Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A visit to an Backyard Astronomy dome

above: one of the backyard telescope domes near the town. (not the one I visited).

Monday 16 march, I drive along small country road which leads to the Warrumbungles, and stop at a guy’s property. He’s the ex-director of the Anglo-Australian observatory, and has several telescopes in his garden, including one big one in a dome. He is now an entrepreneur – giving talks in the evening (to myself and 3 others, tonight), to school groups etc. Pretty fascinating to be in the presence of such encyclopaedic knowledge of Physics and Astronomy, made fun by the ability to look at huge nebulae (gaseous clouds), galaxies, planets, stars thru his equipment. $15 for nearly 2 hours of lecture and viewing.

He has a small dome, which he has set up for remote viewing by a fellow in Scotland. The Scottish fella operates it via the internet when he wants to (!)

He projects a film about scale using his laptop, and then shows us the night sky,
He gives us lots of facts, pointing out constellations, the Magellan clouds (nearby galaxies), facts about the size and distance away of stars. And we observe some thru his 3 telescopes. I take notes for my own interest, and so I can share some of the wonder of starscapes with the students in 2 weeks.
Near Orion’s belt (3 stars in a row), there is a reddish star called Betelgeuse, which is a ”red giant”, you can see with the naked eye. Meaning it is a dying star, and could explode and become a Supernova at any time. What we see with our eyes actually occurred many thousands of years into the past, however, as it has taken many light years for its light to reach us. When it does become a Supernova, it will be brighter than anything else in the sky for a month or so, lighting up our nights…. Spectacular.

Just having a little knowledge of astronomy is mind-boggling, and is awe-inspiring when you consider the scale of the universe, of which our galaxy – the milky way – is just one of trillions of galaxies… Also the fact that light travels at a finite speed is hard to imagine, as are other facts of Physics.

Oh that Science could be taught this way – by going to factories, observatories, power stations, talking with bike designers , and going “backwards” as it were to the theory, rather than teaching disconnected theory in the classroom to mostly bored students. In fact the whole secondary/tertiary school system could be outsourced to a multitude of small inspiring operators like this guy, combined with self-study using the Internet. The head of Noosa Sunshine coast uni suggested as much, mentioning the Internet as a new means of learning.

This guy really inspired me, with the facts about the night sky, his interest, as well as his entrepreneurial small-scale business, which he runs out of his front garden.

Town of Coonabarbaran and the Warrumbungles

1: Museum at Narandera. First and only Aboriginal pilot and his plane "Black Magic"
should have been told he was a victim, given welfare for life and rotted on a community in the middle of nowhere... Not.
2: The Warrumbungles nat park - "breadknife" in the background.
3: nat park.
4: View from a small peak where I met the Eagle.
5: Rainbow in the evening.
6: Lake Eildon sunset
7: around lake Eildon
(click on a photo to enlarge)

-a close encounter with an Eagle
-why bother going to National Parks and sweating ?

Town of Coonabarbaran : Astronomy capital of Australia , private telescope domes on green country road that leads to Warrumbungles Nat park. Lots of swank properties – names like “Xanadu”… great place to raise kids. Also a hill at 1100 m with 11 telescopes, including the Main Anglo-Australian telescope. Was chosen by the ANU as having good location – no city glare, night skies clear 70 % of the time.
I saw some good starscapes looking up with the naked eye – shooting stars, the milky way pretty clear.

The Town has the usual practical amenities – a supermarket, information centre, library with internet, some swank cafes, It’s a small country town, but actually quite artsy, with an art gallery, pottery centre, Jazz festival, Astronomy week… (with local Astronomers giving lectures in the pub).
NSW so green after drought-stricken Victoria. .. green starting not that far north of the border with Vic.
I Get a fresh bag of ice for my eski, fill up with water and buy a bit of food at the supermarket. Also get some info and a free map of the National park at the info center.

I Drive to the Warrumbungles Nat park and spend two nights there. Sunday, I do a 14 km walk – the “Grand high tops tour”, which goes up and around some famous landmarks – the “breadknife” and such.
There are some other walkers in the park, but I met no-one. It’s kind of great being all alone in this stunning nat. park. I sit on the top of a lava block and just look at the scenery. I spot several wedge-tailed Eagles gliding around an adjacent volcanic plug. Then one comes right overhead – about 30 m above my head. I look up and we look at each other for a while as he glides past. I can see every detail of his plumage. Then he goes past. Quite an experience. This is why I get out to these places.., nothing I can experience in the city can beat this.

-Why bother get off the couch at all ?

On the way up to the viewpoint, there was a visitor’s book which I looked at. One the entries was written in big print, by kids of about 11, I guess:


mmm… yes, why bother get off the couch at all, in fact ? I could think of a dozen answers to that question. But at least they were being honest… the virtual age is here, as predicted by sci-fi writers many decades ago, and the fun has only just begun. Soon we will be able to experience views in 360 deg, virtual reality with sound.

I wrote in response: “stay at home and get fat and bored”. Which kind of sums it up. But the proper response involves explaining why tactile reality cannot be replaced by technology, why using your muscles to achieve an outcome – a view, getting from A to B, earning money, building something… can bring satisfaction not found on the couch.
And interacting with a real live Eagle, or scaling mountain rock and feeling it’s texture, or being surprised by an Emu, or watching an awesome sunset on a cold mountain top is not the same as simulated reality, however life-like.
(on my walk I saw grey Kangaroos and Emus).

Apart from the above psychological benefits of walking in a Nat. Park, there are also other benefits: It keep you fit, which helps at work, in social life, avoids medical problems and produces endorphins which makes you feel more chirpy.
If the walk is a bit challenging, or involves scrambling rocks, it increases your confidence in being able to tackle obstacles in daily life.

On a deep level, interacting with nature can be akin to a mystical experience – eg watching the stars at night from a campsite. Which can allow a person to see the bigger picture and feel part of a grand cosmos of inter-related beings and phenomenae. And maybe touch his own connection with the transcendent and the oneness of the uni-verse.

Or alternatively, you can feel depressed by convincing yourself we are all "just a bag of greasy water" as a Marxist lecturer in Paris once said to his students. And as Post-Modern lecturers are saying to their students in Universities around Australia. Apart from uni Lecturers of course... uni lecturers are Gods who have a divine right to tell us what to think, say and do with our lives. Somehow, I'm sure they don't include themselves in their reductionist viewpoints about humans.

Western Affluence and Teens

Working with Students again. And thoughts on Western Affluence.

A few days ago, after several phone calls, I secured a week’s work with my old employer in Brisbane. At the end of March, doing a week with 15 yr olds in the Mt Barney area – which I know well (see previous posts on the area). Just on the Border of NSW/ QLD, on the scenic rim of mountains, it’s a great area for outdoor activities. With spectacular mt Barney rising up alone to 1300m above the plain. And several lakes and outdoor centres. This center is “mt barney lodge”, a very nice campground/ B&B combo, right next to Mt Barney.
I ring up the center and fall on Stafford, an English immigrant who’s been on several camps that I’ve worked on (with other kids). He’s an ex-fireman and quite experienced in the outdoors. Funny to be talking with him, now working at the Lodge. I’m looking forwards to our “Recce” day –Beer and BBQ nxt Sunday, then recce on Monday.

Now I’ve had a bit of a break from kids, I can work refreshed… they can be hard work between about 14 and 17 … you always get a minority who are lazy, surly and obnoxious, which can test my patience to it’s limit, especially on expeditions when they complain about being asked to do their turn doing the dishes.

You really need 3 weeks of expeditioning to work thru all the “attitude” of some teens, and get them spontaneously working for the common good and enjoying the expedition. I almost prefer kids from “working class” schools – it might take some work initially to reduce their swearing, but then they are more receptive to new ways of doing things, very interested in rock climbing which they have never done etc And they chip in and do the dishes and tell off those who are lazy… I know from having had such a group up in Nth Qld.

Many of the problems of today’s kids stem from an excess of ease – to many video games, too much food, too much given to them and not enough asked from them. They end up lazy, sometimes rude and with a vague sense of discontent (which stems from not having pushed themselves either mentally or physically, or taken responsibility for anything, I reckon) which they can try and fill with drugs, hooning etc.
Meantime, Kids in Kurdistan work to support the family, and brave minefields to smuggle textbooks over the border so they can write down stuff at school… Lots of western kids need a month in Kurdistan/ similar in my opinion. They’d never take anything for granted again.

