Getting there

December 31, 2012 Leave a comment

What they don’t tell you about goals and success is that, for any really meaningful goal, between when you set it and achieve it, you’ll become a different person. Perfect example: college. You may set the goal to go to college and get a degree, and while you’ll still be you when you’re done, you will probably bear very little resemblance to the person you were when you went started.

Almost two years ago I set the goal to get serious and get good at practical shooting like IDPA and USPSA. My goal was to make IDPA Master class, and I’m not quite there yet, but it’s in sight. But where, twenty four months ago, the leap between my current state and shooting at a Master level was a vast one that seemed both momentous and hugely special, after literally years of work, when I make Master it won’t be with the awe and admiration I held when I took my first step on this path. It will be with the tacit understanding and nodding agreement that nothing in this world comes for free and I’ve earned this. On one level it’s less wondrous and amazing than it was when I set out to do it (has it really been two years?!). But at the same time, it’s a welcome milestone on the path of mastery I’ve embarked on.

It will also be just that: a milestone. When I conceived of this progression to Master level, it was with a goal in mind, a final, end state, as though achieving that would be the final chapter in the book of my time in the practical shooting sport. But that was because I was thinking like a Sharpshooter. In the intervening time, I’ve come to realize that Master class isn’t a destination, it’s a checkpoint in the journey. I can pull over to the side of the road there, but if I do it’s with the knowledge that it stretches on much further.

Even trying to pick an ultimate destination for the road is arbitrary. I could say that I could hope to be as good as Bob Vogel, the runaway leader in my chosen sport of IDPA, but by the time I ever got there, either Bob Vogel would be better than he is now (ahem) or there would be someone even better. If I were to someday surpass him, it would be because he was a hero of a bygone era, like Rob Leatham is today. Still a top-flight shooter but perhaps on par rather than head and shoulders above the young bucks nipping at his heels.

What I’m saying is, you can set out to topple your idols, but by the time you get a chance, there will be a whole new batch of competition. And you can set out to do something meaningful, but by the time you do it, you won’t be you any more. You’ll be someone else. In all likelihood, if it’s a worthwhile goal that you work hard for, you’ll be a better you.

But you’ll still look back at the you that set off down that road and wonder how you could have ever been so naive.

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Doing the Numbers, IDPA Nationals Edition

September 25, 2012 2 comments

Let me start by saying that I have a lot of respect for When The Balloon Goes Up. As a successful blog about guns, self-defense, and preparedness–or pretty much anything at all–they kick my ass. Never afraid to tilt at statistical windmills, though, I’d like to make some criticisms of their inconclusive statistical analysis of the IDPA Nationals.

First off, the lead graph in that article is probably the single worst graphical representation of data I’ve ever seen. As best I can tell it’s an effort to pack too much data in one plot, but it ends up just being an incomprehensible gibberish of colors.

As for the author’s wish to use the 2012 IDPA Nationals as a case study to show “a widening gap between CDP and the other Auto divisions as the additional reloads made more of a difference”: every single stage was, either by design or accident, pretty CDP-neutral. There was a single stage with the 18-round minimum dreaded by CDP shooters for inducing a second reload, but everyone started downloaded to three on Stage 8, eliminating any advantage SSP and ESP might have had with their 10+1 loading. In fact, of the 16 stages, 6 involved starting downloaded or reloading off the clock, eliminating magazine size (dis)advantages. Of the rest of the stages, assuming a stage plan with no extra shots, a CDP shooter would only be required to do an extra reload on Stage 2 “Saving Earl III”, requiring a second reload to engage the last plate if all other targets had been fully engaged. And given the cavernous maw of entropy swallowing up stage plans whole that Stage 2 was, a marginal extra mag change would not have a statistically significant effect on the results. To put it briefly, the stage design of this particular match can be seen through inspection to be extremely CDP-neutral. Enviable.

This is not, however, grounds for abolishing the different auto-loader divisions. There are compelling cases to be made in that debate, but the results from one extremely-well designed match isn’t one of them, unless we can also give every club stage designers like Frank Glover, Dean Brevit, and Toni Dandreamatteo.

