June 2005 Archives

Intermission Continues


Life goes on, but for the next few days it will continue to do so without much assistance on my part. Come Wednesday, once the collaborators go back to their home states / nations, I'll endeavor to reengage with the essentials, such as blogging, or finally buying some groceries.

Not that the world doesn't continue to be fun without me. Minnesota politics are always entertaining. You've got to give the governor points for so doggedly sticking to his no-tax-increases pledge, but that doesn't make it a less stupid thing to have promised.

Israel can't keep itself together for one week without some kind of crisis breaking out, of course. Looks like I got out while the gettin's good. And that's just today's headlines from skimming one newspaper.

Given that my world travels are complete for the medium term, I may eventually need to rethink the raisone d'etre of this supposed travel blog. In the near term, though, I've got plenty of material in the hopper. Til' next week, then.

"Well, Sir, this is very unusual"

At the risk of turning this into the all-baggage, all-the-time channel, I can report that fortune seems to have smiled upon me.

At home I found that a cornucopia of luggage had erupted just ahead of my arrival, and my roommates, bless their hearts, had even dragged them in to the foot of the stairs. Thus commenced the Inventorying of the Luggage. There was the battered and destroyed box containing my laptop, miraculously preserved like Han Solo, in a perfect state of hibernation. In fact, I kept on running across these sealed white padded envelopes containing miscellaneous bits of electronics, clearly stuck in wherever there was room as the security team certified them Not A Bomb.

All in all, and to my abject astonishment, there appears to be only one item missing.

Luggage Foibles: Progress

Have spent a goodly portion of my day on the phone with various computers and even the occasional human being. Progress is finally being made.

When we began the day's adventures, I was assured that the Great Global Baggage Mentat In The Sky had never heard of my luggage, which had probably never existed anyway. All parties involved were apologetic to the company-mandated minimal extent. It's been uphill from there.


As an aside, given my recent relocation, starting today entry times are figured according to Central Time. Up til now, you may have noticed, the convention was Israeli Standard Time.

As a general rule, I use entry times to reflect time at my present location when posting. Seems reasonable to me.

Sun Chasing


Posting from my own house in Minneapolis; I made the trip home in just about 24 hours door-to-door in the end. Didn't sleep much on the planes, so I've effectively been awake for over 40 hours now. Bright sunlight for over 24 hours will do interesting things to the internal clock. (At least in the Arctic there's a discernible 'midday' and 'midnight' -- whereas thanks to all the flying west I've done today, it's been bouncing around between about noon and 4 pm all day for me.)

In other news, consider me a permanent ex-El Al customer.

Last Post

From Israel, anyway. Unless I have more down-time tonight than I'm expecting.

Shutting down the computers, cleaning off the desk, it's time to go. Wheels up in 15 hours, and I've got a bit to do before that.

It's been interesting. In the coming weeks, I'll endeavor to elaborate on that.

Still Here

Cats have reputedly enjoyed a curious relationship with writers throughout human history. They purr and are fuzzy, which can help with concentration. Then they sit on whatever is being worked upon, which tends to be counterproductive. The fact that computers are warm and hum is just a happy perk of being felis domesticus in the modern era. 2005:06:04 11:57:22

Light posting to continue this weekend, as most of my computer time is currently occupied making sure I've got all data of importance off of the systems here before I go. The local firewalls will make it impossible for me to get in later if I've forgotten anything.

I'm told that it is considered acceptable, even fashionable, for a blogger to distract the reader from a perceived lack of content by posting photos of adorable animals. I wonder how that works out for Snail's Tales. I'll be thoroughly conventional and go with cat. (See, e.g., here for a far superior example of "cat blogging.")

More Updates. Why Not?

BLAST has landed, I assume safely on Victoria Island. At least, the SIP readings indicate 937 feet altitude and zero air speed. Somewhat ahead of schedule, apparently due to faster-than-expected winds over Canada. This means they got in less observing time than planned, which is unfortunate but not necessarily a huge problem.

Via Majikthise, a touching story about grading essays with no end in sight. The TAs in the audience will relate:

Midday Updates

A slight amendation: I correctly stated that Bethlehem is Beit Lechem (בית לחם) in Hebrew, which means "House of Bread." But I incorrectly implied that it means the same in Arabic. Close, though. To the Arabs it's Bęt lahm (بيت لحم), which means "House of Meat." So there's a neat example of linguistic radiation for you.

