I absolutely judge people. You think I'm being friendly when I shake your hand but really? TOTALLY JUDGING YOU. Oh yes.

This addiction to on-the-spot superficial character analysis has been given a full and unhealthy scope in my creative writing evening class.  Why, there is even a section of the syllabus on character development so it is practically an assignment to UNFAIRLY JUDGE EVERYONE IN THE ROOM.

Take the two girls who normally sit to my left. They have long, dyed blond hair, never finish the assignments and wear more make-up than I would ever have the patience to put on. Or the ability. I THEREFORE JUDGE THEM AS BIMBOS. Plus, they look disconcertingly identical so I judge them as bimbos WHO I AM CREEPED OUT BY.

While I pack a couple of pens and a writing pad to come to class, the bimbos pack their boyfriends. One of these lover accessories likes his characters in a certain state; namely dead. No assignment of his is complete without a body count higher than the class attendance. This demise has to be achieved with at least 6 implements intent on demonstrating the meaning of mortality, all of which are wielded so inexpertly that the room became red with blood. Even when it is a cavernous ballroom. It swiftly became a personal rule to eat lightly before class. Then last week he vanished to join a full time program. When I heard this my eyes narrowed. Partly because I could have eaten dinner. Partly because it was late in the semester for a place to become available on a course. The feeling of unease was compounded by the fact he was obviously PLANNING A HOMICIDE. Or 50. I therefore judged him right there and then as AN AXE MURDERER.

At the back of the class sits a curvaceous young man with a portfolio case and over-grown hair. Originally he was silent. I instantly judged  him as a SOCIAL MISFIT. Now though, he sits at the front of the class, interrupts to randomly agree with our teacher and points while he speaks. When finally asked to be quiet because someone else was reading he responded "It's ok, I've finished." I therefore changed my mind. He is now an EGOTISTICAL POINTY SOCIAL MISFIT.

Then there is the guy with the stubbly chin, shoulder length hair and tinted glasses. He feels the need to stop and add explanation of his work as he reads it which is CONFUSING. I judged him as intentionally cultivating the look of a writer and therefore TRYING TOO HARD. However, in several weeks the act hasn't slipped. So I graciously retracted my judgment. I now judge him as BEING ON DRUGS.

Finally, there is the girl who had short blond hair, has recently turned 30 and keeps a blog.

... indescribably I feel slightly freaked out by this.

Accidentally peverting the course of justice

As I have mentioned in previous posts of things-that-have-got-me-into-trouble, I tend to bounce about when I listen to my iPod. The song and the random thoughts passing through my head add together in a non-linear way to dictate my speed down the street.

This evening, I thought I could bribe myself to actually do my Japanese homework ('describe your week') if I relocated to a Starbucks and ordered a pumpkin latte. So I set off down the road at a slow walk listening to "Angels on the Moon". This then morphed into "Juliet" and I was forced to leap into the air and spring away at top speed ... right past two police cars that were evidently scoping out the area.


I slowed and looked back to see a police officer watching me. It was unfortunate but I didn't feel I could turn back and ask if my behaviour had just labelled me as PRIME SUSPECT #1 for a mass burglary of all these houses. Besides, they'd been watching the street a while so they knew I hadn't done anything.


I turned the corner, bobbing my head a bit to make it clear I was listening to music. I might have started singing along to complete the picture, but at that moment the main lyric was "I can't decide whether you should live or die" and I decided against it.

As I walked down the next street towards the main road, the police car came up behind me to pull in just up ahead, cutting me off. I turned off my iPod. It seemed a wise idea in this case.

"Are you Victoria?" the policeman stepped from the car and smiled politely at me.

"....No," I said, hoping this was the right answer. It seemed the one least likely to cause trouble but it was always possible that there had been a horrifically violent crime and all they knew was the culprit's first name didn't start with a 'V'.

"Ah." The eyes of the law did not look overly convinced. "We're looking for a woman by that name and you ran past our car."

"Yeah." I had to admit it looked rather suspect. "I realised that after I'd started sprinting."

I produced ID which the officer checked before thanking me for my time. No doubt he made a note of my name on a list of possible insane residents in the neighbourhood. I continued at a sedate pace onto Starbucks, trying to recall the word for "police" in Japanese.

Milk bags

Today I bought milk in a bag. The type of bag that you'd buy rice or nuts in or another solid food item that definitely wasn't a liquid from a cow.

Canada, that's STRANGE. Just so you know.

So strange in fact that for my first year in Ontario I stuck to buying normal cartons. This was also due to the fact that the milk-in-a-bag came in four litre quantities, which seems a bit extreme for me and a cat. I contemplated regularly making white russians for group meeting, rather than buying cookies, but decided it would be a hassle to bring in the glasses every week. So I stuck to cartons until it was revealed to me that inside every four litre bag were in fact three 1-and-a-bit litre bags. Why, it was like matryoshka dolls! So I froze two and dumped the third one in a milk jug with the corner snipped off its tip. Magic. In a bag.

It is, however, still STRANGE. Canada, don't think I've changed my mind about that.

Apparently, the idea of selling milk in a bag was introduced in the UK by the supermarket Waitrose in 2007. Unfortunately it utterly defeated the BBC's technology correspondent and was given up on this April.

That is because people thought it was STRANGE.

Also, we tried to complicate the issue with a clever container rather than telling people to go buy a pair of scissors.

A rival chain, Sainsbury's, is now going to give it another go with an alternative advertising campaign. Rather than focussing on the environmental aspects which went out the window as soon as the bag split, articles surrounding Sainbury's decision always mention one fact:

Canadians like milk bags.

