Monday, January 28, 2008

SPIFF, Party, Shift Change

IceCube Party in Summer Camp

Several things happened this weekend which have made station life interesting. Saturday night we had SPIFF - the South Pole International Film Festival, where the whole station packs into the galley and watches the summer's crop of films made by Polies. Accompanied by free champagne, popcorn and raucous hoots from the audience, the festival is a true festival of camp, inside jokes, gutter humor, and heartfelt South Pole community spirit. Among others, two IceCube drillers (Tom Pi and Forrest Banks) each had multiple offerings.

One poignant film celebrated Sir Edmund Hillary by featuring his radio conversation with the South Pole from a few years ago, when he was at Scott Base (next to McMurdo).

After the SPIFF, the IceCube party in Summer Camp (from which there are many pictures posted on Flickr). I surprised myself by bartending for an hour or two.

Saturday we also had a change of shift, with Mark leaving and several new 'Cubers arriving. Things instantly got very hectic and all of a sudden I am very busy mornings and evenings discussing plans and helping the new arrivals. It may be quite hectic for the next two weeks. Fortunately I am the only night-shifter at the moment so I get a few hours of peace to do my work and nap if I am short of sleep that day (which is the case pretty much every day).

The gym is truly a lifesaver, and the cushion too. I'm going to try to get up to five miles, fast, before I leave. It is quiet enough nights now to meditate in the greenhouse, which, though noisy, presents a bit of humidity and an intoxicating panoply of smells.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Good things come in threes, or 18s

Hole 53

Good things to enjoy together after a long day at work: Walt Whitman, music of Brazilian Girls, Bass Ale.

18th string currently being deployed by the day shift. Eden called it again. Eden, fair IceCube oracle, named the number of strings three seasons in a row. Mazel tov to her and to IceCube!

South Pole Index

Number of days at Pole so far: 14
Days missing sitting meditation: 3
Physiological altitude: 10587 ft.
Best mile time on treadmill: 8:22.64
Pages of sketches drawn: 4
Times ventured outdoors (not including plane landing): 3
Times not including deployment: 2
Average hours of sleep/"night": 6
Average times/"night" woken by construction noise, talking, doors slamming, sneezing, etc.: 5
Hours of daylight per day: 24.0
Current temperature: -30.8F (-53.6F wind chill)
Current station population: 239
IceCube strings deployed: 18
Total strings in the ice: 40
Final goal for the project: 80
Maximum number tested simultaneously to date (old+new): 30
Days until station close: 20

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sleepless in the Station

Dark Sector view

Have been running a bit short of sleep; got paged on the station PA around 1 PM because of problems with the detector, which I managed to deal with. Woke up around (station) dinner time; vacuuming in the corridors at 6 kept me from getting back to sleep.

"Survival routine" helps: wake, vitamins, treadmill, weights, stretch, shower (30 seconds/day since last shower), sit. Plus the nap which I'm going to take in a few minutes, until my 3AM phone call starts.

Things are going well down here; 17th string out of 18 was just deployed today by the day shift. It's still up in the air whether the day or night shift will deploy the last string. Eighteen strings (if we get the last one, knock on wood) is really a phenomenal achievement, one which won't mean anything to anyone except those who remember broken drills, exploding hoses, accidents with cables, strings which had to get pulled out after deployment due to a constriction in the hole, and strings stuck at the wrong depth. The technique has really come a long way since the early days.... a super-specialized technique which will probably be useless a few years from now when the construction is finished. There should be a word for hard-won expertise which is only relevant for a limited time.

Meanwhile, my own work with the software is going ok, smoother than I could have hoped for so far ... for which I'm grateful, though I somehow miss oxygen and plants and darkness more than I remember doing in the past. Ah well, only 18 or so days left... and work will likely get busier and busier towards the end.

