Monday, November 22, 2010


On Friday my girlfriend and I picked up the keys to our new flat. It's exciting to have a new place, but there's plenty to do to it to get it ready for habitation (well it is/was [before we started attacking it] in a livable state, but we're doing it up). So far we've stripped wallpaper, painted some walls and started ripping out the bathroom, and this has actually been very satisfying, but it'll still be many a week before things are looking as they should be. Tonight will see the back bedroom walls being set upon with the matt white emulsion.

Aargh-and diagrams

While eating lunch I was browsing the BBC News website and started reading this article by Marcus du Sautoy on how diagrams have aided and furthered our understanding of scientific concepts. All fine.

Recently the BBC have become quite good at providing hyperlinks within their articles (potentially in part due to Ben Goldacre), but in this article they seem to have let themselves down a bit in the choice of links. About half way down the article there is a section about visualising complex numbers - these are numbers that consist of a real part (a standard number between -infinity and +infinity, like 1, 4, 1097890624 or -0.78524385 say) and an imaginary part (a number that is a multiple of the square root of -1, or i, e.g. plus or minus the square root of any real negative number). It describes that you can plot these complex number on something called an Argand diagram, but the link it provides for this is bizarre - true that the linked to page does have an Argand diagram on it, but the rest seems to consist of bizarre pseudo-science nonsense about the nature of consciousness! Now I don't know how whoever was editing the article (presumably not du Sautoy) found that page, but a quick google search for "Argand diagram" provides some slightly more reputable sources that they might have chosen. After noticing this I didn't actually get to the end of the article and instead wrote a comment to get the link changed, so I'll see if that worked.

But, anyway enough petty pedantry for today.

The Leny

This is just a quick (but rather late) post aimed at continuing the documentation of the river's I've paddled. A couple of weeks ago we had a trip to the River Leny - the original plan (made the morning of the trip) was to head to the Tummel (which I've done before), but minibus issues (i.e. its cutting out all the time) meant that nearing Stirling we decided not to risk driving it any further and headed to Callandar and the Leny (luckily on this trip I didn't have to drive).

When we arrived there it was a frosty start and not pleasant for changing or standing about waiting for the guys who'd driven the minibus to the get out to come back. However, it was good to do a new river and this one turned out to be good for an intermediate level trip - we'd been worried that the river might be a bit low, but it turned out to be fine. The Leny's a fast river, with quite a lot of waves trains and some good rapids, but the speed meant that it was important to be able to get in and out of eddys when needed - this was good for me as this is something I really needed the practice doing. The main eddy that really needed making was the one above the Falls of Leny - a grade 5 waterfall that looked particularly menacing. Everyone managed to get out (although we had one swim, after which the swimmers boat did run the falls, but survived) and check out the fall, then a few people went back in and ran it, but I wasn't one of them - I've since read about people being cut to shreds by the rocks in the falls, so was glad I didn't swim down it. After the falls the were a couple more good rapids on which I took a bit of a beating, but stayed upright and in the boat.

It was good fun to get on a bit more of a challenging river, so the Leny rates as one of my favourite trips.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Back on the ladder

It appears that after three and a half months out of home ownership I'll soon be back on the property ladder. My girlfriend and I decided a month or so back to buy a place together, but hadn't actually seen that many properties in that time. We did see some reasonable properties, and a couple that we liked, but nothing that we'd settled on. However, last week we did see something that we thought was very promising and this morning put an offer in. We were surprised to hear back very quickly that our offer had been accepted. We now just need to sort out the finances, look at kitchens and bathrooms, think about decorations, etc...

Friday, October 08, 2010

Help desk

I'm down in London at the moment it's transpired that I've spent the last two days working in the cloisters (and student union, and quad) at UCL (my alma mater). While sitting in the cloisters with my laptop it's seemed that I've become some sort of student help desk. Yesterday, first up I provided vague directions to a room in the physics department and I then had to help a chemistry student to find out his course timetable (it turned out that he'd missed the lecture he was supposed to go to by a day!), and today I've had to help out a Czech girl use skype to phone Westminister Council about her council tax bill, and another girl to find the UCL computer services department. I wonder what I'll be called upon to help with this afternoon?


Last weekend was my first canoe club trip of the new academic year. As it's the start of new term this was a freshers trip and we had a good contingent of beginners (about 6 of them to the 5 of us seasoned paddlers) - I managed to get a place on the trip by volunteering to drive the minibus. Despite the beginners nature of this trip we set out to a river that's new for me - the Awe - this goes to show up the lack of rivers I've actually paddled.

We managed to get the bus packed with gear relatively quickly (which hopefully bodes well for future trips). I'd like to say that the drive went without incident, but I did managed to slightly damage the minibus when attempting to squeeze past a large bus coming in the opposite direction on a particularly narrow bit of the A82 - all that happened was that the left wing mirror popped out when it clipped the rock wall at the side of the road, but it was annoying for this to happen on my first trip of the year (and just after we'd had a meeting about looking after the buses). The weather conditions weren't great either, with unpredictable heavy rain showers happening out of nowhere.

When we got to the Awe the weather was behaving better and we were able to get changed without getting wet. We didn't have anyone else who'd driven up in a car, so I then had to drive the minibus to the get-out 3 miles away and work my way back to the put-in. After jogging/walking about a mile back I managed to hitch a lift off a kindly old lady who took me the rest of the way.

The river is a dam release river, and despite all the rain there's been no release, so it was pretty low. This made the paddle a bit more interesting as there were lots of nice rocks about to help people capsize! The river's pretty tame, but there were enough level 3ish rapids to test the freshers. We had quite a few swims on the first rapid, but no-one was too disheartened by going into the river that early on. I was generally managing to takes lines down the river that found every rock in the way, but I was in the big Dagger Mamba, which is so big that it'll just ride over most rocks (I did suffer the odd pin, but was either able to extract myself, or get helped out, and I managed to stay upright). The rocks also managed to pin a few of the freshers causing further swims.

Despite the quite tame nature of the river it was still a lot of fun after a few months off the water. There were a few small waves to play about in, although I was quite tentative on these, and I was able to practice my rolls and ferrying across the river. All the freshers seemed to enjoy it, and even those that swum quite a bit, didn't seem put off (there were none of the hysterics that we've sometimes had in the passed). The weather stayed ok as well and the water wasn't too cold, which I think helped. I'm not sure what my next trip will be, but I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Sur le Pont

I was away travelling a couple of times last month, but have been remiss in writing it up, so here's a brief roundup of where I got to.

My first trip at the start of the month was to Nice and was an actual holiday rather than my standard work trip (my girlfriend was there for a meeting, but I just tagged along). I got to spend the first few days relaxing in the Sun, wandering round the city (in particular the old town) and sitting on the beach. The was no lack of places to eat and in general the food was very good - I didn't take a note of anywhere in particular that we ate, but there were a lot of place round the Marche aux Fleurs.

After Nice we got the TGV up to Avignon (home the the famous pont) - there are some great views over the Côte d'Azur from the train, but despite the trains famed speed it has to go pretty slowly between Nice and Marseille before hitting the high-speed lines as it heads inland. We got to Avignon in the late afternoon and after getting our bearing's with a brief wander around the Palais des Papes managed to stumble across a great place for dinner. We found La Vache à Carreaux - a place that specialises in cheese and wine (so very French) - and the it was very, very nice. I had a duck dish with a manchego cheese sauce I'd definitely recommend to anyone.

The next day we went into the Palais des Papes and found out all about Avignon's 100-or-so years being the seat of Popes (and antipopes) - unsurprisingly it's a very impressive building with an interesting history and definitely worth a visit. We followed this with a trip to the famous bridge, although the room dedicated the song was closed. We then got a ferry across (part of) the Rhône and had a walk around Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.

The next day we started off with a trip to the Pont du Gard - a Roman aquaduct that's still in great condition. We then headed to Châteauneuf du Pape (which means new castle, rather than castle number 9 like we thought!) - the old Papal holiday home and now a famous wine region. It was excessively windy there, but there was a great view over the whole region and you could see back to Avignon. We got to do some wine tasting, but despite the fame of the wines (and the high price) we weren't too impressed by them (the Rose wine we had over dinner were very nice though). The for the afternoon we went to another very impressive Roman artifact - the theatre in Orange, which is one of the three best preserved Roman theatre in the world (although much of it has had to be restored and it's had a lot of uses over the last couple of millenia). Again it's a site that is well worth seeing, but the rest of Orange didn't seem to hold much else to do or see.

