Archive for the ‘Everyday garbage’ Category

Meetings

I can say this much about government work: there are a lot of meetings. My supervisor, for instance, spends probably 80% of his time in meetings. So far I’ve spent about 30% of my time in meetings. If I consider the time preparing for and traveling to meetings, responding to meeting-scheduling requests and follow-up emails, sometimes I’m surprised anything else gets done. And here’s the rub: most of these meetings are necessary. At least at the EPA, and probably at other government agencies and large organizations, there are so many arms doing different but related things, that if they don’t meet all the time, it leads to a lot of repeated work and unshared, useful knowledge.

But the sharing of work and knowledge makes up only a fraction of meeting time, of course. There are requisite digressions of a personal nature — usually about kids. There are digressions of a technical nature, my personal favorite and the type most common in academic meetings, but disappointingly rare in my meetings at the EPA. There is philosophical debate about big-picture issues, and philosophical debate about minutiae.

And so every meeting is supposed to have and Agenda and “Action Items” — the things that we will actually do as a result of the meeting. Different meeting-personality types will push different types of digression, and if you get too many of the same type dominating the meeting, you can expect the meeting to go very long. Thank goodness for the personalities who push the Agenda and harp on Action Items. I’m convinced that if it weren’t for these rare type-A meeting-personalities, the administrative end of the government would grind to a halt, gummed up by endless meetings running later and later with no Action Items in sight.

Although, interestingly, sometimes the digressions are the point. As in, by chit-chatting with a few staff members from office X, we are building rapport, so when our office criticizes the report from office X, we have support from the inside to temper the anger of the director. Or, by reminiscing about the good old days when we worked together in Region 8, I’ll find out who has moved in since, and what the new agendas and projects are. And let’s not forget this motivation: often, being in a meeting is easier than working.

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The ethical bright line

Though I have thought about the corrupting potential of politics, I haven’t been really afraid of becoming corrupt myself (family members have expressed concern about this, however). I feel I am secure enough in my sense of self, and not particularly motivated by money or power, so I am at a pretty low risk for getting caught up in ethically questionable doings. And so the quote of the day from Friday (yes, posted a little late) gives me pause.

The quote comes from Raynard Kington, Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a man with a fascinating and variegated career, who happened to become the chief ethics officer at NIH during a serious scandal a few years back. He says,

The hardest part of Washington is knowing where you ethical line, your bright line is. Because it’s not so bright when you cross it. When you get up close to it, it looks rather gray.

He suggested we decide where our line is in advance (of coming to Washington, presumably). He explained that knowing your bright line is the “most difficult thing to prepare for” and that “it’ll stay with you for the rest of your life if you cross it.” Even if no one knows, “because you probably won’t get caught. But you’ll know.”

And yet, it’s hard for me to even imagine what ethically-challenging situation I’d be faced with, let alone plan my choices. I may just have to wing it.

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The pug

One of my housemates has a pug. The biggest, fattest pug I’ve ever seen, and possibly ever. This animal is endearing in the way that, immediately upon looking at him, one can’t help but feel sympathy for his plight, and be simultaneously amused by the sheer absurdity of his existence. His proportions are all wrong, his movements are labored and awkward, and he shows excitement by snorting wildly. And yet, in that snort, you can sense a pure and simple happiness that someone is there to pet or entertain him. He seems to have no agenda of his own but follow around people and observe their doings, and with his bulging eyes makes a silent, persistent case to be petted.

And the corollary is, I’ve never seen a creature frown so distinctly as he does when he is watching you go out the front door, knowing you are leaving him alone to hours of destitute boredom, belly laid against the floor in an attempt to stay cool, too-short legs splayed in every odd direction, snoring through his inadequate breathing passageways. Because as far as I can tell, this is precisely all he does when no one is around (and often even when they are around).

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Goodbye housemates, I barely knew ye

My house had a goodbye get-together for a pair of departing housemates, a German couple who are heading back to Germany. It might as well have been a farewell for everyone, since all 5 of my co-habitants for the last month are leaving today, except for the Germans who left yesterday. And so this Coronas-on-the-porch get-together became, at times, a venting session, executed with I’m-never-going-to-see-you-again-so-I-don’t-care honesty. I learned that one couple went on an unannounced chore strike, apparently in response to the unannounced chore strike undertaken by another housemate, who we’ll call George. This let the trash pile up to absurd heights, leaving the sweet and responsible German girl to pick up the slack.

