Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Finale

What a fantastic day to finish 2008. The weather was glorious and the snow was perfect.

Michael and I spent much of the day refining his bump technique.


We also went looking for leftover powder in the trees.




With skiing lots of bumps and trees and stopping to take photos, not to mention hiking to the top to ski Wake Up Call, we only managed 12,045 vertical ft, but every foot counted.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Day 11

I spent an easy couple of hours this morning skiing with my Aussie mates Michael and Peter. Well not really that easy; even when skiing easy runs I tend to ski the bumps or trees on the edge. Only 9,635 vertical ft today.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Two-fer

It was a beautiful sunny day today, so I spent the morning skiing about 12,000 vertical ft with Michael and Claire.


I say about 12,000 vertical ft because the GPS got paused at the bottom of the Storm Peak Express and I didn't notice it until the bottom of the Sunshine Express (hence the line marked GPS failure). The approximately correct track is shown in yellow.


And then I spent and hour and a half in the afternoon snowshoeing two and a half miles along Spring Creek Trail with Marie.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

5% makes all the difference

Today was another powder day. The skiing was great, but I felt a little off today. Maybe only 5%, but that makes all the difference. Whilst I skied some great runs and 15,629 vertical ft I ended the day looking forward to skiing better tomorrow.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Boxing Day

In Commonwealth countries today is Boxing Day. In Australia it's a holiday devoted to sports - the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race and the Boxing Day cricket test which is always held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

It's also my lovely wife's birthday so she gets to choose the activities for the day which normally means snowshoeing. But not today since Marie doesn't like to go when it's snowing. So that's one rain check (or snow check) on snowshoeing, good as soon as the sun comes back out.

Of course I don't mind skiing when it's snowing. Today I skied with my best friend Michael and the focus was on getting him comfortable in the powder and trees so no epic runs like Shadows or Closet, but we did get into the trees to skier's left of Sunnyside in a big way. Total vertical of 10,981 ft.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

White Christmas

Everybody knows there's nothing better than a white Christmas, skiers doubly so. 14,396 vertical ft, much of it in knee deep powder, is the sort of Christmas present I like!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The night before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Not even a mouse


...because they were too tired after skiing today's epic powder conditions; 24 inches in the past 48 hours.

I was at the Gondola by 8:10 am so I managed first tracks on Twister and plenty of fresh tracks: on Triangle 3; to skier's left of Cyclone; on Shadows where it was thigh deep, light and fluffy; and to skier's left of the Priest Creek Liftline. In Steamboat it actually does get better than this, but not much and not often.


Total vertical today was 16,484 ft.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Waiting

It seems my Dad's initial diagnosis of stomach cancer was not correct, nor was a subsequent diagnosis of colon cancer. All we know at the moment is that there are secondary tumours in his liver.

Dad has been having a series of tests to try to locate the primary cancer, but we are not likely to know the answer until Friday. Until then we don't know what his prospects are. At the moment I'm on an emotional roller coaster, wavering between hope and despair.

With any luck we'll get good news on Friday. Until then we just have to hang in there. In the meantime Dad is stuck in hospital and I know from personal experience that spending Christmas Day in hospital sucks.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Day 5

I didn't ski with the GPS today since I was skiing with friends who arrived yesterday from Australia and their two kids. It's hard to rack up much vertical in those circumstances. I'm guessing less than 5,000 ft. But it was still fun - snow, skis and friends - how could it not be fun?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dad

My Mum called earlier today with the unwelcome news that my Dad has just been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

I don't have much detail yet about his condition or his prognosis. He'll undergo surgery later today or tomorrow and hopefully after that we'll have a much better idea of what happens next.

It's times like this that living a long way from family is very difficult.

Dad seemed to be in good spirits when I spoke to him, so I'm determined to be positive too. He's always been a wonderful role model of all that is best in a man. The world would be a worse place without him.

I love you Dad.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Trees triple play

Today was my first day really getting into the trees; Shadows twice and Twilight along with several other minor expeditions into the woods. This is what I've been waiting for!


Total vertical of 12,628 ft.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Day 3

Nothing special to report today, simply getting out there and finding my ski legs for total vertical of 14,857 ft.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The powder begins

Day 2 and six inches of fresh powder. Hard not to ski hard when it's like it was today. Here's today's track - for a total of 14,217 vertical ft.


I did take it reasonable easy on Pete, a friend from Australia that I was skiing with today. Not too easy mind you, but he seemed to survive reasonable well.

And I did resist the temptation to really get into the trees. Closet and Shadows were definitely calling me, but we need another foot or so of snow for the stumps and shrubs to be sufficiently covered to make that a sensible thing to do. I can't wait!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Back on skis

My 2008-09 ski season started today!

We arrived home from Italy late last night so I made a leisurely start to the morning and only got out around noon, which worked out well since it was very cold this morning but warmed up nicely with the sun by midday.

Here's the track from today.


I promised myself and my wife that I'd ease myself into the season. I half kept that promise by only staying out about an hour and only skiing 5,634 vertical ft. But the snow is so nice that I couldn't help throwing in some steep and some bumps!

Friday, December 12, 2008

The perfect cappucino

I once described my international travels to a friend as a journey in search of the perfect cappuccino.

Well I've found it this week. In Rome (Italy is after all the home of espresso and cappuccino). Made by the Filipino-Italian waiter in the dining room at the Hotel Santa Maria.

And it was no fluke. I had several every day just to be sure! Each and every one was perfect. The espresso was strong and full of flavour without being bitter; the proportions were perfect with 1/3 espresso, 1/3 milk and 1/3 foam; it was served in a cup which was just the right size (American coffee chains - you know who I'm referring to - in catering to their customer's obsession with things being bigger have way too little espresso in proportion to the milk); and the foam had that perfect silky texture.

It's a lovely hotel as well. If When we return to Rome, we'll definitely stay there again.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Rome

We arrived in Rome yesterday and today was our first day seeing the sights. We decided to just walk today before deciding on more specific tours for later in the week. A total of 12.63 miles according to the GPS.


