Monday, March 30, 2009

International space station over Santiago de Compostela

I went out at 10 this evening to find a reasonably secluded spot, set up my camera, and waited till 22.10. I'd not seen the International Space Station before, knowlingly, but as the final set of solar panels have been installed, making it the second brightest object in the night sky after the moon, and tonight looking like a particularly good chance, I thought it was worth a look. As it came into view, the image of a satellite 100 meters across, 350km above the Earth, racing along at 27000 kilometers an hour with six humans on board was really quite a stunning sight.

At magnitude -2.3, it was easily brighter than any of the other stars in the vicinity, and I presume anyone who didn't know better would have thought it a fast moving plane, slightly yellow in colour.

I took a few 20 second exposures and rather like the last one, where you see the space station moving into the Earth's shadow, slowing fading to black. Anyway, check out on Heavens Above for when will be the next good chance to see it from your neck of the woods.

International space station

International space station

Importance of a good caffeine intake in research

Perhaps the brand should have been included in the acknowledgments, but this is the most firm evidence I've yet seen for the place a high level of caffeine intake should take in one's research:

The paper in general looks impressive, but page 19 particularly!

NB. This is not a mistake, it's included as a pdf on the background.

(That said, I've been on the wagon for five months now and feeling better for it.)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Earthshine at Earth hour

Yesterday night at 8.30 I switched my lights off and went to look out of the window from my great vantage point up on the seventh floor, overlooking some lovely scenery. Having had a pretty overcast day I wasn't expecting much, but the clouds had cleared and the moon was looking particularly stunning, with a lovely Earthshine lighting up the otherwise dark majority of its face.

Earthshine at Earth hour
Just down to the bottom right is Iota Arietis, a magnitude 5.09 binary star. On a dark night from my apartment I can pick up magnitude +11 objects, but in the twilight +5 seems to be the limit. Note that this is all without a telescope. Simply an amateur DSLR camera, a zoom lens (70-300mm), a tripod and a cable release. I continue to be amazed at what you can see with simple equipment.

The picture is untouched from the original apart from an unsharp mask, a crop and the brightening of the star in the bottom right.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A minor diversion

A quick update from the weekend...

I had a friend over from England this weekend, and after seeing a Flamenco version of Carmen in London together on Thursday we flew back to Santiago on Friday to spend Saturday and Sunday exploring some of the Galician countryside.

Saturday we headed to the Praia das Catedrais, one of Galicia's best known coastal landmarks to see the caves on the beach. The weather was fantastic and it's well worth a visit if you're on the North coast of this province.

rock on the water
On the way there we passed through Lugo and stopped off at the local farmer's market where they had a stunning selection of olives - indeed by far the best I've had in Spain. I thought I bought enough to last me the week, but I appear to be mistaken.

Sunday we headed to the West coast, between Pontevedra and Vigo to spend a few hours on the beach relaxing. In general I'm terrible at just sitting down and not doing anything at the sea, but I managed a good quarter of an hour of sunbathing before I had to get up and wonder around.

We were there with a few friends including a capoeira teacher who gave us an impressive display:
Capoeira on the beach
before we headed for the lighthouse nearby, overlooking the Isla de Cies to watch the sunset:
setting sun

We headed back on Sunday evening to try and catch the meteor shower though even the darkest spots in Santiago seem to have too much light pollution.

For now I'll leave this little bit of info for those around Galicia: Take a look out on Monday night at around 22.00 for the ISS which will be flying directly overhead and will have a visual magnitude of -2.3. Take a look here for the path and times.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Oxford revisited

I'm back home in Oxford for a few days, here to have a routine medical procedure performed (it would have taken a long time to get this done in Spain, so it was easier simply to come back to the UK). I've spent the last couple of days in various cafes in the city centre, getting on with some work while waiting for my appointment tomorrow. It's really lovely to be back and I'm reminded what a stunning city this is. We've been lucky with the weather and in addition to seeing sundogs every day, the sun shining off the ancient stone walls has meant for lovely conditions for walking around the centre.

(sundog this morning from the back garden - again, as I walked around the streets afterwards, keeping an eye on it, nobody else had a clue. I'm always saddened that people just don't look around them at the incredible phenomena right before their eyes):


Today I took a break at lunch and walked into the Natural History Museum, one of my favourite places to get lost for an hour or so, and wondered the isles as fascinated as I was when I first discovered the museum at a very early age. Not only is the exhibition wonderfully timeless, but also the fantastic Victorian architecture makes for one of the my favourite buildings in England. The details in the construction would take a lifetime to discover and I only found out yesterday that every column in the upper level is made of a different stone found in the British isles, every capitol having a unique native plant carved into the detail.

Before being greeted by the dinosaurs, the first thing you see as you walk in is the jaw of a sperm whale, rising up into the vaulted ceiling, calling for a vertical panorama:

Anyway, don't miss this museum if you're coming to Oxford - really a fascinating place.

I may be offline for a day or two from tomorrow morning, but will get back to things when I return to Santiago on Friday

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Kimchi making + dinner for ten last night, reading papers + writing the introduction of a new one today, off to Oxford tomorrow, tedious medical things to be seen to for a couple of days (nothing serious), Thursday night in London to see Flamenco, back to Santiago on Friday, four papers being juggled, full steam ahead!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Couchsurfing reaches one million!

<10 minutes to read - an advert for and some of my experiences within Couchsurfing.

Couchsurfing has just reached a huge milestone. There are now a million members of this website and the numbers are still growing fast. Here's where they are:

I thought I'd take the chance to write a few words about this site, which has brought an amazing wealth of knowledge, opportunities and friendship for me from, and in, fantastic places around the world.

The purpose of couchsurfing is simple:

It is a platform by which those traveling to new places may find people there who are willing to share their space and/or their time with strangers, in order to bring local knowledge to outsiders and make both traveling and living in that place a richer experience.

There are no overall constraints on this in terms of time, reasons for traveling, or how much you would like to put into the system. Each person may apply their own constraints as to how often or the sort of people they would like to host, if any.

The way it works is also simple: You sign up and create a profile page with as few or as many details about yourself as you would like to share. With this system, the more information you give, the better, as trust is an important part of the way it all runs smoothly.

When you would like to travel somewhere, you search for people in that location through the site. You may search for people who have a spare place for you to stay, or simply those willing to go for a drink or show you around their city. You can search by language, interest, location, and more.

In Santiago de Compostela there are just over 200 people registered to the site, 100 of these are offering their couches (or spare beds, or simply floor-space).

You then write to whoever you want, telling them about your plans and what you are looking for, whether it be a place to sleep or simply some information about what's going on in their part of the world. On receiving such an e-mail you can then look on the senders profile and find out a little about the person who would like to come into your life, if only for a short time. My profile can be found here (I should probably think about changing the photo, but it seems to intrigue people, so it's stayed up for now).

The crucial point is that you will not only read what they have written, but also the references from every other person who they have met through the site - these references are what makes Couchsurfing sustainable. It's a network of referral and trust. This is not going to work 100% of the time, but then you make an informed choice every time you step outside the house. The references on the site make the informed choice that much more reliable, (Note that the positive feedback is 99.8%).

You may then simply write back and say you're too busy, or give any excuse you want, or you may agree, and offer them what they are requesting. Typically you'll then exchange a couple more e-mails to arrange the timing and where to meet and then make sure everything is on course a couple of days before their arrival.

So far in Santiago I've hosted more than 65 people, from around the world and from all walks of life imaginable. I've met lawyers, chefs, scientists, photographers, film makers, linguists and psychologists, bikers, goths and life-long travelers, Japanese, Korean, Estonian, Guatamalan and Brazilian, and so many more. Each person comes into your life for a few days, but the link that you build up, be it only over a few brief evenings, is truly amazing. Sometimes I may only get to spend half an hour chatting with the people, as I'm careful not to let this take preference over my research, but if I have a spare weekend, we can regularly spend days walking around the city, cooking together, or simply hanging out in a cafe.

For a vague idea, this is the map of the nationalities of surfers I've hosted in the last couple of years:

However, it's not about the number of countries, nor the nationalities, but the diversity of people you meet through this site. Here in Santiago a large proportion of the people I know, I have met through couchsurfing during the meetups which happen regularly (organised through one of the thousands of groups on the site).

I should note also at this point that hardened couchsurfers tend to become a little religious about the whole thing, and it can become rather cultlike in the devotion which members pay to it. However, I know that letting strangers into your house is not for everybody and I've met a fair few people who've been horrified by the idea. Fair enough, it takes all sorts.

I haven't surfed as much as I've hosted, though I've stayed with people in Korea, Japan, China, Portugal, France and Spain with this system, and every time seen so much more than would have been possible had I booked into a local hostel and wondered around on my own for a few days.

