Praying for Things

I follow “God” on Twitter, @TheGoodGodAbove. (He’s on Facebook, too!) I’m not a religious person these days, but having been raised Christian and sent to a Catholic high school, I did learn a good bit about God. The thing I find interesting is that, as much as “God” on Twitter upsets more strict religious folks as heretical, I actually find his posts to be a better representation of what Jesus taught than I’m used to getting in church. His most recent post is something that strikes a chord with me:

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As a non-religious person, I’m left wondering what praying for the victims in Nepal even means. I guess you could pray that there won’t be more earthquakes to make things worse. You can’t pray that the whole thing will be undone, because if that worked, we wouldn’t have had the Holocaust or 9/11. About the only prayer that makes sense to me is that they’ll get speedy help.

As a religious person, I was irritated by something similar. I believed that God acted through us. Praying that God will wave a magic wand and make things better is cheating. If you’re praying that someone will help: be that someone, and go help. And if it’s not practical for you to fly to Nepal and help (and I’m quite sure we’d just be in the way if we did), donate to an organization that is helping.

But praying that God will have someone else help is cheating. Do it yourself. Put it down as “fulfilling your own prayers” if you’d like.

</religious rant by a non-religious person>

My favorite scanner calls

I’m a pretty avid police scanner listener. Over time, I’ve found that my favorite things to listen to aren’t always the serious incidents, but the downright bizarre ones, which are often for comparatively minor things.

The Lowell Goat

Knives

I never did figure out what happened, but a call went out dispatched like this:

See the caller at (redacted). She states that she keeps finding knives in her yard and would like to talk to someone about it.

I feel like I’d want to talk to the police about that, too.

Le Pigeon

Here is how I described this as I heard it on the scanner:

The police are now off on a call for “a man who squished a pigeon and ate it.” The caller said she worried this would be disturbing to children being dismissed from school in the area. The officer on scene has just requested backup. And animal control. And an ambulance. I am so very intrigued.

Chimney fire

I suspect this is far from an isolated incident, but a call went out in the town I grew up in for a neighbor who called 9-1-1 to report that his neighbor was having a chimney fire.

The fire department arrived to find a confused homeowner, and ascertained that there was not, in fact, a chimney fire. Instead, the neighbor saw smoke coming from a woodstove’s chimney and, for some reason, assumed it was a chimney fire.

Possible fire

While the fire department responds to every call as if it’s a real fire, I’ve sort of developed a mental hierarchy of the different ways calls are dispatched. From least-serious to most serious:

  1. “Central station alarm” (a “still alarm” in some other towns): a fire alarm went off and the fire department responds. I’ve heard that literally 99% of these are false alarms.
  2. A caller reporting “smoke in the building,” which has a much greater chance of being an actual incident. Not necessarily a full-blown fire, but the “smoke in the building” call gives reason to believe that it’s not an entirely errant alarm activation. Sometimes it’s a neighbor smelling smoke that turns out to be someone’s burnt lasagna on the stove, though.
  3. Working fire. There is, in fact, a fire in the building.

But one day, I heard a call go out for people in a store or restaurant reporting a “possible fire.” That one confused me, because I tend to think that a building is either on fire or isn’t. “Smoke in the building” represent uncertainty, but you also know why they think there’s fire—because they see/smell smoke. “Possible fire” conveys little information.

Then, this update from dispatch:

Caller is reporting some sort of flames on the piping area.

So, if there are flames, it’s not really a “possible fire,” so much as a fire, right?

But what on earth does “some sort of flames” mean? And what is a “piping area”?

I feel like that could mean anything, from a candle next to a water spigot to flames shooting out of the natural gas line into the building.

Soon, we had our answer… There was a small mulch fire in front of the building.

Smoke in the building

Remember the “smoke in the building” above, and how I mentioned that sometimes it indicates a serious problem, but sometimes it’s erroneous?

A call went out for someone reporting “heavy smoke coming from the building.” My ears perked up; that doesn’t sound like your run of the mill burnt food call.

Firefighters arrived, and the initial sizeup was that there was no smoke (or fire) showing, and then a note that the alarms were not sounding. They investigated, and could not find any indication at all of a fire.

And then they noticed several dryers in the laundry room venting properly outside, resulting in lots of steam/vapor coming from the pipe. The “heavy smoke” coming from the building was, in fact, dryer exhaust.

