Prague – 25-Aug-05

The overnight from Munich was uneventful. As we were late getting our tickets, we got a normal ticket, rather than a sleeper car … for the record, sleeping in the normal seats on a train is not terribly fun, and after spending an evening looking for and finding the Hofbrauhaus, neither Susan nor I were feeling our best when we arrived in Prague around 0700.

First order of business was some food prior to finding a place to stay. Walking up from the train station, we found the McDonalds at the top of Wenceslas Square and sat down for a burger and fries (even though it was 0700, they were serving burgers, not breakfast stuff, lol). Being a weekday morning, the streets of downtown Prague were teaming with people, and even though we were both exhausted, it was fascinating to watch the people.

After breakfast, we walked down Wenceslas Square a bit to the Ramada Hotel, where we found a very nice room to share. Since we were both exhausted, we decided to have a real nap in the room before setting out for the day, and it didn’t take long for both of us be asleep.

The rest of the day was a bit cloudy and rainy, though mostly drizzling as opposed to truly raining. We were still able to do a fair bit of sightseeing after we woke up from our nap, getting our first look at the Old Town Square, Karlov Most, and the general downtown area. The pedestrian mall in Prague had sculptures all around it, as a public outdoor art show. I’ll include more pics of the other art on another day, but one of the centre-piece sculptures was a line of partly-naked metal men and I just had to get a shot of myself beside one. This begs the question … is a bronze penis obscene?

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Metal Men on Prague’s Wenceslas Square

That evening, I went out with my tripod onto Wenceslas Square. The National Museum at night is definitely a sight to behold, and the entire Wenceslas Square is a beehive of activity, even at night. Its worth noting some of the history of Wenceslas Square here … in 1968, the residents of Prague took to the streets against Soviet occupation, and gathered in Wenceslas Square. The demonstration was put down violently by the government, but very little remains to remind the visitor of the event. Near the base of the stairs to the National Museum is a cross embedded in the sidewalk, and while I was there, it seemed to always have flowers on it, though I never actually saw anyone leave flowers (I blogged about this in another post as well). While I didn’t see any plaque commemorating the event, I expect this cross is intended as a memorial for the citizens who died on the Square in 1968.

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From left to right: The Praha Cross, in front of the National Museum; Wenceslas Square at night; The National Museum at night

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A Panorama of Prague and Karlov Most, with labels pointing out important landmarks

Check out these photos and more from Prague on my Prague set at Flickr.

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Munich – Aug 24, 2005

By the 24th of August, we were finished out work, and my colleague Susan and I decided to travel a bit before coming home.  We both were interested in seeing Prague, but Susan had a rental car she needed to return in Munich, so that was our first stop.  After returning the car at the airport, we rode transit into the city centre to wait for our overnight train to Prague.

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Grape vines on the road to Munich

Our first stop when we got downtown was the train station to get our tickets for Prague.  Munich train station is quite a sight to behold … the size of a small airport with just as much hustle and bustle.  After we got our tickets, we had several hours to kill, so we wandered through downtown Munich in search of the Hofbrauhaus for some beers.  For the record, if you’re ever in Munich, the Hofbrauhaus is definitely the place to get beer.  Along the way we saw some cool lion sculptures on the street and stopped for some nice Italian wine.

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From left to right: Munich train Station, the fountain across from the station, Me and a lion sculpture, and Munich in White Wine … find all of these pics and more at my Flickr page for Germany

Weiden pics from 2005

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While working at nearby Graf, we stayed in Weiden at the Hotel Post. It was a nice little place, and the owner/operator Marcus was a wonderful host. Not only were the meals always excellent, but Marcus went out of his way to ensure we were happy, including staying open late and preparing us food when we had to work late. All in all, I’d recommend Hotel Post to anyone (my only real complaint was that he didn’t have Internet in the rooms … but free wireless access from the lobby).

The city itself was a wonderful mix of old and new. As a western Canadian, I found the number of maple trees fascinating, and joked with my colleagues that it was a bit humourous that we had to go all the way to Germany to see our National symbol (for those who don’t know, Maple trees are only native to Eastern Canada) In the shot of the Hotel above, you can see the maple leaves on the tree in the foreground.

The central plaza in Weiden was full of interesting buildings and sculpture. One of the things I found particularly fascinating was the extensive vine growths on some of the buildings … the restaurant below was practically completely covered. Europe’s cobblestone paths, built before cars and too narrow for such traffic, are also always a fascinating sight … something we rarely see in Canada, and never in Western Canada. Most of these pics were taken on the 22nd and 23rd of August, 2005. You can see more of my Germany pics at my

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And You Thought Size Mattered …

A few weeks ago I posted an entry, called Feeling insignificant yet?, on the relative size of the planets in our solar system, and the relative sizes of neighbouring stars. The purpose of the post was to show how insignificant the size of Earth is, in comparison to other bodies, and to remind people that not everything in the universe operates on a human scale. The universe itself is so far beyond the human scale, its damn close to incomprehensible, and the size comparisons in that post were a good way to show some relative differences in size.

But it leaves people with the impression that size actually matters when we talk about these things. And despite the mind-boggling sizes of the bodies described by “Feeling Insignificant Yet?” they are not, in fact, terribly relevant. They are impressive numbers to the human scale, but in universal terms, even the super-giant stars like Betelgeuse and Antares are barely perceptible specks of dust in a vast ocean of nothing.

I’ve tried to put together some pictures to illustrate this, and while they aren’t as colourful as the pictures of the planets, I’ve come up with the idea of concentric spheres in different scales to illustrate the vast distances between various heavenly bodies.

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The above picture shows the inner solar system, to scale. The Sun, at the centre, is the only body in this image who’s diameter is visible at this scale … the tiny spec at the centre here illustrates the size of the sun. Next out, we see the orbit of Mercury, and while popular science tends to show Mercury as orbiting essentially on top of the sun’s surface, we can see that based on the size of the sun, the orbital distance of Mercury is quite large … the Earth is only 3 times farther from the sun than Mercury, so seen from the surface of Mercury, our sun would likely look only 3 times bigger than when viewed from the surface of the Earth. Its worth noting that the scale here doesn’t allow me to show any of the planets, just their orbital path around the sun … remembering how much bigger the sun was than the rest of the planets, the distances between planets dwarfs even that huge size.

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For comparison, the size of the sun compared to other planets … remember, on the obital diagram above, the big ball of gas in this picture is but a tiny dot.

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As indicated, this diagram of the outer planets is at a scale of about 1:20 against the inner solar system model I drew above. The tiny circles in the middle, inside Jupiter’s orbit, represent a scaled down version of the inner solar system model … as you can see, at this scale, the sun is no longer visible. Pluto, for the record, is about 5 billion km from the sun, on average, and while most text books show Pluto with a hugely eccentric orbit (and in fact it IS eccentric in comparison to other planets), the ACTUAL eccentricity works out to a minor-major axis ratio of 97%, meaning at this scale, even Pluto’s highly eccentric orbit shows as roughly circular to the naked eye. Its worth noting that on this diagram (the Outer Solar System), super-giant Antares would be quite visible, having a diameter roughly 3/4 the size of Jupiter’s orbit … it would show up here as somewhat larger than the inner solar system.

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This is our local stellar neighbourhood, ranging from Sirius 2, our virtual neighbour at 8.6 light years away, to Aldebaran, some 66 light years away. One light year is defined as the distance light will travel in a year, and comes in at roughly 9 trillion km … as a way of comparison, the orbital distance of Pluto is roughly 5 billion km, so the distance from the Sun to Pluto (the entire expanse of the last graphic) is about 1/2000th of a light year. On the diagram above, the scale is too large for any stars to be visible for size, and given that the smallest circle is over 16 light years across, our entire solar system is too small to be visible.

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And so we get to the final picture in our series, with many of the same stars as the end of “Feeling Insignificant Yet?” We see

Ultimately, the size of the planets IS impressive, but its nothing in comparison to the distances between them. The T-shirt I ended “Feeling Insignificant Yet?” with showed the Milky Way galaxy at about 100000 light years across, and its worth remembering that the distance to Rigel is about 775 light years, less than 1/100th the total size of our galaxy.

Space, says the introduction to the guide, is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how hugely, mind bogglingly big it is. And so on.
Douglas Adams, Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Doug got it bang on with that one … and you thought size mattered.

More fun with Geography …

As I said in a previous post, I am a serious Google Earth geek.  I use it to map out vacations I have taken; I upload pics that are geo-coded to the location they were taken (IE, people looking at the Calgary Stampede Grounds with this layer on will see one of my photos from the 2002 Stampede fireworks); I use it to mark places I’ve lived or been in my life.

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Its a little hard to see at this scale (the pics get bigger if you click on them) but one of the fascinating ‘artifacts’ I noticed looking at my house and my work in Google Earth.  Clearly, the coverage for my work was done at a different time from the coverage of my house, since its pretty easy to see my car sitting both in the parking lot of my house (on the left … the other vehicle in the circle is my roommate’s van), and also in the parking lot of my work (on the right, beside a transformer and concrete barrier).

I always knew Google Earth was a seriously cool program, but the amount of functionality here surprised me.  Who knew that Google Earth allows me to be in 2 places at once *G*

Roger Federer as Religious Experience – Tennis – New York Times

Roger Federer as Religious Experience – Tennis – New York Times

Andre Agassi has possibly the best service return in tennis, and there’s little doubt that in his latter years, he was one of the fittest men on the court.  Pete Sampras was probably the best serve and volley player in the modern game, and his running forehand was a lethal weapon against any opponent.  Ivan Lendl was perhaps the best baseliner of the modern game.  Each of the great players in the modern game has some special tool or skill that they excel at, that forms a large part of the reason for their success.