As for the line, “Assuming the nationals required 180 rds …”: why assume? Five minutes with a calculator and your score sheets will confirm the match required 214 rounds to complete, a statistically significant discrepancy from 180 that changes the denominator used to determine all the numbers like “the average Expert would need to shave .39 seconds off each shot to be an average Master.” The actual number is some 14% lower, .33 seconds per round, for example.

As a final indictment, consider the graph of the proportional makeup of the score of a member of skill class. By simple taking the average of each, you let your analysis be victimized by the Achilles’ heel of using the mean: outliers. Of the nine DMs who shot the match, they collectively accumulated 10 procedurals, for an average of 1.1 procedural per DM. Inspecting the data, however, reveals that a full six of those were racked up by a single DM. Put another way, four DMs had none, four DMs had one, and one DM had six. This gives a median and mode of .5 procedural per DM, half the mean. And consider penalty seconds in total:

Although there are outliers on both sides, the mean of 8.3 seconds per DM is significantly greater than the median of 5. While this may seem like a small difference, my gut says if I were to run all the numbers I’d find similar discrepancies through the averages that would together stack to mask statistically significant insights.

Not having any fancy graphing software or data analysis tools, computing percentiles by hand would be unduly laborious. All the same, not wishing to merely detract from the conversation, what follows are a few statistical trends noticed by my naked eye.

Bob Vogel, SSP DC, had six stage wins, easily the most, and a naive guess would predict a similar number falling to the ESP and CDP division champions. However, of those two DCs, only one CDP DC Glenn Shelby had a stage win. This is not a slight on them, but a praise. It shows that success in IDPA–or at least this match–derives not from a string of breakout performances, but from being able to handle a wide range of stages and scenarios.

Interestingly, if you exclude Bob Vogel, the ultimate outlier, for those with stage wins, their stage wins correlate negatively with their finish. The CDP DC has one, as do the 1st Masters in CDP (Byerly), ESP (Wright), and SSP (Tate) and the ESP 2nd Master (Fuson). Butler who placed last of the three ESP DMs had two stage wins and Perry, 3rd ESP Master had 3. There is no doubt that every single shooter there named is quite skilled, but the inverse relationship between stage wins and overall victory is interesting and unexpected.

To bring everything back around, I don’t want to give the impression that I think the When The Balloon Goes Up post is without merit despite my criticisms. In particular, as an SSP Expert shooting the same Glock 17 with the same night sights since I started out three years ago, this resonates with me:

If you want to get better at this game and you have a reasonable pistol, don’t worry about your gear. Continue to shoot what you have, and get out and practice your movement and weapon manipulation skills!

I’ve mentally committed to not letting me fool myself in to thinking my gear is limiting me. Would Bob Vogel be a bad shooter with any random gun? No. Would I be a statistically significantly better shooter with a Glock 34? Probably not, but falling in to the trap of thinking you can spend your way to better performance is a slippery and costly slope that I’d rather not even set foot on. So to Master class I go with a truly stock service pistol.

The author shot the 2012 IDPA Nationals and placed 9th SSP Expert.

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The Death and Return of Viral Marketing

June 1, 2012 1 comment

The Death and Return of Superman is one of the most subtle, interesting, and awesome attempts at viral marketing I’ve seen in a long time. On the surface, it’s a 17 minute YouTube video summarizing a couple dozen issues of the Superman comic circa 1992 when Superman died and came back to life. If you haven’t already watched it, it’s funny, engaging, and well worth your time.

But watching it, you might start to think something larger is at play than someone posting a well-made YouTube video to make some cash. First off, there are none of the usual YouTube ads. And… was that Elijah Wood? And Mandy Moore? And why does the narrator appear in one scene wearing a shirt that says “Go see Chronicle”?

