Archive for July, 2011

Off to Europe:Southern France, Part Six

July 27, 2011

(apologies for the delay in posting, I’ve had sporadic internet access here).

Yesterday we went to Albi on our way to Conques. I was expecting to be disappointed with Albi, as it was Yet Another Big Church, but I was pleasantly surprised! The church is made of brick, not stone, so it looks very different from just about every other cathedral I’ve seen, and the interior is exquisitely painted. The ribbed ceiling is especially cool, it’s very far up and you can just make out the frescoes if you stare. Also, the background for all the painting is blue, which is very different from the gray/black scheme of most churches I’ve visited. On top of that, the church has an Immense organ that takes up an entire wall, and an exquisitely crafted separator that used to keep the common folk apart from the priests and other church servants back in the day. Right now, it’s all open, and I took plenty of pictures (and some video!). There was a number of lovely hand-crafted statues of course, but at some point I hit information overload and sort of zombied out. We spent the rest of the day walking around Albi (the weather, thankfully, improved), reading a book about Victorian England, and talking. We arrived in Conques late, but not tired, and overall happy.

Today was not particularly eventful, spent in conversation, more reading, and walking around Conques. We got to see the Conques cathedral, which is (I think) the last Big Church we will see this trip / that I will want to see in a long time. I have seen A Lot Of Churches this week 🙂 Still, the visit was worth it for the vaulted ceiling: the way it’s constructed, looking at one vault, you can almost always see the next one slightly off-center, and then the next one, so the overall feeling is of looking at a forest of gray stone, vaults like trees colliding and interfering with each other. The conversation was fun, too – I told my mother about the Poe play I saw in Providence, and made some connections to Russian literature; she was very excited! Then we came back to the hotel and had the nicest dinner of vacation so far: split a plate of foie gras for appetizer, I had simple (though very finely prepared) beef with mashed potatoes, my mother had pigeon with apricot, and for dessert we shared a peach in almond milk. Yummmm.

Tomorrow, we head of to Montsegur!

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Off to Europe: Southern France, Part Five

July 25, 2011

Today we explored Carcassonne in great detail.

We started the day with a walk along the medieval city’s inner walls, tall and imposing, the “real” defensive structure that served to stop attackers who had made it through the lower outer layer. There are plenty of towers, and battlements, and a barbican (which as I understand is a sort of fortified outpost jutting out of the wall line), and just about every defensive technique used in the Middle Ages. We then moved on to the keep. The living quarters and great hall of the keep are, sadly, converted into waiting rooms for tours and the museum, so it’s kind of hard to tell what people did in the keep when they weren’t fighting for their lives. The walk around the keep did give us some great sights of the city, a labyrinth of roof-tile and stone, surrounded by walls on all sides. The weather turned bad as we were walking around, so we stayed inside as much as we could. I did find the Carcassonne board game in the gift shop, but it was way to expensive 😦

After more walking around the outer walls and an uneventful lunch, we more or less stumbled into what was undoubtedly the greatest part of the day – jousting! In late July – early August, there are two jousting events daily in Carcassonne, and they are incredibly fun. I sat down in a packed viewing gallery (two sets of tiered benches across from each other), and almost immediately was treated to Epic Medieval Music on full blast. The Master of the Tournament came out, and got the crowd to cheer (despite the rain and the cold) for the coming attraction. He was followed by the King of Aragon, who looked pretty miserable in his long robes wading through the dirt, two ladies in his entourage, and five knights on horseback, all dressed in chain and leather, clearly excited to be taking part in the upcoming tournament. There were pages and attendants too, and I was excited to see that some of the pages were girls in men’s clothing, looking ready to kick butt. Just as everyone got done introducing themselves and what they were fighting for (liberty, beauty, that sort of thing)… a new opponent entered the fray! He was not from Occitaine (the local province), but the King of Aragon recognized him and let him join the tournament.

