Final Harvest from Our Garden

Winter is coming- currently it is a very cold fall. Therefore, we headed out to the garden before the forecasted frost to gather what we could from our garden. We also put down some 4mil black plastic to block those nasty spring weeds on the side without bulbs. Our final produce consisted of brocolli, tomatoes, blue potatoes, leeks and a bell pepper. We also gathered nine baby bear pumpkins. Our first pumpkin planting was suppose to yield large edible pumpkins- but either the seeds didn't sprout or something ate them (I rather think it is the latter since we seem to attract mice and nine-striped gophers). So our second planting went in rather late- but the baby bears were very prolific- don't think they are big enough to cut though, perhaps we will paint them?

Posted by Laura @ 9:09 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Which came first, the chicken or the bean?

Tuesday night tradition continued with games tonight. It was Matt A.'s last time before he heads off to live the dream of working in the board game industry, updating the website and producing the next game for North Star Games. We wish him good luck.

Our first game of the evening was Why did the Chicken ...?, a riddle game. You have two nouns, and everyone must make up the answer to a riddle connecting them, such as "Why is a monkey better than a car salesman?" Everyone had a chance to judge, and by then we were exhausted with laughter that we moved to Bohnanza, the bean trading game. We had seven players, and played with wrong rule, such that there were three way trades bogging everything down, but otherwise it was fun and we'll have to pull it out again, if only to see those crazy-looking beans. While we played, we ate grapes and drank some hard cider. Yum! Looking forward to next week.

Posted by Mark @ 9:08 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

The Local African Violet Show

Today we went to the African Violet Show at the Olbrich Gardens. There were three areas for display. The entry area contained sample plants to show off some of the unique qualities of violets. Then there was the diorama area where violets are encorporated in a "Green Bay Packer" theme- very appropriate for such a football dominated state. The last section was the largest consisting of several tables displaying all the entries in the show.

I thought it was really nice that every entry received a ribbon, even if they didn't win. It was also nice to see lots of the plants that I already own displayed in their finest. Of course we couldn't resist the buyers table. I always like to go around one time first to look at all of the possibilities. The second time we pick up our favorites. We picked up some nice new treasures- Mark chose Alps, a pale blue chimara- we were fortunate to pick up a little starter from one of the ladies I see every sale. We also picked up some more starter leaves- since I am having such luck with the soilless mixture, I have more confidence to get some leaves.

After dropping off our special treasures, and grabbing a bit to eat, we headed off to play games at Pegasus. Mark has gone to the Sunday game playing before, but this was my first time. The first game we played was Alhambra. It was a nice visual game where you collect pieces to put in your courtyard garden- after the first couple of rounds watching the people who have played before, you catch on that having long walls is a large part of winning the game. At the end I had a wall of 15 due to good luck and won. Next we played Keythedral, a large part of the game delt with moving the impermanent gameboard. This was quite fustrating since one little bump and all of the pieces shift. An interesting idea, but I would need to play it again before I consider buying it.

Posted by Laura @ 9:06 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Mark's Meals

This weekend Mark cooked his famous dinners. The first mouth-watering joy was chicken parmesan, everytime I eat this one, it is better than the last. Served on a bed of angle hair pasta and topped with marinara and mozzarella- I was in heaven!

After our big feast we watched Mean Girls, another low thought movie, and Kaena, a very well done computer animated movie. I like the idea of such an delicate existance between a civilization and the tree they live in- rather life like. Our last movie was Home on the Range. I was really looking forward to this once- but as with many Disney movies these days- there was not much substance. Somehow I think there could have been much more done with talking cows and horses...

Sunday we made some Marinara sauces from recipies off the net. In the store, it seems really silly to charge so much for tomatoes and spices- so I figured I could make it myself. Actually the first recipe was our favorite (hope to post it to the blog soon). Really all you need to a good olive oil, a bit of sugar (who knew) and ripe tomatoes (with spices to your liking).

