Sunday, December 25, 2016

It's X-mas time!

Merry X-mas! Here are some pics of things that got me on christmas mood this year and some more of how I actually spent the christmas day.

In mid-December I attended the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting in San Francisco. I chose a well-rated hotel called Inn San Francisco although it was a bit further away from the convention center as the listed conference hotels, and I'm glad I did; the place was amazing! The decorations were overwhelming, christmas songs were playing in the background, and the lobby even smelled like christmas! The breakfast was delicious and the hospitality was among the best that I've ever experienced. The rooms had candy, real flowers, and fruit and hot beverages were available at any time in the parlor.

Around home the yard christmas decorations of my neighbors were simply jaw-droppers for a person used to the modest Finnish christmas lights. The electricity in PR is not cheap but with the decorative lights, the locals just don't care a bit.

And here's how I ended up spending the christmas day with my family who escaped the cold and darkness of Finland to PR. Because most places were closed, we decided to go beach hopping. We drove to the North-West corner of the island and drove around Isabela and Aguadilla.

Playa Guajataca

Playa Jobos

Montones Beach

Pozo de Jacinto

Crash Boat Beach

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Scrap human rights

If you want to make the world a better place, scrap every right you have ever heard of. Scrap human rights. Scrap right to free speech. Scrap any right based on nationality, color of the skin, gender, or any other superficial stamp. Because almost every right only leads to a sense of entitlement.

If you want to make the world a better place, start speaking of human responsibility. It's simple because, instead of a million rights to choose from, there's only one responsibility: the responsibility as a human to respect and help others; the humans, the animals, the nature. Because from all the creatures on the Earth, the humans are the most capable of surpassing their basic instincts. Don't judge actions of others based on rights of yours or others, judge yourself and others equally, and only for the lack of responsibility.

If you want to make the world a better place, scrap the borders, and respect the culture and customs of all the people. When the people and cultures spread and mix, scrap your fears of them violating your rights. Scrap the dream of becoming rich. Instead, dream of happiness, you don't need to be rich to be happy. If you're in trouble, don't be ashamed to call for help. It is part of the human responsibility to help those in trouble, but not to make you feel happy. That is an attitude choice, which only you can make.

Seek freedom from fears. Seek freedom from the power of money. And most of all, seek happiness. Just don't make any of it your right over your responsibility as a human.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The illusion of freedom

On Thursday, November 24, the American people celebrated thanksgiving, the most ironic holiday in terms of recent times. Cynically, the Americans celebrate the time when immigrants flowed into the country and terrorized the natives. Anyone who didn't believe in the god of the immigrants was oppressed. But despite the origin of the day and how it's being celebrated (by first over-eating and on the next day by over-consuming), the idea of having at least one day in a year when people take a moment to think what they are grateful for is excellent.

As for myself, I am grateful mostly for three things:

  1. The people in my life: My mom who has always done her best to be as good mom as possible and succeeded pretty well despite all the trouble she has had to go through in life, my friends abroad who can lift my mood when needed, and (especially during the last weeks when life hasn't been exactly the "happily ever after" -part of the childhood fairy tales) the whole Observatory community and especially Team Radar and Team Astro for the amazing team spirit that keeps on blooming.
  2. Freedom: A bit of a cliché maybe, but something that most people take for granted. However, I'm speaking of freedom in a wider sense. Even in the "free world", there's a number of invisible chains that restrict people from freedom to take advantage of opportunities or freedom of self-expression. Sometimes the chains are set by the society or our closest people (e.g., inequality or money issues), sometimes by ourselves (e.g., inexplicable fears...). I'm grateful for the people who promote equal opportunity and help in any way those who have the least freedom in the world, today as well as in the past.
  3. Education: I'm grateful for being one of the (relatively) few people in the world who have had an access to the best education in the world, and for the people who have made it possible. A measure of the greatness of a country should not be just its gross domestic product, and definitely not the military budget. The measure should be how happy the people of the country are. And although living in a bubble can keep a lot of people happy just fine, education is the only thing that can move the society forward at any measure – if it's successful.
The other day, I had a good discussion about three very different education cultures: South Korea, a top performer in international education tests (1st from 38 countries in the OECD student skill ranking), United States, an average performer in the tests (22nd), and Finland, another top performer (3rd after Korea and Japan). 

In South Korea, the education culture is extremely competitive and stressful for the students. The school days may extend from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and even though the whole time is not instructional hours but often casual chatting with friends, the school causes a huge amount of stress for the students. The most part of the stress is caused by the parents, who only approve the best performance from their children. It is common that if you're not the best student of the school, you will be mocked by your parents. Your parents and grades also decide your future. Despite of your own interests, the best students are expected to become doctors and lawyers. Nobody applies to the secondary level technical schools by choice, but you will end up there if your grades are not good enough for the high school. The colleges and universities are not as expensive as in the USA, but neither are they free. The parents make an effort to save money for your tuitions and thus justify their power to decide which college you should choose. The Asian schools in South Korea, and major cities in China may be the top performers in international tests, but no other system drives as many students to suicides – or in minimum family disputes – as them.

The USA spends the most amount of money per student in the world. The students spend in the school about 1000 instructional hours per year, which is roughly the same as in the East Asian countries, and yet, compared to other developed countries the results are average at best. The teaching targets to good results in the national scholastic assessment tests (SATs), which only measure skills in mathematics and reading/writing English. There are hardly any mandatory classes for handicrafts, or cooking, maybe because schools might be sued if the poor kiddos sting themselves in the finger with a needle or burn their hand at the stove. The schools are funded by local taxes, which causes major diversion in the quality of the schools. Even on the elementary level, the best schools are for the rich, not to mention the colleges and universities, which can cause debts that take decades to pay back. The children are more free to choose their careers than in the East Asian education culture, but several aspects of people's lives are still defined by money, not people themselves.

Finnish students spend roughly 600-800 instructional hours at school (the least in the world), enjoy free education all the way until university (including free lunch until the end of high school), and beat all other western countries in the international tests. Some of the most important factors explaining the excellence are considered to be the quality and appreciation of the teachers and the uniformity of the schools. All the schools receive equal funding (by the number of students) from the state, and the curriculum/minimum requirements are defined by the ministry of education. Also, the final exams are not only about maths and reading/writing but for example high schools require the students to have examination in at least four subjects. The native language is the only mandatory one. Most children choose their careers themselves and receive guidance if needed.

