Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Day in the Life of a Telescope Operator at AMiBA

So this is a bit delayed, but while I was working at the YTLA I took a bunch of video clips of various things related to the telescope over a period of multiple months with the intention of weaving them into a sort of “day in the life of a telescope operator” video. In the two weeks between leaving my job there and moving to Australia I didn't have time to actually work on it, but now that I've got my computer set up again I finally had time to get to it. And boy does it feel good to be back to video editing again!

This video (very) roughly show the process of a day on the job while I was there, as it was near the end when our observing targets were up in the afternoon and evening:

  • leaving Hilo around noon.
  • driving the hour-and-a-half to the observatory (clips were taken on different days which is why the weather changes so drastically, although it would not be at all unusual to see all that on a single drive).
  • opening the enclosure (as seen in my previous video on the subject).
  • pointing the telescope and observing.
  • shutting down at the end of a day's observing, though it's rare that we closed when it was still light enough to record it happening; I think that day we might have had a problem that forced us to close early, so I grabbed the chance to record, though I wish I'd lain down and stabilized my phone better!
  • then driving back down to Hilo, though I couldn't actually record any of that due to low light levels.

My fellow operator, Kristen, was a huge help for this project, supporting it all the way even when I never produced any visible results of all that filming. So here it (finally) is Kristen, hope you like it!

(Fun fact: I didn't set out originally to use the William Tell Overture. I got all the clips edited and arranged then went looking for music to set it to, and while playing around with various pieces tried Rossini's William Tell Overture on a whim. I quickly realized it fit with the madcap pace of the video really well, and even fit the timings quite closely already. Another few hours of syncing everything up, and I'm pleased as punch with how it turned out.)

Edit: now with properly embedded video!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Life in Australia

It's been just over two weeks since I arrived in Australia, and great news: I got my computer through customs and delivered this week! Yesterday (Saturday) I was able to go pick up a few things necessary to get it running again (a monitor, since I didn't bring one, and a Wi-Fi PCI-E card since I can't connect directly to the router here), and after some two hours of carefully replacing all the parts I'd removed for transport, replacing the thermal paste between the CPU and water cooler, and tentatively starting it up…it didn't work. But then it turned out I merely hadn't seated the RAM all the way back in when replacing it, and the second time it booted right up! (I vaguely remember the same thing happening the first time I built it, as it's possible to get the RAM in and have it feel solid but not actually be in all the way.)

So hooray! My computer is working again, and I can use it to write this blog post, which is a lot easier than trying to write it on my phone like the last one!

So, uh, Australia…

Well…I recognize some of these brands.
It's interesting being here. It's been about a decade since I was last out of the U.S., but I'm used to visiting countries that aren't part of the Anglosphere so it's still a different experience. Some of the oddness comes from how similar things are; I'm used to radically different architectures, languages, and cultures, but here the relatively small differences are accentuated by the more familiar settings they come in. It's strange.

It's still really cold. Well, to me anyway. It doesn't matter if it's 5° or 50° below my comfort threshold, I'm going to be unhappy either way, and my impression so far is of being cold each and every day I've been here. We've had exactly one day since the start of the month where it finally warmed up enough in the afternoon that I could put on shorts. I have no less than five quilts on my bed at night, and am thankful for every one. It's like being back in California during the winter, but at least there we had things like double-paned windows for insulation. I swear, once I finish my Ph.D. I am moving back to the tropics and never leaving again.

Some people have asked whether I have a car, and so far the answer is ‘no’. While I would absolutely like to have one compared to needing to rely on public transport, driving on the left side of the road is rather disorienting still, and I wouldn't feel safe myself driving one until I've had a bit more time to get used to traffic patterns here. I've never particularly enjoyed city driving, either, and it seems like everyone drives really fast here compared to Hilo.

Objectively, I can tell that the public transport system in Melbourne is quite good. There's a train system radiating out from the center like dendrites on a neuron. Buses run in roughly concentric arcs around and between train stations. I live about a mile from the nearest train station (Mitcham), which I can either walk to or take a five-minute bus ride to. Then it's a twenty-minute train ride to Glenferrie train station, which is basically on the Swinburne campus. Trains and buses are pretty good about being on time, and there's an app that can plot a course for you by public transport between two addresses and look up when any particular service will be running. All payments are handled quickly and efficiently by a system involving a personal “myki” [sic] card, which you simply hold against a payment screen to wirelessly deduct money from (or add money to, when necessary).

