Friday, April 30, 2010

Hot bubble

Montreal (East) has snow. Alberta (West) has seen a sudden severe spring blizzard sweep over it. Us, in Toronto? Hot bubble.

The only thing wrong with this image is that's it's taken from inside the Physics department at the University of Toronto, rather than outside on the lawn balanced precariously on an ice cream cone.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Rounders for boys

Spring has sprung and in the wake of the shock that followed the melting of snow and ice, the Physics department has formed a softball team. Softball, fellow Brits, is exactly like rounders except not socially confined to small school girls in gym skirts. The ball, also, IS NOT SOFT. This horrifically inaccurate misnomer is doubtless there to lure innocent postdocs away from their desks with the thought 'Eh, what's the worst that can happen?'[*]. On a plus side, I did get to wear a mit so I had one GIGANTIC hand. It was ace.

Despite being reassured that it was fine to play with only one day spectating the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team as way of recent experience, I was mildly apprehensive about batting. I mean, my memories of outer fielding told me that, positioned carefully, I could probably play solitaire on my iPhone inbetween pitches (except I had this GIGANTIC hand, did I mention?). Batting, on the other (smaller) hand, puts you front stage. There's even a diamond to emphasise this. Fortunately, I didn't turn out to be as big a failure as I anticipated. Metal hit ball frequently. Sometimes the ball even went somewhere. This was almost certainly due to our skilled pitcher, but hey! If he plays with us in the games who's to know? The bat, incidentally, is way heavier than the little wooden rounders bats I used to swing. My wrists got quite sore after a few.

Returning to fielding, I discovered a clash with my game play in other sports. I had an unpleasant habit of stopping the ball with my shin or shoe. I do this with the puck in hockey all the time; stopping it on the side of my ... padded ... skate or, um ... shin pad. Ah yes. That would be why it didn't hurt then. A friend commented I 'took one for the team'. I grimaced and tried to pretend that I was just hard like that.

Next practice, I'm going to stop staring at my GIGANTIC hand and catch a ball in the glove. Small goals. It's going to be great. 

[*] The answer to that quandary will doubtless be covered in future posts.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Yes, I see wonderful things" -- Howard Carter

In 1922, a British archaeologist found what he was searching for; the untouched tomb of the boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun. The result was 5,000 catalogued artefacts and a cold (or rather mummified) case of the unexplained death of a 19 year old king, some 3,500 years ago. In keeping with the traditions of the day, this haul was evacuated, divided up and now part of it is a visiting museum exhibit at the AGO in Toronto.

Since the Ancient Egyptians were ahead of their time when it came to Astronomy, I was confident that I could skip off work to see this exhibit and maybe offer it up at journal club without anyone clocking this research's publication date. Besides, how often do you get to see golden toes that sat over the actual mummified digits for a few millennia? Not often.

The exhibit starts not with Tutankhamun, but with a collection of other finds from digs connected to his relatives. It is interesting, but lacks a clear time line for those viewers whose ancient history is not entirely up to speed. Terms such as 'New Kingdom' are dropped without any indication of what defined this period or even when exactly it was. That said, who couldn't enjoy the tale of Hatshepsut, the female Pharaoh married to her half brother who seized power from her step-son to rule for about twenty years? Her gender did not prevent her bust from sporting a fine oblong beard. Marriage to your sibling was a practice reserved only for royalty in Ancient Egypt. The rest of the masses had to resist the urge.

There was also a large statue of Akhenaten, father of Tutankhamun, who was famous for denying the traditional religious picture of many gods and introducing instead a monotheistic view of a single sun god, Aten. Whether he denied his own destiny as a god-to-be (Pharaohs were considered to become deities upon death) is less clear. The religious move was deeply unpopular and Tutankhamun started the process of revoking it in his short reign. It is possible his close connection with his unpopular father triggered the erasing of his name from statues and records after his death. Ironically, as the exhibit points out, this attempt to delete all memory of Tutankhamun from history was to rather backfire.

Tutankhamun artefacts consist of many smaller pieces. None of the four consecutive coffins that held his mummy were on display, although the casket that held canopic jars in which his organs were placed was there, as was one of the jars itself; a beautiful peice in the form of the god of the underworld, Osiris, that once contained Tutankhamun's intestines. The official guardian of this delightful slice of Pharaoh is the jackal Duamutef, whose name was engraved on its base. There were also jars that held two foetuses, thought to be Tutankhamun's daughters by an unknown woman. Other items included countless pieces of jewelery, his bed and many servant statues that were buried with the deceased to perform the menial labour that would be asked of them in the afterlife.

