Christmas 2009 in Austin


U.S. passport renewal

A couple of nights ago, I returned to Zürich after a lovely long weekend in Stockholm. After packing my bag and getting ready for my trip to Austin, I went to Delta’s website, and attempted to check in online. Delta refused to let me check in online because the expiration date of my passport was within 90 days. I checked in at the airport the next morning, and my trip to Austin (via Atlanta) went smoothly. Before leaving Zürich though, I made a comment on Twitter.

Yesterday, the comment drew some replies on Facebook (to which my tweets are automatically copied). A friend explained that Delta was just making sure that people didn’t leave the U.S. without having a valid passport for their return. The website, he said, must not have made a distinction between those traveling from the ’States and those traveling to the ’States. Later, another friend warned me that I might have trouble when I return to Switzerland at the end of the month.

My U.S. passport expires in February, so my original plan was simply to return home to Zürich and apply for a passport via the U.S. embassy in Bern. However, my friend explained that U.S. citizens traveling abroad are often required to have a passport valid for a period of time beyond their stay abroad. The U.S. State Department’s page for Switzerland states that for travelers to Switzerland, “the passport should be valid for at least three months beyond the period of stay.” Some folks are turned away at the airport, my friend told me. Others are refused entry into their destination country once they arrive. Yikes!

I then thought I would just renew my passport while in the U.S. However, the normal renewal by mail takes four to six weeks, and I’m going back to Switzerland at the end of the month. To obtain quicker service, one must pay an extra sixty dollars over the standard renewal fee of seventy-five dollars, and one must submit the form in person at a passport office. The nearest passport office is in Houston, and I didn’t really want to take time away from family and friends just to drive down to Houston for a day.

My friend suggested ABC Passport Express, a company here in Austin that assists with passport applications and renewals. For an additional $195 over the $135 charged by the State Department, ABC Passport will drive down to Houston, submit the paperwork, and return with the new passport. That would mean $330 just to renew my passport a bit quicker. I wondered if there were another way.

I called the State Department and asked if there were any rules that would prevent me from boarding a flight to Switzerland if my U.S. passport were to expire within 90 days. There are no such rules, I was told. I contacted Delta and asked them the same thing. I was told that they didn’t have any policy on the matter, and simply followed the advice of the Travel Security Administration. I then contacted the TSA and asked them the same thing. Once again, I was told that as long as my passport was valid, I would be allowed to travel.

Still, the entry & exit requirements on the State Department’s page caused me a bit of concern. But then I realized: this page states what Switzerland requires of visitors, not what the U.S. requires of departing travelers. My Swedish passport and Swiss residence permit are valid several more years; and because I’ll enter Switzerland using my Swedish passport, I should not have any problems at the border.

Being a dual citizen and a frequent international traveler is at times a bit challenging!


Turkey surprise

Turkey surprise, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

This evening I went to the gym after work. It’s in Oberrieden, a ways South down the lake, maybe 10 minutes by train from Rüschlikon. I walked down the hill from IBM to the train station, and had just enough time to run into the Coop and grab a few things before catching the train to Horgen, whence I walked back North to Oberrieden. The contents of my shopping bag included a small wheat roll, a carton of chocolate milk, and some granola bars—enough sustenance to see me through my workout.

The spinning (stationary bicycling) class was strenuous and fun. I relaxed a bit in the sauna afterward, and chatted with some of my fellows. One of them, a lawyer I often chat with in the spa, gave me a lift back around the lake. He lives not too far from my home, and has kindly offered me a ride on several occasions.

When I walked in the door I was just famished. I looked in the fridge and saw plenty of food; only nothing seemed to go together. I would have to be creative.

I had a packet of sliced turkey that was about to expire, so I knew I had to do something with that. I also had fresh (well, two-day-old) mushrooms that had to be eaten or thrown out. In addition, I had some left-over red capsicum (bell pepper). I decided to make a pasta with all of the above as a sauce.

I sautéed the mushrooms in plenty of butter and a bit of salt. I then removed the mushrooms and sautéed the capsicum in the now-mushroom-flavored melted butter. I added the turkey, cooked it for a bit, added some crushed black pepper, and poured the mix over freshly cooked pasta. I topped it off with the sautéed mushrooms.

It was sooooo good. I can’t believe I just threw this together at the last minute. I must refer back to this post in the future, and try to recreate this dish!


Polyball 2009

DSCN4446, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

A year ago I went to the Polyball for the first time. I didn’t know many people here in Zürich at the time, so I went alone. I quickly found the salsa dance floor and started dancing with an energetic girl named Elisa. She and I danced many dances together and exchanged numbers before the end of the evening. We’ve kept in touch in the past year, but hadn’t managed to go dancing again because she lives in Ticino and is in Zürich only occasionally.

This year I went to the ball with Lilian and Daniela, two lovely women I met at Linea Salsa almost exactly a year ago, one week after last year’s Polyball. As last year, I gravitated toward the Latin music. I danced a couple of dances with Lilian and Daniela. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw someone waving to me. As luck would have it, Elisa—the girl from last year’s Polyball—was about two meters away from us! It’s a small world indeed.

