Friday, July 29, 2005

Thoughts from an "enlightening" mountaintop experience.

Having been outside at high elevation from 8:50pm to 10pm, 10:50pm to midnight, 12:50am to 2am and 2:50am to 4am, I have a few observations:

  • Time goes faster if you watch the skies, not the clock.
  • The clock also exhibits a pronounced lack of shooting stars.
  • Wearing warm outer layers indoors will make you colder outdoors.
  • Airplanes move relative to the stars. Stars don't.
  • Airplanes blink. Stars near the horizon twinkle visibly. Stars at zenith (here) do neither.
  • Any electrical or electronic device, no matter how expensive, has its peevish moments.
  • Never underestimate the value of free snacks.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Security Council Chamber

I took this picture of the Security Council Chamber at UN headquarters in New York while attending a meeting in the next conference room over (Trusteeship Council).

United Nations Security Council Chamber, New York.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Reality? What reality?

Somebody got the first season of "Xena, Warrior Princess" on DVD. And she's quite giddy about this.

"Oh, Dan," quoth she, as we prepared to twist her hair. "She's the coolest person who ever lived!"

"Um," replied I, "She didn't live. I'll be back after I blog about this."

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A laser, a folding lawn chair, a hula hoop, and Peter Gillingham

Today was, as expected, my training (using the term somewhat loosely) as a laser spotter at Keck.

A laser spotter does not spot lasers. Nor does a laser spotter use a laser to spot other things. No, a laser spotter tries to spot things before they run into the beam of a laser.

In my town, laser spotters are available as temporary employees from one of the local employment agencies. Just call them up and tell them that you need a half-dozen laser spotters on a certain date, and you too can have laser spotters!

(Yes, I do live in a slightly unusual town.)

Anyway, there were a few purposes to the training:
  1. Make sure that hanging around the facility where the laser is for a few hours wouldn't make me keel over or anything. (Considering that I've hung out at facility around the corner, with very similar environmental hazards, for the last year, this was more of a formality than they knew.

  2. Show me where things were. I can now find the first-aid kit, a bunch of fire extinguishers, portable oxygen tanks, a folding lawn chair, a hula hoop, and quite a lot of snacks.

  3. Brief me on all the safety rules and requirements. (Again, given my experience at a similar facility, this was a bit of a formality.)
Unsurprisingly, it all went smoothly. The guy who was supposed to keep an eye on me to make sure I was doing okay did kinda doze off a couple times during a talk, and he had to "introduce" me to at least one person I already knew, which was a little amusing, but anyway.

So, come Thursday evening, I'll be sitting in a lawn chair, holding a hula hoop, and watching the pretty laser!

Oh, I did mention Peter Gillingham, didn't I? Australians might care about this more than most. Anyway, Peter's an Australian fellow who's worked in astronomy since the late 1960s. He was the Operations Director at Keck for the first 5 years it was in use, and he was the one who gave the talk today, on "Life after Keck" (for the most part), talking about some of the stuff he's done since.

His current big thing is "Dome C" which quite a lot of science and technology sorts in Australia are terribly excited about. "Dome C" is the third-highest mountain in Antarctica, and the "seeing" - how fine the visible detail is when looking at the sky - is quite good there. Also, it's well-situated for observing the Magellanic Clouds and the galactic center. And I think it's a shorter trip from Australia than the big observatory complexes in Hawaii and Chile.

There are, as Peter noted, a few complicating factors:
  1. Bedrock is under 2 miles of ice. So any observatory is anchored in ice, and will gradually move over time.
  2. The weather gets a mite nippy at times.
  3. Observing anything north of the equator is pretty much out of the question.
I'm unsure whether he mentioned the sun refusing to set properly for half the year. My guide and I discussed (amongst ourselves!) whether penguins could be trained to be laser spotters, and agreed that it would depend on their ability to pass an eye exam.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Back on the saddle again

Thursday I hopped on my bike and logged about 34km (21 miles). Stopped at the zoo for water, got rained on a wee bit coming out of there, then went down to the next town, checked out a little toy shop at the market there (picked up a card of fossils for my daughter), rode through that town, and came back by the somewhat scenic route, avoiding further rain. It didn't feel too bad, and given that my legs were tired but still functional at the end, I think it was about the right length. Of course, the parts of my bottom that land on a bike saddle are... not interested in any more rides just yet. But perhaps I'll manage one sometime on Saturday or Sunday. If not, perhaps next Thursday or Friday.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

So this is acting...

Shouting at a young lady
Brandishing a sword menacingly at her
Standing in front of a table full of chocolates
Wearing a green tunic with lace cuffs and collar
For which I'm sure some curtains were martyred
Smudged with cocoa and spices
And no pants.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

My daughter, the guinea pig.

 Well, the little one will soon enter first grade... at her fourth school.

She spent a year in the "kinderhale" program at the local 
Waldorf school (that's Rudolf Steiner to you Europeans) as a 4-year-old. Then a semester of Kindergarten at Voyager Charter School in Honolulu, and the second semester of Kindergarten at Chiefess Kapiolani elementary here in Hilo.

But the folks at Kapiolani told us repeatedly that we needed to get her into a better school, one that wasn't constrained so much by the 
Every Child Left Behind legislation, with less rigid reading and math programs and more challenges and opportunities and so on and so forth.

So we put her name on the list a couple places. Last week, one of them, 
Connections Charter School, called to say that sorry, there wouldn't be any space for her when school starts up in a couple more weeks. Today, they called to say that there unexpectedly would be a space.

Connections partners with the 
Curriculum Research and Development Group at the main campus of the state university system, and as such gets to try out the shiny new educational theories and curricula. They're one of three pilot sites for some math curriculum from Russia (it's been translated... I think!) and are also using a cutting-edge science, health and technology program.

So... she'll be a guinea pig. She'll also probably be scarily brilliant, and I hope when she takes over the galaxy she won't treat me too harshly for the times I scolded her.

Kung Fu Hustle

The first reviews I saw for this movie claimed that it was something like Jackie Chan meets Buster Keaton meets Bugs Bunny meets Quentin Tarantino. It sounds crazy, but they were exactly right. This movie has:

  1. Tons of kung fu, some of it humorous a la Chan
  2. Lots of physical comedy and Keatonesque pratfalls
  3. Some ridiculously fast movement and crashes like a cartoon
  4. Over-the-top stylized violence a la Tarantino
If you're wondering why you haven't already seen fifteen other movies that combine these kinds of elements... well, the results can be pretty bizarre. "Hilarious" meets "disturbingly violent" and it's hard to know whether to laugh or cringe.

This movie manages to make the combination work, skewering all manner of stereotypes in the process, and even offers a happy ending. If you're looking for something different, this might be a good one to see, as long as you're not easily offended or squeamish.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D

El Mariachi. Desperado. From Dusk Till Dawn. Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Spy Kids? And now... The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D??

No, Robert Rodriguez hasn't gone completely insane - he just has kids, and he makes films for kids sometimes. This particular one is based on a story one of his sons, Racer Rodriguez, created at age 7. Yes, really.

The bad news is that audience members older or younger than age 7 may have a hard time really getting into the movie. The plot feels like a story being made up on the fly by a 7-year-old whose parents forgot to renew a ritalin prescription, and the acting and dialogue aren't likely to wow adult audiences.. The good news, of course, is that kids who are (around) 7 will probably really enjoy the movie.

So: enjoyable movie for its target audience, but if mom or dad has to tag along, a matinee, second-run, dollar movie house is definitely the way to go.

Monday, July 4, 2005

Having an Impact

 Since last August, I've occasionally run a telescope for the university. A lot of the observations over the last academic year involved comet P9/Tempel-1, which had been selected as the destination for NASA's "Deep Impact" mission. One of the members of the NASA Science Team for the mission is a professor at the university, and she's had quite a few postdocs and grad students observing the comet for her.

For several months, I've known that there would be some public outreach surrounding the mission. Public outreach is nothing new -- the university's Institute for Astronomy has a person who specializes in science education and public outreach. There are frequent public talks at the local campus, often by rather well-known figures in the field of astronomy, which draw anywhere from 50 to 150 people. But this... this would turn out to be a little different.

