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 20 August 2013

I Survived Puerto Rico And All I Got Was This Mildly Successful Blog

... and a bunch of other stuff too, but we'll get to that. Readers who only signed on because of the recent rut of graphics posts are going to be disappointed, because there won't be any of those for a while. This week, instead of making it rain planets, my goals are simple and few :
  • Take the dog for a walk (check)
  • Drink lots of tea (check)
  • Eat cake (check)
  • Get fish and chips from a chip shop (pending)
  • Go to the pub (pending, it's only Tuesday for heaven's sake)
If the banner change and the above list didn't give it away, I'm now safely back in the exotic city of Cardiff, a.k.a. the place where they film Doctor Who. That means I'm no longer sweating profusely the whole time, can ride a bus instead of having to drive like a total loser, and can generally experience all the other delights Wales has to offer.

YES. Just YES.
...We Interrupt This Blog To Bring You A Review Of Condor Airlines...

My cunning plan to save money by choosing budget airlines Condor went without a hitch. Apart from the total of 20 hours of travelling involved, but that wasn't their fault. That was because of the Atlantic Ocean being quite large (continental drift has a lot to answer for). But for about the same price as a return ticket with most other airlines, I was able to haul both myself and all my accumulated belongings (about 80kg of stuff) back to Europe with minimum effort, and in a premium economy seat, no less.

No, you don't get to ride a condor. Anyway this is clearly an eagle.
I have to give Condor very favourable reviews. Expecting nothing but misery and sorrow from a budget airline, I was pleasantly surprised. My 4 large suitcases were checked in without incident. They didn't even weigh them very carefully, fortunately - because one of them was a couple of kilos overweight. The staff were every bit as polite and efficient as on any other airline, except that I was paying half the typical price for the privilege.

I was extremely lucky to have an empty seat next to me (in a row of two) so I had as much legroom and any reasonable human being could expect. Not that it did me any good at all, because I just can't sleep on planes, but at least I was not sleeping in relative comfort.

The flight came with an evening meal, which was excellent (compared to other airline food, with metal cutlery (!) and a very large piece of cheesecake) and breakfast, which was truly awful (cold flavourless meat and cheese with some kind of disgusting bread substitute that I strongly suspect was regurgitated by a chicken). Tea, coffee, and alcoholic beverages were provided liberally (unfortunately anything more than a single glass of wine on a plane gives me a splitting headache).

All in all, regardless of other reviews, I would deem them excellent. The one thing lacking was a personalised in-flight entertainment system. This has always seemed like the least important aspect of a flight to me. I'm perfectly capable of amusing myself for 9 hours (if only by bringing along my own entertainment system, to whit, a tablet) but I sure as hell can't create my own legroom. The marginal extra cost for premium economy ($200) on a 9 hour flight was absolutely worth the extra space. I'd definitely consider using them again.

... and now back to our feature presentation

Total exhaustion notwithstanding, there are were a few things that struck me very quickly on my repatriation. One was that the cars in Britain and Puerto Rico are now about equal in size. Every other trip I've been pointlessly aware that British cars are noticeably smaller than their American counterparts. No longer, though I can't really tell if it's because British cars have got larger (hardly likely since the roads are still the same width) or the American ones have got smaller (much more likely since they're more economical).

Another thing that I was instantly impressed by was the fact that everyone spoke English, but sleep exhaustion makes me very impressed by everything.

Other expected bonus discoveries include the fact that evaporative cooling works here, so I'm not drenching myself in sweat in a completely pointless attempt to stay cool. Not that you even really sweat much at 20C. Then there's the fact that at night it's so damn quiet. There are no crickets chirping. There are no dogs barking (well, OK, not many). There are no roosters. But most of all there are no coquis. God how I hate those stupid little frogs.

The coqui is a 2cm long whistling frog whose call sounds like, "ko-KWEE ! ko-KWEE !". And they are LOUD. Easily as loud as a person. Basically, they're a bunch of slimy bastards. A hundred in the distance are fine. One just outside a house is very nearly as bad as the equally ubiquitous roosters.

Now, I'm not saying Puerto Rico is a bad place to live, but if I was one of the original Taino settlers, I'd have been the first to say, "C'mon guys, this is getting silly." What I'm saying is it's a bad place to live if you're me. And I am me. Although really I should qualify this even further, because presumably if I lived in a multi-storey apartment in San Juan the roosters and coquis would be no more of a problem than if I lived in central London. So what I'm really saying is even simpler : call me crazy, but I don't want to live in the jungle.

