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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A+

Today I got my first homework back. In the class Social Web we had to write an essay about our experiences, and the experiences of newcomers in general, in editing Wikipedia. Having spent a lot of time to write a thorough analysis, I was very pleased by the result. I got an A+!

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Backpacking in the Dolly Sods Wilderness

Day 1: The Wal Mart Experience
This three day backpacking trip to West Virginia was organized by the CMU Explorers Club's president, who had backpacked in Dolly Sods before. Highly motivated the six of us packed our gear and ourselves into a small Mazda. Four guys on the back seat was a tight fit, but it worked. We used Google Maps to direct us to the right spot. A couple of hours into the drive we were a) getting hungry and b) unsure if we missed a turnoff, so we were glad to see a Burger King next to a huge Wal Mart (it was huge in my eyes, according to the Americans it was actually pretty small ^^). After dinner and asking for directions at the Burger King we headed back, because we indeed had missed the turnoff. Unfortunately, the directions we printed out were not that clear and when the road we were on led into the woods and turned into a gravel road, we were pretty sure that this wasn't the road we wanted. So we went back and took the other possibility, which indeed led to a bigger road. Great was our dismay, when we saw the Wal Mart approaching in front of us… So we headed back once more and took another road, but this one turned also into a gravel road in the deep woods with huge puddles of water. Checking our maps, we saw that the road we originally traveled on would also lead to US50, so we headed back to Wal Mart, drove past it and took the next crossing to US50. From there on the trip was pretty straightforward. Until we reached the National Park, that is. There the fog was so thick that we couldn't see the campsite. Well, I was sure I saw the sign on the road, but the others were sure it had to be further down the road. Once we were about to leave the National Park, we finally realized our mistake and turned back. After all the trip took us 6 instead of 4.5 hours...

Day 2: Up and On We Go
Our first day of serious backpacking started at 7.30am, unfortunately the weather hadn't cleared over night and it was still foggy and wet. Nobody was really willing to start a stove in this weather and so we skipped breakfast and started hiking right away. The trail took us into the woods and across rivers before leading us to alpine tundra and through a mountain bike race. The ever-changing landscape was the highlight of the day, which could not be dampened by the miserable weather conditions (it was raining on and off throughout the day). Not only the landscape was very versatile, so was the track we walked on: Wooden planks, earth, rocks, grass, sand and water were all part of the track in one part or another. After covering 11 miles, we called it a day and looked for a good campsite near a river; fortunately we found one pretty quickly. Since the weather was dry for a change we quickly set up our tents and then started gathering some firewood, hoping to make a campfire later. We even built a stone oven which would allow us to dry some wood and cook a couple of things. However, the weather spirits were not on our side, and rain picked up again, featuring a harder downpour than we had all day. So we quickly packed out our stoves, prepared and ate our dinner near the stream and then fled into our tents at 7.20pm, hoping to keep warm in the sleeping bags.

Day 3: Meeting the Sods
Sometime during the night the rain stopped and so we could prepare breakfast and break camp without getting any wetter. Looking up we even saw small patches of blue sky, however, they were not meant to last and a couple of minutes after we started, the rain picked up again. All we had in mind was a fast and easy hike back to the car, but the trail had a couple of surprises in stock for us. The first was when we arrived at a river where the stepping stones to cross were completely submerged. After debating for a couple of minutes we took of our shoes and waded through the river. Next we learnt the hard way why the area was called Dolly Sods. The trail lead directly through the swamp and it took a lot of navigating to find dry places to step on and sooner or later everyone had a misstep and thus got to know the swamp a little bit better ^^. The Beaver Dam Trail then took us upwards towards the road and the end of our adventure, however, I saw neither beaver nor dam on the way ;). The last stretch took us two miles along the road back to the car, where we finally could put on some dry clothes (or at least, those of us who had some dry clothes left).
On our way out of the Park, we made a quick stop at Bear Rocks, which offered a nice view into the valley, but didn't feature any bears.
On the way back we managed not to get lost and so we were back in Pittsburgh at 5pm, where the weather was perfect.

Retrospective
- Looking at Google Maps again, I saw that we were on the right "road" the second time, but why the heck Google wanted us to drive along a gravel road for a "short cut" eludes me…
- The video footage we took on the way to the camp ground features the camp ground sign and how we passed it the first time…
- Despite the harsh conditions the trip was a fantastic experience and I don't regret going at all.
- We learned that there can be a lot of water on a mountain ;)
- All my pictures from this trip are available in my web album.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Duquesne Light: Incompetency at Work

Following, the 72-hour shut-off-notice, I gave Duquesne Light a call this morning. Which was very interesting because at first they told me that they hadn't received my application. I told them I sent it on 9/10 by postal mail, after holding for a couple of minutes, they could confirm that they indeed received it. Then they told me that they could not read the meter, I told them that someone came on Monday, but they didn't believe me...

So I called my landlord who assured me that 3 (THREE!!!) guys from Duquesne Light checked all the meters yesterday at 10am...

