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[personal profile] shannon_a
I had not known that Swiss Air was a third-class airline, but now I do.

They're on my no-fly list.

(Of course, so is United, and I accidentally flew them last week.)

The morning starts off good. I wasn't sure I could wake up at 6.30 and catch the 6.56 bus, between getting my toiletries packed up, getting myself out the door, treading the labyrinth of halls and elevators at the Hotel de Rome, checking out, scooting across Bebelplatz, and waiting to cross Unter der Linden.

But, making it to the bus stop, I see the sign says "TXL 2 minutes". Score!

The airport confuses me a bit, because the check-in decks are associated with the boarding gates, and they're all dynamic. And the boards out front don't go out to 9.25, my boarding time.

It takes about ten minutes, but my flight number shows up, and I walk out to gate A6.

As I go by A5, I think, "Wow, they have a long line". But as I keep going, I realize it's actually the line for A6.

Thunderstruck by the huge line, I go back to the end. Here begins what's literally 75 minutes of waiting, wondering if I'm going to miss my flight.

Much of the problem is that they have four check-in counters open: one for economy class passengers, one for baggage drop-off (which I couldn't do because I couldn't check-in online, presumably because it's an international flight), and twofor business and first-class; the economy line is moving inches a minute, because all of the effort is going to those high-brow customers, and they're just allowed to walk right up in their special line, effectively cutting in front of all of us. I've said it before, but if the populist revolution ever comes, and it should, it's going to start in the airports, which are the most egregious examples of extremely preferential treatment for the 1%.

Finally the low-brow line speeds up when all the online baggage, the business people, and the filthy rich have boarded, and the check-ins are finally shared equally. The proles are allowed to finally move.

I guess the advantage of the combined check-in/gate setup is that they weren't going to take the plane off since they knew they had an outrageous line for check-in, even almost two hours before the flight, and they knew those people then had to get through the gate's security. But I was still stressed for the whole 75 minutes. And we were late taking off due to all the tom-foolery.

So there's my first screw-you-Swiss-Air of the day, and it's just barely 9.30.

On the plane I note that I have a window seat, changed over three seats from the aisle seat I was supposed to have. I'm annoyed by the fact that Swiss has shown for a second time in as many minutes (hours) that they don't give a *()@ about my personal preferences, but whatever. I get to see the landscape of Berlin leaving and Zurich arriving. And Zurich is kind of surprising to me. There are huge, dark forests everywhere, and then as we come in to the airport, I see they're even right up against the tarmac.

But I also notice that Swiss has changed my seat on my long-haul flight from Zurich to SFO, giving me a middle seat, which is the biggest F-U of the day. I want to see if I can change it in Zurich, though that seems pretty unlikely, and it turns out not to be possible, because I'm forced to get my ticket stamped by San Francisco Passport Control before anyone ever shows up at the Swiss Air deck at the gate.

I consider chocolate in the airport, but most of it's ridiculously expensive, and much of it is just Lindt anyway. Oh well.

So I sit down on the gate, and I now get to hear Swiss Air announcing that they're overbooked business class, and they're looking for "volunteers" to downgrade to economy. The last announcement I hear is offering 1,750 Swiss Francs (about the same value in USD).

So that's about seven strikes before I've gotten on the long-haul plane: insufficient staffing at Berlin; grossly preferential treatment to rich passengers at Berlin; somewhat late take-off at Berlin; changing my Berlin to Zurich seat; changing my Zurich to SFO seat, very much for the worse; not staffing the Zurich check-in; and overbooking.

Oh, and we play out the same preferential game boarding at Zurich: one horribly long, none-moving line for the proles, and a swift line for the upper crust. The difference is that when the high-brow clerk finishes admitting her people, she's afraid to let in the proles, lest a businessman (or woman) come up to the entrance and be momentarily inconvenienced. So she just stands there, watching the gate with first-class eyes.

Oh hey, we're late taking off again, either because Swiss didn't have their boarding gate adequately staffed or because they overbooked and had to bribe people to give up their chocolate chip cookies.

That should be their slogan: Swiss Air — doesn't run at all like a Swiss watch.

I'm gritting my teeth at the fact that I still have to spend twelve more hours with these bastards.

But in my mind, they've already been fired.

Swiss' seats have more leg room, which is a relief after the horrible United flight. However the seats are quite narrow. I mean, fortunately, that's only a problem if you're in the middle, and I clearly reserved a aisle seat.

For the few moments I just enjoy being able to move my legs, unlike on the United flight, not realizing how much I'll be hurting 11 hours later.

Swiss does not have a scam cart, where they try to encourage you to purchase food before they bring the free food. No, they just bring out food every two hours like clockwork. However, they do seem to have a cancer cart, where they tote around duty-free cigarette cartons.

Classy. And so socially responsible.

About nine hours into our flight we pass right over Kelowna, which was the site of last year's Blockstream offsite.

I'd thought the 10-hour overnight trip was the worst, because I was tired and (mostly) couldn't sleep, but the 11-hour daytime trip back is pretty bad as well. A lot of that is due to the uncomfortableness of the middle seat, which makes it hard to write. (I managed two histories, but I had to contort myself every time I wanted to write.) I also don't have the focus to read more than 150 pages or so of the very dense Forge of Darkness. I did well, however, collecting comics on my iPad from Hoopla, and I read through four trade paperbacks. I also manage to burn a couple of hours playing a mindless gem game; I should clearly find a few high-quality mindless games through Steam.

