Thursday, February 25, 2010

New Zealand 2010: Wellington (Saturday, February 20)

Written on the ferry to Picton (on the South Island), 11:00 am on Sunday, February 21; and in the Sydney airport at 7:52 pm (Sydney time)

We started the day with a drive up by where the Interislander Ferry would leave in the morning, to be sure of our route and time to get there (about 10 minutes).  Then we went to the New Zealand Parliament buildings, including the one oddly architected one referred to as the Beehive.

We then drove by the botanic garden, but apparently it was walk-through only, so we couldn’t drive through.  So we went to Zealandia, the visitable part of the Karori Sanctuary, a valley once used as the water source for Wellington (when they dammed it), which a group is today attempting to restore to close to natural habitat.  This has included removing invasive non-native species, constructing a fence around the entire reserve intended to prevent rabbits, cats, stoats, hedgehogs, and rats from getting in, and re-introducing wildlife long gone from the mainland, including giant wetas (New Zealand crickets the size of a child’s hand) and tuatara (a lizard-like reptile largely unchanged in the fossil record from 60 million years ago).  We got to see a couple tuataras (tuatara? tuatarae?), but they were shy, so pictures came out lousy.

One attraction in the reserve was the remnant of a small gold mine (there had once been several, but this was the only one in the valley still safe to enter).  It went about 50 feet into the hill and then connected to a vertical shaft about 50 feet high.  The cave was usually just over 6 foot high, and we got to see a number of cave wetas and when the faint red torch (flashlight) was turned out, a handful of bioluminescent glowworms.

Pretty much every time we were out in a forested area such as the Karori Sanctuary, the bugs were out, too.  Not hopping around, landing on you, biting you bugs, just in the trees, making noise.  Lots of noise.  Loudest bugs I’ve ever heard.  We kept looking to see if we could see them (since it sounded like there must be hundreds of huge bugs in each tree to make that much racket), but we never saw the noisemakers.  I have this suspicion that they were really little ones which are able to make massively disproportionate noise.

Coming back to the hotel, Mom laid down for a nap while I went shopping.  I picked up albums from Barry Saunders (of The Warratahs) and a Noel Parlane (another New Zealand country singer) at Slow Boat Records.  Then I went looking for a scarf for Kent, as he had asked me to bring one back for him.  I finally got smart and started checking out the hiking and skiing stores and found one (part Merino wool, part possum fur), a short black one with a loop for tucking the end through.  I apparently snuck in just moments before closing, and by the time I had made a selection, they had closed the registers.  They called for approval to reopen one of them, and only did it because I was paying cash.

Heading back to the hotel, I picked up a small plastic replica of the famous New Zealand tiki for my boyfriend.  This weird design — the “pitau” version of “hei-tiki” (according to Wikipedia), it looks like a frog-man, with its head akilter and its tongue out — is one of the iconic images of New Zealand, seen on greenstone jewelry and t-shirts and so on all over the country.  Hei-tiki is technically a neck pendant, not quite connected to what Americans think of as “tiki (bar) culture”.

Mom and I then went on a drive up Mt. Victoria, the urban mountain in the middle of Wellington.  If you’ve ever had the chance to drive up Twin Peaks in San Francisco, you know very much what we got: very curvy urban drive, and a 360-dgree mountain view of all the surrounding cityscapes.  Mt. Victoria also has a Robert Byrd memorial, looking due south toward Antarctica (although you can’t see it from there; it’s hundreds of miles away).

They were gearing up for a rugby match in the big stadium we could see, but whether it was the wind or the geography, the sound all seemed to come from downtown Wellington instead.

Dinner was at Rasa, a Malaysian/South Indian restaurant across the street from the hotel.  I ended up having goat curry, and Mom had a dosa, sort of a south Indian burrito, usually done with potatoes as a breakfast food.  According to a restaurant review posted there, this dish is difficult to do right and only two restaurants in Wellington have it on the menu.

Updated on March 9, 2010
Added links.
Added travel map.
Added section on insects.
Updated on May 17, 2010
Added better travel map.
Updated on June 8, 2010
Moved part of this post to the Sounds Kinky-er blog:

Dream Journal: February 23, 2010

Tiny, tiny dream:
I dreamed that I am going to be the inker of Legion of Super-Heroes #41, and that I found this out by my name in the advance solicitations for the issue.
Mind you, I’m not a comic book inker, and there’s no Legion comic currently being published.  (But vol.6 will start this summer.  Maybe if I start practicing, I can make this dream come true in 3.5 years?)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dream Journal: February 20, 2010

I had a small dream this night, while I was in New Zealand:
I was taking apart aluminum picnic tables with my stepfather and stepbrother.  (I don’t have such in real life.)  We were having problems getting the nuts loosened and I said “I don’t understand this.  I’ve taken apart wooden picnic tables before.”

A moment later, my step father — who looked like comic book artist Keith Giffen — said “There goes Jim, lying again like always.”

I completely exploded at him, tackling him and trying to throttle him (but also trying not to) while yelling at him that I don’t lie.  My stepbrother just laughed at me while my mother sat impassively nearby, knitting.

Updated on May 26, 2010
In retrospect, the tackle/throttle part of this dream felt a lot like Lost.  Picture any cast member whaling on Ben until he's scraped and bloody.

New Zealand 2010: Rotorua to Wellington (Friday, February 19)

Written on the ferry to Picton (on the South Island), 11:00 am on Sunday, February 21; and some at Los Angeles airport at 5:15 pm on Monday, February 22

This was our big long travel day, about 9.5 hours from Rotorua to Wellington.

We left Rotorua a bit before noon and headed south to Taupo.  Mom needed to change some more US currency, and there was a CD shop I wanted to visit that had been closed when I got back from the kayaking the day before.  In the early 1990s, I had an Internet friend in New Zealand who I met because of a mutual love for Days of Our Lives.  She would send me New Zealand music, including several tapes and CDs from The Warratahs (a country group), and I would send her Calvin & Hobbes collections.  The Warratahs broke up around that time (I’m told), and I’ve always wanted to finish off my collection.  A buddy visiting New Zealand around 1997 picked up their last album for me, but it got ripped off from him in a hostel he was staying at.

Yay!  In the New Zealand music section, they had an 18-track Best Of collection, including several songs from that missing album.  I also bought a Welcome to New Zealand album, a Kiwi Country album (with two Warratahs tracks and one from lead singer Barry Saunders), and a John Denver collection (hey, I’ve only got one song from him in my DJ music!).  The store owner said he was partly responsible for that Warratahs collection being produced: he kept getting requests for Warratahs disks, so he phoned them up (the band, the record company.  I don’t know) and got them to put it out.  We also chatted about American country music for him to stock, and I turned him on to Randy Houser.  To hear him describe it, his distributor is baffled by why he would carry any American country music, much less order dozens of units of various artists.

