Monday, 17 December 2007

Vehicular relief

Wow. I didn't realize how stressed I was about this whole car thing until it was done. And as soon as it was, I just had this mad desire to drive as far as I could and enjoy the car. So on Saturday, I did. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, and I just picked up and drove... I went down to Fishhoek, and then up over Chapman's peak and around the mountain. It was about a 2 hour drive... and man, it always surprises me how amazingly beautiful the peninsula is. Here are a few pictures I managed to get along the way.

At the end of the drive, I ended up downtown, and did some mad Xmas shopping. I usually HATE shopping, and leave it 'til the last moment, but I figured that wasn't really acceptable this time - I had to bring in some African stuffs. So I went crazy and bought a bunch of presents, including some for me and my apartment - check the little skinny African dudes.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Adventures with KB

Ok, let me return to my vacation week. I'll try to only include the interesting bits (but not TOO interesting), and considering my atrocious memory, things may be out of order a bit. But frankly, why do you give a damn?

So another neat thing we did was go to this restaurant, Mama Africa, down on Long Street. It was really cool - they have all kinds of delicious African animals for eating, like crocodile kebabs, snake, springbok, kudu, ostrich, etc. Yum. I strongly suggest the croc. They also had a really cool jazz band playing in the background, tunes like "somewhere over the rainbow" and "swing low." Nice.

We went to the cable car which takes you up the mountain... but unfortunately the wind was too strong and it was closed. There were still some pretty spectacular views, though. So we went down to Camp's Bay instead, which is pretty fantastic (NB: somehow in this whole week we managed to really not get sunburned at all, and I even got a bit of a tan. This is very out of character for me).

At some point we went to this really kick-ass restaurant called Pigalle, which has delicious seafood, and a full-on brass band that you get up and dance to. Really neat place, and outstandingly reasonably priced. Food really is much cheaper here than in NYC... go figure...

We also went to this wine farm which is literally 10 minutes from my house - Groot Constantia. It's one of the oldest wineries in the Cape, and the tasting was really fun. Great wines, too.

Finally, one of the best experiences while Kristen was here was going to the Kirstenbosch Summer Concert. During the summer, Kirstenbosch (the enormous botanical gardens which is a five minute walk from my house) has weekly concerts out on a beautiful lawn overlooking the city, every Sunday. Luckily, the very first one happened to begin the day before KB had to leave, so we pitched up and got to see it. I can't even remember who the singer was (some dude who was touted as "South Africa's Bob Dylan" - lots of folky songs, lots of stuff about oppression and poverty, and a few happy songs, too. But he was really good) but it didn't matter. The whole experience was just such a nice completion to the visit.

Takin' it to the Midge

Huzzah! I finally did it! I got another car! I can now stop driving around the crappy rental I've been driving (which was very cheap, considering, but when you have it for a month, it still adds up). And so I present to you...

Now my main goal is not to have THIS one stolen. To that end, I have had many suggestions, and they have almost all involved the Club. I may take that into consideration, although this guy came equipped with a gear lock - a nifty device that locks the car into reverse so that hopefully no one will steal it. Unfortunately, you must park with your backside to a wall or something, otherwise potential thieves can just reverse it all the way to their waiting van. So maybe I should consider getting a club...

Saturday, 8 December 2007

KB in the Cape

So, I know that it's been two weeks since my vacation with Kristen ended, and I know it is inexcusable that I have yet to put up pictures of penguins and baboons. But in my defense... screw you, I'll do what I want.

And now I want to begin the journey of documenting that journey.

So, Kristen arrived in Cape Town International Airport, and much rejoicing was had (although it took a freaking hour to get through customs and whatnot - I was beginning to think that she'd missed her connection in London, which was entirely possible considering she had like 5 minutes between flights).
First day, not a hell of a lot was done, except we did go grocery shopping and take a really nice drive out to Hout Bay, where they have the best fish & chips in the world. It was shockingly cold, though, and that was annoying. But it did make the waves look stunning in the grey light of twilight, and that made it ok.

Friday, we did some touring of downtown Cape Town, including the cool Greenmarket Square, where there are tons of little stalls with people selling cutesy little jewelry, scarves, African bowls, and salad spoons. Then we went to Renee's birthday party at night, which was really fun, and a great way for Kristen to meet all my Africa friends (she had a great time).

And then... what everyone is waiting for - Saturday we drove down to Cape Point, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. Truly, it was spectacular, and these photos really don't do justice to the awe that the views from the Point inspire.

Cape Point is like a big nature reserve kind of thing, so you have to drive for probably 20 minutes once entering the reserve until you get to the actual point (which is right next to the Cape of Good Hope). Anyway, on the drive out, we were driving along a mostly deserted road, and noticed ahead a line of cars stretching ahead of us. We were shocked that there should be a traffic jam way out there, and there may have been some swearing from the driver. Upon closer inspection, we first saw that the cars were actually pulled over to the side of the road, and then spotted my very first ACTUAL yard monkey...

Baboons! They roam the countryside, looking for people to mug for food. Seriously. Apparently (and I have heard several people give stories about this) if you have food and they catch you, then will bare their (enormous and sharp) teeth at you and make threatening motions. Honestly, I've heard bad things about the crime in Cape Town, so I wouldn't give them any reason to attack...

BTW, if these pictures look a little weird, it's because the car window is up - we were certainly not letting them anywhere near our snacks!

And the greatest thing of all - Penguins! Boulders Beach is right near Cape Point, and that is where the South African penguins hang out. So we stopped off (somehow acquiring several cutesy little penguin souvenirs) and took a looksee.

Kristen thought they were incredibly cute. I thought they looked a bit mangy. I will admit that there was one cute situation, where two penguins lay sleeping with their little beaks touching...
That's enough for now. We obviously did plenty more in the time she was here, but I'll continue that just now.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

He never gets tired of that joke...

Ok, I'm back from my two week virtual vacation. My girlfriend, Kristen, came to visit from New York, and we had a great time while I was totally offline. I will discuss (with visual aids) the fun time we had at length (out of the gutter, you dirty minds!), but not in this post - here I must describe the car I just looked at.

As you may recall, my POS car was stolen almost a month ago. It continues to be stolen, and I continue to have no car (caveat: I have rented a really cheap hire car, so not to worry that I have no mode of transport). So today I went to test drive this old beamer down on campus. The car seemed pretty cool, although it's pretty old, but that pales in comparison to the dude's name:

Luke Lee Skywalker.

I shit you not. The guy even showed me his passport, which he had ready, I assume because no one ever believes him.

The force is strong with this one...

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Political virus

Now this is seriously screwed up. Thabo Mbeki, the president of SA - a country with one of the highest (if not the highest) concentration of AIDS suffers - has not, and continues not to, believe in the AIDS virus. More specifically, he does not believe that HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, and is particularly against the drugs that have been created to combat the symptoms. "...from the reading he had done ... it was unclear what the cause of the Aids epidemic was." If I were to spend a day or two reading over the evidence, I'm sure I wouldn't be 100% sure of anything either - the science is non-trivial, but that doesn't mean that it's not right! Please! As it says at the end of the article, his Minister of Health (who, by the way, has also quite recently been in a huge scandal because her drunken, thieving past) also doesn't believe in the HIV/AIDS link, and has suggested beetroot as a cure for AIDS symptoms. Seriously? The freaking Minister of Health?!? And notably, the Deputy Minister of Health was just recently fired on trumped up corruption charges, but from what I can tell, it was really because she disagreed with Mbeki's viewpoints.

