[23 March] 2001: A Motorway Odyssey

Today, I had to visit IBM Hursley to meet the conference director and my co-chair for the 2001 WebAhead conference (8-12 October in Hursley — IBMers only, sorry) and do some serious preliminary planning; phone calls and e-mail are wonderful tools, but somnetimes there’s no substitute for being in the same room, looking at the same whiteboard, and being able to interrupt in real time.

Chris and Simon had Real Work to do in the morning (or at least other meetings to attend), and I could be productive using the high-speed connection at the hotel, so we agreed that I’d plan to arrive in Hursley about noon, just in time for lunch. I left just before 11, and if I hadn’t turned the wrong way when I left the motorway, I would have been early — as it was, I could still claim to be “on time” by airline reporting standards.

The Hursley cafeteria is not terribly outstanding, so we gave it a miss and had lunch at a local pub (The Kings Head, which the 2001 Good Pub Guide rates as a “Lucky Dip”). Since I’m an American, I contented myself with a half-pint to accompany my food; Chris and Simon upheld the national honour with a pint each.

Then we went back to the lab, had a quick meeting with the Assistant Lab Director and an even quicker one with the new Lab Director, and spent a long afternoon making plans and drawing up schedules and rough agendas. At the end of the day, we had made great progress; I guess having done this conference three times already helps.

Then I got back onto the motorway to go back to the hotel, zipping right along. Until I got just past Junction 4, where traffic stopped. Completely. With no hope of escape. Every so often, I’d be able to creep ahead a few feet — and since I was driving a stick, that meant having to clutch and shift, then go back to neutral to wait again. And the car had a stiff clutch, too.

Radio traffic reports said that things weren’t going to get any better in the six or so miles before I reached the M25. Luckily, just before I left the hotel, I remembered I had brought a UK Road Atlas with me, and I went back to the room to get it, “just in case.” So I figured out an alternate route, eased over to the left lane (British drivers are far more cooperative than Israelis!), and, a mere twenty minutes and one mile later, I was off the motorway.

From there, it was relatively clear sailing, and I pulled in to the Hertz lot only an hour-and-a-half later than I should have (not so good for a one hour trip). In theory, I should have taken the Hertz bus to the terminal and then caught a Hotel Hoppa back to my hotel, but I was in a hurry, so I persuaded the Hertz driver to drop me at the exit from Heathrow to the A4 (Bath Road) and I walked the 0.8 miles back to the hotel.

Boy, is this place expensive!

The Marriott is a nice enough hotel, and their base rate isn’t insane (at least not at the IBM rate), but the incidentals here can kill you. My rate doesn’t include breakfast, but the hotel’s happy to supply the continental breakfast buffet for 12 pounds (plus tax and tip). Internet access is 12 pounds a night (again, plus tax) — that’s about double the going rate in the US (or Israel, for that matter), but it’s far cheaper than trying to connect by phone (about a buck a minute!). And laundry is obscenely expensive — it shouldn’t cost more to wash something than it cost to buy it!

Passing bad currency

The UK has this nasty habit of taking coins and bills out of circulation from time to time. When they do this, you have to bring your old money to a bank to exchange it for the new model — and that can be a real pain for an occasional visitor like me.

And apparently they’ve just taken some old 20-pound notes out of circulation — including the one I still had from last October. I tried to visit the bank branch at IBM to exchange it, but I was too late; fortunately, the cashier at Tesco’s was either nice or not too observant and accepted my bill. I’m sure Tesco’s will be able to exchange it for new money with no problem, too.

Tomorrow, it’s off to Paris. I intend to be sure not to bring any francs home with me, because I know they’ll be no good before my next trip!


Last night, I was up fairly late doing work (I wanted to take advantage of the overlap with the US business day), but finally was ready to go to bed just after midnight. I had had the TV on for background noise, and was flipping through the channels aimlessly before turning it off, but the program on Channel One caught my eye and I took my finger off the remote control.

What they were showing on screen was a passage from the Torah (probably from this week’s parasha, though I couldn’t tell), with a yod pointing to the words as they were being read, almost as if it were being done during services (almost — there were illustrations on the scroll, which is not the case with a real Torah).

