Archive for: August, 2011

Gardening: Expanding the Empire!

Aug 31 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

As I've been thinking ahead to next year's goals, I have been critically eyeballing my yard.   I would like to expand my gardening square footage by at least double for 2012.  Because I now have 143 sq/ft. of ground under cultivation, that means I'll need to total 286 sq/ft.  What to do?

The easy victims are the planters in my front yard.   Right now, they are your standard ornamental planters, complete with rosebushes, weeds, and neglect.  But there is huge potential there.  The advantages are that there is already a border wall, installed irrigation, and 84 sq/ft. to use.  I am not sure if I'd yank up my lady rosebushes or just plant around them, because roses can be used for food too.  But either way, there are an excellent candidate for conversions to food production.

Exhibit A: Your standard, underutilized ornamental suburban front yard planter. This is a prime candidate to convert to food production space.

I'm left now trying to pick up an extra 59 sq/ft.  There are a couple of options I am toying with, and both include terrific amounts of backbreaking labor.  I am not looking forward to that part, but it is the cost of doing business in these parts.  Option A is to tear up a section of lawn and install a raised bed there.  This would involve sod removal, border building,  soil placement and building a dog fence.  However, it would be irrigated and I could pick up 108 sq/ft.  The other option is to use a strip of ground along the back fence the chickens have so graciously been clearing out for me.  It would have all the same requirements as the first option, except with the additional disadvantages of receiving less sun, being under a pepper tree, and having reduced access from the fence side.

Exhibit B: Patch of lawn that's gonna die! Aside from all the labor required to build a raised bed here, the hardest part will be to sell the Hubby on the fact that this needs to go!
Exhibit C: The back fence. This patch of ground is presently receiving the chicken-bomb treatment to clear it of nuisance vegetation. My least favorite choice, yet it still remains a candidate for conversion to edible space.

I am not sure what the best plan of attack is, but I have some time to mull it over and figure costs.  I'll keep you posted.  In the meantime, if there is anyone who has any suggestions or recommendations on sod-busting or raised bed building, I'd love to hear it.  If we can use recycled materials to do it too, even better!  Thanks!


9 responses so far

hello, scientopia

Aug 30 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm honored to be guest blogging here at Scientopia, especially since I am not a scientist.

My primary area is American literature after the Civil War.  I've also taught film.  I don't really blog about American Lit or film very much, though.  If pressed, I'd call my blog a blurt-space for whatever's on my mind at the moment.   It's eclectic and random, primarily because I never set out to blog about anything specific and was a few years into blogging when I realized that it might be a good idea know...focus on something.  So the focusing thing never happened.  Topics range from signs that you might be an English professor to an open letter to the users of Craigslist to things my kiddos say to things about which I feel compelled to rant.

I am, however, married to a high school physics and chemistry teacher.  Which causes moments like the following for our poor children.

Child [pointing]: Why is that thing over there moving?

Me: Well, it might on a quest,  like in Beowulf!

Husband: An object in motion tends to remain in motion...

Child [looking confused]: Um...ok.

Me [simultaneously with Husband]: The literary conventions of the epic include...

Husband [simultaneously with Me]: Newton's law clearly states...

Child [over shoulder, while fleeing]: Yeah, ok!  Bye!

So there's that.  But I am fascinated and intrigued by the possibilities of science, though my interactions tend to involve representations of science/scientists in literature and film.  More on that later.

Thank you for inviting me to visit.






6 responses so far

Seasons: Switching Gears

Aug 30 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Summer is drawing to a close, and the dry and tired hills of Southern California wait out August's flat light with muted resignation. Soon will come the winds, then the fires, and then, at last, the cool breath and sweet nights of Autumn. I feel it, the chickens feel it, the garden feels it, even the stately oak trees that have lived here since the the Stone Age feel it. We are all a little chapped, a little exhausted, and ready for a change.

Because this is Year 1 at Suburban Stone Age, we have not yet completed a full turn through the seasons. But I can tell you that Spring is about being crazy, putting things in the ground, flogging the projects, and scrambling to keep up. But you don't mind, because you're so sick of being wet and soggy that any chance to be outside makes you want to kick up your heels and whinny. Summer was a bit of a different story. Summer was about girding up for the harvest, processing, storage, eating, and letting things do their thing. It was very much a watch and wait kind of mood, where the efforts of spring came to fruition and you needed to be prepared to deal with the consequences or else.

I feel Autumn creeping on as I get urges to do things like cleaning and repairs. Baskets need to be mended, supplies stored for winter, the greenhouse tidied up, and coops flood-proofed. And as far as I can tell, Winter will be about execution and preparation. Blankets will be made, lettuce planted, and tomatoes tended in the greenhouse for transplant in the spring.

Living in rhythm with the seasons is not a bad way to go. It feels natural. By the time you're sick of what you've got its time for something new. Nature sure knows best. I look out the window and see a whole new season's set of chores imploring me to come and play. Its time to answer the call.

5 responses so far

Presenting Skills and Marching Band

Aug 25 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the things no one really warns you about in high school, when you start considering a career in science or engineering, is how frequently you'll have to present. Even if you do get warned, unless you're involved in speech in debate club, no one teaches you presentation skills, right? Wrong. Some of the most important things I've learned about how to give a good presentation I learned in marching band.

1) How to stand attentively, yet relaxed ("at ease"): Standing up straight conveys confidence to your audience, but most people tense up when they think they're standing straight. I also learned the fine art of not locking my knees... seriously, fainting doesn't look good.

2) How to breathe properly: Yes, you aren't fainting from a lack of oxygen, and you've been breathing your entire life (hopefully). That doesn't mean your doing it in the most effective way possible. When you take a deep breath, you stomach should move, rather than your shoulders and chest lifting. Taking a controlled breath can slow down your heart rate and help you calm down, if you're like me, and race through presentations.

3) Speaking loudly without yelling: How many presentations have you been in where you can barely hear the speaker in the second row of a small room? I'm willing to bet at least a few. Volume in speaking doesn't come from your throat, it comes from the diaphragm. Using air (which you'll have more of if you take better breaths) can support your voice, making you sounds less nervous. Most women with high-pitch voices also find that this helps pitch their voice down a bit.

4) The important of pauses:First, go watch this. Don't worry, I'll wait.

The pauses create interest and drama, making the listener more attentive to what comes next. By pausing, you can emphasize the following statement. This a wonderful time to take a good breath.

So you weren't in marching band? Finding a band geek isn't hard: just mention John Phillips Sousa loudly, and wait for them to come out of the woodwork (warning: there are very few moderate opinions on Sousa...) But really, my point is that skills you thought were unrelated to what you do can come in handy.

2 responses so far

Editing Efficiently

Aug 23 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

My regular readers are aware of some of my issues with my PI's time management skills. One particular issue is how long it takes him to give feedback on data and manuscripts. His approach is to immediately starting editing sentence by sentence, refining every detail, without reading through the overall paper.

Because he's a) busy and b) been busy so long he's got a backlog, this can mean that even if he's actually working on the paper (which is a whole separate can of worms), it can still be two months before you recieve *any* kind of feedback except by accident. Accidental feedback is things like while jetlagged, he mentioned that he was working on my paper, but the flow was rough. When I went and re-read it, my paragraphs were jumping all over the place like bunnies on speed, which is just how my brain seems to work. So I calmed the bunnies down, reorganized some thing and sent it back the next day. This apparently surprised him. I just thought it was the point of feedback...

This is also a problem because it means that he doesn't look at the data or conclusions until he's had the paper for quite awhile, and that's the feedback most of the students in my group are looking for. Does the model seem reasonable? Do the conclusions make sense? Are there more experiments/simulations I should be running?

When I'm editing for others, I usually try to read through once to get a feel for the overall flow, and then go back and start fixing the little things. I read absurdly quickly, so I find this technique rather helpful. It also gives me a chance to spot any big problems more quickly.

Editing my own stuff, I do it the other way around (since I already know where I'm trying to go). I have to take time away from the document before I can edit for flow, because otherwise my train of thought just follows the same tracks.

What's your editing strategy?



3 responses so far

Engineers in Pop Culture

Aug 22 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Being an engineer, I'm always excited by realistic engineers in pop culture. Unlike doctors, lawyers and paper salesmen, rather few sitcoms include engineers as a major character, let alone considering an engineering firm as a setting. The first thing that comes to most people's minds when you mention engineers is, somewhat unfortunately, Dilbert. While there are certain truths about the corporate world that come through, most engineers I know don't have Dilbert-type jobs. I'm not saying that Dilbert isn't funny, but I think it is a very narrow picture of what engineering really entails. Still, I've heard perfectly brilliant friends say "I don't want to go into engineering. I don't want to be Dilbert!".

Sci-fi is the major home of engineers, with Star Trek of course having an entire engineering department who get to do exciting things and save the day by crawling through the Jeffries tubes. However, sci-fi readers tend to be a bit more engineering-minded to start with, so it's not really reaching an audience that is as generally unaware of what engineers do.

So what about outside of sci-fi?

One of the better examples I've run into recently, oddly, is from a fantasy book about magical horses. Storm Warning, by Mercedes Lackey, has a group of engineers and mathematicians helping identify patterns in a series of magical disturbances to predict the next storm, and translating engineering concepts, like harbor breakwaters, to this new situation. Another favorite example is from the Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss. Yes, they're called artificers, but it's a similar concept. It's a high fantasy adventure, but it takes an honest look at some of the realities of being a design engineer. My favorite moment from the first two books is the sequence designing a magical arrow catcher, which while it operates partly by magic, still relies on physics to function.

There's also MacGyver, and if they would admit that what they do is really engineering, the Mythbusters. In fact, you were to ask people to give an example of a famous engineer (who is a real person), Grant Imahara would be pretty high on the list. I think Grant is a fantastic example of the non-Dilbertian side of engineering, plus he's considered one of the Bay area's most eligible bachelors.

Does anyone have good examples of real or realistic engineers in pop culture/fiction?

4 responses so far

Finding Your Thesis Committee

Aug 18 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

As of yesterday, I officially have a full committee of people who have agreed and are interested in my project. Huzzah!

My program is a bit odd in the requirements to advance to candidacy, in that you don't have to do everything at once. At this point, I've passed my qualifying exams/coursework, and the next major hurdle is the preliminary proposal of thesis work. We have to put together at least part of our thesis committee at this point, though it's highly recommended you try and find a complete committee. Since this can be a daunting process, I felt I should share my steps to finding my committee members.

Step One: Look up your committee requirements

How many people do you need? Are you required to have certain balance of members inside and outside of your department?

Step Two: Identify the types of expertise you need

If you're doing computation on a particular system, such as in my case, is there someone doing experiments on a similar system? Are the other people doing similar experiments on different systems, if you're an experimentalist? If you're doing something that is new to your lab, is there someone else at your university using similar techniques? Faculty websites are a fantastic way to look up this sort of information. Most importantly, have a list of more people than you actually need for your committee. Professors are busy people. They may not have time to be on you committee, so be sure to have backups (but never tell them they are your backup!)

Step Three: Set up a meeting

This is, for me, the hardest part. What do you say? I've been approaching this with the idea of "Brief but thorough". My emails have looked something like this:
Prof. Blah

I am a student working with Pf. Blarg in the process of putting together a thesis commitee. My proposed topic is BasketWeaving, which relates to your work in FiberPreparation. Would it be possible to meet at sometime in the near future? I am unavailable ___, but otherwise flexible.

Miss MSE

Step Four: The meeting itself

Sell your project. If you don't sound excited about what you're doing, they have no real motivation to agree to invest time and effort in being on your committee. It's also important to be clear on exactly why you think they would be a helpful addition to your committee (see Janus for the professorial side of this issue)

Once you have your committee comes the fun part: scheduling!

One response so far

Why I Chose Materials Science

Aug 16 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Ultimately, I probably ended up majoring in MSE because of noise induced hearing loss.

To back up a bit, my first instrument was the flute. As a fairly good flautist, I was occasionally asked to play piccolo. The problem with piccolos is that they are very high, very loud, and about four inches from your right ear. If you practice diligently, you spend a lot of time with it very close to your ear. So when I started noticing that I only heard fire alarms in my left ear, I realized I should probably quit the piccolo, and took up french horn instead.

My parents were less than thrilled about buying me another instrument, so we compromised, and I got a budget that was the difference between my sister's violin and my flute. This was not a large number, so being part of the internet generation, to eBay I went. The horn I ended up getting was a cheaper Chinese knock-off, but it had a lovely tone quality, even it has other... quirks.

However, about one year after I had started playing it, I noticed that it was already developing the cursed "red rot". This process is more scientifically known as dezincification, wherein the zinc in the brass alloy is electrochemically oxidized and leaches out of the metal as a white powder, leaving behind a porous copper matrix. However, being a corrosion process, this usually takes rather longer than one year. So why had it happened so quickly?

The answer is that the inside of the slides had been silver-coated with the rest of the horn, which meant I had brass against silver, and when condensation completed the circuit, a galvanic cell was created. And somewhere in the process of looking all of this up, I discovered there was a field called materials science, which did everything I thought chemical engineers did. Apparently, a lot of chemical engineering involves calculating flow through pipes. I was much more interested in metallurgy than pipe flow, and so I started looking for schools with materials science programs. And I haven't regretted it yet.


No responses yet

Introducing... me?

Aug 15 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

First off, thank you to the wonderful people here at Scientopia who have invited me to do a guest-blogging stint.

Here on the internet, I go by Miss MSE. I'm a graduate student in materials science and engineering at a large research university I call GiantU.

I started blogging as a way to vent about some of the frustrations of graduate school, and because I felt that the non-life sciences needed more of a voice on the internet. I've also discovered that many other scientists haven't really heard of MSE until after they've graduated, and no one quite knows what materials science does.

So... what is MSE? 

Materials science is the study of the relationships between processing, properties, structure, and performance. At some point, you will inevitably be shown "the tetrahedron", so let's get that out of the way now:

My current research is in the area of computationally characterizing structures, and analyzing the effect of structure variation on mechanical properties.  While most academic materials science programs have their roots in metallurgy, materials science effectively covers all solid materials, from metals to ceramics to polymers to nanotubes. (Everything is spiffier at the nanoscale!)


For those who have been paying attention, you may have noticed "and engineering" attached to the discipline. MSE covers both fundamental understanding and cutting-edge innovation (i.e., science), as well as practical things, like what to build a bridge with, or how to increase the lifespan of engine components (i.e., engineering).


Between undergraduate research, summer internships, coursework, and graduate school, I've had a chance to dabble in a broad range of topics under the MSE umbrella. Hopefully, we will cover a few of these over my guest blogging term.

4 responses so far

Breast Cancer Awareness Marketing has a Pink Problem

Aug 14 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She blogs every day at Sociological Images.

Lindsey B. alerted us to a newly published paper in the Journal of Marketing Research suggesting that the current approach to raising awareness of breast cancer hurts more than helps.  You might have noticed, just maybe, I mean if you’ve been paying attention, that breast cancer has become associated with the color pink.

Stefano Puntoni and his colleagues found that when women were exposed to gender cues, like the color pink, they were less likely than women who had not been primed with a gender cue to think that they might someday get breast cancer and to say that they’d be willing to donate to the cause.  Pink, in other words, decreased both their willingness to fund research and the seriousness with which women took the disease.

Puntoni explains this finding with a common psychological tendency. When people are faced with a personal threat, they tend to subconsciously go on the defensive.  In this case, when women are exposed to information about breast cancer at the same time that they are reminded that they, specifically, are vulnerable to it, they subconsciously try to push away the idea that they’re vulnerable and that breast cancer is something that they, or anyone, needs to worry about it.

4 responses so far

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