Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Winter Returns...With A Vengeance!

It's currently -11, with a windchill of -40. We had a giant blizzard today, causing all of the local schools to dismiss before noon, and the rural clinic where I was working to actually close for the afternoon! There's four to five inches of new blowing snow on the ground, doing a nice job of covering up the ice underneath.

But I only fell down once today, despite spending about an hour and a half walking (into school and back, twice, and Jasper's evening romp).

Jasper is utterly unfazed. We think he is a Husky in disguise.

PS - Congrats to ourselves! This is blog post #101.

Monday, January 28, 2008

New Rotation! And Basketball Fun.

Alex has been very diligently updating the blog, and I figured it's my turn to post about something!

I started my two-week family medicine rotation today. I'm really hoping that I like it, given that I have turned in my early application to the NH-Dartmouth Family Practice residency/combined MPH program! We had class all morning, which was a nice chance to catch up with some classmates I haven't seen in awhile and to relearn some pharmacology. Then it was off to the clinic for the afternoon. I am lucky enough to be doing the rotation at the more rural clinic where the family med residents see their "continuity patients" (patients they will follow through all 3 years of residency). The afternoon was great, and the most exciting part was getting to put a cast on! All those years of polo-wrapping horse legs are finally paying off.

The only downside is that we have a patient writeup due tomorrow, and it is midnight and I have just finished it. I should have been in bed an hour or two ago...

One of the reasons that I'm up so late is that I had a basketball game tonight—the med school has a team in the city women's league. We are currently doing very well, ranked #2, and we won big tonight. It's lots of fun, though I am definitely one of the less-experienced players on the team. Mostly I try to play good defense and then stay the heck out of the way on offense. Tonight, though, I had what will probably be my one good play of the entire season: I made a breakaway layup while getting pushed from behind. Now, if I could only manage to score when we are not already totally blowing out the other team...Anyway, for one shining moment I felt like I could play basketball again, and felt like I was doing a little bit of justice to the number 21 that I wear. (For you non-Connecticut people out there reading this, number 21 belongs to Jen Rizzotti, the UConn point guard from 1992-1996, who now coaches the Hartford Hawks).

It's also been delightfully warm the past couple of days, in the forties. However, we are about to pay, as temps will go negative over the next day or two and all of that melty stuff will freeze into a sheet of ice.

Crazy Stick People

Jasper's impression of humans and their strange ways was probably made all the stranger this past Saturday. It was a fine day to be outdoors: we got above twenty and has recently gottena few inches of new powder. We introduced Jasper - the black labradoodle who bears a striking resemblance to a husky with his love of cold and snow - to the odd human activity of cross-country skiing. Imaging, if you will, his thought process:

"Ok, we've driven in the car to some new place to run around. Sweet!"

"OK, we're out of the car. Let's go! Wait, why aren't we going yet?"

"What in GOD'S NAME are those sticks doing in my vicinity?"

"You've got to be joking: you're going to stick those to your feet, so that you can't run or anything, and have a good chance of just falling over sideways? What the hell kind of fun is that?"

"Oh, I see, somehow the addition to equally ungainly sticks to your hands, so that you can't use them to break your fall, makes it more fun. Just keep that stuff away from me."

"I said keep that stuff away from me! Wait, you want to keep me on the leash, so that I'm, like, close to you and the crazy sticks? You fools! I thought I'd seen enough madness in the crack den!"

Ok, so maybe he didn't channel Hunter S. Thompson into his train of thought, but his sentiment probably wasn't far off.

You can imaging the difficulty of cross-country skiing when one wrist is attached to a very skeptical dog by a 6-foot leash. After a while, it seemed much easier for all concerned to just let him off the leash and romp around like he is accustomed. After we did that, he seemed more than happy to run circles around us, but keeping a close watch that he never came within 3 feet of any ski equipment. By extension, that meant us, too. Ah well, he kept to his pack well enough, and as the sun dipped below the hills, we enjoyed a winter activity that didn't involve donning four layers.

iPod Update

Behold our timeline of iPods! Left to right: iPod 2G (10 GB, late-2002), iPod 3G (10 GB, mid-2003), iPod Shuffle (1 GB flash, early 2005), iPod Shuffle 2G (1 GB flash, spring 2007, not pictured), iPhone (8 GB flash, Aug 2007), and the newest addition, the iPod Classic (80 GB, yesterday).

What's a person need with all this stuff? Well, the last two are replacements for the first two; the middle one is mostly for gym use. Hilary was able to rock out 5+ years from her iPod, which, as a 10 GB model in late 2002, cost about $500. My, what five years has wrought! Yesterday we picked up Hilary's (interim) replacement iPod, and 80 GB model that's less than half the thickness, and about half the price, of her original. I say interim because Hilary really has her sights set on a 16 GB iPhone, which don't exist outside of a Cupertino laboratory right now.

