Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tornado Warning!

According to the National Weather Service:


The warning was (is) in effect till 330 PM EDT (another twenty minutes as I write this). I took the above snaps just outside our building and you can see the dark cloud, spinning slowly, but no hail and no actual funnel. The fellow who phoned in the above report says he saw a water spout on Lake Hartwell from the windows in our stairwell. It may have been out there—I was in the stairwell and heard him phone this in, but I didn't see anything myself. Hopefully it stayed away from our house, which is just beyond the lake, from my current perspective.

UPDATE: It turns out there was a tornado and it touched down just outside Fike, the building that houses our campus gym. It took out a rather large tree in the process; we drove by it later that afternoon and were amazed at the damage made to the tree (basically the tree was just twisted off—with a lot of force!).

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Back in Helsinki

After a two hour train ride to Helsinki, I found myself again at the central train station, or Rautatientori, which I think means train station, or at least that's the name of the train station's metro stop. The city was somewhat familiar from my last visit, but I had to walk around a bit to find the rather impressive building seen above. I had thought it was some palatial building, but I believe it's actually a cathedral.

After my quick reorienting walking tour I once again went in search of St. Urho's Pub (next to Storyville) and St. Urho's Plate (the same menu selection I had last time; guess I'm a creature of habit). The dish is a basic steak and fries but it comes with a fried egg on top and two sausage links. Since I had missed breakfast and lunch, this really hit the spot. I got there by tram this time as it is a bit of a walk. I don't mind using the local public transportation (it's generally pretty good in Europe), but it can take me a little while to figure out how it works. Here it looks like you get a ticket that's good for an hour, but it's good for both metro and trams. Figuring out where the trams go was a bit tricky at first since I was trying to mainly use colors to match up the lines and their destinations, but it's easier once you follow the tram line to its endpoint on the map and then read the tram line number that's printed in large font. The line colors are a bit too similar to make distinguishing them easier, but it wasn't obvious to me how to match up the graphical line and the line number. I asked someone and they pointed that out, which immediately made tram navigation easy. In both cases of tram and metro, however, I managed to get on the wrong one, and had to get off and backtrack a bit. But now that I've clued in a bit, I should be able to get around Helsinki faster the next time I'm here. I think I can now manage to get around a few of the European cities with good tram and metro service, e.g., Zurich, Warsaw, and Helsinki are all somewhat similar in this respect.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Finland Blues

Yesterday I finished up my sections of the GaCIT summer school tutorials. I think it went fairly smoothly, much better than at CHI 2008, possibly because of the higher sophistication of the attendees—grad students with some eye tracking experience vs. novice users at CHI. The other contributing factor here is the week-long format compared to the compressed one-day schedule at CHI. So here I had time to set up the lab concept before letting students get their hands on the Tobiis. I think that was fairly effective (at least that's what one of the students said).

After class we went out to El Toro, as students wanted steak for dinner. Nice place with very good food. Somewhat expensive, but that's Europe on a weakened dollar. After dinner I got a tip on a live blues act in town: Erja Lyytinen.

They were great, but only played one set (and a couple of encores). Wish they could have played longer. Today's the last day of the summer school, tomorrow I'm off to Helsinki. I'll have one night there before boarding the plane home early Sunday morning. A couple people here have told me to consult the calender on the Blues-Finland web page. There appear to be two blues acts, one at the Hill Street Bar, the other at Bar Mendocino. If I could use the iPhone in Helsinki, I could probably locate these bars fairly quickly using the Google map, but I'm afraid that each map tile coming in via the cell connection would cost a pretty penny. So I think I'll have to go "old school" and carry a map around.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tour of Tampere

Following excellent presentations of a technical nature, yesterday we embarked on a bus tour of Tampere. We drove through the city and its various areas and landmarks carrying cultural, spiritual, or historic significance. The bus was quite comfy (maybe too much so, easily prompting power naps in between stops). From what I saw at the bus stop prior to boarding the tour bus is that this kind of bus is what Tampere uses for its city buses. Nice! One of the first stops was the church pictured above. It is apparently rather famous (or infamous?) for its somewhat controversial fresco paintings. The one pictured above is of the resurrection, with the line of people at right symbolizing those arisen from their tombs on the way to heaven. There were other non-traditional depictions in the church, e.g., of death, of the 12 disciples (naked and at a very young age, pictured carrying a thorny garland), of snakes, spiders, etc. The symbolism was well explained by the tour guide, but it's a bit too lengthy for me to reproduce here.