Trevi Fountain. Nice but not mindblowing.


The Pantheon. This is one of the sites I really wanted to see. The dome was built from concrete nearly 1,900 years ago. You understand the meaning of Dark Ages when you realise it took until the 19th century to recover this level of engineering ability. Definitely mindblowing.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Lufthansa

We've just flown Lufthansa for the first time, from Johannesburg to Frankfurt, and soon transferring to Rome. So I thought I'd update my previous review of business class airline experiences.

Lufthansa's business class seats are better than United's (not hard!) but inferior to most of their competitors. They are the angled flat design that were the cutting edge a decade ago but which the leading airlines are ditching for true flat seats.

Qantas still have the angled seats (although they're gone for a true flat bed in their new A380's) but the Lufthansa one's aren't even as good as those - they're narrower and less private.

The movie system was fine - 10 inch screen with video on demand - but the food was average, and I think they have the lowest ratio of toilets to business class seats I've ever seen on a long haul flight.

But in true German style the flights all left and arrived right on time!

Our original itinerary had us making a 45 minute connection in Rome on the return trip. I'm glad I asked my travel agent to change that since just getting between terminals took a good 25 minutes - it's quite a distance, it's very poorly signposted and you have to go through immigration; since Frankfurt to Rome is inside the EU's Shengen area it's effectively a domestic flight.

And last but not least, I'm writing this in the Lufthansa business class lounge which is quite nice, but I can't post it until later. What is it about American and European airlines not being able to offer free wi-fi in their lounges?

Friday, December 05, 2008

How does it decide that?

I'm sitting in South Africa and browsing a web site of an Australian newspaper(1) and this is the ad that is displayed.


Since I live in the US and own a car there, I'm potentially the right target for this ad. But how on earth does this web site know that?

(1) The Courier Mail is a lousy paper. I only read it because it's Brisbane's local paper.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cats

I've stayed in a lot of hotel rooms - more than a thousand nights in the past ten years - but the guest house we're staying at in the suburbs of Pretoria is the first place where a cat comes with the room!


Not that I mind; I like cats but we travel too much to have one. Think of it as a type of outsourcing (catsourcing?)

Of course this is more like the type of cat South Africa is famous for.


What's that? Not that much bigger than the first one you say? OK, what about this one?


We took these at a Lion Park we visited last weekend. They had a surprisingly good range of lions and other wildlife considering it was only a 30 minute drive from the city. But tomorrow we're off to the real South African safari experience at the famous Kruger National Park!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Land of the robots

South Africa is overrun with robots.

The cities and towns are full of them.

Standing there on every corner at every major intersection.

Yes, "robot" is what South Africans call a traffic light.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

And the heavens open

The Johannesburg / Pretoria area has the best thunderstorms of any place I've ever been. Not particularly windy, but the combination of torrential rain and incredibly scary lightning and thunder has got to be experienced to be believed. And it seems this time of year to happen two evenings out of three. As it is right now. Every bolt of lightning seems like it's right on top of you.

The locals seem to be used to it and strangely resigned to their appliances being regularly fried. I suppose it hides the fact that the underlying infrastructure is pretty poor to begin with. We're suffering serious Internet withdrawal symptoms right now even though we've had enough bandwidth for long enough each day for email and (light) blogging. At least on the days when the wireless router isn't hit by lightning. It's a bit of a shock (intentional pun) when you're used to a totally, totally wired lifestyle.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Braai

Today we attended a braai. That's what South Africans call a what we Aussies call a barbie. They take the process of burning meat in the great outdoors very seriously. There's nothing quite like visiting a country and eating the wildlife. The impala sausages were particularly good.

My colleague who hosted us lives on top of a hill outside Johannesburg with a great view.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tom Tom, Dumb Dumb

I acquired a Tom Tom satellite navigation unit early last year (I say "acquired" since I used points from my American Express) and I've generally been quite happy with it. At least happy enough that I purchased additional maps for a trip to Australia earlier this year, and just recently I purchased more maps for a trip to South Africa.

I'd managed to successfully install and use the Australia maps and followed the same procedure for the South Africa maps, so I was a little surprised on driving out of Johannesburg airport that it failed to show our location on the relevant map.

I eventually discovered after browsing some of the configuration menus that you have to tell it which map to use. It hadn't even occurred to me that this was the problem. Not for a second. Not even a nanosecond. Why not? Because it's a damn GPS unit. It knows where the bloody hell it is. That's what it does. That's its karma. And if it knows where it is, it knows everything it needs to know to automatically select the right map to use! I just didn't imagine for a second that any half competent software designer would have designed it any other way. So I've come to the conclusion that since Tom Tom is a Dutch company that Tom Tom must be Dutch for Dumb Dumb.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Best argument yet against the bailout

Here's the best argument I've seen yet against the $700 billion bailout:
Once signed into law, Treasury would begin a process to determine the assets it will buy and the manner it will set a price. Like everything in government, this is a moment that is lobby-able. Expect swarms of financial services lobbyists, investor groups, housing advocates, and others to try to game the system for their individual clients or members.
If you don't believe we're on the path to the mother of all special interest feeding frenzies, think about this. In the midst of what our political leaders claim is the greatest economic crisis to face America since the Great Depression, a situation so dire as to require unprecedented urgent and bipartisan legislative action on massive scale, Senators could simply not restrain themselves, adding $150 billion of pork to the bailout bill.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On the financial crisis

As much as I have no great desire to live in Michigan, I wish I lived in this guy's district because it would be so nice to have a candidate I could vote for without having to hold my nose.



This pretty much sums up my position on the bailout; let the market do what it's doing, correcting for past excesses; let those who gambled on the bubble wear their justly deserved losses; and let the Government stop thinking that it can repeal the laws of economics with my money to buy the votes of those who were too stupid to think twice about what they were doing.

If you bought a house with no money down - you're a fool.

