Dunedin, December 2004

Sunday 5 December 2004

Landed in Auckland in pouring rain - no sign of the town until we were almost on the ground. Easy journey through customs. At immigration I declared the Christmas food destined for Australia. They detected the fruit cake on the x-ray machine, but waved me through. A very crowded transit bus to the domestic terminal, where I was in plenty of time for the Dunedin flight.

Up into the clouds, and then absolutely nothing to see except clouds until we came down through the clouds to Dunedin. (No wonder they call it the land of the long white cloud!) There was no track beside the runway, so the plane had to return along the runway to the terminal; I guess the airport never gets too busy. Two masked plovers stood on the grass. We were fifteen minutes early because of a tailwind: Tank arrived only just on time, coming into the terminal as I walked through to pick up my luggage (Karen was still parking the car, but my bag took a long time coming so she was there by the time I was ready).

They drove me to their house (past a lagoon with lots of black swans) and gave me coffee and toast - much appreciated, as breakfast on the flight from London had been at about 4am NZ time, and there was nothing but a cup of weak coffee on the flight down. They have a lovely place, a stone's throw from the sea, huge garden, sound of surf and birds.

Then we drove into town, stopping at the station (to book me on the Taieri Gorge train to Middlemarch on Friday) and the tourist information at the Octagon (to pick up some maps and leaflets), and went on to University College (or Unicol, as it is known). I have the penthouse suite in the north tower: a downstairs sitting room and desk, and up a narrow spiral staircase, a big bedroom with en-suite bathroom and a splendid view over the harbour and peninsula. After dumping stuff, we walked to the room where the lectures will be, so I will know the way.

I set out for a walk, making for a clear track I could see from my window. Despite a nice stroll up a hill, across a rugby field, and down a steep path in a forest (with very melodious birds singing to me), I was unable to find the start of the path. So I walked into town and then back to Unicol. On the way back I bought a minimalist snack of onion rings and winter melon juice, which I ate in my sitting room.

Then I had another, more successful, attempt at a walk to use up the time until conference registration began at 5pm. I found a park beside the Water of Leith and walked up a nice path. It crossed the river several times, passing a boulder trap and a disused quarry with only its explosives store still standing. The it joined the Ross Creek Trail, heading up through lovely temperate rainforest, under rocky cliffs at the start.

There was a huge mixture of trees, from sycamore and chestnut, to glorious pines (some tall straight ones, some with vast guttered trunks) to a kind of paperbark; many kinds of ground fern, tree fern, and fern trees; a couple of nice fungi; and summer flowers (including moon daisy). Birds scrabbled around under the trees, and a couple of the melodious songsters harmonised for me. I saw one very large black and white pigeon in a tree, having a small head with an orange-red beak. A pied wagtail flew over the water by a weir.

Reaching the road, I walked up a bit, to the start of the Pineapple Trail, but there wasn't time to take it, so I turned back.

The return was quite a bit quicker, and I was in good time to register. I met many people there including Derek Holton, Peter Fenton (head of department), David Gauld, and Stephen Goulter from Sydney, who seemed to think I should drop a word in the ear of the Australian funding people about how the British do it.

There were light snacks and drinks, quite enough for me, so at about 7:30 I went to my room. Of course, then I went to bed and fell asleep. I woke from a sound sleep just before 9, found broad daylight, and leapt out, sure that I had missed the opening of the conference and much of the first lecture (to say nothing of breakfast). After ten minutes or so, the truth dawned, and I turned over and went back to sleep.

Monday 6 December 2004

I woke several times during the night, but managed to get back to sleep each time until about 5am. A combination of reading, thinking about polynomials, and watching the view got me through until breakfast. The sun rose over the peninsula and almost immediately disappeared into the cloud cover; two ships came in to the docks.

I arrived nice and early at the lecture room to watch how the equipment worked in the first talks. There was no way to get an ideal light level for both board and projector, but it was good enough.

The meeting was opened by a deputy vice-chancellor who told us how much easier this job was than opening a botany conference, because there are lots of mathematician jokes on the internet (he proceeded to tell us a few) but no botanist jokes.

At lunchtime Tank suggested I went to his office to read email; then we went downstairs to the cafe in the building and I had a meat pie for lunch, returning in good time for my talk.

It went quite well, though I did make one mistake. Fearing I was going too slowly, I left out a chunk in the middle, only to find that I needed some of it for what came later, so I had to fuddle through the pile of discarded slides to find it. An argument for using a computer, perhaps (to set against what another speaker did, which was to print key definitions in pale lemon green on white). But several people said they enjoyed it very much.

After the day's programme finished, Marston invited me to dinner. On the way, we caught up with a large group of people going to the Korean barbecue and decided to join them. But it was closed, so we went to another Korean restaurant we had passed on the way.