"What," I hear you asking, "is someone going to do with an 80 GB iPod? Who has 80 GB worth of music?" I nod my head in understanding, and add, "especially when the computer it is syncing with only has a 40 GB harddrive itself?" The answer, at the moment, is that you simply don't use it all - we've filled only about 24, about half of which is Hilary's music collection. The other half, and what will probably fill the bulk of the rest of the device, is video. With a bit of slightly illicit software, one can rip their DVD collection just like their CD collection, albeit as a much slower speed. With an external harddrive and some understanding of how iTunes syncs up, it is possible to not have to keep all that stuff locally on one's laptop in order to also have it on the iPod. A two-hour DVD can be compressed and formatted for the iPod into about 1 GB. At that rate, it can not only hold Harry Potters 1-7 in unabridged audio book form, but also movies 1-7 (or, as of now, only 1-5), and not break a sweat. It currently also holds the entire extended edition of Lord of the Rings, about 11.5 hours' worth, in about 1/10th of its hard drive. There are plans to rip and add some portion of Hilary's collection of Gilmore Girls, and possibly some Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. This will make this iPod an excellent traveling companion, even if Hilary gets herself a new iPhone.

On the open market, neither of the first two have much value, not even on eBay. In fact, my old iPod, second from the left, died some months ago (which motivated, in part, my move to the iPhone). I wasn't too fussed about its demise - I got and a sweet $200 rebate deal when I bought my laptop 4-1/2 years ago, and got plenty of use out of it. I was a little bummed that it died when it did: a senseless death, really, by a short drop when the hard drive was working.

So, now that we have these new fangled gadgets, what to do with the old ones? It would be unconscionable to just toss them, so Hilary and I will probably send them back to Apple to be recycled. I only hope that their recycling program is legit, and not just a rape of the third world.

Size Comparisons

The folks at Gizmodo decided to show how the new MacBook Air compares in size to other laptops out there. Bottom to top: MacBook Pro 15", MacBook 13.3", Dell m1330, Macbook Air, Powerbook 12", Sony Vaio TZ.

Mostly, I just think they had nothing better to do.

It is interesting to note how the Air compares to my current laptop, the 12" Powerbook. Aside from thickness, everything about my laptop is smaller (including processor, hard drive, screen, RAM...). Ah well - I'm just getting my geek on.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Yup, things bottomed out at about at about -19F this morning. Brrr. That's cold even for my thick blood. What's more, it means that it has been about a week since we saw temperatures in the double digits...above zero.

Thankfully, that appears to be about to change. Yes, looking into the forecast tomorrow, it looks like with break the big ten-oh, and even approach the twenties. Nice. This weekend we're looking forward to temperatures that approach freezing, something we haven't for the last two weeks.

Hilary and I are looking forward to taking advantage of the warming temperatures and remaining snow to take Jasper out and see if he like cross country skis. Here's hoping.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Jasper's Outdoor Adventures, Part II

Here are some photos from today's excursion.

First, Jasper on his way to the field. We decided to try his Muttlucks (booties) today, to see if he'd prefer not to have the snow ball up in his paws. (He is very insulted by being referred to as Twinkletoes, don't even think about it.)

Apparently he'd rather have icy paws. The booties lasted about ten seconds after he started running, with two falling off right away and Jasper yanking at a third with his teeth. Once free of his restraints, he was happy to resume yesterday's pouncing activity:

We brought a different toy today, a sort of tennis ball dumbbell, thinking that it might be easier for Jasper to hold on to and thus perhaps get the idea of bringing the fetched object back to one of us. He did hold it for a little longer today, and even took a few steps with it a couple of times:

Mainly, though, Jasper would pounce on the toy, grab it in his mouth, drop it, bat it around, pick it up again...and then decide that it was time to take a rest:

Yup, that's our puppy. Totally oblivious to the cold. A moose of the north indeed:

Fetch! Well, Sort Of

Minnesota continues to be gripped by cold—it's four below zero as I write this, and we aren't expected to be out of the single digits until the end of the week. Despite Jasper's very woolly coat, this has caused a couple of changes to his normal routine, mainly to prevent frostbitten noses on the part of his human companions. 

Yesterday, we took Jasper out midafternoon to take advantage of the sun. Instead of going on our normal long walk, we took him to a field near the house and chased him around for awhile. Jasper loves this, and it was an efficient way to tire him out close to home. On a whim, I tucked a tennis ball in my pocket on our way out the door. Jasper does have several toys, including the ball, that live under the coffee table with him, and he does occasionally mouth these items very gently. We would really like him to learn how to fetch, because we think he'd like it a lot, but all prior attempts to get him to show interest in flying objects have ended in him either running fearfully in the other direction or looking at us cluelessly. 