Digging deeper, as best I can tell, this whole project was a sort of calling card for Max Landis the writer and narrator of The Death and Return of Superman. The message is, “If you think this YouTube video I wrote was well done, you should go see this movie that I wrote called Chronicle which by the way was released in theaters the day I uploaded this.” And the truth is, I wasn’t aware of Chronicle before I saw the video and it made me really want to see it. If just ten percent of the million and a half YouTube viewers followed the breadcrumb and found out about Chronicle, that’s still a pretty effective advertising campaign.

So on the surface, it’s a fun YouTube video. Going one level deeper, it’s a fascinating attempt to use YouTube to promote a commercial endeavor. But if we go even more level deeper, The Death and Return of Superman is an intriguing comment on the nature of social media and user-generated content (what we used to call Web 2.0).

First off, the video was clearly shot on a shoestring budget but is absolutely loaded with talent in its production. From the acting, writing, editing, music, and even the “visual effects”, it’s clear that this was the product of very talented people.

But even ten years ago, something like this would have been impossible. If someone had managed to get a bunch of their Hollywood friends to pitch in for, I assume, free to make a video to subtly promote a theatrical movie, the equipment costs for cameras, production costs for editing, and distribution costs would have made the project cost-ineffective. As it is today, I would expect most of those things were borrowed rather than bought: shot on a friend’s camera, put together on another friend’s copy of Final Cut Pro, and uploaded to Google’s YouTube.

They also embrace something that’s been happening in movies for years: the separation of content and credits. It’s hard to know whether or not movies would still end with minutes of scrolling names if not for union and guild contracts, but it might look something like what The Death and Return of Superman did when they made the credits an entirely separate video. But that video isn’t actually all that useful. When I thought I recognized the actress playing Titania (I did, she was Sarah Shahi, who I recognized from Life), I didn’t go looking at the end of the video or in the related videos section for a credits roll. I went to IMDB.

In decades past, credits were an everlasting record saying who worked on the film that could not be divorced from the film itself. It was apparently too risky to file that information away in a separate place where someone could go track it down if they were interested in finding out who had played what role or served as best boy.

But in the age of the internet, there are organizations, most notably IMDB, that have as their sole purpose aggregating and archiving that information. This is a radical shift in the nature of knowledge. Where once you had to tightly couple metadata (credits) with content (the movie), a project like The Death and Return of Superman shows that the internet allows you to simply make the information available and the aggregators will find it and syndicate it.

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Windows Phone 7 is good. Really good.

So a few weeks ago, I lost my mind and instead of upgrading from my Android-powered Samsung Captivate to the latest and greatest Android ICS powerhouse, I picked up a Lumia 900, Nokia’s recently-launched flagship Windows Phone 7 phone. And it’s pretty much awesome.

There are things I miss from Android: Swype, good LastPass integration, Tasker, and Amazon MP3. But the WP7 stock keyboard is decent and the lack of custom keyboards also handicaps LastPass. Tasker is the big gap, since I have to manually silence my phone at work, and at a movie or timed event. That’s fairly ironic because back in my dumbphone days, I deliberately chose Nokia phones for their unique timed profiles setting that let me silence my phone in school.

That said, none of those things really grind on me, and the rest of the WP7 experience is really good. The email and calendar integration, both Outlook and Gmail are impeccable. Likewise for the Kindle app, texting, and web browsing. Basically, all the main tasks I use my smartphone for are supported natively, work well, and feel nice in a way that Android only ever approached with custom ROMs.

The one thing I will highlight as particularly useful is the handling of media applications. First off, there’s the native “Music + Videos” application that is the most flavorful app on the entire phone, thanks to the way it changes its background and your lock screen to show a scrolling collection of artist photos for whatever you’re listening to, and leaves its live tile showing the most recently played artist’s picture. But it also works as a complete, if unremarkable, media player, with with lock screen controls that you can also access from any app by hitting the volume up or down button. What’s particularly useful over Android’s “roll your own” lock screen control system is that everything that plays media automatically hooks those controls, so that third party apps like Slacker have lock screen and global controls baked right in. I heavily use my smartphone as a media player for music and podcasts, and that’s a killer feature for me.

