14 August, 2009

Happy birthday (belated), Singapore!

Filed under: Asia by Joel @ 1:48 am, 14 August 2009.

Suddenly, the food in Sydney (even in Newtown) seems extremely expensive; WiFi internet is frustratingly occasional; our city is congested with cars and many outrageously-overpriced taxis; it lacks in ethnicity, its streets are dirty, and it is simply cold.

Me and the giant durian known as the Esplanade At least that’s how it seems after a week in Singapore. Where else can you eat a meal for one dollar? access the internet (to find a bus stop, a restaurant, or a better price) for free on most street-corners? walk past buddhas, mosques, hindu temples, a variety of churches and a still-in-use 19th century synagogue in a 10-minute amble?

Singapore is an curious mix of cultures from across southern Asia, with a Western sense of security and East Asian technology thrown in. Quite a pretty city too, if you like the geometry of modern architecture and Singapore’s multi-colour take on it.

Though young as an independent country — it celebrated its 44th birthday on the day I departed — Singapore certainly has enough to be proud of.

The conference was also very good, and left me with many ideas, very few of which actually had to do with the direction I thought I was heading for a PhD, but still, nice to have some inspiration. Good to see again those people I had met at EACL; to meet others for the first time who I’d cited, who I’d seen cited, and who I’ll be likely to cite in the future.

Other highlights included (more-or-less chronological):

  • The wonderful Jewish community there and their hospitality for the shabbat that opened my trip;
  • Having at least one token vegetarian stall in most food courts / hawker stalls (at least four in the one near our hostel), and elsewhere on the streets;
  • The entertaining restauranteur at Ci Yan on “Chinatown Food Street”, who had been recommended to us along with the food;
  • The Night Safari (much better than Chiang Mai’s, and probably less cruel to the animals), its shows, and Nicky wearing a boa constrictor;
  • Musical entertainment, unicycling polyglots and an academic dance-off at the ACL banquet;
  • Riding bikes (and teaching Matt how to do so) around Palau Ubin;
  • Running around Sim Lim Square looking for the few retailers with DDR3 RAM for my computer (ended up with 4GB at AU$125, which I think is a pretty good buy);
  • Ordering one of the most expensive menu items (a paper masala dosa) for dinner, and still paying only SG$2.50 (AU$2.10);
  • Some of the yummy Indian sweets from Chella’s, even if they each cost as much as a meal;
  • Being woken by the call of the Sultan Mosque muezzin too early on Friday morning;
  • Watching papers with my name on them being presented very well, but not having to present myself;
  • Awesome fake meats in the herbal mutton soup at Eight Immortals in Koufu food court (the closest to the conference centre with a vegetarian restaurant, and yet somehow I managed to avoid it till the last day of conferring);
  • Terrible cover-band music under the misnomer of “Gypsy” as a free National Day performance at the Esplanade;
  • Playing around with Yefeng’s tripod on the last night (to my fortune, his camera ran out of space);
  • Lots of green-bean, red-bean, sesame, and other Asian delights…

Somehow, food features quite prominently — even without chilli crab — doesn’t it?

And no, Sydney isn’t so bad. But there’s nothing like taking a holiday and intellectual inspiration at the same time.

31 July, 2009

To Singapore

Filed under: Student life,Travels by Joel @ 6:03 pm, 31 July 2009.

I’ve neglected this blog for quite a while, but as one does on long flights, I might as well say hello. Yes, I’m flying again, for the third international trip this year. This is in great violation of an ideal I’d conjured up a few years ago: that international travel should be minimal and efficient.

On that scale, perhaps it’s not as terrible as Athens in April (it’s a shorter flight — the shortest I’ve made out from Australia — for a slightly longer stay), but it is another quick-and-dirty conference trip. I’m out of Sydney for 10 days, for the Conference of the Association for Computational Linguistics. (The astute will note this is similar to the last conference title, but lacking “European Chapter of the”.)

While slightly up on the flight efficiency, there is less reason for me to attend, as I’m not presenting any papers, just supporting my co-authors who are. I have my name on two papers in the ACL Workshop on Collaboratively Constructed Semantic Resources, which, for the jargon-uninitiated, basically means “research using wikis to help computers understand language”.

But I do hope to see and taste a bit of the city too. Singapore’s taste sensation is sorely limited by my choice of diet. Fortunately, there are many vegetarian restaurants which should suffice, and a Jewish community centre not far from my hostel or the conference site. At 42km long by 23km deep, about half of which is built up, most places I might want to go aren’t exceedingly far (thanks to Fisher Library‘s Lonely Planet collection for providing geography tidbits).

Sadly, I’ve booked my return flight for the morning of the 9th of August, not realising it is Singapore National Day, one of the highlights of the calendar. If only I’d arranged to stay a few more hours… (and maybe it still can be arranged? is it worth it?)

