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, 24 August 2011

Me, Miarrr! and Irene

This weekend saw a trip to the remote island of Culebra, for no particular reason. Arriving on a Saturday evening, we proceeded to while away a few hours in some small random bar. Nothing happened. However, things became immediately interesting the following morning, with the villa manager telling us of the approach of Tropical Storm Irene.

The two options she presented were to either (1) leave on the midday ferry, essentially negating the entire trip, or (2) stay somewhere else. Option (1) did not seem much fun at all. Option (2) seemed pointless. So we opted for (3) - stay put. After all, we had a well-equipped villa with air conditioning.

The day proceeded rather well. It consisted mainly of swimming in the sea and getting hit by waves, which in the Caribbean is like getting hit by a wall of semi-molten marshmallow while inside a washing machine. Pretty soon we'd adopted two bona fide lolcats. First and foremost was a large ginger and white cat missing half an ear and having only one eye. This clearly marked him out as a pirate, and so he was quickly named "Miarrr !".

Miarrr proved a faithful furry feline, ever watchful of our little cabin. Possibly this was because almost everyone else had left and we were the only source of food. Soon we met Miarrr's friend and rival, a smaller, dark grey cat whose colour could only mean she was a ninja. Logically, therefore, we named her Mr Miaowgi.

To combat the effects of the tropical storm - by now forecast to reach hurricane strength - we wisely decided to drink ourselves into stupefaction. This proved a wonderful decision. After a bar and a restaurant, we moved on to our own supply back at the villa. Several bottles later, the power went out. Having no provisions for this of any kind, we resorted to the little screens on my camera and mp3 player for light, soon draining the batteries of both of them.

Then, somehow, we managed to start a fire in a small metal bowl. I wish very much I knew what was being burned, but half a bottle of Disaronno (amongst other things) has somewhat weakened my memory. All I remember is discovering that insect repellent is flammable. Anyway, we continued in this fashion to mock Irene throughout the night. Which was not difficult, because frankly the most it did was blow down a single tree. Miarrr treated the entire escapade with characteristic stoic disdain.

In the morning I instantly remembered that my Kindle cover has a very bright light that lasts for many hours. There was absolutely no need to burn anything at all. Whoops.

We soon discovered that leaving the island was now impossible, because all flights and ferries were cancelled. We still had no power, so the manager asked us in a very loud voice how many bags of ice we needed. No-one could think of anything we could use the ice for, except possibly to make sure our drinks were nicely chilled, which isn't a priority at 9am when you've stopped drinking at 3 that same morning.

Thus the day was largely spent faffing about, though we eventually opted for 1 bag of ice to keep food cold and procured some clean towels, though these were of limited use with no hot water. On the plus side, it gave extra time to explore the beach and discover the abandoned tanks.

Since we'd already done the getting wasted routine, and still being without power, there was nothing for it but to search for somewhere that did have power and hope there was something on TV. We managed this, finding that one of the empty cabins somehow had power and TV. Thus, before proceeding on to burn things for the sake of it, we watched Predators and ate nachos. Miarrr tagged along, either out of a sense of loyalty or possibly just because he had nothing better to do. In short this hurricane was not quite the life-threatening utter terror that Discovery Channel documentaries have led me to expect.

The following morning flights were still cancelled - although why is a mystery since the wind had largely died - but a ferry service was operating. Having been stuck on a remote tropical island without power or any clean clothes, this prevented a second natural disaster from striking the Caribbean - namely, smelly astronomers. At 10am we boarded a cargo ferry back to the big island, and it left instantly despite it being a full 30 minutes before the scheduled time. 2 hours later we were back in Puerto Rico proper. 4 hours after than - more than double the usual time, owing to inexplicable traffic jams - we were back in Arecibo.

So, the worst this hurricane did - as far as I can tell - was to knock over some trees, cause a bit of flooding, and generally irritate everyone. Hurricanes, it seems to be, are no problem if your buildings are all little concrete bunkers (you listening to this, Florida ? Stop with the wooden huts already !), you have a healthy supply of booze, flammable materials and lolcats.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

He Tells Me To Burn Things

Will someone PLEASE tell me why England burned down last week ? And, equally importantly, why didn't Scotland or Wales or even Northern Ireland ? While the media may be keen to repeatedly divulge that these were the worst riots since the 1980's, they're less keen to report that these riots are so perplexing they'll soon become a regular clue in the Daily Mail's Cryptic Crossword.

It's not quite that no explanations are being offered. It's just that all of the so-called causes stink to high heaven of people promoting their own personal pet hates. Come on, people. The moral breakdown of society has been blamed for everything from the fall of Rome to the sinking of the Titanic (probably). Good grief, if the moral breakdown of society had been continuing for as long as it's been claimed, by now we'd be little better than those awful zombie creatures in I Am Legend.

"Help ! I've caught the dreaded CGI virus !"

Even that normally quintessentially analytical paper, The Independent, is offering few explanations. Oh, it did try, once, but it used so many long words in such flowing and flowery language that I was sorely put upon to constrain the electrochemical process dwelling within my cerebral cortex toward the notional concept that the rioters might actually think that way. Heck, if an article attempting to explain why people burn things requires annotations, then I'm just not convinced.