If you bought a house believing that you'd sell it in a year and make a killing - you're a (greedy) fool.

If you bought a house with an adjustable rate mortgage and didn't think about what you'd do when the rate reset (to a higher level) - you're a fool.

If you're a bank that issued a mortgage with no money down - you and your shareholders are fools.

If you're a financial institution that bought mortgage backed securities without caring to understand the true risk of the underlying loans - you and your shareholders are fools.

I'm sorry (well actually I'm not), but I don't tolerate fools terribly well. And I certainly don't want the Government taking my hard earned money to reward them for their folly.

Monday, September 29, 2008

You know you're a joke when...

They parody you on Saturday Night Live and the script uses your exact words.



No wonder I'm having trouble telling which one is a candidate for Vice President and which one is the comedian.

I'd love to say that I'm voting against McCain/Palin because I disagree with their position on the issues, but seriously, I can't find a position in this.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Spring Creek trail

Today we took advantage of the fantastic fall weather to hike the Spring Creek Trail. We did it the easy way; someone dropped us at the top and we hiked down as you can see from the elevation profile.

But it was still reasonable exercise since we walked for two and a half hours and covered 5.71 miles.

As you can see from the photos, the fall colours are at their peak right now and it is unbelievably beautiful outside.



You can see where the photos were taken on Google Maps. Picasa provides the basic capability of associating a map reference with a photo but I had to manually locate the photos by cross referencing the timestamp on the photos to the timestamp on the tracking points downloaded from my GPS unit. One day in the not too distant future I'm sure this will be an automated process.

I haven't uploaded the image of the track yet due to a technical problem on the Garmin website. Hopefully tomorrow.

Update: 29 September 2008: Here's the track from Google Earth:

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Another beautiful fall day in paradise

This is the view that greats me this time of year when I look out the window.


Apart from admiring the inherent beauty of this scene, when I see these golden aspen leaves bathed in the afternoon sunlight I dream about skiing my favourite tree runs, Shadows on the left and Twilight on the right, less than three months from now!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Neat use of facial recognition

In my work I often implement facial recognition technologies in government applications like border control and law enforcement.

I was aware that the technology was moving into civilian applications but it hadn't struck me how useful this could be until today when I discovered a new feature in Picasa Web Albums, Google's photo sharing application. When you upload new photos it automatically detects any faces and then tries to match them to people you've previously identified.

With reasonable image quality the face finding accuracy is excellent. The only images that didn't work were old low resolution ones from my first ever digital camera and those where people are wearing ski goggles or the lighting is really bad.

The facial recognition algorithm does not appear to be cutting edge, but in this context that doesn't matter because the number of faces the image is being compared to is quite small - I'm guessing that most users would have less than 25 people in their list - and the system only needs to identify the two or three most likely candidates to be very useful, which is exactly what it succeeds in doing. It's not quite in the same category as comparing a face to 40 million others to make sure someone isn't trying to register twice!

The neat thing is that you can then easily filter your photos by person, and because Google assumes that people in your photos are likely to be in your Gmail address book you can also quite easily send your family and friends links to the photos that they are in. The one thing missing is the ability to find photos containing all of the selected people e.g show me all the photos with me and my wife together.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Lowering the bar

We live in a world where companies in most industries must try relentlessly to improve their products, services and price competitiveness simply in order to keep up with the competition.

Airlines and airports seem to exist in some bizarre parallel universe where the opposite applies.

First there's the high farce know as "airport security". One set of rules apply when you board your plane in the US and a different set apply when you board your plane in the UK to return home. Even worse, the rules applying today at Heathrow are different from the rules that applied at Heathrow last week when I flew to Dublin!

Then there's crap like this that BMI have the hide to sell as "Business Class."


Yes you do get a hot meal and the flight attendant does hang your coat for you, but come on, this is standard sardine style economy seating (it doesn't look too bad in the photo only because that's the first row in the plane). Even United, which has become a miserable excuse for an airline, doesn't have the chutzpah to market its Economy Plus product as business class and it's at least got an extra five inches of legroom!

Talking about United, I can't believe how bad their long-haul international business class is. Yes they have supposedly started rolling out a new flat seat (at last, only a decade behind their competitors) but I've yet to actually see it in the wild, and in the meantime it seems that they've decided to do zero maintenance on the old seats (or their scarily old flight attendants).

Then there's the new Star Alliance lounge at Heathrow Terminal 1. It's in a different class to United's pathetic "Red Carpet" lounges, meaning that it provides the services that everywhere else in the world are standard in an international business class lounge. With one exception. It's supposed to have free wireless internet but the signal hovers between "very low" and "no signal".

It turns out that they don't actually have a transmitter in there and are relying on picking up the signal from the First Class lounge! When you spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on fitting out a lounge, I suppose it makes sense not to spend an extra fifty bucks on a wireless hub, because then you might, shock horror, actually provide a decent service to your customers.

The constant incompetence and stupidity of this entire industry just gives me a headache!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What's German for GMail?

I just received this very interesting message when trying to access my Gmail account:

It's interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I'm not in Germany. I'm actually in London (Heathrow airport) on my way to Dublin. I am using a T-Mobile hotspot to access the internet so it must be routed through Germany. You'd think they'd use IP filtering to work out my location though, like this example I blogged a while back.

Of greater interest is the underlying reason for this message. Clearly there's some sort of problem with ownership of the GMail name in Germany (but not the gmail.com domain which Google own globally). Too bad they don't tell you on this page what it's all about. I hate an unsolved mystery!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Don't leave home without it

No, not your American Express card. Well yes, you want to take that too, but I'm talking about your passport.

Marie and I went to DC on Thursday. I spent Friday in our office there and we drove down to North Carolina (through the tail end of the hurricane) where her cousin lives for the weekend to attend a family function and then I was going spend Monday and Tuesday back in the office before returning home.

I almost packed my passport, but then I thought "Don't be stupid, why would you need your passport to go to Washington?"

Well you'd need it in case the COO of your company called you late Friday and asked if you could fly to Dublin on Monday to attend a critical customer meeting (critical in the sense of a $15M deal riding on it).

That ought to be straightforward because there's a direct flight from Washington Dulles to Dublin. Straightforward unless you've left your passport in Colorado! So instead I had to fly back to Steamboat last night so I could fly out to Dublin this afternoon. So instead of just flying IAD-DUB, I'm going IAD-DEN-HDN-DEN-LHR-DUB.

Update, Monday 8 September 12 pm: Our customers coming in from South Africa can't get their visas for Ireland in time so the trip has been deferred to Wednesday. I'm glad though that I got to come home for at least a couple of days.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Thanks Sarah

As a new US citizen one of the challenges I face is deciding who to vote for in November. I've wavered back and forth between McCain, whose economic policies are much closer to my views, and Obama, who I believe understands how much damage the childish "with us or against us" foreign policy of the current Administration has done to America's interests not to mention undermining the very foundations of the freedoms that make America unique.

But the selection of Sarah Palin as McCain's VP candidate has helped me make a choice.

Whilst the Republicans are busily touting her executive experience I couldn't help but look at the reality. She's the Governor of a teenage state, sponging off its parents in Washington. Here's a State that receives back two dollars for every dollar it sends to Washington. So how is she going to apply that model to balancing the Federal budget? Here's a State that's so awash in oil and gas money it has no sales tax, no income tax and sends its residents money every year. So what exactly are the tough choices she's had to make as the Governor of such a State?

Added to that, her penchant for firing anyone she didn't appoint indicates she's a "leader" in the mould of George W. Bush interested primarily in loyalty (to her) above all else (and isn't it interesting that we've just had another hurricane in New Orleans to remind us of the results of Bush's "heckuva job Brownie" model of management).

And for someone running as a "family values" conservative, I can't but help look at her personal life and think, "no thanks I've already got a mother and it looks like you've got your hands full". Plus, I'm sorry, but I don't admire the sort of single minded ambition that would allow you to run for high public office when you've got a special needs baby and a pregnant, unmarried 17 year old daughter on your hands. In the same way I simply couldn't understand how John Edwards could run whilst his wife was fighting breast cancer. Talk about your screwed up priorities (little did I know how big a toad he is).

But it was her speech tonight that really sealed the deal for me. I just can't believe that the Republicans wrote her a speech that regurgitated the same divisive, hateful, totalitarian rhetoric that poisoned the 2004 campaign and risks putting America on the path to becoming a one party state where to hold a different view is considered treasonous.

Well I've got news for Republicans. You are the ones who have wilfully and repeatedly betrayed the very essence of the United States, the Constitution, and until you realise that you're not fit to hold even the lowest public office, let alone deserving of another four years in the White House.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Shrinking phones (and inflation?)

We take a lot of technological progress for granted these days, partly because we've become so used to it and partly because it sneaks up on you gradually. But every now and again you get a sudden jolt that reminds you just how amazing the improvements in technology are.

That's what happened when my wife recently got a new phone.

Here's Marie's old phone obtained in 2002 at a net cost of $50 ($90 with a $40 call credit).

Here's her new phone obtained last week at net cost of, well nothing ($20 with a $20 call credit).

What's my point? Well look at them side by side; the new phone is tiny in comparison.


And yet in this package that's about 15% of the volume you get a full colour screen vs. a green LCD, you get a built in web browser, you get polyphonic sound vs. a tinny mono speaker and the list goes on and on.

There's an important point here, not just about taking technology for granted but also about economics. Most economists will tell you that in our period of rapid technology improvement traditional measures of the Consumer Price Index overstate inflation because the items they are measuring now are not the same as the items that were measured in the past but are in fact much better. This case demonstrates that issue beautifully. How do you factor into the CPI something that has gone from $50 to $0 but is ten times as good? That's a problem that's more than hard to solve, it's damn near impossible.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

I'm an American, Mate

Yesterday I became an American citizen.

I'm not one given to overt displays of patriotism, and I believe that chauvinistic nationalism has been a great force for evil in human history. In moral terms I believe strongly that national borders are arbitrary lines on a map. I vigorously oppose policies based on the assumption that a person's moral worth is somehow related to which side of those arbitrary lines they were born or reside on.

That's not to say I believe that all countries or all cultures are morally equal. The culture and values underpinning western liberal democracy are in my view morally superior because they lead to more productive behaviour that creates wealth and, dare I say it, more moral behaviour that creates liberty.

But culture is a funny thing. It's hard to create and maintain societies built on these values. In that endeavour institutions matter, and matter a lot. And that's where I believe that the United States excels, in the institutional structure established in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. So I'm proud to become an heir to the vision of liberty and freedom the Founding Fathers had when they created this country.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Olympics? Bah humbug

I feel like an Olympic Scrooge, but I just can't get myself excited about the Beijing Games.

I'm sure part of it is that the coverage here in the US is (not surprisingly) focused on the performance of the US athletes, and despite the fact that I'll soon become a US citizen, when it comes to sport I'm still 100% Aussie. Well maybe 99% since I've developed a growing interest in American Football and the Green Bay Packers.

But that's not the full story since I can easily follow Australia's performance on the Internet but I'm still not really engaged.

I think the big problem is that it's all become such a production. It's like when someone hires a professional cameraman for their wedding and he takes over the day; there's just so much going on at the Olympics now that detracts from the real story - the athletes and their performance. And China's obsession with putting on a good show and winning the medal count just exacerbates that problem.

The other problem I have is that the selection of sports is just ridiculous, much of it driven by the need to maximise television revenues in the US. By what other criteria could baseball be included but not cricket, or women's softball but not netball?

The other problem I have is "sports" where the scoring is entirely subjective, stuff like diving and, worst of all, synchronised swimming. "Citius, Altius, Fortius" is the Olympic motto; it does not include "prettiest" or "best artistic merit" or any crap like that. If you can't measure it objectively, then in my view, whatever it is, it isn't a sport.

