Sunday, February 28, 2010


... skiing that is.

Despite the local name for the escarpment around Hamilton, there are not any mountains in the Toronto area. There are, however, a few places where enough of a gradient exists to set up an Alpine ski resort. My adviser suggested a trip to Horseshoe Valley and, optimistic that the week had not gone so badly for him to seek my demise, I piled into the car with a couple of his kids.

I had not downhill skied since I was an undergrad and I have to say .... it's terrifying.

No, wait, let me clarify; the skiing is fine. Ski lifts are terrifying.

The first one we went on was bad enough. The chair moved at a fair speed up the slope and reminded me inescapably of the "hello Kitty" ferris wheel in Tokyo. It rapidly transpired that is was also the most modern and gentle of the contraptions at the resort. The next one we went on took particular pride in creeping up on the waiting skiiers and then setting off with a violent jolt, sending them rocketing into the air. Swinging wildly, the chair would then ascend, leaving its passengers to claw their way back onto their seats and pull the flimsy safety barrier down. Due to its predisposition for skiier-destruction, the lift stopped multiple times on its heinous journey, leaving its passengers swinging with an amplitude a baboon would envy. 

Shocked by such robotic evil, I failed to jump fast enough when the lift reached the summit and would have been trapped on-board, had I not thrown myself clear, loosing a ski and leaving the lift to rattle off with a squeak that formed echoes of a disembodied laugh. The only aspect of the decent I recall was that it was far less blood curdling that trip to the summit. I refused to go on that lift again. It was evil and this was no time to preach repentance.

The actual skiing was mild after that. It transpired I was roughly the same standard as my advisor's son.... he's eight, but since he has two younger siblings, I consoled myself with the knowledge the comparison point could have been so much worse. As we descended, I let him carve the tracks. I just followed. Mature adult overseer; that's me.

As I handed my skis in and left the cabin, I had to stop to allow a man on crutches to make his way down the steps in front of me. He still had his ski boots on. I wondered if that would still be the case in April.

Does my bug look big in this?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hot swap icebot 12 for icebot 5

I am currently sitting sprawled on my floor watching the semi-finals of the men's Olympic hockey. My TV is only able to get one channel on its internal aerial but, since this is Canada, there wasn't any doubt that I would be able to catch this game.

The women's hockey team have already won the gold; they beat the USA team last night. There was nothing odd about the game until the commentator mentioned the USA players were all wearing heart monitors so that their coach could see who had the freshest legs. The two thoughts this produced were both mildly concerning; either the coach totally didn't believe a word his players said regarding their fitness or he considered them all duracell bunnies (or maybe energizer bunnies -- did anyone else not realise there were two?).

The men's team, meanwhile, are taking the scenic route onto the podium since the only thing they were able to put into the goal when playing the USA last week was one of their own players. That particular game saw the public screens in Vancouver removed for fear of riots. In fact, it transpired that there was nothing to fear; Canada went into complete denial the game had even occurred, including the reporter on that night's news. (Although this picture made me laugh a lot.)

By the time Canada were playing Germany, a cautious allusion to the previous .... thing ... occurred on the radio where the DJs speculated the serious question of whether the whole Olympics would be a disaster if Canada didn't place in hockey. Meanwhile, our lunch table at work discussed the likelihood of anyone turning up to Friday's game if Canada were knocked out. Would Vancouver simply decide the hockey was over and the players would show up to an dark and empty rink with no TV crew? It was possible. And no, in case anyone was wondering, the acquired gold in figure skating didn't quite hit the spot.

Still, the worrying was for nothing. Canada has now won the semi-finals (you can all speculate whether I wrote this before or after the end of the 3rd period) and we will discover whether it's because these bunch of stars have started working as a team (I'm going to come out and say the women's team - WAY better at this) or if the USA team are just that hot.

Either way, it seems likely that Lacuna, Inc will not be needed for every Canadian.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sinister lighting

Me: The houses near the University look beautiful in the snow. One had lights on their trees and made me think it was still Christmas!

A-g-nother Postdoc: Yes, I've seen the houses with holiday lights still up. It makes me think the occupant has probably died.

Me: .....

A-g-nother Postdoc: In December, January; ok. But by the end of February....

Me: .... so I think "pretty", you think "festering corpses half eaten by the pet dog"?

A-g-nother Postdoc: Well, you hear stories of bodies being found and the Christmas tree is still there and all the lights....

Me: .... so ..... research going well?

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Sunday cross-country ski trips are held at various parks around Ontario. For the majority of these, the cabin where you can rent skis, warm up and buy a hot drink is situated at the hub of the majority of the ski trails. This makes it easier to leave a packed lunch there to be devoured after any one of the routes you do during the day.

There are however, exceptions to this arrangement. Last week was one example where the cabin was a fair distance from the end of almost all the trails (due some pathetic problem involving a hulking great lake in the way) or occasionally, much longer trails exist that take many hours to complete. For this reason, the ski club recommends their members carry (and I quote) "fanny packs".