In Korea at the weekends while I was there last summer I had an immediate group of friends that I could explore the city with, and I'm still in contact with several of them on a regular basis. Going to Paris I ended up in a flat in the centre of the city, in the house of a designer and in Tokyo I met more locals in the two days I was couchsurfing than I did in the three weeks before that, staying in a hotel.

Anyway, I simply wanted to spread the word. If you have questions about the system then feel free to ask me, or simply go to the FAQ or Wiki and see if the answers you are looking for are there. It's not for everyone, but it's a great way to meet people from around the world and make traveling a much richer experience.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Minority report style advances at TED - 10 minutes worth watching

Exciting possibilities!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A little light coding

For coders only, I'm afraid.

Trawling through the Mathematica forum to try and fix a problem with a piece of code, I came across a fellow coder whose clever choice of variable names make my scripts look like true poetry. A lesson for us all!


I'm knee deep in code of my own right now, attempting to finish off a couple of papers which are towards the bright end of the pipeline. I've had to be a rather unsociable host to my understanding couchsurfers this week. I've had some lovely meals with them, but otherwise had to leave them to their own devices. This week four Chinese guests, one from Guatamala, a Canadian, a German and a Japanese guy have been staying at my place. A real pity that such interesting characters are coming and going without me having a real chance to get to know them, but the current schedule simply isn't allowing for anything more than the occasionaly acknowledgement from behind my computer.

Anyway, back to it...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Carnival festivities in Galicia

(Written a couple of weeks back, yet only just received photographic evidence.)

Stepping a little out of my comfort zone is one of my new millennial resolutions that I'm attempting to stick to as much as possible. As a naturally rather shy person this tends to be generally daunting yet rewarding.

Anyway, when asked two weeks ago if I'd like to take part in a competition in a carnival I was hesitant, yet came to the conclusion that this was not the sort of chance that came along very often and I ought to go for it. I had few details about the competition apart from the fact that it was an annual event and we would be performing a short sketch in front of a large crowd as part of the local carnival celebrations.

My single chance for a practice came last weekend when I arrived at the sportshall of a nearby village to find a group of around 20 kids, along with miscellaneous parents and neighbours, all preparing frantically for the big event. The theme for our short sketch was the Olympics, in particular Chariots of Fire, the music thereof being our soundtrack. Somehow I was given a rather prominent role, for which little preparation was possible, but much could go wrong.

So, Sunday I arrived in Brion in the early afternoon, the smell of freshly prepared paella greeting me, and the current sunshine warming the patio on which we stood looking over the nearby hills. After a relaxed lunch we went to the back garden where a rabble of kids and adults were dressed up in an array of 1920s sport clothing, handlebar moustaches and greased-back hair being the order of the day for the men, the women wearing white dresses and bonnets.

Suitably made-up and dressed, we made our way to the top of the village to start the procession through the winding streets to the hall, a few hundred meters down the road. I was placed at the head of the procession, Olympic torch in hand, to lead our team to the sports hall at the end of the road. After half an hour of walking we arrived at the hall and had another half an hour of waiting nervously for our turn, the kids getting ever more excited and restless.

As our turn arrived we came in through the back of the hall to see a crowd of some five hundred onlookers crowded into the seats and flowing out onto the courts to watch us. As people took their places I stood back, and with the fire crew looking on with equal measures of concern and confusion I took out a bottle of lighter fluid, doused the Olympic torch and lit it.

As the music started, the atmosphere grew and our group came on. I ran in from the back, flame held aloft jogging around the hall, attempting not to light myself, or the paper banners hanging above me. Having successfully made it round the hall without undue fire damage I arrived at the pepetero (the Olympic flame) and on the first boom of the music I lit it, as in perfect synchrony the rest of the group started to make their balletic performances in slow motion around the hall. We had synchronised swimmers, half submerged in a sheet of blue cloth, held aloft by mustachioed gentlemen, javelin throwers and archers, rowers and tennis players, plus an entire gymnastics team, judges and runners.

Having already done my part at the beginning I was the one lucky enough to watch on as the team performed, and it was really quite a spectacle. Not that I didn't have faith, but somehow with the music playing at full volume and the onlookers silenced by the vision in front of them, the effect was far more than I had imagined.

I still haven't tracked down many photos of me in full regalia, so for now my photo of these chaps will have to do...taken after the event:

A video taken by cellphone from somebody in the crowd has been found though clearly it doesn't do the atmosphere justice (I can be seen running past in the first ten seconds - just watch for the fire). It may, however be enough to put pay to any chance of me being taken seriously ever again!