Brian & Ann's European Experience

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

We've Moved the Blog!

That's right, all your favorite posts of yesteryear and all the posts from now on will be available directly from mochasteak.com.

Special thanks to Mark Lorenc for all the help he has provided in getting the new blog up and running and with migrating all the old posts.

What are you doing still here? Stop reading this and go to mochasteak.com!

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Day The Music... Died

It may very well be that years from now people will look back at this week and say “that was the turning point for the European Union”.

On Wednesday the French, whose former President DRAFTED much of the constitution, voted against it in a referendum. The talking heads on the TV are saying that the French vote was mainly an expression of frustration against the government for the poor economic situation in France, and a knee-jerk reaction to the fear of outsiders coming in and stealing their jobs (all those “New” Europeans) or fear of free market capitalism coming in and wiping out their precious welfare state.

Chirac campaigned heavily for the constitution, and in a way that just made it all the more obvious that he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He wanted so much for France to be relevant again, and for Europe to play the counterbalance to the US, that he really went out there and pressed the flesh trying to get it passed. But if he had just allowed the decision to be made by the legislature, instead of by a national referendum, the French would have passed the EU constitution and the pressure would have been on the Dutch to follow suit.

Even though the Dutch were also pissed off at the EU constitution (for completely different reasons – they thought it wasn’t strong enough), after living here I can tell you that they would have succumbed to the pressure. The Dutch are all about consensus.

By the way, I have heard from more than one Dutch person that they were going to vote no because the deal that was on the table wasn’t good enough. While I certainly agree that there is a time to stick to your guns, what the Dutch don’t realize is that if they didn’t take the deal that was on the table, there would cease to BE a table. Sometimes you have to take a deal you don’t want just to keep a relationship going so that you can get to the point you want to be.

Now, with two ‘no’ votes, the idea of an EU constitution is pretty much dead, and any attempt in a few years to revive the idea will be met in people’s minds with the history of the last experience.

One country’s people thought it was a threat, one thought it wasn’t enough of a threat, in the end, nothing happens and the potential of a united Europe is again unfulfilled.

In my opinion, it will ALWAYS be unfulfilled.

With some minor differences in standard of living, ethnicity, and religion, the EU is just like Afghanistan: a group of tribes who each want to cling to their own power and will never give up their small amount of power in order to gain a greater amount of power as a united country because they just don’t trust each other enough to take that leap of faith. Just like in Afghanistan, there’s some weak central government trying to push the country in the direction of unity, but they have little real power and there’s not much they can do because they have to keep up friendly relations. There is little carrot and absolutely no stick.

Europeans are different.

Maybe in some fundamental ways they are alike (mainly Christian, mainly white, social welfare tendencies, love taxes and universal health care), but their differences are not superficial. Language. History. Business approach. Politics. Size. Economic wealth. There is just too much that is different that there will always be a significant block of countries that disagree with each other.

Remember how easy it was for America to divide Europe with the Iraq war? You have one group of European countries saying “it’s illegal and immoral and we will do everything to stop it” and you have a bunch of others sending troops.

The rejection of the European constitution, as watered down and vague as it is, illustrates how difficult it will be for Europe to ever play a dominant role in international affairs. They have little to offer (“hey, we’ll sell you our stuff”) and no ability to enforce any kind of policy beyond their own borders.

The really sad thing is that this rejection of the concept of the EU will push those who want a “multi-polar” world even closer to despotic countries like Russia and China, simply so that there can be someone on the world stage who can challenge the US and show those American bastards they can’t just make everyone eat McDonalds and drink Coke and get rich.

Yikes. Way past my bedtime.

New Blog Design Coming

Sorry I’ve been so remiss with my postings. The thing is that I have been spending many nights up until 2am working on the design for my new blog.

I am going to move the blog to mochasteak.com and just turn the website that’s there now into a blog. Most of what I write is just like a blog post anyway, and since I don’t have any kind of content management system running my site, it tends to become just this huge conglomeration of pages.

