Monthly Archives: June 2010

Flashback: Spring Break Paris Trip, Part 1

If only summer rain would fall
On the houses and the boulevards,
And the side walk bagatelles, it’s like a dream,
With the roar of cars
And the lulling of the cafe bars,
The sweetly sleeping sweeping of the Seine…
Lord I don’t know if I’ll ever be back again.

I had this song, The Legionnaire’s Lament by The Decemberists, stuck in my head for the most of last semester.  Partly because the second to last line just sounds wonderful, but mainly because I decided to head to Paris during my spring break.

Why Paris?  Well there were a few reasons but mainly because I missed traveling, the joy of exploring a new city and of making friends from all over the world in a hostel, so it became more a question of where.  Anyplace would be warmer than Cleveland, but all southern destinations would be filled with drunken undergrads, so why not Europe?  And then I recalled how I always felt badly about not getting to Paris on my round the world trip last year- I’d been when I was 12 years old, right at the tail end of France winning the World Cup they hosted actually, but that was half a lifetime ago and in that half I learned a lot more European history, decided Rodin is my favorite sculptor, and decided I enjoy a good glass of wine.  So Paris it was, not exactly the cheapest destination I could have chosen but I’m ok with spending my money when it comes to a good experience.  Like remember that trip around the world I did?  Yeah, that totally sucked.

To begin, it turns out they have a rather famous tower in Paris that research has proven is the most photographed object in the world.  Maybe you’ve heard of it?  To be honest I think the Eiffel Tower is one of the best examples of humans engineering something just because they can- it really serves no purpose, other than getting tourists to come and admire it and climb around, but come we do because it’s awfully nifty-looking.

A close-up of the Eiffel Tower, included here because of a detail I only noticed on this trip- they have the names of French scientists on the Tower!  Well it makes sense as it was built for a World’s Fair and is a lovely work of engineering, but it made me happy even though I’m certain hardly anyone else notices or knows who these people are (Cuvier was the scientist who showed extinctions exist in the fossil record, LaPlace did some amazing work in classical mechanics, Dulong figured out heat capacity in thermodynamics, Chasles made advances in geometry).

It’s worth noting that I did not climb up the tower, though I certainly spent a lot of time in the area admiring it and eating crepes and what not (food deserves its own post later).  The simple reason for this is we did it when I was 12 but at the time we did the stairs instead of the elevator because the elevator line’s always so long, an incident my siblings and I not-so-fondly recall as “the death march.”  Plus it was almost 10 Euros to do the stair option, so I wasn’t particularly interested.

So this is something that’s new since I was last in Paris- the Eiffel Tower sellers.  See the jumbles of metal?  They’re a bunch of those little Eiffel Tower figurines strung up on a metal ring and these guys go around selling them for a Euro or two, sometimes rather insistently.  Definitely a common sight in Paris these days!

One thing I was actually interested in when it came to Paris was also how true the ubiquitous stories of street harassment and theft and general mean-ness are true when it comes to the city.  Conclusion?  Most are really just due to the fact that Paris is often the first international experience many Americans face, so they come into things rather naively and they can and rather badly.  I also found the Parisians to be just as nice as anyone so long as you made an attempt to speak a few words of French and they realized you weren’t going to act like an a$$hole.  But then I’ve always had a good record with the French people- they seem to assume any girl named Yvette must be a kindred spirit, or at least close enough.

Moving along here’s another famous landmark- the Arc!  And I rather like this picture if I may say so as the sunset lighting was good, almost made up for being footsore…

A much further away shot down the Champs-Élysées from the Luxor Obelisk.  I confess this is another one of those things that I remember being much more interesting in years past because now it’s primarily American chain stores, and who goes to Paris to shop at Abercrombie & Fitch and eat at McDonald’s?

In what is undoubtedly a traitor to my gender, I’m not much of a shopper.  I mean, what’s the point of buying yet another souvenir that will just sit somewhere and add to clutter you already have too much of?  So I didn’t wander towards the Paris Opera House until my very last night to check out the shopping because I like to look but will never actually spend the money, especially in the most expensive city in the world.

To be fair all the jewelry shops had some amazing things on display, as I’m not enough of a traitor to lose the magpie interest in shiny things.  Plus it’s kind of fun to try and find the most expensive thing on display (answer: a 100,000 Euro necklace!) tho I only did window shopping at the jewelry shops because they all had footmen at the doors, aka people who were in place to make sure those obviously not capable of plunking down a few thousand Euro didn’t find themselves inside.

I did wander into a few footman-less stores though, and here are some of my favorites-

Hard to not love a candy store with all its colorful tins and wrappers.  And I swear I was considering buying something here until I tried the free samples and realized they just weren’t at all tasty.

