2013 – A Year In Review

personal, rantings, travel

The weeks and months flutter by so quickly these days. I can hardly believe how fast 2013 has passed by. Now I have settled down a bit here in Munich, I can take a bit of time to reflect on the past year.

For me, 2013 was a great year. One with a great amount of travelling and a range of experiences, meeting new people and learning new things. I am still quite amazed at the sheer number of things I did and I am feeling much better for it.

I suppose 2013 was a strange new start for me. I moved on from some difficult personal circumstances and decided it was time for a change. I was offered a great opportunity to work in Vienna, supporting activities at Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) at their HQ in Vienna.

Looking back, I suppose it was a great get-away at the perfect time, and an opportunity I have much sought, to work for an international organisation relating to space. Of course, prior to this I had been quite active for the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA 2009) but this was really the first time I had moved to live in a different country for some months and support an organisation on the global level. I am thankful to SGAC for the opportunity and to be able to speak at the United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) Scientific and Technical subcommittee.


Me speaking at the UN COPUOS on behalf of SGAC

I am pleased I was able to return later to the UN COPUOS Legal subcommittee before my departure from Vienna. It was a great four months or so there and I will hope to return from Munich shortly.

While in Vienna, I was also busy co-organising the UKSEDS National Student Space Conference 2013, in its 25th year. I was pleased to return to the UK for the celebrations.

From Vienna I travelled on to Berlin, where my good friend Charitarth was studying in an internship in Potsdam. Although I had been in Germany before, this was my first time to the capital. I was rather touched in seeing first-hand some of the history of the city in what remains of the Wall.

While visiting Charitarth, I was pleased to be called for interview for the International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Programme (SSP) which I applied for. Shortly after my return to the UK, I found out I was accepted onto the programme in Strasbourg, France at the central campus of ISU. I was amazed I received the full scholarship from the European Space  Agency (ESA) and UK Space Agency – the equivalent of 16,500 Euros!

ISU Campus. Credit: Ryan J.M. Laird

ISU Campus. Credit: Ryan J.M. Laird

In June I set out to Strasbourg and learnt more about the European space sector and its role in industry. I was able to visit many sites, including ESA’s mission control centre at ESA Operations Centre (ESOC), EUMETSAT and SES Satellites (Luxembourg). Earlier I had been to Inmarsat and Surrey Satellites Technology Ltd., so it was great to be able to absorb the industry side of space, as I was more familiar with the purely academic side.

It was a great summer. I learnt more about space applications, an up and coming sector, especially in the UK as we have launched Satellite Applications Catapult and our own ESA centre,  the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT). It was also a lot of fun to travel more, meet new people from around the world and become part of a very active network for space. I was pleased I was able to fit in a visit to the Buran Space Shuttle at the Technik Museum Speyer.

Buran Space Shuttle at Technik Museum Speyer. Credit: Ryan J.M. Laird

Buran Space Shuttle at Technik Museum Speyer. Credit: Ryan J.M. Laird

We were warned by our professor, Scott Madry about the “de-orbit” from ISU. Throughout the summer, we worked in overdrive, deadlines were tight, there was one amazing opportunity from the next, a lot of travel but soon the nine weeks came to an end. We returned to our homes and time would appear to slow down. Indeed, when I returned home to Skegness it seemed like much of the summer was a dream. We did so many great things and met so many great people.

When I returned home, I was on the search for work. The current prospects in Europe are rather tough but I felt rather inspired by ISU and the new experiences I had learnt. Some days though, it was somewhat depressing to realise ISU was over and the reality set in. I applied to a number of positions and was pleased to be offered amazing opportunities at both UNAWE, based in the Netherlands and at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Germany. Thankfully it worked out that I was able to do both.

In October, I moved to Leiden in the Netherlands to work at UNAWE, based at Leiden University. My role was to disseminate Space Scoop, astronomy news for kids and aim to bring this to a much wider audience. It was a great experience to share Space Scoop with my existing network and learn of some new ones. In less week of me working at UNAWE, I travelled to Heidelberg, Germany and the Haus der Astronomie (House of Astronomy) where we held the UNAWE international workshop which brought together all the international partners.

It was amazing how many people I already knew in the Netherlands at ESTEC, nearby at TU Delft, as well as a couple of people at Leiden University itself. I was able to connect with the “ISU family” in a dinner there. I left with fond memories of Leiden and it is a shame it was so short-lived. I was pleased that I was able fit in a visit to Brussels, Belgium for the SGAC Christmas Dinner at the start of December, only a couple of hours drive away.

I returned home for Christmas for a week and then prepared for my next travels, onto Munich where I am currently based. I saw New Years through with a good friend and met some cool people in the hostel I stayed in.

2013 was a year with a lot of travel and different experiences. I was pleased at the opportunity to be able to work and study in a few different places. Whereas I really enjoyed this all, I feel I do need to focus more on permanent position in science communication, my main aim for 2014. I hope to bring all my experience to a new level.

I am now working at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Garching, near Munich, the capital of the state of Bavaria in Germany. I will be working as a journalist, science communication intern for the next months. I will work with a team of professional science communicators for the preparation of ESO and ESA/Hubble news and photo releases, publications, web pages, video scripts, exhibition panels and other public communication products.

New look Google Calendar – PLEASE revert back to “Classic” look!

Google, rantings

If any Google employee actually reads this, I would like to add to the clamour and make a few comments about the new look Google Calendar:

1) The implication of the way this has been introduced (and the withdrawal of the Calendar classic look) is that we, your users, are wrong and that the Google Calendar designers are right and the changes are indeed “improvements” as your Google Calendar blog suggests.  I have long been a fan of Google’s web apps and over the years have welcomed many of the visual and functional changes that have been introduced.  When they help usability, they are not “frustrating”, even if there is a learning curve involved.  But most of the new look Google Calendar changes are crudely done, and a huge step backwards in usability.

2) JUST ONE EXAMPLE: Given that you, a Google employee, may read this and might possibly be in a position to pass the message on to the development team, please let me take this opportunity to highlight just one of the many usability downgrades to Google Calendar that the new look has wrought.
If you select RED (that’s the 3rd colour along the top row of the 5×4 colour grid) as the colour for a particular calendar, the text colour is black.  This is virtually illegible.  It is childishly obvious that a darkish background like shade of red should have a contrasting colour for the text (white is the obvious choice) so that it is easily legible against the dark background.  How can this sort of blunder get through your supposed testing?  It beggars belief. The same thing applies for other darker colours like blue (that’s row 3, col 4 in the grid).  .

3) In other efforts to provide you with feedback, I have completed the survey and have tried to give feedback via the “Send feedback” button.  The Send feedback experience is less than ideal and it is therefore much easier to comment in the Calendar help forums.  Let me qualify that last statement.  It USED TO BE much easier to send feedback via the Calendar help forums but now that Google Groups has been “improved” with the new look, it has become slow, buggy (with Unresponsive script error messages appearing) and often unintuitive.  If you find that hard to believe, try opening this page in Chrome which is a long discussion with most of the participants disliking the new look.:
The new look Google Groups is absolutely awful and there doesn’t seem to be a forum to report this.

I have taken time out to write this because I feel it’s important that you take note of your users’ criticisms.  A passing glance at the forums will show you how annoyed we are with all this. We want to use Google Calendar but if you keep foisting these sorts of changes upon us and don’t communicate properly via the forums, then you will eventually drive away your loyal users. A few words go a long way to reassure your users that their pleas are not being made in vain.   Come on, Google, you must be able to do better than this!

The price of convenience – is it always worth it?

music, random, rantings
I was thinking it’d be nice to have all my music, podcasts and some videos in one place. I have been pondering that for a while. 
I have a 4GB Creative Zen and that is great – especially as it has an SD slot for extra storage. It plays videos, stores photos and even syncronises contacts and your calendar. The caveat though is that extra music storage won’t carry on playing on an SD card, unlike when it is stored on the player.
When I think of it, most of the time I will listen to music on either my computer or Spotify. I’m not one of these people who ALWAYS has to be playing music while out in public, unaware of my surrounds. Just sometimes it is nice to have everything at the touch of a button.
I have often wondered whether the price of convenience is worth it. I remember when growing up, you had to decide on a select number of cassette tapes – typically 30 or 45 minutes each side, and then you couldn’t skip ahead to the next track without winding forward randomly. Then we had to choose among our CD collections – a great capacity album, yet still could be a bulk to carry.
Now we have MP3 players which are so small one could easily swallow one e.g. the iPod nanos. 4GB just doesn’t seem enough now, but yet I wonder is it really a trouble to delete and transfer files between my computer and MP3 player? When I think of what we had to do just 15 years or so ago, it is far more convenient – yet is £112+ worth it?
As a friend said to me from her experience, iPods really are awesome – although I have managed without one for the last 11 years. I am an avid music fan although I do manage well with Spotify, Last.fm, occasionally Grooveshark – but mainly my own iTunes on my computer. I don’t wish to become a total social recluse in public. Where I do enjoy listening to music outdoors occasionally, there is nothing better than taking in the sounds of nature and atmosphere of a place – whether it be town, city or village.
Really, what is the price of this convenience? £112 might be a fair price for a second-hand 120GB iPod (as seen in the retail shop, CEX), but perhaps one loses the value of much, much more…?
Rant over.

Happy New Year!

Kindle, phd, random, rantings, reading, travel, university

Well, it is that time again. Another year, another time where one can reflect and look back at a year passed.

For me, I will gladly leave 2011. It sure wasn’t the best of years. If anything, it has been the hardest year of my life. I haven’t said this publicly here – I have been getting to terms with it myself, but many friends will be aware that in December 2010 my father passed away. It really isn’t appropriate to discuss it too much here, but as you can imagine, it has been very hard. I am an only child, my mother also has a difficult condition and I have felt the weight on my shoulders.

This past year, I really have felt my life has been a great roller-coaster. I have faced some really difficult personal challenges. Knowing what is best under these circumstances has been really hard. I have struggled with my PhD which didn’t really get going afterwards through various circumstances. I have found myself torn in many ways, which is hard to explain to anybody who doesn’t know me well enough. So much of this past year has been so very personal, but even those who know me I’m not sure understand fully the pain I have felt. Only now are things starting to turn around for the better, although the future remains uncertain. My biggest challenge will be getting through financial barriers which is my greatest worry.

I’d like to think that through my bad experiences I have become a stronger person. Who knows? I sure have had to be defiant in my ambitions. I have been made to see life a little differently, but that has taken a number of months to work through and even now, I ponder. Perhaps my confidence has been knocked, but 2012 is a new year. I have been considering challenges I should work towards; namely, a first author paper. I plan to focus much, much more on my work which is the ambition towards my intended career path.

I am aware I have put on a few pounds over this past year and have become rather inactive. I have already started this “Couch to 5k” running plan to help get back into shape. I intend to keep track of my progress using a website I heard called Runkeeper where one can post their activities in a sort of Fitness “diary”. The great thing is, it lets you map your movements using an app on your mobile phone. That tells you the distance, time, range of elevation, average pace and route map of your activities.

This month, I am cutting alcohol from my diet totally (except possibly, Burns’ Night for some Scotch Whisky). I am not a massive drinker, but perhaps I was drinking more frequently last year.

I’m monitoring what I eat in a food diary and I am recording my weight every day in an attempt to lose weight.

I joined the university mountaineering club after a friend/work colleague encouraged me to join. I haven’t taken it so seriously as I ought to have done but I plan to attend at least once a week no matter what. I plan to go to the upcoming Pennines trip in a couple of weeks’ time.

I am a little embarrassed to say this but I have never been to a big live concert. Anyone who knows me should know I’m not into massive crowds. I have a ticket to see Dream Theater next month which I am really looking forward to. I hope to see a symphonic metal band, Delain, in May. It would be awesome if I could get to Ruisrock in Finland. I really want to see Nightwish who are set to be playing there. Many of the bands I like either have released or will release an album before the festival, most of whom are Scandinavian/Nordic.  I’ll try to write a separate blog about that. I will be seeing the comedian, Jimmy Carr in a week, which should be fun, so a few things to look forward to.

I have no real travel plans at the moment. My focus has to be work which has suffered this past year. I’d like to visit Italy some day. I enjoy Italian wine, food, coffee and cars. I’m also very curious about exploring Roman history, as well as the astronomer Galileo Gailei. With uncertainty about the Euro, we’ll see about that for the moment.

I’m enjoying things a bit more at the moment. I think what was much-needed was the Christmas break, the first proper break I had all year. It sure was great to see old friends and family who I hadn’t seen for a long while. I know I felt exhausted about everything that happened over the past year. It is good to be back though. I’m looking to a better 2012.

Term hasn’t yet started, so university is very quiet currently although that is all set to change this weekend. Postgraduate demonstrating will in part keep me busy. I’m enjoying my new Kindle I received at Christmas. I love that there are so many free e-books out there – so many great classics. I now have at my leisure: the Complete Works of Charles Dickens, the Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection, Thomas Hardy’s Complete Fiction – plus so many more. In fact, I have so much reading material at the moment, it is phenomenal. I had a £50 book token, so I also have a number of great books there such as Phillip Pulman’s “His Dark Materials” which I am itching to read.

Currently, I am reading “The Time Traveler’s Wife” which proved to be an interesting film. I am already finding though that Henry and Clare’s story in the novel is much more fascinating. Niffeneger really brings to life to her characters in the novel, compared to the film which seems to lose an element of that. The film always seemed as though it could have been better.

I am trying to preoccupy myself much more with those things I really enjoy and that enable me to enjoy life. At the same time, I aim to be more healthy and active. I’m looking forward to a trip to the Pennines with the University Mountaineering Club which will be in a couple of weeks time.

2011 really got me down big time, but I feel I am finally escaping the “hole” I felt I was in. “Things can only get better.” – which leaves me with this, remembering the classic hit song by D:Ream (whose keyboard player was British Particle Physicist, Prof. Brian Cox)

Time sure goes quickly when you’re having fun….

astronomy, comedy, random, rantings, travel

So, the end of another month approaches and the clock is ticking on my PhD. It is still very early days; nearly 4 months in – blimey. My PhD is obviously the largest thing going on in my life at the moment. I’m pleased to say it’s planning out fairly well (at least I think so :-S).

I have some great opportunities lining up. Namely that our proposal for Palomar, California has been secured and we have been allocated observing time for a couple of nights then. This should prove a great experience, not only academically, but a great life experience too. I have never been outside of Europe which may be of a great surprise to many, but family circumstance etc has made this difficult. I can’t wait for the adventures my PhD has to offer over these three years. Travelling is not the main reason why I’m doing my PhD. I love the subject of astronomy. It’s been my passion for many, many years. I have a great fascination for the Universe. Being given the chance to use these great facilities, such as the 200 inch Hale Telescope is something I could only have dreamt of doing from such a young age. I cannot thank my supervisor enough for this great opportunity. I feel very privileged. I know there is much hard work I have to do in these coming months for preparation. These opportunities are quite rare.

I’m so far working through an old dataset collected as part of a programme I will have a large collaboration with as part of my PhD, SEPPCON (Survey of Ensemble Physical Properties of Cometary Nuclei). I shall soon be moving onto another dataset before I perform photometry. There is much work to do between now and then, but I hope to present something at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Glasgow in April. With the visit to Palomar at the end of March/beginning of April, that sure is going to be a particularly busy month or so. It might seem as though I’m moaning about the work, but I’m really enjoying it. I really can’t wait to get proper results. This work should go towards my first paper, so quite exciting.

Home is good. Everything seems to be working out really well, despite us all being introduced to one another as complete strangers. The sad thing is that I will need to find another place to live soon. Our contract ends at the end of June, and what with student accommodation turnover I need to consider where I want to live soon. I don’t want to leave it too late. I’m considering Woolf College, but in my mind that is the ‘easy’ option. The easy option isn’t always the best option from my experience. I’d sooner live on my own full stop, settle in a place I can wholly call my own with no worries to have to move for whatever reason and I can have things more how I want them. Of course, naturally, with house-sharing you can’t have things the way you might want entirely. By sharing with other people you do give up that right. I’ve been used to it over these years; it’s not a problem or anything, but it’s simply my feeling that I’m fed up of the hassle of moving. I miss having certain things that I sacrifice to leave at home.. such as my telescopes and my keyboard. I can’t complain. I guess I feel more “at home” in my current house than I’ve felt since the start of my university career, ‘moving away’ in a sense from my hometown of Skegness.

Of course, not everything has been okilydokily‘ – it’s been part of that feeling of school days rearing it’s ugly head I have largely left behind me. Throughout life I’ve learnt there are always people who you simply cannot communicate with; that being due to a number of reasons. Don’t worry, I shan’t bore you with the ins and outs. It’s also the selfishness of some people that perhaps I shouldn’t let get to me so much sometimes, but God darn it… if we are to make an appointment, don’t cancel on me at the last minute for some abysmal excuse. I don’t wish to concern myself over these people, so I won’t.

I’m focusing on the people who matter most in my life. The people who are willing to listen to me when I’m down, and not only use me to rant to and ignore thereafter. Naturally, I have been trying to settle down in Canterbury and meet new people here, but perhaps I should really have thought more about those people who do really matter to me right here and now, rather than depressing myself sometimes over certain social ‘inadequacies’ here. My main focus is my PhD – that’s why I’m here. I’ve just felt let down by representation for postgraduates with very few events held last term to meet those of a similar mentality in a different subject area. My colleagues are great guys, just one thing I’ve always been told about a PhD is that it can be socially isolating – you just need to make the effort. I feel I have made that effort, but that certain representations for postgraduates haven’t helped. That seems to be improving now, anyhoo. 🙂

I want to try to catch up with my old Leicester buddies over the coming months. I miss you guys! Most people are so spread out around the country now, but many do remain in ‘The Shire’. I saw my good friend Karen this week, after her graduation last Friday xx. She came from The States for what is now a rare visit. We visited Britain’s Oldest Brewer in Faversham, about 10 miles away from Canterbury, as well as Canterbury Cathedral and a Roman Bath. There was little time to do anything else. A great shame! I hope to host many more friends – you are very welcome to visit and my door is open (within limits, of course! 😉 ).

I’m looking forward to a few things in the coming weeks… I cannot wait. Next weekend is the European Astrofest held in London. I have tickets to see Dr. Brian May (ex-Queen guitarist and astronomer) and Sir. Patrick Moore (once again :D). I have decided to go visit the Science Museum afterwards to see an exhibit I have been meaning to see for months but have not really got around to it since it’s opening in July; the exhibit of ‘Cosmos and Culture’. The following weekend I shall be attending a Northern lights flight. I’m sure I will have much to talk about. I plan to visit the Royal Observatory in Greenwich at some point in the coming weeks, especially as an old friend presents in the planetarium. Aside those astronomical ventures I hope to book tickets for comedy nights here; perhaps Chr
is Addison and/or Stewart Francis. I await notification with regards to ‘booking’ for tickets for Mock The Week. I don’t mean to sound all egotistical or anything, but the point really is that I actually feel as though I am settling in these parts.

Anyways, I shall end it there now. I feel as though I am descending somewhat into a rant. Best wishes to all my friends and those important people in my life in various parts of the UK and the world.