Sunday, December 31, 2017

Redwoods…in Australia‽ Happy New Year!

Well, here's some trees I didn't think I'd see in Australia:

Yep, that's right, authentic Californian redwoods, Sequoia sempervirans, in the flesh. Er, in the bark. Back in the 1930s the Australian Board of Works planted a patch of land that had been cleared of its original eucalyptus forest with 1,500 redwood trees imported from California (along with Bishop pine and Douglas fir) in an experiment in hydrogrogy. (The experiment's results are, sadly, unknown.)

I got to experience this cool home-away-from-home forest due to some friends from church, who planned a New Year's Eve barbecue lunch with a bunch of other people out in the Yarra Valley about seven kilometers from the forest, which we explored afterwards.

They're not too big around yet, but they're already quite tall!
The redwoods are planted in regular rows, giving an interesting effect as you walk around. Otherwise, add a few banana slugs and you could almost be back in California! (At least until you get to the edge of the forest and see the old-growth eucalyptus forest all around.) I've got some other pictures from the trip that I'll post when I get a chance, but for now, I'll wish you all hauʻoli Makahiki Hou, and I'll see you all in 2018!

Edit (1/1/2018): Have a few more pictures I didn't have time to include last night:

The Yarra River, where we had the barbecue before going to the redwoods, in the beautiful Yarra Valley.

Most trees here are between 55 and 80 meters tall (180–288 feet).

One feature not usually present in Californian redwood forests are these large man-made bird nests.
And while there may not be any banana slugs here naturally, it's nothing a few minutes with GIMP can't fix!
(Banana slug picture from the last time I used the “redwoods” tag on this blog, all the way back in 2010!)

Friday, December 29, 2017

For Want of a Sound Effect

I've been thinking recently about how I could improve the videos I make and one of the things I came up with (alongside “better editing in general”) was sound effects. Actually I've been looking for good sound effects off and on for over a year now; I've been using the site Freesound since last year, which houses a large collection of sounds that people have made available for free use under various open-source licenses (though the specifics of the license each sound uses may make it unavailable for commercial projects, or require attribution if you use it). Freesound has a decently large if occasionally eclectic collection, but it can be a bit hit-or-miss searching for specific sounds. It's also better for getting one or two specific sounds rather than a larger number of similar sounds that you can choose from.

I finally got motivated to search for alternate sources of sound effects last month, and eventually stumbled upon another website called A Sound Effect which is, in essence, an online marketplace for independent sound-effect artists to market their libraries of sound effects. It's quite professionally designed, and makes it easy to browse the hundreds of libraries it houses covering an astonishingly wide array of subjects. Every library comes with a demo reel to give you a taste of what's included, and I've found listening to them to be almost like aural candy; for some reason I find it incredibly satisfying listening to all these sounds broken down to their constituent parts. (Here are just a few I particularly enjoy; I also find myself paying a whole lot more attention to the various sounds in my environment after listening to a few of these!)

There's an end-of-the-year sale going on right now if any of you feel a sudden need to buy some sound effect libraries. I (sadly) don't have much use for most of these amazing sounds, but I've picked up a few smaller libraries for future use, and hope that this is a useful resource for anyone out there making videos or video games. A hui hou!

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas 2017, Australian-Style!

Merry Christmas from the Land Down Under! Having just moved to Australia a few months ago, I couldn't quite justify the cost of flying home for Christmas, making this the second Christmas I'll be spending away from family. But thankfully I've made plenty of friends to spend it with instead, and will be heading over to the house of some friends I met at church.

Since Australia is pretty famous (or infamous) for its spiders, have a Christmas video featuring some peacock spiders…which I only just now while looking them up discovered actually come from Australia, making this serendipitously appropriate! I haven't seen any of these myself yet, though.

I actually came across this video last year but never got around to sharing it. I guess it worked out in the end though! A hui hou! Mele Kalikima a me Hauʻoli Makahiki Hou!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A New Profile Picture for the Summer Solstice!

I was recently reminded of the fact that what used to be my profile picture was, as of a week ago, eight years old. It's not a bad photo (which is saying something since I usually hate pictures of myself by default), but I was twenty when it was taken and I've grown and changed a bit since then.

The photo my old profile picture came from, from December 14, 2009. (That's Rainbow Falls in Hilo.)
Yesterday I had another grad student get a picture of me in front of the projector screen in the lunch room, and while it's not a great photo, it gave me the idea of using the background as a makeshift green screen combined with a few of the astrophotos I've taken over the years…

The initial picture…

…with the Lagoon Nebula

Omega Centauri

…the Orion Nebula

…and the western Veil Nebula as backgrounds.
I'm pretty pleased with how these came out, overall. I tried a number of other astrophotos of mine but they didn't work out for various reasons (the objects were usually too small and compact, or I just couldn't place them somewhere that looked good).