The Victorian train network around Melbourne. Swinburne is on that blue branching line to the right (as am I).
For an introvert who abhors crowds and likes his personal space, it's not as bad as I feared, most of the time. The buses I take are pretty empty much of the time, and as long as you avoid the rush hour crowds the trains aren't usually too crowded either. You might not be able to find a seat, but there's usually room to stand un-crowded. Occasionally it's extremely packed, and that's double-plus-unfun, but I'm learning to time things better to avoid it.

Taken from Glenferrie train station, looking east. The building on the right with the little arches is where I work.
Victoria's not as flat as the interior of Australia, and Melbourne sprawls across a number of little hills and gullies, but it's no Hawaiʻi either; there's no looming mountainous presence off in the distance to admire, though the Dandenong mountain range (maximum elevation: 633 meters / 2077 feet) sits a little ways off to the east and can be seen from some vantage points. There are some nature preserve areas and parks within walking distance of where I live (where I got to hear a kookaburra for the first time) and out in the suburbs there's a lot of plant life so it's not too industrial or urban.

(I've also heard magpies for the first time, and boy do they have the coolest warbling sound. I'll have to try to record it sometime in the future; it sounds like malfunctioning sci-fi robot!)

Well, this post has gone on long enough, and I need to see about some other things (first order of business: getting a desk for my computer, I'm getting cramped sitting on the floor) so I'll end it here for now. A hui hou!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Made it to Melbourne!

Well, I made it to Melbourne safely. I've spent the past few days recovering from two days of travel and getting over jet-lag—even the mere 4-hour time difference between Hilo and Melbourne has been making me tired very early in the evening and waking me up while it's still dark.
However, I'm getting over that, and yesterday I took the train into the Swinburne campus to start the enrollment process and officially get started on my Ph.D. in astrophysics.

That's the building I'll be in.
There's a lot to take in here in Australia. It's colder than I was expecting, even though I saw the forecasts—I'd just forgotten what it was like to have the temperature be cold all the time, and I find myself already pining for the comforting warmth and humidity of the tropics (and looking forward to moving back there as soon as possible).

The view from my desk.
I could go on about a lot of things, but I'm still getting tired fairly early and requiring a lot of sleep, so I'll save it for another post. (Hopefully I can get my computer through customs and set up soon so I can use a real keyboard again rather than my phone!) Anyway, a hui hou!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Flying to Australia

Today (assuming everything works out) I set out on my trip to Australia, which will involve crossing two imaginary but important lines on the earth's surface: the equator and the international date line. The former I've never crossed, and the latter I haven't crossed in around 18 years.  It's…pretty cool, and hopefully I'll be able to enjoy it better once everything is packed up and I'm actually on my way. Packing is a very stressful process, but once everything's all ready to go there's a certain feeling of que sera, sera that sets in at least. I am looking forward to crossing the equator for the first time and reaching the southern hemisphere.

Not much else to say, really, at least that I can think of while writing this a few days in advance just before packing up my computer. Hopefully everything goes smoothly, bags (and me!) get where they need to, and I'll be able to post when I get there, maybe even with some photos! A hui hou! See you in Australia!

Edit: it was a little hard to tell on the animated map, but it looked like we crossed both the equator and international date line within a very short of each other, possibly as short as half an hour.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

End of an Era, in More Ways Than One

Last Friday, September 15, was the last day for two things: my employment with ASIAA, and the Cassini–Huygens mission to Saturn.

Cassini was launched in 1997, when I was eight years old and firmly in the grip of my first passionate love of astronomy, focused on the planets in the solar system. It took seven years to reach Saturn so I had plenty of time to find out about it and years to look forward to its arrival at my favorite planet in the far-off future of 2004. When Cassini finally reached Saturn I remember reading all about it, about the Huygens' probe's successful landing on Titan, the first such landing on a solid body in the outer solar system, and the incredible pictures being beamed back from Saturnian orbit. And over the past thirteen years I've watched as any number of amazing discoveries were made and awesome photos taken.

