MagAO-X 2020A Stay at Home Day 35: Stay at Home Lessons from Study Abroad

Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, last time was at the observatory using MagAO (Classic). Others have written about time spent on a submarines or in virtual worlds, which I think are excellent training for isolation, I’m going to opine a bit about the value of travel and particularly study abroad for coping with staying at home. And share some pictures (all shot in 2007 on a circa 2003, five megapixel, Olympus E-1 with circa 1970s manual focus Olympus Zuiko lenses) .

University of Ghana, across the pond from Balme Library.

In 2007 I studied at the University of Ghana (UG), in Legon, which is just north of the capital Accra. Ghana is on the horizontal stretch of the eastern African coast, between Cote d’Ivoire and Chad (blue arrow below).

There are lots of ways this experience prepared me for this pandemic, some humorous and some practical.

As international students visiting via a US university’s program, we lived on campus in relatively spiffy dorms where we only had one roommate and where we had running water. They didn’t have all the comforts of home however. I learned quickly upon arriving in the dorms that toilet paper was a valuable commodity, a college classmate who was from Nigeria had packed his suite case with rolls of Charmin and I felt a bit silly with all my hand sanitizer and no “T-Roll”.

Fortunately, the dorms were close to the campus Night Market, seen below after a heavy rain. My room was in the distant building, second floor, furthest to the left. The Night Market was nearly a one-stop-shopping experience, from T-Roll to sandal repair and fresh food, with stalls specializing in Fufu (pounded casava), RedRed. My standby dinner was Waakye, a dish of rice and beans that you could buy hot, served in a plastic bag, for tens of cents. I chose to eat a lot of Waakye, it was a complete protein, it was tasty, it was fully cooked, and it left a lot of money in my pocket for travel. But it was surprising to me how easy it was to eat well on a few dollars a day, day after day, on rice and beans (and bread, eggs, and oatmeal).

The Night Market on South Campus,

The Night Market was pretty complete shopping, and it was possible to live frugally, but that also made big splurges, like dinner in Accra at a Lebanese restaurant that much more enjoyable. And re-entry shock is real, and in my experience, the primary symptom is wandering supermarkets. Consider yourself warned.

The dorms also had prominent public health signage, something that may be coming to US dorms this fall, while the focus is now on a new virus, these messages might be a template:

All that scrimping on food meant travel, and the travel didn’t disappoint, a 20+ hour bus ride to the Sahel and Mole National Park (go national parks!) meant wildlife sightings under the watchful eye of rangers, the unique pain of Tsetse fly bites, and the unique camaraderie fellow travelers.

Elephants at Mole
Dawn at Mole
Mole National Park
Baboons at Mole

On the more serious side, many of us came down with serious diseases, including malaria, despite prophylaxis while we were studying in Ghana. We were grateful for the treatment we received and that experience made clear the physicians and nurses in Ghana and other African countries are top-notch: educated, curious, and committed to their patients. But even before COVID19, they severely lacked the equipment to provide the care they knew was possible, making it even more imperative to “flatten the curve” in countries with just a few ICU beds. The WHO is publishing Africa SITREPs on CV19 if you want to keep an eye on things. This lack of equipment is just one symptom of a long history of colonization, maximally illustrated by the heart-wrenching slaves castles along this “Gold Coast”.

Cape Coast Castle. A point of no return in the Atlantic slave trade.

Studying physics in a low-resource environment brought it’s own challenge and learning opportunities. Much like today, where we’re cutoff from physical books in campus and department libraries, when I was studying E&M and solid state physics in Ghana resources like PDFs of course notes from MIT Open Courseware went from being nice to invaluable. My Ghanaian classmates were also more essential to learning than my classmates in the states, they were masters of logistics and could find textbooks and information that befuddled me.

The broad boulevards closed to cars and grassy medians made it easy to get exercise across the enormous UG campus. It’s so green!

Study abroad anywhere is training for today because normal is different in every time and place. Upending all your normal habits, books, problem sets, cafeterias and moving them across the world is training in the sense that it shows you how to adapt, and find the limits of that adaptation. (Malaria– not easy to adapt to; rice and beans, no problem). If we are OK and used to accommodating new normals in the context of human experience, and work on ways to improve them, it’s easier to focus on today and tomorrow, rather spending too much time trying to get back to the way things were. Like going to supermarkets or having nice toilet paper. Both are overrated. Stay safe at home, and when it’s safe, go train for the next pandemic and see the world.