This time, however, was different. We got him out onto the snow, made sure he was looking at us, and tossed the ball gently in his direction (but not right at him, of course, we didn't want to scare the poor boy). Jasper bounded over to the ball, pounced on top of it, and picked it up in his mouth! He then proceeded to drop it, bat it around with his paws, and jump on it again. So, folks, we have some actual canine instinct going on here. 

No clue how to translate this initial move into bringing the ball BACK to us, which would be a rather convenient way to close the loop, but we're excited nonetheless.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Update Cycle

My current computer, a steadfast Powerbook G4 12" laptop, has been starting to show its age in myriad ways for a while now. "Its age" has a double meaning here: 1) its apparent speed for doing the things it always has done and 2) its obsolescence compared to current technology. For reference purposes: I purchased it not long after my (first) graduation, in June 2003. That makes it about 4-1/2 years old.

Examples of age in the first category. It has a 40 GB internal hard drive, of which about 3 GB remains available. I have in recent times had that down below 1 GB. Where does that all go? Well, there's a fair bit (about 8-9 GB) devoted to the operating system (OS X 10.4.11), and the applications. About 14 GB is my music collection (meaning I have to be selective about what I put on my iPhone, but that's a different issue). Another 6 GB or so is devoted to pictures. There are a few GB of movies which don't really need to be there. Thankfully I picked up an external hard drive a while back (also good for backups), otherwise I'd have run into a serious problem a while back. It is not only a matter of how little more I can hold: when a harddrive get more than, say, 75% full, you start running into performance issues. A second example: while I have done a little video editing on this machine, it was never all that speedy, only then only for 30-60 sec clips for the web. The computer would probably vomit if I asked it to do of that today, which is a bummer, because I'd like to do more of that in the future. Thirdly, the 867 MHz G4 processor and 1 GB of RAM, which were really only "good" when I bought it, just barely meet the minimum specs for the latest release of Mac OS X, 10.5 "Leopard", which I haven't installed yet. I am a bit anxious about whether it would go well or not. I have already mentioned the rain dance I need to do to get my iPhone to sync up with iTunes using my laptop's USB 1.1 ports. Lastly, I have worn these ol' batteries right out, even replacement batteries. These days I'm lucky to get much more than an hour or two out of my computer, untethered, before it konks out.

Compare this to what I could get today (i.e., examples of age in obsolescence terms). Apple and IBM were never able to get a G5 processor into a laptop without frying eggs, so there was a generation skipped. The move to Intel processors started about two years ago, with the Core Duo in the first MacBook Pros, call that another generation. The transition to the Core 2 Duo is a third (there was a sizeable architecture shift wrapped up in that "2"). At some point here Apple will roll out laptops with the new 45-nm Penryn chips from Intel, which is another generation still. So, my current computer is about four generations behind. Hard drives are 3x-4x larger for laptops, RAM is 2x-4x as capacious (and with faster bus speeds), screens are brighter, battery life is 3x-4x longer. (UPDATE: I didn't mention it before, but with the introduction of the MacBook Air, which has a multitouch trackpad, it is only a matter of time before multitouch is rolled out in all of Apple's laptop line.)

Don't get me wrong, I have gotten 4-1/2 good years of use out of this machine, and it has traveled with me on many adventures. There here machine got me through my fifth and sixth years of college, including my 300-page master's thesis and fieldwork in Greenland. But surveying what's out there, and considering the age and limitations of my current machine, I have come to the conclusion that it's about time for an upgrade.

But, there are two things that stand in my way of throwing down the credit card and walking off with a new machine. First, the laptop I have my eye on now (15" MacBook Pro) is no small amount of money - so throwing down the credit card would cause some amount of pain. In fairness, it's about as much as I paid for my current laptop (4-1/2 years ago). Second, the MacBook Pro lineup hasn't been updated since last July. Intel is coming out with their new 45-nm Penryn chips right now (although they'll still be branded Core 2 Duo). Many expected Apple to announce new machines with these chips at Macworld this past week, but nothing was mentioned. The attention was all on the new MacBook Air (an odd name, but a slick piece of work, although it doesn't fit my needs), iTunes movie rentals and the AppleTV, etc.

So, it's just sit back and wait, and marshall my energies (read: $$$), until the time is right. It better happen soon, otherwise I'll be tempted to wait a bit longer, until mid-year, when Intel's new mobile chipset, codename Montevina, comes out.