Some of the same criticisms can be levelled at the Winter Olympics (lose the ice dancing please!), but I'm much less jaded about those. That's partly because I'm personally much more interested in the core Winter Olympic sports of skiing (both Alpine and Nordic) than anything at the Summer Games, but also because it's still a much smaller deal and therefore maintains some of the true Olympic spirit and charm.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What happens to the good sci fi shows

One of the shows I've been watching on Hulu is New Amsterdam. After three episodes I'm really impressed by the quality of the story telling. It's not the first story about someone who is immortal but it's probably the most serious take on the question.

But today I discovered that the eight episodes online is all there is because the show was cancelled after less than a season.

It seems this is all too common for intelligent science fiction. Two other programs in this category that come immediately to mind are Firefly and Threshold.

At least this hasn't happened to the best science fiction ever to grace the small screen - the new Battlestar Galactica. That would be too frakking much!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Streaming television

After my very positive experience with the Roku Netflix Player I've been checking out some of the other streaming television options available on the Internet.

I was particularly interested in Hulu since the rumour is that the Netflix Player will soon also be able to stream their content as well.

Hulu is joint venture between NBC and News Corporation established after a falling out with Apple (seems they couldn't agree on pricing and revenue sharing for media sold via iTunes). Technically it's pretty slick; certainly better than the usual effort from large incumbent organisations. The biggest deficiency is that they only keep the last five or six episodes online. Too bad if you want to try out a show you missed from the first episode.

Unlike the Netflix service which runs on a subscription model, Hulu is based on the traditional advertising supported model of television. But I can't help thinking that they're failing woefully to exploit the potential of this new paradigm. As far as I can tell the ads are not based on the profile of the user, unless they somehow think I'm the target demographic for fabric softener and shampoo!

Nevertheless the potential is there and I'm convinced that this is going to kill television as we know it. The concept of watching a program at a set time has already been struck a major blow by DVRs but you're ultimately still limited to watching what you've already recorded. I'm looking forward to the approaching television model where you can watch any episode of any show any time!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Credit card fraud

The Justice Department announced today that they had broken a major credit card fraud ring.

It seems that the card numbers were obtained by hacking retailers' wireless networks. Amongst the list of affected retailers is Sports Authority which explains how my wife's credit card was fraudulently used back in April this year.

At the time we couldn't figure out how the number had been skimmed since she still had the card in her possession, never uses that card online and had only used it twice in the previous month, one of those times being at Sports Authority, and in both cases the card never left her sight.

We were incredibly impressed by how quickly our bank (Wells Fargo) detected the fraud - they called her the same day after only two fraudulent transactions which they advised us occurred using a fake card encoded with the stolen number. Reversing the fraudulent charges was reasonably straightforward so we didn't think any more about it until I heard the report today.

I'm a whole lot less impressed with Sports Authority's network security. Maybe I should give them the benefit of the doubt but as an IT professional I know that it's far more likely that the criminals exploited holes in a poorly implemented wireless network than that they were master hackers who defeated a state of the art system.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Terminal 5

I was very critical of the chaos at Heathrow Terminal 5 when it opened.

I had a chance to look for myself today on my way from Steamboat to Johannesburg. Things seem to have settled down and to be working as the should. My baggage made the transfer and my flights were on time.

I was surprised how big it is. It's actually three separate concourses.

The British Airways first class lounge is a big improvement on the one at Terminal 4. Much larger, the wi-fi is finally free and it has showers. Not as nice as the Qantas first class lounge in Sydney though.

However the transfer from Terminal 4 takes forever. In a straight line it must be about two miles. But the route the bus takes seems to go around the airport about three times!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Great airline rant

There's a great airline rant in today's Wall Street Journal.

Written in response to the idiotic email that US airlines sent their customers (yes including me) earlier this month, it uses satire to expose US airline executives as the incompetent frakking fools that they are.

And the beauty of it is that they asked for it. That email was a giant electronic version of a "kick me" sign that the airlines pasted to their own backs.

Typical whining from another protected industry. They should get a spine and grow up.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Netflix Player gets five stars

I just got myself a Roku Netflix Player.

I've been a Netflix subscriber for a while now. After some initial teething problems I've found it an excellent service. We especially like the wide range of lesser known movies that they carry, including several quite obscure Australian movies like this one.

The only downside is because we're away a lot we often pay for a month's subscription without watching a single DVD, and there's no rollover of unused DVDs to the next month.

In recent months I've also begun watching some of the instant streaming movies and TV shows that Netflix have available. The range is still only a fraction of their overall catalog but I've been very impressed by the quality, at least on my computer monitor. Of course that's partly dependent on my Comcast cable internet connection which I am pleased to say has been steadily improving over the past four years - from typical download speeds in 2004 of 2-3 Mbps to consistent speeds of 10-15 Mbps now.

I'm also a big fan of my Roku Soundbridge so when I saw that Netflix and Roku were offering a "Netflix Player" that would let me stream Netflix video to my TV for only $99, I just couldn't resist (not to mention, being a typical techie, I love playing with new gadgets!)

I assumed that the picture quality would degrade somewhat in moving from my computer's 19 inch LCD screen to my 42 inch TV, so I didn't expect the video quality to be great. Boy was I wrong. It's certainly not High Definition (the Player supports HD including a HDMI connector but Netflix are not currently making HD content available) but it's pretty damn close to DVD quality and definitely better than my non-HD cable channels.

I also expected the occasional interruption due to network issues (either at Comcast's end or on my wireless network - the Player has a wireless 802.11g adapter built in) but I've watched several hours of content so far without a single interruption.

Like the Roku Soundbridge the user interface is excellent - simple and intuitive - and the setup was a breeze. And the unit is amazingly small. The website says it's the size of a paperback but I was still surprised. It looks positively tiny next to my other home entertainment components.

