Wednesday, August 19, 2015

An American Family in Europe: Day 17, Greenwich, the Thames and Westminster Abbey

(Previously: Day 16, the Tube goes on strike)

Today we headed to Greenwich. Our bus from Blackheath didn't go into the town, but it got us close to the corner of Greenwich Park and we walked from there.

We entered Greenwich Park through a gate and found a vast, attractive green space, crisscrossed with paths and dotted with trees and shrubs. We walked through the park on our way to the Royal Observatory, where we hoped to, um, stand on a line.

Not just any line, mind you. The Royal Observatory is where the Prime Meridian -- 0 degrees longitude -- was established in 1884.

The Prime Meridian runs from pole to pole, so there are lots of places where you could stand on it -- it runs through England, France, Spain, Algeria, Mali and Ghana. But people seem to think that the Royal Observatory is the place for your Prime Meridian Photo Op. And we weren't about to be left out, dammit.

You have to pay to get into the Royal Observatory and get your picture taken with a fancy Prime Meridian marker. Plenty of people were doing that when we arrived. But on an outside wall, and totally free, is an old, rusty Prime Meridian marker that a lot of people miss. We took our photos there.

I learned later that the joke is on all of us. New GPS measurements have shown that the Prime Meridian isn't in either of these spots, but about 100 meters away. Oops.

Still, the Royal Observatory is in a lovely spot, high on hill overlooking the town of Greenwich and the River Thames, with the buildings of central London in the distance. We took some photos, then headed down the hill toward the river.

Greenwich looks like a lovely place to spend the day -- it has a few museums and the Cutty Sark sailing ship,and even a public drinking fountain (not a common sight in England) -- but we didn't stick around. After a lunch of chicken wings, and a short stop at the decent Greenwich Visitor Center, we got on a tour boat for a scenic trip along the Thames. For some reason it was half-price -- I didn't question it -- so it cost just 21 pounds for all four of us.

The Thames Barrier
The boat took us first down river to "The Barrier" -- the flood control gates that are marked by the distinctive giant silver hoods in the river.

The boat then turned and headed upriver, past Greenwich, into Central London and to Westminister. The narration was good on the first and last thirds, but in the middle, oddly, it was in French and Dutch (they had a "private group" on board, they said).


Still, a Thames boat ride is a good way to get the lay of the land in London and to see many sights without getting out of your seat. It took about two hours, and we got off near Big Ben.

We had been considering touring Westminster Abbey, the famous cathedral, afterwards, but arrived too late for tours. (This didn't bother me that much. I had been ambivalent about visiting the cathedral anyways. It is quite expensive -- 18 pounds per adult -- plus there's often a line and you're not allowed to take pictures.)

So we launched Plan B: Go to Evensong at Westminster Abbey. Evensong is a music program that the cathedral hosts most days at 5 p.m. From all I had heard, it seemed like a great way to see Westminster in use and enjoy some good music, too. And, best of all, it was free!

We waited in a line, but not for very long before we were ushered into the cathedral. The interior is very striking, with a great open space rising upward and various memorials and grave markers along the walls and floors. It may not be quite as big as Notre Dame in Paris, but was still impressive.

We were directed to seats near the altar. The atmosphere was deadly still as we waited for everyone to take their places and events to begin. Everyone seemed to have utmost respect for the sacred location and kept quiet. I was afraid to breathe.

I was expecting simply a music program, but this turned out to be a full-fledged religious service, with prayers, biblical readings and holy songs. At least they didn't pass the donation plate.


The harmonic voices of the choir resonated deeply through the hallowed halls, while the religious trappings of the setting accentuated the weight of centuries of church power. You had to give respect. It was a long 45 minutes.

Afterwards, we walked to Buckingham Palace just for a look. There were lots of tourists there, many just hanging out.  We took some pictures, walked to Victoria Station and caught a train for home.

 Next: Day 18, the Tower of London



The full trip, by day: 

Days 1 and 2, Los Angeles to Paris

Day 3, Paris

Day 4, the Palace of Versailles

Day 5, the Eiffel Tower

Day 6, Goodbye France, hello England

Day 7, Windsor Castle & Stonehenge

Day 8, Bath

Day 9, Doctor Who and Swansea's LC

Day 10, the waterfalls of Wales

Day 11, Blists Hill and Ironbridge

Day 12, Warwick Castle

Day 13, Oxford and Harry Potter Studio Tour

Day 14, this is London

Day 15, British Museum and British Library

Day 16, the Tube goes on strike

Day 17, Greenwich, the Thames and Westminster Abbey

Day 18, the Tower of London

Day 19, heading home  




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An American Family in Europe: Day 16, the Tube goes on strike

(Previously: Day 15, British Museum and British Library)

We had only a few days left on our vacation and I was starting to fear that we might leave before experiencing one of the Europe's famous labor strikes, but at the last moment the London Underground workers came through for us. A 24-hour strike on this day by Tube employees completely shut down the subway system that is integral to London.