After that, they went to a still shot of the words (in Hebrew, of course) “Lilah Tov m’Yerushaleim” (Good Night from Jerusalem), and I realized that they were about to sign off for the night. I was ready to turn off the set, but before I could, the screen changed again, showing an Israeli flag waving, with the Israeli National Anthem, Hatikvah, playing, and the words scrolling up the screen.

Much to my surprise, I found myself singing along, with tears forming in my eyes — and that’s something that never happens when I hear The Star-Spangled Banner.

I’d had much the same reaction two years ago when our tour group stopped at Herzl’s grave and we sang Hatikvah together (it was the first time I’d sung it since finishing Hebrew school, many years ago — they made us sing it there during every class, and once I learned to sing it well enough to get by, it bored me). I thought it was largely due to the intense environment — we’d just come from Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum), and we’d spent a couple of weeks touring Israel in a very Jewish environment, so I was clearly primed to react, and I thought no more about it.

But this time, it was just me, alone in my room on a business trip — hell, I’d just turned off my laptop after dealing with a day’s worth of e-mail, so I definitely shouldn’t have been affected.

But I was. Somehow, without noticing it, I’d turned into an ardent Zionist, and I felt truly at home, involved, and committed. Not committed to the extent that I have any plans to make aliyah (Diane will probably be relieved to know that!), but I certainly feel more than casually invested in what goes on in Israel, and I’m very interested in spending more time in Israel and visiting more frequently than I’ve done in the past — and that doesn’t just mean arranging more short business trips like this one (though I do think IBM has gotten significant value on my trips so far).

Watching TV can be dangerous.

Thinking about safety

When I originally planned this trip, it had three purposes. First, I was going to speak at the official opening of the Israel Office of the World-Wide Web Consortium. Second, I needed to meet with the team in Hursley, England, who will be hosting our internal WebAhead conference this fall (I’m the co-founder and permanent co-chair, but all the hard work gets done by the folks in Hursley — I just fly in, talk a lot, and visit pubs in the evening (that’s why we picked England for the conference in the first place: the beer is better there than at home)). And the third reason was to attend an internal meeting in Paris, where the people in the CIO’s office will be planning how IBM’s computing environment will evolve over the next year or so (my role there is simple; I’m a spy). Because the dates of the events in Paris and Israel were set by others, I found myself with a few spare days, and I decided to spend two of them at IBM Haifa and the weekend between events playing tourist in Paris.

Two weeks before I was to leave, terrorists set off a bomb in Netanya (between Haifa and Tel Aviv, on the coast, well inside the original boundaries of the State of Israel). And the W3C folks thought it might be better to postpone the grand opening for a few months. And I nearly cancelled my trip — or at least the Israel part of it — but after talking with my hosts in Haifa, I decided that they’d put together an interesting agenda, and that I wanted to come if it was at all possible.

So I kept a close eye on the news (mostly the Jerusalem Post, but also other Israeli English-language Web pages and the BBC). And I kept talking with people who were well-connected to Israel, like the Rabbi and her husband (who’s a physicist and makes frequent visits to his colleagues in Israel). And made sure my manager was still willing to send me. And, of course, I stayed in touch with my hosts in Haifa — I was using instant messaging with them right up until the car service came to pick me up at home last Sunday. Everyone said that I should be OK, and Diane didn’t seem too worried, so off I went…nervously.

Then I landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, and I noticed that all of the Israelis I talked with were proceeding with life as usual. Sure, there were incidents reported in the paper and on the news — and the “situation” (as everyone calls it) was always the lead story — but for the most part, it seemed to have much less effect on the people I was with than the energy situation in California has had on my family (and so far, we haven’t been hit with a blackout). People were shopping, taking buses, going to work, planning vacations…business as usual. And pretty soon, the situation receeded in my mind, too.

I don’t want to make light of the danger — it’s quite real, and eventually, the Israelis and Palestinians have to figure out how to live in close proximity. They may never be friends, but they either have to figure out how to live together or plan to continue dying together.

But while I was there, I didn’t feel that terrorists were a significant danger. Israeli drivers, on the other hand, scared me every time I went outside — and especially when I was on the road (this trip, I chose not to rent a car, so I didn’t even have the illusion of control). The most popular bumper sticker in Israel isn’t political — it’s a small sticker on the back of about half the cars which reads “Sh’mor Mirchak” (keep your distance). It doesn’t work, of course — and there are far more deaths in Israel from traffic accidents than from terrorism.

