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...