Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Thursday, 18 July 2019

The tortuous travel terrors of Tenerife touring

Yay, travel post !

The recent set of horrendous delays have made me much more trepidatious about travelling. Sure, being stuck in an airport isn't as bad as a brick to the head, but it's still not very nice. But I have a bunch of travel money now, so I'm compelled to go places... although perhaps in future I can just delegate my postdoc to do it for me. We'll see.

Being somewhat paranoid since easyJet* have this demented policy that you can only have one piece of hand luggage, even if the other piece can go under the seat in front of you**, I packed lightly enough that I could get my laptop in my suitcase if need be. On this occasion I needn't have worried - it turned out my ticket allowed no less than three pieces of hand luggage anyway, and all the flights went smoothly. Three hours to Madrid, four hour layover***, three hours to Tenerife for the conference. Boring, but not awful.

* I flew Air Europa and Czech airlines this time.
** They don't usually enforce this, but you never know. That it's even a policy at all is ridiculous.
*** You need at least two hours in Madrid to be sure of getting a connecting flight, because it's the size of a small city and - although otherwise nice - it's very badly signposted.

There seemed to be an awful lot of lakes and rivers in Spain with highly fractal structures.

My only point of confusion came when I tried to walk from the airport to my hotel, which Google Maps says is a 40 minute walk - just what I need after being stuck in a tiny space for three hours. But it isn't a 40 minute walk. It's a 40 minute death-defying game of chicken between you and the cars on the busy highway. The lack of pavement was fine on the quiet backroads, but even after following the directions of a local, I was soon forced to admit that the only way forwards would be essentially to walk along the hard shoulder of a motorway, and this didn't appeal. So I gave up and went back and got the bus. The only difficulty there was the rather surly-looking (and sounding) bus driver, who tried very badly to explain that I needed to put my suitcase in the storage bin, rather than actually opening it himself unlike every single other bus driver I've ever encountered.

If you're thinking of visiting Tenerife, you definitely should. But be advised that La Laguna is not a very touristy place : it's nice, but it simply doesn't factor English-speaking tourists into its equations.

Fortunately, having travel money to burn, my hotel was a nice one. Things are weird like that when someone else is paying. Sometimes you get places so bad that the only good thing about them is that they don't catch fire. And at other times you get opulent luxury.

This place wasn't quite opulent (at least my room wasn't, though the lobby was), but it was very good. The restaurant, however, turned out to be probably the best I've ever had. For 12, every day I had a massive buffet breakfast and ate too much ALL the cake - and it was all delicious. The chocolate croissants were so chocolately that I'm actually glad you can't get ones that good anywhere else, otherwise I'd be stuffing my fat face with them right now. And for 16 I could get a three course meal which was equally monumental.

Anyway, I didn't have a lot of spare time on this trip. I hadn't planned anything, so for my only free day I wandered around randomly - which I maintain is an absolutely essential part of any tourism. And like I said : La Laguna is nice, but there's nothing much to actually do. One day was nice but quite enough.

Tenerife has a crazy variety of trees, most of which look like giant pineapples.

Inevitably it reminded me of Puerto Rico, though the temperature was only about 20 C and the drivers actually know how to operate a car.

Walking around La Laguna's narrow streets, I caught frustrating glimpses of a more impressive landscape beyond. Too often the buildings seem specifically chosen to obscure a perfect decent view instead of revealing it. Having not much luck walking uphill, I decided to go down. This gave a deceptively good view of the sea, which looked close but was actually many miles away. Fortunately, there was one nice loop of road which does nothing at all except provide a rather nice view. Quite literally : it doesn't take the traffic anywhere it couldn't go faster by another route.

Later on I decided to try a different direction. After a couple of failed attempts to get up the hill, I found a route which took me somewhere nice. There was absolutely nothing there, but it gave me the proper vantage point I'd been seeking.

The science bit

Before the conference could begin I had to do remote observing, starting at 3:45 am and running until 5 am. Oh, yay. The first night this simply didn't work at all, and all I got for my trouble was a loss of phone credit as I tried multiple times to phone for the password. I tried the hotel phone and got a confusing American voice telling me that "all circuits are busy". After about half an hour of this, having had little enough proper sleep, I gave up and caught another two hours before I had to head out to the conference.

I found out the next night that it wasn't a problem on my end at all, but with Arecibo's phone lines : there was no way I'd have been able to connect. The next night I had no connection problems, and was rewarded with the usual CIMA screens :

It isn't actually as bad as it looks, but at 4 am with little sleep two nights in a row it's quite bad enough. There was a blissful 30 seconds when everything seemed to be working perfectly, and then warning messages started which got worse and worse until the scan failed in a way I've never seen before. The rest of the session was spent fruitlessly trying to find the problem and failing, although the operator seemed to nail it down eventually.

The third night things got off to a slow start, and I strongly suspect the first scan is useless, but the second one seemed okay. So for all this effort I managed to get one scan of... a void. Yay. Add to this the intense conference schedule (9am - 7pm, longer on some days) and you can imagine that I was quite tired. I say that this is what real science is : working 10 hour days and getting up in the middle of the night to get a scan of a field you're almost certain doesn't contain anything interesting and you don't get to find out the result for several years. There are some compensations, mind you.

What of the conference itself ? It was first rate. I've written a summary of the highlights so I'll largely skip over this here. In brief, there were quite a lot of, "here are the problems we face and the ways we're planning to tackle them" talks, perhaps a bit excessively so, but there were also plenty of really interesting science talks too. The major themes were that galaxies look remarkably different at low surface brightness levels, that we're going to face major data challenges in the years ahead, that we don't fully understand ultra-diffuse galaxies yet but we're definitely making progress, and that the future's bright dim. Way too many people made that joke.

Back to being a tourist

Okay, science over. But the conference also included a dinner in a five star hotel, situated near a lovely park albeit with a weird fountain...

I've seen many a weird statue, but this is the first that goes for figures with less than ideal proportions. Good for you, Tenerife.

How does one tell the difference between a four and five star hotel ? Simple - the five star one has an outdoor turtle enclosure.

Dinners are nice, but uninteresting. More dramatic was the excursion to Teide Observatory. We saw a solar telescope, a pyramidal sundial, a 1.5m optical telescope and a few other instruments scattered around the site like mushrooms. But mainly we saw spectacular views of the volcano, towering above the sea of clouds a thousand metres below.

It looks like what would happen if the Teletubbies met Hobbits and went off together to live in space.

The solar telescope has an enormous vacuum tower because the light it collects is so powerful it would otherwise generate its own seeing.

I've got no clue what this is. I just thought it made for a nice minimalist shot.

All this was finished off with tea and biscuits at 2400m altitude.

A high-tech facility with a volcano ? I suppose it's like a sober version of James Bond.

The final day consisted of an optional trip to the observatory on La Palma, which I'm very glad I did. Although the Teide volcano is much higher at 3700m, the summit of La Palma overlooks a huge volcanic caldera. It takes a while to get there though. First there's an 8am flight which takes slightly longer to taxi to the runway than it does to hop between islands (it actually flies at a slightly lower altitude than the summit of Teide)....

Then there's an hour's drive in a bus up a very windy road (and I lived in Puerto Rico so I know what I'm talking about when it comes to windy roads) but with some outstanding views.

Finally we got to the observatory complex, which had laid out a much-needed breakfast. Tea and croissants and cake aplenty. The rest of the day was spent on a tour of the telescopes. Our guide was Sheila, an extremely mumsy sort who I had the distinct impression could easily be site director if she wanted. We started with the giant MAGIC telescopes. These are enormous, 17 and 23 m diameter optical telescopes designed to detect Cerenkov radiation from gamma-ray bursters and other exotic, high-energy sources.

It's fun to watch the reflections change as you walk around, especially on the one with all the mirrors slightly out of alignment.

Of course the nice thing about these instruments is that anyone using them gets to call themselves an expert in MAGIC.

The thing about Cerenkov radiation is that it's produced by particles within our own atmosphere - they don't receive photons direct from the source as other telescopes do. So their resolution is absolute crap. The game here is sheer light-gathering sensitivity, which means the segmented mirrors don't have to be precisely aligned since they don't try to produce a focused image. Which is why they're so much bigger than other optical telescopes. Mind you, they're not so unfocused that they couldn't accidentally be turned into a genuine, no-fooling-around death ray, which is why they're pointed well away from the Sun.

Next we went to the world's actual largest optical telescope, the Gran Telescope Canarias. It's run at a mere $6 million per year - compared to the slightly smaller Keck facility which consumes $17 million, this is not so much impressive as it is worrying. That's the sort of level where it's astonishing they're able to keep the lights on, and sadly explains why this place doesn't get much publicity and hasn't made any major breakthroughs as yet. It's not that it doesn't have the technical capabilities to do so, it just doesn't have the funding. That doesn't stop it being a hugely impressive piece of engineering though.

The dome of the GTC rotates with less noise than a conventional car. The telescope itself can be moved around by hand and is absolutely silent.

Our final telescope was the venerable William Hershel Telescope. Though a 4 m diameter is now small compared to 10 m giants like the GTC, it's a reliable old workhorse laden with all kinds of different instruments. And it still manages to impress through sheer gargantuan size - older telescopes tending to have much larger domes than they really needed.

Saving the best till last, we finished with a walk around the summit. Although 2400 m is more than a thousand metres below the highest altitude I've reached, it was still tough going walking around. We had only a little time, but it was enough to see the highlights. Not that the photographs are really adequate, mind you. You get a much stronger sense of oh my goodness that's a long way down isn't it? up there.

And then I went home, quite failing to have any plane or luggage problems at all, and collapsed in a big heap.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

An Obligatory Rant About Game Of Thrones (With Spoilers)

At least I assume it's obligatory for anyone with a blog. They probably come chop your arms off or something if you don't.

This post contains SPOILERS. If you don't want the show to be SPOILED, stop reading NOW. I mean it.

Seriously, there are SPOILERS ahead.

You haven't reached the SPOILERS yet. Keep scrolling.

Keep on scrolling.

Keep scrolling...

Okay, I think that should be fair warning to anyone who hasn't seen how it ends yet. I've got this news feed app on my phone which sometimes shows me articles with spoilers IN THE FRICKIN' TITLE. People who write such things ought to be drowned and beaten, and then drowned again just to make sure.

Anyway, the internet is full of people who hate the final season for some reason. I am not one of them. I, for one, want to hear other people's stories. If I wanted to write my own, I'd do that instead. Okay, there are exceptions, like the god-awful last five minutes of True Blood where I wanted to smack the writers in the mouth because come on what the hell were they thinking, but how anyone can feel that way about Game of Thrones completely escapes me.

The Battle of Winterfell was bloomin' epic and anyone who disagrees is objectively wrong.

That's not to say it didn't have the odd duff moment here and there, but personally, I felt it evolved in a natural and self-consistent way for the entire run. There were parts I felt could have been executed better (especially, in season 7, Littlefinger's... well, execution), but I have no qualms with any of the events that happened. All the faults I can see (which are not many and not major) are in presentation, not with the plotline.

A good, interesting development in any story (or character) is when they do something that's unexpected, unpredictable, but absolutely consistent with established patterns. Similarly, morally ambiguous characters are interesting when they choose to do both good and bad actions but in an internally consistent way. Game of Thrones did that in spades. Freakin' SPADES, people.

Yes, true, some people did predict certain events. But lots of people also predicted a whole bunch of other ridiculous shenanigans* that simply didn't happen, so it still counts as genuinely unpredictable.
Bran on the Iron Throne ? I thought was a bloody daft idea when people suggested it. And yet... after the fact, it does make a certain amount of weird sense. Could it have been explained better ? Yes, probably. On reflection I do think the final season - and possibly the seventh as well - was too short and might have been better with a regular ten episode run, but that's about all I'd change. If the writers didn't think they had enough material for an extra season, then chances are that getting them to write a whole other season would be a tremendously bad idea.

* I'd be willing to bet that someone, somewhere, predicted that the final scene would be Melisandre turning Jon Snow into a cactus and doing unspeakable things with said cactus.

Anyway, my money (if someone had held a gun to my head, which fortunately they didn't) was on the more obvious choice of Jon Snow. Everyone loved him, he didn't want to be king, he had the most legitimate claim to the throne, and was a proven battle commander and warrior. But a warrior is the very last thing anyone wants after a massacre, and legitimate claims clearly don't guarantee a good ruler. And of course there are extenuating circumstances : large numbers of formerly-enemy soldiers want him dead. So Jon Snow may be the more obvious narrative choice, but not actually the more realistic one.

Besides, Jon Snow wouldn't have broken the wheel, he'd have just kept in spinning more gently for a while. The lords of Westeros needed a major change, not a better version of what they'd had before. They weren't ready to accept full-on democracy, but they made a massive change to the system of government even so.

Democracy : what a hilarious idea.
But have they chosen the right king ? Probably. Originally I thought Bran would have been a stupid choice that made as much sense as... as.... as a...very.... senseless thing : a physically weak character in a war-dominated world, who's generally been ineffective, done largely bugger all, and has never expressed any previous interest in ruling anyone. I still think he should have done more besides having a bloody good memory and a weird affinity for birds : some more dramatic, obvious achievement would have made the final narrative work better. But the reasons for choosing Bran were good ones, but became apparent only after the event actually happened. Which is what a good plot twist is all about.

Daenerys set out to break the wheel. Well, the wheel was made from the flaws of hereditary monarchy, which is always vulnerable to problems of the luck of the draw. And after Kings Landing had been ground into dust so fine it'll give everyone sneezing fits, and consequently there being zero appetite for continued warmongering, choosing a near-omniscient disabled young three-eyed raven isn't crazy. He clearly knows everything he could possibly ever need to rule. He's also not going to go charging into battle*. He's never hurt anyone. Absolutely no-one has anything against him. He's got a heroic story (even if it's not quite as heroic as it should have been). Seems like a good choice, given the circumstances.

* Although being wheelchair-bound doesn't stop Mad Hamish in the Discworld novels.

And anyway, Jon Snow is clearly Batman : the hero Westeros deserves, but not the one it needs right now. Appointing Jon would have only reinforced the baseless legitimacy of the hereditary monarchy, and is just too obvious for a show that delights in plausible shock twists. It also tends to go for the, "what would happen with actual people doing this ?" angle more than it does "what would make for a good story ?".

Still, a major character like Jon has to have a major impact, and he does. Killing Daenerys was Jon's legacy, instituting a better ruler rather than taking power for himself. It's a very Jon thing to do.

Which brings us at last to Danny. Say what you will, I thought Daenerys' turn to evil was done extremely well. It could have been improved if they'd had a little more time, but the transition felt natural. Danny has always had an ambiguous moral element of a stern ruler : you never quite know if her threats are meant purely for deterrence or if she really does think people deserve the extremely harsh retribution she occasionally inflicted. What Danny says she wants - a better world, peace in our time, etc. - is all very well, but what everyone forgets is what she's prepared to do to get it.

Everyone seems to think the "let it be fear" line is critical - they're not wrong, but more important is Tyrion's summary of the evil men she executed on the road to power. The obvious cliché quotes are the "first they came for the socialists...", and ,"he who fights with monsters should take care he does not become a monster himself". Daenerys has never, ever had any qualms about killing those she perceives as enemies. Getting her to show mercy is like getting blood from a stone. She often claims to want criticism but rarely actually takes it on board - only partly because she usually turns out to be right in the end. She kept threatening fire and blood, and it's been abundantly clear that she's only held back because Tyrion begged her not to. It shouldn't come as any surprise that something eventually snapped.

Danny's decision to massacre the innocents is neither pre-planned nor a sudden impulse : it's both. In the after show the writers describe Danny as being partially a victim of circumstance, and had her life been different she might not have turned out the way she does. Compare her with the ever-virtuous Jon Snow. He starts off assuming he will achieve nothing in life at all, so anything he succeeds in is a nice bonus. Danny, on the other hand, starts from a much more complex position of abused privilege; molested, raped, abused, told she's destined for rule and loved by the people for her sheer legitimacy. Once she achieves power she really has no-one at all to tell her when to stop : there are advisers to tell her what she shouldn't do, but not what she can't do. Jon Snow, on the other hand, always has someone telling him to fuck off. And that's probably what you need to stop from turning to the dark side.

So the way I see Danny's thought processes on the back of the dragon is that she feels betrayed by the world. She's been told - and apparently believed, though god knows why - that the people love her. She's already lost huge numbers of troops and two dragons in her quest to "liberate" the people, i.e. bring about regime change in Westeros. She's been betrayed by Jon Snow and Varys, is deeply suspicious about Tyrion, and has seen that the whole people of the North will never accept her. In the heat of battle, that's enough - more than enough ! - for her to view surrender as just another betrayal, another of Tryion's clever plans to keep the wheel turning. If she has to choose the people over her own destiny, Danny would only ever make one choice : they become in her mind her enemy, and she only ever has one way of dealing with enemies.

Which is not and never has been Jon Snow's approach. He knows that sometimes you have to make peace with your enemies (as he did with the Wildlings) but sometimes you have to kill them (as he did with... umm.... well, the Wildlings, for starters). Whereas Danny's choice leads her to become the monster she was trying to fight, for Jon Snow this isn't the case at all. Danny fights for herself because she believes in her own myth. Jon Snow fights for the realm, an ideal of justice that everyone should obey, and that means fighting against literally anyone trying to harm it (he'd probably fall on his own sword if he thought it would help). So Jon has both an ideal of the common good, a personal moral code as to how he himself should act, and people telling him to, "fuck off, ya big bastard". Danny doesn't have any of those.

Finally, if Danny lives there would be nothing but a reign of terror : for Jon to take extreme action to prevent that doesn't make him the same. Rather, if he hadn't taken action, he'd have been guilty of aiding the rise of the worst tyrant in living memory. He who fights with monsters does not inevitably become a monster himself. And - making no apologies for ending this on a political point - when we have political figures who are openly racist but can't stand anyone saying nasty things about them, who feel comfortable in denigrating whole groups of people but can't stand the merest criticism themselves, well, I for one think this is much-needed message in the world.