Cleaning the Shore; Music in the Air

Over the course of the last months I’ve been diligently working to get my work completed enough for testing at the end of my stint with the Centre for Biorobotics. This has left only a touch of time between a flurry of visitors to continue on some of my more independent adventuring.

Two such small events were volunteering with my colleagues on a shoreline clean-up day, and going to a night of music as part of Tallinn Music Week.

How Can Humans Make Such a Mess…

As one can imagine, during the occupation of Estonia the shore was essentially “off-limits” to non-military personnel. In those years, a number of now derelict temporary buildings were erected, trash accumulated in lieu of more formal means of disposal, and more dangerous (read: shells, bombs, explosives, chemicals) were merely buried and forgotten. Now that water recreation, sport, and shore activities have started regaining popularity, it is essential that these spaces are cleaned from prior mistreatment – but also kept clean from litter that humans just can’t seem to help but leave behind.

We went to Suurupi Beach, which is along the Northwest coast of the country, to conduct our scouring of the lightly forested area and granite beaches. It’s pretty amazing how many bottles, shoes, cottage cheese containers (don’t ask us), and the like gather.

PSA folks: please clean-up after yourself after a nice day outside. I shouldn’t need to explain that plastic’s lifespan on a biodegradation timescale is astronomical, that animals end up mistaking plastic things for their food all the time, and that it’s simply gross to leave your waste around (when was the last time you enjoyed the sight of a garbage dump after all?).

We ended up filling a trailer with found waste (check it out on the lab’s facebook page) – most of it recyclable plastic, glass, and metal – and still left feeling that only a small impact had been made. These shore cleaning days are certainly necessary – but we shouldn’t need a special day of the week/month/year to take a little time to fix our collective mess. It was interesting to discuss these points with my colleagues as we cleaned, and then later walked along the shore at Suurupi.

…And Also Make Such Beauty?

On the polar opposite of adventures, I went out with a friend to a night in Telleskivi (you might remember this is where I went to see the orchestra play and was wowed by the street art/hipsterness of it) as part of the Tallinn Music Week Festival. We attended the “Viljandi Folk Festival” night, and enjoyed folk, indie, rock, contemporary, avant garde, and traditional music from a variety of Estonian, Polish, Russian, and Cape Verdean artists. You can check out the line-up here (and definitely take a listen!).

In what feels like an impossibly distant “past life” I enjoyed playing the piano with regularity – it seems like every time I go to a musical event now I pine for the keys…

I was floored by the variety – from single artists using loop pedals and digital effects to layer their sound into full choruses or orchestras, to straight-from-a-history-book group playing, to modern twists on classic national/ethnic tunes. Music interpretation and composition truly illustrates the complexity and vastness of human creativity. It really does feel unlimited.

 

It is difficult then to understand how humans can be capable of two such different actions: careless disregard for natural beauty, and careful interpretation of sound/narrative into beauty. Can these things be held in the same mind? How? What influences this discord, this dissonance? Can we ever know?

March: Month of Visiting!

In March I had two visits from two of my best friends: Chris and Bill. Bill had been here before (he came in November last year), but for Chris it was a whole new ballgame.

I feel super fortunate to have friends who have been able to visit me, or I’ve been able to visit them while abroad. And I have loved having visitors – for me, it is a chance to show people I care about a place I care about, and see both of them with fresh eyes.

Chris and I visited the Bastion Tunnels, The Seaplane Harbor, the KGB Museum, and the Tallinn TV Tower. Let alone walking around Kadriorg and various monuments in Pirita. All of which I HIGHLY recommend to any intrepid reader interested in visiting Tallinn.

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At the Seaplane Harbor.

Bill’s visit was overall pretty low-key, but we did manage to get out to Narva, which is on the Estonia-Russia border to the Northeast of Estonia.

Narva was, essentially, destroyed during the world wars and subsequent occupation. The current city of Narva, in pictures, looks nothing like the historic city of old – many of the streets were so wiped away that these were not even preserved. The feeling of the city is certainly different from that of Tallinn – the demographics are different (mostly Russian speaking for instance), the history is different, and the tension/relationship with Russia is much clearer.

There we visited what remains of the old castle/fortress of Narva, which is located across the river (which serves as the Estonia-Russia border) to Ivangorod’s (Russia’s) own fort. Talk about posturing!

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Bill helpfully pointing at where the Narva Castle/Fortress is.

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Estonia: left, Russia: right. The fortresses are indeed that close to one another. And we are indeed standing very close to Russia in this picture.

