Thursday, June 09, 2011

Travel Tips for Mendocino

My wife and I just got back from a few days getaway in Mendocino, about 3 hours drive north from the San Francisco Bay area. This is our third time staying in that area, each one at a different bed and breakfast.


From the Bay area, the typical drive to Mendocino involves a long stretch of fast highway (Hwy 101 North) followed by a long stretch of twisty smaller roads. The last part of the drive can be nerve-wracking, with sharp switchbacks, redwood stands full of flickering shadows, and opposite-way traffic zooming past in narrow lanes. Total time (starting from Berkeley): about 3 hours.

The drive back was a breeze by comparison, even though there were just as many twists, turns, and tailgating vacationers in a hurry to get home. It must be more comfortable to do the twisty/turny parts first, then the boring and possibly congested highway part, rather than the other way around.

Two solutions suggest themselves:

  • Drive up Highway 1 along the coast the whole way to Mendocino, cutting out as much Highway 101 as possible. It's just as twisty and turny, but the coastal drive is arguably the most scenic in the whole US.

  • Schedule a break not too far from the turnoff from Highway 101, ideally at one of the wineries with a tasting room. (Bring a designated driver.)

Going up, to avoid heavy traffic on 101 North in Sonoma county, try to pass through the highway section around 1-2 PM. Coming back, if you can arrange to be going south on 101 around 2-3 PM, you'll find heavy traffic going the other way but smooth sailing heading back to the Bay area. (Your mileage may vary; that's our experience travelling back and forth on weekdays to avoid the weekend crowds.)


Accomodations are generally very nice in the area, with a premium on high-quality included breakfasts. We've had good luck both at Griffin House several miles south of Mendocino in Elk, and at the Stanford Inn right outside of Mendocino. We had some not-so-good experience at a place that wasn't adept at dealing with health-related special requests. Distinguishing factors you might consider when evaluating lodging:

  • How close is it to the beach, park, or town where you want to do the bulk of your activities? For example, from Elk to Mendocino was a long drive back and forth each day when we stayed there. Yet the town of Mendocino is small enough to explore pretty well in an afternoon, leaving other days for the surrounding area -- Boonville on the way, Ukiah a little ways inland, Fort Bragg a little north.
  • How well-ventilated is it? This might seem like an unusual factor, but many places have wood fireplaces in each cabin or room, and you can find yourself getting fumigated depending on the wind and the layout of the grounds.

  • How good is the breakfast? We choose the Stanford Inn this last time because of the associated vegan restaurant The Raven's, which provided a top-notch breakfast for those who aren't big meat eaters. The breakfast dishes didn't suffer for lacking eggs, bacon, etc. -- this was the first time I've ever encountered vegan hollandaise sauce! And how pleasant to get a daily delivery of cookies or a truffle at happy hour and not encounter any eggs or dairy.

When to Go

Anytime starting in June is plenty warm, and the coastal breeze can keep you from overheating while strolling near the sea. Go mid-week to avoid the crowds, or schedule your stay around one of the festivals, farmer's markets, or other special events in the area.

Remember that the Northern California weather actually heats up in September and October. The vacation season extends longer than out-of-staters might expect.


Mendocino dining has trended towards high-end French style over the years. There seemed to be less vegetarian-friendly choices at old haunts like Cafe Beaujolais this time around. Similar high-end joints include the Moose Cafe and (ideally for us) The Raven's featuring a vegan menu. Less upscale options include Mendo Burger and Mendocino Cafe. Even those places are still more pricey than you'd find in the big city.

Still, Mendocino is so small that you can wander the whole thing in an afternoon, compare and contrast the menus as you go, and make a game-time decision for the best dinner option. Other nearby communities are the same way. Boonville has its main drag that you can stroll. Many of Fort Bragg's good restaurants, for example Eggheads, Nit's Cafe, and Living Light Raw Foods, are all situated along the same short block.

