Going to Paris in November

I will be going to Paris, France for a couple of days in mid-November. Naturally, I checked Joobili to see if there was anything going on while I would be there. Alas, there is nothing for that period of time(*). This is really a shame, because the Paris tourism office has a lot of information on their site. Too bad, that information is presented so poorly that doesn’t really help me find the inspiration I was looking for. I mean, why does the tourism office still advertise events from September 2009 and how does a plain list with the names of more than a thousand events and exhibitions help me, when I am looking for events between Nov 11th and 14th? On the plus side, they do have a page listing museums where under 26-year-olds have free admission, which is perfect timing for me.

I was wondering if there were any other travel sites you guys would recommend to prepare my trip. For booking hotels and flights I like opodo. It was founded by Lufthansa and several other European airlines in 2001, which means I am comfortable with entrusting it my credit card information. I also found tripadvisor.com to indispensable when looking for reviews on hotels.

However, none of these sites helped me with my initial problem, which was to narrow down the large number of hotels to those that I would even consider staying at. While most sites can filter hotels by various criteria (price, distance to city center etc.), this doesn’t help me with my most paramount question: what are affordable hotels in a good part of town? I wish there was a site that would show like a map of a city indicating what areas in town are “good” and which one might want to avoid. I was lucky this time to be provided with detailed information about the different arrondissements (districts) of Paris by my friend, but I think this would be a common problem more travelers should be faced with, no?

 

(*) Ok, that’s not entirely true, since there is the BNP Paribas Masters, but I’m not that into tennis, thank you very much.

Back From Vacation

This past week I have been staying at the lovely Rebstock in Obereggenen in the Black Forest region of Southern Germany. Obereggenen is situated in a small valley amid apple groves, vineyards, lush meadows and dark forests.It doesn’t quite compare to a New England Indian Summer but the scenery is still quite beautiful this time of the year. Anyway, the fresh air and everything is quite a welcome change for someone who spends most of his time indoors (either at home or at work) in front of a computer screen.

Even though many things have changed over the years, it still feels very familiar whenever I come here; almost like coming home. One thing that has changed substantially over the years is what they serve for dinner. While it used to be exclusively local cuisine, one now sees more varied influences reflected in the type of food offered and its presentation. Dinner is now a five-course, two-hour culinary festival (or ordeal depending on the circumstances). Quite nice for a week a year, but definitely not something you would want every day.

Stuff White People Like

Stuff White People Like is truly a hilarious book. I picked up my copy in Boston last year and couldn’t stop reading. I don’t know whether that is a good or a bad thing, but I fund myself liking amy of the things described in this book: Arrested Development, bicycles, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The New Yorker, The Simpsons, to name just a few.

One of the themes of “white people” in the book is that they like to do stuff that involves purchasing expensive, activity specific equipment (cf. chapter 31 Snowboarding). Consequently, I didn’t just go on a hike, but I had to do it with special hiking boots, my GPS logger and a jacket I had purchased for this vacation. I had high hopes for the GPS logger to record our hikes so I could see where we had been on my computer, but alas that was a disappointment. I don’t now whether the tree cover interfered with the GPS signal or whether I was carrying the device wrong, but the track it recorded was for the most part unusable. I’ll have to do some research next time to figure out the optimal way to use this device. One thing, however, did not disappoint and that was my new jacket.

Travel Companions

This jacket is now my favorite travel companion: the Scott eVest. I became of their version 3.0 vest (isn’t it cool when clothes have a version number?) several years ago when I was in college. Back then, they they cost way more than I could afford spending on a piece of clothing, but last month I decided it was time to get myself one. I originally had my eye on their Signature System, but unsure whether the sleeves would be long enough for me (they usually aren’t) I settled for an Evolution Jacket (which has removable sleeves) and a Travel Vest, as they would not be completely useless even when the sleeves wouldn’t fit. It was a pleasant surprise, though, that both items fit me perfectly. I don’t think I have ever had a jacket that fit this well.

Anyway, the great thing about these jackets is their utility. The people at Scott eVest have obviously given a lot of thought to the functionality of their products. As I prefer function over form (another reason I’m a Windows not a Mac person), this is the perfect jacket for me. I know longer need to bring a back pack, as everything I could possibly need  comfortably fits into this jacket. There are pockets everywhere, but it’s not just that there are so many of them, they don’t overlap, such that even with a lot of stuff stowed in the jacket, it doesn’t show. Last week I was carrying a scarf, gloves, a hat, the GPS logger, my cell phone and 0.5l water bottle without any sacrifice in comfort. Awesome!

