Travel Journal March 6, 1999
Arrival in London

The Flight

Depart San Francisco for London on Virgin #20, leaving 4:30 PM. -- Rick Foss

[ Note: My travel agent and connoisseur of history, Richard Foss of Ladera Travel, has kindly prepared for me a detail itinerary of places to visit and things to do. I'll be prefacing each journal entry with an appropriate text from Richard's document.]

I took Virgin Atlantic Airways from San Francisco, direct to London's Heathrow airport. I've never flown on Virgin before, and I was surprised to find that each seat had it's own individual 6" diagonal television screen mounted on the seat in front of it.

Being a hacker, of course, I had to explore as much as I could of this. The video is controlled by a user-interface paddle, about the size of a small television remote control. This snaps into a receptacle on the side of the arm-rest, and is connected to the armrest by a cord. The unit appears to be a telephone on one side, and a combination remote control and nintendo game controller on the other side, which is in fact exactly what it is.

The television function appears to be a menu of movies you can watch. At first I was expecting that when I hit "view movie" the movie would start to play, but when I did this it actually showed me a movie already in progress. I realized then that they weren't actually delievering a unique video feed to each individual seat, but in fact there were about a dozen "channels" and that all that the on-screen menus did was to change channels in a very fancy way. In fact, it turnd out that you could change channels directly, without going through the menus, which was especially useful because this particular flight had apparently uploaded the wrong software - the movies being shown weren't the ones listed in the menus. I decided to watch "North by Northwest", a classic Hitchcock thriller that's always worth seeing again. I saw a couple other movies, but they aren't worth mentioning. I spent most of the time listening to my books-on-tape version of "A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, Portrait of an Age", by William Manchester. [Note to self: Add a book review for this to the book reviews page!]

One of the games being featured was "Super Mario World", which appeared to be the real thing. This means that either the per-seat interactive unit contains a stock NES, an emulator, or they somehow convinced Nintendo to port it to another platform.

I noticed that the headphones supplied by the airline used the stock mini-phono jack, rather than those awful pneumatic tube headsets. Even so, the sound quality seemed pretty bad. I decided to see if my own headphons (a small set of "button" headphones that fold up very compactly) would work, and in fact I was able to get much improved sound quality that way.


Take a few days to settle in to London -- Rick Foss

10:30 am.

Heathrow airport looks like most airports. I braved the gauntlet of customs without incident (i.e. they just waved me on through), and in fact I'm not quite certain what I was supposed to have "declared" anyway.

I wanted to try taking "the tube" to my hotal (Aston's Apartments), but I realized that I had no idea which tube station I would need to get off at. I tried asking a couple of the information people, but they said "we only handle hotels, not apartments." I decided to take a cab, it was £28. (That's the first time in my life I've ever had a legitimate use for the English pound symbol in a text file.)

Here's a (bad) picture from the inside of the cab.

A blurry picture from inside a London cab.

Architecturally, London certainly has an "antique" feel to it. San Francisco's thin patina of frontier exuberance combined with Victorian elegance has mostly worn away; LA never had it at all, as far as I can tell, and looks like what you'd expect a sprawling megalopolis to look like, with the occasional spanish tile roof here and there. But even on the short drive from Heathrow to the hotel, I can tell that there's a boatload of "legacy" architecture around here, lots of red brick and rows upon rows of identical houses.

I took some pictures of the view from my apartment, and I've transferred them to my laptop. The architecture is typical.

The view from my apartment.The view from my apartment

Here's what the apartment looks like from the inside, and the outside:

4:00 pm.

Before I left San Francisco, my Irish co-worker, Barry Beechinor, said to me, "See that beautiful blue sky outside? Well, enjoy it, because it's the last one you'll see for the next ten weeks." Well, at 1:00, after checking in, I decided to go exploring for a bit, and took a walk around for a few hours. The weather was classic English, overcast, drizzly and cold. I didn't mind, however. This is about the time of year that San Francisco enters it's rainy season, and the weather is much the same.

I found an internet cafe called "London Internet" near Kensington Station, about 5 blocks from Aston's. They charge £1 for each ten minutes, but you can't hook up your own computer. Instead, there are PC's running Windows 95, hooked to a LAN, with Netscape Navigator installed. The "cafe" part is actually a misnomer, as no food is served, it's more like a Kinko's but without the copy machines. I tried to talk the guy into letting me hook up to his network with my Sony Vaio, but he claimed that it wasn't possible. Having thought about this, I know that it should be, and it shouldn't take me more that 5 minutes to adapt to his setup. Tomorrow I'll try bribery and see what happens. One other thing that I should have done before I left is to see if Earthlink has a local telephone number. That would be slow, but it would mean I could upload stuff from the privacy of my room.

One thing I did manage to do, even so, was to check my mailbox. Before I left, I had the foresight to install IMP on my server. This is a program, written for Apache, that gives your server a "Hotmail" style web-based interface to email. Since IMP is written in PHP3, I had to install the Apache PHP3 module, and also I installed mod_ssl so that I could connect to my server securly, without revealing to the world what my login password was. The result of this is that all I need to send and receieve email is a network-connected browser.

I had lunch at a small Indian restaurant calld Moti Mahal. I'd heard that the Indian food in London was distinctly different than that found in California, and that's certainly true. I'm going to have to experiment more in this area. I plan on having fish and chips later today.

I also bought something called an "A to Z" (pronounced "aytozed", with no pauses between the words -- Star Trek fans, think "Betazed" but without the initial 'B'), which is the local, smaller equivalent of the Thomas Bros. Maps, i.e. a small booklet containing detailed maps of London. Several people at the airport referred me to the "aytozed", so I guess that this particular brand has become so popular that it's become generic, like Kleenex or Coke.

I'm realizing that one of the disadvantages of the "apartmentlike" nature of my current accomodations is that there's no obvious concierge. I had hoped on strinking up a relationship with some convenient and worldly person who could mentor me on the various ins and outs of London.

10:00 pm.

Well, at about 4:30 I fell asleep; I'm seriously jet-lagged. I just took a melatonin, so I'm going to attempt to sleep for another 8 hours or so and get myself back into sync.

(Later: The melatonin was partly ineffective because I was too hungry to fall asleep; I hadn't eaten since about 3:00. Fortunately, I'd brought the leftovers from the restaurant back with me and stuck them in the fridge. That bought me about 3 and a half hours worth of sleep. I consider this a victory, as it means I'm three and a half hours closer to being in sync.)