Friday, August 29, 2003

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

With Mars at its closest to Earth in hundreds of years, a renewed interest in astronomy led me to Celestia, free software that lets you explore hundreds of stars, planets, asteroids, and more. My favorite feature is the "go to" button that takes you on a trip to your heavenly destination, flying at many times the speed of light to get there. My only regret is that I live in stargazing-unfriendly Manhattan, and that even if the lights were turned off again (please, no more blackouts!), there are still too many tall buildings between me and the western horizon for me to be able to see Mars. I missed Halley's Comet in 1986, so this one is no big tragedy for me. (That time, it was my own ineptness: I looked for several weeks, but either I was looking in the wrong part of the sky or the moon obscured it, because I never did see that comet. Thanks a lot, Odyssey Magazine.)

Fans of The Daily Show will recognize the characters at this web site from a recent re-airing of a Mo Rocca interview. Don't miss the "about" page with the complete display of posters in the ad campaign. My favorite is "Transmission." I can't believe these posters are actually visible around San Francisco, or that people thought that the campaign would be effective. I look forward to the cartoons featuring the characters in the posters. I'd say more but I like to keep this blog PG-13 so you'll have to click on the link to learn more.

Monday, August 25, 2003

On Wednesday we got our PVR cable box from Time Warner. It hasn't changed our lives yet, but we're getting there. So far we've recorded episodes of the Simpsons, Futurama, some soaps, and a few of the Adult Swim shows on Cartoon Network. I love the ability to pause and rewind live TV programs whenever I miss a line of dialogue or action. And the best part is the price: $7.95 on top of the digital cable charges, no equipment fees. So instead of buying a TiVo and figuring out how to wire it into my system, I got a box from Time Warner that does almost all of the same functions, for much less money. The only thing it doesn't do is let you record any program featuring any actor or genre you like. But I can live without the collected works of William Shatner collecting on my box's hard drive.

Friday, August 15, 2003

Now that the power is back (for now? I hope it stays on!), I thought you might want to hear what happened to me, and later, us.

Yesterday afternoon, I was at my desk, enjoying a frappuccino from the Starbucks in my building's lobby, when the overhead lights went out. The computers and lights in our cubicles stayed on, so at first we thought someone had just turned off the lights in the computer room (there are light switches for our office outside in the computer room itself). Then I noticed that the large A/C units in the room were off as well. Our desks, PCs, and servers are all on a large battery backup system, that's why they stayed on. Maybe it was just our room, I thought. No, the rest of the floor was off too. Then came the announcement from the building management that the power was off in the entire building. Immediately, I packed up my laptop and grabbed my cell phone and Blackberry off my desk. If we were about to evacuate, I wanted to have everything with me. I was also thanking God that I hadn't waited a few more minutes to get my coffee, or else I could have been stuck in the elevator.

Then my boss told us to start shutting off the file servers gracefully, so that the battery system could stay up longer. For the next two hours, we shut down servers, figured out what we wanted to leave running as long as possible, and I watched the local news over the Internet. Our Internet connections and firewalls were still up, so as long as I didn't have anything important to do, I relayed news to others. The biggest debate was between marketing people and our web site management group, about what message to put on the firm web site and how to get it there.

Finally, around 6:15, my boss announced that we had done all we could and that we were leaving. We raided the cafeteria for water and snacks: I took a few bananas, some almonds, and water bottles. One guy loaded up his duffel bag with all sorts of junk before my boss told him to stop. Damn looters. :) We walked down to the 19th floor where someone offered us a ride on the freight elevator the rest of the way. The elevator got us to the 5th floor and stopped there, so we walked the rest of the way down.

So it was about 6:30 when I set off with David, who lives at 1st and 64th, about 24 blocks south of me, and Hazem, who was the looter I mentioned before. In addition to the food, he also carried his laptop and his smelly gym clothes in his bag. I kept cursing myself for hauling my own laptop with me, but guess what I'm e-mailing you from now? Anyway, we walked up Broadway to City Hall, then went up Center Street past the courthouses, to Lafayette Street, to Fourth Avenue, to Park Avenue at 14th Street. Along the way we kept trying to call our wives on our cell phones, to no avail. Hazem's Blackberry/cell phone combo device died on him, so he kept stopping to find paper clips or other pointy objects with which to poke its tiny "reset" switch. We passed a massive crowd heading for the Brooklyn Bridge, lots of people walking in both directions, and all sorts of signs of New Yorkers helping each other out. One mission near Canal Street moved its food service outside and gave dinner to anyone who wanted it. Lines at payphones and sidewalk vendors were orderly, and the bars were crowded with people who either gave up walking home or lived in the area.

Around 14th St. Hazem stopped at a payphone to try and call his cell phone provider for help. David and I left him there; David said he was slowing us down with his huge bag. At 23rd St. we turned and headed east to 1st Avenue. By now the sidewalk traffic was mostly moving north and the car traffic was severely backed up, with everyone trying to get to the Queensboro Bridge to Queens or further uptown. At a few intersections, regular folks helped the cops direct traffic. Past the Bridge at 60th Street the car traffic almost disappeared, and with no streetlights, it was extremely dark. But there were still plenty of people on the streets, and most of the restaurants were open by candlelight, so we were able to find our way. David went home and I was on my own for the last 25 blocks. My pocket flashlight showed me the way, especially up the dark stairs to my apartment. Liz was just fine when I got there, though she was a little scared and a lot lonely, with just the cats for company. I got home at 9:10, about 2 hours and 45 minutes after I left my office. Today, my legs and back are sore, but not excessively so. I may forego a big bike ride this weekend, though.

We spent the rest of the evening trying to keep cool and listening to the party outside in front of the bar downstairs. Around 11:30, for me much earlier than usual, we blew out the only candle we had and went to bed.

Partly because of the heat, and because of the situation, I slept for a long time, but I kept dreaming of the power coming back on when we woke up. Unfortunately, it wasn't. We took cold showers and ate energy bars for breakfast, not daring to open the fridge to see how the food was doing. About 11:30 we ventured out. While lots of businesses were closed, many others were open, including grocery stores and delis. Heading south down Lexington Avenue, we were about to turn and head for Central Park when I noticed that the stoplights were on a few blocks down. Around 75th Street, the power was on, so we stopped in a store to get an extra flashlight, another candle, and a transistor radio. For me, the worst part of the situation wasn't the lack of power, it was the lack of communication. The last news reports I'd heard were at 6 PM the night before, and waking up I had no idea if the power problems were getting better or worse. We found a pizza restaurant on 2nd Avenue that was serving everything but pizza, so we had lunch there. (Apparently the pizza oven chefs hadn't made it to Manhattan yet.) After lunch, finding no other place with power and room for us to sit down, we went home, around 2:30 PM. We still had no power, so we napped, listened to news reports, and read. Finally, a few minutes before 6 PM, I heard a few beeps and buzzes, and saw the LED panels on our electronics light up. On the street, people cheered and cars honked as lights went on in the restaurants and stores.

Life will get back to normal in short order. Unless I hear otherwise, I'm supposed to be at work tomorrow morning at 7 AM to turn the computers back on. Hopefully I won't be there long and I can try to enjoy the rest of the weekend. Our cell phones are working again, but circuits are still busy. If you left me a message, I'll check it when I can.

Friday, August 08, 2003

The new Led Zeppelin album is incredible. It sounds like Zep is playing a concert at my desk. I loved the BBC Sessions album from a few years back; I think I've found its replacement in my CD/MP3 rotation.

On the return flight from Frankfurt I watched "Down With Love" which was a charming romantic comedy, and a few minutes of the end of "X2." Then, to keep my good mood going, I broke out the laptop and watched the director's cut of "Almost Famous." That's still one of my favorite movies of all time, and it always makes me smile and cry at the same time. Yes, I admit I get a little broken up watching it. Maybe the plane was dusty. This time around, I really liked the kid from "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" who plays the rabid Zeppelin fan. I hadn't noticed before, but he's wearing a shirt that reads "To be a rock and not the road" on the front and "Have you seen the bridge?" on the back. How Zep-fan geeky is that? I want that shirt.

Monday, August 04, 2003

We spent all day Sunday in the office working, finishing up the bits of work we didn't do on Saturday. By 7 PM we were all done, so we went to a restaurant on the other side of the river for dinner. It's been extremely hot here for the past few days, and though our table was inside, the restaurant had large doors to the patio wide open and our table was just inside the door. So we sweated through a delicious meal. I had sea bass over orange-ginger risotto and a raspberry mousse with mango ice cream for dessert. I enjoyed playing "name that tune" while listening to the pianist: he played continuously for about 45 minutes at a time, with everything from old jazz standards to Gershwin to "Strangers in Paradise" to Paul Simon's "The Boxer."

I'm back in the office again today, but there's not too much for me to do. At lunch I'm planning to buy some chocolate to take home, and I might take the tourist elevator to the top of the Main Tower to take some pictures. I uploaded a few more pictures last night, and I'll put more up today.

They have all these little cars here that look like go-karts or bumper cars. I can't believe how popular they are. The "SMART" car looks small enough that I could drive it into my hotel room and pack it in my carry-on bag. There's a sports car convertible version that looks slightly better, but I don't think I'd buy one. The "KA" is just ugly. There are few SUVs on the roads; in fact, I'm not sure I've seen one, but my colleague here says that he has seen a BMW version. There's nothing like the Lincoln Navigator or Ford Excursion here. But they do have plenty of bikes. There are on-street bike lanes, and on the busy streets, bikes share the sidewalk with pedestrians. I keep expecting to be run over by a cyclist, but they go slowly enough that there aren't any accidents. There are also these rent-a-bikes parked every so often on the sidewalks. You use your cell phone (also called "handy" over here) to call the number printed on the bike (or or send an SMS message, we're not sure), and give them the serial number printed on the bike lock. You get an unlock code in response, and the bike is yours for however long you need it. When you're done, you lock it up again, and I suppose you call back to let them know where you left it. The charges could go to your credit card, but I bet they put them on your cell phone bill. Anyway, pictures of some of the cars and the bike should be available at my Webshots URL (see below) by the time you read this.

I'm ready to go home. I like traveling, but I want to sleep in my own bed again and do my own cooking. Besides, the relaxed schedule of the office here and the convenience of staying in a hotel less than five minutes from the office is too soft. It doesn't feel like I'm actually working while I'm here. And all the rich food is undoing the good work I've put in on my bike and in the gym. Getting back to New York will put my whole system back in order, and I'm looking forward to that. And, of course, I miss Liz and the cats. They're the best reason for wanting to go home.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

Saturday's upgrade work went well, after some initial troubles and worries. We've got to go back tomorrow to finish a few things, but the bulk of the job is done. I was too busy most of the day to upload pictures, but I should definitely have spare time tomorrow. I don't have to be in the office until 10 AM, so I even get to sleep in a little. After spending all day indoors, I didn't want to go straight back to my room, so I sat out on the hotel terrace enjoying a beer and the night air before a late dinner. I didn't eat until after 11 PM, but the food and the atmosphere were worth the wait. Tomorrow night, the locals have promised us a big dinner to celebrate the success of the project. "Excellent."

Friday, August 01, 2003

I've posted some pictures from Thursday on my Webshots page. You can see the meal I had yesterday for lunch, the office tower where I'm working, and a few of the sights of Frankfurt. I'll post some more pictures on Saturday when there's a lull in the work.

Today wasn't too interesting. Thai food for lunch, Chinese for dinner, both in the same street where there are many different restaurants with sidewalk service. We did some more prep work for tomorrow's upgrade, but they're well prepared here, so there hasn't been much to do. I have to be up extra early tomorrow, so I'm back at my hotel flipping through the channels and trying to understand German TV.

I haven't tried speaking German yet. Everyone we've dealt with at restaurants and shops has spoken English as soon as I or my colleague start talking. I felt bad for the girl behind the counter at Haggen-Daz tonight, where we got some ice cream for dessert. When I asked her how much, I could see she knew the amount in German, but had to think what it would be in English. I wanted to hold up some euro notes and say "just take the one you need." But after a few seconds she figured out the number.

After lunch we took a walk from the restaurant row down to the river, where there are carnival booths and rides set up for the festival that begins tonight. There were several booths selling different kinds of sausage, like currywurst and paprikawurst. There were others that were even more unappetizing. There may have been a tunawurst, or maybe it was tuna pizza. Either way, I'm not interested.