Monday, November 30, 2009

Ireland way

Feeling pangs of blog neglect these days but I'm spending every evening reading up on a range of new subjects that I'm currently interested in. I'll explain when possible, but in the mean time it simply means that life is twice as full as ever before and that blogging rears its head only when something time-dependent is closing in, or when the guilt gets too much.

I'm off to Dublin via London tomorrow where I'll be giving a talk and spending plenty of time talking with my friend and collaborator at the IAS. Flight prices mean that it's actually cheaper to spend a couple of days back in the UK on the way back so I'll be popping home briefly before coming back for the final week of the year in Spain where I have another talk lined up which I'll explain nearer the time - a slightly unusual one.

Anyway, finishing off my Dublin talk now and pondering the woes of dispersive media from holography.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Orion setting over Santiago de Compostela

I don't post these pictures as great examples of astrophotography - that much is clear but I'm always keen to point out what is around us to be observed with very little effort and minimal cost.

I woke up around 3 in the morning a few days back and thought I'd take a look outside to see if the Leonids were in evidence. Sadly as I poked my head from the seventh story of the building to the West of Santiago there were no shooting stars in evidence but Orion was standing there clearer than I'd seen it for a long time - we've had terrible storms for the last week or so and this was the first chance to see the stars in a while.

I set up the tripod, mounted the 300mm lens onto my Canon and took a few snaps to see how clearly one can see the orion nebula from a small city. I'm pretty pleased with the results for a first serious try and with a body which deals better with low light I think one could get some spectacular results.

The point to make with such a shot is simply that although we think of the night sky as a simple distribution of points of light, really there is structure out there even at the grossest scales, from the giant gas clouds surrounding old supernova remnants to the galaxies observable with the naked eye on a truly dark night to the phases of Venus, the bands of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn - such things are not only there to be seen by those with research budgets and large inheritances. All you need is enthusiasm, some truly minimal equipment and a little time to explore.

M42 Orion nebula

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Life in a 22 degree arc

Lots to do this weekend so not much time to write but I'll simply post a picture of a solar halo that appeared as I was on my way to work a few days back. An HDRified take on the scene taken with the new lens I got a couple of months ago. With my 17-85mm Canon lens I can just fit a 22 halo into the screen, but with the 10mm lens in fits in with acres to spare! Yet again I stood there contemplating for a good quarter of an hour with passersby not wondering for a moment what I might be staring at....I despair!

Santiago halo

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sunday random odds and ends

  • Go to the Everything Seminar blog to learn about the first beam splash at the LHC in 2009. This is exciting progress and means that the detectors really are doing their job and the machines are almost ready to start collisions.
  • Cineuropa is in full swing and so far I've seen:
  • Tokyo Sonata, which was enjoyable though had at least half an hour which felt completely farcicle. Generally a worthwhile watch and I'll be keeping an eye out for more films by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
  • Tulpan, a film from Kazakh director Sergei Dvortsevoy. The cinematography is stunning, set on the steppes of Kazhakstan and centering around the seemingly simple story of a nomadic family and the tensions between traditional and modern life. It's sometimes hard to know how concrete the storyline was pre-filming as there are a number of sublime coincidences which seem impossible to manufacture in the absence of huge special effects budgets.
  • Tonight a group of us are off to see Wong Kar Wai's Dung Che Sai Duk, seemingly a kung fu movie with a difference. Will give a one-line report if it seems appropriate...
  • And on an asian theme, my kimchi supplies are back up to maximum after an epic kimchi making afternoon yesterday. I have a feeling it may even stand up to the assault of a large group of Koreans who will be descending on my place for dinner on Thursday night.
  • I've almost finished Douglas Hofstadter's book: Fluid concepts and creative analogies: Computer models of the fundamental mechanisms of thought. This discusses Hofstadter's own projects in the direction of creating something akin to AI, and reading this really makes all other approaches I've come across seem so hugely lacking - although there are many projects which can solve much more complicated problems than those discussed in the book, the way they do so seems to answer none of the deep problems about how we think. The projects which he and his colleagues have tackled are simple to define problems in very restricted domains: anagram solving being perhaps the easiest to discuss. Clearly it is trivial to write a program which can solve anagrams. Brute force is really the forte of the artificial computer but this goes no way to showing how we think or even trying to imitate our thought processes. Instead Hofstadter's programs attack such problems with stochastic sub-processes which go in to attack the problem on a number of different levels, spotting groups, patterns, and finding the strengths and weaknesses in its own formulations as it goes. As the book discusses more and more such problems it really does appear that Hofstadter has managed to model to a high fidelity the fluid non-deterministic nature of our own methods for such problem solving. In some ways it's rather frustrating reading, coming from a generation where we see that the difficulty of solvable problems increases with Moore's law. We are used to being able to tackle more and more complicated challanges year on year, but the bottle-neck to the methods discussed here is not computer speed, but our own understanding of the processes by which we make analogues define concepts and spot solutions. This is another fantastic book from Hofstadter and a highly enjoyable read.
  • I haven't had time to watch this video, but by the looks of things this is Hofstadter discussing the concepts which are dealt with in the book:

  • Incidentally, if anybody has any knowledge of the views of Marvin Minsky on Douglas Hofstadter or vice versa I would very much like to know. These are two giants of the field, who frequently come over as feeling pessemistic of the current trends in the subject of AI and I'd love to have an idea of their criticisms of one another.
  • I really, truly, genuinely have almost finished the two projects I've been banging on about for the last few months. When they're out I'll try and explain a little about why it's taken so long to give them the final push.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Carl Sagan day and a Cosmos coincidence

I was due to post an advert for a monthly event here in Santiago, part of the International Year of Astronomy, which has been going on for a few months and is due to continue into next year. Every month in Pub Fuco Lois the landlord has cleared the way for a showing of an episode of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. I attended the last event which was extremely enjoyable, though not as well attended as I'd hoped. After watching the episode (dubbed into Spanish) people chatted over drinks about the show before dispersing into the night. A fun evening but it will be improved by the inclusion of more people. So, come along next Tuesday and enjoy the show!

The coincidence of course is that today is Carl Sagan day and would have been his 75th birthday. For some words from a true Sagan oficionado go and see what TMT has to say on the subject and watch the videos linked therein.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Cineuropa coming back to Santiago

Just a quick note to advertise Cineuropa, the annual film festival here in Santiago which shows a great array of recent world cinema (all undubbed which is unusual for Spanish cinemas). The program doesn't seem to be up yet but the festival starts on the fourth of November and goes on all month.

Three years ago I went to no films, two years ago I saw one and last year I saw two. If the most obvious sequence holds I should see 720! films this year which means I definitely won't get to finish the papers I've been promising for so many months already. I heated few hours on google chat this week has cleared up a few issues with one paper and muddied a few others. I enjoy the challange of individual problem solving but for me the greatest pleasure of what I do is to discuss with other people and together evolve a coherent picture of a problem and a solution. This has been happening a goodly amount this week on a number of problems which has been a lot of fun!