A Reluctant Artist Finds His Way In Florence

To say that I’m a reluctant traveler would be to vastly undersell the case. When asked to take a trip out of town my gut reaction is to blurt out WHY? as if I were being threatened with banishment for committing some wrong. So when my parents asked me and my girlfriend to join them in Florence for a week and I agreed, everyone was taken aback…myself included.

My girlfriend is a planner. In the weeks leading up to our departure she immersed herself in guidebooks, maps, internet searches, and even Italian language lessons on tape. My seeming lack of curiosity or interest in involving myself in these preparatory studies irked her relentlessly. She wanted to know whether I even wanted to go on the trip at all. I’d tell her I was looking forward to being in Italy with her and to seeing my folks. This was a vague, unsatisfactory answer in her eyes but it’s all I could say.

A sudden storm delayed our takeoff from O’Hare some two hours so instead of Chicago-Zurich-Florence it became Chicago-Zurich-Frankfurt-Florence. Mercifully, walking off the plane to meet my waiting parents took mere minutes.

Florence’s airport would fit inside of O’Hare a dozen times over, and soon we were squeezing a rented Audi around cars, scooters, bikes, pedestrians, and other less-classifiable modes of conveyance in the narrow free-for-all of Florence traffic, a steady chorus of vaffanculos raining down on us from impatient Italian motorists throughout. We were headed into the hills above the city, to Fiesole, where my folks had rented an apartment in a farmhouse set in an olive grove; part of Italy’s agriturismo program.

My parents have vacationed here for three of the last four summers, coming back for the vistas of lush hills, interrupted every so often by red-roofed villas; for the relief from summer heat that this altitude afforded; and, probably most of all, for the locally grown and produced food and wine. Waking the next morning and looking out the window, I could see why painters have been painting this landscape for all these many centuries.The center of Fiesole is home to a beautiful monastery, and we peeked through the barred windows of the ancient cells to reveal tiny spaces filled with one or two pieces of furniture-a desk with a cross most often-where it was hard to imagine a person could stand up and stretch, much less spend years.

One evening we drove to San Minuato del Monte-a stunning 13th Century church-which afforded a clear view of the center of Florence. I was taken enough with the place to return a couple mornings later and paint a watercolor of the setting, backlit by a steady stream of weary tourists stopping on their journeys. We knew that our few days wouldn’t allow us to take in even a fraction of the architectural, artistic, and religious treasures one stumbles over around every other corner here so we were content to linger in the places that drew us and not to worry about missing the many wonders we’d doubtless miss.

On a lark one steaming afternoon we got in line for a look inside the Duomo. We thought it’d be a quick look upward until we saw the sign by the cashier’s window warning those with heart conditions to turn back. We climbed over four hundred steps up to the top of the dome, with respites on two catwalks for views of the tremendous Vasari mural, and the hike culminated in a view of all of Florence and the surrounding hills. It was the exhausting, exhilarating, and unexpected highlight of the whole trip.

Before we left I spent a couple hours sitting and painting outside the door of my parents’ place up in the hills. I’ve always heard that the point of a vacation is to get out of your routine, to do and see things you wouldn’t in your workaday world, but for a painter, those everyday sights form the vocabulary of what he does. If I stayed in this place longer I’d have likely remained in this courtyard with the olive groves, painting and drawing and trying to get a better sense of the place than a week could possibly hope to afford. This is what stopped me from traveling more over the years, the sense that nothing but a scratch of the surface could ever be had from these excursions.

As I told my girlfriend before we went, I was glad to be in Italy with her and with my parents but getting these glimpses of a world other than the one I knew proved more worthwhile than I would have ever suspected. In a way those red roofs, hairpinning, blind roadways, and green hills will stay with me for a while.

TripAdvisor database hacked – email addresses compromised

If you have ever rated something on TripAdvisor, you may be in for a nasty surprise in your inbox in the coming weeks. Last weekend, hackers penetrated the TripAdvisor member database and stole up to 20 million records.

In a statement issued by TripAdvisor on their site, the only information they say was impacted involved email address. TripAdvisor does not store credit card information or other financial data and passwords are said to be secure. As a precaution, it may still be safe to change your TripAdvisor password and anywhere else you used that same password.

The impact from this should be relatively minimal – most people could end up with a bit more spam than usual, but in today’s spam overload world, a couple more V1ag7A! emails won’t really be noticeable.

TripAdvisor claims they identified the vulnerability and shut it down immediately. The full email sent to customers can be found after the jump.

To our travel community:

This past weekend we discovered that an unauthorized third party had stolen part of TripAdvisor’s member email list.

We’ve confirmed the source of the vulnerability and shut it down. We’re taking this incident very seriously and are actively pursuing the matter with law enforcement.