The next day we headed back Nice to fly home. We got to spend some more time by the beach, but were mainly surrounded by leathery old people wearing far to little. It was a very good holiday and the weather was great for the whole time - Provence and the Côte d'Azur will probably be getting a return visit at some point.

My other trip for the month was my first to Poland, but this time it was work trip with a collaboration meeting in Krakow. I didn't get to see much of the city, but what I did see was very nice. Food-wise there wasn't quite the refinement of the French cuisine - more of a meat and potatoes approach - but it was good and certainly very filling. I also found out the interesting story of the Wawel dragon.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Stood up

For my birthday some of my friends grouped together to give me money to get some drum lessons (not that I really need them of course given my already excellent drumming skills, but it would be ungrateful not to accept them). A local drum school was found in a very convenient location for me (above a Starbucks!) and I was booked in to have my first lesson this evening. I turned up expectantly at the given location, but no drum teacher appeared! I waited and waited, but still no-one turned up to teach me how to perfect my drumming. I phoned the teacher, but got no answer. Eventually I had to accept that I'd been stood up.

Later on I did get a message from the drum teacher. Apparently all lessons had to be cancelled due to "location problems" - whatever they may be!? I'm not sure whether these "problems" can be solved, but I may have to find myself a new drum school.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fringe round-up

I thought I'd quickly round-up the shows I've been to see at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, to which I went twice over the last week. This is more a reminder of what I went to see than any attempt to give proper reviews of the shows (like the last couple of years) - I will mainly be using phrases such as "it was funny", with maybe a sprinkling of my favourite adverbs "quite" and "very", so the level of review will not be particularly insightful.

The first trip was last Tuesday, and first up on the bill was As It Occurs To Me (or AIOTM [AIOTM] as it is know by all the cool kids). This is Richard Herring's sketch show that's performed in front of a live audience (of geeks - and how true that was!), but then gets put out unedited in podcast form. This was the first performance of it outside of its two previous London runs. I very much enjoyed the show, although prior to it had been worried about it's quality given the fact that Richard Herring had been tweeting about how little time he'd put into writing the script (it's normally written in a huge rush in the day or so prior to the performance, but this one had been cutting it even finer than normal!) If you'd never listened to the podcast before the whole thing should be complete nonsense, but there were a few AIOTM (AIOTM) newbies in the audience and even they seemed to go along with it and enjoy everything too. It was fun to see how it worked live on stage compared to my normal method of listening to it via the podcast - one problem with the live performance though was that I couldn't make out some bits (which I expect were picked up by the microphone) when the audience were laughing or cheering, plus Richard's Scotch accent could become unintelligible at times. At the end, of course, we had the return of the dead Tiny Andrew Collings, and also the real Andrew Collins, which provided the highlight that all the regular fans of the show were after. Another highlight was Tam Dalyell and Susan Boyle's duet of "(I've Had) The Time of My Life".

Next up I went to see the follow on to a show I saw last year: Two Episodes of Mash - which consists of selection of short sketches. Last year we'd seen this show with a pretty small audience, but the room was far fuller this time round. It was enjoyable show with a consistently good level of jokes - often you could see the punch line coming, but it was still very amusing to see how it would be delivered, or whether it would be subverted in some way.

The day was capped off with seeing spoof hospital radio DJ Ivan Brackenbury. I'd noticed this show in the Pleasance on several previous years and had seen it get consistently very good reviews, but had never been to see it. This time Tim Binns (the comedian behind the character) had decided to just do a best bits show as he was also doing a another show with a new character. I should have been to see this show in previous years, because the very good reviews were well justified. Essentially the act consists of giving shouts out to, or requests for, hospital patients with various ailments and then playing an (in)appropriate song based on that. This sounds like it may get a bit same-y and repetitive and just descend into bad punning, but it's done in such a good and likeable style, and with such good timing, that I was laughing along all the way through.

On Saturday a crowd of us went through for some birthday celebrations for me. We kicked things off with the mildly amusing Big Comedy Breakfast featuring three stand-ups (Marc Burrows, Sarah Pearce and Barry Ferns). It's quite hard to do comedy at midday and the audience generally weren't really ready for laughing hard, but each set had it's moments and a memorable joke or two. One of my friends even managed to make a name for himself during the set (he bonded with Barry over both their parents poor choices of first names), and I was closely beaten in an audience game of rock-paper-scissors and denied a chance to play TME (Tape Measure Extension - although it's a game I have played myself in the past). The show has also given further amusement to a friend of mine who was being told about one of his officemates spending the weekend "canoeing".

This was followed by Itch: A Scratch Event in which a variety of comedians/performers are given a stage to try out some new material such as a sketch, mini-play, or character - it's a different line-up during the festival, so you don't know who you're going to see. This was good value show and provided some interesting and funny performances - we did get told at the end who all the performers were, but I can only remember that the first sketch had Simon Munnery in it, and the Segue Sisters did a couple of song. I'd recommend going to this show in the future as there's a decent chance that you'll see at least one thing that's really good, and it's definitely value for money.

Finally we went to see The Roaring Boys Will Set you Free, which had a 5 star review in Chortle! The main premise was that depression had driven Danny, one of the two performers (Danny and Jonny), to start watching The One Show, which he soon realised was a source of unending mundanity and had to be stopped. We then saw him formulate a plan about how it could be stopped and his attempt to carry it out. I don't think we got quite the show that got the 5 star review (there was not corpsing from the performers), but it was still a very fun and funny show. There was a level of audience interaction that worked very well and added to the show, rather than making anyone in the audience feel awkward or picked on. There were several songs too (the theme of their show is still stuck in my head several days later) mainly performed by Jonny and based around his failed romance. Despite the premise being routed in depression it's a very upbeat show with a lot of energy, which rubs off on the audience.

That's my round up for this year. There was obviously a lot of stuff I couldn't see that I'd have liked to, but there's always next year.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Decadal survey

Today is the last day of my twenties. The weather's been glorious and I should have been out frolicking and cavorting, making the most of my final flush of youth, but what have I been doing instead? I've been inside on the internet writing blog posts is what! I don't deserve to be young if I'm going to waste the opportunities it gives me in such a flagrant way.

Anyway, I should probably thank my twenties. They've given me a couple of degrees, one of which enables me to be called Dr. They've seen me move from London to Glasgow - in fact I've lived the majority of the decade in Scotland. They've seen me visit far flung parts of the world as part of my job. And they've seen me buy, and then move out of, my (part) own flat. There are many other smaller things as well from my recent life (chosen because I've blogged about them), for example learning to kayak, snowboard, buying my own bike, learning(ish) to drum and being in a band, and probably far too much drinking (but that's probably brought about some of the most fun times even if my own memory of several is vague).

What could my thirties bring? Well if many of my friends are anything to go by it seems that 30 is pretty much the time to get married. Buying a house is also on the list, but as I said that's something I got our the way earlier in a way. There are also kids. But, who knows? I'll settle for getting a few more scientific papers written for now. And hopefully this'll be the decade in which I get to actually detect some gravitational waves.

[P.S. if you managed to get to this post looking for information on the US Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey 2010 (probably more likely now I've written this postscript) then sorry, this isn't what you're looking for - instead maybe try here and here for US perepctive, and here or here for more UK oriented views.]

Balloch to Tarbet

Yesterday my girlfriend and I did our first cycle ride for a while (not counting our recent cycle round Munich) on our bikes - I forgot to blog about our last ride some time last month from Glasgow down to Lochwinnoch, which was a good, but quite tiring ride.

This ride was actually a rather tame ride, which was fine giving that we weren't feeling too energetic. We decided to do the West Loch Lomond Cycle Path starting at Balloch (which we got the train to) and unsurprisingly heading up the west bank of the loch. It in part just follows a path along the A82, occasionally splitting off from the road, but after Inverbeg it seems to mainly be along what must have formally been the main road along the loch before the A82 was built - you can see it in this aerial photo. We had a nice lunch in Luss, which was surprisingly quiet giving that it was a reasonably pleasant afternoon in the middle of August. We made it all the way to Tarbet in pretty quick time, even at a relatively slow pace, as it's only a 16 mile ride. Our plan was to get the 18:01 train back to Glasgow from Arrochar, but struggled to find the station (we were there in plenty of time, so this wasn't too much of an issue) - we went all the way into Arrochar, and almost beyond, before we found out that the station was actually half way back to Tarbet. We found it in the end and had enough time to go for a pint in the nearby pub. Due to just going along a main road it wasn't the most fun ride, but it's probably better as part of a slightly more challenging route.

