Friday, November 5, 2010

Modern Relics

A couple of days ago, I walked by my Project Manager's office, to check in if there were any new, hot, burning, blocking, or otherwise exceptionally-prioritised issues coming down the pipeline.

He proceeded to enlighten me on the current state of the project, which took a few minutes. While he was doing so, this esteemed-but-new-to-the-team colleague was idly playing around with a smallish purple object in his hands.

When I realised what it was, my eyes widened and the room grew cold... The surprised horror, the indignation that swept through me, the impulse to call for tar, feathers, pitchforks and torches...

This mere mortal, this ignorant peasant, was sitting there, idly palpitating the one relic of the monumental task, the epic journey that dozens of engineers had had embarked on earlier this year.

Seven months of blood, sweat and tears, practically no weekends and months of structural overtime. Having had overcome blizzards (well, snow in southern Germany in February), toxic gas (Carbon Dioxide and Halon in the fire extinguisher system), fire and brimstone (Ummm, well, the vulcanic eruption in Iceland kept some of us from leaving), Babylonian mix-ups of Biblical proportions (errr, Bavarian dialect, anyway), and the Damoclean risk of suffering massive coronary while there (fastfood and the local cuisine combined...), we had prevailed, come through and managed to return with a singular relic...

Our key to the local coffee machine...

I guess this is why so many relics are kept in a reliquary, and not on any random desk in the office...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

And sometimes you have no clue about what's coming at all...

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel...

It's just a couple of hours after (almost) everybody went home. Time to call it a day.

Some fellow stragglers suggest to meet up downtown, near where one of them is staying, for some drinks and a bite to eat.

And this, right here, is about where things got... strange...

We decide to go by car. Once in the car, the nav-system decides to go on a vacation, leaving us with rather rudimentary means of orientation (my limited knowledge of the city, a tourist's map, my colleague's sense of direction and the stars which we can't see due to the citylights).

Not to be deterred by minor setbacks like not knowing where you're going, we head out with a general direction in mind.

While the road brings us, apparently, in the right direction, it also takes us by a LOT of traffic lights. And they all decide to turn red as we're approaching. Still, we're obviously heading towards downtown in a more or less straight line, which we decide to dub 'the route with least likelihood of complications'. And, besides that, our destination is near the Central Station.

Now, 'downtown' and 'central station' both are very basic, almost primal, landmarks in European cities. If there's anything marked on the road signs, it will be either downtown, central station, or both. And they are. Always. And in this case, at the latest possible time before any turn-off we need to take.

Not to be deterred by minor setbacks like being stuck in the rightmost lane at a left turn in a busy traffic area in a city riddled with one-way streets, I compensate in the most direct, astute and succinct manner I can think of.

So, [legal disclaimer]possibly[/legal disclaimer] having broken several (minor?) traffic regulations and causing a couple of frustrated fellow drivers later, we're on the right track again, rather than the right lane (and no, not the rail tracks, although the tramlines are running parallel to us).

The right track being the edge of the Japanese quarter. Which borders with the gay bars area. And the red-light zone. And is, in general, judging by the number of camera's in the street, considered somewhat shady. Right... No, damn straight! Oh bugger, I should just find a parking spot already.

... which aren't exactly up for grabs even at this hour. After a short ride around the block, I opt for simplicity over economy and decide to park in one of the larger and well-lit parking garages... that has a big sign, just after the barrier, suggesting that it will close in about an hour. Sure enough, we hardly chose a spot and the entrance we came in through was closed, only 50 minutes early. Not a problem, if that entrance wasn't also the most obvious exit...

Not to be deterred by minor setbacks like the prospect of being locked out of my car and stuck all night in a shady part of town, we decide not to worry about it now and try to find the pedestrian exit.

Having looked around for the stairway, the first option we try drops us near the, now closed, entrance door. Doubling back to look for alternatives, we spot another sign saying "Please use hotel exit". A quick glance around reveals another door with a billboard announcing "Hotel Nikko" above it. That would qualify as the hotel exit, we hazard. However, once through the door, we are faced with a smallish hallway, leading straight to a garishly purple door with silver stars and lettering announcing it as club "modern times" or something similarly subtly indicative of questionable repute.

Not to be deterred by minor setbacks like... No wait... Luckily, my colleague spotted the elevators off to the side, which brought us up to ground level, and the, unexpectedly classy, lobby of the hotel pictured at the top.

As for the dinner, for those of you familiar with William Gibson's Neuromancer, having dinner in the Japanese quarter of a German city amongst both dive bars and an upper class hotel, is kind of, in a very mild way, how I would have imagined life in Chiba City would be. With a bit of imagination...

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel..."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Longing for Lisbon

As it would happen, I was asked to come down to Portugal to help out in a project. I protested that I was a bit busy and my current workload didn't quite allow me to take on other work, but, to cut a long story and several phone-calls short, in the end we settled on me doing a short two-day visit during which I would try to help out with current issues, do a sort of audit on the systems and basically consult with the local engineers where I could.

Now, last time I was here, during the summer of 2009 (See my older post "Weekend Late-Lunches"), the work was difficult, and hard, and hours long. But since I was here for about three months, I still managed to have a look around the city. To feel it's vibe and appreciate the sociable peoples here, who will chat with you over coffee even though you try to explain you don't understand Portuguese.

Coming back and visiting some of the places of that summer again, I couldn't help but think of the phrase

"it was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

While that summer was full of difficulty and extremely hard work, it also brought colleagues closer to being friends and the strong bonding experience of a common goal under stress. I can think of worse places to have an experience like that than Lisbon...

Now, packing up the few things I brought on the short trip, I feel a little bit sad for having to leave so soon. But also hopeful for the prospect of perhaps coming back here in the future. Would that constitute a mild case of what the Portuguese call "saudade"?

I still didn't find the entrance to the castle.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Sometimes you just know what's going to happen next...

It's monday-morning, and I find myself preparing to go to work. I'm working on a project in a neighbouring country, so my commute is, shall we say, significant. Usually I leave on sunday night, when there's light traffic and less stress. But this sunday, I had other, better, things to do, so I'm driving on monday.

I had packed my bags, my laptop, any related project paperwork, clothes, shoes, corporate badge, jacket, wallets, keys, everything's there and I hobble, packed like a mule, with two backpacks and assorted items, towards the car. Where, as I am fishing for the keys to the car, I can feel the key-chain of my house keys slipping off of my fingers. The keys drop. I look down. Just in time to notice them hit the storm drain.

In a brilliant flash of insight, I could see my day expand, deterministically, in my mind.

The keys slip through the grate and with a fittingly undramatic splash hit the water at the bottom and disappear into the murky depths of the storm drain's catch-bucket.

The key-chain is important. Apart from the physical importance (in it's capacity of opening the doors to my domicile), keys are somewhat symbolic in the "key to the city", "key to my heart" and "key to my life" kind of way. So, regardless of the consideration that you don't want to have any key to your front door ending up in potentially irresponsible hands, there's the psychology of the matter. And the certain knowledge that I cannot, will not, have my mind at ease as long as I don't hold those keys in my hands again.

Storm drains in the Netherlands are made out of cast-iron. Or some other suitable heavy material that isn't too overly expensive and not as toxic as lead. There's no way to lift one by myself. I could move it with a long enough and strong enough lever, but that would possibly put me in trouble with the local municipal works-department. Worse, if I lever it out of there and it tips over and down the chute on it's side I might be charged with vandalism, destruction of public property, or such.

Alright. Alternative approach. Ummm... A fishing rod? With a magnet? Bit of a cliche perhaps... Then again, I don't know how deep the catch-bucket goes and the water is too murky to see my keys in. A stick? Again, no idea how long it should be and I might just push it down the real drain, not just the catch-bucket beneath the grate.

So, back to the municipal works-department... Calling them will take some time, especially on monday. And, knowing bureaucracy, it will probably take even longer than that before the crew arrives with tools. So I'll end up waiting for them for some time, but lacking keys, I can't do so inside my house.

Not retrieving the keys and simply going to work isn't exactly an option either. While I will be staying in a hotel, I can't really wait with this for a week. The keys will be gone for sure. And after that, if the house hasn't been emptied yet, I'd have to replace all the locks. Which, as the locks are an integral system, would be both expensive and time-consuming.

While these possibilities and implications are still fractalling in my mind, some process intervenes and indicates that the "undesired expenditure of the day" flag has long since been raised.

My foot moves. I put my bags in the car.

And I kneel down to retrieve my keys. Which were narrowly trapped against one of the drain's sidebars by my foot.

That was a close call.

Now I can rest comfortably in the knowledge that I will not know what the rest of the day might bring.

Keychain image is (c) 2008,

Thursday, June 17, 2010

USD 20B is a lot of money to make "real change".

BP today agreed to put aside an enormous amount of money to begin to meet with claims for damages resulting from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Claims and Damages.

Well, the damage has been done, and no doubt that a lot of good people are struggling to get by as a result of the disaster. Whether it be because the government is now forbidding them from drilling more wells, or from oil-damage to fisheries and wildlife, or from tourists staying away from tar-stained beaches, your pain and struggle is real and it is justified to look towards your government for help and to point the finger at the company that seems to be the immediate cause of the pain.

But... What if your government would come to your beaches and inspect your fisheries and it would say that, yes, the damage is done and it is irreversible and effects will be lasting for decades to come.

What if they would say that, given this conclusion and such impact, which is scientifically verifiable, and economically calculable, it is no longer feasible for you to expect to continue to work in fishing, tourism, or the oil industry here?

What if, rather than calculate your expected wage for the next several decades (which is unlikely in itself to last that long, given job security in these times), put a multiplier to that as a form of civil liability compensation, and deposit the resulting amount in your bank account, the government would pay said wage for a year, maybe two, and in addition invest in the creation of new industries and fund education required for these?

Would you accept such a conclusion? And would you support such a policy of redevelopment, rather than direct compensation?

Who knows, maybe the Gulf Coast can become, rather than the US's region with the youngest general retirement age, the region with the highest environmental awareness, and it's "silicon valley" of alternative energy research? As far as I can tell it has plenty of sunshine, plenty of coastline, and they seem to have an excess in wind. Though that last may be seasonal and/or partly caused by a recent upsurge in political rhetoric.

How about creating a new National Park? Preferably in a previously thriving nature area, which is now hit the worst with oil. Name it the Natural Crude Recovery National Park. Or perhaps the Thad Allen National Park, as his work is undoubtedly tireless, frustrating and ungrateful, and a monument to nature's long-lasting recovery in his name would definitely not be an insult.

Do not clean up the oil in this set-aside region, but allow it to recover naturally. Let scientists and National Park Service manage the area like they do the Mt. St. Helens National Vulcanic Monument, as a testament and case study into how long it takes for nature to recover from a cataclysm, though this one be of man's own hand.

Both the park and the redeveloped regional industry would be a lasting monument to our folly. And to America's ability to deal with adversity in a constructive manner.

How about funding a real, hands-on, estimate of what it will take to clean up the mess? Then fund a study in what it will cost to re-develop the region's industrial sector. I fear that such studies, realistic studies, will show that a "clean-up", i.e. a return to how things were before, cannot be bought with any amount of money, simply due to the irreversible nature of some of the damage done. An egg, once boiled, will never again hatch a chick.

I fear that a balance sheet like that will show that, financially, it will be more feasible to re-invent the region's major industry.

But I also fear that the focus on individual gains of the American People at large and a culture of liability and lawsuits will prevent this money to be turned into "real change".

BP, who would probably never have chosen voluntarily to invest this kind of money in sustainability on such a short notice (their website claims they had invested USD 4B in sustainable energy since 2005 and aim to have invested USD 8B by 2015 [1]), will now find itself chucking this enormous wad of cash down the proverbial well of civil liability in an attempt at a societal Top-Kill of the gusher of damage-claims. They had some encouraging results with that approach to the real leak as well...

But unlike the purely, deterministically, physics-driven upward pressure of the oil-well, this gusher has a choice in whether it will blow-out or not...

[1] BP's page on "Our low-carbon business"
[2] "BP Ultimate" image retrieved from BP's website's press kit

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How much would you pay to avoid a traffic jam?


If you would never, EVER, consider spending a ton of money on a spur-of-the-moment purchase just because you didn't want to get stuck in traffic jams during rush hour, then click "next blog" now.

Last friday there was the sudden and awe-inspiring sensation of "not having any more work to do today", before, technically, it had become "tomorrow" already. It was, actually, irritatingly early to go home, in the sense that I dislike city driving and I hate getting stuck in traffic jams. So, getting stuck in a traffic jam in the city lacked a certain celebratory appeal.

In stead, I decided to go in the opposite direction of the traffic jam (and, incidentally, home), and ended up at a large local electronics retailer, finding myself inexorable gravitating towards the corner that was decorated conspicuously in black and white (and some brushed-metal grey), with lots of purple'ish screens.

Having long passed the event horizon without noticing, it had, at this point, become unavoidable (if not impossible) to leave without adding to my slowly growing collection of Apple user appliances. There was a short, but futile, escape plan, where I would try to blast free of the pull by expelling a relatively minor amount of cash on a blueray player instead. However, it was quickly decided that this plan was probably just delusional and a waste of valuable resources I would need to go, proverbially, "in, through and out the other end" of this situation.

So, about an hour later, I found myself in the car, driving home, well after rush hour, with an iPad on the passenger seat.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Rewards, and some that aren't.

As some of you may have been reading, the project I am currently working in has had periods of demanding rather... shall we say... extended commitment and working hours.

This is one of them.


Last week, as an example, we were asked to work throughout the weekend. Again. Many things had to happen for this to be made so, but this story is not about the intricacies of convincing a generally Catholic population to work on a Sunday.

For my work, I tend to travel a bit. And on these assignments requiring travel, I tend to stay in hotels, work somewhat longer days (as I don't exactly have anything to "go home" to, at such times) and have dinner with colleagues in local restaurants.

This is all well and good, but restaurants tend to serve slightly richer-than-average dishes. And from working on systems engineering assignments for several months the brain might get plenty of exercise, the body doesn't fare quite so well. So, after a couple of months of this, you tend to put on a little weight and grow tired of (or at least VERY well-acquainted with) the menu's of said local restaurants. And, as stresses increase and time-to-deadline shrinks, even dinner becomes something of a physical necessity and not an exceptional occasion, what dining out for many people would be.

Let's zip back to last weekend.

These non-stop all-weekend activities place some above-and-beyond type of demands on our people. You don't get rest, the concept is stressful, and it's not exactly "what you signed up for" in your contract. So, sometimes, when you have an enlightened big-shot pulling all these strings, they realise something might be in order to boost, or at least maintain, morale a bit.

Our big-shot obviously had attended the mandatory people-skills courses, as he decided that our intrepid weekend crew might be entitled to such a morale booster.

After two weeks of non-stop work we were delighted and surprised by the extraordinary graciousness of being invited to...

go out for dinner, at his expense, at a local restaurant...

He even recommended one.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sometimes... it's like Magic...


Sometimes things just come together.

A chance happening.

A lucky strike.

Magic happens...

And sometimes... these happenings aren't that big at all. But you should pay attention and notice and cherish them.

One of those times happened to me last week.
It happened in Stuttgart, Germany. It happened on a sunday. It happened at the "Kost|Bar". It happened on a sunny late-afternoon. It happened, while sitting outside, lounging, relaxing, in the sun, after a long drive there.

It was... the perfect Macchiato.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The easy life...

Right now, I'm living the easy life.

Yes, I'm working 60 - 80 hours a week and I'm stuck in a town in Germany, a full days drive from basically everything I hold dear. So how is this the easy life?

Easy... Right now everything is disciplined, focused, singular and straightforward. Life is about sleeping, eating, working, working and then working some more. My entire world consists of my appartment, the work site, a few restaurants, a grocery store and the paths between them. With some time pressure and work focus like this, most normal life worries simply fade away. It actually wouldn't be "hard" to live like this.

Scary idea? Well, it would be a very colourless and limited existence. And it's definitely not compatible with relationships, or even friendships; my social circle having shrunk to the few fellow victims of this situation. All evidence of anything bigger has been reduced to a few phonecalls and e-mail messages.

I know that my "life" here is very limited compared to my normal life and I wouldn't want to swap permanently for all the money in the world. But the worrisome part is that it is, aside from missing my girlfriend and friends, mostly my rational side that "knows" I shouldn't be satisfied with this life. It would be very easy to simply "exist" like this and not bother with abstract larger world concerns. How does this work, psychologically?

I can see that "this life" would be a lot easier. In some ways I guess it's... comforting? ... to have so few concerns. Is there an odd appeal to such simplicity of subsistence? Or is it the fading of other concerns, the singularity of purpose here, that seems appealing?