Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: Funky Gourmet, Athens

I neglected to review Funky Gourmet during my Athens Trip Report. It was a bright spot in an otherwise not very stellar trip.

To begin with, the restaurant is in a house set in a neighborhood which not even taxi drivers can necessarily find. What you do is call the restaurant with your cell phone and have them talk to your taxi driver. Secondly, the house has no signage proclaiming the presence of a restaurant. What it does have is a little tag next to the door bell proclaiming the name of the restaurant.

Inside, the restaurant is beautifully decorated and the wait staff is attentive. This was my first Michelin-star-rated restaurant experience, though I've since been to higher-rated Michelin restaurants and have been unimpressed by them in comparison to Funky Gourmet. I've since decided that TripAdvisor ratings are a much better gauge of restaurant quality than Michelin ratings. Most Michelin-star rated restaurants are not very welcoming for families, but this one very tolerant of Bowen. They brought him his own plastic cups, and gave him as many straws as he threw on the floor. When the time came that he couldn't stay in his seat any more, they were happy to let him run around.

I have high standards for food, though I'm unimpressed by price and service. Funky Gourmet exceeded my expectations. The self-made pesto pasta was the best I've had anywhere, and the scallop impressed even my wife. The presentation of every dish was great, and the desserts (the 13 course menu had 3 of them) were nothing short of excellent. The early dishes had quite a bit of greek influence, while the later dishes (except for the desserts) were more conventional. The only miss was the mini-burger. All in all, a great restaurant/experience, and highly recommended if you're in Athens.

Review: Blood Rites

Blood Rites is book 6 of the Dresden files series. In this book, Dresden foils a plot involving murder of various women who are working at a porn studio. Unlike previous books, one of the mystery puzzles in the novel is actually fair: in other words, you have all the clues needed in order to actually solve the puzzle.

Tangled up with this main plot is one of the recurring villains from a prior book returning to make Dresden's life and revealing more details about the White Council as a result. This also includes Dresden's relationship with his mentor, as well as his long lost brother.

Butcher is a decent novelist, but unfortunately I have a hard time feeling for his characters, who act pretty much like puppets in the plot. All in all, it's a good book in the series, but it would lost most of its impact if you hadn't read the previous books, which I'm not sure I would consider. I'm going to take a break from the Dresden files for a while. Nevertheless, I'd recommend this book if you've read the other books in the series as it does add a lot to the mysteries previously detailed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Death Masks

Death Masks is the fifth book in the Dresden files. It continues the series' trend away from the private investigator schtick towards the super-powered magical hero set in an urban environment. In this novel, everything that's happened in the previous four come together in a climax that's worthy of Joss Whedon's Buffy.

We have the war between the wizards and the vampires, we have his former reporter girlfriend (now a proto-vampire), we have a stolen magical artifact (the Shroud of Turin), and we have the Knights of the Cross, as well as Chicago's crime boss. To me, this is the first novel where Dresden doesn't seem like a barely competent wizard, but actually seems to be effective at doing stuff other than dropping his implements and tools, and is able to achieve effects other than dropping unconscious any time anything contacts his noggin.

The novel seems built for the movies: lots of set-piece action sequences, fancy sword play, demons, and no less than 3 showdowns and a Mexican standoff. While it's all a lot of fun, it also feels like Jim Butcher's deliberately holding out on us: there's lots of hints about how Dresden is special, and lots of big actors are afraid of him, but no actual exposition on his past or his parents.

A fun summer read. Mildly recommended.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Review: Summer Knight

Summer Knight is the fourth book in the Dresden files. This time, Jim Butcher focuses on the Faerie, while providing more background for Harry Dresden's past. We finally get to see the White Council in action, as well as some the werewolves from Fool Moon.

There are several problems with Butcher's milleu, however. For instance, given an apparently large number of Wizards, they seem ridiculously ineffectual. While you might dismiss most of them as being perhaps researchy/ivory-tower types, it does seem like Dresden is the only Wizard who's actually actively involved in the world, leading to what I call the "player-character-problem". In other words, it's a world where that does seem like it exists only give give Dresden meaning. While this is common in fantasy, by setting Dresden in Chicago, the milleu means that Chicago is at the center of the universe.

That might be ok if Butcher has Dresden doing his best to reset everything into status quo after each book, but given the huge world-changing events that tend to happen, it's a wonder that not everyone in this universe knows all there is to know about the monsters in the night.

Nevertheless, if you can put all this behind you, it's a fun summer read that doesn't require a lot of thinking. Mildly recommended.

Review: Before Midnight

I saw Before Sunrise/Before Sunset as a set of movies years ago. Those were great films, so when XiaoQin mentioned that Before Midnight was in the theaters, I was happy to see it with her.

