Monday, May 23, 2011

Echo mountain climb

As the term winds down (I hope!), I occasionally have evenings in which I'm not working. For instance, this Friday and Saturday night I sang in a concert with the glee club. A whole bunch of German, with some French, English, Tamil, and Latin thrown in for good measure. For two of the songs we joined forces with the Caltech/Occi orchestra and sang robustly. 

But that is the not the purpose of this blog post! After the Saturday night performance, I scampered off home, doffed my concert attire, and dressed in my usual adventure kit; jeans, teeshirt, jacket, and sandals. And set off.

I have climbed Echo mountain twice before (I think, maybe 3 times?), but only ever during boiling hot days, and I wanted to see how far it was. In summary, I walked up and back (16 miles/25km) in five and a half hours, with half an hour at the top staring at the view and taking photos.

The walk north from campus to the end of Lake St was uneventful, save the odd cat or crunchy leaf, but a good opportunity to think over in my mind the structure of two talks I'm giving this week! After about 90 minutes, I reached the trail head, and set off. I wasn't certain of the path, but found a few landmarks and was on my way. Of course, there were no lights and the moon had not yet risen, so I depended on light pollution from LA to guide my way. Very quickly the trail steepened and switched back up the side of the mountain. The trail is (fortunately) quite smooth and broad for the most part, so not falling into the void wasn't too difficult. On occasion the path ran through undergrowth and I had to look about a radian away from where I wanted to see, as the edges of ones vision are the most light sensitive. Wary of drop bears and mountain lions I had my blanket wrapped around my neck, which kept me nice and warm. As I climbed and the night deepened it became quite cold.

As I climbed I was alternately rewarded with views out over LA and lights, or deep into valleys, up the mountains, to the stars. I could see headlamps of other hikers on distant mountains, and quite often hear them as well. Every now and then an unseen animal would skitter in the undergrowth, but for the most part I existed in a world of silence and a grey scale. About half way up the moon began to rise above fog in the east, and for one switchback was just poking over the edge of the next ridge. With the moon up there was substantially more light, however as I rounded the first bend I saw the figure of a man rise up from the edge of the path, giving me a fright before I realised it was my shadow! A few minutes later I encountered some hikers coming down (also without flashlights) and returned the favour. At this point the moon was high enough to be quite glary and I had to put my hand up to avoid being dazzled and then blundering into stuff everywhere.

After about an hour of climbing I leveled out and reached Echo Mountain, a rocky outcrop with the ruins of a hotel, burnt down nearly 100 years ago. I reconfigured my blanket for warmth (except for my unlucky toes), and started taking photos, experimenting with long exposures and different ISO settings to achieve the effect I wanted. I tried a self portrait, but had to stand very still! I also managed to get a few good pictures of stars, despite the bright moon and light pollution.

After about half an hour I decided to head back down. The first switchback leads deep into the valley, and on my return to the crest of the ridge, I was stunned to see that LA had disappeared - a dense fog had rolled in. Before my eyes the bright light axis of Lake St dissolved into a warm diffuse glow, and I could see only a few lights on the tops of the Hollywood ridge winking across a sea of white with stars above. I continued my descent and before long the fog rose to meet me, turbulently rolling over the ground, and, with a quite pronounced edge, cutting off the moon, which developed a glowing aura. At its thickest I had a visibility of about 5m in any direction, there were no shadows, colour, or sound. Just depth perception, really. After walking for many hours one feels sensory isolation from ankles and feet, probably due to endorphins and a trancelike state in which distance flows imperceptibly. In addition to this it was not really possible to see the ground in a meaningful way, giving the impression of floating in space, with someone else's feet scraping along somewhere in the distance.

I had a similar experience climbing Mt Ossa in Tasmania a few years back, except this time it was dark and not rainy. The fog continued to rise as I fell and about an hour after starting back I reached the bottom of the trail head, emerging from the fog and again surprising a few other lightless hikers who had only heard my footsteps until I was about two feet from them. I could see them quite easily, but they had only just left the relatively bright street. I was wearing dark blue and black for the most part. I quite enjoy being invisible!

Back on the tarmac I realised I was only about an hour and a half from home, a snack, and sleep! I set off, this time walking down Catalina Ave (I walked up Wilson, for the most part), disturbing a few dogs, cats, and late night lawn waterers. By this point I'd been walking long enough that time and space seemed to decouple. This is a psychological phenomenon I think is useful for coping with long migrations, but it's almost like you blink and 3 hours pass and you've walked over the horizon. Not the sort of thing one experiences every day.

At about 4:25am I arrived at my front door, kicked off my shoes, hobbled to the kitchen to munch something, put some socks on and crawled into bed, falling instantly into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Organ recital - Published in the California Tech!

When one imagines feverish controversies in classical music, it's
almost too tempting to picture Beethoven caught "in flagrante delicto"
with one of his students, a snuff box full of suspicious oriental
powders and a lewd portrait on hand. While these allegations remain
unproven, controversies do indeed exist, and many a distinguished
gentleman's toupee is set askew in vociferous argument, normally about
the merits of authentic performance.

It was my supreme pleasure to spend an evening last Sunday listening
to one of the largest controversies in the classical music world.
Whereas advocates of authentic performance everywhere get excited by
the prospect of paying unauthentic sums of money to listen to music
played poorly on authentically imperfect instruments by authentically
untrained musicians, the concert I attended was the complete opposite.

Cameron Carpenter, with just a hint of sequins, walked onto the stage
of the cavernous and dimly lit Walt Disney concert hall, acknowledged
the audience, and sat at the remote organ console placed right on the
edge of the stage. Four rows of keyboards and thousands of switches
were arrayed before him, and as the echoes of applause died down, he
got right into it. The instrument in the Walt Disney hall is both new,
well maintained, and quite extraordinary at 'only' 109 ranks. I can
state with utter confidence that it has never before been played in
quite this manner. In this, his LA debut, he opened with a grand yet
considered Bach Toccata and Fugue in F-sharp major. Bach wrote it in
F-major, but playing music in the key in which it is written is for
musicians who don't know how to transpose. It was a subtle yet clear
break from generations of organists who, with very few exceptions,
have built a towering edifice of traditional and conservative

Cameron Carpenter, already famed amongst organ enthusiasts despite a
career of less than five years, has rebuilt a solid audience and
following for his style of performance, through both a substantial
following on youtube and his indulgence of members of the public. On
Sunday he gave a pre-concert interview and lecture, played some stuff
on the piano, and answered many questions. As the buzzers rang he
excused himself and ran back stage to get ready to perform - something
few if any members of the audience had ever seen before.

By this stage the concert was in full swing. As is his custom, he
announced the program from the console on stage, providing a few scant
hints at the workings of his eccentric and eclectic musical mind. Next
up was the first of two pieces of Brahms on the program - here the
prelude and fugue in g-minor, expertly deconstructed and rebuilt. This
was followed by a piece of Carpenter's own composition, the Serenade
and Fugue on B A C H, which was kaleidoscopic in structure, and
naturally used every stop on the organ (though not all at once).

Before his next piece, he gave an introduction. Cesar Franck was an
organist at Sainte-Clotilde in Paris in the latter half of the 19th
century, and at that time its organ was state-of-the-art. Franck
notated registration, or sound combinations, meticulously. Cameron
explained that was because he wanted to ensure his interpreters were
using the full dynamic range of the organs available at that time. He
said that organ building had come a long way since and that the
original registrations often resulted in muddy or indistinct music, in
which the structural filigree of the music could be lost. Therefore,
while keeping the notes, "...we've dispensed with the rest". This
rendition, too, was one of the most clear performances of the
challenging French romantic organ repertoire I've ever heard.

Having now warmed up the audience and the instrument, Cameron made
good on his assertion that organists must be as technically
accomplished as their concert pianist counterparts by playing two
rather rococo transcriptions of the fearsome Liszt Etudes 'Feux
follets', and 'La campanella'. Here, Cameron demonstrated facility
with the specialised organ technique of 'thumbing down' to play on all
four keyboards and the foot pedals simultaneously. With one final
blast of the organ, including the deepest 32 foot pipe, we took a much
needed break for intermission.

