Monday, March 31, 2008

So now I know...

A few weeks ago, I commented that the weather was getting warmer. My local friends snorked at me. "Winter ain't over yet!" they said. "It can still snow in June! You never know!"

I said, "That's great! I'd love to ski in June!"

More snorking.


They laughed. I was befuddled.

Well, now I know.

I woke up this morning to a beautiful snowfall, and now, it is all gone already. :( So that's it for skiing, for real. Here comes the mud.


The Sili Valley is having a pretty bad economic downturn right now. The company that I thank for giving me a job when I got laid off during the last recession, and for introducing me to several close friends, and for paying for a big chunk of my condo, recently had their first layoff. Fortunately, my aforementioned friends did not lose their jobs, but it's still sad to see. This company had continued to grow even in the ugly years of 2000-2002.

The economy of the Silicon Valley is known for being cyclic. Actually, the semiconductor industry, specifically, is cyclic, and that trickles throughout the rest of the Sili Valley and then to the rest of high-tech industry. Part of working in high-tech was taking the busts with the booms. I just hope most sili valley-ites will come out of this one okay, and that it doesn't last too long!

Eating Crow

If I worked for the fire department, and I heard that someone was planning to do something that I regarded as unsafe, I'd know that it was my job to stop it as well.

Blowing stuff up for entertainment purposes is a time-honored tradition among physics students, but what sane fire marshal wouldn't worry, to hear about that?

So I'd like to offer my humble apologies, not just to the fire department and fire marshal, but also to my other readers who come here to read stories about life in grad school up north and look at cute photos of my animals, not to read a rant.

And I will no longer use this blog to vent.

Have a good week, everyone!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Happy bunniversary!

Well, it's a week past Easter! That means it's been eight years since Mr. Grumphus Bumfus Bunn B. Doofus came to bless me with his presence, when he was apparently purchased to be someone's Easter bunny but then found his way to me.

Happy bunniversary, Mr. B. Thank you for the love...

... errr... maybe not...

Thank you for the joy...

... ehhh... okay not so much...

Thank you for the dignity and beauty...

... okay we don't really need that either.

Thank you for the entertainment!

(and that is beet broth, and I only did that once, and it was years ago, so no lectures, please!)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

My Students

Off and on, I've been asked how teaching goes or what my students are like, so that is today's post topic.

I like them.

I mean, I really like them! I have been the TA for Physics 103-104, the non-calculus class for nonmajors. But my students are no lightweights. Most of them are pre-med, pre-vet, or natural science students who have taken or are taking hardcore chemistry and biology classes that I would have struggled with (I nearly didn't pass high school chemistry, and I'm still amazed that I managed to pull a B in my ONE college chemistry class). But the real charm of them is how earnest they are, and how new physics is to them. When I took undergraduate physics, I took the calculus-based class, which is for physics majors and engineers. My classmates and I were more calculating and more jaded. A lot of us already knew the fundamentals of physics and were bored and exasperated. We rolled our eyes at our labs, we were annoyed at doing experiments that we had done before and now viewed as silly. But my pre-med students have never seen this stuff before, and it's awesome how much they learn from doing them.

The other thing is that my students are very far from the stereotypical college party crowd. UAF has the highest average starting age in the U.S., at 25. So a lot of my students are older, returning students who are there of their own volition and not because their parents pushed them. But even my younger, traditional students are uniquely charming. A lot of them still live at home with their parents and/or hold other jobs. They are polite and intelligent, and they don't slouch, roll their eyes, or wear ripped jeans, dirty sneakers, or sweats to class. They are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and awwwwww so sweet! :)

I've also made the interesting observation that UAF has quite a few baby geniuses. Local kids who graduated from high school several years early and who are attending college in their early to mid teens. I'm baffled at and amused by this. I went to one of the top high schools and one of the top undergrad schools in the nation, and I knew a grand total of three baby geniuses. I've met three in under a year of being in Fairbanks. Huh.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Inconveniences of Living in Alaska

Autumn and I are all ready for our morning run, but there is a moose outside the house, so we have to wait for him to leave first. Siiiigh.

"You shall not pass."

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter

From the doofi, from their favorite place.

And it must truly be Spring, because check these out! The teeniest of moose tracks! Behbeh meese!