Munchen Glad-to-be-bach 3: Too Much Luxury

On the morning after the wedding we again managed to make it up just in time for breakfast at the hotel. I think I wasn't feeling too bad, although there was definitely some hangover there. At around midday we left the hotel and got taxis back to Plattling - not everyone who'd been with us on the way out was heading back at the same time though. Our return train to Munich was huge - a double decker with loads of carriages - so we had plenty of space to spread out. Why they'd not put on such a train on the Friday afternoon when we'd been travelling out I don't know! This time there were no unexpected stops.

For the next couple of days in Munich we were going to be staying in the Sofitel - a very fancy hotel (if you left your shoes outside you room at night someone would take them away to be cleaned overnight!), that my girlfriend had managed to get on a cheap deal from and which a some other friends had also decided to stay at. It was right next to the hotel, so was easy to find when we arrived. We didn't get too much time to indulge in the luxury to start with through, as a couple of my friends had to leave for the airport that afternoon and wanted to see at least a bit of Munich before they left. We wandered into the centre of town towards the Frauenkirche (Munich's main cathedral) and found a place to have lunch next too it. Most people had the roast pork, but I decided to go for a wurst dish that sounded quite nice (as far as my translation of the menu went), although didn't realise until it turned up that the sausages were boiled in a bizarre oniony vinegarette - it was ok, but not something I'd go for again. Luckily one of my friends wasn't able to finish her pork and crackling, so I was able to clean her plate.

After lunch our two departing friends had to head back to the station, so the rest of us went back to the hotel. Getting back there we realised how tired we still were after the exertions of the wedding the day before, so managed to fall asleep for a couple of hours on the extra large and comfy bed. That evening those of us that were left met up again and headed to the Löwenbräu beer garden, which is set in a pretty park (it's pretty if you can avoid the few local alcoholics that hang out there). It was a nice evening, warm with clear skies, so we were able to sit outside for a couple of hours with a Maß or two and a flammkuchen.

The next day my girlfriend and I decided to go exploring on our own by hiring a couple of bikes. Last year during Oktoberfest I'd done a bike tour, so I basically followed the same route we'd taken in that tour. After taking a slightly convoluted route we got to the Englischer Garten and had a look to see if any surfers were about again - there weren't any. We headed up back passed the Chinesischer Turm and out the north of the gardens. We then headed along towards the Olympic Park (home of the 1972 Summer Olympics). We had lunch (I had Currywürst) at the restaurant at the base of the Olympic Tower and then went up the tower itself, which has a great view of Munich. By this time the weather wasn't great - it was overcast and had started raining lightly, so we actually didn't get that great a view (the postcards seem to suggest that on a good day you can see out to the Alps) - last time when I went up it was similar weather.

From the Olymipic park we travelled further west to the Schloss Nymphenburg, an impressive Palace with massive gardens. We briefly wandered into the gardens and had an ice cream (not that the weather had really improved to make ice cream particularly appropriate), but didn't stay long as we needed to get our bikes back and meet up with others. We headed back toward the station where we'd hired the bike, taking a brief detour through the Hirschgarten (the biggest beer garden in Munich) - last year we'd stopped here for a drink, but this time decided not too (it was very quiet anyway, and the rain didn't make it that appealing).

After returning our bikes we decided to take advantage of the spa in our hotel. It was all very fancy with a bizarre shaped swimming pool. We decided to avoid the sauna though, being as it was
in the "Nude area" and us being prudish Brits.

The evening we decided to try to complete our visiting of the four major Munich brewery pubs (Hofbräu, Augustiner, Löwenbräu and Paulaner) by going to the Paulaner bräuhaus. This place had a reasonably small beer garden (although still massive by UK standards) and was described in our guide books as being "cosy" - it wasn't what you might term cosy, i.e. small, over here, but was very nice inside. Despite speaking pretty much no English the waitress managed to tell us that we were in on the all-you-can-eat buffet night - almost everything on the menu was done in buffet form for only €12.90 (or there abouts). We all decided that was the best way to go, along with another Maß. It was all very good - roast pork, wurst goulash, beef, fish, chicken and even plenty of vegetables - but general overindulgence from the previous few days meant none of us quite made the most of all the food on offer. However if you are in Munich on a Monday night I'd very much recommend it as the place to go.

The next day was my girlfriend and my last day in Munich - our flight was about 6pm that evening - but we tried to see a bit more of the city before we left. We walked from our hotel to the River Isar, where we'd previously been to the Deutsches Museum, and crossed to the Müller'sches Volksbad - a public baths - were we had lunch in the cafe. We then walked through a park along the Isar towards the state parliament building - the Maximilianeum. From here we walked to the Friedensengel (Angel of Peace), and then headed back across the river towards our hotel. We did get caught in quite a downpour on the way back, but managed to shelter in a department store. We got back to the hotel and sadly said goodbye to the luxury to head back to our normal lives.

That was it for our trip. We had an uneventful flight back and no-ones bag got lost. It was really nice to be able to see Munich again (and not with the Oktoberfest crowds about) and of course the reason for the trip, the wedding, was fantastic. The next holiday will be to Nice next month (although, airport strike willing, we're going to another wedding in a couple of weeks time in Cork), which I'm very much looking forward to.

Munchen Glad-to-be-bach 2: The wedding

Here's a follow-up post to my earlier Munich post.

Following a day of exploring Munich it was time to head to Auerbach for the wedding. There were a few of us planning on getting the train from Munich to the wedding location, but we had to wait until early afternoon until our whole group had arrived in Munich (not that we were in a particularly good state to have actually done anything in the morning). When at the station we went to get special Bavarian tickets, which each allowed 5 people to travel and only cost just under €30. After some help from one of the station ticket agents, we managed to negotiate the various screens on the ticket machine and come away with enough tickets for us all to travel. A good start to the journey at least. After this we took over a station cafe for a couple of hours, whilst waiting for our the final arrival to join our group from the airport. During the wait two of the best men (there were three in total, but the other one had travelled out separately) took this time to go over there speeches and I got a sneak preview of one.

By 3:20, once everyone had arrived, we were able to get a train to Plattling, from where some lifts onwards to our hotels had been organised. The train was quite busy, especially the front half of it (which would prove to be telling later on), but we just about managed to all get seats (one of our group decided to sit on the floor, but it wasn't entirely necessary). The journey was going smoothly until we pulled in to Landshut where everyone seemed to be getting off our carriage. Initially we thought that this was good - we'd be able to stretch out round the carriage a bit - but it soon became apparent that we probably should be getting off too (a man had tried to explain this in German to us, but we'd not really been able to understand a word of his explanation). On getting of we realised what was happening - the train was splitting in two with the front half carrying on to where we wanted to go and the back half that we'd been in heading back to Munich! However due to our tardiness getting of the train there was absolutely no way we, with all our luggage, could squeeze onto any of the front carriages. So we had to call ahead and say we'd be delayed about an hour and a half waiting for the next train. Luckily the station we were at had a bar in it, so we were able to occupy ourselves there by having a beer.

We were able to squeeze onto the next train and eventually got to Plattling. The group then split as half of us were staying in Auerbach (where the wedding ceremony was taking place), whereas the other half, myself included, were staying in Hengersberg (which was the where the reception was taking place - and in my opinion therefore the sensible place to stay). We got a lift from the bride and therefore got a bit local information on the drive. Our hotel was a nice place called the Hotel Erika.

After getting settled into our room it was soon time to head through to Auerbach for the evening for some pre-wedding celebrations. Auerbach is a small and pretty village (farming and hunting country) where the bride is from, and where a lot of her family still live, so we got to meet many of them - and also some of the brides ponies. It seem that it's a Bavarian tradition that on the evening before the wedding guns should be fired to scare off any bad spirits - the bride and groom were wearing traditional Bavarian dress of a dirndl and lederhosen respectively. So, to this end we had a lot of explosions being set off during the evening, but rather than guns being fired we had milk churns - milk churns with gun powder added, then a plastic football wedged in the top, and then the bottom being lit, firing the football 50 metres or so and making a very loud bang. Unfortunately the bangs didn't scare off the many mosquitos. There was also beer.

The next morning we were up in time for the hotel breakfast and decided to have a quick walk around Hengersberg before having to head to the wedding. The weather was sunny and hot, with only a few clouds in the sky - perfect wedding weather. It's a small town, and therefore there's not a great deal to see. We walked up to a church, which had a good view over the town, and then back to the small town square where we had an ice cream. It was then back to the hotel to get our wedding gear on.

