Like you, we are in lockdown. We are in Pasadena, California (part of LA County) and we feel especially lucky that we have a garden and that the weather is (finally) good.
For the last few days, I have been in the yard repairing our termite-ridden, falling-apart fence, and learning the process. I use the word ‘repair’ loosely as I realize that it is not a long-term solution to put fresh wood pickets against wood that is being chewed by termites. However, this is a patch job and the pickets are cheap.
In the photo below you can see the fence I was working on. There is one missing picket, and, on either side of the gap, there are two fairly rotten pickets. I originally planned to do all three, but in the end, I just did two. To make the job extra challenging, the fence is helpfully behind a fairly delicate Jade plant, which drops its leaves at the slightest touch. My goal was to repair the fence without destroying the plant.
Tools: After working on the fence for a few days, I’d got the tool situation down to the minimum. To get the fence pickets the right length I needed the tape measure, the triangle, the pencil, and the hand saw. To get the old picket and nails/screws etc out I needed the hammer and the flat head screwdriver. To fix the picket to the rail I needed the drill, the drill bit, the countersink bit, the drill bit with the phillips head on it, the phillips screwdriver and some screws. And gloves, of course.
The first job was to remove the old picket and the rusty nails that, once upon a time, were holding it on – without pulling down the whole fence or destroying the rail. Easier said than done especially when the whole fence has been chewed through by termites.
Because the pickets come in only approximate sizes, and because I was only repairing the fence, not building a whole new one, I made sure to check that the pickets were actually going to fit in the gap. I found that they often didn’t. Ideally one would take out both the old pickets to check the new ones both fitted… however, next door has a dog, and it would easily have got through the hole if I’d taken both out at once!
Then I cut my pickets to length.
Because I couldn’t take out both pickets at the same time (because of the dog), the next process took a little longer – on the other parts of the fence I was able to do multiple panels at each of the steps below.
The next step was to drill some holes for the screws. I got a drill bit that was slightly smaller than the screw, balanced the picket in its place, and drilled four holes – two at the top and two at the bottom, level with the nails/screws on the other panels. The drill went through the picket into the rail.
Then I switched to the countersink bit so that I could make a dent for the screw heads.
Then the final step was to get the picket screwed into place. I found that getting the screws started in the holes with the screwdriver was helpful.
Then it was time to look at the second picket (to the left of the one I just put up). I pulled it off and it pretty much disintegrated in a shower of termite droppings. Unfortunately, I then found the new picket I had selected was a hair too wide to fit in the gap. None of my remaining stash were any thinner, so there was nothing for it but to trim it longways. It was a little tedious to saw by hand but not impossible.
I repeated the procedure above, to get the finished result below. The next job (for another time) will be painting it.
In October 2019, I did my first-ever, grown-up, in-the-traditional-order, open-water-swim, triathlon: the Legends Triathlon. Here is my recap.
On the morning of the race, I got up at 5:00am, had undercooked oats and a cup of tea for breakfast, then got ready and packed the car. I had pumped up my bike tires and put the bike in the car the night before.
We drove 25 minutes east and south to Bonelli Park in the dark and parked at the Park n Ride at the junction of the 57 and Via Verde. At 6:30am there were still plenty of spaces.
We unloaded and walked down into Bonelli Park (no $10 park fee for us!). We headed over to the registration/packet pick-up tent by the swim beach just as the sun was coming up. The race packet consisted of a nice t-shirt, some Cliff bars, and a variety of sticky numbers.
I stuck the first number to my helmet and the other to my bike then headed into transition. I found a good spot on a rack, remembering to find a landmark to line up with so I could find my bike after the swim. I laid out all my gear then went to get my number drawn on my arm. With that done, I turned around to find that the Pasadena Triathlon Club, of which I’m a member, had its own rack right by the entrance to the transition! So I picked up all my gear and moved it. While this was a closer spot, it was perhaps less ideal as it underfoot was gravel so everything got filthy pretty quickly.
After setting up we wandered down to the beach and checked out the swim entrance/exit, the run exit, and the finish line. Then with 30 minutes to go, it was time to get the wetsuit on.
