Friday, January 30, 2009


When I arrived back yesterday I found I had a stowaway in my luggage - a cockroach had smuggled itself into one of my hoodies and made it back with me. It still seemed to be slightly alive as it was twitching a bit, but I flushed it down the toilet, so it may have died by now - it was a big bastard though and may have found a way to survive (hopefully it won't seek revenge).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In Da'House

If you are looking for a hotel in old San Juan (Puerto Rico) then I highly recommend Da'House hotel. We got taken here by a taxi driver after arriving at San Juan airport and not really knowing where to stay and just asking to be taken to a cheap hotel. The driver did very well as this place is really nice and very reasonably priced. It's in a lovely building with a great local character. It has local art on all the walls. The rooms are modern and clean. There's a roof terrace, with hottub, with views over the whole city. It has free internet and wifi. It's right in the heart of old San Juan. It's a great random find. [I should note that this place has no TV in the rooms and no restaurant or bar, but there are plenty of places to eat and drink just outside it.]

Astrophysicist of the Caribbean 2

Last Friday I embarked on the holiday part of my trip (yes, the rest of it had been purely work-based) as me and my friend (former officemate and bandmate Chris) headed off to the British Virgin Islands (BVI). [Actually the first thing we'd done on Friday (with a few others, in a hired Jeep) had in fact been to drive out to the El Yunque National Forest (still on Puerto Rico) and do a bit of hiking.]

We were going to the largest island in the BVIs - Tortola - which is only a short 30ish minute flight from Puerto Rico. The plane levels out at only 6000 feet before starting it's decent again, but this does offer some great views of the islands.

When we arrived in Tortola we got a taxi across the island to Cane Garden Bay where we we're to be staying for the weekend. The first thing I noticed when getting driven across the island was how steep the place is - the roads are at crazy angles and are far steeper that any I've seen before - but somehow our taxi made it over okay. When I got over the steepness of the roads (and the occasional cow in road) I started to notice the views (and the many chickens!), which allow you to see over large chunks of the island and some of the other islands beyond. It was a really great view when driving down into Cane Garden Bay and realising that this is where we'd be staying.

Cane Garden Bay is apparently one of the most popular locations on the island - it certainly does look very nice and has a really good beach. When you first drive through it some parts have a slightly run down look, but outside of the modern expensive resorts this was how most of the island looked (people seem to leave their houses half finished, or at least they leave them with the option of extending them a bit, so many house had piping and cabling sticking out their roofs for when they decide to build the next floor). It was in reality perfectly nice and our hotel (the Elm Beach Suites) was basic, but very nice - and most importantly pretty much on the beach. We had a relaxing first night and sat around having barbecued meat, a few beers and the local drink - the Painkiller - and the whole place was pretty quiet with a nice atmosphere.

The next day the beach by our hotel became very busy. There was a cruise ship docked in Road Town (the capital of the BVI) and large numbers of people had come through to Cane Garden Bay. This made the whole place not that nice - it was similar to any Spanish beach packed out with touring Brits (and Americans)! We sunbathed and swam in the sea for a bit, but got a taxi into Road Town for the afternoon to get away from the beach crowds. Road Town itself seemed to have nothing really going for it (and according to our taxi driver apparently on Saturdays it's quite dead!) We wandered around for a while, but couldn't find a tourist information office, or any sites to see, so we ended up just having a drink in Pusser's Pub (where we ended up watching the end of the Man U. vs. Spurs FA Cup match). Going back to Cane Garden Bay that evening it had calmed down a lot as all the cruiseship crowd had left. We had dinner in Quito's where later the local band played. The day was slightly disappointing, but our main problem was not having had any plan of what to do.

The next day we did make a plan. We decided to walk west along the coast (the less steep option) from Cane Garden Bay (on the north west of the island, but looking out more south west toward Jost van Dyke Island and the US Virgin Islands) towards the western most tip of the island and see what we could find. Our own bay was also a lot nicer due to it being empty of the cruiseship crowd. After a bit of hill negotiations getting out of the bay we eventually got into Little Apple Bay, where we saw a few people surfing (the waves were pretty small, but there was enough to catch a bit of surf). We stopped off for lunch at Sebastian's on the Beach (a hotel I'd looked at when booking, but was a bit more expensive, which did look very nice). We hired body boards and spent a couple of hours there (I did manage to get a bit of board rash from mine, but it was fun). We next carried on into the next bay, Long Bay, which contained a really nice looking long bay - this place was home to a rather fancy looking resort, which identical modern villas. We attempted to scramble around the rocky point at the end of the bay, which would have lead into Smuggler's Cove, but we didn't manage to make it all the way around due to fear of killing ourselves (there was a plaque near the point we reached commemorating someone who'd maybe been unlucky when attempting to get around) - if we'd had extra gear and more time it would probably been doable. We took the easier road option around to Smuggler's Cove and found a cool beach that seemed popular with the locals. Later (after having a rather strange vegetable/cheese pizza from a very nice woman called Annie, who made us listen to Christian ballads as we ate) we headed back to Little Apple Bay to go to Tortola's "Number 1 Party Spot", the Bomba Shack, which was a literal shack on the coast that had many pairs of pants hanging from it's ceiling. Here we met a group of American's, well mainly this guy Marcus, who we had a pleasant chat with - they we sailing the islands and off to a party on Jost Van Dyke the next day (Marcus did invite us, but we had to decline). All-in-all this was a far better day that the previous one as we'd actually done stuff and been productive.