"You've done grand. Now you now what you have to do... BURN 'EM ALL !"
Reactions to how to deal with the rioters seem as irrational as not bothering to examine the root causes. For starters, Our Glorious Headteacher (David Cameron) seems convinced that the entire thing was put about by naughty children and is desperately trying to deal with them as only a Tory would - i.e. with water cannon and plastic bullets. That's perfectly understandable. After all, he's a Tory, and therefore mad.

Maybe there was a large youth contingent involved, I don't know. But reading the newspaper reports it seems to me the rioters are dominated by Club 18-30. And given that one of the first convictions handed out was to a 31 year old teacher, I can't help but feel the political bandwagons have been set loose like fire-and-forget missiles, only someone forgot what the target was before even launching.

The phrase "knee-jerk" falls short of describing many of the reactions to the crisis. One man was jailed for stealing water worth the princely sum of £3.50. A 22 year old model ("of previous good character") was jailed for 6 months for stealing 10 packs of chewing gum. Eh ? Did I just wake up one morning and find myself transported back in time to 1851 ? Perhaps she should also be flogged and deported to Australia, just to be on the safe side ? God help us all if she decides to do it again. IS NO-ONE SAFE FROM THIS TERRIBLE GUM THIEF ?!?!

Mmm, minty fresh riot breath !
One can't help but imagine the future of that 22 year old. Years from now, she'll tell her grandchildren of the riots. She'll tell them of how whole shopping centres were burned to the ground, how people stole from the injured and attacked the police and even firefighters. And then she'll finish by telling them she was so out of control that she broke into Argos and stole some gum, and that no-one would ever again employ her because her "good character" was damaged irreparably.

One marginally more serious case concerns a looter who stole £50 from a charity box. OK, that's pretty bad, and certainly deserves a sharp slap on the wrist and a hefty fine. But is it really, "an act of breathtaking wickedness.... contemptible and despicable" as the judge called it ? Contemptible and despicable maybe, but "breathtaking wickedness" is the sort of term I feel should be reserved for Nazi Germany, Vlad the Impaler, and - on a bad day - Peppa Pig.

So what have we learned from this whole escapade ? Not a damned thing, apparently. Unfortunately, a magical pyromaniacal leprechaun remains the best explanation for the whole sorry business. He appears to be using his magical powers to lay low and avoid interviews, so we're not likely to find out any more details for quite some time.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Croeso Y Arecibo

Hwyl fawr, myfywyr ! Before the REU students left I felt it my duty to give them a crash course in Welsh, should they ever find themselves stranded in Northern Patagonia or even the Welsh homeland itself. Consequently they are now engendered with such choice phrases as :

"Welcome to the Arecibo Observatory and Welsh Language Emporium"
"Goodbye summer students"
"The summer was awesome"
"I like Arecibo"
"Is this a camel ?"
"Where is Wales ?"
"Yes ! This is a camel !"
"Awesome sea turtle"
"My name is Carlos"
"They should have sent a poet !"

I suppose one could argue that a crash course in Spanish by a fluent Spanish speaker at the start of the summer would have been marginally more useful than, say, a crash course in Welsh by someone who hasn't spoken it since age 13 and actively dislikes the language at the end of the summer. Bah. I care not for such inconsequential details. In fact, maybe next year I'll schedule it as an official REU talk... it's only a mercy there are no other Welsh speakers able to lambast my sbwriel pronunciations.

All of which doesn't help solve my current conundrum one little bit, namely, why isn't Middle Earth overrun with elves ? Wait ! No, that was last night's problem, and probably a filler post for the next time I'm really bored. Which brings me nicely to my real problem, to wit, what to do with this blog. Pretty much all of my pictures are on Google+, so reproducing them here, while extremely easy, is also really boring.

On the other hand, Google+ doesn't have my cool pirate Einstein to keep an eye on things, or my highly witty banner picture of Johnny Depp calmly surveying the sea for rogue astronomers. So, without further ado, the US Virgin Islands* ! I went to St John last weekend and wish I'd stayed. You know a trip's going to be good when you charter a light aircraft and your pilot turns out to be a former theoretical cosmologist from MIT by the name of Carlos. And then when your villa has a pool with a sea view, things can't go far wrong.

* These statements are not unconnected. The VI's are much more touristy, proper Caribbean places than Puerto Rico, so pirate regalia can be found everywhere.

Yes, those photos are all of the same view. That's because it's an extremely good view. It's all the better for being slightly cooler and MUCH less humid than the relative hell-hole that is Puerto Rico. Once again a visit to a civilised part of the world has kindled a deep desire to return home, particularly as I saw the little-known US-UK border (it's in between the US and UK Virgin Islands). They also drive on the left in the USVI, since it used to be Danish. I can only assume the Danes abandoned it due to the lack of icebergs and polar bears. Such is my extensive knowledge of Denmark...

At this point I require an underwater camera, on account of the VI's best feature : sea turtles. Why, in some beaches you can hardly move for turtles. You can reach out and touch them, and they don't react. Well, probably they do if you jab them in the eye or tap them on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, but fortunately they're surprisingly fast so those things are quite difficult to do.

Since I don't have an underwater camera, this is the best I can do
I could wax lyrical about the wonders of the USVI, but instead I'll just recommend that the entire world visit it at once, be nice to the turtles (or I will destroy you) and don't try to fit 8 people in a Jeep designed to hold 5, it's not much fun. And definitely don't try to do so in front of the owner.