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.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

My Summer Vacation

On my summer vacation, I went to Paris for the first time. It was fabulous.

After my talk in Amsterdam, Kristen and I decided to take a break. I mean, conference in Geneva, working in the Netherlands... what a difficult life! So we took the TGV train from Amsterdam to Paris for a 4 day, 3 night vacation in the city. I have to say, I had my reservations - I have heard quite a bit about the rudeness of Parisians, and I wasn't sure what to expect. But, contrary to such prejudices, the French were probably the most polite people of the whole trip. Of course, it absolutely must have helped that I did try to use my rudimentary French throughout our stay there... but that was NOT a given, since it was entirely possible anyone would have been horrified by the massacre of their language. Regardless, as our time in Paris continued, more and more of the French I should have learned in Montreal (where I lived for five years) came back to me. And it was actually great fun to try and remember how to speak. And I like to think I impressed the hell out of Kristen (who doesn't speak a word).

What did I like best about the capital of France? Almost certainly the Latin Quarter and St. Germain. It's the area also on the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank of the Seine river, where the Sorbonne is located. So it was fairly student-y, and although the tourists had also found it (how dare they!), it was still a remarkably delightful place to just walk around. Which is what we mostly did for all the 4 days. We also saw most of the requisite tourist attractions, most notably the Louvre (I didn't get all the hoo-hah about the Mona Lisa), the Eiffel Tower (which was phenomenal), and the Notre Dame. We also took in the Musee D'Orsay (which was really a cool art museum located in an old train station) and the Sacre Coeur cathedral (which was unmanageably touristy - we had to hightail it out of there before one of us had a nervous breakdown). But most importantly, since we were staying in Montmartre, we managed to find the grocery store from Amelie. Kristen was certainly delighted.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with Paris. I would definitely go back there. Actually, I have the feeling that a large part of my enchantment with the city was just that I miss New York. Cape Town is a nice little city, but it's nothing like NYC - same with Geneva and Amsterdam. Paris was the first huge metropolitan city I've been in for a while, and it definitely made me slightly homesick. Although London doesn't quite do the same thing for me, so perhaps there's more to Paris than that...

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Euroblog Part Deux

I am still on my whirlwind trip through Europe. Kristen and I just spent a few days in Amsterdam after finishing up in Geneva, and I gave my first real external talk ever there. I was incredibly nervous beforehand, but Kristen made me practice a bunch of times before the actual day. For some reason, the practicing was much worse than the actual talk (and not just because practicing made it easier). But the talk at the University of Amsterdam went quite well. The only problem was that it was WAY too short. Like half the time it should have been. I was pretty embarrassed, but I think it was probably ok - no one minds when a talk is really short, and now I know I can add in a bunch more slides (I actually took out a significant number because I thought it was too long). I also have to say, one person in the audience asked a question which called the accuracy of my results into question, and I felt like I handled it pretty well. I think I rallied on the next slide and just continued on, after thanking him for the comment. Actually, I'm pretty sure he was right about what he said - it shouldn't invalidate our results, but I think it might actually lead to something more interesting than what we already have. Which means that I'll have to spend some of my vacation time in Paris figuring it out. But that's ok, it'll be cool if it comes out correctly.

Anyway, so I felt really good to have finished the first talk. Now we're in Paris in our TINY hotel room. But we're right smack in Montmarte in a really cool part of town, and I think we're going to really have fun. I've never been to Paris, so I'm really looking forward to this. I'm trying to break out my incredibly rusty francais, so we'll see if I can get people to talk to me. It never really worked in Montreal, but perhaps Parisians will abide my crappy french.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

South African Lampoon's European Vacation

The month of January came and went in a blur of post-Christmas/post-safari activity. The entire month was spent hunkering down and working to get some research accomplished and then a talk written for my upcoming...


... which is where I am, now. If January was a month spent in preparation, February is a month spent in travel. The Low-Down is this: I left on February 7th to fly to the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, for the CERN Winter School on Strings and Supergravity. After a week of this, I am next traveling to Amsterdam to give a talk on my recent paper at the University of Amsterdam. We're spending about 4 days there and then moving on to Paris. This part is not work - I'm going there just to spend some time in Paris, where I have never been. We're there for five days, and then taking the train under the English Channel to London, where I am scheduled to give a talk at King's College, London. After three days in London (by which I expect all my money will be gone), we're off to Swansea, in Wales, where I'll give a talk at Swansea University. Then most likely (this is still up in the air) we're going to go up to Edinburgh for a few days to see Scotland (which I've always wanted to see), and finally back to London to fly home to Cape Town. All told, we're going to be in Europe for about a month - we're getting back to CT on March 5th.

Oh, and by the way, when I say "we," I'm not using the royal "we" - I managed to convince Kristen to come with me and turn it into a fun European vacation. Ok, so it didn't actually take that much convincing, as she loves Europe and the artsy atmosphere. But honestly, it is a HUGE boon to me to have her with me, not ONLY because she makes the whole trip WAY more fun, but it is really nice to have some support, as these will really my first real external research talks - I've given a few talks at conferences, but only in postdoc or grad student sessions, and not as the main speaker. So I'm very nervous, and it is an enormous help to have her here to make sure I don't totally freak out.

So it's a week after the trip's beginning, and I'm now sitting in the Geneva airport, having spent the week in lectures at CERN. It was a really nice set of lectures, especially the four that we had by Samir Mathur on the Black Hole Information Paradox within String Theory. I found these really fascinating, and I have to say they kind of reinvigorated my hope in String Theory. After this is all done, I'd like to try and write an entry on the topic, since it's super interesting - I mean, who doesn't want to know more about black holes?

This trip here from SA was actually pretty hectic, as we flew through Doha, Qatar, and missed the one flight from Doha to Geneva (stupidly, our travel agent booked us to have a 40 minute layover there - which we expected to be tight, but it turned out our gate had closed even before we got off our first flight, which was on time!). So we had to catch the flight to Zurich, instead (6 hours later) and then another flight to Geneva. Annoying. And we're supposed to have the same thing on the way back, so we need to figure out how to deal with that.

Anyway, hopefully the trip and all the talks will go well. I'm excited about Paris and Edinburgh (the two places where I'm NOT doing work stuff). Hopefully I'll update a few more times during the trip to give my sense of Europe. Bon voyage!

Friday, 2 January 2009


Well, it's been a long time since I've updated this blog, but
I thought I'd start it off again on the New Year. And there's
definitely plenty of great stuff that I've been doing over the past few
weeks to blog about, so hopefully I'll be able to build up some
momentum and talk about what's going on here.

My family (Mom and Dad and Brother Scott) came to visit over the past
two weeks for the holidays. We really had a fantastic time,
and it seemed mainly dominated by food. It seemed like almost
every restaurant we went to had phenomenal food - here's a list of the
great places we ate, for anyone who visits Cape Town and wants a place
to eat:

Restaurants we loved

  • Five Flies

  • Mama Africa

  • Caveau

  • Barusso's Pizza

  • Riboville

  • Hussar's Grill (get the Warthog Ribs)

However, the most exciting thing we did was clearly the three-day
safari we went on in Kruger Park, way up north. So that's what I'll talk about

Two days after my family arrived, the five of us (me, my family, and
Kristen) got on a plane to head up to Kruger. Of course, this was
not without a bit of disorganization from the Cape Town airport, which
was unable to cope with the fact that our flight has a different
schedule on the weekends than it does on Saturdays - hence, our plane
which was supposed to leave at 9 was listed on the airport monitors as
leaving at 10. There was confusion, which was eventually
sorted out after talking to several different airport employees, most of whom
did not give a shit. All of which is just to say that it was
a nice introduction to African disorganization for my family - TIA (This
Is Africa).

Regardless, we made it to Jock of the Bushveld,
a safari lodge situated about an hour inside Kruger. For
those who don't know, Kruger is an enormous piece of protected land
near the northern borders of South Africa. On it, all the wild animals
of the bush are allowed to roam free and do what they want, living the
lives they are meant to live (more or less). So there are
lions that hunt the zillion species of antelope (or whatever-the-hell else
they want - lions are pretty kick-ass, as I learned), elephants that
roam around and knock down shitloads of trees, buffalo that stink to
high heaven, and all sorts of other crazy animals. And people
are allowed inside with passes to travel along the roads and watch whatever
they can see. But please don't mess with the animals, 'cause
they will eat you. Kruger was made especially famous by the
awesome video of a baby buffalo being attacked by lions, which were
subsequently drubbed by almost every other predator in the wild.

