Monday, June 27, 2011

Cedar Flat - book review

Cedar Flat (ISBN: 978-1-61204-092-9)
Alex Jones
Available in all fine book stores.

The third novel offering from Alex Jones strays from the semi-urban and quasi-autobiographical setting of his two earlier works (Helen Garner and the Meaning of Everything (2007) and Morris In Iceland (2009)) to the titular 'Cedar Flat'. On the outskirts of a barely-named Northern NSW coast town, Cedar Flat is a failed eco-resort with a reputation for short tenancies. Seeking a change of pace, retired geek Murray and his adolescent daughter Pim move in.

The story is expertly yet effortlessly crafted, advancing the tightly drawn plot only infinitesimally removed from the reader's own familiarity, yet somehow creating mystery and interest in an otherwise domestic setting. In the words of one of the characters, the detail is there for those that are capable of seeing it.

The multilayered text rewards a second read, and a third. Thematic elements tie the whole together as the central idea is folded, compacted, and crystallised like a insect caught in a spider's web.

Ultimately the story is about coming of age. A hand is offered up to the next level and is ultimately embraced, through a series of life experiences and reflection.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mt Wilson Hike

Having spent 3 days scurrying all over Yosemite, I was still as fresh as a daisy. So I met some fellow hikers at 8am the next day and carpooled up to Chantry Flat. We walked 17 miles (27km) return to the summit, where we also had a nice 2 hour observatory tour. The Mt Wilson Observatory is responsible for a number of terrific discoveries in the first half of the last century, including
- sunspots are cooler than the surrounding solar envelope by about 2000K
- sunspots are associated with magnetic fields (via Zeeman splitting)
- some planetary nebula are actually outside the milky way galaxy, including M31 (Andromeda galaxy)
- most other galaxies are receding from ours at a rate proportional to their distance, indicating that at some time in the past the universe was much hotter and denser
All fairly amazing things! From 1908 until 1948 it had the largest telescopes in the world. And as any astronomer can tell you, the number of discoveries is proportional to the size of the telescope. And, to some extent, the skill of the astronomer.
At length it was time to rewind the climb, dodging bitey flies, lizards, a small blue rodent, and a few errant deer until, within site of the carpark I removed my shoes and walked the last mile or so barefoot. Then back home, shower, dinner, and out to a movie with friends. 
Legs are STILL not sore, but at least the rest of me was pretty tired. Photos are here:
And a video of waterfalls from Yosemite is here:

Sunset in the redwoods

A Caltech club for student activities puts on a trip most years to Yosemite National Park. I signed up, along with about half of the TAPIR research group (in which I work), packed my bags, and met everyone on the bus. A lifetime's practise sleeping in awkward positions enabled a good doze before we stopped somewhere in California for lunch. I had something from Subway that was just tolerable. A small subgroup of the main 26ish people headed for the campsite and set up a few tents, since we'd be getting back after dark and most people had never camped before. Before long we'd inhaled our own weight in insects and set up about 7 tents (one in each site), and then drove off to the park. 

I had never previously been to Yosemite, nor really seen any photos, except for the odd promo or when I was looking up maps the previous week. The van zoomed through the tunnel (not unlike Milford Sound) and burst through into the valley. Of course we had to immediately slam on the brakes as all the cars in front slowed down for a look between the 1000m walls of the valley down to Half Dome in the distance. It was spectacular. We arrived quite late in the afternoon, so opted to climb the Yosemite Falls trail up to Columbia rock, then onwards if we had time. We only had to run up about 60 switchbacks, but got a pretty good view. Me and a few others continued along the ledge until we were virtually underneath upper Yosemite falls, took a few photos, and got very, very wet. AWESOME. A few of the other more aggressive types and I had planned to climb to the top. Of course, I stopped to set up tents, and they didn't wait. Later they got back just in time to tell that they'd made it to the top. Anyway, a few more minutes of walking in the sun and I was dry again, and even my camera started working again soon after its misty experience. We grabbed some dinner from the cafeteria, debriefed each other on our adventures, and then drove in the bus back to the camp site. The setting sun streamed through the red woods as we negotiated curve after curve of the long highway. I set up my hammock, helped a few other people find the tents we'd hidden in various places, at some snacks, took photos of stars, poked the campfire, and eventually went to bed.

Like the grand canyon trip, I used bungee cords to secure my (overkill) sleeping bag around the outside of the hammock, with my blanket on the inside to keep me warm. Well, this time I was a bit more careful than at Torroweap, but I still got pretty cold at around 3:30am, for some reason. Further research is required. The following night I used it as normal, with the blanket under me and the sleeping bag on the inside and it was like floating on fluffy clouds of warmth all night.

Next morning I sat up, got out of the hammock, shivered with conviction for a few minutes, prepared a lunch and ate two plain bagels for breakfast. Not so much choice was available - you could have high fructose corn syrup in any of about 5 different forms. It took about 8 miles of hiking later that day for the nausea to subside. Packed everything up and, having stowed all my gadgets in my raincoat, boarded the bus back to the valley. At about 9am we set out for the mist trail, to do Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, then the Panorama trail to Glacier Point, then the Four Mile trail back to the valley floor, then part of the valley floor loop back to Curry Village, where the bus was parked. About 17 miles (27km) in total. Roughly equivalent to Half Dome, though Half Dome is no longer accessible without a permit, and was actually still closed when we were there. :(

The trail begins with the aptly named 'mist trail', in which you are bombarded with water smashed from the Vernal Falls. It was smashier than usual, due to there being a LOT of snow this year. I was wearing my straw hat, and the mist went right through it, so when I was walking towards the sun I had a rainbow literally within arms reach in front of me, and stretching out behind me above the thrashing rapids. We walked on. At the top of Nevada falls, I topped up my bottle from the stream, then bombarded it with UV radiation from my steripen. I haven't become sick since, so I guess it worked! It also saved me the trouble of carrying much water for the trip. At the Jon Muir trail head we split off for the Panorama trail, splitting into two groups, one that would attempt to finish via the Four Mile trail, and a slower one that would turn around before a certain point. At length the latter group became sufficiently lost (though I'm not sure how) that they ended up doing the whole trail afterall, though they were nearly an hour late for the bus...

The forward group took off, stopping for a snack at Inspiration Point (I think), a vertiginous lookout over several waterfalls, the valley, and half dome. Down into a ravine, across a raging torrent, and back up the other side. We paused for a quick lunch snack, and before long were at Glacier Point. Glacier Point is accessible by road/shuttle bus, so there were lots of people of the non-hiking type. I opted to not do the shirtless handstand, as many of the people there would not have ever seen a man without breasts before, and may be traumatised by the experience. Also, I was near a really big cliff I did not want to be thrown off.

We refilled our water bottles and scampered off down the Four Mile Trail. We quickly came across a few patches of unmelted snow, which was a lot of fun. The trail, like many others at Yosemite, quickly devolved to an endless succession of switchbacks with quite frequently very slippery gravel above steep cliffs. We had basically walked from one end of the valley to the other, and were now rewarded with views down the valley between El Capitan and Sentinel Rock, with the flooding river winding its way along the valley floor far, far below.

By now we'd reached the point where time only passes in terms of distance, and before long popped out at the bottom of the trail. J and I waited a few minutes to see if T and K would catch up (they had stopped to take photos before), and enjoyed the valley floor in the evening light. I doffed by (now seriously dusty) sandals and we walked the last 2.2 miles (4km) back to the Curry Village swatting mosquitos and savouring the sense of accomplishment. 

Back at civilisation I bought an 'all you can eat' dinner, loaded my plate, and sat down with a few of the Caltech undergrads. Before long it was time to load the bus, and after only a 45 minute wait the last Panorama Trail hiker tumbled out of the wilderness, took a seat, and we drove off. Again, we were spoiled by a spectacular sunset. We lit the fire, roasted marshmallows, swapped stories, and slurped ramen noodles after a hard day's walking. To my surprise I was still not particularly sore, or tight. Normally after a full days walking I can feel it, something gets pulled or whatever. It's possible that walking in sandals forces you to walk much more carefully and less stompily, and that prevents pulls and strains. In any case, I scrubbed my feet under a tap, threw on my lovely warm thermals, lasered the whatsits out of the campfire smoke, and eventually retired to my hanging pod of extreme comfort and heavenly dreams. That night at least I was not awoken by snoring, but rather laughter floating across the campsite the next morning (at around 6am). I got up, ate some breakfast, zoomed around packing everything up, and preparing for the last day of hiking. This time we drove to the Sequoia state forest, in which there is a 30 acre grove of giant sequoia trees that belong to Caltech! I've visited the Karri forests in Western Australia, I've seen the giant redwoods near Stanford, and I've spent weeks wandering between the hardy larches in Siberia, but I've never seen trees quite as big as the largest in this forest. The largest was just under 27ft (9m) in diameter. I got a photo of me standing in a hole under it! It was pretty cool. I sat on a fallen log that had been split by a fall onto another tree, ate my lunch, and wiggled my toes. Back on the main path I removed my sandals again and enjoyed the feeling of soft, cool, damp earth under my toes. 

We returned to the bus and started back to Caltech. The driver had brought two films to watch; Avatar and Clash of the Titans, so we got plenty of Sam Worthington! In between we stopped for dinner at Panda Express, which wasn't particularly overwhelming. Apparently the first Panda Express was the Panda Inn in Pasadena, though, which I thought was pretty cool. Back at Caltech I helped hang out tarpaulins to dry, packed some stuff up, then went home and showered, did some laundry, and uploaded some photos. Later that evening I cooked my own weight in pasta for second dinner, then duly passed out - I had an early start the next day!

Monday, June 13, 2011

More adventures

Since my last post - many adventures. Mainly to do with term finally ending. At last, unfettered months ahead for research!
I went on a few more night time walks. With a friend T walked to the Eaton Canyon waterfall, which was really really dark (down in the canyon). Photos here:, trip time 6.5 hours. 
Last night, went back to Echo Mountain with another friend R (T still being exhausted or something) and this time brought my new binoculars, with which I had a good look at Saturn's rings, the moon, and a few other bits'n'pieces. Including the Caltech campus, from about 6 miles away. Photos are here:, including a lovely panorama I put together.
I've been experimenting a bit with some software which can stitch photos to convert some of my 360 degree videos from Russia (amongst other places) into nice strips. I used mathematica to rip a few frames out of the videos, then passed them to the existing stitching software to complete the conversion. Finished products are here: I might make some more at some stage, but I think that's about it for now. Most of those come from the central portion of the most recent Russia trip, spanning Chara (on the BAM line) to Yagodnoye, which is about 2/3 of the way from Yakutsk to Magadan on the Road of Bones. Almost sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, but it's a real place!
This summer I plan to do a whole bunch 'o' research, some travel, work shopping, more travel, and spend a few weeks in Europe. If anyone in Europe wants to catch up, now would be a good time to get in touch.