Thursday, April 29, 2010

Blue Lagoon

While in Iceland, after the conference was over the organizing team did some sightseeing. One of the places we went was to the natural hot springs.

Figure: Ah, relaxation...

It was a little surreal. We took a bus out to the middle of nowhere, shivered in our winter coats while we hiked over a moon-like landscape of lava, and then suddenly came upon this tourist attraction built around this lake. They have dressing rooms where you can change (and everyone is required to strip naked and shower in the communal locker room before going to the water - such an odd European thing...). Then you have to run, run, run the short distance from the lockers outside to the water, and gratefully scamper into the warm water.

Figure: And when I say warm water, I do mean steaming...

The water is filled with silica, so it's no longer clear, it's a robin's-egg-blue color. You can't see the bottom, but the mud on the bottom is supposed to be good for your skin. We tried it. Some of us. Most of the boys scoffed at it.

Figure: See, I'm so white you can't even tell I'm wearing any mud...

All in all, an excellent way to unwind. And since it was paid for by the conference, it's no wonder we are smiling.... :)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hatching an Idea

Last week, one of my classmates and I in the business/entrepreneurship class were working on the class project. After we finished our work, he tossed out this remark - "Miss Outlier, I was thinking. I have an idea I want to run by you."

I love when people toss out that kind of remark. Well, when CERTAIN people toss out that remark. This particular person I have really come to respect over the semester, (which is rare for me given my historical experience with the MBA students...). When I hear "I have a thought" from people I respect, my ears perk up. It's often those off-hand ideas that turn out to be something interesting.

In this case, he had an idea for a little widget he wanted to make. Basically, it's a specialty case for an iPhone. I thought his idea was rather neat (not going to change the world, but a cool little consumer product). He asked me how you would go about making that idea into a real product. I said, well, you need to make a prototype.

How would you do that? he asked.

Well, I said, it's actually not hard - I have the tools in my lab. I can have you a sample by next class period.

Done. Simple.

The key is that it's all in the tools - if you have the right equipment, projects become easy. What he wanted would be made out of polymer and/or rubber. In my lab I have a laser cutter which can cut polymers, and a waterjet which cuts rubber. And I have a setup and materials for casting rubber, and a micromill for making the mold for casting. And in my Craftsman toolbox, I just happen to have a variety of 6" by 6" squares of rubber. (I had a product development class a while ago, and we had to use rubber for the class project. We didn't know what kind of rubber we needed, so we bought a variety pack. I, of course, kept the extras. It wasn't like anybody else wanted rubber scraps... but see, now it might be useful!)

Figure: Variety pack of rubber leftovers. Just the sort of thing that helps me proudly uphold the engineering stereotype.

My classmate didn't know about all that, so my answer came as a surprise. He was incredulous. "Really?" he exclaimed, "Just like that? You just make it?"

Yes indeedy. That's my job. To make stuff.

"Man, I picked the wrong major." he said.

Yeah, that's what you get when you hang out too long in the business world - you get disconnected from actually PRODUCING something real. Instead of, you know, all that NETWORKING you spend your time on.

Now normally I wouldn't spend my time on a side project like this, but he was so excited and impressed that I could actually make a sample of his idea, that I kinda want to prove that I can. A bit of pride on the line here. :) It's the birth of an idea...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It's Alive!

I mentioned just briefly that I had taught a robot how to operate my machine. I'd like to elaborate a little bit. My machine looks like this:

The black box is the electronics, the thing on the right is the machine. I designed, built, and tested all of that for my Master's degree. The machine has jaws that open and close. You put a small plastic piece (a "blank") into the jaws, and the jaws close and form the part. The bottom jaw looks like this:

The plastic piece slides in underneath those little fingers.

Our lab also has a robot arm. The student in charge of the robot arm figured out how to program the robot to slide the plastic piece into the bottom jaw. So the robot could load the part, and then take it out after it was done.

But that was all done manually. The student would tell the robot to move. Then I would press buttons to make my machine go. Then the student would tell the robot to take the part out.

But now - NOW - we have done something exciting.

We have wired together the robot and my machine, so the whole thing happens AUTOMATICALLY. There is a holder that has a bunch of blanks in it, there is my machine, and there is the robot arm, and there are two laptops. I press go on my laptop, and the student presses go on her laptop.

The robot automatically picks up a plastic piece, loads it into my machine. My machine knows this has happened, and makes the part. Then my machine signals the robot that it is done - and the robot takes out the part. The robot moves the part over to a glass plate, and a camera takes a picture of the part through the glass plate. If the part is good, it goes into the "done" bin.