The next day, Monday, we were leaving, but still managed to get out for a bit of sea kayaking in the morning before our flight back. On driving back to the airport the whole island looked really nice and it felt like a shame to be leaving already after only just discovering what we could do. It was also annoying that we found out that the following evening 800 blues musicians were going to be descending on Cane Garden Bay and playing on the beach!

In general I'd recommend traveling to the BVI, but do have some idea of what you want to do (unless you're happy to just lie on a beach all day). One thing we should have done is try and get on a day's sailing trip around the islands - sailing is the main thing to do there, and it looks a great place to do it. [Do also note that they charge you a $20 departure tax!]

Friday, January 23, 2009

Restaurant tip

If staying in San Juan in Puerto Rico (and you're near the hotel I've been staying at, around here) then I'd recommend checking out Cafe del Angel for some Puerto Rican cuisine. It does nice, simple, tasty food and is very friendly - some local things to try out are the fried plantain and mofongo.

The dish

Today was the last day of the meeting and involved a trip to the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (aka the Arecibo Observatory - or the big dish where Bond fights Trevelyan at the end of GoldenEye). Travelling there, through the rather hilly and forested terrain, we first got a glimpse of the three ~100m towers that support the receiver instruments from a few miles out. They got more and more impressive as we approach and could really start to appreciate the size of them. When there we got to walk down underneath the dish, which is a mesh of aluminium panels formed into a spherical surface and kept to an (rms) accuracy of 2mm using many metal cables under tension. I'd always been under the false impression that the dish was situated in a crater caused by a meteor strike, or an extinct volcano, but it (and the formation of the generally hilly terrian) is actually a sink hole formed from a collapsed cave system. Rather than resting on the ground the dish actually is supported around the edge and sits quite far above you - the plant and animal life still lives quite happily under there and there's plenty of room for people to wander about. After seeing the underside of the dish we went into the control room, which was quite interesting (for us astronomy types) and consisted of banks of computers and electronic equipment, but wasn't as exciting an experience as looking at the main dish (I've seen computers before). We got into the control room just before a torrential downpour, but other groups touring the telescope weren't quite as lucky and they ended up getting thouroughly soaked. After that we headed up to the main visitors centre from which you got a great view of the platform on which the antenna feeds are placed - there are two main feeds: the older line feed [the thing pointing down in the right of this picture], which sits along the focal point of the spherical dish (waves reflected from the edge of the dish get focused lower down than waves reflected from near the middle, so to get them all your antenna feed has to cover many focal distances); and the newer Gregorian dome [the domey thing in the previously linked to picture], which focuses the waves to a single point. [I may have to incorporate this, and my own photos, into my next lecture]. Unfortunately most of us didn't get to go our to the antenna array platform, which can be reached by a cable car or catwalk, due to restrictions on the number of people who can go at one time - so we didn't get to reinact any GoldenEye fight scenes. It really was a cool place to go and very impressive, so I'd recommend it to anyone visiting Puerto Rico.

I should just note that the next GWDAW meeting (GWDAW 14) is going to be hosted by the University of Rome and will take place around (I think) the 25th Jan 2010 [let's see if this post becomes the number one google hit on searches for GWDAW 14!].

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Night swimming

Tonight, after the conference dinner, we indulged in a couple of activities that are only really practical in tropical seaside locations. The first was a game of beach football, which is far more knackering than regular football due to the extra effort needed to run about on sand; and is also more painful, due to having to kick a sandy ball, with sandy bare feet, leading to much loss of skin. Despite the slight pain it was good fun and we beat a team of quite competitive Italians [plus one Irish] (they may claim that they won by default as we kind of abandoned the second half, but they know that they were just outplayed by a more fit and superior team).