And last but not least, spotted near the Opera was the ballerina store!  Specifically they sold pointe shoes- a professional dancer goes through a pair a night so you need to keep a lot on hand.  The store also sold ballet-slipper shoes of various colors to augment the sales I suppose, and a healthy dose of leotards and tutus of course.

So that’s my first installment of my Paris visit.  Tune in later for posts on the art, the churches, Versailles, and the food!

Photo: Ham Radio Contest

Taken November 16, 2008

So you people don’t know this, but I actually live a life of secret celebrity.  The issue is to quote my brother it’s in a hobby that’s probably up there with accordion playing so you’ve never heard about it.

In short I have been an amateur (Ham) radio operator since the age of 16, and because there’s a greater gender disparity than a physics department and I happen to be good at operating- think I set a new record for the Great Lakes region in our last contest good- most people who hear me on the air immediately know “the YL [young lady] from W8EDU,”  the callsign of the Case Western Reserve University station. (I have my own callsign too of course, KB3HTS.) Or maybe they looked up amateur radio operator on Wikipedia, whatever.

Anyway so what is Ham radio anyway (is it kosher?) and why do I like it?  In short, you take an exam and get a callsign and get on the air and talk to people- Hams are the ones who will get on the air when disaster strikes and all other communications are knocked out, so you’d better be nice to us.  What I always loved most about it though is the broadcasting- I know lots of people must think the Internet got rid of the intrigue of talking to people in faraway lands (and to be fair for many it did), but there’s definitely a romantic magic to getting your station on the air and knowing anyone from San Francisco to Swaziland might call back over the cackle of static.  For someone who loves to travel, there’s something amazing about knowing my voice has traveled to every US state and Canadian province and nations spread over five continents, even if the rest of me never did.  I’ve talked to people in war zones and remote Atlantic islands, people sailing from California to Hawaii and even heard the astronauts chattering above.  How could the Internet replace that?

Anyway, I’m wrapping this up now because I’m heading off to see the USA-Ghana game in a sec and then going out for the biggest Ham radio contest of the year- 24 hours simulating emergency conditions, which means generator power and temporary antennas (and believe you me, when the tornadoes sweep through our area people are glad someone knows how to do this).  Wish us luck!

Photo: Sand Dunes in Sossusvlei, Namibia

Taken June 28, 2009

Before anyone accuses me, I swear this is not Photoshopped and this is actually what the sand dunes looked like.  Deep in the Namib desert, the oldest desert on the planet, the sand dunes can get up to 350 meters high which makes them the tallest in the world.  The dunes are so stark that the area is said to be a popular landmark for the astronauts in fact!

The amazing thing is how when driving here the sand just shows up in clumps on the ground as if a giant’s child dropped scoops from his sand pail until the dunes dominate the horizon.  How did it get here?  Amazingly from the Atlantic Ocean over 50km away- the mighty Orange River deposits so much land that a mere tributary created the second largest canyon in the world, which is deposited on the land and picked up by the wind.  Over time, some geologists have estimated tens of millions of years, the sand is deposited here.

A final interesting detail though is how in the winter (when this picture was taken) the direction of the wind changes so it comes off the mountains located leftward in this picture, so the sand dunes shift accordingly.  See how the dunes in the distance lean towards the right?  It’s because the wind blows the sand up the straight side of the dune over the crest and then finally settles on the far side due to the wind shade, giving the dune its normal shape.  In a few months the wind will change direction and the crests will face the opposite direction, ensuring that these dunes don’t move very much over time and can get so tall.

Oh, and the dunes are orange because of iron oxide, the same reason Mars is red.  But you knew that, right?

Photo: Painting Retouch, Royal Palace in Bangkok

Taken February 9, 2009

The Royal Palace in Bangkok is filled with amazing artwork like the mural above, but time and the extreme humidity can’t do good things to the paintings!  This artist was busy at work retouching the gold- you can see how much he’s done, and how much he still had to do…

Where I Live and the Coventry Street Fair

As I’m sure you can imagine, it’s a little strange to go from traveling around the world to settling in Cleveland, Ohio.  If you ever do though you can’t pick a better street to live off of than Coventry, a funky little community that used to be populated by the area’s hippies but now is mainly filled with students and hippies-at-heart mainly.  There is a sense of history more than you usually find in Ohio- my hardware store down the block has been in business over a hundred years, John D. Rockefeller is buried in the cemetery bordering the north side of the neighborhood, and while my apartment from the 1920s has wooden floors that have a distinctive slant it does have the novelty of two doors, one for company and one going straight to the kitchen for the milkman (who does not make rounds anymore but this door is quite useful when carrying groceries).  And when you toss in Mac’s Backs, the secondhand bookstore where the second story is all science fiction and the proprietor swaps tips with you on reading material and the Winking Lizard where one can participate in the yearly World Tour of Beers, well!

