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 8 December 2011


I was all set to write a nice inane little post about Christmas time in the Caribbean, when my plans were brutally scuppered by the unstoppable forces of karmic retribution. Yesterday I received a lovely email offering me money for CGI I've already done, which is always nice (this the second time this has happened). Coupled with my imminent return to the UK for Christmas, this gave me a warm glowing fuzzy feeling inside.

In this case the forces of karmic retribution took the form of a small oncoming car, which collided with the side of mine as I was leaving my house. The driveway from my house is steep, so it's very difficult to see anything to the right. So I've developed a paranoid habit of emerging just enough to see if anything is coming, then rolling back down if there is anything, and repeating the procedure until there isn't.

Most of the time, if anyone sees me they stop and let me out. So this morning, when I spotted an apparently distant, slow-moving car, I carried on emerging - an act of colossal stupidity. Because the car wasn't slow or distant at all. And my car's ability to make sharp turns has all the grace and elegance of a constipated sumo wrestler -  so I ended up on... ahem... the wrong side of the road.

In my defence, if the car had been doing the speed limit there would have been no problem at all. Alas, it wasn't. The driver tried to screech to a halt - literally burning rubber - but by this point disaster was inevitable. And so kerblamo ensued.

Fortunately my car also shares the sumo wrestler's remarkable ability to withstand large heavy objects colliding with it. It has a rather nasty dent in one side, and one headlight isn't working (the main beam, is, bizarrely, fine). The plastic light casing is intact, and the wheel is fine. Compared to the other car, this is nothing short of astonishing. For that much smaller car has a crumpled bonnet, a shattered windscreen, and generally looks like a wreck.

In some ways, there's no better place to collide with someone than Puerto Rico. For the locals are used to accidents and - by and large - surely among the finest in the world at dealing with people in distress. While I was fretting like a wet hen (do hen's fret when damp ? what about roosters ?) the driver was nothing but a model of jovial politeness. Long story short - I spent the entire day filing police and insurance reports.

What happens next in this particular saga, I've no idea (although I was assured many times that I wouldn't have to pay any money). One thing is certain : next time I'm moving to somewhere with public transport. Until then... home time !

Friday 2 December 2011

More Hispanic Oddities

Somewhat of a dearth of posts of late, owing to Skyrim, which I think is a perfectly reasonable excuse. And why not ? My character, Bill, is a fire-breathing orc werewolf with a magic sword that can make zombies explode. Whereas all I do every day is write code and look at static. Even if I did have a magical flaming sword, I'd probably have to sell it on eBay. As for turning into a wolf, unless wolves have some hitherto unknown talent for IDL coding then that wouldn't help either.

"I told you to comment your code and I MEANT IT !"

About the most exciting thing I've done lately was to replace my expired marbete. This is the most basic level of car insurance, which everyone is required to have (it costs $200 and lasts a year). So I'm finally a legal driver again. Not that I was ever an illegal one through any fault of my own. I bought the car in an excessively Puerto Rican fashion, paying cash firmly in hand (which is entirely normal here), and then handing over copies of my various documents to some guy in a pub* to have the ownership transferred.

* It was actually a colmado but you get the idea.

This isn't as crazy as it sounds, although it's difficult to explain fully without becoming tedious. Anyway this guy decided to wait a full two weeks before telling me that he'd lost the documents I gave him so I had to give him new ones. And then another two weeks before the much-vaunted ownership details made an appearance, bringing my brief flirtation with the seedy criminal underworld to an annoyingly belated conclusion.

Rather more interesting was the drive to replace said marbete. Along the way I encountered one of the more insane examples of metal theft. Now I've heard lots of stories about people stealing copper cable, in some cases pretty extreme examples of thieves stealing hundreds of metres of phone lines. What I wasn't prepared for was the idea that people would steal the frickin' manhole covers.

"No-one will ever notice ! It's the perfect crime !!"

I should mention that there is no equivalent to vehicle or road tax here. So potholes aren't isolated, inch-deep depressions - they're present everywhere and are often more than 6 inches deep. It's better to think of them as mines - either they exploding kind or the digging kind, it's all good. Ironically, being used to random depressions in the road made me decide to completely avoid the apparently innocuous circular pit looming in front of, which didn't look that intimidating from the low angle of the driving seat until the very last second.

At the very last second was a different matter. Then I realised that it wasn't a shallow pit at all. It was a metal-lined tunnel with a depth measured in feet, not inches. There were two more examples slightly further on, but in these cases some helpful soul had decided to wedge in a large plastic bollard, like buoys of the road.

