adventure vignette grab bag

 Clocking Out

Things I learned during my first week of work:

  • Tank treads (i.e. no movable axle steering) put a lot of mechanical strain on the body of a robot or vehicle
  • Bayesian networks have a pleasant and elegant formulation
  • When I drew a graph to represent the model I built in this paper, that did not make the model a Bayesian network
  • Dirichlet processes are similar to Gaussian processes, in that they’re a non-parametric Bayesian way of getting at what your data are telling you
  • Dirichlet processes are different from Gaussian processes in that I don’t know how the hell they work
  • …although Gaussian processes used to be similar to Dirichlet processes in at least that one respect
  • I really prefer learning math with pictures and examples to learning math via abstract symbol manipulation
  • You can’t get a email address if you are not a person
  • You are not really a person until you have an employee ID number
  • You will not get HR’s emails telling you your employee ID number until you have a email address
  • When faced with this kind of thing, your best hope is to find the one real person who takes responsibility for things nobody else has a clue about, then thank that person over and over until you turn blue and/or your problem is solved
  • Sydneysiders never seem to bring their lunch; they always go out

2nd day on the job and I already have so much flipping homework.

Time to get out of here and do something else. In my last job I was utterly crap at looking after myself, and I’m not going to make the same mistake this time around. I’ve already hit the point of diminishing returns.

Besides, I finally have my ID card. So if I really want to, I guess I can come back to the office. Haha, not this time.


Apparently, AirBnB double-booked my hosts’ apartment for the weekend. We worked out an arrangement where I’d go somewhere else for Friday and Saturday nights, and they’d refund me the money. Turns out my weekend budget hotel lodgings cost almost exactly the amount refunded. So, mild inconvenience but no huge deal.

My new lodgings are on the upper level of an old Victorian home a few blocks away, old and worn but clean, spacious. Crucially, they are about a two-minute stagger from the site of tonight’s Swing Pit, which I am most definitely attending.

I didn’t write about it at the time, but this venue was the first place I ever went Lindy Hopping in Australia, the very first weekend after I got off the plane. The space is a parish house next to a church, a large, well-ventilated room with a clean, well-maintained floor. The social part of the dance lasts two hours, instead of the hour-and-a-quarter dances I’m used to from Canberra. Every time I’ve come back here, people have been welcoming without pretense: asking me to dance, asking me to dance in the middle of the jam circle they sometimes hold for out-of-towners and birthday people, and taking me out for ice cream after hours.

Tonight is no exception. I dance maybe three out of four dances for the first hour and a half, after which I start to get tired and slow down a bit. In addition to new lovely people, I recognize a few other Sydneysiders I usually only see at interstate weekends; they’re my new crew now. In fact, there are now two competing groups for afters: those going for ice cream, and those going for (alcoholic) drinks. I opt to go with the ice cream crowd this time, but maybe I’ll go with the pub-crawlers next time.

The best part is that it just so happens there’s a workshop weekend on this weekend, the “Little Big Weekend”. For some reason Lennart Westerlund, one of the main organizers of the world-famous Herräng Dance Camp, is in town from Sweden and giving workshops Saturday only. This also means there is dancing Saturday and Sunday as well. If I need anything to keep me occupied pretty much the whole weekend, I have it now.

I decide not to go to the workshops, nor (after the strain put on my bad ankle) to the Sunday evening dance. But I do attend the Saturday evening dance, where I am greeted with Kermit flails and squeals of OMG YAY!!! by friends both old and new.


I always claim the mission workers came out too early to catch any sinners on this part of Broadway. At such an hour the sinners are still in bed resting up from their sinning of the night before, so they will be in good shape for more sinning a little later on.

— Damon Runyon, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” from Guys and Dolls

On Saturday morning I wake up at a more civilized hour than I have all week: about 7:30 am. Largely from the screams of small children in the apartment next door. No sense holding it against them; screaming is basically in small children’s job description.

Can’t wait too late though. I’m a boy on a mission.

Before the sun gets too high in the sky, I set off at a brisk pace northwards from Newtown Station, along Australia Street. The streets are still sleepy; at such an hour the sinners are still in bed resting up from their sinning of the night before.

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I turn west onto Parramatta Street, an American-wide street lined with tire shops and fast food places, a far cry from Newtown’s hipster chic. Already the direct sun, movement, and humidity are making me sweat; I’ll need to pick up sunscreen later. I hug the shopfronts to stay under the awnings, checking my phone’s Map function a bit compulsively to make sure I remain on track.

As I approach my turn-off north onto Norton Street, the fast food places start to give way to Italian restaurants, at first pizza places and then places that claim to be “trattorias”, so I know something has shifted. It’s not long before I see on my right a broad archway with flags reading Italian Forum, opening into a long arcade with shops and cafes on both sides that cater obviously to that cultural background. Okay! Right! On the far end, the arcade opens up into a wide two-level area with a portico labeled ITALIAN FORUM CULTURAL CENTRE. Well then! I have apparently hit the local epicenter of Italian-Australian cultural consciousness. Right! Huh! Right!

I investigate a shop that claims to sell Italian confectionery, but they’ve shut and are only selling wholesale now. Well. Poop.

