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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Renee Montagne at Google Santa Monica

This morning I was asked if I listened to NPR. Apparently, I gave the right answer, because I got to have lunch with Renee Montagne, the noted NPR host of Morning Edition. There were 9 of us including Renee and her editor. We discussed all sorts of things, including "The way things used to be," some possible ways to use technology to solve news research and collaboration for reporters, and "When are you going to be on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me"
(she's been on it twice. Here's one.)

All-in-all, it was fun and interesting, and thanks to Renee I have joined the Facebook group "All I want for Christmas is Carl Kasell's voice on my answering machine".

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Vacation Days 12-16: Krakow

Click here to view pictures from days 12-16.

This is probably going to be the longest single post about our vacation.
---
I should explain.

The whole reason we took a trip to Europe was because I was to spend a week working at the Google Krakow office. Today was my first day in the Krakow office.

For the most part, over the next week, I worked and Beth napped, ate and visited local sites. I worked.

Here are some of the interesting parts of that week.

Monday

Monday morning in Krakow, my first day of work! I checked the online map to find my way from the hotel to the office, it was less than a 10 minute walk. Beth and I grabbed breakfast and headed for the building. It wasn't too far a walk, very close to the Old Town Square.

I arrived at the Google office, a three story salmon-colored building with large wooden doors and tall ceilings. I entered to discover that this was the first day that Google Krakow had two offices. I was in the original office, and the new office was half-way back towards my hotel -- directly in the Old Town square.

I walked over to the new Google office, accompanied by one of the Krakow field techs who pointed out some of the local Krakow history as we walked. We arrived at the new office just in time for the engineers to enjoy a champagne and strawberry celebration, and an exciting speech from the local site director.

The two offices were very different. The old office had large ceilings with dark rooms, and large wooden doors that slammed loudly if left to close on their own. The new office had bright natural light and almost no offices. The old office had 1.5 bathrooms on each floor, and by that I mean each floor had its own shower and two rooms for toilets. The new office had several bathrooms, all in the far corner of the office, far away from where everybody sat.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning I spent an hour showing a few engineers some of the work I have been doing, in an effort to help them be more productive. It was a successful hour, peppered with phrases like "Cool!"

Tuesday for lunch I went out with a few of the people I spent the morning with. It was a great opportunity to just speak with people without worrying that I was a tourist. At the table, only 1/3 of us were Polish, so I felt very comfortable in the group. One of my colleagues ordered some kind of liver, which he claimed was "the best liver he ever had." I hate liver but I had to try it if it was really that good. I would say that I agree with his sentiment. It was the best liver that I also ever had, but it was still liver. Nyuch.

Tuesday evening I was invited out for a couple of beers with two engineers: Ilona and Dmitry. Ilona was from Poland and Dmitry from Belarus. (I later learned that Dmitry was married two weeks prior in Belarus, where his wife remained.) Beth was happy to stay in the hotel room, and I thought it made sense: Beth just wouldn't have fit in. In the meantime, we had a really fun time. The beer was tasty, and I had a chance to eat a Polish Sausage soup and a standard dish called Bigos. I discovered that Dmitry and I shared an interest in Stanislaw Lem. Dmitry did not know about the exhibit at the local gallery, he did know that Lem was buried nearby and he invite to take me to see it. In return, I would take him to the gallery.

During the evening, Ilona asked me where my favorite place was. I told her it was Chicago. (She did not hide her disappointment. I think if I said "a lake by a mountain" she would have been happier.) But I described why I liked it so much and then said, "but the problem is, in the winter, it gets so cold!" Dmitry, the Belarussian, said, "Oh really? How cold does it get?" and then Ilona and Dmitry high-fived each other for putting the American in his place. It went back and forth like that all night. I had fun.

We stayed out way too late and I was happy about it.

Wednesday

Wednesday afternoon I gave a presentation to the engineers at the office. It's not the best presentation I've ever given, probably one of the worst. On the positive side, I managed to deliver the information I needed to deliver, but I'm certain I wouldn't have done a better job if I made it to bed on time the night before.

By Wednesday evening I was desperate for a meal without meat. Beth took me to a vegetarian restaurant where we shared a delicious plate of samosas.

Thursday

Thursday morning I arrived to work to discover a camera crew setting up for the day not far from the office. In fact, I would be able to watch the camera crew from an office window.

Dmitry and I took a ride to see Stanislaw Lem's grave. It was the most beautiful day, and the first one since going on vacation where I saw someone in shorts. The cemetery was plain looking with a lovely view. Lem's grave was quiet and well adorned by visitors' flowers and rocks.
The grave had an inscription, "Feci, quod potui, faciant meliora potentes". Later I asked for a translation and received it: "I have done what I could, those who can will do better." The view from the cemetery was lovely.

Dmitry then took me to
Kosciushko fort and correspondingly the Kosciushko mound, one of the highest points and best views of the area. By the way, did you ever wonder how to mow a very steep hill?

We returned to the office around noon. Here's a video of me biking through the streets.

Upon return to the office I watched then
film the commercial for a while longer. At one point in the square we saw the commercial, a dude dressed as beer, and an dozen sexy female police prowling the street (I am told they were marketing Axe body spray. Whatever. After watching that, I'd spray it on my food if I had to.)

That evening we ate at the fancy shmancy restaurant in the square. Drat that I can't remember its name. The food was wonderful and the service was too. White gloves and silver serving trays and everything. I'm not expensing that meal.

Friday

I had a somewhat ordinary day at work, though I took an hour to show Dmitry the gallery of Stanislaw Lem sketches, and also introduced the Krakow office to the idea of a reading group. Having recently finished leading the Santa Monica Google office through the famous book Design Patterns, I led the Krakow office through two design patterns to give them an idea of what a reading group can be like. The Krakovian Googlers were an amazingly smart bunch of people, and were all well prepared, not because they did the prerequisite reading, but because they knew it so well.

Beth visited the grounds of Wawel Castle and had another easy day, which made her very happy.

At the end of the day, Beth and I shared a few beers with colleagues, and we returned to the hotel. The staff was kind enough to let us use an unused room to shower in the late afternoon, since they knew our next step was to take an overnight train to Vienna! But more on that later.

Laundry

I'd like to add a quick note about the nature of doing laundry when visiting Krakow.

The past Friday, when we first arrived, we asked people at the front desk of our hotel how we could get our laundry done, they said there were two choices: we could leave the clothes at the hotel to be dry-cleaned, which was very expensive, or we could bring the clothes to a dry cleaner, which, if I managed to consider it, was also very expensive. Maybe they didn't understand. I explained that we wanted more of a washer-dryer style of laundry. The people at the front desk said they understood, but in Krakow, everyone had their own laundry, and nobody did it out.

"But that's strange. In America we ..." and really, does any sentence that leads with that really help create understanding between our nations, or does it just make me look like a boob?

So, with two pieces of luggage full of clothing, we looked for the dry cleaner. We got lost part way there, and I stopped to ask an old man for directions to the dry cleaner. Though the man didn't speak English, he managed to explain to us where a honest-to-goodness laundry service was, nearby. We walked to the laundry, and it was clear: this was a laundry that specialized in dealing with hostel visitors. It also advertised itself as the first, and only, laundry business in Krakow. This makes sense: as Krakow becomes a more popular tourist destination, there will be more laundry services, but I guess for now, there is only the one. Fortunately, they were willing to wash all our clothing and deliver it to our hotel all for the approximate equivalent of $30 USD.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Vacation Day 11: Auschwitz

Click here for pictures from Day 11 (Auschwitz)

We woke up very early to catch the bus to Auschwitz. The ride was about an hour, and we were shown a short film based on the Russian soldier who was assigned to document their discoveries there. The tour started somewhat at the sign which one tour guide called the "famous ironical sign, Arbeit Mach Frei." Our guide spoke very softly, and didn't seem to give too much information (for example, "I will show you many photographs during the tour and this is the first one.") We switched to another guide, who had much more information to give. Surprisingly, this turned in to an interesting situation.

Most people on the tour were not familiar with the details of the Holocaust or the Concentration Camps. Having had what I'll call a significant amount of education in this area, I found the tour guide's information to be not new. This isn't a criticism per-se, because there's a difference between talking about something in a classroom and being at a site. However, most other tourists seemed somewhat unaware of the details. One tourist asked lots of great questions. "Did anybody know what was going on?" "How can people say this never happened?" Based on one of the questions, our tour guide made a statement like so: "What I find is that Jews come here and they think they are the only ones who suffered. They don't realize other people were died here too. One Jewish tourist was smoking a cigarette and I told him to put it out, and he said 'I don't have to, I'm Jewish.' The Germans are much more respectful when they come here."

This shocked me, and it took me a long time to figure out my thoughts and feelings. How do I express my anger at her racist generalization without being labeled a self-righteous Jew? First I checked both with Beth and the man asking all the questions if I had heard her correctly. Had she really generalized to such a large degree? Both Beth and the other man agreed. Fortunately, the other man said, "I don't think what she says is entirely true." It took a while and some conferring with Beth for me to speak with the guide.

I said, "I have some thoughts about what you said. I agree with you that some Jews have a righteous indignation about the Holocaust, but I also know that I was taught that there were Poles and Russians gays and Gypsies that suffered at the hands of the Germans."

She replied, "Oh, so you had a good education."

"Yes. And I also think that it's not accurate that you say that all Jews are a certain way."

Quickly she turned to respond to the whole crowd, "The problem is that some people come here and think they have the facts. There was one tour guide who was talking about some things - facts. Some people complained: 'How can you say that? How dare you!' and so on. They got that tour guide fired. I should clarify: when I meant 'Jews', I didn't mean American Jews. I meant Israeli Jews."