After the quick efficiency of European passport control, I'm bemused by the stupid FUD of the US. I'm checked five times total by US officials. They give a cursory look at my passport in Zurich (#1), as the first step in "San Francisco Passport Control". Then at SFO, I run my passport through a computer and answer some questions (#2). Then I pass the printout from computer and my passport and a printed list of questions to a passport control officer (#3), and he's the one that asks a few questions like the solitaire passport control in Zurich and Frankfurt. He stamps my printout which I show to an officer before I collect my luggage (#4). Then I show it yet again when exiting with my luggage (#5).

It's all relatively fast, but no wonder people are more reluctant to come to the US nowadays. We've become a positively xenophobic nation. And other than the idea of keeping people off planes on the far side, this is all entirely security theatre. Heck, that largely is too, since passports are also checked at check-in, at airport security, and when boarding the plane — albeit, not by US state officials.

It is a miracle of modern technology that I woke up at 6.30am in East Germany yesterday morning, and I made it home by 6.00pm in Berkeley. Plus nine time zones, of course; we were racing the sun the whole day.

Happy to be home, and done with traveling until May (possible February; we shall see).
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[personal profile] shannon_a
My plan this morning was to meet a few folks from Chaosium. This was to include Rick and Neil who I both know of old from RQ-Con, Convulsion, and other convention. Alas, it did not come together. Instead I ended up having a nice walk along the Spree, tried out the "U"nderground, and saw a bit more of the city (and connected up a bit more of the city in my head).

Afterward I headed out to Museum Island, which was the main point of the day.

The Alte Nationalgallery was OK. There were a lot of portraits and a lot of "German Realism" which weren't that memorable. There was a nice Impressionist room, with works by most of the masters, but it only had 20 or so paintings total. Still, there were some great pieces, include cityscapes by Monet and Van Gogh that I particularly admired. (There's apparently a bigger impressionism museum in Berlin, but it would have taken a couple of hours to get there and back.) I had to get up to the third floor to find most of the really cool stuff, including lots of landscapes, some castles and other D&D-like locations, a painting of the street right by our hotel, and a painting of Snow White, which seemed like a very German subject matter that I wouldn't see in American portrait galleries.

Chris was able to join me after I'd been through the National Gallery, so I quickly took him back through the highlights and then we moved on.

The Pergamonmuseum was amazing in large part due to two huge rebuilt structures from the Ancient World: the Ishtar Gate from Babylon and the Market Gate of Miletus. They were both huge, soaring, awe-inspiring glimpses of what the ancient world really looked like. Totally cool. (And the Ishtar Gate was the graphical inspiration for the design of the Mayfair edition of Tigris & Euphrates.) There were also quite a lot of nice Assyrian artifacts at the museum, plus some Muslim artifacts that didn't touch me in the same way. Sadly, about two-thirds of the museum is closed for reconstruction, a constant trope in Berlin, and that included the huge Pergamon Altar that gives the museum its name.

(But we were never going to get through all of Museum Island in a single day, in any case.)

The Neues Museum was mainly a mixture of Egyptian and Roman artifacts. Much of it was quite interesting, but I'd also seen some similar stuff over in Boston a few weeks ago (and elsewhere). The biggest exhibits were clearly the world-renown Bust of Nefertiti, which was pretty cool to see, and a bronze age "Golden Hat", which is a huge wizard-like hat. I actually think I liked all the bronze age metalwork the best! Oh and a video showing how Berlin had evolved. And various Egyptian stonework fulll of hieroglyphs.

So, yeah, some thorough looting of ancient lands that ended up in Berlin. Nice to have it preserved though?

(Not seen: the Altes Museum oder the Bode Museum.)

And finally, our day's plans ended with a visit to a game cafe, the Spielwiese. This was a nice space with a humongous collection of games. Sadly, the locals usually came into the cafe already grouped up for playing, so we didn't get anyone to teach us any great German games, but Chris and I played a few on our own, and he taught a German group of students how to play Saboteur.

(I'm planning to write more about gaming in Berlin in Mechanics & Meeples.)

Afterward, Chris found us a great Middle-eastern restaurant (suggested by the kind café owner). I had a delicious falafel salad with sesame-seed falafels which tasted half like a falafel and half like a hushpuppy. Oh, it was tasty! And (obviously) the menu wasn't all beef and fish! And the service was quick!

When we got back to the hotel, I was pleased to see several of my Blockstream pals at the bar. I stopped in to say hi and bye, and now it's back to my room. I need to be packing and showering as I have to leave early for the airport.
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[personal profile] shannon_a
Today was entirely about the last day of the offsite. We worked for several more hours, learning about projects and engaging in activities. One of our activities was about our brand, and it involved each of seven groups doing a performance; my group sang a song we made up to the tune of "Teach Your Children Well". I'm sure we were horribly out of tune, and I know we didn't stay in sync with the music a few times, but I think it had some moments of cleverness in it (though we didn't have enough time to polish it entirely).

So overall, my experience on my second Blockstream offsite?

I felt like a member of the team. I know many of these people, I like many of these people, and I've worked with many of these people. So while I felt a bit awkward and out of place last time, this time I was able to entirely dive in.

The locale this time was a lot cooler, but the venue wasn't as good. Our main conference room was cramped for the team, and sitting around a big square of desks wasn't the same as sharing individual tables with people. The hotel, overall beautiful, also had some quirks: such as a horrible internet, unless you paid a $20 a day ransom; doors that looked identical from both sides, offering no hints as to whether you should push or pull; and a very strange bathroom near the conference room that you had to go through three doors to get to, making it always seem like an endless labyrinth.

But, despite any quirks, it was a good offsite in a good locale at a good hotel, and I think it helped bring the team together, which is important for a distributed team.

The final dinner was at "Zur Letzten Instanz", which advertises itself as the oldest restaurant in Berlin, founded in 1621. We were up on the second floor, up a tight spiral staircase. Overall, the entire atmosphere was pretty cool.

