The Rib Fest took place at Heinz Field this weekend, and in addition to Ribs there were also free concerts. A good reason for Guido and me to check this out ;). The Rib Fest was very special, there were half a dozen booths selling ribs and all of them were decorated with the various awards this group has won so far! But I have to admit, the ribs were indeed very good! (Guido agrees ^^)
Since we were there on Friday, we got to see concerts by Tres Lads and The Clarks, Pittsburgh's famous rock group. Tres Lads played mostly 80s rock cover songs and The Clarks played easy-listening rock. All in all an entertaining evening, but not worth running to the next CD store ;).
Saturday I joined the CMU Gaming Club for another round of new games. This time the turnout was much higher and we got started playing straight away. I played - Coloretto: a bluff card game where you have to try to collect cards of the same color, but you'll only get bonus points from those three colors of which you have the most cards. Easy to learn, fast to play, fun! - Catan Dice Game: A mixture between Settlers of Catan and Yahtzee. A fair mixture of luck and planning ahead are required, but it's fast to play and easy to take along, so that's a plus there :). - Bohnanza: A card game where the players have to plant beans and trade with other players to maximize their profit. I've played this game many times back home and it's great fun every time :) - Poison: A card game where you have to try to either take no potion cards or as many as possible of one color, but beware, there are poisons around and they always count against you. Another fast and fun game with lots of tactical deliberations. - Mü & more: A complex trick tacking card game which I didn't get to play for long, because I had other obligations, but it looked pretty intriguing.
I left the CMU Gaming Club early, because Guido invited me to a Pirates Baseball Game. It was quite a lot of fun especially the Mexican Wave, but I'll let Guido write about this adventure.
Yesterday I had my first "real" class, i.e. a class which is lecture based and visited by students from various programs. The class is called "Social Web: Content, Communities and Context" and analyses how social online communities function, what works and what fails in these environments and the social implications of spending part of ones live online. One of the homework assignments will be playing World of Warcraft ;).
Because all day studying and learning leads to an unbalanced live, I decided to join the Western African Dance class. The session lasted 75 minutes and was a lot of fun, very exhausting and extremely painful for the feet (I had huge blisters afterwards), but after a couple of times my feet will surely get used to this torture ^^.
This morning my final new class started. "The Law of Computer Technology" looks at the US judicial system and analyzes computer related topics such as copyright infringement, patents and much more. Definitely a more "serious" class, but certainly very interesting.
That's it for the moment. Gotta go home and check if the gas (for cooking) is finally running...
Today was my first day of School! We started at 8am with a 2.5 hour Kick-Off Session for our first task (that's 2.5 hours without breaks, guys!!!). Afterwards we tried to get our team organized and start figuring out what to do. In the afternoon the (Wireless) Network started to behave strangely, we regularly lost connection to the Net (even though the radio connection was still strong). Apparently there were some problems in the main network with power outages throughout the morning (fortunately not in our buildings). So, it was the first day of School and almost nothing was working, a good sign? ;) Anyways, I'm just wrapping up for tonight and wanted to give a quick sign of life before I get completely buried in work...
Browsing through Carnegie Mellon’s Student Organizations I noticed an interesting entry, the CMU Gaming Club.
After a short e-mail exchange I got the heads-up to join them this Saturday, which I promptly did. The meeting started at 1.00pm and once enough people were here the games started. Throughout the night I played the following games: - "Hey! That’s my Fish!" a fun and fast game where the player controls two penguins to collect as many fish as possible. - "Power Grid" a game where the players have to take control of power plants (through bidding for them during an auction) and cities. The game was stalled for several rounds but after the stalemate was cleared it then ended very fast. I missed my opportunity to expand my power plant network and thus didn’t have a chance to win. Nevertheless it was very interesting. - "Agricola" a very interesting and challenging Strategy game where the players have to maintain and extend a piece of land by buying houses, plowing and sowing fields and raising cattle. There are dozens of different strategies which can be used and the game has so many different cards that no two rounds will ever be the same. Very cool :) - "Arkham Horror" (including Dunwich Horror Expansion) a game based on the Cthulhu mythos where the players try in co-op mode to prevent the Great Old Ones from awakening. The hardest part of the game was setting it up, because there were so many different cards and tokens, but the playing itself went very smoothly. We had a pretty good game (no major catastrophes occurred) and managed to win within three hours.
