Monday, November 28, 2011

Out of the mists of time...

...comes the symbol for fugacity, staring up at me from the equation sheet of an old qualifying exam. Years have passed since we last saw each other, but it looks just as thin and pinched as ever. It must get terrible headaches with such pointy hat, just like the headaches it's bound to give me shortly...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Roll of Quarters

My grandfather was an amazing man, and I had the privilege of reflecting on his life this past week as my relatives and I celebrated his passage from this world to Christ's heavenly realm. There were so many wonderful memories, so many stories to tell, and so much laughter amidst the tears that I think that I have just experienced my favorite Thanksgiving holiday yet.

My grandfather loved his family immensely. I have always appreciated the special ways that he showed his love for his grandchildren, and last week was no exception. My grandmother came out of the office one afternoon carrying a bright yellow, canvas bag. Since my grandfather was a banker for many years, he always had an affinity towards teaching lessons with money. My mother tells me that he always carried at least one $100 bill with him, just because. I think my youngest brother takes after him in that regard, because he has been known to trot down the street with a pocket full of coins; he likes having that jingling sound, just because.

Therefore, I wasn't entirely surprised when I saw that the canvas bag held rolls of quarters. However, these were not just any quarters, they were exclusively Oklahoma state quarters. When the US Mint released the Oklahoma quarter in 2008, Grandad counted up his grandchildren, walked down to the bank, and bought enough rolls such that each of his grandchildren could have one. I don't know whether the number of rolls was exact or not - he might have budgeted enough for several more additions to the family... Grandma mentioned that one of Grandad's last comments was to make sure that she didn't forget about the quarters. Even after several years, he remembered. As with all of his family, his grandchildren were always close to his heart.

Grandma later admitted that she wasn't clear on what Grandad's intentions had been for the quarters once they had changed hands. "Honestly, I'm not quite sure what he hoping you would do with them!" I answered, "see, that's the beauty of it - we will all do something different!" An FCA director who was a mentor of mine in undergraduate would hand out gold Sacajawea dollar coins to those who had accomplished his most difficult team building activity. Before placing the coin in their hands, he would share how the story of Sacajawea tied in with their achievements. I still have my gold dollar somewhere in my room (I think it was randomly tossed in with my hair ties - the moving process always shuffles things around...). I intend to use my Oklahoma quarters for a similar purpose. I suppose that requires me to learn about Oklahoma history and their state bird first, since the bird is on the quarter! Maybe the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher had to go through some hard times - a guide for the Lewis and Clark of the bird world, perhaps? No? Hmm, maybe not.

What would you do with a roll of quarters?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Lean Back and Open Wide

Last week I made my first visit to the dentist in Austin. As a graduate student on a stipend, I qualify for the medical insurance that UT offers to its employees and staff. "Graduate research assistant" is a tremendously blurry status, since the institution of UT technically views you as an employee, but for all social and daily interactions you are still considered a student. Alternatively, "minion" seems to work just as well during your first year of the Ph.D. program.

But I digress.

The dentist's office.

My particular insurance requires me to troll through a list of local dentists and then notify the insurance company of my preferred dentist. Having recently been introduced to the concept of Yelp, I typed in the first dentist on the list and hit enter.

Low ratings. Hm.

I tried the next dentist on the list.

And the next dentist.

And the next dentist.

Good heavens - maybe I should have gone for the more expensive insurance... At long last, I decided upon a dentist that had good reviews for dental work but poor reviews for getting appointments scheduled over the phone. "I can deal with the latter problem," I reasoned. "If all else fails, I will march into the office itself. " Fortunately, I did not have to resort to such drastic measures, and last Thursday I found myself staring up at the ceiling in an examination chair.

This particular dentist requires that all of his new patients come in for an initial examination before any other work is performed - even a routine cleaning! I have always had strong, healthy teeth, so I didn't much see the point. But whatever, I'll roll with it. Little did I know that the dentist had an entire system set up to take full stock of all of my teeth, complete with individual tooth numbers. His faithful nurse settled down onto a nearby seat as the dentist peered into my mouth. With a flourish of his tools, he began to dictate the exact position and orientation of each of my teeth, along with any other pertinent details.

"Number 1 is rotated outwards by 10 degrees. Number 12 has severe wearing on the inside surface. Number 24 is capped with enamel." And so on. Occasionally an interesting description would pop up, particularly with regard to my wisdom teeth.

