Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Fear of France

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

For many years I’ve had an irrational fear of France. I don’t speak French and through television and other media I’ve been led to believe that the French are rude and distant, and the small amount of time I’ve spent in that country (or in French speaking Switzerland) did little to allay those fears.

Which is a shame since there are aspects of French culture that really gel with me. Good food and good company, a decent work/life balance and an appreciation for beauty and art are things that are sometimes lacking in my native society. Of course, the anal-retentive part of me would cringe at other aspects of French culture, such as the general lack of urgency over most things, but still I think there is more to love than hate.

For the first few years after I started working with OpenNMS I really couldn’t take a proper holiday. I might be able to squeeze in a three day weekend here and there, but the luxury of unplugging for a couple of weeks was beyond me. A decade later things have changed, so this year Andrea and I decided to take a long holiday with a week in the UK and a week in Paris.

David and I had been in Paris back in 2008 but I’d never really had a chance to see the city. Of course, the reason Andrea and I went had little to do with the art or history of the place: Paris is crazy thick with Ingress portals. Seriously, we flew across the ocean to play a computer game.

This, of course, required the purchasing of a local SIM card. Now one of my favorite things about being involved in OpenNMS is that almost anywhere I go I can find someone who likes the application. I posted a note to the mailing list and got a nice reply from Daniel Ranc. Daniel is a consultant and a professor at INT (Telecom & Management SudParis) and uses OpenNMS as part of his courses.

He recommended that we use SFR, as they had a plan where we could get 2GB of data for 30€. Now the challenge was to find a store.

Next to our hotel was a Bouygues outlet so we stopped there first. The lady in front of us was buying an iPhone 6 Plus (that sucker is huge) but even though it was iPhone launch day, I assume any craziness happened early in the morning. The salesperson told us that a “carte SIM” with 3GB would be 50€, which seemed spendy, so using the hotel wi-fi I found an SFR store a few blocks away (Paris is a very walkable city).

The guy at the SFR store told us that we could buy the SIM card there, but in order to “charge” it we would need to go to the “Tabac”. In Paris a Tabac is a part of a cafe that sells things like cigarettes and lottery tickets and, apparently, mobile phone access. You can identify them by iconic red and white signs.

While I wasn’t sure I fully understood his directions, we found what looked like the right place, but the lady behind the counter said she couldn’t help us. Thinking we had the wrong place, we wandered around for an hour or so until we met a man who told us where to go, which turned out to be the same place we started. This time we tried a little harder, and a gentleman helped out and sold us two “recharge” tickets for 35€ each. Since they worked we figured Daniel was just off on the price, and we happily started hacking portals.

That lasted about a day.

Apparently what we bought had something like a 100MB limit which we promptly exceeded, so this time I used a combination of Chrome and Google Translate to navigate the SFR website. I found the exact plan that Daniel described, but the site wouldn’t accept any of the four credit cards I fed to it (even though a legit-looking confirmation box with the proper bank name popped up each time). So I dutifully copied down the proper plan on a piece of hotel stationery and off we went to the Tabac.

By this time I had picked up more French so I was all “Bonjour, pouvez-vous m’aider, s’il vous plaît” and I handed the lady (the same one as before) my hand written piece of paper and she was able to set us up with no problem. It was the start of my becoming a lot more comfortable in France. We then wandered around our neighborhood and spent a lot of time in the Parc Monceau

My French improvement would continue on Sunday when I actually got to meet Daniel in person. He and his son Lucas picked us up at the hotel and took us to the Île Saint-Louis.

Paris is a roughly circular city as defined by a ring road highway that surrounds it. It is divided into 20 administration zones, called arrondissements. The first arrondissement is an island in the middle of the Seine called the Île de la Cité (home of Notre Dame and the oldest part of Paris) and the others spiral out from there. The Île Saint-Louis is in the 4th arrondissement and our hotel was in the 17th. You can always tell where you are by the post code: 750xx where xx is the arrondissement.