Plus, I never went back and changed the design of all the old pages, so I have a homepage that looks one way and anything you click on takes you to all the old pages that have the original design that I made in 2001 when I was just starting to learn HTML.

I am fairly proud of myself for leeching off of the brilliant work of others while creating my new site. I did a few PHP tutorials to get a feeling for how that stuff worked, and some CSS tutorials so I could fool around with the design, and the result can be seen at http://www.mochasteak.com/blog.

Let me know what you think. A few more weeks and the entire Mochasteak site will look like that.

I'm So Bad

It’s come to this. I’m back to playing poker online.

About two years ago I tried out an online poker site for about a week or so. Lost almost two hundred dollars before I realized how stupid I was being. Nothing has changed in terms of the security of online poker, but my gambling opportunities are so diminished in this poker-barren land that I have resorted to extreme measures.

The most annoying thing about signing up for Party Poker.com is the fact that two of my credit cards got put on security holds while I was trying to get my first deposit in so I could get started.

This is tantamount to taking your kid to Toys R Us, letting him pick out the most expensive toy, waiting in line at the checkout, and then having the cashier tell you that while she’d LIKE to take your money, apparently buying toys with credit cards is now illegal.

Apparently there are some laws or some such nonsense about gambling online. It’s not allowed for Americans because there are some stupid “laws” or some such against gambling in certain states (not mine, mind you). What a stupid idea. I’m going to stop people from using the Internet to get their entertainment fix.

Next thing you know they’re going to try and stop me from downloading all those TV episodes and movies with BitTorrent.

(Note to RIAA and MPAA: come and get me bitches.)

Well. I finally figgered a way to get some money on my account. I went to PartyPoker, got onto a Hold ‘Em table with some other degenerate losers, and started very quickly whittling down that initial deposit. I mean, it’s not my fault or anything, it’s just really hard to think of it as real money you’re losing when the graphics are so pretty.

I got all the way down to being all in on a hand before I finally slapped myself a few times and physically wrote down on a paper in front of me: PLAY ONLY DECENT HANDS STUPID.

It took an hour and a half but I eventually got all the way back to even and then a little profit. I’m still playing as I write this, and periodically just hitting the ‘fold’ button unless I have pocket kings or Ace/King suited.

I’ll go to bed soon, it being 2am and all. And oh, the dreams I will have.

;-)

Thursday, May 19, 2005

London Trip

Ann and I took the Eurostar high-speed train to London last weekend. Sadly, there were no more seats available in coach, so we had to go first class. I have to say, it was pretty damn cool. On the way there we had breakfast, which I slept through, but which Ann tells me was great. All I can contribute is that the seats are comfy.

Ann and I lived in London for a grand total of four months, from November 2000 to February 2001. We were part of the aborted European expansion of Xlibris. We both loved London and were really bummed to leave. Besides the fact that we had the worst four months of weather ever, London is such a great town that it’s impossible not to have a good time there.

Unfortunately, the weather report for our weekend started off “grey/cloudy” and deteriorated to “going to rain the whole damn time” as we got closer to our departure date. It turned out alright though...

Here are a few highlights:

Saturday

I planned this whole itinerary on the train, down to the hour. It involved a lot of traveling around London by tube and seeing old places. We started off at the hotel (tube stop: High Street Kensington), then went to have lunch at the shoarma place we used to eat lunch at where I worked in Mayfair (tube stop: Marble Arch).

We got out of the subway and it was like nothing had changed. Oxford street when you come out. The big arch to your right, at the corner of Hyde Park. Park Lane ahead of you, one of the ritziest streets in London. Oh, and I don’t know what crack the weather guys were smoking, but it was sunny with puffy white clouds and in the high sixties.

