Outside the Lab

This site was originally a Wordpress blog, but since it will be hosted by the DREU program in the future, I figured it had better be scaled down some. These entries used to be in the "Outside the Lab" category (as opposed to the "Weekly Updates" and "Research Notes" that are on the Research Journal page. But there was so much that I did this summer, and since it is pretty much entirely unrelated to my work on Looking Glass - or computer science in general, I thought it might be better off pulled into its own page.

Week 0: Shakespeare Festival

I arrived on Saturday, two weeks after everyone else in the REU program. I was returning from a late-running study abroad semester in Budapest, Hungary and had spent only one week at home, on call for jury duty, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Honestly, I was somewhat reluctant to take off traveling again so soon, but I shouldn't have worried. Saint Louis is a terrific, welcoming city with plenty to do - and many (all?) of the museums, parks, and performances are free! - and I am really enjoying myself and the work in the lab.

On my first day here, Terian (we're living together, I met her when I arrived at the house) invited me to a concert she and the rest of the lab was going to at "the Loop," a stretch of restaurants and shops just down the street from our house. That is when I met Mark and Michelle, I met Caitlin on Sunday, at St. Louis's annual Shakespeare Festival. Taming of the Shrew was running all week, outdoors in Forest Park, free and open to the public. We all brought food and relaxed on our picnic blanket in the grass.

Strangely enough, that was the second time I had seen Taming of the Shrew this year. Needless to say, it was an entirely different experience than seeing a ballet interpretation of the play inside the 19th century, marble and velvet, gold-encrusted Magyar Állami Operaház back in Budapest.

While I hadn't experienced much culture shock holed up in my house recovering from jet lag, I was certainly startled upon arriving in St. Louis! I had forgotten how friendly Americans are - strangers making eye contact and smiling? Saying hello when we passed on the sidewalk? What's going on?!

I will always miss Budapest's public transportation, architecture, thermal baths, cukrászdák, and more for a very long time, but I had not realized just how tense being around international travelers - all jet lagged, most away from home - could make a person. In contrast to the intense and focused businesspeople in BUD, FRA, and SJC, the Saint Louis airport was packed full of families in colorful shorts and flip flops. They shouted to each other from across the terminal, and laughed loudly for the smallest reasons. After five months in Europe where this behavior might have seemed as obnoxious, rude, and superficial; it was a relief to be around boisterous, rowdy, happy, American crowds again. And don't get me started on American grocery stores .. or how great (and easy) it is to be a native speaker of a country's predominant language ...

Week 1: Float Trip

photo of canoes on the current river photo of current river

Image Credit: National Park Service

There was a Computer Science & Engineering Department barbeque on Friday, and that's when we learned about the float trip! It was my first time floating and it was so fun! We spent the whole day drifting in canoes down the Current River, which (I think) is part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways national park area. The water was so clean and clear! It was also freezing cold, but that was a good thing since it was also terribly hot.

We had all been skeptical in the morning, there was a huge storm right on top of us as we left - thunder and lightening and all. We had to pull over almost as soon as we got on the freeway to wait for some hail to stop (it took a while). But it turned into a beautiful day! There were tons of people out in huge groups, enjoying the river, picnicking on sandbars, and swimming in the frigid water. It was incredibly lush, with thick green bursting right over the river, you could not see beyond the riverbank at all. Such a contrast from the city-lined Danube I'd grown used to! In some spots there were tall cliffs along the water with little pockmarks and caves where birds were nesting. We saw fish, turtles, crayfish, and swarms of butterflies. There was one place where you could paddle from the river right into a small cave where spring water was coming out from underground. It was a great experience! I hope I get to go floating again someday!

Week 2: Marine Week

Image Credit: Lance Cpl. Tia Dufour

Image Credit: Sgt. Jimmy D. Shea

Another busy weekend .... On Saturday, a group of us went to see a simulated amphibious assault on the Arch. It was one of the culminating events of Marine Week St. Louis. While seeing very serious elementary school-aged boys very seriously handling the various sniper rifles on display was a little unsettling, and I can't imagine how my Hungarian friends (or any of my friends, actually) would have felt at such an event, it was nothing if not impressive. The sight of a giant amphibious assault vehicle crashing up out of the river and rolling down the street is not something I'll forget soon.

On Sunday we went to the Pride St. Louis Parade. It was a very different atmosphere.

Week 3: 4th of July

The Fair Saint Louis festivities sounded so exciting - three days of airshows, concerts, and fireworks under the Arch - that I convinced my friend from Seattle to make the trip out for the long weekend. On Sunday, the 3rd, despite the looming clouds, she and I joined up with part of our lab to make the trip downtown. The metro ran smack into a storm on the way there, and by the time we arrived at the Arch Landing station it was pouring. We huddled in the station playing I Spy and 20 Questions for quite some time, hoping it would clear in time for the air show. We eventually moved operations into a nearby Old Spaghetti Factory, but even when the last of the spumoni was gone, the rain remained. Michelle had been excited for the Maroon 5 concert, but alas, it, the air show, and the fireworks were all cancelled for the day.

The 4th dawned with clear skies and 100-degree weather. My friend and I had planned to visit the Zoo after a barbeque, but on returning to the house found ourselves unable to overcome the icy cold grip of the air conditioning. We bid our time indoors until the fireworks - which were excellent. They were set off from a barge in the river right in front of the Arch. You could see smaller shows going off in Illinois all up and down the river. My friend and I found a good spot in some wonderfully cool grass that was too far away from the Arch to hear any music, but had a clear view of the fireworks. I missed my family and our own 4th of July traditions, but I suppose I have to admit that the dazzling, 20-minute show St. Louis put on was much grander in scale.

