Archive for January, 2014

Brooklyn Bridge, New York, April 21, 2007

Brooklyn Bridge, New York, April 21, 2007

I was sick as a dog during this visit to New York in April 2007.  I got the flu the day before I left and it hit me like a brick upon arrival. It was then and still remains the worst case of the flu I’ve ever had. I felt absolutely smashed – sore muscles, joints, headaches and enough phlegm to drown Belgium. I was also feeling emotionally moribund, having just broken up with the person I was supposed to be travelling with. She was, in fact, from New York, though living, as I was, in Cambridge, UK, where we’d met. We had planned this trip together before breaking up and thus she was in New York at the same time as I – though, fortunately, an incompatibility in our schedules placed us on different flights.

Her presence which made the whole trip seem all the more loaded, a nagging case of what might have been – despite the fact that it was my call to end it. I had been very much looking forward to New York, but hadn’t been banking on getting sick and feeling lonely and confused. I’m inclined to quote Alain de Botton at this point –

A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me…

This was my second visit to New York and I was determined to see everything I’d missed the first time around. Fortunately, a cocktail of cold and flu capsules, Sudafed, codeine and shitloads of coffee got me out of my hotel on the upper west side every morning and kept me going most of the day. I did a hell of a lot of walking and sightseeing, but come early evening, I was absolutely exhausted and had no strength or desire to enjoy the nightlife. One great positive from all this was that until this point I had been casually smoking. During this bout of the flu, cigarettes from other smokers caused such a sense of disgust and repulsion that I never wanted to smoke another cigarette after this trip. Despite the occasional pipes and joints, I’ve had a grand total of 1 cigarette in the last 7 years.

This photograph was taken during a lovely walk across Brooklyn Bridge. A beautiful spring day, the air was cool and the sun was warm – a perfect combination. I spent a lot of time shooting the people crossing the bridge, which, with its grand stone arches and draped cables, makes a magnificent backdrop for any subject. The symmetry in this shot was accidental – I hadn’t realised exactly how well the background had aligned itself inside the frame, which made me all the more pleased on first seeing this shot. I’ve always liked the way the people are packed together in the bottom right corner, with so much space on the left side of the frame. They seem like the obvious subject of the photo, but are ultimately overwhelmed by the bridge itself, whose tall arches loom like vast eye-sockets.

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1210 Bikaner

1211 Bikaner

1212 Bikaner

1213 Bikaner

1218 Bikaner

1219 Bikaner

1220 Bikaner

1221 Bikaner

1222 Bikaner

Bikaner, Rajasthan, India, March 31, 2010

Ok, so this is a sequence of photographs, rather than a single shot, taken in Bikaner, Rajasthan, during my first visit to India in 2010. I find it difficult to choose a favourite frame – though two or three stand out to me in the middle of the sequence – and anyway, think they belong together as a sequence. This was taken in the late afternoon on the only day I spent in Bikaner – a place, like so many in Rajasthan, famous for its palace – Lalgarh, built in the Indo-Saracenic style. Bikaner is also famous for its sweets and snacks, though I was still on meds after a bacterial infection and was eating like a sparrow.

I love this shot because it seems such an iconic Indian subject, almost to the point of cliché: a woman in traditional Rajasthani dress, negotiating a dirt road and carrying a tiffin, no doubt full of some spicy goodness. One of my favourite things is to shoot into the light, especially when there is water involved, as I’m very fond of the way figures are outlined against reflected light and glare. I would usually be inclined to shoot something like this in black and white, and did so for the first frame, but am pleased in the end that I flicked the switch to colour. In some ways the black and white seems more iconic, but the colours are distinctly Rajasthani and it seems appropriate to showcase those.

I have always like the way the main subject works with the background in this sequence. In the early shots, the cow does a good job of creating a background vignette until the woman enters the centre of the frame and takes over. After that, it’s all about her, and rightly so.

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Antwerp Central Station, Feb 4, 2007

Antwerp Central Station, Feb 4, 2007

For a while there I considered this photo to be the best I’d ever taken. Upon seeing this shot, some hours after taking it, I fell immediately in love with it and remember going so far as to e-mail myself the file in case of some unforeseen disaster, like being mugged and robbed, or flipping out on mushrooms.

This photo was taken on the 4th of February, 2007 at the central train station in Antwerp, Belgium on a freezing cold day. I had just arrived from The Netherlands, where I’d spent a couple of very strange days doing what was only natural in Holland – eating shrooms, smoking weed and visiting art galleries to stare in wonder at Dutch Masters like Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer.

The Lonely Planet made Antwerp sound fairly interesting, but I never made it very far into town. Indeed, inadequately clothed (I was on my way to Paris via Brussels to meet my then GF and, whilst carrying ample layers, had not, out of either blind hope or uncharacteristic ill-preparedness, brought a coat), I made it about two hundred metres down the road before feeling the pinch and turning back. I know only too well that very few cities look appealing around their central train station (are there any that do?) but on a cold, grey day, Antwerp seemed so large and inhospitable that I longed for the quaint intimacy I knew Bruges could offer. I still had, as my father used to say, “the wherewithal” to get seriously high, and figured this experience would be considerably more pleasurable when safely ensconced in a medieval town.

I took the next train to Bruges, where, sure enough, I flipped out on mushrooms, but not at the expense of my camera, or indeed, this photograph. I still treasure it, though the tiny, half-degree tilt in the uprights on the right side of the frame never ceases to bug me. Such is life.

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5354 Hong Kong butcher 2

Hong Kong Butcher, July 2009

I stumbled upon this meat market whilst walking around Wan Chai, across the water on Hong Kong island. At least, I think that’s where it was in HK – part of the pleasure of wandering aimlessly looking for subject is not really knowing where you are. The area was full of interesting shops and market stalls on the street – or so I recall. I’ve always loved shooting in markets – especially when they’re down and dirty. The smells, the colours, the noise, the array of curiosities – and, of course, the people. Shooting wise, markets can be difficult subjects because there is often so much going on and so much stuff about that without a clear subject, the impact can be lost in the minutiae of the scene. The lighting in indoor markets can also be hard to work with – especially when they are dark and the subjects lack clear illumination.

In this case I got lucky on all counts, with a clean shot of a clearly illuminated subject and nice lighting all round. But it’s rarely for technical reasons that I like a photo, and in this case, it’s really all about the eye-contact, the appearance of the man in his apron, and the hanging lights. Great colours and a fortunate, if slightly asymmetrical arrangement of the elements. I remember feeling very much caught out after taking this (I have several of this fellow, actually, though this is my favourite) and being slightly worried that he might shake a cleaver at me and tell me to clear off. Instead I wheeled off pretty quickly and had that great and rare feeling of knowing I was going to like the photos I’d just taken.

All in all, this was a great visit to Hong Kong (July 2009) at the end of a six-week trip through Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. I’d been feeling very low for a few days for various reasons, but clear skies over HK and awesome subject matter all round cheered me up no end. It was very satisfying that, after having taken thousands of photos throughout the trip to this point, my favourite ones should come right at the end.

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Most of the content on my blog consists of lengthy pieces of writing or collections of photographs, or some combination of the two. I understand all too well that most people don’t want to read pieces of such length, but the simple fact is that I want to write pieces of such length and, let’s face it, what is the point of a blog if it isn’t to write in as self-indulgent a manner as possible? Free of any editorial constraints, we can go to town and ignore the rules that dictate word length and format, along with accurate referencing. Perhaps it’s because I spent so long working on novels and longer format short stories, that I believe a blog post must be substantial in some way – at the very least, a thousand words, and at the very least, a decent collection of photos – maybe 15 minimum. Then I watch with a strange, almost powerless sensation of envy as other bloggers simply go and whack up one or two photographs with barely a line written and have praise heaped upon them. This feeling is especially ironic since it’s not really the praise that I’m interested in, though I don’t deny it’s nice, but rather, the feeling of having posted something worthy of praise. On this latter score, I am a victim of my own grandiose expectations of myself; mea culpa and all that.

For a long while now I’ve been toying with the idea of posting single photographs more regularly – personal favourites, with a paragraph or two of context and commenary to accompany them. I wanted not necessarily to focus on what I consider my best photos, but photos that I really like, for whatever reason – which may mean they are not technically great, but have an interesting story, meaning or emotional impact. I used to use the term “secret favourites” for songs which I loved that might not be the most obvious choice for a favourite song from an album with more obvious choices. Like, for example, David Bowie’s The Secret Life of Arabia, being my favourite song on his Heroes album. In this case, the photos I intend to examine are all “secret favourites”, though some, I’d like to think, will be so spankingly good as to require no qualification. Trumpets!

So, to Favourite Photo # 1 – which, whilst being numbered 1st, is not, by any means, my favourite favourite. It is worth pointing this out early on in the piece, that the numerical order in no way reflects preference. I shall try to mix things up as much as possible.

Tokyo, May 2006

Tokyo, May 2006

This photo was taken either in Shinjuku or Shibuya in Tokyo (I forget) in May 2006, whilst shopping for electronics. The guy in the foreground was sitting on a railing with a few mates, watching the beautiful girls standing outside the shops in uniforms handing out fliers. I watched them for a few minutes and they were clearly interested in the girls, but too shy to approach them or do anything about it. I guess they hoped they might be noticed. After taking a few photos of them, indeed, about three seconds after taking this shot, they caught me shooting them and were good enough sports to give me a lovely wave and big smiles all round. It was a sweet moment – they all seemed like nice young guys and I’ve always looked very fondly at this young bloke, hoping for his sake that he got laid in the end.

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Dwarf Planets

The demotion of Pluto as a planet back in August 2006 caused a great stir and left many people feeling disappointed.

Minus Pluto -

Since its discovery in 1930, several generations have been taught that there are 9 planets in the Solar System, no more, no less. Considering how sophisticated our knowledge of space and our own planetary system has become, it must have seemed as though this were a fixed figure, unlikely to change. After all, could there really be other planets out there that we had somehow missed?

10th Planet Dr Who

Science fiction has made much of the idea of “the 10th planet,” yet with no other planets apparently introduced to the ledger since 1930, was it likely that any further planets were going to be discovered? And, perhaps more pertinently, what could possibly cause a planet to lose its status as a planet? What actually is a planet?

The answers to all this should excite anyone who has an interest in astronomy and offer more than mere solace to people mourning the demotion of Pluto. For, in recent years, many more planets have been discovered in our solar system – or, rather, many more “dwarf planets” have been discovered, and it was the discovery of another distant planet that is, in effect, larger and heavier than Pluto, that led to Pluto’s demise. Of course, Pluto isn’t going anywhere, not in a hurry, anyway, considering it takes 247.68 years to orbit the sun, but it now bears the status of “dwarf planet”, precisely because, if we were to accept it as a planet, we would have no choice but to welcome many more planets to the roster.


This in itself might not be such a bad thing, considering how little known most of the newly discovered planetoids / dwarf planets are, but the lengthy debates about what constitutes a planet did set out some sensible ground rules for planetary status, even if these rules remain hotly disputed.

Here’s how the International Astronomical Union defines a planet in our Solar System:

It is a celestial body which:

  1. is in orbit around the Sun,

  2. has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape), and

  3. has “cleared the neighbourhood” around its orbit.

The first rule is clear enough – and, of course, we are talking about our own star, the Sun, or rather, Sol. The second rule is mostly obvious – in simple terms, a planet should be round. A fuller definition of hydrostatic equilibrium is as follows:

the object is symmetrically rounded into a spheroid or ellipsoid shape, where any irregular surface features are due to a relatively thin solid crust.

In other words, the product of things like tectonic forces, rather than simply being wildly out of shape. Earth is round (well, slightly ovoid) Mars is round and even Pluto is round.  If it doesn’t look like a deformed potato – such as Mars’ moon Phobos – then it has passed the second hurdle of planet-hood.

phobos, the potato

Otherwise, we would simply designate it an asteroid or minor planet (explained below).

Not listed above, but best mentioned now because it marks the other boundary of planetary size and mass, is a further necessary rule of planethood – that it not be massive enough to cause thermonuclear fusion.

This simply means that a planet not be massive enough to ignite and form another star. Jupiter, for example, is a star that might have been – a failed star. With rather a lot of extra gas and mass, it may just have got there, but it didn’t. It’s a gas giant, not a star, precisely because it was “not massive enough to cause thermonuclear fusion. ”


Fair enough. Yet it is the third definition – having “cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit” that has proven the most contentious and, ultimately, made all the difference. The idea works like this:

In the end stages of planet formation, a planet will have “cleared the neighbourhood” of its own orbital zone, meaning it has become gravitationally dominant, and there are no other bodies of comparable size other than its own satellites or those otherwise under its gravitational influence.

In other words, if a planet is a planet, it must be the only object, apart from its moons, to follow the same orbital path – a lone car on an otherwise empty highway. Mercury does this, Venus does this, Earth does this, but Pluto does not do this.

Surface of Pluto, impression, with Charon

If we think of the asteroid belt, the very name “belt” says it all. It is a space in which many objects share the same orbital path and no one object dominates with its gravity. Indeed, if one object did do this, then what would have to happen is that the objects in the same orbital path would have to be drawn together, colliding to form a new planet, or fall into orbit and become moons of the new planetary body which formed from the rest of the material.

The rules differentiating planets from dwarf planets are thus based on the following:

A large body which meets the other criteria for a planet but has not cleared its neighbourhood is classified as a dwarf planet. This includes Pluto, which shares its orbital neighbourhood with Kuiper belt objects such as the plutinos.

planets, including KB

The Kuiper belt, incidentally, is a region of the Solar System beyond the planets which begins at the extremities of Neptune’s orbit. Neptune orbits at roughly 30 AU (1 Astronomical Unit = the distance of the Earth from the Sun) whilst the Kuiper belt extends as far as 50 AU from the sun. It is not unlike the asteroid belt, but it is much larger – 20 times as wide and roughly 20 to 200 times as massive. It consists of remnants from the Solar System’s formation – in other words, pieces of rock and ice of varying size which did not come together to form planets, or which did come together to form dwarf planets or minor planets – planets which then failed to achieve sufficient size and mass to clear their orbital path.

Kuiper belt and Pluto

No doubt you’re also wondering what a plutino is. In effect, they are objects which are caught in a 2:3 mean motion resonance with Neptune. In other words, for every two orbits that a plutino makes, Neptune makes three. They share the same orbital resonance as Pluto and follow a similar path. Indeed, it was the discovery of the plutinos as much as anything else that led to Pluto’s demise. Pluto has not cleared these from its orbital path.

The Plutinos - Size, Albedo

So where does all this leave us? The truly exciting answer is that we are left with a surprisingly large number of dwarf planets in our Solar System. Those which orbit beyond Neptune, in the outer Solar System, are included under the rubric of trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs). To our knowledge, there are no less than 620,000 TNOs, but before we get too excited about this figure, it must be said that this number is not for dwarf planets, but rather another categorisation: Minor Planets. Minor planets include dwarf planets, asteroids, trojans, centaurs, Kuiper belt objects, and other trans-Neptunian objects. Ignoring the other categories, let’s focus instead on how many dwarf planets have so far been identified in total, not just in trans-Neptunian orbits, though this is where most of them reside.

Neptune, does it get more beautiful

At this stage the IAU has definitively named five dwarf planets: Ceres, Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. A further six, which in all likelihood are dwarf planets, have been discovered and await official recognition: Orcus, Sedna, Quaoar, Salaci and the less charmingly named 2002 MS4 and 2007 OR10.  Another twenty-two objects have been identified which need further observation to determine whether or not they achieve dwarf planet status.

Largest known TNOs

So, rather than a mere 8 or 9 planets in our Solar System, we may potentially include as many as 30 dwarf planets roaming around out there. I am deliberately ignoring the 19 moons in our Solar System, including our own, which are large or massive enough to achieve dwarf planet status (7, in fact, are more massive than Pluto: the Earth’s Moon, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Titan & Triton) yet which clearly fall short on account of their orbiting other planets and not orbiting the sun.

Moons of the solar system

Incidentally, Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, is the only large moon in the solar system with a retrograde orbit – in other words, it orbits in the opposite direction to the planet’s rotation – and is almost certainly a Kuiper belt dwarf planet that was captured by Neptune’s gravity.

Triton moon mosaic Voyager 2

It is also worth noting that, as impressive as the number of dwarf planets discovered so far may be, the IAU estimates that there might be as many as 200 dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt alone, and, wait for it, anything up to 10,000 in the region beyond.

So what is beyond the Kuiper Belt? Well, remember how big space is, and here I am inclined to quote Douglas Adams: “Space is big, really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space…” Well, the solar system itself is also really big. The sun, an otherwise unremarkable star amongst billions, exerts an influence across a region that likely extends as far as 50,000 AU – roughly one light-year from the sun itself, though some are even willing to speculate that its influence extends loosely as far as 200,000 AU. The Kuiper belt is but a tiny narrow region by comparison to the Oort Cloud which surrounds and embraces the entire Solar System, as the image below makes clear. We shall talk about Sedna later.

Oort cloud size comparisons

Exactly what lies in the Oort cloud is anyone’s guess, though we needn’t assume it is anything alarmingly different from what we find in the Kuiper belt or asteroid belt for that matter. It is just another vast sea of rock and ice, and the likely point of origin for most comets which enter our inner Solar System.

Oort cloud diagram

Yet, I don’t wish to digress too far into the lesser known outer regions of the Solar System, which it is not feasible to explore adequately in the immediate future. Instead, let’s turn our attention to some of the exciting new (and not so new) dwarf planets that have been identified.

Five dwarf planets

KB objects, nice one

Trans-Neptunians, size, albedo


We must begin with Eris, which is, in effect, the key player in the drama surrounding Pluto’s demotion. It was with the discovery of Eris in January 2005 that astronomers decided they needed new rules for determining exactly what constitutes a planet. Eris is actually larger and heavier than Pluto. At roughly 2336 km in diameter and just over a quarter the mass of the Earth, it is by no means an insignificant little rock. On account of its size, Eris briefly earned the title of the 10th planet, yet it was precisely because astronomers expected to find further objects of similar mass and size that they decided new rules needed to be established before the number of official planets got out of hand.

Eris, artist impression

Eris actually resides in a region called the scattered disc. This region covers much the same space as the Kuiper belt, yet scattered disc objects are characterised by their less stable orbits.

The Transneptunians

The distinction is not, however, clear cut and many astronomers include the scattered disc as part of the further reaches of the Kuiper belt. The orbit of Eris is typical of scattered disc objects in that it is highly elliptical.

Orbit of Eris

During an orbital period of 557 years, its distance from the sun varies between a maximum (aphelion) of 97.5 AU, to as low as 37.9 AU (perihelion). In 2011, Eris was close to its aphelion at 96.6 AU, and will not return to its perihelion until around AD 2256. This eccentric orbit naturally affects the planet’s temperature significantly, though its distance from the sun is so great at the best of times that its range of temperature is estimated at somewhere between 30 and 56 Kelvin – ie. -243 to -217 degrees. Not very hospitable. Infrared light from Eris indicates the presence of methane ice on the surface, suggesting it is similar in some ways to Pluto. Eris appears to be grey in colour, though, like Pluto, it is far too distant to determine any surface features at this range, with our current technology. The artists’ impressions, detailed as they may appear, are merely approximations based on information gleaned from our knowledge of its mass, density, albedo (reflectivity) and the colour of light it emits. 

Eris artist impression

It is unlikely that we shall get a close look at it in the near future, so holding your breath is not recommended. But we most certainly will, sometime in the next few centuries, if we don’ t destroy ourselves. Eris also has one known moon, called Dysomia, the name of the goddess Eris’ daughter, and also the ancient Greek word for “lawlessness.”


Our next stop on the New Solar System tour is Ceres – a dwarf planet whose presence has been known since 1801. Despite its not being a new discovery, Ceres has only recently been re-categorised as a dwarf planet and is unique in being the only dwarf planet in the inner Solar System. Being the largest body in the asteroid belt, it was the first object to be identified in that region and was originally designated planetary status, along with the asteroids 2 Pallas, 3 Juno and 4 Vesta – a status it retained for roughly 50 years.

Dear Pluto, sincerely, Ceres

The classification of Ceres is still somewhat unclear, with Nasa and various astronomy manuals continuing to refer to it as an asteroid, but then, the term asteroid has never been defined adequately and in many cases “minor planet” is used as a sort of umbrella rubric. So much for semantics. To all intents and purposes, however, Ceres is a dwarf planet. It certainly has a neat, round shape because its mass is sufficient to round it – rule 2 of dwarf planet status as outlined above.

Ceres Rotation

Ceres may be the largest object in the asteroid belt – around 950km in diameter – and consists of roughly one third of the belt’s total mass, yet it is still rather small, consisting of roughly 4% of the Moon’s mass. That sounds pretty puny, but then, this equates to a surface area of 2,850,000 sq km – roughly the size of India or Argentina, which is actually pretty large.

Ceres Earth Moon Comparison

Ceres is especially exciting to us on account of its proximity, composition and its relative warmth. Orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, its maximum surface temperature has been measured at around -38 degrees Celsius, a little warmer than parts of Canada in winter : ) The surface of the planet is likely a mixture of water ice and carbonates and clay minerals and the planet may have a tenuous atmosphere, along with water frost on its surface.

Ceres Cutaway

Because of its low mass and escape velocity, Ceres has been proposed as a possible destination for manned missions. Unlike Mars, where it would be extremely difficult to take off again, Ceres offers a much easier option for a crewed ship. Ceres has even been proposed as a possible destination for human colonisation – and also as a possible way-station for further exploration of the inner and outer solar system.

Ceres amongst the big planets

At this stage our knowledge of Ceres is fairly limited, but fortunately this is all about to change in March or April 2015 when NASA’s Dawn spacecraft arrives at Ceres. Dawn will initially orbit Ceres at an altitude of roughly 5,900 km and gradually reduce its orbit over a five month period to around 1300km. After another five months it will further reduce its orbit to a distance of only 700km. Equipped with cameras, spectrometers, gamma-ray and neutron detectors, Dawn is set to radically transform our understanding not only of Ceres itself, but of dwarf planets in general.

Dawn, NASA

Launched in September 2007, Dawn has already spent more than a year in orbit around the asteroid 4-Vesta, which was, along with Ceres, initially recognised as a planet in the 19th century.

Vesta full mosaic

It is one of the largest asteroids in the solar system with a mean diameter of 525 kilometres and comprises roughly 9% of the mass of the asteroid belt. At 800,000 square kilometres, its surface area is roughly the size of Pakistan. Sadly for Vesta, however, it didn’t quite make the dwarf planet grade and remains an asteroid, terminologically.

Vesta comparison


Next on our list is Makemake, a dwarf planet named after the eponymous creator of humanity and god of fertility in the mythos of the Rapanui, the native people of Easter Island. It is roughly two thirds the size of Pluto and has no known moons, making it very difficult to correctly estimate its mass. Makemake is considered another Kuiper belt object with an eccentric 310-year orbital period which varies in distance from roughly 38.5 AU to a maximum of 52.3 AU.

Makemake from Hubble

Makemake was another recent discovery – March 31, 2005 – and was officially recognised as a dwarf planet by the IAU in July 2008. Makemake is too distant to obtain detailed information or images and our best observations come from April 2011 when it passed in front of an 18th magnitude star. Makemake appears to lack a substantial atmosphere and its surface is likely covered with methane, ethane and possibly nitrogen ices. On account of its surface gases, Makemake might have a transient atmosphere much like Pluto when it nears its perihelion – ie, is closest to the sun. Like Pluto, Makemake also appears red in the visible light spectrum on account of the presence of tholins on its surface – molecules formed by irradiation of organic compounds such as ethane and methane, which have a reddish brown appearance.

Makemake - artist impression

The colour and albedo of the surface varies in places, giving the planet a somewhat patchy, spotty appearance.


Named after the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth, Haumea was discovered in 2004 and recognised as a dwarf planet on September 17, 2008. It has two moons by the name of Hi’iaka and Namaka. Haumea is distinguished not only by its shape, but by its unusually rapid rotation, high density and high albedo – caused by a surface of crystalline water ice.

Haumea, artist's impression

The surface colour and composition is considered peculiar – for its location the solar system, it should not have crystalline ice, but what is known as amorphous ice. This has led astronomers to assume that some relatively recent resurfacing has occurred, though no adequate mechanism has yet been proposed for this. A large dark red area on Haumea’s otherwise bright white surface was identified in September 2009, possibly the result of an impact. This suggests an area rich in minerals and organic (carbon-rich) compounds, or possibly a higher proportion of crystalline ice. Consequently, Haumea may have a mottled surface similar to that of Pluto, if not as diversified.

Haumea strikes me as an odd designation on account of its ellipsoid shape, as illustrated here.

Haumea, shape

Haumea’s shape has not been directly observed, yet it is inferred from its light curve, which suggests that its major axis is double the length of its minor. This may seem to challenge the definition of what constitutes a dwarf planet, yet it is considered to be in hydrostatic equilibrium – which, just to remind you, means : the object is symmetrically rounded into a spheroid or ellipsoid shape, where any irregular surface features are due to a relatively thin solid crust. Confusing, I know, but such is the nature of planetary classification. The shape and spin of the planet are thought to be the result of a giant collision.


Haumea’s orbit is not dissimilar to that of Makemake, following a similarly elliptical path ranging from 34.7 AU to 51.5 AU. Like so many of the dwarf planets, it is a frozen and forbidding place, though at least the presence of water ice offers some refreshment.


And last, but not least, let’s take a look at good old Pluto, a dwarf planet almost as mysterious as the others. Pluto is the second most massive dwarf planet after Eris and the tenth most massive body orbiting the sun. Composed primarily of rock and ice, it too has an eccentric and highly inclined orbit which, like many of the other TNOs, takes it from roughly 30 to 49 AU during its 248 year orbit. Pluto is exceptional among the other outer Solar System dwarf planets in that its orbit periodically brings it closer to the sun than Neptune. As of this year, 2014, Pluto sits at a distance of roughly 32.6 AU.

Pluto surface images from Hubble

We have already discussed Pluto’s demise as a planet, yet the questions surrounding its status began as early as 1977 with the discovery of a minor planet designated 2060 Chiron, an early candidate for the much coveted title of 10th planet. Chiron was the first of numerous icy objects to be found in the region of Pluto, suggesting that Pluto might merely be one of a cluster of minor planets in the outer Solar System. The ultimate result of course, after the discovery of Eris, was Pluto’s demotion, yet still many astronomers argue that it should remain a planet and the other dwarf planets be added to the planet count.

Pluto, however, has a further major peculiarity – it has five moons by the names of Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx – and rather than these neatly orbiting around Pluto, it exists in a kind of binary dance with its largest moon.


The barycenter of their orbits does not lie at Pluto’s centre, but between Pluto and Charon, rather like two dancers holding hands and swinging each other round, though Pluto remains very much at the centre of the dance.

Pluto Charon dance

The IAU has yet to distinguish between such binary dwarf planet systems and others, and for the moment, there is simply no distinction.

Our observations of Pluto have been very limited and only very unclear images exist of its surface. This, however, is about to change dramatically when, in 2015 (a great year for planetary exploration, woot!) NASA’s New Horizon probe will finally arrive at Pluto and perform a flyby. New Horizons will attempt to take detailed measurements and images of Pluto and its moons. When it has passed Pluto, New Horizons will attempt to explore the Kuiper belt, and astronomers have spent the last few years trying to find suitable targets within its flight path. Stay tuned.


What we do know about Pluto is that it has one of the most contrastive appearances of any body in the Solar System, with distinct polar regions and areas of charcoal black, dark orange and bright white. It has a thin atmosphere of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide gases, which are derived from the sublimation of the ices on its surface. Like some of the dwarf planets already discussed, Pluto’s elliptical orbit has an effect on its atmosphere and surface pressure. Indeed, as it moves further away from the sun, its atmosphere is likely to freeze and collapse.

Like so many of the dwarf planets, which are extremely difficult to study directly, the size and mass of Pluto is based on best estimates. It is tiny compared even to the Earth, with a diameter of roughly 2306 km – around two thirds that of the Moon. It’s surface area is 16,647,940 km2 only 3.3% the size of Earth, and yet, when you consider that is roughly the size of Russia, it doesn’t seem all that small after all. Its mass, however, is significantly smaller proportionally at an estimated 0.24 % that of the Earth and, volume wise, around 18 Plutos could be squeezed inside the Earth. As mentioned above, Pluto is actually less massive than seven of the moons throughout the Solar System.


So there we have it, a rough and ready tour of the new Solar System. There are other as yet unclassified dwarf planets that could be discussed here: little pale-red Quaoar – about half the size of Pluto with one pill-shaped moon with the enticing name of Weywot;

Quaoar and Weywot

tiny Orcus, another Plutinoid about half the size of Pluto, with a similar orbital time and range, also sporting a single moon called Vanth


– and finally, perhaps the oddest of them all – bright red Sedna, whose extraordinary orbit ranges from c. 76 AU to 937 AU and takes roughly 11,400 years to make a single circuit.

Sedna impression

sedna orbit

It is the largest of these last three, though still just over two-thirds the size of Pluto.

Despite their almost certain classification as dwarf planets in the future, no doubt along with many others, until such a time I shall refrain from taking the liberty. As to their future exploration, I certainly hope I shall live to see more light shed on them. Considering the time and cost of preparing missions, the distance of the outer planets and the lengthy travel times, it might be decades if not centuries before these planets are better revealed or even visited. Fingers crossed it will happen sooner rather than later, if only to satisfy my  vain curiosity.

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Rainy Season

Four years ago I’d never been to Bali, and now I’ve been there three times. It has become something of a habit – either as a destination in itself or a stepping stone into Asia and beyond. At only six hours from Sydney, the flight is just short enough to feel smooth and easy. So short in fact, that I ran out of time to enjoy the various entertainments I brought along to pass the time. That’s a good thing, I suppose.

This was the rainiest holiday I’ve ever had. We knew it was the wet season and had both brought collapsible umbrellas, but this was the rainiest rainy season I’ve ever encountered. Rather than the regulation afternoon downpour, which did characterise the first few days, towards the second half of the week it rained pretty hard most of the time. Fortunately, I love rain, and only once did it prove to be a real nuisance – when we found ourselves without a hotel in Candikuning. The rest of the time, it was wonderfully atmospheric; drumming on roofs, bonnets and brollies, slicking the abundant lush foliage, and pleasantly cooling the air with fresh scents.

I don’t intend to go through this holiday in step by step detail, but rather cover the basics and toss in a few anecdotes. We flew into Denpasar as per usual and were picked up by a driver to take us up into the hills around Munduk, where we spent the first two nights.


8706 Munduk

8708 Temple, Munduk

On the second night in Munduk, we stayed in the very same place my brother and I had stayed in four and a half years ago, which was surprisingly nostalgic (actually, not surprising considering I’m the most hopelessly nostalgic person I know).

8842 Waterfall, Munduk

8825 No women no cry

8901 Munduk ricefields

8928 Munduk 2

8930 Bilby, Munduk

From there we took a drive north west to Pemuteran, a coastal strip along black, volcanic beaches, where we assiduously avoided requests to partake in “activities.” Pemuteran offered up an interesting palette, with emerald green escarpments interrupted by patches of black volcanic cliff; black sand soft as soil on a beach strewn with orange and peach-coloured flowers not unlike hibiscus.

8939 Driving to Permuteran 2

8975 Road to pemuteran

8961 Road to Pemuteran

A green onion-domed mosque, young, immaculate cows amidst the blue and green outriggers beached along the bay, conical Javanese volcanoes on the horizon, all from the safe oasis of another beautiful, luxurious, indecently cheap resort, redolent with that curious blend of homeliness, perfection and transient soullessness.

9074 Pemuteran

9047 Permuteran

9049 Blue

9051 Boat, Pemuteran

9091 Hanging nets

9087 Nets, Pemuteran

9100 Pemuteran, surf and turf

9127 collecting

8992 Adi Assri, Pemuteran

From Pemuteran, we drove to the Jatiluwih ricefields – a heritage protected area of rice terraces which have been in constant production for hundreds of years. The rain eased off to a mere sprinkle for the hour or so we spent walking around this beautiful place. It was especially attractive under the stormy skies, with filtered sunlight adding luminescence to the red rice crops.

9257 Bobble-head dog

9359 Jatiluwih ricefields

9324 Jatiluwih ricefields

9375 Jatiluwih

9314 Jatiluwih

From hereon the rain set in with real fury. We drove on through the downpour to Candikuning, where, at the height of the storm, we found out the hard way that the hotels we had in mind were all full. We bid our driver farewell, not wishing to inconvenience him further, and plunged into the rain and rivulet streets to see two awful musty hotels, whose abject cheapness was never going to be a good enough sell. This business, sloshing through a magnificently derelict road, shin-deep in water, brought us into contact with a most insufferable tout who at first seemed just irritatingly cheerful and assertive. He showed us to a dirty, musty room and so assumed we were going to take it upon showing it to us, that he was quite thrown when we indicated otherwise. We told him very politely, somewhat bemused, that we didn’t need his help, but he followed us all the same, hurling out offers. At first it was almost funny, but soon became rather tiresome. People in Bali, with the exception of some heavily touristed areas, are not usually so persistent, so it seemed out of place in this dead town. He also wearing a Soeharto tee-shirt, which didn’t exactly enamour me towards him. For some reason, I suspected he was from Java.

We got away and wandered into the market, where we downed umbrellas and sat in the local warung. We thought we were in the clear until our pursuer appeared again and sat at our table uninvited! Here he persisted in hurling constant, annoying questions about where we were from, what we were doing, which services we needed and the like, which we chose increasingly to ignore. Indeed, he only left when the owners, who clearly couldn’t stand him either – no doubt he had a reputation for acting like a big shot – asked him if he intended to order something, and when we began, quite simply to ignore him completely and pretend not to hear his words. A message for all touts out there – if you have no empathy with potential customers and don’t know when you’ve pissed people off to the point that they can’t stand you and are forced to pretend you’re not actually there, you should not be in the business of customer relations. The food in the warung, incidentally, was bloody amazing.

9390 Road to Candikuning

9423 Candikuning

9460 Boy and rabbit 2

We organised a driver with some far more congenial and amusing locals, who had a much better idea of how touting can be done in an amusing and entertaining way. They were trying to sell me watches, but were good humoured enough to make fun of how “genuine” their watches were, and laughingly told me they would last a hundred years. He even used the term “100% pure plastic”, which warmed my heart.

9465 Servo toilet sign

We had said at the start of the trip that we would try to avoid going to Ubud and see other parts of the island instead, but stuck in Candikuning without a hotel and unsure where to go next, we figured Ubud, which we do rather like, would be a pretty nice lay-up in the rainy weather. So, two hours south with a couple of local stoners in the front, brought us to the Honeymoon Guesthouse. Like almost all hotels in Ubud, and indeed, Bali, this place was astonishingly beautiful. We chose the most expensive room, which was a mere sixty dollars, and was, like so many rooms in Bali, actually a suite with a huge terrace balcony and epic bathroom. The local architectural style, so old-world Asia, all stone and carved wood, bamboo blinds, four-poster mosquito net king sized bed, polished flagstone floors, high, pointed roof of wood and thatch, no ceiling, surrounded by lush gardens, dripping with rain. I went onto the balcony and spent the next five minutes in reverie, for this was my long yearned-for favourite melancholy mood made real.

9480 Honeymoon Guesthouse

Ever since I was a child, all I’ve wanted is to be inside, looking out upon rain falling on plants, ideally in a jade green, evocative and beautiful place, with nothing to do at all, free to indulge a mood of nostalgia or fantastical escapism. Fed fatly on the fantasy genre, be it through role-playing games or literature, I longed for these worlds, which, somehow, I always imagined to be rainy. There’s something so compelling about rain – how it quietens sound with its pleasant rush and drum, how it smells so fresh and refreshing, how, in the often dull light it causes everything to wetly glisten. On that balcony, with its high outlook into trees and flowering shrubs, and views of the other hotel buildings – imposing, yet homely stone, elaborate wooden features, hanging screens – I felt such intense repose that I wanted to curl up on the divan and never say another word for the rest of my life. Someone had bottled the heart-wrenching sadness of Crouching Tiger’s lush and dreamy aesthetic.

Then, however, there were the frogs. The block adjacent to our room was vacant and overgrown – banana trees entirely covered with creeper, just a few propeller-blade leaves poked from the clambering carpet – and it was full of loudly belching frogs.

9566 Banana trees

9573 Ubud

The man who showed us to our room initially laughed them off. “Ha, the frogs,” he said. “Because of the rain.” We rather figured they would stop croaking at some point – surely they couldn’t go all night? Yet when we returned from dinner later (a smashing meal at Casa Luna, the Honeymoon’s celebrity-chef restaurant a few hundred metres walk away), the frogs were going harder than ever.

9521 Honeymoon

9528 Ubud

9519 Honeymoon

Now, it might seem ridiculous that frogs could be so loud as to drive you from your room, but there were so many of them and they must have had some real mother air-sacks in their throats, because the sound they produced, even with the doors and windows shut, was like having a group of men in the room, cupping their hands and clapping as loudly and resonantly as possible. Or, for that matter, a gang of drunken young men burping into megaphones. In ten minutes, I had a headache and couldn’t hear myself think. Sleep in that room was out of the question, so we had to toddle off down to reception and, after looking at three other rooms, move house, so to speak. I felt very sad to leave our perfect room, yet we moved into the very one I’d been looking across the balcony to, and it, though not as absolutely perfect as the first, was still, let’s face it, borderline perfect.

From no plans to visit Ubud, we spent three nights there. Partly because we didn’t feel like doing another journey after a bunch of longish drives over the last few days, but ultimately because I got sick. For the first time, I was struck with Bali belly, as it’s called, and spent a couple of days feeling weak and on the toilet. This wasn’t so bad in the end, because I didn’t really want to leave my amazing hotel room which also had a huge terrace “balcony” with divans on which to lie. I went to the local book store, bought a copy of The Life of Pi, hurried home before I pooed my pants, and spent the rest of the day lying on the divan reading. I’ve written elsewhere of how, when I had a similar stomach problem in India, I spent two days reading in a gorgeous room in Pushkar, and this was an equally lovely experience.

9719 Reading spot

9591 Ubud

9605 Ubud

9594 Ubud

9653 Creative tattoos 2

9598 Rice

9621 Ubud streets

9689 Ubud

When we finally left Ubud, the rain had set in permanently. We took a car all the way down to the Bukit Peninsula, where we had to wait three hours for our room to be ready, despite their assurances that arriving early was no problem, got jacked off, told them to forget it, walked down treacherous stairs to Bingin beach, sat a while under shelter from the rain watching the cranky surf, then went and found another hotel, checked in, found the bed to be too musty, checked out, grabbed a car and told the driver to take us to Balangan beach, totally on spec. Through bucketing, piss-down rain, past the basket-wrapped corpse of a lorry driver from Flores, who had tragically fallen foul of the treacherous weather, our driver took us to a bloody splendid place – another “perfect” resort, La Joya, with gorgeous “bungalows”. The inverted commas are appropriate here, because traditionally bungalows don’t have epic sliding walls of rounded glass, nor a “lovers corner” of plumped cushions tucked behind curtains, just to the side of the requisite four-poster…

9776 Bingin

This again offered a sweet, melancholic reading retreat. It rained almost the whole time, and when we went to the beach, it was wonderfully apocalyptic. Indeed, I’ve never seen a beach so covered in drift-wood and detritus, fronted by stilted shacks beneath whose raised floors, the relentless, stormy ocean had eaten away most of the sand, and dangerously exposed the foundations. Driftwood, erosion, shambling shacks. It was like the aftermath off a tsunami, only the buildings were still standing. The churning water was full of soil washing down in the river that cut between the shacks. It roiled in the surf; brown water and soiled waves beneath the alienating sky; an uncomfortable colour, a sickly pallor, the decay of the end of days.

9957 Balangan beach

9868 shack stairs

9917 Beach kid

9896 Balangan beach

We took our fourth massage the following morning – the most hardcore of them all, which left me somewhat sore, and that was rather that. Paid an extra half-day at the hotel, chilled and swam and read all day, then took an early evening car to the airport for a late flight to arrive home Christmas morning.

All in all, a good break – a last minute, unambitious holiday where, for the first time ever, I had absolutely no goals, no targets, nothing. Indeed, the motivation was simply that it seemed crazy to have time off work and not go overseas. Equally unambitious were my photographic efforts. Point and shoot, stab and click, but not much attention to detail. Well, the results show this – some nice atmospherics, but nothing striking, and really, I’m okay with that.

Sort of.

Next time, the sniper is back in charge.

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