We found a place to park and walked around the island. Daniel and I talked tech while Andrea hacked portals, and we found a nice café for lunch. Parisians love to eat outside and this was no exception, except that we were lucky to be under an awning when a short shower broke out. With that exception and one other evening the weather was perfect for the entire week.

He and Lucas had to run to do some errands after lunch, but we made plans to meet up later in the week.

Most of our time was spent in parks. The public parks in Paris, even the small lesser known ones, are amazing, with priceless works of art available for everyone to enjoy. Since priceless works of art translate easily into Ingress portals, we had a lot of fun wandering around and linking them up. I know I was supposed to be inside the Louvre with thousands of other people, but I have to say that I loved being outside in the nice weather looking at beautiful things.

On Tuesday we faced our usual travel challenge of laundry. It is hard to pack for two full weeks, so we usually plan to do some laundry during our trips. In a lot of countries, like New Zealand, you just drop it off for a “wash, dry and fold” and come back a few hours later. Not so in Paris, but we did find an “laverie automatique”. This is where I learned another lesson of Parisian life: hold on to your coins.

America is one of the few places that doesn’t use what I would call high value coins. Most countries I visit have the equivalent of a one and two dollar coin, whereas in the US the highest value common coin is a quarter dollar. The machines in the laundry required coins and change was pretty much impossible to find. Seriously, there are banks in Paris with “no change” signs on them. Still we managed to scrounge enough together with some strategic purchases from the marché across the street (where the lady was so kind and delightful while she explained that she couldn’t give me more coins) to get the clothes cleaned.

That night we met up with Daniel, Lucas and Daniel’s wife Clarisse at a place called La Gueuze that specialized in Belgian food. While this naturally included Belgian beer (yay!), to me Belgian food is synonymous with mussels (moules).

Here is where I witnessed the most rude event of the whole trip (a minor one), and it was funny because it was between two Frenchmen. We had some confusion on the order. Three of us wanted mussels, but Andrea wanted the set “formula” menu (one appetizer, one main course and a dessert chosen from a list). At first Daniel thought Lucas wanted mussels as well so he ordered four and there was a lot of spirited talking around the table in both French and English. At one point the waiter just sighed, snapped the ticket off his pad, crumbled it up and walked off.

About five minutes later he came back and he and Daniel interacted as if nothing had happened, and we ended up having a nice meal. Lucas showed me a mathematical brain teaser that I hope to try on someone real soon (I got about 60% of it right).

I had snails. I think I would eat pretty much anything doused in butter and garlic.

Earlier we had met Daniel near the Luxembourg Garden, which was just swarming with portals, so on Wednesday we came back and spent several hours there. It was once the grounds for the palace of Marie de’ Medici, and the building is now home to the Senate chamber of the French Parliament. On the grounds are a model that was used for the Statue of Liberty as well as the outstanding Medici Fountain.

On Thursday we did our only real touristy trip by visiting Versailles. I’ve been wanting to visit there for years, especially after reading the Baroque Cycle. I often laugh when people, especially Americans, criticize French military might because if your skin is pale your ancestors lived in fear of King Louis the XIV. The scale of Versailles defies description – the Gardens cover 800 hectares or over three square miles. We spent over ten hours there, and it was really cool to be there in the evening after the crowds had left.

We covered a lot of Paris. We bought a “Paris Visite” ticket that let us ride any public transportation (bus, tram, metro or RER) within the ring road.

The only regret is that I should have gone with the Bouygues SIM card. Not only did I spend too much for ours, the SFR coverage would have issues, especially near Montparnasse. The phone would show 3G but nothing would work. It seemed limited to that one particular area – hey, SFR, if you are reading this, get OpenNMS.

Overall, it was an amazing trip and I’m eager to return. I found the Parisians to be friendly and the city itself very beautiful. It was a little spendy, even with our airfare and hotel being covered by frequent traveler points, so I am motivated to make OpenNMS successful so that I can visit as often as I like.

Keep Austin Weird

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

I got to spend a few days down in Austin this week. I like this town, and as most people know it has become a bit of a hotbed for tech with a lot of companies either moving here or opening offices (I just found out that Atlassian, makers of Jira and Bamboo, among other things, is opening an office in Austin).