So I called them again, but they still didn't know anything about this visit. After holding for 8 minutes they could finally track down the guy who came to my place and confirm that he indeed did check my meter...

To add insult to injury they told me that my application will be retroactive to August, 16th, the day I moved in. However, I don't quite see why I should pay for the time they were incapable of setting up my account. Unfortunately, they are on the longer lever and I really need my electricity...

Interesting side story about Guido, who doesn't have time to blog at the moment due to his work load, he never received the letter asking for a second application. And so it was only yesterday that he was finally able to fill out his application, when he called to pay for his security deposit, they charged him 86.- US$ (I had to pay 50.-$). In addition to being incompetent they also seem to have random rates...

If you have another choice: Do NOT deal with Duquesne Light!

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Monday, September 22, 2008

You know you're in the US...

... when getting Utilities (Gas, Electricity, Internet) connected takes at least 4 phone calls, 3 forms and possibly a personal visit to the office...

Here's the tragedy. My landlord applied for the electricity of my apartment to be charged to me. 3 weeks later I receive a form from the Electricity company that they couldn't verify my status and that I need to a) pay 50.- $ security deposit and b) have my lease and passport verified by a notary. Dutifully I did that. 2 weeks later I get a call that the electrician couldn't get into the house to read the meter and that my landlord should make an appointment. So I contacted the landlord and the appointment was set for Monday. Today, I come home and have the following note in my mailbox:

"72-HOUR SHUT-OFF NOTICE
Your electricity will be shut off. Because you have not properly applied for electric service, we will shut off your electricity on or after 8:00am on 9-26-08 without further notice."

What the fuck! *extremelyPissedOff* What more should I do? Speak to the president so that he can put a nice word in for me?

to be continued...

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Burn After Reading

After working for most of the day, I decided to take the evening off and watch a new movie. Burn After Reading, the new Coen Brothers movie, was on my watch list for a while, after seeing the trailer several times, like every time I was in the cinema in August ;), and so it was a quick decision to check it out.

The movie is brilliant, showcasing hilarious performances by Brad Pitt, as clueless fitness instructor, George Clooney, as paranoid womanizer, John Malkovic, as fired CIA analyst, Frances McDormand, as desperate single, and J.K. Simmons as cynical CIA Superior. It took a while for the movie to take up speed but the longer the movie lasted the better and more twisted it got. And the final debriefing with the CIA Superior is plain brilliant! A definite must see! :)

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

It's Saturday...

... which means my afternoon and evening was devoted to the CMU Game Club!

This time I managed to play three new games and an "old" favorite:
- Puerto Rico: A very cool game where the players have to manage plantations and build a city in Puerto Rico.
- Notre Dame: A fast game set in medieval Paris where players have to collect Victory Points and try to stay clear of the Rats.
- Caylus: A complicated resource management strategy game. Explaining the rules took almost an hour and the game play was not that rewarding. But some people just love it.
- Tichu: Since I've written about the game a couple of times before, I'll drop a couple of words about this round. We had a terrible start and were down 400 points. After almost catching up a blunder set us back another 300 points. But in the last rounds, when the others only needed one hand to finish, I managed to pull of a Grand Tichu and my partner finished second, so we literally overtook them on the finishing line! What a great game! :)

And now back to studying...

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The 1st week er month is over ;)

Since everyone at home is blogging about their first week in the Masters Program, I'll do the same. Hang on, the first week is already three weeks in the past, so I'll just write what happened this week ;).

For most of the students this week was very important, because it featured two job fairs, the Business Opportunities Conference (BOC) and Technical Opportunities Conference (TOC) and everyone was dressed up accordingly. Since I'm not really looking for a job in the US, I just went to the TOC to have a look around. And I have to admit it is impressive to see recruiters from Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, EA, ..., the NSA and the CIA! Obviously, the two later companies only hire US Citizens, but still it's interesting to see them at such an event ^^. Two of my friends had a real battle plan, they split the companies between them and always left both CVs. This tactic seemed to work and they both got first-round interviews the following day.

Even though we do have a lot of work to do, I feel really comfortable on campus and I take advantage of the opportunities as often as possible and so I was playing Squash on Monday, playing Tennis and joining the West African Dance Class on Tuesday (afterwards I had very sore muscles), yesterday I caught Persepolis at the 1$ movie screening on campus and today I took a ride on the virtual bike. The library is slowly becoming my home away from home, and I spend most of my time working and studying on their quiet floor. So far I always got out before midnight, but its good to know that they are open till 3am. Getting home during the night is no problem either, the CMU Escort Service leaves every 30 minutes and drops me off right in front of my door, that's what I call customer service!

Here's a picture I took tonight on my way across campus:
From September in Pittsburgh

I need to wrap this post up, because there is still some more work to be done tonight...

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival

The Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival takes place over five weekends and is located 40 miles outside of Pittsburgh. There were two reasons why I just had to be there. First, I wanted to see how a medieval/renaissance festival in the US compares to the ones in Switzerland and Germany and second, I really needed a break from studying ;).

