Writings: Chile Journals

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May 27–28 29 30 31
June 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15–16


In the first few months of the calendar year a phenomenon known as the Bolivian Winter sets in around our telescope site. The winds tend to blow from Bolivia, in the east, bringing clouds and moisture, which makes successful millimeter astronomical observations a very tall order indeed. Since it is expensive to operate the telescope and our collaboration is not overwhelmingly pecunious, the Atacama Cosmology Telescope sits dormant during this period.

This was our first Bolivian Winter, and we used the opportunity to bring the MBAC receiver back to North America to add two more arrays of detectors, bringing the total up to three, operating at 145, 220 and 280 GHz.

An intrepid advance party was required to get the telescope up and running in preparation for the arrival of the upgraded MBAC. The main tasks will be: to get the generators purring contentedly, with a full storage tank of diesel; to realign the primary mirror, which will again require braving `the icy fang and churlish chiding of the winter's wind'; and to ensure that the motion is in good working condition.

Rolando Dunner, Tom Essinger-Hileman, Robert Thornton and I were chosen for these tasks, and in the fourth installment of this journal series, our labours will be diligently chronicled.

27-28 May 2008

Rolando, Tom and I had the same itinerary going down to Chile, with Bob, who is from the University of Pennsylvania, to follow in a couple of days. Since Rolando had all of his winter clothes in Santiago and there was also some business in town to take care of, we were to spend one night there before travelling to San Pedro de Atacama.

A further reason to travel together was our baggage. The Faro laser tracker, which gave us so much trouble last year, was recently repaired in Philadelphia and needed to get transported back. Jeff Klein helped me to sort out the necessary paperwork before hand, but it is still a beast to transport, coming in several components, the heaviest weighing about eighty pounds. We took a taxi early in the afternoon to Newark airport and checked in without any difficulty.

However, due to congestion at Newark (the reason for which perplexed us as it was a pretty fine day), our flight's estimated departure kept getting pushed back and back. Finally, at about six-thirty in the evening, we were told that we would not be able to make our connecting flight in Miami, and were moved to a LAN flight flying directly to Santiago, leaving at eleven-thirty — from JFK. So we exited the boarding area, went to the baggage collection to get our bags (including the Faro), and, about ninety minutes later, were in a taxi to JFK, compliments of American Airlines.

We arrived at JFK at about nine o'clock, in plenty of time for our flight, but rather late for some other passengers from our botched Newark flight for whom American had injudiciously rebooked nine o'clock flights from JFK. Again, we had no difficulty getting the Faro checked in, though it was a little nerve-wracking leaving one of our most expensive pieces of equipment sitting next to an X-ray machine waiting to be put on the conveyor belt.

The flight to Santiago stopped in Lima on the way, and we were allowed to leave the plane for half an hour to stretch our legs. One shop in the terminal was selling a jacket made from vicuña wool for six thousand American dollars.

We finally reached Santiago at about noon to-day. Our Chilean customs agency had one of their agents waiting for us at the airport to complete the paperwork for getting the Faro through customs. This took more than an hour and we had tea and coffee while we were waiting. Everything happily ended up on this side of customs: the first triumph of our visit.

We are staying this evening at Rolando's parents' house in Santiago. Rolando's father picked us up and we drove straight to the house were we met Rolando's mother and aunt. There are four dogs here, who were absolutely thrilled to see Rolando again. Then we sat down to enjoyed a scrumptious lunch, which was a welcome repast after twenty-four hours of travel, some of it pretty frenetic.

One piece of business remained for the day: a visit to our lawyer. There was quite a lot to be discussed and some largeish piles of paper. I only followed a fraction of the conversation. We left, however, with a pretty organised list of things that needed to get done.

In the evening we had a barbecue with Rolando's sister and a few of their cousins. To-night was apparently the coldest it has been so far this year (it felt like a few degrees above zero) and when the meat was done we moved inside to eat and drink, and thence to bed.

