Archive for category Culture
I arrived in October 21 2015 about an hour ago, and Marty McFly should be arriving later. It seems a good time to recap a few things I’ve made and done relating to Back to the Future.
Firstly, here are some lyrics I wrote for a Back-to-the-Future-related parody of Moxy Früvous’s Gulf War Song. If I’d been in Vienna more this year I probably would have fixed the bit I don’t like (the heavy/light line that needs too much explanation) and organised for some of my musical friends to sing it at Open Phil, but alas, I’ve been away too much.
Secondly, here’s a video I took of a superconducting magnetic hover-scooter created by MaNEP several years ago and occasionally shown off at events at CERN. I’m not too happy about the way I deliberately decoupled the sound from the video at one point, but never mind. You can see me riding a hoverboard. I wrote a blog post with more information.
In the year 2015, I bought one of those holographic hats that everyone’s wearing here in the future, took it to the wax museum in Vienna, and took some pictures of wax figures wearing it. Here’s a guy who could help you solve any problems you might have caused with the spacetime continuum.
And this is Michael Jackson… Fox? ready to serve you at your nearest Cafe 80s.
Of course, Elvis never died; he just skipped a few decades.
Same goes for Freddie Mercury:
The Freud dude prefers to travel in time by phone booth, though.
Gustav Klimt probably thought he knew how colour worked.
And here are Julia Roberts and Johnny Depp, just because.
I look forward to seeing whether this tumblr continues as normal after it’s actually correct.
I somehow ended up buying an Apple Watch the other day, though I’d intended to wait a while first. I have a pretty neat Casio digital watch already, of course, but I’d never had a wearable computer. Now that I have one, I’d better get to work writing apps for it in order to rationalise my purchase, though my hopes of making millions on a fart app have already been dashed. But first, my friend (and fellow Apple Watch early adopter) Phil and I visited a friend’s collection of old Apple computers, and tested the startup time of the 2015 Apple Watch running Watch OS 1.0 against a 1991 Macintosh Classic running System 7.1. Here’s my video of the test:
And here’s Phil’s:
Since the Apple watch probably won’t need to be restarted very often, the difference might not add up to many lifetimes, but it was fun to test. An Apple Watch engineer suggested the results would be different at the bottom of a swimming pool.
I’ve spent much more time with Macintosh Classics than with my Apple Watch so far, and I don’t think it’s really fair to compare them, but so far I like the watch better. Among other things, the Apple Watch has a greater variety of available straps, is lighter on the wrist, is more likely to tell the correct time, and will show the time prominently without the addition of third-party software such as the SuperClock control panel.
When Europeans colonised New Zealand, they brought not only mammals to drive many of the native birds to extinction, but also their religion to exterminate the native theodiversity. This began with Reverend Samuel Marsden on Christmas Day 1814, and there is a Christmas carol about it called Te Harinui. Since it just turned Christmas day about an hour ago in New Zealand, here‘s a recording of Te Harinui I just made.
It’s sung by the voice Vicki from my robot choir (an app I wrote to make my Mac sing using the built-in speech synthesis.) It has a couple of little glitches, and I couldn’t get it to pronounce the Māori words exactly right, but otherwise, I think this is the best Vicki has ever sounded. Usually I switch to Victoria because Vicki’s singing sounds weird. I made a couple of tweaks to the time allocated to consonants, and I think they helped. I used the music in the New Zealand Folk Song page, with a few small changes to the ‘glad tidings’ line to make it sound more like how I remember it.
You can see the effect of widespread hemispherism in the fact that the song opens by saying it isn’t snowy, as if being snowy were the default state and any deviation from it must be called out.
Now, I must get some good Christmas sleep.
Tomorrow is the first day of winter. What do you consider the perfect winter day?
Well. Once again somebody has forgotten about the ‘worldwide’ part of the worldwide web. The first day of winter depends on the region. For example, this time last year I was heading to Norrköping, Sweden, where it was still warm enough even a week later to be officially autumn. This time in 2011 I was in Geneva, where according to the canton’s official chestnut tree, it was already spring. But those are edge cases. There’s also approximately an entire hemisphere where it’s summer. An entire hemisphere, without which Earth would be quite a bit smaller than Venus.
