Saturday, June 25, 2016

Fun in the hot, hot sun - Taipei Zoo

With the conference over, the question became what to do with the rest of the week. Over casual breakfast conversation, one of my new friends from the conference suggested the zoo. I added my suggestion of some temples, which he found amiable, so we decided to explore together. I will cover the temples in another blog post - too much to write about at once!

Partners in Taipei discovery.
To put it succinctly, the zoo was fantastic. I remember reading about animals in theory growing up, but somehow I missed out on the study of animals in practice (Ranger Rick magazines apparently did me no good). I felt like a little kid, fascinated by seeing many things for the first time. "They DO that?!?" came out of my mouth more times than I care to admit... I was grateful to have my friend along - he was a wealth of information, a patient teacher, and good at spotting the animals within the rocks and trees. I don't think I would have seen half of the animals I saw without him there! These ones were pretty easy to see though:


My friend was exceptionally good at spotting a huge, local, non-poisonous spider that spins webs as large as a bicycle wheel. Females can grow as big as your hand, but the males remain tiny. I asked, "is this one of the species where the female eats the male after mating?" My friend replied, "well it depends on fast the male can run, but generally, yes." Oof... I got a picture of a female spider with 6 or 7 competing males crawling into her web. My friend held up his sunglasses as a size reference. The female is black and yellow, perched on the back of the web - see her legs hanging down? The males are the tiny red spiders dotted all over the web.

The weather in Taiwan is HOT and HUMID this time of year. We learned to keep an eye out for the shaded areas (of which there were many, thank goodness), but even so we both sweated like crazy. If you go, I recommend lots of water bottles and the occasional ice cream, for good measure. The Taipei Zoo is designed to be congruent with nature - the paths maintain the local habitat as they weave around the exhibits. My experience with the Bronx Zoo many years ago felt commercial and urban in comparison. I enjoyed the vibrant flowers and butterflies that met us along the path. For example, orchids:

I also discovered a beautiful red bird: the Scarlet Ibis. I have never seen such brilliant colors in a bird before, and the photos barely do it justice. I found my future pet here as well - the adorable side-necked turtle! The name comes from the fact that these turtles have much longer necks than usual, and therefore they bend them back sideways into their shell. This little guy was swimming all over the place - how could you not love such cuteness??

Side-Necked Turtle 
Scarlet Ibis
I was hoping to see the African elephants (bigger than the Asian elephants we saw) and the gorillas, but the elephants were out for a medical checkup, and the gorilla area was under construction. The Taipei Zoo is also famous for its family of pandas - mom, dad, and baby. We stopped in to see them, but they were sleeping and not doing anything interesting. More for next time, I guess!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Ancient Treasures: National Palace Museum and Shung Ye Aborigines Museum

The last hurrah of the conference was a guided tour to the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines and the National Palace Museum. The former educates about the 16 indigenous tribes of Taiwan, and the latter displays precious artifacts from Chinese history and culture.

Here we go! In front of the National Palace Museum.
The first people came to the island of Taiwan several thousand years ago (the exact date is debated) and lived very simple lives. Some of the tribes were matrilineal, which I found intriguing. Each tribe used local material to build their homes, ranging from shale rock to bamboo poles and grass. Our personal tour guide was fun and informative, and she did a great job describing the aborigines' way of life using the most interesting parts of the exhibits. For example, she narrated a video about making clothes that gave me a deeper appreciation for the bajillion-step process, from scraping thread out of fibrous plant stalks to weaving the final garment. What a time commitment! Pro tip: when visiting a museum, get a tour guide - they can turn a static artifact into a living piece of history.

Before we started the tour, we watched a 10-minute animated video about a native tribe. At least, I think that's what it was about. As far as I could tell, the movie showed a native hunter who was obsessed with hunting down a legendary boar the size of a mountain. However, when he shot the arrow at the boar, the boar turned into a Dutchman! Then he ran to the shore only to find a fort full of Dutchmen fighting against the invading Chinese! Then he ran back into the forest, ran through 500 years of history, and came out on a modern-day hunting ground - a baseball field!! I really think I'm missing something about Asian entertainment.

