Hi from 10,000 m!

Hi from 10,000 m!, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Well, that didn’t take long. Asking a fellow passenger about his iPad, I caught myself sliding right back into A Southern drawl. I suppose it’s true, what they say: You can take the man out of Texas…

Google is sponsoring free wifi on all domestic Delta flights until the beginning of January, to promote it's Chrome web browser. I already use Chrome for some things, and quite like it. Free wifi onboard I also like.

We’ve had some choppy air on this flight, but it’s smooth sailing now. The sunset is pretty darn lovely from up here. Touch-down in Austin is coming up in another forty-five minutes. I’d say it’s almost time for barbecue. CORRECTION: Time for mom’s pot roast—even better!


New table

_MAL0653, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

This is my new dining table, a 2.4 meter long solid oak table in a simple and modern style. I’m mostly pleased with it. However, it has a bit of a bow in it, and considering how much I paid for it, I’m not sure I’m willing to accept this defect. Even with this problem though, I think the table is quite beautiful.

I am considering getting benches for the long sides, and two chairs for the ends.


Tea Party bullshit

In response to my brother’s rhetorical question asking where all the Tea Party deficit hawks had gone, I offer this reply:

For all their bluster about being against Darwin and for Jesus, the fundies on the Tea Party fringe are actually pushing for an agenda that’s their dogma’s exact antithesis: a dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest society where the gap between rich and poor widens every day and a persons value to society is judged solely on the basis of how rich he is. In the Tea Party Utopia, feudalism is the way of the world; corporations and co-opted governments conspire to perpetuate the status quo; and the Golden Rule is replaced by an amoral policy of treating your neighbor as a potential obstacle to success.

Tax cuts for the rich exacerbate the growing income disparity, forfeiting much needed investments in the country’s future just to line the pockets of those who already have more than they need. As Matt Miller rightly pointed out in his Washington Post editorial yesterday, it is particularly galling that the Republicans and their wealthy benefactors are unwilling to make the slightest sacrifice, even during a time of war and appalling deficits.

When the far Right succeeds, it does so because its fiercest adherents are so adept at doublethink that their followers, incensed into a self-righteous and xenophobic fury, do not notice—or ignore—the hypocrisy.


The living room is beginning to be livable

_MAL9414, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

On Saturday, I purchased a few solid oak tables at Jumbo in Dietlikon. Here’s the coffee table in the living room. The table is just right for the space, and matches the terra cotta tile perfectly.

My dining table should arrive on the 16th or 17th. I’m debating whether to get chairs or benches for it. The table is 2.4 meters long, and benches would allow greater flexibility in the number of people seated on each side; however, chairs are more comfortable. I will decide once I’ve seen the table in place in the dining room.

The small square table that I had originally intended to be a work table in the corner of the dining room—and a place to put a microwave oven—turned out to be bit too short for that purpose. I will move it to the guest room, where it will serve as a small desk. Additional furniture acquisitions will have to wait until after the holidays, because I simply do not have a free weekend day until the New Year!


Genevieve Michelle

Genevieve, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

A few days ago, my second niece was born. Welcome to the world, Genevieve Michelle Lowry! And thanks to Ethan and Kelly for honoring me by naming their adorable new daughter after her Uncle Michael!


I have an awesome brother

The past two years, I’ve been living in the town just South of Zürich on the East side of the lake, Zollikon. Two weekends ago, I moved to Wollishofen, a part of the city of Zürich. When moving from one community to another in Switzerland, it is necessary to let the authorities know about your move within about a week of the move. So last Wednesday, I took a few hours in the afternoon to take care of the necessary paperwork. I went to the Zollikon Gemeindehaus and unregistered from the community. With the required stamp in my B-permit, I went to the corresponding office for the Kreis 2 district of the city of Zürich and registered as a resident in my new home city, Zürich. To register in Zürich cost me eighty Swiss francs—considerably more than it cost for me to register in Zollikon two years ago.

On Friday when I returned home from work, I found a letter in my mailbox, from a local restaurant. Restaurant Seerose (German for Water Lily) is located on the lake just a few minutes’ walk from my new home. I often pass by the restaurant when rowing on the lake. It’s nice, and quite fancy. “Wow,” I thought upon seeing the envelope addressed to me, “that was fast.” I assumed that the City of Zürich had shared my name and address with local businesses, and that the restaurant had sent me a note letting me know about their establishment. When I opened the envelope, I found an even nicer surprise waiting inside:
“A message from Ethan Lowry of Santa Clara, California, welcoming you to your new neighborhood.”