Posted by Laura @ 9:04 PM CDT [Permanent URL]


Without Alias this season, Mark and I waited eagerly for Lost - written by the Alias creator J.J. Abrams, we have high expectations. The first episode turned out to be okay. This is definitely an island that I do not want to be stuck on for any length of time. I have always been facinated with survival skills- hey all of our ancestors had to be pretty good at surviving or we wouldn't be here today. With our quick-paced, high technology society, we have lost many of the skills people just a hundred years ago needed. Today you see the panic when electricity goes out for a few hours.

I digress- so I was looking forward to learning some more survival tips, but the first episode was really not about survival but coping with the psychological impact of surviving a tramatic experience. It was interesting to see the doctor handle the situation calmly and create a focus from the chaos. I think that the main point I came across with was- people need a task to stay calm and focused. The doctor gave many of the other survivors small reachable tasks to keep their body occupied while their mind was still trying to grasp with the recent plane wreck. Very interesting, and worth watching next week.

Posted by Laura @ 9:02 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Snacking and Presenting

This afternoon, I gave a CIBM presentation, an hour long talk on my ILP research. It was good to get an overall clarification and put it in perspective, as the goal of these seminars is to explain your research to people not in your field. However, there were not many questions at the end, so it was either over their heads or not really that interesting...

Later that night, it was once again a tuesday night games extravaganza. Laura and I started off with Yinsh, an abstract game for two players. It involves flipping pieces as in Othello, but is deeper in how you can place them and when you can flip. As others showed up, 7 people in total, Keith, Kathleen, Mike, Matt A, Matt L, Laura and I, we played Zendo, an inductive logic game (similar to my research) where players build sculptures and a master tells you if they're good or bad, and your goal is to figure out how they're making discriminations. We followed our playing with pyramids with a four-person Puerto Rico, one of the most popular board games out there, until 1 am. Good games, can't wait to play them again.

Posted by Mark @ 9:01 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Beans and Games

It's the start of another bean week. This week, it will be red beans, black beans, lima beans and Ranch Style beans. I'm starting to get used to beans, and actually like eating some of them. Weird, huh? I never had beans growing up in my family, but they're such a staple with Laura I can't help but try and like them. We'll also be making a big pot of rice in our rice maker, one of the seven wonders of the world, I don't know how we survived without a rice maker before.

Also this afternoon, I headed over to Pegasus Games for the start of their weekly board gaming group. There I met Mike, Todd and Chad, and we pulled out some new games from the shelves and started playing. This looks like a great place to play games we don't own and see some of the new titles coming out. We all had fun working our way through St Pete, Scream Machine and Cloud Nine. Scream Machine was my favorite, building amusement parks and competing for customers. I'll definitely be back here next sunday.

Posted by Mark @ 8:59 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Pay Attention. You may miss something.

This afternoon, we saw Donnie Darko at the East Town Cinema with the Settles. I'd wanted to see it for a long time, had tried to browse the website, but didn't realize it was out on DVD before I saw the director's cut advertised; it was worth the wait to see it on the big screen. The theater was empty except for three other people (something that's happened only twice before to me.

I loved it. The atmosphere of not knowing everything that was going on, but knowing there was some way to understand it made the mysteries come alive, and the portrayal of life in the 80's was similar to Freaks and Geeks in their focus on average people and not the popular crowd. For Laura, there were too many references to the large six-foot scary bunny for the movie to be enjoyable, and we saw bunnies everywhere for the rest of the evening, but we could agree that the soundtrack was very well integrated. We headed over to dinner at Carlos O'Kellys, a great Mexican (not Irish) food spot, for some fajitas and burritos and movie conversation.

Posted by Mark @ 8:57 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Birthday Celebrations

Woke up this morning, and I was older, a whole year older. Not that I mind, I usually can't remember my age, mostly because I don't really care. But Laura does. :) This morning, she went all out and cooked me an omlette for breakfast, with fresh eggs from a farmer friend. It had been a while; we don't eat eggs much because Laura's allergic, so this was a very nice treat. I opened some wonderful presents of books from Laura and her parents, all of which look interesting and I can't wait to read them all, and warm, fuzzy long-sleved shirts from my parents and brother's family, just in time for winter, I plan on wearing at least one a week.