I introduced Elisa and her friends to my friends, and we hung out together for most of the rest of the night, dancing disco, swing, and even a few Viennese waltzes. Throughout the evening, I also ran into many other people I know, including several colleagues and folks from the rowing club. It was a really fun party, and we left only around 4:30 in the morning. I am already looking forward to next year’s Polyball!


xkcd Easter eggs that aren’t, but ought to be



Facebook outage

Facebook has not let me log in for more than a day. The message displayed when I attempt to access the site does not provide much information.

If a few hours of site maintenance are required as the error message indicates, why not find a way to perform the maintenance in a non-disruptive way? If downtime is actually required, why not give affected uses some advance notice so that they can prepare?

If the problem is more serious than that, why not come clean about the matter and give an honest appraisal of the problem and a prognosis for a fix?

This is not what I expect from a world-class Internet company.

Update 2009-11-27 11:30 UCT — “The Facebook Team” responded to my emailed problem report, only to inform me that my account was neither warned nor disabled. The email provided no additional information about the outage, and did not provide any clues to when the site might be operational again.

Update 2009-11-27 12:50 UCT — Out of frustration, I tried repeatedly to log in. On the sixth or seventh attempt, the site actually let me in. However, anything requiring a write to the database fails.

First, I tried to comment on a friend’s photo. That didn’t work.

Next, I attempted to add a link to my wall. No dice.

At least I can get into the site; but obviously the problem isn’t completely fixed yet.

Update 2009-11-27 13:00 UCT — Looks like I spoke too soon. I’m once again unable to get into the site.

Update 2009-11-30 14:00 UCT — At some point Friday night or Saturday morning, the problem was resolved. Better late than never.



zrl_pointofcare_10, originally uploaded by IBM Research - Zurich.

This silicon chip is the result of work being done at IBM Research — Zurich. The researchers envision this chip being used as a diagnostic tool by medical practitioners. I took this photo a couple of days ago. It appeared in an article on physorg.


Climbing again

Yesterday at lunchtime I joined a few colleagues and met Simon at the private bouldering hall in Adliswil. The problems there are pretty difficult and I hadn’t been climbing in more than a month. So I was not too surprised to find that I couldn’t do much. Still, I had a good time and finished a few problems. Today my hands and forearms are sore. I should really climb more often!


Rowing for the first time



Halloween 2009

Yesterday afternoon I went rowing for the first time, and loved it.

Nic and Franzi at Nordiska have kindly arranged an extra rowing course for beginners, and it takes place this weekend. After an hour or so of theory and practice on land, we actually got to take a boat out on the lake. It was both harder and easier than I expected. Rowing requires concentration on many small details: coordinate of the stroke with the others in the boat, balance & posture to keep the boat level, angle & depth of the oar, timing of entering and exiting the water, and many other tiny nuances of movement. When I realized how many things I had to think of simultaneously, I was actually surprised that we were able to make the boat move so well. Toward the end of our first tour on the lake, we were actually making pretty good time!

Today will be the second lesson; tomorrow is the last. I’m looking forward to seeing how I improve with a little practice.

Tonight I’ll go to a Halloween party at the home of a colleague. He and the others in his apartment complex got together and planned what sounds like it will be a really fun party. Each floor in the building will have its own theme: one floor will be devoted to lounging and chilling out; another to dancing; and so on. It’ll be a fun time I’m sure.

At this time of year, I remember those in my family who came before me. So before I leave you, I’d just like to link to a short piece I wrote four years ago, on the topic of a very special Halloween.


Inter-club Regatta 2009

_MAL3954, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Just a quick photo from last Saturday’s inter-club regatta. Together with Magnus, I bought groceries at the wholesaler near the highway in Rüschlikon. Then I helped Sibylle cook an amazing chicken curry in a huge pot, and occasionally ran outside to take photos of the races. 45 people came to the dinner, and the after-party was a blast. I left shortly before three and arrived home just after two. :)


Google Wave first impressions

Google Wave logo
Almost five months ago, I wrote here about the newly-announced Google Wave.

Yesterday morning, I received my invitation. I have spent a couple of hours since then exploring Wave’s capabilities.

The first problem I encountered was that I didn’t have anyone with whom to start a wave. Google was kind enough to give me eight invitations to share with others though, and before long, several of my more tech-savvy friends were online too.

Wave is both more complex and more capable than I realized. Some increase in the complexity of the user interface is an unavoidable consequence of the large number of features Google is trying to cram into Wave. This complexity can be a bit daunting at first. It’s also not immediately clear what Wave is for. I can think of several potential uses for it; but I haven’t run into them myself yet.

Farhad Manjoo writes that with Wave, Google is attempting to fix problems that don’t need fixing. He also opines that it’s not clear why one should go through the trouble of learning how to use Wave. I imagine that the same sort of comment was heard when the telegraph was introduced. “Who wants to learn Morse code just to be able to send a letter?” New methods of communications always require a bit of learning; and the more groundbreaking the advancement, the more adjustment people will require before they understand and accept the change.