Saturn from Cassini in 2016; photo by NASA (public domain).

Cassini was originally slated for a four-year mission, from 2004 to 2008, but its outstanding success allowed it a mission extension first to 2010, then an additional seven years beyond that. I was fifteen when it got to Saturn, and it came to feel like a a constant: multiple rovers landed on Mars, Messenger flew by Mercury a few times, New Horizons sped past Pluto, several other missions blazed brightly briefly in the public consciousness like shooting stars but the whole time Cassini was there, quietly taking pictures and measurements and redefining our knowledge of Saturn and its gorgeous system of rings and moons, constant like the cosmic microwave background.

This video gives a brief overview of the mission.

To me, having grown up with Cassini it's strange to think that it's finally gone; no more news stories with the latest eye-catching pictures, or amazing discoveries it made (although I don't think we've exhausted the scientific value of the data it sent back yet, not by a long shot). I didn't keep particularly close tabs on it as the years went by (partly due to that perception of premanance)—and only found out about the end of the mission a few days ago in fact—but I generally kept up with the major discoveries, and all in all I'm going to miss that intrepid probe.

But fuel, and NASA's budget allowance, eventually come to an end, and so too did Cassini's incredible mission. And coincidentally it happened on my last day of work with ASIAA, where I've been a telescope operator for AMiBA for the past six months (exactly!). It feels like the end of an era, in more ways than one, as I'm now busy preparing to move to Australia to start graduate school in just over a week.

My final picture of the YTLA, taken a day before on the 14th. 
People keep asking me if I'm excited, or telling me how excited I must be. Being free of work has left me free to face the reality of moving and all the many things still remaining to be done in the next far-too-few days. My internal emotional state seems to be a quantum superposition of many confusing and conflicting feelings, and observing it usually yields a value best approximated by “abject terror,” so I try not to do that too often.

For some reason people seem to ascribe to me a confidence and adventurousness I can only dream of possessing in reality. The truth is I am a man who finds blessed comfort in routines and the thought of breaking all of them—simultaneously—terrifying in the extreme. I find travel (especially alone) highly stressful, necessitating as it does the disruption of so many comforting patterns, though at least for the past eight years it's only been between my current and my childhood homes; now I face the looming specter of leaving everything I know behind to travel somewhere I know no one. Perhaps some people would find that exciting? All I know is that it doesn't feel like excitement to me.

Sorry, that got a bit philosophical towards the end didn't it? It's not all so doom-and-gloom as this probably makes it sound. I should get back to preparations—I've got a lot to do before next Wednesday! A hui hou!

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Moving Day Approaches!

Well, things are getting pretty busy for me over here! I've finally got my airplane tickets, for the 27th—which is just over two and a half weeks at this point, a fact I'm alternately trying to forget, and remembering and freaking out about. I've got one more week of work with ASIAA, and have been busy cleaning, organizing, and making preparations for the past few weeks. I'll probably be even more busy for the next couple of weeks and I don't know how much I'll be able to post, so have a pretty picture of the YTLA open with Mauna Kea in the background.

We were probably looking at Jupiter when this photo was taken.
(Fun fact: I put this picture up on Google Maps for the YTLA and it's proved surprisingly popular, with almost 4,000 views in under a month!)

Friday, September 1, 2017

Pareidolia on Mauna Loa

Pareidolia is the psychological phenomenon of seeing a pattern in random data, like seeing a cloud that reminds you of an animal. As humans we're wired to look for patterns, which is why we see faces in random rock formations or…well, anywhere, really.

Anyway, I noticed an instance of this just a few days ago while driving up Mauna Loa. Going around a bend a few miles in from Saddle Road, I noticed that a rock I'd passed dozens of times before looked rather like a jovial human head in profile, looking left. I pointed it out to my coworker Kristen and she saw it too, so the next day when we were driving up to work we stopped and got a few pictures.