As a perk on the side, I had not realised that I would also be travelling further west in Australia than I’ve ever been. On the flight, I happened to want to know the time, and turned on the only reliable channel on the barely-renovated 1980s inflight entertainment system of Singapore Air’s Boeing 737-400, which pinned its pixelated aeroplane icon at Uluru. This surprised me, as I’ve previously only travelled northward to Asia. So I’ve finally been to Central Australia (not that I could see it from row G). Next time I should make a stop-off.

14 April, 2009

Athens in brief

Filed under: Europe by Joel @ 12:44 am, 14 April 2009.

View of Athens from Lykavitos Hill

On arrival in Athens last Monday, weary from 24 hours in travel, I was faced with a round of poker and lost. Don’t use EuroChange. I thought I was being careful, and even made calculations on my computer before approaching the counter. But they take advantage of the tired and naive. I bid low, they pushed me up to a higher bid, and I was sold a deal I didn’t need: too much money; too much commission (foolishly absent from my accounts); and a guarantee of the same rate and no charges to exchange up to 30% of it back, when there was no chance I’d spend 70%. So really I was just conned. And as I exited the airport to get a bus ticket, there was Piraeus Bank with a better rate. So said a recently-skimmed finance textbook: banks can always offer better rates; they exchange much larger quantities in one go. Again, don’t use EuroChange.

So I spent the week trying to spend money, but the opportunity didn’t arise. The hotel was pre-paid and fed me each morning. Lunches were provided at the conference (I survived on salads and bread). James shouted me dinner on the first night; the conference had a cocktail dinner on the second (identical to the lunches), and a banquet on the third (different chef, but similar salads); and Itamar, an Israeli student with British sponsorship wouldn’t suffer the indignity of me paying for my own dinner on Thursday night. (Note that the vegetarian situation isn’t as harsh as suggested by My Big Fat Greek Wedding: some Greeks avoid meat a couple of days a week for religious reasons, there are spinach pastries, etc. But there’s still a lack of all-vegetarian venues and even fresh fruit, despite the orange trees standing in public squares.)

Train station madnessAthens' Sefaradi synagogue Friday night and Saturday lunch with a Chabad couple were free meals, but I hoped to bring a 20 Euro donation to synagogue as shabbat was entering. Close to shabbat, I was ready to hop off the metro at Thission Station when the train drove right past it, seemingly closed off for some time already. I had to change trains and go back. The sun was on the verge of setting as I left Monastiraki Station, so I had to dump the cash according to shabbat rules. I hope it found its way into good hands.

Despite my loss, I enjoyed Shabbat, the Greek traditions, the company and the cooked food that it brought. And stunning weather, in which I walked around all afternoon wherever I could go without a ticket. I saved the ticketed places for Sunday.

The National Archaeological MuseumInside the National Archaeological Museum And yet when I turned up to buy a ticket when the National Archaeological Museum opened at 8:30 on Sunday morning, they let me in for free, because it was the first Sunday in April. Even the ticket I’d already bought for the Acropolis was useless, as they would let me enter gratis. Not surprisingly, by the time I got back to EuroChange at the airport, I’d only spent 56% of my cash, and that was some effort.

A view of Athens through the Temple of HephaestusPhilopappos Monument, Acropolis and Lykavitos Hill The archaeology of Athens is wonderful, both its larger preserved monuments and ruined capitals, and the huge collections of smaller artefacts spanning thousands of years of art. While its ancient temples and chambers of democracy are something to behold, for tourists they are essentially the city’s beginning and its end, especially as almost everything worth visiting closes by 3pm out of peak season. It was the first city I’ve travelled in where I’ve been tempted to leave for the airport early, for lack of anything better to do.

Like all cities, it does have its secrets, those places just a little off the beaten track that are cheaper and just as rewarding as the traditional traps. The view from the Hill of MusesA pleasantly empty Monastiraki Square In particular, I enjoyed the Philopappos Hill (or Hill of Muses), and the view it gave in all directions, to the sea and to the hills. Starting out before everyone else turns up is also key: the sites close early, but they tend to open at 8 or 8:30, at which time you don’t need to push people out of the way just to get some quiet time with a statute of Hermes for a photo.

So I’m glad I wasn’t hanging around in Athens for much longer than needed to see it, but next time I hit the Agaean Peninsula, I’ll hope to spend more time on islands, at Delphi, Olympia, Thessaloniki, etc. Maybe by then they’ll have caught up with the world in smoking bans, and perhaps by then I’ll be wiser with my finances.

2 April, 2009

Talking syntax at Syntagma

Filed under: Europe,Student life by Joel @ 6:28 pm, 2 April 2009.

