Visiting Hobbiton

December 3, 2015 at 08:00PM     Travel Dunedin New Zealand North Island South Island

I've been in lovely New Zealand for the past week. Last week I visited my friend Matt at the University of Otago in Dunedin to give a talk. Matt took me out for a run on the peninsula overlooking Otago Harbour and Dunedin.

The main reason for my visit was to attend the Asiacrypt 2015 conference at the University of Auckland, one of the three main cryptography conferences each year. Among the scientific papers was a very interesting invited talk by Phil Rogaway on the moral character of cryptographic research, which prompted a lot of discussion.

On previous trips to New Zealand, I visited several filming locations for The Lord of the Rings (it's pretty much the biggest tourist draw in the country, and it's hard to throw a stone and not hit something connected with the film series), including the inspiration for Mount Doom and the river down which the Fellowship canoed:

But one location I'd never been to was The Shire. It's in the middle of the north island. The set for the original Lord of the Rings trilogy was never built to last, and so it was mostly torn down after filming completed. When time came to film The Hobbit trilogy, the owners of the farm, knowing the tourism interest, asked that they rebuild using permanent structures that would last, and a new tourist destination was born: Hobbiton!

So, after the conference finished on Thursday afternoon, I drove down to a farm in the middle of nowhere about 2 hours south of Auckland for a tour of the Shire. The location is part of a family farm with sheep, in a little valley surrounded by hills such that you can't see any roads, buildings, or modern creations (making it a perfect filming location). There are a bunch of Hobbit holes, the gigantic Party Tree in the centre of the Shire, a pond, the Green Dragon Pub, and Bilbo and Frodo's house at Bag End at the top of the hill. The various Hobbit holes were built at different scales: 40% so that Gandalf would appear gigantic, and then some at 60%, 80%, and finally 100%, so that adult actors would match the size of their Hobbit holes.

You can find more pictures in my photo gallery.


Hiking in Trondheim

October 19, 2014 at 02:26PM     Travel Norway Trondheim

Trondheim
I'm back in Trondheim, Norway, for a few more weeks visiting a colleague at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). I wrote earlier about our successful viewing of the Northern Lights.

Street corner in Trondheim
Trondheim itself is a lovely small city. It's located along a fjord, with the city centre sandwiched between a river and the fjord, and the residential areas (and the university) located south of the river. Trondheim was the capital of Norway during the Viking age, apparently, and the city still has some very nice old streets and buildings.

Lianvatnet Lake near Lian tram station
Yesterday I went for a hike in Bymarka, the large (80 km square) forest located immediately west of the city. It's gotten quite chilly here, and yesterday the temperature hovered around freezing most of the day, but that actually made for perfect hiking weather. In part, that was due to the trails that I followed through the park.

Frost-covered trail through Bymarka forest
The maps and trail signs, I came to realize, were primarily focused on cross country ski trails. Most of them are quite suitable for hiking, but at least one part of the trail I was taking went through a bit of land that was more like a bog, and I would have gotten quite muddy had the ground not been frozen.

Grønlia hut on Skjellbreia Lake
My destination was the Grønlia hut in the centre of Bymarka, a little coffee shop overlooking a beautiful lake. It was packed with people despite being only accessibly by at least a 4km hike. I took a different route back through more of the park, this time on trails more appropriate to hiking. While I took a train into the park at the beginning of the day, I ended up walking all the way home, for a total hike of 16.3km, in around four and a half hours (including my hot chocolate stop in Grønlia). My legs and feet were a bit tired last night, but it was a great day.

Here are a few more pictures, and you can find more in my photo gallery.


Northern lights in Trondheim

September 14, 2014 at 05:56PM     Travel Norway Trondheim

I'm currently in Trondheim, Norway, the first stop of my 5.5 month research sabbatical, here to work with Prof Colin Boyd whom I worked with in Brisbane before he moved to Trondheim.

Like many people I have desired to see the northern lights. Trondheim is the furthest north I've even been, so I was hopeful I would be able to see them, but knew the chance would still be pretty low.

On Friday morning my mom emailed me telling me she'd heard on the radio there was a solar storm that would be hitting Earth that night, with the possibility of aurora. Making use of aurora forecast websites such as Aurora Service, Soft Serve News, and OVATION, we managed to figure out that there was a good chance of aurora in Trondheim that night, and that the skies were going to be cloudless. One forecast suggested the storm would start around midnight and peak around 5am; we weren't sure whether to stay up or get up early.

Around 10 o'clock the forecast was looking pretty good: a "Kp number" of around 5 was forecast, whereas a Kp number of at least 3.5 is required to see the northern lights in Trondheim. We headed out to a shoreline road along the fjord on the northern edge of Trondheim. Looking out the window, I saw little bits of the northern lights in the sky, so we tried to find somewhere to stop. We got out at one roadside stop along the road, but then moved on to try to find somewhere quieter. We found a nice place right alongside the water, but then noticed right next door was the meeting point of the Hell's Angels (really!) so we moved on. We ended up walking down past some cottages to a rocky beach that would have been underwater at high tide, but was perfect at the time.

And there they were! Northern lights!

Looking out over the water, we saw sheets of light patches in the sky, like tufts of cloud, but fading in and out, moving around. Unexpectedly, they were mostly monochrome to the naked eye, but my camera was picking up colour. They were nebulous to look at, you couldn't really focus on them, as soon as you look at them, the focus shifts and they seem to disappear. It was better to look at a fixed point and let them move in the sky around you, in and out of your focus.

They were different types of aurora, it seemed. Sometimes they were in bands across the lower sky, like in the picture above. Sometimes there were in sheets and clouds all across the middle sky, like this:

Northern lights overhead
And sometime they were in columns and patterns reach up the whole sky, like the dome of a cathedral, with an opening right overhead, giving you a sense of the immensity of the sky (picture at right).

And near the end they were like tendrils snaking across the sky, rapidly forming and dissipating in just a second or two, like a stream of smoke in a jet stream.

I managed to take a series of pictures to create a timelapse video showing the progression of the lights over about 10 minutes:

Northern lights, as they looked to the naked eye
Like I said, the aurora were mostly monochrome to the eye, but the camera managed to pick up green and a hint of red. The pictures above were processed a bit; here's roughly what they looked like to the naked eye (picture at right).

I feel very lucky that on my third night in Trondheim we managed to see the northern lights in one of the strongest solar storms of the year.


Seeing planes in Seattle

August 3, 2014 at 12:04PM     Travel Seattle USA Washington

Last month I visited Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. The last day I was there I had time to do some sightseeing. I visited Seattle in 2003 and again earlier this year, so I thought I'd do something I hadn't done previously.

I spent the day looking at planes.

Boeing Everett Factory
Me at the Boeing Factory Tour
First I took a tour of the Boeing Factory in Everett, Washington, just north of Seattle. That's where they manufacture 747s, 767s, 777s, and 787s. It's the largest building by volume in the world. The picture at left doesn't do its scale justice, although if you look closely in the centre of the picture you can see an aircraft right next to the building, and the aircraft doesn't look so big. During the tour, the building was sufficiently big that, by the end of it, I caught myself thinking "Boy, that 747 looks pretty small". (Tourists are not allowed to take any electronic devices into the factory, so the picture at right is actually a green-screen photo in the visitor centre, but features a real photo of a 747 being made.)

Next I went to Seattle's Museum of Flight. The museum showcases aircraft throughout history. I spent most of my time in two areas of the museum. In an outdoor area, the museum has fairly recent jet aircraft, including one of the 20 remaining Concorde jets, the first Air Force One jet (used by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson), and the first Boeing 747.

My favourite part of the Museum of Flight was the area devoted to space. While the museum did not get one of the Space Shuttles when they were being handed out after retirement, they did get the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT), which is the full replica of the crew compartments that all Space Shuttle crews trained in. Because it's not an original Shuttle, another benefit is that you can actually go inside the crew compartments on a special extra tour. Fortunately they had one spot available that afternoon. I was amazed by how small the crew compartments were. The first picture below has the FFT at the front with a replica of the cargo bay after it. The crew compartments stretch from where the circular black part of the nose cone ends until where the cargo doors begin. It can't be more than 10 feet long. The cockpit is on the upper deck, which is basically the size of an airplane cockpit. The middle deck is the entire crew compartment which has a floor area of maybe 10 feet by 10 feet, and then the lower deck is just a crawlspace for storage. A crew of up to 7 would spend unto 14 days in this tiny space. Amazing.

Suitably, I flew home to Brisbane that night.

More pictures from my trip are in my photo gallery.


Window seat view of Sydney

February 24, 2014 at 03:40PM     Travel Australia Sydney

I always ask for a window seat.