New York, NY

I’ve just returned from New York, where I was attending the PerCom 2007 conference in White Plains. The conference was okay. Some interesting papers on using RFID to do some clever things (one that I remember in particular was about using the weaknesses of RFID to do intrusion detection). This year, there were a few HCI type papers accepted, one of which was about interacting with wall-sized video panels. The PerWare and CoMoRea workshops ended with some fairly lively discussions, which is a sign for continued interest in those workshops. My presentations at CoMoRea went well, though I was totally out of it by the end of the second presentation due to a cold or flu which I picked up from somewhere and which I’m still recovering from. Next year’s PerCom will be held in Hong Kong.

I had the weekends on either side of the conference to explore Manhattan. It was the first time I’d visited New York, so there was a lot I wanted to do. My first notable experience of New York was the freezing cold temperatures and the snow. I happened to arrive on the day that a severe snow storm blanketed large parts of the north eastern United States to the extent that JFK, La Guardia and Newark were shut down. When my plane landed at JFK, they’d already grounded most other flights. I ended up sitting around the baggage carousel at JFK with my fellow passengers for more than an hour because – get this – the luggage bay doors had frozen shut. Then, once I’d retrieved my suitcase, I found myself waiting outside in -2° Celsius temperatures for another hour because there was a severe shortage of taxis. Presumably there was a shortage of cabs because outgoing flights had been grounded, which meant there were no passengers being dropped off by cabs, which meant there were no cabs to convey passengers from my flight. Eventually, it was my turn to jump into a cab, and boy, was I in for a wild ride…

As we drove along an expressway (probably Van Wyck) from JFK towards Manhattan, I noticed there were traffic accidents and bogged vehicles everywhere. The snow and sleet were causing absolute chaos on the roads. Little did I realise that the cab I was in was about to get sideways, too. We were driving along, and all of a sudden, the cab fishtailed and slid across three lanes of expressway towards the centre barrier. Unbelievably, at that moment, there were no cars to the left of us, so we avoided an accident on that count, but there was still the centre barrier to deal with. Somehow, at the last moment, the cab driver managed to straighten the vehicle, and narrowly avoided colliding with the barrier. I’m still not quite sure how he managed to pull it off without even grazing the barrier; I was sure that physics dictated the front left headlight would get smashed, but it was like the cab turned on a pivot at the last second, rather than doing a normal arc turn. At this point the driver said: “Whoah! Do you have your seatbelt on?” I put my seatbelt on as soon as I sat down in the cab!

All the way to my hotel on Central Park South, I was trying to put some life back into my poor frozen fingers by holding them in front of the heater in the back seat. I was glad to finally arrive at the hotel (after our little incident, the driver stayed below 50km/h for the rest of the trip, so it took a while) and retire to my nice warm room.

The next day (Saturday, March 17), I strolled (or rather, trudged) through Central Park, taking a round-a-bout trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This gallery has a number of Vermeers, Rembrandts and Rubens, so it kept me amused for the rest of the day. Saturday was St Patricks day, and New York has a famous St Pat’s day parade, which I watched a fair bit of. Apparently it’s quite rare for the parade to take place on snow covered streets. As I was walking from 5th Avenue back towards my hotel after I’d watched the parade pass, a massive chunk of ice fell from some skyscraper into the street a few feet away from me with an almighty crash. All I can say is I’m glad nobody was underneath it (I’m especially glad I wasn’t underneath it), because that person would not have lived to see another St Patrick’s day. For the rest of the day I was looking up at the sky, watching for falling blocks of ice.

Snow balls in Central Park

On Sunday, I checked out Bloomingdales and then walked to the UN building, which was closed to visitors, and then over to the Rockefeller Center and Times Square. I ended up going to the “Top of the Rock” (that is, the top of the Rockefeller Center), which had an amazing view of Manhattan and surrounding regions. After spending a bit of time browsing various shops, including the Sony shop at the bottom of the Sony Building, I headed back to the hotel to pick up my suitcase and laptop, then hauled everything 21 blocks to Grand Central Station where I caught the train to White Plains.

Upon returning to Manhattan the following Saturday, I went, with a new friend, Matthias, whom I met at the conference, to Battery Park to get a view of the Statue of Liberty. We walked along the Hudson to the World Financial Center and Ground Zero, the World Trade Center site. It’s unbelievable to think that there used to be two massive towers standing at this site, and although construction on some new buildings seems to be getting underway, there’s still a sadness hanging about the place, and I got a kind of eerie feeling while looking over the site. Matthias needed to fly back to Germany that day, so at 3pm or so, we started to head back to my hotel, where Matthias had left his bags for a few hours.

The next day I took a boat cruise around Manhattan Island, which was very worthwhile. There were some awesome views of the Manhattan skyline and the various bridges connecting Manhattan with New Jersey and Long Island. The guide was a fountain of knowledge about New York. Then I caught a 3 o’clock showing of the Broadway musical The Producers, which was hilarious.

On Monday, I took the subway downtown to Wall Street to photograph the New York Stock Exchange and some other buildings. Trinity Church, between Trinity Place and Broadway at Wall Street, is a beautiful building in the neo-Gothic style (at least, I’d say it’s neo-Gothic from what little I know about architecture). Then I headed back uptown to the Museum of Modern Art, to while away the final hours of my New York trip. I’m not the hugest fan of most kinds of modern art. I dig many of Cézanne’s paintings and a lot of Picasso’s work, but I fail to appreciate anything as abstract as a Pollock or a Mondrian. I was hoping that seeing some of the paintings by Pollock, Mondrian and company up close would give me a new perspective; but, alas, they still didn’t do anything for me. Nevertheless, it was well worth the $20 entrance fee.

One of the highlights of a trip to New York is the food, from the street vendors to the delis to the upmarket restaurants. My modest travel budget didn’t allow me to try any cuisine from the last category, but I did sample the sidewalk fare. One subtly interesting fact is that a large proportion of the street vendors use halal meat, while some of the others are kosher. This was good news for me, as I still refrain from eating pork. In Australia, you might, if you’re lucky, find chicken-based hotdogs at Woolworths or Coles; but from what I hear, they’re a pretty poor substitute for the real thing. Meanwhile, New Yorkers seem to devour these halal hotdogs by the truck-load. I ate at a few different burger joints (Burger Heaven was great), and dined at a few delis. I also tried the Italian restaurant across the street from where I was staying for my second weekend in New York: good food, good wine, good service.

I had a good time in New York. I was a bit wasted during the second half of the trip due to the stupid ailment I picked up, but other than that it was a blast. Really glad to be back home though!