Archive for October, 2006

Halloween

I just returned from the Village Halloween Parade, an annual parade that consists of people in costumes walking from the East Village to Greenwich Village. I’m usually skeptical about Halloween; it doesn’t have a real tradition at home, and I generally got the impression that it’s mainly about making money and giving grown-ups a chance to dress up without joining a carnival club. But I thought, hey, I’m in the US, and it’s supposed to be authentic here, so let’s give it a try.

And I’m glad I did! There were some really impressive huge ghosts and icky pumpkins with vine tentacles (hopefully Patrick will have some nice pictures soon), and some utterly weird parade cars (such as the one with the KISS fans), and lots of people in more or less impressive costumes. They had every conceivable costume I could imagine; there were Catwomen and pirates and ninjas and stormtroopers and cockroaches and Homer Simpsons and zombies and guys with anti-Bush signs and enough doctors to have a spontaneous little German doctor strike demo. There was also a huge audience — we were lucky to see something –, and most of them were also in full dress.

The whole atmosphere was very relaxed and fun. But if you didn’t pay attention and got caught in a subway station with a bunch of serial killers and vampires, you could indeed imagine that this is the night when the boundary between us and the other world is particularly thin. So this is a Halloween tradition that makes sense and that I can subscribe to. Once more, yay for New York.

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The Cloisters

Today, after a huge brunch, Rosy, Patrick, and I made use of the stormy but crisp autumn weather and went to the Cloisters. Technically, this is the department of medieval European art of the Metropolitan Museum. But being real Americans, the people in charge of the Met decided in the 1920s that the best way to display medieval European art is to buy a couple of abandoned French monasteries, ship the stones over here, and assemble them into a building that is not quite like any of them, but captures all their essence and thus makes for a museum with great atmosphere. (And then they attached air conditioning, because modern times and convenience don’t stop before monasteries, you see.)

You can argue about the approach, but it worked. The building is situated in Fort Tryon Park, at the very northern end of Manhattan. Here’s a view from Tryon Park across the Hudson, just to give you an idea of the surroundings:

park.jpg

And here’s how the Cloisters building looks from the outside:

cloisters.jpg

And an actual cloister (which was taken mostly complete from one individual French monastery that was destroyed in the French Revolution; it soothes my hurt European sensibilities about stealing buying our cultural treasures somewhat that they only took what we destroyed ourselves), seen from the inside:

kreuzgang.jpg

They did their job well: The building, and in fact the entire park, feel utterly European. As a member of Columbia, I get in for free, and I’m thinking about taking a book and sitting in a cloister window when there’s snow in the courtyard. It’s really very nice, and also warm. (Thanks to the air conditioning.)

Now, I said it’s a museum of medieval European art. And boy do they have a lot of cool stuff there. The museum is most famous for its huge unicorn tapestries, which are quite cruel and totally unphotographable because their room is too dark, so I can’t show them to you. But there are also happy Three Kings and sad Marys (it happens, I guess, when Jesus loses his head), and camels and crosses and art students who draw pictures of it all.

threekings.jpg

mary.jpg

But the coolest exhibit of all was a stained-glass window called “The Circumcision of Jesus”, which includes all the necessary anatomical details. :)

circumcision.jpg

Isn’t that neat? Well, anyway, we topped of a really nice day with coffee at the Hungarian pastry shop. This was six hours ago, and I’m still not hungry.

Singing in the wild woods

I understand that there are now at least five people who know that this blog exists. So someone might actually be reading this. (Come on and say hi!) But how am I supposed to blog regularly if I’m hardly ever home?

I know, I know, theoretically there’s WLAN everywhere, but I’ll bet one of the places where they don’t have it is Wildwood, NJ. It’s a seaside resort south of Atlantic City with a summer population of 250.000 and a winter population of 5.000. Quite pretty, but rather empty this time of year, except when several thousand barbershoppers invade the town and hold their annual Mid-Atlantic District convention. The convention serves two purposes. One is to select a district champion chorus and a district champion quartet, who will represent the district (which consists of five or six states in this region) at the international contest next year. The other is to meet lots of other barbershoppers, form spontaneous quartets and sing stuff together. And we did that, until 3:30 or so on early Sunday morning. It was lots of fun overall, except that after the 20th chorus in the chorus competition, they all started to sound almost the same. I was pleased to realise that my own chorus is rather different from all the others, and delivered a hilarious performance of an Elvis Medley that involved guys dressed in go-go dancer headgear (a cheap trick, but it always works) and the cool but rather fat director changing into an Elvis costume off-stage. They were rewarded with a huge lead in the “presentation” category, but because the chorus of Alexandria, Virginia got such a (deservedly) huge score in the “singing” category, Alexandria won the competition anyway. Apparently they have won every single time in the past 10-15 years, and we were so close this time. Is a distance of 4 points out of 1500-something even statistically significant? It’s certainly very small.

Brad, the guy I shared a room with, indeed turned out to be quite cool. He’s been running his own little company for fixing people’s computers, which apparently paid quite well but got boring after a while. So he decided to buy a Yoga studio in the Village, both as a business challenge and as a vehicle to meet girls. I think I should take him up on his offer to come have a Yoga class one of these days. He also decided to spend the Sunday in Atlantic City, and promptly won $2500 at poker. And he’s taken me under his wing a bit and given me some tips on barbershop singing; it was quite amazing what a fantastic difference a small change in my singing technique made.

