Greetings from Anchorage

Sorry for the blog being down (not that anyone except for Adam noticed) — I forgot to renew my domain name. All that seems to be fixed now.

I’m in Anchorage, AK right now. The sun rises here at around 4:30 and sets at around 11:30 these days, so it’s still pretty bright out. Fortunately, the hotel has heavy drapes to block out the near-midnight sun. I may later spruce up this post with some photos.

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ITW Boondoggle?

I have a paper (poster) at the Information Theory Workshop in Lake Tahoe for the first week of September. I figured Lake Tahoe has a lot of accomodation, and in early September it should be pretty easy to find a cheap-ish place to stay. Little did I realize that all registered participants are being coerced into staying at the conference center itself. The two cheap “options” (i.e. non-deluxe) that are available are the following:

Double room, per person + all meals – $700.80 for 4 days
Staying away from the center + all meals – $336.00 for 4 days

The “registration fee” is misleading. If you are a student from say, Berkeley, Stanford, Davis, or some other school within driving distance, and you think “oh, it might be nice to go to the workshop and the IEEE Student rate is only $100,” think again! In addition to your cheap hotel off-site, you will have to pay an extra $336 for food that is likely to be so-so and may violate your eating restrictions!

Is this the Standard Operating Procedure when it comes to workshops? Is my shock unwarranted?

my trip to jolly olde England

I spent part of the week before last in Cambridge, UK, which is a very different town than Cambridge, Mass., although it has some of the same problems with (for lack of a better term) local deformation effects in the street mappings. Another point of similarity is the density of bookstores, although I have to say that I prefer the ones here a bit, because some of them specialize. I was particularly tempted by a music store which had Eisler’s score to Mahagony and some nice Purcell collections and…

But I digress. Some unfortunate things I missed — punting on the Cam, any and all May Balls or Garden Parties (although if they think I’d shell out 500 quid to go to some poncy event at a college in which some of the boys have the gall to show up in a black suit with a bow tie rather than a proper tuxedo they’d have another thing coming), and a day trip to Oxford that had to be cancelled at the last minute (sorry, Jeff!).

I did manage to meet up with my ex wife for a pint and a somewhat languid production of Alan Ayckbourne’s Bedroom Farce, which was spot-on in some moments (with some pretty effective physical comedy) and churned in place for others (long pauses for laughs that did not come). I should read the play to see how much Ayckbourne writes in himself and how much he leaves to the director. Some of the characters are quite brilliant. Perhaps it’s because I now know some married people that I can see the types a bit better — the last time I saw a play of his was in high school I think. In particular, Trevor is a real piece of work. “I’m a destroyer,” he says, trying to puzzle out why his relationships go sour.

I’ve been staying here with my friend Tony, who I hung out with last year in Seattle before ISIT 2006. Perhaps next year he will be close to Toronto for ISIT 2008, but I somewhat doubt it. We get to have fun arguments about Bayesian statistics and other light topics. On Friday we managed to make it into London, where we got 5-quid tickets to see The Merchant of Venice. It was a period production, and I think part of the appeal of going to the Globe is to get a historicized experience of “what it was like back then.” The ushers are pretty ridiculous — there was plenty of room to sit in the “groundlings area” but they would not let you sit down at all. Because if was trying to be more “authentic,” the production did little to tone down the Jew-hating in the script or contextualize Shylock’s position, which I found quite problematic. The audience brings its own cultural context to a production, and to present a play as a cultural artifact outside of its original cultural context is misleading, I think. The audience should be alienated from its own cultural Gestalt in order to get a critical perspective on a “historical performance.” But maybe that’s just me blathering on a bit.

After the play we went to the Tate Modern (just next door!) and saw the Global Cities exhibition, which was pretty awesome. They took a number of major global cities and compared them, asking tough questions about whether better urban planning can really solve our problems. We also got to see an exhibit on Surrealism and its influence, which was pretty cool. I saw a few minimalist pieces that I remembered from the exhibit at the MOCA in LA. We didn’t pay to see the Heitor Oiticica exhibit, but they had a few of his other pieces outside (perhaps to entice you to pay?) which I thought were pretty cool in the “uses motors and so on in a fun way.”

