Guess I wasn't wrong in my assessment of how well my presentation as the Oxford University Astronomy Weekend went. This morning, I woke up to find an e-mail in my InBox from the organiser, which began:

Many thanks for the part you played in the successful astronomy weekend this year. I am receiving requests to invite you back for an unprecedented third time in a row – requests with which I am very happy to comply.

I cannot pretend that I am not pleased by the invitation... especially when one considers that some seriously big-name physicists and astronomers -- like Alan Watson, Sir Marin Rees, Roger Davies, etc. -- have lectured at this event over the past thirty-one years!

So..... I guess I know what I am doing for the third weekend in April next year! In 2010, the theme of the weekend will be "Advances in Astronomy", and I have been invited to speak on the topic of "Neutrino Astronomy," which I can (and will) quite happily do.

After that, I think I'm done. I have spoken about dark matter, I have spoken about cosmic rays, I will speak about neutrinos. That covers all three areas where I have done research! No matter how popular my next talk is, they cannot invite me back in 2011 -- I will have nothing left to speak about!

Tis the Friday of our content, marry sir:
Didst thou talketh like a Shakespeare anon?
For yesterday, by the hairs of my beard
Twas all to speak merrily as the Bard.

It is indeed Friday and, whether you spoke like a Shakespeare or no, gentle readers, it is time for an entry highlighting the, um, highlights of this week. First, though, we have a word from our sponsors a poll!

Last week, I asked YOU when you could come to play games at the Flat With No Name[*]. The winner from that poll appears to be Saturday May 9th. So it is likely that there shall be a games party anon on that date. Before confirming, though, let me make sure that there really are enough people who can attend to make it worth our while:

[Poll #1389214]

In particular, there will be an emphasis on teaching and playing Betrayal at House on the Hill, using the awesome new set made for me by the adorable [ profile] tawneypup. Other games are also on hand, though, and much fun shall be had by all who can attend!

Right. That said, what has everybody's favourite Nomad been up to this week? I will not bore you with the details go into full descriptions, but here are some notable happenings from the week now ending:

  • One of the attendees from the Oxford University Astronomy Weekend is a member of the Newbury Astronomy Society, about thirty miles from here. Apparently, she liked my talk so much that she e-mailed me and asked if I could deliver the opening lecture to the Society's next season, in September. I was very flattered to be asked and I agreed, of course. The talk on cosmic rays is already written, and that is the part that I hate about giving a lecture. The actual delivery is fun, as are the questions afterward. So there is no reason at all not to give my talk again, to a different audience!

  • Whilst at St. Giles on Sunday to ring for the evening services, somebody looked at the mail... and noted that there was an envelope for me there. Well, that came as a bit of a surprise! I have never received mail at the church before! Turns out, it was from the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Change Ringers. I was inducted into the Guild at the start of the year[**] and this envelope contained my certificate of membership and some information about the Guild. I know that I am only a learner, even after two and a half years of ringing, but it is nice to be part of some ringing societies now. It feels validating, as it were.

  • Speaking of ringing, I have made it to both handbell practice and tower bell practice at St. Giles for two Thursdays in a row. Given the London commute, this is no longer a given... nor is it trivial to accomplish. However, the benefits are tangible. On handbells, I have brushed the dust off of my Plain Bob Major -- last week, I assured myself that I could still ring the trebles and tenors; this week, I went back to what I was learning before: the 3/4 pair and the 5/6 pair. Coming along nicely, if I do say so myself. On tower bells, I practiced trebling to a long touch of Grandsire Triples. Also, I extensively practiced my inside bell work on Grandsire Doubles last week, and this week I got in some work on a touch of Plain Bob Minor.

  • Unlike Skullcrusher Mountain, the Flat With No Name is managed by a letting agency. Overall, this is a good thing, as our previous landlady[***] did absolutely nothing ever. However, one disadvantage is that the agent makes semi-annual inspections of the property. Joy and rapture. Wednesday was to be the first such inspection, so I stayed home from work on Tuesday and spent the entire day cleaning like mad. To be honest, our flat needed it. When I began, it was an utter mess; when I ended, it was spotless. However, on Wednesday afternoon, [ profile] cheshcat gets an e-mail saying that they are putting off the inspection for a week. Oi! I had her call to chew them out, and to explicitly state that the flat was currently immaculate and that we would not be cleaning it so thoroughly for them again. The situation is irksome... but at least, with that incentive, we now have a clean place to live once again!

  • For some odd reason, it seems to be the season for old girlfriends to hunt down Nomad on Facebook. I do not have a Facebook account, nor do I intend to ever get one[****]. But a couple of former partners -- who have never met -- recently contacted me asking if I was there. No, that is not quite true. One previous partner asked me if I was on Facebook, as she had been looking for me. The other correctly concluded that I was not there... so she sent me a letter demanding that I get a Facebook account. Indeed, she was adamant and would not take LiveJournal for an answer.[*****] I do consider myself to be on good terms with most of my ex-girlfriends -- indeed, I am rather proud of this fact -- but it is still a tad odd for two to ping me at once because they were searching for me on Facebook! Ah, well. Tis good to be wanted, I suppose!

  • Over the past few years, I have been starting to fill in certain gaps in my education. My cultural education, that is. In 2005, after seventeen years of comic book collecting, I finally read the Crisis on Infinite Earths. In 2007, [ profile] cheshcat and I became two of the last people I know to watch Babylon 5. Now, at long last, I have begun to read Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. No spoilers, please! I have successfully avoided any for close to two decades now! [ profile] cheshcat has all the issues in trade paperback form and I have only read the first three thus far. I have been looking forward to this for ages and am quite excited as I begin to finally see what all the fuss is about!

...and that is about all the news from the week, dear friends!

Now tis time to rush off, as the weekend looks to be fairly full, as well. Tonight, I have a date with the lovely [ profile] bunnypip. Tomorrow, the Oxford Society of Change Ringers is having a celebration for its 275th anniversary -- plus, I may sneak away for a bit in the afternoon to see an exhibition in the Bodleian Library -- and then tomorrow evening, [ profile] cheshcat and I have tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof at the Oxford Playhouse[******]. Then, on Sunday, [ profile] cheshcat and [ profile] dr_jen and I will be going to the Harcourt Arboretum to see the bluebell meadows. They only bloom for about two weeks per year... but when they do, they are a phenomenal sight to behold! And, gentle readers, they are in bloom right now!


I go, I go; look how I go,
Swifter than arrow from the Tartar's bow.

[*] It will feel good to get out of the rain!

[**] Making it the second ringing society that I am a member of, as I am also a life member of the Oxford University Society of Change Ringers (and the only person with an identifiable photograph on their home page!).

[***] The irony does not escape me that [ profile] cheshcat and I each co-own a house in the States... and yet we find ourselves renting our primary residence in Oxford.

[****] Similarly, I have never been on MySpace. I spend more than enough time online as it is, and that is not enough for me to keep up with my e-mail and LiveJournal. As such, I do not need additional online distractions, even those that I might enjoy (as opposed to things like Twitter, that I just find annoying). I may get myself a Dream Width account -- just because everybody seems to be migrating in that direction -- but that would be as far as I would be willing to go.

[*****] Somehow this particular partner has always had a way of presenting her demands in such a fashion that they came across as rather sexy, instead of whiny.

[******] Which will be the fourteenth theatrical production that I have seen, thus far, in 2009.

As mentioned earlier, I stayed for the full astronomy course this weekend, rather than just presenting my lecture and leaving. This allowed me to hear several interesting talks on topics that I do not usually encounter.

Two of these talks were on exoplanets -- or worlds outside of our solar system. In my previous post, I mentioned the talk by Dr. Suzanne Aigrain on New Insights from Transiting Exoplanets. In her talk, she discussed how we can work out the composition and atmosphere of exoplanets, which impressed the heck out of me.

The other talk on exoplanets was more general (titled, quite simply, as Exoplanets), and given by Prof. Hugh Jones. Overall, I found it to be a less interesting -- and less organised -- talk than Dr. Aigrain's. However, he did mention -- somewhat cryptically -- that we should keep our ears pealed... as there would be an exciting announcement coming on Tuesday.

Well, it is now Tuesday. So what was Prof. Jones hinting at?

Turns out, he was not exaggerating. The news is out, and can be read about in brief here.

Or, to be even more brief, just read on: Another planet comparable in size to Earth has -- for the first time -- been discovered! How cool is that??

For those who are unimpressed, please recall that, until 1995, the prospect of finding any planets outside our solar system was considered to be more fantasy than fact. Hundreds have now been located, by a variety of methods, but they are nearly all giants -- making them far easier to detect. The discovery of a planet comparable in size to Earth -- orbiting a star twenty light years away -- is an astounding discovery, indeed!

Still not impressed? Fine. Perhaps this will entertain you instead: Following in the footsteps of the wildly successful Talk Like A Pirate Day (Sep 19) and the more amusing Talk Like A Ninja Day ([*]), the day after tomorrow -- Apr 23 -- is Talk Like A Shakespeare Day. Zounds! To celebrate the birthday of the Bard, people are being encouraged to speak like an Elizabethan playwright! Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious Springtime by this son of Chicago...

[*] The concept of Talk Like A Ninja Day evolved as a response to Talk Like A Pirate Day. It was independently proposed by multiple sources, of which yours truly is one. As such, it is difficult to find which is the best day to celebrate, though Dec 05 may have the strongest claim.

The 31st annual Astronomy Weekend at Oxford University is now over. I am delighted to report that the physics-fu has been strong with me during this weekend.

Despite the fact that I was up on "Friday night" until four thirty in the morning, I did indeed finish my talk with hours to spare. Kudos to me! Also, kudos to all those who left comments on my last post, giving me some virtual company through the long night. In fact, I appreciate it enough that, more than offering mere kudos, I will retroactively give one hundred points to each person who left a message for me on Friday ngiht.

I must confess that I was somewhat nervous about presenting my lecture on Cosmic Rays: Messengers from the Extreme Universe. Last year's talk was so well received -- getting me invited back for a second year in a row! -- that I had concerns about being able to fill my own shoes. I need not have worried; immediately after my talk, one person came up to me and said that it was even better than last year. Nice! [ profile] cheshcat -- who had come to hear me speak -- commented that it was not as funny as last year's talk... but that was not really a surprise. Although I moments that incited laughter in this year's talk[*], I knew a priori that it would not be as funny. It is very easy to make fun of yourself when you are presenting a talk from a search with no results -- like my dark matter lecture -- and those easy inroads to humour are gone when you actually have significant findings to report.

Nevermind. I can live with being a littls less funny this year. The talk went well, and that was the main thing.[**] Indeed, I even had a few people asking me if I would come back again next year... and saying that they would request it on the comment sheet at the end of the course. Hmmm... is it possible to have physics groupies?

It is a tradition on Saturday afternoon of the astronomy weekend to have an option tour arranged for the attendees. Last year, the tour was of Green College. I sat out, as I wanted to rehearse my lecture. This year, it was of the Denys Wilkinson Physics Building... so I was roped into giving part of the tour. The crowd was broken into four groups, with each group taken to one of four places: The rooftop telescope, the electronics laboratory, a lecture by an astronomy graduate student... and the cryo-detector lab. Can you guess where I was based? The groups rotated so that all the attendees got to do see all four places. As a result, I ended up giving four tours -- each accompanied by a miniature dark matter talk -- of my old stomping grounds... and came face-to-face with my old nemesis: the Kelvinox-400! It seems that this was quite a hit as well -- I later got thanked by many people for the tour and, at the end of the weekend, the organiser[***] publicly commented from the stage that he had enjoyed getting to see the inside of my old lab. That was quite nice of him -- were I prone to blushing, I may have changed hue!

One extra bonus whilst in the cryo-detector lab was that I ran into JI, my old graduate student. He will be finishing up at Oxford in a few months and had talked to me in February about the T2K experiment. Knowing there was an post-doctoral opening at Stony Brook, in the group where I worked for my PhD, I encouraged him to apply. When he did, I wrote him a recommendation letter... and put in an informal word or two to the leader of the group, my thesis adviser. Turns out that he got the position... and has accepted it! Excellent! I think that he will be good for the Stony Brook group and they, in turn, will be good for him. It feels quite nice to be able to make such a match!

