Saturday, December 9, 2017

Weather in Melbourne

Melbourne weather is strange. Before coming here I'd read multiple things saying that it was highly variable and could change quickly—“If you don't like the weather in Melbourne, just wait fifteen minutes” was a joke I came across that embodies this. Hilo weather is much like this as well, sometimes changing often and quickly throughout the day, so I figured Melbourne weather would be much the same.

Now, this isn't incorrect; the weather here can indeed change pretty quickly throughout the day. However, it also applies on a somewhat longer time scale. For example: it's currently December here, equivalent to June in the northern hemisphere, coming up on the southern hemisphere summer solstice on December 21st…and the high today was 20 °C (68 °F), with an overnight low of 10 °C (50 °F). This isn't exactly what I think of as summer weather, and what's more confusing is that we did have some warm weather for a week or two in November. In fact, just a week ago we had a day of 40 °C (104 °F), where it was still 32 °C (89.6 °F) when I went to bed at 11 PM and still 27 °C (80.6 °F) when I woke up at 2 in the morning. Then a day later a huge storm hit and temperatures dropped precipitously throughout the day, and the day after that the temperatures were in the single digits (Celsius) and I was putting on socks in the morning and getting my coat out of the closet again. People I've talked have indicated this isn't entirely unusual, telling me of a day some years ago when they had a huge hail storm on Christmas, giving them a white Christmas in the middle of summer.

Melbourne is about the same southern latitude (~40°) as the northern latitude of California where I grew up (~39°) so I figured the weather would be roughly similar, but in California this kind of weather would be exceedingly strange. The temperature's more complex than a simple sine curve, of course, but on the scale of a week or so it's not a bad approximation; you don't get over 100+ (Fahrenheit) temperatures one day during the summer and then have temperatures plunging towards freezing two days later. I'm not a big fan of temperature extremes—to either side, but especially cold—so I hope this isn't too common a phenomenon, or it could be a long next few couple of years! A hui hou!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Gravitationally Unbound: Interstellar Interloper ʻOumuamua

So I'm pretty late to write about this and you may have already heard about it by now, but in case you haven't, on October 19th the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii discovered the first known object in our solar system that's unquestionably of extrasolar origin. The tiny interstellar wanderer, now known as 1I/2017 ʻOumuamua, was caught forty days after its closest approach to the Sun, and it was quickly realized that its speed—both on approach to and away from the Sun—was far too high for it to be gravitationally bound to the solar system.

This was pretty exciting, as this is the first time we've discovered an asteroid in our solar system that definitely came from outside it. There's been an intermittent stream of papers on ʻOumuamua over the weeks that followed its discovery, speculating on its possible origin, trying to figure out whether it's a comet or an asteroid (the latter seems most likely, given its complete lack of visible coma even after passing within the orbit of Mercury), even calculations on how far the Earth−Moon system would have moved if it were a macroscopic chunk of nuclear-density dark matter! (About ten meters/thirty-three feet was the conclusion, so don't worry about it.)

One of weirdest things about ʻOumuamua so far is its shape. Now, like all known asteroids it's much too small to make out its shape directly (even passing less than a fifth of the distance to the Sun from Earth). However, we can measure how its brightness changes over time (called its light-curve) which can tell us both how fast it rotates and how elongated it is…and that's the strange part. According to the large difference between the maxima and minima of its light-curve, ʻOumuamua must have a length ratio of something like 1:6 or even 1:10. Think cigar-shaped and you've got an idea of what it must look like. This is, needless to say, really, really odd, as nothing we know of in our solar system has a shape approaching anywhere near that ratio. Whatever it's made of must be holding itself together with more than just gravity.

Finally, if you're familiar with my blog, you've probably already guessed that the name ʻOumuamua is of Hawaiian origin. (And if you did, good job!) ʻOu means “to reach for,” while mua has several meanings but is generally associated with the idea of being first, foremost, leader, or senior. “I mua!” means “Forward!”, and ʻoumuamua (with some of that Hawaiian reduplication I've talked about) means scout (in a military sense), one sent on ahead or before. Which is the intended meaning of the name in this case, as ʻOumuamua will likely be only the first of more interstellar objects that we'll detect in the future.

