Saturday, August 30, 2008

One Week Down

The first week of my last undergraduate semester didn't go so badly, although it did give me a slight taste of what is to come for the rest of this year.

I am taking two physics courses for credit and sitting in three others unofficially. That gives me Sr. Physics Lab, Astrophysics, E/M Theory, Astrobiology and Quantum Mechanics to worry about (total of 11 lecture hours and 6 lab hours per week), plus a weekly meeting with my research advisor (more below) and bi-weekly meetings for astrophysics journal club, physics club and physics club officers (I'm the VP). Plus occasional seminars here and there. Oh, and research to do.

When I stopped to talk with my research advisor, he told me he had come up with not one, but two (unrelated) projects for me to consider. One deals with NASA's AIM mission and the other with exoplanets. Both are way cool, but I suspect I will be going with the exoplanets one because it fits my interests and (very basic) foundation a bit better. So now I have another hundred or so pages of research papers and presentations to read plus some online work, preparatory to doing a lot more IDL coding. His hope is that the introductory work would keep me busy for the next two semesters (I'll have a lot more time after this one, since I'll have no classes at all this spring, most likely) and we would submit an official PhD thesis proposal(!!) next fall.

Of course, we've ignored (so far) the fact that I actually have to prepare for, take and suitably pass both the general and physics GREs to get into GMU's graduate program, but at least I have a direction in which to travel.

And some time during all this (3 days!), my darling children head back to school, so I probably should pay attention to them occasionally as well (plus their mommy).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Atheist Quotes

Normally, I would have just "shared" this in Google Reader, but it's too far back to point so, so I'll do it the old fashioned way and link to it.

Back in February, The Atheist Blogger posted a great list of 101 Atheist quotes, including many from such entities as Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, Edison, Gene Roddenberry, Mark Twain, Robert Heinlein, and many other famous (and a few not as famous) folks from the past and present.

Monday, August 25, 2008

School Bell's A-Ringing

First day of the fall semester today.

I started it off with a visit to my research adviser, who has not one, but two different PhD thesis-level projects in mind for me. Gift horse, anyone? One of them involves an active NASA mission. One is related to (but not directly involved with) my Charon work. The first one comes with funding, wherein I would draw a stipend (plus, presumably, funding for conference travel). The second has no funding itself, although Dr. Summers said he could probably spring for a couple conferences.

Now I have to decide between an interesting project I get paid for and a (somewhat more interesting) project that I won't necessarily get paid for. And since I could conceivably be working on whichever one I choose for the next 6-8 years (although presumably I would eventually find some funding for the latter project - except in the current anti-science administration, that's pretty well impossible), I need to choose pretty carefully. However, it's a good problem to have - rather too many projects than not enough (or an unhelpful research adviser).

After that meeting, and some chatting with various friends in the hallways, I headed to Senior Physics Lab. This promises to be quite an interesting class, with two half-hour lecture periods followed by 3-hour lab periods each week. Additionally, we can always get a key to the advanced physics lab to work independently whenever we wish. We each have to work solo (with a couple exceptions) on four different experiments throughout the semester. My first is a study of the Zeeman Effect on mercury vapor. On Wednesday, we have an oral pass/fail exam on our individual experiments which we must pass before we're permitted to begin work, then it's radiation safety education and quizzing next week and finally we can begin work.

Following lab I sat in on the first Introduction to Quantum Mechanics course. Although this course is packed to full (every seat taken), I have permission from the instructor to sit in on it unofficially. It is now a required course for all new Physics undergraduates. However, since I am running under an older catalog, it is only optional for me (I'm taking Astrophysics instead), but it is still a good idea to know the contents since a significant part of the physics GRE uses the knowledge. My main surprise in the class is the number of physics majors in there whom I swear I have never seen before. You'd think I would know (at least by sight) all the junior/senior level physics students by this point (since there are only a few dozen total physics undergraduates).

Tomorrow - three more classes (two audits, one for credit)!

Mickey at Sea

Note: I was saving this post for when I finished processing some more pictures. However, my laptop drive crashed and, at the moment, every damned picture I took this summer is unaccessable (hopefully only temporarily). So you get it sans images.

After the icebox trip to the port, we were all grumpy (and still soggy). A Disney cruise tradition (and possibly for all cruise ships) is a two-part entry ceremony. First, you get your family's picture taken in front of some appropriate backdrop. Then you are announced onto the ship with applause by nearby staff (which has to be genuinely mind-numbing for those poor folks).