The end of the exhibition leaves the cause of death of Tutankhamun largely unaddressed. However, boards outside show results from the latest research. Once thought to be murder by his successors, the boy king's demise is now considered less violent. The cracks in his skull are thought to have occurred after death, since body scans revealed the presence of the dislodged pieces. The very latest concept seems to be that of malaria. Not quite as exciting as homicide perhaps, but he might have preferred it.

The tour naturally ended in a gift shop. Tempted as I was by a cloth headdress in the shape of King Tut's burial mask, I really would have liked an overview of the history to read on the bus back. Unfortunately, the only tomes of the right length were clearly aimed at ten year olds with the implication that anyone with a more advanced grasp of literature should clearly be wanting the full detailed itemized list of the 5,000 items on the tomb's inventory. The headdress started to look more promising.


I asked you all about smart phones. You almost all had BlackBerrys and loved them. I therefore ignored you all and got an iPhone... >_>

In my defence they are shiny! I mean, um, good tools. The web browsing in particular seems to be really fast and easy, which is a feature I especially wanted for role playing reading journals. Yes. It was really this that swung it for the iPhone.

Anyway, since I had only recently joined my network provider in Canada, I couldn't get an iPhone through them without buying it outright at some exorbitant price. So I hunted through online ads to find someone selling the model I wanted (3GS 16 GB). Some of the posts were more suspicious than others. I contacted one guy to ask if he still had the phone he was selling and he replied no, but he could get another by the end of the week. One can only assume he was planning to go out and steal one for me. I was touched by his dedication. I also declined. The person I did buy it from had recently been giving a BlackBerry from work and seemed to have only one handset to sell. Always a good sign.

The hardest part of the purchase turned out to be putting on the protective screen guard. They come in packs of 3 for $20 which was somewhat outrageous and even more so when you consider I managed to screw up applying the first two. These failed attempts made it appear my screen was totally scratched up when in fact it was just the sticker. Not cool. Kinda defies the point of having an undamaged screen too.

Did I mention this phone was shiny?

I did make one mistake, and that was telling my cell phone company I'd switched my sim card to an iPhone. Previously, I had a little LG phone that could do a bit (read: painful and frustrating) mobile browsing. It transpired that during the last few months my plan had changed unbestknown to me (ok, they probably sent me a letter but I never read such missives) and my data pack had morphed to include unlimited browsing. Prior to that, as soon as I stepped away from my network's own pages, they charged me. They don't allow such things for the smart phones (bah! To Canada's cell phone plans) so once I'd confessed they moved me onto a plan with a 500 MB limit. I'm consoling myself that not fessing up would have led to other problems with voice mail and the like ... probably.

So any recommendations for Apps? Shiny shiny apps .... myyyy precioussss.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Trains and boats and planes

In an original bid to cut down carbon emissions, Ontario seems to have opted to make the major airport in Toronto almost impossible to reach. The first hint of this scheme came as I attempted to catch my flight on Good Friday. Since it was a public holiday in Canada, I checked the bus times and concluded they appeared to be running on a Sunday schedule. Fair enough and really no problem, since Hamilton is a decent sized city (~ 0.5 million) and Toronto is close, so the network of transport is frequent even at weekends.

It transpired that travelling on Good Friday is actually an unforgivable sin. As such, it is not enough to cancel all public transport to prevent you from trying, rather half of all buses and trains are removed from service (hence the confusion when I glanced innocently at the timetables), so you may begin your trip but must end it stranded in the middle of nowhere. This is Canada. Most of it is empty space and they therefore do "nowhere" rather well. It took me one bus, one train and a panicked phone call to a friend (thank you Mubdhi!) to enlist his skills as chauffeur to make this epic 35 mile journey.

On my return, I was more confident. After all, the difficulty was just because it was a public holiday, surely. First off, I miss my flight. I confess I probably cannot entirely blame this on Canadian transport and a more honest spectator would point out the merit of rising half an hour earlier. However, no matter. I was put on the flight one hour later and reached my change-over point in Atlanta only a small amount of time behind schedule. We boarded ... there was a fault ... we disembarked ... waited ... changed gates ... waited some more ... got on a new plane and sat on the tarmac to show this off for a bit. Again, not really linked with Toronto. Still damn annoying. On a plus side it made it worth paying for the wifi connection in the airport lounge.

I finally arrive at Toronto at around 7:30 pm. Early enough, I thought, to safely take the bus back to Hamilton seeing as it's JUST DOWN THE ROAD. I find a public bus stop, but discover it's the wrong one and I have to go over to terminal 1. Upon arriving there (tired and weary by this stage), I find a shiny GO bus stop, complete with timetable, bench and a sign saying as of the 3rd April, they are not running buses there anymore. They recommended using a local bus service that doesn't run in the evenings.

I took a shuttle service back and billed it to my research grant. Enough was enough.

I have just booked my next flight which will be to New York. From Buffalo.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

App my life

So I want an iPhone. I mean, who doesn't? They're shiny, allow you to check email, surf the web, play games and there's even an app to tell you if someone is a cylon. Obviously, I need this. But here's the thing:

Travel rates SUCK.

For the US, I'm looking at $1-2/MB and for Europe around $5. Given my basic package for use in Canada would include 500 MB/month, you start to see the problem. (The fact some companies put the prices per kB to make the numbers look small says a lot. They tried to fool me. It didn't work >_>).

I understand that when I step away from my cosy home country I'm transmitting waves on someone else's network, but this is a MOBILE phone. I want to be mobile! That doesn't mean a quick trip into town; I need to use it all over the world. After all, while it's a close run thing, I can manage without checking livejournal while I walk to work. (OK, once I went into a coffee shop en-route but ONLY ONCE). While I'm propping up a bus shelter in Rome waiting for a vehicle that may or may not show because timetables are more suggstions in Italy then I need my smart phone and google maps.

One thing I did discover in my harassment of cell phone companies at the mall was that the Blackberry compresses data by 4x the amount the iPhone does. So while the data plan would be identical, in theory I should get considerably more bang per MB on the Blackberry. (The Blackberry bold, since I was told this was better for world travel). A google search of this fact revealed it to be true, but oddly there weren't 800 listings of people saying this was an absolute must for users with ADHD when it comes to countries. Does this compression not make the difference I'd naively think it should?

Blackberrys are supposed to be unrivalled for email. Unsurprising, since this was what they were designed for. I am told though, that web surfing is not nearly as good and there are many less apps than for the iPhones.

Has anyone else hit this dilemma? What did you do and do you regret it? (Confessions limited to phones if reply is public ^.~).

Saturday, April 10, 2010

America's Got Talent

"How do you feel about blowing off half a day of the conference?"

"What an outrageous idea! I'm here to learn not to holiday!"

"We've got tickets to the live recording of '
America's Got Talent' in Orlando."

"... I fell in with such a bad group of people here."

So it turns out that Britian's contribution to American society is ... game shows. 'Who wants to be a millionaire?' (which morphed into a show of the same name, but substantially less money), 'Pop idol' (which morphed into 'American idol') and now 'Britain's got talent' (the morphing of this name will be left as a problem for the reader).

The last of these shows (for those not indoctrinated via Susan Boyle) involves any form of activity from singing, dancing, juggling, stripping (... we'll come back to that one), acting and so forth with your prowess being assessed by three judges. These crushers of poorly conceived dreams were Piers Morgan (who pretty much failed every act before it was done), Sharon Osbourne (wife of Ozzy) and Howie Mandel (known for his fit knocks because of an OCD that makes him hate hand shakes).

Watching the show live is far slower than the resulting production. We were told to arrive at 6 pm, yet they weren't due to finish recording until after 11. In addition to breaks between acts, there was a large amount of time spent on audience filming where we were told to pretend to be cheering a contestant, booing them and gazing at the stage with the intensity normally given to the finale of 'Lost'. These snippets were clearly going to be used as fillers in the editing room which just goes to prove; live audience reaction? Not so live. As it was, we gave up on America's talent at 9:30 pm and disappeared to find the more certain talent of the Cheese Cake Factory. The judges should have done the same; chances of passing to the next round dropped
exponentially with time.

