Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mission impossible

It was a dangerous decision. According to the presentation we had yesterday, the chances of us all returning alive were slim. We were supposed to be staying in our nice safe bear-proof physics office.  Yet we ignored it all and went for a hike. We didn't even bring along an expert.

The chosen site for our inevitable demise was Maroon Bells, one of the best known beauty spots around Aspen. A bus ran from the town up to Maroon Lake where a trail led up to a second pool, Crater Lake. So popular is this wilderness park that no cars are allowed inside the boundaries between 9am and 5pm, unless they have a special overnight permit. To further minimise damage from people, no electricity or water system is run up the mountain. Instead, solar panels provide basic power to the information station and the toilets are the latest flush-less compost systems (a.k.a. pits).

In fact, such precautions are still not enough to guard against environmental damage. A short way into our walk we passed a dispenser bin for "disposable travel toilets". These were bags for ... poo ... that backpackers could use (multiple times per bag, no less) and carry their poo with them to dispose of in the trash at the end of their hike. Apparently, the weather conditions in the Rockies are such that human waste can only decompose four months of the year which just isn't long enough for the annual influx of campers. But don't worry -- the instructions said reassuringly -- the bags are double lined to prevent against leaks.

While Alaska has the highest peaks in the USA, Colorado has the highest average elevation of any of the states. Where we started in the Maroon Bells scenic area, it was 9,580 feet and we walked to around 10,100 feet. The path weaves through a thick forest of Aspens from which the nearby town takes its name. Aspens (we learnt on the bus on the way to the park) reproduce by setting down a long root system from which genetically identical trees spring. Biologists consider the resulting cloned forest (which can extend to 100s of acres) an individual body, resulting in the Aspen being classed as the largest single organism on Earth. I watched the thousands of quaking trees and was irrefutably reminded of 'The Day of the Triffids' in which bioengineered plants move to take over the world. It was an unnerving concept but with one silver lining; our bus driver told us that the population of fast growing Aspens were protecting the slower growing juvenile pines who would eventually mature and take over the mountain side. Perhaps I should buy the URL in preparation for the necessary rename and secure my fortune.

The path through the military tree infestation was rocky underfoot and surprisingly hard going, possibly due to the altitude. Of course, then we mislaid the path entirely and became horribly lost.

.... back at the Physics Center yesterday's speaker was probably pouring himself one very smug cup of coffee.

We survived on wild raspberries and were shrieked at by a pika (I might have provokingly called it a tail-less rat) before rejoining the actual route half an hour later and continuing on to the lake. Bouncing over to the water in relief, I proceeded to sink ankle deep into the mud and be laughed at thoroughly by my advisor while I painstakingly hauled my way free.

It was sad. And muddy. And wet. I complained. No one cared. That was sad too. And muddy. And wet. Bah D:

Once I was free and promised many facebook profile pictures from everyone's camera, our group of seven split into three parties. Two people went on for a three day hike (complete with a poo bag), two went to nab a local peak and I with the more sensible British contingent continued on past the lake for an hour and then turned back.

As we reached the first lake again, we came across signs placed by the US Forest Service. Their name for 'The Maroon Bells' is 'The Deadly Bells'. Apparently, climbers die frequently by underestimating how unstable the peaks are, causing ropes to slip and rocks to fall on even experienced mountaineers. Of course, there was now nothing to worry about. We were safely on our way home and our companions ... well ... they had laughed at my mud incident.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Danger, Will Robinson!

With the weekend looming, the organisers at the Aspen Center for Physics gave a short presentation on hiking in the local area. The sun was shining as we entered the auditorium, lighting up inviting green hills up which a stream of gondolas were gaily making their way. Everyone from the elderly professors to the young researchers clutching babies was keen to get outside.

The speaker was a retired Physicist from Chicago who started his speech with a clear pronouncement that he proceeded to repeat:

"If you want to go hiking, you should find someone who has been before. What we call an expert."

