My Life

Spring in Vienna

Spring is officially underway in Vienna. This means 20°C days, eating and drinking outside like civilized people (or barbarians depending on your level of technological advancement), and wearing less clothes. Though the last one is more on an Irish thing at the moment. I think the Austrians will only really start to ditch jackets and hats, and embrace short sleeve and showing off their legs when things go over 25°C.

Anyway today Laura and I took the opportunity to enjoy what would be an Irish summer’s day (22°C), on the 2nd of April. We needed some meat and some stuff for a picnic tomorrow so we went to the Naschmarkt. While there we took the opportunity to have a nice fish lunch and I had my first Aperol Spritzer of the season.

Aperol Spritzer in Vienna

Aperol Spritzer in Vienna’s Naschmarkt. Sony Ericsson X10 Mini Pro, SK.

It seems to be something of a signature Vienna summer drink. It was much later in the summer when I discovered them last year. They are a nice alternative to beer, and in a little while I will put a recipe for one up here.

My perfect gadget?

I had a tweet about a device I want, but can’t have earlier today:

I want a tablet computer with 3G connection pen input sunlight viewable screen and week long battery life for less than €300

I thought I should expand on that a bit. I have a desktop PC at home, a laptop for work, a netbook for the sitting room, and an android phone. That is probably too many gadgets already. But each fits nicely in it’s niche. I do travel a lot though, and I spend my time on trams, planes, buses and waiting in terminals reading magazines and books. It isn’t practical to haul the laptop out for email, rss, twitter, or casual web surfing so I use the phone, but the screen is a bit small for comfort. So I would want a device that functions as an e-reader, can view and respond to email, and has a web browser. But it has to be bigger than a phone, and less bulky than a laptop, and it has to have built in 3G as who wants a dongle, or to be tied to WiFi islands?

Why a tablet, and what size of one? At my desk I have my laptop. There is no argument that the keyboard is the fastest and most efficient way to enter data. But I also have a Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch tablet (250mm x 175mm). That is invaluable for making notes when I have one hand on the phone, for annotating Power Point slides, and for sketching out diagrams. Rather than paper, I use it for all my notes together with software that allows me to search my scrawls electronically. I started using it about 3 months ago and you would have a fight to take it off me now. The only place it isn’t used is in meetings. There the bulk of the laptop acts as a barrier between you and others, it looks odd, and carrying two devices is not convenient. Instead I have a Paperblanks notebook that is 130mm by 230mm, about the size of a DVD case. Important stuff gets transcribed into the laptop via the tablet after the meeting.

A proper tablet PC would merge the two functions of being a full computer with the option of pen input, but that isn’t an option that work offers me. And the size and bulk would still be a bit of a nuisance to haul out on a tram. Instead I would want something about the size and weight of my Paperblanks notebook (or the Wacom tablet), and would weigh less than 500g. It needs to have pen input, as that is the best way to enter data one handed. One handed typing just isn’t a runner, and I stopped writing with my fingers when I was in infants. Software wise it should automatically sync my handwritten notes on my main machine.

The other key features, are a screen that is really visible without difficulty in bright daylight, so no the iPad will not cut it. And it needs to have a stonking battery life. If I am away somewhere for a couple of weeks I don’t want to worry about charging it if I am taking things easy on wireless usage. My ideal price point for such a magical device is about €300, as it is meant to be a supplement to all my other gadgets.

Does it exist? Of course not. But maybe in 5 years it will. The problem then is what do you do if you don’t have the ideal device? What sort of compromises should you be willing to make. After my post today I did some checking on the Amazon Kindle or the Sony Reader Touch. Depending on the version and how I got it (*cough* direct from the US without paying tax) they would be between €100 and €200. The Kindle lets say ticks a lot of the boxes, being right on size, battery life, weight, screen readability and it would even offer some of the web functionality I want, but…

It isn’t in colour, and it certainly doesn’t do pen input. The latter is a real mystery. I helped launch pen input tablet PCs for Microsoft 10 years ago. The technology has been there for a decade in high end devices, and in the likes of the Palm and Sony Ericsson phones at the middle and low too. But in the rush to launch tablets and iPad wannabes no one is going for the killer function of the pen! The other big problem with the eReaders is the whole DRM mess. Whenever I meet a person raving about eReaders I have a run a little conversation with them which usually goes like this:

SK: So read anything good recently?
eReader Supporter: Yeah, I just finished such_and_such.
SK: Oh right, I heard that is good. Could you lend it to me?
eReader Supporter: ehhhh

Books by their nature, tradition, and purpose are to be shared. But the DRM restrictions applied to them means the “rights” getting protected are not those of the purchasers and readers. My worry is that by giving my money to the likes of Amazon or Sony for these devices I am effectively backing their strategies.

Now I have seen there is software like Calibre for scraping files and making them into ebooks (perfect for the Irish Times or The Economist), and there is even a eBook lending library in Dublin. But if I buy a shelf of real books they remain mine even if I drop my eReader under a bus or the company that sold it to me goes bust, and I can lend them or resell them legally. Not so with ebooks and that is a major restriction to buying them.

You might have noticed I didn’t whinge about the price of ebooks. That’s because I read this good article from Charlie Stross on the industry.

For now, I need to go away and have a think. Is 2nd best good enough?

Funnily enough on the tram home, as I was thinking about all of this I noticed the guy opposite me was reading from an Amazon Kindle. If I was the supersititious, fate believing kind I would have said it was a sign. I just thought it was an amusing coincidence :)

Tokyo street

A video I shot from a cafe window when I was there the year before last. It is 5 minutes of not much happening, just street life, so don’t expect robots, rampaging monsters, bizzarely costumed youths or anything like that. I just liked the idea of taking a snapshot of total normality. That may be more valuable to people in 100 years than the weird stuff.

Tokyo street from a cafe near the Asakusa shrine. Kodak Zi8, SK.

And no, no earthquakes either. I wasn’t aware of the big one in Japan this morning when I uploaded the video to youtube.

Temptation denied

Temptation denied

Temptation denied. Canon powershot A590, SK.

Somethimes you can’t trust people (or yourself) to keep away from temptation. Then more severe measures are required.

To vote or not to vote

Here’s a question; Am I an emigrant? I have been living in Austria for a year, I work and pay taxes here, but at the same time our family home is in Dublin, and we plan to return at some stage.

It is sort of important to know, as you could argue that it has a bearing on whether Laura or I should vote in the upcoming election.

I have three questions around this event.

  • Should I vote?
  • Who would I vote for?
  • Can I vote?

Personally I believe emigrants should have a vote. But I don’t think that it should last forever. A person who has only left the country in the last 12 months should be entitled to vote, and there should be a mechanism to allow them to do so from abroad. But someone who has been gone 5 years should forfeit that right. Your ties fade with time, and those who have effectively moved away for good can’t expect to have the same voice in deciding things like laws or taxes.

The next question is who to vote for? I am unusual in that I primarily vote on national issues, and party positions rather than the strength of the local candidate*. Unfortunately I can’t really get enthused by any of the choices on offer. Fianna Fail is out for their disastrous mismanagement of the economy over the last 10 years. The Greens because of their positions on GM foods and incineration, the Shinners because their are the Shinners. The choice then is Labour or Fine Gael. I do believe (and the expert opinion agrees) the FG position of favouring spending cuts over tax increases is better for the economy in the long run. And Labour continues to surprise me at their level of economic ignorance or willful deception of the electorate, as well as taking the daft view that government can create jobs. But to me political reform to prevent such a mess happening again is as important as a plan for tackling it now. And here Fine Gael’s plan is pretty much “things are grand today, so lets just tweak a bit”. Do you think that if a decade ago we had abolished the Seanad and had 20 less TDs we wouldn’t be in the shit today? It all leaves me underwhelmed, and frankly feeling that if there is no candidate worth voting for, why should I make the trip home?

That leaves me with the last question; Can I vote? Fortunately this one provides me with help on the other two. I checked the register, and I am no longer on it. I guess the government feels I am an emigrant. So I won’t be booking a flight, and I don’t have to feel guilty about it.

* Which is a shame for Ivana Bacik. I would vote for her in a flash if she was independent or FG.

What gets your traffic

It must be because it is election season, but a post of mine from July 2009 is getting a lot of traffic these days. Back then I was having a rant about Dun Laoghaire and Richard Boyd Barett of the socialst workers party people before profit alliance. It got a few comments at the time. and then I thought little of it. Except the comments kept coming in. One in January last year, another in May, two in July, and now 17 since December. I was wondering what was driving all the traffic so I did a little googling.

On the 25th of January I was the 6th item on the list for RBB. I checked again this morning and I am up to second place, after Wikipedia, and right before his website. There it is, the screaming headline that RBB “is an enemy of the people”. It’s an accidental google bomb. Although I still stand over my sentiments at the time. And if you re-read the article you will see that I was right about the Carlisle pier not being demolished, and Stena have not bought Dun Laoghaire harbour, as dumb an idea as you will ever hear outside of a meeting for people thrown out of a conspiracy theory conference for being too weird.

I am happy to see the comments and the discussion. As long as people are not shilling for some products, or being personally abusive I am don’t mind providing this forum to all takers, whether I agree with their views or not. Although I reserve the right to give abuse to, and delete posts from people using txt spk which I think is a sign of laziness.

I do have another post that continues to attract traffic years after it went up – Holy shit, would you look at the size of that thing! from August 2006. That one was about a big spider I found in the house in Shankill. It has 37 comments and is number three in google if you search for “Giant Spider Ireland”. Surprisingly I don’t appear under “big spider ireland” so I guess people feel my example of Tegeneria Gigantea was on the massive side of big.

Belief and images.

Clearing my RSS feeds this morning I came across this video.

It’s a standard enough peace in the battle between free thought, and reason and the opposing perspective of faith, credulity and religious coercion. The song (lyrics here) is harmless enough.

What originally caught my eye though was the question: “What do we believe”. I have been asked it myself by the religiously inclined. The assumption behind the question being that if you don’t believe in God you don’t believe in anything. Well, I believe in lots of things. God(s) just don’t happen to be among them. I’d agree with the sentiment in the video which I would summarise as “no truth without proof”. Though when asked by the particularly insistent type of faith peddler I say “I believe people should think for themselves”.

The other thing that caught my eye in the video was about 4 seconds of imagery at 2:10 into the video. It is a clip of the second plane slamming into the Twin Towers. Nearly 10 years on that is still a shocking sight. Maybe it’s that specific clip, but the speed of the impact, and understanding of the physical size of the aircraft and the huge building make it so arresting. Seeing it again stopped me in my tracks*.

In one way it is scary to think we live in a world where people believe their religion gives them justification to do such a thing**. And on the flip side, you also have to look at the outcome of that event as well. It could have been a trigger for change, an opportunity to turn a tragedy into a wake up call, and a movement to a better world. Instead it was squandered for personal and political gain by so many and led to a decade of fear, and war.

Still, looking at events in Tunisia and Egypt, there is hope that people can make things better. Despite the fears of worst case outcomes you have to hope for the best, and bet that the values we believe in most strongly will win out in the long run. What are those beliefs? I would say:

I believe that people have the right to personal freedom, and to be let find their own way in life, without coercion from dictators, fundamentalists, or others who think they know better.

Looking at the long course of human history, despite occasional setbacks, that is the way humanity been going – to greater freedom. And that’s why I remain an optimist.

* It also reminded me of a pithy quote I collected in the years since:

“I’m not convinced that faith can move mountains, but I’ve seen what it can do to skyscrapers.” — William Gascoyne

** I’d never make a suicide bomber myself. Apart from the fact I don’t have strong enough convictions, and I believe it’s more important to live for a cause that to kill/die for it, I would be too curious to find out what was the fallout of my actions.

Of wood floors, Afghanistan and my vices.

Houses in Vienna seem to all be fitted with wood floors. Carpets mean rugs, so there are plenty of Afghan/Persian rug shops around town. The rugs in our house come in two varieties. Cheap as (and probably made from) sackcloth ones out of Ikea, and a big 3m^2 genuine Afghan rug which was acquired in that country and given to us as a sort of wedding gift*.

Now I think I have mentioned before that I am something of a cheapskate, and I really don’t have any self indulgent vices. Anyone who knows me and comes to our house would know straight away that the paintings on the walls have to be Laura’s, and that the rug couldn’t have come from me.

Lately I have developed a bit of an interest in all thing Afghanistan. I have been reading books, wathing films and so on. I even have developed a terrible desire to visit the country. Though not great enough a desire to risk life and limb doing so. Anyway, Laura tipped me off about a nearby shop which sells Afghani merchanise. I thought I would drop in this morning.

The owner was down the back playing a zitar when I arrived which was a nice touch. To the front was jewelry, hats, some furniture, and down the back he had carpets. He spoke good English and we got to chatting. I have a vague idea that maybe I might get a cheap prayer mat to use when doing my back exercises. The irony of an athiest prostrating themselves on an Islamic prayer rug daily amuses me greatly.

So we had a look though his piles of rugs, I confess I think I was smitten. Many of them were absolutely beautiful. And not just the amazing silk and fine wool ones with 100 stitches per square cm. Even a simply patterned, two colour one from Baluch was attractive. It is just a shame that the cheapest was €150. I am slightly worried that this could become my vice. I mean a good Afghan rug is an investment isn’t it? It would appreciate in value, and just look at the quality. Hmmm, who am I trying to convince here?

I didn’t buy this time, but I did see one or two I quite like. Some self justification and thought will be needed. Back at home I did some research, and I did come across this tale from a Canadian in Afghanistan who sounds a note of caution…

“There is more complexity, contradiction, misinformation, and dishonesty in the carpet trade than any other business I can think of with the exception of mobile phone contracts.”

…but still enjoys the experience of buying his rug in Kabul. If I take the plunge, I doubt my rug buying experience will be as colourful in boring Vienna but I might get some tale from the acquiring anyway.

* Bit of a story there but I would have to check do I have permission to share it first.

The Twitter

Slight change to earlier post. Following complaints I have changed my Twitter ID. Now you can find me on SK_00001.

More drivel there that you can shake a shovel at.

Vienna by night, and by snow

Had to fix this one:

Vienna Street in the snow

Vienna street in the snow. Canon EOS300D, SK.

This was a photo I took on the 3rd of December of the street in front of our apartment building. Everywhere was covered in snow (we were told it was unusually heavy amounts of snow for Vienna before the end of the year), the Christmas lights were on, and the streets were empty. If was very festive.

Unfortunately Vienna is subject to foehn winds. These blow down off the eastern side of the Alps and are warm, and dry. They can raise temperatures by 10-15°C in a day. They are fatal for the white stuff, so they are known as “snow eaters”. A foehn a couple of days later melted all the snow, about 25cm of it, in 48 hours. And that was the last we have seen of snow since.

Over Christmas and new year it was cold, still keeping down below zero, and occasionally down to -7°C. But it remained dry, and January has been mild (even days of 12°C) and damp. I miss the snow. It turns out that the snowy conditions which Vienna had last spring were not the norm.

So for now we are stuck with grey gloomy weather, though it is drier than in Ireland. And we should get at least one more dump of snow in Vienna before the winter is out. I guess if if I want a proper snow-on-the-ground-for-3-months winter I will have to go to Sweden. Maybe the next assignment…

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