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,

Monday 30 May 2011

Don't Call Me Ishmael

Well, here I am again, back from an unsuccessful whaling expedition out of Boston. Didn't see a single thing, thus missing out on any number of inappropriate Moby Dick quotes. Some people might be a bit mad at spending $50 on a boat trip across the freezing wastes of the Atlantic with a constant gale-force wind and nothing to show for it. Well, I'm not mad, I'm madness maddened. There ! Obligatory Melville quote achieved.

The aquarium did give everyone a replacement ticket, but it's only valid until October (when the whaling season ends). Which means, I suppose, that I'll have to go back to Boston in the next few months. Oh deary deary me, what a terrible shame that is, having to visit a city so civilized that they cut  bagels by means of a conveyor belt and a circular saw. They even sell Magners, which gives them at least 10 million brownie points.

Boston is much like any other European city, except that it's a good deal taller and newer. Unlike the Arizona town of Flagstaff (featured on my previous visit to the States), whose "historic" district was built in the laughably recent 1900, Boston has some claim to history, dating back to the 1600's. Lots of stuff happened here relating to the Skirmish for Independence, apparently, and the local colonists have even built an obelisk to remind themselves of the British troops beating them into submission at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

For some reason these trifles of history haven't stopped the Bostonians from having a peculiar penchant for "British" brands. There's even a shop called "Fabulously British" which as far as I could tell sold a lot of outfits in Union Jack design but with flashy colours  (except that they'd spell it without a u, thereby proving themselves to remain merely ignorant colonists). Other places seem to venerate British cultural sophistication, leading me to strongly suspect that few of these people have ever visited Cardiff on a Saturday night.

Another bizarre aspect of Boston is that they have an affinity for weird names, some of which are ironic, others just plain odd. There's the 20-storey Little Building, the chain restaurant of Legal Sea Foods (its Illegal counterpart doesn't exist as far as I know), and my favourite, the ABCD University. Apparently this is a school for over-age and/or under-achieving students, but no-one thought this name would be cruel. Strange people.

Despite these oddities Boston appears to me to be about twenty million times more culturally sophisticated than Puerto Rico. It has public transportation. It has parks. It has concert-halls and theaters are abundant. It has cafes which sell tea, although it isn't very good. Maybe they're still dredging it up from the harbour after that little tea-party fiasco.

It's also rich. Really stinking rich. So rich that the AAS opening and closing reception were held in a ballroom, the kind where you'd expect someone to shout "Oh, Mr Darcy !" rather than discuss the funding situation for the James Webb Space Telescope. The rest of the city is also hopelessly trendy and full of hip young people who seem to have walked straight out of an American teen movie. This kind of happy, can-do attitude to life annoys me intensely, but I'll forgive the Bostonians because they've created such a nice place to live.

Well this isn't a science blog and God willing it never will be, so I'm not going to mention the conference at all. My re-introduction to Puerto Rican life began at the airport, when the plane was delayed by an hour because the cleaners hadn't shown up. Back at the San Juan airport, the scheduled taxi driver didn't show up either. Perhaps he was eloping with the cleaners.

In other news, this blog has seen a weird surge in views while I was away. Partly this is due to the WHY ?! post, written at a low ebb while struggling with driving tests. Suddenly its page views have shot up from nearly 0 to 35 at the last count. This, I suspect, is not due to 35 random people suddenly caring about the motivations of an astronomer, but probably because it uses an image from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and a new one's just come out. Though quite why the total views for this month (something approaching 500) are about double last month's, I've no idea. Still, if ever there was call for an image of Ian McShane, this is it !

Ian McShane through the ages

Friday 20 May 2011

Ode to the Passing of the Cornell Administration

One of the dangerous properties of an e-book reader is the superabundance of books available for free, and the staggeringly obscene levels of books at prices so minute they're practically quantum (some sort of Planck Price, it seems). Of course, many of these are by new, struggling and therefore hopeless authors and I'm sure I don't need to read any of them to know that for a fact. But, on the plus side, there's a vast assemblage of expired copyright material, e.g., all of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, etc. Which brings us to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

I downloaded the complete works of the said author on a whim, having previously taken a shine to Kubla Khan and The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Little did I suspect that this 18th century poet was actually a blogger, and worse, a tweeter. This guy wrote his every waking thought, apparently convinced that there was no subject too petty, boring or utterly unsuitable for a short yet enormously dramatic poem. I was under the impression that writing one's most fleeting and inconsequential  thoughts to the world in general was a modern abuse of technology. Oh how very wrong I was.

For instance, for one Coleridge's early works is about none other than his nose. His nose ! For goodness sake, what in the world would make anyone write nasal poetry ? I mean, how poetic can a nose be ? Well, in the hands of Coleridge it becomes an 8 stanza weapon of words with which to beat his readers into confused submission - the first two stanzas will suffice :

Ye souls unus’d to lofty verse
Who sweep the earth with lowly wing,
Like sand before the blast disperse —
A Nose! a mighty Nose I sing!
As erst Prometheus stole from heaven the fire
To animate the wonder of his hand;

Thus with unhallow’d hands, O Muse, aspire,
And from my subject snatch a burning brand!
So like the Nose I sing — my verse shall glow —
Like Phlegethon my verse in waves of fire shall flow! 

Which seems to translate roughly as, "You poetry-hating dingbats, I shall blast you all away with my mighty flaming nose !"

Cryptic stuff. Of course, he also wrote about more proper poetic subjects, like the Moon and trees and happy little bunny rabbits and terrible tragedies. All well and good, but he then he also wrote about stuff like universities, protests in the House of Lords, a short climbing trip, the poor quality of suspension on horse-drawn carriages, mathematical problems, and my personal favourite so far - his kettle. All of which are so dramatic they're the 18th century poetical equivalent of Bonnie Tyler on LSD. This is Coleridge on breaking his kettle :

Your cheerful songs, ye unseen crickets, cease!
Let songs of grief your alter'd minds engage!
For he who sang responsive to your lay,
What time the joyous bubbles 'gan to play,
The sooty swain has felt the fire's fierce rage;--
Yes, he is gone, and all my woes increase;
I heard the water issuing from the wound--
No more the Tea shall pour its fragrant steams around!

I guess that's opium for you. Anyway, in the spirit of reporting news items in ultra-dramatic poetic form, Cornell University will cease to operate Arecibo from October. So, here goes...

O Muse who sangest late Cornell's pain
To griefs domestic turn thy coal-black steed !
With much-delayed steps thy administrative transfer must go,
Then over-prompt announcements much confusion sow,
When scatter'd round each dark and deadly malicious news feed,
Thus shalt the hapless rumour mill complain.

While astronomers shall shriek and aeronomers shall howling run !
The telescope is spoilt and Cornell is undone !*
Stanford, thy longful songs, ye unseen crickets, cease !
Let songs of victory your alter'd minds engage !
For they who sang unresponsive to your complete and utter lack of official info,
Shall in time to hear thy will and make it so.

O what whilst thine benefits package dare contain ?
And what retirement options shalt it constrain ?
Not all employees shall e'er again recieve,
A paycheque by a uniform source's leave !
And still, as erst, let favour'd NAIC exist,
Largest ever of the large and oft-shrouded in mist !

* Disclaimer : not necessarily. In fact probably not. All hail out new benevolent masters !

I never claimed it would be any good, but I don't care because now I'm running away to Boston to go whaling. Or maybe it was whale-watching. Probably should check that.

Saturday 14 May 2011


Some considerable time has passed since my previous post, and now we live in a Brave New World where we don't have to worry about electoral reform at all. Phew, I'm glad that one's out of the way with. For a minute there I thought Britain was about to do something sensible. Oh well, better luck next generation. At least Nick Clegg is looking very silly, which is at least slightly comforting.

That's right ! I'm recycling pictures from my own blog out of sheer laziness !

In other news, Jabba the Hut has won immense popularity in Scotland*, seemingly - as far as I can tell - by telling ridiculous lies to the electorate about how great Scotland is. Which is a pity because there are quite a lot of truths he could tell about how great Scotland is, but never mind. In yet more dramatic developments, Osama bin Laden has been shot dead and buried at sea (but not necessarily in that order given how much the official story keeps changing).

The most promising conspiracy theory so far is that he was probably distracted by watching two extremely rich people get married, which seemed to turn even the most cynical journalists' minds into some sort of rose-tinted glue. I don't quite get why watching two strangers with more money than taste take vows to keep on shagging each other (lest some almighty being smite them with thunderbolts) has this effect on people. Why is it that the only thing we as a nation can rally behind is a bunch of inbred accidents-of-birth putting on a cheesy Disney-esque show ?

I digress, but only slightly. For, having received my social security number, I proceeded with all haste to acquire not one but two bank accounts and buy at once a television, amongst other things. Television ! Sweet nourishing T.V. ! Full of HBO and BBC America (a.k.a. "the wedding channel" but I'll forgive them for also showing Top Gear and Dr Who). Among the other things was also something of the highest order of magnificence, the exalted name of which I barely dare venture to contemplate, lest the precious thing should fade like morning mist back unto the ethereal Amazonian vapours from whence it came.... a kettle. It's been over 7 weeks since I last gazed upon such a noble visage. Finally a semblence of civilisation hath struck itself fast unto my blessed abode !*

* That's what you get for reading Coleridge, but we'll get to that.

It's a Proctor Silex. Not sure what the name means, but I'll bet it involves an evil villain bent on gaining control of the Romulan Senate.
Acquiring the social security number was the easy part. Getting a bank account involved more of a culture clash. For instance, names. The Spanish naming convention is... odd. Something about their surname being their second to last name and having their mother's maiden name in there somewhere. All I know is that it took a rather long time to convince the bank lady that my middle names are only middle names, not my last name. Then I had to persuade her that when I said I wanted to cash a cheque, I did not mean I wanted it converted into cash on the spot (which is illegal).

As I mentioned I eventually ended up with two bank accounts. One of these is a checking account. It does not come with a cheque book and never will. The other is a savings account. It is instant access and has an interest rate of 0.3% per year, so how that helps anyone save money is beyond me. Just to add to the weirdness, the savings account comes with two cards - one I can use in ATM machines and at the store, the other is a Visa debit for buying stuff online, which is why I needed the second account. Buying stuff online is what the 21st century's all about... that and terrorism anyway.

Which, in the final assessment, meant I was at last able to cas... I mean, deposit... my accumulating pay cheques, watch Battlestar Galactica on blu-ray and have a nice cup of tea. And read The Independent on my Kindle. Although if I were in a normal, stable (we'll get to that too) job I'd infinitely prefer enough books to cause a massive disturbance in L-space, this is hardly practical here. Bookshops are few and remote, and the last book I bought on Amazon took 3 weeks to arrive by air mail. Presumably Amazon are now shipping via Zeppelin, or, possibly, carrier pigeon. Whereas on a Kindle books are delivered at relativistic speeds (in fact the proper arrival time is zero)  whilst still being on a printed page (it literally is electronic ink).

No wonder it took so long - there are no roads across the Atlantic.

As the diligent reader will have ascertained, there is much other news. Watch this space.