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Our annual Aquarium sleepover

I mentioned last year that sleeping over at the Monterey Aquarium was an annual tradition for my daughter and me. This weekend we upheld that tradition once again, for what might have been the 10th time (we haven’t kept strict track, but I think we’re somewhere around there). We did shake things up in one way: we changed our sleeping location.

Last year the Aquarium moved to reservations for the different sleeping areas (which I still think was a good idea). This year by the time I got tickets the area we’ve always slept (the Open Seas exhibit) was full, so we opted for the Ocean’s Edge instead (it’s the area on the 1st floor with the Kelp Forest and the exhibits of sea life around Monterey itself).

Overall I liked the new location. We didn’t get the bubble wall and the big fish zooming by our heads, but we did end up in a nice nook by the big Monterey exhibit, so we still got plenty of fish viewing. And the area was noticeably quieter than the Open Seas (which has a fair amount of light and white noise from the big exhibit).

Indian-Spiced Pork Burgers

Between our vacation in Europe and my business trip to Hong Kong, we haven’t tackled many new recipes recently. Today we finally made some time to try out one of the Tuesday Night recipes from our latest issue of Milk Street Magazine: Indian-spiced pork burgers.

We admittedly weren’t sure whether we were going to like them or not. The idea of applying Indian spices (primarily a combination of garam masala, paprika, and cumin) to a burger seemed like it go either way: tasty or downright scary. They actually ended up on the tasty side, particularly when served with a little yogurt, mint, and tomato for topping. And they’re relatively easy to make as well (in the spirit of a Tuesday Night recipe): mix the spices into a paste, work it into the ground pork, rest the patties in the fridge for 15 minutes, and then cook ’em.

Paris

We spent the rest of our two weeks in Europe in Paris (a bonus of visiting Paris after Switzerland: it makes Paris seem cheap). We again rented an apartment (in the 7th) via Airbnb; I’ve grown to prefer staying in homes and apartments on vacations because it gives us access to a kitchen. That means that we don’t have to eat every meal out at a restaurant, and it allows us to relax over a cup of coffee without needing to first make ourselves presentable. Our apartment in Paris had a view of the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides, it had a small grocery store on the same block, and there was a tasty boulangerie across the street (score!).

We did all the usual touristy things, since it was our daughter’s first trip to Paris and only my second: visit the Louvre, walking through the Tuilleries, see lots of churches (St. Chapelle, Notre Dame – the outside at least, Sacre Couer, St. Sulpice), visit the Pantheon, walk through the a bit of the Jardin du Luxembourg), visit Shakespeare & Co., etc.

You can’t visit Paris and not see the Louvre

The parts that I enjoyed the most (well, aside from the always tasty food) were those that were new to me. On my previous trip I didn’t get a chance to visit the Eiffel Tower, but this time we were within walking distance, so we visited it and the Champ de Mars a couple of times, as well as actually going up the tower.

The Eiffel Tower at sunset

While stereotypically touristy, we did a lunch boat ride along the Seine with Bateaux Parisiens that was a lot of fun (and the food was very tasty). After all the walking around we did, it was also very nice to just sit and relax and enjoy seeing the city without having to move.

Our lunch cruise along the Seine

We also caught a train to visit Versailles. While the palace was impressive, I actually found the grounds more interesting. They were immense; I personally thought the grounds did a better job communicating the power of the king than the palace did. If we go back, next time we’ll have to skip the palace and rent bikes to explore more of the grounds; even walking through them for several hours we only saw a small fraction of them. I’d also like to catch the gardens when they have the fountains turned on (to save water they only turn the fountains on during certain days).

Looking out into the gardens at Versailles

While the weather was cooler in Paris (we only caught the tail end of the heat wave: it was 100 the day we arrived, but otherwise it was mostly in the upper 70s and lower 80s), the next time we visit Paris I’d like to do it in the fall or spring to enjoy some crisp, cool days (and escape some of the crush of tourists). UIST was in Paris in 2002 (apparently the theme of this vacation was revisiting prior UIST locations) at the end of October, and the weather was great (or at least that’s how I remember it), so maybe that’s the timeframe we should aim for (once our daughter goes off to college, of course).

Lausanne

In 2006 UIST (one of the big HCI research conferences) was held in Montreux. I thought the area was gorgeous, and I’ve always wanted to revisit the area. This year for our summer vacation we spent 2 weeks in Europe, and we spent part of that time in Lausanne.