Education is a reflection of the society. Good education systems only arise from well-working societies, and can make them even stronger. Election of a person like Trump was a result of deficits of the society, including education. Masses of people ate lies from the hand of a demagogue just because they didn't know better or weren't happy with the society they live in, and possibly made not only United States but the whole world pay a heavy price. Another president of the past said it well:

"Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education." – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Even though Finland excels in education, something similar happened in Finland a few years ago. A certain political party rose to power by very similar rhetorics to what was heard in the American presidential election. They're against the elite, against the (illegal) immigrants, and "on the side of the working class". After they won enough seats in the government, the refugee crisis emerged and they faced the state debt that needed to be cut. You know or can imagine what happened to their popular support. Globally they didn't do much damage but the same can't necessarily be said about Trump if the tea-party plans for science and education get through. The world is on the edge with the fight against the climate change, if not yet lost, and a creationist as an education minister could damage the following generations even more.

It would be naive to say that education solves all the problems a society can have. People are not wired to always choose the smartest way. Selfishness and greed will still cause pitfalls to any society. And even when education is improved, the benefits take time to show up. However, only good education is able to move society forward. It will prevent unnecessary fears. Understanding will bring freedom.

The primary goal of education should be to make people self-sustaining, responsible citizens. One of the biggest problems that many of the education systems have is the lack of understanding of the society in the mandatory part of the education, and over-concentration on technical details. What use is it to know the year of a peace treaty when you have no idea why was the war fought in the first place, or if it could have been avoided? What use is it to know all the names of the US presidents while at the same time you have no idea what the president of this day actually can or cannot do?

From my point of view, the greatest problem of the American society, and consequently the education system, is the power of money. Trump is an excellent example: just because he is rich, he can get away with a fraud, and the majority of the society accepts that. If the majority of the decision makers (the congress, house of representatives etc.) are also rich, they will not do anything to stop the cycle. And if the people do not understand the process, they will not stand up strong enough either. But as long as the power of money continues on the current level, the true freedom of the people will stay an illusion.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Times of hate, part 3

For the past week we have been reading the news about the increase of hate crimes in the USA (and in some other countries) and how the new president-elect continues making sure the White House will stay as white as possible after his (expected) inauguration.

Racism is once more a hot topic, and I'm glad it is. [Note: I'll use racism here as an example but the same applies to of all forms of acts of hatred.] However, I haven't seen the level of discussion going much deeper than that racism should not be tolerated. At it's worst, it is tweets about how every Trump voter is a racist or wants everyone else dead or deported. To me, they are not in an intellectual sense placed significantly higher than the statements of racists tweeting that every dark-skinned person should be dead or deported. This statement may cause some annoyance in some but please keep reading.

Any hate speech, and much less actions, should not be tolerated and should be called out. However, denouncing masses of people racist is not a solution to any problem. If you witness a racist action, even then calling out racism should be done rather diplomatically than aggressively to minimize further aggression. In most part truly derogatory comments emerge from arrogance or fear. I want to make the terms different because in terms of racism, only in the case of extreme hate or fear the racist actually wants to hurt the person in the other ethnic group. In the case of arrogance, the racist wants to feel superior because of a bad self-esteem or discontent to other issues. And yes, they need to realize it's wrong, but calling racist people racist will not bring all of them back to line.

All people are born arrogant and able to be afraid, but not all to commit acts of hate. Every person can hate. Every person has degraded others to feel more superior. Practically all children do that at some point; some more, some less. Depending on their parents, guardians, or teachers, the children are either raised out of it or not. At a later age also their friends or media will affect their feelings and ideologies. Especially children and the uneducated are easily intimidated by things they don't know about, which can lead to adapting harmful ideologies. It is the sad truth that once people adapt ideologies of hate, fear, or arrogance, it will be hard to snap them out of it. Many of the white ones of us are racist unknowingly. The most significant factor that can help a person to separate harmful ideologies from the good ones, and especially unnecessary fears, is education. For example Trump managed to feed the fears of people who didn't know better.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that economic equality correlates with how happy the citizens are and how much they trust each other. According to the OECD Better Life Index, the income gap between the highest and lowest earning 20 % of the population is 8-fold in the USA and 6-fold in the UK. Compared to the countries that are rated the happiest and the safest (such as the Nordic countries and Switzerland), the difference is approximately 4-fold, which is about as good as it can get. The worst case of the study was South Africa (19-fold), which is also known for racial clashes. The life satisfaction for these countries was rated 7.6 for Norway and Switzerland, 6.9 to the USA, 6.5 to the UK and 4.9 to South Africa. The feeling of safety correlates exactly as you'd expect.

This is why progressive tax system does not only keep the country economically more stable, but it also increases the safety and life-satisfaction rates (worth noting when choosing your political party/presidential candidate). If also education is tightly related to the economic status, as it is in the US and somewhat in the UK, this enhances the social inequality. Funding public schools in the US by local taxes is a cause of debate for a good reason: it feeds inequality, jealousy, and therefore hate. In addition, it's very likely one of the reasons why the US is not doing so well in the international education ratings.

What happened in this election in part was escalation of the social inequality. People knew that one of the candidates is a racist idiot, but voted for him because they wanted retaliation to the "elite". Of course he's elite as well, but the difference was that he was able to speak with the language of the working class. Everyone probably remembers Clinton's term "deplorable" (the word she used to generalize Trump voters). Despite the truth value, it gave "the deplorables" even more cause to hate her. Arrogance feeds hate, hate feeds arrogance, and both are weaknesses. And many people from the lower social class are just waiting to see any sign of weakness from the "elite". Unfortunately these voters mainly shot themselves in the foot by endorsing the candidate who promised to decrease the taxes benefiting mainly the rich, and thus increase the wealth gap.

In conclusion, there is more that you can do than post information about racism/hate/social inequality in the social media or support the different human rights organizations and movements. Concentrating efforts to the new generations could be more effective in the long run. So how about supporting uniform funding to all schools and affecting what will be taught in them? It is not the only solution. It will not bring equality to this world tomorrow or even next year. It will definitely not be as easy as tweeting. But in the long run it will benefit each and everyone of us, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or religion.