I press on towards my destination, which turns out to be two destinations. Both are called Mezzapica. One is a café. The other is a patisserie which supplies that café. The two are next door to each other but have slightly different hours. They both seem to supply what I’m after. I’m in the market for a new local place for my Saturday morning tea that can stand in for Sfoglia, and unfortunately I’ve become so addicted to sfogliatelle that I’m willing to walk almost an hour to check out an establishment that might have good ones.

I walk in and order “the usual”. It’s sweeter than I’m used to, and the pastry is more chewy than flaky. Not unpleasant, but after an hour’s walk I had hoped it would be better. I may have to go even farther afield now, or (horrors!) defect to a pastry shop serving an ancestry other than my own. Sfoglia still comes out on top, as I’m sure Michael will be pleased to hear.

Food of the gods

After about half an hour of digesting, I realize this is not going to carry me through the day. I order the breakfast special: scrambled eggs on toast with pessto, avocado, and crumbled feta. Okay, that’s more like it.


< Messages Emily        Contact

Saturday 11:32 Wow, you were right — even $530 apt is a dump. 2BR w/park, but still. Going to 1BR $500 which I expecct to be little better, and then calling it quits for today — SB

Saturday 11:38 Actually the 1BR was *much* nicer. Real wood floor (not veneer), interesting plasterwork, cozy. Small though. Would trade nicer place for office, or for a bit of location, but want to keep commute *time* short I think. xo Snugs-a-Boy

Saturday 11:39 ps sorry I mean nice place is preferable to shitty place w/office

Saturday 11:41 haha the cross street is Crystal St. I wonder how Ms Crystal is doing

Saturday 11:55 ppps oh! Redfern Station is closer than I realized to my office specifically, AND ALL the lines stop there. More willing to live a bit farther out if near train line. Off to Art Gallery of NSW for more adventures xo SB


I emerge from St. James’ Station, and head east past St. Mary’s Cathedral. The steps are familiar, though last time I was here with Emily. I head under the welcome shade of the trees towards the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

I haven’t been here for a while, but I recognize the broad columns, the bas-relief carvings with classical themes along the top. On the first floor are sculptures and large-ish paintings, many of them by European Impressionists. Heading down the escalator, we have more varied and, at least for me, familiar themes: a permanent Asian collection, and numerous galleries with temporary exhibitions.

I spend a good half-hour staring uninterruptedly at some delicate classical Chinese landscape paintings from the last four centuries. The best of these exhibit the same spontaneity and solitude I’ve always prized for myself in my moments away from the relentless crush of twenty-first-century doing. Just a few brush strokes are enough to suggest cliffs, mountains, trees craggling up out of the rocks, a far-off pavilion housing a scholar lost in thought. Negative spaces economically suggest water or mist. I take no photos, but I transcribe a few of the poetic inscriptions on the paintings. These two strike me especially:

The boat goes out daily casting the nets
Floating on top of water are countless layers of peach petals
If anyone inquires as to the whereabouts of the immortal paradise
(it is right here), the river and sky shrouded in the mist of sunset rain.

— Wu Li (1632-1718)

Strolling along the western banks of the stream,
With the autumnal clouds filling the gully,
While hearing the sounds of bells fading into the clouds,
One suddenly realizes the truth of Ch’an [Zen] Buddhism.

— Wang Zhen (1867-1938)

In the same gallery is a looping video piece, “Infinite Landscape”, which makes a mockery of the classic paintings: in a bleak noir palette, huge monoliths of concrete and steel replace the serene mountains of the ancient scholars, while cheap housing developments collect like mushrooms where there should be shrubs growing on the slopes of the hills. The soundtrack has no birds or running water, but features the constant white noise of traffic familiar in any big city. A zeppelin passes and its propeller figures in the soundscape. At intervals an explosion roars from one of the background mountains, but it doesn’t clear any ground: everything is as congested and unlivable as before. There is no negative space here, no breathing room; everything is predetermined and plods dully towards its final resting place.

There’s a long line of cars and they’re trying to get through
There’s no single explanation, there’s no central destination
But this long line of cars is trying to get through
And this long line of cars is all because of you

— Cake, “Long Line of Cars”

I pass through the other galleries a bit less deliberately, seeing what they have to offer: A gelatin print of a reclining nude woman, her hips and legs outlined and accented by the vascular, grasping structures of winter tree branches. A series of ten familiar constellations, each one colored and accented to somehow represent one of the ten amendments of America’s Bill of Rights. A table piled high with famous works of leftist philosophy, their covers defaced in pencil by phrases like ART IS BULLSHIT — is this supposed to be a participatory artwork?

I head upstairs to grab a coffee, and over the next hour I work the Saturday Paper‘s cryptic crossword with Emily and her family via text message. It takes a while but I manage to get TAKE A POWDER, the last clue which had tripped everybody else up.

As I walk out of the door through the Botanic Gardens, the day has cooled off substantially. I am impressed with how large these trees are: they dominate my field of view, and keep the steadily sinking sun out of my eyes.

Hug a tree today, while you’re at it. While you still can.

Trees start out small and sometimes they get really big! Hug a tree today.


About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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2 Responses to adventure vignette grab bag

  1. Joshua O'Madadhain says:

    I am not engaging with your recent posts much at the moment (as you see) but I really appreciate the updates. :)

    • Richard says:

      No worries. It’s busy out there. I’m barely keeping up myself. I’ll try to keep ’em coming so y’all know what the deal is. Make sure Alex sees them in particular!

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