Category Archives: engineering

Schoolgirl Excitement

I have had a most amazing week, and I am sorry that I have not been better at sharing the excitement. But it is in part about my job, about which I choose not to blog. This week has been amazing, and please–Twitter-folk who know about my secret identity, please don’t share it. But the bottom line is that my work life has been a big social media experiment gone good. I’m about to celebrate 50,000 YouTube hits for my work video in just over three days. And that’s amazing. But even better, tomorrow morning I head to Heathrow to fly to Baltimore for a weekend with my sister, and then we fly together to Minneapolis for a long week of celebrations for my father’s x0th birthday. I have more fun things planned for Minneapolis than I have in a while, and for once I am feeling excited about being back “home” and not conflicted in any way. Have I mentioned that my grandmother is now 95 and still kicking arse at Scrabble? It should be fun. I am ready for this trip in a way that I was not ready for trips to Minneapolis in the past. And now I must finish cleaning out my fridge and finish packing. But I’m happy in my British shoes, and happy to be going home to America. Even the inevitable and unfortunate discussions about American politics have not dampened my spirits. Expat life, 2000, former life, 0. Here we go.

How England has changed me, part 72

I had never been to a “black tie” event before I moved to England. I now go to about a half dozen a year. And this has required a significant change in my wardrobe. These are all additions, tucked back in the depths of my wardrobe/closet for most of the year, but I need to have clothes available for such occasions. When I first moved here, I focussed on more traditional attire–I now have several ankle-length ball gowns. But I’m a tomboy, an engineer/physicist who wears trousers (BrE)/pants (AmE) [blame @lynneguist for my language-based notation] all of the time. So I’ve been searching for a way to be both comfortable and appropriately dressed at said occasions.

When I was in China earlier this year, I had the chance to drool around the Shanghai (Xintiandi) store of Shanghai Tang, one of the premiere Chinese fashion brands. I was in love. Interesting clothes, beautifully made, and distinctive compared to what I normally see when I try to shop for things to wear to fancy occasions. I bought a top, which was the single most expensive piece of clothing I have ever had and I hope you agree with me that it was worth it:

Black, of course. Just as in the photo.

Tonight it made its debut, at the black tie dinner I had to attend for work. I wore it slightly open at the top, with a sequined silky tank underneath and plain black trousers. I jazzed it up with chunky gold and semi-precious stone jewelry. I am not a super fashionista, but I have to admit that I felt special in this ensemble, and far more comfortable than I’ve ever been wearing a ball gown at a dinner thing. Shanghai Tang, you have my loyalty and given what I see in your online catalog, I’ll be back for more.

Ten years ago

It was, as of a few weeks ago, ten years ago that my grandparents died in a car crash. Ten years ago, that my world ended but didn’t. Ten years ago that I stopped getting phone messages from my beloved grandmother even though we were technically not in the same area code and thus long-distance. I last heard her living voice right before the trip they went on, that ended badly. I went on and kept living, but some of the most important people in my life didn’t continue to be after some date approximately ten years ago. I managed to stay busy in the anniversary of this accident, and I was working and attending conferences in Newcastle and Singapore. And I didn’t let loose and feel the grief until tonight, when it suddenly hit me, without warning. So if I’ve ignored you when I should have been your friend, please forgive me. I’ve been dealing with my own pent-up grief. I can’t believe it’s been ten years, in some ways. And I can’t believe it’s only been ten years in others. I miss them so much. At the time, one of my aunts mentioned that I should keep track, that I would be unlikely to attend a double funeral again in my lifetime. I can be happy that this has not happened again, without wanting to ever be in a place where two people that you love are in coffins at the same time.

Not quite six degrees of Kevin Bacon

As an American working in Engineering in the UK, I am often asked if I was a student at MIT. Although I attended some very good engineering institutions in the US, I was never registered at MIT. It was a childhood dream of mine (geek confession, I had an MIT sweatshirt aged 10 and I thought my life plan was set) but it never happened formally. However, when I was in the last months of finishing my PhD, through a collaboration I had a chance to spend 11 days at MIT. In visiting Singapore, I have found that my life boils down to two, maybe three, degrees of MIT. Not six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Eleven days does not sound like much in terms of building a career. But I have found that, when I attend conferences of the sort that I am at now, in Singapore, the people with whom I hang out are people that I met during those eleven days at MIT. Or, at very worst, people who I met through one person that I met during that time. I can sort my entire professional life into either two or three degrees of separation from MIT.

Clearly those who attend MIT are more likely to exist in my world of research, compared with those people I know from my own undergraduate or graduate days at Big-10 schools in the midwest. I could guess this based simply on the number of my MN high school facebook friends who are still in Minnesota, compared with my work friends who are from everywhere. My MIT friends are from all over the world and have been willing to travel all over the world for employment, which is similar to my own circumstance.

But, I have to admit, I never thought those eleven days at MIT would play such a strong role in my life over five years later. In the end, the collaboration for which I was there did not even yield a publication (critical in my world of science), but just a Master’s thesis. I now enter into collaborations with other universities more aware of the potential results of the long-term benefits from having been associated with each other, although I honestly think MIT is an island unto itself and not following any pattern or mould associated with other engineering institutions.

I have one more very full day of work to do before I leave on the near-midnight flight back to the UK tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed this Singapore trip more than my previous two, if only because I’ve had so many interesting meals with interesting people (all who I know through my MIT connections). I’ve talked on this blog before about professional friends , and the longer I am in my job, the more convinced I am by the need to attend out-of-town events either with someone from my own group or in serious meeting-up-with-professional-friends mode. I’ve had a great time this trip, because I had three different friends (who did not necessarily know each other, despite the MIT connections) to have food and drinks and conversations with. So I leave Singapore knowing that this trip was worth it, and that the worth was mostly in the connections I’ve strengthened through our common interests in science and in which we might all have just managed to mentioned MIT in passing. I have no degrees from MIT, but I do have a strange connection. And I adore my “professional friends” in their second and third degrees of separation from a marvelous institution.

On being an ‘Auntie’

When I was a child of about 9 years old, I met the person who was the adoptive ‘Uncle’ through my formative years. He was called that to me, ‘Uncle Dave’ and he was a work friend of my father’s. I was a budding engineer, thus illustrating that I knew very early what my job in the future was going to be. He was a PhD mathematician, and I know he was put into my direct path by my father to encourage me to stay with maths and to pursue this technical stuff as a career. He and his wife were childless by choice, as am I, and we developed a special relationship that lasted well into my late 20s before circumstances drove us apart. There was a special thing when I was a kid, whereas we as a family used to go out with Uncle Dave and his wife, always for pizza. An interesting factoid that will be important later. On the back of a napkin, Uncle Dave explained to child-me the concept of a “googol” which was not a search engine, but a number–10 raised to the power of 100. A very large number. And there was a “googol plex” or 10 raised to the power of a googol. Again, a very large number. But not infinity. And we spent time discussing the concept of infinity in pizza joints across America as people moved and things changed. (And now the search engine behemoth’s headquarters is called the Googleplex, which is not an accident but a geeky play on words found amusing by those of us who find such things amusing.)

In the early days, before I called him ‘Uncle’ and before I freely acknowledged how important he was to me, I called him my mentor. When email was new in the early nineties, and I was at University, Uncle Dave and I re-connected and he continued to be my mentor, but our fondness for each other developed and we had a true friendship that continued up to about the time that I moved to the UK, or just after. It was a completely intellectual meeting of the minds and it mattered a great deal to me. Unfortunately I think the last time we communicated much was a few years ago now. By that time, I had a PhD degree of my own and an exciting new job and a physical distance from much of what I left behind in the US. For various reasons, we’ve drifted apart completely and have not been in touch in recent years; he nears (if is not already at) the retirement age, and I’ve been remarkably busy and distracted trying to forge this career of mine. I’m sad about this loss of communication with someone who was a factor in my life for literally 20 years, but also strangely philosophical. Sometimes a person appears in your life to play a key role and then drifts out again. Life is complicated, and unpredictable. But when people ask how I ended up where I am, both literally and figuratively, one of the answers is always ‘Uncle’ Dave, who I credit as a mentor and a friend, not to mention a special person who was there for me, listening to me when I was yet a child and continuing to discuss the world with me when I was struggling with adulthood and the realities of grown-up life.

I feel a strange sense of history repeating itself, but now with me potentially in the ‘Auntie’ role. I’ve become quite attached to fellow expat blogger Kat‘s kids (the kids are known as Lala and Kiki, in internet anonymity terms). When I think about it, it’s the closest attachment I’ve had to any small children since I was babysitting in junior high school, literally 20 years ago. Coincidentally, we’ve had pizza most of the times that we’ve all been together, including two outings to kid-friendly Pizza Express (although the kids don’t get why there is so much sauce and so little cheese on the pizza here compared with American pizza) and a Domino’s delivery up at Kat’s place. Although being with them does not encourage any maternal feelings in me, I connect with these kiddos in a way that I never could have imagined. My ‘Uncle Dave’ knew that I was struggling with the realization that I had no desire to bear my own children but he always told me how fun it was to be an ‘Uncle’ and to watch the development of young minds–and that I should not discount the importance of children in my life even if I did not wish to have my own kids. I don’t think I quite understood what he was saying until now. And I’m really enjoying it. And I’m really hoping that I get to be a part of Kiki’s and Lala’s lives for another 19 or so years (at least!) and in the way that my Uncle Dave was a part of 20 of my formative years.

The current temperature is…

When I was a child, I lived in a house that had a thermostat. You told it what temperature you wished to have in the house, and it obeyed. It was a round thing on the wall in the 3 BR-1 BA classic 1950s house that we occupied in the post-WWII inner suburbs of Minneapolis, MN. I was a tiny pipsqueak, of single-digit age, and I was a very proud girl because the thermostat said “Honeywell” on it and that’s where my dad worked. It looked something like this, only brass colored (not white).

When I was a teenager, we had a newer house in America, and it still had a Honeywell thermostat but this one was programmable. My father was no longer in the business, but we could set the thing to a temperature–different for day and night by about ten degrees F–and it would obey. It looked like this.

When I was a young married person, I had zone heating. Which means that I had a thermostat each in several different regions of the house, and I could control (program) the temperature independently in each. It was either three or four separate regions, I do not recall the exact details. But it was good, and it was energy-efficient because you did not need to heat the parts of the house in which you did not spend time.

In 2006, I moved to England. There is no thermostat. There are radiators.

(I have lived in two different flats with the same 1-BR layout and radiators, so I guess this is not a one-off.) The radiators have valves, they are on or off. In my current living room there are four, in the bedroom 2, in the bathroom 1. In order to control the temperature of the flat, I must decide how many radiator valves to open and how long to keep them open. Manually.

Being a science-y type, I have opted to enlist the help of my cooking probe thermometer:

to try and ascertain the current temperature in the flat, and how it might perchance be changed with the opening and closing of certain radiator valves.

The inertia in the system is such that I cannot change the day to night temperature the way I did in the US, I must aim for an average. The probe currently reads 67F which I guess is a pretty good moderate setting–too warm in the night and too cold in the day compared to the thermostat temperatures of my youth. I will try in the next day or so to bring the average down to 65, as that seems a reasonable compromise to me. But I am very much aware of the fact that such changes I make are but a small drop in the large bucket of the energy reforms that need to be made in the interests of the world.

Systems that input heat only when you need it: golden. Radiators that require cooking implements to incorporate: needs some work. I’d happily take a 1980s vintage thermostat and the ability to turn down the radiators at times, so as to save night-time energy if we could determine when the shut down should happen.

Final Aussie Update

Yes, that’s right, I have to head back to reality tomorrow. Reality meaning England, a full-time job, all of that. I did actually work most of this two week trip, but the last two days in Sydney have been almost pure goofing off. And I’m having a hard time remembering when, if ever, I’ve been on a solo, purely tourist adventure in the 8 years since my divorce. Sure, I have a day here and there to amuse myself when I’m on work travel, but this little 3-night stay in Sydney was different. And so I decided to make the most of it.

First stop, the Museum of Contemporary Art, located right by my hotel at Circular Quay, Sydney. The MCA is free, and as an added bonus I was the only person who wanted a guided tour (also free) when it was offered, so I had a fantastic, personal experience looking at the extremely powerful (and sometimes disturbing) photographs of Ricky Maynard.

mca from ferry

Next, I took a ferry over to Darling Harbour to go to the world-renowned Sydney aquarium. You get pretty nice views from the ferry, and the harbour-front was lovely. I was not, however, one of the people trying to take photos of the fish and associated aquatic animals through the glass/plastic. So no fishy photos for me.


bridge opera from ferry

darling harbour

town side from Darling

After grabbing some food post-aquarium (is no one else disturbed by the fact that they serve fish and chips in the aquarium cafe?) I then caught the Sydney tower at dusk.


from tower

Today, I had big plans, a reservation to do the “Bridge Climb” up to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. See the tiny people in this photo? Basically just little bumps on the top of the bridge?


Yeah, it’s not something you would even notice if you weren’t told to look, but both day and night, groups of 14 with a guide leave every 10 minutes to climb to the top of the bridge. Once you know to look, they are even easier to see at night, since they wear hats with lights on them. Little groups of lights moving up and down the bridge arches appear after dark. Regardless of whether you can make them out in this photo, it’s still how I spent the better part of my last day in Australia.

They ask you to set aside 3.5 hours for the trip, plus getting there well in advance. So it really did take up the majority of my day. I went for an early lunch, carbo-loaded, and then arrived at the base about 30 minutes before my 2 pm booking. It’s a remarkably efficient operation, as one would guess from the fact that literally millions of people have done the climb in the last decade or so. Your group is called in, you fill out information sheets and sign the waiver to let you go. In my case, your shoes are inspected and deemed unsuitable (I did not have my trainers with me, just my Keens, so I was issued a pair of trainers for the trip). You have to blow a breathalyzer test to prove you are sober. Then you get issued a jumpsuit for the climb, and start to suit up with a whole range of other gear. The jumpsuit has tons of metal loops on which to hook things. For example, since I wear glasses, I had to put them on a lanyard and attach them to my suit. It makes sense, you’re above 8 lanes of car traffic plus two train lines, so it’s of the utmost importance that nothing gets dropped! You have to wear a climbing belt, which attaches you to a wire line for the entire climb. But you also carry so much other stuff, extra jackets (fleece for warmth, and a shell for rain) in pouches, a radio and headset to hear the climb leader, hats, mittens, a hankie, a whole get-up. What you’re not allowed to bring comprises a long list, though. You can’t take your camera, but they take photos of you at various points on the climb (I bought two!). No watches. Soft hair binders recommended for girls but no bobby pins or barettes. In fact, you have to go through a metal detector to prove you’re not smuggling anything to the top. You leave your personal stuff in a locker, with a key (as you might expect) on a lanyard around your neck for the climb.

After getting all the gear on, you practice climbing with all the gear, on a little mock-up of the sorts of catwalks that you’ll be climbing on. Then you’re off. The actual climb was mostly stairs and ramps, and in most places it was designed to be not too steep. There were also frequent breaks for commentary and information from the tour guide, such that it was not so difficult or physically taxing that it would have required someone to be very athletic, although being generally fit and healthy is a definite advantage. I learned lots of great stuff and my geeky engineering self was in heaven. We were also particularly lucky, in that there were some extremely scattered showers in the area, which meant that our view from the top included a fabulous rainbow, arching over the Opera House.

I don’t know what more to say. There are two different routes to the top, and my big plan is now to come back and do the other climb, at night, next time fate takes me to Sydney. So that maybe I can see more of this.
opera night

Is this what’s holding up the building?

In several places around the interior of my flat are these mysterious button-like objects:


I have no idea what they are. It says “Centuryan Safety Services” on it. Safety from what? If I press the part in the middle, will all fall down? Is this the only thing holding my walls up? What is its purpose?

I find that the style of building construction here, so different from in America, seems to involve lots of mysterious protrusions from buildings. Take this, for example, on the building out the window of my flat:


It’s a pretty hefty hook. Again, I have no idea what it does. Anyone knowledgeable on the mysterious buttons or hooks?

Nearly done

I have been buried in editing a book (sorry, a technical work, nothing interesting about life as an American in England!) for the last few weeks. So it was very amusing to me to become aware of this: (warning, contains NSFW language)

So after editing more than 300 pages of technical text, not all of it written by native speakers of English, in answer to the question, “Who gives a f*** about an Oxford comma?” I say, well, I most certainly do!

Memory Lane

I guess the kids here in England don’t get much Sesame Street. This morning, thanks to Mental Floss, I got a little trip down memory lane which was doubly fun: one, it was one of my favorite sketches from the show and I had seen it several times but was glad to see it again for nostalgia’s sake, but two, it was clear from a very early age that my fascination with such a thing was simply a peek into the future and my job in engineering. The whole “how are things made, how do they work?” interest simply morphed into my grown-up life watching Extreme Engineering and going on plant tours to see such things in person. Although I’ve never been so fortunate to see a crayon factory, just boring computer-ish things and cell phone screens. Anyways, for anyone with nostalgia or interest, here is the video: