Monday, September 29, 2008

Big Space News

This has been a big weekend for space events, but due to the election, debate, and financial crisis, it's gotten pretty buried in the news. Here's my quick synopsis of the two big stories.

Space-X Successfully Launched the Falcon 1
Space-X is a private company that has designed and built a series of rocket called the Falcon 1. Space-X is a topic of much debate in the space world. All other launch technology has been government funded, so a private launch company is a big change for this industry, and some people feel it cannot be successful. Space-X launches are advertised to be much cheaper than other launches available. The main competitor is Lockheed Martin and Boeing's combined United Launch Alliance (ULA). Some feel that ULA is too entrenched in the industry and inefficient. Some people, particularly those who have been in the industry a long time feel that Space-X is impractical and unlikely to succeed.

Space-X has previously had three unsuccessful launch attempts, with failures at various stages in flight. This has caused many who had doubts in the first place to feel they were right, and some who were hoping for Space-X to succeed to begin to give up hope. So Space-X really needed a successful launch. And, as you can see in the title, they got one! Now we'll see if they can continue to repeat this success and watch the industry react.

China's 3-Day Manned Space Mission Succeeded
At the end of last week, China launched their Shenzhou 7 spacecraft, with a 3-man crew. During the three-day mission, they completed a space walk (went outside the spacecraft into space), and used Chinese-designed spacesuits. Yesterday, they landed safely back on Earth. China's space program is advancing rapidly - in only three flights, they've accomplished much of what the United States did in its first 10 years. China's space program causes some concern among American leaders. The U.S. relationship with China is somewhat tense. Even in the area of space, where cooperation sometimes is possible despite other political issues, there is residual tension due to China's ASAT (anti-satellite) test in January 2007. China's space program is run by the People's Liberation Army, and the goals are not always as transparent as the United States would like. Regardless, the successful mission is very exciting and marks China as one of the few space powers in the world.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

201st Post

This is the 201st post on my blog! I'm going to use it to write about two movies I saw recently.
Dr. Strangelove
This movie was made in 1964 by Stanley Kubrick, and is a dark comedy about a semi-accidental nuclear strike against Russia during the cold war. It's a little bit slow getting started, but once you're into it, it's very funny. I especially loved when the president talks to the Russian head of state, Dimitri. "I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri! Don't say that you're more sorry than I am, because I'm capable of being just as sorry as you are... So we're both sorry, all right?"

Burn After Reading
This is the newest Coen brothers movie - starring Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malcovich, and a bunch of other hilarious and talented actors and actresses. It's about two people who work at a gym who find the memoirs of an ex-CIA agent, and basically bungle the situation. Also pretty funny, this movie is reminiscent of Fargo. The plot wouldn't sound that funny if you just heard it, but somehow you're laughing throughout.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

After Hours

I have to admit, part of the reason we wanted to go to the Alumni Conference was to have an excuse to spend a long weekend in Boston. Jeff and I tried to make the most of it and see our friends.

On Thursday, when I arrived, I met up with Patrick in Downtown Crossing and took the T with him to see his and Craig's new house the west side of Malden. It was a beautiful place, and they're doing some painting and decorating that's going to make it look pretty spectacular when it's finished. Patrick then made a home-cooked meal of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and veggies. I helped out by making (instant) brownies afterwards. Then Craig, Patrick, and I hung out and watched TV - kind of like the old days when we lived in Medford!

On Friday, Jeff was in town, and we went to his old fraternity house to visit friends there. He and I grabbed dinner at Bertucci's, which shares a back alley with his house, and where we've eaten more times than I could count.

After dinner, we went back to the house where our friends were having a "Miracle Berry Party". Featured in the New York Times, this is a new fad in which you eat these berries that have a particular protein that binds to the taste receptors and makes sour foods taste sweet. After eating this berry, you eat other foods, which now have completely different tastes. Biting into a lemon just tastes like a class of lemonade or a lemon jolly rancher - no tartness, just sweet and lemony. Other foods are similarly altered. Bit of an odd thing to do on a Friday night, but that's pretty reminicent of our days at school.
Saturday, Jeff and I planned a big-ish dinner with friends at Vinny T's. We met up with Matt Herman, Matt Carvey, Andrew, Helen, Sunita, and Deepa. The food was great (as always) and dinner was lots of fun. Afterwards we walked over to Kendall Square to stop by Irene's housewarming party. Jeff and I had a pretty long day, so we caught a ride home with Craig and Patrick as they left the Farm Aid concert around 11pm. We hung out a bit at their house and then called it an early night.

Sunday, we didn't have anything planned, so we slept in and spent the morning on the couch. Carvey came and picked us up and we went for brunch at the Ball Square Cafe & Breakfast. The food was amazing. I had the Multigrain Delight - a multigrain waffle covered in fruit.
After brunch, we headed back to Carvey's house, where Andrew, Helen, and Dan Lopuch also live. I played Wii Fit for the first time ever. The games last about 2 minutes each, so you feel like you've done a lot even though you've only been exercising for 10 minutes. Then it was time for Star Trek Voyager - I just got Carvey to start watching this (he loves TNG), and he likes it a lot, so we though we'd watch a few episodes.
After that, Jeff and I headed into Cambridge to meet up with Brice and Dyani for dinner and a movie. We had dinner at B-Sides - which I had never been to before. Then we went to the Kendall Square Cinema and saw "Burn After Reading", which we all liked.

