Monday, August 29, 2005

Repeat this forecast in a cheerful voice with peppy music.

On Tuesday, windy with rain, heavy at times. High 85. Winds north-northeast at 70 to 90 miles per hour. Winds could occasionally gust over 100 miles per hour.

On Wednesday, with temperatures in the low 90s, windy with morning showers.

Look for a chance of rain on Thursday and Friday.

From The Weather Channel's local forecast for New Orleans. What happened to "Look for a chance of total devastation and massive flooding on Thursday, Friday, and every other day for the next several months?"

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

People like me are the next big thing, eh?

I spent 15 years of my life working in the Information Technology (IT) field. It started when I was in college, and decided that mainframes and the Internet were more interesting than my architecture classes. That was followed by a job as a UNIX PC operator in a pre-press department, a programming job, MIS operations in a data center, help desk, consulting, more programming, systems administration and webmastery, more programming, more systems administration, more consulting...

In early 2004, I realized that there weren't a lot of "pure" IT jobs around me - let alone ones I was interested in. I still had (and still have) programming I do, but it's not of a sort tied to actually getting paid. I still had (at that point) consulting work, but it was gradually tapering off. On the other hand, there's a lot of academic and scientific research here, and I knew there were jobs where my knowledge of IT (and things in general) would come in handy. So I looked in that direction (and people in that direction looked at me) and I wound up in situations where I'm the only person without at least a Master's degree - but am also the person with the best understanding of IT and technology in general.

It was (and continues to be) an interesting transition, to say the least. Many of my colleagues continue to work in "pure" IT, though, so I was a little startled to stumble across a New York Times story indicating that "renaissance geeks" - people who have the IT knowledge and skills, but are also knowledgeable or skilled in science, business or other areas - are now a hot commodity.

Of course, I changed paths because I wanted to be where the good work was - not because I thought what I was doing was going to be the next trend. :) But maybe I was a little ahead of the curve, by accident.

Friday, August 19, 2005

From the People-Cooler-than-Me Department

Something about my brain thinks of lives (including my own) as a lot less boring if they contain cool or interesting things from more than one column of the menu, so to speak. For example, some people may think being involved in astronomy is interesting, but I'd probably get bored if I didn't also get to do lava hiking, underwater photography and go to meetings as part of academic teams reporting on a wide variety of sciences.

I mentioned this next bit to a few friends the other day, but... about a month ago, the Nearby Supernova Factory at Lawrence Berkeley Labs (where I know a lot of people) assimilated another person, Cecilia Aragon, who'll be working with them on (and these are her words) "research in visual analytics and information and scientific visualization with applications to supernova image data."

Yes, it's pretty much rocket science, but, well, that's not out of the ordinary over there. Nor is having a degree in math from CalTech and two in computer science from Berkeley, and a bunch of nifty jobs involving things like aerospace modeling at places like NASA Ames Research Lab. She'll fit in just fine, I'm sure, and people won't look at her funny or anything.

So what makes her cooler than me? Well... she's a former California State Aerobatic Champion, medalist at the 1993 U.S. National Championships and 1994 World Aerobatic Championships, and two-time member of the U.S. Aerobatic Team.

Yes. You read that right. Ph.D. in computer science, rocket-science job, and stunt pilot. That's cool.

Don't believe me? Ask Google.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

HR 6152

The observer schedule for this semester had a few "open" nights listed, and I wound up with a whole shift full of them. This means that for the next few nights, I have no idea who I'm working with. So I got to work at 6PM, which is about the earliest anyone would actually ever want to start working. Nobody was there, but I wasn't surprised, only a couple people I work with do start that early.

6:30 came and went, no observer.

7:00 came and went, the sun went down, no observer. I started wondering.

7:30 came and went, no observer. By now, I had opened the dome, figured out how to use the instrument with some help from our systems engineer, and taken a picture of a random bright star, HR 6152.

7:45 came, and I discovered that the professor who was supposed to be observing tonight had delegated (as is often the case) to a grad student, who in turn had delegated to a presumably lower-on-the-totem-pole grad student, who had never even used the instrument before, and who figured, "why show up before it's reasonably dark?"

