All work and play, Day 5

Another back-dated day from the Balkans Trip, originally at

It was gloriously sunny, the perfect day to explore the town of Mostar on my own.  I got lost and then found again, crossed five bridges (in both directions), read a book and composed several post cards.  I did not, however, consume my required 3 espresso-based drinks.

James fastidiously programmed away save a lunch and dinner break where we enjoyed waterfront dining and fantastic Italian-inspired food, respectively.

In the hours between sunset and pitch black, we explored Počitelj, an Ottoman Empire fortress with an incredible amphitheater, sizable mosques and steep staircases. Attempting photos in the dark proved fruitless, so we ventured back to Mostar and enjoyed a very good dinner at Restaurant Schumann. I suggest if you in town, you take the mile plus walk to this harbor of home-made pasta, breads and local charm.  No tourists.

One culinary observation: we always get the “basic” bread when we sit down (part of the 2 euro per person cover charge). Other diners get some version of a grilled thick pita bread.  I’ve asked for the local bread, and then received a side of cold, deflated pita.  Moreover, when I request garlic (another of my daily requirements), I get whole, raw cloves, which I do my best to macerate with a butter knife. More words to learn.

Tomorrow, we will mobilize to Dubrovnik, where our plans and expectations of Croatia await.

Balkan Ballad

I’ve dropped off the net with looming deadlines at the end of this month. But, before the deadlines were scheduled, Flame and I planned a trip to the Balkans, where we are now! Well, we didn’t exactly “plan” it. But we bought tickets, and are figuring it out as we go.

You can follow our journeys as she blogs them at! There is also a steady stream of Instagram photos (featuring food, scenery, and art, in that order).

I ❤ small towns, Day 4

Another back-dated day from the Balkans Trip, originally at

Today, we decided to go to Bosnia. The drive from Montenegro to Bosnia provided stunning views of the bay, snowcapped mountains, vocal yacks, and sacks of potatoes for sale by the side of the road. We took the long way ‘round, with the prettiest of views (cue song lyrics), following the serpentine shore of the Bay of Kotor. The bay narrows into a strait, flowing into an upper bay, with an island monastery sitting at its mouth. All around the bay are jutting cliffs, with terracotta roofs in isolated hamlets. We climbed through strings of tunnels and Old-Western style homesteads, before coming to the vineyards of Bosnia.

Crossing the border was pretty easy, with no bribes needed. The green card we purchased through the rental car agency seemed to do the trick. We approached the tiny town of Mostar (which I still want to call monster…) three hours later.

Mostar pulls at heart strings with its picturesque bridges and stone-lined streets.  To seal the deal on its delights, our boutique hotels provides unlimited cookies for James.  By driving through the vertical and tiny streets—as we saw on a sign earlier— “you risk your life”. But now settled, we plan to stay two nights so that tomorrow can be spent with my purchasing of hand painted decorative items (Turkish style) and James making climate models (computer style).  We are both helping the world, I reckon.

This evening we strolled along the dividing river, where locals were watching football and filling time during the “low” season.  Observation: men and women seem to run in separate groups.  Not in the forcibly gender segregated way we saw in Egypt, but far from the coed peer groups you get in the US.

I love that wifi is available virtually everywhere here, so if any on you darling readers have an iPhone, it’s free to message and facetime me, and I would love that tomorrow (Note the 5 hour time difference ahead of EST).

Chiseled features, Day 3

Another back-dated day from the Balkans Trip, originally at

It’s Wednesday so we must be in another country…

We flew to Tivat, Montenegro and rented a car (with limited challenge but moderate wait for the car to arrive) from now through Sunday. Our first stop is the picturesque Bay of Kotor. It was drizzly and cold when we arrived, but we left the car safely (if expensively) at a car park and ventured into the walled city on foot to find our centrally-located hotel in the winding streets.

Kotor is a city covered in beautiful white and tan stone: the streets are tiled, the water drains are carved, the churches and homes are built of huge, sturdy blocks. Shops and caffes sprout shingle signs, carefully branded for the onrush of tourists that will arrive by yacht in May. The mountain rises with water-sculpted towers, looming imposingly behind the city, with the city wall snaking along its highest ridges.   Montenegro feels like a more cloistered Greece; they also use the Euro but seem to resent it.

As the light waned, James thought it would be a great idea to explore the step mountain—on foot. When I protested, he conceded that we could drive. At a 70 degree slope, we were greeted by 25 hair pin turns. I backed down—from several cars—and then out–when it became pitch black and the Bay sneered bellow, reflecting the schizophrenic headlights of cars that took the curves at 100 kph.

