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Archive for September, 2010

Berlin Day 2

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Finally, another blog post! I’m sorry for making you all wait so long. I’m determined to get through the rest of the trip. Just five more days. Totally do-able.

Anyway, day two started out with a nice surprise. Somehow my phone got unplugged in the night and was now completely dead. Great! It was terrible timing because today I was going on a 5 hour tour of Berlin. Oh and I also had no way of telling what time it was. It felt a little early when I first woke up and saw the dead phone so I went back to sleep for a bit. I woke up again and went to the bathroom. It felt like I should get up then but it was the weirdest feeling to not be able to tell what time it was. There was a guy sleeping with his watch on and I started leaning over him to read it but that creeped me out so I gave up. Imagine trying to explain to a guy that the reason you’re hovering menacingly over his bed is that you just wanted to check what time it was. Real believable.

So I got dressed and headed down to the lobby. It was like 9:15 I think and the the tour started at 10 or something. So I had a little time beforehand to try and get it the phone working again. The front desk told me there was an internet cafe a couple blocks up and then some so I hurriedly headed out. Of course the directions got all muddled in my head so I never found what they were talking about. The anxiousness level was rising as I walked up and down streets, looking for a stupid internet cafe. I swore the things were everywhere when I didn’t need them.

Thankfully, I found one on the main drag and walked in. The hacking process requires having the ability to install iTunes to the computer and I was lucky this place allow it Any good, secure place should block it though, because it’d be just as easy to install keystroke logging software and steal everybody’s passwords. I’m lucky that I never had any problems with that, as far as I know.

By this time, I as running really low on time. I started to download iTunes, which was a big file and it went pretty slowly on the ancient computer hardware. the time was just getting too close so I had to give up and run back to try to get the train. Another 10 minutes and I’d have gotten it installed no problem, but that was just the way my luck turned out. No pictures on this tour for me! :(

So I boarded the S-bahn, heading off down the line for a couple stops. I tried to keep track of the time in my head because I still didn’t have a way to know. It’s funny how few clocks there are when you need them! I guess I could’ve asked somebody for the time but I was too shy. I got off at the station and checked the clock there. I was already late for the tour. I hoped they would wait a little bit.

The meeting point was right across from the train station. I kind of remembered the name of it but had no idea where it was. Luckily, I took the right exit and stumbled onto the street right across from it. No tour group though. Sigh. Defeat and failure again. I walked to the sign saying “Meet here for … ” and confirmed my mess up. As I was walking away though, I caught another part of the sign that said “Missed the pickup time? Meet us at our first stop at the New Synagogue 20 minutes afterwards.” Oh joy! I’d have a chance after all!

So I followed their directions to the New Synagogue. Again, I was trying to keep track of time’s passing because I couldn’t find a clock anywhere. I was late to the meeting point to begin with but I got to the first stop in what felt like less than 15 minutes. And there was only one way to find out— wait.

In front of the synagogue there were two police officers guarding the place. I felt a little uneasy just loitering around there and tried to look as non-threatening as possible. However one does that, I’m not sure but they never came up to ask what I was doing so I guess it worked. After a while, I spotted the tour group across the street. I went across and joined them. Hooray, the day wasn’t a complete failure after all.

I was still mad that I didn’t have a way to take pictures though. Everything was screaming out to be photographed and I almost didn’t even want to be on that tour because of it. Oh well, my memory is decent enough and has held until now at least.

The guide described the first stop– the New Synagogue, which was mostly destroyed during WWII. Ironically, it was the Americans fault and they weren’t even trying to hit it. The building was in between two key Nazi buildings but the bomber completely missed those. Since then, the building has been rebuilt but you can see some of the original walls with pockmarks from the shrapnel.

Somebody asked if some of the marks could be bullet holes and the guide said that generally, the smaller and rounder the hole, the more likely it was cause by a bullet. I thought that was pretty cool. But then he said something that made a lump grow in my throat, and still does today.