I don’t have a tri-suit, so I just wore my Target running shorts and a sports bra under my wetsuit. We lined up for a group photo then headed down to the beach. We noted immediately that the shoreline was lined with duck poo, but since there was nothing to be done about that we got in the water and splashed around to get wet. It was thankfully not too cold.
At 8:00am the people doing the Olympic distance headed off, and then at about 8:10am, once they had got sufficiently far away, those of us doing the Sprint (“Express”) were given the green light.
I stayed at the back of the crowd because I knew I would be slow. Despite having practiced in this lake in the summer, I was unprepared for the chop that the other swimmers stirred up. After getting a couple of lungfuls of water and making a few attempts to swim properly, I decided I was going to have to go to my backup plan of swimming with my head out of the water (like I was ‘sighting’). It was slow going, but I knew I would eventually get there.
On my way I heard people hacking and coughing, one guy asked to hang onto the board of one of the safety kayakers, several people were going breaststroke or swimming on their backs. As we made our way to the swim exit, the first swimmers of the Olympic distance came zooming by.
I was very glad to get out of the water but my plan of running up the beach and the hill into transition didn’t happen – my legs weren’t working! I fast-walked to the top of the hill and once I was on the level, I managed to run to my bike.
Getting the wetsuit off was yet another challenge but I didn’t fall over so I considered that a success. I got my shoes on, got my bike and ran out of transition. Thankfully, no sooner was I on my bike than I was overtaking people everywhere.
Swim (300m): 11m 72s
Transition: 3m 55s
I would consider the bike to be my next weakest section after the swim so I was surprised how well things were going. I’m sure I can thank my training with the Pasadena Triathlon Club and all those hills we had to do. I was also very pleased that I had previewed the course in summer so I knew about the big downhill with the sharp right into a steep uphill that caught out someone who was trying to overtake me.
I only had time for a few sips of water on the bike, mostly to clear out the taste of duck doos from my mouth, then I was back into transition.
This is where I knew I’d gain time because I was riding in my running shoes. All I had to do was dump the bike and my helmet and get going.
Bike (12km): 30:11 (16.3 mph)
Anyone who has run off the bike will tell you, it’s really hard. However, having practiced this as well, I knew that while it feels hard, you are usually running faster than you think. I wasn’t too worried about this feeling, I just kept going, despite the long slow uphill for the first mile and a half. That said, after about a mile I was feeling a bit spaced out so I choked down a GU chew with no water. It did the trick.
Though I am most experienced with running, this leg was hard work. The uphill for the first half was quite a challenge but during the downhill on the way back I was able to make up some time.
Run (5km): 29m 03s (9:21 /mile pace)
Overall: 1h 16m 39s
I came 10th out of 15 in my age group so I have something to improve on next time!
This weekend we traveled south to Alpine, California, in the San Diego Mountains, for an afternoon flying birds of prey. We purchased a private raptor experience through Sky Falconry, apparently one of the few places in the U.S. licensed for such an activity. We were here to learn all we could about birds of prey and get to experience flying a falcon and a hawk.
After an extremely bumpy ride on the dirt road to their property, we met Kirk and Denise and they soon brought out three birds – a Lanner Falcon and two Harris’s Hawks.
The Lanner Falcon was a juvenile male, just under two years old, and weighed 0.5kg. His name was Ali Baba. The larger Harris’s Hawk was a female, weighing 1kg, and the smaller male weighed 0.75kg. The female’s name was Steam.
To begin, we received an excellent lesson in all things falconry, learning that falconry as a hunting technique is over 10,000 years old, that these birds’ vision is excellent – Kirk and Denise used the charming analogy that these birds have such good eyesight that they could read a book three miles away – but that their bird brains mean that if something is out of sight, it’s out of mind. We also learned that their powerful talons have ratcheting tendons to grip with 200kg of strength – compared to a human male’s puny 40kg – and that the birds can only be trained with positive reinforcement: they will trade you something but won’t give it up otherwise.
Our first exercise was to learn how to use the leather glove that is very necessary when you want one of these birds to fly to your hand. Then the first flight with Ali Baba began.
