1997

A lone astronaut falls from the heavens. Squeezed through customs, stamped and permitted by the state of California and ejected into the warm greyness of a Los Angeles afternoon, he is met by an elderly woman and a middle aged Japanese woman. They hug and walk to their parked car, a gleaming rental like all of the vehicles in sight. Its sleek and sporty and there is just enough room in the back for two passengers. The japanese driver does not want to be disturbed. Traffic is heavy, it's close to rush hour and the drive takes them through the busy route past UCLA and up into Bel Air. A few hours ago, he was in a different place. Was it Europe or was it Australia? Does it even matter? After all it was not the civilized world, not the United States, god bless 'em. Well, let's take a look shall we? Take a peek through the time portal...

*

1997 was a hectic year; a frustrating and exhilerating year, all at the same time. I don't think I got anything done in 1997, but several good things happened. As the tale goes: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times... and the two cities?: there were more than two, but to tell the story, let's make them physics and computing. But it's not that simple. There are complicating factors, personal things. The struggle is the power of his obsession, the obsession to be productive, creative and published.

The year started with a panicky overload of teaching. Then there was the long hot summer, swimming in the fjord and cycling around the city. Not much in the way of holiday, except for a compulsory trip to a mountain cabin. All of that was interesting enough, but I won't delay by writing about that now. Besides, I have to keep some secrets, no?

Autumn in Oslo is when I get everything done. A grant award for the autumn relieved me of teaching for a term. A thankful, even blissful respite. I could spend the whole autumn writing up work which I had been accumulating for a half year. Also, I had been working on a paper to present at one of the major computing conferences, so there was a lot of preparation. Not only a paper to write but a talk to prepare and a lot of programming work to be done to promote by work.

Amidst all of this work I like to skulk around in the town and relax at a cafe of two. Cinema and clubbing. There is plenty to do, if you can drag yourself out of the sofa after a day's work. Oslo has its districts and its subcultures. It's a small town but it's large enough to cater for different tastes. I have always been more attracted to the underground club scene. Flashy discos or country and western bars seem a bit too plastic (underground is rubber! Just kidding...?) The underground scene has at least one thing to offer apart from funnt haircuts and outrageous clothes: music. The best music is to be found in the dark dungeons of the east end.

Been meaning to try out Mars for a while, and then there's the new Jazzid... but the the mainstay of the underground haunts must be So What! First take the tram to Stortorvet, watch out for the bungey fliers. Point yourself west and start walking. Make a right down the alleyway, before Burger King and you enter a courtyard. On the far wall, are two anonymous looking doorways. If you look up you see the words "Cafe Image: the independent club", the only sign that something actually happens here. Through the windows you can make out silver, metallic curtains and maybe candle light from the tables. Draw in closer, try the door: locked. Try the other door and you open to music. Alternative music. It's dark inside. Upstairs, to the left, we have an intimate bar with navy blue wooden panelling. The panelling is covered with small picture frames, photos of rock stars and promotional album shots. At the far end is a pair of patio doors' which (when open) lead into another courtyard. The music is at talking volume here, alternative but pop. Down the steep staircase to the right, descend into blackness. Matt black walls, punctuated by concert promotions, wind to the right channelling you into a larger hall, equally black, with just a few spots and the light from a long bar to see by. There is music here to, in the club part, but much louder with sub-bass harmonics to exercise your stomach muscles. A few high-round tables a dotted about with bar stools around them. Then at the far end of the 20 metre long cavern there is a dance floor and a DJ booth. This is the underground. Around about are the ghosts that haunt Oslo's alternative club: black or white hair, spiky, pale faces, dark eyeliner, piercing. Dreadlocks, or hair colour; body fitting or baggy hip-hop trousers, chains. Fashion in a narrow bandwidth. Straight, gay, no special preference. If you didn't know them, you might think they were from a different world, but then this is a different world within the bounds of Oslo's otherwise pretty conservative limits. So What! or Cafe Image, or whatever you would like to call it has a remarkable, soporiphic effect on me. Few other places can make me relax like this, when I am here alone. I can talk to friends in the bar. Maybe I'll meet someone I know. It doesn't matter because they're playing great music and just at the right volume.

I need these refuges of alternative reality. Life would be just too two-dimensional to tolerate if I couldn't escape. Once I could escape into books, now I have no energy to read at the end of a long day. You have to keep a perspective on things. Holidays and trips to the mountains are good for that, but even on a daily basis it's important to be able to see the funny side. It you can't laugh, you're missing something. I joke a lot. Of course, not everyone understands when I am joking. It's a problem, having one of those slightly twisted, ironical senses of humour, and an overactive imagination, coupled to a love of the aBsuRD. What seems obvious nonsense (i.e. funny) to me, leaves others doubting my credentials. Part of the trouble is that I have these long stream-of-consciousness thoughts with bizarre connections which others don't quite connect to. I can say things which (to me) it is obvious that I do not mean, but the irony is lost on others. The habit is hard to break.

Of course some things are so absurd that you don't have to joke about them: they make fun of themselves. One of the tragedies of life for me is that not everyone sees this. Pretentiousness is an absurdity (which I love to flirt with). Students in suits and ties, for instance, is silly. Anyone who acts in a formal way with complete seriousness is worthy of laughter. Anyone who really takes themselves completely seriously is worthy of a bit of laughter. Including me. I often like to pretend to be serious or pompous and then make fun of myself. It's such a habit that I do it without thinking. People find this confusing. For some reason, which I really cannot be bothered to figure out, people imagine that I will be a person who takes myself very seriously. It's really not true. I take work seriously, but never myself. So it is fun to play with the absurd.

Astrology is absurd, for instance, not because anyone thinks present day science has the last word on how the universe works, but rather because the idea that lumps of burning gas billions of light years away from us in every direction, are somehow conscious and are watching our particular planet; that they notice the exact moment at which everyone here is born, that they then follow us around in our daily lives and subtly influence our interpersonal relationships and moods.... {\em that idea} is rediculous---to the extreme. It is a very human prejudice from a pre-Copernican epoch where we believed that the months and seasons of the year bring us around in perfect cycles. What these people forget is that we are travelling through space, orbiting around a galaxy. Our position relative to the distant stars is never the same from year to year. There are no true cycles over the lifespan of a human being. It is all in the mind. But I am getting distracted...well, where was I? Never mind that. To something interesting.

*

ZAP! Let's teleport a few thousand miles to Los Angeles. It's 35 degrees C and hot sunshine. A cloudless, allbeit hazy lid of blue tops Los Angeles from my Bel Air lookout. The swimming pool in front of me is as turquoise as the sky is blue and just a few feet away---empty space. The horizon, two feet beyond the pool beams over Los Angeles city, towering skyscrapers and urban sprawl smeared out across the flatland, hundreds of feet below. Just beyond the rim: the crucible where the rich are brewed.

After the irregular sleep of a 14 hour flight, I am relaxing in the back garden of the Schwinger residence, listening to Stravinsky on my CD-man, relaxing before a trip down to Venice. Noriko Sakurai is also visiting and has offered to drive us around the town to show me the sights. We're going to Chinatown for lunch. Check out the Dim Sum trolleys in the Chinese food hall. Dozens of steaming trolleys which bring the food to your table and let you pick from the roving buffet. Just like the far east.

Last night I joined Clarice's nephew and a friend and cruised down to West Hollywood where we saw a cabaret show until late. We found a cafe and I bought a slice of cake, actually more like a whole cake which four of us couldn't finish. In spite of my resistance, I was armtwisted into taking the remainder of it with me in a doggy bag. Apparently the norm for this land of raging appetites and raging stomachs! Tomorrow I'm off to San Diego, so it's best to enjoy the peace while I can.

The trip by car is interesting. Los Angeles is an interesting town with quite different districts. We cruise down Melrose, checking out the clothing stores and cafes. This is my kind of area. Then we slide by Paramont studios. Any chance of a Star Trek sighting? I think of jumping out of the car and doing the Mecca thing, but traffic is heavy so reason takes control. It's hot here in the city.

Later Clarice's nephew drives me down to Santa Monica beach, a beautiful long beach of perfect sand, with a view all the way up to Malibu. Thursday morning was the beginning of Autumn in Oslo. -2 degrees centigrade and the first falling leaves. Now I'm walking down Bay Watch beach in Santa Monica and at risk of removing my shirt.

Los Angeles is a city of contrasts. From a distance it is as dusty and bland as the surrounding desert, but in close up it is a bizarre mixture of wealth and poverty. Style and sleaziness. From the pits of Hollywood to the palm lined serenity of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. It is a city of cars. Nice cars! But it's time for LISA. Time for the conference on Large Installation System Administration.

*

ZUP! I arrive in San Diego airport in what is virtually an old biplane. As we board the aircraft, the flight attendant warns us, in flawlessly memorized technobabble, that if any passenger would not be willing to drag another injured passenger out of the plane he or she may get the value of their ticket refunded at the main desk and may leave the plane now, thank-you. In the event of an emergency over water, please take your seat apart and use the cushion as a life-raft'. Hardly reassuring words on the noisiest plane I have ever been on.

As we spiral down into San Diego, the criss-cross plaid of the city comes slowly into focus. It looks shabby and sun-beaten from the sky, but as we get closer, the imported palms show up against the concrete and inject a desperately needed dose of class to an otherwise dusty macrochip of a city. San Diego airport, they tell me, is one of the most diffuclt approaches there is. I am delighted to ponder this as the plane helterskelters down, almost pulling g's to a bumpy landing. The plane pulls up in a large yard and we are left to find our way to the exit by whatever means.

Regretting my choice of clothing (worn mainly because the vicious air-conditioning at the airport will freeze you in seconds) I venture out onto the semi-molten tarmac and look for a bus into town. Fat chance. There are some cabs a short distance away, so I head for them. Can't lug my bag very far, packed as it is with the books I inherited from the Schwinger residence. My driver more or less remembers to jump out and help me. He's a russian, it turns out, emmigrated from the homeworld twenty years ago. He gives me the guided tour and we talk about the natives analytically for the twenty minutes it takes him to reach the hotel. Then he asks me if I need a receipt. "Yes please," I say, so he gives me a blank card and tells me that I can fill in the amount myself. "That's how we do it in america," he says, hinting in ways that I could not possible comprehend at the time. "So that's fifteen dollars." Okay, so I give him a twenty and he comes back with change. I thought he would have taken it as a tip, but he gives me the change and I say. "Oh..okay..thanks!" Then he smiles but looks disappointed and leaves, leaving me realising that I was supposed to tip him big time and claim it back from the college on my blank card...So I stand there having one of those Duckman experiences, trying to shed the guilty feeling of having been publicly naive on my debut taxi ride. Oh well, I'll know better next time, nez pah?

The hotel, it turns out, is very nice. I get a nice room with a colour TV and all kinds of channels, so I switch on the TV to find the hotel information. Maybe I can have a swim in this weather. I find the information, but I don't find any information there, and the next thing I know I can't switch off the television. It won't switch off. IT WON'T SWITCH OFF! Eventually I trace the power cord to the outlet and pull the plug. That does it! Then I put the cord back in and check the TV. Snow on all 35 channels. Oh god. Another Duckman experience. So I pull the cord and don't watch TV all week.

I didn't find the pool so I decided to take a walk to the Town and Country where conference registration has started. Maybe I'd meet someone there. The walk to the hotel was not far, just a couple of hundred metres under the freeway underpass, so I put on some shorts and went a'walking. I realised pretty soon, from all the shiny cars in San Diego, that nobody walks anywhere. So I got a few looks on that two hundred meter walk. Why didn't I take the shuttle bus? Well, you might well ask. A short walk around the grounds of the Town and Country convinced me that this was not so much a hotel as a small town, or country. On the west side, I found the conference centre: a huge place with vast halls to house the 2000 people who would eventually be attenting the conference.

As I arrive, the first session of tutorial days has begun and the registration area is devoid of people. I check in at the desk and pick up my name card, with a little rosette saying speaker'. I haven't registered for the tutorial sessions today so I sit down at a table and glance through the registration material, glad of the excuse to reside in the ice-cold air conditioning, rather than baking out in the heat. As I sit there a couple of guys walk past. One of them spots my name card and says, "Ah, Mark Burgess? Cfengine!". So begins a week of being recognized and lots of attention.

After a while I retreat to the pool of the hotel hosting the conference. There is a cafe there and I'm hungry. I order a bagel. The waiter comes across, laying on the service. I just want a coffee and a bagel, not a major meal, so the service thing seems a bit overplayed, but that seems to be the style here. The waiter asks me where I am from and I say that I live in Norway where it is much colder at this time of year. It was minus two when I left. He seems shocked and then I remember that they are still using the Fahrenheit scale here. So I try to tell the waiter what Centrigrade means. He tells me I have beautiful eyes. "Norway...is that in Australia?" Is he struggling with my accent or is he really as ignorant as he seems? Oh well, I get my bagel and drink my coffee and retreat to the hotel to find a pool that I can swim in.

*

At my hotel, there is a waitress who greets me for dinner, another who fetches bread and water and a third who takes my order. All over the U.S. you find three people doing a job that one person would have done in Europe. But the level of service is almost embarrassing, accustomed as I am to the brutal handling in Europe. It's no wonder that americans are loud and complaining when they come to Europe if they are pampered this much in their own country. After all, they scarely seem to be aware that there exists a place which is not the United States of America.

Dan Arovas, a physicist from the University of California in San Deigo, lives in San Diego. I know Dan from the anyon conferences in Scandinavia. I had arranged to give him a call when I arrived. So on the wednesday I meet him and his recently married wife, thereby missing the conference dinner, but what the hell. Those things can be pretty dull. Dan drives us out to a great Mexican restaurant, the real thing! I have not tasted real Mexican food before save for the plastic variety. Later we drive out to La Jolla (the J is one of those Spanish guttural H' sounds in the back of your throat and the L's are a y'! Lah Hoya!) and walk along the beach, looking at the seals and the surf. Here I see for the first time in my life the first thing that could remotely be mistaken for a UFO. A very bright star, so bright that it leaves a reflection in the sea. It looks too close to be a star, but too still to be a plane. Also there is not sound to be heard over the lapping of the ocean. Suddenly it moves off at high speed to the right. I have always wanted to see something like a UFO. Of course, it was just a plane on a flight path coming directly towards us, which suddenly changed direction. Could have been more exciting, but at least I have now seen something remotely difficult to understand.

At LISA I was lucky enough to meet Elaine and George, two folks of about my age from Canada (why do I always end up with Canadians?). They are great. I couldn't have hoped to meet nicer people, who wanted to do exactly the things that appealed to me. We spent a lot of time together, passing the evenings at restaurants. Elaine is Canadian of Chinese descent and has the same underground lifestyle that I am drawn to. We got along just great, eh?

*

Energize! Head up, show no weakness. This is New York. Bored airport employess drive us through New Jersey's post apolcalypse zone. We change busses at Grand Central station for a minibus, which pelts around the streets accelerating at relativistic rates, shifting lanes. The hotel turns out to be in a dark side street, but it seems ok, though hardly up to the standards of the Holiday Inn.

The first thing I realize is that I'm starving. It's 20:00 pm and its dark and wet outside. The streets are deserted and I don't know where to go. Ten degrees colder than San Deigo and teeming with rain. The guy on duty at the hotel tells me to walk a couple of blocks down to the right (he means left) to find food. I just end up in some dark alleys and start to feel as though I would like to be somewhere else. I set off back in the direction of the hotel and decided to try to other direction before giving up. This time it worked, I'm happy to say. Just around the corner from the Empire state building, we have a string of eateries. Time for a mega pizza. Good pizza too. I take the pizza back to the hotel, feeling a bit too worn to go anywhere in the pouring rain, and I await the arrival of a friend I am meeting here.

YOUTH

I want to see you gameboys
I want to see you brave and manly
and I also want to see you gentle
and tender
Be practical as well as generous
on the stars and your feet
on the ground
Courage hard work self mastery
and intelligent effort are all
essential to a successful life
character in the long run
is the decisive factor in the life
of an individual and of nations alike

Theordore Roosevelt
Inscribed on the wall of the Museum of Natural History, New York

New York is a dazzling city. I was expecting an urban chaos, a precursor to Gotham city, I found a clean, orderly city built in a Grande style with uniformity and diveristy blending perfectly into the civic landscape. Not surprising that New York is the capital of the world.

Central park is a more Woody Allen sort of district, with a running track for joggers. The streets are lower here, no skyscrapers to speak of, not that you can't see some. It has more of a suburban feel. The Goggenheim number one is here: a strange layered building looking like a cross between a flying saucer and a multi-story car park. A gallery of modern art, just across the street from central park.

The metro, or subway takes you most places in Manhatten so we jaunt around looking for the sights. Of course, we have to do the trip up to the top floor of the World Trade Center. This is the highest building in New York and the trip up is a strange experience. The twin towers are 420 metres high.

Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson,
look and kneel. When I see the city from my window -- no, I
don't feel how small I am -- but I feel that if a war came to
threaten this, I would throw myself into space, over the city,
and protect these buildings with my body. (Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead)

World Trade Centre looking out and down from the lookout.

The elevator travels at a barely noticably 30kph and reaches the top in a matter of seconds. Up there, there is a restaurant and tourist shop. Glass windows all the way around give a bizarre bird's eye perspective, looking down on all the other mega sky scrapers. This is by far the only interesting thing to see in the financial district, apart from the buildings themselves which are quite beautiful, if you like architecture.

The stock exchange vistors lounge is boring bigtime. Just some marketing hype about stocks and bonds and securities which I couldn't care less about. But just down the street is the MacDonalds of the Bagel: Au bon pain! Good bagels, but pretty tacky interior though. On Wall street, a church spire stands, hemmed in by flashy skyscrapers on either side, imtimidated into oblivion in the narrow street. A brutal contrast between the old and the new. We walk north, out of the finanical district. Bassett cafe on West Broadway, down close to the financial district is about as close as I have seen to a European cafe. Even the portions were more European. Not far from here, the Knitting Factory, a music club in an arty district. We buy tickets to a jazz trumpet drum'n'bass artist and stop to look around some pop art galleries.

Walking north east we go looking for the younger trendy zone of New York, when a voice starts me. "Could you guys move up to the corner? We're getting a reflection in the window!" A tracksuited girl with cap and loudhailer, hollers to us from across the street. We're in a small square' in Broone street. Well, not so much a square as a triangle in a road crossing. The Next cum American Dream Machine cum Harley Davidson building on the far side of the crossing is a styled brick building with a classy entrance. In front stands Christopher Walker and some other guy whose name I can never remember, but he's famous film star okay?. In the crossing island itself is a film crew, camera focussed for a take. The director is a living parody of a Germanic, Jewish arty fart with curly grey hair, cut back behind his ears but just a little too long and pointing out in all directions. He's bent like a banana, with hands clutched out in front of him, gesticulating with passion. The sleeves of his poorly fitting black suit jacket and polo neck are rolled up the the elbows and he's just freaking darling! Then the clapperboard snaps shut and it's action! The actors are talking about something in front of the building, they stroll up to the entrance, open the door and walking inside!! My god it's so exciting... and then it's over. The director, locked in his own pricate world of personal elation grows more and more animated as he watches the rerun on video. "Yes...yes...YES..YES!!" And there we have it, the orgasm complete he throws his fist up into the air. He leans back, still in banana mode, looking like a park flasher, and stickers thumbs up to the actors across the street. Oh well, time to stop at the news cafe for a quick cup of Latte.