The food was good, though I once again had to dodge huge chunks of beef by ordering the vegetarian option. Sigh. There's just too much beef in Berlin. The best thing we ate were the absolutely delicious potato wedges.

And that's the end of my work week in Berlin.

I have a free day tomorrow, where I have a get-together in the morning, then museum visiting planned afterward. Then maybe gaming in the evening?

As silly as it may sound, I also look forward to trying out the subway system.
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[personal profile] shannon_a
The sleeping situation improved last night. I managed to get to sleep at 11.30, then slept through to 8.30. I felt much better in our meetings today as a result. Yay.

And the Blockstream meetings went fine. I have an increasingly large pile of notes for things to write about, I have good knowledge on how our products have done in the last year, and I conducted the other interview I needed to do for an upcoming article.

Then in the evening we had an adventure!

Christopher had previously picked out a "gaslight museum" in the west of the tiergarten. It's a path with almost a hundred classic gas lamps from all over. I put out the call this evening to head over there, get dinner, and walk the path, and was thrilled to get several other people interested in joining us. In the end, we had seven: me, Christopher, Rusty, Christian, Jonas, Russell, and his SO.

I was surprised that everyone was enthusiastic to walk out there, despite it being about two and a half miles, but they were anxious to stretch their legs after a day cooped up inside. My kind of people! So we had a nice, slightly adventurous walk out. Through Brandenburg Gate, and into the Grosser Tiergarten, and the adventurous part is that it was rapidly getting dark and so the paths more and more dim as the evening progressed.

We eventually saw an "S" stop, marking our exit from the park. (Yep, we totally could have taken public transit there.) My first pick for restaurant was too full, but my second pick, a hotel restaurant, even had a table for seven waiting for us. It was simpler food than the German extravagance I've been seeing. Most folks had black angus burgers. (Germany seems very beef heavy, which is the one thing I don't like about it thus far, as beef makes me sick.) I had a turkey club that included bacon and egg, so perhaps it was still a bit extravagant. And, we also had lots of great conversation. As I said, these were my type of people, several of whom I really click with.

The gas light museum was unfortunately disappointing. At least 50% of the lights, perhaps as much as 75%, weren't running. Many were also damaged. Some thought it was vandalism, but it could also have been lack of care, of some combination. In any case, many of the most classic gas lights that met my internal definition of what they should look like were dark.

Then our true adventure began, because everyone was also up for walking back. I'd previously looked up the Tiergarten after Dark, and people said it was safe, but very dark. And that there were foxes. We saw no foxes.

So followed most of an hour stumbling back and forth on crooked paths in the dark, lit only by iPhones, which only showed several feet ahead. Dark looking trees surrounded us. Nearly invisible pools and ponds shimmered past us. We saw one bunny and many bicyclists. We saw a guy looking for the "biergarten", who angrily told us it was a joke name when we asked him about it, and when we pointed out where it perhaps was, was afraid to go there because he was scared of the dark. We walked over and around a cool stone bridge and along a nice stream where someone saw a magic carp, and it took me a while to realize he was talking about a Pokemon. It felt like a long wander through limbo, but with much more laughing. Really, a great experience.

Eventually we returned to the streets and walked back through the Gate and toward our hotel like regular human beings.
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[personal profile] shannon_a
So I foolishly thought I'd solved the jetlag problem yesterday, because I spent an active day out in the sun, and then I got to bed on time (midnight) for the second night in a row.

Yep, not so much.

I woke up at a bit before 7am, and it quickly became obvious that I wasn't going back to sleep. So, strike one.

But during the day was even more troublesome. This was the first day of our Blockstream offsite, which is the whole point of coming here, and I was on the verge of falling asleep at times. I even rested my eyes from time to time, just because they were so heavy. Looking around (after I pulled them back open), I wasn't the only one.

This is the danger of holding our offsite in Europe. I mean, it's fair enough because some percentage of our employees are European (and I'm really pleased by the opportunity to be out here). But meetings in a meeting room with people talking just aren't the same thing as being out and about, so the jetlag hits harder. (Strike two.)

I did get what I was hoping out of today's offsite, which is a continued increase in my understanding of the company and where we are now. I wrote out lots of ideas for things I could write for Blockstream in the future, as we're looking for content for our blog.

I also talked with a couple of people to get specifics for one blog entry, and planned a meeting about another, both of which will need to be drafted by the end of the month. (Because it will continue to be very, very busy when I return.)

One other thing of note in the morning: I got to try out the hotel pool. This whole place is a former bank, and the pool was in the jewel vault. It's pretty cool subterranean pool. Pretty small. But it's even got big (original) pillars! In the pool!

Tonight was team-dinner night, so I hung out with the busdev team: James, Michelle, Chris, Ben R. , Alex, Kat, and me.

It was in an authentic German food establishment that had been recommended for that characteristic. People got very German foods, most of which involved large quadrupeds. I opted for a vegetarian dish that was a gnocchi-like pasta and some veggies and it was quite good.

However, we were there for like three and a half hours (all the German service has been extremely slow), and I'm just back now and exhausted.

I'm going to try to sleep early tonight and wake late tomorrow in the hope of being more awake tomorrow. We'll see if that works out.

Berlin Day 2: In Which I Bike Berlin

Oct. 16th, 2017 10:32 pm
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[personal profile] shannon_a
Today was so packed that it's pretty impossible to write about it all, at least while I need to sleep and get up tomorrow for work.

