Monday, May 15, 2017

Project updates

I just realized that I have finished up a bunch of projects that aren't on the blog. Since it doesn't count if it's not in a picture, I present:

The guest room. This picture doesn't show the two features I am most proud of: a folding luggage stand and a framed list of helpful information. My father loved the luggage stand so much he asked for a second, because my mother didn't have a place to keep her suitcase. (To be clear - I didn't make the stand; I'm just pleased that I thought to buy one.) And the list of helpful information was an idea of a friend's father, with the Internet password, the location of spare towels, and instructions on how to adjust the thermostat. 
My new dressing gown. Technically, this isn't my project at all. I chose a vintage 1940's pattern, my parents bought me the flannel for my birthday, and my mother made it. I love the style - fitted at the waist but with puffy sleeves. I helped only with the yards of hand hemming at the end. I was grateful that my mother put in all 10 buttons - you have to use a razor blade to cut open button holes, and I'm always worried I'll mess it up and slice into my brand-new garment.

 I even had enough left fabric left over to make pajama pants. They're super comfy but not particularly photogenic, so you'll have to take my word for it.

I put the finishing touches on my second Adirondack chair, pictured on the right here. As you may recall, we assembled and painted this in my basement. Yesterday, when I tried to carry it outside, I discovered that the chair is a 1/2" wider than my basement door. My lack of planning provoked both laughter and dismay. Luckily, my friend N stopped by today and together we figured out how to twist it out of the house.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

With the wind in my hair

I have a wonderful bike commute. Once I gave up on riding on the roads, added two miles to my commute, and started using the trails, I found the commute from my new house to be terrific. As I've said before, it largely follows a river tributary, through woods and parks. The new electric bicycle has eliminated all dread from my trip - I didn't even realize that I dreaded all the hills until I noticed how lightheartedly I approached them now.  And Google even fancied up a photo I snapped on my drive last week, to show how rosy the trip is. If you tie a scarf around your hair, stare at that picture, and listen to German podcasts for 60 minutes a day, you'll have experienced my commute.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

May Garden Report: It's hot already

      As I started my garden planning this winter, I decided that outside work would take precedence over inside work this summer. Last year repairing and refurbishing the house took so much time that I didn't work in the garden as much, and it showed in my vegetable output. This year, I am choosing planting/weeding/watering over sanding/painting/rewiring.
      Alas, I am already off to a mediocre start. I planted at the regular times, but it got really warm, really fast this in March. I should have peas by now, but instead I have 6" tall plants, which will soon die from the heat. So I've said goodbye to my hoped-for broccoli, peas, and spinach, and moved right to hot-weather crops.
     Like last year, the garlic and herbs look great. I planted 11 tomato seedlings today, which were carefully nurtured under my basement grow light, and I'm just plowing ahead (yes, that's a gardening pun, thank you) with all the other summer planting. According to my spreadsheet, I'm two weeks ahead, but the soil and air temperatures seem okay for what I'd call "tropical" plants like tomatoes and eggplant.
     I know that gardening, like farming, is somewhat dependent on luck. My spreadsheet has almost 40 different edibles because I know that one-third of them won't thrive in any given year. It keeps me, the gardener, humble, and and also makes me extremely grateful for grocery stores. Unlike farming, if my crops fail, I still eat.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Marching, or Rather, Standing

     In all my thirteen years in DC, I have never participated in a political rally. But when my physicist friends R and B said they were flying in from Ohio with their toddler daughter to attend the March for Science, I figured this was my big chance. After all, I can't let a fifteen-month-old be more politically hip than me.
     On Saturday morning, we got up bright and early and headed to the headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where my company was hosting a breakfast. After picking up our free shirts, free hats, and free granola (it was uncommonly good swag!), we started walking to the Mall. There was a steady stream of people going the same direction, and it was nice to hear some of their stories and why they had decided to come to the march.
     If you've never done something like this, the picture below sums it up. You stand on a flat patch of grass with 40,000 people and listen to many, many people give short testimonials, which was interspersed with surprisingly good live jazz music. I will note that the organizers had great diversity in speakers, and not just race, age, ethnicity and physical abilities. They included science diversity, too - I have to admit that I wasn't even aware of firefighter research.
We were expecting to stick around all day for the march, not just the rally. But three hours in, as the cold rain continued to pour down on us, and the toddler with us was really wailing, we packed up and went home. It was an interesting experience, and introverted me will be sure to do it again, probably in about thirteen years...
And extra proof that I was there: I'm in the crowd picture of this news story. Right below the Washington Monument, in the left-hand corner, is a person in a neon green hooded raincoat. That's me! My moment of fashion shame (neon green went out in the nineties) captured forever.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Old friends

