Markus' Travel and International Living Blog

Markus is an enthusiastic traveler, who lives in Houston, TX (USA) most of the time, but also spends some time in Saalfelden, near Salzburg (Austria). He is fascinated by travel and also by his experiences gathered by living in two different countries and continents.

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Sunday, September 25, 2005
We Are Back!

That was pretty close! But as it turned out, everything worked out fine. In the end, we got relatively close to the storm, but to my surprise, we felt very little of it. We had hardly any rain at all where we are (I still do not know whether our new gutter system works), and there really wasn't all that much wind either. If we didn't know from the news that we were in a hurricane, we would have never known. Sure, things were pretty crappy for a while, but not really huricane-crappy. In fact, yesterday afternoon, we already had sunny weather again.

Yesterday we had some wide-spread power outages in the area. Where we live, we had power outages from the morning to about 1pm or so. Same for the phones. So we actually fired up our generator. But in the end, it wasn't any more than a minor annoyance. In the office, the power was out a bit longer, which is why our servers just came back on today. (They were actually back late night yesterday, but not all of them, so our sites initially did now work reliably).

I guess when the 3rd largest Atlantic hurricane ever, is forcast to go right over your house, that puts a lot of emotional stress on a person. I didn't think about that too much before the hurricane. I guess I was too busy preparing for all eventualities to really think about it. But now that it is over, I realize that the sense of relief is great.

This isn't really over for us yet though. Some of our people have left town and may be facing a lot of traffic getting back. The fuel situation still is a problem. The airport opened back up. I am scheduled to fly out on Wednesday and I now wonder whether the ripple-effect will delay my flight. Most businesses have yet to re-open. But all this is a pretty small price to pay for getting away completely unharmed. (Well, almost unharmed that is... I did suffer an injury: Looks like when I walked around the house barefoot on Thursday and Friday, I burned the bottom of my feet...).

Posted @ 10:46 AM by Egger, Markus (EPS Software Corp.) ( -
Comments (14)

Friday, September 23, 2005
Still Bracing for Impact...

We are still here watching TV. We are as prepared as we can be, and there is nothing we can think of to prepare better. So I am now considering to get back to regular work just to kill some time (the last few days really weren't too productive work-wise anyway).

Right now it is 6:20, and we are not feeling any effects yet. Not too long ago the forcasts still said to expect a significant increase in wind-speed around here starting at 6pm. So far however, we are not seeing much. I was just outside a few minutes ago and there currently is no air movement at all. It is actually still a reasonably nice day here so far. Overcast now, but still very hot. I guess there must have been some gusts that I missed, because I noted some pine needles in our pool. Other than that, if I didn't know better, I would say it is a nice day to have dinner outside.

So far, there has been no danger to our servers, so I will just keep blogging every few hours as long as our infrastructure stays up.

Posted @ 6:26 PM by Egger, Markus (EPS Software Corp.) ( -
Comments (22)

Friday, September 23, 2005
Bracing for Impact...

Contrary to my last post, we decided not to evacuate.

The reason is that we think we will be much safer in our house than on the open highway 50 miles north without gas, riding it out in a Ford Explorer (probably getting rolled around, considering the history of that type of car...).

So we are preparing as good as we can. I think we are in pretty good shape considering a few facts:

  1. We are now on the "clean" side of the storm and should not nearly get as much rain as the dirty (north-easterly) side of the storm.
  2. We have everything boarded up as good as we can. We have the second most fancy boarding job in the neighborhood (or neighbor two houses down did much better... he even cut out round plywood pieces to make sure every nook and cranny is covered...). Considering that I am borderline retarded when it comes to handywork, I am pretty happy with our results though.
  3. Our biggest problem is likely rain. We do not get any serious flooding where we live (normally) except for little annoyances. We did buy a few pumps though, just in case. We are also partially draining the pool to have an extra reservior. (We can not completely drain it, because the soil around here is so wet, it would make the pool pop right out of the ground...)
  4. We even bought a power generator. It is to small to power everything, so in a worst-case scenario, we will have to do with a fan rather than AC, but it will be nice to have things like the fridge going. We invited our neighbors to put critical things (like one women is bringing over medication that needs to be refridgerated) into our fridge.
  5. Our house is a one-story house. Since it is still relatively large, this means it runs very wide, and as a result, inside rooms are really far inside with several walls separating us from the outside walls.
  6. We have plenty of food and water.
  7. Almost all our windows have wooden blinds. So that should be some added protection in addition to the boards we put up.
  8. We have done a very thorough job cleaning up all the things that could go flying in the yard.
  9. We have no tall trees that could hit us (unless the whole thing flys for 100 yards or more).

That is all I can think of right now, but I am sure I am missing a few things.

Anyway: Here is a photo of a partially completed boarding job:

A friend of mine always keeps telling me that one can get great satisfaction from putting a nail into a board. I must say that I did not feel that particular effect so far.

Yesterday, we stopped at Home Depot to see if they had anything that could be useful for us. To my surprise, they had completely cleaned up their act and everything was well organized and orderly. Check-out went quickly. Loading went quickly. They had lots of stuff. We bought a 6800 watt power generator for just over 500 bucks, which I thought was a good deal. And we also got plywood, which we had previously thought was not available anymore.

There was one thing though that I thought sucked: If you wanted plywood, you could get it for $16 a sheet, but you had to buy a 10-sheet minimum. What the hell is up with that?!? There are people running out of plywood and we were probably lucky enough to find just about the only place that had any left, and then we have to buy 10 sheets even though we just need 4 or 5, so we throw the rest away, while other people do not have any?!?

While we were loading ours, we met some other people who said "10 sheets?!? We can't afford that!". So we gave them 5 of ours. They ended up paying us for it (for the same price we bought it). I would have just given it to them, but they insisted. So now we both have plywood. But Home Depot kicked us out because we did that. If you ask me, that just plain sucks!

As far as the whole situation goes, I gotta say that I am less than impressed with how the whole situation is being handled. Right now, all the officials seem to pull all-nighters and one certainly could not complain, but what seems to be lacking is preparedness. Just a few days ago they all stated how Houston had such a great evacuation plan. What we currently have instead is a lot of people who are doing their best, but the plan seems to be either not working or just plain rubbish in the first place. Here are a few things I noticed that need improvement:

  1. Why does it take so long to open the inbound lanes on our highways for outbound traffic? For 36+ hours they were talking about this before they could make it happen. Apparently, there wasn't enough staff on hand to block off on-ramps to make sure nobody got on the regular way. How hard can it be to estimate how many people one would need? Another statement I heard was that while they could have done earlier in Harris county, it was not possible further north because of jurestiction issues. This is not time for beaurocratic BS!!!
  2. All the side-roads heading out of town are blocked too. However, right where we are, all the east-west roads have very little traffic. Nevertheless, all the traffic lights are still switched the normal way. So people end up waiting at red lights trying to go north, while there are few cars going east-west. Green-light-phases going north should probably be 10 times as long as those for east-west traffic.
  3. It seems it could not be that hard to figure out that when millions of people are driving north, traffic will slow down a lot. It also seems quite logical that people will need gas on the way. But nobody seems to have thought about that. So now, people are running out of gas on the way since there aren't adequate emergency supplies of gas available between here and Dallas (and other places people are trying to go to).
  4. The TV constantly provides updates, mainly from people that call in and say "I left from Baytown at 2am, and now it is noon and I only made it to the Xxx exit so far", and the announcer would then say "well, dear viewer, you can clearly see how slow traffic is going...". But you know what: I can not! How am I going to know how far it is from Baytown to whatever exist they quoted. If someone evacuates from way south, I would not expect them to know each and every exit by name between Galveston and Dallas.
  5. I have heard people calling in that said they were in their car, had children with them, needed to go to the bathroom, or wanted to get off the highway temporarily for some reason. However, did couldn't because they said they wouldn't be allowed back on. That just seems odd. You get off the highway and you would not be allowed back on? That doesn't seem right to me, but if it is true, this kinda sucks. Not sure what the reason would be. Maybe they do not want people further north to add to the traffic jam, so they do not let them onto the highway? I would be surprised if a lot of people who didn't need to would choose to go on a highway where the average speed is between 2 and 5 miles per hour...
  6. A lot of the maps currently showing the path of the hurricane do not have names on them. I have a pretty good idea where in Texas I live if I see a map without cities or borders. But if a friend tells me "come here to my house in Xxx", then I do not have as good an idea and do not have adequate information to figure out whether I should go there or not.
  7. Right now they are showing two very similar maps on the TV: The cone-of-probability for the hurricane impact (showing where it might go), and the cone-of-impact (showing the area that will feel the effect). I would not be surprised if a lot of folks (especially older folks) get confused.
  8. The whole evacuation thing is not nearly as organized as I would like it to be. If I lived in Galveston, things are pretty clear cut. You get the hell out of there! But where we are, things are not as obvious. We are not near a mandatory evacuation zone. Some of Harris county (where we live) is a mandatory evacuation zone, but it is the 3rd largest county in the country. So where we are, they just say "def. evacuate if you live in a mobile home or a place that floods easily". OK, so far so good. But would it be prudent for me to evacuate too? Would we be in more danger on the road? (Now they are starting to say that, but it is too late now anyway). Would we hinder the evacuation efforts for people that really need to evacuate? What is a smart choice to make? There is very little information available and one has to dig pretty hard to find anything. What I would like is a map that has the following zones: "red - mandatory evacuation, orange - really should get out, yellow - leave, because why risk it, and finally, a zone that could say something like "probably safe, but make your own choice".
  9. Personally, I have very little idea of what it means to have 100 miles an hour winds. I have been in 70-80 mile an hour winds before. Let me know what is going to happen in 100 mile an hour winds (with 120 mile gusts) and tell me how strong tornadoes usually are. I have seen some of that information yesterday, but at that time it was already too late to leave anyway. I would have wished to have access to this sort of information much earlier.

So I really think there are a lof of things that could have been handled better in terms of planning and preparation. However, my hat's off to the people currently working on this, because they are working their butts off! So my thanks go out to all these guys

I am also curious to see what is going to happen once this is over. People seem to expect all the evacuees to return gradually over a number of days. Personally, I would be surprised if that would happen. If my house was about to get blown away, I would try to return to my home as soon as I could (probably on Sunday) and not 5 days later. So I would not be surprised at all if we had even worse traffic problems after the storm. And who knows: We tend to have somewhat circular weather patterns here (which apparently is part of the pollution problem we have here...) and previous hurricanes have been known to circle back in on Houston. This could mean pretty bad rain that I certainly would not want to be surprised by on a highway.

Anyway: I hope we are able to keep our server down-time to a minimum. This way, I can let you know how things turn out. Right now, BTW, it is a very nice, calm, and sunny Friday here. By now I really expected things to be a lot worse...

Posted @ 12:39 PM by Egger, Markus (EPS Software Corp.) ( -
Comments (42)

Thursday, September 22, 2005
Preparing for Hurricane Rita

Hurricane Rita is about to hit Houston pretty hard. Looks like Galveston and other areas nearby are just going to get leveled.

We are in the north-west of Houston, about 70 miles inland. For a storm this size, not far enough for my liking, so while we have beein hoping for the best (and in some ways assumed the best), we have also prepared for the worst. It now looks like we will evacuate towards the north tomorrow.

The last few days, we have spent preparing. And I gotta tell you: This is turning into a zoo here. Just a few examples:

I went to get gas earlier today. We had already filled up our main car a few days ago, but I decided to also fill up our second car and a few spare jugs, just in case. I actually had to go to 3 different gas stations because most of them are out of gas now (in Texas of all places!). Even there I had to wait almost 45 minutes and then 2 cars ahead of me, they ran out of gas there too! Luckily, it turned out they only ran out of Regular.

We also made a few trips to various hardware stores. The trip to Home Depot today topped it all. The checkout line literally wrapped around the back of the store. They had entire isles blocked off because they are completely sold out. If you are looking for plywood, then you are out of luck. Batteries or a power generator? Maybe tomorrow morning.

Supermarkets are just as busy. Today, water is about as rare in Houston as it is on Mars. Food is getting sparse. At least, it's a good excuse to eat potato chips all weekend.

We also got the office partially ready for our evacuation (we still have some work to do tomorrow). Luckily, we have nice office furniture that we can just roll into other rooms, so we moved everything away from all the window offices we have. I guess there is a downside to having all window offices after all. (For my European readers who may be scratching their heads now: Yes, it is actually legal here to have offices without natural light). We will be shutting all our servers down tomorrow, so our web sites will not be operating, and our email will not work either.

Maybe I will get to use my Tablet PC blog to communicate: 

Some of our employees already evacuated today. Others went home early to buy guns (I am not kidding). So overall, this is not looking all that good.

Bottom line: I think we would be OK where we are, and most of our neighbors are actually staying. But why tempt fate? Now that it is getting more and more likely that we are in the area that will be hit the worst (or just a little bit inland from that), I see no great advantage in staying here. Sure, driving hundreds of miles at 7 miles an hour won't be fun, but I doubt things will be much more comfortable here either.

Posted @ 2:32 AM by Egger, Markus (EPS Software Corp.) ( -
Comments (16)

Tuesday, September 20, 2005
L.A.: Great Food, Good Business, Cool Parties, and Bad Hotels

My most recent trip took me to L.A. to attend PDC 05 (a major computer conference). Overall, the trip was a blast, but it was also very exhausting.

To get the bad things out of the way: We stayed at the Universal Sheraton near the Universal City Walk. This hotel really did not live up to the expectations I have for an expensive Sheraton property. The rooms were old and relatively dirty. The bath was tiny. To brush my teeth, I practically hand to stand with my legs spread over the toilet to reach the sink. We got there at 10:45pm, and they only had room service until 11pm. By the time we got the the room, no room service was available and no restaurant that would have been open at the time, within reasonable distance. No mini-bar either. The whole pool area was pretty run down (not that we had time to use it). Overall, I really felt that for the price we paid for the room, we got ripped-off. So when you go to L.A., I would advise to steer clear of that hotel.

The rest of the trip was great. The conference was a great success and you can read about it here. From a travel point of view, here are the more interesting parts:

Fogo de Chao: You guessed it! Whenever I go somewhere they have a Fogo de Chao restaurant, I go for some great Brazilian steak. The Fogo in L.A. is in Beverly Hills. Ellen, Rod (Paddock), Jim (Duffy), Robert (Scoble), Julia (Lerman), and a few other people had a great time there.

Party at the White Lotus: This was unexpectedly cool. We were invited to a "Microsoft Influencer" party and met a lot of cool people. The party itself was great too. They had some cool ice sculptures they served drinks through ("martini fountain"). Also, they had acrobats (male and female) that hung off the high ceilings in what I can only describe as huge bed sheets (only one person at a time... keep your mind at bay!). This was an awesome (and pretty sexy) spectacle that went on all evening. Oh, and they had some pretty good sushi (for a party anyway).

We were also invited to a Microsoft VIP party at the Figueroa Hotel. This is one of those places that just surprises you. From the outside, the place looks like one would have to be afraid to enter for fear of the whole thing just coming crashing down on your head (or a Mafioso showing up with a Tommy Gun). But inside, this is a really cool boutique hotel. I have not been in any of the rooms, but pictures look pretty cool. And the pool area is just perfect for a party. At that particular party, they had a Moroccan theme, with fire floating in the pool, and acrobats doing fire dances and other things. This also turned out to be a great place for some business networking. On future trips to L.A., we might actually consider staying at the Figueroa. It certainly would be better than the dump we stayed at.

We also had a business dinner at The Standard Hotel. This place is always amazing in an odd way. I guess this is where all the beautiful people hang out looking for a somewhat weird experience. I enjoy the Standard, but only in small doses. I have been in their rooms before, and was less than impressed to be honest. I guess I am just not enough of a 70's fan. I like their bars and restaurants better than their rooms.

We also went to Universal Studios (the theme park) with a few thousand other programmer geeks. I came a way a bit disappointed, but then we arrived there late, so it was partially our fault. I thought the Shrek ride was pretty funny though...

Posted @ 10:44 PM by Egger, Markus (EPS Software Corp.) ( -
Comments (22)

Friday, September 09, 2005
Dental Problems and Air Travel

I have fallen behind with blogging a bit, and there is a good reason: I had to delay my trip from Europe to the US by over a week due to dental surgery, and the resulting ripple effect caused a bit of chaos. And it all started out so harmless...

The first sign of trouble was when a bit of a tooth of mine broke off. Not very large, so I didn't pay much attention to it. I just though "gee... I better get that fixed". Then another piece broke off, and I though "ok, I am going to get that fixed right away". So I went to a dentist in Austria and as it turns out that things were quite a bit worse than I had feared. 4 teeth needed major work and the dentist immediately told me that flying was out of the question (I guess due to the pressure difference). All of this was terrifying for me, especially because I am practically a complete stranger to dental work. Up until recently, I haven't even had any fillings, no less anything major. But at the same time I was fairly certain that the dentist was right and didn't try to rip me off. After all, he had been recommended by a friend of mine, who is a dental technician, and he also took a look at the mess himself.

So long story short: I flew back 8 days later than I had planned originally (and in hindsight, getting all this work done in just 8 days was a bit silly... I still can't do without painkillers today). This of course raised the problem of changing the flights. I was worried about that, especially since we had paid for them with frequent flyer miles. But to my surprise, things were fairly easy! A short phone call and a $35 change fee per ticket later and we were all set. Amazing!

But of course, things were not quite that easy in the end. Once we arrived at the Munich airport (early in the morning), a rather unfriendly check-in lady told us that while she could see that the system scheduled us to fly that day, she could not find any ticket information, and somehow, that was all our fault. Well, good morning to you too!

But that wasn't all! We had a stop-over in Paris, and there, we were not on the security check list. Yikes! That is about the worst thing that can happen to you when you travel to the US. Luckily, we had our ticket-change-confirmation printed out and were able to convince them that we weren't terrorists. But that took a while. "Where did you get this paper from", the security guy at the check-in counter asked. "We printed it out ourselves", we stated. "With your own computer?". "Yes". "How did you get it?". "We got an email notification". "So you got this online?!?". Why yes, smarty-pants, we got it online. Is there anything wrong with online? I mean, does that automatically flag us in some way? If so, perhaps we can get a Continental phone number we can call, and ask them to change the procedure.

I mean, c'mon! Continental (who the security guy worked for) completely messed up our reservation, and that makes us eligible to being treated like manure for some reason? Just be a little friendlier, would you?

BTW, a word of caution: If you have a stop-over in Paris, make sure you have enough time. This is just about the most unorganized airport I know, and if your connection time is less than 2 hours, you are in serious danger of missing your connecting flight.

Anyway: In the end, we made it to the US just fine. Hallelujah! My teeth still hurt (or rather my gums), but other than that, things are back on track. Perhaps I can even manage to catch up with some of my blogging, because there is a bunch of other stuff that happened on our recent trip that is worth mentioning, and on Monday, we will already be on our next trip to L.A. for PDC, the Professional (Software) Developer's Conference, which - no doubt - will give me other things to talk about...

Posted @ 6:41 PM by Egger, Markus ( -
Comments (35)








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