Friday, January 27, 2012

Space Weather, Earth Weather, and Northern Lights

Hope and Disappointment in Iceland
With the express hope of seeing the aurora borealis (aka the northern lights), some British friends joined me and my wife in Iceland this past week.

Why Iceland?  Well for me, I think I have to go ... after all, it is the home of seals and poets, as this ad inside the airport very clearly claims.

Our main goal was to bask in the aftermath of solar storms.  Short version: the sun discharges subatomic particles, those hit the earth's magnetic atmosphere, and in a circumpolar donut-shaped ring, the result is an aerial display of shimmering lights high in a clear night sky.

This figure above and the one below come from Discovering the Universe by Neil Comins and William Kaufmann (New York: Freeman, 2000).  The first figure shows the solar wind, and the second, the display ring where northern lights most typically can be seen --- across the top edge of Canada, the middle part of Greenland, the top of Iceland, and so on around to Siberia.
Not so much here in Los Angeles, where our night skies are the lights of Las Vegas, but in other countries, especially in Europe, winter "getaways" to see the northern lights are big business.  I have been collecting travel articles on this topic for many years, as the scanned pages below reveal.

In Iceland this too is a thriving industry, and one can buy coffee table books in just about every gift shop.  Here is one that somebody was kind enough to give me, a day or two after arrival.

Problem is, it's a bit of a Rubik's Cube.  You need to be in the right place (Iceland or Siberia), it needs to be a moonless night, the solar flares have to be happening (or rather, have to have happened a few days prior to viewing), and, the hardest part, the skies locally have to be clear.

Iceland in winter is not so good that way.  Here is a postcard of the a waterfall, Gullfloss.  ("Gull" here means "gold" or "golden," not "seagull.")

This postcard shot was taken in summer.  Here is what it looked like when I was there.

I would have taken more pictures but the camera, on a tripod to steady it in the bashing wind, was getting so iced up I could not see out the viewfinder in order to frame the shot.

So the question is, how do we then process this fact?  Weather is often described in moral terms: good weather and bad weather, and if you have bad weather, you're perceived as suffering misfortune. 

Yet the reality is, weather is constant (there is never a moment of our lives when there is no weather happening), and, further, weather is neutral.  It is just "is."  It is like gravity or sunlight: it is merely a neutral fact, without moral implication.  Hurricanes and earthquakes are not evil, they just are manifestations of the physical world, and, conversely, a sunny day is not nice.  It may feel nice to go for a walk on a sunny day, but that's me, not the sky; the sunlight is not deciding to be nice on purpose.  (And if you have had skin cancer, you know that sunlight is a very dangerous thing.)

So when we were in Iceland, clouds made the aurora viewing a bit tricky.  In the image below, what look like stars are, in some cases, "noise" --- randomly misfiring pixels on the camera sensor.  The green smudge in the middle is a dimly appearing aurora, partly blocked by cloud cover.

Was that bad luck or some kind of misfortune, to have "bad" weather?  Not really.  First, it was expected: statistics warned me what mid-winter weather was going to be like.  Second, if weather is just weather, then it is up to me to accept that --- to find a way to be happy in the reality that I have been born into.  I think weathermen perpetuate this too, and instead of grousing about the forecast, we should just accept the world for what it is.  Look at these Icelandic ponies, living out their winter in a fenced but no-barn pasture.  They seem not to think that anything is amiss.

The same weather that blocked my norhern lights viewing most evenings also gave me the sunrises that made my photographs glow with golden light the next day.  Here is sunrise in a cemetery.  No clouds?  Then no golden light.  Simple physics.

The quote unquote bad weather brought the wild swans close to town.  These were just photographed with a standard lens, no huge telephoto required.

The weather also gave me the moody background and coating of snow that made these church spires so visually attractive.  (Iceland has a lot of very lovely churches, as a side note.)  This picture is an example of double serendipity, in that not only was the weather such that the picture is better, but even to find this church was an accident, since we had gotten lost trying to drive to someplace else entirely.  We pulled over in a parking lot to look at the map, and I fell in love with the monochrome austerity of these heavenly spires.