At the airport today, I had to go through Israeli security. I arrived in plenty of time, and even had a letter from IBM Haifa confirming that I’d been specifically invited to meet visit them so that I could show it to the agent. Clearing security only took about five minutes, including opening my bags to verify that everything in there was mine (I had left them in a semi-public area today, so I couldn’t say that they’d been under my control the whole time), and I didn’t even have to use my letter. I suspect having other Israeli stamps in my passport helps; flying Business Class probably didn’t make the quiz any less thorough (I wish I knew why they asked whether I have any family in Israel), but it did mean I didn’t have to wait in a very long line for my turn.

And now I’m on my way to England, where foot-and-mouth disease is the big story, and supposedly the entire country is depressed by it. I wonder if that’s exaggerated, too.

Five minutes to play tourist

One advantage of clearing security so quickly was not having to rush to make the plane; instead, I walked back outside to enjoy the good weather for a few minutes. I even had time enough to cross the street and look at the Dali Menorah outside Arrivals:

Dali Menorah

While I was taking my pictures, some other Americans walked up, and we started talking — they were just arriving to start a ten-day tour (since they were planning to spend time in Tiberias and mentioned the Sea of Galilee as a special place, I doubt they were with their synagogue) and were worried about terrorism. I told them that I’d felt safe on that score while I was there — but to watch out for the drivers. Perhaps I would have been more effective at setting their minds at ease without making that last remark!

And here I am at the lovely Heathrow Marriott

I upheld my tradition of getting lost on my way here, but this time I recovered within only a couple of minutes (I think the Hertz person gave me bad directions) and had hardly any trouble thereafter. I may have to switch to automatic cars, though; I’m way out of practice on shifting and clutching.

Tomorrow, it’s off to Hursley. But for now, time to face a day’s worth of e-mail. Oh, boy!

Haifa Sights

I still haven’t had any time to do any real sight-seeing (and probably won’t; I thought tomorrow would be more or less free, but I now have meetings until the time I have to leave for the airport. sigh), but I did manage to take a couple of pictures.

The area I’m in is fairly near the harbor, and there are quite a few bars around — some of them have signs saying “US Navy Pub”, and my colleagues here advised avoiding them! I don’t actually have any problems avoiding bars in general (British pubs are an exception), so that was no hardship, but I did find the name of one bar here slightly interesting:

Bear Pub: For Cokie

Other than the businesses which cater to sailors (there’s even a USO here), this is not a particularly touristy area; most of the shops have signs in Hebrew only. Last night, I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant — unfortunately, it wasn’t a Kosher Chinese restaurant (I know they exist, but I haven’t found one yet). But the chicken was just fine anyway.

The view from my room is very nice, including the Bahai headquarters:

Bahai complex from my room:

I’ve just been told that they will be having a grand opening on May 22nd to show off the gardens, but I think I’ll have to miss it.

Last night was not a good one from the jet lag standpoint; I woke up at 4:15am and couldn’t get back to sleep. So if my writing appears incoherent, there’s a good reason! More later, perhaps….

Mongolian Barbecue is Different Here

After a very full day at IBM, two of my colleagues and I went to dinner at the Mongolia restaurant, about five minutes from my hotel. At home, Diane Reese introduced us to Su’s Mongolian BBQ, and now we go there several times a month. We like it because it’s fresh, fast, fun, and cheap — although the choices are somewhat limited (four meats, six vegetables, and a dozen sauces), that still gives more combinations than I’ll ever have a chance to try. And so, I had a mental model of what to expect at a Mongolian Barbecue place.

My model got jolted as soon as I saw the interior of the restaurant. Su’s is very plain — they’ve taken a huge step lately by putting up a few science-fictiony paintings; before that, the most interesting thing on their walls was the poster with the minimum wage notice. Mongolia is definitely not plain — it looked like a typical “yuppie” restaurant, with nice wrought iron on the walls, nice chairs, and lots of wood.

We sat down, and I got my next surprise — like Su’s, you pay one price for all you can eat, but unlike Su’s, it’s not all self-service. First, they brought out an assortment of fancy appetizers including ostrich liver and chicken sate, and even more surprisingly, bread (something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a Chinese restaurant in the US). Everything was tasty (though I chose to skip the ostrich liver — I’ve never met a liver I liked yet), and then we were ready to go cook.

