Thursday, July 26, 2007

Montreal Circa 2004

Fermicat suggested I write about the crazy times we have at physics conferences. (Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the other wonderful suggestions. I will need a little time for them.) While there have been times like what she described on her blog where we meet up with other groups (I vaguely remember 2 Russian physicists and a bottle of sake in Los Angeles…) the best times have just been with the people in my group. I am lucky enough to work with people who are genuinely fun to travel with and can thankfully see the humor in the eccentricities that tend to plague physicists. Especially when they congregate in droves. You can hear some crazy stuff at these places and see some major social dysfunctions. But that’s cool, it’s part of who we are. You see people frantically writing out calculations on envelopes, scrap papers or Kleenexes and you hear some of the absolute worst presenters of your life at these conferences. You see people dressed in three-piece suits, people in jeans and sandals. You even see some interesting mixtures of the two. You see men with ponytails, people with tattoos, piercings. Hippies and Einstein look-a-likes (though often they don’t intend to…). You also see plenty of people dressed in preppy or trendy clothes. I tend to stick with the slacks-and-blouse look which puts me about smack dab in the middle. But you know what? There is very little judgment or ostracizing. Unless you are presenting your idea for a perpetual motion machine. Then you are a physics leper.

But what I want to write about today is my first and still favorite APS conference in Montreal, March 2004. I went with Jeff and James from the lab. The three of us along with a few other grad students were very close and I look back on that time as one of the best times in my life. Those were the days when we still had Randy. Before Jeff punked out on us and before James showed me his true colors.

To save money, we flew into Burlington, Vermont and drove across the border to Quebec. The money we saved on the flight we put towards staying at the conference hotel, still the nicest hotel I think I’ve ever stayed in. It was the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth in downtown Montreal and because I was the only girl I got a room to myself. It was bliss. Ironically I remember very little of the actual conference except that my talk went well and Dr. Hari was proud.

We did a little sightseeing in Montreal, mostly driving along the St. Lawrence and stopping at local pubs. The last night though, we really did it right. We first went to a Montreal Canadiens game where Jeff spent the whole time teaching us the intricacies of hockey (yeah, I still don’t get it) and met some really nice locals who told us the story of the “Habs”. Then we hit the pubs. James to this day has the highest alcohol tolerance of anyone I have ever met in my life. And he looks like a total geek, which makes him a hoot to go out with. The very first bar we went to was a small brewery and of course Jeff and I sampled the local microbrews. James, going great guns right out of the gates ordered the special- 5 shots of Jagermeister, which undoubtedly was meant as a special for a table to share. He lined them up on the bar and downed them one by one with most of the patrons watching in disbelief. It gave him a buzz roughly equal to what Jeff and I had after two beers. The night proceeded in similar fashion, going from bar to bar sampling local specialties and meeting beautiful French Canadians. Damn, I have never seen a city full of such good-looking people as Montreal. I remember going to one bar that had live music- a Bon Jovi cover band that people were going crazy over. After every song the crowd would shout “Vive le Bon Jovi!” It was awesome.

By the time last call was drawing near at our fourth or fifth stop, we had moved on to tequila shots and I was swooning over that bar’s singer, not really listening as James reminisced about him and his then-girlfriend. Jeff was trying to pick up some girl by deriving the Lorentz factor on a napkin. After closing we stopped for a midnight snack at a local pizza by the slice place where I boldly broke out my college French skills. We barely beat the sun back to the hotel and managed four hours sleep before we had to get up and catch our flight back to Tampa.

Needless to say, all three of us woke up still incredibly inebriated from the previous night’s exploits. Even though it was tempting to sleep later, we gave ourselves four hours before our flight left: two hours to get to the airport, two hours to get checked in. I crawled in the back seat and passed out again on the drive across the border. I awoke to a tense conversation between Jeff and James. Apparently James the navigator had missed a turn somewhere and now we were lost. We decided to drive “along the hypotenuse” rather than turn around and make two turns. Not anticipating how much winding the back roads of Quebec did, we then got severely lost. On the positive side, the scenery in those small border towns was amazing.

We found our way to the border, only to get stopped by customs. Why were we crossing the border in a town so off the beaten path? They were quite suspicious of us hooligans and searched the car and our luggage. We had to fill out claims forms, which James was unable to do due his continued alcohol impairment. After getting dirty looks from the border patrol, he confessed to being still drunk from the last night and we had to promise not to let him drive. Then they told us how to get back on the interstate.

