Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Wise Guy, Aren't You...

Last Thursday I slaved away in lab with a piece of equipment that was not working, trying to get results for a Friday meeting. I finally got the equipment working at 11pm (still not sure what the problem was - I insist lab gremlins were the cause). I made parts from 11-2am, then measured the parts and collected data from 2-4am. I got up at 8:30 the next day, and analyzed and processed the data from 9-10am. I made pretty charts and result graphs from the data from 10-11am, tossed them in a PowerPoint and walked confidently into my meeting having completed everything I needed.


I think my advisor suspected I had stayed late the day before, but I doubt anyone knew what my schedule was like for the past 24hrs. It felt really good to come through in the clutch. The paper was due Monday, but I was going home Sunday and I had plans for Saturday, so it REALLY did need to be done by that Friday meeting. And it was!

So now I am sitting happily at home, resting with a cup of hot chocolate. Yesterday (the day the paper was due) I emailed to inquire if any additional figures were needed, or if I needed to make modifications (formatting, titles, legends, what-have-you) to the figures I had already sent. I got back a request for the original data files. "Even better!" I thought, "I suppose you can just make whatever figures you want from the data..."

And I heard no more after that.

I arise this morning, and what do I see - not a joke, my friends, not a joke - but this in my inbox:

Thank you, Miss Outlier.

We have an extension on the paper until Jan 11, any new results before then will be nice. [Other students] should have results by then as well.

[and, wait for it - wait for it! the kicker:]

When do you get back to World's Best School?

- Advisor

Ah yes. I did not mention this before, but [other students] did NOT have results before the Friday meeting. This extension will give them a chance to do their work, and apparently me a chance to do even more.

I don't have a bus ticket back to World's Best School yet, I hadn't decided when I was going back. But now, coincidentally, I'm planning on Jan 10th... :)

Friday, December 18, 2009


I rebuilt the heating system, and IT WORKS.

Eight good parts and going strong! 

Nothing like the rush of getting it done - coming through in the clutch...

Or maybe that's the coffee :)

Thursday, December 17, 2009


My advisor has a paper that he is writing for a conference that is due on Monday. He requires data from me for this paper - and I've known this for a while. We have a meeting on Friday, and I have a list of things I must have ready for figures in the paper.

Having data and figures requires me to do experiments, also something I am aware of.

So after my classes ended last week, I breathed a large sigh and went home and took a nap. However I find that despite my fervent wishes, the experiments have still not done themselves.

I tried to do the experiments on Tuesday, and discovered that the Google calendar had the equipment I needed already reserved. I tried again on Wednesday, and made ten parts. I measured these parts to get the data I needed, and found that the parts were all duds. Bugger.

So today is my last day to run the experiments, measure them to collect the data, and then analyze the data and make pretty graphs. This is possible to do all in one day (though not pleasant), so I got an early start this morning to knock it out.

And then, the vagaries of research struck.

My machine can't seem to make good parts.

Oh, wait. I got one good part - the one that came out of the cycle when my equipment had an error. Because THAT makes sense.

I only have three major variables I can change on the machine - A, B, and C. I have been making these parts for two years - I am an EXPERT at making these parts. I know what values A, B, and C should be to make good parts.

So when I started getting bad parts, I followed my usual debugging routine. In chronological order:

1) Make sure all mechanical pieces are fine (nothing on the machine is broken)
2) Change variable A (the easiest to change)
3) Change variable B (fairly easy to change, though tedious)
4) Change variable C (difficult to change)

Nada. Still bad parts. Then I went into my secondary routine, one at a time trying:

1) Change A a LOT
2) Change B a LOT
3) Change C a RIDICULOUS amount because it's a bear to change and I don't want to do this again.

Still nothing, in fact the parts are maybe even worse. At this point, I go home for dinner.

Now I am back in lab, pondering the problem once more. I adjusted minor mechanical issues, thinking perhaps magically a loose screw was the root of all this evil. Unsurprisingly, it was not.

I thought perhaps I should come at it another angle, so I adjusted A in the OPPOSITE direction that I thought would help. Now the part was worse.

Okay, I can do something with that - if something I did made the part worse, I can go the other way and make it better. Except that my results are not conforming to that very logical argument.

WHY must this be happening? Why is it not working like ANY OTHER DAY?

I've worked all night on this, trying every combination possible. I don't want to go to this meeting tomorrow with nothing to show, but I don't know what else I can do. Look sir, here's three petri dishes full of parts. None of them are any good, but here are the seventeen things I tried to make them better.

Does saying "This is SUPPOSED to work, and I DON'T KNOW why it's not" make me a bad researcher? Does "I have a bus ticket to go home for Christmas on Sunday" make any difference when the paper is due Monday and I have no parts to give him?

I hope my advisor can accept the "I'm having trouble here" speech, otherwise I have to dig into my next debugging routine: 

1) Wiggle my nose
2) Tap my heels three times...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Apple Picking

I have been quite remiss in posting pictures of the various activities I've been up to - so I shall try to remedy that.

Earlier this fall, the dorm I live in had an "apple baking" event for all the girls. To obtain all the apples for this event, four of the dorm RA's were supposed to go apple picking the day before. However, one RA dropped out and one was sick, so myself and one other RA were left to get apples for 100 girls who had signed up for baking.

The two of us drove for about 45 minutes to get out to an orchard. 

We started with the pears:

Then moved on to find the apples:

It was a beautiful day, and others were also enjoying the open air:

Well, in the case of the smaller children maybe not the open air. But definitely enjoying the apples. The trees were all turning colors:

We did as much tasting as we pleased. It really is pretty neat how different the flavors can be. You don't really notice until you eat several varieties back to back. Or, hand to hand:

Now, when we got to the orchard the kindly owner handed us a few small paper baggies to fill with apples. We warned her that we needed a lot of apples - so she handed us a slightly bigger bag. "No," we tried again, "a LOT of apples. About 200 of them." 

"Ah," she murmured, "well then..." as she went to the back of the shop. She returned with several bushel-sized bags, which we gladly accepted.

We decided to get bushel-sized bags of three varieties of cooking apples:

Which we barely managed to haul back to the main barn:

Then we didn't want to miss out on all the other varieties, so we got a few of each kind just for eating and tasting. All in all, quite a car-full!

We stopped for lunch on the way back at a quaint New England deli:

But wait, what's that in the bottom left corner? Yeah, that weird pole sticking randomly out of the sidewalk?

Yeah, that's a horse head. On a pole. Just because.

Total haul for the day: 137.5 pounds of apples, and one gallon of apple cider the owner threw in for free. Not bad for two city girls!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Turning to the Dark Side

I just wrote an email with the words "value proposition."

My transition to the dark side (business school) is nearly complete...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Left That Item On the To-Do List A Bit Too Long...

I pulled in my window air conditioner today, and had to peel off the icicles and snow before I put it in storage.

I think this is a sign I should be a little more on top of my life...


Life could be so easy. I'm on track for the PhD, I'm doing interesting research, and in two or three years I could be Dr. Outlier. Humming along, busily researching away in my comfortable niche.

I've always expected that after picking up my final diploma I'd go to work for a startup, or be somehow involved in an entrepreneurial venture. In fact, I've made my PhD minor "entrepreneurship."

And that has led me to take a class about how to start a company, where I am working on a business idea with a team. The good news is that the idea turns out to be a very good one, and throughout the class the signs have all been positive. Inspection of the finances shows that the business could be worth millions in several years. (And I'm an engineer, remember - so I don't throw those numbers around lightly or without justification.)

And now, dear internet, life gets complicated. I'm at the point now where I have to decide whether I want to take the idea from a class project into actuality. Now is the point where things become suddenly, frighteningly real.

First I have to decide if the idea is worth pursuing. Yes, I have decided, it is. 

Then I decide if the team I have is a) willing to go forward with the business, and b) the right team to work with. In the case of a), I think that all my team members are excited about moving forward. Unfortunately in the case of b), they are not the right team. For this idea, we need three people - a technical person, a business development/finance person, and a sales/marketing person.

I already cover the technical role. None of my team are sales/marketing people. And the two business people are not at the right stage in life to launch a company - they have wives, and jobs to go back to after they finish their MBA degrees. There is a thing called a "risk profile" or a "risk tolerance," and all founding members of a business need to have the same risk level. A married man with two small children will bail out long before a young, unattached grad student willing to live on beenie-weenies to make the company succeed. So am I prepared to hand out pink slips to my teammates?

And then, I have to think - do I know the right people for the team? And yes, I do. Would they want to work with me? Yes, I think they would.

So now the question comes down to me. Do I want to start this company? CAN I do this while still doing a PhD? If I get an investor to sign over a quarter million to me to start this business, I can't tell him I'm just going to work on the side - I have to be ready to dedicate myself to the startup. So am I willing to GIVE UP the PhD (even if only temporarily) to go after this? I mean, it worked okay for Bill Gates.

So do you give up the good thing you have going, to go after what might be a better thing?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Poster Design

To continue the design theme as of late, I'd like to show a poster I did just recently.

I am the treasurer of a student club here on campus, and our biggest event is an annual winter party. The president of the club assigned jobs to help with this event to all officers of the club, and the student who was assigned to do the poster sent around this PowerPoint slide:

Figure 1: PowerPoint should never have invented clip-art words

Some information redacted for the guise of anonymity, of course. And although I appreciate the effort of the student, upon downloading this attachment I volunteered myself to do the graphics. So then in about 45 minutes with Adobe Illustrator I came up with:

Figure 2: The "after" shot

Actually, I realized that if you do a search for "winter" on Google Images, the FIRST image that comes up is the image in the "before" PowerPoint. Now I admit that I didn't draw my background image from scratch either, but goodness, at least mine I had to DIG for a bit...

So perhaps my version is at least an improvement, although I would have liked to spend more time on it. Is there anything in the "after" version you would change, or would you have done something different altogether?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Logo Design

I am taking a course in starting a company, and it is going really well. It's on my list to do a post about the progress soon.

But this week in that class we gave a presentation of our business plan to a panel, including a venture capitalist. I thought it would be good to have a professional-looking logo to use in the presentation, so that it looked like we were official. It turns out we are changing our company name anyway, so the logo is a moot point in the end.

But I had fun being creative - I used Adobe Illustrator to come up with several logo designs. Our business idea involves using sensors placed at strategic locations to take data. So, the dots in all these designs are meant to symbolize either/both sensor nodes connected to other sensor nodes, or data points on a trendline.

Which one do you like best? I have my own opinions, of course. The first one is what I went with.

Don't be fooled by the simplicity of the logos - it's actually the simplest logos that work the best. Surprisingly, simpler things are harder to design than complicated-looking things. Also keep in mind that logos have to be easily understood from a distance, work just as well in grayscale, and be easily transferred to business cards, letter head, website, and embroidery on shirts.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Wide World of Web 2.0

A classmate just informed me that our professor tweeted about my presentation of my class project this week.

I am not sure how I feel about this new development.

I suppose as long as nobody is tweeting that I'm doing a crappy job of something, I'm okay...

How does the internet feel? Is it not odd that professors now have tweet streams? Is it not odd that a professor will reference the student's project? Does this not cause the students who did NOT get mentioned to need therapy? Or is this social networking bit a reality I need to get used to?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Must Be Time to Clean Up

Here is how I know I work in a hands-on, experiment-heavy, practical-applications mechanical engineering laboratory:

I was screwing together an electronics enclosure today, and I dropped a screw.

Figure 1: Dastardly slippery things

I peered around on the floor to find where it went, and within arm's reach came up with two screws of roughly the same size and shape. Upon further inspection, neither of them were my screw.

But, one of them worked anyway! I'll leave my dropped fastener wherever it landed, perhaps for the next researcher to discover....

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ship Graphic

I may not have mentioned this on the blog yet, but I really enjoy doing graphics work. I like design, and being creative, and I dabble in Photoshop and Illustrator and Quark. I used to do a lot more graphic design types of things when I had more time, but now I only get around to it occasionally.

Flying home from the conference I attended, I had no internet access (what did we do before there were digg.com and email to kill time?) and I had already finished my book. For a project I had in mind, I needed a ship graphic in .eps format. So I played around in Illustrator and drew a ship.

But then I realized I needed the image to be small, so this was too busy. Plus the lines weren't straight (I didn't have my beloved Wacom pad to draw on). So when I got home, I tried again.

This one I think looks cleaner, the proportions are better, and the overall image will scale down with more clarity.

Yay for creative outlets. Now if only I can squeeze in time to finish the project I needed the ship for...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Health Care Shenanigans

So a while back I had an allergic reaction to something, and I wasn't sure what caused it.

The week after, my face swelled up again. I realized that I had used my face lotion that morning, thereby solving the mystery.

After a bit of research (well, really I just read the Amazon.com reviews) it turns out that some people do indeed have this reaction to this particular lotion. It's rare, so I guess I'm just special.

I took myself to the doctor, who fixed me up with an injection and prescription for the next week. I was fine by the next day - the wonders of modern medicine. The doctor recommended I see an allergist to figure out what's in the lotion that my skin doesn't like, so I can avoid it in the future.

Good idea, I thought, so this week I called an asked for an appointment. I got one.

Feb 10th, 2010.

Well I can tell how far down on the triage list MY request is.... I think I'll just look at the ingredient list on the jar, and call it good.... :)

Passing Thought

It is small difference between being neck-deep in what you love, and over your head.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Conference Summary

Whew! I made it. Conference complete. I don't have the mental energy to put together paragraphs, so I beg your indulgence for bullet points.

- On my own personal scorecard, the winner of the best title of paper at the conference: Pendulum Animal Impact Testing. That threw me for a loop so much that I looked up the paper just to see what it was about. From the abstract: "The authors have developed a pendulum test incorporating an animal dummy to generate similar roof deformation to that experienced in real world animal impact accidents." Well, I guess somebody has to do it...

- My presentation this morning (at 8am - yeek!) went quite well, I thought. There were more hands up with questions than I had time to answer at the end of the talk. That either means people were interested, or people couldn't understand what in the world I was talking about. I'm hoping the former.

- I met two professors from World's Best School here, and met up with four other World's Best School students. My school was well-represented!

- I spent my days in sessions listening to talks, but in the evenings I was left to my own devices. Two nights I had to work (although I'm not actually AT school this week, homework is still due....) but two other nights I spent socializing. I was worried about the meet-and-greet type stuff, but it turned out to be quite enjoyable and I met some really great students.

- Wednesday night all of us World's Best School students went out for a nice dinner. I was acquaintances with these students (knew their faces from the department) before this conference but I'd never gotten to know them. Turns out they are fascinating people, and we had great dinner conversation. Also, the food was divine. We went to a Greek restaurant run by Cat Cora (of Iron Chef fame on the Food Network). Every dish we ordered was sublime. Perfectly seasoned, unique but balanced recipes. Delicious! I got the "Traditional Whole Fish"

and fortunately, the restaurant staff was available to show me how to filet the fish - I didn't know how to eat what was on my plate.... Now I'm an expert! We all sampled each other's dishes (fisherman's stew, rack of lamb) and although they were all excellent, we agreed mine was the best.

- I got to soak up the sun one afternoon out by the pool, and then slip into the hot tub after the sun went down. I could practically feel the stress melt away... I tried to store up as much sun as possible before I head back to the New England winter!

- I walked out and about one afternoon, and there was an outdoor magician putting on a show. I stopped to watch, and enjoyed feeling like a little kid again.

- The food situation at the conference was terrible. Bad planning all around - the logistics were all screwed up. On Monday, they ran out of food after half an hour (in an hour and a half lunch slot). I was in line, and had to wait 15 minutes before they showed up with more sandwiches. Then just as I was about to get to the front of the line, they ran out again. Another 15 minute wait, and they came out with pasta. I got one meager spoonfull (on a dessert-sized plate) and a pack of chips, and that was all for lunch. Boo.

Then Tuesday, you got a choice of sandwiches. I chose the roasted pepper wrap, and it turned out to be this tiny little burrito sized thing. Whereas the people who wanted Philly Cheese Steak got huge subs. Unfair!

On Wednesday, there was no choice of food - and just as I got to the front of the line at my station, that station ran out. Everybody in line had to move over to a different station and wait in line all over again.

Then finally today, they didn't run out of food (it was hamburgers). But the problem was they lined everybody up in two lines to get the hamburger. Then they put one table with condiments (lettuce, tomato, ketchup, that sort of thing) to one side of the serving lines, requiring you to pass THROUGH the line to get to the condiments. Then because there was only one table, there was a bottleneck and the queue backed up into the hamburger line and caused a huge mess. Then to get your drink, you had to go back to the other side of the room (again, THROUGH the hamburger line). And then there were no tables to sit at.

Bah. For an engineering conference, nobody thought to count number of registrants and compare to the number of sandwiches? Or was there no systems engineer able to work out logisitcal queueing flow? AND there was no coffee available after 9am. Really? Coffee should be available at a near-constant rate, I think. There's STUDENTS attending, for crying out loud...

- I looked good at this conference. I had to buy a couple pairs of dress pants and shirts last week for this purpose (I haven't worn dress clothes in a while, and I've lost weight so my old things don't fit). I wanted to get a suit, but I couldn't find one on short notice that fit me well. Despite that, I felt very confident and svelte in my sharp clothes. Nothing like a black pencil skirt, crisp white button down and kitten heels to put a spring in your step. They were partly bought with birthday money, so thank you to family for that!


So other than the food, a successful experience all the way around. I have a pocket full of business cards of people doing things relevant to my work (although I have none to give them), and I've been inspired to try a few new things in my own research. Tomorrow it's home again, home again, jiggety jig!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Always Forget Something

Every trip I take, I always manage to forget exactly one item. Doesn’t matter how many lists I make, how early I pack, how much I re-check my bag, or how many extra things I bring – there will always be one thing missing. So I have relegated myself to just making sure that one item is not a critical item. So far, I’ve never forgotten anything I truly need.

This trip, the only thing I forgot was business cards. A bummer, but most students don’t have business cards anyway so I can get along. I’ve been listening to a never-ending parade of presentations since I’ve been here (it’s my job to attend talks and network, you know) and occasionally there will be one that is relevant enough I’d like to keep in touch with the speaker. So I usually wait until the end of the session, introduce myself, and ask a few questions about the presentation. If I’d like to follow up later, I’ll ask for a business card.

The only time I’ve felt bad about not having contact information is when I speak to presenters from Asian countries. The culture, it turns out, is quite different there. Relationships and pecking orders are highly important, as are (it turns out) business cards. The presentation of business cards is almost a ritualistic affair. I first learned this when I went to Japan in undergrad – it’s customary to accept the business card with a bow (the depth of the bow depending on your relationship to the giver), hold it in both hands and carefully look at it before putting it away. Here in America, those customs are relaxed, but the business card is still important.

So when I wanted to send one speaker from Japan a note afterwards to discuss how his work could be helpful to my work, I asked for his email. He insisted that he have contact information from me as well, so I wrote my name and email on a slip of paper and handed it to him. I felt rather embarrassed as I watched how he carefully accepted the torn slip, read it, and placed it neatly inside his suit jacket.

I mean, if I thought it was going to be that important to him, I would have at least torn the edges STRAIGHT….

But all in all, an acceptable item to forget. I have latptop, presentation, ID, money, and business clothes – since I bought a good book in the gift shop, I may not even need to come home. J

Sunday, November 15, 2009

From My Hotel in Sunny, Warm Conference City

This week I am attending a conference (at which I have a paper to present) in a beautiful, touristy city with highs in the 80s all this week. I am here by myself (advisor opted out of this one), and I intend to fully enjoy all the networking and all the sightseeing I can possibly cram in.

Just this evening I wandered down to the hotel lobby to try and rustle up some dinner (avoiding expensive room service at all costs). I was complaining in my head that it's actually rather hard to eat when you are only one person - it's awkward to go to a sit-down place by your lonesome, but there aren't any fast food places close to this hotel. And just then, I ran into a colleague of mine from World's Best School. How cool - and what fortunate happenstance! He is here with his labmate, and they each have papers to present at this conference.

So the three of us went to dinner, after finding a suitable place (how many engineers does it take to read a map... gees...). I got along really well with the two of them, and it certainly makes travel more enjoyable to have familiar faces to socialize with. After paying an exorbitant amount for a modest dinner and a sad-looking banana, we made plans to scout out a grocery store tomorrow evening to stock up on fruit.

So cheers to friends in all places -

A poem for your pleasure

I must share with you a poem that my brother composed and sent to me. I adore my brother, and his quirky sense of humor tickles me pink. He was emailing to me and my sister with a request for style advice:

I need some clothes that would a woman render,
Helpless to my charms, but still not offend her,
So that willingly her heart she might dutifully surrender,
For this I need assistance from the female gender!

Now how can a sister not respond to that?

There is a shopping trip coming Christmas, I promise you bud!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Meeting Goals

Today I happen to be very pleased with myself. I've always been a self-driven type of person, and it pleases me when I meet goals I set for myself (it's also good to meet goals other people set, such as schoolwork goals, but that's not as fun). Today I have met two goals at once - booyah!

You might recall I'm in a medical study that tracks how many calories I eat, and that monitoring has led to some weight loss. I've been continuing to try and make healthy choices, and I am pleased to say that I have lost (and kept off for a couple months now) exactly 20 lbs. Yea!

I feel much better, and my graph looks good too...

And, to make today even better, I have met my savings goal. I am fortunate to have parents who impressed upon me the importance of being prudent with my finances, so I have always tried to spend and save wisely. My goal for this semester was to gather $1k in savings, and as of this morning (with a few cents of interest putting me over the edge....) I have $1000.01 in my savings account. I know that seems like a small amount to anyone who has a real job, but it means a lot to me. My credit card is paid in full every month, I have a chunk of money invested, and I have started a (quite small so far) retirement account.

Onward and upward!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Generating Innovative Ideas

Last week one of the professors in the Mechanical Engineering department was awarded a prestigious award for Teaching Innovation.

I attended his lecture, at which he was given the award. His talk was on how he encourages innovation through his teaching techniques. It was really interesting, I thought. He talked about how it is always better to learn through doing than to learn through simply listening. Of course DOING takes more resources and more time than just LECTURING, so we are fortunate to be at a school with the means to accomplish this.

One specific example he gave was the freshman class he teaches on design. One class period is on writing specs. Writing specs means to carefully record the steps or procedures for a given process. It's usually a dreadfully boring process, tedious and detail-oriented. But this professor breaks students into teams, gives them pieces of fruit and has them write specs on how to dissect it. Then, the student teams swap specs and try to guess the piece of fruit that the unknown spec was written to dissect.

One day the Dean of the MechE department was giving tours to parents of freshman. The Dean took them by the classroom (happens to have glass windows, like a lab) to view the lecture. It happened to be the "writing specs" lecture, and the students looked so engrossed the parents didn't even want to interrupt! The most boring lecture topic of all, and the students looked to busy to disturb!

During this lecture I was attending on teaching innovation, the professor did an "in-class exercise" of sorts, to illustrate a point. He handed out pieces of paper and told us to write for four minutes and list as many ideas as we could on "how to save money at World's Best School." The faculty all laughed, because we have been going through recession-related budget cuts, and the topic hit a little close to home...

After four minutes, we all turned in our papers. While the professor continued talking, three of his students looked over the papers. Further along in the lecture, the professor declared the "winner" of the contest. The criteria turned out to be (and we didn't know this) how many ideas you wrote down. The winner had 30 ideas. I had perhaps six.

"So how do you come up with that many ideas? How was that person so creative?" asked the professor, "And can that be TAUGHT?"

One of the techniques he teaches in his classes to encourage proliferate ideas is to come at the problem from different viewpoints. So if, for instance, you are trying to think of ways to improve student life - think about dorm life, food on campus, extracurricular activities, mentoring available, sports offered, student clubs. Generate as many ideas in each category as you can.

I thought that was useful. Breaking a vague problem up into smaller digestible segments seems like the right way to go.

The professor also mentioned other techniques, but the kicker came at the end of the lecture.

In his last couple minutes, he held up the "winner" of the ideas contest - the one with the 30 ideas. And it turns out, that person had done just as he said. There were four or five categories of saving money, and ideas under each category.

Maybe he had a plant. :)

Massage Class

Way back in January, I wrote a list of classes I'd like to take, and things I want to do. I'm at a point in life where I'm as free and unencumbered as I ever will be, and I want to take advantage of it.

Well, I took the archery class. And I loved it.

Now I'm continuing to tick off things on the "wishes" post. I'm taking a second-quarter class in massage. It started three weeks ago, and it goes every Monday for eight weeks until the end of the semester.

I'm really enjoying it! I had my doubts on the first day of class - the teacher is your stereotypical alternative-medicine advocate, with the wild mane of frizzy hair, long loopy scarves and full skirts in earth tones. She urged us to be "open-minded," to pay attention to "the healing power of touch," the "magnetic forces between all objects," and to "set our intentions in prayer before laying on your hands." Oh my. And I knew it was going to be a hard sell, because she told us that "If you are looking for scientific proof," and here she mentioned that more people at World's Best School have asked about scientific studies than anywhere else she has worked, "then this is the wrong class for you."

Um, yeah. You expected to try and teach a bunch of engineers and scientists about neti pots without any supporting evidence? She must have seen the skeptical looks, because the next week she brought in photocopies of an article. Except it was from Wikipedia.

Nice try.

This week, she brought in a couple studies from more reputable sources, and you could tell everybody breathed a little easier. We students like our data, thank you very much.

But the spiritual bent aside, our teacher is certified in a variety of types of massage (including prenatal massage, how cool!) and has been practicing for nearly twenty years. She is very knowledgeable, and has organized lesson plans for us to follow.

Each lesson lasts two hours. It starts with our teacher explaining the techniques we will learn, and showing us anatomy charts where appropriate. She then demonstrates on a volunteer, and then we pair off and try the techniques ourselves on each other. It's a wonderful system - it means I get a free massage every week!

The first week we learned compression and traction. In my own head, every time I think about it I think "compression and tension," but that's my engineering bias coming in there.... :) Compression is just what it sounds like - pressing into the body with the palms of your hands. It's very simple, feels good, and is soothing. A good opening stroke, says the teacher. Traction is stretching - the arms away from the body, the ankles away from the spine, and the head from the shoulders. Well, not TOO far away from the shoulders. We also learned effleurage (long sweeping strokes), and petrissage (kneading).