He said that sometimes you see the bullet holes in a line and I though “cool, that must be from machine guns spraying.” Not at all. He said it was from people being lined up against the wall and executed by firing squad. Ice crawled across my skin and plunged into my chest. I knew that stuff had happened during the war but being able to see the silent, vivid reminders of those horrors struck me deeply. Each one of those simple little holes was a life lost.

So after that chilling moment we walked down the sidewalk to the next stop. It was actually the area behind the synagogue, which was filled with small shops, playground and a building which used to be horse stables. A couple of the buildings there cracked me up– one was some kind of self-promotion consulting place and the other one was a clown school. Oh wait, they were the same building. 😉

After that we went to a cool squatter settlement called Tacheles. It was originally built as a high-end shopping complex but it got bombed during WWII and people started living there afterward. They didn’t own the land or have permission to be there but have actually transformed the place into an important cultural landmark. Nowadays, it houses art studios, galleries, clubs and some other less scrupulous businesses. Again, I was kicking myself that I didn’t have a camera because the place was filled with awesome graffiti and the half-demolished building looked awesome by itself.

Next, we went over to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Its an entire city block filled with stone monoliths of varying height. It didn’t really connect with me but it was still cool to be there. The place actually drew quite a bit of controversy when it was constructed. One legitimate reason was that it only commemorates the Jews killed in WWII, ignoring the millions of non-Jews who died as well. One bizarre but interesting reason that it caused outrage was that they used an anti-graffiti coating on the stone blocks that is made by the same company who used to make Zyklon B, the deadly gas used in gas chambers during the Holocaust. It seems like they should’ve used an alternative company but its also a reminder to how recent the Holocaust was. The tour guide mentioned another interesting tidbit– the Fanta soda company was started as the Nazi alternative to Coke.

The next spot we went was a place most tourists would never discover. It was a parking lot. But the spot had quite an infamous history before it became a parking lot. It used to be the office and home of Adolf Hitler. Everything was leveled after the war but his underground bunker is still buried there. In that bunker, Hitler committed suicide along with his mistress Eva Braun and afterward their bodies were taken outside, covered with gasoline and burned. We stood on that exact site.

There were no memorials, no markings, nothing other than a small sign about 30 yards away. The fact that the site was used for something as mundane as a parking lot was perfect. The man who thought he would start a thousand year reign doesn’t even have a gravestone. Poetic justice at its finest.

After that, we walked around East Berlin. We saw the second longest stretch of the Berlin wall as well as Checkpoint Charlie. The checkpoint is one of the worst tourist traps in Berlin. Not only does it have a poorly done museum but the “guards” re-enacting the checkpoint are also male prostitutes. I couldn’t even believe that. Not so classy, Berlin.

At that point, we stopped for some coffee and I also got a delicious piece of bread pudding. It was fun talking to the guide about his experience in Berlin. I think he was from England originally but moved over about five years ago. I asked him how much German he knew and he said enough to get by. He said that Germans asked him why he was even trying to learn an ugly language like German, which I found interesting. It stems from the issue of the huge national guilt that Germans feel over WWII and the embarrassment they have. The guide called it “self-flagellation.” He also said that some of his English friends have been in Berlin for 10 years and still have problems ordering at a restaurant. Interesting.

Anyway, after that we saw a few of the buildings designed under the Nazi reign, which were all ascetic, gray structures. Then we saw some of the more famous buildings like the Brandenburg Gate. Also saw Hotel Adlon, where Michael Jackson dangled his son Blanket over the railing. After walking around to the other side, we saw a couple nice cars roll up and somebody famous looking get out. He had a couple bodyguards and a cameraman with him. We couldn’t tell who he was but he was pretty blinged-out and posed for a couple photos. People thought he might be Prince but looking at pictures, he seems a little too big. You be the judge.

