Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Snow Leopard

Back earlier this summer - maybe June or so - I was sitting with my advisor in our weekly meeting, and he leaned over and asked, "So Miss Outlier, how is your computer running?"

Gently patting my original MacBook baby, I replied "She's still going strong - even though I got her way back in 2007 when I started grad school."

Well okay, fine, I didn't really say "she." But I do feel attached to my laptop. Not only was it a gift from my father at the start of my career as a grad student, but it's been pretty much fused to my fingertips for over 12 hours a day for the past four years.

I use it a lot.

"The reason I asked," continued my advisor, "is that my daughter also has a Mac, and it's been giving her problems - and I was wondering how much to sink into it before I get a new one."

I considered a moment, and told him that the hardware has always been excellent on every Mac I owned. "But," I said, "you know what's really starting to hold me back? Having an old operating system." I still was using the OS X version that the laptop came with (10.4), and enough new releases and time had gone by that the newest versions of the most of the software I use is no longer supported. And some software that I would LIKE to have, wasn't compatible. What I really wished I had was OS X 10.6, Snow Leopard.

Figure: Girl can dream, right?

"Oh, well that's easy!" said my advisor. "Buy yourself the upgraded OS X, and put it on the lab account. We can't have you held up over THAT."

Reason #863 I love my advisor.

Figure: So pretty....

So you see that picture right there? That beautiful, sexy picture? That's my desktop right now.

I have just upgraded to OSX 10.6, from 10.4. It's gorgeous. Snow leopard, I have arrived.

Last night I eagerly dove into installing the newest versions of all the software I need/want. I updated Microsoft Office to the latest version, and iTunes to the most recent release. I've installed Papers 2 (now I can reference media types other than just journal papers - like textbooks, patents, websites, etc.). And I've had my eye on EverNote for a while - now I have it!

But then I went to upgrade to the newest version of Safari - and it told me, "must have OSX 10.6.8 or 10.7."

Wait a minute - hold on. There's a 10.7? I could have sworn I got the latest OS. I mean, who bothers paying for an old version?

So I did some Googling, and guess what happened in July.

Figure: Ah, Jobs, we will miss you.

They announced OSX Lion, which is 10.7.

CLEARLY I have not been reading enough Mac fan sites. I did not realize this was coming - and if I had, I would have held off a few more weeks.

But you know what, I will take 10.6.8. It's a whole lot slicker than what I had, and of course, you never want to be too early of an adopter (right? work with me here). Because, you know, they haven't had a chance to work out all the bugs yet.

Yep. I did this on PURPOSE, I tell you. :)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hosting Pub Trivia

It takes me a long time to make friends, and settle into social circles. I have talked about this before, how it's about a year to get fully situated in a new place. But then by the time I've settled in, I really enjoy developing the friendships I've worked so hard to create. And life is good. I've never actually been in one setting past the three year mark, so now that I'm heading into my fifth year of grad school, I feel like I'm moving into uncharted waters. On the one hand, I'm restless, and all around me people are moving on, but on the other hand, I really love the comfortable grooves I've worn doing the things I enjoy.

And, my goodness, at times I even feel popular. After five years of being really involved with a lot of activities, a lot of people know me (for better or worse, I suppose...). Who knew? I was in a situation recently where I actually felt like I had - believe it or not - some level of street cred.

A few weeks ago I hosted the weekly pub trivia.

Now, trivia at the bar is a common activity nationwide. There are a lot of bars around Boston that hold weekly trivia, all run by Stump Trivia. (In fact, the bars hold them on different nights, so if you are sneaky you can go to a Tuesday trivia, learn all the answers, and then clean up at a bar holding trivia on Thursdays... But that takes a certain combination of dedication and deviousness that is generally just not worth it. Especially just for a $20 prize.)

World's Best School has two bars on campus (this is a majority grad school, after all), and one of the bars runs trivia on Wednesdays. I used to go quite often with a set of friends who were really good at trivia (I wasn't, but I'm good for moral support). Those friends graduated, so now I don't go as often - maybe once every month or six weeks, when I have friends that invite me. But I have always really enjoyed the laid-back, trash-talking type of atmosphere. Trivia is sort of a whole experience unto itself.