This morning, sitting by myself near a window in the galley, feeling slightly frayed and prematurely toasty [burned out on the Ice], I leafed through a five year old National Geographic magazine, looking at photos of exotic deserts in China, and I thought, "I should really go see some interesting places some time." Then I caught myself, looked out at the limitless white horizon, and chuckled.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Post Deploy

IceCube String 53 Deployment

Well, two more strings to go. Deployment was exhausting but, frankly, the most fun I've had since I got here. We attached all the sensors in the span of three hours, much faster than I've ever done it in previous seasons. Efficient team & streamlined procedures made the difference. I was pretty tired afterwards, but it was a good tired, and a chance to get out and about (we took the snowmobile sled out to the site, but I walked back and stopped by the South Pole markers).

I took it easy today and am back at scheduled tasks in earnest tomorrow.

I just posted 70 or so new pictures on Flickr for your amusement and edification: South Pole views, deployment action, South Pole Traverse tractors (driving from McMurdo to Pole and back), McMurdo scenery (including Adelie penguin).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

IceCube and The Beatles

SOP ("Standard Operating Procedure") these days is to fall asleep in my cubbyhole listening to my iPod Nano to drown out the myriad creaks, clicks, thumps and coughs. This morning, listening to the new Beatles CD, "Love" (a very fun remix by George Martin and his son, released last year), I was thinking how much genius still shows through in their music, 40 years later. How did four kids from Liverpool turn into such a musical colossus? What synergies of place, time, talent and personality had to fall into place, "just so," to create music so new and rich that few others who came after could surpass their contribution ... not even the band members themselves, working separately?

It made me ask similar questions about IceCube (admittedly not as important in the great scheme of things as The Beatles, except to a few of us) -- a three hundred million dollar project in an exotic locale performing (we hope) the amazing feat of detecting cosmic neutrinos. We are all here working together on this project thanks to a sequence of accidents in geopolitics, physics, technology and personality. Many things could have killed the effort at early stages of the game (and some still could). My own involvement in the effort arose out of a similar arc of happenstance; yet there is a certain feeling of inevitability or rightness to it, like a strange song that comes together in the right way.

While I was thinking about these things, "Here Comes the Sun" came on. I chuckled. The sun has been up here since last September.

Now it is night (by the clock only; sunlight blazes across the tack-sharp snowscape all the way to the horizon). We are deploying the 16th string of the season starting around 3 or 4 AM.


Tank at Pegasus Field

1/18/08 2350h NZT

A quick update, since it's been a few days.

It's just before Midrats (the midnight meal) here, which would be lunch for me. Some skiers just arrived at the Pole, from God knows what coastal part of Antarctica. From the desk where I'm sitting I can stand up and see the actual geographic pole just a hundred yards or so away.

Things are going pretty well. I'm gradually getting synced to the night shift schedule, and am pretty well acclimated, aside from dry skin and occasionally having to catch my breath. I'm up to over 2 miles on the treadmill, most of it running, and managed to sleep 6 hours today, a record since I arrived.

I'm a little embarrassed to say I haven't been outside except to take a few pictures... and to learn how to drive a snowmobile. Several of us took a safety class down at the Garage Arch after one 'Cuber got slightly injured in a snowmobile accident. The instruction boiled down to learning various ways to start the thing, what the speed limits are, what terrain to look for, and safety around heavy machinery. I don't anticipate driving around much but it's actually a good survival skill to have down here.

Work is going well, and is actually a bit slow at the moment since we are waiting for strings to freeze in before I can do all the tests that are planned. I'm actually stuck at the South Pole waiting for water to freeze -- go figure. In truth I have plenty of work to do and am using the gaps to catch up on work I would have to do in the North if I were there. It is a good opportunity to catch up with the pulse of the project and get reacquainted with everyone. I also got a fascinating explanation from Steven Meyer of the other big project down here, the South Pole Telescope (ironically based out of University of Chicago just a few blocks from where I live). They are doing some very cool science. Maybe I'll try to explain it here in an attempt to understand it better sometime.

The project has drilled 15 holes this year, already a record, with the 16th to deploy in 24 hours or so. If it's another nighttime deployment (they have mostly been, for some reason) then I will help out on this deployment.