From there we walked to the Berlin Cathedral. He was explaining the history and stuff of the spot but all I really remember is that one year they were filming a Hitler movie in the area. They had it all set up like it would’ve been back in the day and our tour guide just happened to stumble upon it unknowingly. He said he saw all these swasitkas and was like “what the heck?” but they said “its ok, it’s for a movie.” Yeah, pretty interesting story. We parted ways and now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I never paid for the original tour. I offered as soon as I joined the group, but they said pay later and I forgot. Bad Brandon! I guess I’ll have to go back, if only to pay up. Maybe they could extradite me– a free trip over there!

If you’ve been reading this straight through, now’s a time to get up, stretch and think about something else for a second. You’ve been a reading machine and you need to take a break before you hurt yourself. It’s taken me two days to get this far in writing it, so I bet your eyeballs are screaming for a break. I think this it’s already the longest post I’ve done. Berlin is just so interesting and cool! If there was any place I could see myself living, Berlin would be it. OK, go take your break now.

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Break’s over, back to the action. The tour was over and I now had to fix that broken phone of mine. Luckily, someone offered to send their pictures from the tour over. Thanks to Kate B, I have pictures! Anyway, I headed off to Prenzlauer Berg to look for a dang internet cafe. The area is hip and cool and apparently has the best dressed babies in Berlin. I didn’t see any babies. I did shop around some of the clothing stores a bit while I was up there but didn’t see anything fantastic. I went into a couple internet cafes there and finally found one. Of course I spent too much time in there but I did get the phone working again. Hallelujah. I also planned out some more of my trip, although it was pretty well planned out at this point. Grabbed a beer to go and headed down the street.

Explored the area a little bit and must’ve eaten something at that point because it was dinner time. I had an “anti pub-crawl” bar tour at 8 and I think I went back to the hostel to get changed into jeans. Anyway, I met up with the group, back in Prenzlauer Berg. The plan was to tour some local bars and have a drink at each one without becoming a huge mob of drunk tourists by the end of the night. The pub crawls have quite a bad reputation for that amongst the locals, so our guides kept the group smaller and possibly less intoxicated.

Our first bar was decorated in the hippy 70’s style. The place wasn’t very full except the tables where our group was at– probably 12 of us in total. We all did the typical traveller chat: “Where are you from? How long have you been travelling? Where are you going next?” That’s usually enough to get things kicked off.

The second bar was some kind of Gothic dungeon with lots of skulls and skeletons and other evil things lining the walls. They were blasting heavy metal classics and it was awesome when Rammstein’s Du Hast came on. That’s been a long time favorite of mine and it was the perfect place to hear it. For those of you who don’t know him, you might as well save your eardrums for something else. But I loved it and it all made me chuckle at how over-the-top this place was.

We left there after about 45 minutes and then headed via S-Bahn to this ping-pong bar. I had never been to one before but they are actually cool. The place was tiny and must’ve been a converted house. The grand attraction was a ping-pong table, where people would get in a giant circle and walk around it, hitting the ball once and then continuing on. If you missed the ball, you stepped out of the circle and eventually the game got down to the final two, who would play a game to 10 points. Then it was everybody in again. I did the best during my first round, lasting past about half of the other people. We must’ve been there an hour or so, having drinks in between games of ping-pong.

The final place we went was a club called Cassiopeia. It was about 2 am by this time and the club was bumping. I learned later that it used to be a train depot that got bombed out during WWII. Pretty cool. The DJ was playing fast dubstep techno and everybody was dancing wildly. It was a ton of fun to be there and the frenzy of it all was exhilarating. There was another level above playing different music and I checked that out too. After a while, I was getting psyched up to go to another club, the most exclusive club in Berlin, the Berghain.

The Berghain is legendary amongst clubbers worldwide not only because of its awesome music but also because of its draconian door policy. There’s no rhyme nor reason to who they let in– it’s all about having the “look.” Most people get turned away but that just keeps them coming back for more. I was nervous about even trying because I’d surely get turned away if they found out I was an American tourist. But that night I was feeling gutsy enough to try it out.

