Ken and I are in Berlin for a few weeks, sort of working vacation. Been here about ten days now and have some impressions.
I’m really liking daily life in Berlin. We have an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg near Kollwitzplatz, a bougie neighborhood in former East Berlin. It’s all leafy streets and 1920s buildings and is totally charming. The nearby streets are full of cafés and restaurants and Kollwitzplatz itself is home to a terrific weekly farmer’s market. It feels worlds away from the inhuman scale 1960+s architecture you see in so much of central Berlin.
One thing I particularly enjoy in Prenzl’berg is how international it is. New York bagels, French cheese shops, English laundry, Vietnamese restaurants, Russian cafés, yesterday I had an Argentinian empanada in a repurposed 19th century brewery. I mean it’s still Germany, there’s a 100 year old kneipe just across the street from us serving Rinderouladen and Pils. But it’s also global and progressive. Which not only makes it easy for an American to get by but also makes it fun and not a historical museum like sometimes Paris can feel like.
I also appreciate being in a city with working public transit. And without thousands of dangerously insane people living on the streets. Having a bit of insulation from Trumpism helps calm the nerves. Big parts of life function better in Europe.
I’m also feeling a little unsettled, a phase I go through every time we do these long visits. A struggle between the feeling I should go out and be a tourist every day, consume the city in the short time I have. Against my desire to sit at home on my comfortable laptop and do my regular daily routine just like I would at home. Of course the happy medium is in the middle, some of each.
One goal I set myself for this time in Berlin was to learn more about older history. So much of Berlin is dominated by 20th century history, the Nazis and the Soviets. And that stuff is important and well represented. But I feel like I understand it from previous visits, so this time I’m looking for traces of 19th century Germany, of Prussia’s great gay king from the 18th century, of the very old city back when Cölln was a separate town. Learning the city from the time the waterways were the travel routes, not the U-bahn lines.
The event had an “art mile” with some temporary sculpture installations. Also some magnificent large scale street art works on Bülowstrasse itself, hopefully those will last awhile. I particularly liked Zezão’s alien calligraphy forms. Also liked some of the wildcat street art, I think a few lesser-known artists got some unauthorized paint up.
The museum show had a really thoughtfully selected overview of the best of modern streetart. C215, Deih XLF, Dalek, the obligatory representations by Banksy and Invader and Fairey. It’s terrific a museum is collecting these from all over the world; whoever is curating seems very plugged in. I wonder who’s funding the building and collection; the website only mentions some city of Berlin funding.
I strongly support removing Confederate monuments but I have some sympathy to the “you’re removing history” argument. I have no wish to forget the Civil War or the legacy of slavery. I’m a Texan and a descendant of slavers, my own skin is in this.
The disingenous thing about the “but our history!” argument is that the monuments being torn down aren’t informative representations. They’re mostly Lost Cause statues made to create a narrative of heroism, the brave Stonewall Jackson and the noble Jefferson Davis. They don’t inform, just glorify. Most of them were erected 50-100 years after the war for sinister purposes, reinforcing Jim Crow laws and resisting school integration. (Seriously, who names an elementary school after Robert E. Lee just after the courts rule Black kids get to go to that school too?)
Germany has a much better model for honoring World War II. I’ve written before about the impact the concentration camps and monuments in Germany have had on me. The forthright documentation of history without glorifying it. There are no monuments to Hitler or Himmler that need tearing down, such a thing is unimagineable there. But there is a huge amount of history on display; the Topography of Terror center is particularly good.
Japan has a more awkward relationship with its World War II history. The official line most citizens follow is the war was a terrible mistake and Japan is forevermore committed to pacifism. But there’a strong nationalist movement in Japan who pushes back on that. The Yasukuni Shrine is the central lightning rod for the nationalists. I’ve visited the museum there, it’s fascinating. When the Japanese Prime Minister visited it was a major international scandal. Japan also has a huge debate about its textbooks that leave out some of the uglier bits of war history. It reminds me a bit of how American kids are still taught the revisionist lie that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery or that the Southerners were innocent victims of the War of Northern Aggression.
History is never simple. But a mass produced generic statue erected 60 years after the war isn’t even trying to be historical. Its purpose is symbolic. And to many Southerners it’s a symbol of enslavement and racist discrimination. There are better ways to honor and explain our history.