The problem with anyplace you live is it gets so normal that you don’t think it’s particularly interesting on any given day regardless of that actuality, so to introduce you to Coventry here’s a photo tour of our Street Fair last week.  Where a good time was had at all, until the end when word on the street says some youths started getting into a fight for reasons unknown and the paddywagon came (I was a few blocks away at the time), to the great worry of all the locals who are hoping it won’t be considered reason to cancel the fair next year.  Always the bad apples ruining the fun stuff for the rest of us, isn’t it?

First of all, as I said, if you want to be a hippie in Cleveland you probably hang out on Coventry a lot, but I say it’s more about being a hippie-at-heart these days because I can’t say you smell pot walking down the street, even during a street fair!, which I hear was the norm during the sixties.  Plus c’mon, not like they’re breaking out into drum circles in the middle of the road right?

Um ok, nix that.  We are the only street I know of that has drum circles during our street fair, but we usually don’t normally ok?  Really!  Plus anyway, I did join in with the drum circle for a little while and it was pretty fun though I classify more as a “free spirit” than a hippie anyway.  You can tell the difference by my lack of illegal drug consumption and knowledge that anyone who thinks communism is cool has never lived under it.

Back on the more normal side of things, this was the band that was playing on the opposite side of the street.  They were really good, and those little kids were having a good time dancing in front.

There were a couple of these stilt walkers about as well, though they stood out a bit…

And giant puppets galore too.  Honestly I’d never seen one quite like the above before in terms of size, design, and color- the artists did a great job!

Little puppets too, doing a puppet show!  Like any fair the world over ours consists of lots of booths lined up and down the street- the stores and cafes just go a step further and set up shop outside and the middle is taken over by local artists and street performers.  The food wasn’t particularly interesting to me because I can get what they were selling all the time (and do!), but as a member of the fairer sex that enjoys shiny things I couldn’t help but pick up a pair of earrings and new necklace.

Though by the way, does anyone ever spend time thinking about how much time us ladies spend enjoying and thinking about jewelry, which is inherently worthless but we like because it’s pretty?  Did you know that some archeologists associate the beginning of homo sapiens in the fossil record with the moment shellfish jewelry showed up?  What would make you want to do this so far as evolution goes? (To be fair men do this too, but their shiny things tend to involve watches or electronic gadgets and prefer things that have a “useful” component to impress however tenuous the connection!)

Anyway, moving along…I have absolutely no real explanation of this picture other than I like it and yep, my street is random.  I think he was there with one of the stalls and they were selling jewelry and pictures with a giant superhero eyeball on them, or something, but clearly the marketing didn’t completely work on me.

Anyway, this picture was taken towards the end of the Coventry Street Fair while the first of the booths were breaking up, the rest were trying hard to push in a few last sales, and apparently a near-riot was breaking down on the other end of the street.  And among the activity I settled in at the Wink for a tasty wheat beer from the Czech Republic and struck up a conversation with the street performer who’d juggled knives and his friend who was a magician.  Almost like travel.

Photo: Capri, Italy

Taken March 2009

This helpful advice is brought to you by the port authority on the island of Capri in Italy, proving that Engrish is not an exclusively Asian commodity.  Though I won’t make much fun of them because c’mon, it’s sensible advice!

Photo: Franz Joseph Glacier, New Zealand

Taken May 25, 2007

Pop quiz hot shots: if you ever find yourself on a glacier hike in New Zealand (and you should, it’s great fun!) what makes the ice blue instead of the white we’re used to?

Answer: it depends on the light that’s reflected.  Atoms interact with wavelengths of light differently causing some to be reflected and some to be absorbed, so for example something is black when it absorbs all the light hitting it (and why black objects get hot!).  Everyone’s favorite life-sustaining molecule, H2O, vibrates in a way that absorbs light towards the red side of the spectrum, leaving the blue color you see above.

So why is ice and snow usually white then?  For the simple reason that virtually all the light you see hitting a snowy surface is scattered a few times and eventually reflects back, giving white, and this overwhelms the faint blue color water normally has.  It’s only when the light is absorbed by the water (you usually need around a meter of it) that the blue makes it through, similar to how coffee looks light when poured but much darker in a cup.

And that is why glaciers look so damn cool.  The more you know…

West Side Market, Cleveland OH

It is a sad, sad place in the world that has absolutely nothing noteworthy about it.  Fortunately Cleveland has a few, and one of these is the West Side Market, which is a century old and without question one of the best markets I’ve ever been to.  Certainly the best in the USA where we unfortunately don’t have many around anymore!

Inside view from the upper balcony, usually occupied by people-watchers eating lunch.  Nearly all the places are family owned and lots of tasty ethnic eats- my favorites are the bratwurst stall, the crepes stall, and the gyro one.  Settled for a gyro this past weekend, and the ones at the stall are so delicious that word got out to the Travel Channel’s Man vs Food– a show on them will be aired June 23rd.

Anyway, lunch done, time to go look around and see what the market has to offer- in short, everything.  And somehow it’s so much more of an experience to go around peering through the cases to decide what exactly you want, people in the crowd exchanging tips with each other on where to get the best smokies or fresh-baked bread, smiles and banter from the stall owners trying to catch your eye, eventually making selections and handing over cash.  Funny how even the cash part seems novel to me, as most of the time you use plastic these days.  But what are you going to do when the dairy stall that cuts butter from a block and sour cream from a bucket wants two dollars and definitely has no credit card machine?

Mmmm cheese- the only place to ever stock up for a wine and cheese party, though the mice are optional. *wink* Lots of crazy-expensive imported ones too…

Surf ‘n turf as fresh as it gets in a landlocked city at least.  The fish place (across from the gyro stall!) has a sign promising to fillet your fish for free, and the pig is there to establish you can get pretty much any cut you want.  Seriously, I know many a happy forgeiner in Cleveland who gets excited because you can find liver and kidneys and all sorts of delicacies you never really find in the US because we don’t eat the insides of an animal.  Or go to butcher shops for that matter, I can’t think of one not at the West Side Market, where there’s several so you’ve gotta stand out (there’s a Hungarian butcher too actually, specializing in kolbasz and salami).

Speaking of ethnic delicacies…

Found on the shelves of a European and Middle Eastern importer.  One interesting thing about Cleveland is everyone came over with an ethnicity and still holds onto it hard and our market reflects that- Hungarian sausages, Italian pastas, French crepes, Syrian hummus, and in more recent years stalls run by Mexican and Cambodian families have opened.  So if I cannot travel the world, it’s nice to have all the food of the world come to you!

Last but not least, time to pick up the fresh produce!  Wandering around, checking prices, trying samples, finally stopping to ask an accented lady how much the raspberries are.

“For you, three dollar,” she says, but I shake my head.  We size each other up in a second when she realizes I’m the rarity of an American who knows how to bargain, or knows that you should in the first place.  We finally settle on a container of raspberries and two of blackberries for four dollars, which leaves us both happy.  And I won’t even get into the lady I negotiated blackberries and apricots with, mainly because I wasn’t planning on getting apricots in the first place!

Anyway, finally left the market and headed for the train stop with the wallet $40 lighter and canvas bag a great deal heavier with fruit, fresh mozerella and sour cream, pad thai, dumplings, sliced ham, corn salsa, tzatziki and pita bread, and half the gyro I started at lunch later (if anyone actually eats one of those gyros in a sitting I’ve yet to see it).  All in all enough to keep me fed for a week- no idea why you’d go to a supermarket with such a place nearby.

Photo: Allen Telescope Array

Taken June 11, 2008

The Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, California is about a four hour drive from San Francisco.  Lassen Peak, the snow-capped peak visible in the background, actually erupted violently in 1915 and was the last volcano on the continental United States to do so until Mt. St. Helens in 1980.  It’s now a national park, sort of a mini-Yellowstone because you still have some thermal activity and acid lakes and such.  Worth a visit if you find yourself in the area!

Anyway, the much more interesting radio telescopes in the foreground!  Paul Allen of Microsoft fame donated money for University of California-Berkeley and the SETI Institute to build a radio telescope array, which when I visited had 42 radio dishes but is supposed to have 350 when completed.  It’s a rather interesting design because you can look at a large field of view (think the size of a galaxy) yet focus on signals from specific stars you think have potential for extraterrestrial intelligence based on a few factors.  Thus the Berkeley people are happy because they can do radio astronomy in a rather unique way and the SETI folk are happy because they actually have a dedicated telescope to look for alien civilizations.

I was at the array two summers ago because I was lucky enough to snag a summer research position at the SETI Institute under Jill Tarter, the person who inspired the Ellie Arroway character in Contact and thus had a picture of her and Jodie Foster in her office I was mildly jealous of.  And no, we did not find aliens else you would’ve heard about it before me telling you now!  The public is actually free to visit the array as well so feel free to stop by during normal working hours if you want a tour, but be sure to turn off your cell phone and other gadgets upon arrival.  Radio telescopes are so sensitive that you can drown out important signals really easily, and that’d be awfully embarrassing if we missed E.T.’s call due to that!

Video: Zipline, Gibbon Experience, Laos

Not a photo today, but I would argue it’s way more awesome!  Last year while in Laos I went on The Gibbon Experience deep in the jungles of northern Laos, which basically involved hiking and ziplines and living in treehouses for a few days.  If you ever find yourself in that part of the world I highly recommend it!  You can read my full write-up of the Experience here, complete with the biggest accident I had on my rtw that somehow involved physics saving my life and my only experience with medical quackery.  Good times.