What does this have to do with the summer solstice I mentioned in the title? Ultimately very little, other than the fact that I always plan to write a post to note the passage of equinoxes and solstices and then never remember to actually do it. There's also the curious fact that, despite it being the summer solstice here in Melbourne, the longest day of the year, I still needed long pants and socks this morning and narrowly avoided needing to bring a coat with me due to the weather taking a swift turn for the frigid after the 30+ °C (90+ °F) temperatures we were having just two days ago. I think it's time to throw in the towel and admit that I'm never going to understand Melbournian weather.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

I'm Writing for Astrobites!

Back in October, a few days after I'd arrived in Australia and started getting set up at Swinburne, one of the first emails I received at my new university address was a notice sent around to all students that applications for writing for Astrobites were now open. Never having heard of Astrobites, I checked it out and discovered that it's a blog collectively run by a diverse assortment of mostly graduate students in astronomy and astrophysics whose dual purpose is to 1) let grad students gain writing experience, primarily through its most common type of post, a daily summary of a scientific paper written at an undergraduate level (though more general posts on research, astronomy in general, and the graduate student experience are common), and 2) serve as a resource for undergraduate students to help them better understand what's going on in the world of astronomy by making important discoveries and concepts easier to understand.

Since distilling scientific concepts into (hopefully) easier-to-understand forms is something I've been doing sporadically on this blog for the past—wow, seven years‽ Has it really been that long?—anyway, since that's something I already enjoy doing from time to time, I applied and sent in a sample post in the style of Astrobites for the dealine mid-November, and this week I heard back from the hiring committee that I'd been accepted as a new writer! (You can find the official post that came out today detailing new authors here.)

Usually most writers work for a period of two years (though this is not formally set and can vary), both producing a post of their own and editing another author's post each month. As far as I can tell from the list of past authors there hasn't been anyone from Swinbune before, so I'm blazing a bit of a new trail here. The schedule for next month (which I'll be on) should come out this week, so I can start working on my first official post! (I'll probably use the sample post I submitted, though given another editing pass as I wasn't entirely happy with it even after spending several days working on it.)

Anyway, I'll link to my posts when they come out on Astrobites so you can hopefully look forward to monthly paper summaries from me for the next few years! A hui hou!

Edit: Also, just for fun, we had a hail storm this evening after I got home with hail up to the size of grapes coming down for a few minutes. Never a dull moment in Melbourne!

Clothespin for scale.

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.

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 permanance)—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!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Further Amusing Observations on the Eating Habits of Gold-Dust Day Geckos

Adding to the list of interesting foods that gold-dust day geckos will eat…

I got out a tub of ice cream with just a few spoonfuls left and set it on the counter to soften for a few minutes before finishing it up, with the lid next to it. A few minutes lengthened into fifteen, and when I walked back into the kitchen I found this little guy enjoying himself:

I love the little push-up he's doing.
He looked like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and the whole scene was so funny that I couldn't resist making the following video:

He kept licking at it for another few minutes after I got bored of taking pictures before getting full and wandering off. Pretty funny!

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Brief Tour of Queen Liliʻuokalani Gardens in Hilo

Last Saturday my friend Graham and I went to the gym together, only to discover that it was closing two hours early and fifteen minutes after we arrived for some reason we never did find out. We ended up feeling very unsatisfied with a fifteen-minute stint on the elliptical, so we decided to head down to Queen Liliʻuokalani Gardens for a walk.

Queen Liliʻuokalani was the last reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii (reigning from 1891–1893), and donated the gardens that bear her name on the coast of Hilo bay. We visited right before sunset, and the light playing off the water and general atmosphere caught my eye. I took some pictures, panoramas, and video clips and decided to edit them together into a short video, which you can find below:

Here are a few of the pictures from the video in case people want to see them better:

One of the bridges in the gardens, in Japanese style.

This is from right before crossing over to Coconut island, looking back west across the bay towards Hilo.

Some nēnē hanging out in one of the ponds. They were pretty unperturbed by my presence.

Not actually in the video, but taken from the same position as the final clip. Just a nice sunset over Mauna Kea.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Nā Nananana o Mauna Loa (Or: The Spiders of Mauna Loa)

Two weeks ago I went to the optometrist and got some new contacts of a different brand to try, which also happened to be at my newly-updated prescription strength. Since then, every time I look further than a few hundred feet away I get a mini-jolt as I realize that I can see everything! In focus! No matter how far away! I can make out craters and maria on the moon again! (Apparently my eyes had drifted more than I realized from my old prescription…)

Due to a confluence of factors, I haven't actually been going up Mauna Loa for my job since before my eye appointment (instead working down in Hilo), until this week when I went up both Wednesday and Thursday (I write this having recently returned from the second night). The first night I was up there, I noticed a surprising number of spiders out in the middle of the night, where by “surprising” I mean “I'm surprised there were any spiders up there at all.” (Though come to think of it that's also the same evening a passing moth flew into my ear and freaked me out, so perhaps I shouldn't have been too surprised.) I noticed two spiders at different times over the course of the night by seeing the light from my head-lamp reflected in their eyes, both just out and about in the 5 °C/ 41 °F weather with apparently nary a care in the world.

