A couple of weeks ago my company sent me over to London for 6 weeks to do some project work for one of our clients. I’m back in Munich now, but everyone’s been asking me how it was and I have surprisingly many things to say about my stay in the UK. Thus, to ease my pain of having to tell everyone the same bunch of observations, I decided to group them all neatly into a blog post. Here goes.
London is big and crowded
Depending on the definition, the London metropolitan area has between 8,5 and 14 mln inhabitants. By European standards this makes it a huge city, and having never lived in a place that had more than 2,5 mln people, you can really feel the difference. The most visible effect of that enormous size is of course overcrowding.
I remember visiting London a couple of years back, admiring the architecture of old tube stations with the small, nomen omen, tubular size of the trains, and finding it all adorable. Well, tell you what, it loses all its charm when you try to get on a Jubilee line train at 8:30 AM.
Moving around the city during morning or evening rush hours means standing in some sort of a line most of the time. You queue for the trains (I never managed to get on the first or even the second Jubilee line train in the morning, not to mention the Central line), you queue to the stairs, and then in many other places you also queue even when you leave the station; for example at Faringdon station if you want to cross the street in the direction of Leather Lane the queue (~50m long) to the zebra crossing starts right at the station exit.
Yesterday Dropbox announced that they will close their Mailbox app and service in February.1 This is yet another case of a big company acquiring an email-client startup and shutting it down, and it doesn’t surprise me. Nobody wants email clients (except for me and my girlfriend), because GMail’s web interface is good enough or even great for most people. Writing an email client is deceptively hard, and yields relatively small payoff. Also, Dropbox needs to concentrate on its collaborative tools efforts in order to be able to compete with Google Drive (a game it’s late to, if you ask me) and now that Inbox copied most of Mailbox’s features, there’s simply no point in trying to win GMail’s userbase.
The only thing that bugs me with situations like this, i.e., when a big company decides to shut down a niche product (especially a product of an acquired startup), is that they don’t release the technology as an open source project. What could possibly hurt Google to release Sparrow’s source to the community, or Dropbox to do the same with Mailbox? We’ll never know I guess.
Stephen LeDrew wrote an interesting post about the influence the so-called “New Atheism” movement had on society, pointing out some intriguing similarities between our militant atheists and, surprisingly, the far right wing conservatism. The one observation which I don’t find completely accurate, and I think it’s because I live in Europe, is that the “New Atheism” isn’t regarded highly in well-educated circles any more. I found a surprising number of people working in philosophy, logic, computer science and especially in natural sciences to still cherish Dawkins et al., which was always rather surprising to me. It most likely has to do with a rather loose coupling between “New Atheists” and any political movements in Europe (modulo UK perhaps?). 1
In any case, the article is worth a read, and LeDrew’s book lands on my wishlist.
Thanks for the link, Truls.
K made a good comment here by pointing out another difference between aggressive atheists in Europe and in the US: here they don’t have an aggressive counterpart. Religious fundamentalism especially in its protestant form is extremely rare in Europe, and there isn’t much political debate in which Christian fundamentalists would be visible. This may also explain why “New Atheists” don’t see themselves as avantgarde on the old continent. ↩
Hossein Derakhshan writes about how reading on the web changed in the last few years and makes a ton of great observations:
The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.
I’m not a huge fan of social networks myself but I understand the appeal of the Stream, as Derekhshan calls it. The web became too big, and no one was able to earn any money on RSS, not even Google, so social networks like Twitter or Facebook became the preferred way of consuming web content for many people. It is ironic, though, that his insightful article is posted on medium.com, which is itself a social network, and which is guilty of many of the faults he mentions.
I was about to write a blog post about how indifferent I became towards different text editors, and how I don’t really care anymore whether I edit code with emacs, vim, Sublime or even Atom. And then this happened:
It’s called Spacemacs and it’s a beautiful hybrid between emacs and vim, or at least it looks like it. Will explore how it works in the course of the next couple of days, i.e., no work will be done and I will spend my days playing with the configuration of a text editor.
And I thought those days were over. Silly me.
update, Sep 9: I’m back on ST3 vim with my old config. I still think Spacemacs is a great idea, it’s just a bit too bloated for my taste.
My grandfather was the first professional photographer in my hometown,1 and I loved playing with his cameras. His darkroom was my favorite place on Earth, filled with cameras, lenses, and a huge enlarger in the middle of a table. I spent hours playing there, and perhaps that’s what sparked my interest in photography, but it was definitely what sparked my interest in photographic gear.
My grandfather gave me my first camera. It was a DDR-made Praktica B100 semi-automatic SLR with a 50mm Pentacon f/1.8 lens. It was so superior to all the Soviet Zenith SLRs my high-school friends had, and its optical performance made my poorly composed photographs look at least decent. I cherished that camera and enjoyed every minute with it, and I actually still do, although sadly I haven’t shot film since 2010.
I learned a ton2 shooting film with the Praktica B100, and I learned to love bokeh of f/1.8 above all, like every mediocre photographer. Shooting film was, unfortunately, expensive, and when I finally got a part-time job in college in 2006, I was able to afford one of the greatest cameras ever made—the Nikon D40.
It is with great sadness that I read the news about Ornette Coleman’s death. Ornette was one of the first jazz musicians I ever heard of, an artist that inspired my love for jazz but also profoundly expanded my understanding of improvisation and free jazz.
There are a lot of great anecdotes about Ornette Coleman, like those about other musicians reportedly paying him not to play during his early days, and those about him studying music theory in an elevator while he had a part time job as an elevator operator.1 To me the greatest story about Ornette Coleman is his concert in Warsaw on July 18th, 2007, which was the first “big” jazz concert I ever went to. I remember I needed to get a leave from my part time call-center job explaining to my manager who Ornette Coleman is,2 and that I actually needed to save up the money two months in advance to be able to afford two tickets. And when the day came, an elderly man walked on stage of the Roma Music Theatre in Warsaw, and, together with his quartet, performed the most energetic jazz performance I have ever heard in my life, which was even more surprising given the fact that he was already 77 at the time and had difficulty walking.
It’s a great loss for the world of improvised music, but luckily Ornette Coleman’s legacy lives on strong, with so many records, concerts and young musicians inspired by his genius.
Ornette Coleman didn’t have any formal music training, and did not know, among other things, that he needs to transpose the saxophone parts before playing with a piano. ↩
I also remember being shocked that my American manager did not know who Ornette Coleman was.↩
On Thursday, April 30th I successfully defended my thesis on “Agents that Play by the Rules” and was awarded the title of PhD.1 It was 4,5 years of work,2 and the last week was definitely the most stressful and exhausting one I had in my entire life, but now I’m done. There’s no more school to go to, no more exams and no more courses to take.3
The overwhelming feeling of completion is a very pleasant one. For the first time since March 2010 there is nothing hanging over my head. There are no papers to be finished, and no talks to be given. No students to teach. Hell, I might even comment out LaTeX-Box from my .vimrc.4 It feels good.
Every time I try to advertise functional programming to non-functional programmers, one of the key features I mention is lazy evaluation. ‘You can have infinite lists! How awesome is that?’ And every time I actually need or want to use this great feature, I end up evaluating some infinite data structure and killing my SBT or GHCi.
Turns out one has to be careful with awesome. Especially the infinite kind.
Sacco boarded the plane. It was an 11-hour flight, so she slept. When the plane landed in Cape Town and was taxiing on the runway, she turned on her phone. Right away, she got a text from someone she hadn’t spoken to since high school: “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.” Sacco looked at it, baffled.