Sunday, September 28, 2008

If only "Classical Greek Influence on Renaissance Architecture" were edible....

...then it might be of more value to students

Textbook publishers are assholes.

I've been lucky and smart and planned ahead enough through the last 4 years to have got by without buying hardly any more texts than I have needed all the way through. Nevertheless, in my first year I still fell prey to peer pressure and people telling me that I must buy overpriced bundles of paper and cardboard so that I could pass the course, then proceeded to leave them right where I could reach them, above my desk. That was where they stayed all year.

Fully acknowledging my hypocrisy here, I still shake my head when seeing all the freshman students at the start of the year lining up to buy their armful of $100 + biology, chemistry, physics, and math textbooks that I know sometimes do not even get the shrinkwrap removed before the course ends. I can only hope that it teaches them the same thing it taught me, and that's to never buy a text until you find yourself in genuine need. What would be better if they figured it out beforehand, but as I experienced as well, no matter how many times you hear you should wait before buying them, the pressure gets too much and you cave, forking over unnecessary amounts for books that you don't really need.

I'd like to know how textbook publishers sleep at night. They continue to charge obscene amounts of money ($168 for one of mine this term - which of course I have no intent of forking over the cash for, sorry Oxford University Press) for books that cost them a fraction the price to produce. How many textbooks sold at 1200% production cost does it take to break even? My guess is not nearly as many as sell. The rest of the thousands of sales go straight from the poor, destitute students into the pockets of Misters Wiley and Freeman.*

It's not just the text companies, either. Instructors, especially at the entry level, continue to push texts on students, claiming that you will not be able to complete the course without one. Sometimes true, but rarely (speaking as a student of the sciences, anyway). I still resent the co-ordinator of introductory biology who told students that the text was essential for the course and that we must fork over $120 for one, following which it was of no use in that or the following course. Multiply by a class of 1800, and we're talking a lot of wasted dollars. The whole thing ends up exploiting individuals known to be poor, helpless, and subsisting entirely on Ramen noodles.

This isn't to say that the texts are not good; a lot of them are excellent, and I have got a huge amount of use out of three in particular. But these are texts I knew I would need, and for every one like me that uses them well, there are 99 who never touch them, and it's quite sad that so many students buy texts that depreciate and become worthless within a few years.

I enjoy upper year classes that teach straight from the primary literature, and if not, then all you might need is a reference text should you need to check facts and for some reason Wikipedia doesn't suffice. Almost done my undergrad, I don't plan on buying another text ever for classes here. I can't foresee having to pay for any others, as all my classes are upper-year sci - oh...wait...right, I'm taking that one too.

Oh, speak of the devil. Hang on a second.

What's that, second year Personal Financial Management?

You say I need the text to complete the assignments for this course?

Do I absolutely need to?

60% eh.... What if I -

Or if I -

Ok, fine. You win. This time. Sleep with one eye open.

Sorry you had to hear that. Well, dammit. Seems there's one more text I need. Guess I'm off to feed the man once more. Till next time.

*Make note that I make no claim that I understand Economics in any way, shape or form. The textbook was too expensive, and so I didn't bother learning. The statements made here are based completely on the assumption (granted, it is the correct one) that publishers are evil soul-eating bat-demons. And I've heard they have something to do with Osama bin Laden, too. Told you they were assholes.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Brussels - city of cartoonists, waffles and pickpockets

Grand Place in midday

So first mistake going to Brussels: assuming that Midi must mean the same thing as central. Nope. In French, it means "Noon". If I'd known the Dutch name for the same station (Brussels Zuid) I would have known I was at the South station when I exited my train, and not wasted 45 minutes desperately looking for street signs (Belgians are apparently above labelling their streets), and not finding the ones I did see on my map, because I believed myself to be at the central station. Regardless of that, I eventually found my hotel and met friends there.
Brussels Arc de Triomphe

Not wasting any time, we headed out to the Grand Place, the central city square, and even though it was 11:30 at night, the place was lively. The buildings surrounding the square were especially picturesque at night time and all through very cool.
Grand Place at night

The Manekin Pis, a famous sculpture of a little boy peeing (literally what the name means) was nearby, and visiting late at night was a great way to avoid the crowds that built up there in the day. Though a return the next day allowed us to see him in a change of clothes, as it is typical for visitors to give him clothes.
Manekin Pis at night

Manekin Pis the next day

Oh, and one must not forget waffles. WAFFLES. Unbelievable. I will never eat any again unless they come from this country. There is just no comparison.
Waffle shop!

