2017 Europe: Brussels and FOSDEM

This post is about a week overdue, but for the first time in my life I came down with a vicious case of “con crud”. This is a illness that you can get after attending a conference or convention (no reference since the top hits on Google all reference “furries“). This really knocked me out – mainly sinus congestion so severe that my head hurt so bad I couldn’t really sleep. It just laughed at my attempt to treat it with pseudophedrine, and nothing but time seemed to help. Luckily I feel better now and I’m eager to talk about my great time in Brussels at my first FOSDEM.

The Free Open Source Developers European Meeting is probably the largest free software event in the world. This year an expected 8000 people descended on the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and I believe every one of them walked by our stand. It was insane.

I arrived from Riga Friday night and made it to my hotel. My so-called friends had already abandoned me and headed toward the Grand Place and Cafe Delirium, the de facto pre-conference bar.

Cafe Delirium Crowd

Against all odds I managed to catch up with them in the alley outside the bar. Ronny and Markus had come over from Germany, as did Simon and Anya. Jonathan and Craig had come from the UK, and I finally got to meet the amazing Cyrille, a long time OpenNMS contributor who lives in Brussels. There was beer.

Our Gang at Cafe Delirium

We headed over to the university early on Saturday to set up our booth. While this was my first FOSDEM, I was told by a couple of long time attendees that the conference outgrew the venue years ago, with various suggestions for why: from “tradition” to “it’s free”. In any case, it does create an atmosphere that can only be described as special.

FOSDEM Stand

We had a stand in Building K on the second level. This was in a wide hallway surrounding a large auditorium where a number of sessions were held. From the start we got a lot of traffic to the stand, and unlike many conferences the people that stopped seemed genuinely interested in learning about OpenNMS and weren’t just there to check out the swag.

And we had really good swag. In addition to a number of stickers (including the awesome “Ulf Mate” sticker as a play on the “Club Mate” logo and slogan), we had, new for this show, OpenNMS keychain/bottle openers which were a big hit.

OpenNMS Keychains

I also got interviewed for Hacker Public Radio. I don’t remember much of what I said, but people seemed to be into it (grin).

It is seriously difficult for me to describe the crowds. When I needed the restroom, I had to make my way downstairs and then fight my way through a crowd so packed I think it rivaled that year I went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

FOSDEM Crowd

But it just lent to the energy and atmosphere of the place. I know from social media that a number of people I know were there that I just missed (looking at you Brian Proffitt) but I did get to see some old friends and I make a few new ones. One person I was happy to meet for the first time was Carol Chen. She is the community manager for ManageIQ, and I first learned about her when Jeff was invited to do an OpenNMS talk at the ManageIQ Design Summit.

Carol Chen and Ulf

She showed up at the stand on Sunday in search of one of our keychains, but we had run out. I had put one away for me but was happy to give it to her. After all, I can always get more.

One thing that sets FOSDEM apart from other open source conferences is the emphasis on “free” software, and some of the social justice causes that naturally follow. Heck, the University has “free” (as in freedom) in its name. Considering that the US President had signed a “Muslim Ban” the week before the conference, it was cool to see this sign on campus.

Refugees Sign

But not all of the fun happened at ULB. Brussels has some beautiful architecture, and just wandering around you might come across a stunning building like this church.

Brussels Church

Nothing is probably as striking as the Grand Place, or central square of Brussels. It is surrounded by tall buildings, some of which represent Guildhalls of various crafts. My friend Daniel pointed out to me that a lot of the money for those buildings probably came from Antwerp during the height of the Hanseatic League. Since the cities of Tallinn and Riga were key players in the Hansa, it kind of brought this European trip full circle.

That’s not to say there aren’t modern things in Brussels. I’ll post this picture without comment.

Mr. Ego Sign

We ended the conference on Sunday with a small group of us meeting for beers and then dinner. Dinner was held at Restaurant Vincent and it was quite good.

Dinner at Vincent's

At the table is Karen Sandler from the Software Freedom Conservancy, me, Lukas and Daniel Ranc from Paris (Daniel teaches at Télécom SudParis and his son is working on his Ph.D.), Cyrille Bollu, Ronny Trommer and Markus von Rüden from OpenNMS, and Spot Calloway from Red Hat.

My only wish is that we could have sat at a round table, since the long table caused conversation to be split into two. I really wanted Daniel and Spot to chat, as Daniel is working on some cool software for education for doing quizzes and surveys in class, and Spot is focused on higher education at Red Hat. But in any case I really enjoyed the conversation, especially one story that Spot told of his college days that I pretty much can’t top (and I pride myself on being able to hold my own when it comes to storytelling).

