An American in Galway

“He doesn’t sound American.”
          Micah: 1
          Random club goer: 0

One of the most exciting things about traveling is the ability to reinvent yourself. Of course, it helps to look slightly european and be able to turn on a non-descript eastern-european-Irish-mixed accent at any time. (when you can’t master any one accent, the trick is to just throw them all into the mix). Last week at the the dance club Róisín Dubh in Galway’s historic district, just west of downtown, I aimed to perfect this non-American traveler persona. While I was doing pretty well with aforementioned randos and the like, I soon learned that maybe I was going about it all wrong. I mean, my assumption was that no one would want to state that they’re from the world’s melting pot when they could pretend they’re actually from a country with culture or history. A half hour after I arrived at Róisín Dubh, I was proved very, very wrong. But let’s back track.

Saturday night began with nice enough anticipation. My first week on the job and I had already been invited out for a night on the town! Toby, the guy whose cubicle is next to mine shot me a text about meeting at his place and heading out to a club. As I biked downtown, I saw two guys from our lab walking the same way and asked them where they were headed. “We were told we’re supposed to go downtown on Saturday nights instead of working.” Know when you’re working with nerds? When the institute has to enforce fun. Anyway, the three of us headed off to Toby’s place to begin our night of mandated fun.

Toby lives in the Spanish Arch district of Galway. His building retains the brick of centuries past, and out his window you can see the stream that leads into the bay that leads into the Atlantic ocean. The bay is one of the defining characteristics of Galway. Most likely a port town at one time, the city’s docks retain some fishing boats, bayside parks and even a kilometer-long walk out to a lighthouse (the walk is windy but beautiful). While much of the bayside is now hotels or abandoned lots, there’s talk of a new multi-million dollar arts center, Féach, that would bring internationally renowned visual art shows and raise the appeal of the waterside.

Inside Toby’s apartment I met people of all types: Mr. Manchester and Ms. Kilkenny his new roommates from Dublin, Mr. and Mr. Galway his tight rainbow tee wearing friends of a friend, and I got to know Christophe (Mr. Cameroon) and Xibin (Mr. China) the two lab-mates who I walked over with. When a group of us took off for the silent disco at Róisín Dubh my mind was about to be blown.

Silent discos are a strictly European event. While there are occasional sightings in America, the twenty-something, international crowd in Galway seemed to take it as second nature. The basic premise is this: you walk into a room with a pair of wireless FM-enabled headphones, a number of DJs in the corner, and no speakers in sight. Everyone in the room puts their headphones on and switches between the various radio stations of the DJs as they please. The outcome is that you have no idea what song or, indeed, what genre of music the person across from you is dancing to. Take your headphones off and you glimpse a crowd of swaying, head-banging, singing bodies and mouths all out of rhythm and tune with each other. Quite an experience. And here is where my preconceptions came crashing down.

When I first entered the Silent Disco room at Róisín Dubh, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was playing (well, it was playing on the station I happened to flip to first on my headset). “Cool,” I thought, “they listen to some American music here, too.” When Jackson 5 started up next I began to realize “American music” might be a bit of a misnomer. While the songs that would play one after another were, truly, American-born, the Irish/European crowd seemed to know these songs just as well, if not better, than Americans themselves. When the theme song to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air came on, I had to just take off my headphones in complete wonder. Almost everyone in the room was not only tuned to that channel – they were rapping along with Will Smith, word-for-word. Finally convinced that maybe it is cool to be American I put my headset back on and sang along to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” (And yes, when you’re in Europe, even Canadians are considered “American”).

The next day (July 4th!) I walked around downtown Galway with a newfound American pride. I stopped into a pub where a New Orleans’ style brass band was playing. Later, I randomly met a University of Wisconsin – Madison medical student with his family. Even without fireworks, my Sunday closed with my American pride intact and any assumed alienation absent.


The obligatory random photos (from my phone)…

New Orleans-style band in a pub on July 4th
New Orleans-style band in a pub on July 4th
Busker on the Street of Downtown Galway
Busker on the Street of Downtown Galway
Swan Face in Galway
Swan at a fence near South Park in Galway
Swan Licking Self in Galway
Swan cleaning itself (those necks are flexible!)

And some short, terrible quality videos… (they only work in Safari)

The pub from the 4th.