Initially, I was going to be in the control room of the telescope I run, facilitating video links to the lecture room where the outreach program would take place. Nice. Easy. Familiar.

But then... plans changed a little. Instead of 
an outreach program, the Institute became involved in four of them - one on this island, one on Maui, one at a museum in Honolulu, and one on Waikiki Beach. And I was assigned to "run the show" technologically on Maui.

Saturday, I flew over to Maui with my trusty PowerBook (with iSight video camera for iChat AV video chats), my backpack of cameras, and a box full of goodies. Several other boxes had already been shipped over ahead of me. Little did I know how quickly the goodies would vanish. The outreach officer met me there, and we caught up with local professors and astronomers who would be involved, started hooking up technology and testing various things. By the time I left the campus at 10 PM Saturday, I knew some things worked, knew a couple didn't, and, after being accosted by a half-dozen youth wanting to know where the comet event would be on Sunday, knew we might get a bit of turnout from the public.

Sunday morning, I went to the summit of Haleakala, said hi to an observer at one of the Institute's facilities, and checked things out.

Faulkes Telescope North enclosure on Haleakala

I came back down, got things all set up for the program, then had to rearrange furniture and make the room smaller (partitions) at the last minute.

The program was... well, I've been describing it as "like Woodstock. A chaotic mess, but a huge, public, 
impressive chaotic mess."

Our room occupancy limit was around 150 people. In my 
half of the room, I estimated 300. The facilities guy was nervous because the air conditioning couldn't handle that many warm bodies in one place. He ended up opening up two more rooms to show the same NASA TV feed that was being shown in the other half of the main room.

In my half of the room, NASA TV only showed up right around impact. The rest of the time was spent doing the following:

- Showing a DVD from NASA containing information on the mission, animations of the impact, and footage of the launch.

- Video chatting with Mike Martin of Boeing (which supplied the Delta II launch rocket for the mission), who was on the summit of Haleakala for the impact.

- Showing Mike's presentation on the integration, launch and trajectory of the mission, with Mike narrating over the video link from Haleakala.

- Video chatting with Mike Maberry, Assistant Director of the Institute, who was on the summit of Haleakala with Mike Martin.

- Video chatting with Bill Giebink of the Institute, who was on the summit of Haleakala to make sure the Faulkes Telescope worked well.

- Video linking upstairs to the room where a group of students from Hawaii and Iceland, and educators and astronomers from Hawaii, England and Iceland were observing with the Faulkes Telescope, to see one of the astronomers explaining to the students how their observations would work.

- Showing a presentation by astronomer Jonathan Williams of the Institute, who also fielded questions as part of a panel along with fellow astronomers Shadia Habbal and J.D. Armstrong and educator Sharon Price.

- Video chatting with Hiroko Shinnaga at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory on Mauna Kea.

- Video chatting with Glen Petitpas at the Harvard-Smithsonian-Taiwan Submillimeter Array on Mauna Kea.

- Showing near-real-time images off the Faulkes Telescope on Haleakala.

- Showing a little bit of real-time streaming footage from Japan's Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea.

This was all done in a semi-scripted manner, with the audience, our in-person panelists and our videochat guests all interacting over the video chat links. Those of us working the event thought it was crazy... the audience seemed to think it was great. I don't think I've been asked for an autograph before.

The scene in Hilo - where my family went - was similar. Crowding. On Waikiki Beach, the crowd was estimated at 10,000 people. Maybe we've underestimated the popularity of astronomy?

I flew back the next afternoon - and went right back to the control room, to operate the telescope for another 4 nights. The science collaboration is impressive - as I type this, a video monitor near me is displaying tiled live connections to Kitt Peak in Arizona, La Silla in Chile, and multiple observatories on Mauna Kea. The amount of data being gathered by each telescope is huge, and when it's all put together, I don't even want to think about how many lifetimes worth of man-hours will go into analyzing it.

Here's a photo of the comet, which I snagged from the 
Faulkes Telescope web site. You might also read the local newspaper stories about the events on Maui and in Hilo.

Why I'm leaving Twitter.

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