Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa

I’ve spent the last week in Canada, firstly in Quebec City and then Montreal. Quebec City gave me a bit of a chance to improve what little French knowledge I have – this amounts to a four week summer school course that I took at Melbourne University back in 1997, most of which I’ve forgotten.

Montreal, on the other hand, turned out to have a large English-speaking population, which is something I didn’t expect from the largest city in a province that is so rabidly francophone that even their stop signs are in French:

From what I remember of France, for all of their anti-English sentiment, they have “Stop” on their stop signs. Clearly, they’re softies in the face of anglophonic cultural imperialism.

I’m now in Ottawa, and hoping very much that this city, which seems to have had a history not unlike that of Australia’s capital (chosen for its location midway between two bickering groups), isn’t anywhere near as boring as Canberra.

New York

I’m currently in New York, and have had the chance to see a live amateurish terrorist attack in progress. Well, at least, thousands of people standing around, on the streets surrounding Times Square, while police yell “Keep moving! You can’t stay here!” to little effect.

I haven’t exactly been keeping this blog up-to-date with my travel progress; so far, since Vancouver, I’ve travelled to Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, and now here, all by train (and one bus). So I’ve now officially travelled the US from west to east coast, entirely over land. I haven’t even done that in Australia.

In the unlikely event that one of you actually wants to read more of my travels (and other mindless, off-the-cuff thoughts), I’m on Twitter as paul88888.

At least it’s not 47 hours in the air.

Well, the question I asked in my previous post is redundant. Turns out that due to Amtrak’s strange pricing, it would have cost me US$100 extra to break the journey, which seems pretty silly. I’m not going to hand over that amount of money for something which effectively costs Amtrak nothing at all, and therefore am now an hour into a 47 hour train journey from Seattle to Chicago. In coach class.

Fortunately, I have a power-point, a netbook and a mobile broadband adaptor, although I suspect that net access is unlikely to be available between towns…

Vancouver and a request for travel advice.

I’ve temporarily re-entered the real world of metric measurements and free public health care in Vancouver, Canada.

My plans are to backtrack to Seattle tomorrow, and then on Thursday, catch a train eastbound to Chicago. However, I have a slight problem – the train journey takes over two days, and the last thing I really want to do is spend two nights in a row in a coach class seat on a train. Hence, I’m looking to break up the journey somewhere, preferably in a location where the train arrives late-morning or very early afternoon, so that I don’t have to get out of bed at an insane hour the next day.

As far as I can tell, this limits my options to some very small towns in Montana: Cut Bank, Shelby, Havre or Malta. I know very little about any of them, and on past experience, small towns tend to bore the hell out of me. If anyone has any recommendations about the pros and cons of staying in any these towns, I’d appreciate it. (And before anyone suggests it, no, I’m not flying. That’s cheating).

Portland, Oregon

I’m currently sitting in Portland’s Union station, waiting for a train that will take me north to Seattle, to connect with a bus on to Vancouver. I’ve been in Portland for the last three nights, staying at the Hostelling International North-West hostel (see here for my review of it).

Portland is reputedly one of the US’s most liberal cities, and there’s certainly no shortage of anti-Bush stickers still attached to the bumper bars of the cars here, even though it’s well over a year since he left office. It’s a pretty relaxed city, but it doesn’t have the buzz to it that San Francisco and Berkeley had – in fact, there didn’t seem to be an awful lot of people out and about, and Portland’s Chinatown was utterly dead, even at lunchtime, a far-cry from what I’ve seen from Melbourne and Sydney’s Chinatowns.

Liberal and relaxed or not, I’ve had my first encounter with an angry, middle-aged, paranoid, white American male, who threw a hissy-fit in the middle of the street because he thought I was staring at him. Apparently walking around in mirrored-sunglasses freaks out the nutjobs – it’s not just a fashion-crime on my part, anymore.

Upgrading an Acer Aspire One D150 from an HDD to an SSD

As I mentioned in my previous post, the hard disk in my Acer Aspire One D150 had some issues last week, to the extent that I don’t trust it anymore and planned to replace it with an SSD drive instead.