For a first release I'd have to say that it's almost perfect - five stars out of five. The only criticism I have is that you can't browse the catalog from the TV - you have to access the Netflix website on your computer and add items to your instant play queue for them to show up on the Player. But I'd be very surprised if they don't fix that in the first software update.

Here's the silly thing though, and it's silliness on the part of Comcast not Netflix. Here in Steamboat Comcast doesn't offer their On Demand service. I've been told by the local Comcast office that this is awaiting a trunk infrastructure upgrade (which will also allow us to receive the networks in HD). But Netflix and I are effectively using Comcast's infrastructure to achieve the same thing!

Monday, July 14, 2008

ACLU misses the point

The ACLU issued a press release today pointing out that the Government's terrorist watchlist now has more than a million names on it. They make the perfectly logical point that a list that long is effectively useless in screening for terrorists:

"Putting a million names on a watch list is a guarantee that the list will do more harm than good by interfering with the travel of innocent people and wasting huge amounts of our limited security resources on bureaucratic wheel-spinning."

Of course the ACLU has completed missed the point. Yes, if your goal is to catch terrorists a list this long is counter-productive. But if your goal is to convince the great mass of voters who don't want to think too hard that you're not taking any chances in the "war on terror", then the longer the list the better.

Hell, I'm surprised there aren't three billion people on the list. After all every one of the 9/11 hijackers was a man, so if you've got a Y chromosome you fit the profile. Better to be safe...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Balloons again

This weekend is the annual Balloon Rodeo in Steamboat.

Marie and I walked down to the launch site yesterday, but we forgot to take the camera so I don't have photos like I did last year.

But I did take this one today with my phone camera while I was out rollerblading.

Dead trees

Since the mid 1990's Colorado's pine forests have been affected by an infestation of pine beetles which eventually kills the lodgepole pine trees that the beetles attack.

I've been vaguely aware of the problem and even noticed a few dead trees on the mountain whilst snowshoeing this Spring, but I was shocked when we returned home at the beginning of July to see great swathes of dead, brown trees all around the valley.

Fortunately much of the Steamboat ski mountain is covered by a mix of pine, spruce and fir trees so the death of the lodgepole pines won't leave it completed denuded. Nevertheless the dead trees do pose a hazard that the Ski Company and Forest Service will need to tackle one way or another.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Citizenship test

Yesterday I went for my US citizenship interview - another 450 mile round trip to Grand Junction.

I studied quite a bit of American government and history at University. How much? Well, for example, I've read every volume of President Woodrow Wilson's memoirs. What a mama's boy. Not my favourite president. But I digress from my main point, which is that I didn't expect to have any trouble with the test.

Nevertheless I was disappointed at how easy it was, consisting of the following four very easy questions:
  • What do the stripes on the flag represent?
  • What is the White House?
  • What are changes to the Constitution called?
  • What is the highest court in the land?
I was at least hoping for a question about the Declaration of Independence so I could quote one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

But fortunately I wasn't asked if I like baseball. I would definitely have given the wrong answer!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Airline hell

We've just arrived home after seven and a half weeks on the road, involving trips to Australia (vacation), the Philippines (work) , Lebanon (my father-in-law's funeral) and two trips to South Africa (work).

Here's what that looked like in terms of flights:

Denver to Los Angeles (economy)
Los Angeles to Brisbane (economy)

Brisbane to Canberra (economy)
Canberra to Brisbane (economy)

Brisbane to Sydney (business - complimentary upgrade)
Sydney to Hong Kong (economy)
Hong Kong to Manila (economy)
Manila to Sydney (economy)
Sydney to Brisbane (economy)

Brisbane to Singapore (business)
Singapore to Abu Dhabi (business)
Abu Dhabi to Beirut (business)

Beirut to Dubai (business)
Dubai to Johannesburg (business)

Johannesburg to Sydney (first - mileage upgrade)
Sydney to Brisbane (business)
Brisbane to Sydney (business)
Sydney to Johannesburg (business)

Johannesburg to Sydney (business)
Sydney to Brisbane (business)

Brisbane to Los Angeles (business - complimentary upgrade)
Los Angeles to Denver (economy)

That's 63,504 miles between May 10 and July 1.

It went smoothly until the trip to Manila. Our flight from Brisbane to Sydney was delayed due to mechanical problems so Qantas moved us to another flight (with a complimentary upgrade which was nice) which was also late due to mechanical problems meaning we missed our connection in Sydney (only by 20 minutes which will be relevant later).

Their initial solution was for us to hang round in Sydney all day and then put us on an overnight Philippines Airlines flight, not an option I was happy with, so after some encouragement from me they booked us on a flight to Hong Kong with an overnight there and then a morning connection to Manila. Unfortunately the flight to Hong Kong was also delayed due to mechanical problems (four hours!) so our overnight in Hong Kong turned into less than 4 hours at the hotel.

Our flight back to Sydney went smoothly enough, but I've learnt that arriving at Sydney airport on a Friday morning is to be avoided at all costs, especially if you have a domestic connection. The international to domestic transfer at Sydney is third world at the best of times, but on a Friday morning you need to allow at least three hours. Of five connections through Sydney on this trip I made one successfully and that was only because I flew from Brisbane to Sydney the night before!

After missing the connection to Manila by 20 minutes, I was not amused two weeks later to be sitting on the aircraft in Sydney waiting to leave for Johannesburg when the captain announced that we would be delayed half an hour waiting for connection passengers from Brisbane! I wish the hell Qantas would be consistent on this, either wait or not wait.

Even worse was our trip to Beirut which wasn't under the best of circumstances anyway, but to arrive and find that our luggage had not been transferred in Abu Dhabi and wouldn't arrive for another 24 hours. Not what you need when you've got a funeral to attend. Between this and some of the most disinterested staff I think I've ever seen in a front cabin, I wouldn't recommend Etihad's business class.

The one major plus on our trip was receiving a complimentary upgrade on our flight from Brisbane to Los Angeles. Not something Qantas are known for.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Foam or cream?

