April 2005 Archives

Minneapolis area readers, act now! This afternoon, take advantage of a rare opportunity to meet and greet with the one and only author of EGAD! Somewhere in the UM physics building, I'd expect.

Anyhow, I'm back on US soil, and no, I wasn't deported. Although from the number of people who rummaged through and swabbed my bags at Ben Gurion International, I get the impression they were vaguely suprised not to find evil weapons of mass destruction in my luggage. On the other hand, they somehow completely missed the kaffieh in my bag, which I was sure was going to get me questioned.

The sun rising over midtown Manhattan and the Newark runways as I left immigration and customs. 2005:04:29 05:50:03

I intended to write this post from Newark, actually, but decided that in the end I'm too cheap to spend seven bucks to use the wireless network for the rough hour I'd have before boarding began.

Leavin' on a jet plane

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Got me a plane to catch in a few hours, so it's off to the airport with me.

I should hit Minneapolis about 10 am, which my watch claims is 14 hours from now, but I know is going to be more like 20.

Diving into the intercontinental timewarp, then. Catch y'all on the flip.

Sinai Trip Overview

The desert around the Red Sea is what you might call "camel-infested." This roadsign is a common sight on the highway between Eilat and Be'er Sheva.

I spent a long weekend on the Sinai peninsula in Egypt with Olivia, a student from my dorm, and Tau, a postdoc from her lab. I'll get around to all the fiddly details in good time, but at the moment I'm pretty busy catching up on this and that. So I'll summarize, and fill in the gaps later.

Last Thursday night was spent on the midnight bus to Eilat, about a five hour trip. Still shorter than the bus ride from Minneapolis to Chicago. Eilat is the city at the very southern tip of Israel, occupying a narrow chunk of coastline at the northern point of the Gulf of Aqaba. Jordan is five kilometers to the east; Egypt is about as far west. We arrived circa 5 am, napped on the beach until we could find breakfast, and took off for the Egyptian border.

Back ... Spare a moment?

Well, I'm back from Egypt. A lovely time was had by all, with minimal hassle at border checkpoints. I have a pile of email to get to, which I'll hopefully get around to in the next 24 hours or so. After which, I'll start posting details of the trip.

There's lots of work to do before I leave for the States Thursday night, so I don't actually have time to catch up on five days of happenings in the next two-and-a-half. Do me a favor. If you think I'm missing something crucial in the world, post a comment about it. Links make my life even better.

Pesach (Passover) us coming upon us now ... most of the serious preparations are happening today, as religious Jews will have to stop whatever they're doing at sundown tomorrow to observe Shabbat.

One significant feature of these preparations is that every Jew must clean their home of all chametz, or anything levened (plus various other things determined by halackic law). But many Jews consider the Land of Israel to be their home. Hence this bit:

In Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, observant Jews performed the ritual of "purifying" kitchen utensils by immersing them in boiling water to guarantee that no trace of leavened bread (hametz) remains.

At the office of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, religious leaders took part in the official selling of leftover leavened bread to a non-Jew, as is required by halakha. Hussein Ismail Jaber of Abu Gosh purchased the hametz from the state for the tenth consecutive year, and paid NIS 20,000.

So technically, this Jaber fellow owns all the bread in Israel. Or maybe just all the bread that was owned by Jews. I think he sells it back the week after Pesach. What happens if he gets really hungry and tries to enforce that contract, I wonder?

Last post. In Egypt 'til Tuesday. Enjoy the weekend, and for the Jews in the audience, hagg same'ach, shabbat shalom.

Sinai Peninsula

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Click above for an expanded view of the Sinai Peninsula from the U. Texas PCL Collection.

Heading to Sinai for the weekend with some compadres from the dorm, this seems a fair opportunity for another map post. After all, some of you have expressed an interest in keeping up with my whereabouts.

The Sinai is cut off from Egypt proper to the west, and Saudi Arabia to the east, by the two branches of the Red Sea, the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, respectively. To get there, I will take a five-hour bus ride from Rehovot down to Elat (this is about half the length of the ride from Minneapolis to Chicago) on Israel's few-kilometer-long strip of Red Sea beach squeezed in between Egypt and Jordan. From there it's a short taxi ride to the Taba crossing.