In short, I saw lots of Berlin by bicycle (or at least lots of central Berlin). The bicycling was thanks to Donkey Republic, a neat automated system where you just follow their app to the bike, then hit the unlock button and it's yours. Ridiculously cheap too: €10 for the day, and I believe hugely cheaper if you sign up for a yearly subscription. Knowing I was planning this, I even brought my bike helmet from home, and having used it all day, I made it worth the fact that I carried a bike helmet halfway around the world.

Also in short: I saw the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag Building, parts of the Berlin Mauerweg, the Soviet War Memorial, the Grosser Tiergarten, the Victory Column, the Topography of Terror, Checkpoint Charlie, the East Side Gallery, St. Mary's Church, the Fernsehtrum, the Neptunbrunnen, the Mauerpark, a game store, and the Gedenekstatte Berlin Mauer. I also saw quite a few different Berlin neighborhoods, some of them attractive and old, and I crossed the Spree River any number of times on any number of bridges.

As you might have sussed out, there was a lot of Berlin Wall in that day. That's in part because I really wanted to see it, because its fall was a pivotal event as I was coming of age, but also in part because a big deal is made of the scant remaining bits. The Topography of Terror was cool because it's preserved its wall as a historic artifact, showing how it was being torn apart, even before it came down. Checkpoint Charlie is a crappy tourist trap that feels like the Fisherman's Wharf of Berlin, hiding its wall in Berlin's Believe It or Not. The East Side Gallery is gorgeous and breathtaking because artwork has been painted on the Wall, though some has been unfortunately grafittied over (but more has been restored). The Mauerpark feels a bit sketchy, but was clearly a park that locals go to, the Delores Park of Berlin if you like, and it had people actively and openly painting new grafitti on segments that are clearly painted over regularly. Finally, the Memorial (Gedenekstatte) is an open-air museum, with lots of historical plaques talking about the Wall. (Whew!)

Pretty darned cool.

I also spent a couple of hours in the Tiergarten, which is a large, beautiful park. I loved the fact that the autumnal colors have come into the deciduous trees, and that leaves were falling. I loved the clay paths, which were great for riding. I loved the various pools and monuments within (especially the awesome Bismarck Memorial!), including ones to Beethoven and Wagner. It has definitely gone onto my list of great city parks.

Of the other places I visited, I think the St. Mary's Church stood out the most. Very old church (13th century) with lots of beautiful sculptures inside.

Many other places I just saw from the outside (like the Reichstag, the Victory Column, and the TV Tower). Some are just external monuments (like the Brandenburg Gate and the Soviet War Memorial), but it was great seeing them all and really soaking in the history of this town.

I found it a bit odd moving from Boston with its focus on the American Revolution to Berlin with its focus on WWII, but Berlin of course has a history that goes back far beyond that. And I really enjoyed how much I got to see by biking around today!

Also: bought a copy of Queendomino because I really wanted to get a German original game while here.

Also, also: had dinner with Blockstream folks, so that I didn't disappear today entirely
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[personal profile] liveonearth
 “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” 

—Frederick Douglass

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[personal profile] shannon_a
My immediate discovery on sitting down in my seat on this United flight is that there's almost no room under the aisle seats. I've had similar troubles on other flights, but usually I can manage to get my backpack under; here's there's just no chance. Go United.

(There's also no leg room, and barely room to walk out in the aisle, but that's a whole other story, and about what I recall of United, though I'd hoped for better on an intercontinental trip.)

My backpack is forced to go in the overhead, which I hate, but I pull out my six necessities: laptop computer, iPad with 10 comic collections on it, novel, hand sanitizer, funky airplane pillow, and water bottle. I enumerate them several times over the course of the flight so that I won't forget anything when I get off.

Our plane leaves SFO about 30 minutes late. As far as I can tell, we spent the whole time taxiing. Honestly, not bad for my least favorite airport in the area. We're told we should still get in on time.

Shockingly, United is serving three different complementary meals: dinner, midnight sandwich, and breakfast (it's so intercontinental that they serve French toast). The dinner is BBQ chicken along with some goolash that I think might be potato and spinach but I'm not sure. It's surprisingly tasty, but about two-thirds of the way through the meal, other things interrupt it. I'll regret eating it anyway, down the road.

The interruption? That's when the lady at the window starts vomiting. Fortunately, she gets to a bag in time. She'd earlier spoken about not flying much, so I make the same assumption the flight crew does, which is motion sickness. But she says she was just getting over a "stomach flu". Two of my favorite words in the English, especially while trapped on a plane. (It's probably just one word in German; yep, Google says "Magengrippe".)

She heads off to the bathroom, and my seatmate in the middle suggests we should all switch over and give her the aisle. I hate doing so, but she's of course 100% right, so we arrange that when she returns. We have to juggle food trays to do so, but none of us are eating any more at this point.

Here's why I absolutely hate red-eyes: I have a lot of problems sleeping on planes. So, a night spent in the air, which some people might find a nirvana where they can go asleep and awake at their destination is for me a hellish purgatory. I read and write until 10 or so. But I've been heading toward a 9pm bedtime in the last week, which means that I'm getting groggy. Thus begins a bit more than two hours of me putting away my computer or iPad, grabbing my head pillow, trying to sleep, and giving up.

Finally, a bit after midnight, the miraculous occurs. I sleep.

I manage about two hours of not-bad sleep, but then I'm woken. I don't realize why at first, because I'm sufficiently uncomfortable after seven hours of sitting in an airplane seat that I generally feel ill at ease. But I eventually figure out that some food is disagreeing with me. I blame the goolash, which I increasingly think of as having as a gross texture, which may or may not have been true at the time.

Waking up feeling sick? Bad. Waking up feeling sick on a plane? Priceless. Waking up feeling sick on a plane while trapped in the middle seat after giving up your aisle seat for someone who was feeling sick earlier in the flight? Yep.

The previously sickly lady in my aisle seat also sleeps like the dead. It's quite an effort to wake her the couple of times I get up and come back. She also wakes up with a shock every time. We eventually trade seats so I get my aisle back and she can sleep in peace.

All I can say is that at least I got sick while most of the plane was asleep, rather than when the long lines queued up at the lavatories around breakfast time.

When I'm feeling my worst, we seem to be crawling past Iceland. But time speeds up afterward, as I read through another comic and get back to some writing. Soon the maps are showing us over Frankfurt, albeit with 33 minutes of flight time (flugzeit!) left.

My seatmates and I have to juggle lots of stuff as we get off due to the seating hijinks. Meanwhile, the plane offloads amazingly fast.

A Lufthansa woman with a clipboard stands outside the plane, saying "Connections …" I vaguely recall this happening in the US in the '80s, when US carriers still cared about their customers. I tell her my flight and she tells me gate A19 and points me in exactly the wrong direction. I stare at the signs for a bit and figure it out despite my increasingly punchy state.

The reason for clipboard woman soon becomes obvious, because there are no departure boards this side of passport control, and obviously plenty of opportunity to go in the wrong direction!

Passport control takes three minutes, tops. There are about that many people in each line, and the curt passport officer asks them each, "Where are you going?", "Reason for trip", and "length of stay". I'm sufficiently sleep deprived that I actually can't do the math for the length of my stay.

Funny story. A few days before the trip I got confused and thought I was transferring in Hamburg, but it was Frankfurt instead. Easy mistake to make.

Anyhow, after that I looked at maps and discussions of Frankfurt, and people generally said it was a labyrinthine maze. Which is kind of redundant. But concourse "A" isn't at all. It was big. I picked up a couple of miles when I walked its length and back. But it's just a big V. So, it was easy to find Gate 19. Though I was grossly early at this point.

When I wandered around, I looked for food, deciding that I was ready to dare that dangerous substance again. Strangely, ever single food stall seemed to mostly have sandwiches. Tasty looking sandwiches. Strangely, they didn't seem to have grossly inflated airport prices either.

One other thing struck me unusual about the Frankfurt airport: it was quiet! You'd hear the very occasional announcements for the gate you were right next to, and the even more occasional announcement of gate changes, but that was it. No "don't leave your bags unattended" or other TSA-style scare tactics. No hearing every announcement for your entire concourse. It was actually … pleasant.

Part of the quiet in the terminal is apparently due to a lack of gate pestering. Thirty minutes before our flight to Berlin is to take off, everyone suddenly gets up with no prompting and starts queueing up in front of the entries. Some gate agent comes up and does something, and then everyone starts filing through.

These are fully automated machines at the entries, I should note: you scan your boarding pass, and the gates open. Another example of TSA-like FUD not being tolerated here.

I only hear one quiet announcement, saying that our flight is boarding.

(You'll note a lack of 1%ers getting early entry too.)

This flight is on a real Lufthansa plane, and the difference is obvious. The United flight was 10+ hours of tightly cramped agony. There wasn't enough room in the aisles or especially in the seats. I keep being afraid I'm going to hurt my knee from the obnoxious angle I keep it at.

Usually I expect puddle-jumpers to be worse than the big planes, but this little plane going from Frankfurt to Berlin has spacious seats. It's a whole 'nother world.

Another bit of German efficiency: they hand us our snacks as we board, rather than trying to do the speed-food-service that always cracks me up on the similarly short flight from Honolulu to Lihue.

(I hope, hope, hope that this means that when I fly a real Swiss Air plane back on Saturday it'll be more comfortable, but at the least it won't be a red-eye.)

At the airport in Berlin, as we wait for our luggage, we're told not to leave our bags unattended. Ah well.

The bus trip to the Hotel de Rome was simple and cheap.

Arriving there I found the plaza in front of the Hotel filled with thronging crowds looking in awe at digital images being projected on all the buildings around, including the opera house, a cathedral, a library, and the hotel. Saying they're light projections, however, just doesn't tell the story. They're absolutely amazing images that complement the buildings and sometimes are even animated as well.

Inside I check-in and am puzzled for several minutes by how to get my own lights on. It turns out that you have to plug your card key into the card key socket in your room to make everything work. Wacky. It's apparently the European way.

Afterward I wander down to the terrace lounge where I hang out with some Blockstreamers for a while, then Chris grabs me and a few of us take a tour of other light shows on nearby building. The most amazing is the Berlin Cathedral Church, over on Museum Island, which has a dozen or so shows by different artists. We see the last several.

Finally, we get apple streusels because it's Germany, and then I call it a night, while some others dive back into the Blockstream burly.
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[personal profile] shannon_a
T-14, 5am.

I wake. The general consensus is that you're jetlagged going east for a number of days equal to two-thirds of the time zones you traverse. I'm moving from GMT-8 to GMT+1, which would be six days of Jetlag, which isn't great when I expect to be in Germany seven nights. So, to help with that, I've been keeping East Coast time since I got back from Boston, which at least puts me to GMT-5. Four days? That just takes me to the last day of the Blockstream offsite. So it goes.

I look at my flight. I've been somewhat worried since the smoke has been causing massive delays at SFO. They're basically running like it's a rainy day, and shockingly SFO can't deal with a rainy day. Fortunately, international flights are the least likely to be effected, apparently because the FAA can't tell them not to take off, which is what they do to US planes headed to SFO on rainy days. Anywho, I look and I see my matching flight from last night was delayed 43 minutes. Oddly enough my plane coming in from Heathrow this morning is also delayed 43 minutes. Wacky.

What are the odds of that?

T-13, 6am.