The letter was accompanied by a gift certificate for dinner for two at the restaurant. Isn’t that wonderful? In a Skype call later, Ethan explained how he accomplished this clever and generous gesture. He looked in Google Maps for restaurants close to my new address; and finding a nice one, called and spoke with the manager to arrange the letter and gift. I plan to use the gift certificate soon.

Thanks, brother. You’re the best!


Bike to work

The past two mornings, I have bicycled to work. It’s a fifteen-minute ride up the gentle slope of Alte Landstrasse. When the road passes through the southern part of Kilchberg, it offers a stunning vista of the Lake of Zürich. This morning the sun was shining brightly and there was a thin veil of haze upon the lake to the south.


IKEA “Skogaby” sofas

When I saw these black leather sofas at the IKEA showroom in Dietlikon, I was immediately drawn to them. Their elegant, understated design appealed to me and I was happy to find that they are also very comfortable, and quite reasonably priced. With these sofas, IKEA has once more done what it does best—pared down a piece of furniture to its bare essentials. If you look underneath the sofas, you’ll see that they’re actually hollow! Even the cushions are partially hollow. It’s a clever design that saves material and reduces weight. For my purposes, they’re perfect. The “Rasken” bench is serving as a makeshift coffee table until I find one I like.

I want the style of my furniture to be modern, to balance the somewhat rustic feel given by the thick stone walls, arched doorways, and terra cotta tile. I think these sofas are a good start!


Life in Wollishofen

Okay, maybe it’s a bit premature to opine on life in Wollishofen in general; but at least I can give you an idea of my first few days here. Friday night I put in several hours more of packing, after having believed that I was done. Yeah, it always takes a lot longer than you expect; and I’m glad I started packing early. Saturday I took the tram to Hardturm and picked up a big Mercedes truck at Hertz. I arrived back home in Zollikon just before the hour of 10, when I had asked my helpers to arrive. I served coffee to the first few to arrive, and once the stragglers had appeared, we began loading the truck.

It went quite quickly. I’d say we were done with the majority of the packing by 11:30. Paul kindly opened his downstairs office so that we could move my bed through his ground-floor door. This eliminated the need to carry the bed up a spiral flight of stairs and then back down again once outside the house. Three bikes were also packed in, after 40 or so boxes. I had time to snap a photo before saying good-bye to my friends. Another group was going to meet me at my new place in Wollishofen.

At the new place, the unloading went equally quickly. José, Nathalie, and Nicole helped me move all the boxes down two flights of stairs and into my new apartment. Toward the end of the unloading I asked Nicole to do us the favor of fetching some pizzas. She had ordered pizzas from a restaurant near Post Wollishofen for her party a couple of weeks ago, and I remembered their having been pretty tasty. These were just as good. Despite a weather forecast calling for cool weather and clouds, we were treated to a lovely sunny afternoon. So we all sat outside on the grassy lawn behind the house, sitting on an IKEA bag and pieces of the pizza boxes to protect our clothes from the wet and somewhat muddy autumn ground. Maren joined us toward the end, and helped us finish the pizza. It was really a beautiful afternoon, and as the wind blew, I captured a short video of the leaves failing like giant snowflakes from the tall trees encircling the garden.

Just as I was saying goodbye to my helpers, my two houseguests arrived. Martina and Vicky from Austria were planning to go to the same Halloween party as I, and had asked if they could spend the night at my place. “Sure,” I told them, “as long as you don’t mind helping me unpack!” So the two of them set to work on my kitchen. In a couple of hours they had turned a barren kitchen into a quite usable and well-organized one.

Martina and Vicky then decided to paint my face green.

We were going to a Halloween party, you see, and I didn’t have a costume. What with the move and all, I hadn’t given much thought to what costume I might wear. Well, I’m not sure what I was—but I was definitely green. The party was at Eva and Bastian’s flat, just a few hundred meters down the road from my new home. I had a good time at the party but I left not too long after midnight. I was exhausted and needed sleep.

Sunday morning after a quick breakfast on the bench overlooking the lake, my guests returned home to Austria. Then two more friends, Daniela and Nathalie, joined me for a trip to IKEA. I had not planned on buying much at IKEA, but once there, I found some things I rather like. I picked up a couple of “Skogaby” black leather sofas and a matching chair, as well as a desk, a bench, and a quite nice guest bed for the spare room. With all of these heavy items, I knew that I would need more unloading help. I called Simon and he was a real angel, agreeing to come down and lend a hand. With a few places to sit, the apartment feels much more livable now. Daniela helped me assemble my desk, and I was then able to connect my computer. I still don’t have internet at the new place though; so I’m relying on my iPhone’s 3G connection for the time being.