Ok, this is old news - Mbeki has been known for years to hold this belief. And world outrage at it has forced him to publicly disavow such statements. But, at least according to this book by Mark Gevisser, he still privately very much thinks the same way. If it weren't so f*@&ed up, it would be funny...

And by the way, from what I understand about the main presidential challenger for the upcoming election (in December), Jacob Zuma, he is far, far worse, on many issues. I've already met at least one very proud South African dude who's said that if Zuma gets elected, he's leaving the country.

Welcome to enlightened Africa...

Monday, 5 November 2007

Full circle, or: So you thought no one wanted my car?

Well, it's finally happened - crime has struck our idyllic village of Cape Town, ZA - my beautiful, angelic car was stolen last night. I was out in Observatory (a neighborhood - quite sketchy, apparently - near UCT) having dinner with some people from the department, and welcoming our new postdoc. Actually, it was an extremely enjoyable and engaging dinner, filled with discussions of why religion should be stamped out vs. why religion is an ok thing. I wonder who brought that up...

Anyway, after dinner, we all piled out of the restaurant laughing and joking in a jovial mood, I went to open the door to my car, and low and behold, it's just empty air. No car to be seen anywhere. Shit. So we called the police, they came and took down my car details, and told me I had to take my vehicle registration papers to the cop shop (actually, they seemed shocked and annoyed that I didn't have them on me), but they said I could do it the next day. And man, I just wanted to get home and crash. Annoyed. So I get a ride back to Jeff and Amanda's place (since I'm still puppysitting) and come to the realization that I had left the keys to their house in the car. Double shit. Luckily Amanda's mom, Sheina (who was supposed to leave that day for England) was home, and she let me in and gave me a spare set of keys. Ugh. So I got in, was slobbered on by the puppy, and had a few whiskey's with Sheina before heading to bed.

Actually, at the time, I was really more amused and gratified than depressed. For those dedicated CTP followers, you'll know what a pain in my ass this car has been, and this is an opportunity to get the insurance (yes, it is insured) and start over with a new(er) car. But I woke up this morning feeling pretty shitty about the whole thing, which I guess is understandable.

The funny thing was when the cops came to take down my details. They were writing down stuff, and this car dude comes running over and tells them that the dudes who stole my car just mugged some lady down the street and was running away. He was yelling at them that they must go off and chase these dudes. The cops were just like, "yeah yeah, we need to take this guys info first," and waved him away. Five minutes later, they finished writing "white 1993 Citigolf" and slllllooooooooowwwwlllllly drove away to chase after these guys. Of course, before they left, they were threatening to throw the car dude in jail because he hadn't protected my car properly. Funnily enough, they didn't catch the dudes.


So finally, I got to go to a Halloween party! Saturday, my friend Renee tells me that a friend of a friend of a friend (etc.) is having an Elagently Dead party, and do I want to come. It was TOTALLY a kick-ass party! I dressed up as... well, basically something dead in talcum powder and eyeliner

(oh yeah, and I accidentally shaved my head - actually, prior to even knowing about the party, but it worked out quite well). Anyway, so we go to this party, where neither of us know anyone (and the one person she did know left quite quickly). However, everyone was super friendly, and most people were dressed up really well - including Louis IV and Marie Antoinette, vampire chick, Julius Cesar (with a band-aid on his back), Gomez and Morticia Addam, and Death.

And let me tell you, Death was by FAR the hit of the party. Because he came in completely covered, and no one knew who he was (there was a lot of, "hey, do you know who's friend he is?"). And he was dead silent (ha ha) the whole time. People would try to talk to him, or mess with his scythe (which was NOT made of plastic) and he would just stare at you from behind his masked hood. Every once in a while, he would glide away without saying anything. People totally started to get creeped out, which eventually led to a cornucopia of screaming (mostly from vampire chick) and general freaking out. Seriously, this dude didn't say anything or drink anything (much more difficult) for HOURS. At one point, he completely disappeared for ages, and everyone was totally flipping out about where he'd gone. Then one girl went looking for him in someone's bedroom closet, ripping it open to see (he wasn't there) and then turned to come back and looked behind the door she'd just gone through, and screamed her head off (he WAS there). It was awesome.

In the end, it turned out that Death was someone that the apartment dwellers vaguely knew, and they'd hired him to come to the party and freak people out. It was absolutely brilliant.

Back to school...

... to prove to Mishka that I'm no fool...

So I started puppysitting this weekend for Jeff, since he is out of town for about a week and a half. I gotta tell you, it's not easy... puppies are a lot of work and energy. And they do not like to do what you tell them. So I took her to puppy class. Which was quite fun, and Jan - the trainer - is totally a doggy genius.

However, while I had been so proud of myself for remembering all the tools of the doggy training trade, the one thing I DID forget was the leash. And that's essential, especially with all those other dogs around that get her so excited that she's constantly trying to play. So what to do, I asked myself. Jan had no extra leash, so I could either go home... or use my belt! Genius! And it worked quite well as a leash, too. Where it failed was continuing to work as a belt, and as my jeans were a size too big or so, they were having a hell of a time staying on my ass. Which turned out to be quite amusing for most of the class, and only slightly embarrassing for me. There did happen to be a super hot chick there with a rottweiler who was surely chuckling at my expense (the hotchick, not the rottweiler - I don't think he gave a damn), but it was all in good fun. I don't think I'll forget the leash next time, though...

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Screw you, creationist

I just have to include this brilliant quote of Dawkins mocking the attitude of "Intelligent Design" proponents: "Dear Scientist, don't work on your mysteries. Bring us your mysteries, for we can use them. Don't squander precious ignorance by researching it away."

So freaking true.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Ding-dong, trick-or-treat!

Last night, I went with Jeff to take Amanda's niece and nephew (Kayla and Jaimie) trick-or-treating. Let me tell you - they are something else, those kids. Kayla was a witch (but, as Jeff said, what did was she dressed as for Halloween?) and Jaimie was a skeleton. Let me first just say that they are adorable kids. And as a skeleton, Jaime was running around with all sorts of toys that had nothing to do with skeletons (fake saw, hammer, and drill). Adorable.

Anyway, they were probably the WORST trick-or-treaters I've ever seen. We rushed by house after house, not stopping at any of them, even the ones that had Halloween balloons out, so you knew they were open for business. Jeff and I kept trying to get the kids to stop and ring some doorbells, but Kayla HAD to get to her friend's house for trick-or-treating, which was like 6 blocks away, straight up the mountain. On the way, we finally stop at one house where they were outside handing out candy, they grabbed a piece of candy and continued walking. "So how much further is your friend's house, Kayla?" "That was it." So all that rushing about, ignoring the bountiful houses along the way, and she didn't even say a word, or spend more than a minute at the house. Weird! [We found out later, when we got the kids back home, that this "friend" of Kayla's one someone she'd had a HUGE blowout fight with the day before. So it seems like this was more of a military reconnaissance mission than visiting a friend.]

