Oh, Canada!

Canadians are people that say "ôt" for "out", "abôt" for "about" and, more importantly, if you bump into them, they will apologise. "How I met your mother" was indeed a good introductory course, the people here couldn't be any friendlier. I'll elaborate further. On my way from Toronto's airport to Waterloo, I boarded a bus which required exact change. I explained the driver I had just landed and had only a $20 bill on me. He waved me in, "say what, I'll let you get in, maybe you can find some change with another guest or, worst case, you get this changed at the end terminal". I had barely managed to get my luggage inside and settled into a seat, a passenger approaches me, asking "hey, I heard you need some change... can I help you with that? How much you need change for?".

A few days later, I took a shuttle from our Institute to the main campus (IQC is located quite far out, so either you drive, or take the complimentary university shuttle from the Research Park to the main central campus). I explained the girl driving where I wanted to go, a few blocks away from the shuttle's designated drop-off point. "If you want, I can drive you ôt, otherwise it's a long wôlk there". Wow, they really say that.
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The first week was filled with, well, first week chores. Registering, signing paperwork, getting acquainted with the group and its different research topics, and, mostly, scouting for a room, as my accommodations here are only temporary. I have some visits lined up for the coming days, keep your fingers crossed.

What else can I say? The Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) is a top-notch research facility focused on both experimental and theoretical aspects of quantum information-relevant tasks. The atmosphere seems really nice; staff is friendly; and rumours have it, there's even a table tennis table somewhere :) . Unfortunately, the espresso machine broke down two days after I arrived (hmm.. is there a correlation?), and the regular coffee they offer is... americano, to put it in mild terms. There's also free food (!) three times a week during seminars/colloquia which are held at lunchtime, and numerous social events to foster contact between researchers.
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Precisely aiming to network with my fellow peers, I joined the weekly basketball game held Friday evenings in the court which is set in the Institute's parking lot. Sure, I hadn't played since high school, but figured I could at least run back and forth in the field and eventually have some fun. Our team took a beating, and I developed two huge blisters in both feet - apparently, if you're going to be running and jumping around for two hours, proper footwear is required. Duly noted for next week...

Whiskas Travelling Commentary

Besides the obviously different perspectives which one gains from visiting different cities, countries or continents, I typically take travelling as an opportunity to sync up with the newspapers, as the waiting time between flights or trains - combined with the typically unreasonable prices for Internet access found at airports (*) - is best spent with a good read. So why not take this as a chance to present the Grad Line's readers with Whiskas' own take on the events around the world (**) ?
The headlines on virtually every major German periodic today discuss a change of Obama's opinion related to the construction of a Mosque somewhere close to the former site of the former World Trade Center in southern Manhattan, first supposedly supporting, now apparently denying it. Now, if we take the president's words precisely as the articles themselves put it, he did not put a case for any direction, and only spoke in name of the constitutional right to freedom of speech and religious choice. That the opposition takes anything which can be even vaguely framed as an opinion on the matter as material for a critic should not surprise anyone, but it highlights just how much the Americans are now distant from the ideals that once stood as paramount.

In contrast, one could say the "conservative" Europeans are the ones who are - to a certain extent - setting the example in not becoming religiously-motivated belligerent police States - with support from many discussions about what sort of moral behaviour I should expect were I to go for a States-side visit during my time in Canada. But the second set of headlines we read - on the immense levels of citizen-initiated protests against Google's plans of offering its Street View service - show that such a contrast is only relative, and Europeans still have conservative opinions of their own. Goethe's countrymen appear concerned about their house's façades, streets and parks being made available in digital format for the world to see. While the point could be well taken for the privacy of one's own home, what the perpetrators of such protests wish to protect that would otherwise not be accessible to an ordinary citizen walking and photographing (or painting, or writing, should the extra concerns relate to the digital media storage of such depictions) remains a mystery to me. I had a chance of using Street View when scouting for a place to stay in Waterloo, and, attesting to the usefulness of the service, I should thank all open-minded Canadians of Whatever Street that did not deny their neighbourhood being brought online. Cheers.

Germans can't agree if retirement should take place at 65, 67 or 70 years; and argue if a 50% tax on incomes above 80k a year, brutto, is fairer as a 35% on those over 50k/yr, brutto. They also discuss a new tax on nuclear fuel, which prompts power plant operators to consider shutting them off entirely as this would make them economically non-viable; ironically, were these reactors switched off, the necessary energy to balance the grid would be brought from foreign nuclear plants, from countries where such taxes are not in place, effectively just shifting the issue to a different location.

And more rain is forecast for the coming week, but this should not matter: not because I'll be long gone, but rather for everyone that had their chance to move out long ago (and still have!), but never did (and, as it seems, never will). Weather provides the perfect excuse to keep complaining, making the dark grey skies very fitting.
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The plane was delayed for almost two hours; besides a complimentary newspaper, not a single glass of water was offered for the waiting passengers. Still, we made it to the other side, and while the connections I had written down were then long departed, I managed to follow Nathan's public transport instructions and got to Waterloo just before 11 pm. But that's already another post.
(*) "Air travel is a joke", reads a t-shirt which I am still to print. The premise that every traveller is a potential terrorist subjects everyone from young children to pregnant mothers and elder citizens to long inspections lines; moreover, commercial pressure allows airlines to deny passengers of not only leg room - already a given when flying Economy - but lately also any sort of snack or beverage. While the need for more profitable passenger-miles can be well understood in times of economic recession, decency should still allow for a regular-sized human to travel with moderate comfort, and any reasonable calculation can show that it is not the few cents saved by sparing a cup of coffee or a can of soda that is going to drive airlines out of the red numbers and into profitable margins.
And then there's the airports. While you can always get decent-priced food, coffee and hotels around any bus or train terminal - in fact, typically the cheapest ones in any given town - airports induce just the opposite, inducing all sorts of "convenience taxes" and what the hell else. I'm still all for paying ten euros or dollars more for a ticket every time I fly, but having access to reasonable-priced internet access, coffee, snacks. And a seat I'll fit, please.