- "Race to the Galaxy" another Strategy game, this time centered on the expansion into space. This game was much more complex and after playing it once I still didn’t quite get it what strategy should be employed. But apparently it is the In-Game of the moment because there were four copies around ;) - "Tichu" a Chinese card game which resembles a bit the Swiss-German card game "Arschlöchle" but offers more possibilities and has more cards. It took a while for me to get into the game, especially because my partner and I had exceptionally bad hands for the most part of the game. Nevertheless we managed to turn luck around and won with a One-Two/Tichu. A challenging and cool game which doesn’t take too long to explain and can be taken everywhere.
The evening ended at 1.15am and I’m sure I’ll join them again, especially because their arsenal of games consists of dozens of games I’ve never heard of!
After exiting the cinema after seeing Tropic Thunder last Friday, we were handed an invitation for a pre-screening of The Great Buck Howard. Since I've never been part of such an event in Switzerland I definitely had to check it out.
So Guido and I returned to the Loew Waterfront cinema yesterday to see what would happen. When we arrived there was already a queue of about 40 people, but we saw that the cinema was big enough to seat even more people. The first thing we had to do was disclose our age, so that they could get an overview about the demographics of the audience. Next people were being let into the cinema and assigned seats. Just when we were about to enter the line was stopped to allow the others find their seats. When the facilitator returned he asked us if we would mind assisting him for a couple of minutes, in exchange he promised us prime seats. We were very intrigued and of course agreed immediately.
We (Guido, I and 10 other people) were then led to a saloon room on the second floor where we could give feedback on six different possibilities for the movie poster. This session was very interesting and it was amazing to see the different concepts. At the end we were almost unanimous about which poster we liked best.
Then we could take our seats in the front row of the dais. The Great Buck Howard is the story of the Great Buck Howard, a mentalist/magician who has been on the road for decades but has recently lost the link to the new generation, and Troy Gabel, a would be writer who gave up law-school and now works as Buck's road manager to earn his keep. The opening of the movie is very cool, with different texts appearing next to people on screen, but did remind me of the Bedazzled remake with Liz Hurley. After the funny start movie slows down a bit to introduce the main characters and Buck's show. On the road Troy soon discovers that Buck has a better image of himself than anyone around him and so he plays half empty theaters in the middle of nowhere as if they were packed houses in a big city. But then they get to Cincinnati and everything changes.
The Great Buck Howard is a very entertaining movie. Even though it is labeled as a Comedy, the human drama and interaction is more important and laugh-out loud moments are rare. The ending is a bit abrupt, because even the story of Buck Howard is well rounded, many questions are left unanswered regarding the fate of Troy Gabel. This and the fact that the movie dragged a bit in places lead to me rating this movie 4/5.
We didn't get to see the end credits, because as soon as the movie was over the light came on and we were handed a feedback form, which wanted our detailed impression on the movie. After completing the form most people could leave the cinema. We were asked to remain behind for a more in-depth feedback round. During the next 20 minutes we discussed the movie and its implications. At the end of the session we were again presented with the six posters we already saw at the beginning. Interestingly, the poster we initially selected was no longer our favorite, instead we picked another one which we thought more fitting to the movie.
All in all it was a very interesting evening and I was glad I took the chance to see this movie (and this pre-screening process) :)
On Saturday it was finally the time for me to move into my own apartment. After the road trip and staying at Guido's place for a week it felt good to get some privacy and the feeling of belonging somewhere back.
But first there was some work to do. The landlord wanted the money for the rent for the first and last two months as well as the security deposit up front and in cash. No problem thought I, after all I have a debit card. But after failing at two ATMs to get more than 100 US$ (total, not each), I was a little bit stranded. Fortunately, I could use the internet and discovered a branch of my bank which was open on Saturday, unfortunately, it was located in South Side.
1.5 hours late I could finally meet my future landlord, give him the money and start signing all the papers. This took another hour, my landlord is 84 and can't be rushed ;).