When I got up, the 4am AQI (Air Quality Index) map said that the whole East Bay was in the USG range of 101-150. The news reports had suggested that we were going to have nasty air quality from late Friday morning to Saturday afternoon, so I'm momentarily hopeful that I can hike when the sun comes up. However, by the time the 5am AQI map comes up, it's reporting 170, which is in the unhealthy range.

So I shower instead.

T-11, 8am.

K. awakes and when she eats breakfast, I finish reading Heir of Sea & Fire to her, the second book in McKillip's Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy. I read the books originally in the '80s, and I've found them somewhat challenging to read aloud, because they're excessively picaresque and somewhat wordy and very reluctant to say what is happening. The first book redeemed itself with some great world-building, but both K. and I have been dissatisfied with the second. There's a great, strong female protagonist, but her agency is almost entirely destroyed, first by pointless wandering, then by acting as an emotional crutch to the "real" (male) protagonist, then by falling victim to his manipulations. We finish it up, and the last two chapters, which we read on Thursday and today, were actually pretty good. I put it away and toss the third book on the suitcase, because I have read to Kimberly over Skype before, but I actually don't expect to when we're in-between books, especially not with the 9-hour time difference.

It'll be challenging enough just talking to her.

T-9, 10am.

I finish packing. The clothes were all done Thursday night, but now that I'm finished with using my backpack for other stuff, I can fill it in too, with medicine, books, too darned many charging cords, electronic devices, munchies, and all the rest.

I'm also filling in a few gaps in my suitcase, and at some point I realize I should just throw my bike helmet in, because I'm seriously considering renting a bike in Berlin for my free Monday. (I've learned about a Berlin Wall trail, and lots of other interesting stuff.) It seems a little silly to drag a bike helmet a third of the way around the world, but I've got space in my suitcase, so why not?

T-8, 11am.

AQI is down to 120, in the USG range. SFO is largely running on time. My flight is still listed as on time, though the plane is coming into SFO 18 minutes late.

At some point I realized that even though I made reservations with Lufthansa, it's actually a United-operated flight. I hate United with a fiery vengeance, but it was tough making reservations through the corporate system that met my needs, so United it is. I hope Lufthansa doesn't let them beat passengers, as they like to, because there's no way I'm giving up my seat.

T-7, noon.

I wonder what I'm going to do with the next three hours, and K. suggests I go for a walk, as I'll be trapped on a plane for the next 24 hours or so (minus nine time zones). The AQI is all the way down to 44, in the Good range.

It's the nicest it's been outside since I've gotten back from Boston, warm, with breathable air. You can really learn to take the latter for granted.

I deposit a check and pick up a package.

And hey, the clean air means that SFO has stopped doing their catastrophic rainy-day scheduling.

T-5, 2pm.

I decide to try and prepare one more history for writing on the (long) plane flight, and I do that for a little bit, but then I end up talking to K. most of the time until I leave.

And playing with cats.

T-3, 4pm.

I've decided to BART in, perhaps for the last time ever, because I'm now sick of their unreliability. I'm standing on the platform at MacArthur where there's supposed to be a timed transfer. There isn't. Ten minutes later a train comes by, stops at the platform, then heads off without ever opening its doors.

It's like a ghost train.

Part of the problem is that BART doesn't run trains to the end of all of its lines since its been expanding them, so only half the San Francisco trains go all the way to SFO. There's supposed to be another SFO train in another 10 minutes, but I decide to jump on the train that goes to Daly City. Best case, the alleged SFO train actually arrives and opens its doors. Worst case, I take a Lyft from Daly City to SFO.

(The next train does indeed show up, meaning that I only lost 20 minutes due to BART's increasing unreliability.)

T-2, 5pm.

Stupid United has very quick check-in. They get me my missing Lufthansa seat, check my passport, check me in, and take my baggage in less than 10 minutes.

TSA is less efficient (again) due to an asshole TSA employee at SFO (again). I'm starting to think that they hire based on that characteristic at that airport.

After I opt out (of course), the agent half-heartedly asks for a male opt-out agent as part of another request he's making, which is a good way to make sure it gets lost. It does. And he doesn't ever bother following up. 15 or 20 minutes later an actual nice TSA agent comes up, asks if I've been waiting for an opt-out, and then starts profusely apologizing because he's passed by me several times. He says, "Why didn't he call for an opt-out!?" I wonder that too.

We get along great and he's my best friend for 5 minutes or so.

T-1, 6pm.

The plan was to get to the airport two hours and fifteen minutes early. I get to the gate 15 minutes before they start boarding.

Looks like we're on time at least.

Within 10 minutes, all the jerks are lined up to the get on the plane, well ahead of their zone being called. Because they're too important for rules.

Next step. Germany. Or at least an airline seat for 10 or 11 hours.

In Which I Live in a Haze

Oct. 12th, 2017 07:15 am
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[personal profile] shannon_a
It's been 27 years since the Oakland Firestorm ripped through the East Bay Hills. 27 years minus exactly one week, which is to say it was this time of year. The Diablo Winds were whipping, the brush was dry as straw after a long, hot summer. The conditions were perfect for a disastrous fire, are always perfect for a disastrous fire this time of year in Northern California.

Twenty-seven years later, I can still see the scars of that Firestorm on the land. I mean they're not explicit. There's one memorial that I know of, up above Lake Temescal, but it's small and not well-loved. And the greenery, that all grew back. In fact, the first time I ever went up to Lake Temescal, admittedly more than a decade after the Firestorm, I was shocked to see that there was no indication that anything ever had burned.

But the problem is that the buildings grew back too, the over 3,000 houses and apartments that burned in the Firestorm. And they grew back larger and more invasively lying upon the ridgeline. For those families the nicer residences were probably just the slightest bit of repayment for what they lost, but it changed the character of the East Bay Hills forever.

