Sunday, December 14, 2008

Road Trip from New Orleans to Chicago

Kristof and I are back in Belgium after a very pleasant road trip from New Orleans all the way up to Chicago. I don’t have much time for writing, so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…

Here we are still in New Orleans, more specifically in a bar in Bourbon Street were a blues band was playing:

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On Thursday, Michaël, Kristof and I went to visit a sugar cane plantation close to New Orleans. Here we are next to the Mississippi River:

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while this is the nearby “Oak Alley Plantation”:

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The plantation’s site says that “The quarter-mile canopy of giant live oak trees, believed to be nearly 300 years old, forms an impressive avenue leading to the classic Greek-revival style antebellum home.” Impressive? For sure!

On Friday morning, we hit the road for Chicago. This shot was taken from the window between New Orleans and Birmingham:

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We stopped briefly in Birmingham, Alabama to visit the Civil Rights Centre. This is of course the ideal spot for a statue of Martin Luther King:

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After the visit we hopped back into the car and off we went. Another typical view—note the Greyhound bus—through the rear window:

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and one through the front window:

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We spent Friday night in Nashville, Tennessee. Because of lack of space: pictures only on request… On Saturday we continued from Nashville to St Louis, Missouri. There, I defied the bitter cold and the shrieking gale to bring you this picture of St Louis by night:

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And on we went to Chicago…

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The first snow started showing up and it was getting bitter cold:

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However, freezing cold or not, this picture was certainly worth while the stop:

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And then, finally, Chicago! This picture was taken on Sunday morning on top of the John Hancock building. In the far right you can see the Sears Tower, the highest building in the USA:

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Then we went on to Grant Park and Millennium Park, where the famous Cloud Gate—more commonly known as The Bean—is situated:

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We spent a very pleasant last evening in company of Filip—who happened to be in Chicago at the same moment as we were—and some of his very congenial American friends.

And then, back to Belgium on Tuesday morning! Another unique experience in the USA had come to an end…

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Back in the US of A

Here we are again in the USA for the Globecom 2008 conference in New Orleans. A city still heavily marked by the devastating passage of Katrina 3 years and 3 months ago: only about half of the inhabitants have returned, complete neighborhoods are still in tatters and the rebuilding of infrastructure such as bridges and roads is not yet finished. All in all the city gives a sad impression. The blues, you know…

One area that has fully recovered however, is the French Quarter. This is the place where the colonial presence of the French remains very visible. It’s like walking through a small French town, with as only difference the rectangular street pattern. The oldest pub in town, which belonged to the pirate Lafitte if I got it right, is situated here:


We went for a drink here with Peter and Michael, two colleagues from IMEC:


Afterwards, we went for a local beer:


in the good company of Kristof:


Kristof is a PhD student from the KU Leuven and like Michael also a friend from at university. After the conference, Kristof and I will rent a car and make a road trip all the way to Chicago. More about that later…

At about noon, we left for a “swamp tour”: a boat visit of one of the many swamps in the surroundings of New Orleans. We were not sure whether we were going to see alligators, so I ate them instead:


Indeed, a combination of two “local” specialties: American beef jerky with Louisiana alligator meat! For dinner I also had an alligator appetizer. Tastes and looks somewhat like chicken…

In the swamps, we saw this house that was lifted from its foundations by Hurricane Katrina, was carried a couple of hundreds of meters by the water and smacked down in the middle of the swamp:


It’s a sturdy thing: it remained pretty much intact after the hurricane. However, it was impossible to move it back to its original place so the inhabitant had to find another residence…

We also saw a couple of cool birds:


and I even held a small alligator:


I’m not kidding here, it really was a live animal! It had been abandoned by its mom and the rangers picked it up. Now it is raised by them, and it will be set free once it is big enough to survive on its own. Unlike other animals, alligators don’t lose their instinct while held in custody, so they can be released afterwards without re-training them to catch their own food.

Now this picture allows me to end with a little joke:


Michael walked into a doctor’s office with an alligator on his head. The doctor asked “What’s the problem?” and the alligator answered “Well it all started with a wart on my left foot…”

Sunday, November 23, 2008

First Snow!

Belgium just had its first snow of this Winter. Bad for drivers, good for photographers. This is what our garden looks like now:

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Back to Secondary School!

