Saturday, October 31, 2009

Retro-blogging IstanBulgaria Part 5: Istanbul Miscellany

From Sunday, Sept 20, 2009

  • Istanbul is one of those places that has cats everywhere! Kittens wander the streets wherever you go.

  • I didn't realize how much I've grown used to Qatar weather until now. For one thing, the air is no longer hot enough to incinerate all insect life, so there are mosquitos here. Apparently I'm quite the feast, because they're eating me alive. For another thing, there's rain -- sweet, wet rain -- and the clouds have already sprung a few short but unexpected shower bursts on us. Finally, the nights and mornings are cool enough that I sometimes have to wear a jacket (with long sleeves!). Good thing I packed one.

  • Turkey's signature liquor is raki, which I finally had the chance to try last night. It's a clear drink but turns milky white when mixed with water, which is how it was served to us. It smells like black licorice. It's also kind of disgusting. I probably wouldn't get it again.

  • Everyone plays backgammon -- most cafes have at least some tables with backgammon boards laid out for customers to play. Right now my game is pretty weak -- I know I learned to play way way back in the day but can't remember the last time I did so.

Friday, October 30, 2009

I got a guitar

Her name is Chandra -- she's my first. I picked her up from Al Badie music store a few weeks ago, and we've spent a lot of time on those hot, muggy Doha nights getting to know each other a little better.

WTA Tour in Doha

A couple nights ago, a group of us went -- along with a couple buses of students from Education City -- to watch Day 2 of the WTA Tour Championships in Doha. 8+ hours spent at the Khalifa Tennis Complex seeing:

  • Caroline Wozniacki v. Victoria Azarenka
  • Jelena Jankovic v. Dinara Safina
  • Serena Williams v. Venus Williams

The last match went on past midnight (and we had to be up at 6am the next morning), but it was completely worth it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Retro-blogging IstanBulgaria Part 4: Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and Ayasofya

From September 19, 2009 (adapted)

Last night, the 7 of us went to visit the Blue Mosque and unsuccessfully tried to do similarly with the Ayasofya and Topkapi Palace (they were closed). Today we tried again with the latter two, this time with positive results. Pictures to come, when I finally post this.

Blue Mosque

Walking from the tram station to our hostel, you pass two major mosques on either side of you. One is the Ayasofya -- more on that below. The other is the Blue Mosque, aka the Sultanahmet Mosque. Following Islamic practice, we had to remove our shoes before entering and make sure we weren't wearing shorts, and the ladies had to don headscarves while inside.

(Last picture was in the morning several days later)

Topkapi Palace

This was the palace of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire for several hundred years and kind of reminds me of a smaller but greener Forbidden City. Lots of individual buildings, separated by spacious courtyards. Within lots of the buildings are displays of artifacts -- clothes, weapons, jewelry, everyday and not-so-everyday objects, etc. -- that puts the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha to shame, as nice as the latter is. Unfortunately, we were forbidden from taking pictures of the displays: one guy who tried otherwise was loudly ratted out by some other angry fat visitor in a red shirt.

Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia)

Probably my favorite of our big three tourist stops. Originally an Orthodox/Catholic cathedral, the Ottomans converted it into a mosque when they took control of the city. Looking inside, there's a really strange mixture of the two worlds. The building is this giant work of Byzantine architecture with half-remaining Christian-themed mosaics all over the walls, but it's superimposed with Ottoman decorations and circular plates of Arabic calligraphy reading "Muhammed," "Ali," etc. Some major restoration work was underway when we visited, but there was lots of interesting and beautiful stuff to see inside.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Retro-blogging IstanBulgaria Part 3: The Carpet Salesman Incident

From Friday, Sept 18, 2009

3:17 pm -- It's hard to blend in when walking around here, even among the tourist crowds, so a lot of people on the street will stop me to ask me where I'm from or try to guess. People have been calling out, "Konichiwa!" or sometimes, "Hey -- Korean?" So far I usually respond to the former with a bland English "Hi," and the latter usually leads to a guessing game, which approximately plays out in this order: Korean? --> Japanese? --> Singaporean? --> Taiwanese?/Thai?/Vietnamese? It's generally a friendly kind of exchange, but the bottom line is that I get pegged pretty easily as the Asian tourist stereotype. Granted, it probably doesn't help that there's always a big camera dangling from my shoulder.

But that brings up the Carpet Salesman Incident, which happened this morning, just before meeting up with S/N/A/A (the first arriving group). At the time, I was walking around Sultanahmet again, exploring more side streets and shops in the last couple hours I had to myself. It turns out there are Turkish carpet shops on almost every street, catering specially to the tourist clientele. As you walk by the shops, the owners are invariably calling out to you, trying to get you into their stores so you can buy yourself a carpet. And they're super-persistent about it.

Anyway, I wandering near the tram station, and all of a sudden, this middle-aged guy on the street stops me and asks me if I'm Japanese -- cue the usual guessing sequence. After the expected try-try-again on his part, I reveal the answer (Chinese), though he guesses pretty quickly that I'm American too. He starts making small talk with me and asks me how people like Obama in America, if I've seen New York City, what it's like, etc. He then (surprise surprise) eases into telling me that he's a "businessman in the area" who sells carpets and has his shop nearby -- would I like to see it?

I tell him as clearly as I can that, no, I'm not interested at all in buying right now, and I have a meeting scheduled with friends very soon (completely true). He says that that's okay, but that I should just come have a look and tell my friends if I liked what I saw. In retrospect the smart thing to do obviously would've been to end it there, but at the time I figured that (a) it was broad daylight, (b) the shop was right across from an outdoor restaurant with plenty of tourists sitting around, and (c) I'm a little interested but I've already been firm about not buying. So he leads me into the shop -- it's not too big -- and there are display cases of jewelry off to one side, while lots of big Turkish carpets hang everywhere else.

The encounter then starts to get shady: he motions for me to sit on a couch that puts me mostly out of view of the street. Very quickly, he offers me a small glass of hot apple tea, explaining graciously that this is a gesture of Turkish hospitality. Which is nice of him, except that he repeatedly encourages me to drink and finish the tea, with an insistence that really puts me on the defensive. I only pretend to take a sip (post-trip addendum: for the record, I tried apple tea later and it turns out to be quite good). To explain something about my state of mind: at this point, I'm remembering a story told to me about a friend of a friend who was on vacation and woke up, ostensibly after being drugged, with his wallet and passport gone.

The man talks to me about nothing in particular for a while (some several minutes, probably). Then, another, more athletic-looking man comes into the shop walks into the room. Around this time, I'm feeling distinctly intimidated and am vaguely reminded of some ominous scene from a mob movie, and I start to get really uneasy. The original carpet salesman introduces the second man as his brother, who starts trying to make small talk with me. As this happens, I'm planning a hasty exit, which is partly blocked by Man #2. Both men continue to insist that I stay for a while and just finish my tea, and I'm telling them that I really can't stay for much longer.

After a few minutes of this, during which I'm starting to get quite nervous, my phone rings -- I hadn't planned to use it because of the exorbitant roaming charges, but I'd left it switched on in case I needed to check the time. The ringing turns out to be a text from Qtel, the Qatari phone company, just sending me info on how to use my phone here in Turkey, but it gives me the pretext I need to slip away. I tell the two men that I'm really sorry, but I have to go: my friends are here and they're waiting for me. They insist some more that I stay, but after refusing as politely as possible, I quickly slip out the door and speedwalk back to the main road as fast as I can.

Anyway, everyone's been arriving now on schedule and all's well. It's easily possible that I was overly paranoid -- being pushy and hospitable are both pretty common practice for vendors around here. Still, this was before I'd regrouped with everyone, so it wasn't the best time to be taking chances. At any rate, it was kind of a weird morning.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Prelim week, take one

Just this week we gave the first physics prelim (midterm exam) of the semester, so the Turkey/Bulgaria retro-blogs have been on hold since we've been way busier than usual. Our office has been literally overflowing with students asking questions, and we've been mobbed by even more of them on our way to and from class. Plus, as per the usual pre-exam routine, we held a review session in addition to our regular class duties. Not to give the wrong idea -- I definitely enjoy helping anyone who comes asking (and it's part of the job anyway), but it's been almost as exhausting giving the exam as taking one ourselves.

Hopefully things calm down some, now that the test is over. Next up: grading them.

Friday, October 2, 2009

But officer, the light was doppler-shifted to green

Most of the major intersections we pass through in Doha are roundabouts, in which otherwise normal drivers are transformed into complete maniacs. For better or worse, though, they (the roundabouts, not the drivers) are very good at making traffic flow more efficiently than signaled intersections. However, there are still a lot of traffic light intersections, as well as "controlled" roundabouts in which traffic lights direct the flow of cars through the roundabout (the latter combines the worst of both worlds, and I don't understand why they even need to exist). Some of these lights stay red for an unusually long time, which makes it just a little frustrating to wait at those intersections.

There's a way around this that was mentioned the other day: if you're driving fast enough, the red light will look green to you. Most people are familiar with the Doppler effect for sound waves, whether or not they know it by name: a siren traveling toward you will sound higher in pitch than one standing still with you, and in turn, a siren traveling away from you will sound lower in pitch. The same is true for light waves, but you need to use special relativity to describe it since light travels at the same speed no matter how fast you're going (sound travels at the speed of sound, but only relative to the air itself). If you're driving toward a light, you'll see it as a shorter wavelength ("blue-shifted," but not necessarily blue) than if you were just standing still with the light.

So the question is how fast you have to go for a red light to look like a green one. This is a problem you'd typically get in a special relativity class, but I'd forgotten the answer for some time so here is the calculation. If the traffic light is normally shining red, and you're speeding toward it at a velocity $$v$$, then the wavelength of light you see changes according to the equation (derivation, if interested)

\[\lambda_{obs} = \lambda_{red} \sqrt{ \frac{1 - v/c}{1 + v/c} } .\]
where $\lambda_{obs}$ is the wavelength of light that you observe from your speeding car, $\lambda_{red}$ is the wavelength of the red light, and $c$ is the speed of light (300 million meters per second). Rewriting the equation gives you

\[v = c \left( \frac{\lambda_{red}^2 - \lambda_{obs}^2}{\lambda_{red}^2 + \lambda_{obs}^2} \right) .\]
Red light has a wavelength ($\lambda_{red}$) of about 650 nm, and green light has a wavelength ($\lambda_{obs}$) of about 550 nm. Plug everything in and you get

\[v = \frac{24}{145} c \approx \frac{1}{6} c . \]
So you'd have to be driving at one-sixth the speed of light, or 50 million meters per second, or over 100 million mph. In one second, you'd encircle the Earth once and then some. But assuming you could push your car that fast, you could run a red light and legitimately tell the cops that it looked green to you.

Then again, they'd probably have a hard time catching you anyway. Plus, the actual green lights would look blue, which would just be really weird.