Thursday, December 30, 2010

Moments to make me laugh

I like to keep a stash of recent funny stories and moments in the back of my mind, so that when friends call or the lunch-table conversation trails off, I can offer up a small nugget for general enjoyment. It occurred to me that the internet at large might also appreciate these quotes....

My class project partner and I were doing testing on a powerful engine in the automobile lab. We were discussing the age-old tensions between engineering approaches - experiment or simulation? Complaining about the simulation guys, my partner wailed, "But they can test anything they want in theory! You have no idea how painful an "NaN" can be... in my world NaN means an engine blew up!"


During family board game night, my mother took a step out of her comfort zone and played Texas Hold 'Em with us kids. We taught her the rules of the game, but as a first-time player some of the concepts didn't quite come across... After dramatically going "All-In!", she saw the next cards turn over, and declared, "I fold!"


I asked my youngest brother what he wanted for Christmas, and he sent me a list of (in order of importance), "Laptop - headphones - shoes - iTunes card - cash." Being the shoe-loving girl that I am, I wrote back inquiring what kind of shoes he wanted. Evidently he was miffed that there was no interest in his top-line pick (budgetary constraints not apparently a factor...), so he wrote me back the following: "I want shoes that connect to wi-fi, and go clickety-click!" Okay, okay, I get the hint... :)


My sister was excited about the cookbook she got this year as a stocking stuffer, billed as "quick and easy meals." She flipped through to a recipe for Cherry-Granola French Toast Sticks with Syrup. The directions? "Start with 1 pound frozen french toast sticks." Hey, wait a minute!

Then, oddly enough, the rest of the recipe went on to detail how to make homemade syrup in a saucepan...


My hotshot 18-year-old brother will take any chance he gets to drive the family cars around town. Back from one such excursion, he remarked to my father: "Have you ever noticed that sometimes the throttle sticks a little, and you have to really floor it to get past the sticky part?" My father, having driven the car for the past ten years with no such issue, just raised his eyebrows... I think that perhaps the level of "flooring it" required varies heavily with respect to testosterone...


A few nights ago, randomly in the middle of a football game, my mother declared: "I could really go for a double bean burrito." Since my mother doesn't really cook, we all just sat and watched in amazement as she whipped out a skillet and fried up meat for burritos. At 11pm, we all had a midnight snack. Hey, I guess if you want it, you gotta go after it - time of the night and weird craving or not. :)


When asked how many pull-ups he could do, my youngest brother replied, "Maybe.... two? I'm more of a flexed-arm hang kind of guy..." Me too, bud!


Here's hoping that the holiday season will generate lots of happy memories for you as well!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Events of 2010

My mother has given me lots of good advice over the years. For instance, she told me I should keep a log of medical things - when I get checkups, flu shots, dental appointments, eye doctor visits. It's been invaluable, especially for me who is not so good at remembering details. Always seems dumb at the time - as in, surely I will remember that I got a new prescription for my glasses, why must I write this down? But then later, while trying to remember - did I get my teeth cleaned in 2009 or 2008? - I'm always glad I took the time to write down seemingly obvious notes.

My mother also told me that I should keep a list of the major events that happen each year.

My mother is big on organization and lists - can you tell?

This also I thought seemed like a waste of time. Of course I will remember that I went to Iceland in 2010. Why should I write that down? Actually that's not a fair example, because on that trip I took a snowmobile up a mountain to an erupting volcano. Hard to forget that one.

But how about remembering the other trips I went on? Or what classes I took this year? Or where I lived? (Yes, yes, I write down where I lived each year. This is an HISTORICAL record, people. How many of you remember where you lived every year? Anyone? Anyone? Okay, maybe that's only me that has trouble with that.... details, details my brain is not so good at....)

I might remember major events now, but five years from now I might also like to remember. And I guarantee that information won't be in my memory bank anymore.

So I keep a list. I've been doing it for three years now. I have Word documents, titled "Events of 2008," "Events of 2009," and today I just finished writing "Events of 2010." I add to the documents as I go over the year, so the task is less daunting in December.

It's my own personal accounting of my life that year, a way to look back and remember the awesome times. And perhaps the not-so-awesome. Either way, every year when I do this I feel incredibly blessed. I am healthy, living in a place I love, doing things I enjoy doing, and finding time for trips and adventures along the way.

I hope your 2010 was just as blessed, and that your 2011 will be even better!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Puzzle Theory

Home on break is the only time I ever do puzzles. My dad likes puzzles, so he usually pulls one out over holidays. Given that my family's house is "desperately boring," according to my youngest brother (no video games, I think is what that means), working on a puzzle is an activity that keeps me entertained and lets me relax.

My dad and I are very similar in a lot of ways, so we both approach the problem of a puzzle from a mechanical engineer's perspective. We have what we believe to be an efficient method for completing the puzzle, so we both attack the same way. A tongue-in-cheek ode to puzzle theory:

First, go through all the pieces and separate out the edge pieces. This is a game unto itself. Sifting through all the pieces to find ones with a straight edge is incredibly tedious. The bigger the puzzle (and usually it's a 1500 piece), the smaller the fraction of pieces you are looking for, so the more monotonous it is. The reward is low - but the risk is high, because the next step is:

Second, assemble the border of the puzzle. Here is where you find out if you win Step One. Assembling the border of the puzzle should be easy. Each piece matches seamlessly to the next in line. But if you made a mistake and missed an edge piece among the giant pile of "middles", you have a break in the line, and suddenly who knows if the pieces are in the correct order. Anarchy reigns, the picture on the front of the box must be consulted - and no one likes having to consult the front of the box. It feels like cheating. But, if you have done your job in the first step, and have managed to obtain a perfect unbroken ring, you have made it to:

Third, ..... PROFIT.

Wait, no.

Third, identify distinct areas to attack. Here, against good engineering instinct, you do have to consult the instruction manual. In this case, the front of the box. The goal is to pick out areas with distinctive features - a brick road, or a bright yellow boat. Or bright yellow brick road, if the "classic movie" puzzle section was on sale when Dad was shopping... You want to pick a few suitable areas, because next you will:

Fourth, turn all pieces right-side up. As any good engineer knows, you can't work on a project if you don't know your materials. Even if your mother rolls her eyes at the takeover of most of the dining table, you should take up as much of the table as necessary to lay out all the pieces face up. Once they are face up, you can easily pick out those distinctive pieces from Step Three. Hang onto those pieces, and move right into:

Fifth, assemble distinct areas. This usually requires a mug of hot chocolate to tackle, because this is the first step requiring actual focus. (Depending on how serious you are about winning Step One, of course.) This is where you really get a feel for the soul of the puzzle. Stare into its eyes, as it were. How difficult is this going to be? How long is it taking to complete sections? Are the piece shapes distinct enough that you can easily tell "yes it fits" from "that's a no go"? Do the pieces snap together nicely, are the colors and textures clearly differentiated? Is my engineering bent so strong that I think way too hard about the merits of puzzles?

Sixth, work on vast areas. At this point you should have a border ring, with blocks of completed areas inside. Bonus if you have connected any of the block to the border. Now you are left with the vast areas. This includes things like - the sky, wheat fields, the ocean, forests of pine trees, that sort of thing. If you are lucky, you can sub-divide the vast areas. "Only-blue" sky versus "blue-with-cloud" sky pieces, if you like. If you have a wheat field, well, best of luck. At most you might hope for "waving wheat" versus "wheat-with-no-possible-distinctive-feature."

