Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Break

All is well here in Oxford, where I'm back for a couple of weeks over Christmas and New Year. I'm just taking a bit of a break from sitting in front of the computer all hours and leaving the blog to take whatever direction seems most natural after the New Year.

Anyway, being at home with family is enjoyable, but I find myself getting lazy (despite cooking many of the family meals, which brings me great pleasure), something which I find myself easily slipping into but a facet of my personality that I don't like at all. Hence I'm going to take off from here in a couple of days and spend some time in London, seeing friends, going to galleries and sitting in cafes reading some of my Christmas gifts. I've almost finished off Cry, The Beloved Country, a very powerful book about South Africa in the 1940s. After this I'll be diving into some Pinker (who without exception manages to change my view of the world in a few hundred pages), Kundera, Steinbeck and Susan Sontag's On Photography. There are another six or seven in the Christmas pile which I'll write about if I get the chance.

On art and museums, I did finally make it to see Guernica while I was in Madrid. My final afternoon in the city I dashed to the centre and made straight for the Reina Sofia. There is a lot of wonderful 20th century art on display, mostly Spanish, though the centrepiece is without doubt Guernica, a painting which I've read plenty about in a book devoted to this historical piece. It was every bit as powerful as I'd expected and the trip was well-worth it as I stood transfixed with no other museum-goers to disturb me.

Anyway, I hope that everyone else has had a peaceful and enjoyable Christmas! Enjoy the holidays if they're being celebrated in your neck of the woods.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Madrid in a flash

I returned last night from Madrid, where I've spent the last three days at the Christmas meeting where I was giving a talk and talking with some of the local researchers with whom we hope to start something in the New Year. The workshop was good, but intense and included a variety of topics, from the latest from the Pierre Auger cosmic ray observatory in Argentina, to the latest excitement on the M2-brane mini revolution. We also had a very interesting talk on the accident at the LHC whch gave an idea of the scale of the damage and what was now being done. Indeed the weak-links between the magnets are now being fixed in a number of other possibly vulnerable sectors. The good news was that there were spare magnets for every one which was damaged and it looks like this hasn't pushed the project into the red in any way.

Anyway, a quick picture I took on the way back from the workshop on Friday of this amazing leaning tower close to the Plaza de Castilla.

Anyway, last night my flight back to Santiago made a total of 26 trips this year which could go some way to explaining my current state of exhaustion. I still have a few things to finish off before Christmas including two conference proceedings which just have to be checked a final time, and a couple of calculations I'd really like to get done before I relax completely.

Tomorrow I head back to England where I'll spend a few days at home before running around the country to catch up with friends I haven't seen since doing the same thing last year.

The New Year holds a feast of possibilities which certainly can't be fit into a 12 months so I'll have to see how my time-stretching abilities are working and perhaps give up something to make a little more...sleeping should be first out of the window.

A couple more updates due before Christmas, but for now there's lots to be organised before heading home.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Despite the notice on my letterbox asking that no free papers be delivered (helpfully written in Gallego by a friend) today I received a record 19 magazines and other pieces of miscellaneous wastage. Not impressed!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Clay Shirky on wasted hours and the media revolution

If the weather isn't letting you get a good look at the moon tonight, and you're not otherwise being more creative, you could do a lot worse than watch this talk by Clay Shirky, one of the most eloquent and knowledgable spokespeople on the new wave of interactive internet media. This talk, on the cognitive surplus. My favourite quote, from part 1:

Desperate Housewives functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

Lunacy and more

For those of you foolhardy enough not to have Universe Today bookmarked in your feedreader, then you may not know that today the moon is at its closest approach to the Earth this year. It will be 14% larger and some 30% brighter (for those who are not, like I am, in overcast venues) than the moon at its further point this year. This is good for moon watching, but not so great for the Geminid meteor shower which will be somewhat obscured by the extraterrestrial light pollution.

As for me, I'm feeling pretty tired after a busy but successful few days, other than spending 20 minutes trapped in a lift on Wednesday morning. Trust me to be in the lift when there's a powercut. The emergency light was sadly neither bright enough to let me read, nor to take a photo of myself in my encarceration.

I'm currently writing up a review for a conference proceedings which I'd like to get out of the way before 't Hooft turns up next week to give a couple of talks (both departamental and public) and before I go off to Madrid to the Christmas meeting where I will be giving a talk. I'll simply link to my paper from this week with no more commentary for now than the fact that this was an extremely enjoyable paper and one of the best collaborations I've been in, given that all of us bought very different skills to the table. We already have several more ideas on the go and hope to get more done soon.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Fractal sunset

We're finishing off a paper which should be out in the next couple of days, I'll link to it when we're done - this has been a fun project and there's lots more to be done on this subject.

In the mean time a photograph from yesterday. While I still can't do much photography with a dodgy eye, I was able to hook up the tripod and the macro lens as the sun was setting to get an alternative version of this wonderful effect. This is multiple sunsets, refracted and inverted through the dew on my West facing window - In fact it's three photos taken at different exposures and overlayed.

multiple sunsets
Click through for more detail and much larger sizes.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Photo on Solar Cooking in the Seoul Shinmun

I'm getting reasonably regular requests on Flickr these days from books and newspapers. This one, the Seoul Shinmun was running an article on energy usage. The original can be found here.

My photo in the Seoul Shinmun

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Santiago in the rain

I'm out of action for a couple of days with, temporarily, only one fully functioning eye (will be fine in a day or two). In the mean time, while I can't take photos I can post up a couple, and while the rain whips against the windows I'm reminded that the weather, which is rarely predictable here does give the place an extra dimension. When bathed in fog or rain the squares around the cathedral are particularly magnificent. The lights beaming up from the spires make for a truly gothic scene. These are not of said scene, but do give an idea of Santiago in its rainy glory.

Obradoiro in the rain

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Atmospheric Optics talk in Santiago

I gave my talk on atmospheric optics today to an audience of perhaps 40. It was smaller than expected, but enjoyable nonetheless and I had more questions than I normally get for a string theory talk! I had been a little rattled by the fact that not only was the talk being advertised heavily around the university, but also on the regional weather station meteogalicia. Still, every Galician and her dog did not turn up and the fears of the previous night were not lived out. In fact combined with a fairly unpleasant day ahead of me tomorrow (triple chalazion excision) I worked myself up into a bit of a sweat and only managed an hour's sleep last night. Still, it's been a good experience and I'd be happy to give this talk again.

My talked introduced the physics of: ice halos, glories, heiligenschein, opposition effects, all sky crepuscular rays, mirage sunsets, green flashes and rainbows, including a few animations to discuss the detals of the optics for several effects. I spent most of this week digging into atoptics to get more information, and Les Cowley who runs the sight has been extremely helpful.

In looking for a little more information last night I came across an article by Sir Michael Berry (of Berry Phase fame and winner of an Ignobel prize for frog levitation). I remembered he gave a talk when I was an undergraduate in Bristol on his favourite things in the world of physics and this had included a section on rainbows. I tracked down an article he wrote for Physics World on a review of a book on rainbows, which included a quote from Descartes. This was exactly what I needed to complete the rainbow section.

Before Newton understood about the splitting of colours by a prism, Descartes had introduced his law of refraction (though this had been discoverd many centuries previously) and had used this to understand the basics physics of rainbows. I'll leave you with this quote of Descarte's, written in 1637, which, as with much of Descartes' writing, sums up the ideas eloquently and gets right to the heart of the matter.

"A single ray of light has a pathetic repertoire, limited to bending and bouncing (into water, glass or air, and from mirrors). But when rays are put together into a family - sunlight, for example - the possibilities get dramatically richer. This is because a family of rays has the holistic property, not inherent in any individual ray, that it can be focused so as to concentrate on caustic lines and surfaces. Caustics are the brightest places in an optical field. They are the singularities of geometrical optics. The most familiar caustic is the rainbow, a grossly distorted image of the Sun in the form of a giant arc in the skyspace of directions, formed by the angular focusing of sunlight that has been twice refracted and once reflected in raindrops."

Monday, December 01, 2008

Photos of the Moon, Venus, Jupiter conjunction

Update: New photos below

We're not normally so lucky with weather here in Galicia, however, tonight we had a small window without rain or clouds for twenty minutes or so which just happened to coincide with the time of the wonderful conjunction of the crescent Moon with Venus passing behind it and Jupiter up to the top right.

I went outside to take a look and could see the crescent moon, but no more. I stood watching it for a few moments, before I noticed a tiny point of light at the bottom right of the moon - Venus was beginning to poke its head from behind the sliver of the crescent moon. Sadly I had no tripod with me and so I had to balance the exposure with the ISO very carefully so as not to blur the photos or fill them with noise. I got a few which are no great works of art, but they are satisfying reminders of this rather wonderful astronomical spectacle.

This first image was the first one I took, just as Venus started to show itself. The sky was still quite bright at this point and so Jupiter, to the top right is harder to see in this image, the sky was also filled with a mist, which stopped perfect visibility at this point.

Moon, Venus, Jupiter conjunction
But Jupiter became brighter as the sky grew darker:
Moon, Venus, Jupiter conjunction
and as the sky darkened fully, the clouds drew in and we were left with a slight corona around the moon:
Moon, Venus, Jupiter conjunction
I hope some of you got to see it for real too.


After processing these photos and giving up hope of seeing any more, I looked out the window to see how much it was raining, only to see this:
Moon, Venus, Jupiter Conjunction
Moon, Venus, Jupiter Conjunction
Will be looking out for more.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Optics for Mathematicagicians

Update: I've added the original gif, linked from Flickr as a movie and it seems to be working a bit better this time.

It's taken me far longer to process this animation file than it has to create the short movie from Mathematica in the first place.

This is all in relation to the talk on atmospheric optics which I'll be giving this week, and is now being advertised on the regional weather website! Not quite sure how that all happened.

I wanted to create a little animation to illustrate some of the properties of a rainbow. In particular I wanted to illustrate Alexander's dark band, the dark region between a primary rainbow and a secondary. To do this you really need to understand the path of light rays going through a water droplet (thankfully water droplets are pretty close to spherical, otherwise the simple trigonometry would become significantly less trivial). I've just done the animation for the ray path for the primary bow, but this illustrates very nicely some of the properties of that bow.

The animation is in two parts. The first part looks at light rays going through a water droplet with two refractions and one reflection. At each refraction point there is a splitting in the colours, though I have only used red, yellow and blue as an example (really for best contrast).

I illustrate these paths for several impact parameters (how far the ray is from that ray which would go straight through the centre of the droplet).

The second part is then to build up the density of light rays so you can see the collective phenomenon (rather than the single path). The final diagram is that of around 100 rays coming in, in an even distribution of impact distances (which is the realistic distribution). One can see several things about this.

The first thing to notice is that none of the light comes out at a greater angle than around 43 degrees to the angle of incidence. However, in the region between about 43 and 41 degrees there is the highest density of rays coming out. The red, which is refracted least, has the highest distribution at around 43 degrees, and the blue, which is refracted most comes out at about 41 degrees. After this, the distribution (between 0 and 41 degrees) is roughly equal for all colours and therefore the light inside the bow is pretty much that of light passing through air (blue).

If you imagine what happens when you populate the sky with such droplets the overall effect is clear. You will see nothing reflected at more than 43 degrees (through single internal reflection), which will give a dark band over the top of the bow - the top of which is red. The secondary bow forms at around 50 degrees and is reversed both in colour and in the region where no light is reflected (there is no light reflected in the region below the secondary bow - giving Alexander's dark band. See here on the atopics website for a great example.

rainbow ray diagram

Right, now I've got to work out a good animation for the green flash!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Update, overflow and conjunction

Things are just a little too busy at the moment (hence taking five minutes out to write this!). The atmospheric optics talk is taking a little longer to get right than I'd hoped, having not given a pop-science/photography/flashy images talk for many years. On top of this I'm writing up a conference proceedings, tidying up two papers and working on two other projects simultaneously. I also have to think seriously about a talk I'll be giving before Christmas at a meeting in Madrid. Spanish lessons are on hold this week and I'm not even managing to get to my Spanish exchange. I do however have a temporary housemate who is in between flats with whom I can practice Chinese and Spanish and is currently cooking up a feast while I plug away at mathematica.

And before I forget, at the beginning of December, look out in the early night sky for a fantastic conjunction between Jupiter, Venus and the crescent moon

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Kafka in transit

Sometimes the time spent in airports is mirrored in their unending depths. In fact Barajas isn't a bad place to be stranded for a few hours, and I got some work done in between flights from Dublin and to Santiago. More of that soon, I hope.
Madrid airport reflections
Click if the image is cut off on the right of your screen.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Now in Dublin after a long day yesterday. I spent a tiring but surprisingly enjoyable five hours at the airport in Madrid waiting for the second leg of my journey but a discussion of the strange mix of mathematics and neuroscience I had a chance to read will have to wait.

I'll be giving a seminar tomorrow but will try and write something up tonight if my talk is looking in shape by then.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

From Monte Pindo

As we were driving back from Monte Pindo yesterday evening there were some stunning optical effects, not least the reflection of Venus on the sea, making a beam of light leading from the horizon to the shore. Sadly we couldn't stop to get a photo of this. The moon was also just rising as we were going to leave, and as it started to poke above the hill tops there was a magical moment as a wind turbine filled most of the face of the moon. If I had time I would go back to the same spot just to get this image. It was truly stunning!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Monte Pindo and the end of the Earth

It's been a ridiculously busy week this week, though some things never change. We finally got our paper out on Monday, though I have another two somewhere near the end of the pipeline and hope to have them out before Christmas. The rest of the week was busy with getting these a little closer to completion, though Monday night I went out to another film at Cine Europa to see Breath (Soom) by Kim Ki Duk, one of my favourite Korean directors.

Breath is not a film of clear logic and linearity, but it is a beautiful film of deep sentiments and powerful imagery. Kim Ki Duk manages always to lighten his dark subjects with the absurd, and wonderful scenes of a women in a seemingly continual battle with the past singing a love song to an unknown, suicidal man on death row are so full of confusing feelings that you can't help but laugh. The film is going to leave you with questions, which probably don't have answers, but for me I'm happy with this. I would recommend this film if you want some answers to the questions that Herzog was contemplating.

Today has also been a long day as 12 of us, mostly from Couchsurfing, headed out to the coast of Galicia for a day of hiking to the top of Monte Pindo, a rocky hill, some 600m high (11 mile round trip) right on the coast, overlooking Fisterre to the North and the Atlantic to the West. It took us some four hours, including breaks, to make it to the top of this very rocky mountain, but the view was well worth it. In fact this is without a doubt the most stunning view I've seen in Galicia. I have a lot of photos to go through today but I've put together a panorama from the top for now. The large size is pretty huge, and there are still some artifacts from the large contrast in light that can be seen in the sky. Still, click through to see the whole thing in full detail.
View from Monte Pindo

In fact, coming down we watched the sunset from half way and the last quarter of an hour was in almost complete darkness. We were exceedingly lucky that we left without a single twisted ankle!

Anyway, tomorrow I have to get on with some work for my trip to Dublin next week and will be cooking in the evening for a bunch of Korean friends. If my kimchi dumplings aren't just like their mothers' I'm going to be in some trouble!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Unofficial holiday boycott

Today most people are away from the department as it's a holiday. However, the holiday is for the USC science departments in the university because today is their Saint's day. The idea of having a Saint's day for a physics department just feels kinda weird to me, so I'm in work, unofficially not on holiday! Of course this still being a predominantly Catholic country such holidays are pretty common and I'll happily take a day or two off at Easter, but simply for the sciences it seems somewhat paradoxical.

On which note I shall get back to work...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Extrasolar planets pictured around sun-like stars for the first time

Some fantastic astronomy news which I'd been waiting for since hints were given a couple of days ago on Dynamics of Cats. Two pictures have just been released with images of extrasolar planets. One star with one planet and another with two planets orbiting it. These bring the total of extrasolar planets found to date to around 300, but this is the first time the planets have actually been pictured (around a normal sized star).

(Image taken from the Hubble press release).  For all the details and an explanation of the above image, head over to Bad Astronomy Blog. See also Dynamics of Cats writeup on this news.

On a side note, if you're around Galicia at the moment, keep an eye out in the sky, conditions seem to be pretty favourable for solar halo viewing at least over the next few days. 

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Encounters at the end of the world

Once again Cine Europa comes to Santiago this month, and I hope to make it to more than one film, which was my paltry effort last year.

There are 10-20 films showing every day, from around the world and from many genres and I went yesterday to see the latest film by Werner Herzog, "Encounters at the end of the world" - Herzog's continuing quest to discover something about what makes us human by searching for the extremes that we put ourselves through.

I find watching his films, both documentary and fictional, a rather strange experience.  Herzog's films, more than any other director I know, are more about Herzog than about his subject. One doesn't go to see Encounters at the End of the World to discover a true picture of life at the Antarctic science base, but to hear Herzog's personal thoughts on the peculiarities he sees in such life. The editing and manipulation of the characters is clear and occasionally over the top, making the eccentricities the overriding feature of every character. As long as you go in with your critical senses alert you will be able to experience the world through the eyes of a very accomplished director and this is no bad thing in itself.

If you want a film which shows the beauty of the Antarctic, then there are dozens of more appropriate documentaries out there, but this doesn't detract from the occasional spine-tingling shot, or thought provoking piece of dialogue that is offered. Despite the beauty however, the films overall message is one of warning and pessimism, with little hope for salvation, The end of the world simultaneously taking on multiple meanings.

Through the pessimism however, appears a message, which though my materialist eyes gives a positive spin to the overall theme. Quoting Alan Watts, the forklift truck driver states that:

We are the witness through which the universe becomes conscious of its own glory.

and although Watts' ideas are given a religious overtone, exactly the same can be said in purely physical terms: our minds, being part of the universe, give the universe and not us alone a self-consiousness with which to study itself. This is something that I feel strongly, and this fact alone is enough for me to want to understand the universe more and more, in its huge complexity stemming from such simple principles - principles which we may or may not be alone in trying to understand.

just a thought...

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Year on year

My Mathematica programs are biting back today and undocumented interpolationpoints commands are laughing at me every time I turn away. Still, answers are converging in hoped for directions and all should be well soon.

Anyway, I haven't had a chance to write up much more about my trip to Porto, but I will put up a couple more photos from this splendid city.

On the Sunday as I walked around the city with some friends from Couchsurfing, and waited for my midnight bus, I had a chance to go to a few wonderful viewing areas to see the city as the sun was setting. In particular the rather charming Crystal Palace gardens (no longer with a Crystal Palace, but a somewhat less attractive auditorium) gives a great view over the river, with the Port Cellars peppering the opposite bank:

Porto Panorama2
Further along the coast the scenery changes considerably and you get a real view of the ocean and the smell of the sea replaces the smell of ancient city life:
Porto sunset
A few more photos to process at some point too, but they will have to wait.

Anyway, everything is busy as ever at the moment, with a short trip to Dublin to give a seminar in a couple of weeks, and a semi-public lecture on atmospheric optics to give at the beginning of December. I'll be heading to Madrid to give a talk at the Christmas meeting too, before heading back home for a few days over Christmas and the new year.

Today we had a fascinating talk on the use of Turing machines to study evolution and I spent lunch quizzing the speaker on many things which have been on my mind since the amazing talks by James Glazier on morphogenisis back in 2007 in Beijing.

On a side note, I've now been living outside China for almost exactly a year. I never imagined how much I would miss the place, and although I'm extremely happy here in Spain, in the department, in the city and in my current position, there is something unreplacable about life in that sprawling, dirty, glorious city of fourteen million, which is at the same time undescribable and unforgettable. I was hugely lucky to have the chance I had in China, and am equally lucky now to be here in Santiago, in a very different, but equally stimulating environment.

Anyway, Mathematica seems to be giving me better answers now, so I should get back to it...

Sunday, November 02, 2008

How very unaccommodating!

I wasn't able to do much on the computer since Friday afternoon, as I was being prodded and poked with sharp things around my eyes. Not terribly pleasant, but I came away from the afternoon at the hospital having learnt a little more about the effects of chemicals on the human body!

They had to do a fairly routine exam to measure the shape of my eyeball, but in order to do this with the correct calibration the nurse put in some eyedrops of what I have now determined was presumably a cycloplegic (probably homatropine), which inhibits accommodation (the focusing of the eye by changing the lens' shape) and causes mydriasis (the excessive dilation of the pupil).

A few minutes after putting the eyedrops in, it started becoming harder and harder to focus on things less that a couple of feet away. Slowly my field of vision altered such that everything but the very far was a blur and the light started to hurt my eyes.

It was only after they had done their needling that I got home (helped by a friend), a little shaken, that I looked in the mirror and to my blurred surprise saw my pupils were hugely dilated and unchanging in the presence of bright lights. I had to spend the next day staying away from sunlight which caused me to squint a great deal, though I'm now optically back to normal, even if the original reason I went to the opthalmologists has not improved. Anyway, of course I got a photo of my halloween eyes, though nobody was able to appreciate them as I was sat alone in a dark room listening to That Mitchell and Webb sound.


Kimchi blues

Spending a few weeks in Korea this summer gave me enough times to get completely addicted to kimchi, Korea's highly spiced pickled cabbage dish. Here in Santiago it's virtually impossible to find anything with a hint of heat, so I scouted around on the web and found a few recipes, the most explicit was in video form here. So, I bought the ingredients this week and spent a couple of hours this afternoon transforming this:

into this:
Now I just have to wait for 24 hours until it begins to ferment, and then fit the whole thing in the fridge. I'll be making kimchi mandu ASAP!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween weather

An old one, but I thought the evil pumpkin in the sky was appropriate

face in the Boulder sky
From Boulder, Colorado 2005.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Conciencia and miscellaneunoia

I'm off shortly to the lecture of Frances Elizabeth Allen, winner of the Turing Prize, who will be talking here about ' A pilgrimage to the higher senses of computation'.

Before that I wanted to link to a rather stunning piece of writing I found on the BBC website. Eunoia, written by Christian Bok is a novel written using only a single vowel in each chapter. From the BBC website, an extract from chapter 'A' is given:

Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram - a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla. Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal - a gala ball that has what pagan charm small galas lack. Hassan claps, and (tah-dah) an Arab lass at a swank spa can draw a man's bath and wash a man's back, as Arab lads fawn and hang, athwart an altar, amaranth garlands as fragrant as attar - a balm that calms all angst. A dwarf can flap a palm branch that fans a fat maharajah. A naphtha lamp can cast a calm warmth.

Take a look at the BBC link for more.

Porto in brief part I

Written Monday evening...

I arrived back from Porto at around 5.30 this morning after a three hour bus ride having failed to secure a ticket in time for the afternoon bus. I had to be in Santiago today to get a few admin tasks tended too, and consequently I'm feeling pretty tired.

However, Porto was truly wonderful. I spent Friday in the university and gave a talk in the afternoon, which was very enjoyable, even if the bulk of it was aimed at a minority of the audience. It's tough to give a specific research talk to a group who knows little about the generalities of your subject, so I gave a half hour introduction and then a half hour on the details of my last paper. After this I spent some time discussing with one of the researchers there about his recent work, and some possible extensions which I hope we will explore via email over the next few weeks.

I left the department in the evening and walked over to the Casa da Musica, a striking contemporary building, to meet my couchsurfing host. We met up and did a little shopping in preparation for an evening feast with around ten of us. I was exceedingly lucky with my host, who was not only a lot of fun, and a very generous human being, but she happens to have a degree in the science of wine and winemaking and works at one of the major Port makers in the city as a tour guide when she isn't making her own wine in her family's estate.

This meant that the weekend was a luxurious treat of learning and tasting some of the best wines of the region (produced in the Douro valley), as well as having a private tour of the port cellars and a tasting of a huge range of very very fine beverages.

In terms of gastronomy, Portugal never suffers from any subtlety in its foodstuffs, and on Saturday as I walked around in the town centre, I spotted a cafe offering Francesinhas. I'd heard of these but wasn't yet aware of what they were. Never, to be scared by the unknown I ordered one (the waiter asked me if I just wanted one, to which I nodded, not knowing whether this would be enough). This must truly be the king of high calorie lunches, designed for a hard days labour. A Francesinha, ironically given the title 'little French girl' is prepared by taking: steak, minced pork, fried egg, sausages, sliced ham and thick slices of cheese, and putting the whole thing between two or more slices of bread. You then take this and drown it in cheese, so the whole thing is covered and you have to dig to discover that this is a carnivores delight. Take your meat-drowning-in-cheese-feast and pour a thick and spicy tomato sauce over the top.

Francesinha - Guess the calorie content

My guess is that this beast has around a 3000 calorie kick to it. Just in case you're not satisfied, it comes automatically with a plate of chips. Apparently by ordering it with a glass of water and not beer I may have caused some sort of gastronomic offense to the owners of the establishment!

Anyway, I finished my lunch, worrying slightly about heart palpitations and spent the next hour or so wondering the streets. Later I met up with a friend of my couchsurfing host and he took me on a tour of the city, describing much of the history and how it had evolved over the last few hundred years. His time studying architecture made this a fascinating insight into the city. During this time we went up the steeple of one of the old churches to get this wonderful view of the city (click for a huge version!):
Porto Panorama

We then headed over to the other side of the river to spend a glorious afternoon Port wine tasting with my host, trying everything from dry white ports, great with tonic, to 30 year old tawnys and a deep rubys.
The evening was spent at a chef's house, eating vegetarian cuisine which made me feel only slightly less guilty about the herd of animals which had been slaughtered for my lunch. The chef was also a tour guide for the Port cellars and so a fine selection followed the I see a theme emerging from this weekend?!

To be continued...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Stunning solar halo over Porto

From ice and sunlight amazing things will come...

I'm going to do a full Porto blogpost soon, but I needed to get this out before anything else, as anyone who knows me will understand.

Sunday afternoon I was in the gardens of a wonderful modern art museum in Porto (Serralves), walking around and taking in the sun with a friend of my couchsurfing host.I looked up, as I seem to spend most of my time doing and caught a glimpse of a solar halo beginning to form. We got out into an open area and watched as the upper arc of the solar halo turned into the most stunning display I've ever seen.

As the field of ice in the clouds swept across the sun, for around half an hour the sky was illuminated with the most stunning arcs, halos, sundogs and perhelia I could imagine. Of course I got a ridiculous number of photos of this and have only gone through some of them in detail. In particular it appears that the pictures of the sundog may have captured a phenomenon rarely captured on film. As explained to me by the author of the superb site atoptics when I sent him the photos:

'...But something about your image caught my eye. I then severely enhanced it and have attached the result. It looks to me as though you have the very rare Lowitz arcs and have unusually captured the upper, lower and middle Lowitz components. See the very first Lowitz image for comparison..'
This effect was first captured here, but it seems possible that I may have caught it too.

On top of the 22 degree halo, the upper tangent arc and the sundog, there was a lovely 120 degree parhelion, something I'd never seen before. Having spent some time reading atoptics in the past I had a good idea where each of these effects was coming from and to see them so vividly was wonderful! Each part of the pattern comes from a particular shape of ice crystal with a given orientation and a specific path of light, sometimes through the faces and sometimes through the edges.

Of course I told those around me about the amazing display in the sky but all but two of them showed no interest at all, looking up and then seeming rather surprised that I'd bothered them about it.

Anyway, here are a few of the pictures I took of this startling sight:

The upper tangent arc, the 22 degree halo and the sundog:

22 degree halo, upper tangent halo and sundog
The halo, the sundog and the parhelic circle:
Sundog and Parhelion
The sundog, the parhelic circle and the 120 degree parhelion:
sundog and 120 degree parhelion
and the 120 degree parhelion shining brightly. It seems that as noted occasionally before, this has a faint redish tinge to it (only seen on the zooms):
120 degree parhelion
All of the above images can be seen in larger sizes by clicking. There are also currently a great number more photos on my flickr account as I've simply dumped them up there for now for further analysis.

I have mixed emotions about this. On the one hand I was overwhelmed with the sight, grinning and running around like a kid in a sweet shop for half an hour, while on the other I'm saddened by the lack of interest most people have in the wonders of nature. Still, in a few weeks I will be doing my bit by giving a lecture to the whole physics department on atmospheric optics. I hope to get another few people enthused by what is out there!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Porto seminar trip

Tomorrow I head for Porto, my first time in Portugal, to give a talk on Friday in front of what I understand will be a fairly interdisciplinary audience. I'm looking forward to the interaction with some more people in the nearby community, which is making a big effort at the moment to arrange a good number of small meetings to stoke collaborations.

The bus from here should take a little just a couple of hours, and I'll be staying near the department. This is going to be a short visit within the university this time, as things are rather busy here in Santiago, with several projects genuinely nearing completion (I feel I keep saying this, but projects in my experience always take longer in the final stages than expected). Saturday and a little of Sunday I'll have in the city, and will be Couchsurfing with a tour guide to the Port cellars. I've been promised a tour! I will also be meeting up with a journalist Couchsurfer who would like to know about physics and what us physicists actually get up to.

Things have been busy this end too with Couchsurfing and every night recently I've come home from work to find a host of people cooking up wonderful feasts in my kitchen - always a pleasure! In fact, as I type this I have two Australians and an Estonian cooking up a fish feast which is due to be ready

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mad Englishmen and sundogs

Of all the days to leave the department as the sun is setting and to spot, on the horizon a small rainbow patch of light in the form of a shimmering sundog, it happened to be the day that I left my camera at home.

This happens rarely and as I had left the house yesterday morning I had thought to myself that perhaps through some twist of fate, something photoworthy was bound to reveal itself. Anyway, the good news is that since learning more about atmospheric optics, I've seen a wealth of interesting effects here in Santiago, and winter should be the best time for ice halos and sundogs. I'll be keeping an eye out and will post whatever I manage to capture on film.

On Sunday afternoon I went back to the Alameda to see what beasts I could discover and came across this rather fine Vapourer, the larval stage of a Tussock moth.
Arachnids of various varieties seem to be in abundance right now too, and as the wind wasn't blowing too hard it made it possible to get some shots of this one in detail. If anyone has details about this spider, I'd be interested to know:
spider macro
Click on the photos for larger versions still ;-)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Arachnophobes need not apply!

I'm only providing a link to this photo, taken today in the Alameda, as I'm aware that certain family members may boycott this blog if I post it directly. I'm enjoying the new macro lens a lot!

I will however post this, simple but pleasing picture of Jupiter and two of its moons, taken as a four second exposure out of my window on Friday night. Note that the 100mm lens does not produce much magnification, but with 10 MPixels, one can crop sufficiently close to get pretty impressive detail.

Jupiter and two Galilean moons
More photos from today can be found here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

New toy

It's taken me a good few years to discover ebay but I've dived in and got a great bargain on a wonderful lens. A Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens which I've been wanting for a very long time. It's early days and I'm just playing at the moment, but it's a lot of fun! Indeed, while taking photos of the moon can't exactly be considered macro, it does have a lovely crisp focus and allows for a huge range of subjects.

Star anise

Click for much much larger star anise photos. Lots more to come when I get to grips with it

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Casa Marcelo - Santiago de Compostela

Santiago's only Michelin stared restaurant, Casa Marcelo, is not a venue I find myself in terribly often, but the occasional opportunity arises when such visits are sadly inescapable. Indeed having a couple of good friends from home here for a few days seemed the perfect opportunity, so we took ourselves off there for a taste of the degustation menu and a little over-indulgence!

The nine courses are all stunningly prepared and their simple combinations of flavour work well together. Except for the liquid nitrogen fuelled pudding with frozen meringue and pina colada icecream, there were few real wow moments, but plenty of extremely satisfying morsels of perfectly cooked fish, meat and vegetables. The fish in particular was perhaps the best prepared I've tasted outside of Japan and the country beef was stunningly succulent.

Of course the attention to detail, the immaculate service, the helpful but not overly serious waiters and waitresses and the overall atmosphere go to making it an excellent experience for what is not a vast price for a Michelin stared meal, however I did feel on several occasions that the actual flavour combinations were a little simple for my tastes. The only real let down for me was the mushroom soup, made with expensive and highly prized boletus mushrooms which was delicate but a little underwhelming for my liking.

Anyway, the degustation menu is around 60 euros per person (plus wine, which we were abstaining from on this occasion) and as someone who doesn't spend a lot of money on many luxuries that are not food based, I think that's a very fair price for several hours of gastronomic joy.

Of course I got photos of each course and put them together for your delectation:
Casa Marcelo - Santiago de Compostela
From top left spiralling in clockwise:
Cream of porcini mushroom soup, grilled sardine with Pimientos de Padron, Mille fuille with vanilla cream, tuna with tomato, frozen meringue with pina colada icecream, sea bass with lemon and olive oil, cinnamon truffles, country beef and potato, and anchovy taramasalata with crisp bread.

Monday, October 06, 2008


Sorry, things have been really busy recently. Two papers seem to be coming to an end and we hope to get them out pretty soon - but you never can tell.

On top of this, everything has else has been non-stop with a fair few couchsurfers bringing more dimensions than ever to my otherwise stringy world. Discussions on a plethora of subjects as always, and it feels rather like my house opens itself up as a new chapter in an encylcopedia every time a new guest from a new country comes to stay. This week was mostly comparative linguistics and an indepth look into Armenian history, perhaps not everyone's cup of tea, but when it comes from the mouths of experts, I can't help but be enthralled. Indeed, this is most pleasing for me because at school I simply couldn't get interested in history, sitting in class being made to remember the details of tax laws and lists of monarchs. However, when speaking with people with real links to a fascinating past it's a different story altogether.

I also now have a couple of friends from England here for a few days and I've sent them off to the town today while I was in the office. I shall shortly go to see what trouble they have wreaked in the few hours sent off alone.

On a strange and unusually sensible note, I decided last night to postpone the Spanish course which I was due to start today. The actual hours aren't that much, but time taken out of the middle of the day is disrupting and ultimately very tiring and so I'm going to try and get a few more interlanguage exchanges set up for the evenings as soon as possible. My colleagues have also agreed to speak more Spanish with me in work which should help things along too.

Anyway, I'd better go and see what remains of Santiago...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Stephen Hawking and the Fonseca prize

This weekend has been as non-stop as always. In a push to keep the momentum from my intensive Spanish course going I've spent a few hours in a cafe reading through National Geographic and have been pleasantly surprised that it's not been too much of a struggle. On top of this I've had a bunch of programing to do and a paper from a collaborator to read pre-publication. Plus, of course, the healthy dose of couchsurfers descending on Romero Donallo.

However, the big event of the weekend was the public seminar of Stephen Hawking in the Palace of Congress which began with Hawking being presented with the Fonseca Prize for the Popularisation of Science.

The talk was on black holes and was pretty well given and received. Nothing terribly unexpected, though there were a couple of tongue in cheek remarks as Stephen layed claim to the Nobel prize (this slide clearly taken out of context!).
Hawking claims the Nobel prize ;-)
(I'm proud to put in my first Gallego translation here:)
Thus it may still be possible that I receive the Nobel Prize after all.

And here is a snap of Stephen mid-seminar. We were lucky to be very near the front, as the 1500 seat palace was fully packed!
Hawking at the Palacio de Congresos in Santiago de Compostela
A non-stop week lies ahead!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Spanish in perspective and Stephen Hawking in Santiago de Compostela

My schedule is again back to something approximating sanity, with the Spanish course having finished today. We managed to fit a three month course into two and a half weeks of lessons. During this time I felt frustrated at the lack of practice I was getting while in the classroom, but as it comes to an end I see that I have actually got something valuable out of these three weeks.

We 'learned' a great deal of grammar in the class, a lot of structures and syntactical constructions. My frustration came about because it was just too much and I can't don't remember to use very much of this in my conversation. However, what I have gained is a set of points which I can look out for in other people's conversations and gradually, through immersion can start to put in my own speech. It's going to take time and effort on my part, but I think this awareness of what to look for in conversation is key. I now have some ideas for exercises that I can try out with the television, a rich resource which I rarely use. I'm going to attempt to watch the TV for around 20 minutes a day and, with paper and pen in front of me, look out for specific constructions, jotting them down when I hear them. This will give me a good familiarity with them and also should help me understand the frequency with which they are used in everyday life. Anyway, I'll let you know how that goes.

In other news...Stephen Hawking is in town and this is huge. It's especially important for a relatively small city which has gone crazy over his visit. Saturday will be the big day, but he has so far taken part in many events, including the last 150 or so meters of the Camino, a major press conference, and a talk in our department on inflation in the early universe.

The talk (based on this paper with Hartle and Hertog) focused on the reason that we started at the top of a potential, which has been conjectured to give rise to slow roll inflation, and not in a minimum. The claim is that using the appropriate weighting for calculating the probability of starting at a maximum, using the Hartle-Hawking wavefunction of the universe, you are led to a high probability for such a 'boundary condition'.

Anyway, the talk was just 20 minutes and the room was absolutely rammed. I've seen Hawking give a couple of talks now, and the media circus which follows him around is fairly crazy. He seems to have pretty good control over what he will and won't allow, and when enough was enough, with the cameras and film crews, he asked them to leave at which point they shut up shop. The audience was warned that it was indeed going to be a technical talk but almost none of the members (mostly made up of non-physicists) budged, leaving many of those who were actually there to hear what he had to say, without a seat. Still, it was an interesting talk, on a subject I haven't studied myself, but was pretty understandable in the short seminar.

For a video of some of the things he's been up to here in Santiago, I've embedded this short video:

On a Hawking related note, I'll also add this video of the chronophage, which has recently been inaugurated in Corpus Cristi, in Cambridge, and is a wonderful time keeping device/steam punk engineering

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Stephen Hawking coming to Santiago de Compostela

Population and press are collectively very excited to have Stephen Hawking coming to visit Santiago for a week of events, culminating in a public seminar next Saturday for an audience of around 1500. He is primarily coming to receive the Fonseca Prize. He's also going to be spending some time in our department where he will give a talk on Wednesday afternoon. On top of this there will be a press conference and various public events which the people of the city and surrounding area are extremely excited about.

A couple of weeks back we had the cameras in our department from the local news channels, interviewing various students and researchers about what Stephen Hawking meant for them. As an Englishman, I had to give my take on what he means to me, as a compatriot. I have to admit that my two minutes or so was probably not terribly impressive, and I usually feel more comfortable giving an hour seminar than a short sound-bite. Anyway, another learning experience for me.

On top of all this, my intensive Spanish course draws to an exhausting close with a couple of exams on Wednesday. In fact these exams don't matter in any academic sense, but I'm still going to take the opportunity to do my best...we'll see! Finishing off the homework from the lessons on top of a regular day in the office has been taking its toll and I'm feeling pretty shattered right now - this weekend has given me a good chance to see how my Spanish is coming on though, which has been pretty pleasing on average. On top of all this and cooking a large meal last week for a group of friends, I kinda need a rest, though this may have to wait until Christmas!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Maybe it's not so bad after all...

I spent a pretty crazy number of hours studying this weekend, hence the slightly snotty last post - I tend to do that when I'm overdoing it! Anyway, somehow it doesn't feel quite so hard when you get to study in wonderful parks in a medieval city. Of course I took my camera along too and to give you an idea of my surroundings as I sat there struggling with the past subjunctive I took this shot in the grounds of Parque de Bonaval
Parque  de Bonaval
Click for more details as ever

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Frustrations in the classroom

The intensive Spanish course which I'm currently taking for two hours a day is proving useful, frustrating and difficult in somewhat unequal measures. My classmates are mostly Brazilians and Italians who have been studying Spanish for several years, so already I'm out of my depth. However, the time that I spend after the class talking with them is great practice, and likely more useful than the class itself.

It's been some 12 years since I was last sat in a traditional language class room. I didn't much enjoy it back then and I feel ever more frustrated now. This is not to say that my teacher is not good. She's actually an excellent teacher who explains grammatical points well and keeps the momentum of the classroom going. By any normal measure of language teachers, she's truly first grade. However, I have some deep hangups about teaching languages in the 'traditional' manner.

Most of this stems from the audio courses I've been using for Chinese and Spanish for the last couple of years, and is what, I believe, I can put a lot of my 'success' down to (the playing down of success is not modesty but simple fact - there are many people who do a great deal better than I do in a shorter time).

With the audio courses I've been using it is almost like having a teacher one-on-one, and feels wonderfully effortless. You spend around half the time talking and the other half listening, and none of that time is spent trying to work out the logic of the grammatical constructions, but is somehow like being immersed. In a classroom of 20 pupils however I guess I say less than 50 words in two hours - that's seriously inefficient if you believe, as I do, that physically saying the words is the best way to memorise them - the mouth and ears, and not the eyes and hand are the gateway from the teacher's wealth of information to the brain. I have a bunch of ideas on how I believe we can 'revolutionise' language learning in the classroom, but of course having little experience of language teaching I have little authority on the subject. (Actually this isn't quite correct - we spend some time talking in pairs, but I probably spend a lot of that time talking bad Spanish and I can do that in my own time :-)

One thing which surprises and frustrates me on this course is that although we have a large number of exercises to work through, I find that having done them, I haven't actually used the parts of my brain which allow me to remember how to use the grammatical details in a real context. I'm too busy working out the answers, to let myself relax and simply become familiar with the natural use. As kids, clearly we don't spend time filling in the blanks, or changing the present subjunctive into the imperfect subjunctive. Somehow it all feels too artificial and I immediately put up a mental block with such methods. It may sound very old fashioned, but I'd rather just listen to and repeat phrases until they feel natural than work out the logic of grammatical constructions. I still believe that it's a loss that we are no longer taught grammar in schools, but I think that when learning a foreign language, there are better ways than most of the methods we use currently.

Anyway, I'm keeping on with the course because I am at least spending some time actively working on the Spanish, and that is certainly a good thing, however time spent in the classroom takes me right back to the years I spent in classrooms at school, not very efficiently learning French, Russian or Latin.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Full circulation of beams in the LHC successfully completed

Great news!

See here and here for the progress over the last hour or so.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

LHC startup - links only

I'm afraid that things are simply too busy for me to justify a full writeup, the length of which the LHC deserves, so I shall just jot down some thoughts for now and link to the best places to get information on tomorrow's start-up.

Tomorrow is not that day of first collisions, that will come presumably in a few weeks time. Tomorrow is the first day of full circulation of protons within the beam pipe. This is a technological milestone, and a hugely important day for the progress of the machine, but not a special day for scientific discoveries.

The LHC is the largest, most complex machine ever built to discover what happens on the smallest, most basic level of nature - somehow this seems rather perverse, but that's the way the world works, and this is how we've learnt to probe the forces that govern the universe, and the matter which lies within it. The LHC is a feat of engineering, technological and political marvels, and the fact that it is already many, many years behind its original startup date does not detract from the fact that it is an incredible human achievement...and tomorrow we discover whether or not they correctly connected the starter motor. In fact tomorrow they will be discovering many new things about this machine which cannot be known until protons are running through it.

Having spent some time myself at Babar, a particle accelerator at SLAC, in Stanford, and spent many many hours in the control room, watching over the histograms, and seeing the engineers lose the beam over and over again (this isn't a criticism, it's a comment on how difficult the job is, even for a well-established machine), I won't be too surprised/dissapointed if tomorrow things do not go off to a perfectly smooth start straight away. If it takes hours/days or even weeks to correctly get the proton beams circulating, it wouldn't be that incredible, but I look forward to seeing what happens tomorrow nonetheless.

Anyway, tomorrow I will be keeping up with the progress in the morning through various sources. You can find many good links from:

A quantum diaries survivor
Cosmic Variance, who will be live-blogging the events
The US LHC blog

Of course, the CERN/LHC webpage
Including the live webcast
Twitter on CERN, or indeed CERN on Twitter - I've never looked at Twitter, being already deluged with too much information, but it seems that for up to the minute events, this is probably useful.
Also check out the TED website for some more information.

OK, that'll do for now. Enjoy!

Monday, September 08, 2008

In at the deep end

Tired of not having as much Spanish as I should have after almost a year here, I signed up to a free course that the university offers to Erasmus students. Last Friday I took an exam (the first exam in many years) to see which class was appropriate for my level. Most of the test was multiple choice, and, using logic rather than knowledge I seemed to do much better than I should have done and ended up in the top class.

Today I turned up to my first lesson, with 20 other students many of whom are here for six months, only to discover that most of my other class mates are Brazilians or Italians who have been learning Spanish for several years. They seem, to me at least, to be virtually fluent and it seems that this class is going to be hard going, but I hope very useful.

Today, amongst other things we were given three novelas to read by the end of the course (the course is less than three weeks) and answer questions on them. I started tonight and am a good way through the first one, though it's pretty hard going for me and I spend as much time with my nose in the dictionary, as reading the text.

Anyway, for the next three weeks I'll be taking these lessons for a couple of hours every day and I'm really hoping that it's going to give me some more confidence, which I believe is the main thing holding me back at the moment. This is clear to me because at times I can converse with people quite happily in Spanish, while at others I close up completely and look like I know nothing.

Anyway, will try and keep you up to date with progress.

Depending on how work and study goes tomorrow I'll be giving some information on the LHC startup which I'll certainly be watching on Wednesday morning.

See here for a very good summary of the coverage which you can keep up to date with.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Leaving Incheon

I have an intensely busy month coming up, with a Spanish course about to take over my lunchtimes and the usual number of projects on the go. Couchsurfing is on hold for a little bit too, though I did meet up with a Norwegian couchsurfer last week who contacted me wanted to know all about string theory. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours over a coffee chatting about all things high-energy.

Anyway, I'll post the last of my Korea photos for now, which aptly is the photo taken as I was waiting in Incheon airport for this summer's travel adventures to draw to a close.

Leaving Seoul

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Takoyaki with Galician pulpo, a first?

Yesterday we had a seminar from a Japanese researcher who is currently doing a postdoc in Chile. After the seminar a few of us headed for dinner to a local restaurant and had the usual, very tasty selection of Galician delights, Pimientos de Padron, Pulpo a la feira, xoubas and much besides. I chatted with the speaker and his wife, also from Japan and when I mentioned that I'd inherited a Takoyaki pan from a Japanese friend who had left Santiago a couple of months back, their eyes lit up and they told me that it had been many moons since they'd had takoyaki. So, I invited them for lunch today for a hands-on takoyaki fest. This was the first time I'd made it, but in fact it turned out rather well and I'm sure to do it again soon. So, this is my/our recipe for takoyaki.

Start off by making a dashi, a Japanese stock, which traditionally isn't as strong as a western stock. Before my guests turned up I made a shiitake stock by steeping a handfull of dried shiitake mushrooms in boiled water. This takes just 20 minutes or so.

When they arrived, the stock was ready and to the dashi (around 275 ml) we added 200 grams of flour, one egg, a pinch of salt, a quarter of a teaspoon of baking powder, a finely chopped spring onion, and a couple of finely chopped shiitakes, previously well soaked.

Take your takoyaki pan, should you be lucky enough to have one (see below), or equivalent and heat it directly over a flame until it becomes very hot. A good takoyaki pan should be as heavy as possible in order to distribute the heat slowly and evenly. Coat the pits in a little oil and spoon in the batter. This should sizzle straight away and start to rise a little. Immediately add a small piece of cooked octopus to each batter section. After a minute or so, take your takoyaki pick and turn the batter and octopus upside down. The bottom of each one should now be spherical.
Homemade Takoyaki
Cook for another minute or so and then put straight on a plate.

For the sauce, mix a few teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce to a few tablespoons of mayonnaise and a dash of soy sauce (really one should get hold of an okonomiyaki sauce, but this is rather hard to come by in my neck of the woods) and spoon it over the takoyaki. Sprinkle the top with dried tuna flakes and enjoy, piping hot!

Though my guests admitted that they weren't exactly as in Japan, they said this was mostly due to the sauce not being quite the same, but they seemed to enjoy them as much as I did, and I'll be sure to make them again.

I'm sure that you could do the same thing with any normal cup cake tin, though you'd have to be careful with the quantity of mix and the temperature distribution, but it's worth giving it a go.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Huajiao in a Baoji market

Almost three years ago now at the beginning of my stay in China I discovered a weird and wonderful spice that I'd never heard of before. Huajiao, or Sichuan pepper contains hydroxy-alpha-sanshool which leads to a tingly, numbing feeling and, along with the subtle clovey/lemony overtones makes for a rather addictive experience. A mapo dofu (麻婆豆腐) would be nothing without the use of a good handful of huajiao and the expat favourite, gongbao jiding (宫保鸡丁) would lose a vital dimension sichuan pepper-free.

Anyway, I'm writing this to link to this photo, taken in Baoji, Shaanxi province as I went hunting for the solar eclipse last month. I often found that markets were good places in China for getting shots of the street-sellers who were usually very happy to have their photo taken, given a few minutes of small-talk first.

Huajiao in Baoji

Right now, having arrived back here just a couple of days ago I'm having to stock up on food and having made a batch of humous which should last a good few days I have a chicken soup on the boil now. The local shops give away chicken carcasses for free and the pot is now full to overflowing with six carcasses. The smell is not helping my work!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Panorama from Namsan, Seoul

Over the next few days I'll try and put up a few more photos from the summer. This is a 12 shot panorama taken from Namsan, Seoul's South mountain with a little HDR to boot. Click the photo to get to a huge version (almost 12000 pixels wide!). Note that blogger is likely to cut this image off halfway anyhoo so click to see the whole thing.

Seoul Panorama HDR

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Western Union Scam

Yesterday in my state of exhaustion I was almost caught by the Western Union scam. I looked for a lens on Craigslist, only to find an advert for a Canon 5D + lens at a ridiculous price. I got in contact with the seller to find out more. It all seemed a bit strange, but I couldn't work out where the catch was. They gave me instructions of how to pay, which also seemed to be secure, as they said that I wouldn't actually pay until I received the product. However, speaking to a fellow photographer/internet guru/friend I heard for the first time about the Western Union Scam, the trap that I was about to dive head first into.

Watch out for it! If a deal is too good to be true, there's a catch.

Back in Santiago

I'm currently more tired than I've been for a long long time, but I'm also home, and although the summer has been useful/interesting/exciting in equal measure, to be back in my own flat is a good feeling. I arrived back into Santiago this morning after a 5.30 start in Stansted. This on top of the 48+ hours I went without sleep on the way from Seoul to the UK means I'm on the verge of collapse.

However, life goes on and I'll be heading back into the department tomorrow to catch up with everyone and to restart things which have been on hold while I've been away (for this I'm currently feeling rather guilty, as I didn't manage to keep juggling things from afar as well as I'd hoped). I'm not expecting a day of great brainwaves tomorrow, as I guess it's going to be another few days until I've recharged my batteries completely. Food needs to be bought, bills need to be paid, the flat needs a thorough dusting, Spanish lessons need to be restarted, and life has to be generally settled back into.

In three weeks I have to go to Portugal for a couple of days to give a talk in Porto, but I believe I don't have any other travel priorities before Christmas, which is a rather comforting thought.

Anyway, for now I'll be settling back into life here with plenty to be getting on with, so I'll simply update here as seems appropriate.

Friday, August 29, 2008

On the road, off the road

Fifteen hours in the air, chairs not designed for 6 ft 4 chaps, no sleep, a couple of movies, lots of turbulence, a fine sunrise, lovely views over Hong Kong, saying goodbye to Asia - again, back in Oxford, family reunion, back to Spain on Sunday, jet-lagged, contented, full of tea and toast, people to contact, people to thank, normal work life beckons, stream of consciousness, sleep needed!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

End of travel adventures for the summer

I spent the last couple of days in Taegu, Daegu, 대구, mostly at Keimyung university, which has truly one of the most beautiful campuses I've ever visited, set as it is in the mountains surrounding Korea's third largest city.

I came back today on the very comfortable 300 km/h KTX train and arrived into Seoul at around 9 this evening. Tomorrow is my last day in Korea. My stay here, for a little over three weeks, has been extremely useful and I certainly feel as this rather ridiculous summer of work/travel draws to a close that talking with so many people over the last two months has been well worth the tiredness that I'm now succumbing too.

Tomorrow I fly in the evening to Hong Kong, stay there for a few hours, before heading to the UK where I'll spend 48 hours before getting back to Spain in time to go to work on Monday morning. Unfortunately I'm due to land in England around 5 am on Friday morning and given my usual inability to sleep at all on flights, I'm expecting my body clock to be all out of kilter for a few days.

