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Andrew Pollock

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Sunday, 25 May 2008

Prague to Zurich, and driving in Europe in general

We got back to Zurich late last night (not quite as late as we got into Prague though, thankfully).

We stopped off in Deggendorf on the way through Germany to visit our friend Christine from the Bilbys, who has moved back to Germany, along with her Australian boyfriend, who is now furiously learning German (we're talking a year-long immersion program).

Deggendorf was a gorgeous little town, with cobblestone streets and more Churches than you can shake a stick at. Unfortunately we could only stay for a few hours, so we had a barbecue lunch and a quick wander around, and headed off on our way again.

This morning we dropped the rental car back at the airport, had one of our typical misadventures on the train (went the wrong way at first) and then caught a tram back to the apartment. Everything being in German is a bit of a challenge. Parts of it you can make out, parts of it are totally unintelligible. There seems to be a general tendency to concatenate words, for example, our apartment is on what would translate to "Rehalp Street", but in the local vernacular, is expressed as "Rehalpstrasse". So when you're looking around and trying to follow directions, the names don't seem quite so ludicrously long and intimidating if you just drop the "strasse" or the "brücke" (bridge).

The car that we rented from the Zurich airport developed some kind of non-critical fault on the way to Prague, and Sarah exchanged it for another one in Prague, as Hertz seemed unable to fix it. (It had the "check engine" and "check vehicle stability control" lights on). So we drove to Prague in a petrol Toyota Auris, and drove back in a diesel Audi A3. We both preferred the Auris over the A3, as the A3 seemed easier to stall, and harder to recover from a stall. Putting it in reverse was totally unintuitive as well.

Speaking of fuel, it sure is expensive over here. We paid about 60 euros in Germany somewhere to put about three quarters of a tank in the Auris on the way to Prague, and we spent about 100 CHF to refill the A3 in Zurich. I think Sarah said the diesel cost converted to about $9 USD per gallon.

So it was a nice novelty value to drive across Europe, but I don't think we'll be doing it again in a hurry. I did enjoy driving on the autobahns though.

While I'm writing about driving in Europe, I might as well make a note about the traffic signs. We really should have researched them before hopping behind the wheel, as there were quite a few we didn't understand, and they weren't terribly intuitive (to us anyway).

For example, European 'No Entry' sign versus European 'No vehicles' sign versus European 'No stopping' sign

The first is the pretty internationally standard "no entry" sign, but when you see the third sign in isolation, it seemed to us at least, that perhaps that meant "no entry", where it actually means "no standing". "No parking" is a variant of "no standing", with just one diagonal line. The middle sign means "no vehicles", which makes no sense at all, unless you've seen (and understood) the other versions of this sign, which have lesser restrictions of "no cars" or "no bicycles" and feature an icon of either inside the circle.

Speed limit signs were also a bit interesting. You'd have European speed limit sign, which specifies a speed limit, but then you'd have European end of speed limit sign, which means "End of speed limit". Our question was "well what is the speed limit now?" The answer seems to be "the default national limit for the class of road you're on".

The final set of signs we didn't understand until Christine explained them to us when we saw her yesterday, were European priority road sign and European end of priority road sign, which are "priority road" and "end of priority road", respectively. We just didn't know what a priority road was. Turns out it means traffic on the priority road has right of way over traffic on roads intersecting it. I would have thought this was pretty obvious, but apparently on a non-priority road, you have to give way to traffic on the right, regardless of whether you have a stop sign or a yield/give-way sign. So there's some sort of implicit four-way stop thing going on on a non-priority road.

Every time I see European traffic signs, particularly the triangular warning signs, it gives me a flash back to my childhood. My Aunty Peggy used to have a huge big bag of mixed Lego pieces, including a bunch of European traffic signs, and some square Lego mats, and when we were kids, and we used to go to her house to play, we'd build little towns out of all of the Lego.

This was the first time we've driven a manual left-hand drive car, and it was fine, except your immediate subconscious reaction the first few times is to go reaching for the gear stick with your left hand, and bash it into the door. It was also the first time we've driven on a roundabout on the right hand side of the road. That was interesting, because it added an additional thing to think about: the traffic on the left.