I have a vague, and hard to describe feeling of anticipation when I use Wave. My gut tells me that Wave is the beginning of a new revolution in online communications and that what we see now is just the tip of the iceberg.


Best before yesterday

Best before yesterday, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

I arrived late to to work today due to chaos in the city. Apparently there was a power outage affecting the trams. I grabbed a coffee and skipped lunch, but got hungry later in the afternoon. I was glad to find a chicken sandwich in the vending machine. Once I had purchased it though, I saw that the expiration date had been written over by hand. The bread was a bit dry in some places and soggy in others. Aside from this though, it tasted okay. Maybe it wasn’t actually expired. I mean, I don’t think it’s too likely that the vending machines are stocked on Sundays, so perhaps someone just printed the stickers with the wrong date. Still, if I get sick and die of food poisoning, let this be used as evidence!


Hiking in the Alps near Clariden

_MAL2414, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Saturday morning, I got up early and went for a hike near Clariden with Kirsten & Simon. We took a gondola up part of the way from the Klausenpass side, and hiked up the rest of the way to the Claridenhütte, a cabin operated by the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC). In this cabin, like many, you can get a hot meal and a place to lay your head for not too much more than fifty Francs. The facilities were quite simple. Water was piped in from a stream of melting glacier water. It must have been filtered to remove silt, but had to be boiled to be safe to drink. There was a tap in the private kitchen only, so if you wanted water, you had to ask for it. A small amount of electricity was provided by solar panels on the side of the cabin. These solar panels charged a bank of batteries, and provided enough electricity to power a few dim florescent lights. These lights were on timers, and turned themselves off automatically after just a few minutes. There was no bathroom, no shower, and no sink save that in the kitchen. There was not proper toilet either, only a very simple outhouse fifty meters from the cabin. So yes, the facilities were quite simple; but the cabin was sturdy, and it kept out the cold.

We dropped off our bags, and made a short day hike up to the glacier. Around five o’clock in the evening, we returned to the hut and enjoyed a couple of beers in the last warm light of the sun. The weather was perfect for hiking—cool but not cold, lots of sunshine, and only a bit of wind. The dinner at the cabin was simple but filling: a warm and thick soup with pasta, vegetables, and pumpkin seeds; a cold green bean salad, and spaghetti with meat sauce. We shared a carafe of wine and some sparkling water too. After dinner, we retired to the communal sleeping room located two floors up, just under the roof. I could hear the wind howling outside during the night, and was very glad to be in a stone cabin and not just a nylon tent. I slept quite well considering the rustic facilities.

In the morning we woke up before dawn. Some of the other hikers had awoken hours earlier to embark on longer treks. I caught a few photos of the sunrise just before sitting down to a simple breakfast of hot tea, bread, and cream cheese.

After breakfast we donned clothing for colder and windier weather. The temperature was still just a couple of degrees above freezing, and the wind that had picked up during the night had not abated much since sunrise. We hiked again up to the glacier and looked for a way up to the pass. There was no easy way up that didn’t cross the glacier; and lacking ropes and ice axes, we opted to err on the side of safety and just call it a day. We retraced our steps back down to the cabin, picked up our bags, and then hiked back down to the gondola for the quick ride back down to the valley floor.

It was a great little hike and my first experience staying in a Swiss Alpine cabin. I look forward to more hikes in the coming weeks.

Helsinki business trip last summer

_MAL0374, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Sixteen months ago, I went on a business trip to Helsinki. I recently found the photos from this trip in the dusty filing cabinet that is my computer. The photos are mostly of Temppeliaukio, a famous church carved into a granite hill in the city.


Inventories of the Invisible

I found a link to this witty TED talk by John Lloyd at Daring Fireball this morning: illuminating and very funny!


New lighting equipment

The photo shoot with Hannah reminded me how much fun it is to take photos in a studio setting. When one has greater control over the light, one can do so many fun things that just aren’t possible otherwise. Inspired by this experience, I began to think about putting together my own portable studio—a set of lighting gear I could set up at home or on location. Robban, the chap who lent me his studio in Stockholm during the summer, gave me some good recommendations, and I put together a list of the equipment I would need.
Today I placed an order for my starter kit:
Obviously I’ll need to find a place to work. I think the living room at home would be a good place.

I’m going to investigate options for setting up larger backgrounds than the collapsible ones I’ve ordered. Plain black or white cloth would probably suffice for many applications I have in mind; then I just need a rig to hold it in place. If anyone has suggestions for flexible and inexpensive ways to set up backgrounds, please get in touch.

Another thing I’d like to do is to find a way to block stray light from the windows, so that I can work during the daytime. It’s too bad this house wasn’t constructed after the built-in rolling shutters became popular in this part of the world—those things are great for blocking out light! Perhaps some heavy curtains would be a good solution. They could remain in place even when not in use. However, maybe there are other ways to block the light. I welcome ideas on this too.

Most of the new gear should arrive within a couple of days. I’m excited about putting it to use for the first time!

