Saturday, February 28, 2009

Venus and the crescent moon over Santiago

The moon and venus over Santiago de Compostela
Keep an eye out, the two will get even closer for the next couple of days.

See also the very nice shot from Twomanytribbles, complete with Earthshine and twighlight sky.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I'm currently gathering together a few photos from the weekend which I'll put up soon. In the mean time I got a few shots from a day trip I took with a couple of friends yesterday.

Yesterday was carnival day in Santiago, and having seen it last year I fancied taking the opportunity to escape and see a little more of the Galician coastline.

We drove down towards Pontevedra, stopping along the way at spots to explore, hike a little and get some local food, including some of the best bream I've tried around here. We started off at a local monastery, complete with a truly hideous alterpiece, gold dripping from the ceilings and plump cherubs rosy cheeked. Anyway, although I couldn't bring myself to take a full-on photo of the garishness in the chapel, the courtyard gave the chance to take an architectural panorama and so I pieced this together.

Monastery detail
The last shot is looking directly up and taking in the wall behind.

From there we headed to the hills and got a wonderful view over the ocean. Though I was on the lookout, there were no exciting atmospheric optics to be seen, but at least the light on the surrounding countryside was rather glorious:
Galician countryside
Click here for huge!

We drove on a little more and finally made our way to a little village having its own carnival celebrations. At the top of the village was a hill with a celtic settlement where we sat down to watch the sun set over the Atlantic. On the lookout for the Green flash I set up my camera on a flat piece of rock, attached the camera release and tried my best not to get blinded. Although I missed the Green flash, I did get a few setting sun photos before it disappeared.

It may be cliched, but as the sun was just setting a flock of birds flew in just the right plane to get the perfect 'birds beneath the setting sun' shot, a must for all wannabe photographers:
birds at sunset
Again, click for larger.

At the end of the day we headed to Cangas, where the local bars were so full that we had to try the completely empty Chinese restaurant. Chatting with the owners for a while they seemed so surprised that I could talk with them reasonably comfortably that they gave me a wonderful doggy bag full of huajiao, sichuan pepper, on the way out.

Anyway, There are plenty more shots to process, but time doesn't allow right now. Keep an eye on my flickr account and the odd one or two may appear in the next week.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Observing Comet Lulin

Tomorrow Comet Lulin makes its closest approach to Earth and I have my alarm set for 5 tomorrow morning to try and get a glimpse of it. If you want to find where to look to find the comet then I can highly recommend downloading Stellarium, the best desktop skymap program I've found, by far. From this page, you can find the instructions on how to add Comet Lulin to the encyclopedia of objects in Stellarium. It's then very easy to find exactly where to locate it after you've input a few bits of data about your location.

Comet Lulin from the Nasa website:

Anyway, I'll be looking to get some photos tomorrow early morning and will post anything that is worth looking at. I stretched my camera and lens to their maxima last week by getting a photo of Venus in its half lit crescent state. While it's certainly not the greatest venus shot ever, it is nice to see what can be done without a telescope.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Arrival of spring

After what seems like unending months of rain, including hurricanes which have brought much distruction to the area, the sun has finally begun to push itself through the murky gloom of Atlantic weather fronts. The last few days have been sunny with a brisk chill, but today brought the first true rays of warmth to Santiago. I was supposed to have a Couchsurfer come to stay for the weekend, but in the end her plans changed. She had a little time in the morning before she had to leave the city so she came round to chat for a couple of hours. The flat was still in disarray after a hotpot meal I'd cooked last night for seven friends though the bulk of the cleaning had been finished before bed.

Anyway, with only a fleetingly short time to see the city we headed for the Alameda in the glorious morning sunshine and took a stroll roll to the point which I believe gives the most glorious view of the city. I took the opportunity to get a panorama of the basking buildings (click for much, much larger):

 Santiago from the Alameda
I've been working like crazy for the last few weeks, finishing most nights at around 2 am, and this was the first time in far too long where I could simply stop, for a few minutes, close my eyes and take in the warmth of Santiago. It was a wonderful, if brief, respite, and as we walked around the park and chatted I really did find myself winding down.

She then headed off for her future adventures and I returned to my routine once again - cafe, work and a few odds and ends of shopping to stop my flat falling apart.

Anyway, I've just about finished work for today and tomorrow holds some rather exciting adventures  which I'll write about in the evening, all being well. For now, I hope that the weather is as good where you are as it has been here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

AdS collective in Madrid

I've just returned from four fantastic days in Madrid. In fact it was only a last minute decision to attend the conference at all, but it has been well worth it. The topics and speakers were right on target for my current interests, and the discussions generated by the talks were constantly enlightening and provocative, without being aggressive (well, mostly).

I also had a chance to catch up with more friends, and meet more new people than I've been able to at any previous conference. As you travel more and more, and build up collaborations, such meetings simply turn into gatherings of friends. This, a far cry from the days, not so long ago, that I would go shyly into a room full of unknown faces and not have a chance to join in the discussions, whilst being bewildered by the talks. Anyway, three non-stop days, in the process of which a good number of new ideas have been generated and the fuses of older possibilities have been relit.

For now I have to get on with several projects in the next two weeks before another collaborator comes to visit at the beginning of March, so I'm going to try and fit in as much as possible in that time to see how far we can get with the current ideas which are taking shape.

Away from the conference, the time in the city itself was also excellent, as I couchsurfed with a great couple of local Madrilenios in Aleche, in the South West of the city. As well as myself and the two hosts there was a German erasmus student, plus a girl from the US and one from Finland staying on the various couches and mattresses around the house. One of my primary goals as a host is simply to make my guests feel at ease and at home, and the two guys putting us up were masters of this.

While I didn't have much time to socialise with everyone in the flat apart from cooking them a meal on Monday night I did have a bit of a tour of the centre of Madrid on Sunday afternoon. In the glorious Madrid sunshine we went to relax in Parque Retiro where hundreds of people soaked up the first few warm days of the year, while drummers bongoed and jugglers entertained everyone sitting out by the lake, getting ready for the week ahead!

Anyway, I come back tired but enthused and look forward to getting my teeth into these projects in the next couple of days.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Always with the if onlys

I happened to stumble across an old post of mine, from back in the era of cold Beijing nights and surreal days which promised the unexpected around every corner. I've been away from there for over a year now, but it stays in your blood - everyone I know who has spent serious time there attests to this. The feelings of true love for that city are those of a stormy relationship, with highs and lows which even in retrospect bring back vivid feelings of elation and desolation.

In fact it wasn't the content of this particular post that I was reading, written around two years ago which caught my attention, but a little twang of nostalgia for the days that I took great pride in sculpting a post, paying attention to the flow and rhythm of every sentence and, on occasion if I was very lucky, causing others to comment that they had enjoyed the insights, the weirdness, the humour, or simply the string of words.

These days I'm busy, really really busy. I've had to slow down the social activities a little as I've turned my days inside out. Spending time in the office in the day and the library at night, reading the piles of papers that await my attention does not make for a very sociable timetable. I'm learning, I'm playing with new tools and ideas, and I'm enjoying it a lot, I would even go so far to say that I feel a current boost of creativity. But still the call of the open road was brought to my attention by the piece of writing that I put forth not so many moons ago.

Anyway, despite the momentum of work which I've promised myself will go on for the next couple of months at least - provided I don't burn out, I do feel the need to explore. Once again I'm feeling a little hemmed in by this beautiful, but undeniably small city. I want to get out at the weekends occasionally for an adventure, and though I enjoy my weekend trips to the local cafe where I continue with work, somehow I'm not feeling fulfilled by the current balance. It's a difficult balance to strike however, and the guilt and drive of wanting to get the work done must be carefully offset against my natural need for new stimuli.

Anyway, this Sunday I'll be heading to Madrid for the AdS collective at the beginning of next week, so I'm not going to be able to escape this time. However, I'll see what I can cook up for the coming weekends and hopefully look to post something more in line with what I have always envisioned this blog to be about.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

CERN winter school 2009 lectures up online

Sadly I'm not able to attend this year, but it looks like there are a great group of lecturers giving talks on topics related to string theory. Unlike last year the lecture videos are being posted online immediately and there are already the first couple of days worth uploaded.

Take a look here to learn about fluid dynamics from AdS/CFT, the black hole information paradox, beyond the standard model physics, and more.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Atmospheric optics picture of the day

I posted about the wonderful solar halo display over Porto last autumn. Of course I sent my photos to atoptics and got an excited response that I may have captured a rather rare display. After much analysis of my large set of photos the good news is that indeed I was lucky enough to see a full display of Lowitz arcs. The pictures and description are up online at atoptics now as the picture of the day.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Degenerate synchronicity via Dropbox

I've discovered a tool which, over the last week has considerably simplified the awful mess which was an unsynchronised set of work files, spread between my office computer and my laptop. With 20 versions of every file at different stages of completeness it was getting ridiculous.

I write a lot of files, mostly for mathematical programing. It's what I spend most of my time at work doing, and I enjoy it a great deal - the breaking down of a complex problem into workable, smaller steps which are understandable and efficient is as much a game as anything, it just happens to lead to papers and new results, which is always good.

Anyway, because I create lots of files at work which I often want to continue working on in the evenings I would normally e-mail myself the file, or take it home on a usb stick and add to it at home or in a cafe. At home I would regularly create two or three new versions of this program as I tried out new methods to solve a problem. The next day I would take one or all of these to work and continue working. The outcome was that I had dozens of different versions of every file and I was frequently confused as to which file was the newest/most correct version. My two computers got more and more out of synch as the degeneracy in files melted and the whole thing became a great mess.

Until now...Dropbox is a wonderfully simple application which in a matter of 24 hours seems to have solved all of these problems, and more. It's free to download and has an online storage capacity of a couple of gig (plenty for my current mathematica files).

When you download it and set up an account, the program creates a folder on your computer. You then put files into this folder and a copy of this folder which is online synchonises with that on your computer. The two versions only synchronise when you turn on the program on your computer, but what I've found best is to turn it on automatically when I log on in the morning, and then again when I log off at night, to get everything up to date. Provided I haven't created any huge new files it should take a matter of seconds.

So, the vital part is that I have a second version of the folder on my laptop. It again is synchronised to the version on the internet. When I update a file on my computer at work, as soon as I go home and connect my computer to the web, I have a synchronised version on my laptop with everything I've done during the day. I effectively now only have a single version of my files, it's just no longer local.

What is more I can connect to these files wherever I am by logging into my account online and using the web interface to get any file I want - be it a talk, a mathematica file, or a half written paper. There is no longer the problem of having multiple almost equivalent versions of the same file - life has been greatly simplified!

Of course I'm not relying on this system to hold up (though I have no reason to suspect it won't) so I back up my files religiously with Time Machine.

Anyway, I would highly advise this program to anyone else who has problems with the mess of using multiple computers, or who simply wants some free online backup. Definitely worth spending a few minutes to get your life back in order!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Gijon summation

I'm back after around 6 hours in the car from the conference in Gijon. For me it was a good chance to meet up with friends from around the Spanish strings community and it's always good practice to give a talk to such an audience - I spoke too quickly again, my perennial problem in a half hour seminar. Most of the talks were simply too technically oriented in realms that I have no active experience in to be of much use to me, but I did leave feeling quite happy, in a strange way.

Going to the strings conference in Beijing three years ago I left feeling rather depressed that I wasn't able to follow all of the talks. I felt this a great failing on my part and that I had an insurmountable quantity of material to learn. Three years on and I have learned a lot, but I've also realised that I'm simply never going to be able to follow all specialised research talks, and that's just fine.

Not understanding them isn't a fault, but simply an indication that it's not an area that you've worked in, or spent weeks reading about. Though the work is clearly important I have little direct interest (at the moment) in knowing about tensor hierarchies in 4d supergravity. Such seemingly abstract subjects (from my stance) are clearly vital for the building of the subject that I work in, but if I spent my time learning all about this, I would never have a chance to get any of my research done - my priorities lie elsewhere.

It's taken quite a long time to get to the point where I'm happy to expand my area of expertise without feeling constantly embarrassed by the fact that there's so much more still to learn in other areas (this feeling hasn't vanished completely, mind). This fact may sound trivial, but I've met a lot of young researchers leaving conferences feeling considerably more stupid than when they arrived. Step by step you get there, but you don't have to understand every aspect of string theory and supergravity at once.

The most interesting talks from my perspective were those by Jose Barbon, on non-relativistic AdS/CFT and by Jan de Boer on Brownian motion in AdS/CFT, both of which I do intend learning as much as I can about in the near future.

Anyway, re. the city of Gijon itself, I'll post some photos when I've had some sleep, digested the cabrales and caught up with some pressing work. Next stop is Madrid for a three day meeting on AdS/CFT and it's applications to finite temperature and condensed matter systems - this should be a fantastic meeting with a lot of very good people going.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A quick update from Gijon

Just a quick update to mark the silence. I'm currently at a three day conference in Gijon, in Asturias where I'll be giving a talk tomorrow. The crowd of around 30 people here, mostly working in gravitational aspects of strings and branes, make up a pretty hardcore crowd of theorists from my perspective, but there are some interesting talks, in between the indix juggling and and miscellaneous mathematical acrobatics.

This is my first time in Asturias (around a five hour drive North East of Santiago), and we managed to sample the local delicacies of cabrales (a strong goat's cheese) and cider, oxygenated by pouring from a great height, or spraying out of some complex piece of cideroxygenating machinery (as seen on this page).

I have a bunch of other projects to be getting on with for now, and have had to retreat from the last lecture today to finish some things before dinner.

Anyway, had better get on, but in case you were wondering, this is where I'm at.