From there, it was back to Somerville, where Jeff and I met up with Jess for a drink at Orleans in Davis Square. We stopped by Jess and Sam's new house and hung out with them a bit. It's very cool to see where people are living, especially now that they own places and are doing all the designing.
Monday morning, we woke up, did a bit of work, and then headed to the airport. Great Boston trip!

MIT Alumni Conference

I spent Friday and Saturday attending the MIT Alumni Leadership Conference and here's what it was all about:

Friday, September 19, 2008
K-12 Initiatives
This series of speakers and panels was about K-12 Initiatives at MIT - things MIT is doing as an institution, things MIT Alumni have done as individuals, and ideas on how to get involved.

The keynote speaker talked about the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) education and noted that the portion of STEM graduates in the U.S. is declining. They're hoping to create an MIT Alumni volunteer program that trains thousands of volunteers to work in high school classrooms by 2011. Through this, they hope to make an impact on children's education.

Q. You know that a tree starts out as just a seed. As a tree is growing from a seed into a tree, where is most of the material coming from? (i.e. when you look at a tree, where did all the 'stuff' that makes up the tree come from?)

Q. When you burn something, there are only ashes left, and the ashes take up much less space than the object did before you burnt it. Where did all that stuff go?

The second speaker was Jo Ellen Rosemen, who works with the AAAS 2061 Program. The program started in 1985, and is named for the 2061 return of Halley's Comet. The program investigates what is necessary to be science literate. They found through their research that there is a very low proportion of the public, and even more surprisingly, of recent college graduates, that are science literate. The two questions above were used as examples of things that are considered necessary to be science literate, but which many college grads struggle to answer correctly. The program helps to develop standards and work with teachers on how to better teach the concepts.

The third speaker talked about MIT Open Courseware (OCW), which is a really cool program. MIT basically decided to digitize the course materials for as many courses as possible and put them online for free. You can access lecture notes, problem sets, tests, sometimes even video lectures, for hundreds of classes. These can be used by teachers for AP classes, or by students in other places for studying or just learning for fun.

The last panel was a group of alums who were very involved in volunteering for the K-12 group, and talked about their experiences. It was interesting to hear their unique perspective on how much time is required and what tactics to use to help students learn.

Saturday, September 20, 2008
Innovation @ MIT
The first talk was about innovation at MIT. The Dean of Engineering talked about the importance of innovation in general, coupled with the decline of federal funding for basic research. At MIT they are encouraging multi-disciplinary research. They have the advantage that almost all the schools, even the business school and school of humanities, are Science and Technology savvy. This helps facilitate interaction between those students and engineering students.

Synthetic Biology - iGEM
Another speaker talked about the new field of Biological Engineering (now course 20 at MIT). The field looks at building biological parts just like you build computer parts. This also means being able to manipulate biological systems. They hold a yearly contest (called iGEM) for high school and college students, the rules for which are basically to "do something cool" in biological engineering. And teams have stepped up to the plate. Students created an easy test to find out how much arsenic is in the water in wells in Bangladesh. Other students developed a way to make e. coli bacteria smell like bananas (less useful, but still pretty cool).

There was a talk on leadership, and how to get others to take the lead. It gave four main steps. Sensemaking was about collecting data, and using this as well as trial and error to understand the situation. Relating was understanding other people's positiongs and clearly explaining your own views and reasoning. Visioning included coming up with a purpose for everything you're doing and having specific goals. Inventing was turning the vision into action and engaging others in the planning stages.

Behind the Scences of Admissions @ MIT
The last talk we went to was about how MIT runs admissions - how they choose the incoming undergraduate class. Though this isn't really something Jeff and I need to know for practical reasons, its always interesting to hear. One of the first things they tell you when you come to campus is that "It wasn't a mistake."

They gave some statistics, including that the number of highschool graduates is increasing, and that more women are now attending college than men and that this divide is growing. Then they went inot a bit more detail about how they choose. As you might expect, it isn't based solely on scores or on impressive resumes, but on accomplishments mapped to opportunities. They look for initiative, energy, and engagement, particularly in S&T. They like to see evidence of personal skills - being a good citizen, and extracurricular interests. They try to find the kids whose personalities seem best-matched to the MIT community. Despite popular lore at MIT, they denied any purposeful alternating between a "well-rounded" class and a "nerdy" class each year.

Overall the conference was a lot of fun - there didn't seem to be that many other young alums, but Jeff and I were glad to have gone, and would probably go again in the future!

Friday, September 19, 2008

I love MIT!

I just arrived for my first day at the MIT alumni conference, and completed my first walk from Kendall Square T Stop to the Student Center in quite a while, and it definitely spurred some nostalgia. Here's how it went:

First, I got off the T at the Kendall/MIT stop, thinking, "Yay, MIT". I took the stairs instead of the escalator, remembering that the stairs turn a corner, allowing you to exit facing the right direction, slightly decreasing the amount of time you'll be late to class.

Immediately, I can see the MIT Press Bookstore, above which I had some of my international studies classes, and where I went to see about doing an internship in another country. Past the bookstore, I cut through MIT Medical. (Which you basically have to do, since its a big building to walk around.) MIT Medical, the location of more than one nervous visit, either for me or for friends - like when Carvey hurt his leg, and Craig and I took him in the next day, concerned by the mysterious colors that it was turning.

When you exit, the media center is there to great you - covered in big white tiles, like a giant bathroom floor. I see the 'MIT' built into the design - if you look just right, you see it spelled out in giant letters by the pillars at the entrance and over the stairs.

On, past the media center, and down the stairs, I cross Ames street and notice that crazy building that comes to point, and also East Campus. East Campus is a dorm, made up of two buildings with a courtyard in between. East Campus was famous for being home to some of the creative, wild, and eccentric at MIT. In the beginning of the year they used to have naked pool parties in the courtyard. I never partook personally, but I do remember hearing about it during orientation, and thinking, "Wow, I really am in college now..." Suddenly, there were no rules - it was just a bunch of 18-year-olds running around, in charge of themselves.

Through a gap in the buildings, I see the Stata Center - the building of brick and metal that looks like its falling down. It opened while I was here, I helped run games of lazer tag in the basement at the official opening. I also took (and then TA-ed) the 8.02T class that drew ire from so many students. (People hated that attendance mattered, and that it was an interactive method of learning, with tabletop experiments and in-class problem solving, rather than a 300-person lecture hall...) I was in that building spring of my senior year as well, TAing the Intro to Aero/Astro course taught by Jeff Hoffman.

Ok, let's keep moving. Past the green building - the tallest building in Cambridge. (Which coincidently is not green at all - just a very normal shade of light-brown.) It's open on the first floor (so it looks like it's on stilts), and has revolving doors to get to stairs up to classrooms and offices. The story is that, when they first built it, the wind would come off the river and whip through that opening, spinning the revolving doors at light speed. They had to intall a piece of art (The Great Sail) in the courtyard to alter the air flow.

On my left is the building where Jeff took one of his IAP classes his freshman year - and also the place where he and I would find a corner to sit and chat for a few minutes before he had to go back to the house for his 24/7 participation in Help Week at his fraternity.

And then there's the building where the Concourse classroom is located - that's where I took most of my freshman classes. It's right next door to the Concourse lounge, which had a couch and a blanket that I used many times to take much-needed naps to make it through the first of my four sleep-deprived years.

Then its up the stairs and into the Infinite Corridor. The infinite corridor is the long hallway (you can see one end to the other) which connects all of MIT's main buildings. I walked down this hallway almost every day while I was here. Along the walk, I pass the Building 4 Cafe. There was a period when I used to stop there for fruit and yogurt parfait almost every day. I pass by the space that used to be the registrar's office, marked a huge dollar bill painted the size of the wall, where I used to pick up checks while working as a student researcher. It's since been turned into a lounge (thanks to direct deposit, I guess) and the dollar-bill wall has been replaced by glass.

Then I'm in Lobby 10, looking out through the glass doors at Killian Court, where we used to play ultimate frisbee with the FAP kids that were there a day early. (I used to be a counselor for the Freshman Art Preorientation Program every year.) It's also where we held graduation. Framed by the old white stone buildings, with green grass, the Charles River, and Boston in the distance, Killian is one of the nicest views on campus. Also, I know that above me is the Great Dome, now illuminated at night, which is the location of many of the famous MIT hacks. At one point, students managed to put a police car on top of it - complete with donuts on the seat.

Now I was past the half-way point in the infinite. I walk past the stairs to 10-250, one of the most famous lecture halls at MIT, where I actually never had a lecture. Though I did camp out there for the Chorallaries Bad Taste Concert a few years in a row. (That's an acapella group at MIT that puts on a concert at midnight once a year.)

Past Student Services (ah, so many forms and waiting in line!), and into Lobby 7. I've spent lots of time putting up posters here, advertising for Model United Nations, or whatever other group I was in. I helped the Intro Aero/Astro club test their parachutes, as they dropped them from the third floor. There is a cafe in the corner, which opened while I was an undergrad, and where I got coffee many mornings during my senior year.

I don't go visit now, but I know that just down the hall is building 33, home to the Aero/Astro labs and many of the classrooms. My sophomore year, I spent three hours a day, five days a week, sitting in the Unified Engineering classroom - an intense class with lecture 9am-11am daily, in which you learn about all fields of engineering in relation to aerospace. In the labs, I built airplanes, low-pressure boxes, and even 3D printed a human leg for spacesuit testing.