A Collector of Technology

As I’ve said previously, I’m a big fan of Microsoft products (most of them at least). Inspired by Paul Thurrott’s What I Use article, I would like to take this opportunity to disclose the full extent of my love for Microsoft software. The following is a list of all the computer hard- and software I currently use, most of which is, as you will see, made in Redmond.

Computers

My primary machine is a 2006 LG M1-3DGAG laptop with a 1.67 GHz Core Duo processor and 2.5 GB of memory running Windows 7 Ultimate. I also keep my previous laptop around, a 2001 Gericom Webboy (I hate that name) with a 1Ghz Pentium III processor and 256 MB of memory running Windows ME. The region code on this machine’s DVD drive is set to 1, so I can watch US DVDs on it, even though the fan running at a perceived 120 decibels doesn’t make this as enjoyable as it could be. I still have our 1996 Vobis desktop computer with a 120 Mhz Pentium processor and 56 MB of RAM, and a 1.2 GB hard drive running Windows 95. Historical note: This is the first computer my parents bought for our family back in April 1996 and even though I don’t actively use it anymore, I do turn it on every now and then and I must say it still runs like a charm. My employer has supplied me with a Lenovo R61 running Windows XP Professional which I use for working from home on occasion. As I participated in the Give One Get One program of One Laptop Per Child, I also have an OLPC XO-1 laptop. I recently bought an Acer H340 easyStore home server with a 1.6 GHz Atom processor, 2 GB of memory and 3 TB of storage running Windows Home Server. Finally, I should probably include my cell phone an HTC S710 smartphone running Windows Mobile 6.0 in this category.

Other Hardware

The list of other gadgets that aren’t technically computers but still kind of belong in this article currently comprises the following: the Wintec WSG-1000 GPS logger and the Samsung S1070 digital camera (which to this day has not seen any serious action) and my graphing calculator, a Texas Instrument TI-89 which runs a computer algebra system and can also be hooked up to and synced with a PC.

Operating Systems

I realized some time ago that as I was moving to the latest version of the Windows operating system whenever a new version came out, a lot of licenses where lying around unused. So I decided to use Microsoft’s Virtual PC (originally the 2004 version, now 2007) to set up virtual machines to install my old copies of Windows in. Over the years my collection of virtual machines has grown, so now I have one for every version of Windows that I have every worked with, which means pretty much everything since Windows 95. Here’s the complete list:

  • Windows 95 (including the PLUS! add-on)
  • Windows NT 4.0 Workstation
  • Windows 98 Second Edition
  • Windows ME
  • Windows 2000
  • Windows XP Home Edition
  • Windows XP Professional
  • Windows Server 2003*
  • Windows Vista Beta 1*
  • Windows Vista Beta 2*
  • Windows Vista Business
  • Windows 7 Release Candidate*

*These are pre-release or evaluation versions.

I’m still looking to add Windows 3.1 to that list, so if you have a copy you don’t need, let me know.

Productivity Software

The one piece of software I find truly indispensable is Microsoft Outlook 2007. I use it for email, reading RSS feeds, contacts and calendaring. As it syncs this data with my phone, Google Mail and Google Calendar it is the one application holding it my life together.

Also high on the list of applications I frequently use is Microsoft Office 2007, most notably Microsoft Excel 2007. Excel is at least in my mind the premier member of the Office suite and probably the one application that alternative office suites such as Open Office and Apple’s iWork have the hardest time catching up with. I use it primarily to keep track of my finances, the process of which I have automated with a few VBA macros. Since graduating from university I no longer use Word, PowerPoint and OneNote as frequently as I once used to, although I should mention that did write my thesis of 100+ pages in Word 2007 and did so without any loss of data ever. While still a student I’ve also obtained licenses to Microsoft Access, InfoPath, Project and Visio via MSDN Academic Alliance.

As it came with my first laptop, I’ve tried out Microsoft Works 2001, although I must say it it laughable and I would always recommend going for the real deal, the full Microsoft Office suite. Also on that laptop as Microsoft Encarta, which was a great multimedia encyclopedia at the time, but is no longer a match for Wikipedia which I now literally use every day.

Internet and Digital Media

I use Windows Media Player 12 as my primary media player, mostly because it feels the most natural thing to use on Windows, as I like how it fits in well with the rest of the Windows ecosystem and I value consistency above everything else. Plus, it syncs great with my Windows Mobile phone. Even though it feels like a foreign body on Windows, I also keep Quicktime around, if only to watch trailers on apple.com. As some websites require it, I also have Real Player installed, even though I hate using it and have yet to meet someone who actually likes this product. When I buy music – which doesn’t happen that often – I use the excellent Amazon MP3 service.

For web browsing I use the latest version of Firefox and have done so since before its 1.0 release. This is a great piece of software and I’ve come to rely on a bunch of extensions that offer functionality one simply doesn’t find in any other browser that’s out there.

I use Skype for instant messaging and internet telephony.

From Microsoft’s Windows Live suite of applications I only use Windows Live Writer to write this blog and Windows Live Photo Gallery to organize my photos. I’ve also kept Windows Live Movie Maker around, ever since it first appeared as Windows Movie Maker in Windows ME, although I don’t really have any video to edit.

For my very occasional photo editing needs I’ve purchased Adobe Photoshop Elements 7 and plan on upgrading to the latest version soon.

Development Tools

As I program a lot during my day job, I no longer do that much programming on the side. Nonetheless, I keep one install of Delphi 2007 Professional on my main machine, with the older Delphi versions 7, 8, 2005 and 2006 also sitting on the shelf.

I would also place the aforementioned Virtual PC 2007 into this category as it is a great means to try out one’s software on different versions of an operating system with the ability to undo all changes afterward and start over with a fresh install every time. While I also got a license for Virtual Server 2005 via MSDN Academic Alliance, I don’t think I have ever installed it. Also in this category is another great tool, ImgBurn, which I used for creating install disks or ISO images that can be mounted as disks in a virtual machine. Of the other dozen or so little utilities in this category I will only mention Inno Setup as it is a great tool to create custom installers for one’s applications.

Recently, I’ve also installed Microsoft Visual C# 2008 Express Edition to tech myself a new programming language. Also via MSDN Academic Alliance I have gotten my hands on Visual Studio Professional 2005 and Expression Blend and Expression Web which I have played around with for a while but never seriously used.

Utilities

The only security software I use in addition to the firewall built into Windows is BitDefender Antivirus. I also use WinRAR for file archiving and Adobe Reader for viewing PDF files. For hard drive partitioning and imaging I’ve been using Acronis Disc Director and TrueImage, respectively, even though my backup needs have been taken care of by Windows Home Server ever since I got my server earlier this year.

In order to read and edit the data collected by the GPS logger mentioned above I use TimeMachineX which has a great feature set hidden behind a half-decent user interface.

The remainder of this category could be summarized as “everything from Sysinternals (now part of Microsoft)”, e.g. Process Explorer, a tool similar to Task Manager but a hundred times more powerful, Autoruns, to manage which applications, services etc. should be allowed to start when the system starts, TCP View, to monitor what applications listen on what ports or open connections to the outside word.

Windows 7: The best operating system in the world

If you want to start a heated debate among computer folks this the topic to do it. Just see the lively discussions on the topic over at the “news for nerds” site Slashdot. The stereotypical nerd, of course, wouldn’t want to be caught dead working with anything made in Redmond, but for some reason I have always defended Microsoft in the inevitable debates among my colleagues (which all have IT backgrounds), who prefer either the Mac (claiming its so much easier to use) or Linux (because it is “free”).

Part of this because I like to disagree with people for the sake of disagreeing, though there are other reasons as well. For one, I come from a business background rather than a purely technical one. I therefore have to give Microsoft credit for the fact that they are the biggest software company in the world, having an installed base of hundreds of millions of PCs. The market has spoken! Also, while they may not make the best software in the market, it seems to be good enough to sell in incredible numbers to user’s everywhere, so they must be doing something right. While writing software at work I have noticed on more then occasion that having the best software is not really desirable. Rather it should be just good enough go get the job done, and this seems to describe Microsoft’s products perfectly. Also, the fact that their software is free doesn’t mean much to me – and probably should mean much to most people for what it’s worth. Like most people, I don’t really have a need to take an application’s sources, fire up a compiler and build my own executable. Also, I don’t want to look at the code of the applications I use. While some claim this way one could fix bugs even when the manufacturer doesn’t, anyone who has ever tried to work through other peoples’ code will agree that it is a horrible experience. Reading code is harder than writing code by several orders of magnitude.

