Sunday, August 29, 2010

Post-YSSP Blues

  Now it's over, and we are but a sad remnant of our former selves.  Most of us have already left Vienna for one country or another, mostly homeward bound, some off to new adventures in foreign lands.  A few, myself included, linger on in the Simmering dormitory.  We've been getting together for fairly regular gatherings; breakfast yesterday morning, dinner last night, etc.  Each time, a few more of us have vanished.  It's really terribly sad.  It's amazing to me how much we have bonded in only three months.  I actually cried for a while this morning — tears actually running down my face.  I am doing a bit better now.  It has been a wonderful, amazing group.  I am so honored and happy to have been a part of it.  It makes me feel very sad to think that I will probably never see some of my friends from the YSSP again.  Even when some of us do manage to intersect, it won't be the same without the energy of the whole group and the intensity of this summer.  It was a single moment in time, never to be repeated, but forever to be remembered and cherished.  It's hard to let go.  Deep breaths.

  So what am I still doing here?  Well, I have a bit more work to do (obviously I'm procrastinating); I meet one final time with my supervisors tomorrow (Monday) to go over plans for writing up my research.  This is a good and worthwhile thing to do, although I wish I didn't have it hanging over my head.  I need to submit a polished writeup of the summer's research by the end of September, so it's important to keep the ball rolling.

  On Tuesday, weather permitting, I'll start a bike ride along the Danube.  I plan to take the train to a small town called Krems, and ride to another small town called Melk.  This area of the Danube, called the Wachau, is quite famous for its beauty.  It should be a wonderful time; hopefully this chilly, rainy weather we've been having will lift by then.

  Then I'll come back to Vienna for a single night, just to regroup, and then blast off to Zurich for a couple of days to meet with a professor there to talk about a possible collaboration.  I'll give my presentation of my YSSP project to them, and we'll talk about speciation, and it will be a fun little nerd-fest.  I should have a bit of time to explore Zurich, too, which will be fun; I've only ever been in the Geneva airport before, I think.

  After that, there are two possibilities.  If the weather allows, I will take a train to Innsbruck, back in Austria, and go hiking in the Alps for three days.  It's a hut-to-hut hike along one of the most famous paths in Austria.  I'm very excited about this; I've wanted to do this for many years, ever since doing a hut-to-hut hike in New Zealand (the Kepler track) that was one of the best experiences of my life.  So I'm keeping my fingers crossed.  If I get rained out, though, as seems increasingly likely, then I will probably go to Munich instead, and meet up with one of my new YSSP friends, Markus, and tour the city, and most likely the beer-gardens as well.

  Then back to Vienna for a night, and flying back to Montreal by way of Amsterdam the morning of the 13th.  So the end is near.  I may not be online much during these travels, that's hard to predict; so the blogging may all be retroactive, from Montreal.  In any case, until then, enjoy the rest of your summer!

YSSP Awards Dinner

  Thursday was the YSSP award ceremony and celebration.  This was held at Gallo Rosso, an Italian(ish) restaurant near IIASA.  We started outside, with champagne and such, and I got some photos of people looking all spiffily dressed up:

  The last one there is after we moved inside.  I decided the light was too low and stopped taking photos, so that's it for me.  Hayley has a few more over at her blog, but I'm not aware of anybody who has posted photos of the main ceremony; I think we may have all been too busy clapping and partying.  Anyone?

  The ceremony had various introductory speeches and so forth, and then the awards, which were certificates given out to all the YSSPers for completing the program.  It would have been fun to have awards like best dressed, worst dressed, most likely to be published in Science, etc. etc., but I guess we didn't think of it, and we were probably too busy beforehand to organize it anyhow.

  The middle part of the evening was devoted to some fun stuff put together by the YSSPers, though.  First were several photo montages by Regina of our experiences over the summer, set to music.  They were real tear-jerkers; biking around, having fun in the office, traveling to other cities, parties, etc.  It was a bit stunning to see how much we have done in the past three months.  Then came a few dance/musical numbers that, to be honest, I don't clearly recall; one was the "this is Africa" song from the World Cup this year, I do remember.

  My memory of this bit is blurry because I was getting mentally prepared for my role in the following piece, which also required a bit of physical preparation, to wit: putting on a dress.  We did the "So Long, Farewell" number from The Sound of Music.  I played Gretl, the youngest daughter, which was great fun since I got to kick off the chain reaction to boot off each of my older siblings in turn.  At the end, where Gretl curls up on the stairs and gets gathered up and carried off, I curled up on a chair and the chair got dragged offstage.  It went over quite well, although I think Austrians are a bit bemused by the popularity of the Sound of Music; I think we entertained the other YSSPers more than the staff with this number, perhaps.

  Finally, there was a guest appearance by Subcomandante Salk.  This is the alter ego of Carl Salk, a YSSPer (second photo from the top).  Subcomandante Salk is our socialist social planner, particularly involved in organizing our Art Meets Science events earlier in the summer, but also making other random guest appearances.  Think of a cross between Che Guevara and Burt Bacharach, and perhaps you won't be too far off.  Subcomandante Salk led the room in a rousing performance of his original work, "YSSP" (sung to the tune, of course, of "YMCA"):

Comrades, there's no need to feel lost.
I said, comrades, get yourselves to the Schloss.
I said, comrades, 'cause you're got a new boss
There's no need to be unhappy.

Comrades, there's a place you can go.
I said, comrades, with the bugs in your code.
You can stay there, and I'm sure you will find
Many ways to make it compile.

It's fun to stay at the y-s-s-p.
It's fun to stay at the y-s-s-p.
They have everything for comrades to enjoy,
You can try out new modeling toys...

It's fun to stay at the y-s-s-p.
It's fun to stay at the y-s-s-p.
You can learn GIS, you can run GAMS with zeal,
You can do whatever you feel...

Comrades, are you listening to me?
I said, comrades, what do you want to eat?
I said, comrades, how ‘bout meat wrapped in meat?
But you got to know this one thing!
The chef shot it all by himself.
I said, comrades, grab your dish off the shelf,
And just go there, to the Schlossrestaurant
I'm sure they can help you believe:

It's fun to stay at the y-s-s-p.
It's fun to stay at the y-s-s-p.
They have everything for comrades to enjoy,
You can try out new modeling toys...

It's fun to stay at the y-s-s-p.
It's fun to stay at the y-s-s-p.
You can learn GIS, you can run GAMS with zeal,
You can do whatever you feel...

Comrades, I was once in grad school.
I said, comrades, I was down and out with the blues!
I felt science would never meet art.
I felt the whole world would fall apart...
That's when someone came up to us,
And said, hop on the 566 bus.
There's a place there called the y.s.s.p.
They can start you back on your way.

It's fun to stay at the y-s-s-p.
It's fun to stay at the y-s-s-p.
They have everything for comrades to enjoy,
You can try out new modeling toys...

Y-s-s-p... you'll find it at the y-s-s-p.
Comrades, comrades, there's no need to feel lost.
Comrades, comrades, get yourself to the Schloss.

Y-s-s-p... you'll find it at the y-s-s-p.
Comrades, comrades, there's no need to feel lost.
Comrades, comrades, get yourself off the Schloss.

Y-s-s-p... just go to the y-s-s-p.
Comrades, comrades, are you listening to me?
Comrades, comrades, where do you wanna be?

  Just brilliant.  I've been singing it to myself ever since.  It took Subcomandante Salk a little while to find the connection, but this is, in fact, Art Meets Science.  It's too bad we never had a chance to perform it for the singing students in Baden, they would have loved it.

  Then we finished the award ceremony (the performances split the ceremony in two, actually), and then dinner, which was a fantastic spread of buffet food the likes of which I haven't seen in quite some time, and then dancing (yours truly could be found chatting at the tables in the cool air outside the restaurant, naturally).  A bus chartered by IIASA brought us all back to Vienna at midnight.  A wonderful end to the YSSP!

The past two weeks

  So, there has been quite a flurry of activity here that I haven't had time to report on.  I don't have photos from any of this, so I'll try to be relatively brief.

  First of all, on Wednesday the 18th we had a progress session for my group, the EEP (Evolution and Ecology Program), where I presented my research results for the summer for the first time.  It was a mad rush up to the last minute, analyzing data and making plots and preparing slides, but I got it done, and it went well.  Whew!  My results are still quite preliminary and need to be interpreted and understood better, but it looks like the work I've done this summer will make a solid first publication for my PhD career.  Yay!

  Later the same day was IIASA's annual triathlon.  I had considered bicycling in it, but I decided I was too stressed out with the presentation earlier and couldn't deal with it, which was the right choice.  I was one of the two official timekeepers for it, though, which was quite fun.  I was really impressed by the athleticism of my colleagues; I'm pretty sure I couldn't have completed the swimming part at all, and the running and biking parts looked pretty strenuous too.  Respect.  It was fun cheering people across the finish line, and fun going to a heuriger for the after-party!

  There was a YSSP feedback session the next morning that was long but worthwhile.  About fifteen people showed up, not a bad turnout considering we were all buried in work, and we talked for a good three hours and change.  It was worthwhile because I felt that we were really listened to and our views were respected.  The YSSP is a very important thing for IIASA, and they take it quite seriously.

  There was a birthday dinner party for Arame that evening, which was yummy Indian food.  I was given all the leftovers from the whole party (which was quite a lot!) and threw my own little back-patio Indian food party with them the following night.  Both were a great parties with fabulous food, and it was really fun watching Arame's interactions with her little sister, who was visiting her from Senegal.  Thanks Arame!

  The next day over lunch was the start of a shogi game between myself and a researcher at IIASA in the EEP group, Åke Brännström.  Shogi is a traditional Japanese board game related to chess.  Åke is, I think, the first person I've ever met who plays it, and he had a short book on it that I read at the beginning of the summer.  After that, we met up a couple of times over the course of the summer, over lunch, to play.  The first couple of games I got squashed quite thoroughly, but I used to play chess pretty seriously, so I adjusted reasonably quickly.  The game we started this day didn't get finished until about a week later, because other things got in the way, but I won it in the end.  My first shogi win!  The differences between shogi and chess are really fascinating.  It has a much more dangerous, unpredictable feel to it (mostly because pieces that get captured become the possession of the capturer, and can be dropped back onto the board at any location on any later turn in the game, but also because your king is less securely protected, and because your pawn structure is less defended because pawns can't protect each other).  Shogi also has a much more local feel to the interactions between the pieces; you have only one rook and one bishop, and no queen, basically (glossing over lances, which are relatively useless), so your ability to reach across the whole length of the board is severely limited.  Replacing those pieces are "generals" of two types that can only move to squares immediately adjacent to them — like the king in chess, but actually even less powerful, because they can only move to a subset of the adjacent squares).  This makes the game flow very differently.  It can easily happen that one player has an overwhelming advantage in material strength, but all of his pieces are on the wrong side of the board, and it would take a great many moves to get them over where they're needed, so the player with less material is actually able to mate.  Being used to chess, where being up even a single pawn can be a decisive material advantage, that took some getting used to for me!  I will miss these games with Åke.

  The next week — last week — was the final week of the YSSP.  On Monday we had a progress session meeting where all four of us in the EEP group gave an early version of our final presentations, for review by the group.  I had worked on my final presentation all weekend, so I thought I was good to go.  I was met with a volley of critiques and suggestions, all constructive and all excellent, that meant I needed to redo large portions of it.  Back to the drawing board for two last late nights of slide revisions.  I have been practically living in PowerPoint day and night for a couple of weeks now.  Those who think science is all about solitary work in a lab somewhere, think again!  Science is all about communication.  You can have the most amazing findings in the world, but if you can't communicate them to others, you are a failure as a scientist.  It's important to know what you're doing in the lab too, of course, but writing and public speaking are essential skills, and many scientists probably spend more time doing those things than doing actual research, especially at more senior levels, but even down at the PhD student level.

  Tuesday and Wednesday were final presentations by the YSSPers, given to each other and to various researchers and staff at IIASA.  Fifteen minutes each, with ten minutes for questions.  Mine was Wednesday afternoon.  It went quite well; I got lots of positive feedback on it.  Which is nice, given how hard I worked on it; the work-reward cycle is slower in science than it is in software engineering, so it's nice for me when the loop finally does connect and something that I've been working hard on for months gets me a bit of praise and recognition.

  And that brings us to Thursday, the Awards Dinner, which I'll do a separate post on.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Schloss Laxenburg Tour

  This is old news, but a couple of weeks ago we got a tour of the Laxenburg Schloss from Warren Sanderson, a research scholar at IIASA.  I've put of photos before of the areas that we normally got to work in; on this tour, we got to go into some areas that we are not normally privy to.  By the way, you can also check out the home page for the schloss online, although it is in German.

