May 2005 Archives

Mount Sinai I: Night Vision

Left to right: Tau; Olivia; Niva and husband; yours truly. Behind us, moon and stars set over the shoulder of Mt. Sinai. The trick to this shot is to set a long exposure that still uses the flash, with enough of a delay to let me get into the frame. Click the picture for a larger version. 2005:04:25 04:44:37

The Minnesota crew is busy this week hosting the spring meeting of the American Astronomical Society. It's a fair bet that gamma ray bursts will crash the party, but besides that I expect the usual scuttlebutt about NASA's funding adventures and where oh where is that second-year WMAP data? Let them be advised that juicy astronomy gossip is always welcome in the comments.

Since I've got nothing so exciting going down this week, it's a good time to rummage through the photo archive. This will be the first of a series of such posts covering the trip to Mt. Sinai last month.

The traditional way to see Mt. Sinai is as a predawn climb, so as to experience sunrise from the summit. For $20 a piece a local fellow (who I gather does mostly this) picked up the lot of us at Habiba around 1 AM. By "the lot of us" I mean myself, my dorm-mate Olivia, postdoc from her lab Tau, and an Israeli couple also staying on the beach there. And by 1 AM I mean 1 o'clock Sinai Standard Time, about 1:30 or so. Not a problem, as the drive is long and uneventful. For a couple of hours we variously dozed and watched the stars as we sped up into the mountains by moonlight.

Do You See What I See?

Of this photo, Raed writes: "We went with some friends to Umm Qais, in the north of Jordan. From this really high and cool spot, you can see the occupied Golan Hights, the occupied Jordan River, the occupied Lake Tiberias (known also as the Sea of Galilee and to Israelis as Lake Kinneret), the occupied Shaba Farms in the south of Lebanon." Click the photo to open a larger version.

Okay, so apparently today is Memorial Day back in the U.S. That would nicely explain why I've gotten almost no email from that corner of the globe. Have a nice barbeque or something. As for myself, I got myself invited to an all-you-can-eat sushi extravaganza at one of the nicer restaurants in town tonight, but that has nothing to do with American holidays.

Raed in the Middle is the blog of an Iraqi living in Jordan, who acquired some (very minor) notoriety thanks to his connection to Salam Pax of the Where is Raed? blog made famous during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I don't recall how I wound up at his blog, but this one photo grabbed me.

Before you read on, ask yourself this: looking at Raed's picture, where are your eyes and interest most drawn? To the columns in the foreground? Or to the mist-obscured rolling land beyond?

Weekend Interneting

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Yeah, so what did I manage to do with my weekend?

I discovered that Darth Vader had a blog for a while. He even makes veiled political jabs, just like Lucas, that subversive creator of his:

What crystallized the situation for me was something the Duke of Foulbash said, bringing his brown fist down on the table: "Lord Vader, what is at stake here is a millennium of tradition! That is the heart of this matter."

The Duke was right. I told him so. Then I assassinated the entire royal family, down to the last forgotten bastard.

Adventures Underground

Which is to say, I've been spending some quality time down in the dorm basement today.

Laundry had to be done, of course. But of more interest to me is the fact that the next stable release of the Debian GNU/Linux operating system is impending. So I had me trusty laptop slurp down a few hundred megs of package updates to test the upgrade before the release actually happens and the mirrors are swamped. No problems to report, I'm glad to say.

In fact, I didn't even get any snarky emails from my computer, which is a common side-effect of upgrading Debian systems. They have a bit of personality on 'em.



Happy Lag B'Omer, everyone. Rehovot smells like a campfire. No, really, the whole place.

See, following Pesach are the 50 days of the Omer (literally, a bushel of wheat of some Biblically-prescribed magnitude), which are a period of mourning. No weddings, no dancing, no feasts, that kind of thing. On the 33rd day of Omer -- in Hebrew, Lag B'Omer -- comes a break from the mourning. This is a day for merrymaking, which apparently means bonfires.

I like this: according to the Wikipedia entry,

In Israel, you know that Lag Ba'Omer is drawing near when you see children collecting wood boards, old doors and anything made from wood that can burn. This happens from a week to 10 days before Lag Ba'Omer. As Lag Ba'Omer approaches, the situation gets to the point where building contractors have to employ extra night watchmen to make sure that wooden planks and wooden scaffolding are not taken by the eager youngsters.

