Elon Musk, Mars Colonization, and me

Imagine you have lots of money, what do you do? Do you give it all to charity? Do you keep it until you’re 80 and then let your children fight over the will? Do you perhaps setup trust funds with altruistic goals, that end up eating most of the money for management overhead after you’re dead? (hey, execs need their bonuses, right?).

What I like about Elon Musk’s choices and initiatives is that he’s putting his money and energy into humanity’s future. He is not investing in its present or past problems, and he is not getting his hands dirty with politics.

What I realized today, is that if I had all that money, I would probably want to join him as a co-investor, and at the very least, I would try to get involved into one of the projects, even if just to help him reach his goals sooner.

I think of the countless times in my childhood when I really wished I could travel to the distant future. I did not like what I was seeing around me as a child engrossed in Science Fiction books that described partially utopian futures. I spent a lot of time thinking about how far I would have to travel into the future until I reached an era that might be to my liking. I figured at least 200 years into the future until most resource and religion wars are behind us, and the majority of humans have evolved enough to become decent human beings, with advanced, friendly philosophies that promote exploration, science, and simply being good to others (humans and non-humans).

What Elon Musk is doing is admirable because his actions bring this future into our present. This is the kind of atmosphere I want to live and work in. When you actively build the future, you invite it into your present life, and you become part of that future as much as that future becomes part of who you are. And let’s not neglect the gadgets: When you build futuristic gadgets, you live in the future right now.

This makes me want to focus even harder on my own business venture, with the goal of making enough money to be able to join Musk’s adventures.

Let’s hope I succeed! But whether I succeed or not, I am at least proud to belong to a species that produces people like Elon Musk, who are constantly pushing the envelope. They stay a tree is as tall as its many branches, I say the tree is tall as its highest branch / leaf / flower.

 

From Russia with Love?!

When I was very young, Russia was this “grey” and “evil” entity. Having lived in countries mainly under the influence of the west, this is no surprise. The impression was that the government is not very good for the people, as in, not very democratic.

However this is my third or fourth time to Russia, and what I discovered has changed how I think about countries and governments in general.

The first thing that shocked me was how popular virtual money is. When you are in the wallet business, you learn that in Russia the most popular valid form of payment is “Webmoney” but the reality is that many russian companies have wallets! What really matters, is that you can walk a short distance from your home and convert your real cash to virtual cash, with which you can then pay for services online. For that, a rampant network of money collection terminals exists, with fierce competition in some areas. The machines only take money, and produce a receipt.

In some apartment buildings the machine is in the lobby so you can go downstairs in your PJ’s and convert money to virtual value without braving the elements (visualize the Moscow winter to realize how practical this is!).

What makes this business thrive in Russia and Ukraine? What is the government doing or NOT doing, which allows wallets to be so popular? Is it the lack of trust in Russians banks? Is it some Russian cultural trait?

I welcome your feedback on this one.

Story: Ukraine to Russia via Belarus

But First, Moscow

The following story happened to me about a year ago, during a business trip to Ukraine. The purpose of the trip was to visit a team of engineers I work with remotely. I was staying in St. Petersburg at the time, but there was no Ukrainian embassy in St. Petersburg so I had to travel to Moscow.

Plans were made, and I travelled to Moscow by train, using the new high-speed “Sapsan” train. The journey was wonderfully smooth, and lasted 4 hours.

Once in Moscow, I located the Ukrainian embassy where I waited for hours until I finally managed to get a Visa to visit the Ukraine. It may have taken longer if not for my friend Igor who is kind of a Russian celebrity; The lady who takes care of Business Visas recognized him, and with his verbal skills he managed to coax her into being especially helpful. The Visa I was granted and was a “One Time” thing, meaning I could enter the Ukraine once, but if I leave it is stamped out and can no longer be used, even within the valid period. I mention this because it becomes relevant later in this story.

Igor took me to the train station the next day, where again I stood in line for hours to buy a train ticket. It was an especially hot summer day. Hundreds of sweaty, tired Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, and various other tourists and backpackers were all crammed together in the same space, waiting for the staff to start their shift. Once available, things started moving fairly quick, and I managed to obtain a ticket 20 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave.

Moscow to Vinnitsa

The journey to Vinnitsa lasted 18 hours, which isn’t too bad considering the ride is super smooth, quiet, and you get a bunk bed with clean sheets. I shared a room with two old ladies, and a charming young lady. This woman bought a bag full of beer, and dried salmon. During the trip we connected and exchanged music, stories, and she insisted on giving me half her beer. So I was half drunk the entire way to Vinnitsa!

Vinnitsa itself was beautiful and pastoral. Green grass, birds singing, beautiful women, a relaxed atmosphere, and they even have a mini-mall complete with electric stairs and air conditioning. Night life was quite interesting as well, with some “posh” clubs that offered international music and special payment cards you had to buy at the entrance.

Time to leave… Vinnitsa to St. Petersburg!

With my visit to Vinnitsa concluded, it was time to get back home to St. Petersburg. The office administrator in the company I was visiting offered to help me buy the ticket, since I did not speak Russian. I agreed, gave her the cash, and used the extra time to spend more time with the team in the office.

The journey back was supposed to last more than 20 hours. I didn’t understand why the journey was longer, since the distance to Moscow was greater, but I didn’t mind. I bought some food for the journey and was taken to the train station. I said my goodbyes to my hosts and boarded the train.

A couple of hours into the journey, We reach a checkpoint. Ukrainian border police get on the train, and start to stamp passports. My Ukrainian Visa was stamped and was now no longer valid, but who cares, right? I’m going to Russia, and I no longer need it. With the border police off the train, we continue our Journey towards Russia, or so I thought…

Around 4 hours later, we reach another checkpoint. This time, I assumed, I would encounter the Russian border police, and I prepared my Israeli passport (Israelis do not need a Visa for Russia). The police officer asks me some questions in what seems a weird Russian dialect. I didn’t know how to answer his questions so he searched my Passport once, twice, looked at me, searches the passport a third time, and then gave me an angry face, and cross his arms to make a big X to convey that I can not enter the country he is protecting with his life.

I look in disbelief, and ask why not? He says “Nie Visa”, which means “No Visa”. I tell him I don’t need a Visa, and he says this is Belarus! I was asked to leave the train, which was not the best feeling I have to admit! As I pack my stuff and get off the train, the implications of a horrible mistake start to dawn on me: I have foolishly allowed a train ticket to be purchased for me, that does not go directly to Russia, but does a detour through Belarus first. Needless to say, I did not have a Visa for Belarus, and having left Ukraine just 4 hours earlier, I did not have a Visa for Ukraine!

My passport was taken, and I was asked to wait for the next train back to Ukraine. While waiting for the train, a local Belarusian country girl almost convinced me to marry her. I showed my wedding ring a couple of times (which did not help as much as I’d hoped), and I managed to resist. We smiled to each other in understanding, and everything was fine again. Another 4 hours later my train arrives, and I am escorted by the Belarusian border police (who by the way were extremely nice to me). They spoke to the controller and explained the situation. I was given a seat, and we began our journey back to Ukraine.

Stuck in Limbo!

We arrive to the first Ukrainian checkpoint again, where I again encounter the first Ukrainian Border Police. They look at my now expired Ukrainian Visa, and ask me to get off the train. The situation is bad: I am now in Limbo – Unable to enter the Ukraine, and unable to enter Belarus. Stuck between worlds. It is in such a moment precisely, that you wish governments didn’t exist, and that political borders would finally cease to exist.

The two officers who got me off the train gave me sad faces, and conveyed to me the situation was dire, but that their boss would know what to do, AND assured me he also spoke English! So there I am, waiting patiently for their boss to save me, as I looked on sadly at the train resuming its journey into Ukraine without me.

Ukrainian Bak-shish…

So the checkpoint boss finishes up the paperwork for the train that just left, and finds some time for me. He repeats what his soldiers told me, that this is a complicated situation, and that they don’t really know how to deal with it. He assigns a very tall Ukrainian soldier to stand next to me wherever I go. She’s very pretty – In New York she would probably make a top model, but she’s a soldier and sports a serious face that means business…

The boss goes into their main complex, supposedly to discuss my fate with a group of officers. Meanwhile I wait outside, near the checkpoint’s exit gate. Beyond the gate, the last few Taxis take people who disembarked from the train to their homes. I find myself wishing I could do the same – Just go home, shower, and lay in bed for 5 days straight.

Finally the boss comes out, and asks me, how much money do I have? I tell him I have very little money on me, in an attempt to stave off any exaggerated bakshish requests… he looks at me severely and goes back into the complex. At that point, the driver of the last remaining Taxi approaches the gate. He looks at me and smiles, and starts talking to me. He asks if I’m in trouble, and if I need help. I tell him yes, and tell him what happened. He tells me he knows exactly how to get me out of this tight spot, and that he will help me.

