Archive for the ‘Images & ideas’ Category

Gables, canals, bikes, art and books

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Or, Sherry and Melle do another trip.

This time we went to the Netherlands, staying in Amsterdam, and Belgium, staying in Antwerp.

Starting in Amsterdam

The palace on The Dam

Palace on The Dam

Flight in was pretty uneventful and we managed to keep going until check-in at 2pm, which left us with no sleep for 24 hours or so. Hotel location was excellent, just off the Dam Square and walkable to the train station. The other good thing about our hotel? It was the repository for the Big Book of Amsterdam. I managed to read it from cover to cover and it was like the Delphic Oracle of all things Amsterdam – much to Melle’s chagrin, I’m sure.

On first glance, Amsterdam is a bit like Temple Bar in Dublin and not fair for the comparison–dirty, lots of garbage, and always looking like there was a crazy party the night before. Mostly this is the case around the Red Light District and they clean it up pretty quickly.

Walked past Anne Frank’s house but about the only thing you can see is big line-ups. We also saw the Old (Oude) Kerk and the New Kerk. Old Kerk had some beautiful paintings on wood that are sadly disappearing.

The church in the attic

Another interesting museum was the Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Dear Lord in the Attic) – it’s a house that has a full Catholic church in the attic that was hidden when Catholics were no longer allowed to worship in public. The sheer logistics are boggling, and it has some nice furniture and tiles.

As one would expect, there are enough cobbles to make high heels a hazard. Wisely, most Amsterdamians (Amsterdammers?) wear sensible shoes, which also makes it easier to ride their sturdy bikes. Bikes are EVERYWHERE. We contemplated how many would be left if they had a bike clean-up day, since it’s pretty obvious that more than a few have weather a few seasons or twelve in the place they’ve come to rest.

After a 2-hour nap, we set off on the longest search evar for a restaurant to eat at, and ended up back at the first one we saw and liked. I had a great lentil soup and a decent duck, with mediocre wine (the norm, as I soon discovered – beer choice is awesome, but not so much the wine).

Then came Museum Day, or should I say part one of Museum Day, since we ended up hitting many museums during our trip. We started off in the Flower Market, which is a lovely spot of colour in the morning, then we made our way to the main museum (Rijksmuseum) – some amazing Vermeers, furniture and so on.

Dollhouses were for the Housewives of Amsterdam back in the day

Then in a park we noticed a ticket kiosk for the Van Gogh exhibit, since the Van Gogh museum was closed for repairs. So we bought some.

Turned out to be the smartest thing in vacation planning history – by the time we got to the Hermitage where the exhibit was, there was a line about 3 blocks long to get in. And like the rock stars we are, we went straight to the front and straight into the museum just by waving our little tickets around. We found out that, not only was this the first day the exhibit was open at the Hermitage, but they had a special touring exhibit of the Impressionists at the same time. Double-score.

Snarfy attendant wouldn’t let us take in our cameras, and they we got in there and everyone else seemed to have their cameras and iPads fully operational. I was not impressed.

Speaking of iPads, this is the first trip where the tablet has made an impression. I must say that people still look kind of weird walking around the streets or exhibits holding up their tablet to various things and taking pictures. Still haven’t figured out what the advantage would be, and it sure is a lot more to carry and position (besides being a nice beacon to people with less-than-welcoming intentions).

At this point we were starving for lunch, but could not get service for love or money. First place had no server, second place had stopped serving lunch… Finally found a cafe for sandwiches and beer. Thanks to the big walk among the museums, we had now seen most of the cultural areas in Amsterdam.

Had an amazing Indonesian meal that night, finished with the best decaf espresso I’ve ever tasted (I’m sure the mango-papaya sorbet didn’t hurt either). Thanks, Yelp.

Only downside to our hotel was that the back street was a thoroughfare from one bar area to another, so we were treated to intermittent catcalls and singing through the night. I swear I heard Paul Anka about 2am. I had no idea he was popular with hen parties.