Am I the only one who thinks this would make a superb Scavhunt item? It'd save certain teams from having quite so much lumber to dispose of the Monday after, too. Might meet with some minor objections from the administrative types, though.

Baking n' stuff

I have a mess of apples, so I'm baking apple bread. My roommate is somewhat suprised to see the toaster oven being used for other than making toast. But then again, he's eaten Cheerios for breakfast and dinner every day since he took up residence here, so far as I can tell. Not the culinary type, it would seem.

On a tangentially related note, a belated "happy birthday!" goes out to Cate. I need to look at the calendar more often.

On a completely unrelated note, Sharon is in the States, and the NYPD is bemused at the presence of Jewish protesters following him around. Abbas is headed thence presently, and it looks like he'll succeed in meeting with Bush before he's managed to set foot within 100 meters of Sharon.

Someone should do a survey to find out how many people actually like Sharon. I have an inkling that the number is now statistically consistent with zero.

Stalked by Camels!

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I'm noticing a pattern. I'm not saying they're out to get me or anything, but the camels are definitely keeping an eye on me.

Yes, yes, the beaches of the Sinai are camel infested. Nothing suprising about finding 'em there. And on the whole, I'd have to say that the mountains and much-needed exposure to sunshine made up for the fact that three or four would amble by an something like an hourly basis. Some of them were being driven by kids clearly trying to interest ... well, anyone ... in a camel ride. You learned to avoid making eye contact after a while. Others were on some obscure camel-y mission of their own, that seemed also to involve a lot of ambling up and down the beach, but with less of the persistent ride-hawking.

And sometimes, they'd just sit around. I think they figured they could just wait us out. That, or they were operating as some sort of fixed base camp for the kids.

The camel-infested beach at Habiba Camp, where we stayed in the Sinai. Pretty location, though, and actually rather nice-looking camels, as such things go. They still smelled like camels, though. 2005:04:23 14:22:35.

But check this out.


Having spent all day explaining to various people how lenses work, I have little of general interest to add today. Although I suppose I could always post a treatise on design considerations for refractive optical systems for submillimeter receivers. But that would be like extra work.

I will, however, note that I have a new roommate, which demonstrates the odd humor of Nissim, our friendly local dorm manager and petty extortionist. The fellow is only here for a couple of months to volunteer in a lab. Let's review:

Former roommate
Sam, American taking a year off from MIT to do lab work here; this being a grad school, we made fun of him for still being in college and looking 19.
New roommate
Eddie, or Danny, or something, just graduated high school in Boston and is now spending a year in Israel with some youth program; this being a grad school, we will make fun of him for having not yet started college and being 19.

Okay, I could do worse than childlike Bostonians. But really, what're the odds?

Moonrise over Jordan

Montage of the moon rising over the mountains on the Saudi Arabian side of the Red Sea, as seen from Habiba. 2005:04:25 20:44:52 to 20:47:41.

Just a quick astrophotography post today, continuing my creeping efforts to go through the pictures from the Sinai weekend.

The full moon fell on our last night in Habiba that weekend, which actually rather annoyed me, since that meant we'd had a nearly-full moon in the evening sky every night we'd been there. Hence no tasty dark skies to enjoy. But the moon is also photogenic, so I made do.

Optical Design

Had a bit of a breakthrough this week on the optics front. Namely, after several months of work, I have succeeded in producing a design for the optical bits of an instrument that I'm working on which would not only perform approximately as we'd like, but which could actually be constructed. While this is by no means the final design, and we're not about to rush out and start fabrication, this nevertheless pleased me to no end.

This week Pharyngula spent some time talking about optical design as well. But that being a biologist's blog, it's not so much about designing telescopes and more about the oddly sophisticated eyes of the box jellyfish. They turn out to have several; most of them are simple light-sensing affairs (apparently), but two are equipped with a proper cornea, a nicely corrected lens, and sensitive retina. In fact, these organs would dish up vastly more data than a jellyfish's simple CNS could possibly process ... if only they were in focus. They've actually evolved sophisticated eyes that are extremely out-of-focus, but as the article points out, this makes sense when you think about how a jellyfish works.