The next morning we set out to go to the Atomium, the gargantuan monument built for the 1958 Expo in Brussels. I expected a statue of some sort, and did not realize we were headed to the highest thing overlooking the city. The 9 spheres represent the unit cell of an iron crystal, and can be entered through an elevator that runs up the middle, and escalators in between. The structure was built to last 8 months, but still stands to this day. As it is now the 50th anniversary, it was understandably quite busy.

The Atomium

We came back and visited the Place de Jeu de Balle (Ball Game Square) to see the local flea market. Quite interesting, there were things from around the world, from many different cultures, alongside your normal fleet of broken radios and sunglasses. Of note were a gigantic toothbrush, and guys actually selling couches.....somehow....

Flea MarketToothbrush!

Chocolate shops were a must on our trip round the city, but most proved too rich for my pocketbook. One that offered free samples made for some strong feelings of guilt when I discovered that even the cheapest stuff for sale was too much. They didn't like us.
Galleries St.-Hubert - the world's first mall

We saw the local Beguinhof on the map, and having heard of a Beguinhof in someone's research for Belgium, we decided to go there. It turns out that the one we were thinking of was the Beguinhof in Brugges, which we visited the next day. The Brussels Beguinhof was perhaps more interesting all the same. Arriving at it, with my rough understanding of German and speaking English, I figured out that the sign on the door said 'For 21 days the women have been on hunger strike" in Dutch. We were invited inside by men in their mid-thirties standing at the doors, and inside were were presented with one of the most unique scenes I've seen in all my time here. An old, Baroque church, housing dozens of protesters inside, mattresses covering the floor,neon pink and yellow blankets hung up to give some sense of privacy. The whole thing had to do with immigrant's rights, which apparently are not too great in Belgium (as in a lot of the rest of Europe).

Frites in front of a church
Top of a fountain - this motif is seen on all emblems of the city

Brussels is known as the "unofficial" headquarters of the EU, though it looked pretty damn official to me. EU parliament is based here, as is a lot of the big important agencies. Lots of shiny glass and pretty buildings.
EU Parliament


After missing a chance to get to the re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, but getting some Belgian frites to make up for it, we headed back into the city, and were lucky to stumble upon the music festival that was going on over the weekend. Granted, the music was......different....the crowd was still interesting, and cool to hang around for a while in. Walking through the park nearby on the way out, there were an unbelievable number of teenagers sitting, hanging out, drinking and smoking. There was hardly a square inch of grass free. (or a gram of it, either).
Outside the music festival

Our night ended at Cafe Delerium, as all three of us had independently heard of the bar, located just beside the Grand Place. The place was a tourist hole, but we put that aside for the evening. Perhaps we shouldn't have. Proudly advertising that "In 2002, it was determined that they had 2002 different beer varieties to serve", the place was definitely interesting. Leafing through their inch-thick binder of a menu, we picked out some for each of us, followed by a 2L novelty glass we has seen others drinking from when we stopped by to scope out the place earlier in the day. Where things went lousy was when we realized my friend's wallet was missing. Lost credit cards, passport, and 300euro is a rough thing to take away from a weekend in Belgium.
Cafe Delerium
Belgian Beer

Finally, Belgium is where a lot of the art of drawing comics has originated. You see this throughout Brussels, as statues, murals, and even billboard-like signs at the top of buildings. One thing that I wish I had more time to explore while there, but I did find Tintin!

.....?? Brussels is full of cartoon formsTintin! Atop a building

Monday, September 15, 2008

"Do"-ing while travelling

How does one "Do" a church?

Keep your obscene, inappropriate and/or blasphemous comments to yourself, now.

I spent a lot of time this summer travelling weekends, and have been doing my best to take in everything I can, experience as much as possible and to live life the German way whenever possible. I do my best to respect the people and institutions of the cities I visit.

Which is why it has started to drive me nuts to hear people talk about "do"-ing a museum "do"-ing a royal garden, "do"-ing a festival, "do"-ing a monument. When one has this mindset, they are just crossing things off a list to themselves. Which runs pretty much opposite to my way of travel. Not that I don't also have a list of priorities, and am usually short on time, but at least I try my best to avoid using the terminology that reflects just going somewhere so you can say you went there.

After some time, I developed a different travel philosophy, of merely wandering. If you are in the appropriate places, just wandering at random, stopping when something piques your curiosity, eating when hungry, stopping and listening to the street performers, sitting beside the banks of a river to relax, can be much more rewarding than speedwalking through a city to get from church A to town hall B to monument C. If the places are truly remarkable, you'll probably come across them on your way anyway.

