Archive for the ‘Useless Rants’ Category

Some Notes on Saarland Railways

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

Since today is the state holiday (some time ago two Germanies united into one—which looks more and more like DDR for some reason) why not look at Zoidberg of German lands—Saarland? Well, you might have many reasons (first, it being Saarland) but today I’ve completed my voyage on all of their accessible railways and hence this post.

First, a bit of history. As you all remember, after World War II Germany was split into four occupation zones and while I haven’t heard anything in particular about British occupation zone, the rest of occupation forces were behaving not nice at all: USA installed their military bases everywhere (and most of them are still there—at least it meant less military expenses for West Germany back in the day), USSR tried to convert its piece of Germany into a copy of itself (partly successfully, hopefully it will recover) and France was not satisfied with mere occupation and also tried to seize the part of Germany as its own but it bit more than it could chew and so back in 1957 Saarland was reunited with the rest of Germany (and that day is the state holiday too but I doubt many think of 1st of January as of Saarland reunification day).

Saarland still honours France

Second, a bit of railway network overview. Essentially you can think about it as a cross: there’s a main East-West line going from Mannheim to Trier (or Alt-Chemnitz) via Homburg and Saarbrücken, there’s a North-South line going from Bad Kreuznach to Saarbrücken, there’s a line going South from Saarbrücken to France (and another one served by tram but more about it later), there is a branch Dillingen—Niedaltdorf, there’s a line from Rohrbach to Pirmasens, there’s line Trier—Perl—Metz that goes partly through Saarland and there are several parallel lines connecting Homburg and Saarbrücken. Let’s count: Homburg—Rohrbach—Saarbrücken (that’s what trains from Mannheim to Saarbrücken use), Homburg—Neunkirchen—Saarbrücken (part of it is Nahetalbahn to Bad Kreuznach), Homburg—Neunkirchen—Merchweiler—Saarbrücken (serviced by regional trains Homburg—Illingen and Saarbrücken—Lebach) and finally there’s Homburg—Neunkirchen—Lebach—Saarbrücken via tram line that goes all the way from Lebach to Saarbrücken to Saargemünd (or Sarreguemines as some people write it).

Yes, there’s a tram line in Saarland that essentially crosses half of it. And it’s impossible to confuse it since there’s only one tram line and one tram route in Saarland.

Also I’ve found mentions of three museum lines but looks like only one is functioning: Ottweiler—Schwarzerden line (or Ostertalbahn for short). And I’ve tried it as well. Unlike many other museum lines, this one uses diesel locomotives from the 1960s (but hopefully they’ll manage to rebuild the steam locomotive from the parts they have one day). It was what can be experienced in Ukrainian regional trains—going at about 30km/h while sitting on wooden benches and enjoying looking at the nature outside. At least they boast that they work in any weather (while other museum lines close in Autumn they keep running trains in winter too).

There are many weird things there I’d like to talk about but I’ll leave them to the time when I finish travelling on all railways of Rheinland-Pfalz (should be done next year unless they decide not to open Zellertalbahn again) but here are some of them for now.

First, the train service Saarbrücken—Lebach-Jabach. Fischbachtalbahn (Saarbrücken—Wemmetsweiler) and Primstalbahn from Wemmetsweiler to Illingen are electrified (in Illingen only track 41 is electrified, track 51 is not). Then only a bit of track at Lebach is electrified but about fourteen kilometres in-between are not. We had similar situation here with Bruhrainbahn (between Graben-Neudorf and Germersheim) being not electrified so train Karlsruhe—Mainz ran mostly on electrified rails but still had to be a diesel one. At least this was fixed in 2011 by electrifying the missing piece.

Second, it’s the only tram line in Germany I know that has exit directions repeated in French too.