Now I had the keys to the apartment in hand and the real work started: Cleaning up! It is hard to imagine how the previous tenant managed to life in this place, there was dirt all over the floor, a 5mm dust layer on the top shelf and on the curtains, spilled goods in the fridge and hair all over the place... Fortunately, Guido agreed to help me and so we got started. After three hours of cleaning we went to the laundry to wash our clothes as well as all the sheets and curtains which we collected from our apartments. This took another three hours!
Since I was running around all day, I didn't have time to eat yet and so we ordered a Pizza from Pizza Hut, which is just around the corner from our place. After another couple of hours of cleaning we thought we deserved a rest and went out for a couple of beers :).
On Sunday I continued cleaning all day. However, around lunchtime we decided to go to Waterfront once more to buy a couple of things which were still missing. This time we stopped for lunch at PF Changs at Waterfront, a fantastic Chinese restaurant. We ended up buying so much stuff that we had to take a cab back.
When I went to bed around 11pm, the place was clean, my stuff stored in the right places and I finally had the feeling of becoming settled.
Pictures of my apartment (both before and after cleaning) can be found on my picasa web gallery.
On Friday we had a day off so we decided to finally catch a Campus Tour to see more of the buildings and get some additional background info. The tour was very informative and we discovered a couple of fun facts.
For example: The Fence which stands in the middle of the University used to belong to a bridge and was originally a famous meeting point for boys and girls, who were back then in separate areas of the campus. Later the ravine was filled and The Fence became the public bulletin board. However, messages can only be posted between midnight and 4am and in the process the whole Fence has to be painted by hand with paintbrushes. If The Fence isn't guarded it becomes available for anyone to paint a new message once midnight comes. Apparently students regularly camp out to keep their message up :)
To make shopping easier for students CMU offered a shuttle bus service to Waterfront all day on Friday. Even though we had already purchased the most things we took advantage of this shuttle to catch a Movie at AMC Loews Waterfront. The movie we picked was Tropic Thunder a comedy about the making of a war movie. It being the opening weekend it was shown in one of the biggest screens of this cinema featuring 568 seats and a very big screen ^^. The movie opens with fake trailers and advertisements featuring the stars of the war movie and so we see Ben Stiller as an action hero, Jack Black in a version of Nutty Professor and Robert Downey Jr. as gay monk in the middle ages. These trailers alone were worth the admittance and it got better after that. I don't want to spoil too much so I'll just say that this movie is a must-see for everyone who likes a good laugh and can stomach large amounts of blood (it is a war-movie-parody after all) :)
International and Graduate Student Orientation @ CMU
Last week featured my first official day at CMU. On Tuesday, 12th of August the International Graduate Student Orientation took place. Next to an overflow of information about CMU and living in Pittsburgh, we also received information about our Immigration status and how our Visa affects our stay in the US. In the afternoon we then had the opportunity to complete the registration process with the OIE (Office for International Education) which validated our Visas. Now we are allowed to travel outside of the US and return again :).
The next couple of days the information overload continued with sessions directed at all Graduate Students we learned everything we need to know to get around CMU :).
The next two days (Sunday and Monday) I spent at Cedar Point. At first I was shocked by the amount of people who were there and the length of the queues, but I soon discovered that the park was big enough and the queues were only bad for the most famous rides. The longest I had to wait was about 1.5 hours. Nevertheless, by the end of the first day I had been on all the mayor rides and many of the older ones as well.
The second day I focused on the high-thrill rides and so I went straight to Maverick the newest and wildest roller coaster. After a short detour to the Mantis, I queued for the Millennium Force, the longest roller coaster in the park. But just when I was at the head of the queue it broke down and so we had to wait for 30 minutes till the problem was fixed and it ran again. On the plus side, I then had second row placing and that was extremely exciting! Back I went to the Maverick where I managed to get first row seating, which was another thrill :) Then I went over to the Top Thrill Dragster, a roller coaster which accelerates to 120 mph and then goes 240 feet straight up and down again. There I got first row seating as well and that was just indescribable! After visiting some of the smaller rides I hadn’t done the day before, I visited the Raptor for a couple of rides. By nine pm I was thoroughly tired but extremely pleased with my decision to come here. The only thing that separated me then from bed was the 3.5 hours drive back to Pittsburgh... which was quite uneventful.
