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, 27 April 2011

What the tourists don't see (II)

As promised here is my second exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at the NAIC. Previously I ventured into the control room and revealed that is NOT a supervillain's underground lair, much to everyone's disappointment. I also almost completely ignored the enormous dish that defines the whole place, so it's time to rectify that and also, unfortunately, end some more Bond myths.

However, I'm going to start on a much happier note by saying that Bond actually got something right ! Well, near enough anyway. OK, it isn't used to control an orbiting satellite that can electrify entire cities. But it is a bona fide death ray. Umm.... well, only if you're standing in just the right spot, which is about 30cm across and inside the dome, which is 120m up in the air, and only when the radar is working (which is not often) but that's not the point !

The sign is for show. Mostly.
Anyway, that's as close as the Goldeneye came to reality, which is not saying very much but never mind. Having finally had the time, inclination and most importantly camera about my person, it's time to share what's beyond the "no unauthorised personnel" signs once again. Unlike last time, there aren't even any lockless gates to open, because hurting a 300m diameter telescope is quite a difficult thing to do*.

* Although the anchor points from the towers are very well protect by with gates, barbed wire, security cameras and really steep hills.

First up is the ground screen. This is is a 15m high fence filled with a fine wire mesh (that doesn't photograph well) running around the full 1km circumference of the dish. The purpose of this circumfence is to make sure the instruments on the platform are never aimed at the ground itself, because trying to observe the ground won't work, otherwise no-one would have bothered building the dish. Having a giant fence means that even at their greatest elevation, the instruments are always pointed at nice shiny metal reflecting the cold sky rather than the hot ground.

There's nothing very interesting around the dish but numerous side-roads lead to all kinds of crazy places, like the deprecated helipad and the three support towers. From a distance these can look thin and spindly, but that's only because they're extremely tall. They're actually bloomin' massive.


I thought I'd long since explored all of the funny side-roads but it turns out I was wrong. I'd missed the one with the best view of all, from which nothing is visible except endless jungle with a river in it. Unfortunately no-one was around to sing the Jurassic Park theme with, which made the trek up in the baking heat a colossal waste of time.

Then of course there's today's main feature : underneath the dish, which is about as surreal and unique a place as it's possible to find anywhere. It's even less like the Bond movie than the control room. For starters, the telescope does not hide from passing spy satellites by submerging, which would be very difficult to do because it's not made of concrete and we couldn't afford the electric bills anyway. Nor are the three support towers retractable, which makes them less dramatic but slightly more practical. All the telescope does is sit there, like a big fact lemon. Occasionally, the platform rotates very slowly. And no, I haven't seen anyone from the British government come in all guns blazing in a desperate bid to shut us down (but probably they're all at the wedding anyway).

In fact the dish is made of many thousands of aluminium (no, NOT "aluminum", damn yanks) panels and weighs about 300 tonnes. These are a lot like the panels in a microwave oven - perforated by lots of little holes that are too small to let any important radiation through. So, although it looks perfectly solid from above, from below it's quite transparent.

Surprisingly, not only does the dish not double as a small water-sports center, but they don't even let you slide down it. I imagine that this is because there's nothing to stop you falling through the hole in the bottom, unlike in the Bond movie where there was a handy concrete lip that stopped our plucky protagonists from falling into an uncertain death. Certainly it cannot relate to such activities interfering with observations.

The underside of the dish is indeed an unworldly place. The structure of the dish is clearly visible thanks to the girders between each of the panels which trace neat, continuous arcs overhead. The dish is held under tension (it helps beat thermal expansion) by thousands of cables. It's also stained reddish-brown, so the whole place has a weird sense of industrial grace.

The cables are attached to large concrete cylinders. Surrounding the central flat area, which contains a few small engineering huts for maintenance, is a large drainage ditch into which run many artificial channels. There are also a few abandoned line feeds which used to hang up on the telescope. The place just screams Half-Life 2 mod.