And third, to make Saarland feel even more like Switzerland, they have the same cryptic booking system: when I bought a ticket from Saargemünd to Lebach it offered me to choose one of three or four possible alternatives—just like buying a rail ticket in Switzerland! Come to think of it, Swiss rail system is exactly like German regional system:

  • Choosing route is the same;
  • German general rail tickets have a whole day of validity (or more for longer distances). German regional tickets are valid for just a couple of hours after purchase—and same in Switzerland (unless it’s some snowy route that might be closed for days);
  • When I bought a ticket from Schaffhausen to Zürich (two different kantons) the ticket also listed zones—like some German regional tickets do;
  • Like with German regional trains, the type does not really matter. It may be S-Bahn, RegioBahn, RegioExpress or InterRegioExpress—the ticket is valid regardless. Same in Switzerland: the same ticket valid for any kind of train and trains change classes during the travel (i.e. train Basel—Chur was labelled as InterCity up to Zürich and InterRegio after that, the difference is only how many intermediate stops it makes);
  • And finally, the famous Swiss train punctuality. Well, it’s a known effect that regional trains have much better punctuality than long-distance ones (and all trains in Switzerland are essentially slow regional trains).

So despite all local jokes about Saarland being very backward place (some even call it “rear end of Germany”) it’s quite European place in some aspects. And remember that it has a real Schengen border (i.e. it borders with Luxembourg where town of Schengen known for some treaty is located).

Dingo Pictures: The Missing Masterpiece

Saturday, September 29th, 2018

Originally I wanted to to write about NihAV progress but some kind soul has uploaded the final missing piece of Dingo Pictures art collections so I have no other choice but to talk about it.

So, Arischa the Little Witch (…on the visit to the Magic Forest).
(more…)

A Bit on Swedish Railway Network

Saturday, September 22nd, 2018

I wanted to write this post for several months since in July I finally had a chance to travel on some of the important Swedish railways.

Well, as anybody knows, I love Sweden and railways. And Swedish railways too. And obviously I’d like to ride them all and recently I’ve moved much closer to that goal.

There are this important railways in Sweden (sorry if I forgot some but this list should cover the most important ones):

  • Ostkustbanan (Stockholm—Uppsala—Gävle—Sundsvall)
  • Ådalsbanan+Botniabanan (Sundsvall—Kramfors—Umeå)
  • Norra stambanan (Gävle—Ånge)
  • Stambanan genom övre Norrland (Ånge—Bräcke—Vännäs—Boden)
  • Malmbanan (Luleå—Boden—Kiruna—Narvik)
  • Mittbanan (Sundsvall—Ånge—Östersund—Storlien—Hell—Trondheim)
  • Inlandsbanan (Gällivare—Östersund—Orsa—Mora)
  • Dalabanan+Siljansbanan (Uppsala—Borlänge, Borlänge—Mora)
  • Bergslagsbanan (Gävle—Borlänge—Frövi)
  • Västra stambanan (Stockholm—Göteborg)
  • Södra stambanan (Stockholm—Malmö)
  • Mälarbanan (Stockholm—Västerås—Örebro)
  • Svealandsbanan (Stockholm—Eskilstuna—Arboga)
  • Värmlandsbanan (Laxå—Charlottenberg, further to Oslo)
  • Kust till kust-banan (Göteborg—Alvesta—Kalmar)
  • Västkustbanan (Lund—Göteborg)
  • Jönköpingsbanan (Nässjö—Falköping)

And I want to talk about those railways and my experience there.
(more…)

#chemicalexperiments — Cream

Monday, June 18th, 2018

So it has come to this. Let’s talk about a stuff one usually finds in sweets: various kinds of cream (and my experience with it).

I can divide the cream I’ve encountered or made so far into three categories:

  1. Swedish cream;
  2. Lazy cream;
  3. Custards.

Swedish cream is very easy to make: whip cream, optionally sprinkle cinnamon on top. It’s found in virtually every Swedish cake and serves as a base for some other cream variants. In Germany it’s common to use Sahnesteif—essentially a mix of starch and dextrose—that makes whipped cream stay thick and not runny longer.

Lazy cream is essentially a mix of some dairy product with powdered sugar and maybe something else for flavour (I use lemon juice): it can be butter, mascarpone, quark or something else. You simply mix those two ingredients together and use immediately. I believe the other term for this kind of cream is butter-cream.

And custards is the trickiest one since you have to cook it. It’s essentially a mix of egg yolks and milk with some thickening agent (can be starch or less commonly gelatine). When making it you have to keep in mind that if you simply put yolks into the hot milk they’ll curdle and you’ll end with a very runny omelette so you have to be extra careful and mix them (first you mix yolks with sugar and starch) by pouring a thin stream of one ingredient into another and mixing (some say you should first add some hot milk to yolks and then pour the mix back to milk, others claim it’s enough to pour yolks into milk). Afterwards you have to let it cool in a sealed container and maybe mix with whipped cream. It can be used in tarts, cakes, smaller pastry or eaten as it (preferably with something else though like berries or biscuits).

There’s a variation of it called Bavarian cream which you make by mixing yolks and milk, adding gelatine and mixing with whipped cream after it’s half-set (and then waiting even more hours until it’s fully set). The result is good as a standalone dessert but I heard it can be used in cakes too.

Overall I find all those cream varieties good but it’s better to eat them with something else and in moderation (or you’ll end having my shape).

Rust: Lifetimes Sugar

Sunday, May 27th, 2018

One of the Rust language features is explicit object lifetimes that help compiler correctly track memory usage and free objects without using garbage collector. A neat idea but it leads to lifetime specifiers being used everywhere including places where compiler should be smart enough to deal with them without explicit mentions in every place.

Maybe I’m using Rust wrong but in most of the cases I create objects that have no need for lifetime specifier or the objects that have the same lifetime for both its members and itself. Thus I argue that in addition to generic lifetime specifier 'a (or whatever the name you give it) and obviously named 'static there should be 'self that specifies the lifetime to be exactly the same as the object itself.

So, instead of current:

struct Foo<'a> {
  myref: &'a [u8],
  subobj: Bar<'a>,
}

impl<'a> Foo<'a> {
  pub fn new(myref: &'a [u8], subobj: Bar<'a>) -> Self { ... }
}

it should be possible to write:

struct Foo {
  myref: &'self [u8],
  subobj: Bar,
}

impl Foo {
  pub fn new(myref: &'self [u8], subobj: Bar) -> Self { ... }
}

I am not sure whether compiler needs to perform some additional things in such objects compared to objects without no lifetime specifier but it should be easy to assign proper lifetime after parsing the structure definition anyway and I’m pretty sure the compiler does something like this anyway.

And I see only these reasons why this has not been done yet:

  • Considerations for compiler simplicity (i.e. parsing process should be kept as simple as possible)—I still think it should be easy for compiler to recognize the lifetime definition by the time structure declaration parsing is over and it’s used externally (i.e. for objects using this one);
  • Considerations for language clarity and consistency (i.e. it’s immediately obvious when you look at the object that it deals with lifetimes but not with the proposed change). I’d argue that explicit lifetimes should be kept for complex cases only, when you have to juggle lifetimes from several complex sources, and the objects with references not outliving themselves should be fine;
  • Simple oversight (i.e. “we did not think of such simplification”) or developers’ bias (i.e. “we got used to writing lifetime specifiers everywhere that we didn’t think it annoys anybody”). You should be able to guess what I have to say about such argument.

So all in all I’d be happy to either hear why it cannot be done (beside the compatibility with the existing code) or see it implemented. But most likely this will be ignored (and I’m fine with that too).

BeNiLux Railways: An Impression

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

So I had a chance to visit Belgium and Netherlands and what I’ve seen there makes me write this post.

Luxembourg

I visited it some years ago and it looked quite decent to me, nothing particularly strange.

Belgium

Previously I only went to Brussels for FOSDEM but this time I travelled around a bit and saw places outside the capital too.

So, they have nice touches like typeface used for station names, various kinds of trains (though I haven’t seen their outdated train that used to go between Liege and Aachen) and very interesting rail station in Antwerpen.

The only strange thing is that they hang out timetables for workdays and weekdays separately (at least in Bruxelles Nord).

The only stupid thing I saw is ticket machines having a special button for international trains and when you press it it tells you that you can’t buy an international train ticket there. And Belgium is such a small country that it’s hard to travel in any direction for an hour and not cross some border (or get into the sea). One would expect that buying tickets to neighbouring lands would be easier, especially for such close countries like Belgium and Netherlands.

Netherlands

Now this country looks like everything there was designed by idiots.

First, trains. By themselves they are not that bad but they have the best counterintuitive designed door open buttons. First, they are labelled the same: half-opened (or half-closed) doors with small arrows showing opening or closing. So if you have not a very good sight (like me) you’ll be confused. But buttons are colour-coded! Yes, and while on German trains it’s intuitive green—open, red—close (or just a single button for open/close), Dutch trains have yellow button for opening doors and green (or blue for random Japanese) button for closing. Honestly, it should be intuitive to have green button to open doors so you can go. And I’d like to hear a reason behind this beside “well, cannabis is legal in Netherlands”.