And then there’s Roger Federer, the current world #1.  If there is a particular strength to his game, he hides it very well on the court … no matter what shot he picks, he seems to execute it with the skill of the best in the game.  Where the Sampras running forehand was a wonder to behold, the effortlessness with which Federer does the same is stunning.  While Agassi literally makes fans gasp with some of his uncanny service returns, its almost more remarkable when Federer misses a return than when he hits an inhuman one.

As David Foster Wallace points out in this excellent review of Federer, and his description of this year’s Wimbledon final, there isn’t a soft spot in the Federer game.  If ever one could use the term ‘all around talent’ it is in regard to Federer.  His ability to compete on all surfaces, against all comers, is indication of that.  Where Sampras might have been susceptible to a finesse player with some power, who could keep Pete on the baseline, and Agassi might be susceptible to the power-baseliner who never lets him step in for the big shot, Federer has an answer for anyone who comes calling.  He is just as happy to stand at the baseline and power shots back to you as he is to play serve-volley or shoot for the lines.

Wallace makes the comparison with other truly great players from other sports … the Michael Jordans and the Wayne Gretzkys, and the comparison is apt.  Its more than simply a case of Federer doing one or two things better than others, and parlaying that into a career … he feels the tennis court, and sees a point unfold in the same way Jordan felt the basketball court, or Gretzky felt the ice.  There’s a level of genius there that is clearly not present in his contemporaries, and a fluidity of motion that belies the effort actually expended.

And ultimately, Wallace’s point about the evolution of racquets and his criticism of the sign at Wimbledon decrying the loss of the game of finesse tennis to composite racquets is an excellent one.  Federer proves that isn’t true, though its certainly true that, until Federer, no one was able to fully harness the power of composite racquets and apply it to the finesse game.  Federer does just that, using the power of his opponents against them by using his own powerful finesse.  Federer is certainly capable of blowing the ball past his opponents with power strokes, and he does just that, point after point.  But the difference between him and other power hitters, and the reason he is the unquestioned #1 in the world is that he doesn’t just blow balls by his opponents … he blows them by his opponents in the precise spot they are impossible to return.

There have been many great tennis players in the modern era, people who played the game with exceptional skill, and uncanny abilities.  But Federer is the modern game’s first true genius, the first man who has harnassed the power of new racquets completely to his own will.  And the scary part, for the rest of the mens’ tennis world, is that he is really just getting started.

Chandra – Dark Matter Discovered!!!!

Chandra :: Photo Album :: 1E 0657-56 :: 21 Aug 06

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This is an update post to my post last week about the discovery of dark matter.  Apparently, it said what it purported to say … dark matter has indeed been identified through astronomical observations.  The above picture is the visual representation of what they’ve found, with false colour showing the blue and pink energetic jets, and a true colour Hubble/Magellan image behind.

The logic behind this discovery is a bit convoluted … suffice to say that since dark matter doesn’t interact with ‘normal’ or baryonic matter in any way but gravitationally, if dark and normal matter are ejected energetically to pass through another area of normal matter, the dark matter will tend to ‘speed ahead’ of the ejected normal matter, which interacts with the intervening matter in Newtonian ways like friction.  Since the dark matter doesn’t interact with the intervening normal matter in the same way, it ends up moving ahead of the normal matter.

But we can’t ‘see’ dark matter, so how was the above picture made?  The pink regions are false colour x-ray data from Chandra showing where the energetic jets of matter are located, and where the concentration of normal matter that we can see is located.  The blue region indicates the gravitational ‘footprint’ of this phenomena based on the concept of gravitational lensing.  If the majority of the matter in this phenomena were normal, we’d expect to see the blue and pink match up very closely … IE, the centre of observed matter would be roughly equivalent to the centre of the gravitational field.  But the picture clearly shows the gravitational field extending out ‘ahead’ of the normal matter, telling us that ‘dark matter’ that we can’t see is speeding ahead of the normal matter we can see.

This seems pretty clear evidence to me, and it means that cosmologists can now safely use dark matter as part of their calculations.  There will still be questions about the ratio of dark matter to normal, about what, precisely, dark matter is, and about how it fits into the cosmological scheme of things.  It likely makes the notion of a universe that will eventually contract again far more likely, but much of that will depend on the ratio that’s determined.

However, despite all the questions that remain unanswered, this discovery is HUGE, scientifically.  For ages now, there’s been a lot of question surrounding the total mass of the universe, and its been clear for sometime that the total observed mass MUST be different from the total mass … thats where the theoretical notion of ‘dark matter came from, literally, the matter we couldn’t see.  Now that the theoretical has been ‘seen’ it gives a lot more weight to explanations which made use of the theoretical concept of dark matter.  Cosmology turned a BIG corner today, IMO …