Advice for new DSLR owners

I had a long chat last night with my friend Annelie in Stockholm, who recently purchased her first digital SLR—a Canon 1000D with an 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. She was frustrated with the results from her first day of shooting. After a bit of questioning, I learned why: she had taken a bunch of photos using settings chosen essentially at random.

I gave her three pieces of advice:
1. Learn the language and basic principles of photography. Learn how ISO, aperture, and shutter speed affect the amount of light collected. Learn how the aperture affects depth-of-field.
2. Learn the capabilities and limitations of your camera and lens. Learn about the main modes of your camera, and start taking photos in aperture priority mode (A on Nikon, Av on Canon).
3. Get a 50mm f/1.4 lens, and start playing with it. Shoot in aperture priority mode, but also start experimenting with manual mode, particularly in low light settings.

My 50mm f/1.4 lens is my favorite lens by far because of the freedom its wide maximum aperture and light weight afford. I often go out with only my 50. I have learned more about photography while using my 50mm f/1.4 lens than with any other lens. I’ve also taken many of my best photos with this lens. It’s so simple and so fun to use.

I’m looking forward to seeing the results of Annelie’s next photo session.


Helena in the studio

_MAL8017.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

My good friend Helena Petterson saw my photos of Hannah this morning and gave me some positive feedback. Helena is also a photographer, and so we talked for a while about poses, techniques and ideas for future photo projects. It was then that I remembered the shoot we did together last year. Here are some photos of Helena I took in a studio in Stockholm, just before I moved to Switzerland.


Hannah in the studio

_MAL3794, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

When I was in Stockholm in July, I spent a rainy afternoon hanging out with my good friend Hannah. On the spur of the moment, I picked up my camera and captured a few remarkable photos of her. Impressed with her natural beauty and ease in front of the camera, I invited her to do a photo shoot with me a couple of days later. We spent a Friday afternoon in a lovely villa on Gärdet. We set up a studio in one large room, but also took photos at other locations in the house. We had a terrific time, joking, laughing, and capturing some amazing photographs. I’m very pleased now to share some of the best photos of Hannah.


Some of my favorite photographs

_MAL8486, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Recently I selected some of my favorite photos among the thousands I’ve taken in recent years. A recent addition is the photo above I snapped of two new acquaintances of mine, Ray and Jia as we left a bar downtown late one night.

Like many photos that I’m fond of, this one happened spontaneously and without any preparation or planning. I was fortunate to be in the right time and place, and to have my camera handy!


Magnus’s surprise birthday party

_MAL9429, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

On Saturday I went to Nordiska and attended the surprise birthday party for my friend Magnus. It was a great party and I was among the last to leave around five in the morning. As one of the guests said while toasting to him, Magnus is one of those rare men who is truly, honestly genuine all the time. I try to do this but for me at least, it take a little work. For Magnus, it seems to come so naturally! This is what makes it so easy to be around him.

Here’s to you, Magnus. I’m looking forward yet another party in just a few days!


Jesus would support health care reform

A small minority on the extreme right of political spectrum have recently been resorting to fear-mongering of the most vile and dishonest kind, in a desperate attempt to stand in the way of meaningful health care reform in the United States. What disappoints me most about this fear-mongering is how blind many otherwise thoughtful people have been to the blatant hypocrisy of these obstructionists.

Many of those protesting the most vehemently against health care reform are people who consider themselves Christians. These so-called Christians treat their religion like a glee club and spiritual self-help program, but ignore the social mission message of Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth told his disciples to care for the sick, to feed the hungry, and to visit those in prison. He had strong words for those who did not do so. For just one of many examples of Jesus commandment to care for those in need, see Matthew 23:31-46.

I believe the Democrats and like-minded Republicans and Independents need to reclaim the moral high ground, and shove the obstructionist protestors’ bibles back in their faces. “How can you call yourselves Christians?” they should demand. Obama should eschew for now the conciliatory tones of bipartisanship, and use his bully pulpit to shame the hypocrites, and to inspire us all toward a higher calling: social justice.

In short, we need to put these fair-weather friends of Jesus in their place—on the defensive.


Sights and sounds from Switzerland

_MAL1107, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Ethan and I are having an absolute blast hiking in the Alps. I have posted photos and videos from the trip.


Ethan’s photos and videos from Switzerland

Ethan has a new iPhone 3G S, and has been using it to take photos and videos on his adventures here in Switzerland. With the new iPhone, it’s possible to upload photos and videos directly to a MobileMe account, and Ethan has been doing just that.

Ethan’s photos and videos from Switzerland are pretty good, so take a look!


Hike up to Schilthorn

This morning after breakfast, Ethan and I headed up to the waterfall near here. From there, we continued up to the Rotstockhütte, where we had a delightful lunch: vegetable soup, bread, dried meats, and cheese from the Alps.

After lunch, and quite on the spur of the moment, Ethan and I decided to try to make it up to the Schilthorn. The proprietor of the hut must have thought we were better hikers than we really are, because he said he didn’t think we’d have any trouble completing the hike in two and a half hours. It just so happened that we had just two and a half hours before the last cable car was scheduled to leave the peak and return down into the valley.

