Sunday, February 13, 2011

Caught up

  It has taken the better part of a day, but I'm now just about caught up in my blogging.  The mystery 70's porn star in the previous post was, of course, none other than our very own Markus Tum, down for the weekend to come to the party.  We also went to a fun local music gig the night before.  Markus, it was great to have you down here!

  The morning after the Faschingsparty, bright and early (rather too early, in fact), I took a train to Zurich, where I've been for the last two weeks, working on a project at the Institute of Systematic Botany.  "Systematic" has to do with systematics, which is more or less the science of understanding the branching pattern of evolutionary history: deciding what's a species and what's not, assigning names to species, figuring out when they diverged, and so forth.  I'm not a systematist, but I play one on TV I work with them sometimes because I'm also interested in the process of evolutionary branching and speciation.  I'm working on a model with several folks there to investigate a particular idea about how speciation might work in some flowering plants.  Tell you more, and I'd have to kill you, as the saying goes, except that I'd probably bore you to death first.

  I didn't bring my camera to Zurich, so I have no photos for you.  I stayed in the botanical gardens, which are right next to the Institute, so I had about a three-minute walk to work each morning through the gardens.  Best commute I've ever had.  Here's a photo of the gardens from the web:

  Of course it didn't look quite like that, in winter.  The Martian domes are greenhouses, in which they have really wonderful exhibits of tropical rainforest and so forth.  Their desert/succulent area made me miss California and New Mexico quite viscerally; I was a bit startled by the strength of the emotions it brought up!  They look black because they have, unexpectedly, darkened due to photochemical reactions; replacing them with new plexiglass that is properly transparent again is a current goal of the Institute.

  My little apartment was behind the domes, to the left, and the Institute is essentially just to the right of the photographer, up a short hill.

  Mostly I worked a whole lot while I was there.  I only went out to see Zurich a few times, mostly in the evenings after work.  Anyhow, it's not a bad city (very clean!), but it's insanely expensive, so I mostly just stayed in my apartment and ate ramen that I had brought in my suitcase from Vienna.  Really.  I'm a graduate student, ya know?  This is my life: travel to foreign cities and eat ramen.

  However I did have one really fun day out and about.  I went, with two friends from the Institute, to Pizol, a mountain ski resort.  There we rented snowshoes, took three cable cars up the side of the mountain to the highest foothold of civilization, and snowshoed up from there to a pass overlooking the mountain's peak.  It was really wonderful.  I've never snowshoed before, but I will definitely do it again. The traction you have is just incredible; the snowshoes have blades on their underside that cut down into the snow and ice and make it almost impossible to slip unless you're walking on a very steep slope in deep powder.  We walked for several hours, got back to civilization, and had hot soup and various yummy hot drinks at wooden tables outside while gazing on the mountains we had just been trekking on.  Eventually we took the cable cars back down and came back to Zurich.  Photos from my friend's cell phone may be forthcoming eventually, but he has been slow emailing them.

  Back in Zurich, we went to a thermal spa that was quite nice.  Expensive, like everything in Zurich, and it turned out that the entrance fee we paid didn't even get us into many areas, including the hot pool; but we had fun in a steam room, a warm pool, an open-air pool on the top of the building with a view across downtown Zurich, and so forth.  It was a great way to relax after exercising hard all day.  Unfortunately, I slipped on some stone steps and got quite a large bruise on my tuchus; but really I got lucky, a slip on steps like that could have turned out a whole lot worse.  More than a week later, the bruise is still hard, purple, and as big as a softball; but having had an even bigger hematoma once (rollerblading accident) I'm not worried, and it doesn't hurt much any more.

  I also had another exciting medical adventure while in Zurich: a blood vessel in the white part of my eye (the sclera, maybe?) burst, and now one half of one of my eyes is bright red, like the Terminator.  Totally cool.  I freaked out and went to a clinic to get looked at, but apparently these things happen, and I just have to wait and it will get better on its own.

  The work in Zurich ended inconclusively.  I completed the initial phase of development of the model I was to write, which was good; but it appears that my model demonstrates that the effect we were hoping to see is, in fact, impossible, which is bad.  Back to the drawing board.  But for those who claim that modeling is pointless because you just get out whatever assumptions you put in, I ask: why, then, am I having to come up with a new idea for one of my thesis chapters?

  I took the train back from Zurich yesterday.  Three loads of laundry and countless blog entries later, I am now ready to go back in to IIASA tomorrow morning to resume my work there, which is presently a bit bogged down in data analysis, but seems to be coming along.  Vienna is colder than Zurich (which was remarkably warm; didn't need a coat some days), and it has been snowing lightly.  In three weeks, I'll finish my work at IIASA (for the time being, anyway), and will fly up to Sweden for a couple of days in Stockholm, a week-long workshop in Abisko (north of the Arctic Circle!  check it out on Google Maps!), a few more days in Stockholm (to get low airfares, basically, although I can't say I mind), and then, finally, home to Montreal.  So the final days of this European adventure are counting down.  I doubt I'll blog much more for a while; it's mostly going to be work, work, work until I get to Stockholm, at least.

  So yes, I may have filled up your reader with innumerable posts today; but you will miss me soon.  Maybe not today.  Maybe not tomorrow.  But soon, and for the rest of your life.  But it doesn't take much to see that the blog of one little person doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.  Someday you'll understand that.

  Until then, auf wiedersehen!


  Lest you think that my life post-Keewi-visit is utterly bereft of fun, here's my costume for a Faschingsparty I went to with a couple of friends:

  I like to think of this look as "Wolverine gone a bit to seed," with an incipient beer belly and (slightly) less impressive musculature than in his youth.  A few more photos, particularly for the amusement of the YSSPers:

  Anybody recognize the guy in the Hawaiian shirt?  (I know lots of you recognize Snow White :->)

Vienna Post-Keewi

  Keewi and I had one more day together in Vienna, which apparently was not photograph-worthy (we may have spent it watching Nip/Tuck episodes, actually; the friend I'm subletting from has five seasons of Nip/Tuck on DVD, and it has proved an adequate way to pass the time when it's too cold or foul to want to go outside).  Then she flew out very early the next morning.

  And now I am in a post-Keewi world.  Here's what it looks like:

  That's right: stark, bleak, cold and heartless, empty and cruel and barren.  Seriously, where was everybody that morning??  The later photos are in Augarten, a park near where I live that's populated by old WWII-era flak towers for shooting down Allied bombers.  It's a thought-provoking place.  I wrote a little haiku, after an earlier meditative walk in Augarten:

        Eloquent concrete
        Looming monuments to hate
        Augarten in fog

  I think it's my favorite place in Vienna; I like very much that they haven't torn down the flak towers, although I hear that that isn't due to a lack of desire to do so; they just can't figure out a safe way to demolish them, because they're so huge.  So I'm told.


  After that amazing museum, we took the subway clear across town to Vysehrad, the old fortress on the south side of Prague.  It probably dates back to the 10th century, but apparently nobody is sure.  We walked around in the fortress looking at things, and eventually ended up at the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, which I had seen from the outside in the summer but had not been able to enter (I got there rather late in the day):

  That's one of its doors (go back to my summer photos for a picture of the whole thing).  This might give a hint of the whimsical, modernist style of the interior, but only a hint.  It was really amazing; I've never seen a cathedral like it.  Sadly it was too dark inside for photography, but the whole interior was done in an Art Deco style (in the 1930s, perhaps?) by famous Czech artists of the era.  I wish I could show it to you.

  Beside the Basilica is the Vysehrad cemetery, a rather nifty cemetery:

  I stumbled upon the grave of Karel Capek completely by chance:

  Yep, that's a little toy robot next to the tombstone.  (Capek coined the word "robot", back in the early 20th century.)  Upon seeing that, we did a little research and also found the tomb of Dvorak:

  That was particularly special because we were going to a concert that evening with music by Dvorak, in Prague's Dvorak Hall, in the Rudolfinum.  We also heard a piece by Sibelius.  Here's what I wrote at the time, on Facebook: "I don't know much of classical music this modern, so all the music was new to me, but I liked both, particularly the Sibelius piece (Concerto for violin and orchestra in D minor, Op. 47). It featured a solo violinist, Nikolaj Znaider, who was really quite spectacular. The Dvorak (Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70) was quite nice too, very dramatic with lots of action in the cello section."

  But before going to the concert, we needed dinner, so we went to Pivovarsky Dum, a place somewhat near the Vysehrad (well, towards the south, anyhow) with great beer (didn't see that coming, did you)?  They had a tasting selection of perhaps eight different beers, some traditional, some with very unusual flavors like nettle (this one was green), sour cherry, and coffee (both of those last two were quite tasty).  They also had a "classic old Bohemian mead" that was just wonderful; we bought a bottle of that from the bartender for a ridiculously low price, and it is now back in Montreal.  The service was ludicrously slow; it seemed like there was one waitress for two large rooms, and we waited nearly an hour to even order our drinks.  We made it to Dvorak Hall just in time, after rushing along on ice-covered streets (it had been putting down layers of frozen rain while we were having dinner).  I slipped on the ice and bruised up my knee pretty good, but the music was so enjoyable I hardly even noticed.

  And that was our last day in Prague; the next morning we just muddled around a bit near our hotel, and then got to the train statin and came back to Vienna.

Veletrzni Palace

  The next day, and our last in Prague, we went to Veletrzni Palace.  Which I guess is a palace, by some technical definition, but it doesn't look like a palace, and it is in fact a modern art museum.  That's right — you get another museum tour!  Back-to-back museum tours!  Lucky you.

  Being a modern art museum, it has a certain amount of this sort of thing:

  However, it's really quite huge:

so it has a lot of good stuff too.  (Well, that may not follow logically; but in any case, it does.)  A few that I liked:

  Then I discovered a new entry in my List of Favorite Artists, Frantisek Kupka.  This guy is amazing:

  He also did paintings that weren't abstract, and a fair bit of political cartoonery, and so forth, but I'm showing just his abstract stuff since that's what blew me away.  The first couple in the next batch may also be Kupka, I'm not certain; but then we move on into lots of other stuff, some of which you'll doubtless recognize:

  What a museum!  By the way, if anybody is looking for a most excellent present idea for me, a coffee-table book of art by Frantisek Kupka would be quite pleasing, if a good one exists.