Sunday, April 27, 2008

Solar halo over Santiago de Compostela

I'm currently with my family, who are here for a few days for my Father's birthday. Today we went to see the swinging of the botafumeiro in the Cathedral, about the least religious religious ceremony you're ever likely to encounter. Following this we had a spot to eat, and headed back to my flat, when I looked up and saw this:

22 degree solar halo in Santiago de Compostela

solar halo2b

A phenomenal solar halo! I've been wanting to get a glimpse of one of these for as long as I can remember and have never seen one with this intensity. The sky is pretty clear but presumably the ice crystals in the atmosphere which cause the 22 degree halo are currently plentiful enough that we get this stunning solar performance.

For lots more information about this and other effects I highly recommend going to the atmospheric optics website which has a wealth of pictures and discussion about this sort of amazing effect!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Brian Greene at TED 2005

The TED talks are constantly giving an arenea to breathtaking ideas, and outstanding speakers. Indeed of the spokespeople in string theory, they don't come much more audience friendly than Brian Greene. In this 20 minute talk Brian gives a very quick overview of where string theory came from and where it may be going. Of course he glosses over technicalities which many may argue about and my views are less positive in terms of seeing extra dimensions at CERN than he makes out, but it's still one of the clearest explanations of the subject in such a short time than I've seen online.

Having had a large number of couchsurfers here over the last couple of months I've been trying to refine my explanation of what I do, something which I repeat with some frequency these days. People seem to nod at the right times and claim that they understand the idea, if not the details - well, that's pretty good in my book.

Anyway, the above video is worth a watch if you know nothing about the subject of string theory, or want a few tips on good techniques for explaining science to the public.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Mind mapping theoretical physics

As an undergraduate I never had the beard for the mad scientist look, but I did manage to cultivate this image in other ways. In particular anyone who came to my flat would be bombarded with walls covered from floor to ceiling in mind maps.

I discovered mind maps while at school when trying to find efficient ways to revise, finding that pouring through notes was less than ideal. Mind maps clicked with me straight away and I've used them ever since.

Mind maps are ideal for anyone who doesn't think in a completely linear way, which I imagine is almost everyone. Rather than writing out notes starting at the top of a page, working down and then going onto the next sheet, you start in the middle of a page (preferably of A1 paper) and work outwards, using arrows to link ideas, as much colour as possible and plenty of pictures. The result is a personal image of a topic, essentially what is in your mind put onto paper.

I always found that once an idea was in mind map form I could then recall the conceptual links and image how everything fitted together much much better than I ever could with pages of paper.

This worked for me just as well for equations as for essay subjects, if not more so. I could combine all the equations in any subject in the appropriate ways with links, hints for getting from one place to another and more often than not, see links which we had not been told about.

I'd always wondered if there was any way of doing this efficiently on a computer, and with a little searching on my new laptop this weekend I found just the thing. Freemind is a free piece of mindmapping software which allows me to do almost everything I could do on paper, plus many more things beside!

I spent about an hour this morning putting together some ideas of the topic I'm currently working on (this is just a subsection of what I was able to produce in this time):

example of Freemind

Click on the image for the version in flickr.

NB. the links in the above diagram can be moved around to make it look much neater than it currently is. The nodes can also be opened and closed when you want to look at a particular section in more detail than another.

I started with the name of the topic in the centre of the screen and off this centre came the subtopics. From each of these subtopics I wrote titles, authors and hep-th numbers of the papers which I've been reading which have been written on this topic. The papers and their content are what are seen in the bubbles above.

One of the best things is that because I can put a link to the papers embedded into the mindmap, I can simply click on the title of a paper and it opens up. No need to carefully label all files and store them in a number of subfolders - I can now organise them visually - I've been looking for a way to do this for a long long time!

So, once I've got the paper title in, I can give a sub-mindmap of the details in that paper - I can give a few bubbles with the main points of the paper, a few details of the method and the results, plus any obvious extensions which need working on. I can link to any mathematica files I've written for any part of the paper and I can embed pictures directly into the mindmap.

Currently it's not possible to use LaTeX which is a pain but because I can easily export LaTeX to a png file I can embed this whenever it's needed. There are plenty of people in the forums for FreeMind asking for LaTeX or MathML inclusion, s it may be there before too long.

Anyway, I just wanted to share this as I feel it could be a hugely useful productivity tool. I may give a more detailed look at the above mindmap when I've finished my latest paper ;-)

(Any hints from other Freemind users would be most appreciated)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Vista to Mac in 24 hours, for dummies

The sweet smell of Mac pervades my flat, with just the faintest whiff of Microsoft as it lingers under the doors. I breath in, relaxed.

It took me a little less than 24 hours to realise that Windows Vista was going to be the last straw in my relationship with Bill.

I don't care to dig too deeply as to whose fault it was that I would be locked to a computer with a given operating system in another language (whether MS, ACER, Star centre, or a combination of all thre - I simply don't know)- frankly I don't care much anymore. I do however find the dead ends which Microsoft leaves for it's customers quite astounding.

My ACER came loaded with a Spanish language version of Vista, and while I'm happy to do my best in terms of integrating into a new country, I would at least like a choice in the matter. The shop assistant had assured me that I could change the language, as did the MS site:

Windows Vista Language Interface Pack (LIP).‌ Windows Vista LIPs provide a translated version of the most widely used areas of the user interface. LIPs are freely available to download, and most LIPs can be installed and used on any edition of Windows Vista. Because not all of the user interface is translated, LIPs require at least one parent language. The parts of the user interface that are not translated into the LIP language are displayed in the parent language. When you download a LIP, you get the parent language requirements for that language. The parent language pack needs to be installed before the LIP can be installed. For more information, including a list of languages available for downloading, go to the Microsoft Local Language website.

It didn't seem to be too optimistic of me to think that this meant that such an installation was in easy reach. It was quickly clear that to have a full change of language one would need an upgrade to the higher cost editions of Vista but it seemed that the LIPs were going to be a reasonable compromise. However, clicking on the above link takes you to a site advertising the unlimited potential of MS, here.

Quoting again:

Empower your community by providing it with desktop software and tools in its own language.

If you're suffering from low blood pressure I would advise you to take a short tour around the above site, which Escher would surely have been proud of. The site does indeed appear to be a worthwhile pursuit of saving local languages amongst other things. I spent roughly an hour trying to find anything that I could download in order to get the above mentioned LIP and could find nothing.

In the end I did find a tech forum where it had been noted that the promised LIPs had not been released and nobody knew when they would be. After struggling with this for some considerable time and trying to see if there was any cheap fix I gave up. Perhaps there is an easy fix on the MS site, but frankly if they want my custom then they need a little more transparency in their advertising of such things.

The horribly slow plod of Vista, even with 2Gb of ram was enough to drive me over the edge and I took back the computer within 24 hours of picking it up.

An hour later I was at home, sitting comfortably with a new, more expensive, but infinitely more pleasant looking Mac in front of me. Turning it on, I was greeted with a warm glow and a flyby of the Orion nebula as, within 2 minutes I chose my language, connected to my Wifi network, set up my accounts and preferences and opened the desktop for the first time. Somebody knows how to please their customers.

Since then it's been a breeze and I have the MacBook set up as I like it, my firefox plugins installed, TeXShop running smoothly and music gently in the background, without the accompaniment of continuous disk crunches. I may be only a lowly individual to you Mr Gates, but you've just lost yourself another customer.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hasta la vista

My computer finally died a couple of days ago - feeling punished as it was at the time with a barrage of killing spinors.

Today I bought myself a new laptop. A Mac being a little too pricey right now I went for an Acer, the make of my last laptop and one which I'd been very happy with.

You may recall my first impressions with installing and using a Mac, which I wrote about back in November - scenes of blissful serenity as the computer started up, and then proceeded not to crash - a joy to behold.

I like to think that I'm usually a calm, and level-headed person. I tend not to swear much, simply out of habit and I like to use the logical rational I've built up as a physicist to tackle the problems of everyday life. Somehow all of this went straight out the window when faced with a mere 20 minutes of Windows Vista, which almost brought me to tears.

As I was buying the computer I was informed that my warranty was only valid if the original operating system was still present. Not overly impressed, but with the idea that if the worst came to the worst I could install XP or Linux as a second partition I turned the machine on and started to set things up.

I had also been informed that I would almost certainly be able to change the language from Spanish to English - this it turned out was simply sales pitch and unless you have the ultimate/premium editions of Vista, changing the language is damn near impossible and I'm currently struggling to configure the system, eyes wide shut, without accidentally formatting the lot (a thought which has occurred to me as a wise option on several occasions). Anyway, at the last count the 2 GB of Ram and dual processors have ground to a halt four times, for four separate reasons, and I'm wondering whether I shouldn't fork out the extra for a Mac. I'll sleep on it tonight, see if there are options to alter the language and reconsider in the morning, for now I'm a clump of hairs down and threatening to throw in the towel.

Monday, April 14, 2008

John Archibald Wheeler RIP

Sad news yesterday that John Wheeler had past away at the age of 96. I would suggest going to Cosmic Variance to read the extremely moving words from a man who knew John very well - the obituary by Daniel Holz, one of John's former PhD students - one in a line of many greats, including Feynman and Bekenstein.

John Wheeler was, as has been said on many many blogs a true giant in the field of theoretical physics, making great leaps in many areas, from Cosmology to Quantum field theory and information theory.

The closest I got to him was while reading his spacetime bending book Gravitation, which was coauthored with two of his students Kip Thorne (author of Black holes and time warps - The book which at the age of 13 first sparked my interest in such topics) and Charles Misner. While an undergraduate at Bristol university I spent the afternoons for several very enjoyable months in the library working my way through this splendid tome.

For more information about this inspiring man, read Dennis Overbye's obituary in the NYTimes.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Rainy season

Well, from what I gather rainy season is most of the year here in Galicia and indeed when I got up this morning and saw that the sky looked like this:

rainy day
I thought the only thing for it was to find a nice cafe to go and get some work done. I haven't yet found somewhere either jazzy enough, or hippy enough for me (not that I fall particularly into either category, but they are the sort of places I like to chill out and work) but the place with the comfiest chairs seems to be the Casino cafe. A little grand perhaps for my needs but pleasant nonetheless:
Casino cafe
piano at the Casino cafe

and they serve a pretty decent coffee!

Friday, April 11, 2008


I feel rather guilty about writing at the moment as there's just a bit too much else on. All in a good way. We're hoping to wrap up a paper soon and I have a couple more projects now on the go and plans for work/travel over the summer shaping up. My now daily Spanish exchange seems to be helping, though there are the usual ups and downs with learning a language.

Anyway, I'll write more when I have time, but at least I can try and keep up the posts with a few photos. These are from a few weeks back on a trip to Fisterra on the Coast of Death!

Galician coast copy
and on the same trip, on the road back we came across this rather idyllic scene:
autumn winter bridge

Couchsurfers coming again this weekend but I'll have to be a rather silent host, with my head firmly in the books.

NB. Previous posts where I referred to La Coruna should be read as A Coruna, the correct Galician spelling (modulo Spanish characters). Hat tip to Daniel.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Final Semana Santa procession - Santiago de Compostela

semana santa

Monday, April 07, 2008

San Pedro festival - Santiago de Compostela

With the spire of the Cathedral just poking through at the back...

San Pedro festival, Santiago de Compostela (HDR+ noise filter)

Sunday, April 06, 2008


The biochemists have their niche in the modern world of inventive cuisine - so it only seems fair to let other areas of science bring in their own particular specialities. Ok, this is perhaps stretching the analogy a little, but it's still great that we can use the technology of the parabolic mirror to create a fantastic culinary device (and as an amateur collector of kitchenalia from around the world this really appeals to me).
solar cooker and Javier
(Cooking up onions and garlic on a solar cooker in Galicia)
The solar cooker is a startlingly simple device, and the interest is not in the technology of the cooking process itself, but more in making a device which can be cheaply manufactured, put together and maintained in a variety of harsh conditions.
Various models of the solar cooker are already in place in refugee camps around the world, where other access to even the simplest equipment is very difficult to come by and different incarnations of the solar cooker have a variety of uses, including the ability to sterilise water. If you're catering for a large number of people, there's always the option of choosing a slightly larger design!

On Saturday I went for lunch at a colleague's house and on top of spending many enjoyable hours with non-English speakers (still contributing little but now understanding most) we cooked up a great Paella on the solar cooker. Temperatures were getting up to 30 degrees and the lack of wind meant that the heat was retained very well. Getting a pan of onions and garlic frying vigorously took perhaps 5-10 minutes and a pot of around 3 litres of water was boiling continuously once up to heat. The total light captured on a good day is equivalent to around 1 Kw, though the efficiency is of course not 100%.

