Saturday, June 30, 2007

One Saintly Momma Duck

Spotted this on a rock in the lake a few days ago-

For those who can't see properly, it's a momma wood duck with twenty-seven, yes, twenty-seven!, ducklings. With the exception of one who was slightly bigger, all the ducklings are the same size and I've seen the family paddling up and down the shorefront more than once. (Well they don't really paddle, they just sort of hydroplane in this gigantic cloud of fluffy cuteness.)

Looking into it though, wood ducks lay no more than 15 eggs usually, so something is amiss here. Some other wood duck had problems so this one adopted the brood, perhaps? Either way, she must have a great deal of patience with so many little ones.

EDIT: Bird girl saves the day! My sister the bird-studying graduate student looked into it and informs me that these are actually not wood ducks (as I'm used to calling them) but rather common goldeneye ducks, which often mix their young with other families. That could explain what's going on here!

Monday, June 25, 2007

I could write a new post...

... or I could just enjoy the newfound summer hanging out with family and friends, and only stop by the library with Internet connection on occasion. Trust me, when you've just finished your fifth move in a year (the postal forwarding service hates me), you suddenly get other priorities.

Will be back once I am settled in some state and have rethought what to do with this blog space. My appologies, and thanks for your patience everyone!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

In Da 'Burgh

Exactly 24 hours transpire between your plane taking off in Auckland and your final one landing in Pittsburgh. At minimum. I mention this because travel to and from New Zealand takes a blasted long amount of time regardless of where you are in the world, so I might as well save you a day of your life to discover this fact. Further, it is forever easy to lose track of how long you're travelling, as it involves two night flights over the date line, meaning at one point you go backwards in time in a physics-defying way and skip ahead a few hours the second leg.

But hey, once you sort that all out you might as well hit the beach in Los Angeles!
More specifically, I headed to Venice Beach since I had a 2pm-11pm layover in LAX and I'd never been to the beach before. Plus the idea of seeing both sides of the Pacific in one day (not to mention two sunsets!) sounded greatly appealing to me.
While I wasn't planning on it, Venice Beach is probably the best place to reacclimate yourself to American culture after being abroad. It's primarily a boardwalk filled with crappy gitch and food classified as "only in America and all bad for you," and has a decent assortment of hippies. In these enlightened times, however, they just hold signs saying "will work for marijuana" and "every time you don't spare change, Chuck Norris dropkicks a kitten" instead of lying about their intentions with your money.

Alas, had I taken a picture of the hippies they would have berated me for spare change for the honor, and thus I refrained from doing so. However, the most amusing part of my day was when some tourist lady decided for whatever reason to debate with one of the potheads that he shouldn't live his life the way he does, which is clearly a lost cause in any event. The best part was another tourist standing nearby during the whole thing, sheepishly shuffling his feet trying to show that he didn't know this woman despite very clearly being her husband.

Anyway, reaclimitization over I returned to the airport and flew the last leg home, arriving here around 630am Tuesday (I left at 945am Monday in New Zealand), so I then proceeded to sleep most of the first day. It's kind of weird to be back though... everything seems normal because it's the way my autopilot remembers it, but everything is oddly green compared to when I last saw it! Here's a view of the backyard right now-
The other odd thing is how it is rather hot in a startling way (in New Zealand it gets hot too, but it doesn't invade every pore of your body and steal your soul like it can here), and the sun goes down really, really late!

Anyway, I should head towards bed as tomorrow my mom and I are driving 12 hours to New Hampshire. Cheers!

Sunday, June 17, 2007


It's been a week of lasts. You know how it is: there was the last round of drinks at the pub, last conversations and goodbyes with various people, last sunset from the balcony, last wandering down Queen Street. As I hate lasts with a burning passion (whatever memories you have are already firmly cemented) I'd say I'm ready to leave now. It's been an incredible four months filled with things I never would have predicted and more than most people do in a lifetime.

At the same time, I confess I don't want to go for one main reason: I am leaving right now without a hint of when I might be back, and this frightens me. How can I give up my mountains or my city without knowing if I will see them again? And even if I do return it will never be the same: I will never again be the 21-year-old physics student living in O'Rorke Hall, and while I might meet up with some people later there are definetely some I won't see again. I realize this happens a lot in life, but it's rarely so definite a close as knowing your plane is leaving at 9:45pm on Monday, June 18...

There's also the question of what to do with this blog, as it was begun as a New Zealand travelogue for my friends back home and that purpose shall be gone in a few hours. Right now it's tenatively going to continue for various reasons, as I still have quite a few journeys and misadventures planned (I will have a free day in Los Angeles tomorrow, in New Hampshire by next weekend...). So things should work out for now.

Anyway, I need to pack up the laptop soon so this will be the end of that. But as a last few words, I'd like to say thank you, New Zealand. You were really wonderful, kind, and gracious to this young woman, and I shall be forever obliged.

Alrighty then, that's it for now! Catch you guys on the flipside.

Friday, June 15, 2007

One Last Adventure- Waitomo Caves

Hey everybody, last exam was today! Hooray! So now I can come home, which I will do day after tomorrow. (Except I haven't packed anything yet. Good God, this is going to be fun...)

Anyway, my friend Jenny and I went to Waitomo Caves yesterday as one last New Zealand adventure. This was exciting for two mutually independent reasons- Waitomo Caves have glowworms and we were going to blackwater raft (ie float down the cave river on inner tubes), and I was going to drive as there was no other way to get there and Jenny doesn't have a license. Now it's not like I'm a bad driver or anything, of course, but the last time I drove prior to this was in February and that was on the other side of the road, so I was admittedly cautious about this prospect beforehand.

Fortunately we survived, I didn't destroy anything, and concluded that the nice thing about roundabouts is at least with them you don't get confused as to what lane to pull into at an intersection. The main problem with driving on the wrong side of the road, for the record, is a. you have a tendancy to veer left off the road and b. your turn signal and windshield wiper are backwards, and even worse you flick down for right and up for left. But hey, as long as the break pedal is where you instinctively know it should be it's not too bad! It was quite a pretty drive too of course, and reminded me a bit of the border of northern Hungary and Slovakia (which makes sense as they are both huge caving regions).

So onto pictures! Sorry these may not look as good as I'd like, as you're obviously not taking your own camera through the wet cave system, so Jenny and I split the cost for the picture CD they hawked at the end.
Our group fashionably dressed in caving attire at the cave entrance (Jenny's the furthest on the left, I am just to the right and a little up from her). The water in the cave is really cold (ie, 10-14 degrees C), meaning in addition to the bathing suit you have a thermal sweater and several layers of wetsuit. All in all it's enough gear to ensure that you have serious problems reaching down to pull your boots on, and while your body stays warm your fingers get pretty numb (as in, I couldn't manipulate them to undo the helmet clasp at the end numb). Fortunately the company that runs this are geniuses who know enough to provide hot showers and hot soup afterwards, so we thawed out pretty quickly.

Anyway, the cave entrance I'm referring to is a little slit in the ground just to the right where the little stream goes underground and the cave begins. We followed it until it came out again.

Me splashing over a waterfall- there are a couple of these in the cave system, and the only way to get over 'em is to jump! Yay! You also don't just get to float down your inner tube all the way either as this is a cave, so you get to do some spelunking (ie hiking in the riverbed) through the more shallow parts.

I will admit though, some parts of the cave were a little intense. First of all, there are some parts where there was only perhaps a foot between you and the rock ceiling, meaning you sorta tilt your head to the side so you can breathe. Second of all, this trip has a weight minimum of 45kg for good reason: at some points of the cave the water rushes really really fast, and it's all you can do to not get swept away.

Now as I'm sure the more astute amongst you noticed, I was pretty on the line here as far as weight goes- the last time I went to health services at Case, the doctor spent most of her time trying to figure out if I had an eating disorder. (Because no one in America is naturally thin. Ever.) So there were some points where I discovered that I just plain didn't have enough mass to stick my feet in the water and not get carried along with it, sort of scary until you resign yourself to it, meaning I took the "water route" more than once while the normal, non-twig people got to walk along the edge and stay a little more dry. Ah, fun.
If you click on the above, this is what glowworms look like (doesn't come through very well in the smaller version). You know what those fiberoptic cables look like that people buy to wave around at amusement parks and the like? Basically glowworms look just like that, but the source is a bit more fascinating...
What a glowworm actually looks like when you turn on the lights. First of all they're not worms, they're insects, and the ones in New Zealand are insects in their larval stage. Their glow is a chemical reaction which is supposed to attract prey like poor little flies that get lost in the cave, and the sticky strings hanging down snare these creatures in a similar manner to a spider's web. After 6-12 months of this, it morphs into its adult stage like a caterpillar does to a butterfly, but as the resulting adults can't eat all their energies go into having sex and laying more eggs for the glowworm colony. The result of this is you get cave sections which are beautifully covered in glowing dots, looking for all the world like an underground Milky Way.
The purchased CD has a lot of PR-type pictures, but this is the only one of them you get to see because firstly they're posed and secondly they have a LOT more light in them than there was in actuality (we only used our headlamps the whole time). But then if I don't use one of them you have no idea what the cave looked like or what blackwater tubing looks like, so I decided one such picture can't hurt.
The opening in the river whereby you return to the real world. It's a very wide opening compared to the one at the entrance, and it's really exciting to see natural light again after you've been in the dark underground! (Because it was easier to see the glowworms, we made do without headlamps wherever possible.)

So that's it, I survived going through a cave system and drove well enough to come back to Auckland and tell you all about it. Hooray! It was more than a little sad to end this trip though, knowing that I won't be driving through the New Zealand countryside in search of a crazy adventure for awhile now. But I suppose I've had so many good ones to remember that I shall never forget them for the rest of my days, and in the end that's what matters.

Sundogs on!

Hey everyone, guess what? The sundog picture from the earlier post made the main page of! For those who don't know, is the astronomy "current events" site for aurorae, atmospheric phenomena, NEOs, etc. As it recieves over 600k hits a month, getting your picture onto the site is an astro-geek bragging right of sorts.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

An Auckland Day Trip

Well everybody, I have finished all the physics that the University of Auckland wanted me to finish (two exams and two lab orals within four days), so now all I have to think about is my history exam on Saturday. As I have an A average in history right now because my papers are marked down from A-plusses due to lack of British spelling (I kid you not, this happened), I figured I earned a day off so long as I remembered to write "decolonising" and "civilisation" and shout "jolly good!" and "bugger!" on occasion. Then I realized that I had yet to pay a visit to the Auckland War Memorial Museum in that "you don't do tourist stuff when you're living somewhere" sort of way, so I decided to remedy this problem before I got home and had to admit to it.
The Museum is in the middle of the Auckland Domain (read: Park), so my first stop along the way was at the Auckland Winter Gardens and Fernery. It basically consists of a few indoor greenhouses to house a small collection of plants, and wonderfully enough most of the plants are potted which allows them to keep the ones in bloom on display.
A ginormous fern at the Fernery (in case you can't get the scale, I am shorter than the fern!). I confess I also posted this picture here just because I think "fernery" has to be one of the nicest words in the English language- it sounds like you're assembling a nice little daycare for the ferns to play in or some such. As New Zealand has some of the most impressive ferns in the world, ferneries are suprisingly common.
The Auckland War Memorial Museum- the Museum in the back is named after the War Memorial in the front. It's quite a lovely view into the harbor from here too... these kids in the picture, by the way, are playing a popular Kiwi kids game whereby you hit a tennis ball back and forth with your hands. I know it sounds like tennis except they forgot rackets, but I'm pretty sure that the game originally derives from cricket.
A stuffed replica of a moa, the world's biggest birds which were hunted to extinction by the Maori when they arrived. The largest of the species grew up to 3.6 meters tall, and they had no wings whatsoever... truly, they must've been a cool sight to see!

The Museum is divided up into several parts by the way: one first story deals with Maori and culture in New Zealand and room for travelling exhibits (they have an Egypt one now), and the second floor is devoted to natural history. My favorite part of all this was the part focusing on volcanoes- Auckland is definetely on the short list for the "stupidest place to build a city in the world" award because it is in the middle of the Auckland Volcanic Field, meaning that the entire place is essentially guaranteed to be destroyed someday by a new volcano rearing its head in the greater metropolitan area. Even the perky information board had the forboding title of "not if, but when" explaining the situation: assuming the volcanoes are exploding at regular intervals one sort of hopes it seems unlikely that anything will happen within our lifetimes, though they readily admit that they could be completely wrong. To make matters more interesting, according to the information board, there is a much larger chance that the city will instead be buried in ash from a local eruption on North Island, as depending on who you listen to there is a 15-60% chance of that happening in the next 50 years.

Someday, I am half-convinced, I will unsuspectingly turn on the television only to stare and gawk as the newscasters announce that the city I lived in for four months is either destroyed, uninhabitable, or in some combination of those two. It really seems an odd thing to think about as I look out the window onto the buildings and harbor beyond.

But anyway, the rest of the volcano area is very well done: you can sit in a replica house and experience what it would be like to live through an eruption in the harbor (basically, you really don't want to), and they had lots of eyewitness accounts and remarks from various volcanic phenomena. I had a tie for my favorite quotation: the first from vulcanologist Maurice Krafft, who remarked "I've seen so many erupt in the past 20 years that I don't care if I die tomorrow," the day before he died, and the second from a British Airways pilot over the PA system as they encountered volcanic ash:

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress."

Perhaps that's why I missed the "A+" on the history paper: if I were suddenly on a plane with no engines working, "distress" is not exactly the word I would choose to describe my feelings. Those silly British! (To the pilot's credit though, he landed the plane safely and everyone survived.)

Anyway, fascinating as it was to contemplate death by fire, it seemed prudent to move on before this became much of an obsession.
This is a view of Parnell, the trendy shopping street just past the museum. Quite a lovely street and reminds me a little of New England, somehow. There's also a really, really good chocolate store, which always helps!
Woohoo, time for a sundog! I saw this just as I was walking homeward strikingly next to Sky Tower. For those who don't know how these form, this picture might help explain things better-
As you can see, a sundog is an atmospheric phenomenon that comes about when ice crystals in cirrus clouds refract the sunlight to form a rainbow (the sun here is being blocked by that pole on the right). This is a pretty good one, as you can see the sideways rainbow suprisingly well with red starting on the sun side of things, and the chance alignment with Sky Tower was just lovely!

So that was my day. Jolly good!

Bay of Islands

Two weekends ago before I got distracted by exams and disappeared off the face of the Earth, my mom and I did a day trip out to the Bay of Islands, which is a lovely spot about three hours' drive north of Auckland in the aptly named Northland. Beautiful spot in the world, but I'm sure you guessed as much already, and we went up with a day tour that felt the urge to take a giant bus for all of four passengers for some non-environmentally friendly reason.

First stop, a Kauri tree! These are the biggest trees in New Zealand- they reach an average height of 50 meters (~165 feet) and diameters of 7 meters, and live to be up to 2,000 years old. Impressive no matter how you look at it! This particular tree we saw was a mere 800 years old, making it a real baby compared to what they can be like.
The problem with Kauri trees (or at least why it's a big enough deal that it's a scheduled stop on a day trip) is they were relentlessly logged for a century because it's some of the finest timber out there. As a result, it is estimated that only 4% of the Kauri survived deforestation, and most of the ones that did survive are the comparative "little trees" compared to the behomeths of days past. (There are reports of trees that were up to 22 meters in circumference for example, which would have taken well over a thousand years knowing their growth rate.) As a result, it is now illegal to fell any New Zealand Kauri so the few that are around can be protected.

I will point out though that New Zealand is an interesting nation in one respect: they have the largest amount of natural beauty per size of any other country on Earth, yet within a century they did a pretty solid job destroying a lot of it. (That is to say, they had to make room for the sheep somehow.) It is estimated that up to 90% of the New Zealand forests were deforested in the ninteenth century, and no one even pretends to know how many native animal species went extinct after man arrived. It really is a shame, though to their credit New Zealanders take commendable steps to preserve what little they have left.
But anyway, Bay of Islands! Our day trip consisted of two major parts, a tour of the Treaty of Waitangi grounds where the treaty was signed making New Zealand a British colony, and a boat tour in the harbor. The story behind the Treaty goes like this: around 1840 the main town of New Zealand, Russell in the Bay of Islands, was a rather nasty stopover descriptively called "The Hellhole of the Pacific" thanks to all the prostitution and gambling and general lack of order. The Maori didn't like this very much so they asked the British to send some troops to instigate law and order, which eventually led to the Maori chiefs signing a treaty with the British whereby the Crown got to rule New Zealand, the Maori got to keep their land, and the Maori became British citizens. They signed on February 6, 1840 and as a result Waitangi Day is celebrated on that date each year as a public holiday.

Of course, nothing ever worked out perfectly with European settlers and the Maori populations: there are controversies regarding the Maori translation and subsequent lands taken from the Maori without their consent (primarily thanks to the gold rush a few decades later). Compared to the problems and issues that have arisen in the United States and Australia on comparatively similar matters, however, there are comparatively few controversies today regarding this.
Picture of a Maori war canoe on display at the Waitangi Grounds, which is the largest war canoe in the world (they used to carve them out of Kauri trees, of course). Every year on Waitangi Day this war canoe is taken out onto the water with several other canoes from all over New Zealand to commemorate the founding of the nation. Kind of a nice tradition, don't you think?
This is a view out onto the Bay of Islands as we started out on our cruise. This is the point where the pictures become spotty unfortunately, as I discovered that my camera was essentially out of juice so I only turned it on for a quick shot here or there until it died altogether. So you'll have to trust me when I tell you that Bay of Islands really is a lovely part of the world though having great weather helped- I'm told that Bay of Islands has the "second bluest sky in the world" after Rio de Janeiro, whatever that means. Either way, it was lovely.
Ah, what a pretty spot of coastline! That's a little lighthouse up there (known as the Cape Brett Lighthouse) on the mountainside in case you're too lazy to click on the image, and it was arguably the most picturesque lighthouse I've seen. Most of the coastline in New Zealand is like what you see in this image by the way...
Piercy Island and the world-famous hole in the rock! Formed by natural erosion, the hole is actually big enough for a boat to go through...
Going through the hole is oddly arresting because it's so different from anything else really like it- the top is high enough to be a cathedral and wide enough for a cruise boat to chug through, but it's all completely natural. Plus when you get to the other side you get to spend a bit of time looking for fur seals on the rocks who give you odd looks wondering why those funny people are making such a huge fuss and interrupting naptime.

So that's about where the pictures end. I will note, however, that the entire time this little boat cruise was going on I was wearing my jacket, hat, and gloves as it is cold in New Zealand right now: it is the equivalent of December for us, meaning highs are in the mid-50s and it dips into the 40s at night. So not quite like our typical Decembers back home, but still enough to make me regard treasonous Northern Hemisphere talk of high-80s with a suspecting eye. Ah well, guess I'll experience it myself next week.

Drink Up

Because the Economist always prints vitally important information, did you guys know that Hungary ranks #3 in the world regarding alcohol consumption per person? Yep, third only to Luxembourg (what?) and Ireland (obviously), Hungarians drink just shy of 14 liters of alcohol a year. Americans, in comparison, drink a mere 8.6 liters, just after Australia.

Honestly though, what I find most interesting about this is how from experience Hungarians enjoy their hard spirits more'n the Irish do. So if we were doing a survey of how much alcohol is consumed overall I'd hate to know where we'd end up...

(By the way, the Internet stopped working in my room which explains why there are no pictures of late, but hopefully this will be remedied tomorrow. Also, as I am leaving next Monday, if you want something from New Zealand and I am going to run into you in the next few months now is the time to leave a comment/ email me/ whatever!)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Thousand Word Pictures

On June 8, 1972, photographer Huynh Cong Ut took what is considered one of the most iconic photographs of the Vietnam War-

For those of you who don't know, the photo was taken while Vietnamese children were escaping a napalm attack on their village. Ut won the Pulitzer prize for it.

So what do Pulitzer prize-winning photographers do later in life? Take more iconic pictures, of course! Ut took the following picture on June 8, 2007, thirty-five years to the day of his previous picture-

I've thought about this a bit ever since I've learned that they were taken by the same man, who has captured two snapshots that define the society we live in. I mean come on, we have a war in Iraq, American-Iranians being locked up in Iran, and even genocide in Darfur. These things are all greatly important and certainly worthy of discussion, yet what have we chosen to focus on instead? Some wealthy heiress not intelligent enough to realize that drunk driving might not be a great idea.

For better or worse, everyone, remember that we are the ones who choose to define ourselves. Ponder that a bit while I keep on a-studying, will you?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Exams Ate Me

Exam week is in full swing, and since my physics ones are imminent I haven't been posting here. At least the lolcats still love me...

I'll be back next week. Until then, if you need some way to fill your time go over to TV Links and find something cool to watch, ok? At least someone can have fun and enjoy themselves, even if it isn't me.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

JYI Article- The Plunge

You know what's really cool about physics? You can relate it to everything. Like bungy jumping for example: you can take a really nice blog post that you wrote a bit earlier and revamp it into a nice science feature with minimal effort. Take a look.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Spelling Out the Kiwi Accent

Saw this gem of a quote in an article about the Scripps National Spelling Bee, currently going on in Washington-

For the third time in two days, the Kiwi accent of the representative from New Zealand threw the judges for a loop. After listening to a replay, officials still weren't sure if 13-year-old Kate Weir of Christchurch had tried to spell "jardiniere" (an ornamental plant stand) with a "g" or a "j." They finally asked her to give another word starting with the letter. When she said "giraffe," the bell sounded and she was out.
Ouw-some. I will admit a Kiwi accent does take a little bit of getting used to for a few days because you don't have much exposure to it in the United States. I had to even ask people to repeat what they were saying sometimes during my first few days! You get the hang of things pretty quickly though- the most important difference is that there's a vowel shift whereby you pronounce them further up in your mouth, so an "a" sounds like an "e" for example, and words like "chair" and "cheer" are pronounced the same. Endearingly, they also like to tack "eh?" onto the end of their statements, which is so wonderfully Canadian that it never ceases to amuse me.

By the way, one common myth about New Zealand English is it's very similar to Australian. It isn't at all, really, and outsiders just think it's the same because they've never been around Kiwis very much. A few days in New Zealand are enough to differentiate between the two, though I admit I haven't tested this much yet since I'm not surrounded by Aussies.

As a final note, here is an assortment of some of my favorite words indigenous to En Zed-

Chilly bin- A cooler. Isn't this a much better description of what's actually being used?
Hokey-pokey- A favorite ice cream with bits of toffee in it. Please note that this is not the word for the dance, that's the hokey tokey...
Jandals- Flip-flops. The word comes from an abbreviation of "Japanese sandals," which is what the first-flops were modelled after.
Kiwi- Yes, I know you guys know what this word is, but it can mean three words so it seems best to define it: "Kiwi" is a person, "kiwi" is a bird, and "kiwifruit" is the vegetarian option. Alright? Alright.
Togs- Your swimsuit. Not truly unique to New Zealand I think, but still a great word.
Tramping- What is known as "hiking" in the United States, "bushwhacking" in Australia, and "rambling" in England. I like this word because, like its other counterparts, it describes the activity perfectly for this particular terrain.
Twiddle- These are the squiggly line seen over letters like ñ, or more importantly in my case used to mark components as imaginary. Not indigenously Kiwi either, but it excited me the first time I heard it in E&M because I've just called it a "tilde" until now, which is much more boring.
Wicked- Also known around here as "coo'," "ouw-some," or "sweet as." Don't look at me too oddly if you find me saying any of these upon return to the States!