Putting all this aside, I would like to say that I really like the Microsoft products I’m using: There is Windows Mobile on my cell phone, Windows Home Server for my file storage and backup needs, and since last Friday my brand-new Windows 7 Ultimate. It’s not a big change over Windows Vista, but rather feels like a natural progression. There have been a lot of changes here and there but nothing that would confuse people who have used Vista before. To all those who are still using XP, I can only say, I’m sorry for you. I am forced to work with Windows XP at work and there is just so much stuff that I miss on a day-to-day basis. As Windows 7 seems to pushed as a “Vista done right” release, I sure hope my employer and other businesses will adopt it quickly. For anybody using XP it should be a no-brainer. I don’t want to go into the specifics of Windows 7 (I’ll leave that to the pros like Paul Thurrott, see his excellent and exhaustive review on the Super Site for Windows), but just reaffirm that I think Windows 7 is awesome! Thank you Microsoft. Keep up the good work.

Amazon Kindle (sort of) available outside the U.S.

One of the reasons I decided to start this blog was so I had a place to blabber about the latest gadget that I’ve fallen in love with. Although, more often than not, these are things I make myself believe I could totally use, but than never buy (e.g. the HTC Touch Pro 2 smartphone), or buy but then never actually use for anything else than occasionally playing around with (e.g. the One Laptop Per Child laptop).

The latest one of these products is the Amazon Kindle that they announced today would be made available and could be used outside the United States. Finally, I thought, us poor folks in the rest of the world would be able to get our hands on some of the same techno toys our friends in the U.S. have been able to play with for quite a while now.

Except, we don’t. While they do indeed ship the Kindle to locations outside the United States and one can use their “Whispernet” wireless service in many countries across the globe now, the content available internationally disappoints. Reading books on this device is one thing that does work across the globe, but at least for me not that is rather a secondary feature of the device. I still prefer my books to come in paper (sorry trees) so I can put them on my book shelf once I’m done with them and pride myself on all the stuff I’ve read.

No, for me the other content such as newspapers, magazines, blogs and of course free on-the-go access to Wikipedia are key. Alas, except for Wikipedia, the Kindle’s German version offers pretty much nothing in that department. According to the Amazon website, blogs are not available in my geographic region (why not?), and neither are some of the periodicals I had my eye on. I mean, how cool would it be to be able to read The New Yorker for $2.99 (price of the monthly subscription in the U.S.) on the Kindle when I take the tram to work every morning? I once thought about subscribing this magazine the old fashioned way, but the delay between The New Yorker hitting the newsstands in the U.S. and it being shipped here was just to long for this to work out for me. Electronic delivery to the Kindle would have taken care of this problem, but I guess there are (as always)licensing issues that keep us from enjoying the finer pieces of American culture. Too bad.

Still figuring it out…

So here I am, blogging. Yes, I am one of Them now. Back in 2004 when I first heard of these people with blogs I thought what would motivate one, to put their often uninteresting and/or irrelevant thoughts out there. I was skeptical what use there way for personal blogs, how they would fit with established patterns of communication and place blogs would eventually take in society.

I must say that five years later I still don’t have a good answer to that question. Nonetheless, blogs have certainly established themselves as important tools of communication. It only seems prudent to give it a shot and figure out what I could do with a blog. So from now on, I to will be putting my uninteresting and or irrelevant thoughts out there. Come along if you like, or leave now if you don’t. Your call.

Style and Topics

I have long hesitated to give blogging a try mainly for not knowing what I would actually be writing about and in format I should it. Some of the best blogs out there publish one well researched, thought out and written essay every few weeks. Others take it upon themselves to merely comment on other’s work with limited original thought. I knew that I don’t have time and smarts to do the former and would not want to be doing the latter. So my current plan is to start with the latter and as I’m getting more practice maybe over time move up to doing the former.

Topic-wise, I wouldn’t want to limit myself to any one topic right now. There are a lot of things that interest me and I would like to use this blog to comment on anyone of them as I see fit. As one main area of interest for me is technology, this should be a common topic on this blog. Other areas might be science (astronomy in particular), travel but also more mundane stuff like TV series I enjoy. Although I have firm views in the areas of religion and politics, I will stay away from these topics as they seem to be the source of endless pointless discussions whenever someone voices an opinion about something in this area one way or the other.

So this is my plan for this blog. Let’s see how it goes.