I used to cross the street and pass by the Aston Martin and Jaguar dealerships before taking a left onto Grosvenor street. Our office was a single large room in an old stone mansion that used to be an embassy. We rented the dining room. It had fantastic floor to ceiling windows that looked out onto the garden.

Damn I had a good time back then.

But the best thing about our office was lunch. Two to three times a week we’d walk a few blocks up Edgeware road to this Lebanese shoarma place. They made the most fantastic shoarmas. The chicken and lamb are the best quality, roasted on this spit with lemons, limes, bell peppers and tomatos dripping juices down the side of them as they cook. The tastiest lamb I’ve ever had, no contest.

After lunch we walked down Oxford street a little. It’s one of the most famous shopping streets in London and home of some of the largest departments stores. Ann and I bought a bottle of vanilla flavored liqueur at Selfridges because we’re suckers for jars full of pretty colors.

We went then went to Chiswick (pronounced Chiz-ick, tube stop: Turnham Green) to see our old apartment. 37 Esmond Gardens. We had the best apartment of all the Xlibrians I must say. We walked around the High Street, shopped a little in the Waterstones (the British equivalent of Barnes and Nobles) since the books were cheaper in London than the Netherlands (weird).

By this time my feet hurt and the schedule was shot to hell. We went back to High Street Ken (oh, to speak like the locals speak) did a little shopping (Ann pouted because I bought a suit jacket and she hates being outspent by her husband).

We had dinner at an Indian place called Utsav right on High Street Kensington. Great food. We had this appetizer shaped like a little pot of thin crispy bread. It had this spicy chickpea paste inside, but the coolest thing about it was that it had a hole in the top and you filled it with a cold soup, put the whole thing in your mouth, and when you bit down it exploded like a juicy bomb in your mouth. I love food you play with.

We had a talkative Pakistani waiter who said he would want George Bush as his President. Since I was on vacation I held back from saying, “Take him, please! He’s all yours.”

Sunday

All the people we knew who lived in London are all gone. But I called up a guy I know from work, Skip, to see if he wanted to get together. Skip actually works for a company that provides email services to my company, but we’ve gotten really close in the six months that it’s taken my company to figure out they want to renew their contract.

Skip did something really nice: on one day’s notice he agreed to make time for Ann and I to have breakfast with him and his wife on Sunday. I called him and he said: “My wife, who is very proactive, booked us a table for breakfast at a hotel called the Dorchester.”

Sounded great. It was just right across the park. It was another beautiful sunny, cool day, and Ann and I walked all the way across Hyde Park to work up an appetite. The parking lot of the Dorchester, which is on Park Lane, was filled with a Ferrari, a Porsche, a stretch Mercedes limo, and a Bentley.

Okaaay. So the Dorchester ain’t a dump.

The inside was appointed in a style that can only be called ‘palatial’. A waiter in a waistcoat with tails offered to take my coat. Skip and his wife Christie (who was seven months pregnant) moved to London on a temporary assignment. That was four and a half years ago. Skip and Christie were both great. They were even greater for picking up the check. I didn’t look, but I think the bill was about thirty pounds a head. With the exchange rate being almost two dollars to a pound, that’s $240. For breakfast. Without tip.

I can safely say, that was the most expensive breakfast of my life.

Skip said he would expense it, and I truly thank him for that. I sure wouldn’t want to explain a $240 breakfast to my accounting department. But without Skip’s graciousness, I never would have had a $32 bagel with lox.

But it didn’t stop there. We mentioned that we were going to visit Windsor castle after breakfast and Skip said, “Oh, we live right in the next town, we’ll drive you!” Now THAT’S service. I asked this old guy with advanced Parkinsons to take this picture of us. Then his wife offered to take another, and after checking around numerous times for the imaginary tree branches and strands of hair that were in the way, we eventually did get this nice shot. Thanks again Skip and Christie.

So it’s simply a beautiful day. We’re walking around this quaint little English town, and right smack in the middle of it, overlooking the Thames river, on top of a little hill, is a huge freaking castle!

