Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tim Minchin gets it right

A couple of links have recently come my way as Tim Minchin sums it up fantastically. It may be funny, but it's also extremely touching. Cheers Tim,

With hat tips to Toomanytribbles and Tawny, an ex-couchsurfer and sparring partner on the science front.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wolfram Alpha webcast

Update: I didn't have a chance to see the webcast, but this site has a pretty detailed discussion of the sort of things that Wolfram Alpha will be capable of. Looks fascinating!

No time to go into the details of Wolfram Alpha (Google it if you haven't heard of it yet), but it promises to be an exciting advance in the way we search the web...or possibly the biggest piece of vapourware this year.

Either way the web cast at Harvard by Stephen Wolfram is due to start at 3pm Eastern Time. Details here.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Of crazy, drunk locals, sandstorms and Moroccan adventures

Yesterday I uploaded a paper to the Arxiv (Spectral functions in metallic AdS/CFT) which should be online Monday. (Edit, up now 0904.3905).

This morning I've had my normal Saturday routine of Chinese and Spanish vocabulary, combining Anki for long term memory retention and Genius (great program, terrible name - really hard to Google for!) for the short term. Both of these work on spaced repetition techniques, though Genius is based on intervals of flashcards (with this I can effectively memorise around 100 Spanish words in an hour, though this will only stay fresh for less than 24 hours) whilst Anki is based on intervals of time (and is very effective for building long term memory). Together I find 10 minutes a day plus an hour on a Saturday and Sunday is very good for increasing my vocabulary with little effort.

Anyway, feeling reasonably happy to relax for the afternoon I thought I'd write up one of the major stories of my travels in Morocco. Perhaps the most exciting episode in the week I was away.

I should at this point introduce the members of the party for ease of description. The five of us who had come out from Santiago in some sort of unison were Paolo, An Italian, our elected driver, independent and an experienced traveler, Merlinda, German, a seasoned traveler in South America, Daniel, a Peruvian masters student in Santiago, and Yolanda, the only native Spaniard on our trip, and completely fearless.

We had organised a trip into the desert around 10 hours drive South East of Marrakech, a journey we had made over a period of two days, stopping off at some incredible sites on the way. As you head towards the desert from Marakkech, you are immediately met with the sight of the High Atlas Mountains, a stunning vision as you leave the chaos of the city behind you.

into the distance

You spend some time winding your way around tight turns and shear drops, before coming out the other side several hours later as the landscape changes gradually from the gently undulating foothills of the mountains to the plains of the desert.

We organised the desert trip as we got into one of the last major towns before the roads turns to dust. Having done little planning we simply wandered in the baking heat from agency to agency trying to find out how much we were likely to be ripped off by and what was the best deal for the short time we had available. In our experience, Moroccans are extremely welcoming but uncannily laid-back. Organisation is spontaneous, and the 'no worries, it'll be fine' attitude is prevalent but actually seems to work. We eventually organised our trip with an agency who bought us a couple of big bag of provisions and told us to drive 100 km to the very last town on the map where we would meet a guy called Ahmed in a bar who would take us into the desert.

The hour drive was smooth, but punctuated by our concerns that we would get there to find no sign of an Ahmed, or perhaps too many Ahmeds. Eventually we arrived at the asigned bar and asked for Ahmed, who of course was not around. There was however a group of four young guys who said not to worry. They would take us out, they knew Ahmed and it was all organised. We just had to give them our bags and they would take them to the camels up the road, out of sight. This was all done with such uncanny nonchelance that we felt pretty uneasy. Who were these guys? Were we about to have all our things taken and left in the desert for the mangy dogs to pick over. As we tried to acertain the verity of these guy's claims a big four-wheel drive turned up and a tall gentleman came out, looking serious and in charge, dressed in the normal desert attire of a long white robe and head-scarf. Ahmed certainly looked like he was boss and knew what was going on, so we followed him, with the four guys, who it turned out were indeed with him, to the camels sat resting around the corner.