I can’t speak for that entire hemisphere, but I did grow up in New Zealand, where summer officially started on December 1. Even when people remember that the Southern Hemisphere exists, they often forget about New Zealand. I also can’t speak for New Zealanders who don’t celebrate Christmas in some way, and so must fend off assumptions of Christmas as well as assumptions of that Christmas being white. I do celebrate Christmas, and I’m going to tell you what that’s like in New Zealand.
Sometimes we have barbecues. Sometimes we go to the beach. Because that’s the logical thing to do in the summer. We usually eat pavlova and ice cream, because that’s pretty much always a logical thing to do. Strawberries are in season and go with pavlova, so we eat them too.
But a lot of the time we have a big roast dinner with turkey, chicken, ham, or lamb. Most of the time we listen to wintery songs about Christmas, forever dreaming of a white Christmas that will never come. Often we sing winter songs such as Jingle Bells and Winter Wonderland, which make no mention of Christmas whatsoever. Like people in the Northern Hemisphere, we sing them thinking they are Christmas songs, so thoroughly indoctrinated with Northist culture that we don’t realise there’s anything illogical about it. We do not sing the winter songs in winter, unless we’re having a mid-winter Christmas party. We have mid-winter Christmas parties because we’ve been repeatedly told that Christmas is a winter event, so in an attempt to have a ‘real’ one, we’ll sometimes have one in June.
Outside, pohutukawa and feijoa trees bloom red on green, sometimes turning our roads and driveways red with fallen stamens. Inside, we decorate with plastic holly and mistletoe, and Christmas cards of snowy driveways. Sometimes we spray fake snow on our windows. Some of us cover our entire sweaty bodies in what I hope is the thinnest red, faux-warm fabric we can find, and ask little kids to sit on our laps and tell us what they want for Christmas. Oh yes, Santa Claus: he lives at the North Pole, of course. Because Christmas belongs to the North. There isn’t even land at the North Pole. Well, we’ll see who’s jolly when we burn all that coal he gave us and cause the Arctic ice sheets to melt.
I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere for almost ten years now, and I’ve never seen anyone have a midsummer Christmas party, or hang up plastic pohutukawa. When I went out in the snow and warmed my hands on mulled wine at my first Christmas market, I didn’t think about how strange it was to have Christmas in winter, the way people from the Northern Hemisphere say it is when they first experience or even think about Christmas in summer. I thought about how much more Christmasy it seemed. How it finally seemed like a real Christmas, like in the movies, on the internet, on TV, in songs, in books, in even my own mind. About how I’d been subtly led to believe that my own Christmases were abnormal. And finally, as a boring overprivileged white middle class whatever, I understood what it was like to be marginalised and not even realise it.
My Christmases were never abnormal. Just outnumbered. Isn’t it about time people in the Northern Hemisphere started hanging up pohutukawa? Isn’t it time they dreamed of a red Christmas? Isn’t it about time we looked at them funny and remarked on how strange it must be to have cold weather in December? Isn’t it about time we reminded people to at least think before wishing someone a happy winter? The next time somebody complains that the shops have their Christmas decorations up before it’s even cold outside, or feels the need to to include snow even in a Christmas song set on an asteroid, send them this ‘Christmas song’ and ask how they’d like hearing it on radios and in shops throughout the Christmas season:
This news reminded me that I intended to post about the differences between couchette cars (Liegewagen/Voiture-couchettes) and sleeping cars (Schlafwagen/Voiture-lits) on overnight trains in Europe. I searched for information about the difference before I took my first overnight train, and wasn’t too satisfied with the descriptions I found, so I went with the slightly-more-expensive sleeping car to be sure I’d be comfortable.
A couple of months ago, due to lack of available sleeping places, I took a couchette for the first time, from Vienna to Rome, and then took a sleeping place on the way back. I took some notes on the differences. Both trains were catered by newrest, as were other night trains I’d taken around Europe (between Vienna and Zürich or Amsterdam.)
There’s not a lot of space in a cabin on an overnight train, so there are many things cleverly tucked away which you might not notice unless someone else in the cabin is more experienced than you. I probably missed a lot of things.
Secret washbasin, usually hidden under part of a table or inside a little cabinet (where there is also a mirror.) Fold-out table, no real seats, but sitting on the bed is comfortable as long as the bunk immediately above is folded away. On the trip from Rome to Vienna there was a little cubbyhole (with a door, but I’m not sure if it locked) for each bed, next to the washing cabinet.
Small table, no washbasin, but the seats are normal, comfortable seats until the seat backs are folded away to convert them into beds.