The second activity was swimming, both in the sea and the hotel pool. It's such a great thing to be able to jump into the water knowing you're not going to die of shock, or have your testicles retreat as deep into your body cavity as they can. The temperature is pleasant being neither too hot (although there's also a hot tub for when you do want some hot, bubbly action) or too cold. I've also discovered that I'm a better swimmer when slightly drunk (this isn't a endorsement of drinking and swimming kids - I'm sure it can also be quite dangerous) - I'm just more relaxed and don't rush my strokes, also I can hold my breath for longer without panicking.

Basically what I'm saying is that we should all live in the Caribbean, cos it's great.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

It's the time, it's the place, it's the motion...

Today has been an historic day. A day that many people thought, or imagined, would never come. But the prospect of hope and change meant that anything was possible... yes, it became the day that I first played pool volleyball.

The net represented the challenges to overcome (and a literal net) and the ball (other than being a ball) was the American spirit of forging a better future from determination, hard work and high ideals - unfortunately in the game I was playing the ball didn't manage to make it over the net most of the time, but we can only hope that Obama's a better volleyball player (and President) than me and, obviously, Bush.

[As a more serious aside to this post I do hope that Obama can live up to at least part of his hype (which is obviously far too high at the moment) and restore some credibility to the US political system in the eyes of the world. I did like his specific nods towards science in his inaugaratuion speech, but other than that I would like him to live up to his promises of a transparent and open government.]

Sunday, January 18, 2009

First day in the tropics

I arrived in Puerto Rico without any incident (and with my luggage), other than a 1 hour delay on our flight from Miami to San Juan. The hotel that we're staying in is pretty nice - it's the Condado Plaza Hotel, and the main thing to note, apart from the pools and casino, is that my bathroom has an entirely glass (well for three of the four walls) shower! It's all rather swish basically (and this internet connection is free with the room).

Today we (by which I mean myself and several other gravitational wave types from Glasgow and elsewhere) went for a wander into San Juan's old town. A carnival of some sort is on this weekend, so there was a fair bit of build up to that going on. Some of the streets were, I assume, more crowded that normal and there were various stages being set up. We didn't pay too much attention to this, but did wander towards the fort (Fort San Felipe del Morro) and had a good look round - it's a rather cool place to go to and is actually rather a bargin for the $3 entrance fee.

The weather so far has been mixed, but nice, with a lot of (warm) rain until about 2pm (before which it was a bit too humid) and then glorious weather after that. I would write more, but I need to go to sleep as the meeting starts in the morning...

Friday, January 16, 2009

Astrophysicists of the Caribbean

What's a nice reassuring thing that can happen the day before you get a flight? Well it's certainly not this - the link is, unsurprisingly, to the plane crash in New York today. It's obviously great news to see that everyone survived with minimal injury, but I think it's amazingly lucky and I expect the pilot deserves a great deal of credit. The current best guess as to the cause of the accident is a flock of birds getting sucked into the engine, so I just hope that large groups of birds steer clear of Glasgow, Heathrow and Miami airports tomorrow.

I should just note that the reason I'm flying tomorrow is that I'm off to GWDAW 13 - a gravitational wave meeting being held, this year, in Puerto Rico. There's ligitimate reason for it to be held in Puerto Rico (honest!) It's the home to the Arecibo radio telescope, and radio pulsar observations are one of the ways to detect gravitational waves - see that's a good reason to be there isn't it! It just so happens that I'm taking a few days holiday in the Caribbean afterwards, but that is not, I repeat not, the reason for going.

[I think maybe I should have saved the title of this post until my next one, but there were sequels to the film, so I can do sequels to this title]

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Back to the chalk board

Tomorrow see's me restarting my lecture course (same one as the last two years). This year I've LaTeXed up my lecture notes (well a chunk of them so far), so that they're readable to both me and the students. Hopefully it'll be worth it! Let's bring the joys of Observational Methods to the students...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Double feature

Last weekend saw me taking two trips to the cinema, which is way more than my usual no trips. I went to see two quite different style films that I've been trying to think of similarities between, so as to make this post more interesting, but I've been struggling a bit.

The first film I saw late on Saturday night (after an aborted earlier evening effort due to rather large queues) was Role Models. This star's Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott (with Rudd playing a kind of Paul Rudd character and Scott doing an excellent job of playing Seann [why the extra n] William Scott aka Stifler) as two guys who have to do community service by being mentors for a couple of wayward kids (kind of like the "Bigger brothers" from that old episode of the Simpsons where Bart disowns Homer) - one who's a bit geky and shy and the other who's a sweary tearaway. It's not a particularly novel film and is very much in the style of other recent comedies (Knocked Up, Superbad etc), but was entertaining enough. I think Rudd (who co-wrote the film) tried to inject a few in-jokes into it, some of which were ok, but other's didn't quite work on my non-late-thirties not-American ears. I laughed a good amount of times (mainly at Bobb'e J. Thompson's character, who did very well delivering many a foul-mothed line), so I'd say the film worked overall, but isn't going to be a classic.