Again, Mongolia far outdid Su’s — instead of four meats and six vegetables, there were a dozen of each, and many, many sauces (plus fresh herbs). Fortunately, everything was labelled in English as well as in Hebrew, but there were still things I couldn’t recognize (what kind of herb is “aspodhel”?). But I didn’t need to try everything — nor did I want to — I just wanted a tasty meal, and I was pretty sure I could manage to create one.

At a Mongolian barbecue, you control what goes into your food (though trained professionals actually cook it), and so selection is critical. Just like Su’s, Mongolia provided some suggested recipes; unlike Su’s, they were printed in Hebrew. And the font was quite different — at home, I often see posters in English printed in a Hebrew-looking font; here, they printed Hebrew in a Chinese-looking font (I wish I had brought my camera!), not exactly designed for the non-native.

I could have asked my colleagues to help me follow the printed suggestions (in fact, they offered to do so), but what fun would that have been?

Instead, I decided to adlib. I stuck with what I knew for the first bowl (chicken as the meat, and spices and sauces which seemed familiar), and I quite enjoyed it (though I probably went a little heavy on the peanut sauce). I experimented more on the second bowl (turkey as the meat), and it wasn’t as successful — the sauce I concocted went better with the vegetables than with the meat, so I was a good boy and just ate my vegetables.

And then it was time to pay the bill, and I discovered the last big difference between Mongolia and Su’s. Su’s is inexpensive: $8 for all you can stand (if you’re a big eater, it can be quite a bargain). But in Israel, Chinese food is one of the fancier options, and Mongolia was no exception; my share of the bill came to a bit over 100 shekels (about $25), the most expensive meal I’d had in Haifa. But it was a nice change of pace, and I enjoyed the company at dinner (and I think they liked the food, too, though they did stick pretty closely to the suggestions).

I wonder if I can find a decent Mongolian barbecue restaurant in Paris this weekend?

Three movies later….

Shalom from Haifa!

I’ve had a full day at IBM, and a friend is about to arrive to take me back to the hotel, so I won’t have time to write much — and connecting up from the hotel has been problematical so far, so I make no promises about later on.

Besides, if you want to know the truth, I’d rather be out in the city than sitting in my hotel room writing about it.

By the way, the three movies I watched on the flight from New York to Tel Aviv were Best in Show, which I really enjoyed and wouldn’t mind seeing again; Charlie’s Angels, which was better than I expected, but rather mindless (actually, that’s a good combination for a movie one’s going to watch on a long transatlantic flight!); and Almost Famous, which I’m afraid I had a hard time concentrating on, since I was watching it during the last two hours before arrival, and I’m sure that most of my brain cells weren’t active by then. I’d like to see it while I’m awake sometime.

Waiting for my ride to the airport

While I’m waiting for the car service to show up to take me to SFO so I can fly to Haifa (and then on to Hursley and Paris), a few timely or amusing links:

More later from some airport, perhaps….

A preview of the next recession

Much to my surprise, checking in for the flight to Tel Aviv was as quick as checking in for any other international flight — the other times I’ve flown to Israel, I’ve had to hand-carry our checked luggage to the super X-Ray machine before they’d take it — but in both cases, I was changing airlines in London from American to British. This time, the trip is all on TWA, and I guess they handle Tel Aviv luggage often enough that they know how to do it without making me do the schlepping.

Since I had plenty of time to kill before my flight, I decided to circumnavigate the airport and look at the art exhibits. SFO runs a very active museum program, and the exhibits are often very interesting; today, I enjoyed the exhibit of police headgear through the years and around the world and the exhibit of strange collectibles (swizzle sticks, Elvis memorabilia, anything with “Bluebird” on it, to name but three) and interviews with the collectors. Unfortunately, they were in the process of changing over a couple of the exhibits, but it was definitely better than sitting around for an extra hour.

My route took me through the Central Terminal, which was the International Terminal until late last year. Now, it looks like this:

Is this what a recession looks like?: (Actually, it's the old SFO International Terminal, now deserted in favor of the new SFO International Terminal)

I hope it’s not a preview of things to come if we slip into recession — my driver was telling me that the car service’s business has definitely fallen off in the past few months.

Now, onward to JFK and TLV!