Archive for August, 2012

Virtual Exposure

August 19 2012

HerbertGünter and I wrote a paper about Gaussian Mixtures that was presented at SoCG this year (hopefully it will be in the special issue of DCG as well … we have yet to hear about this).  It was a large part of my dissertation and is actually receiving a lot of attention.

Thanks to my friend Andy, I have found out that this paper is receiving a lot of attention in the machine learning community.  It was mentioned in a Stat/ML blog and tweeted about by a UBC master’s student on 4 August 2012.  Go us!


Buying Groceries (Almost) Like a Local

August 18 2012

Today I went to the grocery store to get some food for lunch.  There are several steps involved in this process:

  1. Pick out what you want.  (And, I am fairly certain that I was the only one who walked into the store not knowing exactly what I wanted).
  2. Tell Lady #1 what you want.  She then writes down all the prices on a sheet of paper.
  3. Pay with Lady #2.
  4. Get the items from Lady #3.

For me, the process was a little different.  Half of the Russians in the store skipped step number 1, and it was difficult to grab the attention of the right lady (or to determine who was the right lady) to place my order with.

During step 3, I had a 1000 ruble bill for my 120 ruble check.  This was not ok.  After showing my wallet to the lady, she finally grunted a little, then walked away to get me change.  During this time, a Russian man decided to talk to me.  I said “I don’t know what you are saying”  He repeated “don’t know” then continued jabbering in Russian.  So, I ignored him until the lady came back.  He then tried to take MY change from the lady in the Kassa.  Thankfully, she refused to give it to him and she and I exchanged money in the back of the Kassa instead (this required me to be leaning way over the deli case).

Then, I was given my goods and left.  I suppose it was successful.  I walked out after exchanging money for food, and no one stole my change.

What did I eat?

August 18 2012

This week, I (and a few others) came down with a case of food poisoning Tuesday evening. I was able to walk around town without feeling like my stomach was exploding by late Wednesday morning, but Tuesday night was a sleepless night for me.

Today we will be taking a night train to St. Petersburg.  It departs around 10:30 this evening.  We dropped off some clothes to the laundromat this morning, so hopefully they will be returned to us before the train departs (otherwise, I will not have much left to wear!)

Sandunovskiye Bathhouse

August 12 2012
Sandunovskiye Bath Men's Entrance -- photo from Flickr

The beautiful entrance that we later learned was for men, not women.

First, I apologize that this is such a long post. But, if you want to hear about the full experience at the Sandunovskiye Bathhouse or want a good laugh, read on.

We spent a long weekend in Moscow. During our trip, I saw the usual sights: the Kremlin, many many cathedrals with onion domes, the super-expensive mall GUM, … Of course out trip was centered around eating, but we got plenty of sightseeing done in between food breaks. In this blog post, I want to tell you about our experience at Sandunovskiye Baths.

Bei and I went to the baths on our last day in Moscow. We were to meet Nikolai back at the Steklov Institute at 5:15, which meant our bath was to be over by 4:00 to get back in time. Our very delicious lunch ended at 13:00 and we headed straight to the baths. Once we arrived, we took a few pictures outside then inside, then walked up to the Kassa (counter where you pay). We noticed that the prices were for men. Seemed strange, but that explained the confused look on the men when we walked right in and up to the counter. The lady behind the Kassa told us that the women’s entrance was around the corner.

The women’s entrance, although ornate, was not as grand as the men’s entrance. I am pretty sure that the men’s baths were far superior in appearance in general too. So, we paid then walked through a small corridor with two chairs and several hair dryers and entered the lounge. There are large leather couches and we had to choose one. Luckily, a waitress who sensed our confusion pointed us in the right direction. She gave us some instructions in English that we are to hang our clothes on the provided hangers and put our valuables in the locker. So, we did as she said, put our towels around us and walked into the bathroom (not the one with toilets, but the one with the baths).

When we walked in, of course, we did not know what to do or where to go. We were by far (say, by at least 35 years) the youngest people at the baths. Along one wall was three showers, all of which were full. Each shower had a marble podium outside of it, some of which were being leaned on by old women. Then there were rows of marble benches. There was about one small sink for each long bench. The benches were full of washbuckets, some with ladies using them, some with oak branches sticking out, and some just empty. I assume that it was the end of their three hour session for most of these women. They were lathering up themselves (and each other) from head to toe.

The general idea of the bath is to go in the steam room for as long as you can handle it, then cool off in one of the pools, then rest on your leather couch while rehydrating. You repeat this several times (you can stay for up to three hours in the women’s bath, two in the men’s), then you shower/bathe yourself before heading out.

Round One. The steam room was not open when we came in, but we were told we could still sit inside even though it wasn’t too hot in there at the moment. We took the opportunity to get started with our hot-cold-rest cycle. They said it wasn’t too hot, but we had enough of the heat within a few minutes. Then, we stepped outside to figure out how the “cold” part worked. There were two large wooden barrels with cold water. I thought you can just go in, but we hadn’t seen anyone use them, so we were too afraid to do so. Then, we found the small pool at the other side of the room next to the two massage rooms (that is at least what we assumed the rooms were for). The water was very cool, but not overwhelming. After cooling off in the pool, it was time for our first rest period, so we returned to our leather couch to drink some water.
Round Two. While drinking water, we notices some commotion. A little later, we figured out that it meant the sauna was re-opened. Eventually, we made our way back into the sauna. It was much hotter than the last time we were there and a woman was throwing water at many of us, then she walked around whirling her towel in the air. I’m not sure, but I think this was to help cool people off. We just sat there until we couldn’t handle the heat anymore and went straight to the pool. Now that we were experienced, each step was taken with direction not much confusion. While in the pool, we observed what was around us. The pool is raised and in the corner of the room, so it gives a good view of the whole room. I noticed that there was a bucket with water in it high on the wall next to the sauna. The bucket had a rope on it so you can dump it on yourself. Committing to the full tortorous experience, I told Bei that I was going to use that in the next round (be careful what you wish for …). We also decided to get some of the birch branches. We hadn’t seen anyone using them yet, but we figured we could go for the full experience. We left the pool and returned to our chairs. This time, we ordered a peppermint tea, and our birch branches.

Round Three. This was a quick round. Someone walked us in and showed us how to soak the branches in hot water. She told us to leave them in there for 10 minutes, so we did a quick round of sauna (which was technically closed again) and the pool. Then, we went out to rehydrate before going for the full experience of using the branches.

Round Four. We weren’t sure when to use the birch branches, but we decided we would go into the sauna when it opened this round. We go in (along with 6 other women) and the door was closed. Bei and I sat, but several people were lying down with their faces covered. Then, the attendant starts throwing water into the furnace. At first, you could hardly notice the difference, then it suddenly became much warmer. There was a slight sting to the air too, perhaps a hint of lavender or eucalyptus or something that you would find in vick’s vaporub. It continued to get hotter. And hotter. Soon, I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore due to the extreme heat. The air started to sting as I was breathing in. I alternated from breathing in my nose and in my mouth. At this moment, if I was a tea kettle, I would have been whistling like mad. When I looked at Bei to ask her how to breathe, it was obvious by the color and expression on her face that her inner tea kettle was violently whistling too. She jumped up and said “I have to go out now”. I thought, well, it is hot, but I am ok as long as it doesn’t continue to get hot. In the time it took Bei to make two steps, it became too hot for me as well. I jumped up just to be greeted by the damp hot unbreathable air. I took one step and froze as every exposed piece of skin felt as though I was walking into a fire. In fact, my fire-safety lessons started re-playing in my mind as I kept thinking “stop-drop-roll” over and over.  I tried to continue my short breaths, but it became unbearable and I decided to hold my breath until I reached the door. I was now almost at the stairs and Bei was by the door, but she was not moving. Momentarily, I thought we couldn’t get out. In panick, I did a quick half turn back thinking that it was better when sitting down and that’s what I should do. Then, I realized that I still needed to take a breath. So, I continued the turn (making a complete 360) and decided to go down the stairs. My feet were jumping up and down because I still felt that I was going to catch on fire at any moment. Magically, I made it to the door and pulled the rope under the barrel of water and was immediately relieved. Meanwhile, an attendant was pouring ice-cold water on Bei. After a few pours, she told me to come over. I gratefully appreciated feeling the cold water help return my body temperature to normal. She dumped four buckets on me, first knees down, then hips down, then shoulders down, and finally a large bucket over my head. Relief.