Interesting times we live in! A hui hou!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

An Australian Mountain Adventure

This Saturday I was invited on a sight-seeing trip to the Dandenongs (a mountain range just to the east of Melbourne) by a family from the church I've been attending, an opportunity I gladly jumped at.

Not the greatest picture as it was taken through the window of the car, but it gets the message across.
We stopped at a few places along the way up the delightfully winding road up the mountains, including a small town with a candy store (sorry, a “lollies shop”) where I picked up a small collection of sweets to try (purely in the spirit of sampling the local culture, of course!). Another place where we stopped for afternoon tea (read: snacks) had a large flock of cockatoos hanging around, plus a few other native birds.

These birds were quite used to being fed, and not shy about hanging around in hopes of food.

…to the point of happily jumping up on the picnic table in front of me!
It was really cool and a bit strange seeing flocks of birds flitting betwixt and sitting in the eucalyptus trees, as we didn't really have many birds that did that back in California, the only ones being the vultures that liked to nest in one particular large dead tree (and didn't do a lot of flitting among the branches, for obvious reasons).

This crimson rosella was perfectly fine walking underneath my seat, making it a little hard to photograph!
In fact, the cockatoos were comfortable enough with people to jump up your shoulder in search of food!

After our tea-time adventure, we hiked to Sherbrooke Falls in the Sherbrooke Forest National Park. On the whole, it reminded me of hiking amongst the redwoods back in California, except with eucalyptus trees instead. And what eucalyptus trees they were! I'd known that certain species of eucalyptus trees are among the tallest trees in the world (behind only redwoods), and having grown up among eucalyptus trees in California I thought I was familiar with their heights, but these trees were something else entirely. It's hard to guess of course, but I felt like many of the trees I saw had to have been at least twice as tall as the tallest eucalyptus trees I'd know previously, again underscoring the similarity to hiking in the redwood forests.

It's hard to tell and I could't get it all in one shot, but this is a tall tree.
The hike to the waterfall was quite pleasant, but the return journey was an adventure. It was a nice day when we set out, but as we started back the sky became cloudy and overcast. Soon we could hear thunder rumbling in the distance, then the tops of the trees were buffeted by an increasingly strong wind. By the time we'd gotten back to the carpark the first few large drops were falling, only for us to realize that we'd returned to the wrong carpark, having taken a wrong turn at one of the several branches in the trail on the way back.

As we regrouped to the map at the trail head and figured out where we were, the rain started coming down in earnest, followed soon after by hail! Luckily there were some other people leaving from the carpark due to the rain so our driver was able to get a ride back to the car and come back to pick us up where we were huddled beneath the increasingly-inadequate shelter of the tiny structure protecting the map as rain and hail pelted the ground around.

Thankfully we made it back through the hail and storm all right (though it was coming down fast enough to have significant water on the road in places), but it certainly made for quite the adventure! A hui hou!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sir William Herschel: Accomplished Astronomer, Secret…Composer?

About five years ago, way back in 2012, I wrote a post describing how I had learned that Sir William Herschel, famous astronomer and discoverer of Uranus, was actually an accomplished classical musician and composer prior to becoming interested in astronomy. Looking back at that post, I realize I never bothered actually linking the album I'd found of some of Herschel's symphonies, so here's a link to that.

At the time, there wasn't a lot of Herschel's music available as recordings. Five years later, that's…actually still pretty much the case. Amazon has one CD with two random Herschel works (along with some Haydn for some reason?), plus a new CD in French that appears to be some of Herschel's organ works. I'm mostly guessing on that one, and it doesn't have a digital preview to check.

However! Over on Google Play Music, I came across a new album of Herschel's music that came out in 2015 when I searched his name there on a whim. It's a collection of six sonatas for harpsichord and violin, and it is fantastic. I've fallen in love with Herschel-as-composer all over again, and it makes me really wish more of his music was available, because seriously, this stuff is really really good.

