Category Archives: background

Dear My-Poor-Neighbors,

No, that sound you heard this evening was not actually the wail of cats being repeatedly tortured for a prolonged period of time. That was me, trying to see if I could re-discover one of my hobbies.

With my apologies, NFAH

Long-time readers of this blog will know that, aside from being a science-y type, I have long had musical aspirations on the side. This started with piano lessons, ages 5-17. There was a hiatus, ages 17-25, and then I decided to take up the violin. Half on a challenge (someone told me once that as a piano player I was not suited to do it). Half on a desire stemming from having played keys with a string orchestra in high school. Took violin lessons for four years ages 25-29, but then when I finished my PhD things slowed down again. Darned jobs and all that. I managed a year and a half of singing in a semi-pro choir when I came to England ages 31-32.5 before my job got too busy for three nights a week, and in that time recorded two “real” classical-choral CDs, which was fun. (Note to commenters who asked about my CDs on a previous post–email me and I can send you details! I believe those who asked all know my email or if not drop a comment and I’ll send you the links.) It was sort of an opportunistic thing. I sang in a choir in high school, and did musical theater, but mostly because I also played the piano for the choir and did piano accompaniment for theater stuff. I never really wanted to sing the way I wanted to play the piano, or later, the way I wanted to learn to play the violin.

But then, last week, jet-lagged and fresh off the plane from America, back all of ~20 hours, I got a mass email looking for amateurs for an orchestra. And I started drooling. Because I took up the violin in graduate school, I did not have the history with the instrument that most people, who take it up in primary school, have. I have played songs by myself and duets with my teachers. I have never played in an orchestra. And man, do I want to!

Problem number one then arose immediately. My original violin is in my parents’ basement in Minnesota. I’m here. My second (!) violin is here, but it’s electric!

There are two reasons for my having moved the electric violin to England and having left the ‘analog’ version at home. One, I live in a one-bedroom flat in a densely populated town (this is England, is there any other kind?) The “silent” violin is brilliant and much less of a guilty thing for me to play in such circumstances–what noise they hear is nothing compared to the richness of what I hear through the headphones. Two, and most peculiarly, the thing was always more comfortable for me to play compared with my “real” instrument, which I had first and for several years before I got the Yamaha. It has an integrated shoulder rest, and I even tried to buy the same brand of shoulder rest for my “real” instrument and it still did not feel as good. And my teachers hated the bow that came with my “student violin kit” and loved the bow that came with the Yamaha. (Geeky engineer in me says: Go Carbon Fibre Technology!) And let me note that mine was NOT a cheap student violin, the thing cost me a fortune and was paid for in installments when I was in grad school doing my PhD, at a time when I did not have lots of money but was still splashing out for the instrument and for lessons. ANYWAYS, I digress. I moved, I brought the electric violin with me. I played it occasionally in the first few months that I was here, but then joined the choir and got really busy. Used my digital piano a fair bit during that time to learn my alto parts, since I was a bit rusty at the singing thing, having not done much of it since high school.

(Um, yes, in addition to the violin, I also moved an 88-key digital Kawai piano to England. These things always sound reasonable in my head but when I write them on the screen they start to look funny… maybe this is not a good time to mention that in addition to the electric violin and digital piano I also brought over my Grandmother’s vintage Tenor Banjo that she played in the 1939 World’s Fair… now I really digress. There is clearly much here in the category of “a story for another day”.)

The electric violin had not been getting much use until today, when I had the chance to go to the orchestra’s first rehearsal to try and decide if there was any chance that I could join in. I got the instrument tuned up this afternoon in the most geeky manner possible (fitting, of course) using a tuning app that I have on my iPhone. (I bought the app on the recommendation of a fellow violin player at work, even though I had not been doing any violin playing. But hey, today I needed it and was so glad that I had bought it!) I played around with the violin, went to the first hour of the orchestra rehearsal, and then came back and tortured my poor neighbors with said violin for another 45 minutes. It’s really not actually “silent” although it’s much quieter than my student violin kit ever was.

The verdict: perhaps unsurprisingly, given the fact that it’s been 4.5 years since I was in lessons, my violin playing is rusty. Really rusty. Cat torture rusty. I am lacking the callouses on my fingers and the strength in my arms that I had developed when playing the thing most days. I also have to be realistic about the fact that, since I took the instrument up as an adult, I will never have the natural feel for it that a kid who started Suzuki method classes at age 3 would have. I am also realistic about the fact that I have never been the most gifted musician ever, I have been more in the mold of “hard work, practice, practice, practice” (much to the chagrin of my very gifted, plays the piano by ear, father). BUT, all of that said, I had a fun time playing the violin today, and I think I might have to do that more often. So apologies to my neighbors, the tortured cat noises are likely to continue. I may not be sufficiently gifted or practiced to join up with the orchestra now, but I’m unlikely to stop trying, and planning for next year. I may try and find a teacher here, and acquire another “real” student violin kit (and sell the one sitting in my parents’ basement gathering even more dust than my electric had been gathering in my flat here). I got a new music stand today, and it’s set up in my living room, next to the nicely tuned electric instrument in its case (until tomorrow, when I’ll have another go at the books I was playing from in my first year as a student of the instrument–that’s how far back I had to go today!) It’s just too nice to have something interesting to do at the end of a long, boring technical day spent in front of a computer, and dealing with the endless administration and paperwork associated with having a grown-up job.



I just returned from my local grocery store on one of those glamorous Tuesday night missions. The person in front of me in line at the grocery store had an assembly of items that looked remarkably familiar: a single white plate, a single white bowl, some pasta, some pre-made heat-and-eat pasta sauce. It was like looking at myself… three years ago this week. On the 8th of October, 2006, I got on the plane from Minnesota to (horror of horrors) Gatwick airport with two suitcases and a small carry-on bag. I arrived in the UK on the 9th of October. I struggled to get from Gatwick to my town, unaware at the time of the beauty of the car service that now lugs me back and forth to Heathrow whenever I need to travel. I stopped into my new workplace briefly, then went (with suitcases) out to my temporary furnished flat to pick up the keys. By this point it was nearing dinner time, and my suitcases contained things like bedding and clothes but no food or cooking items, and although my flat was furnished with furniture, it was not in possession of a fully-equipped kitchen. So back to the town center, to my (now) local grocery store, for some rudimentary food and the exact same single plate and bowl, along with some cheap cutlery and a coffee mug. I’m guessing I bought instant coffee at that time, since I had no other choice, and a cheap electric kettle (that I still have to this day). It was about four months before I was in my current flat, surrounded by boxes and furniture that was shipped over from the US.

In some ways, those were halcyon days. I had a shower. I had very little in the way of “stuff”. In the months after arriving, but before the arrival of my American stuff, I accumulated more things: a single non-stick pot, a square baking dish, a loaf pan for bread, a plastic bowl and some measuring cups. I started to discover the local clothes shoppes and equipped myself with work clothes to supplement the few things that had accompanied me on my journey over. My flat was not exactly right by the grocery store, so I learned to shop nearly daily–a practice that I have maintained, thanks to life with a tiny dorm fridge. Perhaps that is not so bad.

I had not thought in a while about my early days here, not until I saw the woman–who could have been me three years ago–with her single plate and bowl. For four months, that was all I had–there were no dishes to accumulate and things had to be cleaned every day in order to eat again. And yes, it does make me look around at my small but stocked kitchen–the kitchen with a potato ricer that allows me to make gnocchi, the new flatware from last year’s “expat-iversary”, the Nespresso machine that makes coffee much better than the instant I suffered on early arrival. Suddenly it all starts to look like a pretty good life–albeit a little cluttered. So this weekend, for my expat-iversary round three, I will be purging. I will be trying to get back to my early, halcyon days in England when there was just not as much stuff in my local environment.

On my move to Britain

Being at a conference in Glasgow, I’ve run across a number of Americans who have asked me why I moved to Britain. Tonight, after a long day of

  • Wandering into Glasgow’s west side to have lunch with a friend who I know from the south of England but who is home in Glasgow at the moment,
  • Walking everywhere, to the point that my legs ache from the hills and the walking,
  • Engaging in technical discussions that reminded me why I’m in this business,
  • Having dinner with a mixed group of nationalities, served by Indian waiters at Mister Singh’s wearing kilts
  • Standing on the Quayside looking at the Squinty bridge listening to the sound of the night-time water lapping against the banks of the river Clyde

Suddenly I remember and it’s easy to see. And it fits, ironically enough, into lyrics from Sugarland, who I saw last night:

There’s gotta be something more,
Gotta be more than this,
I need a little less hard time,
I need a little more bliss,
I’m gonna take my chances,
Takin’ a chance I might,
Find what i’m lookin for,
Theres gotta be something more

Clearly I thought–still think–that there was more to life for me than a life that never left the midwestern US. My wanderlust brought me here to Europe, and this week, in Glasgow, my wanderlust is being rewarded.

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse: Engineering aspects

OK, so I am not a civil engineer, nor am I a bridge expert in any way. However, I do have degrees in both mechanics and materials engineering, and I have to say, this morning the news is full of increasing nonsense about the bridge collapse. For example: from the BBC,

Such complete bridge collapses are a very rare occurrence.

If they happen, it is either because the load is too heavy, or the connections between the bridge’s structural elements are too weak, Keith Eaton, chief executive of the UK’s Institution of Structural Engineers, told the BBC.

“The engineers will have to see where the collapse started. Clearly a failure occurred somewhere which imbalanced the whole thing,” he said.

This adds no information whatsoever. All failures occur because the extrinsic loading (stress) exceeds a part’s intrinsic ability to withstand loading (strength). When that happens, something fails or fractures. So yes, “clearly a failure occurred somewhere here.” The news is starting to be full of words that may or may not be used in a technically correct sense: as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune headline reads, “Cracking, vibration possible culprits.”

So I thought a little engineering primer might be in order here, to at least start to clear the confusion in terminology. I’m purposefully keeping my books on the shelf and trying to do this in layman’s terms off the top of my head, so please don’t be surprised that some of this is a bit of a generalization.

Flaws: It is virtually impossible to obtain the theoretical strength of any real, macroscopic-sized engineering component, because the component will have some distribution of intrinsic, tiny flaws. This is critical to remember: no steel beam is perfect to start out with, and part of engineering design is in knowing and understanding this in the first place, and knowing how to safely design around these intrinsic flaws.

Stable and unstable cracks: Small cracks in a structure are not unlike the intrinsic flaws in that engineering design accounts for the fact that there will be small cracks in a structure. Small cracks can be stable, like a crack in your windshield that stays the same for years. Something breaks catastrophically when a small crack under external loading transitions from stable to unstable and rushes across a part with no real warning.

Strength: as noted above, strength is the maximum external stress a part can withstand, and the strength of a component is determined by its “weakest link” or its largest crack or flaw. Macroscopic failure is fundamentally related to the rupture of atomic bonds but it can be difficult to model all length-scales of a process from atomic to km-span bridges in the same mechanical model. When the stress on a part exceeds its strength, macroscopic failure occurs. Failure can thus be considered in two complementary ways: a part’s intrinsic strength can decrease and/or the extrinsic stress on it can increase. This is complicated by the fact that tiny cracks or defects are actually “stress concentrators” in a material: the stress at the edge of a circular hole in a plate is three times greater than in the bulk of the plate. Tiny cracks and flaws can thus grow at subcritical stresses because their local stresses are greater than those on the bulk specimen.

Fatigue cracks: Fatigue failure is the progressive failure of a component that is exposed to cyclic stresses. Any part in service that is loaded repetitively is a candidate for fatigue failure; the accumulation of damage over many years and many cycles of loading can cause a failure at stresses lower than expected. The opposite of fatigue failure is a failure caused by a clear, single obvious event of stress overload (bridge failure when a ship hits a pier, for example). It’s probably true that the cracks in the 35W bridge were “fatigue cracks” since the bridge had been there for 40 years and thus had been subjected to plenty of loading, both mechanical and thermal, over the years. It also appears true that there was no single landmark event that caused the bridge to fail, that small applied loadings (perhaps related to the vibrations of the train passing underneath or the jackhammering of construction work) of a sort that were not out of the ordinary caused the bridge to fall into the Mississippi.

The events of this week, while truly tragic, are not without precedent. Two sets of prior bridge failures keep coming up due to their similarity with this week’s: the Silver Bridge and the Mianus Bridge. In both cases, a steel part failed that was relatively small, but the structures were not designed robustly such that one small failure initiated a chain reaction of subsequent failures and the eventual catastrophic collapse of a large physical structure. When a redundant structure experiences a failure of one of its components, the stress previously withstood by that component is distributed to a number of other components, and even with the additional stress “burden” the remaining components stay below their strength threshold and as a result the structure does not fail catastrophically. For this reason most suspension bridges have bundles of steel cables instead of a single monster cable: one small cable can fail but the bridge does not fall down.

The role of inspections is another topic that does not seem to easily die down. I’m not sure that it’s fair in this case to put the blame on the inspections system. People will, politicians especially. But all of the inspections in the world do not make up for poor initial design. As discussed above, parts in service will fail. Inspections are designed to try and identify the potential for failure by identifying flaws and cracks that might become critical. If we tried to identify every mm-scale sub-critical crack or flaw in every steel structure in America by human inspection, we would need to put a hell of a lot of people on full time employment in this field. The real problem at the root of this failure is the lack of redundancy. Good structures can undergo a failure of one part without causing a catastrophic collapse. The failed part then serves as a much greater and more obvious sign to the outside world that the structure needs work. I said it in the comments, but I’ll say it again here: read the chapter on Redundancy in “Why Buildings Fall Down” by Levy and Salvadori. A quote from them to leave you pondering:

“… the amount of redundancy the designer puts into a structure to avoid total failure in case of local failures … varies with the type of structure. Structural redundancy essentially allows the loads to be carried in more than one way–i.e. through more than one path through the structure–and must be considered a needed characteristic in any large structure or any structure whose failure may cause extensive damage or loss of life.”

So in a way, we DO need more inspections, but not of the sort people keep talking about in the context of this week’s bridge collapse. It is unlikely that an inspection would identify with 100% accuracy the sorts of cracks that brought the 35W bridge down. Instead of focusing on tiny flaws in a steel beam, we need to inspect the structure of bridges and other large components and take them out of service if they are not designed to be sufficiently redundant. That is how we can prevent catastrophic failure and loss of life of the dramatic sort that we saw earlier this week.

The heights triumvirate

I’ve recently been trying to tame my fear of heights. Having conquered a gondola in the Colorado mountains and a cable car in Singapore, yesterday was my chance to complete the heights-triple-play with a trip on the London Eye. This was, in the end, a reasonably well-planned and well-executed adventure for one really good reason: you can buy the tickets online in advance. In practical terms, from my perspective, that means that if you commit yourself to the (somewhat steep) price of the tickets and the timing of the adventure well in advance, you are unlikely to chicken out once actually faced with the reality of the circumstances. In the end, the trip to that part of London took longer than anticipated and I had no time to stop and think about what I was doing but had to collect the tickets and get in the capsule in a rather hurried manner. I therefore did not start to freak out about the experience until walking along the Thames path after the fact, looking at the tiny cables holding the entire thing together, or the way the entire wheel is cantilevered out over the water. Admittedly, this was a much gentler ride than either the gondola or cable car experiences and I’m quite chuffed at having completed such a trifecta of high places in a mere six weeks’ time. I now am allowed to rest for a few weeks before running the gauntlet and attacking my next set of fears, right?

London Eye

Reflections on pond-jumping

It’s summer in England and the country seems to have been overrun with American tourists.  I go back and forth on my level of identification with my fellow Americans: compared with the tourists, I’m a local, but compared with the locals, I’m still a stranger in a strange land.

Something struck me funny and familiar about today’s date, so I thought about it while walking to work this morning and realised that it was precisely one year ago today that I was here in the UK interviewing for the job that I now have.  My how much things can change in one year!

I accepted the job offer more or less on the spot, without any sort of thought or contemplation about what it meant.  The implications slowly set in during the gap between the interview and my starting date in October–it was three solid months of paperwork and logistics.  I recall fondly the first few weeks here, when I felt like Alice through the looking glass–everything was strange but charming and interesting.  It was not too long before the reality of the circumstances of daily life set in–it’s already been almost three months of my venting my frustrations on this blog.

I’ve now actually lived here for more than nine months, and the adventures continue.   To a first approximation, nothing about my life here is as I had expected.  Some of that is due to the fact that in making such a big move with such a substantial change in circumstances, there was really no mechanism for having detailed expectations.   Most of my thoughts about what my UK life would be like were pretty indistinct.  I should have realized that I could not cling to my life in America, but would have to build a new life here from scratch.  I should have known that my closest circle of friends would change although perhaps I could not have predicted which people in the US would keep in touch.  I certainly could not have predicted the new relationships with people here in the UK.  Perhaps most importantly, I could not have predicted how much this experience would change me.

At the end of the day, I’m happy here.  It’s not easy and I’m not really settled yet.  I can hope that in another year I’ll have made some progress on that front!  But it’s funny, I moved here for the job, and now that I’m here the job is not the most important thing.   Life has taken on a richness that I never really felt in the US and it is this change in me that makes this whole pond-jumping adventure worth it.

Life, adventure, risk and reward

I’m coming to the realization that perhaps I have developed a bit of an adventurous spirit. Moving countries without any hesitation or even much soul-searching is perhaps an indication of this.   Opportunity knocked, the chance for a wild new experience was available, so I embraced it and I am enjoying it. I have no idea how this will play out–I don’t know how long I will be in the UK and if I will stay here, move back to the US, or do something else entirely. I try not to plan things too far in advance any more, because you just never know what curve balls life is going to throw at you.

I was a bit of a study in contrasts as a child. An occasional brave daredevil, I loved nothing more than a good roller coaster. But for the most part, I was sensible and cautious. I was terrified of heights and could not stand to ride slowly in the air on a Ferris Wheel. The roller coasters must have been too fast for my fears to fully develop, while the slow motion of a Ferris Wheel or even worse, a gondola-style cable car, had me in a cold sweat. Overall, I would say that although I had the makings of an adventurous spirit underneath it all, fear and caution increasingly won and my life up to age 25 reflected the dominance of “safe” choices in all aspects of my existence, personal and professional. In retrospect, I can see that I was actually not very happy– the safe choices were made to keep me cocooned in a secure place but were actually making me miserable.

Then the unthinkable happened. I literally had my worst nightmare come true, and the person in the world who meant the most to me died in a car accident, in a manifestation of another fear that had paralyzed me since childhood. This had the immediate effect of crushing heartbreak, but a year or so later the longer-term effects began to clarify and my adventurous spirit started to re-emerge. It’s not that I’m not ever frightened any more, but I’m much less likely to take the “safe” choice and refuse to do something.  Instead, I’m much more likely to grit my teeth and suffer through the white knuckles.  Most importantly, I think this attitude has permeated all aspects of my life, making me embrace opportunities (travel, hobbies, relationships) that I never would have considered in the past.

My life has, as a result, taken on a richness that I never could have described or even imagined. There’s a boldness of action and expression that was certainly not there before; there’s less fear of rejection, or negative reaction, and more happiness in general. The most difficult lesson I’ve had to learn was to stop thinking I had the answers, stop thinking I knew the outcome in advance, and let myself just “Enjoy the Ride“.

Admittedly, some days it’s easier than others. Like everyone, I have my ups and downs. The rewards from taking great risks are amazing, but at times by opening yourself up you get hurt.  That’s a risk you have to not only take, but embrace, as part of the risk itself.  The pursuit of the elusive reward will include plenty of opportunities for pain. This is not actually a worldview that you can teach or even explain to someone else. I would not wish on my worst enemy the pain and suffering associated with my grandmother’s death.  I can appreciate the lessons I learned from it and hope that others can find this little nugget of truth in a less heartbreaking manner. But perhaps that’s not humanly possible.

I will say, this journey of awakening has been a process, and it’s a marathon and not a sprint.  Still I am a bit chicken on these slow moving heights contraptions.  As a result of this residual fear, in all the time spent in the UK both before and after moving here, I have not yet managed to ride on the London Eye, although I would like to!  I will happily enlist volunteers to go with me.