One of the stops included a visit to a farmers' market located fairly centrally in the city. A good selection of fresh meats, fish, vegetables, flowers, and other items were available. Nothing apparently processed, all organic, with I think each shop area being individually run as a family enterprise. Even better than our only Whole Foods back at home.

Our last stop before dinner at a Viking-themed restaurant (very good, btw), gave us a view of the two lakes adjacent to the city. The city was founded here because of the 18 m drop between the lakes, which offered a source of power for the textile mill developed as one of the first major industrial employers in this area—Finlayson, a Scottish firm, if I remember correctly.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

GaCIT School and Sauna

Yesterday was the first day of the GaCIT Summer School on Gaze, Communication, and Interaction Technology. The first lecture was an excellent review of visual perception, going back to notable work by Helmholtz, Yarbus, and others, and leading up to modern neurophysiological work on cortical centers implicated in visual attention. It was good to see that portions of my notes were still fairly accurate although purposefully somewhat simplistic, and that there is still (considerable) room for future work. It was rather motivating, actually. I followed this presentation with a more perhaps practical approach to collecting eye movement data that I'll follow on today.

After the lectures we all took a bus to a Finnish sauna, situated at a nearby lake. The sauna is an experience complete with dinner, the hot smoke-fired sauna, followed by a dip in the lake. The sauna and lake provide a contrast of the extremes: hot (very hot) followed by cold (breathtakingly cold, and I mean that literally). Mind you, by the second round of sauna and lake dip, the latter was much more pleasant, not as shocking, and rather quite refreshing. All in all, very enjoyable.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Room in Tampere

Finally got in to Tampere. I left yesterday at 4:00pm (EDT, GMT -5) and got in to my room here at 10:00pm (GMT +2), which would be 3pm my time. So basically 24 hrs in transit, losing a whole day. And boy am I pooped. I slept on the plane to Amsterdam, then on the one to Helsinki, but managed to stay awake on the final 40 minute hop from Helsinki to Tampere.

The room is what I consider a typical Scandinavian room that I've really grown to like from my visits to Finland and Sweden. It's small but it has everything you need and it all works. Notice the tell-tale lack of distinction between shower and bathroom floors. In the US our showers are usually "defined" by some kind of elevated step or some other kind of (fiberglass) enclosure. Here, you basically get a door. But hey, the plumbing works and you get a good shower. Constrast that with Italian plumbing for example...not as good. And remember that hairdyer? There's a normal one in here. I'm looking forward to a good night's sleep and a good long soaking tomorrow (I need both! :) School starts at 9:30am and I need to be ready.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Off to Finland

Flying off to Finland today. Since our truck is showing its age, Corey's going to be driving the beamer to work all week. Might as well start with dropping me off to the airport. I don't often get to sit in the passenger's seat, but it's quite comfy (I dozed off for part of the way). She's already phoned me to tell me she made it home ok and the beamer's safely tucked back into the garage. Have fun driving it to work, Core...but don't get too attached to it :)

Meanwhile, last week I had a chance to look at a couple of new truck alternatives. I'm leaning towards the Dodge at the moment since it has enough power for towing, has enough creature comforts on the inside, 20" wheels, and they're offering tires for life. With about $12,000 in incentives (nobody's buying these gas guzzlers right now), we may be able to buy a new truck for the price of what we paid for our current truck ten years ago. And we bought it used! I think we should jump on this deal shortly after I get back and check out a couple of other trucks like the GMC to see how they stack up. But I think we should grab one of these guys before the 2009 models start showing up in about a month or so. I don't think they'll have similar incentives as the '08s.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Florida Gastronomy ("Cracked Conch or Lobster?") and Parting Shots

Ah, a toast to la dolce vita! That shot was taken at an Italian restaurant off South Beach, Miami, the Tiramesu. For starters, if I remember correctly, Mindy had the Caprese (buffalo mozzarella), Corey had the Antipasto de Casada (cold cuts), and I had the Seppioline alla Veneziana (cuttlefish, sort of like a cross between octopus and squid, although they simply listed octopus in the English menu tranlsation). I don't remember what the entrees were now, but I recall we had a Chianti with dinner and I had a port for dessert in lieu of Vin Santo. I do remember dinner was quite good, however. The next night we went out to a Cuban place that was also pretty decent.

Dinners in Siesta Key were ok, fairly run-of-the-mill, not too fancy. One night I had deep-fried something or other, the next night the girls had pizza, and I think I had mussels. In Key West, the first night we ate at an Italian family restaurant (meh), the second night was a bit better at an outside place, and the last night we went to the Grand Cafe, Key West. The outside place was nice, the food on the verge of being very good (my steak was overcooked), but they ran out of "surf" in the "surf and turf" offering (one of my favorite restaurant choices). I seem to recall they had run out of other stuff as well, but I can't place my finger on what it was now. Mind you we didn't get there till 9 pm or so, which is kinda late. The "we're out of" excuse was encountered again at the Grand Cafe where I wanted to have cracked conch as appetizer. Disappointing. I had the Florida lobster instead (found the surf, finally), but it was served in butterfly fashion instead of having the tail exposed. The latter is much easier to get at. Anyway, Key West has pretty good grub, as well as plenty of drink, cheers!

Gastronomically, Cocoa Beach was a sheer disaster! We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott, and it has got to have one of the worst restaurants I've eaten in in a long while. Maybe ever. It's a definite candidate for Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares program. (If you haven't seen this show, I highly recommend it; Ramsey has no problem ripping into loser chefs.) In fact when they asked us if we wanted anything else, Corey and I both thought of a "sick bag" (what Ramsey asks for and then promptly pukes in, right in front of the chef!). So that was a bit of a disappointing way to end an otherwise memorable road trip. I chose the pic at left cause it seems to say "No more shots!". So I'll leave it at that, salut!

Florida Nightlife

Some descriptions of the nightlife we uncovered in Florida...Siesta Key had but one small street with a few restaurants and bars. The restaurants weren't super, but they weren't bad. As to the nightlife, it was surprising for such a small area how many live music acts they had. I think over the two nights we were there we saw about three different bands, and I think I heard one more in some cluster of bars tucked away behind in the interior of a set of buildings. The one pictured here is SKOB: Siesta Key Oyster Bar and as you can see it's packed for such a small place. There should be a tiny corner cut out at left for a small band.

Miami's South Beach was much livlier as one would expect. Its Latin influence is world renown. Indeed we heard accents from various places in the world, certainly a large European tourist contingent was present. At right is a three man acoustic guitar act we happened upon that evening, the Fox Trio. Flamenco style guitar with father Fox in the middle and the two sons on either side. The mom would come out to dance on stage every so often. Really good guitar skill, we bought a CD and listened to it on the way home.

Finally, Key West of course has a bevy of well known bars, ranging from Sloppy Joe's, to Hog's Breath, to The Green Parrot. That's Sloppy Joe's pictured at right. The girl in the pic might look like Mindy but it was the lady sitting behind us. Mindy and Corey are somewhere out on the dance floor. The band was playing 80s stuff, reminding me of Klaxon's upcoming gig in a couple of weeks. Well, if all of these people were jumping to this band, maybe Klaxon has a chance of filling up the dance floor as well. We'll see. My apologies for the quality of the pics, but well, they reflect the blurriness that sets in after spending a few hours in these places ;)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Florida Beaches

Here's a review of Florida beaches and by the bye a comparison of east coast (Atlantic) beaches and west coast (Gulf Coast) beaches. So first up, and the first stop on our road trip, is Siesta Key. I just love the color of the water there: emerald! I'm not sure why it's so bright, but I think it's just stunning. Maybe it's the contrast against the white sand or maybe because it isn't very deep very quickly. Do you see me in the distance in the pic? I'm standing on a sandbar out there. So at this particular stretch of the beach, it's shallow, then slightly deeper, then it gets shallow again before it drops in depth once again. I think these shallows make for nice waves. However, I don't want to say exactly where this beach is because at this public beach entrance there were hardly any people. Meanwhile, a short walk down the beach Corey and Mindy tell me that there was a bunch of people packed tightly together. I didn't go for the beach walk as I was happy where I was. One of my favorite "local" beaches.

Above are two views of South Beach, Miami. The playground of the beautiful and (filthy) rich! I'm not sure any of us are either, but we managed to sneak in anyway. Not only that, but we got superb room upgrades at the Ritz-Carlton. When I booked our rooms I just recall clicking on the Deluxe Room selection. Upon arrival we learned we got free upgrades to the Lanai Oceanfront Suite. This upgrade was worth about $1,200 as the latter is worth about $1,500 a night! I'm not sure how we lucked out but we scored big this time. Probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing... Of course everything was very pricey here. None of the lounge chairs, umbrellas, nor drinks on the beach are free. In fact, as I recall, three drinks cost us about $40. Meanwhile, the beach, while nice (good entrance, nice sand), was not all that much better than Siesta Key. The water was colder, and the beach more crowded as you can see. Off the beach, Miami has a wide selection of excellent restaurants, clubs, etc. We only went to a couple of restaurants, one Italian one Cuban, both were very good. On this point Miami certainly has more to offer. But of course at cost.

Finally, further up north from South Beach is Cocoa Beach. One of many similar beaches on Florida's Atlantic coast, not too far away from Daytona. We happened to get there in the late afternoon, just in time to see this offshore storm. The beach looked ok, but the water was noticeably colder. We never really had time to go in as we left the next morning, but I've been to Daytona before. Meanwhile, my choice of hotel here, the Courtyard by Marriott Cocoa Beach was just subpar. The room was ok, but the hotel restaurant's food was probably the worst I've ever been served. Corey's Caesar salad was swimming in the dressing. The penne and meatballs was similarly oily. I had the chicken wings. Deep, deep, deep fried. Dreadful. So on that note, we decided to pack it up the next morning and hit the road at 06:00.

Oh, why no pictures of the beach at Key West? Because simply put we've not found a good beach there. There may be one, but we haven't really bothered looking. Key West is like a sunnier, warmer New Orleans. In fact Duval Street is somewhat similar in spirit to Bourbon Street. So even though I saw families with kids there, in my mind, Key West is more adult-oriented. Lots of fun bars, decent restaurants, but no beach.

Road Trip 2008

This year for our summer holiday Corey wanted to drive down to Key West, FL with stops along the way so that the drive wouldn't be too taxing. I suggested Siesta Key, just south of Sarasota, as the first stop. About a 9 hr drive from here. Corey's sister flew in to Sarasota and grabbed a cab to a small place I found on the internet that we rented for a couple of nights. I should have made more pictures, but this is the only daytime shot I managed to get on the iPhone. It's just of Corey and Mindy as we were walking to the restaurants/bars and came across a couple of colorful houses along the canal. I like Siesta Key for its beach and for the idea of a home along one of these canals, where you could park your boat in relative calm, compared to Gulf waters. These canals are popular in other parts of Florida as well. The beach at Siesta Key is really nice, with warm water and an excellent entrance (no rocks, just white sand). I'll try to upload a pic from Corey's camera later. After Siesta Key, we drove down to Miami where we stayed at the Ritz-Carlton right on South Beach. Yeah, we semi-splurged there but got lucky with room upgrades. After that it was Key West and then after three days' stay we left Mindy to catch her flight while we drove up to Cocoa Beach. The beach at Cocoa was only so-so, so we decided to get up early on Sunday and head home. Another 9 hr drive just in time to unpack and pick up the cats from their "hotel". I'll post more later on the trip details as I pack for Finland...