Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Day 8: The End of the Short Road Trip

Note: The pictures are small to help with the load time of this page, but just click on them to enlarge them to their high resolution glory. Oh, and the normal tech news commentary will return after my vacation.

We are back in Stuttgart at last! I'm anxious to show everyone the amazing things I've been seeing out here so I thought I'd real quickly try to post some highlights from the past 5 days, the first of two road trips we have during our vacation (the second one will be almost twice as long and cap off the vacation). We'll be doing some day trips over this weekend, and then we'll head to Rome on Monday (I believe we're doing Rome, Florence, Paris, and Versailles in 10 days).

We drove on Saturday, as I had said in my last post, to Brussels (Bruxelles), Belgium. What is the first thing that any sane person does when they get to Belgium? Get a genuine Belgian waffle. We opted out of the ones with crazy toppings on them for the standard, chocolate doused ones. It was definitely the best waffle ever:

Anyway, driving through Brussels is a real pain in the ass and much of the city seemed kind of slum-ish to me. However, the market square and the surrounding area was really cool and we happened to be there during the Brussels Jazz Festival so we were treated to good music while walking around and trying Belgium's famous chocolate and chips (French fries), as well. We also saw their famous lace and the peeing statue (I didn't upload that picture because it's not that impressive). At night, the buildings in the town square were all lit up:

The next day, we headed for Ghent (also in Belgium) after our "continental" breakfast at the hotel. 3 star hotels are not always what you expect them to be, this one was definitely not that great and they played very strange music that sounded like it came from the 70s (and probably did) during breakfast. Anyhow, Ghent was a really cool place. At the center of town were some towering churches that overlooked a really cute canal:

We sat in for the end of mass at St. Bavo's Cathedral and got to meet the Bishop of Ghent! He spoke English (the native language here was Dutch, though it was French in Brussels) and remarked that we must be Mexicans since we said we were from Texas (he said this with a chuckle, but not sure if he was kidding? I do look Mexican, as does dad). What was really awesome about this Cathedral was that it housed the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which is a truly awe-inspiring piece of art. Definitely worth seeing if you ever go to Belgium.

The next stop was Brugge (also in Belgium), but we stopped at a coastal city called Ostend (Oostende) on the way and had a nice stroll along the beach there:

People there strangely ate raw, dried fish as a snack. I think there was a boat race going on there that weekend, as well. After our short jaunt we proceeded to Brugge, which was a very charming little city. At first glance, the buildings were just incredible in the Markt (their main square):

It also had the narrow streets characteristic of these places in Belgium that were so fascinating to us:

Oh, and when strolling through these streets, where the shops were closed, my mom was wildly surprised by this sight (I wonder why):

We made it back to our "hotel" in Brussels that night and drove off to Waterloo the next day, which wasn't too far off. This is, indeed, the famous Waterloo where Napoleon was defeated for the last time. I think we all learned more about the battle than we ever cared to know, but all the artifacts we saw (like actual sabres and skulls and stuff) was really pretty neat. We climbed the top of Lion's Mound, a memorial to lives lost in the battle established where the Prince of Orange was wounded:

From there, you could see the battlefield, which has been preserved quite well:

I took a panoramic of it, but I can't stitch them together until I return to Houston. Anyhow, after taking in like 4 museums, a couple of short films, a 360 degree panoramic painting of the battlefield (3rd largest painting in the world), and walking up over 200 steps to the top of Lion's Mound, we proceeded to Koln (Cologne), Germany. This was more of a modern city than most places we had been to, but it was still pretty awesome and its skyline was dominated by the Dom (Cathedral):

That's just the night shot though, take a look at it in the daylight:

This is probably the largest church we've seen thus far (it takes several pictures to show all the sides of it, and the attention to detail was truly phenomenal), but being Romanesque in its style it wasn't quite as grand on the inside as on the outside as opposed to the other churches we had seen. It was mostly just ornate stained glass on the inside (though we saw this in several churches):

What was also incredible was that this cathedral's relic was a chest containing the bones of the Magi (the three wise men)! It was gold and beautiful on the outside, and obviously we couldn't see the inside but to be so close to something like that just sends chills up your spine:

After walking around a bit more (and arguing with my mom about having to pay to use the restrooms in Europe), we then drove through a couple of small towns and ended up stopping for dinner in Trier (in Germany). This ended up being a hidden jewel though as you can likely tell from this shot:

They had a really unique-looking church also (it looks like a castle, I think) called Trier Cathedral, which was built in a Gothic style (from reading a nearby placard) and was protected by its own walls and gate!

As if the outside wasn't interesting enough, check out what we saw when we snuck inside:

Unfortunately, they were closing and kicked us out, but I was glad that I managed to sneak in that picture! We managed to head to Wiesbaden afterwards to stay at a hotel there the night and then this morning we headed to Bingen to catch a boat that would take us down the Rhine River all the way to St. Goar. This was a common sight on the way:

The scenery was gorgeous, though the weather was hot, and featured many castles, quaint towns, churches, and vineyards. One of the stops that the boat we were on clearly took after Kramer from Seinfeld:

I took about 200 pictures so obviously there's a lot I'm leaving out (especially pictures of churches, inside and out, since the center of each town/city is a giant church), but it's really hard in any case to capture the beauty of these places. It's something you really have to see to believe and appreciate. It's been a fun, though exhausting, few days and I have no idea what the plan is for tomorrow yet. I'll definitely try to post again before Monday since then I'll be out of Internet access for 10 days. Bon soir!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Day 4: Leaving for Brussels

We're in Stuttgart, getting ready to leave for Brussels (Belgium) for a couple of days and then off to Cologne and somewhere else, so I thought I'd just make a post with the pictures I put up on Twitter real quick...

My first meal in Germany was Jagerschnitzel, which was schnitzel with some local kind of noodles in a mushroom cream sauce (very yummy).

It turns out that Sindelfingen (the part of Stuttgart my cousin lives in) is like the central hub for Mercedes-Benz's operations, so we went to the museum near downtown (on Wednesday) and it was pretty sweet (I didn't get a picture of the food, but it was excellent there as well: I had this local kind of stuffed ravioli, but obviously not called ravioli):

Yesterday, we took a day trip to Colmar (France) and on the way back just went through the Alsace wine country, driving through vineyards and quaint little towns. It was very gorgeous out there. It turns out that Colmar was home to the creator of the Statue of Liberty and Voltaire:

We also took a trip up the mountains to find a castle we never reached. Still, the view was nice:

That last one was just for my blog readers ;) It's almost 11:30 AM here so I better help get the car ready. We'll be back in Stuttgart on Wednesday, maybe I'll post more pictures then?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Goodbye UT, I Love You!

Sorry I haven't been posting in a while, but between being sick, commencement, preparing for Europe, and moving out (among other things), I've been pretty busy. I think I'm going to have to forgo the past few weeks of news because I didn't have the time today I thought I'd have to write 2 posts. We have to leave for the airport in less than 2 hours! We'll return from our trip on June 24, so until then this blog is on hiatus. I definitely won't be writing about technology until then, but I may try to do a couple of posts with highlights from the trip, if possible. I can only do posts from Stuttgart (where my cousin lives), which we'll be in at the beginning and end of our trip. I'll try to Twitter if at all possible also, so you might want to keep your eye on that right sidebar widget.

This is the post that I've been waiting for and dreading for a long time now: my farewell to college and, more importantly, the end of my life as a student dependent on my parents. It's really difficult to believe that it's all over so when people ask me how I feel about graduating, I kind of want to say that I'm shocked. It doesn't feel like I went through much but when I think back on it and consider the person I was and the things I knew before coming here I realize that it really was a monumental experience. I don't think that I could've hoped for a better college career at a better University. Sure, I could've gotten a 4.0 or the bad things that happened could've not happened, but a wise man once said that it's the challenging times in our lives that build character, not our successes. So if you're looking to go to UT, you'll easily find a glowing recommendation from me.

I feel like the most important thing that I learned in Austin was the power we all hold within ourselves that we don't even know about. There were several classes where I had bad grades and didn't think I'd make that A but I pulled through in the end. There were so many projects I wanted to give up on and I pushed forward. How did these things happen? I think I've been reaching for a goal that drove me amazingly far. People who do bad in school aren't necessarily stupid, but rather they lack ambitious. It's unfair to say that they're lazy because I think that we're all lazy deep down inside. I like being productive just as much as the next person, but I also like sleeping and watching TV. The reason that the former won out is because I still have this vision for my life that I'm going to accomplish something incredible. UT CS teaches you that anything truly is possible. If you can crank out a compiler in 3 months and write a file system from scratch and program image searching and survive a 3 hour marathon exam in Automata Theory and brave the cold in Taylor basement then you have even more untapped potential within you. The lesson isn't how to code, the lesson is how to learn to be a better you and how to persist against all odds. Still, I did learn a fair bit about computers and programming in the process ;) In a field as rapidly-changing as computer science, I feel like UT definitely gave us all the necessary tools to continue to learn and explore and discover and just be creative. It's amazing how much creativity it requires to acquire a CS degree (take Number Theory and Network Security if you don't believe me).

