I made it ! I finally managed to complete my first woodworking project : a step stool. I started building it about two years ago and, yes it took me ages. The reason is not that the project was particularly complicated or anything, it’s more to do with learning that two you kids and time consuming hobbies are not a match made in heaven.

I found out about this project on a nice woodworking video podcast from a nice American chap. I convinced myself to go for it because of the extensive documentation and videos explaining every detail of the construction process without assuming anything about your woodworking skills. It was my first project and I did not feel confident enough to find a hard word seller so I decided to buy some window sill oak boards from Ridgeons in Cambridge. That was a bad idea. I got totally ripped off ! Actually, probably it was still not too bad considering that I was buying finished oak window sill board (finished and everything), but I’ve still spent a fortune. I just wish it was easier to find a British equivalent of the American lumber yard.

While building this project a developed a true passion for woodworking so I decided to invest a bit of money on my new hobby. When I started building the project the only tools I had were three rather dull chisels, a brand new tenon saw and a few measuring tools. I soon realised that sawing through a 1″ board of hardwood 8″ wide was a really hard job. The problem was not the amount of elbow grease required but, rather, the extreme difficulty of keeping everything square. Once I started attacking the dovetail joinery for the first step, I soon find out that it was far from trivial… I was spoiled : watching the pros doing it makes it look like a piece of cake. I could not be more wrong. So here comes the first, unsurprising advice: no matter how much you read or watch about woodworking there is no replacement for trying to do it yourself.

Fortunately the more pins and tails I was cutting the better I was getting (I’ve still got plenty of miles to go though…). In the meanwhile I bought a whole new bunch of toys, pardon me, tools. I got three different water stones for sharpening and the fancy Veritas jig to keep my chisels and plane irons at the right angle. That was money well spent except for the fact that it left a bitter taste in my mouth because I realised that I needed even more time for my hobby that I could possibly afford: doing any woodworking with dull chisels is dangerous and frustrating, however if you are not doing it for a living, it does not leave you with much of a sense of accomplishment to spend your only spare couple of hours sharpening and honing and not doing, actually, any woodworking at all !

After having everything dry-assembled in my living room for about an year, this summer I decided that it was about time to finish it off. So once, I finished refurbishing our cupboard, I decided to put everything else on the back-burner and dedicated all my efforts to finished this overdue project. After finishing the remaining joinery (the back stretcher) and assembling everything, I did a fair bit of surface preparation with my scrapers and then with 320, 400 and 600 grit sandpaper. I then applied three of coats of clear varnish, sanded everything again and then put another three coats. The final result is rather pleasing, although there was room for improvement on the finishing as well.

Here it is for you to judge, enjoy ! Full-resolution photograph are available on Flickr.


yeah ok, it’s a bit early but maybe you could make good use of the days before hand to get into the spirt. If I may, there are a couple of YouTube videos I’d like to suggest. They are good fun, but remember to switch on your brain before hand….

I hope you enjoy the videos, the language gets a bit extreme every now and then, but George Carlin is one of my favourites american stand-up comedians. I know you are probably busy getting into the Christmas season buy spend a heck of a lot of money on useless presents, but maybe you could do yourself or, even better, somebody else, a big present and buy something really useful: enjoy [UK/US] !

This December I am by myself. Francesca and the kids are in Verona (Italy) with the grand parents whereas I am here alone in Cambridge trying to improve the architecture of the Gaia reduction pipeline (can you feel the excitement ?) with Greg and Chris, our new recruits.

So what can I do to kill the Sunday night bore ? Well, in these cases, Google is your friend… so I started looking for some old friends that I’ve more or less lost contact with since I moved in the UK in 2005. One of these is Giorgio Tonazzo who, in the mist of times, initiated me to the art of bass guitar (or, rather, at least he tried to… but I am still “una gran pippa“). Right now I am way too tired to be start rambling about the good ole times, so I’ll rather point you out to a couple of very nice videos he posted on YouTube, enjoy !!

I got back from my observing trip on the Big Island on the 24th of May but on the 26th I was on the road, or better the air, again on my way to Faro, Portugal. This time in full holiday-mode, with my son Martino and my wife Francesca.

I’ve finally managed to sort out the few photographs I took during my trip to the Big Island and posted them on my Flickr account. I did not have much time to retouch them but I still think they are decent enough… hey, I am not trying to win a contest !

To my utter disappointment I found out that WordPress (the hosted service, not the software) does not let me embed a Flickr slideshow into a post, nor embed an image. What a shame, Flickr is so ubiquitous that I can’t see why it is not supported ! Anyway, I guess I’ll have to use good ol’ links:


The observing run sucked a bit because I never got a full night of observations but, on the other hand, I was very happy that working at high altitude was not bothering me at all. On the contrary, I managed to put together a major refactoring of the VISTA quality control software modules which was a real winner. It was a good trip also because I am now much more familiar with the observing procedures at UKIRT and therefore have a better understanding of why, every now and them, I might find some odd data sets while doing the data processing for CASU. The last time I observed was ages ago, back in 2005 at La Silla, so I really enjoyed being observing again. It gave me a nice feeling of being back to the basics (even though nowadays observing means more or less to click a couple of button with a little more excitement only if you are doing some spectroscopy). It was a romantic feeling because the age of astronomers sitting at the telescopes taking data all night long is nearly over, superseded by automated surveys, large programs and service-mode observing (it’s cheaper, and s0 the government can save some extra money to drop a few more bombs on some other country they don’t happen to like very much).

After the run I spent a few days driving around the Big Island to pay a visit to the several nice spots I did not have a change to see during my first visit with Francesca in 2002. What made the visit even better was that, after the observing run, I was taking advantage of the kind hospitality of Luca. We shared the office back during our PhD back in Padova. It is quite curious that he ended up being a support astronomer for the UKIRT telescope and I ended up being processing all the WFCAM data produced by UKIRT… it’s really a small world ! We had very nice meals in Hilo (Chinese, Country-style Japanese and Thai) and plenty of time to for light chats about our work and the nice interactions with ‘satisfied customers’, about trying to do home-style italian cooking in a foreign country and the funny situations italians always get involved in when living abroad (e.g. people telling you: ‘oh, you’re italian ! I wonder how is your carbonara chicken !?!’ and then trying to explain them that, well, carbonara chicken is neither an italian dish nor something an italian would normally be tempted by). It was good fun. My only regret is not having done this before when it would have been much easier for Francesca to come along as well ! If STFC doesn’t screw it up, it might still be possible in a few years time…

This is my third night of observations at UKIRT and so far it has been hopeless: humidity 100% and wind speed almost constantly above 35 mph (the limit for keeping the dome open). Here’s a screenshot of the UKIRT and JCMT web cams when we arrived at the summit around 18:10.

UKIRT webcam and weather info on 20090517 18:55

UKIRT webcam and weather info on 20090517 18:55

Right now I am trying to do some beta-testing of the VISTA quality control database ingestion modules but I am being held back by an outage of the beanstalk subversion service I am using. I am on the free plan so I can’t really complain, also because they seem to be doing some kind of system upgrade, but tonight seems to be a bit of a bugger ! I’ll try to post another update later on if the weather improves and we start observing.

Very busy period on both my main work projects: the Gaia mission and the Vista public surveys.

For the Gaia project we have been experimenting a bit with Hbase and Hadoop to deal with the bulk of the observations. Unfortunately we don’t really have the right hardware to carry out some decent stress-tests, but we should still be able to get a rough picture to decide what to do next. We have quite a big hardware purchase coming up and we need to get it right because the budget is tight and the time before launch (Feb/Mar 2012) is closing in. Hopefully by the end of next week we should be able to complete a few test run and compare the results with similar test where all the data was handle by an Oracle 10g database.

For the Vista project I really need to finalize the relational model for the quality control database schema. The main structure is there, but unfortunately some important details of the processing software are not well defined yet so I am struggling a little bit. The implementation uses Hibernate for the ORM and a custom-made framework to configure what information need to be extracted from the astronomical images (FITS files). The design is quite sound although, if I had an infinite amount of time and patience, there are a few loose ends that I would like to improve.

As a side-project (given that I haven’t got enough on my plate) I’ve been playing with some very popular Web 2.0 apps in an unconventional way. I don’t particularly find them that useful or interesting for their original purpose, but I think I can get something useful out of them. And, if you are curious, no, it has nothing to do with useless flashy crap and bodged Apple-wanna-be cover-flow heavy-weight rubbish. Oops, I’m about to get into rant-mode… but it is really too late for this now. I simply get pissed off when I hear people waffle about Web 2.0 apps and then, when you really look at it, all they have done is to display a bunch of images in a fancy and rather user-unfriendly way. Ok, enough ranting for today, I’ve finished my wee dram and it is about time to get some sleep !

I’ve definitely been idle on this (sort of) blog for much longer than I’ve been active but the last five months have been quite hectic and I just could not find neither enough time nor energy to write new posts in the evening. I don’t think it does make much sense to write here about the last months so I’ll rather draw a line and just start it all over again.
Life is not going to get any easier over the next months either: my wife and I are expecting a baby, due on Sept. 12, and… well that’s probably enough for keeping us busy for quite a while, I guess. I hope I’ll resist the temptation of posting too many cheesy baby pictures… we have now some friends visiting with Anna, a cute 8-months-old baby girl and I managed to took some 40 pictures in just fifteen minutes on the afternoon they arrived. I guess becoming a “Daddy” will be a big change but still it is not easy to make forecasts at the moment.