Great picture of the many types of gable in the city.

Then there is morning in Amsterdam. We started to feel like we weren’t off to a good start until we had our “breakfast weed” (aroma only).  Usually it was just a wiff as we went past a coffeeshop, but sometimes it was a dude (always a dude) walking down the street. Also, they don’t like to eat early. Nowhere to eat before 9am except for one or two intrepid cafes and our hotel restaurant which had a buffet for the price of a nice pair of shoes.

We took the train up to Utrecht on a Monday, and discovered the second rule of Netherlands – which is the Netherlands is closed on Mondays. And the third rule, which is that Utrecht doesn’t open until noon, unless it opens at 1pm. Nevertheless, we did manage to get to see the cathedral there, and it is a pretty little university town.

Very interesting story with it – there’s a tower and the cathedral, and a kind of square in between. Turns out there was more cathedral there, …until a tornado whipped through there in 1674. Though the history of this church is more complicated than that – it was fought over, half-completed, Catholic, Protestant. In fact, many of the statues and religious decorations are defaced – thanks to some hooligans in the Reformation who wanted to take vengeance on idolatry.

The cloister at the cathedral in Utrecht

Seeing as everything else was closed, we settled in for some tea on the canal, literally. There was a cafe built on a bridge. I had my usual – “fresh mint tea”. This is something I found in Amsterdam, but it’s all over the Netherlands. Basically, you pick some mint from the garden, shove a fistful in a glass, then pour hot water over it. It’s usually served with honey and a biscuit. I keep meaning to see if mint in large quantities turns into something other than “medicinal”. We were also offered mayo only with our fries whenever they were ordered – when I asked for ketchup the one time, they thought I was nuts.

During our late tea back at the Dam, Melle discovered that the pigeons of Amsterdam don’t have all their toes. Them are some mean streets. After a nap, we went off to a neat restaurant on a canal that is built into the cellar and had lots of meat and a few vegetables. we were into the swing of things by then – not finishing dinner until close to 10pm.

Tour to the islands

The next day we went on a tour to Marken, Volendam and a UNESCO heritage site that has some of the original traditional windmills (there aren’t that many left compared to the heyday).

We had brief demos of cheese-making and clog-making at Marken. The village has a lot of traditional houses – many of which were originally built on stilts back when it used to flood all of the time until the Dutch built a dam (as they are wont to do). So now the lower areas are all closed in – no doubt for the rec room and mod cons.

Traditional windmills on a rainy day

From there, we hopped on a ferry to the island of Volendam. Mostly a tourist kind of place, but we had amazing fish & chips for lunch – like, fish right off the boat fish, and since it was a bit blustery and rainy, it was hot and perfect. By the time we got to the windmills, it was pouring, but it was quite neat to see the saltbox houses and windmills along the small canals. Felt very Vermeer. Thankfully, we didn’t have any complete douchebags on this tour, though we did have one lady who talked on her phone through most of it.

Big pet peeve of the modern age – a tour guide is NOT TELEVISION. Why pay money to take a tour if you aren’t going to listen to it??

Off to Antwerp

I was very thankful to have the tablet along for the trip – while planning the train trip to Antwerp the night before, I stumbled on the fact that the train union in Belgium was staging a one-day strike on the day we wanted to travel. I was able to book bus tickets instead, but seriously – random train strikes are not cool.

View of the cathedral at Antwerp

Again, we lucked out with hotel location, though we couldn’t find it for the one-way streets on the way in. It was a short walk to the Grot Markt and not far from the tain station for the ride home – and blissfully quiet.

If The Netherlands doesn’t open until noon, Belgium closes at 7pm. Also, lots of pizza places.

Cathedral was impressive as cathedrals go. Bonus art exhibit while were there – not that we needed more art, but it became the them of the trip. We also walked out to the harbour front and saw a plaque for Canadian soldiers who liberated it in WWII. Back at the square I had an excellent beef stew, and the night’s entertainment was watching a young Japanese business man trying to keep his senior happy – they ended up ordering most of the dishes on the menu and half the beers and hardly touched any of it.Also noted: Belgians really like pop music, especially from the 80s.


It’s everything you heard. Definitely a must-see. We were there for a full day. Square was cool. Tons of great architecture and museums. Took a boat ride on the canals. Saw still more art. I still pick Carcasonne for pure “holy shit, history!”, but it was a great day. The beautifully preserved medieval town hall would do nicely as a library, if a bit ostentatious. Had a great mussel soup for lunch and the first real salad of the trip.

Main square in Bruges (Brugge)

That night’s meal back in Antwerp was our favourite–at Het Elfte Gebod–a bar/restaurant across from the cathedral that is famous for its collection of religious statues. Great meal – duck confit with orange jus and veg, followed by lemon tart and an Oban. When I specified “no ice”, the server said “but of course”. He was a good man. Melle had a huge St Bernardus beer (10% alcohol) and was a little tipsy by the time we got home.

Hardware for the 1600s.

For our final day in Antwerp, we picked out a few more museums. Went to Rubenshuis first. He was a very wealthy man in his time, that’s for sure, but if you have a royal patronage, that’s the way it goes. Unbelievable how much they have preserved, and painted leather wallpaper was the decorator’s tip for the day. Also saw way more Jesii (Jesuses?) than strictly necessary for one day. After a bit of shopping and a coffee in the main square, we went to the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Plantin was a well-known and successful printer and publisher in the early 1600s and his son-in-law Moretus took over the business after him. The place is like it was 440 years ago – with working presses (2 from 1604), print machinery, stamps and an impressive collection of early books, including a Gutenberg.  Melle was well pleased she got me out of there, and without my trying to stuff anything in my bra.

After another pizza lunch, we hit our last museum.  A modest one where there used to be an “orphanage” – where women used to drop off their girl babies to be raised by nuns. The twist is that they would often leave a half a playing card with the baby, in case they wanted to have a reunion sometime later in life (one assumes poverty or lack of a husband drove them to do this). The building once had a purpose-built “shelf” on the outside where people could deposit their babies. There was one for boys as well.

And that was pretty much it – one final nice meal and then a looong and interesting day of travel home.

Going home

Ended up taking a taxi to the train station instead of walking because it was pouring rain, and as if to mark our departure, the cabbie had 80s pop blasting – we were entertained by a particularly campy, talk-singing earnest song about “Geanie”, made all the more delightful when Melle figured out it is by Falco and has a video almost equal to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

Anyway, we printed out our boarding passes only to find out that we were on standby, and could not know if we actually had seats on the plane until about 45 minutes before final boarding. After lunch we made our way to the gate, got through a full bodyscan at security, only to be told that we were, in fact, in line for a flight to Mexico City. Hoofed it to another gate, waited. Then heard the announcement that our flight was delayed 2 hours. Waiting at the front of the line. Lovely man at the counter could not find tickets with our names on it, but after some exchange in Dutch with his supervisor, we had tickets! Upgraded to comfort class! From there, the flight was A-Okay, if late.

Very tired when we got home, though, since it was about 4am as far as our body clocks were concerned.




It’s science!

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Had the pleasure of attending some of the Stephen Hawking Center events at Perimeter Institute today. The new building is very Escheresque–up and down stairs and multiple hallways and little courtyards where you least expect them. Good thing they put in lifts; otherwise, Mr Hawking himself would have a hard time getting there.

We attended a public lecture by George Dyson, who, when faced with the spectre of his father, Freeman (awesome little  man), and his sister, Esther, buggered off to Vancouver at the age of 16 to build canoes. Of course, he came back into the fold as a science historian, especially of digital science.

Dyson presented a very accessible history of digital science at his lecture, enhanced with wonderfully human artifacts from his research, including logs from ENIAC  (computer error, not human!!; I give up!) and memos about people stealing sugar for their tea. He revealed the direct links between what was designed in the early days of computers and what we have today–we haven’t changed the blueprints, so to speak, we’ve just made things smaller and faster. And my geek-type friends appreciated that he focused on operations and the “how” we did it, not just the “thinking” about it.

Right after that, we did the tour, the Escher stairs, and so on. Lots of minimalism, and I think we agreed the only thing we didn’t like were some odd, scratchy-looking rug tiles in the common areas. The community outreach was very well done. Random Hawking videos in meeting rooms, facts  & figures on chalkboards, and “ask a physicist” opportunities in the sitting areas. You could even talk to the architects (and maybe ask them about the ugly rugs…)

We also got in for the Julie Payette presentation. She has a good sense of humour, and the videos & images she brought with her were pretty impressive. Some “day in the life” of living on the space station, and lots about what Earth looks like from space. The ones that stayed with me are spacewalkers stuck by the feet on the end of the Canadarm (you have to lock them in so they don’t wander off into the dark). And the “little blue planet” ones–which Julie used to deliver her main message: “Borders are imaginary and you can’t see them from space.”

When asked whether she worried about the risks of being an astronaut, she said she saw the lunar landing when she was young, and despite the fact that she was a girl, in Montreal, who couldn’t speak English, she knew she wanted to do that, and her parent didn’t laugh. They told her to start working on it.

I sat back and pondered once again what the dignitaries and visiting speakers must think when they come to Waterloo. What kind of freakish place is this? That thousands of people flock to a center for theoretical physics…


Monday, June 13th, 2011

The Ebstorf Map was created at the Ebstorf Abbey in the mid 13th Century, then a convent. It’s not a map as we know them, but rather a representation of the world in Christ’s hands, with Jerusalem at its center, and scary things like manticores and cannibals around the edges of what’s known (and no North America at all).

Adam and Eve on the Ebstorf Map

Adam and Eve on the Ebstorf Map

When asked about this close-up of Adam and Eve, the current Abbess says each has an apple to represent equality. And she loves that the serpent is a man, as evidenced by his beard.

Mind candy

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Yes, I may be a nerd, but it was with eager anticipation that I tackled James Gleick’s latest, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. As with Chaos, Gleick displays a mastery and a passion for the history of ideas while creating new connections himself. Thinkers great and small come to life, and he has a real knack for surfacing exactly the right quote or life detail in whatever thought he’s following.

Gleick starts (and ends) with Shannon – that odd man from Bell Labs whose information theory is one of the most important developments of thought in the 20th Century, and who starred in Chaos as well. Shannon was a practical man for all that. Whatsoever you understand about information, interference, bits and bobs, data, bits and bytes, or memes, Shannon had a hand in it. He was that badass.

There were so many moments where I smirked, paused, felt my neurons firing in a most pleasing manner. While it’s impossible to summarize, the book really makes it easy to see how fundamental information is at every level of understanding–mathematics, computers, language, genetics and even the basic units of the universe can be understood through this filter.

I started putting little pieces of paper whenever something struck me as interesting or entertaining, and ended up with quite a few. Here’s a selection:

  • Humans going from oral to writing cultures think differently. Literate and slightly literate people think differently, primarily because the slightly literate are without the facility to use symbolism or form symbolic relationships. There was a  study in the 1930′s where the slightly literate group couldn’t fathom geometric shapes–had no words for them. Given a circle, they think moon, literally. You can’t unthink writing. It changes you.
  • Alphabetizing stuff, like “dictionary” items and texts occurred in ancient Alexandria (250 BCE), but got lost along the way in favour of categories of function or some other topical system. Friar Johannes Balbus of Genoa was so sure alphabetic was HIS novel idea in the 13th Century, he felt the need to *really* explain it: “I will discuss amo before bibo because a is the first letter of amo and b is the first letter of bibo…”. Just so.
  • True story. The telegraph is directly responsible for weather forecasts. For the first time, information was receivable immediately, including simple weather reports for corn speculators (Nottingham, no rain but dull and cold). Weather started to be something that was connected across geography instead of a local surprise. Then in 1854, the English government set up a Meteorological Office manned by Admiral Robert FitzRoy (former captain of The Beagle) with lots of cool stuff like barometers and gave the same instruments to ports who telegraphed in their local readings. FitzRoy began to publish his “forecasts” in The Times by 1860. No one knows if he favoured plaid sport coats and loud ties.
  • wmietg (when may I expect the goods?): Alfred Vail would have loved the cell phone. The telegraph was cool, but using it could be expensive and it didn’t take long for enterprising reporters and business name to create meta-language (“encoding”) where full thoughts could be expressed with fewer letters. Vail offered up some suggestions that wouldn’t be out of place today if we primarily texted about stocks and our health, instead of kittehs and naughty proposals. Everything old is new again.
  • One of Shannon’s great insights has to do with circuits and Boolean logic (and you can find out about Boole and how he figured out the logic too). Connecting electricity to logic seemed a bit weird, but Shannon figured out that a relay passing electricity from one circuit to the next is not electricity–it’s a “fact” of whether that circuit is open or closed. And the state of each circuit may impact the state of the next circuit. Make a leap for yourself from there to binary descriptions of this flow, and you’re firmly in the digital age.
  • Shannon and Norbert Wiener (name of the day) were part of a sort of think tank in the 1940s that included the likes of Margaret Mead. One of the key concepts Shannon and Wiener discussed was what entropy measured. For Wiener, it was a measure of disorder and for Shannon it was a measure of uncertainty. What they came to realize was it was the same thing. Ingenious when applied to language–given a string of text, like a sentence, the more you can predict the next letter (based on your understanding of the language and likely words) the less information is conveyed with each subsequent letter. If you can guess the next letter with confidence, then it’s redundant. Hmmm, so if we are pleasantly surprised by a turn of phrase or a witticism, perhaps we are enjoying its entropy.
  • Alan Turing, of the Turing machine and the Turing test of intelligence, was arrested in 1952 for the crime of homosexuality and forced to submit to estrogen injections by the British Government. He took his own life in 1954.
  • Memes, a word coined by a very young Richard Dawkins, are more than funny videos on the Interwebs. Tracing how art or phraseology gets memed is fascinating – we understand “Survival of the fakest” because we can refer to “Survival of the fittest” and everything that it represents. The Mona Lisa or a painting of George Washington have a life of their own. We don’t know what the orignal people looked like, but we know what they look like now.

Plus, Gleick quotes heavily from Jorge Luis Borges, and that’s just A+ in my book.

Some quotable quotes:

  • “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life’, it is information.” –Richard Dawkins
  • Regarding telephone operators in the 1880s: “The action of stretching her arms up above her head, and to the right and left of her, … turns thin and weedy girls into strong ones.” — Every Woman’s Encyclopedia (big strong woman who got paid same or less as a teenage boy, mind you)

This stuff doesn’t begin to give you all of the mind candy available in this book. I strongly recommend you read it for yourself.

Simple wishes

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

There’s an amazing art installation in New Orleans. Blackboard paint. Some chalk. An opportunity to complete the sentence Before I die I want to ___________________.

There’s a few “famous”, but mostly people want something grand, or intimate or fun. I find hope in this.


Monday, November 1st, 2010

Finally got around to watching Moon – a small budget film from 2009 that got lots of buzz at Sundance and at TIFF.

Sam Bell is 2 weeks away from the end of his contract as the solo engineer/astronaut for a energy mining operation on the far side of the moon. His only company is the tethered robot, GERTY. He’s tired and starts to see things and then he gets into an accident. When he wakes up, there’s someone else on the base with him.

I loved the quiet and somewhat old timey feel of the movie (definitely some 2001 in there), and Sam Rockwell carries the story very well. He’s likable and quirky. The writing is solid too.

Once again proving that you don’t need $100 million to tell a story worth telling.


Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

Jerusalem is a place that was not on my immediate travel bucket list, but I got to go there recently for business.

Getting there

At check-in, I was awed? impressed? by the vehement gesticulations of a rather tall woman a few ahead of me. Very ticked off because she was being turned away at the check-in for having 3 hockey bags and 2 suitcases, 3 lifelike baby dolls dressed in sailor suits (yes, it was that creepy), a guitar, and a black sombrero with orange feather trim. But no Ranch salad dressing. Given the glacier speed with which the lines move, I had some time to write little scenarios in my head that might account for what I was seeing. Best I could come up with is that she was desperate to get to a surprise Hallowe’en birthday party for triplets in Cuba.

Security was shockingly fast at Pearson, so I was at the gate way early. What was interesting was that the assigned gate was off in its own little wing that could be closed off with a big set of doors. About 90 minutes before boarding, some security staff came along and kicked us all out so that they could set up some additional scanning and  then we had to go back in and get “wanded” – that’s the one where they check all your bags, especially the seams as well as the palms of your hands.

Plane was full and I was wedged in between young Apple douche-guy and a Russian real estate diva (as I would come to know). Next to her, across the aisle, was a very polite middle-aged man and then an older woman with a pony-tail at the window. So, from the minute we got on the place, pony-tail launched into a description of the conference she was going to with middle-aged man, at fairly loud volume and with no discernible pause for breath or response. Russian diva and I chuckled a bit. AT FIRST. Three-and-a-half hours later, when there has been no pause or alteration in volume, Russian diva was ready to lose it, as she whispered to me, “It’s a sickness. She cannot stop. But I am trying to watch this movie and then I will want to sleep, and for what will she stop talking!?”

Next thing I know, Russian diva takes off like a shot to the back of the plane and then the chief flight attendant comes up on the other side, listens to pony-tail for a bit and decides the Russian diva isn’t crazy. First time ever I’ve seen someone get in trouble on a plane for being a pain in the ass. It was awesome :)

Best part was that the Russian diva, in turn, was talking to me (quietly at least) about her mega-million deals in Vancouver, her escape from Russia when she was 21, her smartest, best looking son in the world and so on. Then she’d catch herself and say, “Ah, but I will be quiet now so I don’t have the sickness like HER.”

Things I Learned

1. Most of the cars here are white or grey. You see a red car and you think it’s just asking to get dinged.

2. Duh. Israeli breakfast means dairy and fruit. Like, NO BACON AND NO HAM. That’s a sad, sad thing.

3. The sport they seem most obsessed with? Basketball.

4. I can be mistaken for a Russian.

5. Lanes are just a suggestion when driving. Especially if you’re on a motorcycle.

6. It’s really hard to tell whom you can shake hands with and whom you can’t. Particularly if you’re a woman. And they don’t get the universal rock greeting \mm/ either.


While I was there, the anniversary of the death of Rabin. I was at an overlook with a local person and they were lighting fireworks, and later there were bagpipes playing the funeral dirge. It was weirdly comforting and anachronistic at the same time.


The Haredim live mostly in one section of town that I went through every day. What I did not know is that they don’t work and live on welfare, so their housing is a bit slummy. And in irony, some of them don’t actually believe in the state of Israel, so I don’t know where they think the welfare comes from. The newspapers were also covering a story in that there is an allowance for them to suspend their strict observance to volunteer for army duty (everyone else has a mandatory term), but very few are “taking the opportunity”, so to speak. One other tidbit: every once in a while they protest something or other…. by burning garbage in the streets. Lovely.


A few of us went for dinner on a fancy shopping promenade overlooking the old city. It was still 31 degrees at 9 at night. Then we walked over to the YMCA building to end all YMCAs. It was built with a lot of money, and has a beautiful carillon, Armenian tile work, painted ceilings and intricate Arabic woodwork. There’s also a mosaic of the Roman “map” of Jerusalem where they didn’t even put in the Second Temple.


My big tour was a walking tour of the old city. The guide said an Israeli poet described it as a “modest woman” with many layers veiling her intimate self. If so, I’m pretty sure those layers are for sale, when she’s not praying. Jerusalem is a warren of allies, congested with people from all of the world getting accosted by men of every quarter.

I thought small French towns were bad for city planning, but Jerusalem takes the cake. Even with a map, you can enter at one end of a “street” and find yourself somehow on the other side of the city or back at the same entrance without knowing how you got there. And the week I was there, some kids in the Muslim quarter were getting their kicks throwing stones at tourists who wondered in unawares, so it was kind of important to know where you were.

The guide did a good job of explaining different religious views and the history of the places we stopped at. Many of the places are “believed to be”, and in this time of facts, it’s just faith that makes them so. We did go to the Temple Mount, which was fantastic to see. The security going in is run by Israel, but the modesty police are Muslim – one guy in our party had shorts that were too short, so the guide lent him a pair of 80′s rocker pants with images of Bob Marley in Florida colours on them. How that was more respectful, I have no idea, but they were awesome!

There was a time in the long history of the Temple Mount (at the time of the moneylenders in the bible) when Jews were able to buy sacrifices in the square – a goat, or a lamb, or whatever you could afford. Kinda like the goats you can buy from The Plan at Christmas time, only not so much used for milk and food.

I also learned that Solomon had a magic chain that made people tell the truth – just like Wonder Woman!

At the tomb of David (not likely really the tomb of David), most of us were more enamoured of a small, newborn kitten who was sleeping nearby with her Mom.

We had a wonderful lunch in the Muslim quarter, family style with falafel and spicy sauce and pretty awesome hummus. And they made this drink that, as the guy with the Marley pants said, “was a whole new world”: fresh squeezed lemons with fresh crushed mint and crushed ice. Seriously refreshing. Especially since we had been in open sun and 34 degree heat for most of the morning.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the most venerated Christian site in the city probably. It is, supposedly, where Christ was crucified and the body of Christ was laid to rest. The lines to kiss the Rock of Cavalry and to go into the sepulchre were crazy. And random people were kissing walls and genuflecting in niches. The church is in the templar style but is jointly “owned” by 5 Christian groups today. Which explains why some areas are half-burned. On the Saturday before Easter, the tradition is to light candles and circle the sepulchre, which has led to fires on more than one occasion. But the kicker is that not one thing can be changed in the church unless all 5 parties agree, so…. since that doesn’t happen, the charred bits stay.

On a hot summer day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, and eleven were hospitalized after the resulting fracas, according to Wikipedia. So yeah, harmony and all that. And in a land full of ironies, it’s worth noting that it’s an Arab family that owns the keys to the church, and only they can open it and close it each day.

After all of the hills-go-up walking, it was mandatory to take a shower and a nap, which I did, before joining a colleague and his wife for dinner and a stroll on a promenade overlooking the city. The night was so clear, we could see the hills of Jordan, which was cool, but also the lights of the Arab poor areas and that awful wall again, which was not so nice.

Here’s the photo album.


To end on a more positive note, I had great service from Air Canada. Really. Both there and back. They are in a new customer service campaign and it seems to be working. Also, on the way back, I was on an aisle with the middle seat empty. Score!


Saturday, August 21st, 2010

I forgot that I grabbed some awesome photos after a rain storm on the way home from the wedding last weekend. Love this one:

Big rays, teeny tiny farm


Monday, May 3rd, 2010

For someone who doesn’t much like films, I’ve been very active in the last week with 2 viewing experiences that were both uncomfortable and affecting.

First, I finally got around to seeing The Road. Very glad I watched it myself. This book was one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. In the quiet despair, and in McCarthy’s ability to really show and not tell. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the movie, but it was pretty damn close in tone and visual vocabulary to what was in my head. The dialogue was perfect and delivered without a lot of emotion – I was particularly affected by the wife’s summation of her fears and decision: they will find us and they will rape me and then they will kill us (delivered without inflection and hysteronics). Theron is a supporting actor, but when she’s there she’s good.

There are moments in this film where I literally couldn’t bear to watch – not because of shocking violence really, nor over-the-top blood and gore, but in the emotions that a scene evoked. For most of the movie, I really felt that humans are assholes. All of us. And then there’s that moment at the end where it’s not a fairytale ending, but a smallest glimmer of hope, and we move from tragedy to comedy. And I can breath again.

Then on Friday night, the street gang went to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and I walked home, in April, in a t-shirt!). Definitely recommend seeing this one before Hollywood gets hold of it. You know what’s great about “foreign films”? Actors that look like real people. Performances that aren’t overacted. Lighting that is sometimes dark. Dirt.

The screenwriters made some very good editing choices, with the result that this move is somehow less melodramatic than the book. And since so much hangs on Lisbeth, it was a relief to watch Noomi Rapace deliver her to us. She’s the right combination of vulnerable young girl and sociopath.

Of course, the scenes between Lisbeth and Bjurman were really hard to watch. The audience was absolutely still and absolutely quiet. But the scenes are so crucial to our understanding of Lisbeth, it’s good that they were in there.

Another one I’d definitely recommend.

Coming soon: Scotchneat’s Whatchyamacallit

Friday, April 9th, 2010
spiral galaxy

Beauty, eh?

After a far-t00-long hiatus, Melle & Andrew and I made it to a Perimeter lecture. This month’s was “The Science of Galaxy Zoo” with Chris Lintott, Oxford. It was teh awesome!

Lintott is most definitely a practical physicist. Lintott is one of c o-authors of Bang: The Complete History of the Universe, along with Patrick Moore and Brian May (\m/) of Queen fame. But at the lecture, he was here to talk about the Galaxy Zoo.

What is it? Basically, with all of the telescopes taking pictures out there, we ended up with about 1 MILLION galaxy picture that hadn’t been catalogued. And the average physics student could do only several thousand, and the average physics prof would spend a lifetime studying about 100 of them. So they went to the rabble.

The Galaxy Zoo is a fun game where anyone who passes the test can get in there and classify galaxies – it’s like a cool video game but with spirals and discs! They calculated that it might take 5 years for the public to get through the pictures – but thanks to a fortuitous mention on the Beeb, it took about 3 weeks to get most of them done :) And in the new version, you can also classify supernovae.

Lintott has an irreverent attitude toward all things stodgy, but more importantly, he also has a populist view toward science. Because just like we have a gazillion pictures of galaxies that haven’t been viewed by humans, there are the supernovae and will be other scientific data from the oceans, from the deserts, from… and Lintott believes we’ll see more of this populist integration into scientific research. Other than the fact that this means geeks and grandmas the world over will get repetitive stress injuries in their contributions to science, it is a pretty awesome concept.

The humans can carry the heavy load on sorting, and then if something interesting comes up, an alert can go to the geeks at the telescopes for follow-up and if it’s interestinger, one guy will call another guy who will just happen to take a picture of the galaxy in question… or maybe get Hubble pointed at that baby. It’s the integration of the human perspective and the automated and powerful talents of the computers that will really propel the science forward.

No worries that the computers will ever overtake what humans can do. Lintott says one of the joys of zoos is that public observers have been able to uncover some interesting anomalies. Case in point: The Zoo project got an email from Hanny, a schoolteacher in the Netherlands, reporting on something called Hanny’s Voorwerp – a gaseous cloud near a galaxy that looks like, well, a cosmic frog:

See - Cosmic Frog

See - Cosmic Frog

She wanted to know what the hell the cosmic green from was, and so did the physicists. She got Hubble time, man. It was only after they had published in the journals that the physicists figured out that Voorwerp roughly translates to “thingy”, but it’s official now:

We were totally waiting for Lintott to comment on Hubble taking a look at Hanny’s thingy, but he didn’t go there. At least in public.

I’m off to classify me some galaxies. You should too.