Saturday, September 23, 2006

New Year’s in St. Pete’s

Sep 18-24

This time I made it to Russia. Only 3 months late for the wedding, but I got to Saint Pete's and was able to deliver the wedding gift that's been waiting in my luggage since the last time.

New passport, new visa, and the immigration officials at the border didn't ask me anything. Just looked at my papers and stamped them.

The most intense experience of the whole trip was watching “Akeelah and the Bee”. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's a Starbucks Media inspirational movie about a little girl that goes to a spelling bee. If you still plan to see it, skip this next section.

Begin spoiler section

I caught glimpses of the movie during the flight. Glimpses in the literal sense, since my headphones were actually connected to my iPod, playing something completely different. I was also reading a book so only raised my head to see the movie from time to time.

The amazing things is that I’m pretty sure I got most of the plot anyway just by watching facial expressions and animated discussions once in a while. Here’s my version of it:

  • Akkelah has stage fear.
  • At the beginning of the movie, the only white character in the movie encourages her to compete (the rest of the characters are mostly African-American.) I don’t know if that’s important or not, though I’d have marked this guy as her agent were she an actress. As it is, he was probably her teacher.
  • Her mom is against her competing. Probably afraid of what will happen if she fails. She comes from the over-protect-your-child school.
  • She continues to compete, and despite running out in the middle of a few spelling bees, she seems to advance to the next level every time.
  • Somewhere along the way she picks up a father-figure guru in the shape of a bearded Samuel L. Jackson
  • At the final spelling bee, she starts with about 50 other kids. The losers are winnowed out during the competition.
  • During a break, she spies another competitor kid’s father strongly admonishing the kid about how important winning is and that he mustn’t lose and that he has to be the best. I got all this from the stern finger shaking the father did. Both father and son were Asian-American. I would have called this stereotyping, but then I was only glimpsing the movie. He might simply have been telling the kid that his mom would have been proud of him no matter what, that he should have fun, and that dad loves him despite the frozen somber expression on dad’s face. He might have been drying his wet finger by moving it quickly up and down or chasing away a very single-minded fly.
  • Of course later in the competition, when the kid stumbles a little and almost misses a word, dad gets up and says something out loud and all the parents look at him with a “what are you doing to your kid, this is america, life choices, etc.” kind of look and he sits down in shame.
  • Akeelah gets over her stage fright by remembering how she practiced the word she needs to spell while rope-jumping. A bit of fake rope jumping on stage kicks-in her contextual memory and she gets through the rough spots. She also has some flashbacks to discussions with the guru.
  • Meanwhile the Asian-American kid, despite dad’s strict disapproving glance, manages to stick in the contest until all the other kids except Akeelah are gone.
  • In order to not offend any minority portrayed in the film, both Akkela and the Asian kid win the competition. They share the trophy. I guess only Rocky can lose and still be inspirational.

Now here’s my main question: Why oh why, if this movie is supposed to inspire, does Akeelah only smile during the last act. Throughout the movie, whenever I’d raised my head to take a peek, she had a sour expression on, her mouth was turned down, she was crying or running away from the crowd. How inspirational is that? Do I have to win in order to smile? I don’t get it.

End spoilers section

Saint Petersburg in the fall has a capricious weather. It can turn hot or cold, sunny, foggy or rainy on a whim. I got lucky – it was mostly sunny, though a bit foggy on the weekend.

Friday night was Jewish New Year’s. This is one of the high holidays for Jews, usually celebrated in an elaborate family meal with a bunch of special dishes and prayers. Since I was out Firday night with some friends and colleagues from Sun, I decided to get a mini-ceremony going. While sitting in a Japanese restaurant, I pulled out a jar of honey and a few apples, cut the apples up and had everyone pick a slice and dip it in honey. I told them all they're my adopted family for tonight, then explained the tradition of welcoming the new year with a prayer for a sweet new year and we all dug in. I’m sure the waiters were almost as surprised as my non-Jewish friends. I caugt Dasha and Vitaly humoring me and my strange customs.Saturday morning one of my friends picked me up and we went to tour the city a bit. We started with a church tour, went into the famous colorful church, the name of which I can never remember, then kept walking onto Nevsky Prospect, the main street of Saint Petersburg.