Ahmed took our things in his 4WD and raced off through the desert to put our bags there for when we arrived. In the meantime we were introduced to our transport, mounted the camels and headed off into the desert sunset, led by two brothers, who chatted quietly in Berber as we started out first camel trek. During the hour or so on the camels we were led in a small circle a few kilometers across the gently rolling dunes and out to the camp which was to be our home for the night. As we rocked back and forth, enjoying the evening warmth, the sight of the sun setting was obscured by an incoming dark cloud. We were told that the sand was coming in, and the winds began to pick it up around us and deposit it in between our teeth as we chatted quietly along the way.

By the time we arrived at the camp the winds had died down but the ominous cloud remained in the direction of the sunset, moving, it seemed, in our direction. Somehow we all decided to split at this point and once we'd been made to feel at home in the camp and introduced to the basic facilities I headed off a hundred yards or so into the desert.

At this point the winds had completely vanished, and as I lay down on the sand the warmth of it from below matching my body temperature perfectly and the lack of wind meaning absolute, complete silence, the sensory deprevation felt wonderful. I don't think I've ever been somewhere so silent and I the meditative state stayed with me for the ten minutes or so I lay there without moving a muscle.

After ten minutes the silence ended with a few gentle gusts of wind, blowing the sand around me into my ears and over my body on the ground. I got up, dusted myself off and headed back to the camp, the winds continuing to grow steadily. By this point the ominous cloud which had been clear before was no longer at a distance, but was surrounding us in its outer layers.

I went to the tent 30 yards from the main shelters where the toilet was located. By this point the dusk combined with the sand in the air meant that I could only make out the tent from the lights on the outside, and the candle from inside gave minimal illumination.

As I emerged from the bathroom I was met with chaos. In the two minutes inside, the winds had picked up from a gentle breeze to a howling gale, the air was thick with sand, and the noise was incredible. Standing in the doorway I could just make out the lights of the main tents, but as soon as I stepped out I couldn't open my eyes, the sand getting in however narrowly I tried to open them. My ears quickly filled with sand and the rough feeling of wind scraping across my exposed skin was a harsh wakeup from the sensory deprivation ten minutes earlier. I gently edged forwards as the wind continued to howl and for a brief second I tried to work out how serious this situation was. Up ahead I could simply hear the shouts of the guys in the camp, the strange words getting more alien as they reached me through the wall of sand. Moving forward, opening my eyes for a fraction of a second every few steps I eventually reached the main camp where the guys were rushing around trying to get everything inside. We all made it into the main tent, the Berbers scraping the dust out of their eyes, which had been open the whole time, needing, as they did, to make sure everyone was safe.

We realised at this point that Paolo was still out in the desert and one of the guys went out to look for him. The seriousness of the situation clearly depended on how long this was going to last and it was hard to tell from their expressions what the real situation was. Ten minutes later as the wind died down just as fast as it had picked up, a sandy Paolo strolled in from the desert, having spent the sandstorm sitting on a dune, enjoying the assault, without a care in the world. He looked confused but content and we all went inside, happy to have experienced a rather exciting phenomenon, but relieved that it looked like things were calming down.

A sand covered Paolo having come in from the storm

Indeed the wind died down and stayed gentle for the rest of the night, the sky never quite clearing and completely obscuring the stars. Ironically, the main reason I'd wanted to go to the desert was to see the stars in a location hundreds of kilometers from nearest city. Clear as it was that this was not going to happen, I resigned myself to simply enjoying the night in the desert.

We relaxed as the evening progressed, our tagine being cooked up for a late dinner and music being played afterwards. To me at least this didn't feel put on. The guys simply sat around the fire singing and playing guitar letting us come and go as we wanted, and thankfully it felt like they were playing for their own enjoyment rather than our entertainment.

