I’m reading Oscar Wao

And I was thinking that I wasn’t going to emerge thrilled about the book, but once through the (necessary) parts about Oscar’s mom it gets pretty great. How can you not want to be Yunior’s friend? (er, at the point in the story where I am, I should say. Maybe something terrible happens. Well, okay, obviously something terrible is going to happen; maybe Yunior’s complicit, I mean).

I have no other media recommendations to make, other than to note that Russian sitcoms dubbed into Georgian don’t seem as funny to me as they do to the guys in the bar downstairs. Or it may be that it’s all about sophisticated wordplay; hard to say.

still here

Tbilisi continues to be great, and I’m really pleased by the amount of useful work that I’m getting done with the TI folks — we’ve gotten up to speed very quickly. Turns out that being a technologist at a transparency-oriented nonprofit in Georgia is pretty similar to being a technologist at a transparency-oriented nonprofit in America, except that if you were going to find an author for the novelization you’d want someone closer to John le Carre than Joseph Heller.

I’m staying at Betsy’s Hotel, which seems to be a kind of hub for the expat community. It’s a very nice place, and even has programmer-friendly amenities like the one you see below:

hacker friendly

Zero-indexed floors! C’mon, you can’t find that kind of accommodation in the states. Admittedly you have to worry about an out-of-range exception whenever you head to the dining room in the basement, but so far nothing bad has come of it.


Aside from some dude spilling tomato juice all over me, my next flight was uneventful. I got into town at 6 this morning, slept for two hours, then put in a full day at the TI Georgia offices. To say I’m going to sleep soundly wouldn’t even begin to describe what’s about to happen. Past jetlag-sleep episodes have featured slumber so sound that kindly old ladies held mirrors under my nose to check if I was still breathing. But that was after only half as much travel as this time.

But before I hit the sack, here’s a video of my extremely comfortable accommodations, and of the broadcasting tower at the top of the hill above me. Driving into Tblisi was fun — not just because of the high speed employed by my driver, but because of the way the city is lit. Grandiose architecture is lit with sometimes-garish accent lighting, and the effect is really pretty striking. It’s near-Eastern Soviet decay under a layer of New Orleans’ sinister pageantry — that’s the closest I can come to describing it, anyway. I actually really like it.

The tower in this video doesn’t mesh with the color palette or static nature of most of the lighting, but it does seem to have sprung from the same mindset that launched the overall illumination program, which I’m told is only a few years old. The tower was the first thing I could see through the fog from my airplane window, and if it isn’t visible from space I’m sure the administration will soon tear it down and build one that is.

they call it Wien, which I am still immature enough to find hilarious

Vienna!I didn’t realize exactly what I was getting myself into before this trip. It’s not that anything’s been a surprise, exactly (in fact, everything has gone almost miraculously well: I’ve caught every train, made every flight and even took the exact right number of euros out of the ATM for my layover). I wasn’t mentally prepared, but I knew I wasn’t prepared. It’s been something like eight years since I spent a night in Stansted. I’m pretty sure that’s the only trip during which I’ve spent more time in airports.

For what it’s worth, the Vienna airport isn’t bad. They seemingly want to stamp your passport every time you head to the bathroom, but otherwise I have no major complaints. Free wifi, an okay number of power outlets, and the above-average number of screaming children are offset by relatively humane bathrooms. Protip: the chairs between A and C terminals are your sweet spot for internet access and charging capability.

But this isn’t to say that the trip has been sunlight and roses. Tbilisi is not exactly easy to get to, and this weekend, neither is Vienna. I’m told that some storms backed things up, and my flight was overbooked. They offered me business class to add an initial leg to Frankfurt, but I balked: Frankfurt is the only airport I’ve been through that insists on swabbing your laptop for explosive residue when you’re merely trying to get to a connecting flight to the US or a Schengen country. They’re nuts over there — driven mad, perhaps, by the vast empty expanses of their concourse — and I didn’t want to put my connection to Tbilisi at risk: I suspected that if I missed it I’d be losing a full day. Besides, I was sort of looking forward to sightseeing during my layover in Vienna.

Two people at the gate changed my mind. First, the agent, who offered me cash instead of an upgrade. I was still wishy-washy and worried, though, until a grizzled Russian executive, who was lined up at the desk to arrange for a ride in the jump seat to an eye surgery appointment and seemed to be straight out of a Bond movie casting office’s “rejected: drunk” pile, emphysematically gurgled assurances to me that the Vienna/Tbilisi transfer was a piece of cake. “It’s no problem,” he said, occasionally clutching his throat, “I’ve done it many times. Besides, you’re on the manifest, your bags are checked through. They have to wait for you.” That seemed convincing enough, so I took the deal and started wondering whether the Frankfurt airport had a casino suitable for blowing $400 of Austrian Airways’ money.

