A Summer Week in Iceland

We spent a wonderful week in Iceland. The country is beautiful in a desolate way. Its volcanic origins and geothermal energy makes for spectacular scenery, delicious crystal blue baths, and hot water that often smells of sulphur :-)


The Icelanders we met were friendly and spoke English well. The weather was never warm and often cold & drizzly though we were surprised to learn that the temperatures in winter (esp. in the Southern part of the island) rarely drop below minus five celcius.


Below you'll find pictures of Reykjavik, the Golden Circle (a must-do day trip in the outskirts of the capital), and further afield in the south of the island (admiring many waterfalls, mountains, as well as a fun speed boat trip around the icebergs of Jökulsárlón).


Quick travel tips:

  • In Reykjavik, we stayed in the second floor flat of this apartment building. It was tight for five people but comfortable and very well situated. We rented its car as well. Worked out great.
  • During our "South of Iceland" expedition we stayed at one of the cottages of the Vellir farm. Amenities were good though dinner was pricey.
  • If you want a great meal in Reykjavik I highly recommend the Around the World menu at the Fish Company.
  • We didn't end up doing it but I heard that the boat tour of Vestmannaeyar is really great.
  • Roads are good, internet is fast, people are nice, weather is... variable. Can't have everything! :-)

Four Parks in Five Days

After a great time in Vegas attending Minecon, our family took a road trip to some of the most beautiful and fascinating national parks in the Western US: Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, and Death Valley.

By far the most spectacular of the parks is the Grand Canyon. Its sheer size defeats any attempt to capture its magnificence in a picture. You just have to see it. We spent our day first at the National Geographic visitors center (the IMAX movie is worth it), then visiting many vista points along the south rim. Everywhere you stop a new view of the canyon takes your breath away.

Hotel-wise we were very happy with the rooms & amenities at the Best Western Grand Canyon: conveniently close to the park, plus not every hotel has pool tables and its own bowling alley. Great fun with kids!

Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are close together but worlds apart. Bryce's myriad stone spires make the park the more visually appealing of the two but our boys enjoyed climbing and exploring Zion more. Both are well worth a visit, you can stay at either park. Not knowing that up front, we chose Zion. The town is pretty and larger than I'd expected. We stayed at the Quality Inn. It was a little spartan but the price was great, breakfast good, wifi free, and the people very friendly. Dinner at the Spotted Dog Cafe was delicious and surprisingly affordable with kids.

Death Valley's strange landscapes and salt flats made us feel that we'd gone back in time a few billions years. Visiting in late November, the temperatures were very comfortable.

Lodging was a disappointment though. With no competition, Furnace Creek Ranch charges double what rooms are worth. If you make a long day of it, you can see most of Death Valley's attractions so you may want to stay off park. While we're at it, fill up your gas tank before entering Death Valley, or do so at Stovepipe Wells. The prices we saw at Furnace Creek hovered at a sweltering $5.50/gallon!

If you're driving from Las Vegas, set aside a day to get to each park (except Bryce & Zion which are two hours apart). Don't worry, you won't spend the whole day in the car: at some point the scenery along the way will be just too tempting...


A final tip: Buy a National Parks Annual Pass. At $80 this quickly pays for itself as the cost of a park entry is $25/day and, in some parks, card holders can take advantage of faster entry lane.

A Fortnight in Belgium

Being in Belgium reminded me that it was high time I blogged some summer pictures. We spent two lovely weeks in the small Belgian seaside town of Wenduine.

We swam in the North Sea (chilly but nowhere near as cold as Northern California's Pacific Ocean), played on the big sandy beaches, pedaled our go-carts madly around town, visited Bruges and Brussels, spent time with friends & family, and of course… Ate waffles!

The painting is Pieter Bruegel's "The Fight between Carnival and Lent", created in 1559. This is just a small part of the wonderfully detailed canvases Bruegel produced. As you can see, even back then waffles were a big deal here! :-)

Mount Diablo Tarantulas

As I was biking up Mount Diablo the other day, I came across an animal I'd been keeping an eye out for: a male tarantula in wanderlust. They're easiest to spot as they cross the road, and this one was quite determined to get to the other side.

