Posted in Life, Travel

Is the second total solar eclipse as good as the first?

Is the second total solar eclipse as good as the first? This is the question I believed never needed to be asked, because of course it is. In fact, I was sure it would be better because I knew what was coming. On this day, 1 year after the solar eclipse in Chile, let me give you my answer to this question.

My first total solar eclipse was the Great (North) American Eclipse of 2017. We traveled far, slept little, and had a life-changing experience. I saw black circles everywhere for weeks afterward.

2017, Idaho

Even before the 2017 eclipse, I realized that the following eclipse, July 2019, would pass within half a kilometer of my former employer’s worksite in Chile. Soon, others at work realized too, and a huge event, involving a hundred guests and many staff, was planned.

The kind of event we were hosting is always a huge challenge, but I told everyone involved in the planning who cared to listen that it was going to be worth it. NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENED, no matter the six months of planning, and the week on the ground, the stress and chaos, the lack of sleep, it would be worth it for that minute and a half of totality: the most spectacular thing your eyeballs will ever encounter. I told myself this too.

Totality was going to happen in the mid-afternoon of July 2, 2019. We traveled as a group to just inside the zone of totality in the Coquimbo Region of Chile. There was a vast tent set up on an even more vast carpet of green hessian sacking.

2019, Chile

On arrival, we refreshed on pisco sours, then we sat down for lunch (well, I didn’t because I was managing a crisis, but I saw that others had lunch). There were solar telescopes set up outside and a live feed projected in the tent of the sun being slowly covered by the moon.

Since I didn’t get lunch I decided to bail on the speeches and headed out to the front of the green carpet where all the photographers were setting up. I got the tripod up, got the big (300mm) lens on and got out the solar filter for the lens (recycled from 2017). All the first-timers had a screw-on solar filter (or no filter) and I felt very smug knowing that my paper one was going to do the job just as well, and would be much easier to get off at totality. I also had a solar timer app I used in 2017. (Well worth the $2-$3).


I knew that first part of the eclipse, where the sun slowly covers the moon (the partial phase), wasn’t going to be that interesting a second time, so I half-heartedly clicked the camera and mostly lent my filter to my teammate and discussed exposure times and apertures with people.


I also explained what was going on to the non-astronomers, and showed them the pinhole effect and generally talked them through the approach to totality. I emphasized that they should not try to take photos on their cell phone, and just watch instead. As we got closer I set up my GoPro to do a timelapse.

Since we were on a valley floor it was very easy to see the moon’s shadow approaching  – seemingly much faster than in 2017. With help from the app, I counted it down for the people and told them when to take off their solar glasses.

Totality was as beautiful as in 2017. The corona was different, and for some reason, I noticed the color of the horizon and the color of the landscape more. It was mesmerizing. I clicked the camera a bit and warned people as we were coming out of totality.

2019, Chile

Afterward, the newbies around me were either crying happy tears or exclaiming with excitement. It was truly as good for them as it was for me in 2017. But, you may have guessed, it just didn’t have the same impact for me the second time. Perhaps I was shattered from the trip and from the drama of the day, or maybe this is what it’s like for everyone. (Later, I discussed this with a second-timer who agreed with me).

But, it was still great fun to look at the photos on the back of the camera, and to get a totality photo straight onto work’s social media from the desert. Our team was also unwittingly featured in one of the best photos of the event.

So, in summary, please go and see a second total solar eclipse, but my suggestion is to find a way to make it different from the first experience (e.g. go on a boat, a plane, or try for a cool angle on the photo). The next one is December 14, 2020, visible from the southern part of Chile and Argentina.


Posted in astronomy, Travel

Our first rocket launch: Orbital ATK, Wallops Island, Virginia

In May 2018 we were invited to watch the launch of an Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus capsule that was carrying an experiment that J worked on at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. This experiment, a tiny “cubesat” called CubeRRT, would be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) by private company Orbital ATK from Wallops Island, Virginia. We would be VIP guests, along with a select 200 others. We were determined to be there, no matter how inconvenient it was going to be to travel to the East coast for a weekend!

The launch window was 3 days, at very specific times of the middle of the night. The first launch window was in the early hours of Sunday, May 20. To minimize time off work, we initially planned to fly to Norfolk, Virginia on Saturday morning, drive up to the launch overnight, then fly back on Sunday. No hotel, no sleep. Thankfully, on Thursday, May 17, the launch was pushed to the early hours of Monday, May 21, so we rapidly changed our travel arrangements.