And here are some photos of Rosie Creek. The overflow has all refrozen now, but man is it slippery!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Things I never thought I'd say...

"Hi, I'm Daisy, and this is Autumn. I'm sorry to trouble you, but we were out skiing and can't find our way home again and we're too tired to keep trying different trails. We called my boyfriend to come pick us up, but then realized that we have no idea where we are. So... where are we?"

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Happy Equinox, everybody!

And that's all I have to say for now. Ring in the new Spring!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Report from the Academic Front

So this is my adviser.

These guys will comprise my committee:

Martin Truffer, an expert in ice physics

David Newman, an expert in nonlinear dynamics (and the colleague of my awesome nonlinear dynamics professor, Renate Wackerbauer, who also has retired sled dogs. I had quite the internal debate of which of these two, whom I like so well, to ask to be on my committee. Dr. Newman "won" (if you can call taking on more work "winning") simply because my adviser knows him.

Rorik Peterson, an expert on frost heave

Gang Sheng, a tribology expert who will be joining UAF in April of this year. He is the author of this book.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Quick post 'tween classes

1) I got 10/35 points on my stat mech exam. Yup. :(

2) I got the highest score in the class in my nonlinear dynamics exam, at 91/100. Yup. :) Beat the German genius. Beat the genius local boy who did his BS here on a full scholarship and is now on a full fellowship to grad school.

3) I've been thinking about that little smile that's always pasted on Autumn's face, regardless of whether she is happy. It makes everyone like her. People stop me on the street to say hello to her, although skinny mixed-breed dogs are a dime a dozen around here. I also recall reading somewhere that if you make an effort to smile, regardless of how you really feel inside, you will actually make yourself happier. And I do not doubt that you will get along much better with everyone else just by wearing a smiler rather than a blank look or a frown. So from now on, I'm going to see if I can change my neutral expression into a slight smile instead of my customary blank look. :)

4) What happened to the snow forecast? :(

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Most awesome day of skiing EVER!

Well, once I got past the guilt of skiing without Autumn. Most of the snow in our neighborhood has turned to ice, so I came into town to go skiing with Ness. We thought we were on a 7-mile loop, but after about seven miles, we were still headed AWAY from her cabin, so we started to think, "uh-oh." We were getting kind of too tired/lazy to ski back the way we had come, and were sure that there was a loop back that would be closer, but we just kept taking wrong trails and couldn't figure out the way.

Then a musher came along, as lost as we were. Well, we knew the way back but were merely too lazy to take it. She had a dog team and extra capacity. Why not hitch a ride?

"Hop aboard!"

Musher's view:

It's Musher's Hall! We made it back!

Is this the coolest story ever, or what? How many times have you been lost hiking or skiing and hitched a ride back on a dog sled?

:D :D :D

BTW, Autumn is pretty much back to normal now, although I'm still not supposed to let her run very fast (a real challenge, as she is very strong and very impatient!) Here she is watching her dinner get prepared:

"Oh! Is that for meeeeeeee?"

Incidentally, I have apparently put seven pounds on Autumn since November. That would be like me gaining twenty-five pounds! Holy crap! But I think she was too thin before, and looks much better now. And she's strong and active, nowhere near what you could call fat. Uhhhh Allison, are you reading this? I'm not making the dog you gave me fat, I promise! I'm not! Round is a shape!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Yay! Snow!

We have snow forcasted for all week! Just in time for skiing after Autumn's recovery! Yay!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Autumn is feeling much better today

Thanks to all who sent good wishes.

In other news, Lance Mackey won the Iditarod again this year. Here he is with one of his lead dogs:

(AP Photo)

Isn't he adorable and sweet? The dog, not Lance! I don't go for skinny, unshowered men! Isn't the dog sweet? That's why I love these little sled dogs so much... they always look so gentle and sweet and smiley. :)

I must say that I am quite ambivalent about these long-distance races. On the one hand, it seems a harmless sport, and the dogs love it, and most mushers love and take good care of their dogs. On the other hand, when the prize money amounts get too big, then the humans get ugly. Some competitive mushers breed litter after litter of puppies, just to get a few that are good long-distance racers, and cull the rest. Some of them shoot the puppies. Some throw them in a bag and drown them. A lot do not provide retirement homes for older dogs that have outlived their usefulness--they either shoot them or send them to the city pound, where most do not get adopted.