Speakers at the astronomy weekend are welcome to stick around to hear the other talks. Last year, I surprised the organiser by staying for all of the talks. Apparently, most speakers do not. This year, I did the same. I really don't understand why more speakers don't do this -- I learned some fascinating things! In particular, I was impressed by the talk on Recent Results from the Hubble Space Telescope[****] and also by the talk on detecting exoplanets via the transit method. I knew that, since the first discovery of exoplanets in 1995, the field had come a long way. However, I was blown away to learn that we can now figure out what the atmospheres and compositions are for exoplanets. Wow. Just... wow.

This evening, with the astronomy weekend behind me for [at least] another year, I went to St. Giles to ring bells for the Sunday evening services. Then I came home and had a lovely dinner with [ profile] cheshcat. Over dinner, she informed me that somebody had sent a text to our landline today. It came through as a call with the content being read by a computerised voice. Apparently, it was a silly cheese song. Hmmmmm... Who could have done such a thing? I have a hunch who might have been behind such a devious -- and successful -- plan to make us laugh... but I will not reveal my suspicions until they have been confirmed.

As the weekend begins to wind down, I may pick up the phone and ring some lovely people in the States. There are a few special persons that I have not spoken to in Far Too LongTM. Then I may play a game with [ profile] cheshcat to wind down before bed...

[*] Like when I used the nickname for the Higgs Boson (the so-called "God Particle") to introduce the nickname for the highest energy cosmic ray yet observed (the so-called "Oh My God! Particle").

[**] In response to a request from [ profile] blaisepascal, the slides for the talk can be found here. Alas, due to some large pictures within, the file is about 56 MB. Can it be made smaller? Of course! However, size was not really my priority writing it in the middle of the night before presenting...

[***] Who is a professor at the Open University, a former particle physics theorist, and a current astronomy... writing a textbook on general relativity. Not exactly a slouch in the achievement department.

[****] Mainly because it had, by far, the best photographs of the weekend!

Friday night. Just got back from the opening of the Oxford University Astronomy Weekend. Lots of familiar faces that remember me from last year. In just over twelve hours, I present my lecture for this year -- Recent Developments in Cosmic Rays.

The talk, which I estimate will be able forty slides, is just over half written. Oi! It is going to be a long night[*].

I am supposed to be a reasonably smart guy. You would think that, after all these years, I would know how to not stay up until stupid o'clock in the morning the night before giving a talk.

Ironically, last year I was nervous because I had never delivered a lecture to this sort of audience before, nor had I delivered a talk of any type at Oxford. This year I am nervous because last year went so amazingly well... and I find myself wondering if I can live up to my own example.

Ah, well. Time to press on. Last year, I finished writing by about two o'clock in the morning and managed to get five hours of sleep. Let's see if I can do the same tonight[**]...

ETA: Nearly one thirty in the morning now. Thirty-five slides down. Probably about six more to go. I won't be finished by two -- that much is certain. Still, I am also starting to feel good about this lecture, which is a very nice feeling. Also, I still have one more energy drink in reserve.

EFTA: Ten minutes to three now. Forty slides down. Three to go, I think. [ profile] cheshcat has been wonderful -- she fixed me a snack (cheese, humous, and crackers[***]) and surprised me by buying five energy drinks when I only requested two. So I still have three left in reserve. She has been taking terrific care of me. It makes me think fondly of when I was an undergraduate, fourteen years ago, and she would take similarly good care of me when I was up all night writing a paper -- then edit the paper when I was finished! With any luck, I will be done in an hour or so and get get four hours to sleep. The talk itself is either turning out better than I expected... or I am too tired to tell the difference. I think it is the former, though...

ESFTA: Four thirty in the morning. Finished. Forty-three slides. Whee! Time to sleep. Should be able to get nearly four hours if I wake up in time to listen to the talk before mine; five and a half if I do not. We shall see. All I need is rest (or caffeine) to get me through this and I should be alright. It is a good lecture.

[*] As I type this, my darling [ profile] cheshcat is taking a stroll to the corner store to pick me up a couple of cans of energy drink. I am loved.

[**] Any comments that you can make, gentle readers, would be greatly appreciated. Especially those of you in the States who are likely still awake. I may not have time to respond to them tonight, but they will bring a smile to my face as they break the monotony. If you truly have no idea what to say, just sing me songs of cheese.

[***] As we all know, cheese is love!

Hello, World!

I've been a terrible, terrible LiveJournaler of late. I know[*]. Life has been... complicated. I will try to catch the wide world up on my comings and goings sometime soon, as I know y'all have been waiting with baited breath. In the meantime, though, I have other matters pressing for my attention. Remember that Astronomy lecture on dark matter that I delivered last year at the Oxford University School of Continuing Education? Well, it was such a smashing success that I was invited back to present a talk on "Recent Developments in Cosmic Ray Astronomy" this coming weekend. Which is lovely and flattering... but also means that I need to write a talk on recent developments in cosmic ray astronomy post haste!

Whilst I may not have time to put together an update at the moment, I do have a hankering to play some games! In particular, I would very much like to assemble some people to play Betrayal at House on the Hill, using the spiffy new set that the exceedingly-awesome [ profile] tawneypup gave me for my birthday! Our games shelf grows ever larger, though, so other hits -- like Apples to Apples and Wise & Otherwise and Settlers of Catan, just to name a few -- are also possible!

I would love to bring all my excellent friends[**] here for gaming. Alas, I have been negligent in assembling the functional transporter. As such, only those who are on this side of the pond can reasonably expect to attend. For those lucky few, I present.... a poll!!!

[Poll #1383633]

Hope to see as many of you as possible sometime soon for a night of terror day of fun and gaming!

[*] Anybody interested in administering suitable punishments can line up in the queue now. (Yes, US English and UK English in one sentence -- don't want anyone to feel left out!)

[**] And even a few of the "eh, they're alright" ones!

Long time readers of this journal will be aware that travelogues are not exactly an area where I shine. When I do write them, they are full of detail and pictures![*] However, all too often I never end up writing a memorable account for an adventure and too many trips (e.g., Ireland, the second half of my time in Rome) never get the write-up that they deserve.