(He also reminded me that New Zealand does have one famous country singer in its output: Keith Urban.)

(Woo!  I checked out Wikipedia and saw that The Warratahs did re-form and have released two further albums this decade.  Must find!)

We had ice cream cones — I had passionfruit (which they leave the seeds in, oddly), something you never see as ice cream in the States.  The primary ice cream company in New Zealand is Tip Top, and their stuff is indeed fantastic!

I also stopped in at a thrift store we spotted two days before, just so I could tell my boyfriend that I had done so. (Sorry, hon, nothing of interest for sale.)

Next stop was Turangi at the south end of the lake, for gas.  Then we headed down the west side of Tongoriro National Park, home of the three volcanoes (Tongoriro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu), which were given to the country by a Māori chief in 1887.  (The cynic in me wonders if that was magnanimous or an effort to keep them out of the hands of mining companies and the like.)

We stopped for pictures a couple times and at Chateau Tongoriro at the skiing town of Whakapapa, the main entrance to the park.  The Chateau was used as headquarters for the Lord of the Rings crew when filming the Mordor sequences, many of which were done in the park.

(Māori pronunciation: “wh” is pronounced as an aspirated “f” or “fh”, so there is a t-shirt out there that I didn’t see which says “Whakapapa – Your momma did”.  Also, a leading “ng” on words has the “g” almost silent; I think you press the tip of the tongue slightly into the soft palate at the top of your mouth, maybe 1/4" back from where an “n” sound is made.)

We continued down to Wanganui, on the southwest coast.  I slept for about an hour through very windy road; probably good so I didn’t use my phantom passenger foot brake on every curve as Mom drove.  (You know the one, I’m sure.  You use it whenever someone else drives.)  Heading south along the coast, we stopped for snacks somewhere outside Palmerston North (Otago, maybe?).  I got a bag of Bluebird-brand (with a penguin on the bag) “Rashuns”.  On the bag, they looked like Fritos, but inside, they were closer to Cheetos, but “cheese and bacon” flavor and truly foul!

At Foxton, we stopped for dinner at the “66 on 1” American-style diner, and then proceeded to Wellington, where we stayed at the Comfort Inn on Cuba Street.  This turned out to be a block from one of the two gay bars (S & M’s; not a leather bar!) and near a major pedestrian shopping area.  That night, I also tramped up to Dixon Street, which was incredibly loud and full of 20-something drunk straight kids.

New Zealand has sported more motorcycles and scooters than any place I’ve seen, including the good numbers we have in Seattle and even last summer in Europe.  I’ve been incredibly homesick for my own scooter (but in weather like we’ve had here in New Zealand, whether that’s slightly drizzly or super sunny), and envious of the guys (and girls) we’ve seen riding.  New Zealand is unquestionably well suited to riding.  My scooter could have easily handled anything we encountered in the Auckland/Rotorua/Taupo area, although it probably would have struggled with the hills south of Turangi.  I would love to come back in a couple years with my boyfriend and rent motorcycles for our transportation through the country.

We’ve also seen a lot of “Backpackers” hotels/hostels on the North Island.  Daniel, from the Lake Taupo kayaking trip, was one of them: they apparently do most of their travelling by bus (or train), staying in these cheap, small hotels along the way.  They are mostly under 25.  It sounds like a great way to encounter the country for someone of that age, someone less tied to luggage and laptops.  But maybe it could be good for motorcycle tourists, too.

Updated on March 1, 2010

Updated on April 12, 2010
General updates and spelling corrections.
Added links.
Added travel map
Updated on June 7, 2010
Moved part of this post to the Sounds Kinky-er blog:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New Zealand: Kayaking Lake Taupo, Taupo, and Rotorua (Thursday, February 18)

Written in the car headed to Taupo, about 12:50 pm on Friday, February 18, and finished in the room in Wellington at 10:00 pm

We drove back down to Taupo today for my kayaking outing, arriving at the i-SITE Visitor Centre about 10 minutes before departure time (just right).  I forgot my water bottle and towel in the car, and Mom left a couple minutes after we got there, so I had to do without.  (Didn’t need them in the end.  I’m not one of those who guzzles water from a bottle all day, anyway, and I just settled for being wet after swimming.)

Run by Kayaking Kiwi, our party included 10 of us and two guides.  I was paired with Daniel, a backpacker on vacation from Cork, Ireland.  We were one of the strongest pairs — my father used to do a couple river canoeing trips a year when I was a teenager, and you never forget those skills.

We drove out through Acacia Bay, where we were told that the housing market has spiked quite a lot, to where houses with a lake view are now in the NZ$500,000 range.  (Which to my eye is a steal; that’s about US $350,000, and Seattle houses with these sorts of views would be over $1,000,000.  Maybe I should emigrate?  And indeed, a real estate search for Acacia Bay does show lake-view houses in the $400–600K range.)  We unloaded kayaks on a beach and donned safety gear, including a funky tunic which stretches over the mouth of the kayak to help keep the water out.  The group spent about an hour kayaking to the carvings, 20-30 minutes there, 20 minutes back to a spot where we had some snacks and swam a bit, then back to the starting point.  Only one of the kayaks was lagging much of the way; I think we may have been a faster group than average, over all.

(While I could do all the paddling fine, there’s no question that I will feel this upper-body workout for the next couple days.)

I had initially thought the carvings were ancient but well preserved, but that’s silly when you think of it: there was no metallurgy in the South Seas 300-600 years ago, so there was little way for the Māori to develop the tools needed to carve volcanic rock.  Rather, they were done in the late 1970s by a trained native carver using metal tools but traditional methods.  The largest is about 30 feet high, a solid wall carving representing Ngātoro-i-rangi, the navigator of the canoes which brought the Māori to Aotearoa (New Zealand).  There were several other smaller carvings, including one of the lizard-like guardian of Lake Taupo (in Māori legend, all bodies of water have one, called a kaitiaki).  (Here is a Google images search for the carvings.)

(The Easter Island moai were apparently done with stone tools, and except for a handful, are made from tuff [compressed volcanic ash], which may be easier to carve. These carvings are very fine in comparison.)