After soliciting advice from the good people on the LUV mailing list, I ordered a Kingston SSDNow V Series SNV425-S2BN/128GB 2.5″ drive from Newegg.

Transferring the contents of the old drive to the new turned out to be far simpler than I expected, as the SSD drive came with a USB-SATA dock; I’d been planning on copying all the data onto a different drive, then booting Linux from an SD card and copying it all back onto the new drive. The dock made it all very easy, as I could carve out the partitions (keeping in mind this advice about aligning filesystems to an SSD’s erase block size) and then copy all the data across to the new drive from my existing disk (noting to make changes to /etc/fstab and /boot/grub/menu.lst, as I had to change the name of the LVM volume group). I also have a small windows XP partition on the netbook, mainly for emergency use when having to deal with idiotic telcos, which I copied across using dd.

Changing the disk inside the Acer couldn’t have been easier; it has a slot on the bottom that gives direct access to it; just remove the two screws and lift the lid:

This exposes the hard drive, which is sitting upside down in a tray:

To remove it, I simply slid the whole tray away from the SATA connector to the outside of the laptop case (ie, to the left, in the above photo) and lifted it out. After that, I removed the four screws holding the HDD into the tray, and replaced it with the SDD drive:

The SSD drive then slid straight into the SATA connectors in the netbook – exactly the same form factor as the old drive.

I was surprised to find that grub worked straight away, when booting up – I’ve had a history of messing up manual grub installations. Linux started up, but I soon found that I’d forgotten to rebuild the initramfs, and it was having trouble with the new LVM volume group name. Once that problem was solved, it booted without any further issues.

Windows XP was a little trickier – it simply wouldn’t boot at all. I soon found that this was because XP doesn’t like it when the starting sector of its partition changes. Fortunately, someone has written a program called relocntfs that allows this to be fixed from Linux. After I ran that on the XP partition, it worked perfectly.

The one final issue that I had was that resuming from hibernation no longer worked. It turns out that Ubuntu stores the UUID of the swap space partition in /etc/initramfs-tools/conf.d/resume; obviously the uuid of the swap space changed when I created the partitions on the new disk, so I had to put the new UUID had to be put into this file and then build a new initramfs.

The new SSD drive has been running well in the netbook for about 12 hours now. I haven’t noticed any particular increase or decrease in file access speed, but it is rather pleasant not feeling the vibration or hearing the whirr of a hard disk anymore.

So, why am I in the US?

I meant to post this several months ago, but didn’t get around to it. In a nutshell, I am taking 2010 off, and am backpacking around the world, without much of a plan. It has been five years since I returned to Melbourne from Amsterdam, and in that time, I barely left Victoria at all, other than a couple of trips to Sydney. Time to get out again.

I started off in mid-January with a trip to New Zealand, beginning in Wellington for LCA and then three weeks circumnavigating the South Island by train, then bus, and finally heading over land and sea up north to Rotorua, Waitomo and Auckland. New Zealand is truly awesome.

I’ve now been in the US for three and a half weeks, having spent time in San Francisco and Berkeley, Yosemite National Park, Las Vegas, Flagstaff (Arizona, for the Grand Canyon) and Santa Barbara.

The general idea was to catch a train across the south of the US, however I’ve now changed my mind and will be working my way up the west coast, to Portland, Seattle and into Canada for Vancouver, and then across to eastern North America, all over land. Following this, I have a flight in mid-May from Toronto to London, and I’ll spend the rest of the year wandering around Europe, and perhaps parts of North Africa and the Caucasus.

As I write this, I’m sitting on the Capital Corridor train, travelling from San Jose back to Berkeley, where I plan to perform some surgery on my Acer Aspire One D150. Just under a week ago, its hard disk drive had a fit, making horrible clicking noises, becoming temporarily invisible to the bios, and then showing hundreds of filesystem issues when fscked. While it has now been running fine again since then, I don’t trust it anymore and will be replacing it with an SSD drive, which will hopefully be far more tolerant of being thrown around in my backpack.