Then the fun began. First there were a couple of horseback riding events, with the knights picking flags off the ground, or catching rings on their lances while riding along the arena. Then two of the knights decided to have a good old fashioned axe battle, and did some impressive stage fighting with axe and shield. Then began the jousting proper. The local lord, Comte de Trencavel, was by far the best, but the Foreign Knight was not far behind, and soon it became obvious the two would duke it out for the top spot. They grabbed two swords each and started going at it, with the Foreign Knight doing better, but being far less chivalrous, kicking and punching and not letting the poor Comte get up as befits a Proper Knight. The Master of the Tournament gave the Foreign knight a stern talking-to about the laws of chivalry, and he Did Better afterwards, but, of course, so did Comte de Trencavel. The Comte triumphed in the end with an impressive flash of swordplay, and the Foreign Knight got on one knee and graciously accepted defeat. Then there was another bit of impressive horseback riding as everyone paraded… no, more like galloped out while doing horse tricks! Lots of sitting sideways and even turning around in the saddle while galloping down the sandy arena. I was much pleased 🙂

Dinner ended up being uneventful, and the day ended, disappointingly, with work, but I look forward to more adventures tomorrow, when we go to Albi!

Off to Europe: Southern France, Part Four

July 24, 2011

Today we left the lovely English BnB we’ve been staying at and moved on to Carcassonne, by way of Fort Salses and the Fontfroide Abbey.

Fort Salses was reasonably interesting for being a medieval castle that was transformed into an age-of-Exploration era fortress that had to deal with cannon fire, mines, and all sorts of nastiness that came with firearms and gunpowder. The castle walls are very thick, and it has all sorts of underground passages and tunnels to help troops move faster within the castle and repel invaders. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before, however, so I was left unimpressed by the visit.

Fontfroide was a much more interesting experience! This used to be a Cistercian Abbey, but for the last century it’s been owned by a wine merchant who preserved and restored the complex. Even before the merchant, the abbey went through several periods of reconstruction, so it has examples of Romanesque, Gothic, and Neoclassical architecture. The mix of different styles works well, and between the looming towers, the lovely cloister, and the huge rose gardens in the back, the abbey is perfect for quiet contemplation. I ended up ditching the tour pretty quickly, walking around the buildings and reading Pendergast. I also explored the garden a little bit. It’s amazing, with tall cypress trees growing right next to castle walls, and rows and rows of flowers.

We ended the day arriving in Carcassonne, which made my inner board game geek happy. We stay here until Tuesday morning, and we got to explore the city a little bit at night (and, of course, eat delicious French food). There’s towers and ramparts and walls *everywhere* and tons of little shops selling mostly souvenirs and cookies. I haven’t found the board game yet, but I hope to! The day ended with a rock concert, which we heard from afar while walking around the Old City.

Off To Europe: Southern France, Part Three

July 23, 2011

Today, we went to two Cathar fortresses, Peyrperteuse and Queribus. Both are perched on mountaintops, and though the height isn’t *that* great – about two and a half thousand feet above sea level – you can certainly feel it going up. Queribus came first, accessible via long drive followed by a fifteen-minute hike. The hike ends in a narrow staircase approaching the castle walls, and it was walking up that staircase I realized why people don’t actually build too many castles on top of high mountains, no matter how cool it looks. ITS WINDY. The gate complex plus the stairway and the walls on either side of it formed a sort of wind tunnel, so the narrow, fifty-foot-long final approach had to be done against great gusts of wind, blowing anything and everything away. My glasses very nearly came off multiple times, and I only made it up by pulling myself up along a length of conveniently provided rope, attached to one of the stairway walls. Once in the castle, the wind receded, and there was a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside; I took pictures and contemplated the idea of going up and down that stairway on a regular basis, or worse yet, trying to storm it, with arrows ready to rain down from above.

Queribus was once held by the Cathars, a group of people who had settled in this region of France centuries ago, and had adopted a form of Christianity that praised simplicty and equality, and defied Rome’s central authority. Rome did not look too kindly on this, and eventually a crusade got formed to wipe the Cathars out. Yep, a crusade by some Christians against other Christians. The Cathars did not stand much of a chance, vastly outnumbered and out-funded, but thanks to these crazy castles they managed to hold out for decades before eventually being subjugated by the French Crown.

