Saturday, July 14, 2007

Mountain View

So we all set off to Whitefield, New Hampshire. Like the evil boss that he is, John had organised a conference at the Mountain View and Spa Hotel - a five-star resort set in a golf course in the White Mountains with a cracking view of the Presidential Range, a bunch of mountains the most prominent of which are these days named after some vaguely important historical Yanks (despite the name, not always presidents) who kicked around in the 18th and 19th centuries. Therefore, sadly, no Mount Bush. The tallest is Mt. Washington, which is of course named after that traitor to the Crown George Washington, and which is famous for some of the worst weather on the planet. The highest recorded surface wind speed of 231 mph was recorded by some poor sod at the summit in April 1934. From our civilised distance, however, the mountain looked positively serene. We (being myself, Em, Suwicha [John's Phud student] and Emma B-Y [ex-collegue from Leicester]) had set off from Boston in a hire car, and given that the hotel is just around the corner from Boston, the journey only took three hours. Once you get past Concord the scenery is superb, but before that the only interesting thing that happened was the toll booth. I had skilfully manoeuvred the huge Dodge Charger into the appropriate lane and opened the window in order to lob the three quarters into the bucket. "I like these bucket systems" I opined from the driving seat to the lasses as I took aim with the coins "it makes getting through the toll booths a doddle". It really goes without saying that I chucked the coins at the gaping hole and missed horrendously, sending coins pinging all over the floor outside the car. "Balls!" I shouted, and turned to Em "Quick, get some more coins" I hissed, like it was her fault that I had hideously crap aim, "I blinking well missed!". Of course the ladies behaved like ladies and took the piss blisteringly for the rest of the journey. We arrived, after travelling for hours through the middle of nowhere, at the resort and found ourselves extremely pleased that we had done. The place had two pools, a gym with activity room, a cinema, spa, sauna, golf course, and massive rooms with cracking views. It also had the most helpful, enthusiastic and just damn-proud-of-his-hotel bell-boy in the world, called Frank. It was a crying shame that we (well, all of us except Em, who read about queens the entire time and had Frank bring her drinks on the veranda) had to spend the conference in a room with no windows talking about science, but it was made up for by the time not in said room. On the first night we saw fireflies zigzagging over the fairways, this being the first time we'd ever seen them - they were like entrancing midges that lit up in gold for a half-second every three. The scene was enhanced by the passage of a porcupine on his nightly dinner-hunt. The next morning Em and I went for an early morning stroll and took these photos...

...and we also went for a round of golf. Well, when I say "round" I meant two holes. In an hour and a half. I guess that's what you get when you go for a round with a bunch of girls...

All in all it was a pretty damn fine conference, and in two days was over far too quickly.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Breaking News!

I've just got back from a conference in New Hampshire, followed by another one in Texas. Writing on here every day was never going to happen in truth, but it's the thought that counts... More details of these jaunts will follow in due course, but for now I have been very pleasantly surprised by being told in the same day that my brother (our C) and cousin (Kate) have both got engaged! (To different people, obviously; I know we're from Yorkshire, but there's no need to jump to conclusions like that).

So, with half a bottle of the sparkly stuff inside me already, I say congratulations to Chris and Paula, and Ben and Kate!


Friday, June 08, 2007

I've got a new Boston Red Sox baseball cap...

Go Sox!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Are you smarter than a fifth grader?

Fifth graders are 10-11 years old, otherwise know as first years in my embarrassingly out-of-date nomenclature. There's a strangely addictive TV show on Fox at the moment called, as the name of this post suggests, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? Obviously it's a trashy TV quiz show modelled after Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, but what makes it both amusing and literally screamingly annoying is that all the questions are taken from 1st to 5th grade school exam questions - i.e. primary school questions. The subjects are drawn mainly from the usual suspects: science, reading, math (sic), but also specifically U.S. geography and U.S. history. Without jumping to gross conclusions, this hints as to the reason for the general ignorance about the rest of the world exhibited by U.S. citizens. But that's not the point, the point is that I generally end up shouting at the telly (I realise this is a bad sign) when a history teacher answers the question "Which U.S. state was named after a British king?"* with the gem "New York", while his mate in the audience confides "I think it's New Jersey". It's amusing to watch the contestants thinking aloud "A man goes swimming 3 times a week, how many times does he go swimming in 11 weeks? I'm pretty sure I know this, erm (looks around at audience for moral support) yeah I'm sure I know the answer, I think I've got this, erm (clasps hands together nervously), I'm going to kick myself if I get this wrong, yes I'm going to lock my answer in, I'm pretty sure that I think I'm positive the answer is 3 x 11, 33!" And then claps himself along with an ecstatic audience and looks soooo proud. I'm sure that if I went on the show I'd get stumped on an embarrassingly easy physics question, but it doesn't negate the fact that the show is nothing more than an infuriatingly watch-able celebration of mediocrity.

I'm going to make the prediction here and now that this TV show will be illuminating British living rooms before the year is out.

* Just in case anyone got stuck, it's Georgia.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Run Forrest!