We were back to the i-SITE drop-off spot just after 5 pm, an hour before Mom was supposed to pick me up. I wandered around, but most of the shops closed at 5 pm on Thursday (but some had been open later on Wednesday, which seemed odd).  I had a cone of Tip Top ice cream, pineapple with chocolate chunks — yummy — and wandered through a kitchen store on Tamamutu Street, then visited the Taupo Library and headed to the parking lot where Mom had dropped me off and dozed in the sun.  (Yes, the sun eventually came out a bit while we were on the lake, and then later as well. I used good sunscreen today.)

(The pineapple ice cream echoed a brand of New Zealand candy, pineapple-flavored taffy covered in chocolate called Pineapple Lumps.  What a name, eh?  Then what do you make of Peanut Slab?)

Mom had gone to a bookstore, and then to the Orakei Korako Cave and Thermal Park, where she walked the entire park except for the cave.  Good for her!  After she got back, we ate dinner at Portofino Italian Restaurant in Taupo, then headed back to Rotorua.

Each place we’ve stayed at has been outfitted with an electric tea kettle.  These have proven to be superb paired with a French press to make coffee, able to bring 1.5 liters of water to a boil in just a minute or two.  That seems vastly more efficient than using a stove to heat a metal tea kettle.  I don’t recall having seen electric tea kettles for sale in the States at the likes of Bed Bath & Beyond, but now I’m going to look for one.

Updated on March 1, 2010

Updated on March 17, 2010
Added links.
Added travel map.
Updated on June 7, 2010
Moved part of this post to the Sounds Kinky-er blog:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

New Zealand 2010: Rotorua and Taupo (Wednesday, February 17)

Written in the car headed to Taupo, about 12:30 pm on Friday, February 18

As an add-on to the Te Po tickets, we got free passes to Hell’s Gate, one of the local thermal parks (a $30 value).  This is one of the few attractions around without a Māori name (although it’s attached to the Wai Ora Spa), and with a logo reminiscent of a video game or an energy drink, I didn’t have a lot of hope for it.

The park turned out to be pretty good.  It had a front area with some bubbling pools, including some black ones called inkpots (vs. mud pots).  We also found that the site had been named by George Bernard Shaw, hence the lack of a Māori name.  Then there was a walk through the forest to a second, larger thermal area.  Mom only went 1/3 of the way around the upper level before taking a cut back to near the end, while I walked to full circuit and saw (among other things) the Steaming Cliffs and the Mud Volcano (which crusts over and has a small eruption every couple weeks).  Much of it felt like my memories of going to Yellowstone 35-some years ago; my mother was there a couple years ago and says that rock paths and wooden walkways I recall are no longer as accessible as they were when I was a kid.

The cynic in me had some difficulties in accepting that everything at Hell’s Gate was real and not manufactured.  The bulk of the grounds looked like poured concrete, just like you see a fake rock installations in Las Vegas or at Disneyland.  (But what at those poured concrete installations supposed to look like but this?)  Steam vents and bubbling pools are easy to produce via pipes in the rocks.  I’m sure it was all real (or most of it, anyway), but it sure felt “imagineered” because I’ve seen so much that has been.

The weather in Rotorua has been overcast and drippy, kind of like the Seattle area in the late spring would be.  It looked like it might turn out nicer today, so I wore my kilt and a tank with a tropical shirt over it.  Left the tropical shirt off at Hell’s Gate, and found out that evening that I had got a sunburn from that, except around the tattoos where I had used a sunscreen.

At the end of Hell’s Gate, there was a little Māori carving demo, where we got to carve along a pattern on a block of wood, to keep for ourselves.  I can’t say I did a great job on my kiwi pattern, but it was a cool (free) giveaway.

The gift shop at Hell’s Gate was one of my big purchase sites, with a t-shirt and a patu (Māori war club) with cool carvings and a convex side for my boyfriend and a paua shell necklace and cheap ring for myself.

They told us going in to be careful around the pools with silver jewelry, because the minerals would tarnish rings and such.  They really meant it, because the silver necklace I was wearing came out coppery and even black in places just from walking through the steam.  (Speaking of the steam, I wonder if it was good or bad for my asthma.  I didn’t notice any particular difference.)

After Hell’s Gate, we headed south to Lake Taupo, the larger crater lake an hour from Rotorua.  It has been created by some 26 eruptions over the course of 26,000 years, with the last one in about 181 AD (so it’s overdue!).  Along the way, we stopped at Huka Falls, about 5 km north of Taupo (toh-poh).  This is a narrow gorge only about 1000 feet long, which forces the river draining from Lake Taupo to churn and move very fast, resulting in a low falls (maybe 20 feet high) that are quite spectacular due to the turbulent water.

We picked up some postcards at the Huka Falls gift shop, including one of the Māori rock carvings on Lake Taupo.  I also found a brochure for kayaking to the carvings.  At dinner (Finn MacCuhal’s Irish Pub in Taupo), when I could get a free short-term WiFi connection, I found that this 4-5 hour trip (3 hours on the water) was only $108 (lower insurance costs, and lower cost of materials, I’m sure), so I booked it over the phone for the next day.

At the New Zealand Corner gift shop, I got myself a black t-shirt with a somewhat severe looking Kiwi on it, and a brown and turquoise baseball cap which should actually fit me fairly well (most baseball caps do not fit well ; they just sit on top of my head and don’t feel like they are on at all.)  I also picked up a glass art plate for Ruby, who is tending my cats.

We had driven down to Taupo on Highway 5, so we took the alternate route pack, via Highways 1 and 30, and then around the other side of Lake Rotorua.

Updated on March 16, 2010
Added links.
Added travel map.

Friday, February 19, 2010

New Zealand 2010: Hobbiton, Bay of Plenty, and Rotorua (Tuesday, February 16)

Written in the car on the way to Lake Taupo, 3:39 pm (and finished in Rotorua at 8:42 pm) on Wednesday, February 17

We headed north toward Matamata, to go to the filming site of Hobbiton used for The Lord of the Rings (and the upcoming pair of Hobbit films).  Rather than take the Hobbiton bus to and from Matamata, we drove right to the Shire’s Rest café, where we had coffee and fries while waiting to start the tour.

The tour involves a short van ride into the middle of the Alexander sheep farm.  The remnants of the Hobbit holes constructed for The Lord of the Rings films are still here.  Most are maintained just against the elements, as apparently they can’t keep them decorated like in the movie due to copyright laws.  But you get a guided tour around the sites and can walk into the undecorated interior of Bag End (just one small plywood room; the rest was sets in Wellington).  The Party Tree is real and there, but the old oak tree above Bag End was faked up for the film.

The same site will be used for the upcoming two-part Hobbit films.  They’ve fenced off a couple areas to let the grasses grow away from the sheep, but I don’t think filming will be for another year, since they will presumably do similar gardening setups months before filming like last time.

The guide told us stories about LOTR-themed weddings, people in costume and speaking Elvish, and even one 6'6" “Hobbit” who had to be escorted away from where he pronounced “home”.  I like The Lord of the Rings, but I sometimes forget just how extreme people can be when they are really “fans”.

Given that The Hobbit is shorter than any of the three LOTR books — it might be longer than The Two Towers — it’s hard to imagine why they are doing two films for it.  Okay, it’s easy to imagine why: money.  I would guess that (a) the break point will be after the fight with the wargs after escaping the Misty Mountains (I first thought that the halls of the Elven King in Mirkwood would be better, but the escape from the wargs is more a turning point for Bilbo), (b) they will will each be under 2 hours, and (c) they will add in some of the supplemental stuff that occurred at that time of The Hobbit but was revealed in LOTR, like the council of wizards with Saruman and Radagast.

As a souvenir, I picked up Ian Brodie’s The Lord of the Rings Location Guide, which is a roughly north-to-south tour through the 100 or so locations used for filming the The Lord of the Rings films.  Mom had picked up an abridged version in Auckland, but this has at least more pics; I don’t know what else is different.  My copy is also signed by the author.  (Several days later, I’ve realized one big thing that is missing from this: maps.  The inside covers should have maps of both New Zealand and Middle Earth, with numbered callouts corresponding to pages in the book.  That way, you could either trace your way through New Zealand, or you could follow through the books/movies and reference the location info.  That seems like a huge and obvious lapse to me.)

After Hobbiton, we headed up to Tauranga and Mt. Maunganui.  It took us forever to wend our way through the town, but we eventually got to the beach and saw the base of Mt. Maunganui.  Unfortunately, the weather was misty and foggy, so while we saw some surfers in the water, we didn’t get a good view of the South Pacific.  Driving back through the Bay of Plenty region, we saw lots of kiwifruit orchards, which we initially took for grapes and then hops, before realizing what they must be.

Each region (equivalent to state or county?) of New Zealand seems to have their own road signs promoting safe driving.  In Bay of Plenty, they have kiwifruit with eyes and wheels; near Rotorua, they are morepork owls, with slogans like “nvr txt nd drv” and “Feeling sleepy?  Take a break.” Of note, these are just about the only billboards we saw the entire trip (I recall seeing one regular advertising billboard near Seddon on the South Island); compare to around any city or town in the States.

We also didn’t see any American-style “rest stops”, nor any European-style “traveler’s rests” (which have bathroom facilities and usually some fast food).

We wanted to have dinner in a coastal town, but all we found was fish and chips takeaway, so we ended up back in Rotorua at a restaurant called Capers.  I had a chicken appetizers platters and Mom had lamb and apricot kebabs (this time, meat and fruit on a skewer, rather than a gyro-lik sandwich), sharing with one another and both of us had about 1/3 left over.  We’ll be having chicken and lamb omelettes for breakfast!  (New Zealand language quirk: their menus say “Entrees”, which we read as “main dish” but they mean “appetizer”, as in the entry into your meal.)

Back at the room, I went researching the adventure caving opportunities in Waitomo.  The first ones I looked at required 48 hours advanced reservation, so they were out.  I would love to do one of the Lost World trips – 4 or 7 hour ones – but even with the 10% online booking discount, they are in the $280-350 range (and they heavily discourage eyeglasses).  They look really cool, though, including long ateliers (rappelling), squeezing through crevices, and getting into underground rivers.  Whine.

Updated on March 15, 2010
Added links.
Added travel map.
Updated on April 2, 2010
Changed travel map to a live one.
Updated on June 4, 2010
Moved part of this post to the Sounds Kinky-er blog:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

New Zealand 2010: Rotorua (Monday, February 15)

Written in the room in Rotorua, at 11:20 pm on Tuesday, February 16

After breakfast, we went into Rotorua to do some local sightseeing.  First thing, we stopped at the Visitor’s Center and booked the evening at one of the three local Māori cultural experiences.  Mom chose Te Pō, mostly because it includes visiting a local geyser.

In the gift shop, I tried on some flip-flops — I forgot sandals at home — but they didn’t fit comfortably.  I also checked out scarves, since a friend asked for one; they are part wool, part possum fur.  (The New Zealand “possum” is not the same as the American “opossum”.  It is an import from Australia, intended for fur farming, and far cuter than the American ones, but apparently quite the nasty pest in New Zealand.)  I also saw another one of the “anal leakage” stuffed kiwis.

We then went to Government Gardens and the Rotorua Museum of Art and History, which was originally a famous bath house (as in mineral baths, pumped in from local hot springs).  They had exhibits on the baths, on the Māori battalion in World War II, on Māori carvings and architecture, and one on couture from two former Miss New Zealands hailing from Rotorua (mostly on Linda Ritchie).  The building is being expanded, so a couple exhibit halls were unavailable.

Toward the end, we decided to sit through the 20-minute film presentation on the geothermal history of Rotorua.  It had a little Māori legend and then the lead-up to the 1886 Mt. Tarawera eruption, at which point the theater seats all started to rumble and quake.  Very memorable (and I was starting to fade off, so it was good!).

We stopped for groceries – including hokey pokey ice cream (butter brickle, I think) and golden kiwifruit (since the green ones they had weren’t even from New Zealand) – and hurried back to the resort, only to find the bus to Te Pō (which is done at Te Puia) waiting for us.  We quickly put the groceries away and got on the bus.  Over the next hour, they stopped at several other hotels and took us to Te Puia for the evening entertainment.

They started by demonstrating the approach to a Māori site, with several half-clad “warriors” doing some ritual activities.  Inside, we were treated to some Māori songs and dances, and they taught some of the women the “poi dance” (twirling a weight on a string) and some of the men the “haka” (how to be Māori mean, fierce, and ugly – crouching, slapping thighs, and sticking out the tongue).  After that, we had a large dinner, including shrimp, mussels, and oysters; roast pork, chicken, lamb, kumara (sweet potato), and pumpkin; and several dessert options (including one I later realized was the New Zealand dessert Pavlova).  (Urp.  I ate too much.)

After dinner, we rode a tram to the Prince of Wales Feathers and Pohutu geysers (the former is named because it has three feathery spurts, like the crest of the Price), which erupts 2-3 times an hour.  They referred to the site as the only two “living” geysers in the Southern Hemisphere, but I don’t know what they mean by that.  (I’m told there may be some exaggeration in the stuff we were told there; this might turn out to be some of it.)

