Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Friday, 28 October 2011

Puerto Rico : A Hispanic Oddity

Puerto Rico can be justly praised for a great many things. Having a solid educational system, efficient public institutions and a carefully thought-out public transport network are but a few of the many, many virtues it doesn't have.

My particular favourite of the island's various enchanting nuances is its corrupt milk industry. Milk is produced locally, presumably to avoid the expense of having to ship it in. Except that tropical grass is extremely poor in nutrients, so grain must be shipped in to feed the cows instead. Which, naturally, requires government subsidies to make it profitable... although it seems what the subsidies actually pay for are the palatial houses of the dairy farmers. I should also add that milk is about 5 times more expensive than root beer.

There's just something wonderfully endearing about a country with a  corrupt milk industry.

Then, as I've mentioned previously, there's the water authority. 4 miles from here, you'd be lucky to get water 3 days a week. Apparently this is not so bad provided you have a large cistern that can fill up whenever the water is working. The ironic thing is that my neighbourhood currently has more water pressure than you'd ever want to see outside of an episode of Mythbusters.

Water pressure is not to be trifled with

This is not normally the case - in fact I often don't get much more than a trickle myself. So it came as a great surprise one morning to turn on the tap and have water spray across the kitchen and see the tap physically jerk upwards. Something inside it even went BANG. Whatever it was hasn't gone BANG since, so is presumably broken, but never mind.

The other bizarre feature of the water industry is that if you dig your own well, legally you don't own the water that comes out of it. So, if you play by the rules, the water industry will charge you for the water you took out of the ground at your own expense. However, you can at least collect rainwater for free - unlike in Colorado.

The electrical authority has quirks of its own. Fortunately, they're not known for the crazy amount of service interruptions that plague their dihydrogen monoxide counterparts. Sure, there are more power cuts here than in most developed countries, but not enough to really worry about. No, the issue here is that the electrical bills are slightly higher than they need to be, so that churches actually get it for free. Thievin' bastards. Why I've half a mind to write a letter to Richard Dawkins.

Thou Shalt Covet Thy Neighbour's Electricity. Covet it good  I say !

One other thing I learned recently deserves to be reported, though it isn't the kind of thing I would normally write about because it's genuinely sick. A few years ago, the authorities embarked on a campaign to reduce the number of stray dogs. I'm not a fan of culling animals, but in this case it might be justifiable. Their numbers are high and most of them are clearly disease-ridden and starving. To try to domesticate them would be an exercise in futility, and take money and resources the island simply doesn't have.

Unfortunately, many pet dogs that happened to be on the street at the time were rounded up during this program. They were not humanely euthanised. No. They were thrown off a bridge.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Al Gore Can Go Screw Himself

Well, he can. Literally. In the most physical sense of the word. With whatever perverted product he prefers, if necessary. Even if his job really is to help Stephen Hawking protect the space-time continuum, for all I care he can go and take a running jump into a pool of his own faecal matter.

This tyrannical Vice President famously won a shiny trophy (OK, it was a Nobel Prize) for a moderately inaccurate power-point presentation about some tap-dancing penguins... no wait, that was Elijah Wood... or maybe it was Morgan Freeman... but I digress. My point his that he can take said trophy - I'm assuming the Nobel to take the form of a little statue of Alfred Nobel himself, possibly holding a stick of dynamite and grinning happily - and use it as a suppository.

Actually, I wouldn't much dispute the basic message of An Inaccurate Truth. Indeed, some of the most noted skeptics have now been forced to conclude that the Earth really is warming. That's skeptics, people, not deniers - those are entirely different beasts. Deniers are the kind of people who should be put on a small smelly island somewhere, along with the Moon landing conspiracy theorists and Six Day Creationists. Skeptics, in contrast, can be safely taken to the pub for a drink.

You see, now that all reasonable people accept that warming is occurring, the cause of it is irrelevant. If we had infinite quantities of coal, or there was no other way to generate electricity, then it might make some difference if our C02 emissions were dangerous or not. But we don't, and there are. So there are really only two options.