Before Midnight is set in Greece, 9 years after Before Sunset. Like the other films, the film is shot in almost real time. Like many couples in their 40s, they have three children, one divorce, and a family life under pressure, though given that Jesse is a successful writer, they do not seem to be under financial stress.

As with the prior two films, the dialogue is beautiful and real, and even the depiction of the people involved seem real. Whatever make-up is on Julie Delpy, for instance, isn't there to make her look like an ultra-beautiful mother, but serves the story and role she plays. Even the fights between the couples and the extremes they go through seems real. I like it quite a bit better than Before Sunset, where I felt that the plot leaned too hard against what the character might do.

Obviously, this isn't a movie that needs to be seen in the theaters, but it does deserve your viewing. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Review: Don't Turn Around

Don't Turn Around is Michelle Gagnon's YA thriller. It does seem custom-written for Hollywood as far as facing the latest trends. The teen heroine protagonist, Noa, wakes up on an operating room table and immediately manages to run from her captors despite having what looked like pretty major surgery. She soon teams up with rich boy Peter, who while hacking into a corporate site gets his house broken into and his laptop taken away. They then work to figure out why this corporate site is so important, why Noa was operated on, and the latest nefarious scheme to kidnap runaways.

The treatment of computers is very much like a Hollywood movie: being good at computers means you're good at breaking and entering corporate sites and running your e-mail through multiple proxies to hide where you're from. The evil people are cartoon villains who have enormous resources behind them. The ending has light bulbs exploding,  etc.

The heroine, Noa, draws immediate comparison with Lisbeth Salander in Girl with  the Dragon Tattoo. Unfortunately, with an even more unbelievable plot, I cannot recommend this novel. Go elsewhere for your summer reading.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: Grave Perils

Grave Perils is the first Dresden book that feels like it's a good novel. It starts out with Dresden and his friend Michael trying to figure out what's causing the ghosts in Chicago to go crazy, and rather than trying to follow the private investigator genre that's not working for the a Wizard who's none too good a putting clues together, the Butcher goes the route of the thriller.

We get large set pieces involving ghosts, faerie, and of course, a vampire masquerade party. We get grudge matches, and Dresden at last seems to show that he's actually a somewhat competent Wizard, even though he does seem to spend a lot of the novels almost completely bereft of power.

The lows: the novels don't seem to provide a coherent view of magic and what it can or  cannot do, and so what Dresden does doesn't always feel like something the reader could anticipate in the first place. Lois Bujold does a much better job in her Chalion novels.

Nevertheless, if you're interested in a fantasy thriller, this was a fun read. Recommended.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Quantifying the Apple Tax

The last time I was a Mac user was in 2009 when I upgraded to the Canon 5D Mk 2 and got rid of my Mac Mini as being too slow to run Lightroom. Before 2006, I was a PC user and never bothered paying the Apple tax. It wasn't until I joined Quark Games, which was a mostly Mac shop that I ran into the Apple tax again.

The Apple tax impacts small development shops. Large corporations  like Adobe or Google aren't cash constrained. In fact,  at Google, most developers wouldn't even be aware of the Apple tax because most of their computation is done in the cloud. At a small shop like Quark, however, we are cash constrained and most of our computation is done locally, at the developer's desk.

Most of Apple's desktops are incredibly under-powered. For instance, the iMacs don't even let you replace a hard drive, which means that you have to pay Apple's incredible markup for SSDs, and in the case of the smaller iMacs, you can't even upgrade the memory yourself. For a developer workstation that potentially needs more than one SSDs, this is unacceptable. Yes, you can upgrade to a 3.4 GHz Core i7, but that's even more expensive than a Mac Pro and you end up with a machine you cannot upgrade.

Then there's the Mac Pro. It's mid-2013, and they cost $2500. What's worse, is that they use a 2009 Xeon CPU which under-performs my 2008 home desktop! And that machine cost me $1200 back in 2008! You can compare it with a current Dell with the latest Haswell i7-4770 processor. That machine would cost $750, with twice the processing power of the Mac Pro! Sure, the Mac Pro has a nicer case which makes it easier to upgrade. And it has ECC RAM (for all the good that'll do you --- I can't remember a single instance where I wanted ECC RAM for any of my development needs). The fact is, Apple has no mid-range towers, but if you need to deliver iOS applications to your customers you have no choice: you have to buy an Apple product. Yes, I'm aware Apple has a new Mac Pro at the end of the year. However, the new machine has no room for hard drive expansion at all, so I might as well buy an iMac!

At Quark, our solution has been to buy the 13 inch non-Retina Macbook Pros. With a couple of screwdrivers you can take those apart and upgrade the memory and hard drive. Unfortunately, when you need to process a lot of art and music assets, the CPUs on those machines bog down. Even then, using Macbook Pros save you because when we bought our Mac Pros, we could take the hard drives out of the laptops and stuff them into the desktops and get immediate productivity gains, without the pain of reinstalling all our software and losing a day in the process.