I’m thinking, what’s the catch? Where I come from, you learn to distrust Taxi drivers, and that they are just after your money. But something told me there was something interesting and different about this Taxi driver.

So I ask him what to do, and he starts giving me very clear instructions: Go to the Boss, tell him Vladimir will take you to the Airport in Kiev. Ask to talk to Igor, and pay him 1500 Rubles to eliminate any paperwork mess. Then pay me 2500 Rubles for the Taxi ride. They know me and trust me. Go, and good luck.

I do as he says, and the Boss says, Ah, Vladimir! Very good. You want to talk to Igor? Sure! Go to this corridor, turn right, then last door to the left. I knock on the door, walk into that room, and find a smiling man in his 30’s. He understands I’m not a Russian speaker, and that excites him to no end. He decides to practice his English with me, when all I want to do is get the hell out of there. We talk for almost half an hour. At some point I just stick the money on his desk, indicating I want to get down to business. He gets the hint, fills some paperwork, and lets me go, not before holding me again at the door for another 5 minutes to practice a few more sentences in English…

I go back to the gate, say my goodbyes to the checkpoint boss, who exchanges a few words with Vladimir the Taxi driver. It becomes apparent they know each other quite well, and that the checkpoint boss has a LOT of respect for Vladimir. The gate is opened for me, and I feel a huge relief when I put my bag in the Taxi and sit in the front seat.

The ride to Kiev (through the Forbidden Zone!)

On the way to Kiev, Vladimir tells me a few surprising facts. It turns out he is married to the mayor of that town. It also turns out he was the previous checkpoint Boss, and that the current boss used to report to him. I start to connect the dots; Suddenly it’s all clear to me, how Vladimir knew the procedures, knew the people by names, and knew exactly how to get me out of my situation.

He goes on to tell me that it’s already late evening, and the drive to Kiev takes normally around 4 hours, and do I mind if he takes a shortcut, and that it will save 2 hours. I tell him sure, shortcuts are fine with me – as long as we get there. Little did I know that the shortcut involves traveling through the forbidden zone around Chernobyl.

We approach a checkpoint to the forbidden zone, whence a checkpoint soldier stops us. He approaches the car suspiciously, but then he recognizes Vladimir he stands to attention and salutes him(!). They exchange greetings and the soldier runs back to open the gate. We enter the forbidden zone, and I get a strange feeling that maybe I should not have agreed to this shortcut, but on the other hand I was also curious and excited.

We drive insanely fast in Vladimir’s old Lada Taxi in the forbidden zone, on surprisingly good roads. The asphalt still relatively dark and crisp. The roads are completely deserted. I ask Vladimir about this and he says the roads are great because nobody drives on them, so the roads do not deteriorate. Obvious signs of neglect can be seen off road, however, with plants growing wildly everywhere, including in buildings, from within windows or from cracks in the walls. The buildings are all dark and abandoned, giving the zone an eerie zombie-land feeling.

We then talk about family, and he asks me if I’m married, I tell him that I am but I have a brother in America who is not yet married and looking. He tells me if my brother wants, he can organize a “bridal event” for my brother. Basically, my brother would come for a week to Vladimir’s village. There would be an event where beautiful potential brides and their parents would participate, eat, drink and make merry. At the end of the event, my brother would choose a bride among the women, they get married, and leave back to the US. I took Vladimir’s number, and promised him to convey this idea to my brother.

After a long half hour of avoiding the subject, I ask Vladimir about the radiation. He laughs and says not to worry about it. You only get dangerous levels of radiation if you live in this zone for many years, he adds. But for the 45 minutes we’re spending on the edge of the zone, it’s practically safe. I decide to let the subject rest, as I relax into my seat.

When we reach the end of the forbidden zone, we are let out through another gate, and 5 minutes later, we reach a very strange road side hunters restaurant and gas station. We stop to rest, and I buy Vladimir two cans of Redbull per his request. I take some photos of the restaurant, which was chock full of stuffed animals that were hunted in the forbidden zone. Their eyes and teeth were painted red for the dramatic effect…

Finally, Kiev, and a Flight to St. Petersburg

We leave the strange restaurant, and within 45 minutes we are in the airport in Kiev. Vladimir helps me into the airport with my luggage. I pay him, we hug, I wish him a safe drive back and we say our goodbyes.

The airport has Wifi, and I pull out my laptop and start looking for flights to St. Petersburg. I can’t find anything for a reasonable price. Finally, I decide to try the sales agents in the airport. They are all closed except for one! I approach the lady in the counter, and enquire about a flight to St. Petersburg. She runs a query and finds a very last seat on the last flight to St. Petersburg, and tells me I’m very lucky. I buy the ticket, go through security, and 3 hours later I’m on a flight back to St. Petersburg.

R.I.P: Mogul (My good old MacBook Pro)

Last week “Mogul”, my trusty old Macbook Pro Unibody (circa 2008, basically the first model that came out) has decided to die a sudden death. 30 minutes before its sudden departure from this world, it helped me locate the address of a local motel where I then spent the night mourning its loss.

When you go through some rough times together with someone (or in this case, some object), you become attached to that object. It’s been there for you, and it served its purpose. Sometimes I feel It’s really like the Rifleman’s Creed, but my version is the version for geeks:

This is my Macbook. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My Macbook is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My Macbook, without me, is useless. Without my Macbook, I am useless. I must code with my Macbook true. I must code better than my competitor, who is trying to steal my market share. I must take market share, before he does. I will…

My Macbook and myself know that what counts in this war is not the software we write, the noise of our marketing department, nor the public relations we make. We know that it is the sales that count. We will sell…

My Macbook is human, even as I, because it is my Macbook. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strength, its parts, its accessories, its ports and its unix. I will ever guard it against the ravages of weather and damage as I will ever guard my legs, my arms, my eyes and my heart against damage. I will keep my Macbook clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will…

Before the universe, I swear this creed. My Macbook and myself are the defenders of my company. We are the masters of our competitor. We are the saviors of my life. So be it, until victory is ours and the competitor is begging!

I then started going through the following stages of human grief:

Stage 1: Denial

I thought it was some sudden barometric pressure, humidity, or some weird voodoo in the firmware. Maybe a ZAP to the PROM? Maybe the battery died? Maybe it just needed a charge? I couldn’t believe at that stage that the computer died, even though the signs were not very encouraging. However every day, I tried to turn it on. Maybe today will be my lucky day? I said to myself. But its death was very real 🙁

Stage 2: Depression

I was sad and depressed. How could this happen to me? All those days of lost work, how will I ever catch up? What if the data is also gone? My last Time Machine backup is pretty recent, but still, a few weeks old…!

I spent the week without my Macbook pretty sad and lonely. What made this worse, is that I had to borrow a laptop from my dad. Guess what, it was an ASUS laptop, with Windows 7 on it. I was grateful to have a machine to work on, and I did manage to accomplish almost everything I needed to accomplish, but I suffered with that machine. I suffered bad. Microsoft’s platform is just plain horrible, even with their latest “achievement”, Windows 7.

Stage 3: Anger!

At this stage, I was angry. I was angry at Apple, at myself, and with the world in general. Here’s a list of what I was angry at, and why:

  • Apple – Because when I just bought the laptop, the hinge was already loose and holding the laptop at an angle the screen would close on my fingers. I brought it to the shop, and the Apple Geeks said that was normal. But the next Unibody revision saw this problem fixed!!! Grrrr!
  • Apple – Because after a few months, I discovered my optical drive did not work. I discovered this the first time I really needed it (to burn an ISO of a Linux OS that I needed to install on a server). I was traveling at a country without an Apple Store, so I decided I had enough time until my warranty expires, and I burned that ISO on an external burner. I then reached Munich (Germany) with my travels, where I took the Macbook into an official Apple store. They decided my cdrom was fine, and even came up with some logical sounding excuse: I had modified my EFI and the cdrom was affected by this, but when I left Munich I discovered they were wrong. I restored my EFI to the original firmware, and the cdrom still did not work. I couldn’t even boot from a brand new, store bought copy of Snow Leopard!!
  • Apple – Because the laptop only held a charge for 2 hours, even with a brand new battery! When I wanted to use the lower power nVidia, the screen was blinking, and even though many people report this problem, Apple won’t admit a fault in that series of Macbook, and won’t replace the motherboard! The solution: Use the higher power nVidia 9600GT, and the screen won’t blink.
  • Myself – Because I did not buy Apple Care! And if I had AppleCare, I would not have to buy a new Macbook like I did.
  • Myself – Because maybe I wasn’t gentle enough with my Macbook. Although I never dropped it, and for its age, it looks pretty damn near-mint condition.

Stage 4: Acceptance

I had to accept reality – My Macbook was RIP! And the sooner I repair it, or find a replacement, the better. The sooner I can get back to my Mac profile, the sooner I will get rid of the Windows laptop. It has become a holy goal, worthy of my time and energy.

That’s when I started to look for solutions, and I found not one, but two solutions!

Solution 1: I went to a local “Market” and found this cool merchant dealing only with Mac stuff. He had a lot of Apple laptops, but one laptop was particularly interesting for me: An almost new Macbook Pro 15″, with an i7 processor running at 2.66Ghz, 8gb of RAM, and 500gb 7200RPM drive. The advantage: An American Keyboard! This was a dream come true, and cost just 20,000 DHM (That’s around $2445 at the current going rate). I took the S/N and checked that it wasn’t stolen, and was still eligible for AppleCare, and it was! Awesome!

Solution 2: The same merchant told me about some Moroccan berber guy who had a broken 15″ of the same series as mine, and was using it in the desert. His screen was broken, and he was using it with an external display, but he was getting sick of it and decided to replace it. The merchant promised me the motherboard for 2000 to 2500 DHM (~$240). This means that if the motherboard works in my MBP, my wife would have a cool 15″ MBP, which is way better than her regular 13″ Macbook Unibody.

I then formulated a plan: I would buy the first laptop, sell my wife’s 13″ laptop, obtain that motherboard and fix Mogul. My and my wife will then both have 15″ MBP’s!

Update #1: Solution 1 achieved. I am now back online with a new 15″ i7 MBP!!! Now to try and get that motherboard for my dead Mogul before I fly to Russia!

Update #2: My brother flew to Morocco to visit my dad, and he brought my dead MacBook Pro with him back to New York. Here, we found a chinese lab that fixes any dead Mac motherboard for a flat fee of $250. They fixed it and it’s back to life!

Updates on our world tour

Introduction to the update

As some of you already know, me and my wife are planning to see the world, all while working and making money. We first left Israel and traveled to Finland, where my wife worked and studied at Helsinki University. After 5 months of working and seeing Finland (and Lapland), we took a taxi to St. Petersburg, Russia, where we spent some wonderful time walking around one of the most romantic and beautiful cities on our planet. My wife then flew to Israel to give her thesis for her masters degree, and to be with her parents before we start our “Big” tour. In the mean time I stayed some more in St. Petersburg to explore it a bit and learn the Russian language, and 4 weeks later here I am in Morocco, staying with my dad, until my wife joins me and we’ll continue our trip.

Why did we start this trip at all?

My wife wants to see the world. She spent almost 10 years in academia. I thought about it long and hard, and decided it suits me as well, and thought it would be a great idea to do this together. I also wanted to travel but never got around to doing it. Friends of mine travelled immediately after they completed their military service, but I was working in the hi-tech industry, being the geek that I am. India could wait, with its promises of endless beach parties, hallucinogenic drugs, and women.

But why a boat?!

I looked at the map of the world, and said, ok, Europe, Russia and Africa, no problem, huge landmasses. much of Asia as well, like China, Japan, Vietnam, etc.

But the islands, and all the way to Australia, is mostly water, plus we want to see the great barrier reef, and..! we need to keep working, so having an office with internet and electricity is critical or else we won’t have money to fund all this.

Where next?

If all goes according to plan, here are our next steps:

  1. Buy a camper, and fit it with internet connectivity & solar panels
  2. Travel for a month in Morocco, discovering the country’s beauty and culture
  3. Take the ferry to Spain, and start criss-crossing europe, all the way to Russia
  4. Criss-cross all over Russia, all the way to China
  5. Once in China, travel to Hong Kong, where we will try to build a boat!

With the boat built, these are our next steps:

  1. Reach Japan and explore it
  2. Reach Vietnam and explore it
  3. Reach Thailand, and the Philippines, and explore them
  4. Reach the Great Barrier Reef, and sail around Australia
  5. Reach India and explore it
  6. Cross the suets canal, into the mediterranean sea
  7. Explore the countries in the mediterranean
  8. Reach Morocco again, rest there for a while
  9. Sail up to the nordic region, all the way to Sweden

In Sweden, my wife plans to start working on a doctorate, this means we’ll stay there for a few years, and also means the end of our “big” tour.

A possible extension of the tour, wold be to cross the atlantic, all the way to Canada and the Thousand Islands region, which we want to explore with the boat.