Two astronomers. Separated by only 22 degrees, 58 minutes of latitude, 33 degrees, 29 minutes of longitude, yet seemingly worlds apart. Their common goal: figure out the very nature of the Universe and its womenfolk.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Technical changes

Sorry to cause hassle to regular users, but I have followed Noam's suggestion (and indeed Craig's lead) and enabled word verification for comments to suppress spammers on the comments. Hope it doesn't detract people from commenting.

Muhgrabi gate excavations

The above image was taken from the southestern most corner of the Kotel. Find a bigger version here. Visible is the wailing wall, the dome of the rock, the walkway, and the excavations. The distance from the excavation tents to the wall/mugrabi gate is about 30 m. Bear in mind that these two tents have caused world wide criticism, riots, multiple arrests and restraining orders, and have turned up evidence of a 10th century muslim prayer room.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Marias birthplace, more excavations and a funeral

Yesterday C and I thought it would be fun to go to the old city for shabbat. So after a long morning involving coffee, newspapers, more coffee and herring, we headed to the bus station to catch a sherut to the Old CIty. When we got to west Jerusalem we found it - to no surprise - devoid of life. we walked the mile or so to the old city which as usual was bustling with tourists and that huge infrastructure designed to make money off of them. First thing we did was to walk along the ramparts of the wall. It was amazing: the ramparts stretch from the Jaffa gate to the wailing wall, encircling the armenian quarter. When we got to the Kotel (western wall) I was anxious to see what the muhgrabi gate excavations looked like. They were - to no surprise - not major. I photographed them and will publish the images tommorow. After getting told off by a haredi for using my camera on shabbat, C and I headed throught the old city via the via dolorosa to "The church of mary's nativity" which contrary to what both of us thought, was not a church dedicated to The Nativity but instead was built on the spot where Maria was born. It was an amazing 10th century church, that had been turned into a Koran school by the Arabs, and then donated by the Ottomans to the french for their help in the Crimean war. The french turned it back into a (catholic) church and yesterday it was being used by an american evangelical congregation. They were exploiting the amazing acoustics to talk in tongues and scream "Hallellujah" every 20 seconds. It was pretty intense to witness the religiosity with which these born agains testified. After they left, C and I probed the mythical echo and then walked around the church grounds which included remains of a 1 century BCE cistern, and a monastary. As we left we walked through the muslim quarter and stumbled upon a funeral which scared the life out of me. A large group of angry muslim men holding a body draped in green in a coffin on their shoulders can't possible good! But as prejudice bowed to reality they walked by, somber and sad and unaggressive (to my relief). I guess it meant that the deceased had not been killed by israeli fire: no anti-israeli slogans were being chanted, nor effigies burnt. Nevertheless the whole event was kinda shocking. Finally, we ate some kebab and kubeh on the roof of an armenian restuarant with views of the domed roofs of old city before leaving and heading back to modernity.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


I'm no art buff, but I do know what I like. I also feel qualified to criticise poor art when I see it. Here is an example of bad art:

Yes, it's an advert (or perhaps a warning?) that DUCK week is here. For the non-locals, DUCK is an acronym for Durham University Charities Kommittee. Yes, they really did think it was ok to spell committee with a K. For that alone Durham deserves to be relegated to the lower echelons of the league tables. But my point: ok, it's an enthusiastic student getting excited about saving the world, but what a poor attempt at a representation of a duck. Most toddlers could do better.

Never one to promote hypocracy, I thought I'd prove that I can do better. I have no desire to get cold on Kingsgate bridge, so I did my drawing armed with my trusty Pilot G2 pen (courtesy the ICC). I reckon my ducks are much better:

So, students, pull your socks up and draw better ducks. You over-privileged bunch of southern nancies. On other news, Jim's application to join the Friends of Laphroaig has yielded the whisky club a square foot of Scottish bog and a swanky certificate. Here's the latest (tidied!) display of our haul. Note: we're still missing a few bottles - if anybody finds them, please bring them in.

Monday, February 12, 2007

When Israel builds a ramp ...

The mayor of Jerusalem today has ruled that the controversial re-building of a walkway leading up to the temple mount will be temporarily halted, until a "more transparent" civic debate has run its course. The announcement a few days ago by the municipality that it was begining archeological excavations in anticipation of pending construction caused riots, the buring of efigies, and international condemnation across the arab and muslim world.

However, in cases like this it always best to be well informed. Three points are salient here:

1. the walkway they want to build is OUTSIDE of the temple mount. The archelogical excavations that preceed any constructions in Jerusalem also do not threaten the structural integrity of the temple mount as they are taking place a good 20-30 meters away from the retainig wall (in a city like Jerusalem or Rome with a rich history all construction must be preceeded by an archeological dig to see if any artifacts are uncovered). Also, this walkway is not a wholly new structure. It is a permanent bridge built to replace a temporary walkway set up after the collapse of the original one in 2004.

2. This walkway needs to be built out of respect for the palestinians who, according to religious edict, do not permit non-muslims to use any other of the 8 entrances to the temple mount. Israel respects this and uses only the designated entrance. The reason israel demands at least one entrance into the compound is because after east jerusalem was captured in 1967, the then prime minister declared that the old city would be open and free for all who wish to enter. No discirimination based on religion would prevent worshippers from freedom of movement throughout the old city (while under jordanian control pre-1967 christians and jews were banned from having free pasage through many parts of the old city). Unfortunately due to the high risk of riots and violence, this pledge has - from time to time - been suspended as potentially dangerous demographics have been denied entry.

3. We are talking about a small walkway here. Its not exactly a 40 floor sky scraper. Its a little more than a permanent scafolding. The newspapers say that the load it should be able to carry is no more than 30 armed policemen at a time.

While it is true that Israel could have tried and obtained a consensus with the WAQF that controls the temple mount, and it was perhaps a bit on the provocative side not to even try, it would probably have been futile as in situtions like this any dialogue is usually met with flat out rejection. However the status quo dictates that any change to the status quo needs to be agreed on by all sides; if it isnt your probably going to have riot or two on your hands (its simply a matter of luck that these riots were met with stun grenades and mace rather than live bullets). Perhaps due to the temporary suspension of construction the weekend riots have subsided, however entering Jerusalem this morning took longer than usual as my mini-van taxi/bus shimmied through a bottle neck caused by an armed checkpoint.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lisa Marie Nowak

The story of Lise Marie Nowak exemplifies the dignity of scientists. The cool, collected, sober, balanced assesor of phenomena. The level headed judge. The specialized operator of multi-billion dollar technology.

"Police officials say she drove 900 miles to Florida from Texas, wearing a diaper so she would not have to stop for rest breaks. In Orlando, they say, she confronted her rival in a parking lot, attacking her with pepper spray. "

Attaking a rival with pepper spray I fully understand, but why the nappies? I mean, surely as a scientist she must now that variations in the traffic density that cause fluctuations in journey time integrated over a 900 mile trip are much greater than the 2 minutes necesary to pull over and have a wee. I mean Paula Radcliff did so WHILE RUNNING A MARATHON and still got to the finish line first. What is with these people? how can the most prestigious governmentally run space company in the world higher people at the highest echelon who dont have the slightest intuition for the law of averages?

Plus how can an astronaut be freed on bail. Surely by the very nature of her job shes a flight-risk?