The case for camera cases.

September 21, 2005

I have always thought that the goofy case that came with my camera was just to make me feel like I got something for my money, that it made the camera bulky and a pain to get out. It turns out, that it in fact serves a useful purpose! I have owned several Sony cybershots but all have at some point or another developed the same problem that when I zoomed all the way in “junk” came in to focus on the lens. This was so frequent a problem that I even added a flickr keyword dirtylens to sort out the problem photos.

I could stand it no more, so I got to know Panama city a little bit by visiting 6 different camera shops til I could find somebody to diagnose and fix the problem. Upon opening my camera he reported that it was “totally full of dust”. $68.00 later, my camera seems much improved and they even gave me a random case so I can prevent the problem in the future. I’ll be a loyal case user from now on.

In the states this would have been a tedious errand, but in Panama it was kind of fun to have a purpose, a reason to go places and a mission to accomplish. Also I can feel my Spanish returning as I use it more, which is nice.

You want to take the bus?

September 19, 2005

We have just arrived back from San Blas and have a few hours of Internet access in Panama City, so I wanted to write briefly about our visit to the Panama Canal from last week.

Panama City — After consulting our trusty Lonely Planet we decided that it shouldn’t be that hard to take the bus to the Miraflores Locks. I could actually see the bus stop from our hotel window. To get to the locks, we’d need to take the bus first to the Plaza Cinco de Mayo and then get the connection to the locks.

We were staying at the Marriott Courtyard and we went to the front desk to inquire about the details of the bus. The cheerful receptionist explained that there was no need to take the bus, she could arrange a Taxi. When I told her that I’d like to take the bus she looked confused, but eventually understood that we were looking for “una Adventura”. We would not be disappointed.

We caught the first bus almost immediately and after a brief confusion about the fact that there seemed to be no place to pay (they collected the fare from us when we got off) we were taken quickly and comfortably to the Plaza. We disembarked paying $0.25 each and feeling pretty smug. We asked around about where to catch our connection and quickly found the stop. As each bus approached, we asked anxiously if it was the right one because there was a heavy mist threatening to become a light rain. Eventually, we found a bus, where the driver that said he was headed our way. Five minutes later we pulled in to the main bus terminal and the driver motioned for us to get off and pointed to a waiting taxi.

For the second time that day I explained that I wanted to take the bus. He told me we’d have to walk from where the bus left us. Our guidebook had alerted us that it was a 15 minute walk from the Miraflores entrance, where the bus dropped us, to the locks themselves, so I confidently told him it wasn’t a problem.

5 minutes later we were leaving the bus with directions of “walk 15 minutes, that way,” with a corresponding vague sweep of the driver’s hand. He followed up with a helpful “toward the water.” As we jumped out and the bus roared away, the rain began as a slight drizzle, waiting less than a minute before converting itself to a pounding torrent. We took shelter under the overhang of what looked like a government building where a security guard instantly appeared and eyed us with caution, but said nothing. After 20 minutes the rain had calmed to a manageable level and we set out “that way toward the water”. As we walked down a narrow street we quickly saw piles of shipping containers and workers behind a chain link fence on once side of the street. The other side of the street seemed to be a dense jungle. There was little else to be seen. Soyan commented presciently, “This seems a little sketchy, even for lonely planet.” Our arrival at a lone sign warning us not to enter without authorization from the Panama Canal Authority, confirmed her suspicion. A brief conversation with some friendly dockworkers on their break and we realized we were in Balboa, miles from Miraflores.

As we began to walk back in the rain, as if in answer to our deep seated but unspoken desire, a rental car pulled up and an earnest looking young man and 2 women asked if we knew where the Miraflores locks were. We explained that we didn’t, but that we too were looking for them. We added how the bus had left us at the wrong spot and we had been caught in the rain. Eventually we looked sufficiently pathetic that he told us to get in. We piled in the back seat with his cousin and all of their luggage. With Soyan on my lap we all looked for the locks together.

Carlos the driver, his long time girlfriend Nancy and his cousin Mirasol were from el Salvador on vacation, but headed on to the Zona Libre (the free trade zone) in Colon to shop for his business, selling home electronics in El Salvador. We all toured the museum together and looked at the very impressive locks. Later we treated them to a round of drinks to say thanks. Having filled our adventure quotient for the day we took a cab to see the causeway and then went back to the hotel before going to Libby’s birthday Party.

Read Soyan´s account of the same events.

Feliz Cumpleanos a Libby

September 16, 2005

Panama City — Casco Viejo. Tonight, a friend here in Panama city invited us to tag along to his friend’s birthday party with the young Jewish scenesters of Panama city. We went to a trendy restaurant in the old part of the city, Casco Viejo. We had a delicious dinner in a former jail cell right across the street from the mayor’s house. Now that is gentrification!

It was a reminder of what a delight it is to see a city through the eyes of the locals. Libby, the birthday girl, is a Colombian that lived in Israel for several years before moving to Panama recently, but most of this group has grown up together. It was a treat to peek inside this established community and to learn about the businesses, relationships and lives of these people.

Here some photos of a great evening.

We have to catch a plane to San Blas in just 5 hours so the details of our little adventure of taking the bus to the locks of Miraflores this morning will have to wait, but some photos of the Panama Canal are now uploaded.

I’m leaving on a jet plane…

September 14, 2005

“I’m leaving on a jet plane and I don’t know when I’ll be back again.” I have just changed planes in Miami and these corny lyrics are stuck in my head.

On my flight from Houston to Miami, I tried to get a nap. I am pretty tired since last night, I only got a few hours sleep. I was up late packing and then woke at 4:30 am to catch my flight.