By far the most amusing part of the night was when we stopped at one house from which some other trick-or-treaters were emerging. As we pitch up to the doorway, out pops the mom and dad, along with two kids who are absolutely BUTT naked. And we're not talking 1 year olds here - the boy had to be at least 7 or so - old enough to have some shame, for goodness sake! Anyway, this kid was even the one holding the bowl of candy, with his ding-dong dangling right over the prizes! Kayla and Jaime had to reach into the bowl and actually avoid this kids weiner! It was the oddest thing. Especially with the kid's dad standing right there making comments like, "Make sure you don't whizz in the candy bowl!" and "Hey kids, why don't you grab that nice pink lollipop." Bizzaro.

Anyway, we were wandering around the neighborhood for close to an hour, and the kids got a woefully small amount of loot. They really didn't even seem particularly excited about getting candy, or being dressed up, or interacting with other Halloweeners. I swear, when I was a kid, Halloween was probably my favorite holiday. My impression is that it's not really that huge a tradition here - Jeff said he never did it when he was growing up (they just a braai instead). Too bad, then - what a waste of a good opportunity for candy-greediness!

Monday, 29 October 2007

3... 2... 1... BRAAI!

So it seems the braai season has begun in earnest [interesting linguistic side note: my spell check was not recognizing the word "braai," and it was suggesting words like "braise." Now I can see how "braai" could possibly relate to English]. I went to two braais this weekend, as well as a homebrewer's homebrew contest, and generally ate a wealth of meat (would you say there was a plethora of meat?).

The Homebrewers club, called the "South Yeasters" (in reference to the famous wind which blows through Cape Town around this time called the "Southeaster"), had an Ale-Oween party this past Friday. I managed to hook up with these guys because I want to start brewing again while I'm here, and I was looking for some local resources on the internet. Anyway, they invited me to this party, and it turned out it was a contest for people in the club to try out their beers. So there were 9 entries, and after a down home meal of goulash and bread, they introduced the entries one by one, and passed around bottle after bottle of homebrew. Some of them were quite delicious, and some were pretty terrible. But all-in-all, it was good fun - at least after the beer started flowing and the people became a little less uptight. The problem, you see, was that I was sitting with these two IT people who made the website for the group, and they were not the most socially well-adapted people (computer nerds not social? who knew?). But after a few beers, they got to be a little less quiet, which was nice, and I was also able to get up and walk around and talk to the more interesting people. Actually, it was interesting to note the makeup of the club. It was heavily dominated by Afrikaners, who were much more interesting and fun than the English people who were there. What this says about the different groups of people as a whole, I don't want to venture to guess, but it seemed like a good microcosm to study, if only because they tend to come with alcohol...

So, on Saturday, friends of mine (Chris and Viv) had a little braai at their house in Observatory (an area of Cape Town which is near the UCT housing that I lived in for my first month here). They also invited their neighbors, who were a complete riot. The dude, Warrick, was one of those people who never stops talking, but in a really entertaining way. He wasn't obnoxiously dominating the conversation, and it was relatively easy to jump in and say something, but there was never a moment of silence with him around - uncomfortable or otherwise. He and his girlfriend are both white South Africans, from Zululand, and we had some really interesting conversations - from the dangers of crocs and lions, to the role of poverty in crime, to the path towards healing the country of racism. Totally fascinating.

Finally, after spending much of Sunday morning/afternoon recovering from that, Jeff had a small braai at his house Sunday evening. It was a small affair, but totally delicious - let me tell you that I'm a complete convert to smoking meat on the braai, and not just BBQing it...


Dude, I just got a cool new toy! With money from a postdoc grant that Jeff got for me, I was able to buy a brand new blackbook (black Macbook - thanks to Amanda for the name). Damn, is it sexy! It even comes equipped with a built in webcam, which totally rocks - I was able to videoconference (shudder... I mean Skype-video) with Kristen this weekend and see my little friend Squee! What a cutie! And, I got the machine just in time to be able to get a free copy of the new Mac OS X - Leopard. I have to take the laptop into the Apple store sometime this week to get them to load it on, but it looks pretty damn cool. And for you anti-apple people out there (I'm looking at you, Scott) - screw you! My Windows machine has been pissing me off royally by constantly crashing. I don't need that! Plus, I just find the Mac interface to be so much nicer - friendlier and cuter, too!

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Into the wild blue... highway

Awesome! I was just driving along the highway, looked to the left... and there, just grazing along on the grass next to the road, were a pack of zebras and wildebeasts! I shit you not!

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Remembering the past

Jeez, I've just been re-reading phdcomics - I am SO glad I'm out of grad school...

A Tuesday of note (or: Admitting your aggression towards the DMV and Intelligent Design)

Though some of you might envy the fast-paced lifestyle of a theoretical physicist, you may be surprised to learn that it generally involves quite a lot of sitting around - not yesterday. I barely had a chance to glaze over in front of my computer at all! Let me describe some of the more interesting experiences.

First, let me say that after fully two months of owning my now-famous POS car, as of yesterday I had yet to have transferred the registration from the old owner to me. The dude who owned it has been almost constantly out of the country, and there have been continuing issues with getting proof from his bank that he'd paid the car off and could sell it (despite the damn thing being 15 years old). Anyway, I finally got the proof yesterday, and I needed to rush to the DMV immediately to transfer registration, because the dude was going out of town again in a few days, and I wanted to get it taken care of in case there were problems. Obviously, the actual act of being at the DMV was boring as hell, and took three hours of my life, which I will never get back. However, what I did find interesting was observing the people around me waiting. Wow, there was SO much aggro! (this guy does a great stand up act about this) You could really feel the negative vibes coming off of people, and all around me there was constant muttering about how angry they were and how unfair it all was, and how they should open another freaking window, etc. You constantly feel like everyone behind you is going to leap in front of you in the queue, so there is this tenseness where you kind of feel like you have to defend your position. One sweet little old lady behind me, who was totally smiley and nice when she first got in line, kept trying to edge in front of me, and was close to boiling over by the time we got to the head - and I really thought she was going to make a scene. Frankly, it was all this anger surrounding me that stressed me out about being there, more than anything else. It really gets under your skin - I don't like the feeling. And actually, when I did finally get to the counter, the woman who helped me was extremely nice, helpful, sweet, and friendly (I definitely did not expect this). Clearly, these people are trying as best they can to get to everyone, and it would just be a more pleasant (well, less unpleasant) experience if everyone would just chill out. But I guess that is not going to happen - so next time, I'm taking my steel-toed boots so I can stomp on anyone who gets in my way.