  We started out at a public spot, though: the "orangerie."  This is the greenhouse where they used to grow oranges, so as to have them year-round.  It's now a plant nursery and gardening shop:

  Rather huge, eh?  We didn't go inside; I'm not sure why not, in hindsight, I would have liked to see the interior.  Next stop was what used to be the stables, with room to put up all the horses of all the visiting nobility:

  Again, didn't go inside.  Opposite the stables is a big part of the schloss that now is used as a conference/wedding center, the highlight of which is a wonderful ballroom:

  That ballroom is much bigger than my camera was able to capture, so you'll have to be content with those rather inadequate shots.  Then we went into the theater, which is an odd hybrid of old, restored designs and new, modern ones:

  The romance of the surroundings was infectious; here's a silhouette of Hayley, a dancer in our group, doing a curtsey in an empty ballroom:

  Back outside to the front entrance, which you've seen before, but here it is again, since it really is simply astounding that I've gotten to work in this building all summer:

  Here, as a mid-tour intermission, are some photos (of photos in the hallway at IIASA) of what the schloss looked like after the war (I say generically "the war" because I'm not sure if these are after WWI or WWII, sorry), before it was restored.  It was really a complete wreck:

  It had been used as a stables and campground for soldiers, apparently, and I don't know, but it looks like it had been burned and perhaps bombed as well.  Anyhow, the restoration is rather more impressive once you see those photos!  Here's the interior courtyard of the schloss, looking across to the small tower called the Belvedere, which we'll get to in a bit:

  Here's a room in the director's office area:

  Sorry my camera doesn't have a wider wide angle, it's not very good for these interior shots!  If you look back to those black and white photos, you'll see one that shows a sort of gazebo at the end of a wall.  This has also been restored.  It's the breakfast nook where the empress used to dine, and it's outside the director's office.  It's a pretty spot, with views across an orchard and past flower beds to other parts of the schloss:

  Through another room with nice gilded details in the plasterwork:

  And now up into the Belvedere, the small tower on one side of the schloss.  This is offices now, and the desks and whiteboards rather spoil the effect, but it used to be the children's nursery:

  It's all painted to produce the illusion of being outdoors in a garden; scant consolation on the cold rainy days, I imagine, but they tried.  :->  Upstairs, in the top floor of the Belvedere, the paintings are a bit more convincing and ornate:

  I rather like that last photo; of course nothing in it is real except Regina and the office chair!

  That concludes your schloss tour.  It has been ages since I've posted; that's because I was madly busy finishing my research project before the end of the YSSP.  That's another story, for another post, however.  The YSSP is now done (sob!), but this blog will limp along until I've actually left Austria, which isn't until September 13th.  At the moment I'm still in Vienna, but that won't be true much longer.  Stay tuned for more adventures of... Nerd-Boy in Austria!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Asia Day

  Last Thursday (the 12th) was Asia Day at IIASA.  You may have noticed a theme among these parties; once again, the festivities centered around amazing food.  I didn't manage to photograph even half of what was cooked by the students and staff for this; it was a real blowout.  JThere was a lot of grilling:

  There's yakitori, satay, and onigiri on the grill there.  Yum.  Here's some non-grilled food:

  At this point I got drafted to set up tables and benches, and then I was too hungry to photograph, and so forth, so you don't get to see Hamed's staggeringly huge pot of Iranian soup, or the two whole tables full of Indian and Pakistani food, or many other delicacies.  I ate more than I have eaten at any meal since I came to Austria.  I ate more than I ate last Thanksgiving.  I ate so much I had trouble moving.  Ah, if only every day were Asia Day.

  People got quite dressed up for it.  Well, Arame is always dressed up.  Again, I kind of dropped the ball on the photography (did I do anything but eat??), but here are a few nice photos:

  Then the performances started.  First was a one-act play, a sort of melodrama involving an evil queen (third photo) and a hapless, manipulated king (second photo) and a banished prince and a lovestruck princess (both first photo) and palace guards (fourth photo) and various other characters:

  At some point, tensions got too high, and there was a fight between the men, during which Ariel had a wardrobe malfunction (just like Janet Jackson!):

  And the evil queen and the good princess had a bit of a catfight:

  Like all good melodramas, half the characters ended up dead at the end (although the performers seemed to have trouble striking the proper attitude of mourning):

  And that was it.  Roll credits!

  Then there was a series of shorter performances, bellydance and a Bollywood dance number and a set of Indian musical pieces that were really lovely, then a group tai chi lesson, and finally some beautiful guitar playing:

  Sarthak, the guitar player in the last photo, actually broke his leg just a few minutes after that photo was taken.  Really.  That's how good of a party it was.