The next most important thing I learned was the value of strong interpersonal skills. If you're going through schools just blindly making your As and watching TV alone at home in your free time, then you're doing it wrong. I used to think that networking was something that business students did and making use of people you meet is shady. I was afraid to ever ask anyone for help in getting an interview for fear that I wouldn't have truly earned the position. To the contrary though, life is full of serendipitous meetings that you have to appreciate and (reasonably) exploit. It's a 2-way street, of course, but having a strong base of friends is so important not only for maintaining your sanity and having fun, but for advancing your communication skills and gaining contacts that could serve you well later on in life. After all, where would Steve Ballmer be if he didn't befriend Bill Gates? When it comes down to it, teamwork is something that permeates our life in every aspect. My degree is not the sole accomplishment of my hard work and whatever talent I may miraculously possess, but the collaboration of the support of my friends and family, the colleagues who provided me with advice and study groups, and so much more. Without teamwork, you can only get so far. I learned that, too. Whenever I did something collaboratively (not a test, mind you, but studying or programming or whatever) I got it done faster and did better on it most of the time. You have to collaborate with smart people, which I had the good fortune of meeting many at UT, but it's definitely pretty amazing when you do. I'll never forget the amazing harmony J Higs and I had in our pair programming assignments where we'd bounce ideas off of each other and before long we had disassembled this intimidating problem into something more palatable.

I'm so glad that I got as involved as I did at UT. I was an officer in Natural Sciences Council for 3 years and an operating officer in Association for Computing Machinery for about the same amount of time. I learned so much about being a good leader and interacting with people and management and so many other things. I highly recommend this to those of you just starting out your collegiate journey. Fuck the frats. There, I said it. Those parties blow, the girls who go to them are often shady, and the guys are often pigs. Not all of them are this way, by any means, but there's a certain point at which I just can't take the superficiality of it all. Don't be part of a system, become your own person. When you join student organizations you typically get the freedom to do that while expressing yourself in a way that furthers the cause of a large group of people. There are strictly social groups: I had a ton of fun in Texas Latin Dance and went to plenty of great parties that way. Also, these clubs were much cheaper and are marketable in an interview situation. I can easily say that I would not be as capable as I am today is leading, managing, communication, and dancing without the aid of these 3 organizations. There's so much out there at UT to explore, so why not get out there and get your hands dirty? College is so much more than the high grades: I can tell you from experience that all good grades will get you is a foot in the door. You still have to sell yourself, which is so much harder when all you have is good grades. Explore your hobbies, do more in your field past the classroom (engineers: build stuff, programmers: do open source, everyone: do research, and really establish what you love to do. At the end of college, it's a requirement that you have a general idea of what you'd like to do or else you're in for an even longer struggle (which does build character, but that's aside from the point here).

I shed many tears when I thought about leaving Austin, and I shed even more when I finally left it. What a fucking amazing place. I spent several years literally praying for the day to come sooner when I'd leave Houston and live my own life in Austin. I know that a part of my love for it stems from that, but it's so much more than that. Austin is a city that becomes this benevolent character in your life. It's like nothing I've ever experienced before. It's like how the island in Lost is a character on the show. You have to expect the unexpected, indulge in the offbeat and strange, be endeared by the local/indie charm, and take in the beautiful sights that barrage you constantly. I know it doesn't have quite the backdrop of Seattle, but the hill country and the people and all the little things really add up. I take no pleasure in the act of leaving Austin, I will miss it dearly. Sure, a part of that is the fact that I have to leave some people I really love and care about, but some of them are leaving, too. I decided last October that I had to move on with my life and try something new lest I always be afraid to accept change. This move is the biggest change I've ever had to endure, but it has to happen whether it's now or later.