On the plane to Miami I had a very vivid dream. We had arrived in Miami and I discovered that Soyan had brought all sorts of additional cargo (a tarp for a tent — not that we brought a tent, some small oriental rugs — which we put in storage weeks ago, stacks of folder, books and papers, rice, water and countless other items). During the plane ride, she had decided that she didn’t need all this extra cargo. She had deplaned leaving it under the seat and in the overhead bin. I was frantically sorting through the gear cursing her for not having left it in Houston or taken it with her. In my dream I was wearing ear plugs because I had been napping (in reality I was wearing earplugs because I was still napping :) The earplugs had prevented me from realizing that the crew was about to close the airplane door for the next flight and I had not yet deplaned. I woke up trying to get the words out for them to wait for me to get off.

I guess we all have our own stress dreams.

I am not sure why I was having a stress dream though. I am delighted not just to have started our trip, but also to have ended the packing, planning, organizing etc. that has consumed us for weeks. I am now in Panama City and I am going to see a travel agent about a trip to San Blas and Boquete and then look for some famous canal!

Note: I wrote the first half of this on the plane, but despite considerable effort yesterday I was not able to get posting via email working. If any Dreamhost / WordPress user out there can help, I’d appreciate it.

Additional note: I am not sure how it is possible because this is day one of the trip, but I am behind on my blog already. A garage sale post and a travel tech post are still coming!

Photo Credit: Bill Frazzetto

World Unfurled Scoops WSJ

September 13, 2005

On August 23 I wrote about Coinstar and Amazon gift cards. No doubt following my lead, the Wall Street Journal has picked up the story. One interesting note from the article, it seems Amazon that sees this as a way to reach people with out credit cards. Not only can you feed the machine coins, you can feed it paper bills. Take that paypal!

If you haven’t seen it in your city yet it should arrive soon. I looked at the Coin Star machine at a Kroger’s in Houston on Sunday and the option was not yet present.

Backpack turns man into Energizer bunny

September 11, 2005

I saw this last week on Science Blog, but before I could get this message up, my father pointed out its presence on CNN.

We have all seen the bike lights powered by the motion of the tire, well if researches at the Marine Biological Laboratory are successful, backpackers may one day get the same kind of toys. It seems that “Suspended-load Backpack testers were able to generate up to 7.4 Watts–more than enough electricity to simultaneously power an MP3 player, a PDA, night vision goggles (or 3 LED headlamp), a handheld GPS, a CMOS image decoder, a GSM terminal in talk mode, and Bluetooth.”

Researchers describe a backpacker as an inverted pendulum saying that “The Suspended-load Backpack frame sits still on the wearer’s back, and the load is mounted on a load plate that is suspended from the frame by springs. The springs allow the load to slide up and down on bushings constrained to vertical rods, thus allowing the load to move with the same vertical motion as the hip, but lagging it by a fraction of a second, producing differential movement between the frame and load. The pogo-stick-like movement of the load generates mechanical energy that drives a rack-and-pinion device that powers a geared DC motor that acts as a generator mounted on the frame.”

That sounds great, but it can’t be lighter than my batteries.

Photo credit: Timothy K. Hamilton

Starbucks leaves me breathless.

Last night I abused corporate largesse. I entered a Starbucks® Coffee shop and took 2 large green straws and 2 smaller clear straws. I did this not for the consumption of a tasty Starbucks beverage, but instead to experiment with the training technique of breathing through a straw. I don’t think taking Starbucks’ straws for such a purpose was a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), but as the guy at is learning it could be.

These straws, combined with my $3.78 purchase of 2 Speedo Competition Nose Clips gave me all I needed for not one but a pair of poor man’s hypoxicators. After experimenting with a full-length narrow gauge straw earlier in the day and getting headache, I switched to a large Starbucks’ straw cut in half. In the picture above you can see Soyan (very graciously) modeling the get up. Now you can see why we only use it at night.

We walked 1.2 miles (yeah for gmaps pedometer) and discovered that it was, indeed, more strenuous than normal walking. As a side effect of breathing only through the straw, there was a simultaneous saliva build up in the front of my mouth and dry mouth in the back.

It was an interesting experience, but I’m not sure if I’ll continue it. Aside from looking like a dork, it is hard to chat while we walk. Additionally, despite lots of poking around on the web I can’t really find any additional intelligent discussion of the technique, but I did however stumble across another odd piece of equipment: Power Breathe a $50 pump system that purports to strengthen lung muscles. It looks ridiculous, but clearly I am ok with that already.

High Altitude Meets Low Tech

September 7, 2005

Portable HypoxicatorI have been spending lots of time thinking about how I’ll get some more altitude to be better prepared for Kilimanjaro. When we get to Panama (just one week away!) we are going to hike the Baru Volcano (3,478 meters / 11,410 feet). But if you can’t take Mohammed to the mountain, you can get Mohammed a portable hypoxicator. A hypoxicator is a fancy machine that simulates high altitude (low oxygen) conditions. This is a fine solution for anybody wishing to spend $1,299 and carry around 15.5 lbs. I am willing to do neither, but what if there was a way to do the same thing with a tool found for free at many restaurants, which weighs less than a gram?

Sean Burch, an adventure racer, ran from the base of Mt Kilimanjaro to the summit, a climb that will if I am lucky take me six days, in less than 5 and a half hours. What was the high tech equipment that he used to train? A straw! From the Ithaca Journal:

He trained for the North Pole Marathon solely on a treadmill, and he must have looked downright peculiar during his training sessions for Kilimanjaro: 30-minute stints on a Stairmaster with his nose pinched while breathing through a straw in his mouth.

Thanks to for the story.