(**) "Every home owner, or even every tenant nails his name plate on the door, like a coat of arms and studies the morning paper as if he were a world leader. (...) [There are] as many small states as there are individuals. And these small states are mobile. Everyone carries his own state with him..."
from Wim Wenders' Der Himmel über Berlin - a great movie, by the way.


Of koalas, taxis, and other Aussie stories

The almost thirteen-hour flight across up to five timezones, which I encounter whenever I fly to Brazil, are nothing in comparison. A total of 26 hours aboard airplanes, first from Frankfurt to Abu Dhabi, then to Singapore, and finally to Brisbane, crossing no less than eight time zones, were a whole new game. But with a bit of planning and appropriately-timed in-flight sleep, I managed to arrive in Brisbane well synchronized with the local time. There, I met my Institute colleagues Benoit and Kaisa at our booked university accommodation, and together we went out to explore the city of Brisbane and its surroundings, culminating with a wonderful swim in the Pacific. The only, barely noticeable manifestation of the dreaded jet lag was found in my early 20.30-ish bedtime. So far, so good.

The conference, which began on Monday, was a great opportunity to put faces to many of the names I had become quite familiar with through journal articles over the last year and a half. Some interesting discussions on all levels, ranging from experimental implementations to theoretical proposals to near-philosophical interpretations of the universe as one huge quantum computer. Found others working on similar topics as mine, exchanged some ideas, received some feedback on my poster's results, and left with a few ideas to work on. In fact, one person who asked a few questions about my poster also happened to be a certain famous taxi-driver-turned-physicist. As luck would have it, I also had a poster about Quantum Taxi Driving - what are the odds of that? :) - which I promptly brought out. After the proper explanations, Tim Ralph posed for a picture, and thus I won my bet with Peter Rohde, who had challenged me, two weeks earlier, to approach his former advisor and start a conversation about taxis. Except for the coffee, which was terrible - I soon resorted to a nearby coffee shop for my daily fix of quality espresso - QCMC was fantastic.

Oh, we also had a mid-conference tour of a Koala sanctuary, which was in fact a fully featured zoo with every possible Australian animal. Played a bit with guinea pigs, kangaroos and even cuddled a koala - but didn't pay the 15 dollar fee for my picture to be taken with them. Still, there are pictures aplenty in the usual place.

With the conference over, joined with Benoit in our plans of checking out the Whitsunday Islands, some 900km further up North. From the launching pad of Airlie Beach, we boarded the 75ft sailboat Habibi for a three-day, two-night cruise of the islands. Unfortunately, the weather gods didn't provide us with the blue-skied backdrop the travel brochures so marvelously depicted, but it doesn't matter. We had a great time sailing, snorkeling amidst the corals, walking the white sands of Whitehaven beach, and also playing card games and drinking cheap wine onboard :) . But the lack of postcard-perfect shots means I'll have to try my luck there sometime again in the future...

Boat trip over, we rushed to the airport for our flight to Sydney, where we arrived late Tuesday evening. We had some sushi in a small Asian eatery and made it back to our hostel, appropriately named "Wake Up!", for a basement rock'n'roll party. Wednesday greeted us with overcast skies and a constant drizzle, but we decided to soldier on and see as much as possible, given our limited time schedule. Again, the shots of the Opera House and its world-famous bridge background weren't nearly as impressive as I'd have liked, but were enough for an "I've been there" kind of proof. We were then guided by a fine gentleman named Arthur, who found us in the tourist shop inside the Opera and took some time to walk us through the main downtown district around Circular Quay, where, after parting ways, we took the ferry to Manly Beach - another wonderful journey which I should definitively undertake some other day in more favorable weather conditions. After dinner in a charming Argentinean tapas restaurant, we met a long-time family friend of mine, Juliano, who has been working in Sydney for over three years now. Now, even though we don't talk so often, there's just something about meeting people - former classmates, family members or long-lost friends - abroad, and finding so much in common to discuss. In spite of the price, which will be discussed in a forthcoming post, viajar é preciso - "traveling is a must".

Thursday presented us with slightly better conditions; we walked through Darling Harbour all the way to the Fish Market, before it was time for me to head back to the hostel to pick my stuff and head to the airport, while Benoit would still enjoy one more day before flying back on Friday.

The direct, westward flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi didn't fit my sleep schedule so well as the inboud flight, but I still managed to wake up just before landing in Frankfurt, at around 6 am, local time. Suffered the train ride back, was greeted at the station by Monica, and had a pleasant surprise of finding some fresh supplies in my fridge provided by Benjamin. Home, sweet home. The rest of the day went on trying to keep awake, before collapsing around 8 pm and sleeping all the way to 2 am on Saturday (this got better as I woke up just past 4 am on Sunday, and was finally synchronized back to local time on Monday, when I woke up at 6 am).
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Now just one more week, and I'll be boarding again to yet another continent: another six time zones, a new apartment, a new office, and hopefully some new results. Buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy, 'cause Erlangen is going bye-bye...