Similar to the markets back home the festival is a mixture of market stalls, food and entertainment. The market stalls were similar to those present in the Spectaculum, there were clothing, weapons and accessories stalls. There was also a costume rental shoppe, which allowed people to dress up for the day, a very neat idea. The food was more American than medieval but there were some exceptions around, such as the Soup in a Bread Bowl. Musicians were omnipresent, with a piper, a violinist, a bass player and several musical groups always circulating. The non-musical entertainment focused heavily on audience participation (i.e. people going on stage to help out) and was a case of hit and miss. I liked about half the shows I saw.

My favorite was Arsene, an inapt magician who spoke no word throughout his performance, but his facial expression and tricks were just hilarious.
From Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival
Here you can see him eating the hamster which wouldn't comply and jump through the hoop.

Overall it was a fantastic experience, I was especially impressed by the sturdiness of the buildings, which obviously are here to stay and will wait for next year's festival. Which, depending on the schedule, I just might be able to visit :)

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Washing, Shopping, Gaming & Homework

Since I'll visit a special event tomorrow which is conveniently located 40 miles outside of Pittsburgh, I had to rent a car. And since my favorite car rental agency is closed on Sunday, I got a car for the whole weekend. What's the first thing you do when you have a car? Obviously you drive all your dirty clothes to the next laundromat to wash them ;). Anyways, that's what I did. Next on the map was a short trip to Waterfront, my favorite shopping mall in Pittsburgh, to be completely honest it's the only shopping mall I've visited so far ;), to do some grocery and other shopping.
From September in Pittsburgh


Since working all week is a complete downer, I took a couple of hours off from homework to join the CMU Game Club. Today I've played:
- TransAmerica: A quick game combining cooperation and competition to get five cities connected by rail road lines.
- Settlers of Catan (US Edition) with Cities & Knights Extension (German Edition): They were glad to have a native German speaker at the table to explain the text on the special cards ;).
- Tichu: Still a very cool card game, even though we lost clearly this time.
- Durch die Wüste: A German camel territory control game, which isn't too challenging, pretty fast and has pastel-colored camels!
From September in Pittsburgh

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

1 Task down, 15 more to go

Yesterday we presented our first Task, which focused on Ubiquitous Computing using RFID in a hospital environment, to the class and the faculty. I was the chosen presenter and I was so nervous that I dropped my notes and got lost once or twice, but everyone was very impressed by the presentation so it maybe wasn't all that bad ;).

After the presentation I was extremely relieved. And the tension which was building the last couple of days while we were completing the report (till 1am on the weekend, 3am on Monday). This marked the first time I had to work till late into the night to get a report finished, and even then we only finished "on time" because we got an extension... Anyways, we're trying to do better on the second Task which started today, builds on Task 1 and focuses on Requirement Elicitation, fortunately I have a head start in this area :).

However, with my electives I see more late nights coming. Fortunately, it isn't as bad as Guido's program which made him work till 3am repeatedly over the last couple of days...

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

What a sale! You save -8082%

During research I stumbled upon the following:


Source: http://www.budgetpackaging.com/kcc95151.html

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Pretty Good Race

On Friday the Pretty Good Race took place in Pittsburgh. It's a race organized for CMU School of Computer Science people and its main goal is to have fun. An opportunity I couldn't miss. The race was held in Schenley Park, a nice place just next to the University, and covered 5 kilometers. 5 was also my starting number ^^ and 35 numbers smaller than my final classification, nevertheless, I was part of the winning team! :) Guido reached third place and thus missed his goal by two ranks, a thing he pondered about for a while. However, the winner, a CS undergraduate student, ran like the wind and improved the race record by 43 seconds!!!

From September in Pittsburgh

That's me, and I wasn't as slow as the picture makes it look...

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Friday, September 05, 2008

CMU Activities fair

Wednesday afternoon student clubs and organizations had their chance to win new members. About 180 of the 250 recognized student clubs used this forum and so I had the chance to appreciate different sororities and fraternities, religious and sports groups, human rights and well-fare organizations and many more.

Some clubs appealed to me more than others, these were the Camarilla Club (a LARP group organizing bi-weekly Victorian era styled LARPs), the Society for Creative Anachronism (a group dedicated to the medieval ages), the KGB, the Explorer's Club and obviously the CMU Game Club.
From September in Pittsburgh

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

In my (post) mailbox: Ups and Downs

Yesterday I received two letters and neither of them was advertising and so I was pretty excited to discover what they were about :)

The first was from Switzerland and contained a letter I didn't expect. Last week I sent an e-mail to the road traffic licensing department in Zurich asking for a letter of reference (i.e. stating that I never violated a traffic law), but I never received an answer. And so you can guess my surprise when this letter turned up. The reason I need this letter is because I want to join Zipcar (an American Mobility) and they demand such a letter from all foreign nationals...

The second letter was less pleasant. It was from the electricity company informing me that I had to pay a 50.- US$ security deposit, which would be okay, but they also need a notarized confirmation of my ID card... just what I needed searching for a notary and spending more money...

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