More BLAST: hijinx ensued when the ground team's internet connection went down not once, but twice, due to problems on two different continents. Since grad students don't need sleep and are completely immune to stress, this obviously inconvenienced nobody. Anyhow, I hear things are looking good for landing in 36 hours or so.

Finally, I will be arriving back in the U.S.A. on the 21st of June. Summer solstice, wouldn't you know? In my case, the longest day of the year is going to last 32 hours. Even if I just take civil dawn in Israel to civil dusk in Minnesota I get 24 hours, 40 minutes of daylight. So, hey, I've even got those kids in Kiruna with their midnight sun beat.

Tangled Bank #30

The Tangled Bank

Tangled Bank #30 is now up at The Geomblog. Thanks to the proliferation of good bloggy science writing, it goes weekly this month. I should just give up on ever getting work done again.

This week's compilation includes my recent post on BLAST, which last I heard has cleared Greenland and is floating towards recovery in Canada in about two days. Which is exciting, not least because we've gotten to waste the first ten minutes of each conference call gossiping about it.

The Road to Bethlehem

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Semi-arid hills (Mount this, that, and the other, Biblically speaking) surround Jerusalem. To the south they roll gradually down to the plain of the Negev desert. Hebron road is visible winding between them. More click-to-enlarge photos. 2005:06:06 12:09:41

Bethlehem: Beit Lechem in Hebrew, and very similar in Arabic, means House of Bread. While no doubt the area can yield a fertile olive crop, I have trouble picturing amber waves of grain on these dusty carapaces.

I decided that it was time to visit Bethlehem, as my final few weeks here were approaching, and I'd have kicked myself if I'd failed entirely to go. Because it's there. Because it's Jerusalem's other half in this Christian Mecca. And because it's as far into the West Bank as, realistically, I'm likely to get on this trip.

Only about eight kilometers of road separate the West Bank town from East Jerusalem, so I decided to walk. Best way there is to see the land.

Last Call


Time to place your final bets, for those of you playing along at home.

There's been speculation, there's been rumour. But now it's official, reservation in hand: I'm moving back to the States.

And because I'm just that big a tease, I'll tell you all when ... tomorrow. But be assured, it's soon.

Poor Role Model

Abbas has ended a three-year moratorium on capital punishment in the Territories. I submit an excerpt from this story without further comment:

Four men who had confessed to murders in a Gaza court were killed on Sunday - three by hanging, one by firing squad.

"These individuals killed innocent human beings and by executing them we applied our law," Palestinian Attorney General Hussain Abu Aasi told the AFP news agency.

"Even the most democratic state in the world, America, invokes this kind of punishment," he said.


A bit of excitement to brighten the otherwise pensive mood in my research group today. Courtesy of the good folks at the National Scientific Balloon Facility (NSBF), BLAST went up, up, and away today. Now we can all watch it float its way around the Arctic Circle at 40 km altitude from Sweden towards Canada. The photos on the grad student blogs (here and here) are perhaps more interesting. There's even videos of the launch process, which looks to have been mercifully smooth after a long string of delays.

More Holiday

I mentioned a little while back that the 50 days following Pesach are the weeks of the Omer. They end tonight with the holiday of Shavuot (literally, "seven weeks"). "50 days" translates to Pentecost in Greek, which is what Greek-speaking Jews (and by extension, the early Christian community) called this holiday.

Like many ancient holidays, Jewish and otherwise, Shavuot/Pentecost stems from the progression of the agricultural year, but long ago acquired religious significance as well. In this case, it marks the end of the grain harvest which traditionally occupies seven weeks in the late spring. Pesach marks the start of this harvest, and it thus became associated with bread and the story of the Passover. In like fashion, Shavout commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites and the promise of a land of milk and honey. It is therefore traditional to eat bread and cheesecake before staying up all night to read Torah.

I have not yet been offered any cheesecake, but the night is young. If I have to stay up all night reading Torah to get sweets, though, I might just pass. Trying to read Hebrew for that long would undoubtedly give me a headache.

Shepherds' Fields

Why yes, Franciscan monks actually can do tacky, I've discovered. This is the dome of the small church maintained in the Field of the Shepherds operated by this Catholic order. (Another post with click-to-enlarge photos.) 2005:06:06 08:04:55

While in Bethlehem I counted no less than three "Field(s) of the Apparition to the Sheperds" -- all separated by a considerable distance. I don't know what the geographic extent of a Heavenly Host of Angels is supposed to be, although I'm certain that theologians have debated the point somewhere along the line. Guess that would be more or less the inverse of the "how many angels on the head of a pin" query.

One of the fields is run by the (Roman Catholic) Franciscans, the other by a Greek Orthodox order. This is a fairly standard dualism, after all. A third is run by the local YMCA, as well. This is less traditional, I suppose. I'm not really certain why Khalid, my guide, insisted on taking me to all three of these sites, but he seemed pretty into them. But I wasn't paying him by the mile or by the site, so my only complaint is the tremendous number of flies infesting the cave grottoes at the two I ventured into.

Beanfield War?

When I read this piece last week I immediately thought back to The Milagro Beanfield War (John Nichols, 1974, still in print).

The parallels aren't perfect, but in both cases you've got the poor and downtrodden agricultural types being oppressed by powerful people who want their land, you've got harassement and violence by masked goons, you've got the troublemaking activist giving the community hope. I should point out, though, that Nichols' novel was a locally revolutionary tract; this Ha'aretz article is supposed to be a feel-good human interest story about Zionist settlers versus Palestinian cave-dwelling farmers and shepherds in the Hebron hills. Here's the setup:

A 53-year-old plumber from Jerusalem has become a one-man institution dedicated to helping and protecting the Palestinian cave dwellers of the southern Hebron Hills.

Even the Palestinians say they would not have survived in the area - facing pressure from the Israel Defense Forces and harassment from the settlers - without Ezra Nawi.

About two months ago, Palestinian shepherds from the southern slopes of the Hebron Hills noticed a settler spreading poisoned wheat kernels in the pasture fields. They managed to get their sheep out in time - dozens of farm animals were killed in a similar incident - but the next morning the carcasses of two wild deer that had eaten the poisoned kernels were found.

Nawi, a left-wing activist who had arrived as usual that morning to help the Al-Tawani village residents, decided to protest. He took one of the carcasses and placed it in the middle of the road to the Maon settlement, from where the Palestinians claimed the poisoners had come.

Sofa Change


Everyone knows by now that NASA is having budget problems thanks to Bush effectively giving the agency an unfunded mandate to colonize the Moon. The big issues are widely publicized: will they keep the Hubble flying or not, by how much will they push back the Mars exploration missions, which big next-generation space telescopes will get cancelled?

But it's the way NASA is seemingly checking all the couch cusions for loose change that is perhaps more worrisome, and not attracting broad attention. In the conference call I just got out of, there was mention that a mission study I'm involved with will have part of its funding "postponed", that a related detector R&D project was defunded ... the examples keep rolling in. These are programs that are providing, at most, stipends for a handful of grad students. Extremely small change by any measure of Federal budgeting.

And I wonder -- is the situation better or worse at other, lower-profile agencies? I'm inclined to suspect worse in many cases.

Happy (Belated) Debian Day

Another interesting thing that took place while I was off and far from the Internet: Debian Sarge (a.k.a. Debian 3.1) was released. I do try not to let my technogeekery show through too much -- as I've just got so many more unusual flavors of geekiness to showcase, after all. But this one's been in development for just shy of three years, and it's really the only operating system I use these days. I was still in college when the last version was pressed!

(Okay, not true; the Debian project has issued "updates" to the previous version several times since then. But those aren't allowed to make major changes to the installed software. Which is why I've been using the "testing" version for years now.)

Yes, it felt good to get that out of my system. Don't look at me like that, I'm sure you've been crowed to many times by now about that new Apple OS release. And don't even get me started on the degree to which I don't have an opinion on the whole Apple-moving-to-Intel thing.

Jerusalem Day

When I was there, Jerusalem Day was just kicking into gear. The place was overrun by noisily patriotic youth groups distinguishable primarily by the colors of their shirts. 2005:06:06 12:45:41

So it turns out that Monday was a curious day to pick to be in Jerusalem. The 6th of June was Jerusalem Day, the 38th anniversary of Israeli control of the entire city. It appears that the holiday was originally "Jerusalem Liberation Day" until someone astutely noticed that a third of the city's population regarded it as a calamity. Despite the bland name, the day is still a cause for jubilation on the part of the more stridently Zionist elements in Israeli society, and yeshivas, Jewish youth groups, and settler organizations come out in force. (A few more pictures are here.)

You could tell from the orange ribbons everywhere. The anti-disengagement activists have appropriated the color orange as their symbol. Hoping to invoke Kiev, perhaps?

There was some violence to mark the occasion, but nothing too serious. I was well out of the city by the time that happened, though. As the festivities sprawled into the evening, though, the heightened security did make getting back into Jerusalem from the West Bank an interesting experience.