Then came the long bus ride back, with us the last ones off.

Māori language has proven to be interesting.  It obviously sets of lots of “Hawai’ian” triggers in the head, but also a lot of “Japanese” seems to come through.  Too much Japanese, as I often stress the wrong syllables of the words.  (I also turn the double vowels into European-style dipthongs.)

Updated on March 12, 2010
Added links.
Added travel map.
Updated on April 1, 2010
Changed travel map to a live one.
Updated on June 3, 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

New Zealand 2010: Auckland to Rotorua (Sunday, February 14)

Written in the room in Rotorua, 10:58 pm on Tuesday, February 16

After breakfast, we packed and checked out, left our bags at the hotel desk, and caught the shuttle back to the airport to get our rental car for the rest of the trip.  Mom had done all the driving when we went to Ireland, but she’s letting me do much of it on this trip.

Aiee!  Left side of the road!

It has proven a bit difficult to get used to driving on the left side of the road.  Without really realizing it before, I now see that I track the left side of the lane when driving an American car, so I started off doing the same here in New Zealand.  But from the opposite side of the car, that is hard to judge, so I kept drifting onto the shoulder.  (Two days later, I’m getting much better.  I did once lapse into right side driving, but quickly fixed myself.)

The other oddity with this driving is that the wiper and signal controls are switched from where I’m used to (opposite sides of the steering column), so every time I try to signal, I turn on the wipers instead.  (Fortunately, it is being drippy in Rotorua, so that’s less of a problem than it might be.)

Before leaving Auckland, we had kebabs at Kebabs on Queen, and drinks from a local “dairy” (the local name for a convenience store).  I had a Frank brand Tangy Blood Orange soda; it doesn’t taste any different from a regular orange soda.  We then caught coffee from The Coffee Club.

We drove south from Auckland about 90 minutes to Hamilton, switched drivers, and then another hour-plus east to Rotorua.  Rotorua is on a crater lake, the second largest lake on the North Island.  In the 1800s, it was home to the Pink and White Terraces, fabulous calcite pools formed by the geothermal activity; one mention we saw referred to them as the 8th Wonder of the World, but lots of things dubbed themselves that.  The Terraces were destroyed in 1886 by a massive eruption that killed 120 people nearby.

We are staying at the Marama Resort, a Worldmark timeshare property.  It is actually on the far side of the lake from Rotorua, about a 15-20 minute drive; it is closer to the village of Mourea.  I drove into Rotorua that evening, just to scope things out.

Internet access is only available at the registration office.  They have WiFi, but I have to hang out over by the closed-at-night office, either on their stoop or in a parked car. Annoying.

Updated on March 11, 2010
Added links.
Added travel map.
Updated on April 2, 2010
Changed travel map to a live one.
Updated on May 18, 2010

New Zealand 2010: Auckland (Saturday, February 13)

Written in the room in Rotorua, 10:21 pm on Monday, February 15

After breakfast, we walked down to the waterfront.  We passed a huge cargo ship from Singapore which we had seen from the room and took for a ferry because cars were unloading from it.  Further up the waterfront, we passed the ferry building and the Queen Victoria cruise ship, and Voyager, the New Zealand Maritime Museum.

After walking through a waterfront restaurant complex, we walked the half-mile or so to the Sky Tower.  This is a 1000 foot high communication tower and tourist attraction (cf. Space Needle, Stratosphere, and CN Tower, all of which I’ve been up in).  The Sky Tower is about 300 feet taller than the Space Needle, but I still like the Space Needle better, both for its style and the fact that Seattle development has stayed away from the Needle, making it look more impressive as a result.

To get to the ticket booth, we had to walk through the huge gift shop.  (Actually, first we had to find the entrance.  We went up to the third floor of the SKYCITY complex, to where the Deck bar has a connector to a bar in the Sky Tower’s base.  Only then did we find out that the entrance to the tower was from a down escalator on the Sky City ground floor.)

The gift shop was full of all the usual New Zealand and Sky Tower knickknacks that you would expect.  Most disgusting souvenir (other than the “Kiwi Poo” and “Squashed Possums” chocolates) was a stuffed kiwi that is reversible into a pillow via a zippered compartment.  With the pillow pulled out, the poor kiwi looks like it is suffering from a horribly prolapsed rectum, like all its insides are leaking out.

We visited both viewing levels of the Sky Tower, then went to the café for some coffee and sweets.

Trekking back to the hotel, I crashed for a nap and Mom watched some of the Olympics opening ceremonies.  She also took a walk to find us somewhere for dinner, which turned out to be a pub.  I had a tasty steak, mushroom, and cheese pie.

After dinner, we watched abbreviated reruns of some of the opening ceremonies.  A short commercial for the Little House on the Prairie DVDs ran multiple times, sometimes twice in a single commercial break.

I headed out to Urge again, and then to Lateshift.  After leaving there, rather than a cab, I walked back (between 1.5 and 2 miles).  Along the way, I stopped for a lamb kebab (pronounced “keh-bab” rather than “kuh-bob”), as had been recommended to me.  In the States, this is a gyro; in Canada, it’s donair.  It seems to be the standard late night food throughout New Zealand, although the McDonald’s and Burger King on Queen Street were also open at that hour.  (Also recommended were the meat pies at a gas station near Urge; I didn’t get to try one of those specific pies, but I did have such a pie on the way to Christchurch.)

Updated on March 10, 2010
Added links.
Added travel map.
Updated on April 2, 2010
Linked travel map to a live one (because I can't get it to be a direct live one).
Updated on May 18, 2010
Moved part of this post to the Sounds Kinky-er blog:
Updated on June 11, 2010
Figured out how to get a live map that shows the routes; needed to use addresses rather than business names.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Zealand 2010: Sydney to Auckland, and Auckland (Friday, February 12)

Written in the hotel in Auckland, 9:34 pm on Saturday, February 13

Emirates Air was a fine flight.  The meal I had was chicken korma.  The bathroom has some nice design touches, including wood veneer and bottles of eau de toilet and hand lotion.  I watched the film Julie & Julia, but I only got halfway through before we started our descent (and they grabbed all the headphones a good 30 minutes before landing), so I’ll hopefully catch the second half on the return to Sydney.

