Your flash can’t light a cathedral

The scene is Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, during the middle of an evening service. You see a person standing to one side of the alter, in the transept, looking across at one of the massive rose windows. The digital camera comes up, the window is magnified as much as possible, and then there is a sudden flash that distracts every one of the hundreds of the people in the cathedral but doesn’t provide nearly enough light for a proper exposure. On the camera’s screen, a very underexposed version of the window appears.

Normally, this is the end of things. Some people go on from here to deactivate their flash and take a second photo. This one is both hopelessly grainy (because the camera has automatically chosen the highest possible ISO setting) and completely blurred (because hand-holding a 1/2 second shot of a distant magnified object inside a darkened cathedral doesn’t work).

Obviously, I am someone who appreciates the practice of photography. As such, it pains me triply to see people taking photos in a distracting way, poorly, and in a space where such touristic incursions aren’t polite or appropriate.

Moral of the story: your flash cannot illuminate Notre Dame Cathedral. It cannot illuminate the Super Bowl or the moon either. If you are photographing these things, have the kindness, intelligence, and courtesy to turn it off. Then, make sure to at least brace against a wall, to help deal with the long exposure.

Sewers, lightning, and Notre Dame

Notre Dame, Paris

This evening, while we were watching the evening prayers and song at Notre Dame, a massive thunderstorm broke out. As a consequence, we got completely drenched – though it was in a jovial kind of way. We then pushed onto the most crowded subway train I have ever seen, filled with people seeking respite from the deluge and lightning. The contrast with all of our earlier time here was stark: none of us was carrying anything more substantial than a t-shirt, having been spoiled by hot days and warm nights since the 26th.

Earlier in the day, we visited the Paris sewers. Inside of actual stinky sewer tunnels, there is a self-guided tour that explains the development and functioning of this system. While it is not entirely pleasant, it is probably something every dweller of a big city should experience directly at some point. Otherwise, one is failing to understand an important means through which city life in the modern form has become possible.

Aside from the vaults and voices of Notre Dame, today included our first sampling of crepes. There was also an energetic water fight between Mike and Hilary, who were both so thoroughly sopping already as to make a few extra buckets largely irrelevant. Finally, there was further sampling of the fine food available here, although we still haven’t actually had food served to us at a restaurant.

Rain made us decide to skip the Canal Saint-Martin, but I am hoping to see it before my departure tomorrow.

Montmartre and the tower

Eiffel Tower from below

Yesterday was mostly spent in Montmartre. We assembled materials for a picnic at a market near Mike’s, then headed over by Metro. The steps leading to Sacré Coeur were well speckled with people appreciating the view. Inside the building itself, one gets a much more sombre sense of grandeur than the upwardly elongated outside view suggests. We filed around the inside of the massive church, then headed over to a fortuitously discovered park for an excellent meal of baguette, fried peppers, sun-dried tomatoes of the best kind i have eaten, wheat beer, mozzarella, and white wine. We have yet to eat in a restaurant, largely because of the excellent opportunities afforded by street markets.

From there, we walked to a flat wooden pedestrian bridge across the Seine. On it were several hundred people, mostly of about our age. They were generally sitting in little circles of seven or eight, with food and wine in the middle. From there, one can clearly see the Eiffel Tower at a distance. It seems as though it is projecting two beams outwards from a rotating platform, but there are actually a series of lights that rotate through 180 degrees, then hand off to the next in sequence.

That arrangement became entirely evident one Metro ride later, when we found ourselves at the base of that elegant structure. As well as being lit by large numbers of tungsten lights – giving the structure an orange glow and nicely illuminating how the girders connect – the tower has been covered with thousands of flash bulbs that sometimes begin firing, seemingly at random. This creates the same kind of effect you see in movie portrayals of stadiums: where thousands of fans all firing flashes create a sparkling effect in the stands. Walking away from the tower, towards the former military academy, one follows a long lawn covered by young people arranged similarly to those on the bridge.

Today’s plan has shifted to include several targets of opportunity. The making of banana pancakes is a given. Beyond that, we may visit the sewers and catacombs. Hopefully, we will have a look at the Canal Saint-Martin, which is not too far north of where we are staying, about 1km from the Seine in the 12th arrondissement. It now seems unlikely that we will visit Versailles, but that is not overly regrettable. There is plenty to do in Paris before my flight back to England tomorrow evening.

PS. A nine square metre apartment can actually operate fairly reasonably with three people in it, as long as things are done logically and with constant attention paid to how much stuff needs to be stowed away at any particular time, in order to accomplish whatever task has been undertaken.

Correction: re, Paris and London

Mike Kushnir and Hilary McNaughton in Paris

I need to issue a quick but important correction. Earlier today, I said that I was surprised by the similarity between Paris and London. Admittedly, the museum districts of the two places resemble each other to a greater degree than one might expect, during the daytime. At night, downtown Paris is a far different (and enormously more pleasant) place. Based on limited exposure, it reminds me of the things I like most about Montreal. People are everywhere, there are public performances going on late into the night, there are families to be seen, and the rest of the things that make a city feel public and alive. The contrast with a few drunken gangs of hooligans wandering from pubs to kebab vans – as is the norm in London – is striking and highly favourable towards the Parisians.