Anyway, with this last post before I head back home I'll leave you with a photo from the Royal Palace in Seoul, which I visited on Sunday - some shameless HDR (click for larger versions)
Royal palace, Seoul

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Give and take

My research period here in Seoul is (officially) over now, having handed in my visiting researchers report on Friday afternoon. We now have a few calculations to be getting on with over the next couple of weeks which, as always, may or may not lead to anything. Whatever happens, my time here has been lively and enjoyable, spending dozens upon dozens of hours talking with my collaborators in the two departments I've been visiting.

I'm now here for another few days before heading back to Spain via two days in England (just the way the cheapest flights went). I'm now couchsurfing in the South of the city and, as always happens with Couchsurfing, meeting some wonderful people. My host is one of the most exceptional people I've met, having such a diverse range of talents and interests that surprises never stop and we seem to be constantly discovering shared passions. My host's friends who I've met over the last few days here are also a great group, many of whom are couchsurfers themselves and it's been great to get some insights into life in Seoul as seen by the expat community, which is made up predominantly of English teachers. I don't particularly chose to spend all my time with expats, figuring that time in a foreign country is best spent finding out about life from the local residents, but on this occasion it has simply worked out that way, and it's one of the most lively intelligent groups I've had the pleasure of meeting.

(In fact, during a train ride to work, I was informed by a perfectly friendly Korean student that the reason many of the younger people I met claimed not to speak English, when really they did, was because Korean people don't like foreigners. Rather shocked at this I probed a little further and he, very frankly, said that Koreans don't like things that are different and they would rather spend time with people who were the same than with people who were strange and foreign.

My experience with those Koreans I've met has never matched with this opinion, but it was an interesting moment of matter-of-fact conversation. There are indeed many idiocyncratic aspects to modern Korean society but in my brief time here, none of these has made me dislike the place at all. I've discovered a lot by speaking with the expats who teach one-on-one with young Korean adults who often open up to the teachers with very frank statements about marriage, work, love and social life.)

Anyway, spending time with the couchsurfers and their friends here has been great and I'm continually being surprised by the fact that not only are people not silenced when I tell them that I'm a theoretical physicist, but more often than not I'm met with gasps of astonishment, followed by a flurry of great questions. Explaining physics to people with a genuine interest is hugely enjoyable and I've spent a lot of time talking with very intelligent non-physicists about many many fascinating topics over the last few days. The 'oh my god, I never knew that. That just blows my mind' response makes talking with such people so enjoyable, and thankfully I've had a lot of opportunities to get such reactions.

Getting people interested in science is a real buzz!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Solar halo over Seoul

A tiring but enjoyable day today, doing a bit of sightseeing around Seoul, I headed to the hill where the Northern Seoul tower is based, which turns out to be quite a trek in the midday heat. The view from the top gives a good sense of scale of this metropolitan area with a population of some 23 million people, pretty big, even by Chinese standards! The North mountain, Namsan houses not only the tower, but a host of other cultural exhibits and museums, and is worth a couple of hours wondering around. The forest leading to the top is also a rather pleasant change from the nearby buzz of the city.

Up at the top I was greeted with another solar halo, though only partial this time (click on the solar halo tag below this post to see more halos I've previously taken). Still, always a beautiful sight. Sadly I couldn't get to the right angle to get the tower with the halo, so opted for this simple view instead:

Solar halo over Seoul
Apart from wondering around another of the temple complexes, it's been a relatively quiet weekend, in the knowledge that I don't have so much time to work here and still with plenty to do, yesterday was spent trying to get some ideas and calculations ready for tomorrow. It's going to be a busy week in the office, but, I hope, a productive one.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rough and tumble

It's a strange profession when a seven hour argument is the highlight of your week, but that's the way it goes in research. At around two this afternoon we started a discussion on a new idea that we've had over the last week and started battling out all aspects of this problem, from the mathematics and the feasibility to the interpretation and possible power of the model. Things got heated at times and we went through all possible combinations of disagreeing with one another, but as we left to go for dinner at around 9pm, we were all very happy, not just with the outcome, but because this is what we love to do. It's a strange game of strategy, knowledge, luck and judgment where each person tries to understand the situation, put their own spin on it and persuade the others that their interpretation is right, but it's an exhilarating one, and this sort of collaboration is my favourite kind. Who knows if this idea will come to anything, but the process so far has been a lot of fun, and we've all learnt a great deal already, by confronting old problems in new lights.

Tomorrow we've agreed to spend some time knuckling down and actually doing some more of the mathematics which underlies our idea, as by the end of our seven hours today, we were running in circles. Anyway, after raised voices and looks of despair, we left with friendships perfectly intact knowing that this is the way research goes.

In fact tomorrow is Korean independence day, but it seems like in the university, all will be as normal. Tomorrow evening I'll be going to a couchsurfing meetup in nearby Hongdae which should be a lot of fun.

Now, to relax a bit I'm trying to catch up on some of the Olympics on one of the 70+ channels on TV, however, here in Korea it seems that almost the only televised events are ones where there are Korean high hopes, which makes for a rather restricted cross-section of the games. Strangely, or not, I found the same thing in Japan and China at various times. I'm not sure if I just haven't watched English TV for too long, but I seem to remember a rather more global outlook on sport, though that may simply be that we wouldn't have enough events to fill the timetable if we only watched games we were good at!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Drawing to a close-ish

I've just given the last of my eight talks on this trip. It's been enjoyable discussing with so many people, though I'm feeling pretty pooped right now.

We have ideas spilling out of our notepads at the moment here, and not enough time to finish them all off. I have another week or so with the researchers here and it would be great to get something really concrete going quickly. There are also unfinished projects in Santiago which will really be demanding my attention as soon as I'm back home, in fact they should be demanding my attention now and I've been working on a few of them in the background, but they really need a push soon.

It's been a great, productive and interesting few weeks going through France, Germany, China and Korea, but I am looking forward to settling back into life in Spain for at least a few weeks (give or take a few talks I have to give when I get back). I'll be back there at the end of August, after a few days here to do some sightseeing and track down some san nak ji.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Photo updates

A few shots from the last couple of weeks. First of all I feel I have to post an eclipse-ish photo. As I said a few posts ago, the sky was pretty cloudy where I was, though clearly as you can see from this photo, it wasn't complete cover everywhere. The photos from totality are rather featureless, but this photo was taken perhaps a minute before the lights went out completely, taken in Pingliang, Gansu province:

moments before totality in Pingliang, Gansu
Before the eclipse, as I said, I attracted the attention of some local kids, I gave them my camera to play with and they had a blast snapping everything around them. This was one that I took of them, great expressions, great kids:
Kids in Pingliang
Back in Baoji, before heading back to Beijing I met up with a guy taking birds to market, chatted with him briefly and asked if I could take his photo. There's a compromise to be made between being overly polite, in which case you are likely to get the least natural photos, and being rude, which will probably give you the most spontaneous images. I tend to err on the side of caution a little too much, perhaps.
Birdman of Baoji
Onto Seoul, and just before the fantastic cloud shadows posted yesterday, caused by the layers of haze below the main visible clouds, we had a show of rather fine sun beams over the temple complex:
Chaonggyegung sun beams
and finally, yesterday afternoon, this guy was sat perched in a tree. I waited for around half an hour for him to fly off. Eventually he did but I fluffed up the timing and didn't get a decent photo of the ascent, still, he gave me some time before to watch him stalking the fish:
Stork in Seoul
More photos on my Flickr site and all can be found in larger sizes.

Today I've rested up and spent some time relaxing in a local cafe. Lots of things to get on with tomorrow after some productive conversations on Friday evening.