Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Berkeley Bizarre: The Fishmobile

Berkeley is no longer the hotbed for leftish politics that it used to be. However, hippies and homeless can still be found in a higher concentration than elsewhere, as well as the smell of weed in the street. Therefore, I wanted to make “Berkeley Bizarre” a returning topic, covering “odd” things that I encounter in the streets. As I will only be three more weeks in Berkeley however, this plan might never really materialize…

Anyhow, consider this “Fishmobile” for instance, that I encountered yesterday while running:


I don’t have the faintest idea of which purpose it should serve, or about the motives of its owner to create such a masterpiece, but anyhow it looked quite cozy inside:


I didn’t want to linger on too long to take more detailed pictures. In the end, that might have looked a bit… fishy.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

America, not Belgium: Danger!

Sometimes, Americans seem a little obsessed with risks in daily life, especially when it concerns their health. I found this one at the entry of a supermarket. It doesn’t need too much explanation I guess:


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rockin’ in Aantwaarpe!

No more San Francisco this time, but time for a flashback to Antwerp! As some of you know, my sister got married in the month of May. My father, brothers and I set up some sort of “family-surprise-rock-band” and played a couple of songs on her wedding. And yes, my dear friends, this blog is proud to bring you an exclusive preview of our whole set…

So crank up the volume, hit the play button, boost the movie to full screen and dig this!

Crazy Little Thing Called Love from Flaming Philip on Vimeo.

In the movie, you might have recognized my father at the bass, my brother Tom at the mike, my other brother Bruno dealing with the drums and me handling that gorgeous Fender Stratocaster lead guitar…

After this song we played “You don’t know me” from Milow and “Nothing else matters” from Metallica. (If you should check out the latter’s site: these guys might be better than us, but for sure they are also far more ugly!)

To view the other songs of our set, just click on the link under the movie and browse the other movies by Flaming Philip, our professional photographer/movie maker—thanks again, Phil! For those too lazy to click through to the movies, allow me to put my second favorite here, the last song of our set:

Rockin' In The Free World from Flaming Philip on Vimeo.

Oh Lord, what about that ending! Ain’t we rockin’ the place! Actually, this video was cut at the end because women of all ages just invaded the stage—a little embarrassing, and certainly not suited for this blog. One of them even tried to steal my boxer shorts, can you imagine? So, although we are clearly not short of groupies, you might want to leave your profile information in the comments, you never know!

And of course, please do lavish your praise for them funky bass lines, those compelling vocals, these thrilling drum riffs and that fat guitar solos on us in the comments…

Monday, July 21, 2008

More SF: Chinatown, North Beach, Russian Hill and Batman in IMAX…

Last Saturday morning, Jimmy, some guys from the lab and I went to see “Batman: The Dark Knight” in an IMAX movie theater in SF. IMAX means that he screen is HUGE and curved such that it fills your whole view, with sound coming from behind the screen. Quite impressive…

Afterwards, we went for lunch in “The Stinking Rose,” an Italian “garlic restaurant” in North Beach:


The whole menu is built on garlic—enormous amounts of it. They even have “garlic ice cream” for dessert! We tried it, and it was not bad actually. Maybe because our taste buds were already completely saturated by then…

After lunch, I went to visit Chinatown. I entered by the gate on Bush Street:


It’s a colorful quarter that really makes you feel a little in China:


Compared to the ones of New York and Honolulu, SF’s Chinatown is pretty clean and open. Maybe that is because of the busloads of tourists that descend on the main street—Grant Avenue—every day. However, even the back alleys were clean and quiet, without the touristy crowd:


You can tell that you are dealing with “real Chinese” here from the old men playing Mahjong in the streets, giving the finishing touch to the China-atmosphere:


After visiting Chinatown, I returned to North Beach, the city’s Italian quarter. I certainly want to return here to sample some of the myriad of cozy Italian restaurants.

However, after our garlic-lunch I could not stand lingering too long in this neighborhood any more, so I continued along Columbus Avenue towards Russian Hill, a primarily residential neighborhood with some incredibly steep hills and matching views:


This is the quarter where you can find the famous “Lombard Street.” It is so incredibly steep that cars’ brakes used to give up on it every now and then, with tragic consequences. Therefore, the city decided to add some artificial curves to it, which makes the street so unique. The Sun was already low when I got there, and I could not manage to make decent pictures from the street, but if you look it up on Google maps, you can use “street view” to take a virtual walk around there:

View Larger Map

Then, it was time to go home again…

Thursday, July 17, 2008

If You’re Going to San Francisco…

Okay, do not read on below the movie yet! Just turn on your sound, push the play button of the YouTube movie clip below and watch the song until the end…

I will first insert a completely irrelevant picture here such that you will not even glance further down during the song: these are the elevator buttons of the lab:


And this is what I have done to them while waiting for the elevator, after figuring out that they were not fixed:


Fun to watch people hesitate before choosing the right button! ;-)

Anyhow, back to the song. For those who did not make it until the middle of the song and for those who did make it until the end, but are not very familiar with the World’s Epicenter’s cultural heritage, this is where the movie clip was recorded:

View Larger Map

In Aantwaarpe nondedju! I will gladly offer a “Keuninckske” on a “terraske oep de Groenplaats” to the first one to explain this queer coincidence to me in the comments!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Another Day in SF: The Mission, The Castro, Twin Peaks and Golden Gate Park

Last Sunday I spent another day in San Francisco. I took my bike on BART and got off at 16th St. Mission Station. The Mission District takes its name from the oldest building in the city, Mission Dolores, built by the Spanish in the late 1700s. However, nowadays the adjoining basilica is far more impressive:


The Mission is a lively and colorful neighborhood, well known for its hundreds of colorful murals, one of the most impressing ones being on the Women’s Building:


However, probably the most peculiar fact about The Mission is that it is so ethnically diverse. Latinos dominate, but Chinese also abound and Italians are never far off either. And unlike in the other American districts I have already visited, here all these cultures are seamlessly integrated. This is quite strikingly illustrated in this picture—pay attention to the restaurant signs:


Even the cars in the streets contribute to the unique atmosphere:


Anyhow, after loitering about for a while in Dolores Park—where we had our 4th of July picnic—I moved on to the next district: The Castro. This district is the epicenter of SF’s sizable gay community, which you can tell from the color of some houses: ;-)


After The Castro, I went on to climb the Twin Peaks, or at least one of them. I had already experienced that covering distances by bike in SF can be deceiving, as the maps in my guidebook do not show elevation contours. However, this climb still surprised me a little… It was really worth while though, as on top of the peaks you have an impressive view on the whole city:


The straight road, clearly visible in the picture, is Market Street. It leads into the financial district with all the skyscrapers. Behind it is the Embarcadero. On the other side of the peak, I could just discern the Golden Gate in the distance:


However, the typically San Franciscan fog—no smog thanks to the ever-present ocean breeze/wind/gale—makes it hard to see. After descending from the Twin Peaks, I continued towards the Golden Gate Park, SF’s largest, which is more than 5 km long. In the park, I visited the Conservatory of Flowers:


This conservatory is home to thousands of exotic plants:


and some butterflies:


The park is not only huge, it is also perfectly maintained and has innumerable quiet, scenic spots with water and beautiful trees:


I don’t know if you could get enough of it soon—I couldn’t…


Having traversed the whole park from East to West, I finally arrived at Ocean Beach:


There, I turned northwards where I still saw some stunning cliffs:


and crossed the last district of the day, The Richmond, following Clement Street all the way back to the east. Here, I found out that there is actually a New Chinatown growing, with Clement Street as its hart. Considering that the old one is already the biggest in the World, that says something about the Chinese population here…

I returned to Berkeley, tired, hungry and a despite all sunscreen a little sunburned, but utterly satisfied and ready to tackle a new week!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Good Food: Ethiopian

Last week, Jimmy’s girlfriend Angelique joined us for two weeks. We celebrated her arrival in an Ethiopian restaurant:


By the way, if anyone can tell me how to are supposed to make good pictures of black people in the dark, please do share it in the comments. Either you use your flash and they are all shiny, or you don’t and you just see one big smile. ;-)