One might therefore infer that I'm somewhat ecstatic about being back. This is not quite the case, mostly because of the travel exhaustion and five hours of jet lag. It's also somewhat hard for me to currently accept that I don't have to go back. It's a nice thought (not that there aren't things I'll miss), but I don't really quite believe it. But I'll leave that to another post.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

The Return of Ramesses

Last year I borrowed a hapless kitten for two weeks with dubious name of Ramesses. Not surprisingly, Ramesses the Kitten was quite unable to live up to the standards of his more famous Pharonic namesake, Ramesses the Great. He fathered less (i.e. none) children, built less monuments (again none, though he did poop a lot), couldn't even understand the basics of riding a chariot and had about as much aptitude for commanding armies as I do for for playing Set (also none).

However, he was found to be far superior to Egypt's greatest ruler in many ways, not least of which is that as a trained astronomy cat he would naturally attack the wi-fi router with the rampant aggression that surely Ramesses I would have reserved for his Hittite foes, presumably because he hates all sources of RFI.

This year, Ramesses is on a mission of self-education. Being considerably older and wiser*, he has broadened his interests to include photonics (in this particular and unique instance among cats, laser pointers), robotics...

* Wiser meaning, "fatter" in this case.

Alarmingly, technology has advanced to the point where we can use
robotic cockroaches to entertain cats.

...and nuclear fusion.

Pet Smart presents : the home tokamak for cats !
He is, admittedly, somewhat more tolerant of the wi-fi router antennae. Perhaps, like the rest of us, he is simply willing to accept the sacrifice of a small part of the scientifically valuable EM spectrum in exchange by the massive convenience benefits bestowed by modern technology.

As befits such a prodigious polymath, Ramesses is clearly interested in everything and consequently his eyes are almost always as big as saucers. This makes him look continuously baffled.

He holds this expression more or less permanently. This means I
have absolutely no idea if he's bored, hungry, annoyed, perplexed,
tired, inquisitive, quite content, plotting to overthrow the Nigerian
government or just needs to pee.

He also reacts in the presence of anything : small pieces of dust, a light breeze, the continued existence of the floor, etc., with a sensitivity level that would make any gravitational wave detector vomit with sheer envy. I gave him the nickname of Ramecaesium.

All this cuteness comes at a price. And that price is that he's a bloody *!"£#?!$ awful nuisance. If he was a colony, he'd be the least likely ever to vote for independence. If I even go to the bathroom it's an instant and continuous series of miaows. At 4 in the morning he starts clawing at the door to the spare room to be let out, which basically sounds like a series of very loud thuds*. Then I spend the rest of the morning in a completely pointless effort to get back to sleep. That means I have no energy left in the evening to keep him entertained, which results in him biting me.

* If I leave him loose about the house he'll jump on me, which is even worse; if I shut my bedroom door then that seems to work but then I get no air conditioning.

Last year when he left I felt really quite lost. This time, after a month without anything approaching real sleep*, not so much.

* OK, a week of this was more because of the Single Dish Summer School for which there were at least some compensating factors. It's probably worth an entire post if I ever get around to it.

I love cats. Just not that cat. If I wanted a hyperactive animal who follows me around like a puppy and won't leave me alone the whole time, I'd have got a baby elephant. Or a puppy.

Saturday 3 August 2013

Minicebo !

One month ago I described my efforts to model the Arecibo Observatory. While I'd really like to use the electronic model for a whole bunch of different things - not least of which is to make an FPS level - the primary motivation of getting it laser etched in glass is now complete.

This crystal is about half the size of my gigantic Virgo Cluster glass brick, measuring 9x9x4.5cm and weighing in at about 0.8kg. That means it's roughly a 1:3000 scale model of its big brother and has a mass 1.5 million times less. The collecting area of minicebo is about 10 million times smaller than Arecibo. I'd guess that if we made an actual radio telescope this small, it would be the world's smallest filled-aperture radio telescope, instead of the largest.

Here's one we made earlier !
The etching company did a really great job of converting my untidy mesh into a sensible point-cloud that preserved all the important details.

This cube doesn't have its own light stand (yet), in these shots I'm just using the one I bought for the Virgo Cluster. Fortunately, 9cm light stands are really common and available from just $5.

I was particularly impressed that so many of the fine details were preserved from my original mesh. Even the individual girders on the platform are visible when you look closely.

Eventually, once things settle down (probably not any time before moving back to Europe), I'll make two versions. One will be a higher-polycount version with more modelled details, textures and lighting effects. One thing I'd like to do is show what the radio sky looks like above the telescope (like NRAO did for Green Bank). And possibly play with Blender's fluid simulator to recreate the end scene of Goldenye...

NO ! Not that bit !
The second will be a low-poly version which looks nice in realtime. That will be for some sort of interactive model. Maybe you'll just be able to look at the dish in 3D. Maybe it will involve an actual game. I suspect there are many uses I haven't thought of yet.

At some point down the line there will be bulk orders of these. Whether we can find some way to sell them to the public has yet to be determined. Anyone interested ? How much would you expect to pay ?