The promenade along the river in Narva has been heavily renovated to include swank restaurants, restored bastion walls, and art installations. A walkway of European Union membership is also features….directly facing Russia (remember, Estonia was Russia not so long ago…a pretty bold statement, don’t you think?).

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Estonia became a member of the EU in 2004. Across the river is Russia.

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Art along the river.

While much of Narva was relatively new construction, a few buildings managed to survive, including several churches.

With both Chris and Bill I got to visit some of my previous haunts (like the seaplane harbor, or the Olympic grounds in Pirita), and enjoy new experiences (Narva, KGB museum, the tunnels).

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Olympic grounds in Pirita. Visited with Bill.

Despite living here now for 8 months, it is so clear I’ve only scratched the surface of what the place can offer – and as I predicted in a blog post so very long ago, I found myself complacent to just consider this place “home” and stop actively being a “tourist”. I’m grateful to my guests for getting me out to experience even more before I make my way back home, and reminding me that there is something awe-some in the everyday.

Working Abroad of Living Abroad II

At the end of February (it’s May now, can you believe it?) I traveled for a short work trip to La Spezia, Italy.

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Thanks “World Easy Guides” for the handy reference!

About 1.5 years prior I had the opportunity to travel to Genoa, Italy (to the left in the image) for a conference with my lab group (Olin Intelligent Vehicles Laboratory) which, funnily enough, introduced me to the European Commission project which led me to my current work in Estonia. It’s a small world!

In La Spezia I merely worked on helping out with the software aspect of a demonstration of the work we had completed in Scotland oh so many moons ago. Given that we were working at a major NATO research facility, I’m afraid I have no pictures of the work. The city however…

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Like many Italian Mediterranean cities, buildings, ruins, and streets are perched upon a hill or cliff which gracefully meets the water below. La Spezia is no different.

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That parking though.

La Spezia is a major industrial port along this coast of Italy. Evidence of this was pretty clear along the majority of the port, however, a small fishing and leisure port was also evident and was located quite near the “Old Town” or historic district of the city.

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Something about these behemoths looks a little dystopian…

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A bridge to nowhere in the leisure port.

Despite being there for work, it was a relief to again feel a little warmth and sunshine.

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Winter Break: Exploring Southern Estonia

I’ve been incredibly busy since I last wrote; this is just a brief recount of a February adventure (can you believe it is already April? Crazy).

Since arriving to Estonia I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to Scotland, France, Amsterdam, and briefly home. But I had only just barely explored outside of Tallinn – venturing only as far as Rummu Quarry and the Keila River. For a weekend in February, after surviving some of the shortest nights of the year (only ~5 hours of overcast light per day), I went out with a colleague/friend from the lab to the southeast portion of the country to get a little fresh air.

Kose, Võru, and Military Outposts

Our central destination was a small town called Kose (Co-seh), population 549. Here, a handful of homes, concrete apartment blocks, and farms could be found. The nearby town of Võru (Vuh-roo), population 12,000+, was and is an important military outpost (Taara Army Base for the Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion). I could thus only presume that most people living in the towns here are in some way affiliated with the military (whether through supplying, being related to a service personnel, being a service personnel, etc).

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It is very southern Estonia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Here in Kose was the first time I had seen active duty military personnel in Estonia, military vehicles, and evidence of training bases that weren’t some ruins of a “by-gone” era (remember, Estonia only gained independence within the last 25 years, and the land was significantly impacted during the World Wars, so “by-gone” itself is still quite recent).

Beyond the military compound itself, Southern Estonia I would have characterized at this time of year as extremely rural and wild. Large stands of forests (both untouched and economic) could be found nearly everywhere we went, with farmsteads on the land between. There was also non-trivial snow coverage at the time of our trip (perhaps 3-5 inches), which only enhanced the feeling of idyllic solitude.

Navigating Estonian Roadways

We found that navigating in Estonia is fairly simple – especially outside of the cities. There are plenty of road markers and signs which list the major towns that are upcoming and the routes; and frankly there just aren’t that many roads to begin with, all told. We found most roads were in fairly good condition given the weather (frequent snowing, bitter cold) with an occasional “adventure” road of gravel to enjoy. In Estonia it is required that snow tires (studded tires) be used in the winter – our rental was not exempt from this requirement and I feel that it likely came in handy.

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A sample of the road conditions.

