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Australië livejournal

My winter in Melbourne

My new room and view
My new room and view

Some of you may wonder what I’ve been up to outside my Summer of Code project, so let me just write an update about the last couple of months.

As I wrote before, I arrived in Melbourne on May 12th, spent about a week here and then traveled onwards to Canberra and Brisbane. In early June I got myself an apartment in Preston and about a month later the Internet worked and my life could really start. I spent several 40+ hour work weeks in the public library before that, feeling really sorry for people who did not have a laptop: I called them The 15 Minute People.

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Sydney Skyline
Sydney Skyline

Less than a week after I moved into my new apartment, I traveled to Sydney. My official excuse was to visit the Google Developer Day, but I also did some sightseeing, got myself a free T-shirt at the opening of the new Apple Store and had a great chat with the folks from Lisasoft who work on all sorts of geo web and open source stuff. I stayed at the Chilly Blue Backpackers, where I met some really laid back people. It was a short trip and provided the right backpacking, sightseeing and techy mix for me.

Back in Melbourne I’ve been going to all sorts of interesting events, both for the sake of the events themselves and in order to meet the interesting folks that also visit them. Upcoming.org is very useful for this, as well as techevents.com.au. Of course, even in 2008 urban life is less organized than one would like, so I’ve also mastered the art of paying attention to people who mention other potentially interesting events and I’ve joined several mailinglists.

It seems that I now divide my “social time” over two more or less unrelated “subcultures”. These two subcultures were a lot more intertwined in San Francisco and Seattle by the way. I have a theory why this is the case, but I’ll leave that for the first person who buys me a drink and asks.

First of all there is Couchsurfing, a world wide hospitality network. Even though I have only “surfed” for one week in Melbourne, I just keep on meeting great people and having lots of fun through that network. There is a Melbourne Couchsurfing group and its members regularly organise drinks, excursions and other excuses to get together.

Jumping Crocodile
Jumping Crocodile

My three personal highlights: I spent the weekend with a group at someone’s house in the Mornington Peninsula. We went snowboarding at Mount Buller (all my muscles hurt for weeks, but it was worth it). And during the midwinter night we burned a couch.

It is really remarkable how much technology changes the rules of the “urban social game”. In an era where everyone seems to be afraid of everyone else  and nobody talks to strangers in public, there are these incredible exceptions. With couch surfing, you can take a plane to another continent and stay in the house of a total stranger and you both simply know it is completely safe. Same goes for inviting a bunch of strangers to your house warming party.

How can this be? One reason is probably because most people really aren’t as evil as we all seem to believe. But another reason is that people can leave each other references. So before you decide to stay with somebody, you can read what other people have said about them. And so a situation is created where everyone knows everyone else and everyone keeps an eye on everyone else. Just like in a village. Hence the term “global village” I guess.

The second subculture is a group of tech savvy people with social skills. There is this cultural phenomenon going on here in Melbourne – and in other places all around the world – where one person organizes a meeting around a theme and basically invites the whole world. In practice, only five to twenty like minded people, who may never have met each other before, show up. The result is a great evening and the event is repeated. After a while, a new group comes into being that is not formed through any one company, government or existing circle of friends (although these still play a role): it is self assembled out of the millions of people that live in this city, grouped around a common interest. Pretty cool huh?

Me as a mighty pirate; my sword is just outside the image in case you were wondering. Photo by Lauren.
Me as a mighty pirate; my sword is just outside the image in case you were wondering. Photo by Lauren.

My current favorites are Tequp – a biweekly meeting in a store about anything techy – and Jelly – a day of co-working in a restaurant or office for “freelancers”. I’ve met a lot of nice and interesting people there. Often, these concepts are copied to other cities, by people who may or may not have been to these events before. Maybe I’ll get a Tequp and Jelly up and running in Utrecht by when I get back.

Some other successful examples of that phenomenom are Barcamp (a spontanuous self organized free conference) and the Talk Like a Pirate Day parties all over the world.