I am estimating roughly half my audience flinched and the other half were unmoved.

Why? Well ... let's just say one doesn't use the term "fanny" in the UK in this context. Normally, such items are called "bum bags" or "hip packs". I also threw any I possessed out of my wardrobe when we hit 1990.

After a rather hungry ski trip last week which resulted in me inhaling my late lunch and having indigestion on the trip back, I realised I would need one of these .... carriers. I went into town and checked out the sports shops, thinking I'd feel marginally less stupid buying something I associated with a shell suits at such a location.

Shop Assistant: "Can I help you?"

Me: "Ah yes, I'm looking for a f... um... a uh... never mind."

No. Just.... no. It's bad enough asking for pants when I'm hunting for a new pair of trousers but this is just A Stage Too Far, people. Instead, I found a small rucksack that was waterproof lined and made by the sports company called 'Tracker'. It was clearly designed for the purpose I had in mind. I wondered whether the designers had been British too.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sour milk ...

... is not a tasty delicious snack for all the family. In fact, I'm going to come right out and say it's not good.

This website has the following helpful tips on the subject:

"Most people who drink spoiled milk will immediately identify the "off" taste and spit out the milk. But young children astrophysicists who may not know better but think is doesn't matter may drink the milk [......] do not ingest it as you normally would."

I would actually go as far to suggest that you should not ingest it AT ALL, even supposing you had a surprising way of doing so. For the record, the milk being strawberry and drinking it from a straw makes NO DIFFERENCE. None. Note this.

On a related topic, I'm sure this gives me a valid reason to buy an iPad. Before this morning's .... incident .... the real reason I desired one was so I could surf the internet during talks. This was a damn good idea BAD REASON. But seriously, if you have to spend that long in the restroom, you might as well stay up-to-date with your email. It'd be great for the next time I do this.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Do picket lines have wireless?

A recent development at the university where I work is for the postdoctoral researchers to join a union. Since this happened just before I arrived, I don't know what triggered the decision but current politics suggests a few speakers had words such as "representation" scrawled on their palms. Over the last week this move has been called into question as the union dues are on the rise and the postdoc community is considering withdrawing.

Generally, I always thought unions were A. GOOD. THING. They band people together to give them a voice, can negotiate changes in unreasonable systems and ultimately force them through by legalising work strikes. But here's the problem:

Postdocs can't strike.

I mean, we can. We could all refuse to go into work tomorrow or the day after but who looses out? Even in departments unlike astrophysics which might contain large laboratories primarily run by postdocs, the people who would most suffer from the lack of work is ... the postdocs. Our fellowship positions are short, normally between 1-3 years, which gives very little time to publish enough material to secure the next job. The holy grail, that tenure-track faculty appointment, is particularly hard to get and so there is really no postdoc who could honestly stop work. They'd just take their laptops to the protest marches.

We shall stand here and do research outside your windows until you agree to our demands! Yes!

Since few have teaching duties, frankly I doubt our departments would notice. Also, since we are contract workers, any special needs can be negotiated on an individual basis before we start our positions. The union, therefore, has acted more as a money drain on our pay-cheques than any form of benefit. Finally, as transitional workers we rather hold the last card up our sleeve ...

.... we can leave.

(And the group meeting cookies will leave with me biatches.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Despite money now mainly existing as a series of computer bytes, transferring credit ratings between countries is as impossible as if all transactions were engraved on decaying manuscripts too fragile to be moved. Decaying manuscripts ... with a radioactive coating that requires them to be buried sixty feet under in their country of origin.... in a lead vault surrounded by plague-carrying rats.... and six people whose role model is Sarah Palin.

Despite my hopes that Canada might be able to look slightly south to over the border where my carefully built up credit rating was sitting, I was disappointed. Not only did they refuse to acknowledge my USA record, but they would not give me a low-limit credit card or even a debit card that worked as a visa. My proof of employment and qualifications meant nothing; perhaps they too had read the Government's plans for funding science in the next five years. I should have mentioned I had work experience in a Chinese Take-away.

Resignedly, I applied for a secured credit card, whereby I agreed for the bank to hold a sum of money from my account equal to my credit limit for the (evidently likely) case that I did not pay off the card. This credit card arrived at the bank at the end of November but, due to my bank failing at the insurmountable task of changing my phone number, I did not hear about it until they mailed me .... after I had left for a month in Europe. By the time I returned in January, I was told the card had been destroyed and I would have to re-order. This I did and two weeks later (no, they still had not managed the number change, I called them) I went down and picked up the card. Huraah! Now I can start building my credit history again. At least I could ... if I could activate my card.

"I'm sorry, the card number you have given us isn't on the system."


Did they give me a visa just to shut me up but had no intention of really letting me borrow money? Had they, perhaps, seen plans for the Government's ten year funding in Astrophysics? Maybe they discovered that I had occasionally mixed up orders at the Chinese takeaway and really there was no hope for me on the job market at all? Or was it that news of my accidental goal against my own team last hockey game (SO not my fault - the puck bounced off my skate) had reached this far and it was their way of driving me from the country in disgrace?

After a shuffle around customer service the truth eventually materialised:

"Ah, the card you have is the one that was cancelled last year."

".... the one that was sent back to you and destroyed?"

".... yes."

Apparently, my bank does have my new one, they just didn't check for the second envelope when looking on Saturday. If they cancel this one before I get down there, I shall be mad.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Skate skiing

Just when you think you have a handle on the standard pastimes of a country, something entirely bizarre and random gets presented to you at lunch as if it were as common as a cheese sandwich. In the case of the USA, that activity would be disk golf; an unholy union of frisbee, golf and basket ball in which disks are shot into metal trashcans on an 18 trashcan course. In Canada, the equivalent unnatural cross-breed is skate skiing.

Ah ha! (You might think.) I see the idea here; put on skis that look like skates and use the snow as if it were an ice rink. Well yes ... and no. The skis themselves look hardly any different from their cross-country counterparts. They are the same long length with the bindings that clip only to the toe. The difference is that a cross-country ski has some friction on its under-surface, either through a pebbled section in the centre of its length or via wax. A skate-ski, meanwhile, it totally smooth. The actual action is similar to skating, with the skier gliding from one foot to the other with the skis in a "V"-shape, often crossing at the back. The poles also play a larger role, and are longer to allow you to push down harder on them as you move.

Done correctly, skate skiing is considerably faster than cross-country and a much more aerobic exercise. Done incorrectly, and your muscles hurt like a bitch. (What?! I tried disk golf too).

In other news, I broke my weighing scales. They were glass topped and I dropped them on the bathroom floor, shattering glass all over the place. On this subject I would like to declare:

1. My swearing was impressively restrained, despite what any of my neighbours might later testify to.
2. I really did drop them and it was not that the excess of Christmas chocolatey goodness caused them to give way.
3. I am sticking to that story.

That is all.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Crush them if they come

A conversation at our weekly research group meeting today:

Student 1: I feel this is a key topic in planetary formation at the moment.
Student 2: I think Jones' group are working on it, I heard him give a talk recently where he mentioned this research.
Supervisor: Hmm, perhaps we should pursue this area.
Student 2: ..... you think we could do it & publish before Jones writes up his paper?!
Supervisor: Well, once an idea is out there it's anyone's game.

[There is a short moment of stunned silence.]

Postdoc (c'est moi!): ..... you're feeling incredibly competitive today.
Supervisor: Ah. I wonder what I had for breakfast. I should have it again.

[As a disclaimer, I've actually forgotten which group we were discussing, so no Jonses were harmed in the making of this group meeting.]

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Things that go 'meow' in the night


"Tallis! It's 2 am! I need to sleep!"

"... Meow."


Fine. I flick the light on and look around for the wicked feline. Her voice comes from underneath me so, with a groan, I tilt myself off my mattress to look under the bed. No cat. Has she got caught up in the suitcases? I push them around a bit. Still no cat. Huh.



The noise comes from directly underneath me and ... in fact ... I can feel her.

She's in the box spring.


"Oh you are totally on your own."

The light goes out.


If you could see that I'm the one who understands you ....

"Ummmhuu," I glance bleary eyed at the radio only to be headbutted by a furry mallet.


"Oh you escaped, I see?"


"... that was a 'fuck you', wasn't it?"


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

It's just not an English sport at all!

Cross-country skis differ from their downhill counterparts in that the boot clips to the ski at just the toe, leaving your heel free to move. This makes moving along the flat infinitely easer but at the cost of less control on turns and descents (surprise!). It also allows you to go over the top of your skis. Basic physics will tell you this. As will actually doing it.

I will offer one guess for the way this Physicist found that out.

At this point, a rather pathetic tantrum is thrown in which the neck and upper body are kept still out of necessity.

Having absorbed (rather literally) these vital scientific attributes, I headed further down the trail and paused to call back to a friend that the next decent did not look too bad. In fact, there was probably a 27.6% chance of our survival (it was she who had suggested that us beginners should go on a medium/difficult labelled run). At this point, I was informed by another skier that:

"It's just not an English sport at all! Not at all! I should know; I lived there for 15 years!"

I know most people do this easily, but I have to confess that I'm always impressed when people pin point an accent from just a handful of words. I truly can't do it and therefore happily assume that everyone sounds like me. This probably comes from a relic teenage disorder of desiring to be the same. However, I proudly drew myself up, tried to cover the evidence of my recent accident and informed the woman that, due to the sudden snowfall in the UK and repeated reruns of the movie "The day after tomorrow", the Government had sent civilians to Canada to wrestle polar bears and learn how to ski. They were then to become politicians.

On that note, this diplomat scooted off down the slope, only to take a wrong turn and have to do the latter half of the trail again at double speed to ensure she caught the bus back to Toronto.

In other news, I received my official socialised health care card today. I wonder if that was a hint.