For instance, a big part of the trivia experience is the choice of team name. The team names are read over the microphone several times during the night by the trivia host as they report the scores of the teams. So it's a bit of team pride to come up with a name that is either a) funny, b) relevant to current political news, or c) a historically significant name for your team. So for instance, a funny name might be "My Couch Pulls Out But I Don't" (yes, it's a classic, but I've heard it used, and yes, the funny names are usually dirty...), or "Drinks Are On the House Tonight" (imagine that one read out loud). A political name might be "Client #9" (when the Spitzer story was big), or "8 Lost Miners" (when the rescue of the trapped Chilean miners was happening). There were lots of riffs on Charlie Sheen when that happened, Lindsey Lohan, the hurricane... you get the idea. Historical names are used by teams that come back every week, and like to have a reputation built on the name. At our pub, one of the historic teams is the "MechE Warriors." Lots of my friends on that team. A friend of mine told me his team is always known as the "Cracked Windshields." Whatever works...

The trivia at World's Best School is not standard trivia, though - nope, in reason #1361 that I love World's Best School, the trivia here has a flavor all its own.

Instead of a professional running the show, the pub trivia is hosted every week by two grad students. The students are paid $30 between the two of them as a thanks, and are usually either bartenders on their night off, or trivia regulars, or just anybody close enough with friends in that social circle to be asked (say, me). So you get an incredibly entertaining range of hosts - the hosts will respond to hecklers from the audience, make rulings on questionable calls, and generally set the tone for the night.

Instead of the standard categories, and standard number of questions per category, the style runs the gamut. Usually there is a Sports category, a Music category, and almost always a TV/Movies category (all of those are taken from standard national trivia), but you might also get a Math category, or a Technology category. Sometimes you get a Boston History category, and once there was a category dedicated to World's Best School Insider Knowledge. Everybody's favorite is always the Picture category, though. And the number of questions per category also varies - most of the time you get the normal six, but sometimes you get multi-part questions, or twelve tiny questions. Up to the discretion of the host!

Instead of getting the questions from a standardized national database, the students are in charge of making up the questions. That, I think, is my favorite part of the World's Best School trivia - the pure randomness of what you might get hit with. One time the picture round was a map of Africa - label as many countries as you can. Or once it was maps of the subway systems in major cities around the world - name the cities. One time we had a British host, and there was a question on snooker - how much is the pink ball worth? I think the whole bar just laughed and scratched their heads on that one.

Instead of typical bar music, the music is run from the iPod of the host. So some weeks you get classic rock, some weeks you get hiphop/R&B, and some weeks you get Korean pop.

Anyway, my friend and I were the two hosts a few weeks ago, and I really felt like I was part of that elusive "cool crowd" that every highschool kid dreams of being included in. I had a whole lot of fun making up the questions, and a whole lot of fun reading answers, scoring, and just all 'round running the show. It felt very Cheers-like. I know all of the bartenders (they are all students, and more than half are MechE students), I know all of the trivia regulars, and people would banter with me as they brought up their answer sheets. It was a good night.

The World's Best School pub trivia is so popular that even though it starts at 9pm, you have to show up 8:15-8:30 to get a table in the bar. It's a part of the popular culture here at World's Best School, and I am so pleased to be a part of it during my time here. So the best way for me to conclude this post, I think, is to share with you the basic truth that all trivia players knowingly whisper amongst themselves at the end of each week... My friends, it all comes down to the wager round.

Figure: Grading trivia answer sheets. Red pen, oh yes indeed.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Basketball Perseverance

Editor's Note: I have returned safely from vacation, and had a great time with family! After digging out from a pile of emails, I hope to settle back in refreshed and invigorated.

One of the things I am most proud of myself for doing in grad school is, oddly enough, playing basketball once a week with a group of labmates/friends. My family does tend toward basketball as the sport of choice, but I've never been very good (home schooling doesn't afford much chance for team sports...). And since I get frustrated when I can't immediately excel at something, particularly sports, I was hesitant to play with the group. The rest of them are all pretty good, and I just knew I wasn't going to enjoy it.