That said, I am heading back out into it. I want to see the illuminated Eiffel Tower. The bridges across the Seine are certainly very appealing when lit by contrasting incandescent and fluorescent lights and packed with groups of friends sharing cheese, bread, and wine.

PS. The verdict on the falafel: better than I had previously and capable of being a tasty snack. Still not something I am ever likely to wish for when unavailable, as I do for delicious vegetarian poutine with miso gravy.

Cursory Louvre post

Apartments of Napoleon III, Louvre

Hilary and I spent this morning and afternoon exploring the Louvre. The combination of art and architecture is superb. I especially like the high-ceilinged galleries of the Denon Wing and the marble sculptures. Thankfully, the place was a lot less crowded than I have been told it gets at the height of summer.

The general Paris experience is surprisingly familiar. I suppose I expected it to be much more different from London than it actually is – at least on a superficial level. One pleasant surprise is that I have been able to operate fairly well in French, though I am sure any kind of in-depth conversation would be far beyond me at the moment. Hopefully, next year will bring opportunities to become conversant again.

Tonight, we are apparently visiting an area famous for having the world’s finest falafel. It’s not a foodstuff I have ever really enjoyed, so I suppose this will be the ultimate test of whether that is the product of exposure to inferior falafel or an abiding personal dislike of the stuff.

Tomorrow, we may be going to Versailles.

Brief Parisian hello

Mike Kushnir with bike

Hilary and I have arrived safely in Paris and passed a very enjoyable evening in Mike’s company. A longer description, along with photos, will appear at a time when I am not sitting outside with a borrowed laptop, accessing the web courtesy of someone’s unsecured access point. People who have ‘must see’ suggestions for this city are encouraged to post a comment about them.

Lazy science reporting

Oxford goat

People may have noticed that the news today is saturated with stories about scientists ‘discovering Kryptonite:’ the fictional substance that causes Superman to lose his powers. The claim is based on how the chemical formula for the new mineral – discovered in Siberia – is the same as the one invented for Kryptonite in the film Superman Returns. Obviously, this is just a fluke that arose because of some words a scriptwriter or prop designer happened to string together. No insight arises from referring to the new mineral with reference to the film. To me, this seems like the same kind of cheap, low-brow science reporting as when all the coverage about ‘hobbits’ being discovered emerged in response to the discovery of H. floresiensis.

I can understand why a journalist might want to put out a fluff piece like these and then take the weekend off, but it really isn’t ‘science’ reporting in any meaningful sense. It is especially depressing when quality newspapers decide to print such rubbish, perhaps hoping to attract a few more readers. It is astonishing to me that they lack allure on their own, when discussing serious science. After all, the pace of ongoing discovery and technological development is staggering, and it has never been more important for ordinary citizens to understand the natural and man-made phenomena that influence the ways in which we live.

PS. Claire, Hilary, and I saw many goats today. Here are some goats eating plants.

Final exams

I now know when my final exams will take place. Twentieth century history will be at 9:30am on the 11th of June. At 2:30pm that afternoon, I will have my IR theory exam. On Tuesday at 2:30pm, I have my international law exam. Wednesday at 9:30am, I have my developing world exam. After that, I will have completed all the coursework and exams associated with the MPhil, barring the unlikely possibility of having a viva voce exam.

Oxford verdant and twittering

Milan Ilnyckyj in Worchester College

The emergence of spring in Oxford is rather dramatic. I would expect that this seems especially true for someone from Vancouver. Since most of our trees are coniferous, the degree of colour change that accompanies the passage of the seasons is much less pronounced. Our green mountainsides may spend less time obstructed by cloud-banks, but we are rarely treated to the elegant site of a large and ancient tree gaining or shedding its foliage.

In addition, Oxford seems to be positively thronged with birds these days: singing in the early morning and escorting the first – almost comically cute – ducklings along the banks of the Cherwell. All this has made showing Hilary around even more enjoyable. Today included a lengthy visit to the Natural History Museum and a far shorter one to the Museum of the History of Science, complete with the famous Einstein blackboard. Attending my first OUSSG meeting in a year in a non-executive capacity was enjoyable, even if I didn’t partake in the very fine dinner that takes place beforehand.

Speaking of the OUSSG, some of you may remember when I said that the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group needs a new webmaster? Well, the position remains open. The level of work involved is fairly limited and the group is a rather interesting one. Anyone who can run a blog knows enough about the web to maintain the site.

Solar eruption

The Japanese Hinode satellite, launched in 2006, is meant to study the sun from a sun-synchronous orbit. On December 13th, it got quite a show. Sunspot 930 has released an X-class solar flare: twice as large as the Earth, and sufficiently powerful to make the Aurora visible as far south as Arizona.

The video is available here (MPEG). More information is on this NASA page.

Such flares are one reason why it is dangerous to be heavily reliant upon satellites for either communication or navigation. During periods of extreme ionic disturbance, GPS receivers can give positions that are off by thousands of kilometres. The streams of highly energetic particles produced by such flares eventually reach the Earth and threaten both automated satellites and manned vehicles.

The radiation from solar flares is also one challenge involved in a possible manned mission to Mars; with the kind of timescales involved and the absence of the protection from Earth’s magnetic field, the danger posed by such radiation could be considerable.