Bridge jumper

Another weird call went out for a jumper up on a bridge in the area. Police and paramedics were dispatched, and the fire department was sent and asked to bring water-rescue equipment as a precaution.

On arrival, no one was up on the bridge, so the fire department began an immediate water search, and police and EMTs helped scan for bodies in the water. Police found no witnesses of anyone jumping.

Dispatch eventually made contact with the caller, to try to get more information. He explained that he had seen someone walking across the bridge while he drove past, and couldn’t give any explanation of why he thought the person was going to jump. They called the search off.

Medical

A lot of medical calls are really dull scanner listening. And then, this:

The caller just called 911 and stated that he had no pulse, and had brought himself back to life.

Your guess is as good as mine.

An issue with the paperboy

I heard the police dispatched to a home “for an issue the caller is having with the paper boy. I’m also dispatching [an ambulance]… He’s worked himself up so much he’s having trouble breathing.”

The EMS call went out as “a male patient who called 911 worked up about the paperboy… That’s exactly how we got the call from the police.”

I have no idea what the conclusion was on this one.

Wreath

This is an old one, but the police were dispatched to some address for “an ongoing neighbor issue… The latest is that they touched [the caller’s] wreath.” The dispatchers are very professional, but you could detect some irritation in the dispatcher’s voice on this one.

Winter Car Stuff Worth the Money

I think the “hearty New Englander” gene may have skipped a generation with me. Winter is an utterly horrible time to drive. Ice makes driving dangerous. Snow requires you to shovel your car out before you can drive. Salt and sand ensures your car is absolutely filthy all year. And the cold results in gigantic freaking potholes in the road.

My first recommendation is to move somewhere warm. For those of us too foolish to do so, here are a handful of things I’ve found that make driving in the winter slightly less awful. (All links go to Amazon because that’s where I shop, but I have no financial interest in any of these things.)

“Portable Tow Truck” tire traction boards

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This is a pair of plastic polypropylene “boards”, 3′ long and 8″ wide, with spikey nubs on either side. When you get stuck in the snow, you can put these down under your drive wheels for some quick traction. I haven’t needed them on my own car yet, but very shortly after I got them, a coworker couldn’t get out of his spot after a snowstorm. We tried these and he backed right out.

The link is to the product I purchased. There are versions that fold (these take up a good bit of room in your trunk, though you can stand them to the side), and versions that are a bit cheaper, but I haven’t tried either.

Brass Ice Scraper

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For windows only! Brass is a lot more durable than a plastic ice scraper, but still softer than glass so it won’t scratch glass. That makes this brass ice scraper fairly handy for chipping away at a thing layer of ice. (It’s a small handheld scraper, so it’s not well-suited for working on thick ice. For that, see my recommendation on moving much further south.)

Be warned: I’m told that some retail stores have stopped selling these because people use them on plastic side mirrors and they destroy them. Only use these on actual glass windows.

Sno Brum

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I actually have a $20 knock-off version of this, with which I’m perfectly happy. It’s got a soft foam head, so you can don’t have to worry about scratching your car. You can use this to just shovel snow right off your car. Completely clearing my car of snow is perhaps a 2-minute process, tops. Last winter, I rushed out to clean my car because the snow plow was waiting for us to clear out of the lot. I got out after my neighbor had started cleaning their car—much smaller than mine—and finished with time to help do more than half of their car.

Water blade

This doesn’t have a good photo, but it’s basically a 9-12″ “blade” made out of soft silicone.

What they advertise it for is drying off your car when you’re cleaning it. The soft finish makes it safe to use to wipe water off your car, and it’s pretty effective. But I keep this in the front seat of my car and use it many mornings to wipe off the misty dew covering my windows. Not winter-specific, and not useful in the real dead of winter, but great when it’s a little above freezing and your windows are covered in a hard-to-see-through mist in the morning.

The jury’s out: Runflat tires

My new car came with runflat tires. Last week, I hit an enormous pothole and ruptured my tire.

The good: I just kept driving. TPMS told me that the tire pressure was “low” (there was, in fact, a literal hole in my tire) and to proceed cautiously. I drove home, just taking it a little more gently than usual, avoiding the need to stop on the side of a busy road in very windy, 20-degree weather. The tire is designed with heavily reinforced sidewalls that can support the weight of the car, and some sort of bead that’s designed to stay intact even with no pressure.