And nobody likes to be outdone by the colonies. Canada itself, however, seems to be suffering from doubt, possibly brought on from the UK outright rejecting milk bags as ...


The online environmental magazine, the treehugger.com published two articles concerning milk bags. The first came out when the UK were looking askance at the whole idea in 2008 and had the encouraging title "Milk Bags a Hit in Canada, UK". A bold statement that Sainbury's have since picked up on. However, a recent article from this summer was entitled "Is Drinking Milk From Bags Weird?".

Yes. Yes it is. We are pleased you have noticed.

A question of doubt

"I can never trust you again. My entire perception of you has changed."

How exactly do you respond to something like that? I finished my mouthful of food and tried to ascertain what horrific act of wanton cruelty I had committed in the preceding ten minutes. Apart from my lunch containing chicken, there were no obvious possibilities. And if my (apparently erstwhile) friend had a particular affinity to feathered fowl well ... he should have mentioned it before I reached for the second half of the sandwich.

"Have you not moved on from the conversation we were having at the start of lunch?" I guessed.

"No!" He had stopped eating to stare in horror across the table. "I still can't believe it!"

The lunch-table topic had been the question of whether you should be legally obliged to reveal to your partner that you have committed a serious crime, if you met them after you'd been freed from jail. My opinion was no, relationships are private and not a matter in which the government had a right to interfere. If you had served your time in jail and been released, you should have the same rights as any other innocent citizen. My friend's opinion focused on concern that a late revelation of such an act after, for example, marriage and children, would ruin the life of the ex-criminal's partner. He pointed out that there was some precedent for his view in the existence of the sex offenders list, which proved that it was not universally considered that serving your time in jail was always sufficient.

"You might be hiding something from me that would affect me negatively if I found out!" he accused.

"Well, we clearly should have hidden this from you," cheerfully remarked another friend who agreed with me. "Then you wouldn't be accusing us now!"

"You could be right though," someone else commented sinisterly. "Actually they've both served concurrent life sentences."

"True," I agreed. The tomato juice from my sandwich had started to run down my hands. I rose to go and locate a cloth. "They're called postdocs."


So last weekend I single handedly defended the physics department from having EVERY SINGLE COMPUTER stolen. And probably all the chalk too. Either that, or I just blew my career right out the water by declaring that an eminent professor was a bounder and a cad. One of the two.

My office mate was leaving. Her thesis was defended and the finished product stacked neatly on her empty desk ready for submission. (It would be later hidden by our advisor in a last-minute psychological experiment ... possibly suggested by me. BUT HE DID IT.) I had come in on Saturday afternoon to help her move her books, papers and two towels (I have no idea) back to her apartment to be packed for her move to California next week. 

As I approached the door to the main building a figure started towards me. He has been loitering on the opposite side of the road, but now he hurried across to stand a mere half step behind me as I fumbled for my keys. When I opened the door, his hand shot out over my shoulder to catch the edge and pull it open.

Boldly, I turned to look the man squarely in the eyes. I admit, he didn't exactly look like your stereotypical robber. Wearing a suit and being significantly over 70 he looked more like ... I dunno .... some distinguished Professor Emeritus.  But I was sure it was just a guise! Beneath that grandfatherly exterior lived a World of Warcraft fanatic, desperate to get his hands on our computing cluster for more power and probably the sword of Azeroth. 

"Could I see some ID?" I inquired, a steely look in my eye.

"Excuse me?" replied gentleman, a.k.a. Horde Undead Rogue

"I can't really let you into the building with seeing some ID, if you don't have your key," I explained, pleasantly. Ha! Where's your sword now, buster?

"I'm a distinguished Professor Emeritus!" the gentleman protested.


Okay, I admit, he didn't actually say 'distinguished' but it was totally implied. I prayed he wasn't some famous guy in my field who I had just completely failed to recognise.

It was times like this, I wished I'd focussed on astro-particle cosmology. Then the most famous person in my field would be Stephen Hawking. Dead easy to spot and I could totally have made a get away long before he'd have had the chance to accost me in the doorway of a building.  As it was I stood slightly awkwardly while the Professor Emeritus dug in his wallet for his university ID.

Admittedly, I didn't actually check the name on the card wasn't "Horde Undead Rogue" but it was so totally time to leave. I apologised and scooted off down the corridor at a pace that ensured he would never discover what sub-department I was in.

The power of the pen

The Physics department is going to publish my blog.

Well, not absolutely exactly but near enough for me to be highly entertained. Possibly for weeks.

This rather unlikely scenario was triggered when I saw that the University of Florida had started a department blog. They included news from their research groups, awards and achievements of department members and details of other projects that people were involved in. All in all, it was a great idea and I therefore decided to STEAL IT INSTANTLY AND MAKE IT MY OWN.

So, armed with the Florida blog as a template, an example entry I'd drafted for my own research group and a suggested plan for future posts, I went to see our outreach coordinator.

"I like it," she said, nodding. "But I'm thinking it might be more memorable as a personal perspective on the department. Especially if it were coming from a postdoc, since we don't often hear much from them."

"So ....," I said slowly. "You mean .... like my blog?"

"You keep a blog?"

I emailed her the URL. It transpired to be exactly what she had in mind, although with a focus more on physics and less on stylish footwear for your favourite bovine. I have no idea why.

Walking back upstairs, I joined my research group for our weekly meeting.

"I am going to do a personal blog for the department," I announced as I poured hot water into my tea cup.

"You could write all sorts of things about the faculty!" someone pointed out.

This immediately provoked a discussion that was engaging, entertaining and ended abruptly by me, least my adviser see the folly of the situation and cut the idea dead in the water.

"Oh, I wouldn't do that," he said in a relaxed tone. "I would just read it and if you had written anything unsuitable ... I'd cut your funding."

I stopped with my mug half-way to my mouth.

"You could write good things about the department!" one of my friends cut in with a swift attempt at damage control.

"Yes, that's true," my adviser picked up on the idea. "I could suggest topics I wanted to be covered."

".... and my funding...?" I inquired, delicately.

".... could be negotiated."

Well, it might not be BBC prime time but apparently I have ratings.

Flower pot men

"You know how you can tell this isn't original footage? It's not in black and white."

Mmm hmm. That and the scenes the film is showing are battles from China's Warring States Period, around 400 BC. I try to keep an open mind, but there are times when I despair of my fellow museum goers.

As it was, I was having a hard time. My iPhone had been confiscated ... well, no, it was in my bag, but I was forbidden from using it to take notes because the attendant couldn't tell if I was actually taking forbidden photographs. In response to my peeved expression, he provided me with a pen and a couple of sheaves of paper. I thanked him for the effort and spun the appendage around in my fingers, trying to recall how to use it. It didn't seem to have a touch pad. Nevertheless, the hassle had just become worth it to record that quote. (For me and for the attendant, since the alternative might have been to say something; we all know that wouldn't have gone well).

I inched away from the couple in question and perused the information boards. The highlight of this exhibit were 10 statues from the 'Terracotta Army'; the 8,000 life sized warriors that were found in the tomb of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shihuangdi (pronounced approximately 'Chin Shih Hwongdee'). They were found in three pits, the largest measuring 14,000 square meters, which were discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974. He hit the neck of a terracotta warrior instead of water. In another pit, entire suits of stone armour were buried for the warriors to wear. See, I didn't do badly with my pen. 

At this point in the exhibit, however, the First Emperor was merely a twinkle in some goat herder's eye. Possibly quite literally, since there are debates over his legitimacy. Before his rule, China was a divided land with 7 states warring for power (hence, 'the Era of Warring States' - never let it be said I don't explain events in my blog). Sun Zi's 'The Art of War' dates from this period and observant readers will note it was originally a book, not a Hollywood production. The most aggressive of the states, Qin, had grown rapidly in power due to one of the First Emperor's ancestors, Shang Yang, who embraced foreigners and foreign technologies. American border control could learn much from him. By the First Emperor's father's time, Qin had become so threatening that five states banded together to defeat him in battle. While they won, they never rose again. At the age of 13, Ying Zheng (personal name of Qin Shihuangdi) came to the throne of Qin, kicked everyone's ass and brought China under a single ruler for the first time.

Most of this history is known via a single source, the Shiji document, written by historian Sima Qian. Sima Qian was born 65 years after the First Emperor's death and had no balls; quite literally as he was castrated after irritating his own emperor. Due to the fact he kept the only surviving record of the day, his accuracy can only be verified by archaeological finds. Fortunately, due to a penchant of the times for engraving important events on pots, it is possible to ascertain the truth of much of its content.

Sima Qian did not know about the terracotta warriors whose discovery was a complete surprise. He did describe gardens within the tomb of bronze swans swimming on a sea of mercury, evidence for which has been found during scans and soil samples of the land. The main mound of the First Emperor's tomb remains unexcavated, partly due to concerns for its stability and partly from concerns surrounding the potential damage to the contents when brought into contact with air. The paint on the terracotta army, for instance, was put on natural lacquer which lifts right off if not immediately treated with a superglue compound. Sima Qian did claim a task force of 700,000 labourers was set to build the complex, which started, as was traditional, when the Emperor came to the throne. While this mammoth project was underway, the First Emperor himself searched for the elixir of life and the secret to immortality. I guess there's nothing like a back-up plan.

The purpose of burying 8,000 terracotta soldiers along with you would be for an army in the afterlife. From the Christian standpoint, St Peter was due to be in for quite a surprise. It was undoubtedly an improvement from murdering your actual army and household so they could serve you beyond this mortal coil, and one museum plaque assured me Qin was one of the first houses to abolish this practice. I would have felt more impressed if later boards hadn't revealed that all concubines who had not yet given birth, plus a bunch of the architects, were shut up in the tomb when it was sealed.

The tomb complex, while by far the most famous, was not the First Emperor's only feat during his rule. One of his first ones rather points to an unhappy childhood since it involved returning to his old home of Handen and burying everyone alive. Later acts included the introduction of a single currency and writing script across China and a frenzy of building projects that possibly pointed to mental illness, including large extensions to the Great Wall, roads, canals and dams.

Qin Shihuangdi's plan had been to build a dynasty to last 10,000 generations. In fact, his son flunked it. He kept on and even increased the crushing labour service and taxes of his father, causing a rebellion within four years. The resulting civil war saw the capital burned and parts of the famous tomb looted. When the dust cleared, the Han dynasty started, to be the most famous in China's history. Its principals, however, upheld many of the ones began by Qin Shihuangdi to produce a single, unified, China.

If the shoe fits ...

... wear it.

I examined the boot in front of me and concluded that it would probably be too loose. That is because it was designed for a cow. My eyes slid down to another piece of footwear with huge pinecone-esque spikes on the sole. Now those would give the right impression during my next presentation!: "Any questions? No, I didn't think so."