How will this affect you? In many cases, it won’t. Only a portion of all member email addresses were taken, and all member passwords remain secure.

You may receive some unsolicited emails (spam) as a result of this incident. The reason we are going directly to you with this news is that we think it’s the right thing to do. As a TripAdvisor member, I would want to know.

Unfortunately, this sort of data theft is becoming more common across many industries, and we take it extremely seriously.

I’d also like to reassure you that TripAdvisor does not collect members’ credit card or financial information, and we never sell or rent our member list. We will continue to take all appropriate measures to keep your personal information secure at TripAdvisor. I sincerely apologize for this incident and appreciate your membership in our travel community.

Steve Kaufer
Co-founder and CEO

Hotels top target for hackers

According to online security trade publication DarkReading.com, hackers went after the hotel sector more than any other in 2009. And, they didn’t get caught: it took hotels an average of 156 days to discover a security breach. A study by Trustwave’s SpiderLabs of 218 security breach investigations in 24 countries found that 38 percent hit the hospitality industry, 19 percent for financial services, 14 percent for retailers and 13 percent for food and beverage.

So, why are hackers poking around in hotel systems? Credit cards!

Hackers are looking for payment information that they can steal and use elsewhere. This information that can be converted to cash quickly, says Trustwave SpiderLabs executive Nicholas Percoco. Other sensitive information wasn’t nearly as popular, with the likes of financial, authentication and healthcare information good for only 1 percent of what was stolen.

Hack your local subway

Frequent travelers on any metropolitan subway system know that the two major means for fare tracking and billing are via magnetic strip and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). And every nerd and his RPG character know that those systems can be both readable and exploitable.

To see how secure the Boston subway system was, several MIT students decided to run an analysis on the security of the infrastructure; what they found was a little disturbing. By simply wandering into unlocked doors, opening unlocked cabinets and peering around they were able to find keys to the system, get access to network hardware and find and copy employee identification.

On looking into the security of the magnetic and RFID systems, they were able to reverse engineer the code on the magnetic stripes and reconfigure the data to post $653 to a subway card. Similarly, the group analyzed the RFID contents and were able to disassemble the code.

The students point out that numerous transportation systems around the globe use these systems and technology.

Naturally, all of this quite illegal — the students were just illustrating a point to the MBTA that there are security vulnerabilities in the system that can fairly easily be exploited. Hopefully, they and the company that makes subway infrastructures perks up and makes some serious security changes as a result of this reserach.

Check out the full 87 page presentation on the execution hosted at MIT.

Spring photography roundup

Travel photography enthusiasts will be pleased to hear about the flurry of recent product launches and news floating around the web. Perhaps everything was timed to the warm weather and extra daylight of Spring? Those tricky camera manufacturers – how diabolical. Anyway, here’s a quick rundown of some of the more interesting news.

Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-LZ10

Engadget has the scoop on Panasonic’s new 10-megapixel Lumix DMC-LZ10. I’m not the biggest fan of Panasonic’s digital cameras, but Engadget and Photography Blog both give it high marks, calling it “one of the most versatile compacts in its class.” They were particularly impressed with the camera’s manual controls and image quality. Considering it retails for less than $250, it could be a nice model to snap up for those family vacation photos. Remember, if you’re in the market for a point and shoot digital camera, don’t get too caught up with the number of megapixels. A better optical zoom and a quick startup/shutter speed are much better indicators of quality.

Hacking your Canon digital camera

Enterprising Canon camera owners should also head over to Wired, where they’re offering a cool Wiki on how to modify your camera’s software. Why would you do such a thing, you might ask? Because digital camera hardware can often do much more than is allowed by its standard software. For instance, Canon only allows shutter speeds up to 1/1,600 of a second, but the camera is actually capable of up to 1/60,000! Once you’ve installed the hack, you’ll unlock all manner of cool functions like super-long exposure shots, RAW file format and battery readout. I tried it last night on my Canon SD630 and it worked like a charm. It’s worth noting that the process can get a bit technical – make sure you know what you’re doing and that you have a compatible Canon camera before giving it a try. Jump over to Wired for full instructions and FAQ.

The Ultra-fast Casio Exilim EX-F1 SLR

Meanwhile, New York Times gadget guru David Pogue reviews Casio’s speedy new semipro Exilim EX-F1 digital camera. A typical digital camera snaps about one picture per second, but the Exilim, which is billed as the world’s fastest camera, can take up to sixty. Remember that shot of the cheetah chasing the antelope you missed on safari because you couldn’t get your camera snapping in time? This is the model you’re looking for. It also has a motion detector which will wait, for hours if necessary, until motion is detected and then automatically snap a rapid fire of 60 shots. Pretty awesome. The Exilim retails for $1,000.