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into my former secondary school teacher of Latin and Greek, Jan Defauw. In his spare time, Jan is a city guide in Antwerp. One of his favorite exhibitions at this moment is the one in Het Steen in Antwerp about the Red Star Line:


So when Jan and I met these couple of weeks ago, we soon hit upon the idea of organizing a guided visit to this exhibition with our former class of Latin and Greek. Last weekend, that moment had come:

EllisIslandDefauw (1 of 8)

The Red Star Line was a shipping company that was active from about 1870 until 1930. Its main activity was the immigration from Europe to the USA. Apart from some ship models and utensils, the exhibition was mainly focused on photographs. The vivid and passionate arguments of Jan however, made every picture come alive so that we all hung on his lips for the whole time:

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After the exhibition, we went to a nearby cozy bar to catch up on the evolution of our former school, what everyone had been doing since we left there, and the plans for the future:


We promised ourselves not to wait another eight years to organize the next meeting… After the drink, Jan and some of us left. The others continued to the restaurant De Negen Vaten for dinner:

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Underway, I had a nice chance to take this picture of Het Steen by night:

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By the way, the good pictures in this post—that is, the first and the fourth ones—were taken by Philip… In the restaurant, Evi and Elke joined us for dinner. The food was nice, the atmosphere even better:

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I forgot to take a picture of my plate before starting to eat. However, this one was taken afterwards:

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You have to admit that, even eaten, it still looks delicious, doesn’t it?

Jan, thanks again for sharing the catching and vivid stories behind the pictures of the exhibition with us! We all agreed that you still haven’t lost any of your teaching vigor and enthusiasm. We will certainly contact you again soon to show us more hidden gems of our gorgeous home town…

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Bike Trip to the Ardennes

Last weekend we went on a trip to the Ardennes by motorbike. We, that would be Maarten, who is a former fellow university student and now a good friend, his cousin Ben, Lynn, a colleague PhD student from IMEC, and her boyfriend Dries. Or, from left to right: Ben, Wim, Maarten, Dries and Lynn:

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Why on Earth would we take a girl on a motorbike trip, I can hear those who own a bike think. Well, for cooking, obviously! However, as you can see from the black spaghetti pot, that was not such a good idea:


But we have to admit that Lynn did a good job saving our lives by keeping us away from the tempting abbey ales. Oh yes, those are all hot chocolates there:

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Lynn must have known that I would put the spaghetti-disaster story on my blog: afterwards, she did not want to be recognized in the pictures anymore:

Motoweekendje (4 of 8)

Obviously, another way not to be recognized was taking the pictures herself. Here, we are in the abbey of Orval. Next year, we’ll just leave the bikes at home so that we can pay a “decent” visit to the brewery!

Motoweekendje (5 of 8)

Dries and Lynn went home on Sunday evening. Maarten, Ben and I stayed until Monday evening. By then, we were getting a little fed up of each other, so Maarten started to talk to the ducks rather than to us:


The Castle of Horst, home of Johan the Red Knight, was our last stop together:

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Here, our roads split. An amazing weekend, without accidents or bad weather, with an excellent atmosphere and beautiful rides had come to an end.

Last year, we were three. This year, Dries and Lynn joined us and assured us afterwards that they would very probably come again next year. Any other volunteers will of course be very welcome too…

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Writer-Engineer’s Dilemma

I haven’t had much time to write lately, but here we are again. This post is not about any topical event. Rather, it is about the  musing of an engineer trying to write correctly. More specifically, about quotation marks and how they relate to other punctuation like periods and commas. So, Ellen, stop wasting your time here…

For the engineer’s viewpoint, let’s start with the mathematics. In mathematics, parentheses serve as “delimiters” of a part of an expression. Therefore, regardless of the context, the following mathematical expression can never be correct: x = [a + (3.b - c]). Ouch, it even hurts to commit this to paper. (Never mind that the parentheses are not even needed at all in this expression.)  Indeed, the matching pairs of parentheses should be closed accordingly: you first have to close the parentheses ( ), and only then the brackets [ ]. Therefore, the correct expression is x = [a + (3.b – c)].

Now for the language, that is, the writer’s domain. If you think of a sentence as being “delimited” by its starting capital and its period at the end, this capital and period are the equivalent of mathematical parentheses. The same applies to quotation marks: the first pair (“) opens the quotation, the second pair (”) closes it. So far so good…

Now what happens if an engineer/mathematician tries to correctly combine quotation marks and punctuation? Upon asking the engineer, he stated, “I really prefer this form”. That is, you open the sentence with a capital (Upon), then you open and close the quotation with quotation marks, and finally you close the sentence with a period. Logically, the closing quotation marks should precede the period.

Afterwards, the engineer added, “However, I am aware that this is the correct form.” In other words, you first open the sentence, then the quotation, then you close the sentence and only afterwards you close the quotation. That would be the mathematical equivalent of stating x = [a + (3.b - c])—plainly  wrong! Nevertheless, in language—at least in English—this seems to be the correct way to construct your sentence.

You could argue that the closing period matches the capital at the start of the quotation (However), and that that is why the period should be placed before the closing quotation marks. But then the only correct form would be “However, I am aware that this is the correct form.”. And that looks even more awkward, doesn’t it?

More of this? Try this site (or more specifically for this post) or the matching book—an excellent reference for writers in English:


Don’t buy it for my birthday though—I already own it. As you would have guessed…

Monday, September 15, 2008

Meatless Meatballs!

