Writings: Chile Journals

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December 3–4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17–18


When I last returned from Chile, I thought that I should not return for several more months — perhaps not until the next observing season. But though we were well staffed through November, the prospects of having plentiful personnel at the telescope in the ensuing months were not promising. Moreover, Lyman wanted to ensure that there were at least a couple of people with experience in the field down there. And so I — the only person on the team to have been mistaken for an attendant at the petrol station in San Pedro — was called upon.

At thirteen days, this will be a considerably shorter stay than my previous two sojourns. And all due respect should be paid to Eric Switzer, who very generously agreed to come when I leave and to stay over Christmas.

I have found that ever since the second installment of these journals, most people have been pretty scrupulous about employing the correct nomenclature when referring to them, for which I heartily thank them.

4 December 2007

I was able to get a very nice itinerary this time, which had me flying from JFK airport in New York directly to Santiago, leaving at eight in the evening. This gave me the morning and early afternoon to pack. It took a little longer than usual because I had to take a computer down with me and I wanted to pack it into my large suitcase. It is one of these so-called "mini-towers", meaning it measures about a foot square and about four inches in depth. With the styrofoam padding, it left enough room for my personal effects as well as a few extra hard drives.

Another complication also demanded my time before I left: on Saturday morning my laptop's hard drive suddenly died a very painful death. I was able to get a new one from Best Buy that afternoon, but hadn't finished restoring everything by Monday and so was installing operating systems at the same time as packing my bags.

Travelling to JFK is neither onerous nor unpleasant. It is almost exactly two hours from door to door; and with this being an hour longer than the trip to Newark airport, it is certainly worth it to avoid having a connecting flight in Miami or Atlanta or another of the big hubs in the south. My ticket was purchased from American Airlines, but it was operated by LAN, which I was glad of, because they are much better than any of the major American airlines I am acquainted with: the staff are courteous and professional, there is seat-back entertainment, the food is decent and the liquor is free.

I lingered for a little while when my bags were checked, wondering if they would balk at the little computer nestled in my suitcase. Presently, however, I thought the most suspicious thing would be to keep watching my bag as they put it through the X-ray machine, and I left to go through security. (Later I discovered that indeed it had been opened and inspected.)

The flight to Santiago was uneventful. I had the pollo con papas for supper and watched Die Hard, which I had not seen before, and was amused by a young Alan Rickman playing such a villainous role (which he did very well). Then I started watching the Simpsons movie but started dozing and switched it off. I have discovered that there are three secrets to sleeping in a plane: (a) not to expect that you will get too much, (b) to be persistent and (c) to make sure that you don't get a superlative sleep the night before so that you are sufficiently worn out to sleep in a sitting position with your legs tucked awkwardly under the chair in front of you.

In Chilean customs, the officer said that she saw a `large metallic object' in my suitcase. I had documents for the equipment I was bringing in, but heeded the advice that some of my colleagues had given me, and did not present them right away. I explained what the computer was for and what I was doing in Chile. That seemed to be enough and she waved me through.

Having followed my three-step plan for sleeping on the plane, I was pretty well-rested and spent most of my layover in Santiago continuing to install programs on my new hard drive. My flight to Calama was at three thirty, but delayed half an hour. Again it was an uneventful flight and a routine ride from the airport to San Pedro in the shuttle.

When I arrived at Don Esteban, Mark Halpern (from the University of British Columbia) and Michele were still at the telescope but were just heading out the door to come down. I settled into my room and then set up the computer I had brought down with me. It seemed to boot, so it appears that nothing was broken during the journey.

This is Mark Halpern's last night here, and we went to Tierra for dinner. It ended up being rather late because Michele and I found that the observing schedule hadn't started properly and had to scramble to rectify the situation. Now it is near midnight, and though I am tired, I am not as nearly as exhausted as I have been previous trips down here. I think the single flight from JFK played a large part.

5 December 2007

This morning Mark Halpern left at seven o'clock. I, however, was still sleeping.

For a couple of months now, the cook has been preparing a fruit salad for breakfast, and this morning it hit the spot. Afterwards I spent most of the morning and early afternoon responding to neglected emails, and catching up with the changes that KUKA has been doing on the telescope.

In the afternoon, Michele and I went to get diesel, but there was no electricity at the pumps, so we headed straight up the mountain. The telescope is in pretty good shape these days and the normal routine up there is to pump diesel and get an observing schedule running. There are still wrinkles every now and then, and we encountered one, but it not hinder us too much. The rather finickity task now is to try and eliminate all the little bugs in the system that continue to make it occasionally unstable.

We were at the telescope for just over two hours and I was starting to develop a slight headache when we left. Two hours is a rather ideal length to stay on one's first day.

6 December 2007

For some reason, getting a dual head monitor setup working under Linux is always a tedious and time-consuming task. I spent the better part of the morning and early afternoon trying to set up two monitors on the new computer that I brought and still have not made it work.

After lunch, Michele and I went to get diesel. This time, there was electricity but the station's diesel tank was empty. We were told that there would be a delivery at seven-thirty in the evening. We clearly could not wait that long, and we had reserves on the mountain that would last another day, so we drove up to the telescope with empty barrels again.

There was a big truck with a crane when we arrived, in the middle of removing the old Aggreko generators that we had been renting. Though we have had our own generators for more than a month now, the rentals had just been sitting next to them, idle. It was good to get that area cleared up. After getting an observing schedule running and filling the generators from our diesel reserves, we left, at about nine thirty.

We went straight to the petrol station when we arrived in San Pedro, but there was a line up of about ten cars waiting for diesel, so we decided to eat and then return. After dinner I went back to the station while Michele did the washing up. This time there was no line. I paid the most I have yet paid: for the truck's tank and the two barrels, it came out to two-hundred seventy-eight thousand pesos, which is about five-hundred fifty American dollars. Now, with this task done, to bed.

7 December 2007

This morning Rolando arrived back from Santiago, where he had been to a wedding. At the last minute he was asked to represent the ACT collaboration at some sort of government meeting, and extended his stay there until to-day.

Michele and I went up to the telescope in the early afternoon. The KUKA people had some updates to our system that they wanted to implement, so I wanted to have plenty of time to implement them before we started observing. In the end, they went relatively smoothly, and as a bonus, we were able to find a cause for a bug that has periodically been shutting down motion on the telescope.

With the KUKA updates completed, we started the nightly schedule (after a couple of false starts). By this time it was almost nine o'clock and we had not pumped diesel yet, so we went out into the dark and got cold, diesel-soaked hands. The one consolation is that it was a moonless night with a clear sky and brilliant stars.

To-day is the feast of St. Ambrose, the patron of Milan where Michele hails from. He said that he should be skiing to-day. It is also the day that the season at La Scala opens. When I asked him if he had ever been to the opening night, he responded that only A-list celebrities have a chance at getting ahold of tickets. What a pity that the same does not hold true for A-list scientists.

Incidentally, we have St. Ambrose to thank for our culture of silent reading. St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions:

When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

Ponder that, gentle reader, as you peruse this journal and your heart searches out its meaning.

8 December 2007

I was roused this morning by an urgent knocking on my door. It was Michele, who was concerned that the telescope had mysteriously stopped in the middle of the schedule. After looking for a while at the data we decided to go to the site to recover the telescope and salvage the rest of the night of observing.

It was about four o'clock when we left. On the way a car aimed its high beams at us, and just as we were commenting on his rudeness, his police light turned on. The police wanted to know where we were going and were immediately satisfied with our response. It is quite common for them to patrol the highway in the middle of the night like this, as they try and catch smugglers coming from Bolivia and Argentina.

Not one kilometre further up the road, we saw a bunch of trucks stopped by the side of the road, and then saw the reason: a large cargo truck had driven off the road and flipped on its side, spilling out all the sacks of produce it was carrying onto the ground. It did not appear that anyone was hurt and we guessed that the driver had fallen asleep and slowly slid off the road.

As we turned onto the dirt road, we saw a bright light further up the road. It seemed to be near the telescope, but the night was too dark to make out any features of the surrounding landscape. We thought perhaps we were disoriented and that we were seeing a car further up the highway. But as we continued along the road, it became clear that it was not on the road and eventually we realised that it was in the sky. It ended up being Venus: the sky was so black that it appeared much brighter than we are used to seeing it.

We were able to get the schedule running without too much trouble. I wrote some code to watch carefully for a repeat of the error that made the telescope stop and in the process tracked what I believe to be the bug at fault. We left at about six, at which time the horizon was brightening with the approaching sun. The moon was just over the horizon with the slenderest possible crescent: one could see its whole orb delicately outlined in a razor-thin line of soft light.

The sun was barely up when we arrived back at Don Esteban, and we both headed for bed to get a couple of hours of sleep. It being the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I woke just before eleven to see if there was a service at the church in town (for some reason they never post schedules for things like this here). I reasoned that it would be at noon like the Sunday service but wanted to go a bit early in case they started early. Before leaving, I checked to see how the telescope was doing, and discovered to my dismay that all power at the site seemed to be off.

This time it was my turn to wake Michele by banging on his door; I did likewise on Rolando's. It was clear that we needed an expedition to the mountain immediately: with no power, our camera would be rapidly warming up. (Luckily, the power had turned off when the it was pointing far from where the sun would rise.) Michele and Rolando went up, with the understanding that I would come up later with diesel.

I made it to the church just before noon and found that my suspicions were correct and that the service (for some reason) had started early, with the priest already well into his homily. I have never seen it so full and there was only standing room left in the very back. It turned out to be a first communion service, and there were a couple of dozen boys and girls sitting in the front, the boys in smart suits and the girls in white dresses with tinselly veils on their heads. There were people in traditional costumes, including small children who had large bells on their ankles that jangled noisily when they walked. At communion time each child approached the front and had his name read as he knelt on a kneeler and received communion under both species. After the service (which ended at about one), there was a procession out of the church with several colourful statues of Mary and a brass band. I did not stay to watch as I needed to get back in touch with Rolando and Michele.

I arrived back in the office just in time to help Rolando and Michele get all the software running again. They had found that the generator which had been powering the telescope had shut itself down because it was running out of oil. (This is a mystery that still has not been resolved, as we believed we had put the correct amount in.) They switched over to the other generator, but power had been out for over four hours, and the camera had warmed up enough that it would not be cold until at least ten in the evening.

While Rolando and Michele investigated the oil problem and topped off both generators, I went to get diesel. There was a brand new pump at the gas station, with two diesel nozzles. No longer will we feel guilty as a long line of trucks grows behind us as we fill our barrels. Hugo, the attendant to-day, told me that the pump was faster but I found it to be only marginally so.

On the way up with the diesel, I passed the spot where Michele and I had seen the overturned truck. It had just been righted, and a team of men were replacing the sacks that had spilled out.

When I arrived at the site with the diesel, there was still a bit of work to be done to recover all the systems, and, assisted by Dan Swetz in Philadelphia, we finally got everything working well. It was about six o'clock by this time. Michele and I especially were getting pretty tired and, with little else to do at the site, we gratefully drove down.

It was not until about eleven thirty, however, that we were cold enough to begin observations. Then I spent about half an hour trying to figure out what data was not being acquired. With the help of Eric Switzer in Princeton, we were able to get the system back online, and started the schedule. Thus ends this day's strange, eventful history, and so to bed.

9 December 2007

This day at the site, the plumbing to our big diesel tank was completed. We were told that we could phone for a delivery to-morrow, so it may be that the era of diesel barrels comes to a close before I leave. The new system will be very nice. There is a nozzle, like at a petrol station, which we will be able to use to fill our generators from the big tank.

To-night has been designated `Planetfest'. It was decided that we needed more measurements of several planets in order to understand better the pointing of our telescope. The plan is to measure Neptune, Uranus, Mars, Saturn and Venus over the course of the night. In the morning, we will have to watch the telescope carefully, since Venus is always near the sun.

Michele and I began the schedule on the mountain and then came down. For some reason all the obscure bugs in our software have decided to reveal themselves in the past few days, and our main control program crashed twice this evening for a reason that I had never before seen. We only ended up losing about twenty minutes of planet observing time, but I was quite perplexed. In the end, I implemented a kludge which I hoped would keep it running the night, as well as some diagnostics to try and discover the source of the bug.

However, by this stage the robot had gotten into a state that was unrecoverable from the ground, so Michele and I, at about a quarter after one, headed back up to the site. When we arrived, we set everything right and re-started the schedule. As it turned out, the down-time happened when there were no planets to observe, so we believe we lost little planet time.

Now almost three thirty and to bed. I heartily hope that the telescope can eke the rest of the night out.

10 December 2007

This morning Michele woke me up again because the telescope had stopped moving and the sun would cross it in a couple of hours. As it turned out, the schedule was almost over and then encountered a bug. (Mike Nolta in Toronto was able to easily fix it later in the day.) Luckily, we were able to move it back to a safe position from San Pedro and then go back to bed.

I spent most of the afternoon upgrading the software to try and fix the problems that had caused us so much grief last night. It did not take as long as I had expected, and by early evening we were ready to begin the observations. While the observations were starting, I coordinated with Dan Swetz and Eric Switzer to turn in some abstracts for a conference we would like to attend in June.

Dinner this evening was rather small, which is sometimes the case here. The schedule is still running, and it is my great desire that I can finally have a night of uninterrupted sleep.

11 December 2007

Whenever we fill our barrels with diesel, we also include a container of antifreeze. We were getting low on these and so Rolando went to Calama to buy some more and get some other supplies, including a UPS for the new computer that I brought with me. He finished by about one o'clock, and was congratulating himself on getting everything done so fast. But about half-way back to San Pedro, he realised the one thing he had forgotten was to go to the petrol station. By then it was too late, and his car sputtered to a stop.

Meanwhile, Michele and I spent about an hour of the morning moving our webserving computer into our air conditioned container to make more room for the new computer in the office. Then we left for the telescope, as I had scheduled to do some work with KUKA. This went quite smoothly, and we were finished by about three-thirty.

Soon afterwards, we got a call on the intercom. It was Rolando. He had just arrived back in San Pedro, after hitching a ride from where his car had run out of fuel. He arranged for someone from the CBI experiment to drive him to his car, and a couple of hours later he was back in Princeton, after a tedious, frustrating day.

Michele and I spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning up the equipment room on the mountain. Many of the wires and cables had gotten into a disarrayed state and needed to be properly routed and tied down so as to be manageable. This took a considerable amount of time, and when we were finished, it was time to start the nightly schedule. Yesterday's schedule finished without any hitches, and we hope that to-night everything will go just as well.

11 December 2007

We all had a long day to-day. Our ambitious plan was to empty the equipment room on the mountain, lay down a carpet, and then replace everything. This has been planned for some time now, but no one has yet had time to do it. The carpet, while it will inevitably trap dust, is far preferable to the plain wooden floor that we have had until now, which is not finished at all, and chips and splinters and gets covered with a layer of fine dust.

We were in the middle of laying down the carpet when we realised that we did not have enough glue to finish the job. So we left it loose over about half of the floor, and only put back some of the furniture. It was a much bigger job than we had anticipated (of course), and it was not done until about eight o'clock.

At the same time, Elia was heading up some day-time measurements. He wanted us to put a cover over the camera and `observe' at a few different azimuths to see if we can get a better understanding of the earth's magnetic field on our data. These tests ended at just about the same time we were finished for the day with the carpet, so we started our conventional night schedule and left.

13 December 2007

There is nothing much to say to-day here. I spent the whole day trying to get the dual-head feature of the video card on our new computer to work, and failed. The problem is that the ATI Linux driver always crashes either X or gdm when the computer is starting. I tried numerous tacks but never to success. A very frustrating day, but to-morrow I will leave this problem behind, run the computer with one monitor, and hope that ATI will release a new driver soon that is more robust.

At dinner I was pleased to be able to practice Spanish for almost an hour, as Michele and I ate with one Javier from CBI and the conversation naturally tended to Spanish. Now to bed.

14 December 2007

This morning I spent some time working on understanding the pointing of our telescope based on planetary observations. Some variety was offered by a trip to buy diesel. On that subject, Rolando talked some more with the fuel company to-day and tentatively arranged for a delivery to our big tank on the mountain on Monday — which is conveniently just as I am leaving.

In the afternoon, we finished laying down the carpet in the equipment room. Yesterday Rolando had been able to find some appropriate glue at a local hardware store, and it seemed to do the job well. After the carpet was all fitted and glued down, we moved all the furniture back in, except for the rolling office chairs, which we wanted to keep off the carpet until the glue has fully dried. For the first time since we began using it, the equipment room could actually pass for an office. Everything is clean, and no longer is there a filthy, splintering wooden floor beneath our feet. Having it remain this way will depend on whether people regularly vacuum the floor.

With this task completed, we pumped diesel, switched generators, and started the nightly schedule. Overall, it was a much more productive — and satisfying — day for me than yesterday.

15 December 2007

This morning I was woken up at about eight-thirty by Michele, who told me the telescope had stopped. It was not very critical since it was far from the sun, but still a curiosity because we had run for several nights with no problems. It turned out to be a robot error that I had never seen before, so it is now over to KUKA to figure out, it seems.

To-day is Michele's last day here, and after lunch he did some souvenir shopping. He has spent more than six months total here this year and had not bought so much as a postcard. So he went to town and got Christmas presents for most of his family.

Afterwards, he and I drove up to transfer diesel and start to-night's schedule. We have not changed anything in the system except to log the motor currents, which for some reason were not being logged last night, and hope that if the same error occurs as last night, these will help us diagnose the problem.

When we returned to Don Esteban, preparations were underway for a barbecue. This was originally to say goodbye to Michele, but we also realised that many of us will be leaving. The food was delicious: chicken, sausages, fish and potatoes all cooked on a charcoal fire, accompanied by salad, beer, wine and pisco sours. There were about a dozen there, from all three projects, including one Japanese fellow who had just arrived after travelling for almost forty-eight hours.

Unfortunately, as the party was winding down, I discovered that the telescope had stopped in the same mysterious way as last night. We were able to get some more information to-night from our data, which I have sent off to Mike Cozza of KUKA to take a look at. Thankfully we stopped at a point which will be safe from the sun to-morrow morning (it will pass within 50 degrees at the closest point), so we don't have to rush up to the telescope in the middle of the night. And since it is now two o'clock in the morning, we all are glad to be able to go to bed.

16 December 2007

At about five o'clock in the morning, I was awakened by a creaking coming from my bedroom ceiling. My bed was shaking, and I suddenly realised that it was an earthquake. It was not very violent, and had ended by the time I stumbled out of my room. Later we found out that it had been a magnitude 6.7 earthquake near Antofagasta, about three hundred kilometres away.

This day at church the pastor gave a good sermon.

In the afternoon, Rolando and I went to the telescope to investigate the problem that had stopped our schedule last night. Before leaving, we said goodbye to Michele, who was catching the transfer to the airport at four o'clock.

Mike Cozza, who had looked at some of our data from the fault last night, thought that there must be something mechanically wrong with the telescope. We examined what we could from the outside and saw nothing wrong. Then we started looking at the components of the elevation motor. The bearing at the top of the telescope seemed fine. But when we opened the panel to look at the actual motor and its gearbox, we saw a charred mess. The thermostat on the gearbox heater had failed, burning the insulation to a crisp and drying the lubricant. Rolando measured the temperature of the gearbox to be a hundred and sixty degrees centigrade.

This was clearly the cause of our problems. The telescope now cannot be moved for more than a second before this elevation motor complains and stops the telescope: the gearbox is too stiff to be moved very far. Rolando and I were reluctant to fiddle around too much with anything before getting advice from Dynamic structure, since they built the gearbox. Mike Cozza from KUKA advised us not to move the telescope further.

We left the mountain in the evening, with the telescope still sitting at fifty degrees elevation and a hundred and fifty degrees azimuth. Not being able to contact anyone from Dynamic Structures (it being a Sunday), it is hard to know how long the telescope will be out of commission. Hopefully to-morrow will shed more light on the situation.

17 December 2007

This was my last day in Chile. I was fortunate to have an evening flight from Calama, meaning that I only had a two hour layover in Santiago. So I was able to spend much of the day in San Pedro, before the shuttle arrived at four o'clock and I bid farewell to Rolando (who is staying a few days longer before returning to Santiago until the new year). There were only four of us in the shuttle and it was a pleasant, sunny ride. I was in long sleeves in anticipation of heading to colder climes, but the vehicle was air conditioned.

The flight to Santiago was without event. One of the shows they showed on the screens was an episode of Just For Laughs Gags, which I have noticed is very popular on airlines. Part of the appeal must be that there is no dialogue and is therefore is accessible to viewers of any language. I wonder if it increases tourism to Montreal.

The two hours in Santiago was a pretty good amount of time. The airport was bustling but there were no long lines. I got to the gate about twenty minutes early, after purchasing some duty-free wine. There is a curious solution to the prohibition of liquids in carry-on luggage to North America. One goes through the regular security, which is efficient, and I imagine pretty effective. (They do not insist on the silly practices of removing shoes and laptops.) But in the little tunnel leading to the plane, there are something like camping tables set up by security guards who rifle through everyone's carry-on bags to check for evil liquids or gels. Then, right next to the plane door, one picks up one's duty-free purchases.

I managed to sleep for perhaps three hours on the flight to Miami, after watching Hairspray, a fluffy but diverting entertainment. It was preceded by an endless series of commercials and promotions for NBC television shows which was quite abysmal.

Immigration at the Miami airport was just as slow as the last time I entered: it was almost exactly an hour's wait in line. The officers are friendly but very deliberate and do not at all hurry. It seems like it must be an effective screening method; but when waiting it can be frustrating. I had four hours between my flights, so the delay was not stressful, and I got through a couple of chapters of Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative (a fascinating book, by the bye).

Once through immigration, clearing security was much faster. I was soon in the terminal, promptly found a power outlet and camped out with my computer to wait for my flight to Toronto.

The flight to Toronto was a good three hours, and they showed an animated feature called Ratatouille, a most delightful film; very well directed. When it finished and I looked out my window, it was winter-time. I am not sure whether it was Pennsylvania or New York, but it was evident that there was about a foot of snow everywhere. Thence over Lake Ontario towards Toronto, which we circled once before landing, marking my return to private life and the end of this journal.