The banks of the Charles River are almost entirely man made. On each side lies an esplanade, which would be wonderfully tranquil if it wasn't for Storrow and Memorial Drives, which were dumped, amid widespread opposition, through the middle of them in the 50s.
Despite the fact that they have what are essentially motorways running through them, they present a really pleasant route into town:

Pleasant as long as you don't mind being surrounded by the hordes of 'trotters', roller bladers, skateboarders and bicyclists. Well, if you can't beat 'em join 'em, and we've come to the conclusion that American food is, despite being generally very tasty indeed, bad for the waist line. So, we've started running. From the BU bridge to the Hatch Shell (essentially downtown) it's about four miles. I haven't been able to run there and back yet, and generally have to stop and pant like a pair of bellows while annoyingly fit people breeze on past for their 15th mile. Let's be under no illusions here - I get overtaken by people walking their dogs. Em usually keeps up with me until the Smoot Bridge and then we go at our separate paces until we meet again going in opposite directions. Getting Em to actually leave the house without whinging and complaining about the fact that it's too hot or too cold or there are too many people about or there are the wrong sort of leaves on the path is quite difficult, but once she's going and realised that her legs aren't going to fall off she's generally OK. In fact she's usually very proud of herself when we get back. I'm quite proud of us too - but let's see how long we manage to keep this up, eh?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


There is some wonderful coastal scenery in New England. There are miles of long sandy beaches, small coves, secluded harbours, rugged cliffs further north, lighthouses galore, and of course plenty of the freshest seafood around to go with it. So when the weather turned warm, the second thing that we did (the first being build a barbecue) was pack the towels, don the swimming trunks and head for the surf. The idea was to do it on the cheap, as hiring a car is the best part of a hundred bucks, and in addition ever since she arrived in Boston Em had been keen to head for the stop at the end of the blue line, adjacent to Revere Beach: Wonderland.

Wonderland. The name conjures up images of an old-style fairground with ferris wheels, carousels, candy floss trolleys, and shops packed with sweets - you can see why the idea would appeal to Em, who is to all intents and purposes a big six year old. So off we set with merry hearts: green line to Government Centre, blue line to Wonderland.

Wonderland. It should have rung a bell or two when we realised that we hadn't read about Wonderland and Revere Beach in our travel guides. We should have realised that it was on the end of the blue line. We did realise when we got off and almost tripped over an old sofa that was lying half in a ditch. We realised when we saw the pink concrete, outlandishly shaped tower block eyesores that were clearly the inspiration for the 2012 Olympics logo. We realised when the wind blew sand over the empty road and clattered a shutter against its window. When we saw the graffiti on the uninviting toilet block by the beach. When we avoided the rusty nails and glass lying amongst the rest of the litter on the beach. When the air roared as another jet liner took off from the nearby airport. When we realised the sea was black.

Well, we'd made the journey there so we were going to have a walk on the beach. There were actually quite a few people on there, but curiously none seemed to be speaking English. I don't know whether they, like us, were tourists or whether they lived there. We walked about a mile up the beach and then back along the adjacent road, past the blacked out rides with da beats blaring from within. We couldn't find anywhere that looked half decent to eat so we ended up plumping for a Dunkin' Donuts' ("America runs on dunkin'!") doughnut. This was probably the best experience of the day - and that should put it into some context if you've ever been in a Dunkin'.

Wonderland. With no need to hang around we headed back to the T. It's a shame that it wasn't particularly pleasant, but it turns out that there are public transport methods of getting to the more distant (and much more pleasant) beaches that I'm use we'll find time to make use of this summer. When we got back and told people that we'd been to Revere Beach the expression was usually one of shock, and the exclamation was either "And you've still got all your teeth?" or "Urrgh! Needles in the sand!" And so, boys and girls, the moral of the story is never judge T line station environs by the station name. Except Boston University Central, which is pretty much Central to Boston University.

Monday, June 04, 2007

I can be really stupid sometimes

You would have thought that somebody with a PhD in space plasma physics wouldn't be fick enough to stick their fingers into a plug socket would you? Ah, in that case you don't know Yours Truly. I only have a free bar as my defence council, although a glass makes a poor barrister.

John and I were in Amsterdam airport, having spent three days in Liège. It seemed a ridiculously long way to travel for a two day meeting - hell, it still seems a ridiculously long way to travel for a two day meeting - but in truth it was a very productive one. A group at the Université de Liège is a co-author on our campaign and is independently analysing our images, and we wanted to make sure that we were doing the same thing. After two long days of arguments we finally agreed that we had agreed all along. Que sera sera. If someone were to force me into describing Liège, I would say it is the Belgian Sheffield. I'll leave you to form your own opinions as to whether that is good or bad. I'll just say that the local dish, meatballs, is really tasty, and of course les Belge brew a decent demi-litre.

I like travelling with my boss because he's such a seasoned flier that he gets to patronise those special clubs for special people, where special people get to drink from a special free bar, read special papers and talk boring (but special) business about that big order of screws they've secured from the Germans that's going to make their careers. This free bar was reasonably busy (it was Amsterdam, after all) but I have travelled with John on domestic US flights and sat as near to the free bar bar as possible (i.e. under the tap) watching Yank after Yank pour themselves soda waters. They truly are a strange breed. Anyway, I was talking about special people, well I was clearly having a 'special' day. My laptop battery had decided to bugger up, so I needed a socket. Not having a US-to-Europe adapter, I had to borrow the guv's. This turned out to be bust too, and when I pulled it out of the socket it left one of the pins in. Three guesses for what's coming next. Look, I was jet-lagged to hell and free-bar-G&T-squiffy and thought I was insulated. Well, dur! The look on the special business men's faces when the scruffy physicist in the corner shouted "ARGHH F*CKING B*STARD ARGHH!" must have been, well, special. I was too busy trying to suck my fingers and stop the heart palpitations to care. John was away getting a paper at the time and came back to find me panting. I don't know what he thought about his RA conducting (get it?) a practical experiment in Electricity & Magnetism 101 in the World Club Lounge (Lesson 1: Don't stick yer fingers in the socket, fool), but it can't have been felt with pride.

I also left my laptop on the security X-ray machine belt and had to go back for it when they announced to the entire airport that some doofus had left one. Yep, I had a special day.