See, that’s why I love Europe. Castles. You just don’t get that in the States.

We took the whole castle tour, passing through the appropriately luxurious rooms of the “oldest continuously inhabited castle in the world.” Forty-two consecutive sovereigns have lived in Windsor Castle. Don’t you feel sorry royalty. Always so limited in their career and housing options.

Then we saw the Queen. She was there for the weekend, as is her habit, and she came outside to inspect some horses that were there for the yearly Windsor horse show. I’m sure it’s a big to-do, but Ann and I had more important things to do. Like inspect old suits of armor and swords.



Ann made me walk all the way across the river to Eton to check out the famous college. Another quaint little town whose main street has shops right out of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. There were tailors providing school uniforms, antique book and map shops, Qwik-E-Marts, all of whom had been in business for longer than America has been in existence. Just reminds you that you’re in a different world.

When we finally got there they wanted us to pay six pounds for admission. Eton has got to be the most exclusive and expensive private school in all of the United Kingdom. What the hell do they need my six pounds for!?

No way was I going to give money to the richest kids in the land. Little brats.

So, guess what we had for dinner Sunday. If you guessed “Indian food”, you get the magic prize. Ironically, London has been colonized by the Indians and the Pakistanis, and as a result has the best Indian food in the world.

Okay, I have to admit, I made one terrible mistake on this trip. I convinced myself that there might be a chance in hell that Ann would like the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Well, the penalty for denying reality is that it smacks you in the face every now and then. Ann was a trooper, but if there’s any type of movie she hates, it’s one where weird fantastical stuff happens. And I took her to a movie where it started off weird and just kept getting weirder and weirder. Smart move.

The really funny thing is, that was the second movie we saw that weekend. The night before we went to see Sahara (which was actually really good). And BOTH times, in DIFFERENT theaters in Leicester Square, who should come and sit in the seats DIRECTLY behind us?

Dutch people.

Weird.

Monday

Monday we went to the British Museum, which, as I describe in another post, is my favorite museum in the world. It doesn’t have the Mona Lisa, but it has items of even greater historical significance and beauty. The Rosetta Stone. The Elgin Marbles. The Reading Room. It’s an amazing place.

Finally, after some last minute shopping at Marks and Spencer, it was time to board the Eurostar back home. Three hours to Brussels. A three course dinner with champagne. The best chocolate truffles (which the steward gave us a bag of). In the words of Adam Sandler, not too shabby.

And then it was back to life, back to reality. Dordrecht and the tall, cheese-eating Dutch awaited us. Ann asked the cab driver on the way back to the apartment how the weather was over the weekend.

“Terrible. Cold and rainy all weekend.”

Friday, May 13, 2005

Little Differences 5

The bathrooms here in the Netherlands always have full floor to celing doors. All of them. Even the public ones (which you have to pay fifty cents or so to use).

I don’t get how on the one hand you can have a sophisticated quality-of-life improvement like fully-contained toilets, but at the same time the same liberal, socialist-leaning European citizens are fine with charging for the fulfillment of bodily functions. I find that kind of weird. You think that along with the “free health care for everyone” and “free education for everyone” that logically “free toilet use for everyone” would follow.

Just another example of the social complexities of “the Continent”.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Blogger sucks

After many frustrating crashes right in the middle of posting for no apparent reason I have decided that Blogger.com, quite simply. Sucks balls.

Looking for a replacement, but it's hard to find good free services. I am hoping my buddy Mark Lorenc will hook me up and install some blog software on the server that hosts mochasteak.com.

Thank you Mark. You're the best. I'd mow your lawn or something but a) I don't know how to mow a lawn and b) you live on a different continent.

But I still love you.

I am the PHP MASTER!

I'm feeling pretty good about myself. For the longest time I was trying to get the headlines from my blog to show up automatically on my website. I started by figuring out that Blogger.com had a setting that allowed you to publish an RSS feed for your blog.

