Saturday, 25 July 2009

Cape Bling

As I may have mentioned, Kristen and I just got engaged to be married. However, at the time of engagement, I decided that instead of buying a ring and presenting it to her, we would go together to pick out and purchase one (well, we'd pick it out together... the purchasing was still one-sided. And no, this was not purely a laziness issue... I thought it would be more romantic to do it together). In it's place I presented her with my ring that I wear every day - she'd bought it for my birthday several years ago, and I love it.

Thing models Alex's ring

Well, in the meantime, we searched around for a real diamond. After a few stops, we quickly decided on this jeweler in Cape Town, Hein. He was really helpful, not pressuring, and really informative, and he right away found us a gorgeous stone in our price range. He doesn't sell pre-made diamond rings - he buys the stones for you and then designs a setting for it. Anyway, the required time finally came and the ring was made, and it's beautiful - we love it. Very modern but timeless - it suits Kristen perfectly. It's hard to do justice to how sparkly it actually is by photograph, but here is our best effort.

Careful, or the sparkles will put out your eyes

Monday, 13 July 2009

A nerderific blast from the past

Now I know I risk outing myself as having been a dork as a child (wipe that look of shock from your face), I recently ran across a website that sent me into paroxysms of memorial nerd-dom.

When I was a kid, I absolutely LOVED these books called the Lone-Wolf series, which were Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style books with the added benefit of hit-points (and a few other customizable skills your character could use). It even had the crappiest random number generator I'd ever seen (a low-tech(!) version of dice-rolling) - you closed your eyes and pointed your pencil at a grid of numbers.

The problem with these books was that even in the late 80s when I found them, they were basically out of print, so I was only ever able to find one or two of the books, though I always craved more. Well, apparently the creator of this fine series of books, Joe Dever, agreed in 2000 to completely open the rights to the books, and allowed the world community to publish the full works online at Project Aon. So now you can download or read the books online in XHTML for free! And there are shitloads of the books! I had no idea the series was so popular! So I've been obsessed with playing through these books for the past few weeks - they are some serious old school fun. Fans have even coded some nice character sheets to make it easier to keep track of your stuff, as well as... ACTUAL random number generators! How far technology has come...

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Transkei travels

So, in addition to proposing amongst the elephants, the main thrust of our adventure out to the Transkei was to visit our friends, Alex and Andy of Live Free or Braai Hard in Mount Frere, who are volunteering for Hlomelikusasa (a community-based organization focused on helping orphans around Mount Frere) and ASAP (African Solutions for African Problems - a meta-organization which helps teach community programs to become self-sufficient).

Classiest joint in town

They've been there for nearly a year now, and let me first just say how impressed I am with what they are doing, and the strength it must take to do it. I think these guys are amazing for taking the year to do this. Much kudos.

First of all, we had multiple warnings about driving after dark in the Transkei. For those who don't know, the Transkei was a "homeland" under the Apartheid government - a.k.a. the crappiest land they could find, where they forced as many black Africans to live as possible. Consequently, it is extremely poor and has shitloads of problems (which include massive AIDS, crime, corruption, and horrendous education). So we were kind of expecting bandits on the roads to come out after dark. What we found out is that this is NOT the main reason for the warning. Mostly you want to avoid driving in the dark because the highway is COVERED with livestock, and you REALLY don't want to run into a cow at 120 km/hr. Mystery solved.

Road Sheep

We made it out to them after driving 1500 km (~ 1000 miles) along the southern coast, and arrived in the afternoon on Friday. Our friends showed us around the town a bit before it got dark (i.e., we took a walk around the block - it's not a large town). We stayed the night in their surprisingly nice apartment, and the next morning, Andy, Alex, and their co-worker Boniswa took us on a visit to meet a village health worker (Mrs Zindani) and the orphans that she feeds.

Mrs. Zindani (pink), Boniswa (front), and kids

That was totally amazing. The kids were adorable, the teenagers were really cool and friendly, and the adults were incredibly friendly and welcoming. A representative of the village headman came and welcomed us with a really sweet speech and singing and dancing. It kind of sounds cheesy when I say it, but it really did feel like a big honor, and I felt suitably humble. It is possible that they thought we were there to donate money to Hlomelikusasa, even though our friends told them we weren't.

We couldn't get a better picture of him dancing, but he had moves!

We made some art with the kids, got fed a huge, delicious lunch, and chilled with the teenagers. It was really amazing. It also really made me want to learn Xhosa, cause it's really a cool language. But damn, those clicks are hard!

Elephants and diamonds

Well, Kristen and I just got back from a week-long trip to the Eastern Cape/Transkei and back, to visit our friends Alex and Andy of potatoriot fame. We had an amazing time, though one part stands out in particular - the Blue Crane Farmstall in Heidelberg. Just kidding (although it was nice there). The big news is that Kristen and I got engaged! I proposed to her at Addo Elephant Park. It was very romantic. Yada yada yada. But let me not get ahead of myself...

We drove out to Addo, which is primarily an elephant reserve, and you can drive yourself around to watch the animals.
Charging out of the bush to say hi

The best part about the whole thing is that they charge foreigners R260 to enter, but they said we counted as locals since we've lived in SA for so long - so we only had to pay R50! Awesome! Also, it had been pouring rain all day until five minutes before we arrived, and then started back up again just as we were leaving - someone knew I had special needs.

We proceeded into the park, saw shitloads of elephants (man, they're so freaking cool), and eventually came to a place where you could get out of your car.

Is this a sign of danger to come?

That was where we climbed to the top of the lookout tower, I got down on one knee, and asked Kristen to marry me. I'd decided that it would be more fun for both of us if we chose rings together, so instead of presenting her with a pre-chosen engagement ring, I gave her the special ring that she'd bought me for my birthday two years ago - I wear it everyday, so I thought it'd be special. But now my finger feels empty, so I want it back! I'd better get her a nice diamond, then...

She said she was surprised...

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Photos from a broad

Herein I include some photos that we took while we were in Europe. And when I say "we," I mean, "KB." Which is why it took me so long to put them up on the web (not because she's slow, but because I am).

My first snow in ages! Welcome to Switzerland.

Even in winter, Amsterdam loves tulips. And so does KB.

Welcome to gay Paree.

The most delicious (and expensive) place on Earth.

Tell me - what's the big deal?

Eiffel in love with Paris.

Kristen Poulain in Montmartre

Ah oui, j'aime Paris.

What I miss most about Paris.


Last week, our friends Amanda and Jeff finally got married. They've been planning the wedding for several years now, but it finally finished, and they had a beautiful wedding. It was also really nice because a bunch of friends flew in (some from across SA, and some from across the world) and it was so nice to get to see them for a few days.
Christina and Steffan in from the States

Alex and Andy in from the Eastern Cape

One of the interesting things about the whole thing was that it was an orthodox Jewish wedding, which I'd never seen before. There were temple events to go to (where we got to sit and listen to Jeff be honored by reading from the Torah, and then we threw candy at him), there was a chuppah (arch made of lace under which they got married), and through it all there was a bunch of praying. At least that's what I thought it was, 'cause it was all in Hebrew and I didn't understand much. Ok, any. But still, it was interesting to see a culture that I'm not terribly familiar with. Especially cool was the Israeli dancing immediately after the wedding - I thought I was going to throw up after spinning around with Jeff, and I only had to do it for a few minutes - he was in there for nearly half an hour. Intense.

Cute kids aplenty - balloony-loon!!!!!

All-in-all, it was a pleasurable experience, but watching them plan the wedding, and watching Kristen get involved helping with the planning did not really encourage me to want a large wedding. Next time I get married, I'm definitely eloping - parents, you can come with us to the Justice of the Peace or whatever, but we ain't doin' no crazy wedding shenanigans! (I reserve the right to have my mind changed, forcefully).

The ladies look gorgeous...

Bride and groom.

Me, the Scotsman, and the Hasidic dude - can you tell which is which?

Friday, 20 March 2009

Wales is NOT in England...

I learned at least one thing while I was in the UK. When Kristen and I got off the train from London to Swansea (Wales), we took a taxi to the B&B, and had quite a character for a cab driver. His first words to us were, "So where in Canada you from?" Of course, we politely informed him that we were American, though we could understand wanting to be careful (ever tried calling a Canadian "American"? Try it, results may vary). But he promptly told us that he knew that, he just always tries to piss people off, 'cause when he goes to the States, he always gets, "So Wales... where in England is that?" Big no-no, apparently. He also informed us, since it was a big Rugby weekend, that American Football is for pussies. So that's settled. The cab ride was only like 5 minutes, but this dude tried as hard as he could to piss us off. Didn't work - Kristen and I are imperturbable.

Anyway, after nearly a week spent in Paris, we took the train through the Chunnel from Paris to London. There I gave my talk to the physics group at King's College, London, which went quite well. We also got a chance to see some good friends from New York that had moved to London, who we hadn't seen in ages. That was really nice. We did a few things around town, including going to the British Museum (which is far and away the coolest museum I've ever been to) and walking around Soho and Chelsea and what-have-you. At some point, we took a train to Wales, where I gave a talk at Swansea University. Also went reasonably well. I can't say that Swansea was the most exciting town, though the people were friendly. Kristen felt right at home, too - apparently Swansea is bizarrely similar to the Bronx. No Italian food, though.

Now we're back in SA, finally having finished this month-long trip. It was totally exhausting, emotionally and physically, but overall I think it went really well. Highlights?
  1. The winter school at CERN was really nice - I was especially impressed with the series of lectures given by Samir Mathur on black holes in string theory. Here's a link to his webpage, where he has a pdf giving an explanation and extensive list of questions regarding the topic. I really felt like it reaffirmed my hope for string theory as a physically interesting topic. There's been a lot of negative press lately, e.g., here and here, in the public media as well as with a lot of people in my department at UCT, and it's kind of gotten me down. I really felt like this work on black holes is so dramatic, it makes a significant case for string theory regardless of all the rest of the crap. I really want to give a series of seminars at UCT on the topic to give people a positive view of the subject at some point. If I do, maybe I'll give a summary here.
  2. The visit to University of Amsterdam was really nice. The department is really a pleasure, the people are really nice, and I got some great feedback on my work there (which has significantly improved the research).
  3. Paris was certainly the largest highlight. See previous blog entry.