There are more photos of the inside of this and another church in the following album:

Saint Petersburg
Sep 23, 2006 - 13 Photos

At that point, we decided to stop for a drink in one of the local cafes. One of the things I learned during my army service was how to carry something that you don’t want snatched away from you. In the army, that’s the gun. If it’s hanging from your shoulder, it’s very easy to snatch away. Either walk with it hanging from your neck where you can see it, or wear it over your neck and under your arm, that way no one can simply pull it off. And it works! My camera was still there when I took it off to sit down at the restaurant. The only missing thing was the lens.

Some enterprising dealer in used photographic equipment managed to twist it off the camera and spirit it away. I’ve been hunting for this lens for over 4 months. Eventually I bought it on eBay since Nikon is just not able to create them at the speed the market wants to buy them. It was barely 4 weeks old. I can tell you it’s very sad to walk around with a very capable camera that can’t see a thing!

But remembering Rocky (I don’t think Akeelah’s sulks will do me much good), I decided this was good training for my upcoming Vietnam trip. I’ll be there for a month and will need to watch my stuff well. If I lose my camera on that trip - no photos for the rest of it. For now, I just ordered a new lens (off eBay, again; at a premium, again), and hopefully it will wait for me by the time I’m back from this trip.

My main regret? Next week I’m in a conference at Mt. Saint Michele on the beautiful French coast and I will not be able to take any pictures of it. Oh well – I guess I’ll have to work there after all.

And finally: for those of you who celebrate it now, have a happy, sweet new year! May all your wishes come true (except the ones that go against mine) and may you live long and thrive (which is Kaiser Permanente’s way of plagiarizing Star Trek’s “live long and prosper”)! For those of you who don’t, my wishes still go with you.

Eran, Saint Petersburg, Russia

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Alviso Time Machine.
September 1

It all happened on an ordinary Friday two weeks ago. My team went to lunch at a mexican restaurant in Alviso. I opened up google maps and typed the address in and tried to understand from the map where it was. Then I zoomed out a bit and then a bit more and violla! it was a 7 minute drive from my office on the very same street.

I've never been there before. The farthest I've traveled up that road was to the highway intersection. Imagine my surprise when half a kilometer after the highway, once you pass the high tech office buildings and cross the bridge over a reed-filled creek, you suddenly discover yourself in the 50s!

The place was amazing. The only new thing in it seemed to be the fire station. I came back a week later with a colleague to walk around town and take some photos.

The town, now part of San Jose, stands against what used to be the southern tip of San Francisco bay and is now seasonal tide pools. Surprisingly, there's no development going on in the area. No new houses, no apartment complexes and the for-sale sign on one of the old, boarded up buildings, seemed to have been hanging there for a long time.

The houses that seem to be taken care of look like this:

But a lot of them just look broken down like this:

I liked this car mummification method. The super high-tech particle based self-adhesive material covering the car protects it against the ages. I'm now firmly of the opinion that my own car is squeaky clean!

There were other, less-easily-explained places.

What did "Skin Deep" mean? Was it an old club? Or was this the site of secret experiements and alien abductions taking place long ago and soon to be a major TV show on FOX? Skin Deep(TM) - What's underneath might not be flesh and blood. Mauhahahaha

There are some historical places where the local cannery used to be:

And check out this amazing gate and the concrete road leading to, eh... we apologize for the technical difficulties. It appears the property has been snatched away. Tune in to next week's episode of "Skin Deep(TM) - What's underneath might not be flesh and blood. Mauhahahaha" and see how a whole house could have disappeared. Or did it?

This bird feeder / bath was in the yard of a decorated house (see album for a picture of its front porch).