"Brrr" is really all one can say about the weather today. But, since that makes for a pretty lousy blog post, here's a bit more:

It was twelve below when Hilary and I got up this morning. We bundled up in preparation for some Saturday morning errands: bread, farmer's market, library, returning some dress shoes, etc. My car wouldn't start. It had been used as recently as yesterday, but I guess the cold just sapped it of the will to live this morning (that, and I think it's still on its original battery, at 50,000+ miles). Thankfully, Hilary's car did start, which was a very good thing. Hers has a battery that's less than a year old, which was replaced when it had a string of life-less mornings last winter.

Now the errands are taken care of, and we are probably going to hang out (at home, inside) for the rest of the day and listen to the meter tick away the gas our furnace is using. Oh, and we'll take Jasper, who seems immune to the cold in his woolly shag, for a long walk later today.

Checking the weather outlook for the next few days, we probably won't break ten until the middle of the week. A real Minnesota winter, at last.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My One Tech Post Ever

I usually leave the geeky stuff entirely up to Alex. But today I have two tech notes to contribute.

1. I have a new cell phone! After smashing my old one on the ice and suffering a few weeks with Alex's old, barely-functional version, we went to the Cingular store on Sunday and picked up a brand-new phone. It is a cheapo Samsung, one of the only phones in the store without an mp3 player (though I could not avoid a camera). The salesman didn't quite seem to believe me when I said that all I wanted to do with the phone was TALK on it. No texting, no internet, no mp3. The phone is actually great, I'm quite pleased with the interface, the general look, and the fact that it actually WORKS.

2. Along the lines of "smartphones," the phone that I REALLY want is a 16 gig iPhone. However, this does not exist yet, and Steve Jobs' big address today did not unveil it (booo!), so it looks like I will be waiting for awhile, consigned to using three devices (cellphone, palm pilot, and iPod), where I dream that someday only one will do. As I mentioned in a previous post, my iPod is 5 years old (it is a 10 gig, which was the medium size at time of purchase) and starting to show its age. I would like something with more storage, since the Harry Potter books take up a fair amount of room. It also does not play movies (how passe).

My two options for a new device are the classic iPod (now available in 80 and 160 gig versions) and the iPod Touch, which is a stunningly beautiful iPhone-esque device available in 8 and 16 gig. As tempting as the Touch is, it is much more expensive for much less storage. So the current plan is to go ahead and get an 80 gig classic iPod. This will hold our combined music collections AND some movies and will thus be a great travel device even when we both have iPhones.

And then I will hope for the next generation iPhone. Come on, Apple! We bought your stock! Get going!

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Note on Connectivity

Readers of this blog will note that many of them have had the "Sent from my iPhone" signature. I should point out that, while I have been composing and sending these postings from Italy from my iPhone, I have not enjoyed the always-on connectivity that I usually enjoy in the States. Instead, when sending from the iPhone, I used a paid WiFi connection from an Internet café in Radda. I should also note that, although my iPhone uses GSM (global standard for mobiles) technology for its cellular (ie, talking) connection, I did not call people while in Italy.

Mostly, this is a logistic and economic limitation, not a technological one. I did not research it much before I left the US, but my understanding is that there is no technological reason that I could not use a local cellular network (eg, Vodaphone Italy) and have both voice and data connectivity, signal permitting. Indeed, when I have the cellular radio turned on, the local cellular networks show up in a list in one of the menus. I could probably choose one of them and go from there. This is the same as most any GSM phone.

However, I did not actually do this. The real limitation is that if I actually used one of those networks, it would be international roaming, and incur tremendous costs. I did not research what it would be exactly, but probably something like dollars per minute.

Things are bad, too, for data. Where GPRS (aka EDGE in the US) is available, the iPhone is able to connect as it would for me in MN. However, international data roaming charges are as bad or worse than voice. There were annecdotes, shortly after the iPhone's introduction, of people who brought their phones abroad with them, but seemingly kept it turned off, only to find a huge bill when they got home. What had happened was that, rather than turning it off, which actually takes a special manuever, they had merely put it to sleep, which is the usual "off" people use, as it is just a flick of a switch. When asleep, however, the iPhone will still try to use the available network to update the weather, stock info, and email, so that you always have the latest stuff on your phone. This meant these customers abroad had a periodic trickle of data usage, which added up to a big bill. The iPhone now has a mode to turn off data roaming, so that this doesn't happen to people accidentally. Mostly I have kept the phone in "airplane mode" which turns both the cellular and wifi radios off, so that you can use it on an airplane. This also conserves battery life.

There is more I could talk about on this subject - about the iPhone vs other GSM phones, SIM cards, and carrier exclusivity. But, as I am already back in the States, it is largely a moot point.

Sent from my iPhone


After a week or so of relatively warm weather, it is once again COLD in Minnesota. Since we're going to have a week where we may not see 10 degrees, I decided to take Jasper out for his daily walk in the middle of the afternoon, with maximum sun and thus perhaps maximum warmth. That warmth turned out to be seven degrees (windchill of -12).