George openly admitted to not taking out the trash (his assigned chore) “because [he doesn't] use the kitchen that much”, leaving old food in the fridge, and never cleaning the bathroom that he shares with one other guy (“I let [the other guy] do it. If he had a problem with that, he should have told me.”). Jake took a break from the party to walk down to the corner store and buy himself a forty. He swears a lot. He tried, in front of us all, to argue with the house manager to get out of paying his last month’s utilities. Though I have to give him credit for being funny and saying what he thinks, George is an unrepentant jerk, one of a class of abrasive people who always demand special treatment and, frustratingly, by force of will, often seem to get it. I always wonder if there will be a day of reckoning for people like that.

The Germans, by contrast, seemed pleasant and responsible, and are probably now surrounded by like-minded people in their homeland. Another housemate is off to sociology grad school. He seemed cool enough. The other couple struck me as too easily caught up in house dramas. Everybody is in the 23-25 age range, and I felt like I could detect a strain of immaturity compared to my ripe old age of 27, but maybe I’m just reading that in. My new housemates, supposedly all moving in today and tomorrow (I’m skeptical that the current ones will be completely moved out, judging by the current state of things, but we’ll see) are somewhat older and hopefully less drama-prone and more responsible. I’ve not really met any of them, so all I can do is cross my fingers that it will be a good bunch.

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Long lights, large city

One difficulty of urban living that I’ve noticed is the stoplights around here are often on really long timing cycles. And with major artery roads crossing every which way, it’s very difficult not to cross several of them, say, on a run. Because the walk signs have count-down timers, I know that typical cycle times are 45-65 seconds, which, when you are panting and sweating next to a bunch of commuters in business attire, is a really awkward length of time to wait, as well as long enough to kill a good running groove. Sometimes the lights along the same street are coordinated, so by traversing one way or another I can fast-forward stoplight time. But If I choose the wrong direction, I put it in slow motion: at each new block I hit, the sign still reads “47″, and I’ll never get to cross.

I used to be proud of my ability to stay upright and almost stopped on my bike for the course of most light cycles. Now, more often than not, I have to give up and put a foot down before it turns green. Especially when there are 3 or more cycles, each 30-60 seconds, that’s a lot of wait time.

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Back on the ‘net

After a month hiatus, R/C is back online. Since it used to be hosted on my office computer, it didn’t stay up for the move. But now I’m moved and unpacked enough to be able to upload the files to my new, carbon neutral server at Dreamhost.com. Yes, it’s very exciting, because starting life in a new city means plenty to blog about. Stay tuned for all the, um, juicy details.

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Hawaii photos

I totally forgot to post photos from my Hawaii trip in January until I unloaded a more recent set from my camera. It was a fabulous visit to the Big Island, including stays at a luxurious mega-resort and a smelly, sketchy bed and breakfast. The hiking, snorkeling, and lounging were excellent. The other-worldly landscapes of Volcano National Park were spectacular (but heavy rain kept away the camera). It’s a trip I can heartily recommend.

[photopress:Hawaii_sunset.jpg,thumb,pp_empty] [photopress:Looking_down_into_Wai__po_Valley.jpg,thumb,pp_empty] [photopress:Coral_beach_at_Waikoloa.jpg,thumb,pp_empty]
[photopress:Shore_from_the_floor_of_Wai__po_Valley.jpg,thumb,pp_empty] [photopress:Ocean_spray_in_Waikloa.jpg,thumb,pp_empty]  

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Art is good for elementary schoolers

I went to elementary school in California amid serial budget cuts. First went the school buses. Then went the art program. The music program got scaled-back. I think the activities for gifted students went away for a few years and came back. In any case, why do we need art education? Why not focus on math and science — the kind of skills that prepare kids for real jobs? Here’s one answer: the Boston Globe reports on a study of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders that found visiting a museum and associated classroom activities improved kids’ critical thinking skills. Interestingly, Garrison Keillor remarks that that’s such an obvious result, it wasn’t worth the Department of Education’s $750,000 of funding.