We arrived in Auerbach just before the first part of the wedding took place - the official state bit involving signing of papers and such - during which time we went for a quick drink (although I stuck to diet coke for the time being) in the local pub/hotel/butcher shop. Then came the church ceremony part of the proceedings. This was the first Catholic wedding I've been to and I was quite worried that it could last quite a while, and I didn't know if I'd be able to make it through awake - the vast majority of it was also going to be in German. I needn't have worried - we were having to stand up and sit down so many times, and there were many hymns sung and readings given, that it would have been hard to catch any sleep. I thought the highlight of the ceremony (other than the fantastic looking bride and groom) was the singer (a friend of the bride), who had a great voice - there was also a very good choir and band (we couldn't see the choir and band as they were above us, and when I first heard trumpets with the choir I thought it might be recorded until I saw one of then pocking over the balcony above my head). During the ceremony there had been several people dressed in full lederhosen sitting at the back of the church. Just before the end of proceedings they all got up and filed out - the reason became apparent when we all got out. On leaving the church there were more load bangs - the lederhosen-ed group all had big pistols (wood and metal with a big blunderbuss-like end) that they were firing into the air - this went on for about 10 minutes. There was the standard photo time and then time to head to the reception - the bride and groom had a special white Citroën 2CV to take them there.

The reception, back in Hengersberg, was held in a big converted barn and courtyard - from the outside it looked slightly like a building site as not everything seemed completed, but once inside the courtyard it looked great. There was an Oompah band and lots, and lots, of cake - I think having cake at the start of a German wedding reception is another tradition. Chocolate cake, cake with fruit on it, and all very nice too, but quite light, which was necessary given the amount there was. The groom then had to tap the first beer barrel and the drinking could properly begin!

The whole reception was great. After spending a while in the sun in the courtyard listening to the band, socialising, drinking a few beers from the barrel, and trying not to eat too much cake, we headed inside for the meal and speeches. It's not normal in Germany for there to be best men speeches (in fact I don't even know if they really have best men), but seeing as this was a multi-national wedding we had them. These were only read out in Enlgish, as none of the best men were particularly well versed in German, but they all went down very well (each of the best men had there own take on the groom from the different times of his life that they'd known him) and the bride was able to translate some of the most salient points. The groom also gave a speech, but this time in both English and German, which was very impressive and very well pitched - it got a lot of laughs in both languages. Later in the evening there was a surprise "speech" - as a way of getting round the dual language problem some of the brides friends has put together a silent play enacting out how the couple met and got together. It was very well done and everyone enjoyed it. The beer flowed quite readily the whole night - and despite apparently later that evening telling my girlfriend "I don't like dancing or singing" I was quite eager to get on the dance floor and was energetically throwing myself (and her) around, occasionally causing some near misses with other dancers, and singing at the top of my voice to the cheesy, but wedding-appropriate, band - without too much persuasion we got them to play 99 Luftballons. Not content on just having beer (which was all free) we had to end the night with rounds of schnapps (the only booze that wasn't free) - I can't say that it was particularly good, but I did manage to keep it down. I forget if this was before or after we did the limbo-ing! Unsurprisingly my memory of the end of the night becomes vague-to-non-existent, but my girlfriend managed to guide me back to the hotel despite my "outer wibbles" which threatened to wibble me into a river.

As I've already said, and without wanting to sound too gushing, it was a great day and the perfect way to celebrate the newlyweds.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Newly discovered pulsar

Today it was announced that Einstein@home has made it's first discovery (a public version of the paper can be found here) - unfortunately not a gravitational wave signal (as it was initial designed to solely search for), but a radio pulsar spinning at 41Hz with the snappy title of J2007+2722. This is still very exciting news as it's "...the first time an astronomical object has been discovered by this kind of distributed-computing project,". In brief pulsars are neutron stars, which are the ultra dense, rapidly rotating, remnants of stars several times more massive than our Sun leftover after they have ended their normal life via a supernova explosion.

The Einstein@home project was set up in 2005 as a distributed computing effort (like the more well known SETI@home, which has a screen saver that searches for extraterrestrial life in radio data) to make use of the public's spare compute cycles to search for gravitational waves from pulsars using data from the LIGO gravitational wave detectors. It's since become one of the largest distributed computing projects there is. The sensitivity of data from the LIGO detectors is currently such that the chances of Einstein@home finding a gravitational waves from an unknown pulsar are quite slim (although more sensitive data in the next few years will give far higher chances), so it was decided a couple of years ago to turn some of Einstein@home's computing power towards searching radio data for pulsars.

Surveys with large radio telescopes are the prime way of finding pulsars (although some can also be seen in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum) - radio data from these surveys is searched to look for regularly spaced pulses, although these can be weak and the pulse time of arrivals at the telescope will be dispersed over different observation radio frequencies. The spacing of the pulses will also change due to the Doppler effect as the Earth revolves and orbits the Sun, or also if the pulsar is itself in orbit around another star in a binary system. For pulsars in extreme orbits, where the objects are very close together and circling each other with periods of minutes to hours (the current smallest binary orbital period for a pulsar is about 2 hours), the Doppler effect can be very large and cause the pulse spacing to change rapidly. Standard radio pulsar search techniques, which assume that the pulse spacing is only slowly varying, have a hard time time finding these objects. The Arecibo radio telescope has been conducting many surveys over the last few years, but there hasn't been the computing power to exhaustively search this data for these extreme binary pulsar systems. It is data from these surveys that has now been passed to Einstein@home, which is able to use it's large computing power to search for many different sizes of changing pulse spacing, included the rapid changes caused by the extreme systems.

Since starting searches for radio pulsars in Arecibo data with Einstein@home it has been able to find almost 120 pulsars that had previously been known about (although none are in extreme binary systems). However, this new announcement is for a pulsar that had not previously been known about - Einstein@home was the first search to find it! Using this initial discovery they were then able to get follow-up observations using the Green Bank radio telescope to confirm the pulsar signal and further study it. The pulsar itself isn't the most exciting object - it's not in a binary system, but it is reasonably rare as it's an isolated recycled pulsar. A recycled pulsar is one that has been "spun-up" from a slow spin-rate (probably about 1Hz, or one rotation per second) to a much faster rate by accreting material from a companion star (gravitationally pulling material from the other star onto itself). The only way for a pulsar to have a rotation rate as fast as this newly discovered pulsar is either for it to have been "recycled", or for it to still be spinning fast after it was born - this pulsar is slowing down it's rotation rate very slowly indicating it has a weak magnetic field, which generally is expected to not be the case for young, newborn, pulsar i.e. it must be an old, and therefore recycled, pulsar. However, as we saw above for a star to be recycled it must have had a binary companion, which from looking at the pulse spacings we know is not the case for this pulsar - so what's up? There are other known recycled pulsars that are isolated, i.e. not in a binary system, and it is thought that the system must have been disrupted due to the companion star going supernova and kicking it's own remnant out of the systm.

Anyway, this is the first discovery and it's a great boost to the Einstein@home project. Hopefully this will get more people to sign up. It should lead to more pulsar discoveries (maybe at the rate of a couple per year) and possibly some in extremely fast orbits. Ultimately we obviously hope that Einstein@home will also give us some gravitational wave discoveries.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Top of the league

I knew that the Championship season started today - or at least that's what I thought - but when it came to watching the results come in this afternoon I was surprised to see that Watford weren't playing. "Did we have a Sunday fixture?" I thought, but teletext (yes I checked that before going to the internet as I had the remote control to hand) told me "no". Further teletext-ing showed me that in fact the league started last night without me knowing, and Watford had been playing away to Norwich as the first game. Not only that but we won 3-2. That meant that up until the about 4:45pm today Watford have been top of the league! Unfortunately now that more fixtures have been played we're back down to 8th - 6 teams got a better goal difference than us, and one (Crystal Palace) seem to have got above us due to starting earlier in the alphabet. Hopefully we can restore our place at the top next week, when I know we will be playing on Saturday in a 3pm kick-off against Coventry (although we play Aldershot in the Carling Cup on Tuesday).

Friday, August 06, 2010

Munchen Glad-to-be-bach

The other day I arrived back from my second trip to Munich. The first was time was last September for Oktoberfest (which for some reason I didn't really document on this blog) and this time was also to commemorate a wedding, but that of my friend rather than between Ludwig I and Princess Therese.