The other thing I wanted to say something about was the Intelligent Design meeting that the Student Y held in our building yesterday. Now, the Lord knows (and will probably strike me down because of it) that I'm not a fan of ID. But if they want to go off and have little discussion groups and talk about how science is nonsense, then I'm not going to get involved (actually, that may or may not be true... depending on my mood, sometimes it really pisses me off, and I have to jump in where I'm not wanted). However, what really got me was that not only was the title of the meeting, "The Scientific Case for Intelligent Design," but they had to have it in the Applied Maths department (MY science building!) in order to try and prop up their "scientific" credibility. And let me put it bluntly - this shit is NOT science. Question evolution? Or any scientific theory for that matter? No problem! That's what science is really all about - skepticism and questioning. However, the higher goal of science is to replace ignorance with knowledge, and hopefully some kind of understanding. These people want to replace understanding with ignorance. To them, the answer is - if I don't immediately understand something, let me replace it with GOD. Anyway, let me not start ranting about it, because I don't have the time right now (maybe later). My point was that it pissed me off that they decided to use MY building for their own nefarious ends (mwahahahaha). So I put the word out to all the people I know here at UCT, and asked them to join me in attending this lecture, to try and rebuff their nonsense. We actually got a fairly good science contingent together - we easily made up at least half of the attendees. The whole thing was somewhat disappointing, though, because the majority of the meeting was just the presentation of a propagandic movie on ID. Then at the end, they had a "scientist" from UCT (well, an anatomist from the med school, which is not the same thing) get up and talk about how people could be "theists" as well as scientists, and that clearly evolution works on "microscales," but it is only in the large jumps that they want to invoke God, because there evolution doesn't work. Without any actual reasoning to show WHY it doesn't work, other than that he can't imagine how it does. And then there were five minutes left for people to ask questions (read: fight with the creationists). Me and Jeff totally dominated this part of the discussion, but the guy had to run off to perform some kind of experiment or something, so they had to cut it off. It was very disappointing, because during the stupid movie I got myself all pumped up on things I wanted to say, and then was left with no outlet. Actually, there were a couple of interesting discussions that took place immediately afterwards amongst the scientists, but the religious dudes took off very quickly, with promises of a return next year (classes are over this week, so they will have to wait until the students come back from vacation). Anyway, like I said, quite disappointing. There was creationist blood in the water, but nothing of any substance to feed on...

Monday, 22 October 2007

Springboks rule!

Huzzah! The world cup of rugby has finally come to a satisfying end, with the South African Springboks pretty convincingly beating England (who cares what their team name is - they lost). My apologies to sensitive viewers:
Rugby has been a fun sport to learn about the past few weeks. Every time I say this, I nearly get lynched by any nearby rugby fans, but it really is quite similar to American football. It's actually quite interesting to see, like evolution, where the games branch off from each other. Rugby has touchdowns just like football, but they're called "tries," and you get 5 points for a try, plus 2 points for the extra kick. You can also score by having a penalty kick, where you get 3 points (this is the only form of scoring that occurred during the final game of the world cup... pretty lame). Also, there is an egg-shaped ball that people throw to each other. And you have to jump on the dude with the ball and beat the crap out of them - only with less padding in rugby. Actually, those are probably the only similarities... everything else is fairly different. One might say it's sort of a cross between football and soccer. But overall, it is quite a fun sport to watch - especially when you've got beer(s) in your hand(s).

Oh, one other thing which I noticed [blogger warning: the following is complete speculation, and is not even supported by reference to Wikipedia or anything - believe at your own risk]. They don't have downs in rugby like they do in football, but every once in a while, the play stops (for reasons that I never really picked up in my short introduction to rugby) and they line up and wait for the ball to be thrown to them. This is called a scrum (pretty much whenever they all get in a big violent huddle with the other team, that's called a scrum, I think). Either I heard this somewhere, or completely made it up, but the line at which they wait for the ball is called the "line of scrummage." To me, this bore an obvious resemblance to football's "line of scrimmage," which is the line where a new down starts. I thought I was pretty clever for noticing this similarity, but the truth of my revelation remains to be seen, by anyone not too lazy to look it up.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Finger lickin' good

There's a funny thing that goes on here on campus every Thursday. The main campus right outside the math building gets totally taken over by a crazy party in the afternoon, and people go totally ape-$*@%. Usually there is some sort of sponsorship by a big company, they set up DJ's, entertainment, give away free stuff, etc. Last week it was Nivea (and the Nivea dance troupe), today it is KFC.

The main steps get totally overrun. It is a total trip to see all these kids yelling and screaming every time the announcer yells into the mike, "Does anyone out there love KFC!?!" As I write this, I can hear the crowd lovin' it (sorry McDonalds). They even had a contest to see who could eat the special "colonel burger", fries, and coke that they're currently pushing.

Who says consumerism is dead?

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

A sad day

Well, today is a sad day. After having my friend Amanda here for the first two and a half months of my stay, she has finally left the country to seek her fortune as a postdoc at the prestigious Cambridge University. Good for her, but it was really nice having her here, and she will be missed. Of course, she's coming back here for a conference (read: to celebrate American Thanksgiving with me) within a month and a half, so I'll see her soon. I don't envy her, though - I hate traveling, and she'll have to do a lot of it in the future. Luckily, she's an excellent traveler, as evidenced by her near constant world jaunts while in grad school in NYC...

Those cheeky monkeys

This just in - yard monkeys are lying bastards...

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

The Yogic Mind

Is it true? Has he gone off the deep end? What's the deal with all this vegetarian food?!?

I've just returned from my first yoga experience. Man! It totally rocked! The local Hari Krishna monastery hosts a bi-weekly power yoga class. I have always (well, after knowing some hippie-dippie friends in New York - you know who you are, Kristen ;) wanted to try yoga, and so when my new potential friend in the math department mentioned that she does yoga at her gym, but that there is a local one that she's been meaning to try, and maybe we could all go together... well, I decided to make a run-on sentence. Also, to try out the yoga. And dude, it was totally physically strenuous, but fun! Lots of stretchies, but lots of balancing actions that made your legs want to buckle. I'm not really sure how to describe it, but it was cool. By far the coolest part was at the end, though, when we lay down on our backs, the teacher turned out the lights, and tried to hypnotize us into relaxing. Man, it worked, I was so chilled out. And afterwards, they provided a delish vegetarian meal to enhance my soul, complete with the Hari Krishna monk who came out to sit with us and chat, discussing everything from black holes (that was from me) to Intelligent Design (which I also pontificated about... hmmm, maybe I dominated the whole conversation...). Anyway, the monk was really cool, and his comment about how he's been chased out of every local mall and banned by the security guards was quite entertaining. All-in-all, the experience was a trip, and very pleasurable - I'll definitely check out yoga again. One comment, though - upon finding out that I was to start yoga this evening, a friend forwarded me this article - and it was dead on. There were definitely a significant number of hot (bendy) chicks, as well as a sleazy dude who immediately started hitting on them and making them uncomfortable (no, not me... I was too busy sweating to make anyone uncomfortable).

Thursday, 11 October 2007

No such thing as free parking

A few thoughts on some minor oddities (read: differences from America) in Cape Town.