I looked sceptically out at the landscape around one of America's most up-scale tourist centres. Of course, all hiking had risks, but the walks around Aspen were not known for being technically difficult. Our guide however, was most insistent. A waterproof coat was essential if you were even looking in the direction of a mountain. As was a topologically detailed map, a cell phone (although this wouldn't work, so relying on it would result in DEATH) and you should inform at least three people and a lamppost where you were going and when you were expected back.

It was sound advice but presented with a strong side-dollop of terror, which swiftly became the main course as our host warmed up to the theme.

For Cinderella, the time of destruction was midnight, but for us hikers in Aspen, it was midday. Be up on the mountain after this time and a lightening storm would descend upon you, causing your hair to stand on end and leaving you nowhere to run. Then you would be electrocuted and promptly eaten by a bear. The end.

These instructions were followed by a tale of warning about a Physicist from the centre who went missing for three days. Apparently, despite having a topological map and other appropriate equipment, he became lost. Because he was a loner, no one noticed he was gone until his wife called the Sheriff's office after not hearing from him for two nights.

That could be YOU, you friendless socially awkward geeks

was the unvocalised message.

After fifteen minutes, a blue booklet listing walks was waved at us and our speaker departed with a cheerful, "I strongly encourage you all to get out and about!"

There was stunned silence in the auditorium.

This event was directly followed by a seminar on 'crumpling'. Yep, that's right - an entire scientific seminar on crumpling paper. Or Physicists. Somehow it was oddly appropriate.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


My area of research in Astronomy involves computer simulations of individual galaxies. There are a few groups working on similar projects to me, but there is one person in particular whose research is so close that she shall henceforth be known as ARCH RIVAL #1. ARCH RIVAL #1 not only develops similar models, but she is also British and my exact contemporary, graduating the same year I did, albeit from a different university.

Even though we are employed on different continents (North America is MINE bitches, but one day I will retake Europe), the similarity of our work means that we frequently attend the same conferences. Currently, we are both in Aspen. In June, we were both in Barcelona. April saw us in Florida and last summer in Italy. You get the idea. Other scientists confuse us, sometimes using the wrong name even when facing the person in question.

So what was I to do when said ARCH RIVAL #1 had her birthday during this workshop? Clearly, a multi-step plan was in order:

1. First, announce said birthday to an entire room of Astronomers during the formal discussion we were jointly leading this morning.

2. Buy a cake.

3. Fill the birthday girl's slice with a slow acting poison that takes 72 HOURS to take affect, knowing that she reads my blog.

4. Laugh evilly.

5. Repeat (4) to taste.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Go west

Sharing the driving on long journeys might naively be considered an act worthy of encouragement. Car rental companies, however, appear to relish the prospect of a single jet-lagged aeroplane passenger, probably freshly arrived from the UK, Australia or Japan, taking out a vehicle they have never driven before on a long road trip starting at the edge of a major city. As such, they charge exorbitant rates for adding a second driver to the rental agreement. This phenomenon resulted in me taking advantage of Alamos' alternative solution of free coffee, before heading out from Denver airport to the ski resort town of Aspen.

The first part of the journey ran straight along the highway. Normally this would be an uninteresting route, but it was marked by me having the dubious honour of being the only sober driver on the road. Our first encounter with the upshot of this situation was a car just in front of us that was positioned in the lane about as centrally as the right-wing player in a hockey game. So far over was the vehicle that two of its wheels were running in the narrow hard shoulder. Deciding that this was not a person I wished to be behind, I overtook, allowing us a great view of the driver actually drinking behind the wheel.

Any illusions that we might have harboured of this being an isolated incident were swept aside by the electronic road signs. There must have been at least half a dozen, all flashing messages about fines incurred for DUI. The law, one stated, was cracking down, which rather implied this was a new initiative. Police cars littered the road side, pulling over cars on both sides of the highway. I should have pointed them half a mile back to our friend with the centring problem.

Since we were passing through the mountains, the road went through a series of fairly steep dips and peaks. This must have been an issue for large trucks, since sheer run off ramps, resembling the world's best skateboard playground, led off the road at frequent intervals. Despite the encouragement of my supervisor, I refrained from trying one out in our corolla. Worryingly, one of the only non drunk driver signs I saw requested those without breaks to not take the next turn.

Rather to my relief, a couple of hours later saw us leaving the highway and weaving into the mountains. The route was winding and narrow in places, with a number of hairpin 180 degree turns. My GPS unit apparently grew weary of it, since at one point it directed us to a track I could barely make out, that was unmarked by road signs. Evidently, it thought the time had come to go straight over a mountain. As with its suggestion regarding leaping the bridge at the US border, I ignored it. 

The main hazards on this part of the trip were not the roads, the GPS unit or the drunk drivers, but the wildlife. It was now late at night and the roadsides were peppered with deer, foxes, rabbits, raccoons and even a coyote. The raccoons comprised of a family, with two adults and a slightly smaller stripey beast. This diminutive one stopped right before my wheel to have a good examination of the red shiny machine before it finally conceded to move along. I could have taught it a lesson, but there seemed little point if it wouldn't have lived to benefit from the education.

Aspen itself is beautiful, as was revealed when we surfaced the next morning (from our beds, not a ditch, in case anyone was doubting my driving ability). Houses that I'd need to marry a movie star to own are scattered on the hillside and the town, when not in ski-season, hosts many different cultural groups including musicians, Shakespeare performers, ballet camps and, um, physicists. I couldn't help but wonder, as I walked through the streets in a tee-shirt and khakis, whether the person who suggested the institute was still allowed a home inside the town boundaries.

I have been put in an apartment with the two other British postdocs in our workshop. We have bought 100 teabags.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Quality, not quantity

During the entire season of softball I have never once made a successful catch. This was partly because I was lousy at determining where the ball would land, equally bad regarding the dimensions of my GIANT HAND and vain enough to like my nose the shape it was. Because of this, my team kindly placed me on short field when we weren't batting, meaning that I had back-up both behind me from the outer fielders and in-front of me from the basemen.

In the last game I was to play in, this successful set-up was changed and I was put as catcher. This was because I still couldn't run well after my fall in the previous game and everyone was kindly pretending that would make a difference. The catcher stands behind the batter as a backstop and doubles up as the forth basemen on home. While it is considered advantageous to have competent people on all the bases, the catcher is not as vital as the first basemen, who has the chance to get out every single player. For me, the batter has to have got past three of my friends first before I have a chance of getting them out.

Unfortunately, the other team were rather good at this. I was doing my best. Enthusiastically, I stepped forward when the batter ran and put one foot on the base, indicating that I was here, ready to stop all those home runs and hoping by now everyone had more sense than to take me up on this offer.

Half-way through the top of the seventh inning, and the other team had two people on the bases. Then the batsman hit far into the outfield and went for the home run. The guy on third base dashed past me, hotly pursued by his two teammates. Our outer fielder threw the ball towards the diamond, where it was caught by a baseman. He turned towards me and I held out my glove, thinking...

'..... oh crap.'

The ball landed squarely in my hand.

"Out and out!" shouted the umpire. "Three outs."

I stared at the yellow sphere. One season. One catch. But it was the right one.

Air border

US border guard: What is the purpose of your trip to the USA?

Me: I'm attending a conference in astrophysics.

US border guard: How long is this conference?

Me: Three weeks.

US border guard: .... that is too long.

Me: ..... you're telling me -.-

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


"We can do better than last time! Or the same! Or worse! Those are our three options and I feel we should be positive about all of them."

This bold, upbeat yet pleasingly accurate statement was issued by a teammate halfway through our softball game. Its quantitative nature also served to remind our rival team of historians that we were physicists and therefore, regardless of score, just harder than they were. Period.

Proof of this statement came minutes later when a ball smacked the same teammate in the arm and bounced into her face. I also fell before first base and skidded along the ground, neatly bruising everything from hip to ankle. Somewhat ironically, I wasn't even batting but running for another player who was injured. Good deeds don't always pay off; remember that. Yet we carried on! I have to say, not being able to walk made no noticeable difference to my fielding.

It might have been a tough game but you can always find satisfaction. Mine came in knowing that I could use all the hot water up that night and prevent my upstairs neighbour taking a shower. Poor boy. He was on the other team.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Frozen grape ammunition

almost half way -.-

"Each frozen grape only produces one drop of ice wine."

I looked up from the bottles I had been considering to see a smiling sales assistant. She indicated a TV screen in the corner of the store which was showing the ice wine making process. Apparently, the grape must freeze naturally after it has ripened, which makes the timing rather precarious.

"Only here in Niagara and Germany can make ice wine," the assistant continued.

Wikipedia, incidentally, disagrees with this. It notes that those two are the largest producers, but also throws in Austria before mentioning other countries make some ice wine but cheat by refrigerating the grapes. Evidently, my companion had a dim view of such methods, possibly coupled with an irrational dislike for 'The Sound of Music.'

"Have you ever tried ice wine? Let me give you a sample."

I looked back at the bottles and then glanced outside. I was at the duty-free shop at the Canadian/USA boarder on Saturday morning. The land border at Niagara. The one you had to drive through. The one EVERYONE passing through that duty-free had to drive through.

"Well, um... I'm driving?"

The woman followed my gaze. On the road running outside the store was a stationary line of traffic heading over the bridge to border control. To even get as far as the shop had been a painstakingly slow journey. When I had ground to a halt behind a large black SUV, I could not even make out the start of the bridge. Quite where everyone was going was somewhat of a mystery. It was almost lunchtime on a Saturday, so the only place that you really had time to travel to for the weekend was up-state New York. I guessed they were all taking off for several weeks summer vacation. I ground my teeth. Slackers.

The sales assistant turned from the unmoving line of cars to me, "You know, dear, I don't think it will be a problem."

I wondered whether it was possible to get free samples in tankards.

"You are going to the USA?" she confirmed as I was handed a paper thimble full of liquid. "We don't sell these bottles to go anywhere else and you can't buy them at the duty-free coming into Canada."

I raised an eyebrow. At this stage, I don't think I had a choice but to cross the border, or at least attempt to, but it made you wonder about the contents of the wines. Was this part of the grand invasion plan? First we poison you with ice wine, then we march on your ice rink? I swallowed the my sample. Invasion had never tasted so sweet.

Back on the road, I eased my car across the bridge. The speed limit on this stretch was 15 km/h and electronic speed detectors were set up to warn drivers if they were going too fast. As I passed one, it flashed up a '4'. My SatNav system randomly rotated the map by 180 degrees. It seemed to be subtly hinting that diving off the bridge might be quicker. Even with the associated jail time.

"When were you last in the USA?"

I had finally inched up to a booth and the occupant guard was idly flicking through my passport, hunting for the ID page.

"It's at the back," I volunteered. "And a couple of weeks ago."

"You didn't keep your green visa slip?" he grinned, quite unnecessarily in my opinion. "You'll have to stop. Hope you brought a good book!"

I sighed and speculated that maybe the border guards were only in a good mood when they could be assured that you were about to have a worse day then them.

The journey back, however, was its usual plain sailing.

"Are you bringing anything back from the USA?"

"Cat litter. Nope."

Saturday, August 14, 2010


There are four great North American sports that Brits largely fail to understand. Ice hockey (we don't really do 'ice'), basketball (too much like netball which is played by women), baseball (exactly like rounders which is played by small girls) and football (where do I even start?).

That said, the popularity of these sports means I often take opportunities to go to games, because it is something I wouldn't get to do at home. Hence, when a friend said she could get tickets for the baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox, I jumped at the chance.

I didn't know much about the Jays, but the Red Sox name was familiar from being regularly cursed through the streets of New York. It turned out that the two teams were fairly close in the league, but that the Jays were suffering from some form of psychological block that was causing them to repeatedly loose spectacularly to the Red Sox. I couldn't help but feel that being sponsored by the Bochner eye institute probably wasn't doing much for their self-confidence.

It is hard to deny that baseball is a slow game. Fortunately, there are plenty of distractions in the form of adverts flashing across the big screen. "[American] Football is amazing" blazed one, implying that if you were bored here you should try that instead. This was followed by a clip from the previous Jays game proving that it was possible for them to get a home run. Then there was "David Roberts; the freshest name in nuts" (no witty byline required) and finally the "Dave Stieb bobblehead day" on August 29th, when you could own your own grossly proportioned nodding head version of the Jays player.

Meanwhile, the action on the pitch was heating up. The Jays were batting and there was a player on each of the three bases. This loaded configuration was made more tense by the fact that 3 out of the 4 allowed pitcher screw-ups and 2 out of the 3 "strikes" or batter screw-ups had occurred. In short, the batter had to hit this ball or he would advance to first base (if the pitcher messed up) or go out (if he messed up). In the movies, this would be the moment where our underdog hero would twack the ball into the stands, kill six spectators and get an automatic home run, causing all three of the players on the bases to also complete their circuit. The Jays would be saved!

In reality, he got to first base. I forget the details. The lack of a body count made it too much of a let down to remember.

The Red Sox, however, were going on a home run spree. Two home runs were achieved by the same batter hitting to exactly the same spot in the field. Evidently, the Jays didn't believe that lightning could strike in the same place twice. Another guy then got a home run that also enabled the two players on the bases to get runs. That last move ended up making it a tidy 5 runs for the one inning and rather sealed the fate of the Jays that day.

The final score was 10:1 and the casualties were a single broken bat. Disappointing for some fans perhaps, but at least they can go get a bobblehead at the end of the month.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Return to Hogwarts

"Oh you may not think I'm pretty, but don't judge on what you see, I'll eat myself if you can find a smarter hat than me."

The Hogwarts sorting hat; magical sentient artefact, previous property of Godric Gryffindor and currently being used to sort random visitors into school houses at "Harry Potter: the Exhibition" at the Ontario Science Museum in Toronto. The exhibit consists of items used in the Harry Potter movies and has been on tour across North America. However, this description does not do it justice for it is far more fascinating than you would expect to find a close-up view of a bunch of stage props.

For instance, did you know Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) was allergic to the original metal his glasses were made from and came out in a rash? Or that Hagrid's extreme height was not done by clever camera angles but the actor was put on stilts? Hagrid's costume is on display and dwarfs everyone in the room. Each actor also had to have six wands; three hard version and three made of rubber for stunts.

The making of a soft, unbreakable version of a prop was common practice and many items had doubles, including the goblet of fire and the crystal balls for divination. This second item initially caused problems since a rubber crystal orb was no more than a child's ball and it bounced higher and higher as it rolled down the stairs; not at all the effect the irate Hermione was trying for when she pushed it!

Many of the items on display were particularly fun to get up close to. In one of the areas dedicated to the Defence Against the Dark Arts classrooms (multiple version of these due to Dumbledore's inability to hire anyone who wasn't working for Voldemort/incompetent/a bitey furry/working for Voldemort/wanting to work for Voldemort/partially working for Voldemort or indeed, working for Voldemort) there was the rattling wardrobe that contained the boggart in book three, along with the gigantic jack-in-the-box that Parvati 'riddikules' her boggart into.

Opposite Lupin's classroom set, Dolores Umbridge's pink office of hell was shown complete with gambling (though mercifully stationary) kitten plates. Something I had not consciously noticed in the movie was that the shade of pink Umbridge was decked out in gets steadily harder throughout the film to reflect her growing unpleasantness.

In the face of such candy coloured evil, I went to try my hand at scoring with a quaffle. Several of the displays were interactive, from the initial liaison with the sorting hat to a lamp-lit entrance through Hogsmead station. There was also the chance to pull up a mandrake and to sit on Hagrid's giant chair.

One of the most surprising elements I saw were models of the CGI creations in the movies. Dobby, Kreature, the centaurs, Buckbeak the hippogriff, the giant spidery acromantulas and the head of the Hungarian Horntail were all made at a life-size scale. Apparently, scanning the image into the CGI works best on 1:1 detail and the presence of the models on the sets helps both the actors and the lighting directors. Although stationary in the exhibit, Buckbeak's replica actually could move and follow actors around with its eyes. My audio guide assured me this made him popular on the sets. I edged away and went to check out the mandrakes.

These baby-faced plants are not CGI but animatronic, although the ones you get to play with did not move. The squirming plants went over very well with the school children actors and led to a problem with ensuring they were collected in after filming.

Just down from the gigantic spider was a model of the petrified Colin Creevey. This one didn't move (since that would defy the point) and I had always assumed the actor had just been threatened with something enough to freeze him for the duration of the scene. It would seem nothing short of an actual basilisk was scary enough so a task of over two months was undertaken to create the figure. For the exhibit, they had moved his hands down from his face slightly - a slow and painful task on a statue designed to be rigid!

Upon emerging from the exhibit we found a machine that allowed you to send free electronic postcards of scenes from the museum. It occurred to me that I had not explained to my advisor why I was missing the group meeting that day....

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Grave diggers

Many questions arise when you approach a softball field to find your team-mates apparently in the process of digging a grave.

Had the previous team left a high body count for us to deal with? Or perhaps the umpire was so unreasonable he was lynched? Was it a failed PhD student's last wish to be buried in the place he spent most of his time? Was it truly necessary to bury the body on first base? Wouldn't the pitcher's mound be a better option, or the zombie graveyard just one field over?

Upon closer inspection, it appeared that the digging was an attempt to disperse the rain water that had formed small lakes on the diamond. Progress had been made in turning said lake into something approaching quick sand with rakes and a shovel.

It was a decent attempt, but evidently it looked too much like a tomb for the umpire not to see the potential death toll from our match. Accidents meant ambulances. Ambulances might mean helicopters. Helicopters meant the zombie graveyard would be awakened. You could see his thinking. He left, telling us we were welcome to play as long as he wasn't a witness.

At this point, I was planning to head off home but half my team (plus a guy we adopted/kidnapped from the other side) were staying on for practice. I thought of my nice, dry office. Then I thought of my fielding skills. I spun my umbrella around a few times. Finally, I remembered I was British and therefore impervious to water. I reassigned my umbrella the task of keeping a pair of shoes dry and picked up my glove. I didn't really have an excuse.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Arch enemy #1

My last apartment in Florida was on the first floor (that's second floor to all you people who start at 1). The biggest benefit to this was that passers-by could not gaze through my window and view the consequences of me forgetting I'd left my bath towel drying in the front room. The biggest disadvantage was that no cats could peer in either.

Don't get me wrong; Tallis hates other cats. Actually, she loathes them with a vengeance never before seen on earth. With people, she is the furry purry bundle of love, yet one sign of a whisker and satan himself has nothing on her. In the ground floor apartment previous to the last one, a neighbourhood kitty dropped by to look in the glass front door. It appeared a friendly type, but the greeting it received ultimately forced a verbal reply in kind and a swipe with the paw. This shadow boxing act sent Tallis flying backwards, matrix style, to slide against the opposite wall. I should emphasize that at no point had the door been opened.  Frankly, it was hilarious.

The lack of other felines is therefore a disappointment only to me but has now been rectified in my Canadian apartment. Meet "Arch enemy #1" (known as AE1 from this day forth). AE1 is looking through the basement window where I'm currently sleeping to avoid the heat. The window is open but there is a mosquito mesh separating Tallis from her new BFF. The look of mild disgust is entirely appropriate to the language, I admit.

You will note that AE1 has gotten him/herself comfortable. It was the start of a long day.