Monday, July 24, 2017

Wilmington NC Trip

Another short summer trip, another quick post. A few pictures are on Flickr.

We went down to Wilmington NC, on the coast, for a weekend break. The town is definitely a tourist destination but it also seems pretty classy - at least the older part of town by the river, we didn't go down to the beach. The main attractions were seafood and the museum battleship USS North Carolina. We drove in on Friday night and went to an oyster bar and got some oysters and a steamed sampler of everything else, which was delicious.

Saturday morning we headed to the ship. Those who may have previously complained about us visiting other major works of engineering will note that this one is fully set up as a museum and the exhibits are even in English. We showed up early but missed the tour lead by a human being because the group in front of us took the last spot. However, that turned out to be OK - they have an app for phones that gives the tour when walking around - it was a little shaky but it allowed a tour at completely our own speed and we spent about 3.5 hours touring the ship, a non-zero portion of which was assessing how various things had been manufactured because we are professional engineers and also nerds. A much higher percentage of the ship was accessible for touring (and some things even were functional and allowed messing with) than we'd expected and that was great.

Lousy picture of us on the deck. 

The main gun turret periscopes seemed to be fully functional - drawing light in a binocular fashion from lenses about 40 feet apart (one on each side of the turret) and still very clear more than 70 years later with all controls working. 

Despite having several hundred tourists on board, the ship was built for more than 2,000 people to live there. With most of it open for touring, waiting a minute or two would generally get you a space to yourself. We had the bridge of the ship to ourselves for several minutes to spin the wheel and sit in the captain's chair without being judged by five-year-old children waiting to do the same thing. Ana also enjoyed the buttons that made authentically obnoxious noises play over the bridge speakers.

Later on Ana found a kitchen mixer of a size that met her approval. I think it said they made 700 loaves of bread a day on board so they needed some scale.

We both geeked out on the machine shop - the available tooling was very impressive, and of course all of this stuff was made by hand and controlled by hand. Probably represented pretty close to the state of the art at the time and the quality (and scale, power, etc.) is still strong by today's standards.

After touring all morning and into the afternoon, we had a pretty nice seafood lunch followed by a nap followed by a pretty fancy seafood dinner that wasn't even outrageously priced.

We ended up both wanting two of the specials so we got them both, ate half each, and switched. Scallops and lobster both delicious. Sunday it was raining and we didn't feel like messing around, so we just headed home and got some stuff done so we didn't start the week completely behind.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

West Virginia Hiking Trip

Quick entry for a quick trip - we've been quite busy with finally completing the move to North Carolina (house in IN is sold and Ana lives here in NC now, finally) and the whole starting a new school of engineering thing, but we found time for a quick overnight hike in West Virginia on the way to a workshop and conference in Ohio. Pictures on Flickr.

We specifically wanted West Virginia because it is home to the darkest skies east of the Mississippi, which is supposed to result in excellent stargazing. We were interested in seeing what the skies looked like with as little light pollution as possible and also getting some hiking in. We found a trail with an easy two-day length (16.5 mi) near Spruce Knob, the center of the dark sky zone. We did some driving and stayed in a hotel the night before the hike so we were sure not to have any difficulty doing the miles we needed to get to the desired campsite.

Arriving at Spruce Knob, it sure looked like the weather reports had been fibbing and we were walking into a storm of some sort, with dark and fast-moving clouds all around. We hung around a little to see if it was just about to start but nothing changed so we set off anyway.

Fears of a storm blew over quickly as the sun came out and we made good time into the backcountry. The trails and campsites showed remarkably little use with lots of grass and plants growing on both - one of the highest beauty / use ratios for all the places we've hiked. Some mud was present from rain in previous days but overall it was fine. Most of the trails had tree coverage but there were also some open sunny meadows which were very scenic.

We were aiming for one of the campsites along the creek at the bottom of the valley, which were supposed to be pretty nice.  The whole area was pretty nice actually. Saw our first other person on a hike right at the end, where he was fly fishing for trout in the creek.  He reported they were going after the lure but he wasn't any good at hooking or netting them. We saw many fish, so I think he was getting plenty of practice. 

The trail crossed the stream several times, which was nice on feet at the end of a day of hiking. Ana found a designated campsite that had seen so little use that the tent site was covered in fluffy grass, which was pretty amazing. It also had great trees for convenient bag-hanging, easy access to water, stone chairs to sit in and more flat stones for food prep. 10/10

Picture from the next morning 

We went to sleep fairly early but set an alarm for later at night to look at the sky. When the alarm went off the skies were clear and we could get a good look - but I have to report that it was not notably more spectacular than looking skyward from home on a mountain in New Hampshire. We'll have to step it up to the darkest place in the continental US in Texas at some point, or do something really spectacular like Gates of the Arctic I guess.

We took it easy getting up and going in the morning since our mileage target was very achievable and we were not under any time pressure. I picked up a really disgusting heavy bag of trash in another meadow that had obviously been left by one of the university groups that had also camped in the area - I usually wouldn't want to cart something that heavy out, at least not if 'out' was far off but with only 6 miles or so to go I sucked it up. At the last stream crossing (the only one with a bridge) we ran into an older couple who asked us how we could possibly fit everything we needed into such small and light packs so we stopped and had a substantial conversation about the costs and benefits of our equipment choices and recommended a few websites for them to peruse later.

We posed with the sign after hiking back up the mountain. The view from the tower was also very nice and the weather while breezy was pleasant.

On our way out, we stopped at a family diner at the base of the mountain (Gateway Diner, if you're in the area) where Ana ordered the fried local trout (apparently didn't get enough in Japan). Trout can be hit or miss, especially at a diner, but apparently the mountains of West Virginia is the place. Very fresh and crispy and overall worth mentioning. Darn cheap, too. We drove up north for a while through some very pretty country before finding a hotel in Morgantown for the night.

We had the whole next day to get to our hotel in Columbus and the drive wasn't that long, so we had a huge leisurely breakfast then stopped at a local winery / distillery named Forks of Cheat (which is apparently the local river or something) near Morgantown on the way. I had kind of expected it to be new and cheesy but they've been there for quite a while and had some impressive products, which, since we weren't flying, we could purchase in some quantity and drive home ourselves. 

From there we continued on to Columbus where we were staying at a pretty fancy hotel downtown that was attached to the convention center hosting the workshop and conference. We had the evening free before the 8 am workshop start so we found a combination bar/movie theater (Studio 35) showing Wonder Woman. It was outstanding. We'd tried to see the movie the previous week and found only sold-out shows locally, even on the third weekend of release and hours before showtime. Seeing it with a not-notably-overpriced pizza and beer with only adults in the movie theater was great - hope more theaters like this open near us. 

After that we had two days of workshop and two days of professional conference. We've been in the field long enough that we know a lot of people and constantly run into them at events like these, which made it probably the most fun conference of this type we've been to yet. The workshop was the Advanced tier of the National Effective Teaching Institute, which focused on best practices and implementation strategies for a lot of the techniques we use already, but there were some interesting twists and sound advice to take things further. The conference was the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition and that was a nice mix of catching up with colleagues, a bit of networking, seeing research presentations, and making research presentations. It also turned out that the food in downtown Columbus is pretty amazing in some cases - we recommend Wolf's Ridge Brewing, which we thought was a standard gastro-pub but was considerably higher quality than that, pushing potentially into our top ten dinners out of all time though we only split some appetizers and a dessert.

Left to right: chive gnocchi (the best $10 I've spent in years), steak tartare, and scallops crudo. I think the scallops were the most impressive - multiple flavors and textures melted together in the mouth. Bonus: work paid for the food (but definitely not the booze)!

Back in NC now teaching a summer class. Living the dream!

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Drs. Rynearson

Our lives seem to be in approximately 4-year chunks. Undergrad was five years, Japan was 3.5, and then came grad school.

Four years ago, we moved to West Lafayette, Indiana, and started working at Purdue. The first semester was rough, with a lot of reading, a lot of working, and undiagnosed Lyme disease. We chose research areas, applied for major grants, and Lee received an Honorable Mention from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. 

By the end of the first year, both our advisers left for another university. Our work responsibilities evolved, our intended research focuses changed, and the reading load stayed high. While it wasn't our plan, we wound up with the same adviser. Lee earned all possible graduate student teaching awards while at Purdue, and even had almost 30 of his first-year undergraduate students attend his doctoral defense, a first in our program. Ana won a dissertation fellowship and the departmental service award for her work.

We eventually zeroed in on PhD topic areas. Ana had some problems getting research subjects, and wound up restarting her dissertation in March 2016, when intending to graduate in May 2016 (or at least by August). She managed to get it done, but it was rough. Meanwhile, Lee was already working in a new job, trying to finish his dissertation while setting up a new engineering undergraduate program halfway across the country.

So what exactly did we do for four years? If you're not sure what getting a PhD means, take a look at the Illustrated Guide to a PhD. Lee studied how to help student groups in first-year engineering courses work better, and Ana followed seven elementary school students through three years of learning about engineering and technology to see how they learned. Combined, our PhDs are over 500 pages of work.

Wine and humor got us through our PhD years - we enjoyed classics like Grad Student Deconstructs Take-Out Menu, What Should We Call Grad School, and finally made it through the Snake Fight. We both defeated the snake.

After all, the best dissertation defense is a good offense.

Along with grad school came home ownership, pet ownership, and Midwest living. We're keeping the cats, but we'll be renting for now and moving back east, though more south than we've been before.

Here's to the next four years!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Adventures in India 19: The Summary

In sum: We were glad we were able to take this trip. We weren't sure what exactly to expect going in, but were still surprised at what we encountered.

Our encounters with and understanding of other cultures is of course colored by the fact that we come from the Northeastern United States. Having grown up in states that were part of the original 13 colonies and living near historical sites, we've been on field trips and family trips to some of the oldest places of interest when it comes to United States history. There were settlers and settlements before Europeans colonized the Americas, and there are many sites of interest in Central and South America from original peoples, but the United States itself isn't even 250 years old yet. In India, many of the places we visited were much, much older. In the US, the history that we learn and the science that we prize comes from Europe and then the United States. While we, too, created an independent country after years of British rule, I don't think I've ever heard any discussions or comparisons of India and the US in post-British years. We've heard of Gandhi, but don't really know that much about the Mughals or other notable Indians or eras in Indian history (beyond what one might learn in empire-building video games).

Seeing actual artifacts of resistance against the British...

and walking into the Imperial palace for a subcontinent...

...and find British barracks inside, the history gets a little more real.

India is old. Beyond that, many of the people we saw still survive in old ways. It is always strange to be visibly a minority when you come from a place where you are a member of the majority; you stand out, and as a tourist in a country like India, you carry a lot of privilege. Your money goes very far, so that you can afford what many consider luxuries even if you're a graduate student. If you're not staying strictly in luxury resorts, taking vans from one tourist attraction or designed-for-tourists restaurant to the next, you can see the kinds of poverty that are nearly unthinkable to a middle-class American. You become a target for beggars and shopkeepers trying to make as much money as they can off of you, while also knowing that even the steep tourist prices or some cash to a young mother or two in the street aren't really hurting your wallet.

They spent longer building this castle than the US has been in business.  In fact, they spent long enough building it that it was more like the time between the Roanoke colony being founded and the current date than the length of time the US has been around.

We literally stayed in former palaces on multiple occasions on a grad student budget.  This particular palace has a tent city in front of it.  We felt shitty to be staying in a palace in front of a tent city.

The spice market part of the bike tour was interesting and lead to good views, but also felt like intruding into where these folks are actually living.

One problem we faced was not really knowing what money was actually worth. What's actually a good price for a meal, a souvenir, a taxi ride? Should I haggle? How much should I tip? What is considered reasonable, and how much is too much? A percentage? A flat increase? A different percentage at a different type of establishment? No idea. Prices varied wildly, to the point where a delicious dinner for four at a local place in New Delhi cost less than a single person's simple (and bland) lunch at a tourist-focused restaurant. The same bottle of water could cost ten times more at a different stand or restaurant.

This entire delicious dinner for four was about $4, much, much less than US prices. 

...But this small plate of fries was about $2 (they were pretty good though).

The sights were amazing. The manpower that went into creating buildings like the forts and the famous Taj Mahal is unthinkable, and yet craftspeople today are still spending hours using the same techniques to carefully craft stone inlays like they did at the Taj Mahal or paint in miniature as seen on multiple structures. We did not spend enough time there to really meet the people and understand the culture, but we were able to get a taste of it, and we're glad we did.  India is a beautiful place, and our friend/guide did an excellent job planning our travels. We were able to take home some beautiful souvenirs that will remind us of our trip. The world is a big place, and we may never get to India again, so we appreciate the opportunity we had to experience it.  Any time you really see something different than you have before, your picture of the world expands.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Adventures in India 18: The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was a fitting destination for our last tourist day in India. We had been told we definitely wanted to get there before the buses from New Delhi arrived around 11AM, but that the haze was so strong first thing in the morning that it was difficult to see anything.  Therefore, we met up with our guide at the hotel around 9:00.  I irritatingly left my glasses in the car and the guide declined my request to call the car back for them, which was a major point against him in our book. When the shuttle bus to the Taj wasn't showing up, he asked us if we wanted to walk, so we hoofed it past a long line of shops to the gate. Having paid the 10x extra for tourist passes, we got into the tourist line, which was about 10x shorter. There is a significant security examination before going in (I suspect mostly to weed out implements with which assholes could mark their names into the marble) but the guide won some points back by talking the security supervisor into letting us in with only a quick check from him. My LensPen was an item of interest but when they actually got a look at the soft bristles on the inside everyone agreed it was not going to be capable of damaging the monument.

After clearing security, there were still some lines and gates before being able to see the Taj itself. There are an impressive amount of pictures over on Flickr.

Gate into the Taj inner compound.

 Significant haze was still present, making the edges fuzzy even from inside the compound. 

More lines lead up to the base of the monument itself, where booties were provided by the guide (required) before stepping onto the marble itself. Having seen pictures of the Taj for years, I (maybe this isn't usual) had always thought the Taj was pure white, but in real life it turns out to be intricately inlaid with writing and decoration and it is much more impressive than I expected.

The scaffold around the column is for cleaning - temporary.

You're not allowed to take pictures inside - but what was humorous is that while this entire edifice is intended to commemorate a specific empress (bore the emperor 14 children then died of TB) after the emperor died they also interred him here and made his tomb a lot bigger than hers.

Out the back, the haze over the river was so thick you could hardly see the other bank.

The detail work was pretty incredible.

The inlay is chiseled into the marble, then filled with smoothed semi-precious stones.

Apparently not much room for slips of the chisel when you have to do hundreds of square meters of this kind of stuff.  Guide said it took 50,000 workers 22 years to complete.

Overall I would say this one lived up to its global renown and then some. It's amazing.

After the Taj, the guide suggested a place where they do demonstrations of the inlay process and of course have such goods for sale. While tour guides in India sell you stuff like it's their job, at least in this case the quality was very high. The demonstration included chiseling out the marble for the inlay, shaping stones with a hand wheel to fit the cavity, and the resin used to fix the stones in place. We were initially not feeling the need to buy any for ourselves, but looking at what was for sale we were quite impressed by the quality of the work and ended up buying some (we saw much crappier stuff elsewhere). The marble is actually translucent and if viewed through light the colors of all the stones change - while while not very practical is a neat trick. Didn't really feel like haggling, but this was fairly expensive stuff - basically told the guy if he messed with me too much I was going to walk, gave him a really really low number and then came up a bit to make the deal. As with the weaving from earlier in the trip, I am confident that a US-based producer of such work would have to charge thousands of dollars per piece for comparable work.

Later in the afternoon, we went to the park across the river from the Taj Mahal.

You getting the feeling they don't want people fooling around here?

It was actually possible to get the whole structure in-frame from over here, and it was nice as sunset closed in.

These ladies asked to take a picture with Ana, but she didn't seem to like the fact that I was taking a picture of her taking a picture of them together. I still don't understand the allure of pictures with random foreigners - happened to both of us many times.

Garden itself not particularly spectacular - mostly just plants in lines, few things blossoming, not particularly interesting to look at.

We also observed people gathering reeds and herding animals on the riverbanks. As with other places we'd been, it was clear that very different lifestyles are being lived here.

For dinner, we decided to really mix it up and asked the driver to take us to McDonald's. Now, you might think that McDonald's is not a natural fit for a country that almost never eats beef (and in some places you can get mobs outside for that kind of thing). We were interested to see what was for sale and also to try something we hadn't tried in India so far.

Various veggie, chicken, and fish burgers - note these prices are pretty high for India - you could have a good meal in a non-tourist restaurant for the price of a 'burger' here. Place was jammed with people though - may have been marketed as a high-status place to eat in India? Or else city folk have enough money to pay these prices and don't care?

Vegetarian and meat dishes very clearly segregated in production and sales - makes sense.

The large drinks were American smalls, as might be expected. I got a 'Chicken Maharaja Mac' and Ana got a 'McAloo Tikki Burger', which we took back to the hotel to eat. We watched a heavily censored episode of "Whose Line Is It Anyway" on TV - there were definite cuts within and between skits, and any time tobacco use was mentioned, "SMOKING KILLS" flashed on the screen.

Chicken burger was flavorless. Should have bought one of everything to test.

Ana's potato burger was actually pretty good.

This pretty much wrapped up our tourism - all that was left was the long trip home. We slept in, made liberal use of the hot water and internet at the hotel - our flight wasn't until the middle of the night. The drive to the airport took forever, almost seemed like the driver was dawdling. For once, he didn't know where the tourist eating spots were and as we got close to the airport he was getting kind of desperate and we wound up eating at a local rest stop that actually served up pretty good hot fresh dhosas. When we arrived at the airport we realized why the driver had been dawdling - you can't actually get in until 6 hours before your flight and we were still 10 hours early. We'd known you couldn't go through security that early but didn't think they'd enforce it at the front door. They had a lounge area for people trapped by their flight time, but it looked to be a long several hours. 

Airport purgatory lounge

We sent Ana exploring and she found an in-airport short-term hotel which sounded fantastic to us - for long international travel we really like them as chances to get out of the public eye, get clean, and get sleep. The rest of the trip home was uneventful until we learned that Chicago had changed their parking layout and prices and we'd parked in a lot that used to be cheap but we had to pay a FORTUNE for three week's parking there this trip.

The next and final blog entry on this sequence will do some overall and summing up comments, since there are a lot of individual blog entries here which may have more or less context present.