     My long-time friend M and her daughter J were my most recent visitors. M and I got our PhDs at the same time - I can remember when we made the rule that only one of could cry about an E&M (Electromagnetism) exam at one time, so the other could do the comforting. Luckily, those days are long past, and now we both have "Dr" in front of our names and work for science education nonprofits. But M still gets tipsy on one glass of wine and I still over-plan all our get-togethers.
     Her daughter J is now five years old and she fell in love with Molly the cat. This suited Molly just fine, as there is nothing she wants more than to have someone pet her continuously and remark on her every meow. I hope to use Molly as bait to lure them both back for a future visit.
     Unfortunately, I was under the weather at the end of their visit, and still haven't recovered. I feel exhausted, but not quite sick enough to need to stay home in bed. I was just tired enough that I forgot to smile all day Sunday, which probably wasn't pleasant for my house guests. Now I'm just wading through a week with twenty-two hours of scheduled meetings. (I counted.) I normally have a lot of meetings, but this is an especially dense distribution, and it's probably not helping my energy levels.

Friday, April 14, 2017

      The parade of visitors using my guest room continues unabated. I need to update on last weekend's activities before I can let myself have fun this weekend.
     My parents' visit was all about the project, of course. I made a (huge) master list of everything that needs to be repaired in my house or vehicles, then narrowed it down to the top ten things I was stuck on. We decided to be official and have people sign off on the completed projects.
     I was very pleased with our accomplishments. When we didn't have time to complete things, my father surveyed the situation and gave me his expert advice on how to proceed, so I have about five projects that are underway right now. 
     The most exciting result of the weekend is my newly-powered bicycle. About a month ago, I decided that I would bite the bullet (and really, I probably need to bite a bullet to stop the pain, as I am so loathe to spend great sums of money) and buy an electric bike kit. After a year of cycling to work on the commute from my new house, I was still walking the bike up a few hills each way. And when I get home from work, I always have to sit and rest a bit before I can walk the dog. The kit I found has an electric motor in the front wheel hub, so you just change out the front wheel on your existing bicycle, wire it up to a battery, and off you go.
My friend S and his wife came over for dinner, but before we let them eat, my father and S installed the kit. Of course, nothing ever goes quite as smoothly as you hope, and my father needed to modify my bike to make it all work. 
Filing the forks - proof that I helped a bit.

The motor is designed to give you a boost when you're already pedaling (this its name Hilltopper) and it's just what I need. Roundtrip, I have a ten-mile, somewhat hilly ride, but now it feels like a six-mile, flat ride. I'm hoping the result is that I ride even more often to work, and I will be especially grateful to avoid the strenuous rides as the summer heat and humidity approaches. Stay tuned for updates.

Monday, April 03, 2017

An academic party

     This weekend I basically went to a class reunion for my PhD. My advisor turned 75 and the university organized a celebration. When regular people celebrate, they drink a lot and dance. When academics celebrate, the drink a lot and go to talks. So there were receptions, lectures on the many topics he has studied in his career, and physicists from all over the globe, who came to celebrate my advisor, talk about physics education research, and drink wine.
     In the picture, you can see my advisor (I actually had two PhD advisors, but that ruins that narrative) seated in front, with all of the students and postdocs who studied with him. Some of the people who were getting their PhDs at the same time as me stayed in research, so I regularly see them at conferences. But others decided to teach, or to become lawyers or make policy, so I hadn't talked to many in years. It was simply delightful to find out how many kids they now had, or what kind of awesome job they had.
     It was also heartwarming to hear all the great stories about my advisor. I have fond memories of him because he had faith in me for years, even when I kept failing my qualifying exams. But I am just one of many people who had positive memories of his intellectual curiosity and his unwavering support of his students. As a result, I left resolving to myself to be a better mentor to others.