[06:30] [life] [permalink]

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Etch and a half

I thought I'd throw the Etch and a half kernel on my laptop, mainly because I wanted better battery performance, which I suspected I'd get (and powertop would work).

So far, all I've noticed is

apollock@frobnitz:~$ sudo iwlist eth1 scan 1>/dev/null
Warning: Driver for device eth1 has been compiled with version 22
of Wireless Extension, while this program supports up to version 20.
Some things may be broken...

It seems the appropriate people are already aware of it, and it's purely cosmetic.

[13:28] [debian] [permalink]

Zurich to Prague

Been rather busy, so I haven't had a chance to continue recording the trip...

We got into Zurich (albeit late), without incident. Immigration was the biggest joke ever. There was no paperwork at all, and we just handed our passports to the guy, who just looked at them casually, and waved us through. No stamp, no scan, no nothing. It was a bit disappointing really.

We got our rental car, and drove around aimlessly for a bit, until the GPS got lock, and then headed for Prague. We went through Austria, where the guy at the border did give our passports a more thorough inspection, more because we were confused and were waving them at him. He also gave us a stamp. The woman from Hertz told us we needed to buy some sort of highway sticker for the car to drive in Austria (wow it's hard to type "Austria", "Australia" just keeps coming out from muscle memory), so we bought one of them and stuck it on the windscreen, and then promptly entered Germany.

The autobahns in Germany are wicked! Everyone's screaming along at a ridiculous pace. The fastest I got up to was 180 km/h. The roads themselves were surprisingly quiet, and only two lanes.

We stopped off for dinner somewhere in Germany, and finally arrived at the hotel in Prague at about 1am on Sunday morning, so it took about 7 hours instead of the 6 that we'd estimated.

We got to bed by about 2am. I woke up at about 10am, then went back to sleep until about 2pm. We finally ventured out for a bit of exploration at about 3pm on Sunday.

One observation about Czechs: they seem like a pretty dour bunch. Here we were wandering around, being all wide-eyed and touristy, smiling at everyone, and they'd just scowl back at you, no matter how hard we tried to get a smile out of them.

After that initial wander, we discovered that there was a Metro station right across the road from the hotel in another direction, so we caught that to go and check out Prague Castle. The Metro system is another one of those great subway systems that I love. It ran regularly, so you didn't need to concern yourself with a timetable. The ticketing was a bit bizarre. It seemed totally honor-system based. There were no barriers to stop you getting in or out.

It was fairly late by the time we got to Prague Castle, so we just wandered around the grounds, took a look inside Saint Vitus's Cathedral, and caught an orchestral performance in Saint George's Basilica, then headed back to the hotel.

Everything at Prague Castle was pretty mind-blowing. The size of grounds. The view. Saint Vitus's Cathedral. The Cathedral was huge. When you stepped inside and looked up... words can't describe it. It was amazing.

Unfortunately, we didn't bring a camera with us, so we don't have any photos from the Sunday excursion, but Sarah went back this afternoon, and her photos are here.

I think the thing that struck me the most was that here were some seriously old buildings - older than my home country, and they were in amazingly good condition. They really built things to last back in the day.

The weather so far has been pretty miserable, and if the forecast is anything to go by, will remain miserable until we drive out on Saturday.

We've survived, language-wise. The default language of the hotel staff seems to be English, and most random people we've had to interact with seem to speak English. I feel really arrogant and rude just speaking in English to people without first asking if they speak English, but I'm also getting really sick of starting every conversation with "Do you speak English?" The printed language is by and large indecipherable.

The currency, which in English is called a "crown" is crazy. One US dollar buys about 16 Czech Koruny, and the prices are ridiculous. A glass of wine at the hotel is maybe 250 CZK. Granted, the hotel prices are obscene, but seeing triple-digit prices for a glass of wine seems totally bizarre.

The prices in general seem pretty steep. Sarah said she got a 2 koruny coin in change today. We've got no idea what you'd actually use that for.