And it wasn't just any strike! This one, said a news story, was "the biggest in more than a decade, and left around four million passengers struggling to travel across the capital on buses, bikes and taxis."

Fortunately, the strike did not affect the National Rail trains, which was our way of getting into the city. Our family split this morning, with my son and I going to a cool playground he had spotted next to the London Eye, while my wife and daughter went to see the changing of the Queen's Horse Guards.

We reunited at the Churchill War Rooms, an underground museum that features the actual rooms from where Winston Churchill and British military leaders directed action during the early part of World War II. The site also features a large museum on the life of Churchill, which will likely take you more time to visit than the war rooms.

This was the one and only place where we used the 2-for-1 offers that are possible if you are carrying a paper Travelcard. I had researched this quite a bit before our trip, and while it does seem to offer some savings to travelers, it is something of a pain.

You have to go to the DaysOut website, find what attractions are covered for the time period you're visiting (London Eye and Tower of London were not valid for August), and print out a voucher and take it with you. You're supposed to show both the voucher and your Travelcard to get the discount, but at the Churchill War Rooms, the woman at ticket counter didn't ask to see my travel card.

The War Rooms are like an underground rabbit warren. Be warned: Make sure you see what you want along the way, because the hallways are so narrow that it's difficult to backtrack against the flow of visitors.

We had planned to eat in the War Rooms, but our plans got scuttled when our kids prematurely exited the museum. So we ended up getting food at The World's Narrowest Store. Well, that's what it seemed like.

This was a Tesco convenience store planted right across from Parliament in one of the busiest spots in London. You entered in one door into an aisle just barely wider than one person. First, there were sandwiches to choose from, then chips, then cookies, then drinks. Grab one of each and you have lunch. Pay at the end. It was immensely crowded, but also an efficient way to get a reasonably priced lunch. I was impressed.

Up to this point, the Tube strike hadn't affected us. It was about to.

We had tickets to a matinee play and needed to get to the Duchess Theatre near Covent Garden, but when we tried to catch a bus to get there, it was absolutely jammed with people. We couldn't get on, and that may have been a good thing, because traffic wasn't moving. With the subway not running, there were more buses and taxis on the road than usual and the roads just weren't big enough.

We started a hurried run/walk to our theater -- going faster than we would have been had we been on the bus -- and made it, slightly out of breath, about 15 minutes early.

The play was "The Play That Goes Wrong," at the Duchess Theatre and it was clever, inventive and simply hilarious. If you're going, I would recommend getting there early, because the play starts, in a way, before it actually starts.

After the play, we found a comfortable place in a wood-paneled pub for some drinks and grub. It was so comfortable that we forgot there was a Tube strike going on, even though we still had a walking tour to get to.

We emerged from the pub to find the buses just as crowded as before, and it was a longer distance to the walking tour meeting point near the Bank tube station. We caught a cab, but it didn't move much either, and we had to bail. It cost us 15 pounds to not even get that close to our destination.

For the second time that day we were walk-racing along the sidewalks of London. I took a gamble on a street crossing and got right in the way of a fast-moving cyclist, who fairly cursed me. ("Sorry," I shouted as he steamed away.) Once we reached the Bank Station area, it still took us a while to find our walking tour. The tour guide was standing rather unobtrusively amid many other tourists with the only clue to his status being that he held a couple walking tour brochures in front of his chest.

In the end, Peter, the guide did a lovely tour around the old City of London, showing us among other things, where the Great London Fire started, and some of the architecturally striking modern buildings, like The Gherkin.

When it was over, we caught a thankfully not-too-crowded bus to London Bridge station and then back home.

Next: Day 17, Greenwich, the Thames and Westminster Abbey



The full trip, by day: 

Days 1 and 2, Los Angeles to Paris

Day 3, Paris

Day 4, the Palace of Versailles

Day 5, the Eiffel Tower

Day 6, Goodbye France, hello England

Day 7, Windsor Castle & Stonehenge

Day 8, Bath

Day 9, Doctor Who and Swansea's LC

Day 10, the waterfalls of Wales

Day 11, Blists Hill and Ironbridge

Day 12, Warwick Castle

Day 13, Oxford and Harry Potter Studio Tour

Day 14, this is London

Day 15, British Museum and British Library

Day 16, the Tube goes on strike

Day 17, Greenwich, the Thames and Westminster Abbey

Day 18, the Tower of London

Day 19, heading home  



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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Travel tip: Select your seats on Virgin Atlantic earlier -- and for free

If you have purchased economy-class tickets on Virgin Atlantic, you'll  find that even if you've handed over thousands of dollars, the airline won't give you a reserved seat in advance. 

