Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Deer in the 'hood

There is a very large field behind my house that has become a sort of wildlife refuge in the middle of the city. The area used to be part of the Rockliffe Air Force base, but that was abandoned by the military a decade ago. Over the years the houses have been torn down and now there is nothing but a few street lights left standing.
Spotted from my balcony
There are of course lots of squirrels running about, but those are everywhere. Over the past few days I have been seeing some deer in the field behind my house. This is quite remarkable because although Ottawa doesn't have many large industrial zones, it is still a pretty big city.
This morning I counted five deer munching on the tall grass that pokes up through the snow. I am fortunate to be able to live in a place where I can drive to downtown in ten minutes, yet also look out my kitchen window and see so much wildlife.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Back in the Great White North

We flew back to Canada on December 23rd. First a hop to Frankfurt, then 9 hours to Ottawa.

Halfway through the flight I awoke from a nap and looked out the window. We were flying over Labrador and northern Quebec. Endless small lakes and evergreen trees as far as the eye could see (and from 36000 feet, the eye can see a long way). All covered in snow and without a single road, light, or dwelling. A few hours later we were still over the same vast forest and nameless lakes.

Amazingly, this is not the arctic, as it's all south of the 60th latitude. It's just what most of Canada looks like, and the main reason why we stay huddled in a few cities next to the U.S. border. A fantastically desolate place that was really awe-inspiring.
Little Arianne was a real trouper and spent lots of time crawling on the floor (when not crying). The landing involved a big bump and she thought that was lots of fun. Although the temperature in Ottawa was forecast to be the same as it was in Berlin on our last day, by the time we emerged from the airport it had dropped to -17°C. Oh yeah: that feels more like it.

The next few days were a whirlwind of Christmas dinners and conversations. It is strange how un-strange everything felt. My house did not burn to the ground while we were away and everything is where I left it. My putty-cat is still soft and friendly. Many "welcome back" greetings from the neighbours and here I am one week later exactly where I was a year ago. As if all that time in Germany was simply a little vacation. Life goes by quicky: a year here, a year there. Time ticks away, but hopefully the friendships and positive experiences will stay with me.

In summary, our voyage back went by without any problems and all is well. I hope my new friends will visit so we can go and find out what the heck is up there amid all those trees.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Mein letzte Tag bei iFQ

Room 77 doodle
Yesterday was my last day at iFQ. It has been a fantastic year because it allowed me to re-start my research career after that dead-end stint at the Ministry of Incompetent Management. Even more importantly, many colleagues have become my friends. No organization is perfect, but iFQ has attracted a bunch of great people.
So after work, we all went to a bar in Kreuzberg to celebrate. Haiko Leitz knows all the good burger places in Berlin and he guided us there. "Room 77" is a funky hangout for all the bobo hipsters with their Macs. How hip? Because it is a hangout for members of the Pirate Party (a cyber-anarchist Federal political party), you can also pay with Bitcoins. A guy in the corner played guitar and sang some Tom Waits. They make a delicious hamburger (Christian Klode also described the texture as "fluffy") and serve it with thick country-style french fries (pommes des landes).
Haiko conducting a seance with the ghosts.
I was glad to be able to sit for a spell and sip Jamesons with Kalle Hause. Despite having moved on the weekend across the country with his family to a new apartment, he was as mellow as if he'd been surfing all the time. Pei-Shan Chi took silly photos of us (Daniel Sirtes makes brilliant serious-funny faces), and Nathalie Huber showed up to play along with the boys.

Daniel and Pei-Shan
Photographic evidence of the evening is provided for your amusement. I really hope I will be able to see all these super people again. Can it really be true that I am leaving in two days?
Christian & me

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Weinachts special on TV

Flipping through the channels the other night we stumbled across a Christmas special. I sat transfixed as the most painfully awkward people I have ever seen lip-synced to traditional German music played on synthesizers.

Now, I must preface this by saying that Canada has done more than enough to pollute the airwaves with sappy singers. From Anne Murray to Michael Bublé (to say nothing of Celine Dion), the Great White North has produced hundreds of forgettable songs that sold a zillion copies each. There's tons of good music in Germany too: The whole summer is a series of huge open-air rock concerts. Just not on TV around this festive season.

To describe the Christmas special as "cheesy" is like saying that Mount Everest is "pointy". Musically it sounded like artificial syrup being poured over processed cheese and then topped with a sprinkling of saccharine. Christine even pointed out that the performers were not even provided with microphones so that they could do something with their hands. The German word for this is Fremdschäme (feeling shame for others). My personal favourite is Hansi Hinterseer, a former Austrian downhill-ski champion who parlayed a sportscasting gig into a career as the Tommy Hunter of Austria. He's got looks like Sting and talent like Lawrence Welk. As he slowly walked around the faux-snowy mini village set up on stage, singing slowly, the camera panned (yep, slowly) over the audience: a sea of jiggly arms and wobbly chins, swaying in time to a beat that only they could perceive.

I loved it: because the lyrics were so simple and slow, I could sort of understand what they were singing. It was all about love or something: good, olde-fashioned, tradional love.

Sunday, 11 December 2011


Today I went to see the Berlin Eisbaren play the Munich Something-or-others with my pal Benni.

Although I have not seen a hockey game live in many years, I must say that I was impressed. We got there a few minutes late and could only get tickets for the standing-room-only "fan zone". This was actually a bonus, as the wildest fans were there, banging drums and chanting rude songs. The wider European ice surface made for less of the jamming and obstruction that one sees in the NHL. The game was faster with less scrambling in the corners than in Canada. Benni was impressed. He had never seen a hockey game before and enjoyed the action.
The national fast-food of Germany is the "Curry-Wurst"

45000 rabid fans packed the O2 arena

Benni likes hockey!
The flip-side is that there were not enough smashing-into-the-boards as I am used to seeing. And for some strange reason there were no fights. Hockey without fighting is a sin (it says so in the Bible). I think the 7 Canadians who play for the Icebaren think they are on some sort of fancy European vacation, because unless somebody gets hurt, they are not upholding the fine Canadian tradition of international pacifism combined with bloodthirsty savagery on the ice. That is why the Zamboni was invented: to sweep up the teeth of players who gloriously sacrificed their smiles for the team. Seriously: the one time there was a hint of shoving-after-the-whistle I was expecting the guys to drop their gloves and start punching each other (it`s only natural). But nothing happened, I am ashamed to say.
Despite the lack of bloodthirsty Roman-spectacle-on-skates, my team won. Notice how quickly I adopt the Berlin hockey team as my own (Senators suck!). The Munich Sissywussies (actual name) were sent home with a 3-to-2 loss. After 12 months of not understanding a ficking thing that is happening, it was nice to be the expert for a change and to explain what was going on.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Checkpoint Charlie

My office is at Schutzenstraße 6a, which is just around the corner from Checkpoint Charlie. I have perhaps mentioned this before, but I now have photos (kindly supplied by my colleague Pei-Shan Chi). We got off the U6 subway at Kochstrasse this morning and passed this relic of the Cold War on the way to work.

Jeff at Checkpoint Charlie

A few steps further on there is a line of cobblestones tracing where the wall used to be. One minute you're in West Berlin, then - hop- now you're in the East. This line of cobblestones zig-zags through the city and it is common to cross back and forth from (the former) East to West Berlin a couple of times on the way to lunch.
The wall was here

In the 'West' looking east. The old guardhouse is still there.
Of course now there is no indication that half the city was Communist just 21 years ago: it looks like a big city no matter which side you're on.

A picture of a US soldier is all that is left to welcome you to the West
Of course this is a very touristy site, so there are Turkish and Eastern European hawkers on the sidewalks with tables full of Chinese-made faux Soviet knick-knacks. What must it be like to work in a factory in Guangdong making replica memorabilia? I wonder if it is the same factory where they make 1950's - themed Americana that is used to decorate suburban chain restaurants in Generica. Consider that there are far more of those restaurants today than there were gas stations in 1957, so all those "vintage" Coca-Cola signs could not have been found at rummage sales. Besides, they build three new TGIFs every week - head office can't wait for someone to find a stash of antiques in a barn.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Review of eSciDocDays conference

I gave a presentation at the iFQ today for the benefit of my colleagues. In it, I report on a conference I attended on October 26-27, 2011 at the Max Planck institute in Berlin. The locale was Harnack House at what is (today) the Frei Univeristät. It was humbling to realize, as I sat listening to the presentations, that Albert Einstein gave a lecture in the very same room way back in the 1920s.
Harnack House, Max Planck Institute
It was a fascinating conference and I am glad that I was able to share the issues with my colleagues. That's why I love working here. The first half of my presentation is spent just explaining what "eScience" is.