Out of Lobby 7, down the stairs, and across 77 Mass Ave - which I think of as the official address of MIT. I see Bexley - the dorm that has anti-rush - they try to scare potential freshman off, so that rooms in the old apartment building are not crowded, and they're pretty effective. On the right is the student center.

The Student Center has Anna's Taqueria - my favorite burrito place in the world (even better than Chipotle!). Anna's was famous even before it came to campus, and when we could get our hands on a car, we used to drive out to Brookline to get it. It moved into the student center just after my junior year, and then I ate it for lunch almost every single day my senior year - sometimes twice a day, if I was still on campus at dinner time. LaVerde's - where I've bought a million late night snacks and sandwhiches. Up on the floors above, I'd done hours of studying. And now I'm sitting in the Alpine Bagel place - which housed a wide variety of food establishments - constantly changing since I came here. At the moment, there's a Dunkin Donuts. Yay, coffee!

Kresge's out the window, opposite the MIT Chapel - surrounded by its moat. I know that dorm row is just down the street - maybe I'll make a stop over to Burton-Conner, my home for my first two years at MIT. And I'll definitely make a trek across the Harvard Bridge (ask me the story of why it's called that, even though it's right on MIT campus) over to Boston, despite the biting wind.

Alright, that was quite a long walk down memory-lane, and I've only been on campus for an hour. I'm really looking forward to the Alumni Conference!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My life is becoming a series of crazy coincidences...

On Monday night, tired from sitting in my house all day, Jeff and I make a last-minute decision to see the 10pm show of Vicky Christina Barcelona at the E Street Cinema. We decide to bike there, and leave later than we meant to, but miraculously arrive 20 minutes early. (I love those bikes!) With all this extra time on our hands, we decide to fill out the form to join the E Street Cinema Movie Club. Then we got snacks and went to our movie.

And then, today, I received this message facebook:

Hey Mariel!

Remember how we used to work together at a movie theater and hang out a bunch eight years ago? Well, it just so happens that my current job is managing the E-Street Cinema in Washington DC. It was a bit of a shock to see your name staring me in the face when I went to collect the film club sign-up cards last night. It can't be the same Mariel John, I thought. I quickly looked you up on Facebook and saw that you do, in fact, live in DC. Then I spent the next 30 minutes in the lobby watching all the people come out of the movies, thinking that maybe I'd see you. No such luck. You must have been at an earlier show. Anyway, the point here is...THIS IS AN INSANE COINCIDENCE!

I won't post the whole message, but that's the gist of it. The message was from Tom Beddow, who I had worked with at Marcus Cinema while I was in high school. We'd hung out all the time during those years. Then, he'd moved to Michigan, and I'd moved to Boston, and we'd lost touch over the years. Now, through a completely random series of events, we've run into each other again! So we're now planning on getting together and catching up, and I'm really looking forward to seeing an old friend again! Still, after the ring-finding thing the other day, another huge coincidence is so surprising - who knows what will happen next?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

In the News!

First thing this morning, I headed to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) building in DC, to give a presenation on our ISU Team Project - Spaceports - with Emma, Stephanie, and Eric. The presentation went really well. People seemed to enjoy it, and we had some interesting questions. We even made it onto the FAA website, where they posted an article about our presentation.
After lunch, I went in for my first few hours working at The Space Foundation. I am a research analyst, and will be in charge of collecting daily news clips about space issues, helping with events, and researching and writing white papers about the space industry.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Jeff and I saw "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" last night. It's the newest Woody Allen movie, and it's set, as you may have guessed, in Barcelona. It's about two American girls who go to Barcelona for the summer. The main roles are all characatures of personalities, but I think that adds to the movie and makes it more funny and interesting. I loved Penelope Cruz in the movie - her character was funny pretty much all of the time, and the dialogue between her and Javier Bardem was hilarious. Overall, I thought the movie was funny and enjoyable, and I'd recommend seeing it.

However, being an American girl recently returned from a summer in Barcelona, I may be biased. I loved all the Spanish-speaking, and Javier Bardem's Spanish accent. It was really fun to see them strolling through Park Guell, visiting Gaudi buildings on Passeig de Gracia, and even going to the Gaudi park on Pedralbes - which I walked by every day in August to get from my housing (Penyafort) to classes (in Vertex).

Monday, September 15, 2008

Very Crazy Story

Two years ago, in June 2006, just after finishing my last classes during my senior year at MIT, I went with Jeff and some friends on a cruise to the Bahamas. One of the days we went to Norwegian Cruise Line's private island for relaxing and swimming. I forgot to take my class ring off when I went swimming, and at some point while I was splashing around, trying to snorkel and avoid fish, I lost it.

Jeff and I looked, and lots of other nice people searched with us, but we had been out in the water, and it was probably buried in the sand, so we didn't have much hope. In fact, we didn't find it, and headed back to the ship at the end of the day, without the ring.

At graduation, I had to borrow a ring from a friend to participate in the traditional turning-the-ring-around to signify graduating. I'd completely given up on ever seeing the original ring again, so I ordered a new one, and since then have been much more careful about not wearing it at the beach.

