About Me

I ramble about a number of things - but travel experiences, movies and music feature prominently. See my label cloud for a better idea. All comnments and opinions on this blog are my own, and do not in any way reflect the opinions/position of my employer (past/current/future).

11 August 2007

A day in Frankfurt

I went to meet up with some one from the T-Systems South Africa (which is a division of Deutsche Telekom) in Frankfurt, as well as meet some people who work with the South African office, from Germany. After the meeting, I had about three hours to explore Frankfurt, before flying back to Berlin. Unfortunately, it was raining most of the time, so after a brief walk round the old centre of Frankfurt, I went back to the airport. I took my pocket camera, and the pictures came out slightly weird (outside shots have a purple tinge)- mainly due to the weather conditions, I think. Oh well ...

Frankfurt is the financial capital of mainland Europe, and it is a city of offices, and unlike Berlin, it is a lot more compact, with skyscrapers and less open parks (so it seems, anyway). Despite that, there are a number of old buildings that have survived alongside new glass and steel skyscrapers.

The old center of town, is quite beautiful, and includes the town hall (where the Holy Roman Emperor was crowned), excavated gardens from the Roman times and a massive gothic church. The church is quite impressive inside, although there weren't any brilliant stained glass windows. Historically, the election of the Holy Roman Emperor was conducted in a chapel in this church, and is one of the few buildings that was not destroyed in the bombing during WW 2.

Frankfurt's main train station (Hauptbahnhof) is very impressive, and the old architecture has its own charm. Frankfurt is, surprisingly, a very tourist friendly city. All the major signs, in public transport and around the city, are often in at least three languages - German, English and French. And finally, I have criticised Frankfurt airport in the past (as has Bruce). I am not retracting my criticism; because, after security, it is a horrible airport. But outside, it is effectively a massive shopping centre from supermarkets to high end fashion. A bit strange really ...

The Natural History Museum, Berlin

The Natural History Museum is one of the oldest museums in Berlin, and was originally run by the Humboldt University. It is reputed to have one of the largest collection of preserved biological specimens; but the museum is under a massive refurbishment, and some of the really famous part of the museum (the collection of birds, reptiles, insects etc) are all closed off.

One of the biggest draw cards of the museum, is the world's largest mounted dinosaur skeleton of a brachiosarous. It is truly massive, and although it is not the only complete dinosaur skeleton on display, it definitely makes its presence felt.

One of the new exhibitions, is titled "Evolution in Action"; and I suppose it contains a number of the specimens from their collection. Evolution is a constant theme throughout the museum, from the evolution of the universe, to the evolution of planets to the evolution of life. There are even specimens that demonstrate the differentiation in species due to various environmental factors.

The cool part about natural history museums, for me, is the mounted animals, often in recreated environments. There is a massive selection of mammals on display in the museum. I did not realise how large Elands were!

A different approach, is to blow up smaller animals such as insects to emphasise their features.

German Museum of Technology

Germany is well known for its contributions to technology through out the ages. While I found the museum very interesting, I was disappointed with the audio guide (which is a separate charge) that guides you through the museum. Understandably most of the signs and descriptions are in German, and I was expecting, like some of the other audio guides in other museums (like the Pergamon Museum), there would be substantial detail on most of the exhibits. Instead, the audio guide only discussed the highlights, and some of the exhibits that I found really interesting were inaccessible :(

The museum of technology is in the grounds of one of Berlin's early central rail stations. Although it is no longer a train station, or a transport hub, it retains a strong connection with its past through its extensive collection of locomotives and railway history. As some one who loves trains and railways, this was definitely a highlight for me.

One of the entrances to the original train stations

There is a large outside, "garden" area of the museum. The railway yard heritage of the museum is retained in the garden.

The first electric train.

Internals of a steam engine

There is a large collection of models, and a model railway set up. This was not running when I visited unfortunately.

The Nazi government exploited railway technology, and in fact other emerging technologies such as radio and television like no other regime before it. The museum does not gloss over these facts.

Off course, what is most well known about the Nazi's usage of railways is the links to the concentration camps, where prisoners were carried off in carriages like this. Visitors are allowed to enter one such carriage.

Apparently, Berlin was built on barges, that carried goods through the rivers and canals of the city. This is the only remaining example of these old barges.

Germany is the birth place of modern typesetting, and there is an extensive display of early printing works. The printing presses for graphical works is especially impressive.

Konrad Zuse is credited with creating the earliest working computers, and the museum has a recreation (by Zuse himself) of the first computer. We have come a long way since!

A later Zuse computer, using vacuum tubes instead.

The Graphomat Z64 (1961), a printer that could print large maps and plans.

08 August 2007

Another post on Zimbabwe

I caught an interview with the other MDC faction leader, Arthur Mutambara, on BBC World's Hardtalk last night. Hardtalk is usually a brutal interview, and the interviewer was really good at exploring this split in the opposition. But I was equally impressed with the answers.

The basic argument is that the split faction of the MDC wants to fight Mugabe on a principled stand, and they accuse, without naming specifics, some of the leaders (not Morgan Tsvangirai) of resorting to Mugabe's tactics to fight Mugabe. Mutambara argues that the MDC should not be fighting Mugabe the person, but the system that backs and props up Mugabe. He did not want the possibility that MDC becomes an equally corrupt replacement of the current Zanu PF government.