Last night, after the conference had finished for the day, we wandered off in a different direction again, and wandered through the grounds of Vyšehrad Castle. The Cathedral of Saint Paul and Peter has an amazing graveyard in it, including the grave of the composer Dvorak. We grabbed some dinner at a nearby restaurant, which was substantially cheaper than the hotel restaurants. Again, we forgot to take a camera with us.

[13:04] [life] [permalink]

Saturday, 17 May 2008

More on flying British Airways

Heh, in the 11 or so hours since my last blog post I've received two emails from people going "yeah BA is crap!"

Well the flight itself was fine. The plane was nice. The entertainment system was pretty decent. The UI was all touch screen based, which made it less clunky than Qantas'. Food-wise, I thought the dinner tray was pretty loaded with stuff.

Only problem is that the flight was running about 10 minutes behind schedule, then had to hang around in the air at Heathrow for about 10-15 minutes, so we didn't make our connecting flight. BA bumped us to the next one without any problems, so now we're chilling out in the spiffy new terminal 5 BA lounge for an hour. I guess an hour just doesn't have enough fat in it for a connection.

Terminal 5 is pretty shiny in general. Hopefully our bags won't get lost.

[04:45] [life] [permalink]

Friday, 16 May 2008

On flying British Airways

(Well we haven't even gotten on the plane yet)

I'm pretty sure that this is the first time I've flown British Airways.

Sarah and I are off to Zurich via London, and when we rocked up at the airport to check in, we couldn't get seats together. We're sitting in the middle seat in front of each other.

We were quite taken aback by this, as we've done a fair bit of flying together and never had this happen before. We mentioned this to the customer service person when we dropped our bags off, and she told us the reason was because they have online check-ins, all the seats go from people checking in online. They only seat people together with infants, in parties of three, or in a wheelchair. She went on to say all the airlines are like that.

Not in our experience.

So once we got through security and into the BA lounge, I thought I'd try again and see if we could get reseated. The customer service person in the lounge had a quick glance at the computer, and told me there was nothing available. There was no attempt to re-seat other passengers travelling alone, or anything. It looked like she based her inability to do it off the available seats.

I'm just really surprised.

[15:19] [life] [permalink]

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Hottest May 15 on record

It's stinking hot. Right now, at nearly midnight, it's 22.9°C downstairs in the living room with the air conditioning on, and 32.5°C upstairs in the bedroom, with the window open.

No prize for guessing where we're sleeping tonight.

[23:42] [life] [permalink]

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Unleashing the magic blue smoke

Last weekend, Sarah and I went to the Maker Faire again. I love how I don't even have to negotiate with Sarah to go, she loves it just for watching the Combot Cup, where the combat robots destroy each other spectacularly.

Ever since Jon Oxer gave his Hardware/Software Hacking: Joining the Real and the Virtualtalk at Google about, I got vaguely interested in electronics again. The Arduino board seemed like a pretty cool thing to hack on, and since it seemed like I'd need to get vaguely electronically savvy to do a thing or two for the dream home we want to build one day (which coincidentally seems to quite similar to what Jon's currently building), I figured I'd have to get my act together and learn the difference between an Ohm and an Amp.

The last time I dabbled in electronics was as a kit, with the ubiquitous Dick Smith Funway 1 kit.

So the Maker Store at the Faire had copies of Making Things Talk, bundled with an Arduino starter kit, so I lashed out on one of them, a BoArduino, and a little breadboard-based electronics kit.

I've been flicking through the Making Things Talk book, and reading the projects. The Arduino board seems really cool. The Processing/Wiring language seems fairly straightforward.

I'd decided that my "project" would be a water monitor for the cat water bowl. We have a dish with a little tank on it, not unlike the office water cooler, and it usually lasts about 7 days. We typically refill it on a Saturday as part of the weekend chores. Sometimes our schedule gets a bit disrupted (we go away, we have visitors) and we forget. Or worse, we're away, have a house sitter, and they completely forget to check it. It's only happened a couple of times, but we really don't want to neglect the cats.

