Saturday, March 19, 2011

Wrapping up

  At some point I'll do a proper blog entry on the Hendry lab's eco-evolutionary dynamics blog, discussing the science that we did at the Abisko winter school.  This is not the forum for that, though, so if you're interested in that, subscribe to that blog.  :->

  For now, I'll just say that I spent most of the daylight hours in a small but aesthetic lecture hall:

listening to talks by luminaries like Ole Seehausen:

and then in the evenings I got to hang out with a great crew of fellow students:

  (There are some instructors in that photo too, but you get the idea.)  It was lots of fun, I learned a lot about ecology and speciation, and I saw the northern lights for the first time.  Oh, and I played such a great set of ping-pong with one of my comrades that I got a blister on my knuckle that is still healing now, more than a week later.  Not bad!

  On the way home, the group stopped off at the Icehotel in Kiruna, Sweden, a hotel made of (you guessed it!) ice.  I took lots of photos there; it was really quite nifty (at the same time that it was gimmicky).  Then I went to Stockholm and left my camera on a bench in a bus station, so that's that; go to their website if you want to see what a hotel made of ice looks like.  I got some nice sunset photos of river ice and elegant buildings in Stockholm, too.  Oh well.  Now I'm trying to decide what kind of camera I will buy as a replacement.  Hmm... an Olympus PEN E-PL2, perhaps?

  OK!  Since this is a travel blog, and I'm done traveling, this is my last post until I return to Europe, probably this August/September.  I'll be putting up my favorite photos on my photography website,, so you can check that out.  And I'll be posting about the winter school from an academic perspective at, if that interests you.  Apart from that... have a happy spring equinox!  Over and out!


  It has been a good winter.  My first time snowshoeing, and then my first time snowmobiling!  Here's Ulf and Åke, the two organizers of the Abisko winter school, gearing up:

  I don't have a photo of myself, but everybody looks more or less the same once they're in a puffy blue suit and a helmet.  :->

  We rode through various kinds of terrain, from quite flat (frozen lakes) to fairly hilly:

  I took all these when I was a passenger riding behind Åke, by the way; driving was a full-time job.  When Åke was first learning to drive I could photograph off the back quite easily.  Later on he discovered the joys of hard acceleration and catching air off of bumps, and photography became impossible.  I did drive about half the time as well, although I wasn't as adventurous as Åke; he apparently hit a top speed of about 85 kph, while I topped out at about 60 kph.  That felt plenty fast.

  It was fun, but not quite as addictively fun as I thought it might be.  I imagine I may do it again some day, but I'm not itching for the chance.  Motorcycling was a lot more fun, back before I stopped doing that.  It felt relatively dangerous, compared to motorcycling (and that's saying a lot, obviously), and it didn't afford much opportunity to look at the scenery while driving because the driving took concentration.

  So all in all, I enjoyed the moments when we stopped the most.  I got some nice scenery shots in those interludes:

  Mostly it seemed like a good way to get to remote beautiful spots in the winter; I liked the destination more than the journey.  Still, I won't claim that it wasn't fun!

More Abisko

  I'm back in Montreal now, finally, after being tortured by various airlines for 36 hours.  I'm getting over my jet lag and catching up on loose ends, which, among other things, means finishing off this blog.  So I'll be doing a couple of posts on my last days at Abisko.  Here is what Abisko looked like sometimes:

  That's someone photographing a little dead tree, off in the distance across the frozen lake next to the research station.  You work with what you've got.  But that's not what I'm here to talk about.  I'm here to talk about the times when Abisko looked like this:

  Not bad, eh?  OK, to finish off this post, here are two photos of me in Abisko, the first from my camera, the second from Claire's:

  Abisko is a dangerous place, there are bears around everywhere.  That's it for this post.  Next up: snowmobiling!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Aurora borealis

  Abisko is famous for its displays of the aurora borealis; the Abisko tourism website says it's the "best place on earth" to see it.  The aurora borealis is most visible from 60° to 72° north; Abisko is at 68°N, just north of the Arctic circle. Abisko is also supposed to have "fresh, clear air" and a "practically permanently cloud-free sky"; never mind that while I've been here it has been cloudy more often than not. The aurora also occurs most often close to the equinoxes (I have no idea why), and of course the spring equinox is ten days from now. And then on top of all this, there has been good solar activity in the last few days, and the aurora is driven by solar activity (see the Wikipedia page if you want to read about that, I'm not going to get into it).

  We've seen the aurora well twice so far.  Tuesday night was absolutely stunning.  It was the first time I've ever seen it, so that was a nice way to start.  It was quite bright, but whiter than I expected.  It turns out that it photographs as green, but to the naked eye it appears rather whiter (although still somewhat green; just not nearly as green as the photos make it look).  This may be a matter of human night vision, actually; it presumably really is green, but night vision uses the rods in your retina, which don't see color (cones are for color), so I guess that makes the color be washed out compared to what the camera sees.  Perhaps when it is exceptionally bright, it looks greener; I gather it can sometimes be bright enough to read by.  Anyway, it also moved and changed much faster than I expected; it would flutter and wave and brighten and darken second by second, sometimes, which was really lovely to behold.  At its peak that night, it stretched from one horizon to the other in a continuous curtain that was shifting and waving across the sky, with other detached portions elsewhere in the sky.

  That Tuesday night we got lucky with a break in the clouds; it cleared up for about an hour, and the aurora was amazing, and then the clouds came back and stayed for the next day and a half.  Then today it got clear again, and this evening the aurora came back for a brief appearance.  On Tuesday I didn't attempt to photograph it, partly because I just wanted to watch it, and partly because I didn't have a tripod.  But tonight I propped the camera on a railing on a dock at the lake down the hill from the research station, and took a bunch of photos, one of which came out:

  F3.2, 30", ISO 400.  The bright spot is the moon, which is a crescent but which was so bright compared to the rest of the photo that it burned in as a disc.

  Tonight's aurora wasn't nearly as bright as Tuesday, and didn't move nearly as quickly.  Still it was nice; and there were some patches that were red, although I didn't photograph them.

  So now I have seen the aurora borealis, and I can die happy.  It's one of the more beautiful things I've ever seen.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


  So, here I am in Abisko!  I'm attending a week-long workshop (well, officially a "school" but I find that term strange) on ecology and speciation.  It's going quite nicely so far; very interesting lectures, and starting this evening we will have some seminar-style discussions, too. Lots of modeling and equations, lots of fascinating concepts. But that's not what I'm going to write about right now; maybe later.  For now, I just want to show you photos of the place.

  So the school is at a small research station outside the actual town of Abisko. Here are some photos from my first day here, when it was gray and snowy:

  Happily, it has not stayed like that the whole time (just most of the time).  This morning it was relatively clear; still a high gray cloud layer, but pretty good views nevertheless.  I climbed a small meteorological tower here and got a few photos of the surroundings:

  As you can see, Abisko is pretty well surrounded by mountains. The last photo shows a famous local landmark, the "Gateway to Lapland", the gap in the mountain range there.

  We had a presentation yesterday by one of the folks who lives at the station and does research here.  Here are some notes I took from his talk, giving some context on Abisko and the research station:

  Abisko exists because of Kiruna, and Kiruna exists because of iron mining.  [If I recall what our bus driver up here told us, Kiruna has the largest iron mine in the world. He said that with recently rising metal prices, Kiruna was experiencing a huge boom, and housing prices had gone through the roof, such that he, a waste-processing engineer, had to work nights as a bus driver just to pay his rent.]

  The research station was constructed in 1912; research began in the area earlier, in 1902. It once focused on research into the natural environment of the Abisko area; now it is more outward-looking and hosts many foreign scientists and workshops. Abisko is in a rain shadow due to the mountains to the west, and receives very little precipitation. This means the area compresses what are normally long latitudinal gradients, making them easier to explore in the field. It is not a natural landscape; reindeer herding by the Sami people has grazed down the landscape for at least 400 years. There are six field cabins around Abisko Station (some with their own saunas!). Several thousand scientific publications have come out of the Abisko field station.

  Some of the fields of research pursued here:

Geoscience research: glaciers and inland ice. A focus on landscape-forming processes at different timescales and under different climatic conditions.

Geomorphological research: mountain erosion, debris transport, sedimentation and archiving of past environments.

Experimental ecology: creation of chambers with altered temperature, CO2, and UV-B radiation, and experiments to see the effects of this on vegetation, ecological processes, and biodiversity.

Integrated activities: monitoring, manipulation, modeling. This kind of interaction between empirical research and modeling creates a positive feedback loop of science: predicting and measuring feeding back on each other.

  He finished up by talking about climate change.  What is happening to the environment in the north of Sweden? There has been an increase in temperature over the last 15-20 years, and the permafrost is starting to melt at low altitudes around Abisko. The landscape is slumping in some areas, and moving more than it used to. The prediction is for more snow, paradoxically, despite the rising temperatures, in this area. There are multiple changes such as warming and loss of cold winters. He estimates that 90-95% of the climate scientists he meets at Abisko are very concerned about these changes, and believe they are anthropogenic. One of the biggest consequences will be alterations to peat bogs, which will thaw and release methane. Many metrics of change have showed movement in recent years. Snow depth almost doubled in the past 90 years, hardness and wetness of the snow cover in increasing. [And his time ran out here and he stopped talking.]

  So, that's Abisko!  Next up, aurora borealis.

My car

  Hello from Abisko, Sweden, north of the Arctic circle!  I have lots to blog about from up here, but before I do, let me just share with you some photos of the winter I'm missing back in Montreal. This is my car, which I left for the winter at a friend's cabin north of the city:

  Yes, there is a car in there.  I'm hoping its roof hasn't gotten crushed in by the weight of the snow or something, and that the engine will start come spring.

Amusingly, there is less snow in Abisko than in Montreal, and it's warmer here than in Montreal, too.  This, despite Abisko being well north of Fairbanks, Alaska, or Reykjavik, Iceland, or pretty much any other crazy-remote northern spot you can think of.  But it would have been a different story if we had gotten to Abisko two weeks ago; it was -35°C back then, apparently.

  OK, my workshop (on ecology and speciation) is about to start again, so I must be off. When I have time, I'll post about the aurora borealis I saw last night!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Caught up

  It has taken the better part of a day, but I'm now just about caught up in my blogging.  The mystery 70's porn star in the previous post was, of course, none other than our very own Markus Tum, down for the weekend to come to the party.  We also went to a fun local music gig the night before.  Markus, it was great to have you down here!

  The morning after the Faschingsparty, bright and early (rather too early, in fact), I took a train to Zurich, where I've been for the last two weeks, working on a project at the Institute of Systematic Botany.  "Systematic" has to do with systematics, which is more or less the science of understanding the branching pattern of evolutionary history: deciding what's a species and what's not, assigning names to species, figuring out when they diverged, and so forth.  I'm not a systematist, but I play one on TV I work with them sometimes because I'm also interested in the process of evolutionary branching and speciation.  I'm working on a model with several folks there to investigate a particular idea about how speciation might work in some flowering plants.  Tell you more, and I'd have to kill you, as the saying goes, except that I'd probably bore you to death first.

  I didn't bring my camera to Zurich, so I have no photos for you.  I stayed in the botanical gardens, which are right next to the Institute, so I had about a three-minute walk to work each morning through the gardens.  Best commute I've ever had.  Here's a photo of the gardens from the web:

  Of course it didn't look quite like that, in winter.  The Martian domes are greenhouses, in which they have really wonderful exhibits of tropical rainforest and so forth.  Their desert/succulent area made me miss California and New Mexico quite viscerally; I was a bit startled by the strength of the emotions it brought up!  They look black because they have, unexpectedly, darkened due to photochemical reactions; replacing them with new plexiglass that is properly transparent again is a current goal of the Institute.

  My little apartment was behind the domes, to the left, and the Institute is essentially just to the right of the photographer, up a short hill.

  Mostly I worked a whole lot while I was there.  I only went out to see Zurich a few times, mostly in the evenings after work.  Anyhow, it's not a bad city (very clean!), but it's insanely expensive, so I mostly just stayed in my apartment and ate ramen that I had brought in my suitcase from Vienna.  Really.  I'm a graduate student, ya know?  This is my life: travel to foreign cities and eat ramen.

  However I did have one really fun day out and about.  I went, with two friends from the Institute, to Pizol, a mountain ski resort.  There we rented snowshoes, took three cable cars up the side of the mountain to the highest foothold of civilization, and snowshoed up from there to a pass overlooking the mountain's peak.  It was really wonderful.  I've never snowshoed before, but I will definitely do it again. The traction you have is just incredible; the snowshoes have blades on their underside that cut down into the snow and ice and make it almost impossible to slip unless you're walking on a very steep slope in deep powder.  We walked for several hours, got back to civilization, and had hot soup and various yummy hot drinks at wooden tables outside while gazing on the mountains we had just been trekking on.  Eventually we took the cable cars back down and came back to Zurich.  Photos from my friend's cell phone may be forthcoming eventually, but he has been slow emailing them.

  Back in Zurich, we went to a thermal spa that was quite nice.  Expensive, like everything in Zurich, and it turned out that the entrance fee we paid didn't even get us into many areas, including the hot pool; but we had fun in a steam room, a warm pool, an open-air pool on the top of the building with a view across downtown Zurich, and so forth.  It was a great way to relax after exercising hard all day.  Unfortunately, I slipped on some stone steps and got quite a large bruise on my tuchus; but really I got lucky, a slip on steps like that could have turned out a whole lot worse.  More than a week later, the bruise is still hard, purple, and as big as a softball; but having had an even bigger hematoma once (rollerblading accident) I'm not worried, and it doesn't hurt much any more.

  I also had another exciting medical adventure while in Zurich: a blood vessel in the white part of my eye (the sclera, maybe?) burst, and now one half of one of my eyes is bright red, like the Terminator.  Totally cool.  I freaked out and went to a clinic to get looked at, but apparently these things happen, and I just have to wait and it will get better on its own.

  The work in Zurich ended inconclusively.  I completed the initial phase of development of the model I was to write, which was good; but it appears that my model demonstrates that the effect we were hoping to see is, in fact, impossible, which is bad.  Back to the drawing board.  But for those who claim that modeling is pointless because you just get out whatever assumptions you put in, I ask: why, then, am I having to come up with a new idea for one of my thesis chapters?

  I took the train back from Zurich yesterday.  Three loads of laundry and countless blog entries later, I am now ready to go back in to IIASA tomorrow morning to resume my work there, which is presently a bit bogged down in data analysis, but seems to be coming along.  Vienna is colder than Zurich (which was remarkably warm; didn't need a coat some days), and it has been snowing lightly.  In three weeks, I'll finish my work at IIASA (for the time being, anyway), and will fly up to Sweden for a couple of days in Stockholm, a week-long workshop in Abisko (north of the Arctic Circle!  check it out on Google Maps!), a few more days in Stockholm (to get low airfares, basically, although I can't say I mind), and then, finally, home to Montreal.  So the final days of this European adventure are counting down.  I doubt I'll blog much more for a while; it's mostly going to be work, work, work until I get to Stockholm, at least.

  So yes, I may have filled up your reader with innumerable posts today; but you will miss me soon.  Maybe not today.  Maybe not tomorrow.  But soon, and for the rest of your life.  But it doesn't take much to see that the blog of one little person doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.  Someday you'll understand that.

  Until then, auf wiedersehen!


  Lest you think that my life post-Keewi-visit is utterly bereft of fun, here's my costume for a Faschingsparty I went to with a couple of friends:

  I like to think of this look as "Wolverine gone a bit to seed," with an incipient beer belly and (slightly) less impressive musculature than in his youth.  A few more photos, particularly for the amusement of the YSSPers:

  Anybody recognize the guy in the Hawaiian shirt?  (I know lots of you recognize Snow White :->)

Vienna Post-Keewi

  Keewi and I had one more day together in Vienna, which apparently was not photograph-worthy (we may have spent it watching Nip/Tuck episodes, actually; the friend I'm subletting from has five seasons of Nip/Tuck on DVD, and it has proved an adequate way to pass the time when it's too cold or foul to want to go outside).  Then she flew out very early the next morning.

  And now I am in a post-Keewi world.  Here's what it looks like:

  That's right: stark, bleak, cold and heartless, empty and cruel and barren.  Seriously, where was everybody that morning??  The later photos are in Augarten, a park near where I live that's populated by old WWII-era flak towers for shooting down Allied bombers.  It's a thought-provoking place.  I wrote a little haiku, after an earlier meditative walk in Augarten:

        Eloquent concrete
        Looming monuments to hate
        Augarten in fog

  I think it's my favorite place in Vienna; I like very much that they haven't torn down the flak towers, although I hear that that isn't due to a lack of desire to do so; they just can't figure out a safe way to demolish them, because they're so huge.  So I'm told.


  After that amazing museum, we took the subway clear across town to Vysehrad, the old fortress on the south side of Prague.  It probably dates back to the 10th century, but apparently nobody is sure.  We walked around in the fortress looking at things, and eventually ended up at the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, which I had seen from the outside in the summer but had not been able to enter (I got there rather late in the day):

  That's one of its doors (go back to my summer photos for a picture of the whole thing).  This might give a hint of the whimsical, modernist style of the interior, but only a hint.  It was really amazing; I've never seen a cathedral like it.  Sadly it was too dark inside for photography, but the whole interior was done in an Art Deco style (in the 1930s, perhaps?) by famous Czech artists of the era.  I wish I could show it to you.

  Beside the Basilica is the Vysehrad cemetery, a rather nifty cemetery:

  I stumbled upon the grave of Karel Capek completely by chance:

  Yep, that's a little toy robot next to the tombstone.  (Capek coined the word "robot", back in the early 20th century.)  Upon seeing that, we did a little research and also found the tomb of Dvorak:

  That was particularly special because we were going to a concert that evening with music by Dvorak, in Prague's Dvorak Hall, in the Rudolfinum.  We also heard a piece by Sibelius.  Here's what I wrote at the time, on Facebook: "I don't know much of classical music this modern, so all the music was new to me, but I liked both, particularly the Sibelius piece (Concerto for violin and orchestra in D minor, Op. 47). It featured a solo violinist, Nikolaj Znaider, who was really quite spectacular. The Dvorak (Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70) was quite nice too, very dramatic with lots of action in the cello section."

  But before going to the concert, we needed dinner, so we went to Pivovarsky Dum, a place somewhat near the Vysehrad (well, towards the south, anyhow) with great beer (didn't see that coming, did you)?  They had a tasting selection of perhaps eight different beers, some traditional, some with very unusual flavors like nettle (this one was green), sour cherry, and coffee (both of those last two were quite tasty).  They also had a "classic old Bohemian mead" that was just wonderful; we bought a bottle of that from the bartender for a ridiculously low price, and it is now back in Montreal.  The service was ludicrously slow; it seemed like there was one waitress for two large rooms, and we waited nearly an hour to even order our drinks.  We made it to Dvorak Hall just in time, after rushing along on ice-covered streets (it had been putting down layers of frozen rain while we were having dinner).  I slipped on the ice and bruised up my knee pretty good, but the music was so enjoyable I hardly even noticed.

  And that was our last day in Prague; the next morning we just muddled around a bit near our hotel, and then got to the train statin and came back to Vienna.