As it turns out, the gate agent was confused, or he confused me, or I’m just bad at this. My time in Frankfurt was short — as always, their crazed security almost made me miss my connection — but I found myself in Vienna pretty much in line with my original schedule, and with much of the day to kill before my flight. By this point I was delirious with fatigue, so I performed the world’s slowest toothbrushing, sat on a bench for a while, and eventually figured out how to pick up my voucher, check my garment bag and board the CAT train into the city.

From there I hopped on the U3 to the Stephansplatz — an efficient but boringly off-the-shelf European subway line and central square, respectively — then wandered around until I found a cafe that looked bearably non-touristy, but which still had wifi and some English on the menus. Cafe Mozart served me some overpriced but tasty tafelspitz, then I headed around the corner to the Hotel Sacher and had some Sachertorte (a damning IFA post is forthcoming) before strolling through the Burggarten, then doing my trip from the airport in reverse.

I’m now sitting at Terminal A’s Cafe Johann Strauss (as you might have already inferred form the name, it’s not as good as the other one), drinking a pleasantly metric-sized beer, and reveling in the suddenly-working-again wifi. My flight’s been pushed back an hour, to 10:25, and if everything goes according to plan I should be getting into Tbilisi around 5 or 6 AM. At this point catnaps actually seem to be doing something, and I’m further from collapse than I might have expected. I am really, really, really looking forward to being in a hotel room, though. The vagaries of wifi access and waterproofing mean that I may not be able to liveblog the shower I’m going to take when I get there, but my suspicion is that it’s going to be GREAT.

on my mind

In four and a half short hours I should be on a plane, winging my way to Tbilisi, finally, to give TI Georgia a hand with their website, mobile strategy, and whatever else they have on hand that takes electricity.

I’m supposed to spend 12 hours in Vienna along the way, so if anyone has any particularly good ideas about how to utilize a brief Austrian lunchtime interlude, please let me know.  I half-suspect those hours will be used up on tortuous sleep in the airport: normally I would be feeling good about my prospects for rest during the flight, having just bought the CVS generic antihistamine with the most severe-sounding warning about operating heavy machinery that I could find.  But I came down with a cold this weekend, and am several years older than the last time I dealt with serious jetlag, and generally suspect that waking up early could kill me.

Despite this, it should be fun!  I’m looking forward to seeing Georgia, a country that’s possessed an incredible mystique for me ever since I read Susan’s writing about it (more recent reports from my colleague Ryan have done nothing to diminish the myth).  It’s a little strange to be leaving the office so soon after getting back from Costa Rica, but I think the trip is going to be worth the disruption.

And yes, I haven’t yet written up any of the additional Costa Rica blog posts I intend to write.  I still intend to write them!  Who knows, hotel-bound paralysis born of pathetic language skills just might make it happen…

browser warnings

Kevin Drum elects to take security advice from Microsoft. This is not a good idea!

In a nutshell: MS says that users ignore warnings about unsigned encryption keys, which makes those warnings useless.  Some browsers, like Firefox, make it really difficult to ignore unsigned keys, but that’s annoying, and MS says we should abandon such efforts.

This is wrong.  Those warnings are saying: “The URL you entered means that you’ve asked for a snoop-proof connection, so okay, your connection to this server is encrypted; however, I can’t verify that this server is who it’s claiming to be.”  Your conversation with the server will be private, but you could be subject to a so-called man-in-the-middle attack, whereby someone hijacks the local network segment you’re on and starts speaking on behalf of, say, bankofamerica.com.  The magic of the certificate authority system means that they can’t do this without generating a warning.

There is one caveat: if they simply don’t try to use encryption, the warning won’t be generated.  This is one of the reasons why you’re supposed to check for https:// in the URL whenever you submit sensitive information; not just so that your password isn’t available to everyone else on the Bolt Bus (though that’s a good reason, too), but also so that anyone pretending to be a server they’re not will get caught.  Unfortunately, people aren’t very good at checking for that little s in the URL or that little key icon or whatever other little security indicator your browser provides, so the bad guys just direct their victims to unsecured sites.

That’s too bad, but it isn’t a sign that warnings about unsigned keys are bad ideas.  Actually, the fact that phishers have drifted away from that link in the security chain means that it’s working properly.  Weakening it isn’t any kind of solution.  MS security researchers would be better-served by spending more time thinking about how to get people to notice when they ought to be using a secure site.

not the planetarium!

Not once in this article does anyone mention how comfortable the planetarium’s seats are. As a Washington-Lee alumnus who attended class mere steps from the planetarium and who had to wake up really early in order to take both Calculus and Awful Literary Magazine, I would like to see this included in administrators’ considerations.  Planetarium Visit Day was a tremendous boon to both my physical and psychological well-being (though admittedly I learned shit-all about stars).