Meteorological Comment

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We're starting to have the occasional day hot enough that the best approach really is just to spend the afternoon in a cool basement; today was such a day. This is why most organisms in arid regions are nocturnal, after all. So, after my usual Friday excursion to the market (peaches and the first spinach crop just came in from the north ... yum!), it was down to the dorm computer room with my laptop for a few hours. Probably nice weather for a bike ride after sunset, though, especially given that Shabbat has now started, clearing away most auto traffic.

Weather in Tel Aviv, Israel

Weather in San Antonio, Texas

aaaaand ... well, at least he hit the backboard this time.

While I have to disagree strongly with the reviewers who had been calling this one better than Episode 4, this movie is far and away the strongest of the prequel trilogy. This is in part helped by the fact that it is the final movie in a multi-film prequel, and thus the plot is pretty well constrained to dealing with the actual story we know. Since all the secrets and loose ends are revealed and tied up in the original trilogy, a chimpanzee could work out the script to this one, although frankly, it's still the case that a random ape could write better dialogue for the Anakin-Padme scenes. While Hayden Christensen manages to look appropriately troubled in his delivery (dress all in black, frown a lot), Natalie Portman is all but visibly wincing.

Besides which, a noticeable fraction of the dialog, good and bad, is just (pre-)parroting classic lines and tropes from the main three. I mean, Anakin and Obi-Wan yelling at each other about their respective points-of-view? We get it already! But this is at least semi-competently written. It's just Anakin and Padme that fail to interact remotely like human beings.

Thankfully, even in a 2+ hour movie, they don't have all that many lines together. It's mostly a RotJ-esque action flick.



Okay, so here's one unforseen advantage to being in a small town in Israel instead of a city in the U.S. Turns out that here, one can walk up the day before and still get a block of tickets to the opening screening of the new Star Wars flick. Probably won't have to contend with too many Jedi-robed types, either. (Nothing wrong with that, mind you. But I left my light-saber on my other, er, continent, and they'd only make fun of my poor grasp of the Klingon language.)

I wasn't actually planning on doing the whole midnight-showing affair; given how dismal the last couple were, I'd decided to wait until the reactions were in so as to properly callibrate my expectations. The Hitchhiker's Guide was disappointing enough, after all. But a gaggle of folks from the dorm are going tonight, so I told 'em to go ahead and buy me a ticket.

And hey ... for those of you who haven't already watched it on the internet or something, I'll let you know if it's any good. I figure that'll give most of you about five hours warning.

Still Thinking About Water

Compare and contrast to yesterday's post. From an Albuquerque Trib op-ed:

The U.S.-Mexico border vicinity is arid at best, and several recent years of drought have accentuated this. Complicating the area's water quantity and quality problems are its free-trade-driven industrial and agricultural development, together with a related population boom.

Incredibly, no scientific diagnosis has ever been made on which to base binational water basin management. Among the results of this weak planning position are public health problems and costs, degradation of biodiversity and transgressions against environmental justice.

Border activists have insisted for decades that tribal, low-income and other minority-status communities on both sides of the border are among the hardest hit.

This op-ed was written in connection with the recent resolution of a decade-long water dispute between the U.S. and Mexico. It's worth pointing out that along this border, there are relatively few people who actually don't have enough water to drink. The shortage has mostly been affecting agriculture in the Rio Grande valley since, thankfully, the area doesn't have anywhere near the population density of the Levant.

Then again, if Phoenix doesn't get its growth under control, problems could emerge (Google cache) rather quickly.

In the world outside [Central Arizona Project general manager David S. "Sid"] Wilson’s office, the Arizona development boom continues. Crews in stucco-spattered work trucks finish off legions of new homes in the desert, and bulldozers clear the way for tens of thousands more.

But behind the scenes at the CAP and Arizona’s other water outfits, the true dimensions of the water shortage are beginning to come into focus. The drought could overwhelm the state’s fitful efforts to achieve sustainability, and water managers are grappling with the growing realization that, despite a century’s worth of efforts to engineer water shortages out of existence, nature still bats last.


Perhaps because of the cold I picked up in the (abberantly frozen and sleet-y) north, or perhaps because the dry season is kicking in, I noticed when I got back to Rehovot that the water seems decidedly tasteless1. Now as any resident of any desert in the world will tell you, water is life. So does that mean I'm justified in complaining that life has lost its flavor?

