Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Due to Toronto's continual bid to minimise carbon pollution by making its airport inaccessible by public transport, I decided to try out a private park 'n fly scheme. These businesses offer parking close to the airport at substantially cheaper rates than the official terminal parking and provide a free shuttle bus between your car and the airport.

The company I found had three car parks; 'valet parking', 'economy parking' and .... the middle one for which there was no helpful description. With my scientific love of averages, I opted for this label-less middle ground and parked my car in the lot before returning to the attendant's office to wait for the shuttle. The car parking attendant was a polite individual originally from, I would guess, India or close by. He looked at me very seriously as I sat down and said:

"English is not my first language and I have been wondering ..... "

Where you are from?
If G20 is a new energy drink?
Whether the English football team even practised?

".... what does 'awesome' mean?"

Definitely not a question about the World Cup. I thought perhaps this boded well for the parking lot if people had been using the word 'awesome' in conversation with the attendant. Although quite what a car park would have to do to become 'awesome' is less clear. Perhaps my bug will be replaced with a Ferrari while I travelled. Either way, it had to be better than being asked what 'insurance law suit' meant.

"It means 'great'," I said, raising my left hand in a thumbs-up to indicate my meaning.

"Ah. So if someone says it was 'awesome coffee'...?"

Coffee?! Must have been Irish.

"They thought it was very good," I confirmed.

"What would they say if they thought it was bad?"

I resisted the urge to supply the name of a popular coffee house chain.

"Uh, perhaps 'awful coffee'," I suggested instead.

"Awesome .... awful ...."

The shuttle arrived and I hopped on, hoping that my new friend wasn't preparing for a state visit from the Queen when she arrives in Canada tomorrow.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Advance to Go

When I was eight, my favourite computer game was a 2D shooter called 'Gauntlet'. In this game, you advance up the levels by finding the exit, denoted by a square marked with the letter 'E', and killing anything that moved. It was a pleasingly simple concept that I feel prepared me well for life; fight like a hero when you have to, but ultimately your goal should be to run away.

Due to the sheer number of levels, it was possible to skip through the early numbers by finding an exit marked by "E8". This was a short-cut to level 8 and saved you fighting the bad monsters individually and allowing you to advance to them attacking you all at one. Who wouldn't opt for that?

Until last Friday, I always thought real games did not have such short cuts. I was wrong. Softball totally has an E8 option.

It was my turn to bat, an event with marginally more potential than my attempts at fielding due to the fact we self-pitch. My team mate threw the ball, metal connected with .... whatever material non-soft softballs are made from, and I ran to first base. The referee called 'safe' (which was easy for him to say) and I braced myself to make an siege on second base, as soon as my next team mate batted.

Then oddly, inexplicably, the referee called out that I was to advance to base 3, do not pass go, do not connect $200. Did I drop a $20 bribe on the diamond when I batted? Did my attempt at a home run look so completely pitiful that the referee thought putting me on base 3 would actually make no difference? Maybe he thought it would be better for everyone if I were tucked out the way. Perplexed, I trotted across the diamond and completed the circuit a moment later.

Wow, the score sheet looks like I'm a useful player! How misleading.

Evidently reading my baffled look correctly, the referee came over after the inning to explain that it had been an 'overthrow', which entitled the runner to two extra bases. Since I had surprisingly successfully reached first base on my own, that put me at base 3. I actually still had no idea what this meant but attempted to look informed for the face of my team. Later interrogation of google suggested that one of the other team's out fielders had overly zealously thrown the ball, causing it to overshoot anywhere helpful for their team.

Sadly, after this momentous event, it became the other team's turn to bat, which proved to be entirely consistent with being attacked by all monsters on the level 8 of Gauntlet.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wildlife network

Naturally, every softball game should begin with a positive mental attitude. Why, we could be set to steamroller through the first seven innings, causing our rivals to plead the mercy rule because their muscles had atrophied from sitting on the bench so long.

It is more difficult to maintain that attitude when you arrive at the pitch to find the other team in matching jerseys. With their names sewn onto the back. Even less promising was the fact they used a portable mesh screen to protect their pitcher from a fast returned ball. (They asked if we wished to use it. We felt able to politely decline). I found this last point particularly concerning when I was placed in short field, worryingly close to the action. I adjusted my fielding glove and wondered if it would noticeably affect my game if I wore it as a face protector.

Shocked as we were by this indication of strength, our defense during the first inning progressed as BP's oil clean-up efforts; slow and ineffectual. Nevertheless when no one died, our confidence picked up and we moved onto a spate of knocking out the first two batters. Sadly, we always followed this by allowing subsequent players a free range of the bases. Perhaps this was because we felt sorry for them. Perhaps it was because we got cocky. Or perhaps it was because we were physicists and there is no exact solution to the motion of more than two gravitationally interacting particles.

Our batting also showed promise. One of our players smacked a strong shot that sent the ball way into the outfield. This was bound to be a home run, no one could catch that. Well .... except maybe that guy.

"Damn you! We have your number!"

We meant that literally. It was sewn on the back of his team jersey along with his name.

Half-way through the game I was put on third base. This was fun for me, but a probable disaster for our score sheet. Still, I gamely walked across the pitch to take my place. Just behind me stood the base coach for the other team. He was a large guy and I felt briefly apprehensive until:



I looked back to see a hand extended to me containing a fist full of unshelled peanuts. It was tempting but I had this GIGANTIC HAND with my fielding glove. I didn't think it would do my popularity any good if I was trying to negotiate a snack when the action came my way. One base along, the batter smacked the ball into the earth. It bounced, rolled towards me and I scooped it up in my glove. I had the ball! It hadn't cost me a limb! How exciting.

Or it would be if I I had any kind of contingency plan for this eventuality.

Seriously, I had never expected to catch this. It had never happened before. Either I dawdled long enough or there was nothing new to be done for a shout reached me of 'Keep it!' followed by the pitcher holding out his hand. I lobed it at him. Hot potato!

Since that was quite enough excitement for one day, I retreated in the next innings to the outer right field. Two of my friends took centre and short field. A deer took outer left field. It meandered out of the bushes and started chewing nonchalantly on a tree.

"Someone get that deer a glove!" came the shout from a team mate.

Apparently though, the deer was reluctant to take sides. Either that, or it had seen us bat and deemed there was little need for a catching glove so far out. It snacked on the sidelines, TV dinner style, until we were back to batting. Our matches might not be quite making cable, but it is pleasing to know they are still reaching an audience.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

More glass than wall

Hardwick Old Hall was built by Bess of Hardwick, a feisty and incredibly rich (thanks to four marriages) woman in Elizabethan times. "Building Bess" designed the hall herself to replace the original family medieval manor house that sat on the same site in Derbyshire. Once she had eight children (via marriage number two) and become a countess (marriage number four), Bess wanted an abode that would reflect her new station in life and, naturally, one that would live up to those of her friends. An understandable enterprise made fractionally more ambitious by the fact her closest companion was Queen Elizabeth I.

A prophesy was foretold that Bess would not die while she continued building and it was perhaps this that caused her to start work on Hardwick New Hall before the Old Hall was fully complete. England's aristocracy frequency held different residences around the country but the notable fact about the New Hall is that it was built right next door to the Old Hall. This is quite literally so; they are as close as two spaciously detached houses although rather on the larger side. The picture at the top shows the New Hall photographed from the Old Hall.

Unlike the first building, Bess did not design Hardwick New Hall, employing instead the professional architect, Robert Smythson. The defining feature of the new abode is its owner's initials, in large stone letters, scattered liberally about the rooftop and the wide windows, which produced the phrase "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall" to describe the location for the last 400 years.

Despite this brave attempt to keep the building work continuing, a hard frost in 1608 halted work and Bess died, fulfilling the prophesy. A cynic to such topics might point out that her being over 80 might have also had something to do with it.

Even though the Old Hall and New Hall were built a mere three years apart, they now look vastly different. The New Hall has been completely maintained while the Old Hall has fallen into ruin. The latter came about because descendants of Bess in the 18th Century sold part of the building to raise funds while they lived at their preferred location in Chatsworth. Apparently, declaring that you had not the cash, but your debtors could help themselves to eastern dinning hall wall was completely acceptable ...

The western half of the Old Hall is less ruinous than its eastern side and you can climb up the stairs to gain a stunning view over the Derbyshire countryside. Between the trees, you also catch a view of the M1 motorway, something I am quite sure Bess intended. Everyone, after all, likes to keep an eye on visitors, especially estranged husbands who were cracking until the strain of their indomitable wife.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A stronghold for all seasons

The problem with tourist attractions is that it tends to be only tourists who schedule going to see them. In fact, I didn't think I'd ever been to the Tower of London before until a dim memory of the sparkling crown jewels resurfaced. Since that time, I'd developed a strong obsession with reading Tudor history (and probably learnt to read period; it really had been a while) where the majority of the notable figures seemed to like to hang out in the Tower and, you know, be decapitated.

We took advantage of the tour offered by the Beefeaters, the origin of whose name is lost in history but most likely stems from their original payment being of meat; a reasonable fare in a time where most could only afford vegetables. Members of our tour group came from around the world and included Americans, who, the Beefeater cheerfully pointed out, would be able to claim all this history if only they had paid their taxes.

With our guide, we started at the watergate, later renamed 'Traitor's Gate' where prisoners were brought into the tower by boat. One of the most famous entrants through this system would have been Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and later her cousin, Henry's fifth wife, Katherine Howard. Neither ever emerged and are buried alongside one another in the Tower's chapel by the place they were executed. Next to them lies Anne's brother, George, Duke of Rochester (beheaded for supposedly frequenting his own sister's bed) and his wife, Jane (beheaded later with Katherine Howard for concealing her ... sharing nature in regard to bedroom partners). When it comes to playing with power, the great Tudor families were not quick learners.

Perhaps more sympathy should be shown to the 16 year old who lies buried at their feet. Lady Jane Grey ruled for nine days, having been coerced onto the thrown in opposition to the Catholic Mary by her father and father-in-law. Her husband, Guilford Dudley, met the same fate and engraved his wife's name twice on the walls of his cell, which can be seen along with the stone etchings of many other unfortunate residents of that room.

The chapel also contains the remains of Charles II's bastard son. The merry king was blessed with 14 (acknowledged) children, but since none of them were from his wife, the throne was due to pass to his brother (an unpopular move, but surprisingly one that did not end in the Tower). His eldest illegitimate off-spring attempted to take the crown himself, resulting in the removal of the necessary body part for said ornament. Upon beheading, however, it was realised that no official portrait existed for the son of this king, which apparently was unacceptable. The head was therefore stitched back onto the body, adorned with a large ruff and an artist called in to capture the likeness within twelve hours, least the corpse start to smell. The painter finished in eight and the image is now in a private collection. Our Beefeater tour guide claims that it does not look life like.

This is of course, only a fraction of the people who met their end in England's greatest stronghold (another one being the inspiration for this entry's title; Sir Thomas More, later canonised for what compensation that is). Close to 1000 bodies are buried under the floor of a chapel that contains no more than ten rows of seats. When the building was restored in Queen Victoria's time, the floor was uneven due to the shallow shuffling of graves.

In the centre of the grounds stands the White Tower. Originally build by William the Conqueror in 1077 as his place of residence, it is the oldest of the buildings and contains a museum of armour. It is also where a chest containing two small skeletons was found, identified as the remains of the "Princes in the Tower". These two boys (12 and 9) were murdered around 1483 by persons unknown, although eyes tend to drift towards their uncle who seized the throne even while they lived.

Opposite the White Tower is the most secure place on the site where the crown jewels are kept. The doors that allow you into that area weigh 2000 kg each. Rather like the Scottish deep fried mars bar, here lies anything that someone thought might look good dipped in gold. Crowns, swords, spurs and a whole load of plate.


One crown, known at the India crown, was only worn once, during a visit of George V to Delhi in 1911. Since by Old Royal Law the official crown (or, more accurately, the crown jewels) is not allowed to leave the country, another priceless identical one was created for the occasion...

As closing time rolled round, we vetoed the prospect of spending the night in the dungeons in favour of a pub in Charing Cross. This area of London turned out to be full of black phone boxes. Black. WTF, London?

Monday, June 7, 2010

I can hear the bells

"Do you remember the time Al walked in on you handcuffing Steve to a chair?"

I looked across the room at the previously compromised individual, who also happened to be the groom. Initially, my answer was negative and a strong denial was on my lips before a scene floated to the top of my memory of a college room, a chair and .... ah.

"The reason was innocent," another friend helpfully chipped in. "There was a cops and villains theme that night."

I hoped it was innocent. If it hadn't been, the very least I could have done was remember it. Still, it was not so surprising. Steve and I had adjacent rooms the first year at University; who else would I try a pair of handcuffs on? I looked around the table. Seven faces looked back at me and, frankly, they were all perfect candidates for such an occurrence. Pleasingly, my memory had at least given me ammunition of my own:

Did we, per chance, recall the time a member of our table procured a kebab after an inebriated last night of term and, rather than consuming his purchase, packed it in his luggage?

What about the random guy who tried to climb into a (male) friend's bed, having gotten the wrong room?

Or the fact that the same friend mirrored this event himself one drunken night down the line?

Then there was the bucket of tar in the police car park, which had been reached by climbing over a wall (ironically in an effort to get home), the traffic cone that sat in our hallway for a week, the 'mind your head signs' that appeared all around college (ok, that was me again) and the bar crawls. Really, we had enough material for several weddings.

Of course, not everything changes over the years:

"Do you remember when you reached for the mouse in the computer room but grabbed the hand of the girl next to you instead?"

"Oh, I do that all the time!"

Without a doubt, the concept of someone throwing a gigantic party and inviting you and all your friends rocks. It is perhaps a trace stressful for the bride, groom and immediate family but I'm prepared to tolerate their discomfort for the massive benefit to my own. To add to the complete win of this occasion, the ceremony was held in an idyllic village church and the reception was on a farm. When you live abroad, there is really nothing more exciting than a sheep. Except maybe a cow. Seriously, I could have hugged them all, except that might have disturbed the groom's family (the owners of the farm) even if it probably would not have surprised the groom himself.

My restraint was rewarded by the presence of plastic farm animals and a fuzzy-felt build-your-own farm yard on each table. The small toy hare was the same size as the cows which served as a warning to all guests on the perils of non-organic farming. Then there was wine, a hog roast (if you can't hug 'em, eat 'em), more wine, desserts, champagne and a ceilidh.

It was somewhat of a miracle that as dusk fell we were still capable of organising the flat-packed set placed into our hands into a lantern. These paper globes were lit at their base and then rose into the air to float gently off into the sky. Or crash and burn, depending. There was probably a profound analogy to be made regarding the fate of paper lanterns and our paths through life, but the only questions on my mind right then was how the bride was still looking beautiful and energised and whether there were any cup cakes left.

It was only when the un-handcuffed, newly wed groom came up to say hello and said how much it meant to have me there that day that I understood why people cried at weddings. I wonder if I could persuade them to do it again next year.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Flaming Flowers

Like any decent Spanish city, dinner in Barcelona doesn't kick off until past 9 pm. Either in an attempt to entertain us or due to some perverted psychological experiment (the latter was claimed in the conference summary) the scheduled talks lasted until this time on two of the five days. Friday night therefore found me, worn and beat, taking a meandering route back to the apartment through Barcelona old town.

I had completely lost two out of my three friends. As unfortunate as this was, I was not concerned. Even as midnight approached, the streets were packed with people and well lit. They and I would be perfectly safe and more to the point, both the map and the only key to the apartment were in my possession.

As I headed past the Cathedral, the sound of live music reached my ears from a nearby courtyard. I almost passed by, but it occurred to me that, like moths to a flame, my friends might have been sucked into this madness. It was a good instinct, since we emerged from adjacent streets at the same moment. On the far side of the plaza, musicians playing instruments including a double base and flute, sat on stone steps while before them, Spain danced.

Perhaps this was a form of Spanish Ceilidh, since the steps to each of the jigs that played seemed to be known to the masses. The first involved grasping hands with anyone you could reach and rushing to the centre like a gigantic hokey-cokey. The next involved dancing with your hands above your head while the third required a partner and, more oddly, a flower. These flowers were no ordinary blooms. Held in the couple's leading hands while in ballroom position, they were made of paper and contained a candle. One might deem this combination worrisome and, indeed, it seemed to be a competition as to whose flower would survive the dance. It was similar to an egg and spoon race, but with the exciting possibility of personal combustion.  Half way through the dance, it appeared that it might be a flat out draw with absolutely no winners but the occasional flower-come-flaming-torch lighting the night sky.

Sellers pushed through the crowd offering cans of beer and one guy who declared his name as "Canada" (complete with a badge of the flag of my country of residence) was claiming to be collecting for the musicians. It seemed a dubious story and indeed, we saw him walk off as we left the scene for the night.

On the way back, we stopped for gelaati. I had a scoop of pistachio and one of bubble gum flavour (due to being sucked in by the bright colours). This resulted in a sugar rush that has me greeting the early hours with an alertness I am liable to regret come daybreak.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Playing God

It's hard to describe my job without sounding like a deity-in-training. This is a shame since the glamor of the genuine situation is somewhat diminished by the stream of profanities I tend to spout at my code (it's quite amazing what you can make "Enzo"1 rhyme with if you truly dedicate yourself to the task). Explaining this to friends and family is often a disillusioning process and I really must say, putting a supercomputer IN A CHURCH is not helping my cause.

The MareNostrum supercomputer in Barcelona Spain was number four in the world when it first came online in 2005. It regained that status after an upgrade in 2006 and currently sits at number 87. It does, however, still top of the list in terms of beauty.

Installed in the deconsecrated chapel Torre Girona on the Polytechnic University of Catalonia campus, the computer sits in a highly air-conditioned clear box that fills the chapel's centre. The surrounding area is very warm, heated by the 10,240 CPUs contained within this machine. As part of the conference, we were offered a tour of the facility and were able to walk around the chapel and look down on the supercomputer from the balcony area. It is quite attractive and quite quite bizarre. Old stone archways and stained glass depicting Biblical scenes surround a high-tech national facility used for cutting edge research, including astrophysics.

All in all, it's a religion I feel I could get behind.... providing they keep upgrading of course.

[1 The name of the astrophysical code I insult work with.]