Customs wasn’t too bad of a wait, although they had a checkbox for offensive of restricted materials, which included sexual stuff on computer or DVD.  I happen to have a porn video with me, albeit an old one which doesn’t want to play any more, so I declared it.  Then I had to stand there next to my mother and tell the guy that I had gay porn with me.  What they really wanted was illegal stuff, in terms of kids or animals, and this wasn’t that, so he cleared it.  We then had to go through biosecurity, where they want to know about plant and animal materials — nuts, fruits, wooden items (like native masks), etc. — because they want to protect New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna.  I had a nut and cranberry mix I bought at LAX, but that was no problem.

After changing money at the airport — I disposed of a Danish bill left from last summer in the process — we took the shuttle bus to the city, to a couple blocks from the hotel.  The Oaks Residences is on the edge of the city’s financial district, near the bay, but the neighborhood itself is only middling, with a massage parlor and an apparent strip club (the Mons Venus) within a block.

Our room is a corner room on the 17th floor, with a nice view of downtown and the bay from one side and of the Sky Tower from the other.  It has two bedrooms, a living room, one bathroom, and a kitchenette.

We relaxed a bit, and then headed out to the Smiley Market on the corner to get groceries — streaky bacon and eggs, coffee, yogurt, bread and margarine and jam.  By staying in a room with a kitchenette so we can do this, we save at least one meal a day.  We went out to a Japanese restaurant (Kyoto) around the corner for dinner.  Mom had her first green tea ice cream.

The temperature is in the low 70s, highs and lows just a few degrees apart — about like Seattle in June or early July – but the humidity is pretty high.  The hotel doesn’t have air conditioning, so we’ll depend on open doors and air off the ocean.  (On the 17th floor, we’re not too worried about intruders.)

Coming back to the hotel, Mom crashed on the couch and I got ready to go out to a local bear/leather bar called Urge.  I woke her up before I left.

I caught a cab to Urge.  Midway through my first beer, I heard “Jim?  What are you doing here?”  It was Bryan, a guy I used to know in the Bay Area; he is now the partner of Grant, who works at Urge and whom I met in Seattle a year or two ago.  I was also expecting to meet some buddies from Seattle who are on an Atlantis cruise from Sydney to New Zealand, but the dates I had been told were off by a few days; they won’t hit Auckland until Monday, but I think they’ll be in Wellington when I’m there next weekend.

After Urge, I went to a club called Lateshift, and then back to the hotel.

Updated on March 8, 2010
Added links and travel map.
Updated on April 1, 2010
Changed travel map to a live one.
Updated on June 1, 2010
Moved part of this post to the Sounds Kinky-er blog:

Monday, February 15, 2010

New Zealand 2010: Seattle to Sydney (Wednesday, February 10 & Friday, February 12)

Written in the terminal at Sydney airport, 7:40 am (Sydney time) on Friday, February 12

Wednesday started with finishing off my packing and calling in for a work meeting, which ended up being cancelled.  As I was waiting on the line, Tuesday night’s episode of Lost started downloading, with a projected finish time of 10:35 am, just after when I wanted to leave.  Being the Lost slut that I am, I waited for it to finish downloading and then transferred it to the iPhone to take with me — which took me until 11:01 am, so I had to scramble out the door to get to the light rail station.

I think this is the lightest I have packed for a trip in ages; I pack heavier than this for a weekend country-western dance event.  That’s mostly because I’m travelling with my mother.  Although we arranged to be in the cities on the weekends, so I’ll mange to get out to experience some gay life in New Zealand, I only packed a vest and boots and jock for my leather gear.  It will have to do.  There’s only one leather-ish bar in New Zealand, anyway: Urge in Auckland.

Once on light rail, I called into my second meeting, which we ended just as I got to the terminal at the airport, so it was well timed.  I expect to get a new build or two of the Android version of our software e-mailed to me while I’m here, to do some spot checking. I shouldn’t be able to play music due to international “geoblocking”; (we only play in the U.S.), but I should be able to install and explore the app outside of that.

I flew Virgin America to Los Angeles, with a nice rate of $99 each way, cheaper than other options.  But as a small airline, they have limited flights (just 8 cities at this time, I think), so I had to leave at 12:45 pm, leaving me with a 5 hours layover at LAX.  Mom’s Alaska flight left about the time I arrived, so she had less wait.

Virgin America is tied to Virgin Atlantic and V Australia and Virgin Blue and all that, but not tightly enough to be considered foreign owned (per a recent lawsuit).  They also aren’t tied closely enough for me to get credit for my flights to Australia and New Zealand on their plan.  And they couldn’t check my bag straight through to New Zealand, either (which is odd, since Mom could via Alaska).

The plane had purple lighting in the ceiling, which I think was meant to be calming and such, but made it feel like a nightclub to me.  (Specifically like the defunct Seattle gay bar Manray, whose decor was white wall panels with pastel lighting behind them.)  Each seat had an entertainment center in it, but the movies and TV shows were pay-per-view, and $8 for a movie was too much.  It also had games, but they weren’t especially well done, and one in particular hung my console once and then the controls wouldn’t activate one of the commands.  So I mostly read (the DC Showcase Presents Booster Gold volume) and did crossword puzzles.  The flight to LAX was quite bumpy.

At LAX, I had to get my back and then re-check it on V Australia.  The crew at ticketing was friendly and engaging.  After I checked my bag, I came back to ask about miles and found that they have Delta as a partner, so I was able to get my 17,500 miles or so for this trip credited, which should give me enough for a free flight there, since my Ireland and Amsterdam/Copenhagen/Berlin flights were on Northwest and Delta as well.

Food choices at LAX were piss poor.  The “Food Court” was Burger King and Starbucks, plus a sit-down fish place, and the Burger King prices were $2-3 higher than a regular BK would charge.  Yow.

While waiting for Mom to arrive, I worked on some blog posts.  After she got there, we found a spot with power plugs and I watched an episode of Desperate Housewives Season 3 (thank you, Netflix).

On the V Australia flight — which had gray ceiling lights, a little less like a night club than Virgin America, but which had a bar between first class and business which restored that impression some — Mom and I were separated by an aisle (I had arranged this at V Australia check-in).  The entertainment systems were better than on V America, with a bundle of free movie selections.  (I watched Up, Zombieland, and 500 Days of Summer — all are recommended — and played Zuma.)

They feed you well enough on international flights.  Even though we left after 8 pm, they fed us dinner (I had Japanese curry chicken with bok choy) and breakfast in the morning (I had cream cheese and apricot crêpes). As well, they have a snack area in economy where you can get chips, cookies, cheese and crackers, and water throughout the flight.  Great idea.

