Saturday, May 31, 2008


When architects go wild! Take three spiral staircases and tangle them together in a convent in order to stop the marauding bandits from marauding away with your nuns.

In the museum of the Pobo Galego.

Photo feature

The photo of the solar halo I took in Santiago a few weeks back is today's feature of the day on Atmospheric Optics :-)

22 degree solar halo in Santiago de Compostela

Friday, May 30, 2008

A few more notes on Couchsurfing

The weekend rolls around but I still have some work that needs finishing for Monday. A few hours in a cafe tomorrow should do the trick.

Over the last few weeks, Couchsurfing has become a pretty big thing in my life, hosting as much as I can, and managing, I believe, to make it interfere very little with my work life. In the last few weeks I've hosted: Two Brazilians, two Latvians, eight Americans, an Israeli, a Spaniard, two Italians, an Austrian, a Czech, a Pole, three Germans, a Parisian, an Estonian, an Aussie, and a Brit (not including my family). And it's been fantastic.

If I'm busy with work I can leave them to do what they want, but coming home to chat with people from all around the world, to cook together, to go for a drink and to discover life from every corner of the Earth is just a fantastic thing to be able to do.

In fact I'm writing this spurred on by the last couchsurfer who came to stay (not including the three here at the moment). Kurt is originally from Germany, and arrived on his Harley Davidson having ridden from Portugal. I've never met anyone with so many stories and so much experience and chatting with Kurt in the evenings was eye opening and on frequent occasions jaw-dropping. A chef by training, this career has seen Kurt everywhere from Iran where he cooked for some time for the Shah, to oil rigs in the arctic circle, to the Munich Olympics, all the way up Everest where he was part of the 1982 Canadian expedition, Japan, all around South, Central and North America, India and Hong Kong to name but a few. He's hoping to make it down to Antarctica when he heads back to South America this summer as this is one of the few places he hasn't yet visited!

In fact what was particularly pleasing with Kurt, was that not only was I able to give him a place to stay for a few nights, but I tracked down some of his long lost friends using the power of Google. Within a few minutes we'd found two of his closest friends from the Everest expedition with whom he'd lost contact many years ago, and discovered that his best buddy from years of sailing around South and Central America was a real estate agent in the States where we were able to send a quick e-mail and rekindle the friendship. I really hope that he's able to revisit some of the amazing experiences with the people he was with at the time.

Kurt is currently couchsurfing around Europe and if by any chance he's in your neck of the woods I seriously suggest heading for a few drinks with him, or invite him into your house and cook a meal together.

I could write up a post about every couchsurfer who came to stay, the diversity of people coming to Santiago is pretty startling and I get to meet people from all walks of life, however, doing so would leave too little time to actually do stuff myself. I suggest you sign up yourself and get in the game of unconditional help. The more hosts the better!

Anyway, I just wanted to add a few more positive notes on Couchsurfing which I believe always needs more publicity. Currently I'm housing three pilgrims from the States who have just walked the Camino (one for two weeks and two for the last month). We're about to cook together, after which I will finish some work before we all head out for a drink.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Phil Plait on Phoenix

I'm a little sleepy today, but for good reason. I was up last night huddled over my laptop a little before 2am watching history being made, again, by scientists reaching out to the next crest of the next hill, in order to see what's on the other side.

Curiosity is what drives us and it's why we're here, not only living in, but understanding this amazing universe around us. Last night we landed another probe on the surface of Mars, in the Northern polar region, in an attempt to see whether there could ever have been life there, and also to study the possibilities for future habitability.

Watching the NASA video from the control room, live last night may not have been objectively fascinating viewing, but as the data streamed in as stage after perilous stage of the descent to the surface worked perfectly, from the 21,000 km/h passage through the atmosphere, heating the craft to temperatures around those on the surface of the sun, to the final gentle, yet hugely complicated manouevres, automated to get it safely onto the surface of the planet, came in, I was firmly on the edge of my seat. We were getting news from 170 million miles away, at the speed of light, about a robot that had been perfectly engineered by humans to do a job on another planet. We're one step further.

Today, Phil Plait, from BABlog made this movie about one of the first photos which has been released, not from Phoenix, but from an orbiting satellite of Mars. As a spokesman for science, Phil Plait really knows how to tell it.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Wedding, Galicia style

I've finally had a few moments to process the photos from two weeks back when I went to the wedding of my Spanish teacher and one of my colleagues. Apart from the whole getting married bit, a Galician wedding focuses mostly around seafood, and this one was no exception, with course after course of stunning lobster, crab, langoustine, clams and more, all washed down with a rather fine white wine from the region of the Ribeira Sacra.

As with all things Spanish, retiring early is simply not on the cards and the wedding crowd finally dispersed into the early morning drizzle at around 7am. A very enjoyable evening and I'll certainly be heading back to Ourense, the closest city to the village where the wedding was held, for some sightseeing.

As an aside I discovered that confetti is not the Italian for bits of paper thrown at weddings. Confetti, in Italian means small sweets (usually sugar coated almonds) which are eaten at weddings - but certainly not thrown! The Italian for confetti is coriandoli. It appears that this word came into the English language via a confusion of meanings along with pepperoni/peperone (sausage in English, bell pepper in Italian) and bimbo (derogatory term for an apparently unintelligent woman in English, boy in Italian)

Saturday, May 24, 2008


I've been searching for a decent flashcard program with which to learn foreign vocabulary for some time. Certainly with Chinese, learning new words has always been the biggest stumbling block for me; the grammar is astoundingly simple in many ways. Now for Spanish too I'm looking to increase my vocabulary as fast as possible.

I've found the best material for learning Spanish grammar has been the Michel Thomas courses which take you from the basics (cleverly focusing on similarities to English) all the way through to the various subjunctive tenses - the bane of most English speakers learning Spanish!

Most flashcard programs work on a very linear algorithm. You input the vocabulary you want to learn, they then show the cards one by one and tot up your score so you can keep track of how you're doing.

Genius is different, and works on a simple but effective algorithm encoding the way most people memorise most efficiently. The principle is as follows:

When you hear or read a new word for the first time, you will typically remember it for around 10 seconds, before it starts to fade. If you hear it within those ten seconds, you will then be able to remember it for a further 30 seconds or so before it disappears. Again, hearing it within those 30 seconds you will be able to remember it for a couple of minutes. The next jump may be up to 10 minutes and so on. Soon enough you will remember the word almost indefinitely.

Genius works on this principle by feeding you the words just before you are likely to forget them and therefore prolonging the time you can remember them for with the least possible effort. Of course if you don't use these words within a few days they are likely to fade once more, so clearly as much interaction with people using these words is key.

My first attempt at using Genius was a strange experience. I put in around 100 new words and started the program. Within a few minutes it was asking me words that I'd heard shortly before. I could only just remember them consciously, but found that if I followed my fingers and just relaxed, I could get them right more than 90% of the time. Within a little over an hour I had remembered 100 new words with seemingly no effort - certainly no active attempt to memorise anything!

Many of these words receded into the depths in the next few days as I didn't use them, but with another go on the same vocab list today they seem very familiar and I'm ready to move onto a new set.

I would highly recommend giving this program a go if you're attempting to quickly increase your vocabulary in a foreign language.


On the subject of memory, I've always had a fascination with eidetic (photographic) memories, being of the belief that we all have much greater capacity for near perfect memories than we are normally aware of. I have enough personal circumstantial evidence to know that my mind does things I wasn't aware it was able to at the strangest moments.

On Onpoint a few days ago there was a radio piece about a woman with hyperthymestic syndrome, until recently thought to be unique in her ability to remember perfectly everything that has happened to her over the last 2+ decades, since her early teens. She spoke of having two screens in her head, one in the here and now with which she interacts with the world around her, and one, like a movie screen, constantly playing back in perfect detail random moments of her life from the age of around 14.

It seems that since this radio piece many people have come forward claiming to have similar experiences themselves, or through people they know. The radio piece has points of interest, though the first part of the interview between the host and the woman in question felt rather like an attempt at a show piece. I felt it pretty unpleasant to listen to the host probing her, seemingly to get an amazing piece of information from the last couple of decades with which to wow the audience.

However, there were moments of fascination and insight into a life where you never forget, the good, the bad and the ugly. Particularly interesting was to hear that having such a memory is not a blessing for school life, allowing you to study everything in a fraction of the time of your classmates. Indeed a life where there's a constant movie playing in the background seems to be a frustratingly distracted one.

Of course the main interest in this is that, like with most of neuroscience, the way you understand the 'normally' functioning brain, is by studying the extremes of cognitive ability, both positive and negative, Phineas Gage being one of the first examples of such studies.

Anyway, the piece is interesting, if on several occasions rather insensitive. Worth a listen nonetheless.

Right, back to struggling to get as much into my imperfect memory as possible!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sun Propellers seen in Santiago de Compostela

And we pass seamlessly from redbows to sun propellers (also known as crepuscular rays), the rays of light shining up from a setting sun as distant clouds block some of the paths of light.

As we all know, the Mongolian for sun propeller is Huun-Huur-Tu and this is the name of the group of singers and musicians I saw tonight in the Baroque church of the University. A wonderful hour or so of overtone singing and a variety of weird and wonderful instruments resounding off the ancient dome made for a lovely evening.

In fact the group come from the Tuvan People's Republic, North of Outer Mongolia, now within the Russian federation. This is an area of mountains and grassland, flowing rivers and windy plains, and many of their songs are about their relationship with their homeland.

The Galician government funds a good number of cultural events around the province and I'm going to keep an eye out for more of these coming from both home and away

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Red bow over Santiago de Compostela

There are few benefits, besides a great deal of greenery, to having such a rainy climate, but we do get some rather fine optical phenomena here in Galicia. Yesterday evening as the sun was setting, the rain on the opposite horizon was still pouring and a redbow was in rather magnificent view from my window. As the sun sets and the light is refracted, the light which is reflected from the water droplets in a rainbow is mostly from the red end up the spectrum, and you end up with a redbow. Even after the sun had set we were still able to see this rather unusual phenomenon and I took a few snaps of it as it was disappearing. Not a perfect image, but enough to show that this really was a far redder bow than normal.

