I wrote a Five Minute Survival Guide for Aussies in London, intended primarily as a quick reference for the 2017 Startup Catalyst mission. It is a simple and light-hearted thing that hopefully provides a few super basic tips about getting around might help avoid some surprises.
The UK Settlement Visa Application Process
I have relocated to the UK under a “family of a settled person” visa (my partner is a British Citizen). The process was… interesting. There are many forum and blog posts about it but ultimately I’d say that (outside of the UK government’s excellent website) there’s a dearth of high quality information, so I thought I’d try to summarise the process from my side.
What follows is as terse a summary of events as I could make of a process that took a significant amount of time and effort, spread out over several months. Hopefully it makes sense!
Continue reading “The UK Settlement Visa Application Process”
Reflections of an Australian Startup in the Midwest
In November 2013 I moved to the US – so as I write this, it’s been just over two years since I became a non-resident alien in the great state of Ohio.
The entire time I was here I envisioned writing a bunch to explain what it was like moving over here and trying to expand our tech company – a virtual server hosting service called Binary Lane – into the US market. But, reasons, and I never did, and I’ve felt guilty about it. Now 2016 has arrived I thought I’d try to put some words down.
The first thing I wanted to scribble were some notes about why an Australian tech company might want to consider destinations that are alternatives to Silicon Valley.
I have finally done this and posted my rather long and windy series of thoughts up on Medium. I hope it’s useful to someone and plan to write some more on the topic.
Moving on from the USA
It’d been just over two years since I moved to the USA, and my time here is now almost at an end. Sadly I’m not going back home to Australia just yet – in January 2016 I’m moving to London.
There are few cities that can genuinely be considered capitals of the world – and London is at the top of the list. A nexus of culture, finance, technology, and history, it has everything I could possibly want in a place to live. (Except, perhaps, too many English people that remember the result of the last Ashes series.)
With the exception of Brisbane – which for me will always be home – there is nowhere else I’d rather be going.
I’m excited about a new adventure in a new land; from a personal point of view I’m looking forward to being able to explore the United Kingdom in more detail, and being at the doorstep to the rest of Europe. From a professional perspective, I can’t wait to check out their entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem to develop new insights that I hope to bring back to Australia.
When I first moved here, I’d planned a whole series of posts that I fully intended to write about the journey, mostly targeted to Australian startups that were looking to expand to the US – how the visa process works, what you need to do when you arrive, what it’s like living in the US, how the midwest compares to the more common destinations… As I look back, I realise I did precisely no writing on this topic.
I hope to rectify this in the coming weeks by providing some reflections of my time in the US.
Going through the TSA patdown
As a semi-regular traveler I am always interested in the security aspects of it, especially since I started reading Bruce Schneier’s blog. I posted the following in our discussed thread on the AusGamers Forums having just gone through the controversial new TSA security process that involves millimetre wave bodyscans – to which I decided to opt out.
So I am currently sitting in a lounge at LAX on the way back from GDC in SF.
When in SF I was in the line waiting to go through TSA security. I had stacks of time before my flight and there weren’t many people in the line. I could see the TSA magical mwave scanners and all the people dutifully lining up and going through them and getting zapped.
It was amazing, once I was in the line, how fast I had simply acquiesced to the fate that awaited me – that of being scanned, considering that after reading this thread and all the other posts on the Internet had made me certain that, when presented with the opportunity, I would tell the TSA to go fuck themselves and have them scan me. But once you’re in The Line, and trudging slowly along with everyone else, you simply absorb their sheep mentality and just keep putting one foot in front of the other with a view of getting through this process as quickly as painlessly as possible.
Which is, of course, what they’re counting on – your obedience and willingness to submit yourself to this invasive level of security, because the alternative is an even more invasive one that will take longer and probably be a pain in the ass.
Once I realised my transition to sheeple had almost completed, I snapped myself out of it and mentally swore that I would opt out of the scanning and ask for the patdown.
i got to the front of the line, had my stuff going through the x-ray, and told the guy I would like to opt out, adding casually that “I hope this isn’t a pain in the ass” (knowing of course that it definitely was). Looking around though, I could see one TSA guy to my left watching the line and another two guys at the back just talking to each other, so I didn’t think this was a particularly onerous request – the line wasn’t that long and they clearly weren’t very busy as the herd was so docile. The guy responded, with the tinnnnnnnniest air of frustration, that “it takes longer”, to which I just shrugged.
So I was taken aside by the spare guy to my left. I assumed that, given he was standing there doing nothing, he would search me, but he simply herded me into a little fenced off area right next to the scanner and called for a male agent to come over.
I had to wait about 3 or 4 minutes before some guy came over. At no time did they express any interest into why I opted out; the dude just wandered over and walked me through the process very clearly, politely and succinctly, explaining exactly what he was going to be doing (“I’ll be running my hands up and down blah blah blah”).
He offered me a private room, but I declined, deciding that if I was going to get The Patdown, I would prefer to do it in front of everyone, both to remind them of the option, and also because I hoped (no doubt vainly) that it would perhaps encourage others not to so meekly submit to the whims of the TSA.
The search took probably no more than about another 3-4 minutes. At the end of it I decided that at no point did I ever feel like the guy was grasping any part of my genitals or trying to incite a tickle-frenzy; it was like a very polite masseur simply running his hands over most of my body.
The best part was at the end – he invited me to sit down, then ran his hands over the tops of my (shoe-less) feet. While he swabbed his gloves and ran the results through a scanner (presumably checking for explosives, drugs, or other things Americans don’t like much, like liberty, freedom, medical care for citizens, etc), I asked him if he was going to check the soles of my feet. He said no, to which I just shrugged acceptance, and then another TSA dude who had been watching the tail end of the proceedings said “no, we don’t do that any more because the TSA decided feet are dirty”.
I laughed dutifully thinking this was a hilarious joke made by the TSA at their own expense. Neither of the two guys laughed; the other just nodded and said “yeh, that’s right”, to which I choked down my laughter and just started staring depressed at the floor at the obvious security theatre that was going on around me – regardless of the truth of that statement.
I certainly feel like applying this level of security to every individual is an utter waste of time. While I was waiting in my little fenced off possible-terrorist-suspect area, I witnessed a dude breeze straight through the security check – a fellow passenger who wasn’t subject to the screenings or the pat-down, presumably some sort of frequent flier who had a first-class pass that entitled him to only cursory inspection walking through a metal detector. So presumably, if you were a real criminal or terrorist, you would just find out what mechanic they use (Google informs me that it’s probably CLEAR) and employ that to skip the onerous security checks.
Of course, that attack vector has long considered as boring and pointless by some security experts, who think that the two biggest improvements to flyer security since 9/11 have been the reinforced cockpit doors and the new passenger knowledge that if they need to act to subdue miscreants or else their lives are almost certainly lost.
So I certainly felt irritated by the process. All the agents that I dealt with were utterly, implacably polite and professional. Again, they were not very busy; there were not hordes of conscientious objectors like me fucking up their day, so they could take the time to have a relaxed approach – or maybe they’re just always like that at SFO because they hire a better class of citizen to help protect their airways, or something.
Anyway, that’s my story. I am not sure if I would do it again – it was almost creepy how strong the urge to “just do what everyone else is doing” was. But I think it’s important that people take a stand on security like this so that the focus can be shifted to mechanisms that really work and actually contribute to the security of all, instead of merely providing an appearance of security.
Fixing ICS Timezones for Outlook
If you’ve ever used a web application that generates a .ics calendar file for you to import into Outlook, you might have run into problems with timezones. I’ve gone through the same thing the last couple of years with the GDC schedule builder webapp, which is really handy but insists on sending me an .ics file with the local US/Pacific times. This means that when I import it they all end up wrong (eg, a 10am lecture is stored in my calendar as 10am Brisbane time, so when I shift timezones all the meetings end up getting moved and I get appointment alarms going off in the middle of the night, which is annoying when you’re jetlagged).
The only way to easily fix it that I could find is to manually open each calendar item after importing and adjust the timezone. This is time consuming and boring.
I had a quick look around and couldn’t find something to fix this easily, so I wrote a very simple .ics timezone fixer which reads in a pasted .ics file and will convert the timestamps in it to UTC based on a couple of simple rules, so that when you import them into your calendar the times are stored correctly.
Evading Part of the Airport Security Check
I’ve been doing a lot of flying in the last couple years, and have been especially conscious of the airport security measures – largely as a result of reading a lot of Schneier, I find the whole process fascinating, especially in the ‘security theatre’ context.
I am not sure what a “normal” amount of singling out is when getting the swabs after going through the metal detector phase. But I seem to get what I would consider an above average amount of that treatment. I know I’m spotless and I’m generally always early so I’m not worried about being delayed, but I know that when they pick me up, it’s a gigantic false positive that stops them from swabbing and probing people that actually might be problematic.
I’ve noticed that I can seemingly evade the swabbing process if I delay my exit from the x-ray machine. For example, after my bag and laptop come out, if I spend some extra time putting it in my bag, I can keep an eye on the swabber. As soon as he swoops on someone else (assuming he hasn’t already profiled me as a high-risk entity), I can just grab my bag and walk out the door, because he’ll be occupado.
This is a pretty obvious strategy. I’d like to think their profiling is good enough that they can easily spot people like me, shiftily glancing at the swabber out of the corner of their eyes while they spend an eternity struggling to stuff their laptop into their bag and putting their belt back on.
A quick wrapup of Oktoberfest, reproduced directly from my forum post on AusGamers.
Weekend before last I went to Munich for Oktoberfest, which is this quaint local custom where people in Germany invite everyone else in the world over and try to kill them with beer.
I didn’t really know a lot about it when I went there, other than the beer part, so I was quite surprised to rock up and walk around it – the outside bit has an Ekka/Show feel, with rides and heaps of food stalls and all sorts of stuff going on. It was absolutely packed to the bejebus (it was Saturday lunchtime by the time we arrived) and there were drunk people around, but also lots of families with their kids which I thought was a little weird.
Some of our friends had gotten there at 9am so they could get into one of the beer “tents” early (they’re not really tents as you might imagine – they’re basically massive buildings that can fit several thousand people and supply them with beer while they dance and sing and spew). We checked out where they were but there was a huge line, so we wandered off to an outdoors beerhall out of the actual fest area and had a beer and a bite to eat there (if you don’t like pork, avoid Germany).
We wandered back a bit later and met up with some other mates and got into a beer garden sort of area. Within about 5 seconds of stopping to look around, a dude came up to us and offered us beers (there were hundreds of people all around us – the custom is to tip well and so with the sort of ruthless German efficiency you might expect, as soon as these guys see a target they zoom in and offer beer). We sort of expected him to be gone for ages and were again amazed when he returned in seconds with 5 or 6 steins. Very cool.
This process repeated for a couple of hours until we decided to try to get inside the tent. We were pretty well toasted by this point and managed to bullshit our way in, despite the best efforts of the crowd (who we pushed in front of like jerks) and the security guards (who were doing their best to stop anyone else from coming in because the place was packed).
Once inside its an amazing sight. The tents are huge, stretching off into the distance and just jam-packed with people standing up on the tables singing, waving around massive beer steins, drinking, and the occasional (but rare) fight. Everything sort of got blurry at this point, but I suspect it was quite fun; we jumped up on a table and grabbed a stein and sang along with crazy German drinking songs coming from the huge band somewhere in the hall.
I didn’t actually get many decent photos – basically after a couple of beers I’d pretty much forgotten that I had my camera. The beers are served in steins that hold around 1 litre of beer, so it’s pretty hard going. I actually woke up the next day with bruised hands (amongst other things) from holding the steins and waving them around. We only had one broken stein incident when one of my mates tried to cheers someone a little too enthusiastically – they’re hard to break; they’re made of thick-ass glass and are quite heavy.
I forgot to get a photo of the area behind the tents – basically a grassy hill where everyone just goes and sits down – just covered with people that have wandered outside and passed out completely and utterly. There were quite a few maggot people wandering around but overall everyone was really well behaved, which I was very surprised about. The presence of German police was probably a big factor – these guys are scary looking dudes and I’m sure they’re on top of their game at this event, instantly aware of any problems and swarming in to take out people that look like they’re going to cause problems.
German beer is made under what they call the Reinheitsgebot, or the German Purity law, although there have been a few changes since it first came about in 1516 (!!!!!) and their beer is fucking awesome. You can drink a ton of it and it tastes great and the hangover effects are surprisingly minimal (theories I have heard are because of the lack of additives/preservatives etc in the beer – which I could believe).
We also did the compulsory (imo) trip to the Hofbrauhaus to try their awesome beer (it was a pretty significant WW2 place with Hitler doign a bunch of speeches there; it’s pretty amazing to think of the history in some of these places). The city itself is also pretty awesome with some great old buildings and cool restaurants and stuff.
So I’m on holidays at the moment having a break in Eurostan; didn’t really get to explore much of Leipzig or Halle outside of the Games Convention, but after that I went to Dresden for a couple days. Dresden was neat – always wanted to go there as it is mentioned a lot in the WW2 histories. The tour was a bit depressing – all these beautiful old buildings that are there are basically reconstructions, almost all of them having an amazing history of being build hundreds of years ago, then their story ends with sentences like “burned down in 1945” or “was bombed in 1945”.
Then it was off to Greece for a few days exploring Athens. I was pretty stoked about finally going to Greece; I was an Ancient History nerd in high school and have always enjoyed Greek history so was looking forward to checking out the Acropolis and some of the other bits and pieces of history.
I arrived at night and was greeted with a pretty spectacular view from the roof of my hotel – there was a bar up the top that overlooked the Acropolis, which is nicely illuminated at night. Went wandering up there the next morning – the rest of Athens is, sadly, a bit of a shithole. It was hot as balls in the middle of summer, there’s people everywhere, roads appear to exist solely to a) make drivers miserable and b) give miserable drivers a chance to take out frustration trying to nail pedestrians. So that was disappointing.
The Acropolis though is amazing; its pretty much the highest thing for miles around so you get a great view looking down on the rest of the mismatched bizarre-ville that is Athens. The Parthenon and everything else up there is pretty spectacular and it’s awesome to reflect upon the history of the place – although sort of depressing reading a lot of the things about it (“…was destroyed when the Persians invaded, then was rebuilt, then was destroyed 20 years later when some other jerks invaded, then was rebuilt again, etc..”).
After that I was looking at my map and saw this epic hill that I thought might be fun to check out – the map sort of implied that there was a cable car or something but it was lies and I ended up walking up the thing – good fun but shit it was hot. Great view at the end of it though.
Also checked out the TEMPLE OF OLYMPIAN ZEUS which has to be written in caps because it’s such a cool name for a place.
After Athens I met up with a bunch of mates – we’d rented a sail boat for a week to go sailing around the islands. I was sort of expecting this to be a nice, relaxing tranquil affair sailing around lush tropical islands and golden sandy beaches, but that’s not how the Greek Islands work. Unfortunately we arrived just in time for shitty weather for sailing – it was wayyyy too windy.
I’d never been sailing before so was surprised that too much wind is actually bad for sailing! We had a massive big night before we left and I was hungover as hell and had 3 hours sleep – then spent about 5 hours in massive rolling seas, the end of which had me puking my guts out over the side of the boat wishing I was dead and wondering why the hell I thought this would be a good idea.
Fortunately after that point it calmed down a bit and we never had any trips as bad as that (plus I was hitting the motion sickness pills before every trip). We sailed around a bunch of the islands – I need to check the order and names but we spent a couple nights in Kythnos because of the bad weather (which was nice, but a bit on the small/quiet side), then hit up Serifos, then Mykonos (the party island, which was crazy), then Naxos, then Paros. Occasionally we’d stop and find a cool place to swim.
Aside from the wind the weather was fucking spectacular; we had nice hot days with heaps of sun, much to the enjoyment of everyone I was traveling with – they’re all Aussies now living in Europe so seeing the sun is something that happens a few times a year for them now. As a Queenslander I was a bit blase about the sun though; everyone else was diving for the decks to try and get their bronze on and I was cowering under my giant hat and layers of sunscreen.
The sailing part of it was surprisingly complicated – even though we had our own skipper, a hilarious Kiwi bloke called Alan who did most of the hard work and corrected all the mistakes made by us useless landlubbers (definitely including me). I’d actually never been on a boat before (aside from ferry things) until a couple weeks earlier for a fishing trip for a mate’s bucks party and it was on a motor boat dealie. The regular process of finding a free berth in a marina and docking is surprisingly tricky – not to mention dangerous and risky when you’re dealing with a boat worth half a million euro. No wonder everyone moved to cars.
By the end of it when we were back on land, almost all of us had amazing boat-induced motion weirdness going on – sitting down you’d feel like you were constantly bobbing up and down. The last night in Athens after I’d been off the boat for like 16 hours, I woke up in the middle of the night, got up to hit the loo and almost fell over the room was swinging around so crazily. Alcohol may have contributed here, but it was a very weird effect. I guess you get used to it if you’re sailing regularly…(?)
After Greece it was on to Italy. I arrived early afternoon and spent most of the first day just recovering from Greece. Next day did some of the usual tourist things like Trevi fountain and Colusseum (which was probably the highlight of Rome for me). No photos available yet! That night I met some Aussie girls in a random bar and we got shitfaced and I lost track of the next day.
Then it was on to Pompei! I was pretty stoked about this, having heard good things from all sorts of people. Got up at some bullshit hour of the morning to get the fast train down there and arrived pretty soon after 9am. It was another scorcher and I spent about 3 hours walking around these amazing ruins of this whole ancient Roman town before getting absolutely exhausted and having to call it quits. There were a lot of other tourists wandering around but every now and then you’d hit up some section of the city and you’d be totally alone, in this weird ghost town that is thousands of years old. Very cool.
I debated going up Vesuvius – but decided I didn’t have enough time for the tour. While it was a hot sunny day it was also very hazy so I figured the view would be average – could barely even see the mountain. So I decided to head back a little early, which turned out to be a terrible idea – my train was late getting to Naples, I missed my connecting train to Rome, and was stuck in the shitty Naples train station for hours. All I’d heard for weeks before was ‘be careful in Naples train station because of all the felons’, but I didn’t have any problems or really even see too many sketchy people. I DID however see this rail worker dude that was the spitting image of Vin Deisel. I would have taken a photo of him but he was terrifyingly huge and carrying heavy blunt objects whilst scurrying around underneath trains, so I didn’t think it would be a good idea.
Bummed around Rome a bit more then headed off to Geneva, Switzerland (where I am now). Had a bit of a poke around here for the weekend; its a nice place but nothing really amazing to see – the weather sucked for the first couple days, rainy and cold – beautiful today though a bit on the chilly side.
Spent almost all day today inside at the PC trying to plan my next chunks of trip and just generally having a day off. Tomorrow looks like I’m off to Nice in the south of France to check out some more of the laughable European beaches at the tail end of their summer, then its on to Paris a few days later which I’m really looking forward to. 2 weeks later I’m off to Munich for Oktoberfest which should be a little on the fun side too.
Anyway, hope all is well back on the other side of the world. Will try and update again when I have some more downtime but I’ll be back on hand in a couple weeks anyway, although still from this side of the planet.
Germany: Dresden with a Touch of Berlin
This is a thoroughly boring report, but this was what I hope will be the most boring part of the trip – so just a few notes.
Just finished up in Germany; a week working out of Leipzig (staying in Halle, which is a bit of a hike away but the shuttlebus made it utterly painless getting back and forth) at the Games Convention and then a couple nights checking out Dresden and then a single night in Berlin.
I didn’t see any of Leipzig or Halle outside of work commitments but postcards I saw of Halle looked nice.
I’ve wanted to go to Dresden for ages, mostly out of the same World War 2-inspired curiosity that drove me to places like Normandy and Hiroshima. It was almost completely destroyed in 1945; fire raged through it for 3 days destroying many classic old buildings. I did a quick bus tour; the most common phrase I heard was “destroyed in 1945” or “burnt down in 1945” – most of the buildings in the city centre are reconstructions of the originals. They still look fantastic, of course.
The city reminded me a lot of Prague; it has a similar sort of look and feel to it. I only had one full day there and spent most of the time just wandering around the inner city looking at all the various buildings. I also found an Australian-themed restaurant called Ayers Rock which served Bundaberg Rum, so I finished up both nights I was there having a couple of drinks there (I know, I should be drinking German beer, but I was jonesing).
After that I ducked up to Berlin, from where I would fly out to Athens. I’d already been to Berlin a couple years ago for the World Cup so really it was just a night there killing time. I was impressed with my memory – I stayed in the same hotel I did last time and managed to walk to it pretty much unaided and everything was where I thought.
Then I decided to walk to the Brandenburg Gate – last time I was there it was all weird because they’d take up a lot of that area with World Cup stuff. Unfortunately my memory failed me here and I took off in the wrong direction – I’d walked almost a kilometre before I realised and then had to walk back. Shit.
Spent the rest of the time relaxing and trying a local Indian restaurant (which was very average and very expensive). Went out to the airport which I was expecting to be huge, but it was a tiny dive that was really cramped. I screwed up and got there about 1.5 hours too early as well – flying is so lame once you’ve become used to the awesomeness that is the German Rail system.
I am now in Athens, Greece – wandering the Acropolis and the narrow streets while I wait for our boat trip around the islands to kick off.