A helpful hint if you visit an amusement park alone: Bring a book along and wear cargo pants in which you can store said book. This was invaluable to me and made the hours I spent queuing bearable.
Being on a road trip I wanted to see some things on my way back, so I studied the Lonely Planet. Unfortunately, there weren’t too many interesting things on the way, but then I noticed a mention of a Six Flags Amusement Park located 25 miles South of Cleveland. Granted this was not directly on my way, but I had time after all.
First came some local sightseeing and so I stopped in Downtown St. Louis and took the tram to the top of the Arch where I had a stunning view of St. Louis and its surroundings.
A couple of miles outside of St. Louis were the Cahokia Mounds, a UNESCO World Heritage site, containing huge mounds which remained from the largest Prehistoric Indian community in America north of Mexico. Another interesting sight there was Woodhenge, a circle of wooden poles rebuilt according to excavations that were done at this place.
Besides a couple of small bio-breaks I then drove straight on to Aurora. By the time I arrived there it was dark and raining heavily. Without a map and no sign of the park, I was slowly getting worried about being in the wrong place so I stopped at a gas station to buy a map and ask for directions. When the guy at the cashier’s desk told me that Six Flags has closed a year ago, I was quite thunderstruck, he then recommended me to drive to Sandusky instead and visit Cedar Point which would be a much better amusement park anyways and it would be only about a two hour drive… After driving for almost 10 hours I wasn’t too concerned about driving further, so I got in my car and continued my trip.
And indeed after about two hours I finally arrived at Cedar Point. I drove all the way up to the park to make sure I was in the right place. Of course it was closed and I then had to backtrack to find a place to sleep, because as I found out, it being weekend before school started it was a very busy time and many hotels and motels were already fully booked. Fortunately I found a moderately cheap place which wasn’t too far away 20 minutes later. After driving 1’125 kilometers in 17 hours I was very glad to get into a bed :)
After missing "Weird Al" Yankovic's concert in New York last year, I was extremely eager to go to one of his gigs this time round. However, the closest he was about to come to Pittsburgh, within the next couple of months, was St. Louis which is slightly more than 1'000 kilometers away. Since air travel on such short notice was quite expensive (about 1'000 US$ for a return ticket) I rented a car and undertook an American Road Trip.
The first day I left Pittsburgh in the evening and drove till I got too tired to continue, which was in the middle of Ohio. Just when I was about to turn into a motel driveway the cars control panel made a beeping sound, I didn't know what was going on so I drove on for a couple of minutes. When I got out of the car I heard a loud hissing noise and knew immediately that one of the tires was going flat...
The next morning I called roadside assistance from my rental agency and they sent AAA to exchange the tire. That went pretty smoothly. When I started the car the beeping sound came again and I discovered that it warned me of low air pressure in one of the tires. This time round the warning occurred because the spare tire was smaller and the system got confused. So there was nothing to do for me but to drive on.
In Illinois I made a short detour to visit Vandalia, one of Illinois' early capitals. Once in St. Louis I had some time to kill so I looked for and found a car service garage which put switched my spare tire with a real one, now the car was ready for the drive back.
Then it was finally time to go to the Family Arena where "Weird Al" would play his gig. And what a gig it turned out to be. During 2.5 hours he played a fantastic sets featuring his newest hits along with several old favorites, some of which he combined into funny medleys. A big part of the show were the costumes, "Weird Al" and his band regularly changed their clothes to fit the music. During these intermissions short episodes of interviews "Weird Al" prepared for MTV and appearances in famous cartoons were shown, these were hilarious. The two most memorable moments of the show for me were when "Weird Al" was stripping during the performance of "You're Pitiful" and in the end was standing on stage in a Spongebob Squarepants t-shirt, a pink tutu and boxershorts with hearts on them! The other thing was during the encore when he sang "We all have cellphones" and everyone waved their cellphone in the air! (After all pocket lighters are so passé ;) )
In short seeing "Weird Al" Yankovic live was worth every kilometer I had to drive ^^
Today we spent the (most of) the day at Waterfront, a shopping / movie complex in the south-east of Pittsburgh.
