Home, Jeeves

A Noisy Channel

Robin Blume-Kohout

List of Entries:

Prelude:  In the beginning was a river
June 12, 2005:  On the eagle-road again
June 13, 2005:  Luxury liquids
June 14, 2005:  Good old-time religion
June 16, 2005:  Blackboards & Questions
June 18, 2005:  Up, up and away!
June 20, 2005:  The Meg!
June 25, 2005:  Wet and Muddy again
June 26, 2005:  Air
July 1, 2005:  Barcelona
July 2, 2005:  A Passel of McCormicks
July 4, 2005:  Tossa de Mar
July 7, 2005:  Very, very blue

July 7, 2005:  Very, very blue

Photos of the Mediterranean sea and it surrounds are -- to me -- distinguished by the color blue.  Startlingly blatant shades of blue appear frequently, dramatically, and definingly.  That is, the other features of the photograph seem defined in reference to the blues that are so primally, objectively present.  I've found that real life -- at least here -- is much the same way.  My eye is captured first and foremost by the various blues -- and they are myriad -- and only secondly by the much more predominant, but subtle, earth tones.  As a photographer, I find interesting patterns in stones, clothing, trees... then helplessly search for a way to juxtapose them with the sky or sea.  My eye gravitates toward that reference-frame-sharp blueness like a needle clicking onto a magnet.

All this makes today's overcast drabness rather interesting.  It's like Cheez Whiz after a week of Stilton (or, god forbid, that terrifying azure cheese that Howard Barnum found two years ago in Benasque).  You realize, in the absence of anything dramatic to look at, that there are other senses.  Or, in terms of activities, there are other things to do besides going to the beach.

The past couple of days have been warm, mostly sunny, perfectly suited to lollygagging on the beach.  On Tuesday we spent the bulk of the day at a small beach on the south side of town.  Tucked in a steep-sided cove beneath a tower of the castle, this beach offers only a few dozen people's worth of space -- but has lovely ambiance, and plenty of neat fish-watching.

Yesterday, we ended up wandering out of town a few hundred yards, down a trail through pine trees, and then off a cliff.  Well, more down a cliff, via a ravine that turned out to be a trail, which ended at a tiny, near-inaccessible pebble beach.  My personal opinion is that the secluded cove was definitely worth the price of admission (scratches, bruises, fear of immanent death by falling... the usual), and Meg claims to agree with me.  However, the real price we paid for the cove's seclusion was the loss of sunshine around 5:45 PM, at least 2 hours before the main beaches lost their sun.  I'm not sure she can forgive me for that -- though I can hope that the variety of sea life in the cove was some recompense.

My favorite activity here, by far, has been swimming about and peering at fish.  Meg, on the other hand, is clearly more entranced by lying motionless on the beach (except for occasional turning and basting).  We trade off occasionally, but I probably spend 60-70% of my time wriggling around in the sea, and she spends about 85% of hers on a towel.  This is a perfectly satisfactory arrangement, since the two activities are highly compatible, and Meg keeps an eye (generally a closed one) on all my junk while I'm goggling at fish.

A word on fish -- there really is plenty of sea life in these coves to look at.  Even the town's main beach/harbor has fish, though not of the same quality, since it's got more sand and less rocks.  It's not as good as Belize, because (1) there seems to be less diversity, (2) the fish are less brightly colored, (3) there are waves, which kick up more turbidity, and (4) the sessile life is substantially less interesting.  Nonetheless, it's still aquarium-like.  I've seen at least a dozen types of fish, anemones, sea urchins, some bivalve shells, a tiny crab or two, and even one decent-sized octopus.  Oh, and lots of seaweed.

Unfortunately, I can't take pictures of this stuff, since I haven't got an underwater camera.  They probably wouldn't be all that great anyway, since the water is just turbid enough to muddy the colors.  That's relative to perfection, though -- I can see the bottom further down than I can dive, which is probably about 20 feet max.  The water, incidentally, really is blue.  It's not just reflection of the sky; if you look straight down you still get a deep azure color, with green in some places.  The only place I've seen quite like it is the Sea of Cortez, between Baja California and Mexico proper.

It's still early afternoon here, as I sip my O.J. and type, but hopes of any sun are fading.  If it does turn sunny for a bit, I intend to race back to the hotel, grab my suit, and go for a swim.  I want to do a lap or two between two of the town's beaches (they're separated by rocky shores), to build a little fitness.  I've decided that swimming for fitness is much more interesting if you do it in an interesting place (e.g., the sea), and I'm flirting with the idea of taking up ocean swimming.  The problems are: (a) it's not so much fun in cold, murky water; (b) I'm still scared of sea monsters.  I'm not entirely sure how to conquer that one.

Anyway, we've arranged to stay another night here, so we have all day in town.  Meg's shopping at the moment -- something we haven't done much of.  Tomorrow will be a very early morning (by the standards of our typical 9:45 wake-up time), since our bus for Barcelona leaves at 7:25 AM.  I think the idea is to thrash our way to the airport, get on the flight, and try to sleep a bit on the way to Philly.  We get in at 3:30 PM local time -- which will be 9:30 PM to us -- so circumstances are sort of non-ideal.  Oh well, it's just a notice that vacation is over.

Oh, by the way, if you're wondering why there aren't more (and better) photos... I've been blowing through rolls of slide film with my EOS-1, instead of taking digitals.  So, eventually, I'll put up some companion galleries... if I ever get around to scanning all my slides!

Robin (7/7/05)

July 4, 2005:  Tossa de Mar

The bus system over here really does work pretty well, even when you don't have a special charter like the one that takes physicists to and from Benasque.  Case in point:  navigating our way from Barcelona to Tossa de Mar, the little town where we're now enjoying the beach, turned out to be cheaper and easier than almost anything else we tried to accomplish in Barcelona.  Total cost (for both of us):  €16.90, and about an hour and a half on a fairly comfortable bus.  The only real drama was when Meg (sans timepiece) headed off 10 minutes before departure to find a bathroom and some H2O.  Apparently there was a fat lady taking a long time in the bathroom or something, but all I know is that I was awful close to throwing myself on the ground and clinging to the bus driver's legs, when Meg finally returned -- exactly 2 seconds before departure time.

Anyway, we're in Tossa.  The bus route also stops in Lloret de Mar, maybe 15 minutes away, and BOY am I glad we opted for Tossa rather than Lloret.  The latter is horribly commercial, laden with casinos and nightclubs, and just generally repulsive from my perspective.  Of course, for the hordes of twenty-something Eurotrash who seem to surf from one nightclub to the next, I'm sure it's wonderful -- a way to say you got out into the country without every really leaving Barcelona.  Whatever.

Tossa, in case you're wondering, is much smaller, much quieter, and very attractive.  It's got a castle on a hill by the waterfront, which is very nicely integrated into town life -- the structure is scrupulously preserved, but it's used for apartments and restaurants, not museified in formaldehyde as such a historical structure would be in some other places.  I highly approve.  The castle area itself is much quieter than the rest of town, and as you approach it, things get gradually quieter and quieter.  The streets get narrower, the restaurants get nicer, and the people walk slower.  Turn around and head back to the center of town, and the pace of commerce increases; fashion, jewelry, and seafood restaurants give way to cheap sunblock, trinkets, and fried squid joints.  Still, it's a pretty friendly place wherever you are.

There are about 10 beaches within a few km -- where "beach" means any area of the coast that isn't rocky and precipitous.  The town itself has three or four beaches (the fourth is big enough for maybe 10 people, if they don't all try to lie down at once), one of which is quite large and sandy, and doubles as a harbor for small fishing boats.  We gravitated toward it pretty quickly upon our arrival, and spent a few hours lying on the beach and fooling around in the sea.  The water is about the temperature of a swimming pool -- a bit bracing when you first get in, but comfortable after that.

The best thing about Tossa, by far, is the existence of an air-conditioned hotel room.  Which means we can not only be comfortable, but that we can be comfortable with the window closed, which means that we can actually sleep in peace.  This is a wonderful, wonderful thing.  The walls are sort of paper-thin, and we have two sulky teenage girls as next door neighbors, who (a) like to drink late and throw up early, and (b) can't imagine why they shouldn't slam the door all the time, but this is really a small annoyance compared to sweltering temperatures and late night garbage collection (as in Barcelona).

Robin (7/11/05)

July 2, 2005: A Passel of McCormicks

As anyone acquainted with the species will doubtless tell you, just one McCormick is sort of a herd on his own.  Two, therefore, require some unique group moniker, which I have just coined.  Three... well, three would have to be something approaching a universality, and four or more is sort of incomprehensible to me.  Luckily for my (rather heat-dissipated) comprehension, we were blessed for most of today with a mere passel of them -- Colin and David.

Yesterday, after we got settled in the Itaca flat,

July 1, 2005: Barcelona

Today was technically the last day of the Benasque session, but in reality its scientific content was limited to a bus ride -- back to Barcelona.  Two years ago, the 9 AM bus came as a rude shock (since I'd been getting up for 12:30 talks), but today I'd been prepped by a week of 10 AM talks.  Such a hardship!

Perhaps a tad more detail is in order.  We've been overlapping with a session on "Decoherence in Condensed Matter" this week, and in order to foster collaboration, the organizers have decided to have three talks per day (rather than one), and to schedule them back-to-back at 10 AM, 11 AM, and noon.  The audience is also twice as large, since attendees of both sessions are encouraged to come.  This changes the mood of the workshop substantially -- it's pretty easy to get interested and attentive about a single 1-hour blackboard talk before lunch, but when people you don't know are giving Powerpoint presentations for 3 hours, it gets a bit overwhelming.  Along with 50% of the other folks, I've been skipping in and out of talks (depending on whether I think they'll be interesting), but I still have to get up and have coffee before 10 AM, 'cause they don't announce the speakers before the talks.

Oh, and I got dragooned into giving a talk myself earlier this week.  Wojciech showed up on Sunday, then told me on Monday that he was delegating 20 minutes of his Tuesday talk to me.  Result: I spent Monday afternoon and evening prepping a talk on redundancy and objectivity.  Wojciech talked for 40 minutes about quantum phase transitions, then turned it over to me for 20 minutes.  I actually think it went pretty well, and people seemed interested.  That, ironically, is a bit of egg on my face; I've been complaining that I don't see the relevance of my own work.  So it's a positive sort of egg, but I do need to admit having been insufficiently self-confident.

Anyway, that was then, and this is now.  Specifically, now is Barcelona.  The bus ride deposited us at Plaça Cataluña, which is relatively central to the city.  We strapped on our backpacks (I've discovered that putting one on my back and one on my chest works much better than piggybacking them; thanks to Max Zurek for nonchalantly demonstrating that technique), and staggered off in search of Hostel Itaca, which we found after only getting lost once.  Checking in would have been easier if I'd just given up on Spanish and taken advantage of the manager's English... oh well. 

[Dammit, I'm in a foreign country.  I shouldn't be able to get away with speaking English.  Not my fault everybody in the civilized world actually speaks it (better than I speak their language).  Maybe I'm an idiot, but I persist in feeling that going around depending on English is trés American -- and therefore sort of rude.  Of course, stammering in Spanish is probably rude too, so I'm damned either way.]

Anyway, there was this amusing interlude where the manager sent us across the street (we were staying in a flat near the hostel, not actually at the hostel), with instructions to meet her friend in 2 minutes... the friend would be wearing a red dress with spaghetti straps, and the password would be "swordfish".  Okay, I'm kidding about the password, but it did have this vaguely MI-6 feel to it.  Then it turned out that the manager had forgotten to give us keys... or to tell us which room of the flat we were in... which induced some more amusing interludes involving cell phones, and my vertebrate settling audibly (due to the 75 pounds on my back) while the friend in the red dress chatted with the manager about how silly they'd all been.

Eventually it all got settled out.

So, here we are, in Barcelona, with a tiny room in a flat which does have a double bed, although not air conditioning.  Supposedly, Colin McCormick and his brother David were going to meet us for dinner (they're driving down from Montpellier, France), but after depositing approximately 700 Euros in various pay phones, we've managed to make contact with them and determine that they're not going to show up in time (it's after 10 PM now).  So it's pasta and sauce for us, and I'll talk later about our walk through the city (mmm, melty buildings), and my 5-minute phone conversation with someone who was not, in fact, David McCormick.

Robin (7/12/05)

June 26, 2005: Air


June 25, 2005: Wet and Muddy again


June 20, 2005: The Meg!

Yay!  Meg is here!  She managed to make it through a wilderness of flight delays, non-English-speaking bus drivers, connections, and Spanish women confused about nonfunctioning air vents (i.e., twisty little passages), and arrived in Benasque only half an hour after the scheduled time.  Not her fault, either, I suspect (more likely blame the bus...)  Plus, I got a dozen pages into Nielsen and Chuang while I waited.

Nothing else much exciting... unless you count yesterday's exciting laundry adventure.  See, I finally ran completely out of clean clothes after Saturday's hike.  So, while I sat around recuperating on Sunday, I elected to wash them.  Fine.  There's a couple of washers and a dryer in the basement of my building, so I got these really clever detergent capsules made of plastic that dissolves in water.  Stuck my clothes in the washer, along with a couple of capsules.  Oh, and I wanted to see if the capsules really worked, so I carefully rubbed on with water until it burst open, then stuck it in the machine.

Then I couldn't get the machine to start.  Just wouldn't work.  Maybe I misread the directions (en Español)?  Oh well, try the other machine.  Sure wish I hadn't popped open that detergent capsule.

Hell, that one doesn't work either!  Just sort of buzzes for a while.  What the heck?  I figure I need to ask somebody, so I go read a book in a cafe for a while.  Sure enough, after a couple of hours, Gerardo Ortiz arrives from Los Alamos.  After various adventures, I ask him to come read the directions on the machine for me.

This is probably the biggest advantage of having a doctoral degree.  You can get somebody who has a PhD, access to half a million dollars in research money, and dozens of publications, to come translate the instructions on your washing machine.

Anyway, he didn't find anything in the instructions that I didn't.  Confusion all around.  Eventually, however, he did hit upon the solution (which would never have occurred to me... maybe this is why he's a staff member at LANL and I'm just a postdoc?)

It helps if you turn the water on.

[Postscript:  okay, fine, laugh it up.  But... come on, in the U.S. you don't have to turn on the knob on the wall every time you do laundry!  You turn it on when you buy the damn wash machine, and it stays on for ever after, and you just push the button on the machine when you want it to start!]

Robin (6/20/05)

June 18, 2005: Up, up, up and away!

Enough, really, of this science jazz.  Time for more mountains.  Today's destination was the Agulla d'Ixeia -- the highest peak (2837 m) on the ridge directly above Benasque.  According to the map, you can circle around to the backside of the ridge, and a trail leads up to the ridge, then from a pass adjacent to d'Ixeia, continues to the summit.

We -- Toby Cubitt, Jan Korsbakken, Hilary Carteret, and I -- set out about 8:20 from the village.  After about 2 miles along the road, we turned up the Ball d'Estós, on the very well-groomed GR-11 trail.  This involved a bit of getting lost in the campground at the beginning of the trail, but we'll just skip that bit.

We followed the GR-11 up a gentle river valley for about 2.5 miles, then turned off on a smaller trail that led to the Ibonet de Batisielles (a small, bluish-crystal pond).  This trail climbed much more steeply up the valley side, through forests and meadows.  From the Ibonet, we continued up to the Ibones d'Escarpinosa -- two adjacent lakes, surrounded by pine forest.  They also sported a beautiful waterfall, and a couple of fisherfolk (left).

From here, we headed up another trail that should pass near a larger lake (Ibones de Periamó), then climb up the ridge that included the d'Ixeia. We were soon immersed in a boulder field, guided only by cairns.  A single needle of rock (right) rose up above us, beautiful but also perplexing... because we couldn't figure out what the hell it was, if we were where we should be on the map.  I very nearly got distracted by some beautiful, low-5th class scrambles along the way (below left).

We eventually took a guess at where we must be, and forged onward.  Another 20 minutes or so brought us to the base of the prominent needle -- at which point we found ourselves looking down on the wrong side of Ibones de Periamó, and figured out that we'd gone completely the wrong way from the last lake.  We hiked over to the lake itself to regroup and figure out what we were doing.  Along the way, we passed completely impassable swamps, crossed uncrossable torrents, and I took photos of some weirdly dike-ridden granite (right).

Jan (right), Toby (below left), and I decided to go ahead,now that we knew where we were, and head up to the ridge; Hilary puttered about lower down.  We assumed that we'd find the trail soon... but we didn't.  The scree slope that we were ascending narrowed down as we went, with nary a cairn or trail to be found.  By the time we got within 100m of the ridge, and were reduced to horribly loose and dicey scrambling, we concluded that the map was completely F.O.S.  Toby eventually poked his head over the ridge -- Jan and I were a couple tens of meters below -- and reported that the Agulla d'Ixeia itself (if we were in the right place) sported no trail or route that appeared climbable without technical equipment.  We'd gone past our turnaround time anyway, so we headed down at this point.

The downclimb was somewhat eventful itself.  I'm usually pretty comfortable with loose, steep scrambles, but I felt a certain amount of responsibility for having dragged others in with me.  Plus, the terrain really was horrible.  We downclimbed the top 100m one at a time, in several "pitches".  I'd climb down until I found a sheltered spot, then hide while Jan, then Toby climbed down behind.  Our downclimbs set off almost continuous avalanches of stones, including a couple of multi-ton boulders that thundered past me while I hid behind something else.  Eventually, the chute broadened out, and we could descend in parallel -- 10 feet apart, making sure not to get below each other.  We encountered Hilary at the borderline between talus and krummholz, and all started down.

I think the d'Ixeia climb could be interesting, as a messy scramble, but it would be worth taking the time to see if there is a route to the top from the pass we reached.  There is clearly no trail where the map marks one.  Furthermore, this climb would be suicidal with another party in the vicinity!  The rockfall that we produced -- and we weren't particularly clumsy -- would almost certainly have killed anyone climbing behind us.  It was far more dangerous, in that regard, than anything I've ever climbed in Colorado.  Even famously hazardous routes like Little Bear have had much rubble knocked off already -- this climb was packed with unstable boulders.  Kudos to Jan and Toby for keeping their cool.

The descent was long, slow, and largely uneventful.  Hilary's knees started getting unstable, but never failed completely -- and once we returned to relatively flat ground we managed to speed up a bit.  Then again, it might have been the anticipation of dinner.  After returning and showering, we all met up at La Sidreria -- where they turned out not to have the leg o' lamb that Toby had been so eagerly imagining.  Oh well.  Dinner was good anyway.

Robin (6/19/05)