Well, sometimes it’s important to restate the obvious, in study form. Our economy does not value the fine arts very well. I’ll bet we wouldn’t have many museums if it weren’t for a small number of extremely wealthy individuals who had, or who’s heirs had, liberal arts educations. I have often wondered about the utility of art and whether such lavish museums are worth supporting. Here is at least one way to think about the benefits: observing, evaluating, and trying to talk about art is a complex cognitive process that kids(/people) should practice.

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Game theory and whether to wear a tie

A bunch of us have to give short research presentations tomorrow to help convince our funders to keep giving us money. My officemate Costa and I had the following exchange:

“I don’t know if I should wear a tie. Are you going to wear a tie?”

“I was going to wear one because you said yesterday you were going to wear one.”

“Well I’m going to wear one if you wear one. Game theory, man.”

“Shit, what’s the Nash Equilibrium? I think it’s if we both wear ties.”

There was some general agreement around the room, and that’s where we left it. But because I’m an unreconstructed geek, I started thinking about this later. Is that the right answer? What kind of game is this? I reasoned that the best outcome is for everyone not to wear ties, but by far the worst outcome is to be the only one not wearing a tie (“better to be overdressed than underdressed”). I made a payoff table, simplifying it to two players. It looks something like this, where each box has the outcome for [Player 1, Player 2].

  Player 2 No Tie Player 2 Wears Tie
Player 1 No Tie good, good bad, okay
Player 1 Wears Tie okay, bad less good, less good

It turns out this is a “coordination game”: we’re both better off if we play the same strategy. Like any (2-player) coordination game, there are actually two Nash Equilibria, either of the boxes on the diagonal (top-left, bottom-right). Except I do feel I prefer to play “wear a tie” if I don’t know what Costa is going to do. That way, I avoid the risk of being under-dressed (generally with coordination games, you can rationally play either strategy if you don’t know anything about what the other player is doing. Interestingly, this game fits a special class of coordination games called “Stag Hunts”, where there is a conflict between safety and cooperation. We can cooperate for the best outcome (everybody agree not to wear ties) or we can play it safe and wear the ties, not trusting that everyone else will dress down. So there are generally two types of equilibrium strategies — the payoff-dominated one (lose the tie and take a shot at the best outcome), and the risk-dominant one (wear the tie just in case: forgo the best outcome but avoid the worst one). I guess in the setting of giving a talk, I’m feeling risk-averse.

Apparently the stag hunt can be used as a model for social cooperation and biological cooperation in a lot of settings, like it’s more-famous cousin, the “prisoner’s dilemma”.

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Air capture in National Geographic

Since I’ve now heard about it from 20 or so people, I feel like everyone must know about the Virgin Earth Challenge. But since probably a few people have not heard about it: Virgin Airlines owner Richard Branson is offering a $25 million prize to the team that comes up with the best design for a device that captures CO2 from the atmosphere. It just so happens that I’ve been researching such devices for more than 4 years now, and even built a prototype of a component of such a device as part of my PhD thesis research. So am I going to enter the contest? I’m not sure. It would be a lot of work and I was about ready to move on from carbon capture technology. I will see what the full contest requirements look like when they release them in a few months. Certainly a lot of friends have encouraged me to enter. I like the way Miriam put it: “Yours is the story that all grad students dream about. You toil away thanklessly in the basement for years and then all of a sudden this magical fairy comes down and offers you fame and fortune for all your hard work. You have to enter the contest.” (Or something along those lines.) I have to do it to give hope to the huddled masses of graduate students out there.

But in the mean time, the announcement of the challenge has drawn a lot of media attention to my work. Apparently a web search on atmospheric carbon capture brings up my thesis rather quickly, and I continue to be contacted by reporters almost weekly. This article in National Geographic has a lot of quotes from me. The article fudges a couple of things; it set’s up a false dichotomy between me and the manager of the International Energy Agency’s greenhouse gas research program (he says that capture would be cheaper from power plants and I don’t disagree). But basically the article gives me a soapbox to say a few of the most important things I can about air capture. Which is pretty awesome.

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People are reading my thesis?

