The Right to Bear Accordions

Monday, 28 June 2010 -- 6:30 pm

Accordion ProtestI am not an accordion hater. To me there is nothing inherently wrong with accordion music in itself, but like so many things, an accordion can be used improperly and for nefarious purposes.

I’ve been a sappy sentimental tourist in Europe before, and I vaguely (but fondly) remember the first time I heard someone playing La Vie en Rose along the Champs. I remember wondering where all the anti-accordion sentiments I’ve heard over the years came from.  While it may not be the most beautiful of instruments, surely it deserves this reputation less than other more irritating instruments (I’m looking at you, piccolo).  On the contrary, the accordion provides ambiance and atmosphere.

I got to thinking that maybe it was simply a problem with over-exposure.  If you have to listen to accordion music all the time, whenever you’re out and about in a European city, then perhaps you do just get sick of it.  Vigelands Park has its fair share of accordion players, especially in the summer, and so I’ve had a chance to put this theory to the test over the past few years.  Every day that it’s sunny, we load up the grill bag and head to the park.  More often than not, there is an accordion player hanging around busking for spare kroner.  I find that I don’t mind this.  Quite the opposite, I continue to enjoy the ambiance and the music lends a hint of the old-fashioned to our modern lifestyle, reminding me of old Audrey Hepburn movies where Europe was a far-away land of fantasy,  rather than an everyday reality.

However…

This year all of my accordion tolerance has finally been drained.  As I said, the instrument itself is not to blame.  Rather, I have finally been exposed to shameful accordion misuse.  Our entrance to the park has fallen victim to the worst accordion player I have ever heard!  I cringe whenever I walk past, and I even have fleeting fantasies of kicking over his little container of donations (no huge tragedy, since he appears to earn no more than one or two kroner per hour) to force him to stop playing for a little while.  I’ve also considered paying him a few hundred kroner to go away, but I fear this might just encourage him to come back.

Imagine the accordion equivalent of the worst American Idol audition, and play it on a continuous loop.  That should give you the basic idea of what this is like.  He “knows” only three songs:  Für Elise, The Godfather theme, and the Chicken Dance.  And none of these he plays at all correctly or particularly well.  He knows a few bars of each and repeats them endlessly until awkwardly transitioning into the next one.  On one occasion, he played his adaptation of the Chicken Dance non-stop for at least ten minutes straight.  The Chicken Dance is far from my favorite tune under the best circumstances, but after ten minutes of an out-of-tune accordion rendition I was about to pull my hair out.  Since this guy plays right across the street from our apartment, he is almost impossible to avoid.

To remedy this kind of problem and to preserve the good name of the instrument, I think someone needs to introduce an “Accordion License.” You can only play in public if you have undergone extensive training and passed a rigorous exam in order to prove that your accordion playing will not harm the general populace.

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Scrum Task Origami –
Part 4: Project Estimation

Tuesday, 15 June 2010 -- 6:30 pm

At long last, we have correctly completed our Japanese Brocade Level 1 Menger Sponge!  It ended up being a bit larger than the first two and took us a little over one month to complete.

All Three Level 1 Menger Sponges

Now that we have finished our prototypes, the time has come to begin the final product, the Level 2 Menger Sponge.  Looking at the completed Level 1 Menger Sponge, we tried to visualize just how large the Level 2 model would be.  The task seemed daunting.

So, to get an idea of how long it would take us to finish this new version, we began some high-level project estimating.  Of course, the first reaction was to consider the Level 2 Menger Sponge to simply be 20 times that of the Level 1, since it would take 20 Level 1 cubes to build a Level 2.  However, wherever two cubes are joined together, the connecting faces would be inside the model and should therefore be eliminated.  Thus, 20 months (20 cubes x 1 month/cube) was probably a significant overestimate.

Instead, we decided to look at the work in terms of faces of the Level 1 cube.  Although this wouldn’t be exact, it should hopefully be much more accurate than estimating by cube.

Defining a story point as a Level 1 cube face, we could say that our initial velocity was 6 story points per month.  Splitting the Level 2 cube into three layers, the top and bottom layer are essentially the same.  Each is composed of 8 faces on the surface, 12 around the outside, and 4 faces forming the inside edges of the hole.  That makes 24 faces for each of the top and bottom layers.  The middle layer forms four pillars that connect the top and bottom, and each pillar has four faces.  Thus there are 16 pillars in the middle layer.  So the total number of Level 1 faces is roughly 64.

Given our past velocity of 6 faces/month, we should expect to finish the Level 2 Menger Sponge in around 11 months.  Of course, like all engineering projects, there is a cone of uncertainty, so vacations and business trips will skew this estimate.  Also, we have started to write fewer and fewer Post-It tasks lately, so there is also a risk of resource limitations.

Completed Level 1 and Level 2 in Progress

After about a week and a half of work, we’ve completed roughly two faces worth of modules.  That means that we’re pretty much on schedule.

Now if only software was this easy to estimate.  Unfortunately, programming rarely involves doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same way (despite what books on software estimation seem to imply)!

Related: The complete Scrum Task Origami series

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Reverse Culture Shock: Environmentalism

Saturday, 5 June 2010 -- 12:30 pm

I Heart EarthLast month, I had to make a two-week trip to Houston for work.  Since we’re usually just back for a short visit around a class, conference, or friend/family visit, this was the closest I’ve come to living a normal everyday American life since we left in 2005.

Every time I go back, I experience little moments of reverse culture shock, and this trip was no different.  Since it was my first typical work experience, there were lots of small experiences that felt oddly unusual to me now.  Driving to work instead of taking public transit, going out for lunch instead of eating in the company canteen, etc.

The biggest shock, though, was the surprising lack of environmental awareness!  I remember when my friend Scott did a semester abroad in Sweden during university, and when he came back he was uncomfortable with all the disposable silverware and takeaway packaging that our dormitory dining halls went through.  I now completely understand how he felt!

In general, Scandinavia has a long tradition of environmentalism.  (Here in Norway, with such beautiful natural scenery, it makes sense that the general reaction is to try to protect it!)  Recently our office has gone a step farther to try to obtain an official environmental certification.  Beyond turning off the lights when we don’t need them and recycling just about all of our trash (including food, which goes into some kind of organic waste program), there are policies on how soon your computer should go into low-powered standby mode, etc.  We’re even advised to power off our monitors instead of just letting them programmatically power down, since they’re still using electricity to light the little orange standby LED!

Outside the office, almost all soda bottles/cans carry a deposit and are returned to the collection points at the supermarkets.  Most of the rest of our trash is recycled, and the city has plans to implement a new program to provide more extensive plastic recycling and some kind of city-wide composting or organic waste disposal.

So frankly I was a bit shocked to arrive at our office in Texas and find that not only do most people use disposable cups for their daily tea/coffee, but the cups provided are styrofoam!  I haven’t seen styrofoam in years, and here were towering stacks of Texas-sized 24-oz styrofoam cups next to every coffee machine or water cooler.  And of course they all went into the trash, where they will inevitably find their way to a landfill with no hope of decomposition.

This made me start to notice other things as well.  People would ride the elevator for a single floor instead of taking the stairs.  Some of the offices had overhead lights that never turned off (they didn’t even know where the switch was).  The air conditioning of course was turned down to “Finnmarken.”

And it wasn’t just the office.  I just noticed it there more, since I spent most of my day there.  For example, I also went to a restaurant that served very decent food entirely on disposable dishes.

The amount of wasted materials and energy made me physically uncomfortable.  I was very glad to get back to this land of public transit and recycling centers every few blocks.

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2010 Eurovision WTF Awards

Thursday, 3 June 2010 -- 6:30 pm

I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing about Eurovision by this point, but last year I started a tradition, and darnit, I’m sticking with it! It’s time to announce the 2010 winners of the Eurovision WTF awards!

But first, since I have a large American audience that has the misfortune to not watch Eurovision, I’d like to share the actual 2010 winner, a pretty decent* song by Lena from Germany:

She definitely has a Lily Allen vibe about her. Her voice? Her dress?
Comparison: Lily Allen vs Lena
But she wasn’t the only sound-alike performance this year. Belgium’s Tom Dice was definitely channeling some John Mayer.

And now, the WTF Winners!

I had a tough time deciding on my WTF champions this year, because most of the acts were all very much in the middle of the pack.  The truly bad performances were just people who couldn’t sing without auto-tuning, so instead of making you raise a confused eyebrow, they just made you groan.  There were a lot of acts this year that were clearly going for the goofball vote, and in this category, I’d like to offer an honorable mention to both Estonia and Lithuania (watch it to the end for their brilliant, shiny finale).  They each had us laughing for days, and we were all sad that they didn’t make it to the final.  Surprisingly, both of my WTF choices this year actually made it through the semi-final round!

2010 Eurovision WTF Runner-Up:
Moldova – “Run Away” by SunStroke Project and Olia Tira


(If the video gets pulled, search YouTube for Eurovision Moldova 2010.)

I actually really like Moldova’s performance, and it can really get stuck in your head.  The bizarre wardrobe and crazy makeup are certainly a little left-field, but it’s the fabulously obscene saxophone player that makes them the runners-up in the WTF category.  (We’ve all been joking about the sax player for days, and his solos have since been looped into a single video, introducing the concept of “saxrolling” in the same vein as Rickrolling.)

2010 Eurovision WTF Winner:
Serbia – “Ovo je Balkan” by Milan Stanković

The hair!  The song!  The backup dancing!  The androgyny!  W.T.F.?

Serbia actually came in 13th!  Out of 39 entries, that’s pretty good!  This just goes to show that people clearly have different tastes, because this is one act that I just did not get.  At all!  I could never quite tell how much of it was farce and how much was semi-serious.  I found the crazy robot-dancing bridesmaid strippers on turntables extremely distracting.  I do find it amusing, but not in the way that I would vote for it.

And that’s what I love about Eurovision!   There’s really no standard formula for success, because you just never know what people will vote for!

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My First Useful iPad Travel App

Tuesday, 1 June 2010 -- 6:30 pm

The travel industry has had a long love affair with the iPhone and its gadgetry goodness, and Lucas and I have found dozens of incredibly helpful ways to use it when we travel.  There have been myriad travel-focused iPhone apps, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the ways in which the iPad will revolutionize our travel style.

Unfortunately for us, we tend to avoid the roaming data charges that a lot of said travel-related iPhone apps depend on, and I don’t have the 3G option on my iPad anyway (we were concerned about how easy it would be to get a data plan for an early-adopted foreign-purchased device).  Also, a lot of interesting travel apps are US-centric, so when I read about exciting new iPhone apps on my favorite travel blogs, I’m always disappointed to find that they have no international coverage.

Up to now, my travel app repertoire has been mostly limited to iPhone apps in disguise (if you can call stretching the app to double screen resolution a disguise).  I have Skype to call home for free, Angry Birds and Word Warp to keep me busy at the airport, and Google Maps on the massive iPad screen to help me find my way across Houston to Lan & Debu’s.  I also have a few handy translation and unit conversion utilities.  The one glaringly obvious iPad travel advantage is of course its e-reader dual-identity.  I’ve already overdosed on iBooks classics and free Kindle book downloads!

Lucas and I briefly toyed with the idea of travel guides on the iPhone, since paper guides tend to be heavy and awkward, but the small screen made them prohibitively hard to use.  Thus I sense an iPad-shaped opening in the travel app market, but so far no one has stepped up to fill it.  I plan to buy a few Lonely Planet PDF chapters for our visit to Tallinn, Estonia next week, so we’ll see how that goes.  It would be fantastic if Lonely Planet also started publishing them in the EPUB format, since I like the iBooks app much better than our PDF  reader.

iBooks App iBooks App

However, other than the utilizing the e-reader functionality with existing digital guidebook support, I have yet to find much that’s truly useful for travel.  Despite having read plenty of articles and blog posts with titles like “5 Great Travel Apps for the iPad” and “7 Wonders of the Travel App World” and “Three Ways to Use Your iPad on the Road,” I continue to come up empty-handed.  Most of the apps seem to be useful only in online mode or only in the US.  Most of them require both.

So a few days ago I was trying to catch up on my favorite travel blogs, and I came across a post about an upgrade to an older iPhone/iPad app.  Technically, this one falls into the “Only in the US” category, but I’ll forgive it that caveat because it fills a personal niche (and maybe some day it will expand to cover some international territory).

The Point Inside app, which previously served as a portable map inside the nation’s shopping malls has been expanded to cover airports!  This could be hugely useful!  When I’ve just gotten off of (or am just about to board) a long-haul flight, the last thing I want to be doing is trekking all over an airport looking for a place to sit down with a beer or a cup of coffee.  Problem solved!

I don’t really fault the app too much for not having international airports, because honestly I find this much less of a problem in the big European hubs.  Schilpol, Frankfurt, Heathrow, etc. are all dripping with full-service cafes and restaurants in dozens of cuisines and price ranges.  However, on my last jaunt through O’Hare, I explored three entire concourses, visiting every single dining option on the terminal map, before finally finding a Chili’s that actually employed wait staff rather than just counter jockeys.  I would like to believe that this little app would have saved me at least a half hour of searching.

Also, as much as I hate to admit it, the mall-mapping portion of the app is also slightly appealing.  One thing we do without fail when we’re in the US is shop, and my first trip to the Galleria meant studying the mall directory in detail, trying to figure out the best route to get to the Apple Store while minimizing the shock of American consumerism.  Inevitably, I will have more shopping to do next time I’m stateside, so I’m sure I will be able to find more uses for this.

Point Inside Airport Map

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Eurovision Live!!!

Friday, 28 May 2010 -- 6:30 pm

Eurovision at Telenor ArenaAs proud as we were of Alexander Rybak when Norway shattered the Eurovision record last year, the thing I was most excited about was that it meant Norway would be hosting the contest this year!  Since Henrik and Cassie first introduced me to Eurovision our first year here, I’ve loved the whole phenomenon.  I even made a promise to myself that if Denmark or Sweden ever won, I would try my hardest to attend.  So to have the event not just in Norway, but right here in Oslo, was pretty much perfect!

When tickets went on sale, the Final sold out in a heartbeat, but we had a chance to take our time and get a small group together for one of the Semi-Finals.  Since May is a peak travel time in Norway, we only ended up with a few people, but we were able to get fantastic seats!  We splurged on the highest priced tickets, but we ended up with four seats in the front row of the second floor section:

Hey! We're on TV!

I love watching Eurovision at home with a group of friends, laughing at the bad acts, admiring the good acts, and cracking MST3K-style jokes through the entire production.  But I have to say that actually being there is a completely different experience!

Go Azerbaijan!There’s so much national pride, and everyone is brimming with enthusiasm.  I imagine that the Olympics would have a similar vibe, but Eurovision is free from the emotionally-loaded “I’ve been working for this moment my whole life” kind of feeling.  It’s just pure, unadulterated fun and silliness.  Some of the audience costumes are even more bizarre than the outfits on stage, and everyone is clearly out to have a good time.

It’s also a vexillophile’s dream!  I love flags, and there were some fantastically obscure flags at our semi-final.  When I learned all of the nations’ flags for the Bar Blu pub quiz, it was partly for moments like this one.  After all, how many other times does being able to recognize the flag of Azerbaijan come in handy?

I was very disappointed to have to attend Eurovision without a flag (we toyed with the idea of bringing an Indian flag for Lucas and Paavani).  However, Paavani totally came through for me!  Before the show, she ran up to someone with a badge and a couple of Turkish flags and scored one for us!  At the arena entrance, representatives for Georgia had been handing out flyers with a picture of their hot female singer, trying to convince us to vote for them, but Turkey definitely bought one of our votes with the flag!