Despite V Australia advertising that they have power plugs at every seat (I think; can’t find the reference now), they don’t.  Economy coach gets screwed, so I didn’t use the laptop during the flight.  But with the movie selection, I didn’t need to.  (And of course, this was an almost 14-hour flight, over night.  I did get about 7 hours of sleep, or sort of sleep — the sort you go in and out of as you try to pretend to get comfortable and hope no one passes by and bumps you.  Maybe 5 hours of real sleep.  Maybe I’ll doze some more on the flight to New Zealand.)

On the V Australia flights to and from Sydney, there was a dedicated women’s lavatory in the Economy section, something I had never encountered before.  I’m not sure if it was there as a privacy concession (a woman-only space), a perceived cleanliness issue (no pee dribbles on the floor, but I routinely hear that women make bigger overall messes of public toilets), or just an awareness that women take longer in the toilet than men do and may need extra facilities (go to a concert or sporting event some time and see the long, long line for the women’s toilet).  Regardless, I did use the women’s toilet once, before they announced that it was women-only and where it was.  (It didn’t look any different on the inside.)  I never particularly noticed it getting used more than others.

According to this article, this gender-specific feature is apparently a new idea.  The article doesn’t mention any other airlines having it, even though V Australia does.

We crossed both the Equator and the International Date Line last night.  My first time for each.  So we’ve swapped seasons to high summer and skipped almost a full day.

At the Sydney airport, I cashed a €20 bill I had left from last summer to get some Australian spending money, and bought a horribly overpriced bottle of water (AU$3.90) for Mom and a latte for myself (priced closer to what you’d expect in an American airport, AU$4.45).  And then I sat and wrote this blog entry.

We’ll be boarding in a few minutes, flying Emirates Air to Auckland.  Based out of Dubai, it’s apparently a two-floor Airbus 380 plane.  I’ve never been on one before, so this may be cool.  The flight to Auckland is about 3 hours and a time zone change.

Updated on March 5, 2010
Added links and made a few revisions.
Added a chunk on airplane lavatories.
Updated on March 8, 2010
Added travel map.
Updated on April 1, 2010
Changed travel map to a live one.

New Zealand 2010: Before the Trip

Written in the terminal at LAX, about 4:00 pm Wednesday, February 10

Several months ago, my mother asked me to accompany her on her next overseas trip, to New Zealand.  (She had previously taken me and her mother to Ireland in February 2008.)  I said yes, of course!  She was willing to take my boyfriend as well — he’s big into tiki,  so he would have really loved the trip — but he decided he couldn't go due to ex-wife and teenage son issues.

We slotted out our schedule to spend the first weekend in Auckland (the largest city, on the north end of the North Island), then weekdays in Rotorua in the center of the North Island, the second weekend in Wellington (the capitol, on the south end of the North Island), and then catch a sea ferry to the South Island and Christchurch.  I would return from Christchurch and she would spend a few more days on the South Island.  (I didn’t want to take more than that amount of time away from work and eating up vacation.)

Via a buddy on the gay cruise site Recon, I got in contact with a guy who does travel arrangements for numerous hotels throughout New Zealand, with the company EasyStay New Zealand.  He helped me make arrangements for our hotels in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, while Mom dealt with Rotorua and the airfare from Los Angeles.  We will be flying V Australia (one of Richard Branson’s Virgin properties) to Sydney (almost 14 hours), a layover there, and then another 3 hours to Auckland.  Add in my 2 hour flight to LAX and 5 hours there before leaving for Sydney and you have a very, very long trip.

One of my Christmas presents (via an Amazon gift card) is a DVD player for my Aspire One netbook.  It will allow me to watch movies without needing to bring along the additional DVD player.  That much less weight to tote around!

A couple weeks after we made the air travel plans, the company I work for started work to spin-off the division I’m in into its own company.  Naturally, the official announcement of that came the day before I leave, so I’m apt to miss out on some of the details while I’m gone.  I’ll have some net access while I’m gone to keep up with things, I hope.  (It also means adventures in vacation time, since I’m actually going in a hole a little for this trip due to a mix-up they made after the Ireland trip and only fixed in December, 18+ months later, which removed 7 days of vacation time from my account.  Crap!)

Updated on March 3, 2010
Links added.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What Were They Thinking?
    — Toasted Bagels

“What Were They Thinking?” highlights products and presentations which just don’t make sense.

I found this in the small appliance section at a Haggen’s supermarket in Stanwood.  It’s a combination toaster and toaster oven.  I’m not sure if that makes sense itself: I would have to see the mechanism to convince myself that have the toaster oven heat isn’t escaping out the top.

Most toasters in recent years have been made with wider slots, to accept thicker bread.  (My own at home has stabilizers in the slot to keep narrower items upright in the slot, and it has a push-up mechanism to make it easier to get small items like English muffins out.  It even has a warming rack so you can warm a pastry sitting above the slots.)

This one, as you can see, is wide enough to accept a bagel.  Wait a minute.  Look at that picture.  They’ve put whole bagels in for the picture.  Who in their right mind toasts bagels without slicing them first?!

You can see that the same pic is used on the web page for the Toastation, which comes in two and four-bagel versions.

Dream Journal: February 9, 2010

Every now and then I have one of those dreams which has nothing particularly weird in at all.  Those are the ones that freak me out the most, because I really wonder what’s up to lead my head down that path:
I was in a real estate office, signing papers to purchase a new house.  Only after I signed did we go to look at the house.  (Okay, so there was one weird bit.)

The house was in a residential neighborhood, at the end of a street with some trees beyond it.  The house was small, one story, with an attached garage.  Inside, one room was painted blue with white trim, and had a loose pile shag carpet of the same color blue, with white flecks in it.  (Lint would never show on this carpet.)  Another room was olive green, with the same style carpet, again matching.

The garage was small, only suitable for a small car, and it still had boxes in it from a previous tenant.  There were also a couple cool bookcases (with no books on them).  With the stuff in the garage, there might not have been room even for a car.  I remember thinking that the house didn’t have room for all my stuff and my boyfriend’s.

Beyond the trees was a small ravine with a rushing stream at the bottom.  I was worried that the stream might flood with the rains, but when we went into the house’s basement, it was well sealed (although I’m not sure how we could tell).
That’s it for the dream.  In the real world, my boyfriend and I have talked about eventually combining households, presumably selling our existing houses and buying a new one together.  But it wouldn’t be this house; way too small (and he’s got to have a garage or work space for his tools, not to mention all my comics, his tikis and masks and ethnic art, and so on).

