Monday, June 16, 2003


Master Baggins!

Greetings from Basque country

I find myself in northern Spain in a place which calls itself Bilbo, and which the rest of the world calls Bilbao. So far, this metropolis, this economic engine of Basque country, seems to be reaching technological, cultural, and aesthetic heights unseen in neighboring regions. What was once all industry--bourgeois, business-minded, and ugly--has transformed itself into something new, avant-garde, and futuristic: wide boulevards lined with grandiose buildings, a new subway system, a stunning new bridge, and a stylish riverwalk. But the shining Guggenheim Museum is what has brought Bilbao to international prominence. The first time I ever heard about the city was when I visited the Guggenheim in New York. I'll be visiting the place tomorrow. You should see it. It looks like it's bursting out of the Río de Bilbao. I've been told to expect some non-traditional exhibition spaces, e.g., I might be asked to take off my shows, lie on the floor, walk through mazes, or even sing through various eccentric exhibits. I'll let you know.

Barcelona. Back during the conference last week.... we had the afternoon free on Wednesday, and I rambled about with two friends I met from the conference, Urban and Matej. We made a pilgrimage to that strange looking church I posted about before. It was fun to wander the whole city. Later that night, about ten of us conference goers went to a 'typical' Catalan restaurant, picked one of the conferences hosts´, Frederic (who may be spending next year working at Caltech in my dept.). I say 'typical' because that become a joke. All kinds of crazy foods, clothes, and behaviors came to be called 'typical.' For example, I asked about what the custom was for a man to wear to a Spanish wedding. I was told all black, with a tall black hat. And bring a goat as a gift. But anyway, the food on Wednesday was very good: tomato laden bread, hearty cheeses, thinly sliced meats, and some paté.

Thursday night I chilled a bit. I went out to get some clothes for that wedding. Foregoing Frederic´s advice, I bought a hip, but formal shirt. I also found that dress shoes can cost you nearly €200 if you´re insane and/or fashionable. So instead I went to a Payless Shoe Source-esque zapateria and got some decent shoes for much less. It was kinda hard to get the shoes. All the shoes were behind glass. I saw people trying shoes on but didn't know how they got them. So I finally tried some slow and broken Spanish and got me some snazzy shoes. And then I had the good fortune to run into some chaps selling ties on a blanket near the train station for only €2. Score!

Friday for lunch an even bigger group (¡a baker's dozen or more!) went out to a Lebanese place. We were almost late to the afternoon session, which was always the most difficult one to stay awake for. During my talk, I even thanked people for sacrificing their siesta for me. After the session, I taked with a guy from Uni Barcelona named Alex about our mutual interest in codimension 1 surfaces of 4D symplectic maps. ¿Isn't that cool? But things really got hotter when a big group of us went out to dinner, a drink, and later, dancing. There were only four of us in the dancing subgroup, as most people were hopeless lightweights :) The cool thing about Barcelona is that there are discotecas all over the place. And they have no cover charge! They make up for that with €8 drinks. We went to a couple places, and started flailing around. No Salsa or Merengue this time, just that techno pulsation stuff. At some indecent hour, I went to sleep.

Wedding in L'Ainsa. Saturday was the last day of the conference, but I had a wedding in the Pyrenees to go to, in the charming medieval village of L'Ainsa. I heard the first talk and then jammed. You might wonder why I was going to a wedding there, but it was because John, who know the bride and groom, Debrah and Jernej (pronounced: yehr NAY), in the economics dept where he works, asked me to go 'represent'. I met them once or twice, and it was cool to witness their vows. And you might be asking, why did they choose to have their wedding in Spain. Well, the Debrah is from Venezuela and Jernej is from Slovenia. They met while attending university in Barcelona (A ha!). So they decided to have their wedding in Spain. And what a great excuse for their friends and relatives to go on vacation, I say!