A hotel in Taba was the target of the large bombing in the Sinai last fall, so there's a big debate whether that will suppress the crowds heading south this season. The general feelings is that it probably won't, since almost nobody (myself included) actually stays in the big resort hotels. Like most everyone else, I will be staying in a small cabin in a little beach town.

Digital Media

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A little while back, my former officemate Paul shot around an email pumping RadioK's pledge drive. I've always liked unusual and local music, and this station is particularly enjoyable, so I was happy to chip in. But I would observe that I wouldn't have any opinion on RadioK at all if not for the fact that they stream their broadcasts over the internet. And now, thanks to the magic of the net, I'm listening to my college station in Israel.

The "Power Surge" DJs sound drunk. But I think that's how they're supposed to sound.

I recently read Lawrence Lessig's new(-ish) book, Free Culture. Or more, had it read to me. Since the book was released under a Creative Commons license, it can be freely copied, performed, etc. So some of Lessig's fans made an audiobook of it, and posted the MP3s. Very handy; I managed to absorb a book while sweeping.

Been watching the new Doctor Who. One guess how I got my hands on that. Anyhow, so far I'm pleased; very nice to see it back after what, 16 years? The action moves a great deal faster than in the previous series, which after all were paced like a 60s BBC sci-fi thriller. No sock-puppet alien monsters in this one, either. However, it's quite faithful to the flavor of the original on the whole -- the first villains were living-plastic mannequins set on exterminating humanity, clearly done with people in plasticine masks. Classic. Hope it catches on.

New DJs now. One sounds stoned, and I think the other may be wearing a pocket protector. Studio microphones make people sound funny.

Program Notes

Spent the evening in a conference call discussing a thermal management scheme for our payload's gondola that almost certainly violates the first, second, and possibly third laws of thermodynamics. Typically by factors suspiciously close to two. It turns out that if you put black things in a vacuum and then leave them in direct sunlight for a couple of weeks, we expect them to get somewhat toasty. And they said space was cold.

A heads-up for the regular readers: expect light-to-nonexistent posting this weekend. I will be kicking back in the Sinai, where I do not expect an overabundance of network access. Seeing as the beaches of the Red Sea are supposed to be particularly nice this time of year, I don't forsee all that much motivation to go find a cybercafe, either. Tomorrow afternoon I'm going out to pick up sunscreen and a snorkel.

Next week will be short, then. After getting back from Egypt on Monday, I head off to the States on Thursday. Astronomy folks should keep an eye out for me Friday. I'm still working out my plans for Chicago, but if anyone has a particular yen to put me up the following Monday or Tuesday, drop me a line.

White Smoke

Well, that was quick.

Only this morning, the papers were announcing the completely unsurprising puff of black smoke indicating that the first round of balloting in the Sistene Chapel failed to produce a 2/3 majority. Typically, dozens of rounds of voting are required. It takes some time to arrive at a consensus, after all. Plus, some were concerned that the new rules John Paul instituted would give the hardliners an incentive to draw out the process (after 30 rounds of voting, a simple majority can decide).

But no, on only the third balloting, on the very first day of the Conclave for heaven's sake, they elected Ratzinger as the new Pope Benedict XVI. What efficiency. The smart money was right on.

In many ways, this is not an astonishing result, even if the haste with which it was accomplished is unusual. Ratzinger was appointed to lead the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith back in 1981, and is about as close as you can get to a doctrinal duplicate of John Paul II. There's another reason, too. The man is old, already 78. After a long, eventful Papacy, perhaps the College of Cardinals is wary of too-hastily setting the direction of the Church for another 30 years. So we may expect a handful of years with no major changes in direction. Benedict XVI will be seen as an interim Pope.

The rapidity of today's events only means that a large majority of the Cardinals felt the same way.

Sbarro's in Moscow


Elle, one of the astrophysics professors here, spent last week in Moscow giving some talks and taking in the (predominantly gray) sights. Thought I'd pass along some of the anecdotes he shared over lunch. Allow me to emphasize that I have no idea how accurate these stories are, or to what extent it's the usual stuff that tourguides make up on the spot.