Which brings me to the end of this second venture into the Forbidden Zones. The last picture shows the very center of the dish, which does indeed have a great big hole as in the Bond film, but this is only to allow stuff to be hoisted up to the platform. Sadly there is no great drain that would explain where the water could go if the telescope could submerge, and don't think I haven't looked. Goldeneye was simply not the insightful, intelligent documentary it claimed to be.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

An Open Letter to the BBC

Dear Auntie,

Hi, how's it going ? I recently got myself a big ol' TV, and imagine my delight to find I can watch quite a lot of BBC programs on it despite being 4,000 miles from Britain. Since you have so helpfully blocked BBC iPlayer based on IP address, I'm not in any danger of accidentally downloading an episode of Strictly Come Antiques Roadshow on Ice, which might completely bring down the entire corporation due to copyright laws. No, everything I do hear is nice and legal, as far as I know.

I'm talking about, of course, about BBC America - and also programs you co-produce / sell to other networks, but be patient and we'll get to that in a minute. Firstly, I'd like to thank you for BBC World News, with its global weather forecasts done in 2 minutes or less. I'm not certain who these are aimed at, but I find them thoroughly entertaining, so thank you. However, I'd like to point out that this service was much easier to find via Google search than the Beeb's own website, so I thought you might want to look into that.

I would also like to mention that BBC America is a misnomer, since many of the shows are not made by the BBC at all. Primeval certainly wasn't (it was made by ITV), a fact that does your institution credit, and you should not sully your good name by featuring it on your channel. Nor was Battlestar Galactica, but I'll let that one go because it was good and makes up for Primeval. Unfortunately, Outcasts was a genuine BBC show, and it saddens me that the reputation of Great Britain will suffer as a result of showcasing this televisual excrement to the rest of the unfortunate world.

But I digress. For there is one area in which the global supremacy of the BBC reigns uncontested. While you may from time to time accidentally produce a quality drama, in terms of natural history documentaries good old Auntie can truly look down upon all other networks, confident in her God-given prowess that is nothing short of magisterial. Except, that is, outside of the British Isles themselves.

For it seems that dark and baffling forces are at work whenever you decide to export a show. To my everlasting horror did I learn that the American "version", if I might condescend to call it that, of Planet Earth was originally narrated not by one of the greatest living Britons, but by Sigourney Weaver. Now, this good lady may be a fine actress and even a capable narrator, with a rich and distinctive voice, but to suggest that she could possibly compete with a Knight of the Realm who has been presenting to the good British people for over 50 years truly beggars belief. I am afraid that "Get away from that whale you BITCH !" is simply not going to work, unless perhaps Greenpeace are involved.

However, I have learned of even worse atrocities so horrific that they would make Hitler quake in his boots if he was ever a fan of wildlife documentaries, which he probably wasn't. It seems that the equally well-made successor series, Life, was narrated not by Sir David but none other than Oprah Winfrey. This is so utterly shocking to me that I cannot quite comprehend it. I think my brain has a natural self-defence mechanism that prevents acts of supreme stupidity from registering correctly. All I can think is that you just couldn't afford Jerry Springer.

Unfortunately there is yet another disaster which my brain is forcing me to confront as I witnessed it myself this very evening. In the once excellent series Human Planet, you have chosen to replace none other than John Hurt with some utterly bland American. This I cannot tolerate. I'm going to make this very clear : IT'S JOHN HURT. A man famous for his distinctive voice that lends itself as naturally to narration as is humanly possible.

You have not shot yourselves in the foot on this one - you have had both feet carefully and surgically amputated and had them replaced with facsimiles made of soft rubbery cheese. For my part I cannot see how anyone can be capable of deciding to replace John Hurt, a phrase which should be an oxymoron on a par with replace David Attenborough but never mind, and yet still have sufficient mental capacity as to allow, for instance, breathing.

I am thinking whether I should submit this letter to Points of View, where someone might actually read it - even Graham Norton would do - but I'm hoping it is possible to nominate you instead for an Ig Nobel prize for communications.

Yours in a distant land,


Monday, 18 April 2011

America - it's a funny old place

Especially in Puerto Rico. A place where in the space of an hour I've seen people driving go-carts along the main road (while being followed very slowly by a police car), a man galloping down the highway on a horse, and even a person stopping and turning around on the motorway. Not to mention a horse being driven at high speed on the back of a truck - it looked a lot like this :

Such weirdness is but one facet of the underlying oddness of America, a place where even the relatively sane believe that owning a gun is a right. Though in contrast to everywhere else in America, it's much easier to get a permit for a concealed firearm here than an unconcealed one. The rest of America apparently thinks that it's safer for everyone else if they know you have a gun; Puerto Ricans feel that if you're life is in danger it's safer for you to conceal the weapon about your person. Like most firearm regulations, the logic behind this one eludes me. Perhaps they're hoping that in the event of an assault, you can surprise your assailant by suddenly brandishing a gun, probably while saying something dramatic.

By some strange quirk - I can't for the life of me think why - the number of murders here per year is the same as the U.K. No, not per capita. Total numbers are the same - despite the massive population difference. It may be true that if you outlaw guns then only the outlaws have guns. It's also true that if less people have guns then less people get shot. That's called counting. But I digress.

Not that I'm sure what it is that Puerto Ricans have to get so very  angry about. After all, you can buy root beer at 89c for 2 litres. That works out to the equivalent of.... drumroll please... 9p per can. That's insane. Not only is it cheaper than milk, it's cheaper than water. But perhaps that's why they're so angry - if you're one of the 50% of the population who cannot abide this sweet, sweet nectar, you're probably quite ticked off about that. Whole wars were fought over opium, so root beer murders seem quite a plausible explanation to me.

There are other food-related oddities. I may have already mentioned the lack of multipack crisps, but I'm going to mention it again because the lack of crisps is beginning to bite. Listen, you bloody colonists*, crisps are supposed to come in small, snack-sized packages, d'ya hear ? Not great bags by the kilo. If I wanted to gorge myself to death on fatty potato I'd be in McDonalds with the rest of you fatsos**. And another thing, they're called crisps, not chips. Get it right.

* Umm, I suppose this doesn't really work for Puerto Rico, which was a Spanish posession, never British. But my comment most certainly holds for the States as well.
** Disclaimer - in fact, I can't in all honesty say I've seen much sign of the infamous American obesity problem over here. However, were I to encounter a McDonalds - which I have not - I'd no doubt find it full of blubbery customers engrossed in being sterotypical.

They also don't have banana-flavour Nesquick - only strawberry and chocolate. I've been addicted to this stuff since I was ten. Giving it up is much worse than relinquishing alcohol (which I'm none too happy about either, but never mind) -  it's more like being forced to give up tea, which is unthinkable. Seriously, I'm going to have to buy some online pretty soon.

Pricing of things is also weird, and probably deserves an entire post at some point. For now, with the exception of soft drinks, food is about the same as in the U.K. Amazon's online prices seem to be very nearly the same, allowing for their frequent massive discounts that appear not to apply to all places at the same time. However, the shipping prices have got me bewildered.

For instance, in order to buy True Blood from the U.S.A. it would have cost me about $40 total, or about £25. Thanks to a heavy U.K. discount, I was buy it from Britain for a grand total of £10. So apparently, it's cheaper to produce a show in the States, export it to the U.K., and then ship it back again.

Nor is this an isolated example owing to a freak discount. I bought the expansion to Oblivion from the U.K., simply because I objected on principle to having to pay more to get it shipped from the U.S. The total saving came to about 50%. Okay, since this is dirt cheap anyway this only means I save £5 and it will probably take longer to get here. But that's not the point ! The point is that it can't possibly cost less to ship something from Britain, which is 4,000 miles away, than from the continental U.S., which is only 900 miles away.

Hellooooo ? America...? Remember that counting thing we talked about ?