The bad: Runflats aren’t something you’ll find in every garage, so I had to take it to the dealer, a 25-mile drive. In the rain, when it was mid-30s, so the whole thing was liable to shift over to ice at some point. On a tire that isn’t supposed to exceed 50mph. It was completely fine, but it was pretty scary not knowing. After I got there, they informed me they were out of tires, and I’d have to take a loaner car until they got a spare in the next day. The repair ended up being over $500, and it took two days.

At the time the tire failed, I was absolutely enamored with the runflats. In the end, I have to think it was far more of an ordeal than it should have been. (Note that cars with runflats rarely have a spare time, since it’s “unnecessary.”)

Not tested yet: Jump kit

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The battery in my old car started to lose some of its oomph, and, after seeing one of these used elsewhere, I thought I should buy one to play it safe. I didn’t, but the idea floated around in the back of my head for a long time.

In that old car, I easily went 5+ years without anyone ever asking me for a jump. I’d had my new car for substantially less than 24 hours before I ended up next to someone with a dead battery, who asked for my help.

I probably looked like an idiot looking around my engine compartment, before I had to tell them, “I, umm, can’t find my battery.” BMW keeps them in the trunk, where a spare tire would normally be, apparently.

Less than a week went by before I was at a gas station with a guy whose car wouldn’t start. Eventually he found someone inside who was able to help him. And then, within a month, it happened two more times. People next to me in gas stations couldn’t start their car. I took it as a sign and bought a jump kit.

I’m yet to get a chance to try it. But if I do, it’ll be a lot easier than trying to maneuver my car into place and hooked up some tangled jumper cables.

The one thing so far that I don’t like is that the clamps are always live. Put a multimeter across it, and there’s about 13V there. I worry I’m going to eventually accidentally put a wet snow brush across the top of this thing in my trunk one day, and very quickly discharge its claimed 1,700 “peak” Amps in a fiery surprise. I wish there were a switch on it, or at least that the metal pads on the clips weren’t exposed.

(There are a lot of cheaper, smaller, less-powerful alternatives. This is hardly the ultra-deluxe version, but I decided against getting a tiny $50 one. If I’m going to spend any money at all on this, I want to be confident it will work. If I skimped and bought one that turned out to be too weak, the whole purchase would be a waste of money.)

Things that just aren’t true

Human beings, myself included, have this fascinating flaw where we hear information, assume it’s true, and go around repeating it. The end result is that a lot of garbage is floating around as facts.

  • You know that crazy lady who sued McDonald’s and successfully won because her coffee was too hot? It’s surely either urban legend, or was a ridiculous, frivolous lawsuit, right? Nope! It was a real court case, Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, and the facts suggest it’s actually a very legitimate lawsuit. More here.
  • Poinsettias aren’t particularly dangerous to pets. They are mildly toxic, but [the ASPCA says] they are “generally over-rated in toxicity.” Don’t feed them to your pets, but they’re not the enormous danger the news, for some reason, makes them out to be.
  • Diet soda (specifically, aspartame) doesn’t cause cancer. The American Cancer Society calls talk of this “rumors” which “continue to circulate the Internet.” They also address talk about how aspartame, when digested, includes methanol (toxic!) as a by-product, pointing out that, for example, fruit juice produces ten times as much. They go on to debunk, in detail, the myth that diet soda / aspartame causes cancer.
  • Vaccines don’t cause autism. This myth came about in 1998, when British “former surgeon” Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet arguing that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism. Trust in the vaccine plummeted. As Wakefield’s study came under fire for undisclosed conflicts of interest, The Lancet called his study—which it had published—”entirely flawed.” They went on to entirely retract the article, and ultimately deemed it a fraud, showing that Wakefield had forged data. His article spurred others to investigate his claims; subsequent, credible studies have not reached the same conclusion. Autism Speaks, Inc., an advocacy group for those affected by autism, says of subsequent studies: “These studies have not found a link between vaccines and autism,” and that they “strongly encourage” that parents vaccinate their children.
  • MSG, which everyone knows as that thing that used to be in Chinese food until it was banned for being carcinogenic or something, is actually recognized by the FDA as being safe. Knee-jerk reactions caused it to practically disappear from use, but scientists have never found any actual correlation. (Interestingly, though, it seems like there is a strong placebo effect among those who think they are allergic to MSG.) You can even buy MSG on Amazon, where it seems to have pretty good reviews.
  • High-fructose corn syrup is in a similar position. It’s pretty much vilified, and studies have found all sorts of health issues associated with it. But, here’s the thing that’s key: those health issues are the same as with normal sugar. Excessive intake of either is bad. There’s currently little in the way of evidence that substituting HFCS for sugar causes health issues.
  • MDMA (ecstasy, the illegal drug) doesn’t cause holes in your brain, and has generally had its neurotoxicity massively overstated. Using ecstasy is still a bad idea, and there are plenty of legitimate health issues with using it. However, many of the “facts” that we hear about it are egregiously wrong. For one, the holes in the brain thing is thought to have come about through a false-color CAT scan, which was actually showing very minor, temporary reduction in blood flow to regions in the brain; the regions with reduced blood flow were colored differently, and someone interpreted them as “holes”. A number of other studies about MDMA’s neurotoxicity have been similarly flawed. One was retracted when it was found out that the study administered meth to lab rats instead of ecstasy. A number of other studies have compared lifelong users of many drugs (“polydrug users”), including ecstasy, to people who have never used drugs. It is unsurprising that the former group has more neurological problems; the studies entirely fail to show that ecstasy plays a role, though.

