collaboration, particularly if I'm able to get into the PhD program at UW next year.

After a short romp with the squirrels, I met up with Mick again and we headed off to the Evil Empire. We met up with Tracey Sellars at the Usability Labs of Microsoft's Game Development Studios and got a quick tour through their playtesting and usability testing facilities. They have too much money.

Back in town, I went out this evening to take advantage of cheap American bookshops. However, being two weeks from Christmas, downtown Seattle was mad. As a child, every Christmas, my mother would tell us that there was never any Christmas spirit in NZ. I never really quite understood what she meant until now. There's several thousand people crammed into the streets of a few cordoned off blocks in the middle of town here singing carols, filling sacks with Christmas loot, or tap dancing with Santa Claus, two elves and a reindeer. I now feel that I've been somehow inoculated against Christmas madness - nothing I've previously experienced in NZ can really hold a candle to this in terms of cloying holiday cheer and consumerism. Feeling caught up in the moment, I bought another stack of books - now, of the total weight of my luggage, at least 50% is books, a ratio I am fairly satisfied with.

We've got one last meeting tomorrow, then 17 hours of flying, and finally, home.

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Days 3 - More Boston

Day 3 began with a scheduling malfunction, leaving us three hours with nothing to but wander Boston, shopping. You can imagine our chagrin at this, though the dense, garish, omnipresent Christmas decorations did much to improve our cheer. I spent far too much money on books (as always), purchasing a couple by Dennett & Hofstadter, some cheesy fantasy, and The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove, a book recommended to me by several.

After a quick lunch break, we wandered back to MIT to visit Drew Harry, a Masters student at the Media Lab. He's doing some really interesting work on augmenting meetings and other collaborative communication tasks with various visualizations such as speech and event histories, voting tools, and agenda management tools. It was a breath of fresh air as many people in this space have a tendency to treat SL (and other virtual environments) as merely advanced tele-presence tools. It's this sort of support and augmentation that I find really interesting, particularly given the eventual possibility of applying such ideas to real world interactions with augmented reality (though, of course, with the normal caveats). We had a good discussion, and I look forward to encountering him again the future.

As an aside, the Media Lab's a really impressive space - aside from the glitzy foyer with its ambient stock market reporting interface, the lab we ended up talking in was packed with all sorts of equipment, clearly used, yet clean, comfortable and almost friendly. Of course, the leather couches and foozball table may have helped me with this impression.

The next stop for the day was Philip Tan, director of Gambit, a collaborative venture between MIT and the Singaporean government, focusing on research into game design. We spent about half an hour talking about Second Life and other educationally applicable game platforms before the really important discussion began - live role-playing games. Apparently, Philip is quite heavily involved in the MIT LRP group, and, in fact, wrote about LRP game design in his thesis. From here, the conversation got progressively geeky, eventually ending shortly after the obligatory Cthulhu reference.

Just for cataragon, I thought I should mention that both meetings today included short discussions of Puzzle Pirates. It seems that I'm now obliged to play it on my return, though, of course, strictly for research purposes.

I spent the rest of the day doing the flying thing - I'm now in Columbus, Ohio, in the luxurious Blackwell hotel, which appears to be owned by Ohio State University. Best accomodation thus far..

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Day 2 - Boston / MIT

You might be wondering why there's no day 1 - that's because it was predominantly boring. I didn't manage to catch up with anarchangel23, and so all I did was check out of my hotel and fly to Boston. Probably the only thing worth remarking is how empty the plane was - maybe 30 people on a 757. Oh, and the fact that Boston is cold and snowy. Photos eventually.

We started the day at MIT, meeting up with Philip Long, a man with his finger in many pies. After a quick chat about diverse projects including Second Life and AI driven video transcription, annotation and tagging, he took us on a whirlwind tour of 'innovative learning spaces' at MIT. That's code for classrooms with big round tables, lots of computers, projection spaces and whitespaces. The idea is to encourage students to work together on exercises and experiments rather than having them fall asleep listening to a lecturer drone on. With the exception of one fellow having a nice nap, it seemed pretty effective. Each table seated enough students to make group problem solving practical, and this clearly kept the students much more involved. Even the sleeping guy woke up and participated.

