Dark and Clear Skies

Slowly, the Scorpion emerged from the horizon, into the heavens, just in everyone’s plain sight. It was gigantic, with burning orbs for pincers and armor; in the night’s darkness the Scorpion was unmistakeably recognizable. The Moon has long set and the Hunter has been gone even longer. The sky was for the Scorpion to crawl.

We lay on the white sands waiting for the Scorpion to reveal itself entirely. First came its pincers. Then its long body with its burning red heart. Then its tail, the stinger. But it was not really for the Scorpion that we waited hours for. Near its tail, as if stuck with its stinger dragged around as the Scorpion prowled, is a sight more beautiful, more majestic than a celestial scorpion—a sight I have made it my life goal to see. At the end of this particular Scorpion’s tail flowed forth not poison but milk.

Fun fact: Being that our Solar System is located in one of the arms of the Milky Way, we can view part of it from our outpost here at Planet Earth. As our night skies stand presently, the Milky Way is situated at the “tail” of constellation Scorpius; should you let the myths have their way, also known as Orion’s archenemy. As an additional marker, the Milky Way flows from the teapot asterism in the constellation of Sagittarius.

(So does the Teapot coat the Scorpion’s tail with Milk? Or is the Scorpion pouring Milk from its stinger into the Teapot? Is not the Teapot a Milkpot maybe? Is Sagittarius trying to avenge Orion? Reader, I leave you to decide.)

In case it is not yet obvious, I have been a fan of astronomy all my life. In fact, one of my main motivations when I got myself an expensive camera (the SLT A35) was to photograph the night sky. Much so that I christened my A35 “Getsurikai”—a BLEACH-inspired name which translates roughly to “moon grasp”.

Alas, contemporary life is not exactly friendly to night-sky shooting. Add the fact that, as a hobby, I only get a handful of chances throughout the year to try out my experiments. My progress in this interest has been slow.

I’ve experimented more than a few times just to learn how. I have tried it on the kit SAL 1855 lens when I bought a tripod. Needless to say, my attempts—done from our rooftop on the darkest nights our area will allow (which still isn’t that dark by the way)—ended with faint, out-of-focus traces of Orion. Else, you would’ve heard from me before now.

My luck proved better with the SAL55200. At 200mm focal length, shooting the moon became quite doable. That, combined with my XPeria Z and my Celestron 70AZ (codenamed “Lippershey”) produced some images I’m quite proud of.

A Hole in the Sky
Taken with the SLT A35 + SAL55200
The Sattelite Shooter
The Celestron 70AZ
The Subtle Lights of Our Sattelite
Taken with a combination of the Celestron 70AZ and the XPeria Z.

And suddenly, Getsurikai started to live up to its name.

But I wanted more! I wanted the stars. “Aim for the stars so if you miss at least you hit the moon” right? Well, I’ve somewhat hit the moon. I want my stars.

Enter the gorgeous SAL 1650. When I bought this lens, I did not really plan to use it for astrophotography. I have been laboring under the (wrong) impression that what makes astrophotography is a kick-ass telephoto lens (reasoning that you need a telescope to do astronomy so to do astrophotography, you need a telephoto lens. Seriously.)

What gave me the idea to use the 1650 was this shot, taken last summer.



Compared to the other shots in this post, I know this one does not offer much merit. But look: it got a few stars and one planet, sharper than I ever got them. And that is with all the light pollution from where I stood and with a shining moon to boot, not to mention the exposure time of a mere 5.7s. If that does not win any photographer’s faith I don’t know what will.

But still, the opportunity for dark and clear skies has yet to present itself.

Until a few weeks ago.

Say what you want about the Philippines but we have a friggin’ Philippine Astronomical Society (PAS). I’ve been lurking in their group for some time now but I never really got the opportunity to join one of their events. That is, as I’ve said, until a few weeks ago.

In PAS’ 2015 stargazing event at Puerto Galera, I finally got this shot. What it lacks for in exposure, it makes up for in photography lessons learned and sentimental value. I dipped my toes in the hot sands of Puerto Galera not expecting that I’d have an appointment with the lovely Milky Way, wearing stars for jewelry.

The Light in Dark Skies
The Light in Dark Skies

In a moment of trial-and-error, I realized what I have been doing wrong all this time. Ironically, what got my ass is the fact that I tinker with my camera’s settings far too much. I should have left my white-balance at Auto. Color-correction is really no help here.

And of course, repetition is what builds skill. Fortunately, PAS held another stargazing event barely a month after the one at Puerto Galera, this time at Big Handy’s Grounds at Tanay, Rizal. And I got this shot which will now always keep me in awe and wonder about things way larger than myself.

Delight in Dark Skies
Delight in Dark Skies

(Mandatory disclosure: I almost did not get this shot because, again, I tinkered with my camera’s settings too much! This time around, the culprit is my aperture setting.)

