Author Archives: eski

Recruiters’ new (spam) tools

Intro

I’ve recently been getting a slew of e-mails from recruiters.  Horray!  Right?  Except…no.  Don’t get me wrong: we all have jobs and I’m happy to get e-mails from recruiters.  The issue is that these are e-mails to an address which I never published on my resume and have intentionally hidden from any public space.  So how have they come into possession of these e-mails?  Enter pseudo-spam companies….

The Nadir of the Internet

It took a long time to track down how my private e-mail address was being distributed, probably because I’m not as in-tune to recruiting.  However, I’ve had a number of exchanges that went something like the following:

Recruiter: Hi!  I’m looking for qualified individuals for …

Me: Hi!  Where’d you get this e-mail address from?

At this point, the recruiter went silent… So I tried a different tactic:

Recruiter: Hi!  I’m looking for qualified individuals for …

Me: Hi!  I’d be happy to take a call as long as you tell me where you got this e-mail from.

Recruiter: Sure, it’s from a tool we’re using to contact qualified individuals from.  When can we schedule a chat?!

At this point, it becomes clear that they know what they’re doing is shady at best… Why wouldn’t they tell me which?  My guess is that the tools are encouraging the end users to not tell which tool.  So I refuse to take a call until they tell me which specific tool and we see follow-ups like:

Me: I’m interested in which specific tool.  I’ll take a call, but only on the condition that you tell me specifically which utility you’re using.

Recruiter: OK, it’s this maybe illegal thing called _____

Aha!  And now we’ve found them.   It turns out that _____ company is basically set up to gather e-mail addresses through various sources (my guess is most are illegal) and then resell them to people that want to contact you in an unsolicited manner.  Some of them harvest through public and non-public sources while some guess your e-mail address through heuristics (e.g. “<first initial>.<last name>@yourcompany.com”).  By my understanding, e-mail harvesting is illegal in most countries, including the US, but they’re reselling to 3rd parties (recruiters) that are ultimately e-mailing you, so it’s extremely difficult to track down.  There’s never an unsubscribe link and never an easy filter to put on to prevent this garbage.

Companies

Turns out there are a variety of companies that are all in competition for the best possible spam-enablers.  These companies include:

  • Contactout
  • Lusha
  • Hiretual
  • Entelo
  • ZoomInfo
  • Connectifier
  • EmailHunter
  • FindThatLead

and many others

What can we all do about it?

In order to help everybody out, I collected the most common of these companies at https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1EiiMwVO49oi4NIYEeMDoA9684RkD5oOCBuRVYS9d-p0/edit?usp=sharing .  I also made a single, simple link on that page to remove yourself from all of these in one go.  Please do share this with your friends to help them from getting unsolicited e-mail from recruiters.  If there are other companies like these that you know about, please submit them at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1XYYcas9DZexd9HEsgrgfuzLxH8UAdJHDW-Ec_QwVrqU/edit and I’ll review & add them in.  This page also includes a link to report them to their hosting providers as they are (probably) violating their terms of service by being complicit in helping companies send unsolicited e-mail.

Government debt, GDP growth, and taxes, oh my!

Government debt sounds scary!  If debt is bad on an individual basis, shouldn’t we seek to eliminate debt?  And “you can’t spend your way out of debt!”  Except all of this is a pretty simplistic view.

In any monetary situation, we have to consider where the money comes from and goes.  At home, it (mostly) comes from your income.  In business, it’s (mostly) payments from your customers.  In government it’s (mostly) taxes from your citizens.  Where it goes is also important: at home, maybe food and rent or mortgage, in business to employees or to your investors or creditors, and government to various programs and to its creditors.  Lots of times, people associate government debt with personal debt: if personal debt is something you want to pay off entirely, shouldn’t we want to pay off government debt entirely?  And if so, how can we do that?

Measuring debt

First things first is how to measure debt.  Typically, it’s given as either an absolute number in order to terrify people (e.g. this) or as a % of the country’s GDP, or debt-to-GDP ratio.  Practically, the debt-to-GDP ratio is more inherently useful due to tax rates.  $1 billion in debt would be crazy for a single home and a lot for a business, but next to nothing for most nations because inherently their incoming income/payments/taxes are different orders of magnitude.  The current US debt-to-GDP ratio is around 104%.  The next question you should ask is “is 104% debt-to-GDP too high?  Is it low?  What would be a good number to get to?”

One way to approach answering that would be to look at the landscape of countries out there.  There are countries with higher ratios (as a few examples, Japan with 229%, Greece with 177%) some about the same (Belgium with 106%, and Singapore with 105%), some with a bit lower (UK with 89%, Canada with 91%, France with 96%), and some with a lot lower (Afghanistan with 6%, Russia with 18%, Nigeria with 12%, Mexico with 43%, and Australia with 37%).  In general, less developed nations keep lower debt-to-GDP ratios because their lenders don’t trust them with large debts and thus raise their rates if they try to increase their debt.  The debt rates for the US have been pretty low because both internal and external investors trust the US to repay the debt.

The US is in the upper quartile of debt-to-GDP ratios, but nowhere near Japan and nowhere near its historic high, and it also has a great history of repaying its debt, so maybe that’s not a terrible thing.  Still, if it’s possible to pay less on debt, that sounds intuitively like a good thing to do — though we should also acknowledge that intuition is often faulty.