But I played anyway. Even though I wasn't good. Even though everybody else played circles around me. Even though yes, I did get frustrated because I couldn't make the plays or hit the shots I wanted to (that mind-body coordination is a little tenuous when you spend all your time hitting the books!). I kept playing even though I didn't enjoy it at all at first.

But I was determined to live the lesson that you don't have to be perfect. And that dedication and practice can indeed lead to improvement. So I kept at it, and eventually I got better.

I've been playing once a week, or close to it, for maybe two and a half or three years now. And you know what? I'm pretty good now.

I went to a BBQ last weekend, at a lovely spot on Cape Cod with a beach and sports areas. A bunch of kids started a kickball game, and a few guys were tossing around basketballs on the court. I didn't know anybody, but I walked up and introduced myself, and asked if I could play.

Standing there in my flip flops and sun dress (it was a BBQ at the beach, after all), I'm sure I didn't look like much. But they were short a player to make it five on five, so they took me anyway.

I had the foresight to bring my water shoes, so I quickly changed into my sneakers, grabbed a water bottle, wedged my sunglasses firmly onto my nose, and joined the game.

We were playing man-to-man, and the other team put their weakest player on me. It quickly became apparent that most of these guys were really good (better than me), but not all. No indeed, not all - they had underestimated me with the choice to guard me with a guy six inches shorter. I used the height advantage to post up on the defender, grab rebounds, and surprised even myself by getting several good cuts in a row, with lay-ups to finish.

When the game reached a pause, the captain for the other team stood at the top of the key, ball clamped under one arm, and pointed with a sweaty finger at his teammates - "You there, switch with him." The defense obligingly switched up who was guarding me. Now I faced a guy four inches taller than me, and a much better shot than the defender who just left.

"And watch that girl," the captain called out, "she's FEISTY."

Yes, dear readers, I moved myself up the totem pole. For the homeschooled nerdy kid, I'll take "feisty". :)

After that game was over, we lined up to shoot for new teams. Now, when I play with my normal group, we shoot for teams from the free-throw line. But these guys? They shoot from the three-point line.

Now, sometimes when my normal group shoots for teams, we have to go through the lineup several times before enough people make their shot to fill out the teams. I guarantee if we shot from the three-point line, we'd be there all day!

So I thought to myself, "Oh gees... there is no way I can make a three point shot." I never even try during games. I figure if my shooting percentage is as low as it is from close to the basket, why attempt from so far away?

So I steeled myself to try a three-point shot, just praying I got close enough to not be embarrassed. And you know what? I hit the rim. "Well hey! Not bad", I thought.

We had to go around once more to get enough people for each team, so I had a second chance to shoot. I hiked up my skirt, bounced the ball twice, and...


I made my shot.

Feisty girl with a three point shot.

I smiled to myself and walked proudly to the "make" team, and I was so grateful that three years ago I stuck with the weekly frustrating game. You don't have to be perfect, you just have to keep at it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Engineer Blogs, August First Half

Editor's Note: I am off to see my sister graduate with her Master's degree (congrats sis!) and travel around a bit with my sister and brother. Posting will be resumed later - enjoy the end of summer!

In August over at Engineer Blogs, we have a week with the theme of deadlines, so I talk about the long-term deadlines in my life. Then I discuss a professional development course I took, and ask - have you ever had management training? Has it ever been offered to you?

Check it out, and see you after vacation!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Story of School IDs

I have always had a problem hanging onto my school IDs. I did three years of community college, at two separate colleges, and then I did three years at university, and now I'm in my fourth year in grad school. I've had a school ID in some permutation for many, many years.

And I've learned that my personal "burn rate" is about one a year. I have just come to accept that I will, at some point, misplace my ID every year. So instead of getting upset about it now, I just budget in the $15 replacement fee as part of my school expenses. :)

I don't know why I've always had problems with this - I know students who go their entire four years in undergrad and never misplace their ID. My theory is that it's because I use my ID as an access card to get into various labs and machine shops, as well as my office and my dorm. I don't want to carry my whole purse around while I go about my day, so I put the card in my pocket. Much easier to lose something from your pocket than from inside your wallet inside your purse.

The funny thing is, I had a total of three IDs in undergrad (I was there three years, so just about right). I then moved to Boston to go to grad school. In my years here, I have slowly uncovered all three IDs. What was lost has now been found! One missing ID was tucked inside a pocket inside my tool bag I used to take back and forth to the undergrad machine shop. The other missing ID was in the hoodie pocket of a sweatshirt I used to wear to football games. No football games here, so that one took a while to uncover. But now I have my full set back!

Last week my current ID stopped working.

It's been over a year, so actually I was doing pretty well by not losing it - so I figured, well, that might just be my $15 fee for the year. So I went in to the card office.

"Hi," I said, "I'm here because my ID card has stopped working. My guess is that I have de-magnetized it, since I work with magnets in my lab." The friendly guy behind the counter said, "Sure, let me check that for you." He proceeded to swipe my card through the little testing slot, and he checked his screen - "Strange, it seems to be working here. What was the problem exactly?"

I explained that swiping my card wouldn't let me into the gym, and that swiping the card didn't register at the student center for lunch. But the RFID chip still worked, so I suspected it was demagnetized. "It's definitely not demagnetized," my helpful guy told me, "because if so I wouldn't be able to read it at all."

He peered closely at my ID, checking the little strip on the back. Understanding dawned on his face - "Ohhhh," he said, "There appears to be some, um, damage on the corners..." I looked where he was pointing, and yes indeed - at both edges of the magnetic strip, there were little divits in the card.

I realized quickly what had happened - I have a bad habit of chewing on things, like pens and pencils (not my nails, thank goodness). So sometimes if I'm holding my card, I bite on the corners. And if I have run out of hands, and need my ID (holding stacks of parts and going to the machine shop, or having gloved hands and accessing the clean room, for instance), then I'll just hold onto it in my mouth for convenience.

"Yep," said the guy, "there's enough... ah.. well, imperfections on the strip, that it no longer reads correctly." He quite obviously knew I was chewing on my ID, but he was trying to be nice to me and not point it out.

"Okay," I said, "Well can I get a new one?"

"Unfortunately, since the damage is not under normal wear and tear, I'll have to charge you for a new one. This one isn't even that old, you know."

Yeah, I know! But it's older than a year, don't I get credit for that? Ha!

"But just to make sure," he said, "let me ask my supervisor."

So the supervisor comes over - a little tiny Chinese woman. She inspects my ID, as the guy explains the situation. He ends up with, "So can we give her a new one without charging her?"

She looks up at me, waves the ID in front of me, and said, "No replace! You can SEE the TEETH MARKS!"

Laugh! No such subtlety ("er, appears to be some sort of damage...") from the small Asian lady - she was calling it like she saw it!

What they didn't know is that I also know the trick. I politely took my ID back, and then the next day I peeled up the corner of the laminate with my fingernail. So now the magnetic strip is peeling off the card. I took it back to the card office in a couple days, with a different helpful face behind the counter.

"My card is peeling," I said sweetly, "so the magnetic strip isn't working. Can I get a new one?"

"Of course!" was the reply, "So sorry about that." And because the problem was now the laminate, nobody even commented on the teeth marks (oh, sorry, imperfections...) And a few minutes later, I was in possession of a shiny new ID.

So what this really means, is I still haven't lost my ID or otherwise used up my $15 ID expense allotment for this year. Fingers crossed I can hang onto it!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Epiphany - I'm Doing Things Backwards

So because my stamping experiments weren't working, I went back to the literature. I did another set of searches to see if there were any papers I missed, and I rounded up the ones I had referenced before. I looked carefully at all the papers that I had collected that listed specific protocols for stamping the ink onto a substrate. And I noticed something odd - they were all using oxygen plasma, not air plasma (as I was doing.)

Could this be it? Simple change of gas in the plasma mix?

Excitedly, I rushed to the clean room, and tried a few lightning experiments.

Sadly, no. That was not my problem.

I went back to the literature, and stumbled across a review paper that just came out in June this year. The paper reviewed a field called "adhesive lithography" which is a term I hadn't heard of. But basically, this paper said, look, when you are transferring a FILM, not a liquid, things are different, and here's how people are doing it. And I had just learned from my microscope photos, that I was indeed transferring a film.

Well now I might be on to something.

I already knew that this stamping process is all about the surface energies. You want the ink to stick to the stamp, but stick to the substrate better, so it's all about tuning the parameters of the surfaces to get things to release and stick how you choose. It turns out - get this - GET THIS - that with my particular material, it's easier to make a film stick to the stamp, than the substrate. So instead of coating the stamp with ink, and transferring it, people instead coat the substrate with ink, stick the stamp down, and use the stamp to PEEL away the ink from areas you don't want it.

It's like telling the ink: "If you like sticking to the stamp so much, well then by golly, STICK to it why don't you!"

*faceplam* I'm doing things backwards. I'm stamping the wrong direction. Instead of doing additive stamping, where the stamp transfers ink to the substrate, I need to do lift-off, where the stamp removes the ink from the substrate.

Fine. So I did.

And look!

I get lines! They are ugly, but they are not strings! Give me a week, I'll make them pretty, just you watch...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Machine Parts, Two Versions

I am working on building a machine for my PhD, which is designed to hold a glass slide, and stamp it very carefully against a rubber stamp with ink on it. But it was not working - the ink was not transferring from the stamp to the slide like it was supposed to. So I did my best to look at what WAS happening, and try some quick experiments to test the process.

I was not sure if my machine was the problem, or whether it was the basic process that was the problem. To try and figure out what was causing the issue, I tried doing some experiments by hand without my machine, and then the same experiments with my machine. Those "by-hand" experiments were pretty bad, but at least I got some results. I was getting NO results with my machine. So how to figure out what is wrong with the machine? Well, there is a problem.

See, here is what the holder for the slide looks like:

Figure: Note, solid metal construction.
 The three holes are vacuum holes to hold the slide while it is upside down during stamping. The outside ring is to provide a good seal with the round stamp. The problem here is that after I put the stamp over the vacuum holes, and turn this thing upside down on top of the stamp, I can't SEE anything.

Figure: The holder, pretending to stamp something.
 The holder is all metal, with a heater in there, and a ceramic block to deflect heat from the handle. But with all those opaque layers, I can't see what's going on while I'm trying to stamp. So what to do? Well, off to the machine shop!

Figure: Thing 1 and Thing 2
 I made a clear version of the original holder. It doesn't have a heater in it for two reasons - one, the heater is ceramic and not clear, and second the plastic can't handle high temperatures. But it will allow me to see what's going on.

If you look closely, the vertical cloudy line is where I drilled, and the drilled surface is not perfectly clear. But I had to get access to the vacuum holes somehow. The outer ring is also visible, as in the metal version.

And look! One can see through it! So now, I should be able to actually watch as the slide contacts the stamp, and the ink does (or does not) transfer.

Crossing fingers...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mass Exodus

The big drama around the office recently has been that three students, under the same advisor, have all quit in the last week.

It is inevitable that sometimes student/advisor relationships don't match up well. Graduate school is much different than undergrad, in that the professor you work for determines a huge amount of what your experience in grad school is going to be like. It's not so much that there are bad advisors and good advisors (although that certainly may be), but more like different people have different styles of management and methods of working.

The biggest piece of advice that I give incoming grad students, or those preparing to apply for grad school, is that you should absolutely find an advisor you enjoy working with. The school you go to matters a little bit (name recognition can be nice later in life), the specific project you work on matters a little bit (nice to work on something you enjoy, and if you plan on academia the research will be important), but the absolutely critical thing is the advisor. If you are applying to grad school, you already get excited about research in general, so surely you can find something in almost any project that is interesting to work on. Talk to students in potential labs - they will give you straight answers when you ask what life is like. Ask students you meet what the reputation of professors are, and they will dish on the department gossip.

If you work best when left alone to pursue your ideas, find a professor who prefers self-directed students. If you like lots of feedback on your work, find a professor who will meet with you once a week, and has a lab that encourages collaboration between students. If you don't plan on academia, you would rather find a professor who graduates students quickly, than one who pushes students to stay and amass a larger publication record. If you DO plan on academia, you want to find a professor who is a rockstar in your field, and might let you help write grants if you so desire.

Each student has different needs, and every advisor has different expectations and styles of managing their students. It's worth spending the time to find a good fit. Much ink has been spilled on the internet blogs on this topic, so I'll leave it at that.

So now, pondering the situation where several students decide to quit the same lab and switch advisors at once. The general mood was that the students did a good thing, and were looking out for themselves, and obviously the advisor was terrible.

But I'm not so sure. I feel bad for the advisor, honestly - he's a new guy, without tenure, got a rockstar amount of funding, and is growing his lab like crazy. That's got to be a tough situation, with a lot of pressure, and having several of your students leave at once is a pretty harsh critique of your mentoring techniques.

I have no idea what the issues were between the advisor and students, and I have no idea how/if attempts were made to change the situation before it got to the point it did. I just know for myself, I would have tried everything I could to work things out with my professor before leaving. But if I thought there was no chance to make things better, is it better to leave after one year, and basically start over in another lab, or to tough it out for a Master's degree and then switch to a new lab for a PhD? Oh, such tough choices. No wonder those three students have been walking around twitchy for a couple weeks now, pre- and post- leaving.

Hopefully the advisor also learned something from this experience, and can make adjustments in how he deals with students, and can find more students for the fall.

Mostly, the whole thing just makes me very grateful for the advisor I have, who I get along with fantastically. I am very blessed to be in a good situation - I like my advisor, my labmates, the work I'm doing (or trying to do), the department I'm in, and the school I'm at. I may stress myself out about trying to graduate next June - but the reality is, even if I don't graduate next June, the question is just whether it will be August or December next year. Neither option is the end of the world, and life is pretty good while I'm here.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Strange Eats

I was discussing food with friends the other day, and in particular the adventurous foods we'd tried. I realized I have some photos I've never shared on this blog that are relevant to that topic, so today is a recap of an old story.

While I was in Iceland, I did some sightseeing. I saw a volcano, the Blue Lagoon, and the President. I also had some excellent food. We asked the locals what the regional specialties were, so we could be on the lookout - and at first we found it fairly comical. "Oh," they cried, "You must try the seafood and the hot dogs!" Since we are all from New England, home of excellent lobster and Boston Red Sox hot dog stands, we were a bit amused...

But turns out, we were not dissapointed. The lobster was excellent, and the "hot dog" turned out to be an excellent sausage-like affair, which really shouldn't have been translated into an English word for a cheap food.

We couldn't leave without trying something at least a little more exotic, though. So one night we went to a tapas bar, where you order lots of little dishes - an excellent venue for trying many types of food. We tried lots of seafood (fish, crustaceans, a couple types of mollusks), a couple vegetarian dishes (roasted stuffed peppers for the win), and one or two chicken/beef options. But then - there was debate. Also listed on the menu were various options containing shark, horse, and puffin. PUFFIN.

The debate was short. How could we not get the puffin?

Figure: Behold, the puffin.

Figure: And, horse. Which looks a lot like puffin.

The puffin was delicious - and purple colored, although it's hard to see in the photo. A little salty, but good I thought. The horse, though, I didn't care for - chewy and a strong flavor.

When we excitedly told our hosts this story the next day ("We ate, like, a WHOLE puffin, and MOST of a horse, so aren't we adventurous and cool like real locals?") they looked at us, and kind of snickered. Snickering is almost never good.

Suspicious, we inquired - why, why the sidelong glances at each other? Well, turns out puffin is seasonal. The reason they hadn't recommended puffin to us is because it wasn't in season. In order to keep it, they either freeze or preserve it (ah, the saltiness...)

So, not only have I eaten puffin, I've eaten LAST YEAR'S puffin.

Good times, good times... :) What adventurous foods have you tried?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Engineer Blogs, July Second Half

Over at Engineer Blogs, for the end of July I talk about the differences in opinion that can come up between engineers, and which ones matter. And, I give a quick overview of the concept of sensitivity in an engineering system. Check it out!