Long Walk, More Walls

Sorry for not posting yesterday ... and what's going to be a fairly perfunctory post today. Long day of not working followed by long day of catching up on stuff. It happens.

Especially when you decide it's a nice day for a long stroll through the West Bank.

Took the bus into Jerusalem yesterday, from where I walked to Bethlehem. A wonderful excursion, on which details will follow when I've sorted through the photos and notes I took a bit. First impressions include: more sunscreen wouldn't have hurt; there sure ain't much oversight of who enters the West Bank; the Field of the Apparition to the Sheperds run by the Franciscan monks is less convincing than the one run by the local YMCA.

It's those walls again. Later, pictures of that distant one from up close. That antenna turns out to be right at the crossing-point into Bethlehem. 2005:06:06 12:32:28

Spin Damage


While we're on the topic of things I've run across recently, allow me to observe that the fellow who wrote this is an idiot.

So maybe a week ago I happen upon one of these breathless "I can't believe nobody's reporting on ..." blog posts pointing to that article. Here's the setup:

BP Faces Huge Fines Related To Unreported Oil Spills in Alaska; Is ANWR Next?

...It was then, unbeknownst to the federal lawmakers who debated the merits of drilling in ANWR, that the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation started to lay the groundwork to pursue civil charges against UK oil and gas behemoth BP and the corporation’s drilling contractor for failing to report massive oil spills at its Prudhoe Bay operation, just 60 miles west from the pristine wilderness area that would be ravaged by the very same company in its bid to drill for oil should ANWR truly be opened to further development.

Truly horrible! Here's Congress debating whether to turn a wildlife refuge over to the wildcatters and all the while -- gasp! -- the evil Big Oil is covering up a Valdez in the making.

Or, well, no.

On Arab MKs

In December 20021, the Knesset Central Elections Committee voted to bar two Arab parties from running in the elections to be held the following month, including the Ta'al list led by Ahmed Tibi. Then-Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein declared that because the leaders of these two parties had failed to adequately declare their support for a Jewish State of Israel, and because some of them had expressed qualified support for Palestinian groups engaged in violence during the Second Intifada, they were unfit to run for office in the government.

The Israeli Supreme Court later overturned that decision2, over the strenuous objections of the political right.

I only mention this because I ran across Tibi's name in the paper today3.

Space Junk

What if the flaming wrecks of space ships crashed in your fields several times a month?

If you happen to be a Kazakh villager living downrange of Baikonur, you learn to live with it. This is why everyone else in the world launches over water.

The next time someone asks you if stuff just vanishes when it "burns up on reentry," the correct answer is "no." Just point 'em at these photos.

Mount Sinai IV: Santa Katarina

Look! It's a stairway which the Bedouin have cleverly disguised as a pile of rocks. Heading down the Steps of Repentance is certainly faster than going up, but a bit more harrowing. Enlarge as usual. 2005:04:25 07:33:31

First of all, a correction is in order. Yesterday I went on at some length about my uncertainty over the relative arrangement of Jebel Katarina and Jebel Musa, and which one we were actually on. I've done some additional research on that point. Now, none of the sources I've found has a straightforward map that shows both peaks, so I've been doing as the cartographers of old, trying to piece together geography from scattered fragments of the written accounts of travelers. One of the clearest such accounts is here, although some of the dimensions cited are at variance with the otherwise commonly given values. To compare, the closest thing I've found to a map of the area is this.

The upshot is that I am now fairly certain that we were never on Jebel Katarina at all, and that the entire trail we used, and all the photos I've been displaying, are on Jebel Musa. In fact, you can see Jebel Katarina from Musa, and it appears to be a kilometer or two distant. And partially off-limits due to unexploded ordinance, to boot, from what I've read.

Moving right along, though. After having some breakfast and poking around for a bit on the summit of Jebel Musa, it was time to be moseying on down. The monastery of Santa Katerina is open to tourists starting at 9 am, so we wanted to get down by then. Once again, the Steps of Repentance awaited.

There is a traditional practice by which a Bedouin can leave a message in the desert for another encoded in the arrangement of a seemingly random pile of rocks, or rujum. On the way down, we speculated that the Steps must have been built by someone who had observed this practice, and decided to announce that "This Is the Way Down" encoded into what, to the untrained eye, appears to be a jumble of boulders.

Weekend Update

Yeah, I'm still around.

After working out the transit times and getting a late start this morning, I've postponed my planned outing to later this week. The agenda outlined in my previous post turned out to involve a non-trivial chance of winding up stranded in Bethlehem overnight. So, back to the drawing board.

On the plus side, that means I was at my computer to see a wonderfully-titled article go by on the astro-ph archive: Evolution of a Network of Vortex Loops in HeII.

So naturally I popped it open and discovered that, when viewed in a serif font, that was HeII (in astrophysics that would refer to a singly ionized helium plasma, but in a condensed matter paper it means helium in its superfluid phase). Which makes a bit more sense. Although now, I'm a bit curious as to what Infernal vortex loops would consist of.

Weekend Plans

Light blogging this weekend is a possibility. My goal is to use Jerusalem as a base of operations to explore Bethlehem and Jericho, examine the Separation Fence up close, and maybe get in some hiking in the West Bank.

This is a bit ambitious, so I'll be sure to let you all know when I get back how much of that got done.

Thermohaline Troubles

I've briefly mentioned thermohaline circulation as a mechanism by which oceanic temperatures can be regulated through mixing. The most important example of this is the Global Thermohaline Circulation, which is responsible for warm surface currents like the Gulf Stream that keep Western Europe so pleasantly toasty.

The main driver for this global cycle is a region of forcefully sinking water in the north Atlantic and around Greenland. The water arriving from equitorial regions already has a salinity surplus due to evaporation further south. Upon reaching the Arctic, two new processes kick in. First, the cold air temperature leads to rapid cooling of this water. Second, the seasonal formation of ice shelves expels additional salt into the surface waters. The resulting chilled brine sinks like a stone, and thus keeps the whole "conveyor" moving.

That's why I was rather alarmed when I ran across this.

CLIMATE change researchers have detected the first signs of a slowdown in the Gulf Stream — the mighty ocean current that keeps Britain and Europe from freezing.

They have found that one of the “engines” driving the Gulf Stream — the sinking of supercooled water in the Greenland Sea — has weakened to less than a quarter of its former strength.

Besides a couple of UK papers, I've hardly seen this reported anywhere.

Mount Sinai III: Origins

The geology of the Sinai betrays an exciting history as the intersection point of the Syrian Arc and the Great African Rift. Both sandstone and granite formations are found in abundance, since the area has been subject both to extreme volcanic building as well as oceanic flooding and sedimentation. At one time, this whole area was an archepelago of volcanic islands in the Cretacious Tethys Ocean, of which Jebel Musa (the Mountain of Moses, or Mount Sinai) is now the second tallest.

But then, Africa ran into Eurasia, lifting up the Syrian Arc. And a while later, the African-Arabian plate decided to begin splitting in two, and the resulting valley nearly swallowed the whole region. The outcome is the abruptly transitioning ecologies of the Levant, and these stark peaks not 50 kilometers from blooming reefs.

The first rays of morning illuminate the peaks of the Sinai Mountains. In the near foreground is the western flank of Mt. Sinai, beyond which nearby mountaintops proceed into the distance. It's still nighttime on the valley floors about a mile below. (Click. Bigger.) 2005:04:25 06:14:56

[Update: I have since resolved the Jebel Musa / Jebel Katarina confusion. See the next post in this series.]

The trail narrows and you see lightening sky through a rocky gap. I had to resist the urge to have a Frodo moment here. 2005:04:25 05:55:01

Earlier this week France voted Non! on the proposed EU constitution. Today the Netherlands did the same (but probably in Dutch). The Euro is tumbling, although it's still at historically high levels against the dollar. What does all this mean?

Don't ask me; I'm not the expert. But over at A Fistful of Euros, they are.

At the close of yesterday's post, dawn was breaking as we tromped along about halfway up the flank of Mt. Sinai. At this point, I suppose we'd been climbing for about an hour and a half, and only now were our eyes becoming noticably useful to navigation. Except for finding Bedouin tea houses. As I noted in this post, those shine like bonfires on the mountainside. At least to well dark-adapted eyes. While none of them is really more than a hut with shelves of drinks -- I'm really not certain how they get electricity up there, but I didn't notice any generators -- the second-largest is at the top of the camel-navigable trail, in the middle of this parking lot. For camels.

Tangled Bank #29

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The Tangled Bank

Tangled Bank #29 is now up at Organic Matter. It's up to forty articles now, including one of mine. But go read some of the others, too.

For those not familiar with it, the Tangled Bank is a bimonthly, self-nominated compendium of science writing from the blogosphere. There is a nominal focus on biology and natural history, but they're kind enough to humor astronomy types like myself as well.

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

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