Eyre Square Fountain

Eyre Square Street

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Galway Arrival and the Semantic Web

Sunny day in Galway, Praise the Lord! Great skies for a great start to the next six months. Yesterday, not so much…

Hours after arrival, amid dreary skies and misty air, I had my first embarrassing American moment in the corner grocery store. The size of a gas station market, this store looked quite unpromising for a young vegetarian: No fresh veggies? Check. No Tofu? Check. No chickpeas/hummus? Check. A loaf of wheat bread and assorted dairy items later, I found myself at the cash register. Intent not to make any silly money mistakes, I focused myself more on the cash in my wallet than on the amount I was told I owed. “79 something euros,” half of my brain heard. That part of my brain realized I was in a grocery store and didn’t think much of the price. The fact that I had less than 10 items in front of me must have been in the other side of the brain. As I handed over €80, the guy held back a laugh. He slowly handed me back three of my bills. I soon realized it was seventeen ninety something. Yikes. At least it made me feel safe, knowing that people in these parts are nice enough not to let you give away your money.

Today, as I said, went much better. Sunny and in the seventies, I met my supervisor and my research team; found my desk with two monitors and took advantage of the free coffee (espresso) machine. Coolest of all, I met up with Michael Hausenblas – a fellow DERI researcher who found me on Twitter when I was at MIT and didn’t even realize I was an intern until this week. He’s über nice and knowledgeable about Linked Data people and projects and pointed me toward Katharina Siorpaes‘ work with OntoGame, one of the “Games with a Purpose” inspired by Luis Von Ahn. I’ve been very interested in this space for awhile, as it seems like we could take the millions of motivated geeks who check-in at FourSquare, help others through reviews on Yelp, or simply post their personal tastes for the world to see on Glue, and use them to make the Internet a smarter place for computers. What do I mean by this? Let’s start with a fact:

The Internet is pretty dumb.

A lot of work goes into making smart applications to deal with this fact. Google has done a great job of making sense of the gobs of text laid out in the millions of pages around the web, but it still doesn’t actually understand what any of this text means. Try asking it “Can a tiger live in the woods?

Can a tiger live in the woods?

Surprise surprise. Instead of working out the semantics of the sentence, it simply searched for the keywords. Of course, Google can’t do much better with today’s world wide web. The documents it is searching through simply don’t tell it what they are talking about. Google has no definitive way of knowing that this Discovery Channel page is solely about the animal, and this PGA Tour page is solely about the golfer. While the web designers behind these sites have the opportunity to “markup” their pages accordingly, most don’t, simply because there’s no obvious incentive to do so. Humans can figure out what the pages are about, isn’t that enough?

This got me thinking one day: If the web designers don’t have the incentive to mark-up their pages, maybe web surfers might. After all, it is we, web surfers, who deal with the day-to-day frustrations of dumb results. What if when I searched for “Asparagus Omelette St. Louis, MO“, and spent 10 minutes of clicking to find a good place, I could help the next person who had a similar query? What if my quick help could make this other person’s life easier even if they were searching for Belgian Waffles…

The good news? You don’t need to be a web designer or the owner of a breakfast joint to help make this happen. You just need to download a browser add-on. Well, a still-in-Micah’s-head browser add-on, which we’ll call SmartData-SmartWeb (SDSW). As the great people over at Adaptive Blue showed us with Glue, give individuals the tools to change everyone’s browsing experience, and they will do it. Let’s say when I was looking through the menu of Nadoz Café, I could actually tell the computer that it was looking at a menu, and that this menu contains omelettes, and asparagus can be put on them. SDSW makes that possible.

Google Doesn't Know This is a Menu

Google doesn’t know this is a menu

Not only can I use SDSW to tell my computer that I am, in fact, looking at a menu, etc, but everyone else with SDSW can know this, too, no matter what browser they are using. Finally, web designers could choose to copy and paste code from to mark up their site for Google and the world to see. In the mean time, users would be able to search through or even have Google results dynamically highlighted if the SDSW add-on had data on the sites.

The grand vision, is that every noun on the Internet would be properly categorized. Search engines would finally be able to couple the semantics of the question (something WolframAlpha excels at) with the power of the web (clearly Google’s strength).

If you thought this was going to be a travel blog, you’re probably a bit confused right now. Sorry. I think talking about the same kind of thing for too long gets boring. The rest of these posts will probably be a mix of culture and tech. Hope you join me :)

DERI Building

DERI Building



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On Baptist conversion and other things not to attempt at 40,000 feet

“Praise the Lord!” my Born-Again neighbor exclaimed when I told him the Hebrew pronunciation of my name was based on my Jewish heritage. “This is gonna be a long flight” I thought back. In my attempt to stay mensch-like to his gentile charm, I couldn’t help but smile and nod as he recounted his navy days and the transformation he made into becoming a pastor and moving with his wife to Ireland seven years ago. Amidst the predictable airplane conversion and passionate appeal for Christ — “I can’t wait until the temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem. You know, in Revelations…”, “I am so happy that I can be sure that I will be saved in the afterlife”, etc. — we also were able to bond on a deeper, more spiritual level – “Isn’t it crazy that you can get a computer today with a terabyte of hard drive? I remember when it was only a gigabyte!”, “There are computers with four processors running simultaneously! OMFG!” Ok, so he may not have made that last exclamation…

When we moved onto Creationism vs. Evolution, it was pretty clear no progress was going to be made in our conversing: “Irreducible complexity” he informed me, in his attempt to discount all of evolution. “Boatloads of evidence and fossil records” I parried. Perhaps I should have been focusing on the Amy Adams movie in front of me… at least her superstitions were romantic.

All in all, though, the seven years in Ireland must have softened out his Navy edges. Despite my unapologetic acceptance of a life without Christ as my personal savior, he gave me his number and told me if I needed anything while in Ireland that I shouldn’t hesitate to call him. Between that and his excitement about quad-core processors, I’d say I could have done much worse with a seat-mate. The food on the other hand…

Just as a clue to all airlines *cough*AerLingus*cough* out there, if you give the option between vegetarian and vegan, and a passenger chooses vegetarian, don’t give a vegan meal. It makes the passenger feel quite disappointed to see everyone else with cake and real butter, while he’s left with fruit and margarine. At least the tomato sauce on my plain bow-tie noodles was flavorful :/ The service was lovely, though, with very nice and efficient attendants. Also, gotta love the Enya music and animated smoking passenger in the safety video.

Arriving in Dublin, I got a rude awakening… to TSA’s ineptitude. It seems that back in Chicago, TSA had missed the corkscrew I had in my bag and the 1-ounce-too-big face soap. On my connection to Shannon, the DAA would have none of it. $10 in the trash later, I went looking for the breakfast place…

€10 later, I had a Vegetarian Breakfast Plate – eggs, beans, hash browns and toast. Beans at 8am was new for me, but I figured if I had to deal with another conversion-happy seatmate on my connection flight, they might come in handy ;)

The flight to Shannon was crazy-short, like Madison to Milwaukee short, so no drink cart. Interestingly, though, despite being the same size aircraft as the transatlantic flight, this plane was barely 10% full. Perhaps that’s why Aer Lingus is beginning to cancel Shannon-Dublin flights starting in January.

I’m currently sitting in the Shannon Airport waiting for my CityLink bus to take me to Galway. The friendly man I met in Borders with my parents in Madison who told us stories about Ireland was right — this airport is smaller than Madison’s. I’d take calm and boring over crowded and hectic in an airport, any day, though. Speaking of calm and boring…

The weather is a dreary 65 and overcast. One thing I became very aware of in the plane over was the layers and layers of clouds over here. As if to say: “if you see it clearing up, don’t worry, there’s still five layers to go.” However, the clouds do have their own charm. Because of the layers, you can always see stunning formations up in the sky, instead of one solid grey color. Down on the ground, I’ve yet to explore the wonders I’ve heard so much about. Though, I did see one small, old castle just before landing in Shannon.

Since you’ve made it this far through my ramblings I’ll post a few pictures and sign off.

American Missionaries in Dublin Airport
Dublin Sky



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The Body Good

Milk. It does the body good.  
But what good is the body when the calf weeps formulated milk ducts from 
the scientist’s teat.
Lick those lips of perspirated celebrity icons and
Sink those hips into celebrated 2% liquids.
But what of the lips, shut in closed quarters,
Those wordless mouths gone from their mothers,
Taken at birth.  For nothing here is natural,
Capital with a capital C is the master.
No freedom, no harmony.
See that smiling cow on your two-gallon jug?  
Ever wonder how it’s doing now
With six machines plugged into 
Six long forgotten motherly instincts?

That’s what’s become
Of long gone dreams of father and son
Working the plow with mother in the barn house
Milking the cow.
But now:
Daughter’s at the Apple
Computer checking out an Efficiency in the city.
Mother’s milking her moment of silence before
Son comes home from university,
The next proud owner of father’s duplicity.
Happy Cow Industry, the joke of the century
Where young calves sit in silence and 
Only Grandpa remembers what it means to do the body good.
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The Second Coming Has Arrived

iPhone ad

God’s white, perfectly manicured fingers scroll through His greatest new invention on the back of the July 1st, 2007 New York Times Magazine, or so Apple Inc. would like us to believe. In homage to the thousands of bloggers and news media stations who have dubbed Apple’s iPhone the “Jesus phone,” Apple has come out with a new advertisement that is “more than a little reminiscent” of Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel.1 In order to appeal to the educated, artistic audience that Apple is known for addressing, Apple draws on this allusion throughout the advertisement. In particular, the advertisement combines celestial imagery with Apple’s token simplicity to try to parallel the connection of advanced technology and clarity in the iPhone’s immaculate conception. This parallel takes an innovative new look at biblical cliches but has the potential to turn off some of its user base.
(keep reading)

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