I bundled up in my ski bibs, heavy jacket, and fleece face protector, with my iPod nestled into an inner layer (it's 5 years old and dies the moment it's exposed to frigid temperatures) so that I could listen to Harry Potter while we walked.

We set off, Jasper jogging along completely unconcerned by the cold. We brushed him yesterday, so he has even more fluff than normal, and we've never seen him bothered a bit by low temperatures. His paws have been fine, so he hasn't even been wearing his booties.

Jasper was having a lovely time, and I was quite cozy inside my layers of fleece and Gore-Tex, so we headed past the last bike path bridge and onto the grass (now snow and ice)-covered path that continues to follow the Zumbro River. We often play with Jasper there, but this time he spotted something that looked way more fun than running around in circles! The Rochester geese camp out in this part of the Zumbro for the winter, as runoff from the power plant keeps the water unfrozen. Jasper had shown some minor curiosity about the geese before, but today he set off at a dead run across the grass, down the rocky bank, across the sandbar, and, with me looking on in horror and disbelief, jumped with an enormous splash straight into the river.

This has been our nightmare since it got chilly and we started calling Jasper away from the river on our nightly rambles. With Alex still at work and nowhere near a car, I executed Plan A for "Jasper Jumps In the River in the Freezing Cold": run home.

Jasper, perhaps recognizing the desperation in my tone, ran back up the bank when I called, ran a few circles around me, then stopped and tried to shake. He seemed a little startled when that didn't work: the water had already frozen on him, and he looked just like a tree after an ice storm (and rustled like one, too). I re-leashed him and we headed off at a jog back down the bike path. He still looked completely unconcerned, no shivering or discomfort evident on his face or in his gait. It took us perhaps ten minutes to get back to the house.

We ran up to the solar-warmed porch, where I left Jasper for a moment to grab towels, shed my now far-too-heavy layers, and snatch Alex's camera (Jasper still looked totally content, so I wasn't about to let this event pass without documentation).

The towels didn't do much against the ice, so I ended up just picking Jasper up, dropping him in the tub, and pouring warm water all over the icy parts of him to dissolve it off. He seemed quite bemused by this entire frantic set of events, but still didn't forget his manners: my mumbled "shit!" as I was sluicing water over him produced a lovely sit in the bathtub. So, he's dumb enough to jump in the water when it's 7 degrees, but smart enough to interpret accents. Go figure.

Now he's back in his customary spot by the couch, lying on his fleece blankie and covered in towels.

He seems completely fine—we'll keep an eye on him until he's totally dry, and I'll pull out the hairdryer if he looks cold, but I think that the terror of the roaring device would not go over well.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Knife Returned

It was more than a week in transit, and arrived sometime while Hilary and I were in Italy. But waiting for me when we got back in the weeeee hours of the morning was a nice fat envelope posted with $2.42 in Madonna with Child (Madonnas with Children?). We had ourselves been in transit for 26 hours coming back from Chianti, which was quite enough, thank you. Inside the envelope, of course, was the knife that I had sent to myself from the San Juan Airport. What a relief. The story of having to cut myself free from a taxi cab is now better that it has a complete and happy ending.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Coming to the End

Jan 8, 1745 GMT

Well, this was our last full day for H and I in Italy. Tomorrow we'll be in transit back to the states. Thursday we are back to the grind. Bummer.

But, we made a full day out of it. Under the guidance of Paul, we headed to the south and west of Siena, to a different area of Tuscany. But out of the Chianti area. We ended up spending most of the day at the beautiful walled hill town of Pieza. As we harder farther out of the Chianti sea and more into the more gently rolling hills of outer Tuscany, the temperatures rose towards the 50s, the clouds cleared out, as we got our first real sunshine of the trip. Better late than never.

It is getting a little late, so a full account of our doings just isn't going to happen today. Suffice to say that we had an excellent time and enjoyed the weather immensely. When we rturned to our home base, we stopped by the press of a small olive oil company run by a family that lives a stone's throw away from us, almost literally. Their product, Podere Pornanino, is a real premium piece of work - harvested by hand, no pesticides, only a few thousand liters' production annually. Their equipment is very simple, and they work very hard to ensure the oil is extracted with minimal warming, agitation, and oxidation - all of which reduce the oil's taste and potency. We can't wait to try some that we are bringing back.

Now we are just doing a quick Internet check before heading back to make dinner. Don't expect to hear anything else before we are back stateside Thursday. Ciao!

Monday, January 7, 2008

In Siena

Jan 7, 1145 GMT

After a slow day yesterday, loss of electricity not withstanding, we had our act together this morning. We headed out relatively early towards Siena, which is the main town of the region after Florence, and just as old. One of the main attractions is pictured below: Il Campo. The building across the way is the City Hall. Above the clock in the top center of the frame extends a large tower, which the tour book mentions was built after the Hall was, and without any reinforcement of the foundation. So, the fact that of is still standing is itself a small miracle.