Our seats were pretty good, and we could definitely see the stage, but even the show is a little different when it’s live.  The acts are clearly designed for a television audience, and there are often little extra things going on at the sides or in the back that the TV viewers aren’t meant to see.  Costume changes, prop mechanics, etc.  Even some of the choreography doesn’t make much sense unless it’s viewed from the right camera angle.  So while we could see the stage and the performers, the visual appeal of the acts was much different than when I watched the broadcast later.

One other huge difference is in the appeal of the music itself.  At home, Belgium’s talented singer-guitarist was one of our favorites during Semi-Final #1, but in a crowded party atmosphere, the slow songs don’t go over as well.  Everyone reacts so much better to the crazy antics and energy of Lithuania’s silver-shorted goofballs than to Israel’s soulful ballad.  Sadly that means a lot of disappointment when the finalists are announced, since the votes of the home audience vastly outweigh the few thousand performance attendees.  We did feel bad for Lithuania, since their performers spent the rest of the show streaking through the audience in their sparkly silver shorts, waving the Lithuanian flag.

Overall, the entire evening was just so much fun!  The energy level, the fans, the whole experience!  This is one of my personal definitive European experiences, and I’m so glad we were able to go!

I Love Eurovision!

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Little Things: Park Sports

Tuesday, 25 May 2010 -- 6:30 pm

One of the things I like about living close to Frogner Park is that it’s like having a huge backyard (with none of the maintenance).  We’ve often commented about how great it is that the people of the city actually use the park, whether it’s to relax in the sun, enjoy a picnic, etc.  I’ve always been slightly amused that people will actually come and set up a game of kubb or a badminton net in the grass.

Kubb in the Park

Last weekend we had particularly nice weather and a three-day weekend, so the park was popular and crowded.  In the span of those few days, I saw the largest variety of park sports I’ve ever witnessed:

Kubb, Frisbee, Football (Soccer), American Football, Badminton, Croquet, Cheerleading, Cycling, Skateboarding, Slacklining, Capoeira, and Sumo Wrestling

    Yes, sumo wrestling!  We’re pretty sure that was a bachelor party, but they were definitely sumo wrestling!  Right down to the pre-match intimidating ground stomp!  It was very funny!

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    Jet Lag or Season Lag?

    Sunday, 23 May 2010 -- 2:30 pm

    Sunset in Vigelands ParkAt the beginning of the month, I spent a few weeks in Houston for work, and when I got back to Oslo, I found that I had a very difficult time sleeping.  At first I assumed it was just jet lag (especially since I didn’t sleep so well on the flight back).  I don’t typically have a problem with jet lag, and it never takes me more than a day or two to adjust to even the most ridiculous time changes (i.e. Austin to Beijing), but this time it went on for a week!

    Every night, I found myself planning to go to bed around 10:30, but even after changing into my pajamas and nestling into bed, I didn’t feel sleepy.  Of course this meant that I ended up staying up until a ridiculous hour reading or surfing the web (thank you, shiny new iPad!).  And after sleeping in the next day, it would be easy to stay up late again, creating a vicious circle.

    With all that extra time at night, I had plenty of opportunities to analyze what was going on.  I started to realize that it wasn’t so much that I was still stuck on Houston time, but the long hours of daylight were affecting me more than they usually do.  When I left for Houston, sunset was just after 9 pm, and it was getting dark by 10:00 pm.  It was the beginning of spring, and we were starting to appreciate the long days, without having especially long, bright evenings.  However, since I was gone for quite a while, by the time I got back the days were nearly an hour longer, and sunset was pushing 10 pm (with dusk lasting until nearly 11 pm).  The sudden shift had pushed the end of the day right up to my ideal bedtime, and that combined with a little bit of jet lag managed to completely skew my internal clock.

    I’ve often told people that I don’t have problems with jet lag, and when people ask if it’s hard to sleep through the sunny Norwegian summer nights, I say no.  I guess this means that I have to bite my tongue now, because while I don’t have problems with either one, I clearly can’t deal with them both at the same time!

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    iPad Productivity Issues

    Saturday, 15 May 2010 -- 4:04 am

    I’ve been playing with my new iPad in the US for two weeks now, and I find that I’m really enjoying it. I’ve been drawn to tablet PCs for a while, and I’ve been on the fence about getting a netbook and an e-reader, so when it was announced, the iPad made sense to me. My pockets are too small for an iPhone, but I like the interface, and I appreciate having a lightweight computer to surf the web, answer email, and potentially read books (I’ve read a little on the iPhone; it’s tough).

    So I’ve been excited about the iPad since it was announced, and i pre-ordered one to pick up in the States on this trip. I would have liked the 3G version, but originally I would have been here too early to get it (volcano delays changed that), and we didn’t know if we could get a data plan for it in Norway anyway.

    In general, I really like it. It’s a convenient way to browse the web, and I actually like the iBooks e-reader app more than I thought I would. It’s heavier than a paperback, but it’s easier to turn the pages and bookmark my page, and it weighs less than a hardback or heavy paperback. Also, it can take some muscle to hold open a mass-market paperback without cracking the spine (pet peeve), so in some cases it’s more comfortable to read with. Especially in landscape mode, where the shape and size is book-like and familiar.

    So far, reading is the only productive thing I’ve tried to do with the device, and there is one productivity pitfall: Whenever I pull it out to start reading (not uncommon when traveling alone), it’s apparently an open invitation to be interrupted. “Is that an iPad?! What do you think of it? I’ve been considering getting one, but I’m not sure. Do you think it’s worth it?”

    Since Lucas could already get a job for Apple selling iPhones, MacBooks, and just about everything else the company makes, he would probably relish this, but I’m not much of a talker, and I made my iPad pre-order knowing that it filled a very specific niche in my life. I’m sorry, Mr.Stranger, but I don’t know if you should buy one or not! Though as an Apple shareholder, I should really get my spiel together so that I can convince everyone else to buy one and keep the stock price up. But deep down, I’d really rather just read.

    * This post was written on the iPad, making it the second productive thing I’ve done now. But it was in the comfort of my home, with no interruptions from chatty business people.

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    Finally a New Hair Dryer

    Wednesday, 21 April 2010 -- 6:30 pm

    Last weekend Lucas and I went to the annual Elektrofil electronics fair, and I made a major new purchase: A hair dryer.

    I’m not sure if it says more about my frugal nature or my disinterest in fashion and beauty, but since moving overseas nearly five years ago, I’ve been using a little dual-voltage travel dryer that I bought at Target shortly before the move to China. When it’s switched over to 220-volt, it only has one setting, and it has a US plug that needs to be adapted to our European outlets. Originally it had one of those polarized US plugs, where one prong is wider than the other. However, since the polarized prong wouldn’t fit into our plug adapters, at some point we took a file and actually filed the prong down to standard size. Later, since the plug in the bathroom faces straight down, we also had to squeeze the prongs together to make the plug tight enough to stay in the adapter.

    You would think that such a small purchase wouldn’t be a big deal, but somehow it carries a sense of permanence. I don’t really know why, but as long as I keep using the travel dryer, this is clearly a short-term situation. Especially since it’s a “travel” hair dryer, it makes me feel like we could just pick up and travel somewhere else.

    Not the Best Bathroom Setup Plug Adapter Mess

    In the last few months the plug has started coming loose again, and every morning I have to readjust it more than once when it loses contact and the power cuts out. When I could no longer find a jury-rigged solution that lasted more than a few minutes, I decided that the time had finally come to bite the bullet.

    Luckily, the timing of Elektrofil was perfect, and I was able to buy a new 220-V hair dryer at a significant discount. So if we do suddenly pick up and move, it won’t be a huge loss!

    New Philips Hair Dryer

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