My girlfriend and I arrived in Munich a couple of days before the wedding (which was actually taking place in the brides home village of Auerbach) to have a bit of a holiday - as our guide we'd bought this book to give us the low-down on things to do whilst there. Our plane arrived in Munich quite late, and unfortunately without my girlfriends luggage (the reason for which was obviously due to my baggage curse - although my bag arrived with no delay), so our first night just involved getting to our hotel and sleeping rather than drinking any beer (we would make up for that later in the trip). Our hotel for the first part of the trip was the very pleasant Kings's Hotel "First Class" (only the best for us!), located close to the main train station, and also opposite from the aptly named boobs table dancing club.

Our first day mainly revolved around waiting for my girlfriends bag to arrive (which due to reasons beyond anyone's comprehension took far longer to get from Munich airport to the hotel than should be physically possible). However, we still managed to get out and about and see a lot of sights. The first use of our travel guide was to find a good place for brunch - we ended up at a place near the university district - I ordered the "Ham and Eggs" from the menu, but my girlfriend was more adventurous and went for "2 Ei im Glas", which with my very basic grasp of German was able to translate as "2 Eggs in a glass", but we were still a bit confused as to what it would be like. The service wasn't the most lighting fast that it could have been, but I eventually got my food, and echoing our baggage arrival my girlfriend had to wait quite a while longer for hers - which was indeed 2 eggs in a glass (an ice cream dish by the looks of it). Despite the wait the food was good and the place was very nice.

Following this we explore a bit before checking back at the hotel for the bag situation. We walked through towards the university and into the Englischer Garten, to the Chinesischer Turm and then checked to see if there was anyone doing any surfing (there an artificial wave at one point on the stream that runs through the garden, which from last years trip I found out that people surf on) - there was only one surfer and he seemed to be struggling to stay on his board for more than a second or two. We then headed back to the hotel via the Hofgarten and Residenz - during which time I tried to act as tour guide by part-remembering information a real tour guide has told us during my last visit.

The bag had not arrived! So we went out again to meet up with some friends (nursing hangovers from the excesses from the Hofbräuhaus from the night before) also out for the wedding and then go to the Deutsches Museum - this is one of the worlds largest science museums, so naturally I wanted to go. It is a massive museum, with far too much to see in one afternoon visit. Our first plan was to try and see a massively scaled version of a cell that they have, but I managed (unintentionally) to get us waylaid in the physics section. I was very impressed with the displays they had (a large number of which, although not all, had English explanations below the German versions) especially the detail and quite technical information that they gave - this definitely wasn't a dumbed down museum, and probably wouldn't really be the kind of place to take small children, but I thought it was great. We did eventually find the cell, then went on to see the astronomy exhibits and just before closing managed to see an Enigma machine.

Again on returning to the hotel the bag had still not arrived, so pre-going out for the evening we had to head to the clothes shops. Given that we'd already been on our feet all day, and hadn't eaten since brunch, this was quite an arduous task (going to the shops is arduous enough for me at the best of times). We were then able to head out for dinner and drinks. We met up with the others at the Augustiner bräuhaus for dinner and had a couple of half litre of their Helles beer, and despite their overindulgences the night before our friends decided that it would be a good idea to go back to the Hofbräuhaus (who's other famous patrons included Hitler) - so that my girlfriend and I could see it of course (although I did go there last year). The Hofbräuhaus is very impressive and must be one of the largest pubs in the world, even so it was packed (on a Thursday night) as we had to sit outside in the internal courtyard. We decided that it wouldn't be right not to have a couple of litre Maß's and play some drinking games. We made it home somewhat worse for wear, but did find that the bag had finally arrived.

I'll try and soon write more about the trip (maybe just updating this post or in subsequent posts), but I'll leave it for now - you'll have to wait for the exciting stories of how not to get a train to Plattling, the joys of an Anglo-Bavarian wedding, and how we managed to complete collection of drinking at the four of the big Munich breweries.

[The blog title is a hilarious play on words based on the German place Mönchengladbach, which to be honest prior to looking it up on wikipedia I had incorrectly assumed was part of Munich, but is in fact quite far from Bavaria in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia - the title was too good to pass up though, so it stays as it is.]

I've now written up some more of the trip:
Part 2: The Wedding

Friday, July 23, 2010

Installing Adobe AIR (and AIR apps) on Ubuntu

The vast majority of the many twitter clients that you might like to use require you to use Adobe AIR. Installing AIR should be fine for whatever operating system you use be it Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux as you can download an installer for them all and follow the instructions (for which many people have written about).

Myself, for example, who uses the Linux distribution Ubuntu at work (version 9.10 karmic koala at the moment) should be able to download the Linux installer (the site should automatically detect which kind of operating system you have and direct you to the correct download) as a binary file (although .deb, .rpm and YUM files are also available) and install with:
>> chmod a+x AdobeAIRInstaller.bin
>> kdesudo ./AdobeAIRInstaller.bin
and then by following the on-screen instructions. This should work in theory given that I have su access on my machine, however in practice it doesn't work. This is down to the fact that Adobe AIR wants to install into the /opt directory, which in my case is not actually located on my machine, but is instead a network directory that I can't write to even as su. There seems to be no way to tell the installer to put the installation elsewhere. So, after much hardcore googling I eventually came across someone who'd had similar problems and had found a way to kind of install AIR and get AIR applications working - I found this information over a year ago and have no idea what the site was, or how to find it again (the combination of search words and how many google search pages I had to scroll through to find it escape me), so I though at least for my own benefit I'd write down what I did.

Rather than downloading the standard Adobe AIR instead download the Adobe AIR SDK (get the Linux version) - the Software Development Kit for people who want to write Adobe AIR appications. This will come as a bzipped tarball - AdobeAIRSDK.tbz2. Then just un-tar this in your directory of choice e.g. /home/username/AdobeAIRSDK:
>> cd ~
>> mkdir AdobeAIRSDK
>> mv my_download_dir/AdobeAIRSDK.tbz2 AdobeAIRSDK
>> cd AdobeAIRSDK
>> tar -xvjf AdobeAIRSDK.tbz2
That should be about it!

Now if you want to install a twitter application, for example my current choice of DestroyTwitter, then download that application, which for DestroyTwitter comes as a .zip file, and un-zip it to your location of choice:
>> mv my_download_dir/ ~
>> cd ~
>> unzip
If you then look in the DestroyTwitter202 directory you will find a .air file - this is actually also a zipped file containing all the application code, so you will need to un-zip this too:
>> cd ~/DestroyTwitter202
>> unzip DestroyTwitter202.air

Now (assuming like above you've put everything in your home (~) directory) to actually run the application with Adobe AIR you can do the following from the command line:
>> ~/AdobeAIRSDK/bin/adl -nodebug ~/DestroyTwitter202/META-INF/AIR/application.xml ~/DestroyTwitter202
and all should work! (I've put the above command line into a custom application launcher in my gnome desktop panel - you can use the icons from ~/DestroyTwitter202/icons for the launcher.) When you run the application the metadata should be put into a directory within ~/.appdata.

In general it would be far easier if Adobe allowed you to install the standard AIR in a location of your choice, or it just installed into the default location of /usr that most other programs are installed to on my machine. I've also had this problem with installing chrome i.e. it want to install in /opt, which is why I just use chromium instead

Monday, June 28, 2010

...until tomorrow I'll just keep moving on

Tonight is the last night I'll be spending in the flat that's been my home for the last four and a half years. Soon after starting my post-doc position back in 2005 I decided to embark on the property ladder and (after some deliberations about whether to buy somewhere on my own or not) along with my flatmate bought a newly built flat in the salubrious Ruchill district of north Glasgow. After just over seven years of living together (counting the prior time we rented together) our flat sharing partnership is now coming to an end, ending my longest home sharing partnership outside my parental home. It's sad to be leaving a place that's been my home for the longest period other than my 18 stay at my parent's house. It's also sad to be leaving somewhere that I've part owned, which adds more of a personal element to leaving than just getting out of rented accommodation. However, I am looking forward to finally, after nearly 30 years of life, having my own place as I am moving into a flat (albeit renting) alone.