Now, I am using Slacker’s streaming radio service more than I did on Android due to a combination of the app being high quality, inexplicably better than Android’s, and the lack of ability to stream from my Amazon MP3 library. I’d actually be quite happy to download my entire Amazon MP3 collection to my phone, which has about 10GB of free storage right now, but Amazon makes it harder than I had expected to exfiltrate your entire collection, so I just have a dozen albums or so for frequent listening.

At this point, you should be detecting a theme: Windows Phone 7 isn’t a perfect replacement for my Android phone, but for its deficiencies it also excels in a couple of ways I really appreciate. It has all the major third-party apps I want (Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Evernote, LastPass), and the first-party apps are great. And the platform is only getting started. With Microsoft’s backing and Nokia betting the company on WP7, I expect to see a lot more app and development support for the phone to make it even better over the years.

Actually, the biggest fear I have in the long term for the Windows Phone 7 platform is the fact that it’s got a terrible reputation with the geek early adopter types that Microsoft is going to need to spread the word about the platform. I’ve had many technical coworkers and fellow developers question, doubt, or mock the phone with an intensity that’s honestly surprised me. In this horse race, Android is the choice for the discerning geek who wants control over his technical life. But I’m not going to lie, in my two years with an Android phone, I got more than my fill of flashing custom ROMs.

At the end of the day, if you offered to swap my Lumia 900 for an SGS2 or HTC One X, the top-end Android AT&T smartphones right now (forgetting that they cost $200 and I paid negative $50 for my Lumia 900), I’d turn you down. I’ve been there, I’ve lived the Android thing, and it’s fine, but I’m on board to see where WP7 goes.

I just hope I’m not going back to Android in a year if Microsoft really leaves Windows Phone 7 flapping in the wind when 8 comes out.

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Two riders were approaching

March 28, 2012 2 comments

So, at the end of the day, I’m not going to stop riding the bike. What happened today just reinforced the first lesson and taught me the second. Despite what happened to me, I still think riding is incredibly worthwhile and rewarding.

The second lesson, which I learned in the minutes after I flew through the air, is to pick yourself up again, fix what you broke, and never quit. These are three separate manifestations of the same drive to never quit. There are times in life when you don’t have time to shut down and go to your happy place, usually when there are other people around you, waiting for you to act. Today was one of those days. Today was also they day that I learned that you can fix more things than you expect. And finally, I found myself overwhelmed with the urge to go back to driving my car and say “screw it” to this motorcycle shit. Doing that would actually be comparably easy, but that’s not the point. To borrow a better orator’s words, we don’t do these things because they are easy, but because they are hard. If I just quit today, I wouldn’t have been made a strong person for it, I just would have wasted a lot of money to discover that I would rather live meekly.

The first lesson, which I have come to learn over these past weeks of riding my motorcycle every day, is that sometimes you will never feel fully ready to do something, and you have to do it anyway. I found this especially true the first few times I set out on my bike. At the time, there were legal time constraints for when I had to have the bike inspected and tagged, so my I didn’t have the chance to wait to go riding until I felt perfectly prepared, which is the pattern in cases like this. That first street ride in particular was filled with self-doubt and hesitation. But I was lucky enough to have something force my hand and get me started. If not for that, I might have waited days or weeks before I realized I wasn’t going to get any more ready than I already was. And if you think I’m just making excuses for reckless behavior, I mentioned this lesson to an friend of mine with a family and kids, and he reflected to me that exactly the feeling I was describing was why he and his wife waited as long as they did to have children. They were waiting to feel prepared, and at some point had to come to the realization that the time wasn’t coming. They had to act. If motorcycles can save me years of waiting to do something in my life like that, that alone makes my decision to ride a profitable one.

Aside from a few scratches and bruises and some reparable damage to my motorcycle, I’m fine. What happened today was indirectly due to the first lesson that motorcycles taught me, and caused me to learn the second.

I had what motorcyclists call a “high side”, which is a particular kind of single-vehicle event where one of the two tires loses traction and the traction-less tire moves out of the plane of moevement (and the tire with traction). When the tire regains traction, it snaps amazingly quickly back in line, which can flip off an unsuspecting rider.