I’m not actually advocating many of these things. All things equal, I prefer sugar over HFCS, even though there’s not strong scientific support for this. I have never tried ecstasy, and have no desire to do so; there are many legitimate health issues. I don’t drink a lot of diet soda because I don’t care for the taste. I’m not sure that anything includes MSG anymore, but I’m not buying it as a supplement and pouring it on my food. And don’t feed your dogs poinsettias. But it drives me insane when people go parroting these things as “facts,” when they range from mostly untrue to patently false.

Is Noon 12am or 12pm?

$title is something that has always confused me.

But I learned the correct answer today: it is neither.

The precise instant that is “noon” is the “M” in AM and PM (ante- and post-meridiem). So noon is properly “12M,” though the spoilsports at Wikipedia term this usage “antiquated.” (They do go on to call the modern US GPO style manual incorrect, though.) More modern usage appears to be to just say “12 noon.” But if you’re referring specifically to noon, “12am” or “12pm” are both incorrect. (In the same way that the year 2000 was neither pre-2000 nor post-2000.)

This does clear something up for me, though! My confusion has typically been about the whole hour of 12:xx. Is 12:30 (30 minutes past noon) a.m. or p.m.?

It turns out that I have been wrong. I assumed it was a.m., and that the switch happened when the 12 rolled over to 1. But the pedantic clarification of what a.m. and p.m. means makes this suddenly intuitive:

11:59:59 a.m.
12:00:00 M
12:00:01 p.m.

The equivalent for midnight is less clear, but it seems as though “12 p.m.” is generally accepted, with 12:00:01 being a.m.

Now you know.

Why gold is a terrible investment

A while back, I somehow became interested in gold. I’d seen a few references to people investing in gold—physically buying gold coins. The idea is that gold holds its value well, and has been used as currency for millennia. So it sees use as a hedge against the dollar—when people worry about the dollar losing value, they buy gold. Seems pretty reasonable!

But as I started to look into it, my doubts grew. I’m now of the opinion that gold is a terrible investment, especially for the claimed purposes. Here’s why.

First, I’ve seen it said that gold holds its value very well, and is very stable. Here is a graph, from Kitco.com, showing the price of gold from 1995 to today:

If you’d have invested around the turn of the century (I love that “turn of the century” now means 1999-2000), you’d have done very well for yourself. But would you want to invest now? It’s true that past performance doesn’t indicate future performance, but this isn’t exactly the type of graph that makes me see a huge opportunity. But my point isn’t to argue that gold has “peaked,” or anything of the sort. My point is just that if someone tells you that gold is a very stable investment, they are lying through their teeth. In a 10-year period, gold went from below $400/ounce to over $1800/ounce. And since 2011, it’s lost about $500/ounce in value.