Affluence is good – If you know how to appreciate it, don’t take it for granted. Also you need to know the difference between basic survival needs, useful things, and luxuries – particularly if living in a city – or you become a treadmill of working to buy luxuries you don’t need and which don’t satisfy deeply. I find I spend easily in cities – Melbourne was fun, but there’s nothing else to do but spend… on cafes, meals out, transportation, rent…
Whereas in the campsite at Arapiles I lived for 140$ + 10$ per week (my food bill + fuel bill to Horsham and back) . it was like being in a natural monastery – eat, sleep, do challenging climbs, read, watch sunsets, talk with fellow travellers… no temptations like cafes and such, unless you drive a bit.
The campsite is 2$ per day… when the ranger can be bothered collecting it.

The Kurds wish they could have the Aussie std of living – but you need to learn to appreciate it if you are born in it. Hence the immigrants from Italy etc who do well in Australia – they can see all the advantages and know that their hard work here can make them rich, as opposed to their home countries, where Corruption/Governement regulations and taxes/ mafias skimming profits/civil War, can make it very difficult to get ahead.

Pear-Picking at Shepparton, Vic

1: Yorkshire couple Tom and Louise
2: Echuca figurants
3: The campsite at the farm
4: The dining area
5: The brits
Turnbull orchards 22 Feb. 09 onwards

After 2.5 weeks picking pears, the pears ran out on that farm, and we were told (on the last day) that apples would start in about a week. Interesting experience picking fruit – I got pretty fast towards the end, picking 3 bins a day (a bin is approx 24 sixteen kg bagfuls). Ie 3 times 35$ per day – 90 dollars after the 13% tax. Not all that good for 7 or 8 hours of hard labour. Plus there were some days where we were basically used as cheap labour – clearing a sparse field of fruit – taking 8 hours to fill a bin … 35$.
A lot depends on the farm you work on, and the quality of their trees in producing dense fruit. Some other pickers I talked to in town were doing 6 bins per day… now that’s good money.
Anyway, I saved 200$ the second week, after food and other expenses. Not too hot – the same as what I make in a day of Outdoor Instructor work , though this is not regular work (and more than this on expeditions). Given a farm with better fruit, one can make reasonable money, but one needs to shop around and put up with some bad work.
It’s certainly a job you can just turn up and find work in a day, if they happen to be picking that week. Good to have as a fallback.

Felt good to be using my muscles – I enjoy such work in itself, quite apart from the money I make at it.

Earlier entry:

Loving the social life – Alex the older guy who worked for Optus. Lots of French bacpackers . Crazy parties on Fri nite.
The work is not too bad – have to watch lower back ache. I stretch using yoga child's pose several times in a day, and get rid of compression ache.
Getting faster. Nice to have a break from spoilt kids…

The main entertainment at Shepparton is going to the Mc Donald’s in Town (!), buying a coffee , apple pie, and surfing the net for free… not much else to do, except maybe fish in the river and canals, which is what the 4 brit backpackers do.

Pretty dull place. One Saturday, I drive to Echuca with a nice Yorkshire couple. Enjoy the sights, swim in the Murray.

4 brits together – all got a tattoo of Australia on their thighs…
They are from Sheffield and surrounds. 2 of them do Thai boxing, and will travel on to Thailand where they will do a month or more of training in a Thai boxing academy – they let you train at reduced costs if you compete in tournaments.

Monastic experience at Arapiles

Arapiles 16 feb

Sunset last night – a red ball of fire over plains and eucalypts. Flat golden fields just outside the national park boundary. The gnarly rock of Arapiles rises out of the plain like an apparition. Mitre rock, much smaller, stands nearby.
I run along track, into sunset, then walk. Feel peace, transcendence .
Feel very fortunate to be here. Just to feel the peace and quiet.

Every morning, I gaze out on the flutings on the rock – a mystical beauty which draws you to climb it.
My climbing has improved. Much less nervous than a month ago when I climbed with Luther. I lead second pitch of D major, with overhangs, quite easily.

Climb with local Guide “Mookie”, A Canadian fella working for OEG. And seattle guy.
Do 100m “arachne” route on watchtower. Get a bit nervous on last few pitches , seconding – due to exposure (when you have a lot of empty space under you) . Need to be exposed to more exposure. Also need more practice placing gear quickly.