On top of the above equipment (which can be made from cardboard and silver foil (see various designs here) one needs pots and pans painted with matt black paint and a good pair of sunglasses.
Solar cooker 1
Anyway, I would highly recommend giving this a go. If I had a garden I'd certainly build one myself. I think the word needs to be spread about this technology as an amazing way of getting sanitisation and portable cooking equipment to the masses of people who need it. (For a couple more photos from Saturday, take a look here).

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Trips to La Coruna and Noia

I've had family staying with me for the last week, and while I worked most of the weekdays, last weekend we hired a car to make some trips around Galicia. Having now hosted many people in Santiago, I find that about 2 days is plenty to get a taste of life in this small city - which is very pleasant but not terribly exciting (give or take the raucous made by students on a Thursday night/Friday morning). The coastline and surrounding scenery however is wonderful.

It was also fantastic to catch up with family that I really haven't seen much in the last two years, and my little cousins are no longer very little. On a side note, I had always wondered about teaching relatively complicated principles in physics and mathematics to young people and with a (seemingly) willing audience (both of my cousins love maths, and at 9 and 11 are definitely advanced for their age) I launched into what I hoped would end up as a lesson on calculus. We didn't get that far, but I remain convinced that given not a significant amount of time they would have got the basics. They grasped the concepts that I gave them amazingly fast and seemed to want more! I'm not sure I can start a line in Skype lessons in calculus for under 10s just yet, but we'll see.

Anyway, I wanted to add a few more photos from last weekend's excursions, to the town of Noia and along the coast South to a series of sand dunes.

Noia itself is a lovely coastal town with a famed empanada (pie) and some very strollable boulevards.

From Noia along the coast, you have rolling fields to the East:
fields of corn
and jutting beaches to the West:
Caitlin on the beach - HDR
On Sunday we made our way up North to La Coruna, the main political centre of Galicia which is modern, but dotted with old churches, plenty of sculpture:
large lady
and the Torre de Hercules - a Roman lighthouse:
Torre de Hercules
which gives more amazing views over the coastline. The day before we were there saw large storms, and the sea was still churning and turbulent:
crashing waves 3
For kids, the main attraction seems to be the aquarium, which is actually one of the best I've seen. It may not have the most extensive range of exotic sea-life, but the layout is great and enough to keep kids interested for a good couple of hours.
A few more photos from La Coruna and the trip down the coast.

Any other tips on the above places would be welcomed for future trips.

China's Instant Cities

Numbers in China are bound to blow you away. Statistics are without fail staggering and one thing I found was that you really do experience these huge numbers, in terms of masses of people, number of taxi drivers, restaurants, shopping malls, factories etc. They're not just hand-wavy figures, you can actually see the true scale of things and watch in real-time as things change.

From Boing Boing came a link to this article in National Geographic - China's Instant Cities about the huge expansion in South East China, around Zhejiang province where most of the factories which make most of the goods in the world are based (this is little exaggeration).

I quote from some way through the article where the author details the type of 'mall' where the goods made in the factories in this area are sold:

Everything is sold in a town called Yiwu. For the Zhejiang pilgrim, that's the promised land—Yiwu's slogan is "a sea of commodities, a paradise for shoppers." Yiwu is in the middle of nowhere, a hundred miles (160 kilometers) from the coast, but traders come from all over the world to buy goods in bulk. There's a scarf district, a plastic bag market, an avenue where every shop sells elastic. If you're burned out on buttons, take a stroll down Binwang Zipper Professional Street. The China Yiwu International Trade City, a local mall, has more than 30,000 stalls—if you spend one minute at each shop, eight hours a day, you'll leave two months later

The article is well worth a read to discover the strange, inhuman nature which has overtaken this part of the land which has seen some 150 million people relocate to work in the area, sweating their lives away in the factories to make our lives a little more convenient.

Friday, April 04, 2008

La Coruna in brief

A busy week with family out to stay - uncle, aunt and two young cousins. Had a great time traveling to more of the coast of Galicia on Saturday and nearby La Coruna on Sunday. Lots of photos to follow but that will have to wait. For now, just a couple from La Coruna. This was is not of any great artistic merit but certainly the friendliest eel I've ever had the pleasure of coming fact to face with (taken at La Coruna aquarium).


And one from the coastline after a stormy night:
La Coruna stormy day - 3 photo merge