Archive for August, 2010


neighborly love

August 28, 2010

My housemates and I are throwing a party this weekend, both for housewarming and to welcome the latest folks to sign the best years of their life away in the name of science (aka, the new physics grad students).  It’s a fancy-dress party, with grilling.  We have aprons, so this is not necessarily as bad of an idea as it sounds.  Necessarily.  Mostly we just never get to dress nice, so we’re inventing a reason.

Anyhow, I learned in college that when throwing a party that’s likely to generate noise and/or a significant quantity of intoxicated people, it’s a good idea to warn your neighbors.  By following this strategy, I have never once had the cops called, despite throwing some insanely rowdy parties my senior year in college.  I do mean rowdy, too.  To give you an idea, on Halloween, our keg ran dry before midnight; on another occasion, a 6-foot-tall bookshelf full of books fell victim to the living room dance party (we were lucky nobody was standing in its path of destruction).  One particularly memorable event had me standing outside my own bedroom throwing sticks at the window, screaming that I would climb on the roof and enter through the window regardless of what was going on, if the three folks in there did not keep their clothes on and unlock the door immediately.

Our neighbors at that house had two small children, and the tolerance of saints.  Either that, or they left town every time we told them there was a party coming up.  You learn these things, I suppose, if you’re sharing a driveway with a college-student rental 3 blocks from a major university.

Back to the topic at hand, even though my days of parties that rowdy are behind me, I made the rounds on Wednesday evening warning people about our upcoming event and handing out slips of paper with my name and local phone number (thanks, google voice) to call if we pissed them off or blocked them in.  I warned everyone within a 3×3 house square centered on us; hopefully that should do the trick.  The responses I got were fairly interesting, and quite varied.

At the house next door, full of undergrads:

me: We’re throwing a party on Saturday, and I just wanted to let you know.  You’re welcome to drop by, and I wanted to…

neighbor: [cutting me off] We won’t call the cops, don’t worry.

From the old lady diagonally across the street:

Ooh, a party!  I do hope you have fun!

The other two across the street were boring, thanks for being so considerate, blah blah blah.

From the other neighbors next door, a youngish couple with an awesome dog that Pecan wrestles with a lot:

[speaking through a cloud of weed smoke, restraining their 90-lb, 6-month-old puppy from licking me to death] Niiiice, we’ll try to stop by.  I don’t think you would bother us, though, unless you were literally blowing things up.

From the two diagonally bordering our backyard:

[looking surly and disapproving] You do know the people next door have a toddler, right?

And yet, from the family that actually has the toddler:

[shrugs] I figure it’s just payback from the shit I did when I was in school.  If you get too loud, I’ll just come by, have a beer, ask you to go inside and tone it down a bit.  No big deal.

Ah, neighbors.  Should be a good time, and here’s hoping we don’t actually get these precautionary phone calls from any of them.


hulk SMASH

August 21, 2010

Shocking revelation for everyone: stuff breaks in science labs, all the freaking time.  I know, I know.  Stay with me here.

Anyway, the other day I was attempting to fix some broken stuff in my optics lab.  Well, maybe not “my” optics lab, but the one I work in every day.  Yeah, that one.  A number of little things had broken or at least were not working, and it all piled up into one big explosion of broken.

Okay, not THAT big an explosion of broken.

While a few broken things can almost always be ignored (I’ve met many a science experiment held together by tape), some of them really, really can’t.  One of those is anything that causes you to lose signal completely.  On Thursday, I had one of those on the optical path, as well as another one on the temperature sensor.  So here I was, hoping to measure optical signals as a function of temperature, without knowing the temperature or the optical signal.  Yeah.

Anyway, for the optical signal, I spent a good couple hours troubleshooting detectors and amplifiers, moving around optics, even checking the monochromator…no signal.  I quit in frustration and went and read comics on the internet for half an hour.  Grrrr, stupid experiment, grrrr.  Then I went back into the lab, pretty much prepared to just take a cursory second look and then turn things off for the day, when I found the problem.

