Monday, July 28, 2008


After a month of "core lectures" - 3 1-hour lectures per day, six days a week - in seven different departments, we've just had our exam. Despite attending Jeff's 12 hour going-away party, I did study a decent amount this weekend and am pretty confident that I did well. (Actually, Jeff really encouraged my studying, and made me coffee to keep me going.) Now that the exam's over, we're off to Madrid for an ISU class trip. We'll be back on Wednesday, but sadly, not in time to see Jeff before he leaves.

Goodbye Jeff Party

Jeff is headed back to the U.S. on Wednesday, so to celebrate his last weekend in Spain, his roommates through him a going away party. It was Hawaiian themed and went from 3pm to 3am. We had a great time - playing cards, chatting, soccer on the terrace, and heading to Sergei's bar in Fontana to finish the evening. I think Jeff had a good time - it'll definitely be lonelier in Spain without him!!!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Culture Night 3

Thursday night was ISU Culture Night number 3. This week featured South Africa, Germany, Iran, and Spain. Spain was lots of fun, giving overviews of the various regions, handing out copious amounts of sangria, and dancing Flamenco. Really fun evening!


At ISU every person is part of a team project, which is the focus of the second half of the summer. The team project I´m on is called ¨Spaceports¨. We´re investigating different spaceport designs and issues, and will be carrying out a case study on creating a spaceport in Lleida, Spain. Lleida is currently building a new airport - its located inland in Catalunya.
On Wednesday, we took a team trip out to visit the site of the airport, which would also be the location we´ll use for our spaceport case study. We took a high speed train to get from Barcelona to Lleida. Traveling around 300 km-hr, it took us about an hour to get there. During this time I was able to catch some of the movie Ratattouie in Spanish. I was really happy with how many of the words I could understand. I´ve been trying really hard to study Spanish and ask questions about how to say things, but I´m definitely still a beginner - this becomes very obvious when I try to have a conversation with someone in a bar or restaurant.

Anyway, we arrived in Lleida around 3pm and spent about a half hour walking around a little plaza area and grabbing a drink. Then we walked to the city hall building for a presentation by the mayor. They ended the presentation by giving us each a very nice coffee table book about Lleida (though since it´s in Catalan, I´ll mostly have to focus on the pictures.) Then we had a reception with small pasteries and cava (Spanish Champagne).

The city hall was a very cool building and had been built in the 15th century. They took us to the basement where you could still see part of the city wall built by the Romans. There was also a room that used to be a prison and had religious carvings that had been made by prisoners hundreds of years ago.
After the tour, we loaded a bus and headed out to the airport construction site. We all wore hard hats and reflective jackets and got a tour of the facilities. It was interesting to see what was being done there, but difficult to hear any of the presentations. Construction sites are not the best location for discussion.
Then it was back into town for a traditional Catalonyan dinner. We had a great salad with meats and cheeses, shrimp, bread, oil, and some kind of pepperoni-like meat. The main course was french fries and three types of meat - some kind of sausage, ribs, and pork, I think. There was a cake for dessert, and then more cava. We finished the night with a bit of espresso. It was definitely the biggest meal I have eaten since I got to Spain and all of the food was very very good. I´m definitely going to miss it when I go home.

After dinner, we took a bus instead of a train home. Since dinner doesn´t start in Spain until 9pm or later, we didn´t get home until around 1am. The schedule for completing the team project work is very hectic, and since we had used our team meeting time to go on this field trip, we were feeling nervous about an upcoming deadline. We need to turn in a letter of intent - including the mission statement, scope, organization, and schedule - in the next couple of days. We decided to hold a slightly chaotic meeting on the bus, so things were pretty crazy on the way home. I think ít´s just a taste of the craziness to come in August...

Sushi Night!

On Tuesday, I went to Jeff´s house after classes. We hung out on his terrace, and I tried to study (though this seems to be the most sure-fire way for me to fall asleep...). For dinner, we decided to have sushi at a place Victor recommended. The restaurant was just around the corner - literally two blocks from Jeff´s house, but we´d never seen it before. It was called Kin Sushi Bar, and was really great. We had California rolls, Yaki soba noodles, tempura rolls, and 7 pieces of sushi. You don´t even order the type of sushi - they just give you whatever is the most fresh. We brought the food home and ate on the terrace. I tried a bit of everything - including the octapus. I think the California rolls and the salmon sushi was my favorite.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Long Way Gone

I just finished reading the book "A Long Way Gone", by Ishmael Beah. It's a memoir about growing up in Sierra Leone. There was a civil war that went on there for a long time, and he was a child soldier.