Then I got stuck.

I have a news ticker Java application on my website, and I emailed the developers asking if there was a way to fit the RSS feed right into the news ticker. I got the typical developer answer: "Yes. But no."

Meaning, "yes, of course it is technically possible, IF you are a web programmer familiar with certain technologies like PHP and if you were you wouldn't be asking me so for YOU the answer is 'no'."

Well I decided to show that guy what was what. I started reading up on PHP. Now I don't know shit about web development languages. I barely understand HTML. But PHP sounded like it could do some pretty cool stuff... if you were a web programmer. Which I wasn't.

So I foundered for a few weeks. Then I got my courage back up, got back on the Internet, and started scrounging for answers. I found a great utility that some great people had written and put up on the internet for free (don't you just love the world we live in) that did exactly what I needed: it took an RSS feed and turned it into PHP.

Great. But I still didn't know what to do with the PHP.

A few hours more digging, some reading on some 'tutorial'-type pages, and I thought I had it. I started copying and pasting other people's code (hey, that's how the Internet works man, don't look at me like that...).

To make a long story short, I got it to work.

And there was much rejoicing.

But then I decided that I didn't like the way the dates were displaying. I mean, who wants to read "2005-05-08T13:45:32Z" right?

And then I got stuck. Apparently that's the format for date the Blogger.com uses. So to change it I would need to know how to manipulate the data in PHP arrays.

And cue exploding head.

So I found a developer's forum, signed up for their discussion board, and posted a message. Within an hour I got two replies. One guy pointed me to an article about how to ask questions on discussion forums and made a cryptic remark about "check out the date() function". Fucking know-it-all developers.

But the second guy, Alan Levine, wrote me a very succinct email telling me what the general theory was, and then (thank God) giving me a suggested piece of code to copy and paste into my existing code.

And therefore, Alan Levine is now my new hero. Thank you Mr. Levine, you are a savior on the order of the Messiah and Maxim magazine.

And now I want everyone to go to Mochasteak.com and ooh and aah over the fact that yours truly figured out how to get the headlines from his Blog to appear in BOTH the main page AND the Javascript news applet on the right.

BOOYA! I AM THE PHP MASTER!!!

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Tom's Tourney 2005 - Part 2

Tom's Tourney 2005 - Part 2

So we left off with me at the Brugge train station trying to get to the fields. It’s 10:15am. The tournament started at 9:30. I hopped a cab and the driver luckily knew the sportpark. I get to the fields and they are just swamped with ultimate teams. There are at least seven fields, with fourteen teams playing, and at least that many waiting on the sidelines. I start wandering around, looking for my team of giant-sized Dutch men, and can’t find them. This is slightly worrying. They should be easy to spot, they are all eight feet tall! But after ten minutes of lugging my duffel bag around, I have checked out every field and there is no sign of them.

Strange.

I mean, this HAS to be the place right? There’s no way that they’re at the OTHER huge Ultimate tournament in Brugge this weekend right…?

I finally head to the registration tent and find an arial map of the sportpark. There are three more fields which are hidden completely out of sight, and wouldn’t you know it, my team just finished playing their first game on one of them.

Eventually I meet up with my UFO teammates to find out that they stomped all over the first team they played by a score of 12-1. With only 35 minute games scoring twelve points is quite a lot. I lace up my cleats and get ready for the next game.

There are 32 open teams (meaning they can be all-male or they can be co-ed) at the tournament. They are in pools of 4. You play everyone in your pool, and then the top two teams advance to a higher bracket and the lower two teams go to a lower bracket.

There are also eight women’s teams playing a round robin against each other. One of these is the national women’s team from the Netherlands, which has a few Utrecht players on it.

So, we have two more pool games to play. The second game is against the “D” team from the Brugge area called the Wanna Beezz. They have an average age of thirteen and are about half as tall as us.

We stomp them too, but in the last few minutes of the game one of my teammates throws a pass to me and I slow down just a little and the twelve year old kid who is guarding me runs in and knocks down the pass. They then get two very good passes off and score their only point of the game. My teammates make fun of me for being beaten by a twelve-year-old, but the Wanna Beezz played their hearts out, knowing the whole time they were hopelessly outgunned, and they deserved at least one point. Final score: 12-1.

Our last pool game is against a team of old British guys called “Violently Happy.” They are there really to have a weekend of fun away from their wives eating Belgian fries and drinking beer. They are a fun group and have some experienced players, but we crush them 10-3.

So we advance to the upper bracket. We are now in another pool of four, this time with teams which are a lot better. Our first game is against a team from Paris called “Les Invalides”. They are better than anyone we have played so far, but they are still not at our level. Plus they are French, which annoys me. Final: 11-5

Our final game of the day is against the best team in the pool, also from France, called “Ultimate Vibration.” It starts off as a very good game. We actually score first. But these guys are all fast, athletic, and very experienced. They pull away toward the end of the game and we just can’t match them. We play our best game of ultimate that day, but lose 9-5.

Saturday night there’s a barbecue, and I learn that the team is actually NOT staying in a hostel as I thought I read in the emails, but they are sleeping in a gym. On the floor. For which everyone else has brought foam mats and sleeping bags. Of which I have neither.

Okaaaay.

I briefly consider trying to get a hotel room, but it’s just too late and the logistics are too annoying. I borrow the keys to someone’s car and spend a fitful night trying to arrange myself comfortably in a tiny European two-door with no blanket. I get about three hours of sleep if you string all the fifteen-minute pieces together.

I really need to pay more attention to the emails.

Sunday comes and we have three games to play. The first is the final game of our second pool, against a British team called “Blue Arse Flies.” They are a co-ed team and they usually play three women on the field at a time. They are fairly good, but you just can’t put 5’6” women up against 6’2” men and expect to win. They really turn up the play on their last two points, hoping to score at least one point, but being the nice Dutch team that we are, we stomp them 12-0. The funniest thing about this game is the huddle with both teams at the end, where both teams make a little speech about the game. Our captain told them that they would be a good co-ed team.

They ARE a co-ed team.

So, the good news is that we finish second in our pool. That means we get to play two more games, and we will be playing for 5th to 8th place.

The bad news is, we have finally run into the very good teams.

We play a great game against a team from London called “Fire of London”, we are leading almost the whole way, but they pull it out in the end, winning four straight points to go from 3-5 to 7-5. We are just morons and can neither get our offense to work nor stop them, so they deserved to win, but it was frustrating.

Our final game was against our sister team from the Netherlands, a team called IcyDykes. They have a lot of players who are on our UFO team, along with some of the best players from Amsterdam. Their problem is that they came light to the tournament, and then suffered two injuries, and have been playing with only two subs all day.

I have to say, although the level of play remains high, this turns out to be the worst-spirited game we play the entire tournament. There are more fouls called than in all our other games combined, some of them really bad calls. We are down 5-2 in this game until we take a time out, cool off mentally, then come back in and start concentrating on playing our best.

They are tired and after we score the next two points in a row we start to feel the momentum. We win the ‘second half’ 5-1 for a final score of 7-6, taking 7th place.

It was an awesome weekend of Ultimate and we got to play some very good teams. The weather was beautiful, sunny and cool, the food was great, they had Belgian waffles for sale in the tent, and we finished 7th out of 32 mens teams. Not bad I would say.

I burned the back of my neck and the top of my head (damn bald spot), but it was well worth it. I can’t wait for our next tournament.

I hope I can get a ride next time though…

Saturday, May 07, 2005

More on TV

It's uncanny. The courts must have read my blog.

http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/ap/20050507/ap_on_hi_te/digital_tv_piracy