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,

Wednesday 29 January 2014

A Giant Horse, Some Freaky Babies, And A Post-Soviet Apocalyptic Wasteland

All are to be found within easy walking distance of my current abode. In fact, the wasteland is only a walk across the road. And it really is a wasteland. Aside from the occasional tree, only a low, distasteful scrub covers the ground. Muddy tracks and pathways criss-cross parts of this inner-city wilderness, although where they could possibly lead I've no idea. Welcome to a part of Prague where tourists fear to tread.

This probably won't be as popular as the last time I posted about things tourists don't get to see.

In many places, ruined factories and other buildings - some of which are now only low walls - break the monotonous brown with patches of monotonous grey. Only graffiti (which is sometimes, admittedly, really rather good) provides a splash of colour to this long-abandoned part of the city, barely 30 minutes walk from the glories of Old Town square. It reminds me of nothing so much as Day Z.

Carefully sneaking past the shuffling hordes of zombies* I found that much of this area is now a construction site. And it should be - go back across the road and you're in a perfectly respectable part of the city. Whatever the development plans might be though, they are clearly a few years away from making much of a difference.

* A.k.a. dog walkers. Praguers don't let a little thing like a post-soviet apocalyptic wasteland stop them from walking their beloved dogs. One night I ventured outside simply because it was -13 C, and I've never experienced -13 C before. What did I find ? Dog walkers - they're irrepressible.

Slightly further towards the city center I found this building. No idea what it is. I only point it out because the architect's brief must have read something like, "We want it to be really pointy. REALLY pointy. Yes, we know, there's plenty of space to make it bigger, but the important thing is that it be pointy as heck."

Onwards. then, away from the other-worldy wasteland and back into the city proper. A huge statute of a horse looms over the local area from the top of a nearby hill, and obviously demanded attention. This is reached via a tunnel about 300m long, followed by a steep ascent through some rather nice parkland. At the top, more dog-walkers (of course) and a national memorial (formely, I learned later, a Communist mausoleum, which is why it's one of the most architetcurally uninspiring buildings anywhere) and Tomb of the Unknown Solider.

Still, the horse is much more impressive. It is in reportedly the largest equestrian statue in the world, being 9m tall and weighing 16 tonnes, however, this is demonstrably completely wrong. Even so, it's well worth a look. There's very little else nearby, so there aren't any tourists. Certainly not in January when it's -9 C, at any rate.

Vitkov hill offers some impressive views of the city, and, like Vysherad, deserves to be more well-known, though I suppose war memorials aren't top of the tourist list. The skyline to the south is dominated by the massive, 216m tall TV tower.

The tower is quite a trek away, so I wandered up to it on another day. It's apparently also accessible by metro, but I'd have to use all 3 lines to get there (which would probably mean more time waiting for the trains than actually using them) and anyway, that just wouldn't be any fun. Neither are the hideous bronze babies that are attached to the sides.

I bought a book, "Xenephobe's Guide to the Czechs", which says:

"They have a deep desire and unwavering determination to better themselves... whatever the circumstances and through their own efforts. What saves them from being quite unbearably astute is that they have a unique knack for screwing up when it really matters. Which is why they are where they are, not where they know they ought to be."

Well then, here is a perfect example. Apparently, it is not as obvious as I thought, so please pay attention, good people of the Czech Republic :

Malformed babies are not suitable as decoration.

Not on a TV tower and not in an otherwise pleasant park in the city center. Not anywhere. They might be amusing for all of twenty seconds, but as something you'd look at every day they're the artistic equivalent of pugs : you wouldn't want to wake up to them with a hangover.

I continued onwards for a short while just for the heck of it, and was rewarded with the discovery of a bar which, for obvious reasons, I have literally no choice but to visit. It only opens after 4pm, otherwise I would have gone in there and then. And now it's -13 C and it's too far to walk in the cold. But as soon as it gets even just a little warmer, I promise you, dear readers, I shall investigate. I don't know whether their pina coladas will be any good and I doubt they'll serve rice and beans, but I'll be damned if I don't find out.

Sunday 26 January 2014

House Hunting

I was extremely lucky in Puerto Rico in that I basically fell into a house recently vacated by another postdoc, bought all her stuff, and lived happily ever after.* It was 10 minutes (drive) from work, had reliable electricity, internet** and - most unusually - water. It was all much simpler than it had any right to be.