"VUN thousand miles, ah ah ah...."
Lucky for me though, because I discovered  (thanks to an Apollo 13 DVD that was lying around the place) that region 1 DVDs won't play on my Sony laptop, who have with skilfull cunning prevented any workarounds like AnyDVD or Remote Selector from having any effect whatsoever, nor are there any firmware updates available for my drive. Now I don't intend to spend $100 on a second blu-ray player because that would vindicate the evil fat-cat corporate overlords who decided that discs should have regions in the first place. Good grief, this is the 21st century. The idea that what you can watch should in any way depend upon where you are is frankly offensive.

Therefore out of sheer spite I shall continue investing my American dollars straight into the British economy. Except I won't, because I still don't have an American bank account, so I have to spend my existing British money to watch British DVDs of American shows on my British DVD player. Hmm.

Monday, 11 April 2011

I've Got Me A House

At last I have escaped the clutches of my small wooden hut. Instead, I now live in a small concrete bunker. It's orange. That's the usual style of building over here - build concrete cubes and paint them in bright colours. I don't have a front door key yet, so I have to scramble up the narrow back steps and squeeze in through the back door (naturally, it opens outwards and it just slightly wider than the steps).

OK, it's only a little bit orange. And it's not even that small, just compact. It has all the rooms you'd need (bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom, spare room) just stuck together without any unnecessary corridors to get in the way. The rooms themselves are not that much smaller than those back home, if at all.

I chose this one for many reasons, mainly because it's fully furnished - the previous incumbent having had to unexpectedly depart for personal reasons and left all their stuff behind. It's also extremely conveniently situated about 10 minutes drive from work (and 15 minutes from shops) in a small village heavily populated with astronomers, easily availing me of car pooling.

Thus I begin living in Puerto Rico proper, as opposed to the Observatory which is (almost) an entirely different place. For starters, astronomers do not generally get up at 6am. It seems that the only reason the locals do this is because it's vitally important that they ensure their dogs bark as loudly as possible, in order to wake up the chickens so that the roosters will crow on time. Otherwise, how would anyone else know it's time to get up ?

At least I've escaped the night-time screeching of the coquis, for the most part. I planned to offset the early morning noise by staying up late and playing loud classical music to annoy the neighbours, but  this probably won't work. This morning I was greeted by the strains of Pie Jesu on one side and some unknown opera on the other. So I suppose that if I want to annoy my neighbours I'll have to either get up even earlier than them - which would defeat the purpose - or play loud rock music, which would also defeat the purpose. Dang.

The environs. Mine's the one on the right. One day I'll be a big shot and have my own plastic chairs.*
* Is it wise to post pictures of my house on the internet ? Yes. It's not as if I can post my address even if I wanted to, not because I don't know it but because there isn't one. In complete contrast with the U.K., a street address is a privilege here, not a right that's assigned to every building automatically. It would be possible to get one, but hardly worth the effort. Even people who've lived here 20 years get all their stuff delivered to work.

Certainly, though, I've escaped the increasingly annoying squeaky floorboards. From here on in it's good solid tiles for me. Since everything is painted white, I've also escaped the gloom of the visitor's hut. Indeed, the abundance of daylight is currently a problem as I am awoken each morning by a combination of noise and blinding light. Noise can be mitigated by a fan to replace the other noises with a relatively pleasant droning sound. But currently, the only thing reducing the light is a paper-thin white curtain.

I can slowly begin to accept the previous resident's lack of air conditioning. The lack of a blackout curtain - which I have already remedied via Amazon - is perhaps understandable given the presence of a small child, who might wake up early anyway. But the lack of some other stuff is just bewildering. For instance, how can you live anywhere for 6 months without a bathroom mirror ? Or oven trays ? I had to cook chips in a cake tin because that's all there is.  Or a towel rack ? There's hundreds of towels, but nowhere to hang them. I don't get it.

Particularly odd is the lack of a cutlery draw. When I arrived, everything was in storage, so I've no idea how they managed. I make do by leaving everything in the draining rack - it's this or put it all loose in a draw. There are also no teaspoons, only sporks. They're very nice sporks, but still, they're not teaspoons.