It was a nice end to an exciting week.

2017 Europe: Riga

Latvia is the 39th country I’ve been able to visit, and based on Riga it is easily in my top ten. I really enjoyed my short time here.

Getting off the bus from Tallinn, the first thing I noticed was that it was a little colder here. Both Helsinki and Tallinn are right on the water, but Riga is slightly inland. Still, it wasn’t a hard walk from the bus station to the hotel, and I got to see some of the Old Town.

Frozen Stream in Riga

I had the rest of the day to myself, so I decided to explore the City. One thing I noticed about Riga is that it is very clean. Granted, when you have piles of snow that don’t melt this doesn’t mean everything looks brand new, but I didn’t see the usual trash and paper on the ground like I might find in London or Paris. While the buildings may be old, they are well maintained, and some are quite beautiful, which is not how I imagined a former Soviet bloc country to look.

Riflemen Monument

Granted, there were a few reminders, such as the impressive “Riflemen Monument“. This was originally meant to honor those in the Latvian military who supported the Bolsheviks (the “red” riflemen) but I was told that now it also honors the opposition “white” riflemen.

The reason I came to Riga was to participate in a conference held by LATA (Latvijas atvērto tehnoloģiju asociācija or the Lativian Open Technology Association). LATA is a volunteer organization with only one employee, Ieva Vitolina, who was kind enough to invite me to speak.

Not only were the people in general in Riga very kind to me, the LATA people treated me like a diplomat.

Main Entry Hall for the LATA Conference

Before the conference I was introduced to Jānis Treijs, of the LATA Board. A very nice man, Jānis is very tall, and I had to joke that when I studied physics we used to say all people were two meters tall to make the math easier, but it is rare I actually get to meet someone that tall.

LATA conference room

The conference was held at the Latvijas Universitātes Dabaszinātņu akadēmiskais centrs (Latvian University of Natural Sciences Academic Center) which was a very modern facility, much nicer than many of the schools I attended in my youth. The morning program was held in this main room, and after lunch we would break out into another room as well (which was where my talk was to be made). About half of the program was in Latvian, with the other half in English.

IBM was a sponsor, and Andrzej Osmak from Poland gave a talk on IBM’s approach to open.

Andrzej Osmak

To be quite frank, OpenNMS would not exist without IBM. They are a main supporter of the Apache Foundation and most of the developers use Eclipse as their IDE. The only small criticism I would have about that talk was an emphasis on permissive licensing. I think permissive licenses are great in the proper context, but they aren’t the best choice for everyone.

This was followed by another talk in English by Dr. John O’Flaherty from Ireland.

John O’Flaherty

His focus was on “open data” and the different levels with which data can be made available. I am always amazed at what wonderful things people can create when companies and governments make data available in a usable fashion, and John gave several examples of those.

The remaining morning talks were in Latvian, so I just tried to understand them through the slides. The Clusterpoint presentation was interesting in that the slides were in English but the presentation itself was given in Latvian.

The morning ended with an awards presentation which had three categories: the most open institution, the most substantial contribution to technology promotion, and the best start-up.

Then it was the lunch break, which I spent talking about business and free software with Valdis, Ieva’s husband. It was then time to get ready for my own presentation.

There were two presentations in English about open source business. Including mine, Aleksejs Vladiševs the founder of Zabbix shared his experiences. It was kind of ironic that both of us work at pure open source companies and both of us work in the network monitoring space. Despite that, we tend not to compete, and it was interesting to see how similar our paths were.

My talk seemed well received, although I had a little less than 30 minutes so I didn’t have any time for questions. I was humbled that the winner of the LATA start-up award, Mihails Scepanskis, wanted to ask me some questions about open source business afterward, and along with his wife Anna and Vladis, we spent pretty much the rest of the conference talking. As usual, my favorite conference track turned into the “Hallway Track” once again.

National Library

That evening, the organizers of the conference took a group of us on a tour of the National Library of Latvia. This is a major landmark in Riga and it is easy to spot from many places in the city. It was planned for many years, but finally opened in 2014.

National Library Sign

The interior hosts a 400+ seat state of the art theatre, but the first thing I noticed was the central atrium.

National Library Atrium

Inside it there is a wall of books. These were books donated by the Latvian people to the library, and it stretches for several stories. We were also told an interesting story, when the library opened several thousand books were moved from the old location to the new building via a “human chain“. People formed a line over a mile long and passed the books hand to hand.