With 22 screens it boasts the biggest movie theater I've ever been in, and with movies for 5$ throughout the week, it offers the best deal I've ever seen.
First we went to see Wanted, an extremely cool action movie featuring Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. With 100 seats we were in one of the "smallest" screens, but the size of the screen itself was decent and bigger than many screens in Swiss cinemas. By the way, the layout of the screen was the same as at SouthSide Works. Slowly I begin to wonder if there is only one patented layout for big movie theatre screens...
After shopping for three hours we returned to the movies to catch Wall-E, the newest animated film from Pixar, a very cute and entertaining comedy. Which is preceded by a hilarious short-film!
We dedicated the first day to get things organized and so we moved from the hotel to the student dormitory, where we can stay till August, 10th, we got our student id cards made, looked at a first apartment and spoke to our program representatives.
In the evening we wanted to relax in a cinema. Since Wall-E was only showing in the afternoon we picked Wanted as our alternate movie. Unfortunately we got at bit confused about the location of the cinema and we ended on the wrong side of town, but with asking around we did find another cinema. However, Wanted wasn't shown there so we picked The Dark Knight as our altenate alternate program :)
The cinema was called South Side Works, a multiplex with ten screens which reminded me strongly of the cinema in Boulder, Colorado (it had the exact same layout and infrastructure!). It was the fourth screening of the day and the floor looked accordingly.
The Dark Knight was a very cool movie with lots of unexpected twists and surprises. Even though the film lasts two hours and twenty minutes it was interesting throughout.
Since the movie started at 9.40pm we left the cinema at 12.20am, which was way after our last bus was supposed to run. We still tried our luck at the bust stop and even though we saw buses going in the other direction none came to pick us up. In the end we had to grab a cab to avoid walking home.
Even though we didn't end up where we wanted to go, it was an interesting evening which brought us closer to getting to know the city :)
Yesterday morning 10.20am we, Guido and I boarded our plane to the US after a long goodbye from our friends who were kind enough to see us off at the airport.
The in-flight entertainment was kind of a let down. There were supposed to be 10 different channels, unfortunately not on-demand, however, of these 10 channels only 5 were operating... In the end I saw "Over her dead body" and "Run Fatboy Run" two amusing (romantic) comedies.
We arrived in Newark (New Jersey) at 1.20pm (EST, that's -6 hours from Switzerland) and proceeded directly to immigration. The whole immigration process was a breeze, the queue was very short and after 20 minutes we were already officially in the US. The first thing we saw when we came out of customs control, was a local school band playing in the entrance hall of the airport :). Next we transferred to another terminal to see where our plane would leave. There we had to go through another Security Check, which for a change did have a long queue, but since we had more than ample time the 30 minutes wait were no big problem.
To kill the time, it was now 2.15pm and our plane should leave at 6pm, we picked a food corner at random. There Guido met friends from Rapperswil and so we chatted for awhile and then even played a short "Schieber", a Swiss card game.
Then the waiting game really started, because we noticed that the plane to Pittsburgh which should have left at 3pm was still waiting at the gate at 5pm... Fortunately, we didn't have to wait "that" long. At 6.30pm we could board, but then had to wait for another 50 minutes in the plane (at the gate and on the taxi-way, there were 30 planes in the queue in front of us, after all) till we could lift off. There were a couple of disquieting moments, because the announcements from the captain didn't come through all too clear, with the background noise and everything. But I was quite sure I heard something in the like of "They lost all your checked luggage, but could retrieve it again and will bring it to the aircraft shortly". Yet we were towed away from the gate a mere couple of minutes later! Anyways, after an uneventful flight we landed in Pittsburgh at 9 pm and all our luggage arrived in one piece, expect for Guido's but he can tell his own story.
Leaving the airport we found a cab which brought us downtown to the hotel which was arranged by Guido's program. After dropping everything in the room we went out to grab a beer and celebrate our arrival. After looking around for a while we found a pub frequented by students.
At 11.45pm, thats 24 hours after I got up in Switzerland, we finally fell asleep.