Thursday, May 12, 2011

Amusing Comments

It's well known in my office that I work on a lot of side projects. In fact, I take a lot of teasing for all the things I explore that are non-research-related.

Late last week a very large package arrived for me. I eagerly brought it into the office, scooting it across the floor. I grabbed a crowbar and attacked the crate, tearing off packaging and ripping through plastic. Soon I was surrounded by a pile of fluffy peanuts, discarded cords, and stretched out plastic wrap.

Triumphantly, I pulled out the central piece of equipment. "Look," I squealed, "how cool is THIS!"

One of my labmates sauntered by my cube, poked his head in, and inquired, "Oh is this another one of your side projects?" And from the next cube over, a voice piped up, "Yeah what are you working on now, Miss Outlier?"

Oh come on now, people! Does nobody believe I actually do research anymore? Give me some credit here! :)


I play basketball every week, and this week we picked up a couple new players. As I was running back across the court after a play, I noticed one of the new guys was chuckling with my teammate. When I glanced at them, my teammate offered up, rather embarrassedly:

"He says you distracted him on that last play, because you smell good." Well there's a new one!

"Yeah," piped up the new guy, "I'm sorry, I've never played basketball before with somebody who.... well, smells good!"

I laughed and took it as a compliment. Really it's my deodorant - normally you can't really smell it, but when I'm sweaty and blocking with my arms up, I guess you can! Way better than sweaty boy smell, I can guarantee. :)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Point at Which PhD Students Wander

In my meeting last week with my advisor, he asked me to come prepared with a schedule for the summer. True to my engineering training, I put together a Gantt chart of tasks and deadlines for things I would like to accomplish for research this summer.

My advisor wanted me to make a schedule so that he could keep me honest, basically - if I have target deliverables each week, then he can check and make sure I'm doing what I'm supposed to. If I have no target, he has no way to know whether I'm doing enough or not. (Of course, I kind of like it that way... I have plenty of side projects to keep me busy!)

But making a schedule is good - and a little accountability never hurt! Especially since I had a committee meeting in February, and my goal is to have the next one in August. The schedule I put together for the summer is designed to have me in a good position for a committee meeting - equipment designed and fabricated, some experiments completed, and an analysis of the experiments compared to a theoretical model. If I can get that done, I'll have a nice chunk of progress completed, and a good story to tell at the committee meeting.

It will also be a nice time to get some feedback (wait - committee members can be helpful? what a concept!). I have no idea what the results of the preliminary experiments will be, and those results are going to drive my research going forward. So it would be useful to get some direction from the committee at that point. Or, as may be more likely, I may just direct myself and simply ask for confirmation... :)

But my advisor made this comment during the meeting: "The other reason I asked you to make a schedule is because this is the point in the PhD when a lot of students begin to wander." About two years into the PhD, it turns out, is kind of a critical juncture for students. My advisor has found that if he doesn't keep students motivated during this period, one of two things can happen. First, they may think that graduation is too far off to worry about, they have plenty of time to get the work done, and consequently have little motivation to keep making progress. Or, they may think that the amount of work is insurmountable, and they become discouraged and again have little motivation to continue forward.

I think in my case, I have just discovered too many other cool things which I am also motivated to work on... so it's time to regroup!

Onward with the PhD! If I'm going to be out of here next June, (and believe me, people, I am highly motivated to graduate) this summer is crucial to getting some progress made... No wandering!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Fixturing and Constraints on Engineer Blogs

I try my hand at a slightly more technical post on Engineer Blogs this week - check out some thoughts on fixturing and constraints, and how I design accurate alignment with kinematic couplings.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sightseeing in Korea

I recently went to Korea for a conference, and I intentionally stayed an extra two days so that I could have a chance to do some sightseeing.

Of course two days isn't nearly enough to explore an entire country, but I did my best to see a bunch of things. I took one of the very touristy "hop-on, hop-off" buses that runs loops around the sights of Seoul. I "hopped off" at a traditional village.

Figure: Traditional village, right in the middle of modern Seoul.
Turns out, the traditional village didn't have much to do, because it wasn't set up as museum or anything, it's just a bunch of empty buildings. Neat architecture, but moving on, moving on...

I attempted to "hop on" that bus, which was supposed to come around every 20 minutes, but I waited thirty minutes and saw no sign of my bus. I did however see every possible city bus route, and approximately seventilly buses from other touristy companies, just to taunt me. Just as I was pondering buying a ticket for one of those OTHER hop-on-hop-off companies, who actually seemed to be in the "hopping-on" business instead of just the "hopping-off" side - my bus finally appeared.

I went to see Seoul Tower, which is like the Empire State Building in that the only reason people go, is to make it to the top and look out. So I went. Rode to the top. Looked out the side. Tried to take pictures, but the windows were dirty.


The one attraction is to look out, and the windows are crusted up? Come on now... Also it was a twenty minute wait to get to the elevator to go back down. How is that possible? Doesn't conservation of mass indicate that if I only had to wait 5 minutes to go UP, there shouldn't be a twenty minute line to get DOWN? Tis a mystery...

On Saturday night, a bunch of us went out to the local clubs. Since I was sightseeing with four single guys, I was not surprised that they were way more excited about this than I was. In contrast to Boston, where the bars and clubs all close at 2am, the nightlife never stops in Seoul. The subway stops running from 1am to 5am, so the common thing is to stay out at least to 5am, so you can get home. I went home at 3am (by cab, thank you very much), but the guys apparently made a night of it.

I have to say that the clubbing scene is much different than Boston. In Seoul, the clubs are packed into one area, with people pouring out into the streets and just hanging out on the sidewalks, and the feeling is incredibly alive and vibrant. And in the clubs, the music of choice is techno/electronic. In Boston, you can't have alcohol outside, so everybody is inside, and the common music is hip-hop, or house music. 

Let me just say that I'm not bad as a dancer, (especially as an engineer), but I could not for the life of me figure out how to dance to techno. Fortunately once the club got busy, there was no need - everybody was packed in so tightly, it hardly mattered. It was an experience I wouldn't have missed - the lasers, light show, special effects, and electric atmosphere were pretty incredible.

Until 3am. And then nothing but bed is incredible in my book.

Sunday I took a tour to the DMZ - the border between North and South Korea. This was actually my favorite part of the trip. It's pretty fascinating to hear the history of Korea, which I only knew a little about. For instance, there is a railroad that goes from South Korea to North Korea and back that ran every day from 2003-2008. Did you know that? I had no idea. I thought that border has been sealed with machine guns ever since the DMZ was established.

The plan was to bring raw materials from the South, manufacture items using cheap labor in the North, and then have huge warehouses to store the goods. It's pretty incredible that enough companies got together to finance such a risky venture, I think. For a while it worked great, and then a North Korean guard shot a South Korean woman on the train, and they shut it down. So now there is the brand new train station, and giant warehouses, just sitting empty. It's eerie, really.

Also cool to learn that four tunnels have been discovered underneath the border. The North Koreans claim the tunnels were built to invade towards the north, but since all the dynamite marks are going south, and the tunnel slopes toward the south, it's pretty obvious the purpose was to invade South Korea... And the DMZ tour lets you go down and walk in these tunnels. The closest you can get to the North Korean border is 170 meters, which is where you are stopped by a concrete wall. So folks, I've been as close to North Korea as I care to get. This lady writes about the same tour with much more elegance and better photos than I, so you can visit her blog for her take.

Sunday we visited a traditional temple, which was beautiful and calm.

Still surrounded by Seoul, but peaceful nonetheless. It's a functioning temple, so people were there praying and lighting incense.

And the artwork and detailed architecture - gorgeous. Why can't churches in the US be like this? We pat ourselves on the back when we hang a nice banner on the putty-white wall above the gray Berber carpet, or when we put a few flowers on the stage once a year for Easter. These people paint every ceiling (see above)

... put sculptures on the church grounds...

...and hang colorful, cheerful pendants that dance in the breeze.

