MICHA.ELMUELLER

 

Backpacking South America (Part 2)

 

Bolivia is quite nice so far. We have spent some time in a very quiet city called Tupiza, in order to get accustomed to the height (altitude sickness should be taken seriously). A further stop was the salt flat “Salar de Uyuni” nearby the city Uyuni. One might recognize the dried out salt sea from typical photos where the size relation to other objects (mountains, trees, etc.) is missing. A lot of tourists utilize this to take “funny” photos which look like photo-shopped (it is easy to find examples online). We were unsure if it would be worth going there, but in hindsight the visit was very well worth the effort. The salt flat is quite impressive.
We participated in a small tour with some other travelers. On such tours it can be gruesome funny to compare the prices which the other travelers on the same tour actually paid (i.e. negotiated). Of course, nobody paid more than the two Swiss doctors. And of course, nobody paid less than the scruffy, rastaman backpacker who chose to tag along last minute.

Since a couple of days we are in Sucre now. I like it a lot here. The city is beautiful. Even though it is the Bolivian capital it feels small and one quickly knows the different streets and directions. There are many vegetarian restaurants to discover and so far all of them offer a “meal of the day” as a lunch. This most often includes a soup, a meal, a dessert, and a drink. The price is normally ~3 euros. Also there is decent coffee available here! As in India, Mexico, and Guatemala, I found that Bolivia has the same characteristic: These countries grow a lot of coffee — oftentimes you even see wild coffee growing — but due to poorness they export all the good coffee and in the overall majority of cases you get some kind of black water if you order a coffee. In Sucre, however, it is feasible to find a decent coffee.

In terms of books, I have gotten unsure about the spanish edition of Jurassic Park. Puh! I have tried to read the first pages, but quickly realized that my vocabulary is way too small. So, I couldn’t resist the urge to read Stuckrad-Barre’s recently published autobiography “Panikherz” instead and have finished the book by now. It was a very interesting read and I think I have read it at a fitting time in my life. It also urged me to read more about Udo Lindenberg, Harald Schmidt, and Stuckrad-Barre himself. The book is quite long though and I think the overall work would be better if some stuff would have just been left out. On the other hand, Stuckrad-Barre leaves out anything related to women in his life. I see how one can argue for this decision (though he never explains why), but I still feel that the book would have benefited from at least some information or explanations, since this leaves some empty spots and yields unanswered questions.

A couple of days ago I had an experience which I briefly want to retell. We were taking a long distance bus late at night. After packing our luggage in the bottom of the bus (without any valuables in them), our tickets were controlled and we could enter the bus. We got into our seats and I placed both our small backpacks in the tray right above us — side by side. So far there was only one other guy in the bus besides us (a couple of seats behind us). Right after we sat down, Val asked me to get something out of her backpack. I got up and wondered why my backpack was no longer side by side with hers, but rather orthogonal. I thought, that I must have somehow rotated it or that the ground of the tray may be slippy. After sitting down for a couple of moments I remembered something to take out of my backpack as well. I got up and only barely noticed the other guy passing me with his blanket and leaving the bus. My backpack was no longer in the tray above us. For a moment I wondered and thought that I might be mistaken, but after some quick glances it hit me. Fuck! I immediately went after the guy, out of the bus. But it was too late. He had already disappeared. I looked through the crowd, quickly ran to different streets, looked around the bus, looked into nearby shops. No chance. Away. I got back into the bus. Val had started looking around in the bus and found the backpack 6 or 7 rows behind us, on the ground, behind a seat. What a relief! And nothing was stolen! I double checked everything. I imagine that my getting up again and again might have come as a surprise and so the guy decided to leave everything before being caught. Wow, what an experience. I am still puzzled by how quickly he managed to get to the backpack and move it so many seats without us noticing. The whole thing happened in under a minute! We are usually very careful and protective of our stuff and were the only two people in the bus besides him. The ticket controlling, having the backpack right above me, and the nearly empty bus made me feel secure, but this experience once again reminded me of being more careful. When I found a pair of unknown shoes in my luggage in Thailand (blog post), that was kind of funny, since I had already anticipated that the luggage might get searched. This time it was more scary, since it was a very close call.

Another thing that we have noticed so far: Not very often, but in some restaurants it happens that only I (the male) get asked what we want to order or that e.g. only I are asked to taste the wine before it is served. Whatever you might call that — macho, old-fashioned, etc. — it does not feel right and I dislike it.

To me the culture here seems to be very friendly, concerned to look after, but also kind of dopey in a well meant way. There are countless little things at which I have to chuckle. To illustrate a characteristic that seems to be recurring: We visited a park today and a guide described to us how dangerous the following descent will be and how important it is to be concentrated. Once we started descending we noticed that all the railings and things to hold on to had just been painted freshly! And that on a sunday morning :D !

Another thing which I need to quickly retell. Last saturday there was a “Night of the Museums” in Sucre — free entry into many museums. We discarded our plans to attend this event after seeing the huge queues in front of the museums. But the most intriguing thing was who was in the queues. The crowd consisted of basically purely natives, many many of them teenagers or young adults. I think this would be very unusual in Germany. As it turns out, this event had been created to enable the local (poor) population to visit the museums. It seems as if “visiting a museum” is seen somewhat different here, maybe for exactly this reason: it is a privilege.

 
 
 
 
 

Dystopia To Go

 

In 2014 I did a project which I called “Short Story To Go“. The story, however, was none of my own. Since then I wanted to repeat the project with some of my own material. Last year I wrote a fitting short story and earlier this year repeated the project.

The overall idea, structure, and layout remains the same as with the “Short Story To Go”. Also, I have taken the exact same approach to create copies. First, I printed one proper exemplar of the story on a good, duplex printer. Next, I copied these pages a couple dozen times on a cheap copy machine. I like the washed out, somehow dirty look and it was indeed very cheap. Then I sewed the pages together with a sewing machine (the photo on the left shows the result in more detail). Finally, I did cut off the edges, so that the pages align properly. This approach has proven to work very well. It results in a proper, little booklet and looks quite nice. Furthermore, it is very cheap and easy for me to produce copies this way.

The basic idea of the original project is to lay out copies somewhere for people to find and read. Within the copies I suggest to either keep the copy after the story has been read or leave it somewhere for others to find. As an upgrade to the first “story to go” I added a logbook to the back of the copies. This makes it at least feasible to trace how a copy got somewhere and might provide interesting information. I have distributed the stories randomly to some friends and left copies at some places. Also, I carry some with me in South-America currently and leave them at fitting places from time to time.

I have published the source code (XeLaTeX) and a PDF on GitHub.

Backpacking South America (Part 1)

 

Together with Valerie, I am in South America since a couple of weeks. We will be staying here for some more months. This is the first post in a series of posts “on the road”.

We have spent about a week in Buenos Aires. First time I have been here and I like it. Though, one week has been enough for both of us and we are eager to travel on. The city corresponds to the notion I had of it. Everything is colorful, warm, and interesting. Buenos Aires is often mentioned as a comparable city to Berlin in South America. There is much to discover and I see why people get this idea, though Berlin still seems far more versatile to me. Still, we had a very nice time in Buenos Aires and discovered a lot of stuff in Palermo, Palermo Viejo, and Palermo Hollywood (those are all different districts). Though, I still don’t get how the crazy crazy city bus system works. I guess this is due to the fact that there is no public bus transport system in place here, but rather an accumulation of independent, private bus companies driving around. There are a number of “How to take the bus in Buenos Aires” blog posts on the internet — most of these “tutorials” have ~10 steps and detail the process closely. The metro is much easier to use, though. Other things which stood out in Buenos Aires are that there is an enormous amount of parks and trees around (at least in the districts which we visited). In practically every street there were a huge number of large trees besides the road and after just every few blocks there was another park around the corner. I liked this greenish vibe a lot. Another interesting experience was the Hippodrome (horse racing).

We took a Lonely Planet with us, though I am not a particular fan of the series. However, the maps, information regarding cities which are worth a visit, and overall information can be really valuable. Especially maps have in the past often turned out to be very valuable. Thus, we took the guidebook with us. But this particular book contains the entire South America (13 countries). Thus it is thick and weighs a lot. After the first day I decided to get rid of the unnecessary parts. So out of one Lonely Planet there emerged three “new” editions :-) . Since we plan to “only” visit Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, we got rid of the unnecessary middle parts. I even made a new cover for one of the new editions out of cornflakes cardboard!

 
 

Furthermore, I am about to finish reading the “Becoming Steve Jobs” book. You may ask yourself: Why another Steve Jobs biography? I thought the same once I stumbled upon the book, but got quickly interested after reading the foreword. The authors basically describe, that they have the impression that he is often portrayed wrong in media. As longtime friends they feel it is necessary to correct this image. They write, that the war on how history will see Jobs has begun and that they feel they need to contribute their version. I am thinking about moving on to the spanish version of Jurassic Park next, I liked the book so much last year and this would be an opportunity to deepen my Spanish skills. On that front it is going bumpy, but improving constantly. We are thinking about joining a spanish school or a homestay — a possibility to live with a spanish speaking family and learn the language at the same time — for a week or so in Bolivia (maybe in Sucre).

 
 
 
 

After the stay in Buenos Aires we participated in a ten day silent meditation retreat (though separated, men and women were separated). This is a serious undertaking and we both took it that way. Two of my friends have done such retreats multiple times in the past in Central America and I was interested in the experience since quite some time. Basically the retreat is a meditation course and happens this way: you are on the area of the meditation center for ten full days (and two more for arriving and leaving). For the ten days you are asked to stay on strict “noble silence”. This means no talking to other participators and no interaction with anybody (including yourself). You do not write (i.e. talk to yourself), read, laugh, make gestures, or even exchange gazes with others. You are there the whole time and keep only to yourself. Totally alone. Even though there are other people around this does not make any difference. There is a short period of time when you arrive to talk to some people, but this is not sufficient to get to know anybody more deeply. The facilities are kept very basic and plain. There is no distraction in any way and attendees are asked not to wear distracting things and to e.g. not use perfumes. There is an outside area to walk, but there are no flowers or anything. Just some vegetation and some wooden blocks to sit on. So basically, you are stuck on a small area for ten days and have only yourself. You are asked to get up at 4:00 in the morning and attend a lot of meditation hours throughout the day. You go to bed between 9 and 10 pm. There is a strict meditation schedule, which you are asked to attend (and looked after if you don’t), but there are also some couple hour slots for free time. Though you are asked not to do more than sit around, walk, or shower. Breakfast and a lunch is prepared by voluntary servers, dinner is just some fruits and tee. You usually do not get to see many of the servers. Most things are indicated through three gongs (lunch is ready, waking up, etc.). You are also asked to not do any work or exercise during your time there — no washing, sport, yoga, etc.. The whole course though still works very well, since students who have attended such a course in the past and do now attend again, clean the bathrooms regularly in a clever, rotatory way. Everybody is there freely and all servers, the teacher, etc. are there freely and without payment. Everything works because of voluntary donations (of time or money). You are only allowed to give voluntary donations after you have completed a course. The course guides you through a specific type of meditation technique, which you will learn over the course of ten days by following spoken instructions by a teacher. All in all there were about 70-80 people participating (half men/half women).

Well, I have just completed this course two days ago (Val as well). Wow…ten days can be a really really long time and you can get quite lonely. Even though there are other people, you do not interact with anyone and are totally for yourself. There is no way to distract you, since you are even held back from cleaning stuff, preparing food, etc.. Since you are there for that long of a time, you do not need to plan anything, there is no “next week I need to …”, etc.. Val framed it best by saying that this allows the mind to wander to stuff about which you do not think in everyday life. So what basically happened for me was that this being lonely and being silent part in combination with so many meditation did a lot to me. I thought about a lot of past experiences and many things came to mind which I haven’t thought about for years. My dreams were very vivid and a lot of things came up during these days. A lot of time to think about stuff since there are no distractions at all. I honestly have to say that I am still not sure if it was an overall more positive or more negative experience for me. I am quite happy that I did it though. It was really hard for me and I had many ups and more downs. I am sure this was because the last eight, nine months were not a particularly happy or fulfilling time for me and indeed very stressful. This and the consequences which it yielded became very clear to me and this gnawed a lot at me. Ten days…much time to lose yourself in should-have-done’s, should-have-not-done’s, could-have-been’s, etc.. It was a very unique experience and I need some more time to let it sink in to be able to really assess it.

After the silence was ended some groups formed and started talking again. I couldn’t directly talk to a whole group of people again, even hearing a group chatting was too much for me. After some time I got more accustomed. It was an overwhelming, incredible experience to directly talk to a fellow meditator and look him in the eyes. One overlooks this in everyday life, since it is such an elementary part of one’s daily interaction. But after ten days looking someone in the eyes is an extraordinary experience. It was an incredible feeling and is very hard to describe. It felt very intimate to me.

The effect of meditating for so long was remarkable as well and amplified the effects I had already gotten in the past through meditation. The technique progressed over the ten days and a large part of it has to do with feeling body sensations. It is remarkable how fast the mind can adapt and how powerful it is. Ten days is definitely enough to feel the effects of meditation.

Although everyone kept to themselves all the time, I found that I still had formed certain impressions of the other attendees, based on behavior, looks, and some stereotypes. After the noble silence was ended it was interesting and amusing to discover how these images of people held up to reality.

The course we took was a Vipassana course, meditation centers of this organization are distributed all over the world and they all follow the same basic principles (free of cost, voluntary donations, structure, technique, etc.). There are shorter courses by other organizations though. But a ten day course, in my opinion, is one of the more serious undertakings. But there are much harder courses as well — a 45 day silent retreat for example, or retreats in Mexico which I heard about, where you also stay in total darkness for the time of a course. However, the course is finished now. We went back to Buenos Aires for one night, celebrated our re-discovered freedom, and are moving on directly to Bolivia now (I am actually writing this on a bumpy long distance bus). Argentina can get quite expensive and we hope for our money to last longer in Bolivia.

Backpacking India

 

I have been backpacking through India since the Christmas days for about three weeks. Together with Eva I flew to Kochin, where we met up with two other friends and traveled in this constellation for the remainder of the journey.

I didn’t have a culture shock or anything of that sort. I think this might be due to my experiences in Guatemala, Mexico, etc. — those countries have similar problems of hygiene and waste. Furthermore, we have only visited two states and have not been to Mumbai. I was quite surprised by how little of my stereotypes held true. India is quite a big country with quite a large population (> 1.2 billion) and 29 states. Over 100 languages are spoken in India and there are a number of different writing systems. It is entirely possible for two Indians to meet and speak English with each other, since it could be their only common language. These statements should give you a rough idea of just how diverse the culture, infrastructure, etc. might be in different parts of India.

We have visited two (neighboring) states: Kerala and Goa. These two states were enough to already see differences in mindset and culture and I have to say that I liked Kerala (the self proclaimed “God’s own Country”) more. From my impression the mindset of the people was directed much less towards “tourist = money”. This might be due to Kerala being one of the “richest” states in India (well, “rich” in Indian terms…). Kerala is also a state which has declared the war on alcohol: starting from 2014 over a period of ten years they plan to ban alcohol. In the last years they have already limited the consumption of alcohol in restaurants by allowing only a very small number of restaurants to serve alcoholic drinks. This has lead to the odd situation that even though no beer is available on the menu you might still succeed in ordering one. Though, you shouldn’t wonder why it will be served in coffee cups! As part of the draining efforts the sale of alcohol has been limited to scarce liquor stores. The one in Varkala is the most shady, prohibition-like place I have ever been to (photo below).

India is the most vegetarian-friendly place I have ever been to, we had exclusively very good (and very cheap) food. Astonishingly this journey was by far my cheapest one yet; with flight, food (three meals a day, always restaurants), accommodations (no dormitories, only private rooms), etc.. I have had total costs of about 1.000 euros, with the flight being the most expensive part (~600 euros). But of course this is at the expense of hot showers and other things. In Kerala we were staying in a place where I heard a suspicious gnawing in our room at night. The next night I spotted a rat climbing the outside wall of our neighboring hut and had a hunch. The next morning “someone” had eaten through the backpack of my roommate — he had forgotten to remove an open bag of peanuts from his backpack.

In Palolem we discovered something nice: if you walk to the very end of the beach (on the right side when facing the ocean) you can walk to a very small island at low tide. There are some huts and we stayed there for a couple of days. The natural foreclosure whilst high tide makes this a quiet and secluded place with very little wild dogs or tourists. Interestingly all huts on the beach are built from scratch each year, since the monsoon is too devastating.

All in all it was a very nice trip and I would like to go to India again. Maybe even this year?

I have attached some photos to this post. As on the other journeys, I had an analogue disposable camera with me (besides the E-M10 Mark ii). I very much like the color faded, blurred look of the analogue photos. Since I got MediaGoblin running again a few days ago, I have uploaded the below photos in a high resolution there as well (under CC-BY, link).

 
 
 
 

Looking back on 2015

Like in the previous years (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010), here comes my recap for 2015.

Podcast which I liked most
Mensch, Otto! Mensch, Theile! — Andreas Kuhnlein (23.04.2014)
The podcast is an interview with the german sculpturer Andreas Kuhnlein. I liked it a lot.

Favorite Movie
Grzimek
The movie was available in the ARD Mediathek for a while, but I am not sure about the situation right now. The movie really impressed me. It tells the biography of Bernhard Grzimek, a german zoologist and zoo director. Quite noteworthy that it is a German production.