My next surprize was Laura's offer to go play par 3 golf. We headed out to Vitense for a morning round. She was amazing for her first time on the links, and almost beat me. I made a few shots which were keepers, most of them nothing to brag about, and we had a great time just walking around outside and talking, and occasionally hitting a silly little ball towards a flag. Even with taking our time, we did manage to lap the elderly ladies in front of us...

Our next stop was to Pegasus Games. They have a great discount on your birthday, 20% off all purchases, so we picked up many new games for us and our friends, and some for gifts for people (we can't tell who or what). I'll blog more about them as we play them in the weeks to come.

Finally, after work, we headed out for dinner at Lombardino's, a local Italian spot on University avenue. It has good food for only slightly high prices, so it was a treat to say the least. We dived in early for some lightly fried calamari fritti, excellent with both the marinara and butter sauce. For dinner, we chose the eggplant parmesan with spaghettini marinara for Laura and a mushroom-sausage-fontina pizza for Mark. They were very tasty dishes and disappeared rather quickly. A great end to a wonderful birthday.

Posted by Mark @ 8:56 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Gaming with the M's

Tonight for games, it was M's all around. Mark, Mike W., Matt L. and Matt A, along with Laura, were up first for a tense game of Ticket to Ride. Everyone slowly added their trains to make some connections, and soon the crowding took over and cries of "not there!" could be heard across America. I was lucky enough to draw two long routes for 20 points on my first draw, and barely slid to a win past Matt A. and Mike with the 10 point longest route bonus, although everyone was close, and Matt L actually finished all eight tickets he had drawn. This is a game that continues to be a winner, and we hope it might be in our stockings for Christmas this year...

Mike had to run and have dinner, so we next pulled out Pit, a good pick up from the weekend of garage sales. Four players wasn't as exciting as I remembered it from my childhood playing with my family, and we all had too easy of a time figuring out who had the Bull and Bear cards. We played to 250 points, which seemed about right. This game works for a while but slowly becomes monotonous. We'll keep it as a filler and probably only play a few rounds when we bring it out again.

Our final game for the evening was Matt's Entdecker, a game with some similarities to Carcassonne in that you lay tiles in both and claim influence on islands, but with more choice and different mechanics for laying the tiles. It was a fun game, but the night seemed on fast-forward, and we found it to be past midnight quickly. We will have to pull this one out again much earlier in the evening and make a better effort to play quickly. I need to remember, a fast game is a fun game, a fast game is a fun game.

Posted by Mark @ 8:54 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Walking the Right of Way

I was feeling recovered from the trip today, so it was time for a rummage trip. We first stopped at a few local garage sales, where you can always find something cool. It's weird how many things you own that you'll never use, but seem like you need to keep. I always seem to find more, and this time it was games. One spot had a number of old Parker Brother's card games, like Mille Bornes, Waterworks and Pit that caught my eye, and for 50 cents, it was too good to pass up. Laura had more success at some thrift stores of Goodwill and St. Vincent De Paul's, finding some nice tops and and outfits for the fall, and I picked up a few more cheap games, most importantly, Mastermind.

To relax this evening, we picked up The Station Agent. It is a good quiet movie about making friends, learning about others, and how much we're willing to let our friends help us and look past our oddities. We recommend it for both train-lovers and train-haters alike (although we don't know any train-haters...).

Posted by Mark @ 8:50 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Returning Home

Finally, I get to return home and see Laura again! The trip has been an amazing experience, but rather stressful travelling. Last night after the last talks, everyone headed out to have cheese and wine at a local wine house, and then many of us went for dinner at a local specialty restaurant. I was once again happy to have my Portugese translating book, as I discovered one of the items on the menu was "bunny soup." It was very tasty and one of the best meals I had here in Portugal.

As we attempted to check out of the hotel, the language barrier caught up with us again. Frank tried to pay with a credit card, but for some reason things would not go through. I'm not sure if the owner really knew how to use the machine, but after a while, we understood that he wanted us to go to the local ATM. It turns out cash is accepted anywhere. A quick taxi ride to the airport again, and we were ready to go. We stopped in the gift shop on the way out, to pick up some Port wine (too bad they didn't have any of the red table wine we had at lunches and dinner). Porto to Paris was once again a quick flight, and luckily this time were able to make our connecting flight just in time, due to some good planning from the ground transport people. The seat were rather cramped coming back, I think the legroom must have shrunk between when I flew over a few days ago. I saw an interesting movie on the personal video stations about someone winning the lottery twice who seemed to have some system, and there was a mathematician investigating his plans. But as it was in French, I don't expect to be able to see the end of the movie anytime soon. It was the weirdest thing to have sunlight outside the plane for the whole trip home, and even shuttting the windows didn't seem to help kill the illusion.