Beauty in nature and creativity in expression are part of God's gifts as well, and I might enjoy going to church more if it looked more like this. :) It's one of the things I have always enjoyed about Catholic churches in particular, actually.

Anyway - in conclusion, Seoul was an adventure I will not soon forgot. I enjoyed seeing the city, tried to experience some of the culture, and definitely established that I will have to go back in order to fully explore! For instance, I didn't get to go to a tea ceremony, which I would have liked, or go to the outdoor marketplace. Another time, another time. Until then, I will enjoy the memories.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Lemon Rolls

I saw this recipe for Lemon Rolls come up in my Google Reader - and come on, how could I not? And cream cheese glaze... well consider me sold.

So for the most recent study break for my girls in the dorm, I made cookies and lemon rolls.

The dough is a pretty basic yeasted bread variety, but lemon juice and zested lemon are included for an extra kick.

Yummy filling... seemed so odd to be making rolls with no cinnamon sugar! I decided I would have to have two rolls, to properly decide if they reached the standard cinnamon-roll quality bar.

Rolling out and spreading the filling...

then rolling right back up!

Trying not to squash the pretty roll as I cut it (I used to hate mushing the roll when I made cinnamon rolls as a kid with my Mom... but with freshly sharp knives, and a little better adult motor skills, it seemed to work out!).

If you a nerd like me, you will realize that the fattest rolls are at the center of the roll, and the smallest ones are at the end. So the optimum placing of the rolls in the pan is not in sequential order... but instead the biggest rolls should be in the same row as the smallest, second-biggest with second-smallest, etc.

But no matter how much time you spend over-thinking it, in the end it doesn't matter all that much. Look at that deliciousness! Add the cream cheese glaze, and...

... drool. My girls and I polished off two 8x10 pans of these, plus cookies. I'd say a winner!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Eating in Korea

If I might jog your memory, last year I helped organize an entrepreneurship conference, which was held in Iceland. I got to meet the President of Iceland, visit the Blue Lagoon, and snowmobile out to the erupting volcano. Oh, and of course, run the conference...

This year I was also involved in running the same conference, held in Seoul, South Korea during the last week of March. I will have another post about the sightseeing I did in Korea, but for today I want to talk about the food in Korea. (all tongue-in-cheek of course, no disrespect intended anywhere...)

One of the first things I noticed when walking around the city was that all the people over there (the women especially) are much smaller than in America. A little shorter, maybe, but that's not the main thing - mostly they are just skinny! This is partly because a large portion of people in the US are overweight, so I'm not used to seeing a population that is a healthy weight.

But even accounting for my perception bias, I mean - come on. Those women had hips that were as big around as one of my legs. How is that possible? Are they missing organs?

But then, dear friends, I discovered the answer. After a week of eating in Korea, it is quite simple - it's the food!

Consider the Korean Barbeque. Many people even in the states have had Korean food in this style. You order a meat (beef, chicken, whatever your fancy) which is brought to you - for you to cook yourself. It falls unfortunately to the youngest person in the group to cook for the rest of the group, out of respect. So already you have one person who has no time to eat.

Figure: See the guy on the far right? No smile. He's the youngest, and has spent all his time cooking, and hasn't eaten any of it.

And the rest of the group? Well while you wait for the raw food you paid good money to cook, they bring you endless sides to munch on. Endless sides, you say? Fantastic! Well, not really. All the side dishes come on tiny little saucers, with only a couple bites worth of food. But they are refillable, you say, so who cares how much is on each plate? Ah yes, excellent point. The reason they only give you that much turns out to be because nobody wants to eat more than those couple bites.

Figure: At the VIP dinner on Thursday night

Either the side dish is ridiculously spicy (whole peppers on a plate? entire cloves of garlic? really?), or pickled (the favorite preparation method for perfectly good vegetables is to add vinegar), or - wait for it - ROTTEN. Yes. Spoiled, fermented, whatever you call it, that food is no good. What am I talking about? Oh, you know it. Kimchi. YES, kimchi, a food which is inexplicably a favorite dish for many people. The way you make kimchi is to put cabbage in a jar and LEAVE IT, possibly for years, and then hope all the spices you dumped in cover the smell and taste. When recipes have to warn you that "film may develop at the top of the jar," or "may bubble over time," then I think you need to step back and re-evaluate...

And what if you don't eat meat? Well, you can try ordering a vegetarian dish. But the problem is that fish and seafood are considered vegetarian. We've already established that most foods are prepared way beyond their original recognizable state, so it's already a gamble what you are eating. The one dish which is always vegetarian is "bibimbap" which is actually my favorite food in Korea. Everybody else liked it too, (had no kimchi, so already you are starting off well), so we all ended up running around yelling, "Bibimbap! Bibimbap!" when trying to get a decent meal. Fortunately all the vegetarians on our team were that way out of choice, and not allergic, so if they ended up eating any "vegetarian" meats, we just chalked it up to life experience and kept going...

At the end of the conference, we decided we could all use a drink, so we took ourselves out to celebrate.

All of the team ordered a beer, except for one guy. He ordered a cocktail, which (he claims) is a "manly" drink in the US, and usually comes in a highball glass with ice, like a Scotch.

Figure: hello fruity girl drink

Well, not in Korea.  Apparently here, that cocktail is a bright pink frothy drink that comes in a girl glass. With a cherry on top!

To end the night on a proper manly note, then, the gentlemen decided to relax with a couple Cuban cigars. (Available in Korea, but not the US. I am however skeptical that they could tell the difference; I view this in the same category with people who claim to tell the difference between a $40 and a $200 wine. I say after you crack $25, to the majority of people the wine's about the same...) Problem was, it was really cold in March when you are on a windy 17th floor balcony.

So here are our manly gentlemen, bundled up in bathrobes and a bedspread. Except the guy on the left, who you will note is the same one who ended up with the fruity drink. I think he was trying to redeem himself. That, and there were no more bathrobes... :)

On our last day in Korea, we went to a highly recommended spot for a traditional dish, ginseng chicken soup. Finally, I thought - chicken soup! Not spicy, not fermented. This I can handle. But when the dish arrived at our table, imagine my surprise to learn that chicken soup means that a whole baby chicken is stuffed into a bowl of chicken broth, and handed to you with chopsticks.

Do you remember my argument that the reason Korean women are gorgeous and skinny is because of the food? People, the traditional dish is a whole bird in a broth, with CHOPSTICKS for the complicated de-boning process and for eating a liquid.

I rest my case.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Discussion of Undergrad Education at Engineer Blogs

My posting over at Engineer Blogs is late this week, but take a look -

Check out the discussion on whether undergrad engineering changes depending on what school you attend, or even where in the world you are. What do you think?

Globetrotter Returns Home

Home again, home again. The year of 2011 is turning into the year of traveling - and just in the past month, I've been to Korea for a week, Turkey for three days, and Denmark for four days.

It's always so good to be back in your own bed. I got home from Copenhagen last night, stayed up to a reasonable hour to combat jet-lag, and today I'm back in the saddle. I have only one pair of clean underwear left, so tomorrow will have to be the day I get my house back in order, but today the plan is to get the office under control. Can only do so much at a time!

There's always things you miss when you are gone for a while. Today I am particularly grateful for the following:

- a full night's sleep, after a week of 7am-2am days
- simple yogurt and granola for breakfast, after heavy hotel breakfasts
- my own shampoo and conditioner and my favorite J&J baby lotion, after the funny-smelling amenities at the hotels
- listening to music, after constant meetings
- access to cell phone to hear the voices of people I miss, after a week of email-only contact with the U.S.
- worrying about mundane things and diving back into my comfort zone, after having to think high-level strategic thoughts and work through challenging growth

And, as a bonus, spring has arrived in Boston while I was gone! The trees and flowers have bloomed, the sun is out, the air smells fresh and new and flowery, and I am (gasp!) wearing a sandals and a skirt.

Life is good!