I was not in fact at the latest sale from 'Foot Locker' but at a museum dedicated entirely to shoes. Three floors, all packed with footwear, although there was one exhibit on socks which was arguably pushing its luck.

People, dogs, cows and dolls; everyone's pedicural comfort was catered for. Did you know that Polly Pocket's shoe size is a third of that of Barbie's? Or that Ken's shoes are considered (by fashion experts) to be conservative while Barbie's feet are only able to wear high heels?

That particular style has made two débuts in history. The first appearance of high heals in the 16th century saw them being donned by men as well as women to extend their height. Their more recent occurrence was a backlash against claims that the rise of women would see the end of femininity. I looked down at my trainers and wiggled my toes. Screw femininity, you can't do that, Barbie!

Examples of the shoes for bound feet in late 19th century China were also on display. The ideal foot size women of the time was a scant three inches and girl's feet were tied at a young age to prevent proper growth. Feet that remained (through bone breaking deformities) this ideal size were known as 'jin loan' or 'golden lotuses' (right from centre picture). Only girls from the Han ethnic group were privileged enough to forfeit all ability to walk painlessly. Manchu girls were forbidden to bind their feet and therefore wore high platform shoes to stilt their gait and allow them to emulate the 'lotus walk' of their bound footed counterparts (far right photo).

The opposite extreme of the golden lotus shoes had to be the trainer from basketball star, Shaquille O'Neal, who is 7 feet 1 inch tall and wears a size 23 trainer.

Of course, no story of shoes could be complete without mentioning Cinderella. It turns out this originally French fairy tale is told the world over with the glass slipper switched out for culturally favourite footwear. In Korea, a girl named Peach Blossom looses a straw sandal which is found by a handsome magistrate. For some unrecorded reason, he deems this item worth returning to its owner and is promptly enchanted by her beauty and asks for her hand in marriage. One can only conclude the law gives even its enforcers problems.

But whether lawyer, prince, scullery maid or peasant, the magical shoe reveals hidden virtue and transforms an underprivileged beauty into a princess. This says much for the continuing prospects of sketchers but rather less for the hope of humanity. Marrying a girl because she looks swell in a pair of shoes?! It'll be all over even before you get her pregnant and her ankles swell up.

Of course, some shoe transformations have a more practical edge. Alongside the glass slipper was a heavy boot with a large metal ring attached to it. This 'Oregon boot' was for the transport of criminals who couldn't peg it with such a weight on their feet.

Moving upstairs into the side attraction of socks, I discovered the first evidence of such items was a first century letter from a Roman soldier who mentioned a pair being sent to him, probably by his Mum. Much later during World War II, there was such a shortage of nylons that women drew a seam up the back of their legs to imitate their appearance. When the war ended, Macy's sold out of their entire stock of 50,000 pairs in six hours. The production of nylon transpired to be deeply unattractive. And wet. It is produced at the interface between the chemicals diamine and dicarboxylic acid. Drip.

For the ultimate highlight, however, what could beat Geri Halliwell's own Union Jack knee-high boots? Well, possibly the cow boot. But then, aside from the decoration, they were remarkably similar designs.

How the other half lives

My face was wet.

It had all been in the name of science. I was walking along the street, admiring the immaculate parks that lay in between the immaculate houses of Aspen town. How did they keep them so green in this baking heat? A large splash mark on the pavement provided a possible answer. It looked like the product of a sprinkler system, except I could not see the sprinkler anywhere. Hmm .... Perhaps it was actually the product of a very large dog.

With that in mind, I gave the puddle a wide birth, stepping onto the lawn. It was then I noticed a peg-sized depression in the ground. Was it a miniature mole? Perhaps like handbag dogs, such downsized creatures had become popular in wealthy Aspen. I bent down to examine it ....

... and was promptly sprayed on the nose as an underground sprinkler popped up and turned its jet right on me.

I sneezed and rubbed my face clear just in time to see the sneaky little watering can disappear into the ground again. Oh the temptation to place a large rock over it! (No, I am not remotely above taking revenge on inanimate objects. We all know that was on purpose.)

Feeling hard done by, I continued on my way. It was obvious physicists were not the main brand of person in this town, or surely there would have been complaints from the regularity of this occurrence.

Of course, there were a few other clues that the Physics Centre was a little out of place here. I stood on a residential street of large detached houses and looked along it. Three mail boxes had been customised to resemble a train, a polar bear and a dog. Little yellow replicate street signs hung outside another four houses, declaring them a Beagle / Maltese / yappy handbag dog x-ing.  The last house in that row was for sale ... by the international auction house, Sothebys. My eyes swept over the deserted windows. Apart from myself, the only people in sight were the gardeners, who had driven in from out of town to keep the flowers in a riot of colour. The property owners were apparently at one of their other multi-million dollar homes; it was not the ski season after all.

Given this obvious display of wealth, it was surprising to see the town had a McDonalds. It is unclear exactly who frequented this. Possibly it was there because every American town must have such an object. Or it could have been there to pacify the black bears, whose regular presence was evident from the extremely complex trash cans. Sadly, I did not get to see a bear during my visit. If I had though, lopping a big mac at it might have seemed like a good option.

I might have altitude sickness but you, you my large pawed friend, now have heart disease, kidney failure and gummed up arteries! Ha!

In anycase, to compensate for this common monstrosity, Aspen felt the need for four large art galleries within view of one another. These exhibition stores sold nothing less that full wall-sized pieces. I attempted to buy a card in one but the concept did not appear to be understood.