Since the Lanner is not native to the U.S. it needs a GPS tracker when in free flight. Once the bird was kitted out with this tracker, a piece of meat (quail) was put on J’s glove and the Ali Baba flew to it. Denise snapped a bunch of photos with my camera but very quickly the falcon was off, over the trees and down the canyon.
Mild panic set in as Denise explained that a previous time Ali Baba did this, it took them half a day to find and retrieve him. We watched his path tracked by GPS on the phone and we saw he was very quickly several miles away. Kirk said he was looking for thermals so he could rise, and after about 15 minutes he apparently found one. Ever so slowly he started heading back towards us (the bird has no homing instinct) and eventually was high enough that he could see us.
We scanned the sky and thought we spotted him, but it turned out we’d actually seen a Red Tailed Hawk. We finally spotted Ali Baba a few moments later: he was about 100 ft above the hawk, preparing to attack. He quickly went into a screaming dive towards the hawk before breaking off (perhaps realizing how much bigger it was than he) and heading our way. Kirk was swinging the lure around in a fast arc and shouting “Ho! Ho! Ho!” (the bird signal for “big food”) and Ali Baba came racing into us – doing a flyby and experimental grab of the lure before zooming off, banking and coming back. He grabbed the lure and Kirk and Denise were able to bribe him with some food to get it from him.
We saw on the GPS track that in 23 minutes he had traveled nearly 7 miles and his top speed was 75 mph!
Meanwhile the two other Hawks, in their boxes, were going crazy with the excitement because they could hear the call for big food. When Kirk got out the female Harris’s it was making a noise that sounded like an impression of a dragon – a throaty deep hiss/growl. Eventually she calmed down and we were able fly her.
Steam was very heavy when she was sitting on my arm at full stretch, but extremely beautiful close up. We learned more about how they fly. They are the masters of minimum effort – when they fly to a target their eyes are locked on, and they stay close the ground (less than a wingspan) for less turbulence and smoother flight. When they come to land, they fly up to your hand in a flared posture as a braking maneuver. It was fantastic to see Steam do this, as well as to fly through narrow gaps in the trees and to be so agile as to catch something out of the air.
When it came time for our experience to end, we flew Steam to the lure which she grabbed skillfully. This was our lesson in how a bird “mantles” – i.e. hides its food. Steam was doing this beautifully, and again, a tasty snack was deployed to retrieve the lure from her.
In our two hours or so with Kirk and Denise we learned so much – they are excellent teachers. We had an absolutely fantastic experience with Sky Falconry and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in birds of prey.
Back in late August 2017 mum came to visit us in Los Angeles. As part of her visit we went on a mini road trip to California Wine Country, Morro Bay and a famous tourist spot: Hearst Castle.
Being August the temperature was in the 40C’s (100F) and bush fires were burning around LA. We set out in my car from Pasadena on Saturday afternoon and drove up the I-5 before heading cross country to Paso Robles – a town of many wineries. According to the car, the outside temperature on arrival was 46C/115F.
We headed to Le Vigne Winery which had been recommended to us. Glad for the extra-strong aircon inside the tasting room, we shared a simple tasting with a paired cheese (the “cheese flight”). The wine was fairly average, and the experience of standing up at the bar in a very noisy room was not great. Overall it was not a very interesting experience (for example, compared to a good experience at Pfeiffer Winery, Rutherglen, Australia), so we left fairly quickly and headed to our accommodation – Americas Best Value Inn in Atascadero, which was also not very interesting but was the only place for miles around that had any vacancies. Actually, the interesting thing about the Inn was that the guy behind the reception was so unbelievably rude that it amazed me the place was still in business.
Since Atascadero had a lake, we headed there for a walk before dinner. The lake was beautiful and the temperature had dropped to manageable levels. There were a few people jogging, and others strolling around. Back at the carpark we paused at the little zoo which had flamingos in an outside enclosure.
We had fish and chips for dinner at Pier 46 Seafood Market in Templeton. Afterwards we got beer from the local Trader Joe’s then headed back to the hotel for the night.
The next morning, Sunday, we drove towards San Simeon and Hearst Castle. The coast road was very scenic and strangely quite empty. We stopped off in Cambria to get closer to the water. Scrambling down a small cliff with limited stairs we found a rocky beach which was actually more rocks than beach. After looking at the water for a while we headed on to Hearst Castle.
We arrived at the visitor center at the base of the hill at opening time. Like pros we went straight to the gift shop to get postcards – something which is pretty close to impossible to find in Pasadena – then got coffee.
As we had prepaid our tour tickets online via the California State Parks Reservation System we thought we were all set, but little did we know that those tickets are useless without also going to, yes, the ticket counter, to get them exchanged for…tickets. This wouldn’t have been an issue if we’d known when we arrived and the line was non-existent. However, by the time we found this strange fact out the ticket line was literally out the door: 100 people long. Luckily once we had stood in the line for about 20 minutes we were good to go.
We boarded the bus which drove us up the steep and winding road to the villa on top of the hill. On arrival we were greeted at a wide set of steps by a number of volunteers, all pleased to see us. Just for a second it was easy to imagine arriving as a VIP.
Our guide was extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of the villa, and she took our group on the “upstairs suites” tour. William Hearst Sr. apparently loved to entertain guests at the villa, and had differently designed bedrooms for guests. We were amazed by the amount of European art and sculpture in each room. We also saw the spectacular dining room and library.
After the tour we were able to wander around the grounds. We enjoyed the piazza and the wonderful views before heading to the last stop which was the swimming pool, tiled in azure blue and gold leaf mosaic tiles. It looked so inviting it was hard not to jump in.
That afternoon we drove to Morro Bay and arrived at our accommodation (Morro Crest Inn) to discover it did not have aircon. Luckily it was only 100F at that point so we had a cup of tea then went for a walk along the bay to look for birds and other wildlife.
Along with various sea birds, sea otters and seals we saw a pretty spectacular sunset. We had dinner at Blue Sky Bistro and enjoyed the evening’s cooler temperatures.
The next morning, we had breakfast at the same place then after checkout drove along the bay to spot the local sea lions. These are extremely noisy creatures and we found a big group of them sitting on a yellow contraption in the middle of the bay, honking at each other. At Morro Rock we saw a great group of sea otters, and upon walking around the Rock we saw some interesting birds and lizards.
After this we set our sights for Pasadena, heading along Highway 1 as much as possible. We stopped at Solvang on the way and found it to be a very touristy experience. We sampled the famous aebleskivers and were underwhelmed!
This was quite a low-key road trip as in total we drove about 550 miles in three days. I would like go back to Morro Bay to explore the area more, and I think Hearst Castle is an interesting place for out-of-town tourists – but I wouldn’t go out of my way for Paso Robles!
About a year and a half ago my husband and I were lucky enough to accompany an astronomer to Palomar Observatory as he set about installing a new instrument on the 200-inch Hale telescope.
The astronomer who invited us, Gregg, is a professor with the energy of three people, and the talking speed to match. Gregg and his colleague, Leon, along with a few other astronomers and engineers were at Palomar to install an instrument designed to search for low mass planetary bodies in the outer solar system.
Although I’ve since been lucky enough to visit Magellan, Gemini, and Cerro Tololo in Chile, and I’m working on the project to build the next great telescope, at the time this was my first visit to a working optical observatory. My husband is a radio astronomer, so he was equally at sea.
We arrived from Pasadena late on Friday night, driving up Palomar mountain in complete darkness, and met Gregg outside the dome of the 200-inch. Our eyes had adjusted for only a few seconds when we saw the spectacular sky. Gregg however, was not happy. They had just spent the day installing the instrument, but now they couldn’t start observing because of the humidity.
This was lucky for us however, because we got a quick tour of the inside of the telescope dome – the adaptive optics lab, the control room, and after checking behind approximately ten identical doors, the pool table. Gregg then took us up several flights of stairs, along corridors, past the giant telescope, through a heavy door and outside onto the catwalk. Once we became accustomed to standing on a see-through gantry, we looked at the horizon and saw the marine layer of clouds sitting over San Diego. This is what was causing the humidity problem. But not one to stand still for a second, Gregg got out his camera and tripod and took a bunch of photos of us with the Milky Way in the background.
Then, all of a sudden, the catwalk started moving – the dome was rotating! We headed inside to discover that the humidity had dropped below the required amount, and now they were turning the dome to various angles to the wind to dry it off in the gentle breeze. It would be unfortunate, after all, for a big drip of moisture to land on the 5-meter wide mirror.
An hour later, the telescope operator pronounced the dome to be sufficiently dry and started the procedure to open it. At once the control room was a flurry of activity. Four astronomers huddled around the control system, changing settings, asking the support astronomer to move to different stars as they tried to adjust focus. Once everyone was happy, they asked for the telescope to be moved to M22 – a globular cluster. The stars filled the field and the focus was adjusted some more. The “seeing” was sub-arcsecond, which is remarkable but also not surprising: there is a good reason the Palomar Observatory is located where it is. The image on the screen was very clear but things were not working to the astronomers’ satisfaction.
By 3am, with the instrument still not working, my husband and I were finding it hard to stifle yawns. The rest of the team were already tuned into the night cycle, so Gregg took pity on us and drove us down to the Monastery. We stupidly crept about trying not to make any noise before realizing it didn’t matter because everyone was at the telescope. We slept behind blackout curtains in a comfortable bed surrounded outside by a very peaceful forest while the astronomers worked until dawn to debug their problem.
We were up around noon, and after having a very quiet breakfast in the communal dining room we went for a walk on the site. We saw inside the 200-inch dome from the ‘tourist’ side and checked out the small but impressively informative visitor center.
Later in the afternoon we headed down to the dining room and met up with everyone again for coffee. The discussion was of continued issues with the instrument – they had not been able to solve the problem last night. We were treated to the story of how the original version of the instrument was designed and built in only a few months, and how for some parts it was simpler to use a Canon camera lens and an amateur telescope, and how 24 hours before the instrument was due at Palomar it was sitting in 100 pieces on the floor of the lab in Pasadena.
To pass the time before dinner, Gregg took us up on the catwalk of the 200-inch again to see the view in daylight. Tourists below us asked “how do we get up there?” “Sorry,” we called down smugly, “you can’t”. Then as dinner time approached Gregg gave us a tour of the other telescopes on site, trying to remember what key opened what telescope dome and giving us a rapid history lesson at each one.
Looking down from the catwalk of the 200-inch
Up close with the dome
View from the catwalk
Sunset.. but clouds are not good!
Discussion at dinner was of giant telescopes, and what they would mean for the future of astronomy.
Once it was dark, we all headed back to the 200-inch. I brought my film camera and tripod ready for a night of long exposures and star trails. But, all was not well in the control room. Something still wasn’t working, and as the evening began, the astronomers continued to debug their system – one person on Skype in Pasadena, another at the prime focus right at the top of the telescope, the third in the control room.
At this point Gregg suggested that my husband and I should take this opportunity for a visit to the prime focus. For an astronomer geek this is just about as exciting as it gets.
We went up from the internal catwalk in the world’s slowest “elevator” until we were 17 meters above the priceless mirror (luckily with its cover on). Leon and his colleague switched out cameras and used an alarming number of cable ties to secure everything into position. Aluminum foil – light-tight and excellent for keeping things dark – was used in abundance.
Back down in the control room, we sat around for a while, then decided to make the most of the ‘free’ time while debugging continued to go outside take some star-trail photos. We set up and were out for what seemed like an age (probably a couple of hours), looking at the stars, and spotting the occasional meteor or fireball.
Cold and with sore necks from looking up, we headed back into the telescope, having luckily remembered where the door was, which while it never moves, is also is never in the same place relative to the opening of the dome. The mood in the control room was jubilant – the problem had been fixed and they were taking real data. Soon, the music was cranked up, and celebratory refreshments were passed around.
That evening I reflected how lucky we were to have such an opportunity to visit what was once the world’s largest telescope, to have an instrument builder take his time to show us everything and involve us in his work. As is required now and again, when the day to day of work seems so far removed from what we are ultimately trying to achieve, this visit rekindled my passion for astronomy and reminded me why we strive to build giant telescopes: to enable astronomers to do their magic and push the frontiers of human knowledge.