Sunday, March 26, 2017


     One of the reasons I wanted to own a home was to have a guest room. I thought it was high time that my parents quit sleeping on the couch in the living room, and I wanted to be able to offer a comfortable place to friends when they came to visit. Well, they're coming to visit. Many of them. Next month I'll have guests for four weekends in a row. Every one had a different reason - my former thesis advisor is being feted, a friend's kid had Easter Monday off so it was a good time to travel, and so on.
     I'm delighted to see them all, but I purposefully kept March as low-social-event month so I could build up some socializing reserve. Instead, I caught up on projects, since I won't have much spare time in April. My mother made me a dressing gown from a vintage 1940's pattern, and I had to finish the hand-sewing on it. I am expanding the gardens in the back yard by five square meters, and I hauled in extra dirt and compost for them. I replaced two switches to my hallway light (which took me four tries, two calls with my dad, and the help of my friend N). I replaced my kitchen light. I snaked my drains which is most definitely the most disgusting homeowner job I've done so far (from now on, I will be seeking only roommates who are bald).
     And the guest room is ready: I added bedding, extra shelves, a luggage stand, and a reading light. Bring on the people!

Thursday, March 16, 2017


     The past month or so have been very busy at work, with a conference in Atlanta and a two-day meeting in Virginia, so I used a vacation day today. It was delightful to have a weekday off without any need to visit anyone, so I thought carefully about how I could use the day to the best advantage. My decision was to shovel compost. The city only sells compost on weekdays before 3pm, so it's quite difficult to manage it when I'm working and this seemed like a good solution. The only catch was that we were hit with a winter storm on Tuesday, and it's still pretty wintery. (My Minnesota family will laugh when I say that our 3" shut down the city, but that's what happens when you live in the almost-south.)
     The good part was that shoveling frozen compost meant it wasn't too muddy, but hauling the wheelbarrow across the snow was difficult. It's a bit jarring to see the fresh brown compost laying on top of the snow, but I figure that in a few days it will warm up, the snow will melt, and the compost will be right on top of the beds where I want it.
     My basement is filled with tiny pots of soil under the grow lights, where I soon expect to see tomato and eggplant seedlings. Today didn't feel like spring, but it's tantalizingly close.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017


I love making jam, but I only eat about two pints per year. In physics terms, this would result in a net positive flux of jam, except that it turns out that homemade jam makes a great hostess gift.

This year I made cherry, apple butter, and, just this weekend, blood orange marmalade. I'll be having the marmalade for dinner tonight, since it is Pancake Day. But there will still be plenty left in my larder. And if you'd like some, now you know what to do- just invite me over for dinner.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Just plain lucky

I just got back from Atlanta, where I was helping to run a 100-person conference. Now that I've recovered from the twelve-hour days and the people overload, here are some things that I am grateful for.

  1. I have a job that makes the world a better place. Like everyone else, my job has ups and downs and sometimes all I do is write email all day long. But there are people out there who have studied physics, become teachers, and discovered that people just like them can be scientists because of the programs I help run. This is immensely rewarding.
  2. Having a cat again, especially one that would prefer to sit in my lap all day long.
  3. A work friend who carefully noted the date of Andrew's birthday, and then, a year later, brought me a plant and a card to cheer me up on that always-bleak day.
  4. Living now, in the era of anesthesia for operations, safe drinking water, and wonderfully insulated homes.
  5. My brand-new currant bush, a Christmas gift from my in-laws, that I planted this morning. I am crossing my fingers and hoping that I'll have at least a bite or two of fruit this year.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Introducing Mollie

Meet Mollie the cat. She had lived the last ten years in my parents' shop, venturing out to decimate the local mouse population. We think she is now about fourteen years old, and she will be spending her final retirement years at my house. She is named for molybdenum, which is an element used to strengthen steel, and particularly appreciated by my father for its use in motorcycle frames.