I had a shutter closed.  A shutter that’s intended to completely block the signal when you want it to.

Yeah, I’m an idiot.

In my defense, I never use that shutter, and the fact that it was closed was probably a complete accident.  Nonetheless, I ended up largely dismantling a sensitive system in search of a problem that didn’t actually exist.  It took me another hour or more to put everything right.

After fixing the first nonexistent problem, I was feeling elated, although rather silly to be sure.  I moved on to repairing the temperature sensor.  Taking a first look at it, I was confronted by a huge tangle of wires, some of which were severed.  I retreated quickly into looking up a .pdf of the user’s manual for the temperature controller online.  It was largely unhelpful, but it did let me at least hazard a guess at what some of the tangle was for.

So, back into the fray I went.  After a bit of investigation, it was pretty easy to tell which wires did which, and since I’m a big smart scientist and all, I knew that the broken ones needed to be reconnected.  Yay!  Except they’re temperature sensitive, so soldering was out.  And oh yeah, one minor detail: they’re the tiniest wires I’ve seen.  I had to strip the coating off these mini-wires, and twist them back together, then protect the join.  Not hard really normally, except I could barely see this wires they were so thin, and I had to work in the dark (another optical experiment was running).

I felt like The Hulk trying to play the piccolo.

These hands were made for smashing, not for delicate music.

So that took a little longer that I might have hoped, and the wires got a little shorter on the way than originally planned.  Fun times.  But guess what?  After hours of repairs that weren’t always necessary, the experiment WORKS BITCHES.  HAH!

When you ask me why my PhD takes so long, now you know.


i read this for the cheerwine

August 18, 2010

Article in today’s NY Times: “For Some Foods, You Just Had to Be There.”  I honestly did click on it just because the picture with the headline is of a woman thoroughly excited about some Cheerwine.

It’s a fun read, full of anecdotes about people’s food souvenirs.  It also tries to get at the question of why people will travel for a specific food in this age of the internet.  It is an interesting question, and for some things, it’s obvious — I can’t exactly get someone to ship me an Allen & Sons BBQ plate — but for others it’s less so.

In a lot of ways, it’s about the experience.  If I did by chance convince someone to freeze some Allen & Sons BBQ and ship it to me, it’s an objective fact that it wouldn’t be as good as it was fresh, but I think it also just wouldn’t taste as good to me unless it came out of a styrofoam container onto a paper plate at my parents’ house, or as it does sitting in a plastic deck chair in front of a red-checkered tablecloth in their dining room, drinking their syrupy-sweet tea.  I am also firmly convinced that a certain style of burrito tastes better in a falling-down old building, with Mexican oompa music playing.  This is something agreed upon by the folks they interviewed for their article, too.  On Cheerwine:

“The anticipation, it’s the entire experience,” she said. “It’s walking into the convenience mart, seeing the display, grabbing one and cracking it open and it being so cold and refreshing. It cannot be matched by opening up a mailbox.”

On things from a NYC bakery:

“My enjoyment of New York is taking the subway to go to the bakery. The guy who runs the bakery is a character. I enjoy all that when I buy it and bring it back.”

On NM chiles, he takes it a step further:

…he will not order them via the Internet. “The thought has never really crossed my mind because it is part of home,” he said of the chilies, “and to have some anonymous person deliver a piece of home isn’t the same.”

Indeed.  I am all in favor of non-anonymous people bringing pieces of home, however (in fact, I posted enthusiastically a few months back when a friend moved to town and brought a few 20-0z Cheerwines with him).  I once delivered a Cosmic Cantina burrito to Europe, too (from the proper Cosmic, mind you).  Amazingly, a foil-wrapped, cylindrical object got through customs without incident.

I definitely relate about it being a piece of home, as well.  I almost always have a mental list of places and things to eat while I’m home: pulled pork BBQ (preferably Allen & Son’s), Cheerwine, fried chicken from Bojangles, a giant veggie burrito from Cosmic, Carolina peaches if it’s summer…etc.  I rarely hit my entire list  — especially Cosmic, and now Bojangles after an unpleasant incident with some chicken supremes from the Bojangles in the Charlotte airport — but it’s fun to try.

I have to fess up, though, that I have looked into ordering Cheerwine from the internet, if only for the purposes of evangelizing here (initial responses have been, “it’s not gross like I expected,” and “tastes like Dr. Pepper kind of”).  Alas, it is prohibitively expensive.  Maybe one day I’ll break down, though, and get a 24-pack, along with a bunch of Blenheim ginger ale.  Until then (whenever “then” is, probably when I have a better-paying job), it’s all about the experience.


why my friends are awesome, part 245013

August 18, 2010

On a camping trip this summer (the one to the Never Summer Range), I pointed out one of the things that makes aspen so cool: the “eyes” most of them have on their trunks.

They're watching you.

Naturally, after pointing this out, the logical next step is to move on to the fact that they clone themselves, and from there to the fact that the aspen groves are considered single organisms.  Aspens are pretty cool trees.  There’s one colony somewhere that’s estimated to be 80,000 years old, and weigh about 6,000 tons, which officially makes it the oldest, biggest living thing on the planet.

Now imagine that you were hiking, were unfamiliar with all of these facts, and then have just been informed that the entire tree population bordering your current trail for hundreds of yards in either direction is in fact a single organism.  A single organism with eyes on all of their trunks.  Creepy, no?  My companion thought so, too.  So when the news picked up this study yesterday on aspen reproduction, I got this email:

Date: Tue, Aug 17, 2010 at 8:58 PM
Subject: DANGER


Like I said, why my friends are awesome, part 245013.

[P.S. It was also picked up by my favorite sci-fi blog, io9 Seeing that in concert with the alien doom-tree bit made me extra happy.]


recent observations

August 12, 2010

People who rarely work with lasers are very afraid of lasers.

Liquid nitrogen is still fun, even if you use it every day.

If I attempt to explain something I don’t really understand to someone who really doesn’t understand it for long enough, eventually I will understand it beautifully.

Post-it notes make good demo props.

The guy who makes the best coffee in my cubicle farm is leaving.  My efforts with the office coffee are not remotely on par.

Helping someone collect data takes five times as long as you think it will.  It is also guaranteed to directly sabotage your data collection needs in some manner.

Hot and cold things are both capable of burning you.  Sometimes if you’re lucky you can get both sorts of burns from the same object.

“Queso makes anything better.”  Overheard, and also verified.

Qdoba is overpriced.

Wishing really hard will not produce signal from your sample.

Channeling my old ability to work tirelessly through illness and sleep deprivation only works well for about 36 hours.  Then there’s nothing that can help.

The likelihood of something not working is directly proportional to how long I left it cooling down to cryo temps, and is always optimized to produce maximal time wastage.

Wishing really, really hard will really, really not produce signal from your sample, even if it worked a week ago.

It’s lonely in the lab at night.


sentences need verbs, yo

August 10, 2010

This is the first sentence of the abstract of the paper I just printed to read on the bus:

To get a real understanding on the complexity of origin and mechanism of visible emission for ZnO quantum dots (QDs), we systematically property of visible emission of ZnO QDs with tunable diameters in a range of 2.2−7.8 nm synthesized via a sol−gel route using self-made zinc−oleate complex as a precursor.

If this is the first sentence of your abstract, you have no business publishing in English.  None.  How does this shit get past review?  Don’t journals have editors working for them?


it’s because i’ve been planning to settle the insurance claim

August 4, 2010

Grrr.  You know what is really not helping my last 36 hours?

Not helping.

There’s another set of storms rolling in right now, too.  Because all I needed after getting a “you’re not good enough to fund” talk yesterday was a day at home clutching my head and/or being too medicated to drive to work after I stopped clutching my head.

It’s also stopping me from getting to my battle-for-not-last-place softball game tonight.  Good thing I play on another last-place team on Thursdays too.

[Update: as soon as I posted this, I got a phone call from Farmer’s Insurance, wanting to talk about my injury claim.  Hah, they’re psychic.]