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....