Two weeks ago, [ profile] cheshcat and I took a four day trip to Cornwall and Devon, where we celebrated our fourteenth anniversary. In a few hours, we leave Oxford again for another four day trip on this bank holiday weekend. If I am ever going to write a travelogue for the anniversary trip, it really needs to be now.

Of our four days, we spent the first two and a half in Cornwall and the remaining day and a half in Devon. In Cornwall, we started with a visit to The Eden Project. Simply put, the Eden Project is the largest greenhouse in the world. It was constructed in an old clay pit and, at its heart, consists of three biomes, two of which -- the Rainforest Biome and the Mediterranean Biome -- are covered in enormous domes. Since the first day of our trip was the rainy day, we decided that this would be a good place to begin. We were not mistaken! Eden is quite an impressive site! We started in "The Core", which is the education centre, then spent the afternoon wandering about the biomes. It was all magnificent, though I think that the indoor waterfall in the Rainforest Biome might have been my favourite part. I am, after all, such a water elemental!

The weather on the second day was much better, so we paid a visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan. The gardens were originally built over four hundred years ago, when the estate was the residence of the Tremayne family. However, most of the twenty-two gardeners died whilst fighting in the First World War... and the garden fell into a state of neglect afterward. A couple of decades ago, they were restored to glory and are now quite a splendid way to spent a sunny summer day!

Of course, [ profile] cheshcat and I did more than just visit gardens while we were in Cornwall. We did quite a bit of driving about, especially when the sun was shining, to admire the landscape, the coast, and the beach. We also did a bit of random exploring, diverting from our path when something interesting (or interesting sounding) caught our attention. This led us on little side adventures through villages with names like "Gweek" and -- in Devon -- "Crapstone".

Being in England's SouthWest peninsula, I also could not resist making trips to Lizard Point and Land's End. Lizard Point is the most Southerly point in Great Britain... though it is still about thirty-nine miles North of the most Northerly point in the contiguous United States. Land's End is the most Westerly point in England... though not in all of Great Britain -- Scotland extends twenty-two miles further West. Although many (most?) of my friends may not care about such geographical silliness, longtime readers of this journal -- or anyone who knows me well -- should not be surprised! After all, on our anniversary three years ago, [ profile] cheshcat and I paid a visit to the supposed "Southernmost Point in the Continental USA" whilst we were visiting Key West.

When we arrived at Lizard Point, it was getting close to dusk and it was raining... so [ profile] cheshcat and I were the only people there. I was seized by a bout of mania when I realised that I was THE most Southerly person in ALL of Great Britain! If you have ever played Four Square with me, you can imagine what this looked and sounded like. There is also a picture that [ profile] cheshcat took behind the cut below. During our visit to Land's End, the weather was much better and shared quite a delicious dinner in the most Westerly restaurant in England, watching as darkness fell over this small island.

The last thing that we did in Cornwall was visit the Tamar Otter Sanctuary & Wildlife Park. This is the project that can be credited with saving the otter from extinction in Great Britain. Although they no longer need to breed otters for conservation reasons, they still have a goodly number of these cute little guys on-site. We watched them play and get fed, then we wandered through the Wildlife Park, feeding deer and [successfully] seeking out a waterfall. Finally, we fed ourselves before moving on to the Devon part of our trip.

In Devon, we drove about Dartmoor Forest, looking for interesting views and picturesque villages. We were not disappointed! At Postbridge, we found a fourteenth century Clapper Bridge -- of course, I had to park the car and cross it on foot! We also made a point of searching for neolithic stones. Although I have been to Avebury four times and Stonehenge six, it has been quite some time since [ profile] cheshcat and I visited any new ancient Stones. I believe that our trip to the Castlerigg Stone Circle in the Lake District during our May 2007 trip was the last time. So we hunted out the Spinsters Rock, an arrangement of four Stones -- about five thousand years old -- that marked a pre-historic burial mound.

The final day of our trip -- our actual anniversary -- was spent mainly in Devon, with a little time in Somerset. We began at Exeter Cathedral, founded in 1050. At this point, I have been to a fair number of English Cathedrals -- eight, I believe -- and have started to consider myself something of an amateur connoisseur. By my standards, Exeter Cathedral was very nice... but not overly spectacular. The bits that most caught my attention were:
  • The vaulted ceiling, which is the longest in England.
  • The canopy over the Bishop's throne. Built between 1313 and 1316 by Thomas of Whitney[**] -- without the use of a single nail! -- it has the largest canopy in Britain. During the Second World War, this wonderful piece of fourteenth century woodwork was preserved by disassembling it and moving it elsewhere for safekeeping.
  • Not one, but two colleges of Oxford University came from Exeter. Bishop William Stapeldon founded Stapeldon College, now known as Exeter College in 1314. Meanwhile, two hundred years later, Bishop Hugh Oldham co-founded Corpus Christi College in 1517.
  • The astronomical clock, because it is old and cool!
  • A long woven cushion that tells the history of the cathedral. Although modern -- from the late 1980s -- it is still an impressive accomplishment!

Upon leaving Exeter Cathedral, [ profile] cheshcat and I headed to Exmoor National Park, which we proceeded to explore in much the same way that we had done with Dartmoor on the previous day. We had picked the right time of year to visit Dartmoor and Exmoor -- the purple heather was blooming in both parks, much as it had been when we explored the North York Moors last August. We drove North through the forest, then West along the coastline -- stopping whenever a nifty village or a beautiful view caught our collective eye. It rained lightly from time to time and, as a result, we were treated to rainbows on no fewer than four occasions! One of these rainbows was the largest that I have ever seen, and the full hemi-circle of the arch was visible from our vantage point! We drove up the Porlock Hill and made our way to Lynmouth, where we stopped to watch the setting of the sun and then got ourselves a nice dinner in the village before making our way back to Oxford and Skullcrusher Mountain.

One would think that this would mark the end of a very enjoyable trip... but not quite. The drive home took place in the dark and, as chance would have it, less than twenty-four hours after the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Thus, our return journey was punctuated every now and then by a shooting star zipping by, interrupting whatever conversation that [ profile] cheshcat and I were having at the time. Definitely not a bad way to end a long weekend!

For those who have read this far, there are pictures from our trip beneath the cut. )

[*] For a recent example, see how much I was able to write about the short (day and a half) trip to Belvoir and Lincoln last month.

[**] Which, apropos to nothing, is right near Oxford!

So I think that I am having a good week -- a really good week! Only trouble is, I just may be a tad too busy and too tired to be sure!

Here are selected highlights, one for each day:

Monday: As already mentioned, I did really well on the ice rink during my skating lesson -- thanks, in large part, to the lovely [ profile] danaeris for her private help!

Tuesday: Remember that invited lecture that I gave, back in April for the "Dark Side of Astronomy" course at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education? Remember how I said that it went "extremely well"? Apparently, I was not practicing the art of self-delusion... because the coordinator of the OUDCE's annual Astronomy Weekend invited me back to speak at next year's event -- this time on cosmic rays.

Wednesday: I was supposed to ring at Saint Cross. Really I was! However, on Tuesday evening, the opportunity arose to procure excellent seats to the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Merchant of Venice. Thus, Wednesday evening found [ profile] cheshcat and I piled into Peter and making our way back to Stratford-on-Avon. As one would expect for RSC, the production was very good. Maybe not quite as excellent as the History Cycle... but those are big shoes to fill! I have not seen this play before -- so now I have seen twenty-two of Shakespeare's plays performed on the stage, with fifteen to go. It is a very... interesting... play to watch in the current era. In particular, I refer to its unapologetic racism and -- even more so -- the religious discrimination that is so central to the plot. With the exception of Bassanio, I don't think that any of the characters were likable... but my sympathies really do lie with the so-called "villain" of the piece, Shylock! As for the oft-heard claim I have heard about how Shakespeare wrote no strong women -- other than, arguably, the Lady Macbeth -- all I have to say is this: See The Merchant of Venice! Portia is undeniably the strongest character in the entire play (though Shylock comes in as a close second).

Thursday: I have a job!!! Okay, yes, I already had a job. But my current contract ends in October and, due to the major financial crisis afflicting my field (see this entry for details), there will be no chance of renewing it. Once my contact ends, the position will cease to exist for lack of funding -- I will not be renewed and there will be no new post-doc to take my place. However, I now have a job lined up for when my contract ends! And it keeps me in the worlds of academia and particle physics! This is a Very Good Thing, indeed! More details later perhaps... but this really has been a ridiculously busy week -- even by my usual standards -- and I have much to do before I can sleep.

Oh! Lest I forget: Since there have been several requests, expect kitten pictures later...
Oh, wait. It is Sunday! And I don't think that it could be properly described as a "lazy Sunday", either. To summarise, here is what I have done so far today:
  1. Finished the novel that I was reading
  2. Went to the final two lectures (and the final lunch) in the Astronomy Weekend
  3. Took a nine mile walk with C&M
  4. Rang my first ever quarter peal
  5. Swam a mile
Not a bad day at all! Here are the details )

Finally, just for fun, there is one last detail from today. Courtesy of [ profile] cheshcat, here is the view from the Skullcrusher Mountain this morning:

Footnotes )

It is 10:30pm. I just got back to my office, after spending the day at the Saturday sessions of Dark Side of Astronomy weekend course, hosted by the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. Longtime readers of this journal may recall that I was contacted last May and asked to deliver a lecture for the class.

Jump back in time several hours, to about 4 o'clock. )

Now jump forward an hour and a half. )
Back in the office now -- yes, it is an exciting Friday night, I know!

Just got in a little while ago from the opening session of the Dark Side of Astronomy weekend. The introductory talk was interesting, even though it did not teach me much that was new in the way of physics or astronomy. I did learn what my audience will be like and what level I should be speaking to. And I learned that the astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard had really lived a fascinating life! (Previously, all I had known about him was his star and his catalogue of dark clouds)

Of course, I wouldn't be me if I finished writing a talk earlier than the night before I had to give it. Thankfully, I am close to finished... which means that I will sleep tonight. Probably. Just another couple of hours and it should be done. Anyone who finds themselves near a computer in the next few hours, please feel free to leave some sort of amusing comment to entertain me as I slog along. It will mean revealing yourself to be having as uneventful a Friday night as the one that I am currently experiencing, but the effort will be appreciated.

Actually, as talks go, I have had fun writing this one. If there is interest -- and last year, there was enough to pressure me onto the programme when I had no intention of doing anything -- maybe I will show it at P**T*** in October.

Meanwhile, let me just wish a very happy birthday to the charming [ profile] ms_redcat before I get back to work! Thus ends the few weeks of each year when we are the same age. I hope that you have a wonderful one, sweetie -- hard to believe I've known you for nearly ten years now!
First and foremost, I want to thank everyone who replied to yesterday's post regarding our current spate of "highly unusual" cat medical problems. I won't pretend that everything is somehow magically resolved yet -- or, indeed, that I know anything more than I did yesterday -- but the moral support is much appreciated during this difficult time.

Continuing the cat medical drama, I brought Foxy (see icon) to the vet this morning. The good news is that she has not lost any more weight in the past six days. As she currently weighs in at a mere 5.9 pounds, she does not have much left to lose! It is unclear if her weight has stabilised -- she lost half a pound in the eleven days prior to that -- or if this is just a lull. It is also unclear what is wrong with her. The purpose of this vet visit was to have more blood drawn for further testing. Hopefully we will have some news by Friday.

Meanwhile, I have more trips to Stratford-upon-Avon to distract me from all the uncertainty and waiting. [ profile] cheshcat and I drove up there last night to see Henry VI, part one (The War With France). In short, Joan of Arc (with a little help from her demon friends) helps the French to start evicting the English from France while, back home, the War of the Roses begins. Once more, RSC put on an excellent production! Well done!! I really quite like this ensemble... and, having seen most of the plays now, it is quite interesting to see the various roles that different actors take on. For instance, the actors playing Talbot and his son in 1H6 were the same ones who played Northumberland and Hotspur (another father/son pair) in R2 and 1H4. It is also interesting to see Richard Plantagenet make such disparaging remarks about Henry IV... as the same actor playing Richard P. now played Henry IV several plays ago. We return to Stratford tonight to see Henry VI, part two (England's Fall).

Finally, as an announcement to those who don't know and a reminder to those who do, I should mention that there will be a total lunar eclipse tonight. For those friends in my home time zone (the East Coast of the United States), the partial eclipse (i.e., the umbral phase) begins at 8:43pm and totality commences at 10:01pm. Totality ends at 10:52pm, and the umbral phase concludes at 12:09am. Chicagoans should subtract one hour from all these times. Friends on this side of the pond should add five hours[*]. That makes for a bit of a late night... but this will be the last time that a total lunar eclipse will be fully visible in Great Britain for another seven years -- the next one will be on 28 September 2015 -- so it is worth losing a little sleep over. Assuming, of course, that the clouds relent to the point where anything is visible. If they do, don't expect to hear anything from me tomorrow morning...

[*] So, here in Britian, the umbral phase begins at 1:43am, totality begins at 3:01am and ends at 3:52am, and the umbral phase wraps up at 5:09am.

I've long held that the reward for doing good work is more work. This explains why it is 6am and I am still at the University, sitting in the lab and taking data with the cryostat. I have been here since midnight and expect to be here for about another four hours. Not to sound like Dante Hicks, but originally I hadn't even planned to be here today. I get thirty vacation days per year -- and have used a negative number so far in 2007 once one factors in the weekends and holidays that I have worked. Thus, it seemed perfectly reasonable to use a vacation day today to recover after yesterday's all-nighter at Stonehenge. However, with the cryostat successfully cooled, there are measurements that need to be made... some of which require no one else to be using the lab, to minimize vibration. So here I am, making those measurements. With any luck, I'll be done by 10am and can get some sleep. Whee!

As for Stonehenge... well, it was intense and fantastic! Beyond words, really, but I'll try. We arrived just before sunset, as the Druids were starting a ritual within the Stone circle. Then the drumming and dancing began. I've danced at a drum circle before, of course... but never while standing on top of an ancient sarsen stone! I made a short video (45 seconds, 11 MB) early in the evening, just after sunset, that can be seen here.

As the night went on, folks continued to arrive, and it is estimated that there were 20,000 people who came to the Stones for the Solstice. I have now touched every Stone that is in contact with the ground at Stonehenge and [ profile] cheshcat has shared an individual blessing with each of them, just as she did last year with the Stones at Avebury. Amazingly enough, the sarsen Stones feel spongy! When you press on them with your palm, you can feel them give way gently underneath! Although many of the people were just there to party and get drunk, high, & shroomed out of their minds, we did talk to a lot of very nice and interesting people -- including some folks from Colorado who had flown over specifically for this event -- and got contact info from a couple of people who live in London.

It was a clear night, with great views of the stars, Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon. Check out this picture I took of the Moon:

Sunset was at 9:26pm and sunrise was at 4:58am, but there were long twilights, lasting at least an hour and a half. So there were less than four hours of true darkness between the twilights, lasting from about 11:15pm until about 2:45am. When the sky began to lighten again, we found a spot near the Eastern edge of the circle to watch from. Sitting against one of the sarsens, I learned that they like my hair. Every time I leaned forward, moving away from the Stone, my hair would stick to it and get held behind!

The clouds had moved in, and we received a light sprinkle, by the time the sun rose. However, thanks to a break in the clouds, Sol did make a cameo appearance which was cheered and appreciated by all. The Druids formed a torchlight procession around the circle as the sun came up. Not long after sunrise, there was a news photograph taken for CNN in which I can be seen in the background, standing between two sarsens slightly to the left of centre. The picture was brought to my attention by [ profile] resourceress and the URL for it is:

It is slightly odd to see a news photograph of me without law enforcement monitoring or pursuing me. I have been in a number of news publications before -- both in print and online (e.g., the New York Times, Yahoo! News, and several Georgia papers) -- but never without law enforcement sharing the "spotlight". Speaking of law enforcement and Stonehenge... it is quite nice that English Heritage spends the time and money to organize this free event each year since 1999. However, from 1972 to 1984, there used to be a three week festival at Stonehenge, beginning at the start of June and lasting until the Solstice. In 1985, Thatcher and Company decided to put an end to it all, which led to the atrocious police action known as the Battle of the Beanfield. Doesn't matter where you go -- I hate cops!

Anyway, it was an amazing night... and we'll probably do it again next year. Anybody want to come along? Just let us know...
anarchist_nomad: (Atum -- Sol -- Ra -- Sun)
( Jun. 18th, 2007 11:14 pm)
It is 11:15pm. I cycled home from work forty-five minutes ago, with the shimmer of twilight still in the air. On my way, I caught a glimpse of the three day old moon smiling at Venus in the Western sky. Upon arriving at Skullcrusher Mountain, I did not go inside; instead, I summoned [ profile] cheshcat to join me so that we could take a walk and enjoy the view of Moon and Venus in the 11pm twilight. Damn, but life is good.

Right now, so close to the solstice, sunset in Oxford comes at 9:27pm. I am basking in the abundance of light, and the joy of riding home[*] in such beauty after a productive day at work. Today, JI and I worked a twelve hour day, but we managed to pre-cool the K-400 cryostat with liquid nitrogen and then cool it with liquid helium all in the same day. First time we've done this -- that part of the process used to take two days. We're getting better all the time. And, in between doing all this, I still had time to take an ice cream break with [ profile] cheshcat at G&D's this evening. And I had a good conversation with my lawyer about the new settlement offer that New York City has just made in my suit over being wrongfully arrested at the RNC.

I know, it really isn't a very exciting day -- doesn't make for a great story. But there's something about topping off a fulfilling day by taking a walk with my beloved and watching her smile that just fills me with a great feeling of contentment[**]. I promise to try to write soon about more interesting things, like the OUP summer ball on Saturday night or my Sunday outing in London with LS.

[*] Note to [ profile] resourceress: As the terror continues to fade, I am indeed getting enjoyment out of using my [as-yet unnamed] bicycle as my primary means of local transportation.

[**] Coming home to three loving kitties immediately afterward does not hurt any, either!
First things first: Once again, just after sunset tonight, look to the Western sky. The two day old sliver of a crescent moon returns to hovering nearby Venus. Very pretty! I am amazed that the clouds of England have permitted me to see the one and two day old moons thusly for two months running!

That duty tended to, here is what I have been up to lately:

Last night, after a yummy dinner prepared by the marvelous [ profile] cheshcat, I was off for a dip at the Ferry Sports Centre. Swam another mile, which feels wonderful. I am amazed to find that I can already see a difference in my arms from these workouts. Have to remember to stretch more, though. When I last swam regularly (1993 - 1999), I never stretched and, thus, lost much flexibility.

Today has been a very pleasant day. The weather is phenomenal -- warm with clear skies -- making every moment I spend outside a joy. At lunchtime, I attended a meeting of the PGJCC. This god-awful acronym -- don't even try to pronounce it! -- stands for the "Post-Graduate Joint Consultative Committee." Essentially, it is a council that responds to the concerns of graduate students and post-docs here in the Oxford Physics Department. There are six graduate student members, one to represent the students at each of the six sub-departments, and there are two post-doc members, each representing the post-docs at three of the sub-departments. That's right -- yours truly represents the post-docs of Particle Physics, Astrophysics, and Theoretical Physics. Ooooh, I can feel the power going to my head already! Actually, the meeting was pretty good, and I brought up issues that have been of concern to me since starting my post-doc here. Foremost of which was the isolation that we have from each other -- heck, I don't even know the vast majority of the people I am supposed to represent! Fermilab, for all its bureaucratic flaws, did a good job of organizing interaction time for its post-docs, and I made suggestions based on my experiences there.

Other than the meeting, work is going pretty well, too. After finishing some electronics work on the cryostat, we mounted an old proto-type detector onto the experimental plate of the Kelvinox-400. When next we cool down, I should actually be able to make some measurements. So things are proceeding apace... and are very exciting! Wish I could say more about where this is all heading, but it is best not to do so in a public forum. Those of you who have requested private e-mail can probably expect something on this topic in a couple of weeks time.

In the evening, I crossed the road to get to a bell ringing lesson at St. Giles. I ascended into the bell chamber for only the second time, and watched the #5 being tied so that it would be silent during my lesson. I need to take a picture of the actual bells; those old things ave quite a beauty to them! The process of tying a bell is different from what I would have expected. I'm sure that [ profile] resourceress -- rope-goddess that she is -- would have an easy time of it! After practicing on #5 for the better part of an hour, I ascended again and I untied the bell so that it would sound during practice.

Over the course of the practice, I rang several bells. I rang rounds and called changes, as well as practicing my dodging. However, I spent a very sizable part of the practice ringing on the tenor -- usually covering as the lower five or six bells rang a method. I am starting to feel a fair bit of affection for the tenor. This is the oldest bell in the tower, as well as the heaviest. It was cast in 1632 and bears the inscription "FEARE GOD HONAR THE KING" on it. It is an F-sharp bell[*] and has a mass of 13 cwt (or "hundredweight"). To translate units, that is 1456 pounds of bell that I was swinging about less than an hour ago! Being so heavy, it is a challenging bell to control. I don't always have it right, but I can say that it feels so fantastic when I hit my groove and it all flows smoothly! Alas, I suspect that my affection for the tenor is likely to mean little to her; with a life so much longer than mine, I must only be a flash in the pan -- just another in a very long line of lovers!

By the way, for anyone who is interested, the bellringing webpage for St. Giles church can be found a picture of the ringing chamber can be found here. There is also a picture taken inside of the ringing chamber, though it is not terribly impressive, I'm afraid! Especially since you cannot see the horrendous patchwork carpet!

Off to Skullcrusher Mountain now, to spend a little time with my beloved [ profile] cheshcat before the evening is out...

[*] There is a very, very obscure Green Lantern reference here. I will be extraordinarily impressed if anyone other than [ profile] ashnistrike knows what it is.

anarchist_nomad: (Guess who?)
( Mar. 21st, 2007 07:28 pm)
Just a bunch or random thoughts from inside my head:
  • Just after sunset tonight, look to the Western sky[*]. The two day old sliver of a crescent moon is hovering nearby Venus. Very pretty![**] Trust me, you'll like it! Clouds permitting, of course...

  • Yet another culinary advantage to living in the United Kingdom is Galaxy Minstrels. Picture M&Ms done right. Damn, but these things are good! Real Cadbury chocolate is another advantage on the chocolate front, and this is the time of year when their creme eggs are plentiful. Okay, ever since New Years is the time of year when their creme eggs are plentiful... but you get the idea. We have real cheese over here in Europe, too[***].

  • Latest reading material -- besides the stack of comic books that [ profile] cheshcat brought back from the States! -- is The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers. It is a murder mystery with a large theme of campanology[****] permeating the story. I am glad that I waited to read this, as my increased knowledge of bell ringing gives me a greater appreciation for what is going on in the book. Still don't understand all the terms being used, but I get most of them. Next up on the reading list is a return to Shakespeare, with King Richard II kicking off the War of the Roses saga.

  • I get paid once per month, on the pen-ultimate working day of each month. When I received my February paycheck, I was surprised to see that it was slightly higher than I had expected. Apparently, I got a 1% raise, effective February 1st. Not sure why -- annual raises are given in October and I'd imagine a cost-of-living adjustment would be more likely to happen with the start of the fiscal year on April 1st, rather than in February. Still, with the ridiculously high cost of living in Oxford, I will take it. With that raise, the total increase in my salary during my first ten months on this job is 102/3%. Not too shabby. If one converts to dollars, thus factoring in the rise in value of the pound sterling versus the dollar, that raise jumps to 14.3% over what I was earning one year ago at Fermilab; however, that is mainly just a calculation for the sake of amusement. Whereas extra pounds in my pocket can actually help us get by...

  • Hilary Term ended two weeks ago, so my weeknights are much more open now. No OUSCR practices and maybe no board game club right now. I should review my long "to-do" list, as well as the list of goals for 2007. I should be able to find something productive to do with that extra evening time. Of course, my upcoming trip to Italy will eat up a couple of the out-of-term weeks, but I should still be able to scratch a few items off my lists before Trinity Term begins in late April.
And that's all the randomness we have time for tonight...

[*] No, you won't find me there. Sorry.
[**] Not quite as pretty as the one day old moon was last night, but I didn't post about it then. Sue me.
[***] Though, in the interest of fairness, I should say that I have not had good Chinese food -- or any Mexican food -- since leaving the States.
[****] That's fancy talk for English church bell ringing.

Flew back to the land of the fording oxen last night. Of course, it's been nearly a year since I moved here and I've yet to see a single ox in Oxford. Ah, well -- we all have our crosses to ox bear.

Anyway, this is a long and rambling entry, so I'll be kind and break it up into pieces which can be put behind cuts:

Passport )

Review of Richard III )

Moon )

Cats and Bats )

Physics )

Bells )

And I think that is all the news that is fit to print today.
And, by the way, Happy Perihelion, everybody!

It might not feel like it if you step outside but -- despite the newness of this year -- you are now closer to the sun that you will be for the rest of 2007... Enjoy!
anarchist_nomad: (Guess who?)
( Nov. 26th, 2006 05:17 pm)
Back in Oxford now. Leaving for Italy tomorrow morning.

Meanwhile... Friday afternoon, [ profile] cheshcat and I went to London. We walked down Oxford Street, looking at the Christmas lights and the store window displays. The windows for the Selfridges building were particularly interesting, telling a weird conglomeration of fairy tales. Not exactly Into the Woods in terms of brilliance, but still cute. Eventually, we met up with DL and got dinner, sitting outside at an Italian restaurant. Ignoring all implications of global warming, it was nice to be able to eat dinner outside in late November! (Yes, I could do this regularly when I lived in Phoenix... but London isn't in Arizona)

Saturday, we spent the day at D&J's flat, where they hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for expatriated US-ians living in London and vicinity. It was a nice dinner party, with about nine people in attendance -- seven US expats, one Brit (partnered to an expat), and one Czech. As usual, I find that Thanksgiving dinner is one of the hardest times to be a vegetarian, but I held up. JL was particularly impressive in that she hosted the party and was required to periodically join phone conferences for her job. She executed the two rather seamlessly. About half the attendees are regular posters on the Daily Kos, which is where DL met them. Thus, it is not terribly surprising that the conversation was highly political in scope. Nonetheless, it was all in a friendly tone, with frequent breaks to tell stories, jokes, et cetera. Good food, good conversation, good company. All of which made for an excellent combination. However, one of my favourite parts of the evening was when I took a break to go stand out on the balcony, which overlooks the Limehouse basin. The night was mild -- following two bouts of torrential rain during the day -- and the water was calm and peaceful. In the not-very-distant distance, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf shone brightly. And, overhead, the sky had cleared, making some of the brighter stars and constellations visible. So, despite all the pleasant ruckus going on inside the flat, one of the highlights of the evening, for me, were the ten minutes that I spent by myself outside, enjoying the peaceful blend of water, city lights, autumn breeze, and stars.

This morning, I woke up early (8:50am) and hopped a coach back to Oxford, arriving just in time for lunch with the St. Giles bell ringers. It was a good and festive lunch, with about seventeen people attending. We broke up around 2:30pm and I have been in the office since then, tending to various and sundry. In a little while, I will go back to St. Giles to ring for the evening services.

Speaking of ringing, there was one very important detail that I left out of my previous entry. In addition to all the other nifty parts of this week's lesson, I also got my first instruction on how to ring a bell up and down. The bells that we ring are upside-down, thus enabling the full range of motion to be realized. However, for safety purposes, the bells are stored rightside-up. To "ring a bell up" is to move it to the upside-down position and "to ring a bell down" is exactly the opposite. I believe that it is the last major technical skill that I need to learn, and I had my first try at it -- with assistance -- this past Thursday. I definitely need much more practice, but I am happy to begin learning that skill.

After ringing at the church in about half an hour, the rest of the evening will be spent preparing for my trip to Italy. I leave in the morning and will remain there for two weeks. However, I will have internet access, as well as my mobile phone... so I should be quite contactable during that time (though the phone clearly will not work when I am in the underground laboratory).
As predicted at the end of the previous entry, I finished up Tuesday by hiking a couple of miles in light drizzle at the Morton Arboretum -- taking breaks to read comic books when the rain let up -- then lost to [ profile] gyades in a game of GO.

Wednesday morning, I left my most recent life (in Illinois) and re-entered the one before it (in Arizona). Yes, that's right: I opted to spend the Summer Solstice in one of the hottest regions of the country. [ profile] cheshcat picked me up at Sky Harbor and we went to get lunch with one of her colleagues. Although I came back here frequently -- nearly once a month -- when I first moved away in September 2003, I have not been back for almost a full year.

I miss the desert very much; I liked living here. During the two years that I lived here -- from mid-2001 to mid-2003 -- the life that I put together was not as complete as the roots that I have laid down in the Chicago area. I did not own a house here. Most of my friends were from the Anarchist community, as opposed to the wide range of people (Anarchist, physicist, polyamorous, sci-fi, Pagan, etc.) that I know in Illinois. I did not even have a job locally. Nonetheless, it was a pretty good life. I got my feet wet doing formal Anarchist organizing here. I swam regularly. I organized monthly star parties and did a good deal of private observing on my own or with [ profile] cheshcat. That's the advantage of perpetually clear skies. And, of course, we rescued our four baby kitties here so that they could be born in our bathtub instead of the harsh, hot outdoors.

Yesterday evening, I went to watch [ profile] cheshcat teach her summer course. This is a tradition that has been in place for all eight years that she has been teaching. For every course that she teaches, I sit in on one of the classes. This is how I know, first hand, that she is such an excellent teacher! In fact, watching her teach last night is the main motivator for this two-day trip to Arizona. And, as usual, she did remarkably well.

After class ended, I took the car and drove about forty miles North of the city to Four Peaks Road, a dirt road partially up in the desert mountains. There I met [ profile] winewiskeywomen and two other people from the Phoenix Anarchist community for a small star party. Just like old times! It was good to see [ profile] winewiskeywomen again, and great to be out in the desert night air, under a clear sky full of stars. It had definitely been too long since I last did this, probably two and a half years. We chatted and caught up on events while watching Jupiter and its four major moons, while resolving double stars like Alcor & Mizar, while zooming in on clusters, and while gazing sans telescope or binoculars at the Milky Way. Overall, a very pleasant evening!

Now then... time to grab a good book and then I am off to the swimming pool!


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