Seventh, arrange by shape. When you are down to the last areas, where no clues by color and texture are possible, it's a discouraging time. You think you are almost done (and you've even reclaimed enough of the dining table to eat from), but the last ones are the hardest. At this point, my dad and I arrange by shape. "H-shapes" have two male and two female sides, "Doubles" also have two male sides but at right angles to each other, "Triples" have three males, and "X" pieces are all female. Once arranged, it's easier  to narrow the options. After that, it's trial and error all the way to the fence. Err, end of the wheat field. Whatever. Until you finish. :)

And done!

Let me also note that there are competing methods of puzzle solving afoot in the house.

My mother prefers hunt-and-peck. She picks up a puzzle piece, and tries it in every possible open slot in the puzzle. If none work, she picks up the next piece. This is, unsurprisingly, frustrating and inefficient in the beginning stages, but quite useful to my dad and me when working on Stage Six - vast areas of wheat fields.

My sister shines most when there are "holes" left in the puzzle. When my dad and I have managed to entirely surround a spot, showing the distinct outline of the missing puzzle piece - she strikes. "Aha!" she shouts, "How could you have missed this one?" I contend that there is no glory in finding a piece that obvious. My sister contends that she merely likes to have the entire bounds of  the problem defined.

Chemical engineers, I tell you.

Any way you do it, it's still quite satisfying. Do you work on puzzles over break, internet?

Figure: Note vast area of green grass left to finish, carefully arranged pieces, mug of hot chocolate, and sister working on holes.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Top Engineering Blog Award

To my surprise and honor, I've been awarded a "2010 Top Engineering Blog Award." I have never been awarded anything of the sort before, so I'm pleased to say that I have at least figured out how to place the award badge in the left hand column. (I was mentioned in Inside Higher Ed before, but that didn't require me to deal with .html badges!) Engineer I may be, computer whiz I am not. As I may have said before, if I can't hit it with a hammer, then I have trouble debugging...

I am also pleased to see some of my favorite other blogs in the list. Candid Engineer has actually moved her blog from blogspot to Scientopia now, and I hope you will visit her there. She was the first female engineer I ever found on teh interwebz. And, the first blogger to ever put me in their blogroll. There are also a bunch of new-to-me blogs on the award list, so I have a feeling that my RSS feed will be expanding, and my productivity levels over the holiday will be similarly decreasing.

I got sidetracked over the past month, and even over the past semester I was not able to write as much as I wanted. I have so many stories I want to share, and I find (perhaps egotistically?) that I miss it when I can't recount the experience. Even if it's not interesting for you, it's theraputic for me.

I've been hanging around blogging long enough now that I see new blogs spring up, and old favorites go dead. I don't want to be one of the ones that fades away, right when my life is most exciting. Sometimes I feel that I don't have funny or coherent enough thoughts to share, but my commitment for the next year is to share anyway, no matter how short or trivial. It means something to me, and if you enjoy and stick around then I consider it a bonus.

So cheers to an excellent 2010, and an even better 2011. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Final PhD proposal

It is not news that the road to a PhD is long. As opposed to my experience in industry, where a crisis may come and go in a week (or a day), and progress is made between meetings every Friday, research occurs on a much longer timescale. It may take me a week to do an experiment, and I might have a major update to give my advisor once a month.

So it should come as no surprise that the process of even getting the PhD proposal officially turned in takes a while.

Back in January I decided what my topic would be. And at that point, I did a whole lot of literature searching and reading of papers. To keep my mind in order, each paper I read I would condense into a few sentences or paragaph, and add it to my PhD proposal.

I continued to think about the topic through the Spring semester, while I TA'd and took classes and continued work to extend my Master's thesis. By March, I completed a draft of the proposal.

Then after the semester ended, I took another look at the proposal. I realized that it was not really a focused document - it was really more of a literature review of all the papers I'd read. So I tried to refine it, given the advice from my advisor.

Then I started to think about who my committee should be. I have two professors who are on it right now, and I need a third, but I wasn't sure who would be most applicable because I didn't know what direction my research would take.

This fall I have been working more on my PhD ideas, doing some preliminary experiments, and have a better idea where I'm headed. So I know who I want to ask to be my third member. And, my advisor has given me the go-ahead to have my first committee meeting. So I need to ask that last professor, and get the ball rolling.

It is customary to send your PhD proposal to the professor you are asking to be on your committee, so they know what you are working on. So I went back and looked at my PhD proposal. I updated it with what I learned this semester, and then I gave it to my advisor so he could approve it before I approached the final committee member.

My advisor basically told me it was way too long. My original paper, back in Jan when I just summarazied all the papers, was about 40 pages. In March when I focused it down, it was about 20 pages long. But the official recommendation for length is 6 pages.

So I cut it down to 8 pages, plus references. I sent it off to my advisor, and let's hope this is the final PhD proposal.

Now, on to completing the committee and scheduling that first meeting...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Medical-Study Approved Breakfast Round #2

A while ago I wrote a post on a light, healthy breakfast that I might make on the weekends. To fit with the medical study I'm in, I shoot for less than 500 calories for breakfast. I thought I'd share other options for breakfast that I'm experimenting with. 

My normal is still a cup of yogurt mixed with a crunchy cereal, or fresh fruit.

Figure: Breakfast example - varies based on contents of my fridge and pantry on any given day.
Calories: yogurt (100 cal) + 1/2C. Fiber One cereal (60 cal) + 1/4C. raisins (130 cal) = 290 cal and 14g fiber.

But when I have time I like a change of pace, and I've found a nice portable option is muffins. (They also freeze well - hi Grandma!) Muffins can be tricky, because they CAN be just little cakes - pretending to be healthy, but full of sugar and fat.

However I noticed on the back of my crunchy cereal box, there was a recipe for fiber muffins. That can't be all bad, right?

Figure: Inspiration strikes!
This is a recipe for fruited bran muffins, with All-Bran cereal, banana, molasses, chopped apple, and blueberries. Yum!
Figure: A little smaller than my usual muffins. A good portion of the batter didn't make it into the cups...
Calories: two muffins = 320 calories and 10g fiber

Then I got really fancy, and decided to try orange fruit cups. This is a recipe from Cooking Light, from the subscription I get (hi Grandma again!).

Figure: Gourmet is what that is, I'm telling you.
Actually it's not so hard, you just chop up whatever fruit you have (must include oranges, though), pop it in the orange halves, dust with cinnamon sugar.

Calories: get this, it's only 80 calories per cup. Fruit! It's amazing!

And finally, here's what I made this Sunday - cinnamon-spiced bananas.

Figure: Add bananas, brown sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon to pot. Heat.
 The bananas simmer down into sweet gooey loveliness, a warm topping for whatever strikes your fancy.

Figure: Reduction de banana, you might say. 
Now you might suspect I put it on toast, or yogurt. Or perhaps I whipped out some organic fiber saltines, or, I don't know, slivers of toasted oat and flaxseed. (What would a sliver of flaxseed even look like?)

But come on, it was Sunday.

I had it over ice cream. For lunch. :)

But still! The calories: 1C. banana heaven + 1/2C. vanilla ice cream = 422 calories.

Ice cream as calorie-conscious brunch? It's a stretch I'm willing to make. :)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Weeding the Garden

I wanted to share with you pictures from earlier this summer, when I took a trip home to see my family. My parent's house has an extensive garden, which had gotten a little out of hand.

I decided to do a little weeding.

And of course, being an engineer, and the daughter of my father, I know that every project begins with the proper tools. (Life lesson courtesy of my dad, and it has served me well.)

So what do you do when the garden has random TREES growing in it that you don't want? Maple and oak trees have a pesky way of sprouting everywhere in forest-type areas...

Clearly in that case the correct tool is not a hoe or shovel, but a backhoe.

A backhoe, you say? Where would you find one of those?

In our backyard, of course! My mother insists that it be parked BEHIND the house, so as not to scare the neighbors any more than they already are.

For those of you not, ahem, too familiar with running construction equipment - to operate the rear scoop, you turn around backwards (thus facing the scoop), and the controls are located there. See the above picture.

In the above picture, I am also moving the rear scoop. It's advanced (or lazy...) technique - I haven't turned the seat around.

The steering and driving works as you would expect, with the driver facing forward in the cab. But our backhoe actually has a bit of a bug in the system - the brakes don't work. The clutch does, so if you are on level ground you just take it out of gear.

If you are on a slope and want to stop - well, you have a couple options. The simplest is to just put down the scoop to anchor yourself to the ground.

The above picture is also advanced technique - the other way to stop is to carefully drive forward until you get where you want, then when you start to slide forward, throw it in reverse. Or, you can just make sure you don't ever have to stop. :)

My dad also realizes that having "the right tools" includes clothing - so for physical work, he breaks out the overalls. The overalls are from my Grandpa, who actually is a farmer. He makes sure all of his kids and grandkids are properly outfitted whenever we go visit the farm.

This, in my book, is a picture of a day well spent. The garden was (mostly) weeded, I was dirty, my mother got to take pictures, and all involved parties walked away happy.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Southern University Recruiting Trip

A few weeks ago, I got a note from the awesome graduate administrator here at World's Best School. The MechE department here is trying a new program, where they want to reach out to excellent undergraduate MechE universities and encourage the students there to go to grad school. Specifically, the women and underrepresented minority students. And of course, specifically to go to World's Best School.

So basically, the higher-ups want to start doing trips to recruit women and minorities to come here for grad school.

They wanted a grad student to go along, so the admin recommended they take me. The other two people going on the trip were the head of the MechE department (a woman - and by the way, how awesome is that?), and a junior faculty (a minority).

I suspect I was chosen because a) the admin likes me, and b) I did the trip to Alabama to talk to highschool girls about engineering, and c) I'm a woman. And perhaps because d) for an engineer, I'm pretty well-spoken, friendly, and charming. Right? Right. :)

I figured it couldn't hurt to go - could be fun, interesting, and I would get to spend some time with the head of the MechE department, which is never a bad career move. Also it's a good cause - always productive to encourage students of all backgrounds to look into grad school. And finally, free trip! So really, why not?

The trip was last week, and the school the three of us went to was a huge southern university in the top 5 for MechE undergrad programs. It was only for a day, so not a huge time commitment. Since it's the first trip like this, it was sort of a pilot program.

The worst part of the whole thing? The flight time.

Six AM.

My cab picked me up from my dorm at 4:30am, and since I didn't do dishes or pack the night before (ack!), I got up at 3:30. The funny part was when I stumbled into the bathroom to take a shower, my undergrad girls were still up and gossiping away.... :) Ah, college life.

The day consisted of a bunch of activities. We sponsored an American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) student chapter meeting in the morning - apparently if you pay for pizza and drinks, you have a rapt audience for an hour. It fondly reminded me of ASME meetings at my own undergrad school. (I met a lot of incredible people through ASME, and it has always surprised me that ASME does not have a strong presence at World's Best School.) We were supposed to give a talk with slides during the ASME meeting, but the projectors weren't working. So the two professors talked off-the-cuff. Turns out the head of MechE is a bit long winded...

Anyway, then we had a lunch with students who wanted to talk with us. I hadn't been aware that only women were invited, so I was so surprised when all 8 of the students at the table were girls. "Wow," I thought, "well that's a coincidence..." Silly me. :) But they asked lots of good questions, and since I ran Orientation for MechE grad students at World's Best School in Sept. this year I was well-prepared to answer all sorts of first-year questions.

Then one of the professors gave a seminar, and then we had dinner with minority students, and then the 3:30am caught up with me and I crashed into bed.

Next morning I flew home, and on life rolls. All in all it was a good trip. For myself, I was able to chat with the head of MechE, and ask her some questions about the challenges of the job, what the job entails, and her opinion on how MechE across the nation is doing. She told me about the hiring process and how she was selected for the job, her philosophy on running a department, and about how much travel she does, and what day-to-day life is like. I promise I didn't ask incessant questions, I think she was just happy to chat! She also had just gotten back from a national meeting of MechE department heads, and apparently all across the US enrollment in MechE is up. Generally, at the expense of Electrical Engineering - which I would not have expected.

I also hope I was able to be helpful in answering questions the undergrads had on grad school. I forget what that's like - not being aware of how different life is in grad school. For instance, some of the students didn't know that grad school is free for students. Unless you are doing an MBA, you get funding to pay for school - either by doing research, or being a TA, or an outside fellowship. That's a pretty key piece of information if you are deciding what to do with your life.

And another piece of key information? Grad school rocks. :)

Maybe someday I'll see some of those students wandering the halls here. You never know.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Seminar Trivia

There are a nearly overwhelming amount of seminars going on around campus on any given week. Between my own office's student seminars, my own lab's seminar series, the department faculty seminars, topic-centered seminar series (energy, MEMS, etc.), MechE student seminars put on by the MechE student club, and faculty seminars put on by the MechE student club, I could nearly go to a seminar every day. And that's just in my department! If you start looking at the entire World's Best School, the raw knowledge dissemination I'm sure makes you smarter just by walking onto campus.

But sadly I don't take advantage of these as much as I should. My first year as a grad student, I would try to go to as many as I could - sometimes two a week, but usually one a week. But now that I'm a 4th year grad student, I've become a bit lazy. I recently read a good post on this here, at Gas Station Without Pumps, a great new blog started in June that you can check out if you like.

So this past week I made it a point to attend a seminar. It was from a visiting Post-doc student, and it was on the topic of designing robots with human safety in mind. This is important when the robots are intended for use working beside people, or for rescue robots, and actually is generally good practice in any situation.

It felt good to just sit and learn, something not strictly necessary for my work, but just for the fun of it. And you never know what you might get out of it.

My favorite piece of trivia from this talk?

It takes 340 Newtons of force to break the nose. (That's 76.4 pounds, for those who don't work in SI units.)

And now you've learned something. :)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lentil Stew

One of the things I bought at the bulk dry goods store was lentils. The first recipe I tried them in was Lentil Stew - lots of great fiber, and nice and warm for cool fall evenings.

I start with chopped up veggies, basically whatever I got from my CSA farm share.

Then I add the star ingredients, lentils.

Diced tomatoes add flavor and moisture:

The broth comes from a frozen chunk of vegetable stock I made from scraps. (Pink! Beets!)

 Season with soy and Worcestershire sauce.

Simmer and cook down with red wine.

Read a book while kitchen fills up with fragrance, and undergrad girls come poking their heads in the room to see what's cooking.

 Then serve!

(Although hold the wine when sharing with the undergrad girls.)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bulk Dry Goods

I have discovered a grocery place locally that I previously dismissed, because I thought it would be an expensive, gourmet, local organic type of place. Turns out it IS a local organic focused type of place, and a lot of it is expensive, but it has one aisle that trumps all that.

There is a bulk food aisle.

Rows and rows of clear canisters, with multitudes of flours, sugars, grains, beans, granola, rice. Amazing.

You can buy as much as you want of each item, it's sold by weight - they provide scoops to put it either into a clear bag, or various sizes of small plastic container. Above is a container of bran, which cost me an embarrassingly small amount. This is perfect for me, since I cook just for myself and not a family. I don't have to buy a 5lb bag of bran (or anything else), and find ways to use it all up. I can pick a recipe and buy just enough for what I want.

Also amazing - they sell bulk spices! So instead of buying $6 jars of random spices at the grocery store, if I have a unique recipe I can just buy a few spoonfuls of what I need. The spices go into little tiny plastic baggies, and they weigh practically nothing. The minimum charge for spices is $0.25 if it's too light for the scale to read the weight, and most of the spices I've bought have been $0.25 each. I've been able to try out some Chinese and Indian dishes, with appropriate spices, and never had to pay more than $0.68 for a packet of spices.

So since I have figured this out, I've gotten cornmeal, cane sugar, flax seed, bread flour, cake flour, lentils, and handful of different spices. I also go here to refill spices I run out of - cinnamon and nutmeg are much cheaper in bulk than at the supermarket.

Not bad for an expensive organic local hippie co-op store. :)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hiking in NH

Now is a beautiful time for fall foliage, and I have been loving the New England trees! About a month ago, I went hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. I did the same thing last year, but with a different group.

The trees weren't quite in full bloom at the time like they are now, but it was still beautiful.

This year, I didn't fall for the "moderate" group trick... I put myself down squarely for the "easy" route! So my group hiked up a trail with waterfalls along the way, and stopped at a pretty lake at the top of the mountain.

Rest stop. Some of the group actually went swimming in the lake, but it was COLD. I abstained.

Another group that had taken the "hard" trail met up with us at the lake, and one of them snapped this picture. The "hard" group was all sweaty and had walking sticks, and hydrating packs, and all sorts of accouterments. I was pleased all I needed was a backpack for granola bars. My philosophy was that the goal here was to enjoy the day.... :)

Life is good.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

New Emotional Concept

So this is not the usual subject of this blog, but I just wanted to share on a more personal level a new concept I've recently learned.

As a caveat, my world revolves around logic and quantifiable ideas. I try to be sensitive to my emotional self as well as my intelligent self, but I'd be the first to admit that dealing with emotions is a skill that I struggle with at times.

I have just learned about the concept of secondary emotions. A primary emotion is what you feel in direct relation to an event (or thought). A secondary emotion is your reaction to the first emotion.

It's such a simple idea, but I had never considered this. For instance, you can be happy you got a raise, and then feel guilty about being happy because your friends didn't get the same raise. You can be scared of the dark, and then ashamed that you are scared.

This past week, I've been trying to notice what my reactions are to various events. And I've discovered that usually I don't have trouble handling a negative event, and really I don't have trouble handling the primary emotions either. I only become irritated or bothered about the secondary emotions.

For example: I was slightly upset when a professor criticized my work in lab. To make myself feel better, I had a huge chocolate pastry for a snack. Actually, that's not quite correct. I had two. :) Then I felt that I shouldn't be upset, and I shouldn't have eaten two pastries when I wasn't even hungry, because I should be able to handle myself better. So I felt guilty for being upset. That's a secondary emotion.

At the end of the day, all I knew was that I was very upset. And I don't like being very upset.

But - BUT! Now look what happens if we think about secondary emotions:

So at the end of the day I ended up a) upset because my technical abilities were challenged, b) upset because I ate so much dessert, and c) guilty that I felt upset.

If I had stopped to think after lab about what my professor said, I could have recognized that yes - I don't like being critiqued. But no, that does not mean I'm hungry, it just means I am feeling defenisve, and I should just deal with that.

Then I wouldn't have eaten the pastries.

And even after I ate the pastries, if I had stopped to think, I could have recognized that yes - I ate pastries to feel better, and that's okay. It doesn't mean I am wrong to be upset in the first place, and it doesn't mean I have to feel guilty about eating the pastries.

And then I wouldn't have ended the day at "very upset".

Because then instead of a), b), and c) emotions to deal with, I would have only had a).

And one emotion at a time is something even Miss Outlier can handle.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Recently I've been asked on several occasions to share my expertise on various subjects.

First, it was to explain all the different ways you can manufacture microfluidic chips. That is exactly in my realm of knowledge, and it made me very happy that I could give a helpful, high-level, general overview of the field to a student completely new to the concepts.

Second, it was to share my technical knowledge on thermal control systems. I have built two machines with thermal control systems, and previous students in my lab have built three or four more machines with thermal systems. The student needing help has no fabrication experience, control systems knowledge, or hands-on feel for how to build equipment. I showed them my lab, my current equipment, and the old unused equipment. Between all the examples, I think I was able to show several ways of designing a solution to the problem he was working on.

Third, it was to present on how to design a good case study, and find speakers, and put together a panel for a conference. This is in relation to the conference I helped organize this past Spring Break, which I will be doing again this year.

Fourth, it was my knowledge on life in grad school. I organized the Orientation activities for the new MechE grad students this year, and I got lots of questions. From the logistics of classes and paperwork, to getting around campus, to the expectations in grad school and navigating the tricky lab/advisor relationships - I fielded as much as I could, and knew where to point people when I didn't know the answer. Even after Orientation, there have been lots of new students in my office, and it's been a pleasure to welcome them to the group, and be available for those random questions that pop up, and help them settle in to graduate life if they need it.

When I sat down to think about all this, I was struck by how far I've come. This is my fourth year in grad school. If this was undergrad, I would be a senior. I am supposed to know my stuff by now. And finally, I feel like I do actually know what I'm talking about. That's not to say I know everything or have nothing left to learn - far from it. But I can contribute a) high-level knowledge of my field, b) detailed technical expertise, c) committee organization and conference pointers, and d) general graduate school advice. I'm not sure what other categories there are left!

So can I graduate yet? :)

    Saturday, October 16, 2010

    1/6 TA

    In the spring I was the TA for a graduate class my advisor teaches. I didn't need it for funding reasons, but all PhD students are strongly encouraged to TA at least once. I thought I was done with TAing for my graduate career.

    My advisor also teaches an undergraduate class. Normally I have no interaction with this class, and in fact I was barely aware that he taught it. I assume he teaches, there is a TA who TAs, the students learn, grades are assigned, and on life rolls.

    This semester apparently there was a hiccup in the system. Because the undergrad class is not very much work for the TA (or at least someone decided it wasn't much work), the TA position was downgraded from a full-time TA to a half-time TA.

    Then they couldn't find anybody to TA the undergrad class. Usually grad students TA because they have no funding through their research, and they need the pay. Hardly anybody has half-funding from research, and would therefore be looking for half-pay from a half-time TA. And nearly nobody can afford to take half-pay only with no other funding.

    So my advisor was in a bit of a bind.

    What he did was this: he decided that himself and the lab instructor would write the homework assignments and do the grading instead of a TA, (which is a sacrifice on his part because that takes time). And then he asked his students (three of us, including me) to be the TAs for the class. Because there is no longer any grading we have to do, that just means we have to cover the laboratory sessions during the week.

    So I am a 1/6 TA. I'm sharing a 1/2 TA between three of us students.

    I have no idea how my advisor is handling the funding paperwork - all of us have funding through our research and don't need the TA pay. I suspect the class officially doesn't have a TA, and we are just moonlighting. I'm certainly not being paid extra. :)

    What this means in practice for me is that every third week, I have four lab sessions to supervise. The lab instructor takes care of coming up with the lab exercises, and I just help the undergrad students with any questions or issues that arise during lab time.

    Normally I get into the office late in the morning, and the afternoon is my main productive time. It's a bit of a pain to have two entire afternoons (and practically, this means two days) gone out of my week. Also a pain because one of those days I normally have class, so I have to skip the class. But it's only every third week that I have to lose those two days, and only every sixth class I miss.

    I view this as part of my graduate duties, and my responsibility to my advisor. But when I mention this to others, their reaction is usually that this is an unfair burden.

    So what say you? Do you think this method is unfair to me and the other two students? I certainly like this better than having one unlucky student ordered to be the TA. If you were my advisor, how would you have handled it?

    Friday, October 1, 2010


    When I left home to go to undergraduate college (oh my, all the way back in 2004), one of the things I took with me was recipes. I raided my Mom's recipe drawer, and copied down handwritten recipes onto index cards.

    By now I have done a lot of cooking, and gathered many, many more recipes. But every so often I come back to those cards, stained and wrinkled as they are now.

    Last week I needed a quick recipe to cook for my girls in the dorm, for a study break (I do a study break every couple weeks). I got home late from lab, with just time to whip up a batch of something.

    Enter one of those dog-eared cards: Snickerdoodles!

    They were well-received. I barely managed to snap this shot before they disappeared.

    Thanks, Mom!

    Thursday, September 30, 2010

    Career Prep

    A labmate of mine (set to graduate with his PhD in January) just took a seminar in preparing your C.V. for academic uses. Basically, how do you put together a package to apply for jobs/professorships in academia? Yesterday he was sharing with us what he learned (read: all of us in my cubicle were avoiding work). Although I knew applying for academia is a lot of work, I just was suddenly overwhelmed at what is required.

    You would need a teaching statement (what classes you are prepared to teach, your relevant teaching experience, etc.), and a research statement (what ways are you planning to change the world). You need letters of reference from people vouching for you. You need a list of publications, posters, talks, conference presentations, invited seminars, and anything else relevant. You have to show you can write grants and bring in money. All of these things I've read about (especially on other academic blogs from women currently in various stages of academia), but I realized something else as my labmate was talking.

    I am SO grateful I don't have to worry about some of these things.

    I don't plan to be a professor. I want to be proud of my PhD research, but I am not worrying about whether my chosen PhD topic is going to leave me with more research directions to pursue in a post-doc or professorship track. Or whether I am creative enough to come up with interesting and relevant research problems to build my own lab around.

    I don't have to worry about getting relevant teaching experience. I just have to suffer through my stint as a TA. I don't have to worry about whether I can manage students doing research, although I have done that (some PhD students will be required by their advisor to supervise undergraduate research, to help learn management skills. Poor undergrads!). I don't need to think about what classes I could teach, or how to put together a syllabus. I don't have to learn how to write a grant, or an NSF proposal.

    I want to make sure my PhD committee is relevant to my research, and will give me good advice and mentorship. But if I choose committee members that don't turn out well, I don't have to worry that they will ruin my career by refusing me a letter of reference.

    I of course want to share my research findings with the world, so I publish my work. And I write conference papers, and give talks. I know other classmates that have advisors constantly pushing them to publish. My advisor is not like that, I don't NEED to publish for the sake of my career. Thank goodness, because I don't want my career to live and die by the impact factor of journal I can get into.

    If I had to consider how all my choices now in grad school were setting me up for an academic career, my focus on a lot of things would be different. But since that's not what I want to do, I feel like my grad school career is a lot less stressful.

    But at the same time, I have my own long-term career in mind in the things that I do. It's just a different set of goals, given that I want to work for a start-up or launch my own company. (Or, that is, another one.)

    I DO have to worry about connecting with small businesses and cutting edge research in my field of research. That's why I go to networking events.

    I DO have to worry about meeting venture capitalists, business people, and knowing how to write a business plan and give a good pitch. That's why I take business classes and maintain a good relationship with people like the head of my school's entrepreneurship center.

    I DO have to worry about keeping in touch with the overall startup community, which is why I do small things like read TechCrunch and other various blogs on a regular basis. I also am involved in organizing a global startup conference (both last year and this coming yeat), which keeps me in touch with the international entrepreneurship pulse.

    I am trying to set myself up as best I can for when I graduate. I do my best to watch my father and learning how he conducts business. I try to stay creative and always be thinking and watching out for ideas, so that I have enough good ideas to found a company on. I think I will.

    So really, all those side projects that my classmates tease me about - those are useful. Not useful if I was gunning for an academic job, sure, but useful for where I am headed.

    So I guess the point is - I am truly enjoying my graduate experience, but I am reminded that ultimately I am headed elsewhere. I feel relieved that some of the academic pressure is lessened by this choice, and mindful that at the same time I need to take advantage of the unique opportunities I have while I'm here.

    To each his (or her) own!

    Thursday, September 23, 2010

    Stress Relief

    Today was not a good day for Miss Outlier. I almost cried in the office, which I have never done. Normally I am not that emotional.

    But, I have given tonight to myself. I am not thinking about classes or books or research or responsibilities.

    I am making body scrub.

    I like making things, I like working with my hands. I like having smooth soft skin. I do NOT like paying $20 for body scrub. So what is an engineer to do?

    I have a couple pretty glass jars from Specialty Bottle. (Seriously, the only place you should ever buy bottles and tins and jars and containers on the Internet. I mean, $0.60 a jar!) I have a box of sea salt for $1.79, and a box of cane sugar for $2.49. A bottle of safflower oil set me back $4.99 (big spender, look out!). In my medicine cabinet I have a small bottle of Vitamin E, for protecting cuts and scrapes (I mean, I work in a machine shop. It happens). I also have all manner of cooking oils (coconut, almond, etc.) and spices.

    I also have the all-mighty Google at my fingertips, which turns up helpful sites such as Bath and Body recipes. After some research, I'm making two batches:

    Salt Scrub
    - 1 C. sea salt
    - 1 C. safflower oil
    - 1 tsp. honey
    - 2 tsp. Vitamin E oil

    Sugar Scrub
    - 1 C. cane sugar
    - 1/3 C. safflower oil
    - 1/3  C. coconut oil
    - 1 tsp vanilla
    - 2 tsp. Vitamin E oil

    From my internet searches I surmise that you can also add cocoa, or cinnamon, or nutmeg, or almond extract, or pretty much anything else that catches your fancy. After I finish these two batches, I have PLENTY left to whip up some more! I sense a design of experiments...

    So how much did I end up paying? Well, with shipping for the pretty jars.. about $15. But it makes a vast quantity. If it turns out well, I can see this even being a thoughtful, cheap Christmas gift for acquaintances I don't know very well. Pretty crafty, don't you think?

    Thursday, September 16, 2010

    Month 18

    I've been involved in a medical research study for 18 months now! All the way back in April of 2009 I started this study, and I can't believe I've come this far. This study is looking into the effects of diet on aging, which is why it is two years long. They have to let you age a little. :)

    You also have to, well, diet. You have a certain amount of calories per day to eat, and I try to stick pretty close to that. This leads to some pretty rapid initial weight loss, and then a longer-term trend downward. But then it got harder. About a year in, I realized that my weight had leveled off, and it was really difficult to lose any more weight. The problem was, the study still wanted me to lose five more pounds to be in the target range.

    I tried and tried. (And Christmas got in the way there too, which will foil almost any healthy eating plan!) It just got so mentally frustrating to track every calorie, and to always be thinking of the lowest-calorie choice when buying lunch or dinner out. I just wanted to eat without thinking, without scrutinizing, and without feeling guilty if I saw the scale go up.

    And of course, being frustrated didn't help, so I finally sort of gave up. And since I was doing all I could to try to lose weight (with the results being to only stay steady), "giving up" meant that pretty quickly I gained weight back. Ack!

    So I had to talk to the nutritionists at the study, and explain my frustrations (and my sudden uptick in the weight chart...). They assured me that this study is not supposed to make you develop an eating disorder, and that really what they want is data - not for me to feel angry or irritated with constant mental exhaustion.

    And then since the pressure was off, and that mean number on the scale wasn't personal anymore, I felt more comfortable. I went back to doing what I knew - eat fruits and veggies, fiber, cook healthy meals instead of swinging by the fast food place. Understand what is in your food, so you can make healthy choices. If you indulge one day, just be mindful the next day. Consistent behavior is key - restricting your eating then pigging out isn't going to help anyone.

    So now I'm back to where I was. I've still lost a total of 20 pounds since I started the study, but I'm no skinnier now than I was last November.

    But I'm okay with that. I think maintaining a healthy weight (which I am) is a more important life skill than dieting. When I finish this study six months from now, I want to feel confident that I have eating patterns and a lifestyle that works for me in the long run. And if two years isn't the long run, I don't know what is...

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    Heard at the Office

    "Stupid orders of magnitude! I'm just living my life in a skewed log-log plot...."

    Ah, control systems. :)

    Tuesday, September 7, 2010

    Grad Student Etiquette: Asking to Skip Meetings

    I know every lab has different customs on when and how often students meet with the professors. I usually meet with my advisor once a week, and it has been twice a week this summer while I am also involved in a group project (once individually, once in the group).

    These past two weeks, I have been really busy with both undergraduate orientation events (since I live in a undergraduate dorm and am in charge of two floors of girls), and graduate orientation events (since this year I am the Orientation Chair in charge of planning those events). We have 160 new Mechanical Engineering grad students joining us this year, so it takes some planning to pull off a bunch of events for them over a week.

    So I asked my advisor if I could skip a week of meetings. He had no problem with this, as he is pretty easy-going in general (and honestly, I think he is busy too with beginning-of-the-semester activities).

    But I wonder in general - what is the policy for asking to skip meetings? In some labs, there is a weekly meeting with the whole lab, and one student presents each time. In that case, you may only present once every couple months as you rotate through the group. I would hope that in two or three months you would have some results to show - and if you weren't prepared, it's mostly your own fault.

    But I think it's entirely reasonable that if you meet every week, sometimes you just won't have anything to show. And honestly, some weeks everything I say during the meeting I only did the day before... you can get a lot done in one day! It's amazing how time slips away from you. If you have a meeting on Tuesdays, for example, the week goes like this: Tuesday you present. Wednesday you slack off because you just had a meeting. Thursday you have class and you work on homework. Friday - well who wants to work on Friday? Make it a lab clean up day! Then Monday - ack! - you have to get some work done to show on Tuesday.

    So I don't feel bad about taking last week off. I was busy getting everybody oriented. But what do you do when you have no excuse, you just didn't get any work done to show? Do you ask to skip that week, do you pull out something older you had saved for just such an eventuality, or do you just discuss future goals?

    Monday, September 6, 2010

    Life is Too Short

    Life is too short.....

    ... to watch stupid commercials. I'm switching to online. If I can't fast forward or watch without commercials, I'm not watching it. I can't stand wasting 20/60 minutes on ads. Netflix, Hulu,, here I come!

    ... to wear shoes that hurt. If it gives me blisters, I'm throwing it out. If it has no support and my feet are aching halfway through the day, I'm giving them away. Don't worry, I have plenty of shoes, losing a few (or a bunch) won't kill me - and the ones I have left, I will actually wear.

    ... to eat crappy food. If it's greasy pizza (again! why is all free food pizza?) I will pass. If it's a sugar-encrusted sticky bun, I know I'll feel sluggish later. For the most part I will eat vegetables and fruit, and meat and eggs and cheese, and try to cook my own meals where I know all the ingredients. My body deserves to be treated well.

    ... to not get enough sleep. I'm cranky when I can't sleep, I'm not productive, and I'm only hurting myself. I will make time to get enough rest, and be good to myself.

    ... to not have a clean room. If an item doesn't have a home, I'm finding it one or I'm throwing it out. If I buy a new thing, I will take out an old one. If it's clothes, I will donate an item and replace it with the new one - my closets are full enough already.

    ... to not have toothpaste I like. I usually buy Crest, and last time I bought Colgate because it was on sale. I hate it, but I feel like I should finish the tube. It's $2, for crying out loud. I'm buying Crest, enough said.

    I can't be constantly worried about these little niggly things. Sometimes you have to shake off the status quo, and get your life the way you want it to be.

    Stepping off the soapbox now. :)

    Sunday, September 5, 2010

    The RAing Begins - Again!

    It's a new school year, and my second year as an RA! After a whole summer of the dorm being empty (and do you know how creepy that is? ack!), the girls are all back. I had a bunch of seniors graduate, some people moved to other floors, a whole gaggle of girls moved to my floor so all of them could live together, and I have six new freshmen. Twenty-nine girls in all.

    Last year, I was really nervous as the school year began. It took me a long time to get comfortable. I just didn't know what my role was, or how I fit into the girl's lives. As I said, there were a bunch of seniors, and they already had established social habits and circles of friends, and didn't really need me. Somehow I always felt as if I was intruding. And it also didn't help that I had trouble remembering names and faces. Because the girls didn't have many issues (not that I'm complaining - hey, makes my job easy!) often I wouldn't see them on a regular basis. Add in the fact that there are a lot of them, and many look similar (maybe it's racist, but I have trouble telling Asian girls and Indian girls apart sometimes), and they all DRESS similarly (jeans and T-shirt, it's the college uniform!), well it's no wonder I would forget names!

    But this year, it's so much more natural. So much easier of an experience.

    I realized it was different when I went to training day. Last year it was all new information, especially since I didn't do my undergrad at World's Best School - I felt like I was learning a whole new culture. But this year, it's familiar. Comfortable. I could even answer questions from the new RAs (I have three friends who just became RAs, and it was a pleasure showing them the ropes). Ah, I thought, this is how it's supposed to be.

    And I no longer feel the strange urge to hide when meeting the new girls. This year, I greeted all the girls as they arrived, introducing myself with ease and confidence. Two weeks ago, I met four of my six new freshmen. They were chatting it up in the kitchen (which is good, I approve!). They were comparing which ones had turned 18 already. Aw, how cute. :) They will grow past that quickly...

    So now I'm just enjoying the fun. I have a great bunch of girls. Some highlights so far:

    1) I'm actually six months younger than one of the seniors on my floor, I discovered... not that I told her that!

    2) I love watching the freshmen explore their independence. There is all the mile-a-minute talking of the outgoing ones, trying to adjust and fit in with all the new relationships begin formed. The shy advances of the introverted ones, adjusting to life as an adult.

    3) Over the summer, another RA and I started a garden on the rooftop of the dorm. I smile when I see the freshmen exploring the dorm excitedly, and even the returning girls are enthusiastic when they find the garden surprise.

    4) Once freshman girl came to me, very worried, carrying a wrapped half of a watermelon. "Miss Outlier," she said, "Is this watermelon okay to eat?" Confused, I replied, "Well I assume so - why do you ask?" "Because," she said, "The sell by date is three days ago, so I don't know if it has gone bad!" "Well does it look bad?" I asked. "I don't know what it would look like if it was spoiled!" she cried, "My mother always tells me when food is okay to eat!"

    Okay, rule one... if the melon has no mold and smells okay, it is fine. And three days after the sell date is not nearly long enough to worry about. :) Ah, life lessons...

    5) Hurricane Earl came through a few days ago. It was only a Category 1 storm by the time it got here, but that didn't stop one girl from asking me, "Should we sleep in the hallway to be away from the windows in case the glass breaks?" No, sweetheart, it will be okay... it's just rain.

    6) I was sitting on my bed, when one girl came in gingerly carrying her computer. "Miss Outlier, help!" she wailed, "My Mac froze up, and I was in the middle of making my resume, and I don't want to lose all that work, and I don't know how to use a Mac, and it's a brand new computer, and what do I DO?" Whew! Deep breath. Save, force quit, restart. Ta-da! Miss Outlier: Resident Mac expert.

    So the bottom line is, all the freshmen seem to be orienting well. Miss Outlier is orienting well. Let the school year begin!

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010

    Why Must Everything be at the 11th Hour?

    As my advisor says, if it wasn't for deadlines, nothing would get done.

    My labmate and I attempted a run of experiments last Tuesday afternoon, and just as we were all set to go - we could not get a useable signal out of one of the sensors. Although of course the other sensor, which was just fixed, and the rest of the equipment in general, is working beautifully, finally. I did some troubleshooting, and for some reason the sensor was just broken.

    This was terrible because the labmate I am working with is leaving in four days.

    I sent it back immeditaely for recalibration, (it arrived in CA the next day) and called them to see what the problem was. Because that sensor is over two years old, they have to upgrade the firmware and then recalibrate, and will send it out early next week. I asked if it could be faster without the upgrade, and they said they don't use the old firmware anymore so they have to upgrade. I asked if there was another sensor on the shelf they could send immediately, and the only one they had was not quite the right kind.

    I thought it would take me longer to figure out how to use the not-quite-right kind than to wait for the correct one, and the not-quite-right one was $499, so I didn't order it.


    And all this time, I am trying to finish the mango project. These experiments would have finished it.

    I talked with my advisor about what the expectations are to finish the mango project. What we want is:

    1) 100 parts manufactured
    2) Data from all sensors and all equipment for all those parts
    3) Good control of parameters from all machines
    4) Data from inspection of all those parts
    5) Functional testing results from all those parts

    Since we were stuck waiting for the broken sensor to be fixed, in the meantime I thought about using some sensors I already had on hand, to modify things and get the equipment to work and make those 100 parts. But even if I did the work to do that, and we made 100 parts, we wouldn't satisfy point #2. So I'd just have to make 100 more parts, which didn't seem worth it.

    So the plan now is to wait for the sensor to come back, install it quickly, and try at least a short run of 10 or 20 parts with the automated system before my labmate leaves.

    But why is it that no matter how much you plan, no matter how far in advance you know about deadlines (the labmate has had the plane ticket booked for a month), you still come down to the wire to get things done? Is it my fault, or does the universe just work this way? Is it the same reason that most PhD students get 70% of their work done in the last 30% of their PhD?

    I'm saying that the lab gremlins always conspire to delay progress until the last moment.

    Crossing fingers.

    Tuesday, August 31, 2010

    Girl's Night Out!

    Last summer the girls in my group had a couple girl's outings - once to a club where they served three-course $9 dinners for girls on Wednesdays, and once just out for a bite to eat.

    But now we are losing one of the girls to California (and a new job - congrats!), so we decided to take ourselves out for a last hurrah.

    (Also, we were jealous of all the stories of the boys' nights out. Although we would never replicate what happens on the boy's nights - they get pretty wild, and we just don't drink that much...)

    There are several options for ladies' deals around Boston, and we ended up going out to restaurant that offered free dinner (with $10 drink purchase, of course there is a catch...).

    Figure: The ladies of my group
    Of course, we picked a miserable day to go - rain and puddles everywhere. I discovered that the right foot of my rainboots is not actually waterproof anymore, but oh well - we all dried out eventually!

    I have always felt so lucky to be surrounded by such fun and smart people in my group - and it's just a bonus that so many of them are girls! A good looking group we make, I think. :)

    Wednesday, August 25, 2010

    Road Trip: Chicago

    After Sonic, Eehern and I decided that the only way to make it to Chicago was by hopping between food stops. Next up, Zukey Lake tavern - a nostalgic favorite of his. It was really only fair - one of mine food picks, one of his.

    Figure: Tavern on the lake.
    Apparently, Eehern remembered this place as being down a bumpy dirt road, a only-the-locals-know type of retreat. But instead of a gravel parking lot next to a hole in the wall, now it's a newly renovated restaurant on prime real estate by the gorgeous lake.

    Figure: We just hope the ribs are still as good.
    We had called ahead from the car to place an order for ribs. We popped in, picked up the order, and went on our way!

    Let me just note - did we eat in the car? No, no we did not.... :)

    Figure: You can't see it here, but this is the twelve hour mark for us in the car.
    We drove. And drove. And drove some more. That two hour block at the Canadian border really put us behind, (as well as my shopping, ahem...). We hit twelve hours in the car, and man I was tired. The energy was visibly leaking from the car.

    I got sleepy and took a nap. I think I drooled, but I managed not to snore (I think). Eehern soldiered on. I woke up, and still we drove.

    Finally, we both determined we needed one last stop before the final push.

    Figure: Stop at the gas station, to fill up on gas and on that order of ribs. Miss Outlier's last road trip drink.
    We still couldn't eat in the car, so we got out and sat at a picnic table to dig into the ribs. But oh - did I mention - the picnic table was right next to the swampy forest? And we were eating delicious meat? The mosquitoes came out in droves. DROVES, I tell you.

    First they came for me. I started slapping and fidgeting trying to fight them off. The ribs were delicious, so I couldn't bear to stop eating. Eehern just laughed at me.

    Then, they came for Eehern. Buzzing and humming, they honed in on any exposed flesh. Finally he was driven from the pool table, relegated to pacing back and forth while he ate to avoid the insects. Now who's so tough?

    I was still eating as fast as I could, and the mosquitoes didn't even bother to find open skin - they bit right through my clothes. Ack! Moving on.

    For the final leg to Chicago, Eehern was finally getting tired. We had talked about most other topics, so I asked a question on politics. Well THAT'S a conversation starter. Did you realize that Eehern doesn't think there is a fundamental right and wrong - that right and wrong are defined by majority vote? This means, of course, that absolutely anything, no matter how heinous, can be justified if a majority of people think it's right.

    We killed an hour just discussing that.

    Figure: Ah yes, just what the day needed. Rain.
    As we got close to Chicago, it started to rain. I put on some country music to get us through the final push. My job is the iPod, you know.

    Figure: Man, did the country music do this?
    And it rained harder. It poured. The RainX had met its match.

    Figure: Yikes! Okay, okay, I'll go back to Top 40 radio...
    But rain or no, all things must end and we did make it to the destination city. We met up with his friend Sai Hei, who generously opened his home to us to stay for the night.

    Figure: Thanks Sai Hei!
    We found a parking spot for the car, I brought up my carryon to the room. I was thinking the night was just about over. But indeed it was not!

    Figure: Eehern busting out the guitar. He's quite good.
    Apparently, long ago Eehern taught Sai Hei how to play guitar. Men being what they are, Sai Hei wanted to show off how much he'd learned since then, and Eehern wanted to prove he was still better. So they jammed for a while. Sai Hei also got to show off his Linux program for learning new guitar songs on his huge gorgeous plasma TV, so all manner of male itches were scratched. I just sat and enjoyed the entertainment.

    And then I thought, off to bed? But no! The night is still young!

    We hopped in a cab and took off downtown. Can I just say - the financial district of Chicago has some well-heeled women running around. I loved looking at the street fashion!

    Figure: We took ourselves to a comedy club.
    A place called Second City is a famous comedy club in Chicago - a lot of comedy stars have come up through here. The trainees do really cheap shows at midnight, and it was here that we found ourselves.

    Figure: Cozy little theater, just us and a dozen others.
    I've never been to a comedy club, so it was a neat experience to see live improv. Honestly actors always make me a little nervous - I just think, "Man you are so over-the-top that I'm embarrassed for you!" But that's just my introverted, engineer hangup... I was glad we went!

    We got back home, and plopped into bed. Right? WRONG!

    The boys just couldn't let that plasma screen go to waste. They fired up StreetFighter, splayed themselves out on the floor, and proceeded to beat each other up. Just like my brothers - get them together, and the testosterone goes flying.

    After one got fed up with losing to the other (can you guess which one?), they finally decided to call it a night. That might also have to do with the fact that I went ahead and crawled under the covers on the futon and went to bed. Even though the futon was in the same room as the TV (I just was too tired to be bothered by the video games).

    And with that, my friends, the marathon day was finally over. From the honeymoon suite in Canada at 7am to the bedroom floor in financial Chicago at 3am, we did justice to the road trip.

    And to all a goodnight!

    Monday, August 23, 2010

    Road Trip: Detroit

    On Day 2 of the great adventure, the all-knowing Google doc once again said to leave at 7am. We had a long day of driving, and we needed to make it all the way to Chicago with time for two detours. Since I was in charge this time, I got up at 6:30, took a shower, and then woke Eehern. At 7:15am, we were outside packing the car.

    Figure: Miss Outlier runs on time.
     This was Friday morning, and I needed coffee. Well actually, most mornings I need coffee. On Friday mornings in particular, I'm used to World's Best School coffee hour where I get coffee and a donut.

    Eehern, as usual, needed nothing.

    But we stopped along the highway at a Tim Horton's, which is supposedly a cult favorite. In fact, two World's Best School Coffee Hours have featured Tim Horton's donuts, brought all the way from Rhode Island.

    Figure: Forget the donuts, I have COFFEE.

    Figure: But the donuts were delicious too. I had two. 
     I'd like to point out here that along the ENITRE trip, we hardly went an hour without seeing construction. I know summer is known for road construction, but seriously it was ridiculous.

    Figure: Orange cones, orange cones everywhere
     Along the way we noticed the beloved Subaru had a home even here, in the middle of random Canada.

    And I noticed a store for shopping, not available in Boston. :)

    Figure: I asked if we could stop, and Eehern said "Go for it!" So we did.
     I took entirely too long to shop, but again Eehern was a gentleman and didn't complain. I checked out with a new shirt, and I went to find him.

    I looked.

    I walked around.

    I peered over the racks.

    I checked outside.

    I walked around again.

    I had lost Eehern, in a foreign country. I didn't have my phone. And then I recalled when Eehern and I had spent a week in London. I also went shopping there (and again, took entirely too long. It's a vice. I'm sorry.) And AGAIN when I came out of the store in England, Eehern was nowhere to be found. And my phone didn't work. In  London, after I exhausted all my options I ended up sitting forlornly on a bench on the side of the road, waiting for him to come back. In Canada, I stood in the front of the store until he showed up.

    I think he just likes to lose me. But he can't be tired of me yet, it's only the second day!

    We continued on, heading toward the border. This time we had our story straight - Eehern was ready for the "So what do you have in your car?" question. Tough stuff, those customs agents.... :)

    Figure: But it was not to be.
     Instead, we got stuck in traffic. We CRAWLED forward. We could see that waaaaay up ahead was a bridge, and we assumed that customs (and freedom) lay across that bridge.

    But with that vision dancing ahead, we were painfully starting and stopping our way down the road. Half an hour. An hour.

    I was getting bored. My legs needed to stretch. I wanted lunch.

    Figure: Not getting anywhere anytime soon.
    Eehern needed nothing.

    And hour and a half, and still more of the scooting forward.

    I was cramped and impatient.

    Figure: I had run out of my road trip drink.

    And finally - FINALLY - we found something that made Eehern ruffled.

    He was watching the idle RPMs on the dashboard. Wasn't much else to do, really. And the idle RPMs were high - something like 2.5. And then they would wiggle. And then go down. And then go up. And then down.

    Figure: It's the middle of the bridge, and Eehern is freaking out about the RPMs.
     He got so worried about the situation, he called up the Cambridge Subaru dealership.

    "Hi," he says, "I have a question."

    "Go ahead," says the cheery woman on the other end.

    "Well," Eehern begins, "I'm wondering what the normal idle RPM speed is for my car. It's shooting up to 2.5, and then whizzing down to 1, and then jumping all around. And I really just want to know if that's normal."

    The lady, trying to be helpful, replies, "Well sir I don't really know, it's not my area, but I don't think that's normal, and you should bring it into the dealer."

    *facepalm* Lady, don't you know that now we are going to be worrying about this for an entire two week trip...? We spent TWO HOURS in traffic. As we were waiting the final last bit, which seemed forever, and I was hungry, and I needed to stretch, and I needed a bathroom break, I thought "We are never getting to America!"

    But thankfully, we did. Next stop - Sonic!

    Figure: Ah, road trip drink.
     Sonic is a nostalgic favorite of mine from Oklahoma. It's a drive-in restaurant, where you order from your window and the carhop brings your food out. I love it. I love the Supersonic breakfast burrito, the Chicken club toaster, and ESPECIALLY the Sonic Cherry Limeade.

    We even got there during Happy Hour with half price drinks. I ordered my favorite combo, with tater tots, and even Eehern got a cherry limeade.

    I practically inhaled my food, as it was like 2 or 3pm and I hadn't eaten.

    As I was chowing down, I heard, "Um...." said Eehern, "Would you mind putting your tater tots on a napkin?"

    I paused in the midst of chewing and glanced up. My tater tots were sitting in a cardboard fries container on the dashboard. I had my lap covered with a napkin. Seriously, man? Put a napkin on the dash under the already contained tater tots?

    Okay, sure....

    I finished, and asked Eehern how his meal was.

    Picking at his sandwich, he confessed, "I'm not much a fan of eating in the car."

    Laugh! Alright, I get it. :) No more eating in the car. It really didn't bother me, I just didn't realize.

    When it comes to idle RPMs and fries on the dash, you don't mess with Eehern! :)