Archive for the 'Exploration' Category

Entertainment in Edinburgh

Over the past year, I’ve gotten used to spending my spare time in the New York style: People meet outside of their apartments and go to a musical or the Nerd Nite or the Amato Opera or some other of several hundred options that take place on any given evening. There are so many things you could do that the art is to learn how to live with the fact that you’re missing almost everything.

It’s been a bit of a culture shock to me that Edinburgh style entertainment works very differently. Yes, people go to concerts, such as last week’s RSNO performance (which was not bad, but then I’ve been spoiled by the New York Philharmonic, and the RSNO could have been more expressive). But they also actually have time to go see a movie (such as the fantastic 3:10 to Yuma), or classical sci-fi TV series at Sciffy’s weekly meetings, and they actually visit each other at home to play board games. However, the primary thing that’s done in Edinburgh by way of entertainment is to go hike in the nature. And I’ll admit that this is something that was difficult in New York.

Last weekend, we ended up hiking to Yester Castle, a ruin in East Lothian, perhaps a 45-minute drive and then a one or two hour hike away from Edinburgh. Yester Castle is really cool in that the knight who built it, in 1250 or so, was rumored to be a necromancer, who had summoned creatures build a subterranean vault called “Goblin Ha'”. Apparently, goblins build to last, and thus unlike the rest of the castle, Goblin Ha’ is still pretty much intact:

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It’s really really dark, though, and it took my eyes a few minutes to adjust so I could actually see anything through the barred windows. The ruins are a pretty good place for ghost stories; the surrounding area supports this pretty well too:
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And then there’s a golf course right next to it, and all remaining feelings that Sir Hugo might be watching you are dispelled; the story of the cursed pear he gave his daughter’s husband for safekeeping (the curse being activated several hundred years later) seems quite insubstantial when you have to watch out so you don’t get whacked in the head by a golf ball. That was a pretty cool hike, even though it made me realize that my shoes, which were sufficient for hiking in dry Colorado, are totally not up to the job of trudging through Scottish mud and I need to buy new ones if I want to do this more.

Another feature of outdoors life in Edinburgh that we explored yesterday is Portobello. (Interestingly, there’s a short path on Wikipedia from Portobello via burgh, Five Burghs, and Five Boroughs back to New York.) Portobello is a beach resort which is approximately twenty bike minutes away from my house. Although we had nice and sunny weather yesterday, it’s still October and so you can’t swim in the Firth of Forth because you would freeze to death instantly (I did test the waters with my foot). But apparently it can be used as a real swimming beach in the summer. I don’t think I’ve ever lived this close to a beach in my life! This is what it looks like:
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The main problem is that while the bike route to the beach is extremely scenic — it circles around Arthur’s Seat and offers a number of pretty dramatic views, e.g. of Duddingston Kirk over Duddingston Loch –, it goes up and down and up and down, and mostly up, the entire time. I’m so not in shape, and the way back in particular was terrible in places. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my outing to the beach, and it’s nice to be able to get there in twenty minutes rather than a one-hour subway ride. Entertainment in Edinburgh is different, and I have to adjust, but perhaps it’s not so bad after all.


Alexander in Edinburgh

Hokay. I haven’t actually been that good in updating my blog in the past few months, for reasons that I’ve explained in previous posts. I won’t even apologize. But now that I’m no longer actually in New York (and the title of the blog should be “aedicase”), perhaps a new post is in order.

The last few weeks of my stay in New York were as hectic as the first few were relaxed. In mid-August, I embarked on a totally crazy trip that took me to Dublin for ESSLLI, Edinburgh for apartment-hunting, Columbus, Ohio and Austin, Texas to work with people at the universities there, and back to New York. Within the space of eight days, I visited five cities in three countries (four if Texas counts as a separate country), which I think is a new record even for me. I made the jetlag work for me to help me catch flights at 7am in the morning, and among many other things ended up seeing a rodeo in Johnson City, Texas (pop. 1200), birthplace of Lyndon B. Johnson. The rodeo was like a big village festival, complete with hamburgers and lemonade and cotton candy and lots of cowboy hats, and consisted of a series of different competitions involving staying on a bucking horse or bull, lassoing and tying up cattle, and riding. There are also versions for children, such as sitting six-year-old kids on sheep to figure out who can hold on the longest. (The longest in this case was about three meters.) I had a great time, except for nagging doubts regarding the treatment of animals; but according to some research based on the Wikipedia site, the jury is still out on that issue, with both rodeo friends and rodeo critics citing really stupid arguments (of the form “Look at this cow’s cute eyes! Could these eyes lie?”).

Back in New York, I whizzed through a bunch of things that still needed doing and packed up my stuff. The highlight of my last two weeks was perhaps to watch Absinthe, a burlesque show in an original Spiegelzelt (mirror tent) from the 1920s which they put up at the South Street Seaport (remember? the same place where I performed on the singing Christmas tree last winter). This was perhaps one of the niftiest shows I’ve ever seen, with amazing acrobats and a pretty weird announcer. There was a rollerblade show which ended in the guy and the girl being connected only by leather straps around their necks, and the guy rotating the couple around their shared vertical axis while the girl, whose feet were lifted off the ground by that rotation, spinning really rapidly around her own body axis (see the picture). But my personal favorite was the stripper, who I now discovered is called Julie Atlas Muz. Both of her acts were just so classy and funny. She started the first by carrying a huge air balloon and doing an Atlas impersonation; but then she popped her head into the balloon, and ended up climbing into it with her whole body, without letting any air out (you can see the general principle here, although the Absinthe version was different and better). In the second act, she made her hand look like it was an alien fake hand, which fought and then undressed her. Her whole performance was so witty that it was almost irrelevant that she was almost naked (although I didn’t mind that at all). Fantastic! Compared to this, the otherwise very solid Blue Man Group show we ushered for and then got to see for free a couple of days later was nothing to write home about.

Anyway. With luggage that was too heavy I took off towards Edinburgh, where my flat is still as pretty as I remembered it. Here’s a picture of my living room:

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As you can barely see, the bottom of my kitchen is all mirrors, which can be lit from above. You can also guess at the mother of pearl lamp above my couch table, which the previous owner (before my current landlady), who also designed the look of the entire flat, made himself. It’s kind of weird and overly 70s-ish for my taste, but I suspect it will actually grow on me.

But the really cool part about the flat is the view. If you turn by 180 degrees of where I’m standing to take the picture above, you will see this:
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Now that’s a far cry from my view in New York. If you go close to the window and look to the left and right, you will see this:

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(the Pentland Hills)

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(yes, Edinburgh Castle, with a bunch of cranes from the University of Edinburgh School of Informatics construction site in the foreground)

So although the flat itself is pretty small, the fantastic view makes it feel much more spacious than it actually is. If you climb on the roof (which is admittedly harder than it was in NYC), you also have a view of Arthur’s Seat. And the building shares a garden with Sciennes Hill House, which was the location of a dinner party at which Robert Burns and Walter Scott met for the only time ever. If that isn’t cool, I don’t know what is.

The one huge drawback of my flat is the shower. For the past few days, all I have managed to get out of it was a trickle of cold water. As you know, I’m a huge fan of extended hot showers. In a pinch, I will tolerate a cold shower for a day or two, if it’ll at least get me clean. But the waterflow was so slow that not even that was possible. After some initial confusion, my landlady figured out today how to make the water flow properly. But they are still going to have an electric heater installed into the waterpipe, so there’s a chance that at some point next week I’ll be able to shower properly.

The other problem is that the windows are a bit drafty, and even now it’s getting a bit cold in the nights and mornings. I shudder (hah) to think what it’ll be like in the winter.

Now. It’s really strange to move into a furnished flat. I’ve never done this, and it’s been taking me a while to shake the feeling that I’m really just a guest in somebody else’s apartment. It’s really nice that I don’t have to bother with buying furniture and kitchen equipment and such, but furnishing an apartment is a really important step towards making it your own, and I’m almost sad that I don’t get to do it. Another step that would help me make the flat my own is if I finally had a real Internet connection at home. Right now, I’m making do with my shiny new T-Mobile Vario II phone with a generous Internet usage allowance, which is a fantastic new little toy and allows me to access the Net via Bluetooth and a 3G data connection, but the connection is limited (Skype doesn’t work well, some of what I assume are Julie Atlas Muz’ more open-hearted webpages are blocked as adult content) and keeps breaking down every couple of minutes; not fun. But because there’s no phone line in the flat, it will take British Telecom a week to install the phone line, and then another week to activate the DSL connection. Bah! At least they gave me a pretty office with Internet access at the University.

That’s it for now. This is the third evening in a row that I’ve been spending by myself. I really need to figure out what you can do with your time in Edinburgh, reactivate my old friends and acquaintances, and make new ones. It’s a nuisance to have to completely exchange my social circle every year or so, especially given that I have no real way of communicating with people abroad from home. If someone happens to know cool people here that I don’t know, please do send them my way, I’d have time to burn right now.

Columbia Commencement Ceremony

So, let’s pretend that it’s not true that I haven’t really posted here in three months. This involves not writing about such things as my winning the Novice Barbershop Quartet contest in late February, my actually earning money by singing, or about two trips to Germany, etc., but it will simplify things.

In the past few days, Columbia has been a sea of light blue. Light blue #75B2DD is the color of Columbia University (how cool is it that there’s even a Wikipedia page about it?), and the entire university has been working up to tomorrow’s commencement ceremony, which in a strange inversion of terminology celebrates the graduation of the current class of students. And so thousands of students have been running around campus in their blue gowns and hats (see a close-up here), and there are flags and banners everywhere. The university does its best to look pretty, and the weather helps (constant sunshine and temperatures in the high 20s).

I really like the atmosphere that surrounds this whole commencement thing. Yesterday I caught some speeches for the graduates of the Engineering school, and the speakers congratulated them on graduating from one of the finest universities in the world, in the greatest city in the world, and from an engineering program that goes back to 1753 and produced alumni that invented this and this and that. Very nice, and it must be impossible not to leave this ceremony as a student (or parent) with a thoroughly warmed heart, and feeling proud of one’s achievement and membership in such a cool group. I envy them, especially given that my Master’s graduation ceremony was totally lame, and I just went to pick up my PhD certificate from the administrator’s office.

I am particularly fascinated by the academic robes. While my first reaction on seeing the procession of graduating students in gowns was “Hogwarts!”, now that I’m more used to them, I can see them as an element that adds some extra dignity to the whole procedure. I read up on the academic dress code on Wikipedia, and it turns out that you can read a lot of information from a gown:

  • The silk lining in the hood is the color of the school that graduates you — except that some extra cool universities, including Columbia, just go all the way and color the entire gown. I also saw a guy walking around in a very intensely purple doctoral gown today; perhaps he’s from some other Ivy League school with that color (Harvard Crimson?).
  • The velvet lining in the hood is the color of your discipline.
  • As you progress through the academic degrees (bachelor / master / PhD), you add extra inches to the width of the velvet lining and extra feet to the length of the hood. Doctors are also entitled to wear three velvet stripes on each sleeve, and at Columbia get to wear a different kind of hat.

All this makes me wonder: If I ever end up having to wear academic regalia (say, I’m on the committee of some student in a country that still uses them), what would I do? After all, Germany abolished the use of academic gowns in 1968. Well, if I understand the Wikipedia article correctly, my alma mater must have had their own academic regalia before 1968, given that they were founded before that year (even if it was only 1945 or some such). So the historically most correct solution would be to find out what they looked like and then try to reconstruct that. Failing that, I could still try to adapt, say, a standard gown of whatever hypothetical place we’re talking about, and then add an orange velvet lining for computer science and a silk lining in whatever the color of my school is. This should be easier to figure out; I just hope it’s not that lame blue that the logo is in.