I also learned at this convention that almost nobody is both a Mets and a Yankees fan at the same time. One of the guys — a policeman from Brooklyn — kept sneaking out of the concert hall to listen to reports of the Mets game on his portable radio. In the end, they won (the Yankees didn’t, and are now out and in a crisis of self-doubt). As I am writing this, the Mets are playing their seventh and final play-off against the St. Louis Cardinals. I’m certainly keeping my fingers crossed for them, but I don’t dare watch the live online report of the game, because they lose whenever I watch them. I’m kind of their anti-mascot.

Thursday to Monday I attended a workshop on presupposition accommodation at Ohio State University. It was a fun trip, except that we had temperatures below zero on one or two nights, and I brought home a cold. Highlights included: utterly efficient procedures at New York’s La Guardia airport, where I was through check-in and security ten minutes after I entered the terminal building, and then on the bus to Midtown fifteen minutes after my plane touched the ground on my way home; long discussions between semanticists and philosophers about the example “I have to take my cat to the vet”; really cute linguistics grad students from California; a possible collaboration with a colleague at OSU on a system that generates instructions for the player in a Quake 2 environment; and a hike through Ohio’s Hocking Hills with Mike White and his family.

Currently I’m fighting with my cold and feeling that I should really go and get some work done now. Nevertheless, I have already scouted out possible things to do for the weekend, so I might finally have something new to post in the “exploration” category soon. :)

I’m in!

After a short audition, I’m now officially a member of the Big Apple Chorus. (And why is it that although I was totally sure that I’d pass their test, I was still nervous?) My first official action as a member will be to accompany the chorus to the Mid-Atlantic District Competition in barbershop singing, which takes place in Wildwood, New Jersey this Saturday. One guy from the choir (who seems nice) offered me to share his room; now all that remains to be done is to find transportation. There is a four-hour bus connection via Atlantic City, but perhaps I can still find a way that doesn’t involve boarding a bus at 7am in the young morning.

I’d also like to say how cool I find gawker.com’s analysis of “missed connections” on Craigslist. Also, both the Yankees and now the Mets won their first games in the baseball playoffs. A significant percentage of the people you meet in the streets or on the subway are dressed in baseball garb, with a clear numerical advantage for the Yankees (who, it has to be said, also have the dramatically better-designed logo and colours; the Mets orange always puts me off a bit). I wonder what would happen to the city if they both won their respective leagues.

Life is catching up with me

Just about two weeks ago, I had the feeling that I had so much time that really the only thing that could fill it was to write this blog.

Now, life has been catching up with me on all fronts, and I find myself falling back into bad blogging habits. The pace of my work has picked up considerably, and next to that, there’s so much bloggable fun stuff going on that I hardly have the time to write about it.

So let’s just summarise the highlights of the past few days:

  • On Sunday I went to see the NextFest as planned. It was pretty cool: They had lots of robots — including one that looked so lifelike with its artificial skin and subtle facial expressions that I mistook it for a real human for a second –, and future space suits, and a device that will highlight the veins under your skin, and lots of other stuff. The singing rabbit robots were a bit of a disappointment, as they did have a darkened room with a few hundred of them, and they were supposed to perform a specially composed opera, but they didn’t sing. There were also two different video games in which the player was filmed by a camera and inserted into the game world, where they had to touch falling balls, or fight against evil sprites. This would probably not be so difficult to implement yourself, and perhaps it would be a fun little project to do in my copious spare time.The lifelike android (who reminds me a bit of Lex Luthor in Smallville; I wonder if that’s intentional):

    android

    One of the camera-based video games: You can see the player (shown to the right) very faintly at the center of the screen to the left; watch for the colour of his shirt.

    karate

    The coolest game of the entire exhibit was Brainball, in which each player wears a bunch of EEG electrodes on their head, and there’s a little ball on the table that moves towards the player with the higher stress level. The really nice part about this game is that the little ball on the table actually physically moves, and so it makes the game look like a match between two telepaths.
    brainball

  • On Monday night, we went to Rock ‘n Roll Karaoke at Arlene’s Grocery in the Lower East Side; I must say that I’m beginning to like the LES better and better for its quirky little shops and bar and cafe scene. It was fantastic: They had a real live band that would accompany karaoke singers, with admissible songs ranging from the Beatles to Iron Maiden. Most of the singers were actually pretty good, too; but the atmosphere was so friendly that even the singers who really sucked got a warm applause. It was great fun, and I’ll need to go there again and perhaps sing too. :)
  • Yesterday I went to visit Rutgers University to see a talk (a classical semantics talk with a handout, on a topic that my advisor worked on thirty years ago, but very accessible and fun nonetheless) and meet some people. I must say that one thing I really like about American universities is that they give you free food whenever they can get away with it. In this case, pretty good Thai food before the semantics talk.

Phew. Now today I’ll go run some errands, try to pick up the computer for my office, finish my slides for the talk tomorrow, and start putting redundant constraints into the constraint-based planner that I’ve also implemented over the weekend. Then tonight I’ll go to my third Big Apple Chorus rehearsal and presumably become a regular member. No rest for the enthusiastic.


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