Gold also seems to attract some nutty conspiracy theories and strange beliefs. A lot of place sell pre-1933 gold. I spent a while trying to figure out why. And, well, here’s why: back in 1933, the government started seizing gold coins for a brief period of history. Some worry that the government will do this again, but believe that gold coins from before 1933 are exempt. This belief is, of course, wildly inaccurate. The linked article does a good job factually debunking it. (For those less inclined to care about facts, but fond of conspiracy theories, I might argue this—if the government were to overstep its authority and confiscate privately-owned gold in the modern era, what makes you think that they would honor a misinterpreted rule from the 60s and leave your pre-1933 gold untouched?)

I should disclaim that I’m not an investment expert, and that I’m not really trying to argue that savvy investors could never see gold as a good investment. If you’re a financial wizard and want to put some money in gold, by all means give it a try. What I am saying is that, if you’re a senior citizen who saw the commercial I saw on TV about how the dollar is going to lose its value and your safest bet is to buy gold, you are being had.

But when you see ads on TV trying to sell you gold, you might consider their motives. If I believed gold was going to keep climbing in value, I’d be buying up all the gold I could get. But suppose you were sitting on a lot of gold and saw the graph I linked to above. Wouldn’t it seem really tempting to try to convince people that the dollar was going to fall and that they’d better buy all the gold you were selling right away? You’d be rid of your rapidly-depreciating gold, and left with plenty of cash in a time when the stock market is hitting record highs.

In conclusion, please do not buy gold without doing a lot of due diligence. Maybe gold is a good investment in certain situations, and maybe gold was a good investment a decade ago. But that doesn’t mean that gold is a good investment for you, today.

One Weird Trick to Never Run out of Batteries

(No, no, I’m not actually selling anything, and this isn’t spam. But some of us have been parodying the weird “One weird trick” ads that no one understands. I did it in my post about getting NFS working, and my friend and colleague Tomas introduced his Gerrit expand comments bookmarklet as “one weird trick” to make it more usable. This one is about batteries.)

For years, I’ve been plagued by what to do about the things I own that use AA/AAA batteries. On one hand, disposable batteries are really convenient, because they last years in storage, and are always ready. But the idea of throwing away batteries weekly becomes morally objectionable the more you think about it. On the other hand, you have rechargeable batteries. They can be used hundreds of times, solving (or at least exponentially reducing) the disposal issue I have. But I’ll often endure a wait of a few hours when the batteries in something die and I have to go hastily recharge them. So often I’ll charge things when the batteries aren’t really all that low, so that they won’t run out at an inconvenient time, and that’s just a hassle.

So the “one weird trick” is simple: buy a ton of Eneloop batteries, more than you need, and use them first-in, first-out. Throw depleted batteries on the charger as you grab the new ones to ensure you never run out. It’s the best of both worlds. You always have fully-charged batteries on hand, but instead of throwing the depleted ones in the trash, you put them in the charger. Here it is in a diagram:

Sequence diagram

I really can’t begin to describe how incredible this is. It’s like this amazing luxury I have. But there are some things I figured out along the away:

  • You need to get something that’s got a very low self-discharge rate. This is the selling point of the Eneloops. You can charge them and they’ll still be good a year down the road. (They’re not immune to self-discharge, but it’s greatly reduced.) This system just will not work at all with regular batteries. Otherwise when you charge a battery and return it to storage, it will be drained by the time you use it. Seriously, this bullet point is absolutely critical.
  • Get all the same type of battery. Different brands, or maybe even different models of the same brand, discharge at different rates. It becomes a lowest common denominator situation if you mix them. If you must use different brands/models, don’t mix them in the same device.
  • Buy a ton of batteries. I figured I’d need maybe ten AA batteries. I actually have about 25-30 in circulation, four in reserve (charged and ready to go), and four that I just replaced. You think you got everything, and then the batteries in something else die and you realize you need more. Because they last a long time between charges, having a dozen extra batteries is not a problem. Having too few batteries is.
  • You must force yourself to always put the dead batteries on the charger as you grab new ones. Keep the reserve (charged batteries) and the charger next to each other. This is absolutely essential. You will just have a pile of dead batteries otherwise.
  • Go strictly first-in, first-out on batteries. Work left-to-right, front-to-back, or whatever. I’ve often been tempted to take the batteries off the charger and use them, since they’re “fresher” than the ones waiting in reserve. But the whole point of this system is that the ones in reserve are perfectly good. Once you start skipping over batteries, that guarantee starts to break down.
  • If you have new disposable batteries in reserve, use them first. It pains me to use them and then throw them away when I have perfectly-good rechargeable batteries, but the alternative is to not use them and throw them away. Use them while they’re good, knowing that you will never purchase a disposable battery again.

