MM 4.5 — Day 8: Highlights

The Mediterranean Sea is not just a geographical divide between some countries; it’s a cultural divide between two continents. Today’s excursion to Tunisia was my very first trip to an African nation, and, with the possible exception of a business trip to Singapore, also my first visit to a Muslim country.

Right from the get-go it was a sensory experience in a class by itself. After walking to our bus through very intense heat, we were greeted at the vehicle with a warm and friendly smile by our tour guide, and there was a hint of oriental incense inside the bus. Arabic road signs, unfamiliar architecture, dark-skinned, smiling faces around us — what a contrast to what we saw at the ports of call on the Northern edge of the mediterranean sea.

Roman Bath in Carthage

Our first excursion stop were the ruins of ancient Carthage: baths, the harbor, plain houses. It is hard to grasp what level of engineering prowess these peoples had developed more than two millenia ago. Aside from this fascination, the ruins provided an inspiring playground of all kinds of light-n-shadow patterns among the ruins. It was perfect for experimenting with what we learned during Bill’s and Jack’s photography classes.

Tunisia is a predominantly muslim country, but it you’ll also find Christians and Jews there, as witnessed by the cathedral, high atop Carthage and with a fantastic view from the square in front of it.

Carthage from the Cathedral

There may not be an Arabic theme park yet, but Sidi Bou-Said, the village we visited next, does come close to what that could look like — thanks to the industrial efficiency with which the busloads of tourists were shoved through the little streets in its center.

Apart from the crowds, Sidi Bou-Said is a picturesque village, its houses painted all blue-and-white, and it features a museum with scenes from the traditional lifestyle of a (very rich) Tunisian family. As a matter of fact, the museum was the house of a former judge and it still featured the original furniture, books, etc. from when it was still used by the family. It made for a nice contrast to the visit to Carthage, as it was much easier to connect to the history of this house, which was “just” a few decennia old, as opposed to millenia in Carthage. Despite this, there still was the feeling of being in a very different culture from our own, but that is just what made this visit so enjoyable.

Sidi Bou-Said Museum

Before boarding the bus again, I just had to see what haggling with an Arabic bazaar merchant was like. So I bought tea. Four packs. For 15 Euros. This must have been some of the most expensive tea I’ve bought in my entire life, but at least I talked him down from 20€. Whatever the premium I paid, I’ll just consider it an entertainment charge for this little glimpse at the Arabic way of buying and selling things.

Sidi Bou-Said Cafe

Speaking of tea: mint tea is the traditional drink of Tunisian, but it’s rather different from the mint tea we usually brew in central Europe. It is very dark, very sweet, and has a slightly bitter aftertaste to it that makes it even more refreshing. I just hope that that tea I bought actually is mint tea. But that’s kind of hard to tell, what with the text on the package being written in Arabic…

If you’ve ever watched Sal Soghoian demo anything related to AppleScript or Automator, you know that Sal lives for these things. In what was easily the most geeky presentation of the cruise so far, Sal gave an introductory overview over Automator. As a kind of visual workflow building kit, Automator offers access to automation features in Mac OS X without requiring any knowledge of AppleScript, or any other programming language.

From a few simpler examples as a starting point, Sal went all the way to a fully automated publishing workflow, which populated an Adobe InDesign layout template with product photos and text information taken from a database. What would take days when done manually is performed automatically in less than a minute. And that’s the philosophy behind any kind of automation: if you have to repeat a certain task more than twice or three times, consider building a workflow, instead.

Although AppleScript and Automator are very cool features in OS X, Apple is not as vocal about them as they deserve. Sal’s point of view on this is pretty clear: “Isn’t that cool? Did you know that this was on your computer? No! That’s what you call Marketing…”

The audience was made up of eight participants, and it turned out that five of them — 62.5% ! — had used Xcode before. Consequently, the vast majority of us were eager to learn just how much work it is to write your own Automator actions. Using a simple AppleScript-based example action that downloads weather satellite photos from a website, Sal showed us how quickly you can build actions if you make use of all the available features in Xcode, including key-value-bindings to hook up the interface with the underlying code. As Sal would put it: “Piece-a-cake!”

Before this session, I had seen Sal on the ship several times before, but I had never seen him being as much in his element and “in the now” than during this class, and he simply excels at convincing his audience of just how cool this technology is. Better yet, he also does this in a way that makes basically everyone wonder what Automator can do for them, i.e. which of their daily tasks could profit from some Automator mojo.

If you haven’t used Automator before, have a look at Sal’s website to learn more about it. Then again, why don’t you just launch the application — it’s right there in your Applications folder if you’re using Mac OS X version 10.4, or later — and play around with it to find out just how accessible automation is on the Mac.

The evening Apple Q&A session with Sal and Janet Hill from Apple, and Chris Breen from Macworld Magazine, and a seven-strong audience was the perfect way to wind down after the intense Automator session. A discussion about just what it means for Apple that, thanks to Bootcamp and Parallels, the new Intel Macs can now run Windows was a perfect opener for this event. We covered quite a few other topics and ended with some anecdotes about The Steve(tm) himself. Us Mac folks really are a strange kind.

Man, what a day: I visited the African continent for the first time; learned the ins and outs of Automator from Mr. AppleScript himself; and had a small peek into the inner workings of Apple Computer. What promised to be the highlight of the cruise was just that!

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