Geek: [noun] a person who has excessive enthusiasm for and some expertise about a specialised subject or activity

Why would anyone volunteer to spend 4 nights over New Year halfway around the world from home, at the top of a mountain, staring at computer screens all night?

This is the best question I’ve heard all year. When I signed up for this observing trip 4 months ago I thought it would be fantastic. I could get completely comfortable with mounting and using ULTRACAM, gain more valuable observing experience, and enjoy a warmer winter holiday with a bit of diving, hiking and general beaching. Obviously I didn’t anticipate how tough it might be.

I arrived in La Palma on Sunday evening, just before 9pm, having left home over 12 hours earlier. The journey wasn’t particularly worse than usual, but I’d definitely forgotten how unpleasant it can be. I’m certain that Ryanair are constantly installing more and more uncomfortable seats on their planes, but I must admit that the customer service has become less grumpy. This time I changed in Lanzarote and Tenerife North, before finally touching down in La Palma. It was my first ever time in Lanzarote – it was rather windy, but there’s really not much else to say about that. I did enjoy sharing some time in the airport with some cheery local musicians who sang the entire time they were waiting to board their flight.

The transit to Tenerife North was the only time I’ve ever been genuinely frightened in an aeroplane. Coming down to land through extreme turbulence had everyone on the flight sat in silence with nervous smiles on their faces. Even the cabin crew looked worried. Knowing that Tenerife North is statistically one of the most dangerous airports in the world didn’t help me much. It was the location of the worst accidental aviation disaster in history, and recently saw an inter-island Binter flight (very much like the one I was on) skid off the runway in high winds. Of course, the landing was totally fine, if a little delayed, and I was quickly off the plane and in the transfer terminal. Less than a minute after entering the terminal, my connecting flight to La Palma was called, and I went back out onto the runway and straight back into the plane I’d just disembarked. I spotted my luggage on the ground below the plane, having obviously just been taken off, only to be put straight back on again. I was even greeted by the same cabin crew. The flight to La Palma was even shorter, and less scary, and I was soon boarding the familiar bus to Santa Cruz, with the same old bus driver as always, enjoying being back on my favourite Canary island. I had just enough energy to enjoy dinner and a good catch up with a few old friends, before going to sleep in the same room I’d spent 8 months living in when I was here in 2011/12.

The following morning I was up early (again), and shared a taxi with Stu up to the observatory. On arrival we didn’t even have time to check-in to the residencia before rushing up to the WHT to begin mounting ULTRACAM for the coming night. We’d both been under the impression that we wouldn’t actually be observing until the following night, but had just learnt that we might well be working that night too. The scheduled observations, using the adaptive optics instrument OASIS, would only be carried out if the seeing was below 1.1 arcseconds. It turns out that the back-up observations were to be done by ULTRACAM, which meant we had an entire 24 hours less time to prepare and sleep before starting the “real work”.

ULTRACAM almost ready to go.

ULTRACAM almost ready to go.

We had the instrument installed and cabled up in good time, but quickly encountered a serious issue with the instrument control system as soon as we tried to power up. We spent the remainder of the afternoon/evening running around trying out every spare piece of hardware available, with no success. We eventually managed to get the system working after replacing the GPS antenna interrupt cable with a spare one, even though we couldn’t come up with a good explanation for why this might have been causing the issue. This afternoon when we had a bit more time, we tried the old cable again to try to work out what had happened, and the system started perfectly. So we’re still unsure as to exactly why we were having problems, but hopefully if it happens again we can get straight to fiddling with the GPS cable without having to take out all the spare parts!

Whilst the seeing for most of the night was actually quite good, there was some high cloud around that meant the OASIS observations were completely impossible, and we had to stay up and observe with ULTRACAM for the whole night. This was particularly painful not only because we’d started work at 10am that day (making it a 22 hour shift by the time we got to bed at 8am the following morning), but also because the high clouds meant that most of the data we collected was fairly useless anyway. I accidentally had a 2.5 hour nap on the sofa and missed the only exciting part of the night – searching for lightning storms on Jupiter in H-alpha. Great. To make matters worse, my slowly developing cough/cold progressed to include a headache and a sore throat, so any plans for diving and hiking next week are now in jeopardy.

Tonight is New Years Eve, and after a slightly posher than normal dinner at the residencia, we were offered a glass of champagne before heading up to the telescope for what looks to be a nice, clear night. I could list many places I’d rather be this evening, but with Stu’s cynical but amusing sense of humour, some pretty-looking eclipses to observe and a box of Christmas chocolates to look forward to, it certainly could be worse.

Residencia champagne.

Residencia champagne.

The last La Palma sunset of 2013.