Favorite Score
Ex Machina
Also liked the movie a lot. Got me interested to read more about the Singularity.

Best Paper
The UNIX Time Sharing System
Read the paper whilst attending a course on the concepts behind Unix (“Systemnahe Software II”). I think the paper is astonishing. Even though it is over forty years old, you will find that most of its concepts are still very much in use in modern Unix operating systems (process management, etc.).

Favorite Song
Kaleida — Think

Books
I did a separate post on the books which I have read throughout the year.

Technology which got me enthusiastic
Through my job at university I got to examine the Samsung Gear VR…and was blown away. The Gear VR really gives an exciting glimpse on the possibilities of virtual reality. Most of the demos can be experienced without any motion sickness (which at least for me is a typical problem with the Oculus Rift). At one point I was alone in a quiet room, sat on a rotating chair and immersed myself in some of the VR apps. Wow, this really is an immersion! If you have the possibility to try some of the demos I encourage you to do so. I was so enthusiastic about the device that I forced it upon multiple friends. The reaction was always the same: people were quite stunned.

Quote which stuck most
Frusciante on being finished with making music for public consumption.

For the last year and a half I made the decision to stop making music for anybody and with no intention of releasing it, which is what I was doing between 2008 and 2012. I felt that if I took the public into consideration at all, I wasn’t going to grow and I wasn’t going to learn.

Being an electronic musician meant I had to woodshed for a while, so I have a good few years worth of material from that period that’s never been released… At this point, I have no audience. I make tracks and I don’t finish them or send them to anybody, and consequently I get to live with the music. The music becomes the atmosphere that I’m living in. I either make really beautiful music that comes from classical, or I make music where the tempo is moving the whole time, and there’s no melodic or rhythmic center.

John Frusicante
(source)
 

Projects
I am still sewing from time to time. Besides that I was mainly working on university projects throughout the year. In all university projects I was very enthusiastic at the beginning, but in the end always frustrated. I guess this is due to me being unsatisfied with the way the projects went and the way the academic world works today. All projects centered around human-computer-interaction and I had the chance to explore some interesting technologies. I also took a joy out of creating the documentation, videos and presentations around the projects. Sadly, none of this is accessible online right now. This is due to me not being the sole decision maker and the possibilities others see for future publication utilization, though I don’t think this will ever happen. My experiences in these projects are the reason that I won’t pursue a further academic career.

Kindle
Well, I got myself a Kindle. This was a hard decision for me, but in Thailand my backpack contained three books (quite some weight and space) and during the journey I ran out of reading material and thus had to look around for something new. So far, I am not really sure what to make of the Kindle. During my India journey (blog post will follow) it prove very useful, but I am very disappointed by its typography shortcomings. The Amazon saying goes along the lines of “we love books and this is the perfect electronic experience for books”. But the typography is really bad. Sorry Amazon, but fake capitals? Really? And messed up line spacing when a chemical formula is used within a line? “The Martian” has a lot of mentions for CO2… The first Kindle came out nine years ago and I am disappointed that the typeset engine is still so much in the beginning.

Camera
Bought a new camera: The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark ii. I found that I seldom used my 5D Mark II during the last two years, instead I used the Panasonic GF2 much more since I always had it with me. Thus I have decided to go full Micro Four Third. My main requirements for the camera were mobility, configurability and preferably an HDR mode. The camera fulfills all this very well and I like its design very much (I got the black edition). I oftentimes just place it near my laptop on the desk, since I just like to look at it.

Smartphone Usage
During the year I have become increasingly annoyed by the constant accessibility and reachability through mobile devices and services. I found the constant interruptions and forced interactions at some point just too much. They kept me from stuff, annoyed me, interrupted me, got me thinking, were oftentimes irrelevant. All those small interruptions and context switches take a lot of energy.

Since my smartphone didn’t survive Thailand I took this as an opportunity and have since radically changed some things. I don’t use WhatsApp, Twitter or Instagram any longer. My usage of Facebook and Google+ has become very limited. I was a very extensive user of all those services and they had been an integral part to my interaction with other people and the way I stayed informed. After my smartphone broke, I didn’t posses a smartphone at all for a while. I experienced this as an immense relief. Right now I have a smartphone again (an old one which was given to me without ever asking), but it is turned off most of the time and I use it mostly for public transportation information and scarcely for communication (though I don’t have any messaging apps installed).

2016
2015 was quite a stressful year for me and I am relieved that it is over. I am looking forward to a new chapter of my life after my soon to come graduation. Hopefully the “Looking back on 2016″ article next year will end with a more enthusiastic outlook!

Books in 2015

Like last year, I have compiled a list of books which I have read throughout the year.

Scott Rosenberg — Dreaming in Code
The book describes the tale of a talented, experienced and rich software engineer with a vision for a large piece of software: a personal information management tool which is distributed, secure and supports any kind of information. He assembles a team of genius programmers and they try to fulfill his vision.

Well… so far so good. The long story short: the project was basically aborted after 8 years with practically no outcome, even though it had perfect prerequisites. A similar story can be found in a lot of software projects and the book shines some light on the process of wrong going. It is written by a journalist who accompanied the company from the start. For 2-3 years he sat in a lot of meetings and interviewed a lot people; after this period it became very unclear if the company would ever make it to a product and thus he left.

I found the book a very nice read. As an external observer I read the book in helpless despair, watching the project go mad. In a lot of ways I could relate to my own experiences in projects with other students. Some of my highlights: after two years of still not having anything to show, the developers decide for the third or fourth time to rewrite their backend once again. At this point they still don’t know for sure if the general idea will even work. Once a designer is finally brought into the project to create a user interface (after two years straight into the project) it turns out that a lot of backend things will have to be done differently. The book also shows quite clearly that each newly hired expert sees the project as a mean to fulfill his own life goals. That’s why after a couple of years into the project there is still no prototype, but three or four huge side projects that have very little to do with the initial goal of the project (e.g. the standardization of calendar formats and an entire standalone database software).

The book reminded me of the importance of prototyping as fast as possible in order to fail early and fast. The book also illustrates that projects need management: since the developers were all outstanding experts, no one wanted to tell anyone how to do stuff.

Michael Crichton — Jurassic Park
This book was an awesome read and got it me excited about the Jurassic Park series again. I was surprised by how much it differs from the movie.

Michael Crichton — The Lost World
A nice read, though not as excellent as the first book. There was no necessity to write a second book.

Ashlee Vance — Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
The (authorized) biography on Elon Musk was an interesting read. I disliked that the author sometimes seems to glorify Musk a bit. Perhaps this is the American mentality. Words like “work-life balance” seem to have a negative connotation in the context of this book.

Robert A. Heinlein — The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
This book got my attention after I watched a Q&A with Elon Musk and he mentioned it as one of his favorites. After reading a bit about it, I found that it was often mentioned as one of the best science-fiction books ever written. Reasons enough for me to read it. Heinlein describes the rebellion efforts of a small colony on the moon. The rebellion is planned in a very clever way (which explains the books popularity in the anarchy scene). I found the book quite entertaining and inspiring (not in an anarcho way, in a technological way ;-) ).

Stephen Davies — Hammer of the Gods
The book aims to tell the story behind “Led Zeppelin”. I found this copy whilst poking around in a second hand bookshop in Thailand and it got me interested. From what I have read about the book, not every tale or story from it should be taken for granted, as the author seems to not have done an entirely proper investigation. But the book is an interesting and informative read and I guess even if all the anecdotes in the book are incorrect, there is still a lot of (authentic) information left on how the band got together and came to its success. It certainly gave me a new perspective on Stairway to Heaven, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.

Tony Wheeler, Maureen Wheeler — Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story
This book is an “autobiography” on the Lonely Planet. Tony and Maureen describe how they founded the company and its following success. I stumbled upon this book in a small bookshop in Bangkok and it got me interested immediately. Only after buying and unpacking I realized that it was pirated. The color-copied cover didn’t give much clues, but the pages themselves were clearly copied — dirt marks, slightly rotated pages, etc.. Well, at least the pirates also copied the copyright and licensing information page of the book…
The book itself contained some interesting infos and some nice anecdotes, but in total I found it had some long parts where the overall story got lost in boring details.

Wolfgang Beltracchi — Selbstporträt
I got first interested in the author after reading an interview with him a couple years back (I think it might have been this one). Basically, Beltracchi was an art forger until not so long ago. A very good one, one should mention. He never copied existing paintings, but rather made an effort to understand the workings of an artist and immerse himself in the person. He then went on to create “new” paintings, which did fit very well in the repertoire of an artist. Beltracchi did very well and remained undiscovered for a very long time. This book is his (and his wifes) autobiography. The book was a rewarding and very good read.

Andy Weir — The Martian
Very entertaining, liked it. Haven’t seen the movie (yet).

Christoph Warmer, Sören Weber — Mission Startup
The book is a collection of interviews with German startup founders (mymuesli, fritz kola, Vapiano, mytaxi, etc.). Some interviews were interesting to read and the book offered nice insights into the German startup scene.
What really annoyed me about the book is that it is typeset in such a careless way. Questions which sometimes are bold and sometimes not and a gruesome usage of word spacing.

Stephen King — On Writing
Another biography! The book consists of two parts: Part 1 describes autobiographical details and Part 2 consists of notes on writing and becoming a writer. It seems to me (after reading Mr. Kings Wikipedia page) that he left out a great deal of biographical details. Whilst reading I oftentimes had the impression that he is reluctant to write about himself and is rather eager to get to Part 2. Nevertheless, the book fostered my understanding of the person.

Sam Harris — Waking Up
Harris describes his personal experiences concerning meditation. This was an accompanying book to me starting meditating regularly again. The book contains a vast number of interesting information and I need to read it again, since I didn’t grasp everything the first time.

Neil Strauss — The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships
Very good read, contains a lot of truth indeed. The book centers around the authors’ search for a fitting style of relationship.

Orson Scott Card — Ender in Exile
I don’t know how I could have missed that Card wrote many more books in the Ender universe besides the Ender Quartett (Enders Game, Speaker for the Dead, Children of the Mind, Xenocide). One of them is “Ender in Exile”. The book fits right in the (multiple thousand years) gap between “Enders Game” and “Speaker for the Dead”. I liked it, it was a rewarding read. I have started reading some of the other stuff in the Ender universe as well. Currently I am reading “First Meetings”, a short story collection with some Ender characters.

Ulrich Ott — Meditation für Skeptiker (“Meditation for Skeptics”)
Ott is (similar to Wolf Singer) a well known neuroscientist who researches meditation. This book is a scientific (but well understandable) report on the state of research concerning meditation. The author gives a very broad overview over the topic and describes in detail which commonly postulated advantages of meditation have a scientific base and which not. It was an interesting read and provided some helpful information to me.



To conclude the 2015 book list, I need to mention that there were some books which I didn’t finish: the book “Robert Bosch” by Gunter Haug aims to tell a fictional autobiography of Bosch. Therefore the author imagines thoughts and feelings of Bosch and enriches this with biographical details. I found this approach not working for me at all. The author presumes a lot of stuff about the inner workings of Bosch without any recognizable credibility.

The other book which I stopped reading — though I plan to complete it in 2016 — is “The Singularity is Near” by futurist Ray Kurzweil. It is a very interesting read and the reason for stopping was solely that I was not in the mood for something technical at that point in time.

I read all books (in total 15) in their original language — 13 were in English, two in German.

Backpacking Thailand

Together with Valerie I have been backpacking Thailand during September. It has been a very nice holiday and it was hard for me to go back to life in Germany after the holiday. This is mainly due to me being dissatisfied with how things have gone throughout this year. This was also the first holiday in which I switched off my smartphone completely. It was a real pleasure to not be reachable and to not use any computerized stuff. During the holiday I became more and more disgusted of using any computers or electronic devices. I also had to drop reading one of the books I brought with me, since it was too technology focused. I just couldn’t bring myself to carry on reading. Out of recent experiences at university, I have developed a mild aversion against technology and computer stuff during August and it grew stronger during the holiday. Once we were back in Germany it took me a couple of days and a real effort to turn the smartphone back on and go back to working with a computer. Even now, a couple of weeks after the holiday, I am still not back on the original track.

Once I tried turning my smartphone back on, I realized it had broken down somewhere in Thailand. This is probably due to the high humidity there and a couple of deep scratches which were in the screen. Probably the moisture crept in and the electronics broke down. I am thinking seriously about not getting any new smartphone at all. I was a heavy user of WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook before, but now it just disgusts me. Besides this it was a very nice holiday and an opportunity to get away from todo’s, deadlines and concerns.

We landed in Bangkok, but — since its Bangkok — left with the next night train to Surat Thani. Our destination was the island of Koh Phangan, where we stayed for ten days or so. Exploring the island, staying in different places, just drifting around. We rented motorbikes several times and spent entire days just driving around and exploring this tropical island with its beautiful landscape of beaches, coconut trees and palms. There were a lot of small adventures during those days and I enjoyed this time very much. At one point we discovered a small festival hidden in a secluded bay: the Floating Man, a small sibling of the Burning Man.

After staying some nights on Koh Phangan we went to the Ang Thong National Marine Park, a foreclosed group of islands, for some days. Few backpackers know that there are some bungalows and tents in the national park and that one can stay there for the night(s). As a consequence we had a nice time and the park mostly to ourselves. During the day, at around 10 am, some boats with tourists would arrive. But before that it was a nice secluded area where we could observe wild (and shy) monkeys strolling through the lonely island in the morning. In the afternoon at around 4 pm the tourist boats would leave again and the island would quiet down again.

Eventually we found a boat which went to Koh Tao and got on board. Koh Tao is an island famous for its diving resorts. Even though we didn’t dive, we took the time to snorkel and stayed there for the remainder of our journey. This was a nice time, accompanied by driving around with motorbikes, snorkeling and Yoga classes.

To quickly recap some other highlights: it should be a commonly known poor-country-travelling fact that the backpack which you store in the luggage facility of a long-distance bus will most certainly get thoroughly searched for valuables. Thus you should keep all the interesting stuff with you. I adhere to this and have never gotten anything stolen. This time though, after leaving the bus and unpacking my backpack in a room later, I found a pair of sneakers (Vans, size 46) buried deep in my backpack. I guess somebody mixed things up whilst unpacking and repacking. I didn’t have anything missing though. Sadly, by the time I discovered the shoes it was too late to return them to its rightful owner. Also sadly, I got size 43.

We had an interesting experience (not worth repeating) when we took a bungalow in a quiet place nearby a jungle. Since it was very hot we opened all windows and went swimming in the ocean nearby. When it got dark we got back to the bungalow. Well…here comes some foreshadowing clue: many places in Thailand (especially on the islands) have power only available for a certain period of the day — when it gets dark. A previous owner of the bungalow must have left the light switched on. We didn’t notice this when we first got to the place, since it was midday and the power was off. But as we returned, the bungalow shined like a christmas tree.
Since this very evening I can’t figure out why there are zoos in Thailand. From my point of view it is sufficient to just take a room and leave the light on.

 
 
 
 

FizzBuzz with Computer Science Undergraduates

During the semester break I was involved in the redesign of a computer science lecture for undergraduates (mostly in their second semester). The lecture is centered around programming topics, such as patterns or object-oriented programming and builds upon the lecture “Introduction to Computer Science”, which teaches basic programming skills in Java (amongst other stuff).

In the week before the semester started, the idea of conducting the FizzBuzz test with the undergraduates came along. FizzBuzz seems to be a popular game in schools within the UK and has gained infamous popularity, since some people started to use it during job interviews as a test for developers. The task seems to be quite simple, but more people than you might think do not get it right, when having to write it down on paper without any debugging utilities.

Write a program that prints the numbers from 1 to 100. But for multiples of three print “Fizz” instead of the number and for the multiples of five print “Buzz”. For numbers which are multiples of both three and five print “FizzBuzz”.

Now you might think “Pfffhh! I can do that!”. Well, you might want to try that out before reading on. So, we decided to conduct this test with the undergraduates in the mentioned course. The goal was to gather a better understanding of their problems and common mistakes. They were required to program the test in Java. The FizzBuzz test was the second task of the quiz, the first consisted of writing a simple class with a constructor and creating an instance of it. The quizz was not rated, the purpose was just to gather a better understanding of the students previous knowledge and problems.

I quickly want to highlight the most interesting results concerning FizzBuzz: of the 176 participants 28 students (16%) made no mistake at all. Leaving minor errors (syntax, type, assignment, etc.) out, five more students (19%) got the task right. 40 submissions (23%) had so much stuff missing, that they couldn’t be rated. Of the 33 students who got the task right (not taking minor errors into account), 21 reported having some programming experience before starting to study.

21 students (12%) made an off-by-one error similar to this: for (int i = 1; i < 100; i++) { ... }.
81 students (46%) made logical errors, along the lines of composing the if-conditions wrongfully. Wrongful code like this was very common (pseudo-code intended):

if (i % 3 == 0) print("Fizz")
else if (i % 5 == 0) print("Buzz")
else if (i % 3 == 0 && i % 5 == 0) print("FizzBuzz")
else print(i)

Note that the third if-condition will never get invoked. One reason for writing down the if-conditions in this order might be that the exercise text described the cases in this order. It seems to me, that the most failure-prone (but also most obvious) approach to the task might be to directly translate the exercise description into code.

The results of this quiz were discussed with the students in the second lecture.

About Me

I am a 28 year old techno-creative enthusiast and computer science student at the Ulm University in Germany.

I care about exploring ideas and developing new things. I like creating great stuff that I am passionate about.

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