Saturday, October 27, 2012

Late One Night at King's Cross

Now tell me this isn't real...
Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Awesome things from East Germany

The old state of East Germany is famous for a lot of things that are not very pleasant  --- the secret police, or Stasi, comes to mind as being the worst the country had to offer (the movie "The Lives of Others"  or "Das Leben der Anderen" gives an idea of how the Stasi operated --- it is a frightening but wonderful film).  Despite the bad things of the old east, one is forced to also admit that some very great things came from East Germany as well.  Some people are even nostalgic for the old East German times --- thus coining the modern German portmanteau "Ostalgie"  (from Ost, meaning East, and Nostalgia). 

Even from a western perspective there are some unquestionably awesome things that were produced by East Germany.  Katarina Witt, perhaps the most popular ice skater ever, comes immediately to mind.   A bit more obscure, but certainly just as awesome, is the legendary Ampelmann: the hat-sporting character on East German pedestrian traffic lights.  The Ampelmann has now achieved cult status ---  with entire stores in Germany devoted  to selling products, such as tee-shirts, bearing his likeness  (you can also order Amplemann products on the web, here). 

File:Ampelmann.svgHere are closeups of the Amplemann in his two possible poses. 

And in these two photos below, I have crossed a street in Berlin at the kind direction of the Amplemann. 

Now to finish off this blog post, I think it would be entirely appropriate to post photos of Katarina Witt.  My younger brother is a big fan (he just loves Olympic skating) and I thought that maybe, if I post some pictures of her, he might actually read my blog. 

This is Katarina Witt in her gold-medal-winning Carmen routine from the 1988 Olympics in Calgary (she also won gold in 1984 in Sarajevo).  I remember watching that performance.  She was stunning (here is a video of it, or here).  She also earned some international cred by being completely unimpressed with famed slalom gold-medalist and lady's man Alberto Tomba.  After he declared publicly that he would woo her at the Olympics, her only response was "I don't think he knows very much about figure skating."
And this is Ms. Witt, a few years later, and off the ice.    She certainly looks a lot better than Alberto Tomba. 
Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Death Star?

This picture on the left appears to be the reactor core of the Death Star.  Looking down into the hot blue nuclear furnace, this reminds me of the scene where Obi-Wan has to disable the tractor beam so that the Millennium Falcon can escape the clutches of the evil empire (shown on the right).  

Actually the picture on the left is not really from Star Wars.  It is a photo from the inside of the Reichstag Dome in Berlin looking down into the debating chamber of the Bundestag below.   The blue things are the seats of the Bundestag.  

The symbolism of the dome, which is open to tourists, is that the people should always remain above the government.  And the futuristic design is supposed to symbolize that Germany is moving into the future away from its ugly past.  (These interpretations are gleaned from Wikipedia.   I am not wise enough to be able to interpret architecture on my own.)  

While I like the idea of having such symbolism, you might think the architect, Norman Foster, might have designed something that looked a bit less like the inside of the Death Star (he also designed London's futuristic Gherkin).   On my visit to the Reichstag Dome, I half expected R2D2 to come running around the corner at any moment. 

And in this photo, my friend Sabine is contemplating making a jump to the control tower so that the X-wing fighters of the Rebel Alliance can escape the tractor beam.

May the Force be with her!

Added: How could I have mentioned the death star without posting a link to this:
Sunday, October 7, 2012

Getting Your Degree

If you come from an American school you are probably used to the idea that graduation occurs once per year on some random weekend day in May or June, during which the college town overflows with family and friends.

But this is not how it works at Oxford.  There are something like a dozen degree ceremonies per year.  Once you have been given permission to graduate (or if you are a DPhil, it is called "leave to supplicate", which strictly speaking means, "permission to beg" for your degree), you then have the right to sign up for a ceremony.   This can be shortly after you finish, or could be many years later.   It is not at all unusual for people to return to Oxford to finally collect a degree they earned twenty or more years ago.

In September, a whole bunch of my recently finishing undergraduate students decided to collect their degrees together.   This most excellent bunch, having (most of them) started four years ago this week and finished this past June, is the first set of students who I have seen through from their first year to their last. So I admit that I am particularly attached to them.    I came to the ceremony just to wish them well, and of course, to take their pictures!

.. and here they are!

Apologies for the fact that some of the pictures are not great.   Extra points if you can spot the portrait of Mary Somerville, the namesake of our college.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Nice Optics

One thing that is actually nice about all the light drizzle around here is that you get quite a few good rainbows. (For those who might not recognize it, that is Keble College on the right and the Clarendon lab of the physics department straight ahead). 
Just as I was taking this photo my colleague John Chalker came up behind me and said "Don't let anyone see you doing that, or they might force you to teach optics!"