The dress code was strict; no shorts, no hats, nothing with a logo printed, no bags, cell phones or cameras. Overall (it was stated) our attire had to be 'hip'. This caused raw panic among the group of astronomers I was traveling with. We had dedicated our life to Physics ... largely because we had failed to be exactly this.

Biggest surprise of the night? Probably the 74 year old grandmother who performed a heavy rock song in a spangly black dress. Worst act? I'd say the stripper. Yes, that's right, this guy's speciality for one of the biggest talent shows in the world was removing his clothes, down to a tight pink tee-shirt and Y-fronts. The judges laboured the point that this was, indeed, the smallest talent they had ever seen.

There was also a British (and everyone seemed okay with that ...) juggler, a knife thrower and an ex-army dude whose story begged the producers to use the 'intent staring' footage they'd pulled off the audience earlier.

During our return journey, I debated whether I should have entered myself. After all, I did have my conferenece presentation all ready to go right there on my laptop. There were some damn fine graphs in it. Damn fine.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Once they are up ....

The crack of dawn (actually a few minutes before) found me sprawled on a blanket on the grass at Cape Canaveral watching as the space shuttle, Discovery, launch on one of its final missions. Said vertical departure was scheduled for 6:21 am and due to a cunning plan that saw us with a NASA employee in our car (the fact she was on crutches was not our doing), we bagged VIP spots inside the Kennedy Space Center about six miles away from the shuttle. This is almost as close as you can get, since greater proximity results in death from fumes, noise or pissed off alligators; largely to be avoided.

At 6:10 am, the International Space Station (the shuttle's destination) could be seen as a bright, fast moving speck crossing the moon. This was the indication that the narrow window for launch was now open and with no problems to forestall it, the engines fired and Discovery vanished in a white burning mass that lit up the night. It had risen well into the sky by the time the noise and vibration reached us, and we followed the reverse shooting star until the speck finally vanished, leaving an artistic cloud design that was dyed different colours as the sun rose.

My photos are still on my camera, so I am going to cheat and steal one of Alison's:

I've seen a couple of launches before, but always in the day time. Technically, this was not a night launch, but the experience cannot have been terribly different since the only hint of dawn was a slight lightening on the horizon. On one of my previous times I also had VIP tickets, allowing a close viewing spot, and was able to see the shuttle physically turn over as it ascends (the fuel tank is bright orange which gives away the orientation if you can make it out). In the dark, this was impossible since the shuttle was completely obscured by its burning fuel but you were able to follow its path for considerably longer.

Escaping the Space Center was rather less fun and we succeeded in moving 2 miles in an hour. I declare this speed suboptimal. Still, four hours later found us eating a large breakfast .... or was it lunch or dinner? .... with eggs, soar bread toast and sausage \o/

I also discovered Starburst jelly beans. As a result, I still feel fractionally unwell.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Row your boat

So canoeing? Way harder than I was led to believe. Okay, so trip was might have been entirely partially my idea; a celebration of the fact that water is in liquid form in Florida. I also had a short wooden paddle but, if I was strictly honest, I doubt it affected my technique all that much.

We rented canoes on the Silver River in Ocala; pretty route that wound through thick greenery packed with wildlife. We saw turtles (huge ones), alligators (huger ones) and monkeys (less huge but made up for it with quantity). I'd previously only heard rumours of wild monkeys in Florida; largely from Curtis who also tried to tell me that the British bird population had turned carnivorous and was eating the cows. I believed neither story but am now casting a suspicious eye on our sparrow population.

There are some that is, all of our canoe trip who might argue we were utterly slightly optimistic about how far we could paddle in one afternoon. (This might have been partly because we rented boats at a place further down from our original port of choice.) However, the fact I am having some difficulty moving my fingers from the top keyboard row to the bottom speaks for itself is coincidental. The weather was beautiful, the wildlife stunning and the injuries ... well, I at least I have free health care again.

The only blip on the trip was the presence of a large number of motor boats whose engine exhausts are basically at the level of a canoe. At first, I was irritated by these creations; the noxious environment-damaging metals beasts! By the time I was heading back, I was furious. Damn it all! Why wasn't I on a boat with a BBQ, eh?

The distance of the trip is a subject for debate. In my personal opinion, an unfortunate wrong turn caused us to bag half the coast of Florida. Length-wise.