Thin newrest slippers (which I now have a collection of at home), a facecloth, 3M earplugs, a small container of potable water which I think is intended for tooth brushing. On other routes, there has also been a bottle of drinking water, a bottle of sparkling wine (which I mistook for sparkling water on my first trip, and tried to drink with breakfast), and something small to eat (a small packet of pretzels, or a tube of fruit compote) in the cabin on my arrival. On the trip from Rome to Vienna, the attendant asked if I wanted a fruit salad, and when I said yes, brought it back in a small glass bowl along with a bottle of drinking water, a bottle of sangria, and a packet of party cracker mix. In general there’s some kind of snack and something mildly alcoholic to put you to sleep.
A bottle of water.
Whether couchette or sleeper, the more people can theoretically fit into the cabin you booked, the cheaper it will be. There can be up to three bunks on each side of the cabin, some of which will stay folded away if the cabin is not full. If you’re lucky, you can get a cabin to yourself even if you booked a four- or six-person cabin.
Mattress with sheet on it (already tucked in etc.) duvet and fairly normal-sized pillow. Pretty comfortable to sleep on, though due to the movement and noise of the train I still wake up a few times during the night. On one train to Amsterdam, I barely slept due to the noise; I think I was at the end of a car or of the train, which might make a difference to the noise or movement.
Lightly-padded bench-type seats that convert into narrow beds, with a sheet (which you have to unfold and spread out yourself after converting the seat to a bed) a blanket, and tiny pillow just big enough to fit a head on. The benches are soft enough to be comfortable seats, but not really soft enough for sleeping, unless you’re used to sleeping on fairly hard surfaces; I could sleep quite well, but when I woke up during the night I always found parts of my body still asleep. What’s more, couchettes are a bit narrower than beds, so probably wouldn’t be suitable for people who have enough natural padding to make up for this.
In both kinds of accommodation, breakfast is brought to you in the morning, a certain amount of time before the stop you’re getting off at; if you’re sharing a room with someone who’s getting off before you, chances are you’ll wake up when they get their breakfast. If I recall correctly, you can get free refills on the tea and coffee if you can be bothered getting the attendant to come back.
You get a menu to fill out in the evening where you can choose 6 items (more for €1 each) from a list that includes tea, coffee, orange juice (in a carton so you can save it for later if you want), two pieces of bread, yoghurt, and various cold meats, cheeses and spreads. Unfortunately I lost the photo I took of the menu. I usually get a hot drink, bread, yoghurt, and three things to put on the bread. The ‘two pieces of bread’ option is a bit of a mystery bag which sometimes gets you slices of bread and sometimes rolls; I recall getting a croissant on one train, but I can’t remember whether that was a separate option.
White rolls with butter and jam, and a choice of tea or coffee.
Overall, the couchette car is just comfortable enough (it’s not going to be your best night’s sleep in any case, but it’ll do, if you’re the kind of person who can sleep on trains) and you wouldn’t notice anything wrong with it if you’d never tried a sleeper car. The sleeper car has a lot of nice luxurious touches, though, and I will continue to use them when I can.
If you have other experiences with couchettes or sleeper cars in Europe or elsewhere, please share them in the comments so we can compare.
A while ago a friend of mine was excited to discover that she could fit the shoes in the children’s section, which were cheaper. Someone else was delighted to discover that she could fit shoes in the ladies’ section, having assumed her feet were too small. This kind of thing happens because shoe shops label sections according to who they are trying to sell to, rather than what is in those sections. So I walked around a few shoe shops in Vienna and made a rough map of the actual contents of each section, so that you can figure out from your shoe size and shoe design priorities where the shoes you’re looking for are most likely to be.
The maps just happen to fit neatly onto two pages, so if you want, you can print them and hang them at the entrance of a shoe shop as a public service (though I do not advise this, as it may be considered littering or vandalism or something like that.) You can click on the image below to get a nice smooth vector pdf.
Note that not all shoe shops contain all of these sections, and some others contain ‘sport’ sections, which I think are reasonably self-explanatory. Also, there are of course exceptions and differences between shops — I found one pair of size-36 boots in a ‘men’s’ section, and there’s usually a small cache of shoes designed primarily for comfort in the ‘women’s’ section, and some shops only go up to size 41 in that section. This map is simply intended to let people know which sections they might find shoes they like in, in case they had missed those sections due to their age and gender and the shops’ inaccurate signage.
