Category Archives: Travels


The butt end of globalization

Dublin has proven to be a very strange place.

Because of the immense golfing event taking place over the weekend, the only accomodation I’ve been able to find was a rather lousy hostel run by a group of Polish people and, apparently, mostly inhabited by young Polish people seeking easy employment in one of the many bars and pubs around central Dublin.

When Poland became part of the European Union, all the Danes were afraid that Denmark would be swamped with cheap Polish labour trying to make a good living. But it seems that with low taxes, cheap Ryanair flights and an immense need for unskilled labour, Ireland is a better bet within the EU for these young Polish guest workers who utilize the globalized possibilities of inexpensive flights, free movement of capital and labour to casually travel from one end of Europe to the other in order to earn and save the money necessary for a better life back in Poland.

Apparently, there are now more than 40.000 registered Poles in Ireland and most likely a lot more, since they no longer have to register with the lax rules within the EU.

But in an even stranger twist of globalization, Dublin is now the Call Centre capital of Europe some claiming as many as 100.000 people employed in the industry in Ireland and specifically around Dublin. When I was fixing my grandparents’ eMac a while back, I called Apple’s support line and was connected to a young Danish speaking Irish man in Dublin. Very weird. He had learned Danish while working in an Irish pub in Copenhagen. Very globalized.

The call centre industry is huge, and it is the sort of business where saving money on training and employee job security seems to be the order of the day. It is a very nasty piece of work, but people seem to be willing to put up with it for the immediate benefits they can get.

Oh, and one last thing why Dublin is a strange place: The Irish prefer their beer less carbonated than beer elsewhere. They can even take perfectly good lager and make it less refreshing and interesting by not adding enough gas. It’s as if all beer has to be like Guinness in that regard.

Konference for Developers in ?ire

I have arrived safely in Dublin’s fair city, and have found it harder than expected to find decent lodgings, due to the huge crowds drawn to some sporting event taking place outside of town. But I’ve found a modest hostel dorm bed, and are now waiting for the registration to begin for the aKademy conference – the annual gathering of developers, designers and other contributors working on the K Desktop Environment.

KDE was the first open source desktop environment, hoping to contain a complete desktop use experience with web surfing, email, word processing and more. Announced in 1996, the name is a typically hackish joke on the then popular proprietary Unix desktop environment named CDE (the Common Desktop Environment).

KDE is based on the Qt toolkit which at first was not entirely free software which caused a fair few flamewars, and eventually the creation of the rival GNOME project in 1997. Since then Trolltech, the Norwegian company behind the toolkit, has made their work available under a fully acceptable Free Software license, and that issue has ceased to be a concern, and instead the main issue is ensuring peaceful collaboration and co-existence between the two development communities – something that can be more difficult than you might expect.

Not only are there deep differences in the way the two communities approach the basic aspects of the development having chosen differing programming languages for the basic architecture and differing design philosophies for the user configurations. But even simple considerations on the look and feel of the desktop itself can easily reach almost religious levels.

Currently, KDE development is focusing on the release of the KDE4 which seeks to refine KDE even further based on the experiences of the past years Open Source desktop work – not only with regards to technical infrastructure but also with regards to graphical design, look and feel and usability.

I’ll be here in Dublin for the conference, hoping to learn more about the role of Kubuntu, the KDE version of Ubuntu, within the KDE community, and how the relationship between the distribution and the upstream developers is working. Oh, and maybe drink a few pints of Guinness, as well.


From the Nazi rallying grounds in Nürnberg:


From the “Street of Human Rights” outside of the Germanic Museum, also in Nürnberg:

A tree rather than a column:

(Meant to signify all the world’s language that couldn’t be represented on the columns)

What the former nazi rally grounds look like today:

it's a circus! I love a circus!

(more comparisons of then and now here. It’s interesting to see, because the nazis specifically built things with intent that they should be majestic ruins in a thousand year’s time)

Overheard in a Nürnberg hostel dorm

(07.06 Sunday morning. The first rays of grey morning light find their way through the curtains in a 12-man dormitory room. The door opens. In comes a young man, wobbily walking to the far end of the room where a bunk bed is located. He bends over the lower bunk and speaks in a tired, drunken slur.)

Boy: “Hey, Jersey. Sorry I left you. I spent an hour looking for you, but these people just dragged from one club to another and … Jersey?
Girl: “Mhmm?”
Boy: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t find you. I’ve been out drinking until now.”
Boy: “I met this girl named Michelle, she’s really nice. I’m going to try and see if she’ll let me sleep at her place. I’ll come back here tomorrow at 3 at the latest.
Girl: “Mm.”
Boy: “You’ll wait for me, won’t you?”
Girl: “…”
Boy: “Alright, see you. Thanks, Jersey!”

(He quickly walks out the room, uncarefully slamming the door as he leaves.)

(07.34 – the door is opened carefully a second time. Again footsteps can be heard across the room.)

Boy: “Jersey? … Jersey? I’m sorry, I’ve been out drinking until now. I tried to find you and all – I spent an hour and a half looking for you, but it’s like were just gone.”
Girl: “Mhm..”
Boy: “I’m sorry, they just dragged me from club to club… It was pretty great.”
Girl: “…”
Boy: “I met this German girl named Michelle, she was only 18, but she looked like 20.”
Girl: “Mhmm.”
Boy: “Yeah, I know. But she was really nice and… Oh! I’ll be right back – I got to fart.”

(walks out of the room, closes the door. The sound of a loud fart can clearly be heard from the hallway. Door opens, the young man comes back in, clambers into his top bunk)

Boy: “Jersey, you’ll wake me tomorrow, won’t you? Just wake me up when you get up, okay?”
Girl: “Mhmm.”

(Boy snores)

The army boys

I spent last Saturday night hanging out at a local hostel in Munich, drinking a few beers with random people. I talked a bit a group of three American guys who, as it happened, were soldiers on leave from the American army base in Schweinfurt. Though they were on leave, they had violated the rules by having travelled to Munich – more than 2 hours away from their base just days before deployment.

As they explained to me, they were off to Kuwait in one week and then off to Iraq a week later, so these were the last few days in Europe, and definitely their last chance to drink beer and travel around more or less freely. So they were making the most of it before they would be spending a year patrolling the streets of Baghdad.

The three were a motley crew: A jew, an arab and a roman-catholic. They were quite conscious about this and made a point of it: “What other army in the world would you find people with such different backgrounds?”

The jew was 23, and had bounced from job to job and ended up signing up last year. The arab was also 23, and had a university degree in Political Science which, he as he put it, “was all about bullshitting people”. He didn’t want to discuss the reasons for going to Iraq, but had signed up a few years earlier. The roman-catholic was 19, and had duct tape on his glasses and wore a strangely misshapen hat much like some sort of streetwise gangster. He enjoyed being out on the town and seemed quite cheerful whereas the other two were more tense.

While making the most of the 2-euro-draught-beer happy hour, they showed me pictures of what they’d seen around Germany and explained how joining the army probably was their best chance of ever seeing Europe. So I asked them why they’d joined and the jew answered: “Fuck if I know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” But he still smiled.

Soon, they disappeared off into the Bavarian night for their last night out.

Between Dachau and München

I write this in a youth hostel in Munich. I’ve just come back from a Munich suburb where I have spent two days with Sebastian, a German Ubuntu developer, talking about computers, the Ubuntu community, interaction design and much, much more.

Sebastian lives along the railway line between Munich and Dachau, the village now mostly known for being the home of the first Nazi concentration camp and the model which all of the other camps followed. Yesterday, we went to see the memorial site and the museum, and it is the kind of place that really affects you.

The concentration camp was opened on the very day that Hitler and the Nazi party took over the govermental authority of Bavaria, and it was quickly expanded to house more than 6.000 prisoners. Most of these were political prisoners such as Communists and trade unionists, but up through the 30s the nazis also incarcerated religious deviants such as Jehova’s witnesses, racial deviants such as jews and gypsies, sexual deviants such as homosexuals and social deviants such as the homeless or habitual criminals.