The book was very interesting. It's written very much as recounting of the events starting with his normal childhood through his time in the war, rehabilitation, and escape to the U.S. It isn't really written as a story to pull you in, though, which was interesting. I think it could have been much more gripping and upsetting. It surely is disturbing, but it keeps the reader a bit removed the whole time,. Overall, I would recommend reading it - it's not long and does provide good insight into an important period in history as well as some understanding about child soldiers - who are still used now in a number of conflicts.

My Room

Meant to post pictures before, but here they are. This is my room in Agora, the residence where all of the ISU students live.

Jeff and Mariel Sunday

On Sunday, Jeff and I basically hung out and spent the day together. We relaxed a lot during the hot hours in the middle of the day - I finished reading my book, and Jeff played on his computer. As it started to cool down outside we decided to head out.

Our first stop was a little park on the hill behind my residence. It has a labyrinth in it that we wanted to check out. Pretty cool.We went to Park Guell. Jeff hadn't been there, and my last trip there (with Monica and Priya) had been cut short by an upset stomach. We explored the whole park and hiked up to the top for some great views.
After seeing the park, we walked to the Fontana neighborhood and found a street with tons of Middle Eastern food - there were many Lebanese restaurants, but others as well - Jeff and I ate at a Syrian restaurant. The food was great - we were able to get tapas sizes, so we had hummus, olive leave wraps, mouseleh, and potato arayes (like a Middle Eastern potato crepe). The waiter also talked us into having some mint tea and amazing desserts - two pasteries - one with almonds and honey and the other with pistacios. Yum.

...then Weekend Fun

I had a really good time this weekend and had a chance to do a bunch of different activities around the city. As always, the weather was gorgeous and there was lots to do.

On Friday, Stephanie and I met up with our friend Eric who we had met during the two week Space Summer Program put on by the Eisenhower Center in June. He was on a European cruise and in Barcelona for the day. We had great tapas in Plaza Real in the Barri Gotica, and then walked down La Rambla to sit by the water.
Stephanie headed back in time for afternoon class and attended a really interesting lecture on Chinese history and culture and how it has affected their space program. The Chinese people in our group were in the lecture and commented on various aspects, which was really cool.

After class we went back downtown to Jeff's apartment and hung out on his terrace having snacks and relaxing. My friend Amanda came into town (she is living and working in Tarragona this summer). When she arrived, we all headed to dinner at Moon Cafe. It's a cute little place not too far from Jeff's (with a great name) and the best nachos in all of Barcelona. I dream about them now. There were lots of us at dinner - myself, Jeff, Stephanie and Amanda, Jeff's roommate, Victor and Victor's friend Sergei, and also a couple of French guys from our program - Francois and Brice - and their professor that was in town.After dinner I went with Jeff, Amanda, and Victor to a cool bar in Fontana where Sergei works - he had left dinner early to get to work. It had a nice, laid back atmosphere and was a good place to hang out for the evening.

Saturday morning I had class again, which is always a bit difficult on the weekends. But after lectures, we headed into town for lunch at a restaurant near Placa Catalunya called Ciudad Condal. It had great tapas - I really enjoyed the fried mushrooms.After lunch we did a bit of shopping around town, and then I headed home for a nap. In the evening, Jeff, Victor, and Amanda came up to Agora, where I live, to see the second Culture Night presentation. This week it was Belgium, Bulgaria, Brazil and Canada. The presentations were funny and entertaining. When it was all over, they decided to head back home for an early night, and I headed out with a bunch of people in my program for some Saturday night Salsa dancing.

During the Week

I never got a chance to write about the rest of last weeks' adventures, so I guess it's time to do a quick summary...

On Tuesday (last week), I went to class as usual. In the evening, I went to Park Guell with Monica and Priya - it's a very cool park that was designed by Gaudi.
Unfortunately, I wasn't feeling great and decided to end my tour of the park a bit early. My stomach ache persisted, and with my limited Spanish skills, I came up with the : Yo rompo mi estomago. (I broke my stomach.) Victor, Jeff's Spanish roommate, says that no one says that here, but maybe I can get it started.

I ended up taking Wednesday as a sick day. The small portion of the day that I was awake I spent laying in Jeff's living room watching great Spanish TV, like Los Simpsons and El Padre de Familia (Simpsons and Family Guy). I also realized that Spanish game shows are a great way to learn, since they read questions and possible answers slowly and show the words on the screen. I also like the gameshow "password" where they just said one Spanish word at a time.

Thursday, I continued my marathon sleeping until about 11am. Jeff and I estimated about 30 hours were spent sleeping out of 38, starting Tuesday evening. Then I finally headed back to classes in time for a meeting with my team project group. (I'm on the Spaceports Team and we had some speakers talking on the subject.)

That evening there was a reception at Galactic Suites - a space-oriented architecture company in Barcelona. One of our classmates, Marc, works there and organized it. It was very nice and fairly low key, and was held outside so we could enjoy the Barcelona summer night.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bastille Day

Monday, July 14th, was Bastille Day - celebrating the beginning of the French Revolution. To celebrate, the French students in our program got invitations for all of us to attend a party thrown by the French Consulate. It was held outdoors at a French High School in Barcelona, and included endless glasses of Champagne, French Wine, and French food (actually, the picture below is of me just after I realized the appetizer I was eating was topped with sheep brains), followed by hours of dancing. We had a great time. Jeff, Monica, and Priya were all able to come too, so Monica and Priya spent one night during their couple days visiting Barcelona at a big French party.

Jeff is a Spanish Pop Star

When we were in Tarragona, a few girls in the club thought that Jeff was David Bisbol, a Spanish pop star. So, Jeff is kind of famous.

Which is Which???

Tarragona Beach Weekend

On Saturday, Jeff, Victor, Alberto, Stephanie, Jaisha, Emma, Eric, Julia, and myself all drove to Tarragona to stay in Victor's parents beach house. It was really beautiful and had a great view of the beach.Just after we got there, there was a crazy storm - Victor said he'd never seen one like it. The winds were strong enough to spin around a crane that was outside, and it dropped hail the size of a quarter. Luckily, it cleared in time for us to go for a swim in the pool.

We picked Monica up from the airport around 10pm - she was delayed only a bit, and then went back to the house for dinner. After dinner, we sat around the table chatting, playing games, and drinking callimocho - a special Spanish drink that consists of (bad) red wine, coke, and sugar. It's actually very good!Around 2:15am, we headed out to a club nearby for a little dancing. It was a huge place, with multiple floors with different kinds of music. We had a great time, but since we were a little tired, compromised on heading home before too late - around 5am. It was quite the introduction to the Spanish concept of time for Monica.
The next morning we got up and spent a few hours on the beach, before heading back to Victor's to cook and eat lunch. It was a great weekend - laying on the beach all day was a welcome change from sitting in lecture all day!

Culture Night

Last Friday was the first culture night for our ISU Summer Program. There was Austria, Turkey, Ireland, and then the United States. There were 16 of us from the U.S., and we decided to make our presentation more fun and silly than serious. Since the event is scheduled late evening, serving alcohol as part of your presentation is encouraged, and its meant to be a social event, so it went over well.

We organized our presentation as 15 one-minute segments on U.S. culture, which included: Multicultural backgrounds, baseball, football, celebrity gossip, line dancing, the hokey pokey, Michael Jackson, and lots more.

Stephanie and I did a section on lessons you can learn from American Movies. For example, we said that from Harry Potter, you could learn that British people were magic. Based on Superman, Batman, and Spiderman, we concluded that if you see an American wearing glasses, they are probably a superhero. Overall our presenation was very well received, and we had a lot of fun performing it. I'm really looking forward to future presenations.
We concluded culture night with some fireworks (which we had meant for fourth of July, but had to be postponed), which Damaris had acquired from a Spanish guy in our program. They were pretty awesome - I never reallized you could just buy fireworks this big!