Our own apartment had a huge living room with a balcony and a compulsory ski closet outside. I might have been tempted to stay, but the third week in Aspen swept in a cold wind to remind us that the town's actual inhabitants would soon return. I remarked on this sudden change of weather to a friend who replied:

"Well, we've just had labor weekend. It marks the end of summer."

... Huh. Who would have thought the calendar would be so accurate?

The wisdom of rangers

"The canyon beckons across the ages for you to slow your pace, even for a little while. Take your time, touch a juniper tree, listen to the river, feel the breeze, and you will see beyond the brink of time."

Words to rival even the Scientology orientation video and I could not help feeling, as I read the pamphlet over a friend's shoulder, that the rangers of the Gunnison National Park spent a little too much time alone.

The Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park is named on account of the steepness of its sides, causing its interior to be shrouded in inky shadows. It has an average depth of 2,000 ft, extending to a maximum of 2,722 ft and a total length of 53 miles, 14 of which are inside the park. It is also narrow, with a minimum rim-to-rim distance of 1,100 ft, closing to a mere 40 ft at the river on its bottom. This water stream (otherwise known as the Colorado River), undergoes one of the steepest drops in North America from the surrounding mountain peaks and it is the force of this that had created the canyon over millions of years.

The guide we had acquired from a box at a trail head took us round on a short loop of ten observations points. The canyon itself was the obvious highlight, the likes of which seemed hard to match since they then told us to examine the shrubs. The quote above actually came from the rangers' log book, but when we stopped by the north side ranger's station, it was deserted apart from a board for rock climbers to sign in and out on. Possibly, upon the log book being read, the quote had been stolen for visitor information publications and the ranger himself sent for intensive shock treatment. 

The climbers we spotted as multicoloured dots against the black stone of the canyon. One stretch of the canyon's side is known as the 'Painted Wall' and is the tallest vertical wall in the state of Colorado with a height of 2,250 ft. This is a popular spot for, our guide warned us, experienced climbers. As we watched them cling to invisible ropes like small brightly coloured beetles, I felt that a hefty dose of insanity was required too. If they lived, perhaps they went on to become park rangers.

The summary then, must surely be left to the same rangers who also noted in their log:

"More importantly, though, the scene jolts us, awakening our senses toward the gorge. The clock that ticks away our lives seems very distant, and visiting the canyon is a way we can experience time on our own terms."

... the ranger station could be empty for a while.

Got Oxygen?

Bouncing around to my iPod the first week I arrived in Aspen, I sprinted up the hill to our rented apartment. Blasting through my headphones, 'The Scissor Sisters' had just finished their chorus line of "I can't decide whether you should live or die" when their question became completely academic as I doubled over on the side-walk heaving for breath.

I .... must have .... the fitness .... of .... a ......

I looked around, but frankly everything right then looked fitter than I was. Including the large statue of a bear and the rectangular postal box, which was looking positively svelte. Head swimming, I staggered up the remainder of the road and tumbled through my door to collapse on the coach.... whereupon I was confronted with a brochure lying on the coffee table, detailing all the fun you could have at 8000 feet.

8000 feet above sea level. 

Aspen is high.

I scooped up the pamphlet which suggested gondolas, horse-back riding and family hikes. Oddly, it did not suggest breaking into sudden sprints up hills because 'The Scissor Sisters' had a faster beat that 'Owl City'.

While still too low to be a serious problem, there was no doubt that Aspen's altitude was noticeable. At 8000 feet, Oxygen in the air has dropped by about 25%. It you were to make the summit of the highest peaks at 14,000 feet, then it would have dropped by 40%. I had a headache for several days, stuffy nose, I ran out of breath quickly and my recovery time was shot to pieces. I felt the Physics department rather emphasised the problem by offering free bike rental.

Rather than taking a bike, I took the pamphlet's advice to heart and bought a week's pass for the gondolas. One of these led from the centre of Aspen to the summit of the aptly named "Aspen mountain". The other led up from the nearby resort town of Snowmass. Once at the top, there were hikes that looped around in trails along the mountain ridges.

Completing a few of these hikes revealed an important fact; the best views were from where the gondola deposited you. This had actually been true of our trip to Maroon Bells too, where the bus left you by the scenic shores of Maroon lake, but you had the option of walking much further. I have to say, I found this faintly unrewarding, but it probably saved on countless mountain rescue operations for a bunch of fainting tourists. The Aspen gondola even had a jazz concert at its summit, surrounded by many deck chairs.

It was a hint.

Mission impossible

It was a dangerous decision. According to the presentation we had yesterday, the chances of us all returning alive were slim. We were supposed to be staying in our nice safe bear-proof physics office.  Yet we ignored it all and went for a hike. We didn't even bring along an expert.

The chosen site for our inevitable demise was Maroon Bells, one of the best known beauty spots around Aspen. A bus ran from the town up to Maroon Lake where a trail led up to a second pool, Crater Lake. So popular is this wilderness park that no cars are allowed inside the boundaries between 9am and 5pm, unless they have a special overnight permit. To further minimise damage from people, no electricity or water system is run up the mountain. Instead, solar panels provide basic power to the information station and the toilets are the latest flush-less compost systems (a.k.a. pits).

In fact, such precautions are still not enough to guard against environmental damage. A short way into our walk we passed a dispenser bin for "disposable travel toilets". These were bags for ... poo ... that backpackers could use (multiple times per bag, no less) and carry their poo with them to dispose of in the trash at the end of their hike. Apparently, the weather conditions in the Rockies are such that human waste can only decompose four months of the year which just isn't long enough for the annual influx of campers. But don't worry -- the instructions said reassuringly -- the bags are double lined to prevent against leaks.