Ken and I went to Europe a couple of months ago. I spent a few days alone in London, then we spent a couple of weeks together in Portugal. So really two trips, but here in one blog post. As always Twitter has my memories and photos: here’s a Storify collection from London and another from Portugal.
My first time in London and I enjoyed it, would love to go back. I spent two full days at the British Museum. The part I remember best is the Enlightenment Room, a collection of miscellany presented as if you were in an 18th century library. It perfectly captures the optimistic spirit of the Enlightenment. The best part of Empire, when British scientists felt they could understand everything but collecting objects from all over the world and studying them. A good place to start a visit before seeing the grander “transported” treasures in the galleries. (My favorites of those: the Assyrian galleries and the Aztec masks.)
Portugal was great. We spent a week in Lisbon and Porto and another week poking around the countryside. Porto was my favorite place; a small city with beautiful topography and a lot of youthful optimism. I becamse fascinated with azulejo, the painted tile that’s a centuries-long tradition. Our visit to the smaller towns wasn’t as successful; Portugal still is a relatively poor country and the vernacular of food and accomodation is variable. But I’m glad we go to see some of the more remote monuments and the countryside was quite pleasant.
I got an Oculus Rift on a whim this week when they dropped the price of the bundle down to $400. This is my first experience with VR in a few years and 10+ since I last used a high quality rig. I’m impressed, the sense of being present in virtual space is incredibly compelling. But as everyone says the problem is there’s no great VR-specific content yet.
The hardware is good. Lag-free head and hand tracking. Sensor calibration is a hassle. Windows setup was remarkably painless. The touch controllers are essential. It allows you to have virtual hands. Definitely want “full room VR”: several tracking sensors and a 5x7’ clear space to walk around in. Sitting still and having the view pan is instant nausea but walking around a stationary virtual room is better. Even with the calmest software I get tired and headachy after about 30 minutes. Eyestrain maybe? VR sickness makes for a viscerally negative experience.
As for software, I’ve only played around for a few hours, so no deep opinions. Oculus’ own tutorials / demos are very good, the intro Dreamdeck demo had me shouting for joy. The best game I’ve played so far is Superhot VR; I’ve not played the normal version but the VR variant is really compelling. Subnautica made me sick in about five minutes, although it is very pretty. Thumper is pretty in 3d but I’d rather have a flat screen and excellent speakers. Google Earth VR was surprisingly disappointing; the imagery isn’t quite good enough. I haven’t tried Job Simulator 2050 yet, it’s quite popular. I’m also curious to try The Climb.
I took a quick look at the porn industry; all they’re offering is 3d videos and some minimal “fondle boobs with your glowing virtual hands” interaction, so they haven’t figured out VR apps either. The fact that "Waifu Sex Simulator" is one of the most popular apps gives you an idea of the target market.
So it’s a fun toy, but given the fatigue and lack of compelling content I’m not sure how long I’ll be using my Oculus Rift. We’ll see. What I really want is some easy way to build data visualizations in 3D, maybe using WebGL or something. I haven’t looked hard but my impression is that’s not fully baked yet.
Watch Dogs 2 is a very good video game. I think it’s nearly as good as GTA V or Sleeping Dogs and better than many other open world roamers. It fixes nearly all the problems in the original Watch Dogs and finds the fun in the game design.
My favorite thing about the game is the setting, the tech industry in the Bay Area. I live in San Francisco, I’ve worked in two of the offices featured in the game, I’m constantly running in to things in the game that remind me of where I live. They’ve done a remarkably good job on the re-creation of the Bay Area. Like not only do the buses in San Francisco look like SF Muni buses, but the buses in Oakland look different because of course they should, they’re AC Transit buses. The world quality extends to the game writing, both incidental stuff like random NPC dialog and significant things like the main story writing.
The main story is pretty good. It’s not great, I’d say it’s weaker than GTA V, but it’s still pretty good. Some of the characters are great and some of the set pieces are excellent. The biggest criticism I have is something a lot of reviews pointed out, which is there’s a conflict in tone between “we’re a fun hacker gang pulling pranks” and “we’re a group of murder hoboes launching grenades at FBI agents”. There’s an event that happens in the game that could explain the shift but the writing doesn’t quite pull it together. It’s not a huge problem.