Week 4: Arts and Crafts

For the first time yet this summer, Friday night arrived with no plans made for the weekend. I went to Target on Saturday to pick up miscellaneous items and for the entertainment value inherent in leaving the house. After conversation with Michelle about paint-by-numbers and friendship bracelets, I was also hoping Target might stock some kits. We had gone to Blick's Art Supply store on the Loop to look for some during the week, but they only stocked more serious, studio-art type materials. The Loop is a really cool stretch of businesses I pass through every day on my way to and from the lab. It's University City's downtown - City Hall, the library (I have a card!), and a post office are there too - and it is filled with restaurants, bars, cafes, and little shops. Sadly, there's no grocery or convenience store so one must go elsewhere for toothpaste and fresh fruit - although apparently there's a farmers market I've never been to - but I have been getting bagels for my lunch sandwiches from the St. Louis Bread Co.

Micah was generous to lend Michelle and me his car on Sunday. Our original plan was to go to the Zoo (finally!) but once again the 100+ degree weather discouraged us. We opted for a trip to Michael's instead and collected paint-by-numbers and embroidery floss for future enjoyment.

Week 5: Volleyball and Bowling

After last weekend's lethargy, this weekend was necessarily loaded full with things to do - despite the excessive heat warning in effect all week. The fun and games started on Thursday when a bunch of us played beach volleyball at the Steinberg (Ice) Skating Rink in Forest Park. They continued on Saturday with bowling and a St. Louis-style barbeque hosted by Paul and his family, and ended on Sunday with a trail ride in Pere Marquette State Park.

One of the other CS professors in the same hall as our lab organizes a team that participates in a very casual league with games every Thursday. There are eight spots on the team (only 6 play at a time), and sign-up via Google spreadsheet goes out by email on a week-to-week basis. Last time I played volleyball was in high school PE, same goes for most of the student members of the team I think. It was quite fun and a great group bonding experience. We made noticeable improvement in the second game of the double header and are all anxious to improve our performance this coming Thursday.

On Saturday, Paul - who I learned is an expert bowler and used to compete - took the lab out bowling. Again, an activity I haven't done since high school - but despite my memories of being rather dismal at it, and despite the bruises on my arms from volleyball, I managed to do pretty well! After bowling, we headed to Paul's house for some delicious food - including tasty pork steaks the size of small dogs and a gooey butter cake.

Braving the 100+ temperature yet again, on Sunday a few of us headed out to go on a trail ride in the Pere Marquette State Park in Illinois. It was hot, but the park was green and peaceful, and there were horses! Now this was something I have done quite a lot of since high school - I'm on my school's equestrian team back home :)

Week 6: Library Books

Once again, cloudy skies and the heat proved too discouraging and our trip to the zoo was called off. Michelle and I biked to the alleged location of an REU barbeque, planning to travel from their to the zoo. But the barbeque never materialized and after sitting outside for half an hour or so found ourselves too hot and hungry to want to make the 2 mile trip to the zoo (with the promise of a 3 mile uphill climb on the return trip).

Instead, I spent the weekend enjoying a new round of books I picked up at the University City Library. Going abroad has made me appreciate the library system we have here in the States even more. The one library I could probably have managed access to in Budapest belonged to the big technical university that my program was nominally affiliate with, but it was only for research. You went to a desk to request specific materials, no browsing of shelves involved. I remember when I first got to Hungary, I didn't know that tax is included in the price in many other countries. When I asked about sales tax I got confused and concerned looks: an extra percentage added on to the listed prices when you went to the cash register ... it sounded like the description of a scam even to me. A description of a public library sounds similarly wacky: a place with the same selection as a bookstore where you can take home books, DVDs, and CDs for a few weeks for free.

Week 7: Birthday Celebrations


My birthday was this week and we had a surprise "meeting" that day featuring a tasty, tasy ice cream cake. I dragged some friends out to see Cars 2 after dinner. I think my expectations were unreasonably high - it's Pixar after all! - I was the only one in the group who didn't like it. I was also the only one who had seen the first Cars movie. Other than that, my weekend consisted of simpler pleasures. After several days in dire-straits in terms of groceries, Micah and his car saved the day and I stocked up on some favorite foods. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that what I had taken for a cheap store-brand ice cream was actually Dreyer's that happened to be on sale. Who knew they were called something else east of the Rocky Mountains? I also determined that while I routinely get eaten alive by mosquitoes while attempting to eat lunch outdoors near the lab, both parks near my house are safe.

Week 8: Tourism

botanical gardens botanical gardens

As this was the last weekend for many of the other REU students (that whole coming 2 weeks late deal ...) we managed to squeeze in a lot of last-chance sight-seeing. The whole week was busy (in the lab too) - Mark performed in a concert Monday evening, the whole lab turned out in support and we went to Ted Drewes, a classic St. Louis frozen custard establishment afterwards. Thursday was volleyball and we managed a season high for our team.

On Friday, the REU program sponsored a trip to the City Museum. It was awesome - a sort of natural history museum-inspired adult-friendly playground. There were caves, slides, crawlspaces, tunnels, and all sorts of spring-like things to cimb through and on. It had a sometimes eerie industrial/fantasy vibe and reminded me a lot of that old computer game, Myst.

On Saturday, a couple of us dragged ourselves out early to the Soulard Market, another iconic St. Louis establishment.

Weeks 9 & 10: Packing Up

As you might recall, I arrived two weeks late. We made the most of our last weekend together. Caitlin hosted a farewell dinner for the entire lab and then on the last night we piled into Mica's car and drove way out of the city to look at the stars. After the other REU students were gone, I finally made it to the Zoo, donated my Target bike to the lab and some magazines I'd accumulated to the library, cancelled my library card, ate more ice cream than I care to remember (well I wasn't going to throw it out ...) and then packed up. I had such a great time here. I miss everyone already!