Usually when I come to town I get to see Eric Evans. Eric, the guy who coined the modern usage of the term “NoSQL“, lives an hour away in San Antonio and outside of the daily scrum call I don’t get to see him as much as I’d like. However, he just had rotator cuff surgery and when I sent him a text about meeting for dinner his reply was “I’m not yet wearing pants and can’t tie my shoes so the answer is probably no.”

Yeah, there is a “no pants” theme to this post.

On a whim I decided to see if my friend, favorite mad scientist and evil genius William Hurley (aka whurley) was around. As luck would have it, he was.

Speaking of people I don’t get to see very often, whurley is one of them. I think it would be a full time job just to keep up with his projects, and we haven’t had a chance to spend any time together for several years so we tried to cram a lot of catching up into a short evening.

When we drove up to his house the first thing I noticed was a candy apple red Cadillac ELR parked out front. whurley has a large Twitter following, so Cadillac gave him the car to drive and tweet about. This is Cadillac’s entry into the luxury electric hybrid market. It has pretty aggressive styling for a Cadillac, but it is more of what we old folks used to call a “2+2” instead of a true four seat car. It took some acrobatics to get three full sized adults into it for a short trip to grab some Chinese takeout.

Another pleasant surprise was to find out that he is now married, and I got to meet his bride Pamela. As might be expected with anyone associated with whurley, she is exceptional, and welcomed us into her home with short notice.

William + Pamela // Kauai Wedding from John Hoel on Vimeo.

whurley knows that I am a privacy advocate, so he showed me a TED talk he did on the issue, but instead of leading with, say, references to 1984, he goes back in time to talk about the Jacquard loom. This loom was one of the first programmable machines, a forerunner of computers, and it was used to manufacture cloth for clothing. If you think about it, clothing could be considered the earliest form of privacy, so it is a bit ironic that this ur-computer was used to create privacy whereas modern computers are now used to decrease it.

One of the reasons I like being around him is he makes me think. As an old guy, I am constantly amazed at how the younger generation seems to be so eager to give up privacy by sharing pretty much all details of their lives on-line. I’ve also noticed that there seems to be less concern about nudity. I’m not saying that all twenty year olds are running around naked, but compared to 30 years ago when I was in high school, the socially accepted norms for modesty have changed greatly.

But now this seems to make sense. If clothing is the primal form of privacy, one would expect this from a culture in which privacy is less important. And I’m not sure this is a bad thing, as I don’t believe anyone should be ashamed of their bodies, plus it helps me toward earning my “Dirty Old Man” merit badge.

(grin)

In David Brin’s book Earth he envisions a world without privacy, and there are a lot of positive aspects to it. Recently Scott Adams has blogged about the subject, and he makes a number of valid points. The issue I have is that the world we are creating isn’t a utopian transparent society but instead one in which an oligarchy controls the majority of information to use however they see fit, and to me that is dangerous.

So I plan to strive to increase my privacy and, with few exceptions, I’ll keep my pants on.

Portlandia

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Last week I was delighted to return to Portland, Oregon, for the annual OSCON conference. While I had a fun time at OSCON, I was only there for Wednesday and this post is about Tuesday. I’ll talk about the conference itself next. So this post contains little OpenNMS content but might be interesting to those of my three readers who like travel.

I got to PDX around noon and took the MAX into the city. My plan was to drop some stuff off at the hotel and then head to the conference, but as usual my life was overtaken by events. By the time I dealt with my various e-mails and other obligations, it was fairly late in the afternoon so I opted for a nap before dinner instead of trekking over to the Convention Center.

Dinner included me, our OpenNMS guru extraordinaire Ken who was up from Salem, and Greg. Greg used to be an OpenNMS client before he changed jobs to work for a non-profit, but like all OpenNMS users he is super intelligent and amazing to be around. I never miss a chance to spend some time with him.