"Number 17 is fully erupted."

Erupted?? Like a volcano?

"Number 22 is a bony impaction."

Something got impacted? Visions of football tackles are now running through my head, but no, no, that can't be right.

"The occlusal surface of number 7 is rotated towards the anterior region."

And the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone!! Right???

After my teeth have finished feeling like army recruits under scrutiny, the dentist begins to measure the gum height of each one. (At least, I think it was gum height). Each height is reported as a non-dimensional number, beginning with 1. A classmate later informed me that the scale goes at least as high as 6. As each of the reported heights came in as a "1," I began to relax and feel pretty confident in my oral hygiene. Then:


Wait, wait, wait. 2?!?! What does "2" mean? Do I have some debilitating disease? Are my teeth about to fall out? All of a sudden, I'm wishing I knew the dimensions on those height units... However, the dentist seems pleased with the results, so I mentally calm down and assume that a "2" is not the end of the world.

The final verdict on my visit was that I have excellent oral hygiene, apart from one small thing. The dentist hands me a mirror and indicates three of my teeth. "See that yellow part up near the root?" I nod yes, thinking that some helpful suggestion about cleaning will be forthcoming. "That is your actual root."

Say what?

Apparently, I am brushing my teeth TOO hard. My scrubbing motions have worn away the gums on several teeth such that the roots are beginning to show. The gum tissue does not regenerate at that point, so my teeth will become more sensitive if I continue my current habits. Fortunately, the remedy is simple: softer bristles and gentler cleaning. Well heck, if that's my biggest problem, I can deal with that!

I bounced out of the chair and out the door, leaving just enough time for me to schedule a cleaning for next week. Perhaps I will even throw some engineering terminology at him next time he starts spouting about "occlusal regions," just to see if that puts us on even footing. Have to keep these dentists on their toes, you know!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bastrop Fire Relief

I successfully finished my MPhil degree in Advanced Chemical Engineering at Cambridge this past August, and I have since moved to Austin, Texas to begin my Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas. I was recently placed in a large research group that works primarily on lithium ion batteries, and I'm looking forward to the next four or five years here. My classmates are cool and extremely social (particularly by my warped engineering standards), so I've either willingly or unwillingly been introduced to volleyball, kayaking, ultimate frisbee, food trucks, Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, the film "Little Miss Sunshine," Korean kimchi, and a whole host of music (including a bunch from the 90's that I never heard as a child. Turns out the Spice Girls were actually not that bad!).

This morning I traveled to Bastrop to help with cleanup from the recent wildfires. I went as part of a group from the church I have been attending, and once everyone had shuffled, sleepy-eyed, into a crooked circle to exchange greetings upon arrival, I noted that there were around 20 of us total. The group leader handed us waivers to fill out along with dust masks, then waved his arm in the general direction of our designated section of pine forest to clear. At least, it looked like pine forest, until I noticed the twisted pieces of metal rising from the ground. "Yeah, those probably used to be appliances," our leader commented.

Our job for the morning was to sift through the rubble of a trailer home, separate out glass, ceramic, and metal, then stagger down the sandy incline to deposit wheelbarrowfuls of ash and debris by the road. The ceramic and glass showed up more heavily in certain areas, and we started to identify areas of the house by the items we found. The kitchen took a long time to sift through, and we found several mugs still fully intact. Some of the ornaments and knick-knacks indicated that the owner might have had a soft spot for lighthouses. My most baffling find was a pieplate-sized, circular, heavy item with a hole through the middle, almost like a hot serving stone. After finding several more of these in varying shapes, it dawned on me that I had probably located the weight room! The house owner must have been dreaming big but starting small, since the sizes of the weights only got smaller as I dug...
As an engineer, I was fascinated by the materials we encountered and how they had withstood (or not withstood) the heat of the blazing fire. Glass, ceramic, and metals were the only materials that did not crumble upon touch, which made me appreciate the fact that my mother has a fireproof safe in our home. Even cinderblock lost its strength - although visually they seemed unscathed, a child could have broken most of them into pieces. Insulation in certain places was still recognizable (and still probably hazardous as well - does that stuff never die?!). All of the metals were completely rusted, but the ceramics looked like they would be as good as new if washed (and if they weren't in 20 pieces). However, the glass was the most interesting to me. Some glass pieces were shards, as if you had dropped a mirror on the ground, but others had completely melted together to form amorphous globs or twisted shapes (usually colored). I found myself thinking that Dr. Price from Oklahoma State University would have been able to appreciate - and explain - the difference.

Amidst friendly conversations, men jockeying with the boys for who could take the most loads of debris to the curb, and calls of "who has the bucket for glass?", our group leader pointed out features of the site that displayed how the fire grew and traveled. The site adjacent to ours was also burnt to the ground, but between the two lots was a row of green trees. "The fire just jumped from one site to the other. The network of tree roots in this area is so extensive that some say the roots themselves were on fire, so the fire could travel underground without even touching the tops of the trees." Bastrop is southeast of central Austin, and estimates say that the fires covered anywhere from 25,000 to 34,000 acres and destroyed around 550 homes. Included in the devastation was Bastrop State Park, which could take 50 years to restore.

The jaws of fire leave little behind, and I was certainly humbled by how utterly our material wealth can be reduced to nothing overnight. How secure we feel when we look at all of our possessions! Yet ultimately we are just deceiving ourselves...A $100 bottle of wine, an elaborate home entertainment system, and a fine shoe collection are all enjoyable (and not necessarily wrong), but where are we putting our time, effort, and money first and foremost? Paul talks about building our lives on the foundation of Christ: we all have the same foundation, but we each choose how we build upon it. "Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw - each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." (1 Corinthians 3:12) I have now seen that the majority of what we think we own will burn, thus qualifying as wood, hay, and straw. The things that remain then must be of a different sort of stuff entirely (as C.S. Lewis would say), and I hope that God will reveal to me how to pursue those things. Let's be the kind of people who are left with more than a pile of rubble, melted glass, rusty utensils, and frayed electronic wires when the judgment fire of God sweeps through our lives.

While the wildfires were raging: photo courtesy of  
Ariel view of part of Bastrop after the fires: photo courtesy of the Texas Forest Service facebook page

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Spontaneous Memories

Have you ever had an old memory suddenly pop up? Usually the thought is triggered by an activity or circumstance, and I had one such incident tonight.

I walk back and forth primarily between three buildings for classes: the Department of Chemical Engineering, the Department of Engineering, and the Judge Business School. From my house, it takes me about 15 minutes to walk to engineering, 12 to walk to the JBS, and about 8  to get to chemical engineering. Normally the walks are decently enjoyable (have iPod, will travel), but occasionally they become tiresome (particularly in cold weather). On the way home tonight, I mindlessly began counting my footsteps.

**Memory strikes!!!**

Many years ago, my sister and I came up with a pattern for counting while walking. Actually, I believe we were running at the time, but that's beside the point. As I recall, the counting rhythm went like this:

(Begin on the left foot, step once for every number)

(then, add a quick "and" between "seven" and "eight," stepping on both the "and" and "eight")

(You should now be ready to step with your right foot)

(Now, you should theoretically step with your left foot on "eight," but the whole pattern starts on the left foot, so you have to correct for this imbalance. Thus, you step left and HOP...)
...aaaannndddd!!!! (whilst flying through the air if you are running at high speeds)

(Land on left foot and repeat the pattern)
ONE!!-two-three-four-five-six-seven...etc etc etc

The main parameter that determines your enjoyment of the pattern is your traveling speed. If you are walking, you cannot hop high enough to stay within the natural rhythm of your walking speed - you will end up landing early and then the tempo disruption is simply annoying. If, however, you are running pell-mell down a park green, your momentum will cause your hop to be rather uncontrolled and you run the risk of an unstable landing. Therefore, a casual jog would probably suffice as a good speed. Although, I do seem to recall that my sister and I tended to run faster rather than slower...

Our "ingenious pattern" (or so we thought at the time) seems incredibly simple now. In fact, I almost hesitated to post this because it is just an example of the sort of nonsensical games that children often come up with. However, I had to chuckle at our attempt at creativity, and the spontaneous reminder of my childhood days made me smile.

What about you, internet? Have you ever had a memory come flying to the forefront of your mind out of nowhere?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Russian Culture

I live in a flat with five other people: four girls and one guy. It's okay - the guy lives in the basement room and I'm pretty sure that he has more of a social network than any of us girls do... One of my flatmates is named Teresa, and she and I have really hit it off, or "get on well," as the English would say. Her family is originally from Russia, but she has lived most of her life in America. Her extended family is still in Russia, so that heritage brings quite a unique flavor to our friendship. I've learned all sorts of tidbits about Russian culture, so I thought that I would share some with you.

- For instance, did you know that orthodox Russians celebrate Christmas on January 7th? According to the old Julian calendar, that's when Christmas is. Easter, on the other hand, falls on the same day as the new calendar. I'm not entirely sure why the date was changed to December 25th in the Gregorian calendar, but I'll leave that to you to find out if you wish. We when returned from break with presents for each other, we happened to exchange on the 7th, so it was marvelously appropriate.

- When Russians display flowers, they place an odd number of flowers in a vase if the flowers are attached to someone living and an odd number if they symbolize death. So, for example, sympathy flowers sent after a death are displayed in even numbers. Flowers sent for pretty much any other reason are displayed in odd numbers. Thus, if you send a Russian woman a dozen roses, she will split them up into two vases.

- If a man who is pursuing a women gives her flowers and she preserves the stems in water, then if the stems rot it means he didn't really love her, and if they do not rot that means his love is true. When Teresa was dating, she kept the stems from one of her boyfriend's bouquet. While we were chatting in her room, she pointed them out to me. They were rot-free!

- Russian women wear their engagement ring on their left hands, but they wear their wedding ring on their right hand. Teresa is recently married, so her wedding band and ring are on her right hand. I'm not sure where this tradition came from, but I think that the idiosyncrasy is cute.

Teresa also has extensive international connections through her many friends, so I am constantly picking up culture bits here and there. She recently knocked on my door to excitedly show me her new shoes, which were given to her by a friend from Khazakhstan. They looked somewhat like moccasins without heels, were primarily white with green swirly designs, and had pointed, curled-up toes like an elf shoe. What a far cry from the sneakers I had sitting by my door... 

Here's to cultivating an ever-widening global perspective!

Of the British and their views on tea

One of the things that you quickly notice when living among the British is that they very much enjoy their tea. In fact, drinking tea is almost always a necessary part of the day. Lectures are scheduled around morning tea, long meetings include a tea break at the halfway point, seminars are preceded by "tea and cakes," Bible study hosts offer tea, coffee, and water as the main options, and the list continues. However, I eventually realized that the Brits only drink ONE kind of tea. One of my English friends said, "no, we drink other kinds too! Just not very often...I think there's maybe a box of green tea way back in the cupboard with some dust on it...." I told him that did not count. English Breakfast tea is so much the standard that some people do not even realize that their tea HAS a specific name. Several of my friends used to think that the difference between white and black tea was whether or not you added milk.

Therefore, I decided to bring back many different varieties of tea from America as Christmas presents. I thought my friends might enjoy white tea or flavored teas as a change of pace. The list of teas that I brought back included:

White Tea (Vanilla Blend) - by Good Earth (my personal favorite! I cleared the store shelves of this kind so that I could have some left for myself)
White Tea with Peach - by Celestial Seasonings
White Tea with Mint - by Stash (entirely to give away - I hate mint in anything but toothpaste and gum)
Vanilla Almond Black Tea - by Republic of Tea
Cinnamon Plum Black Tea - by Republic of Tea
Red Chai - by Republic of Tea
Coconut Mango Oolong Tea - by Stash
White Peach Oolong Tea - by Stash
African Red Bush Tea (also known as rooibos tea) - by Tazo

I bought gift baskets, packed them with a mixture of teas, and then gave them to friends. However, I first had to get across the concept that drinking other kinds of tea might be as enjoyable or *gasp* even more enjoyable than drinking their standard black tea. I have yet to hear back from most of them, but one of them was over at my house when she tried white tea for the first time. I made the tea, put a dash of sugar in it, and handed it to her to try. After her first sip, her eyes went wide and she said, "oh my! This is absolutely gorgeous!" In British, that phrase means that something tastes really, really good. She then admitted, "you were going on about teas before you left for America, but I honestly didn't understand what all the fuss was about!" In addition, she informed me that she had been drinking quite a bit of tea at home, but it was the cheapest kind and didn't even have a proper name - the box just said, "black tea."

Needless to say, I loaded her up with a whole assortment of teas before she went home. The next time I saw her, she said, "I've really enjoyed your teas. I've been telling everyone about them! My friends, my family..." Welcome to the wonderful world of tea, my dear. :)

Score one for the American who taught the British something about tea! I'm working on converting them all, but it's slow going...