We enjoyed overpriced cappucinos in a café overlooking the bowl of the Campo. A couple of times a year they line the outside of the square with dirt, pack the interior with spectators, and actually run a horserace: Il Palio.

We also took in the main catherdral, built in the 1200 and 1300s, Il Duomo. The interior decorations feature an impressive frescoed library of enormous illuminated choir books. Some of the little chaples off to various sides are adorned with works by Donatello and Michelangelo. The floors have many scenes and saintly portraits inlaid in the marble floor.

We are now sitting down to lunch in a restaurant - Osteria Castelvecchio - recommended to us by one of Holly's former clerks, who discovered it with her husband on their Italian honeymoon. After this we'll wander around abut more before picking up Paul, whose numerous contacts here in Tuscany are what brought us out here in the first place. He is coming into town for his semi-annual trip. And we hope he can show us some of his favorite haunts further south.

Sent from my iPhone.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Rainy Epiphany in San Gimignano

We woke Sunday morning to another rainy day, and after a leisurely breakfast (Alex reconstructed Todd's yummy apple french toast, which was great but suffered from a lack of maple syrup), I fell back asleep. Eventually, the rest of the group decided that they wanted to go out, so I was rousted out of bed and we had a quick lunch before driving to San Gimignano.

San Gimignano is a famous medieval hill town about 30 miles away that has many tall stone towers. When we arrived in the early afternoon, almost everything was closed (as it was a Sunday, and a holiday, and in low season, we weren't expecting much anyway). We wandered around for awhile on the narrow streets. Normally, the big feature of the town is the view of the surrounding countryside, but it was so misty that we couldn't really see anything. (It was kind of like being in the White Mountains and knowing that Mount Washington is towering invisibly over you.)

We ended up toward the top of the town at a wine museum that also does tastings. They poured six wines: three were the local white wine called Vernaccia, and three were Chianti colle Sienese (meaning Chianti from the Siena area rather than Chianti proper, in which case they could be called Chianti Classico). Afterwards, Alex tried some grappa made from Vernaccia, a mere whiff of which nearly knocked me out. It was completely colorless and turned out to be 42% alcohol! The sommelier explained each of the wines to us, and it was generally a delightful and interesting time.

After meandering back down the hill, we found Trattoria Chiribiri, one of the Rick Steves-recommended restaurants. It was incredibly early for Italian dinner (just before 6), so we were the only group in the place, but we had an AMAZING meal. The big feature was homemade pasta. I had a pumpkin ravioli with leek and cheese sauce that was one of the tastiest things I have ever eaten. Everyone else's dishes were wonderful as well. For dessert, we ordered an apple tart, a panna cotta with raspberry sauce, and a tiramisu and just shared them around—also fantastic!

When we arrived back home, it was to a darkened house...no power! The circuit breakers were not the problem, so Dad ended up driving to the neighbors' house (they have been a tremendous help all along). Matteo came over and helped in the futile search for the magic electricity box, and then called the power company for us, flipped the outside switch they told him about over the phone, and became our hero! Power was restored instantly and we all breathed a sigh of relief, since visions of dealing with an unresponsive Italian electricity company were dancing unpleasantly in our heads.

Tomorrow we're off to Siena.

A Quick Note

Jan 6, 1600 GMT

Just a quick note right now - this internet cafe I'm at it a fair bit expensive than our usual one in Radda. Plus, I am using their computer, not my iPhone, so haven't had a chance to compose things beforehand.

Where and I, you ask, that has this different setup? This is a little cafe in San Gimignano, a quintessential hilltop town about 20-30 miles west of where we are staying. It is technically outside the Chianti area, so their wine cannot be counted as "Chianti Classico". Instead, they call it a different kind of chianti, even if it uses the same san giovesse grape as Classico. They only do some of that, however, and instead produce a delightful white wine based on the Vernaccia grape, which is just wonderful. Seeing as how it has been pouring rain most of the day, and it is a Sunday, and it is an Italian holiday (happy Three Kings' Day, everyone), there isn't much open. The museum of wine, however, is open, so we spent some time sampling the local varieties. It was great. Now we are enjoying a quick cappuncino before hitting the road back for home.

More posts in the offing, stay tuned!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Other Highlights from Florence

Jan 5, 1030 GMT

After arriving and finding a place to park near the SW entrance to the city (Porta Romana), we headed into the middle of the city, over the River Arno via the laden-with-shops Ponto Vecvhio, and towarda the most famous museum of the Florence, the Uffizi. Being the place that it is, it had a substantial line to get in - one to two hours - so instead we pressed on to a museum further north. It is actually an old monastic church, San Marco, where one of the brothers was an inspired early-Rennaissance painter (1400s), Fra. Angelico. He adorned the inside of the monastery's cells with paintings taken from the life of Jesus, some 40 in all. There is also a larger work at the head of the main staircase, an Annunciation that has a staid Mary receiving word from a Gabriel with most-unflightworthy wings that looked as colorful and patterned as the marbled paper that Florence known for. Far from frivolous, he and his brothers viewed these paintings as a devotional work, although I have never seen so many studies of Jesus on the cross.

San Marco, being a part of the league of Florentine museums, was able to sell us tickets to the two other museums we wanted to hit up. The tickets had times attached to them, reservations, which was a first to me.

Our second stop was the Accademia, which I have already mentioned in a previous post. Essentially, you pay the €10 entry fee to see David - the rest of the collection is of importance only to the most thorough art history major. It may seem like a lot to spend doe a single statue, but it turly is a msterwork to see up close.

The museum also has a collection of incomplete Michelangelo sculptures - works in progress. It is remarkable to consider these half-finished works, pieces he started and abandoned, human shapes visible emerging from the rough-hewn marble.

We wandered to the southeast to a restaurant that Hilary and her folks enjoyed a good meal when they were here years ago. Alas, it is no longer there. So, we popped into, essentially, the next restaurant we found - a place called Baldovino. It turned out to be a good find, we had a pleasant meal of pizza, gnocci, and raviolli.

After lunch we had a little time to stop by a well-known, but physically tiny, chocolatier, before heading back to the Uffizi for our reserved 4 o'clock entry. It is a strange thing to me to have to send my bag through an x-ray machine and pass through a metal detector to get into a museum. It would be a strange thing to see at, say, the Smithsonian. Ah well.

The Uffizi has a tremendous collection of early Renaissance art, mostly Italian, including many pieces by the masters like Raphael and Michelangelo. There is a large room filled with Boticellis like the easily-recognized Venus on the half-shell (actually named The Birth of Venus). Hilary picked up a 1000-piece puzzle of it, which she started that same evening.

We capped off the Florentine experience with a double barrelled sugar rush. We hot ridiculously-thick hot chocolate at a place called Rivoire, followed by gellato near the Ponta Vecchio on our way put of town.

We got back to the house after eight, and didn't sit down to a dinner of white bean and porcini mushroom soup until 10:30. So all in all, a full day.

(after 2-3 days of blogging and internet use, my iphone's battery is running low, and I neglected to bring a cord with me on our outings today. So, perhaps no new posts for a day or two.)

Sent from my iPhone.

Friday, January 4, 2008

In Florence

Jan 4, 1330 GMT

Just a brief note now, and more later. One of the main attractions in Florence, or Firenze as it appears on the maps, is the Accademia museum, the main attraction of which is Michelangelo's David. Pictures are not allowed, but the iPhone was inconspicuous enough for this shot. That's Hilary at the base, in the black coat.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Greve and Volpaia

Jan 3, 2100 GMT

After doing our thing at the Internet café in Radda for about an hour, we strolled down to Bar Dante Alighieri, where we had stopped briefly the previous evening. We had a light lunch of spaghetti cut thicker than a pipe cleaner, with a wonderful chunky red sauce, and a thick traditional Tuscan soup with white beans, potatoes, some unidentified greens, and old bread all cooked down to a thick and well-seasoned mash.

Next we headed north from Radda to Greve in Chianti. It was a very twisty road between the two that wound among heavily cultivated rows and terraces of well-trained grape vines and olive trees. It's a lot hillier here than I'd expected - meaning that the hills are a lot steeper and higher that I'd pictured in my mind. The weather had hardly improved, meaning that it hovered just a bit above freeIng under heavy grey skies. It also happens to be winter, so the vines are bare, and all the trees are a dusky brown with retained dried leaves. But it is still quite a sight to see. If the weather improves, I'll be sure to post some better pictures.

Our stay in Greve was brief. We were there long enough to see the main square with attached romanesque church. One of the shopes that lines the main square is purportedly the most famous butcher in the region. Given that Hilary's a vegetarian, we didn't go in, but we could see that every inch of the walls and ceiling were hung with legs of prosciutto, crusted with salt and whatnot from their long aging. We also found a wine cellar, probably run the some association of vintners, that had bottles of many of the regional Chiantis and olive oils - probably upwards of 100 different labels and vintages. They would run from about €10 to over €100+. You could taste most everything there, oils and wines, by purchasing a sort of debit card and taking that to one of the circular tables around the room, where different bottles were hooked up to a dispenser. While an ingenious system in a way, it was alittle sketchy and impersonal, so we didn't try it out. We are hoping one of our other stops will have a more personalized tasting, with a much narrower selection, small enough to actually get your palette around it.