This morning I woke up early and returned the truck to Hertz. It took a while to drive through Zürich during rush hour, but I wasn’t in a hurry. The trip from Hertz to IBM took a while too, and I arrived at the office a bit later than usual. Tomorrow my commute will be about 15 minutes. I am really looking forward to that!

Tonight I unpacked some clothes and hung them up in my wardrobes. I also fixed my first meal at the new place—a simple rice dish with green peas. I caught a cold during the weekend, and it persists tonight. I think I’ll fix a tall glass of herbal tea before going to bed.


Bastian’s jack o’ lantern

, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

I’m at Eva & Bastan’s Halloween party, having fun and happy to know that my bed lies just a few hundred meters up Kilchbergstrasse. I’ll try to stay awake a bite more. My costume, you ask? Let’s just say it involves the color green.


Helpers!, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

With the help of six friends, loading the truck took less tuan two hours. Thanks to Simon, Kirsten, Jonas, Mirja, Carl-Johan, and Gregory for all their help!

Ready for the move

Lots of boxes, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Packing the “last few things” took a lot longer than I expected. I’m glad I “finished packing” last night so that I had another evening to do all the things I didn’t think would take any time.

I still have a few odds and ends to toss into boxes or bags tomorrow; but I’m hoping that can be done on-the-fly. We shall see.

I’ll pick up the truck at Hertz around 9 tomorrow morning. My friends and I will begin loading the truck at 10, and I hope to be able to get most of it done within two hours. The ride to Wollishofen should take no more than 15 minutes; and then the job of unloading will begin.

I have guests staying over at my new place tomorrow night, so I hope I can at least find a few necessary items in the boxes during the afternoon.

OK, I gotta get some sleep or I’ll be dead in the morning. Over and out.


Back to climbing

, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Tonight I’m at Minimum for the first time in a couple of months. I’ve “buddy-taped” my fingers together. We’ll see how it goes!


Juan Williams and FOX News deserve each other

Juan Williams was fired from NPR for stating that seeing Muslim people on an airplane made him nervous. His comment surely resonated with many Americans, an erstwhile diverse and freedom-minded bunch of people, who have nonetheless fallen victim in recent years to a propaganda campaign of fear. Americans these days can be a twitchy folk, easily made nervous by people who are different. If many Americans are made nervous by Muslims, then the neocons at FOX News are to blame for spreading fear rather than understanding.

A reporter’s duty is to report facts, not to stoke fears. At best, Williams’ comment and his unapologetic defense since then show an insensitivity toward Muslim Americans; at worst, they expose a deliberate and self-serving ploy to improve his salary by moving to FOX. That’s where all the other fear mongers are, after all.

The fear mongers have always found a group of others, to stoke fears and control public opinion. It was not too many years ago that the average American would have been nervous upon meeting a black person on the street. If Mr. Williams is aware of the irony of his position, he has hidden it well.


My climbing injury

My left index finger, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.
On Monday I visited the hand clinic at Balgrist, just a few minute’s walk from my home in Zollikon. There I saw Dr. Schweizer, who examined my finger and came to the same diagnosis that I had suspected: partial rupture of the left collateral ligament of the proximal interphalangeal (PIP) joint of my left index finger. This ligament is the main thing that prevents the finger from bending sideways toward the thumb, so it’s pretty important.

In the upper radiograph, above, the damaged ligament would appear just above the joint in the center of the photograph. You cannot see it in this picture because soft tissues like muscles, tendons, and ligaments do not show up well in x-ray photos. This is a top-down view, so that ligament lies on the left side of my left index finger. I sustained this injury while working on a particularly difficult bouldering problem at Minimum, back in the beginning of August. It happened when I held a crimpy grip with my left hand and rolled the fingers counterclockwise to give myself a bit more reach to the right. With the weight bearing down sideways on my fingers, the collateral ligaments bore more than their usual share of the load.

Dr. Schweizer gave me some little strips to use to affix my index finger to my middle finger, limiting its mobility, and all but eliminating the possibility of oblique forces that might cause further damage to the ligament. Two months of rest are called for, along with daily exercises to maintain and restore the finger’s range of motion.

I may climb, but only if I completely avoid using my left index finger, or if I tape my index and middle fingers together tightly and avoid sideways loads. The prognosis a full recovery in time.


Planning for the move

Yesterday morning, I called and booked a moving van for the end of the month. I plan to pick up the truck early the morning of Saturday, 30 October, and to begin at my place in Zollikon around 10 o’clock. With luck we won’t have rain, and the temperature won’t be too cold. I expect that it’ll take a few hours to pack the truck, fifteen minutes to drive to the new place, and a couple more hours to move all the boxes into the new place. I will reward those who help me move with pizza and beer.