What's amusing to me is that the art team tells me that the rest of the industry has gone to Windows PCs for 3D-modeling and other art needs precisely to escape the Apple tax (and these despite Apple's reputation as the go-to computer for artists!). So it's only engineering that's stuck paying the Apple tax. Certainly, if Android were too crush iOS devices, small development shops will be the first to switch sides completely just to avoid paying the Apple tax, which stands at $1700/developer. I know I'll be switching our art team over at the next available opportunity. In the mid-1990s, I dreamed of the days when we'd escape the Microsoft hegemony. But now that we've largely escaped it's clear the Apple overlords are much worse than the Microsoft ones ever were.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Review: Fool Moon

Fool Moon is the second book in Jim Butcher's Dresden files series. It's clear how Butcher's approaching the series. Each book is going to be the paranormal monster of the moment, and we get to see Dresden repeatedly beat up and tortured until he limps across the finish line.

The theme in this novel is the werewolf. Again, Dresden solves problems mostly by getting beaten up, spat out, and getting screwed over. He also demonstrates that he's not much of a wizard by running out of power repeatedly, dropping his tools at crucial moments and in general failing to do wizardly things.

I've been told that the novels get better. The voice is good enough that I'll give a 3rd novel a try in the hopes that it does get better. In any case, skip this one.

Review: Storm Front

Storm Front is the first book in the series known as the Dresden Files. The series has been around for a few years, and there's even a TV series (that failed after one seson) based on the books, though the series is very much different from the books.

The premise of the series is that it's about Harry David Copperfield Dresden, who's a hard-boiled, wise-cracking detective wizard. Unlike other fantasy stories where the world of magic is hidden and wizards hide themselves from the prying eyes of the public, Jim Butcher's Dresden lives in the public eye, listing his business on the phone books and has contacts with the local police department, just like any self-respecting private investigator would.

The story begins with Dresden brought in by the police department to help investigate a double murder. The plot then weaves between explanation of how magic works in this world, the investigation, complications (including the local mob), and a secondary plot involving a missing husband. As you would expect from this type of novel, Dresden gets beaten up, threatened, conked on the head multiple times, encounters femme fatales and resists them, and then eventually "solves" the plot, but not through cleverness but by simply being beaten up enough times.

One reviewer said that the Dresden novels are like Philip Marlowe but for the fantasy set. Jim Butcher is no Raymond Chandler, however, and his novels say much less about the human condition than Chandler's. Furthermore, there isn't as much pessimism, despite the fact that Dresden gets beaten up a lot. For instance, none of Dresden's females betrays him, while Chandler's females frequently get him into trouble or turn out to be the antagonist.

All in all, the book wasn't a waste of time, but pales compared to say, Altered Carbon or any of Chandler's novels.  Nevertheless, suitable beach reading or vacation reading. Mildly recommended.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: Kinivo Bluetooth Headset

My Ericsson MW600 died from the inevitable: it was so small that when it was left in my pocket for a laundry run it was put through the washing machine and didn't survive. Sony promised to honor the warranty, but for whatever reason my MW600 didn't make it to them so I never got a replacement. So it's back to the drawing board and looking for a bigger bluetooth headset that I won't accidentally leave in my pockets.

The Kinivo BTH220 looked a lot like my old beloved SBH-500, so I ordered it. While it looked like the SBH-500, it's actually quite a bit more compact, with swivels built into the earpieces so the whole device collapses down to a small package. The battery life is pretty good --- I have yet to have to charge it more often than once a week (or even every two weeks), and it gets used often enough that I never think about it.

The biggest problem is that it can' pair with more than one device at a time, but in practice, that's not as big a deal as you might imagine, since I pretty much pair it with my phone and leave it that way. Sound quality is decent, but the big problem is with voice. The microphone pickup isn't as well designed as the SBH-500, so if there's any noise at all the other side has a hard time hearing you. I've used the headset a lot for hour long interviews in quiet rooms, and it works great. But outside of those situations don't expect it to perform.

I managed to snag a deal on one of the deal-a-day sites for $20. But even at the full Amazon price of $30, this won't break the bank and so far has lasted long enough that I'd buy another if this one died tomorrow.

Recommended.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Review: Every Day

Every Day is a young adult romance. If there's ever a transparent voice, David Levithan has achieved it in this novel. The book reads effortlessly, transparently, and the pace is such that you'll turn the page hurriedly, breathlessly, in search of what happens next.

The premise of the book is straightforward: the protagonist, A, wakes up every day in a different body. He can access the body's memories, but has no connection to the emotions. He's always woken up in a body that's appropriate for him chronologically (at the start of the novel he is 16). He's learned to deal with this daily switch and has (surprisingly) evolved rules to live by. This changes when he wakes up in Justin's body and meets Justin's girlfriend, Rhiannon. He doesn't believe that Justin treats Rhiannon very well, and so for his one day in Justin's body he treats Rhiannon nicely. Unfortunately, the result is that A falls in love with Rhiannon, and this knocks his previous equilibrium off-kilter.

One of the best things about this novel is that Levithan explores lots of different situations that A wakes up in. A is alternatively male, female, straight, gay, Black, White, Asian, nerdy, athletic, drug-addicted, suicidal, etc. Levithan spans the gamut of the teen experience. While some of A's statements seem heavy-handedly politically correct, I've met my fair share of teens who sound like that so it's not jarring.

If the book does hit a false not, it's in the ending. For me, the ending is either a blatantly obvious setup for a sequel, or the author screwed up and makes A's character deliberately weaker by introducing a subplot that is left unresolved and yet drives his decision to resolve the situation. While the book does clearly standalone, without a sequel I feel that Levithan diluted the strength of the ending for no good reason.

Nevertheless, this is one of the better novels I've read in a while and a relentlessly compelling read.  Recommended.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Review: The Corpse Reader

The Corpse Reader is a strange novel as far as origin, subject matter, and story is concerned. Originally written in Spanish and translated/distributed/published by Amazon, the story is set in ancient China and his historical fiction about Song Ci, regarded by many as the father of forensic medicine.

In many ways, Song Ci is almost a perfect person for such a treatment. While he has written a massive treatise which serves as much of his legacy, little is actually known about the person. The author, Antonio Garrido, writes an afterwards where he reveals what his own research has said about Song Ci, and the life that he appears to have led does not seem to be particularly drama-filled. Nevertheless, Song Ci appeared to be much more politically inept as a person, in contrast to his pioneering competence in forensic science. In that regards, Garrido's portrayal of Song Ci in the novel is fairly accurate.

The story revolves around Song Ci, who like many heroes is deprived of his family early in the story and begins a journey to maturity. He makes many many stupid decisions very early on, but does show some great qualities as well. Some of the stupid decisions are ridiculously stupid (Ci basically gets taken in by every woman he's ever met who wants to fool him), but the rest of the plot isn't terribly bad. Well, the motivation of one of the major villains makes no sense to me, but the plot moves fast enough that even that realization doesn't come until after you've zipped through the book.

What's the most disappointing to me about the book is that there's no sense of progression for our protagonist. There isn't a series of challenging investigations where Ci is stretched to learn new things about Forensics. In some ways, the book focuses on his journey rather than his investigative challenges, so at the end you're left with very little impression of how he came to understand forensics.

All in all, this is a decent summer read. Very mildly recommended.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Review Kindle Basic

My Kindle Keyboard 3G died on the flight back from Zurich to San Francisco, and Amazon offered me a replacement refurbished Basic Kindle for $50. The alternatives were the Kindle Touch and the Touch 3G, but the discount on those were not as good, and I felt that I might as well buy a Paperwhite rather than take those deals.

What impressed me upon unboxing the Basic Kindle is how light it is. I measured it at 190g even though Amazon claims 170g. Regardless, it's light, and small enough to almost fit in a pocket. It truly is a carry everywhere device. I expected to miss the keyboard but the reality is that I haven't really. The hardware buttons for turning the page work, and the nice thing about not having a touch screen is that your screen never gets smudged with fingerprints, etc. I tested it side by side against a Kindle Keyboard and the page turns are definitely faster on the Basic Kindle than the Kindle Keyboard 3G (3rd generation).

The price of the lighted cover accessory is ridiculous: new, it is almost the same price as the Basic Kindle as well. Fortunately, Amazon's warehouse occasionally sell refurbished covers for $13.50, which is a good price. The cover + Kindle weighs 310g, which is very good. The Kindle Keyboard with an SFBags Slipcase, for instance, weighs 340g, and that doesn't come with a light!

All in all, I've enjoyed reading on the Kindle Basic and can recommend it. As previously mentioned, I might not bring it on the next bike tour as the Nexus 7 is too useful for photo processing and can also be used as a reader, but for home use this is just as perfect as they come. Recommended.

Using the Nexus 7 as an on-the-go photo editing device

On the Greece Trip, I decided to be radical and leave the laptop at home. Part of it was just that traveling with a child mean you had too much to carry anyway. Part of it was just to see if it could be done. I'm very pleased to say that the Nexus 7 came through with flying colors as far as casual photo-editing and posting is concerned.

To begin with, you need a 32-GB Nexus 7, which would have the required storage to off-load photos (in the form of 20MB raw files) from the Sony RX-100. If you're traveling in Europe where data SIMs are cheap, you might want to consider the HSPA version of the Nexus 7.

In addition, you'll need the following pieces of hardware and software:

I'm assuming of course, that you're using a high end camera like the RX-100 or the S100 and shooting in RAW. If you're not, you can skip the last 2 pieces of software and just use any of the free photo-editing applications out there. Though if you're shooting JPG why not just shoot with your phone and by pass the need for all this?

Overall, I've been very impressed with the results. Imports are relatively fast, even for hundreds of RAW 20MB shots. PhotoMate does a great job with RAW, and has a built in JPG converter that lets you post to your favorite social network (Facebook, etc) using the built-in Gallery App after the JPG conversion. (For whatever reason, PhotoMate's direct sharing feature is broken and doesn't work)

Adjusting the exposure, cropping, tweaking the white balance are all easy and usable on the Nexus 7 with its quad-core processor. My biggest complaint is that displaying the results of your adjustments is slow, but these are on RX-100 raw files. With a lesser camera you shouldn't have any problems. The only major feature that's available in Lightroom but not PhotoMate is ND grad filters. I basically relegated features that needed such work to the desktop with Lightroom for when I got home after the trip.

The availability of these apps and these features have turned the Nexus 7 from an unnecessary luxury on trips to an absolute necessity. Not only is the Nexus 7 now a suitable posting tool for my non-wifi enabled cameras, the Nexus 7 is also a reasonable backup for the photos in case the camera got stolen or something bad happens to SD Card! Add in the ability to run a data SIM and the Nexus 7 would be even more useful.

I never thought I'd say this, but for my next Europe trip I can see myself ditching the Kindle and just bringing a HSPA+ enabled Nexus 7 along with the above kit. Needless to say, that means I'll look forward to the next iteration of the Nexus 7.

Highly recommended.

Review: Happy Money

I wanted to like Happy Money. As Meng once said to me, "Those who say that money can't buy happiness don't know where to shop." And indeed, the premise of the book is sound: there are many things that most people do with their money that buys a lot of frustration instead of happiness, and they're well documented in literature:

  • Buying a bigger house doesn't buy you happiness, but buying a shorter commute (one you can walk to or bike to) does.
  • Buying experiences like great vacations is far better than buying the latest Apple/Android/Lenovo product. You get used to your faster computer quickly, but you'll always remember the great experiences you had on your vacation.
  • Whenever possible trade money for time, so that you can have more time for yourself. This is hard because if you're paid more, you value your free time even more, so it's difficult to buy enough free time. House-cleaning services and yard work services are examples of such valuable money/time trade-offs.
  • Spending money on other people is better than spending money on yourself.
There. I've probably given you the gist of the book. My wife asked me if I learned anything new in the book that I didn't already know from reading other happiness studies.

  • The book claims that interacting with children is the highlight of many people's days. This contradicts many other studies I've read where interacting with their children usually leaves parents unhappy. In fact, most studies I've read indicate that having children is a surefire way to destroy your happiness.
  • The book claims that paying for something first and then enjoying it later gives you the feeling that what you're enjoying is "free", which is nice. I personally find myself skeptical of this experience.
  • Apparently, even bad vacations are better expenditures than buying a bigger house. But there are no studies on how small a house you can have before having a bigger house makes you happier just because you're not hitting something every time you turn around.
The book is extremely short. If you're not careful you'll blow through it in a few hours. I do recommend the content in the book if you've not been exposed to it before, but I'd hesitate to spend full price on the book: check it out from the library instead.

Recommended.

Review: Sony RX-100

My Canon S100 was out for a (free) repair due to the dreaded lens error, and I wasn't sure it would make it back from Canon in time for the Greece trip, so I went out and bought a Sony RX-100. Others have raved about the image quality on this camera, and indeed the photos are outstanding. It was the only camera I relied on in Greece, and it delivered!

The photos are outstanding, and even my wife noticed the difference. There's no question that the RX-100 beats the pants off any other compact camera that's even remotely pocketable. It's bigger than the S100, and doesn't have GPS, but it's a great enough camera that I can recommend it for everyone, even non-photography enthusiasts.

There are, however, a few glitches, which would cause me to tell you to wait until the next version, which is surely due out soon:

  • Startup and shut down time is slow. It's on the order of 1.5s, and I don't know what it's doing because there's a significant pause between pushing the power button and the lens moving. It gets to the point where when you first use the camera, you push the power button, wait and see nothing is happening, then push it again, which of course results in the camera immediately powering up and shutting down. Once the camera is up, however, all annoyances are gone. The shot-to-shot time is outstanding (on the order of 300ms), and you can fire off a burst mode very quickly. This is a delightful camera to use.
  • You must shoot in RAW. Exposure compensation is a pain to use in this camera. Just do it in Lightroom or Photomate afterwards and you won't be unhappy. And there's no point shooting JPG if you're going to blow $650 on a camera.
  • There's no cheap underwater housing. The Ikelite housing for the camera is $400, and is incredibly big and bulky. Just for that alone, I'm still going to retain the Canon S100 for underwater photography. Fortunately, there was nothing worth shooting underwater in Greece that I saw.
  • There's no GPS. No Wifi. The lack of wifi doesn't bother me, but the lack of GPS does.
  • The panoramic mode is impressive, firing off lots of shots in rapid succession. But having had a chance to see the results afterwards, I'm concluding that the best way to shoot a panorama in this camera is the traditional way: shoot in RAW in burst mode (hold down the shutter), and then stitch it all in ICE afterwards.
Despite these relatively minor flaws, I'm very pleased with the camera. I'm not impressed by Sony's customer service, so if Canon ever sees fit to compete with Sony in this premium camera line, I'd switch vendors in a heart-beat, but until then, I'm going to keep shooting with the RX-100.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Greece Conclusions

As far as I could tell, the sailing in Greece is not very good. You either get no wind, or too much wind. If the snorkeling/diving/hiking or other outdoor activities made up for it, I'd be inclined to recommend it. Unfortunately, the snorkeling was mediocre, and the swimming frequently took you to polluted waters. The sailing might be decent if you got luckier than we did, but the unpleasant experience of pulling up at a berth only to have your power/water snatched away left me with a nasty feeling. Compared to the BVIs where people were much more relaxed and you weren't fighting with people over scarce resources, it made Greece feel much less like a vacation and more like a stressful battle every day. The big difference between the BVIs and Greece is that Greece docks in towns are very pretty. With a small boat, it is conceivable you could dock every night in town and experience the Tavernas, if that was your thing. But if you just wanted to see the pretty towns (and there are admittedly a lot of them), you don't need to charter a sailboat. Just use the ferry to go island hopping instead. All in all, sailing in Greece (and the Mediterranean) has been a big disappointment. I would not do so again, and wouldn't recommend it to anyone when there are better destinations. It is indeed dawning upon me that the Caribbean is to sailing what the Alps are to cycling.

Athens

We were so tired upon returning to Athens that we spent the rest of the day sleeping and dealing with the unpleasant base manager as well as all the sundries required in returning the boat. So it wasn't until the next morning when we moved back to Hotel Tony's that we could explore the city in earnest. We first visited the Acropolis museum, which was interesting. The heat was turned up pretty high so we were pretty glad to return to the hotel at 3pm to rest and then leave for the Funky Gourmet.
From Greece 2013
The Funky Gourmet was my first one-star Michelin restaurant experience. Set in an interesting neighborhood in a house with no bill-board, you would only find it after making reservations at the restaurants. Even taxi drivers won't necessarily know how to find it! Bowen was very good, spending an hour in his seat before demanding to walk around and explore the restaurant. The 13-course meal took almost 3 hours to serve, but it was excellent, providing some of the best pesto I'd ever had and some interesting desserts where flavor literally explodes in your mouth. The introduction to each meal also theatrically done, and I was impressed. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
From Greece 2013
For our last day, we visited the Acropolis proper, as well as the Agora. The lines were long, the place was exceedingly crowded, and it was too warm for me. In the evening, we explored Filopauppou Hill near Hotel Tony, and were rewarded with a beautiful glimpse of the sun setting over the area near Athens.
From Greece 2013
Nevertheless, I was quite relieved to leave Greece and Athens after the biggest fiasco of a trip that I'd had in years.

