Sunday, October 28, 2007

observations on an american pasttime...

When I first moved to the US, I didn't understand the attraction of baseball. It seemed like a boring, tedious 'sport' in which a group of men stood around quoting statistics and spitting a lot. Sure, I'd been to couple of baseball games in Canada with friends who explained the rules. I smiled and nodded a lot and enjoyed spending a bit of time with friends, but had no concept of why the game might be in the least bit exciting. Or why it classified as an athletic activity.

Since I moved to the US, I have been to many ballgames, mostly taking BART to the Oakland A's with a group of friends. I came to really look forward to these games - they were cheap excuses to have a beer, learn something new and see people really take pride in the town. The Oakland fans are fantastic - they represent the enormous cross-section of the East Bay, covering every colour, socioeconomic class and age. Everyone is out to have a good time, and realizes that the more you cheer, the more fun you have. It made me feel part of the community. The A's didn't do particularly well when I was there - though they did beat the Red Sox once, which was fabulous for all us A's fans who were outnumbered by the Sox fans in the stadium. Much gloating ensued - we had to take advantage of the moment.

However, while I was peripherally aware of such things as the World Series and League Championships, I have never bothered to follow them. I have to admit, I can never remember whether it's the National or American League where the pitcher has to go to bat. (I just know that I think everyone should have to - that's the whole thing about the game.) Going to the games is one thing, but watching on tv or reading the abysmally-written sports section of the paper is a whole different experience. Until this year.

I should explain: I just moved to Colorado - technically a few months ago, but really a week and a half ago. And yet, in this week and a half, I have become viciously proud of the Rockies (our baseball team, not the mountains. not that the mountains aren't beautiful and something to be proud of, they're just not Colorado-specific. Contrary to what many Coloradoans - or is that Coloradoites? - say.). The Rockies were the unknown team - I've only seen one game - they did well, and it seemed a surprise to the fans. The Rockies are in an odd position, literally: with the high Denver elevation, the physics of the game changes. Balls go further and faster, so the field is bigger. Apparently the baseballs have to actually be kept in a humidor and brought out immediately before they're played so that they work in the same way as in lower elevation places.

So the completely unknown underdog Rockies made it as the 'wild card' in their playoffs - that's the we-don't-have -enough-finalist-teams -so-we'll-randomly-throw- in-another -team-and-watch -them-lose team. So the Rockies swept. Kicked ass. Shocked everyone - including their fans and themselves. You can't help but cheer for them - expected to do poorly, but pulled it out with some beautiful plays. And yes, here's where you realize that this game is actually a sport - some fast running, serious hand-eye coordination and the ability to swing a piece of wood at a ball that's approaching their face at 90 mph. There's a reason they wear helmets.

Okay. So they've lost their first three games (winner is best of seven games) to the Boston Red Sox. But the Red Sox are a big team in the baseball world - lots of money, a massive city and posh New England region behind them, and non-baseball fans have heard of them. (hard not to considering how obsessive their fans are, constantly where their caps everywhere). But I'm still cheering for the Rockies. I don't care if they're losing. They represent the underdog who pulled through. Not to mention the rural mentality versus the urban elite, who occasionally need to be taken down a notch or two. And, while the players aren't necessarily from CO, so I don't quite understand why they become the local team (but that's my general complaint about professional sports in general, and a different topic), they have instilled a pride in Colorado (with the notable exception of those people who lived in Boston, and have become part of that avid - dare I say, annoying - fanbase).

And, perhaps most importantly, cheering for the Rockies has become a good excuse to have a beer and nachos with friends...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Boulder pickup lines and the Nobel Peace Prize

Cycling is not a past-time in Boulder - it's an obsession. A way of life, as you will. This was exemplified by a dinner party I went to: of ~25 people, I was the only person who didn't ride a bike (I walked). The conversation was centered around bike rides, bike trails, bike gossip, and, of course, the show-offy-remember-when-I-crashed-on-that-hill tales. Mountain bikes and road bikes. Both are acceptable. There were occasional deviations from bike talk - they generally went to the world of snowboarding or backcountry skiing.