National Library Book Wall

The tour took us up through the building, and we got to see a number of the large (and not so large) reading rooms. One that caught my eye was dedicated to American culture.

National Library American Culture Room

I found it interesting that the books on display included ones by Noam Chomsky, James Carville and articles from the New Yorker.

Each floor was color-coded, and we were told that the colors corresponded to the “pre-Euro” Latvian currency, the Lat. The higher floors had colors that corresponded to higher denominations.

National Library

At the top was an interesting display. It was a Cabinet of Folksongs. This wooden cabinet holds over a quarter of a million Latvian folksongs written on small slips of paper.

Cabinet of Folksongs

The tour was followed by a wonderful meal in a restaurant in the Library itself. I got to spend more time talking with Aleksejs, Jānis, his wife and John, as well as drinking some nice beer over wonderful food.

The next morning Jānis’s wife had arranged for me to meet with the ITC department of the City Council of Riga. Riga firmly believes in Internet access for its population. The City has more free WiFi coverage than any other European City, and the Council is responsible for providing as many services as possible to its citizens to make sure the government is responsive to their needs. It was a refreshing conversation. They use a number of tools, including Zabbix, so I wasn’t expecting them to switch to OpenNMS, but I had a nice meeting learning about their environment and sharing a little bit about OpenNMS.

Corner House

We had a little time before lunch, so we made a quick visit to the “Corner House“. This was a beautiful apartment building that was taken over by the Cheka, a division of the KGB, and was the source of terror for many citizens of Latvia as late as 1991. It reminded me of the House of Terror in Budapest. Jānis’s wife told a story of her mother having to go to this building for an interview as the Cheka was interested in one of her relatives.

Corner House

It is a shame that a thing of such beauty could be used for such evil.

After that we met up with Jānis for a wonderful meal, and then I made my way to the airport for my trip to Brussels for FOSDEM.

As the airBaltic Q400 took off and got above the clouds, the cabin was suddenly filled with light. I realized that I had not seen the sun properly in a week. If Riga and its people can be this beautiful in the dark of winter, it must be a truly magical place in the summer. I hope one day soon to return.

2017 Europe: Tallinn

After a wonderful visit to Helsinki, it was time for the next leg of the journey: Tallinn. Estonia will mark the 38th country I’ve been able to visit.

To get to Estonia I took the Tallink ferry service. There are several trips from Helsinki to Tallinn each day, so I planned to leave around 10:30 to arrive around 13:00.

I’m not a boat guy. While I’m fine in planes I don’t do well in boats, but the ferry is quite large. Here is a picture of one heading the other way through a window on mine:

Tallink Ferry

It had ten decks, so I made my way up to deck nine and found a seat near the window.

Tallink Ferry Interior

It was a quite civilized way to travel. Even though the sea was a little choppy, the ride was very smooth. You almost didn’t realize the ship was moving.

When we arrived I took a taxi to the hotel, dropped off my bags and set out to discover the city. I was in the “Old Town” section of Tallinn which was quite beautiful. There were a lot of cobblestone streets and well maintained old buildings with plenty of shops and restaurants.

Street in Tallinn

One of the things I like to do when visiting a new city is to play Ingress. I know that sounds weird, but one part of the game involves completing “missions” which require you to walk around. These missions are often created by locals and it can give you a great overview of a new place. Tallinn was no exception.

Tallinn was only a degree or more warmer than Helsinki, but it made quite a difference. I had issues walking around Helsinki because in places the slush had refrozen into ice and it made walking a little slippery. The streets in Tallinn were mainly dry and I could move around a lot faster.

There is a great mixture of old and new,

Tallinn Grafitti

and I saw a lot of construction. I’m not sure but I think this was the demolition of a Soviet-era housing block to make way for a more modern building.

Tallinn Building Demolition

It also had a lot in common with other European cities, such as this huge flower market I came across:

Tallinn Flowers

I think if I lived here I’d stop by every day and buy some fresh flowers for home.

While I practiced a number of Estonian words (When I came into the hotel and said “Tervist” one person mistook me for the mailman and came out of the back office, so I must have nailed the accent), everyone seemed more than happy to talk to me in English, and I didn’t meet a single rude person the entire stay.

Which, alas, wasn’t long. I was only in Tallinn on my way to Riga, so the next morning I got up and made my way to the Central Coach Station to grab my LUX Express bus to Riga.

LUX Express Bus

The five hour journey was made in comfort. I was in the back section which consisted of just one seat complete with “seat back entertainment”. I thought about watching some movies (they were pretty much the same selection as the ones on the plane over here) but I decided I’d rather watch the countryside go by and to doze a little.