Next, timetables. Those are confusing as well. At least in Rotterdam timetables are hanged separately for each fork (well, it should be a line but most of them are drawn as forks which probably means the train parts separate at some point and head in two different directions)—maybe it’s this convoluted system made them invent InterCity Direct too (don’t ask me how that’s different from normal InterCity). And the separate timetable for international trains. Confusing.

And since that was not enough stupidity, they decided to install turnstiles in Rotterdam Centraal so in order to enter or leave the station you need to scan your ticket (yes, it’s like what you have in underground systems but in this case for rail station). And it might be the only station there with such a feature, I saw nothing like that in Amsterdam C when I visited couple of years ago or in The Hague two days ago.

Speaking of The Hague, they have the stupid station name—Den Haag HS where last two letters stay for Hollands Spoor or Dutch Rail. I know only two cases where such naming makes sense:

  • you have a station in the same town belonging to different railway operators e.g. in Basel you have the main station operated by CFF and so it’s called Basel SBB, French railways have their own section there called Elsässerbahnhof or Bâle SNCF and there’s a station used to belong to Baden Railways that is still called Basel Badischer Bahnhof;
  • you had a competing rail operator and the name stuck (a variation of the above really)—e.g. stations on track Bullay (DB)—Traben-Trarbach(DB) are called so because there was another rail line (on the other side of Mosel) with the same stations and when it was closed nobody wanted to rename stations just because;
  • you’re SNCF and you want to mark your stations because they’re yours and no foreign train should set wheel there!

And as far as I know none of this applies to The Hague. I suspect it happened because they have built a new station later (more than a century later) that they designated as central one and could not make a good name for the old station. It’s like in Germany they’d rename station Hamburg-Altona to Hamburg Hbf and Hamburg Hbf to Hamburg DB. In other words, pointless and stupid.

Overall, it was an interesting experience travelling Belgium and Netherlands but I did not expect that much stupidity from the latter. Anyway, the next post should be about Rust.

An Impression on Rhaetian Railways

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

Since I don’t have enough time to visit proper country I went to bad substitute of Sweden that’s much more accessible—Switzerland (it should be obvious why I cannot call it poor or cheap substitute). Since it happened on Easter (April 1-2), the environment was resembling Sweden: snow, mountains, deer and log sheds. And of course I could ride trains in new locations!

Rhaetian railways is a narrow-gauge railway system in canton Graubünden (which symbol uncannily resembles the one from Gävle), a fractal part of Switzerland occupying its south-east corner (fractal in the sense that canton shape looks almost exactly like the shape of whole Switzerland). Trains run in a picturesque scenery with dreadful names like Fhtagn (or Ftan in Swiss-Cthüelsch) or SaaS (they really have a station with such name!), going up to the mountains (in 1-2 km above sea level range) and I spent couple of days travelling around.

But while the scenery is okay, the railways are some unholy mix of Berlin S-Bahn, Czech and German railways:

  • There are German ICEs running there all the way to Chur (so I could travel home without any transfers);
  • The tracks are curvy and trains are as slow as in Czechia (i.e. no matter where you go it will take you at least an hour or two to get there);
  • Prices are like in Czechia too except they use Swiss Francs instead of Czech Koruna—but numbers are about the same (so it seems I can ride with ICE here cheaper, faster and on much longer distance than with RhB);
  • Another thing like in Czechia: buying a ticket with a card involves 1,5€ surcharge. No such thing in Sweden;
  • Narrow-gauge trains are a weird mix themselves: they can put locomotive in the front of the train, in the end (maybe), in the middle (very common) or just couple a typical EMU with a number of conventional rail carriages (I’m not sure I’ve seen that anywhere else);
  • Weird station names: I can understand when you name a station after two places at once like Reichenau-Tamins (that’s common in Germany too) or even if you name it after the same place twice like Disentis/Mustér (it’s Confoederatio Helvetica, natives can’t agree on a single name for anything) but Tavanasa-Breil/Brigels is definitely too much (it’s a station between those two mentioned earlier BTW);
  • It’s afraid of snow: after even insignificant amount of snow they stop going on some routes: on my stay there the trains on Pontresina-Tirano and Disentis/Mustér­-Andermatt routes were cancelled for indefinite amount of days. In Germany trains are more punctual—if they are late they’re late for dozens of minutes, not days. And if something bad happens and trains can run some route for days then you can see information everywhere including how to get around and such. No such thing in Switzerland;
  • And another thing that’s taken from German S-Bahn is timetables and tickets. This requires a separate rant.