Eneloop batteries are really expensive. $2-3 per battery. But this is absolutely a case of paying for quality. It’s also a wise investment—you’re going to use these hundreds of times, such that the per-use cost of each battery is probably under a cent. I highly, highly recommend the Eneloop brand. There may now be other low-self-discharge batteries, but I haven’t tried them. Whatever you do, be absolutely certain that batteries can last a month or two without losing much of their charge before you buy them. It is a complete waste of your money otherwise.

I highly recommend some specifics, too:
* A good charger. I have, and would recommend, the LaCrosse BC-700. It is not particularly intuitive to use, but it’s not too tough to master. It allows you to discharge and then recharge batteries, which can help extend capacity early on. ([citation needed] on that, but I’ve read it multiple places.) However, this is just the model I bought and that I like; any quality charger should work fine.
* A container for the batteries. I don’t have a specific product recommendation here, though the linked set is good. (Note that some retail-packaged Eneloop batteries come with these, so you might not need to purchase them separately.) I have a container that holds 8 that I use for my main reserve set, spilling over into 4-packs when it fills. I do recommend that you get one that only holds one layer of batteries, to make the first-in, first-out system easy and intuitive. Take batteries from the right, and insert from the left. No worrying about top and bottom rows or anything. Really any container will do, but don’t just leave them lying around or it will just become a mess and you won’t know what’s what.

This all sounds so silly, but it’s incredibly useful. I would never go back to any other system.

Spam Shame: Premier Inn

When I traveled to London last year, I stayed in the Premier Inn at London County Hall. It was a great hotel in a great location.

But I just got this email from them:


I don’t think they understand how email works. Giving me advance notice to opt out of spam I didn’t ask for doesn’t make it okay. Consider the following:

Dear Premier Inn,

If I don’t hear from you by 17th March, I’ll assume you’re happy for me to regularly mail you expired food from my refrigerator regularly — and to kick things off, I’ll send you some expired fish very soon.

Best wishes,

Disgrunted customer

See? That’d be patently unreasonable. (But immensely satisfying.) Why is theirs any different? If I actually wanted their “special offers,” how about letting me ask for them, versus informing me that they’re going to start sending them to me until I demand they stop?

When in London, stay somewhere else!

The Curious Case of My Mac’s Clock

When I traveled to Europe and back, I switched through timezones a lot. I went from Boston to London. When in London, Boston switched off of DST. Then I moved from London to Brno, forward another hour. Then back to London, then back to Boston.

Not wanting to lug my heavy Thinkpad around, I brought my MacBook Air on the trip. (And was appropriately ostracized by coworkers for bringing a Mac to a meeting at a company best known for its Linux distribution.) And it did something that kind of intrigued me — it automatically adjusted to the local timezone.

Now, this shouldn’t be possible. My clock is synchronized using NTP, which exchanges UTC time, deliberately ignorant of timezones or DST. And even if NTP did use local timezones (which would be a huge disaster), it still wouldn’t have worked, because I had hardcoded some local clocks.

Investigating a bit, I found this. This is seemingly a new feature, and it uses the operating system’s location service to find your timezone. My computer doesn’t have an onboard GPS, of course, so it’s doing one of two things — GeoIP, and/or looking up the access points I can see against a database.

This is really neat, but it’s also pretty damned creepy. Here is what I see when I visit that setting:

It knows exactly where I am.

I’m willing to bet it knows exactly where the closest tinfoil hat shop is, too.

Brno

Since people have been asking, I thought I’d share a bit about my journey to the Czech Republic. The Aeolus Project (what I do at work) is having a meeting here, as a substantial number of my colleagues work here.

I haven’t travelled internationally much. Back in 2007, I visited Mmofra Trom in Ghana. The Czech Republic would have been the second country I ever visited, keeping an inadvertent trend of only visiting places less geographically-savvy people couldn’t find on a map, if not for a brief stop in London. (I figured that if I was flying to Europe for the week and had never been, I might as well spend the weekends sight-seeing.)