Nature Tourists

In Southern Estonia we simply enjoyed the environment. We went to Karula RP (national park) and enjoyed a hike through several different forest types (economic, bog, high bog, natural) in the snow. It was the second time in my life that I experienced true, natural quiet (the first being in Iceland). There is nothing quite like the silence of a forest covered in snow. The forests here were also something special – in places there was a monoculture of plants – these were the economic forests with evidence of the tidy rows, access roads, and careful maintenance. Other forests were cultivated in a different way. Trees with interesting carvings (see picture) could be seen everywhere. It took as some time to figure out what it could have been for; a helpful informational sign (this was a study trail) informed us these were functional carvings for sap collection from the trees but peoples who lived in the forests long ago. In other parts of the forest, remains from hidden shelters used by the Estonian resistance movement during the latest bout of occupations in the late 1900s could be seen.

Other than formal trails, we stopped at several simple wonders like a frozen lake, an observation tower, a playground (because real adults also can enjoy swing sets), and a crater field (Ilumetsa).

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Frozen lake, frozen forest.

 

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Frozen Victoria. Photo courtesy of Christian.

The hallmark crater here, fondly “Hell’s Grave,” is 80 meters in diameter. The area around the craters here is full of quirky sculpture of devils, trolls, and woodland creatures.

 

Pit Stop

On our way home, we took a short jaunt to Lahemaa National Park in northern Estonia, and also visited a waterfall between the park and Tallinn. The trip was a much needed reprieve from lab work and the city. It’s important to get out and about – even in the winter!

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2.5

It should go without saying, but to be clear: none of the views expressed in this blog represent the view of anyone I’m affiliated with – those funding me through the Fulbright program, those I work with, etc. These are all my own thoughts. And my thoughts recently have been filled with a lot of politics.

Let me be open in saying that I’m a pretty liberal person. Maybe talking about the environment incessantly and low-key talking about progressive lifestyles gave that away already. I’m watching things in the States unfold from afar, so it has been difficult to distinguish reality from sensationalism. But here is what I know and think, after a little bit of research (representative sources linked, I wouldn’t let you down):

People Are Being and will Continue to be Victimized

First: women. This isn’t actually all that new. In fact, if you’ve been paying attention to the news since you were old enough to read, you would know that violence against women is a thing. Minority, low-income, and young women are disproportionately victimized in particular. This is worldwide, mind you. But focusing for a moment on the United States and certain potential political actions, you can perhaps see my distress.

Let’s start with the potential cut of the Office of Violence Against Women. This group provides grants to organizations – like police districts – to perform training to aid women who are victims of violence. Pair this with the cuts to Civil Rights, Community Policing, and other federal agencies, and you’re looking at a pretty clear message that protecting the most victimized peoples in America (of which women make up a number) is really not on the agenda.

Then, you look at the response to the Women’s March on Washington – “they should have voted.” Yikes. Just real quick: dude is literally sitting in the Oval Office still being worried about the popular vote – not in the way we are, you know, with the rumors of hacking and jazz, but in the way that he’s sad he didn’t win it…pretty freaky.

Digressing – I shouldn’t forget to talk about the ongoing hate-fest against Planned Parenthood, and in particular pro-choice folks. Listen, I really wish abortions didn’t have to be a thing. I really don’t. But let’s all agree that the viral photo of only men in the room of the signing of an executive order that deals with lady parts is a little weird, right?

Women aren’t the only ones to worry about here. LGBTQIA+ communities are also being called out. Our new VP has been a pretty vocal heteronormative policymaker. While the verdict is still out on whether or not he actually supports conversion therapy (that’s when people’s demons are zapped out of them, because that makes sense) it is beyond clear that he’s no advocate for the rights of humans who happen to choose a bedmate that he himself would not have selected. To be fair, most of those bedmates probably don’t want Pence either…

Then there are minorities in the US – long persecuted and subject to institutionalized bigotry. And immigrants, legal or illegal it doesn’t matter. Then there are the poor. The working middle class….I could keep going to name almost every group. When one group suffers, we all suffer. That much is known. When so many are about to continue to be victimized, or about to be re-victimized by certain policy repeal (like the Affordable Care Act), there is a problem.

I’ve seen a non-trivial number of responses to the Women’s March from women stating that they’ve never felt “othered” as a woman, and that since we [women] have it better here in the US versus other countries, we should be thankful rather than active. First, I’m thrilled to hear that they’ve never felt othered as a woman – and I wish I could share that sentiment. And I’m sure all the strong ladies who put the policies in place with that goal in mind would also be thrilled – we really are in a pretty good place. But just because we’re in a good place, or at least a better place to some of our international sisters, doesn’t mean we can’t demand greater things. It probably means that we should demand greater things not only for ourselves, but for our sisters.