Paying off debt

By cutting programs

One way to approach cutting back the 104% number and repaying faster is to look broadly at what you could spend things on if you weren’t paying (as much) interest.  By cutting back on existing government programs, you could pay off your debt, which would then lower your debt-to-GDP ratio.  This is fairly intuitive and one of the easier arguments to make.  However, the danger is that it often ignores what downstream impacts those programs you’re cutting may have on the GDP.  As a few examples, a higher skilled work force, e.g. through better education programs, can raise GDP in a semi-permanent fashion.  Improving the average citizen’s health can also do this.  Racial inequality has been shown to lead to declined GDP.  So when cutting programs in order to decrease debt, one should be careful of weighing what the long-term impacts of the programs are that you’re cutting.  These are hidden costs of cutting the program which may not show up for years, depending on the cycle and beneficiaries of the program.

By increasing taxes

Of course, nobody likes to hear the phrase “raise taxes” unless it’s on someone you don’t feel you’ll be affected by.  But this could have a positive impact on the net receivables of the US which they could then use to repay taxes.  Of course, the opposite of this is that people could move themselves or their businesses out of the US to avoid paying US taxes altogether, in favor of a different country’s tax scheme.

The net tax revenue as a % of the GDP in the US is just shy of 27%, so for every $1 billion you can get the economy to expand, the US government will have $270m to pay down debt.  Again looking at “peers”:

  • The UK is 34.4% net tax rate
  • Russia is 19.5%
  • Australia is 25.8%
  • Canada is 32.2%
  • Belgium is at 47.9%

The United states is pretty “average” here.  The OECD average is 34.8%, which puts the US below that, but above several less developed nations with lots of oil and other natural resources to export.

By increasing GDP

A third way to approach it is to take a completely different approach and look at how much you could grow your GDP:  if GDP grows faster than your debt as a result of your actions, your debt-to-GDP ratio shrinks.  Fundamentally this is an easy argument to make, but many people often miss the subsequent step: on how government spending could increase GDP.  What’s interesting is that this argument is also completely valid for two reasons.  First, simply because government spending is actually included as a piece of the GDP function (GDP = C + G + I + NX where C = consumer spending, G = government spending, I = investments, and NX = net exports), so increasing government spending directly affects GDP.  Second, government spending has to be spent on something: materials, contracts, etc, and that money ends up in business hands which ultimately ends up in a combination of investors and employees hands’.  Those businesses, investors and employees get taxed at some government rates and they use their leftover money to spend, invest, or save.

Generally, most everything done in the economy is taxed at some rate.  Various sales taxes tax consumption, there are personal and business taxes on incomes/revenues, taxes on imports, etc.  Thus, if the net volume and value of transactions that go on in an economy increase, the net taxes tend to increase as well, obviously dependent on what the various tax rates are.  Again, in the US, the net tax rates as a % of GDP are currently 26.9%.

By multipliers

In the last paragraph, I skipped over a secondary element of GDP going up, which lies in what GDP does and results in.

Before going further, I have to talk first about a Keynesian economics term called the marginal propensity to consume, or MPC.  That is, for every dollar I get, what % of if am I likely to spend (consume) vs save?  Currently, the numbers in the US are 20-40%, though it varies by age, wealth, and income as well as a number of other factors, including where the money gets spent.  This has an interesting multiplicative effect as a result of government spending.  I’ll walk through a hypothetical example.

Let’s say the government issues debt to spend $1 billion on a new project and for simplicity purposes, all of it goes to American companies/contractors.  And let’s say that we have a uniform MPC in our American economy of right in the middle at 0.30, or 30%.  Due to the wonder of mathematics, the $1b results in $1b * 1/(1-0.3) = $1b * 1/0.7 = $1.43 billion in total GDP, because people keep spending their money.  So if we start a $1 billion project and it has no value whatsoever, it’s likely to result in about a $1.43 billion increase to the GDP.  With a tax rate against GDP of 26.9%, $1.43b * .269 = $385 million in taxes, this means that the net tax burden from the project actually comes out to $1b – $385m = $615m.  And that’s with the project creating no value whatsoever.  If that project actually had a positive impact on the GDP because it was a good project, it could actually grow much larger.  If the $1 billion project has an (independent) positive impact on the economy to the tune of $615m in increased (independent) GDP, then it can actually be net positive.

Conclusion

It’s not clear at this point that the US is at an inherently bad debt situation.  However, with interest rates set to rise, it wouldn’t be bad to pay off some debt.  In any case, we should be careful of how and why we do so.  Cutting programs, raising taxes, and spending all have underlying costs to them, some of which may not be immediately obvious.  The impacts of any program need to be evaluated.  Statements like “we need to tighten our belt” without evaluating the medium, and long-term costs associated with the removal of the programs is a naive approach that can hurt our children’s generation.

Ad-blocking and extra privacy for your devices

The back-story:

As one of my friends has stated…

The Internet is a scary place without Adblock

It’s true.  And while I think he was largely referring to the ubiquity and annoying nature of many ads, the pervasiveness of shady no-opt-out cross-website tracking and malware are what worry me the most.  Now, as we go more and more into a mobile-device driven society, malware developers and tracking companies are spending more time and money investing in these platforms.  It makes sense — Adblock works on all major browsers on a PC or Mac, but there are very few controls for mobile platforms.

I was recently debugging traffic sent to/from my phone and I was a bit surprised (and upset) to see that many applications were sending my phone’s IMEI (an unchangeable hardware address) along with data about me to a 3rd party advertising service which was registering and linking the device to a profile which was impossible to erase.  So no matter what — uninstall/reinstall the application, completely wiping the data from the application, even completely factory resetting the phone — the IMEI stayed the same and thus my advertising profile and personal information were being persisted.  What’s worse is that, because this is a 3rd party being used by multiple applications, data about me was being shared across multiple applications without my consent.

Some existing solutions:

So what solutions are there?  Unfortunately, not a lot.  If you have a rooted device, you have some more options, but for this post I’ll stick to non-rooted devices.