Inside LUX Express Bus

It was snowing lightly and as soon as we got away from the coast there were several inches of snow on the ground. It looked very peaceful. When we crossed the Pärnu River it was completely frozen, and off in the distance I could see people skating on the ice. I’d heard of frozen rivers before but this was the first time I’d seen one.

When I arrived in Riga the first thing I noticed was the cold. Riga is a few degrees colder than either Helsinki or Tallinn, and I was happy I brought my winter coat that I bought in Sweden a couple of years ago. I am eagerly awaiting the conference which is the reason I am here, and to see some friends again and make a few new ones.

2017 Europe: Helsinki

I am spending a week touring the eastern side of Europe, with the first stop being two nights in Helsinki. I should end up in Brussels next weekend for FOSDEM, and I am looking forward to my first time at that conference.

I’m here because I was invited to speak at an open tech conference in Riga, Latvia, and I couldn’t resist the invitation. Riga is home to Zabbix, a company very much like OpenNMS in that we both do network monitoring and we are both 100% open source. One might think this would make us enemies – quite the contrary. For some reason we really get along and also, for some reason, we rarely compete.

In trying to find a route from North Carolina to Latvia, I noticed a number of choices went through Helsinki. I had been to Helsinki once and really enjoyed it (despite it being winter). I also remembered from that trip that Finland is very close to both Russia and Estonia. You can be in St. Petersburg in three hours by train or Tallinn in two hours by ferry.

It was my goal to visit 50 countries by the time I turned 50 years old. I didn’t make that goal (I got to 37), but I figured I could use this trip to both visit Estonia and Latvia, adding two to the list.

My first flight out of RDU was canceled, so they routed me through JFK. I arrived in Helsinki three hours later than planned, but my bag made it with me so it worked out. It was dark and sleeting, but it wasn’t too difficult to take the new train into the city center and find my hotel.

HSL Train Helsinki Airport

I always like coming to Finland because it was the home of Linus Torvalds. Now I know he has lived in the US for many years and I also know he didn’t invent the idea of free software, but I still feel some sort of homecoming when I arrive since I doubt OpenNMS would be here if it weren’t for Linus.

There is an awesome company in Helsinki that is also an OpenNMS customer, so I was able to spend Monday visiting with them. Due to an NDA I can’t name them, but they are doing some amazing work in this part of the world. I got to learn more about their business as well as to share where we are going with OpenNMS.

Like many of our larger clients, they have an inventory system that they have integrated with OpenNMS in order to manage their monitoring needs. Since that system also contains customer relationships (which equipment is used to provide network services for particular clients of theirs) we played around with the Business Service Monitor (BSM). They should be able to export their network information into OpenNMS to create a customer impact topology, so that when there is an issue they can quickly determine the root cause. It is exactly why we created the feature and I’m eager to see how they use it.

They are also interested in using the Minion feature due in Horizon 19. This should allow them to easily deal with overlapping address space and any scalability concerns, plus they should be able to get rid of their current “manager of managers” solution. Exciting times.

They are looking to hire, so if you are in the area and have OpenNMS experience, send me your CV and I’ll be happy to forward it on to them.

Ulf and Hacienda Napoles at Liberty or Death

That evening, Ulf and I managed to indulge our taste for vintage and craft cocktails with a visit to Liberty or Death. This is a bar near my hotel that serves amazing cocktails in a very relaxed atmosphere. It was a nice ending to a very good day.

Ferry Terminal Statue

The next day will find me on a ferry boat to Tallinn. I don’t know of any OpenNMS users in Estonia, but I am still eager to see the city.

Emley Moor, Kirklees, West Yorkshire

I spent last week back in the United Kingdom. I always find it odd to travel to the UK. When I’m in, say, Germany or Spain, I know I’m in a different country. With the UK I sometimes forget and hijinks ensue. As Shaw may have once said, we are two countries separated by a common language.

Usually I spend time in the South, mainly Hampshire, but this trip was in Yorkshire, specifically West Yorkshire. I was looking forward to this for a number of reasons. For example, I love Yorkshire Pudding, and the Four Yorkshiremen is my favorite Monty Python routine.

Also, it meant that I could fly into Manchester Airport and miss Heathrow. Well, I didn’t exactly miss it.

I was visiting a big client that most people have never heard of, even though they are probably an integral part of your life if you live in the UK. Arqiva provides the broadcast infrastructure for much of the television and mobile phone industry in the country, as well as being involved in deploying networks for projects such as smart metering and the Internet of Things.