On through customs, and we were back in Chicago. Only now, we had to find our flight back to Madison, and although our flight was through United, we had to find the US Air terminal in a totally different section of the airport. The most beautiful sight of Laura greeted me when I finally touched down in Madison and headed to the luggage checkout. It seems the luggage monkeys had broken one of my straps, but I didn't care much then because I'd just wrapped up my travels for a while. I now plan to sleep for a few days and then get back into the swing of things.

Posted by Mark @ 8:49 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

ILP 2004 Presentations

Being adjusted to the time zone does not mean you'll get a good night's rest, especially before you have to give a big presentation. Things got started early again with another grand tasty breakfast, and then Frank and I headed out to the conference, it was invigorating to take the 15 minute hike across town. We met up with Irene and Ian in the registration line, and met some other grad students who also had research to present. It seemed like Monday was Wisconsin day, as Irene, Jude, Frank and I all had presentations on our research. I was very nervous, especially since I didn't know anyone there except through reading their paper, and it seemed all the big names were in attendance. I'd been to KDD and ICML before, but this was a much more intimate conference, with everyone on one track and you had their full attention. I made it through the presentation and the question section, and later David Page said it was a very good talk, so the practice and worrying helped after all.

As every day had about the same structure, I'll describe them all here in one broad overview. Before the first talks in the morning, there was a poster session with bagels and food, which I only discovered on day 3 (I kept on wondering where everyone went during the breaks until I followed Irene once, she always knows where to go). The morning was usually opened with an invited speaker talk, somehow relating ILP to another field, such as software engineering, systems biology or in Jude's case our information extraction task. They usually generated a fair bit of discussion from the crowd. Everyone was working on some interesting research, much more related to my interests than that of KDD or even ICML, I always feel like there's way too much specialization there, but with ILP the task is still broad enough that everyone can participate with new ideas. A few more morning talks, and then we would break for lunch. We headed over to another building for some good traditional Portugal dishes, either sausage and rice, or the special brine-soaked Cod which is their specialty, as well as some table wine to drink. Lunches were a good time to get to know the other grad students like Mark and Tolga to see how things were in their department, most of them did not have professors working on ILP, this was a side project they had published but not integral to their research. Lunch was followed by more presentations, each about 25 minutes with 5 minutes of questions, and they never felt rushed. One more break, where I could usually get away to email Laura in the local computer lab, and back to a few more talks before heading out for the evening activity. Although not all the talks were related, some were much more theoretical than I can understand, it was definitely a good learning experience and a conference I want to attend again.

Part of conferences I hadn't experienced before was the group sight-seeing opportunities, and the ILP community were like old friends on a family vacation. The first night we went on a boat tour up and down the river, which was very scenic and a different viewpoint on the local architecture than when on shore. It is amazing how close the buildings can be, three or four stories high. There were blue tiles everywhere, on large famous buildings and private residences, and I asked Irene to pick up some for us while she and Ian toured the rest of Europe on their honeymoon vacation, since they had more time to sightsee after the conference. Having friends with me was very cool, and meeting new friends made things fun too.

Our other joint sightseeing trip was first to a far away small village, travelled to by bus as usual, where we first toured the site of a monastary, and then wandered through the historic village. It was a little sureal seeing 50 computer scientists wandering around, we seemed a bit out of place making progress in herds along the ancient cobblestones. Eventually we found the bus again, which took us to the adjacent hilltop and a fabulous restaurant, where we had once again the famous Portugal breaded and salted cod. It was still tasty this time around, but I don't think I'll have cod again soon. It was hard to be outgoing for such a long time, always around people, it's not my natural personality, but sometimes it's worth it to be social.

Posted by Mark @ 8:48 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Wicking The Plants

The day Mark left for Portugal I went around town gathering tools for wicking my plants. At Wal-Mart I found inexpensive saucers for putting under plants- circular were much stronger than ones with flat edges. I found Perlite and peat moss at home depot (the vermiculite was at ).

This turned out to be a great project to keep me busy while Mark was gone overseas. I worked for four days to plant new baby plants, repot older plants into the new soiless mixture. For dull background noise I rented some iritatingly boring movies- I knew that Mark wouldn't want to watch them and at least they were entertaining.

The mix was straight forward- two parts peat moss, one part vermiculite and one part perlite. This was a recipe from my african violet book. I put my plants in solo cups when they are small (3 oz), with one to two holes in the bottom. Using an old skewer I poked a 4 inch length of nylon (not cotton due to rotting) string into the bottom of each pot. First step done!

Next was setting up the water holders. After playing with some different methods I chose to arrange two pot bottoms under plastic needlework from the craft store. The holes in the needlework were large, but I cut out eight to ten evenly spaced holes to ensure I could get the wicks through to the water. My next issue was making sure that the needlework plastic didn't bow under the weight of the plants. So I cut down some solo cups and spaced them (about 4 for a 10inch diameter pot bottom) under the needlework plastic.

Now I just added the plants. I really like this method. I plan to fertilize about every other week- otherwise the plants will not get any nutrition. Definately makes my life easier and my plants more enjoyable.

Posted by Laura @ 8:47 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Traveling to Porto, Portugal

Today I travelled overseas for the first time, all the way to Portugal. It's a trip for my research, to present a paper at the ILP 2004 conference. Luckily, I was able to arrange my flight times with Frank DiMaio, another AI grad student and all-around cool guy, also with a paper at ILP, so we'll have someone else to help us through the tangle of international travel. It was a three-legged journey, first to Chicago, then to Paris, and finally to Porto, a good day of travelling. We'd heard advice that you should stay up at all cost to better adjust to the time scale, so we were prepared with books and music to keep us going all day.

The flight to Chicago was rather uneventful, and then the flight to Paris was on a huge jet, two aisles, and our own personal video station to watch movies, TV shows, whatever you need to keep you going. Frank and I played some card games and paper/pencil games, such as Dots and Boxes as well as my prototype of Gene Pool. We ate dinner on the plane, and then the lights were turned off so everyone could sleep. A few hours later, it was time for a French breakfast, with pastries and weird-tasting yogurt. By the time we arrived in Paris, the sun was just rising, and we had to quickly try to make our joining flight to Porto. However, the passport customs had other ideas, and heavy traffic delayed us enough to push us to the next flight. We stood in line for a while at one ticket counter waiting to be rebooked, and after about 45 minutes the person who was in front of us and had left came back to tell us there was another counter down the hall that was free, so we scooted over and got everything taken care of early. We had breakfast in the airport cafe and I saw my first taste of european sandwiches, which for some reason taste so much better than American subs (except for Big Mikes of course). Still going on the no sleep idea, we boarded our plane to Portugal and struggled to keep our brains active, and only conked out for about half an hour. While Paris still seemed like we had a touch of English to carry us through, Porto was a very foreign place. It was good that we had our hotel written down, and our cab driver was a speed-demon driving through the streets with abandon, until we finished at our hotel. I'd converted some money into Euros at the AmEx counter with my travelers checks, so I paid for the cab and tipped probably too generously, beceause he was very insistant we take his card for later. Now it was about noon, and we still had no sleep, but we had found our european home for the weekend.

Our hotel was an interesting experience in itself. Even though things had all been arranged through the ILP conference, and we knew many other grad-students would be staying here as well, it was surprizing to me that the hotel staff spoke no English at all. After a bit of miscommunication, we learned where we would be staying and were introduced to the custom of leaving the key at the desk when we headed out. How they would recognize us I'll never know, but it worked. We headed downstairs to our room, which turned out to be in the basement with no windows and only one door, they must have a different firecode, especially since the buildings were all packed in close next to one another. We were starting to get exhausted, but we still had to keep moving until abotu 6 or 7, that was our goal. The conference started in two days and I wanted to be adjusted to the time change by then, because my talk was on the first day. Frank and I headed out to find the conference center, a nice 15 minute walk from the hotel, down a couple side streets, up and over a major highway, and around the back to the FEUP engineering university. The place was barren when we arrived, it was a Saturday, but still it seemed so empty, almost crypt-like. And since all the buildings were rectangular and granite I felt like we were in the future past a nuclear fallout time. But enough doomsday images, it was time to find some dinner and a phone-card so I could call Laura and let her know everything went fine. I wish she could have come over with me, we'll make sure to get that taken care of for next trip. We found a small cafe that served sandwiches and ate some dinner, and then headed back to the hotel for some phone conversation and then finally off to sleep.

The next morning I woke up to my alarm clock, but no sunlight, as we were sleeping in the basement. Even though it was about 8 am local time, we could not tell, and this might have been the soundest sleep I've had in a long time. There was still one day until the conference began, and my advisor Jude had arrived in the afternoon yesterday, so today's plan was to do some sightseeing around Porto. We were persuaded by the hotel owner that we should come into the kitchen, where she prepared us our breakfast, and what a breakfast it was, with hard rolls, fresh sliced ham and cheese, and orange juice and water. Frank learned how to ask for Coffee, his morning lifeblood, without milk, thanks to my trusty Portugese handbook. Portugese was close to Spanish, but not quite, as we said Obregado for Thank You for the wonderful breakfast. It turned out it was about a 1 hour hike to find Jude's hotel, much more central to downtown than our accomodations, with a breakfast buffet, front desk with people speaking English, elevators, the works. We sat with him eating breakfast for a bit, as he was still off from the time change, and then headed out to explore the city.

As I had the map, we all sort of wandered around a bit in the general direction of the riverfront, past a large garden area to a great view of the river down below. I tried to head us up toward the largest tower according to the guidebook, but we ended up heading further downhill. There were many narrow sidestreets, only passable by the tiny cars they have over here, I didn't see an SUV once on our whole trip, even on the highways in the taxi. It was in one of these streets that I stepped in dog poo, a common sidewalk pitfall over here, and it was a while until I found an open spot of grass to clean things off. On our travels, we stopped by a law library, across from a large statue of Portugal's famous Henry the Navigator. I also learned that europeans never wear shorts, even in summer, so I was a little conspicuous as the American tourist, but I didn't care, I was having fun. Jude had seen signs of a tour bus, and from his experience, these were the best ways to sightsee in a new town, as they took you to all the hotspots around town. Unfortunately there were less people able to speak English, so finding the bus stops was a bit of a puzzle. We headed over to the most tourist spot, across the river to the Port Wine locations, and while we did not see the bus, we did find a great spot for lunch, which served rice Paella with chicken and fish. Frank was adventurous and tried the black squid ink variety. On a full stomach, we headed out once again to find the tour bus, and after a few stops at unhelpful tourist locations, we eventually flagged down the bus at the wrong stop.

Finally on the tour bus, we manged to see a very large cathedral, with many relics and beautiful blue-painted tiles, one of the themes of Porto it seemed, and took the tour bus around on two circuts around the city. I don't know if it was her accent, but our tour guide reading the announcements of the sights through the microphone sounded very bored with her job, every sentence ended on a down note without so much as an expression. Frank and I headed out for the hotel on the last circut. We managed to find a diner that was open that night, which tried to serve sandwiches as if from New Orleans, so we picked up some Po' Boys and headed back to try and sleep before the first day of the conference tomorrow.

Posted by Mark @ 8:46 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Hoofers Riding Club Kickoff

Ever since I started college, I have missed horseback riding. I had to give it up when I couldn't balence it with my studies in undergrad (and the costs of riding and college were a bit much). For the four years that I have been in Wisconsin I have heard about the Hoofers Riding Club, but have never gone to one of their meetings until today. There were many more people interested and involved than I ever thought and it does more than I thought it did with talks about different aspects of riding and horse care. I hope to be able to attend some of their talks this sesson, but after the qual hopefully I can work in a lesson or two. They have a great program to let you work back some of the money you put into the payments which should make the fees more affordable. It looks to be a definate possiblility in the near future!!

Posted by Laura @ 10:22 PM CDT [Permanent URL]