29 May 2008

All three of us slept well and woke up refreshed this morning. Having visited the lawyer yesterday, we had no more business to complete in town and I began composing a poster I will be presenting at an SPIE conference later this month. I also took the opportunity to tickle the ivories for a while on Rolando's baby grand.

Our flight was at four o'clock and we were driven to the airport by Rolando's parents after lunch. At the counter, Rolo tried to convince the agent not to charge us again for the overweight Faro, but as we were on a new itinerary we had to pay thirty-thousand pesos to get it on the plane.

The flight to Calama is always pleasant because of the gorgeous view. The mountains north of Santiago are covered with a blanket of snow that, viewed from the air, soften the ragged crags and sharp valleys. As the plane continues north the ground slowly rises and the snow thins out until it disappears as the brown, slowly rolling mountains of the desert start passing beneath. These gradually flatten out until only a plateau is left, and presently one sees tyre tracks down on the desert floor, indicating that Calama is nearby.

We landed at about six o'clock. Rolando had the truck booked and less than an hour later, as dusk was giving way to night, we were on the road. We are now not far from the solstice and the ecliptic is lower in the sky than I am used to seeing it: Scorpio was right out the front windscreen as we drove south-west towards San Pedro.

The office in Don Esteban was left very tidy and organised and in a few minutes we were settled back in. We had considered going briefly to the site this evening, primarily to make sure that the batteries in the generators were charged, but since they were prudently removed down to our office here in San Pedro before the last group left, we did not see any point going up in the dark. Rolando has booked a delivery of diesel for to-morrow and we will go up to coincide with its arrival. And so we get an early night, probably one of the last in a while.

30 May 2008

Chilean businesses have much more lackadaisical schedules than North Americans are used to. We had ordered a delivery of diesel, and had been told that it would be dispatched first thing in the morning. What this really meant was that first thing in the morning the diesel company called a supplier to obtain some antifreeze. By about ten-thirty they were mixing the anti-freeze into the diesel; and they left Calama just before noon. All this was ascertained by Rolando who phoned them throughout the morning.

By about one thirty the truck driver called Rolando and told him that they had reached San Pedro, at which point the three of us drove up to the telescope so that we would be there in good time before them. We arrived at about two-thirty, and it wasn't until almost four-thirty that they arrived. There was plenty to do in the meantime, however. It being our first time up this visit, we were also slower at getting things done and required frequent breaks.

We had brought up the batteries for the generators, which had been stored in our office in San Pedro. Once the batteries were in place we were able to start the generators, after not a few cranks. The diesel in both the generator tanks and in the large storage tank was still, thankfully, in the liquid phase.

The generators started, we powered up the computers and were pleased to find that the network connexion to San Pedro was made automatically. The UPS's for all our computers had also been removed to town, of which we were ignorant. We made a note to bring them up to-morrow. Additionally, the batteries for the KUKA cabinet and another large UPS were absent. This made us unable to move the telescope.

After a few smaller chores the diesel truck was pumping into our storage tank. The truck has a maximum capacity of five-thousand litres, so another will have to come to-morrow in order to fill our tank to the top. Rolando filled an old water bottle with the truck's diesel and left it outside for half an hour after the pumping was done in order to make sure that the antifreeze was working properly. While this test was being conducted we gave the diesel delivery workers some tea.

In total we were up for about three and a half hours. Rolando seemed to be pretty well, while Tom and I were ready to head down. We didn't have bad headaches, but were pretty tired and found any physical exertion to be a trial.

It is generally cold here. In town it is pleasant enough during the day, requiring only a sweater, but at night it becomes quite nippy, including in our rooms. This morning the thermometer on my bedside clock read thirteen degrees — not terribly frigid, but unpleasant to get out of bed into. On the mountain it is bitterly cold. This afternoon, though it was perfectly sunny, it was a few degrees below zero with a very strong, gusting wind that sucked the heat out of your body.

Bob Thornton arrived this evening at about eight-thirty. We went into town for dinner and ate at a place that has combined sand-board rentals with a pizza parlour. (Yes, that was sand-board, not snow-board. It is not very good for the sand dunes.) Rolando has some friends from Santiago who are touring here and they joined us. Afterwards to Café Export for a drink, and then back to Don Esteban to turn in.