Sun sets over La Palma for the last time in 2013.

Pretty, flickery eclipse of a CV.

Pretty, flickery eclipse of a CV.

Tomorrow will mark 9 months since I started my PhD, though it feels like a lot longer. I’ve made a lot of progress already, but I know there’s still a lot to come, and I’m very keen to improve my work ethic. This is no “new years resolution”, because I don’t subscribe to that rubbish, but I will be trying harder to work more efficiently and productively. Weaning myself off of social media during work hours will be the first major hurdle, and shifting the hours a little earlier in the day will probably be helpful too.

It’s been a turbulent year, and although I spent several weeks wondering what the point of everything was, I’m heading into 2014 with a reasonably positive outlook. I’d say I feel 70% good about what I’m doing, and I’m 60% confident I’ll finish on time. Here’s to a scientifically and personally productive and enjoyable year.

¡Prospero Año Nuevo!

Wrapped up for Christmas…almost

My one and only week back in Sheffield before Christmas was reasonably relaxed, though the first night back was tough. After having been awake for 40 hours already, I had to drag myself out to the Astronomy Group Christmas meal. I spent the evening fluctuating between being quite awake and having a really fun time, and feeling seriously zombie-fied and desperate for sleep. Overall though it was a really great evening, so thanks are due to Chris for organising it.

The rest of the week went pretty quickly. I was in the office everyday, but rarely for longer than a couple of hours, and most of my self-appointed tasks for the week were simple and quick. The most important was of course to claim back for all my expenses in Thailand, which all told only came to around £300. On the Friday I had an excellent meeting with Vik, discussing my progress so far, and prioritising plans for next year. We also spent some time organising for some exciting follow-up time at the telescope in Thailand. Vik had been contacted by radio astronomers in Australia who are using the 64m Parkes Radio Telescope to search for a relatively new transient of unknown origin, the Fast Radio Bursts, or ‘Lorimer’ Bursts. These are very short, strong pulses of radio emission which have so far only ever been discovered in archival data. However, now the clever folks in Australia are able to detect these events in real-time, so we might have the chance to follow them up immediately at optical wavelengths. At the moment we really have no idea what they are, so a detection in the visible would be hugely exciting indeed. Thus I have (and I’m sure Vik and Stu have also) been subconsciously hoping to receive an international phone call all week, as this would be the trigger for follow-up observations.

Unfortunately our robotic telescope on La Palma, the pt5m, is out of action until at the least the end of January with a broken mount. The new, superior mount will be delivered in the new year, and we hope to have it up and running as soon as possible. With Gaia launching successfully last week, it’s only a matter of months before it starts spitting out alerts for new transient sources, and we want to be ready to follow them up.

Stu and I will be returning to La Palma this weekend, ready to start a 3-night observing run with ULTRACAM at the WHT on New Year’s Eve. It’ll be the third year in a row I’ll be out of the UK for NYE, which is a little bit sad. I can’t really complain though, as I’ll be taking a week off immediately after the observing to enjoy the diving, hiking and beautiful scenery of La Palma (so long as the weather behaves nicely).

I'm looking forward to views like this.

I’m looking forward to views like this.

I also found time to fix my bike and get out into the peaks. I was joined by the new astro research fellow, and a chilly headwind, but it was so good to be out there.

Brief breather in Bamford.

Last week in Thailand

This week I’ve been tweeting as @shefunilife on Twitter to over 3000 followers. The account is taken over by different members of the Sheffield University community each week. It’s been great fun trying to tell the world about my life as a PhD student, my work, and of course my time in Thailand, but it’s hard to know if anyone is really listening. Anyway, I hope I’ve inspired a few people to learn more about astronomy, or maybe take up cycling, or become more aware of climate change. If nothing else, I enjoyed it, so that will do for me.

On Sunday I took Nu’s bike out again with the aim of climbing higher and further into the Doi Suthep mountains. I was clearly still exhausted from the night shifts earlier in the week, because I was definitely slower and struggled even to reach the temple again. But I pushed on, realising only near the top that I’d managed to disconnect a spring on the read brake pad, meaning I’d climbed 1300m and rode nearly 20km with the back brake locked on. Yes, I am an idiot, but it only made the accomplishment more rewarding. I reached the King’s “Phuphing Palace” after almost 2 hours.

A little sweaty after climbing 1300m

A little sweaty after climbing 1300m.

View over the city from about halfway up.

View over the city from about halfway up.

Having lost my Friday and Saturday to work at the telescope, I felt justified taking Monday morning to go for another ride. This time I fancied something a little flatter, so I headed north along the highway to Huay Tung Tao lake. I managed to sweet-talk the checkpoint guard to let me in without paying the 20 Baht fee (who carries money with them on a bike ride?), and enjoyed a beautiful loop around the serene lake. Very peaceful, with a great view of Doi Suthep in the morning sunshine.

Huay Tung Tao lake.

Huay Tung Tao lake.

This week also saw my last two nights at the observatory, for this trip at least. We were trying to observe a number of under-studied eclipsing binary systems, hoping to accurately measure the times of minima. The timings would help long term studies of the systems, with the ultimate goal of searching for additional bodies by their effect on the times of eclipse. Sadly, the weather, as usual, would not cooperate. This time the humidity wasn’t so bad, but high cloud meant we could rarely see any stars at all, let alone collect accurate eclipse data.

We did however manage to use ULTRASPEC on sky enough to cover most aspects of the training. I finished the two nights feeling quite relieved to see at least one of the local astronomers being at ease with the instrument. With only 4 days left before my flight home, it really was the last chance to directly pass on my knowledge, and I’m very glad we managed it. I’m under no false impressions though – I know we’ll still be flooded with questions and queries over the next few weeks, but at least they should be minor and easy to answer, rather than “Err… how do we turn it on again?”. It definitely helps when the observer is familiar with the Linux command line. I’ve been trying to encourage everyone here to start using it, but as usual with people who are used to Windows, people are hesitant. I was exactly the same before being forced to work with it at ING, so I know how they feel. All I can do is give them a few good tutorials (one, two) to get going, and hope they see the potential before they get fed up with it. [EDIT: Actually I’ve already had two night time queries from the observers with fairly minor problems. Let’s hope it settles down quickly after I leave!]

On Friday I gave a presentation to NARIT astronomers and technical staff about ULTRASPEC. Originally I’d felt the need to try harder to transfer as much knowledge as possible, since we’d struggled to get on-sky and complete the training. The closer it got to the day, the more I realised that this talk wouldn’t really be of much use. Anyone who had never used ULTRASPEC before would not learn enough to be able to use it, and anyone who had used it already wouldn’t learn anything new. Still, I hope it might have helped cement some concepts into people’s heads, and supplement the training sessions we’d already given. For the first time I used the online presentation software, Prezi. It’s actually really easy to use, and very stylish. I’ll be doing all my presentations this way from now on I think, I can definitely recommend it.

On Saturday I went for a final bike ride. I went further and faster up the mountain, past the temple, past the palace, and up to what I think was the summit of Doi Pui. I reach the Doi Pui viewpoint at least, where I found a terrible view and two bright green exotic birds chained to posts. I kept going, up the single-lane track through dense jungle and fog. There was no sign of an official summit or peak, so I simply turned around when the road started going definitely down again.

View into the fog at Doi Pui viewpoint.

View into the fog at Doi Pui viewpoint.

Chained up birds. Put money in the box and feed it seemed to be the idea. Quite sad actually.

Chained up birds. Put money in the box and feed it seemed to be the idea. Quite sad actually.

This seemed to be the top...

This seemed to be the top…

Today I have to return Nu’s bike and pack up all my stuff, somehow squeezing it all into my backpack. I’m not sure what I will do when it doesn’t all fit in. Last thing will be to check out of the apartment and take a “red bus” to the airport. I definitely have mixed feelings about leaving. There will be many things I will miss (the weather, the fresh fruit smoothies, the cheap food, the swimming pool) and it’s been a really important and fruitful experience for me, both personally and academically. But at the same time I can’t wait to get back to friends and family at home, my own bike, guitar and bed, pasta bolognese etc. It might sound strange, but I’m also looking forward to catching up on work and making some more progress with my thesis. It feels like it’s been put on hold whilst I’ve been out here, and there’s lots of work to be done when I’m back in the office.

Before I leave I thought I’d try to estimate and share the kind of things I’ve eaten since arriving in Thailand, just for fun. Numbers are very approximate.

  • 15 x bowls of cereal
  • (only) 7 x instant noodles
  • 15 x chicken fried rice
  • 5 x french fries
  • 5 x mixed fruit dish
  • 10 x fresh fruit smoothie
  • 10 x stir-fried chicken and cashews with rice
  • 3 x indescribably disgusting meals
  • 5 x vegetable tempura
  • 5 x Japanese salted roast chicken with rice
  • 5 x home-made veg (and tofu) stir fry with noodles
  • 3 x pasta and pesto
  • 10 x Chocolate Brownie Magnum ice creams
  • 15 x missed meals

I’m excited/nervous to get home and find out if I’ve managed to not lose any weight… Anyway, time to sign off from Thailand for the final time. Sheffield, here I come!

Why Thailand Isn’t My New Favourite Country

There are many great things about Thailand. Many people are very friendly, the ‘winter’ weather is lovely, and cost of living is pretty cheap. However, there are also many reasons why I can’t wait to get back home, even if it is bloody freezing. Here are the main ones.

  1. The standard of driving is terrible.
  2. Bureaucracy and politeness seem to get in the way of effective organisation.
  3. The standard of driving is awful.
  4. Dietary habits seem somewhat unhealthy. There’s a surprisingly large number of overweight people here.
  5. The standard of driving is horrendous.
  6. A small minority of people seem to be more grumpy than a London bus driver. I never knew such a thing was possible.
  7. The standard of driving is dreadful.
  8. The WiFi and internet is quite unreliable.
  9. The standard of driving is frightening
  10. Whilst there are many aspects of Thai culture which do great things to counter gender and LGBT issues, there is still an overriding ‘natural’ hierarchy in traditional families, where the man ‘owns’ the woman.
  11. The standard of driving is atrocious
  12. It seems to be totally acceptable to flood the entire bathroom with this weird hosepipe thing when cleaning your bum.
  13. Oh yeah, the driving is pretty bad too.

Seriously, I have genuinely never felt less safe, whether on a bike or in a vehicle. The vast majority of vehicles in Thailand are either two-wheeled mopeds or motorbikes, or Toyota Hilux-style pickup trucks, often modified in many bizarre ways to increase carrying capacity. Many of the pickups often have people chilling out in the back, with absolutely no safety precautions, even at 100kph on the highway. Even though it’s a legal requirement to wear a helmet, at least half of moped travellers don’t. Most of them like to keep their helmets in the front basket or hanging off their elbows. Perhaps they’re more fashionable like that? Apparently even the helmets that are worn are almost all not built to the proper safety standards. Cramming lots of people, pets and shopping onto one moped is also commonplace. I once saw a woman driving with 5 children hanging off her moped, none with helmets. People also like to drive around (including on the highway) using only one hand to control their steeds. I’ve seen people zipping along whilst carrying shopping, logs and branches, bicycles, babies, and talking on the phone of course.

Hill starts are a totally unknown concept. Nobody seems able to reverse into bay parking without someone there to help. Lane discipline is entirely non-existent. Maybe I’m too easily wound up, but this one really irritates me in traffic jams. For a country where the major religion preaches heavily about patience and suffering, road users here are incredibly impatient. Apparently it’s also totally cool to just park your truck in the inside lane of a 6-lane highway while you go fishing under the bridge. Talking on the phone whilst driving is also fine. And last but certainly not least, there appears to be absolutely no deterrent or negative stigma about drink driving here. I’ve seen people wobble all over the place at all times of the day, and have seen or heard numerous road accidents around town that seem to simply constitute one vehicle driving straight into a tree/lamppost/building. It’s really no wonder that Thailand has one of the highest road death rates per capita in the world.

So, as you can probably tell, I’m not a big fan of Thai roads. I don’t think *anyone* here could pass a UK driving test. It really troubles me that the entire population can be so… switched off, when it comes to road safety. As much as I am behind the people in the UK kicking up a fuss about road safety, in particular the safety of cyclists, I absolutely cannot wait to be back on UK roads where I’ll feel so much safer on the bike.

A quick update of last week:

  • I tried to climb Doi Suthep, the mountain behind Chiang Mai, on Nu’s bike at the weekend. I reached the Doi Suthep temple after about an hour, having ascended a total of 1000m. It was tough, but fantastically rewarding, and coming down in the morning sunshine was a wonderful feeling.
  • I continued to watch a lot of TV. I’m nearing the end of all 8 seasons of Scrubs.
  • I cooked my first meal in the apartment (stir-fried veg and tofu with noodles).
  • An old university friend of mine, Zora, stayed for a couple of days. She was passing through Chiang Mai at the end of her two month travels around east Asia.
  • We entered a pub quiz with her two friends and did reasonably well, and found an impressive Thai reggae band in an empty bar.
  • I was back at the telescope for another two nights, again losing my Friday night to crappy weather and frustrating training sessions. It seems that in astronomy as well as driving, Thai people aren’t quite as switched on as they could be.
  • I had a traditional Thai massage. I felt like I couldn’t spend six weeks here and not at least try it once. I will never try it again – it was horrible.
My first home cooked meal in over a month.

My first home cooked meal in over a month.

The stairs to Wat Doi Suthep. I didn't have the energy, or the money for the tourist charge, the go up them.

The stairs to Wat Doi Suthep. I didn’t have the energy, or the money for the tourist charge, the go up them.

A Thai reggae band we found when exploring the city night life.

A Thai reggae band we found when exploring the city night life.

Thailand Week 4

My fourth week in Thailand, and second in Chiang Mai, was fairly uneventful (hence the lack of photos in this post – sorry photo lovers!). By this point I’d become more comfortable eating alone and finding food, and was also quite content to sit and watch TV all evening without worrying about “making the most of it”. With almost no friends in town, and no real urge to hit the party scene, I was quite happy to laze around and take it easy. And so, most days were spent at the office and most evenings were spent at home, fighting ants and becoming addicted to University Challenge.

I found myself working quite a lot on my responsibility to train the local astronomers. It was becoming increasingly obvious that no-one had really thought carefully about to pass on the knowledge we have of how to get the most out of ULTRASPEC, to the local staff. This was slowly becoming my biggest task for the following few weeks, especially as every planned training session so far had been scuppered by awful weather. This week I was scheduled to spend 3 nights at the telescope with David, a Ukrainian astronomer who has been working at NARIT for a couple of years now. He was hoping to get some good data of the interesting binary system AS Eri, and the transiting exoplanet WASP-33b. This exoplanet happens to be the same one I spent 3 months observing for my Master’s project in La Palma, so this had the potential to be a very exciting run of observations.

I found this moth in the control building. Yes, it is bigger than my big toe, and yes I was wearing organic socks. Thanks Mum.

I found this moth in the control building. Yes, it is bigger than my big toe, and yes I was wearing organic socks. Thanks Mum.

Unfortunately, the humidity sat too close to 100% for the entire 3 nights, and we couldn’t open the dome at all. David didn’t seem too disappointed, he probably expected such rubbish weather at this time of year. Whilst losing out on the chance to collect exciting data is always sad, the worst part was the effect it had on the training. So far we’d had so many nights of bad weather that only one of the local astronomers really had any idea how to use ULTRASPEC, but even he hadn’t had enough contact time to be able to make the most of it. I was starting to worry that I’d leave behind an instrument worth £200,000+ in the hands of people who might not be able to use it, or at worst, could be a risk to its safety.

Nu, one of the telescope operators here, had spent a long time trying hard to learn how to run everything, including the complicated data reduction software, so that at least someone from the engineering side could manage the basic operations. He has learned more or less everything there is to learn about the instrument *off-sky*, but he still hasn’t seen it used on-sky at all. Whilst this isn’t hugely different, there are some subtleties, and his lack of observational astronomy experience could make things difficult.

On a side note, after discovering how much I like cycling, Nu was very keen to lend me his bike for the rest of my stay in Thailand. He’d brought it up to the mountain to play around with, so one afternoon I had a quick go at climbing the steep roads around the base camp. I soon discovered that cycling at high altitude, in high temperatures, and having not done any real exercise for a month, was pretty tough. I genuinely came close to passing out more than once, and only managed to go 4km (+400m altitude) along the road before having to turn back. Still, it felt great to be on a bike again.

The views were worth it, even if I did nearly die.

The views were worth it, even if I did nearly die.

 

Back to the training: to make matters worse, the other research-grade imaging instrument on the TNT, a commercial 4000 x 4000 pixel camera from the US, was not working. It was installed the week before, and was due to be in operation from the first night after David’s ULTRASPEC run. It seemed like almost every possible thing that could go wrong with the installation had gone wrong, and the 4k camera would be out of action until late December. What does a sensible observatory do when one of their two camera is unusable? Use the other one, of course. What did you think they would do?

After three nights of dire boredom at the telescope, I was asked to stay another night to help Nu and Tim operate ULTRASPEC instead of the 4k camera. This run was for a Professor in China, who it seems was too important to come to observe himself, and so had asked Tim to do it instead. Tim is one of the other telescope operators here, and is also not an astronomer (yet). So there I was, losing my Friday night to the grim weather at Doi Inthanon. Woo…

Thankfully, because it was obvious that the weather would not improve throughout the night, Nu offered to drive me down to Chiang Mai at around 10pm. It took me several days to re-adjust from the night shift after this, but I was very much relieved to be down again. On Saturday afternoon I went to get Nu’s bike tinkered with to make it a little safer, and also splashed out on some new cycling gear (shorts and jersey), so that I could really make the most of the bike. Because, if you don’t have the gear, you can’t enjoy the ride properly, obviously…

Bangkok for the weekend

At the end of my first full week in Chiang Mai, I hopped on a quick 1-hour flight to Bangkok to visit my good friend Kieran. He’s been living there for about 6 months now, teaching English to school children, teachers and parents. I’d chosen this weekend because another friend of mine, Richard, would also be in Bangkok with a couple of days to spare before his conference started. Richard has been working for the BBC World Service in Bangladesh for a year or so, so it had been a while since I’d seen him too.