In the fall the male tarantulas set off in search of females to mate with. If she doesn't eat him (which she'll only do if she's famished) he'll keep looking for partners until the cold weather, or a hungry lover, gets him. Females, on the other hand, can live up to twenty years.

I've always liked spiders but this one was wary of me and wouldn't stay on my hand. That's OK :-)

This article has more information about these fascinating creatures.

A Weekend in Quebec

I recently traveled to Montreal on business and, having never experienced Quebec before, I stayed over the weekend. Like most of North America, a heatwave was gripping the area and sunshine abounded.

When I asked my Montreal friends for recommendations of things to do, their suggestions almost invariably involved eating. "You have to try poutine!", "Montreal has *real* bagels," and "You should definitely stop at Schwartz's, it's an institution." (Sadly Schwartz's wasn't yet open for business when I visited. Tip: don't get there before 10:30 in the morning)

Friday evening I spent visiting the Vieux Montreal, the oldest, most touristy section of Montreal. Quaint cobblestone streets and old buildings. The Notre Dame basilica is worth visiting. I had my first poutine at a restaurant called, you'll never guess, Montreal Poutine. So what it this famous delicacy? A culinary masterpiece of fries smothered in gravy and cottage cheese (i.e. cheese curds). It wasn't that bad, but not really that enjoyable either. I expect this may well be my last poutine. The bagels were good.

On Saturday I walked over 15 miles, most of them in the company of a German tourist, Frederik, who I ran into in the morning. Having someone to enjoy the sights with made it all the more fun. We first explored the Mont Royal, a large hill just north west of the Vieux Montreal with great views of the city. On the other side of the hill is the biggest cemetery I've ever visited. It's well maintained and I took pleasure in wandering through it on our way to Saint Joseph's Oratory, one of the most famous churches in Montreal. A walk down Sherbrooke Street rounded out the afternoon with visits to McGill University and the Museum of Fine Arts (which is free BTW, I love it when a government sponsors learning!). In the evening I thoroughly enjoyed a hilarious rendition of Moliere's play Les Fouberies de Scapin.

Sunday was time for a change. I wanted to get out of Montreal and experience some of Quebec's beautiful countryside. So I set out for Mont Tremblant, one of the highest peaks in the area at 900m (3000ft) and about 2 hours' drive north. The area is very pretty and resembles a cross between Switzerland and Norway. After visiting the summit by gondola, I headed over to the national park (which is over half the size of Luxemburg!) for five hours of climbing a via ferrata. Our group of eight had great fun.

All in all I had a wonderful time, not least of which because Montreal is the first place I've been in North America where I can speak French to almost everyone. I just wish the rest of my family had been with me!

Stunning Norwegian Auroras

Love the way this was filmed. The smooth panning transforms the time lapse pictures. Norway is such a beautiful country (if a little cold ;-)

Auroras are the result of the solar wind colliding with gases in the earth's upper atmosphere (more details). A wonderful combination of art and science.

Visualizing One Hundred Years of Pacific Rim Earthquakes

Whenever I hear of a major earthquake, I always wonder when our turn will come. I've been asking myself that question way too frequently recently. My family and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, prime earthquake country (or so I thought until I looked at Japan...). I started playing with NOAA's earthquake data after the New Zealand earthquake. After the recent Japan quake, I thought I'd publish a few graphics. 

Disclaimer: I'm no geologist, statistician, or expert on earthquakes. I don't even play one on TV. I don't think anyone can predict earthquakes with any certainty (though there is some interesting research) and I certainly won't try.

The Ring of Fire is the name given to the chain of mountains, volcanoes, and faults that ring the Pacific Ocean. Of the world's 16 largest earthquakes since 1900, 15 occurred in the Ring of Fire.

Here's an interesting graphic showing the earthquakes above 6.0 magnitude that have hit the Ring of Fire region since 1900. Earthquakes of magnitudes between 6 and 7 are in green, between 7 and 8 in blue, and 8 or higher in red.

Notice anything? Well, as a Californian, the first thing that struck me was: "we're getting off lightly!".

This movie gives you a different way to see the earthquakes. Same legend as before: magnitude 6+ green, 7+ blue, 8+ red. The video isn't the most exciting one you'll ever see. It helps to pick a point of interest on the map and imagine some elevator music in the background :-)

Let's dig deeper...

Japan, California, New Zealand, and Chile

Looking at the graph above it's clear California gets fewer earthquakes than many other parts of the Ring.

When I compare a circular area 2,000km around the center of Japan with the same size area around California (centered on San Francisco), Japan has been hit four times as often by large (i.e. 6+ magnitude) earthquakes than California (~200 vs. ~50).

Here are Japan's large earthquakes, with 6.x, 7.x, and 8+ magnitude earthquakes broken out (notice that the data for 6.x earthquakes in 1900-1950 is likely incomplete):

The equivalent map for the 2,000 km surrounding San Francisco looks like this (sorry, no, there are no 8+ earthquakes, NOAA has the 1906 one at 7.9):

Let's look at the "earthquake history" in the other recent hotspots: New Zealand and Chile.

Earthquakes from 1900-2011 in a 2,000km area centered on Christchurch, New Zealand.

And finally South America. 2,000km area centered on Santiago, Chile. (That 9.5'er in 1960 was a monster). 

BTW, I've only focused on a few of the Ring of Fire hotspots. Indonesia, Central America, etc. are all very active.

So are we Californians due for an earthquake?

As I wrote earlier: Who really knows? On the one hand 110 years of data tells us that our corner of the Ring of Fire experiences 25% as many earthquakes as Japan. On the other hand... It may be about time for a big one to hit us.

Simon Winchester (an author whose many books I'd recommend, esp. The Man Who Loved Chinawrote recently:

[The Chile, New Zealand, and Japan earthquakes]  involved more or less the same family of circum-Pacific fault lines and plate boundaries—and though there is still no hard scientific evidence to explain why, there is little doubt now that earthquakes do tend to occur in clusters: a significant event on one side of a major tectonic plate is often—not invariably, but often enough to be noticeable—followed some weeks or months later by another on the plate’s far side. [...]

Now there have been catastrophic events at three corners of the Pacific Plate—one in the northwest, on Friday; one in the southwest, last month; one in the southeast, last year.

That leaves just one corner unaffected—the northeast.

Are earthquakes really clustered? I haven't analyzed the data for correlations. Just eyeballing the graphs above, there are enough earthquakes happening around the Pacific Rim that you could claim some correlation exists.

If you want my advice... Better safe than sorry: Be prepared.

Technical Info

All graphs were created with Mathematica 8, one of my favorite pieces of software. It's a tremendously powerful package and, though it does have a bit of a learning curve, the help system is excellent at giving lots of examples.

There's a lot more that could, and probably should, be done with this data: time-based analysis, looking for correlations, leveraging more of the data (e.g. tsunamis, impact of earthquakes, etc.).

The graphs above are pretty simple. Mathematica can create much more sophisticated ones. Here's 3D version of the Japan-area earthquakes.


Fraser Island: The World's Biggest Sand Island

Slowly making our way south to Brisbane we decided to visit Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. Fraser's a pretty unique place: over 1,000 square miles of sand with rain forests, fresh water lakes, dunes, mangroves, swamps, the purest strain of dingo in Australia and much more. Life is so abundant here thanks in large part to fungi in the sand which release nutrients for plants to absorb.

We chose a two day tour of the island via Queensland Bookings. We were picked up at our hotel on the mainland in Hervey Bay, bused to a ferry terminal, and then on to Fraser itself. The buses have a high clearance and, I assume, four wheel drive to able to negotiate all the sandy roads. Day one mainly consisted of stops at Lake Wabbi and Lake McKenzie. They were both delightful to swim in, esp. McKenzie whose waters were cool and blue. Diving to its bottom (depth 10-15 meters?) I startled some turtles rooting about its bed.

We stayed overnight at Eurong Station. The accommodations were very spacious but be aware that there is no AC here. Eurong uses generators to supply it with electricity and air conditioning would draw too much power. The fans kept us pretty cool though.

The second day we drove up and down Fraser's east coast highway... its beach of course :-) We saw what was left of the 1930s Maheno wreck, the colored sands further on, the view from Indian Heads, and cooled off in a delightfully refreshing creek. Thomas and I took a plane ride in an Air Van to admire the island from the air. As a pilot myself, this was a treat even if I didn't get to touch the controls ;-)

Travel tips:
  • There are many ways to see Fraser: in addition to 1, 2, and 3 day tours, you can also rent 4x4s and explore the island on your own. Use your favorite search engine to find options
  • It had rained the night before our arrival so the sand was moist. Turns out that was lucky because when the weather's very dry the sand can get everywhere. Protect your camera and other gear accordingly
  • There's plenty of food at the resorts and (on the second day) on the bus but it never hurts to have extra snack, esp. if you have kids
  • Sunscreen!

Sailing the Whitsundays in a 100 year old ship

The Whitsundays, a large collection of islands off the east coast of Australia are a famous destination for tourists and sailors alike. There are hundreds of idyllic beaches and coves dotted around the islands, and a good number of resorts as well. Though you can rent your own sailing ship to tour the islands, we decided we'd have more fun letting more qualified sailors do the work!

We booked a three day / three night trip on the Solway Lass and were as taken by her as with the islands. Originally built in Holland, the Lass has had an exciting life that includes serving in both world wars as well as trading throughout the South Pacific. She moved to the Whitsundays about 10 years ago and was renovated for the tourism industry. That means her quarters were reasonably comfortable (with a decent AC system) but not up to the quality of our cabins on our Great Barrier Reef diving trip.

We had a great time. The first day was rainy which unfortunately didn't make for the best snorkeling conditions but we still saw plenty of marine life. Just as fun was the rope swing and diving off the bow, our boys couldn't get enough. The crew were always friendly and took good care of us. The second and third days were beautifully sunny and included island exploration, esp. the famous Whitehaven Beach, voted one of the top ten beaches in the world.

Perhaps the nicest aspect of the trip was the great company we had on board: a Danish bartender, British-Kiwi affiliate marketeers, a US investment banker, a German Nightwish groupie, a Brazilian environmental engineer... We loved getting to know everyone.

Travel tips:
  • Book well in advance, at least a month or two to make sure you get the cabin you want
  • The snorkeling gear onboard is OK but they don't have flippers, bring your own if that really matters to you
  • There's very little space on board so pack lightly. The good news is that you don't need much
  • Bring a few dry snacks (cookies, chocs, chips) in case you get peckish between meals (esp. if you have children)
  • Don't forget your sunscreen!
  • Have dinner before you board, your first on the ship is at 10PM that night
  • You can leave your car parked in the marina lot, it was pretty safe
  • Consider booking a room in or around Airlie Beach for the night of your return

The Beautiful Atherton Tablelands

The Tablelands are a fertile set of plateaus to the West of Cairns in the North Eastern tip of Australia. It's a lush, verdant land with red red earth, rain forests, plains, hills, and much beauty. We spent a couple weeks in and around Atherton, the Tablelands' capital, and had a wonderful time (thanks to some great recommendations by friends).

Things to do:
  • The waterfalls! We visited in the "wet" (aka summer) and, thanks to recent rains, the waterfalls were in full bloom. Two are pictured below. The largest is Millaa Millaa falls, the smaller Malanda Falls. You can swim in both and it's a wonderfully refreshing experience...
  • ... As is swimming in crater lakes such as Eacham and Barrine (below). A remnant of the region's volcanic past the water is clean and free of crocs
  • Mount Hypipamee's crater is more impressive still but you can't swim in it
  • The Barron River cuts through the Tablelands, literally, giving rise to the Barron Falls which are over 200m high in places
  • There are unique fig trees in the area. Pictured below is the Curtain Fig tree. There's also a Cathedral Fig tree but we didn't have time to visit it
  • Yungaburra and Tolga both have large fruit bat colonies. Yungaburra also has a monthly arts and craft market
  • Keen on Aussie wildlife, Aborigine customs, and the rain forest? Take a day trip to Rainforestation, our boys had a blast there and, considering all you get to do, it was great value for money (more than Steve Irwin's Australia Zoo IMO). We took all three "tours" they offer and highly recommend a visit. BTW that's a cassowary, a dingo, and a saltwater croc below
  • If you're a World War II buff there's a decent museum on the road between Atherton and Mareeba, though a little pricey
  • The Crystal Caves is a shop / museum in Atherton. If you're really into rocks I'd take the self guided tour, otherwise just check out all that's on display in the shop
  • This list is far from comprehensive!