1824 pictures, 1756 miles, 345 redwood trees, 71.23 gallons of gas, 53 sequoias, 23 curses for left-driving Americans, 12 drive-in Starbucks americanos, 7 bagels with cream cheese, 2 major cities and 1 bear later, we are back in Belgium.

That is, not to forget 6265.13 air miles  and 1 extraordinary surprise party of course! Thanks Papa, Ann, Tom, Evi, Kris and all those present for making it such a success!

I’ve had quite some positive feedback about this blog. Some of you even asked me to keep on writing, or at least post an epilogue. I think I’ll try to do the former. However, as I prefer quality to quantity, let’s aim at one post per week.

For this week, I've been rummaging around a little in my 1800-plus pictures. Maybe soon to hit the market in Belgium: MEATLESS MEATBALLS!


Friday, September 5, 2008

Back to San Francisco along the West Coast

Thursday morning, August 28. Filip has left for Belgium, Evi and I are starting the last three-day episode of our trip, returning from LA to SF along the Pacific Coast. We will cover most of the distance on Highway 1, which is supposed to be one of America’s most scenic routes…

Our first stop is Santa Barbara: another cute coastal town with the inevitable pier. On this latter, we shared a very fine “Maine lobster”. Afterwards, we played a little with the digital camera, photographing the pelicans on the pier:


Yes, I know that these animals can carry nasty diseases and no, I am actually not even touching the bird! Take a closer look and convince yourself…

In the afternoon, we continued toward San Luis Obispo. This city has a vibrant college life, as it is home to “Cal Poly,” another one of University of California’s campuses. In the evening, we strolled a little on the local farmers’ market, had dinner there, and then returned to the hotel for a good night’s sleep:


The next day, we had our breakfast in Morro Bay, named after the “Morro Rock”. Or maybe the rock is named after the bay, whatever. Anyhow, Morro rock is an impressive block of granite smack in the middle of the bay:


After a good American breakfast—omelettes and bacon, French toast and free-refill coffee—we continued toward “Hearst Castle”. William Randolph Hearst was a media tycoon and must have been one of the richest men in the World around the end of the 19th century-beginning of the 20th century. He really lived the American Dream: his father came to California, discovered silver, invested the proceeds in huge amounts of land along the Pacific coast—where huge means HUGE: they own more than 100km of coast line, pretty much all you could see from up the hill is their property. Anyhow, son Hearst became a very successful media tycoon and set about building his mansion on the family grounds. This is the outdoor swimming pool…


while this is the castle’s main entrance:


I must admit that I was a bit skeptical at first about the whole “castle” thing. But we were very happy we made the visit in the end. It is an amazing piece of architecture, exaggerated in size but pretty elegant, completely designed by one of America’s most important architects of those days, surrounded by gorgeous gardens:


After our visit, we headed for the “Big Sur” region, which stretches along the coast and encompasses many state parks with redwood groves. Along the way, we encountered a couple of seals basking in the sun on the beach:


and we visited this beautiful bay with a waterfall falling right into the ocean—it is in the picture, but you have to look closely:


We then continued to Monterey, where we spent the night in the century-old “Monterey Hotel,” but only after Evi enjoyed another Maine lobster—making the most of the cheap dollar, you know… I settled for crab this time, because even with a cheap dollar, this kind of trips and all the shopping were starting to weigh heavily on my credit cards ;-).

The next day, we visited  the Monterey Aquarium. It features a three-storey high tank with, among others, huge tuna fishes and a small white shark. We couldn’t use the flash for photographing this tank though, so you get some jellyfish instead—they seemingly don’t mind being in the spotlights:


And I was allowed to use my flash on this creature, too:


At noon, we left Monterey for Santa Cruz . This is a surfer’s town with a less upscale, more laid-back  attitude than Monterey. It features a classical “boardwalk”: a collection of luna parks, a roller coaster, and some other attractions:


We then continued toward San José, more or less the capital of Silicon Valley. This is its oldest house, an adobe structure from in the early days of Spanish settlement:


and this is one of its newer buildings:


I think these might be the headquarters of Adobe, a giant computer firm, probably named after the type of house in the previous picture. These modern buildings now dominate the city’s streets. You immediately notice that this is a place where a lot of money is made. The streets are very clean and pleasant with cozy restaurants, and most remarkably: there are hardly any fast food chains present here!

Afterwards, we briefly passed by Palo Alto. The atmosphere is pretty similar to San José but the city seems somewhat smaller. After a quick visit to Stanford University’s campus—huge, expensive an pretty nice—we continued to Half Moon Bay where we had the best dinner of our holiday in the Mediterranean restaurant  “Café Gibraltar”.

Then we drove to the airport, slept in the car at the drop-off point until 5AM, and got our flight back to Belgium. All nice stories must come to an end…