* Metaphorically speaking.
** With one unfortunate exception.

Not so, it seems, in Prague. To save money, I opted to share with the even-newer postdoc. An undoubtedly sound economic decision, but one which does make things rather complicated. There's no shortage of places to live, but finding one which ticks all the boxes was damned hard. In the interval, I had to sleep rough on the streets, a.k.a. the very nice guest room at the institute.

Strangely, although the Academy of Sciences owns several apartments, they're not particularly cheap. Nor do they currently offer anywhere particularly suitable for singles. My 50 sq m house was considered tiny and/or cute in Puerto Rico, but having seen the 80 sq m place offered by the Academy, I can't imagine what I'd do with all that space. Set up an animal sanctuary ? A small opium farm, perhaps ? Run a very small brothel ? I think not.

Ask our hooker for heroin !
In any case, the place was too far from the city center, and no-one's going to trek that far out to find a brothel. You don't need to. They're really rather unmissable* in the middle of town. Although one presumes such places must have fallen victim to the economic crisis as much as anyone else, since they explicitly advertise the availability of... free wi-fi. Fortunately, there's a meme for that.

* As in, "you can't fail to notice their existence" rather than, "they're the best thing in Prague, you must go at once, take my car !"

But I digress. What was I babbling about ? Oh, right, apartments ! We rejected the Academy's flat, because even a cursory Google search revealed many fully furnished apartments in better locations, for a similar price. But of course, the devil's in the details...

The second place we saw was absolutely great, apart from being on the 4th floor without a lift (5th if your're American). Actually that sounds awful already. There would also have been a furnished kitchen but not much more than that. Someone else - obviously an avid fitness fanatic - took it the next day.

The third place wasn't awful, but was overly-furnished. Converting the living room into a second bedroom would have been quite a bit of work, plus there was no fridge. And the landlady* had a "no parties" policy.

* Who was also the owner of the building. This seems very common in Prague that huge apartment blocks are owned by individuals, who live there, and not giant faceless corporations.

Number 4 was oh so very, very close. Again, lots of room, fully furnished. Owner definitely not one with a thing against parties. But here there was a single fatal flaw : one bedroom could only be accessed by going through another. Awkward !

We visited number 5 while it was still a building site, and talked directly with the owner of the building who was also the head of the construction company. It was gigantic - 96 sq m - and very reasonably priced, but unfurnished. Well, it had an oven, a dishwasher, and a bathroom, but that does not equate to being partrly furnished in my mind. "Oh, I don't have to fit my own shower ? How convenient !" - I think not.

Number 6 was crazy-expensive (price of utility bills isn't always advertised) box a few minutes from the castle. We wouldn't have saved anything by sharing at that price, plus we'd have had far less space each than renting separately.

Seventh time lucky - a large, 85 sq m flat in Karlin. Two large adjacent rooms, well soundproofed, a decent sized kitchen, about 20-30m walk from the city center. Fully-furnished kitchen and living/bedrooms room with all the basics : beds, wardrobes, sofas. Voilá.

Keen-eyed viewers may spot the Arecibo poster (signed by members of staff) which is given pride of place above the T.V. I still haven't worked out what to do with the amazon gift voucher, although maybe that will be easier now that I have an address. Unfortunately this is not a proper address, because the letterboxes aren't big enough for packages. One day I'll live somewhere so incredibly sophisticated that I can get boxes delivered to my door...

Also on display are my crossbow, hanging on the wall, and Swiss horn, in front of the T.V. I lost most of the ammunition for the crossbow at a pool party, but there's plenty left. The target on the wall comes from Prague Castle. The horn is epic, as we proved during the great Alpine expedition to Skyrim.

The camera is held at a jaunty angle because the mountain is like, reallly steep.

There aren't any mountains on view here. Instead, a small balcony overlooks the utterly non-descript space between the apartment blocks. There's also a kitchen, because kitchens are generally reckoned to be a good thing.

The downsides ? The bathroom is teeny-tiny and there's only a shower. There is only one toilet. The laundry room has only a rather small, extremely slow washing machine, no dryer. But since I'm not living in a sauna any more, the need for showering fifty-seven times a day is less pressing. Nor do I have some weird laundry fetish, so really there's nothing to complain about.

So far the property agency haven't given cause for complaint. The boiler broke on the first weekend, but it was fixed on the following Monday (which is good, because now it's -13 C outside). They found us some extra furniture and might have even more. Internet was installed by O2 within the space of a week. A trip to Tesco restored my British superpower of the ability to make tea (i.e. I bought a kettle), and thus all is well with the world.

Friday 10 January 2014

Dear Peter Jackson

and also Guillermo del Toro and New Line Cinema....

Thanks for making The Lord of the Rings ! Wasn't it just awesome ? Everyone I know thought so. In fact, I think it's pretty tough to find a better movie adaptation of a much-loved book. Like Shary Bobbins, it's practically perfect in every way. No need for me to wax lyrical about this, because the millions of dollars earned (and all those shiny Oscars too) are well-deserved. I hope you all sleep soundly at night on top of a pile of money with many beautiful women, or, possibly, the other way around.

I'm not so sure about The Hobbit though. Now, before we get off on the wrong foot, let me say that I saw both films in the cinema (the second in HFR) and will definitely see the third next year. I may even buy the blu-rays at some point, so you haven't lost a sale here. On the other hand, LOTR was an easy top-of-Christmas-list three years running. So, let me humbly offer a suggestion that I think would make you even more money and make the film even better. It's very simple :

Release a truncated version as well as the special extended editions.

See, isn't that easy ? If you re-release The Hobbit as a single three-hour film, I absolutely promise I will go to the cinema to see it and buy the blu-ray. Because nine hours is just too dang long for a 200-page children's book. I don't want to listen to the dwarfs singing for fifteen minutes while they wash dishes. Or watch some crazy-ass weed-smoking wizard dash through a forest in a rabbit sled. Or even listen to a dwarf-curious sexy "she-elf" prattle on about absolutely nothing for no apparent reason.

A.k.a., "Honestly, there's a dragon later", and, "That's right, there's
 an even longer version ! With 63% more dish washing !"
Not that there isn't much about the films to admire. Casting is decent - Gandalf, well, he's still Ian Mc-frakin' Kellen, so nothing can go wrong there. Bilbo - Martin Freeman will always be Arthur Dent to me, but he does look quite a lot like Ian Holm from the right angle, so that's good. Special effects are solid, even if there's too much CGI and not enough models. Most importantly, I thought the all-important conversations with Smaug scenes were pretty near perfect, and if you'd messed that up then rest assured I'd have let you know.

EDIT : I just thought I'd say a little bit more about how frickin' awesome Smaug is. Also, it would be criminal not to link to his interview with Stephen Colbert. I wish him well in his future career eating T.V. interviewers.

As an aside though, please take note : Smaug is a British dragon, so it's pronounced how it's written - Smaug. As in "Paul", or "maul", or "Gaul". Not Smowg. That would only be the case if Smaug were, in fact, a German woman ("Guten tag, Frau Smaug !"), not a 500ft long British dragon. Hope this helps !

Note the key difference - one hoards gold, while the other - according
to the internet - hoards beer. This makes it easy to tell the two apart.
On the other hand, what was going on with Legolas ? It was fortunate that the character is completely generic, so I could pretend it wasn't Legolas at all, but some other random elf. Later on, it was a good idea to have the dwarfs venture into Smaug's lair to rescue Bilbo, but what was the point of the ridiculously overblown scenes with the forges and the giant molten gold statue ? Or the singing goblins in the first film ? Fortunately, most of these scenes seemed designed to be easily removed later, so hopefully you've already had "my" idea.

But by all means, go ahead and release a extended special edition that's sixteen hours long. Heck, let's shoot the moon - make a reality T.V. show where we see the hobbits trekking to the Lonely Mountain in real time. Call it... err... Little Brother. On account of the hobbits being small. Yeah. Each day we'll discover what Bilbo had for breakfast and learn how he keeps his great hairy feet clean.

Alas, this may not quite be ambitious enough, so why not go the whole hog and make a movie about Tom Bombadil as well ? Or the Silmarilion ? And forget high frame rate - do the entire thing in slow motion, just in case anyone should somehow miss anything. Maybe remake them all as musicals !

Please feel free to use all of these ideas. I don't mind. But just remember to also release a version without all the faffing about. Fantasy is, when you get right now to it, just someone making stuff up, but so is all fiction. Making edits to the novel to make it screen-friendly is one thing - and the (relatively) subtle revisions for the Lord of the Rings movies were a masterclass in this - but don't think you can easily get away with inventing your own extra scenes or even hacking in other Tolkein stories. To do that, you'll have to travel back in time, become a WWI veteran and then an Oxford professor of English literature. Just because a story involves magical dwarves and dragons doesn't mean you can do what you like with it.



P.S. It is now one year later, and I have seen the conclusion of the trilogy. I congratulate you on apparently paying very close attention to this post, as I see that you have mostly taken my advice to heart. The invention of random extra scenes was this time kept to a minimum, thus making this much the best of the Hobbit films. However, I still think a single 3 hour film would be 3 hours of pure awesome, compared to 9 hours of mostly padding. Not only would it cut out a lot of the "anyone got any chloroform ?" moments of the first two films, but it would also make the whole Smaug sequences tie together in a much more satisfying way. Because, in the second film, we ended with :


Then, a year later, but barely ten minutes into the third film, we get (effectively) :


Which feels like a tremendous anti-climax, and leaves me thinking that the writers had been smoking too much of some rather "special" pipe-weed. I mean, at some point someone must have said, "Guys, should we add an extra ten minutes of the last great fire-drake of the Third Age, or the dwarves washing dishes ?". And given that the battle scene lasts a full hour* and features Billy Conolly riding a battle pig, don't you dare tell me that CGI is expensive.

* Not that it doesn't have some fine moments, but it's not Helm's Deep.

So anyway, a shortened version still seems like a damn fine idea to me. An official abridged version would be easy to make, you could release it at cinemas and make even more money (sell even moooaaarr merchandise ! release another soundtrack !), fans will approve and shower you with rose-petals, and basically the world would be a better, happier place... and let's be honest - if you don't do it, someone else will. And that'd be a shame. Don't be the rich douchebags who sue fans for making their movie better. Be the kind-hearted douchebags who redeem themselves by also making the movie most Tolkein fans actually wanted in the first place.

Thursday 2 January 2014

Are You Sitting Comfortably ?

You'd better be. By the time you finish reading this, you'll have travelled about 42 thousand miles.

... or about 66 thousand kilometres if you insist on using the metric system like most sensible people.

The Earth rotates at about a thousand miles an hour on the equator. If you stand on the poles you won't move at all, you lazy bastard... not around the center of the Earth, at any rate. And of course if you're an astronaut you'll be going much much faster. The rest of us are rotating at several hundred miles an hour, just from the rotation of the Earth alone (which would only be impressive if we suddenly stopped). At that speed, you could make it most of the way to the Moon inside a week, while in a month you could make almost 3 return trips. A year would get you about 9 million miles - just enough to be really far away from Earth, but nowhere near any other planets.

So LAZY ! Except that the whole Earth is moving around the Sun
as well as rotating...
Of course, the whole Earth-moon system is also orbiting the Sun, and very much faster than the rotation of the Earth on its own axis. A month of travelling at 67,000 mph would be just about enough to get you to Mars or Venus when they're closest to Earth. A year would get you to Jupiter, while if you spent your entire life at this speed you'd end up ten times further away from the Sun than Pluto and be incredibly lonely. You'd be about three times further away than Voyager I is currently, so you'd be in a really tedious part of interstellar space.

Then again, the entire Solar System is orbiting the center of the galaxy at about 138 miles every second. That would get you from London to Sydney in just over a minute, the Moon in half an hour, Mars in 3 days, Pluto in a little under a year. But it's still nowhere near enough to explore the galaxy. Even travelling at that speed for 70 years, you'd only travel about 1% of the distance to Alpha Centauri - actually reaching our nearest star would take about 6,000 years (in case you're wondering, Voyager I is currently moving at a paltry 17 km/s away from the Sun; bullets move at a pathetic 1 km/s).

Conclusion : space is big. As a wise man once said, really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is... Also, everyone on Earth is moving much faster than a speeding bullet. I love science.