I ordered bibimbap, in a stone bowl. It was most remarkable: a bowl of rice with small portions of about a dozen different dishes arranged on the top, Korean fashion (one in the centre and the others arranged in sectors around the outside). More interesting than the others, though a bit of a struggle to finish, as I was still not quite adjusted to the time shift.

And so home to bed.

Tuesday 7 December 2004

I slept well but woke early again. Weather still grey and unpromising. After breakfast, a walk to the railway station to be sure I know the route for Friday.

The highlight of the day's programme was the opening plenary talk by James Sneyd (who had invited much comment from his colleagues by dyeing his hair blue, and explained to us all that as his hair was receding it was his last chance for such a gesture). His title, "Neither an ant nor a spider be", was taken from Francis Bacon: ants are the experimentalists who gather everything without understanding; spiders are the theorists who "spin complicated structures from their own substance". The ideal is the bee, who gathers from the flowers and then transforms what she gathers.

The talk, a series of vignettes, was full of content too. I gather that Helmholtz's theory that the ear contains a series of tuned resonators, after being displaced by a spatial theory, has been reinstated as a result of recent work on Hopf bifurcations of solutions of the equations.

The afternoon plenary, by contrast, was a commercial for the local "whiteware" manufacturer, Fisher and Paykel, followed by a slide show of pictures produced by standard software packages.

At lunch I read my email again in Tank's office, and then we went together for lunch to the cafe across the road (the one in the building having been cleaned out).

After the session, the excursion and the dinner. We walked to Unicol to catch the coach. It was already waiting and, when we were on, it left without ceremony - tough for latecomers. During the long winding trip along the harbour shore of the peninsula, I sat next to Garry Tee, who told me all about the old manuscript of Books 1-3 of Euclid in Arabic in the University library, the little-known fact that the albatross colony on the peninsula (the only mainland albatross breeding colony in the world) had been discovered by Alexander Aitken at the age of 8 (who had got whipped for the good of his soul by his disbelieving Calvinist grandparents when he reported his discovery), the difficulty of access to the inner harbour for shipping, his time programming the Deuce computer, etc. While he was talking, I noticed shags, oystercatchers, and small black waders with red beaks.

We arrived at the wildlife centre half an hour early for our tour. (Maybe the coach driver got commission.) The weather was tolerably good, and the view over the harbour mouth and ocean was spectacular. Lots of gorse on the hillsides, introduced by homesick settlers.

Eventually we were off, in eight-wheeled Argos, the wheels independently driven and with balloon tyres: they could go over huge ruts and up formidable slopes without any discomfort. The view of light through the clouds on the inner harbour was very fine. Two feet of a rainbow stood up out of the sea.

We made two stops, one for the seals and the other for the penguins.

Male seals fight for territory; females choose a place to give birth, and then are immediately re-fertilised by the resident male. The babies were only few days old, the first birth this year being on 26 November. Seals of all sizes were present in the colony, and could be seen very close up from the hide - they lolled on the rocks just outside the window. I looked over the wall outside the hide, and was amazed to see a huge seal lying up against the wall on the other side. The guide hurriedly told me to get back, not that I needed telling! Some clambered over the rocky head, looking very ungainly, their flippers giving poor grip. I wonder if they ever fall!

The penguins had a beautiful beach from which humans were barred. There are two species there, yellow-eyed (which were coming up the beach from the sea, and going out again, as we watched, but were mostly hiding among the yellow lupins) and blue (which were lying against the wall of the hide, clearly visible from the windows). There were also two black-backed gulls nesting on the beach at the high-water mark, and several little birds scooting about the beach, as well as many patrolling gulls, of course.

Then back to the wildlife centre and onto the coach for the trip to the dinner, in the rhododendron garden at Glenfalloch on the peninsula. (The rhododendrons were still flowering but well past their best.) Good food, good company. I sat mainly with combinatorialists but we had James on our table, and jokingly held him to account for his remarks about theorem provers in his talk. Plenty of wine; I wasn't the last to leave, as they had arranged a regular minibus shuttle, and I got home about 11:30.

Wednesday 8 December 2004

Unbelievably, after what we've had, the day dawned cloudless and still. After breakfast I went for a short walk, looking for Baldwin Street (the steepest street in the world); I didn't find it, though I went up some pretty steep streets. (I realised later that it was on my New Zealand map, and I was nearly there.) However, I did find the botanic gardens, which were absolutely lovely in the clear morning light, especially a tiny Japanese garden. I also saw a memorial to the first trout "liberated" in New Zealand - an odd thing to say, given the attitude to gorse.