But, I was not the only one confused. The best comment came from my colleague as we were filing out of the theater: "I think the point was that if you ever meet an aborigines hunter, don't look like a boar."

The National Palace Museum was a complete shift in atmosphere. This museum teemed with guests, so we all had headphones and a radio frequency set to match our tour guide. I died a little inside - I always make fun of those dorky tour groups in my head, and now...I was one of them! My only consolation was that we were not the only headset-toting group in the museum.

Oh yes, we were THAT group.
The National Palace Museum in Taiwan was built to house many items transferred from the sister National Palace Museum in China. There are almost 700,000 pieces in the entire Taiwanese collection, but only 3,000 are on display at any given time. The other items are kept deep in the caves behind the museum to avoid being damaged by earthquakes. Perhaps there will be even more items in the future from the unexplored tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, China's very first emperor. As of now the tomb has not been opened because a) certain painted pieces lose color vibrancy as soon as they are exposed to light, and b) the tomb is surrounded by mercury deposits, which are toxic. Huh - that's a hindsight, it was great looting protection to build the tomb in the middle of a moat of toxic mercury, but at the time they did it because they thought mercury bestowed immortality. Whoops...

There were many valuable and impressive artifacts in the museum, but among the ones that struck me the most were:

- A breathtaking folding panel screen with jadeite insets, given as a gift to the reigning emperor of the time.
- Ivory carvings so intricate they could only be made by chemically softening the ivory first.
- Pottery and porcelain glazing advances through the years, giving brighter and brighter colors over time.
- Glaze colors so loved by the royalty that no one else could use the exact same shade.
- 1000-year-old bronze work so beautiful that it helped me realize why China was considered a world powerhouse in ancient times - they knew their stuff!
The view from the entrance of the National Palace Museum, and me up on the plaza area.
Upon returning to the hotel, I trudged down the street to get a Subway sandwich with a colleague and then called it a night. Tomorrow will be a new day with new adventures. More to come!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Taiwan - night market and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial

This week, I'm in Taipei, Taiwan to present my work at an electrowetting conference. I spent my first day in-country listening to a variety of talks, with a view that mainly looked like this:

Not the most interesting thing ever, but I am enjoying the networking. Plus, several talks shed light on the struggles I am currently facing in my own experiments. My talk went well, except for the moment where Dr. Really-Important-Expert-Guy asked me a question that I had no idea how to answer and I had to honestly say, "I have no idea. BUT! I would love to discuss it with you." Maybe not the best response, but at that point I just wanted out of the hot seat! Can I also blame it on being jet-lagged and tired? I'm going with it...

This evening I tagged along with a group of new friends to explore the night market scene. A night market is a set of connected streets that have late-night restaurants, little shops, and street vendors. There are many night markets around the city, so this one was close to the hotel and had a fun, party atmosphere. It didn't take long for me to realize that there are mopeds everywhere on the streets! They sound like a swarm of insects when they take off from a stoplight. Vehicles also take "walk" signals as suggestions, so crossing the street is a dance between pedestrians and cars.

Night market, bustling with activity
All the mopeds!
We wandered in to a promising restaurant, but the menu was all in Chinese (duh)! There were pictures of dishes with their Chinese names on the wall, so we all huddled over the piece of paper to match the symbols on the wall to the symbols on the ordering ticket. The waiter eventually had mercy on us and gave us a pictorial menu, so we just pointed - "one of those, two of these..." Dumplings were a definite must. Everything was delicious!!
Trying to puzzle out the menu
We visited Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which was built in memory of one of China's great 20th century political and military leaders. The hall was beautiful and awe-inspiring, even by night. We were surprised to see a decent number of people walking the park grounds, including several groups of dancers both young and old. Taiwan's youth don't congregate in parks to drink and smoke, they get together to hone their hip-hop moves and choreograph dances! Another symbol of artistry marking the streets of the city was the intricate and beautiful street mural we passed on our walk home. The word "love" and Marilyn Monroe's famous dress pose mingled with panda bears and Chinese characters, showing the intricate weaving together of cultures both new and old.
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall - I'm in the top photo, although you can barely see me!
Overall, I have found the Taiwanese to be warm and friendly people, so I look forward to the rest of my stay in this country. Tomorrow is more of the conference!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Small-Town Colorado

One final night of celebration brought my Colorado trip to a close. Around supper time, we headed down to Florissant for the weekly meeting of the Grange - an organization originally started as a gathering of ranchers and farmers in the area. Now they meet as a social activity and to perform community service. Think of it as a sort of rotary club. The meeting was held in the old town schoolhouse, now converted into a community center. The building next to the main room was the "teacherage" where the teacher used to live (think parsonage, but for a teacher). 

Among the attendees were:

- A man who went to the original schoolhouse as a young boy and stayed in the area his whole life.

- A woman whose pies are so good that people started fighting over the pieces in line, so now there is an advance sign-up sheet and she personally hands her pieces out to the correct people. What the fee is to get on that list, I have no idea.

- An older couple both dressed in plaid and two-stepping to almost every song, reported to be "living together," ahem. Having both had long and happy marriages with their respective spouses who have now passed away, they are enjoying each other's company in this latter part of life.

- The old "dirtbike guy" who chewed my younger brother's ear off with story after story of his younger glory days, tearing it up around the Colorado mountains.

- My sister's father-in-law who proclaimed upon arriving (in a true country drawl), "y'all go in and mingle now until they ring the dinner bell, and then you dance!"

The line for food - gotta get there early to get the good stuff!

Line dancing to some good music.
One final story about Colorado - I wanted to share this with a view from Pikes Peak, but the train to the top was booked solid so I missed that opportunity. Katharine Lee Bates was an English professor in the 1890's, and she was a visiting professor at Colorado College in the summer of 1893. She herself visited the top of Pikes Peak (via prairie wagon and mule ride), and the view moved her to pen the words to what eventually became "America the Beautiful." What I love about her story is that she was a confident, single woman who never married. That life decision often clashed with the expectations of society, but when a colleague described "free-flying spinsters" as "fringe on the garment of life," her response was, "I always thought the fringe had the best of it. I don't think I mind not being woven in." (Schwarz, "Yellow Clover," 65). That sounds like a lady I would have loved to meet!

With that, I'm signing off on Colorado with a final picture from back in Austin with my Colorado coffee mug. Until the next adventure!
Enjoying coffee from my newest addition to my travel mug collection.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Garden of the Gods and Books!!

Colorado Springs has several areas of particularly stunning terrain, one of which is the Garden of the Gods. The rock formations here are beautiful and awe-inspiring, especially when you realize they have formed through tumultuous geological changes over loooong periods of time. A short rainstorm hit us halfway through, so dark and looming clouds made for a dramatic picture.

Garden of the Gods with rain clouds in the background
My Mom and me at the Garden of the Gods. We did not intentionally coordinate the shirts, but I do realize they highlight how similar we look!
Also in the Garden of the Gods is the Balanced Rock - a 700-ton rock that has eroded away faster on the bottom than on the top, leaving it perched on only a small point of contact. The rock used to be privately owned in the late 1800's, and the owner would take visitors' photos in front of the rock for 25 cents a piece. When personal cameras became more popular (in the early 1900's - who the heck had personal cameras then?!), he built a fence around the rock and charged to get in. Later, the government bought him out and returned the rock to free public access.

Balanced Rock, with lots of happy picture takers!
Unfortunately, our rental car broke down in the parking lot at the Balanced Rock, so the second car in our family caravan shuttled us to town while we waited for a new car to arrive. We hung out at The Bookman - an adorable used bookstore with it's own cat! Every bookstore needs a cat, right?! We left with no less than an entire box full of books, including several classics (Mutiny on the HMS Bounty, anyone?), a biography of Abigail Adams (I've been reading a biography of John Adams, and his wife was just about as active as he was), and the Reader's Digest USA Travel Guide (for my future travels, of course)!
The Bookman bookstore in Colorado Springs - their mascot cat was very sociable.

Can't beat the views and the homemade ice cream

My sister's parents-in-law outdid themselves tonight! We feasted on baked potatoes and fresh steaks off the grill from their personally-owned herd of cattle, finishing off with homemade Butterfinger ice cream. Hoo boy, put a scoop right there in my bowl! 

After dinner, we drove out to Wilkerson Pass to see dusk fall. The views were absolutely gorgeous. To the west was the South Park area with the snow-capped Collegiate Peaks in the distance (Mt. Yale, Mt. Columbia, Mt. Harvard, and Mt. Princeton). To the east was the majestic Pikes Peak - the most famous mountain in the area. I understood how the early pioneers felt stirred to reach the summit, but not enough to join them on foot. Perhaps tomorrow I'll just take the train to the top...
Trying unsuccessfully to get a good panoramic shot of the west area off Wilkerson Pass.
Pikes Peak standing majestically to the east of Wilkerson Pass.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Gold Mine in Cripple Creek and Victor

Today the family took a jag down the road to tour an active gold mine that spans the area between the towns of Victor and Cripple Creek. The mountain was first mined in the late 1890s with underground mines, where miners brought out 1-3 oz. of gold per ton of rock. At one point in 1914, miners found an underground geode that was so rich in gold that they recovered 4000 oz per ton! This find is still known around the world as the famous Cresson vug. Now, the mine is a huge open pit operation that recovers 0.02 oz. of gold per ton of rock, but it's still enough to keep the mine going. 

The deepest mine in the early 1900s went down 3500 feet, and the current surface mining operations are roughly only 1500 feet down. So, the pit walls are full of holes where the old mining shafts were uncovered, and every new blast has to be careful not to dangerously collapse the remaining tunnels underneath. I loved seeing this example of the new, bustling operations interfacing with 100-year-old history. Here are pictures of the quaint town of Victor along with high-level views of the mine pits.

The haul trucks were HUGE!!! They can haul 240 tons of ore and rock, and the mine processes 74,000 tons of rock every day during 24 hr. continuous operations. We got to take pictures next to a retired truck - look at the size of that thing! The tour guide explained the different kinds of rocks at the mine, one of which is fluorite (see pictured). The fluorite at this mine is a pretty purple color, and it indicates to miners that gold-containing sylvanite (metallic mineral with silver, gold, and tellurium) is close by! I got to take a few pieces of the fluorite home, since they have no monetary value.

Next on the tour was the processing operations. As a chemical engineer, this was the most fascinating part of the tour for me. The gold-containing ore is dumped into a crusher, then coated with lime to help with the next step of the process: leaching. The ore is spread in layers in a leach pit, where it is irrigated through with very low concentrations of sodium cyanide in water. The sodium cyanide leaches the gold and silver out of the rocks very slowly over time. After lots of other steps, the gold and silver is smelted together into a cone-shaped ingot and then sent to an external refinery for final purification. Definitely not the "panning for gold" method of the early days! That only gets you so far, then chemical engineering lends a hand. I got a picture with the crusher conveyor belt and the leach pit behind me.

Final stop of the day was the unbelievably cute Costello Street Coffee House! Their dark drip coffee was fantastic, and the dining room felt exactly like a place I would want to come back and enjoy a cup of tea with a scone. Wouldn't you agree?

Monday, June 6, 2016

Lake George, CO

I've made it up to what my mother calls "God's country," and most of the family is here! Beautiful home in a beautiful mountain range, and homemade comfort food to boot. What more can a woman ask for? The kitchen comes with a radiant warming coil underneath the cabinets to keep the food warm, because up at these altitudes the food cools off more quickly than most. I'll have to look into why that is and report back.

Tomorrow, the plan is to visit a working gold mine and hike around bit. Looking forward to seeing more of this gorgeous area!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Touch and go in Austin

I am on my way to Colorado after a busy two days in Austin! I spent Saturday afternoon working in the lab (gotta keep the research rolling), and then it was date night with Jeremy: dinner at Barley Swine and ballet under the stars! Barley Swine has small, shareable plates, so we got to try chilled peach soup, deviled crab with zucchini (pictured), nee potatoes with peanut ranch sauce, gordita (pictured), and lamb leg with mango salsa. Chocolate bar sandwich with candied honeycomb for dessert, and we were satisfied!

The ballet was rained out right after we took our picture. We left while the crew was still valiantly trying to salvage the stage, but with the rain still coming down, there's only so much a squeegee can do! Better luck next time, ballerinas!

Friday, June 3, 2016

A bit of Vegas history

Today was my last day in Vegas. I decided to forgo most of the conference in favor of exploring more casinos and museums, and I'm glad that I did. I discovered my second favorite hotel in the Strip: New York New York! The indoor "streets" looked just like Brooklyn, complete with a guy scarfing his breakfast on a quiet side street. However, the best part was the Hershey store!! I loved the wall with Kisses dispensers, and I would have mixed a bag up if I wasn't afraid everything would melt in the > 100 degree heat.

New York New York hotel from the outside and inside (top), and the wall of Kisses (bottom)!
I continued walking down the Strip to reach the Luxor hotel, passing by the Excalibur along the way. The Luxor is Egyptian themed, and I think it's one of the most interesting to look at from the outside. The Excalibur felt very childish to me - more like Disney world than a hotel that takes itself seriously. But, then again, Camelot and fighting knights have never been my thing.
Luxor and Excalibur hotels
The Bodies exhibit came highly recommended, but honestly I was disappointed because I think it's only about half as large as the sister display in Georgia. The exhibit teaches about the human body by showing all the different systems in both component and full-body form. I was most intrigued by the nervous system. I am amazed at the ability of the human brain to control not only physical movement, but also emotions and imagination. Electrical impulses sent from the brain can travel up to 270 mph through your body - breathtaking from an engineering perspective.

My last stop of the day was The Mob Museum. As a side note, the museum is close to Fremont Street, which is known for having a huge lights display that runs the length of 4 city blocks - see picture below. I figured that it would be fun to explore a subject I know absolutely nothing about, and the museum did an excellent job of giving me a basic understanding. I had no idea there was such a web of organized crime across the US, and that it still continues today. I mean, I KNEW, but I didn't KNOW know... 

The museum is housed in the old Las Vegas courtroom and post office, and part of the tour is to watch a video about the 1950's Senate hearings (led by Senator Kefauver) while sitting in the ACTUAL ROOM they conducted the Vegas hearings in. Another cool artifact is the brick wall from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Early in the Mob's history, George "Bugs" Moran and Al Capone were leaders of competing gangs in Chicago. On Valentine's Day in 1929, seven of Bugs Moran's men were tricked into an ambush by Al Capone's gang. I got a picture in front of the actual bricks that they were lined up and gunned down against - the bullet holes are still there, as the bricks were saved when the building was torn down and put back together to stand in this museum.

Me in front of the massacre wall (top) - in hindsight, I should have looked more scared instead of smiling, but I didn't think about it at the time. Me ready to go into the Bodies exhibit (bottom left), and the view from Fremont street (bottom right).
I'm currently sitting in the airport waiting for my flight home, and I feel as though I left no stone unturned in Vegas! My trip here has been thoroughly enjoyable, although my one constant frustration was that the hotels don't mark their exits well enough. I know they want you to stay and spend more money, but seriously people, I'd be scared for my life in a fire.

Until next time, Las Vegas!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Show time!

Quotes of the week:

Person in elevator: "you don't look like a person who has lost a lot of money." 
Me: "well no - have you??" 
Him: *shrugs* "Eh, about even."

Person walking in same direction as me: "are you drinking coffee? How's that working for your body?" 
Me: "um, fine?"
Him: "see, I haven't had coffee since I was 13, and I'm 31 now."
Me: "on PURPOSE?!?" *why is he telling me this??*

People say the strangest things here in Vegas. Moving on...

Today was my turn behind the presentation podium - show time! To prepare, I needed my daily caffeine boost from the best coffee shop in Vegas (according to the internet) - Sambalatte at the Monte Carlo. I gave a brief presentation about my dissertation work on developing an electrowetting heat pipe, and I received several very encouraging and complimentary remarks afterwards. 

After my own session, I listened to several presentations on thermal management for aerospace applications. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the NASA Goddard Space Center is pursuing a technology that is a cousin to my work, so perhaps there is a future collaboration opportunity there. I also got to meet a colleague in person who helped me co-author a paper several years ago - I had only ever talked to him on the phone before! How fun to make the connection now that I am nearing the end of my journey with heat pipes.

After dinner, I explored Caesar's Palace, which is one of the largest hotels on the Strip in terms of square footage. Despite what the old episodes of Friends led me to believe, there were no staff members dressed as palace guards. I liked that the outside was designed like an outdoor Roman market. Once again, the shops were made to feel like Rome, but the entire ambiance was very purple-blue. So...Rome at dusk? Not quite sure.
Outdoor market style (top), the hotel lobby (bottom left), and the hotel entrance (bottom right)
In any case, I grabbed a coffee and headed over to the Saxe Theater for "Vegas! The Show" to top off the night. The show is a re-creation of the best of all the famous Vegas acts, from Frank Sinatra to Sonny and Cher, so I figured it would be a good way for me to get a taste of Vegas through the years. The show was phenomenal! Top-notch musicians, dancers, singers, and entertainers quickly had me tapping my toes and laughing out loud. If engineering is my "real job," then performing arts is definitely my "dream job." Every show I see makes me want to throw on some dancing shoes and jump in the action!
More pictures from Caesar's Palace (left), and me at Vegas! The Show (right)
Tomorrow is the last day of the conference, but I will probably sneak out a bit early to catch a few museums before flying back tomorrow evening. Stay tuned!

Conference and the Strip

Yesterday was the first day of the ITHERM conference, the bi-annual gathering of the electronic systems thermal community. Basically, everyone here is trying to figure out better ways to keep electronic devices from overheating, all the way from the phone in your pocket to mile-long Google data centers. The ITHERM Achievement Award went to Professor Suresh Garimella at Purdue University. He gave a great talk on the need to consider all the different factors in bringing a technology from the lab to an actual product, including supply chain, manufacturing, and consumer acceptance. I greatly admire his work, and my advisor at UT (Professor Vaibhav Bahadur) was one of his Ph.D. students. I was able to snag a quick picture "for the sake of posterity!"

Dr. Garimella and me (top), and the view from the back of the talk by a Google exec on data center efficiency (bottom)
After the conference, I met up with some new colleagues and friends to grab some dinner and explore the Strip. We went to Bobby's Burger Palace, with a burgers and shakes menu created by Bobby Flay! I had the Brunch burger with a sunny-side up egg and bacon, along with a mocha milkshake. Oh yes, it was fantastic.

We walked up the Strip, stopping in at several hotels along the way. We saw the Bellagio fountains (beautiful!), the Venetian hotel, and the Paris hotel. The Venetian was by far my favorite - they have an actual water canal inside the hotel, with gondoliers that will transport you to any shop you desire. The shops on the interior are made to feel as if you are in Venice, complete with an incredibly realistic sky ceiling. I actually felt as if I was outside. There were also beautiful purple/blue butterflies suspended near the entryway. I was not a fan of the Paris hotel - it felt more dim and dirty than the Venetian, and the sky was not as realistic. Still, I was amazed at how I still felt transported to a different world.

Bellagio Fountains
Venetian hotel shops area, with an interior waterway!
Paris hotel shops area, made to feel like a Paris street
Today, I present my work at the conference, then it's off to "Vegas - The Show!" tonight!