Then the cycle starts again - the robot picks up another blank, and we make another part.

Every FOUR MINUTES AND NINE SECONDS, a part comes out of this little factory all by itself. It usually takes grad students in other labs hours to make parts. We made 25 parts in a row - everything moving around under its own programming.

How awesome is that?

This video shows the jaws of my machine opening (there is a finished part in there). The robot arm comes in, takes out the finished part, and moves it over and sets it down on top of the camera. Then it gets a new blank, and loads it into my machine, and the cycle starts again.

This video shows a close-up of the part going into the machine:

And this one shows a global view of the robot arm:

The factory lives! It's so eerie to watch, and think, "I DID that....."

Monday, April 19, 2010


You know that conference I went on in March? The one where I had to watch out for the volcano to get there? Yep, turns out I should thank my lucky stars that the conference went off without a hitch.

That volcano is now erupting furiously, disrupting travel and stranding passengers worldwide. It's permanently on the front page of CNN reporting. We have BBC reporting.

I read entrepreneurship blogs and startup blogs to stay up on the happenings of that community, and everybody is complaining. TechCrunch says that "Eyjafjallajökull has become a curse word in Europe". It's putting startups in Europe in a nasty pickle.

But while I was in Iceland, it was still erupting in a happy, awesome-but-not-life-threatening way. A few other conference organizers and I decided that we wanted to go see the volcano. Because hey, how often do you get that chance?

There are various ways that you can get to the volcano. You can fly over in a little airplane, and take pictures out the window. But there is no airstrip in the middle of a glacier by a random volcano, so you can't land. You can take a helicopter, which will land in a clearing and you can get out and look. But you won't be very close, because you'd like to stay far enough away that you don't fly through lava whizzing through the air.

Or, OR, you can do what we did. Check out this adventure:

We drove to a little tiny town in the middle of nowhere that is as close as you can get by car.

We got into a huge tank-looking truck with tires as big as me, and 27 gears (so says the driver, who also added "most of them are low....").

The truck took us up the mountain to the top of the glacier - over rocks, ice, snow, and ridiculous slopes.

Then we loaded ourselves onto snowmobiles (paired up, two to a vehicle.) Guess who is driving? Ha!

We then drove across the glacier for AN HOUR. With the windchill, it was about -15F. The wind was blowing snow everywhere, so you had to stick close to the guide so you didn't get lost. Every so often the conditions would be nearly white-out, so we would have to stop and regroup.

We eventually made it right to the foot of the erupting volcano. The snow looks dirty because of the layer of ash. You could feel the ground vibrate, and hear the rumblings from deep inside the earth.

On the front side of the volcano, you could see the bright red lava shooting out the top. It was like thunder and lightning - first a rumble, then a crash, then a spray of lava high into the air.

Then we drove around to the backside of the volcano. Here, you could see the lava flowing down like a waterfall and melting into the glacier. We were standing on a cliff, and I wondered why there happened to be a cliff right there. It was because the lava had melted straight down into the ice.

There were all these holes in the snow - some as large as a dinner plate - and I was a little worried. I have read about Antarctic explorers - I know that there are such things as fissures in glaciers. You know, step on the wrong place and fall to your death down a bottomless crevice. But our guide reassured us that it was not the case. No indeed, instead of being warnings of unstable snow, those were simply cylinders melted into the snow by flying pieces of lava. At the bottom of each round hole, way down below, would be a piece of rock. Yeah, like being hit with lava is better than falling down a crevice.

Maybe we better stand a little farther away.

So how awesome is that? I got to go see a erupting volcano! Felt the heat of the lava, heard the crashing, watched the red lava turn black as it flew through the air.

Paid a bit of a price, though (and not only the money - and they do charge you for "an experience of a lifetime..."). While we were standing at the volcano, my feet were getting colder and colder. On the way back, the snow that had melted in my boots froze. Especially the foot that was on the wind-ward side of the snowmobile. By the time we were halfway back, I couldn't feel my feet.

I learned it's a little tough to walk when you can't feel your feet - a bit surreal. When we got back down the mountain, they warmed up, but I still couldn't feel my toes on the wind-ward foot. Even by that night. And my big toe was white.

When I got back to Boston, I went to see the doctor - and it turns out I got frostnip. Which is not as bad as frostbite, and not permanent. It just makes me a legit adventurer and adds a dramatic touch to the story. :)

So there is one tiny spot on the corner of my big toe where even now I still can't feel anything - although it'll heal eventually. It's my reminder of the mountain. Which I CONQUERED!