1) Carry on burning fossil fuels. Which is fine* if in fact this doesn't cause global warming. Until we run out, and then we are truly up faecal matter creek without a canoe. And if it does cause global warming, then we'll just reach said creek quite a lot sooner.
* Except for all the other nasty associated  environmental damage, like oil spills and open-cast mining and the truly awful effects of fracking.**
** This seriously needs a less hilarious name.

No fossil fuels = no Port Talbot = WIN
2) Stop burning fossil fuels. If warming is real and caused by humans, then at the very least this limits just how far up the proverbial creek we get. And if it's not caused by humans, then we've still prevented all the other downsides to fossil fuels and switched to energy sources that will last forever  (and this includes nuclear fission by the way - breeder reactors are more than capable of producing enough fuel to last us billions of years), and will likely become a hell of a lot cheaper over time.

So, if the remaining skeptics are right, and humans are not causing global warming, then we still have to stop burning fossil fuels eventually - and the sooner the better. If they're wrong, then we have to stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible. Either way... well, you get the idea.

Which might make you wonder why I started this post with a vitriolic attack on Al Gore, the patron Saint of Lowering C02 Emissions. Well... I don't actually want the poor bugger to engage in self-copulation, or do something unfortunate with his Nobel prize. Heck, his alarmist movie is probably the only way to convey to the more thick-headed people that there really is a problem, and we should jolly well do something about it. In fact, well done that man !

Unless he tells me to save energy by not using my shiny new air conditioner. Because if the survival of a few waddling tuxedo-wearing movie stars (i.e. penguins) depends upon me living in a constant 35 degree heat and therefore having to collect my own sweat in buckets, then so help me God I'll go to Antarctica and finish off the feathery bastards myself. They'd do the same to me if they could.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

How Lord of the Rings Can Help Solve China's Population Crisis

It's a simple question so I'll get right to it. Elves are immortal and apparently reproduce in the same way that humans do, so why aren't they crammed into Middle Earth like sardines ? Clearly they all get along with each other without reproducing much, so I reckon that if we figure out how they do it we'll be well on the way to finding a solution for China's population problem. Plus, we'll be able to stop worrying about what will happen when someone invents a cure for ageing.

You might wonder why elves have been singled out here. What about Middle Earth's other long-lived races ?

  • Ents. Live for thousands of years, but lost the Entwives (seriously ? Entwives ? Well that's what you get from a Professor of English at Oxford University), hence, no more Entings. Problem solved. That's probably not a good solution for China though.
"Perhaps they're all hiding in here. Well, you never know."
  • Dwarves. No idea how long these angry little dudes live. All we know is that the women have beards, and - if we allow Pratchett to interject at this point - most dwarf courtship consists of trying to determine the other's gender, which takes a very long time. Giving everyone a great big bushy beard might work for China, but the whole world ? That would be an odd place to spend eternity.
It is indeed the dwarves that go swimming with little hairy women. Good luck with that.
  • Wizards. There are only 5 of them, at least one of them is gay and the rest are probably male amyway. Reducing China's population to 5 old men is a move probably even more radical than they would be prepared to accept.
"I told you NO means NO !"
  • Orcs. A seriously misunderstood race. It's no-wonder they're so angry given that they're obviously overloaded with testosterone, given training that makes even the Libyan rebels look competent, only fed "maggotty bread" and - just to make them really enraged - they're all male. Again this is not a solution that will help China much.

  • Dunedain. Long-lived, but got their proverbial and literal asses' kicked long ago, so not many left. Though you would think that would be motivation enough to repopulate the species (or sub-species, or race, or whatever). Anyway. as far as I can tell, they lived so long because of really good breeding, and seem reluctant to corrupt their bloodlines. Eugenics, anyone ?
Yes, I'm going to recycle that picture wherever possible. Because I can.
  • Spiders. It's not clear why, but Shelob is apparently the last of the giant spiders, even though spider broods are hundreds strong. Answering this one would require reading the Silmarilion, which I've just not prepared to do.

Which means that the options for the survival of a long-lived species boil down to massacring an entire gender, ludicrous facial hair, killing all but 5 of the populace, or becoming Nazis. Well, let's put those on the "maybe" pile, and hope the Elves have a better solution. They must have come up with something... right ?

Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that the elf birth rate exactly matches the elf death rate. Now elven medicine is a tad mysterious but apparently very effective, so we can safely assume very low infant mortality. Which means that each elf couple will produce at least 1 child per year. That means that 1 in 2 elves must die each year to balance it out. Clearly this is preposterous, especially since elves can live to be over 3,000 years old. But at that death rate, any one elf only has a 1 in 1x10^903 chance of living that long, so their initial population must have been many orders of magnitude larger than the number of atoms in the Universe.

On the other hand, maybe they've all just got... bored. They've had at least 3,000 years to practise things so wantonly perverted they would make the Internet itself blush, and have run out of ideas. And since they seem to have pretty good memories, it's not like they can forget what they did and re-learn it years later. Moreover, it takes like 17 pints for an elf to get even slightly drunk, making elven orgies perhaps a trifle dull, by the general standards of orgies.

"Wait, I feel something. I slight tingling in my -"
However, this explanation lacks credibility, because none of the elves seem remotely interesting enough to ever have had a hidden life as a sex fiend. Maybe, instead, they have some incredibly effective method of contraception, and only procreate when their population diminishes. But that doesn't seem to likely either, because Liv Tyler (unaware of Aragorn's fascist tenancies) seemed pretty eager to get on with making babies.

Which means we're left with a long-lived population of more or less stable, well-adjusted (if extremely ponsey) people who want to have children, but don't. Only one explanation remains - Elves are reverse tribbles. Instead of being born pregnant, they're almost all born sterile. No wonder Liv Tyler was so keen to turn in her sword for innumerable evening's spent watching Ben and Holly (which in Middle Earth is probably considered a documentary).

Does this help China ? Umm.... no. It doesn't. So the title of this post is, in fact, a lie. Oh well.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

On the Purchase of a Horseless Carriage

I have several lifelong ambitions. These include, but are not necessarily limited to :
  • Retire on the Moon
  • Charter a boat to reach an astronomical conference
  • Legitimately use the phrase, "I wish to buy your entire stock !"
  • Legitimately use the phrase, "Saddle my elephant. I ride at dawn."
Unfortunately my other plan, namely to emulate the great Sir David Attenborough - who never passed his driving test and consequently doesn't own a car - is about to fail. It might theoretically be possible for me to continue car pooling for another year, but it would be considerably more difficult than, say, getting a horse.

This idea is not without merit. For one thing, it would mean having to set up the world's first Observatory stables - add that one to the list. It would also mean an 8-mile ride every day, or 20 miles on weekends (the Observatory doesn't have a supermarket), and horses don't come with air conditioning or a roof. I suppose I could attach a carriage and ride in that, but then I'd have to get a driver so I could sit in the shady, rain-proof interior (and presumably shout things like, "To the Observatory, James*, and don't spare the whip !").

* The attentive reader will see the difficulty at once. Puerto Ricans aren't called James.

Some horses do come with speakers, however
An alternative scheme, which would do away for the need for a separate carriage and kill two birds with one stone - would be to ride atop an elephant. Unlike horses, elephants are large enough to be fitted with a small roof and probably a little a.c. unit, although I'm not aware if anyone has tried. Plus they can knock stuff over. But they also poop a lot and probably need to be fed and stuff.

So that's that plan scuppered. With characteristic cowardly capitulation I've caved in and contrived to contribute capital to acquire a car (today's blog is brought to you by the letter C !).  Now my first choice would have been the smallest vehicle possible, like a Smart car (yes, minis are way cooler, but they're now as big as every other car which somewhat defeats their purpose). This is counterbalanced by my other need to do as little work as possible - i.e. buy the first thing on offer provided it doesn't spontaneously combust in the presence of trees.

At this point I can now only suppose that reverse karmic retribution is in effect, because the first thing on offer is a large, shiny golden thing with electrically-adjustable seats. It has driven 73,000 miles, or about 3 times around the Earth, since its creation in 2003, and has 4 doors (on this terminology I am in full agreement with the Americans - cars have either 2 or 4 doors, not 3 or 5, that's just silly). And a CD player. Umm. Knowledge of and interest in cars failing at this point. It can go forwards and backwards, but not up or down or back in time. Look ! Here it is...