The hike was quite challenging, and we wavered between confidence that we would reach our goal in time, and certainty that it was a fool’s errand. We pushed each other and encouraged each other, and somehow made it to the top with ten minutes to spare. The 22 Sfr tickets to ride the cable car down saved us a four hour hike. We were already quite tired by that point, so we were very glad not to have to hike any more!

We had a nice dinner with Tim at the Hotel Mittaghorn, and then retired to the Moutain Hostel for a beer. Now we’re comfortably settled back into our room in the hillside hotel, and preparing for bed.

I think we’ll go to see the falls at Trümmelbach tomorrow, and perhaps take it easy instead of hiking for 6 hours.

We got lots of pictures and videos; we hope to share them soon!

In the Alps with Ethan

Ethan arrived last Tuesday morning, and we’ve already had a full week. He hung out with me on Tuesday, saw Luzern on Wednesday, went to the Rhein Falls on Thursday, and took a walking tour of Zürich on Friday.

Saturday after lunch we caught the train to Lausanne, and then a connecting train back along the lake to Montreux. There, we saw Steely Dan in concert and met some of the band members backstage after the show. I had a nice chat with Jim Pugh, Steely Dan’s talented trombonist. We also met and visited with some of the guys from Dave Matthews Band and Chickenfoot. At one point, I took out my U.S. flag (that I always have on hand for just such an occasion), and draped it around my shoulders, Stephen Colbert-style. My patriotism caught Sammy Hagar’s attention, and he stopped to chat with me for a while. At his invitation, I even took part in Chickenfoot’s pre-show huddle. Cool! You rock, Sammy! It was a great Fourth of July.

Sunday we caught the train to Interlaken and then another train, bus, and cable car up to Gimmelwald, where we spent the night. We’re staying in Hotel Mittaghorn, a charming place just ten minutes’s walk uphill from the cable car station. Today we’ll take a nice long hike—either up to Schilthorn, or perhaps down into the river valley below Gimmelwald.

I left my USB cable at home in Zollikon, so I haven’t been able to upload any photos yet. But if I can, I’ll buy or borrow a cable soon. So with luck photos will be online within a couple of days.


Nordiska Spring Party

_MAL4638, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Oh yeah—did I mention that I went to the Nordiska Roddförening Spring Party a few weeks ago? It was a lot of fun.


Google Wave

Google Wave logoAt the Google I/O conference this week, Google gave a preview of Google Wave, a new communication and collaboration platform planned for release later this year. Google intends for the platform to be open-source, and is encouraging developers to contribute to the platform through a set of APIs. Those developers who are interested can sign up for access to a sandbox environment, where they can get their feet wet and where they can test their creations.

With Google Wave, Google appears to have reimagined email, instant messaging, and a host of related online communication media. Why allow email to be constrained by the limitations of SMTP or IMAP? Why should email and instant messaging even be considered separate concepts? In Google Wave, messages are called waves, and a wave can contain all kinds of content from any number of participants. A wave could be a conversation, a document on which several people collaborate, a poll, a bug report, or a photo gallery.

Google’s engineers admit that during the development of Google Wave, even they found it difficult to step beyond their preconceived notions of email and instant messaging. Each of these means of communication has its limitations, and each has applications to which it is well suited. Google Wave is envisioned to be a superset of many of the communication media that preceded it. Some potential uses of Google Wave weren’t apparent to the developers until they had been using the platform for a while.

I’d argue that most of the potential applications have not yet been envisioned. By open-sourcing the platform, Google seems to want to attract the same kind of participation from third-party developers as with the mobile Android platform.

In my eyes, Google Wave could be a potential long-term threat to Facebook. Google’s social networking platform Orkut never gained much of a following (outside of Brazil). Google Wave no only integrates with Orkut, but stands to make it mostly obsolete. With extensions, Google Wave could provide all the capability of Facebook and more. Heck, developers could even provide Facebook-originated content inside of waves. If Google Wave catches on, the next few years will be very interesting ones.

Update 2009-06-01 05:32 UCT—The Google Wave team appear to be fans of the short-lived but excellent Firefly television series. See the Google Wave Wikipedia article for details. Lisa A. brought this my attention. Thanks, Lisa!


ZRL Ambigram

ZRL Ambigram, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Next Tuesday will be the official laying of the cornerstone of the new NETL building at ZRL. To commemorate the occasion, I designed a ZRL ambigram. During the ceremony, a time capsule will be placed in the foundation. A print of my ambigram will be placed in the time capsule, along with a bunch of IBM memorabilia and examples of pop culture from circa 2009.

Update 2009-06-04 15:25 UCT—The time capsule has been encased in concrete in the foundation of the new building. Some of my photographs of the foundation-laying ceremony have been posted.


A fun coincidence

_MAL5693, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

I went to Slussen bus station in Stockholm on my way to José’s party. There, I met up with two others who were going to the same party. When I took out my phone to check the time, the others laughed. They then took out their phones and I knew why: we all had the same model of Nokia phone, only in three different colors. I simply had to take a photo.