I'm sure those aren't the only scars. There were 25 dead. I'm sure that many abandoned their beloved homesteads forever.

Fire is by its very nature transformative. Suddenly, harshly so.

I was on the highway when the Firestorm hit. Heading down 880 to Fremont with a friend, a trip that was all but unknown in those college days. I was helping Bill shop for a new computer or an accessory or something at Fry's Electronics, I don't remember what exactly. But as we drove south we saw the black smoke billowing out across the highway from the hills. I think we turned on the radio and heard about the fire, but we weren't concerned enough to turn back. I think we made it to Fremont and did whatever arcane computer purchase we were planning. You know, like buy an i486 computer or a 28.8k modem.

By the time we got back there were evacuations going on, and Bill was living in married student housing, just north of Clark Kerr. I thought of them as way up a huge hill at the time, but now I pass by them whenever I do one of my walks above Clark Kerr. Of course the apartments are abandoned now, in some process of being torn down. (Bill tells me that he lived in two different apartments up there, and when he was moved out of one, it was abandoned, and he later went back to that empty first apartment and saw mushrooms growing up out of his living room rug, so apparently this emptying of those buildings has been an ongoing process for a while.) Anyway, the point is they were in the hills, a fair amount north of where the fire got to, but close enough for the fire department to be concerned.

I put Bill and family up in my little one-room apartment, giving them the mattress off my bed to sleep on. It was totally inadequate, but it was a sucky day, and at least it gave them somewhere to rest their heads until they figured out what to do the next day. Did they go home or onto a shelter? I dunno, that's the edge of memory.

Heck, this is all the edge of my memory. I'm not really certain we made it down to Fremont. I'm not even certain that I haven't conflated two different friends. That's why asking people for their memories of things two or three decades gone by is tough. I do it all the time for Designers & Dragons, but when I get curious or conflicting answers, I do my best to remember how troublesome memories can be.

I mention this all because it's my only real touchstone for the North Bay fires that are ravaging Napa and nearby regions right now. And, as far as I can tell, it's a small inadequate touchstone. This time, we're losing hundreds of thousands of acres. Thankfully things are more spread out up there than in Montclair, Piedmont, and Forest Hills, here in the East Bay, but the loss in structures and lives is already comparable, and will certainly grow by the time it's all said and done.

So, I'm certainly aware of the horror north of us, the human suffering, and the ongoing uncertainty.

But I can also only truly understand what I'm seeing here, in the East Bay.

Smoke. That's what I see and smell.

It was with me Sunday morning when I woke, permeating the whole house (thanks to the windows we haven't yet replaced, and apparently never will). It made my eyes water and my throat scratchy.

The next few days weren't as bad. I even opted to go out for a hike Wednesday morning as the sun rose, and I couldn't smell any smoke in the air.

But then Wednesday afternoon was the worst. A cover of haze lay heavy upon Berkeley. The sun glimmered through like a warped orange spotlight. Everything took on tangerine tones. I decided to go grab a sandwich, because I didn't have quite enough lunchmeet to last the week, and to get some necessities from the drug store, notably including melatonin ... and I regretted going out. I mean, I was keeping to a slow pace to not breathe the gunk in the air in too much, and when you're thinking about that type of thing, you don't want to be out.

This morning I woke, and the first thing I smelled again was smoke. No hike today.

At least the sky looks better now that the sun's out. Maybe I can get some last hill-time in at dawn on Friday and Saturday.

The haze hasn't all been physical, but metaphorical too. Since Sunday night, when I headed off to bed about 24 hours after arriving back in the Bay Area, I've been feeling like I have too little time. The week is rushing by, and it's constantly felt like I'm leaving for Berlin almost immediately after returning from Boston.

This isn't helped by my keeping an early, east-coast schedule, to make the transition to Berlin time easier. (We'll see about that!) Bed at 9 or 10 makes me feel like there's no evening, and being up at 5 or 6 doesn't replace that lost time.

So the days rush by in a haze.

Work? That's not too bad. I cleared so much off my plate before Boston that I don't feel as rushed. Which isn't to say that I don't have plenty to do. The Rebooting the Web of Trust papers are coming in faster than ever before, and so I'm triaging the first ones before I leave. We've also got a real crisis coming up at Skotos, with one of our major game clients going dead in five weeks due to Netscape rewriting their whole Add-On system for their November 14 release, and I'm stressed about that replacement getting out in time. When I'm back from Berlin I'll have just three weeks and change left, and I'll need to go all out to make sure that occurs.

Home? That's a crisis of a different type. K. found out that she'd hurt her foot badly just before I left for Boston, and so was given a boot to wear. This week, she was told it's not really healing and she needs to pretty much totally stay off it. Which kinda sucks when she's going to be home alone for the next week.

So, much like before-Boston, I'm trying to make sure the house is stocked up with what she needs. Yesterday we tag-teamed laundry, with her doing the stuff that could be done sitting (like sorting and folding) and my doing the stuff requiring standing (like putting things into the machines and into the drawers). It worked well. But there's still prep to be done.

So, a little bit of a haze there too.

I am looking forward to Germany. Visiting Berlin is quite possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity and working with Blockstream for three days of off-site should help to keep me efficient and knowledgeable about the tech-writing I'll be doing for them in the next year. And I'll be seeing and interacting with a lot of people I like. It should all be great. After the grueling 11-hour plane trip.

But I'm also looking forward to getting home afterward (after a grueling 12-hour plane trip), to ending my October wanderings and returning to a regular sleep schedule and a regular gaming schedule and a regular time with my honey (and my cats) schedule.