I just took a couple of photos of the desert. This one, at around midnight, lit by the full moon through the dust clouds was a thirty second exposure which is a basic shot, but I like the slightly mysterious tones from the unusual light source:
The desert in moonlight - long exposure

As we sat around I chatted with an English woman, who was the only other non-local in the camp and the girlfriend of one of the guys who worked there. She told me of a bus leaving the town from which we had started the camel ride which was to leave at 6am the next morning. It had been my plan to get out early the next day and move off on my own to wherever I could. She was going to be taking the bus too, to head up North to renew her visa in the Spanish enclave on the coast. I spoke with the guys at the camp and they said they could organise a bus ticket for me too and that I could be taken to the bus stop the next morning. I was happy at having experienced the desert, if only for a short time, and the idea of spending the morning in a rapidly warming camp didn't particularly appeal. Certainly with more time to spare it would have been great to spend a few days there but given the constraints I decided to take the bus to Marrakech the next morning.

I was told I'd be woken at five to have some breakfast and then be taken to the bus stop. Getting into the sleeping tent at around two in the morning having spent a lovely evening sitting around listening to the music and chatting I tried, in vain, to get any sleep.

At four thirty I heard shouting from outside my tent as Ahmed opened the flap and told me to get up. A little startled I rubbed my eyes, got dressed and got my things together, heading towards the main tent for a spot to eat. There I found Ahmed glaring at me over croissants and honey, sitting on the floor looking dour. He invited me to sit with him and have something to eat. I sat down next to him and the stink of alcohol hit me, the empty bottle of red wine rolling under the table. My heart rate picked up as I tried to assess the situation. He was clearly not happy but this was a situation I was going to have to deal with.

We spoke in broken French and English as he explained that we both understood each other. He pointed at me mumbling something about Israel and winked, I couldn't work out what he meant, whether this was supposed to be a sign of some understanding or a threat. Still trying to work out exaclty what he was trying to imply he said that he was a good man and that because he was getting up so early for me I could perhaps give him a little money, perhaps five euros. This had not been in the deal when we had chatted the previous night, but I figured that if this was going to stabilise the situation then five euros was ok. I said that I had to go out for minute as Paolo walked in and sat next to Ahmed. Paolo and Yolanda had said they wanted to come to the town with me, as they had the keys to the car where some of my belongings were. They were not happy to give the key to Ahmed to bring back later, probably a wise decision.

As I came back, Paolo walked out looking concerned, saying that Ahmed was very unhappy and wanted more from me. I smiled and said it was fine, I would pay five euros and the situation would be smoothed over. I sat down and Ahmed repeated his demand, so I got out five euros and gave it to him. He looked at it, and then at me with pure disgust, taking the note and throwing it on the ground. 'No!' he said 'five-ty euros, five-ty! What is this?' He suddenly wanted fifty euros to take me two kilometers to the bus stop, as time was quickly running out and my chance of getting to my destination was fast disappearing. I explained that this simply wasn't possible, but that I understood his sacrifice at having to get up early (though it was clear that he hadn't gone to bed). I said that I needed to get the bus, and that we both had to be reasonable.

One thing I discovered on this trip on a couple of occasions was that I can continue to speak in a relaxed tone which appears to calm people down, even when I'm feeling panicked inside. I wouldn't want to test this too often but the times that I needed it on this trip, things seemed to work ok. Indeed on this occasion too, with a bit of persuasion, my heart beating quickly, he agreed that he would take me without the fifty euros and we headed for the car, Paolo and Yolanda in tow.

Getting in the car, he threw his empty glass out of the window, snarled, and turned on the engine. It was a considered decision taking this short trip with him, though I would never condone getting in a car with a drunk driver. It was five in the morning and we were going to be driving through the desert for a couple of kilometers and then a hundred yards into a small village which was filled with a few local bars and a few houses. Clearly there are strong arguments for why I shouldn't have done this but at the time I didn't feel that I had much of a choice and my guess was that the risk to those in the car was small, while from what I had seen earlier, the likelihood of anyone being around at that time in the village was smaller. Luckily I was right and nobody was on the streets at this time, bar a single man at the busstop. It also seemed somewhat obvious that he spent a lot of his time driving around in this state.

He put his foot down and the back wheels span as the 4WD took off across the dunes, me, holding on tightly and preparing for a collision with a dune at an unlucky angle. We raced along, the back of the car sliding as we took the corners of the path marked out through the desert. I continued to talk with him in as calm a manner as I could, hoping it would pacify him a little, but he continued to snarl and bark at Paolo and me. As the car hopped over the last dunes, at full pelt, we entered the village and raced around the first two corners, quickly reaching the bus stop where a lone man stood. He slowed down and pointed to it, saying that the bus must have gone and that we would have to race to catch up with it. This was clearly rubbish and my heart sank as I imagined racing around the winding mountain roads with a drunk maniac at the wheel. Thankfully I remembered that I had to get my things from the car first, and that the car was parked next to the bus stop. We stopped and I got out, took my things and went hurriedly to the man at the bus stop who told me that he was taking the same bus to Marrakech which was dune to arrive shortly. I smiled, relieved that we'd made it in one piece and that I wasn't going to have to get back in the car with this crazy guy.

He came over to me, still ranting and demanded money again. He was still angry with Paolo and given that I was soon going to be out of there but that Paolo and Yolanda would still have to deal with him I considered that it might make things easier for them. I gave him five euros, feeling bad at giving money to someone so completely irresponsible, but hoping that this might make less trouble for my friends.

The bus pulled up, I got on and breathed a sigh of relief. The English woman got on with her boyfriend, having run all the way from desert camp as they discovered their motorbike had a flat. Ahmed was still outside firey eyed as I watched Paolo and Yolanda run around the corner to escape him. We pulled away and I ran through the last hour's events as the day brightened and I considered what was ahead for me. I still didn't know where I was going to spend the night as I wanted to go further North than Marrakech. In the end I sat on the bus for almost 11 hours before going to Marrakech train station and randomly picking up a ticket for Rabat, another five hours North, finally arriving, exhausted but happy, in time for a late dinner.

In the mean time things back at camp continued in a surreal fashion. Ahmed arrived back at the camp at around 9, having gone hunting for Paolo and Yolanda with no luck and demanding that Merlinda and Daniel come with him to search for the crazy Italian. Unsurprisingly Merlinda and Daniel were none too happy with these demands, having planned to take the camels back to the town, as agreed the night before. The long and the short of it is that he drove them into the town, ranting all the time, threatening Paolo. At this point Merlinda cleverly turned on her perfectly calm, ditzy tourist disguise and asked if she could take a photo of the beautiful buildings. She and Daniel got out and as soon as his back was turned they made a run for it.

Managing to lose him, they found their way to the only possibly place that they figured they might find Paolo and Yolanda, the bar which we had first expected to find Ahmed. Paolo and Yolanda were sat inside, looking perfectly relaxed and sipping on mint teas. Finding that Ahmed was now in town and furious they grabbed there bags and sprinted for the car, hoping not to be seen in the process. They made it to the car which they had hidden around a corner, and raced off, with no sign of the 4WD in the rear-view mirror.

It took them a while to be sure that they were alone, but a half hour or so out of town they could relax and try and put together the pieces of what had happened in the last few surreal hours. Speaking later it turns out that their understanding of the situation differed markedly from the truth that I discovered talking with the British woman who said that this crazy guy brought nothing but trouble to the camp with which he only had vague connections.

Anyway, we all made it out, thankfully, unharmed and only a little shaken. Personally I was happy at having gone through the minor adventure, finding that such things only add to the strength of memories of a good holiday...perhaps that says a little too much about what makes me tick, but there we go.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A little haloey goodness for Earth day

The sky over Santiago is awash with cirrus clouds these days giving almost daily halos in some form or another. Yesterday there was a lovely sun dog at sunset while today all through the afternoon we had an almost perfect 22 degree halo, with a small circumscribed arc to boot:

solar halo on Earth day
Keep an eye out, you never know quite what you're going to see!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The tannery at Fes, take II

Apologies to those for whom this is a repeat of yesterday's post, but I realised that the people reading this in Google reader would probably not have noticed the slide show unless they clicked through to the post. So, I'll simply repost the photos in normal format. If you were using Google reader and you could see the slideshow from that, please tell me.

Fes tannery
Saffron dye at the fes tannery
Boss at the Fes tannery
Fes tannery
fes tannery
resting at the Fes tannery
Fes tannery in red
Saoking the skins
Fes tannery in gray

Fes Tannery

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The tannery at Fes

I spent a while today getting a paper near to completion so I'm going to treat myself to another quick blogpost from Morocco. Things become out of sequence at this point and there's a whole desert/sandstorm/escaping drunk angry locals/camel riding saga to explain at some point. However, skipping that for now, having stayed in the desert for a night I took a bus for ten hours and then a train for 6 to arrive at Rabat where I spent a night and a morning, looking around the local souk. It's an extremely relaxed city, with a lot more colonial influences than Marrakesh. For this reason alone I didn't particularly feel like spending a lot of time there, simply as it didn't feel like the Morocco I was looking for, so the next day I took a train another 6 hours to Fes, which truly felt like Morocco real, even with the hordes of tourists.

I spent an extremely enjoyable couple of days there getting outrageously lost in the old market area and eating as much street food as I could lay my hands on (the avocado juice in particular was stunning, even if it contained more refined sugar than it did avocado). Anyway, the main reason I'd wanted to go to Fes was to see the tannery and it didn't disappoint. Down a dark alley in the heart of the medina you are drawn by the stench of tanning leather, up a series of winding stairs and through a maze of escheresque buildings, until suddenly you come upon a sight quite out of this world. With colours and activity absolutely in your face, this uncovered factory has been like this for an age. So, I stood there and watched from the platform above as the very real activity of turning animal hide into a usable clothing material unfolded before me.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.
This flickr set can be found here and the current batch of Morocco photos, here. More to come.

Fes tannery in red

Friday, April 17, 2009

Morocco in a flash, part I

As always I simply don't have time to sit down and write the blog post that I'd like to, or indeed that my trip to Morocco deserves. Every day was full of adventures and somehow we managed to pack a huge amount into very few days. I traveled for abour five days with four others from Santiago, and took off for a couple of days on my own, to get lost and meet other travelers and locals, something I find much easier to do as a lone traveler.

After an overnight train ride to Madrid with no sleep, we took the plane to Casablanca. The plan was then to go down the coast to Essaouira but a bus strike thwarted our plans and we ended up on a train to Marrakech, where we were met with the full force of the Medina's nightlife on arrival at about 10 in the evening. The sights, sounds and smells of the central square in Marrakech simply can't be described accurately, but the clamour of street sellers, the smoke of their barbecues and the smell of their tagines, together with people playing instruments and running around after tourists is simply an incredible sight. So much would be lost in a photo without the sound, so I'll try and track down a video of this place.

We spent a couple of days in Marrakech, including one night with a Couchsurfer, who introduced us to his friends and let us stay in one room of his family's home. Normally there are nine of them in a beautiful but relatively small home in the centre of the old quarter of the city. It was a real privelage to be able to stay with a local and his generosity towards us was incredible.

After our time in Marrakech we hired a car and headed South East towards the desert, crossing the high Atlas mountains and winding our way through dusty, but stunningly beautiful countryside. Our aim was to camp out in the desert in a Berber tent but it took us a couple of days to get to the site, on the way passing through villages, markets, mud-brick towns and sampling every tagine and couscous combination we could find.

As I said, time doesn't allow for the many details right now, with the final stages of a paper due next week and work this weekend, so I shall have to offer a rain cheque for when we are next sat, relaxed in pleasent surroundings to fill in the many blanks. I'll also try and write up the next stage of the trip some time this weekend. For now I'll leave you with a few photos from along the way.

My travel companions for the first leg of the journey:

before hitting the desert
Outside our hostel, a woman sat on the corner of the street in the medina, asking for money:
woman begging in the medina of Marrakech
the tourists flock to the school of the Koran in the centre of the city:
School of the Koran in Marrakech
On our way into the desert, from the hill fort overlooking the jagged landscape:
over the desert
and the mighty vista of Ait-benhaddou taken just before the not so mighty river-crossing on a donkey:
Click through for larger sizes and more photos. More to follow

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Returning to normality

Just a quickie as I'm exhausted, not only from today, but from the last week of amazing travels around Morocco. It's going to take a few blog posts spread out over the next week to fill you in on the details, but in brief, the last week has seen some 50+ hours spent in planes, trains, coaches and boats, on donkeys, camels and in taxis, while the rest of the time I was exploring the sights, sounds and smells of Casablanca, Marrakech, Igdz, M'hammed, Fes, Rabat, Tangier, Cadiz and Malaga, eating endless plates of couscous and tagine, drinking fresh orange and avocado juice, getting lost in souks, and being driven through the desert at high speed by drunk angry locals at 5 in the morning, getting lost in sandstorms and blown around on the top of Ait-Benhaddou, getting fogged in on mountain roads and meeting people from all walks of life, and of course much more besides.

Anyway, it's been great, but I'm tired and going to bed. Will fill things in when I have a few moments.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

22 degree solar halo redux

Just before I head off in a few hours, I put the halo photo taken with a circular polariser through a tone-mapper and came up with this, I think the best of the current lot in terms of how accurate a portrayal it is of the real thing:

22 degree solar halo - tonemapped

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Offline for a few days

Tomorrow Jonstraveladventures takes a break from normal coverage as I'll be making my way to Morocco. Projects have simply been too busy to think about this break, until now, so I'm not in any way prepared, apart from having couchsurfing hosts in a couple of cities vaguely set up.

I'll be flying from Madrid to Casablanca on Monday, then making my way down to Essaouira on the coast, before going to Marrakech and into the Atlas mountains. The plan there is to get out of the city lights and see the stars properly, for the first time in a long time! The moon is going to be pretty full the whole time, but there should still be the chance for some good observing and photography.

Anyway, I hope you all have a good Easter and I shall be back online shortly.

Friday, April 03, 2009

22 degree solar halo + circumscribed halo over Santiago de Compostela

As promised, photos of the solar halo over Santiago earlier today. The sun was up at around 52 degrees and in fact there was a faint circumsribed halo around the 22 degree halo. This could only be made out faintly with the naked eye, but with a bit of post-processing is quite detectable on screen.

Anyway, these were my photos from today. First, a shot using a circular polarising filter to bring out the contrast:

22 degree solar halo over Santiago
Second, without the polarising filter, a little earlier one could see the circumscribed halo faintly:

and thirdly with some strong post processing, the cicumsribed halo is strongly visible:
circumscribed halo distortion
Again, people walking nearby could see me pointing up to the sky with a camera, and didn't wonder what I was looking at. I do find human beings who are supposed to be curious animals to be so tied up in their own little worlds and uninterested in the phenomena around them. I did at least manage to get a couple of people to see it who seemed happy at the distraction.

Halo spotters in Galicia....

There's currently a really stunning 22 degree halo which can be seen from Santiago de Compostela. I'll post some photos later, but from the current cloud speed and structure I would guess it's going to be on and off for a few hours yet.

Anyone else see it, try and get some photos and I'd love to see them.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Turning up the heat

A quick one this evening while I'm in a particularly productive mood...

I finally succumbed to the urge and bought a pressure cooker this evening. Not a cheap buy for a pot with a rubber seal and a couple of pressure valves, but I thought it was probably worth the investment. After one evening I can see that it absolutely will be.

As I've mentioned before, the Spanish supermarkets are kind enough to give away bones for free. I can pick up three of four chicken carcasses while I'm doing my normal shopping and normally I save them in the freezer for when I have a few spare hours. My particular recipe for chicken stock normally takes around five hours, all in. This is not only a lot of time to have to be at home, but it also uses a lot of gas.

Well, for a stock which is just as rich as the normal one I now need to spend around 30 minutes, which is a serious saving not only of time, but of gas too. After the attempt I now have several litres of chicken stock cooling down, to be put in the fridge and freezer for soups, paellas and sauces.

There are a huge number of websites dedicated to pressure cooking and I'll be trying a few of the recipes out soon. The idea that I can cut down the time and money spent on the cooking process by such a huge margin is going to make life that fraction better.