I can haz internet but not spoonz
Oh well. Sunday saw a procession of people leave this little complex in a slow but stately march off to church, or at least I assume it was church. I don't know of any other force powerful enough to compel people to wear the whole shirt/tie/trousers thing in this heat, and then walk around in it. They even wore hats ! Hats ! In 30 degree heat ! Was the 11th commandment, "Thou shalt dress smartly even if it is hot, lest I should smite thee with rabies" ? Crazy people.

That's it for my house-related shennanigans. Next up : finally getting a social security number. And then a bank account.... then many, many, extremely shiny things, like a car.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Fly, my pretties !

Locals here believe in all seriousness that a monkey is loose in the local village of Esperanza, an otherwise entirely forgettable place. Not just any monkey though. A white one. With wings. I wish that last bit was a comic exaggeration, but this is the same place where people believe the Observatory is using its LIDAR beams to give orders to passing flying saucers. They believe this so much that a few years ago there was even an effort to construct a UFO landing site. I don't know if it succeeded or not.

As you can tell from the pointless monkey counter, I personally still haven't seen any monkeys whatsoever, flying, white, or otherwise. What they do have here are bioluminescent bugs. Before I moved out, I found one at the Observatory, crawling through the undergrowth with green glowing "eyes" as bright as LEDs. Then yesterday I found a firefly flying around my kitchen.

However, the flying/crawling varieties of bioluminesence pale into the utmost insignificance compared to the water-dwelling planktonic variety, Pyrodinium bahamense. Monday saw a samll group of us give a send-off to a visiting student by means of a trip to the bioluminescent lagoon of Fajardo. Frankly, I'm amazed that no-one has previously said to me (to paraphrase the great Bill Bryson), "You've never seen the bioluminescent bay !? You must go at once ! Take my car." Because this, like the Grand Canyon, is something to do before you die.

It started with an hour-long and mostly pointless but obviously mandatory safety talk and kayaking instructions. Then you get in a kayak and start to paddle out to sea. Of course, at this point (9pm) it's entirely dark, so all you have for light are the lights of the small nearby town, which reflect off the sea and clouds, and the navigation lights affixed to each kayak.

So you paddle through the bay, past all the expensive-looking yachts in the harbour, then swing around back toward the coast and enter a wide channel (it's a 4 mile trip, in total, and lasts about 2 hours). On either side there are trees, which is most places overhang so much that the sky above is nigh-on invisible. It's pretty much pitch dark. At this point you start to notice that the water is becoming a little unusual. The wake from the paddles doesn't quite look right. Let some water drain down your arm and you see little sparks trickling down it. It's like something straight out of Star Trek.

This isn't the beginning. Nor is it the introduction or the preface, but probably only the copyright page. Entering the lagoon proper, the concentration of the plankton increases dramatically. Every paddle-stroke unleashes a deep glowing cloud that persists for many seconds. Get some speed up and the v-shaped wave from the kayak becomes a glowing green thread. Throw some water and the surface of the lake erupts into pale green fire.

There are pictures of this on the net. I won't reproduce them here, because they're as far removed from reality as Harry Potter is to Gandalf. In terms of colour, most of them are simply wrong. In terms of brightness, this is probably impossible to properly capture technologically, because the human eye processes light in a very different way to any camera. What it really looks like, in terms of colour and brightness, is the luminous paint used in those stick-on glowing stars.

An unexpected bonus is provided by the abundance of wildlife. Anything disturbing the water activates the plankton, so fish are clearly seen as glowing silouhettes. They look eerily like Goa'uld. In places shrimp are found in shoals by the thousand, so hit your kayak with your paddle and see something like the flash from an underwater nuke, from which stream away many hundreds of glowing shrimp.

Another unexpected bonus is the wind and rain. The wind causes waves, each crest of which glows. Likewise the rain causes thousands of glowing splashes. This is one of those things that isn't like anything except itself, unless you have to hand a really large quantity of luminous paint.

"When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see ?
Did I just dare quote poerty ?"

Well, yes I did. I've no idea if William Blake every witnessed a bioluminescent lagoon, but I suspect that if he did he would have died of sheer melodrama. So, in a nutshell, get thyself to Puerto Rico at once and visit the lagoon. It's quite good.