You might be tempted to think that having only a harpsichord (one of my favorite instruments, by the way) and a violin would be a little limiting in what music you can make (Edit: on further listening, I'm pretty sure there's a cello in there too). Nope! Herschel manages to make each movement in each sonata completely unique, different and compelling, with some really interesting little musical motifs. I'm also not generally as big a fan of slow movements as I am of fast ones, yet he somehow made the Andante middle movement of the fourth sonata one of my favorite of the bunch!

All in all it's a really wonderful bit of music and I'd definitely urge you all to go have a listen. A hui hou!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Australian Creepy-Crawlies of the Redback Variety

So I've finally had a chance to see some of the things I shouldn't touch while in Australia! I went out for lunch on Sunday with a family from church, and after lunch as we were touring the yard they mentioned having noticed a redback spider a few days ago and and eagerly took me to see it where I managed to get a picture of a male and female pair (though they don't normally spend time this close together, that's an artifact of us disturbing them).

The large one on the right is a female, the smaller one is a male. Note the distinctive red stripe.
Redback spiders are in the genus Latrodectus, the widow spiders, to which the black widows I grew up with in California also belong. As such, they show very similar behavior, weaving stringy, chaotic-looking webs and being ambush predators, not being very aggressive, and generally only coming into contact with humans by accident. From what I've read their bites (of the females, specifically), although very painful, are hardly ever fatal. So that's reassuring, I guess. A hui hou!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Reformation Day! Have Some Musings.

On October 31st, A.D. 1517, a monk named Martin Luther sent a copy of ninety-five theses he had written to the Archbishop of Mainz (and may or may not have also have posted them on the door of at least one church in Wittenburg), kicking off a long and costly process that would come to be known as the Reformation. Isaiah 29:13 was just as relevant then as when Isaiah spoke it and Jesus quoted it to the Pharisees:
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”
(And though the Reformation helped remedy that quite a bit, we're deluding ourselves if we think those prophetic words can't be relevant again in our own time!)

The Reformation is a long and fascinating tale with repercussions that continue to reverberate around the world to this day, one too long for me to cover in detail here. Instead, how about a nifty little historical fact about dates?

Five hundred years is a long time. In fact, it's so long ago that it actually predates the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in October 1582. Now, dealing with time differences is tricky, subtle, and gives me a headache, but if I've understood the formula in the Wikipedia article on the subject correctly, if we project the Gregorian calendar back to 1517 it would have been ten days ahead of the Julian calendar that would have been in use at the time. Thus October 31st, 1517 in the Gregorian calendar would have corresponded to (assuming I've done this correctly, which is by no means a sure thing) October 21st, 1517 in the Julian calendar, which I think means we still have another ten days to go before we can truly celebrate the Reformation's half-millennium birthday.

That, or we've missed it by ten days. Honestly, I give it even odds either way.

On another, less date-heavy note, I've also got a video of another flag-vectorization! This also relates to the Reformation, because it's the flag of Saxony, the principality where Martin Luther lived and whose prince gave him sanctuary from the Pope and also helped kick off the Reformation. Anyway, here it is:

While making this video, I was struck by the incredible utility of Bézier Curves, which are the lines you see me bending and shaping to form the outlines of the green surface. I'd like to talk about them more at some point, but it's getting late and this post is already long enough. So another time, and for now, Happy Reformation Day everyone! Let's bring back Reformation Day as a thing.

And if I might indulge in some linguistic musings: “reformation” is made of the roots re- (as in again) and formation, meaning to make or create. The Hawaiian term “hana hou,” sort of the Hawaiian equivalent to “encore,” is made up of hana (with a range of meanings related to “work, make, create, do, perform”) and hou (meaning “new,” but also “again,” so a call of “hana hou!” at the end of a performance means essentially “Encore! Do it again!”). So with a little liberalness of interpretation, “Happy Reformation Day!” could plausibly be “Hauʻoli Lā Hanahou!” in Hawaiian. (I checked the online Hawaiian diction and found no entries for “reformation,” so I can't confirm if this is actually correct.) Anyway, I should really end this ever-lengthening post. A hui hou! (Until we meet again!)

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!

Edit (7/11/17): you can't see it in the picture of the vending machine, but I discovered one key difference between vending machines here and in the U.S.: the ones here take credit cards! Now I can't avoid them simply by virtue of not carrying convenient amounts of cash around with me…

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.