Monday, 28 July 2008

Photos from New York

As stated previously, I am finally putting up pictures from my trip. Here are some snapshots from New York City.

Me with Kristen ad her mom. Aren't they adorable?

Me with Kristen's dad and grandpa. They were the sweetest hardcore Bronx-y dudes I ever met.

This is the movie under the Brooklyn Bridge. What a gorgeous scene!

Me and my mom at Coney Island. Coney is the bomb!

Picnic in the park. Don't forget the wine!

South Africa's most dangerous threat

In a nice cap to my week (for other adventures, see the preceding post), my friend set his brother's face on fire.

Yes, he is ok, and no, it was not meant as a brotherly prank. I don't think. Or if it was, the guy really did a great job of feigning a guilty look afterwards.

After having a drink at the local Obs pub (Obs is Observatory, which is a hip/crime-ridden neighborhood) we were going to have a braai at my friend's house (he will remain mostly nameless, although probably anyone who knows him could figure it out - let's call them Bob and his brother James). So Bob and James go off to start the fire, and me and Julien stay to finish our drinks at the pub. Ten minutes later, we pitch up to Bob's place and are received with a frantic, "Alex, is your car nearby? We need to rush James to the hospital!"

"Holy Shit," says I, and race off to get my rental car, which I had luckily acquired that day. Thank God! Apparently what had happened was that Bob and James were lighting the braai and decided the fire needed a little help - in the form of methanol. Who could possibly predicted that such an innocuous idea could end with and explosion and a face caught on fire? Luckily, Bob has a fish pond in his back yard, and James leapt in and dunked his face. According to him later, he didn't even know what he was doing, just acted on instinct. Score one for instinct - otherwise he would have most definitely been seriously wounded. As it was, he had only 1st degree burns all over his face, which should heal without scarring. But holy crap, it was a scary drive to two different hospitals (the second one, of which no one knew the location, had a useless burns unit).

Probably the most inconveniencing thing was that James was leaving two days afterwards to travel back home, and his faced was wrapped up like King Tut. Would security give him a hard time? I haven't heard yet, but I'm going to place that one firmly in the "probably" category.

History repeats itself

And you thought YOU had car issues...

The safest place I could park my car... let's see... the UCT parking lot you say? Well, I would beg to differ. Because that's precisely where my car was STOLEN! You heard/read me correctly - my car which was a replacement for a stolen car was STOLEN.

I don't know what else to say. I was speechless at the time. Twice my car was ripped off in one year. This seems to be somewhat of an achievement, even here in SA - everyone is really shocked. Well... let me rephrase that. It's not so much that they are shocked because it's hard to believe that could happen... such things are not irregular here. It was more that they had extreme sympathy. Which was nice, but didn't really help to get my car back.

And neither did the security workers at UCT. You'd think that they would be somewhat concerned that this shit is going down on campus (in fact, when I reported it to them, I got sympathy along with a "Damn, not another one," so I guess they're used to it). They even have cameras set up on all the exits for just such an occaision (one would think). However, the special investigator that they put on my case spent one day on it before sending me the following message by email

Dear Mr Hamilton

With regards to the incident of “Theft of motor vehicle”, which was reported on 23/07/2008, I wish to inform you that the investigation was concluded.

The investigation revealed:

  • Case was reported to the Rondebosch Police, the case was filed as undetected and the vehicle circulated on their network.
  • Our surveillance camera footage could not be viewed due to a technical error occurring during the upgrade of CCTV.
  • No leads and no suspects were obtained.
The docket would be reopened if the vehicle is recovered.

That's great - so helpful. Glad you guys really put the effort in on this one. The whole thing seems very suspicious to me - either she is straight out lying (either due to complicity in the crime, or more likely laziness) or it's a pretty incredible coincidence that the thief managed to steal my car EXACTLY when the CCTV camera was being upgraded.

All in all, I'm really not looking forward to buying ANOTHER freaking car...

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Photos from Amsterdam

So I figured I should finally put up some of the pictures we took on my trip through Europe. Here are a few which document my time in Amsterdam with Kristen.

This picture probably doesn't really do justice to the sheer number of bikes that crowd the streets of Amsterdam. Let me just say that absolutely EVERY surface was covered with at least as many parked bikes, plus a constant stream of bike traffic. There are really a SHITLOAD of bikes in Amsterdam.

Here I am in my cool new hat I bought there drinking a beer on the streets. Don't I look super European?

Just one picture of the beautiful canals that are all throughout the city. Probably the most impressive thing about Amsterdam.

The requisite picture of drug culture. I just got a kick out of the fact that it's called Rick's Cafe (cause I love Casablanca).

Me and Kristen - we had a blast!


The final leg of my month-long trip is now coming to an end. I'm sitting in Kennedy airport (a.k.a. JFK) in New York, about to leave for Amsterdam (and then onwards to Cape Town). I've been here for a week and half, and it's been extremely enjoyable, although pretty hectically busy. The first half of the week included arriving on the Fourth of July and hearing the fireworks going from the cab ride back to Kristen's, meeting her dad and grandfather (he is an ADORABLE 80 year-old New York Italian dude with a strong accent and marbles in his mouth), met up with some of my NY friends, seeing her mom (whom I adore), and going to see Stand By Me being projected on the Brooklyn Bridge from a gorgeous new park on the East River.

Then, on the next Friday, my mom came to visit with us for the weekend, which was fantastic. She stayed with me and Kristen in her little Brooklyn apartment and put up with her allergies to share the space with KB's sweet kitty, Squee. We went for a phenomenal dinner at what is by far the best restaurant in Park Slope (and probably the best deal I've eaten at in all of NYC), Al Di La - an Italian restaurant with a long wait that's totally worth it. Then we spent Saturday afternoon at Coney Island! It was a classic New York treat! Especially considering it's the last summer Astroland (the amusement park at Coney) will be open, I think it was a great experience to have. We finally finished up with a concert in Prospect Park of Beth Orton, which we couldn't really see/hear, but we had a great picnic in the park. It was all really fun, and it was really nice to see my mom, as well as to have Kristen interact with her (they get along like gangbusters).

All-in-all, it was really nice to be in New York and see friends and family. It really reminded me, however, how much I miss New York. Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying living in Cape Town, but being back in New York really got me reminiscent of how ALIVE the city is, and how cool it is to be in the middle of it. More and more, I see myself returning to NYC when my time in Africa is over. The only thing that spoiled the rosy image was the outrageous humidity which is pretty much non-existent in Cape Town. Oh, it was SO disgusting, it was unbearable to be out of the air conditioning for more than an hour.

Finally, I'm sad to be leaving the city, but I have to say I'm definitely glad to be finally returning home to Cape Town. After traveling for over a month, I'm pretty sick of living out of a suitcase, and I'm looking forward to being back in my own bed. But here's to traveling and seeing the world!

Monday, 7 July 2008


Next stop on the string theory journey - Amsterdam. I've just (almost finished) my week and a half here in the Netherlands, and I'm sitting in Schiphol airport. I had a really nice time, but it's about time to be done with EuroStrings (a.k.a. Strings@Amsterdam). Not because it wasn't fun, but just because it was pretty tiring - sitting through 34 talks in one week will do that, I guess.

My Amsterdam adventure started last Wednesday with my arrival in the evening, excitement at how fun Amsterdam looked from the airport shuttle, and subsequent crushing disappointment that the hotel I had booked (based on conference recommendations) was not immediately in the city centre (note my Eurocentric spelling of center - how authentic!). In the end it turned out to be fine - it was quite close by tram/bus to the centre, and even not that bad by walking. Still, it would have been nice to be closer and not be forced to commute to the fun.

Anyway, Kristen arrived the next morning to meet me for some Amsterfun. I won't describe everything we ended up doing, but I'll list the highlights. The Van Gogh museum was awesome - really an ideal size for someone who burns out relatively quickly at art museums (should that be museei? for some reason that sounds better to me). Plus I love van Gogh. The city itself was just really beautiful - there are canals (gracht) everywhere, and it's just so appealing. Venice of the north, kind-of-thing. Most of the time we spent walking around just soaking up the city. There's also a great improv show called Boom Chicago, which was reasonably priced, and absolutely hilarious. I was rolling on the ground laughing, and I ended up giving myself a headache from the hilarity. One of the unintentional funny moments, though, was that there was a group of dutch people sitting right in front of us, and from the start it was clear that the humor was lost on them. They were dead silent and not laughing while the rest of the audience was cracking up. I don't know whether they were just really prudish, or whether the dutch sense of humor isn't up to standard (although there were a lot of other dutch people in the audience who were loving it), but they were just not enjoying the show. To the point where they just got up and left during the intermission. They left their ticket (which had their names on it) on the table, and I picked that up for a souvenir - a reminder of the dangers of taking yourself too seriously. I'm not sure exactly what danger I'm talking about, but I'm sure it's there.

Probably the most noticeable part of the Amsterdamian landscape (aside from the canals) were the bikes. They were absolutely EVERYWHERE. I thought I'd seen people riding bikes in NYC, or in Cambridge, or anywhere, but these guys REALLY take it seriously. The bike paths along the street were hardcore - there was almost nowhere that didn't have very explicit bike paths, as well as special stop lights specifically for bicyclists. These lights were actually somewhat difficult to get the hang of because they were set up differently than normal stop lights for cars (also because I'm incompetent I think - KB had no trouble understanding them). Apparently, with 750,000 people living in Amsterdam, there are over 1 million bikes - like I said, they take it very seriously. So in order to have a legitimate Amsterdam experience, Kristen and I HAD to rent bikes and tool around the city. And I have to say, it was totally worth it. It's so convenient that I never felt at odds with the vehicular traffic (as opposed to my brief attempts to bike in NYC, which included multiple life-flashing episodes). And we were able to see much more of the surrounding area than we would have otherwise. I heartily approve of the abundance of bicycles here.

After Kristen left on Monday, the strings meeting began. It was quite an enjoyable conference, with lots of interesting speakers, lots of nice people, and some very good talks. I would say my only complaint was that there were perhaps too many talks - with a few exceptions, each talk could only be half an hour, which for those of you who are not scientists, is really not enough time to give a decent amount of background for non-expert members of the audience (by non-expert I mean people who don't work on a specific topic within string theory - of course a certain amount of background must always be assumed, but there's so many topics in the field, and so varied and complicated, that unless you're working directly on some topic, you can't be an expert). So many of the talks that were not in my area of expertise were lost on me. But overall it was all very interesting.

I also managed to meet many nice and interesting people, which is really the point of these conferences, I think. It's all about networking, I think - which I generally hate. But it was made much easier with the addition of a little but of alcohol at the reception and dinner - social lubrication had it's intended effect. Perhaps the coolest moment for me was when I was talking at the final banquet to Vijay Balasubramanian (a leader in my field, who is a professor at U Penn, and ALSO happens to have a full professorship there in neuroscience - smart, busy guy). He was a speaker at the meeting (probably the best one) and of course I knew who he was anyway because he's so famous. But when I introduced myself as Alex Hamilton from University of Cape Town, he made two comments - one, he knows Jeff, so he made small talk about that and said to say hi, and two (which totally blew my mind) he knew who I was from work I'd done with my advisor, Dan Kabat. Wow - I mean, of course he would know Dan, who's relatively well known in the field. And I'm not even shocked that he knew about our work - people read papers that relate to their work, especially if they know the author (i.e., Dan). But I have no idea how he would not only pick up my name from that, let alone REMEMBER who I was and be able to place me from a random introduction. I was both extremely impressed with his memory and very honored that he would remember. It was a big moment in my academic career.