There is a cornucopia of local produce, with not a whole lot of spice or strong flavor. You can probably handle the Thai or Mexican dishes even if you find such things too hot elsewhere.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Rediscovering Old Music

My old schoolmate and "Reach for the Top" team captain John Gushue published a blog entry, Flight of the old chords: Migrating your music, with some thoughts about the pleasure of rediscovering old music.

I've gone through this process a couple of times, what with moving from one computer to another, and from one music player to another. Every now and then I'll find some MP3s that I ripped in the pre-Mac days, from CDs that are now packed away and forgotten.

I use a couple of techniques to go back and savour old music that otherwise might fall out of use, even within my current iTunes library.

Forgotten Favourites

A smart playlist named "Forgotten Favourites" holds the 4- and 5-star songs that have the oldest "last played" dates. Depending on the size of your library, you could set this up in different ways. It could be all your 4- and 5-star songs, with "limit of N items selected by least recently played". Or it could be all your 4- and 5-star songs with a last-played date farther back than some cutoff, such as "last played is not in the last 12 months", then perhaps with a limit and the songs selected randomly.

No matter how you arrange it, you'll hear some songs that you like, that you haven't heard in a while. And after you hear a song, it will drop off the playlist and be replaced by another.

Album Appreciation

When I get a new album, I put it on a playlist "Album Appreciation" that I listen to when I have a few free seconds to rate each song. But after a while, it can seem unfair to devote time to new music where there might only be a couple of 3-star songs per album, when there's all this great older music that I'm missing. So every now and then, I'll erase all the ratings from one of my classic albums, put all the songs in the "Album Appreciation" playlist, and go through it again just to remember how the songs work together in order. (Sometimes listening like this, I'll give certain songs a higher rating than if they just came up by themselves on shuffle play.)

PS: Although I refer to "Album Appreciation" as a single playlist, actually it's 2. "Album Appreciation - Raw" is a regular playlist where I can drop a whole album. "Album Appreciation" is a smart playlist that picks songs from the first playlist, but only the songs with no star rating. That way, as I rate the songs, they fall off the playlist that I actually listen to. And when I've rated several albums this way, I'll go back and take them out of the "Raw" playlist.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

My True North

Today on the New York Times op-ed page, there's a piece "Our True North" with nostalgia from some Canadian expatriates. Let me just add to their list of things to miss about Canada.

Of course, as mentioned in the NYT piece, there's the health care. "Let me see, what doctor do I want to go to? How about, whichever one is closest to me... whoever was recommended by a friend... or whoever has the first listing in the Yellow Pages."

I'm gonna disagree about Coffee Crisp being the sine qua non of Canadian chocolate bars. It has its place, granted, but nothing measures up to Crispy Crunch. For us west-coasters, they sell 'em by the case in the big supermarkets in Vancouver.

As a vegetarian, I have to say that health food restaurants in the US could learn from the ones in Canada. In Toronto, every neighbourhood health food store has some kind of veggie burger, ethnic snack, etc. that you would only ever find in that store. Here in the States, it's all the same brands everywhere you look, and it's all too small and overpriced. Granted, much of the fake meat is Yves, which I'm under the impression was Canadian, although now apparently bought out by a US company.

Shopping is another area where the US could take some pointers. This is a big country, with a lot of diversity, yet most of what you can buy in stores is overpriced junk on the coasts, and the same junk for cheaper in the heartland. In Toronto, you can walk into any store downtown and find something decent and unique. And you'll find different kinds of things if you walk down Bloor Street, Queen, King, Dundas, Spadina, Eglinton, Yonge... or in Vancouver, 4th, Broadway, Robson, and so on.

I'm not going to waste a wish on snow. I've had enough of tennis matches in June interrupted by falling flakes.

Don't know if it's unique to California, but they just don't know how to do bread. Every loaf is too small, nothing big enough to make a sandwich out of. (Even considering the too-small veggie burgers.) And again, everything is either super chi-chi or plain white Wonder Bread. Nobody's competing on price; in our local market, every loaf is $4.99. What was that about outrageous subsidies to the wheat farmers?