A reader of this journal suggested that I create an RSS feed, and did not neglect to point out that this would make it more blogesque. Indeed it would. I must politely decline the suggestion. If it were not so grossly inconvenient, I would actually be sending out snail-mail form letters every day to my readers. As it is, I have settled for this traditional, hand-crafted webpage.

31 May 2008

Our second five-thousand litres of diesel arrived a bit earlier to-day: at about nine-thirty in the morning Rolando got a call from the driver reporting that he was in San Pedro and about to get on the road to the mountain. The four of us quickly piled the equipment we needed into the truck and started out ourselves, stopping on the way to buy some bread and ham and cheese for lunch later on. About forty kilometres up we passed the diesel truck, which was making pretty good time.

This was Bob's first time to the site. As a graduate student in Hawaii he had worked on telescopes on Mauna Kea, which is about four-thousand metres high. Whether or not that experience was a factor, he did very well to-day and we were able to stay about five hours.

Last time I was here, in December, the heater on one of the elevation motor gearboxes melted. Lyman sent down with us some parts to install a new heater with a good thermostat. Bob and Tom spent some time trying to figure out which pieces fitted into which, and finally decided that they would have to ask Lyman. Perhaps it was also a case of lack of oxygen.

I myself had a lack-of-oxygen moment when trying to move the telescope for the first time. Whenever I tried to move it, an "Active Commands Inhibited" message would come up. I was perplexed, and called Mark Devlin, who was also perplexed, so I called Mike Cozza. He asked if I had retracted the stow pins, which I had not. These are physical pins, about two inches in diameter, that slide into holes in the azimuth and elevation structures in order to hold them in place when the telescope is not in use. Naturally, the telescope refuses to move if it detects that they are in place. Once they were removed, the telescope moved without complaint, and I brought it up to its upright position at sixty degrees.

Despite their inability to understand the heater system, Dan and Bob put their brawn to use and removed the covers to the elevation motors, a tedious and time-consuming task, in preparation for the installation of said heaters. Meanwhile, Rolo worked on getting the Receiver Cabin UPS working and supervised the delivery of the diesel.

In the dining area here there is a poster board where the weekly menu is posted. One of our weekend meals was advertised as "Potatoes Pudding" [sic]. When Bob saw it he thought it was Shepherd's Pie and popped some in the microwave. Upon consuming it, however, he was surprised to find that it consisted mainly of mashed potatoes and chicken. Now he knows what Potatoes Pudding is. As for me, I had "Fish and Exotic Rice".

1 June 2008

The word of the day is: mnemonization. Tom has introduced a word game to play in the truck when driving to and from the site. Someone chooses a letter, and we go around the truck adding letters that form potential words. The object is not to complete a word yourself, but to force another player instead to complete a word. Rolando had been given m-n-e-m-o-n-i, and we thought he was cornered. When he suggested zed, Bob (who was next) challenged, whereupon Rolando said that he was thinking of `mnemonization', which we dismissed as being a fabricated word. But when we returned to our office in San Pedro, we were astonished to find that, according to the OED, it is in fact a word.

Unfortunately, this addition to our vocabulary was perhaps the only felicitous moment of our work day. We had gone up to the site just before dusk with the intention of making a primary mirror survey with the Faro. The first minor disaster was that none of us had remembered to bring the keys to open the equipment room, nor were there any spares being kept in the containers which were closed with a combination lock. After about twenty minutes we were able to jimmy open the door, which, thankfully, had not been dead-bolted.

Next we set up the Faro. But when Rolando tried to start it up, he got an error that he had never seen before — something about the encoders not registering. After attempting several remedies unsuccessfully, we had to admit defeat. We packed up the Faro and brought it down in the truck, arriving in San Pedro at about nine in the evening. To-morrow Rolando hopes to investigate the problem here in town, hopefully with support from the manufacturer.

In the morning I took the bike out for about an hour. It was pleasantly warm, so that I could comfortably wear short sleeves. Then to church at noon. There was a little girl in the congregation sitting behind me, perhaps five years old, who on several occasions gave answers out loud to the priest during his homily which she had gleaned from the readings. And not surprisingly, her answers were always on the mark, which pleased him well.

2 June 2008

Rolando set up the Faro in the dining room this morning to try and figure out what was causing it to fail last night. A hutch against the back wall proved sturdy enough to support it without rocking or vibrating, giving the length of the room, about twelve metres, for measurements. The problem we had last night at the site repeated itself, and I myself added a problem by foolishly forcing in one of the connectors and breaking the pins. We were able to jury rig the connexion without too much difficulty, but it will now be an added annoyance when setting up the equipment.

In the afternoon Rolando got in touch with an engineer from Faro with the help of Jeff Klein at the University of Pennsylvania. Due to a flaky Skype connexion Rolando lost touch with him at first and was forced to use his mobile phone — it will be interesting to see what the bill is.

Bob and Tom figured out how the thermostats for the motor heaters worked and assembled as much of the systems as they could without being at the site. Given that Rolando and the Faro engineer were not able to resolve the Faro problem by the end of the work day, there was not any point in going up to the site. The glimmer of hope is that the engineer indicated that he thought that it could be fixed here in San Pedro.

In the afternoon I took Tom out in the truck for a driving lesson — not that he has not driven before, but because he was unfamiliar with a standard transmission. He picked it up pretty quickly and I soon graduated him to the next level where he can practice on his own. The roads on the outskirts of San Pedro are really quite ideal for practicing driving as they are flat, straight and devoid of traffic.

3 June 2008

Again this morning we set the Faro up in the dining room. It took a bit of calling to get in touch with the Faro engineer who was helping us yesterday, but when Rolando got ahold of him he had some advice which he claimed would `solve everything'. Apparently, use of the instrument in `factory mode', which Rolando was accustomed to, is verboten. Rolando followed his advice, but it still didn't seem to be working properly, refusing to track the retroreflector at distances more than a couple of metres.

With the prospect of Rolando having to troubleshoot the Faro again for the whole day, Bob, Tom and I decided to go to the site to install the heater tape on the elevation motor reducer and work on other odd jobs. A few hundred metres down the road from the facility, I thought we had forgotten the radio that we travel with for security and turned around. As soon as we arrived back, Rolando told us that he had gotten it to work.

A working Faro in hand, our plans for the day naturally changed, and it turned out to be providential that we had forgotten the radio — in fact, we had not forgotten it: it had been in the car all along. Instead of heading up in the morning, we spent the early afternoon in the office doing personal work, and left at about four o'clock to do panel measurements. We arrived well before sunset so that the Faro could sit outside and acclimatise to the ambient temperature, having been down in relatively warm San Pedro.

To our relief and great satisfaction, the panel measurements went very smoothly. It was a warmish night, as winter nights on the mountain go, which made the measurements not too unpleasant. Rolando and Bob formed Team Alpaca and Tom and I were denominated Team Vicuña. Team Alpaca did the first, third and fifth batches of measurements while our team performed the even batches up to he sixth, for a total of a gross of panels having been measured, or, with eight measurements per panel, two-thirds of a great gross of individual measurements.

We finished measurements at half-past midnight; now half-past one and so to bed. Rolando will wait until the morning to analyse the panel data.

4 June 2008

I managed to get a good night's sleep and woke late this morning. Rolando was analysing the data from last night. We decided to do another measurement to-night in order to verify last night's — it is important for us to know how much the panels have moved since we last aligned them in October.

Bob and I spent much of the day working on our posters for the SPIE conference. It is one of those things that takes much longer than one originally anticipates. But hopefully we'll end up with nice posters that can be hung in the labs when the conference is finished.

Yesterday we were so hungry that we ate all of the food for that day plus most of our food for to-day, so we went into town for a late lunch. Rolando showed us a good, cheap restaurant that serves local food. After lunch Bob and Tom wanted ice cream, which we purchased near the main square.

Our routine this evening was similar to last night's, but in addition to measuring the primary we also did the secondary mirror, which adds about half-an-hour to the process. It was colder this evening and Bob produced some chemical hand-warming pads. Due to a false start on the Faro, it took a little longer than we had expected and we were finished at one o'clock, arriving back at two. I had a midnight, or rather, post-midnight snack of Potatoes Pudding (the last of it) and some salad, and now off to bed on a full stomach.

5 June 2008

When we rented the truck last week in Calama and Rolando presented his driving licence, the agent pointed out that it was about to expire, of which he had theretofore been ignorant for some reason. Early this morning he returned to Calama in order to renew it and run some other smaller errands. He returned at about one o'clock with his old licence: apparently he needs to register as a resident of San Pedro in order to renew it in Calama. This seemed rather bizarre to the rest of us, but nevertheless he rode the bike up to the local police station to get the necessary paperwork started.

This afternoon at the site we did our first panel adjustments. I had forgotten how angular it is behind the mirror: on some adjustments one finds oneself practically upside down wondering which way is clockwise and which is anti-clockwise. Afterwards we undertook a survey of the secondary mirror surface.

By about nine o'clock we were done. As we had eaten our prepared supper for lunch (at which Tom regaled us with fascinating stories of his somnambulism), we went out for dinner at Tierra, which was, as usual, an excellent meal. Except for us, the restaurant was empty — not so much because it was a late hour as because it seems to be a slow time of year for tourists.

6 June 2008

Rolando left early again this morning to pick up from the police the paperwork showing that he lives in San Pedro. That done, he drove again to Calama and this time was able (after a few hours) to obtain a renewed licence.

The other night I brought down one of the UPS's from the mountain because it appeared to be dead. This morning I opened it up to see if I could determine what the matter with it is. The innards were more complicated that I had anticipated, although most of the mass is made up of the batteries and the AC/DC converter. The batteries' voltages were far below the nominal twelve volts and I couldn't see any obvious broken wires or components, so I concluded that the batteries were at fault.

For the rest of the day, we all worked in the office, and then left for the site just after five o'clock to do another survey of the primary mirror. Rolando and I set the Faro up upon arriving. When we came back to the equipment room, I spied Tom and Bob through the window, squarely facing each other, about three feet apart, each with both his hands elevated to face level and the index finger erect. It was a comical scene. As it turned out, Tom was teaching Bob a game that involves trying to make one's opponent raise all his fingers through a series of rules which are too complex to explain here briefly. This activity was precipitated by the fact that our internet connexion had been down since the early afternoon, leaving the two of them idle and in want of an amusing diversion. Within a few minutes, we were all playing it while waiting for the Faro to warm up. It was a very white moment.

The panel measurements went smoothly once again — we hope that this trend continues. We were done by a quarter to twelve, the fastest we have completed a survey yet. When we arrived back in San Pedro, the Magellanic Clouds had risen above the horizon, and Bob beheld them for the first time in his life.

7 June 2008

We left for the site late this morning, with the goal of doing panel adjustments and working on the motor heaters. The light quite changes the view of the mountains at different times of day: this morning the mountains to the north-east seemed more indistinct than they have been in the late afternoon, when the ground more dramatically wrinkles and rolls upwards. To the south a faint haze softened the towering mountains on the horizon beyond the sweep of desert and salt plains.

Rolando and I worked on the panel adjustments, and it took us a solid three hours, not counting the lunch break we took in the middle. There were ninety-six adjustments to be made in all, and we were trying to be especially precise to-day as we hone down on a smoother mirror surface. By the end I felt as though I had sat in every conceivable position to reach the various adjusters. The one consolation was that though it was a cold and windy day, the temperature inside the telescope was quite comfortable.

We left in the late afternoon so that Rolando could meet parents and sister, who have travelled here for the occasion of his birthday to-morrow. This gave us our first evening off in a few days, and Tom, Bob and I went to Adobe for a nice, relaxing dinner. Later in the evening, Tom and I met up with Rolando, his family and some colleagues from the other telescopes for some drinks in celebration of the completion of three decades of his life.

8 June 2008

In the church here there are a handful of statues of saints at behind the altar. They look like large dolls, two or three feet high, and to my eyes at least, are terrifically gaudy. St. Peter, the patron, is in the lower centre, dressed in rich robes with a crown on his head (very unlike a fisherman). He stand below Mary, Mother of God, who is a somewhat plump doll wearing something like a little girl's first communion dress. Surrounding her is a string of red and green Christmas lights, which, last week, were flashing on and off in various patterns as many such decorations are wont to do. This Sunday they were mercifully turned off. The rest of the church, on the other hand, is quite plain with white plaster walls, rude pews and a couple of simple side chapels.

Rolando's family is still here and this evening at the facility everyone who is staying here joined them for tea with a big cake for his birthday. After the food was done we sat and talked — or rather, they talked and I listened, as the language was Spanish and it was the most I could do to follow the current of the conversation. Rolando's father told about coming to San Pedro many years ago when it was not a big tourist destination, and when the unpaved road from Calama went through the Valle de la Luna.

And so another evening off, and off to bed early as to-morrow will be replete with work.

9 June 2008

This morning we got our third, and for now, final, delivery of diesel. All of us went to the site to meet them, arriving just before noon. Rolando and I had trouble starting the generators: the batteries on both of them drained just before the engines got going, and we had to use our spare battery to get one of the generators going. Barring that, we could have used the truck's car battery.

Bob and Tom continued with the motor heater. While it might seem that they have been working on it for a long time, the fact is that they only ever get to snatch an hour or two here and there to work on it. Indeed, they are making good progress.

We only stayed up for a couple of hours because we wanted to do panel measurements in the evening, and no one felt like being at the site for thirteen hours on end. That gave us about two and a half hours down below before we were in the truck again and déjà vu kicked in. The sunset behind us as we went up was very colourful and Tom spent much of the drive with his head turned around looking out the rear window.

There was unanimous agreement that this was the coldest night yet doing panel measurements. This fact might explain why it was also our fastest night: we were finished just after eleven o'clock. On the ride down, Bob won the word game by forcing Tom to spell `snide'.

10 June 2008

When Rolando analysed the measurements we took last night, he found that they were much less precise than our previous ones. We think it is because yesterday was a fairly warm day which turned into a very cold night, causing the telescope structure to shrink more dramatically than usual and throwing off our measurements. Determined to make a good set of measurements, we decided to start later this evening, at about ten o'clock.

We left at about five in order to get some other work done before the measurements began. Bob and Tom attempted to glue the heater thermostat inside the elevation motor cavity, but discovered that they were using the wrong kind of glue when it would instantly dry in the cold air. Later, Tom and I discovered a small drawer full of various glues in one of the storage containers. Bob began examining the their specifications to see which would be more appropriate.

Rolando and I had planned to make adjustment to the secondary mirror panels, but on closer examination we discovered that the secondary structure was at the end of its possible range of motion. This made Rolando suspect the measurements on it that we have done heretofore because in this extreme position gravity causes it to sag a little. We decided not to make the adjustments, and moved the structure back to its nominal position.

Panel measurements were done by about two and we were in San Pedro by three in the morning — just like in the summer when we always started at ten in the evening. To-night it felt extraordinarily late.

11 June 2008

We all lay in late this morning after our long night and no one was seen much before noon. The first thing Rolando did when he got up was look at last night's measurements. Unfortunately, they only confirmed what the noisy data from the night before seemed to be saying: that our last round of panel adjustments had not worked as expected. He and I thought that the best course of action would be to spend the afternoon examining the data more closely to see if we could figure out any problems with the adjustment procedure or with the data analysis itself.

Bob and Tom headed up to the site soon after mid-day to finally slay the heater box Questing Beast. This they very nearly accomplished but need to wait for some epoxy to set before driving home the final thrust. The day was very overcast and grey clouds loured on top of Cerro Toco. There was snow on some of the mountains to the south, but the site looked pretty clear. After they had left, Rodrigo from CBI told us that ALMA had evacuated their site because of the weather. Tom and Bob got to the site without any problems. It was stingingly cold but only a dusting of snow lay on the ground.

Again the clouds made for a vividly colourful sunset. In the east the mountains were tinted a deep orange with frothy clouds jumbled up against the horizon, glowing pink down low and then all charcoal-blues higher up.

12 June 2008

The hot water on my side of the facility is fairly unpredictable. For the last few days I have had very lukewarm showers, which is bracing, to put it generously, when your room is only about twelve degrees warm. This morning, however, the water was piping hot and my shower was luxurious.

This afternoon, Rolando, Tom and Bob went to the site to make adjustments and measurements of the secondary mirror. Though clear in town, it was still cloudy, or rather, misty, at the mountains, to the extent that one could not see them at all. But they had no trouble reaching the site, having to contend only with very windy conditions.

Down in San Pedro, I continued trying to understand our primary panel measurements by plotting various data in different ways. A couple of times I got a call from the mountain asking me to move the telescope for them, which at this point in the season turns out to be easier for me to do remotely than for them to stumble through the procedure on the mountain.

When they got back, we went out for dinner because we had eaten all our food for the day for lunch. In the restaurant we ran into some of Rolando's acquaintances and before we knew it were invited to join them. One of the women at the table was sitting in front of a window sill, upon which she had placed her mobile phone and jacket. During the meal, the jacket suddenly caught fire, causing considerable alarm to those nearby. It seems that the battery of the phone had spontaneously ignited: a marvelous occurrence to us, but rather sad for the woman whose phone and jacket were ruined.

13 June 2008

Last night the crew on the mountain brought the Faro down to San Pedro. One theory as to our confusing data is that the Faro itself was actually at fault and needs to be calibrated, which is difficult to do at the site. When Rolando set it up this morning, it refused to pass the start-up tests. He and Tom fiddled around with it for a while but remained baffled. Rolando subsequently called Faro and told them about the problem.

About an hour later, we heard back from the company, who told us that there was probably something mechanically broken inside and that it would have to be returned to them for repair. Obviously this is a major hassle for us and means that there will be at least a week or two with no Faro in Chile. Jeff Klein spoke with one of the engineers to see if we could try doing repairs locally — after all, it could be as simple as a broken solder joint — but received a firm negative response. We are now left with the task of determining how and when we will return the Faro to the United States.

With all of the uncertainty and phone calls back and forth, no one went to the site. For my part, I spent a good part of the day continuing to examine the last couple of primary measurements, as they will be the last we will have for a while, and I believe that there is useful information still to be gleaned from them.

Over the last few days, inspired by me occasionally playing Angband, Tom has been caught up in Zork, which I have been assiduously avoiding for fear of incurring an addiction.

14 June 2008

Given all of our schedules, it made most sense if either Bob or I were to leave early to take the Faro. This morning Bob and I discussed it and decided that I would go back. Bob has unfortunately come down pretty sick with some sort of stomach bug, and this arrangement also means that he can rest here instead of travelling while ill.

So, whereas I was originally scheduled to leave on Tuesday, I am now leaving to-morrow morning. Thankfully, the ticket change was not terribly expensive, given that I changed it the day before leaving. I will have to manage the Faro on my own. Hopefully with a judicious use of luggage carts I will get along.

Rolando and Tom went up to the site to do some odd jobs. They had a terrifically difficult time starting the generators, draining all of the batteries and having to finally use the truck to get one of the generators going. Rolando brought back the generator batteries to recharge here. He thinks that the cold up on the mountain has been depleting them.

In town I began what I thought would be a quick modification to some data acquisition software, but it ended up taking me the whole afternoon, and I only just finished by the time Rolo and Tom were about to head down. I often enjoy listening to CBC Radio 2 when I am working, and this afternoon I caught the tail end of a very interesting programme on Leonard Cohen, with, I think, some of the interviews from the Buddhist monastery where he has spent some time.

In the evening I went into town to buy a present for someone and was pleased to discover that there is a vigil mass at seven, which I was able to catch most of. It was a nice quiet service with unaccompanied singing: a good way to spend my last evening here before coming back to the facility to pack up and to get all the Faro paperwork in order.

15-16 June 2008

On Sunday morning the airport shuttle picked me up at eight-thirty. It was not very full and the drive was quite pleasant. One of the stretches of road on the way to Calama goes through the Llano de Paciencia — the Valley of Patience. I think it may have acquired that name because it takes so long to cross. Upon entering it one sees the road stretched out before one all the way to the horizon, slowly descending into the valley and then back up. The whole thing must take at least ten minutes to cross at a hundred kilometres per hour.

A few minutes after checking in for my flight to Santiago, I was called over the P.A. system back to the desk. A baggage handler met me there and asked me to follow him behind the counter through a door into a restricted area, where I met a security guard who was scanning the checked baggage. It turns out she wasn't sure what the Faro was and wanted to ask me a few questions. I naturally obliged and she was satisfied enough to send it through.

On the flight to Santiago I spied a couple of open pit mines which I had not noticed before. I presume they were copper mines, but I really had no way of telling.

In Santiago I had a six hour wait until my connecting flight. I decided not to go into the city and hung around the airport instead. One major annoyance is that American Airlines does not open its check-in counters until five-thirty, so one is stuck with one's baggage and cannot go into the boarding area. I had lunch near the domestic terminal and then headed over to Gatsby's, a restaurant known to have free wireless. I needed to communicate with Jeff Klein to see if he had arranged transportation for me when I arrived in Newark. Unluckily the network did not seem to be working, despite my retrying it from time to time over a couple of hours while slowly consuming some tea and cookies. In the end I gave up and called him from a pay-phone. He told me that Danica Marsden would be picking me up and then dropping the Faro off at the company directly afterwards in Philadelphia.

By this time the American had opened its counter and I was able to check in. One goes through passport control upon leaving Chile, and the officer to whom I was sent seemed to be scrutinising my passport a bit more than usual. He asked me a question in Spanish which I didn't quite catch, but I thought that he wanted to know if I was travelling with someone — I had caught the word compañero. I told him I was alone, and he motioned for me to follow him. I was not very worried, but a little confused as to why he wanted to investigate further. Did I have a bad stamp in my passport? Had I been mistakenly flagged as a suspicious personage? Upon reaching the end of the aisles of booths he called to one of his colleagues. After a couple of seconds I realised what was going on: he thought that I was the spitting image of one of the other immigration officers and he had brought me over to show me my doppleganger! I remained unconvinced of any striking similitude, and I think my doppleganger was also a bit bewildered, but we all had a laugh. Afterwards I wished that I had asked to have my photo taken with my (so-called) look-alike. I wonder if they would have permitted it.

The flight to Miami was comfortable and uneventful. The featured film was Bucket List, a rather mediocre effort which wasted Jack Nicholson's and Morgan Freeman's talents. After the movie I was not very tired at all and instead finished reading The Song of Hiawatha and about half of this week's Economist.

When we arrived in Miami, I hastened to immigration, which I have found to be a bottleneck at this airport. I was pleased to find that Canadian citizens can enter the American Citizens and Permanent Residents line. In another situations I might have seen this arrangement in a different light, but this morning it saved me precious time since the visitors' line moves extremely slowly.

In Customs there was not even a glance at the Faro, which quite surprised me. I was expecting to have to have a longish discussion with an officer and produce reams of paperwork. Instead, I followed the green dots to re-check in bags for the final leg of my journey.

I arrived in Newark at about ten thirty and retrieved my luggage with no troubles. Danica (a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, and fellow Canadian, who joined the project earlier this year) arrived with perfect timing and we piled the luggage into the department van she was driving. She dropped me off at home and continued on to Philadelphia with the Faro. But the outcome of that journey will be another story, dear reader, for this one finishes with the completion of my own journey and my return to private life in Princeton, until I should be sent back to the Atacama.