She is tiny, completely deaf, and seems to love every person that she meets, but she is deeply and profoundly suspicious of the dog. Ada mainly ignores her, so I think in time they'll get along fine. Mollie lived on a farm up to this point, and there really were plenty of creatures (such as hawks and coyotes) that would have been happy to eat her, so this paranoia is somewhat reasonable.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Using my time wisely

     Since I was traveling back and forth to Ohio so much during January, my parents and I decided that it made sense to leave Ada the dog with them, so that she could skip about 30 hours of driving. And when I say 'parents' I really mean 'mother', because she's the one that does all the dog care.
     Ada's absence made my house a little too quiet, and I missed her. But I also realized that a dog-free month meant that I essentially gained 30 minutes a day, because that's how long I spend walking her. I didn't want to look back and think I had squandered that 15 bonus hours of free time, so I decided to refinish my upstairs hall floor. Of course, I had forgotten how incredibly dusty this job is, and I've spent the last week just cleaning all the sawdust that leaked through the plastic sheeting and into the downstairs. But the hall now looks great, and I have pictures to prove it.
Before, with blue fake wood paneling, and very-vintage 1960's carpet. 
After, with white walls and refinished floors. You'll have to use your imagination to put the furniture in, because that can't go back on the floor until it cures for another few weeks.

     And as a reward, I am going to Ohio today, and when I come back I'll bring both Ada and Molly the (new-to-me) cat.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Project day, again

January's project was to build Adirondack chairs. In 2015, N and I put together kits, but this time we were building them from scratch, using an existing chair as a template. I have the most awesome basement workshop for projects. It's large and empty, with lots of pegboards and workbenches. N brought over his table saw, and together with my miter and jig saws, we had lots of different ways to cut up wood.
Today the N&S family came back for a bonus project day, and we sanded, drilled, and assembled.
N&S took two of the chairs home, and I'll keep one. This means I can now have a campfire or morning coffee outside with a friend, but only one friend. If I want to have more friends, I'll have to build more chairs.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Visits to Ohio

     I've been traveling to Ohio often in the last few months so that I can spend time with my dad. This is particularly important to me right now so that I could accompany him for a few of his radiation treatments. Since work is busy right now, I arranged two shorter trips this month. I got back to DC last night, and I'll leave again in six days.
     Each weekday, my dad goes for treatment.. The hospital is 60 miles away, so the entire trip takes at least four hours each day. Most days, someone goes with him, mainly to keep him company on the trip. My father still has lots of energy, so after the two visits I went on, he headed out to a class or meet-up. I was exhausted from all the socializing he does, although I'm pretty he sure he thrives on it.
     So how does my family spend time together? We diagnosed and fixed another problem on my car (bad wheel bearings), argued about the state of modern science and medicine, started cutting out pieces for a vintage bathrobe, and did a marinara sauce tasting. That last one was my idea - my father had purchased different sauces so he could figure out whether the "expensive" sauces were worth it. I was convinced he wouldn't be able to spot the differences if he ate them over the course of several months, so I arranged a blind tasting. My parents agreed on which two were there favorites, and as payment I took home the two jars they liked the least. For my American readers, Classico Tomato Basil, the mid-priced contestant, was the winner,

Monday, January 16, 2017

Wine and a short whine

     I manage a project that runs 10 simultaneous conferences every January. I always attend one, and so this weekend I was Hamilton, near Toronto. Other people do the heavy lifting of organizing and running the thing, but there's still enough for me to do. On Sunday morning, in the span of three hours, I gave a plenary talk, sat on a panel, and ran a workshop. Events like these are absolutely the hardest part of my job for me. I'm actually pretty good at talking in front of people - I'm organized, my slides contain the right amount of information, my talks are super interactive, and people laugh at my jokes. (I hope, of course, that they also learn something.) But I really hate it. I usually manage about five hours of sleep the night before, and then I'm wiped out for several days afterwards.
     Today I flew home and tried to make myself rest by not working on any house projects. Instead, I decided to take a trip to the wine superstore. It takes about 45 minutes to get there, so when I go, I stock up on a six-month supply. Alas, the two-hour errand turned into three when I remembered that I had left my wallet in my other coat, which was still hanging on the coat tree at home. I will not let a mere trifle like that come between me and my wine, so I drive home, fetched the wallet, and then drove back to complete the purchase. Those of you who visit me between now and July can appreciate my efforts when sharing a glass with me