It is sometimes said that in the playing of a pipe organ, one knows
the majesty of god, and in the silencing of a pipe organ, one knows
the mercy of god. There was, however, quite a buzz amongst the few
thousand people who had survived the first half, and in due course we
all filed back in and took our seats. Cameron walked back out on stage
to gasps, mainly from middle aged ladies in the front row, as he had
changed into black sequined tights, a black mesh shirt and white
glittery organ shoes. He took a seat at the console and promptly began
the second half by playing the Brahms Academic Festival Overture.
Earlier he had implied that writing this piece was a substantial
factor in Brahms' demise, and in listening to it, I could see why.

The penultimate offering for the evening was a transcription of Bach's
Chaconne in d-minor, with a substantial nod to Busoni. Within a few
notes of the beginning he had to stop. Turning around, he said "It's
almost like the organ just said 'you want me to do WHAT?'", prompting
giggles from the same middle aged ladies. Turning back to it he
flicked about a hundred switches in some inscrutable order, tested one
of the swell pedals, then began again. The difference was obvious and
within seconds we were swept into a whirling maelstrom of chords and
grinding counterpoint like only Bach can write, reinterpreted and
revealed through the new medium of the pipe organ.

All too soon Cameron began his final piece; a transcription of the
finale of Mahler's fifth symphony. Though he wrote it at 15 he had
been unable to play it in any sensible way until quite recently due to
the extreme technical difficulty of channeling Mahler's monumental
writing for more than a hundred instruments through just ten fingers
and two feet. Like the rest of the program, he played from memory,
once again revealing a fusion of solid musical understanding and a
slight tendency to iconoclasm. Noticeably, it neither saturated nor
sagged, common pitfalls of transcription, but rather rolled steadily
and inexorably from one musical epiphany to the next.

In a state of shock and surprise we, as one, relaxed into our seats
for at least a few nanoseconds before leaping to our feet in rapturous
applause. Cameron took five curtain calls and played one encore, and
in due course we spilled out into the street, both ponderous and
chatty with complete strangers. Every person in the hall that night
looks forward with interest to the next time Cameron Carpenter comes
to perform here.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

When nothing really is something

But what about Mechanics of River Incision?

I hear you cry.

