Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An Introduction to Sign Spotting

When I travel, things change quite rapidly: time zone, climate and even culture. Considering that things change so often in my life, I look for simple things that I can find wherever my travels take me. One of my favorites is visiting grocery stores, but I also like to play a game known as Sign Spotting.

The basic point of Sign Spotting is to keep an eye out for interesting signs. It sounds riveting, I know, but bear with me. You look for signs that make you smile, laugh out loud or scratch your head and think, "What the heck did they mean by that?".

Truly dedicated Sign Spotters take pictures and post them on websites such as There have even been several books published filled with interesting signs.

Personally, I enjoy the slight distraction of Sign Spotting as well as the amusement that I feel whenever I find an interesting new sign. Some signs, like the one pictured at the beginning of this post, have interesting stories that accompany them.

When I saw the sign embedded in the ground that proudly proclaimed "THE SPACE WITHIN THESE LINES IS NOT DEDICATED," I laughed to myself and took a picture. After that, I began to think about it and decided that there must be a story behind it, so I was determined to find out what why it was placed.

One of the people with whom I was working with in Philadelphia said that he had heard that the sign had something to do with street vendors. While this was possible, I wasn't entirely convinced because the verbiage was pretty cryptic.

Some digging on the internet led me to a detailed explanation on the Philadelphia Weekly website which had a detailed explanation. It turns out that the sign means that the space is private property and therefore not dedicated to public use. The sign signifies that the owners are being nice in allowing you access to the area but that you should be respectful of their ownership.

Not all Sign Spotting is as involved as the above example so I'll give you a couple of simpler examples.
The above sign can be found in Portland, Oregon. The sign is intended to be a warning to cyclists about the trolley tracks. The thought of cyclists being hurt on their commute is not really funny, but the sign always made me smile.
The above sign was the product of vandalism at St. Mary's University in Nova Scotia, Canada. It's one of those signs that you can walk by a dozen times without registering because No Smoking signs are everywhere these days. I'm lucky that I glanced over at it because it's become one of my favorite signs.

Sign Spotting is a great travel distraction, and you can do it without any planning or special equipment. A camera helps, but it's not needed to derive pleasure from this "sport."

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Southwest Airlines: A Pioneer in Queue Management

Early in the life of this blog, I posted an elaborate rant about how much I hate standing in lines while traveling titled Queue Madness or Why I Hate Standing in Lines. In this post, I outlined just how much time travelers spend in line, and I pleaded to the world to pay attention to the neglected art form of queue management.

Since I don't have the authority to enact sweeping changes in queue management, and I'm not quite up to rogue queue management yet, I decided that venting was where I would have to leave the topic.

Since then, I've seen many examples of poor queue management that would not be very interesting reading. However, I did run across something worth sharing on my recent trip home from Nashville, TN: an actual attempt at queue management.

At the Southwest Airlines gates at the Nashville International Airport (BNA) I noticed some tall posts that appeared to be gateways for groups of rows.

At first I wasn't completely sure that what I was looking at was queue management, but further inspection of the posts and the video screen that explained them removed all doubt in my mind; Southwest Airlines takes queue management at boarding time seriously.

Instead of a cyptic system groups or a chaotic everyone-boards-right-now tactic, Southwest Airlines has streamlined the process as follows:

1. Get in the line between the posts for your row number.
2. When it's your line's turn, you board.

Unfortunately. I was unable to witness an actual boarding because I was not flying Southwest that day, but the dedication to queue management was evident and greatly appreciated by at least this frequent traveler.

I'd like to thank Southwest Airlines for taking on a problem that has plagued the world for far too long. I hope that others see this example and build upon what Southwest has achieved in the field of queue management.

I have a few questions for my readers who have traveled with Southwest Airlines. Does the queue management system that I saw function well in practice? Do the gate agents enforce the queues that were so thoughtfully designed? Is this system used in airports other than in Nashville?

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Desktop Archaeology: The Power of a Receipt

It's not often that I'm home long enough to clean my office, but occasionally certain forces come into alignment just long enough for me to make some progress on the project. When I do clean my desk, I often unearth pieces of paper about which I had long forgotten. I like to think of rooting around through forgotten ephemera as desktop archaeology.

Recently, I was going through a neglected pile, and I found a stash of receipts. It is my habit to clear out receipts on a semi-regular basis, but somehow these had eluded my attention for the better part of two months. As I looked down upon one particular receipt, a smile crossed my face as I vividly remembered the purchase.

I wasn't planning on purchasing any food while waiting for a connection at the Washington Dulles airport. However, a Five Guys burger restaurant with 50 pound sacks of potatoes stacked in the dining area caught my eye.

Any establishment that is willing to cut their fries from fresh potatoes is worth trying, so I got in line and purchased a small order of fries.

When my order was called, I received a paper sack containing a small drink cup overflowing with fries. As far as I can tell, the cup is merely a formality since they fill the cup and most of the bag with fries. Embracing the spirit of informal dining, I dumped the contents of the cup into the sack along with a packet of salt and two packets of pepper. After a liberal shake in the bag, the fries were seasoned to my liking, and I took them to a nearby table. The fries were by far the best that I've had at an airport.

I hadn't thought about the fries until I unearthed the receipt, which is notable because they made quite an impression at the time. Several hours after finding this receipt, I left for a trip to Nashville, TN.

As fate would have it, if you believe in such a thing as fate, I stumbled upon another Five Guys restaurant that very day. I figured that any establishment that puts such effort into their french fries must surely put similar care into the rest of their offerings; I was determined to put this theory to the test. Two days later, I got my chance, and I wasn't disappointed.

Burgers at Five Guys come with an unlimited number of toppings, which include grilled onions, mushrooms, hot peppers and a variety of condiments. The burgers are as well executed as the fries.

The lesson here is that something as simple as a little slip of paper can remind you about something wonderful, so you might as well clean your desk every now and then. Had I not found that receipt on that particular day, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed a most satisfying lunch at Five Guys.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Art of Locking Yourself Out of a Hotel Room, or How Not to Impress Your In-Laws

Locks really only have one job to do: they keep people out, and they usually do it well. On a normal day, I don't have problems with locks, but on the rare occasion they cause me endless headaches.

Whenever I enter my home, I engage the deadbolt; when I travel, it's no different. As soon as I enter my room, I snap the deadbolt shut and engage the bar-style lock or security chain if one is present. This habit had served me well until I inadvertently locked my wife and myself out of our hotel room for a very embarrassing half hour. On the plus side, I did learn quite a bit about hotel room doors.

We were on a short skiing trip to Mt. Hood with my wife's parents and her sister. We were staying in a hotel, and our room had an adjoining door to my wife's family's room. After we entered our room, I flipped the bar-style lock on our main door. When we left to go out for dinner, we passed through to the adjoining room, closed the door and left for the evening. Upon returning we discovered that our room keys would no longer work. After trying several times, we headed downstairs because the door just wasn't opening.

I've before because the electronic key cards can, from time to time, become decoded and no longer work.

Upon reporting malfunction to the front desk, the attendant reprogrammed our key cards, and we returned to find that we were still unable to open the door. The slightly annoyed hotel attendant, who was really only there because of the proximity the mountain, rolled his eyes, put down his bowl of yogurt and proclaimed that the battery in the door was probably dead. I hadn't thought about the doors having batteries before, but it did make sense; all those card readers in the doors run on batteries so eventually they need to be replaced.

The attendant gathered a small case and we went up to the room. After unscrewing something on the bottom of the door handle, a small panel came loose revealing a battery and some electronics. He plugged in a small device and was able to unlock the door. Surely enough, the latch was in place and the door would only open about two inches. The attendant was unimpressed.

"Ah, well there you have it," the attendant proclaimed. "We have an opener, but it's a little tricky. We may have to wait for Phil to get back from his break." Phil was the other hotel attendant who was on duty that night.

Another trip to the front desk produced a spring steel device that looked a lot like a slim crowbar. In the right hands, this device could be used to pop open the bar-style latches. This device is handy for when guests try to exercise squatter's rights or when they just manage to lock themselves out thanks to their overzealous safety habits.

The attendant opened the door slightly using his electronic device, slipped the tool into the gap as far as it could go while still connecting with the lock, closed the door. Next he opened the door while simultaneously pushing inward with the tool. This did absolutely nothing. The idea is that the tool will be able to push the latch out of the way just before it engaged, thus allowing entry. Like most things, the use of this device is more easily described conceptually than it is to actually do; the attendant was having a hard time of it.

After 10 minutes of repeating the above process without success, Phil came by to open the door. He looked at the tool, bent it slightly, held it up to the light and smiled. Within 3 tries, he had that door open like it was nothing at all. The first attendant went back to his bowl of yogurt knowing that he should spend more time honing his skills of the hotel arts, but he was probably thinking about the slopes again before he made it to the stairs.

We thanked Phil, and we were happy to be in our room again. I learned a valuable lesson: when using adjoining rooms, always go out your own door!

Have you ever locked yourself out of your hotel room? I'd be glad to know that I'm not alone on this one.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Washington, D.C.: As A Tourist For The FIrst Time

Until a few years back, my only exposure to Washington, D.C. was what I had observed up from watching movies and television. My main impression was that D.C. was where politicians and lobbyists hashed out what the special interest groups deemed the "right" direction for our country's policies.

Basically I saw the district as a place where the powerful of our country influenced policy for their own personal gain while the majority of the population were left with little recourse.

When I was first sent near Washington on business with a coworker, I was talked into driving into town so that he could see the capital. Reluctantly, I agreed, and we jumped in our rental car to experience D.C. traffic first hand. We parked the car and fed all of our loose change into a meter for a 40 minute run around the Mall.

This experience gave me another impression. Seeing all the monuments didn't fill me with pride, but rather of a galvanization of our country's complete lack of modesty. The scale of things was skewed to the absurd and I was embarrassed by it in front of my coworker who was born in China.

Time went by and I was sent to George Town. This time I started to see some of the neighborhoods and meet some of the people that call D.C. home. What really started to turn me around was meeting up with one of my wife's college friends and going to Rockland's BBQ. Being shown around by a local really let me see more than the negative things that have been building in my mind for untold years. In Dupont Circle there's a bookstore/coffee shop/bar; any city that can support that kind of shop can't be that bad.

And so, on a cool fall night, standing in front of a Dixieland style band in Dupont Circle, while the impact hammers of a road construction crew rang in the background, I had a change of heart about Washington D.C.

My wife and I recently visited her college friend before he moved to China on a Fulbright scholarship. We went to visit him and went to see D.C. as I had never done so before, as tourists.

To my surprise, D.C. isn't all business, and there's plenty for tourists to do. There are more museum's than you can shake a stick at and most of them do not charge admission. The only museum that we wanted to visit that we didn't get to go into was the Air and Space museum. We were turned away at the entrance on account of my Swiss Army knife having a screwdriver on it (actually it has three). Apparently, they are worried about people with Swiss Army knives taking home souvenirs.

What they should really be worried about are the little kids damaging priceless works of art over at the National Portrait Gallery.

The National Portrait Gallery is a lot more interesting than it sounds. I was a bit hesitant about visiting it at first, but it was great. They even have a decent bronze collect and an area where you can learn about art restoration.

Once we passed through the hall containing each president in sequence, there was a hall containing presidents depicted in their steady decline to death. It's a little morbid, but I went with it. A little girl stood fixated on a painting of Lincoln on his deathbed, whipped up her camera and took a flash picture. She turned to her mother and said, "I got it right here!" while she rapped Lincoln's face with her knuckle. Her mother sighed and said that she probably didn't need to touch the paintings.

I stood back and waited for a docent to jump out of the woodwork and beat the life out of the child, but there were no repercussions to this heinous act. My expectations may seem a little harsh, but conditioning is a powerful thing, and my conditioning had been completed downstairs about 45 minutes prior to this incident.

Downstairs the gallery shows off their latest acquisitions and we found the now iconic piece of artwork depicting Barack Obama titled HOPE. During the last presidential election this piece was converted into poster form and was widely distributed. While still powerful, what these copies lack is that the original was not done on a solid canvass, but rather on a collage of vintage newspapers and bits of wallpaper.

I had no idea that this piece had such great detail and I touched the velvet rope gently to steady myself while I got a better look at a newspaper clipping. Unknown to myself prior to this point, touching the velvet rope was tantamount to licking the art and I was greeted by a booming voice warning me to, "Step away from the painting". I recoiled slightly and I took a long look at the docent, who could have easily passed for a bouncer at an exclusive nightclub.

Doing the math in my head, I figured that I, who couldn't pass as a bouncer at a bingo parlor, stood no chance against this particular docent so I stepped back. At least our paintings were well guarded I thought. Now you understand my disgust at what happened in the gallery above.

Visiting the touristy parts of D.C. put us in contact with a wide variety of tourists. Many of the visitors to D.C. were actually from other countries, and many different languages could be heard everywhere you went. That the capital can draw in such a diverse crowd from all over the world seemed fitting as the United States is a similar gathering of people from around the world. Coming to this realization felt good.

While I was disappointed to be turned away from the Air and Space Museum, the visit showed me more of the softer side of D.C., one that was good for my outlook on the country that I live in. I'm not saying that D.C. isn't where the powerful form policy in their own interest, but it does have free museums.

Have you had a similar perspective changing experience while traveling? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section below.

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