Anyway, here's to Ruchill Street and all who sail within her. I will miss you and wish you well.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

It's a knock out

So there we go! The England team have been knocked out in the second round of the World Cup in a 4-1 thrashing by Germany. It was a very deserved win by the Germans too, although they didn't have to play much outside themselves to beat the team they were up against. We've been consistently poor this World Cup and there'll be a lot of blame to spread around - I'm sure the newspapers will have a field day tomorrow, and Capello's definitely going to be parting ways with his job (in his post-match interview he seemed to think we'd played well, which is taking trying to be diplomactic to a new level). The over exaggeration of our performance that followed our slight upturn in form from the Slovenia game hid what was clear to see from the earlier games - the team didn't seem to know how to play together. I have to mention it (although I'm not using it as an excuse), but the game did produce a howling error from the refereeing officials for not seeing Lampard's goal, which may or may not lead to a FIFA rethink on introducing goal line technology (I've argued against video ref decisions before, but in these situations I can see it probably should be introduced).

In the past in tournaments we have generally upped our game playing against the better teams, but that didn't happen at all this time round. It's very disappointing to see, but it actually lessens the blow of our failure quite a lot (for me at least) - it's far harder to take going out when we've played well and deserved to progress. The blow was also lessened by watching the game at home rather than in a pub in Glasgow, where in many places I'm sure there was much delight in our defensive failures and inability to make any sort of coherent attack. I think now I'm going put my support behind Germany - despite their young team they have some very good players (Özil and Schweinsteiger in particular) who could do well (although they may have to face Argentina in the next round). It's also a bit less humiliating(!?) to go out to the eventual winners.

Monday, June 21, 2010

King of the mountains

Last weekend saw the third bike ride of my new cycle ownership regime. This time, as promised in my last post on the subject, we took a route that didn't just go along nice flat canals and did indeed have some hilly elements to it. The ride was up to Mugdock Country Park. Prior to the cycle we'd had a look on sustrans for the route and thought we had a good idea of where to go - basically follow the River Kelvin up to near Bardowie Loch and then along another bit of cycle route towards Milngavie. We did start by following the Kelvin before having to move onto a road-bound section of the route at the West of Scotland Science Park. We then never actually regained the Kelvin and just ended up cycling up the main road to Milngavie (home to the starting point of the West Highland Way). This is one of those places that are very close to Glasgow, but I'd still never been to, so it was nice to see. After wandering through the centre of Milngavie trying to work out the best way to the park, which we new should be just to the north, we happened upon a road called Mugdock Road, which we figured should take us in the right direction. Indeed it did, although it also meant going up the steepest climb we'd yet attempted - I started to have to properly learn to use my gears. We entered the park at a random point and tried heading towards the visitors centre. Unfortunately it turned out that to get there you had to traverse lots of steep uneven slopes (done via pushing rather than riding the bikes), only to get near the top (but still about a kilometre away from the castle and visitors centre) to find it impassable to bikes (and fat people) due to a very narrow and awkward stone stile-thing. This was probably done to stop mountain bikers using the route, but is was rather annoying. We headed back down and just randomly cycled round to bits of the park that were accessible, stopping for a packed lunch near a river.

We headed back to Milngavie, but wanted to try and find a different route home - maybe even the one we'd tried to travel up. We attempted to follow some signs to Allander Water, which also pointed to Glasgow, and involved a nice (flat) route along a river on which we saw a Kingfisher (or at least a bird that had a bright blue back and orange tummy and looked incredibly Kingfisher-esque). Unfortunately this just led us to a main road with no sign of a continuing cycle route - sustrans seemed to be lying (although the route it seemed to be showing us on Saturday seems to have disappeared from the websites today - suspicious!) We decided to just head back the way we came.

The cycle wasn't as long as our previous two, but the was some actual climbing of hills and offroad action, which provided a bit more of a test than before.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

It starts (again)

The World Cup is back with us! It'll be a fun month. Fun, but also filled with intensely nerve wracking, heart in mouth, excited, nauseating tension when watching England play (hopefully I won't work myself up into this state again). So far I've seen at least bits of all the games except the South Korea vs Greece game - not too much spark in the tournament yet, but I'm sure it'll pick up.

Yesterday saw England's first match of the tournament with a game against the USA. Our group is, or at least should be, a relatively easy one to qualify from (unlike group D, who's teams are playing today, which may be this World Cup's group of death!), but as usual we want to make it hard for ourselves. Before the game started I managed to get myself into the normal pre-match bundle of nervous energy, which everyone knows is best tempered by beer. When the game kicked off it was hard not to fear the worst, but after a goal from Steven Gerrard in the fourth minute (which due to ITV HDs slight hiccup, we missed) things settled down a bit and I could relax slightly more. We generally seemed to dominate the game from then on, but up front weren't producing much to test the US keeper. The nightmare struck when a reasonably long range effort on our goal by Clint Demspsey was woefully mishandled by keeper Robert Green and carried on into the net just before half time. We made a good attempt on the break after the restart, but went in at half time 1-1. There were some good pieces of play by England in the second half, but still we lacked anyone able to finish - in fact the US were closest to getting a goal, only denied by the ball luckily rebounding off Green (or maybe he produced a save, but I don't know how much he knew about it) and onto the post rather than into the net. We pressed forward more towards the end and kept the ball in the US half (which was good as we could easily be outpaced at the back, especially if they took on the aged, and now rather slow, Jamie Carragher), but it ended 1-1. It's not a score that's the end of the world, but it would have been nice to start with a high. From the looks of the other two teams (Slovenia managed a 1-0 win over Algeria earlier today, but it was through another goalkeeping howler) they should pose too much threat, but then again who knows what might happen!

Monday, June 07, 2010

Standard service

Yesterday I travelled out to Hannover for a collaboration meeting. As per usual I checked luggage in at the airport. I probably could have managed to get away with having hand luggage only (it would have required a slightly more conservative packing attitude than I normally have, but was easily possible), but despite certain previous problems I like to entrust my luggage with the airline and let my bags travel unaccompanied in the belly of the plane (I'm sure bags are more comfortable in this environment, travelling with their baggy brethren, rather than being stuffed into an overhead locker) - everyone else I was travelling with was less trusting/more sensible. My lack of luck with bags making it to meeting's with me has become legendary, although is probably now exaggerated beyond reality, so when we were waiting at the baggage carrousel my travelling companions were less than convinced I'd be reunited with my luggage. I was still optimistic to the last, but my bag did not appear. I knew the drill that I had to follow and left my details for forwarding my bag when it undoubtedly would arrive - the best case was that it would just be on the later flight from Amsterdam. And indeed it was - I was reunited with my clothes later that evening after returning from the pub. I am not cursed!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Flight to the lakes

Several months ago I heard that Flight of the Conchords were playing in Glasgow at the SECC. I'm a big fan and thought it would be very nice to see them. Tickets went on sale at 9am on a Friday morning and I knew that they'd be popular, but still I stupidly didn't go online straight away to buy them. I went to the gym instead. It was about 10:30am before I made my attempt to purchase tickets, but alas every site I tried was sold out. My dream of seeing the Kiwi comedians was over...

But wait! My flatmate hadn't been quite so lax in his ticket buying and had been online at the right time. He bought ample tickets with a spare one that he kindly offered me. So it was the case that a few weeks ago I was able to go to see them in concert. It was a very good gig. I was very impressed by Bret and Jemaine's singing voices and the way in which they (seemingly) improvised around technical problems. They played the majority of their classics, bowing down (or so it seemed) to audience pressure for a couple of songs. There was a bit of playing around with some of the songs, which didn't work on all occasions, but mainly added to the show. It wasn't just a show of song after song (it kind of a comedy gig too) and inbetween songs there was a lot of banter with the crowd and even jokes designed to run through the show. The gig overran, but no-one minded and the finale was pretty awesome.

Now for a change of story...

I had to run away from the gig pretty quickly as I had to get to bed to be up early. My girlfriend and I were travelling down to the Lake District in the morning to stay at a holiday home owned by her parents. We were up at 6am for the drive and made it down to Ambleside just after 10am. We weren't due to enter the cottage until 4pm, so started the holiday with a walk up Loughrigg. This has great views down over the Langdale Pikes and Grasmere. It wasn't the most challenging of hill walks, but was certainly challenging enough for two people not used to getting up a 6am. However, we made it over Loughrigg and down the other side to have lunch at Chesters - a nice, if slightly pretentious, restaurant-cum-interior decoration store, with very nice cakes. Getting back to Ambleside we were able to get into the holiday home, which was very nicely done up. We had to have a brief snooze before heading out for dinner at Ambleside's (if not the UK's!) finest Vegetarian restaurant - again very nice.