The pivotal moment of bemusement for me was, upon being introduced to someone new and explaining that I had just moved to Boulder, getting immediately asked the question 'so are you here to race bikes or just to ride them?'. The concept of moving to Boulder independent of bike riding was a foreign one - so foreign that it wasn't even an option. I answered with the only response I could come up with: I moved here for a job - but i ride my bike to work every day. Apparently an unexpected and rarely-received response. The resulting conversation was surprising, yet exemplifies this town:
As soon as I explained what I do, my new aquaintance (a phd biochemist turned bicycle courier) leapt into a highly interesting and intellectual discussion of Lovelock, climate change and the Gaia hypothesis.

And on that note, and as part of my immense pleasure over this year's Nobel Peace Prize, I must digress from Boulder to America in general... I heard about the Prize in the middle of last week's conference in the Netherlands. There was considerable excitement and pleasure, and much discussion as to whether or not there would be an impact on US politics (general skepticism on the part of those of us living in the US).

However, I noticed on CNN world (the only english tv channel I got there - tv! a concept. hadn't seen one of those in months...) some interesting discussion. A Republican spokeswoman was on, talking about how this was the Nobel committee being political and trying to get attention, and how they had contrived the award to Al Gore merely to get publicity. Because that makes sense. Of course the Swedish, non-profit, committee is using their announcements purely for political gain. (Note the dripping sarcasm). This woman made no sense, but true to CNN's "unbiased reporting, so we'll give everyone equal time, no matter how little sense they make" policy, she received global attention. Of course, the response on the CNN website was immediate and fascinating. Fortunately, they announced posted comments, and a distinct trend emerged: American audience members (embarassingly from California and Colorado - ouch) wrote in to agree with this Republican spokesperson, while numerous people from around the world (Ethiopa to the Netherlands) wrote in to condemn this politicezed opinion, and to support the IPCC and Al Gore. I think it was probably more a commentary on who was watching CNN, rather than the global distribution of opinions on global change, but interesting nonetheless.

Of course, Stephen Colbert feels that his own Nobel Prize was unfairly robbed, but did point out that there was a Republican (senator? congressperson?) out there who, in a single interview, pointed out that a.) terrorists have received the Peace Prize in the past, so there is no honour in receiving it, and yet b.) if he had received the Prize, he would have given it to the US military who deserve the Peace Prize. !?! Ah, the logic of politicians never ceases to amaze me...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

a weekend in amsterdam...

On Saturday morning a colleague from the meeting and I went out to see Amsterdam. We started at the Anne Frank House. There is something so moving about her story. Perhaps it's that I read her diary when I was the same age as her. Or perhaps it's because she is the face of the Holocaust, and everything that is horrific about that time is embodied in her story. In the end, for me at least, the shocking thing is that she was so normal. She lived in the top of an otherwise normal house on an otherwise normal street in Amsterdam. She glued pictures of movie stars to the wall of her room (didn't we all). She had friends and crushes, fights with her mother and got stir-crazy and bored. And you can see that in the hidden apartment in the house - remnants of her personality are left on her walls and over the wash-basin, and on the so-heavily-trodden-there-are-almost-holes-in-them stairs to the attic.

Seeing her actual, real diary made her story so real to me. She scratched around the sides of it, glued photos in, and it's there in front of your eyes - not just a grade 9 reading assignment, but an actual diary of a girl who lived the experiences we read.

However, the most moving part to me was watching the statement by her best friend who met her in the concentration camps. She talks about finding Anna, and having trouble getting a care package to her across the fence and then of never hearing from her again. She said that Anna said she was alone because everyone else - her mother and sister - had died.

From the Anne Frank Huis, we walked to the Museumplein for the art galleries. I can't being to explain how impressive it is to see literally hundreds of van Gough's in one art gallery put together. The curators have arranged his works in sequential order, so that you can see how he developed his style. At first, his sense of perspective was poor - half-turned chairs show too much of the side and the back, and windows are awkwardly placed on angled buildings. However, as you walk through the gallery, you can see his technical abilities progress. Several years in, he became influenced by the Japanese style, which led to some of his most famous paintings of flowering peach trees. The museum is a very different experience from the Anne Frank Huis, and it is an emotionally-charged one. Every painting has a sense of movement and feeling, that by the time you hit van Gough's last few pieces, you feel like you have seen the progression of his life and sense of frustration. But a very beautiful sense of frustration, it is...

As I'm running short on superlatives, suffice it to say that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is closed for renovation - but no worries: they have a "little exhibition" of just their best stuff. Rooms of Vermeer, Rembrandt, historical artificats from the Dutch East Indies and Dutch West Indies Companies. I think I was most impressed by how pivotal a role the Dutch have played in history. As strong a force in developing global economic ties as the other European powers, and holding their own in internal European history. Perhaps it's my British-biased education, but, considering the size of their country, the Dutch fought numerous naval battles, and actually managed to capture British ships. As an economic powerhouse, Amsterdam was home to 'tulipmania', the original version of the dot-com bust. You'd think it would only take one time for people to learn that speculating on future profits of items of no value (monetary, of course tulips hold great botanical value).

My second day was spent in a few other museums and walking around the Red Light District (very different during the day from how it is at night - actually, quite beautiful, if a little eery with ancient churches across the street from prostitutes in the windows). And, of course, the requisite renting of a bicycle and riding down a canal and out of town, along with at least half the city's population. A few interesting notes on bicycling in Amsterdam: no one wears helmets, perhaps because there are actually bicycle lanes that work. On the other hand, where cars aren't as likely a crash-hazard, but pedestrians are. So every bicycle is equipped with a little dinging bell. How fun! A click of the fingers, and everyone from elderly men to confused tourists are leaping out of one's way. However, I think the highlight of the Sunday afternoon ride was watching the rowers training on the canals - with their coaches riding on bicycles next to the canal while yelling instructions into megaphones at them.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hills in Holland, and other such amazing discoveries

The Netherlands really is filled with canals and windmills. I think stereotypes exist for almost everywhere in the world, but the Netherlands is definitely subject to quite a few cute ones: canals, cheese, windmills, bicycles, clogs and tulips. And they're really all true.

I had the good fortune to attend a workshop in Wageningen - a small town near Utrecht. The first thing that struck me on the train from Schipol Airport to Ede-Wageningen was how densely populated the Netherlands was - high appartment complexes and seemingly far too many people for the space alotted to the country (and hence, or so I thought, the constant need to dike and claim more land from the sea). But it didn't take long to leave the populous surroundings of Amsterdam and find myself in a pristine, empty and very rustic part of the country.

Wageningen surprised me initially because it had a hill. Yes, the Netherlands does have a hill. Actually, they apparently have two - I got corrected by a bemused graduate student at the meeting. Our hotel was on top of the hill, and hence had a gorgeous view over a canal - farmland all around. Wageningen is notable not only for its topography, but also for its history. I was delighted to discover that it was where the Germans unconditionally surrendered to the Canadian (!) general Foulkes in 1945. Other than that, a sleepy, but charming town. With an excellent Greek restaurant and some of the most gorgeous houses around.

In fact, the stylishness of the Dutch greatly impressed me. Every house in Wageningen was extremely well kept - immaculate lawns, painted houses, and through the open curtains you could see magazine-photo-shoot-worthy interiors. Modern art and matching furniture in every living room - classy and matching chandeliers. Rooms either kept to a traditional style, or to the simply-lined ultra-modern Euro style.

However, this should all be taken in contrast to the Dutch love of kitsch. There are plastic bags and bicycle panieres made of bright floral patterns, people wearing the 1970's style checked shirts, and plastic figurines and over-the-top posters in the windows of far too many shops. It is an amusing fixation because it seems to be taken in such a light-hearted way by the Dutch. Fitting in with their tolerant and light-hearted approach to everything. Soft drugs? sure, no problem - as long as you don't bother other people or take them out of the country. Gay marriage? goes without saying. Prostitution? if it's going to happen anyways, might as well control it... Global warming? wish it wasn't happening, but guess we'll try to cut our carbon footprint and at least consider putting sand under every house to raise them up a bit... What a great country. Too bad there aren't more like it...

