Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Let it snow

Snow! Here in the UK, who would have guessed it? Naturally, no one (despite the fact that it usually occurs at some point during any twelve month period). Therefore, hundreds of people are stranded at airports, in their cars, department stores and, possibly most oddly, the channel tunnel which you would naively think would be unaffected by the weather.

Since living in NYC and now Canada, it's fairly hilarious watching the country dissolve in chaos from a few inches of frozen water. That said, it'd doubtless be rather less entertaining if I weren't safely at home with a hot mug of tea. The problem I guess comes from the rarity of such conditions making it impractical for the Government to purchase serious snow equipment for a single use a year, although the BBC have now printed an article on how to grit a road, in case anyone was up for a change of career. Given the STFC's science proposal for the next five years funding, it's not without appeal.

Meanwhile, I'm attempting to demonstrate the benefits of gluttony to our ailing family cat who, at twenty, has decided food is for "them young things". It's not quite as I would have it, but I suspect when I reach the equivalent age in human years, I won't give a damn either.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Melt a pile of Swiss cheese, pour it over new potatoes with added pickles, gherkins, tomatoes and bacon, have a baby wave a bread roll at you and you have a great Swiss meal! It is possible that the small child is not strictly necessary for raclette, but with only a single data point it's hard to be sure.

Regardless of the necessary trimmings, I ate too much cheese. I don't even regret it and it'll set off the too-much-chocolate I intend to eat next week at home. I did, however, almost miss out on the entire experience by struggling to find my cousin at Zurich station. Damn those giant Christmas trees and pretty market stalls that were set up in my line of sight! Outrageous.

In other news, apparently the UK has stopped funding Astronomy. Sad but ... OK, not totally true ... but the STFC (Science & Technology Facilities Council) announced a pile of project cuts in their five year outline. Fortunately, I'm totally into being a Hobo, so I'm just going to continue my plan to use Astronomy to work in every country that'll have me and pretend it's because of the economic situation. Yes.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Where are you from?

It's a standard question that pretty much everyone asks, especially in academia where people move around a great deal:

Where are you from?

Yet, because young researchers do indeed change jobs frequently, it's not a question with an easy answer. For instance, do they mean "where are you from ..?" as in your current main residence when not visiting this institute? Or "where are you from ..?" as in the institute you were at before starting your current job? Or "where are you from..?"; the city your parents now live in and where you might refer to as home? Or "where are you from..?"; the place you spent most of your childhood and where you accumulated your accent?

For me, the answers span three continents which makes is a tad hard to produce a single all-purpose answer unless I was to say "Earth" and I'd rather hope that much was obvious (though don't always bank on it - I do work in Physics).

Of course, I ask this question myself as often as I receive it and while having this debate with someone in the same position (who I had indeed just addressed the question to) I came to the conclusion that what I was really asking him was:

Where would you be deported to if the government discovered astronomy was actually a cover for drug smuggling?

(You see X-rays from space do you? I think it's time to you sobered up, young man!)

I would hasten to add however, that it is purely coincidental that my answer to the above question is also where I am going for Christmas. Not deported, folks, not deported. There really is a universe in my computer that I built from cubes resembling virtual Lego bricks. (I think I win for being paid to believe that.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Swiss complex

There is something about Zurich that makes me feel slightly inferior to the Swiss. Perhaps it is the perfectly clean and efficient tram service or the way that everyone, from professors to shop keepers, speaks accentless English. Maybe it is the beautiful buildings, the mountains or the giant metal cowbells that hang around bovine necks just like in the picture postcards. It could be the sparkling clear lakes or the fact that the Astronomy department has both foosball and ping pong tables that have never been stolen in a drunken student revelry.

Not that the nation does not have its idiosyncrasies. Many citizens extol the virtues of mountain air, good cheese and fresh bread and then proceed to smoke like a chimney. It is an eye opener and a mouth (and nose) closer.

I am currently sitting in the newly renovated apartment I have rented for two weeks. Aimed at visiting academics, it is opposite the University of Zurich's campus and comes with everything you need; bed, TV, stove ... and an incredibly complex coffee machine. Like the rice cooker in my apartment in Japan, the Swiss seem to have clear opinions of what is absolutely essential for survival.

Amusingly, I was repeatedly taken aback to be addressed in German as I mooched around the town centre. Ah, that's right! It's a foreign country with buttons on objects you would rather were kept simple, but it's not Japan and all Europeans look the same.