So I thought a water sensor would be a perfect project. One of the projects in the book involves a Bluetooth modem, so I figured that as the MythTV box has a Bluetooth adapter, and would be within range of the water bowl, I could use it to monitor the water sensor (as well as stick a blinking light on it). The end goal is to have the house call us (via Asterisk and eSpeak) if the water bowl gets empty.

So I ordered a Bluetooth modem, the exact part number in the book, and it arrived on the weekend, and I got around to playing with it today.

To cut a long story short, I was messing around with it attached to a USB to TTL serial cable, and I was trying to get it to talk to my laptop, and instead of swapping the TX and RX lines, I swapped the VCC and ground lines, and well, I let the magic blue smoke out.

What I discovered, after the fact, was that the Bluetooth chipset had been changed since the book had been written, and so the commands for the chipset were different. So most of my second-guessing whether I had the TX and RX round right way was because of that.

So I'm miffed with myself for frying the thing within hours of getting my hands on it, and I'm miffed with the supplier for maintaining the same product ID for a product that has changed componentry.

Chalk that one up to experience...

To add insult to injury, Spark Fun is out of stock of the (cheaper) item that it turns out I want instead. I doubt I'll get my hands on it until after we get back from Zurich, so it'll be another three weeks before I can begin to make any progress. I guess I can try to prototype the water-sensing part with the board connected to my laptop with the USB cable in the meantime...

[22:40] [tech] [permalink]

Weekend away with the neighbours

We've been blessed with really wonderful neighbours in our apartment building. We know four out of the seven households in our building really well.

A while ago, we thought it'd be cool to rent a house and have a weekend away together, so we booked it for this weekend, rented a house in Rio Monte on the Russian River, and hung out together for the weekend.

Eight adults, 3 kids, and we're all still talking to each other afterwards.

Trying to coordinate outings with 2 small kids nap schedules was tricky, so we only made it to the Korbel winery, but we picked up some cheap champagne (an I thought you could only call it champagne if it came from Champagne, France).

Sadly, because Gavin and Christina have a second son on the way, they've bought a house up in greater Sacramento, and are moving out next weekend. We'll miss having them and Aiden as next-door neighbours.

We've decided that we should make this an annual event, so there'll be an annual "building 4" reunion.

Photos from the weekend are here.

[22:04] [life] [permalink]

Wednesday, 07 May 2008

Tour de Cure

Sarah and I are doing the Tour de Cure again this year, like we did in 2006, again as part of the Google team.

This time around we're doing the 50 kilometre ride, since the 25 kilometre one was a bit of a cakewalk. That said, the fitness levels of both of us are pretty abominable at the moment, so it'll be interesting.

So this is the obligatory grovel for donations. If you'd like to make one, you can do it at http://tour.diabetes.org/goto/andrew_pollock

Here's what I'm not spamming people with:

I recently accepted the challenge of cycling in the American Diabetes Association's Tour de Cure fund-raising event. The Tour de Cure is a series of cycling events held in over 80 cities nationwide. The Tour is a ride, not a race; it features different route lengths from a leisurely 10-mile course to a demanding 100-mile journey. I have joined thousands of others to pedal in support of the Association's mission: to prevent and cure diabetes and to improve the lives of all people affected by diabetes.

I am asking you to help by supporting my fund-raising efforts with a donation. Your tax-deductible gift will make a difference in the lives of more than 20 million Americans who suffer from diabetes and another 54 million people in the United States with pre-diabetes.

Any amount, great or small, helps in the fight against this deadly disease. I greatly appreciate your support and will keep you posted on my progress. If you want to do even more to help, please consider joining me in this great event. Our efforts will help set the pace in the fight against diabetes.

More information on the American Diabetes Association, its programs and diabetes in general can be found at the Association's Web site: www.diabetes.org.

For more information on Tour de Cure, please visit www.diabetes.org/tour.

[22:24] [life] [permalink]

Sunday, 04 May 2008

On the tense of changelog entries

Holger was wondering what tense people write their changelog entries in.

I'm pretty sure I always write mine in the past tense.

[09:56] [debian] [permalink]

Thursday, 01 May 2008

Lock up the credit cards!

Sarah's favourite American city has an online store.

[11:43] [life/americania] [permalink]