Without a Traceroute

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Obligatory ‘Starting a Blog’ Post

July 29th, 2008 · Travel

So my name is Brendan McCollam, I just graduted from Pomona College in Claremont, CA where I was a neuroscience major.

I received a Watson Fellowship, which provides a $25,000 grant to travel and complete an independent project. My project involves traveling to the Netherlands, Germany, France, Slovenia, Croatia, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico investigating the free software movement and hacktivism. If you’re interested, you can read the personal statement and project proposal I submitted to the Watson Foundation which awards the grants.

This blog will be a record of my travels, with photos and stories and such; I also intend to write about timely issues in software/technology/politics. I imagine the majority of readers will be my friends, family, and perhaps people connected with the Watson foundation, but anyone else is welcome as well.

I’m leaving in a few hours, and I still have a bunch of packing to do. It’s a strange and oddly liberating feeling to have only the vaguest notion of where I’m sleeping tonight.

Thanks for reading.

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Arrived in the Netherlands

July 30th, 2008 · Travel

I am currently in Eindhoven, a city in the South-Netherlands. So far it seems alright. Phillips was founded and headquartered here, so there’s an enormous amount of lightbulb-related tourist attractions. They have some sort of art museum focused on artificial light (read: glowy art things), so I’ll probably check that out tomorrow before catching a train to Utrecht.

My stopover in Dublin was nice. I took the bus into the city and ate lunch at the oldest pub in Ireland, which dates from 1198. It was sort of a tourist trap, but the food and Guiness was good. However, the bus back to the airport was kind of slow and I nearly missed my flight to Eindhoven. On the plus side, because I was so late, the Ryanair woman checking me in didn’t bother charging me the 20 euro they usually want for checking a bag.

I’m pretty tired since I lost a big chunk of last night to time zones, but I think I’ll go out at least for a little while and see what Eindhoven is like.

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Linux-powered in-flight entertainment

August 1st, 2008 · Linux, Travel

My Aer Lingus flight from Chicago to Dublin was on an Airbus a330. I somehow got stuck with the up-against-the-dividing-wall-next-to-the-bathroom seat, but on the plus side, the row was so lame, that I had it all to myself and I could put up the armrests and sleep laid out across the entire center row. I also stacked up those tiny airline pillows to make a real pillow (for the curious: you need 3 of them).

Every seatback came equipped with a small touchscreen entertainment console that included a wide variety of mediocre on-demand media (Meet the Spartans, Be Kind Rewind, Ugly Betty) and games. These systems usually run an embedded version of Red Hat Linux, combined with a custom frontend. The consoles were a prime example of a great idea spoiled by lousy implementation. Many of the games had on-plane networked capability, but the connectivity features were limited to high-score lists and competing against other players in quiz games. There was a Prohibition-era Chicago-themed casino game which seemed like a ideal opportunity for networked competitive card games, but sadly, it had no network capability. The games were all either sloppily-coded games by DTI Software, or clumsy ports of Atari arcade classics (Centipede in particular suffered from slowdown and awkward d-pad controls–the original version featured a trackball). The browsing interface was clunky, too, especially when using the handheld control rather than the touch-screen. Strangely, there were about 2 minutes of ads tacked onto the front of all the video content, but the fast-forward functionality wasn’t disabled, so you could just skip through them.

It’s really too bad the offerings were so weak, because seat-back entertainment is a fantastic place for embedded Linux systems running on low-end hardware. Linux is ideal for applications where a low-end client is pulling content from a more powerful server.  Now, if they could only find a way to populate it with decent content. With video game companies like Nintendo dipping into their back catalog for downloadable content, I wonder how difficult it would be to license, for example, SNES titles for in-flight entertainment. Networked SNES Mario Kart competing against other passengers would be truly awesome. Alternatively, there are tons of really fun, casual flash games out there that could be adapted for airplane play. Tower defense would be another great way to pass the time on a plane.

I suspect the problem is that the software is provided as a package deal by the same company that sells the hardware, as part of a “complete in-flight entertainment solution,” which probably leaves that company phoning it on the games, rather than paying to license better content.