So we all had a good laugh about all this. And I got to learn something, and take a picture, woohoo! Go, me!

Now if I have any more situations where the observer doesn't show up, wanders off, is eaten by a ravenous flock of Nene geese or whatever, I know just about enough to take some pretty pictures by myself!

Murphy was a high-voltage electrician.

This is a true story. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent. As more details become known, I may piece together more of what happened, and update this entry. This is the story of five telescopes (including three of the world's largest), a laser, a transformer, and the events of Friday, August 12.

It was about 2:30 AM on the 12th when the laser beam at Keck II went off. Gary, the Observing Assistant (that's Keck's name for a telescope operator) called out to the laser spotters and told us it'd be about 20 minutes before they started "lasing" again, so I hopped into the vehicle I'd been using as a windbreak, and tried gamely to keep warm in my jeans, t-shirt, hooded sweatshirt, knit cap, hooded full-body "bunny suit" and 2 layers of gloves. It was a beautiful starry night near the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, but a cold and breezy one.

Twenty minutes later, my "break" was extended by another 15 minutes, but my relief spotter on the west side, Theresa, showed up shortly thereafter. It was time for me to head inside and sleep for about 40 minutes. Theresa mentioned that shortly before she came out, the lights in the lounge had flickered, and the phones had displayed some sort of alert message. I told her the laser should be back on soon, and headed in. As I neared the door, I heard the giant exhaust fans, which suck cool night air through the observatory all night, stop. I'd never heard the stop during operations before.

Inside, I stripped off the bunny suit, sweatshirt, gloves and hat, piled them on the floor as a pillow, and lay down. My walkie-talkie crackled with chatter from the Observing Assistants, Night Assistant and Laser Operator... pretty normal when they've taken the laser offline and are tweaking it. Except they were talking about chillers being offline too. I turned down the volume and went to sleep.

About 3:40, I woke up, and rapidly learned a few things. First, all four spotters (that'd be Theresa and me from the west side, and Ron and Nick from the east side) were inside the building. That meant the laser wasn't going to be back on for a while. Second, my walkie-talkie wasn't shutting up, because thirdly, a whole bunch of stuff wasn't working. I trundled down to the Keck II control room and found Christine, the laser operator, who said there'd been a power problem.

Having run another nearby telescope for almost a year, I knew I had to contact operators at other facilities and determine whether they were affected. I phoned NASA's infrared telescope facility (number memorized), and they said they'd seen no power issues. Then I looked up the number for the United Kingdom's infrared telescope (now memorized) and they said they were fine as well. Both seemed surprised to hear that anyone was having problems. I told Christine the results, and she mentioned them to headquarters, which spurred someone there to call Subaru (Japan's national telescope) - no problems there either.

I noticed that the hallway smelled like diesel exhaust. Obviously the generators were, or had been, on. According to the walkie-talkie, the chillers and "ice wagons" that keep the instruments and laser cool were still offline, along with those exhaust fans and a few other things that really aren't supposed to abruptly stop working. Like an elevator.

By the time I caught up with the non-Christine parts of the night staff, they were huddled around a phone talking to headquarters. Something had gone seriously wrong with the power. Instead of three-phase 480 volts and three-phase 240 volts, they were looking at one phase each of 480, 440, 390, 280, 240 and 220. Their generator wouldn't switch off, because it could tell the power wasn't where it should be. And a bunch of equipment wasn't liking the new and excitingly different voltages. Particularly, it turned out, the pump for the cooling system.

Of course, the designers of the system had included a spare pump on the other side of the pump... but hadn't run wires to it to facilitate easy cutover in the event of an emergency like this. The staff were trying to figure out whether the spare pump would pump glycol in the right direction if they simply switched the wires over to it. Of course, this also involved figuring out where the screwdrivers were, where the wrenches the right size were, and where the voltmeter was, and so on.

I asked if I could be of any help, and they said I could watch, but that they weren't really sure what to do either. I watched for a while, then decided that as a lowly temp agency employee, I probably didn't really belong in the machinery room, and went back to the lounge to check on my fellow spotters. They were all asleep or surfing the web.

Usually, we leave the summit at 6:00. This particular morning, our departure was a half-hour late, and I didn't get home until nearly 8:00. I already knew I had to leave town around 2:00 in the afternoon, go back up to the summit, and top off an instrument at my other job, so I got what sleep I could.

I woke up around 1:30 and checked my email. The NASA division chief had just sent a message to everyone in my department at the university saying that NASA's power was off due to the electric company working on fixing the results of a transformer fire. Blink, blink! I replied (to all) and said that it might be linked to the events at Keck earlier, then I headed up the mountain.

At the mid-level facility, I was informed that around the time I got home, a transformer over by Keck that serves Keck, Subaru, NASA and Canada-France-Hawaii had been found in a rather hot state. (Betcha it started having problems right around 2:30 AM, and that's what made the power to Keck go out of phase!) Fire trucks from the county, and the nearby military base, had been called up to the summit, and once they were done, the electric company had been called, arriving some 5 hours later in typical electric company fashion.

I reached the summit, checked in with my friend Kenyan, a ranger there, and learned that NASA and Canada-France-Hawaii had gotten their power restored, but the electric company was probably still working on Subaru and Keck. Fortunately, the observatory I was working at in the afternoon was on a completely different circuit, so it was unaffected.

Subaru's power wound up being restored about 4:30 PM, after an outage of perhaps 8 hours. NASA and Canada-France-Hawaii were offline from about 8:30 AM to 3:15 PM. Keck... poor Keck. When I left the summit somewhere after 5:00 PM, the electric company trucks were still over there.

The tricky thing about power outages at observatories is that merely restoring power does not make things all better. When the power goes off (or, when the generators run out), the cooling systems go off, and when the cooling systems go off, instruments start warming up. If instruments warm up enough, they become useless until they're pumped back down to vacuum and refilled with liquid nitrogen or pricier yet, liquid helium.

Canada-France-Hawaii, NASA and Subaru were without power for 7-8 hours, and I don't know whether they had enough generator capability to keep their cooling running for that long. Keck was without stable power for somewhere over 14 hours, and their instruments would almost certainly have warmed up in that time. In each case, instruments would have to be properly cooled before nighttime observations could resume.

Overall, it was an exciting, interesting day on the summit, but not at all in a good way.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

I'm running out of things to wish for.

This is the last night of seven consecutive nights of work, and of three consecutive nights of work at high elevation, outdoors more than half of the time, in the cold.

I'm very much looking forward to morning, getting home, and sleeping. (I'll be back up later in the afternoon, but only for a little bit!) This is very tiring work, and it's hard to get a good day's sleep in between the nights.

Anyway, tonight is made a little better by the fact that tomorrow is the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower, so after midnight there should be more shooting stars to wish upon than I can think of things to wish for.

("And furthermore, another million dollars. And... a pony!")

Monday, August 8, 2005

Ya gotta do what ya gotta do

Well, the schedule changed a bit.

I had been figuring on working Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, then having 6 days away from science.

But a colleague's elderly father went to a conference for WWII veterans in Virginia, and wound up in the hospital, paralyzed, so said colleague needs to get out there A.S.A.P. - and I'm going to cover the shift he would have worked. So our other colleagues will cover Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I'll work Friday afternoon, then Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights. Then have 4 days off.

Ah well. Can't really complain when life throws more hours at me. Hope the injured vet mends quickly!

He addressed them, and asked them to address the addresses.

Well now.

Since sometime overnight, one of the backbones has not quite been getting along with my ISP when it comes to connecting me to places. I can use AIM and Skype, and I can get to certain places that are connected to the ISP by another means. (I'm posting this from one such place, which is a bit of a leap-through-hoops.) But! The ISP folks are fixing it, so I am happy. And I will soon be back by more normal means, and read all the messages that are waiting for me and so on and so forth.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Saturday, August 6, 2005

Ken's House of Pancakes

Ken's, also called "K-HOP" by locals, has been an institution in Hilo for over 30 years. It provides large amounts of reasonably-priced good food and friendly service, is open 24/7, and its location at 1730 Kamehameha Ave on the corner of Kanoelehua is convenient to the airport and hotels, so a lot of people eat there, often.

The cuisine is what you'd get from a three-way crash involving your typical American "diner," a pancake house, and a couple Asian/Pacific Island restaurants. There are burgers and fries. There are pancakes. There are noodles. There's Loco Moco (rice, meat, eggs and gravy).

The menu is lacking in remarkably few areas. The desert selection is a little limited (but most of us don't have any room left for it anyway) and somehow, "chicken strips" or "chicken fingers," a staple at most diners, have managed to be left off. Other than that, though... page after page of choices.

In addition to the cuisine showing a local touch, many menu items use locally grown ingredients. Local salad greens, grass-finished beef and fresh fish are readily available and staples at Hilo's more expensive restaurants, and Ken's uses them as well.


So I've been a customer of BigCreditCompany for a decade now. A good customer. Lately I've even been paying electronically, much to their delight. So when I was working too much around the end of June and beginning of July and flaked on the bill, they called me up in mid-July and had me do it over the phone, no worries. Good, yeah?

But  then they called back this morning, when I was asleep, to let me know that they had tried to run it through and had gotten some error about being unable to find my bank, or unable to find the account, or something like that. So something appears to be broken-ish. So I get to mail them a check for July and August, then call customer service to get them to un-do the nasty charges and whatnot that they've probably applied due to the glitch. And somewhere along the way, I get to try to set the electronic stuff up all over .

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Today's unpleasantness is brought to you by the letters T and B.

...and for a change, it's not the fault of my daughter, whose initials are T.B.

A friend-of-a-friend has been staying with us for a while, working outdoors and whatnot. He coughs a fair amount, but then, so do a lot of people around here, because of VOG (volcanic smog) or mold or whatever. So we don't think much of people coughing. 

But apparently his boss decided he was coughing a bit too much, and he went in for a tuberculosis skin test... which came back positive. And there was something they weren't quite sure about on his chest x-ray, too.

Now, this doesn't necessarily mean he has active, transmissible tuberculosis. It doesn't even mean this is anything recent. He's been to places like Guatemala where the rate of exposure/infection might be higher than in the totally-developed world, so he could have picked this up abroad.

Infection also doesn't necessarily mean communicable disease, because the bacteria reproduces so slowly - only something like 10% of people who are exposed/infected ever manage to develop active communicable disease over their lifetimes (except in immune-compromised populations, where it's something like 10% per year).

But it means he gets to go have more tests done. And it means we should probably get tested too. My daughter's mom probably has to get a test anyway because of work, and my daughter is apparently due for another one for school anyway too, so I'm the only one who gets an unexpected jab. (And no, I don't like those. q.v. syncope.)

He's going to start wearing a nose-and-mouth mask around the house for safety's sake, which is cool. I'm hoping that I don't have an active case and don't wind up having to take antibiotics for 6-9 months, since I've already got a yellow fever vaccine and a month of anti-malarial pills to look forward to this fall!

1. d. Explain what to do in an electrical storm.

July 25, 2005: Four Boy Scouts leaders are electrocuted at the National Boy Scout Jamboree in Virginia when the metal pole of a tent they're erecting touches power lines. Three other adults are injured.

July 28, 2005: A Boy Scouts leader and a 13-year-old Boy Scout are killed when lightning strikes their tent in California. Six others are injured; one survives only due to scouts administering CPR for an entire hour.

August 3, 2005: A 15-year-old Boy Scout is killed and two others are hospitalized after lightning strikes a log shelter at a camp in Utah.

Seven in ten days... this isn't a good trend, is it? Unfortunately, the electricity merit badge deals primarily with household wiring. No mention is made of tents, and only one sub-point requires scouts to "Explain what to do in an electrical storm."

Why I'm leaving Twitter.

I've stuck it out and continued participating on Twitter while Elon Musk has run it into the ground, made it progressively more inhospit...