Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas 2010

So, my dear reader, it has been some time since something adequately interesting occurred that was worthy of a blog post. So here we are:
I finished my first term/quarter/funny semester at Caltech. It was an adventure in a way - a constant balancing act between the competing forces of knowledge acquisition and sleep. Also thrown in the mix were some light teaching duties, which was not without its challenges. All in all I managed, I think, a reasonable balance. Okay, I didn't fail anything!

Back to the main game! I met a local girl in the last month or so, who is in the process of finishing a PhD in applied maths. Well that's how I spell it. Anyway, she invited me to meet her family, and, passing that not inconsiderable hurdle, I was also invited to spend Christmas with some family friends in Boston. Tickets were bought, arrangements were made, and not without a little trepidation! 

Meanwhile it had been raining a lot in southern California - some places getting 3 years rainfall in a week or less, and lots of flooding everywhere. Of course noone knows what to do with this funny wet stuff on the road, so they carry on at 130km/h until something breaks! We got up at 4am and jumped in a cab which took us to LAX, and after minimal carnage were flying (separately) to Boston. On the flight I met a nice older man whos son was a physicist at MIT, amongst other places, working in plasma or something. On arrival at Boston I chilled off and took a cab back to the house, and after watching the US cut of 'the boat that rocked', called 'pirate radio', went to sleep.

At 2:30 the next day I woke up, organised a piano tuner to tune the piano in my room (apparently in desperate need), and then over the next few days hit the streets, checking out MIT, Harvard, and the city. The people we stayed with were also physicists and faculty at Harvard, so my female friend was the odd one out - being a 'mere' applied mathematician. A particular highlight was throwing snowballs at the frozen Charles river to puncture the ice.

Christmas came and went with the distribution of an obscene number of presents - the definite winner being our host, who scored a macbook air! I also made off with a scarf and a Harvard jacket - perfect for schtoinking free food in disguise. And possibly also keeping warm. Snow fell and melted. We saw Tron, which was pretty intense. I thoroughly forgot about my lactose avoidance regimen. All too soon our time was up, 45 episodes of arrested development later, and mother and daughter returned to the airport to return to California.

I, however, had other plans. Soon after I was dropped at the Boston bus terminal, bought a ticket, and wandered off to find my departure bay. The place was FULL, mainly with Hawkeye lookalikes - I stood in line for an hour and very nearly missed the bus I was aiming for. However I just made it. The driver was a jolly fella who sang us a few songs as we motored off north through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. After a few hours we got there, I was met at the bus station outside the historic Huber's store, and we returned home.

I had not long to rest, however, as it was Christmas party night, for some old friends. And I mean old! I was the youngest person there, then a 36, 41, 63?, 69, 70, and 90 year olds! The party was crazy, so I sponged for the most part, and just soaked up a seemingly limitless supply of food (mostly Maine seafood!). By 10:30 the festivities had wound up, so I crawled into my loft bed underneath a steadily increasing blizzard, watched scrubs, and passed out.

Next morning I was awoken early by the sound of pleasant chatter down below, emerged unscathed, and enjoyed a healthy breakfast, then put on my spacesuit and ventured out into the snowy wastes. About 8 inches had fallen over night, and I tramped around the house in gumboots and jeans, snow shovel in hand, looking for a nice dense wind-blown drift from which to carve my masterpiece. In the end I found some snow which was solid enough to be shoveled out in a brick and placed, although only barely. Some measure of compression continued throughout the day, and many a fractured brick had to be reconstructed by hand. Also requirements on thickness etc saved time by meaning blocks fitted together, but lost time in the number of extra rows to build.

After about 90 minutes I'd built most of the cone, and broke for lunch. Stepping inside I instantly felt warm (tingly toes) and tired, and could barely lift a bowl of soup to my mouth. After lunch I checked in for my flight the following day, then, modifying my apparel, stepped outside once more. The feeling of the iced up snow shovel in my hands reinvigorated me and I put the last 6 blocks in place, sealing the dome. I pulled out my compass, found south, and starting digging and entrance. Within a quarter of an hour, my igloo was all but complete. Inside there was room to stand while hunched, and probably room to seat 4 close friends. It was a fun exercise to build, as I have, over the years, honed my skills, though never had time to finish one properly. Inside was a strange blue light, and later that evening I put some torches inside and the whole thing became a big blue thingo - it was pretty awesome (if I don't say so myself.)

One final point - it had been my ambition to break some ice out of the pond and set it in the side as a window, however it was not to be - the ponds' ice was covered by a four inch layer of slush that I did not fancy messing around with. What a fail!

After one final shovel of all the paths around the place, I retired indoors, ate dinner, chatted about political developments across the world and what might happen next, about Obama and his and our hopes for the future, then retired for the night. This time I read some papers on advanced partial differential equation solvers, but quickly passed out.

Next morning I woke up, ate breakfast, packed, and drove out to wait for the bus. And wait we did. Some light comic relief was provided meanwhile by a retinue of firemen, policemen, and local news crews - Huber's store had been broken into and torched overnight. People really are desperate. After waiting for 90 minutes and seeing the full bus drive by, I was driven to Portland, where I bought a ticket and joined a line so long it snaked all the way back to where it started and back again. I still had some time up my sleeve, having opted for a later direct flight from Boston, so didn't panic excessively. After only 30 minutes or so two buses turned up and I managed to get on the second. Off we barreled down the highway - this time my travelling companion was on her way to a meditation retreat in western Massachusetts. About 2 metres after the New Hampshire - Mass. border our bus broke down, but fortunately some relief was on its way, and before long I was on my way again. I made it to the airport, somewhat stressed, and cleared security. I even had time to use the bathroom before the plane boarded.

Virgin America is something else - mood lighting on entry, food ordering on screen, and free wifi during the holiday period. Finally, I was begged to swap seats with someone on the plane so they could sit next to their girlfriend, and forcing me to accept an upgrade to premium economy, with an exit row, leg room, free food/drink, and earphones. What a deal - where I now write. Hopefully I will soon be back on the ground in Los Angeles and home in sunny, friendly Caltech. An interesting winter break.

UPDATE: The flight ended with minimal drama, aside from a 40 minute wait on the tarmac due to a cancelled flight catchup clusterfuck (tm) at the terminal. A quick return from the airport was followed by a righteous Thai dinner and a screening of 'wizard people, dear reader', which was appropriately hilarious.

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