The next day saw us take a walk up to Grasmere (I think I'd been before on a school trip back in 1994) - we were attempting to follow instructions from my girlfriend's dad to give us the route, but we failed to take the planned path and ended up walking mainly along the main road to Grasmere. Grasmere was very pretty, but (in a similar way to Ambleside) seems entirely based around tourism - it's all lovely cafe's, restaurant, outdoor gear stores, or quaint crafty shops. It's great to visit, but isn't necessarily a taste of the real Lake District. We were able to get a very nice lunch there though (I forget the name of the cafe) again with particular note of the cakes - this place was famous for it's lemon meringue pie, which I had. We took a more scenic route back via some caves and hilly bits - we didn't see much wildlife, but saw many sheep and lambs, including a lamb that was a bit too adventurous and got stuck behind a wall next to a river.

We only had the weekend away, but the start of our drive back to Glasgow saw us stop off at a really nice pub called The Queens Head near Troutbeck. I was able to get a proper Sunday roast after a weekend of mainly being vegetarian/cake-arian [Update: I have been corrected by my girlfriend who reminded me that I had actually had a sausage sandwich for lunch that day - and very nice it was too]. It set me up for the drive home.

Monday, May 31, 2010

I want to ride my bicycle

Last weekend my girlfriend and I used our new bikes to go on a trip to the Falkirk wheel.

First let me go back (for the record) to our first trip on the new bikes. Four weeks ago we started our new cycling life with ride up to Balloch in the sunshine, up part of National cycle route 7. The ride initially goes up the Forth & Clyde canal through some of the loveliest parts of north west Glasgow! Due to the nice weather the canal path was pretty busy, there were a few of the standard groups of semi-drunken neds standing around (although not too many and they were generally quite benign), but also plenty of other cyclists and walkers. Once we got to Bowling, and the River Clyde end of the canal, thing got prettier and slightly less busy. We had to leave the canal here and head towards the River Leven, which we could follow to then follow to Balloch (you also have to go through a couple of towns and we did manage to get a small bit waylaid at one put, before re-finding the cycle route. Balloch was pretty mobbed, but we only stayed briefly to sit by Loch Lomond and have our lunch. I'd been feeling pretty good, with no aches and pains, on the ride up, especially given that that last time I'd cycled that far must have been a long time ago (in fact I don't know if I'd ever done a longish cycle journey). However, having got off the bikes and rested my legs during lunch they weren't liking working again when we started heading home - my knees in particular were protesting a bit, and also more strangely my wrists. We made it home in good time without collapsing from exhaustion, but certainly felt the journey afterwards. Our bikes had also survived well, although I had had to re-attach my chain at one point. In fact as it had been so dry they looked pretty much unused.

For this more recent ride the weather was more inclement. The trip to Falkirk goes entirely along the Forth & Clyde canal starting pretty much from just outside my flat (basically we just went the opposite direction to our first trip). With only a few locks between here and the wheel the ride is pretty much entirely on the level, but the weather and our lack of regular cycling meant it was quite tough going. The ride goes through the lovely Possil marshes, up through Bishopsbriggs, Lenzie, Kirkintilloch, Kilsyth, Bonnybridge and then the wheel. We had rain showers of varying severity hitting every so often, and inbetween (especially on the outward ride) were inundated with flies and other bugs, which on a positive note meant there weren't too many people out on the path to get in our way. I'd never been to the wheel before so it was interesting to see it and it is a quite impressive piece of engineering. But unless you actually take a trip on it (they put on many sailings every day to take you up and down) there's actually very little to see or do - they have a visitor centre (looking like a mini Glasgow Science Centre), but it lacks any real information. I was expecting it to be more like a musuem, with displays about the history of the canals and the engineering of the wheel, but there was very little except for a shop and a cafe. We didn't go on a sailing and just ate our lunch and had some tea and a cake in the cafe, whilst waiting for the latest rain shower to abate. Contemplating the ride back to Glasgow wasn't fun as we both had felt like we had no energy and were considering the idea of just cycling to Falkirk station and getting he train back. But we didn't give up and once we started riding again, with our energy levels restored from our lunch, things picked up. I definitely wasn't aching as much as I had on the return journey of our first trip. We also made far better time on the way back, cutting about 20 minutes off our outward journey. After this trip our bikes definitely now look used - the puddles and mud have given them a nice spattering (as well as at the time giving us, despite mudguards, a similar look). There was no chain slip this time, but my front brake callipers do seem to have moved meaning that one of the brake rubbers is stuck against the wheel rim.

Who know were our next trip will be - we might even venture off the canal paths and try a route with some sort of hills!

Etive again

Last weekend saw our annual canoe club camping weekend up to Glencoe to paddle the Etive. Two years ago saw glorious weather, but a very low river and an insane amount of midges. Last year we had rain and cold weather, which wasn't fun for camping, but gave a decent amount of water in the rivers and no midges. This years was another with good weather, and possibly an even lower river than two years ago, but fortunately no midges.

The weekend's boating got off to an inauspicious start on Saturday morning when we had a minor accident with one of our mini-buses (I wasn't driving), which mounted a rock and sprung a leak from it's hydraulics. This meant that we had to shuttle all our boats to the river (about 3 miles from the campsite a the Kings House) with our working, but smaller minibus, delaying the paddling by a couple of hours at least. Not that we were missing much, as getting to the river showed it to be little more than a stream. Still we persevered and all got kitted up at the standard get in of Triple Falls. The low river probably was good for encouraging Etive newbies as it's far less daunting when there's only a trickle going through. We spent the day going up and down Triple Falls, which including a lot of boatless activity of jumping into the deep splash pools from the rocks. We also had a few boat-a-cross (like motocross or ski cross) races down the falls (my involvement mainly bringing up the rear, which was probably for the best as I would most likely have caused some pile-ups). Despite not being able to paddle that far it was good to get back in a boat as this was my first time on a river this year (the cold weather and other commitments kept me away since last December). The evening saw the standard trip into the Kings House for dinner and drinks, and being old I retired quite early and fell asleep quickly.

I woke up to the rain. This was a blessing and a curse - it might mean more water in the river, but it also meant packing up a wet tent. Unfortunately the blessing wasn't very blessed as the rain had only marginally increased the water level, but I still had to pack up a wet tent. We then had a major amount of faff deciding on todays course of action. The busted minibus had to be loaded up with half our boats, so that it was ready to be towed back to Glasgow later that day, which meant not everyone would be able to get on the river. We also weren't sure whether to try something different than just redoing the Etive (with the tributary Allt a' Chaorainn as an option). The one bit of fortune was that another bus had been requisitioned from GUSA (although lacking a roof rack) meaning that people weren't having to hang around to travel back in the tow-truck with the other bus. It was eventually decided to just do as much of the Etive as we could, with as many people as possible.

On getting to the river it was looking a bit more promising. Some people got on to do a few runs of Triple Falls, whilst me and a couple of others decided we'd swim (and clamber) up and down (jumping) the falls. Then the group headed further down river - with mainly beginner's in boats to give them the experience. We didn't do the first drop after Triple, which is Letterbox, after hearing that someone from Dundee Canoe Club had broken their ankle going off it the day before (not enough water in the pool at the bottom), but carried on to Ski-jump, which saw no casualties, or swims. Crack of Doom was also successfully negotiated with no swims (I think), after which I was able to get in a boat. We did the standard seal launch to avoid trying to boat down Crack of Dawn, and at Rock Slide I manage to avoid the normal pitfall of heading straight into the wall after the drop. At Right Angle there was the usual umming-and-erring about whether to so it, but most people (including myself) who'd boated down there went over. For only my second time I didn't swim at the bottom - in fact I landed pretty well and didn't really even have to brace. I was actually quite a successful day despite the problems.

In other kayaking news last Thursday was the last pool session of the academic year. It was fairly empty, so I managed to get in a boat for about an hour. I was able practice rolling and bracing to my hearts content - and I seem to be pretty consistent and competent at it now! I even managed one (my second ever) hand roll. I'm going to attempt to get out on a river over the summer if there are others about, although due to work commitments I'm missing out on a trip to the Alps starting this week, and also won't be able to go on a trip to Wales later in the summer.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Happy Birthday Hubble

Today is the 20th birthday (of sorts) of the Hubble Space Telescope. It was launched on 24th April 1990 in the Discovery Space Shuttle, although it wasn't actually deployed until the 25th and it's first light image was released on 20th May 1990. It had some teething problems to start with (a flawed mirror that blurred images meaning that the telescope could not be used at it's maximum resolution), but was specifically designed so that it could be serviced by astronauts and fixes applied. Since the fix it has been one of the most iconic and most importantly scientifically productive instruments ever (a "top 10" of its major discoveries can be seen here, although there are many others). Several servicing missions have gone on to improve its scientific capabilities by adding new detectors, and also greatly extending its lifetime. It also takes a great picture or two (certainly prettier than anything we'll be able to produce by observing gravitational waves), which has helped endear it to the public and make it some famous.