We drove out of Greve not long before sunset. The Tourist Info center had given a more detailed roadmap, and even highlighted the way to our next destination: a very small walled town only a 100-200 called Volpaia. We had tried to get to Greve by way of Volpaia from Radda, but our maps were not detailed enough to show us the tricky way to reach the right road. Now we were trying it backwards. The thin highlighted track actually traced a few kilometers where the map showed no road. Undaunted, though perhaps a little weirded out, we followed the directions up many narrow switchbacks and through a few tiny, one-road towns on the way, we left pavement behind as dusk fell around us. For a good 15 minutes, the only indication we were still on the right track was the fact that that there were many fresh car tracks through that day's snow. Eventually, we reached this tiny, 900-year old town that sits on the end of a ridge - part of Florence's southern vanguard in the fifteenth century. Now, diverse vinyards adorn the slopes below it. A small adventure getting there, and unfortunately too late in the day to even hey out of the car to look around, most places were definitely closed for the day. We'll try to catch it in daylight in a few days.

After a home-made dinner of spaghetti and red sauce (not as good as lunch's), we plotted out tomorrow's plan. Ordinarily, I wouldn't go through such an effort, but tomorrow is our designated day to hit up Florence, so we want to have our act together beforehand.

Sent from my iPhone.

Chains and we're off!

Jan 3, 1030 GMT

I have never used tire chains before, though I get the idea behind their application and use. Tires have gotten better over the years, roads are better, and I don't live in a place where I'd need them.

But, today, it was either figure out the chains, or be stuck inside all day. While being inside to read and drink hot stuff all day isn't a bad notion, we ought to make the most of our time here, even if it is a lot colder (and, at the moment, snowier) than we expected. There are vinyards to see, cappucino to drink, and olive oil to sample.

So, Mark and I drove down the driveway, to test the conditions for driving back up (and, by extension, the surrounding dirt roads). We barely got past 100 feet when the tires began to spin and our progress halted. On with the chains! It had been years since Mark had used them, and then only the kind you had to drive over to install (as he recalls, he may have used them at Dartmouth in the 60s, and remembers using them with Dickie, which was a positive swear-fest). These are a more contemporary type, which wrap around top and bottom. After a few minutes' futzing, we were able to sort it out. It made driving back up the driveway not too bad, almost no slip.

As I compose this, we are on our way into Radda, first to an Internet café, then on to other things.

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Snow in Tuscany

January 3, 0800 GMT

Yes, it is hard to believe, so I have included this picture. It is not a heavy snow, hardly worth noticing in Minnesota or New England, but it is enough to keep us pinned down this morning. You see, the place we are staying at is about halfway between Castellina and Radda, on a stretch of unmaintained, twisty dirt road. The driveway is an awfully steep and unpaved affair, traveled exclusively in first gear for its whole 1/4-mile length. The usual caretakers of this place were kind enough to leave us their set of tire chains so that we'd be able to get up the driveway in slick conditions, but so far we have decided to hold off and see if the sun would come out. As of about 10 this morning, all we have received is more wet snow.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Tuscan Bread

Jan 2, 2000 GMT

Tuscan bread, as you can well imagine, is wonderful, particularly here in Tuscany. Apparently, the most traditional Tuscan bread is unsalted. You notice the difference. The reason for this quirk is not entirely known, but I have two theories. The first is that, because they eat the bread with prosciutto and other heavily-salted meats, they hardly notice its absence. My other theory is that, many many years ago the Tuscans got hit with some obscene salt tax, possibly levied by the Pisan merchants on the coast, and simply refused to use salt in their bread dough out of spite. The fact that this probably happened 1000 years ago is of no consequence, there's the principle involved.

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We Have Arrived

January 2, 1700 GMT
After the joys of a transatlantic flight (7 hours), and crossing 7 time zones, we arrived this morning in Pisa. Holly and Mark were there to pick us up and bring us to the house they are watching over this month. We are about an hour south and east of Florence, where we will make at least one day trip.

We are nearest to several villages that constitute the heart of Chianti wine country. Their names are all variations of "[name] in Chianti", such as Radda in Chianti, where this picture was taken our first evening here. This is the Bar Dante Alighiri. Great cappucino! The café is run by an Italian fellow and his English wife, and is sometimes staffed by another English gentleman who also runs a wine shop in town. Being six in the evening, well before the typical dinner hour and well after the typical after-work crowd, we were the only ones in the place.

Naturally, since I am able to post this, I have gotten some wireless access. Quite reasonable, really: €2/hr. However, I wrote this in the evening of our first day, then posted later (the following mid-day). We'll be posting more as we go along.

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