While Alaska has the highest peaks in the USA, Colorado has the highest average elevation of any of the states. Where we started in the Maroon Bells scenic area, it was 9,580 feet and we walked to around 10,100 feet. The path weaves through a thick forest of Aspens from which the nearby town takes its name. Aspens (we learnt on the bus on the way to the park) reproduce by setting down a long root system from which genetically identical trees spring. Biologists consider the resulting cloned forest (which can extend to 100s of acres) an individual body, resulting in the Aspen being classed as the largest single organism on Earth. I watched the thousands of quaking trees and was irrefutably reminded of 'The Day of the Triffids' in which bioengineered plants move to take over the world. It was an unnerving concept but with one silver lining; our bus driver told us that the population of fast growing Aspens were protecting the slower growing juvenile pines who would eventually mature and take over the mountain side. Perhaps I should buy the URL www.pineskiresort.com in preparation for the necessary rename and secure my fortune.

The path through the military tree infestation was rocky underfoot and surprisingly hard going, possibly due to the altitude. Of course, then we mislaid the path entirely and became horribly lost.

.... back at the Physics Center yesterday's speaker was probably pouring himself one very smug cup of coffee.

We survived on wild raspberries and were shrieked at by a pika (I might have provokingly called it a tail-less rat) before rejoining the actual route half an hour later and continuing on to the lake. Bouncing over to the water in relief, I proceeded to sink ankle deep into the mud and be laughed at thoroughly by my advisor while I painstakingly hauled my way free.

It was sad. And muddy. And wet. I complained. No one cared. That was sad too. And muddy. And wet. Bah D:

Once I was free and promised many facebook profile pictures from everyone's camera, our group of seven split into three parties. Two people went on for a three day hike (complete with a poo bag), two went to nab a local peak and I with the more sensible British contingent continued on past the lake for an hour and then turned back.

As we reached the first lake again, we came across signs placed by the US Forest Service. Their name for 'The Maroon Bells' is 'The Deadly Bells'. Apparently, climbers die frequently by underestimating how unstable the peaks are, causing ropes to slip and rocks to fall on even experienced mountaineers. Of course, there was now nothing to worry about. We were safely on our way home and our companions ... well ... they had laughed at my mud incident.

Danger, Will Robinson!

With the weekend looming, the organisers at the Aspen Center for Physics gave a short presentation on hiking in the local area. The sun was shining as we entered the auditorium, lighting up inviting green hills up which a stream of gondolas were gaily making their way. Everyone from the elderly professors to the young researchers clutching babies was keen to get outside.

The speaker was a retired Physicist from Chicago who started his speech with a clear pronouncement that he proceeded to repeat:

"If you want to go hiking, you should find someone who has been before. What we call an expert."

I looked sceptically out at the landscape around one of America's most up-scale tourist centres. Of course, all hiking had risks, but the walks around Aspen were not known for being technically difficult. Our guide however, was most insistent. A waterproof coat was essential if you were even looking in the direction of a mountain. As was a topologically detailed map, a cell phone (although this wouldn't work, so relying on it would result in DEATH) and you should inform at least three people and a lamppost where you were going and when you were expected back.

It was sound advice but presented with a strong side-dollop of terror, which swiftly became the main course as our host warmed up to the theme.

For Cinderella, the time of destruction was midnight, but for us hikers in Aspen, it was midday. Be up on the mountain after this time and a lightening storm would descend upon you, causing your hair to stand on end and leaving you nowhere to run. Then you would be electrocuted and promptly eaten by a bear. The end.

These instructions were followed by a tale of warning about a Physicist from the centre who went missing for three days. Apparently, despite having a topological map and other appropriate equipment, he became lost. Because he was a loner, no one noticed he was gone until his wife called the Sheriff's office after not hearing from him for two nights.

That could be YOU, you friendless socially awkward geeks

was the unvocalised message.

After fifteen minutes, a blue booklet listing walks was waved at us and our speaker departed with a cheerful, "I strongly encourage you all to get out and about!"

There was stunned silence in the auditorium.

This event was directly followed by a seminar on 'crumpling'. Yep, that's right - an entire scientific seminar on crumpling paper. Or Physicists. Somehow it was oddly appropriate.


My area of research in Astronomy involves computer simulations of individual galaxies. There are a few groups working on similar projects to me, but there is one person in particular whose research is so close that she shall henceforth be known as ARCH RIVAL #1. ARCH RIVAL #1 not only develops similar models, but she is also British and my exact contemporary, graduating the same year I did, albeit from a different university.

Even though we are employed on different continents (North America is MINE bitches, but one day I will retake Europe), the similarity of our work means that we frequently attend the same conferences. Currently, we are both in Aspen. In June, we were both in Barcelona. April saw us in Florida and last summer in Italy. You get the idea. Other scientists confuse us, sometimes using the wrong name even when facing the person in question.

So what was I to do when said ARCH RIVAL #1 had her birthday during this workshop? Clearly, a multi-step plan was in order:

1. First, announce said birthday to an entire room of Astronomers during the formal discussion we were jointly leading this morning.

2. Buy a cake.

3. Fill the birthday girl's slice with a slow acting poison that takes 72 HOURS to take affect, knowing that she reads my blog.

4. Laugh evilly.

5. Repeat (4) to taste.


Go west

Sharing the driving on long journeys might naively be considered an act worthy of encouragement. Car rental companies, however, appear to relish the prospect of a single jet-lagged aeroplane passenger, probably freshly arrived from the UK, Australia or Japan, taking out a vehicle they have never driven before on a long road trip starting at the edge of a major city. As such, they charge exorbitant rates for adding a second driver to the rental agreement. This phenomenon resulted in me taking advantage of Alamos' alternative solution of free coffee, before heading out from Denver airport to the ski resort town of Aspen.

The first part of the journey ran straight along the highway. Normally this would be an uninteresting route, but it was marked by me having the dubious honour of being the only sober driver on the road. Our first encounter with the upshot of this situation was a car just in front of us that was positioned in the lane about as centrally as the right-wing player in a hockey game. So far over was the vehicle that two of its wheels were running in the narrow hard shoulder. Deciding that this was not a person I wished to be behind, I overtook, allowing us a great view of the driver actually drinking behind the wheel.

Any illusions that we might have harboured of this being an isolated incident were swept aside by the electronic road signs. There must have been at least half a dozen, all flashing messages about fines incurred for DUI. The law, one stated, was cracking down, which rather implied this was a new initiative. Police cars littered the road side, pulling over cars on both sides of the highway. I should have pointed them half a mile back to our friend with the centring problem.

Since we were passing through the mountains, the road went through a series of fairly steep dips and peaks. This must have been an issue for large trucks, since sheer run off ramps, resembling the world's best skateboard playground, led off the road at frequent intervals. Despite the encouragement of my supervisor, I refrained from trying one out in our corolla. Worryingly, one of the only non drunk driver signs I saw requested those without breaks to not take the next turn.

Rather to my relief, a couple of hours later saw us leaving the highway and weaving into the mountains. The route was winding and narrow in places, with a number of hairpin 180 degree turns. My GPS unit apparently grew weary of it, since at one point it directed us to a track I could barely make out, that was unmarked by road signs. Evidently, it thought the time had come to go straight over a mountain. As with its suggestion regarding leaping the bridge at the US border, I ignored it. 

The main hazards on this part of the trip were not the roads, the GPS unit or the drunk drivers, but the wildlife. It was now late at night and the roadsides were peppered with deer, foxes, rabbits, raccoons and even a coyote. The raccoons comprised of a family, with two adults and a slightly smaller stripey beast. This diminutive one stopped right before my wheel to have a good examination of the red shiny machine before it finally conceded to move along. I could have taught it a lesson, but there seemed little point if it wouldn't have lived to benefit from the education.

Aspen itself is beautiful, as was revealed when we surfaced the next morning (from our beds, not a ditch, in case anyone was doubting my driving ability). Houses that I'd need to marry a movie star to own are scattered on the hillside and the town, when not in ski-season, hosts many different cultural groups including musicians, Shakespeare performers, ballet camps and, um, physicists. I couldn't help but wonder, as I walked through the streets in a tee-shirt and khakis, whether the person who suggested the institute was still allowed a home inside the town boundaries.

I have been put in an apartment with the two other British postdocs in our workshop. We have bought 100 teabags.

Quality, not quantity

During the entire season of softball I have never once made a successful catch. This was partly because I was lousy at determining where the ball would land, equally bad regarding the dimensions of my GIANT HAND and vain enough to like my nose the shape it was. Because of this, my team kindly placed me on short field when we weren't batting, meaning that I had back-up both behind me from the outer fielders and in-front of me from the basemen.

In the last game I was to play in, this successful set-up was changed and I was put as catcher. This was because I still couldn't run well after my fall in the previous game and everyone was kindly pretending that would make a difference. The catcher stands behind the batter as a backstop and doubles up as the forth basemen on home. While it is considered advantageous to have competent people on all the bases, the catcher is not as vital as the first basemen, who has the chance to get out every single player. For me, the batter has to have got past three of my friends first before I have a chance of getting them out.

Unfortunately, the other team were rather good at this. I was doing my best. Enthusiastically, I stepped forward when the batter ran and put one foot on the base, indicating that I was here, ready to stop all those home runs and hoping by now everyone had more sense than to take me up on this offer.

Half-way through the top of the seventh inning, and the other team had two people on the bases. Then the batsman hit far into the outfield and went for the home run. The guy on third base dashed past me, hotly pursued by his two teammates. Our outer fielder threw the ball towards the diamond, where it was caught by a baseman. He turned towards me and I held out my glove, thinking...

'..... oh crap.'

The ball landed squarely in my hand.

"Out and out!" shouted the umpire. "Three outs."

I stared at the yellow sphere. One season. One catch. But it was the right one.

Air border

US border guard: What is the purpose of your trip to the USA?

Me: I'm attending a conference in astrophysics.

US border guard: How long is this conference?

Me: Three weeks.

US border guard: .... that is too long.

Me: ..... you're telling me -.-


"We can do better than last time! Or the same! Or worse! Those are our three options and I feel we should be positive about all of them."

This bold, upbeat yet pleasingly accurate statement was issued by a teammate halfway through our softball game. Its quantitative nature also served to remind our rival team of historians that we were physicists and therefore, regardless of score, just harder than they were. Period.

Proof of this statement came minutes later when a ball smacked the same teammate in the arm and bounced into her face. I also fell before first base and skidded along the ground, neatly bruising everything from hip to ankle. Somewhat ironically, I wasn't even batting but running for another player who was injured. Good deeds don't always pay off; remember that. Yet we carried on! I have to say, not being able to walk made no noticeable difference to my fielding.