I’ll let the photos below do most of the talking, but I will say that I had a really brilliant weekend with these two lovely gents. I barely thought about work once, and really enjoyed relaxing and catching up with them. If I were ever to find myself dossing around in a foreign capital for a weekend, these two might well be my top choice for company.

I was told beforehand that I would hate Bangkok, that it was a lot noisier, busier, and messier than Chiang Mai. It was, but I didn’t hate it. Maybe it was the good company, or the relaxed pace we set ourselves, but it felt calm and somewhat gentle, if a giant metropolis of 8-15 million people could ever be described as gentle. I enjoyed taking the SkyTrain (like the underground, but on bridges above the city), fending off motorcycle taxi offers, and feeling comfortable as a tourist again.

View along the Chao Phraya river

View along the Chao Phraya river.

Crossing the bridge to reach the river-taxi dock on the other side

Crossing the bridge to reach the river-taxi dock on the other side.

Crowded river taxi. Any distance, 30p!

Crowded river taxi. Any distance, 30p!

A little bit of evidence of protests going on. They seemed friendly and fairly light-hearted for the time being

A little bit of evidence of protests going on. They seemed friendly and fairly light-hearted for the time being.

Apparently this is where the Prime Minister works. A woman told me I was stupid for taking a photo of it. Not sure if it's a boring building, if it's illegal to photograph government buildings, or if she just hates the PM.

Apparently this is where the Prime Minister works. A woman told me I was stupid for taking a photo of it. Not sure if it’s a boring building, if it’s illegal to photograph government buildings, or if she just hates the PM.

Danish folk dancers performing inside Wat Pho. You know, the usual.

Danish folk dancers performing inside Wat Pho. You know, the usual.

The great "reclining buddha"

The great “reclining buddha”.

More of Wat Pho

More of Wat Pho.

CIMG8341

Another boat, this time on the canal. The one is splashy, hence the tarpaulin sides.

Another boat, this time on the canal. This one is splashy, hence the tarpaulin sides.

We had dinner at an anti-HIV/AIDS themed restaurant.

We had dinner at an anti-HIV/AIDS themed restaurant. It was nice.

Bangkok skyline

Bangkok skyline/smogline.

 

On the Sunday we took the cheap train (60p) to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam.

On the Sunday we took the cheap train (60p) to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam (about 2 hours travel time, with 1 hour of the spent just getting out of Bangkok).

We rented red bikes for 80p. It's what you do.

We rented red bikes for 80p. It’s what you do in Ayutthaya.

Memorial dedicated almost entirely to chickens. Yes, really, chickens.

Memorial dedicated almost entirely to chickens. Yes, really, chickens.

My first real life encounter with elephants. They really are stunning.

My first real life encounter with elephants. They really are stunning.

Ancient ruins. Apparently the city boasted a population of 1 million people in the 17th Century, before the Burmese attacked, beheaded all the statues, and scared everyone away.

Ancient ruins. Apparently the city boasted a population of 1 million people in the 17th Century, before the Burmese attacked, beheaded all the statues, and scared everyone away.

Poor attempt at a team photo.

Poor attempt at a team photo.

My first encounter with tigers too, next to the floating market. They're beautiful creatures, but terrifying too.

My first encounter with tigers too, next to the floating market. They’re beautiful creatures, but terrifying nonetheless. This one wasn’t, he was pretty relaxed, but his friend seemed rather angry.

This elephant gave off an incredible air of shyness and sadness. It was heart-wrenching and comical at the same time.

This elephant gave off an incredible air of shyness and sadness. It was heart-wrenching and comical at the same time.

 

 

Thailand Week 3: Settling In

My first major task in Chiang Mai was to find somewhere to live for the coming month. I’d spent a good while looking online at the different options, which ranged from renting totally empty apartments with no amenities to staying in a swanky hotel room. The University would ultimately be paying, so I needn’t worry too much about the price, especially as the most expensive options were still only £500-£600 for one month.

So I spent an entire afternoon wandering around the area of town relatively close to the NARIT office (where I’d be working most days). In doing so I discovered the following things about short-term accommodation in Thailand:

  • If you want to live in the best places, you need to book 6 months in advance. Two days is a little short notice.
  • Air conditioning and weekly cleaning seem to be the most important selling points.
  • Most places don’t have hot water. Electric showers are common.
  • Many hotels, apartments or “condominiums” shown on the map or advertised by giant signs on the side of the road are in fact still being built.