After a brief exploration of Queribus, we went on to Peyrperteuse. Peyrperteuse is bigger than Queribus, and looks like it’s growing straight out of a massive rock outcropping at the top of a mountain. It looks completely surreal during the drive up, with ramparts and towers emerging straight from the white rock. Upon approaching, we discovered a massive complex with two separate castles, each with chapels, stairways, towers, high walls and plenty of defenses (including the ever-present wind). Overall, the experience was pretty similar to Queribus, with one major exception: we got to see a falconer! Three falconers, actually, all young guys who got up to the castle with us (a large crowd quickly gathered), and began giving a long Lesson On Falcons in French, which I understood very little of. Eventually, they got around to the live demo: one of the falconers brought out the bird, which was beautiful, explained that it had a special little cap and a bell, and took the cap off, but left the bell on. He then let the falcon go. I’ve never seen a falcon fly, and it was simply amazing. The bird would spread and fold its wings very quickly, riding the air current, moving not in a smooth line but in sharp zig-zags, hovering for a second or two, then dropping like a stone and suddenly swooping back up. It was clearly having to deal with the wind, but handling it beautifully. It felt surreal, like no flying bird I’ve ever seen before.

The drive back from the castles went relatively smoothly, and left me with plenty of time to prepare for tomorrow, when we head out to Carcassone. Yep, just like the board game. Stay tuned!

Off to Europe: Southern France, Part Two

July 22, 2011

As promised, here is a second diary post in my effort to catch my diary of vacation through Europe to today!

Today was less eventful than previous days. We mainly visited the Saint-Michel de Canigou Abbey, which was lovely and took up most of the day, as getting to it requires a solid drive plus a hike. The abbey itself is perched on top of a hill, surrounded by mountains on all sides, with fog creeping over the mountaintops – very pretty, and reminded me of mornings in Silicon Valley. The abbey is really impressive, a compact structure with cloister, small church, and bell tower that resembles a mountaintop fortress more than a place of worship. Once we made the hike up (I resisted the urge to climb up some of the boulders), we went on a long tour of the abbey, led by Steven, an American from Chicago, who spoke French to communicate with the mostly French-speaking crowd (incidentally, the number of very young kids at this place was impressive, given the long forty minute hike up the hill!). Between Steven’s very clear French and a paper guide to the abbey, I managed to pick up most of what he was talking about. The gist is, the monastery was founded around 1000, did very well for itself throughout the middle ages, and then fell into disrepair during the French Revolution. It was very recently restored and taken over by the Beatitudes Christian community. I looked them up on-line, and their mission statement seems pretty inclusive and cool (for a Christian Evangelical community). Overall, it was definitely worth the visit, and gave me lots of mental imagery to play with for in-monastery settings of games and stories.

I thought it would be fitting to shoot a Name of the Rose movie here, but there already is one, shot in a much larger and more imposing monastery in Germany. I guess larger and more imposing is a better fit for all the dark themes in Name of the Rose, but Saint Michel de Canigou really looks like a fortress, set to protect hidden knowledge! I digress, however.

We spent the evening at a beach town, walking along the boardwalk, hanging out on the beach, reading, and ultimately eating really delicious rice in squid ink sauce (!). The food was very good, and our server was amazing. Now, I’m back in the hotel, and going to bed, looking forward to some Cathar castles tomorrow!

Off to Europe: Barcelona, End, and Southern France

July 22, 2011

Dear readers,

Apologies for the delay in writing! Troubles, internet and otherwise, have kept me from posting. On the plus side, I publish two entries today!

Also a note: if you have been keeping up with my last few updates, you will note that they are pretty raw and missing pictures and links. Once I am back in the states, I plan on going over my travel entries and cleaning them up. I’ll announce the clean versions on twitter (@vlad43210). Now, on to the diary!

My last day and a half in barcelona (tuesday and wednesday morning) were mostly hectic. Tuesday was a lot of conference, followed by dinner with some grad students. That night there was a lot of walking around evening barcelona, then a lot of discussing research over beer and tapas. Wednesday was largely taken up by travel logistics, though I was able to see casa mila, a downtown mansion transformed by the.mad architect gaudi into something flowing, liquid looking. The roof has towers and chimneys that look like trees, and both the inside courtyard and the outside walls are covered in smooth waves of stone. it was strange and very cool and made me think it would be great to have a bioshock type game with level design in the style of gaudi. Gaudishock?