I wonder if she realized she was revealing her racism twice, explaining her first racist comment with another one. What can I tell you? she's probably right to be upset that her colleague was fired, but there's racism everywhere, and it's tough to talk about one's feelings on race quickly, in front of 30 people.

After viewing Auschwitz we took the bus to Birkenau, three kilometers away. I would have liked to walk there if we had thought about it.

I assumed the trip would be emotionally draining, but in fact, the only part that was emotionally tough was my conflict with the tour guide. I seemed to be no other emotional backlash. Before leaving, Beth took picked up several stones from the ground so we could bring them to my family's graves the next time we go to the cemetery. I'm not entirely convinced they're appropriate for my family's graves for a variety of reasons, but we have them.

We returned to Krakow by 1PM and had a fabulous lunch, and walked through the city most of the rest of the day. The next day was my first day of work in the Google Krakow office, and I wanted to be ready.

Vacation Day 10: Krakow

Click here for pictures from Day 10.

This morning we headed to St. Mary's Basilica in the center of Old Town. Beth was there the day before, and she told me it would be spectacular. She was right, it was the most beautiful church I've ever seen, only excepting Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, and even then, this was more beautiful than Hagia Sofia in several ways. The accompanying photos really show how great it was.

We walked from the church to the Krakow City Tours office for our first tour of the Salt Mines. Some people say the Salt Mines are "can't miss." I'd say it was impressive, and I'm glad I went. The clear amount of effort that went in to building churches and sculptures in to the mines is quite remarkable. You can actually host a party or concert in the mines, or stay there overnight, benefiting from the healthful salty air.

In the early evening Beth took a nap and I went to the hotel restaurant. It was very difficult to order a plain salad. "Can I get a plain salad?" "No, you can get anything on the menu." OK. So I ordered two helpings of the "beef carpaccio on greens" appetizer, and had them hold the dressing and cheese, beef on the side, so I could eat some if the greens proved too small. Undeniably the dish was excellent, but this proved to be a perpetual problem with the restaurant: they were too fancy for stays of any length.

When I returned to the room Beth complained about noise coming from nearby pipes, and changed rooms. This room was as wonderfully decorated as the first, photos are in the album.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Vacation Day 9: Krakow

Click here for pictures from Day 9.

Morning at Hotel Gródek! This was a planned lazy day. After a quick breakfast, Beth went to find good tours for the salt mines and Auschwitz, while I walked to the local gallery with the Lem exhibit. The gallery was small and attended by a young woman who was kind enough to explain everything to me, since I could not read Polish and she had excellent English skills. The gallery had several sketches, many of which I had seen in The Star Diaries. In fact, most of the drawings recalled stories from The Star Diaries. There was also a sculpture Lem made, and some other sketches related to his suggestions for a statue honoring Chopin. This was a genuine highlight for me, and speaking with the woman, whose name, I learned, was Martha (named after the Beatles song.) She claimed she learned English so she could understand Beatles songs.

Back to the hotel for lunch and Scrabble. This hotel had a fabulous chef who created excellent sauces. This was fantastic, except we really wanted something reasonably light. So we asked to share a salad, and a meat dish (veal?) with potatoes and spinach. Unfortunately, the salad was covered in oil and the spinach turned out to be a tiny soufflé. (Additionally there was a lovely appetizer, complements of the chef, consisting of chicken, some cheese, greens, and the superb red peppercorns we had throughout most of our stay in Krakow.)

We napped and wanted to head out to dinner. We asked for a recommendation for a vegetarian restaurant, and they gave us one with a promising name: Avocado. They gave us a recommendation in the Jewish district. We decided to walk there, but started by heading in the opposite direction for 20 minutes, as a way to walk off some of the rich food we ate. I marveled at the large number people with dogs, most of which were allowed off leash. This made us miss Maggie even more.

We had difficulty finding the restaurant based on the markings the hotel staff made on the map. We gave up on finding Avocado, and looked at two or three other restaurants, none of which appealed to us. We found Avocado while walking out of the Jewish district. It was about two blocks from where the map marking suggested. We went in, ready for our meal, and marveled at all the vegetarian choices lavished with meat. I wasn't happy with the choices but by then we settled for the least damage: Beth had soup, and I had a chicken dish. Back to the hotel, called friends and family (Thank You, Skype!) and sleep.

This was an excellent lazy day.

Vacation Day 8: Prague -> Krakow

Click here for pictures from Day 8.

We really felt comfortable in our hotel room. I make fun of the large amount of plastic, but it was a comfortable hotel. We didn't have much time this morning since we had an early train to take us to Krakow. After a quick breakfast, Beth and I hurried to Wenceslas Square, the site of the Velvet Revolution. This was our fastest sightseeing / walking trip of the vacation (so far), with a very quick pace and deliberate speed. We went, we saw, we came back, and rushed to the train station.

We believe this is where Bongo decided he was grown up to have adventures of his very own. We agree, but we will also miss him. He was Beth's traveling companion for ten years.

This is also where Beth's watch decided to have adventures of its own. We're fairly certain someone stole it off her wrist, and we know who it was. It's the same person who was very interested in having Beth open her purse to look at her train ticket. Tsk.

The train to Krakow was an 8-hour direct shot. It was not as nice a train as the one two we took from Germany, and the early part of the trip the train was packed, and uncomfortable, but we had the car all to ourselves after about four hours. The time passed quickly, and the countryside looked much more bleak the further east we went. I worked on the this diary and Beth read and napped.

We arrived at Krakow at about 9PM and took a quick taxi to the hotel. The hotel was actually in walking distance, but we were told some adjacent parts of the walk might not be safe. Since the taxi was a mere 10 Zloty (about four dollars) we saved the effort.

Hotel Gródek is gorgeous. The staff is very friendly and helpful, if all very young. The room was beautifully furnished, and included paper slippers (to keep my feet clean, yay!) We decided on dinner at a place known as having the best pierogies in Krakow. It was closed and had a sign in Polish. I think it was closed for repairs. We adjusted the plan and ate at a nice looking restaurant off-the-street. Beth started with a pilsner and I had my one and only wodka of the trip. Nobody told me I was meant to shoot it back instead of sipping it, Alas. Beth ordered pierogi and I had pork stuffed with prunes in a plum sauce, with an accompaniment of vegetables and rice. The vegetables and rice both had butter, just to ensure there were no lingering health benefits. All the food was brought to us on trays, which we thought would be the typical style of serving food (it was not) and the service was the slowest we'd seen, and hoped that was not endemic of Krakovian service (it was.)

We learned something quickly in Krakow: tips are not easily added to a credit card payment: either you have the cash up-front or you don't tip. Some places had exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, if you didn't have cash, tipping was awkward.

Walking back from the restaurant we passed a gallery near our hotel that had a banner that read

"Stanisław Lem - rysownik 13.03 - 26.04.2008"

I had no idea whether Lem was well regarded in Poland, or even if there might be something interesting for his fans near Krakow. This was better than any church we might find, so Beth and I agreed that I would go there by myself, probably the next day.

Vacation Day 7: Prague

Click here for photos from Day 7.

We woke up in our fancy Boutique Hotel Josef, enjoyed the view a bit and went down to breakfast. The Hotel Josef had the best breakfast of all the hotels through our European trip. Not only did it have the largest variety of foods, but it also had them well separated, so for instance, Beth, who can't eat kiwi or other tropical fruits, was able to eat all the other fruits. (Every other hotel served most fruit together, with kiwi.)

Ignoring the original plan to stay away from Jewish monuments until Auschwitz, we walked out toward the Jewish Center, and purchased tickets for the entire Jewish Museum, a series of synagogues turned in to exhibits. But first, we walked in to an active synagogue with connected kosher restaurant and looked around. Beth enjoyed herself but I sort of froze, due mostly to my lack of reasoanble skill in Czech, Yiddish and Hebrew. I was afraid that anything I said would portray me as a disrespectful American. We left that synagogue quickly and went on the museum tour, starting with a sad Holocaust memorial and exhibit adjacent to a cemetery that was almost as jumbled as these European city streets seem to be. Once again, Beth and I agreed to visit no more Jewish museums until Auschwitz, after this one.

That said, the Museum portion of the exhibit was great. There was a large variety of information about Jewish history in Prague including pieces of religious and secular history, as well as details of the pre- and post- Holocaust era. It was clear that Jews in Prague are enjoying a rare period: only the last 20 years (post-Communism) have Jews in Prague been able to express themselves with this much freedom and openness. Anti-semitism isn't dead in Prague, but it may be the best time in history to be a Prague Jew.

After the museum we headed for lunch and ate at an Italian restaurant. The food was spectacular. As we found out during the trip, Italian food was a good typical fallback as both familiar and a change from the typical heavy meat dishes. Prague's Italian food was the best.

We next went to the St. Nicholas Church in the main square for an organ concert with operatic accompaniment. Something was odd about the performance. The brochure didn't have a bona fide date on it. There was another brochure for a performance the next night. It was my suspicion that they had an endless rotation of organ performances, day after day (except probably Sunday.) The show lasted one hour and was very good, ending with Ave Maria. Surprisingly, there weren't too many visitors, but that worked to our benefit since the benches were heated, and we took up more room. Beth found out the next day that the singer who accompanied the organ player performed two hours later at another church, also concluding with Ave Maria. This sufficiently confirmed my suspicions about the regular nature of the performances.

We returned to the hotel where we showered and dressed for dinner. The hotel made us a reservation at a restaurant. We wanted something inexpensive, but the concierge sent us someplace where they admitted it was not cheap, just not very expensive. I couldn't help but feel the hotel had an advanced arrangement with the restaurant. That said, the concierge got us one of the best seats in the restaurant, and the food was very good. I had salad and a plain pasta. Beth had a wonderful tomato soup with basil oil and a veal with potatoes. Her dish was delicious but she could not finish it. I insisted we take it back to our room, even though there was probably no opportunity to eat it. (It turned out to be a perfect lunch for the next day, so Beth in the end was happy with the choice.)

I'd like to point out here that the way the concierge seemed to operate in what did not seem like our interest, along with the machine-like nature of the organ performances left me with a bad taste of Prague: this was the tourist sector, but people should do a better job hiding the tourist machine.

This is disappointing, because otherwise, Prague is a beautiful city, and clearly has lots of fun things to offer for the visitor.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

An advertisement seen in Vienna

I checked evite.com while in Vienna and was presented with this ad:


I couldn't understand why this Viennese ad was in Arabic, and I wondered what it was referring to: was my PC infected with an Arabic virus? I clicked the ad which took me to this page (URL http://www.usafis.org/_sys/EN/count_land3_en.asp?af=add_ab_exm_728x90_ab):



A little searching turned up a site suggesting possibility that this particular green card service is not a scam per se, but not necessarily recommended.

Can anyone tell me what the advertisement's text says?

Vienna in 13 words

I want lernen eine Deutsch mit many Englishwörtern und esse many grosse Marzipancroissant.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Integer.getInteger. Are you kidding me?

Photos and diary are on haitus. Now a little technology.

I just discovered a method introduced in Java 5: the method Integer.getInteger(String):

http://java.sun.com/j2se/1.5.0/docs/api/java/lang/Integer.html#getInteger(java.lang.String)
Determines the integer value of the system property with the specified name.

The first argument is treated as the name of a system property. System properties are accessible through the System.getProperty(java.lang.String) method. The string value of this property is then interpreted as an integer value and an Integer object representing this value is returned. Details of possible numeric formats can be found with the definition of getProperty.

So let me see if I understand:
  • Integer.valueOf(String) converts a String to a number by assuming the String is a numeric representation. In other words. Integer.valueOf("12345") yields the number 12345.
  • Integer.getInteger(String) converts a String to a number by assuming the String is the name of a system property numeric representation. In other words. Integer.getInteger("12345") is likely to yield null.
Why would anybody consider this a sufficient distinction? How many bugs are people going to create by using getInteger when they meant valueOf and vice versa?

This type of overloading is called near-phrase overloading. I just made that term up right now. It's when people use very similar words to mean different things. Consider two words x and y, their general meanings gm(x) and gm(y), and their meanings in a given context, cm(x) and cm(y). If
distance(gm(x), gm(y))< distance(cm(x), cm(y))
then it's a bad use of x and y! Go find another x and y for their contextual uses. Really, they could have called it getIntegerProperty.

This is the worst case of avoidable ambiguity I've seen in Java; I expect better coming out of them.

Update: it turns out there is something worse: Boolean.getBoolean("true") is usually equal to Boolean.FALSE.

Monday, April 07, 2008

What kind of blog is this: The threshold of separating online personae

I got a comment recently:
Anonymous said...

Bloggers shouldn't feel compelled to add new entries every day or week. With Google reader, for example, it's easy to keep track of what's new.

I added this blog to my Google reader hoping to read technical stuff. The personal lives of programmers are like the lives of all the rest of us, that is to say, probably not very interesting except perhaps to friends and family.
So, I'm sorry that this person posted anonymously because it means I have to reply to him on the blog, rather than just to him. I guess this response is really mostly for that person. (Yes, I refer to him as 'him'. I hope 'he' will understand if 'he' turns out to be 'she'.)

Dear person: I'm glad you are interested in what I have to say about technology, and I clearly appreciate your feedback. Look at the size of this response! While your post is a bit proscriptive and presumptive, I think you make good points, and did not intend to malign or be snooty. I want to address your points. At the same time, I just want to be clear: I'm not terribly interested if individuals read my blog or not, but by that I mean, I won't change the amount of effort I put in to it. Blogs, like web pages, are very personal and self-involved efforts. It's all about me. I've heard that MST3K worked that way: they wrote their show for themselves, and it turned out some people liked it. Like that.

I have been, for almost four years, using this same blog for both technical and personal posts. Recently, the posts became more personal, and I realized it was important to separate the two. You'll see that in early March I announced my intention to eventually split off this blog into two, leaving Blatherberg as it is, and moving the technical posts elsewhere. What happened? I went on vacation. Some time after I return I'm going to be pretty happy to do this. I still haven't posted my thoughts about EclipseCon. I also want to use it as a place where I can publish some of my externally-safe company blog posts.

I am intentionally posting daily updates. I have been encouraged to continue to do so by the people for whom they are intended, which as you pointed out correctly, are my friends and family. However, none of them are not going to get a subscription to Google Reader for me. I use Google Reader, but they sure don't, and this vacation isn't going to change that. Not even my friend Pete, who just reads each and every blog, one at a time, every day. I can't seem to convince him. That said, I wanted to merge the two worlds together, combining photos and blog with my friends and family, without having to repackage them together. Perhaps that is a flaw of the blog? Why do I need two blogs? I'm one person, it should be easy enough for me to segment in to two very distinct faces (and no, not by the labels which can be as free flowing as I want my artsy pants to be.) Find me a blogging service that does that, let's me create two distinct buckets, where all posts go in Either A Or B, and I'd look at it.

You could, if you liked, use Yahoo! Pipes to filter my posts, but the nature of labels makes this somewhat unreliable.

Incidentally, this problem compounds a little bit when using FriendFeed, because hey, should I have two friendfeed accounts? One for my personal self and one for my technical self? (It's my guess that you actually found me through my FriendFeed feed.) Do I need two twitter accounts? I think this is a bit of a flaw in the whole online persona thing, particularly for people like me, where the amount of work required to separate the persona may be too close to the threshold of acceptable confusion. But separate them I may have to do, particularly if I want to use blogging as a way to create a good technical persona.

So there's a little bit of technology in there, rather, a commentary about blogs and one the flaws of blogs and RSS and so on. My friend Mark would have more to say on that, but he can put it on his own stupid blog, if he ever made one. :)

But look, if you made it this far, I hope you'll stay. Don't leave, not yet. I will be back from vacation soon, and when I am, I'll focus on getting the technical blog all fixed up and ready to go, and when I do, I'll announce it here, on this blog. I'd love for you to read it if you find it interesting. If you feel like you must unsubscribe from this blog, then please, do so, but then find a way to send me your email address, and I'll just tell you privately when I get it set up.

Thanks again for your comment. I hope this reply was useful for you. It was a useful thought exercise for me.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Vacation Day 6: Frankfurt -> Dresden -> Prague

Click here for photos from Day 6.

The day started by going to the Hauptbanhof one final time to return the rental car, and leave for Prague. It was a stressful morning because we could not figure out the precise location to return the car, which caused tension and unhappiness. We had two trains to take: one to Dresden, which would take us across Germany close to the Czech border, and another from there to Prague. With a one hour wait in Dresden, the total trip was about six hours.

We had a 6-seat car all to ourselves, which gave us lots of room to stretch out. We read, I worked on photos and the diary. Beth napped.

The ride to Dresden was wonderfully picturesque. It was difficult to choose which photos I should publish on-line, so I published a lot of them.

In Dresden we had time to kill. Like Würzburg, I couldn't help but think how the beautiful train station was, in contrast to how the city was demolished during World War II.

I looked for an English language book or magazine. I had no luck but I skimmed some of the German technology mags. I read a Java magazine and an Eclipse magazine. There were articles about the Google projects Android and Google Web Toolkit, and one about Mik Kirsten and Mylyn. I was sorry I couldn't understand them.

However, by now I had gotten pretty good at being able to pronounce German phrases, and I finally managed to say "Vo ist" to get most of my queries across. Maybe this will come in handy later on.

Beth found a lovely market in the station called Marché, the freshness and quality of the food was truly amazing. It was great to have a nice healthy, primarily raw salad, and Beth's golash was very good. Beth also got yeast almond rolls that she claims were "fabu". I agree.

We boarded the next train to Prague. Nobody asked to see our passports when we crossed the border. When we first entered the Czech Republic, Beth gave me a kiss and said "Welcome to the Czech Republic!" I said, "Maybe we should play some czechers! Maybe we should czech it out!" And Beth said: "Czech, Czech it, yeah" We are original.

We arranged in advance for a car to take us to the hotel. This is generally considered a wise move in Prague because the taxi drivers are notorious for ripping off tourists. Our driver was an aggressive driver, even to go so far as drive the wrong way down a one-way street. This street turned out to be the one where our hotel was. I'm still sort of puzzled by it.

Hotel Josef is a 'boutique' hotel. Indeed it is. Plastic and bare and clean. It seems to cater to the Americans (given the large number of Americans in the hotel) but then again, so does Prague in general. Don't get me wrong, this is a fabulous hotel. It amazed me how we really did not need to know any Czech to get around.

We took some photos of the view from our room and went out to walk the streets. We went to Staroméktske to kill some time. We watched the Astronomer's Clock tick 7 and then got dinner.

Back to the room, and then to sleep.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Vacation Day 5: Würzburg -> Ostheim -> Würzburg -> Frankfurt

Click here for photos from Day 5.

In the morning we found out that the banging from the night before was due to a plumber repairing a broken water pipe. In the way of an apology, we were given a small bottle of sparkling wine and nougat chocolates. The breakfast in this hotel was similar to the Hotel Post in Frankfurt. Notably, one of the cereals was a chocolate cereal with some small chocolate flakes and Nutella-filled pillows! This cereal was not messing around, and makes Cookie Crisp look like a health-food item. Damn, it was good.

We walked through Würzburg, did some bird watching, shopping, and stepped in to the Dom Cathedral, and got a chance to listen to its organ play as part of its noontime sermon. After lots of dawdling (and some great bird watching), we finally drove to Ostheim. Instead of taking the Autobahn we rode on local, slower roads that took us through local towns.

Our very first reaction to Ostheim was that, it smelled like cow dung. This discouraged Beth but she got over it since that was only noticeable at the entry to the town. We parked our car in front of the organ museum in Ostheim and walked to see what we could find.

Ostheim is home to St. Michael's Church, which was a Catholic church turn Lutheran in the 18th centrury. Nobody was watching the church, and we were allowed to enter as we saw fit. I wonder if it will stay that way in 30 years. The ornamentation was clearly very old, older than most anything we've seen on this trip. I was particularly taken with it.

Next we went to a recommended local restaurant, Kaak, where Beth had more schnitzel and I ordered pork medallions in green peppercorn sauce. (Green peppercorn sauce seems to be a trend here in Eastern Europe.) Hot damn, yet another amazingly succulent meal. At least this time it came with a salad, and even that was delicious. It was like a cole slaw that grew up to be its own course. Full of dill and yummy scrummy.

We returned to Würzburg to have dessert at the Franconian restaurant. Beth ordered Warm Chocolate Cake. We both agreed that their main courses were more awesome. Finally we returned to the Hotel Post in Frankfurt for a night's sleep in preparation for the next day's trip to Prague.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Vacation Diary Day 4: Frankfurt -> Würzburg

Click here for photos from Day 4

We tried waking up early with no luck and took the train back to the Hauptbahnhof to rent a car for two days. The plan was to go to the town of Ostheim, via Würzburg. So we drive to Würzburg, a small town that was 85% destroyed in 1945. In fact, most of the town was rebuilt, including the churches and the Residenz, the palace for the local prince-bishop. All the reconstruction is gorgeous. If we hadn't been told that the entire city had been destroyed and rebuilt, we wouldn't have known it. Würzburg has about 130,000 people, and so is an active city in its own right, but it's also a fantastic tourist location, with pretty streets reasonable shops and great restaurants.

We had a nice visit to the Residenz, home to one of the largest frescoes in the world (one of the few parts of the castle to survive the bombing.) It was an awesome piece of work. The artist intentionally placed Europe as the pinnacle of civilization, and Würzburg as its center. You're not allowed to take pictures of the Residenz, but this person managed to take some nice ones:

We drove to a restaurant recommended by the folks from Lonely Planet with authentic Franconian food. We started with Fränkenische Mostsuppe, a local specialty: wine soup (with a mushroom base and cinnamon croutons.) Beth ordered Sauerbraten, a pork rib with cabbage and dumplings, and I had Rhönlamm lamb in rosemary with zucchini. All the food was un-belivable. So we decided to spend the night in Würzburg. We walked up to a nice enough hotel (thanks again to the Lonely Planet guide) right by the Dom Cathedral and went to sleep.

Until 3:45AM, that is, when we heard banging. Bang! Bang! Bang! On and on for 45 minutes. Since the hotel's front door was locked at 10PM, and no staff was around until 6AM, Beth thought someone was trying to get in. So I tried calling the police, but I couldn't figure out how to do it from the hotel phone. We were on our own. Finally the banging stopped and we went to sleep.

Testing on the Toilet

I'm a big fan of Google's internal series called Testing on the Toilet, in which we post Software Testing hints in the bathroom stalls. It's sometimes difficult to effectively write something that fits the TOtT style: it has to be informative, succinct, and comprehensible, to be blunt, readers are only there for a minute or two while they do their business. So most of the articles have to be short and useful. That said, I wrote a small article last year and it made the rounds through the company reading rooms. It took a surprising amount of work to write that small article, requiring several revisions, lots of feedback, and I practiced removing two words where just one would do.

Early in 2007, Google started its public testing blog, and today I see that the article I wrote, "Time is Random" is on there. It's not mind-blowing, but it fits nicely on a single sheet of paper, and applies to areas well beyond keeping time. Dependency injection need not have a framework, sometimes you just need to add a parameter.

Given the nature of the work I do at Google, it's rare that anything I do is seen by the general public, so I just wanted to toot my horn.

News Flash: Stanislaw Lem Drawings in Krakow

I'm jumping a few days ahead here, but this is too cool: a small gallery near my hotel is featuring about 30 drawings (and one sculpture) by my favorite writer, Stanislaw Lem. I spent about an hour inside, and I really loved it. Unfortunately none of the sketches were for sale, I would have considered making a purchase. That's all for now - let's pretend we are still in Germany.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Vacation Diary Day 3: Frankfurt

Click here for photos from Day 3

This was a lazy day.