Thus, on Saturday, May 19, we flew  from Burbank to Baltimore BWI (changing in Phoenix), arriving after dark. We spent the night in the Holiday Inn airport hotel.

It was a hot and sweaty morning as we drove down to Chincoteague, Virginia, a well-known tourist destination. The drive took a couple of hours and the scenery along the way was verdant.

On arrival we went to the town’s community center to check in with the launch people. After lunch at the nearby Sea Star Café we came back for the 2pm briefing by Orbital ATK. Everyone was upbeat and there was lots of chatter in the hall as friends and colleagues found each other and said hello.


At the briefing, we heard from a variety of VIPs, including the CEO of Orbital and the new NASA Administrator Jim Bridensteine, about Cygnus’s resupply mission. The Cygnus capsule separates from the Antares rocket at the appropriate altitude and continues up to the ISS bringing supplies for the astronauts, as well as scientific experiments (such as CubeRRT). It later takes away the trash (and burns up in the atmosphere).

NASA Administrator Jim Bridensteine

After the briefing a member of the CubeRRT team the produced the best mission swag ever: a specially-commissioned case of CubeRRT beer!

At around 4:30pm we headed to our hotel – the Comfort Suites. We had dinner at the highly-recommended  Bill’s PRIME Seafood and Steaks. Then, since we were technically on vacation, we sampled the local ice-cream place, Island Creamery, where we got a “single scoop” each, which turned out to be more like half a pint. It was delicious!

View from Comfort Suites, Chincoteague, Virginia
Island Creamery – yum!

With that, we tried to have an early night, turning out the light at 7:30pm. Very soon, our 1:00am alarm went off.

So very early Monday morning, we walked in the darkness back to the community center, arriving at 1:45am as instructed. This time the hall was filled with bleary eyed people, some dozing. Some of J’s collaborators had pulled an all-nighter so were more awake than us.

Taking photographs at 2am…

We sat around for over an hour until we were shuffled onto different buses according to US citizen status. Our bus was dark and quiet and soon snoring could be heard. The bus didn’t move for another 30 minutes but then we set off in a convoy with a police escort. We really felt like VIPs at this point!

Bus convoy

It was about a 20-minute ride to the launch viewing area and we got there at about 4:00am. In the marquee tent everyone fell on the coffee and donuts that were lavishly spread on several tables. There were TVs showing a live feed from the launch.

How hungry could you be at 4am? Answer: very
Live feed of the launch inside the tent

We headed outside into the darkness to see the rocket in real life, several miles away across the water, lit up with massive floodlights. The launch veterans had already set themselves up on the small set of bleachers with a good view of the countdown clock. We novices just hung around on the grass and used phone apps to monitor the time. The voice from the control center was broadcast over loudspeakers.

(Apologies for the poor photos – we were traveling hand luggage only, so no tripod, or long lens)

At this point, after all this effort, we still didn’t know if the launch was going ahead. There were two 5 minute windows this early morning. It soon became clear that the first window was scrubbed.

Then, after what seemed like no time at all, the voice from mission control was starting a 10-second countdown. It was about 4:45am. When he got to zero we all held our breath and nothing happened. Then about a second later there was a flash of light from the launch pad. The rocket took off exactly like in a cartoon and everything went really bright. The rumble of noise from the rocket came after about 10 seconds and was rib-cage shaking.

The rocket quickly entered the low cloud deck but we could see it peeking in and out. After the initial cheer we all stood in open-mouthed silence, watching it the whole way up until it reached orbit, a process which apparently took about 5 minutes, but seemed like only 10 seconds. When mission control announced the separation of Cygnus from the Antares rocket there was another cheer – the launch was a success.

With nothing else to see outside, we all crammed back into the tent and champagne and cake was passed around. Several people gave speeches, which we couldn’t hear over the hubbub.

Then it was time to head back. The chatter on the bus was animated and people were replaying the launch on their phones. We said goodbye to J’s colleagues then went back to the hotel, walking in the door at 6am as the sun was rising.

We had a short nap then packed up and hit the road back to Baltimore, back to Burbank via Phoenix, and got home in Pasadena at 10:30pm on Monday night, absolutely shattered.

Like our total solar eclipse adventure, this was a lot of traveling for a short event, but it was well worth it, and to be invested in its success made it even more special.

Posted in Travel

Honolulu, Hawaii – 5 things to do

In September last year, Mum and I visited Oahu, Hawaii. I was at work for the first couple of days, but afterwards we took a few days to explore the island. Here are five things to do in Honolulu in three days.

Waikiki Beach

We were staying at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort which is in prime position, right on the beach. On Friday evening we caught the Hilton’s regular start-the-weekend fireworks display.