Equally interesting was his assessment of the negotiations between Zanu-PF and the MDC directed by Mbeki. He was quite optimistic, and refused to reveal details, citing that negotiations are too sensitive and confidentiality needs to be retained.

Another interesting part: the MDC are willing to work with Zanu PF members in a unity government, but only with members that are brave enough to stand up to Mugabe.

But disappointingly there is still no concrete plans on what they want to do to regenerate Zimbabwe. The interviewer did not dwell too long on this issue, but Mutambara was also quite reluctant to reveal too much details.

But in the end, all this depends on a free and fair elections. And while it is in South Africa and SADC's interest to resolve the Zimbabwe crisis, the fact remains that their stated policy of non interventionism means that, there is a real chance of no physical intervention. As I discussed previously, intervention itself may not be the ideal solution. I think, in the end, the telling factor will be: are there Zanu PF members who are willing to stand up against Mugabe, and will there be enough such members?

Dealing with a dark past

The actions of Nazi Germany has left a scar on Germany; of that there is not much doubt. What is interesting, is how Germany has dealt with this past. It has been over 60 years since the end of World War 2, but I think, much of this reconciliation with the past has been more recent.

For example, the holocaust memorial (The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) is a recent addition, and other memorials of the victims of the Nazi party policies (such as homosexuals) are still in the planning stage.

And it is not only that. Exhibitions such as the Topography of Terror, which documents the Third Reich's rise to power, their brutal methods, all in the grounds of the headquarters of the Nazi security service, is brutal, forceful reminder. But again, it is a fairly recent addition, and started only a few years before the fall of the wall.

It has to be remembered that during WW2, there were also German deaths, and the Neue Wache - the memorial to war and tyranny - is probably the most apt memorial of the victims of war I have ever seen, in any country.

Germany has an important lesson to teach other countries that have come through strife. It is important to note that it has taken a long time for the scarring to heal, and that inclusiveness in remembering the victims is important. This is particularly important for South Africa, where we are building Freedom Park to remember the lives of freedom fighters that fought Apartheid. In the context of Neue Wache, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I wonder, if it is really appropriate to inscribe the names of the victims (as in memorials such as the Vietnam War Memorial in the US). Yes, remembrance of names is important, but will we ever get everyone? And yes, like it or not, young 19 year old guys, sent out to enforce apartheid laws are in some ways also victims of apartheid.

Maybe memorials such as the ones discussed in this post are too abstract. Maybe they are too impersonal, too intellectual - and the simplicity of the Vietnam Memorial is more desirable. This will be, and already is, an eternal debate - but healing takes time. But most of all, we must not forget; and hopefully we should recognise the traits, and prevent them happening again. The actions of the Nazi party is eerily similar to that of other dictators, notably Robert Mugabe. If we do not learn from our past, what use is any of this?

07 August 2007

Huge Indycar Crash

It is amazing how far motorsport safety has come. An accident like this one, this past weekend, would have left probably all the drivers dead. As it was, they all walked off the scene, unscathed. Now if they made road cars like this, would:
  1. People be willing to strap themselves in as securely for every trip?

  2. Would people drive more recklessly, because they know their chances of being injured is less?

YouTube Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQWOq-Y09jI
IndyCar link: http://www.indycar.com/multimedia/videos/player.php?v=738 (possibly more permanent)

Accomodation in Berlin

To paraphrase, due to poplar demand, pics of the flat I am staying in Berlin. It is a studio flat in southern Berlin, and overall, I would say that it is at most as big as the lounge in the Oaklands house in Rondebosch, where I stayed for the past 6 months.

Google map of the area, centred on the block of flats: http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&t=h&om=1&ll=52.421182,13.459893&spn=0.0046,0.009978&z=17

The block of flats, from the outside. Almost every flat in the block seems from the outside as the same. Every balcony is a flat.

A fountain in front of the building.

Entry into the flat; kitchen and bathroom

The bedroom/main room. No, my room is not always this clean ...

The view from the balcony. The road in front is the boundary between the Brandenburg and Berlin states. The Berlin wall ran along the road, and it is quite interesting to see how much land around the wall has not been redeveloped. Not sure what the land in front of the building is used for ... looks like farmland though.

Happy Hour

Every restaurant and bar seems to run happy hour in Berlin, all evening too! Not a massive reduction of prices though. But I did come across one particular Happy Hour, which I took full advantage of: Happy Hour Sushi. Basically 2 for the price of one deal i.e. you buy Salmon Nigiri (2 pieces) and you get 4 pieces. Spent 11 Euros on Sushi ... which works out to 22 Euros of Sushi! Good sushi too, and a huge range. And they had free W/Lan too boot ... double bonus! Pity it's only on Saturdays ... but I think I must try out more of that menu.

Website of Surf & Sushi.

06 August 2007

Zero Knowledge Proofs

How do you convincingly prove a statement, without revealing anything else about that statement? Example, how do I prove that I am at work, without revealing where I work, who I work for etc. Zero knowledge proofs are very interesting, particularly in authentication protocols. Anyway, came across this paper which is a very cool, fairy tale explanation of zero knowledge proofs.