A poignantly beautiful day in Stockholm

Today is such a beautiful day that it makes me want to cry. These are the days I live for.

This morning I had coffee out in the sun with freinds at Eriksberg, in a little outdoor garden with purple lilac and chestnut trees. At noon, I walked down to Kungsholmen for lunch with Ayse at an outdoor street café. We ate seafood stew with rice, drank sparkling water, and watched the people walk by. Stockholm is great for people-watching when the sun is shining. After lunch, we walked to a café where we shared a slide of carrot cake and drank caffe lattes. I'm tired from spending a few hours outside in the sunshine. When I got back to Malin's place, I crashed on her couch and dozed for a bit.

Now I'm looking out of her sixth floor window as I rest a bit before catching my flight back to Zürich. This has been a perfect trip. I only wish I could have met more of my friends while I was here. I hope to return for a long weekend in June, and plan to spend two weeks in Sweden at the end of July.

I'm excited about returning to Zürich. The weather there has been even warmer than in Stockholm, and there will surely be opportunities for swimming in the coming days.

I'd like to give a shout-out to my friends Joanna and Malin, who kindly let me crash at their apartments for a few days. It's nice to have such thoughtful and generous friends. I look forward to my next visit!


Zürich in the sunshine

_MAL3705, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

When I first visited Zürich for the job interview at ZRL, it was a rainy and cold couple of days; I wondered if I really wanted to move from one rainy and cold city to another.

I’m pleased to report that when the sun comes out, Zürich is  positively beautiful city. On Sunday I joined some colleagues for little hike up to the summit of Üetliberg, from whose lookout tower I captured this photo of the city below.


Linea Salsa’s last social of the season

_MAL3136, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Way back when in the beginning of December, I went to Linea Salsa’s social—only my second time to go out salsa dancing after moving to Zürich. Since then, I’ve danced at the Polyball, the Zürich Salsa Festival, the Sugar Lounge, and X-tra. But for some reason I had not returned to El Social in Altstetten until last night.

Part of the reason I hadn’t gone to the Linea Salsa socials more often might have been that they are held only once per month—on the first Friday of the month. When I saw that last night’s social would be the last before the summer break, I knew that I had to take the opportunity to do some dancing!

I’m very glad I returned, because I became acquainted with some very nice people last night. Having had the benefit of a second visit, I can say that the atmosphere of Linea Salsa is very similar to that of Happy Feet and SalsaAkademien’s Thursday socials. There are lots of good dancers and most of them are very friendly. It’s possible to buy beverages including beer, wine, and champagne; but most people drink in moderation to save themselves for dancing. For the most part, people who go to Linea Salsa are there to dance. And—importantly for me—the environment is not hazardous to one’s health: the music is played at a reasonable volume, and smoking is not allowed.

I met some of the organizers of the event, including a very friendly chap named Daniel. I also met two more photographers from salsapictures.ch. I think I will learn more about this group; they seem like my kind of crowd—interested in dancing and photography too!

And of course I danced with many charming and talented women—from relative beginners to ladies who were miles beyond me in ability. Lots and lots of fun. I’m a bit sad that I missed all of the Linea Salsa socials in the intervening months since December, and even sadder to know that I must wait until the next one.

Ninety photos from last night are now online.


Glocals.com spring party

_MAL2677, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Tuesday night I went to the spring party arranged by Ehsan of glocals.com, the ex-pat group I joined a few months ago. The party was a big success, with about 400 people in attendence. There were people from everywhere: lots of folks from the U.S., one from Mexico, a few from Russia, some from France and Germany, and several from Switzerland too. I even met a girl from Norrköping, who was a bit surprised that I could speak Swedish. I had fun meeting people and snapping photos. As you can see, I managed to find a couple of attractive women with whom to pose. Check out the other photos from the evening.


Biking around Zürichsee

Image036, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Yesterday I joined Kirsten for a bike ride around the lake after work. It was a half day holiday here in Zürich due to Sechseläuten, so we took off around 14:00. We rode South along the lake and crossed the bridge to Rapperswil, where we took a little break and ate lime sorbet by the water’s edge. Then we biked back up the Eastern side of the lake, through hilly rural terrain dotted with vinyards, orchards, ranches and farms. The fruit trees and flowers were in full bloom and the sun was shining. It was simply idyllic.

At 57 kilometers, it was my first long ride of the season. I’m a bit sore today! If you’re interested, I’ve posted a few more photos from the ride.


Using technology to bring essential truths out of mountains of boring data

In this TED talk, Hans Rosling presents stale United Nations data about our world in an engaging and dynamic way—and one that brings into stark relief the underlying truths about how our world is changing. His marriage of data and design shows how important it is how data are presented.
This is a splendid use of technology. I understand that Rosling now works for Google, and that his tools will be available to all online. It is gratifying to see Google using Rosling’s expertise for the public good as well as for private gain.