"Foam or cream?" is the question when ordering cappuccino here in South Africa.

To which my response is "if I wanted a coffee with cream in it, I wouldn't have asked for a cappuccino."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Activist judges?

John McCain has flagged as a key part of his re-election strategy pandering to the "conservative right" in judicial appointments, especially appointments to the Supreme Court. He's using the standard code words - "activist judges" - to criticise judicial appointments that conservatives don't like, the implication being that conservative judges will somehow avoid "activism" and will stick to the letter of the Constitution.

What does it all mean? Shall we test it using the poster boys for judicial appointments during the reign of King George President George W. Bush, namely Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts?

Can you see where this is heading?

These judges are not activists, so say the conservatives and therefore it must be so. Which means that we can rest easy in the knowledge that they won't twist and turn the Constitution inside out to make it mean whatever conservatives want it to mean. Can't we?

They, not being activists, would never for example decide that the Federal Government can regulate the private, local consumption of medically prescribed marijuana under the powers granted it to regulate "commerce... among the several States" (the Commerce Clause) would we? After all, it involves neither commerce nor anything among the States so any other interpretation would be patently and wilfully absurd wouldn't it?

Oh, but they would and they have! It doesn't take a law degree to know that these men are full of it, that they are nothing more than unprincipled hacks who believe the end justifies the means, and that no principle is above delivering the outcome desired by those "conservatives" they owe allegiance to. Dare I say "ACTIVISTS!"

To prove my point, here's Alito in his dissent to the recent Supreme Court decision confirming that Guantanamo Bay detainees have the right to challenge their detention in a (real) civilian court:

... the decision "will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed."

Hmm, looks to me like he's playing the part of politician, arguing the merits of the policy (not with real evidence or logic but with emotion and fear, but that's another story), rather than doing what a judge ought to be doing which is expressing a view on what the law is and the Constitution requires and nothing else.

So when John McCain says "I won't appoint activist judges" I can just hear my favourite character from my favourite movie reply:

You keep using that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means. (Inigo Montoya played brilliantly by Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride)

Thursday, June 05, 2008

If only they'd read this...

I was searching for a quote from Winston Churchill to use in a presentation when I came across this gem:

Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.

If only George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld had read this before they created the mess in Mesopotamia.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

A big farewell

My father-in-law's funeral is now over after four long and tiring and emotional days. I'm writing this sitting in the Emirates lounge in Dubai on my way to a consulting engagement in Johannesburg that I was supposed to start last week.

On Tuesday the family received condolences at home. Most of the visitors were relatives and close friends so it was quite comforting to receive them. The day was complicated only by the jet lag (we arrived in Beirut after 26 hours of travelling at 4 am and people started coming by around 10 am) and the fact that we had nothing to wear since Etihad had decided not to transfer our luggage in Abu Dhabi (to be the subject of another post I promise you).

Wednesday was the service and burial which took place at one of the churches in the family's home village (now a Beirut suburb) which fittingly we visited last October and which my father-in-law was instrumental in restoring after the civil war. The service led by the Maronite Archbishop of Beirut was conducted in Arabic so I didn't understand any of it, but I found it beautiful nonetheless.

Here's a photo I took of the church on that visit last October not knowing we'd soon be back there under such sad circumstances.


Viewing the body was harrowing but necessary to help us accept that he really is gone and burying my father-in-law alongside his parents in the family crypt was very emotional. So this was definitely the hardest day.

On Thursday the family continued receiving condolences in the salon attached to the church. The process consisted of us sitting in this large room from 10 am to 7 pm, standing to receive visitors and shaking their hands or kissing them on the cheeks (three times).


The visitors would then sit for some period of time (I'm sure the duration of their stay was carefully calculated according to some protocol but I didn't manage to figure out the algorithm) before repeating the process on their way out. This is quite a Middle Eastern thing to do. You'll often see photos of Arab political meetings where everyone is sitting around a room like this.

The process was repeated on Friday in a downtown location where fewer family and more political leaders visited. So I've now shaken the hands and kissed the cheeks of a sufficient proportion of Beirut's residents that I feel ready to run for a seat in the Lebanese parliament.

I always knew that my father-in-law was a man of some prominence in Beirut but I hadn't really appreciated how widely he was known and respected in the local community and in political and business circles.

I also knew that he'd maintained good relations with the Shiite community which is notable enough in a country renown for sectarian strife, but they really went out of their way to pay him respect; hanging banners farewelling him in the street; Shiite leaders coming to pay their condolences; and the overwhelmingly Shiite residents lining the streets and the Shiite shopkeepers closing their stores as the coffin was carried from the church to the cemetery.

Monday, May 26, 2008

One wedding and a funeral

On Saturday we attended the wedding of my cousin Kirralee (“Lil”) held on the beach at Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. The weather was perfect for an outdoor wedding and it was a great opportunity to catch up with my parents and brother, some of my uncles and aunts and my New Zealand-based cousins. I like to think of myself as a fairly practical person but I like the big rituals; they generally emphasise the very best in human nature.

Unfortunately towards the end of the reception I received one of those phone calls that everyone dreads–news that my father-in-law Youssef Matta had suffered a heart attack and with no warning and no reprieve was taken from us. Telling my wife that she had lost her beloved father was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Now we’re making the long journey with heavy hearts from Brisbane to Beirut for the funeral.

In the twenty plus years I knew him my initial feelings of intimidation became love, and for my wife, to whom family is everything, he was a central figure in her life. Fortunately we had the opportunity to spend a week with him in Beirut in October last year and my wife visited him again in January.

As sad as I feel, the hardest part of this is knowing how deeply my darling wife Marie feels the loss and being able to do nothing to ease her suffering apart from simply being there. We have a difficult process to go through in the next few days with the funeral and associated Middle Eastern mourning rituals. Then, as they say, life goes on. But when you lose a loved one it will never be quite the same.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Return to Manila

This week we went to Manila in the Philippines where I had my first overseas job in late 1999, supposedly for ten weeks but I ended up having a series of contracts there throughout 2000 and 2001.

