Hacking in a winter wonderland

It’s odd that only a smidgen over a week ago I was in Mexico with the sun beating down on me as I worked on the balcony, and now I’m in Boston in a snowstorm. I took the Acela train from New York yesterday afternoon, with a little trepidation. After all, I’m familiar with the British railway system where autumn leaves cause serious delays and a snowstorm shuts the network down completely.

Well, I had no cause for concern. The Boston train departed on time and trundled up into Connecticut. We paused for a while at Old Saybrook (once home of Katharine Hepburn) and the guard explained over the tannoy that we’d be waiting “while the engineer went to the rear power-car to adjust… to adjust… to adjust whatever needs adjusting in the rear power-car.” That done, we traversed Rhode Island and entered Massachusetts. We eventually arrived in Boston about 20 minutes late, which was exceptionally good given the harsh weather conditions.

There isn’t a taxi rank at Boston South station so I waited outside in the driving snow for a cab. A homeless guy was flagging down cabs for the people waiting. I gave him $20, because the weather was so terrible. The journey to the hotel proceeded with minimal traction and often actually sideways.

I’m loving Boston. The snow and Christmas decorations give it a charming ambience, and the children snowball-fighting in the street while couples walk by holding gloved hands make it seem like something out of a Hollywood Christmas movie.

Mexican wave

On the road again. No, not really. International travel these days rarely involves roads. Runways, yes; stumpy driverless trains between airport terminals, of course; miles of travelators, naturally. But out of the 10590 miles I travelled on the 11th December I’d estimate about 0.2% was by road.

When people say “I’ve had a long day” they generally don’t mean it literally. My December 11th lasted 38 hours.

Mexican passport control is refreshingly friendly compared to the frosty American version. The immigration officer at Cancun identified my passport as British and greeted me with, “I like Manchester United.” He flipped through the little book looking in vain for somewhere to put his stamp, before finally settling for the “Observations” page at the back. “You have busy passport,” he told me as he handed it to me, adding as an afterthought: “I like Mr Bean.”

My accommodation here in the Yucatán is palatial and wonderful. I have finally eaten authentic huevos rancheros, which was splendid. It fills the same role as the full-English fry-up (i.e. a protein fix), but with Mexican spice and flair. It was served with refried beans. I’ve heard a lot of things – mostly negative – about refried beans, and was perfectly prepared to believe them when I saw the pyramid of viscous grey sludge squatting on the edge of the plate. Appearances were deceptive, fortunately: they tasted divine and gave me the gaseous gift that keeps on giving for most of the afternoon. I thoroughly approve.

And now, a word from our sponsors

I am in the process of reviewing my opinions about the localisation of Internet advertising. Time was, I used to feel hard-done-by in Hong Kong, because so many web-based special offers were “limited to residents of the USA”. Not that I was really keen on pyramid-schemes or matrix-marketing just for a free iPod (or iPhone, now), but I’m touchy about these things: if I don’t take part I prefer it to be because I choose not to, rather than because I am forbidden from doing so; it makes a difference to me.

But now I see what the Americans have to put up with in return for unconstrained access to all the silly special offers. I’m writing this from Washington DC, and all the web 2.0 sites that I frequent are absolutely smeared with commercials that I never see in Hong Kong. Facebook is covered in flyers and sponsored adverts. I used to read Facebook comments from users complaining about all the advertising, but because we never see those ads in Hong Kong, I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. And YouTube keeps inserting interstitial ads into the middle of its videos, which is damnably annoying. All this, just because I suddenly have a USA IP address.

We are very fortunate that there is little location-based advertising on English language web sites in HK. Long may this state of affairs continue. Hurrah for localised adverts, as long as I don’t have to see them!

(To forestall comments, yes I have tried AdBlock for FireFox; it works perfectly but it slows the browser down an unacceptable amount so I won’t use it.)