Sailing in the Argolic and Northen Cyclades

We flew back to Athens and then Taxi's to Alimos Marina, where the checkin process had to be delayed until the boat was cleaned. That gave us plenty of time to sign the liability waivers and get lunch. The checkin process was relatively straight-forward, and light. Our first sign that there was something less than dreamy about Dream Yacht Charters was that the marina did not actually have enough power to run our AC unit and our house lights with the water heater on, and the marina didn't have hot showers! Our boat had a glitch that I did not expect, which was that the V-berth was not connected to the main cabin, which meant that my original plan of having my son sleep in the V-berth wasn't going to work. So I ended up in the V-berth, as did Arturo.
From Greece 2013
The very next day we left the dock at 8am. We dropped all the lines into the water and motor'd out. The wind was too calm to sail, though we managed to try for a little bit in the middle of the day. We eventually got to Epidavros at 4pm, which was much too late to get a berth. We motor'd around to another bay, and proceeded to set up both front anchor with a line tied to the shore to prevent any swinging. This was Arturo and my first time doing it, so it took far longer than expected, and in the hot afternoon sun, was definitely wearing. We did finally get it done, and with that we could swim ashore or take the dinghy to town. Later, we would observe another boat tying up with the dinghy used as a shuttle without having to mount the motor onto the dinghy, and this made us realize why most boats we saw simply did not have the dinghy mounted with its outboard motor permanently, unlike in the BVIs --- most folks would spend their evenings tied up to a berth or use the dinghy as a shuttle this way.
From Greece 2013
From Greece 2013
What with everything going on, it was just easier to have dinner on the boat and swim around and then plan a visit to the ancient theater the next morning. The theater was amazing. More than 2400 years old, you really could hear a pin drop from the middle of the stage to anywhere in the seats. Arturo had been there before and gave us a detailed explanation of the soundbox under the theater and the design features, as well as explaining that the limestone that made up the theater was what saved it from destruction compared to the rest of the site. We managed to get to the theater before the bus crowds showed up, and hence had the place to ourselves.
From Greece 2013
From Greece 2013
It was noon by the time we pulled up our anchor and were on our way to Poros, which was listed in the Pilot's guide as being a pretty town. Once again, the winds were disappointing and we got in at most 15 minutes of sailing before we had to turn on the engine again near Poros. In Poros, we had plenty of room for a berth, but the Mediterranean moor proved easier to execute in Sausalito than in Poros, especially since on the 3rd try we hooked the anchor on an existing chain underneath the piers, meaning that we needed a diver to free us up. There was no warning of this either from the chart briefing or from the pilot's book, but the local diver we engaged to free us indicated that one in 10 boats would find themselves in this predicament. Fortunately, while engaging the diver, we made the acquaintance of the owner of the Oasis Taverna in Poros, and he offered us a spot in front of his Tavern as well as all the power we would ever need and water hookups. We moved the boat and found everything to be as he promised (except we had to run a power cable extra long through the Salon), and we gratefully had dinner at the taverna, which proved to have great food and was excellently priced. If you find yourself in Poros, don't miss this great place.
From Greece 2013
We spent the next morning exploring Poros, and then left for a short drive to N. Soupia. Once again we had enough wind for all of 10 minutes of sailing. We actually scouted another destination prior to this one, but it looked too bleak and desolate with little to recommend it. N. Soupia had 2 beaches, an island which we nick-named "Frog Island", and a bay with water clear enough we could see whether or not our anchor was dug properly into it. It wasn't perfect, though --- there was plenty of trash in the water, including plastic bags and crap near the shores. But it was interesting in some sense: the water temperatures varied throughout the Bay, ranging from cold in the North to positively balmy near the dinghy pier, which was built near what looked like a vacation home. We spent a good day swimming and snorkeling the area, but as Arturo would later say, "The snorkeling went from poor to mediocre."
From Greece 2013
From Greece 2013
The next morning we got an early start to head for Sounion. The fear was that weather would make that an untenable place to stay for the night, but we checked windfinder.com and the winds would be 18 knots the next day, which would make for good sailing! It was a long passage to Sounion pretty much over flat water, and we made it to Sounion by 11:30am with only one other Catamaran in the bay. We made the journey to Sounion, and then decided that we weren't going to sit around and wait for the sunset. We did take advantage of the wonderfully deserted bay to swim and explore and have lunch, however. We made the decision to sail for Kea. The passage along flat water was un-noteworthy, and we noted that we had turned our sailing trip into a motoring holiday. We berthed successfully along the town of Vourkari, only to be told that the post that delivered power wouldn't actually deliver power or water. We then re-berthed ourselves at the other end of the pier, only to discover that just as we berth'd one of the other boats plugged themselves in, apparently because they'd heard that we wanted use of shore power. I'd never experienced such behavior before, and while they were within their rights, it seemed in awfully poor taste to wait until someone else had docked before taking the last power plug.
From Greece 2013
From Greece 2013
Kea was pretty and we had a good dinner. Somehow my son found himself a girlfriend during dinner (the daughter of the restaurant owner), taking advantage of his status as a sailor, no doubt. I awoke at 2am with rain on my face. I looked at the boat and it looked like the wind had picked up and was well over 18 knots. After putting in more fenders between the boat and the dock, I decided that it was not safe to stay at harbor. The Mediterranean moor puts you at risk because if one boat drags anchor, the boats will cascade. It was an ordeal but we managed to undock without hitting any other boats. Rather than weigh anchor and leave, however, I made the mistake of staying in the harbor. While we had a watch going, we did not hear the hails from the next boat to leave and they entangled their anchor with ours. What followed was the most harrowing hour of my years of sailing.
From Greece 2013
In their attempts to untangle the anchors, the other boat, the Anna II, repeatedly hit the Phoenix. Their boat was old and heavy, hence caused damage to our hull while taking no damage. We had all hands on deck with fenders to keep the damage reduced, but nevertheless suffered a dent to the port forward bow and a scratch along the port pontoon. My crew proved themselves to be the best crew I'd ever had that night, fending off repeated attempts by the Anna II to sink us. Nevertheless, the boat was sea worthy. We eventually untangled the boats by using lines to lift their anchors off of ours, and the boats parted ways. In retrospect, we could have lifted their anchor off ours without allowing the Anna II to put us in that dangerous situation by having them leave their anchor down while we raised ours. What I should have done was to immediately leave Kea and head for the Argolic, before the sea rose. We left and anchored near Korissa instead, however, and by the next morning the seas were heavy and our attempts to leave made nearly everyone sea-sick. (We also dragged anchor while trying to raise sails, indicating that the winds were well over 30 knots)
From Greece 2013
We spent the day anchored at Korissa, and left the next morning at 3am, motoring back to the Alimos Marina. While the experience was harrowing, nothing made me as sick as watching Bowen throw up his milk in rough seas. At that point I understood why other parents ended up going to Disneyland year-after-year. While the highlights might never be as good as one of my trips, the lows would never be as low and they'd never have to experience what I did. What made things worse was that the base manager of Dream Yacht Charters was extremely hostile. Despite our bringing back the boat in a sea-worthy condition and mitigating all the damage. He charged us obscene amounts of money (400 EUR for a broken plastic bit off the boat's lock, which he tried to blame on us not closing the door in heavy weather --- which was false. The lock was broken already when we arrived at Kea, 300 EUR for a plastic bag that found itself into the propellor, 200 EUR for a lost cushion, and another 200 EUR for the hull damage). Fortunately we had paid for the damage liability insurance, or he would have found a way to charge us more money. It was quite clear that Dream Yacht Charters doesn't rely on repeat customers.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Thira/Santorini