Round Five. After our last experience, we made sure not to be in there when the room was heating up. When we went in, we decided to try the lying down approach. I also covered my face with the towel I had around my head (it helped for the breathing). As we were in there, a mother brought her 6-year-old daughter in. They were talking back and forth (I have no clue what they were saying), but then the daughter started to cry. I know how she felt, as I almost broke into tears when I thought I was on fire. I don’t think we were in there for too long this round for fear of what happened in the previous round. We got out, poured cold water over ourselves this time and decided to use our birch branches. We didn’t know what to do though. So, we decided that we were supposed to beat each others backs with the branches. Bei used the birch branch to hit me then we exchanged and I beat her back with the branches for about 20 or so hits. Then, we switched again. It was strange, I admit, but we didn’t know any better. Then, an attendant came rushing over and herded us back into the sauna and shut the door behind us. We were confused, but got the signal that we were not supposed to beat each other with the branches when we were in the bathing area. At this point, another girl about our age was in the sauna. She told us that it was too early to use those. We should wait until it cools down so we don’t burn ourselves or others by using them. So, we returned our branches to the bucket in which they were soaking. Several minutes later, the sauna door opened and the woman who showed us how to soak the branches came over to us. She told us that she would show us what to do. When we got inside, she instructed both of us to lie on our stomachs on the sauna benches. Then, she used the branch to beat Bei from head to toe. Then, she did the same with me. After her demonstration, we each took a turn hitting each other with the birch branches. It felt like a gentle massage. Still, a little strange though. After this round, we took a quick dip in the pool. I immersed my head underwater several times because I realized I was still overheated internally from the previous round when I was almost on fire.

Round Six. The final round began with us lying in the sauna. It is much more bearable when lying down. We soaked up as much heat as we could and were dripping with sweat when we came out. Right outside the sauna, I saw a woman get into the large barrel of ice-cold water. I immediately got into the other one, hoping to finally cool down my internal temperature. I took a few dips then went back to our couch. We drank some tea and ordered clean towels to use after we showered. The shower also had an unexpected surprise, as Bei’s shower had no shower head. There was just water pouring out of a pipe! She quickly changed showers.

And, that concludes our experience at the Sandunovskiye Baths. In the future, I will be sure to keep my shoulders covered with a towel or sheet when walking into or out of the sauna.

Playing the Game

August 3 2012

The Russian language sounds so foreign to me.  For the most part, it sounds like gibberish except for the occasional word that coincides with its English counterpart, for example the words for supermarket, minimum, maximum, and many country names.

To amuse myself when everyone is speaking Russian around me, I pretend it is a game .. a game that everyone is playing except for me.  I imagine that they are all making up the sounds and don’t actually communicate anything meaningful to each other.  They are in conspiracy against me.  But, since I know that they are playing this game, I have the upper hand (since in my mind of course, they don’t know that I know it is a game).  It makes the conversations much more amusing for me.

One day we decided to play back.  Herbert wanted a coffee, but the bartender (as usual) was MIA.  So, we came up with a scheme.  Herbert was to go up to the staff to ask if he could make it himself, and he was to interpret whatever they said as an affirmation that he could make his own coffee.  Well, the plan worked. He asked permission, then walked straight over to the machine, turned it on and put a coffee mug under the spout.  The problem arose when we realized that we did not know what to do next.  There are about 15 buttons on the machine, so he started to press at random.  No response.  After a few minutes an angry lady came over and tapped her index finger loudly on the counter.  We engaged in some primitive conversation with her (despite her not knowing any English) and walked away without getting the coffee.