Monday, September 28, 2015

September 2015 Chicago Trip

Some quick notes about our quick trip to Chicago.  We tied together a number of relatively high-priority items into one almost-justifiable weekend off.

We drove up on a Friday night and 'checked in' to our AirBnB place.  Apparently an international triathlon championship of some sort was going on and hotels were just impossible to get without paying $1000+ for the weekend.  Our AirBnB was a quarter the price and quite nice - the host was out camping so it was just us in a large and surgically clean apartment.  We didn't feel like seeing people after working that day (I taught a double load covering for a faculty member out of town) so we had really pretty good Thai food delivered to the apartment and watched Netflix.  Chicago apparently also has a service whereby you can have beer, wine, or liquor delivered like takeout (I was joking about it and Ana checked - it exists) but apparently it is still new and kind of buggy - it never came and they never charged us.  Might still be worth trying just for grins the next time.

The lake views advertisement was not kidding - picture from Saturday morning

On Saturday one of the more justifiable reasons for being back in Chicago was the second fitting of my new suit.  Our math on getting new suits was: convincing an engineering department to hire you for a tenure track job costs them at least a million dollars even if they decide not to give tenure, so we needed suits that one could plausibly ask for million dollar contracts in.  I'm not sure my existing suit covers that.  For the members of the audience demanding PICTURES NOW (Hi Mom), my handmade Italian suit (I didn't set out for Italian fabric, but that was the one I actually wanted when looking at samples) fits great but the shirts to go with it are not ready yet and my unfitted shirts are kind of comical paired with a fitted suit. You'll have to wait.  I think I also need to grow my tie collection a bit for maximum effect.  In the meantime, Ana's suit is all set, so why not bother her about that?

After the suit fitting we didn't have anything we had to do on Saturday until the evening, so we went to a brewery down the street from the suit place (Rock Bottom) and started the day right.  Since we were on Eastern time and were hungry early, we were their first customers of the day but I was not embarrassed.  Both the food and drink hit the spot and Ana had some kind of Nirvana-like experience with the dessert.  Then we went home and napped the whole afternoon away.  Saturday evening we went out to eat downtown at an oyster bar and seafood restaurant to address the seafood deficit we've been experiencing in Lafayette.  We met up with a friend of mine from undergrad who I hadn't seen in something like eight years who lives in Chicago and his lady friend, which was nice, as was the restaurant.  We got a whole bunch of smaller dishes and shared, tried half the menu and had a lot of fun.

Sunday we got up at the crack of dawn to go to a science museum.  We'd bought a set of the actually fairly difficult-to-get tickets for the most in-depth tours of their u-boat (one of a bare handful preserved in the world) at the Museum of Science and Industry.  We had to buy the tickets months ago.  This is in keeping with our strategy of planning recreational events well before we know how busy we'll be so we actually go.  This tour begins well before the museum opens to the public.

I was really hoping for a nerdy tour, emphasizing the nuts and bolts operation of the submarine.  I may have watched a number of submarine movies, played a number of submarine warfare simulators,  including one emphasizing the Type IX u-boat featured in the museum, and may or may not own a reference book named "Submarines of the World".  However, the tour emphasized the human aspects of the war and the human stories of the capture of the submarine during WW2.  From a professional standpoint, I absolutely agree that emphasizing human stories is a better educational strategy for the majority of people.  But maybe the majority of people don't get up really early on a Sunday to go see a submarine?  I don't know.  After the initial tour, they did let us roam around a little and they had a number of US Navy submarine vets who were quite willing to discuss any and all technical aspects of the design and operation of submarines.  Some had strong feelings about the superiority of American sub designs vs. German ones, including some that seemed to me to make engineering sense.  The veterans also griped about ways that the boat had been made less authentic in order to show it better to the public by lowering some of the floor and not including as many items in the interior (torpedoes, foodstuffs) as would have been present when it sailed.  The boat still featured holes in various places that had been authentically shot by American forces in 1943, so that was intense to see.  It was a pretty decent tour overall, but I still want a more technical one that goes over it bow to stern.

After the submarine, we stayed through until the museum closed and saw almost everything.  It is a little odd now as an educational researcher and teacher to visit a place designed to teach things.  I know some of our graduates work in museums and we definitely felt like we couldn't see things just as exhibits any more - we had to assess them as learning experiences too.  We were very impressed by a lot of what we saw there, they had some amazingly informative and engaging exhibits.  We were pretty beat driving back, and quite behind on work but overall it was a fun weekend.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

FYEE and Shenandoah 2015

We had a work trip to Virginia for a conference (The First-Year Engineering Experience or FYEE) and since we drove, we took a couple of days afterward to enjoy Skyline Drive and do a little hiking in Shenandoah National Park. Pictures on Flickr as usual.

The conference was about eight hours away by car and not a lot faster by plane due to airport locations. Another benefit is that mileage reimbursements are paying out at way above the cost of gas right now, so we expect driving to pay out above costs while flying would have been more than our travel grants could cover, so the choice to drive looked pretty good.

Driving down we passed through Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, and finally into Virginia.  We stopped for a late lunch at the original Bob Evans restaurant.  It was perfectly acceptable but probably not something we'd go out of our way for.

Heading into West Virginia the land became really mountainous but speed limits remained high (70MPH) so things got both pretty and pretty fast.  West Virginia was really fun driving, and it should also be noted that roads were very well maintained.  We needed to push the Fit pretty hard to even get up these hills at speed, so this was much more fun than the flat-no-turns driving we get in Indiana.

Mountain highways in West Virginia are a lot of fun.

The conference was at Virginia Tech and the affiliated Hotel Roanake, which was pretty fancy. 

The town of Roanoke was nice and a short walk across the tracks from the hotel.  We ate at a seafood place that had great shrimp and scallops and a place called Thelma's Chicken and Waffles where we both ordered and enjoyed chicken and waffles.  I think the chicken and waffles we had in Memphis may have been better but these were still really good and probably 1/3 the cost so we'd definitely go again if we were in Roanoke.

Roanoke has a classy tourist town vibe.

Everything tasted really fresh and succulent.

I don't expect that a detailed review of the conference itself is of interest to readers outside of engineering education - it was fine. We talked to a bunch of people we already knew, networked with new people we hadn't met before, heard about some additional job openings, handed out business cards, etc.  Our papers and presentations got good audience responses, no major humiliations or disasters there, and I felt like we made good personal connections with a number of researchers our own age which means you'll have people to hang out with at future conferences.  

We were already planning to do some sightseeing and camping after the conference, but one other item at the conference was that one of the keynote speakers had driven down through Skyline Drive not realizing that it is a scenic (not fast) drive, and we got her park pass for free since she planned to drive home on a real highway.  The day after the conference was over we drove up to Skyline, which runs the length of the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park.  There are overlooks to both sides of the ridge (we stopped at every single one) and the weather was lovely.

Ana lived up to her trail name, Bear Magnet, and we saw a bear within 90 minutes of entering the park.  It crossed the road in front of us.  It is the dark spot in the center of the picture behind the tree.  We also picked up a hiker with a hurting knee and brought him into camp, paying back a little of our hitching karma from the AT in 2012.

We camped in the park, testing out our new tent that weights half what our other one does (2.5lb down from 5) while also packing much smaller and giving more room inside.  The downside, as illustrated here, it that it is not free-pitch capable and needs to be anchored to the ground really well, and when the ground is entirely stone it is really hard to get a taut pitch.  So the tent is a little less versatile, but we don't use hardened campsites like this very often.  Overall we'll be looking to use this tent in less extreme conditions than the other tent is capable of, but for summer camping that is mostly below treeline the weight savings are hard to argue with.

The next day we did a short hike (~6 miles) and made good time. We briefly touched the AT but mostly did a trail that we wouldn't get to see if and when we try the AT again.

It was starting to rain a little and the plan was to drive to a dark sky zone in West Virginia where we could camp and see the stars, and since we read the visibility chart backwards we thought the rain was already past it into the Shenandoah so we packed up and headed out.  Going back into West Virginia the roads were pretty amazing again and we actually saw some sports cars out for drives going the other way.  The high speed limits and the sprinkle of rain meant that legal speeds were sometimes even more than I wanted to use.

Eventually we realized that the rain wasn't clearing away and checked the weather again.  Realizing we definitely were not going to be able to see the stars, we decided to go home rather than camping in the rain.  We did an extra hour or so of driving by not having headed home directly from Shenandoah, but most of it was in West Virginia and entertaining in and of itself, so not a big problem.  Overall, this was a fun little trip.

Friday, June 26, 2015

More Summer Adventures

This summer, we're traveling quite a bit for conferences and things. We recently went to Seattle for the American Society for Engineering Education's annual conference and managed to have some fun in between. We got to Seattle early enough the day before the conference to meet up with a friend from Japan:

We stayed in the center of downtown, and still got a room with a view:

I swear, you can see the water between those buildings! We also presented our research in posters and PowerPoints. Lee wore his glasses and was quite professional, if a bit blurry:

After dinner one night, we headed over to the Taproom Grill, a bar that was recommended to us based on the 160 taps it had:

We intended to get one drink, but had some valuable networking conversations and stayed until 11:30. The conference sessions started at 7 the next morning. Worth it, but there was much sleeping on the plane. Lee headed back to Indiana after the conference, while Ana flew to Boston for another workshop/conference for the second half of the week:

We'll also be in Virginia and Ohio this summer, and Ana has a couple of conferences in Tennessee and California on top of that. Very busy, but very worthwhile!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Indianapolis 500

The Indianapolis 500 has been on our list since we moved to Indiana, and as this year is hopefully the final year of our residence here it was time to go if we were going.  If you are looking for many pictures of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and cars going around on same, you can find all the pictures and videos in our Flickr set.

We found some other folks in our graduate program interested in going and met up for breakfast at a diner as the race starts around noon and we wanted to drive in together and had concerns about traffic.  The Indianapolis 500 brings in more than 300,000 people to the largest sporting venue in the world, according to Wikipedia, so you can see where traffic concerns originated.  However, it turns out that the police simply make all the roads going towards the 500 one way and by using all the lanes the traffic moved pretty well going in.  It probably only took us 45 minutes to go the 5-6 miles from the highway to our parking spot (we paid up ahead of time for one within easy walking distance of our seats).

We also paid up for good seats along the stretch leading to the start/finish line, with real seat backs and shade from an awning (this was a really good idea as the weather was quite sunny).  The 500 lets you bring in all the food and drink you want as long as it isn't in glass containers, so we were well supplied and didn't need to leave our seats to have everything we wanted at hand.  A member of our party with prior experience had reported on the low quality of the food available from the track, and that was apparently before they switched vendors and the internet reported that the food took a sharp downturn on top of that.

 View from the seats looking left

View from the seats looking right - the finish line is down by the famous 'Pagoda'

We got to our seats close to two hours before the main event, anticipating something they had billed as 'the race of champions' where classic and/or historic Indy cars would be unleashed around the track for our enjoyment. Now I know that it wouldn't make sense for these cars to actually be raced, as cars from different eras wouldn't be competitive with each other, and the safety equipment would definitely not be up to scratch. However, I was hoping for a little more than a low-speed parade in single file around the track - and you could at least open them up on the straights in front of the stands so we could hear them better. And maybe do more than one lap. So while it was interesting to see the historic cars on the track, this was not worth arriving early for. The pre-race entertainment also featured numerous z-grade celebrities arriving and being interviewed about the race, which was kind of hilarious in terms of what passes for entertainment these days.

A classic Indycar

Another classic Indycar

When the race finally did start, two crashes in quick succession (the first two of about five or six throughout) made for a slow start as they had to clean up the track and drag away the damaged vehicles.  Fortunately, as far as we can tell there were no life-threatening injuries during the race, with the worst crashes topping out at a few broken bones with full recoveries expected (which I consider extremely impressive considering they're often going in excess of 200MPH).

Driver getting out of a car he just crashed at ~200MPH

The sound of the cars was pretty special - even through the earplugs the sound of giant angry bees vibrated through the air and when a large number of them went by together it would be hard not to get excited.

Video with sound of cars

The race got more exciting as we figured out who the drivers were and started rooting for and against various people (I admit I rooted against specific cars that were sponsored by companies who are jerks) and the drivers got more aggressive as the distance to the finish decreased, leading to more close calls and more passes. The last fifteen laps or so were done after a crash, which basically resets the field so that they start close together and in a single-file line, so nobody was holding anything back at that point. I think the lead changed at least 5 times in the last few laps, with people I was both rooting for and against in the leaders, which was fun to watch.

A pit stop

 Lead cars on the final lap

The winner was pretty excited and rightfully so - he'd won this race 15 years ago but not since and fought his way up from 30th place earlier in the race after screwing up a pit stop.

Once the race was over, 300,000 people wanted to leave, and getting out was not as easy as getting in. Once you were on a road the police kept things in line but the parking lots were complete chaos as absolutely everyone tried to cut the line to get to one of the exits, leading to spiraling conglomerations of dozens of mini-lines trying to get into the one exit. We did some sitting around at that point before things started moving again. While I think there's room for improvement in managing traffic and pedestrians leaving the race, given the number of people present it wasn't that bad. Were we doing it again, we'd probably tailgate after the race until things cleared up, an option exercised by many.

That is people to the horizon.

Overall, we felt it was certainly worth going to once and would go again with a group to hang out with during some of the slower parts of the experience.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Alinea 2015 Visit

As with similar posts, we'd like to issue our standard food snobbery warning before continuing.

Alinea has been on our to-do list since setting up shop at Purdue.  Located in Chicago, it’s noted as one of the top handful of restaurants in the US.  It is part of the molecular gastronomy movement, which does fairly strange but tasty things with food.  We’d previously put some similar restaurants in Japan and Singapore (Yamada Chikara, Narisawa, and FiftyThree) to the test, and wanted to hit one of the big names back home.  However, Chicago is a good couple hours away from us and reservations are extremely difficult to get, so we’d been putting it off for a while.  A friend of ours from undergrad joined our PhD program this year and finally succeeded in chivying us into going over spring break (we still put in a full week’s work – just from home instead of having to go in).

We drove up to Chicago, dropped our stuff at the hotel, and played dress-up (the restaurant is a required-suit-and-tie kind of place) before getting a fancy black car ride over (our friend insisted) for our early reservation.  You get the same course at whatever time you go, but they charge more for later times – we were fine eating early to cut the cost down a little. 

We don’t want to go through the food dish by dish because there were too many of them, but the (mostly pretty poor) pictures are on Flickr in order, along with a scan of the menu.  One funny thing for us was that the restaurant was on a kaiseki (formal Japanese) kick for the menu we had, which meant that we’d had versions of several dishes before while in Japan…

like the raw shrimp in broth (above) and the tempura miitake mushrooms. Alinea’s versions were superb, but not surprising. One of the pairings was for a Japanese craft beer where Ana had actually visited the brewery with friends while we were over there.

We will mention a few of the coolest other dishes.

The charred parsnip and pork belly dish originally appeared on the table as the ‘logs’ on a pupu-platter-ish presentation for sashimi speared on fresh pine boughs, but then after the fire went out the ‘logs’ were extracted and cut up at the table to be the next course (char-roasted parsnip and seaweed-wrapped roasted pork belly), which was definitely one of the best.  I like parsnips a lot, but this particular char roasted one was something else.

These were edible floating candy balloons, with helium in them.  The string was dehydrated apple.  These were comical to eat and watch other people eat.

The final dessert course was painted onto a rubber mat covering the table in front of us, which was fun, and the frozen coconut milk ice cream was delicious.

The service was really excellent – casual in tone, cracking jokes, but silent and professional when called for, and they adjusted the pacing for our table. Some other tables we could see were moving through the food faster we were, but everything appeared just when it should for our table. I also appreciated that the sommelier kept good track of us and would top off the glasses should our wine consumption outpace the food it was intended to accompany. The wines were all interesting and well paired as well, I found some of them to be more interesting and surprising than the courses they went with.

After discussing it, Ana and I decided we’d be happy to go back for the price (enough to feed us for at least 2 months of regular eating), but we’d wait until they were on a new menu with less emphasis on kaiseki. We don’t mind kaiseki, but it isn’t new and surprising to us after eating it regularly for several years in Japan. For us, Yamada Chikara in Tokyo probably remains the best single dinner out of all time, but we'd be willing to give Alinea another shot at the title.

Friday, August 22, 2014

John Muir Trail Hike 2014 - Final Leg

This entry is the third in a series of three documenting our trip to the Sierra Nevada mountains and the John Muir Trail.  The full picture set is available on Flickr.

After coming back into town after the second leg, examination of the options made it clear that we didn't have enough time left to do a meaningful portion of the JMT and still make our flight - we could certainly get back on and may have been able to make it to Mt. Whitney, but if the weather continued to be not helpful and/or the ever-increasing altitude hit us even harder, we'd be in trouble.  The weather didn't look like it was getting better, and after Piute Pass, Muir Pass, and Bishop Pass, Ana was none too keen on taking on Kearsarge Pass or Forester Pass.  We also didn't have the correct permit to take the short route up Mt. Whitney. We could stay in town and do day-hikes, but that would end up getting expensive in hotels and restaurants quickly, so we figured we'd go home early and do a little good old fashioned sitting on our butts.

We got new plane tickets out of Vegas, ditched our very expensive shuttle service (was previously going to pick us up at a trailhead and take us directly to the airport in Vegas), took a bus to a bigger town, rented the one car they had available for one-way use (a dinged-up and extremely unimpressive Chysler 200), and hit the road.

We had daylight, so we took a somewhat longer route to Vegas in order to see Death Valley.

We kept looking at the mountains as we passed them and thinking about how it was probably raining up there right now, and how it was not raining in the car.

I believe this expression to be the product of flooring it and getting virtually no acceleration out of the car.

Yep, looks dark up there.

Most of the pictures in this post were taken with our friend's camera, which is about five times bigger,  heavier, and more expensive than our armored, waterproof adventure camera but takes much nicer pictures.

Overlooking Death Valley

The road down was extremely exciting, in a fairly terrifying way.  The rental car's steering didn't seem to have a lot to do with which way the wheels were pointing and I went very slowly down oversteering and then correcting.  The brakes started squeaking towards the end, too.

Pretty warm down there too.

Having never driven in the West roads like this were new to me.  You could see cars literally miles away and drive towards them for minutes before passing.

We saw some Hyundai test cars outside a campground area.  They had non-standard body panels and were obviously instrumented - probably stress-testing in the high-heat environment.  Our friend (herself an engineer) asked what they were testing and they tried to tell us all the wires were for "communication" between cars which is a complete load of crap.  If you don't want to get asked about your test mules, you probably shouldn't have huge wires coming out from under the hood while parked in a public place.

Also shortly after that it rained.  On this trip it rained on us in Death Valley.  I think that captures the frequency of rain on this trip well.

We'd never seen desert terrain like this before, we really felt the detour through Death Valley added a lot to the trip.

I pulled over at several ranger stations and visitor centers trying to buy a park pass (you're supposed to buy one when you drive through) but their terminals seemed to have lost connection and everything else was closed because it was getting late.  Sorry guys!  Also note I messed with their nonfunctional terminals in some serious heat.

There was a really nice sunset projecting colors on the clouds as we drove east towards Vegas.  We drove in darkness for an hour or two before seeing the city lights.  We also saw a thunderstorm in the distance, which lit the clouds up purple.  Ana blamed alien technology based out of Area 51.

We stopped at an In-and-Out Burger since everyone we've ever met from the West Coast raves about them.  While the buns were very fresh and tasty, as was the lettuce and other veggies, the consensus of our group was that we'd take a Five Guys over In-and-Out in most situations.  It definitely beats the major chains and the staff was very friendly and efficient but the burger just didn't end up being that exciting.

From the restaurant we went to the hotel (we rented a room basically to hold our stuff and take showers, since it was a 6AM flight the next day), then returned the car at the airport and took the midnight hotel shuttle to the Las Vegas Strip.

Some members of the party were more excited about this than others.

We did some minor gambling and generally tourist-ed around for a couple of hours.  Frankly, I thought to keep people interested slot machines had to give you fairly frequent minor wins but these just sucked down the $10 or so we were planning to waste without much pretense of being something other than throwing money away.

This was a pretty big change from the mountains.  I was glad to have seen it but don't feel much like I need to go back soon.  We eventually headed back to the hotel room and got less than an hour's sleep before heading to the airport, which made sleeping on the planes very easy indeed.

Overall, our planning for this trip was a little ambitious with respect to miles hiked at altitude, and the weather nailed us several times. We still had fun, saw a lot of things, and learned more about backpacking and our new gear.  We ended up doing about 110-115 miles total in the mountains in nine days, with the average mileage being dragged down by our warm-up day and stopping short of Muir Pass to avoid the storm among other things.  Our best day we did about 18 miles, and had several 15 mile days.  We could definitely do more under ideal conditions but I wouldn't want to be held responsible for doing a lot more at the altitude without more time to acclimatize.  The southern end of the JMT where you spend a lot of time in the 11,000-14,000 foot range we'd definitely need to plan on shorter distances.  Anyway, that was our big adventure for the year.  We enjoyed it and hope you enjoyed reading about it.  As usual, the full picture set is on Flickr.