Hilton Hawaiian Village

The Beach

This is the main point of Waikiki. During the week we spent plenty of time walking along the beach. We also swam and snorkeled a bit but didn’t see very much.

Waikiki beach, right outside the Hilton
Waikiki Beach, early morning
Waikiki, looking towards Diamond Head


Another important thing to do in Waikiki is get food from a food truck. Gilligan’s Beach Shack food truck was near to the hotel and we partook of lunch and dinner there on different days. I can report that the coconut shrimp, and fish and chips, were excellent.


Coconut Shrimp from Gilligan’s Beach Shack
Red-crested cardinal


Sunset viewing is a must in Waikiki. With the sun setting over the water, there’s a good chance you will see a green flash – as we did one night.

Sunset over the Hilton’s lagoon
Near the Hilton


Another activity for sunset is a cocktail at the Royal Hawaiian’s Mai Tai Bar. This is a grand old hotel, open and breezy in the way tropical hotels usually are. There is a patio overlooking the beach where we enjoyed Mai Tais (of course). They were very strong!

Mai Tai heaven
Royal Hawaiian

Hula dancers

There are a lot of random places in Waikiki where Hula dancers perform – outside shops, at the airport, and at hotels. You won’t have to go far for a free display.

Hula dancers in Waikiki

Diamond Head

Diamond Head is one of the key landmarks of Honolulu. After I finished work on Saturday afternoon, Mum and I made an attempt to hike the summit. For some reason the traffic in Honolulu that evening was appalling. Leaving the hotel at about 4pm, it took us over an hour for a journey that should’ve taken 25 minutes. When we finally arrived at the Diamond Head entrance there was a big sign saying “Do not start walking after 4:30pm” and of course we were too late. Not willing to risk it, we decided to come back the next day.


Since it had taken such an effort to get there, we walked around to the Diamond Head lookout. The walk was very nice and the views were spectacular, but it was a slight ordeal getting home (lack of cell reception/irregular buses/getting dark).

Walking round to Diamond Head lookout
Diamond Head Lookout

The next day, Sunday, we decided to tackle Diamond Head again – we were on the 8am bus for a very quick ride and a smooth walk to the base. It wasn’t too hot though it was already quite busy. The hike was challenging but not impossible, although the “99 steps” gave us a run for our money. The views at the top was breathtaking and well worth it.

View of Honolulu from Diamond Head summit










Historic Downtown Honolulu

After our successful Diamond Head re-do, that afternoon we caught another bus into Historic downtown Honolulu. We followed the “The Capitol District” tour in the app GPS My City. Because it was Sunday, it was very quiet, but it gave us a chance to look at different landmarks in relative peace.

We started at the Iolani Palace, and on our tour we saw the Aliiolani Hale and the King Kamehameha statue, and the Hawaii State Capitol building among other places. The guide was quite informative – for example, we learned that the State Capitol was designed to “evoke Hawaii and its natural features” including representations of the ocean, volcanoes, coconut trees, the primary islands, the sun and the moon. The building lacks the usual central dome/rotunda of other state capitol buildings: instead this area is left open to the sky.

King Kamehameha statue
Iolani Palace

Island Tour

A popular activity on Oahu is an Island Tour. We chose Hawaii Turtle Tours because of their options to go snorkeling and see turtles.

We met out guide, Brock, at 7:30am. We picked up a few other people until there were about 20 of us on the bus. The day was pretty much non-stop:

  1. Diamond Head Lookout (been there!)
  2. Halona Blowhole – we waited patiently for the right wave to see the awesome blowhole (see video below)
  3. Makapuu Lookout
  4. Tropical Farm – a macadamia nut farm where there was free coffee.
  5. The windward coastline to Kualoa Beach Park and Chinaman’s Hat.
  6. Sunset Beach. The surf wasn’t that impressive that day, but we did get rained on.
  7. Tsue Farm for a delicious lunch.
  8. A nearby beach for swimming with turtles. We started by walking on the beach and soon came across a turtle just hanging out on the sand. Our guide told us to not get within 5ft of it but lots of people from other buses were taking selfies right next to it. I did get in the water for a while but it was too rough and cloudy to see anything. From the shore I did see a turtle in the water, and others swam out with it.
  9. The Dole Plantation, a must-see for all tour buses on the island. We got a Pineapple Whip and a Pineapple smoothie and had a look around the pineapple-themed gift shop.
  10. We arrived back in Waikiki by about 4pm.

Overall the tour was a great experience – our guide was very good and we felt like we saw all the highlights of the island.









Pearl Harbor Memorial

On our last day in Honolulu we went to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, aka the Pearl Harbor Memorial.

My knowledge of this event that brought the U.S. into the Second World War was minimal prior to our visit. The museum took us through what the island was like before the event, how the war shaped it, the actual day, and what happened after. It was extremely well done, and very easy to engage with at a simple or detailed level, depending on what you were interested in.

The final part of the experience is a boat ride to the memorial which sits over the USS Arizona. To go on this, you have to reserve a timed ticket but unfortunately on our visit this part of the memorial was closed due to repairs. We still went on a boat which circled nearby and we listened to an explanation from the boat’s captain.

I highly recommend this museum to visit, even if you’re not into war history.



USS Arizona Memorial


It’s hard to leave such a beautiful place!


Posted in Los Angeles, Travel

Flying a falcon and a hawk: Sky Falconry experience

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.

Two Harris’s Hawks and a Lanner Falcon

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.

Lanner Falcon – Ali Baba
Harris’s Hawk – 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.

With Ali Baba. See the blue GPS backpack he wears
Ali Baba takes off – seen again 20 minutes later!

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!

Ali Baba banking for arrival
Snatches the lure
Ali Baba
Ali Baba’s flight – note the “coring” in the air thermals

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 preparing for flight

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.

Steam – caught the lure and mantling
Not interested in alternative food source!
Attempting both options
Reward for giving up lure

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.


Posted in Travel

Free things to do in Washington DC

In August 2017 I had a work trip to Washington DC, spending three days at a conference. Luckily I had the evenings off, so each day at 4:30pm I left the conference hall and headed straight onto the train into town. Here’s what I got up to – all things were free!

The White House

On the first afternoon, before the conference started, I had an excuse to go into town and meet with a colleague for lunch. We dined at the Iron Gate Restaurant and I had soft-shelled crab for the first time in my life. Walking up to the restaurant from McPherson Square Station, I was interested to see that the architecture was a lot like I remembered in Boston.

Washington DC
Soft-shelled crab

After lunch, I detoured past The White House. The building seemed very small in real life, and for some reason I didn’t take any pictures.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and the Mall

After the first day of the conference I headed to Georgetown, otherwise known as the student district. From Foggy Bottom-GWU station I walked to the Lincoln Memorial and the Mall. The Lincoln Memorial was vast – much bigger than I imagined. I climbed the many steps to the top to admire the Lincoln statue and found it packed with people taking selfies.

Lincoln Memorial
Inside the Lincoln Memorial
View over the Mall

Then I walked alongside the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument. On my flight into National (DCA) we flew right past this monument – from my window seat it looked like we could reach out and touch it. Near the Monument was the National World War II Memorial which was quite beautiful and touching. Like the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument was much bigger in real life.

Lincoln Memorial
Reflecting Pool
World War II memorial
At the Washington Monument
Capitol Building
Sunset and the Washington Monument

Even though it was nearly sunset, I kept walking along the mall. On the lawns there were hundreds of people playing what I would describe as football rounders (I’m sure it’s called something else). It looked like fun! I walked past the Smithsonian Castle and the Smithsonian museums and took pictures of the sunset. At this point I was close to the Capitol Building and was tempted to make my way there, but my feet were seriously sore at this point and I didn’t really want to be out after dark, so I called it a night and got back on the Yellow line to the hotel.

Arlington National Cemetery

I went to Arlington Cemetery the following evening. It was only a short walk from the train station and was free to enter. I got there about 45 minutes before closing, but figured that was enough time to get the idea. I followed the walking path around to see  JFK’s grave and memorial, and the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then I walked out past the thousands of tombstones. It was a sobering place.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Arlington Cemetery

National Air and Space Museum

On the last day, a Saturday, the conference ended at lunch time, so once I’d packed up, it was back to the train station – this time to see the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. I got there at about 2pm and the line was out the door and along the street. Since the museum is free to enter, this line was just for security. Once I figured out I could go in the “no bags” line, I was in fairly quickly. Again, I didn’t have much time here as my flight back to LA was later that evening, so I did an extremely cursory look around. Hubble Space Telescope model: check, Wright Brothers plane: check (wait, didn’t I see that at the Pima Air Museum as well?), Apollo lander: check.

The museum was absolutely packed and there was almost no room to move in some parts. I don’t think I would have liked to have spent much longer in there on such a busy day. However, it was an impressive museum, and I’d like to spend more time there one day.


There are so many great things to do in Washington DC, and it’s very easy to get around. I hope to come back one day to do it properly!