  1. Adblock for Android.  Google is primarily an advertising company, so it was no surprise to me when they took down Adblock Plus from the Android app store.  You can still install it, though there are some caveats about how it works (i.e. it only works on WiFi unless you’re using a rooted device, you have to have “unknown sources” which adds some dangers to most devices, and updates to it need to be done manually because it’s not in the store).
  2. iOS.  There’s an AdBlock Browser for iOS, but it only blocks in the browser — no apps.  For $2, you can pick up Weblock, which seeks to do essentially the same thing as Adblock for Android does.  It thus comes with the same “WiFi-only” caveat.
  3. Set up or pay a monthly fee for a proxy to filter bad data.  If you route all your Internet traffic through a proxy, you can have rules  to block malware, tracking, etc.  Unfortunately, setting up your own proxy is beyond the technical skills of most, but if you’re fairly technical, there’s privoxy.  This is essentially how Adblock for Android and Weblock work under the covers, so it has the same WiFi-only restriction again.
  4. Set up or pay a monthly fee for a VPN to filter bad data.  Like setting up a proxy, setting up a VPN is complicated (vastly moreso, actually), but it does allow you to get around the WiFi-only restriction, as you can connect to a VPN from a cell network.
  5. Block via DNS.  In theory, if you use OpenDNS for your DNS provider, it will block ads and malware.  However, when I tested this, I found their list to be vastly insufficient and I didn’t see any difference between OpenDNS and other DNS providers.  Generally, you can only set your DNS provider on WiFi, so again, this carries a WiFi-only restriction.

A new, completely free, cross-platform, WiFi+cell solution:

I’ve set up my own caching DNS provider at 69.12.78.199 and 69.12.78.206 which routes many malware and advertising servers into a black hole.  It uses OpenDNS as it’s DNS server for IPs that don’t match malware/advertising servers.  If you’re on WiFi, you can just use these (follow these instructions for Android or these instructions for iOS, but use 69.12.78.199 and 69.12.78.206 instead of 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4).  There are apps which will automatically switch these for you for Android (and maybe iOS?).

 

If you want this on your cell network as well, this can be done via VPN, which I’ve also set up.  We won’t route any traffic through it, but simply use it to fool the OS into using our DNS even when we’re on a cell network.

On Android/iOS:

  1. Set up a new L2TP/IPSec PSK VPN connection, as per these instructions for Android or these instructions for iOS:
    1. The server address is “noads.eskibars.com”
    2. The IPSec pre-shared key is “vpn”
    3. On iOS, turn off the “Send All Traffic” button.  This will prevent the VPN connection from actually forwarding traffic in, thus only using the DNS settings.  This is important that you do this setting because the VPN I’ve set up doesn’t actually send traffic to the Internet — it only provides DNS information.
    4. On Android, in the “forwarding routes” configuration section, set it to “127.255.255.1/32”.  This will prevent the VPN connection from actually forwarding traffic in, thus only using the DNS settings.  This is important that you do this setting because the VPN I’ve set up doesn’t actually send traffic to the Internet — it only provides DNS information.
  2. Once you’ve saved the connection, you can connect in with username “vpn” and password “vpn”

Voila!  Enjoy and let me know how it works!

Feel free to “like” this post

Recently, I’ve read a few articles published about the “Like” button on Facebook.  These have been done after some “research” conducted by the author using their own Facebook page as a source of data.  One, published by Wired, is done in such a way that the author decides to “like everything” for a few weeks and see how his news feed changes.  Another, published on Medium.com, is exactly the opposite: the author decides to not like anything for a few weeks and see how this affects things.

In both the articles, the authors ultimately make the case that the like button seems to be this magic button that drives everything in your news feed for better or worse and thus you must be very careful about if/how you use it.  It’s almost like they’re elevating the “like” button to some sort of medieval sorcery button.

Should be the

This should be the header image for these articles.  Or maybe replace “Here Be Dragons” with “Like At Your Own Risk.”

The problem with both of these is that they pick out one facet of an overall algorithm, try to do something to the extreme of it, and then report their anecdotal “findings.”  The way these articles are written have a level of encouragement to the readers to use the “like” button carefully.  And that’s fine: you probably shouldn’t go click “like” on everything because that’s simply a stupid thing to do.  I mean, does anybody really need to tell you that clicking “like” on things you don’t like is probably going to adjust your news feed toward things you don’t like?  That seems like an exercise in tautology.

The unfortunate thing is that, since these articles have come out, I’ve seen people saying things like “well I guess I won’t click ‘like’ anymore, I’ll just start using comments instead so I don’t fall victim to this ‘like’ button thing.”  Well guess what: comments are counted by Facebook too!  And that’s where these articles really lost me in a sense: they tested 1 variable but completely ignored other variables that Facebook is tracking.

Facebook's old EdgeRank algorithm

Facebook’s old EdgeRank algorithm

Facebook used to provide an approximation of their news feed algorithm which they used to call “EdgeRank.”  There were weights for different types of things (including, but not limited to likes).  Commenting, tagging, creating posts, etc… those all were part of this algorithm and they all had their own weights.  So yes, “liking” certainly would affect things, but in the Wired article, the author doesn’t mention anything about what he commented or tagged or created during the period.  So how much of what he saw was affected by the “liking” as opposed to other things he was doing?

How many licks to the center of a Tootsie Pop?  Or how many likes to the center of the Facebook algorithm?

How many licks to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Or how many likes to the center of the Facebook algorithm?

Since the “EdgeRank” algorithm was replaced circa 2013 and replaced with an algorithm that takes into account “100,000 individual weights in the model that produces News Feed,” it’s only gotten more complicated.  They no longer provide real insights to what/how they’re tracking, but I’m sure that’d be pointless anyway as I’m sure it’s evolving still to this day.  So I’m not going to end this with pretending to know exactly what Facebook’s News Feed algorithm is or hint at ways to sidestep it or fool it into “giving you better results.”  That’s for the Facebook engineers to work out.  However, it is simply worth noting how naively these articles were written by looking at the fact that none of them published what else they did while on Facebook.