Also, I have to say that although Autumn would probably happily run a hundred miles in one day, ten days of it seems like it would be quite stressful on her, especially since the dogs love to run so much that it makes them such poor judges of their own limits. In fact, if I hooked Autumn up to a harness right now, less than 24 hours after her spay, I bet she would still go out and run for all she's worth. Sled dogs would run with injuries and not complain. In fact, they'd cry if you left them behind. I think that's what makes them so vulnerable to being overworked. Poor things.

Aaaaanyway, all this is to say that these long races do have a very ugly side. I have more of an appreciation for sprint races. I bet the dogs have the most fun of all. They get to run as fast as they want, for just an hour at a time. That's what dogs love best! Not being restrained to run slowly, so they can go on for a hundred miles! I also have more of an appreciation for long-distance mushers who sleep with their dogs. Not the onces who leave their dogs at a camp and then go sleep in a hotel. Brent Sass supposedly stays up half the night giving his dogs leg massages. He seems like a good guy.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Please send good wishes to Autumn today...

She is being spayed. :/ Please send good thoughts for a smooth surgery and a speedy recovery! Thanks!

Monday, March 10, 2008


These are from a sprint race, the Open North American. These dogs haul serious ass. And they also look different from distance racers--they are leaner, and have no requirements for furry coats (since they are only running for an hour or so and won't need to camp out nights on a trail), so a lot of them are lab mixes instead of huskies! And there are nooooo malamutes or anything larger than 50 pounds or so!

These dogs are so very, very excited. I cannot imagine that Autumn ever used to act like them--howling and straining against the brake, leaping up and down and wailing piteously as the earlier teams take off--but she surely must have. Now she is soooo sweet and gentle and quiet. Don't get me wrong; she still loves to run! But she isn't like them!

Taking off!

They're flying!

Look ma! One paw!

Airborne leads!

Leaping in tandem!

Traveling in style. No kennels for them!

Random pretty husky at the race site:

Autumn, in contrast:

"Qui, moi? Howl? Nooo... never!"

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Misc photos

This is what UAF kids do for fun. It's snowhenge!

And here is the sky today:

Friday, March 7, 2008

And here is the weather commentary, as promised...

As my Chinese colleagues used to say, "This is sucks!"

I left my heart in engineering

There is a stereotypical conundrum that young Americans in the process of choosing a career or field of study frequently face. It is this--do I choose a field I love, or a field that will secure my financial future? Some are particularly blessed to love a field that happens to be lucrative, and others are particularly unfortunate to love a field that is very unlikely even to provide job security, let alone wealth.

When I was an undergraduate student, I found myself on the fortunate side of this scale, because what I loved was physics. I quickly deduced that I could study applications of physics, via mechanical engineering, and therefore turn my passion into job security as well.

However, although I loved engineering, I always still had the physics bug, so when I had established enough of my career and financial resources to feel comfortable with taking a break, what was the obvious choice but to indulge this bug and study physics?

So here I am at UAF. Physics classes have been fun and all that, but I still needed to choose a research project. The most prominent fields of physics at UAF are space and atmospheric physics. Of course, we have a natural laboratory here, and that is was draws most of the talent. I'll confess here that in my application statement to UAF, I played on this and expressed an interest in studying the aurora. However, in actuality I found that I don't have much of an interest in space physics after all. So, what to do? I was mulling over my options when I happened on an article indicating that one of my profs did experimental research in nanomaterials. I was delighted, and thought that that would be a perfect fit for me! I went to talk to him, and he had all sort of wonderful ideas for research.

Nanotech in Fairbanks! How wonderful! Whoda thunk? But as I began to explore my options, I hit wall after wall. First of all, this prof hadn't been active in research and hadn't had a grad student in several years. Secondly, he didn't have funding, and had a poor track record of obtaining it. His previous PhD student had worked as a TA her entire time! I did some digging around to see what alternate sources of funding I might find. Imagine my surprise to find that in 2001, UAF had founded, to great excitement and hubbub, a nanotechnology center that had all sorts of solid supports and lofty goals--grants from the Department of Defense, connections to other major universities, support from half a dozen Sili Valley companies, talk of bringing high-tech to Fairbanks, etc, etc. But within a few years, none of the goals were achieved, the money was gone, and the center was effectively dead. I talked to my department head, the Dean of the College of Natural Sciences, various personal contacts around the department, some people from the office of the dean of the graduate studies, etc, and all of them hemmed and hawed and sighed and shook their heads sadly. No, they wouldn't really talk about what had happened, except that the head of this nanotech center had been promptly fired, and the Dean at that time left thereafter. And no, they had no ideas for funding for me. And good luck!

So there I was--a great prof, great ideas, but no funding or technical or administrative support whatsoever. The department head, who is a very nice, personable man with whom I have a good relationship, sighed and smiled very patiently at me. "Why don't you continue interviewing other professors to see whose work you'd enjoy?"

Other profs? The thought had completely slipped my mind. After seeing the dangling carrot of manomaterials, all thoughts of holding my nose and resigning myself to space physics had whooshed away. But without funding, it seemed impossible to do the nanomaterials thing. And who else would serve on my committee, with only one faculty member in my field of research? Whom else could I bounce ideas off of? Whom else could I brainstorm with? It seemed a lonely and uphill way to go.

Then I thought, why the hell was I trying to fit a square peg into a round hole? What was I doing, besides trying to turn a physics program into an engineering program? What a surprise realization! I'm an engineer at heart after all! I mean, physics is lots of fun, but it's only fun when it's only fun, and not when I have to commit to actually working in it. And I certainly cannot imagine building a career out of it. So I went to the website of the engineering department. How many times had I read and reread the descriptions of the active research in physics, and sighed and thought, "Maaaaaybe I could do that, I guess. Maybe. It doesn't sound too boring."! First time on the engineering department website, and I found that over half of their profs did research in things I'd be happy to sink my teeth into. The first time I talked to one of them, we talked for almost two hours, about mechanics of materials, microstructure of materials, materials testing, etc, etc. Hey, that's my world! I missed that stuff!

Turns how he's now my new boss!

I am applying now to be an interdisciplinary studies student. My degree will be called "Mechanical Engineering and Applied Physics." And I'll still get to take all the cool physics classes I want. But I'll get to work in engineering. And I guess I am an engineer at heart after all. Whoda thunk?


I am on my way into two midterms, back to back. Wish me luck! After that, I have news to report! But no time to type it up now! I shall return with my normal weather commentary and all afterwards! :D

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Time for me to come out of denial...

Winter is coming to an end. It's about 40F/4C right now. The snow that was forecasted for this week never showed up and disappeared from the weather page. Rosie Creek is clearly not going to refreeze. Autumn is shedding, and the doofi won't be far behind. I've lined up the arsenal of brushes and combs.

People here like to brag about the Winter. They say, "Fairbanks has four seasons--June, July, August, and Winter!" And supposedly, it can still get to -40 in April, and it can still snow in June. But essentially, Winter is pretty much on its way out now, and to be honest, I'm having a really difficult time convincing myself that warm weather is supposed to be good. I'm missing skiing. I'm cringing at the thoughts of mud, mosquitoes, cleaning up Autumn's unfrozen poo. The trash will smell. Dirt roads will thaw and put out dust and mud.

The only thing I am looking forward to is the Farmer's Market! And blueberries! And magic potatoes!

I just hope that before breakup we'll have another few good dumps of snow, and another few good rounds of skiing. :)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Photos from Nenana

Here are photos from the raising of the tripod for the Nenana Ice Classic.

This is pretty much the town's claim to fame:

They scrape the snow off the area where they mount the tripod. This photo looks like I am standing on thin ice, but the ice is over forty inches thick! The cracks become somewhat irrelevant at that point:

The town turns the first weekend in March into a Carnival. There is a chili cookoff, a doughnut-eating contest, a hula-hoop contest, etc, etc. But my favorite is of course the sled dog races:

Raising the tripod:

Putting on the final crossbars:

And once the tripod is set in the ice, its base is drilled through to the river, flooding it so it will freeze in place:

Bust through at last!

The crew after an afternoon's work:

The tripod is viewable from the highway bridge:

BTW, I am perfectly aware that that is not a tripod, as it has four legs, but that's what they call it, so what the heck, ya know?