We decided to find our way back on safer roads, and selected the Stari Mlini ( for dinner. Named for the working water wheel on the far side of the Bay, we enjoyed stunning salads, clay-oven-prepared eggplant and local octopus. The dining room was warmed by a fire and we were the sole “seasonal” dinners at 8pm. The chardonnay made 50 km away was not unpleasant.

Back in the car, we zoomed to the hotel so James could do some calls (translate: be on the computer for the next 4 hours) while I explored the night life in town. I sampled the local rose and red wines, and for young grapes, they outshine VA productions. I happened upon a Bollywood style music video production underway, where the singers were dressed as jesters and Princess Jasmine. The taping concluded with some well positioned fireworks that illuminated the fortress walls. I also passed the youth hostel, where I head a smattering of German and a sole American voice complaining about Adweek and LA.

Tomorrow, we plan to enjoy the free breakfast and then head to Mostar, Bosnia, and perhaps reconsider the treacherous drive into the hills of the Adriatic coast.

NB: A note on the format of these blogs: I write steam of conscious observations then James edits for accuracy (i.e. spelling of locations) and adds alliterative adages (self-explanatory and excruciating). Please submit your comments, c/o the Internet to us.

Sad to leave Novi Sad, Day 2

Another back-dated day from the Balkans Trip!

Happy Pi Day!

Goal: consume as many Serbian pies as possible today.

We started at a lovely coffee shop providing extensive chemistry lessons on coffee composition and bean varietal. James had a Nutella croissant, which he counts as pie number one of the day.

Took a bus 1.5 hours to the northwest of Belgrade to the darling town of Novi Sad where we had a fantastic meal at Fish & Zelenish (, feasting on baked feta, sizable salads and salmon tar-tar above an open kitchen. They gifted us a cookbook/menu and regional salt. No pie was consumed, but we somehow were not feeling deprived. It was definitely the best meal we’ve had so far.

We wandered the dense old town, of tiled streets and artist resalers. Found a swanky hotel to take some work meetings/calls and make arrangements for tomorrow. Amended plan includes flying into Tivat, Montenegro and renting a car to explore the coast. Why Tivat? Oh, tickets are only €60, compared to €250 flights or 12 hour buses to go half the distance.

Dinner was a very late, with an overpriced excursion to the Opera/restaurant. Sitting in a plush overhead booth, with a silent bell tassel to call the waiter, we order ambergine with raw garlic and baked goats (cheese). Alas, after hours, the music was recorded and the kitchen too early shuttered.

The day in numbers:

  • Pies consumed: 0.314
  • Ratio of time on train to time on bus to cover the dame distance: 1.8 to 1
  • (Took the bus to Novi Sad, and the train back. The price was the same, time spent was not).
  • Jewish historical sites visited: 2
  • Post cards sent: 3
  • Bread products sampled: 6
  • Churches seen: 14
  • Enclosed spaces with smoking: 100% minus Fish & Zelenish.

Balkan Bash 2016, Day 1

I’ve decided to cross-post the blog entries from two recent and wonderful trips Johanna and I took.  These are originally from, and many are purely Johanna’s work.  I’m going to feed these in one-a-day, back-posted as needed.

First day in Belgrade, Serbia, and visually it’s a Kiev-Budapest mashup: soviet buildings next ionic columns, next to burnt out structures along cobblestone streets. I love the green areas, open spaces populated by off-leash dogs, often in brightly color sweaters, meters away from owners smoking cigarettes in jogging suits. Roller blades are also popular here, along the wide pedestrian-only stretches of Stari Grad, lined by excessive bookshops, hair salons and coffee shops, all of which provide a long list of alcoholic beverages.

From 2-10pm, we explored on foot, checking the “largest temple (actually a church) in the Balkans” off our list, as well as the national buildings, which evoked DC in their proximity to each other and disproportionate number of phallic sculptures surrounding. Also cheeked out the Nikola Tesla Museum ( where his genius was referenced in every sentence and the museum was conquerable in the 30 minutes we had before closing. In case you were wondering, there were no cars.

Lunch was at Smokvica (Kralja Petra 73) and for dinner we were serenaded by a traditional Roma band of fiddle, accordion and base at Sesir Moj (MY Hat, Skarska 21). The best food, ‘salads’, are really dips. Roasted red pepper and feta; zucchini and yogurt; maybe something mayo based with garlic? We had a trout that was smoked and then seared providing a profoundly savory flavor that only James cared for.

Feeling like we have totally “won” the city, tomorrow we will take a day trip to Novi Sad to bite into the Po’Boy of Serbia at the Index House, explore what is described as a “chipper” and “less smoky” town, about an hour away by bus. Dinner plans include seeing the opera while enjoying smoked salmon (no one calls it lox here) at Little Bay (

New work of the day: Hvalah “thank you” pronounced like “hell-of-a”.

From there, the 10 days ahead look like this:

  • Sunday and Monday in Belgrade (nights of 3/13 and 3/14)
  • Tuesday travel to Mostar, Bosnia to visit the “most beautiful bridge in the Balkans” and explore some vineyards (nights of 3/15 and 3/16–unless we think that country can also be consumed in less time…)
  • Thursday travel to Dubruvnick, Croatia (nights of 3/17 and 3/18)
  • Saturday make our way to Kotar, Montenegro (nights of 3/19 and 3/20)
  • Sunday, explore Pristina, Kosovo or Skopje, Macedonia (spending 3/21 and 3/22 in whichever we select –coin toss likely involved)
  • On Tuesday the 22nd we will find ourselves in Sofia, Bulgaria where we fly out of on the 23rd and back to NYC.

This itinerary will absolutely change–check back daily for country updates.

First round of postcards to be sent out on Monday 3/14, photos to be posted whenever wifi is available (on Instagram first @johannaisgreat).

Science and language

One of the rolling banners at last year’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union had a scantly-clad woman and the words “This is what most people think of as a ‘model’”. See, scientists have a communications problem. It’s insidious, and you forget how people use words and then feel attacked when you have to change how you speak.

I have a highly-educated editor working with me on the coffee and climate change report, and she got caught up on a word I use daily: “coefficient”. For me, a coefficient is just a kind of model parameter. I replaced all the uses of “coefficient” with “parameter”, but I simultaneously felt like it dumbed out an important distinction and wondered if “parameter” was still not dumbed down enough.

AGU has a small team trying to help scientists communicate better. I think they are still trying to figure out how to help those of us who want their help. I went to their session on bridging the science-policy divide, and they spent a half hour explaining that we have two houses of congress. Nonetheless, it is a start, and they sent us home with communication toolkits on USB. One gem stood out in particular:

So I will try to reduce the ignorance and political distortions of my devious communication plots, until I can flip the zodiac on this good response loop. Wish me luck.

Travel plans

It’s going to be a busy six months for travel! I returned to Berkeley after a week in NYC, and in just a month I will be there again. And again in March and May. Between now and June, I will also touch New Orleans, DC, Boston, multiple Balkan countries, and Iceland! (Both of the last have had great sales recently– you might still be able to get $99 tickets to Iceland if you don’t mind being encased in ice.)

In the spirit of Mystery Hunt (except that I’ll give you the month names, so you don’t have to infer them from the month pictures of my shiny new Worlds of Fiction wall calendar), I give you my travels:

Travels planned for 2016

Tropict: A clearer depiction of the tropics

Tropict is a set of python and R scripts that adjust the globe to make land masses in the tropics fill up more visual real estate. It does this by exploiting the ways continents naturally “fit into” each other, splicing out wide areas of empty ocean and nestling the continents closer together.

All Tropict scripts are designed to show the region between 30°S and 30°N. In an equirectangular projection, that looks like this:


It is almost impossible to see what is happening on land: the oceans dominate. By removing open ocean and applying the Gall-Peters projection, we get a clearer picture:


There’s even a nice spot for a legend in the lower-left! Whether for convenience or lack of time, the tools I’ve made to allow you to make these maps are divided between R and Python. Here’s a handy guide for which tool to use:


(1) Supported image formats are listed in the Pillow documentation.
(2) A TSR file is a Tropict Shapefile Reinterpretation file, and includes the longitudinal shifts for each hemisphere.

Let’s say you find yourself with a NetCDF file in need of Tropiction, called bio-2.nc4. It’s already clipped to between 30°S and 30°N. The first step is to call to create a Tropicted NetCDF:

python ../ subjects/bio-2.nc4 ../bio-2b.nc4

But that NetCDF doesn’t show country boundaries. To show country boundaries, you can follow the example for using draw_map.R:


## Open the Tropicted NetCDF
database <- nc_open("bio-2b.nc4")
## Extract one variable
map <- ncvar_get(database, "change")

## Identify the range of values there
maxmap <- max(abs(map), na.rm=T)

## Set up colors centered on 0
colors <- rev(brewer.pal(11,"RdYlBu"))
breaks <- seq(-maxmap, maxmap, length.out=12)

## Draw the NetCDF image as a background
splicerImage(map, colors, breaks=breaks)
## Add country boundaries
## Add seams where Tropict knits the map together

Here’s an example of the final result, for a bit of my coffee work:


For more details, check out the documentation at the GitHub page!

And just for fun, here were two previous attempts of re-hashing the globe:


I admit that moving Australia and Hawaii into the India Ocean was over-zealous, but they fill up the space so well!


Here I can still use the slick division between Indonesian and Papua New Guinea and Hawaii fits right on the edge, but Australia gets split in two.

Enjoy the tropics!

Sustainability, Engineering, and Philosophy