Monday, February 8, 2010

Stupid, Stupid Ads!
    — Non-Olympic Sponsors

“Stupid, Stupid Ads!” dissects ads that try to do something underhanded or just plain stupid.

This ad is a window sticker about three feet high from a local Subway shop.

Look, it’s the official sandwich of the 2010 Winter Olympics!  Er, well, maybe not.  "Winter Sports".  "Coverage from Vancouver".  A logo with a bowl of mountains and a stretched banner (the NBC coverage logo).  No linked rings.  Sure as heck meant to evoke the 2010 Winter Olympics, but without paying the hefty license fees attached to that.  Just the fees needed to have the NBC Sports logo and presumably logo design.

Maybe this is just a case of “Olympics?  What Olympics?  There are Olympics going on?  Really?  We’re just promoting hot food for people who, you know, like to snowboard and stuff.”

I’ve heard that the Olympics licensing fees are stupid high.  This looks to be a bit of backlash about that to me.

Updated on March 3, 2010
I turns out that there’s a term for these fake tie-ins: “Ambush Marketing”.  And for this years Winter Olympics, the top ambush marketers were Verizon, Subway, and Pepsi.

Here’s an article from The Global Language Monitor.  I found it from Schott’s Vocab blog.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Frances Reid, R.I.P.

Frances Reid, the actress who played matriarch Alice Horton on the long-running soap opera Days of Our Lives died this week at age 95.

(That’s a damn good run for anyone!)

Although I haven’t watched the show for years, I was a very faithful watcher in my late teens and 20s.  My first episode was Bo and Hope’s wedding, when Emma burst in to threaten everyone, under the control of the Dragon.  (I think that’s right.  My memory tells me around May 17, 1985, and web research says it was actually May 23 of that year, which might be the date the wedding actually finished; you know how soaps stretch things.)

After that, I was hooked and I watched Days every day for about a decade, missing less than one episode a year.  At one point, I had no TV picture reception where I lived, but I could get the sound just fine, so I would record it during the day and listen to it with dinner, like an old radio soap opera.  (It was months before I knew what the character of “Molly of the Mountains” looked like, and I had to imagine that whole “trapped in a wrecked train car” sequence.)  I was a regular poster in for a few years.  I even have the novelizations of the early years of the show, which filled in a lot of the Doug & Julie backstory.

But back to Frances Reid as Alice Horton.  What brought me back to the show day after day, more than the outlandish plots (like a drugged Marlena acting as the Salem Slasher and killed Alice by choking her with doughnuts, but it was really a plot by Toni DiMera in an exact duplicate of Salem created on a tropical island?  Really?  WTF?  Can’t we get back to simpler times, like Marlena possessed by the Devil?) was the sense of “family” the show promoted with the Horton clan, and Alice as the matriarch.  I fondly remember the annual Christmas tree decorating, pulling out the ornaments with the Horton kids/grandkids/great grandkids/etc. names on them.

In some ways, Alice Horton served as a bit of a substitute grandmother for me at the time, since she looked a bit like my own grandmother.  (Is that weird?)  (My grandmother is still alive, age 88 or so.)  Even though I haven’t even seen her face in over a decade, the Alice Horton and Frances Reid are still there in my heart.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Interbay Scooters is Gone

I got my wonderful Kymco scooter from Interbay Scooters in April 2008.

Last weekend, I drove by their location on 15th, only to find the storefront was empty.  Wha-wha-what? They seemed to be doing well the last time I was in there!

Apparently Phil and Liane have retired and Seattle Cycle Center bought out their inventory (and retained their mechanic), opening Seattle Scooter Center.

I haven’t visited the new location yet, but I will soon.  (Maybe tomorrow.)  Best of luck to them, and to Phil and Liane!

(And I’m already lusting after the new Quannon 150 entry-level sport bike.)

What Were They Thinking?
    — They’ve Suffered Enough, Just Give It to Them

“What Were They Thinking?” highlights products and presentations which just don’t make sense.

This video on covers some controversy over merchandise using the New Orleans Saints fan phrase “Who Dat?”

The story itself is utter junk, playing things as the Big Bad NFL picking on small businesses, since the end of the video reveals that the NFL complaint is narrowly targeted to items which use the Saints’ name/logo/colors, and thus imply an approved connection to the team.

The real junk, though, is the commentator, who repeatedly implies that because New Orleans had to deal with Hurricane Katrina — and perhaps just as bizarrely, because the Saints have had many losing seasons in the past — the NFL should just let this slide.

What’s up wit’ dat?

Sorry, but that’s not how trademarks work.  You either defend them or you abandon them.  Maybe you license them for a smaller fee than usual, but you don’t say “Awww, how cute!  The team has finally had a good season, so give up the trademark so that carpetbaggers trying to make a quick buck can really profit!”

(How long does New Orleans get a free pass due to Katrina, anyway?  Do New Yorker’s get to hawk trashy logo merchandise for the Giants and the Jets in perpetuity due to September 11?  What about the Dodgers after the Northridge quake, or has their freebie expired?)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What’s Up with Charge Cards at Lowe’s?

Every time I use my Lowe’s card, I swipe it through their little card scanner, and then I have to hand it to the clerk, who hand-enters the last four digits of the card into the system.

No other store I frequent seems to do this.  Some request my ID when I use a credit or debit card, but tha’s not what’s going on here.  Damned if I can figure out what is going on, though.

Sometimes they ask for my zip code, although that’s seemingly not related to the card usage but rather to track buying patterns and the like.  I’ll sometimes make up a zip code on the spot (like “49322”, which I see is in Mississippi), just to fuck with their data rather than feed them valid info.  (With something like 30,000 people in my zip code, that’s about the least interesting piece of “personal information” that they could ask for, so I give them fake ones just because I can, not to hide from them.)

I asked the clerk the last time I was there and he made some noise about the process being to verify that it was the right card.  Which would lead to the conclusion that the Lowe’s card scanning system so easy to spoof or so insecure that the store doesn’t trust it.

Another possibility is that the store serves a generally lower income (and more heavily black, although I don’t think racism is really a factor here) set of neighborhoods.  Some of the gas pumps in the area require entering the card holder’s zip code, presumably as a form of protection against stolen cards (if you don’t know the billing zip, it’s probably not your card), while the same company in more affluent or less urban areas (ones with perceived less incidence of crime) don’t require that.  So maybe this is a version of the same thing: they are checking that the card is actually intact, and maybe the clerk is even reading the name on the card while entering the digits, to do some base verification of card holder gender (when you can tell that from the name, of course).  Because any other fragment of needed info should be pulled off via the scanner.