The problem with these pictures is that the rock is high up and generally silhouetted against the sky, so getting a picture where you can see the sky means the details in the rock are too dark…

…and a picture where you can see the details in the rock blows out the sky. It at least gives an idea of what it looks like, though it really doesn't do a great job of capturing just how much this looks like a jolly elf (or in keeping with its location, perhaps a menehune?) with a bulbous nose and pointy ears. It's hard to see in these pictures but the “mouth” really does look like it's turned up in a happy smile, too.

(You can actually see this rock in my video I made of the drive up to Mauna Loa, at about the 1:38 mark on the right side.)

I just think it's funny that I've driven by this rock so many times before and only noticed it recently. If you ever drive up Mauna Loa, keep an eye out for it! A hui hou!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Inelastic Collisions and Close Calls

The word “collision” has a slightly different meaning in physics than in common parlance; in physics it simply means that two bodies exert force on each other for a relatively brief time. (“What counts as a brief time,” I hear you asking? It's not very rigorous, but generally it's brief compared to the whole time scale over which the system is observed.)

Within the definition of collision, there are also the concepts of elastic and inelastic collisions. Elastic collisions are where absolutely none of the kinetic energy of the objects involved is lost as another form of energy, such as sound, or heat, or mechanical energy as the objects deform. They generally don't happen on human scales, though there are many cases where it comes close: two billiard balls bouncing off each other is a pretty good approximation (the noise you hear as they collide is some of that kinetic energy being converted to sound).

Inelastic collisions, then are simply everything else, and what we deal with on a daily basis where two things collide with each other (in the colloquial sense) and some (or all) of the kinetic energy involved is converted to other forms of energy.

For example, I and my car were involved in a rather energetic inelastic collision this past Saturday up in Waimea. Before you ask, I'm fine; almost remarkably so, in fact, as it could easily have gone much, much worse.

It all started in Waimea, where the Keck Observatory Headquarters are located. My soon-to-be adviser at Swinburne University in Melbourne was observing on Keck for a few nights (though remotely from Australia) and suggested I could come along to the remote observing room in Keck and watch and learn. I've never observed on Keck before, so I jumped at the chance to do so. The plan was to tag along two of the three nights he'd be observing (Saturday night & Sunday night) before heading back to Hilo.

Lovely Waimea. This is the view from where I stayed. Also the only picture I remembered to take this weekend.
Things really kicked off with a bang—literally—as I was on my way back to the Keck HQ after arriving in Waimea, checking in, and eating dinner at the delightful Village Burger. I'd turned out onto the main road in Waimea (really just a stretch of the Māmalahoa Highway that encircles the island of Hawaiʻi), and was on my way back in the inner lane when I noticed a car coming the other way heading towards me.

My approximate route back from Village Burger to Keck.
Me (cyan, heading north-east) happily returning to Keck after a delicious dinner.
Me noticing another car heading straight towards me.
It's interesting to observe how your brain tries to make sense of situations. In my case, I noticed a car crossing the center line heading towards me on a collision course a few seconds in the future and immediately assumed that a) he was following the rules of the road as a good driver, and that therefore b) he must be turning left and would either pull out in front of me (there was still time to do so) or would stop and wait for me to pass. I've only been to Waimea a few times and am not very familiar with it, or the fact that he was going backwards in a left-turn lane for my side of the road might have tipped me off sooner.

Anyway, after a second or two (my recollection of the time involved is pretty hazy—it might've been even less, as we were both travelling perhaps ~30 mph [~50 km/h]) my brain realized that the probability of the hypothesis I'd formed of the other car stopping was very rapidly dropping to zero based on continued observation, causing me to swerve right at the last second. Thankfully I'd turned onto the road at a time when there were no other cars around so the road was pretty empty on my side; otherwise it would have been a multi-car pileup.

Me swerving and changing a ~60 mph Δv head-on collision into a violent sideswipe instead.
I experienced the actual collision itself primarily as a side impact—both side airbags went off (but not the front ones), and the whole car got thrown to the side as the other car impacted in the driver's side rear door and wheel. The collision bled off a lot of the kinetic energy involved in the deformation of both cars, but the impact angle was also still low enough that both cars ricocheted off and kept going a bit farther.