Anyway. Tomorrow morning I’ll have a quick look at the final commencement ceremony and then try to find a way to get to my office despite some 100.000 students and relatives celebrating in the quad. Let’s see how that goes; perhaps I’ll get around to taking some pictures.

Fourth of July

Oh no! I just realized that Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest takes place every year on the Fourth of July. But I can’t be there and at the International Barbershop Competition in Denver at the same time!

It just won’t be the same to go to the qualifying event in Shea Stadium on June 3 instead. For one thing, I’m going to miss “Tsunami” Kobayashi, who set the current world record of eating 53 3/4 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Damn!

Ice storm warning

Well ok, I said I was looking forward to a blizzard. Now we’ll see how I like it.


People have emailed that they will be working from home today. How exciting!

Social Democracy in Unexpected Places

Columbia University is one of the places in the world with the highest concentration of Nobel Laureates. It is second in Wikipedia’s list of Nobel laureates by affiliation, and just recently in 2006 Columbia faculty won two Nobel prizes (for Economics and Literature).

I would be crazy not to make use of this as much as I can. And so of course I went to a public discussion on “An emergent India: Prospects and Problems” between Prabhat Patnaik, apparently a renowned Indian econonist, and Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Prize 2001), whom even I had heard of. It was interesting! They were both entertaining and interesting speakers (unlike the moderator, who only mumbled and had to be constantly reminded to speak into the microphone). Of course everybody was duly impressed by India’s GDP growth rate (although Patnaik didn’t completely trust the figures) and had a lot of economic insights to share, but what I did not expect was this outburst of unmitigated social democratic opinions from both speakers. They criticised the growing disparity between the living standards of the reasonably well-educated urban population (about 250 million people) who benefit from the rapid growth of the IT industry and the unskilled rural population (about 800 million), where literacy among adult women hovers around 50%, 35% of the population live off $1 or less per day, and 47% of children below the age of five are malnourished. They applauded China for preventing an imbalance of the same magnitude by maintaining high prices for domestic agricultural products, which they do by manipulating currency exchange rates in order to avoid introducing import tariffs and pissing off the WTO (clever people, the Chinese). And they openly advocated raising taxes on the use of environmental resources and imported luxury goods in order to finance improved education at all levels. (And Stiglitz looked positively sly when he said that the WTO doesn’t want you to tax luxury imports, but “we’ve found ways around this in other cases too”. :)

Having lived in Western industralised countries all my life, my primary exposure to the economy of India so far has been whenever they closed down factories over here and moved the jobs to Asia. I’ve always felt that this is a strategy that might eventually backfire; there is a lot to be said for the excellent infrastructure and social stability that European countries offer. But I had no idea what “social stability” really means before they mentioned today that there has been a wave of suicides among Indian peasants, who live less than an hour away from the major IT centres, and peasant riots in rural China are frequent. And it’s an interesting perspective that if the movement of jobs from Europe and the US to India is because European and Indian workers compete with each other for lower labour costs, then one would expect that the wages in India would go up, but they don’t. Instead, they analysed the current trend towards lower wages and the “renegotiation of the social contract” as an effect of capital being able to move, while labour cannot (and hence the negotiation position of the capital anywhere improves). So: Labourers of all countries, unite! Who would have thought I’d have to go to New York to hear this?

Exploration below Columbia University

Having submitted my ACL paper, I’m staying home for a couple of days to get rid of my cold properly. This allows me to websurf as much as I want and consider it relaxing and productive for my healing process, rather than mere procrastination.
One rather nifty thing I just discovered is a series of articles in the Bwog, the official weblog of Columbia’s undergraduate student magazine. They have been exploring the underground tunnels below campus (Part 1, Part 2) and posted pictures. This is quite neat, because one of the buildings above the tunnels they report on is actually the one with my office in it, and I have been in (the most harmless areas of) some of the tunnels they mention. I had no idea they stored uranium there and there were the remains of old railway tracks to discover.


December 2018
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