30 September 2010

What I'm Doing or: What I'm Not Doing, Part 1

So, being that we came all this way more than two years ago in the name of me doing something with myself, people back home ask from time to time the perfectly reasonable question: 'What exactly are you doing with yourself?'

I've effectively dodged this question many times, but it's true that I should be answering it about now. There couldn't be a better day to give it a go, really, as I've been doing a whole lot of nothing. I had the best intention of reading academic papers, maybe doing some writing, but...you know how these things go.

So if you're keen, come on a journey with me, won't you?

You won't? Ahem.

You over there, will you?

Oh, excellent! Let's!

Whatcha doin'?
I am doing my PhD in Photovoltaic Engineering at the University of New South Wales. I came here with the intention of doing a Masters by Research degree but 'upgraded' at the end of 2009 to extend my candidacy. This means more is expected of me at the end, but I needed the extra time anyway.

Get jazzed on lingo, turkey
Photovoltaics (PV) is the technical name for solar cells, that is, devices that convert light into electricity with the aim of using that electricity as a power source. This only makes sense if we're converting sunlight into electricity, so some pedants say 'solar photovoltaics', unnecessarily in my opinion. 'Solar power' can refer to many different types of technology, but 'solar cells' are a specific thing. A 'solar panel' is typically a bunch of solar cells wired up into the kind of thing you see on rooftops, like this:

The cells are the individual square-shaped things in the white frames in that image.

So you can say I'm working on PV, solar cells, solar panels, solar power, solar energy...any of that stuff, if you like.

Solar cells: beneficial or witchcraft?
Solar cells work something like the chemical batteries that we're all familiar with. Roughly speaking, a chemical battery is a source of electrical potential because energy has been stored in it in the form of a chemical reaction that cannot occur until the battery terminals are connected via a conductive path.

Just like that, a solar cell has a negative and positive terminal, but unlike a battery, no energy is stored within a solar cell. Instead, a solar cell is made of certain materials in which electrons can be freed up when illuminated. However, like a battery, a solar cell has a positive terminal into which electrons flow and negative terminal that they flow out of. So a solar cell sitting in the sun will have a voltage, that is, an electrical potential, across its terminals, like a fresh chemical battery.

The upshot of the story is that a decent solar cell has to be designed to convert sunlight into electricity in an efficient way. The main design problem in solar cells is that the sun is a broadband source–composed of a whole range of colours, or wavelengths, of light–but there has to be some range of wavelengths over which the solar cell cannot absorb. This isn't for mystical reasons. Instead, this is because in order to be able to establish an electrical potential, we have to be able to excite electrons by giving them some amount of excess energy, but they have to be able to 'stay excited' until we use that energy in the way we'd like.

The Scottish Analogy
Think of it like this: let's say that it's 1611 and I want to raise the curtain of the Globe Theatre stage at the beginning of this new play Macbeth. I can do this in one of two ways: one, I can have some guys pull on a rope that's attached across a pulley to the curtain. They pull, the curtain goes up. But those guys are unreliable drunks and I don't want to be screwed if they don't show up at the right time. Instead, I can attach the non-curtain end of the rope to some weights and lift the weights to an appropriate height. When the curtain needs to go up, I can drop the weights, and zoom! Up the curtain goes, smoothly and on time.

Problem is, if I want the assembly to be ready at curtain time, I have to lift the weights up ahead of time and stick them on a shelf. Otherwise the weights will fall, as they tend to. So there's a certain threshold energy, or amount of work, that we have to do in order to store the energy required to lift the curtain in the form of a raised weight. It's the height of the shelf times the weight of the sandbags, or whatever they are.

But here's the tricky part: the shelf has to be the right height. If the shelf's too low, there won't be enough stored energy to raise the curtain. If the shelf's too high, it will raise the curtain, but we'll waste a lot of energy getting the sandbags up there in the first place.

That's a pretty dumb example, but it illustrates the point. There is a certain threshold energy that electrons must be given in order to become freed up for conduction, that is, in order to do work in our circuit. Quantum mechanics tells us two important things here:
1) the energy of a given amount of light is proportional to the wavelength of that light (the shorter the wavelength, the higher the energy) and
2) the energy in light is delivered in discrete energy 'packets' called photons.

(Actually, it was out of these claims, developed by Max Planck and Albert Einstein, that quantum mechanics was born! So it's wrong to say 'quantum mechanics tells us two important things'. I should've said 'two important things tell us quantum mechanics'.)

Anyway, we can say because of points (1) and (2) that there's some wavelength cutoff for solar cells. Beyond some wavelength, light of a certain colour won't be able to excite electrons across the 'energy gap' under normal conditions, and this light will just pass through the material. This actually explains the entire phenomenon of absorption of light: this energy gap is a natural characteristic of all materials (crudely speaking) and materials that we call 'transparent' simply have an energy gap too big for electrons to be excited by photons that we can see, which range from about 0.4-0.7 millionths of a meter in wavelength. There are many more photons that we can't see, of course. The long-wavelength ones range from radio waves (which can be meters long) through microwaves to the infrared (a few millionths of a meter). The short-wavelength ones go from the UV up through X-rays to gamma and cosmic rays. The latter are so-called 'ionising radiation' because they tend to be high-energy enough to knock electrons out of their atomic orbits, at which point disturbing things start to happen to your DNA.

This graph shows the distribution of energy (per unit area per unit time) in the solar spectrum as seen from the earth: you'll see that the majority of sunlight is visible (400-700 nm) and peaks in the yellow (~500nm). Actually, again, I've got it backward. We call this region the 'visible' precisely because it's the colour of the sun! Our eyeballs evolved to absorb and our brains evolved to process the information brought to us by sunlight! If our sun were a different colour, our eyes would be sensitive to that instead. But that's such a massive what-if that I should stop right now.

Size matters
So how big does this energy gap need to be for an efficient solar cell? Clearly, the bigger the gap, the fewer photons we absorb overall, since the sun only pumps out a limited amount. If you assume that every photon over the threshold excites one electron, you get fewer electrons for a bigger gap, which means that your current output (electrons per second) suffers. Your voltage will be big, but your current small.

Likewise, if your gap is very small, you'll definitely absorb more photons and produce a high current, but your voltage will be very small, because (for a reason I'll discuss later) the electrons that you've excited don't wind up with the energy of the photons that created them, but instead the threshold energy, and the average electron energy determines the voltage.

The output power of your solar cell–the number we really care about in the end–is defined as the voltage V times the current I. So as we adjust the energy gap, V and I change, and the power peaks at some 'medium' value of the energy gap. This value turns out to be very close to the natural energy gap of crystalline silicon (Si), the most well-understood material on the planet, the basis for microelectronics and the second-most plentiful element in the earth's crust. Lucky for us!

The solar spectrum above shows the cutoff wavelength of Si, which is at approximately 1100nm, or a tenth of the thickness of a human hair. Everything to the left can be absorbed by Si, while everything to the right passes right through it.

And so it is that nearly all solar cells in use are made of thin slices of giant Si crystals. While Si is not an ideal material for solar cells from the point of view of physics, in terms of economy, the environment, ease of processing, and so on, it can't be beat. Many have tried, none have succeeded.

The catch
Since the first Si solar cells were demonstrated in the mid-20th century and their potential was realised, a tremendous amount of work has gone into improving the devices, to the point where they convert sunlight into electricity nearly as well as one could hope. The theoretical limit on the efficiency of a conventional Si cell is only 29%, and UNSW holds the world record with its 25% efficient PERL cell. However, this is a small-area device, and is far too expensive to put into solar panels like the ones above. Those cells are typically 18 or 19% efficient.

So the question is this: we can always spend more money and make the traditional Si solar cell more and more efficient, but if our aim is to change our energy systems to rely on solar power, we need it to be cost-effective, meaning that we have high efficiencies for low costs (in relative terms). What are the fundamental reasons that Si cells are limited to 29% efficiency, and is it possible to design a device that relies on Si or a similarly abundant material that boasts a drastically higher efficiency?

We'll find out in Part 2!

28 September 2010

London: a Ripper!

The day after we visited Cambridge, Nija and I toddled down to London, as you do, to see what we could see. The problem with London is one of too too much.

There is simply too much. With only one day, one must simply decide on three or four things, see and/or do them, and call it quits. People live in London their whole lives and never see all of it. Much less learn all its history.

So here was the plan. Start: Westminster Abbey. Which we did, but I don't think we took any pictures. We did, however, get to see all the famous memorials–Darwin, Dickens, Austen, Newton–and Nija was most excited to see the memorial honoring Dr. Paul Dirac, though he's buried in the exceedingly unlikely location of Tallahassee and not within the Abbey itself. The Abbey actually has this fabulous free audio tour you can take that's narrated by Jeremy Irons, which made me think 'Wow, he must be so pious'. But I suspect there wasn't any sort of test of purity to get the gig. It's Jeremy Irons, after all. Who'd say no to that?

Skimming over the worn stones of Westminster gave us our first dose of Too Much: it's unbelievable how much history is literally crammed into the place. Monuments are obscured by monuments, shoved chockablock into every nook and cranny. I had to feel some kind of pity for those long-dead Brits whose memorials have had others built right in front of theirs, as if their memory was tossed aside in favour of whatever lord or lady had more recently passed. There they sit, deprived of the gaze and, by implication, prayers of the public, the eternal victims of fashion and royal caprice.

I suspect, however, that nothing can ever eclipse the tomb of Lady Elizabeth Nightingale, whose husband erected this astounding work in 'her' memory:

Have a look: the ghastly figure of Death emerges from its cell to aim a spear at the heart of poor Lady N, as her valiant husband clutches her in protection to his breast and offers Death a defiant gesture. On seeing this, the most Metal tomb ever, I was moved to promise Nija that if she is tragically taken before me I shall erect for her a similar tomb, depicting how brave I was through it all.

All in all, there must be nothing like Westminster anywhere else, with the possible exception of the Pantheon. If you're troubled by the notion of spooks, then stay away from this joint, it'll be absolutely bulging with 'em. The building's not chopped liver either.

That's basically how Jeremy Irons put it, but it just sounded classier because of his accent.

Afterward, we felt like a little more Too Much, so off we set to skip our way down Whitehall to Trafalgar Square. Whitehall is, of course, the home of several important ministries of the British government and is in the shadow of this thing:

It's the main drag off of which Downing Street runs, where the PM lives. In this Era of Terribleness, the entrance to Downing St is gated off and heavily-guarded. We weren't sure whether David Cameron was around at the time, because his father had died in France a few days previous. However, plenty of tourists had their noses in the gate and were snapping photos madly, expecting a glimpse, no doubt, of Tony Bliar (sic). They were sure to be disappointed, but not to worry, He Who Shall Not Be Named was visible around every turn anyway, leering from the cover of his new book. Piles of them were in every bookstore window; I imagine they were heaped up like that so they'd be easy to set on fire.

The respectable tourist/military/civil servant whirl that is Whitehall feeds into the thumping heart of Westminster that is Trafalgar like an...um...oh, what's a good metaphor here? Anyway, Trafalgar Square must be the original home of Too Much: too much tourism, too much pigeon-feeding, too much column! That last one refers to the 150-ft pedestal topped with a masculine-looking Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, hero of–you guessed it–Trafalgar, where the French and Spanish naval forces suffered a thorough defeat in 1805 during the War of the Third Coalition (as if I needed to add that). This would've been great for Nelson's career if he hadn't been shot and killed during the battle. Still, he was later made Prime Minister, leading to the famous Crisis of Parliamentary Decomposition of 1806. That might be false, though, as I read it in Tony Blair's book.

Trafalgar Square is the home of London's National Gallery. In front of that neoclassical eyesore stand two pillars: one is festooned with a statue of King George IV, and the other, the so-called 'Fourth Plinth', is reserved for temporary installations. At the moment, the Fourth Plinth holds a giant ship-in-a-bottle conjured up by none other than Yinka Shonibare, who must qualify as the World's Most Badass Living Artist. Too Much!

When the agoraphobia got too strong, we decided to carry on to our next agenda item. This one would take us down the Thames, and what better way to get there than by boat? We caught a ferry from Millennium Pier and sat atop it to enjoy the views while a hilariously deadpan crew member pointed out the sights. He had us in stitches, and the views were pretty good. We started at Parliament House, shown above, and passed another Christopher Wren work, St. Paul's:

and the tour ended at Tower Bridge, which looked spiffy with a fresh coat of paint:

Tower Bridge, while famous, is often mistaken for London Bridge, which is the next bridge upriver and is actually pretty unremarkable, as it was built in the 1970s and lord knows how that decade went. The original London Bridge was dismantled, bought by chainsaw tycoon and oil magnate Robert McCulloch, and moved to Arizona, where it was rebuilt over a canal leading from Lake Havasu. This comes as a surprise to most people, naturally, since it's not common knowledge that there are lakes in Arizona.

Debarking from the ferry at Tower Bridge, we walked up the hill past the Tower of London in the direction of a section of town recommended to us by my second cousin Becky: Brick Lane. On finding the street we were delighted and confused to realise that we'd been sent to the Bangladeshi/Bengali neighbourhood. Happy that we were seen as sophisticated internationalists, we still had a hard time understanding Becky's description of Brick Lane as being full of cute coffeeshops and second-hand stores. That's probably not how we would've described it, anyway.

Just as Nija got Becky on the phone for a clearing-up, the scenery changed. Though there were just as many mustaches to be seen on this part of the strip, the pants were suddenly much tighter. Signs were written in Hipster, not in Bengali as before. Becky's description of Brick Lane was confirmed as we passed charismatic cafes and bagel shops, and wandered into Spitalfields Market. We had a couple hours to kill before the Main Event on our schedule, and it was easy in this part of town.

As the sun got low in the sky, we rushed to polish off bowls of noodles to fuel up for our evening adventure: the legendary Jack the Ripper walking tour of the East End! Nija and my Mom did this when they visited four years ago and I haven't heard the end of it since. Nija was clearly keen to do it again, and I took the recommendation. These tours are just one of the many offerings of London Walks, considered one of the best walking tour companies in the world. And I can see why! The price is cheap, especially for that town, and the talent is top-notch. As we strode through dark alleys into loading bays and empty courtyards in this still-gritty section of town, our guide Shaughan appeared to reach into the depths of his spirit to give us a rollicking show. He took us through the events of 1888, when London was held in thrall to the terrifying murders of prostitutes in Whitechapel. Shaughan so deftly took on the voices and behaviour of the characters in his tale that he actually gave me goosebumps at several points.

For an hour and a half our big group of tourists raced through backstreets we wouldn't have dared set foot in otherwise, tracking Jack as he slashed his way through the night. You could feel the history seeping from the darkened walls, even though Whitechapel has certainly changed since then. It was history mixed with politics and social commentary presented as riveting theatre, all packaged in a brisk walk. I can't imagine a better way to end a day in Londontown.

Tired and satisfied, we considered whether we should hit the bar or get the train back to Hertford for a nightcap with Ann and Geoff. We opted for the latter. A London bar on a Friday night...it just seemed like much Too Much.

26 September 2010

"Munch, munch," said the locust.

After Lynn left, Craig and I decided to take a couple days visiting Cambridge and London, returning to Ann and Geoff's each night. We could pretty much see most of Cambridge in one day, but with London we'd have to be choosy.

As we're not great planners or decision-makers when it comes to travel, we decided to put off being choosy for a day-- so Cambridge came first.

We saw King's College, and spent most of our time in the Chapel. It's a beautiful thing, of course, with a fabulous fan-vaulted ceiling.

Outside Trinity College, we saw a tree that is supposedly descended from Newton's famous apple tree-- it was planted below the room Newton studied in.

And we dropped by St. John's College, where one of my heroes, Mr. Paul Dirac studied. You can find my interview with Dirac's biographer, Graham Farmelo, here.

This is the Bridge of Sighs, at St. John's College. Wikipedia says it was built by Henry Hutchinson, but word on the Cambridge streets was that Sir Christopher Wren is the real architect. Who knows? Anyway, it's beautiful and named after a Venetian bridge that is also covered.

Since students actually live in these colleges (they are essentially student halls, as well as being architectural historical wonders), there were signs all over the place asking non-residents not to go past this point or that point. There were cordons and various other devices set up. But, they hadn't managed to block off every path to the Bridge of Sighs, so Craig and I actually managed to sneak on and walk through. When we got to the other side, though, an stuffy-looking old guy in a really nice suit looked at us sternly as we left the building. You could tell he was British, though, because even though he didn't like us, he made way for us before he stepped into the building that he probably actually has a right to be in...

This is apparently a super-famous new clock. Have you heard about it? It's called the Corpus Clock. There are no numbers on it; blue LEDs indicate the time. Oh, and a giant ghastly mechanical locust crawls atop it, munching up time. It reminded me of the They Might Be Giants song.

"You're older than you've ever been, and now you're even older, and now you're even older, and now you're older still," John Linnell sings.

"Munch, munch," says the locust.

And my heart grows cold.
An apparently super-popular thing to do in Cambridge is to go "punting." I'd never heard of it before, and I'm afraid I rather let the sails out of the tourist information official when I told him that. He was like, "Well, it is a very famous thing to do in Cambridge, but apparently it's not that famous in... where are you from?"

Canada. Definitely Canada.

Anyway, "punting" is actually just taking a boat down the river that runs through Cambridge-- but there's a catch. You can't row the boat. You have to stand on the end of it and use a stick to guide yourself along. Until you're capable of that, you have to fall in the river and capsize your boat, taking all your friends with you. Former friends, possibly.

Given Craig's history of (eerily, almost willfully) falling into just about any nearby body of water, I wasn't about to get in a boat with just him and a stick. But I took a picture of the very famous activity for you, at least.

Craig was intrigued that some of the people doing the actual punting were total hipsters. They were clearly hired to punt for less-courageous tourists (like me), and they served as guides, as well, sort of telling folks what buildings they were passing by, etc. But they were wearing hip sunglasses and skinny jeans and flip-flops, sporting extra cute haircuts. For some reason, it interested him.

But Craig and I didn't have the time (or the money) to hire one of these obliging hipsters, and honestly, we've had enough boat-time in this year, considering Thailand and Cambodia, so we let it slide.

The last thing on our list was to see the Cavendish Laboratory, where Rutherford and Maxwell and other geniuses did their pioneering fancy-pants genius work. It is, oddly, on an unnamed alley with rubbish bins out the front.

Pretty exciting stuff-- or so we thought until we learned about Manchester's scientific history (see this post for more on that).

Well, I can hear my own locust munching my last night of freedom from lectures away, so I better leave London, and my Manchester adventures of this weekend, for later. Until then, dear readers...

Vantage Points

I arrived back in Sydney on Wednesday to find a city in bloom, puffy with colour in the grips of early springtime. Plants that just a few weeks ago were lanky army-green things are now sagging with flowers. The bok choi I have in pots in the back garden had bolted and are on the brink of dropping their seeds. I'm coming up on my third spring here and it's become obvious that springtime hits Sydney like a brick. Wintertime consists of a few months of rainy dreariness with some off days of cool clarity, but then a week comes around that changes everything, and the plants respond like they've been chomping at the bit to get going since May.

Still loopy from my 1.5-day journey from Manchester's Piccadilly Station, showing up in this natural carnival was intensely confusing. I had left a winter-weary Sydney to find an infernal, sun-blasted Atlanta, then a pleasant London. Early fall in Manchester reminded me of nothing more than the depths of the antipodean wintertime, with its blustery rain. Then I got off the plane to find this. Can you blame me for being a bit mixed up? I'm glad I only came away with a scratchy throat and slight jetlag.

That, and a wounded heart. Leaving Nija behind me was really tough, and I've been walking around here in a bit of a daze since I got back. Partly, it's due to jetlag and the general space-time displacement that goes along with circumnavigating the globe. Particularly hard has been the early mornings: daylight savings starts next weekend, so until that merciful day gets here, the sun comes up at something like 5:15 AM. Mostly, though, it's just thinking about how hard things will be for the next year, maybe more, without this person that I rely on being close at hand.

To put it lightly, I haven't landed on my feet here. Nothing feels right at the moment, and I'm not motivated to do anything in particular. I went to uni on Thursday and Friday but mostly read my book, looked online and chatted with friends. Yesterday (Saturday) I got some shopping done and got a run in, but then I took two naps. Anyone will tell you that this is not the usual me.

But today I wasn't about to stay in and take naps. The weather was gorgeous, so I figured I'd take myself up on one of my favourite hobbies: wandering aimlessly through the city.

Walking down the hill from our place takes you to Blackwattle/Rozelle Bay, which has been heavily featured on this blog before. If you walk around the bay to the west (or cross the Anzac Bridge via Pyrmont, to the east) you can follow Victoria Rd up into one of inner Sydney's most interesting sections of town, Rozelle and Balmain. These are old working-class neighbourhoods situated on a peninsula that sticks like a thumb out into the western harbour. Now, of course, these places have been mostly gentrified, but they're lively and make for nice walking and people-watching. Or monster-watching, it seems:

So out I set, shuffling along with my legs and right knee surprisingly sore from yesterday's run. Springtime continued around me, as I watched male pigeons fluff themselves up and prance after the girls. Shameless.

Balmain (pronounced so that "Bal" rhymes with "Pal", not "Paul") illustrates perfectly what I think is one of Sydney's most charming aspects, that is, it's possible to get great views of the city and landmarks from almost any angle thanks to the topology of the harbour. Infinite vantage points!

The walk was pleasant and Balmain was abuzz when I arrived. On the way I stopped at the Rozelle Markets, a popular weekend attraction, and ended my journey at a nice cafe called The Little Marionette, then did some reading in Gladstone Park right next door. This spring day even started to feel a bit like summer: the sun was hot if you sat in it for a minute, and people were out in their shorts and thongs (flip-flops).

On the way back I got a glimpse of the harbour through some trees off a side street and decided to descend, and found one of Sydney's multitude of harbourside parks. This one, Elkington Park, had a dead-on view of Cockatoo Island:

Then I stumbled on one of Adriano Zumbo's bakeries, which have become famous recently, not least for Zumbo's appearances on MasterChef Australia. Two seasons ago he made a huge croquembouche, and last season he made a croquembouche out of macarons. We're in something of a Macaron Moment (tm) here in Sydney, and Zumbo's have the reputation of being the best. His certainly are some of the most exotic: today he had oatmeal liang-liang, Earl Grey and milk chocolate, and the ones I bought to take to Vix and Ruby, pear pistachio fennel (green), mango black pepper with tonka (yellow) and coconut pandan (white).

Despite its new glitzy sheen, Balmain thankfully holds on to a few relics of its industrial past. I suppose in a few years this will be something useful and attractive, but for now there's something satisfying about the presence of such an epic derelict factory:

All in all a fine walk on a brilliant day, capped off later with a visit to our old Alexandria neighbours Vix and Ruby: a fellow could ask for little more. And still I'm looking for something to grab onto to settle myself back into this life in Sydney. At the moment it doesn't feel like my home, and I think I might go on feeling adrift, unsure and upside-down for a while. What's missing from this picture?

24 September 2010

We sometimes forget Americans are real people.

The funny thing about British road trips is how much shorter they are than American road trips. You barely have time to get hungry in between stops. But like all road trips around the world, there is beauty to be found on the way.

The first stop on our Norfolk region road trip was to Bury St. Edmunds, where a certain King Edmund was killed by the Danes in 903. He was also, as the name might suggest, buried there, and supposedly miracles began happening soon after. So then he was made a saint.

More importantly, it's the home of Greene King Brewery, famous label of Old Speckled Hen. We got there too late for the brewery tour, but lucky for us, the "museum" was still open. Oh, it was rather a sad museum, with an entire section devoted to what kind of food people have eaten with beer.

At least Craig got to dress up like a beer-brewing monk.

Then we noticed the cutout behind him, and Lynn and I made him get in that, too!

Look at him in those woolen swim shorts! After checking out the brewery gift shop, we decided to have a pint at the local pub. And here some of our troubles began. First off, most British beers, like the rest of the English-speaking world, are not very flavourful. They might look a nice red or dark brown, but put some in your mouth and you'll find a watery ale. Worse, it seems the British truly love serving beer just about warm. Not in that enjoyable Brick Store way, where everything is just warm enough to taste it. No, in England, it's more like taking a mild beer, warming it just above where it would taste good, and then serving it with no head at all.

It's a little bit disgusting. We soon learned to buy bottles, as those are at least refrigerated. We also went to the Bury St. Edmunds Cathedral, which has an amazing huge garden and old Roman walls, but I forgot to take pictures.

Then we thought we'd hit Southwold for the night, a little seaside town, but when we got there, we couldn't get any accommodation for the night. We called some places in Wells-by-the-Sea also, but no joy. So we decided to just jump onto to Norwich. We did find a place there, and decided to check the town out the next day. Finding dinner wasn't easy, as it was around 10pm, but we ended up at an Indian place that was less-than-mediocre.

Norwich by day, however, was a very different experience. It's an adorable little city, with cobblestone laneways and weavers' windows on lots of buildings. There was a printmakers' fair going on, so we stopped in to see the cool arty stuff.

Then we found some cool arty stuff on the street.

This just weirded us out.

And as we did a little Norwich lanes walking tour, we came across a lovely fat little bird. If we collected Craig's pictures into a book, it might most easily be titled "Birds of the World, with Particular Emphasis on Ducks."

One of the coolest things we saw in Norwich was this bookshop window display. The store is called The Book Hive; can you believe the intricacy of this... I don't know what to call it. Hanging paper castle?

After we'd seen pretty much all Norwich had to offer, we headed to a little town called King's Lynn, mostly because it had the word Lynn in it. It's a really small town, and after putting our stuff down at the B&B, we walked into town, looking for somewhere to eat. But we had no idea what to look for. We wandered for a bit until we saw three girls walking down the street; we asked them where we could find a bite.

"Are you American?" they asked.
Yes, we said.
"Well, there's a McDonald's around the corner," Girl 1 said.
Girl 2 said, "Shut up, they don't want to eat at McDonald's!"
We agreed with her. We did not want to eat at McDonald's.
Then Girl 2, she was very talkative, she said, "But what are you doing here, in King's Lynn?"
Girl 1: We only see Americans on television, so sometimes we forget that you actually exist, that you're like real people."
Girl 2: But what are you doing here? (and you would be right to imagine a sense of loathing in her reference to King's Lynn)
We tried to explain. We were travelling, you see, and we thought seeing some little English villages might be nice. That Lynn and I had already seen London, and Craig and I would be seeing Manchester soon, so for now, we were just going around, seeing what we could. England's full of history, right, so everywhere has something vaguely historically interesting.

Girl 2: (with immense confusion, with an almost willful inability to comprehend) But why are you here?

We found we couldn't really answer her to satisfaction, but Lynn got in a conversation with Girl 1 about Las Vegas and the States in general.
At this point, Girl 3 was quiet and embarrassed by Girl 2 and was nearly tugging her out of the laneway. They directed us down the street and around the corner, where we found a Prezzo, a rather upscale British chain restaurant that served us an excellent meal. Well, Craig's minestrone beans were undercooked and it had no pasta in it, but Lynn and I had a delicious pesto ravioli dish which I wouldn't turn down a second time.

The next morning, we walked around King's Lynn. The water looked cold and dirty and gray.

 But we still had a nice time walking around, seeing the old things. It's a pretty little village.

The old gaol had this outstanding facade of black and white checkered stones. It's beautiful and breathtaking and a little weird to think about people putting this much work into something that's meant to house prisoners.

For the last leg of our trip, we dropped in to Hunstanton, pronounced "Hunstan," of course, a beach-side town with a low-tide so far out, we couldn't even see the water. But we had some beer and a nice lunch at a pub. We walked through a sensory garden, a garden designed for differently-abled people. They had a whole aromatic section, so blind people could enjoy the plants and stones with braille on them. Gentle hills for people in wheelchairs to amble around. You get the idea. It was very pleasant.

Along the beach, we also found a stand that was selling fresh hot donuts. Delicious!

After all that enjoyment, though, it was time to get Lynn back to town. Her flight was early the next morning, so we headed back to Hertford only to find she couldn't possibly get to Heathrow that evening. Ann and Geoff had a plan: wake at 3am, get Lynn to the coach station and on the express to Heathrow-- she would just barely catch her flight.

So that's what we did. It was a bit crazy, and I can't believe it actually went off without a single hitch. But it did. Lynn got on the bus, and we all went back to Ann and Geoff's, to get some more sleep.
I also have updates from Manchester-town for you. First off, pictures of my room!

It's actually a pretty big room, with a huge desk and lots of storage. I like it, except the green carpet. But hey, maybe I'll find a cheap nice-looking rug. At least a big window is over my desk, for what little sunshine I can find. And the duvet cover Craig helped me find has really nice colours.

This tiny thing is apparently a kitchen for four people.

We have an open plan, so the kitchen leads right into the common room. It also has a nice big window, but no couch. That TV is my flatmate Despina's, but it doesn't work.

I have my own bathroom, which is very nice. But it's the tiniest bathroom I've ever had. The shower is right over the toilet, the shower curtain provides the only barrier. There is a floor drain, but the floor doesn't quite slope toward it, so the whole floor gets and stays wet for a very long time.

 But it's only for a year, right? A year in which, hopefully, I'll be studying and making friends and generally too busy to worry about my tiny, wet bathroom.

This week is called Welcome Week, which means apart from a few short inductions and meetings, we don't really have any classes or anything. It's been a long week. I've been trying to fill my time reading and getting errands done, and planning out stuff to do. Example: this weekend, I'm going to the Manchester Farmer's Market, a women's history guided walking tour called "Up then, Brave Women!" and a pub crawl with the Burlington society, which is a society for postgrads and mature students.

One of the errands I had to run was seeing the Alan Turing Memorial. Turing is one of Britain's great scientific minds-- he helped break the Nazi enigma code, he developed early computing machines. A genius. But after all his service to his country, he was persecuted for being gay, or rather for "gross indecency," which is the same thing Oscar Wilde was charged with 50 years prior.

Alan Turing died of cyanide poisoning, with a half-eaten apple by his bed. People reckon it was suicide, and that he'd dosed the apple. But the apple was never tested for cyanide, and his mom forever believed that he had merely been careless with lab chemicals, that he would never intentionally kill himself.

The memorial to him is in Manchester's Gay Village, and it's a really beautiful thing. My new pal Sara took this picture for me. The apple in his hand stands not only for the one that he may have killed himself with, but also for forbidden love, and it's a reference to that hero of scientific heroes-- Newton.

The board beside the memorial said that one of Turing's first computers is buried under the bench, as well. I wish Craig could have seen it with me. Manchester has such an amazing scientific history. Did you know the atom was first split here by Rutherford and that the first computer was built at the University of Manchester itself??! You definitely want to click that link-- an amazing photo awaits you.

I also spent some time up in the Northern Quarter the other day; I enjoyed some tea and a bagel at CUP. And then, as I wandered down Oldham Street to get back into town, I happened upon...

The Grace Kelly is a lemon cake with white chocolate frosting. Perfect for lifting a lonely mood, along with one of my all-time favourite books.

22 September 2010

I Heartford

One of our last nights in Atlanta was spent with my family, at a Thai restaurant, where the kids showed me and Craig their newest game. It only works at restaurants with paper tablecoverings-- unless you're very antisocial and don't mind being kicked out of fancier linen-type restaurants, that is. Anyway, using the place settings, they outline their forks, knives, spoons, bowls and plates onto the paper. Then they remove the actual thing, let's say, the fork, and they turn the outline into a character. Plate, of course, usually becomes a big moon face, and the whole thing ends up looking like an illustration of "Hey diddle, diddle."

Regardless, my point is that Craig really wowed them when he took the game to new levels.

 Lynn, Craig and I met up at the airport, with Mama and Papa Dalal and Wayne in tow. Lynn and Craig only had one suitcase each, so I intended to buy a second bag for all three of us at $50 a pop, so that I could get all my crap to Manchester. There I stood, credit card in hand, as the service attendant informed me that they had already been paid for.


Sometimes even miserable places, like airports, can throw little $150 packets of joy your way. But it's rare, so savour it. Mmmm.

On the plane, Lynn quickly got to work becoming the new best friend of the girl sitting next to her. Remember Abby, guys? She was nice. She sat with us in the Toronto airport and ate Indian snacks and trail mix with us.

We got to London's Heathrow airport at, I don't know, 5.30 in the morning or something heinous like that. Lynn had boarded the plane well-prepared, with melatonin tablets and little less-than-three ounce bottles of various liquors, so she slept fine. Craig and I didn't think to partake of that goody-bag until long after she was passed out, so we didn't fare quite so well...

Then, from London's Paddington station, we had to get to Liverpool station. On the tube. In the middle of the morning commute. With six suitcases, packed to the very hilt of their 50-pound limit. No lifts. And definitely no sympathy from London travelers.

Not very clever. Craig was sweating and aching, I was doing my best to help lift the bags on and off the trains. And my best is pretty poor. And Lynn was just trying to keep everyone from hating us. Maybe we should have offered them the little bottles??

Anyway, we did finally make it to the Hertford (pronounced "Hartford," naturally, or as the title of this post punningly suggests, "Heartford") station, only to have a cabbie let us know that for three people and six suitcases, it literally would have been cheaper to just take a cab from Heathrow directly to Hertford.

Oh, very clever. We didn't even think of that option. Ahem.

Ann and Geoff are basically Craig's great-aunt and great-uncle. Geoff is Wayne's mom's brother. Ann and Geoff are wonderful wonderful people. They bicker hilariously with each other, they clearly love each other, they have a beautiful house and an amazing garden, and they have simply got things figured out. They know how to spend a day. I have great respect for that. Old souls, I tell you. These two know how and why to have fun. I simply can't explain it. I first met Ann and Geoff about four years ago, and I had really enjoyed their company.

Our first day, well, I was sort of useless. I took a nap and ate and just barely managed a few incoherent thoughts, but I know I had a stupid grin on my face. I was very happy to be at their place again.

But on our second day, we went on a field trip! Like, a trip to a field. I mean it--

A place called Wimpole Farm, it's a real working farm that's managed by the National Trust. It was beautiful, and we took a nice long walk up to the folley.

What's a folley, you ask?

Or, as Ann defined it for me, "It's just an old useless building that doesn't do anything."


Wimpole Farm also has a very nice little cafe and courtyard, wherein we ate some homemade fudge. That's my kind of farm. Ann and Geoff pictured below, with their grand-daughter Ruby in the foreground.

 We spent a few days at Ann and Geoff's, enjoying leisurely mornings, light breakfasts with plenty of coffee, and delicious lunches of cheese, bread, chutney and olives. We went out to the Raj, a surprisingly good Indian restaurant in Hertford, and we went to the weekend farmer's markets. Hertford is a quaint town, with a village sort of feel. We walked along the river and found a HUGE community garden.

Some people even had little sheds set up next to their plots! Very cool.

While we were there, Ann and Geoff had all their kids and their kids' kids around for a little afternoon tea and get-together. A good wholesome family day, with some requisite parent-child wrestling and some forced-grass-feeding. What? You never stuffed grass in your dad's mouth? Man, what kind of sad childhood did you have?

This is Tim (Ann and Geoff's youngest) with his son Stanley. For some unclear reason, Stanley is trying to tear Tim's arm off, but Tim doesn't seem to mind, does he?

And it seems Nicole did manage to feed her dad Nick (Ann and Geoff's eldest) some tasty tasty grass.

I really can't thank Ann and Geogg enough for their hospitality, kindness and generosity; they've already invited me down for Christmas and invited me to visit during the year. I'm really looking forward to it, actually. I love being around Ann and Geoff, and I really like Hertford. It's a small town, but it has a really nice pace. And it's pretty, with cobblestone streets and all. Those few days with Ann and Geoff were so nice, comfortable and fun, we had to make a real effort to leave.

But Lynn only had a week in England, and Craig and I wanted to make sure she saw more  of it than Hertford with us. Where to go? Wales? Scotland? At the bar one night, Nick, Rachel and Tim laid out one option each. Nick and Rachel both suggested heading West, but not going nearly so far as Wales-- too much driving. Tim suggested a radically different route: East. Well, north-east, really. Then Nick spilled his beer on Rachel. Then he told her to stop whinging about it. Oh, it was a fun time.

Anyway, Tim won, and we soon found ourselves driving toward Bury St. Edmonds. But that's for the next post--