Speaking of the front porch, we met an actual family sitting on the porch. Yes - just like in the movies. Yes - in California. But it did start to seem like we've stumbled onto a old route 66 town. Especially when a clearly new train suddenly ran through town, leaving it as fast as possible without bothering to stop.

Here's one more relic from the town:

More pictures at:
Sep 1, 2006 - 20 Photos

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Old and New in Israel.
July 1-2

It's amazing how "historical" changes meaning depending on where in the world you are. For example, the Sun campus in which I work is on the grounds of what used to be the loony bin (ok ok the care facility for would-be-napoleons) in Santa Clara. When Sun built the campus, they were forced by the local government and the historical society to keep the old hospital building and the old governor's mansion intact. Any change to them, like adding wiring, repainting, fixing doors, had to be approved by a committee. The hospital is now the Sun auditorium and the governor's mention is a set of executive meeting rooms. The buildings are less than a 100 years old.

Then you get the other historical. In my home town in Israel, on the way to the beach, there was this open space that had some semi-erect walls though the ceiling was long gone. There was a wire fence around it though I didn't understand why until one day I found it in a guide book to Israel - it's a 3000 years old Canaanite temple.

Akko (or Acre) is an old port town in the north of Israel. The port is not used for commerce anymore, except for tourist boats and some fisherman, but throughout history it was a major trade center. There's historical evidence of habitation going back 3-4 thousand years. It was conquered and has changed hands quite a few times and was ruled by the Turkish, Druze, Mamluks, Romans and Greeks and was even the capital of the Crusader empire for a while. Surprisingly enough the only one who did not manage to breach its walls and capture it was Napoleon! After trying to charge it 6 times and failing, he gave up and left.

Today it has an old town section that's a tourist attraction, as well as modern neighborhoods outside the walls. The population is mixed Arab and Jewish. I went there with my dad to walk around a bit, see some of the archaeological sites, and take some photos.

There's more and more being discovered there. The main site is what's called "The Knights' Halls" which is a now-underground Templar keep from the time of the crusades. It's being slowly uncovered as more and more is found underground. Apparently when the Muslim forces of Saladin recaptured Akko, they buried any traces of the crusaders.

As we made the tour, we came to an area that was an old bazaar. The recorded guide we had said it was closed when Akko stopped being a major trading post and was completely forgotten until someone stumbled on it in the not too distant past. I could not understand how a whole space could be forgotten, but maybe because buildings were continuously being erected on top of others, no one paid any attention to the foundations. I took this picture from inside the bazaar:

The other interesting feature of the old town (which is not that big - probably 2 by 2 km if at all) is the escape tunnels the crusaders had in place. From the keep, a tunnel lead to the harbor, as well as to some of the other buildings in the town. Considering the size of the town, they must have really worried about being trapped by an angry crowd since I doubt it was the distance they were worried about. This is a wide section of the tunnel. As it goes into the keep it becomes much smaller so that I had to bend down to walk through it. It was about 1 meter wide at its narrowest.

A later addition to the town were the Hans, large hotels-stables-trading-posts for traveling peddlers and merchants. They were built as a square structure around an open area with a well and a place to tie the horses. Rooms were available on the surrounding building's two stories. There were a couple of such Hans, usually dedicated to specific merchants. One, for example, is called the Frank Han, for the European merchants that used to stop there. This one is Han-al-Umdan, one of the biggest of its type. The marble columns came from the ruins of Caesarea, from a structure built by Herod 2000 years ago.

A lot of the old wall is still there. You can walk around on it and see what it was like to defend it in historic times. Nowadays it hosts a few restaurants and serves the local kids as a place to jump into the sea from:

I remember the same wall with other kids jumping off of it when I was a kid. Look at this picture carefully. There's a boy jumping off into the water in it:

I also caught him a few milliseconds later when he just reached the water. Here he looks like he's walking on it:

And then, there's the non-historic. I went with my father to the beach to take our new dog swimming. She's less than 6 months old and still growing. A mixed Labrador and Saint Bernard. She'll be big. Here's Yoka with my father:

The album is at:
Jul 1, 2006 - 11 Photos

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