That was just the beginning of our continuing international adventure, but regular readers will know that we get back Brisbane frequently. In fact my Mum once told me she sees me more now that I live overseas than when I lived in Australia.

My last visit to Manila was in late 2003 (by which time we were living in Singapore) so I was interested to see if anything had changed in five years. The verdict? Not much. The traffic still makes getting around a nightmare; the air is still very smoggy; the hot and humid weather was a useful reminder of why I love Steamboat’s cool, dry climate so much; and corrupt oligarchs (think Russia without the oil) are still trying to run the country into the ground.

But the good things – the wonderful optimism and joie de vivre of the Filipino people – haven’t changed either. Not to mention the world’s juiciest but least stringy mangoes available almost year round for a pittance.

I’m not sure I’d want to spend a whole lot of time there again (and Marie is sure that she wouldn’t, so that settles that), especially when there are still so many other places waiting to be experienced, but I was reminded of why I enjoyed the experience so much the first time round.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Springbrook

Yesterday we visited my sister who lives in Springbrook, right in the rainforest about 50 metres from the National Park.

After lunch and coffee (and cake), my nephew Julian and I decided to walk the Twin Falls circuit, although with my young and fit nephew it was more like a forced march than a walk; the National Parks' information says allow two hours but we did it in 57 minutes, including the additional 750 metres from the end of the trail back to my sister's house.

The walk starts at the top of an escarpment where there are sweeping views of the Gold Coast.


The first part goes along the top of these cliffs.


But the best part comes after you've descended to the bottom of the cliffs where the path passes through the fissures in the rocks on the way down. That's my nephew Julian disappearing into the rocks.


Then the walk takes you through a lush rainforest past and behind two waterfalls (hence the name Twin Falls).



Here's the track from the GPS unit.


I would highly recommend it, but please note the warning from the National Parks' website:

DANGER: Sheer cliffs and waterfalls. One slip could be fatal — serious injury or death may result from walking near the edge. Keep to the track. Supervise children closely.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Music download

I made my first online music purchase yesterday. Two things came together to make this possible.

First, online music stores (like Amazon, which is the one I used) are now providing music in the non-proprietary MP3 format.

Second, they are now making online music available without DRM (Digital Rights Management), an evil scheme designed to hobble your listening and dreamed up by the devil himself (with a little help from his minions in the major music labels).

I've been waiting for these developments because in a field where technology is still developing it seems crazy to me to be spending money on music in ways that lock you in to a particular vendor (e.g. Apple or Microsoft) or a particular device thus preventing you from later on using music on devices that haven't yet been invented and in ways that haven't even been imagined.

So I'm happy now, because my wife will often buy a CD just to get one song she likes. It's so much better to be able to pay 99 cents and download just the song she's after.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Self-assembling robots

I've been following developments in robotics for a while, and I even bought a Roomba a while back (mostly so that twenty years from now I can brag about owning one of the earliest domestic robots), but this is amazing:


I'm now more convinced than ever that robots will change the world for the next generation in the way the Internet is changing it for ours.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Backcountry snowshoeing

Today we went snowshoeing on Rabbit Ears pass. Here's the track:


Note that we went out and back on the same course.

This is a marked trail that starts at the East Summit car park. But as you can see from the completely untracked snow, it hasn't had a lot of recent use.


It's quite a treat having views like this all to yourself:


This was quite a bit easier than some of the tours we've been doing on the mountain. Whilst the distance we covered at 2.56 miles is similar, the total vertical climb of 516 ft is quite a bit less (like 1,603 ft on the last one).

Friday, April 25, 2008

Final day (really)

Today, day 36, was really my final day of skiing for the 2007-08 season. I start my new job next week and I've got a lot of travel coming up.

There's still plenty of snow on the mountain, including six inches of fresh powder. A powder day is the ultimate way to finish the season nearly three weeks after the mountain closes!

There are no photos today - I took the camera but didn't check if the batteries were charged - but here's the track:


Again I started at Thunderhead after Marie dropped me. You'll note that this time I went all the way to the Four Points hut. My original plan was to go to the top of Storm Peak but a guy came down and said it was very wind blown on top. Frankly I didn't have the energy to go on so he gave me a face saving way to stop at that point!

Best sections were skiing down Rainbow and Valley View. Both were untracked. On Valley View in particular the powder was heavy enough to leave very clear tracks. There's no better ego boost than to stand in the valley below and look back up at the mountain and see your own tracks!

I also included in the track the section from the mountain to my home since I walked that and therefore consider it part of today's exercise program.

The most important statistics for today are elevation gained (the effort) of 2,510 ft and elevation lost (the reward) of 3,141 ft. This was a four and a half hour exercise. As tough as it was in places I'll take this over running on a treadmill any day.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More snowshoeing

Marie and I continued to take advantage of the abundance of snow on the mountain to go snowshoeing again today.



Here's the track:


The key stats are distance covered 3.1 miles and elevation gained 1,603 ft.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Still not over

My ski season is still not over because I went hiking for turns again today. This time I went all the way to the top of the gondola. Here's the track:


The best part of the day was on Norther where I found untracked spring corn. Here's what it looked like before I skied it:


And here's what it looked like after I'd laid down some tracks:


Check this out for a ridiculous amount of snow two weeks after the mountain has closed:


And this is off Rudi's which is mid-mountain; there's even more snow at the top of the mountain!

Finally today's stats:

Vertical ft: 2,025 hiking up, 2,481 skiing down (Marie dropped me at Thunderhead which gave me 450 ft for free)
Maximum speed: 38.3 mph
Average climbing speed: 2.0 mph

You can see the difference between hiking up and skiing down quite clearly in this graph (the first dip is when I skied Norther and then climbed back up):


Hiking up gives you a whole new perspective on the mountain. In particular everything seems a whole lot steeper when you have to get up it under your own power. Even areas I think of as flat when I ski them actually have a distinct grade to them.