And hopefully I'll be returning to a California that's not burning down.
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[personal profile] shannon_a
Back in Berkeley on Sunday Morning, I had no lunch food, so I went out to grab Taco Bell for lunch for Kimberly and myself.

A half-a-block away from our house, I discovered that two drugged-out looking vagrants have started an encampment on the sidewalk. Which is no longer accessible for walking. They were still sleeping at 11am, probably due to the aforementioned drugged-up-ed-ness. They'd also spread a bewildering array of trash all about themselves, like a garbage can had exploded. One of them seemed to have shredded a mattress and spread the stuffing in a rough circle around him. The whole area stank of urine, suggesting that they'd been set up there for a few days. It was one of two times that I was almost overcome by the smell of urine in my 20 or 30 minute walk to Durant and back.

There's a point to this. Now that I'm safely(?) ensconced back at home, I'm reflecting over my trip to Boston, and what I think about it as a whole.

Really, I should say my trip to Cambridge, because that's the area that I really came to know, from Kendall Square and MIT to Central Square and IDEO to Harvard Square and Harvard to Davis Square and Doug's house to Alewife and the walk to my apartment.

And my conclusion is that Cambridge is very much a twin to Berkeley. It's an urban area with a heavy collegiate presence.

Except that Berkeley is the evil twin.

I mean, I've gotten a lot of enjoyment out of living in Berkeley for the last 25 years. But Kimberly & I have also decided to move because it no longer suits us: in part because we've changed, in part because the world has changed, and in part because Berkeley has changed — and for the worst.

And, I'm certain there are things in Cambridge that would bother me too, if I spent more time there. In particular I suspect there's more privileged affluence there, though we see it here in our Hill-Dwellers and other NIMBYs. (Perhaps that should be my next book: Hill-Dwellers & Other NIMBYs: The Faux Progressives of Berkeley.)

But comparing them head-to-head on the first week of October in 2017, they had a lot of characteristics in common, but Cambridge seemed not just a nice place to visit, but somewhere you might want to live*.

* I am quite certain that there is climate there that I would find quite intolerable, but our week of October was wonderfully temperate, with it being in the 60s and 70s just about every time I stepped out of doors, from early morning to late night. I rarely needed a jacket or overshirt, but I also was never particularly hot.


Cambridge did have homeless, but not in nearly the same numbers as Berkeley, nor were they as aggressive, as privileged, or as threatening.

Cambridge did have students, but they were quiet, respectable, and studious, while still seeming like young adults who were enjoying themselves.

Cambridge had book stores every block or two along the main strip, while we're down to just one on Telegraph (and a few more on Shattuck).

Cambridge felt safe at any time of night, and the students all acted like it was safe. (NeighborhoodScout says that our violent crime rate is about 2x theirs, but I suspect that comparing South Side Berkeley to Harvard would paint an even different picture.)

It was enlightening to see an urban college town that was so very different from what we've come to expect of twenty-five years in Berkeley.

I did see the wider Boston area on Monday, Friday, and early Saturday, including Charlestown, downtown, and Back Bay. It all struck me as a practical, vibrant, and safe community.

Charlestown felt like a small-town-in-a-big-city, a place where you could still have community

Downtown had the hucksterism of San Francisco, with everyone trying to prey on tourists with their American Revolution cosplay, their InkJet-printed guides, and their offer of tours. But it didn't have as much of a carnival atmosphere. Then, you got over to Boston Common and the Boston Gardens and there was more of a sense of an actively used city.

Back Bay was hard to figure out, but it seemed more big-city-like than other parts of Boston, slightly more run-down, definitely filled with more vehicular traffic.

I already wrote about the traffic of Boston, which was horrible just about everywhere I was. In some places, there were humongous roadways set aside for the cars, and they flowed well, but were obviously a big vehicular blight upon the land, while in Cambridge the roads were just totally inadequate during rush hour.

The public transit, on the other hand, was great. It ran regularly and though the trains often forced standing, they weren't jammed, and that would usually go away when you escaped the central stops. You can get day, week, or month passes for all the non-commuter rails and buses, which the Bay Area seriously needs. My only particular complaint is that it's a radial system, which means that you have to go into Downtown to get from one line to another (absent use of very irregular commuter rails, or possibly buses). So if you wanted to go the 4.5 miles from Malden to Sommerville, for example, which are along the orange and red lines, you're either unnecessarily ducking under the Charles River twice, or else taking a long bus ride, all of which run 35-45 minutes. As compared to a 15-minute car ride (traffic willing).

And finally, I was surprised by how compact and accessible the city was as a whole. As I wrote when visiting the Museum of Science, what had been a long-ish train ride (to downtown and back) on the first day turned out to be almost as simple as a short train ride and a mile walk. I was particularly surprised by how little of an obstacle the Charles River is. Oh, you might have to walk a few miles to get across it, but there was a constant array of bridges and walkways.

So that was Boston.

I see why former residents are eager to return (and I've known a few).

The one thing I would have liked to do that I didn't? Bike. In Cambridge Heights we were right at the end of a bike path that could have taken me miles and miles to Bedford or Concord.

But there's never enough time.

And, so home again home again.

I was walking wounded when I got home. A huge blister on the bottom of the right foot, a large and painful blister on the heel, and my whole leg was feeling tight or twisted or something from walking wrong on it.

I kept Sunday as low-key as possible, just walking to Taco Bell and biking to the grocery store.

Today I also demurred on my morning hike into the hills.

And, it all seems to be healing. I've got hiking tomorrow morning listed as a ... maybe.

I'm somewhat distressed to find that I've now just got five work days left, then a free Saturday morning and early afternoon, then I'm back on a plane retracing Saturday's long six-hour trip (and going beyond).

July 2017

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