Friday, January 13, 2017

Christmas Recap

Here's a quick look back on my Christmas holiday in Ohio before I forget everything. My brother and his family came from California and we all had three days celebration together.
Everyone else rides motor vehicles as part of their Christmas celebrations, right? My niece, on the left, is posing with a four-wheeler, but my father was riding with her. Of course, there's a small, kid-sized four-wheeler that they can drive themselves.
Ada received many gifts. I wonder if she even remembers what it was like to survive on the streets of Miami.
Dinner was individual Beef Wellingtons and a Buche de Noel. I loved the Beef Wellington recipe, which could be assembled the day before. The individual puff pastry packets had so many delicious fillings (cheese, fresh spinach, caramelized onions, and portabella mushrooms), that I simply left the beef out of mine and it was still amazing.
The kids were entranced with the idea that mushrooms could be made of candy (i.e. meringue).
The kids decided to throw a tea party, with the good "crystal" and the fancy tea set. We were all invited, and it was very exclusive - you couldn't get in without presenting your written invitation.

I also used the Christmas break as a training exercise. I realized that I've been using "Renee Michelle" as my first name for over 15 years, and there were still members of my family that hadn't caught on. I'm happy to give a pass to relatives and friends who see me rarely, but the rest of my immediate family needed to figure this out. For three days, I either turned away or didn't acknowledge comments addressed to "Renee". If needed, I'd follow up with "Who is this Renee?" I tried to express lots of appreciation when they got my name right. Soon other family members were helping remind each other. I understand that it con be annoying when someone arbitrarily changes their nomenclature, so a big shout-out to my family for playing along so well.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Fixing things with physics

     This week I managed to fix something all by myself. That is, the internet helped, but for once I didn't need to ask my father. My microwave started arcing - a scary sight, I'll admit. I thought I'd have to replace the entire appliance, but some googling suggested that this can happen when an interior part (the waveguide cover, to be precise) is damaged and the sharp edges cause sparks. Although I could have ordered a replacement part, that would have been expensive. Instead, I found that you could buy sheets of mica, sold for exactly this purpose, that could be trimmed down to the exact size of cover needed by your microwave. Two days later, with some careful cutting and installation, I have a microwave that is working great. Cue the increase in self efficacy. Of course, I've felt kindly towards microwaves ever since I successfully explained how they work during my oral qualifying exam.
     The car, on the other hand, has been a drag on my happiness level. After many phone calls with my father, extensive consultations with online tire suppliers, calls to local junkyards and mechanics, I think I have a solution to my busted wheels. I first had to learn the difference between a wheel and a tire. Then I had to learn what size tire I had. (Do you know how to read the gibberish 180/ 60-R 15? Because now I can decipher that.) Then I had to figure out if anything could be repaired rather than replaced (Answer: the front wheel and tire need to be replaced but the back wheel and tire may be partially salvageable. I had to determine what kind of wheel I had (Answer: steel.) and what kinds they sold (Answer: mainly aluminum.) and learn about why no one would sell me a steel wheel, and also why I wasn't allowed to have both steel and aluminum wheels on my car at the same time, although I can choose either one as long as all four wheels match. Actually, I'm still not clear on that last one: the physics-y answer is that the moment of inertia of steel and aluminum are different, but I don't really understand how and when the differing moments of inertia will become a serious problem in car handling.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The world is actually doing pretty well

As an counterpoint to the general doom and gloom about 2016, my uncle wrote in a recent post that 2016 was actually a pretty good year when he looked at immediate surroundings. He's right that we need to take a long-term view. Since I'm a person likes to believe what the data tell me, this blog post filled me with optimism. If we look at the past two centuries, the world is richer, more literate, healthier, more democratic, and more educated. By a lot. From the big picture perspective, I sure am lucky to be living in this century, where I am well-fed, well-educated, and healthy.

Monday, January 02, 2017


     When I was visiting my parents list week, my dad and I were discussing my car. We determined that I've been neglecting my tires. I got new ones 18 months ago, but hadn't kept up with the rotation and alignment schedule. Trying to be a good (well, less lackadaisical) car owner, I made an appointment right away and took care of both of those services this afternoon. Three hours after that, I was driving down a rainy, dark road and mistook a curb for a painted turn lane. Boom and crash, I need two new tires, two rims, and a new alignment. Sigh...
     It could have been worse. I had my friend N with me, and he's stronger, so he could get the lug nuts off. It was raining and cold, but it wasn't raining that hard. I reaffirmed that I know how to change my tire, and only one tire went instantly flat (convenient because there's only one spare, of course). Still, I'm kicking myself a bit.