It might have been a tough game but you can always find satisfaction. Mine came in knowing that I could use all the hot water up that night and prevent my upstairs neighbour taking a shower. Poor boy. He was on the other team.

Frozen grape ammunition

almost half way -.-

"Each frozen grape only produces one drop of ice wine."

I looked up from the bottles I had been considering to see a smiling sales assistant. She indicated a TV screen in the corner of the store which was showing the ice wine making process. Apparently, the grape must freeze naturally after it has ripened, which makes the timing rather precarious.

"Only here in Niagara and Germany can make ice wine," the assistant continued.

Wikipedia, incidentally, disagrees with this. It notes that those two are the largest producers, but also throws in Austria before mentioning other countries make some ice wine but cheat by refrigerating the grapes. Evidently, my companion had a dim view of such methods, possibly coupled with an irrational dislike for 'The Sound of Music.'

"Have you ever tried ice wine? Let me give you a sample."

I looked back at the bottles and then glanced outside. I was at the duty-free shop at the Canadian/USA boarder on Saturday morning. The land border at Niagara. The one you had to drive through. The one EVERYONE passing through that duty-free had to drive through.

"Well, um... I'm driving?"

The woman followed my gaze. On the road running outside the store was a stationary line of traffic heading over the bridge to border control. To even get as far as the shop had been a painstakingly slow journey. When I had ground to a halt behind a large black SUV, I could not even make out the start of the bridge. Quite where everyone was going was somewhat of a mystery. It was almost lunchtime on a Saturday, so the only place that you really had time to travel to for the weekend was up-state New York. I guessed they were all taking off for several weeks summer vacation. I ground my teeth. Slackers.

The sales assistant turned from the unmoving line of cars to me, "You know, dear, I don't think it will be a problem."

I wondered whether it was possible to get free samples in tankards.

"You are going to the USA?" she confirmed as I was handed a paper thimble full of liquid. "We don't sell these bottles to go anywhere else and you can't buy them at the duty-free coming into Canada."

I raised an eyebrow. At this stage, I don't think I had a choice but to cross the border, or at least attempt to, but it made you wonder about the contents of the wines. Was this part of the grand invasion plan? First we poison you with ice wine, then we march on your ice rink? I swallowed the my sample. Invasion had never tasted so sweet.

Back on the road, I eased my car across the bridge. The speed limit on this stretch was 15 km/h and electronic speed detectors were set up to warn drivers if they were going too fast. As I passed one, it flashed up a '4'. My SatNav system randomly rotated the map by 180 degrees. It seemed to be subtly hinting that diving off the bridge might be quicker. Even with the associated jail time.

"When were you last in the USA?"

I had finally inched up to a booth and the occupant guard was idly flicking through my passport, hunting for the ID page.

"It's at the back," I volunteered. "And a couple of weeks ago."

"You didn't keep your green visa slip?" he grinned, quite unnecessarily in my opinion. "You'll have to stop. Hope you brought a good book!"

I sighed and speculated that maybe the border guards were only in a good mood when they could be assured that you were about to have a worse day then them.

The journey back, however, was its usual plain sailing.

"Are you bringing anything back from the USA?"

"Cat litter. Nope."


There are four great North American sports that Brits largely fail to understand. Ice hockey (we don't really do 'ice'), basketball (too much like netball which is played by women), baseball (exactly like rounders which is played by small girls) and football (where do I even start?).

That said, the popularity of these sports means I often take opportunities to go to games, because it is something I wouldn't get to do at home. Hence, when a friend said she could get tickets for the baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox, I jumped at the chance.

I didn't know much about the Jays, but the Red Sox name was familiar from being regularly cursed through the streets of New York. It turned out that the two teams were fairly close in the league, but that the Jays were suffering from some form of psychological block that was causing them to repeatedly loose spectacularly to the Red Sox. I couldn't help but feel that being sponsored by the Bochner eye institute probably wasn't doing much for their self-confidence.

It is hard to deny that baseball is a slow game. Fortunately, there are plenty of distractions in the form of adverts flashing across the big screen. "[American] Football is amazing" blazed one, implying that if you were bored here you should try that instead. This was followed by a clip from the previous Jays game proving that it was possible for them to get a home run. Then there was "David Roberts; the freshest name in nuts" (no witty byline required) and finally the "Dave Stieb bobblehead day" on August 29th, when you could own your own grossly proportioned nodding head version of the Jays player.

Meanwhile, the action on the pitch was heating up. The Jays were batting and there was a player on each of the three bases. This loaded configuration was made more tense by the fact that 3 out of the 4 allowed pitcher screw-ups and 2 out of the 3 "strikes" or batter screw-ups had occurred. In short, the batter had to hit this ball or he would advance to first base (if the pitcher messed up) or go out (if he messed up). In the movies, this would be the moment where our underdog hero would twack the ball into the stands, kill six spectators and get an automatic home run, causing all three of the players on the bases to also complete their circuit. The Jays would be saved!

In reality, he got to first base. I forget the details. The lack of a body count made it too much of a let down to remember.

The Red Sox, however, were going on a home run spree. Two home runs were achieved by the same batter hitting to exactly the same spot in the field. Evidently, the Jays didn't believe that lightning could strike in the same place twice. Another guy then got a home run that also enabled the two players on the bases to get runs. That last move ended up making it a tidy 5 runs for the one inning and rather sealed the fate of the Jays that day.

The final score was 10:1 and the casualties were a single broken bat. Disappointing for some fans perhaps, but at least they can go get a bobblehead at the end of the month.