Thanks to Aurora for pointing me to this article by green design heavyweight Brad Allenby, which references my thesis heavily. He pulls out what I think is a rather good quote and takes it as support for a “fundamental shift in the climate change debate”. The technology for capturing CO2 from ambient air that I describe, as well as other geoengineering schemes, he writes, allow us to separate climate change mitigation from fossil fuel use.

He goes on to argue that this shift allows us to disentangle the need to mitigate climate change with the desire of “many environmentalists and climate change scientists” to change US-style consumption patterns, a conclusion that I don’t agree with. At least, I don’t think anything in my assessment of ambient carbon capture technology indicates drastic changes in developed-world consumption are not needed. I suppose you may draw your own conclusions about the viability of current consumption patterns, but I think ambient carbon capture at the kinds of costs I calculated only makes sense as a complement to extensive restructuring of the economy to be more energy-efficient and driven by carbon-neutral energy sources. I suppose I always knew that a danger of promoting ambient carbon capture is that it can be used as an excuse to avoid or put off doing the more obvious stuff to reduce CO2 emissions.

Of course, I don’t believe that Allenby is trying to delay action on climate change. He seems to be looking at a change in the debate as a way to catalyze more aggressive mitigation measures. He also makes in interesting point about input from a broader range of actors being needed now that we have the freedom to choose any level of atmospheric CO2.

In other news, I got an email out of the blue from a man in Arizona who wants to build one or more pilot plants modeled on the prototype CO2 capture system I built for my research. He claims to be willing to put down a couple hundred thousand dollars of personal financing to get it started, and that he “may do something unusual (and legal) to raise some short term cash”. I have not yet determined his seriousness, but I guess it’s good that he’s keeping it legal.

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Halloween pictures

[photopress:Josh_Spike_and_Moira_Buffy_fighting_1.jpg,thumb,floatright] [photopress:Josh_Spike3.jpg,thumb,floatleft] Prior to spending Halloween as Spike, I would have guessed that about 50% of the grad student demographic has seen a least a little Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Just about all of my friends have. I didn’t think it was a particularly obscure reference. After a couple of parties, though, I’d have to guess that it’s more like 10%, because most people just shrugged their shoulders and said “Oh, I never saw that show.” But the people who got my costume got it right away and appreciated it. Moira liked it so much that she put together a complimentary Buffy costume for the third Halloween party.

[See all pictures.]

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Zombie walk

[photopress:MB_zombie1.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:MB_zombie2.jpg,thumb,floatright] Twice, Moira and I have stumbled coincidentally on a Zombie Walk. First we met zombies in the South Side, and two weeks later we met zombies in New York’s Union Square (see photos). I love the idea of it. It’s like a flash mob but with Zombies; a safe, fun way to violate social norms and make the world (or at least certain urban centers) more interesting. It’s too bad I missed the record-setting zombie walk at the Monroeville Mall, site of George Romero’s classic zombie film, “Dawn of the Dead“. The Post-Gazette has a great slide presentation on it, with a tastefully ironic light jazz soundtrack.

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Font Mania

For convoluted bureaucratic reasons, I had to make a resume to apply for a job for which I’ve already been hired. But since I really will be applying for jobs soonish, I figure I may as well make it a good one now. Reviewing my current 3-years-outdated CV, I thought, “I want to make a really nice resume, one with impeccable layout, whitespace, nice fonts, that sort of thing.” I want a design that says “modern and unique”, and “innovative but serious”.

I started looking at fonts. I wasn’t satisfied with any of the fonts with came with my distribution. While Blue Highway has served me well in many slide presentations, I wanted something fresh. I was thinking: sans serif, a little avant garde, not goofy. Delving headlong into the online world of fonts, I discovered a few things:

  • It’s hard to find serious free fonts. The majority of them seem to be wacky or themed.
  • Most free fonts reside on hard-to-navigate sites where they are organized alphabetically by name, which is, of course, totally unhelpful.
  • Real fonts are expensive. But their average quality is way higher than of free fonts and the organization of commercial font websites is way better.

However, buyfonts.com seems to be a sort of compromise with fonts for $2 each of intermediate quality. I considered shelling out for one. For a few seconds, I even considered paying ~$40 for a nice Bitstream font. “It’ll become my signature font”, I thought. And then I found dafont.com. It was a revelation. There were rays of light and choir ahhs. Loads of high quality free fonts, organized by category, group-able by designer, and sortable by popularity in a decent interface. As I browsed the site, my roommates had to suffer through my squeals of delight when coming across a particularly good one. I made them look at a few I thought demanded sharing. I started wondering if my system would be noticeably slower with 40 more fonts.

Which ones to use? I made a sample sheet to compare some of my favorites. For a heading font, I considered Zillah Modern.
Zillah Modern sample
And I took a certain liking to SF New Republic, thinking it has an emphatic modernism and flair. But let’s be honest,
SF New Republic sample
On the body text side, I had an inexplicable attraction to the svelte Geo Sans Light:
Geosans Light sample
Then grammarnerd gave me the smack down when she looked at my sample sheet and said she didn’t like any of them, except, maybe, Pigiarniq. “They draw too much attention to the font.” Still, I held fast to N.O. Movement, which was my initial favorite when I was downloading, for a heading font. I felt it was
N.O. Movement sample
I came to agree about Pigiarniq. It is
Pigiarniq sample

Very good. Then there was creating the actual text, and tons of layout tweaking. I finally got a page I was reasonably satisfied with. This first disappointment is that Pigiarniq is badly hinted in Acrobat. The lowercase e’s and dashes look blurry. It might be back to the drawing board for future submissions, but right not it doesn’t really matter because, you know, I already have the job.

I go to the CMU online job application system. I fill in the fields. I try to attach the resume. They don’t accept PDF resumes. They only accept resumes in Microsoft Word or html format. They accept resumes in H-T-M-fucking-L, but not in Portable Document Format. Neither of those formats, I might add, allows me to retain my fonts. Not that it really matters now. But re-implementing the whole thing in either format is a pain, since everything is a separate text box in my layout program.1 I opt for html, of course, because then I’ll have a web version, at least. I won’t go into the pain of getting it decent and then trying it in IE to find it all messed up.

Really, I should have just used the resume template in my word processor. But there is no going back now. I think I’ve caught the font bug or something. I find myself noticing the fonts on signs and ad copy 2 I find myself looking at the document properties in pdf’s to see which fonts are embedded.

  1. Scribus, an open-source desktop publishing program, functioning something like Adobe Indesign. []
  2. Not that I’m able to identify them; I’m not familiar with many commercial fonts. []

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Zion

[photopress:Cave_on_the_river.jpg,thumb,alignleft][photopress:Mountains__clouds__and_flowers.jpg,thumb,alignleft][photopress:Josh_wading.jpg,thumb,alignleft]

It’s amazing how lazy I can be about publishing digital photos, given how easy is it now compared to the pain of getting down to the photo shop, paying a lot of money, and subsequently picking up prints. Anyway, a few weeks ago I took a delightful 4-day trip to Zion National Park in Utah. My good friend Nick came out from California and met me for some camping and hiking.

It’s really a stunningly beautiful place, perhaps my favorite of the national parks. Sheer cliffs of deep red sandstone rise dramatically from the floor of the river canyon. The variation in altitude and distribution of water make for a wide array of ecosystems, from forest to desert. The signature hike in the place goes upriver through the narrow part of the canyon (“The Narrows”) and involves a lot of trudging through the river where the river takes up the entire canyon floor. Almost every time we came around a bend we would get an exotic new scene of primordial beauty.

It’s a small park and remarkably well-managed. Transportation through the canyon is by shuttle bus during most of the year. Signage and trail maintenance are pristine. Foreign and domestic visitors kept all the major trails well-populated during our visit, even on a weekday in late September. It had the feel of a theme park at times, because it was so well-managed and crowded. I would like to try some back-country backpacking if I go back, but we didn’t have the gear or the time to try it this trip.

You can find a few more photos in the full set .

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Another bike lane in Pittsburgh

Anyone who has bicycled in Pittsburgh has probably noticed the glaring lack of bike lanes. It is dangerous and frustrating, especially with the occassional ignorant Pittsburgh driver honking or yelling at bikers to “get out of the road.” Well, at least soon we’ll have one road to ride other than Beechwood Boulevard. The City has agreed to add lines and signage to Liberty Ave in Bloomfield to create a bike route. Why now? According to this Post-Gazette article, high gas prices are driving an “explosion” in bicycle commuting. Also the bicycle community seems to be an increasingly effective lobby. The choice of bike lane locations is coming from Bike Pittsburgh.

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Update

For those who haven’t heard, my sisters were in a fairly serious accident several days ago, and I made an unscheduled trip home instead of returning to Pittsburgh after the conferences. They are both home from the hospital now and doing amazingly well considering the circumstances. Though there are some weeks of painful recovery ahead, we’re pretty sure they will come back to 100% with some time. I’m going to stick around here for a while (not sure how long yet) to help out and whatever.

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Lisbon

[photopress:Lisbon_from_castle.jpg,thumb,floatright] [photopress:park_Lisbon.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:alley_Lisbon.jpg,thumb,floatleft] There’s a definite contrast going from Norway to Portugal, which, if I may generalize (and really, isn’t reckless generalization the basis of so many R/C posts?), is archetypal of the contrast between north- and south-western Europe. Portugal is more colorful, both literally and figuratively. The lifestyle seems more relaxed, fun-loving, and disorderly. Norway, on the other hand, was clean, rational, comfortable (in the sense of economically well-developed), and determined.

[photopress:subway_seats.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:courtyard_Lisbon.jpg,thumb,floatright]Lisbon strikes me as an amiable, disheveled city, steeped in history, and not quite holding itself to past standards of grandeur: graffiti is absolutely everywhere, dog feces dot the marble-tile sidewalks, and old, crumbling buildings stand side-by-side with the many crisp, new, multicolored cubist developments. Dinners at restaurants start late and last for hours. Clubs don’t fill up until 3:00am(!). Wine (or, in my case, sangria, for the same price as soda) can be purchased with lunch in the mall food court.

[photopress:bridge_over_moat.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:cathedral_interior.jpg,thumb,floatright] The conference was fun, especially the meeting and talking with many friendly students from around the world. Our host university and student organizers did an amazing job making us feel welcome with a tour of the city, reception in a castle, and a fabulous dinner at a hip, fancy restaurant overlooking the water.

[photopress:Fado_restaurant.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:post_Cup_celebration.jpg,thumb,floatright] I managed to see Fado, a traditional local folk music (but lately of interest largely to tourists, I hear), and to witness some of the manic country-wide celebration when Portugal won a game in the World Cup. The streets were a jammed with cars full of honking, hollering, flag-waving revelers for hours after the game. Coming back from dinner, a cab-driver refused our fare because many arterial roads were impassable, so we walked by the throngs of elated soccer fans, and I was happy to have my earplugs. Had I not recently lived through the Steelers winning the Superbowl, it would have been yet more surreal.

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Parade

[photopress:parade_marching_Oslo.jpg,thumb,floatleft] parade end, Oslo I went tooling around Oslo and continued to enjoy the feel of the city. I happened upon an open-air market and then a huge parade with 3 or 4 marching bands separated by various uniformed groups.

I hadn’t thought before that it must be pretty hard to see where one is stepping if one is a bass drum player in a marching band. The elderly player for one of the bands was confidently keeping a beat while the band marched at rest when he tripped on a curb and fell squarely forward onto his bass drum. The rest of the band scattered briefly in confusion with the driving pulse missing. It was one of saddest things I’ve ever seen.

The parade converged at a park in front of the royal palace. I never figured out what it was about.

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[photopress:art1.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:art2.jpg,thumb,floatright] It’s a little bit of a shame that I find I’m getting comfortable in Norway just as I’m about to leave. I had a pretty nice day here in Oslo. On my way in I helped an arriving Vietnamese girl navigate the train from the airport. I even hefted her gigantic bag (which must have been about two-thirds her weight). It turns out she works on energy systems and sustainable development and is hear for a summer class at the university. I had a delicious and cheap falafel pita for lunch and I checked out downtown Oslo. I found it delightfully lively in that urban-cosmopolitan way.
I saw everything in the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Some of it was pretty enjoyable, like the things pictured. I was a little disappointed at the size of the collection, though. The Carnegie Art Museum probably has a bigger collection of contemporary art.

[photopress:art3.jpg,thumb,floatleft]Overall, I got a good vibe from the city, but I had to get some work done, so I’ve been doing that for last 8 hours or so. Maybe I’ll get to see a little more before I ship out tomorrow.

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