So, I crashed my motorcycle today.

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Austria, Day 6 and 7

March 13, 2012 Leave a comment

The last full day, Friday, Mandy took off work to tick off a few last items from the to-do list. The first was visiting the art history museum, which had an amazingly large collection. Where the Albertina art museum could dedicate basically all of its space to one exhibit, and they rotated, the art history museum just had multiple rooms full of pieces from each corner of the world and time period of art. It was honestly daunting.

And all of that was the static exhibit, with the big attraction being a showcase of the work of Gustav Klimt, an Austrian painter renown for leading a rebellion in Vienna against traditional art styles. But the amazing thing was that he had painted a series of murals in the museum that skillfully assumed the guise of virtually every major art style in history, from Egyptian to Byzantine to Renaissance to then-modern techniques. Clearly, he wasn’t going in a different direction because he couldn’t hack it as a painter in the traditional styles: he knew their intricacies and exactly how to dismantle them.

So, yeah, that was impressive.

We also hit up Cafe Sacher, the birthplace of Sachertorte, which is an awesome chocolate cake with frosting that is like harded dark chocolate. It’s not like the overly fluffy cake frostings that I find hard to eat, but just delicious. There was also Apfelstrudel, because I had to have it at least once.

Once more down Kärntner Straße, a major shopping avenue comparable to Mariahilferstrasse, and we headed to the grocery store to pick up some beer for the night. On the agenda was a fairly American, almost college student evening of cooking dinner, playing video games, drinking beer, and watching basketball. In this case, the games were, respectively, Red Dead Redemption and the NCSU vs Virginia game in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. As many opportunities as there were in Vienna to do strange and foreign things, it was nice to have some time to do the normal stuff and relax.

Saturday, my alarm went off at 5am, we were at the U-bahn station by 5:30, and I easily caught the S-Bahn train, about a twenty minute ride, to the airport. Because she would have had to get another ticket and spend an hour round trip to ferry me to the flughafen, that’s where I parted ways with Mandy, my gracious host. The ride to the airport, the flight to Heathrow, and the layover there were uneventful and timely. The Heathrow to RDU flight tacked on an extra hour on the plane when they discovered a seat was broken, and a half hour after landing to make it through customs, making the last leg of the trip awfully long.

But I tell you what: it felt really good to get home, dump my luggage, and hop on my motorcycle and go for a ride over to a friend’s house to catch up.

I’m really glad I had the opportunity to go to Austria, and learned a lot about that country and myself. I especially learned how very crippled I feel when I don’t have a commanding grasp of the language… Even though I could probably have stuck it out and tried to decipher what was being said to me in German, I found myself frequently defaulting back to “Bitte, sprechen Sie Englisch?” It gives me a whole new appreciation for Mandy and how difficult it really must be to live that every day.

Not sure I could hack it.

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Austria, Days 4 and 5

March 8, 2012 1 comment

Wednesday was my day off. I ended up oversleeping and didn’t get up until 1:30, so I decided to say “screw it” and spend the day hanging out and tend to some business on the internet. Mostly trying to figure out who’s going to pick me up from the airport and buying some motorcycle parts so they’ll be there when I get home (shout out to motosliders.com).

As an excuse to get out of the apartment, I met Mandy, my host, at Neubaugasse to browse around Saturn, which is uncannily like Best Buy except everything is in German and Euros. That was interesting, but mostly in only so far as it was basically identical to a store you could find in the US, unless you include the massive vinyl selection.

And since I was way under budget for the day, I ended up saying we should get dinner out on me. Cultural learning-gram: in Viennese German, you say that you’re “inviting” someone to let them know that dinner is on you. I’m told it’s strange to be told at the end of the meal that you’re being invited to eat.