After getting very hot and very sweaty, hitting lots of literal dead-ends and finding many places fully booked until April, I settled for the first place with everything I needed at a reasonable price (about £300). Huay Kaew residences seems to cater for long term tourists, ex-pats and locals alike. The apartment has a kitchen area with hob and microwave, free access to the swimming pool and “gym”, and weekly cleaning/bed making. I use quotation marks for “gym” because it has three broken treadmills, two broken exercise bikes, a squeaky cross-trainer, and a few worryingly wobbly weight machines. It’s fair to say I haven’t used it much!

However, on Sunday when I said goodbye to Martin and Madelon and headed over to check in at my new ‘home’, I suddenly had second thoughts. It might have been the general sense of loneliness having lost my two companions, or it might have been the fact that I had to pay for the rent and a deposit all in cash (meaning several trips to the ATM over the next few days, and lots of additional nasty bank charges – plus I will be returning to the UK with around £300 worth of Thai Baht – hurray…) Ultimately though I think it was the infestation of ants, spiders and geckos that quickly settled in the apartment as soon as I brought any food inside. Regardless, it was to be home for the next 4 weeks, so I had to get over it. Here’s a few pics.

'Moving house' by tuk-tuk

‘Moving house’ by tuk-tuk

Peeling couch and "the lounge"

Peeling couch and “the lounge”

La Cocina

La Cocina

The enormous and rock hard bed which I've grown to love.

The enormous and rock hard bed which I’ve grown to love.

I don’t think I’ve managed to get through 48 hours without having to tackle a host of ants, or at least clean up the dusting of dead ants that appears the day after the bug spray comes out. I’m quite used to it now, but I’m still looking forward to getting back to my own house. I’ve made good use of the swimming pool though, and can’t say I object to someone else changing my sheets.

The following day I walked about 1km to the city office of NARIT (National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand). It was only as I climbed the stairs of the shared office building, trying to find a familiar face, that I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone about when and where to go. I was just expecting them to expect me. As I have gradually learnt over the past few weeks, public organisations in Thailand, whilst being very polite and friendly, can be somewhat disorganised (I say this having grown up heavily involved in a national children’s charity in the UK which is internally famous for disorganisation, so I feel qualified to lay down this critique). Well, no one seemed surprised to see me, but no one seemed to know what to do with me either. Eventually I was given the code to the door and offered a small desk near the window. Perfect. I soon settled down to (pretend to) work.

Whilst settling in to the NARIT office was easy, I was still struggling with food. Cereal is rather expensive here, and nowhere near as good as in the UK. Plus my first attempt at having cereal was sabotaged by ants, so after buying it for a second time I was really quite fed up. I now keep all my food in the fridge, as it seems to be the only place where the ants can’t go. On a totally unrelated note, I cannot recommend chilled dried mango. It’s painfully chewy.

I have since found a few reasonably reliable places to eat, and I also bought the bare essentials for cooking at home (1x chopping board, 1x wok, 1x sharp knife, 1x spoon&fork, 2x bowl, washing up liquid, 1x sponge), although it took another couple of weeks to actually finding the time and energy to use them. There are plenty of ex-pat run restaurants around town that offer western style food, but it’s usually twice the price and not as good as at home. Plus I already feel like enough of an ignorant, British tourist as it is. I couldn’t bear the thought of returning home to tell everyone all I’d eaten was pizza, chips and bacon sandwiches. Fish/seafood is genuinely the most popular main ingredient here, with pork a close second. The main problem isn’t so much the lack of choice, it’s that when I say  as slowly and clearly as I can: Mai sai kai, pha kap (no egg, no fish please), I still have absolutely no idea if the response is “No egg, no fish, OK no problem!” or “Sorry, we can’t take the egg out/It has fish sauce already”. So I smile and nod and hope it’s the former. Thankfully so far I’ve had no major incidents. It still scares me every time though.

The rest of the week was spent actually being quite productive in the office, working on the user manual for ULTRASPEC, and reducing some of the data from the commissioning tests. I was also dragged in to helping a few of the local astronomers prepare for their observations with the instrument. This is really great experience for me, but definitely doesn’t add anything to my PhD thesis. Oh well, it’s more enjoyable than reading dusty old papers for a literature review, so I can’t complain.

Oh yeah, it also rained like crazy for a few days. That was interesting. The streets and pavements quickly became torrents of dirty, slimy water, which was not so fun to walk through when all you really want is dinner and someone else to talk to…

Heavy heavy rain at the telescope.

Heavy heavy rain at the telescope.

Next time: a weekend trip to Bangkok

Thailand: The land of the eternal stomach ache

Thailand. Where some things smell fantastic but most things smell awful, and where ants will climb 8 floors and search your entire apartment just to get into your porridge oats.

