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!