All ln all I enjoyed my time in England, even if they don’t know what to do with vegetables and a “salad” to them is “grated carrots, sauteed mushrooms, two slices of tomato, and pickled cabbage.” Perhaps the next time I come back I’ll see more of London, but Scotland also seems quite appealing…

Escape Java Joint

I have spent a fair bit of time in the last week at the Escape Java Joint, a spacious coffeehouse on Williamson St. in Madison that has a lot of art as well as meeting spaces and so on. The tea is pretty good (selections are spotty though), it’s all fair trade, and they play jazz (not nu-jazz or anything like that, but Dexter Gordon etc. streaming from KKJZ). It’s probably the best working environment in a coffeeshop that I’ve come across in years, barring the time I didn’t have my headphones and sat next to the discussion group for new mothers that happens some nights. Now if I could only get the Lagrange multipliers to stop gnawing on my very life essences…

cambridge and coffee

I spent the morning reading and working in the 1369 Coffeehouse in Central Square. It was like the good old days except that this time I had a laptop. Perhaps it’s just me being wistful and reminiscing, but I find the coffeehouses in Cambridge/Somerville significantly better than the ones in Berkeley. Maybe it’s because the weather makes you appreciate them more.

The music was perfect — Gotan Project, Tosca, and Django Reinhardt. I feel like I’m home.

city of industry

While tracking a package today I learned that there is actually a place in California called City of Industry. That is, the city is actually called “City of Industry.” For some reason that sounds more ridiculous than Industryville, Industrytown, or even Industriopolis. Perhaps it is because those actually sound fake, like something out of The Phantom Tollbooth (c.f. Digitopolis). I think a contributing factor is that City of Industry demands a sort of booming TV-announcer voice whenever you say it. Cityyyyy of In-dussssstryyyyyyyy. Ok, everybody try it now.

day 3 report

Another late start, another late night. Today was Japanese day. We hit up the Sunshine movie theater for the ham-handed film Steamboy, by the creator of Akira. Pretty standard fare in the “technology has a dark side,” “science is running amok,” and “children and old people are the only ones who can see the truth” genre of anime. The treatment was more didactic than Miyazaki, and the story was a little formulaic. I think the story and characters were lifted from a manga, and so had to develop faster on screen in one story than they could over the course of several stories in print.

From there we searched, first unsuccessfully, and then successfully, for Koi (2nd Ave and 11th), a Japanese restaurant with probably the best sushi I’ve ever had. We both got tasting plates, but Adam’s came with three appetizers, which we split. As a starter we each had a piece of nigiri — eel for him and fresh octopus for me. The rice was still warm, which was a new touch for me. Then came the appetizers: sea urchin, sweet shrimp, and mackerel sashimi.

The sea urchin was fresh, served in the urchin itself. Normally I don’t like urchin, but this was pretty tasty, especially with lemon and a little wasabi. The shrimp continued the slimy theme, and were served with the heads on. Ahain, pretty tasty, and there were enough for us to explore combinations with the soy, wasabi, lemon, daikon, and carrot. They took the heads away and fried them in a little tempura batter to create a little sweet postlude. The mackerel sashimi was excellent — it came in a little pile atop a slice of lemon in front of the fish that it came from, pinned into a “U” by a bamboo skewer through tail and neck. The final touch was a sprinkling of scallions and sesame seeds. A little lemon, mackerel, daikon, wasabi and soy made an excellent combo, as did lemon, mackerel, and shrimp head. The appetizers were almost a meal in themselves.

The tasting plate had 8 nigiri and 4 maki (tuna). The highlight was a massive piece of sea eel, easily 4 times as long as its pedestal of rice. It was sweet and melted in the mouth. The fatty tuna was also delicious, and I swapped Adam my urchin for his mackerel. There was one other mackerel-like fish whose name I didn’t catch, a fresh squid, a crab, and one or two others. The best part about the tasting platter I thought was that it didn’t intersect at all with the kind of nigiri combinations you get at other sushi places, but had a whole set of tastes that were new to me. To pair with

After all that food I was in a coma and we retired to a very Asian tea house at St. Mark’s and 3rd Ave. Alp’s or something or the other. I had a passion fruit green tea which tasted mostly like warm passion fruit juice concentrate and not at all like tea. It was too sickly sweet. The place reminded me of boba joints near Berkeley’s campus — a very similar crowd, but this place (like everywhere in NY) was open later. Damn you, Bay Area. We had a bottle of not-so-dry but oh-so-smooth sake (Shirakabegura), and a less sweet nigori (Shirakawago) to go with the meal.

Improbably, Dave Taylor was also in NY and we met up with him and went to the Angel’s Share, a Japanese bar on 9th and St. Mark’s just down the street from the okonomiyaki place and the St. Mark’s bookstore. It’s a small place upstairs with seating only, expensive cocktails, and a nice ambience. I had a manhattan that came with a black cherry rather than the usual maraschino. It was very well mixed. The Sazerac that I had afterwards was a little too strong on the anise but at least they knew had to make it. I had a little sip of Dave’s negroni, which is a drink I’m just getting into now, and regretted my order. The bar went from crowded with people waiting for a table to half-empty in the two hours we were there, which made it even nicer and harder to leave, but sweet sweet sleep called to us and we packed it in.

day 2 report

I started out (ha) by going Lange’s Delicatessen in Bronxville, which was packed and had more people behind the counter than I’ve ever seen in a deli that size. It was ridiculous. Adam and I met up with the inimitable Geeta Dayal, journalist extraordinaire, for a trip to the Whitney Museum.

We went specifically to see the Tim Wilkinson exhibit, which was awesome. Huge sculptures with whirring motors generating strange clicking noises, tiny sculptures of feathers, eggs, webs, and skeletons made of human nails and hair, a geared machine that writes his signature, a skeleton with a slide whistle that goes up and down, and all sorts of other disturbing and wonderful creations. It was nerd-tastic. Other highlights were a number of self-portraits where the artist drew only the parts of him that he could see, or created a topographic map of his body by taking photographs of himself submerged in various depths of black paint and then drawing the level curves.

What we missed was the Überorgan, a large installation in a lobby of a building on 59th and Madison. It is a huge construction of baloons and tubes, like a tentacled brain gone amok. The music is read off of a gigantic roll of plastic, 2 feet or so wide, painted with dots and dashes of black. A light sensor reads the sheet like a player piano and plays it out of the pipes of the organ. It plays every hour on the hour though, and we arrived too late for the performance. It’s on until May though, and I might try and swing by tomorrow to see it.

We then went to Madras Mahal, which was somewhere on Lexington (26th I think). It’s one of a number of South Indian restaurants in that part of Manhattan. I had iddlies and a third of Geeta’s utthappam, which was tasty albeit not amazing. The dosas looked pretty good, but I didn’t think I was hungry enough for that. The place is around $10, but like I said, there looked like other equally good places nearby.

Adam and I returned to Bronxville, had dinner, and decided to go see Garaj Mahal at the Knitting Factory. It was pretty good, but we had to duck out near the end of the last set since it was around 3:30, and the show started at 11:30. Insert rant about Bay Area’s lack of late-night events here. The band was good, a sort of tepid Indian-jazz fusion (tepid meaning the fusion, not the playing). If you want more real Indian music, go with something like Natraj. But the show was good — I had only heard one song of theirs before and was pretty impressed. Fans of Charlie Hunter and John McLaughlin would appreciate it, I think.

And then, sleep.

day 1 report

Woke up, got out of bed, realized I left my comb at home, so my hair was huge.

I always forget that bagels are really better here. I’m sure that in a few weeks I’ll have re-deluded myself into thinking the Posh Bagel is a good enough approximation, but the difference in quality is definitely marked.

I meandered over to the MOMA, where I saw an interesting exhibit by Thomas Demand, who is a German photographer. He takes found photographs of places and then reconstructs the whole scene, life-size, using cardboard and colored paper. The result is a lot like those fake cardboard model computers you see in office supply stores, but more cartoony. He then takes huge photographs of his scenes. A lot of attention is paid to detail, but it is still clearly fake. The pictures were by and large of banal places — office copy rooms, classrooms, a desk with coffee mug and papers strewn about. The flatness of everything reflected the flatness of corporate life.

From there to TKTS, where I stood in line to get somewhat mediocre seats to see Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. I’ve been a big fan of Bill Irwin since my parents taped his show The Regard of Flight off of PBS (onto Beta cassette, no less). His interpretation of George was intriguing — I question whether his mode of living with Martha in the play was an ultimately sustainable one in the world outside the play. Turner, for her part, was also good — less greedily domineering than one might expect from the script, which only worked to the play’s advantage. The first act was a bit slow, and Adam pointed out that the play needed to be more merciless to the audience. The way it played out in the theater made it too easy to laugh and then forget about the real brutality of the lines (e.g. “I’d divorce you if you existed”). The blocking felt like blocking a little too often. Sometimes I felt the tension justified the separation, other times I felt they were calling to each other from across the room for no reason at all. All in all though, definitely worth seeing, and it was nice to see it on stage instead of in the film, where your views are so constrained by the director.

Before the play though, I hit up a little Japanese hole-in-the-wall place recommended by Winnie called Otafuku. They serve okonomiyaki and takoyaki, which are both Kansai (West-central) specialities. I had the former, which is a sort of omelette-like concoction with cabbage and other veggies, meat, and some sort of sauce with Japanese mayo, bonito flakes, and other tastiness. Messy, but good. I want to try the takoyaki sometime, which are fried battered balls of octopus or other tasty fillings. The place is on 10th near 3rd and well worth it, especially for the $5-$10 range.

From there I went to the Strand and bought too many books. ‘Nuff said. Mmmm, plays.

Post-play we meandered down to the Yaffa Cafe, where my incipient headache made it impossible for me to finish my somewhat over-sauced pasta. Adam had a salmon thing with potatoes and brown rice that look ed a lot better. It made me wish there were more 24 hour places in the Bay Area, dammit.