By this time we were severely pressing our departure time. Jeff was doing 80 mph on the Vermont interstate, only to get pulled over by a state trooper. Everything that could go wrong did. By some act of heaven we didn’t get a ticket. Jeff was calm and told the truth while I sat terrified in the back seat. The trooper was understanding, gave us directions for the rest of the way and told us if we drove the speed limit we’d still make out flight. He was lying but didn’t want us trying to make our flight- he already knew it was too late.

We continued to barrel down the highway until we came to am impasse where we took yet another wrong turn. It was at this time, like a surgeon who knows she has lost a patient I declared, “It’s over.” We all knew it. It was time to give up, be safe and just get to the airport in one piece. When we finally got there, our flight was loooong gone but the lady at the counter was nice enough not to charge us for new flights. I will never forget that. Unfortunately, there weren’t any flights to Tampa for two days. She ended up putting us on an evening flight to DC and a connection to Miami the following day. We checked our bags and left James by the baggage carousel where he passed out (despite all the bustle and the frequent beeping from incoming luggage). Jeff and I spent the day roaming around downtown Burlington. It was fantastic. Such a beautiful, vibrant town. We ate off our hangovers at an amazing diner and went to collect James from his bench.

We spent that night at a hotel in DC hanging out with a former grad student that had moved there a couple years earlier. I didn’t know him before that night but he was really cool. The next morning we flew into Miami, rented a car and drove the four hours back to Tampa in a very quiet, tense car. But if a tense car was the worst that came of that epic journey home from Canada, then I stand by my claim when I say I was pretty lucky to be traveling with those guys.

Reminiscing like that makes me realize just how much has changed since that now legendary trip. However, it takes maturity to go through what we have and still look back fondly on all those good times, independent of the hurt that is to come.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Few Reponses

While I am trying to decide which of my favorite physics conference memories to share, I’m going to briefly address a couple of the ideas left yesterday.

was kidding when she said I should discuss universal health care and global warming. I don’t have a whole lot to say about either topics, but in light of Monday’s YouTube debate, I would like to make just couple of quick comments. While I don’t love John Edwards, I do think he is dead on about universal health care. Health care should not just be affordable it should be mandatory. We got into a good discussion on this blog a few months back when I discussed Dean’s health problems, our generally messed up health care system, and the importance of insurance companies paying for preventative health care measures. I haven’t the faintest idea how to go about reforming health care in this country to make absolutely certain that everyone has quality health care, get the prescriptions drugs they need, and feel compelled to care for themselves enough to never need treatment for completely preventable diseases. I dealt with Dean’s issues head on which thank God were relatively minor. Even so, that whole fiasco was bullshit. And I will be seeing Sicko soon.

Rather than talking specifically about global warming, I just want to say a few words about the energy crisis. I hope as a country we are finally starting to get past the global warming “debate” and dealing with the facts. The facts about what were are doing to this planet coupled with our frightening dependence on foreign oil without a doubt point to the fact that we need to turn to alternative energy. I hear people touting ethanol and hydrogen as the energies of the future. Honestly, I don’t really trust any form of energy that still relies on breaking chemical bonds and forming new ones. I see ethanol as a transition energy source to wean us off of oil but it can’t be much more than that without severely disrupting the agricultural economy and who knows what unforeseen dangers lurk (I am mostly referring to scientists worrying that a spike in corn growth could lead to a spike in fertilizer runoff into our oceans). And I’ve never been on board with hydrogen because it is an energy carrier and not a source. Since pure hydrogen doesn’t occur naturally on Earth, it needs to be extracted first in order to be stored. This extraction requires energy. From where? What I don’t see any politician discussing enough is exactly what most scientists agree to be the only viable solution to the energy crisis: we need a patchwork approach that mostly takes advantage of multiple renewable energy sources (wind, solar) and supplements it with other sources whether chemical or nuclear. Politicians still want to put all the eggs in one basket because that is easiest. It is easy to throw money at researchers for the specific purpose of developing a technology to go with a specific energy source and then forget about it for another hundred years. Wrong. We know from other types of technology that evolution and innovation is key. I firmly believe this about energy as well.

Speaking of evolution, yes my mom had to bring to the table that when I was very little I thought I started life out as a kitten, then a puppy and then a human baby. I have no idea where I came up with this or how I could have so grossly misunderstood basic human development and still turned out to be a scientist. Maybe I was trying to communicate my own toddler Buddhist philosophy. Who knows? But it does explain why I am often plagued by dreams of being pregnant with kittens.

Lastly Harry Potter. Harry, Harry, Harry. My lovely fellow female physicist friend wants nothing more in this world than to turn me into a Harry fan. Let me try to explain why I resist so. I think it is fantastic that the richest woman in England is a children’s book author. It says maybe hope isn’t lost for our youth. But when the hype is so thick I can hardly breath without hearing about it, it is an utter turnoff to me. I love that kids are reading. I love that parents are reading to their kids. But I’m not a child or a parent right now, so I’m in absolutely no hurry. I know, I know that childless women in their mid twenties fully enjoy these books (labwench) but I’d prefer to let the wind die down and read the books when I’m good and damn ready. Right now, between my official book group, my “unofficial book group” (composed of the other readers in my family and circle of friends), my magazine subscriptions and my school reading I have enough on my plate.

Stay tuned for more discussions based on your suggestions!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Oh my God I think I’m the most boring person alive right now. I have started this post a bazillion times and I swear I’m boring myself with some of the thoughts I’ve tried to put down. I seriously need some inspiration. Enough coming here and amusing yourselves with my hard work. Time to start pulling your weight. Here’s an experiment. Leave me a topic for discussion and let’s see what happens.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The 5:21 Bus Driver has Road Rage

I usually take the 5:46 bus home from work. Both Wednesday and Friday I took the 5:21 bus. Wednesday a little after 5:00 it got really dark and thunder rolled in. My boss said I should take off and try to beat the rain. (It backfired and I got drenched waiting at the bus stop). Friday I was meeting my mother-in-law for dinner and snuck out early. Both times the same guy was driving the 5:21 bus and both days he displayed behavior I had never seen in a bus driver.

Wednesday we got stuck in really bad traffic. We were waiting behind a car at a light which was green but the car was stopped so that he wouldn't block the intersection. When there was space for him to move up, rather than driving forward he waved through the guy from oncoming traffic who was trying to turn left. Anticipating that the guy in front of us would move the instant he could, the bus driver slammed on the gas and then slammed on brakes just as fast to avoid rear ending the guy. He then laid on the horn and flipped the guy the double bird. I felt more like I was in New York than Minneapolis. He drove alternately at breakneck speed and then stopped fast enough to make us all grip our seats and exchange glances. He apparently was so frustrated with my choice of bus stops that after closing the door (nearly clipping my behind) he squealed off and ran the red light through the intersection.

So you can understand my dismay when I saw this guy screech to a halt to pick me up on Friday. Near the same intersection where the previous altercation occurred, a driver who was following us pulled over to the next lane and then back ahead of us. He wasn't a jerk, he just didn't want to be stuck behind a bus. Who does? Well, that ticked our driver off so he then passed the guy, cut him off and then hit the brakes. Not only could the passengers not believe it, but the driver of the car must have in shocked. Could you imagine a bus road raging on you?

I think I'll stick to the good old 5:46.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Electronic Spouse

The iPod I had ordered last week arrived yesterday. I am in love with it. It took me quite awhile to jump on the iPod bandwagon, but when I found that my eleven year old sister had one and not me, well it was time to take action. I didn't want all the music in my library to be put on it, so I spent a couple of hours scrolling through my songs and only putting on the ones I like. So far I'm up to 516. According to the specs I only have space for about 6,814 more so I had better be discriminating with my choices. I also plan to download some of the episodes that I've missed of my favorite NPR shows since I haven't quite memorized what time they come on in Minnesota.

It was late last night while Stepdad and I were playing with my new toy when I remembered that I hadn't talked to Deano yet and my phone was on silent from work still. By the time I checked it, I had two missed calls and a text message that read, "R U alive?" I felt horrible. I called Dean back and explained that my iPod came and I'd been playing with it.

"I've been replaced by an iPod," Dean said sounding very pathetic and dejected. In my own defense, I began telling him about all the neat stuff it can do, how it can sort, shuffle, play music and videos, and store pictures. My husband, the technically challenged,was unimpressed. "Well, after tonight you had better hope it can vibrate, too."

Monday, July 16, 2007

Speaking Out

From the Saturday edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

St. Paul considers plan to trap, neuter feral cats
Anthony Lonetree, Star Tribune

The city of St. Paul is prepping a pilot program to trap and neuter feral felines on Fridays. The catch-and-release initiative would be made possible by an ordinance being introduced Wednesday by City Council Member Debbie Montgomery. She represents the city's Frogtown area, where residents have claimed that feral cats are a growing nuisance and public health risk.