Fast Food Ascendant

Facing the Kremlin from across Red Square, there is apparently now a Sbarro's. I assume you all know what that is; think Subway with toast. While we immediately appreciated the cognitive dissonance implied, his impression was that most of the tourists didn't bat an eye.

So he ate there. Specifically, he attempted to get a salad. It would seem that the Muscovites don't quite get salad yet. For one thing, the salad bar was priced by the kilo. For another thing, it primarily contained potatos, beans, pork, and chicken. Like borchst without the soup.

[Ed. note: Just for some context on the final anecdote, Wikipedia states that the Statue of Liberty is 93 meters from ground to torch, or 43 meters from toes to torch. A 300-meter structure would come in around the 30th-tallest building in the world, taller than most corporate and financial headquarters, but still a smidgeon shorter than the iconic Chrysler building, and several floors short of the Hancock building. There are mostly only telecom towers over 500 meters.]

Bits from the News

It often happens that I get busy for a few days, have stuff going on, and then have to spend a day browsing the web to see what I missed. I confess, I'm a smidgeon of a news junkie. In my defense, this is an interesting part of an interesting world, these days.

I was relieved to hear that the bank strike has been averted. Over the weekend, most of the ATM machines in the country were cleaned out by people worried the banks would be closed this week. Not having money would be inconvenient. Plus, it sounds like the bank workers' beef is with the government, not the banks, in this case.


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Some of my excursions are fascinating for opening a new place to explore. Others are no less interesting purely because I get to interact with people who aren't grad students in the hard sciences at the Institute. Good folks here, but it can be very insular. This weekend was of the latter type.

Thursday was Lynn's birthday, and since she's befriended us Americans adrift in the dorm, the pack of us tromped up to Herzliyya to attend the celebrations. She was staying with a childhood friend of hers (she discovered, many years after the fact) in what used to be the small town where she grew up, and which is now a quaint northern suburb of Tel Aviv.

There were adventures on mass transit. There was multilingual chatting over pizza, which I followed to varying degrees. There was serial delegation of the music selection, chased by serial mocking of each attendee's musical tastes. And since Lynn got her degree and cute accent in the UK, there was scotch, tea, and Irish cream, not intended for simultaneous consumption.

A lovely time was had by all, until we crashed en masse in the spare room, the floor of which had been completely tesselated with those foam mattresses you had naptime on in kindergarten.

[Update: Edited to use what is evidently the accepted transliteration of Herzliyya. I still think "Hertziliya" better reflects how it is pronounced.]

25 Questions

Recent Nobel Prize winner David Gross has spent the past few months wandering the globe giving a talk about 25 questions likely to drive physics for the next 25 years. Today he spoke here.

As a quick Google query will turn up dozens of articles and blog posts by other people who have seen this talk, I don't know that I have much of substance to add in the way of reaction. I could gloat about the fact that astrophysics and cosmology takes up nearly a fifth of the talk, about as much as fundamental particle physics (which is, after all, his specialty) and considerably more than anything else. I could also brag that I'm personally working on three or four of them.

But it's arguably the sociology of the thing that is really interesting. Gross's 25 questions were harvested during a conference of high-powered theorists at the Kavli Institute, which he directs. The idea was to gather theorists from every branch of physics, ranging from quantum mechanics to astrophysics to complexity theory to biophysics. (Yes, there apparently is such a thing as theoretical biophysics. It's not what you might think. See questions 18-20.) Lots and lots of five-minute talks were given. He says this is why experimentalists weren't invited.

UThink Stats

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I am informed that yesterday was the first anniversary of the UThink blogging site at this here university. Shane, who appears to run the place, celebrates by geeking out on the relevant statistics.

Despite my subatomic status in the larger blogoverse, I'll have you know that I appear to be the 41st most prolific poster on UThink. Then again, EGAD ranks 26th by number of comments, which proves once again that you all are far cooler than me.

Found while clicking around to get those numbers: try this experiment sometime.

More Looniness

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The moon setting at twilight through a gap in the accelerator tower structure. A 1/8 sec hand-held exposure. 2005:04:11 18:32:49
The moon setting, shortly after dark has fallen. Tripod-stabilized 1/2 sec exposure taken through (not so much stabilized as well-balanced) binoculars. I've pumped up the levels to emphasize the degree to which Earthshine was illuminating the Moon's night side. 2005:04:11 19:08:29

Yes, more pictures of the moon. It's just an absurdly attractive astronomical target for those of us with very minimal tools. As the moon was new just last Friday (hence the eclipse -- did any of you see it?), we've got a thin crescent now, setting in the much-discussed prongsy configuration. The earlier shot, I took as I was leaving the physics building at twilight and noticed the Moon peaking out through one of the gaps in the accelerator structure. It took me a few attempts to get a good shot, since I was just holding the camera.

Later that night I set up on the roof of my dorm (actually to show one of my friends an Iridium flash), which has a decent view of the horizon. After a considerable bit of fiddling, I found a way to get the camera stably pointed through my binoculars -- a tricky proposition, since I only have the one tripod, and the tripod I have doesn't easily allow pointing the binoculars upwards.

Below, the full-resolution version of this shot. I think I'm getting better at this.

Slow Posting

P.S. Sorry about the light posting over the last week. I can't even claim to have been really, really busy as an excuse.

Mostly, the weather got absurdly nice all of a sudden, so it's been less tempting to stay indoors and write blog posts. Plus I ran low on interesting photos. But my target continues to be roughly one post a day.

Weird Press Coverage

A few days ago I blogged about various sorts of fundamentalists, including the really scary ones that think blowing up the Dome of the Rock would be a nifty idea.

By way of Juan Cole, I discover that this is not how the West reported the events of last weekend. Evidently the mainstream coverage played it as a case of dueling protests.

At the End of the Tour

For many days now, I've felt the urge to write something about the passing of Ioannes Paulus II (to fall back on the Latin form now marking his grave). Links have been piling up, scraps of the web pulled almost at random from the passing torrent of media. Some of them might have led to interesting and topical posts in their own right, but in the end, attempting to blog the Week of the Pope felt a little too much like being a mosquitto in Pamplona.

And now perhaps a respectable time has passed, and the stampede is headed elsewhere. Time to reflect, for a touch of catharsis, a first turning of the mulch heap.

I'd have more to say if I'd been there, of course. And don't think it didn't cross my mind. But ultimately, there's little to distinguish my experience of the past week from that of any other Roman Catholic with a web browser and a few newspapers. Except for the fact that the Catholic population of Israel wouldn't fill St. Peter's Square, and if you only count the ones with whom I could plausibly communicate (i.e. non-Arabic speakers) they might not overflow a large church.

Little Things


A heavy cloud blanketed the Institute grounds this morning. Gnats! Enough to make the air visibly hazy, covering the whole campus. I'm still brushing the darn things out of my hair.

So, it was off to the market and away from the (worst of) the little buggers. Strawberries are in season, brought down from the Gallilee, which pleases me greatly. Artichokes were also on sale, so I picked up a few for the equivalent of about a quarter a piece. I'll do something or other with 'em. Suggestions?

The newest flavor at my preferred ice cream shop is rose. Yes, rose. Looks like bubblegum, tastes pretty much like rose hips smell, which actually is pretty nice.

Spectrum of Fundies


Fundamentalists. Every place has it's own brand of fundies. The creepier sort are scaring the living daylights out of liberals across America these days. Then again, living as I am in the sort of soft theocracy the Christian Right wishes it could get its grubby hands on, the Israeli fundies are quite a piece of work.

Those who've worked with me at public outreach events for the astronomy department know that I sometimes enjoy myself entirely too much at the expense of the creationist fools who pop up whenever you mention the Big Bang. After all, there I am giving a bunch of kids a slide show about the nine-ish planets or showing them how to use a telescope -- kids who, I should point out, might grow up to be scientists, or at the very least citizens who appreciate that science just might be a useful aspect of modern civilization that deserves a bit of support.

Then up walks some oaf who wants to chat about how he's sure I didn't really mean it when I mentioned that the Earth is several billion years old, and could I please make that clearer next time I give one of these talks. Or the middle-aged mom with the pinched face who's annoyed that she drove her kids out to some park to have fun looking at the stars, only to be assailed by all kinds of talk about evolution. On the whole, nice folks who through no particular fault of their own are egregiously ignorant about the world around them.

Mediterranean Dusk

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We get some pretty decent sunsets here, of course, but dusk is also rather colorful. This shot was a 1-second exposure taken about a half-hour after sunset from the top of the accelerator tower (through a clear patch that I meticulously cleaned on a very dirty window). It was part of a largely unsuccessful series of attempts to photograph Mercury last month. My theory on that is that since I'm looking out over the Mediterranean here, the line of sight passes through a long thick layer of moist and turbulent air, resulting in more scattering and opacity near the horizon than you'd otherwise expect. 2005:03:18 18:23:01

Connor thinks he photographed Mercury last month. He's usually pretty good about checking these things, but it definitely wasn't that dark when Mercury was setting here. But he's also a lot farther north. I'd have to think a little more to decide what effect that should have.

Fluff post today. I'm heading out early to go grocery shopping and then file my taxes.

Solar Eclipse

Click this image for an expanded view of NASA's map of total solar eclipses, 2001-2025.

April 8 is the first new moon following the spring solstice, which means that solar eclipse season is once again upon us. NASA, as always, has all your eclipse info. U.S. residents are mostly out of luck on this one, although those of you in Texas will get 20-30% eclipsing goodness. If you happened to be in Venezuela or out in the middle of the south Pacific, you'd be treated to a rare hybrid solar eclipse, which begins and ends as an annular eclipse but becomes total in the middle.

Also from this NASA site, I found this map, showing the paths of all solar eclipses predicted between 2001 and 2025. I'll have to be sure to head back to San Antonio for spring break in 2024; looks like the total eclipse path passes right over my home town April 8 of that year. In the meanwhile, I need to come up with a good excuse to be in Turkey next spring. (Incidentally, next year's Africa-Mideast eclipse is the Saros precursor to the 2024 North American one.)

Half a year


As of 2 am local time, I have been in Israel for 182.5 days, one semi-annum.

Where did those six months go, exactly?

Sic transit

Archbishop Leonardo Sandri: "Our Holy Father John Paul has returned to the house of the Father." 19:40 GMT

The New York Times obituary is comprehensive and stirring.

Watch what they say. Some reflect, but others project.

9,665 days is just about a year longer than I've been around. I'm slated to give a journal club talk tomorrow on the 2002 occultation of Pluto. Otherwise I'd head out to Jerusalem or Nazareth or thereabouts.

Weekend Bat-Blogging

It's not clear to me whether this bat has a severe sunburn, or if it's just some funky flash effect that gave this fellow such a rosy glow. 2005:04:01 21:50:20

It turned unarguably warm this week, repeatedly dashing past a glorious sunny 80°F. Naturally I spent most of that time in my subterranean lair, but that's the life of an astronomer for you. The insects are happy, though, and have been buzzing about in great numbers to take advantage of the barely annual spate of warm-but-not-yet-dessicated air. This makes the bats happy, too. They've moved into the trees lining the street by my dorm.

If I were faster, I could probably get nice action shots of them shooting past my balcony. But from up there, I can't seem to see them coming in time to aim the camera. Even from the ground it's a pretty hit-and-miss operation, you know.

A Curious Notion of Progress

In this recent Ha'aretz article, it is reported that the IDF and the Gaza settlers have reached an agreement, where

Soldiers and policemen who evacuate settlements under the disengagement plan will be unarmed...

Ezra also said that settlers will be asked to turn in their arms voluntarily shortly before the evacuation begins, but the weapons will not be collected forcibly.

Finally, the police will not employ agents provocateurs among the settlers, while the settlers will try to oust any troublemakers from within their ranks.

What fun, watching negotiations between these two groups that trust each other about as far as Gaza beach is from the sea. You'd think it was another round of Arab-Israeli negotiations. Those, of course, are currently snarled up by local commanders haggling over exactly which checkpoints blocking the road into Tul Karm will be removed. My impression is that the IDF's starting position was none of them, and of course the Palestinians wanted them all gone. So it's taken a while.

In other news, I know His Holiness is in a bad way, but it sounds as though the College of Cardinals is already quietly assembling. I thought they were supposed to wait until after he's dead, at the very least!

(Hmm. On further investigation, it seems that the Cardinals are supposed to be assembled within nine days of the Pope's death. So perhaps haste is not altogether unseemly.)

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This page is an archive of entries from April 2005 listed from newest to oldest.

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