So that's my vent about tourists for today. I fully own that I can fall into the same way of thinking, and in fact I am sure that most who travel do from time to time, but it is a way of thinking that in the future I will fight, and make sure that I make myself take the time to just sit back and smell the roses a bit. It's far less exhausting.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Breaking News

This just in.

The LHC is Online.

The Universe still exists.

Looks like the doomsayers need to go back to preaching to us from Nostradamus.

edit 27/06/09 as I reformat all old entries: sure missed things with this post.......

The show goes on

So I started this page before my summer started in hopes of providing family and friends back home a way of keeping up on my goings-on without specifically sending emails and cluttering everyone's inbox. I know lots of people don't give a damn about what I had done that week, and so I thought it best to register one of these accounts and write when I had the time so that anyone interested could check it at their leisure, and those that didn't care weren't obligated.

I gave myself the freedom, on the other hand, to keep this open this fall after returning home, should I enjoy it enough, and that's what I will do. I feel I've hardly scratched the surface of things I've thought of to write about and so I will keep going and keep writing here. In addition to being able to share my thoughts, this is actually quite a nice vent for me, and I enjoy it, so regardless of if anyone actually checks this anymore, I'm going to continue.

Still on my to-do list are half if not more pictures from my summer, additional comments on my experiences and what I found interesting, thoughts on science and the like from lab work this summer, and new stuff to do with my semester that's currently getting off the ground here back at home. Check in again shortly. Same bat-time, same bat-channel.

I'll be writing about something real next time. I promise.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


There's a new pastime that's sweeping the nation, and one can only engage in it for a limited time. You've heard of people-watching, well, for those of you not content with merely watching people, now you can watch frosh.

It wasn't too long ago I came to University from High School, and so I still remember quite well how I felt upon getting to my school for the first time. Which makes it all the more interesting to watch the brand new first-year students run around, trying to show off/look tough/pick up/get picked up and/or have people in awe of them as they brag about high school achievements. And they travel in packs. I would think some of what I see from the students were actual confidence and not just being loud an insecure, if it weren't for the fact that they cannot do anything alone. I'm aware of my hypocrisy, I was once in the exact same position, doing the exact same. But I think that gives me licence to make fun. I've done my time.

If I didn't have frosh-watching to amuse me, the 20-minute wait in line to get a coffee as they all ordered smoothies would have really pissed me off. And I got stares for being alone (heaven forbid) and drinking coffee. Oh, the naivete.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ich liebe meine Fahrrad

Fahrrad, Zweirad, Velo, Radl, Drahtesel. Germans love their bicycles. So much so that they have a complete repertoire of names for each part of one that you'll have a very hard time translating due to the multiple trivial names, none of which have anything to do with the English term. Makes for lots of fun when one tries to change a flat tire.

Going to any Hauptbahnhof (central train station) you will undoubtedly see a sea of bicycles somewhere where they allow parking for bikes. That is the best place to observe the huge popularity of this means of transportation in the country.

I was lucky enough to have one lent to me for the summer by a coworker, and let me tell you, the freedom of riding a bicycle in this country is amazing. Whatever stops automobiles is no obstacle für meine Fahrrad. Forest? No problem, there's paths through to anywhere you need to go. River? Oh look, a bicycle and pedestrian bridge, right over there! Autobahn? Kein problem, there's an overpass built there just for me. Oh how riding a bicycle simplifies life.

Unfortunately, the huge popularity of bicycles here makes them particularly attractive to thieves, even ones that one would consider not worth stealing.

My borrowed bike before getting stolen:

And after:

Thursday, September 4, 2008

My Pledge

So as you read this, I am now back in Canada, preparing for my next semester of school. I've had a great 4 months away in Germany, but now is time to face the real world again.

I've known other students who have lived abroad for a while, and often they come home with the "_____ is better than here" attitude, which tends to piss off everyone around them to no end.

Although while in Germany I have found a lot of things are really interesting when I compare to how things work back home, I know that talking about how certain things are better there will piss some people off to no end, and so here I make a promise to not be that guy.

I pledge:

Not to go on and on about the football - er- soccer teams and leagues whenever sports come up
Not to complain about the food and wax nostalgic about bakeries and bratwurst
Not to go on and on about the more liberal, accepting atmosphere one finds in Western Europe.
Not to change my entire tastes in music to German music.
Not to constantly put down the English language in favour of the German one.
Not to complain (too much) about the quality and price of beer.
Not to constantly compare cultures and talk about how Europeans are better than us here.

I do ask for some understanding as it will take some time to get used to gas-guzzling cars, crappy sports, lousy food, insensitive people, country music, and the flaws of the English language. You wouldn't understand. My European friends would, they're naturally better at this sort of thing.