See the atmospheric optics site for some more explanation and some better pictures, and keep an eye out for this rather fine vision next time the sun is setting.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

New beginnings

After an exhausting couple of hours yesterday evening we finally uploaded our latest paper to the ArXiv. After two and a half hours of struggling we realised that the class we were using for our LaTeX document wouldn't allow references to equations within captions to figures and
finally we sent it off. The project has taken longer than we'd hoped because the problem we were trying to solve turned out to need a lot of computational time. At some points we were running five computers with our code for several days at a time, only to realise that the region of parameter space we were studying be improved. Anyway, all done now and another project is already starting. This last one has been very enjoyable though, if frustrating at times!

Today I'm off to the wedding of my Spanish teacher and one of my colleagues in Ourense, a city some 100 km from Santiago. My first Galician wedding promises a wealth of seafood and some fine celebration. I'll endeavor to bring back some decent photos. Anyway, for this weekend at least I'm going to relax, practice some Spanish this evening and get back to it on Monday.

Have a good weekend!

Monday, May 12, 2008

A billion monkeys

A trillion words, a billion five-word sequences, 13 million unique words appearing over 40 times! This is what has been accumulated from a Google research team in their project on n-grams.

Several aspects of this project have occurred to me before and I can see some more areas in which the research could be extended.

Google has been trawling the web for the fabric with which it is made - words - looking for the frequency with which words occur and, perhaps more interestingly, combinations of words.

This has many obvious uses - in particular in automatic error detection and in translation. It's a crude method, but if a machine can learn the structure of a language through a huge database of its current uses the chances of more natural translations increases greatly.

One idea I had while learning Chinese in Beijing came from the fact that while it's very simple to buy box sets with 'the thousand most common Chinese characters', actually, due to the structure of the language, what would be most useful would be lists of the most common character pairs, and combinations of four characters. The meaning usually comes from pairs of characters where each one individually can give only a vague idea of the meaning. This I would love to have and presumably could be quite easily be generated from an appropriate n-gram database. (If anyone already knows details about such a database, please tell me!)

And being Google, all of this data - around 24 Gigabytes, with the billions of combinations they've found is available for free which I can imagine will be of great use to linguistics departments around the world.

(*Note that the Google post shows that this news is not new, coming as it does from 2006*)

Thanks to the Google Operating system blog.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Stark reflections

After a few hours back at the Casino Cafe today I went over to the museum of contemporary art, which had a mix of the ludicrous and the powerful. I got some strange looks when I was taking this photo, head to the ground, but I'm quite pleased with the outcome:

art museum black and white.jpg
Some enjoyable playing around with the channel mixer.

Monday, May 05, 2008

All the fun of the fair, part II

Another chance to take advantage of the lights at the Mayday celebrations:

fairground whirlwind

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Mercury on the horizon

Keep an eye out for Mercury on the horizon this evening, just after sunset, close to the crescent moon in the West, following the sun. It's looking clear here at the moment and with sunset in around 5 minutes, my camera is at the ready.

Thanks to BABlog

Update: Clouds rolled in Santiago-style - not a sausage.

All the fun of the fair

The coincidence this year of May Day and Ascension day has brought a bumper load of celebrations to Santiago. I had four couchsurfers staying on Thursday night, Mayday night, and we headed out to the old town at around 10 pm for dinner. The crowds were huge and the events going on around the city, varied, from Celtic music (there are strong links between Galician and Celtic culture) to puppet shows and traditional feasts!

The Alameda, the large park in the centre of the city, from which you get perhaps the best view of the Cathedral (I much prefer it from afar), is currently home to a large fair, with all the candy flossy goodness that you get with such things in the UK. I headed back to the fair yesterday evening and took advantage of the lightshow to get a few pictures.

church and big wheel.jpg
Click for larger versions, plus more to follow when time allows.

Anyway, in general things are very very busy at the moment. We're trying desperately to get the current paper finished and I have another three projects waiting for my attention once this is done! Plans for the summer with plenty of travel adventures being set up. Currently things are getting organised for a summer school, a workshop, and at least seven talks in four other countries plus new collaborations in the mix. Should be enjoyable!

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Why we're so damned excited about the LHC

If you want a sense of the wonder which, as a scientist, I feel for the experiment shortly to be switched on at CERN, in Geneva, I would highly recommend watching this TED talk by Brian Cox. Towards the end Brian gives a powerful sentiment of the incredible fact that all of what we see around us, all the objects, the ideas, the emotions, our history and our future came from the simple combination of hydrogen atoms and the laws of physics.

Encompassed in this passage is my own sense of amazement at the fact that from humble beginnings, the universe is now self-aware. The emergent complexity from basic structures and rules is what makes me passionate about trying to understand more.

In addition to the above talk is the following animation which gives a sense of the technological achievements which have already taken place at CERN. As the Bad Astronomer Phil Plait says

I stood right there, looked right into the heart of that beast, and even now watching that animation gives me chills.

Count me in on that! It also gives me satisfaction that I played a small part in the progress of ATLAS.

Thanks to BABlog and Asymptotia.