The wedding was performed in a thousand year old church and the was mostly in Spanish. Also, the vows were exchanged in three languages: English, Spanish, and Slovenian. The priest joked that having said their vows thrice, the marriage should definitely last. Apparently the priest cracked several jokes. Pero, no entendía mucho. :(

The reception was in a restaurant with a beautiful view of Los Pirineos Montañas (the Pyrenees Mountains). ¡They served an egg and potato thing in a martini glass! There were so many courses! My table was a real polyglot civilization. Two Slovenians, Yurij and Matej, who speak some English to my left. To my right, Mercè who knows four languages in addition to her native Catalán tongue, and also speaks the language of math. Across from me was an Austrian who speaks fluently en español. Near me was also a Spaniard who spoke no English but had a big beard, goes hiking, and wants to build a big telescope in his yard, so we had much more in common than language! And then a Caltech physicist dude across the way; not me, but some guy I've seen around campus named Paul. I think he'll be roaming Spain some this week as well. BTW John, I met some British professor dude who claimed to know you -- and like many Brits I've met, had a peculiar sense of humor. Fun was had all around. After cheers in several languages, no STRAH vee uh being the most common (Slovenian?), the after party began and was even cooler. There was a salsa style band, and people were dancing. Some guys dressed as musketeers showed up as well, some sailors that somehow got invited. I was tired, so at about 3 am, it was time to call it quits. ¡Viva los novios!

Tuesday, June 10, 2003


Hola again

Barcelona, day three

Still in Barcelona, Spain... I gave my presentation today, to a nonplussed audience! Every day, we are all finding out about the connections in disparate fields like chemistry, ocean dynamics, celestial mechanics, and even quantum mechanics (the non-intuitive Alice in Wonderland theory about the world of microscopic particles). Such was the purpose of the meeting. Maybe we'll come out with some Chaotician Manifesto.

I was really pooped when the meeting ended up this afternoon at 5. I had been up late last night working on my talk. So I took a late siesta and then wandered the city, admiring the fairy tale architecture of Gaudí. And hey, check out this church dripped from heaven. I wish I had had enough money to buy a digital camera before the trip; then I could share real time photos, with you guys. Photos like
this one.

Well, anyway, time is running out on my meter. I'm staying in the Muslim part of town. I'm at the place across the street right now. One of those places with booths where you make long distance calls to Uruguay for cheap. IIn the back are some computer terminals like the ones you learned to type on in junior high, but they have something like internet access. There are people arguing extremely loudly in a foreign language near those booths. Okay, it's resolved now.

Bye for now.

Sunday, June 08, 2003


Before there was an American Dream

Barcelona, day one

I'm in Barcelona, Spain right now, attending an academic summer school on "nonlinear phenomena in chemical physics." This might sound odd to those of you who know me as a 'rocket scientist,' but the mathematics of chemical physics and the gravitational physics which I do daily is very similar. There are more deep connections in the world than are dreamt of in our philosophies, my dear Horatio.

Barcelona is a city muy bonita in my eyes. I love the architecture of the Modernisme movement, fairy-tale buildings without straight lines. Even my little room lacks right angles.

Anyway, I wandered to the Museo Picasso this morning, and looked at bits of art from Picasso´s formative years, you know, the Blue Period, and all that. Seems the talented young Pablo lived in Barcelona and got training in art by his father. I remember one quote regarding Picasso´s pride, but also the encouragement he received as a lad. Picasso said, "My mother told me, 'If you become a soldier, you will end up a general. If you become a monk, you will end up Pope.' Instead I became an artist and ended up as Picasso."

Walking around the city, surrounded by young fun seekers, strolling lovers, and weathered old people on a walk, I cannot but help that this is closer to what God intended for community. The streets are narrow, flanked by buildings that give the avenues a box canyon feel. You look up and see living spaces; people, clothes, and flowers spilling out of windows. The high density of life reminds you that the place is truly vibrant.

The geometry of people, markets, private and public spaces, is based on a pattern pre-dating the American Dream. City dwellers live in four-story high buildings, and I would suppose that their living quarters are small. Only the wealthy own homes on the outskirts of the city. But why live there, far from the life?

Growing up in suburbia, this arrangement is foriegn to me. Walking outside my house as a kid, there was so much space. There still is in my neighborhood of Pasadena. I'm reminded of what John Lin's mother from Taipei said upon visiting us. Where are all the people? They're so spread out, it's hard to tell where they are. Especially when there are no public spaces for people to just sit, relax, and watch the world go by.

I think it would be great to live in a big city with you all. There would be no need to drive 10 miles away. We'd all live within a ten minute walk or so, meeting now and then in a plaza. It's a strange dream for an Angelino to have. But something about the arrangement here sits well with my soul.