We rented an apartment via Airbnb in Ouchy, the waterfront district. We had a great view from our apartment of the lake and the mountains beyond in France. It was conveniently located, too; the Ouchy metro stop was roughly a block away, there was grocery store two blocks away, the ferry stop was roughly three blocks away, and there were plenty of restaurants around.

Our view

We spent a lot of time exploring along the lake and relaxing, but we also made time to hit some of the sights. We spent a day exploring the old city center, including the cathedral and some old town squares. We had a lengthy and tasty lunch, got in some walking, and did a little shopping.

We also caught a ferry down south of Montreux to explore Castle Chillon. I’d been there during UIST in Montreux (we had a visit to the castle one evening), but we were only able to explore part of the castle then. It was nice to be able to look around it in more detail and to learn more about the castle’s history. Plus the castle was quite cool (all that stone), which was particularly nice since our trip to Switzerland coincided with a big heat wave in Europe (it was near 90 most days we were in Switzerland).

Castle Chillon

The ferry ride was very enjoyable as well. The breeze on the lake kept us cool, and we enjoyed views of Montreux (I saw the hotel I stayed in for UIST), the other towns and cities along the lake, and the Lavaux vineyards (a UNESCO World Heritage site).

A view of Montreux from our ferry

The next day we caught a train to Chexbres (I really enjoy train travel in Europe; they do public transportation so much better than we do in the US) and hiked down through the vineyards to St. Saphorin. It was extremely hot; I’m glad we chose to hike down the hill instead of up! But the views of the lake, the vines, and the mountains beyond were amazing, and St. Saphorin was a picturesque little village right on the lake. We stopped for lunch at the Cafe le Raisin, which was very tasty (the only drawback to visiting Switzerland is that it has a well-deserved reputation for being expensive; lunch for three at a small cafe would routinely cost us US$150-160).

Hiking down through the Lavaux vineyards

Overall the trip to Lausanne was amazing, and I’d love to go back to explore more of the region. But next time I’d like to visit in the fall, to beat some of the summer heat and enjoy the views when the air isn’t so hazy.

Visiting Hong Kong

I’m visiting Hong Kong for work, and I think the best thing I’ve done so far is the Star Ferry ride from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island at sunset. Ridiculously cheap (something like US$0.25), and great views of both sides of the bay.

Nescafe NES

I’m not a total coffee snob (I think Peets beans are fine), but I do use a coffee grinder and a french press to prepare my daily caffeine intake. We just took 2 week vacation in Europe, and we took advantage of the easily available high-quality espresso. The first place we stayed, in Switzerland, had a Nespresso machine, so we bought some pods for it at the nearby grocery store (despite my vague California guilt about the wastefulness of said pods). The coffee it made was quite good.

The second place we stayed, in Paris, was supposed to have a Nespresso machine, but it was nowhere in evidence (the host claimed it should have been there, so we wonder if a previous guest might have swiped it). Since we didn’t want to have to hit a cafe every morning for our caffeine hit, my wife grabbed some Nescafe NES instant coffee in hopes it would be ok. I generally have a few low opinion of instant coffee (based on prior experience), but I have to confess it was surprisingly good. We actually brought it back to the States with us to finish it up. Not that I’m going to buy more when it’s gone, but if you need coffee and don’t have a better alternative available, it’s a perfectly acceptable solution.

I’m not sure that research is a good idea

I’ve commented before that one of the reasons I left academic research is that I felt it focused too much on novelty and coolness rather than providing actual value. I don’t think most of that research is actively bad; it’s just often pointless (and thus often a waste of resources). But there is some research that may cross over into being actively bad. I personally find it hard to see the redeeming value in research on creating deepfakes.

A :”deepfake” is the result of using AI techniques (generally deep learning) for image, audio, or video synthesis, allowing the creation of fake content that is increasingly indistinguishable from real content. I’m sure the initial academic research was motivated by the challenge: hey, could we take old movie or TV footage and appear to have the actors voice different content? Maybe Hollywood sponsored some of the work as a way to repurpose old content.

But what exactly is the redeeming value of continued research on making it as easy as possible to create deepfakes? What beneficial cases will outweigh the inevitable use for spreading disinformation and fake news? Think internet trolls are bad now? Wait until they can falsify news footage with a few clicks. How well will social discourse fare when a flood of fake content overwhelms real content, and users are unable to easily tell the difference?

While at this point the technology has advanced enough that motivated amateurs will be able to make continued, if incremental, progress on their own, it seems like a fundamentally bad idea for researches to continue to push the state of the “art”. When your house catches on fire, you should probably reconsider whether you want to keep playing with matches. And you really shouldn’t pour gasoline on the blaze.