Saturday, May 09, 2009

iPhone and iPod - Stop the Music!

The iPhone and iPod Touch are great for playing music while you gaze at the screen. They're also great for playing music while the screen is off: save power! extend battery life! The catch is that the typical way of stopping the music is so cumbersome. If the screen is off, that means the device is locked. So you turn it on, do the "slide to unlock" thing, and then hit the Pause button.

When the (non-iPhone) phone rings, or someone walks into your office to talk to you, or your speakers start blaring some inappropriate song, or you need to dash out of your car... that's just not fast enough.

Here's the shortcut: Unplug the audio cord from the iPhone or iPod. Even though the internal speaker could keep playing a tinny version of the same song, the device detects the unplugging and pauses the music automatically.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How to Interpret "Lost"

[Spoiler warning: I'm not going to give away specifics about the Lost plots from earlier seasons, but I will go into the themes a little bit, which may take away some of the surprise factor if you start from the very beginning.]

With the new season of "Lost" just starting, you may be a bit confused depending on where exactly you are in time (just like the characters). Maybe you've been away for long enough that you're having trouble remembering all the plot threads. Maybe you've caught up on your own timeline with the season DVDs. Or maybe, like me, you watched from the beginning in blocks of 3-4 hours per week, when the Sci-Fi and G4TV channels recently ran all the episodes to lead up to the latest season premiere.

I think this last way, in big multi-episode sessions, is the most effective. I remember hearing about some of the plot mysteries during the first season. Mysterious hatches! Polar bears! Seemed like the questions around those things dragged on for weeks and months. Viewing the episodes back-to-back gave the same feelings of wonder and suspense, but resolved the mysteries reasonably quickly.

Now is a significant time for Lost to resume, not least because we recently lost both Ricardo Montalban and Patrick McGoohan. Some say that Lost is like Fantasy Island. (Whatever you can imagine, can happen. Your fate may depend on whether you choose good or evil.) Others say it's like The Prisoner. (You'll never get away. Everything goes topsy-turvy. You can never tell whose side anyone is on.) The emphasis shifts each season. Sometimes things seem like magic, other times there are malevolent plots afoot.

I say the right way to think of Lost, is as a real-world, present-day version of Zork. (By the way, you can now download all of Zork I, II, and III.) You start with this giant unexplored area, that you map a little at a time. You find puzzles, locked doors and such, that take a long time to get past. The Dharma Initiative is like the Great Underground Empire, a Macguffin that is a convenient excuse whenever the creator wants a certain object or map location to exist. Once you know how to get past the obstacles and get from place to place, later puzzles involve going back and forth on long journeys through well-trodden territory. Landmarks that once were mysterious and intimidating, are now mundane and familiar. And when you try to solve the final riddles, you realize that actions and choices from the past have to go together in specific ways so that everything lines up perfectly in the present.

Here are the riddles I'm still waiting to find the answers to... I'll be peeved if these things don't get resolved by the end of the series! [OK, these might be a little spoiler-worthy if you haven't seen the first season or two.]

1) What is the origin of Hurley's nickname?
2) Who is the "him" who is supposed to be the replacement for the guardian of the hatch? Will anyone ever answer the riddle correctly?
3) How did Inman get to the island?
4) Why does it seem like the Dharma Initiative is still active in the background (think Inman, and the plane drops), when by all rights it should be defunct?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Don't Feed the Time Machine

Most technology issues are very simple. It's all about the grinding noises. If you hear grinding noises because your hard drive is busy all the time, that's bad. SSDs = less grinding noises. Client/server = the grinding noises happen mostly in a server room, not your office. Cloud computing = the server room with all the grinding noises is even farther away, probably near a river with a waterfall to mask the noise even more.

OS X Leopard's Time Machine feature is great... with the exception of the frequent grinding noises. Wake up from a long sleep -- Time Machine does a backup, might as well go for a coffee break. Right around the time you want to check mail, listen to music, work on that critical document -- the hour between backups expires, more grinding noises that slow down the machine and kill your concentration. Something like Time Capsule, doing the backup to a wireless network drive, is really just a way to transfer the grinding noises to another room.