I didn't think much of it beyond “Huh, there are spiders up here where I didn't expect them” until tonight, when I was driving down just after sunset after a short observing session in the late afternoon/early evening (which involved me getting a video of the telescope opening in daylight, so look for that in the future!). As I was driving down I noticed a spider's eye reflecting the headlights back at me, and pointed this out to my coworker Kristen who was in the car with me. She thought it was absolutely hilarious that I could pick out a spider at 30 miles per hour on a dark road, especially when she couldn't see the dozens of additional ones that I started noticing every few minutes down the road. (Other than a single one of the ones with a lustrous dark green/blue eye color.) Funnily enough we'd just been discussing contacts and glasses and other eye-related things and my updated prescription on the way up and how she'd been thinking of going to the optometrist and getting an updated prescription herself, and she's definitely going to do it soon after tonight!

So yeah: apparently “noticing lots more spiders” is one of the perks of correct prescription strength contacts. I think I'll keep the memory of those tiny spider eyes reflecting back at me from the dark handy for the next time I read The Hobbit. A hui hou!

(For the Hawaiian scholars out there, I debated on whether the spiders should be kino-ʻo or kino-ʻa for Mauna Loa [roughly, the difference between things owned inherently and things owned incidentally] and I'm not sure I chose correctly. Anyone who knows for sure feel free to confirm or correct me!)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Berke Family Pretzel Making!

Last December after I was unexpectedly able to be home for Christmas my mother sent me back to Hawaii with the Berke family recipe for German pretzels, passed down through generations of adventurous Berkes over the course of two centuries and two continents, all the way back across the sea to the Berke family bakery in Germany (which is still there today), to before an enterprising scion of the family decided to try his luck in the New World (though it should be noted that Berke is not a German name and we don't know where our intrepid forebears migrated from, though I have my theories…).

With that melodramatic opener out of the way, it's not like it's a secret recipe or anything. This weekend I upgraded my computer from Debian 8 to Debian 9, and while it was busy upgrading and I was twiddling my thumbs I decided to try making the Berke pretzels for the first time on my own (I've helped my mom make them in the past), and since I took some pictures along the way I'm going to share the recipe and process here in case anyone else wants to try (or I ever lose the hard copy!). You're going to need a few things to start with…

You can also see the chili I was cooking simultaneously in the crockpot in the background.
First, microwave ½ cup of lard with 2 cups of water for a minute or so until the lard melts. While that's heating up, sift together 3 cups of flour (preferably bread flour), ⅔ cup of powdered milk, ⅓ cup sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon of yeast (as seen above).

Add the water/lard mixture to it and mix. This is best done by hand, as the mixture is incredibly sticky at this point. Add ⅓ cup more water and continue mixing, adding up to 4 cups of flour 1 cup at a time. Keep mixing and kneading with your hands until the dough is just not sticky (this may require a little more flour; it did when I made them).
The right hand knows what the left is doing, and is very grateful it's too busy taking photos to be involved.

This dough is so sticky I can only hope my fingers are still attached; I haven't seen them in about 5 minutes.
At this point, pour a little oil in the bowl and slosh the dough around in it so the top is oiled, then set to rise for about an hour (cover the bowl while the dough is rising).

I ended up letting this dough rise about 2½ hours by accident.
Now, give that dough a good punch.

Next, start some lye water. Mix 2 tablespoons of (food-grade) lye (sodium hydroxide, NaOH) in ~2 quarts of water over very low heat in a glass or enamel pot ONLY. Don't let it boil, and use plastic utensils! (The lye water will react with metal such as aluminum to create hydrogen, so don't let it spill and keep away from sources of open flame. You can flush it down the drain when done, though.)

To prevent boiling of the lye water you can use an improvised bain-marie like this one
 Next, roll out the pretzels. An easy way to get a good size is to divide the dough into 36 pieces.

Yes, I know. My pretzel-shaping skills are abysmal.
 (You can let them rise a little after this.) Next, prepare some pans by covering them in heavy-duty aluminum foil and spraying liberally with Pam. Then start dropping pretzels in the warm lye water one by one for ~15 seconds before placing them on the prepared pans.

I'm being very careful here not to let the metal handle touch the water, while taking a photo with the other hand.
That foil is quite necessary if you don't want the lye water messing up your pans.
Sprinkle with kosher sea salt to taste, then bake for 10 minutes at 400 °F. (In my experience, what seems like a lot of salt when you're shaking can be hardly noticeable after baking. See the salt in the pictures below? I could barely taste it, so don't be afraid to be liberal with it.) If they come out looking like the ones below, congratulations, and enjoy!

As you may be able to tell, my ability to make a pretzel shape is pretty much nil, and this pretzel expresses my feelings on the subject pretty accurately:

First Grumpy Cat, now Grumpy Pretzel.
Anyway, that's all there is to it! Well, “all.” It's a significant amount of work and will take at least a few hours, so you may want to make a double batch to get more pretzels out of it (three dozen will go surprisingly quickly!) A hui hou, and happy baking!