We were working at the Emley Moor location, which is home to the Emley Moor Mast. This is the largest freestanding structure in Britain (and third in the European Union). With a total height of 1084 feet, it is higher than the Eiffel Tower and almost twice as high as the Washington Monument.

Emily Moor Mast View

The mast was built in 1971 to replace a metal lattice tower that fell, due to a combination of ice and wind, in 1969. I love the excerpt from the log book mentioned in the Wikipedia article:

  • Day: Lee, Caffell, Vander Byl
  • Ice hazard – Packed ice beginning to fall from mast & stays. Roads close to station temporarily closed by Councils. Please notify councils when roads are safe (!)
  • Pye monitor – no frame lock – V10 replaced (low ins). Monitor overheating due to fan choked up with dust- cleaned out, motor lubricated and fan blades reset.
  • Evening :- Glendenning, Bottom, Redgrove
  • 1,265 ft (386 m) Mast :- Fell down across Jagger Lane (corner of Common Lane) at 17:01:45. Police, I.T.A. HQ, R.O., etc., all notified.
  • Mast Power Isolator :- Fuses removed & isolator locked in the “OFF” position. All isolators in basement feeding mast stump also switched off. Dehydrators & TXs switched off.

They still have that log book, open to that page.

Emily Moor Log Book

If you have 20 minutes, there is a great old documentary on the fall of the old tower and the construction of the new mast.

On my last day there we got to go up into the structure. It’s pretty impressive:

Emily Moor Mast Up Close

and the inside looks like something from a 1970s sci-fi movie:

Emily Moor Mast Inside

The article stated that it takes seven minutes to ride the lift to the top. I timed it at six minutes, fifty-seven seconds, so that’s about right (it’s fifteen seconds quicker going down). I was working with Dr. Craig Gallen who remembers going up in the open lift carriage, but we were in an enclosed car. It’s very small and with five of us in it I will admit to a small amount of claustrophobia on the way up.

But getting to the top is worth it. The view is amazing:

View from Emily Moor Mast

It was a calm day but you could still feel the tower sway a bit. They have a plumb bob set up to measure the drift, and it was barely moving while we were up there. Toby, our host, told of a time he had to spend seven hours installing equipment when the bob was moving four to five inches side to side. They had to move around on their hands and knees to avoid falling over.

Plumb Bob

I’m glad I wasn’t there on that day, but our day was fantastic. Here is a shot of the parking lot where the first picture (above) was taken.

View of Emily Moor Parking Lot

I had a really great time on this trip. The client was amazing, and I really like the area. It reminds me a bit of the North Carolina mountains. I did get my Yorkshire Pudding in Yorkshire (bucket list item):

Yorkshire Pudding in Yorkshire

and one evening Craig and I got to meet up with Keith Spragg.

Keith Spragg and Craig Gallen

Keith is a regular on the OpenNMS IRC channel (#opennms on freenode.net), and he works for Southway Housing Trust. They are a non-profit that manages several thousand homes, and part of that involves providing certain IT services to their tenants. They are mainly a Windows/Citrix shop but OpenNMS is running on one of the two Linux machines in their environment. He tried out a number of solutions before finding that OpenNMS met his needs, and he pays it forward by helping people via IRC. It always warms my heart to see OpenNMS being used in such places.

I hope to return to the area, although I was glad I was there in May. It’s around 53 degrees north latitude, which puts it level with the southern Alaskan islands. It would get light around 4am, and in the winter ice has been known to fall in sheets from the Mast (the walkways are covered to help protect the people who work there).

I bet Yorkshire Pudding really hits the spot on a cold winter’s day.

Zabbix and OpenNMS

The network management application space is rather cluttered, with a number of “fauxpensource” offerings that can really confuse the landscape when people are looking for truly open solutions.

Two exceptions to that are OpenNMS (‘natch) and Zabbix.

According to the Wikipedia article, Zabbix was started in 1998, which makes it a little older than OpenNMS, which I’m told was started in July of 1999 although we use March 29th, 2000, as the official “birth date” since that’s when the project was registered on Sourceforge.

Despite being in the same space and about the same age, I’d never really used Zabbix or interacted with their community until 2009 when I met Rihards Olups.

Rihards is kind of “the Mouth of Zabbix” and I met him at the 2009 Open Source Monitoring Conference where he brought me some gifts from his home in Lativa. He repeated the gesture at this year’s OSMC, and I asked when would be his next trip to the US so I could return the favor. He pulled out his handy and said “Are you anywhere near Raleigh, North Carolina?”

Since that happens to be pretty much my home I was happy to find out that he was coming to town. Even though he was sick with the flu that had been going around, we managed to get a gang together for dinner.

Left to right, that’s Rihards (with the awesome beard), Eric (who was in town from Texas), Sarah, Seth, David, Me, and Ben.

We went to The Pit, which is an acceptable, local barbecue restaurant that is much more “presentable” than some of my favorite dives although the food isn’t quite as good, and then afterward we went next door to the “barcade” and played games.

I played pinball (one of my favorite things to do) and Rihards played his first game on a real pinball machine. Yes, I’m a bit older than him.

One of the things I like about my job is that I can go most anyplace and find like-minded free software people. It’s awesome and I always have a good time. I hope to visit Riga in September around the time of the OpenNMS Users Conference and meet more.

Can a Service Outage be Fraud?

I’m in Germany for the always excellent Open Source Monitoring Conference (review coming) and I wanted to have data for my mobile phone. At the airport we stopped at a Relay store and bought an Ortel SIM card for 20 euros (well, €19.90). Since Ronny was with me I just let him activate the card (the process was mainly in German) and we got on the train to Nürnberg.

During the two hour trip I must have exhausted the small amount of default data that came with it, and thus began an odyssey that took over 24 hours to get resolved.

First we tried to go to the “Mein Ortel” site, but it was down.

Then, we downloaded the “Mein Ortel” app from Google Play. It loaded but we could never authenticate.

This lasted for hours.

After we had arrived at the hotel, we noticed that the website, at least, had become available. But at any point when we tried to purchase more time we’d get still another error.

They do have a customer service number, but they charge €0.49 per minute to use it. In desperation we called it but they had closed for the day, so there was no resolution to be had on the first night.

The next day we tried, unsuccessfully, to get the web site and the app to work. Finally Ronny called, was put on hold (!) and then told that they were having issues with their payment system. Why a total lack in the ability to accept payments would require so much time to determine that you would have to be put on hold is beyond me, but my guess is that Ortel just wanted to ratchet up a few more euros from me.

At lunch we went in search of another provider. We found a Base store that sold Ortel and Blau SIMs, but we were told that Blau may take up to 24 hours to activate. We then found a Vodafone store but they wanted €45 for a SIM. In the end, we decided to buy an Ortel voucher (the SIM was activated at least) for €15 and with the help of the lady at the Base store managed to get the credit applied, and I should have service for the reminder of my stay.

My question is: isn’t is fraud to take money for a service and then fail to deliver that service? I’m only here for three days and I was without data on my phone for more than a third of the trip, all due to the fact that Ortel can’t be bothered to implement network management.

I’m doubly surprised that this happened in Germany, since they tend to be more strict on these things than most countries.

Yeah, I know “first world problems”, but as someone who is in this country with nearly 300 other professionals to discuss monitoring it seems like Ortel could benefit from sending some people to this conference. As commercial network-services become even more prevalent and important, I do expect to see the implementation of fines for outages.

Anyway, if you are ever offered the option to get mobile service from Ortel, run the other way.

Alinea

Note: This is a travel/food blog post with no OpenNMS content. As usual, feel free to skip.

I consider myself insanely wealthy. Not in terms of money, most people could always use a little more, but because I’ve managed to meet some truly amazing people in my life, and even better, there still seems to be a nice supply of them. My life has been greatly enriched because of it.

One such person is Geoff Davis, who I met in high school (he was a year younger but in all my advanced courses) who now works at Google. The last time I was out there he and his bride took me to dinner in the Mission, and while we were talking about food he mentioned the Alinea.

The Alinea restaurant is located in Chicago, and it is one of only thirteen (when I booked it was ten) Michelin three star restaurants in the country. I happened to be in Chicago this week, and as this trip was planned months ago I was able to book a table for six. The experience was pretty amazing.

The name comes from an archaic mark similar to the “paragraph” symbol: ¶. The alinea looks more like an inverted “D” with two vertical marks, and in the name of the restaurant it represents “a new beginning”.

The booking process was unique as well. I like to cook, and occasionally (very occasionally) after one of my better efforts, someone will say “you should open a restaurant”.

Hell no. Owning and running a restaurant is incredibly hard work. People who aren’t into food (and some who are) just don’t realize it. Part of the problem is that people have few qualms about either canceling a reservation at the last minute or not showing up at all.