The memories that I take with me as I close this chapter of my life are priceless and there are a ton of them. I hope to never forget them. In this semester alone I shook Barack Obama's hand, saw one of my favorite hip hop artists live, went tubing on Lake Travis, saw one of my idols speak (Bill Gates), threw my most successful parties, tried my hand at actual research, performed a dance in front of a large group of people (I've wanted to do this for many years), and I made the motion to raise the roof as I walked across the stage at commencement. In the past four years there has been so much more: I went to my first music festival, I met my first love, I saw the Dalai Lama speak, I saw some of my favorite artists perform (Coldplay, Audioslave, Common, The Roots), I got an offer at one of the top technology companies in the nation (this was something I dreamed of every day until that moment), I had the happiest days of my life (my brother's wedding and the offer/my first date), I smoked my first cigar and my first hookah, I met my best friends, and so much more.

There's no question that I'm going to miss the people I have to leave behind the most. There's way too many people who have influenced me for me to get anywhere close to acknowledging them all, but I do want to take a shot at just a few...
To my parents: you taught me the meaning of strength and sacrifice, and I will always appreciate that. The financial support you gave me showed me that you really cared about me learning. Some parents think they teach their children a lesson by making them suffer through working and doing school at the same time, but I'm glad that you realize that I already understand this. It made a huge difference, trust me.
To BB: I still remember when I talked to you and Kory after a party at Metro and asked if you felt like something was missing from college, like you hadn't found your place yet. Ironically (or coincidentally, I can't figure out which to use here), you guys helped me find my place quite well. I could not have asked for better friends, and I will sorely miss our movie/game nights. You have to come visit me in Seattle.
To my love: there are no words I can put here to thank you for all you've taught me and shown me and helped me through. My appreciation for your being in my life is far larger than you can probably imagine. You will always be a part of me.
To my CS buddies: thanks for being good guy friends. There are a lot of guys who have bad guy friends and end up in bad stuff and feel ostracized and alienated. I always felt right at home with you guys, and we had a lot of fun together. I imagine that our journeys will collide many times in the future, so don't lose touch, please.
To my brother and sister-in-law: your support has been endless, and I always appreciated that. God only knows how much money you've spent on me! Shawn and I get on each other's nerves every once in a while, but such is to be expected from siblings. ;) I will sorely miss lounging about in your house and playing with the bubba.
I'm sure that this is not a goodbye to any of you since you're all required to visit me! Make no mistake about it: I love you all dearly. There are other people who have been close to me over the years and I appreciate you all, too, but I'm running out of time here.

I want to leave you guys with some pictures from the weekend. I would leave you with pictures from the past 4 years that I like best, but that would be far too difficult. I hope you all have a great 4 weeks, and I'll try to report back soon. I will miss everyone.

From Convocation a...

From Convocation a...

From Convocation a...

From University-Wi...

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Harold and Kumar 2 + Iron Man = Holy Awesome

I know, this post is way overdue. I'm going to try my best to hit the high points on what I've missed over the past couple of weeks, including a couple of movies that I saw. Things have just been crazy with wrapping up the semester, plus I got sick (and now I'm sick again thanks to trips to the lake, though I had a lot of fun). I'm going to try a slightly new format where I put bold headings in front of what I talk about to make my posts easier to navigate.

Harold and Kumar: Escape From Guantanamo Bay
Unlike most people, I was not introduced to John Cho by American Pie. Instead, a friend of mine was hyping up a little known movie that really hit it off at Sundance called Better Luck Tomorrow where he also played a jerk. I liked most of the actors in this movie (I was one of the few people who thoroughly enjoyed this movie) but I definitely felt like he was the best because he played this antagonist who you had to hate and feel sorry for at the same time so well. Then Harold and Kumar came out and comedy suited him really well. I think that's a testament to how versatile he is as an actor, and he shines just as well in the sequel. Don't get me wrong, I love Kal Penn, I just didn't see The Namesake so I'm not sure how he does in a serious role (he could've been better on "24", which I miss dearly, by the way).

