Wednesday, February 28, 2007

JYI: OSETI article

As some of you guys and gals may recall, I have a job of sorts as a science journalist for an undergraduate publication known as The Journal for Young Investigators (JYI). My job is to write a feature article a month for them, usually on a physics topic since everyone else there is a biologist, and it's quite a fun excuse to cover that sort of material.

Before I went off to New Zealand, I filed a few stories for my editor so I could keep doing the "one a month" rule without having to work very hard at it. The first of these articles came out today and guess what, it's the main story at JYI this month! Hooray!

The story itself is dubbed Searching for Extraterrestrials: An Undergraduate's Tale, and deals with my misadventures this past semester working for OSETI. (Yes, I had a job where I was paid to look for aliens. Yes, it was fun. No, we did not find anything, or at least nothing the Syndicate will let me tell you about...) There are a lot of details over at said article so I won't repeat much of it here, beyond mentioning that it was really fun to try and describe Corbin in only a few sentences.


Two of my friends, Sara and Ramanen, discovered this blog and were rather sad to not see themselves here yet, so here goes-

They are both very nice international students from Malaysia who are doing health sciences, meaning they're studying here for six years to be doctors after which they go back home to Malaysia. And as this is my blog and I'm going to embarass them a little, I will note that Sarah has expressed wishes that I fail one of my papers so I can stay in New Zealand a little longer with her, and Ramanen has fallen in love with me over my music collection. At least they're honest, right?

I have a few other friends obviously, a mix of Kiwi and international ones, but no one else has insisted on public humiliation just yet. So I'll just leave you with this picture of Douglas (a Kiwi engineering science person) attempting to climb a really cool tree-

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Starlight Symphony

I still have a few hours before my first class, so I may as well ramble a bit about the concert I went to two nights ago. It was an annual event called "The Starlight Symphony" and consists of ~200,000 people flocking to the main part of the Auckland Domain (the biggest park in Auckland) and listening to the Auckland Philharmonic and various New Zealand talent perform great works of music. It's all for charity too, so it's free beyond whatever donations you feel like giving.

Well, it was just great. You have no idea. First of all, they were rather careful in the program selection so most of the music was as well known as your old friends, such as Mozart's Overture from The Marriage of Figaro and O Sole Mio. (They also did some more recent music, like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Good Vibrations and such.) They also did a lot of cool stuff: for example, they did a laser light show during the Star Wars theme and everybody stood up to waltz during the Emperor Waltz. Pomp and Circumstance was cool too: remember how technically we're all loyal subjects of the British Empire down here? Well during Pomp and Circumstance we had to stand up and sing Land of Hope And Glory, which made me smile because there's something amusing about people singing the patriotic songs of a country half a world away.

The big finale at such a venue, of course, was Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture complete with cannon and fireworks. So so so cool!!! To all my classical music friends back home, you would've loved the entire evening. I missed you!

As a final note, guess who showed up right after intermission on the stage? Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Now let me ask you this: have you ever been to a country where the person holding the highest office in the land casually strolls into your classical music concert? And have most people look on with passing interest because she probably has nothing else to do and does stuff like this all the time?

I love this country.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Back to School

Classes start tomorrow. My extended vacation since December is over, just in time for my friends back home to be considering their upcoming midterms. I'd be lying if I said this isn't completely weird.

All things being equal, I'm kind of glad to be starting up again. Physics is the same everywhere, and in my moments of homesickness it's nice to know that things can only be so different when your equations and textbook are the same. I'll also admit that I miss some things disproportionately to how much I'd have guessed otherwise (I already knew I'd be missing friends, cookie-loquium, and the physics parties). For example, why do I miss my labs so much? Hello? Was there something really cool about those photon attenuation runs we had to do over the weekend that I was not informed of? And what was I doing the other day feeling bittersweet over Perl and STACEE data?

Yes, I'm a nerd. It's ok though: I am a descendent from a long line of nerds, and I subsequently inherited this trait the same way other people inherit blue eyes or autocratic kingdoms. Did you know, by the way, that they did a study at Stanford once which concluded there is something innate in people who end up becoming physicists? I was told that once by a physicist in Chicago who had participated in said study, and I recall being very not surprised at the time about it.

I will also mention while I'm at it that it's been fun being out in the real world for a little while, as I'm not certain when I'll be separated from my field so long again. Do you realize what a skewed version of reality you get by hanging out all the time in a physics department? Particularly one like CWRU Physics which is essentially a close-knit group of resident geniuses? The physics worldview is in a sense terribly ironic because I think most people are capable of examining the universe very broadly, but are only capable of seeing a narrow version of themselves. Which is probably why physicists often have such a hard time explaining themselves to the general public, now that I think about it...

But anyway, I've gained perspective and don't plan on losing it anytime soon. So that's good. You know what's even better though? My first class on Mondays, electromagnetism, is at 2pm. That's another thing we always suffer skewed reality from at CWRU: no one ever seems to figure out that afternoon classes are awesome...

Friday, February 23, 2007


You know what really sucks? Food poisoning. I highly recommend not getting it, just as much as I highly recommend not eating at the Chinese place at the University of Auckland food court.

Luckily, my mom in the paranoid wisdom of mothers everywhere sent me accross the ocean with a venerable pharmacy, so my fever and such broke a few hours ago. I can't remember the last time I had one, honestly, but it's not something I want to repeat anytime soon...

New Zealand trivia of the day: you know how in the United States the immediate reaction of someone would be to sue the Chinese food place? Hereabouts, you get free medical treatment so long as you explain that your malady was an accident (they didn't mean to give you food poisoning, and you didn't mean to get it), hence you get rid of your right to sue for damages. It's a rather nifty little bit of legality I think- can you imagine how much money we'd save as a whole in the States if we had a similar rule? I don't really mean to start a health care debate or anything, it's just food for thought.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bill Bryson in Auckland

Do you ever play that game with your friends regarding who you'd invite to dinner if you could invite anyone in the entire world? There's two versions: who you would invite who's currently alive and who you'd invite if you could raise the dead, but regardless of this rule there is always one person who consistantly makes both my lists. That person is Bill Bryson, and I met him today here in Auckland!

(For those of you who don't know who Bill Bryson is and why his place is reserved in my dinner invitations, do yourself a favor and go read Notes from a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods, In A Sunburned Country, or A Brief History of Nearly Everything. If possible, get all the above and all the others I haven't listed. Then revel in the awesomeness of my favorite living author, and come back here so you can be appropriately jealous of this situation.)

Anyway, this was truly a moment of opportunity thing because I really did not plan while coming to Auckland that I would be meeting Bill Bryson! Yesterday while coming back from Montihue Island we were lazy and took the bus, and the bus happened to stop outside the local bookstore. They had a display of Bryson's latest, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and a little red flyer saying "Bill Bryson in store, Thursday February 22nd!"

I turned to the girl who was standing next to me, feeling that feeling you get when something incredibly awesome is about to happen but you don't want to get your hopes crushed prematurely. "Today's Wednesday the 21st, right?" I asked. (If you're confused remember that us New Zealand folk live in the future compared to those in North America.)

"Yes," she replied, and I promptly got excited in the sort of way only I seem to get excited about things, to the amusement of all the Kiwis who had a. never seen me do so before and b. had no idea who the heck Bill Bryson is. Ah, life.

So this morning I staked out the bookstore early in anticipation, and was one of the very first people in line. Time passed in a nice conversation with an old Kiwi gent behind me, and passed very quickly in one spurt because Bryson showed up half an hour early. Quite a crowd by this point!
Finally, it was my turn, and the first thing I discovered was that Bill Bryson is an awesomely wonderful and nice person. Despite the crowds he struck up a nice long conversation, having immediately picked up on my accent and asking me what brought me to New Zealand. Explaining the circumstances promptly made him act like we were fellow co-conspirators of sorts in this forgien country, the sort who were smart enough to realize how nice everyone is down here and how silly everyone else is for staying up North in wintertime (Bryson lives in the UK).

Then he got around to asking what I was studying and everything, and when I told him physics he got a little surprised. ("It's a pretty far way to come to study particles!") Then he asked what I wanted to do with physics, so when I told him astrophysics and hopefully some writing he didn't miss a beat.

"Like Carl Sagan?" he asked.

"Yes." I smiled a little shyly at this, because a lot of people get really weirded out by people who want to be science popularizers someday.

Bryson, bless him, just got even more excited. "Good luck!" he exclaimed, "the world needs more Carl Sagans. I'm sure you'll do great."

The crowd was a little restless by this point so I thanked him kindly and took my newly signed book. It's a copy of Down Under, the international title for In A Sunburned Country, which is my favorite Bryson book-
So my goodness, that was awesome. I'm so happy it worked out, and happy that my dinner invitation was well-placed!

Addendum: Forgot to mention that I overheard other people's questions, and per him he's not yet writing an NZ book but he's considering it (he's here on a weeklong publicity tour). Also, he's not sure what his next book will be about yet but he promised his wife it wouldn't involve globetrotting!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Woohoo, it's time for pictures! Here are a few of my favorites from the past week, in roughly chronological order; there are no other people in them for now because I haven't asked permissions. You can click on any of the images for a larger picture.


This is what Fiji looks like, or at least what the main island looks like from the airport on a day with crummy weather. The entire area is rather hilly and green as a result of all the rain...

Orientation American Style (north of Auckland)

This island is named Goat Island, and is one of several "Goat Islands" in New Zealand. When the first European settlers arrived on the mainland they discovered several feral goats and pigs originally brought by the Maori, and transplanted a lot of them to small offshore islands so they'd be easier to hunt. Ends up the pigs were intelligent enough to swim off but the goats stayed, so there are several places named "Goat Island" along the coast today.

This particular Goat Island is now a nature reserve for endangered animals so you're not allowed to land on it, but you are allowed to snorkel and kayak around as much as you like (which is exactly what we did). Also it's not in the picture but just off to the right is a nice little place owned by the University of Auckland Sciences, which is mainly a marine biology lab but also used for field trips for a lot of classes. It's sort of like "The Farm" that CWRU has, except in a much nicer location and the geeks don't have to share.

This is what most of the New Zealand countryside looks like north of Auckland: lots of fields with tufts of trees, and all rather lovely to the point where you take it for granted. It always rather abruptly turns into ocean, which is an additional prettiness factor.

We were doing an after-dinner walk, and came accross these horses in pasture in a wonderfully tranquil scene. One of the most impressive things about New Zealand, I think, is right outside a major city you have pristine beach properties (yes, that's the ocean in the left) that would be snapped up in an instant in the United States, but no one around here seems to think or care that way so the horses get the prime real estate instead.

Some really nice-looking gal who was having fun on the beach got someone to take her picture to prove it. I hear she keeps a blog, or something.
Really now, this is a picture of me with my "flower" that I wove out of a leaf on the shore. I am using the phrase "I wove" in a rather liberal sense here because quite frankly I discovered that I rather stink at weaving so the Maori woman ended up taking over half of it for me (which was sort of a Scouting moment since the same thing always happened then in these sorts of activities). As a result of this complete lack of domesticity, I suppose I'll stick with physics!

Motuihe Island

My residence hall organized a trip out to this island today, which is one of several islands ~45 minutes by ferry from the center of Auckland. There's a nice beach on the island and what not and the water wasn't terribly cold, so we had a very fun day on the beach.

A view of the Auckland skyline from the island. The tall tower in the center is known as Sky Tower, and is the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere. Similar to the tower in Sydney, Australia, there's a lookout and a swanky revolving resteraunt at the top of it.

This picture is also noteworthy for the sailboat in the middle of the view: there are a lot of them here! Auckland is nicknamed "The City of Sails" because it has the highest number of sailboats per capita of any other city in the world. They're rather nice for short trips out to the nearby islands like the one we were on, which all have lovely beaches and are practically deserted. (In New Zealand, people complain that a beach is crowded when there is anyone else on the beach with them.)

Hooray for pretty flowers! Most of the island was used as a farm until it became economically unviable, but there are still several signs of this past on the island (primarily in the form of abandned buildings and fields). The one I liked the most though was how there were countless numbers of these pink lilies growing everywhere having escaped long ago from someone's garden: they were all in bloom and quite lovely, and looked rather surreal.

I think that's it for the pictures now, as I need to go to bed in anticipation for tomorrow. There is someone VERY exciting coming to the local bookstore tomorrow, and I need to get up early so I can get there on time! Details after it happens, as I like to keep you guys guessing and don't want to say too much in case things don't work out according to plan...

Monday, February 19, 2007

O Week and Address

So it's O Week right now, meaning orientation week. All the people from the residence hall showed up a few days ago and most people who live here are first years, so I basically get to do orientation again. It's kind of amusing because every place kindly reminds people not to be stupid in similar ways except there's always a twist: hereabouts, for example, we were advised to not pee in someone's garden on the way home from partying because people see their gardens as extensions of themselves and subsequently get quite upset. Brilliant idea, mate!

The other interesting thing, by the way, is that freshmen appear to be exactly the same the world over. You know how you can always spot them from a mile away at the beginning of the semester? The same applies here, as they always seem to have a tendency to travel in large packs and bear an air of overemphasized confidence. Move-in day looks the same everywhere too: the frosh are always nervous but trying their best to not show it, and the parents are always torn between helping their child one last time and letting the child direct the flow of things. I suppose it's interesting how the things we always think are unique to our own personal plights are in fact shared the world over, isn't it?

Anyway, the reason I originally started writing this was to inform you people that I have an address now. It's a very pretty one containing numbers, a street, and the word "Auckland" in it, so if you want to know what said address is then drop me a line via email and I'll send it to you. In a not-so-subtle move I will also note that I am collecting postcards for my room decor here as well but the collection is not so spectacular yet, and I guarantee wherever you live has now been deemed "far far away" because everything's far away from here...

On the topic of postcards, I would also like to note that I am more than happy to send people cards (even if you don't want to send me one), and I already have quite a long list of people I'll be sending cards to. However, there is a direct correlation between you getting a postcard and me having your address, so if you want one don't be shy and let me know yours via email.

Alright, that's it for now. Perhaps later on today if I get ambitious I'll start posting some of the pictures I've been furiously taking.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Made It!

Kia Ora!

Sorry for the delay on this end; I didn't get an Internet hookup until today and things have been busy! Here's a quick summary of things thus far though, since I should do this before I forget everything.

Feb 12-14: The Plane Ride Over

First of all, I am happy to report that I did not pay attention to the advice of the study abroad program and travelled a day earlier than I should have, meaning I missed the killer snowstorm that paralyzed a lot of the United States (and, from what I hear, gave CWRU the first snow day in recorded history, or something). The other study abroad students without such foresight ended up arriving days late and at the expense of an extra thousand dollars, as Air New Zealand apparently believes if you live in a non-tropical climate it's your own damn fault. Kinda amusing so long as it's not happening to you.

The most newsworthy thing about the flight that I wasn't expecting, I suppose, was that the All Blacks were at LAX waiting to get onto the flight to Auckland! For those who don't know, the All Blacks are the New Zealand rugby team who are the de facto celebrities and gods hereabouts, and I immediately became everyone's best friend around here when I mentioned the fact that I saw them. (By comparison, it's like being from Pittsburgh and saying the Steelers were at the airport with you.) The Fijian rugby team was also on my flight to Nandi, where they were announced by the stewardess and greeted with a mad cheer, and were subsequently met by a mad cheering crowd at the Nandi airport when we landed because of their recent victory.

As for Fiji itself, I didn't see too much but what I saw from the airport etc was quite lovely- the place was covered in rolling green hills and they had a local group playing music in the waiting lounge who was quite good. This was also the stop where I was hit with humidity and felt warm in my sweater and socks for the first time, and felt perfectly alright taking both of them off. (The socks have not been put on since in New Zealand, though the sweater is needed at night/ in the early morning.) It really looks like a lovely country to visit someday when the situation isn't quite so volatile, to be honest, as right now there are still a few too many police officers with too-new uniforms patrolling around.

All in all, I arrived at Auckland International Airport around 2:30pm on February 14th, which was about 30 hours after I'd started my journey. I was understandably a bit tired and anxious as to how things would work out, so after wating in a very long time in line I was relieved to finally be able to talk to the customs official and be let in the country.

"This visa says you're a student. What are you studying, eh?" he asked. (Kiwis like to add "eh" to the end of their questions. It's very nice and Canadian of them.)

"Physics," was my prompt reply.

"Ah," he said, "can you tell me what Boyle's Law is then?"

"What?" I asked him, a little confused. I was pretty sure I had heard him correctly, but somehow did not expect to travel accross the world to have a conversation about physics with a customs official!

"Boyle's Law," he repeated, with a bit of a twinkle in his eye.

"It's a principle in thermodynamics where if you have a gas at a fixed temperature, the pressure and volume of the gas is also going to be a constant."

"Right it is!" the agent said, handing me back my passport. "Welcome to New Zealand."

At this point, those of you who remember me in thermodynamics class last semester may recall that I am fond of asking, when the material seems a little abstract, of asking what the point of the lecture is. So Professor Akerib, if you're reading this, next semester if anyone asks you the same thing let them know thermodynamics is useful enough to give you entry to New Zealand! And thanks!

February 14-15: O'Rorke and Surrounding

I was the first student to arrive at my residential college, O'Rorke, which meant that it was just me and the RAs for the first few days. Luckily this wasn't a big deal as I was meeting the American students for our own special orientation on the 15th, but it was definetely quiet in the building until today when everyone started showing up!

My room is a nice, roomy single on the 11th story, which is the post-grad floor. Post-grad for us really just means "non-freshman" as most people who live in dorms here are frosh, and it's nice to live up here because our rooms are bigger and we get a nice common room and things like that. My room is also extra-exciting in the sense that I get my own little balcony, and when I stand on it I can easily see the bay and half of the Aukland Harbor Bridge. Prime real estate! The res college library is also about ten paces away from our common area door, which was also a great source of excitement. It's not like I plan on hanging out there exclusively, but I never realized until now that one of my life goals was to live with a library a few scant meters away from my room.

Before I collapsed from exhaustion the first day I went out to try and find some food (meals beyond breakfast didn't kick in until today), and accidentally discovered the University of Auckland campus. Really it didn't take much because it's right here, you walk a block and you're on it, and I was happy to discover that the first thing you fall accross is the gigantic science building which includes physics. I think I'll like the idea of being able to get to class with a mere five minute walk instead of the mile-long trek it takes back at home!

On the 15th, I needed to buy a few things so I was directed over to Queen Street, which is two blocks in the other direction. Queen Street was a delightful discovery because it is, in the words of my RA, "the only street in Aukland worth knowing." It's crammed with countless shops and resteraunts that stretch for blocks which cover anything you'd want to eat and buy, and is so diverse that often a second language is written beside English, or the English isn't listed altogether. I was amazed at how international this city is, even though America always prides itself at doing just that. (Today I was having a conversation with the international students, and felt inadequate for only knowing two languages fluently. The average for non-Kiwis is about three or four.) I ended up making my purchases at the Warehouse, essentially a WalMart equivalent down here, and enjoyed some sushi for lunch. That's another thing about Aukland: you are always guaranteed fresh fish.

I don't know if it's clear from what I wrote above, so I'll point out that one of the things about Aukland is it's huge, or at least bigger than any city I've lived in. I also live close to the center of it now, Aukland Sky Tower is relatively nearby, but the city sounds more like a lull in the background as far as noise goes (unlike Cleveland, when the silence is broken by a random car racing down the street at 3am), so I don't think it will be much of a problem. I also think you could live in this city for years and years and never be bored... Aukland reminds me most of San Fransisco of all the cities I've been too, by the way. They're both pretty big and have international populations, are on hilly countryside (some of the streets could be transplanted no problem), and they both have bays with a defining bridge crossing them.

February 16-17: Orientation Maori Style

The American program I was going with decided that it would be nice to send us all out into the bush an hour outside Aukland so we could do all sorts of fun New Zealand touristy things while we got to know each other. So on the morning of the 16th we were all packed into vans and headed out to Leigh, which is about an hour and a half drive north of Aukland. Unlike the other days the weather wasn't perfectly perfect in every way for once, it started raining lightly for a few minutes here and there only to give way to the sun again, meaning we kept spotting rainbows in the surrounding countryside.

Everyone always says New Zealand countryside is utterly beautiful and lovely and all that, and I'm here to confirm that they're right. Here's the interesting thing though: I spent a few minutes a little confused about it once we left the Aukland suburbs, as it all looked so familiar, somehow, and I didn't know why.

Of course, after a few minutes I figured it out, and felt a bit like an idiot for not thinking about it sooner. You see, last summer my family traveled to Transylvania, which is part of Romania nowadays, which looks EXACTLY like the New Zealand countryside: the hills are the same height, the forests are all of pine just like it was in Transylvania, and the bottoms are reserved for pasture just like it is there. The only difference here is you get the ocean poking through the hills on occasion and the pine forests up close reveal the occasional palm tree.

Anyway, at our orientation we stayed at a Maori house, aka the native population of New Zealand, which was definetely a great perspective on things. I now know how to get flax out of the plants in the area and make string out of it using nothing but a mollusk shell (which could be a handy thing to know someday... right?), and we did a nice amount of kayaking and snorkelling on the shore as well. We also went to a lovely beach the second day, where the water is officially the temperature where you are willing to get in but not to stay in, and were only stopped by cows and sheep crossing the road twice.

And at night, of course, it was clear and we saw the stars, including the Southern Cross and Milky Way in all its splendour. Ah, I'm going to need a whole post just to describe that sight!

Final Thoughts

It's kind of late and I could go on, but I'm going to have to end this as I have to get up early tomorrow and am still a bit jet lagged, so the bed is calling. But I'd just like to finish by saying this: I like it here. It's good for the soul, or at least mine, and I'm glad I came.

All the best to everyone, and I hope you've dug yourselves out of the snow by now!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Last Night in the States

Twelve hours from now I will be sitting on a plane beginning the first leg of my trans-Pacific journey, heading by myself to live in a city I've never visited within a country where I don't know a soul. In light of this irrational behaviour I suppose it would be more odd for me not to get nervous, so I'm spending my last few hours trying to forget about that nervousness while I think of what I still need to pack. Luckily there's not too much left.

Anyway, my final comment for you all before I disappear for a little while is to tell you the story of how I got my plane ticket, and why it is arguably the most adventurous plane ticket ever purchased for an American study abroad student in New Zealand. Around the beginning of January when my dad started looking into purchasing my ticket, he realized that it was prohibitively expensive to buy a ticket to the bottom of the world on such short notice. The solution? Eighty-thousand frequent flier miles.

Of course, I was not the only one who wanted to fly to New Zealand using such an ingenious method, so the US Airways representative was having a hard time finding a possible route for me. After twenty minutes of muzak and us becoming steadily convinced we'd been forgotten, she finally came back on the line.

"There's a way to do it? Great!" my dad exclamed, as I listened on to his side of things. "Uh-huh... how do you spell that exactly?"

After a stream of letters from the representative, my dad cupped his hand over the phone. "Yvette, can you look up where Nandi is? You're flying through there." I gave my dad a slightly perplexed look, because this was certainly something out of the ordinary. I'm pretty good at geography and my dad is somewhat of a globetrotter (in case the 80,000 frequent flier miles didn't tip you off), so anyplace we haven't heard of between the two of us is probably off the beaten path.

Typing "Nandi" into Wikipedia revealed a redirect page telling me that Nadi could refer to several places. A district of Western Kenya? Probably not. A range of hills in India? Nope. A daughter of the Langeni tribe? A daughter of the what now?

As the last entry, Wikipedia kindly mentioned that Nandi can actually mean "Nadi," a city in Fijian citi whose name is pronounced "Nandi" in Fijian language. Aha! "It's in Fiji," I finally told my dad, and he nodded.

"Right," he said to the representative, "that sounds perfect."

I looked at my dad the way you stare at a person who's not quite with it. "Dad, they just had a military coup!" I exclaimed. A Fijian general had ousted the legitimately elected president in early December, and from what I heard he'd done a great job supressing freedom of speech rights and the right to free assembly.

"Oh. Well, you'll be fine at the airport," my dad said. I wasn't sure if I should laugh or roll my eyes, so I settled on both in rapid sucession.

My dad hung up the phone and had one more word of advice on the subject: "Don't tell your mother." I figured she'd hear about the coup d'etat eventually, unlike overflowing the dishwasher it's not something you can hide from your mother very long, but I agreed. She didn't find out until about a week ago when I let it slip by accident, and by then it was too late to do much about it.

So anyway, my final itinerary is Pittsburgh-Philadelphia-Los Angeles-Nadi, Fiji-Auckland, which will be about 30 hours of airport and airplane awesomeness. I will arrive there around 2pm Wednesday afternoon in Auckland time, which is going to be around 8pm on the East Coast of the United States, where I will be sleep deprived enough to greet the palm trees as a hallucination. On the bright side though I will visit my 19th and 20th new countries during these 30 hours, including my first country with a travel advisory issued for it by the United States State Department, so I'm sure it'll be an affair to remember. Keeping my head down and mouth shut in the Fijian airport will probably be a good idea though.

Ok, that's it for now everyone, it's late and I have to pack away the laptop. Catch you on the flip side...

On Gravity

This has nothing to do with New Zealand, but... Did you see the cover story of this month's Discover? (They've stopped putting what the actual month is anywhere in the magazine so I can't tell you that, but it's got a gravity map of Earth on the cover.) The article talks about GRACE, a space mission launched in 2002 to measure the fluctuations of Earth's gravity field. They do this by investigating the minute changes of gravity over a few days, which allows you to see which regions have the greatest mass due to recent rainfall, high-density rock, or even a melting ice cap.

Of course, me being me I found this entire thing wonderfully clever. Think about it: you are using basically a souped-up version of freshman kinematics to see how the most minute changes of gravity effect your satellite flying through space, and you can do it so precisely that you can pinpoint the cause of it hundreds of miles away. Scientists even a few decades ago would have thought the entire idea was just crazed science fiction.

Anyway, the reason I'm telling you all this is because the idea of gravity fluctuating made me ponder a bit, and poetry ensued. Obviously gravity doesn't fluctuate so much that we'd normally notice, but wouldn't it be an interesting world to live in if it did?

On Gravity
by Yvette Cendes

If gravity fluctuated
As much as the weather
It would come and go
In fronts and depressions,
Pressing down like a storm
Or breathing very softly
Like the clearest winter night.

There would be days
When we would lie, helpless,
Pinned to the ground
By the rain of mass,
We wouldn't move an inch
And try very hard to breathe
Beneath the pounding weight.

But these mass-laden days
Would be not all bad,
We would always remember
The end of the storms
When we could rise up
Over mountains and cities
And fly with the birds.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

New Zealand Facts and Figures

Everyone always asks the same questions about New Zealand, so I'm compiling a list of facts so I can stop repeating myself. If something is left unanswered, either leave a comment or see if you can find it at the New Zealand pages at Wikipedia or The World Factbook.

General Facts
Area: about the size of Colorado or the United Kingdom
Capital: Wellington (The southermost capital in the world!)
Largest City: Auckland (pop: 1.2 million)
Time Zone: UTC +12 (Thanks to Daylight Savings Time differences, currently noon on Friday in New Zealand is 6pm Thursday in Pittsburgh.)
Highest Point: Aoraki/ Mount Cook (3,754 m/ 12,317 ft)
Yesterday's High in Auckland: 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Farenheit)
Yesterday's High in Pittsburgh: -8 degrees Celsius (17 degrees Farenheit)

Number of Humans: 4.1 million
Number of Sheep: 43.1 million (estimated)
Number of Cows: 4.4 million
Number of Hobbits: 0 (estimated)
Major Ethnic Groups: European 70%, Maori 8%, Asian 6%, Pacific Islander 4%
Official Languages: English, Maori, New Zealand Sign Language

Political Matters
Government: Constitutional Monarchy
Head of State: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (You still swear allegience to the Crown to become a New Zealand citizen.)
Prime Minister: Helen Clark (head of the Labor Party)

New Zealand separated from the rest of the continents somewhere between 80 and 100 million years ago. As this is well before the rise of mammals, there are no indigenous mammals to the country save two species of bat, meaning the remaining animals (such as the kiwi and the now-extinct moa) lost the ability to fly. (This also means there are no kangaroos in New Zealand. Sorry, folks, that's Australia.) Unfortunately, animals introduced relatively recently by human settlers have decimated several animal species, and have driven several to extinction.
Interestingly, New Zealand is the last major settled landmass in the world- the native Maori did not settle the islands until about a thousand years ago, and the first permanent European settlement dates to the 1820s. Despite this (or perhaps because of), New Zealand is the source of several social reforms in the world: women first got the vote in 1893, in 1894 the first arbitary system to settle industry/union disputes was formed, and the first old-age pension was introduced in 1898. As a result of this, New Zealand is sometimes referred to "the social labratory of the world."
Famous New Zealanders include, among others, Peter Jackson, Ernest Rutherford, and Sir Edmund Hillary.

Plans Thus Far
Dates of Trip: February 12th- July 6th
Place of Study: University of Auckland (enrolled students: 39,420 total)
Start of Term: February 26th
End of Term: late June (last final exam TBA)
Classes: 4 (physics lab, electrodynamics, geophysics, contemporary problems in new zealand history)
Residence: O'Rorke Residential College (in the British sense of the word)
Number of People I Personally Know in NZ: 0 (don't worry, I've talked to people, just don't know them)
Amount of Worldly Posessions: whatever fits into 2 checked bags and a backpack

Sounds fun, doesn't it? This is actually all very well and carefully planned out, but I know I'll be writing more about things later and I don't want to get boring before I leave, so that's it for now... if I missed a crucial statistic let me know.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Explaining Chocolate Fish

I've been giving out this URL in anticipation of my departure, and everyone always wants to know what a chocolate fish is exactly. Candy fish in the United States are of the Swedish variety, perhaps hard candy if you're feeling devilish, but never chocolate. The term doesn't mean very much over here.

In New Zealand, on the other hand, chocolate fish are readily available as a well-known confectionary made of chocolate-coated marshmellow. People living there, who are nicknamed "Kiwis" since it's easier to say than "New Zealander," give each other chocolate fish as recognition for a thank you or a job well done, so there's an element of good luck associated with them. In this regard, they are so popular that the phrase "give that man a chocolate fish" is in the common culture.

Or at least, that's what I've heard. I have never been to New Zealand, so it might be complete drivel made up by the Kiwis to make the rest of us all jealous that we don't have cool things like chocolate fish to give each other for jobs well done. I will arrive there next week, though, and verifying the existance of the chocolate fish is on the to-do list. Confirming the marshmellow center, of course, the point immediately following.

So anyway, if you've read this far welcome to the blog. With luck I will continue to post my adventures, you will find it interesting enough to keep reading, and I won't lose touch with everyone left behind in the States. Who knows? If I do a good enough job of it, maybe someone will be nice enough to give me a chocolate fish!