I left the group and walked to the Berghain, which wasn’t more than 10 minutes away. Both clubs are in an area of Berlin called Friedrichshain, which is stuffed with other clubs and nightlife spots. Luckily, my hostel was in the same area too so I could just walk home. Anyway, I had butterflys in my stomach as I walked to the Berghain. It was stupid to get so nervous but whatever.

Turns out my nerves were for nothing though. The place was dead– not another soul roamed the area. I then remembered hearing that they were only open on Saturdays. My guidebook had been wrong. It was getting late anyway- probably about 3 or so. Actually, that’s about the time people start going out to clubs. Peak time is 6am and by 9am the clubs are kicking people out. Sounds insane.

So I walked back to my hostel and fell asleep. There ends the day!

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September 26th, 2010 at 5:01 pm

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First Week at Microsoft

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We’re not done with the Europe trip posts but I thought I’d share how my first week at my new job went. I started last Monday working as a Program Manager at Microsoft. My team is responsible for work on the Office family of products and they were my first choice out of the options I had. Program managers are responsible for inventing and designing new features for the software although we don’t actually code. The main thing we produce are specification documents, which provide the goals, justification, and detailed design for an individual feature. The specs are written early on in the development lifecycle and PMs work with the coders and testers to see the feature through to completion. The work involves a lot of collaboration– both within the team and between teams. What attracted me to the position of PM was the opportunity for critical thinking and high-level design, as well as the big impact they have on the final product.

Speaking of the big impact, one cool thing about my Europe trip this summer was seeing all the people who would be impacted by the work I would be doing. They were people who spoke a different language, lived thousands of miles away, and would never come in contact with me, yet they will be affected often by software that I, along with my team, designed and brought to life. It was an empowering feeling to realize that and it made this job feel even more rewarding. If I could make Office a tiny bit better and save millions of people just a couple seconds of their time, it would be so awesome.

Working on Office and at Microsoft will not only give me an opportunity to improve the world, but it will be a great chance to improve myself and advance my career. What really attracted me to Microsoft is their long standing legacy of expertise and dominance in the Software Engineering world and the opportunity to work in this environment. They also take an active role in advancing the careers of their employees, from encouraging mentorships to offering training seminars to developing a career plan. They really are interested in helping you reach your maximum potential and I think that’s cool.

So it was with a lot of excitement and optimism that I started the week. Monday was spent in basic training, just an overview of company policies and employee benefits. I was lucky though and got to meet my boss at the end of the day. He seemed like a good boss: responsive, respectful, relaxed, communicative, and experienced. He told me a bit about team and the kind of work I’d be doing, which I didn’t really understand but was good to hear. I felt relieved to get a good boss because he will be having a big influence over my job success and enjoyment.

The rest of the week was spent meeting people on the team, going through training sessions, reading presentations, and generally drowning in information. It was easy to feel stupid and intimidated by all that was going on within our team but I was assured that the feeling is normal and subsides with time. It takes about six months to become truly effective and independent, so I’m going to try to not judge myself too harshly. But it is frustrating when you want to hit the ground running and instead have to spend so much time coming up to speed. Then again, the software is so intricate and the complexity so high that it’d be impossible to do anything else.

The days went by quickly but I was glad when they were over. Of course, it wasn’t time to relax just yet. I still had to get home, which takes a lot of time. Traffic is so bad that I took anywhere from forty minutes to an hour to get back home. I tried driving once instead of taking the bus, but the stress of dealing with stop and go traffic greatly outweighed the time savings. Microsoft actually operates an extensive network of buses that go throughout Seattle to pickup employees and I’ll try taking that once my information gets into their system. Optimizing my commute is still a task and someday I hope I won’t mind it at all.

So that’s about it for the first week at work. I expect to occasionally post stuff about my job, but only after I’ve thoroughly read the guidelines for blogging. One leak of sensitive information is all it takes to get fired. Yikes!

A new Europe post is coming soon…

Taken in the Paris metro system. This job has impact!

Written by admin

September 6th, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized