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,

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.