I have been living in a furnished apartment for the past two years, so the only piece of furniture I have here in Zürich is a bed. This means I’ll have to buy a lot more furniture before my new place will be livable. After a bit of searching online, I found a dining table that I quite like at mutoni.ch. It’s a large solid oak table in a very modern style. I still need to find chairs that match the table. In addition, I will need to get bookshelves, a couch & coffee table, a desk & office chair, a chest of drawers, a guest bed, and other several smaller pieces of furniture. I will also need to buy a bunch of lights and lamps; most apartments in Switzerland come without any lighting installed.

I found out that the IKEA in Dietlikon will be open on Sunday, 31 October. This is a special case; normally most stores are closed on Sundays in Switzerland. It’s perfect for me because that Sunday is the day after I move; and I got a special rate by booking the moving van for the whole weekend. I imagine I can get at least a few of the pieces I need at IKEA.

I love it when a plan comes together.


Moving to Wollishofen

After two years sharing Gordana & Andrew’s beautiful home in Zollikon, I have made the decision to move to the other side of the lake. It was a difficult decision, but I am confident that it was the correct one.

My new apartment is located in Wollishofen, in a part of the city of Zürich known as Kreis 2. It’s just north of Kilchberg, the neighboring town to the south. The IBM Research lab where I work is located just a bit further south, in Rüschlikon. So I will live about halfway between my workplace and the city. This means I’ll be able to stop by home after work, freshen up or grab a bite to eat, and then head into the city to meet friends. My new place is also just five minutes’ walk from the lake, ten minutes’ bike ride from Nordiska & Minimum, and about fifteen minutes from IBM by bus or bike.

The view from my the street near my new home; my view is a bit less spectacular, but still pretty good!
The house is situated about halfway between Wollishofen and Kilchberg train stations. Being a ways from the stations will be a bit inconvenient, but a disadvantage of living nearby a station would be that I would hear the screeching of brakes as the trains pulled in. Where I’ll live, the trains pass quickly by. I will probably buy a car in the next couple of weeks. A car will come in handy during the move, and will make shopping for groceries easier in the future. Plus, I’ve been thinking about getting a car for a while now. I miss having the freedom just to hop in behind the wheel and head out at a moment’s notice. Having a car also means I can take more stuff with me when going skiing, hiking, climbing, and so on.
The dining room

The flat is in the basement of a big old house on a grassy hillside overlooking the lake. It’s on the back side of the house, away from the street and facing the lake. I have my own entrances into the bedroom and living room. The outside door from the living room opens onto a private terrace and a large garden I will share with the other families in the house. There are fruit trees and berry bushes in the garden, and grape vines covering the pergola over the terrace. The place is relatively quiet despite being quite close to the train tracks. The tracks are about a hundred meters away, but down a steep hill and on the other side of a bunch of trees.

The living room, with the dining room and kitchen beyond

The kitchen is tiny, but the dining room and living room are quite big, and have windows facing the lake. There is terra cotta tile throughout the apartment, with floor heating underneath. I’ll have morning sun coming in the window of my bedroom. The house includes a sauna, in the common area just outside my front door. The washer and dryer are also in this shared area, and there is also another shared bathroom there, as well as a bench for lying down and relaxing after a stint in the sauna. This relaxation room has a window and a door leading out into the garden. Big sauna fan that I am, I’m sure I will appreciate this perk—especially in the winter months.

The living room as seen from the bedroom

Now I have my work cut out for me. I’ll get the keys on Tuesday the 26th, and will do the big move on Saturday the 30th. Between now and then, I have to pack up all my things, rent a truck, and enlist the help of friends for the move. I will also try to take advantage of the truck to pick up a few pieces of furniture. In my current apartment, I have just one piece of furniture (my bed), so I’ll need to buy all new stuff for the new place: a kitchen table & chairs, bookshelves, a sofa and coffee table, and lots of lights and lamps. Eventually I’ll probably also get a TV and surround-sound audio system. But honestly—I haven’t watched TV in months, and even if I do decide I want a TV, I can always watch on my computer in the meantime. If you’re free on the 30th, and will be in Zürich, please set aside some time to help out with the move. I will offer beer and pizza to all who help!


I’m sure it makes perfect sense to Windows folks

From this Microsoft Knowledge Base article, we have the following gem:
  • The 32-bit version of the Odbcad32.exe file is located in the %systemdrive%\Windows\SysWoW64 folder.
  • The 64-bit version of the Odbcad32.exe file is located in the %systemdrive%\Windows\System32 folder.
It seems the location of operating system programs was not changed when the OS became 64-bit native. So  OS binaries stil reside in System32, even though they are 64-bit binaries! SysWoW64 is short for Win32-on-Win64, and is the location of 32-bit binaries on a 64-bit version of Windows.

Why isn’t it like this?
  • 32-bit binaries go in System32
  • 64-bit binaries go in System64
I suppose that would be too logical.


An open letter to President Obama

This morning, I received an email from President Obama (sent by way of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee). In the email, the president asked me to make a monetary donation to the DCCC to help Democratic candidates campaign for the upcoming mid-term elections.

In the past, I have answered these emails with a donation; but not today. Below, in full, is my response to the president.
Dear President Obama:
My patience is running thin.
Many times in the past, I have been there when you or the Democratic party needed help, because I believed you would bring fundamental change to our government. However, several of your decisions have diminished my enthusiasm:
1. The bank bail-out helped Wall Street, but did almost nothing for the average American. By propping up the value of toxic assets, you perpetuated the lie of these assets’ outrageously overstated values, merely pushing the problem further down the road. It’s also theft. The government has taken trillions of dollars from future generations of Americans and used the money to prop up the net worth of a bunch of capricious thieves who gambled with other people’s money. Private gains & public losses—an old tune I’m getting tired of.
2. The financial reform measures put in place were watered down so much that they do almost nothing to prevent a repeat of the crisis. Banks will continue to gamble with investor’s money, and to lend out many times what they possess in liquid assets. This is a giveaway to banks, and promotes growth at the expense of stability. The new rules have the appearance of having been written by the banks. This does nothing to allay the impression that some on your financial team are serving their former employers first and the American people second.
3. By failing to put a moratorium on foreclosures, and failing to give judges the authority to adjust the terms of mortgages (reducing the principal and not just the interest), you have turned a blind eye to the plight of millions of families whose home values are now much lower than what they owe on the loans. For these families, it now makes more sense to walk away from their homes than to stay. Foreclosures also have the effect of blighting neighborhoods, further depressing home values and making the problem even harder to solve later.
4. You have not properly acknowledged the human causes of the tragedy in New Orleans. Each time you refer to Katrina as the cause, you repeat a lie. Improperly designed levees and flood-walls led to this catastrophe. It was not a natural disaster. Sure, it’s easier to lay the blame on mother nature than on human incompetence and bureaucratic obstinacy; but it’s wrong. Failure to admit the true causes of this tragedy is a great sin because we also risk a recurrence of the problem if the Army Corps of Engineers is not held responsible for their past mistakes. Even today, the Corps is the body entrusted with evaluating its own performance. This is like letting the fox guard the henhouse.
5. Lastly, I know you are facing problems that you didn’t anticipate. But instead of proposing solutions that had the scale necessary to deal with the problems (the stimulus packages, financial reform, and health care to name just three), you instead brought forth lame compromises and half-measures. Instead of using your bully pulpit to stand up for what's right and shame the opposition into silence, you gave even the most intransigent obstructionists a seat at the table, interminably delaying much needed reforms.
I am gratified to see that you have begun to publicly challenge the opposition to propose better (and workable) solutions. But I wonder if it's not too little, too late. I am also pleased to see that Summers is finally on his way out; on financial matters, you would do well to listen more to the likes of Paul Krugman in the future.
I cannot at present convince myself that a donation to the DCCC would be money well spent. I still have hope for the future. But if you want my financial support, you will have to earn it.
Sincere Regards,
Michael A. Lowry
I know I am not the only one who feels this way. I hope the president gets the message.

iTunes app update bug

I opened iTunes this morning to see that 5 new app updates were available. Yay!

I clicked on the Apps category in the left sidebar, and then clicked on the tiny arrow icon at the bottom.

No updates for you!



The evolution of iTunes from app to store

Some failed to grasp the sarcasm in my previous post. This is inevitable when one engages in satire. The ongoing discussion on iTunes 10’s bland UI led one commentator to write:
I think the real motivation behind this is to [...] make what you can buy colourful and what you already own bland.
He hit the nail on the head.

From Apple’s point of view, the iTunes/iOS ecosystem has reached a level of market penetration where the focus has shifted away from improving the app and moved more toward exploiting the app’s ubiquity to sell more content.

Since the introduction of the iTunes Music Store, Apple has made each release of iTunes more focused on directing users to stuff they can buy. Here’s just one example: If you click the little gray arrow to the right of an album name, you might expect iTunes to take you to that album in your own music library; but instead, it redirects you to the album in the iTunes Music Store.

Here’s another example: the Ringtones button reappears periodically in bottom row of icons in the iOS iTunes app, and the Podcasts icon disappears. The user can change this, replacing the Ringtones icon with the Podcasts icon; but after a while, it will change back again. Again, this has the effect of directing you toward stuff you can buy (ringtones) instead of stuff that’s free (podcasts).

And one last example: it is not possible to have iTunes save your password for free downloads only. If you want iTunes to save your password, simplifying the downloading of free apps, music tracks, and podcasts, then you must also have a valid credit card on file, and allow iTunes to save your password for purchases too.

Apple’s engineers are well aware that bland, colorless portions of the UI are less likely to capture and hold the interest and attention of the user. This is by design.

From recent updates to the iTunes app, we can infer the following design objectives:
1. Reduce the user interface to its spartan, utilitarian minimum, and focus the user’s attention on the content area of the window;
2. Lead the user quickly to purchasable or promotional content in the Store, and do this from as many places in the app as possible; and
3. Make it as easy as possible to purchase content.


Desaturate now!

Since Apple released iTunes 10 yesterday, some people with far too much time on their hands have complained about Apple’s decision to remove color from the iTunes user interface. “Grayscale icons are harder to identify than color icons,” they whine, “low contrast icons and UI elements are more difficult to read!”


These complaints are groundless and hysterical. The geniuses at Apple knows what they’re doing. These are the user interface professionals, remember? You know—the same perfectionists who invented the fucking GUI? Apple doesn’t make mistakes when it comes to the user interface of one of the company’s most vital applications! Trust Apple, and update your personal preferences. Color UIs were just a passing fancy, anyway.

I have long wondered when Apple would jump on the desaturation bandwagon. IBM boldly removed color from its UIs years ago. A directive was handed down that all user interfaces were to be harmonized—all across IBM Software Group. Professional graphic artists were brought in to do the meticulous and painstaking work of replacing confusingly colorful UIs with broad swaths of beautiful grayness (and subtle hints of blue). I am glad to see that Apple has finally chosen to embrace IBM’s proven leadership in user interface design.

My only small quibble would be that the iTunes 10 user interface still has too much color. I suggest that Apple follow through with what it has started, and complete the job of removing color from the UI. The capacity display for connected iOS devices is one of the worst offenders.

It’s so gaudy and crass, like a cheap toy prize from a gumball machine. All those colors, screaming for attention! They are more likely to distract and confuse users than to help them. Moreover, even if colors do help the user, relying color cues in the user interface amounts to discrimination against those with color vision impairments.

I’m sure you’ll agree that my proposed improvement is much more professional looking, conveying all the necessary information through a subtle yet rich palette of shades of gray.

Keep up the good work, Apple!


Proof of identity in the digitial age

I recently contacted my bank in Texas, and requested that they change my billing address. I sent this request in an email via the bank’s secure and authenticated online banking web site. A day later, I received a reply stating that the change-of-address request had to be submitted in writing, and that a fax would suffice.

So a fax, which can easily be forged and can even been sent from a computer, is acceptable as proof that the request comes from me; but an authenticated email, sent via the bank’s own secure online banking system, is not.

This is insane.


Adventures in bathing

Yesterday I met Elena for lunch at Nordiska. We fixed pizza and ate on the balcony. I played peek-a-boo with her daughter Sonia. It was cool outside, so I turned on the sauna and after I had said goodbye to my friends, stepped in to warm up a bit. Figuring that no one would be outside on such a cold and rainy day, I went out to jump in the lake wearing just my towel. As long as no one’s around, this isn’t normally a problem. But when I got outside, I saw that there was a big party tent on the lawn behind one of the neighboring rowing clubs, and a wedding ceremony was underway!

I didn’t want to walk all the way back upstairs just to fetch my shorts—I planned to go running in these shorts later in the evening and didn’t want them to be wet. But I didn’t think waltzing down to the end of the dock and skinny-dipping in full view of the wedding guests was a good idea either. So for modesty’s sake, and so as not to disturb the wedding, I walked over to the shore by Seeclub Zürich, and tried to make a shallow dive into the water there. Unfortunately, I didn't get enough lateral momentum, and although my torso made it to the deep water, my legs dragged along the bottom. I felt the top of my left thigh being scraped by something sharp. It happened so fast, and I didn’t feel any pain. But when lake water began flowing into the wound, I realized immediately that I had received more than just a scratch. I walked out of the water to survey the damage. It was not a pretty sight. There was a twenty centimeter gash on the front of my thigh, running straight upward from just above the knee. As I walked up onto the lawn, the blood began to stream out of the wound, branching out into a tree-like pattern as it flowed down the front of my shin and onto my foot.

So then I had the task of walking back to Nordiska with blood running down my leg, covering up with my towel without getting it bloody, and again, without making a scene that would disturb the wedding guests. It was a bit ridiculous.

I tracked blood all through the boathouse as I made my way back upstairs. I located the first aid kit in the changing room and stopped the bleeding with a pressure dressing. The situation was stable at this point, but the wound was not going to stay closed by itself. I knew I’d need to get stitches if I wanted to avoid ending up with a large scar. I walked to Bürkliplatz and took the tram up the hill to Universitätsspital Zürich, where within half an hour I had submitted my paperwork, gotten a fresh tetanus vaccination, and had been wheeled on a gurney to an operating room, where I was getting sewn up by a nice Austrian nurse named Veronica. She was friendly, and seemed glad to have something to do. The hospital wasn’t very busy that day. While she worked, I chatted with her and asked questions about what she was doing. I also took two videos with my iPhone. After cleaning the wound, she injected the site with anesthetic. These injections were the only painful part of the procedure. Once the wound site had been numbed, I felt only pressure—no pain—for the remainder of the procedure.

Veronica told me she was from Vienna, and that she was here on a temporary internship. She said that she liked the hospital and the city very much, and planned to move here permanently. She was cute too, so after I was all patched up I told her I had enjoyed talking with her and wondered if she might want to keep in touch. The look on her face said it all: “Oh god. Must every man I patch up ask me for my number?” He demeanor changed in an instant. What had previously been a talkative and friendly person became an unresponsive automaton, just doing her job. Having previously told me that she was planning to move to Zürich, she declined sharing her contact information on the grounds that she was “going back to Vienna tomorrow.” Um, yeah. Just say no, okay? I imagined what she must have been thinking: “How nice. Here’s a gentleman—making nice conversation and not even hitting on m—nope, there, he did it. He hit on me.” I guess she hasn’t yet learned how to decline advances gracefully. These things take practice—and a fair amount of mental energy. Oh well. She did an excellent job with the sutures, and for a while at least, we had a nice chat. If I’d made a new friend, it would almost have been worth all the trouble!

Pretty!, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

I was in and out of the hospital in less than an hour. The whole process was remarkably efficient, and the experience made my visits to hospitals in Sweden and the U.S. seem poor and haphazard in hindsight. Of course the Swiss level of service comes at a cost—but luckily I won’t have to pay it out-of-pocket. The hospital visit will be covered by my IBM’s accident insurance. Companies in Switzerland must purchase accident insurance for all full-time employees.

After leaving the hospital, I returned to Nordiska to pick up my things. I fixed a pizza with the leftovers from lunch, and made my way back home. I had planned to go running with Malin, but obviously that wasn’t going to happen. I called her and explained the situation. “If you planned to go running anyway, then there was no point in getting stitches,” she said. OK! I resolved to take it easy and give my cut time to heal. My doctor friend Linda lives and works in my neighborhood. She met me at the tram stop and came by for a while to check up on me—it was very sweet of her indeed. The wound seems to be quite okay. It’s not painful, and in fact the thing I feel the most is the pulling of hairs by the bandage when I move my leg. The doc told me not to exercise using that leg for at least ten days.

My friend Nic had been kind enough to arrange a skiff rowing course for me and some others. A skiff is a one-person rowing boat, and learning to row a skiff requires special training. Since I began to row last year, I had looked forward to the summer when I would have the opportunity to learn to row a skiff. With that skill under my belt, I could row whenever I wanted to—even without a partner. The course was this morning, and obviously I wasn’t able to participate. When I told Nic last night that I wouldn’t make it (and explained why) she told me that it was one of the best excuses she had heard, but that she would want photographic proof of my injury. Hah! If I’m involved, there’s always photographic evidence to be found. Nic agreed to hold a second course for those who missed this one. Thanks, Nic—you’re an angel!

This was my first experience getting stitches. It was interesting and less of a big deal than I had expected. I have since learned that for some minor cuts that might otherwise require stitches, cyanoacrylate (super) glue often works in a pinch. I’ll have to remember to pack a tube of the stuff on my next backpacking trip.


Skype cancels plans to charge iPhone users for Skype-to-Skype calls

OK, that didn’t take very long. Late last month, Skype announced that it had cancelled plans to charge iPhone users for the convenience of making Skype-to-Skype calls over the mobile network.

The latest version of Skype for iPhone also adds the ability to remain running in the background. This means that you can sign in to Skype, and then still receive calls while using other apps or when the phone is locked. Very nice!


Skype on mobile devices

Yesterday, version 2.0.0 of the Skype iPhone app was released. The new version adds the ability to make calls over the 3G mobile telephone network. Mac Rumors and TUAW pointed out that Skype plans to begin charging a monthly fee for this service sometime later this year. When Skype will begin to charge for the service is not clear: the pop-up message that appears in the app indicates August 2010; the Skype page at the App Store indicates the end of 2010.

What is clear is that at some point in the coming months, it will become necessary to pay a monthly fee to Skype if you want to use the iPhone version of Skype to make calls over the mobile phone network. Mind you, this fee does not cover calls to ordinary telephones or mobile phones; for that, you’ll have to pay additional fees. The monthly fee we’re talking about here is just for the privilege of using the Skype iPhone app to make calls—even Skype-to-Skype calls—over the 3G network.

Skype-to-Skype calls made from the iPhone app will continue to be free when made over WiFi networks. Presumably such calls will also be free when made from the Mac or Windows version of Skype.

Convenience fee
What’s really interesting is the way Skype is hoping to earn money here. Skype is not really talking about charging for using the 3G network per se; instead, Skype is talking about charging for that subset of calls made from the Skype iPhone App. Many laptop users get their internet connectivity via the mobile telephone network, using a 3G USB dongle, or a built-in 3G transceiver in their laptop. In many places it’s also possible to connect your iPhone to your Mac or PC, enable tethering, and share the iPhone’s internet connection with your computer. In this way it is possible to make free Skype-to-Skype calls over the 3G network from the Skype application running on your computer. Skype is not talking about charging these Mac & PC users for ordinary Skype-to-Skype calls. However, the exact same calls made from the iPhone will soon require payment of a monthly fee.

Skype seems to be betting that users will gladly pay a fee for the convenience of calling from the iPhone version of the program.

Who must pay for Skype-to-Skype calls?

ApplicationPlatform Connection Cost
Skype Mac/Windows LAN Free
SkypeMac/Windows Wi-Fi Free
SkypeMac/Windows 3G* Free
SkypeSymbian3G Free
SkypeBlackberry 3G Free
SkypeAndroid 3G Free
FringiPhone 3G Free
NimbuzziPhone 3G Free
SkypeiPhone Wi-Fi Free
SkypeiPhone 3G Monthly fee

* including calls made over a 3G connection provided by a tethered iPhone

This strategy is similar to Apple’s approach to QuickTime Pro upgrades: the user pays for convenience, not additional features.

An argument can be made that it shouldn’t matter what the underlying network is. Each user pays for his or her own network connection, and I think Skype is going to have a challenge on their hands explaining why users should have to pay when a call is made over one network, but not another. After all, Skype doesn’t pay more to handle calls originating from 3G networks. And as mobile networks become faster and more widespread, a growing percentage of users will be doing more of their work on these networks. Users accustomed to making free Skype-to-Skype calls may be reluctant to begin paying just because they have switched networks. Skype is clearly hoping to get users accustomed to paying for Skype-to-Skype calls, and believes that 3G calls in the Skype iPhone app represent a good point at which to begin that process.

Skype on modified iPhones
Some iPhone users have been making calls over the 3G network for more than a year. There exists software that tricks the iPhone into thinking it’s on a Wi-Fi network, even when it’s actually just connected via 3G. There are several programs that accomplish this feat. Some cost money; VoIPover3G is free.

Installing these programs requires jailbreaking the iPhone—essentially removing Apple’s iTunes/App Store lock-in and enabling the installation of applications not approved by Apple. Jailbreaking has often been a complicated affair requiring some technical skill and no small amount of patience. However, the task has recently become much simpler, thanks to the Spirit application. It is likely that the speed and simplicity of the Spirit jailbreak will result in many more users choosing to jailbreak their iPhones.

For the past year or so, Skype on the iPhone has been able to detect when it it running on jailbroken iPhone. The first time a user runs Skype on a modified iPhone, the program displays a warning message stating that Skype is supported only on unmodified iPhones. The program continues to function normally though, happily making Skype-to-Skype calls over the 3G network. Version 2.0.0 of the Skype iPhone app does not noticeably change this.

An unanswered question is whether this will change later in the year.

If Skype is able to detect when it is running on a jailbroken iPhone, is the program also able to detect the presence of MobileSubstrate hacks? These are the small programs that fool the iPhone into thinking a 3G network is actually a Wi-Fi network. When Skype begins charging for the convenience of making Skype-to-Skype calls over 3G from the iPhone app, how will the program work on iPhones with such hacks installed? I can envision several possibilities:

On jailbroken iPhones, or on iPhones with a MobileSubstrate hack installed,
  1. Skype continues to work as today, warning the user but functioning normally;
  2. Skype simply refuses to run; or
  3. Skype runs but detects the presence of the hack, and does not make calls without payment.
An arms race could develop between Skype and the iPhone hacker community, with hackers finding new ways to fool the program into thinking it’s running on Wi-Fi, and Skype trying to detect the presence of such hacks.

It’ll be interesting to watch how this develops.