First we had a slow breakfast, and we met a very nice American woman who lives in Vienna. We talked about all sorts of things, and she gave us lots of recommendations for our trip to Vienna. We gave her our one Las Vegas recommendation, where she was going the next day. I think I spent about two to three hours with her, she was a brilliant and kind woman. I even helped her for a while with her laptop's virus scanner. Try debugging virus scanner problems in a language you don't understand!

Most of the day was spent filling in gaps for the rest of our trip: hotels in Vienna and Prague, and train tickets for the whole trip. All we had time for, besides lots of lazing and napping. After that we returned to the Hauptbahnhof to get our train tickets, walked around, considered seeing La Boheme at the Frankfurt Opera House (I was way too tired) and settled on eating at a Lebanese restaurant where we possibly had some of the best Lebanese food ever. Also, it had no meat, our first meal without it.

We stopped at a gelato shop. The gelato salesman spoke very little English, but he was able to speak Italian and we spoke Spanish, and we were able to understand each other. I said "¿Puedo tratar este?" which I thought means "Can I try that?" and he gave me a sour look. Whether I was right or not, who knows, but I realized, this isn't the USA, they may not let you sample. OK, so I ordered a small almond gelato and went crazy over it. Beth didn't taste it, her loss.

Vacation Diary Day 2: Frankfurt

Click here for photos from Day 2

At 5:30 AM we woke up hearing the chirping of local birds, we used it as a chance to try out our new binoculars. A little more fake-sleep and we headed down for breakfast, which had a great spread of dairy foods, breads, meats, juices and drinks. I was particularly happy with the mixed fruit, and Beth really liked the sausage. I also liked the bacon, which was meatier than what we typically get in the US.

We walked to the local train station at Sindlingen and rode to the Hauptbahnhof (train station.) Frankfurt trains work on a semi-honor system. You are never required to pass a checkpoint to access the trains (as opposed to in New York City, where you must deposit your ticket or token before getting access to the train.) Only occasionally are you asked to show your ticket and if you fail to show it, you get a nasty fine.

Our first stop was the Judengasse, the Jewish Quarter, and the only place where Jews were allowed to live, from approximately 1300 to 1850. There's a Holocaust memorial there for all Frankfurt victims, and there's also a cemetery with a special spot for people to leave written prayers. This stop proved to be emotionally tough, so we agreed to visit no more Jewish museums until Aushwitz, in order to keep me from being afraid to go.

Next we walked to three local churches and admired the combination of classic and more modern architecture. In between we had our first meal at a no-question-tourist restaurant. Nonetheless, the beer and schnitzel (mit Grüne Soße) were fantastic.

We took a quick walk through a covered market which we both enjoyed for its familiarity and distinction.

After visiting another church, we caught up with our friend Indrani who took us to the top of the Commerzbank building for a view of Frankfurt. We rode out of downtown to one of Indrani's preferred German restaurants where we at lots of fabulous meat, Apfelwein, and a Frankfurt specialty: "Handkäse mit Musik". Handkäse is a tasty raw cheese. They bring the Handkäse, you bring the Musik. If you get my drift. It was fairly mild, to be fair, but it was covered in onions and caraway seeds.

About our German: Beth has a reasonably mild grasp on elementary German, and I had a little Yiddish, plus I practiced with the phrase book. That, plus the huge number of Germans who spoke English and we did just fine.

Vacation Diary Day 1: LAX -> Frankfurt

Click here for photos from Day 1

Our flight from LAX to Frankfurt was fortunately an uneventful 11 hour trip. Out of everything, the most irritating part was having to watch National Treasure: Book of Secrets. (Here's a secret: it's a shitty movie!)

Getting through customs in Germany was surprisingly quick. We didn't have to fill out an import card. Since we didn't claim anything, we walked through a special door and presto! we were in the main airport terminal.

Our hotel is in a really pretty little industrial village. Pretty except for the factories, but we didn't mind. We arrived at 11:30 AM and had a 5-hour nap on beds that were incredibly comfortable, possibly the most comfortable beds ever. At 5:30 we bought some supplies at the adjacent market and hunted for dinner. Without trying too hard, we didn't want to eat something too foreign, so we went to a local Italian restaurant. The food was sufficiently familiar and we were happy. It was also very heavy food, a trait that followed throughout almost all our meals in Germany. We went to the hotel and did an imitation of sleeping.

Brief trip update

I promised to put pictures and updates on my blog, and had all intentions of doing so. In fact, I have a small write-up of our first five days in Europe, but unfortunately I came up against a couple of problems:
  1. I've had few places where I could quietly upload megabytes of image data. This hotel was the first one where I not only had in-room internet, but also ethernet as opposed to wireless.
  2. For the life of me, I can't figure out how to upload movies to picasa's web service using a mac. (Note: it currently cannot be done.)
Today we are in Prague and soon we will leave for Krakow. I will resolve the photo / movie issue soon (maybe by temporarily omitting the videos, perhaps until our return) and try to keep up to date from now on. Sorry folks!