Parking: You have to pay for parking everywhere. It's not much, usually a couple of rand (maybe 50 cents US) but in every parking lot, along the side of every road, everywhere you go, there are dudes there who collect money from you to watch your car. I think it's more of a way to find employment for people than anything else, 'cause anytime I ask someone about it, they always give that as the biggest reason for it. The really odd thing is that I think this started here as an unofficial process - people would hang out in parking lots and watch to make sure your car is not stolen, and then ask for a few rand compensation. Eventually, the bigger malls, establishments, etc. stepped in and made it official, gave them neon jackets to identify them as employed by the mall, and you were required to get a ticket from these dudes. But still, a lot of places just have unofficial guys hanging out watching your car whom you're expected to tip. It's not a bad idea in principle, either, especially with the crime level what it is (although frankly, I still haven't seen much crime since I've been here), but I can't figure out how these guys got the general public to trust them to watch their cars! It does seem to work quite well, though. And makes parking in parking lots a little easier, 'cause these guys are there to point you to empty spaces.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Quitters never win

So first of all, before I go off on another rant (I won't, I swear), let me inform you of the the talk that I gave here at UCT last week. I've finally managed to get it up on the web. There is a link to both the pdf of my slides and a podcast of me giving the talk. For some reason, I have been unable to get the podcast to download properly in Firefox, but it works in Internet Explorer, I don't know why. Anyway, if you want to hear about the latest paper that me, Jeff, and his student Andy are coming out with, feel free to look there. If you don't understand it, you'll probably be in good company with the rest of the people in the cosmology group here, who are not string theorists. We're so misunderstood...

So, on to the rant. No, not really. But after the bender I went on last weekend, I decided to quit smoking (which I had started up again here, having been somewhat stressed about beginning in a new country, etc.). Very noble cause. But it is really unnecessarily stressful! I've quit smoking millions of times, and have never had the difficulties I've gotten here. First of all, it's just been plain stressful. All week, I've been on edge, have had trouble concentrating, and have had trouble sleeping and been extra tired. But then I've also been feeling kind of sick, with a cough and sore throat, and I'm starting to imagine that maybe it has something to do with quitting smoking. Both of these symptoms only come up when I'm lying down to go to sleep. Last night I was up half the night coughing up gross phlegm, but then as soon as I got up this morning, not a cough to be found. Maybe I'm totally talking out of my ass, but I think it's all the gunk that built up in my lungs which is now deciding it doesn't want to be there. I suppose that's a good thing. In fact, I'm quite grateful. I just would like a chance to get to sleep...

Speaking of the drink-fest of last Friday (which I wrote about), I have just returned from having the second official beer o'clock of the UCT Gravity and Cosmology Group - quite the success! And this time it didn't turn into a night of excess (in case you are wondering, it's only 7:30pm - the group outing having begun at the hour of 4:30... look, we don't work ourselves to death in Cape Town...). Even more of a success. And all thanks to me - I had to work my ass off to get these people together to go out for a drink, but everyone seemed to have a good time, and I think it is good for the group to relax together, and good for me to have a chance to meet people and make friends here. So raise your glass, and begin the weekend...

Monday, 1 October 2007

Crazy weekend

Wow, this was some weekend. I had a great time (mostly) and took a ton of pictures, so here goes...

Friday, I began what will hopefully become a weekly occurrence with my research group, some of whom are shown to the left (Therese, Emma, and Kishore) - beer o'clock. There is an awesome little faculty pub type of thing on campus that serves good beer and has a nice atmosphere - it has a little outside garden and a fireplace (though I think the time for fireplaces has come and gone - spring has sprung). Anyway, it was very fun, and successful. After most people had gone home, six of us (Therese, Kishore, Emma, Chris, Viv, and myself) decided to head back to Kishore and Emma's place to continue the party. I brought Jack (Daniels). We had a great time, and I got to know all four of them much better, which was great. Needless to say, however, after staying up 'til 6-freaking-am, I had the worst hangover I've had in years. After waking up at 2pm and dragging my sorry ass home, I went back to sleep until 11pm, got up for a couple of hours, and then went back to sleep until 8 in the morning. So to summarize: Friday night was a blast, Saturday was a complete write-off.

That being said, Sunday was amazing. Having slept for a good 24 hours, Jeff and Amanda called me up to see if I wanted to go to Hout Bay beach with them. I was keen. An hour later, we, Jeff's mom, and sweet little Mishka were on this beautiful beach throwing the miniature American football around and sniffing all the other dogs butts (well, not all of us were throwing the football).

Above: Mishka.

Right: Arrival at the beach - how's that for a kick-ass beach view?

Below: Jeff and Mishka - notice the bizzaro castle in the background.

After cavorting around for a while, we piled back into the car and drove over to `Fish on the Rocks,' the best fish and chips place in South Africa. To be honest, they were phenomenal fish and chips. They then bought a whole fresh fish from the fresh fish market, we drove home through the unbelievable mountain/coast views and had a killer fish-braai. Hey man, THIS is the South Africa I want to remember! A good time was most definitely had by all, especially Mishka, who was TOTALLY exhausted by all the physical and emotional activities of the day...

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

View from an office...

Just wanted y'all to see some pics of the view I have directly from my desk. It's pretty spectacular. One's in the morning and one's in the evening - I love the mist over the city. By the way, this is looking east off of campus. Though you can't see it, my apartment is south of here. I should try and find a decent map of the city to pinpoint locations of key areas for the viewers at home...

There is more good news. This past weekend was a historic Cape Town weekend in that it was the first one where I didn't have car issues. Let's all give a warm round of applause to God for allowing my car to live one more week.

I also had a great spring kickoff braai at Amanda and Jeff's place on Monday. We braaied up some delicious beer soaked ribs and some boerwors sausages. Mmmm... too bad we didn't have any ostrich (which is my new obsession), but there will definitely be plenty of time for that in the coming months. It is also extremely relieving to note that, as the weather gets nicer and warmer, it is NOT getting humider (is that not a word? my spell check doesn't think so...). Sitting in the sun gets pretty hot, but moving to the shade makes it immediately pleasant and cool. This may seem trivial to some people, but I have never lived anywhere that WASN'T grossly humid when the heat came... I like...

Friday, 21 September 2007

National Braai Day

Long weekends and random holidays seem to sneak up on me without any warning. A few weeks ago, there was National Women's Day (which I fully support) and now this weekend is another official holiday. Apparently, Monday is National Braai Day. For those of you not from South Africa, "to braai" is equivalent with "to BBQ." So everyone fires up their braai this weekend and cooks up some ostrich steaks. Delish! After intense research and insightful investigative reporting, I discovered that it is ALSO National Heritage Day, which perhaps makes it a bit more believable as a holiday. However, you would never know this - TV, radio, and all people make no mention of such lofty goals as heritage acknowledgment. In fact, I even heard on the radio that you can SMS a certain number and they will send you back an estimate of how many people are braaing on Monday. Let's celebrate!

Oh, in other news, let me put up some photos of my new apartment. Observe and revel in the (fake? who knows!) leopard-skin couch... And next to it, check out the (working) skeleton of a radio. It actually produces great sound, but I haven't yet figured out how to change the channel...

Monday, 17 September 2007

Are you kidding me?!

Seriously? This weekend, after a bout of intense sickness (everyone has an opinion on food poisoning vs. flu - I think it was 24-hour flu) on the Friday/Saturday, my pleasant Sunday drive around the neighborhood was cut short by my clutch giving out. Yep, my car broke down AGAIN - second time in the three weeks since I bought the damn thing. This is ridiculous. And it's costing me a little over $200 to replace the clutch kit - parts + labo(u)r (this time I checked with several people who are in the know, and I don't think I'm getting scammed). Damn you, God of Car Failure! I never asked for this...

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Happy New Year!

I had a wonderful dinner last night at Amanda's sister's house, out in beautiful Sea Point (basically, it's right downtown, but is next the the ocean, with fantastic waves). It was Rosh Hashanah, and so it was a big family affair, with running screaming kids and everything - quite nice, I haven't been around that much family in a long time.

It's really been a huge help that my friends Amanda and Jeff are here (Amanda being one of my close friends from Columbia, and Jeff, her fiancee, being my boss). Just the fact of them being close by, and sort of looking out for me has really helped me keep the loneliness at bay. Not to mention that at any disaster (read: car trouble) Jeff gets a call and helps me out of a jam. But also, Amanda's whole family lives here, and has been really welcoming and sweet, totally trying to make me feel like family. Her mother is adorable (and also lives in the house adjoining theirs - an awkward situation in the making, having your mother/mother-in-law floating around all the time), her sister is really sweet (and a fantastic cook) and her brother and his wife have been really friendly and nice. Definitely has made a big difference.

Actually, everyone here seems to be so freaking nice! Maybe it's just the coming from New York, but somehow I'm always surprised at how friendly everyone here is. Always offering to help, offering to take me out, and just plain being pleasant. Bizarre, non?

Monday, 10 September 2007

Go Boks!

Woo hoo! World Cup Rugby, 2007 started this weekend! I got to see my first ever couple of rugby
games... pretty cool. Similar to football (American) but slightly more dangerous... actually, I had expected it to be really vicious, but due to such rules as "no tackling above the shoulders," you don't really get the same bone-crunching violence as in the NFL. However, these guys don't wear all that wussy padding...

Even the US is getting into the game! Somehow we got into the world cup, don't ask me how... probably in the same way that Japan did. And boy, did Japan get demolished. Typical scores tend to be similar to football, around 20-30's by the end. The Japan-Aussie game on Saturday ended up being 3-91. Brutal. But America ended up holding its own pretty decently against England - I think it was 26-10 or something. Not bad, considering everyone considered us to be total losers, and England is championship material.

Anyway, I always find that watching the local sports is a great way to have fun and bond with new people. And I had great fun watching the South Africa-Samoa game yesterday with some new friends. The South African Springboks ended up convincingly defeating Samoa, but man, some of those Islanders are HUGE. Quite a fun experience. I'm just looking forward to the South Africa-USA game at the end of the month... I'm gonna talk so much kuk...

Cricket season is coming up soon... but I don't know if I have the strength to sit through one of those games...

Friday, 7 September 2007

The Price of Ignorance

Well, truly I have accelerated my stay in Cape Town - a job, a car, an apartment - and now I've been ripped off by a car mechanic! Well done, I say! Now all I have to do is get myself mugged, and I'll have accomplished far more here than I ever did in NYC!

Only one week after having bought my beautiful car (who doesn't have a name yet, so I'm accepting ideas now), it died. Going up a hill, all of the sudden, the engine just stopped, and wouldn't start again. Luckily, even though I was on a fairly busy road, I stopped right next to a place where I could squeeze into half a parking space, so I managed not to get hit by traffic. Had to call a tow truck (luckily I had ALSO just had roadside assistance put onto my car insurance) who took it to a nearby garage. The mechanic told me that the carburetor was totally blocked up, and that this was caused by an absolutely filthy fuel tank. So I told him to go ahead and fix both of these things, and it ended up costing a significant amount of money, especially relative to the price of the car. When I asked around, people who knew a little about cars seemed to think that I was getting overcharged. And when I talked to the guy who sold me the car, he freaked out - it sounded like his head exploded, and he said I'd definitely been taken, there was no way that it should ever have cost that much. So my seeming consensus is that I've been scammed.

The whole thing is just so damned frustrating... I'm not used to being so COMPLETELY ignorant of something which is so expensive. I mean, the guy could have told me that a vicious strain of the yard monkey virus had gotten into my fuel tank and gunked up my engine, and the whole engine needed replacing. How would I have known the difference? (other than the fact that there has been a conspicuous LACK of yard monkeys so far... but maybe they've been hiding in the tank!) It really makes you feel incredibly helpless... very frustrating. I think it's made worse by the fact of my American accent - I guess they hear "foreigner" and their eyes turn to dollar signs... er, Rand signs... (and who can blame them? I mean, have you HEARD "Hot Blooded"?!) How I miss the halcyon days of the New York Subway, where having a car is absolutely crazytown. And the only time I ever came close to being robbed was when I got sucker punched randomly on the Upper West Side...

Anyway, I'm not really all that bitter about it. I mean, it's only money, and I can consider it a learning experience. One of my office mates, who's been here for 5 years told me he got similarly ripped off in the car department when he got here, but worse. It must be some kind of initiation into owning a car or something. So this shouldn't add to my reputation for being a curmudgeon... it's just one more amusing anecdote from the land of the penguins...

I also have to say that I really appreciate all the comments people have been posting here. It really makes me feel connected to know that my friends are still out there, reading whatever nonsense I have to say... thanks guys - it definitely helps battle the feelings of isolation. I think that's a good part of why I've been adapting so well...

Monday, 3 September 2007

On the Move

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Well, I finally did it - I got a car! And it's awesome! It may be a little on the oldish side (it's only from 1993... it's not like I hadn't been born yet!) but it's in great condition. And it drives really well. So far, I love it. It did take a little getting used to... it has a choke, which I have to use for the first few kilometers, apparently. And the clutch is way higher than I'm used to. Man, the first time I drove it, I must have stalled once every mile or so. Certainly every time I stopped the car. But after the first drive, I've gotten much more used to it, and I'm becoming a superb driver! Driving on the left is actually surprisingly easy, though... by far the hardest thing is the rearview mirror, which is totally not in the spot I keep expecting it to be, and it's pointing in a weird direction. I haven't really gotten used to that, yet. But it's all comin' together...

Speaking of driving, though, I had quite a shock this morning driving to work. As I was putt-putting along the highway, this dude on a motorbike scooted between the two lanes of (annoyingly heavy) traffic. When he was about three car lengths ahead of me, someone went to change lanes, and smacked directly into the guy, and he went flying off of his bike onto the side of the road! It was really dramatic and scary. I don't know if the guy was alright or not, even - when I passed where it had happened, there were people all around him, but he was lying straight out on the side of the road, not moving. At least he had a helmet on, but still... holy shit. If I had been thinking of riding a motorcycle, that convinced me that it's not a good idea... so easy to get absolutely knocked to hell - the traffic was barely moving even! I think it was mainly the motorbike dude's own momentum which screwed him - the knocking car was changing lanes from a dead stop. Jeez.

In other news, I also moved house this weekend. I moved from this dormitory style apartment complex called Forest Hill to this add on apartment belonging to this really sweet old landlord, John. It's a little smaller, but way cozier and cheaper (old place: R3000 ~ $400, new place: R2000 ~ $300). And it has a KICK-ASS backyard! Totally going to be doing some braaiing (South African BBQing) when the weather gets nicer. So I'm slowly getting myself acclimated to living here in Cape Town... actually, I think I'm accomplishing this pretty fast - a car, an apartment, a job, and I've only been here one month! Not bad, I say...

Monday, 20 August 2007

Alex's Work (I)

Since without a car I haven't been able to see that much of Cape Town, and because people have asked me about it any number of times in the past, I have decided to try and give some kind of explanation of what I'm working on right now. I think what I'll try to do is give it in several parts, to break up the monotony a bit.