Anyway, today I received a phone call from a number I didn't recognize, and the person on the other end of the line says, "Did you go on a cruise lately?" Confused, I said, "No, not lately." And the person continued, asking if I'd been on Norwegian, or been to their private island. I replied that I'd been there, but over a year ago. "Did you leave anything there? Maybe lose something?" he asked. It turned out that he had gone out with a metal detector into the water, and found about six rings, one of which was mine. Since it has MIT on it, and my name on the inside, he was able to track me down and get my phone number. So now the ring is in the mail, on its way back to me after a two-year separation, during which it sat buried under the sand in the water near Norwegian Cruise Line's private island. Crazy.

Spaceports, Ethiopia, and Spain

The title basically summarizes my Sunday. I woke up with Spanish music still stuck in my head from the Fiesta Espanola, and headed right back to Stephanie's house to meet up with the other ISU Spaceports Team members in DC - Stephanie, Eric, Emma. We're giving a presentation to the FAA about our project tomorrow, so we needed to finalize our slides and practice a bit. And, as Stephanie put in her away message, "it wouldn't really be a Spain party if we didn't wake up and work on our team project the next morning."

We worked throughout the afternoon, so that when I got home, Jeff and I spent just a few minutes laying in the sun on our roof, before it started to get dark. Our roof has a pool and a great view of the city, but Sunday was the last day it was open. Since we were away all summer, I was determined to go at least once before it closed.

That brought us to dinner time, for which we were meeting up with my friend Al, and some of his friends from high school. Jeff and I just got our SmartBikeDC cards the other day, and Sunday was the first time we'd used them. There is a bike rack right next to our house, and others near metro stops around the city, so Jeff and I were able to rent them and speed down 14th street to drop them off at the U Street Metro, two blocks from the restaurant.

We ate at Dukem, which always gets rated as one of the best Ethiopian restaurants in the city. And the critics weren't wrong - the food was amazing. I'd highly recommend Dukem Special Kibs (kind of like marinated steak tips), Lamb Wot (like a spicy stew or curry), and Dukem Kitfo (beef tar-tar with spices and cottage cheese). All the standard veggies - lentils, cabbage, potatoes, etc. are very good as well. If you come to DC, this is definitely a place to check out.

After Dukem, we headed a block down the street to Vinoteca, a wine bar with half-off Spanish wines and a free flamenco show on Sundays. We sat and chatted over a glass of wine while enjoying the music. I don't think I'd ever been to a Spanish bar in DC, but since I've been back, I've heard about a few of them. Also, I found out my friend Al may move to Barcelona for a year of two, which gives me that much more reason to go back and visit soon!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Fiesta Epanola

Since the whole ISU Spain group is back in DC, we decided to have a Spain Party (we actually started planning it while we were still there.) Stephanie hosted the party on her roof, and we invited all our friends to share in our Spain experience. We cooked paella (Stephanie), tortilla (Jeff), patatas bravas (Eric), and mixed Sangria (Mariel) and Calimocho (Mariel & Jeff). We had some Spanish music and dancing and overall had a great time.

Crab Feast

Jeff and I went on Saturday afternoon to the annual crab feast put on by the Optimists Club - a philanthropic club of which his parents are members. This was the third one we've been to. A crab feast is a tradition in Maryland - you have a bunch of appetizers and other foods, but the main item is full steamed crabs, smothered in Old Bay - a spice specific to Maryland. I had to learn how to shell crabs - not an easy task, but I think there has been steady improvement over the years. Once again, the food was great. In addition to the crabs, there were some amazing cookies - Snickerdoodles - which I couldn't get enough of - I may have to bake some myself.

Swing Dancing!

On Friday afternoon, I went to the first ISTP Reception, hosted by Secure World Foundation. It was really nice to see people again - Chloe, Vid, Matt, Steph Pals (who I haven't seen since before she left to study in Lebanon last semester), Ray Williamson (the professor I worked with last semester that now works for Secure World Foundation) and others. I met a few new people, too, though there weren't that many faces I didn't recognize.

In the evening, Jeff and I went to Glen Echo, an old amusement park, for swing dancing. We met up with Tim and Rachel there - they've gone to a few swing dances already, so they're getting pretty good. It started with an hour-long free lesson and then a few hours of dancing with a live band. It was really fun - by the end, Jeff and I had the basic steps and a few of the spins down pretty well.

I forgot to mention that one of the things I did on Thursday was attend a really interesting talk entitled: "The Russia-Georgia Conflict and the U.S.: How did we get here, and what leverage does the West have?" It had four very high-level speakers who had worked in past (and current) administrations, specifically with Russia and/or Georgia. They talked about the friendly relationship the U.S. and Georgia had over the years, and possible directions the presidential candidates might take in their relationship with Russia. One of the great things about living in DC is getting quick, professional insight into events like this.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Weekday Fun

I've had a pretty busy week so far. After getting back from Tim & Joy's wedding last Sunday, I unpacked and re-packed, and then headed to Solomon's Island, MD for a three-day work meeting. I actually had a crazy drive back to DC in the middle of the meeting to avoid missing my Tuesday class. Listening to the radio is useful, though, because I'm catching up on all the political happenings that I missed while I was away (and when I'm tired of that, I'm catching up on the pop music that's new since I was away.) I also spent lots of the ride chatting on my phone - including Pol, who got a 45 minute monologue on movies that I like and still talked to me after that.

On Wednesday, I was back in time to make my first trip to the GWU gym (kind of crazy that I've been here for a year and never stopped in - I even had to call Adam for directions...) I even got to try out the pool, which doesn't compare to UB Esports, but has three lanes in a shallow indoor pool that still works well for swimming laps.

I swam a bit, and then it was off to class, after which Stephanie, Eric, and I met up with Emma and Jaisha to have dinner with Ofer, who was in town from Isreal. It was a little ISU reunion. (Adam came too - sneaking into the ISU group.) It was really fun to see Ofer, but after being gone for less than two weeks, it just seemed very normal. It still doesn't feel rare to see all our ISU friends. The restaurant was Vapianos - which I definitely recommend as a fun, trendy, and very reasonably priced (under $10 entrees) Italian place in DC.

Today has also been very busy. I had my first meeting with the people at Space Foundation, where it looks like I will be starting an internship (pending paperwork) in the next week or so. Then I headed off to the gym again - trying to get back into the swing of swimming after more than two weeks away from the pool. I plan to work on some classwork, and then I'm off to a reception at the International Science and Technology Policy (ISTP) Center. Later tonight, Jeff and I are planning to go swing dancing in Columbia Heights with our friends Tim and Rachel - but I'll probably have more to write about that later on!

Monday, September 8, 2008

I can drive a manual car!

Well, there's not much more to say than what's in the title. Laurent started lessons this summer in France, and Jeff and I practiced a bit more last weekend in Maryland. This weekend, once we got to Pennsylvania, I took over the driving (Jeff drives a manual car). I drove all around the Poconos, and even drove most of the way to Philadelphia and all of the way back. I'm not great (as evidenced by Patrick's making fun of me non-stop when he's in the car), but I can make the car move without stalling or hitting anything, so I count that as success. I'm not sure I'd be up for crazy inner-city driving, but generally I feel much more comfortable, and I think I could do it if I had to. Planning to practice more next weekend when we visit Baltimore - thanks to Jeff for trusting me to learn using his car!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Tim & Joy's Wedding

This weekend, some of Jeff's and my first college friends got married. We got started at 6am; our friend John flew into DC from California, and we picked him up for the ride out to the wedding. Our first stop was at Baltimore Coffee, Jeff's favorite coffee place.

From there, we began the three-and-a-half hour drive to the Poconos in Pennsylvania. We got there in time to drop off our bags, change into swim suits, and meet up with everybody for canoing.
Tim and Joy had met five years ago at the Theta Xi canoing trip and had invited everyone to come out early and canoe together. To be more specific, it was battle canoing - which is a lot like regular canoing, except when you get far enough from the rental place, you try to tip everyone else's canoe, and people spend more time in the water than in the canoe. The Shawnee Inn is right on the Delaware River. The place we usually canoe in Boston is just an upstream area of the Charles River. I'm not sure you're technically supposed to swim in it, and the bottom is sludge most of the way, so putting down your feet is not a good idea. The Delaware was a welcome change - the water was crystal clear, and the bottom was covered in smooth rocks. We had a great time battle canoing and even stopped along the way for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made by Joy's bridesmaids.That evening, Jeff, John, and I actually left the Poconos and drove a few hours to Philadelphia to see a play. Jeff's cousin, Dan, had conceived, written, and was acting in the play with a group of friends. It was based on the eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii, and was made of a series of short scenes, many with musical numbers. It was really well done and very fun to watch.

When we got back to the Shawnee Inn, everybody had already gone to bed, so Jeff, John, and I had one drink on the veranda and then went to bed.

The next morning, we met up with the group. There was a breakfast buffet at the hotel restaurant, but Jeff, John, and I had other ideas. The night before we had passed a billboard advertising breakfast for $1.99 at a local diner. We decided to head out in search of that. We ended up at the Water Gap Diner, where breakfast was a bit more than $1.99, but not much. The food and service was so good, we ended up going back again the next day.

In the afternoon was the wedding. It was raining, so rather than having the wedding on the lawn, it was held on the veranda, which had a roof. It was still warm, and the rain was coming straight down, so it was very nice to be outside. The mountain was covered with mist, and the rain was very pretty. The service was very beautiful - it was cute to see our first college friends get married.Immediately following the wedding, the reception started at the pavilion near the river. There was a cocktail hour followed by a very nice dinner. There were all the standards traditions - father-daughter and mother-son dance, throwing the bouquet, cutting the wedding cake together, married couple's first dance, and everything else. Joy sang a song to Tim, which was very cute. The last few hours of the reception were all dancing and visiting with friends. It was a very fun wedding - we had a whole table of college friends who are now spread around the country, and it was great to be together again.