I'm so glad I got to do this while I was in Iceland. Because now that volcano looks like this:

Iceland Volcano Spews Anew from National Geographic. Gorgeous photography here and here from the Big Picture (one of the blogs I regularly follow).

You can see the road we took in this YouTube And look at the flooding - it's scary.

In conclusion, this was quite possibly one of the coolest things I've done. I mean, come on: snowmobiling across a glacier, in white-out conditions, to the mouth of an active volcano - braving negative temperatures, frostbite, and flying lava - to stand triumphantly for a picture with the eruption and lava in the background. AWESOME!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Savoring These Moments

It takes me a long time to make good friends. Now that I have been here three years, I have a good set of friends that I love hanging out with. They invite me out, I invite them out, I enjoy their company, and I'm instantly included and accepted when I walk in. Life is good.

But now the guard is changing. In my grad student office, there's 15 people in cubicles. Six of them are graduating with their PhD this May. The deadline for the thesis is in 16 days, so it's nose to the grindstone around here. Defenses are being scheduled, life plans are being laid out, and there's an aura of change in the air.

I'm going to miss these days. I will miss the comfortable-ness. I've grown close to these people, and change is hard. I'll have to get used to a new set of faces around the office. I'm going to be the old cranky fourth-year grad student come the fall, mentoring the new grad students and keeping tabs on the second- and third- year students. Roles are reversing.

Today we went out to lunch on a lazy afternoon, and we're all sitting around the table, shooting the breeze. I know all the inside jokes, I'm laughing at the stories, we're sharing the dirt on all the lab happenings. I'm reminded to savor these moments. Very soon everything will rotate, refresh.

Life is good now. But life will be this good again. I love that I love where I'm at in life. It's been a really stressful past few weeks for me for a variety of reasons, but I'm going to take a deep breath and remember that it's not the classes that stick with you - it's the friends and the memories that make life special.

So here's to comfortable, special memories - now and in the future.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Formal Night

Once a year the grad students have a formal night, with a three course meal and dancing at a lovely hotel downtown. I went last year, and had a great time with a bunch of friends. Last year we met up beforehand at one girl's apartment, and took cabs over together, and then hung out at a lounge after the event was over.

This year I was excited to go again. I don't get a chance to dress up very often, and I even already had a formal dress (that I bought for Iceland, so my school friends haven't seen it) that I planned to wear. The same girl invited me over to her apartment again, so I assumed things were going to be a lovely repeat of last year.

Except that it didn't go that way. I can try to make the best of it and say I had fun, but really, the whole night was just awkward....

It started with the dress. I put it on, and it didn't fit right. I don't know if it looked bad in Iceland, too, if it did nobody told me! Or maybe it was just the day. Or the light. Or the vagaries of women's psychology and fashion perception. But it made my armpits all crease up funny, and the satin creased right over my butt, and the whole thing was shiny satin so it reflected light from all the curvy bits where curves are not supposed to be... Ack.

So then I was running late, so I just threw on an old black dress I've had since my community college days. I tried to fix my hair, but I don't do anything to my hair normally, so I'm out of practice. I sprayed something on it (which was probably expired, I never use hair products...) and ended up with crunchy, flat hair. Bummer. And my hose had a hole in it, so I went bare-legged even though it was cold.

Then I got to my friend's house, and it turns out that instead of being a group of singles this year, we had this:

Yep, I'm the only single.

Then we had trouble getting a cab, so we walked half a mile to somebody's car. Then they didn't know how to get to the hotel, and I was squashed in the back seat. We arrived for dinner half an hour late, so there wasn't a place setting for me.

Then they had ballroom dancing for a LONG time (last year it was only an hour) and the DJ didn't start the dancing music until 11:30. I don't know how to ballroom dance. But when the DJ finally did come on, all the couples danced with each other. Ack! So awkward...

So I went and sat back down at our table and people-watched, which I actually like doing. Some mildly creepy guy then came up and started a conversation, and just wouldn't leave.

Finally when friends were ready to go, it turns out we couldn't get a cab. The city at bar-closing time is NOT an easy place to flag down a taxi. So we ended up walking around outside trying to get a cab for AN HOUR, at which point I was freezing (no coat, I assumed we'd be taking a cab there and back) and could have walked home in that space of time.

Bugger. The whole thing would have been much easier with a date, or a group of singles. Usually I am just fine with the fact I don't have a boyfriend, but this in particular made me feel like this:

Sigh. Win some, lose some.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I Refuse to Be Impressed With You

I have one classmate I really dislike working with. I can't put my finger on why I dislike him so much - it's certainly not that he's a bad person, or doesn't try to contribute, or be involved.

He's got a different background - he finished his Master's in engineering about ten years ago, left to go into finance, and now is coming back. He says he wants to "make a difference in the world" or some such lovey-dovey like that. I don't believe him. I suspect he was fired when the finance industry crashed in the last year or two.

He says that he ran three of his own companies, ran his own hedge fund, and didn't lose any money in the stock market crash. Now he claims that he is almost done with his thesis even though he doesn't even have a committee yet (or PASSED QUALS, which I hear is necessary). In the past year he claims he has solved "three or four or five" major problems in his area of study even though, according to him, "most PhD projects only focus on one project." His contributions to group conversations aren't helpful. He takes it upon himself to "update the professor on our progress" even though he has no idea what the current status of the project is (given that we actual engineers have been working without him, as it's more efficient that way - he can't do CAD, can't machine, and can't make drawings).

Maybe my own bias against business people is coming in here. I have found that it is typical business student behavior to talk a big game and do nothing real. I think this guy is used to impressing everybody, is used to being important, and has come to believe that he actually is more important than us.

So here's my entirely illogical rant: No, buddy, sorry, I don't trust your engineering competence. Your ideas aren't any good, I think you've lost your technical expertise (if you had any - did you go to Wall Street because you couldn't hack engineering work?) while you worked in finance. I suspect your job there consisted of a lot of pushing buttons and making powerpoints, so I don't blame you for being bored and coming back to grad school. But your life experience doesn't NECESSARILY make you wiser than I am (although you may be), you are just old. You are not helpful to me, and I don't believe that you are all as amazing as you think you are.

I just am not impressed, and I think he's not used to people being unimpressed.

Whew! And of course I am sure not all of that is true, but it's how he makes me feel. How arrogant I sound, goodness! I'm usually never this judgmental about people, he just rubs me SO the wrong way. Can't even explain what it is.

Actually I had a labmate refer to him the other day as, "that kid I hate," and I was surprised because the labmate doesn't work with him or even have class with him. Turns out my labmate just overheard our group meeting, and was somehow so turned off by the ridiculousness of his suggestions, and his overbearing, know-it-all nature, that my labmate took an instant dislike. So it's not just me. :)

Bits and Pieces

- Guess who won the lab NCAA bracket pool? Huh? Yes, that'd be ME! What a clincher on Monday night.... Too bad there wasn't money at stake, only pride. But as it is I get a nice supply of bragging rights. :)

- I cheated last night and watched an hour of TV while I was grading. But then I realized it was taking me 20 minutes to grade each paper - so I had only gotten three done! I turned the TV off, put on some music, and starting whipping out grading at the rate of ten minutes each. See, I KNEW TV was making me less efficient.... Only ten papers left to grade for that assignment!

- On Monday I spent the day working in the machine shop. I learned how to program a CNC lathe, and I machined a Venturi tube out of PVC. Cool stuff! I always forget how much I like actually MAKING things, as opposed to working at a desk or on homework. (Or, ahem, grading...)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Things Accomplished with No TV

Since I can't watch TV, I have:

- Spent time reading a back issue of my favorite subscription - Asimov's Science Fiction - that has been sitting on my bedside table for MONTHS.
- Tidied my room
- Listed an item on eBay
- Inquired about donating my collection of Star Trek hardcovers to the school's student-run Science Ficiton library
- Graded five papers for my TA job
- Played an hour of basketball with girls from my dorm
- Walked to the ice cream shop in the gorgeous weather and used a coupon to get a (small) scoop of cookie dough

Now, never mind that I intended to grade FORTY papers today. Small steps, small steps.

And I'm going to bed at 10:30pm. Will wonders never cease.

An Experiment

I am not going to watch any cable this coming week. I have too much to do in life to be wasting the amount of time I do on TV.

If I become desperate while grading papers, I may pop in a movie. But currently my default when I come home from lab is to plop down in front of the TV. I usually have my computer in front of me so that I can check email and futz around the internet, but I'm not nearly as productive or efficient as I could be if I didn't have any distractions in the background.

I need to be productive this week, or I'll never catch up from all I have to do after coming back from Iceland.

Let the experiment begin!