If you're bored and want more reading on the subject, here's an old (from ~1990) interview from the author of "Roots – The Saga of an American Family", Alex Haley.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

What is it like to be a bat?

Okay folks, it's time to grab the hottest news topic of the week by the pussy: Why did Donald Trump win the presidential election?

[Note: I've edited the post since publishing, especially the final paragraph as my thoughts on the matter have evolved after discussing the topic with multiple people.]

Well, technically he didn't win yet, Clinton won the popular vote by 0.1 %-units and the electoral college will not vote before December 19th. But it is statistically unlikely that DT would lose the electoral college vote, especially when most states require their electors to vote for the candidate that the state has voted for. So a better question would be why the result turned out the way it did and why are people acting the way they do now after the election?

I'm not claiming the analysis to cover all aspects of how people chose to vote. So please consider this as an analysis among others (see, for example, the blog post by Tobias Stone in the Huffington Post). In large part the analyses on this election apply also to Brexit or any other elections anywhere in the world. Also, I had a side in the election as well (even though I couldn't vote) so I don't claim to be completely objective. But I find it comforting to try to understand the views of both sides. What eats us the most from the inside is hate, and not even trying to understand the other side will keep feeding the hate. And whenever you hate someone, it's you that suffers the most.

To get to the point, to me it seems that many people see the opponents as ignorant idiots who wouldn't understand the other side's decision to vote the way they did even if they tried to explain it in a civilized way (see for example this post by a Trump supporter). The third party who didn't vote are judged lazy or indifferent or wasted their vote to a candidate who couldn't win no matter what. If you would combine the opinions of all people and added "a bit" of contrast, anyone who voted for Clinton would a blind elitist who doesn't understand the life of a common citizen (a clone army of Hillarys) and anyone who voted for Trump is a Trump-like bigot who supports racism, sexism etc. (a clone army of Donalds).

Evidently, even if someone actually saw the opposing candidate(s) this way, most people had their reasons for their vote apart from being racist or elitist and endorsing the candidate who shares these views. One thing that is true in the statements above is that very likely the people endorsing one candidate or the other could not understand the views of the other side.

American philosopher Thomas Nagel published an article "What is it like to be a bat?" in the journal The Philosophical Review in 1974. According to Nagel, no matter how hard a human being tried to imagine what it is like to fly, use sonar, and hang from a ceiling of a cave or a tree branch all day long, they couldn't truly understand what is it like to be a bat. This applies to people as well: No human being can truly understand the life of another human being if you haven't experienced the same environment and social status as they. How hard different people try to understand others is a different, but tightly related question.

For example, take an American citizen who by American definition lives under the poverty line. Every day you have to think if you will be able to buy food the next week or even for today. It's good if you have enough money for the rent to have a home, or medicines if you get sick. All your brain capacity goes to thinking how you will survive, not the problems of other people. That's how our brain is wired to work.

An extreme example? Compare it to the life of for example an African person to whom the poverty line in the USA would be a definition of a really rich person in their country. Hundreds of millions people don't have an opportunity to a regular source of electricity, often not even civil rights. You don't have to go further than the US colony Puerto Rico to have people ripped from their right to vote. But even Puerto Ricans have a fairly stable power grid despite the huge debt (in a big part caused by laws made in the States, not only corruption and economy deficits on the island) that can cause the whole island to go dark.

Another example from a middle-class background: An American citizen representing an ethnic minority of Asian, Hispanic, or African-American people. On a monthly or even weekly basis you have people looking you suspiciously and occasionally throwing racist comments at you. Or you're a woman of any ethnicity who gets sexually harassed as often just because you happened to be born as beautiful as you are, without even bringing it out explicitly. Or you're one of the LGBTQ community, or just a lot more chubbier than most other people. If you have never been bullied or harassed for something you have no power over, you do not truly understand what it feels like. It can become all you can think of. And then you end up finding more than 60 million people endorsing the person behaving like your tormenters.

If you're fundamentally religious and get your brain filled with preaching of religious leaders (what many people do for the sake of feeling to be part of a community or pressure from the family), it is obvious that you will likely choose your candidate based on your own knowledge and ethics, not what science or other communities say.

For the people who are privileged to be highly educated, or for other reasons view the USA as one (significant) part of the world, climate change and the capability to maintain diplomatic relationships to other countries are primary reasons to choose between the candidates. What is it like to be a bat requires ability of critical thinking, but critical thinking is something that for most of us comes through a good education. Not all uneducated people are ignorant of global issues because they are stupid or lazy, but because of the education system and societal reasons. But also not all those who are good at "being bats" should become them, or should it be an excuse for racism, sexism, islam- or homophobias.

Almost half of the American people didn't vote at all. For sure, some were just lazy, for some their right to vote was oppressed in one way or another, but my guess is that many non-voters think that their vote is as good as a lottery ticket as one in hundreds of millions, or that either one of the candidates wouldn't bring the change they want. You could blame them for not thinking "what is it like to be a bat" but your assumption would probably include that you're the bat. Should they have also thought what is it like to be a cat and then evaluated if the cat is more valuable than the bat? What about rats? The fact is that at least one of the groups is currently terrified for their life.

In some countries (like Brazil) voting is mandatory, although the fine for not voting is only some $2 or so. Making a right to a responsibility may be controversial to some, but could bring out the voices of more people, which is what democracy is all about. If you don't want to vote any of the candidates, you could still make a statement by leaving an empty voting sheet.

As the one last point of the analysis (I'm amazed if you made it all the way down here!), a common misconception in presidential elections is the understanding of what a president of the United States can or cannot actually do. Everyone has troubles, everyone wants change for better in their lives. But what the president (or a political party) will have power over, is often a utopia created by the campaigning. Demagogues like Trump are people who specifically excel at feeding those utopias. People believe what they want to believe. And how they think their problems will be solved is often oversimplified, the infamous Mexican wall as an example. Again, many people are lacking the ability of critical thinking, but then again, is it their fault that the education system sucks in that sense? You can't blame one single person for all the faults in a society.

In my opinion voting for Trump was short-sighted and showed the incapability of masses of people seeing through the lies of a conman and whatever bullshit goes around in the internet, and in that sense stupid. At the same time, I think that judging over 60 million people as racist, sexist and/or stupid, that is, putting them in one single category, because they endorsed the racist, sexist conman does not make the judging person any better than the people who voted for him.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Times of hate, part 2

After analyzing the presidential elections for the joy of my weekend in Times of hate, part 1, I'm changing the topic to more personal but as unpleasant problems concerning the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). For many people it's probably a familiar situation to have worked, or know someone who has worked in a company that is holding cooperation negotiations due to economic challenges. Our case, however, is slightly different as we do work that can affect the whole world – or that's what we think. 

Let me first briefly review what has happened in the past. I have written two other blog posts about the NSF's proposal to divest from the Arecibo Observatory (AO): The first one in June about the first public meeting about the EIS, where the five potential alternatives for the future of AO were discussed and what should be included in the EIS, and another one in July about the US congress hearing of the Subcommittee on Space and Subcommittee on Research and Technology. 

The DEIS is an almost 300-page package including six alternatives for the future of the observatory and the effects of each alternative on different environmental aspects but also socioeconomics (incl. tourism and education). The current alternatives are:
1) Collaboration with interested parties for continued science-focused operations (recommended by the NSF),
2) Collaboration with interested parties for transition to education-focused operations,
3) Mothballing of facilities,
4) Partial deconstruction and site restoration (towers, foundation and rim wall infrastructure safe-abandoned, everything else deconstructed)
5) Complete deconstruction and site restoration
6) No action (not a numbered alternative in DEIS)

The most ridiculous and stress-causing of these was the recommended alternative 1, which now suddenly includes deconstruction of 26 buildings as "obsolete", including almost all office space and the (S-band) radar power supply. Note that this does not include dismissal of the research staff, so it seems like they're proposing that we work on the street, the parking lot, or from home. Also it would end the collaboration with the currently only interested party that we are aware of, NASA, which already pays almost a third of the whole budget of the observatory.

The deconstruction of the office buildings is not explained in any way. As for the radar power supply the DEIS has a full page deeming the work of the planetary radar group useless:
"First, the probability of a specific PHO [potentially hazardous object] within the Observatory’s observable zone striking the Earth is extremely low. Second, even if a PHO within the Observatory’s observable zone presented a near-term threat of striking the Earth, significant capability challenges remain in addressing any threat to Earth from a PHO. -- objects of sizes 25, 50, and 140 meters have approximate intervals between Earth impacts of 200, 2,000, and 30,000 years, respectively. -- With regard to the second factor, there currently is no tested technology available that could address the threat of a PHO that presents a near-term threat of striking the Earth. In addition, even if such technology were available, there is no guarantee that a PHO that might impact Earth would intersect the Observatory’s observable zone early enough to enable preventative action to be taken. Weighing these factors and, importantly, the large interval between regional- and even local-scale events relative to the anticipated lifetime of the Observatory, a reduction or elimination of Observatory usage would have an overall negligible, adverse, long-term impact on public safety."

The DEIS does not state who is responsible for the section but it is certainly not in accordance with the views of the NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office. Instead of stating how many PHOs we actually observe each year, the document just says it's "extremely low" for a specific PHO. If I had written that in an essay as a student, there would have soon been a big red mark next to it. In reality we have observed 249 PHOs out of 1746 since the year 1998, about half of which have been observed during the last 5 years. Almost every week there's at least one PHO that we could observe.

The section also fails to mention the 325-meter asteroid Apophis that passes by Earth closer than one tenth of Earth-Moon distance in just 13 years time and will be hazardous for some satellites. Further, OSIRIS-REx mission maybe hadn't even happened without Arecibo's radar observations of the target asteroid, 500-meter Bennu, which also is a potential impactor late next century. And also, both NASA and ESA have missions during the next 10 years (AIDA and ARM), for which Arecibo's radar is critical. According to the logic of the section, why do we even look for new PHOs if we can't do anything about them? The same goes for optical astronomy just as well as radar. But of course these points wouldn't suit the means of NSF, so why mention them?

The document also included a bunch of other oddities that I won't go over here. What you may find more interesting is how we confronted the division director James Ulvestad in the agency night of the Division for Planetary Science conference on Oct 17. He was the main topic of the other post that I mentioned in the beginning for giving almost as misleading statements of the planetary radar as the above-mentioned section of DEIS – in an official testimony to US congress. To my understanding, after the hearing NASA submitted an official correcting statement concerning his testimony.

The case of AO was discussed among the future plans of NSF. The divestment plans were reasoned by necessary transition of the funding from the aging facilities to newer ones (I really hope they don't use age discrimination as reasoning for individual scientists as well). Also the other single-dish radio telescope, the world's largest fully steerable antenna of Green Bank Observatory was on the list of facilities facing divestment. According to Ulvestad, "all their facilities are unique" but they just have to make these hard decisions... His definition of uniqueness reminds me of the quote from Animal Farm: "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others".

After the official part I stepped up to discuss the AO funding personally with Ulvestad. A few other Team Radar members joined us. We began by asking about the hearing: Why would he give such a misleading statement? After trying to deny any incorrectness in the statement he appealed to the pressure of being under interrogation of a "pro-Arecibo" congressman. We asked why he didn't think planetary defense is important. He replied that surveys are more important and Arecibo couldn't be used as a survey telescope. However, we reminded that to get the position accurately and not have the asteroid lost as soon as it's found, as sometimes happens, we can do it in one hour while the optical methods will require weeks for the same accuracy. We also got to hear that NSF has to serve their communities and planetary community is very small in comparison to other astronomical communities. I always thought the purpose of NSF is to serve US taxpayers, not astronomical communities. When asked if he knew any other research area of astronomy that has a congressional mandate, he could not reply. In addition he defended the divestment plans by saying that the optical astronomy community "is screaming" at him for not funding more of their telescopes. So he's distributing NSF money based on who screams the loudest? That's interesting...

The budget plan shows the millions that NSF will save by divesting from Arecibo (AR), National solar observatory (NSO), and Green Bank (GBO+VLBA).

* * *

Any opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), the Universities Space Reseach Association (USRA), SRI International, Universidad Metropolitana (UMET), or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and definitely not those of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Times of hate, part 1

The past week has been incredibly stressful, mainly due to two reasons:
1) The approaching presidential election, which I know is causing increasing stress all over the world, and
2) the draft version of the environmental impact statement (DEIS) submitted by the National Science Foundation late last week, which means stress primarily for the observatory users and employees but due to the nature of the draft, the amount of stress is remarkable.

This post is just about the presidential elections. For my feelings about the DEIS, read Times of hate, part 2.

Most of my life I've been trying to keep out of politics. I have also tried political activism by signing up to a green party of Finland and attending a few of their events but never felt it my way to influence anything. I do want to bring out some thoughts of this election, though. Like many analysts of politics say, this election is unique compared to any other presidential election that the USA has seen. It's an election dominated by hate, but also one that can change the future of the whole humankind through decisions made concerning climate change and foreign diplomatic relations during the next few years. It is not only about the USA. However, millions of people will not vote based on which one of the candidates serves the greater good better with his/her policies, but the one that they personally hate less. Many will not vote at all just because they hate both candidates or don't think that their vote matters, although it can in reality affect the lives of billions of people.

While swelling in the hate for one candidate or another, it could be worthwhile to ask, why do I hate him/her? Because she is untrustworthy and I didn't like her political actions 20 years ago? Because he insulted or degraded me or my kin? Because he/she is a liar and untrustworthy? Or because the other candidate told me that he/she is a bad person or untrustworthy and deserves all the hate along with his/her supporters? Or maybe just because you don't like his face or her voice?

Internet has been a long time the perfect platform for hate speech, but this election has concentrated it to a certain topic. A word of critique about Clinton will be judged as that of Trump supporter and criticizing Trump causes full barrels of hate speech thrown at the critic. The result is that many people become afraid to express any opinion at all and give up on trying to make an input, even voting in the worst case, and also that the image of a candidate is so tarred that you can't see what's underneath, which is exactly what the other candidate is trying to achieve.

Another problem that I've noticed is how people stick to individual policies instead of the big picture and prioritize them. Of course, the fact that there is only two candidates/parties rarely offers the perfect combination of policies to anyone. But seeing how people prioritize certain policies on, for example, immigration, climate change, or relationships to other countries shows well the dominating effect of selfishness and short-sightedness.

If my sense of moral says that abortion is wrong and that coal mining should be continued to bring jobs back to my neighborhood, of course I would choose to vote for Trump. But what will the future be like for the baby that was born unwanted in a world drastically changed by the global warming that Trump chose not to fight against? For sure Clinton is corrupted by over-sized donations and compensations, but you can't surely think that Trump wouldn't be if given the chance? If you give him the chance, as soon as you find out he's not what you expected and get disappointed (which is what usually happens in all elections everywhere in the world), the one thing you will hear him tell you is: "Well, maybe you shouldn't have voted for me. Your bad."

Monday, October 10, 2016

Half-year reflections

Already six months has passed in the never-ending heat of Puerto Rico. I could say the time has passed flying but in some way it feels like six years – not months. Don't get me wrong, I've been anything but bored. But a lot has happened, and I've felt that I've positively changed in a short time.

It didn't take me a long time to settle in mentally, mostly because I already knew most of the people who are super kind and welcoming in any case, and there really hasn't been as many practical problems as there could have been considering it's Puerto Rico in a greatest debt of all time. Also the big change in a style of living, from three-room apartment just for myself to a big six-room house with three dogs and a cat, is one of the things that makes the change tangible.

Most events I've been reporting in the blog as time has passed, although lately very infrequently. For the last month, the most memorable events were having some visitors over: first a group of three Finnish friends (two of whom I met the first time) and then one friend from Brazil, and "el Apagón", the power out caused by a fire in a power plant causing the whole island to lose electricity for a short while for those who had generators, and up to 4-5 days for the more unfortunate people. For me, it took 53 hours, including some 45 hours without water. Fortunately, I have a bathtub that I could fill with water before the pumps shut down and the observatory has its own generators (to charge any electric devices with batteries) and drinking water resources.

Unfortunately for my Finnish friends, the power out hit right in the middle of the week of their visit here. More feeling of adventure, for sure, but many sightseeing places were closed and the shower didn't work. For me it was good luck to have them here because sitting in the dark alone would have sucked much more than playing cards in a candle/torch light did. They also helped me to get a travel gas stove and made great breakfast with it! Awesome people! Also, I'm REALLY happy we avoided hurricane Matthew, which would have hit us only a few days after el Apagón had its path been only 300 km more North.

Torch against a water bottle works well to get more diffuse light than the regular bright beam.

Cooking breakfast during the power out: bacon and eggs on a travel gas stove and coffee by scooping the hot water (boiled on the gas stove before the bacon) into the coffee maker.

Ramses depicting my feelings after the power out.
Sleeping without a fan or A/C in 27 ˚C (80 ˚F) really doesn't work for everyone...

Before they arrived, a local friend of mine was wondering how can I be so trustful about people I don't know well to let them into my house for a week. It wasn't the first time for me to do so; I've had complete strangers over at my apartment in Helsinki from different European countries. And never has any real trouble followed. On the contrary, I've got new friends and the warm and fuzzy feeling inside for helping people out. I guess that in a country like Finland the general feeling of safety makes people naturally more trustful toward other people compared to most other countries where things aren't that well, like here in Puerto Rico.

One of the major things I've missed here has been dancing. Ironically, I did much more latin dancing in Finland than what I've done here. I've had a few (precious!) chances for dancing in one salsa congress and a few social events but I'm still trying to get courage to climb over the language barrier and go to a local dance school to make it regular. In six months, I've been trying to get a hang of the local accent but still can't understand most of the locals who only speak Spanish muy rapidamente with the Rican accent.

Also observing hasn't been as frequent as I would have assumed it to be, mostly due to technical problems, but also due to a lack of possible objects. During the last six months we have observed tens of objects, but the numbers compared to the last year may be slightly lower for this year. Nevertheless, it's been a great privilege to be a part of our planet-defensing team and always exciting to go observing, especially during the survey nights when we try to ping objects that have been detected very recently (as a reminder, we don't look for new objects, we post-characterize them and refine the orbit information).

Next weekend, I'll fly to Pasadena, CA, to attend the biggest planetary science meeting of the year, the best part of which is meeting friends that I usually only see in conferences.

To sum up my feelings from the last six months, I feel myself stronger and more self-confident than before I came here. As I wrote in one of the earlier posts, I used to feel often socially insecure. I'm still quiet and introverted, but I've felt a lot of that social insecurity to have faded with time, new skills and friendships. More and more easily I accept myself, my needs, strengths and weaknesses as they are.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The OSIRIS-REx launch at the Kennedy Space Center

Wow, two months since the last post! I guess I've adapted well the local culture of doing things "tomorrow". Also, after a few months even a life that's very different to the life before moving abroad starts to feel mundane and finding anything worth reporting becomes increasingly difficult.

Last week, however, I went to my first vacation outside Puerto Rico since coming here, which should be at least slightly more interesting story than what part of the fence the dogs broke this time. And we're doing radar observing, which includes a lot of waiting, so I need to keep awake somehow.

So the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission was launched last week and since the Arecibo Observatory was collaborating with the mission planning, our former group lead Mike Nolan, who still works for the mission, offered us invitations to see the launch. And who could say no to a rocket launch? Not me!

The launch was scheduled to happen on September 8th from the Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) with the 9th and 10th of September as reserve days in case the weather didn't permit the launch on the 8th. To cover the whole span of potential days we – I,  Patrick and Luisa – flew to Orlando on the 6th and had a return flight on the 11th. We rented a cubic Kia Soul; a car that I've been smirking at for the last few months because they look like something that your grandpa kept in the garage since the 60s. They're relatively common on the island. Anyway, it was a cheap and more spacious choice than the sleek but compact Hyundai we were offered with the same price so we took the Soul.

We stayed in a motel at Cocoa Beach, some 50 km west from Orlando. Cocoa Beach is a pretty basic tourist island with not much else than hotels, shops, restaurants, minigolf, and of course beaches. The drive to KSC is a bit less than 30 minutes. The invitation to the launch included a complementary four-day ticket to the space center's visitor complex, which is a fusion of a science museum and an amusement park.

For us, it was almost like a disneyland. So we skipped the real Walt Disney World and Universal Studios (although the new Harry Potter world was pretty tempting) and whatever else Orlando offers and just went to the KSC visitor center every day. The first day we spent in just the Atlantis exhibition. I've visited KSC when I was 11 years old, and don't remember anything else than the bus tour, but I think that I can pretty safely say that there's been significant changes in 16 years. After all, in modern times 16 years is a long time for technologic advancements and that's what NASA's all about. Just the entrance to the exhibit takes the visitors to a cinematographically impressive journey through the shuttle's history ending with the revelation of the shuttle from behind the movie screen.

The main exhibition: The Atlantis space shuttle

Did you know that if your car engine were as efficient as a space shuttle engine,
it would be the size of a loaf of bread and would cost $100? Now you know!

The exhibition includes both simple games and pure information about anything regarding astronauts or space shuttles and rockets, most info screens being in some way interactive. I have to say, the congratulating text of the astronaut games, "Great job! Maybe working for NASA could be in your future", does feel different when you already get your salary from NASA!

The closest thing to an amusement park ride was the shuttle launch simulator, in which the visitors could experience how it would feel like to be an astronaut to be shot in space in a tiny metallic tube. Just without the g-forces or the tingling fear that the rocket may explode any second. So it was fun in more a cute than a super-exciting way. But despite all the modern technology, our group's favorite attraction turned out to be a 20-meter-long slide that also adults were fully allowed to use.

The grand event, the launch, took place in a nicest possible weather, in the very beginning of the launch window, at 7:05pm local time. The number of launch guests was in total ~8000, from which maybe 1500-2000 people were in the same viewing point as we so transporting the crowds to the viewing places started already two hours before the launch. While waiting, we were able to visit the Saturn V -exhibition (very impressive!). The actual size of the space rockets is always difficult to comprehend because usually you only see them in pictures without a proper scale or from a very far distance. Standing next to one is whole another story.

The Saturn V -exhibition was dedicated mainly to the Moon flights.

People waiting for the launch in Banana Creek viewing point.

The launch itself was breathtaking! We were pretty far from the launch pad but as soon as the countdown reached zero, you could see a bright light igniting in the horizon, and in a few seconds hear and feel the roar of the rocket that keeps rising and rising, leaving but a column of smoke below. In the column, you can see the gradient of white to maroon as the sun sets below the horizon behind our backs.

The OSIRIS-REx was lift to space with an Atlas V -rocket.
If you're interested in what's the OSIRIS-REx mission is about, its schedule or any technical information, you can find it on the mission's excellent home pages at

Saturday, July 16, 2016

New twists in AO funding issues

This week we saw a new twist in the funding issues of the Arecibo Observatory. On Tuesday, July 12, Subcommittee on Space and Subcommittee on Research and Technology of the US Congress heard a panel of experts on astronomy, astrophysics, and astrobiology. The witnesses were Director of NASA's Astrophysics Division Dr. Paul Hertz, National Science Foundation (NSF) Director of Division of Astronomical Sciences, Dr. Jim Ulvestad, Chair of Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee Dr. Angela Olinto, Breakthrough Listen Advisory Committee and San Diego's Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences member Dr. Shelley Wright, and President of American Astronomical Society Dr. Christine Jones. So whatever this folk says in front of US congress, you better believe it, right?

The hearing began with Dr. Hertz's overview of the current stage of astronomical research, such as studies of supermassive black holes and increasing research of exoplanets as our technologic abilities finally enable studying them. Dr. Ulvestad stressed the NSF's role as a leader in enabling the research of all magnificent galactic and extragalactic objects, praising especially Large Synopic Survey Telescope (LSST) and Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA): 

"LSST will discover thousands of potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids, it will enable contributions by citizen scientists who will use its datasets to participate in the excitement of astronomical discovery."

Dr. Shelley Wright described the research of Search of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and radio telescopes such as Parkes and Greenbank in addition to the new Chinese FAST as irreplaceable instruments for finding the ET.

After the initial testimonies, the panel was interviewed about current or near-future missions, observatories and instruments of interest. Arecibo Observatory funding was discussed as well. Republican representative Mr. Rohrabacher had heard about NSF's plans for mothballing Arecibo Obsevatory (AO) and raised his concerns for whether there are currently any other assets that enable us to find and predict the paths of potentially hazardous objects as accurately as AO.

"So first I'll say, we haven't made any decisions about what the future of Arecibo is, we're studying a variety of options, but in terms of detecting objects far out, what you really need for that is a survey telescope with a very wide field of view, which Arecibo is not. Arecibo's radar can be used to characterize the properties of an object, say, an asteroid that is already known about that you can point at, but in terms of NSF investment, the LSST which can survey the sky --" Here Mr. Rohrabacher interrupts Dr. Ulvestad asking if LSST is already operational to handle the asteroid detections. Dr. Ulvestad confirms that LSST is not yet fully operational and continues:

"Well, Arecibo, as I said, is not a survey telescope, so it can only do radar characterization of asteroids that are already known about." 

Mr. Rohrabacher tries to remind that radar calculations can also predict if the asteroid will actually impact the Earth. Believe it or not, Dr. Ulvestad denies the truth:

"No, what they actually do is radar assessments of what the composition of the object is, if it's a rubble-pile instead of solid iron mass have a very different impact. -- It's involved with tracking [the object] but tracking can also be done with optical and infrared telescopes."

Mr. Rohrabacher asks directly: "So your testimony today is that Arecibo is not providing at this time a service that is not being provided by someone else?"

"So as I mentioned, the radar characterization is unique to Arecibo, the characterization of the properties of an asteroid. Now NASA also has a radar at Goldstone, but that's a smaller dish so its reaching to the distance is not as far", Dr. Ulvestad replies.

"Right, so the actual being able to determine the, as you say, what the composition is, is not something that tells us whether or not that is a threat to the Earth?"

"It tells us something about whether it's a threat to the Earth. I think that it doesn't tell us uniquely about its path."

The answer of Dr. Ulvestad (and the rest of the panel) almost made us – Patrick, Ed and myself – choke on our drinks when we heard it the first time while enjoying our lunch. So, if that's what the NSF's Director of Division of Astronomical Sciences thinks, no wonder why the NSF is planning to divest the AO funding. Unfortunately, what Dr. Ulvestad thinks is not completely true. The main task of the planetary radar group of the AO is to refine the orbits of newly found asteroids so that they don't get lost or, if they are potentially hitting the Earth, increase the accuracy of the orbit solution as was done in the case of ApophisWe can also study the composition in terms of how metallic an object is, as Dr. Ulvestad says, or how rough the surface is, or tell it's spin properties, but those are all secondary objectives. Goldstone can do that as well, but it's part of the Deep Space Network and therefore used for many other tasks, in addition to being much smaller, as was mentioned.

This also raises a question of does the NSF's Director of Division of Astronomical Sciences not understand how radar works, or is he being deliberately misleading (which would be perjury) to promote the LSST? Yes, LSST will have the world's best CCD camera, but it is still a ground-based optical/near-infrared telescope that cannot determine the distance of an asteroid without multiple observations. LSST will not have enough time on it's schedule to concentrate on tracking asteroids. AO needs one successful detection of the asteroid to determine the distance to a few tens of meters at best, and the radial velocity to millimeters per second. NASA has stated that they don't send spacecrafts to asteroids that are not been radar-detected.

Even if LSST did concentrate on asteroid surveying, it will very likely not discover thousands of potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) and determine their orbits super accurately. Near-Earth asteroids, possibly, but not PHAs. Currently, more than 14,500 near-Earth asteroids have been discovered and only slightly over 1,700 of those are PHAs. The size limit for a PHA is 150 meters in diameter. Pan-Starrs and Catalina Sky Survey combined discover roughly 1000-1500 near-Earth asteroids per year, but their primary objective is to look for asteroids while LSST will also have a variety of other objectives. 

I can't stress enough that there's absolutely no point of knowing about existence of potentially hazardous asteroids if we don't know exactly where they are and where they are going.

Basically, NSF wants to rip $8 million dollars from Arecibo (or at least $4 million). With only $1 million more, the telescope could even be improved. In total, NSF budget is nearly $250 million. I also want to remind that in 2014 NSF wanted to divest from the Greenbank radio telescope, which was fortunately saved by the US congress. NSF says that even the largest single-dish radio telescope that is currently in open use for any US scientist and the better one of the only two systematically radar transmitting radar telescopes in the world is not doing something that someone else could do, while at the same time they are investing $27.5 million to another optical ground-based telescope. I'm not saying that LSST would not be better than many other optical telescopes, but this ratio of cost to importance is as ridiculous as having an NSF's Director of Division of Astronomical Sciences who does not understand how a radar works. 

Last year the director of AO was basically forced to quit because he had criticized NSF. I'm not sure if NSF could kick me out for writing this post, especially because my funding comes from NASA instead of NSF, but in general the AO employees are in a difficult position between keeping our jobs making great science/defending the planet and a funding agency that claims that a variety of options regarding the observatory future is studied but obviously seems to have made up its mind of the most favorable option. AO does not want to start a war with NSF but neither is it right to spread false information about the important work that is done. Our only hope is that the US Congress can see through that false information or that another party comes to our rescue. 

What made the hearing even worse was the ego stroking of the other panelists. Dr. Hertz from NASA's Astrophysics Division "certainly agrees with everything that Dr. Ulvestad said". He also reminded that, unlike Arecibo that's sitting in a valley the way it does, Goldstone can be pointed (I guess he meant that it can be steered; telescope that can't be pointed really wouldn't see anything at all). Also Dr. Olinto reinforced this "fact". We should seriously invite all these people to visit the observatory to show that we can actually point our radar beam to a lot more than one point in the sky!

My compliments to Mr. Rohrabacher though for appearing smarter than the five doctors sitting opposite to him.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Day on the beach

As of today, I've stayed in Puerto Rico for three months. And only yesterday I burned my back for the first time! Like most Finnish people, my skin is almost as white as milk so I'm surprised it took three months to burn properly. But yesterday was also the first time (ever!) when I've stayed on a beach for 6-7 hours straight, so I guess I deserved that...

The beach was pretty amazing; it was in Cabo Rojo, in Southwestern part of the island. I went there with the summer students, their coordinator, and another observatory employee, Lucy, with her friends/family. Lucy has there a cabin where we stayed at. The beach is available only for people with jeeps or rovers that can handle the rockiest "road" I've ever seen; a hilly, winding, unpaved path that's bulldozed by some locals every once in a while. With a regular car you're guaranteed to get stuck. Nevertheless, if you don't get there by 11 am on vacation days, finding a spot can be challenging. The beach is a long, white sand dream beach with clear turquoise water and trees to provide shade. Families take food, barbecues, coolers full of ice and refreshments, music, and some people even take jet skis, kayaks and boats. They put chairs and sun shades into the water and sit there the whole day.

Before 10 am the beach is perfectly tranquil...
... while by 2 pm it's a full beach party!

There were tiny crabs inside sea shells crawling in the sand

So some of us went there to reserve a spot as early as 9:30am. We went swimming, barbecued hot dogs and relaxed. In the afternoon a friend of Lucy brought there a motorboat (in the middle picture above) and we got to a few-mile-long boat ride to Boquerón and back. The boat jumped through the waves like a galloping horse. A moment like that, feeling the warmth of the sun, cooling splashes of sea water, and the excitement of the speeding boat gave me the feeling of how lucky one must be to be able to do things like that and makes, at least me, really grateful for that.

On Thursday 30th of June, the Asteroid Day was celebrated to spread awareness of the asteroid research done to, for example, prevent asteroids impacting the Earth and find out how the Solar System was formed. I was asked to give a live stream interview about asteroid research we do at the Arecibo Observatory as one part of a series of interviews with some of the other asteroid researchers around the world (me mainly because I was the only member of the planetary radar group on the island on that day). However, the organizers encountered unexpected technical issues only a while before my interview was due so it had to be cancelled. They tried to reschedule it for the next morning but with too short a notice for us.

Instead, a TV reporter (completely separate from the Asteroid Day) came around on Friday noon to interview some scientists of the observatory about how we compare to the new Chinese telescope FAST, the construction of which was finished yesterday. I and Robert talked to the TV group, but later on the same day found out that they're actually tightly affiliated with Chinese and that the interview would be aired in China as well as the USA. Unfortunately, NASA employees are not allowed to discuss science with the Chinese, so when Ed turned up later that day, after a short discussion we decided to withdraw the interview before it would be aired. Seems like it's not the time for my TV nor Internet stardom yet...

The mid-summer weekend (this year 24th-26th of June) is traditionally celebrated in Finland with saunas, bonfires, sausage, summer cottages, mosquitoes, and swimming in freezing lakes or the Baltic Sea, just because it's definitely a sign of weakness if you haven't "lost the winter coat" by mid-summer ("losing the winter coat" means swimming for the first time after the last winter). And of course booze. After the mid-summer the news always report how many people drowned because they went swimming drunk.

This year I of course missed most of that, as the only saunas around are cars that have been standing in the sun without the A/C on, and the sea water's always warm. A bonfire probably wouldn't have been a good idea either. Many houses are more or less like summer cottages, though, and there sure is a lot of mosquitoes. As for the booze, we (Linda, I & Ben, one of the summer students) visited the largest rum distillery in the world: the Bacardí factory. We took the mixology tour, which takes you through the factory with a guide and finishes with a mixology class where you can learn to make Cuba libre, Daiquiri, and Mojito. It was relatively expensive (~$50) but the price includes four alcoholic drinks and the entertaining guided tour so we left happy.

The most expensive one of the Bacardí rums
is the hand-bottled special reserve.
Science behind the rum: the process requires
constant monitoring of temperature, acidity etc.
The tour ended with a class for three famous rum
cocktails: Cuba libre, Daiquiri, and Mojito.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


After the serious funding issue post it's time to get back to the lighter topics. Like nature and animals! So... I got a cat. The cat (Ramses) was forwarded to me from Andrew who got it with his house from an ex-observatory employee (as is sort of traditional around here). His daughter is a bit allergic to it, and anyway he left the island for a vacation with his family so somebody had to take care of the cat at least while they're away. You already know that I have three dogs so getting a cat is certainly a bit questionable, but it's actually working out better than I expected. The mama dog Bubbles seems to be a bit afraid of Ramses so she doesn't approach him voluntarily. The puppies are curious and occasionally bark at the cat but can be controlled when face to face with it. In any case, the dogs are most of the time outside and the cat inside. So yes, it is actually possible to live with a cat and three dogs without a complete chaos!
Ramses has been taken care of by at least five different observatory employees.

Apart from spending time with the old and new members of my zoo, I've been touring the island with our summer students. One week ago we went to see the Cueva Ventana, the window cave. There's two different caves you can see, one of them with a big population of bats and an iconic "window", which shows a wonderful view of the Río Grande de Arecibo.

This weekend we went to the Bosque estatal de Río Abajo, a nature reserve where a local species of iguaca parrots has been recovered. You can't go all the way to the nesting area but the forest is beautiful as such, with giant bamboos and thousands of other tropical plants. We waited for an hour or so to see the parrots behind the gate to the nesting area but finally only heard them in the distance. We did see some hummingbirds, bright red bugs, and of course lizards, which you can see almost anywhere.

Instead of parrots we saw a flock of hummingbirds enjoying lunch.
Can you find the bird?
After the hike in the forest we went to see Lago Dos Bocas, a beautiful lake area with a dam. In addition to hydroelectric power, the river provides potable water for at least 1.3 million people on the north coast of Puerto Rico, and fish for local fishermen and various birds like pelicans that we saw hunting nearby the dam. The dam collects all the trash that the river brings, such as wood, car tyres, even fridges and TVs, so you can see fish feeding on the trash near the surface and, consequently, pelicans feeding on the fish.

At home, the breadfruit season is apparently peaking soon. The breadfruits are getting so ripe that they don't stay intact when they drop. Consequently the dogs eat them and, although it's not poisonous for them, it's so full of starch that they puke if they eat one whole.
The breadfruit tree getting the bombs ready.
SPLASH! The over-ripe breadfruits only feed the worms, ants, and sometimes my dogs after dropping from the tree.
For the end: selected portraits of the doggies. The puppies still have the mange but it's getting better all the time, weeks after weeks of mange medicating at the vet. I learned that there are different types of mange and that the one that they're having is a hereditary demodectic mange, or puppy mange. It's caused by a mite that all dogs and even people might have but that a normal immune system keeps it under control. That's why it mostly affects puppies with an undeveloped immune system.