The second week we covered head and neck massage. I found this very odd - I never have people touching my face. But I paired up with a spunky girl that I really enjoyed working with - we had fun especially with the scalp massage. We laughed that the boys were having a hard time dealing with girl's curly hair...

This week we did abdomen massage. This is the teacher's specialty, as she does a majority of her work in pregnant and post-pregnant women. We learned how to feel your partner's breathing, and to gently release tension in the stomach and hip muscles. One particular technique involves pressing straight down into your partner's belly button. Here you can most strongly feel the pulse, because major veins and arteries run through your middle. The teacher said that according to traditional Chinese massage (or was it Mayan?) the naval chakra is the strongest, and the pulse here is a measure of your vitality.

Well, it turns out that my pulse is ridiculously strong. It scared my partner. "Why is your belly MOVING?" she cried. We had the teacher come over to ensure that no strange growths were occurring in my stomach, and fortunately no, I am not abnormal. I just have a combination of a really strong pulse and really strong abs (thank you abs workout class!), so my poor partner couldn't even feel what she was supposed to.

Up next week for Miss Vitality: neck massage! I can't wait.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Trust in Classmates

One of my favorite things I discovered when I came to World's Best School is that there are many, many people here who are like me. Driven like me, dedicated like me, and many much smarter than me. This incredible place where I am surrounded by an army of geniuses has had several advantages.

One is that it is vastly easier to trust my classmates. In undergrad, group projects were always a crapshoot. Your teammates can make or break a project - that's a commonly known fact. In undergrad, I always had to worry "Will I get a good team, will I have teammates who won't pull their share, will there be team members who don't have a clue what they are doing?" If any of those were true, it meant a lot more work for me - checking other people's work, harping on people to get their share done. It got easier as I became an upperclassman, because I finally knew most of my classmates and I could try and get in teams I knew would be good.

I was worried when I got to World's Best School, because I didn't know anybody and I had to jump right into project classes. But a fantastic thing happened. EVERYBODY here is a good teammate. Well, nearly everybody. In an astonishing turn of events, I sometimes have to struggle to keep up MY end!

And now I get to enjoy the benefits. Both of my classes are project classes, and this weekend I am working on both projects. I already finished my part for one class, and sent it off to the rest of the team. Now I get to sit back and TRUST that they will finish the rest of the assignment. And I do trust them. They are capable, they are motivated, and I don't have to worry. It's a fantastic feeling to lean on colleagues and feel that support.

Now if I could only finish my section of the OTHER class project, so that my teammates there can trust ME. :)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lab Equipment Taking Over

This week one member of our lab was much busier than usual. It was a real crunch. Emails between lab people were flying back and forth, trying to schedule working time and negotiate schedules.

Finally, the most senior member of our lab threw up his hands and sent out a link to a Google calendar. "Here," he said, "I've added everybody to the permissions, and this calendar will be the definitive say on who has time when."

So, my readers, the lab chiller now has a Google calendar. Too many people were trying to use this piece of equipment at once (it's a machine that chills water for use in experiments).

So now, a piece of our equipment is now more computer savvy than I am. More connected. More Web 2.0.

All it needs now is a Facebook page - but I'm afraid my lab equipment might have more friends than I do. :)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Homework chuckle

One of my classes is about mechanical assemblies, and one of the homework problems made me chuckle.

The problem requires you to design three parts that assemble and intermingle with certain requirements. There are many ways to design the three parts within the requirements, but it gets tricky and complicated quickly. The problem statement noted that:

"In past years, some students have presented designs that look like spiders fighting. This is not necessary."

Figure 1: Unnecessary spider fight

I am now sorely tempted to incorporate a few hairy legs in my part design.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Cutting Your Losses

There is an art to being a student.

As a freshman you don't yet realize it, but by the time I reached senior year in college I realized I was a homework and test-taking machine. I am GOOD at what I do. I have been trained for school for over 15 years now. That's one of the reasons that I decided to do grad school right away and not take time off - I want to take advantage of the honed studying skills I already have.

I have perfected the art of cutting my losses.

I remember a story my father told me. He said when he was in grad school, he was taking a class on computer modeling (a state-of-the-art class at the time, and a tedious, painful process with the programming techniques of the era). The teacher assigned a homework set that took a hellishly long time to complete. So long, in fact, that the alloted time on the computer for the class was used up (yes, they had to book time to use the computer...). The teacher decided at the last moment to extend the deadline for the assignment, but my father made a judgement call and turned it in incomplete.

There are criteria for when to give up.

My father had already learned the concepts in the homework. No additional information would he gain by completing the assignment. The many extra hours would add only a percentage to that one homework grade, and an even smaller percentage to his overall homework grade, and a nearly insignificant amount to his final class grade. In short, it wasn't worth his time.

You have to be smart about where you put your resources.

If you decide to half-a** it too often - if it becomes a habit - then it's a pattern and you can't escape the consequences. Many, many college students fail because they bank on the fact that each individual piece of work for each class isn't worth much. But they add up to a lot. You have to judge where you put your time and energy. If you are smart about it, you are not slacking off - it's just resource management. You don't spend six hours on one homework when you have a mid-term paper worth half your grade due. You don't spend a hour on one problem in a homework when the other problems are easy and worth just as much. You don't spend ten minutes on a multiple choice-problem on a test when the essays are worth 60%.

You have to accept, sometimes you can't do everything.

Things are going to fall through the cracks. I remember distinctly one evening my senior year of college. I was so tired, and so overwhelmed. I had a homework for numerical methods due the next day that I hadn't even started. I tried to get out a piece of paper and start, but I was so wrung out I just started to cry. I crawled into bed, turned off the lights, and just curled up under the blanket. My last thought before I drifted to sleep was, "I should be working. I should be working. I should be working." I felt so guilty, and really I just needed to give myself a break. I should have just taken a deep breath and said, "I could be working. But I need to be sleeping. And that's okay."

Then your decision becomes, so what do I spend my time on?

I have a homework set due on Wednesday. I tried to work on this yesterday, and I worked more this afternoon and a bit this evening. I got through the first problem, but then realized I don't understand the rest the material. It's going to take me hours to teach myself the concepts that are confusing me. I could work on this all day tomorrow, but:

This is the last homework for this class, and there is no final exam. I have done all the other homework sets and gotten good grades. I will never have to know these concepts again for this class, and I don't need it for my research. In the meantime, I have a conference coming up that I need experimental results for. My professor is expecting me to make research progress this week. I am trying to collaborate with two other students on a really cool research tangent, and I have responsibilities at my dorm this week.

In short, all the criteria for making a judgement call are in place. This homework is not going to be worth the hours it takes me to do it. I'm setting aside my pencil and calling it a night.

Besides, tomorrow is my birthday. 

And with that, a good night!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Writing Papers for Business vs. Science

I am taking a class on entrepreneurship this semester, and I absolutely love it. It's my favorite class here yet. I've written before about how I gave an elevator pitch about my idea, and then how I got to form a team to work on my idea.

Well, a team has been formed. Two business students, and two engineering students (including myself). We spent a week or two doing market analysis and cold calling people to get reactions and feedback on our idea. It turns out that the idea might be worth something after all, and everybody we talked to was excited to hear about what we were planning. One person even wanted to know when he could see a demo, and offered his site for testing.

So all in all, the project is coming along swimmingly.

Two weeks ago we turned in an Executive Summary section of a business plan. The idea is that each week we turn in a different section of the business plan - Market Analysis, Advertising, Sales, Pricing, etc. The Executive Summary is the intro at the beginning of the business plan, and is usually the last thing you write, but the professors make us write it near the beginning so that we think about the big picture.

We got back that assignment last week. Overall, the grade was good and the comments were positive. The professor would reference various groups' papers during the lecture, to illustrate points. Usually to point out what NOT to do. For instance, when talking about focusing on the customer, the professor said, "Now let me read to you from Group A's report. Here in the section on customers they say that there are X thousands in area 1, Y thousands in area 2, Z thousands in area 3, and then in addition there are even more in area 4. WRONG! You need to pick an area and stay with it." Then the professor went on, "But contrast that with Miss Outlier's group. They say that they have identified 320 targets to begin with, and then 560 potential cutomers ready right after that. And look, I can check Appendix A for a list of contact information. Now THAT is focus."

So my group and I were sitting there feeling very pleased with ourselves.

But then later on in lecture, the professor was trying to make another point, and he said "Let me read to you from Miss Outlier's report again. Here is their very first sentence." He then proceeded to read the opening sentence in a monotone, all in one breath.

"Now how boring is THAT?" he asked. The class tittered, because indeed it did sound very dry.

"It lacks PASSION!" he cried, "Where is the enthusiasm?"

And I was thinking, SO? When was the last time you read a scientific paper with the word "fantastic" in it? What else did you expect when a bunch of engineers writes a report?

In a word, dear readers, I was unaware that my report was supposed to display passion. I quite distinctly remember designing the first sentence of the report to relay precisely and concisely the content of the report.

And of course, I do HAVE passion. I have that in spades. I hope it shows through in my face-to-face presentations, but I never have to portray anything beyond a subdued confidence in my writing.

So this will be an adventure. Apparently writing for business is a bit different than writing for science.

Or, rather:

Crafting compelling stories from a business perspective requires confidence and excitement to shine through the words, instead of stifling the passion with the dry prose of scientific treatises. I'm EXCITED! Vote for MEEEE!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Where was this on my To-Do list?

As life rolls along, sometimes we take for granted the things that have no problems. You don't think about your calendar until you lose it, you don't worry about your body until you fracture your foot, and you most certainly don't worry about your skin until you wake up with a rash.

Yes, dear internet, this morning I woke up and it seemed like my eyes didn't quite open all the way. I just attributed this to the fact that it was 7am, and stumbled into the bathroom to take my shower.

I noticed that my eyes still felt puffy, and when I washed my face my skin was itchy.

Upon stepping out to brush my teeth, I was confronted with my own red, blotchy face in the mirror - what has happened to my FACE?

Somehow I have managed to attain a rash over most of my face. I made a pit stop this morning for Benadryl, which has helped greatly. The only thing I have ever been allergic to is the skin on mangoes, so I'm not sure what caused this. The only two things I can think of are 1) the new face lotion I'm using this week, or 2) the mango sherbet I had for dessert. The only problems are 1) why wouldn't lotion problems have shown up sooner, like the day I first used it, and 2) there is no mango peel in ice cream, and my bowl of sherbet was from almost the bottom of the container - I've had no problems eating the first 2/3rds of the pint!

Either way, this wasn't something I was planning to have to deal with today. But life rolls along regardless...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Austin City Limits

Way back in January, I bought discounted early bird tickets to this year's Austin City Limits - a big music festival out in Texas. I watched the airline prices, and scored a great deal this summer on a direct flight to Austin.

And then finally, when I had almost forgotten that I made all these preparations, the day arrived! Earlier this month I attended ACL, and had a blast. I stayed with a friend of mine from college, and spent the weekend with a few thousand of other festival fans:

Even got to spend some time with another friend from undergrad:

Enjoyed myself under the wide open southern sky:

And listened to awesome music played from seven platforms distributed across the field (or mudpit, as it became by Sunday...):

Also, thanks to my host, I got to see the Texas captiol buildings and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential museum. We ate at a tacqueria that served the fresh version of Dr. Pepper (only available in a limited area of Texas), and chowed down on a huge bag of kettle corn. Life is good!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Adventure That Wasn't

Do you see that time? That was AFTER my shower, I was actually up at 3:45am. There is no way I ever see a "3" or a "4" on the clock from the GETTING UP direction as opposed to the STILL UP direction, unless I'm planning on an adventure.

And oh, what an adventure I had planned.

I was going diving with sharks.

Sharks, I have learned, have migration patterns. In the early fall, they congregate off the New England coast. I have a scuba diving license, and I have a friend whose job it is to tag sharks, and a friend who is an underwater photographer. I had it all planned to go out with them on a charter boat with a shark cage, to spend the day swimming with sharks.

The day before the trip, I rented the gear I needed from a dive shop. Then that night I packed up my tank, B.C., regulator, wetsuit, fins, mask, snorkel, food, water, camera, towel... Gracious, it takes a lot of gear to go diving! I went to bed especially early. I was carpooling, so at 4:30am my ride pulled up and we rolled out, headed for Rhode Island. We made it there in good time, although it was drizzling. We pull up to the dock, pile out of the truck, and meet up with our boat captain.

"We're not going." he says.

Aw, man.

Turns out that some other fishing boats had already been out beyond the breakers (!!! it's 6am, how were they already out and back? guess that's fishermen for you...) and reported 12 foot swells. That's too much for safety (and comfort - hello Drammamine) of the divers. Plus, it was drizzling, so visibility wasn't that good. All in all, if the fishermen don't want to be out making money, there's no way our captain wanted to be out with expensive gear and people's lives in danger in the water.


And, to top it off, the captain was completely booked for the next several weeks - plus, it was late in the "shark season." So there were no available rescheduling dates.

So, next year we all agreed we would be back. More adventures await, just not that day and not that adventure.

I' d love to see one of these buggers up close and personal. 
In fact, I want to spear one with a tag.
It will happen next June, believe me. :)

Friday, October 16, 2009


It snowed today.

Winter has begun.

And it won't end till next April.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Winter Vegetable Hash

Vegetable Soup:

Kale and Vegetable Stir Fry:

I've got veggies coming out of my ears from this farm share!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Toasted eggplant:

Chopped fresh squash, onion, and tomato:

Sweet bell peppers:

All cooked with spices in a warm comfort food, ratatouille:



I have been excited to decorate my room as an RA. It's a step up from my old dorm room in terms of size, and it's a semi-public space because all the girls on my floors are welcome to stop by whenever I am home and have my door open. I realized that I was missing an important thing - a clock! Every room needs a clock, right? So I did a bit of searching, and look how slick my new timekeeper is:

As I was picking out the clock, simple as it is, it got me thinking. My room is all I have as my home right now. And humble as it is, it's important to me that the girls be comfortable coming to my room to talk to me. It needs to be welcoming, with plenty of room to sit and chat.

I will post pictures eventually (when I have it all clean!). But I was reminded of something I read in an article recently. It said that as you get older and accumulate material objects, the things you buy and surround yourself with make a statement about you. And I want to make sure that my home and my life reflect who I am. I want to be surrounded by things I enjoy, not unnecessary knick-knacks. I want to have fewer things, and higher quality of what I do have. I want to be stylish, but warm and welcoming. I think these principles apply to my living space, my office space, and even the clothes and shoes I own.

So I smile when I look at the jewelry rack that I made myself (my own design in cherry wood, with all my favorite dangly earrings hanging on it). I look longingly at the top shelf of my bookshelf, filled with books I have yet to read - and with satisfaction at the bottom THREE shelves full of completed class notes, textbooks, and reference books. I know that the top cabinet above my closet has three bags of tools and supplies waiting for me to tackle a new project, and that the whole floor of my closet is covered in cute shoes waiting for a night on the town with friends. My favorite cotton PJs fresh from the wash are snuggled in the bottom dresser drawer. My neatly organized desk has a handful of the best liquid ink pens, and stacks of engineering paper for studying.

I feel better when my surroundings are in order. All seems right with the world.

So good night, from me (sitting here wrapped in a down comforter from my grandmother) to you (hopefully safe and happy in your own home, wherever that may be).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tape Measure CAD

Remember that tape measure I took apart? Well, the professor approved of the choice and it is now the official object my team is going to work on all semester. The first thing we had to do was make a CAD model of it. Three people on our team of six worked on the CAD (including myself), and if I do say so we kicked butt! For reference, here is the actual tape measure:

Then look at these gorgeous models:

And the pretty drawings we made:

It's a little ridiculous how excited I was about these pretty pictures. After six years of engineering training, this is what I do - model gadgets that have been around since 1868...