Posted in astronomy, Los Angeles, Travel

Day trip to Mount Wilson Observatory

In September 2018, Mum came to visit, and among our adventures (including to Hawai’i) we spent a Saturday afternoon at Mount Wilson Observatory, in the mountains behind Los Angeles.

Mount Wilson is a historic center of astronomy and the place where astronomers discovered that the universe was bigger than just our Milky Way galaxy. The observatory was founded in 1904 and it still has some working telescopes today.

We drove up the Angeles Crest Highway, winding through the mountains, and arrived at the Cosmic Cafe where we bought our docent-led tour tickets ($15 each) and met our guide, Bob. There were about 15 people on the tour, which began at 1pm.

150ft Solar Tower

Our first stop was the 150ft solar tower – one of two solar towers that are just visible from Pasadena. The solar tower was used, you guessed it, to make observations of the sun. It has a lens and a mirror at the top of the tower which projects the light of the sun into a scientific instrument called a spectrograph at its base.

Bob took us into the base of the tower to meet a staff member who had been with Mt Wilson for over 40 years. He showed us an image of the sun projected onto a screen – and a tiny sunspot was visible. He showed us a comparison with the largest ever sunspot from 1947, compared with the size of Jupiter and the Earth. Inside the control room, much of the original equipment was still in place.

100-inch Telescope

Our next stop was the telescope that was once the world’s largest: the 100-inch Hooker telescope. “100-inch” refers to the diameter of the primary mirror that collects the light to allow astronomers to do their science (the biggest telescopes today have mirrors 10 meters in diameter – close to 400 inches). Bob showed us the underside of the 100-inch mirror blank: its production was difficult and the final glass disk is actually full of bubbles due to flaws in the process used to cast it in 1908.

We explored all parts of the telescope and dome, including seeing a drawer of blueprints for the telescope and going under the main floor to see the telescope pier (the concrete structure that holds up the telescope) which also seemed to be a storage area for huge miscellaneous pieces of metal.

The best bit for me though was when we got to go outside on the catwalk of the dome to see some great views.

Mum on the catwalk of the 100-inch Telescope

60-inch Telescope

By this point, the 2-hour tour had been going 2.5 hours but there was more to see and no one wanted to leave. We headed over to the 60-inch telescope, also once the world’s largest telescope, with a stop along the way to a spectacular viewpoint.

Inside the 60-inch, another guide, Tom was getting ready for a public observing night. Tom slewed the telescope for us so we could take a look at the mirror – it was a much clearer piece of glass than the 100-inch.

Our tour finished after 3hr 15 mins. No one was complaining!

More to see

Going to Mount Wilson means climbing to 5700 ft, and naturally the views of the city are spectacular along the way.

This was probably my third or fourth visit to Mount Wilson, having been lucky enough to come on private tours and an evening observing session as well. I highly recommend a visit, or even getting a group together for an evening session.

Posted in Life, Los Angeles, Travel

Ten Years in the US

Time flies when you’re having fun: and somehow we have reached the milestone of 10 years in the US. We only planned to stay for about 2 years but somehow the country got its claws into us and we are now fully-fledged passport-wielding Americans. And now on our first 4th of July as citizens, here’s a summary of how we got there. The links below are to my blog posts.

The decision to take a job in the US

In February 2012, my husband got an offer to work in Boston. It wasn’t really a job we could say “no” to but we agonized about whether we wanted to leave Australia, to upend our lives and become expats (for the 2nd time for me). In the end, we had to do it. Thank goodness we were in our thirties because I’m not sure I’d have the energy now!

Gratuitous Fall image – Public Gardens, Boston

First impressions

We arrived in Boston at the end of March 2012. I felt at the time I was a pretty seasoned traveler, and I had been to the US before, but nothing prepared me for this. I was expecting streets figurately paved with gold, everything you see in the movies to be true – riches, and happy smiling people. But Boston is (or was, back then) in need of some work. Everything was run down, shabby, and falling apart. The infrastructure was third world, everyone was rude, and the weather was horrendous.

I was unemployed, lonely, we were pretty poor, and my husband was working 90-hour weeks, including weekends. So, our plan to stay 2 years, rapidly got revised down to three months.

Adventures in Boston

But then, things slowly improved. I finally got admitted to the university’s spouses club and quickly took over the communications team. We found an expat couple to make friends with and with them soon learned how to have fun in Cambridge, MA. I got more serious about running and I started to volunteer at the Museum of Science. We got used to snow and more snow.

Harvard Yard

To be honest, we didn’t do much in New England while we were there – we saved our time and pennies for trips to Australia and other places.

However, some highlights were a road trip with my mum and grandmother up to Maine, running several races (e.g. Cambridge City 5-miler, Run to Remember), going to New York City, and taking in a few sights in Boston including Fenway Park, Museum of Science (Dead Sea Scrolls, chef Ferran Adrià), and Film Night with John Williams ….. And unfortunately, we were in Boston for the marathon bombings and Hurricane Sandy. We also got our US driver’s licenses in Boston.

Empire State Building.
Looking towards Lower Manhattan from the Empire State Building.

Things we learned in Boston

Boston was a steep learning curve but we slowly began to get the hang of the US.

Food: Food in the US is terrible compared to Australia. Chicken is almost inedible and turned me vegetarian for a good while. Portions at restaurants are huge, enough for two. Everything is full of high fructose corn syrup. Wholefoods groceries were just about acceptable (but too expensive).

Tipping: Gotta tip at restaurants and a lot of other places. 20% seems to be standard though you can finesse it to 18% if you can do the math(s).

Culture: Boston is a very snooty town. If you are not one of the elite – i.e. have money – you are nobody. This was hilarious to me coming from the UK where money definitely does not buy class. However, the pointy elbows were everywhere, especially in Wholefoods.

Sport: Ah at last, a good thing about the US. We learned about NFL and baseball while in Boston. We became fans of the Patriots and the Red Socks.

“Spouses”: At Harvard, there were hundreds of spouses of international students and staff, mostly women it seemed, who had nothing much to do. In their original country, they were lawyers, doctors, and TV presenters, but in Boston they were house-partners, and full-time parents of small kids, all because of US visa rules. It was such a waste of talent, but we found things to do (e.g. English classes).

Weather: Boston has proper seasons – stinking hot summers, glorious colorful autumns, freezing snowing winters, and beautiful flowering springs. It was great, but not enough summer for me. Which leads us to…

How California snared us

The best way for employers in California to hire people is to invite them over for a trip in the winter. While Boston is up to its neck in snow, California is a balmy 70F and sunny. So, after an interview trip in November 2013 (on the way back from New Zealand) we signed on the dotted line and prepared to move to Pasadena, CA.

Pasadena City Hall

Getting a house

With the luxury of our first permanent job that paid well, we decided to buy a house. Thankfully my husband’s colleagues hooked us up with a real estate agent to the stars (because she works with a lot of astronomers) and after 60 days of living at the Residence Inn in Burbank, we moved into our new house in June 2012 (part 1, part 2). Best decision ever.

Getting jobs

After two years of being un- or under-employed in Boston and volunteering, I decided enough was enough and I was going to do nothing else in Los Angeles until I got a “real” job. After we moved into our new house, I spent the first few months fixing things around the house – such as installing a microwave and working on the garden. I applied for many jobs at Caltech, JPL, and other places in Pasadena which all came to nothing. Then come October I was totally fed up with everything so I lowered my sights and applied for a front desk coordinator job at a company I had a loose connection with from Australia.

When they didn’t get back to me I decided I was really fed up and would get a Christmas job, which is when I signed up as a Driver Helper for a few weeks. Naturally, within the first hour as a driver helper, the front desk coordinator company called back, so that within a week I had two jobs (neither of which I really wanted).

The front desk coordinator job though turned out to be my making, and within three months there I was in the role I wanted in the communications team.

Things we did in Pasadena

Now we were properly established in Pasadena, we started to see the sights of LA. With a lot of visitors from overseas and with our new work friends we visited places like the Space Shuttle, Griffith Observatory, Mt Wilson, various malls, Long Beach, Santa Monica, Downtown LA as well as further afield to Owens Valley, Palomar, San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Sequoia National Park, and some west coast road trips (Berkeley, Grand Canyon, Paso Robles).

We of course went to the Pasadena Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl Game (2015 and 2022).

Rose Parade 2015

Through work trips and other adventures, I think we have now been to 17 states including California, Hawaii (Maui, Oahu 2019, Oahu 2022), Arizona, Idaho (for the total solar eclipse of 2017), Virginia, Texas, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Washington, Maryland, Louisiana, plus Washington DC.

Grand Canyon 2015
Total Solar Eclipse 2017

Things we continued to learn about the US

In California, life is very different from the east coast. It’s always sunny, people are generally upbeat, and there’s an energy of creativity, striving and an understanding that limits are there to be broken.

One of the other things we have got used to over these past 10 years is the rhythm of the year. School finishes early compared to the UK, and everyone, not just kids seems to have “summer” – a time for vacation, and outdoors activities. Summer in Pasadena is hot, usually about 85F, and the season finishes with wildfires. Then as the year turns to autumn/Fall there is NFL season and Thanksgiving. Winter in Pasadena is wet and everyone hopes for the day it’s cold enough to wear their fashionable boots or jacket. Spring is glorious with flowers and flowering trees from about February to June.


Another aspect of US life we have really got used to is domestic airline travel, something that has to be seen to be believed. Especially the concept of bringing a giant carry-on suitcase on the flight: which sets the market for “who boards first” and thus gets a space in the overhead bin to put said luggage. Bad behavior is rife – like people putting coats and small bags overhead, taking up space, which means everyone is delayed because then the airline has to gate-check the last few bags that don’t fit into the hold. Then the deplaning debacle occurs where everyone takes a lifetime to get their bag out but everyone is so polite that you absolutely must wait for the person in front to be out before you can get into the aisle. It’s incredible to witness and happens on every single flight.

Finally, a striking thing about Los Angeles is also a vast and a quite visible gap between the haves and the have-nots. The homeless population in Los Angeles is 64,000 which is the size of a small town in England. We give to The Midnight Mission but we could do more.

Becoming Americans and the future

In late 2021/early 2022 we became American citizens. We decided we liked it enough here that we wanted the option to come back whenever we wanted – and to participate in civic life. So far we have voted in the primaries and my husband has been called for jury duty, so those boxes are getting ticked (I mean, checked).

Who knows what the future will bring but for now we are moderately content where we are, with our house, jobs, and living the good life in Los Angeles. Happy 4th!

Citizenship 2021
Posted in Los Angeles

2022 Pasadena Triathlon Race Recap

At home after the race

On 12 March I took part in the 2022 Pasadena Triathlon – a reverse sprint triathlon that takes place at the Rose Bowl every year. The race comprises a 3-mile run once around the Rose Bowl loop, followed by three laps (9 miles) on the bike around the same loop ending with a 150-meter swim at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center.

I did this race for the first time in 2018 in a time of 1:20:30 and in 2019 I did the slightly longer Legends Triathlon at Bonelli Park in 1:16:39 (race recap!). So my A goal was to beat Bonelli, and my B goal was to beat my 2018 Pasadena time.

Why triathlon? Because of the plantar fasciitis I developed while training for a marathon back in 2013, I learned about cross-training and in time became interested in triathlon. I joined the Pasadena Triathlon Club in 2018 and rode with them until Covid arrived. I’m still very much a newbie as I’m not that great on the bike or in the water!

Race Preparation

One of my few talents is my ability to be organized and so I find preparing all the kit needed for the three legs of a triathlon an enjoyable challenge. USA Triathlon has a great guide for beginners along with a handy kit list. Pasadena Triathlon Club also offers free information sessions and transition practice for those interested in learning more – no need to be a member to join in these sessions.

I picked up my race numbers the night before but this isn’t essential if you plan to arrive early for the race.

Race Morning

I got up at 5:00 am (thanks to the cat), had a cup of tea and some oatmeal and got in the car at about 6:15 am. Luckily the Rose Bowl is only a 10-minute drive away so I was there in plenty of time. At about 6:30 am the parking lot was about half full.

I decanted the car and got my race numbers sorted (should’ve done it the night before). I thought I was being really clever bringing extra double-sided tape and scissors for the bike number — I folded the bike number over the crossbar as instructed, but then taped it to the crossbar instead of leaving it loose. I thought this would stop it from flapping about during the race, but sadly it did not!

Don’t tape your bike number down too hard!

I took everything over to transition and found a spot, remembering to count the rows so I could find the bike later, then got body marked.

My setup in Transition

Then I had a quick wander about to check everything like the entrances and exits to transition were as I remembered, then headed back to the car to kill some time. At about 7:15 am I got out of the car and went for a walk, before using the bathroom and heading into transition for a drink and to triple check everything. Transition closed at 7:45 am.

General view of Transition before it got busy

Then I did a considerable warm-up (20 minutes) to pass the time before heading to the start at about 7:55 am.


The race kicked off at 8:00 am with the Angel City athletes, followed a few minutes later by the 5k-only runners, followed by the sub-one-hour triathletes. I went in the next wave – the 1:00 – 1:15 wave – which left at about 8:06 am.

There seemed to be far fewer runners than the last time I did this race and I was able to run without having to dodge anyone. I allowed myself to be drawn along by the faster runners and consequently set a very quick pace for me (about 9:20/mile).

About 18 minutes after my wave started, the first bike came past on the inside track. I didn’t see the first woman rider until 26 minutes had passed.

With very tired legs I got to Transition, remembering to press the button on my watch (see below). It more or less went straight to my spot but there were a few people milling about looking lost.

I put on my helmet and gloves, grabbed an energy chew and some water then got my bike and walked it to the mounting point just outside transition.

Run Time: 30:47 (pace 9:20/mile)

Transition Time: 1:23


Then I was away on the bike: three laps of the Rose Bowl loop for about 9 miles total. It was a good change for my legs to be riding, and it was nice to be sitting down! As with the run, the first half of the loop is uphill, and the second half is downhill.

The merge from transition into the loop is a bit hairy but it was managed well by the volunteers. The main danger came from fat lycra men who insisted on overtaking with barely any room to spare at 30 miles an hour. One dickhead overtook me on the inside like that. In other places, packs of about ten men went past at speed. Unfortunately, on during the second lap, this led to a crash right in front of me as someone on the back of one of these packs touched wheels with someone ahead of him who was weaving about. From what I heard behind me it also caused a secondary crash. On the following lap, I saw an ordinary woman with a mountain bike being attended to by medical staff. Morons who behave like that ruin it for everyone. This is one of the only problems with this course – that super fast pros are mixed in with people on shopping bikes and kids going at 5 miles an hour.

Anyway, the other issue I had was that because of the way I’d cleverly taped my number to my bike it was flapping like crazy and razoring against the inside of my leg. Note to self: don’t do this again!

I made it into transition without any further incident and ran with my bike to my spot, getting a brief reminder of how hard it is to run off the bike. I dumped my helmet, gloves, and number belt, grabbed my swimming cap and goggles, and attempted to run the 1,000 yards to the pool. Some of this run is segregated from spectators but much of it isn’t. It’s rather an obstacle course to get there including having to run along the side of a grassy 45-degree slope just as you arrive at the pool. Definitely keep your shoes on for this part.

Ride time: 38:05 (14.7 mph)

Transition time: 3:19


At the pool entrance, I dumped my shoes (yay quick release laces) with everyone else’s and walked onto the pool deck trying to get my hat and goggles on while being sprayed in the face with water in the rinsing off area.

Thankfully the pool wasn’t a total melee like last time, and I got in the water and started swimming breaststroke. I’m not a great swimmer and I knew this was going to be the simplest way to get me through the three 100 meter laps. For some reason, my goggles kept filling up with water, which didn’t help matters!

At the end of the last lap, I staggered up the ramp out of the pool to finish. My final time was 1:18:47 which got me 12th place out of 36 in my age group and PR for this course.

Swim time: 5:16 (3:13/100m)

Total time: 1:18:47

Race medal


Here’s some of the kit I felt was extra useful for triathlon:

Essential kit: Tri suit, triathlon watch, quick release laces, number belt.

Tri suit: I have a Roka Women’s Gen II Elite Aero Short Sleeve Tri Suit. It was expensive but totally worth it for races. It’s really comfortable to run, ride and swim in!

Quick-release laces: I recently got some Brooks shoes (because Hoka was sold out). The laces are too short and I had to tie them in triple knots to stop them from coming undone during runs. So instead I spent some birthday money on these laces. They really do the trick.

Number belt: Last time I did the triathlon I had none of the above items so I was swimming in a t-shirt with my number pinned to it… not good for aerodynamics. So I invested in a Nathan number belt which was another good use of some birthday money.

Watch: I recently got a Coros Pace 2 watch. I wanted a watch that had an open water swimming option, and a Triathlon option, along with all the other usual functions – and importantly didn’t cost $500. Coros Pace 2 was just what I needed. I used the Triathlon function in this race and it worked 100% perfectly.

Coros Pace 2 – sample of the data it gave me in the app after the Pasadena Triathlon.


The Pasadena Triathlon is great for beginners. It’s an easy race to get some practice, iron out the bugs with your kit, and get a feel for Transition.

Now the only question is, what’s the next race?

Posted in Los Angeles

January 2022 in Pasadena, California

While the rest of the country is recovering from their New Year’s Eve party, in Pasadena, California, the new year gets started early.

The Michael D. Sewell Memorial Foundation, “Saluting America’s Band Directors. We Teach Music. We Teach Life.”, Artistic Entertainment Services

Rose Parade

The Tournament of Roses Rose Parade kicks off at 8 a.m. on 1 January, and if you’re not already awake, the sound of the U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit plane going overhead will take care of that.

We are fortunate to live within walking distance of the parade route. On New Years Day 2022 we headed down at about 9 a.m. It was a beautiful sunny day and, thanks to the pandemic, the streets were not that crowded.

It’s a lot of fun to see the intricate floats, the horseback riders, and the precisely-in-step marching bands. We stayed a while but were home in time for coffee and to watch the replay of the parade on TV. We put our feet up before we headed out to the next activity: the Rose Bowl football game.

Rose Bowl Game 2022

Rose Bowl Football Game

This year we were lucky enough to secure the opportunity to buy tickets to the 108th Rose Bowl Football Game in the Pasadena resident’s lottery.

We were joined by some friends and the four of us walked to the game, which was played between the Utah Utes and the Ohio State Buckeyes.

After much rigmarole to get into the stadium (vax card, metal detector, ticket check), then getting caught in a crush of people between the line for the hot dog stand and the line for the bathrooms, and then getting totally confused about where our seats were, we finally got settled for the game.

The fans from each team were mixed together so it didn’t matter that we didn’t have a team. The pre-game marching bands were excellent, the stealth bomber flew impressively low over the stadium before kick-off, and the game was a lot of fun. It was really REALLY loud.

New Years Resolutions

What else can you do in Pasadena in January? Start your new year’s resolutions!

Somehow, it’s always been raining in the week between Christmas and New Year in Pasadena, but then the rain stops and becomes crisp and clear with the mountains coated in snow: the perfect weather for a bike ride. The San Gabriel River Trail, a short drive from Pasadena, is a nice easy ride for 2 January.

Hope your 2022 got off to a good start!

Posted in Life, Los Angeles

Passing the time in lockdown: fence repair

Like you, we are in lockdown. We are in Pasadena, California (part of LA County) and we feel especially lucky that we have a garden and that the weather is (finally) good.

For the last few days, I have been in the yard repairing our termite-ridden, falling-apart fence, and learning the process. I use the word ‘repair’ loosely as I realize that it is not a long-term solution to put fresh wood pickets against wood that is being chewed by termites. However, this is a patch job and the pickets are cheap.

In the photo below you can see the fence I was working on. There is one missing picket, and, on either side of the gap, there are two fairly rotten pickets. I originally planned to do all three, but in the end, I just did two. To make the job extra challenging, the fence is helpfully behind a fairly delicate Jade plant, which drops its leaves at the slightest touch. My goal was to repair the fence without destroying the plant.


Tools: After working on the fence for a few days, I’d got the tool situation down to the minimum. To get the fence pickets the right length I needed the tape measure, the triangle, the pencil, and the hand saw. To get the old picket and nails/screws etc out I needed the hammer and the flat head screwdriver. To fix the picket to the rail I needed the drill, the drill bit, the countersink bit, the drill bit with the phillips head on it, the phillips screwdriver and some screws. And gloves, of course.


The first job was to remove the old picket and the rusty nails that, once upon a time, were holding it on – without pulling down the whole fence or destroying the rail. Easier said than done especially when the whole fence has been chewed through by termites.


Because the pickets come in only approximate sizes, and because I was only repairing the fence, not building a whole new one, I made sure to check that the pickets were actually going to fit in the gap. I found that they often didn’t. Ideally one would take out both the old pickets to check the new ones both fitted… however, next door has a dog, and it would easily have got through the hole if I’d taken both out at once!


Then I cut my pickets to length.


Because I couldn’t take out both pickets at the same time (because of the dog), the next process took a little longer – on the other parts of the fence I was able to do multiple panels at each of the steps below.

The next step was to drill some holes for the screws. I got a drill bit that was slightly smaller than the screw, balanced the picket in its place, and drilled four holes – two at the top and two at the bottom, level with the nails/screws on the other panels. The drill went through the picket into the rail.


Then I switched to the countersink bit so that I could make a dent for the screw heads.


Then the final step was to get the picket screwed into place. I found that getting the screws started in the holes with the screwdriver was helpful.


Then it was time to look at the second picket (to the left of the one I just put up). I pulled it off and it pretty much disintegrated in a shower of termite droppings. Unfortunately, I then found the new picket I had selected was a hair too wide to fit in the gap. None of my remaining stash were any thinner, so there was nothing for it but to trim it longways. It was a little tedious to saw by hand but not impossible.


I repeated the procedure above, to get the finished result below. The next job (for another time) will be painting it.


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