Anyway, that's enough about the conference. But let me just end with a comment on my general experience with Europe. DAMN, but it's expensive here. Of course, everyone knows that England, and especially London, is outrageous. But I found Amsterdam to also be unreasonable - even more expensive to go out in than NYC. All this time I have been under the impression that New York ranked somewhere high up on the list of expensive places. But this is apparently only true in the States. It appears to me that Europe in general is just over the top. Perhaps it is just because the Euro is so strong right now that it makes the dollar and the rand unspendable. But even the Europeans I met there seemed to think that Europe was becoming crazy, so who knows. All I know is that this trip is starting to break my bank. At least I can get the bulk of it reimbursed since it has been business traveling. But it's an important lesson to learn - Americans beware: your money is no longer good here.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008


I am currently working my way through my worldwide string theory tour. Sitting in London, Heathrow airport, sunburnt and coughing, and ready to party.

Let me explain. I'm doing a bit of a whirlwind tour of the world, including
1) Visiting Cambridge for a week
2) Visiting Queen Mary, University of London for about a day
3) Meeting KB for a brief vacation in Amsterdam over a long weekend before
4) Attending a string theory conference in Amsterdam for a week
5) Finally, visiting NYC

and then back to Cape Town. It would seem to be a brilliant experience, and it's fine; I just don't really like traveling. Or being forced to talk to physicists. This may cast a shadow on my career.

Anyway, the trip to Cambridge went (mostly) very well. Unfortunately, due to a last minute talk she had to give in Germany, Amanda couldn't be there for most of the time, but she more than graciously allowed me to stay in her flat. And anyway, I suppose there could be a few other people worth talking to at the home of Stephen Hawking. So, indeed, I hung out and had drinks with Hawking's wheelchair engineer, Sam. I also talked a bit of physics with a few of the people there (mostly about how much I hate the Landscape of string theory - if you don't know what I mean, perhaps I'll discuss it at a later date, but probably not). The best parts were going out to the pubs and drinking English Ales. Damn it was good to drink decent beer again (SA beer is crap, due to the complete dominance of South African Breweries - South Africa's answer to Bud, and the second largest beer company in the world).

The worst part, however, was that I got sick. About halfway through the visit, I discovered that I must have caught something off of the plane on the way over, and I was put out of commission for about three days (my other theory was inspired by Robert Mugabe - the colonialist English bastards purposely infected me because I'm from Africa). It was most annoying.

I finally began to recover the day before I left, and my new friends at DAMPT took me out to a nearby town called Grantchester, which was gorgeous. We had tea at The Orchard - a famous tea house, previously patronized by such minds as Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, Maynard Keynes, Crick and Watson, Alan Turing, and so on. I felt smarter immediately. We also spent about 8 hours sitting out at the local pub having lunch, dinner, and a number of beers. That day had been particularly beautiful, and we had been sitting in the sun the whole time. A few hours in, I started to worry that I might get burned, but the other two were possibly even whiter than me, and I figured that living in Africa for a year ought to count for something, so I ignored it. Rookie error - you hate to see it. Hence my current toastiness.

Anyway, after leaving Cambridge, I took the train down to London to visit Queen Mary's. I would say that part of the trip was a bit of a write off, as almost everyone happened to be out of town so there weren't many people to meet. Regardless, they were extremely friendly and gave me a desk in the visitors' room. But I also continued to feel unwell (not helped by the sunburn, I think) and so I didn't really get to take advantage of being in London. Which is probably for the best, because my strongest impression of England was this: it is BLOODY expensive! Even in Cambridge, going out to eat at a crappy chinese restaurant cost me nearly US $50. It's incredibly deceptive, because it's all written in foreign currency (pounds), but it still hurts. I actually don't think that London was much more expensive than Cambridge, though - the explanation to me was that it's because a lot of people live there and commute to London. So might as well charge them the same amount. But DAMN. I could not afford to live there. Puts New York City completely to shame (or redeems it, however you want to say it).

Anyway, so that's the current state of the system - I'm sitting in Heathrow now, waiting for my plane to Amsterdam. I'm very excited, never having been there, and I can't wait to see all the city has to offer. Hopefully I'll let you know how it goes.