Ken showed up in his cool, new BMW diesel wagon and drove us across the river. A friend of mine who is also a chef recommended we try a place called Pok Pok and Greg seconded the recommendation. He was worried that it might be crowded, but it being a Tuesday night we figured we’d take our chances. It was also a little earlier than I usually eat dinner, but even then our wait for a table was an hour.

In the meantime we went across the street to the Whiskey Soda Lounge. Greg told us that when Pok Pok started to get popular, people would migrate to nearby bars to wait for their table. Sensing a business opportunity, when a building close to the restaurant became available, they opened up the Lounge.

While we didn’t order much food, we did have a couple of drinks waiting for our table. I really enjoyed the Tamarind Whiskey Sour, which is something of a signature drink. They also had some decent drink specials. The only food we got was a bowl of peanuts, but in keeping with the Thai style cuisine of Pok Pok, the peanuts came mixed in with mild chilis. While the Lounge was nothing out of the ordinary, it was nice to unwind before dinner and catch up.

Our table was ready in an hour as promised, and the wait staff in the Lounge were the ones to tell us about it (which I thought was pretty convenient). Now Pok Pok is one of those places that seems to have grown organically, and our table was in a section that was basically outdoors with a covered roof. Considering how nice the evening was, I preferred our table to the ones downstairs in the main restaurant which struck me as a little claustrophobic.

The food was good and unusual. Greg and I are pretty much “pescatarians” so we stuck with fish. We had catfish (Cha Ca La Vong)

as well as whole tilapia, which was a special.

Afterward, for dessert Greg suggested that we go to an ice cream shop called Salt and Straw.

Now I am an ice cream nut. I make it at home. I go to classes to learn how to make better ice cream. And my favorite ice cream is Jeni’s from Ohio which is simply fantastic.

How do you describe something that is nearly an order of magnitude better than fantastic?

I’m not sure if it is the creaminess, the wonderful flavor combinations or just high quality ingredients, but this stuff is good.

Greg told me that the long line was actually pretty short for this place but I still I felt bad when I got up to the front and wanted to try every single flavor as the line got longer behind me. I limited myself to five, and received a heaping tablespoon of each one to taste.

The first was the signature Sea Salt with Caramel. Wonderful. I’ve just been introduced to salted caramel as a flavor and I’m quite fond of it.

Since I couldn’t just stop on the first one, I also tried their Double Fold Vanilla and Chocolate Gooey Brownie. Both were superlative.

The fourth flavor was Lavender and Honey. When we walked in another customer was walking out with a big purple scoop, so I just had to try it and this was almost my choice but I had to try one last flavor: Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper.

As the youths like to say: OMG.

I love strawberries and this flavor combination just caught my eye. One of the issues with making great ice cream is to limit water. Water forms ice crystals which ruin the texture on the tongue. This makes working with fruit difficult due to its high water content. Usually when I make strawberry ice cream, I roast the fruit to get rid of some of the water, and then I puree it and mix it in with the cream. You don’t want chunks because they screw up the texture when they freeze.

Salt and Straw gets around this by not only pureeing and mixing in the fruit, they have made a type of jam that they swirl into the ice cream. So you get amazing amounts of fruit flavor without sacrificing the texture. This was a softer ice cream than the others but it was so, so, good.

Both Ken and Greg thought the ice cream as good as well. Greg pulled a “native” by also purchasing a pint to go. You can skip the line and head straight to the to go freezer, but I wanted to get back in line to try some more flavors so I doubt I could do that.

Anyway, it was a great “soft landing” for my trip. I also got a few laughs when talking to the locals. I’d tell them, in my deepest southern drawl, that I knew all about Portland from watching that documentary on the city: Portlandia.

What makes that show funny is the deeper truths it parodies, but that’s one of the things I love about that town.

♫ Georgia, Georgia … The Whole Day Through ♫

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

I spent a few days this week down in Atlanta with both Jeff (OpenNMS consultant extraordinaire and Georgia resident) and the gang over at Wellstar, one of our older clients (since 2004). It’s funny how much work with do in the health care industry, with companies like Cerner, Fairview, Hershey Medical Center, as well as having our oldest customer in Children’s Hospitals of Minnesota (circa 2001). There seem to be growing requirements on hospitals for network-enabled services, and thus a solid network management platform like OpenNMS is becoming even more of a requirement.