We flew on Swiss International Airlines to Zurich, where we stayed for a night and then flew to Athens the next day. While it would have been possible to fly on the same day to Athens, we would have arrived near midnight, and when travelling with a child I decided it was better to spend a night along the way because of baby jet-lag. The hope was that we'd be able to find some afternoon sun.
From Greece 2013
At Kloten, we were able to find a children's playground and while the sun was not very strong, we were hopeful that our sleep wouldn't be so interrupted. Unfortunately, that hope proved false, and our son woke up at midnight and stayed awake until 4am.

The flight to Athens was delayed because of a technical problem with the airplane, and as a result we ended up at Hotel Tony at 4pm. The room had been recently renovated and I was quite impressed with it. We went out to dinner at a recommended place and had great views of the Acropolis in the backdrop. After dinner, we visited the Acropolis, but it was closed to visitors after 5pm.

From Greece 2013
The next day, we went back to the airport and flew to Thira/Santorini (Santorini is the collection of islands, and Thira is the name of the one of them with an airport and sizeable population). The rental car company met us at the airport and gave us the car keys, including the drop off instructions (which involved just leaving the car unlocked at the parking lot with the keys in the obvious place!). After a bit of driving, we found the Hippocampus Hotel where we had reservations. They had plenty of room so we were able to change our rooms with minimal costs. In addition, they gave us directions to the various attractions on Santorini, and arranged for us to have a visit to the Volcano, etc. We drove up to the Ancient City they'd described, and got in the last visit before the closing.
From Greece 2013
From Greece 2013
After that, we went swimming on the beach and had dinner at an excellent restaurant the hotel staff recommended. So far, it'd been a good trip, despite Bowen's persistent jet lag.
From Greece 2013
The Volcano visit as a bit of a bore. Having visited lots of volcanoes in the past, this one wasn't particularly interesting except for the vistas of the surrounding, populated islands. (The white you see below isn't snow, but houses!) The visit to the hot springs was also disappointing. The hot springs was embedded in a bay off an island, and the seepage of hot water into the relatively cool Mediterranean waters led to a luke-warm spring experience. I would rate the entire day a "pass," unless you've never seen a Volcano before.
From Greece 2013
From Greece 2013
Our last full day on Santorini was spent visiting the Red Beach, Fira, and Oia. The Red Beach was interesting and surprisingly good swimming despite relatively high winds.
From Greece 2013
While getting to Fira, we got lost for a bit, and ended up at the highest point on Thira. The views were OK, but the winds were too strong for anything more than a photo. Fira was surprisingly pretty, and very nice. We found great ice cream and a decent lunch.
From Greece 2013
We then drove to Oia, which was even prettier!
From Greece 2013
From Greece 2013
From Greece 2013
From Greece 2013
We thought about staying for the sunset but the overcast weather put us off. We left a bit early --- to our regrets because the sunset as seen from the road was spectacular!