First Week of Classes

School just started last week, so I've had the first of my lectures.

On Tuesdays, I have Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA). It's the applied economics course that follows Economics in Public Policy, which I took last spring. In this class we're going to learn how to find the cost and benefits of a policies and programs and than quantify and compare these. This is a good skill to have, but is especially difficult when dealing with large science or technology initiatives, in particular space programs, which may not be designed for immediate economic benefit. It will be interesting to learn how these issues are dealt with. The class has a couple of exams, but the main work is a long research paper in which we carry out a CBA on a policy or program of our choice. I haven't decided what to look at yet, but I guess I'll have to decide and get started soon.

On Wednesdays, my lecture is Politics of Earth and Space Science. The professor for this class has worked in the government for almost 30 years, a number of them at NASA. Rather than focusing on history or theory, this class looks at the reality of trying to get policies approved by various stakeholders. It looks at the differences in argument needed when getting the same policy approved by NASA, the hill, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), or others. We also have exams and one-page papers in this class, but the major component is a team project in which we actually come up with an argument based on a given scenario and then present it to professionals from the government. Almost all of the Space Policy second year masters students are in the class - Stephanie, Eric, Brian, Adam, etc. - which is really nice.

So, I have lecture only two days a week. You may be wondering what I'm doing with the rest of my time. Instead of a third class, I am taking an independent study, which will result in my writing a 50-page paper by the end of the semester. I'm still finalizing my topic, but hopefully I'll have it pinned down by the end of this week. I'm on the executive board of the George Washington Space Society, so I help organize meetings and space-related events. I'm also continuing my work with Raytheon, and looking at doing some space-related work as well. I'm still finishing the paper I was writing at NASA last spring - though I really hope to be finished with that in the next couple weeks. The space weather paper is also still in the works. In my spare time, I'm trying to learn Spanish. Other than that, I'm trying to take advantage of living in DC, and go to various lectures, concerts, and other things around the city. So I'm keeping busy. :)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Labor Day Weekend

Though still a bit jet-lagged, I had a very fun and all-American Labor Day weekend. On Sunday, Jeff and I went to his five year high-school reunion. It was organized by one of his good friends, and there were a lot of people that we both knew, and many that I had never met. The event was held at the park, and was a potluck, with barbeque pork sandwiches and apple pie, and people were tossing around an American football. Definitely back in the states. It seemed like Jeff had a good time catching up with old friends, many of whom live in the area, so now maybe we'll see them.
On Monday, Labor Day, Jeff and I decided to copy Stephanie's idea of going to a baseball game. The DC Nationals just opened a big stadium last spring, and we hadn't been yet. We jumped on the metro for the short ride to the game (so conveniently located!), bought some cheap tickets from scalpers, and then sat by Stephanie and her friends in some pretty nice seats. (The Nats aren't the greatest team, and the stadium's pretty big, so there was lots of space.) It's been a while since I've been to a baseball game, so it was a lot of fun. And the Nats won!
On an unrelated note - there was this cool thing in Spain called "bicing" where you get a card that allows you to get a cheap annual membership and then take a bike from one place in the city and drop it off anywhere else that there is a bicing stand. And now the exact same thing just appearred at the corner of my street in DC while I was away. Awesome.

Monday, September 1, 2008

It's Only the Beginning

Friday, August 29th was the last official day of ISU. I woke up around 10:30am, meaning to pack and get things together. Pol offered to help me pack, but somehow even with his help, I accomplished nothing except sitting around thinking about how amazing the summer was until about 1:30pm, when I realized I really needed to go de-register.

I went to de-registration with Stephanie, Eric, and Pol, turned in my much-needed fan, picked up a copy of the executive summary (great work, Laurent!), and got my T-Shirt.

Heading back, I was finally starting to feel hungry again after the incredible meal I had had at Patrizia's the day before, so Pol and I headed to Mango for a bite to eat. We both ordered the set lunch menu, which was probably too much food on its own, and also ordered a completely superflous plate of patatas bravas - I couldn't risk heading home without having them one last time.

Somehow, we stayed at lunch until almost 4pm, and with the bus to closing ceremonies leaving at 4:30pm, we had to hurry to Penyafort for some rapid getting ready. To add a nice cyclical feeling to the summer (and because I didn't have time or money to shop) I wore the same dress to closing ceremonies that I had worn to opening ceremonies.
Closing ceremonies were at CaixaForum - a museum near Placa Espanya in Barcelona. We had a bit of a tour, grabbed some much needed espresso, and then went to the auditorium. Closing ceremonies were very nice - they called each person's name and presented them with a certificate.
I actually recieved a special award. I was presented with the "Morla Milne Award for Academic Excellence." The award is given to the person with the highest mark on the written examination. I was proud to have won the award and glad that despite all of my day trips and exploring Barcelona, I showed that I also cared about academics. They asked me to say a few words, which was completely unexpected. I don't really even remember what I said... so hopefully it was coherent.After the presentation of awards ended, we headed out of the auditorium to the reception. The reception was very nice, and gave us another chance to enjoy some cava, watch a slide show of pictures, and enjoy some last face-to-face conversations with good friends.