One of the prominent prisoners in Dachau was the protestant priest Martin Niemöller who was a supporter of the nazis in the early 30s but changed his stance and was promptly persecuted for it. His conclusion of the oppression that existed in Germany in the 30s is one of the most famous ever said of totalitarian regimes:

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Walking through the Dachau museum, all of these atrocities are spelled out, pictured and expounded to leave no doubt about the way these things work. Sebastian told me that German children have extensive lessons exploring this history and the circumstances that brought them about.

He also mentioned how soon-to-be parents often drive to Munich to give birth to avoid having that dreaded name Dachau appear on both birth certificate and passports. But despite of this consciousness, people live there and focus on the good things. Though the old camp is located a long the main road into the old town of Dachau, it is well hidden by sports facilities, drive-in fast food places and supermarkets.

The strangeness of growing up in a place so closely associated with an often-repressed past is to some degree central to the German national identity. I see that there’s even a film about it.

Central Munich on the other hand has been washed completely clean of anything reminding people of the cruel past. Even though huge sections of the city were completely bombed out by the end of the war, the Muncheners have rebuilt all of it faithfully. It is hard to see that only a few of the central historical buildings in Munich are less than 60 years old.

The Odeonsplatz in central Munich was where Hitler’s 1923 coup was foiled. Hitler survived only because his bodyguard threw himself on top of him, taking 11 bullets from the 100 police officers barricaded by the square. When Hitler came into power in 1933, he erected a memorial on that site to honour the memory of the 15 nazis who died there that day. He also made it law that people passing by the memorial should salute it with the Hitler salute. There were police officers posted by the memorial at all times to enforce this.

Putsch memorial
The memorial then.

same site today
The site of the memorial today.
(more pictures can be found here.)

Non-nazis often tried to avoid this by walking through the nearby alley Viscardigasse that took them to the other side of the Odeonsplatz, bypassing the memorial. To discourage this, there were plainsclothes police officers posted to note if some people took this shortcut too often and question or threaten them as they felt necessary.

Today, the Coup memorial is gone, there is just a small plaque in the ground near the site commemorating the 4 police officers who died then. In the nearby alley, there is no plaque – but there is a swayed line of yellow bricks in the pavement to commemorate the people who quietly disagreed with the Nazi line. If you look at it, you would never know that it signifies anything special. That seems to be the state of things in Munich where they are happy to delegate that sort of memories to Dachau.

Sprinting the development

Late yesterday evening I arrived in Wiesbaden near Frankfurt am Main for the Ubuntu Developers’ Sprint. The sprint started this morning, and it is the big halfway point of the Edgy Eft release cycle. All of the Canonical-employed Ubuntu developers are gathered to recalibrate their efforts and coordinate the specifications that were approved in Paris.

The feature freeze deadline – the date when development work on new features stops in order to leave time to fix the bugs that necessarily appear – is September 7th, and is thus fast approaching. And as Canonical Chief Technical Officer, Matt Zimmerman, puts it, this is “The Reckoning. It’s time to make a decision on goals which are behind on progress, and drop goals which aren’t going to make the feature freeze deadline.”

Even though people are hard at work, the atmosphere is still rather relaxed. “Sprint” is the key word here as it is all about getting people together to have them energized and synergized for run-in of the release cycle. Getting people together for quality face time and fast-paced work is an essential part of how Ubuntu is developed.

After the sprint, I’ll be going around Germany, visiting Ubuntu developers to interview them and get a better idea of how they work in a more everyday setting. To that end, I have invested in a 3-week interrail ticket so that I can go around visiting people without having to worry too much about travel expenses. It’ll be fun!

Back from the field

I arrived back in Copenhagen late last night on delayed flight from Barcelona and the 2006 version of the GUADEC conference. Actually, the conference took place in Vilanova i la Geltrú, 45 km south of Barcelona.

The GUADEC (GNOME Users and Developers European Conference) and GNOME, for the uninitiated is the acronym for “GNU Network Object Model Environment” the full name of which people rarely use anymore. Actually, GNOME is a Free Software Desktop Environment – which means that it is a wide collection of different elements that seek to make the user experience of the computer as smooth as possible. Just like the Linux kernel or the X-Window system, GNOME is an central part of many Linux distributions such as Red Hat, SuSe and, of course, Ubuntu.

It is worth noting that GNOME is not the only Linux desktop environment available. There is also KDE (for the K Desktop Environment – very creative name, yes?) along with many others. For KDE users, there is a now a separate version of Ubuntu awkwardly named Kubuntu which is based on KDE rather than GNOME.

Anyway! Before this all but drowns in strange geeky acronymics (and to be sure, there’s a lot of that going on), I’ll tell you about the actual conference. I went there to get an impression of how one of the older Free Software projects (the GNOME project was begun in 1997) works socially and organizationally compared to Ubuntu.

The conference was a very different event compared to the Ubuntu Developers’ Summit. It is much more of a community-driven event, organized by volunteers and dedicated members of the GNOME community. Sure, there are lots of corporate sponsors and keynotes and workshop discussions, but everything seemed much more relaxed and unhurried. There were no results that had to be reached. No specifications that had to be written. It was just a good, social occasion for people to meet and have fun. It had a unmistakable feel of geek summercamp about it, with people going to the beach, sitting and hacking in good humour, hanging out. There was even a football tournament (“the FreeFA World Cup”), sponsored parties and live music with the GNOME band!

But a more typical image from the conference would be this:

I didn’t actually get to take any pictures at the GUADEC, but luckily almost everybody else did. It seems that almost every geek present had a digital camera, and quite a few had really big expensive ones as well. It seems that photography is popular hobby among geeks. At the time of writing, more than 1700 pictures on Flickr has been tagged GUADEC2006, and just by flicking through a few of them, you’ll get a good idea of the smiley, relaxed atmosphere there.
(also, the two pictures presented here are linked from Flickr).

At the same time, there was an intense amount of posting on the aggregated Planet GNOME blog feed that collects blog posts from lots and lots of GNOME developers. It is definitely another good way to get a feel of the atmosphere at the conference.

Compare to the Ubuntu Summit was called, arranged and sponsored solely by Canonical, the company employing the Ubuntu core developers, with an intense working schedule with workshops from 9 am to 6 pm every day and having to sneak in the social time after that and cut down on sleep instead. Actually, at GUADEC people also cut down on sleep, in a way that left most people absolutely exhausted at the end of the full week of conference.

Oh, and photos from the Ubuntu Summit has been gathered here. Including a very nice group photo. I unintentionally managed to end straight in the middle of the photo. A key to who the rest of the participants are can be found here.

Also, compare the playful banter of the planet GNOME with the more sober tone among the posters at the Planet Ubuntu blog feed. Also, note the small overlap of posts. I especially recommend the Ubuntu Quality Assurance guy (“bug hunter”) Simon Law’s blog posts which does well to capture the duality of the conference: Trying to both do hacking stuff and have time for social interactions and adventures in Paris.

Flying on the cheap

Having tried different budget airlines over the past few weeks, I’m appalled at how tacky they have become. On Ryanair flights, they will blare advertisements over the loudspeakers before take-off, before attempting to sell you all kinds of crap during the flight. On Sterling flights, they not only try to sell you the usual fare of tax-free crap, but also raffle tickets.

Both companies have a strict policy against passengers consuming their own foods and drinks on-board the plane. Instead, we should buy their over-priced foil-wrapped sandwiches and canned beverages.

Added to the usual tourist trap hooks that you stumble across all over both Paris, Barcelona and Vilanova it is easy to get more than usually tired of air travel. Sure it may be cheap, but they sure do their best to make your aware of the fact for just a little extra money, your travel experience could be so much more comfortable..