Ok, enough of the drawn-out introduction, let me give you the premise in a sentence in case you haven't seen any of the trailers. It picks up at the very end of the first one (which I recommend seeing first for the funny subtle references to it, but it's not necessary), and so they're trying to get to Amsterdam to find Harold's crush while she's away there for 10 days but Kumar lights a bong on the airplane there. As you can imagine, stupidity ensues and they get thrown into Guantanamo Bay's military prison for being terrorists. As you can tell from that introduction, this is definitely a stoner movie. That being said, it's still a lot more fun than most, if not all, stoner movies out there. You don't have to be high to enjoy the humor or keep up with the story, you just have to have a really forgiving sense of humor (i.e. suspended disbelief). It features a little more gutter humor than the first movie and some improvements in the production quality due to a larger budget, but it still largely feels the same as the first in terms of humor, writing, acting, directing, etc.

To put it plainly: you will not like this movie at all if you didn't like the original. If you haven't seen the original, I think you should see it first just to get a feel for it before you do check out this one. If you don't catch it in theaters, it's really not a big deal because the same friend you borrow the original from will likely buy this one the day it gets released on DVD, and the big screen doesn't add anything incredible to the movie. If you love Sotuhpark, then I venture that you should also definitely see this one. I give this movie a B+ and personally rate it as the same as the original rather than better or worse. It's hard for me to rate a comedy movie as an A unless it's like Stranger Than Fiction or Little Miss Sunshine. This movie is hilarious and a fun ride, but it has its fair share of gross, racist, inappropriate, awkward, and sometimes offensive moments. It's by no means for everyone. If you can loosen up though and not get offended by its pokes at racism using racism or its subtle jabs at male chauvinism by a demonstration, then I think you'll have a good time. I'm personally going to be picking this one up when it comes out on DVD because every time I see the first it gets funnier, and I can easily see the same happening with this one.

Iron Man
This movie completely caught me off guard and just amazed me on all levels. Let me preface the rest of this review with a couple of things though. I was never a fan of Iron Man at all. I thought he was kind of cool, but other than Batman I didn't really get into superheroes without actual special abilities. I was also skeptical about this movie because the trailer was great but it could've easily been doctored to make a bad movie with great visuals look great, and I wasn't sure about Robert Downey, Jr. because I hadn't seen him in a movie in a while. Plus, director Jon Favreau was also responsible for Batman Forever and Daredevil (which wasn't bad but was underwhelming).

Hence, I think what impressed me most about this movie is the fact that it could pull in people who could care less about Tony Stark or Iron Man and keep them clamoring for more. The basic premise (which is revealed in the trailer) is that billionaire CEO of Stark Industries, Tony Stark, is captured by terrorists and when forced to build them one of his own weapons he creates an armored suit so that he can bust out, and returns home to improve it. Then the rest of the movie ensues. While the movie does start out kind of slow after the initial raid to capture Stark (since it goes back in time to give a little more back story on Stark from just before he gets captured), I thought it was completely necessary much like the plot development early in Batman Begins to really establish who Bruce Wayne is. Also like Batman Begins, the movie somehow knows how to give you the perfect dosage of action. It's not so much that you're bored by it (e.g. Matrix Reloaded) and it's not so little that you feel that you've been misled into watching a drama. Unlike Batman though, Tony Stark is really the main attraction since he is Iron Man rather than Bruce Wayne transforming into Batman. The CG is all very nice, but, more importantly, the acting is consistently spot-on. This seriously is the part that Robert Downing, Jr was born to play: an alcoholic, ostentatious playboy who is secretly very talented. In fact, this movie made more in 3 days than any one of his other movies have made in their entire run in theaters. Terrence Howard is great as always, Gwnyth Paltrow does a nice loyal assistant, and I don't want to spoil information about other characters but they all do well. The directing is almost flawless, the cinematography never lets you down, and the writing feels tight.

To cut to the chase here: there's no reason to not see this movie. It's impressive not only as a superhero movie but as an actual movie. It's probably the best movie to be in theaters in quite a while (likely the best until The Dark Knight comes out in July), and it deserves big screen treatment. So please, hold close to your heart my A rating of this movie and run out and see it. When you do see it, be sure to stay after the credits for something special. They're going to try and converge this movie, Thor, The Incre, and Captain America into a master sequel.

Oh, and you need to see the new Dark Knight trailer. It's pretty incredible. It rolls before Iron Man.

Back Soon
I'm disappointed that I was unable to talk about all the great tech news from the past couple of weeks, but I'm sick and need my rest. I'll do my best to post again on Thursday or Friday after my finals are all done. Until then, here are a couple of pictures from today: