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Kevin Wu Won
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I had my first day trip to Flumserberg yesterday, and it was fantastic!  Flumserberg is the closest ski resort to Zürich by public transport, with 70-minute direct trains running hourly from Zürich HB every hour to Unterterzen, from whence it's a 20 minute ride on the gondola (although you can get there faster if you're willing to take more changes).  But it deserves to be a favourite for more than just its proximity.

The trail map offers a variety of peaks and a variety of paths, all relatively well connected.  My favourite was the long, wide, gentle and consistent red run from Prodkamm down to Tannenheim (left side of the map), which edges out the more undulating and narrower run from Maschgenkamm to Tannenboden (right side of the map).  The former is a learner's dream.  We took the day easy, so we didn't make it to the valley of Panüöl or the peak of Leist.  Gotta leave something for next time.

The red runs at Flumserberg were in parts flat or slightly uphill, punctuated in parts by unwelcome steep mogully bits.  Be sure to keep up the speed around Chrüz and Prodalp, but be prepared to walk between the chairlifts at Seeben.  Having said that, the flat parts give you ample opportunity to enjoy the views.  The vista of Walensee was a postcard picture.  Seeben, which is marked as a lake on the map, was something surreal when it was covered in a thick layer of snow.

And oh, the snow!  The glorious, dry, powder snow!  The conditions were just perfect, having received a good 20cm dump of snow the previous day and the sky clearing in time for our excursion.  The kind of fall I don't mind taking is the one where I land in knee deep powder.  The type that makes you want to roll around and eat it.

With the perfect conditions comes the crowds, but this manifested mostly in the 45-minute line to get tickets right outside Unterterzen station.  That can be mostly bypassed by getting a Ski Card in advance (noted to self).  This won't help with the equally long line to get down at the end of the day though.  In between, however,, the resort has prepared well for the crowds as the chairlifts were mostly queue-free.

I'll definitely be coming back to Flumserberg.  It wasn't just the favourable conditions or the closeness.  It's a well-connected resort with good lift facilities, plenty of variety, great views, and a wide open sense of freedom.
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2015-01-19
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I had my first snowboarding fix of the season yesterday at Andermatt.  Let's see if I can make this the first of a series of ski day reports.

I had been eyeing off mountains all week but the conditions weren't looking good.  With a warm front and no snow in Switzerland in 10 days, many were giving up on the weekend altogether.  But Andermatt is one of the most reliable areas near Zürich, given its position and elevation, so off I went on the 2 hour train ride for the day.

The SkiArena lift pass gives access to a number of disconnected mountains, each of which has only one or two actual runs.  I only saw two of them.  I started the day at Nätschen, thinking the blue runs on the map would be a good warm up.  Not so.  There are two parts to the main blue (beginner) run, but only the top was viable on this day.  The lower was recognisably made of grass.  One run was enough, and we down-loaded on the chairlift to take the 10 minute hike through town to reach the Gemsstock cable car.

Gemsstock was a whole other story.  The snow was much better and the people were more plentiful, to match.  The sun was out and the whole mountain was open.  However, both the conditions and the mountain layout left something to be desired.

The hard-packed snow made their mark on my knees.  The first turn entering the top run was like a narrow chute of concrete.  The red (intermediate) run could have done with a bit more softening, especially in that long flat stretch before the uphill part.  The black (advanced) run was actually more consistent, but the dusting on its surface didn't completely shield my board from scraping what lay below.

Discounting conditions, my impressions of Gemsstock were mixed.  While the red run had fantastic views (as seen in the attached photo), it was narrow in parts and included numerous flat or uphill sections.  Given the bareness of the mountain, it also lacked the character that I would value of such a flat path.  The black run was one of the easier of those I've tried.  Of the red and the black, it is probably the superior one, with consistent, wide surfaces to practice the quicker turns on.

Oh, and there was the cable car.  These two big 50-person lumbering things were the only way up to the top, and we had to wait 3 loads or so during the peak hour.  To be packed in like sardines on the way up, and then to see nary a living thing on the way down, shows that this small resort was not designed for crowds.

Given this, the only times I see myself coming back to Andermatt is when the snow conditions don't support any other mountain nearby so I'll probably only ever see it in the worst of light.  But that's OK; when the sun is out and the cool mountain air clears up for views like this, who's to complain?
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I'm much more comfortable storing my data with Google after finding out how the sausages are made.
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So, you all (hopefully) saw my photos yesterday; if you didn't, you may have seen the media coverage about my employer, Google Australia, installing 2 monorail carriages in our new office space yesterday (e.g. http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/google-installs-monorail-carriages-in-its-office-20131009-2v7fl.html)

Now! For those of you who don't know, confession (and story!) time: this was my fault.

At Google, we have (like most large companies do) an internal ticketing system for keeping track of jobs for our building management team ('Facilities', or 'REWS'). This system is usually populated with requests like, you know, 'the door on level X isn't working properly' or 'the pinball machine isn't working' or 'you know what would be awesome? An electric keyboard. We don't have one, can you buy us one please?' or whatever (all real, recent examples, which all got 'fixed').

Sometimes, though, this ticket system is abused by idiots* trying to be funny.

One such example of this was at the start of this year, when one particular idiot† submitted a ticket into this system pointing out that the NSW and Sydney governments had finally announced their long-anticipated plan to remove and scrap Sydney's defunct, expensive-but-useless monorail (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sydney_Monorail — a classic 'white elephant'). At the time, Google Australia had spread from one office building in Pyrmont to two, and there were rumours of a third coming soon, so this idiot suggested that maybe Google should buy the monorail and install it between the three buildings in a loop, because we're lazy and besides how cool would it be to have a monorail.

Everyone had a chuckle at this lame joke, and then that was it, until a particularly awesome member of our Facilities team, Alecia, replied to the ticket, giving an hilarious and clever feasibility study as to why purchasing the monorail would be a bad plan (and yes, it did include the phrase "more of a Shelbyville idea"). This reply (which I wish I could share with you, but if nothing else it's filled with Google in-jokes and wouldn't make sense to you all) elevated my stupid facilities ticket into legendary status, where it did the rounds of Google and after about a week I think the whole company had seen it.

Joke dies down, everyone's happy. Until about 3 months ago.

About 3 months ago, Alecia sent me an IM saying "Are you free for a meeting now? And by meeting, I mean 'road trip'." Naturally, I was. I arrived at Alecia's desk (Alecia: "I love that I say 'road trip' and you just turn up without asking what it is."), and we head off. Eventually I ask what we're actually doing, and another colleague who was in on the plan tells me: "Monorail shopping!"

Sure enough, Alecia takes us out to a junkyard near the airport, and we all help choose which two monorail carriages we want to purchase and install as meeting rooms in One Darling Island, our new workspace in Sydney (the aforementioned rumoured third building).

Eventually, this brings us to what happened yesterday. After an months of Herculean logistics (and, I'm quite sure, horrifying expense; the SMH article linked above estimates the costs of the installation at $250,000, though I have no idea if that's accurate), yesterday our 2 monorail carriages were brought to the office, and very carefully (I heard tell that the '20cm of clearance' figure in the SMH article was actually an OVER-estimate) lifted into place, where they will become 3 meeting rooms (each carriage will be its own room, and then there will be another casual meeting area at the back)‡. HOW COOL IS THAT??!?

Anyway, check out the linked article - the timelapse footage isn't brilliant, but it will give you an idea of the logistics involved (we actually took some footage of our own, hopefully I can share that with you soon).

So: next time I tell you (as I regularly do) that working at Google is like working at Wonka's Chocolate Factory: remember, I once made a stupid joke about buying a monorail, and MY COMPANY DID IT FOR ME. I bet not many of you can say that§.


* generally, me.
† specifically, me.
‡ you, all being nerds, will be delighted to know that the meeting rooms are to be named "Brockway", "Ogdenville", and "North Haverbrook".
§ my guess: zero.
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Monorail Installation
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Five enhancements to Auto Enhance

Auto Enhance makes improvements to every photo you add to Google+, highlighting important details and helping your images look their best. Today we're upgrading Auto Enhance in five important ways, making your photos even more beautiful: 

1) It does a better job of illuminating faces, even in darker exposures.
2) It's better at removing color casts (like the blue-ish “haze” you might see in your snowboarding pics).
3) It identifies and lightens shadows, especially in landscape images.
4) It selectively brightens night scenes, keeping the focus on your main subject.
5) And… it uses skin tones to calibrate other enhancements like fill light and warmth, ensuring a natural look and feel.

To give Auto Enhance a try, simply upload some photos then view them in the lightbox. From there you can refine Google's enhancements (http://goo.gl/6QKhqW), or undo them entirely. So add a new photo, and let us know your thoughts! #googleplusupdate
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Auto Enhance Improvements
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Release the Google Internet Balloons! Photos and video! 

See the Full article with all the pretty pictures on blog at:  http://www.stuckincustoms.com/2013/06/14/google-internet-balloons/ 
See the YouTube video at:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9ULgTdPuks 

4 AM, a week ago:
I get a strange email from Google.  Just sign the paperwork they say.  We can't tell you anything.  I sign, assuming it's gotta be cool with an approach like that.

Fast Forward One Week
Next thing I knew, I was up in a helicopter over Tekapo, New Zealand, sitting by Steven Levy from Wired magazine tracking balloons as they headed for the stratosphere. I was just a few hours north of my home in Queenstown, so I was excited to check out this secret Google X project right in my own backyard!

So, here's the whole story.  I'll start with a video I shot with Google Glass that shows some of the behind-the-scenes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9ULgTdPuks  

(Note, here is the Longer Video linked therein that has a lot of the tech talk and geeky stuff if you want to know more.]

So, what's the reason for all this?  Well, there are billions of people on Earth without internet.  Billions!  What's a crazy (loon-y) idea to get them internet?  Step in Project Loon from Google X and Rich DeVaul.

New Zealand was a perfect test bed because even though we have only 4 million people, 1 million of us don't even have internet.  Or, if we have it, it's crazy-expensive.  We even visited one farmer (Charles) who said that he had to pay $1400 for ONE month of satellite-internet.  Crazy! 

So, imagine a network, a mesh of balloons that spin around the earth, effortlessly handing off internet from one balloon to the next, just like the way you hand off phone service from one tower to the next as you drive.  You can see more about the tech on Google's Project Loon site at http://www.google.com/loon .

Anyhoo, I was invited along to take photos.  Google was nice enough to even officially license a few photos (thanks!). No, they didn't pay me to write a nice article.  I'm just kind of a Google fan.  Stephen Levy and Wired liked some of the more special photos too, so you can see even more in Stephen's article Wired magazine - http://www.wired.com/ .  Man, he's a cool guy.  You really get to know a dude when you're ripping through the New Zealand mountains with these crazy Kiwi pilots!

After watching the flawless launch on a chilly morning, we ended up taking a chopper to a remote farm.  There were a lot of choppers.  It was kind of like Apocalypse Google Now.

We landed and jumped off to go try out the internet.  Again, flawless.  I can only assume they had a few failed tests beforehand… they must have been working on this for a long time.  But man, it was smooth.  The family was super excited.  They were on www.Trademe.co.nz , which is the eBay of New Zealand.  The husband was looking for a new truck… his wife was not thrilled.

At lunch, the creator of the project, Rich DeVaul, told us a funny story.  I don't even know if I can repeat it, but I will.  It seems innocuous enough.  BTW, I'm not a real journalist or anything.  I'm just a guy that takes photos and likes stories.

[Queue Radiolab soundeffects] Rich is tearing down a highway in central California.  He's in his own car.  There are other Google people in there, and they are peering upwards and out the window like tornado chasers.  They have radio antennae, laptops, and all kinds of crazy Google equipment as they try to track a balloon.  At some point, they overload his alternator and they come to an unceremonious stop.  They are stranded.

Rich has to call his wife to pick them up.  She's been in the dark for years about this project, and he hasn't told her anything.  She drives hours and hours to pick them up.  He fills up her car with nerds and equipment and they sit there silently, ignoring the Fringe/X-Files nonsense that is happening in the backseat.  His lips form a line as he looks side to side innocently.  I'm not sure if that look actually happened, but it probably did.

I heard she's here at this press conference that's happening right now in Christchurch.  So now she knows everything; She's probably quite proud of him!

And, by the way, if you are here in New Zealand in Christchurch, come see me at the Festival of Flight at the Air Force Museum on Sunday! The Project Loon event is from 10am-2pm on Sunday June 16th.  There will be a lot about balloon science and stuff like that… bring the family! Here's a map:   http://goo.gl/xJ81W  

Anyway, hats off to all the engineers and team members.  It's a cool project.  It's all quite early, of course, but if they can keep iterating, it will be a really cool option to get internet everywhere.  I can see remote villages in Africa having one of those red-ballooned antennas.  I can see it forcing competitive local internet services in SE Asia to provide cheaper service and no data caps (the same way Google Fiber is disrupting competitive services).  I can see myself putting one of those antenna on my truck so I have internet no matter where I travel in New Zealand to take photos.  Man, I can't wait!

A Photo-Essay of the launch
You can click through the photos in the album below to see more!  #HolyKaw

Photo Below: The Internet floats over New Zealand. Another Google Loon Balloon makes its way towards the stratosphere, spreading internet like ambrosia dripping from Mount Olympus.
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Google Balloon Powered Internet - Project Loon
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