Most importantly, the
gameplay is fun. The
It’s a really good game! I have some screenshots and video clips on Twitter.
I like maps. Some friends and colleagues are making some beautiful map and geographic based art that would make nice Christmas gifts. (For others! I’m not hinting, have these already!)
Bill Morris makes painterly prints of satellite photographs. You can read about his process in detail. In short, he takes satellite images from Planet Labs and then pushes them through customized machine learning software to render them like paintings. They’re beautiful.
Rachel Binx makes geographic style products. Jewelry, clothing, and posters all custom made for someone’s personal geography. One-off design and fabrication like this is really ambitious and she delivers well.
Jared Prince of Muir Way made a high quality print of a map of American rivers. He was inspired by my river map but ended up recreating the whole thing from scratch with a much better result than mine. The print quality is excellent too.
One of our holiday treats is an egg dip that Ken makes, an old family recipe. It’s sort of like smoky deviled eggs only potato chip compatible. I like it. Here’s an approximation of the recipe; it’s not an exact thing.
Mince the eggs. Blend with mayo and cream cheese to dip texture. Flavor with mustard, liquid smoke, and salt. The result should taste mostly like eggs, with a noticeable smoky flavor and a bit of sharpness from the mustard.
You can use ordinary wet mustard but the dry mustard without vinegar is better. Minced onion or shallot might be a nice addition. Or cayenne pepper.
Oktoberfest is a remarkable event; 100,000+ people together drinking heavily, and yet few problems. It’s crowded though, so crowded your neighbor’s back rubs gemütlichkeit against yours at the beerhall. If you can find a place to sit. I don’t love crowds, here’s how we coped.
Go when it’s less busy. It’s not complicated: weekdays and earlier in the day are quieter. Monday early afternoon was pretty mellow, by which I mean the tents were only 75% full.
Consider a small tent for dining. After drinking our fill at the Augustiner tent (population 8500) we wandered off and found a tiny restaurant tent that sat 200. Most of which were staff on break from the Ochsenbraterei tent next door. It was still festive but plenty of room to have a comfortable lunch.
Drink wine! When the crowd got too much we found our way to the Weinzelt tent. It’s a big tent but an odd one, serving mostly wine. It’s a bit smaller, maybe 2500 people. Best of all instead of back-to-back benches, everyone sits at their own booths for 8-10 people max. Way more comfortable. Great music and party too! The drawback is that it’s expensive; 75€ for a bottle of wine instead of 11€ for a liter of beer. But it's a good choice if you want to trade off money for comfort.
Ken and I took a lovely tourist trip to Scotland. Here’s a Storify of photos and comments; I tend to use Twitter like postcards while travelling, it works great for that. Scotland is a nice mix of modern European city and remote coastal landscapes. And so green! (And rainy.) Our trip broke down into two kinds of experiences: cities on either end, and lots of driving around the west in the middle.
We started in Edinburgh, a wonderful city. Highly recommend 3+ days in that city, it’s just beautiful and lots to enjoy. We ended the trip in Glasgow, which was also great. They say Edinburgh is the pretty sister. But Glasgow is the sister you’d want to hang out with in the pub. More of a regular city but a vibrant one with lots to offer. Also a city on the upswing.
Our countryside trip started with a couple of nights in Inverness. There’s not much to the town but it’s a convenient base for travelling to Speyside in the east and Loch Ness and the Great Glen to the southwest. Culloden made a big impression on us, the historical monument there is very well done. Loch Ness was a bit of a letdown, it’s just like all the other beautiful lakes in Scotland only this one is full of tourists so you can’t park to see anything.
The Isle of Skye is primary recommendation if you want some remote countryside tourism in Scotland. It’s beautiful and the northern parts feel very remote and sparse, the landscape reminded me a bit of the Faroes. Only there’s lots of hotels and restaurants and decent enough roads. The Clan Donald visitor center made a good impression too, much smarter than you’d expect a family-funded history museum to be. Most of the western part of the trip was just driving around remote roads from beautiful site to site. Lots to enjoy.
We stayed in some fantastic hotels along the way, see the map link above for details. Also ate at some great restaurants. The finest meal of all was at Martin Wishart in Loch Lomond, excellent Michelin star level food and service that executed perfectly. For less demanding dining we very much liked the Scran & Scallie in Edinburgh and the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow.