Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Quo Vadis, Australia?

About half of my time over the past three months, was spent back at the good old Parkes radio observatory. As you all know, I spent many a waking hour in that outpost of science, trying to push back the frontiers of human knowledge. It has been well over 18 months since my last visit, though, so I noticed an accumulated backlog of changes upon my return, several of which I found a bit silly and exaggerated, but more on that in a moment.

Upon my return home after my first recent trip, back in May, I filled in the observer's report, pointing out which recent changes were weird or just plain silly. However, as I generally do when asked to provide feedback, I wrote the feedback, proofread it and decided it wasn't worth the trouble, so it was scrapped before being brought to anyone's attention. Yet, this time, I wasn't getting away with it. Upon my return in June, I was kindly asked to put in an observer's report for my last trip -- which I clearly hadn't done. Once asked in such a clear and direct way, I couldn't help but bring the following to the attention of the Parkes (and general ATNF) staff and management:

    I am a bit mystified by the increase in safety-related paranoia, though. In (European) cities I'm typically a fan of bike helmets but between the quarters and the tower? Really? That's just a bad joke. Also, I'm not quite sure why after all these years we have to switch to the impractical tiny plastic cups of spreads (Vegemite, Jams and peanut butter; in fact, ketchup as well) instead of the good old jars. Have people's immune systems really changed that much since the end of last century?

Normally, no matter how inflammatory your remarks are, you're hardly ever likely to get a response because either the comments are too lame to warrant response or they're too harsh to be taken seriously. Again, this time I wasn't getting away with it -- somehow, somewhere something resonated with some people, even though officially no one seemed to agree with me.

Now before we go on, let me clarify my point to those less acquainted with the Parkes observatory. It consists of the actual radio telescope (where you spend most of your time as an astronomer), with an administration and support building right beside it. Then there is a straight road of 1 km length, at the end of which is the quarters and the gate to the outside world:
The quarters are where a minority of the staff, as well as most (if not all) astronomers have their lunch; and it's where the astronomers spend the remaining part of their time. Given that the "Parkes Staff" sheet has 30 people on it and that most of these are brought to work in a minibus, it's easy to see that there really isn't much traffic on this straight road, especially if you discount the morning "rush" around 08:00 and the evening "rush" around 16:00. Now I admit this is not a broad road and at times (as in the picture) shadows worsen the seeing, but you have an entire kilometre to notice anything heading your way and to move aside (there's plenty of room on either side of the road to get to if you're really worried about getting hit). Moreover, even if something were to happen, you're always less than 500 m away from help. To me, who grew up riding without helmet less than two metres away from trucks doing 70km/h, this looks like something very close to the safest type of road you can get.

I know this in itself does not warrant a complaint -- which is partly why initially I didn't submit my report at all. But to me, it seems to fit in with a wider sociological shift that I do have problems with: the shift towards safety-related paranoia.

Within a week, I've had rather serious conversations with two different people in ATNF management, who happened to come through Parkes recently. Neither of them seemed to question the need for a bike helmet on a perfectly safe road in the least. They did take my comments seriously, though, because as one of them told me "I did propose [following your comments] to have big jars of Vegemite in the future. And I was a bit worried about us providing peanut butter because that stuff can kill people." (Or words to that effect.) So this is what my comments have come to: soon there will be no peanut butter on ATNF sites. While it is of course true that some fraction of people is hyper-allergic to peanuts and their derivatives, it is instructive to note that the Wikipedia section on prevalence of peanut allergy, uses the phrase "Mass Psychogenic Illness", continuing to point out that in the USA "about 150 people die annually from serious allergic food reactions. That’s the same number of people killed by bee stings and lightning strikes combined. About 10,000 children are hospitalized annually with traumatic brain injuries from sports, 2,000 children drown each year, and about 1,300 die in gun accidents" (This text originally comes from the New York Times and the original article can be found here.) Furthermore, the Wikipedia page links to an article in the British Medical Journal (nowadays BMJ), which states that: "Eight children younger than 16 died from food allergy between 1990 and 2000 in the UK [...] Milk caused four of the deaths and no child younger than 13 died from eating peanuts." (Original article here.)

What is particularly fascinating about this, is that while all these rules are put in place, the response to a big brown snake near the footpath leading away from the tower, was this:
Until a while later the local snake expert (a local technician, as it turns out), put his head down the hole in which the snake took refuge, saying "ah yeah, I can see it, it's right there", subsequently catching it (not bare-handed, luckily) and releasing it back into the wild a few hundred metres away. (You can see some of the catch on this Facebook video, though in admittedly low quality.)

Now, to be honest, as much as brown snakes (even little ones) are deadly and something us foreigners are typically not used to dealing with (while I know exactly what to do in case of a bike accident. After all, I've been there before.), I do think this sign is enough: it tells us there's a snake, so look out and don't do something stupid. Be careful. What more needs to be said? Yet, in a country speckled with flashy orange or fluorescent yellow signs warning us that the floor would be "slippery when wet", I wonder how long it will take for the safety-paranoia to reach its logical conclusion and label all doors with signs reminding us to "open door before attempting to walk through" (I'm not kidding you, someone actually walked through a glass door at the ATNF and had to spend a day in hospital to recover from all the glass cuts). Or even better: since we're so worried about the well-being of our staff and visitors, why don't we require them to wear diapers at all times, because they might -- God forbid -- wet themselves accidentally, which could cause a bad rash. Or safer still: why aren't we all put in straightjackets just to make sure we don't pick our nose?

My point is that you can take everything too far. When someone refuses to wear a seatbelt (in the back or elsewhere), I think they're being silly and irresponsible, but that doesn't mean we have to look out for every possible tiny little thing that might hurt us -- or someone, possibly, somehow, some day. Surely there's a middle ground and we can all just man up and be sensible. After all, we didn't use to be taken care of quite so much. Remember that not that much time has passed since Australia's population was mostly consistent of military and poor souls who were shipped here in the worst of conditions, in the dirty and disease-infested cargo holds of bulk transport ships; since the original Australian settlers went into the wild unattended, without really knowing what they were doing. Since the immigrant Westerners savagely fought and killed off the native Aborigines and lived a life in the bush, by himself, without believing in, or paying attention to, the government or its henchmen.

I don't mean we should go back to those days of high infant mortality and lawlessness, but I do find it striking that within a century the country has made such a dramatic shift which, in a way, seems immature and self-defeating to me. I don't claim Europe has all the answers -- I definitely don't claim that -- but at least we realise it's your own responsibility to realise a wet floor is a slippery floor. After all, winter doesn't warn us when it's about to give the roads that nice smooth coating of ice, either.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Joris' pdf in 2010

If I were a quantum particle, where would you place your detector in order to optimise the likelihood of detection? Not in the blogosphere, that much is clear.

I've just done some calculations and here's the probability-density-function for me in 2010:

Note: the scale runs from red over yellow to white; I haven't been in Canada, but I've coloured it as a representative of "the Americas" and the biggest problem in constructing this figure was figuring out a scaling that wouldn't turn everything yellow (as a consequence of which Canada looks far closer to the German red than it should be). It's amazing how similar different shades of yellow look.

It's a bit disappointingly white, this graph, but maybe one day I'll make the pdf for my life so far (on a double log scale) and then you might see some more colour.

Also, because I love numbers, so I presume you might as well: I've spent at most 55% of my days in Bonn ("at most" because it's the default and therefore absorbs any trips I've forgotten). Second was Morgantown (WV, USA) with 16% and third, also not too surprising, Effelsberg with just short of 10%. Two weeks in Leiden corresponds to a bit less than 4% and finishing the top five is Valencia with about 2.5%. Word has it 2011 won't be too different, though the Effelsberg percentage should lower somewhat and good old 'straia should make a reappearance.

Friday, 17 December 2010

And time passed...

Did things happen? Sure things happened. There was the Belgo-Spanish wedding -- and half a year later the Greco-Caribbean wedding. Beaches were walked on, mountains were climbed. Facebook was joined, hundreds of e-mails were sent, more still were received. Proposals were drafted, heaps of drafts were proofread and plenty of talks were given. There were many trips to Belgium (of course), a few trips to the Netherlands and England, single trips to Sweden, Austria, Greece, Spain and -- undeniably -- through parts of Germany. Languages were learned and just as quickly forgotten, shoes were worn, glasses were broken, visitors were led astray. Kebabs were eaten, beers were drunk, trains were taken, planes were flown and cars were driven. I've walked on crutches, ran many miles and played frisbee in heat, snow, rain and ice. Tournaments were held, games were won and lost, pulsars were sought for but never found. And then there's my ever-continuing attempt at dominating an observatory all by myself, trying to spend more time in Effelsberg than ever before in Parkes. "Home" became not much beyond a shower and a bed.

And through it all, I have neglected my faithful fan-base, aka Dr. Paul Fraser in Mexico and M.Sc. Anonymous in Tamil Nadu (and the silent crowd whose existence does, so far, not survive Ockham's razor).

A month away from the two-year anniversary of this blog, I wonder if the more-than-half-a-year-long-silence should be taken as a call to action or seen as the inevitable succumbing to the inherent, self-defeating diary conflict that there is either nothing to report or no time to report on the many things that do happen.

Now I realise the start of a new year is traditionally a moment when people pick up on forgotten goals, lost promises and past intentions to steer them back onto daily life and to pick them up where once they were left. However, I am old enough now to know that new year's resolutions are more often admissions of defeat than sincere convictions of the need to act.

So let's cut some corners. Maybe it's time for me to admit that I haven't got what it takes. Unlike the people you see linked on the right-hand side of this text (and some others whom I attempt to follow but who don't show up for some reason I don't fully grasp), I for some reason cannot make myself write blogs regularly.

There you have it. Admission of defeat.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010


On Monday 12 April 2010 the generations in my family were shifted up by one: grandparents became great-grandparents; parents became grandparents; my brother became a dad and I became an uncle. Since my sister's wedding in Spain had only really finished less than 24 hours before the birth, our family was spread over at least four countries (five if you count the in-laws) so the couple had to cope on their own initially.

By the end of the week, though, cars had been driven through France, trains had been brought in from Germany and after yet another week, when the Icelandic volcano finally abated, planes were flown in from Lithuania. Being part of a geographically challenged family if oddly fun and somehow amusing: you know there will always be someone anywhere, but you can never tell who will be where when. During the second half of April, though, we were all down at the University hospital of Leuven at one point or another. (Save my sister who'll be getting there next week.)

Let this be a good time to update you on the marvellous trip from Bonn to Leuven, which is all but the most easily reached Belgian city from Germany. Normally I book these tickets well in advance, so I can get fast, direct trains without too much time going to waste waiting around for transfers. But because babies come regardless of our planning and because Europe became covered under a Nordic ash cloud only days after the birth, this time I bought tickets that were in high demand - and bought them last-minute. Surprisingly this didn't affect the price too much, but it did affect the time. If I had been a pessimist I would have been dismayed at having to travel twice as long. As it turned out, I was rather upbeat about the prospect of finally getting to see more than just a platform and a traintrack of some of the cities that lie along my route.

Commencing the trip in Bonn, I'll start with a nice - and appropriate from my point of view - building that I had omitted on my previous foto-shoot: the Sterntor or Star gate:

Depending on your source, the city in question may vary between Chicago, New York and Berlin, but the saying that Bonn is half the size of the central cemetery of city X and twice as dead, stays the same. I mostly disagree with that, of course, but there is no denying that John LeCarré's book A Small Town in Germany was appropriately titled for Bonn. Ergo: wherever you go from Bonn, you first go to Köln (Cologne) because in contrast to Bonn, Köln really is an important city with connections to the world. The most obvious landmark in Köln stands conveniently right next to the central train station: the Dom (or Cathedral).

Next stop is a lovely little city the likes of which you cannot find in North America or Oceania: Aachen lies right on the border of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. The trouble with my stopover was that I only had about half an hour and the walk from the station to the city centre turned out to be at least 20 minutes, so this is the closest I could get:

The white building you see is the theater of Aachen - and behind it on the right, you can just see a spire of the Dom in the centre of the city - which must have been another 5 to 10 minutes away.

It's been a month now since I went there and took these pictures and I suddenly remember running on the way back to the station in order to make sure I'd catch my train. Ah. Running. How nice that would be... (I must be looking forward to late June almost as much as a high school student.)

Anyway. We'll get back to Aachen one day, but presently the train has departed for Liege, the first Belgian (Walloon) city on our trip. The station we stop at (Liege-Guillemins) is as new as can be and an architectural spectacle designed by Calatrava, who coincidentally designed about half the city where my sister now lives (Valencia, that would be). Sadly, it isn't anywhere near any interesting or beautiful part of the city so really the station is the only point of interest. Here's a view from the inside:

and Wikipedia has a really nice view from the outside.

Finally, I arrived in Leuven (which probably has the most beautiful city centre of all the cities I'd visited that day, but I forgot to take pictures and went straight to the hospital) and met my godchild, Lune:

Cute, isn't she?

Thursday, 6 May 2010

"Good" news

I've just come back from the MRI scan and things look much better now: the main ligament is fine but two smaller ones on the side of my foot are in trouble. This means that I can walk and lean on my foot as long as I keep it straight (or at least, that's what I've understood). It also means that the massive cast-like boot I've been carrying around for the past few days will not be needed anymore and instead I got a most unremarkable little ankle-support cast.

I'll admit that makes me feel a bit like a fraud - going through all that trouble just to be told "keep your ankle straight for a month or two", but it doesn't take away the fact that I'm thoroughly relieved!

Monday, 3 May 2010

Out of action

To all those who haven't noticed on Buzz or Twitter: I've been incapacitated, though a pair of crutches has come to my partial aid and is helping me move around to some degree.

What happened was nothing other than a nice and friendly game of frisbee on a lovely (and only slightly rainy) Sunday afternoon in the park. I admit that I may have played a bit too seriously because really, you shouldn't try to catch a disk someone else is trying to catch at the same time (or should I?) Either way, the mid-air collision that ensued wasn't too bad in itself, but the fall back down (hello gravity! Yes, I love you too. At times.) was rather uncontrolled and so upon reaching Earth again, I must have twisted my right foot in ways unimaginable. And unrepeatable.

It is close to 30 hours now that I haven't been able to put any pressure on my right foot - which made me ponder (amongst other things) how often the reception desks at hospitals see people hopping past on one foot...

Once I had - with the help of some particularly friendly fellow "hurt people" - figured out how to work my way to the front of the emergency queue (with sincere apologies to my North American friends, but there is no way I was going to describe this mass as a line), it didn't take terribly long to get a doctor, an X-ray and a couple of crutches (allowing me to roam the hospital with a bit more dignity than before) and, eventually, a super-twenty-first-century-removable cast. Thank God for German efficiency, German health-care (no offense) and Swiss (?!) engineering. (Admit it: there's no way you had predicted that last one ;-)

The X-ray luckily demonstrated that my bones were intact, so notwithstanding the pain, I'm happy about that. Whether my tendons, ligaments and similar connective tissues are also in order, is an entirely different matter still, so I'm impatiently awaiting the results of an MRI scan on Thursday morning - stay tuned.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Bonn and surroundings

It's been a while, I know. The problem with blogs (as everyone who's ever tried to write a blog or, more conventionally, a diary) is that whenever things start happening, there is hardly any time left to write about it - and vice versa.

But let's try and get you up to speed again.

First, I have of course settled in Bonn by now. A bed should be imported from Belgium next weekend but I have the essentials (internet connection, sleeping bag and radio). Also, I've found a few random moments to meander through the city and absorb some nice areas. Someone asked for photos, so (thanks to my iPhone since I still cannot stomach holding a camera) here we go:

First, Bonn's most famous inhabitant (so far):

That's right: Ludwig van Beethoven. (Interestingly, the "van" as opposed to "von" attests to his Flemish roots. Just thought I'd mention that in case someone had missed it.)

Then, the house Beethoven was born in:

It's the dark pinkish house in front of which you can spot some oriental tourists. In itself I doubt the house is terrifyingly interesting, but it also shows a few other fairly typical things about Bonn and Europe: the fairly narrow, car-free streets (this is Europe - most of which was built way before cars were invented) and surprising yet relaxing emptiness on Sundays: since all shops are closed on Sunday, there are literally no people in the centre of the city - they're all in the park or on the river bank: walking, running, biking,... relaxing and enjoying the good weather. I remember a beautiful spring weekend in Australia where to my great dismay the parks and riverbanks were virtually void of people while the shopping centre was as crowded as... the trains yesterday (but more on that later). Anyway - I like Europe, you might have noticed.

Continuing on our tourist trip, we reach the Münster (my impression is that this word means as much as "cathedral" - but Wikipedia seems to only reluctantly admit to that, so you'll have to take my word on it):

And of course, one of the most enjoyable things about Europe - the train station:

Then, the main building of the University and - right behind it - the field where I found a new and exciting frisbee group (bringing back great memories from Down Under :-)

An important thing to realise (and a major difference with both Morgantown and Australia) is that everything I've shown you so far is within at most ten minutes walk of each other - and at my pace probably more about five minutes. This is part of the reason I still haven't bought a bike, even after seven weeks: everything is quickly and conveniently reachable by foot. So too the track along the river (which, of course, unavoidably reminds me of WV):

(Note, though, that for all its width, well-maintained surface and length - I think it goes all the way to Köln and beyond - this track is not accessible to cars - just roller bladers, cyclists, runners and pedestrians. I'm pretty sure even motorcycles aren't allowed.)

Along the track is a scale model of the Solar System - Saturn is close to the centre of town and the Sun is several kilometres further South, where the track merges into a great park (which is so big that I really need a bike to discover it all) with ponds, some bushes and even baseball fields! (Browsing back through previous posts I notice I didn't post a picture of the Bois de Boulogne. In fact, in my post on Paris I didn't even mention it, which is a gross omission I feel sorry for.) Anyway, it isn't the same, but somewhat reminiscent to me (having seen as little of the Rheinaue park as of the Bois de Boulogne). Also, it's a great indicator of spring:

The weekend after these pictures were taken, I went to Spain to attend my sister's wedding and before that was well and truly finished my brother and his lovely wife announced the birth of my first niece, making me a proud uncle :-)

But more on all that in a later post - I wouldn't want to overload my faithful readers. (Besides: the weather is way too nice to write blog posts. I'm sorry!)