Just a few examples of what Facebook could (and probably does) track to adjust your news feed:

  • What articles you share
  • What articles you comment on
  • What status updates you make
  • What the textual content is of those comments, status updates, and shares and how that relates to the articles and other things you are (or may be) interested in
  • How long you linger on an update or parts of your timeline
  • What articles you click on from your news feed
  • What applications you use
  • What in-app purchases you’ve made
  • … and so many others

I will end it with my own piece of anecdotal evidence.  A few weeks ago, I had a really bad experience with Norwegian Airlines.  I posted a status update on Facebook about how bad it was, simply mentioning their name and where we were delayed.  Within a day or two, I started receiving advertisements on my news feed for Norwegian Airlines.  Was I their ideal candidate for advertising?  Probably not.  In fact, I’m probably happier with Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and Raytheon as companies than I am with Norwegian Airlines.  But it didn’t require me clicking “like” on anything from Norwegian to start getting them to show up in my feed… I just had to mention something they were targeting: flights to Scandinavia.

 

In short, you don’t need to go through and “like” anything to get the  “loathsome” or “banal” things in your news feed or affect your friends’ news feeds.  You just have to actively be on Facebook; it comes with the territory.

 

So go ahead and like, comment on, and share this post.  You’re not fooling anyone.

Copenhagen wrap-up

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

On day 3, the final day we had in Copenhagen, we decided to head to Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.  This is an art museum housing many of the private collections of Carlsberg of beer fame.  There’s a huge section of Scandanavian (particularly Danish) art at the fore of the building, particularly sculptures like Rodins, as they’re obviously trying to push more of the local things.  It took us quite a while to find the “international” section which is sort of down a poorly marked hall and then up a flight of stairs, but once you got there, there was a fantastic selection of Picassos, Renoirs, Monets and others.

Dahls, Eckersbergs, Købkes and Lundbyes abound as well

Once you get up to the top of the building, there’s a great view of Tivoli as well.

Fin

As I was sitting at a cafe in the morning sipping a delicious coffee, I reflected Copenhagen was a really great city that I think can teach Americans a lot.

Sipping a coffee on the sidewalk

They’re some of the happiest people in the world (statistically), and it came across as that almost everywhere I went.  I can’t think of any other place I’ve been where just about everybody I encountered seemed as happy.  I believe our “H.C. Andersen tour guide” explained “why” very well (loosely quoted):

Many people ask me why Danes are so happy, and I really don’t think it’s so difficult.  We know that having a fulfilling occupation is one of the most important aspects of being happy, so we make sure that everybody is educated [for free] and can stay educated so that they never feel like they’re falling behind.  We don’t work overtime to try to gain money because we recognize that happiness doesn’t come from material things but from the shared experiences you have with your friends and loved ones, so that’s where we spend our time.  Everybody knows this is the best way for people to spend time so we don’t expect unreasonable things of our employees: lower your expectations a bit and you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised more often than not.  With all of this, don’t pay anybody too much or too little.  Jealousy and want makes people upset and causes them to commit crimes, so we have heavy taxes to make sure everybody is taken care of and treated fairly and doesn’t feel “cheated” by fat cats.

Everything he said truly seemed accurate while I was there.  And with the recent battles of the “1% vs 99%” here in the US and increasing frustration between “non-techies” and “techies” in SF (which seems to me to be a proxy for really what amounts to the same thing), it really rang out as something with quite a bit merit.  I’ve heard people say “yes but if you’re a socialist welfare state like that, nobody is inspired to do their best work to advance in their respective company” which is something I used to believe in a lot more.  But in seeing Copenhagen, I think really misses the point.  That is, just because you aren’t doing everything you can to “climb the corporate ladder” doesn’t mean you’re doing poor work or taking advantage of welfare.  People inherently want/like to do good work, so if you educate them in a field they like, they will do that and they’ll be happy perhaps even without that Lamborghini.  In fact, maybe they’ll be perfectly happy on a bike.

I’m a believer

All of the photos I’ve taken from Copenhagen along with descriptions can be found by clicking here.  Bear in mind there are multiple pages of albums and photos, so look for the “next” and “previous” links on each page.  Once you’ve navigated to a particular photo, you can click the photo (or change the size drop-down) to view it in its full size.

Copenhagen day 2

Walking Tour

Our first real touristy event was to take a walking tour.  It was given to us by a guy who dressed as Hans Christian Andersen, who is something of a national hero in Denmark.  Statues bearing his likeness and name adorn many of the parks in Copenhagen.  Throughout the tour, “H.C.” as he’s known around the city, stayed in character, pointing out sites along the way that likely influenced bits his writing.

H.C. gave us a great tour

Have you ever heard the story of the old Street Lamp? It’s really not very amusing, but you might listen to it for once.

We started off at the City Hall Square (“Rådhuspladsen”) which we had visited the previous evening, and he gave us a brief overview of Danish history as a peoples, starting with the Vikings and then moving up through the modern era of the peace-loving folks we find now occupying the city hall.

This statue commemorates the Viking history of the nation. They’re blowing lurs — a type of horn found in the bronze age through middle ages in Scandinavia

We continued down to the City Court of Copenhagen as H.C. recounted history of government in Copenhagen and was really exhaustive and fun in doing so.  It helps that many of the statues, buildings, and obelisks around the city are dated (typically either in Latin or modern Danish but with Latin spellings) and many of them have reliefs to tell the historic story.  Interestingly, when I went back through to review the photos and translate the original Latin found on some of these monuments, I found discrepancies between the dates on them and the dates in other places like Wikipedia articles (at least the ones in English).  Often they were discrepancies in things like completion dates, so I suspect this is just another time when “the definition of done” (as we often refer to in software development) may have been a bit ambiguous.  Even software has century-old problems; history does, indeed, repeat itself!

An obelisk recounting the history of reformations in Denmark. This inscription reads “The Nobles in Copenhagen adopt the reformation in 30 October 1536”

We continued down to the Church of Our Lady, which is a beautiful church with a wonderful marble Christus statue inside.

Church of Our Lady interior. The apostles line the outside, but the designer decided to omit Judas Iscariot (the betrayer) and substitute a statue of St. Paul in his stead.

We learned of the religious history of Denmark, which I found particularly fascinating coming from the United States.  Here, we’ve separated church and state, yet I find that we’re constantly fighting rather religious battles in this country, often citing morality or the definitions of particular aspects of language which seem frankly antiquated to me.  73% of Americans claim to be Christian in the most recent polls.  However, Denmark has had a state church (Evangelical Lutheran) since 1848 and over 78% of its population are members yet they’ve passed laws allowing gay partnership (later changed to “marriage”) some 25 years years ago.  Somebody in our group seemed astonished by this and our guide elaborated a bit on the Denmark legal system as (loosely quoted):

We figured out abortion, gay marriage, health care, gun laws, capital punishment, women in the work force, and warfare decades ago, and at this point, there’s really no debate left in the country as to whether the decisions were right or not.  The only thing we really haven’t figured out yet is immigration, which is still a hot topic.

Anyway, we moved out of the church which was adjacent to the Niels Bohr Institute… an interesting meld of church literally right next door to science.

Statue of Niels Bohr next to the Institute which he founded in 1920

We went on to talk about Nazism and post-Nazism in Denmark, particularly the modern economy, which is almost entirely service-based with very little reliance on natural resources.  As a result of this “human reliance,” Denmark makes sure that all of its people are extremely well educated and happy workers in the workforce.  This, to the extent that if convicted of a crime, many prisoners are granted and encouraged leave of the prison on a frequent basis for educational programs (or educated directly via the prison system).  I know some people I’d talk to in the US would say “that would never work,” but only 71/100,000 people in Denmark are in prison (compared to over 10x that in the US at 731/100,000) and with a lower overall crime rate than the US.  And people are much happier in Denmark to boot according to polls.

We ended our tour near the Round Tower, which is an appropriate end to this tour as it combines government, education, science, and religion.

The Round Tower, which is part of a complex which contains a church, a library, and an observatory (which is in the Round Tower) all wrapped up into a historical monument commissioned by King Christian IV

Additional photos of our walking tour along with descriptions can be found by clicking here.

Rosenborg Castle

After our H.C. Andersen walking tour ended around noon, we decided to continue walking to get to some of the other sights.  We headed off to the Rosenborg Castle.  The castle is surrounded by a large garden, which is neatly kept.

Rosenborg Castle from the gardens

The castle is guarded by 2 large bronze lion statues, a moat, and the Royal Life Guards, a regiment of the Danish Army.  The inside hosts the Crown Jewels and Crown Regalia, which we decided to skip past for a shortage of time.

The linked words contain photos and additional photos along with descriptions can be found by clicking here.

Marble Church

As we were leaving the the Rosenborg gardens and starting to get hungry, we decided it would be wise to work our way toward the famed “Mermaid Statue” (more on that later).  This took us past a large church known as the Marble Church.  Rick Steves and friends of friends hadn’t mentioned it at all, which in retrospect was a big mistake!  We saw they were doing a tour at 1pm, and given it was 5 minutes to, we sprung for it.

The outside of the Marble Church

The interior of the dome with beautiful painted frescoes

The inside is painted wonderfully and has pipe organs and inlays throughout.  We were greeted by a sprightly man who was apparently (one of?) the sexton(s).  We were taken up very thin spiral staircase with not so much as a handrail and then led up to some stairs which really looked like they shouldn’t have been anything more than temporary scaffolding.  That, in turn, then led up to the domed entry.  There were a few elderly folks coming with us and I was terrified that one of them was going to slip and create a human avalanche with plenty of broken limbs for that Danish health care system to attend to.

Kem climbing up the stairs leading to the dome

The entry/exit from the stairs to the railing which lines the dome

Once out on the top, as with the interior, boards whimpered with almost every step.  It didn’t help ease my mind when the sexton mentioned some bits about earthquake analysis requiring some retrofitting.  But in any case, we were there and holy cow what a view!

A panoramic shot over Copenhagen

Amalienborg: the winter home of the Danish royal family. On the horizon in the right side of the image, you can see a piece of a bridge, which leads to Sweden.

You could see the tops of just about every building in Copenhagen and even out to Sweden.  It was great to get this aerial view which helped settle in where we had been during the day and simultaneously where we were planning to go the rest of the day.  The sexton gave us a really great and really energetic overview and history of the building and some of the other buildings that we could see.  We were told that this was the third largest church dome in Europe.  Neat!

There are a lot of additional photos from the dome, along with descriptions of the buildings and public spaces which are seen from this vantage.  These can be found by clicking here.

Continuing to the Little Mermaid

After leaving the Marble Church, we headed toward the Little Mermaid, a bronze statue by Eriksen, stopping first to grab lunch at a wonderful cafe and get some Smørrebrød — a sort of open faced sandwich special to Denmark.  We walked through Kastellet, a star-shaped fortress built in 1662 and still actively patrolled by the military, though it is used as much (perhaps more) as a public park as a military installation.

Passing by the Gefion Fountain, just outside the Kastellet

Just outside the Kastellet is St. Alban’s Church, which is next to the Gefion Fountain seen above.  The Gefion Fountain is another reminder of the norse history of Denmark.  Gefjun is the Norse goddess associated with agriculture, which is why you see her driving oxen at the top of the fountain and why water is pouring forth.

Finally, we ended up at the Little Mermaid statue, and I have to say I was unimpressed by anything other than by how many people seemed to find it fascinating.

People come in droves to see what ultimately amounts to a fairly small statue on a rock. Woohoo

Ok, so we saw it.  I took a picture of it.  It’s still there.  And with that necessity fulfilled, it was time to move off to more interesting bits.  Namely, Christiania.

Christiania

We took a ferry from near where the Little Mermaid statue was to Nyhavn (one of the administrative districts in Copenhagen).  The captain of the boat was oddly reluctant to take our money.  Indeed, just about anybody that boarded seemed to get a nonchalant shrug.  We managed to convince him to take our money and got off at Nyhavn, which sits right on the water and acts as a sort of mini-harbor where many of the tour boats leave.  We had heard that there was no open container law in Copenhagen and indeed the drinks were out in full force.  Kem and I didn’t want to feel left out, so we stopped in a corner store and crabbed a couple beers and partook with some street musicians playing nearby.

When in Copenhagen, drink a Carlsberg by the water with the locals!

After fully sated, we moved to Christiania.

The entry gate to Christiania

Christiania is an interesting self-proclaimed autonomous region of Copenhagen.  It used to be a military complex, but since the military left the island, it’s ruled by what sort of amounts to elders which see to it that the place is both interesting and has the ability to maintain its self-governance.  It seems like a sort of permanent Burning Man with better weather and easier access to the rest of humanity.

Art installations are everywhere in Christiania, often of reused trash and the like

The self-imposed rules are the following:

  • No weapons, bulletproof clothing, or violence
  • No fireworks or flashbangs
  • No theft or possession of stolen things
  • No cars
  • No biker gangs
  • No hard drugs (marijuana is openly sold despite it being illegal in Copenhagen)

I don’t have many photos of Christiania, as much of it has one additional rule: no photography.  This is imposed because even though Christiania may have these self-imposed laws, there’s little other than public distaste for it to keep mainland-Copenhagen police from coming into the area and arresting for otherwise illegal activities.

It was interesting to explore Christiania, but ultimately we had to get back as it was starting to get late.  I particularly liked the  somewhat tongue-in-cheek exit gate

End of the Day

At the end of the day, we had one last thing to see: Christiansborg Palace.  This is the primary location of Parliament, Prime Minister, and Supreme Court of Denmark.

Christiansborg Palace was unfortunately closed for the day by the time we arrived.

Even though the building was closed and was fairly quiet, I got a few photos before my camera started flashing that it was about to drop dead of battery.  It is quite an impressive building from the outside!

Finally, somebody had given us the recommendation to stop in at Ruby, an inconspicuous cocktail bar on our way back to our hotel.  I had their Heather Martini, pictured below, and a “Summer and Ale” which was a neat gin drink made with jasmine tea, Cynar, elderflower, lemon, and then topped with Mikkeller IPA.  As we had experienced with the rest of the Copenhagen food and drink scene, both drinks were fantastic, though pricey: the 4 drinks between the two of us added up to over $90 USD.

The Heather Martini: a martini with an IPA reduction to add hops along with chamomile infused vermouth and anise

Evening

We wrapped up the evening with some dinner at a British style restaurant and then moved to catch some live music.  As we were listening and having a beer, a couple looked like they were trying to find a seat, so I offered the 2 remaining seats at our table to them.  We shared some drinks, stories, and laughs with them: a great way to round out the city with some locals.

Copenhagen day 1

Arrival and Strøget

After our major snafu with Norwegian Air, we took a train down to the city center and found our hotel.  It was a great walk from the train station, as it took us through Strøget, which is a tourist attraction in itself.  Strøget is one of the longest pedestrian-only walking/shopping streets in all of Europe.  It’s lined by coffee shops, restaurants, clothes stores, specialty shops and so on.

Being the Lego fanatic that he is, Kem was particularly excited by this sight along Strøget

Our hotel, First Hotel Twentyseven, was in a particularly great location.  It was a few minutes walk from the City Hall, Tivoli, and a variety of restaurants.  After dropping off our bags and taking a shower, we headed out to the City Hall Square.

Rådhuspladsen

 

Copenhagen’s City Hall Square (“Rådhuspladsen” in Danish) was mere minutes from our hotel, as mentioned.  We had a guided walking tour lined up for the following day and we were a bit jetlagged, so we didn’t try to do too much history, but Rådhuspladsen was too temptingly close to not check out.  We had Rick Steves Scandinavia guide book with us (which I highly recommended in general) and the book goes around the square to explain what’s nearby — what you’re looking at and what the significance of it is.  From here, there’s the City Hall, the Dragon Fountain, and a large statue which acts as a weather display — there’s a statue of a girl on a bike which comes out in sun and a girl carrying an umbrella in rain.  Apparently the mechanism(s) guiding this broke years ago though and now it stays halfway between and nobody in Copenhagen can tell whether it’s raining or sunny.

I didn’t take many photos of Rådhuspladsen, but you can find the remainder with descriptions by clicking here.
 

From the City Hall Square, you can also see Tivoli, which was the next stop

Tivoli

The Tivoli Gardens (or just “Tivoli”) is an amusement park which served as a primary inspiration to Walt Disney when building up Disneyland… to the point that many people that call out Disney as a rip-off.  It’s a neat park and event space for all ages; there are rides, stages for performances, restaurants, a microbrewery on site, and a theater on top of their famed garden space, which is beautifully adorned with over 100,000 lights.

A shot of part of the gardens and rides

Unfortunately, the day that we were there was a bit on the dead side.  The rides were definitely in full swing (pun!) but all of the stages were devoid of activity.  It may have been that we showed up too late in the day and missed the excitement.  By now, we were starting to get hungry and the food in the park looked fairly unexciting, so we decided to head out.  In any case, the architecture and grounds were very cool to look at and walk around in.  Unfortunately, tickets were a bit on the pricey side and we were a full day short of time in Copenhagen, so we didn’t try to return later.  I guess I’ll have to return another time.

The Nimb Hotel in Tivoli

Additional photos of Tivoli with descriptions can be found by clicking here.

Meatpacking District

Dinner

The Meatpacking District is a region inside Vesterbro — one of the administrative districts in Copenhagen.  It’s apparently quite trendy, with much of the nightlife and many popular restaurants residing here.  We went to Paté Paté (their website isn’t much to speak of at the time of this writing), which is a restaurant housed in an old paté factory.  The interior is decorated in a way that can only be described as “chic meat-themed.”  The dishes were basically tapas-sized and were really delicious.  We ordered 5 between the two of us which was plenty of food.

Drinks

I’m sort of a beer snob, so the thought of going to Mikkeller Barone the top 30 breweries in the world was basically a no-brainer.  I didn’t get much resistance from Kem on this front either.  We have our own Mikkeller Bar in San Francisco — one of only 3 outside of Denmark — so it was neat to be able to compare.  The first thing I noticed was that, compared to the San Francisco location, the bar was not crowded.  In San Francisco, you have to wait sometimes for half an hour for a decent seat.  Here, we walked right in and sat down and had plenty of space to stretch out.

Interior of the Mikkeller Bar: clean design

Interior and view to the outside seating

The interior was clean, quiet, and had an air of simple sophistication that you would expect from their world-class beers.  There is outdoor seating as well for those that want to enjoy the warm Copenhagen summer.  The beers were, of course, fantastic.  My personal favorite was the SpontanGooseberry, which was probably the best lambic beer I’ve ever tasted.  Many of the beers were 7-15% alcohol, so with the jetlag, after a couple of these, it was unfortunately time to head back and get some sleep.

Mikkeller Black Ink & Blood… one of the most bizarre beers I’ve ever tasted. And at 17.8% alcohol, one of the strongest

Additional photos of our Copenhagen nightlife with descriptions can be found by clicking here.

Norwegian Air: The Worst Thing to Come Out of Europe Since the Black Plague

So to kick off our European travel experience, it’s worth going through our planned itinerary first.  We found a flight on Norwegian Air one way to Copenhagen from Oakland with a layover in Stockholm for about $520 per person.  Summer in Europe, like the US, is peak travel season so this is very cheap indeed.  I’ve flown a variety of airlines, both cheap and otherwise, so I knew to be wary but nothing could have prepared me for this mess…  It was great timing because it would leave Oakland at 7:30pm and arrive in Copenhagen at 6pm, which would leave us 3 hours time to get out of the airport and downtown to watch the World Cup final in Copenhagen

July 12, 5:30pm

Arrive at Oakland airport.  Go to check in and find that my bag is 11 kg — 1 kg too heavy to be considered a carry on.  Now the reason I was carrying this on in the first place was that Norwegian nickles and dimes you for every little thing you do…  And by that, I mean not only is there no free meal on the 9+ hour flight, there’s also not a single allowed free checked bag.  So here they charge me about $50 to check my bag and that $520 ticket is now $570 after this expense.  I get that the overhead bins only are rated up to 34 kg (75lbs) which typically holds 3 bags, but I’ve never had a problem with this thing before.  I later noticed that their scale wasn’t tared and showed 0.4kg when nothing was on it but didn’t throw a fit.  Looking back, maybe I should have…  But the small print does say 10kg bags max, so maybe my fault.  Who knows.

July 12, 7:10pm

Norwegian starts boarding families with small children.

July 12, 7:30pm

Flight is supposed to have left by now.  For some reason, it’s taken them 20 minutes and they still haven’t even finished boarding families with small children.  Kem and I both wonder why it takes 20 minutes to load less than 40 passengers and begin to get concerned about how long it’ll take to board everybody.

July 12, 7:50pm

Families with small children are fully boarded just in time for Norwegian’s automated text service to text me that the new time for departure is 8:30pm.

July 12, 8:00pm

The gate agent informs us all that the plane is delayed until 8:20pm.  Not sure why it took 10 minutes for the gate agent to tell us what their service texted us nor why he has announced 10 minutes earlier than the text did.  Agent tells us it’s something to do with the radar tests and they think they know how to fix it.

July 12, 8:25pm

Norwegian’s automated text service texts me to inform me that plane is delayed until 9:30pm.  Families with small children are offloaded from the plane.  I feel bad for them because they had to get on the plane and left their seats, which are now fully taken.  Now these families with small children are forced to sit on the ground.  About 20 minutes after the text, the gate agent lets us know that maintenance is going on as they think it’s something wrong with the radar cables, which “should be a quick fix” and leave us out in “less than an hour.”

July 12, 9:45pm

Norwegian’s automated text service texts me to inform me that plane is being delayed for overnight repairs.  The new time is July 13 at 9:30am.

July 12, 10pm

Norwegian’s gate agent announces that plane is being delayed for overnight repairs.  The new time is July 13 at 9:30am.  “Show up back at the ticket counter at 7am” the gate agent suggests.  Now here is where the real crapshoot starts.  Before we can do any of this, we apparently have to:

  • Return our boarding passes to the gate agent
  • For those that need hotel accommodations, get a voucher
  • Get our checked bags from the bag carousel, which they will offload from the plane

Let’s go through each of these, in order…

Returning boarding passes

First, why we have to do this at all is beyond me.  Are they going to give our same boarding passes back to us the next day?  Is there some other reason they need them back?  I can’t figure it out, but at this point I’m so angry I don’t really care.  In order to give them back, the gate agent asks us to just walk up and return them to him.  Of course, this is a madhouse as there’s no order whatsoever as everybody goes to return their boarding passes at the same time.  5 minutes into this madness, the gate agent then makes a correction and says that, actually, if you want a hotel accommodation, you shouldn’t give your pass back to him yet but instead should wait to the side.  I’m sure the people that had already given him their passes but also wanted a hotel were quite happy about this change.

Getting hotel accommodations

Given I live in San Francisco and the flight was leaving out of Oakland, I did seriously consider getting a hotel from them, as it’s usually a 45 minute / $100 taxi each way.  But one look at the line for the people waiting for a hotel told me that would be a bad idea and the taxi was cheaper and would take less time than getting through that line.  I’m glad I went with this decision, as I spoke with somebody the next day that did wait through this line and they said they started “halfway through the line” and it was 2:30am before they got their hotel.  There were other passengers behind them.

11:45pm: getting our checked bags back

Yes, we didn’t receive our bags until 11:45pm — almost 2 hours after the gate agent announced the flight was delayed to the next day.

July 12, 11:15pm

I call customer service to let them know of our flight situation, knowing that we’d be missing our connection to Copenhagen.  At this point, all hopes of watching the World Cup final there are completely gone.  It takes almost 30 minutes for anybody at Norwegian’s customer service to pick up, but otherwise, the experience was fine.

July 13, 12:30am-5:30am

Get home from taxi ride and go to sleep.  Kem and I both decided that we should get to the airport early the next day because everybody showing up at 7am trying to get their tickets all at the same time sounds like a recipe for disaster, so we leave SF in a taxi at 5:30am to get there early.  $100 taxi each way leads the overall cost to $670 each.

July 13, 6:15am

Arrive at the airport.  Show up at the same counter we had received our tickets at the previous day, but today it says “Hawaiian Airlines.”  We decide that we should go scour the airport for a Norwegian employee to ask what’s going on, but alas, after half an hour of searching, we couldn’t find a single one.  Other passengers had the idea to show up early and they all look just as confused as we do.  I’m starting to feel like maybe I’ve been pushed into some very real-life version of The Game.  Eventually, we find another Norwegian ticket counter and decide to hang out there until a Norwegian employee shows up.

July 13, 7:20am

Norwegian’s automated text service texts me to inform me that plane is being delayed an additional 2 hours.  The new departure time is 11:30am.  Kem calls our hotel to let them know that we we’ll be delayed by a day due to this mess.  There’s another $150 lost.

July 13, 7:45am

First Norwegian that we’ve seen employee shows up and goes to the ticket counter.  Shortly joined by a second.  They spend over half an hour there organizing the lines, chatting to each other, and changing the flight number.

July 13, 8:45am

They print us new boarding cards, so now I’m doubly confused as to why we had to give our boarding cards last night.  Kem and I think longingly of our intoxicant of choice and both decide we should get a Bloody Mary at the airport bar to avert yelling and people.

July 13, 11:30am

Flight is supposed to have left by now.  They start boarding passengers now.

July 13, 12:30pm

Flight departs Oakland to Stockholm.  17 hours late.

July 14, 6:00am (Stockholm time)

We arrive in Stockholm and wait by the baggage carousel for our bags, somewhat uncertain as to whether they’ll show up here or be put on a flight to Copenhagen.  At this point, because our flight was so delayed again, we’ve now missed the connection which we were rebooked on.  We decide to wait and see if they come off with the rest of the bags of the flight.  When they don’t, I decide we need to talk to a Norwegian employee to ascertain two pieces of information:

  • What our bags are doing and where they may be/be going to and when
  • What flight we can be booked on next to Copenhagen, as we’ve missed our connection once again

I call up Norwegian customer service for this information.  I give my reference number and explain the situation to one employee.  He transfers me to somebody else.  The next customer service rep asks for my reference number again and asks what my situation is.  She transfers me to somebody else.  The next customer service rep asks for my reference number again and asks what my situation is.  He transfers me to somebody else.  All this time, being bounced around I’m paying international rates on my phone.  Finally, an employee (“Dessi”) finally books me on another flight.  Unfortunately, everything is booked full until 5:15pm, which means we’re spending the next 11 hours in the Stockholm airport.  We begin to wonder about how long a train would be from Stockholm to Copenhagen.

Unfortunately, Dessi is not able to tell me where our bags would be or if they’d be going to Copenhagen without us or not.  Fortunately, while I’m bleeding money through my cellphone rates, Kem finds our bags spinning around on their own carousel.  One of the metal zippers on mine has been broken and one of the handles shredded in transit.

July 14, 6:15pm

Arrive in Copenhagen, over 24 hours after when we were supposed to show up and an additional $400 down the drain.  And we missed the World Cup final.

August 5, 5:16pm

I apply for a refund on my flight, which should be granted under Regulation 261/2004.  For those unfamiliar, this is a regulation that is out there to help ensure that passengers aren’t subject to this type of behavior without having to pay for it.  It provides cash rewards for long delays, which are treated as though they were cancelled.  In our case, because we were delayed >4 hours, we should be entitled to up to 600 euros in compensation.

August 6, 6:47am

Norwegian says they will not refund under Regulation 261/2004.  No reason is given.  Instead, they state

We are not able to prepare detailed reports of each case to our passenger and, unfortunately, cannot send the requested documentation. If you do decide to take this case to a National Enforcement Body then we must send this documentation to them.