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Seamus K - Irish tech industry expat living in Sweden.

9 Things I learned Driving Across Europe from Stockholm to Vienna and Back.

Tomorrow I will hop on a plane from Stockholm to Vienna. It will take 2 hours and 10 minutes to make the 1288km trip. Of course it takes a bit longer to drive it. About 2 days. I know as I drove down with my father before Christmas, and I brought the car back two weeks ago.

In the spirit of click bait articles all over the internet here is my 9 things I learned driving between Stockholm and Vienna.

Wind Turbine blade1 – You see weird things. On the final stretch into Stockholm I saw a car on fire by the side of the motorway. It barely rated a yawn after 40 hours of driving where I saw everything from roadside brothels (Czech), to huge free range chicken farms (Germany), to gigantic wind turbine blades being moved by road.

No speed limits in Germany2 – You can tell what country you are in by their drivers. Czech drivers were the worst – aggressive, erratic and impatient. Germans were the fastest, but then much of the time there were no speed limits. And Swedes are by far the politest, most laid back drivers there are. I doubt the horn is even connected in their Volvos.

3 – Sweden is EXTREMELY boring to drive in. Malmo to Stockholm is about 6 and a half hours of trees. Swedes have so much space they don’t need to put motorways near built up areas. So other than 15 minutes looking at the lake near Jonkoping, and the sights near the Saab aircraft factory outside Linkoping, it’s nothing but trees, for hour after hour. I told the north of the country is even more boring. Somehow.

GPS map4 – GPS is wonderful, but.. Our children will not know the family rows our parents had driving on the continent with paper maps and trying to find the bloody Formula 1 hotel which you can see but can’t figure out how to get to. However it is not infallible. This I discovered when I found myself routed down a tiny Czech back road. I wasn’t the first to find themself there, as I was saved by a handwritten “Dresden” stuck on a stop sign which put me back on the right road.

5 – The whole journey is much easier if you sleep. Be sure to do the sleeping before you get in the car though. My biggest worry (other than snow) was getting tired and dozing off. I banked sleep for a few days beforehand and paced myself. Mostly it was 2 hour stretches then stop for coffee or food, and a driver swap if available. Only once on the trip did I feel tired, and then it was just for a few minutes. Boredom turned out to be the real challenge. But there is a solution to that.

6 – Music Music Music. When you are on your own it can be boring (see above about Sweden and trees). I found music made a big difference. I played my music collection off my phone, and was happily able to tunelessly scream out whatever I wanted. It did teach me I need to freshen up my music collection though.

Early start7 – The drive is easier when you have the road to yourself. So start as early as possible each day. I left Vienna at around 0600 on a Sunday so I didn’t see any real traffic until about about lunch time. By that stage I was across Austria, Czech, and all the way into Germany. The following day I had a 0600 ferry to Denmark, and was driving there at 0800. It was much easier as well to deal with driving in the dark when it is early in the day and you are fresh. Better that than after you have been going for 12 hours. The early starts meant some light early morning fog was the only problem. Which brings me to the weather…

8 – Between bad drivers and bad weather, I’d prefer to deal with the former. The weather was the one concern I had planning the trip. I was most worried about running into snow on the way which would totally kill my schedule. It turned out the greatest difficulties were heavy rain heading out of Stockholm on the first leg. It made for tiring driving and I was glad I could swap regularly with my father. On the return, snow and cold caused some problems. It had snowed across most of Europe the day before I left Vienna, but the next two days were when all that snow melted. Which meant slush, wet roads, and all sorts of muck thrown up on the windscreen. I had to refill the screen wash three times in 2 days to cope!

9 – It is good to be an Engineer – Being an Engineer I had a good car (Audi A6 with a petrol engine), which was well maintained, and equipped (winter tyres) so it was comfortable, reliable, and built for this type of driving. It also meant I knew what to do when I had my scariest incident on the road in the Czech republic.

At one point the road uses a causeway to cross a lake. The temperature went from +4C on the land to -4C over the lake in the space of about a kilometre. As the windscreen dropped in temperature it was suddenly coated on the inside by condensation. It happened so fast, and was so opaque I had to pull over. The car heater couldn’t clear it, even on full heat and blow. Being a good Engineer I figured the internal humidity was a  part of the problem. Once I brought in fresh dry air from outside the window cleared in about minute.

If there was a 10th thing, it is that this would have been a totally different proposition if I had the family with me. Synchronising everyone’s bladders, roadside dining timings and preferences, and getting them to tolerate my singing would have been far more challenging than the drive :-)

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I still have a vestigal coding instinct

 

code

I haven’t coded for years*. But I was drawn to this story in The Register about customers and scary code. One of their examples was of a piece of terrible code that it took two embarrassed engineers a week to figure out. I was chuffed that I saw what was wrong straight away. Can you?

  int SUCCESS = 1;
  int status = getStatus();
        
  logger.debug("Got Status:" + status);
  while(SUCCESS) {
    //Do all the clever things
            
    status = getStatus();
    logger.debug("Got Status:" + status);
  }

Maybe if this whole Cloud Strategy and Marketing thing doesn’t work out I can go back to being a coder.

* My last serious coding was probably in 2004 when I was working as an Oracle developer and DBA. I worked for Accenture at the time and the customer was a large European mobile operator. We were building them a system to integrate with an external loyalty card platform. I ran the team building the database and we also had to code all the stored procedures the devs working on the business layer were using. I had made the jump from Microsoft SQL Server to Oracle 9i running in Solaris. And after getting over the initial steep learning curve I loved all the control and power I now had over the environment. I ended up writing scripts to build, deploy and manage everything. No more check lists of Microsoft things to click on.

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A specific computer animation problem

At the risk of getting my newly rebooted blog a NSFW rating, I thought I’d share this interesting article on “breast physics” – all about the methods used to render them in computer games. It’s a good primer on some of the techniques and issues associated with generally rendering humans as well.

The 3D models use a skin stretched over “bones” and these elements have to be tweaked to produce boob motion as well as all the normal body ones. But there are constraints in terms of how many elements you can render with the computation power you have.

And there is the problem of – how do they actually move. It’s not something people routinely study, and practical observation to ensure you are doing a realistic job may be problematic.

“If you’re around animators working, you often will see them stand up, or they’ll ask someone they’re working with—they’re trying to watch the motion, they will film themselves doing that motion. Interestingly enough, I’ve never worked with any female animators.”

Interestingly development companies often focus test their character models, and women turn out to be the harshest judges of “breast physics”

“Across the board, [the response from women] wasn’t a neutral response, it was a negative response,” Alex said. Curiously, the negative response occurred both when the physics were unrealistic, and when the physics were turned off. It seems as if there’s a very fine line to walk when it comes to breast physics: they can’t be too exaggerated or too toned down without having people feel as if something is wrong”

I can’t say it is something I have paid much attention to in the past. But then individual character models are rare in strategy games. But it is noticeable how the rendering quality of character models has improved immensely in the last decade or two. From jerky sub-cartoonish models, and excessive exagerated limb movements, the computer rendered models you see in modern games line Uncharted are very very good. Not cinema quality, but getting there.

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Best site for raw US poll data

If you are following the US election circus, then the best site I have found to the raw opinion poll data is Real Clear Politics. They aggregate all the various national and local polls, and allow you to dive in and find what you want.

Where to get raw US political polling data - Real Clear Politics

Where to get raw US political polling data – Real Clear Politics

For analysis there is of course Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. He is the man who correctly predicted Obama’s election by looking at the actual data, when most other pundits were basing their opinions on what they wanted to happen.

But for my opinion the most accurate predictor of the US election outcome is Paddy Power. There you get the wisdom of crowds, reinforced by people actually putting their money on the outcomes!

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The free range, organic, paleo lifestyle

The Natural lifestyle

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Will there be a new Safe Harbour?

Since Safe Harbour fell last year it has been interesting watching the efforts to replace it. Max Schrems is to be congratulated for bringing to an end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to the previous arrangements. Now everyone seems to admit they were inadequate and a replacement is needed.

The trick is how to get there when there can be very different views on privacy, people’s rights (especially non citizens), and expectations around them.

One of the interesting perspectives I read about it all was this one from Ars Technica, which talks about the way the original CJEU ruling was framed. As they say:

The careful legal reasoning used by the CJEU to reach its decisions will make its rulings extremely hard, if not impossible, to circumvent, since they are based on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

So a fudge around tweaking existing laws or regulations will not be adequate.

Most of the discussion on the replacement have been happening behind closed doors, though there have been plenty of leaks. According to The Register the need for reform of Safe Harbour had been seen for a while, and suggestions had been made. However:

Not one of those recommendations was implemented by the US before the European Court of Justice struck down the agreement. Since October, occasional leaks over the negotiations have repeatedly pointed to intransigence on the part of the US intelligence services as the main stumbling block.

With the January 31st deadline about to expire things are down to the wire. I see now (via Jonathan King) that the US senate is pushing through legislation  which is supposed to boost protection that Europeans can enjoy in US courts.

Personally I am a bit concerned that the details of this protection seems pretty restrictive and limiting:

the right to request access to records shared by their governments with U.S. agencies in the course of a criminal investigation, correct those records if they are wrong, and sue if the records are illegally disclosed.

That does not seem to address the routine data slurping that has been occurring.

And the legislation is only with a senate committee. An actual vote, or one with the other chamber is not likely to happen any time soon. The questions I come away with are:

  • Will this actually get passed?
  • Will it be adequate?

And from a personal perspective, how do these new protections for EU citizens compare to the ones Americans get? The latest proposal matches legislation from the 1970s for US citizens. But they also get constitutional protection (in theory) from surveillance by their own state. That is not something Europeans can expect.

I will be surprised if we reach a solution in this before before the end of February. With the EU having to take action after than, companies are going to be looking for local solutions to protect themselves.

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Hiking in Sweden with Meetup.com

Being in a new country makes it hard to know where to go to for hikes and walks. Good for me then that I found the Stockholm Outdoor group on Meetup and they had a walk this weekend north of Stockholm.

As my first meetup I didn’t know what to expect. It turned out to be  a pretty mixed group. The leaders, and core were Swedes who have a love of walking hiking* and seem to be the regular organisers of events. Most of the rest are expats. Everyone I talked to had some degree of walking experience. It was pretty friendly group and it was easy to strike up conversations as you went along. Much like any hiking group really.

Swedish trail walking

The walk itself was along a route through the Runby nature reserve, and alongside Lake Mälaren. For the most part we were on a way marked trail. In Sweden this means that you could be on a road, or path, and sometimes you go cross country on slightly rougher ground. But there was nothing technical or unsuitable for children lets say. The trail was marked by orange paint spots and bird houses in trees. A map would be a good idea, but it would be very hard to get lost.

This being outside Stockholm it was pretty level. We went up one or two hills, but I doubt any of them was more than 60m high. Oh, and the weather was good. Cold (about freezing), but little wind, and other than one small snow/sleet shower it was dry and clear all day.

View over lake Mälaren.The scenery was pretty good. The start was in a suburb and then we headed into the woods. Much of the route skirted Lake Mälaren, so the views were nice. We had lunch on a small hill top which was the site of some iron age ruins, and we even passed a Swedish castle on the way home**.

A highlight though was seeing all the people skating on the lake. Most were doing the same thing we were – going on a long distance excursion, just on the ice. What I learned about this type of skating was:

  • You need a big rucksack to hold a full change of clothes and foot wear in a waterproof bag. It will help with buoyancy if you do fall in.
  • Ice can hold about 100kg per cm of thickness. But generally wait until it is 5cm thick before going out on it.
  • Today it was 20cm thick, so you could have driven on it!

Skaters on the ice at lage Mälaren.It was a good day out. I will definitely try and get hiking/walking with the group again. I did miss getting to go up something, but the walk and the company were worth the trip, and I will be back.

 

* I kept referring to it as a “walk” and I kept getting corrected. Probably residual snobbery from my mountaineering days, where if there isn’t at least 500m of ascent, it can’t actually be a hike.

** My tracker say 19.25km, with 390m ascent. Which apparently was 1400kcal burned with another 300 kcal cycling to and from the station. So I don’t feel guilty about the tea and biscuits I had back home.

All the photos:

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Star Wars – The Force awakens – what did I think?

Skellig Michael, when I visited it in 2006.

Skellig Michael, when I visited it in 2006.

I finally got to see the new Star Wars film this evening. The internet is flooded with spoliers so there weren’t too many secrets for me to learn (BTW, very mild spoliers here).

The opinions I had heard from friends were mixed, so I went in with a degree of trepidation. But I have to say that as things got going I started to enjoy myself. Yeah, the story is a total re-hash of the 1977 one. But you can forgive that if the scenes and spectacle are done well. And as the film went on, well I got more and more disappointed by it.

For every thing I saw that gave me a little smile, or an internal “nice” there were two that made me cringe, or go “that is just daft”. For the last half hour, during the climatic battle, I was just bored. I found myself checking my watch and being more worried about getting to the supermarket on the way home.

The highlight of the film had to be when the Skelligs appeared. I actually felt a lump appear in my throat. The Swede beside me in the cinema even went “Wow”. It’s funny that the most amazing spectacle in a CGI laden blockbuster was the two minute scene shot on an island with 1500 year old ruins that (AFAIK) were not tweaked.

Frankly the rest of it you can keep. The two new main characters were okay, but the rest were bad. A forgettable good guy (Poe), a villiain who quite literally was a petulant whiny teenager, another one who was like a reject from a b-list computer game (Snoke’s arm movements, and the gigantic size of the hologram just made him seem cartoonish, not intimidating). And there were the usual Star Wars WTF plot holes, things that make absolutely no sense, and the amazing coincidences that brings characters, props, and so on all together all the time.

And in a lot of the ways that was something that really felt wrong about the film. For all their faults Lucas’ Star Wars films felt BIG. There was a sense of scale to the sets, the planets and the universe that the characters lived in (if you overlook the fact that it’s set in a galaxy where only people with the family name Skywalker get to matter). After the opening scenes this film felt small. The Starkiller thing was an embarrasing example of this.

The overall impression I took away was that if the other Star Wars films never existed, and there hadn’t been the hype and expectation (not to mention the massive amount of marketing and product tie-ins), then this film would have been regarded as something like Guardians of the Galaxy – fun but forgettable.

I know there are 2 more to come in this series. They have a bit of a hill to climb if in the long run people don’t end up regarding these as another set of average sequels.

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Data Centres – the factories of the 21st century

One of Ericsson's global data centres outside Stockholm.

One of Ericsson’s global Data Centres outside Stockholm (it was snowing).

Yesterday I was at the opening of Ericsson’s new global data centre outside Stockholm. We were given a virtual tour of some of the building via an Oculus, and a real one through two of computer spaces. It was pretty impressive. Each of the computer spaces has a 4.5MW power capacity. And they can accommodate power densities of 10s of KW per rack (many legacy DCs struggle to go beyond 6-8 kW). The overall site is 20,000sqm and is one of three new global ICT centres Ericsson is bringing online at the moment.

Servers in ericsson data centre the 21st century factory

Foto: Ericsson/Lasse Hejdenberg

Back when I started my career, my first job out of college was in a factory working as a process engineer and production manager for the production lines there. A decade or two later my work is all focused around Data Centres and what goes on (and into) them. In a lot of the ways I am back where I started.

The industrial revolution gave us factories that built widgets that everyone bought. Even just twenty years ago your money would buy you real goods. Physical things you could touch and bring home. But now the greatest growth is in digital goods. Gamers pay for ad-ons like levels, maps, avatars, virtual weapons, clothing and vehicles. Children look for new apps for the family tablet. Music, podcasts, films, and books are streamed to billions of devices, and users never even hold a local copy. These are things exist only as 1s and 0s. And for the most part their existence is within a data centre somewhere.

In the enterprise the office server room is dead and gone. IT infrastructure and workloads are all moving to clouds – private ones in for large enterprises, and the vast hyperscale public clouds for companies large and small. Data is the key asset class today.

And the place where it is stored, manipulated, and value is generated from that data is the Data Centre. Which is why Data Centres are the factories of the 21st century.

I am not making moisturizer cream any more, but I like to think I am not too far from where I was 20 years ago.

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Irish journalists get worked up about Privacy – when it is theirs

Irish journalist are getting in a tizzy over some of their own having being monitored by the Gardaí (Police). Except they never seemed to care when the government put the entire country under surveillance in contravention of European Court of Justice  rulings. So much for the fifth estate. And kudos to Karin Lillington to pointing out their hypocrisy.

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