Lessons from My Summer Vacation

In this blog I reflect on what I learned during my summer vacation, about standards, folding travel beds, and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

1. It's About Standards, Stupid

I spent the summer in Switzerland (as a guest lecturer in the international summer school at HEIG-VD) and in Germany. In Switzerland, the visiting students were very cell-phone savvy--they picked up a SIM card at the airport and phoned away instantly. (One of my colleagues asked how he could put a SIM card into his Verizon phone. They looked at him as if he was half-witted and patiently explained that nobody signs up with Verizon or Sprint because then you can't use your phone when you travel.) Mercifully, I had considered this point and came prepared with an unlocked GSM phone. But what to do in Germany? I crossed by train, and there was no airport kiosk for picking up a German SIM card. No problem, it turned out. I got it in the supermarket: 5 Euro for a card with 5 Euro worth of calls. To refill it, go to the supermarket and buy a refill code, then tap that into the cell phone. (This seems a recent development. My German uncle asked incredulously: "You didn't have to show your identity card?") Other carriers had different schemes, with refill vending machines or internet refills. Amazing. No contract. No two-year commitment. The cost of calling: 9 cents per minute. It is nirvana compared to the hassle that I have with U.S. carriers. (Case in point: I am currently locked in an epic battle with T-Mobile which advertises a family plan with 5 members, when their computer system only takes 3.)

What makes all this innovation possible? A common standard, in this case, GSM. The various carriers build services on top of the common standard, and they compete against each other on their merits. Contrast that with the situation in the U.S. where we have incompatible networks, locked phones, and plans that hold you hostage for years.

It is experiences such as this one that makes me wary of closed operating systems and programming platforms.

2. Rocket Science

We traveled with our 20-month old twins--a proven strategy against jet lag. I learned never to be smug again about an elegant or intricate algorithm. We computer scientists may think that red-black trees are pretty clever, but they aren't anywhere near as impressive as those folding infant travel beds. I have folded and unfolded them dozens of times, and I still don't understand how all these metal bars swing into place and collapse into a tiny bundle. How someone can design such a thing is beyond my ability to comprehend.

3. With Apple's Help, I Snatched Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

My Thinkpad broke on the day of my return--a flickering display. No problem, I have an on-site repair contract. Except, after the fellow fixed it, it was worse. Now the display no longer flickers. It is simply black. He'll come back tomorrow, and if he still can't fix it, I'll have to send it in, thereby negating the benefit of on-site repair. I had to do something for today's lecture, so I went to the university bookstore and snapped up a MacBook. Oh, said the clerk, you get a free iPod. And a free printer. How nice.

One of the pleasant aspects of Apple is always how prettily their stuff is packaged. Shiny cardboard, tastefully designed foam packaging, just generally a great out-of-box experience (OOBE). The lecture was in a mere thirty minutes, but no problem. I was on the network in no time, installed Aquamacs and Scala, and ... realized that I had no way of projecting my lecture. The MacBook doesn't have a VGA connector. No problem--DVI is the way to go in this millennium, and of course I have a DVI to VGA converter.

But the MacBook doesn't have a DVI connector either. Instead, it has some bizarre Apple-proprietary Mini DVI connector, and Apple is too cheap to include a converter with the computer. The bookstore was out of converters, and I had to admit defeat. Hello, Apple, if you put a non-standard connector on your machine, and you want people to have a great OOBE, put a converter into the box. It's about standards, stupid.