Anyway, we got there in time to chill out for a minute before going on our
first expedition into the wild. We piled into the truck with
our awesome guide, JV, and set off. The first trip was not all
that great. After wandering around on the trails for about two
hours, we finally managed to see a couple of lone elephants from afar, which
was cool, but it was somewhat disappointing.

However, the next morning, after waking up at 5am, we set off again and
had an explosion of sightings. We immediately saw a lioness and her two
not-yet-grown sons walking along the road. Now, I have to
say, I was somewhat skeptical about the exciting-ness of lions before I came.
You always hear that they are the kings of the jungle and everything
(even though they don't live in the jungle, but in the bush), but I
just kind of figured it was media hype. But seeing those
lions, not even grown was definitely impressive - they walked right in front
of our car, looking at us with a look that said, "I am WAY cooler than
you, and I would eat the hell out of you if you even THOUGHT about
messing with me."

Lioness staring at us

Unfortunately, those were the only lions we
saw on the trip, but they were pretty damn cool, and they were right up
close in front of us. We also proceeded to see a leopard in a
tree (a rare sighting because they are really solitary and shy), a
whole pack of wild dogs (rare because they are endangered), a pack (?)
of white rhinos, and a bunch of other cool littler animals (including
an injured honey badger, which was really mean looking). They
were all really cool, and I was reassured that we weren't doomed to
seeing nothing on this (fairly expensive) trip.

The best part was to come on the second, evening outing. We spent about two
hours driving slowly along a dried-up riverbed, with JV seeing tons of
tracks of exciting animals, but never seeing anything. I
could tell he was getting frustrated, and so were the rest of us.
By that point, I was pretty much decided that evening trips sucked, and
morning trips were the shit.

Leopard in a tree

Finally, we headed out of the riverbed, and it seemed like we were headed home. Then JV noticed some fresh giraffe tracks (he was really amazing at
spotting things - I guess that's what being a ranger is all about) and
he quickly spun around and headed back the way we came, and out the other way. In about five seconds, we saw a whole bunch of giraffes eating leaves,
silhouted against the night sky. They're really gorgeous, and
the ladies loved it. So we were slightly mollified about seeing
nothing so far, and started heading down the track towards the main

Giraffes are amazingly elegant

Suddenly, JV shut off the engine and the lights, and
shushed us to be quiet - there was a big herd of elephants straight
ahead on the road. There were about 3 adult females and 5
little kids, playing with each other and running around - real cute.
We stayed watching them for a few minutes, then started up the car and
inched along, expecting them to get out of the way. One of
the females puffed up her ears at us as if to tell us to get gone, and her
little baby did the same, which was super cute, but they quickly got
out of our way, and ran around behind us trumpeting. Finally,
we moved on a bit more... and right on the trail, directly in front of us
was a HUGE bull elephant, which massive tusks looming over us.
And he was NOT happy to see us. JV flashed the
light in his eyes to try and scare him away, but he was having none of it.
He puffed up his ears to make himself look bigger (and it worked, and made
him even more intimidating) and started to charge us!

Death approaches?

He stopped after a couple of feet (mock charge), but my mom almost lost it
Of course JV had it under control, and revved the engine several
times while making little mock charges of his own. You could
even see the indecision in the eyes of the elephant before he decided he
didn't really know what we were, so he moved out of the way, still
facing us. Then JV gunned the engine and shot out of there -
as I looked back, I could see the bull behind us start to chase us away,
trumpeting. It was highly exciting. Whether or not we were
in any danger, it really brought home the fact that no matter if there
are roads built through Kruger, it really is still the wild, and that
elephant would not have hesitated to kill us. If we hadn't
been in the big ol' car, we DEFINITELY would have been toast.

So we spent a few more days there, and each outing was very exciting with
lots of animal sightings. We did manage to see the big five
(lion, elephant, leopard, rhino, and cape buffalo - the five most
dangerous animals to hunt on foot) and a whole shitload of other really
amazing creatures. All-in-all, it was a pretty incredible
experience, and I would highly recommend some form of safari to anyone
coming to Africa. Totally worth it.