Which does beg the question of what anyone wants with a manhole cover and how they go about selling it. Anyone with the facilities to melt them down is certainly too rich to benefit much from manhole cover theft, so presumably they're sold in the same state they were stolen in. I can only imagine conversations that must go something like this :
- "Is this a manhole cover ?"
- "No."
- "Oh. Well, OK then."

Or maybe these thieves are more enterprising. Perhaps they're co-ordinating their efforts, and stealing from multiple districts at once. That way manhole covers aren't lost, they're just... exchanged. The thieves get money, the roads get manhole covers, everybody wins ! Except the taxpayers. And any unfortunate motorists who are caught unawares.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

An Open Letter To amazon.wherever

Dear Amazon,

As you well know, I have purchased a host of wonderful items from your online store over many, many years. It would be fair to say that your chronic lack of shipping charges, coupled with your competitive pricing, occasional spectacular offers and excellent pre-order service, have not only made my life a good deal easier, but also prevented me parting needlessly with a most numerous number of shiny pound coins. Certainly while I was in the UK I would not have dared describing you with anything other than the most gushing of terminologies.

Alas, I am woe to report that this honeymoon period of so many happy years is now well and truly over. In these last few months I have found myself wrestling time and again with your shipping policies, and this is not the naked mud-wrestling with Jeri Ryan I would incalculably prefer to have in mind. Instead it's more the case of wrestling with a enraged bear that's just been given an enema made entirely out of bees.

Why yes, actually, I would like to see Jeri Ryan wrestle a bear. Is there some reason I shouldn't ?

It is true that you cannot be held responsible for the nonsensical "region encoding" which afflicts DVDs and blu-rays. Although this repressive policy of restricting what information one has access to depending on where one lives is nothing short of censorship by another name, it's not your fault. It's also true that you ship region 2 DVD's from the UK to Puerto Rico at considerably lower prices than you ship region 1's from the United States (despite Puerto Rico being a US territory, and therefore subject to the same domestic shipping prices as the States themselves).

Screw statehood. It's obvious that Puerto Rico should join the U.K.

For this you should be both praised and scolded. It is right and proper that I can effectively bypass the insanity of region encoding in an entirely legal way for minimum cost (the only penalty being that it apparently takes two weeks for the aircraft to cost the Atlantic - I suggest you might want to upgrade your Zeppelin to one of these new-fangled aeroplanes). Kudos for that. But this doesn't make it any the less baffling that it is cheaper to ship an American show from Britain than from the United States.

They also cope well with volcanic ash

Such weirdness is a forgiveable part of a complex automated world-spanning business empire. What is less so are your policies on what can be shipped to where. While you don't have any problems with wrapping up a DVD and whisking it - very slowly - across the Atlantic, apparently video game discs are allergic to airship travel. I expect it brings them out in a nasty rash. Fortunately it seems your .com division has some means of protection, but can charge 3x the shipping price compared to the U.K. for the privilege.

Of course, shipping anything electronic at all to Puerto Rico would be unthinkable. I'm sure you wouldn't want the natives getting ideas above their station. After all, who needs electricity in the tropics ? Everyone knows we spend all our time drinking rum out of coconuts with little umbrellas in. So of course I couldn't possibly need a pair of extremely small, lightweight and easy to pack headphones. Didn't stop you shipping me a rather hefty laptop cooling pad for some reason though.

Electricity ? No, it's powered by rice and beans.

The most bizarre aspect of all this concerns your flagship product, the Kindle. Given that you must inevitably bow to publisher's wishes, it is just about comprehendable that you cannot release electronic versions of books to a worldwide audience at the same time. Understandable yes, forgiveable no. This is taking all of the benefits of internet globalisation and feeding them to the Rancor. Which in my view is totally mammoth. You will pay the price for your lack of vision (although Emperor Palpatine probably wasn't thinking about lost revenue from book sales when he said this).

Admittedly, no-one with a pet Rancor will care much about shipping policies
But, as I said, this is at least understandable. What isn't is the fact that this applies not only to modern books but also to classics which are available for free in other countries. They say that you should never attribute to malevolence what you can attribute to stupidity, and this is surely a classic example. There is no motive, rhyme or reason to restrict a free product, and simultaneously point out in big clear freakin' letters that you can easily find this content for free elsewhere.

So, thank you amazon. For the largest internet retailer your shipping policies are remarkably anti-globalisation, and it certainly nice to see someone leading the charge to ensure everyone is treated differently based on wherever they happen to live. For the life of me I just can't think how that isn't an example of racism and bigotry, but of course that is illegal so I must be wrong. Good luck with that one.

Lots of love from



P.S. Not that this will stop me buying stuff from you. Except in those cases where you refuse to take my money, as you often do.

P.P.S. Given my years and years of customer loyalty, it'd be nice if you'd approved my amazon store card. How exactly did you come to the conclusion that I have no credit history ?

P.P.P.S. I'm going to think about Jeri Ryan now, and possibly a bear. Maybe some bees too. Bzzzz !

Saturday 12 November 2011

The Ambassador and the Apocalypse

The usual response to whenever I complain about living on a small, desolate island thousands of miles from home is to retort "Yes, but at least you're living on a tropical island paradise." To which my mental response has always been, "Oh REALLY. Is THAT what you think ?". Well, finally I've captured photographic proof that this simply isn't true ! Not unless your idea of "tropical island paradise" includes a sky which, every afternoon, appears to be about to vent the very wrath of heaven upon the world, probably accompanied by something suitably eighties.


In only slightly less dramatic news, my office has now acquired this rather fine reptilian resident. I suspect he's after the ants, from which there seems to be no escape. I'm currently waging a war against them at home anyway (the current score is several thousand to me, a few nasty bites to them). They've taken it upon themselves to form trails entirely at random in ranks hundreds strong. I tried blocking their trails with masking tape, I tried brutally slaughtering them with ant killer, hell I even tried flaming them with a gas lighter - nothing works.

Which makes it all the more worrying that now, not content to vainly try and steal my food, they also appear to be trying to steal my research, the bastards. It's not as if I even eat in my office or anything.  I can't block their trails with masking tape, because they don't have any. They just turned up one morning on my desk, randomly milling about. I certainly can't spray them all with ant killer, because that would soak all my papers. And I definitely can't burn them, because that would also burn down the office and would be silly.

Get away from my food you BITCH !

In yet more dramatic news, my earlier proclamations against Goldenye may have been a tad... premature. I mentioned that even if we wanted to, we couldn't afford the electric bills to flood the dish. In a bizarre twist, this has become supremely ironic. Owing to the apocalyptic storm shown above, the area underneath the dish is now a lake that's probably about 2 metres deep. Ordinarily we'd just turn on a pump and wave bye-bye to mosquito heaven, but the transfer from Cornell has thrown up an unexpected bureaucratic wrangle. Apparently, someone needs to stay by the pump overnight when this happens... but we can't pay them overtime anymore. Whoops.

Last but not least, this week saw the visit of His Excellency Sir Nigel Elton Sheinwald of Harrow, British Ambassador to the United States of America. No, seriously, that's his full title (although he probably leaves out the "of Harrow" bit). Apparently he was accompanied by his wife and a protocol officer. Unfortunately I didn't get to ask if she's fluent in over 6 million forms of communications because they turned up while I was at lunch, and went galavanting up to the platform without me. Nor did anyone take up my suggestion that we find a small boat and sail them around underneath the dish. I can't imagine why. Because the line "I once went sailing with the British Ambassador underneath the world's largest radio telescope" is one hell of a conversation starter.

Monday 7 November 2011

The Distribution Of Drivers As A Function Of Speed

It is surely impossible to have enough posts about the driving behaviour of Puerto Ricans, so here is another one. The graph below shows how many drivers spend most of their time at a particular speed, with zero being whatever the speed limit happens to be.

The green area on the left covers about 50% of all Puerto Ricans, who insist on driving very slowly but, as if to compensate for the automatic safety benefit this could bestow, not at all carefully. In classic Puerto Rican fashion, these people place no value on their time or the time of anyone else unlucky enough to be caught behind them.

On the motorway this manifests itself as the Puerto Rican roadblock, a common occurrence where two cars drive alongside each other at exactly the same speed, regardless of the number of people behind them or how fast everyone else is going. Lane discipline might as well be the Loch Ness Monster over here.

The green area on the right also covers about 50% of all Puerto Ricans, who, in classic Puerto Rican fashion, just like driving really really fast, everywhere. And they don't compensate by driving more carefully, because if you're ahead of them they tailgate with extreme prejudice . The idea that something unexpected might happen apparently being a wholly novel concept.

Friday 28 October 2011

Puerto Rico : A Hispanic Oddity

Puerto Rico can be justly praised for a great many things. Having a solid educational system, efficient public institutions and a carefully thought-out public transport network are but a few of the many, many virtues it doesn't have.

My particular favourite of the island's various enchanting nuances is its corrupt milk industry. Milk is produced locally, presumably to avoid the expense of having to ship it in. Except that tropical grass is extremely poor in nutrients, so grain must be shipped in to feed the cows instead. Which, naturally, requires government subsidies to make it profitable... although it seems what the subsidies actually pay for are the palatial houses of the dairy farmers. I should also add that milk is about 5 times more expensive than root beer.

There's just something wonderfully endearing about a country with a  corrupt milk industry.

Then, as I've mentioned previously, there's the water authority. 4 miles from here, you'd be lucky to get water 3 days a week. Apparently this is not so bad provided you have a large cistern that can fill up whenever the water is working. The ironic thing is that my neighbourhood currently has more water pressure than you'd ever want to see outside of an episode of Mythbusters.

Water pressure is not to be trifled with

This is not normally the case - in fact I often don't get much more than a trickle myself. So it came as a great surprise one morning to turn on the tap and have water spray across the kitchen and see the tap physically jerk upwards. Something inside it even went BANG. Whatever it was hasn't gone BANG since, so is presumably broken, but never mind.

The other bizarre feature of the water industry is that if you dig your own well, legally you don't own the water that comes out of it. So, if you play by the rules, the water industry will charge you for the water you took out of the ground at your own expense. However, you can at least collect rainwater for free - unlike in Colorado.

The electrical authority has quirks of its own. Fortunately, they're not known for the crazy amount of service interruptions that plague their dihydrogen monoxide counterparts. Sure, there are more power cuts here than in most developed countries, but not enough to really worry about. No, the issue here is that the electrical bills are slightly higher than they need to be, so that churches actually get it for free. Thievin' bastards. Why I've half a mind to write a letter to Richard Dawkins.

Thou Shalt Covet Thy Neighbour's Electricity. Covet it good  I say !

One other thing I learned recently deserves to be reported, though it isn't the kind of thing I would normally write about because it's genuinely sick. A few years ago, the authorities embarked on a campaign to reduce the number of stray dogs. I'm not a fan of culling animals, but in this case it might be justifiable. Their numbers are high and most of them are clearly disease-ridden and starving. To try to domesticate them would be an exercise in futility, and take money and resources the island simply doesn't have.

Unfortunately, many pet dogs that happened to be on the street at the time were rounded up during this program. They were not humanely euthanised. No. They were thrown off a bridge.

Monday 24 October 2011

Al Gore Can Go Screw Himself

Well, he can. Literally. In the most physical sense of the word. With whatever perverted product he prefers, if necessary. Even if his job really is to help Stephen Hawking protect the space-time continuum, for all I care he can go and take a running jump into a pool of his own faecal matter.

This tyrannical Vice President famously won a shiny trophy (OK, it was a Nobel Prize) for a moderately inaccurate power-point presentation about some tap-dancing penguins... no wait, that was Elijah Wood... or maybe it was Morgan Freeman... but I digress. My point his that he can take said trophy - I'm assuming the Nobel to take the form of a little statue of Alfred Nobel himself, possibly holding a stick of dynamite and grinning happily - and use it as a suppository.

Actually, I wouldn't much dispute the basic message of An Inaccurate Truth. Indeed, some of the most noted skeptics have now been forced to conclude that the Earth really is warming. That's skeptics, people, not deniers - those are entirely different beasts. Deniers are the kind of people who should be put on a small smelly island somewhere, along with the Moon landing conspiracy theorists and Six Day Creationists. Skeptics, in contrast, can be safely taken to the pub for a drink.

You see, now that all reasonable people accept that warming is occurring, the cause of it is irrelevant. If we had infinite quantities of coal, or there was no other way to generate electricity, then it might make some difference if our C02 emissions were dangerous or not. But we don't, and there are. So there are really only two options.

1) Carry on burning fossil fuels. Which is fine* if in fact this doesn't cause global warming. Until we run out, and then we are truly up faecal matter creek without a canoe. And if it does cause global warming, then we'll just reach said creek quite a lot sooner.
* Except for all the other nasty associated  environmental damage, like oil spills and open-cast mining and the truly awful effects of fracking.**
** This seriously needs a less hilarious name.

No fossil fuels = no Port Talbot = WIN
2) Stop burning fossil fuels. If warming is real and caused by humans, then at the very least this limits just how far up the proverbial creek we get. And if it's not caused by humans, then we've still prevented all the other downsides to fossil fuels and switched to energy sources that will last forever  (and this includes nuclear fission by the way - breeder reactors are more than capable of producing enough fuel to last us billions of years), and will likely become a hell of a lot cheaper over time.

So, if the remaining skeptics are right, and humans are not causing global warming, then we still have to stop burning fossil fuels eventually - and the sooner the better. If they're wrong, then we have to stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible. Either way... well, you get the idea.

Which might make you wonder why I started this post with a vitriolic attack on Al Gore, the patron Saint of Lowering C02 Emissions. Well... I don't actually want the poor bugger to engage in self-copulation, or do something unfortunate with his Nobel prize. Heck, his alarmist movie is probably the only way to convey to the more thick-headed people that there really is a problem, and we should jolly well do something about it. In fact, well done that man !

Unless he tells me to save energy by not using my shiny new air conditioner. Because if the survival of a few waddling tuxedo-wearing movie stars (i.e. penguins) depends upon me living in a constant 35 degree heat and therefore having to collect my own sweat in buckets, then so help me God I'll go to Antarctica and finish off the feathery bastards myself. They'd do the same to me if they could.

Saturday 22 October 2011

How Lord of the Rings Can Help Solve China's Population Crisis

It's a simple question so I'll get right to it. Elves are immortal and apparently reproduce in the same way that humans do, so why aren't they crammed into Middle Earth like sardines ? Clearly they all get along with each other without reproducing much, so I reckon that if we figure out how they do it we'll be well on the way to finding a solution for China's population problem. Plus, we'll be able to stop worrying about what will happen when someone invents a cure for ageing.

You might wonder why elves have been singled out here. What about Middle Earth's other long-lived races ?

  • Ents. Live for thousands of years, but lost the Entwives (seriously ? Entwives ? Well that's what you get from a Professor of English at Oxford University), hence, no more Entings. Problem solved. That's probably not a good solution for China though.
"Perhaps they're all hiding in here. Well, you never know."
  • Dwarves. No idea how long these angry little dudes live. All we know is that the women have beards, and - if we allow Pratchett to interject at this point - most dwarf courtship consists of trying to determine the other's gender, which takes a very long time. Giving everyone a great big bushy beard might work for China, but the whole world ? That would be an odd place to spend eternity.
It is indeed the dwarves that go swimming with little hairy women. Good luck with that.
  • Wizards. There are only 5 of them, at least one of them is gay and the rest are probably male amyway. Reducing China's population to 5 old men is a move probably even more radical than they would be prepared to accept.
"I told you NO means NO !"
  • Orcs. A seriously misunderstood race. It's no-wonder they're so angry given that they're obviously overloaded with testosterone, given training that makes even the Libyan rebels look competent, only fed "maggotty bread" and - just to make them really enraged - they're all male. Again this is not a solution that will help China much.

  • Dunedain. Long-lived, but got their proverbial and literal asses' kicked long ago, so not many left. Though you would think that would be motivation enough to repopulate the species (or sub-species, or race, or whatever). Anyway. as far as I can tell, they lived so long because of really good breeding, and seem reluctant to corrupt their bloodlines. Eugenics, anyone ?
Yes, I'm going to recycle that picture wherever possible. Because I can.
  • Spiders. It's not clear why, but Shelob is apparently the last of the giant spiders, even though spider broods are hundreds strong. Answering this one would require reading the Silmarilion, which I've just not prepared to do.

Which means that the options for the survival of a long-lived species boil down to massacring an entire gender, ludicrous facial hair, killing all but 5 of the populace, or becoming Nazis. Well, let's put those on the "maybe" pile, and hope the Elves have a better solution. They must have come up with something... right ?

Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that the elf birth rate exactly matches the elf death rate. Now elven medicine is a tad mysterious but apparently very effective, so we can safely assume very low infant mortality. Which means that each elf couple will produce at least 1 child per year. That means that 1 in 2 elves must die each year to balance it out. Clearly this is preposterous, especially since elves can live to be over 3,000 years old. But at that death rate, any one elf only has a 1 in 1x10^903 chance of living that long, so their initial population must have been many orders of magnitude larger than the number of atoms in the Universe.

On the other hand, maybe they've all just got... bored. They've had at least 3,000 years to practise things so wantonly perverted they would make the Internet itself blush, and have run out of ideas. And since they seem to have pretty good memories, it's not like they can forget what they did and re-learn it years later. Moreover, it takes like 17 pints for an elf to get even slightly drunk, making elven orgies perhaps a trifle dull, by the general standards of orgies.

"Wait, I feel something. I slight tingling in my -"
However, this explanation lacks credibility, because none of the elves seem remotely interesting enough to ever have had a hidden life as a sex fiend. Maybe, instead, they have some incredibly effective method of contraception, and only procreate when their population diminishes. But that doesn't seem to likely either, because Liv Tyler (unaware of Aragorn's fascist tenancies) seemed pretty eager to get on with making babies.

Which means we're left with a long-lived population of more or less stable, well-adjusted (if extremely ponsey) people who want to have children, but don't. Only one explanation remains - Elves are reverse tribbles. Instead of being born pregnant, they're almost all born sterile. No wonder Liv Tyler was so keen to turn in her sword for innumerable evening's spent watching Ben and Holly (which in Middle Earth is probably considered a documentary).

Does this help China ? Umm.... no. It doesn't. So the title of this post is, in fact, a lie. Oh well.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

On the Purchase of a Horseless Carriage

I have several lifelong ambitions. These include, but are not necessarily limited to :
  • Retire on the Moon
  • Charter a boat to reach an astronomical conference
  • Legitimately use the phrase, "I wish to buy your entire stock !"
  • Legitimately use the phrase, "Saddle my elephant. I ride at dawn."
Unfortunately my other plan, namely to emulate the great Sir David Attenborough - who never passed his driving test and consequently doesn't own a car - is about to fail. It might theoretically be possible for me to continue car pooling for another year, but it would be considerably more difficult than, say, getting a horse.

This idea is not without merit. For one thing, it would mean having to set up the world's first Observatory stables - add that one to the list. It would also mean an 8-mile ride every day, or 20 miles on weekends (the Observatory doesn't have a supermarket), and horses don't come with air conditioning or a roof. I suppose I could attach a carriage and ride in that, but then I'd have to get a driver so I could sit in the shady, rain-proof interior (and presumably shout things like, "To the Observatory, James*, and don't spare the whip !").

* The attentive reader will see the difficulty at once. Puerto Ricans aren't called James.

Some horses do come with speakers, however
An alternative scheme, which would do away for the need for a separate carriage and kill two birds with one stone - would be to ride atop an elephant. Unlike horses, elephants are large enough to be fitted with a small roof and probably a little a.c. unit, although I'm not aware if anyone has tried. Plus they can knock stuff over. But they also poop a lot and probably need to be fed and stuff.

So that's that plan scuppered. With characteristic cowardly capitulation I've caved in and contrived to contribute capital to acquire a car (today's blog is brought to you by the letter C !).  Now my first choice would have been the smallest vehicle possible, like a Smart car (yes, minis are way cooler, but they're now as big as every other car which somewhat defeats their purpose). This is counterbalanced by my other need to do as little work as possible - i.e. buy the first thing on offer provided it doesn't spontaneously combust in the presence of trees.

At this point I can now only suppose that reverse karmic retribution is in effect, because the first thing on offer is a large, shiny golden thing with electrically-adjustable seats. It has driven 73,000 miles, or about 3 times around the Earth, since its creation in 2003, and has 4 doors (on this terminology I am in full agreement with the Americans - cars have either 2 or 4 doors, not 3 or 5, that's just silly). And a CD player. Umm. Knowledge of and interest in cars failing at this point. It can go forwards and backwards, but not up or down or back in time. Look ! Here it is...

Friday 30 September 2011

May I Live Here In Interesting TImes ?

Well, here I am again, back in this oh-so-tropical island "paradise" of sorts. It seems pointless to blog about Cardiff, partly because nothing very unusual happened and partly because 99.999% of the people who are actually reading this are from Cardiff anyway, and don't need to know what unusual things didn't happen.

Fortunately - or, as will become apparent, very unfortunately, I've arrived back at an interesting time. The kind, I suspect, that the Chinese had in mind when they invented that famous curse. For the official changeover of the management of the Observatory is imminent - Saturday, to be precise. While I was away I missed the farewell to Cornell party, but they saved me some nice gifts. Such as this fine clock, which is clearly modelled on the telescope in combination with the wormhole machine from Contact.

About 4 days before I returned I received an email telling me that travelling outside the USA while my visa is being transferred between institutions is quite a bad idea, and that I should try very hard not to do this. So, as my plane tickets were non-refundable, the visa transfer was cancelled so that all my current documentation is perfectly valid and above-board. That let me back into the country without the slightest hassle. The other options being to just go ahead and hope everything would work (to which, one institution said "that will be fine" and the other said, "OH GOD NO !") or effectively lose $650 in order to buy another flight back at a later date.

So far, so good. Except now of course the Cornell flag has been lowered, literally, and soon a whole host of new ones will be raised at what rumour has it was great expense. As my visa is associated with a specific employer, it will no longer be valid. Which I guess makes me a rogue astronomer (although not an illegal alien until October 30th, when I have to leave the country if this isn't sorted out). Naturally this idea has a certain appeal, although the idea of being an unpaid rogue astronomer is rather less intriguing. Watch this space.

This is the Puerto Rican flag, but you get the idea

Sunday 4 September 2011

Let's Recap

As my first return flight home draws inexorably closer, like a... really inexorable thing... it's surely time to reflect on the year's events. Which if you want to be cynical about it, and I do, means that it's time for the blog equivalent of a clip show. So what exactly have I learned in the last year ?


Don't do this. It's not at all worth it, certainly not in Europe. You'll have to spend hundreds and hundreds of currency units failing tests because of trivial errors that put you through the stress equivalent of a meat grinder when you could be, oh, say, hopping on a bus. Or a train. Or taking a taxi. What in God's name Puerto Rico is doing without any of these basic features only He knows, and as usual, He's not telling, the big bastard.

Incidentally, I'd like to take this opportunity to invite all my driving examiners out here to see the reality of Puerto Rican driving and then tell me there was a good reason to fail me. Because I promise you that nothing I ever did remotely compares to doing a U-turn on the motorway, double-parking to talk to friends at a junction or signalling in the wrong direction (or more often, never signalling - or equally, always signalling). 


One thing we can all be sure of is that David Cameron is a frakkin' moron, but almost unbelievably he's been trumped by the one-time darling of British politics, his sycophantic sidekick Nick "Closet Tory" Clegg. You sure had me fooled for a minute there, Cleggy. I thought you might actually be able to make an unelected coalition Government work. Nope. Sigh... why does no-one listen to my ideas ? Damnit people we need to be able to decide who we want in government !

Sadly, we've also learned the bitter reality that Great Britain is Great only at phone hacking, political corruption, idolising archaic traditions and - to everyone's lasting surprise - rioting. Still, we don't match up to Puerto Rico, where the murder rate is about 20x higher and corruption is rife at virtually all levels (including the milk industry, of all things). They don't riot so much though, because it's too hot. They may not have a Royal family to idolise, so instead they're sticking firmly with wanton animal abuse (i.e. cockfighting, discarding unwanted animals freely, appalling malnourishment of horses, etc.) -  presumably because they're all insane.

If we are to redeem ourselves in the eyes of the world then I suggest we attempt to combine our hitherto unexpected national talents. What we need to do is have the Queen hack Barack Obama's phone to dig up some juicy gossip on the latest exploits of the Guantanamo Bay Torture Squad (they have one of those, right ?) and then have her stage a riot.


It broadens the mind. It's certainly character building, and therefore best avoided. Sorry, Caribbean, but you're not for me. Your humidity is just too dang high, the lack of proper seasons is disconcerting, and the bright sunshine just makes me sunburned to the point of blistering. I was entirely right to dread the Caribbean climate, because I don't see how sweating profusely every time I even move for the suncream is at all fun. This is all, however, nearly compensated for by the presence of sea turtles, which I like to think of as pangolins of the sea.

Left : A land turtle. Right : A sea pangolin.

As for the States, well, I largely approve of what I've seen. Provided you don't mention...
  • The Southern Ocean
  • Soldering
  • Trousers
  • Chips (no goddamnit ! I don't want "French Fries !")
  • Crisps (they're not chips !!! Aaaaargh !)
  • Swimming costumes
  • Biscuits (from the country that brought you spray-on cheese : biscuits in gravy !)
  • Tea (they would not know proper tea if it raped their pets and stole their women)
... then you're probably fine.


Oh, right, that thing I do every day what pays my bills... Well, I've learned that space is quite big and contains quite a lot of stuff. So much stuff, in fact, that it's worth writing computer programs to do all the hard stuff for you. That way you can leave the code running to do the work while doing something useful, like drinking tea or teaching people unbelievably bad Welsh. It also involves a lot more debauchery than is generally mentioned in school.

The result of all this is that you end up with a huge catalogue of galaxies, sort of like a Victoria's Secret catalogue, only not really. Did I mention that I've been drinking some damn fine rum while typing this ? It's cheap too. The rum I mean. $10 a bottle. Doesn't really help science much. Umm... yes ! Science. It's good stuff. Largely consists of looking at static hoping something shows up. Sometimes, it does. And then everyone shouts, "Hurrah !".

For some reason, Victoria's Secret Galaxy Catalogue hasn't caught on

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Me, Miarrr! and Irene

This weekend saw a trip to the remote island of Culebra, for no particular reason. Arriving on a Saturday evening, we proceeded to while away a few hours in some small random bar. Nothing happened. However, things became immediately interesting the following morning, with the villa manager telling us of the approach of Tropical Storm Irene.

The two options she presented were to either (1) leave on the midday ferry, essentially negating the entire trip, or (2) stay somewhere else. Option (1) did not seem much fun at all. Option (2) seemed pointless. So we opted for (3) - stay put. After all, we had a well-equipped villa with air conditioning.

The day proceeded rather well. It consisted mainly of swimming in the sea and getting hit by waves, which in the Caribbean is like getting hit by a wall of semi-molten marshmallow while inside a washing machine. Pretty soon we'd adopted two bona fide lolcats. First and foremost was a large ginger and white cat missing half an ear and having only one eye. This clearly marked him out as a pirate, and so he was quickly named "Miarrr !".

Miarrr proved a faithful furry feline, ever watchful of our little cabin. Possibly this was because almost everyone else had left and we were the only source of food. Soon we met Miarrr's friend and rival, a smaller, dark grey cat whose colour could only mean she was a ninja. Logically, therefore, we named her Mr Miaowgi.

To combat the effects of the tropical storm - by now forecast to reach hurricane strength - we wisely decided to drink ourselves into stupefaction. This proved a wonderful decision. After a bar and a restaurant, we moved on to our own supply back at the villa. Several bottles later, the power went out. Having no provisions for this of any kind, we resorted to the little screens on my camera and mp3 player for light, soon draining the batteries of both of them.

Then, somehow, we managed to start a fire in a small metal bowl. I wish very much I knew what was being burned, but half a bottle of Disaronno (amongst other things) has somewhat weakened my memory. All I remember is discovering that insect repellent is flammable. Anyway, we continued in this fashion to mock Irene throughout the night. Which was not difficult, because frankly the most it did was blow down a single tree. Miarrr treated the entire escapade with characteristic stoic disdain.

In the morning I instantly remembered that my Kindle cover has a very bright light that lasts for many hours. There was absolutely no need to burn anything at all. Whoops.

We soon discovered that leaving the island was now impossible, because all flights and ferries were cancelled. We still had no power, so the manager asked us in a very loud voice how many bags of ice we needed. No-one could think of anything we could use the ice for, except possibly to make sure our drinks were nicely chilled, which isn't a priority at 9am when you've stopped drinking at 3 that same morning.

Thus the day was largely spent faffing about, though we eventually opted for 1 bag of ice to keep food cold and procured some clean towels, though these were of limited use with no hot water. On the plus side, it gave extra time to explore the beach and discover the abandoned tanks.

Since we'd already done the getting wasted routine, and still being without power, there was nothing for it but to search for somewhere that did have power and hope there was something on TV. We managed this, finding that one of the empty cabins somehow had power and TV. Thus, before proceeding on to burn things for the sake of it, we watched Predators and ate nachos. Miarrr tagged along, either out of a sense of loyalty or possibly just because he had nothing better to do. In short this hurricane was not quite the life-threatening utter terror that Discovery Channel documentaries have led me to expect.

The following morning flights were still cancelled - although why is a mystery since the wind had largely died - but a ferry service was operating. Having been stuck on a remote tropical island without power or any clean clothes, this prevented a second natural disaster from striking the Caribbean - namely, smelly astronomers. At 10am we boarded a cargo ferry back to the big island, and it left instantly despite it being a full 30 minutes before the scheduled time. 2 hours later we were back in Puerto Rico proper. 4 hours after than - more than double the usual time, owing to inexplicable traffic jams - we were back in Arecibo.

So, the worst this hurricane did - as far as I can tell - was to knock over some trees, cause a bit of flooding, and generally irritate everyone. Hurricanes, it seems to be, are no problem if your buildings are all little concrete bunkers (you listening to this, Florida ? Stop with the wooden huts already !), you have a healthy supply of booze, flammable materials and lolcats.