You can pay for a reserved seat, or you can wait until 24 hours before your flight to reserve one for free. But by that point, well, you just don't know what will be left.

There's another way to reserve a seat on Virgin Atlantic for free and beat the one-day-ahead rush. If you join its frequent flier program, Flying Club, you can reserve your seat three days ahead of time without charge. It costs nothing to join Flying Club.

In my experience, you couldn't make the free seat reservation online, you have to call. I always found the hold online to be more than 10 minutes.

One last note: If you haven't booked your flight yet, you might consider flying with someone else. I had a really bad experience with Virgin Atlantic's customer service, so it's sitting at the top of my Airlines to Avoid list. 


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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Profile of Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook



Dustin Aaron Moskovitz
Age: 31
Home: San Francisco
Hometown: Ocala, Florida
Net worth: $7.7 billion, according to Forbes

In March 2004, a story in Stanford University’s student newspaper reported an alarming trend.

“Classes are being skipped. Work is being ignored,” said the Stanford Daily. “Students are spending hours in front of their computers in utter fascination,”

The cause?  An addictive new website called TheFacebook.com, created just a month earlier by Harvard University sophomore Mark Zuckerberg. The site had become quickly become an obsession for many college students, the newspaper reported. 

Way down in the 26th paragraph, the story mentioned Zuckerberg’s roommate, Harvard sophomore Dustin Moskovitz, was also working on the website. Moskovitz, the story noted, “was vague about what the duo hopes to achieve from the sites.”

As we know now, things turned out pretty well for TheFacebook.com – it became Facebook.com in 2005 – and for Zuckerberg. Moskovitz, while not as well known as his former roommate, has done alright too – he is worth $7.7 billion today, according to Forbes.

Moskovitz grew up in Ocala, Florida, attending the public Vanguard High School and fishing during his spare time. At Harvard, he only met Zuckerberg after they were randomly paired as roommates.  His involvement in Facebook was sheer serendipity.

"I didn't really pitch him,” Moskovitz told Mashable.com years later. “It was more like he was working on this thing and I was sitting next to him, and he would say, 'Hey, can you help me with this?'"

Moskovitz became Facebook’s third employee, its first chief technology officer and later the vice president of engineering. But compared to Zuckerberg, he’s generally kept a low profile. While 388 Los Angeles Times stories have mentioned Zuckerberg, only 17 have mentioned Moskovitz.

Moskovitz left Facebook in 2008, but kept enough stock in the company to become  the world’s youngest billionaire in 2010, according to Forbes. He is 8 days younger than Zuckerberg.

One of Moskovitz’s achievements at Facebook was devising software to help the company’s employees collaborate in an efficient manner. Upon leaving the company, Moskovitz teamed up with another Facebook alum, Justin Rosenstein, to create a new company to bring collaborative software to other businesses. They originally called the company Smiley Abstractions, but by the time their product was released in 2011, it was called Asana.  Asana, promoted with the line “teamwork without email,” is Moskowitz’s primary focus today.

In 2011, Moskovitz and his then-girlfriend, former Wall Street Journal reporter Cari Tuna, launched a charitable foundation called Good Ventures. Over three years, the foundation has awarded 52 grants, totaling $30.3 million, to a variety of causes focusing on such things as global health, education reform, criminal justice and immigrant labor. Moskovitz and Tuna, who married in 2013, continue to lead Good Ventures. They have also signed the Giving Pledge, an effort led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage the wealthy to give away half their fortunes to charity.

“As a result of Facebook’s success, I’ve earned financial capital beyond my wildest expectations,” Moskovitz said in a letter to Giving Pledge. “Today, I view that reward not as personal wealth, but as a tool with which I hope to bring even more benefit to the world.”

Today, Moskovitz and Tuna lives in a 1,700-square-foot three-bedroom, two-bath condominium in San Francisco’s Mission District that he bought in 2010 for $870,000. The condo is just six blocks from Asana headquarters. Moskovitz owns 46.5 million shares of Facebook – 2.1% of the company – which carry a total value of $3.4 billion. 
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