Bob Kessler, the city's licensing and inspections director, said Friday that the program -- to be dubbed Feral Feline Fridays -- could be launched in mid-fall in partnership with Animal Ark, a Hastings shelter that's overseen a trap-neuter-release program in Anoka.

The St. Paul plan calls for the city to enlist local volunteers to set out traps in the neighborhoods, and for Animal Ark's mobile units to pick up the cats on Fridays. They would be neutered and vaccinated, and then released back to their respective neighborhoods, Kessler said.

"We would only go where we're wanted," he added.

The city sees the program not only as a way to reduce the numbers of feral cats, but also as an opportunity to teach domestic cat owners not to let their felines run free.

According to the proposed ordinance, which distinguishes between feral cats and house pets on the lam, any domestic cat found away from home, and lacking proper identification, such as ownership or rabies tags, could be impounded. Their owners then would have at least five days to reclaim them before they would be offered for adoption or destroyed in a humane manner, the ordinance states.

Allowing a domestic cat to roam, Kessler said, "is not good for the cat. It's not good for the neighborhood." And besides, he added, "we don't let dogs do that."

My response to the editors:

Dear Editors,
I am writing in response to today's article "St. Paul considers plan to trap, neuter feral cats". I am a native Minnesotan who now resides in Tampa. I care for a colony of 20-25 feral cats, 17 of which have been sterilized through the Animal Coalition of Tampa's Project Spay Day. While I wholeheartedly commend St. Paul's initiative to implement TNR in their area (as it is the only proven means to effectively control a wild cat population), nowhere do I see an effort being made to educate citizens that feral cats wouldn't be "nuisance" if they were being properly fed and cared for. Sterilization is a huge step towards curbing a population explosion but feeding and caring for a colony of ferals to ensure that they don't scavenge is essential as well. Getting to know a colony through regular observation also helps control the population by making sure that any kittens younger than about eight weeks can be removed from the colony and put up for adoption. My experience has been that even the most passionate of cat lovers are unaware that feral cat colonies even exist and, sadly, similarly unaware of how rewarding caring for them can be.

Natalie F- H-
Tampa, FL

I doubt it will get published since this issue is so far under the radar still. But I'll let you know!

Friday, July 13, 2007


Well, it's finally here. No, I'm not talking the iPod I broke down and ordered. (I know, it's about time. Hello, 2005!) I'm talking about Friday- a day full of magical feelings and anticipatory giddiness. Fridays are for long lunches (followed by an afternoon walk if the weather is good), extra internet time, and fantasizing about sleeping until noon the next day. On Friday, Monday is forever away and the possibilities for the weekend are endless. I'll tell you a secret. On Fridays, I usually have a cup of coffee at 3 pm! That way I won't pass out at 10. I can enjoy a couple of cocktails and pass out just a little later. I sure know how to get wild. Happy Friday everyone and I hope your weekend just as wonderful as you are imagining right now.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Back to Reality

Well, I’m back to work today after a lovely five days in Tampa visiting my husband and furry children. For the most part it was blissful. The days Dean had to work I slept late with the cats sprawled out on the bed, read, watched the Twins give the White Sox a serious beating twice in one day, and basically just reveled in again being with my own “stuff”. I also cried. A lot. So much that I was beginning to worry about the state of my emotional health. But when I thought about it some, I realized I was crying not so much out of despair and anguish but for release.

For the first time in eight weeks, I was all alone with the one person I can really truly be myself around. I just let it all go. I let go of all the frustration of this summer not being what I thought it would. I dropped the façade that I didn’t realize I had put on for everyone- even myself. I cried out of relief that Dean and I were on the same page about this time away making our relationship stronger and what endless possibilities awaited my return. I cried out of joy that my kitties chose not to ignore me the whole time but resumed life as if nothing had happened and I cried that I have to leave them again for almost the same amount of time.

I also cried because I turned 28 yesterday. And more than turning 28, I was upset that I had to spend the day on an airplane, saying good-bye again and that like everything else, our annual Birthday Beach Trip was put on hold until the end of August. Every year Dean takes me to a different beach for a weekend getaway of sunning, swimming, relaxing and drinking. This year, I opted to spend my precious time at home with the cats and defer my Birthday Beach Trip to "after I’m back" - that nebulous, seemingly unachievable destination. So even though Dean brought me breakfast in bed with a tear-jerking card (anything would have done it at this point) and some chocolates (because I wouldn't be able to enjoy the usual bouquet of flowers), my birthday was bound to suck.

I had booked an early afternoon flight back to Minneapolis (depart Tampa 2pm, arrive 4 pm) so that we could have a leisurely (if not melancholy) morning and I could still have a nice supper with Dad, Stepmom and Stepsis. The Minneapolis weather had other plans, and shortly before our final decent into the Twin Cities a storm swept through and forced us to redirect into Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Sitting on the ground, in the plane with (understandably) impatient children for four hours was not how I anticipated spending yesterday. I knew my birthday wouldn’t be as good as some years, but I had no idea it could be quite so sucky. When the Twin Cities airport finally resumed accepting flights, it took forever to get luggage and the place was a madhouse so I didn’t get back to Dad’s until after 9. Thankfully, dinner was made and I did get to enjoy my fried chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, sautéed green beans and made-from-scratch cornbread. But afterwards it was straight to bed to recover and get back to reality. So that’s where I sit. Once again, counting days (24) until Dean’s next visit, and weeks (7) until I get to go home for good.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Parting Gift

I flew back to Tampa yesterday to spend a long weekend with Dean and the kitties. I was so worried that either the kitties would have forgotten who I was or they would completely ignore me in classic cat fashion and they'd warm up to me only on my last day. Neither turned out to be the case. All three gladly greeted me right at the door. Unfortunately Wrigley was so overjoyed by my homecoming that he kept me up most of the night last night. That's okay though because I'm spending a lazy day on the couch dozing and watching the Twins game. Everything is just perfect.

Since I've been gone, our long time neighbors across the hall have moved away. That made me a little sad to hear because they were a very nice family. Like a lot of families around here, they were pretty religious. Despite the fact that I'm an emphatic agnostic, I really do like seeing the Southerners dress up on Sunday mornings in their pinstripes and hats. They were one of those families. Part of their charm was that they kept this outside their door:

While I wouldn't be too happy if this were a fancy-dancy highbrow apartment complex where I spent hours laboring over the outside appearance of our home, I kinda like this angel- fake flowers and all. She exemplifies Florida life as I've experienced it. Low income but happy and hopeful.

Well, now she's ours. Dean found her shoved up against our door after our neighbors moved away. We're not sure if it was laziness , lack of room in the moving van or a strong statement about the fact that we lived in sin across the hall from them for four years. Whatever the reason, she's welcome here until we move away and probably shove her back up against the new neighbors door.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Get Nesheked!

Once again, none of the Minnesota Twins were voted onto the All-Star roster by the fans. Even though we have the reigning MVP and Batting Champ. No, I'm not bitter about the fact that people WILL NEVER STOP VOTING for Big Papi (who isn't even a first baseman) because the big market names saturate the sports media. Don't even get me started on Barry Bonds- treating the fans and the media like crap while cheating his way to breaking the biggest baseball record of all time. But people still vote for him year after year rather than sending him a message. It's a popularity contest, of that I am certain. I'm happy that the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young winners made it onto the team by way of player votes and manager selection. Likewise with Torii Hunter who is having an outstanding year. Some would say that's the bigger honor- they know a little more about baseball than the casual fan. Still, the last time a Twin was voted on by the fans was Torii Hunter in 2002. Before that it was Kirby Puckett in 1994.

Twins bullpen pitcher Pat Neshek is on the ballot for the final vote. This is a special achievement for a number of reasons. First, it is rare that a bullpen pitcher who isn't a closer should make it on to the All-Star team. It is a highly overlooked and often thankless position. Pat Neshek has been excellent in that role this year after only being called up last year. Second and most important, he is a fantastic guy. He grew up in Minneapolis following the Twins and waiting behind the Dome for autographs like so many other kids and he doesn't forget that for a second. He still collects autographed baseball cards and will trade with you if you offer him something he doesn't have. He will always sign cards for you during Spring Training practices and is very easily engaged in conversation. He is still new to the game and might lose his easy-going nature, but as of now he treats his fans unbelievably well. Lastly, he is a fellow blogger! He started while in the minors and chronicles his still-short career, including his still wide-eyed excitement about playing major league ball for the Twins. It has become a cult phenomenon for fans and autograph collectors, and if you read the message board long enough you will likely see several posts made by my dear husband, an official member of the Pat Neshek Fan Club.

So if you have time (which I know you do because you are surfing blogs) please go to and vote for Pat. He deserves it!