These images have been released to celebrate it's birthday, and hopefully they'll be a lot more to come before it finally closes its eye.

Hubble Captures View of

Thursday, April 22, 2010


In all my time in academia I've never been to Oxbridge - no meetings, conferences, or work-related visits - so I've never had the opportunity to see the dreamy spires of Oxford, or punt down the Cam. This is even more surprising given that I've lived in the South East (reasonably close to both) for the majority of my life, and have had friends go to both universities, and never even went as a tourist (I think on a family holiday or two we may have driven past Oxford, but never stopped there). Well I decided I should rectify this during my current impromptu holiday and yesterday took a trip to Cambridge. From my parents house it's a very easy trip (again, why have I not done it before!) - just a quick drive across to Hatfield (using the parents as a free taxi service) and then on an hour-long train journey direct to Cambridge.

You go to some places and they are quite different from how you'd imagined them. Cambridge definitely isn't one of them - it's exactly as you, or at least I, imagined in. On arriving I wandered round the Fitzwilliam Museum grounds, before going into the first College I came across - Peterhouse. I was very impressed by the college buildings and especially the grounds and beautifully maintained and manicured gardens behind it, but later saw that it was actually rather small and understated compared to some of the others (in fact it's the "oldest and smallest" of the colleges). Soon after I found my way to the Cam, where I saw my first punts although no one was out on them at this time.

For lunch I met up with a friend who works at the Centre for Atmospheric Science and we went to a very nice vegetarian cafe called the Rainbow Cafe (recommended by none other than Gillian McKeith!). Unfortunately, given that it was a lovely day weather-wise, the cafe was in a basement and had no natural light. After lunch we went into the King's College Chapel - staff and their guests can get in free, but otherwise there's a charge. The Chapel is probably one of the most recognisable buildings in Cambridge and I think must have been used in many a TV or film based in Cambridge. It's not what you might think of as a chapel, i.e. a quite small church, as it's massive and probably as big as many cathedrals. Inside there's some great stained glass windows and masonry, in particular the many greyhound and dragons on the coat of arms above each arch.

After King's I decided to do what I normally do at any university and seek out the Astronomy group - in this case the Institute of Astronomy (IoA). This required about a half hour walk out to West Cambridge and unfortunately away from the nicest parts of the city. After about 25 mins of walking I hit the Cavendish Labs, where the Department of Physics and some astrophysics groups live, along with other labs. There were some quite nice new buildings, but in reality the whole place looked and felt like an out of town science park rather than part of a historic university. A short walk further and up across Madingley Road got me to the IoA, which again was a bit underwhelming, but still good to notch off on my list of astronomy department I've been to (last month when I was in LA I had a snoop around the new astrophysics building at Caltech, which I was very impressed by, but I decided against just wandering into the IoA - at least at Caltech I had the excuse that I knew people working in the building, but I no longer know anyone in the IoA).

From the IoA I wandered through the grounds of one of the newest colleges - Churchill - which contained sports pitches, grass and clay tennis courts, and a cricket oval! Heading back towards the centre of town I accidentally found myself going passed the quite funky new (opened in 2005) Maths buildings. I then walked round the outside of two of the largest and most impressive colleges, Trinity and St Johns (although pretty much from the being at the maths buildings I'd been walking past the massive area of Trinity and St John's property and ground). Both these colleges (like most) charge for the public to enter them, and although there were several points were I could probably have got into both unchallenged (if I couldn't pass myself off as an academic then I'd probably look enough like a student) I decided not to risk it. Out the back of these colleges there were some great bridges across the Cam and there were now quite a lot of people out on the punts.

After all this exertion I went for a pint in the Eagle Pub, which I thought I recognised the name of, and was later told by my friend that it's where Crick and Watson announced their discovery of the DNA double helix. I then saw a few more of the colleges (and the Corpus Clock, or Chronophage) and had a wander around the Fen area before meeting up with my friend again for another couple of drinks.

The visit did make me wonder what it would have been like if I'd applied (and got into) Cambridge for my undergraduate degree or PhD. It does look like it would be a fantastic place to study, but I'm not sure if I'd have felt that after three or four years there. It's got a rather unique, fairy-taleish, bygone era, feel to it (as I said before, it's kind of like you imagine it) that you just don't get at other universities. That makes it great to visit, but may become too much after a while. Maybe someday I'll get to spend a bit more time there and find out, or maybe I'll give Oxford a try.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Science case

On Saturday night I got involved in a drunken discussion/argument with another astrophysicist over facilities for future astronomy. As I said it was a drunken argument (from my side at least - the other guy could have been completely sober) and I was probably not too coherent, got slightly tetchy and aggressive (sorry) and took it a bit more seriously than I should have, but I thought I'd go over the main thrust of the disagreement as I vaguely remember it.

In general I thought that funding the two major planned astronomical mega-observatories, the optical/infrared European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and the radio observatory the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), was a very good thing for advancing science. Whereas the other guy (TOG) thought that funding these two projects would drain too much money from smaller current telescope facilities, and they would be produce insufficient new science to be able to justify us losing access to these smaller class of telescopes. This is particularly prevalent in light of the recent funding crisis in which the UK astronomy funding agency (STFC) has been squeezing funding for various projects, in particular saying it maybe withdrawing UK membership/funding from things like UKIRT and Gemini. TOG was also worried (I think) that all ESO resources would be put into the E-ELT at the expense of their other facilities.

Science-wise I think TOG was being overly pessimistic. His basic premise was that these new telescopes wouldn't really be opening up any major new discovery space and they'd just allow us to confirm what we already know, but maybe with a bit more precision. A summary of the science case laid out for the E-ELT can be found here, and that for the SKA can be found here (with each chapter available for free on arXiv, e.g. here). These cases do obviously say a lot about what we can do to expand upon current knowledge (it's far easier to write a case based on what we currently know), and in fact I think their ability to do this gives a sufficient jump in sensitivity that the increase in science in these areas is very worthwhile [I'm going to cop out here and not give any specific examples, but see the above links]. However, I also think that there is a major new discovery space that will be opened up and lots of unknown stuff to find out.

The science case wasn't really the main thrust of TOGs argument thought - it was the funding side of things that was the main concern (you might be interested in telescoper's post about different people's ideas about what should be funded, and I think in this comment he show's similar concerns that TOG has). He said (if I remember correctly) he'd love to have access to an E-ELT/SKA for his research, but not necessarily at the cost of not having access to other facilities. No astronomer is going to have access to unlimited time on the E-ELT/SKA, so they'd obviously like to have access to other telescopes and be able to carry on doing productive science and there's a worry that this may not be possible in the future. I again thought that this was a bit too pessimistic, and maybe I'm being a bit naive, but I can't see how such a decimation of smaller facilities would be allowed - smaller class telescopes may have to find more novel ways of funding though (e.g. the LSST and ATA), or by partnership with smaller countries, or groups of universities. Importantly, I think that developing the E-ELT/SKA (via its pathfinders and precursors) is very important for providing technical innovations and pushing boundaries of observational techniques, which will feed back into making smaller class telescopes cheaper [maybe I have this the wrong way round, so someone can correct me] and able to do better science themselves.

I do have a skewed view of this kind of issue though. As a person working on gravitational wave observations we have a few (relatively expensive) detectors that create one data set for use by everyone (or for the moment at least those inside the collaborations that built and maintain the detectors), and don't have to compete for observing time on individual telescopes. I'm mainly making my decision based on my view that these new mega-observatories will produce far more novel science than the current technology is able to (and in small part that they look so cool). I might have different ideas if I felt I'd be unable to get new data myself due to limited observational chances on fewer telescopes, and consequently produce fewer papers and probably therefore have a diminished competitive edge in the academic jobs market. We do have some vested interest in having smaller class telescopes though in that when we see gravitational waves it's important to do optical follow-ups to get the most information about the sources. We're unlikely to be able to get the E-ELT and SKA to go quickly into a follow-up mode, but the smaller class telescopes will be vital.

Anyway, maybe I'm talking rubbish, what are your views?

[Update - on a related note this paper briefly reviews big versus small science/instrumentation in physics and astronomy.]