Ski tour up Glatten

IMG_1815.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

I went for a ski tour with Simon this afternoon. We skied up a mountain called Glatten. It took about 5 hours to make our way up to the top, and another hour to come down again. Really fun, but incredibly exhausting. After returning to Zürich, Simon treated me to some excellent fondue at his place. I’ll post photos when I have them. Now I shall sleep. Over and out.

Update 2009-03-19: Photos are online!

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Sledding in Elm

_MAL9207.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

A couple of weeks ago I went sledding for the first time in my life. It was a blast! I drove down to Elm, where I met up with a bunch of colleagues at the gondola. We each grabbed a sled and rode the gondola up to the top of the mountain, whence we hopped on our respective sleds and started back down again. The sled path followed a road down the mountain, cutting across the mountain to the right, turning, cutting across to the left, and so on. The turn at each switchback was a challenge, but not nearly as taxing as the bumps! Oh my, I was bruised for several days after that evening. It was a cold and snowy night, and I didn’t have enough in the way of cold weather clothing. I could have benefitted from another scarf or a mask to cover my face. So when I finished my four rides down the mountain, I was quite cold and ready for dinner. We retired to a nearby restaurant where most had fondue or raclette; I ate the fleischkäse. Here’s a photo German took of me in the restaurant.


Safari Tabs

Safari Tabs, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Safari 4 brought tabs-on-top to a mainstream browser, borrowing the appearance, if not the underlying architecture, of Google’s Chrome browser.

Placing the tabs above the address bar makes sense, because the address is subordinate to and dependent on which tab happens to be frontmost. However, the bookmarks bar is definitely not content specific to any tab; therefore, it belongs above the tabs.

There are other problems too. Because there is no title bar that represents the whole Safari window, it’s hard to move the window easily; one must be careful not to click on a tab’s close box or move widget. The reverse is also true: it’s difficult to click a tab without accidentally moving the window. If the mouse is moved even a tiny distance while the button is depressed, Safari assumes one is trying to move the whole window.

The above mock-up shows what Safari might look like if the window title bar and bookmarks bar were placed above the tabs.

One could argue that the toolbar buttons and the search box don’t belong below the tabs because, like the bookmarks bar, these controls do not represent content that is specific to any single tab. However, the address field needn’t take up the entire width of the window, so the spaces to the right and left of this field seem like a good place for these controls from a purely aesthetic perspective. Plus, moving them elsewhere would mean taking up even more screen real estate, and taking away from the simplicity and balance of the design.

I am glad to see Apple experimenting with new user interface paradigms, at least in beta versions of its software. Let’s hope the experts at the company figure out a way to solve the problems new design without sacrificing its elegance.

My new bed

_MAL8928, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

A couple of weeks ago I went to IKEA and bought a new bed. I got it for less than half list price, ’cause the packaging was a bit scuffed up and one corner of the mattress was a bit dirty. I don't have a before photo with which to juxtapose this one; but trust me—the after one is much nicer.

My bedroom is located just underneath the dining room, on the Northeast corner of the house. The windows face the street and garden. I’m looking forward to springtime, when the flowers start to bloom!


Fun appetizers with mozzarella and basil

_MAL1239.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Late last summer, I made a nice Caprese salad for Janaki when she came over for a visit. I took a photo but didn’t get around to posting it until yesterday. When I’m in Italy, Caprese salad is the yardstick I use to gauge the priciness of a restaurant. The ingredients of the salad are readily available and relatively inexpensive, and the preparation is straightforward and quick; so the price a restaurant charges for the dish largely represents the markup—not the cost of the food per se, but what you must pay for the privilege of dining at that particular establishment.

The distribution of prices is broad. I’ve seen Insalata Caprese listed on menus in Rome for as little as 5€, and as much as 20€.

_MAL9505.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Another great mozzarella-based appetizer substitutes dried ham for the tomato. Just take thumb tip-sized pieces of the cheese and roll them up together with couple of basil leaves in thin strips of the ham. Use air-dried or smoked ham, according to your preference. Prosciutto and Westphalia work fine. Hold the rolls together by piercing each one with a cocktail toothpick. Serve them with a small bowl of olive oil seasoned with salt, black pepper, and optionally rosemary or oregano. Enjoy!


Biking again, at last!

On Sunday, the snowfall of the previous night continued untill well after noon. After several cups of coffee, two bowls of Gordana’s excellent soup, and much deliberation, I finally got my ass in gear and made preparations for some physical exercise. I put the Nokian studded tires I first used last winter on my StumpJumper and headed out into the snow. With my new Giro G10 ski helmet on my head, I rode up Höhestrasse and into the forest above Zollikon, cutting across and up the hill toward the South. My start was initially cut short by a twisted chain, but that was quickly remedied by a bit of work with two pairs of pliers. After about twenty minutes, I had reached my goal: the bath house in Zumikon. There I spent the next hour warming up (and cooling down again) in the bath’s various saunas and its steam bath. At one point, I even indulged in a bit of snow-rolling, a tradition I first practied in Åre a few winters ago. The snow was light and fluffy, and after a stint in the sauna I barely noticed the cold. When at last I coasted downhill toward home, I felt like a pice of cooked pasta. That’s what saunas are for! All in all, I spent less than an hour on my bike this day. But at least the ride uphill through the snow was a workout; and it’s a step in the right direction. Before long the snow will have melted and it’ll be time for day-long treks further afield.