Thursday we began vacationing for real, with a trip to two old monasteries, serrabone and saint michel de cuxa.

Serrabone is hidden deep in the hills, and has a really cool gallery with overlapping arches that give the impression of great distance despite being only some forty foot square. it also has a great garden with lots of plants, spice and otherwise. There was mint and lavender, but the overwhelming smell was rich and salty, I couldn’t place it.

Saint michel de cuxa is impressive for being really old. The architecture style is pre romanesque and the arches look like keyholes. There is also an impressively complete crypt with neat hidden passages.

We finished the day with a trip to the city of Perpignan, lovely food and street music. I went to bed relaxed, and thinking about the next stop: more monasteries, and beach!

Off to Europe: Barcelona, Part Two

July 19, 2011

Monday, July 18
A long day of conference. My brain is awash with ideas, but I need time to process them all. Keep going back and forth about whether I should rewrite some of the papers I’m working on to take more methods into account. I think I’ll stick with one rewrite, one not. But that’s no fun to talk about… you know what’s more fun than papers? Robot Opera!*

So after the conclusion of main conference events, we are all herded off to Palau de Musica Catalunya, for a “special performance.” The palau is a music hall done in beautiful modern style, part fanciful decorations, part simple geometric forms. The simple parts complement the fanciful bits, and the overall feeling is just short of over-the-top.

The special performance is an opera, written by an AI researcher, composed by a neuroscientist, about a robot. The plot is typical Italian opera plot – jealous husband, stifled wife, amorous third party – except the third party is a robot the husband buys. The robot develops self-awareness, decides to become a musician, and falls in lvoe with the wife, all the while cracking AI-related jokes that sent the audience laughing. I don’t think that a non-computer-science-y audience would have enjoyed the whole thing as much, but overall it exceeded my expectations. The music was really nice, a mix of classical Italian opera music (Rossini) and modern classical stuff (Phillip Glass). The singers were surprisingly good. And the plot, while tongue-in-cheek, managed to toe the line between too serious and completely ridiculous. I started listening thinking I’d get up after act one and run off to the reception, but ended up staying through all three acts.

After special performance I run around reception, talking to people, and then head off to dinner with a colleague. Dinner is an intense one-on-one conversation, mostly about work, though we do eventually relax, and talk about travels (I am happy to discover my colleague has not yet heard the Chechnya story). He tells me about touring the USSR and China in the eighties, and we shake our heads at the Cold War world. Conversation grows more sluggish, and we catch a cab back to the hotel. I drift off to bed with Pendergast.

Off to Europe: Barcelona

July 19, 2011

On Friday, I got on a plane to fly to Barcelona for the ICWSM-11 conference on weblogs and social media. In between the conference, I have been exploring the city. Barcelona is amazing, and definitely worth writing about. So I’ve decided to keep a (rough) diary of my visit, definitely to be gone over later with pictures (and maybe even video!). Enjoy, dear readers 🙂

Saturday, July 16.
I get into Barcelona after more than 24 hours of car, airport, plane, aaaairport, plane, bus, metro. Exhausted, but still want to explore. Ask for directions to “good food.” Go out of hotel, find broqueria with delicious bread, tomatoes, garlic, pork, wine… simple meal, nothing fancy (except the pig is in some sort of sauce that reminds me of oatmela except is extremely gentle and sweet), but so delicious. Stagger back, fall asleep with a big smile on my face 🙂

Sunday, July 17.
Wake up around 1pm, feeling much better than yesterday. Quickly check out the pre-conference events, then back and off explording. First – Sagrada Familia. Walk to it, searching for the spires and the construction cranes through a sea of roof. Emerge on plaza and stare, for a really long time. It’s incredible, the detail that went into this, and the scale… the beautifully ornamented facade does not let the eye rest until it travels up to the spires that dwarf the cathedral. It is like a scene out of a fantasy novel. It is like Barad-dur in Tolkien’s dreams. It is a long time before I think of finding a way inside.

I find the solo ticket booth, at long last, and discover tickets are cash only. Find an ATM, get cash, get ice cream just because it’s nice and warm and summer, and stand in line. Get in, and my jaw drops some more. What is heavy and dark on the outside, is full of light in all senses of the word on the inside, but no less incredible for it. The columns look like tree trunks branching, just as the guide book said, but they also look like papier-mache, delicate, totally incapable of supporting the crushing weight laid upon them. There is light everywhere, reflected and broken in bizarre geometric stained glass, and parts of the cathedral are full of such deep blue, such rich green, that I keep thinking of computer simulations. This just *couldn’t* be real. If I touch the walls, they will crumble, and the whole thing will collapse lighlty around me, like a castle of cards.

Walking up to the roof, I am greeted with an impressive view of Barcelona, with the Pyrenees in the background and the Mediterranean off to the side. I run into a Russian mother and daughter and they tell me to look at the fountains near Plaza Espanya. We almost get lost on the way down – there is a delightful lack of handrails and guides, not so much that you can fall and hurt yourself, but enough that we’re left wandering a little labyrinth of winding stairs, and convinced we walked out the wrong way, until the brave daughter pushes on a door (“don’t break it,” the mother remonstrates) and leads us back to the entrance.

I take a short breather and walk to the Plaza Espanya. First explore park Joan Miro near the metro station, skaters and folks frolicking on the grass and walking their dogs. The dogs look a bit wilder than in the States, but definitely happy to be out. I find no fountains, and head back, snapping pictures. Then they come into focus – beyond the Plaza, near a huge palace, row after row of them. A huge crowd is gathering as I walk up, and music starts playing. I approach the fountains at the Plaza Espanya to the New Hope soundtrack from Star Wars. Surreal is not quite the right word. Exhilarating, is.

I stay an watch a long time, through Spanish songs I don’t recognize, through a medley of Disney tracks in Catalan. The fountains flare and fade to the rhythm of the music, change to pale green and, later, pink that echoes glints of sunset on the clouds above. The crowd starts to leave several times, but then a new song draws it back in. I am the same way. At last, reluctantly, I make my way back to the Metro and to La Rambla.

La Rambla is filled to the brim with pedestrians, even though it’s eleven pm. I walk in search of a place to eat, and find a Plaza full of lights and conversation and restaurants on the outside. The center is dark and full of laughing people, mostly teenagers, a few older like myself. I grab dinner at what turns out to be a tourist trap (food-wise), but with excellent service, and read Pendergast while getting slowly drunk on an especially strong bottle of Sangria. The bottle finished, the dinner consumed, I realize that I have a conference to attend in a little over six hours, and stagger back to the Metro, somehow catching the last train (they’ve closed down the station near my hotel by the time I get there, and have to open it for me and the last few stragglers). Sleep is most welcome.

Sketch for the Black Cube Project: Beginnings

July 11, 2011

Diane Earley stood alone in her study. Shadows gathered around the Connecticut manor, as the last few strands of daylight were swallowed up by dusk.

Diane loved this time of night as a child loves it: it was the time to light lamps and tell stories. It was time to eat the last bit of hot food for the day, and find a blanket to keep yourself nice and warm. It was time to scare yourself with things that Should Not Be, and later on drift off into sleep, secure in the knowledge that such things Are Not. The ghosts and the ghouls and the worse things that stalked the night remained safely outside the doors, down the stairs, away from the warmth and the fire.

She should have pursued that M.F.A., she told herself. Friends had said it was a lousy way to make money, but money was the one thing she didn’t need. The Earleys had made their fortune decades before, first in construction, then in IT, and invested it wisely enough that Diane needed not worry about her financial future. She went into financial analysis to make her father happy, and after five years spent on Wall Street, she hated it. She hated the unbearably long hours, the way the seniors treated their juniors like dirt, the way the industry was dominated by men who, regardless of age, were stuck in the fifties when it came to gender equality and respect in the workplace. But what she hated most of all was the lack of surprise. Everything was *so* predictable. People called her co-workers “wizards” and made big eyes when they started talking about derivatives and exotic assets. But really, it was as simple as plugging the same thing into a spreadsheet, working out the same financial formula, over and over again. No surprise. No imagination. No story.

She took her time lighting the fireplace, bringing real firewood in from the garage – none of that propane-doused-self-lighting crap, thank you very much – adding kindling and slowly, painstakingly feeding the first flickers of flame as they rose up in the gathering dark. Soon, a soft orange glow illuminated her face, sharp and angular, framed by shoulder-length black hair. She began to hum as she worked on the fire, a simple yet sinuous melody that she had first heard on a trip to the Middle East several years back.

It had been her first year at the firm and her first overseas trip, to visit an important client in Egypt. She went with three other analysts, who spent their free time trying (unsuccessfully) to obtain booze and hanging around the hotel lobby. Left to her own designs, Diane went exploring. Her first forays weren’t that successful – it turned out, in the Arab world, a woman needed to be accompanied by a man to get anywhere or do anything – so she wised up on the second day of the trip and hired a young Arab boy to be her stalwart protector. Together, they explored crowded Egyptian markets, snuck into underground hookah lounges to escape from the heat, tried halva and smoked sweet-smelling smoke from long pipes. On her last day, the boy suddenly disappeared halfway through their walk – he’d probably heard that she was leaving, and thus no longer paying him – and she was forced to find her way alone. She thought she knew where she was going, so, naturally, she was extremely confident as she got more and more lost. Just at the moment when she realized that the hotel was not, in fact, going to be around the next corner, she’d heard the song.

The fire was blooming now, the heat radiating off her face. She sat back, wiped her hands against each other, and stared into the flames, still humming. She recalled the scene in ever greater detail – standing at the intersection of three impossibly narrow streets without any signs, not even in Arabic, hot, tired, flushed with the first wave of nervousness – and that slow, unhurried melody weaving in from somewhere around the corner. She’d taken a few curious steps towards the sound. It was louder, more insistent now, coming from a dark alley just out of reach. Ignoring her instincts, she’d stepped even closer. And there he was – old, dirty man, dressed in rags, swaying his arms slightly and just singing for the all the world.

It was completely dark now, and even with the crackling fire, it was quickly getting colder. She fumbled around for her bedspread – there it was, where she’d left it last night – and wrapped the warm cloth around her shoulders. Comfy and warm, she returned to her memories.

She’d been standing there, entranced, for what must have been several minutes, when the old man stopped singing and looked at her. He didn’t shoo her away or stare at her, the way people on the streets would when she was alone. He smiled a full smile of yellow teeth, narrowing his eyes to slits, and wheezed out:

“Salaam Aleikem.”
“A-aleikem Salaam,” she stammered back.

The old man’s eyes did not leave her face. He seemed to be searching for something. Finally, he reached his right hand into his robes, and pulled out a crude dagger the blade covered with rust. He thrust the thing, handle forward, towards Diane, and nodded vigorously several times. It was obvious he wanted her to take it. She complied.

Diane closed her eyes, trying to remember the weight of the thing, the surprising coldness of metal on a hot summer day. Three Arabic letters were inscribed on the handle: aleph, lam, mim, from right to left. The man’s hands had gone back to his sides as soon as she took the dagger, and he resumed singing his plaintive song. Diane didn’t know what to do, so she bowed and walked back to the intersection. There, she finally found her disappeared guide and protector – it looks like he wised up and came back for one final payment. She’d tried to ask him about the man, the dagger, but the boy only shrugged his shoulders. It was obvious the dagger was of no monetary value, so it wasn’t important to him. The trip concluded soon after. They’d struck the deals they needed to, her co-workers were happy, her boss was happy, but she couldn’t help feeling vaguely dissatisfied.

The memory was over now, but the melody remained. It hung heavy in the darkness, refusing to let go, the night-time mood adding a touch of menace to the low, glottal tones. She thought back to the letters, which she’d since learned were associated with a concept of ultimate mystery in Arabic mysticism. Some things only Allah is meant to know. Well, maybe that’s how it was with that rusted piece of metal and that old, crazy man. She nestled herself deeper in the bedspread and sighed softly, looking for a pillow.

That’s when she realized she’d long since stopped humming.