Thankful shouldn’t mean complacent.

Intellectuals Will Not be Silenced Peacefully

Speaking of which, the fact that Twitter has become a place for intellectual protest really reminds me that it’s the year 2017: a myriad of wonderful technologies at our fingertips, same draconian fear of knowledge.

The federal hiring freeze, while troublesome to us outsiders, is not unprecedented. This federal hiring freeze, coupled with gag orders on federal agencies, particularly the EPA…now that’s getting a little suspicious. Couple that with the timing of the go-ahead on the midwest pipelines that people are literally laying down their lives to prevent, and you might be seeing a pattern here. Then you’ve got the sensationalized removal of “climate change” from the White House pages, the sensationalized EPA claim that they were ordered to take down “climate change” pages,  and the not so sensational but pretty terrifying possibility that all published works may need political review and I’m fairly comfortable in saying that there is a problem.

Science is not political. Or it is really not supposed to be. It is meant to be “the truth.” Apolitical. Just a statement of “the facts” – whether or not they’re good news or bad news or fulfilling some sort of agenda. When science and scientists come under fire for literally doing their jobs, you’re looking a the stuff we see super villains do in movies in which they trick the general populace into loving them through misinformation while the world burns.

And the world is burning. Climate change is real. Ocean acidification is real. And we are legitimately in trouble. These aren’t “alternative facts” – there are the “fact facts.”

So when I read about how policies like the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S., are “burdensome” and need to be removed, I get a little worried.  Because those policies, in a way, are meant to be a bit burdensome – to inspire us to innovate so we can both be better in business and better in health/environment. So that we have to THINK about our capitalistic intentions before acting on them. (sidenote here, in the America First plan, we want to get rid of the Waters of the US rule…ironic). So that when we grow our businesses, we can continue growing the beauty of our nation. If for some reason keeping our water and air clean is keeping America from “being great again,” then I’m not really sure what “great” means.

On a more personal note, I’m pretty terrified about where I’m going to end up in all of this. The whole reason I’m in this field, you know, other than because I think the ocean is amazing, is because I want to get the truth out to people in order to influence policies which will help to protect our planet. That is apparently a pretty radical thing to do. And I’m down for the fight, but there shouldn’t need to be one in the first place.

Foreign Relations Are Going to be Strained

I mean, with a slogan like “America First” it probably doesn’t give other countries the warm-fuzzies.

Well, there is the wall. That he still wants Mexico to pay for. I’m pretty sure that Trump missed the part where Tom Sawyer got the other kids to paint the fence was because he was clever and made it fun, not because he demanded it. Not saying that Trump should have tricked Mexico into paying for it, but you know, at least attempted tact. Or, perhaps cracked down on corruption at the border. Or, you know, actually thought about investing in Mexico so that people are less likely to leave in the first place…

Then there is the ban on refugees and peoples of certain descent from entering the country. Look…we’re all terrified of being terrorized. That’s the point of terrorism (logical). Refugees are not thinking about committing acts of terror – they’re thinking about escaping it. We should be honored that they think that America is safe enough, caring enough, and strong enough to be a place free of terror. And we should not make the same mistakes of the past (remember Anne Frank and her family, as just one story of the many people turned away during the crimes of that time).

Then there is Russia, the cold reception of the NATO alliance, and the ever unclear relationship between these powerful leaders. Now living in Estonia, I can assure you people are worried. Tallinn is not eager to be the next Crimea. And I’m not super excited to potentially be here when it happens.

Then, there’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership backout. I’m going to be honest when I say I don’t know a whole lot about economics, and whether this is good or bad. But the countries involve in the agreement are no doubt a bit upset. And China is no doubt a bit excited. And there is also little doubt that global economics impact…well…everyone…by its very nature, so certainly there are some ramifications that we’ll feel.

Being Angry and Active is Exhausting

If the Women’s March is any indication, and the soon-coming Scientist March, and the small demonstrations throughout the nation and globally – then there are some angry people out there. But unlike the armchair activism of the past, these angry people are willing to be physically present in their activism.

This is exciting. And I hope the momentum continues, because the health of our democracy has literally been downgraded to “flawed” and the only thing I can seen improving it is an active constituency that gets stuff done politically.

But it will be exhausting. And complacency is so easy. Just look at the struggle of the Black Rights Matter movement to gain momentum and support from privileged groups. Privilege allows someone to brush off the indignities of others in favor of keeping themselves comfortable. We can’t allow ourselves to be comfortable anymore. We should have never allowed it in the first place.

As activists continue to flood the streets, and phones, and media, we do need to consider a lot: inclusivity, intersectionalism, and sensitivity to the other side. We need bipartisan movements, because then we win. We have to be willing to compromise. We have to be willing to be wrong. We have to listen – and not just listen to respond, but listen to understand.

2.5

The infamous apocalypse clock was moved forward to 2.5 minutes until midnight (being the fabled moment of humanity’s downfall). Today. Only 1953 has seen a “time” closer to “the end.”

One could take this as a sign that times are literally at the precipice of something catastrophic, or one of humanities greatest “come together” moments in modern history.

I’m a big fan of those completely campy action flicks in which everyone puts aside their differences in order to defeat evil alien invaders and world peace is known. I’m not asking for that here. But, I am hoping that the side on which every member of humanity is treated with the dignity of being human, is on the winning front.

A few months ago I had the honor of speaking on behalf of my graduating class at Olin. Among my cheeky references to events in Ferguson, the transgender bathroom debates, and *gasp* climate change, I said then to the class of graduating engineers:

Among so many other things, Olin has taught us the importance of collaboration. And we, together, will be agents of change. The support we have for one another doesn’t end when we walk across this stage, and we will build our network even broader in pursuit of our passions and values. We will use our rebellious nature to remold “the man” – not just stand against it.

At this critical moment – this time in which we will be handed diplomas and drive off to whatever we have planned next – let’s celebrate our achievement and give thanks for the privilege of going to this school, at this time, with these people.

Tomorrow, let’s get back to work.

I stood by those words then, as I stand by them now. My place is in the rebellion – I hope you’ll join me. I could use your help.

Holiday

I had the fortune to spend Christmas at home with my family and friends. What a shock returning home after such a whirlwind of work-related travel.

Some funny things I noticed, with new eyes, once I was home:

  1. Our cars are comically large. And our roads equally wide. I had been in denial that cars in America were much larger than your run-of-the-mill vehicle in Europe, but I can safely say that this is just simply wrong. Driving my vehicle again (“little” Ford Ranger) felt like piloting a boat.
  2. We really love lights during the winter holidays. A lot. Certainly the Old Town in Tallinn, and the other cities I visited, were decked out in winter cheer; but our suburbs really take it to the next level.

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    Guilty as charged. As always, the parental units make an absolutely cheery display. Not pictured (sorry Dad): a giant Dr. Suess-esque Christmas Tree made of lights with a great backstory – ask me about it sometime).

  3. Speaking of holiday lights, the “Christmas Tree” that we think about during the holidays is non-trivially more decorated than the quintessential “Christmas Tree” in parts of Europe, in which a string or two of lights would be considered perfect.

  4. There are just so many water fountains. It’s great.

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    Seen in Boston.

While home, I had the pleasure of being in Maryland, Pennsylvania (to visit maternal family), and Massachusetts – my adopted home. While in Boston I visited the New England Aquarium (I was feeling a little bit of withdraw from the ocean).

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The aquarium in Boston is an absolutely great place. I highly recommend it.

Soon after returning to Tallinn, I was back on a plane on my way to Amsterdam to take a short personal holiday (the weekend) to visit with a friend traveling in Europe for work. A few years ago I had visited Amsterdam as part of a youth organization called People to People. At that time, we hadn’t really the opportunity to truly experience the city, so I was looking forward to returning. I was certainly not disappointed.

If I could only describe Amsterdam in three words, they would have to be: friendly, green, and fascinating.

Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, sometimes also referred to as Holland. People who live in the Netherlands are referred to as the Dutch. You may have recently heard of the Dutch in the news either because you watched this lovely piece of sass greeting the new President, or read about the recent international abortion fund issued by the country in response to certain American executive orders.

Perhaps from these things alone you may have gathered that the Netherlands is a fairly progressive place. If I told you then that prostitution is legal, arguably celebrated and even regulated (it is the oldest profession, right?), a distinction between “soft” and “hard” drugs has led to the widespread accessibility and use of weed that can be purchased at “coffee shops”, and everyone (well….almost everyone) rides a bicycle as a form of commuting, then perhaps you wouldn’t be surprised. Nor, then, would you be shocked to learn that the country has a strong renewable energy push (like wind…). But here is a cool thing that isn’t immediately obvious, unless you’re a geography buff: a nontrivial amount of the landmass that is considered part of the country is actually reclaimed land from the ocean. That is pretty nifty indeed.

In Amsterdam proper there is no lack of museums touting the history and culture of the country. There are also a number of wonderful art museums (we went to the Van Gogh museum for instance, and the Rijksmuseum). But there is one special place that all tourists seem to flock to, and that is the Anne Frank House.

Yes, Anne Frank lived in Amsterdam – a place her family learned to call home after leaving their beloved Germany. They were Jewish, a dangerous thing to be in the 40s. When those that were persecuting Jews came to the Netherlands, Anne and her family along with two other families, were hidden in a “Secret Annex” that was a part of the company building that her father worked for. Together, they lived there for quite some time, receiving food and news from their allies on the outside – employees of Mr. Frank. Some of that news was a rejection for refuge in the United States due to the political climate and fear of the impact a refugee population would have. The Annex was eventually captured and all living there were subsequently sent to concentration camps. Of all the people in the Annex, only Mr. Frank survived. He published his daughter’s diary; a story that tells of a typical child being forced to grow up too quickly; but her written words were ones of hope.

Her lifestory ends in Bergen-Belson concentration camp, alone, after watching her mother and sister precede her; Mr. Frank being separated from them early on.

Visiting the Anne Frank House is a humbling experience, to say the least. It is also reminds one of the duality of human nature: hope and fear. Hope for a better life, hope for mercy, hope for kindness – fear of death, fear of strangers, fear of the unknown. And in so much as it unapologetically illustrates the human condition, it also shows the consequences: unspeakable acts of bravery such as the allies of the Annex or unspeakable acts of cruelty.

It is a story that resonates with the rhetoric, or the rhetoric I perceive, today – of nationalism, walls, denial of refugees, religious discrimination…I can only have hope that the cruelty of the past does not repeat itself – and that bravery overcomes.

Working Abroad of Living Abroad

If you’ve read anything from a few blog posts back, you know I’m working on some marine robotics “stuff” at the Centre for Biorobotics affiliated with the Tallinn University of Technology. My robotic platform is called the U-CAT, and it is a turtle-like low-cost robot used for marine archaeology. Thus far, I’ve mainly done some controls work on the vehicle, allowing it to move more quickly, efficiently, and all that jazz. I’ve also started working on developing a behavior-based navigation scheme for automatic exploration of an “enclosed submerged environment” – scientist speak for shipwrecks or ruins.

This has been a lot of fun.

But one of the reasons I chose this lab was it’s focus on field work. And I have not been disappointed.

Very early in my time with the lab I went to Rummu Quarry for some simple field work (as I wrote about a few months ago). But in November I was invited to accompany two of my colleagues as a support engineer on a multi-institution project field trial in Scotland.

Whoa.

First, it was a huge honor to get invited – this was not my project, though it was with the robotic platform I had been working on. Second, the premise was also super different than what I had been doing – using some acoustic communication and database protocols for multi-vehicle collaboration. That’s a mouthful. We arrived, me having prepared almost nothing (which was pretty stressful…since as many of you know, or perhaps can guess, I’m big on the whole “planning and preparation” thing) and got straight to work. We met our friends and collaborators at the Ocean Science Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh and prepped there for a day or so, before packing up for our field trial location: Loch Earnhead.

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Oh, the sacrifices one makes for science.

Our testing location was pretty beautiful. And except for a small tease of rain and mist on our last day of trials, the weather was simply perfect for outdoor testing and working. The sleepy little town at the Loch featured the inn and pub we stayed and worked at while there, with curious locals wondering what all these nerds were doing playing in the water in November.

No, we didn’t find, nor were we searching for, Nessie. Promise.

The locals kept us very well fed – nothing like a true Scottish breakfast.

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Me watching Jaan document his breakfast as Taavi documents Jaan documenting his breakfast. A true Scottish breakfast, consisting of potato scone, tomato, bacon, black/blood pudding, sausage, and egg. Not pictured is the mountain of toast also provided. PC Taavi.

The trials themselves were a huge success. I helped with robot-side implementation of the navigation scheme that took the acoustic signal’s message and turned it into action. AND IT WORKED. That was the crazy part.

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Look at how much fun I’m having! (Actually, everything was very broken at this moment…this is the face of someone who has spent too long outside over many days staring at a computer screen and has finally cracked). PC  Taavi, one of my colleagues. My other colleague Jaan is pictured.

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The whole crew, from front to back: Jaan, me, Taavi, Nick (OSL), and Gordon (OSL). And of course our lovely robots.

We had just enough time at the end of trials to return to Edinburgh for an evening, in which we explored a bit of the old town, and enjoyed more Scottish eats before returning home.

With only a handful of days in Tallinn, I prepared for our next trials to be done on the controller work I had completed. These trials would be in the south of France, in and around Montpellier.

The trials were a little more chaotic this time – the pool we were to be testing in had been drained months earlier for maintenance, which we found out just before departing (oh yeah, that was a good conversation). In our first days there, we explored and found a suitable stand-in facility, a lake about 40 minutes drive north of Montpellier. Later we would travel to La Seyne sur Mer to use the controlled test environment at IFREMER, a maritime research institution very similar to Woods Hole in the United States.

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Again, a true sacrifice. Lac Salagou.

At the lake we tuned the controllers. For those that aren’t familiar, a “controller” is used to make something like a motor behave in a smoother way. Almost all motorized things we use today have some sort of controller embedded in it. Software controllers are just a bunch of equations which incite this behavior. And these equations have variables which can be adjusted for the “best” behavior. Tuning is the process of finding these variables. And essentially amounts to plopping a robot in water and fiddling with numbers and graphs until someone on the team is happy.

We spent several days doing this.

Over the weekend, Taavi and I took a little break to tour around the South of France, going through the mountains and parks north of Montpellier, then traveling to the coast.

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The Mediterranean. December in the south of France is pretty nice.

Jaan from the lab joined us for an evening, then Taavi departed and we were left with our French colleague to get to La Seyne sur Mer.

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The car was very full. Not pictured: backseat is mostly robot. And a nook suitable for a Victoria.

There, we met our colleague’s colleagues at IFREMER and got to work finishing with the controllers, and also testing a special “computer vision” protocol I developed, which allowed the U-CAT to “see” and follow another robot around the pool. Sorry, no pictures of this – we’re waiting to figure out whether we’ll publish anything before sharing the results. What I can say: it worked. And it was a huge relief, given how hectic and limited the trial time was.

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Our new testing site.

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My office.

All in all, I’m so thankful for the opportunity to travel so much and meet such wonderful people. The experience is definitely invaluable, and I’m glad I could work on something useful to the lab and the lab partners.

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The team: Jaan, me, our colleague Ahmed. PC: the random scientist we stopped as we strolled out of the facility on our last day of testing and realized we needed a picture together. Thus, all the random things we’re holding.

One thing I noticed during these trials: where were the ladies at? I was pretty surprised not to interact with a single woman during any of my trials – in Scotland or France – in a capacity beyond a secretary. Glad I could help represent a little, but sad that I didn’t get to network with others. Something I’ll want to reflect on more as I go forward…

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Me, reflecting. PC: Taavi, at the Mediterranean.

Entertaining

In November, life started getting a little crazy for me. It kicked off with a visit from my Dude, which was pretty great. For those who can and would like to, my couch is open until the end of May!

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Our selfie game is slowly improving. PC Bill.

During Dude’s visit, we went to Tartu (my first time there, actually) which is a major city in Estonia in the Central Southeast of the country. There we went to the Estonian National Museum.

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The U-CAT is on display at the museum. I’m pretty proud. PC Bill.

Closer to home, in Tallinn, we went to a craft market, the Museum of Occupations, and several other history museums, in addition to the Tallinn TV Tower for dinner. All planned by the Dude (was there a week and he already was hosting me around the city).

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At the Museum of Occupations, near Old Town.

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Look, old stuff!

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Just your casual freaky abstract art exhibit in a castle tower basement. You know.

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Twinning at one of the history museums in Old Town.

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A very serious news broadcast at the TV tower.

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Being a hooligan at Linnahall.

It was great to share my new home with someone, and debrief on all the little things that make Estonia so unique – from simple exchanges at the grocery store, to the architecture, to the public transit system, to the rich and tumultuous history and identity of the place – it was a great time to reflect on my time thus far.

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Practicing for a Christmas card. The Christmas Market in Tallinn kicked off the last weekend of Dude’s visit. PC Bill.

Swiftly after Dude’s departure, I packed up and ventured to Scotland for 10 days to help out with some field trials conducted by my colleagues…then returned for a handful of days, to depart again for France to spend two weeks on trials there for a project I led…then returned in time to enjoy a bit of Tallinn’s Christmas cheer before venturing home for the holidays…to now finally be back…only to depart again soon to spend a little time with a friend in the the Netherlands. Details of my international travels will be on the way – can certainly say I’m looking forward to fewer plane rides in my future!

A Month in the Life

Well, the last month has been a real ride.

Since I last wrote, I’ve been to a variety of classical music concerts in Tallinn, marginally improved my Estonian language skills, read a lot of papers, wrote a lot of code, ran a lot of simulations, defended local salmon, and continued to develop the relationships with the amazing people I’ve met along the way.

The salmon piece may be the most immediately interesting – it is spawning season, making the fish illegal to catch here. But, it is spawning season, meaning that the fish are all in one place, swimming upstream, and very easy to catch. This leads to a serious temptation that has historically harmed the overall population of salmon in certain rivers in Estonia. To combat illegal fishing, a group of fishermen started a Salmon Patrol, which involves 24/7 shifts in which small groups vigilantly walk along a stretch of river dissuading those with ill intent. My lab got involved as external volunteers. We were very enthusiastic our first week – my group took a 6 hour shift from 9PM to 3AM. I should remind the kind reader of this post that the temperature has been just above freezing here – and at night it gets much colder. There is nothing like tromping around a frost-covered forest, looking for fish, and feeling the thrill of “the hunt” with your coworkers at 1 in the morning. I highly recommend it. In subsequent weeks I’ve done several other, slightly shorter, shifts – also mostly at night – and it has really been quite a good way to get to know everyone in the lab. It is also quite a good way to slowly get more and more suspicious of everything – including women walking with baby carriages. This is a very common sight here, but in the middle of the woods, with snow on the ground, late in the evening….everyone starts looking like a suspect. Perhaps it is good that this was the last week…

Over the last month, I saw a gorgeous autumn turn into an unseasonably early winter.

And, I watched the American political scene implode into a resolution I believe newspapers glamorize as “stunning” – though this is a word I would most often use to describe beauty, the exact opposite of the hate I’ve seen instead.

The day before the election, I officially received my residency permit for Estonia. I thought the timing ironic.

And as I watched the election unfold, I was struck with how far away I was from home. How far away the rioting was from me. How insulated I could become from the whole thing if I chose to.

But I didn’t choose to hide from it.

People in the lab asked questions, offered condolences – even referred to it as a tragedy. Newspapers here are running tons of stories on the results, our process, the ramifications – I will also remind you that Estonia has heavily relied on NATO presence for political/social reasons given their neighbor to the east. What has been hardest with being abroad at this time is trying to explain or describe what it happening in the US to those who truly think the world of the country. The surprise and shock when I mentioned the riots, or the hate crimes, or the simple backlash is palpable and it makes me feel ashamed. It is much like telling a child Santa isn’t real.

The advantage, however, with being so far is that I can see everything with a slight filter, and focus on some of the themes without being emotionally compromised in my daily life. I’ve seen the threads on the Trump supporter pages about the “lazy liberals acting like spoiled children” not realizing that perhaps it is not the loss we protest, but the empowering of immoral ideals – also most of us have jobs. I’ve seen the memes on liberal pages of the “selfish hypocritical republican” those sharing such things perhaps not realizing that class-based disenfranchisement is a reality that we’ve too long considered lesser than other forms of human abuse. I’ve seen hate. I’ve seen love. But I’ve yet to see the unity people on both sides are calling for. This will take time of course, but I am curious about how quickly the “majorities” will forget their platforms – just as how quickly we mourn the lost lives of those in Aleppo, or fret over confidential emails, or stand aghast at allegations of fraud and assault. And that makes me worry for the minority, who do not have the privilege – perhaps now less than ever – to forget.

For the time being, I take hope. This political ride isn’t over – and I really believe that love trumps hate.

 

 

Grief

I wept Wednesday: for those that wept for fear after the results were released.

I wept Wednesday: for the knowledge that Americans on both sides have felt disenfranchised by the very country they love for so long.

I wept Wednesday: for my friends and family who have already been targeted by those that now feel empowered and entitled to belittle others.

I wept Wednesday: for the knowledge that those who identify as part of the groups targeted by the extreme right-wing rhetoric, yet still voted right-wing, must believe themselves to be lesser than.

 

I yelled yesterday: because I was angry at the selfishness of third-party voters, without thinking about the strength it must take in such a situation to vote upon one’s morals.

I yelled yesterday: because I failed to verbalize the pain it is to realize how much hate there can be in the world.

I yelled yesterday: because I know that our President-Elect did not cause people to hate more, the hate was always there.

 

Today, I hoped. The hate that has filled our streets as much as our virtual streams is now aired for all to see; there can be no more pretending. No more hiding from what we feel, from what we fear. And from this, I see promise for grassroots agendas of love.

Today, I hoped. The number of voices ringing in advocacy, solidarity, and strength demonstrate a resolve to move beyond a poll result and start discussing the lives of people on personal level.

 

Tomorrow,  holds new promise and much work to do. I am ready for tomorrow.