Maybe let me start broadly. I work on String Theory. Traditionally, this area of research has been focused on string theory being the so-called "Theory of Everything," (TOE). What this grand statement means is NOT that if I understand string theory, then I can predict everything in the world. Rather, string theory is meant to be the ultimate reductionist theory (meaning smallest, most fundamental - i.e., originally atoms were the fundamental things, then we discovered protons and neutrons as more fundamental, then quarks are still more fundamental, etc.). String theory says that ALL the forces of nature - Electromagnetism, Strong Force (holding protons/neutrons together), Weak Force (making nuclear decay happen) and Gravity, each of which traditionally needs to be treated separately - come from ONE theory which describes how each of them work. This is great, and is really interesting, but it has been going on for almost 30 years, and it still hasn't come out quite right. In fact, right now, there is controversy over this research direction, made public in books by Peter Woit and Lee Smolin. They both have valid points that I agree with, but I think they miss some of the overall picture. Although perhaps that isn't fair of me, as I haven't read either of their books. Someday...

However, this is not the direction that I'm working in. It is definitely related very strongly, but the focus of it is not so much placed on having string theory being the TOE, but rather on using string theory to say interesting things about OTHER subjects. This goes under the broad category of "the Anti de-Sitter Space/Conformal Field Theory Correspondence," or as it is referred to, the

AdS/CFT Correspondence

So, what is this correspondence, you ask? Excellent question! It's a little like Voodoo. Start with two, a priori TOTALLY unconncected theories (here string theory in AdS space vs. what is known as a conformal field theory).

(Side note: What do I mean when I say "you have such-and-such a theory"? A theory is a set of rules that tell you how objects move around. So, for example, one theory is electromagnetism - there are charged things around, and there are rules as to how they move when you apply electricity to them. There are more technical definitions of what makes something a theory rather than BS, but this is good enough for what I mean.)

Ok, so back to the two unconnected theories. The analogy is to Voodoo, where you have a voodoo doll that you can stick pins in. And just like with Voodoo, these things shouldn't have anything to do with one another, but it turns out that everything you do to one of the things (say stick a pin in the doll) corresponds exactly to doing a similar thing to the other (equivalent to sticking a sword in the person, or whatever). AdS/CFT is very similar - every object in one theory has a corresponding object in the "dual" theory. And if the rules of theory A tell you that object A should move just so, then it will happen that the rules of theory B tell you that... yep, object B should move in just the same way.

Ok, so this is really vague and weird, so what do you actually mean, Alex? Let me be a bit more specific. What do I mean when I say "string theory in AdS space"? Just that it involves the strings of String Theory are moving around in a particular gravity set up (AdS space is just the name of the particular gravity set up). So just like you can imagine strings moving under the gravitational influence of the sun, say, you can imagine strings moving under the influence of gravity in some other set up. Obviously, this satisfies what I said about theories - there are objects, and there are rules.

Ok, so what do I mean by "conformal field theory"? Basically this is referring to a set of rules like nuclear physics has, involving quarks, gluons, and other elementary particles that we can do experiments on. So in this theory, there are objects (quarks, gluons, etc.) and there are the rules that tell you how they move about.

So why do we care? There are essentially two reasons why this is cool:

  1. The nuclear physics stuff happens in the normal number of spacetime dimensions - there are three spatial dimensions and one time. The string theory stuff all happens, however, in ten dimensions (meaning that strings can move not only up/down, right/left, forward/backwards, but also in six other directions!). And somehow, these two theories must be totally equivalent. In particular, if the string moves in one of these other crazy directions, what would that look like in the nuclear theory, where things can only move in the normal three? This is cool, and is a generally very interesting area of physics called "holography" (like holograms, which look like they have more dimensions than they actually do (three rather than two).
  2. In this AdS/CFT, in general, we know how to calculate the rules in one of the theories, but not in the second. So this duality is potentially really useful to be able to tell us the answer to rules that we otherwise DON'T KNOW HOW TO CALCULATE! That is also cool.

So, this is the broad outline of what I'm doing. Maybe next time I'll go into a bit more detail about what exactly I'm calculating in one of these theories. Let me know if any of this stuff is understandable/interesting.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Beautiful Campus

Ok, now I want to put up some prettier pictures - of campus and of where I live. So here is where I live...

Then here are some cool pictures of what campus looks like - see Table Mountain behind the building? It's like a straight up hike up the mountain to get up to campus - really a good workout.

In the picture to the right here, off in the distance is NOT Table Mountain - that's facing east, into another cool mountain range, I don't know what it's called.

And here is my favorite one - the fog just on the horizon, overlooking the city - how cool is that?

I have to say, I'm ashamed that I really don't have any pictures of wild animals yet (with the possible exception of Mishka). My only excuse is that every time I took one, the yard monkeys would steal my camera and erase it - they are seriously shy for such evil creatures. But fear not - I just today heard about two things which might ease your pain in the future.
  1. I found out where the penguins live. So as soon as I close the deal on this damn car, I'm there.
  2. I heard about a documentary called "Air Jaws," about FLYING SHARKS, which happen only off the coast of Cape Town and Australia. And apparently, we have about 140 sightings a year, compared to 5 a year in Australia. So things should get interesting soon...

&$*# the Yard Monkeys!

Alex: 1
Yard Monkeys:... 3 weeks

I finally got access to my photos. So I can now begin uploading these bastards and quiet down the restless masses.

So, welcome to Cape Town!

This was just when I arrived, and was being driven in from the airport.

And here is my first view of Table Mountain. It's raining and nasty, but the mountain looks pretty majestic, and it's true what they say - it really is covered in clouds...

For the first few days, I stayed with Amanda and Jeff (Jeff being my new boss). The most important member of that household, however, was the new puppy, Mishka. They had just bought here, and she was 8 weeks old - she's now like 10 or 11. And boy, she is seriously bitey. But also tres cute - hopefully the bity-ness can be cured by training...

On to UCT. First, I'll show you what I see all day - my temporary office, in all its glory. They will be moving me next door next week (it's been next week every week I've been here), but right now, that's me in the corner with the laptop.

The More Things Change...

Not everything is different here in Africa - Americans are still snotty bastards, banks still screw you at every opportunity, and Windows... well, let's not go there...

I was leaving my apartment yesterday (sorry, my flat) and ran into this American woman in the elevator. There was some sort of police siren shenanigans going on all through the morning, and she made some comment to me about it, inciting conversation - nice and friendly, right? Well, when I asked what it was, she started to get all snooty and rude, like, "I can't believe you Americans - never pay attention to anything going on outside the States." According to her, it was probably some demo because of internal strife in the government or something - she was absolutely appalled that I didn't know that the Internal Finance Minister was just fired. She was slightly mollified when I mentioned that I had just arrived here, and didn't yet know all the political situation. Of course, the real answer had nothing to do with any governmental issues - the traffic police were on an illegal strike, and were blocking the HELL out of downtown traffic yesterday morning. Man, the line of traffic (luckily going the opposite direction to my shuttle bus) snaked off as far as I could see. Stupid Americans...