The Alinea addresses this by selling tickets instead of taking reservations. I’m not sure it would work for every restaurant, but when you have a place with a) high demand and b) a prix fixe menu it seems to work well. There is a long discussion of the history of the ticketing system available so I won’t repeat it here, but it did resonate with my innate fondness for unusual business models.

The restaurant itself is very non-descript. Most of our party met at Boka next door for drinks (an excellent restaurant on its own right with its own Michelin star). I probably wouldn’t have known where to enter the Alinea if I wasn’t shown the way.

You enter in via a dark corridor highlighted by red lights, and it seems to narrow a bit. When you reach the end you are greeted by what I would come to recognize as the level of service that helps the Alinea keeps its stars. For our group of six there were at least three people there to take our coats. One pair in our party had arrived with their car, so the staff took the valet parking slip to make sure the car would be ready when it was time to leave. We were served by no less than twenty people during the evening but it was perfect – they were there when you needed them and quickly gone when you didn’t.

We were shown upstairs to our table. The restaurant only accepts parties of two, four or six. Party of three? You buy an extra ticket, and since they are quite spendy my guess is you’d find an excuse to invite Aunt Edna out for the evening.

Just a quick note: I wanted to immerse myself in the experience so I took no photographs or notes. I might get some of the details wrong so I will apologize in advance since my memory isn’t what it used to be.

Our host Miguel, I would not call him a server even though he did serve us food, welcomed us and explained how the evening would play out. We were to have 15, maybe 16 courses and there was an optional wine pairing. He stressed that the wine servings were modest and that it would end up being about four glasses of wine total. The “maybe” 16th course was a special: white truffle risotto. When I visit my friend Antonio in Italy (another amazing person who has enriched my life) I always tease him about this very expensive food. When he asks what I want to eat I say “tartufo bianco”. I love truffles but as Cat, one of our dinner companions, pointed out, having such an extravagant course here would be like gilding the lily. Plus, the $150/person cost put it out of my league – I had to cash in my Christmas and Birthday presents to swing the dinner alone.

I got excited when they prepared to bring out the first course. They placed little white pillows on the table in front of each of us and on it was a caviar spoon (I love fish eggs of any type). Miguel explained that the silverware we’d need for each course would be placed on the pillow and that we were to leave the used items with the serving dish in order to keep the pillow clean for the next course.

Speaking again of the crazy level of service, if one of us got up to use the restroom, one of the staff would immediately remove the napkin and replace it with a fresh one. Cat explained that napkins are meant to be used, and no one should have to come back to a soiled one. Crazy, but cool.

The first course was Osetra caviar served with a variety of other flavors. I was not going to do the wine pairing, but I agreed to start off with a glass of champagne (Pierre Moncuit Blanc des Blancs Brut NV) as did Ron (what else do you pair with caviar?). Demetri and Cat did get the pairing, while my lovely bride Andrea ordered a glass of Riesling and Colleen stuck with water.

The caviar was delightful.

The second course arrived in the form of two large “tumbleweeds” made up of intertwined brown vines. Each was about twice the size of a basketball. We were told we had to find the second course hidden within the branches. In each ball was hidden a piece of salsify, a root vegetable that had been cooked sous vide and heavily seasoned. It matched the color of the vine exactly but had a much softer texture. It was tasty, although this is one of the few places I’ve eaten where you had to ask yourself “is this bit the food?”.

The third course was skate, cooked sous vide and seasoned with brown butter, lemon and herbs. The paired wine was an A.J. Adam “Dhroner” Riesling (Mosel 2012). I made a joke about “Dhroner kebabs” that fell flat. Demetri had me taste some of his and I liked it so much I changed my mind about skipping the wine pairing. It was the most tender skate I’ve ever eaten, and it makes me want to explore sous vide cooking even more.

Course number four was ebi, or sweet shrimp for those of you who like sushi. It was paired with Muscadet Sevre et Maine “Granite” (Domaine de l’Ecu 2010) which I found to be too mineral. I remember liking this dish but I don’t remember too much of the details, since it was eclipsed by …

Corn. The fifth course arrived served in roasted corn husks, causing me to remark “look, the world’s most expensive tamale”. It was far from a traditional tamale. The corn was whole, roasted and served over a bed of creamy grits. The whole thing was seasoned with truffle, manchego cheese and sherry. Think about how much corn you have eaten in your lifetime – this redefined it for me. We were told that this was the next to last night it would be served as the seasons were changing. When asked how they were able to get the corn off the cob yet have it hold its shape, the secret is that the whole cob is dipped in clarified butter so that the kernels can be sliced off but still stick together.

The sixth course arrived on pieces of wood that used to be barrel staves. It was trout in white pepper, coriander and broccoli. Outside of eating off a stick (we asked and were told the staves were cleaned in the dishwasher and then burnt with a torch) in the middle were pieces of bone – a small bit of spine and the plate near the cheek of the fish. We were told that, indeed, this was food. It was surprisingly tasty, although I think I cut my tongue a little on the spiny bit. This was paired with a Chablis (Laurent Tribut 2011) that I quite liked.

Flowers made up the seventh course, mainly lilies, with rambutan and a caviar lime sauce.

Now at the halfway point, the staff brought out two stone plates topped with pieces of wood. They set these on fire, and the smoke and light added a nice ambiance.

Course number eight featured matsutake mushrooms, which I adore. It was served with a number of sweet flavors, including a huckleberry foam and tapioca. In keeping with the Japanese association with this food, the pairing was sake, Tensei “Song of the Sea” Junmai Ginjo-shu (Kumazawa Shuzo, Kanagawa-ken). I loved the food but just liked the sake (I’m pretty particular about sake).

The ninth course was a bit of a surprise. The wood/fire centerpieces, which had now gone out, were dissected and out of them came our food. It was charred pork belly served with compressed parsnip. Yummy. It was served with our first red of the evening, Donkey and Goat “Testa Vineyard” Carignane (Mendocino 2013), which was very nice.

Dish number ten was also unusual. It was a warm butter-based broth served in a small, concave bowl made of wax (it reminded me of nothing less than a huge contact lens). Suspended above it on a steel pin was a piece of potato and truffle. You were told to pull the pin, causing the items on it to fall into the broth and then eat the whole thing in a shot. Tasty, but I spilled a little of mine. I believe it was on the table for about 450ms before someone had wiped it up.

The last mainly savory dish of the night was squab. Served on a piece of dark wood that looked like the top of a tree trunk, the roasted squab was served with carrot, potato, beet and an orange sauce. There was also a piece of squab liver as well. The pairing was another red, Valpolicella Classico Superiore (Tomasso Bussola 2009) which complemented the meat well.

The twelfth dish started the transition to sweet. Called “graffiti” it was a hazelnut candy, like a praline, served with balsamic vinegar on a matching piece of gray stone. This was the only misstep by the staff. Ron doesn’t like balsamic vinegar but they missed his request not to spray it on. I like balsamic but this dish was only “good” for me. The pairing, however, was a Vergano Chinato Moscato “Luli”. Lately I’ve become enamoured of sweet dessert wines like Sauternes and this Moscato was delicious. I’ll seek it out when I get home.

Probably the oddest dish (in an evening of odd dishes) was dish number thirteen. Featuring blueberries, part of the dish was a foam made from Bubble Yum™ chewing gum. I double-checked to make sure we could eat it. Believe it or not, it really worked. The pairing was another Muscat wine, Jorge Ordonez “Victoria” (Muscat, Malaga 2013) which I liked considerably less than the Vergano, but it was still good.

If you read about the Alinea, you’ll often see pictures of transparent white balloons. That was our fourteenth course of the evening. Made with a green apple candy, the balloons are served filled with helium with a taffy string. The way we would told to eat this was to try and suck the helium out of the balloon and then talk. Yes – fun with food. It is this kind of whimsy that made the evening worthwhile, and the fact that in the end you could eat pretty much everything was also a plus.

The final course was the most elaborate. We all moved to one side of the table which was then covered in a large rubber sheet. The head chef himself, Grant Achatz, came out and using about 15-20 small dishes painted our final course directly on the table. It was a combination of tropical fruit flavors. There was mango, passion fruit, compressed melon, a coconut meringue flash frozen in liquid nitrogen, a kaffir lime “candy” with edible wrapper, roasted banana, pineapple – and I forget what else. The chef was professional if not extremely outgoing. I was so busy watching him and his associate work (the table size required two people) that he was there and gone before I knew it.

The final wine pairing was a Passito di Pantelleria (Fernandes 2006) which I honestly can’t remember. It was at this time I first looked at my watch and realized that four hours had passed.

Leaving the restaurant was as efficient as our arrival. Not only were our coats and bags waiting for us, so was Ron’s car and two taxis for the rest of the group.

If you are into food and can make it to Chicago I can highly recommend the Alinea. Better yet, if you have some amazing friends like I have in Ron, Colleen, Demetri and Cat (plus my BFF Andrea) it will be an experience to remember. Yes, it is pricey, but one of the keys to happiness is to buy experiences and not things.

In that realm I am a very rich and happy man.

Fear of France

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

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.