Saturday, June 27, 2009

La noche de San Juan

It's been a hugely busy week and I'm pretty exhausted. Somehow my weekend routine helps at these times as it gets my body clock back in order. I'm in the cafe having just gone through my Spanish and Chinese practice and I'm about to dive back into the book I've been studying for the last couple of weeks on mirror symmetry, which I'd like to speak about at some point soon. It's an excellent book, both for your mind and your body, weighing, as it does, about the same as small child.

I've also had a former collaborator out here for the week which has been enjoyable. He gave a talk on his current work on ABJM and we've chatted through a few ideas for future collaborations, though we admit that we're both too busy with current projects to start anything new - I count this as a good state to be in.

On top of this I've had a couple of great couchsurfers - a brother and sister from Israel who were extremely friendly and talkative but understanding when I had to sit down and get on with work.

One night this week though I headed out to see one of Spain's most famous festivals, La Noche de San Juan. In Galicia on this night, celebrating the summer solstice, fires are lit around the city, Sardines are barbecued, and people come out to party. The big event of the night however is when the partygoers jump over the fires, three times (or more depending on who you speak to) to ward off the evil spirits for the next year. The lighting of fires really does seem to bring people back to a very primeval state and something is triggered in the brains of those around which can be seen in the eyes of the jumpers.

Not being superstitious, but certainly not wanting to miss out on the fun I got my three jumps in, and the buzz of jumping over a large fire in front of a big crowd was certainly worth the risk of a roasting. There seemed to be few casualties other than a couple of twisted ankles from landing on bits of wood, and the evening was generally a lot of fun.

Anyway, here are a few photos...

Noche de San Juan jumpers
Noche de San Juan jumpers
Noche de San Juan jumpers

I hear there may be some photos of me mid-leap so I'll see if I can get hold of them back to the book!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Summer solstice astrophotography

What should really have been one of the worst nights for star-gazing happened this year to be both a moonless and cloudless night here in Galicia. So, I got a few people interested and we all headed up Pico Sacro a little after midnight to go see the stars. Pico Sacro is a hill around 20 minutes outside of Santiago, and deep enough into the countryside to have little light pollution. Indeed half way up the hill you are surrounded by trees and there are a few fine spots to stop at the side of the road and marvel at the night sky.

Indeed it was just as I'd hoped and the swathe of the milky way was very clear. Unfortunately my knowledge of the positions of nebulae is pretty poor and so I wasn't quite sure where the biggies were sitting in the plane of the galaxy. Andromeda was not visible from where we were but looking at my photos after I see that the Lagoon nebula was sticking out very clearly and the Triffid nebula and Eagle nebula would have been easy to spot had I known quite where. Still, this is a learning experience and next time I'll have a much better idea. It's amazing the detail you can pick up with a truly bog standard digital SLR.

Unfortunately it was a pretty windy night (and I haven't yet got hold of the tripod I'm going to be using in China) and so I had to turn the exposure time down to around 20-30 seconds and the ISO up to 1600 to get these shots, which means that they were rather noisy. I've reduced the noise which of course has reduced the clarity a little, but it's still pretty clear what's going on. On the first picture I've annotated a few objects (the nebulae are all just to the left of the names, the Lagoon nebula being the clearest). As usual, click for larger:

the milky way on the summer solstice, annotated
The milky way on the summer solstice
If the weather continues like this, I may go again next weekend and by then I should have a Manfrotto to my name which will help with the stability issues.

The nebula I looked up afterwards using Stellarium.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Solar photography, for starters

As I have mentioned before and will probably mention many times before the event, I'll be heading to Shanghai in a few weeks to go and see the solar eclipse with the longest duration of totality this century. I'll be in and around Shanghai for a couple of weeks, and have my eyes set on a few locations for the event itself, though that depends in large part on the weather.

Of course I hope not only to see the event, but also to get some good photos of it, and that requires some preparation on my part. A couple of weeks back I ordered a high grade A4 solar filter sheet and have just had a chance to cut out a part of it to make a trial filter box for my camera. I've made a simple setup with cardboard for now and plan on making something more solid for when I make the trip East. The current setup goes over the end of my 70-300mm lens which I've used on numerous occasions now for solar system photography, with moderate success.

Sadly although we are finally coming out of the period of minimum solar activity, with the first sunspots for many months (ok, there are some subtleties to that statement), right now the surface looks pretty featureless and so there's not much to search for with the new piece of kit. Still as a first try it's looking pretty good and I'll be keeping an eye on the sunspot activity over the next few weeks.

Click to view much larger versions, where some uneven features can be seen at the edges of the solar disk:

The sun without sunspots

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

gastronomic treats

Things have been slow here on the blog front for the last few weeks. It seems that my life is currently filled with either work or cooking and eating, which to me seems like no bad combination. I've had a series of fantastic couchsurfers over the last few weeks, from all around the world, and together we've been cooking up some amazing treats.

A trained cook from Taiwan spent a few days here and created one of the best Chinese meals I've had since leaving Beijing. A troupe of Japapenese friends came round for a night and used my takoyaki pan to great effect, adding to that a few sumptuous plates of okonmiyaki, and over the last couple of weeks I've had a South African friend stay, who not only provides me with cryptic crossword clues which keep me puzzled for hours, but happens also to be an excellent chef. Today as I returned home from lunch I was greeted with the smells of fresh fish and nori as plate after plate of sushi arrived on the lunch table. He had also dived into my kimchi jar (in need of refilling next weekend I feel) and had gone to town on an array of exotic nigiri and makizushi. Over the weekend I had also made my first batch of pickled ginger (thinly sliced ginger boiled for a few minutes in half vinager half water with a touch of salt and sugar) which was the right accompaniment to the tuna and salmon purchased earlier in the morning by my gaggle of current residents.

Anyway, this was the result today, kimchi with tuna nigiri, an unusual combination but a good one:

kimchi, nigiri and nori
tuna and salmon makizushi with avocado and pickled ginger

and this was the paella I made yesterday, before the monk fish and fresh langoustine were added. I'd forgotten how good the smell of peppers are when you are charring them!

Friday, June 05, 2009

Lunar halo over Santiago de Compostela

I went for a walk on Wednesday night and sat in the park for a few hours after a heavy but very enjoyable meal. Though the moon wasn't yet full, as it rose I was witness to a phenomenon I've wanted to see for a long time. Though I've seen perhaps a dozen solar halos this year, this is the first lunar halo I've ever seen. Sadly taking it at 3 in the morning from my lounge didn't give a great shot, but it's pretty conclusively there...

Lunar halo over Santiago

Google Squared

A really quick post but I wanted to point towards Google Squared, which seems to have some idealogical overlap with Wolfram Alpha though for the average internet user is probably infinitely more useful.

Have a look at the google research blog for information about why you should care.

In the same week that Google announces Google Wave, this is impressive stuff!

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Chinese Taboo

I rarely talk politics on this blog, I rarely talk negatively about China, and certainly while I was there there were several subjects which I would never bring up online.

The lack of politics on the blog is simply because that's not what I set out to write about when I started out on my travel adventures. The infrequency of negative posts on China was because I was usually having such an amazing experience that there weren't many negative things to write about and in general whenever something bad happened it was usually so ludicrously over the top that I could easily put a positive or at least amusing spin on it.

I would of course from time to time break these habits and write about politics and my less enjoyable adventures. However, the idea of writing about the various subjects which are taboo in China was simply something which would never have crossed my mind. The possible repercussions were not worth considering, even though the likelihood of the authorities caring about a small expat blog were marginal to nill.

I was told before leaving for China that there were a few things you should never talk about with Chinese people. The top four were Taiwan, Tibet, Falungong and Tiananmen. Well, it turns out that the Chinese love to talk about Taiwan and Tibet, although the response is always so unequivocal that starting a genuine debate is hard. Besides, the number of 'facts' that they may have to hand on the subject so far outweighs my knowledge of what I believe to be a subtle truth, that I never got terribly far in such debates.

In my two years in China I only had two conversations about Tiananmen and these were with people that I trusted. I didn't talk about it to stir up dissent, but simply to try and find out from people I respected what their thoughts on the subject were. Even though it would almost certainly do no harm, I'm not going to write about how these conversations went. Even outside of China I feel somewhat censored because as long as I have links with the country there are things that I'd rather not discuss online.

Spending two years in China I, and many blogging expats I know, became wary of straying onto uncertain political ground. I experienced this first hand when a book and film club I started up were shut down within three weeks. What appeared to be conspiracy theories at the time seem all too clearly to be hard truths many months later.

I would talk occasionally about the dreaded 'Net Nanny' who would regularly shut down various parts of the web for those in China, typically the BBC, wikipedia, blogspot, wordpress and CNN (Twitter has been blocked as of recently and the timing is no coincidence).

Anyway, the last link ties in with the motivation for writing this post. While many of us blogging in China would stay away from the taboo, a few others were always courageous enough to face the front line and discuss difficult issues, none more so than Richard at the Peking Duck and today, as the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen square massacre comes up, he writes a short article linking to a very powerful piece on the subject of what happened in those dark days in 1989. The Peking Duck is generally a place where you will find a huge spectrum of opinion, dogma, hostility, understanding and finger wagging with a good dose of common sense thrown in liberally (from the good combination of Richard's insightful writing and his many commenters), but it almost always provides something thought provoking. The article he links to in the Guardian is exactly that, and helps to add a few more ideas to the strange melting pot of half truths that we have to piece together to understand one of China's most important and terrifying moments.

soaking up the sun

I've just arrived home from the library, a little after midnight, walking back in shorts, tea-shirt and flip-flops, feeling wonderfully comfortable. We've been having a fantastic few days of weather here, occasionally tipping the scales a little over 30 degree.

This weekend was the first (almost entirely) non work weekend in quite a while, as an old friend came to visit. Having not seen each other for several years there was plenty of catching up to do over some excellent Galician food and a few local brews.

Saturday we attempted to go to the beach in A Coruna, just fifty minutes by train north of here, but the final couple of kilometers saw us drawn into the sea fog and the temperature dropped by 15 degrees, leaving us shivering in the rather strange twilight zone. With no beach to be seen we found our way to a Japanese restaurant and indulged for lunch, before going to the Museo de Bellas Artes, housing a fine collection of Spanish paintings chronicalling some of the best work of the last 500 years. A nice, well set-out museum and definitely worth checking out if you're in the area.

After a typical Spanish night (something that I can rarely manage), terminating as the sun rose on Sunday morning with venus glinting in the dark blue sky, Sunday was spent lazing around in a park, attempting to defrost after the previous days meteorological surprise. I managed a little reading of the papers I'm currently trying to read through but it was slow and ultimately rather unproductive.

I have around 1000 pages of papers left on my desk at home, of the 3000 or so I had a few months ago. The routine of going to the library at night seems to be working nicely and the simple act of getting away from the computer makes a big difference to my non-programming productiveness. The students in the library on the other hand seem to have different ideas and those sitting around me with laptops are constantly plugged into facebook, their attention spans limited to around 2 minutes before another input of stimuli are needed to get the neurons going again.

Anyway, travel adventures are on hold for now as my passport is in England, awaiting the Chinese visa I'll need to go and see the eclipse in July. For the mean time life revolves around Santiago and while the sunshine lasts, I'm happy to continue this way for a few more weeks.