The meal in the next picture is not just a huge American portion:


but a regular Ethiopian meal, which is—like in a lot of Sub-Saharan cultures as Jimmy told me—served on one big plate in the middle of the table, from which you all eat together. And no, I am not being impolite, you are really supposed to eat the food with your hands. However, if everyone is really hungry, this can lead to rather embarrassing scenes…


Last weekend, Jimmy and Angelique were out for a couple of days, whereas Alex has left for a holiday in Europe. In the meanwhile, I was surviving on less noble food:


Not just cheeseburgers, mind you, but microwaveable cheeseburgers! I know, old habits die hard…

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Independence Day Weekend

Last Friday was the fourth of July—Independence Day—which meant a prolonged weekend. On Friday, I went to a picnic in Dolores Park with Tom, his girlfriend Jen, and a bunch of people I never met before. Picnicking is really popular here: everyone brings something to eat or drink and you just hang out for a couple of hours talking, playing cards, frisbeeing and what more. The weather was beautiful so the park was pretty busy:


Around 6 PM we returned to Tom’s place. Tom only moved from Atlanta to SF a couple of weeks ago. Therefore, he still lives in a temporary apartment rented by his company. The complex includes a heated outdoor pool with Jacuzzi, a sort of “mini-cinema” with a HUGE flat screen, but far more importantly: a pool table…

We decided on playing a couple of rounds, not aware that a Chinese inhabitant of the complex had planned a party in the entertainment area. (Afterwards we found out that he had actually reserved the place for it, so we really “crashed” his party—albeit unknowingly.) I think he had invited about half the Chinese population of SF, and that means a lot of people: the Chinese were “imported” by the thousands to work on the transcontinental railroad in the late 1800s. They stuck around ever since, which is why SF has the largest Chinatown in the world.

So there we were in the middle of this merry crowd of partying Chinese. We decided to play pool in teams of two, Tom and I played together. The winning team would always stay on for the next game, the loser was to be replaced by a new team. With an enormous amount of luck Tom and I stayed on for about 7 games, after which—still unbeaten—we “generously” gave our position away. By then we were amply supplied with beers, Korean BBQ, hamburgers and excellent roast beef by the impressed Chinese.

Shortly after dark, you are supposed to go and see the fireworks for Independence Day. However, San Francisco is often pretty cloudy with a fireworks-visibility factor approaching zero. Therefore, Tom and I decided we could just as well spend our time on some more practice—a little quieter this time as all the Chinese were out:


After a while the Chinese came pouring back in. By the time we planned to leave, the beer had rendered most of the chatter into Chinese. Upon leaving, I could just not resist asking them “为什么你们说汉语?”—I know, vanity… ;-) Anyhow, the effect was startling. The crowd went nuts, I had to tell them were I studied Chinese, why on Earth I started it, if I had already been to China, what I thought about it and so on and on. Never before have I been offered so many beers in such a short time span. I’m definitely going to use this trick this again—next time I will just think about it a little earlier in the evening…

Consequently, you can understand that Saturday was bound to be a quiet and lazy affair. By Sunday anyhow, I was ready to discover another piece of SF. I had an appointment with Reya to pay both Jimmy’s and my rent. As we had agreed to pay cash, and as the ATM machines only deliver 20-dollar bills here, I went there with this huge wad in my pockets: $1700 in small notes, go figure… We met on 2nd and Market and decided that it would not be wise to make the transaction in the street. So we found a quite, dusky corner in the nearest Starbucks—which was obviously not far off. There I shoved the wad, folded in a paper, towards Reya for her to count it—again such a “movie-moment.” We had to recount three times each before we were finally convinced that it was the right amount, but then the case was settled and I could go on discovering.

I started off at Union Square, the area where most major hotels are situated and therefore the place to be if you want to do some serious shopping:


Then I passed by the Yerba Buena Gardens, where an open-air opera concert was going on:


It was an amazing spectacle—in a truly unique environment:


After a quick burrito in one of those small “taquerias,” I continued to Civic Center, where SF’s town hall is situated:


In this neighborhood you can also find some charming bookstore annex coffee shop places. The urge was too strong: I went in and bought On The Road by Jack Kerouac—if I was ever to read it, the moment could not have been better. I spent about an hour reading the first chapters with a nice espresso. However, I promised myself that this was the last book I bought in a “physical” bookstore as on they only cost approximately half as much…

Afterwards I wandered around a little by bike, amazed by the abundance of charming, beautiful houses:


I really did not expect this kind of homes in a huge city like SF:


Anyhow, on I went, down Van Ness Avenue towards the Bay. Tom warned me that Fisherman’s Wharf is really a tourist scam and I cannot deny that. Compared to the rest of the city it is really super- and artificial. However, I did like the sight of the sea lions basking in the sun at Pier 39:


And I must admit that, for all its kitsch, this little floating restaurant looked quite cozy for a waterfront candle-lit dinner:


Anyhow, it was not for me to try that evening as Tom and Jen called me to come over and  have dinner in the “21st Amendment”: a bar/restaurant with its own micro-brewery:


After dinner I passed by the Embarcadero for a last glance of the Bay Bridge by night:


and then I hopped on the BART to return to Berkeley. Another exciting weekend in SF had come to an end…

Saturday, July 5, 2008

John Will Rambo

Sensitive readers, beware! This post might not be suited for you.

You are probably all too familiar with the following scenes in an average Hollywood action movie. A hero has just been shot cowardly in the back by a brutal villain, but then manages to escape by elegantly wire-starting a car and swiftly  shaking off his enemies—who got hold of a car by brutally dragging an innocent driver from it—in a breathtaking pursuit. However, as our hero is hiding for the police because of a major conspiracy including a dozen U.S. senators and a Russian cold-blooded serial killer at loose, he cannot just walk into the nearest hospital’s intensive care unit and ask for a decent treatment.

No, our hero will have to take care of himself. (He cannot ask his dazzling girlfriend for any help either, as this would seriously endanger her. Moreover, his best—black—mate has just disappeared mysteriously because of some shady love affair. The colleagues at his agency aren’t any good either: some are compromised and there is a breach in the agency’s security network so that his profile has been widely spread on the Internet now, scaring away the remaining ones who he could possibly still have trusted.)

Therefore, at dusk he walks into one of these American pharmacy ‘supermarkets’ (open 24/7) with his hat drawn deep over his face  and goes like: “I’m gonna need two liters of pure alcohol, a couple of sterile scalpels, a pair of pliers, a box of cotton wool, five candles, matches and oh yeah, throw in a bottle of vodka too! Actually, make that two bottles.” Afterwards, our hero withdraws to a dimly-lit, shabby room somewhere in a backward neighborhood to set about the horrifying task of removing the bullet, himself being on the brink of collapse as can be clearly seen from the sweat pearling on his pale forehead.

That’s more or less what I’ve been through lately—although the context was slightly different. Due to my minor accident of last Sunday, my left big toe (that is, the one on my left foot, which happens to be the rightmost toe on that foot, which, however, does not make it any less my left big toe) was still severely swollen. The problem—and this is a nasty detail which might be skipped by the aforementioned sensitive reader—was that a lot of fluid was captured under my toe nail. And that pressure hurts—badly. (It occurred to me that the guy who came up with pulling out nails as a torture method in the Dark Ages must have been in a similar situation.)

Anyhow, consulting the Internet quickly turned up the right remedy: heating a needle until it is glowing red, and simply poking a hole in the nail such that the fluid is drained. On YouTube you can actually even find some demonstrations of this technique.

If by now you have lost the parallel with the above described movie scenes: I did not want to go to the hospital for nothing as I rather spend my money elsewhere, my girlfriend couldn’t do it as she is some 10.000 km away, Jimmy left with his girlfriend Angelique for L.A. and Las Vegas and my colleagues? Honestly, have you read my previous post?

So there I was in the kitchen, at 1 Am, gathering enough courage to stab this red-hot needle through my toe nail. I left out the vodka as I had to go to work the day after, so no sedatives for me. However, I was not yet familiar with the technique. Therefore, I did not know how much pressure to apply to get through the nail, at the same time not applying too much pressure because under the nail was still my toe… Anyhow, I managed it quite well in the end.