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In other news, I just got myself a bicycle two weeks ago.  Australia is not really what you would call a cycle country, but the government seems quite eager to get people to use these wonderful devices. That’s probably because Australia recently passed the USA as the country with the highest obesity rate. Anyway, the result is that there are some wonderful bike lanes. My favorite one is even named after me: the St. George Road bike path is a long straight path, far from the road and lined with palm trees! I love palm trees.

Cycling also turns out to be much faster (and cheaper) than taking the tram – even without any real effort – so I am surprised there are so few people here that use them. But I can come up with a couple of reasons.

First of all, there is this law that people have to wear these ridiculous helmets. Even though people claim that they are used to it and it looks normal to them, I think deep inside people realize that wearing a helmet on a bike is like wearing shorts at a stock exchange. I also seriously doubt it really adds any significant amount of safety and even if it did, there are other measures that would make a much bigger difference, see below.

Kakadu National Park
Kakadu National Park.

The second problem is the lack of dedicated bike lanes. At some point in the past, the government had the brilliant idea to “draw” bike lanes on the road. However, either they were completely incompetent fror the beginning or they had to give in to car owner lobbyists: cars are allowed to park on these bike lines. The result is that you have to swing on and off the bike lane, which is inredibly dangerous as it means you are moving in and out of fast traffic all the time. Also, because cars are parked on the “bike paths” you are in constant danger of being slammed of your bike by an idiot that opens his or her car door at the wrong moment.

Dear government, the solution is dead simple: do not allow cars to park on the main traffic arteries. It is a waste of road space and extremely dangerous for cycles. It is just about as stupid as allowing people to have barbecues in the middle of the road. Anyone who complains that they can not walk an extra fifty meters around the corner should be marooned on a far away island. Oh wait…

But there are some good things too: you can take your bike on the trains (outside rush hours) and you can even get a free bike locker at some of the train stations. This makes allows me to bike down hill to the city and let the train take me back. And there are some truly beautiful bike trails in this green city!

Oh and of course I also took a little train trip from Melbourne to Adelaide and on to Alice Springs and Darwin; about 4000 km. From Darwin I joined a wild excursion to Kakadu National Parks with a company called Kakadu Dreams; they provide some really active tours! It was good to be offline and in the outback (the outback in my definition is anywhere where there is no cheap and abundant Internet access) to relax for a couple of weeks.

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If there was one thing you wish you had known before…

One of the questions in the student evaluation of the Google Summer of Code reads:

If there was one thing you wish you had known before getting started in Summer of Code, what would it be?

It is a very typical evaluation question and we all sortof know what it means and how to answer it. However, if you insist on thinking about it – and this is very acceptable behavior in some circles – it is actually a very difficult question.

I tend to read this question as follows: if you could meet yourself in the past, what would you tell your past self?

Well, I would probably give myself the final git repository, plus an external hard disk with as much of the interesting new information on the present day Internet as possible.

What would my past self do with that information? He would probably decide to use the outcome of a couple of footy matches to make a decent living. But apart from that, he would pick another project. Not because my project is uninteresting, but I really enjoyed that part of the project that I worked on. Continuing to work on this particular code base is really interesting, but not as interesting as it was to build it in the first place.

So my conclusion is: the more advice that I give to my past self, the less intersting his project would become. This is not a real problem however, because the information would provide him with many new opportunities.

I have the same view on Sudoko puzzles. A friend of mine wrote a computer program, while he was drinking beer in the pub, that could solve a lot of these puzzles. Many fanatical puzzlers would never consider using such a program; it would take away the fun.

I completely disagree with them. Now that my friend has releaved the world of The Sudoko Problem, mankind can move on to solving new problems.

I do not understand why people take such pleasure in creating artificial problems and then solving them over and over again, when there is an astonishing abundance of problems already out there waiting to be solved.

Just to make an even bolder statement: anyone who spends even a minute a day solving problems that have already been solved, should feel really guilty about climate change, poverty, diseases, slow public transport and millions and millions of other problems. Well at least, I tend to look at my own behavior from that perspective. All that without losing the ability to enjoy live; that is the real tricky part.