After culture night was over, we headed to the Marina stop on the metro to a club called Merlin. (This seemingly simple endeavor actually took over 2.5 hours of transit time due to slow night buses and metro stops under construction... but we made it!)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Matador and Superbad

The Matador
This movie stars Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear and is hilarious. It's about a lonely hitman reaching the end of his working years (Brosnan) who randomly befriends a failing businessman (Kinnear) in Mexico. I've never seen Brosnan play a roll like he does here - a drunk, down and out loner (as opposed to his sleak James Bond). I'd definitely recommend the movie, and thanks to my mom who ensured I watched it before leaving town!

I feel like I was the only one who didn't see this movie in the theaters, so when I got the opportunity to watch it at my brother's house, I decided to do it. It is a very funny movie, though really crude. I think I may have gotten too much hype after the long wait of not seeing it, but it is a silly, funny, gross, and occasionally witty comedy. And Jonah Hill and Michael Cera are amazing together. Boop, boop.

Right Turns

I just finished reading the book "Right Turns" by Michael Medved. It's about his life and how he went from being an liberal activist to a conservative champion. The book is intriguing, and he has definitely had an interesting life.

I like that he often used very reasoned arguments, pointing out possible holes and addressing those as well. He uses data and talks about the sources of the data. As a technical person, this is something I can appreciate. Whether you agree with is conclusion or not, you can see that he is well-trained in the skill of debate. He also complains a number of times with arguments or statements taken out of context, and I agree that this is a frustrating thing that is often done in politics. However, I don't know any talk show host or political group that doesn't use soundbites, or that prefers to talk about the spirit of their opponent's speech rather than exploit one particular comment.

One thing that kept me from taking things too seriously is his tendency throughout his life to do things for the publicity rather than because they align with his beliefs. As a writer, movie critic, and radio host it's his job to be controversial, but this stops me from taking anything he says at face value.

I think I'll address a few issues throughout the book that I thought were interesting in some particular way:

In chapter 9, Medved states that the highway provides a better education that the ivy league. He spent a lot of time hitchhiking and enjoyed his time in the midwest, but disliked the people at Yale, who he viewed as elitist. He criticizes the people at Yale and people on the east coast in general for generalizing about the people in the midwest. The first thing I noticed in this chapter was the irony of him making a negative generalization about all east coast people, since his problem with them is the tendancy to generalize about another group of people. Also, having grown up in the midwest and lived on the east coast for six years, I can pretty safely say that there are good and bad people in both places. Though each may have their own jokes or suspicions about the other, for the most part, people don't really think less of people from other parts of the country. I do think it'd be useful for people from the coasts to visit the midwest more, however, only because I think they're missing out on some beautiful places. Or maybe the impetus is on the midwest to develop its tourism industry more aggressively.

In chapter 10, he talks about meeting John Kerry in college and disliking Kerry's superior, calculating personality. However, it seems like Medved is pretty calculating as well - working in politics this is a clear part of the job description - and he often shows his skill in these areas throughout the book. However, in this chapter, he also talks about the importance of volunteering and teaching and the value you can get from paying attention to the people you're trying to help. This is something I completely agree with - it's not useful to go into a situation assuming you know more about everything and are going to help people - you should also be humble and aware of the many things that you could learn from them. I've found this to be true whether studying with other students at MIT, mentoring failing students at a local high school, or living in a rural Indian village - if you give them a chance, other people can teach you a lot.

One of the big themes he discussed in the book, though I don't remember the chapter, is the idea of practical vs. idealistic political action. I don't have a clear decision on what I think about this - it's easy for me to see both sides. On one hand, I agree with Medved that you need to be practical if you want things to get done. In a slowly moving system, you may compromise and take baby steps in a better or at least less-bad direction. You need to live in and deal with reality. On the other hand, when there are things you really believe in, compromise can seem impossible - it can be better to know that you tried your best for something you really cared about rather than just gave in and became a cog in the machine. Just think what a horrible movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" would have been if Jimmy Stewart had been practical and had either joined the curropt group or left DC. Ralph Nader argues that if you are voting for things you don't really believe in, how can you ever expect to see change - things don't have to be good, they just have to be less bad. It's definitely an interesting issue.