Today I hit up the Albertina art museum, more out of a sense of duty not to pass up a major Vienna attraction than any real interest in the art on display. In the last week or two, they’d switched over from a showcase of Magritte, one of the few artists that’s actually resonated with me, to an exhibit on impressionism, the beauty of which was largely lost on me. Actually, the piece that ended up sticking with me most was one of Seurat’s conté crayon sketches that is just black crayon and white paper and essentially a tour de force in negative space.

Yeah, I went to an exhibit about the bright colors and extemporaneous stylings of the impressionists and liked what amounted to a charcoal sketch. Apparently I don’t follow directions well.

Somewhat unfortunately, my €8 ticket only got me about two hours of wondering around looking at art. I only say “somewhat”, because that ended up meaning I was able to hit up the Albertina Würstelstand (the same one from Sunday) before I was deathly starving. The Austrian beer continues to be nothing special on its own and absolutely awesome when eaten with meaty foods.

With time left in the afternoon, I took the U-bahn one stop over to Stephansplatz and came out right in front of my goal, Stephansdom. I was awed by the massive scale of the stonework and craftsmanship strolling by it earlier in the week, so I wanted to come by for a closer look at the cathedral that Wikipedia tells me is almost a millenium old. Except that’s actually the rub for me: it was almost painful to visit this very old historical behemoth and see that they had drilled in to some of the centuries-old wood to attach an HDTV mount. Or to stand in the overpriced gift shop crammed in a tiny cloister.

The whole experience was the sole time I’ve felt like I’d narrowly avoided a tourist trap during my time in the city. For example, I decided the €4.5 to go to the top of the belltower and “see Vienna from above” wasn’t quite worth it, especially after I later learned from Mandy that that fee only buys you admission to climb the stairs. The elevator is extra. No thanks.

Tonight ended up being a simple eat-in kinda night, munching on pizza while I streamed the NCSU vs Boston College men’s basketball game from the first round of the ACC tournament. I’m not actually that devoted of a basketball fan, but it was really damn cool to be able to stream the game and watch it from another continent. Plus it was good to actually watch a game where we won. Through some strange coincidence, every other game I’d seen the Wolfpack play this season had been a loss.

Tomorrow’s my last day in the city (my flight leaves “stupid early”, as Mandy puts it), so she’s taking the day off and we’ll wrap things up.

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Austria, Days 2 and 3

March 6, 2012 1 comment

Make sure to check Facebook for the pictures I’m taking here.

Yesterday was our shopping day. Picking up some new rugs for Mandy, my host, to put in her new apartment. The expensive housewares store (Leiner) had some bargains in the basement. Yeah, we bought bulky carpets at our first stop. Lesson learned.

Then I got the runaround trying to get a prepaid SIM for my phone so that I could call and text Mandy. I’m not sure the fee structure long-term, but it was €10 for the SIM, and €10 for 1000 texts and a 1000 minutes, and I think €10 any time I want to refresh those numbers to 1000. I’m impressed. Of course, I had to spend three hours when I got home SIM unlocking my phone (turns out the phone’s unlock code and PUK are not the same thing…) but thanks to some Android savvy, I finally got it to work. Now I just have to figure out what the rapidfire German recorded message I hear whenever I call someone is saying in.

Then on to a book store. All of these were along Mariahilferstrasse, which kinda reminds me of Times Square if it was a street. Lots of high fashion and shopping. And a sidewalk on each side wider than the two lane road.

We swung by the apartment to drop off the many bags of stuff before we hit up Billa, the grocery store, for dinner. It was packed, with narrow lanes and tall shelves, and fewer choices for things, but still covering what seemed like 90% of the selection of an American grocery. I mean, have you been to the aisle in Food Lion that is a hundred feet of shelf space dedicated to paper towels? A bit much, yeah. Also, like before, if you can’t carry it, don’t buy it.

Today was mostly just a lazy day while Mandy went to work (one of has to!). I did take the ten minute U-bahn ride plus mile walk to the Austrian military history museum, which was a good use of the afternoon–pictures are on Facebook. The headline exhibit is the gun that shot Franz Ferdinand plus the uniform he was wearing at the time and the car he was riding in. I have to admit, the car was pretty cool, and actually helped me picture the scene in 1914 Sarajevo.

I ended up spending most of my time looking at the guns on exhibit. Since the museum spans from the Thirty Years’ War to WWII, it actually covers almost the entire history of firearms, and was a neat way to follow their development. It was interesting to note, for example, the development of the rear sight on rifles, which was lined up with the front sight post–present from the beginning–to get an order of magnitude more accuracy. Or looking at early auto-loading pistols when they were still fed from clips that filled the gun’s internal magazine, instead of using detachable magazines like all modern handguns.

I also enjoyed, in the WWII wing, seeing some kooky war machines that I’d only seen in video games before, like the Kettenkrad, a weird cross between a half-track troop transport and a motorcycle.

Dinner this evening was at the best Mexican restaurant in Vienna, which isn’t saying much. The Jalapeno poppers had some kind of red pepper in them (fully ripe Jalapenos, or something else?) and the quesadilla was served with feta crumbles. It was a slightly surreal experience, but definitely a good dinner, if only because they had honest to go Corona, which is exactly what I need when it’s 1 degree Celsius outside.

I’m trying to finish reading Too Big To Fail so I can leave it with Mandy, but if I make good progress on that tonight, I’ll break out my German dictionary and German copy of The Hunger Games and stumble my way through another page or two.

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Austria, Day 0 and 1

March 4, 2012 1 comment

So I’m going to Vienna for a week, right? Cool.

My flight over left Friday evening, with a four hour layover in London (Heathrow), which meant that my first flight consisted entirely of Americans going on vacation and British businessmen flying home. I found myself sitting next to and chatting with a few, which was interesting. We ended up talking more about business than national cultures or anything like that.

The only time we hit the language barrier was when one of them asked if I’d “brought any sterling?” It took me a second to realize he was talking about money, not, say, silverware. Also, when I woke the guy next to me up on the plane by setting his breakfast down on his tray and he said “Ah, cheers!” I like the use of that word as an enthusiastic thanks, a rough equivalent to “sweet, thanks!” I might try to adopt it if I thought it would be understood.

Heathrow’s Terminal 3 had a staggering miniature shopping center for duty free goods, a Starbucks, and like three places to eat. Sharp contrast to the handful of American airports I’ve been to which have as many restaurants as anything else. I was amused by the directness of the restaurant called EAT. there, but the food was meh and would have been decently priced in dollars instead of “Sterling.”

As soon as I headed to the gate for the flight to Austria, the background chatter switched almost abruptly from British English to German, which was fun to try and catch pieces of. Until the group of twenty or so US high school boys on some kind of trip showed up, and I began to understand the Loud American stereotype. I’m not sure if it would have been better if some of the Austrians could understand them, because their conversation was the most banal speech I’ve heard since… uh.. since I graduated high school. Three of them sat behind me and there was a noisy baby in the next row up, which almost made this flight worse than my first, except for my window seat.

England, the Channel, and coastal France were (quelle surprise) covered in clouds, so I mercifully dozed off until shortly before landing, bringing my total sleep for the trip to about 4 hours including a nap in Heathrow. That made taking off at 6pm Friday and landing at 2pm Saturday interesting. With some Austrian coffee, I was able to stay up until 10pm, so I’m not really worried about jet lag on this leg of the trip.

That first day in Austria was mostly familiarization. The U-Bahn, cafes, the grocery store, restaurants, shops.

The grocery, Merkur, with its small package sizes and lack of carts–just baskets!–combined with being accessible from the U-Bahn without going topside speaks volumes about modern Viennese life in the city. Also, bring a bag, because they don’t even have any for sale. If you can’t carry it, don’t buy it.

I’m amused by the fact that most places have only two or three beers on tap, with the nicer restaurant (€35 for two) where we ate dinner having just one. You just pick whether you want a small, medium, or large (.2, .3, or .5 liters respectively). The thing I couldn’t really appreciate about German beer drinking it at home is that it is, compared to American craft beers, very understated, but goes amazingly well food. I’m not kidding when I say that the best beer I’ve had in a long time was the one with lunch today from a Würstelstand. (In fact, the very Würstelstand pictured in that article.) I could eat there quite happily for many days, and I may end up doing just that.

My payload of barbeque sauce, Triscuits, and other American delicacies was well received by my host, who said she’d take it in return for crashing at her place for the week. I think I got a deal.

The most culturally stark moment of the day was browsing a flea market this morning, there was a box of papers belonging to an Captain (Hauptmann) in the Wehrmacht, dated between 1925 and 1943. One is stamped with the Nazi Reichsadler, another is was titled “Mitteilung für Offizierkorps” (a newsletter for officers), and a third was signed “gute besserung und Heil Hitler!” (get well soon and… you know the rest). We wanted to buy some of it, but it seemed like being so eager to learn about this stuff would come across culturally wrong. Maybe next week.

Categories: Uncategorized

My Kindle Fire review… sort of

December 7, 2011 1 comment

I couldn’t disagree more with this usability study of the Kindle Fire (linked by @SGgrc) in a number of key ways. Don’t worry, though, this isn’t just me rushing to point out that someone is wrong on the internet, but I have to comment on an analysis that is the exact opposite of what I’ve found using the Fire.

The primary example of them being wrong is their findings about web browsing. They say that mobile websites are the way to go, because it’s hard to click the small buttons and text fields on desktop websites. To reinforce this, they point to a user having trouble logging in to the Facebook mobile site. The buttons are too small and the text boxes are hard to click. On a desktop website, you would fix this by pinch-zooming to make what you wanted to select bigger. But on mobile websites, there is no such ability. You’re stuck with the tiny, sparsely filled screen and you can’t make it bigger. That login screen to the Facebook mobile site takes up maybe a quarter of the screen.

They summarize by saying that browsing mobile sites is “luxurious”. Once again, I disagree. Mobile sites look thin and stretched, like cloth spread over a too-large frame.

   
The Facebook and CNN mobile sites on the Fire

In short, web browsing on the Kindle Fire is fine. You have to pinch-zoom and double-tap your way around the web, just like on any mobile device, but the hardware makes it fast enough that you don’t notice.

I will agree, though, that the user experience of Facebook on the Kindle Fire sucks. But that’s because, for whatever reason, there is no Facebook app. There is a Facebook “app” icon in the app drawer, but it just opens the web browser to m.facebook.com. Fail.

Also, from the article, they say that the Fire is heavy, making it hard to read for long periods of time, and the lack of hardware page-turning buttons make it hard to use. The Fire is my first Kindle, so all my experience is from using the Kindle app on my 4inch-screen Captivate. That said, I don’t find it heavy or hard to turn pages at all. I’ve held it in my hand to read for a 45-minute stationary bike ride, and for an hour or more on the couch.

Finally, the article also indicts the Fire for the lack of hardware Android buttons. I, too, was skeptical of this, as well as skeptical of Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich, the most recent Android releases that do away with hardware buttons in favor of on-screen buttons that can be hidden and are always at the bottom of the screen, no matter how you turn the device.

The Kindle Fire has sold me on the on-screen button idea.

It takes a little getting used to, but that’s because it’s new and different. Innovation always comes with a learning curve.

So don’t take this as an unreserved endorsement or review of the Kindle Fire. But it is innovative and polished and very pleasant to use. I agree that it has flaws, but this article misdiagnoses most of them.

The biggest problem of the Fire is currently the lack of the Android Market, to give you access to the app ecosystem there, like the Facebook app and all your purchased apps. This is a result of the Amazon App Store currently being an also-ran, because before the Kindle Fire there was no reason for app developers to mess with it. With the Fire selling as well as it is, I see this problem being remedied within a few months.

As an Android-savvy early-adopter, I’m okay with rooting and unrooting my device to install the Market while I wait for the Android ecosystem to catch up. Until then, next time you see me, ask to play with my Fire. I guarantee I’ll have it on me.

How’s that for a review?

Categories: Android