Monday, February 18, 2008

A Bath

Anakiwa Boatyard Tracks

"Sing ho! for a bath at the close of day."

Legs now completely turned to rubber after my two-day, hilly, scenic marathon. I pushed the pace this morning because it looked like time might be tight to catch the water taxi at the end of the track, but I wound up arriving two hours early and the boat was an hour late. In the mean time I rested from my walk, went wading on the beach, and talked to a nice young British couple I met on the path. Turned out they both had degrees in physics and so were very curious about the details of IceCube.

The end of the Queen Charlotte Track, closest to Anakiwa, is busier than its beginning at Ship Cove; there are more mountain bikers on the path and motorboats on the sound. But it is still quite beautiful in spots, and I'm glad I went as far as I did (and no further, for the sake of my aching leg muscles).

Things seen up close today:

Goats with horns as long as my forearms.

Mussel shells the color and size of eggplants.

Thousands of translucent jellyfish surfacing as we passed through the wake of the ferry from Wellington.

Best of all, and unexpected, the cottage I have at the Gables has a bath, my first in more than a month.

Tomorrow I go to Wellington to see Neil and Amelia, eat sushi, hopefully see some art, and relax for a few days before diving back into winter in Chicago.

Green Marathon

QC Sounds Opening

2/16/08 Debrett's backpackers, Portage Bay, NZ

I am halfway done with my walk on the Queen Charlotte Track and too tired to do anything physical other than sit and write. Today and tomorrow are basically each half-marathons in mountainous terrain (mountainous by Chicago standards, anyways).

Despite a tight schedule, things have been smooth since I left South Pole on Wednesday, just two and a half days ago. The process of getting reintroduced to the planet has unfolded in stages, the highlights of which I will now share with you:

1. The Trans Antarctic mountains as seen from our C-130. Glaciers, crevasses, nunataks, mountain peaks, ice falls. I never tire of the views from the plane.

2. At Pegasus field outside McMurdo, twice the oxygen I've been breathing, and the sights of Mt. Discovery, Ross Island, Black and White island. The pleasure of actually seeing something on the horizon. Unlike the last two years, our C-17 actually arrived just after we landed, though we had to wait a few hours after that for cargo offloading/loading and for passengers to arrive by bus from McMurdo.

3. Night in Christchurch: darkness for the first time in a month.

4. Wandering around town, shopping, eating non-Pole food; saying goodbye to friends/colleagues.

5. The train to Picton. Rocking sleepily through rain-blurred green landscapes. Watching sheep fleeing from the tracks as we passed. Meeting and comparing notes with other Ice people.

6. Getting on the mail boat in Picton and seeing Marlborough Sounds from a completely new perspective (in the past I have just taken the ferry straight to Wellington). During the four hour or so trip, the mail boat visits a dozen small homes or clusters of homes reachable only by water. The first time we approached a house/pier, I was sure we were actually going to ram the shore! But our skipper stopped on a dime just short of the pier and brought the boat close enough to exchange mail bags and a few words with the gentleman who came out to meet us. Then we were speeding off to the next harbour. The jocular skipper asked where I was from.

"Chicago," I replied.

"Chicago!!! Do you have a rat-a-tat gun?"

"Uh, sorry...."

"No?! I thought everyone in Chicago had a rat-a-tat gun, like in the movies."

There are dozens or hundreds of isolated homes on the Sounds, most probably reachable only by boat. Any of these would make a perfect getaway, or movie set.

7. Arriving at Mahana lodge, whose dilapidated dock looks like something from a Tarkovsky film (I fell in love with it instantly). Ann and John's home-cooked meal was by far the best food I've had in five weeks, accompanied by rain, thunder, and (!) hail. Sleeping in a room with three other people and being so tired I just fell asleep instantly.

8. Walking here. The Queen Charlotte track takes about three days, two days of which I'm doing. The mail boat takes your bags from lodge to lodge while you walk. The track winds over low mountains through terrain varying from dry scrub to rainforest, with vistas of the sounds opening up now and again on either side. I saw, in no particular order, birds called "wekas" which look exactly like a cross between a chicken and a kiwi bird; a dead worm the size of a small snake; gazillions of tiny pink mushrooms and a few large bright orange ones; strange plants with a straight stalk and long rigid leaves like green knives serrated on both sides (I had seen these in the Christchurch botanical garden but was convinced they were from another planet); and maybe a dozen people.

Most of the time it was just about the walking, with plenty of time to think or just look at all the growing things.

Tomorrow will be more of the same, though perhaps a little easier going. Which is fine with me and my sore legs. Then I have a night in Picton all to myself in a small cottage attached to a B&B, and finally to Wellington for three nights until I fly home.


View from Desk in B2 Lab

2/15/08 En Route to Picton

The view to the right of the train is the sun-speckled green Pacific, a welcome change from the ocean of white I have been living on for the past month, over whose skies alien prototypes of clouds lay flat, singular and as wide as the horizon.

Here the rain clouds pile in a hundred layers of dark steel grey and tufts of brilliant cotton white.

Despite rumors of drought here on the South Island, green growth is as abundant as oxygen here. Night and rain fall again. I am back in the world.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Outta here

LC130 Departure

Weather permitting (knock on any wood if you can find it), we are flying out of here in about four hours. Something has not been right with my stomach the last 48 hours, and yesterday was a bit uncomfortable. At least one other guy here has a bad cold, so we're getting out of here in the nick of time.

On my way from Christchurch to Wellington, I will walk the Queen Charlotte Track near Picton, staying at two different lodges on the way (a boat service carries your luggage for you while you walk, so it's at the day's end destination when you get there - how nice!). On Debrett's lodge's Web site they have a list of things to bring, including "a good book."

Well, I was bringing my copy of "V" down to the library to leave here, so I figured I was going to have to do without the book. But as I was depositing my book I noticed that they had TWO copies of Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon." Figuring the odds of two winter-overs beating their heads against it at the same time were slim to none, I left Victoria's ("V"!!'s) personalized, enormous hardcover copy of M&D undisturbed on the shelf and took the paperback, which still must weigh in at several pounds. Passing Jerry Marty in the hall, he looked at the book in my hand and said, "uh oh, that looks serious." Mmm hmm, just the way I like 'em.

Sandy has a room for me for two nights at the Devon. Pray to Zeus for me that the weather holds.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lame Duck DAQer

IceCube Party in Summer Camp

"Tengo get el f--- out of aqui," a young Kit Traverse mutters to himself under his breath while studying vector mathematics at Yale in Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day." The phrase keeps rattling around my head as the hours count down to our straight-through flight to Christchurch the day after tomorrow. My eyes are tired, my brain is fried after 30 days with hardly half a day off, and my stomach has just about had it with the food here. I have hit my wall and, while I will do a bit of work tomorrow, mostly the day will be about packing, enjoying the surroundings and taking it easy.

Oddly enough, the work has also hit its own wall. The DAQ software which worked rather smoothly throughout a month of tests finally met its match when trying to read out all forty IceCube strings. I believe the situation is very workable, but a days' worth of debugging didn't uncover an easy fix. Still, we are at least a week or two ahead of our original schedule. I find it ironic, though, that the last test (and most important, at least psychologically) would be the one to give us trouble. At any rate, we have a month to find a solution, which still puts us light years ahead of where we were last year (where we were putting the code together with spit and duct tape at the last minute before the last flight of the season came to yank us off-station).

As things wind down I want to check in with some of my other goals for the trip.

Complete and abject failures:
  • Regular drawing practice. I filled maybe three pages of drawings the whole month.
  • Skiing to the "love shack" at the end of the skiway. I didn't make it there, it just seemed too darn cold to get my rear in gear and do it.
  • Pynchon's "V" - I made it a good 150 pages or so but the book is staying here in the library, as I promised myself. "Against the Day" and "The Lord of the Rings" in audiobook form wound up being my fiction fixes.

Qualified successes:
  • Kept to a meditation practice perhaps 3/4 of the days here.

Exceeded expectations:
  • Ran almost every day, and made it up to nearly 5 miles. Beat my previous South Pole/high altitude mile record of 8:47 by a whole minute. Lifted weights and stretched. Physically this was an enormously helpful antidote against long hours at the computer, and cabin fever.
  • Work-wise I managed to meet not only most or all of my planned goals but also got a chunk of work in on a new project which will likely occupy a lot of my time this year. Also strengthened work relationships and managed to help several other people with their projects.

Unexpected surprises:
  • The eclipse was a lovely natural and communal event.
  • Going out on the deck at random times without bundling up (in shorts even) and enjoying the electric chill and the stark blazing white ocean of ice for a few moments before taking refuge back in the warmth and chemical smells of the station.

It's getting past bedtime - 8:40 PM and I am still up. I'm more or less on New Zealand days now. But just like this place is somehow like no-where, it is also somehow no-time: no night; arbitrary New Zealand time zone; shifting sleep schedules; and having to be aware of at least five different time zones (I regularly do time zone calculations in my head for all US time zones as well as Greenwich, England, which is the standard scientific/astronomical time base known as UTC).

At any rate, it is time for bed -- this much is clear. Until tomorrow...

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Eclipse Town

South Pole Solar Eclipse

Four days left to go. I'm on a 1AM - 5PM work schedule right now. The schedule has picked up considerably as everyone tries to fit in as much work as possible before we redeploy back to New Zealand.

One noteworthy event happened a day and a half ago: a near-total (80%) eclipse of the sun. I stayed up several hours later than usual to see it. A bunch of us "beakers" went out when it started in order to see the light change and to take pictures. Wind chills were about -75F. You know it's cold when your eyelids try to freeze shut when you blink, or when you can eat the icicles forming on your mustache.

We stood outside for awhile and struggled with failing batteries, aching fingers and fogging glasses, got a few blurry pictures of the eclipse, then took a few shots at the Geographic and Ceremonial Poles and headed inside to warm up. Once inside, we found out we were too early for the real action. Soon most of the people on station were crowding at the windows and doorways (unwilling to face the mustache icicles by bundling up and going outside). Several people had sheets of aluminized mylar which served as an excellent filter for photography. I was glad I had brought my big lens, as it made the above picture possible (see Flickr for more pictures).

The neat thing about the eclipse was the light really changed - after 25 days of mostly blazing sunlight, it was as close to night at the South Pole as I am likely to get. While the eclipse did darken everything, it had the effect of increasing contrast and adding a liquid silver tonality to the snow surface which usually sparkles like powdered diamond dust.

We hit a record low of almost -55F during the eclipse.

It was a late day for me but the sights and photos (and camaraderie with other shivering, clicking and squinting Polies) were worth it. As an added benefit, I am half-way shifted over to the day schedule now, which will make returning to NZ more restful.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

One More Week

Ice Crystal Halo over Dark Sector

I've had a good couple days after suffering through a 24-hour stomach bug which seemed to spread through the station population like a fire through an abandoned warehouse (people were apparently wandering the hallway doubled over with hands on stomachs...). Coming out of that, I was surprised to realize the trip is already drawing to a close: I leave in seven days and a few hours. It is time to think about getting back onto a day schedule (NZ days, anyways).

Time is very strange here -- it seems like I just arrived today, but this day has been measured in hundreds of hours... which is in fact the case (the sun won't set until March).

Temperatures had plummeted to record lows, -45 F or so (-65 wind chill), but have risen a bit since it got cloudy (the clouds act as a sort of insulation). Oddly, despite the cold, one can go out on the deck for several minutes without any gear whatsoever to take pictures like the halo above; anything longer than that and things start to go numb.

We are expecting a near total solar eclipse in about 30 hours, which I will try to stay awake for -- should be a treat after a month of blazing sunlight.

Work has been progressing well. There are still two more batches of strings to be added into the detector -- we are at 34 out of 40 strings and things seem to work ok (knock on wood). When not running tests of my own I'm helping other people with theirs, and working on learning about Web development frameworks in Python, which I hope to use for a new work project this year.

I am also planning out a short vacation in New Zealand, a two day hike along the Queen Charlotte track along the coast of Marlborough (which all you wine aficionados will recognize as wine country), followed by a trip to Wellington to visit Neil and Amelia and a stroll up and down Cuba street.

In short, not too much to report other than the relatively strange routine of living life in Spaceship Pole, punctuated by trips outside to wish people farewell when their C-130's arrive (half the IceCube crew left about 20 hours ago).

Friday, February 1, 2008

IceCube Laboratory Video Tour; Midrats Finale

Tonight I jogged half a mile across the skiway to the IceCube Laboratory (ICL). Oddly enough, it was my first time out there since I arrived two weeks ago. This has been the first trip where physically interacting with the computers has not been required since all the hands-on work is getting done by other people this year. You might ask, why go at all then? There are a few reasons. First, the satellite connection to South Pole from the real world is slow and lasts perhaps 12 hours a day at best; for much of my time here, it's been rather less than that. My work is 100% focused on interacting with the computers, so a good connection is important. Second, there are many things that could go wrong which would require hands-on work (as has happened all other years previously). Also, there are several people here who I need to assist with various things. And finally, one gains special knowledge by seeing the physical system one works on (sensors, cables, building, station, ...), which is hard to quantify but important nonetheless.

Still, as various systems get more reliable, there will be less call to have so many people on-Ice. When construction is complete, there will probably be only a few seasonal people and one or two winter-overs for IceCube.

For my part, though, it was a treat to get out and see the experiment. It makes the work more exciting and vivid. Even when back home in Chicago, I spend a lot of time "inhabiting" the computers in the ICL, logging in from over the satellite, fixing things and running tests. Seeing their hyper-functional rack-mounted exteriors "in the flesh" was an experience somehow akin to looking in a mirror... the face you see in the peering back out of the looking glass doesn't correspond necessarily to your sense of self, yet it's somehow "you" nonetheless.

Jogging out to the Dark Sector was also a heck of a lot more fun than the treadmill in the Gym, despite -60 F wind-chills. On the way back, I got "stuck" on the far side of the skiway - the crossing beacon was on, indicating the approach of an aircraft. I zipped up and hunkered down for a 10 minute wait out on the snow. But in just a few minutes, the incoming C-130 touched down and I was free to finish my jog back to the station.

Software serves up endless intellectual delights, but nothing beats physical "meatspace" for animals like us.

Speaking of meatspace and physical pleasures, tonight's Midrats (midnight meal) was the season finale. Here's the menu (details included for a certain special chef!):
  • Bacon-wrapped Filet Mignon
  • Grilled scallops
  • Stuffed Portabello Mushroom Caps
  • Mixed Vegetables
  • Baked potato
  • Sushi bar
  • Harvest Salad with Apples, Blue Cheese, Cranberries, Onions and Roasted Pecans
  • Triple Chocolate and Mocha Mousse
  • Iced Tea
I told the Midrats chef that it was the best meal I'd had in seven seasons on the Ice -- a comment I heard her passing around to her crew. We also had tablecloths and candles (a rarity at the Pole due to fire safety concerns). The meal was explicitly off-limits for day shift but there were so many people there I suspect some folks snuck in.

Today is the first of February, meaning I'm more than halfway done with my stay. With any luck, work will continue to go smoothly (we are still about five days ahead of schedule). At any rate, all IceCube folks are leaving Feb. 13 on a straight-through flight to Christchurch. After a week decompressing in New Zealand, I am coming back to Chicago on the 21st.