In Chapter 13, "Publicity is Power", he talks about his ill-thought out plan to try to ban ROTC from Yale's campus during the Vietnam War. He admits in his book that though he was the leader of a number of anti-war rallys, he didn't fully understand or think about the consequences of his actions. I think this is something that happens at both ends of the political spectrum, and is something that really frustrates me - people do something because that's what they think they should rather than because they really understand and believe in it. In particular, I think its awful that people were so anti-military during the Vietnam War - you can disagree with government policies, but it makes no sense to direct your anger towards people who are doing their job. I remember learning about the Vietnam war in high school, and a man spoke to us about his experience. He told us that the first thing he did when he returned to states, before even leaving the airport, was change out of his uniform. Even then, I remember thinking what a sad and nonsensical situation that was. Most reasonable people would agree the military is important, and soldiers do not get to choose which wars they want to fight in, (especially when there was a draft!) so why would people be so angry towards them? Anyway, back to the general point: I think people need to be more careful to understand the issues they are pushing for and the practical effect that their actions will have - both on people and institutions. I often see people in the street asking for signatures for various petitions, and I feel like there is no way I can sign my name to a cause that I haven't studied, and where the only information I get is in a five minute speech from a person who obviously has a stake in me agreeing with one side. You can't know everything about everything, but I'm certainly trying to do the best I can to be informed.

One thing I thought was odd was a statement in Chapter 31 - "A More Christian America is Good for the Jews". He is discussing his thesis that an increase in religiousity, including evangelical Christians, supports the Jewish way of life, partially because it promotes the same basic values. There are three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I would have expected that with his open-minded consideration of how Christianity and Judaism can support each other through common values, he would also have included Islam, which has the same foundations and very similar values as well. However, the only time he talks about Muslims in the chapter is to mention "the current reality of tens of millions of murderous Muslim extremists who menace Jewish lives and institutions in the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and around the world". I thought it was odd and irresponsible to only acknowledge the violent and extremest sect of Islam. Violent extremism exists in all religions, and though I understand he is particularly sensitive to this topic, being Jewish and having relatives in Isreal, I would think as a rational and seemingly considerate person, he would mention the importance of the tens of millions of responsible, kind-hearted, principaled Muslims all over the world, fighting for the same values and rights that he believes in.

I was not a big fan of chapter 33 - "Never Apologize for Partisanship". His idea is that you should surround yourself with likeminded people and be supported in your beliefs. I think this is an awful idea. I also think it completely contradicts his comments in Chapter 9 that people on the east coast need to learn more about people in the midwest. It's difficult to be uncompromisingly partisan and also to keep an open mind to people in other parts of the country and their ideals. I think its important to respect other people and their beliefs, and the best way I've found to do this is to actually talk to them and understand why they believe in what they do. And I don't mean talk to them in a patronizing way or listening to people of your own partisanship talk about straw-man arguments of the other side, I mean really finding a person that you respect and then learning about their views. This is one thing I felt that I was lucky to be able to do when I was in Minnesota - there were a variety of political beliefs around me, and I could hear each person's point of view. When I went to college, I continued to seek out new points of view. However, along the way, I've seen that it would be easy to end up in a group of like-minded people who have no real understanding or respect for the other side. I refuse to believe that half of America is right and half is wrong, or half smart and half stupid. Both sides of the political spectrum have important insights, values, arguments, and beliefs. It's this conviction that causes me to read both "Audacity of Hope" by Obama, and something like "Right Turns" by Medved. I don't think that declaring partisanism and ignoring the other side would make me a better person, in fact, I think it would likely detract from my understanding of our country and my own beliefs. To be fair, despite being a conservative talk show host, Medved does talk about having at least one close friend and a family member that are liberal. He also tells a story in which he debated someone on the show that he disagreed with, but then later invited him home for dinner and shared a meal and nice conversation with him. I think these are good examples of how to act.

The last chapter of the book was on "Do-it-yourself Conservatism". In this chapter he promotes taking local action - picking up garbage in your own neighborhood or working with your church, rather than always trying to create society-wide government solutions. I had mixed feelings on his idea here, because I didn't think it was well developed. I definitely agree that it is important to understand and be active in your local community and that when you believe in something, the first steps you take should be to change your own actions and immediate surroundings. I also agree that if you support wider change, you should carefully consider the goals and effectiveness of your proposed solution (that's what good policy-making is all about!). I just believe that there is still a place for trying to reach more people or make a bigger change for something you believe in.

For example, he says that to fight homeless, people support programs that provide feeding, but do nothing to address underlying problems. But what does he propose we do to address those "underlying problems"? For public education, he says that people support enacting standardized federal tests, but ignore the troubled home environments that cripple underachieving students. But what does he propose we do to help solve "troubled home environments"? He suggests that parents choose home schooling or at least get involved in the local school. I think those are admirable things, but it seems unlikely the the students coming from "troubled home environments" are going to have parents interested in providing quality home schooling or joining the PTA. Are those students just out of luck with this do-it-yourself method? He suggests that if you're concerned about congestion or commuter traffic, you should take the bus or ride a bike. I agree. But if the federal government never increased the size of freeways or spent money fixing roads and bridges, would that really be a good solution? He suggests that if you don't like the values shown in Hollywood movies or on TV, than rather than signing petitions, participating in boycotts, or writing letters, you should just change your own watching habbits. I tend to agree - let the market run its course, since you can choose not to be exposed to a film or TV show. However, this suggestion comes from a man who wrote books and gave multiple speeches about "Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values", which seems slightly more active than just changing your own behavior. He also runs a daily radio show, which he describes as do-it-yourself because he's making one argument at a time, but that also seems somehow different to the "change your personal life and actions" that he proposed earlier. I don't really disagree with his actions or choices here, but just don't think this concept was very well defined.

Now this has really gotten to be a long review/ response, and I'm sure not many will make it this far, but if you're still reading, let me know what you think (via email is fine if you don't want to post a comment). Though I didn't agree 100% with everything in the book, it was a really fun and interesting read, and I would recommend it to others. Enjoy the stories of his interesting and varied life, and use it as a springboard to think about your own experiences and beliefs.

ISU So Far and Future Plans

Classes have been going well at ISU - we have lectures in seven core areas: Space Business and Management, Space Life Sciences, Space Policy & Law, Space Physical Sciences, Satellite Applications, Space Systems Engineering, and Space and Society.The lectures have been pretty interesting - a good deal of it is review for me, since I have studied Aerospace Engineering and Space Policy and work as a Systems Engineer. However, some review, especially on the engineering and physics concepts, is completely welcome - it's been a few years since I've seen rocket propulsion or orbital mechanics equations.

Jeff Hoffman, who I TA-ed for while at MIT, is giving the lectures physical sciences, and those have been especially interesting. He was involved in the production of a documentary about Cosmology - discussing the origins of the universe - and showed some of that in class. It's called National Geographic: Naked Science: Birth of the Universe. If you can find it on TV or online, I highly recommend it.

In addition to classes, we attend evening lecture series once a week at CosmoCaixa, the science museum in Barcelona. We usually get there a little early, which gives us a chance to see the museum. They have a very cool fake rainforest.
ISU also runs "culture nights" about once a week. Since there are people from 26 countries here, they have people from four countries give a 15 minute presentation each week. The U.S. is scheduled for this week (tomorrow actually!) along with Austria, Turkey, and Ireland. Our presentation is pretty silly, and has very little educational value, but should at least be entertaining. Stephanie and I made a section about things you can learn about American culture from American movies, and at this moment Stephanie is coming up with a section on the E! channel. So that should give you an idea of the quality we're going for...

There are lots of other exciting things to look forward to as well. I'm going with Jeff and some friends to Tarragona this weekend. It's a beach town about an hour south of Barcelona, and Jeff's roommate, Victor has a house there where we'll stay Saturday night.

My friend Monica, is flying in from England on Saturday night, and luckily the airport is right next to Tarragona, so instead of having to take an hour train to meet me, we'll be able to pick her up at the airport! Then she'll come back to Barcelona with us and stay til Wednesday.

In other travel news, Stephanie and I booked our trip to Portugal! We're flying to Porto on August 8th and returning on August 10th.

Beach Day - Sitges

On Sunday, we woke up around 10:30am, and by two were on our way to the beach. The water was beautiful and clear, and stayed shallow for a long way.
After a few hours of swimming and sitting on the beach, we went into town where I had Sangria and a bikini (the Spanish name for grilled ham and cheese sandwich). Then we headed home for a night at Agora and some much needed sleep before classes started up again.