We also discussed various software systems for collaborating in such an environment; for example, a document sharing framework where students on individual machines could make their work visible on a shared screen, control sharing, where individuals could take temporary control of a shared screen and work collaboratively, and virtual teaching machines, where tutors distributed a specialized OS, application and document set, runnable on any machine with VMWare.

Following this, we had a quick chat with Eric Klopfer, a researcher who's been doing similar things to us with Neverwinter Nights (constructing specialized teaching scenarios), as well as some other (much more interesting) work using location awareness services and mobile devices to produce educational pervasive games. Awesome stuff - he's agreed to send me some of his software and papers.

By this time it was lunch. Near Boston Commons (resplendent in its snowy glory), we found paninis.

Our next meeting was with Eric Gordon and John Freeman at Emerson College, both of whom were doing art and design work using Second Life, including the Digital Lyceum project. This was a fruitful discussion; we gathered practical suggestions, discussed new research topics and tools, and talked a little about possible future collaborations. Furthermore, they had delightful spicy orange tea.

Back to the hotel for a couple of hours making notes and writing, followed by dinner at a very American restaurant and a plummy glass of South African Cabernet Sauvignon

A couple of easily digested facts for you:

  • MIT, that beacon of technology and innovation, is moving towards the future - by switching from whiteboards back to blackboards. With good reason - improved contrast for computer vision, low reflectance, and no chance of the pen ever running out. Makes you wonder why anyone ever shifted in the first place.
  • For collaboration and small group interaction, the optimal table shape and size is circular with a 7' diameter. Based on experience with role-playing and meetings, this isn't really too surprising, but interesting nonetheless.

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Arrived in LA some hours ago, only to arrive at the hotel and discover that the room had only one bed - I'm travelling with another guy, so obviously that's a bit of a problem. Got it sorted though - turns out the couch is actually a fold up bed (and quite a comfortable one, too).

All up, pretty good - we're paying the princely sum of $50 for the night, and aside from the bed surprise, it's just like any other hotel room. Plus, free internet.

The flights themselves were pretty uneventful - I watched Ratatoulle, which I'd been meaning to for a while; read a lot; and slept.

We're in LA until 3pm tomorrow, so there's a bit of time to relax and get some real sleep. If I'm extra lucky, I'll manage to catch up with anarchangel23 while I'm here.

Next stop, Boston.

For those who are interested, here's a summary of my travel plans:

I depart on the 28th of May for Athens, where I'll be meeting up with anarchangel23 and sulkandburn for several days of ouzo, ruins, and museums.

From there, I'm going (in approximately this order) to Rome, München, Salzburg, Switzerland, Paris, York, Edinburgh (to visit ajax_nz), Norway (visiting at least Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim, and Oslo, as well as many smaller towns), Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London (to hopefully catch up with ookey and drowninghail, assuming he responds to his email sometime).

Then, at the beginning of August, I'm off to the US, where I'll be working at SIGGRAPH 2007 in San Diego, then travelling to GenCon in Indianapolis where I will also be working. From there, I'm taking trains to Washington DC and New York. After this, there's a large grey area - in theory I'll be visiting a few research groups working on the use of games and virtual environments in education, but the details of this have yet to be sorted out. Before leaving the US, though, I intend to spend several days in both Seattle and LA, where I hope to catch up again with anarchangel23 and others. Finally, I'll be returning to NZ sometime near the beginning of September.

I've set up the exact details of my plan, which I'll adjust as things progress, as a Google calendar at

As I go, I'll post the details of what I actually get up to, as well as photos and so forth.

I've been planning the trip now for about five or six months, and for most of that time it's seemed some abstract thing that won't affect my life very much. Now, however, it's beginning to loom large. It's only for three months, but they'll be very busy. Most cities I'm visiting for but a few day days, and it's going to be hard work just getting to them all, let alone finding and seeing all that there is to see.

It's going to be both exhausting and exhilirating.
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