ID checks in the US

I’ve noticed that I am asked for ID in the US much more often than in Australia – usually when checking into hotels or hostels, and quite often when paying with a credit card. The amusing aspect of this is, however, that every time I’ve been asked for ID, they have accepted my Victorian driver’s licence without question (my passport is in my money belt, and I can’t be bothered going through the effort of getting it out).

Now, I’d bet that none of these people have ever seen a Victorian licence before, and certainly wouldn’t be able to tell a fake one from a genuine one. Most probably wouldn’t even know where Victoria was, nor whether it was a jurisdiction that is allowed to issue licences at all. I could imagine them accepting an official-looking laminated piece of plastic with my photo and “City of Wangaratta Driver’s Licence” written on it, too.

Las Vegas

I’m currently in Las Vegas, being blinded by the overabundent flashing neon lights.

This place looks expensive. Indeed, it’s hard to believe just how much money is wasted here, let alone spent. One flashy casino has a half-hourly water show out the front of it – this is in a desert, mind. And while the water is probably recycled, I’m told that a good amount of it would probably evaporate while being sprayed into the air. Another casino has built a mountain, replete with waterfall on its front boundary. And yet another has a half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower (along with a number of other Parisian replicas) at its entrance. All of which don’t really serve any purpose other than to show off their wealth.

Clearly many visitors here have too much disposable cash: if the ipod vending machines (yes, those are machines which dispense ipods. And digital cameras) weren’t a clear enough indication of that, the sight of the blue-rinse set pouring their retirement savings into a sea of slot machines at 4am certainly is.

And the thing that is really difficult to grasp is that for every five-star themed uber-casino up and down The Strip, there’s probably half a dozen crappy no-name casinos elsewhere in the city. Or more. Each with their own hotel attached. Which all adds up to a sea of rooms that aren’t filled because of the effects of GFC – and thus some can be very, very cheap. My room is costing me US$30 per night, and I was amused to look at the rate card on the door to find that in peak times, it is $501 per night.

The casinos aren’t limited to Vegas either; one merely has to cross the border on the road from Los Angeles into Nevada and the first tiny rathole encountered is spruiking its casino and insanely cheap food. As does every town that follows.

The traffic here is insane. To the city’s credit, there’s a cheap and frequent shuttle bus up and down The Strip, but due to the heavy traffic along there, it’s almost useless. It takes almost an hour to travel the length of it, and it’s really only about 2km or so long. I wonder why they’ve never heard of bus lanes.

All said however, there’s more to Las Vegas than merely throwing money away and setting oneself on the road to heart disease from five dollar steaks. The nightlife is pretty amazing, and Vegas puts on a huge number of shows. There’s at least six different Cirque du Soleil shows, countless caberet acts, as well as comedy. And then there’s the various sex shows too.

I went to see Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at the Bellagio – their aquatic show, which was nothing short of stunning, and I highly recommend it to anyone who visits Vegas.

Interestingly, though, for all of Las Vegas’ glitz and bright lights, it’s fascinating how quickly it peters out – taking a walk just five minutes down the east side of Fremont Street led me straight into one of the dodgiest places I’ve seen. Run down buildings, motels with that rooms-sold-by-the-hour look, aimless loiterers. Evidentally, the wealth doesn’t get redistributed too well.

Go Home On Time Day

“An organisation that cannot afford to fully pay for its production costs is
an organisation that should already be out of business.”
— Random Usenet contributor

It’s hard to believe that such a thing would be necessary, but today is Go Home On Time Day – a reaction to findings that Australians are working more unpaid hours overtime each year than they get in annual leave.

While the campaign itself seems a little condescending (the idea of a “leave pass” is ridiculous to the extreme, because it’s utterly demeaning to think that someone should have to ask permission to go home at the end of the day), the sentiment is sound. No business would ever expect any supplier to provide them with goods for free, so why should they expect this of their employees’ labour?

Naturally, the Australian Chamber of Subjugation doesn’t like it at all. They’d much rather have people sign up for slightly raised pay-packets that give the employer carte blanche to work them for as long as they like.

My advice? Become a contractor, and charge by the hour. No one ever dies wishing that they spent more time in the office.