How I spent my summer vacation: BEARPEX 2007

I spent August and September and the beginning of October at summer camp. Unfortunately, there was no archery or canoeing (though I did make it swimming to the lake twice. and to the waterfalls once. after the temperature nosedived from 30C to 15C, so no swimming. but at least i got there). There were, however, woodstoves (useful in the houses). Hard manual labour. Hard intellectual labour. No (well, poor, so more or less the same thing) internet connections or cell phone service, so no letters home. And we even had prisoners walking around the place (no really. the department of corrections lets them work at the Research Station. slightly disconcerting to wake up at 7am to ten prisoners outside your cabin in orange jumpsuits wielding chainsaws. but don't worry. there's an unarmed guard with them.)

Suffice it say that I spent nine weeks at Blodgett Forest and barely had time to breathe - let alone cook, check email or write a blog. It's taken me about a week of cultural readjustment to blend back in with normal people, and I don't think I'll ever be quite the same. But I do have internet access again, and far too many stories to tell.

And I am left with one post to summarize the highlights of an unbelievably intense time period. The science was interesting, the equipment was temperamental, the logistics were a nightmare, the sleep was minimal and the people were fabulous. For example, Glenn became the self-appointed Social Coordinator and sent out emails with subject headings like "I need a date and after 4 weeks in the woods, you're starting to look cute". Jessica provided tablecloths and christmas lights for our impromptu barbeques. Not that there wasn't friction - put 20 scientists in the woods with not enough power and no connection with the outside world, and you get an interesting sociological experiment...

Movie night was one of the more entertaining aspects: the first evening, we dropped sheets off the balcony of the main house, sat in the parking lot (several boys sat in lawn chairs in the back of the pickup truck), and watched The Beatle's Yellow Submarine. What a trippy movie! Very entertaining. Due to the decrease in temperatures, subsequent movie nights were moved inside: they included drinking with the dude: The Big Lebowski, that is. Dave was hung over for days after that one. And Jessica and Ellie made liquid nitrogen ice cream (yes, science really is fun). My favourites: Casino Royale and Blades of Glory. Both brilliant, in their own way. Daniel Craig, a rather dark and tortured James Bond, but with the expected quirky sense of humour. Will Ferrel - a completely ridiculous, over the top figure skater that one can't help but love. Or at least laugh at. Sort of ashamed that one is laughing, but you just can't help it, nonetheless.

We renamed all the cabins after Hogwarts houses: the girls ended up with Slytherin. Because we're cunning and ambitious and evil like that.

And all in all, despite the nightmare of the first few weeks (I did not appoint myself the 'competent person', but somehow got defaulted to Site Manager. Never again. In fact, I am blocking out that time period out of my head.), the struggles learning how a very complicated instrument works in the field, and the exhaustion of far too many 12 and 15 hour days, I left with the strange feeling that summer camp was over. When you're stuck out in an isolated spot (with no phone and poor internet acccess - stupid trees getting in the way of the satellites), you have to adapt. As a group, we (or at least a vocal sub-set of us) became a little more relaxed. We lost those filters that stop one from saying rather uncouth or blunt statements - as one postdoc put it, what everyone else is thinking, but has the self-restraint to not actually say. We made jokes about everything, and innuendos about absolutely anything we could think of. On my last night, a small group of us went bowling at the local (read, 45min drive) town. It wasn't about how well (or, more accurately, how unbelievably poorly) we did. It was about being mocked for my poor granny-style of bowling, for everyone cheering when I got a strike, and for finding something to laugh about. And that warm, fuzzy feeling I got when people actually got out of their cabins the next morning and came over in the snow (yes, the snow. in October.) to say goodbye. Thanks, guys. I'll miss you. Though I won't miss spending every night working on computer code. Or the Friday nights spent calibrating the instrument.

But the exhaustion is beginning to subside and it's time to look at the terabytes of data and try to find my way around 'home' - where I've been gone so long I don't even remember my zip code, and the temperature has dropped in the crisp fall air reminding me that summer is over and it's time to go back to school...