Remains the pharmacy. I needed chloramine to disinfect the foot and ibuprofen pills to further reduce the risk of infection. So I limped to ‘Walgreens,’ one of those supermarket-pharmacies. However, the pharmacist behind the counter had never before heard of chloramine, although I think that it is a pretty common molecule. So I asked for a similar product, anything that you can dissolve into water to disinfect. However, such a thing did not exist to her knowledge. Explaining her that I did know that it existed because I remembered having read about it a thousand times between my ages 7 and 13 in  my ‘SAS survival book’ (pink pills, one per liter water to disinfect it for drinking, two to render the water safe for cleaning wounds and three to obtain an antiseptic solution—I am not sure about these details, so don’t try it at home) did not help either. Finally I ended up buying some regular disinfectant that I guessed would do the trick.

The ibuprofen though is another story: yes, they did have that. Aisle 7. This did not mean that the ibuprofen could be found in aisle 7. No, aisle 7 is the ibuprofen aisle:


I do not have a wide-angle camera so I could not capture the whole expanse of ibuprofen products but believe me: there were a lot of them. So I set about picking the right one—somewhere knowing that it was all exactly the same molecule, even ‘Advil’ and ‘Motrin,’ which are just brand names, and I suspect ‘Tylenol’ to be more of the same too.

Concluding, quite a contrast between the absence of what should be a rather dull and common compound, and the abundance of a best-selling product with which you can fill a whole aisle.

Anyhow, my toe seems to be fine now, and I have a new story for long cafe-evenings and family-gatherings. However, I see that I have written a quite extensive post here. I promise to be a little bit more succinct in the future…

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Look Inside the Lab…

I have shown the U.C. Berkeley campus in one of my previous posts. More specifically, Jimmy and I are working in the Connectivity Lab, a lab ‘bridging theoretical concepts and design issues in communications.’ There you go! If I get an overwhelming surge of requests for more details about the actual research we are doing here, I might write about it in a future post. If I don’t get any requests at all, I will certainly bother you with a more extensive survey.

This is the lab’s entry door:


Quite a door aye? No, I just include this picture here to point out that every piece of infrastructure, every room, lab, building, or even campus bears the name of a most generous sponsor or of an important scientist related to the university. Most often the former, though in this case the latter.

Today is a good moment to have a look inside, because our  60 GHz test chips have just arrived:


The left one is the transmitter, the right one the receiver. Or the other way around. Whatever. This was quite an exiting moment, so all the nerds wanted a picture:


Yep, still more of the same but in another different color…


This last picture is of Guangrong Yue, a postdoc from Chengdu who is heading the 60 GHz activities in the Connectivity Lab.

By the way, talking of nerds, this is how Wikipedia defines them: “Nerd is a term often bearing a derogatory connotation or stereotype, that refers to a person who passionately pursues intellectual activities, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests that are age inappropriate rather than engaging in more social or popular activities. Therefore, a nerd is often excluded from physical activity and considered a loner by peers.” This definition is a little more accessible, though inevitably also less accurate: “A person with limited social, but advanced technological skills and interests.” The most accurate one however, must be this one: “A nerd is very similar to a geek, but with more RAM and a faster modem. Nerds often find geeks dull because geeks don't spend enough time talking about computers.”

Anyhow, we still have Carl, the director of the lab:


and Ian, a graduate student who is always very obliging whenever Jimmy or I have a practical problem:


Indeed, a lot of Asian people, although Carl and Ian are as American as it gets. Most of the time however, Jimmy and I are in our office, not in the lab:


together with Jiwoong, another graduate student who is working here towards his PhD:


The two most important people for our project are missing: Sofie Pollin and professor Ahmad Bahai. Sofie is currently in Belgium for two weeks, but probably you have already seen her in previous posts. As for Ahmad, I have not yet dared to ask for a picture with him ;-). Maybe if the internship is a real success, you will encounter him later on this blog…