In the long run, this is probably irrelevant because the future of in-flight entertainment is obviously internet access. Some international carriers like Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines had already deployed Boeing’s in-flight wifi internet access system, but unfortunately US carriers were unwilling to shell out the money need to equip their planes, and without the US market Boeing could never make its system profitable. Eventually the costs will likely drop to the point where carriers start widely deploying onboard internet connections, and when that happens, you’ll never have to be bored on a plane again.

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Eindhoven: Day 1

August 1st, 2008 · Travel

After spending about 24 hours in Eindhoven, I’m ready to render a totally premature verdict.

Eindhoven is the Des Moines of the Netherlands: big enough to be a real city, with some interesting museums and music venues, but not big enough to have much worthwhile happening on a Wednesday night. I spent several hours (even got a small blister) wandering around looking for a busy club or bar. I was told that summer is especially dead because so many people are away on holiday.

I eventually wound up at a sparsely populated bar on the Stratumseind (a street which had a fair number of people, but divided between about 40 different bars). I met two Dutch architecture students, Antoine and Alex, who were playing chess. Alex beat Antoine twice, before I offered to play Antoine. He checkmated me in about a half-dozen moves in the first game. I acquitted myself much better in a rematch and the game was close. At the end, he swapped a rook for a bishop in a trade I was not expecting, and which left me without a piece to stop him from getting a pawn promoted. I lost the game.

During our second game (which went on for some time), an aggressive, apparently drunk, shirtless man repeatedly challenged me to play him for a 100 euro wager. I declined, and he sat next to me giving me terrible advice, (“You should take his rook. Take it now, I guarantee you will win.”). Unless he was hustling me, he was drunk enough that I could’ve beaten him, but there was no guarantee he would pay up, or not start a fight.

I also met an Egyptian businessman who kept asking me the prices of commercial real estate in the United States (as though I would know), “A shop like this, how much to buy in New York or Florida?”

We also had the following exchange:
“You know woman writer in America?”
“Yeah, sure, there are lots of American women writers. Living or dead?”
“She lives in Texas.”
“Um, what kind of writing does she do?”
“I give her my number, but she never call me. Do you know her?”
“No, I’m pretty sure I don’t.”
“Good, she was too old for you anyway.”

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Eindhoven: Day 2

August 1st, 2008 · Travel

I left Eindhoven for Utrecht yesterday, the train ride took about an hour. Before leaving, I stopped in and saw the Van Abbe Museum (which I continually read as ‘wannabe museum’) and also the Centrum Kunstlicht in de Kunst (Artificial Light in Art Center).

The Van Abbe Museum was really cool, the building was clean and modern, overlooking the river. Some of my favorite pieces were “Aktiengesellschaft” by Maria Eichhorn, in which she created a public corporation as a work of art; “Repetition” by Artur Žmijewski, a recreation of the famous Standford Prison Experiment using unemployed Polish men–who are apparently a good analog for Stanford grad students–as subjects; and Work No. 317 by Martin Creed, which is a rising or falling chromatic scale played by the elevator as it ascends or descends. I wish all elevators sang.

The Artificial Light Museum also had a lot of neat pieces. Unfortunately I didn’t get the names of many of them, and photography wasn’t allowed. My favorite featured two large, eccentric rotating discs (one within the other), with a spotlight and rotating mirrors and colored filters mounted to the disc. The filters produced different colors based on the angle at which the light struck them, and there were light-sensitive resistors at the base that determined the direction of rotation of the discs and the position of the filters, providing a feedback mechanism where the machine determined its own orientation.

EDIT: Update-I emailed the museum and the artist is a Finn named Esa Laurema, the work is an untitled piece from 1994.

In the same building as the light building (which was once the first Phillips lightbulb factory) was an exhibition on the historical methods of manufacturing lightbulbs. They offered a guided tour at 2 pm. I got there somewhat later, but the cashier told me that they had not done a tour in any case, because nobody who was interested had come. The tour guide, a friendly gentleman of about 60, was still there. Even though he didn’t speak any English, he was very eager to tell me about the history of lightbulb manufacture. With the cashier translating as much as he could, the guide talked rapidly and excitely about carbon fillaments, glass blowing, and vaccum pumps. I always find it sad when somebody is excited to talk about something and nobody else cares, so I tried to pay attention and show as much interest as possible.

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