The next film (seen on Sunday night) took me from the afluent suburbs of the US into the poverty stricken slums of Mumbai - yes, you've guess it, I went to see Slumdog Millionaire. Is it worth it's current crop of Golden Globes? I'd have to say yes (despite having not seen the majority of the other films that were nominated - partly cos they're not released in the UK yet). The film is visually really good for a start, so just watching it is a treat. I'd say that the parts of the story that aren't flashbacks to the characters as kids aren't quite as engaging (good though they are), because the actors playing the young versions of Jamal and Salim are amazing (sorry Bobb'e J., they're better than you) and there are great moments of comedy and tragedy. As Andrew Collins says don't go to see this film as it's been marketed ("the feel-good film of the decade") as it's brutal at times, but do go and see it.

So what is there linking these films? I suppose you could say that both films show triumph over adversity for kid's who've had it hard (mind you the kids in Slumdog have it a few orders of magnitude harsher that those in Role Models), but then that's just the classic underdog does good plot of most stories. But should you want to see a classic underdog story I (and the Golden Globe voters) think Slumdog just edges it.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The draw

After our 1-0 win in the FA Cup third round against Scunthorpe (I have no idea how the game was as I missed the highlights and the BBC website has very little to say on the matter), we (Watford FC) have been drawn against the eventual winners of the replayed Leicester vs Crystal Palace match. So it'll either be a fellow Championship team we'll be up against, or Leicester who are leaders of League One, which I suppose isn't too bad, and I'm not really sure who I'd prefer. Maybe we can have a good run and emulate the (partial) successes of a couple of years back.

Desktop band

Today I started having a play around with GarageBand on my Mac. It's essentially a piece of software that allows you to create music tracks either by recording your own stuff, or piecing together the music with software instruments. I've used it a few times to just record one channel of stuff through the inbuilt microphone on my laptop, but have never tried experimenting with it as a way of putting together music. Essentially all I did today was see what all the different instruments and effects it has sound like (I did create a very short [about 15 seconds] tune with three instrumental parts, but realised that it requires a bit more than a couple of hours pissing around to put together something more layered and melodious i.e. good), but may in the future try to create something real. I say this now, but it'll probably be one of those things that never really gets off the ground - like learning the keyboard (which as it turns out would come in handy for trying to built up a track on GarageBand)!

Another music related thing is that I found what looks like a rather decent website containing free video tutorials on drumming techniques - it's called and looks very useful from the three videos I've watched so far. Maybe my drumming could make a sudden leap from my usual rather simple beats.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Happy New year

Happy new year everyone. What did you all do to celebrate the change from 2008 to 2009?

I had a different new year location this time compared to the last three years. After spending Christmas with the folks I stayed down south rather than travelling back up to Glasgow (as I have for the last three years), so that I could go into London for the night. I didn't have much of a plan, but met up with an old university friend with the intention of finding a pub somewhere in the centre and then heading to the Thames to watch the fireworks. The first part of this plan worked and we started off in a Samuel Smiths pub called The Chandos just by Trafalgar Square - these pubs generally provide a place for a cheap beer even in central London, but they'd hiked up their prices by 1.5-2 times the regular price especially for the evening. After a few pints in there we moved on to a Pitcher and Piano pub next door which had slightly cheaper drinks, but also a slightly poorer atmosphere. We left leaving the pub a bit late to make it down to the Thames given the size of the crowds, so decided to stick around Trafalgar Square and party with the people there. Before the millenium Trafalgar Sqaure used to the the place to celebrate new year in London, but since then it seems that the banks of the Thames is the place to be, and there's actually not much in Trafalgar Square other than a big screen. At midnight we jumped around a bit and opened a rather nasty bottle of Champagne and had some very harsh tasting cigars, but everyone was having fun. We did however forget to sing Auld Lang Syne!

We followed this up with another pint, but then had a few problems. My friend who I was out with, and who I was going to be staying with, lives near Wimbledon so we left to the pub to get the tube back there. Unfortunately we got split up and decided to make our own ways back. I attempted to get into Charing Cross tube station, but they seem to have closed off all the entrances, and everyone was getting herded away from there. I decided to head north up Charing Cross Road to a station further up the Northern Line. This worked and I managed to get on a train at Goodge Street, but my friend hadn't been so lucky and was still stuck down on the Strand and had been corraled into a fenced off area by the police. I got back to my friends flat and was stuck outside for a couple of hours before he made it home. I had curled up and managed to get a bit of sleep on his doorstep, but it wasn't the most warm or comfortable time. I did have a good night, but it could have ended a bit better.