Having passed by the fairly long check-in lines thanks to a resort-end check-in, we found ourselves stalled in the photography line. Being grumpy and soggy (and still freezing), none of us were in any mood to be shanghaied into getting our pictures taken, so I unhooked a nearby lane strap and passed my family into the center of the aisle, bypassing the entire event. When we looked back, we saw a goodly percentage of the folks behind us opting to do the same thing. Nice to be a trendsetter. Unfortunately, we could not avoid the silly announcement process, but at least that was quick.

Our stateroom (deck 8) was nothing special (typical family room - queen bed with pop-out bunk beds for the kids, separate shower and toilet rooms, nice-sized veranda for watching the sunset). Our stateroom hostess was very nice, however, and took good care of us for the whole trip.

For those who have never experienced a Disney cruise, I must say that they do a wonderful job at providing for the entire family. A lot is kid-oriented, of course, but there is a significant amount of teen-only and adult-only entertainment both on-board and at Castaway Cay.

The main deck (9) has three swimming pools - one for kids only, which includes a long, spiral waterslide, one for the whole family which has two hot tubs in the corner and a massive viewing screen above the one end on which are played various Disney movies pretty much continuously throughout the trip, and a third for the 18 and up crowd only (also with hot tubs, I believe).

The very top deck (10) has a sports bar (adults) and the Loft, a teen-only (13-17, I think) club.

Deeper in the ship are the Oceaneers' Club and Oceaneers' Lab - the former for the 3-7 crowd, the latter for the 8-13 (or so) crowd. There is also a nursery of some sort for the very young.

Down on Deck 3 are a variety of adult-oriented clubs - one like a sports/gentlemen's lounge, one a nightclub, and one a piano lounge. The nightclub has most of the evening events in it (karaoke, etc.) along with a variety of dance music.

There is also a regular movie theater which shows a variety of movies, including first runs and even an occasional world premier movie (since Disney owns most of the movies, it isn't hard for them to get the rights for these things!). Finally, there is a show theater where they give a different Broadway-style musical each night of the cruise.

Every night, you eat in a different themed restaurant (we like best the food in the French-themed Triton's and the show in the Animator's Palette). The cool thing is that your wait staff follows you to each restaurant, so you can build up a rapport with the people who handle your dining needs.

The first night, we headed out to sea and got unpacked (once all our luggage finally caught up with us). After eating a yummy meal at Triton's (and meeting our most-excellent servers, Radu and Monika), I registered the girls for the Oceaneers' Club, then took them down to see the first night's show, The Golden Mickeys.

After the excellent show (my favorite of the three), the girls demanded a swim. What the hell - it's vacation, right? Swimming at 10pm it is!

The next day we docked at Nassau, which Sue and I consider kind of a dump. (Exception: The relatively-new Atlantis Casino, which is not a dump but which is seriously expensive to experience.) We stayed on-board the whole day, most of which we spent by the kids' pool, where the girls tried to see how much water they could absorb in a single day. (They beat it the next day anyway.) That night we ate at the awesome Animator's Palette, which starts out all black-and-white and slowly morphs the walls, pictures and, by the end, even the wait staff into full color. The show of the evening was Toy Story, the Musical. This was my least favorite show overall. Supposedly they pulled the best of their music writers together to create the songs...but I think they got ripped off. They were merely "okay" for the most part (some terrible). One exception: Sid (the destructo-kid) had a wonderful, hard-rock song ("Make a Little Noise") which was a blast! I wish I could find a video of it. The cool thing, however, was seeing how they portrayed the toy-sized world from the movie. The costumes were incredible - it looked exactly like the movie - huge Mr. Potato Head, Slinky, everything. Two thumbs up for excellent costume and set design!

After the show, everyone crashed but me. After changing and relaxing a bit, I headed down to WaveBands (the nightclub) and sat through my first-ever karaoke session. It wasn't as painful as I expected (although the first song I heard, a guy singing Bon Jovi, was the best of the evening). No, I did not go sing. Around 1am, I headed back up to our stateroom for snoozes.

The next day, I woke up very early (pre-7 am) to see us slowly moving towards the dock at Disney's private island, Castaway Cay. CC has it all (well, if you like tropical islands) - beaches, parasailing, snorkling, jetskis, bars(!), quiet kid-free cabanas and adult-only beach, and even some hiking trails. Events folks even started the day with a 5K run! (I skipped, thanks.) The girls entered the water as soon as we found an open chair under an umbrella and rarely came out before dinnertime. They checked briefly into the equivalent of the Oceaneer's Club, but decided that was too hot and abandoned it after lunch to spend the next 5 hours or so never leaving the water. Amazing. I spent most of the day running here and there - back to the ship for something forgotten (long, long trip there and back again!), off for food, in the water with the kids for a while, retrieving some alcohol, and occasionally even sitting on my butt reading a book. Sue, much wiser, stayed in the shade (except, it is to be well-noted, not noticing the sun moved from behind the umbrella to illuminate her nice, white, unsunblocked legs for several hours) and made sure the girls didn't drown.

That evening, we dined at the Caribbean-themed Parrot Cay restaurant onboard. My (American-style) food was great - Sue's was much less than great. The girls had fun. Our servers, as always, were a hoot. The final show was Disney Dreams...An Enchanted Classic. It was a charming little show which showcased the favorite songs and characters from a bunch of Disney movies. Apparently, it is the favorite of most people who go, and it really was very enjoyable. I still liked the Golden Mickeys better (possibly because it had villains as well as heroes... and a giant Ursula appearance, complete with huge tentacles that could reach to the audience!).

After that show was a major deck party based on Pirates of the Caribbean. Lots of character appearances and line dancing and way too crowded. I had to take turns putting the girls on my shoulders just to see (and I was only about 5 people from the stage). The awesome part - besides Mickey zip-lining down the length of the midship! - was a pretty cool fireworks display at the conclusion of the show. Apparently Disney is the only cruise line in the world permitted to do a fireworks display at sea.

After the fireworks, we dumped the kids at the Oceaneer's Club for an hour and a half (it's open till midnight!) in order for me to drag Sue down to the nightclub for a bit, where I think she was fairly unimpressed overall. However, she was surprised to see the Disney dance crew performing a sexy dance to the somewhat un-Disneylike song, "Save a Horse [Ride a Cowboy]"!

In the morning, we woke up already docked at Port Canaveral. We actually had to put out our luggage the night before in order to take advantage of Disney's transport services (it was picked up by 11pm). We grabbed our backpacks and headed to our scheduled 6:15(!) breakfast at the Parrot Cay, served as always by our wonderful hosts. We snapped some pictures of the kids with them (also temporarily lost) and headed off the ship and onto a (cold) bus for the ride to Orlando airport.

At the airport, we grabbed a rental car and drove off to Tampa for part C of the vacation, a (fairly) restful week at a friend's house. More later!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Decision time approaches

As I enter my final semester as a physics undergraduate, there is a decision looming which I have put off for at least a year: What next?

My choices seem to be along the lines of:
- go back to slacking (the easy option)
- get a real job (the hardest option, in many ways)
- continue education

The final one comes with its own three options:
- aim to become a secondary education (6-12) physics teacher
- aim to become a university physics professor
- aim to become a researcher

Assuming that slacking and getting a real job are off the table for the moment, that leaves me with some complex choices to make, even if I stay at GMU for my continued education (UMCP is a far better physics campus, but I really dislike the idea of driving into MD each day for grad school).

GMU's College of Education and Development (CEHD) offers a Masters of Education in a variety of subjects, including physics. For admission, one needs 3 letters of recommendation, a goals statement and successful Praxis I exam results. The Praxis seems to essentially be a GRE for the education side of things. The LoRs will be interesting to achieve - I am not sure what they are to recommend (my physics knowledge? My teaching ability? My personality and work ethic?). I'm sure I can find three profs who attest to my hard work at school and in classes. Not much teaching experience, however (that's the whole point here!). The deadline for spring admission is November 1st. For next fall, it would be April 1st.

For either the professor or researching angle, I need a PhD. The work is essentially identical for either direction, only my concentration work would change. GMU's sparkly-new Physics PhD program requires acceptable scores (whatever that means!) in both the general GRE (fairly easy) and the physics GRE (very not easy). There are only fall admissions for the graduate program, which leaves me with an April 15th deadline.

Given that I am unlikely to get all my testing done as well as other paperwork within 2 months, the April deadlines are more achievable. That means I can get my various paperwork collected throughout this semester and schedule my test-taking in late winter or early spring (so as not to worry about studying for it during classes).

Now I need to find someone who can usefully advise me as to paths and suggestions of how to approach them. I've already had one person suggest I find a high school physics teacher and ask to sit in on classes just to watch how things go. (Alas, he also suggested I do NOT choose a specialist school like TJHSST, the only place I actually might have access to a physics teacher, because I know his wife!)

And, of course, after all this, there is no indication one way or another that I would be any good at research or teaching in any capacity. I already know I don't do well with teaching indifferent or uninterested students, which could be a challenge. On the other hand, research is undirected ultimately - a situation in which I also do not excel. That's what I get for redefining my existence in my 40s.

Update: Just after I posted this, I received email from my favorite professor, which included in part this sentence:
"I have a potential Ph.D. thesis project if you are interested." That may help narrow down my decision somewhat!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

It's a Large Park After All

On July 27th, we woke up the children at 6 AM, packed our (carefully weighed to be as close as possible to 50 lbs) luggage into Kat's SUV and were chauffeured to the airport to catch our flight to Orlando International Airport.

Note to future travelers: the airlines' suggestion to arrive 2 hours before your flight is well-founded. Even though we got there over an hour early, I was worried we would not get through the amazingly-long check-in lines for United in time. Security (the primary reason for the 2-hour suggestion) went quickly - the rest was very slow. We were the very last people to board the plane (to the disappointment of the standby passengers) and they made it clear they were waiting only for us in order to take off, which was silly because we were still on-board 10 minutes early. A very nice lady volunteered to swap seats so Beta could sit next to me (all our seats were separated). Alpha was stuck sitting between two older women and apparently did not stop talking during the entire flight (to their apparent delight).

At this point, the children still had no idea to what state we were even flying (and missed the cabin announcements) and when we did land, "Orlando, Florida" did not mean anything special to them. They finally figured it out when we got on the Disney bus and started to get really excited.

The bus was freezing. We'll revisit that point many times.

We checked into the Polynesian resort without incident. It is a great hotel and my primary regret there is that we spent so much time at the Disney parks that we missed nearly every resort-based event.

It was still reasonably early in the day, so we dropped off our unnecessary gear and headed to the Magic Kingdom.

Not much has changed in this park - Disney seems to be putting most of the new attractions and upgrades into the newer parks. We spent the whole time in Fantasyland, hitting nearly every single attraction there, Mickey's Toontown Fair for the Barnstormer ride (not a favorite for Beta!) and Tomorrowland for the fun Buzz Lightyear ride. We saved the rest of the park for later in the week and retired relatively early to the resort.

One cool feature of the Polynesian - it has a perfect across-the-water view of Cinderella's Castle and the evening fireworks show. Awesome! (Our room did as well, but the first night we were on the beach to watch it and didn't realize that!) I spent some time fiddling with camera settings to try to get some good pictures of the fireworks with the kids in the very dark foreground. Very difficult (for me), but I managed a couple different passable shots, I think.

Day Two started with a family-style breakfast at the resort where the girls got to interact with Stitch (their favorite character) and Lilo before heading to Epcot for the entire, exhausting day. This may have ended up the least enjoyable day for us, although for different reasons. Sue's sneakers left her with really ugly blisters after the Magic Kingdom and, even though she had switched shoes, it was a painful day of walking for her. The kids were enthusiastic about the attractions of Future World but fairly bored with the World Showcase (oh well). We hit up "Spaceship Earth" (cool - even though the ride broke down in the middle and we were stuck inside for a while), "Ellen's Energy Adventure" (with Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye), "Nemo & Friends" and "Living with the Land." Alpha and I took two rides on "Test Track" (she screamed the entire way through the high speed section to the vast enjoyment of our carmates) and I headed alone to the very awesome high-G "Mission: SPACE" ride.

In the middle of all that, Florida decided to dump a month's worth of rain on the park (which totally emptied out the Nemo line for us - thanks, Florida!). Then it was off to our painful walk around the World Showcase, stopping to at least snap a pic of the girls in each country (and occasionally partaking of attractions or shows). Sue and the girls took a seat for a long rest break. While I delivered a halfway across the park, Sue took some artsy pictures. After chow, we grabbed a fairly excellent position for the cool evening laser/fireworks Epcot show. We were wondering if we were going to get hit by a nasty thunderstorm we could see beyond the far end of the lake, but it stayed distant for the whole show (and I missed all the coolest lightning pictures).

We got back to our resort in time to catch the fireworks over the lake.

Day Three took us to Hollywood Studios via another very cold bus (why do the bus drivers insist on keeping the temperature around 60 degrees? Differential is important and a 35-degree drop is FREEZING!). The girls again were not super thrilled with the place because it did not have a lot of rides (maybe we should have done Magic Kingdom - with all the rides - LAST). We did hit a lot of the attractions - Muppet Vision 3-D, Star Tours (Alpha and me), Indiana Jones live action adventure (much fun), Disney Animation (Beta and me), Little Mermaid (all except me), Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure (girls), Aerosmith Rock-n-Roller Coaster (ZOMG fun! Alpha and me, then Alpha and Sue), and the Beauty and the Beast show (:yawn: except for the cool opening 4-man a cappella act, 4 For a Dollar/Return 2 Zero). We wanted to see the evening show, Fantasmic, but it was already standing-room-only 45 minutes before the show even started, and no way were we going to spend an hour and a half (minimum) standing after that long day. We retired (via freezing bus) back to the resort in time to catch the evening fireworks once again (from our room).

The last full day, we split into two parts. First, we headed back to the Magic Kingdom to visit Frontierland. Alpha and I hit Big Thunder Mountain Railroad twice (I love fastpass!) while Sue and Beta did Aladdin's Magic Carpet ride. We all jumped on the surprisingly-empty Pirates of the Caribbean ride (updated with Captain Jack Sparrow) and caught a little street show with a Jack Sparrow and an actor who has Johnny Depp's Sparrow mannerisms down cold! I could almost believe it was the "real" character (i.e., Depp) there.

Then we headed over to Animal Kingdom for the remainder of the day and morning of the last day, catching Flights of Wonder, Expedition Everest (way cool, but I rode alone - couldn't even convince Alpha to join me), DINOSAUR (Alpha and me), TriceraTop Spin (Beta and Sue), Kali River Rapids (me - soaked! - and the kids) and the very cool Lion King Show. We wanted to see the new Nemo show, but it would have involved unreasonable line waits the first day and started too late to catch the second. However, the cruise line got us priority seating at the Lion King, which turned into VIP front-row seating once we got there (they have 4 VIP benches and only had 3 VIP passes present - and we were next in line - yay us!). It was just as exciting and entertaining as the last time we were here. The girls spent a lot of time at various moments playing in the Boneyard (an archeological-themed playground) and we caught the Killimanjaro Safari tour both days. The first day, we all went. The second day, I took the girls there while Sue waited up front we knew we'd have to hurry (to make the cruise bus) and she still wasn't up to fast walking. Little did we expect another super-soaking all-day storm to move in. The girls and I were swimming-pool soaked when we finally got to the front gates (the safari is at the back of the park), then we (all the cruise passengers) had what seemed like a half-mile walk in the downpour to get to the cruise buses, resulting in 100 or so extremely wet people boarding, of course, extremely cold buses.

For about an hour and a half, we sat there dripping and frozen until we got to Port Canaveral. When the welcoming lady came onto the bus at the port, she asked how were we all doing and was startled when the entire bus responded loudly with "COLD!" The girls were so uncomfortable, they could not even get excited about the cruise (which had also been a surprise until then) until after we managed to get warm.

Fortunately, boarding was relatively painless (we had already checked in back at the resort) and we began Phase B of our vacation.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Don't do it, MTV!

MTV wants to remake Rocky Horror (with new songs, yet). Why can't studios leave classics alone? Go give your opinion. (NSFW language through the link.)

Stop the Remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show
(Thanks to Wil Wheaton for pointing this out.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Hiking with the Buzzards

Even though I arrived at home at 10 PM last night from a 2-week (fairly tiring) vacation with the family (more on that later), I headed out at 9:30 this morning with Pat and Ben to hike up to Buzzard Rock in Shenandoah Valley near Front Royal.

This hike was supposed to be fairly innocuous, but I found it nearly as difficult (without the rock scramble) as Old Rag. According to the web site, we gained about 2500 feet in elevation (same as Old Rag) and you actually dip down a bunch into a pass and then climb up a second time, just to increase the "enjoyment" of it. The climbs were exhausting. (N.B. I am in far worse shape now than I was when we did Old Rag and I was doing kung fu three times a week!)

On the positive side, the surroundings were peaceful, the couple views we had awesome (sorry, no pictures) and we only saw one other group of people (taking a break near the first peak) the entire 4-ish hour trip.

On the negative side, the distant storm we saw decided to come our way after we passed the second peak and were exploring a trail on the far side. It caught us near the top on the hurried way back. After a very near - and frightening - lightning strike (lightning and thunder were simultaneous), we decided that speed and shortcuts were the better part of valor and abandoned the trail entirely, heading straight down the side of the mountain.

How we avoid major injuries (although I will probably not walk well this entire week), I have no idea. Slipping, sliding and half-running when we could down the wild side of a mountain through a torrential downpour which probably added at least 20 lbs to our load, we eventually got down into the valley. After some minutes of minor worry about finding the trail (and my not-unreasonable worry that we had gone down the wrong side of the trail and were on the opposide side of the mountain from the car), we located our original trail and hiked the relatively-short distance, now in sunshine, back to the car for a soggy ride home.

I took no pictures on the hike because I had (intentionally) left my backpack in the car, thinking it was going to be a short, 2-hour hike. I forgot that it had the camera in it as well as my inhaler, both which might have come in handy. On the other hand, the backpack is not waterproof, and I'm not sure the camera would have survived the soaking, so it may have been better this way.