Overall, FFS or RhB is not very friendly to a traveller: you should have a definite idea where are you going to, when (at which time and such) and how (i.e. where to transfer) if you want to buy a ticket. For example, I was at the station Chur-West and wanted to go to Scuol-Tarasp. The ticket vending machine offered me to choose from three options: via Samedan, via Chur-Samedan (i.e. go first to Chur main station and from there to Samedan and then to Scuol) or via Vereina. The last option is actually a tunnel and not a station name!

In Germany when you travel with long distance trains you actually choose one of the provided connection possibilities (e.g. InterCity from A to B, RegioBahn from B to C and ICE from C to D or InterCity from A to E and then from E to D) or you can use the provided functionality for route planning even if you don’t buy a ticket. SBB ticket machines simply allow you to buy ticket from A to B maybe with cryptic route midpoint and that’s all! That’s exactly how German ticket vending machines for regional transport work. And there’s yet another point of annoyance: Swiss rail timetables fail to include arrival time for the final destination so if you care about it (like I sometimes do) you have to find it out via other means. It’s plain stupid.

Oh, and the snow-related problem: when you buy a ticket you can’t be sure the train will go there because the only cryptic warning I got is when ticket machine said my ticket will be valid on April 1st-April 9th period (and much later in the train too). In Germany it actually shows warnings when there’s some problem with a train or it’s cancelled entirely (since you can use it later). I actually had a situation when one segment of my travel was served by a train that broke down and I had to take another train later instead. So it feels like you should rather use smartphone and buy ticket online where you can see the actual route and warnings (and probably use bahn.de instead of cff.ch too where possible).

Overall, travelling with Rhaetian railways was both a pleasant and exciting experience in some aspects (i.e. when I was inside the train) and confusing and frustrating experience in others (i.e. when I actually tried to buy a ticket). They also boast how some parts of the system are the third railway in UNESCO World Heritage Railways (the second after India, I guess) and how picturesque some parts are (they are almost as interesting as Sauschwänzlebahn indeed) but as I’ve seen it all there’s no reason to return there (and the reliable source says there are better places in Switzerland to wait over heat waves too).

#chemicalexperiments Dough and Pancakes

Saturday, April 14th, 2018

Since I don’t have any urges to work on NihAV at this moment (big surprise, I know) I’ll talk about cooking instead.

Since I don’t know how to cook and never had any kind of culinary education, I divide dough into three main categories: puffy (the one that expands while baking), non-puffy (the one that keeps about the same volume) and runny (usually used for pancakes but we’ll talk about them later).

Non-puffy dough is the easiest to make: just mix flour and water (take either boiling water or very cold water for good results). Ideal for simple filling dishes like вареники or Karelian rice pasty (I made both and shall probably make again). The next level is to make so-called shortcrust pastry which is used for pies, quiches and such. Here you usually mix flour with some fat and/or filling (called shortening).

And there we have a variety of what to use for shortening:

  • classical recipes use butter—I’ve cooked stuff using it and it works fine except that it takes too much butter to my liking;
  • French people obviously prefer margarine (since it’s their invention)—I see no reason to try it;
  • Brits prefer some weird animal fat called suet—I feel queasy just thinking about it so it gets definitive no from me;
  • USians use chemically processed vegetable shortening; I’ve tried it once: ordered a can of Crisco shortening, followed the recipe for pie crust and the result is bad. I’d stick to other two recipes listed here. Fun fact: while searching for it on Amazon most offers were from sex shops where it’s apparently offered as a lubricant. I can see why—that stuff is sticky and slick and not fit for baking. Also since one of the sellers offers it along with various sweets (and what passes for them in the USA) I’ve ordered some of those and tried it—I was not impressed by that stuff either.
  • and finally there’s German variant that I find very good called Öl-Quark Teig (dough made from oil and quark—in this case lean homogenous cottage cheese). You mix flour with several spoonfuls of oil (you can choose different oil for different flavouring of course, which is a nice feature) and magerquark (lean homogenous cottage cheese) and that’s all! You can add an egg and/or baking powder too but it’s fine as is too.

Puffy dough is the trickiest one—the puffiness comes from bubbles in the dough and it takes extra effort to do that. The easiest way is simply to add baking powder (or baking soda reacting with vinegar) to the dough, the other conventional ways are to prepare yeast (cultured or uncultured, either way it takes time and some effort) or make bubbles from eggs which requires some skill that I lack (so I stick to baking powder). There are two recipes that work for me: mixing flour, eggs, butter and sugar (aka the usual cake mix) or öl-quark dough with sugar, egg and baking powder.

Runny dough (is it called batter?) can be made by mixing flour with a lot of liquid and some eggs and then used to make pancakes. Since it’s the only thing I’ve done with it so far let’s talk about them.

There are several kinds of pancakes that I know and tried so far:

  • French-style thin pancakes (aka crêpes) that are better eaten fresh with something rolled in;
  • Dutch laughably small pancakes (that have a name almost like an Australian word for gay—probably the words have the same origin);
  • common pancakes—thicker than crêpe, plain, good to eat with something on top or with some filling rolled in;
  • slightly thicker pancakes with something embedded in them (like bits of ham).

And of course Sweden has nice varieties of pancakes in wide range: ordinary pancakes, pancakes with bits of ham, pancakes with potatoes (I tried those and approve) and pancakes for people like me who can’t do anything right with their hands (including flipping pancakes)—ugnspannkaka, i.e. pancakes baked in oven. Obviously that one is much thicker than the rest but it’s easy to make (even I baked some) and it can embed various stuff too which makes it interesting (bits of ham, fish or even fruit). Also this way you’re more likely to end with rectangular pancakes which I find to be a nicer and more versatile shape than usual round ones.

I forgot to mention one local thing—in Baden-Württemberg they have plain pancakes shredded into thin stripes, dried and then they add it to the served soups. It’s called Flädle and you can buy it in every local supermarket (even Aldi). It’s a nice addition to a soup IMO.

Okay, now back to doing anything but coding.

Rust in multimedia: unwieldy features

Sunday, March 18th, 2018

Today I wanted to talk about two features that are quite important for multimedia decoding but are quite inconvenient in the current state.

First, macros. I know that macros in Rust are both very powerful and quite flexible but they are hard to use for data definition and I ranted about it before. The problem is that quite often you have tables with some internal structure that would benefit from macro substitutions: if you have a codebook constructed from entries following patterns like a, b, -a, -b and a, b, a, -b, -a, b, -a, -b it would be easier and less error-prone to represent them as e.g. FLIP2#(a, b) and FLIP4#(a, b) inside the data definition. The problem is that macro! does not allow you to do that easily since it’s supposed to expand into valid statements (i.e. code or full data definitions). Of course you can work it around by making a set of macros to define the whole array and some bits inside it but that’s what makes it unwieldy. And that’s why I believe there should be another macro substitution mechanism, maybe named macro#, that would work just on data but it’d be much easier to use in that particular case.

The second issue is assembly integration. Despite Rust being fast and such it’s still better to write small critical functions in assembly. And obviously it would be better if Cargo supported including assembler files into crate. You can point out there’s stdsimd for using the power of SIMD without much hassle. I can point out that compiler-generated code is still far from being perfect even with intrinsics and assembly is still better; supporting querying SIMD capabilities via standard package is good though. And you can point out that there’s a special crate for supporting various files with various compilers/assemblers already. I’d say that it’s a bit too generic but at least it can serve as a base for what I need. Again, there’s more or less standard way to deal with assembly files so making a common standard is not hard.

And in the unlikely case somebody reads this and asks why I don’t form an RFC—from what I heard it involves proposing code as well and I don’t want to study the compiler nor waste days compiling it.

Dingo Pictures Works: Early Years

Friday, December 8th, 2017

Well, I intended to end my review but I was reminded that there are even more Dingo Pictures works that I’ve missed. So let’s look at those.
(more…)