Even on clear days, we still had "weather" in the form of the cold temperature.  This geyser is even better in winter than summer because the hot water turns to steam and then lingers --- a larger, more slow motion version of Old Faithful.

And of course, there are always the pleasures of when one steps in from the weather into the cafe for a cup of coffee.  Or, better yet, if you're tired of getting snowed on and feeling a bit in need of the royal spa treatment, for about twenty US dollars, you can enjoy that Icelandic tradition, the hot seaweed bath . . . .

What does it feel like?  I saw this sign while en route to the airport, to fly back.  I just will have to go back to Iceland another time, in order to find out.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ten Million Tourists Can't Be Wrong

Bruges wins....

And the Euro-tourist spot winner is not Amsterdam or Antwerp, but Bruges. 


See for yourself.

All of this and Marilyn Monroe too....

The Judges Can't Decide

Can There be 3 First Place winners?

In the imaginary beauty contest of which European city is the prettiest, having now looked at Amsterdam and The Hague, I have moved on to Belgium, where we have a three-way tie.

Brussels in the Big City entry into the contest, a place with immigrants from 100 different countries and buses whose destination signs just say "NATO" (meaning, I assume, NATO headquarters is the end of the line).  Yet it has quiet charm too, with parrot-filled parks (more about the Rose-ringed Parakeets of Europe in another posting) and art deco building facades.  In Brussels, too, I caught up on the ugly necessities of travel . . . like laundry.

This coin-op was across the street from the fish market.

If you want to compare this selection to Trader Joe's, 8 euros per kilo is about $4 a pound.  This market was on the same street as our hotel, with a view out the window from our room . . .

. . . and a few from the street, looking the other direction the next morning.

Our hotel was broad-minded about the furnishings.  You won't find this kind of art in a Motel 6!

If contemporary art is not your thing, at least one has to admire the escalators of Brussels --- lit in glowing blue and faced in gorgeous wood paneling.  Toto, we are not in Kansas any more.

From Brussels, it is an trip by train to Antwerp, the famous port city and another contender for the "Miss Europe Beauty Spot" title.

Antwerp is home to a new ten-story museum, "MAS," which combines ethnographic collections with maritime history and art exhibitions, all in unified-by-theme multi-discipline displays.

As one ascends floors to the roof-top panorama, the escalators rotate sides, so that each floor gives visitors a new vista of the horizon.

Galleries explore ideas like "power" or "life and death," using sound-scapes, video projection, medieval artifacts, and just about everything else.  Captions were in Flemish but the museum loans out iPods, and with those you scan QR codes to see labels in English.

 In this room, we see a painting from 1878 linked to material goods from the same time.  I for one am glad that bike design has evolved to a more stable platform.

There is a roof-top restaurant, for which one needs reservations two months in advance, and a more democratic cafe (first come, first served) which was SRO during my Saturday visit.  That sent me into town in search of Belgian waffles.  This seems to me a very under-appreciated culinary art form.

Yummy is all I can say.  So that makes Antwrep tied with Brussels.  Next stop?  Bruges....

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Beauty and Votes Continued

Can One Vermeer Push The Hague to the Top of the List?

If the last post asked the unfair question, "Where's the prettiest place in Europe," this one counters by asking, "inside or outside"?  There are lots of ways of looking at beauty.

An hour from Amsterdam by intercity train is The Hague, home of a court of international war crimes and lovely buidlings.

The thing that brings one here more than any other is Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, shown here on the cover of the museum guidebook (since no photography is allowed inside the facility itself).

And yes it's as stunning in person as the movie and book and hype make one expect, and in fact, more so.  Who is she?  What is she thinking?  Like van Gogh, Vermeer went through later re-appreciation; in his own lifetime, van Gogh couldn't give his paintings away for free, and Vermeers, now "priceless," were so valueless that Vermeer's name was crossed out and other trendier artist names signed on top. (Like the Mona Lisa, Girl With a Pearl Earring is beyond any price comparison, but let's just assume the bidding would start at 200 million dollars, if recent art market prices are any indication.)

But what makes beauty?  Is a place special based on our experiences, what we thought or did, or who were with?  My wife writes in her journal in cafe in this shot below.

Little details add to the composite impression.  Pears for sale at a sidewalk stall almost made my camera act without my control: the camera seems to turn itself on and take pictures like this just because it is too beautiful not to notice.  This may sound mystical or self-deprecatory, but I am nearly serious: rather than using Nikon's neck strap, I keep my camera on a long, homemade leash around my shoulder and just "shoot from the hip" as I walk, trusting autofocus and good luck to do the rest.

So what is the prettiest city in Europe?  Does it have the best canals, the best art museums, the best cafe au lait, the best companionship, or the best pears?  A few more cities need to enter into the beauty pageant for us to find out.

European Beauty Contests

Where is the prettiest place in Europe?

I have not been to every country in Europe, not yet anyway, though I am working my way through the atlas, bit by bit.

This intersession I have been in the so-called Low Countries -- the Netherlands and Belgium.  (As a side note, I know of other faculty who this intersession are in Costa Rica, London, Israel, and Thailand --- ambassadors for AVC in each case I hope.)  To my eye, while each of these other sites has something great to offer, for me, I think I picked the best itinerary of all --- Holland has to be one of the most "picture postcard perfect" countries in all of Europe.

Most people start with Amsterdam, hub of international arrivals from all over the globe. 

And let's get the sleaze over with first.  As Pulp Fiction made famous, yes, dope is legal in Amsterdam, and one can go into a "coffee shop" and order the grades of marijuana the way one picks out one's favorite coffee size at Starbucks.  And yes, there's a sex museum with items going back to Roman times, and a well-regulated sex trade that allows prostitutes to rent store fronts and sit in them dressed like Victoria Secret models as they solicit their clients from the passersby.

And it IS big business: the same Dutch tolerance that allowed our American pilgrim ancestors to hang out there before leaving for the New World does allow for people to express themselves sexually in a variety of (safe sex) ways.  But they also know that for crowds of young men, they do come over to hire out these "women of the night," and while here they will buy  dinners and use taxis and need hotel rooms.  As Las Vegas proves, vice is profitable.  It has been this way for a hundred years.  This painting in the Amsterdam City Museum shows women waiting for customers in 1900.

 Ah yes, but what to wear?  If you want a custom-made $200 latex corset, Amsterdam is the place to come.

But none of that interests me; despite my allegiance to the Beats, I don't do hash at home and so I am not interested in squandering my time doing hash abroad.  I come to Amsterdam for the Vermeers and the van Goghs (the Vincent van Gogh museum and study center has 200 paintings out of his 800).  I come for the history, whether it is 100-year-old wallpaper....

...200 hundred kinds of haircuts....

...or a 400-year-old merchant ship.

In Amsterdam tulips are just coming into bloom in the parks, and even a sleazy bar might have a beautiful flower display.  Here are some tulips that have come outside for a smoke break.

Amsterdam is of course famous for the canals, waterways to help reclaim solid land from oceans and marshes; many of these canals have been present for hundreds of years, and you can see them in the background of sketches and paintings going back to the 1600s.  This tower saw thousands of sailors sign up to go to the Dutch East Indies and try to make their fortune in the spice trade.

My hotel room looked out over Herrengracht, a very exclusive canal in what has been, historically, one the prettiest, most affluent streets of the "Golden Age."  This is the view from my room the night that I arrived:

So is Amsterdam already the winner?  Maybe not.  What about Den Haag, known in English as "The Hague" ("the hedge")?  Let's grab a streetcar to the train station and find out.