I think music is in the rules still. I’m going to resist my natural tendency just to revert to Springsteen. Here goes.

Africa, but improved by Weird Al’s accordion:

Many Ghanaians have spectacular dancing and musical skills, unfortunately neither rubbed off on me during my semester there (despite several organized, multi-day interventions by professionals). These guys have some moves though:

And finally, to maximize our musical diversity, this is one of the first songs that popped into my head that I first heard while I was at University of Ghana (and isn’t by the Boss…):

Now I want to reread Moby Dick.

Good night and nante yie (walk well, in Asanti Twi)

MagAO-X 2020A Stay at Home Day 34: Chocolate drink and TV commercials

This week, MagAO-X was scheduled for its 2020A observation run at LCO. LCO is still closed according to recent updates, MagAO-X is still hanging out at the XWCL in Steward Observatory, and everyone continues to work from home. I decided to write this post about something that pleasantly surprised me when I visited LCO for MagAO in 2017B – seeing Milo at the dining hall. According to Wikipedia, Milo is a popular chocolate drink in Oceania, South America, Southest Asia, and parts of Africa.

Milo brings back memories of my childhood, when I relocated to the Philippines for 3 years. I had grown up drinking Nesquik chocolate milk in the US, so finding a similar brand was a godsend for homesick child self transitioning to a drastically new environment. I remember the TV commercials focusing how drinking Milo makes an athletic child. It was the late 1990’s and being a child, it means these commercials were full of truth, right? (Adult me is skeptical)

A Milo Philippines TV commerical from 1999-2000

Decades later, this theme still continues:

Translation (from Tagalog): Your skill? None from the ball. None from shoes. It’s at your daily energy. (Then some English portion) Excel at flavor, for the skill of champions.

Let’s take a look into some other countries’ advertisements:

Milo advertisement in Chile
Milo advertisement in India
Milo advertisement in Malaysia

It’s been a few years since I’ve had Milo, so I bought some while grocery shopping at LeeLee’s International Market. I mixed it up with milk and drank it for breakfast. It tasted different than what I remembered in my childhood. I immediately suspected the milk – we mixed Milo with hot water and milk powder instead of fresh milk. I mixed the Milo with some excess milk powder I had lying around from a recipe experiment, and it tasted a bit closer to my childhood!

If I really wanted to replicate the flavor from my childhood, I would have also used Birch tree milk powder as well.

Back then, it was uncommon in the Philippines to have fresh milk, since long-term refrigeration is not reliable. Living in Quezon City, power outages happened all the time, from the seasonal small signal 1 typhoons (which once cancelled school for 4 days in a row) and overall infrastructure issues. There was also one significant days-long power outage that occurred allegedly due to jellyfish. Additionally, fresh milk is expensive in the Philippines because it must be imported. Even though the milk is not refrigerated when purchased, it must be refrigerated upon opening the container. It’s been almost 2 decades since I returned to live in the US full-time and 5 years since my last visit, so maybe it’s more common these days.

1 Liter fresh milk at Philippines grocery store, December 2015. I did the math, and given $1 USD ~ P46 PHP at the time, it comes out to being equivalent to $6.91/gallon.

Last comment about Milo – the flavor varies based on country of manufacture because the palate balance is localized by region. The Chilean Milo tasted different from the one I bought at LeeLee’s (Singapore manufactured). Therefore, the Milo sourced from a Hispanic market versus an Asian supermarket versus your neighborhood small African market, will each taste different. I’m told there’s also a difference in the Milo produced between Indonesia and Malaysia.

To keep with the sports theme of Milo, the song of the day is my favorite FIFA Club World Cup (La Copa Mundial) official song – Shakira’s “Waka Waka” from the 2010 tournament in South Africa. This quarantine got me reminiscing the times of sitting in bars with friends and enjoying the crowd energy while watching live matches of La Copa.

Shakira – Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) – Official Song of 2010 World Cup

Here’s the Spanish version as well:

Shakira – Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) – Spanish version

Along with “Waka Waka” playing in the airwaves, there was also media frenzy about Paul the Octopus. The magnitude of superstition around world cup matches is on-par with scientists applying for funding (Source: SMBC)

MagAO-X 2020A Stay At Home Day 33: May The 4th Be With You

It’s officially May the 4th 2020, and may the Fourth be with you! The fourth of May is great because it’s an excuse for all of us to relive the fact that Star Wars is the greatest thing ever, even though it sometimes feels like it happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…

Where were you when “it happened” (when you first watched Star Wars)? Were you in theaters? At home? What year was it? For some, it happened in 1977. Unfortunately, I wasn’t born for that moment, but my life did not go too long without seeing Star Wars (thanks to my parents, although it wasn’t their idea to get me into swinging fake lightsabers around in the backyard, or playing countless hours of Star Wars Battlefront 2). For others, they have yet to even see Star Wars! I personally envy those people, because they have no idea what a great experience awaits them.

Star Wars may seem annoying to some people, while for others, it can mean much more. Luckily for both parties, we can all agree that Star Wars memes are a surprisingly great byproduct of the franchise. So following Lauren’s Post about “Star Wars Prequel Memes,” I wanted to share a few of my own favorite Star Wars memes.

As a tribute to the pun of the day, “May the Fourth be with you,” this meme takes the pun one step further:

The rest are a collection of random Star Wars memes I have saved on my phone:

Think about it though, why did Padme really die? There are many conspiracy theories about this...
a great meme for math geeks

For those of you who are eager for a little Star Wars action, check out this really cool fan film, Darth Maul: Apprentice.

The song of the day is not necessarily a “song,” but could be considered more of a “music video.” This fan-made video, called “Before The Dark Times,” gives you the same cool story that Obi-Wan tells Luke in Episode IV, but with a much darker perspective through flashbacks and John Williams soundtracks. It is sure to give you the chills, if you take the time to watch it.

MagAO-X 2020A Stay At Home Day 32: America’s Best Idea

“There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt

About a decade ago, I decided I was tired of not doing things I wanted to do because I had no one to go with me. So I jumped in my car in the summer of 2013 and drove by myself to Arches National Park, a place I had dreamt of going to for a long time. I also hit Canyonlands and Mesa Verde NPs, and did a 5-day rafting trip on the Colorado River on that trip. Although I had visited National Parks before, that trip sparked my drive to really dive deep into the incredible American landscape preserved by the National Park Service. Almost every summer since then, I have driven around the country collecting national parks. As of today I have visited 29 of the now 62 parks.

Here is a map of 59 parks (several new ones have been added in the last year or so!). Red circles mark those I have visited, green trees I have not:

Map of 59 National Parks (a few have been added only recently, bringing the total to 62), with the one’s I’ve made it in red. (I tried to embed an interactive map but Google shenanigans forbade it. Here is a link:

I was living in Texas at the time, so I focused on the southwest and places that were reachable by a 1-2 day drive from central Texas (this is why I knew I would like living in Tucson!). I’ve visited every park in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah. (caveat, White Sands National Monument just got converted into a National Park this year, so while I have visited it, now I have to go back so I can add it to my collection!). I lived near Seattle for a few years, so Washington is complete, and I have family in South Carolina area, which made Florida parks more accessible when I traveled to visit them. I’m almost finished with Colorado, I still need to hit Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I’m way behind in California, but that was a much further drive from Texas, so now that I live closer to Cali it’s time to step up my game there. While I’ve managed to hit several out of the way ones (like Hawaii Volcanoes and Dry Tortugas), you’ll notice that Alaska is sadly completely absent.

I have very specific things I collect at each park, and they must be purchased at the Visitor’s Center (no online before or after the fact!).

First and most important are the reproductions of old WPA posters by Ranger Doug: I buy the post cards, because that many posters would be just too much. Not every park has a Ranger Doug, because the original designs are from the WPA era when there were much fewer parks. If a park doesn’t have one, I try to buy a different postcard I like, usually with that old-timey feel if possible. But the Ranger Dougs are a must if they exist. Here’s my postcard display:

Travel postcards. Ranger Doug NP postcards are at the top, non-Ranger Doug park postcards and other non-NP postcards are clustered near the bottom.

I like to get fridge magnets anywhere I travel. No prescription for what magnet to buy at a NP, just one that I like. Here’s my fridge, you’ll notice the parks are clustered apart from all the other travel magnets.

My fridge. National Parks have a privileged position clustered in the upper left. The right side is other travel magnets, bottom left if just general silliness.

I also like stickers, and I love to hold onto those maps they give you when you pay the entry fee:

But some of those maps got converted into light switch plates all over my house:

A light switch plate by my front door decoupaged with a map of Big Bend NP.

Lastly, a relatively new hobby of mine is exploring breweries and buying a pint glass, so I recently started trying to find a brewery near NPs I visit:

Kona Brewing is near Hawaii Volcanoes NP; Big Bend Brewing is in Alpine TX (and just shut down much to my exceeding dismay!! They had awesome beers); Zion Canyon Brewing is literally right outside the park entrance; Dead Horse Ale is from Moab Brewery, right outside Arches and Canyonlands NPs; Estes Park Brewing is in the town just outside Rocky Mountain NP. I have many other travel pint glasses, but these are the NP specific ones. Not very many in this collection, clearly I have work to do.

PS- The National Parks Service has really stepped up their merch game in the last few years. Every park I’ve been to in the past year has blown me away with their poster, sticker, etc designs. They are really getting creative and selling really cool stuff.

Top 5 favorite parks

5. Saguaro NP. Ok, I’m biased because I now live sandwiched between the two districts of this park. But I first visited Saguaro in 2014 and it made it’s impression then. The two halves of the park are actually surprisingly different (I think I like East better than West). The saguaros are truly remarkable, especially if you’ve never seen them before, and they are neat to learn about from ranger programs and the like. They say the Sonoran Desert is the most ecologically diverse desert in the world, teeming with many varieties of flora and fauna. The park has many great trails and some tough climbs. And sunset is amazing every night.

The view from partway up the Hugh Norris trail in the west district, looking north, in 2014.

4. Dry Tortugas NP. This park is so so neat. It is hard to get to. You gotta drive all the way to Key West, then get on a boat and keep going west for about 70 nautical miles. It’s located right at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean, so ships had to skirt right next to it to get by, so of course the US built a fort there, Fort Jefferson. The fort is the main attraction, but there are also crystal green water, snorkling, lots of marine life. If you’re brave you can let the boat leave you behind and camp the night on the island, totally cut off from the rest of humanity by hundreds of miles of ocean. (I did not do this because it was stupidly hot when I went, and being Florida and 1000% humidity it was basically the same temp at night! I’d like to go back one day though and do it). It’s called Dry because there is no fresh water source, and Tortugas because of the large population of sea turtles. Sailing days ships used to grab sea turtles because you can put them on their backs on the deck and they will live forever, so they’re a source of fresh meat that’s easy to store (yep, sailing days were cruel in many many ways). The fort also served as a prison for a time. Conditions at the fort were unimaginable. How did people survive back then??

3. Arches NP. It 100% lives up to any hype you have ever heard. This place is truly magical. The red rocks, dramatic landscapes, many arches everywhere. It is a popular park, so it can be hard to find camping. But pro tip: there is tons of camping just outside the park along the Colorado river. When I went the park was jam packed but those sites were all empty, and they were wonderful. If you ever go, do not skip the hike up to Delicate Arch, and time it to be there for sunset.

I have nothing else to say but let the photos speak for themselves.

This is one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. Aug 2013.

2. Death Valley NP. This is a surprise entry. I debated back and forth between Death Valley and Arches for the #2 slot, but I surprisingly have to say that I think Death Valley edged it out in the end. I was shocked at how much I loved this park. The park is huge and desolate, but fascinating because of that. Yes, it is hot; I visited in June and it was absurdly hot in the valley. But elevations in the park range from -300ft to 11,000 ft, so my campground at 2000ft was perfectly comfortable for camping. Badwater basin is a stretch of evaporated salt flats that are fun to walk around on. There’s an interesting history with borax mining, and this bizzaro investor dude who built this palace there. But the vistas are the big win here. The land is striking and breathtaking. I loved it. But I have to go back with a more off-road friendly car, to see the Racetrack, where rocks in the valley mysteriously make tracks in the sand.

My second favorite photo I’ve ever taken. June 2016.

1. Big Bend NP. Without a doubt, my favorite place on the planet. Being in this place is just magical. I’ve been twice. The first time I went with a group from my old scooter club in Austin and San Antonio. We drove our Vespas from Austin and had a group meetup in the park for a week. It’s about an 8 hour drive, and the park itself is ~2 hours from any gas stations, which made our small gas tanks nervous, but we all made it fine. I strapped my camping gear to the back of my Vespa GT200 (top speed = 65 mph) and camped in the park. We spent the week riding our bikes around the park, hiking, and enjoying the adventure. It was the best vacation I’ve ever had in my life. Second time I went by myself and backpacked to the top of the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains. It’s ~6 miles of climbing thousands of feet. When I got the top and saw the view across the desert floor into Mexico, I cried. Much better than the Grand Canyon, because only the people who make the very hard climb are rewarded with that view. I camped at the rim on the night of my 35th birthday.

If you go, you gotta do the border crossing into the town of Boquillas, Mexico. There is a port of entry in the park, so you can legally cross. You’ll take a pole boat across as an old man serenades you from the opposite bank (no kidding, they call him the “Singing Mexican”, look him up). Then you rent a donkey and ride the ~3/4 mile into the town, where you can get tacos and tequilla. The town is hundreds of miles from anywhere in Mexico, so tourism is about their only business. And it’s a lot of fun.

In the park there is a hot springs pool, a narrow canyon on the Rio Grande (Santa Elena Canyon), the Chisos Mountains and Chisos Mountain Lodge, tons of hiking in the mountains and desert floor, and a huge diversity of landscapes and vistas, everywhere looks different from everywhere else. I can’t say enough about this place. It is magical

My favorite pic from this park. Aug 2014.

Honorable mentions:

Great Smokey Mountains NP: So much to do and see here, and I’ve always been interested in the Appalachian Trail

Congaree NP: So, I really don’t love South Carolina, most of my family is there so I’ve visited a lot, and it’s not my favorite place. So imagine my surprise when I visited Congaree NP, right outside Columbia SC, and had a great time. It’s very small, it’s a new park, but it is ecologically interesting, and I spent a lovely night in the backcountry campgrounds. So it wins for biggest pleasant surprise.

Top 5 on the to-do list

5. Joshua Tree NP. Ok so I’ve technically been to J-Tree, but it was a long long time ago, before I was super into parks, and we only drove through the park. I need to go there and really DO it. Just driving through was amazing.

4. Yosemite NP. It’s criminal I haven’t been there yet. I spent a whole summer at Berkeley a few years ago and couldn’t make it happen. It’s lower on the list though because it’s *so* popular and crowded. It can be tough to find accommodations and trails are busy. It’s one I can’t miss if I call myself a NP enthusiast.

3. Acadia NP. “Crown jewel of the Northeast coast”. I’ve never been to Maine. My bestie, a MS science teacher, got to do a teacher immersion experience where she assisted ecologists in tracking birds in Acadia NP a few years ago. Lots of people cite it as one of their favorites.

Lighthouse by rocky coastline
Image credit: NPS

2. Any park in Alaska. Alaska has 8 parks, all of them huge. They are more preserves than public attractions, which I’m wholeheartedly behind. Gates of the Arctic NP doesn’t even have any roads! It’s only accessible by plane! Some are more practical and near cities, like Glacier Bay and Kenai Fjords. But getting to Alaska is a challenge I haven’t embarked on yet, and a major hinderance to getting my park count up. Also, you know, it’s amazing.

Hikers ascending a rocky slope in the mountains
Wut. Image credit: NPS

1. Glacier NP. I have wanted to go there for so long. But it’s so remote it’s tough to tack on to other travel. I need to just commit to going some time. I’ve heard the glaciers are starting to vanish from the park too. Time to go is now! Get outta here rona.

Valley view from above waterfall
This road is called “Going-to-the-sun road”. Awesome. Image credit: NPS

Honorable mentions:

Crater Lake NP: I can’t believe I lived in the Pac NW for 2 years and never made it here.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP: Gotta catch ’em all (in Colorado)

Shenandoah NP: More Appalachian trail goodness.

That’s it for my whirlwind tour of national parks. But we’re just scratching the surface.

Song of the day is Highways, by Austin TX artist Alpha Rev. I was super into the album this is on, Bloom, in 2013, and played it on repeat during that trip to Arches NP that started it all. This song’s lyrics are all about “getting out of California”, heading to the mountains and rivers, seeing New York, the Blue Ridge and Virginia forests. Also on that album is the song Crystal Colorado, which was the river I was heading to. This album is still very special to me, and puts me right back into the feeling of freedom I had by just saying “screw it” and heading off to adventure.

MagAO-X 2020A Stay At Home Day 31: Star Wars Prequel Memes

When my friend and I are bored or need cheering we up, we send each other Star Wars prequel memes. As you can imagine during ‘these uncertain times’ we have been sending each other a lot of them. Here are some of my favorite ones so far.

Starting with the obligatory coronavirus themed ones:

And now some random ones.

If you don’t think the scene where Anakin kills the younglings is funny maybe don’t read these.

Song of the day: Also a Star Wars Prequel Meme.