I’m not a huge fan of Atlanta the city, as the sprawl is a little too much for the country boy in me, but we’re actually up in the Northwest corner (Smyrna/Marietta) which has been quite enjoyable.

First I want to apologize for not posting in awhile. When you write a blog you are always on the lookout for new “blog worthy” ideas, and I have about 20 posts in the queue, going all the way back to April and the OUCE. While I still hope to get to those, I figured the best way to break the silence would be to just write something, so here it is.

I’m still playing Ingress, and so after Jeff picked me up at the airport we went hunting for portals. There is a tremendous amount of history in the area, often reflected in the available portals, and it is amazing to see really nice monuments and museums to rather specific things, such as the role trains played in the Civil War.

It’s always fun to visit with customers as well, and to help me absorb some of the local flavor we went to the Marietta Diner for lunch. It was hard to walk past the dessert case without wanting to dive right into it.

Toward the end of this short trip we went up to Kennesaw State University. They had a gorgeous campus with some of the largest brick buildings I’ve ever seen at a school. While the students had just left, one of them left a little reminder in the concrete that gave me a chuckle.

Milgram’s Experiment

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

I returned home from a trip to England yesterday through London’s Heathrow Airport, and once again I was delayed by airport security. The experience reminded me of the Milgram Experiment, a famous study on how people respond to authority.

In the experiment, there were three roles: a researcher, a student and a teacher. While both the student and the teacher were introduced as volunteers, the true subject of the study was the person in the teacher role, who was given monetary reward to participate ($4 in 1961 or about $31 today). The researcher would explain that the purpose of the study was to explore the affects of negative reinforcement on learning. The teacher would read questions and should the student end up getting a answer wrong, it was the duty of the teacher to administer an electric shock. The strength of the shock would be increased if the student continued to answer questions incorrectly. The subject in the teacher role would be given an example shock at the lowest level before the experiment began.

I was introduced to the experiment in school through a black and white film called Obedience. It must have been in middle school, since I distinctly remember it as a film and not a VCR tape, which is what we had in high school. I can remember sitting in a dark room listening to the whirr of the projector as we watched the results of the experiment.

The teacher and student were separated, and the true subject of the experiment was seated in front of a console with numerous switches. Each switch was supposed to represent a level of shock, from mild shocks in the “green” area on the left side of the console up to extremely strong shocks in the “red” and finally “black” area on the right side (and yes I have no idea why I still see that panel in color when it was a black and white film – perhaps it was described). Now no actual shocks were administered to the student. Instead the panel was tied to a tape recorder that would play back the “student’s” responses. As the shock level increased, the recorded responses would get more desperate, often pleading for the experiment to end. In some variations, the confederate in the student role would even bang on the wall separating them from the teacher. Eventually, the pleading would simply end and be met with silence.

What Milgram found was that a high number of the subjects would be willing to administer shocks at the highest level as long as the researcher told them to do it. One should really experience this film because I was horrified when I saw it. Most of the people, while expressing concern, continued to press the buttons, and I can remember actually crying when one of the subjects simply refused to continue after administering the lowest shock – he was the only one to stand up to the man in the lab coat (at least in the film).

The movie had a strong impact on me and my personal philosophy, and Peter Gabriel even wrote a song about it called Milgram’s 37 with the repeating lyric “We do what we’re told.”

So what reminded me of this experiment at an airport? I’m glad you asked.

I suffer from an eye condition that requires me to put saline solution in my eyes periodically. This becomes more of an issue when I fly due to the dry air in airplanes. Unfortunately, I have to use a special sterile, preservative-free solution that only comes in 118 mL (4 oz) bottles. The bottles are sealed to prevent contamination.

Back when I had only two of my three readers, I ran into a problem transferring at LHR on a trip to Portugal. The liquid limit in Europe is 100mL and they refused to let me through the airport with my solution (even though it is stamped with “TSA Approved” on the bottle). I would say about 50% of the time when traveling internationally someone spots the bottle, but in every single airport outside of Heathrow, including Bangkok and Dubai, the security people have accepted my explanation and let me take it through.

After my last problem at this airport, I sought out the policy that would allow me to take this liquid on the plane. I found this in regard to medicine on the Heathrow website:

Liquid, aerosol or gel medicines in containers over 100ml must be carried separately, together with supporting documentary proof of authenticity, such as a prescription or letter from your doctor.

I had my eye doctor write me a letter explaining the situation and I carry it with me when I travel. Luckily, I haven’t had to use it.

Until now.

As I was going through screening, the lady noted that my saline bottle was above the limit. They had also held my bag for additional screening (I travel with a lot of wires and they sometimes call it a “spaghetti bag”) so I told her that I could produce from that bag a letter from my doctor explaining that I needed that liquid for a medical reason and that it was only available in a 118mL bottle. She sat the bottle aside and called over a supervisor.

Mr. Bally Balkar (an STL or Service Team Leader) arrived and I dutifully showed him my letter. He seemed very confused, although the letter explained in detail why I needed the sterile solution in that particular container. He suggested, as did the lady the last time this happened, that I could go to Boots and get a smaller bottle. Apparently the English system of education tends to skip over the definition of “sterile” or maybe he was out that day. I patiently explained that the whole reason I didn’t do that in the first place, such as I do with other liquids, was due to the fact that the liquid both had to be sterile and could not contain preservatives, and I have neither the equipment nor the expertise to transfer it on my own, much less in the departure terminal of an airport.

He called over his supervisor, a Mr. Harry Singh (also an STL), who very solemnly examined my letter and then proceeded to suggest the same things Mr. Balkar had done. At this point I realized that despite my having followed the procedures for an exemption, there was no way that I was going to get that bottle (which, I should point out, only contained about 30mL of liquid at this time) on the plane. I decided to see if either Mr. Balkar or Mr. Singh possessed the ability to reason.

Me: I’m a little confused. I have followed the procedure. Why am I not allowed to carry this bottle on?

STL: Well, this letter doesn’t look like a prescription.

Me: The liquid itself is not prescribed. My use of this particular liquid is, however, necessary for the health of my eyes. And in the US you usually have to surrender the prescription when obtaining the medicine.

STL: But this is not a prescription.

Me: I understand that, but it is a letter signed by my doctor on official letterhead explaining why I need it. Isn’t that sufficient?

STL: But it is a year old.

Me: It’s dated April 15th, 2013, which makes it a little less than 11 months old, but as my condition hasn’t changed I didn’t see the need to bother my doctor for a new letter.

STL: (silence)

Me: I’m confused. You let the family ahead of me through with litres of baby formula and didn’t even swab it for chemical traces, yet you are saying that my doctor’s letter isn’t sufficient?

STL: Well, they were traveling with a baby.

Me: So you are saying that terrorists wouldn’t think to travel with a baby?

STL: (silence)

Me: Here, let me demonstrate the safety of this liquid. (I open the bottle and squirt a bit into my mouth). See?

Balkar: Oh, if you’ll finish that here we can let you go.

Me: (incredulous silence)

As I had now been at security for over 30 minutes and really wanted to leave, I settled for getting the names of the inspectors who denied me and I plan to file a complaint with the airport as well as with my airline. I am a frequent traveler through Heathrow but I’ll change airlines if this is not addressed. If anyone reading this knows of someone else who might be sympathetic to my story, say a UK government agency or a newspaper, please drop me a note with the contact details.

I both pity and fear men like Mr. Bally Balkar and Mr. Harry Singh. I pity their cowardice. In much like the subjects in the Milgram experiment, they were so afraid to make a mistake in the eyes of an authority figure that they would ignore overwhelming evidence that their actions were wrong.

I also fear them, as under a slightly different set of circumstances these are the men who drag families and children into vans in the middle of the night for “re-education”.

We do what we’re told.