AKA: Thailand Week 2

After 5 nights of commissioning, Vik, Stu and Paul jetted back to the UK and were replaced by two PhD students. Martin just started his PhD with Stu in Sheffield, and Madelon is in her third year of a PhD with Tom. And so the team grew smaller and less experienced. No matter, the weather was terrible most of the time anyway, and we only managed a few hours of observations spread over the last 5 nights.

Sunrise over Thai highlands

Sunrise over Thai highlands

The only real newsworthy event of those nights was that on the very last night, Madelon and I spent a long time musing over the possible cause of one the problems we’d been having with the ULTRASPEC. For some reason, the CCD chip was not clearing charge correctly when the light level was particularly high. A “clear” is used when we want a short exposure time, but have a long read out time. Whilst the current image is being read out, the chip is left exposed to light and collecting charge (we have no camera shutter like your digital camera, or in fact like most other astronomical cameras). After read out, this “dead frame” of collected charge is simply thrown away when we want to expose the next image. This turned out to be a problem with high light levels, and the charge could not be cleared properly.

After several hours we managed to come up with a possible explanation for why we were seeing the effect we did (see image below). The answer is not trivial, and may in fact be completely incorrect (the detector expert at the Astronomical Technology Centre in Edinburgh is currently mulling it over), but it was actually really enjoyable exercising my brain and using logic and reason to build a viable hypothesis. Perhaps I’m not so demoralised by science after all! Small victories are important, right?

Under high light levels, ULTRASPEC exhibits strange saturation behaviour when trying to "clear" a dead frame. I postulated this is a problem with matching the clocking limit to the full-well limit.

Under high light levels, ULTRASPEC exhibits strange saturation behaviour when trying to “clear” a dead frame. I postulated this is a problem with matching the clocking limit to the full-well limit.

Since the weather at the observatory had been pretty terrible for most of our nights, we’d been going to bed relatively early. On our penultimate day Nu offered to take us on an “awesome” walk for the afternoon. It really was awesome. I’ll tell the story in pictures…

The walk started on a little tribe track off the main road.

The walk started on a little hill-tribe track off the main road.

We soon descended into the "jungle", where the wildlife rules the land. Here are ten million ants taking over the path.

We soon descended into the “jungle”, where the wildlife rules the land. Here are ten million ants taking over the path.

The first waterfall we came to was nice, but a little underwhelming. I had hoped this wasn't the centerpiece of the walk Nu had boasted about for days.

The first waterfall we came to was nice, but a little underwhelming. I hoped this wasn’t the centerpiece of the walk Nu had boasted about for days.

We continued along the river, conquering precarious bridges and rickety ladders.

We continued along the river, conquering precarious bridges and rickety ladders.

Of course, the pinnacle of the walk, the "awesome" waterfall, was indeed pretty awesome.

Of course, the pinnacle of the walk, the “awesome” waterfall, was indeed pretty awesome.

ULTRASPEC Team B looking fantastic

ULTRASPEC Team B looking majestic (well, Tom was anyway).

We continued alongside the river until the jungle opened out to reveal rolling terraces of rice paddies.

We continued alongside the river until the jungle opened out to reveal rolling terraces of rice paddies.

CIMG7939

Nu shows us how to make a whistle from the rice stalk

Nu shows us how to make a whistle from the rice stalk.

More dodgy river crossings

More dodgy river crossings.

Rice harvesters at work

Rice harvesters at work.

The walk finished at a hill tribe village where this guy grinds fresh coffee beans and makes you a cup for free

The walk finished at a hill tribe village where this guy grinds fresh coffee beans and makes you a cup for free.

CIMG7982

After our final night at the telescope, when we were able to open for a couple of hours only, we packed up and headed down to Chiang Mai. We were dropped off at a little hotel/guesthouse on the East side of the city, right by the river. The river, it later transpired, was to be the prime location for the Loi Krathong lantern festival that weekend. The choice of hotel was no coincidence. We quickly headed out to find dinner, then enjoyed exploring the night market, and watching the festival kick off with lots of sky lanterns, and hundreds of teenagers throwing fireworks at each other on the old ‘Iron Bridge’.

Sky lanterns released from the riverside

Sky lanterns released from the riverside

Tom left early the following morning, but Martin and Madelon were sticking around for a few days. On Friday I spent the day searching for somewhere to live for the next month – more on this later. On Saturday we rented some old, heavy Dutch bikes for a tour around the city. We had a look at Chiang Mai university, and cycled up the hill to a nearby waterfall. The evenings were spent enjoying the night markets, the cheap food, drink and ice cream, and watching each night of the Loi Krathong festival grow in size and ferocity.

CIMG8138

Bike selfie

Bike selfie

CIMG8176

Night market

Night market

Sky full of lanterns

Sky full of lanterns

Next time more photos and my first week in the NARIT office.