My first watch was digital. I was probably nine or ten, and the watch was a black Casio with a dashed line around the face in alternating green and blue. My brother and I would race to find each other whenever we noticed the hour was about to change, so that we could watch the watch digits all change at once. Needless to say, the changes from 9:59:59 to 10:00:00 and 12:59:59 to 1:00:00 were especially thrilling[⁉︎].
I’d learnt how to read an analogue clock, of course, but not fluently. To me, reading an analogue clock was akin to reading Roman numerals: a quirky, difficult system from long ago. Some analogue clocks even had the hours in Roman numerals. Some had no numbers at all. Some such watches only seemed to exist to give men a socially acceptable way to wear bracelets. Telling time was clearly not a priority.
So when I read in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy that humans were “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea,” I naturally assumed it was because intelligent life forms had invented them so long ago that digital watches had about as much chance of being described as a ‘neat idea’ as the wheel. Digital watches are too simple an invention for anyone to find interesting. These days, almost everything has a digital clock built in, so the most important thing about a digital watch is a strong strap to keep it conveniently on the wrist.
A few digital watches and a grudge against fragile watch straps and lost pins later, I moved to Switzerland, and when my watch strap broke or fell off I felt obliged to check out some of the famous Swiss watches. I was baffled by the evidence that not only did humans still think digital watches were a pretty neat idea, they also still thought analogue ones were. The only Swiss digital watches with good straps I could find had skeuomorphic round faces, or lacked such basic features as seconds, dates, or a light. I get it: the Swiss are proud of how precise they can be with tiny gears. But it’s the third millennium; get with the timepieces!
As Swiss innovations go, I prefer milk chocolate and Velcro. I found a Casio dealer and bought a solar-powered, waterproof, digital watch that synchronises daily with an atomic clock using radio waves and has a well-attached metal strap. It will stay on my wrist and display precisely the right time in plain digits, indefinitely with no intervention whatsoever, for less than the price of a piece of Swiss jewellery that doesn’t even have numbers on it. A fall onto concrete gave it some sparkly cracks in one corner, but it is still waterproof and functional many years and no battery changes or time adjustments later.
Unhappy with the hypothesis that most of the human race was more concerned with adding respectability to their diamond bracelets than with locating themselves in spacetime, I had to eventually accept that there was something people liked about analogue watches. Just as there must be something great about shoelaces that keeps Earthbound people using them even after the invention of Velcro, and even though Back to the Future fans know that by 2015 we shouldn’t still be tying them.
The thought crept up on me that maybe Douglas Adams didn’t like digital watches at all. Maybe he didn’t think they were ever a pretty neat idea. I thought about this for a few years, gradually becoming less and less sure that my initial interpretation was the correct one. Eventually, I looked it up:
So there you have it. Douglas Adams liked pie charts. I like pie charts too, but after the first glance I will look for the labels with exact percentages, and be frustrated if they aren’t there. For me, a word can be worth a thousand pictures, and a number can be worth a poorly-defined number of words.
As he says, digital watches have improved since then. I don’t need to put down my suitcase to press a button on my watch, unless it’s either dark and I need to turn the watch light on, or it’s recently been dark and the watch turned off its display to save power. In fact, my suitcase has four wheels (wheels! Now, aren’t they a neat idea?) so I never have to pick it up to begin with; I just give it a push occasionally while I stroll along, reading the time like a frood.
Reader participation alert:
Did you interpret the statement about digital watches the same way I did? If not, how did you interpret it, and how did it mesh with your own opinion on digital watches?
[⁉︎] If you think you’ve grown out of such primitive excitement, try watching the hour change on this clock made of planks of wood and rearranged manually by construction workers. The website only delivers one image at a time, now, so you’d have to refresh a lot to get a video effect there, but they sell an iOS app which will show you video, the Lite version of which has the transition from 9:59 to 10:00.
This weekend Geneva celebrates the Fête de l’Escalade, so I made a video of the piece I wrote about various things called marmites, their nutritional value, use in soup cooking, and effectiveness against invading Savoyards. It’s been adapted slightly to work on video, and includes some destruction, a dangerous stunt, and a slight tilt I didn’t have time to correct.
I read this at the Geneva Writers’ Group on Saturday, using all the same props, and the Marmite was smashed in a way probably closer to the tradition than all the other Marmite-smashings I’ve induced. It’s the last one in the video. I am not sure how many people tried the various yeast spreads, but several told me of their preexisting preferences.