The first conference talk was by Carsten Thomassen. He has rediscovered von Neumann's minimax theorem in connection with a problem on "rendezvous numbers" in metric spaces. Curiously, he used the random graph to give a counterexample at the end.

The contributed talks were all applied, so I broadened my mind with the four-body problem, computing in chaotic systems, and the coefficient of restitution (though I fell asleep in some of them).

I read my email and then went downstairs for lunch. The afternoon talks were all on mathematics in schools; I decided that, since it was probably the only nice day I would get, I would go for a walk. I opted for the Pineapple Trail, despite Tank's warning that clouds could come up very quickly.

I started as on Sunday, up the Leith track. One frustration: the track was closed at a newly-surfaced bridge, necessitating a half-kilometre backtrack to find an alternative route by road.

On the Pineapple Trail proper, the sign suggested that it was a two-hour walk to the road on the other side. First up through open pine woods to a water treatment plant with an enigmatic warning about leaking chlorine. Then dense forest like that on Ross Creek, all the time climbing quite steeply. Finally the trail reached open alpine meadow full of flowers, with glorious views back over the harbour and peninsula and the hills to the north, and larks singing above.

I reached the 45 minute marker in a not too light 35 minutes, but the remaining scheduled 75 minutes was a very easy 30. The path to the summit was nearly level, through huge clumps of snow tussock, with flowering broom everywhere. Phenomenal views from the top of Flagstaff (668 metres), over city, harbour, southern beaches, Taieri plain, the Silver Mountains. And it was warm! A cloudbank approaching was hazing the view to the south and approaching the sun. Then it was down an easy track to the car park.

The road was a dusty gravel track for several kilometres; I was left choking every time a car passed. At first it was very open, but eventually it led past some expensive houses with fine horses and horsefloats, and a lovely stand of stringybark gums. The last was the least pleasant: five kilometres into town along a busy suburban road. It was almost all downhill, so that when I reached the crest of the hill overlooking the town I felt as if I should be at the bottom, not the top.

I was quite hungry by this time, so I walked back to my room and had a shower and changed, then back to town. Almost all the eateries are Asian, with a very wide choice (Laotian, Cambodian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino), but I decided I wanted something different, so I tried a posh-looking restaurant called "The Two Chefs". I was turned away because I had no reservation. But I managed to find a somewhat less posh but still up-market place called "Table Se7en" (which I found an irritating gimmick when it was extended to the menu prices), and had a very nice meal: salmon in spicy coconut for starter, then a huge quantity of lamb on vegetables, with a couple of glasses of wine. I was a bit wobbly at the end, for some reason, but staggered home to bed.

Thursday 9 December 2004

The weather had reverted to the usual. After breakfast I walked through the botanic gardens (going via the rose garden this time) and out to Baldwin Street, and got thoroughly soaked for my trouble. The street was not so remarkable on the way up, and was completely deserted. But while I waited at the top, a car drove down - quite a sight - and a tourist coach stopped at the bottom and people started traipsing up.

I went to the cafe in the bottom of the maths building for a coffee to dry out, and then up to Tank's office as arranged. I ended up not leaving until well after 2. Carsten was there, then Derek came, then we went to lunch with Tank's two Thai visitors, Nawarat and Pion, and finally he and I reminisced about our mutual friend Dugald. All the time, the weather remained grim. Finally I thought I should let Tank get on with some work, so took myself off.

It was definitely not an outdoor day. I went to the museum and after a brief look (mostly at the fossil plesiosaur) went to the coffee shop and worked for a bit. Then in to the art gallery to repeat the performance. Still too early for dinner, but the cafe was filling up, so I went back to my room for a spell.

I walked back to town, vaguely looking for dinner, but I wasn't very hungry and nothing appealed, so I went back and dined off this morning's apple and yesterday's energy bar with a cup of coffee.

Friday 10 December 2004

The weather has sunk to a new low; I awoke to the sound of the wind screaming round my room like a demented spirit.

Yesterday I'd thought about my attempt to prove that the indices of the non-trivial variables in the orbital Tutte polynomial divide the orders of elements in the automorphism group. My proof using homological algebra was wrong because I'd factored out the fixed points of g rather than the image of g-1. But in the half-light I managed to fix it, using only linear algebra.

The wind and rain lashed the building while I had breakfast and got ready to go out, but as I walked to the station, the watery sun shone through a tear in the clouds, and on the journey we had good spells of sunshine. The train wasn't crowded, and I could move from side to side for the best view.

The first part of the journey, after the Dunedin suburbs, was across the Taieri plain, with a racecourse and a racing stud, the factory from which the disappointing talk on Tuesday emanated, and a view of Saddle Peak behind Mosgiel. On the other side, shrouded in cloud, was Flagstaff, where I stood in warm sunshine on Wednesday.

The gorge lived up to expectations. A substantial and fast-flowing river ran down under wooded hills and cliffs, mostly forests of manuka (tea-tree), with mountains towering above. Everywhere were broom, gorse, elder, and willow, all brought in by nostalgic settlers, and all now very damaging - the first two are declared noxious weeds, while the brittle willow breaks off and does damage downstream. The yellow gorse was stunningly beautiful, though. Where the willow wasn't growing, foxgloves lined the riverbanks, and I saw one wild rose in flower. Further up the gorge the manuka gave way to bare rocky hills and the cliffs grew more precipitous.

There was a flood twenty years ago and a frost four years ago. The damage from the first is healed, but there are many dead manuka trees (which will regrow from shoots, we are told).

Wildlife: many paradise ducks on the river; fast-flying birds of prey; a den of wild pigs (but no sign of the pigs).

Finally through the gorge, a range of mountains with snow and cloud on the summits appeared in the distance. The nearer landscape was flat tops and huge boulders. Signs of habitation: plovers in ploughed fields. The landscape became more fertile as we descended into the Strathtaieri: sheep, cattle, some cultivation, deer (including wapiti), and a failed vineyard. Ducks and black-and-white geese flew over.

We had an hour in Middlemarch, so I set off up the Otago Central Rail Trail with a very strong wind behind me. On the way out, a diffuse cloud came down from the mountains and sleeted on me a bit. Of course the return was harder, but I made it in plenty of time.

There was a wonderful feeling of space on the flat plain between the bare snow-dusted mountains and a ridge of low hills, the long rich grass waving in the wind. On my way I started a heron and a harrier, while larks sang overhead all the way. Some huge mushrooms grew in a horse paddock (no doubt horse mushrooms). Back in the train I saw a cormorant fly over.

The story is that Strathtaieri was a lake; the water bursting out carved the gorge, while the sediment made the valley land very rich.

On the way back, we passed through a heavy squall, then sunshine and showers alternated. Looking down while crossing the Notches, I saw a rainbow on the dark river below.

Back in Dunedin, I decided to buy a pot plant for Karen. I hadn't seen a florist in the town, so I asked at the tourist information centre, where they directed me to the Warehouse, the place where you buy everything. On the way there I was cannoned into by a man who was watching the cars rather than the pedestrians when he stepped off the kerb, and then cut my head on a set of traffic lights mounted too low when I straightened up after pressing the button.

The Warehouse was a huge, car-friendly place; it took me a while to find a way in. I managed to get a "lucky bamboo" there, not in the best of health; I hope it survives. On the way back, I was deluged with hail. But I made it to Tank's office in time.

Nawarat and Pion were cooking dinner for all of us, and had done a huge amount of preparation. We picked them up, with the ingredients, and drove out to Karen's and Tank's house, where the final cooking (and the eaing) were done. And what a feast, including mussaman as well as soup and a dish of chicken, broccoli and cashew nuts. For pudding Karen had made a pavlova - it seems that New Zealanders also claim this dish even though Pavlova never actually visited New Zealand... We had a splendid evening altogether.

Driving back we saw some of the OTT Christmas lights that seem to be universal nowadays.

Saturday 11December 2004

I was up, showered, and packed before breakfast. I took a fairly substantial breakfast, fortunately: Air NZ is "no-frills" (i.e. nothing to eat) and the flight was four hours including stops in Christchurch and Wellington. Downstairs, I passed the time with the crosswords in the Otago Daily News.

Tank and Karen showed up a little early, and I had said goodbye (or au revoir in Tank's case; Karen hoped the lucky bamboo would bring me views of Mt Cook) and was checked in and through airport security before I realised that this was not what I should have done. After the flight to Auckland left, and ours came in and didn't pull up at a ramp, we were told to take Gate 2, on the ground at the end of the terminal. So back out of the departure lounge and downstairs to the terminal proper, then out the gate and across the tarmac.

I got a window seat on the right hand side. So no chance for the lucky bamboo! Then we pottered up to Hamilton on the aerial equivalent of the slow train. Intermittent clouds gave views of the coast after Dunedin, the harbour mouth, and then the blue Pacific with lots of whitecaps. Approaching Christchurch the clouds cleared and there were glimpses of snow-covered ramparts in the west.

They turfed us off the plane at Christchurch for a crew change, so I got a sandwich. Then four domestic flights were leaving from the same tiny gate; we were the last called but the second to leave, so I could see the others taking off from above after we'd made our turn. Mostly water to Wellington. After that, clouds over the land stopped at the shore, so not much to see except a glimpse of the Wanganui gorge, until we came down over the very green Waikato valley.