But if you just have a regular computer + hard drive setup with Time Machine, don't despair.

The first way to lessen the noise is to set Time Machine preferences to exclude folders with frequent activity, big files or lots of files, and unimportant data. Open System Preferences and go into the Time Machine pane, or pick "Open Time Machine Preferences" from the icon in the status bar at the top-right part of the screen. This preference pane has a little + icon where you can select folders. Making a selection means that folder, and everything underneath it, is left out of the Time Machine backups.

For example, I leave out my iTunes Music folder because I back up changes there on my own schedule. No point in spending time every hour backing up songs where I fixed a typo in the album name. I'll do a big backup once a month to take care of that. Similarly, I have a central download directory, but what I want to back up are the applications that I actually install, so I'll leave out the download directory with its original .dmg and .zip files. And if you do programming, you might want to exclude certain directories based on your style of work. If you keep everything up-to-date using CVS, you might exclude your source directories and just make sure the CVS repository is included in Time Machine. If you generate all kinds of binary files, PDF documents, or what have you over and over again, stash them all in destination directories that are excluded from Time Machine backups.

Another technique that achieves the same result is to put certain folders on another drive, and refer to them using symbolic links. (Just make sure that external drive is excluded from Time Machine backups, using the preferences pane as above.) In Terminal, you'll use a command like "ln -s /volumes/Other_Drive/Some_Folder /users/Me/Some_Folder". (Like with the 'cp' command, the first argument is the item that already exists, and the second is the new one you're creating.) You'll be able to do all the normal operations with the folder like it existed in your home directory, but Time Machine will know that it's really on the other hard drive, and will include/exclude it based on the preference settings for that drive. For example, I recently used this technique with a big "Podcasts" directory; I freed up the space on my internal drive, and took those files out of the Time Machine backups all in one step.

If after going through these exercises you still hear a lot of grinding every hour, you'll need to track down folders that applications are updating without your knowledge. Those files might not be worth backing up. The command (again, from Terminal) to run is:

find ~ -mmin -60

That will display a list of files that were updated within the last 60 minutes. On my system, this technique pointed out folders such as ~/Library/Caches, ~/Library/Cookies, and ~/Library/Safari that were being updated constantly based on normal web browsing activity. The information there is the kind of stuff I clear out periodically anyway to keep the browser running fast, and if I had a system crash it wouldn't be high on my list of things to recover, so it's back to Time Machine preferences for a few new items to exclude.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Looking Ahead to OS X Snow Leopard

Here is a piece looking at what's known about the next release of OS X, 10.6 aka Snow Leopard:

Mac OS X Snow Leopard 10.6 - the story so far | News | TechRadar UK

The focus is largely on performance -- graphics, multi-core, etc. Which raises one question with me. What's up with OS X grinding to a halt whenever there's any I/O?

By which I mean... when copying files from one disk to another, or pictures off a compact flash card, or Time Machine starts doing a backup... everything seems to come to a stop. I might expect that some other I/O-bound process could become twice as slow, or even 5x as slow if there was contention on the same disk for writing things like browser cache files, causing seeking back and forth.

But my perception is that it's worse than that. Browser windows freeze completely until Time Machine is finished. Operations slow to a crawl when I'm pretty sure they're not touching the disk that's being copied to or from. Pictures take forever to come off a compact flash card when nothing else is tying up the processor. You would think it would be an obvious optimization to make Time Machine run at a low priority when the foreground app was doing I/O, or to speed up copies between compact flash cards and Firewire external drives, where the internal drive shouldn't be involved at all. Yet in this one area, I find Windows beating OS X in speed.

I don't know if it's something deep within BSD, like you periodically hear some bugaboo in Linux internals that makes certain operations really slow. I've seen these slowdowns when copying or moving files both from the Finder and the Terminal.