Here is an obligatory photo from London:

(It’s a HDR composite done with Photomatix — the net result looks a little unrealistic, and yet it’s what it actually looked like.)

London was great, though outrageously expensive. And English accents are even more awesome than you might expect. The Underground, besides having an iconic logo, puts the MBTA to shame. I knew that they drive on the “wrong” side of the road, but I didn’t think it would impact me as a tourist who wouldn’t be driving. What I realized is that it’s terrifying as a pedestrian, especially at multi-way intersections, because you have absolutely no clue where cars will be coming from.

We took a WizzAir flight from London to Brno, a large city in the south-eastern part of the Czech Republic. Yes, “WizzAir” is a real airline, and yes, I was hesitant to book a reservation on it based on the name, but it was a nice enough budget airline.

The hotel has absolutely terrible Internet. Here’s what happens when I ping the wireless router:

--- 192.168.2.250 ping statistics ---
49 packets transmitted, 45 packets received, 8.2% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 4.035/593.420/2627.601/702.471 ms

(Note that 593ms average latency, and the 8.2% packet loss, on a LAN.) This is entirely the fault of the hotel, though — in my company’s office, the Internet is just fine. We’re apparently only about 125ms away from Boston here.

The official language here is Czech, a West Slavic language that sort of seems like Polish to someone generally-ignorant about languages like me. I’ve come to realize that I’m rather afraid of being in a place where I can’t communicate, even though I’m surrounded by bilingual coworkers. It’s rather isolating. The good news is that many people, especially those in customer service venues (and people under perhaps 30) seem to speak some English, so I can get by when I’m at McDonald’s. (More on that soon!) Of course, my coworkers here all speak excellent English, so it’s not as if I’m really stranded not speaking the language. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying about it.

Last night, some friends and coworkers (thanks Tomas and Imre!) took us to a local (indoor) rock-climbing place and gave us training. It’s worth noting that the place served beer, though no one was actually drinking and climbing (or belaying).

I’ve never climbed before, and am deathly afraid of heights. So if someone had told me a few years ago that I’d one day find myself at an indoor climbing facility in the Czech Republic, I’d have thought they were insane.

And indeed, my first time up, I did chicken out after about 6 feet. My second time, I made it up perhaps 10-15 feet before I looked down. But the third time, I had the courage to make it to the top. (I really have no idea how high it was, but I’d guess perhaps 30-50 feet.) The photo of me actually at the top is… not flattering… but here’s a slightly less embarrassing photo of me midway up (exhibiting rather poor form, but hey, it was my first time…):

 

It might be interesting to note that the place had a small bar. This observation did not exactly help calm my nerves, though it ended up being a non-issue — the only people I saw drinking were chatting over a beer when they were done climbing. My fear that drunk people would be falling from the walls turned out to be entirely unfounded.

And speaking of fears of tolerance leading to mass chaos being unfounded, the country apparently has relatively lax (read: sane) drug laws.

None of us were particularly sure what this stuff was (a hemp hand cream was our best guess), but it led to an interesting discussion about drug laws here. Apparently, possession or use of small amounts of drugs (not just Cannabis) is decriminalized, though the general sale is not. (Which leaves me moderately confused about whatever this display case was.)

At first, it seems mildly insane that small amounts of LSD or cocaine (!) are legal. But it reminds me of something I saw on TV once, which was a (real-life) look at a city police department doing a drug sting. They had an agent sell small bags of cocaine to people, and a cadre of heavily-armed police agents would then swarm and tackle the buyer to the ground. As if this wasn’t appalling enough, there was a clear trend among the drug buyers in terms of race and socioeconomic status, and these people can face years in prison. (And time in prison, in turn, significantly reduces their odds of ever getting a decent job, causing what’s probably a vicious cycle.)

But just as there weren’t any drunks falling from the climbing wall when beer was served in the facility, I haven’t seen any drug addicts in the streets of Brno, or even been had reason to think drug use was a problem. Instead, it seems like the police are free to focus on crimes that have victims, and people with addictions are now able to seek treatment with legal impunity.

Apologies for the accidental political rant. Perhaps it is time I closed with a picture of the city, from my hotel balcony the other night: