The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

St Petersburg Residency, Day 5

I took a walk yesterday around 9pm, down Nevsky Prospekt to the Hermitage (about 8 km round-trip). Like today, yesterday it was about 30°C outside. And like today, the sun never quite set. This is from half past midnight:

Earlier in the walk, before the Netherlands-Uruguay game, the Fontanka River:

The Hermitage Museum (Winter Palace), south face:

And (last one today) the west face, as seen on many postcards:

Today's fun included six hours of classes so far, then a reception followed by another football game. ¡Viva España!

St Petersburg Residency, Day 4

I didn't come to Russia for the food.

This is fortunate. The lunch buffet yesterday had pork filets, penne with cream sauce, white rice, salmon roulades, roasted carrots with butter. Then the dinner buffet had pork roulades, spaghetti with cream sauce, black and white rice, salmon filets, roasted carrots with butter. Same Sunday, same Saturday, though there was a minor stir when we found out the Halal meal was lamb chops, which the Muslim students eagerly devoured leaving none for the rest of us.

A Ukrainian friend asked, "This does not sound like traditional Russian food to me. What hotel are you based in?" Ah, here's where the story takes a particularly grim turn: we're in the British-owned Corinthia Nevskij Palace. British-owned. Which is odd, because our food in London was actually pretty good, especially breakfast.

Russia does, however, have tasty things to drink. But we'll leave that aside for now.

And another thing, which is keeping me in the building for the time being: It's bloody 30°C outside. Yecch. I'm hoping it cools off a bit before I head out for more photography and meeting up with my team to watch the Dutch beat Uruguay.

St Petersburg Residency, Day 2

They started us off beautifully this term, with one class yesterday followed by four hours of free time and a tour of the city. Then they gave us the morning off today. I wish all the residencies had started so easily.

This gave me a chance to get some photos processed, starting with the train ride from Helsinki. This is near Vyborg:

Findlandski Station in St Petersburg, with very-Russian looking trains:

And from the boat tour:

More coming, of course. Even with a morning off from classes it turns out there's still a lot to do.

St. Petersburg Residency, Day -1

I love that for €54 and an hour and a half (round-trip, both numbers), you can take a boat from Finaland across the Baltic Sea and be in Estonia. The abandoned immigration and customs counters look a little forlorn to me, but have got to look completely eerie to anyone who made the trip before 2008, when Estonia entered the Schengen area.

The ferry terminal on the Estonian side is a ghastly pile of Soviet concrete too horrible for me even to photograph. To give you an example, this is directly across from the terminal, and is one of the first things you see entering Tallinn:

Fortunately, it gets better. The Soviets seem to have left Old Tallinn alone, so there is still a good-sized hunk of the city that looks like this:

Then there's this, a door you never, never wanted to enter if you were Estonian during the Cold War:

That building, at #1 Pagari, was at one point the KGB's headquarters. It seems to have been repurposed, which I deduce from my ability to photograph it repeatedly and not disappear.

Beautiful day, though. The temperature hovered around 22°C, the sun came and went, and the sea breeze off the Baltic felt great. I'm glad the weather held.

One more thing. As the return ferry approached Helsinki, I thought about the original settlers of the two cities, living a thousand years ago, rowing their longboats across. The catamaran I took cruised at 64 km/h, about ten times faster than the fastest longboat ever could have made the journey. We had about 15 minutes from the time I first sighted Finland until we were close enough to the archipelago to have waded ashore. It would have taken the Vikings three hours to cover the same distance. It's a mundane thought in the 21st century, but just the same, I thought it.


I just got in to Helsinki. I wrote the following on the flight:

29 June 2010, 18:33 EDT, 10,500 m over the Maine-New Hampshire border

Finnair’s A330 business class is the most comfortable experience I’ve ever had on an airplane[1]. First off, the plane is brand-new. It’s quiet, clean, and (not surprisingly) very European-looking. But this isn’t your grandfather’s Airbus. Dig it:

  • Finnair has introduced new seats in business class. The left side alternate 2-1-2, the middle are all paired, and the right side—where I sat—is a staggered single column. The staggering allows them to put more seats in the cabin while also allowing the seats to fold completely flat, which is the whole point of upgrading on an overnight flight. But the arrangement also means every seat but four are aisle seats. (Seats 1A, 3A, 5A, and 7A are trapped window seats.)
  • The business class seats also have universal power outlets (fits North American, British, European, and I think Russian plugs), a 5v USB connector for recharging electronics, and an RJ-45 network connection. I didn’t have an RJ-45 cable with me so I have no idea what network it connects to.
  • The airplane has a freaking nose camera that the pilots turned on for the takeoff and landing rolls. It also has a belly camera that allows you to look straight down. Both are accessible in flight through the entertainment center. When the nose camera came on as we taxied into position on the departure runway, I just boggled. This was the coolest thing I had ever seen on a commercial airplane. The belly camera, while also a seriously cool feature, has less practical benefit because the field of view almost exactly the wrong scale. At 10.5 km up it shows an area probably no larger than 1km across—too big to see anything in detail but too small to see a more complete picture.
  • Finnair’s in-flight navigation software is the best I’ve seen, except for one of the screens where the animators got clever. Oddly, at one of the scales it shows, it depicts shipwrecks. As we passed over New England it highlighted the wrecks of the Andrea Doria and the Thresher, which I suppose is an advertisement for the safety of air travel over sea travel, but still.
  • Outboard washrooms have windows. It seems silly when you read it, but it’s actually kind of cool.
  • What a yummy wine list—in 9 languages[2]. Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale Brut 2003 to start, a white Burgundy from Rully, a lovely Douro, and a 1995 Niepoort Colheita for dessert. And, of course, Finlandia.

I’m almost disappointed I’ll be asleep for a several hours.

There is no reason I can see that American Airlines can’t do this as well. Or British Airways for that matter. Maybe the two largest carriers in the oneworld alliance are just too big. Maybe Finland just has higher standards of comfort than the U.S. and U.K. Or maybe my experience flying back to the U.S.—in coach—will change my mind.

I will ponder these things over dinner...

[2] Finnish, Swedish, English, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hindi, and (I think) Urdu. (I’ll confirm the last one with a classmate when I get to St. Petersburg.)

Update, 00:46 UTC, about 1,700 km southwest of Iceland:

The dinner service done, the cabin crew dimmed the lights, but so gently one might worry he was going blind. Also, because we’re so far north, the left side of the plane looks to be in a permanent sunset. The flight map shows us skimming the dark side of the terminator without ever quite diving in all the way. Plus, the local time in Helsinki is 3:50: just 30 minutes or so before sunrise. I might not get much sleep after all.

Later update, 00:51 UTC

I wrote too soon. They just killed the lights with a switch. It’s suddenly dark in the cabin. I shall therefore dim my laptop, which, because it has an ambient light sensor, is fighting me on this...

Still later update, 00:57 UTC

The almost-full moon just popped above the horizon. It’s still not completely dark out there though.

Good timing

This morning I finally opened up the pre-reading packets for Term 5, and discovered that going to Boston on August 21st may have been the better choice academically. Final exams are due August 30th, not September 6th as I'd originally thought, so taking 36 hours out of the weekend of August 28th would have been colossally stupid.

The flipside of that, however, is I actually get a long weekend for Labor Day. So it works out.

Resuming the Geas?

Three things encourage me to resume the 30-Park Geas this season. First, I haven't seen a baseball game in almost a year; second, three weeks from now I'll be done with all the CCMBA travel; and third, American Airlines is running a triple-miles promotion this summer from Chicago to New York and Boston.

So: my options are Boston on August 21st or New York on August 28th.

Boston would cost $40 more for the airfare; New York would cost about that much more for a hotel room. (And no, I wouldn't stay in Queens.) So it's a wash. Adding to the dilemma is the question, do I want to see the oldest park in the country, or the newest? And then there's the issue of having many more friends in New York than in Boston.

If this is the hardest decision I have to make this month, I'm doing all right.

Coffee and maths

From Matthew Yglesias, information about coffee consumption worldwide, which apparently peaks in Finland:

The Swedes are actually a bit less coffee-mad than the Finns, Norwegians, Danes, or Icelanders but as you can see here all the Nordic peoples drink a ton of coffee, in the Swedish case a bit less than twice as much per capita as Americans do. The Södermalm area of Stockholm where Mikael Blonkvist and Lisbeth Salander live and Millenium and Milton Security are headquartered is just littered with coffee houses like nothing I’ve ever seen in America (incidentally, this is where I stayed when I was in Stockholm on the recommendation of a blog reader—it’s a hugely fun neighborhood, definitely stay there if you visit). Personally, I drink way more coffee than the average American and find this aspect of Swedish life congenial. Even I, however, had to balk at the extreme quantity of coffee I was served in Finland where consumption is absolutely off the charts.

And another from math teacher Dan Meyer:

It is exceptionally easy for me to treat the skills and structures of mathematics as holy writ. My default state is to assume that every student shares my reverence for the stone tablets onto which the math gods originally etched the quadratic formula. It is a matter of daily discipline to ask myself, instead:

  • what problem was the quadratic formula originally intended to solve?
  • why is the quadratic formula the best way to solve that problem?
  • how can I put my students in a position to discover the answers to (a) and (b) on their own?

This last is particularly intriguing because not only would I like those answers about the quadratic formula, I'd also like those answers about the Capital Asset Pricing Model and Black-Scholes.

Off to San Francisco this afternoon, to put off dealing with my head-exploding workload for three days. If the guy sitting in the row ahead of me leans back so I can't use my laptop, I will cry.


I mentioned a few days ago that I'm swamped. I didn't realize at the time how swamped, sadly. It turns out I'm more swamped than Florida. I'm so swamped, the Rs.O.U.S.[1] are drowning.

So, though it's redundant, I'll reiterate I'm not dead. I am, however, slowing to the worst ratio of blog entries per month since October 2007.

Part of this comes from how much work and school are challenging me right now. This is good, actually. I have only a finite amount of creativity, but I'm using it all. And Decmeber 12th—the end of my MBA—really isn't that far away.

[1] Since "rodent" is the subject, it gets pluralized. "ROUSs" may be what Westley called them on first reference, but on second reference he said "rodents of unusual size." Q.E.D.