Of course, these adventures have more stories than what I have just related. I’ve met some interesting people along the way but they don’t make it into this story as that risks making the narrative incoherent. Maybe, someday, I get to write about that and them.

Isn’t astronomy a nice reason to travel?

Our Interstellar Wonderlust

There was a time, during my undergraduate, when I stumbled upon Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The name aside, I found it amusing how this principle on quantum particles also holds true for people if maybe in a weaker form: you can never really observe someone in their natural state as you, the observer, will always affect the observed. This lead me to a fascination with pedestrian Physics, something to go with my all-time fascination with stars and outer space.

So, imagine my excitement when I found out about Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. Screaming Physics sci-fi from its title to every bit of its promotional material and with Christopher Nolan’s name [1] for an endorsement, this is definitely one film I am not going to miss.

Interstellar starts in an agricultural town beset by constant dust storms. Ex-pilot, ex-engineer Cooper works the fields harvesting corn. We are also introduced to his daughter Murphy and her “ghost”, a poltergeist, who displaces books from her bookshelf. With her penchant for science and Cooper’s background, she decides to scientifically prove the existence of her ghost.

During a particularly violent dust storm where Murphy forgot to close her room’s window, Cooper and Murphy witness a bizarre manifestation of Murphy’s ghost: the dust, instead of uniformly covering the floor, settles in patterns of thick and thin lines. Cooper soon decodes the message which leads them to an underground camp, the “world’s best-kept secret”, or rather, what remains of NASA in a devastated world more in need of farmers than scientists. And so begins their adventure.

With the whole film nearing three hours in length, I find the opening of Interstellar to be rather uneventful and winding. Nolan’s way of laying down the setting of this story is subtle and, I think, unconventional but there are acts—like the one where they chase down a rogue drone—which I find to be unnecessary. The film’s story will not be affected by its absence nor is it particularly remarkable as a visual experience. If you go into Interstellar feeling like you’d need a toilet break sooner or later, do it at this scene. Your cue is the line that goes something like “It’s a parent-teacher conference, not grandparent”.

But when the film starts to find to its tempo stars, indeed, fly (puns intended). I’ve done my share of science and although I am no astronaut/physicist, I appreciate the film’s attempts at scientific realism. I am sure that the realism isn’t 100% (those space-assistant robots, for one, have AIs several decades—if not centuries—ahead of what we have) but at least this is a world where science advances in incremental steps, not huge leaps [2], where interstellar journey is a high-risk venture, not a video game.

Good science fiction isn’t really about science but about humanity and Interstellar delivers well on that though you may have to wait a bit, even after the winding intro. There is the expected drama of the characters dealing with the spatial, temporal, and emotional distance brought on them by this space venture but the film has lots more to offer than that. Soon the characters are waxing poetic on love, gravity, higher beings, and human destiny. Those were pleasant moments for me, akin to my undergraduate Heisenberg-principle moment.

And just when I’ve given up on the film having a happy and conclusive ending (it could hang the way Inception did), the engines of Nolan’s story goes into full throttle and throws its audience in gravitational slingshots. In contrast to its slow opening, the defining conflict rose fast and well to slide gracefully into the film’s denouement.

If you ever want to silence my logical/scientific-critical voice, one of the best ways to do it would be through a romanticized sci-fi tale. Biased as it may sound, I was expecting something beautiful along those lines from Nolan. However, true to his genius, Nolan tackles the inconveniences of real-life science and still manages to find a relatable human angle to it. As I said, Interstellar might not be 100% realistic [3] but it is definitely not romanticized or sugar-coated and it is beautiful because of that.

I have not managed to find a way to squeeze this in the main review but I feel that Hans Zimmer, the film’s music composer, also deserves mention. Stay mindful during the film and listen to the music and see your emotions rise and fall along with it. Zimmer’s melodies is a good complement to Nolan’s plot.

  1. And Anne Hathaway. []
  2. Hello there Iron Man. []
  3. Though what exactly is realistic in a film that throws quantum principles in the equation? []

Threads of an Atonement

I first encountered Ian McEwan’s Atonement from the film, directed by Joe Wright with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. I remember the film having that dreamy quality which is so often attempted in excess by amateurs. That the film managed to play this style well marks its genius, an early verdict that is justified more and more as the story unfolded. One scene, in particular, stuck with me that I looked forward to reading the book just to see how that visual transition translated into words.

First things first. I would not want to spoil anyone who has not yet read or watched Atonement the pleasure of its surprise. So, for the sake of this review, I think it will be safe to refer to that scene as “Briony’s reveal”. And also, I am getting ahead of myself by starting with a scene that is obviously a twist in the plot and so occurs in its later parts. And so we backtrack.

Our story revolves around Briony Tallis, budding writer and little sister to Cecilia Tallis who is, in turn, a childhood friend of Robbie Turner. One summer day, Briony becomes an accidental witness to a rising romantic tension between Cecilia and Robbie, a scene which she (mis)interprets through the eyes of a child. Shortly afterwards, things spin out of anyone’s control and Briony finds herself responsible for a crime the consequences of which play out for years.

The artistic work that is Atonement is many things and almost everything that I find it to be strikes a chord with me. As a novel it is self-referential, using Briony’s artistic endeavors to reflect on the relationship of an author with her work; it even features a kind of foreshadowing, if you can call it that, with Briony’s The Trials of Arabella. It is a love story, not one where knights save damsels but one where a happy ending is as much a possibility as damnation. It is a war story, portraying war in all the exhaustion and futility it delivers. It is also, to paraphrase from someone else, a classic English novel with the “c” word in it.

…he dropped forward and typed before he could stop himself, “In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long.”

It is at this point in the novel that the plot is stirred, the storm confirmed. You are not reading Pride and Prejudice, it seemed to say, where ladies and gentlemen spend almost a whole book in an emotional deadlock. In this story, women smoke, men are untrustworthy, and lives are ruined.

This is how Atonement sets-up its exploration of the burdens and complexities of growing up. Through the consequences of Briony’s misinterpretations and misplaced intentions, the novel waxes poetic on lost time and on a love that could have been. What keeps Atonement‘s take on this cliched plot element fresh is in how it gives context to the characters’ hopes and longings. For our lovers, there is the shadow of WWII hanging over them, around which they build their dreams and plans of being together. For Briony, that dread feeling of guilt never leaves and strengthens over time, which leads to her reveal, her act of atonement.

The years where Briony ages is obscured from the reader but her transformation, her growing up, is fleshed out well for the readers to follow. Taken plainly, the bulk of this work is not in how Briony atones for her faults but in how she grows the backbone to take responsibility of her mistakes.

“Growing up,” he echoed. When he raised his voice she jumped. “Goddamnit! You’re eighteen. How much growing up do you need to do? There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that?”

As someone who has, on multiple occasions, tried to spin up a story, I cannot help but admire Ian McEwan’s mastery of words (and, consequently, Joe Wright et. al.’s visual language). I am delighted to report that this is one of the books whose opening I’ve found to take me in at once, a sequence which was repeated well in the opening montage of the film.

McEwan also has that gift of voicing his character’s inner thoughts so well. It is what fleshes them out, what makes them real and tangible. His descriptions of Briony’s initial attempts at writing, her reactions upon her initial encounter with the aforementioned “c” word, places her so well as a kid. Later on, McEwan treats us with Robbie’s exhausted thoughts while walking a war-torn France. And then of course, there is Briony’s own experience in the war, a part of her growing up as much as her crime is.

All those praises said, I still think that Briony’s reveal is better handled as a visual experience. I may be biased, having seen the film first, but I can’t help but think that the way Briony’s reveal is done in the book would require a bit of experience with authors and the way they sign introductions, the extra leaves of their publications. It is not something which even most well-read people would’ve understood at once; I admit that, when I reached that point, it still took me a few moments to realize how the reveal was handled, and I have seen the film at that. Had I not seen the film, I think it will take me the first few pages of the succeeding part to realize what just happened. Not that I have a better suggestion in how this bit could be handled in the book.

Take the book, take the film, it does not matter. I think both works are sufficient to convince anyone that an atonement is an act that requires as much gravity as any act concerned with a heartfelt emotion.

Did she really think that she could hide … and drown her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness? … Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella … It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.

You Know What’s at Mountain View?

I stepped down from the plane into American soil a bit weary but completely awake. The flight was fully booked and, despite having more leg room than I expected, sitting for a flight of around twelve hours still took its toll. My legs felt odd from all that sitting. The whole flight I tried to minimize my trips to the toilet as I did not want to irritate/inconvenience the couple sitting beside me; I should not have taken a window seat. But given the circumstances of my trip, I don’t think I’d have a choice other than the window seat. After all, this flight was only booked around a week back.

(Author’s travel note: When taking flights, the window seat is cool if the flight isn’t too long and the cruising altitude isn’t too high. Otherwise, there won’t be much sight-seeing and you’re better off taking an aisle seat. For toilet breaks.)

Clouded Underneath
But don’t you think all that seating in an uncomfortable window seat is still so totally worth it just to see something like this? ;)

This story actually starts last October, during a particularly tiring week though not one completely devoid of fun. That was the week our office held its Halloween celebrations. Tired from leading our area’s decorations for the event, I ended that Friday sleeping on a sala sofa. I woke up at around dawn feeling a bit refreshed and took a bath. Afterwards, I checked my email and found an unread item from an “@google.com” email address. I shouted my surprise/amusement and caused my mother to panic.

By now, I’ve told the story countless of times already. Long story short, Google flew me to Mountain View for a job interview during the last week of February. I did not get in but I remember making a new year’s resolution last year and I’m amused to find out that I managed to eke out something akin to what I expected within a year.

I went alone, which is more or less my idea of travel, in contrast to tourism. I’ve experienced the kindness of strangers and talked to some really smart people. This experience is definitely one for gratitude.

During my first night, I happened to ride a taxi driven by a Vietnamese guy. We had a little chat wherein he learned why I’m in America. He was very thrilled for me in the same manner the people back home were very thrilled. He kept wishing me good luck while reminding me what privilege this is. I have not traveled much but I can’t help but think that had I been with a large group, the conversation would not have taken place.

My first order of business upon arriving at the hotel was to procure some dinner. I wanted to eat American food until I realized that America’s common foods are items I can easily buy back home: pizza, hamburger, fries. I loaded up Google Maps1 and decided on a Mexican place seemingly a walking distance away from my hotel.

(Author’s note: America’s foods did not come from America. Pizza is Italian. Hamburger is German. Fries is French. Totally a melting pot, America is.)

At this point I need to backtrack a bit in this woolgathering. I took my undergraduate degree in UP-Diliman, which has a campus larger than The Vatican. During my undergrad, I used to walk the distance from our department to the University’s exit. According to Google Maps, the shortest path from those two points, is 1.8km, roughly 1.12 miles. This should tell you what distances do I consider walking distances.

I started walking towards that Mexican place. I was wearing city shorts and sandals, which is what I’d wear for any hike in the Philippines, which is also mistake number one. California, you see, is biting cold. I’m aware that it is that part of North America closest to the equator but it remains way colder than the Philippines. Thankfully, I had the sense to keep my hoodie jacket on my person.

A few street crossings2 passed and I noticed that the Mexican place I intend to eat in is still nowhere in sight. At this point, every bit of exposed skin I had was numb and I started to marvel at how I took the number of food stops in the Philippines for granted; in the Philippines, you’d be hard pressed to find an urban stretch of several meters where there isn’t even a single stop selling any kind of food. I consulted Google Maps again, to make sure that my bearing is correct (it is) and that’s when I realized that the Mexican place I am trying to get to is 0.9 miles from the hotel.

I’m pretty sure my body language was shouting “TOURIST” during my first night, a body language expression that did not change for the length of my stay. With the cold biting at my skin, I began to wander in open establishments for some warmth and to maybe decide on alternatives to the Mexican place I’ve set as my destination. I happened into an amusing cross between a convenience store and a wine cellar clerked by an Indian man, judging by his turban. I did not stay long inside but, as I left the premises, the clerk followed me outside just to ask if I’m okay, not lost or what. After assuring him that all is fine (without, of course, conceding that I am a wondering wanderer), I finally decided to skip the Mexican place and just dine on pizza for my first night.

(Author’s note: Google Maps lists an establishment’s operating hours. If you are planning to visit any place at unsure hours, this is worth a check.)

The duration of my stay was only around four days. I did not go that far since I do not know how to estimate transportation costs. And yet, I’ve explored quite a lot. Did you know that Mountain View has a cozy public library? It’s been my dream of sorts to visit libraries in different places and Mountain View’s is a nice bonus first.

There’s this place in Mountain View—Castro Street—which earned my fondness the first time I went there. That small strip of space felt so me. In the ubiquity of American food even in Philippine soil, I began looking for Asian food and it was there3. It had two book stores, Books Inc. and BookBuyers, which both looked so cozy it’s a shame we’ve had so short a time together. It had a Taekwondo gym, and is near Mountain View’s Center for Performing Arts as well as the public library I’ve been raving about.

When my recruiting coordinator at Google informed me (via phone call) that I did not make it, she was apologizing that I bothered to take so long a trip for nothing. I wanted to tell her that it was fine, I enjoyed, and that the opportunity itself is a rewarding experience in so many ways. And it is. Until next time, I guess.

Thrilled and grateful as ever, as usual. ~Chad

Only in America.... Ramen!

Castro Street

Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

  1. I do not find Google Maps very accurate in the Philippines yet though I expect it to get better as Google now has operations here. But if there is anywhere in the world where Google Maps is supposed to provide good info, it’s at Mountain View, California. []
  2. Where I can count the number of other people I met with just the fingers of one hand. One. Hand. []
  3. Nothing Filipino though; all that’s in Castro Street is a Japanese and a Chinese place. []

For Dreams and Good Madness

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.
~ T. E. Lawrence

2014 is just around the corner. Go dream with open eyes. And dream wilder!

Happy new year!