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.

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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 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

November 9, 2011 1 comment

I don’t remember how the conversation started, whether I just decided to thrust my musical tastes on him, but the part where my recollection begins is with myself at thirteen years old playing “Aerodynamic” by Daft Punk for my father and relating to him that it contained my favorite guitar solo.

Of course, at this point, my music collection consisted of Eiffel 65’s Europop (synth-pop) and the first two Linkin Park studio albums (nu-metal that was noted for its lack of guitar solos), so in effect, what I really meant was “This is the best and only guitar solo I’ve ever heard!” And it’s only pure luck that the Daft Punk album, which was classified as house-influenced synthpop, had a guitar solo at all. But it was mine and I loved it.

So, after sitting through middle school me playing some techno song for him, my father tried to engage me and play his favorite guitar solo for me so that we might bond, as father and son have for decades, over a shared affinity for music. I’m not sure exactly what song he played, but it was almost certainly a Men At Work song, (“Overkill”, if I had to guess) with Colin Hay playing a sublime guitar melody over the traditional rock accompaniment of guitar and bass and (depending on the song) synth.

Unfortunately for him and his effort to find common ground with his kid who was developing tastes for genres that didn’t exist when he was born, I misinterpreted his attempt to find common ground for an attempt to show me how the stuff that I liked wasn’t special (I was young). In a territorial defense of my musical taste, I invoked the No true Scotsman argument to narrowly re-interpret the “guitar solo” to be something where the guitar plays by itself, without any other instruments, as in my beloved Daft Punk song.

This is where the memory gets fuzzy again, but my sense is that my argument totally deflated my dad, and left him with no real way to continue after my rhetorical torpedo. I’m not sure if he managed to salvage the conversation or justifiably patted me on my head, said “that’s nice” and moved on. At any rate, to this day, that conversation and my abrupt nullification of my own father’s attempt to share something he loved has haunted me.

Sorry, Dad.

If you asked me today, I’d probably say “Soldiers of the Wasteland” by Dragonforce was my favorite. If you made me stick to a genre that existed when I was born (Dragoforce is loosely categorized as epic speed metal), I’d probably say “According to You” by Orianthi. By borrowing from the solo for Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine”, it communicated that she had studied the titans of rock and roll, and by having a ferocious shred section, it said that she also at least had the mechanical skill to keep up with the greats. 

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The appeal of Minecraft

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve abortively begun to write a post trying to explain to the world (and secretly, myself) why I have spent so many hours playing Minecraft, each time devolving in to describing the emergent narrative of the game and deleting the draft because no one really cares about one randomly generated world. But someone else didn’t give up, and wrote an article that includes the best summary of the heart of Minecraft that I’ve ever read:

 I started on an island that was no more than 12 squares in total area. As far as my eye could see, there was nothing but ocean. I was stranded on few spaces of grass and soil amidst the endless, flickering blue. Not even a tree. It almost immediately began to rain.

With my bare hands, I dug down. Deep into the soil, then the rock, I spiraled my way down in the staircase pattern I had created on a dozen worlds before. Slowly the rain faded into the distance above me. Then it was gone completely. I was enveloped in darkness. Without wood, I couldn’t make torches. Without wood, I couldn’t make a pick. My progress was slow, and I was completely defenseless, a digital grub burrowing into the soil. I was doing it this way because I needed a change of pace, needed to give myself a challenge.

It was then that the zombies began to call out to me through the stone. Instead of avoiding them, I purposefully dug towards them. I knew that they would be in a pocket of open space, that maybe that open space would lead to a lava deposit more quickly than if I were to dig down myself literally by hand. Near the lava and its light I might gather a little time and space for safety, build a little room to hole up in, away from the dark and the cold rain.

The fight was long. I punched three zombies to death. With two hearts left, I did the only thing I could do: I feasted on their rotting flesh. I was sickened, but slowly I regained my health. I had to eat so much of it… so much dead, rotting corpse flesh. But it made me a kind of healthy, and my sickness faded, and my health was full.

Hours later, I broke through into an abandoned mineshaft. At last: wood! I hastily made a workbench and pick, then began to harvest stone, and iron, and coal. Up until that point, the only thing in my inventory had been gravel, dirt, and flint. Quickly I had a breastplate, a sword, an iron pick, dozens of torches, and several stacks of wood. I resolved to return to the surface with my riches, build a boat, and leave this forsaken island for good.

Because the island I started on was so small, digging straight up would have let in the sea and spelled my doom. I had to backtrack, up through the empty, dark spaces where the zombies and skeletons would have re-spawned. The tunnels were thick with them, and after more fights and meals of rotting corpse flesh, I could see the opening back towards my improvised staircase. It was then that a creeper got me. I corpse-ran back half a dozen times, but I had brought out too many monsters. There was no way back, and I deleted the world.


Minecraft is not a game with an end, not an experience with a goal. Deleting the world was not a move of admitting defeat, it was the end of that chapter of the procedurally-generated, personally-unique experience. Minecraft is a game about a journey, of incrementally building something better than what you had yesterday, and when that dream is lost, you wipe the slate clean and begin anew. It is an incredibly satisfying game of exploration where you have a thousand tiny goals: build a shelter, make fire, cook food, make weapons, survive.

But each experience is yours and yours alone.

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Inadvertently following the Unix Way

October 3, 2011 1 comment

I was able to rewrite Robert Berry’s B-Movie Title Generator today in ruby (thanks to the quasi-magical Sinatra web framework) because he, almost certainly unwittingly, followed the Unix Way. By way of a definition, Ted Dziuba recently gave a pretty good summary of the Unix Way in a recent, inflammatory, and otherwise unrelated essay:

A long time ago, the original neckbeards decided that it was a good idea to chain together small programs that each performed a specific task, and that the universal interface between them should be text.

If you develop on a Unix platform and you abide by this principle, the operating system will reward you with simplicity and prosperity. As an example, when web applications first began, the web application was just a program that printed text to standard output. The web server was responsible for taking incoming requests, executing this program, and returning the result to the requester. We called this CGI, and it was a good way to do business until the micro-optimizers sank their grubby meathooks into it.

In practice, the Unix Way looks something like this: you might use wget to fetch a webpage as it’s HTML source, pipe that to grep to use regexes to pull out the bits you care about, and then pipe that to cut to select only certain columns and pretty-print the data. Wget, grep, and cut are three separate, single-purpose programs that communicate by way of the universal language of streams of text.

So how did Bob accidentally flex his neckbeard and abide by the founding principles of our unix ancestors? Backing the Title Generator is a database that has one table that lists all the different types of creatures that the generator can spit out, and another table for all the places, and tags, and so on. You can actually get a full dump of the database as sweet, sweet plaintext.

I am positive that this page is a vestige, a sandbox test that was never removed. But because it stumbled on to the Path of Unix by making an easy export of the database available, anybody with half an hour and a decent grasp of regular expressions can extract the data from it and use it to fuel their own implementation of the B-Movie Title Generator. Which is exactly what I was able to do today. The source is also up on GitHub (check out bmovie.rb for all the magic).

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Cyberterrorism and cyberstatecraft

June 14, 2011 3 comments

Let’s start with a review: StuxNet was a virus created to specifically infiltrate Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities and physically and irreparably damage the centrifuges used to weaponize nuclear material. It was transmitted over USB flash drives to be able to get in to computer networks that weren’t connected to the internet. It was extremely specifically targeted to only activate when it detected the exact type of industrial machinery used to run the centrifuges, and stealthily attack those. Otherwise, it sat dormant and simply spread.

Once the payload was activated, it would cause the centrifuge to subtly run outside parameters in order to permanently damage it. To do this, the people who created the virus (an estimated 8 to 10 people over a period of six months) had to have access to the exact centrifuges in use by the Iranians, which points very heavily to the assistance of a national government.

Given the target, reasoning backwards points to either Israel or the United States (or both). This is very likely a piece of electronic statecraft, an attack to limit the Iranian nuclear capability in the same way that the Israelis bombed a nuclear reactor under construction in Iraq in 1981.

Why is this important? The United States is saying that a “cyber attack” (nee hacking) can constitute an act of war and be grounds for retaliation.

LulzSec, a hacking group that has just recently started popping up in the news, has taken issue with that. They have hacked a website associated with the FBI for a few reasons. One, they believe the good guys are just as bad as the bad guys. That link talks about one of the supposed “white hats” offering to pay LulzSec to hack his competitors. Two, to expose what they consider to be hipocrisy: the US is engaging in cyberattacks while saying that it is an act of war. Three, to prove that dismantling a decentralized organization is even harder on the internet than it is in the Middle East.

They close by saying “Now we are all sons of bitches”, a famous quote after the Trinity nuclear test pointing out that nukes (like cyberwarfare) are a terrible weapon with incredible power, but they can never be un-discovered. In short, they are saying “This is how the game is played. Still want to play?”

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