November has started, but temperatures during the day still reach 18ºC. One of the Stanford traditions that I had not done yet was "walking the dish". The hills behind Stanford are university property and contain amongst others antennas for radio broadcasting - KZSU is Stanford's student radio. A lot of people use it to take a walk or exercise - I encountered hundreds of people while going for a walk lately.
The most impressive is the radio telescope, "The Dish", that is apparently still in use. From the office I have a nice view on the hills and the dish, and every once in a while its position changes. The walk itself is about an hour and gives a nice view over Stanford and Silicon Valley, with the bay and the hills on the other side in the background.
Yesterday, autumn started officially with the first storm of the year. As Belgian, I'm used to a little rain and I thought I'd bike through, but that was a mistake. I arrived at the lab, soaked to the skin. The rain had washed the fine, loose, dry sand on the ground onto the roads, covering them with mud. Strong winds made branches fall off trees, onto the bike lanes and the roads - one fellow around the corner of where I live was very unfortunate, and found his shining car crushed underneath half a tree. At the end of the day, a hot shower was more than welcome.
Today, the sun is shining again and the temperatures are back up, making the air warm and humid. I guess, if the climate is tropical, the storms are tropical too.
Every year, some eccentric Californian billionaire and music lover closes down Golden Gate park in San Francisco, invites the best of American singer-songwriters and bluegrass and country bands, and organizes a free festival for everyone. 2 days, 7 stages and a crowd that can rival the largest festivals in Belgium, but then without the entrance fees.
Getting there was an adventure on its own. You can take your bike on the train here, it's really easy, but biking in the city sure gets the adrenaline flowing. Even in San Francisco, that is supposed to be 'bycicle friendly', bike paths are almost not existing, forcing you to ride you bike between the cars on the rightmost car lane. Things don't get easier when turning left or right...
Fortunately, there is a non-official bike route called The Wiggle that brings you to the Golden Gate park (which is by the way nowhere near the Golden Gate bridge), between the hills. You have to know it's there - lucky we had someone with us who knows the city - or you miss it. Once in the park, we had to find a spot to park our bikes. When there's no bike paths to be found, there are of course also no bike racks, or at least not enough. Because theft is a large problem, everyone want there bike attached to a firm object. Road lighting is not present everywhere, so trees in the park are the next best thing, and people make it a sport to lock their bikes where no-one will try to get them - see the pictures below!
A hotdog and performances by some artist I don't know, Neko Case and Marianne Faithfull later, I've had a first impression of a music festival in San Francisco. Lots of hippies, the "Jesus loves you"-guy, but what surprised me the most: more weed and marihuana than you encounter on an average citytrip to Amsterdam. Apparently in California, the rules are a like at home: illegal to trade, but you can possess it. Strange country...
I'm starting to get good at this "finding places where there's free food" thing, but sometimes it takes no effort at all. The Music department hosted its annual barbecue two weeks ago, right in the garden of our building. The weather was nice, the food was free, the beer was free too and, though tapped from plastic kegs without decent pressure system, not even that bad.
The Belgian students of Stanford organized their first gathering last friday in the form of a barbecue too. There are about 25 Belgians here, and the first plans for activities together are to have 2-weekly lunches or dinners, and now and then meet with the Belgians in Berkeley.
The day after, me and my housemates organized our own barbecue in our garden at home last week. The weather already changed and it was too cold for swimming, but the food was great again. Nachos can be dangerous though - they know how to make a really mean salsa dip here.
Actually I'm not a big fan of Mexican food. I'll try find myself an event with free Indian or Asian next time :)
The Cantor Arts Center is Stanford's own museum. It opened to the public and the new students with its "Party On The Edge" last week: entrance was free, snacks were provided, and throughout the museum several stages were set up with music, art and poetry performances by students from the Art department. The fire alarm that went off at some point had everyone going outside for half an hour, but for the rest of the evening (it closed at midnight already), the atmosphere was quite unique. Never saw so many students in a museum before out of their free will, though I guess most of them came for the free snacks or for seeing their friends play.
The museum is not that big, but the collection on display is impressive, for a university. A few Picassos and Manets amongst others, but also Stanford has the second largest collection of Rodin statues in the world, next to the Musée Rodin in Paris. A performance next to his most famous statue was unfortunately not very intellectual: sugary love ballads by two rather out-of-tune singing students.
One of the classes that I regularly attend is Music 250a. The practical/lab part of that class is to make your own electronic instrument, and to get this done Arduino is used: a small programmable chip that is easy to connect sensors to, and that can connect to your computer. It's not powerful, but it's really cheap and it's completely free, which makes that there's already a large number of users throughout the world that do the most amazing things with it.
I know about programming but I never having really designed electronics or made electric circuits. After a review of the necessary basic physics, I discovered they are very easy in theory but a lot less easier to keep track of in large circuits. I almost fried some resistors and short-circuited my computer's USB ports, but after a few hours finally managed to program the chip to make some LEDs blinking in my circuit and attach a few buttons and knobs for other things.
I finally found the time to go to San Francisco for an afternoon. It's a 55km train ride and in the weekend there are no express trains, so the ride takes more than an hour... Nevertheless, the city is very much worth the trouble if you don't mind climbing a few hills up and down. The city is bigger in reality than on the map, and I ended up doing a fair amount of kilometers only walking the coastline starting from 4th street. Discoveries of the day: the coffee at Peet's Coffee And Tea is not worth the money. The souvenir shops at Pier 39 are funny to visit. Also at Pier 39, I took more or less every free brochure at the tourist information center. And the cablecars are typical, but there's enormous queues and they are $5 for a single ride - I climbed the hills instead. The last train home is already at 20.30h on sundays, so I had to hurry to the station in the end...
I tried to subscribe to Zipcar today - a car sharing system that allows you to rent a car for $8 an hour whenever you need it, gas included. It is similar to what Cambio does in Belgium, only a little fancier: most cars that can be rent are Toyota Prius or similar. Nevertheless, if it's for things like getting to the supermarket once every 2 weeks or moving heavy loads, it's still way cheaper than renting a car for the whole period of my stay.
But Zipcar needs one last thing from if I subscribe with a Belgian driver license (while I'm waiting for a Californian one): a copy of my criminal record. On the website of the Belgian Embassy in LA they could inform me that I needed to send an official request to the ministry of Justice in Belgium - by normal mail or by fax (internet seems not to be invented yet over there).
Luckily they still have a working fax machine here. And after figuring out how to dial international fax numbers, I tried - failed. Tried again - failed. Tried again - "Allo?".
I'm really sorry for the woman that I apparently phoned out of bed at midnight. It's not always easy typing 20 digits (fax number and access codes) all correctly on ancient machinery that gets stuck half of the time...
It seems that in California, every restaurant or place that serves food, needs to publish the calorie count for their customers. A rather simplistic rule, since calories say almost nothing about the health value of food. Subway found a cheap way to get the message to their customers: they print the information on their napkins (the chicken teriyaki sandwich is not bad, btw):
After 36 multiple choice questions and only 3 mistakes (not that easy having to convert every lbs, foot, mile to kg, m, km) I have a temporary driver license. It's basically just a white sheet of paper with my data on it. The procedure involved lots of paperwork, lots of stamps, an eye test, several declarations and signatures, copies of all my documents, and 28 dollar. Luckily I had an appointment, I only had to queue for 20 minutes instead of 2 hours. The people in the DMV office of Redwood City ("climate best by government test") have undoubtedly not very pleasant jobs, but they were friendly though and I got the temporary license immediately.
Next step: the test behind the wheel. That will probably be for somewhere in november - the DMV waiting lists are long here.