I didn't have my life flash before my eyes or anything cool like that (despite the situation clearly warranting it I think); at the actual point of impact the only emotion I can remember was a strong sense of resigned irritation that I really didn't need this to be happening to me right now (especially when I was planning on selling my car in a few weeks to help finance my move to Australia), plus a nigh-instantaneous simultaneous unfolding of all the various consequences this was going to have on me for the next few weeks and how much I was already not looking forward to it.

The trajectories in this picture are mostly conjecture on my part based on where the two cars ended up.
Very thankfully there weren't any other cars in the immediate vicinity, as the torque from the impact ended up spinning me around a bit and I ended up turned roughly sideways in the middle of the left-turn lane in the middle of the road, from where I had enough presence of mind left to limp across the street into the parking lot directly opposite, while the other car ended up on the far side of the road facing the wrong way.

To shorten a lengthy story (the details of which I'm slightly hazy on myself after this point for a while), miraculously neither I nor the other driver—a forty-something guy—were seriously injured, just shaken up a bit. The hospital and police station were just opposite the Keck building down the street, so they were on the scene fast, then there was a lot of talking and questions and paperwork being filled out, and a tow-truck being called, and the long and short of it is that I ended up grabbing the snacks out of my car and continuing to the Keck building on foot (less than a block away) where I went through with the night's observations as planned, though I did bail on the second night and get a ride back to Hilo from a good friend.

The other driver admitted to the paramedics that he'd been texting, which actually makes me the first person I know to get into an accident involving texting and driving. My car was unfortunately totaled, but thankfully Geico works fast and I got my insurance pay-out yesterday which is going to be quite helpful for what's turning out to be a…more costly than I anticipated international move. (I'm borrowing my pastor's old extra car for now while I work things out.)

Couldn't get a good angle on it in the tow yard, but that's what it looked like.
All in all, it's been a rather stressful week, but I at least have transportation for now and some much-needed funds in the bank. Now I'm free to get back to…oh, right. International moving preparations. Well, I'd better get busy. Don't text and drive, folks! A hui hou!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Life Updates, August 2017

Well. Where to start? It's been a busy couple of weeks, and we're just getting started…

I've talked about how I applied for grad school at Swinburne University in Melbourne back in January, and I think I've mentioned that I was accepted and have been slowly jumping through all the hoops related to enrolling. Last week, I submitted my request for a student visa. This Sunday, four days later, I got an answer back that it was approved (way faster than I was expecting!).

The visa was the last hurdle before I could actually move to Australia, so things are only going to pick up speed from this point on. This week I put in my resignation at ASIAA (with a final day of September 15) and am starting the process of moving internationally, which I last did when I was eleven. (I'm currently looking at a move around the end of September/beginning of October.)

I've got some more blog posts in my head that I just never seem to find time to write down so expect some more things from me this month, though it may get a bit sparse around here for the next few months as I deal with the moving process and start my Ph.D. This weekend is also really busy for me because my soon-to-be-officially advisor, Dr. Michael Murphy, is remote-observing on Keck I this weekend and as soon as I post this I'm going to drive up to Waimea to observe from the Keck base facility for the next two nights. (Hopefully I'll have a little time to take pictures while I'm up there!)

Busy times! A hui hou!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Driving Mauna Loa

Last week I took the opportunity to film the drive from Saddle Road (~6,500 feet / ~1980 meters) up to Mauna Loa Observatory (a bit above 11,000 feet / 3,352 meters) on the way up to work. It's about a forty minute drive, so I sped it up, compressed it into a timelapse, and made a video which you can see below:

This is half of the drive I take typically several times a week to get to the YTLA for observing (it takes about 45 minutes just to get to the turn-off point from Hilo).  It's always interesting going from the tropical lushness of Hilo to the barren desolation of the upper slopes of Mauna Loa—the closest analog to the surface of the moon there is here on earth—in an hour and a half, but I always find it a very relaxing drive; it's nice to get out of the city and the view (which I couldn't really show off while filming) is amazing when it's not cloudy.

I think I said most of what I wanted to say about this in the video itself so I don't have much else to say here, but feel free to ask any questions you might have about it! A hui hou!