Greene street. Galleries, fashion. Fire escapes on the outside of most buildings. This expensive area is genuinely trendy. There is a great cafe, lunch bar where they sell noodles. It's just sitting there amongst all the art galleries and fashion stores. It's very relaxed here, people seem normal. Americans are a funny breed though. In the more conservative parts of the city, people talk to each other with a bizarre air of formality. A kind of posturing, using titles, acronyms and the pretense of technicality. Everyone's putting on a front. Then there's the authoritarian thing. Kids actually call their Dad's `sir'. Give me a handkerchief! And everything seems authority this and authority that. We don't ask nicely, we beat it into you. WE DEMAND YOUR COOPERATION! DO NOT PASS GO! DO NOT EXCEED YOUR MANDATORY PURCHASE QUOTA OF MORE THAN THE SUM OF 200 DOLLARS. Port Authority, State Liquor Authority ... everything is authority here, as if the U.S. is living in its militaristic present. Even the sir/madam thing grates a bit to my sensitized european ears. On a one-to-one basis Americans seem just like the rest of the world of course, folks are folks, but put them into the hostile urban life and they radiate their bizarre mixture of cultures. A European orderliness, combined with an asian chaos. This combined with a not completely unconvincing belief in themselves as the greatest nation of the world, oblivious to all others, gives them a measure of self-importance which is occasionally intolerable.

Americans do not experience reality anymore. It is no longer a supported product. The same tendency is already spreading quickly to the rest of the western world, and Japan, but it is never more apparent than here. We drive cars from A to B, with a shield between us and reality. We don't hear the sounds and smell the smells any more. Instead we watch through a glass pane or a recorded/transmitted evrsion on a screen, in stereo. When we go to an Asian restaurant, we don't get the real thing: we get a toned down version, a "safe" version which is suitable for folks who don't really want to experience reality---but would like to make the pretence. We get a MacAsian curry burger or a microwave chinese dinner in a bag. We make safe music for the masses, controlled by record companies who know what we want to hear. We censor images and language which might be offensive, we pour our scorn on anyone who does not conform to the A4 (or was that letter size) world which we have abstracted. Welcome to virtual reality. This distance from reality is not healthy: people can't take real goods any more. It has to be watered down. They can't talk people who don't fit into their immediate social norms. If it's not on TV, it doesn't exist!

I remember talking with a Canadian woman on the plane who said that her trip to Europe had taught her that North Americans were only concerned with material wealth. In Canada they earn their money and buy their possessions and build fences around their big houses to protect their possessions, but is the aim really to keep out the neighbours at all costs? Well, maybe not, but I think that they would be challenged at the gate with an armed guard or two...

No trip to New York would be complete without an appearance on the Ricky Lake show! Somehow the temptation to see one of these shows in the flesh was more than a mere piggy bank can advise against. Anyway, as it turns out it's free to get in. We just walk by and get in on a standby ticket. Well, they have to fill the studio I suppose. (Vernacular: I guess).But it was none of the fighting and hollering, mind! Just a civilized brother-sister beauty contest. Oh well, guess we'll just have to come back another time.

Well time and patience are running out and I can't bring myself to write more. It's back to Norway, back to the grind. Jump on a bus to JFK airport and onto the haven of a British airways wide bodied luxury liner. (Well anything is luxury after an American airline). But British Airways are real professionals. The service is great and the food laughs at the American competition. With any luck I might even be able to eat the food if the two orthodox Jews in the seat in front will put up their seats so that I have a centimeter to maneuver.

So it's back to Oslo. Somehow everything seems so small and unstylish after the grandiose scale of New York. The ugly functionalistic buildings covered in their Third-World ice-cream, newspaper and lottery flags and stickers makes Oslo look like a shanty town rather than a capital city. At least there is So What, a haven of urban condition. Well it's back to work. Better save myself for the next trip. No time for writing now...