Party at Kubilay’s place

_MAL8890, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

On Saturday night I drove down to Horgen on the West side of the lake. It had begun to rain and the streets were slick and shiny. It was cold too, and as I neared Horgen the rain turned to snow. Kubilay's place is near the train station in a modern block of flats. He fixed lots of food including little kebab-like meat snacks, grilled Halloumi cheese, and Turkish candies flavored with pistachios and rosewater. It was a fun group of folks and a good time was had by all. Naturally, I brought my camera and took a bunch of photos of the fun. I gave several folks a ride back up to the city around midnight and by this time the snow was falling in thick, wet clumps. The party apparently continued somewhere in the city, but I was feeling a bit tired, so I dropped the others off and returned home early.


Shrubbery gig on Sihlquai

_MAL8841, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Wednesday night I joined some ZRL colleagues downtown to watch Shrubbery, a band whose members include a couple of Googlers and one of my colleagues, Jan. I enjoyed the performance, and had fun watching this normally staid researcher rock out! Several photos of the gig are online for your enjoyment.


A quick ferry ride across the lake

_MAL8762, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

This morning I gave Gordana a ride to an appointment in Meilen on my way to work. I continued to work by way of the car ferry that travels every 10 minutes between Meilen and Horgen on the other side of the lake. From there, it's a short drive back up the lake to Rüschlikon. I snapped a few photos from the ferry as we motored across the water. It was a beautiful morning as you can see!


Dinner at Les Halles

_MAL8722, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

On Saturday, Lilian joined me for dinner at Les Halles with some of my colleagues, including Gregory, Kubilay, and Franz-Stefan & Caroline (pictured above). Caroline is from Sweden, so I take every opportunity I get to speak Swedish with her. Gregory and I were roomies in Hotel Friedegg during the ZRL ski weekend in Wildhaus.

_MAL8754, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Most had the specialty of the house, mussels and fried potatoes. Gregory (pictured above with Lilian) comes from Belgium, and I asked him how the mussels here compared to the mussels from Brussels. They are almost as tasty, but not as big, apparently. I opted for the steak. It was quite tasty, but also small by the Texas standards to which I am accustomed.

The restaurant was a funky place with eclectic decor. It had the feeling of a converted warehouse, with rough concrete pillars and walls. Bicycles adorned the wall in one corner of the restaurant. Here are all of the photos from the dinner.


2009 ZRL ski weekend in Wildhaus

_MAL8481, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

This weekend it was time for the annual ZRL ski weekend. I joined my colleagues and their partners, friends, and family for two fun days of skiing in the Alps above Wildhaus, just nintey minutes' drive from Zürich. I made several friends and had an absolute blast on the slopes. Sunday we were treated to an entire day of good snow and glorious sunshine. I cannot wait to return to the mountains for more skiing soon. Take a look at my photos from the weekend.


Housewarming party in Zürich

_MAL7329, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Friday night, after just a couple of days back in Switzerland, I threw a housewarming party at my new place in Zollikon. I invited a mix of folks from work and friends I have met since moving to Zürich several months ago. About thirty people came, and it was a lot of fun. Andrew & Gordana were there, as well as Anke & Rupert, Lilian, and Franke & Martina. Gordana helped a lot with the party, preparing snacks cakes the day before. Thanks, Gordana! Here are more photos from the party.


A week with Ethan & family in the Bay Area

_MAL6781, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

I just returned from a very enjoyable week in the S.F. Bay Area with my brother Ethan and his family.

I flew out there on the fifth of January, and stayed with Ethan & Kelly at their home in Santa Clara. While in the Bay Area, I met with my Swedish friend Rebecca, visited the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, worked for a couple of days at the Almaden Research Center in San Jose, walked among giant redwood trees in Big Basin park, stuck my toes in the Pacific Ocean on the beach in Santa Cruz, and visited San Francisco with Ethan & family. However, the part of the trip I valued the most was having the opportunity to spend time with my adorable niece Evelyn! She turned one just a few months ago, and is really beginning to develop a personality of her own. It was simply wonderful to get to know her a bit better.

San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in the world. Should I ever move back to the 'States, it would be near the top of my list of places to settle.


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

DSC_0391, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

It’s been a while since my last post, so I’ve got some catching up to do. But lest you think I’ve disappeared or become a missionary in some distant corner of the globe, I shall make a post right now, even if it is almost entirely lacking in content.

I’m in the U.S., and have been for two weeks. I arrived on Christmas Eve and spent the holidays in Texas with family. Then on the 5th, I flew out to the San Francisco area to spend some more time with my brother and his family.

I have begun to catch up on my photos. I took the above photo at Heimat using my uncle Ollie’s new D700 and my 14-24mm f/2.8 lens—an amazing combination. My Christmas 2008 in Texas photo set has more photos.