What is really snaking my sneakers right now is the bank - the Standard Bank
of South Africa Limited has decided to put me through who knows how much useless security tests or something before they'll allow me a checking account. I opened the damn account two weeks ago, they told me it would take three days, and they STILL haven't approved it. Even after telling me on Monday that they would expedite the situation so that I could buy my car, incompetence and laziness rule. But frankly, this is nothing new to me in the banking world - I take pride in having always hated banks with every fiber of my being. Nice to have the comforts of home...

And actually, I don't even want to get into my current issues with Windows... Let's just leave it at that, shall we?

By the way, I just want everyone to know that I really appreciate all the comments - makes me feel well connected to the continent back home. And I swear I will put up photos soon - but what am I supposed to do when the yard monkeys swiped my USB cable upon arrival?

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Weathering the winter

The rumors are true - even though it's summer in the real world (i.e., the Northern Hemisphere), it's winter down here. However, you'd barely know it - the average temperature seems to be something like 15 - 20 degrees Celsius (~ 60 - 70 degrees Fahrenheit). Now, I don't know where you come from, but in my book, that's nice spring weather. Some days it's a little chilly, but only because everyone wears short sleeves and maybe thin jackets. And people are carrying on like a new ice age is coming. It definitely gives a sense of... I don't know, power, or invulnerability or something to get to say, "When I was in Montreal, winters NEVER got above -15 C (~ 0 F) and we were HAPPY to have it that warm! Why, I had to walk back and forth to school in 3 - 4 feet of snow, uphill both ways!" My God, I'm gonna love being a grumpy old man...

The other thing is the rain. From the way people talked, I expected it to be a constant downpour throughout the winter. But there are at least as many gorgeous days as rainy days. And when the rain DOES come, it barely lasts five minutes! Actually, that's really weird - having a huge downpour, and it's LITERALLY gone in less than five minutes most of the time.

I have to say, the mildness of the winter here has got me a little worried about the heat of the summer. If you know me, you know that I don't enjoy the heat, and especially not humidity. Almost all accounts, however, assure me that it is a very dry summer here, though it can get quite hot. One guy (Bob) so far, has contradicted that, and said that it is really humid here in the summer. However, he's from Kenya, and I'm going to have to assume that where he's from, it's outrageously dry (I did a really quick Wiki search on Kenya, but could not get immediate confirmation of my assumption, as Kenya seems to have widely varying climate).

Friday, 10 August 2007

First Impressions

So I've now been in Cape Town for two weeks. Let me now take the time
to write down my first impressions.

Funnily enough, what I have seen of Africa so far (which has not been
a great deal, admittedly), is really not very different to life in the
States. Yes, there are people speaking different languages (I've
heard some Afrikaans, and some Xhosa - the language of The Gods Must
Be Crazy [edit - I'm dead wrong - the people in the movie are Bushmen,
or the San people - which always makes me think of Star Wars,
and they speak Khoisian]), everyone else has a funny accent (half British, half
Australian, seemingly), and they drive on the left side of the road.
But probably the biggest and strangest difference to me is that the
public transportation systems sucks, and to do anything you need a
car. But presumably this is weird to me only because I've lived in
New York City for six years, and Montreal for five years before that -
having a car is insanity in those cities. Most other American cities
are probably just like Cape Town in that regard.

Which is not to say that there aren't differences. Like I said, the
fact that I have a foreign accent here has been kind of amusing. For
the first week or so, I was embarrassed to speak to anyone, because I
felt out of place by having an American accent. By now, it really
doesn't bother me anymore - nobody acts particularly weird when I
speak, so I just got over the whole thing. Although I have to say,
all the heavy accents makes it really frustrating sometimes to
understand. Especially when it's a non-native English speaker talking
(English is totally the dominant language here, though - a few things
are written in Afrikaans, but absolutely everyone speaks English). I
felt really bad in the class I was teaching the other day, because
this guy asked me a question, and I had ABSOLUTELY no idea what he was
saying. I had to ask him to repeat himself four times, went all the
way to the back of the room to hear him better, and I still only
caught about five of the words he was saying. I ended up nodding
stupidly, and I'm sure he just gave up trying to get me to understand

Regarding driving on the left - I'm quite nervous about it, because
I'm going to have to get a car soon (hopefully in the next few days).
The funny thing is, I was completely taken aback to realize that not
only do they DRIVE on the left, but people WALK on the left in
hallways, on the street, etc. It is completely obvious in retrospect,
but it never even crossed my mind that people wouldn't walk in the
same way as they do at home. It really brought back memories of grade
school, when my teacher had to drill into our heads that it was polite
to walk on the right side of the hall. Well, I'm taking advantage of
this state of affairs by being very conscious of walking on the left,
in an effort to get myself used to it so that it won't be so weird
when I have to drive.

Probably the biggest actual difference I've noticed here (other than
my New York City car-phobia) is security consciousness. Everything
has WAY more security than I'd ever been used to. Every single
residence has locked bars over windows and doors (even my little
single bedroom apartment, which is INSIDE a complex with guards and
gates) has an iron gate with a padlock. And if you walk around, every
house has a serious alarm system. It was definitely very creepy when
I first got here, but I have to say, I haven't seen any crime yet. Of
course, I've been totally sheltered the past few weeks, being mostly
on campus, so that doesn't necessarily mean anything. However, I get
the strong impression (and have been told this directly) that at least
part of all this security is a status symbol. The richer you are, the
more gates, and giant search lights, and alarms you have, in order to
say - "look, I'm SERIOUSLY important, so I can't afford to get broken
into." Of course, I'm sure that crime is a significant problem, and
these security measures don't come out of nowhere. It's definitely an
interesting scenario, and I predict that this will become a continuing
source of discussion for me.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Getting used to Africa

Well, I'm here! I'm staying with my friend/boss for the first few days while I wait for my next temporary flat, basically on campus. But in the meantime, I've started work, started seeing a bit of the city, and started watching South African soaps... specifically Rhythm City, which rocks.

This city is beautiful! The area where I am is basically built around a flat mountain (Table Mountain), with the University of Cape Town on the western slope - that's where I'm working. It's winter here now, which means that it rains a lot... this is not the winter I'm used to... However, rain means clouds in the air, and the clouds wreathing the top of the mountain looks really cool - it looked like smoke was billowing down the sides. I'm not yet set up to download my photos onto here, but as soon as I am, I'll set up some photos of it. Really amazing.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

A new beginning...

So here begins my adventures into two new lands - blogging and Africa. Choose for yourself which one is more alien.

Having never done any blogging before, one begs forgiveness for any lack of flair which might grace the pages of other, more developed pages, at least at the beginning. Anyway, my intention is that this format should act as a vehicle for keeping in contact with friends and family while I'm on the other side of the planet; I'd like to keep people aware of my activities/existence, prompting people to keep in touch with me, and giving me a place to show off how freaking cool it is to live in Africa.

Bringing me to the second adventure - moving to Cape Town, South Africa. As I type this, I'm sitting at Heathrow airport, awaiting the flight which will move me to my new home. So this really is as close to the beginning as it gets. I'd like to invite you to join me in figuring out what the hell goes on in South Africa - what it looks like, what the culture is like, what the wildlife is like (including the penguins), and anything else that goes on. So welcome to my new life, and let the adventure begin!