Never fear, all will be revealed soon enough. Caltech has a large and active geology department. Every term there is an opportunity for non geo majors to go on a field trip. The original plan this term was to take a field trip to Baja California, but school administrators, worried about drug related violence thousands of miles away, squashed that plan like a puny bug on the wind shield of a speeding 4WD. The plan was hastily modified, we packed our bags, and headed for Arizona, and the grand canyon. Which was a pretty good consolation prize, in my opinion.
We took four 4WDs stuffed to the brim with food/undergrads (the distinction is sometimes borderline) and drove into the distance. The first night we stopped at the campground at Lake Mead at about midnight - this is close enough to Las Vegas to see the glow in the sky. I found a perfectly smooth concrete table off the ground and away from blowing dust, unrolled my sleeping bag, and started taking time lapse photos of the moon. Those, and other photos, can be found here:
I don't own a sleeping mat, so I use a car windshield reflector and a folded up blanket, and slept like a baby until some noisy campers in the next site got up at 6am and their leader decided to practise projecting his voice with useful commands like "eat breakfast" "load the car" and "don't forget to brush your teeth ...eeth ...eeth". In due course I got up, threw everything back in my bag, and walked down to the lake, which is somewhat shrunken. Later we all drove back down the road to the same spot, and the academic portion of the trip began. As we squinted into the early morning light reflecting from the lake, a few students took 10 minutes to present their report on some aspect of relevant geology, such as 'water usage in Nevada' 'formation of Lake Meade', and so on. As a physicist it is often tempting to view all things in their simplest form, and assume that problems are thus simple. On this trip I learnt that with geology, it's actually quite difficult to know specific things about geological history, since we've only got a 2D view (plus bore holes) through often unreliable strata, and everything is really really old.
We drove on. Through the course of the day we visited a pretty cool slot canyon carved through 45 degree strata (where I explained the mechanics of river incision in combination with my beautifully LaTeX formatted report and paint-tastic diagrams), some cool rocks, rock carvings, and dinosaur footprints in the valley of fire, and a few other rocks here and there, the history and formation of which were expertly and mercilessly dissected by the keen eye of my expert colleagues. We visited and stood on the great unconformity and Frenchman mountain (outside Las Vegas), smuggled alcohol between ancient inverted topography from lava flows in Utah, and listened to C.K. Louis' stand up comedy on W's iPod. In good company the hours and distance on the road quickly diminishes, and by the end of the day we'd arrived at Torroweap, where we were to camp. Unable to find any sufficiently and well placed trees I hung my hammock at ground level, in which capacity it still exceeds the comfort and convenience of tents in many respects.
No sooner had I turned around but dinner (spaghetti) had been cooked, we sat in foldy chairs around a camp fire, told outrageous stories, and shone lasers into smoke for fun - which was awesomely cool. Sometime after midnight it was time to hit the sack, and I slept brilliantly, cushioned by about 10cm of very soft dirt.
Next morning, not realising that we were camping in the same place the next night, I packed all my things in my waterproof bag and stuck it in a low shrub out of the dirt. This move would turn out to be startlingly prescient! Water bottles were filled and we drove down to the canyon rim, a short trip down the valley between the numerous cinder cones of a tantalising volcanic field. The largest of these is Vulcan's Throne, situated almost exactly on the Torroweap fault and responsible for some pretty cool lava dams in the grand canyon - some more than 200m high, over the last few million years.
We could wait no longer. We burst from the cars and streamed towards the edge of the canyon, where ground suddenly and inexplicably gave way to nothing (which really was something!) for hundreds of meters. In this section the canyon is quite narrow, but still extremely deep, with a thin green thread of Colorado (oh, the irony) river at the bottom. Photo time. Instantly I had lost my shirt and taken a few photos, including the obligatory handstand. Of course, when you're walking on your hands, you can't see where you're going very well, and I had to be careful not to fall off the edge...
We lined up and got a few more talks on geological details, including all the different layers in the canyon, their ages, colours, history, etc etc. Probably the most overtly impressive feature was the degree of slipping on the Torroweap fault - probably 150m or so of discontinuity in the strata, and evidence of continuing movement. We ranged up and down the rim a bit to look in both directions, and were suprised by a sudden but intense rain shower, out of otherwise blue skies. Prescient indeed. Before we returned to the campsite we had enough time for a few of us to cast aside our exhaustion and bolt up the side of Vulcan's throne. We were time limited, and in the end I opted to pause near the summit, enjoy the view, take some photos, and perform the customary rites associated with climbing peaks in general and volcanoes in particular, before skipping at great speed to the bottom in a cloud of dust.
Back at the camp site we surveyed the damage. The sudden rain shower had turned the soft dirt to sticky mud. Even worse, some people had pitched their tents without flies, the better to enjoy the starry sky the night before. Now their groundsheets resembled paddling pools. All was not lost, however, as the sun was still out for a few hours and everyone was a fan of Douglas Adams. This time I had enough time to set up a sling system and suspend the hammock between two appropriately placed trees, and after tacos and yet more fireside chats, retired and slept. On this occasion I was testing a new approach to hammock insulation, in which a sleeping bag is suspended tight beneath the hammock, where it could not be crushed by my body weight. For the first time, I was really warm from below, but sadly a bit cold on top, where I only had my thin blanket.
Next morning I was up at dawn (the sun powered across the nearby range right into my face), and after dressing I decided to see how far the fire trail ran. Kicking the still sticky mud from my shoes I walked for about 20 minutes, and eventually emerged from the trees on the edge of the Torroweap valley, with a terrific view down towards the volcanoes and the edge of the canyon in the early morning light. I returned, packed, and soon we were on our way.
The trip back was long and tiring - I spent quite a lot of it asleep in any of a dozen hyper awkward positions, munching on left over food, and marvelling at the extraordinary scenery of highway 15 (I think) as we wound our way back down into the LA basin. I arrived back at Caltech with enough time to visit my office, do some work, shower, and eat dinner before Monday, and all the work starting again.
This trip was the last of four consecutive extra curricular weekends, and as a result I was pretty behind on work. However, there are 168 hours in a week, and quite a lot can be accomplished in 168 hours. I even found time to catch up on missed TV.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A and B came to town.

A few weeks ago I packed my bags, caught the gold line metro to Union
station, and jumped on an Amtrak train to San Jose - it apparently
knew the way. I have travelled in trains in many countries, but never
in the US (over long distances) so this was something new. I wasn't
sure what to expect - most people said that the trains were okay, but
a few had pointed out that they were slower than buses (!) and quite
noisy and bumpy or something. Well I have no idea what trains they
were accustomed to, because I soon settled back in air conditioned
comfort as the train worked its way up the coast, past a number of oil
rigs, spectacular scenery, and about half a dozen prisons.

In under 8 hours, we had arrived at San Jose station, where my friend
D was waiting. We drove via a diner (at which the usual offering was
duly consumed) to D's new place in Sunnyvale, a short commute to his
current work with some company in 'the valley'. Like myself, D is an
Australian expat making his way in the big scary US of A, so we (as
usual) had plenty to chat about! I spent the evening on an air
mattress, and in the morning, woke, packed, and headed off to a nearby
eatery for breakfast. Walking in the front door, I was only slightly
surprised to see my friend J (who studies NLP at Berkeley) and my
parents A and B (because A + B = C) sitting at a table. My mother A in
particular seemed quite excited to see me, and soon we were seated,
eating American hash browns and bacon and other good things, catching
up on news, discussing the latest in information technology, and the
somewhat peculiar sport of ultra marathon running.

After breakfast D took off to work, we dropped J at a caltrain station
so he could head back to Palo Alto, and A, B, and C headed off into
the sunset.

Well, almost. It was only 10am, but we were in a hurry! We drove
swiftly to Santa Cruz, met some family friends (I was able to finally
deliver a few things I'd brought across in September!), and then
proceeded to drive down the coast, stopping in Carmel and a few other
nice seaside towns. Land slips meant we had to cut inland, coming back
out at Cambria. We checked into a hotel, then drove up the Big Sur
highway towards another land slide, admiring the incredible scenery
along the way. I thought it compared well to the Amalfi coast, and the
Chuisky Trakt, both of which feature similar winding roads perched
precariously on cliffs above crashing water. I saw the car of "Goanna
Tracks", some Australian 4WDers who wrote a very useful account of
their trip along the Kolyma highway about a year before I went. A was
a little nervous at times, and not just because B wasn't always sure
which side of the road to drive on...

In due course we turned back, greeted some seals, and drove up to
Hearst Castle for an evening tour. Hearst Castle is worthy of another
blog update in its entirety. Instead, check out the photos!
The story goes that Hearst got really rich running a newspaper and
decided to funnel his money into building a huge house with which to
entertain guests and live well near San Simeon. So he did. After he
died it made its way to becoming publicly accessible, so we can enjoy
its rather extraordinary features. The floor plan of the main house,
for instance, is quite haphazard since room dimensions were dictated
by the sizes of the various decorated ceilings he had purchased from
Europe. Eventually we finished the tour, had dinner at a local
restaurant/karaoke bar, and retired for the evening. I spent several
hours writing up a report on the mechanics of river incision, for a
purpose that will be revealed shortly!

The next day, we checked out and drove down highway 1 via several
lovely volcanoes in the surf to Santa Monica, then to the Getty
museum. By this stage we were running a bit late for the evening's
adventures, so we had to see all the nice stuff in the Getty (and
there is quite a bit) in about an hour. Back on campus I swiftly
changed and got ready for the chamber singers concert that evening. A
and B turned up and quite enjoyed the proceedings - madrigals in
French, Italian, English, and German. Dinner at Wokcano was followed
by a quick trip to the top of Lake St to look at the view over LA at
night, and we retired for the night.

Next morning we met for breakfast, then drove up to Eaton canyon, and
with about 1000 other people walked up the waterfall. I went largely
barefoot (it was a nice day), which was interesting. It's not every
day your feet get to savour the texture of the surface of the earth,
after all. Italian sandwiches were procured, and we spent a few hours
at the Huntington looking at nice old books, gizmos, art, and plants.
The Huntington is a pretty extraordinary place - well worth a visit if
you're ever in the area. Soon enough it was time to propel A and B
back onto the perilous freeways for their last trip to the airport.
Soon after they were airborne and in Australia, and I was back at
work, with only 4 days to catch up!

As for mechanics of river incision, all will be revealed in the next