Not too much else to report at the moment, other than that I just posted several photos from the journey here on my Flickr page; I'll try to post a few every day or so, time permitting.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Pure Land

A nod to Ira for the title.

I've been at Pole about 30 hours and am getting used to the altitude. Getting off the plane was a thrill as always (I have video which I will post as soon as I can get some cozy time with the satellite).... the blast of sound from the propellors, the bite of the air, the endless white, familiar structures, and colleagues waiting to greet us. No need to attend the orientation for old hands - just march over to your room and start to unpack. Same faces as last year in the corridors, and the same smells in the air. And the same feeling of oxygen starvation....

My room is again in the station. It's louder in here than in Summer Camp but I prefer it because everything is close at hand: work area, gym, galley, Quiet Reading Room for meditation, bathrooms... all without having to go outside. Of course, it's a recipe for shack-wackiness, but you can't have everything.

The night shift are getting ready to deploy the 14th string of the season. The "stretch" goal is 18, and still in reach. There have been a few injuries but nothing serious so far. So we are keeping our fingers crossed. Many things from drilling through my software work are much easier because procedures are in place and, for the most part, people are better trained than ever.

I will sit out this string deployment to give my blood chemistry time to finish adjusting to altitude. I had some headaches and the usual symptoms but the adjustment is going at least as well if not better than last year.

Almost there

I'm sitting on the floor of a Hercules LC-130 cargo plane, back propped up by a pile of orange carry-on bags, staring at a cargo palette full of scientific equipment; being lulled by the gentle shaking of the aircraft and the roar of the engines; hurtling through the atmosphere above the Ross Ice Shelf. These planes are by now at once exotic and familiar, their hyper-functional innards a muted military Christmas palette of green and red. Sometimes I find the most utterly functional of things to be the most beautiful.

I suspect I've flown in as many Hercs as any other kind of aircraft during the last decade. Give me the leg room of a C-130 over coach in a 747 any day. Though the drink selection is limited: you are required to empty, and then refill your water bottle at the drinking fountain before being driven to the plane.

During takeoff I sat next to the McMurdo NSF Science Representative who is on her way to Pole for a day. I asked her how many times she'd been to Pole.

"Just once so far," she said.

I told her, "It's my seventh time, and I'm still excited."

Then she told me that she's been to the North Pole eight times, and while the plane lifted off we talked about the impact of global warming and the reduced ice coverage at the North Pole on air operations there (small Twin Otters can land but not the bigger planes, at one of the spots she worked at). I expect I won't get to the North Pole before it turns into open water (at least in Summer).

In contrast to our cloudy arrival in McMurdo, on the way to Williams Field this morning the views were crystal clear, with Erebus and Discovery gleaming frosty and intricate, seeming much closer than they really were. When the weather is right, it seems as though you can see forever in Antarctica. It's like that in space, they say. Well, this is my space journey, my Sci Fi experience. Planet Antarctica: empty voids filled with rocks and ice, strange creatures which waddle, swim and croak, and dusty humans with sunglasses and greasy hair.

Time to get up and look at the glaciers.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Liquid Helium Conduit on C-17

Hotel California, McMurdo Station, Antarctica
This is going to be short, cause I'm for a shower and bed soon. Just got back from Bag Drag, which is more or less what it sounds like -- you have to carry all your luggage from your room to the "Movement Control Center" (MCC) where they weigh you with all your stuff for the flight. The new wrinkle this year is that the same TSA restrictions r.e. liquid, gels etc. that you get in the real world applies here, which meant I had to pour some shampoo in a plastic bag for tonight, and then check the rest of the bottle (which Sandy from the Devon gave me, and I'm still using since my other bag STILL HASN'T SHOWN UP... apparently it is due at Pole on or around Wednesday our time).

The other piece of bad news is that my good camera is out of battery juice, so no nice pictures of the Beardmore Glacier or other beautiful Antarctic terrain for y'all, at least going south. The good news though is that I spent a lot of that juice clicking pictures of a lone Adelie penguin who made its way past Hut Point this morning. It was talkative and more active than any penguin I've ever seen up close and personal. Apparently some Polies saw 40 penguins near the same spot a week or so ago. But I still feel lucky, since I haven't seen one for a few years. Sitting out on the black rocks at the edge of Ross Island, staring out at the mountains and listening to the croak of the Adelie waddling past and skidding around on its belly, was probably the highlight of the trip so far. I will post some photos and maybe even a clumsy video or two when I get some more time.

Transport for our South Pole flight is at 0700 tomorrow. With luck I'll be at Pole for lunch. Then I can start to settle in while my body chemistry scrambles to adjust for only 1/2 the usual oxygen....

There are no mice in the Hotel California Bunkroom

Clothing Issue at CDC

Collapsed about 1930 last night in the top bunk of my bed in the Hotel California. Merciful Mary... I slept nearly 10 hours despite the scratching noises in the ceiling tiles just over my head. I was somewhat amazed that mice were living in the walls and ceiling. Huh.... Mice in Antarctica, I thought.... Who knew. Those suckers will live anywhere.

This morning as I was waking up I could tell that the wind had picked up and was actually shaking the building. It became clear that the scratching sounds were just wind rattling something inside the walls.

A huge chunk of sleep did wonders for my mood. Better yet, I just got an e-mail that my luggage has been found and is in McMurdo. What a luxury it will seem to have more than two pairs of underwear....

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sleepy in MacTown

C-17 Pax

Surprisingly enough, we made it. I figured we had a reasonable chance of boomeranging back to Christchurch. There were rumors of a snowstorm on its way, which was why we were manifested at 0200h or "o dark hundred" for the earlier flight of the day. So far the snowstorm hasn't materialized, though the view was pretty hazy when we landed, and despite the lack of windows I noticed by the various vibrations and leanings of the plane that the pilot had to make a second pass at the runway before he put us down.

I've had an hour or two of sleep and am not at the top of my game at the moment. I keep almost losing things (gloves; hat; the plastic bag of bananas which I've carried in my hands from New Zealand, and almost "donated" to the Crary Lab IT techs). I'm in a bunkroom in the Hotel California with many beds and probably many snoring men, so the situation isn't too likely to improve any time soon. Once I get to Pole I will have to switch to night shift as well, causing further circadian disruption and general lack of correct neurotransmitter flow.

But I'm still happy and am relatively content to just be exhausted. I'm of to dinner at the galley, and then I might write some more or do a little work before heading off to try to fall asleep listening to The Lord of the Rings on my iPod in The Bunkroom. [Sorry this is absolutely vapid writing, but that's where my head is. --Ed]

Friday, January 11, 2008

Sir Ed

A footnote to toast Sir Edmund Hillary, who died today at 88, first to summit Everest (with Tenzing Norgay) and a member of the first group after Amundsen and Scott to reach South Pole (this time, by tractor). I saw him at the Pole in '97 or '98 when he came through for a visit. A soft-spoken explorer, humanitarian, philanthropist and advocate for the environment, he was by all accounts a remarkable man.

I guess if Hillary and Norgay could climb 5mi Everest in -30 degree temperatures and 100 MPH winds, I can handle being flown to Antarctica in the middle of the night in the relatively luxurious comfort of a C-17 without complaining too much, bags or no bags.

Shortcut to Toast

Photo: View from courtyard of Christchurch City Art Gallery

Ok, well, so much for comfortable beginnings. We fly at 0200 tonight, a time when everyone except Santa Claus and the Angel of Death should be asleep. Worse, no baggage yet, and no word from the airlines. Likely I won't see anything until it gets to South Pole in several days -- assuming it ever does. If I don't get my baggage at all it will be an interesting month. I hope they have some t-shirts left at the Station store, otherwise it will be a smelly month, since I have only one on me.

Of course, anything can happen - flight delays, luggage miraculously knocking at the door at all hours. Today's flight was delayed until tonight, and that's the one we're on now, too. But this particular flight has several "DVs" (Distinguished Visitors, i.e. senators or other big-wigs) who are trying to get to Pole for the inauguration ceremony for the new station, which is apparently officially complete. So it's unlikely it will slip unless the weather gets real bad in McMurdo.

But, it's off to Sala Sala sushi for me... might as well enjoy summer while it lasts (another 12 hours or so)!

Pynchon, redux

"Everyone has an Antarctic." --V

During last year's trip, I strained to finish Gravity's Rainbow while at Pole. I'd lifted my copy of Rainbow from the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory (MAPO) at Pole in 2000, and brought it back with an eye to finishing it and leaving it behind. I failed, but finished it a month or so later, and then tackled and summited his latest, Against the Day, which, while longer and less poetically gorgeous than Rainbow, was an easier read, and just as fun.

This year I thought it fitting to bring down, in Rainbow's stead, my copy of Pynchon's V, purchased in Geneva, Switzerland in 1990. Never managed to finish it despite several attempts, but after Rainbow and Day it should be doable. I'm going to see how far I can get until Station Close - I have a month. We shall see.

I think Pole is a great place to read Pynchon. Here's why Antarctica feels like a Pynchon novel:
  1. Dozens or hundreds of quirky but poorly-elaborated personalities advance and recede from view, colliding in myriad ways, like solitary molecules bonding in various configurations and then flying apart;
  2. The tenor of Science lurks everywhere, a kind of unifying thermal paste holding the whole thing together, but you're not sure exactly how or why;
  3. Lots of strenuous effort bent in all sorts of absurd ways (drilling holes 2 miles into ice? Christmas trees made out of metal parts in the machine shop? Driving for hundreds of miles across icy wastes searching for meteorites? Running naked from 200 degree sauna out into -100 winter air?);
  4. Lots of stuff happens, sometimes exciting, often tedious, often painfully beautiful, usually strange; but there really isn't much of a plot.

Superposition of Luggage States

3 johns

Slept ok after dining on mussels and Belgian beer with Serap, Theresa, a very nice Aussie named Andrew, and IceCube drill software guru Matt. Still no luggage, and I realized that my long camera lens and both camera battery chargers are in my checked luggage. If we fly tomorrow and our luggage still hasn't made it, it means restricted photo options until I get to South Pole 3-5 days from now. Oh well -- I have my sketchbook.

Speaking of photos, there are a few more on my Flickr page.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Flights: Round 1

En route from Auckland to Christchurch

A fairly good trip so far, though not without ups and downs. Our layover in LA was 1.5 hours which is enough time if everything goes smoothly. But the weather in Chicago has been more like New Zealand summer than Midwest winter, with thunderstorms and temperatures in the 60s – truly spooky weather for January. Yesterday (well, two days ago modulo the International Date Line) the weather had started settling down but things were still squirrely enough to delay us almost an hour. That made for an exciting transition in LA, running with carry-on bags for our International check-in, inevitable stop at security, and finally a sprint to the gate, where we made it with minutes to spare before they closed the gate, only to sit on the aircraft for an hour until they could push off.

Last year I came home from Auckland in Business Class, where the flight attendants were practically waiting for you with your cocktail before your Business Class Butt hit its fully-reclining seat. Now returning the other direction across the Pacific, my seat towards the front of Steerage had, as its view, Business Class, where the cocoon-like seats beckoned like a mirage across a threshold of just a few feet, or a few thousand dollars, depending on how you look at it. The space under the seat in front was half-occupied by some sort of machinery (entertainment system? Ejection seat hardware?) so that my legs could only fit in at an oblique angle, much less my carry-on. Worse, next to me, reading USA Today, sat a man (also in the Antarctic program, turns out) as tall as me but twice as wide [Editor's note: in the shuttle from the airport in Christchurch, this guy filled us in on the flight schedule, as he manages flights out of McMurdo. We fly to Mac Town on Saturday, and Pole on Monday]. With negative elbow- and leg-room, my chances for sleeping or even resting peacefully throughout the flight had essentially vanished. This wasn't going to do. I'm interested in expanding my comfort envelope, not shattering it. I asked the characteristically amicable Qantas steward if he could reseat me should the opportunity arise. This turned out to be a good move, as a few minutes later he returned to show me to two empty seats adjacent the aisle towards the back of the plane.

The rest went according to plan: dinner, Chardonnay, in-flight movie (you might be skeptical about "The Bourne Ultimatum" on a four inch screen, but try the Moroccan fight scene during heavy turbulence while holding a hot cup of tea in your hand), followed by iPod+Tylenol PM which afforded a few hours of unconsciousness.

Of course, our luggage didn't make it – it's still in Los Angeles. I get to push my "packing light" philosophy to the limit until tomorrow. Travel makes your world grow (three continents in three days) and shrink at the same time. For 48 hours I am living out of a small backpack. After lunch in Christchurch I will have to go find a toothbrush.

Update: Arrived at Devon, home-away-from-home, lunch at Dux De Lux awaits, following a shower. Life is good.

Update II: After shopping for some essentials (toothbrush, shorts, underwear), was able to go for my favorite run along the Avon, opposite the Botanical Gardens. Now, having blissfully napped for an hour or so, it's time for dinner.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Packing for the Pole

(Photo: Dave and Kael "bag dragging" last year in McMurdo. There is obviously an advantage to carrying less stuff).

Well, packing is underway. I started this list of less-than-obvious things to remember a few seasons ago and still find it useful:
  • Portable zafu
  • Lightweight microfiber towel (a la Tim Ferriss)
  • Basic toiletries (in case the tiny store at Pole runs out)
  • USB keyboard and mouse (to fend off repetitive strain injuries from typing on laptop 60 hours/week)
  • Extra bag for storing things in Christchurch
  • Cameras/lenses/chargers
  • Sketchbooks / drawing media (a whole fun list in and of itself, but probably not of general interest)
  • Running shoes, shorts, running pants and shirts
  • Spray bottle for humidifying room
  • Saline spray for dry nasal passages
  • Emergen-C (vitamin powder)
  • Clothesline (clothing washed before bed will be nearly dry when you awaken, and will humidify your room as an added bonus)
  • NZ maps (Wellington, Christchurch, ...)
  • NZ power adapter (most electronics works on 220V if you have a small outlet adapter)
  • NZ currency/coins (as the dollar continues its nosedive towards toilet-paper valuation, this becomes more important)
  • LED flashlight (for navigating darkened Jamesways at Pole or dorm rooms in McMurdo)
Believe it or not, you'd probably do OK bringing nothing at all other than a few pairs of underwear and the clothing they give you in Christchurch. But even this "extensive" packing list will take up only half a suitcase, to which I'll add obvious clothing items, laptop, passport, etc.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Goals for Trip

IceCube is growing again this year, from 22 strings in 2007, up to 32-40 strings. 32 is guaranteed, since 10 new strings were deployed already since the season started in December. 40 is the outside ("stretch") goal.

My primary work task for the trip is to get all these new strings integrated into the Data Acquisition System. There will be a lot to do, about which I will probaby write more about more as matters progress.

Main non-work goals:
  • Keep meditation practice going, 10-20 minutes minimum per day if possible
  • Exercise daily (stretch, strength training, running; decrease high altitude mile time, from 08:43)
  • Daily drawing practice from life and imagination (anatomy and other fundamentals)
Also this blog, photography, and notes for the drawing class I've been writing out on my Web site. Enough to keep me out of trouble during the 0.00125 hours per day when I won't be working or trying to sleep....

And, of course, to stay safe, have fun, and connect with colleagues and friends.

Friday, January 4, 2008


Gotta get those balaklavas ready.

Current schedule has me arriving in Christchurch on the 10th (you lose a day in flight, and a day for flying over the date line), getting my clothing the same day (ugh), and then flying to McMurdo the next day. Of course, mechanical delays, weather, etc. make schedules very soft.... we shall see. Either I get to enjoy New Zealand (or LA, or Chicago) or I get to Pole quick and can just settle in.