I’m in Athens for a week. It’s the shortest trip I’ve ever made out of Australia, with a day’s padding on either side for travel. I’m here for the 12th Conference of the European Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics, a small mouthful, like many titles of the papers being presented here.

Conferences are all about communication and learning, but I feel like the main thing I’m learning is how to attend conferences. My supervisor considers that having spent a lot of money to get here, we should make sure we see as much of the conference as possible. Other people seem to think, that having spent so much to get here, one should make sure to see as much of the city as possible. It’s a matter of learning to know which sessions to take off and get out to see the city. And I’m apparently a slow learner, and have seen almost nothing of it, which means I’ll be cramming it into the next three days.

And then there’s the idea that once I’ve travelled halfway across the world, I should at least stay here for a little longer than a week. I was bound by two major concerts last week and Pesach (which I enjoy spending with my family in Sydney) next week, but I still feel guilty to be hopping back on a jet so soon.

And of course I could do with learning a little better how to present a paper. I gave my presentaton on Analysing Wikipedia and Gold-Standard Corpora for NER Training yesterday afternoon. Having gone over-time in my practice runs, I cut it down a little on stage. Apparently too much. The session chair didn’t need to hold up a single warning sign. Still, it left more time for questions, which showed people were interested, and I’ve had many compliments on an interesting presentation. I also need to work on fluency a little, but my supervisor tells me I’m much improved…

The learning curve’s a little steep. There are many PhD students here who seem to be becoming naturals at conference-going. Soon by me?

PS: I’m not really doing much on syntax myself; nor is the conference actually at Syntagma Square, the focal point of modern Athens…
PPS: Typed on my new MacBook.

13 January, 2009

Coughing on my blog

Filed under: General,Travels by Joel @ 12:27 pm, 13 January 2009.

The coughing on my blog is a fairly desperate sign that I should write something. It’s certainly been a while since I submitted my thesis.

At least I should have written about Tasmania, which I visited in the first ten days of December. Galina and I saw the sights of the island over the first week: Wineglass Bay, Bicheno’s Penguins, Cataract Gorge, the Spirit of Tasmania turning around in Devonport (?!), Cradle Mountain, Bruny Island, Salamanca Markets, Port Arthur and the Devil’s Kitchen. In sum, I drove 1300km over five days in a hired Lancer, before shabbat in Hobart and a day-tour to the Tasman Peninsula. Some other highlights:

  • We met an Israeli couple on our first walk who were completely oblivious to the news (Mumbai, etc.), and who desperately needed CDs for the small car they were travelling and sleeping in, which I gave them (Mashina and Dudu Tasa).
  • Having left our warm clothing in sunny Devonport, we turned up to ice and snow at Cradle Mountain. Our hike there was shorter than planned, and we dried off at Tasmazia, a hedge maze filled with strange quotations.
  • A chocolate factory.
  • The GPS system we hired took us on the least scenic route from north to south, featuring hydroelectric power plants and unsealed roads.
  • It also sent us north into rush-hour traffic when trying to go south to catch the last ferry to Bruny Island. We made it, thanks to a little speeding, some generous ferry operators who lifted the closed boomgate for us, and a lot of luck.
  • Bruny Island, and its every scene — while Tassie is stunning view after stunning view, this island off an island off an island exceeds.
  • I gave thanks to our shabbat lunch hosts by recording tunes for them the following Tuesday.

But the real reason I was in Tasmania was for ALTW, the tribe-meet of Australia’s students and academics in language technology. While I enjoyed the conference, it was a little disappointing to be one of only about thirty attending, twenty of whom (myself included) made presentations. Since then, a paper of mine has been accepted to EACL, which should be big enough to give attendees options for each lecture session.

It seems I’m returning to USyd in March to take the PhD path, and despite this being my last real holiday from such stuff for the next three years, I’ve been doing lots of other computery stuff, such as attending the awesome National Computer Science School as a tutor (first time!); preparing material and puzzles for a talk on linguistics and language technology presented at the latter; making contributions to the Natural Language Toolkit; helping to edit their upcoming book; and playing around with a few other ideas.

There has also been a lot of music in my life lately, rehearsing regularly with Jenny and the gang, working towards a March concert (no date set yet) of Mediaeval, Renaissance and early Baroque music. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve met once with a more jazz/pop-oriented a capella group, and might finally get around to arranging the Screaming Jets’ Helping Hand for them. I’ve even been looking back at an unsung piece I arranged in 2006, wondering what I need to do to make it more singable. Jenny and co. will be pushing me soon to find a voice teacher, and want me to use more of my alto falsetto range…

I guess the silence is also because, for whatever reasons, I’m writing (perhaps thinking?) less about Jewish and Classical Hebrew stuff, which had often been the topic of this blog. While I wrote a few posts on Rashi and Ibn Ezra last year, I’ve been reading Ramban over the last months, and he is simply not as witty; his long rants correspond with low comprehension, and his determined point of view leaves one with little to say, even while disagreeing. But I continue to read (although reading the Mishna Berura is falling behind), enjoying the interpretation and the language, even if I say nothing about it.

And there’s a social life to be had, and time to be spent with a girlfriend. And if I get around to it this holidays, I might teach myself some Russian so I can understand her grandmother. So far I’ve changed my Facebook interface to Russian, but it hasn’t helped much yet.

Amid all this, I should also think about Thailand where I’ll be spending a fortnight from the end of the month for a wedding of Galina’s friend Raquel. It’s very exciting, but right now I feel like there’s enough to do in my life without another holiday… my inherited workoholism shining through.

I hope the coughing ceases, and maybe I’ll even try push out a few posts amid all the other madness…

14 March, 2008

Two weeks in Israel – a summary

Filed under: Family,Israel by Joel @ 12:10 pm, 14 March 2008.

The last two to three weeks have been pretty trying for Israel. But I happen to want to talk about the two weeks before then, just to give a few highlights (fairly extensive highlights?) from my trip to Israel for my brother’s wedding. (more…)

20 July, 2007

Home hospitality

Filed under: Society and culture,Travels by Joel @ 2:00 am, 20 July 2007.

So the year-and-a-day is over.

But I think it is remarkable that of those 366 nights, I stayed in a hostel / motel / hotel only:

  • 5 nights in San Francisco (July 19, 20, 23, 24, 25)
  • 4 nights in New Orleans (July 26, 27, 30, 31)
  • 1 night in Memphis (August 1)
  • 2 nights in Niagara (March 23, 24)
  • 1 night in London (April 30)
  • 2 nights in Amsterdam (May 1, 2)
  • 2 nights in Paris (May 7, 8)

That’s seventeen days in total!

I wanted to say an enormous thank you to everyone I’ve stayed with along the way, who have all been extraordinarily hospitable to me in finding somewhere for me to sleep, feeding me, taking me out occasionally, giving me their kids to play with… (more…)

19 July, 2007

Unerasable graffiti

Filed under: Hebrew,Israel,Judaism,Semiotics by Joel @ 3:03 am, 19 July 2007.

Graffiti at Efrat’s entry road There was some strange Runic-looking graffiti along the southern entrance to Efrat that I saw a number of times on the way to the Trampiada before finally identifying it. I eventually recognised the rightmost symbol of the large text as being the Hebrew letter yod (י) in an ancient Hebrew script (כתב עברי). The script we use today is a variant of the Assyrian script (כתב אשורי; or “square script”) adapted from that borrowed from Imperial Aramaic around the Babylonian Exile.

After recognising the first letter, I realised that I could identify (with confirmation online) that this large text was actually the Tetragrammaton, in Judaism the ineffable and most sacred name of God, albeit that its letters were highly stylised. Altogether, we have the phrase “יראת ה’“, “fear of God”.

Now because, for those who can read it, the graffiti includes the Name of God, does this mean it cannot be erased as would usually be the case with this four-letter name? (more…)

15 July, 2007

The taste of Tel Aviv

Filed under: Israel by Joel @ 1:42 am, 15 July 2007.

This trip to Israel was in many ways an altogether different experience of Israel to my last, when I was here for 11 months in 2002. Firstly, whereas that was for the most part an organised programme, here I was travelling in my own freedom. But mostly, whereas that was 2002, this is 2007, and the matzav (“situation”, a reference to Israel’s relationship with its neighbours) is on a practical level very different. Then I didn’t take buses, visit centres of town, markets or shopping centres, and barely entertained crossing the Green Line. These restrictions did reduce the risk of being blown up significantly (although I was near to many attacks in one way or another), and yet isolated us from some Israeli experiences. Maybe as a result of the increased freedom this time, I also tried to see places I did not explore much last time. For instance, some more eastern parts of Jerusalem’s Old City, Ramallah, Efrat, Hebron a little, and Tel Aviv.

IMG_9196panoout Tel Aviv might seem like the odd one out there, the others all being hotly disputed and potentially dangerous territory. Nonetheless, the Jewish tourists to Israel tend to be divided into those who love Tel Aviv and those who avoid it. Some might say it’s a matter of Tel Aviv vs Jerusalem, and it seems I’ve been pushed into the latter camp. Thanks to Shimrit, my sister-in-law-to-be, I finally had somewhere to stay, if but for a few nights, to sample a little more of the city than I had known. (more…)

11 July, 2007

Out of the frying pan, into the freezer

Filed under: Israel by Joel @ 11:05 pm, 11 July 2007.

Well that’s what I imagine it is going to be like. From Jerusalem at 32 degrees to Sydney at 15 degrees. Then again, maybe not into the freezer. That was Montreal. Fridge, then.

A day’s flight awaits.

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