Ba-dum ching.

Contrary to what one might expect for a Middle Eastern nation, Israel has quite diverse supplies of water available to it. Water can be, and is, drawn from the Jordan River, Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee to everyone else), the Coastal Aquifer, and most importantly the Mountain Aquifer System -- which is actually at least three geologically distinct underground effluences with different flow directions. However, all of these supplies combined are barely adequate to accomodate Israel's ballooning population, industry, and agriculture. Water, then, is a sensitive issue.

[Update: I have rewritten and expanded slightly the following to clarify where some of my data are coming from.]

Back on Track

Just as a program note, I'm now jet-delagged (de-jet-lagged? jet-synched?) and caught up on basic things like email. And, of course, done with international travel for a few weeks. So EGAD should now be returning to a regular posting schedule.

On an unrelated note, the folks leaving the cafeteria ahead of me after lunch were, if I understood them correctly, discussing an actual person named Joe Schmoe. I suppose there had to be at least one.

Weekend Invertibrates

Back in Rehovot today, it's about 24 hours after I set out from Minneapolis, but my biological clock is supposed to believe that it's more like 32. Gave John a bit of a run-around on the way to the airport when I forgot my passport, but it's been an uneventful transit since then. So for want of anything more timely to report, I give you ... coastal invertibrates of the Red Sea.

From near the tidal pool, a common sand crab hanging out on the rocks, trying to look like a rock while it waits for food to wander by. This fellow seemed singularly unperturbed by my presence, which I take to mean that I'm doing something right in my nature photography technique. 2005:04:23 14:00:07.

Recall if you will, that I spent a weekend in the Sinai last month, hanging out on the beach and hiking in the mountains. I have a rather large backlog of photographs to sort through, which will make good filler material for the blog every now and then. On a good day I might even string them together into an interesting and analytic narrative, but today I'm just going for passably coherent filler, since I'm jet lagged and still a bit under the weather.

On any reasonably healthy beach, a fascinating tidal pool ecosystem develops with each low tide, during which smaller fauna colonize the standing bodies of water left behind in depressions on the beach. Since these areas are re-submerged with each high tide, a diverse array of aquatic flora can thrive there as well. They are similar in many ways to a reef in miniature: abundant solid attachment points and shelter from predators; plenty of sunlight to drive photosynthesis; periodically strong currents replenish the oxygen and nutrients in the water. However, life in a tidal pool is much easier to photograph, since all this takes place in water only a few centimeters deep!



Heading to the airport in a few hours; I hit air at 9 am if everything keeps to schedule. Landing is around 9 am Israeli local time -- about 16 hours in transit, total.

I hate traveling when sick. Full-time scavving is hard on the health, and I'm nursing what Amber has charmingly dubbed the Post-Scavhunt Hacking Death Plague, along with about half the team from what I've heard. What's keeping me going is the knowledge that it's sunny and warm where I'm going.

More ScavHunt stories once I've slept off the jet lag. For that matter, I've still got lots of Sinai pictures to post, too. Catch y'all on the flip.

Returning to the Point

On Thursday I return to Israel, after spending Wednesday in Minnesota. (Astronomy folks: we should do dinner somewhere Wednesday evening!) So I should begin catching up on what I've missed.

The most interesting development I'm aware of is the Palestinian municipal elections held last Thursday. Hamas did quite well, as expected, although Fatah remains firmly in political control of the territories. It would be a grave error, though, to interpret this as the Palestinian people voting in favor of the destruction of Israel. Instead, as Ha'aretz writes,

In a sign of the militants' strength even in areas with large Christian populations, Hamas won five of the seven seats alloted to Muslims in the town of Bethlehem, which has a total of 15 seats. Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine will share the eight seats allocated to Christians.

"We are very honest and work much more than the others," said Khaled Saada, a Hamas candidate for Bethlehem town council, citing schools, clinics and orphanages run by his group.

Many voters were prepared to try Hamas after what they saw as a Fatah failure.

"Who will work for our future, for our children?" asked Maalik Salhab, a 24-year-old biology student who was wearing a green Hamas hat in Bethlehem and voted for the group on Thursday.

"If I see the outside world refusing to help us and then call Hamas terrorists, then I have the right to choose Hamas because they are doing all these things for me."

It's about local services, honest government, and frustration with the incumbent political establishment.


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It's hard to blog during the Scavenger Hunt. Any time that, normally, one might be tempted to waste playing on the web or otherwise goofing off, is really better spent grabbing a nap. For a full-time Hunter like myself, I'd estimate that one puts in the equivalent of four back-to-back 18-22 hour workdays. That's tough, even on a seasoned grad student.

I'm not going to remotely attempt to provide a comprehensive recap of the Hunt. Judge Connor, by what superhuman effort I know not, provided the definitive blogging of the Hunt. Start there, and read upwards. Allocate some time; it's an interesting and hillarious read, but there's a lot to get through.

Now it's over. What I will be blogging (retrospectively) will be the specific exploits of my team, and personal thoughts of a varying nature on topics touching on the Hunt. So from that perspective, here's where I spoil the ending:

Day 2, Summary


In the past 48 hours:

The list has been released. It's a good one.

I have slept about 6 hours. This is unusually good, for me.

I have been accepted to the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists™. "Highlighting the Heads of Science"

I've been nominated as a ScavHunt All-Star. The All-Star games were fun, a kind of mini-Hunt within the Hunt during which we played for other teams in mini-teams composed of All-Stars from other teams.

And to continue the tongue-twisteriness, I am now headed off to Item 181:

It's a party of a party inside a party. Inside a party? How many parties in the party? Partly me and partly you. Party free of party rules. One says "par-tay" as the parlay. Party heartily hardly a party without the party within a party of a party partly party, partly par-tay.

List Release


Habemus ScavHunt list.

Interesting list release this year. It was quick; the Judges captured one member from each team and locked them away inside Rockefeller Chapel (the big cathedral-sized "chapel" on campus) for a bit under an hour. Eventually fireworks launched from the tower, and people with lists burst at high speed from the various doors. So it began, and we know not the details, for every one of them was sworn to utter silence regarding the proceedings within.

Let it not be said that the Judges ever fail to find inspiration from the world about them, for exciting new ways to mess with us.

We trek as one to Ida Noyes for the release of the List. We firmly believe that an initial show of force, if not actually likely to intimidate or cow our foes, it nevertheless good clean fun.
Stuff. A literal pain in my neck. See, this is why I always seem leery of acquiring more of it. That's ze pad del Connor behind me. 2005:05:03 08:48:01.

Got into Chicago with minimal event yesteday morning, after a 9-hour overnight bus ride. Wearing a 70-ish pound duffel bag full of tools as a backpack, I'm sure I cut quite the figure shuffling through downtown Chicago. (Said I to Connor: "Enough rope, you can tie anything to your back." His reply was something to the effect of having half-expected me to arrive by scaling his building.) After dropping my stuff at his place, spend most of the day stomping aout town -- principally Hyde Park -- largely without net access. Hence the lack of update.

Today it's back to Hyde Park this afternoon. We'll be gathering as the evening progresses to set up my ScavHunt team's headquarters. The major effort there will be to move our accumulated scavenged building materials in from the various dispersed locales in which they are presently stored. There's also mundane stuff like moving furnature around to arrange stuff for maximum utility. Electrical stuff should be near outlets. The computer table should be out of the way.

Announcement: Sushi Invite

Sorry, this one only goes out to those of you in Chicago:

Sometime Tuesday evening Meridith and I will be at Kikuya. More people would rock. If you want in, leave a comment or drop me an email, and we'll decide on a time.

If anyone's looking for me later Tuesday, I'll be staying with Connor and SPH.

Weekend in Minneapolis

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It's been enjoyable to spend a few days in Minneapolis, even if the weather seems to be going out of its way to be unusually lousy. It hasn't broken 50°C since I've been here. It's been variously rainy and drizzly and cold. Today, the first of May, I glanced out my window to see a sleet-storm in progress!

Let you doubt me, the aftermath of the sleet storm. I had to be fast, since it is May, after all, and sleet doesn't fall for long nor does it stick. But the white stuff on my tree is, in fact, the white stuff. 2005:05:01 11:33:39

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