In some ways, the end was similar to the beginning - at opening ceremonies, everyone was asking the same questions "Where are you from?", "What do you do?", etc. Now that the summer was over, everyone was asking "What will you do now?" "How long are you staying?" or "When do you head back?". So in both cases, you walk around having the same conversation with different groups of people.As the reception was coming to a close, I left with Pol to go back to his house and get his car. He had offered to drive me to the airport, since I was leaving early the next morning. It was fun to drop by his house one last time, and I had the chance to meet his mother and grandmother, who were both very nice.

When we arrived back at Penyafort, people were out on the patio, enjoying our last warm Barcelona night as a big group. We hung out and chatted until the patio closed at 1am. At that point, people started to head out to the garden area, but I said my good-byes. I hadn't packed yet, and I was supposed to leave for my flight around 7am.

I went to pack, and Pol came to help and keep me company - packing late at night before leaving is definitely not the cheeriest activity, but we had fun. I pulled everything out of the drawers and shelves and put it on my bed, and it really seemed like there was no chance I would fit it all into the two small bags that I had brought.

I had to ditch a towell, hairdryer, my travel books, and some other odds and ends, but I made it. Pol said I have some great packing skills (we'd watched Napoleon Dynomite twice in the last few days, and decided packing skills are just as important as bo-hunting skills and computer hacking skills).

At 7am, I woke up to grab my stuff and head to the airport. Dragging my feet, and still in denial that it was really time to leave, Pol and I finally got out the door with all my stuff around 8am. Luckily, in a car, its only about 20 minutes to the airport (Pol saved me from what would have otherwise been a long and lonely train ride).

The woman who checked me in at the airport must have seen I was pretty sad to go. "Returning to the U.S.?" she asked me. "By yourself, I guess," she added. That was not helping my efforts not to cry. She quickly added that I was there early enough to grab a coffee before going through security - prolonging my time in Barcelona just a bit more.

So I ordered my last "cafe solo" (espresso) for the forseeable future, and sat chatting with Pol at the airport cafe. I finally went through to the gate around 8:30am - just as my plane was boarding.

Luckily for me, I ran into Paul McBeth, who happened to be on the same flight as me, headed to Amsterdam. He and I chatted while we waited in line, both slept through the flight, and met up again briefly in Amsterdam as we headed for our next gates. That was my final face to face good-bye with a foreign ISU friend.

I arrived home, finally, around 10:30pm, and Jeff picked me up with a bouquet of red roses. I'm so lucky to have people that care about me so much. As sad as it is to have people I love spread out around the world, I feel really happy and lucky to know them.

It's easy to be sad about leaving Barcelona, and primarily that's how I'm feeling right now - the summer was so amazing, and the people I met and made friends with mean so much to me. But I'm trying to focus on something that Michael said the last night while we were hanging out at Penyafort.

Throughout the whole summer, he would always say "It's only the beginning!". Whether it was lunchtime, dinnertime, or 5am walking home from a club, you'd hear him, "Hey, it's only the beginning!" When we were saying goodbye for the last time before going to the airport, Michael repeated his phrase, which made me laugh. But he said he was serious. Sure, it's the end of SSP '08, and people are heading home, but now we have to visit each other, chat online, and start planning re-unions. "Really," he said, "It's only the beginning."

Final Presentation Day

Thursday, August 28 was the day of final presentations. After many hours of working on the final report, and tons of effort by our presentation team putting turning that into a presentation, it was time to show what we had accomplished.

I was the point of contact for Business and Commercial related questions, so I sat up front in my suit, ready to speak if needed. I actually did field one question, but I'm not sure I fully understood what the person was getting at - hopefully the answer was satisfactory.

A short (1.5 min) video that was part of the presentation was posted online by my teammate (and friend) Hugo. You can find it here.

After the presentation was over, we headed up to our team room for one last meeting with our whole group. We had cava and snacks to celebrate and all got T-shirts.
After that, I hurried off with my friend Patrizia to her house for home-made Paella. Hugo, Andrew, Stephanie, and Pol also came. The paella was amazing - definitely the best I've had while in Spain. I wish that I could learn how to cook like that. We had a huge meal (I couldn't eat for the rest of the day!) with appetizers, paella, desserts, and drinks. It was really nice of Patrizia and her family to invite us over!

After lunch and a bit of relaxing and hanging out at Patrizia's, we headed back to Penyafort. I took a much needed nap, which lasted until 8:30pm - 30 minutes before the start of the talent show that I was supposed to be in.

The talent show act was 100% Jaisha's idea. She thought of it, organized it, and conjoled Stephanie and I into doing it. We practiced it twice in her room, minutes before actually performing. Needless to say, I was a bit worried about going on stage. However, Jaisha's wisdom proved true again - I had tons of fun and people really enjoyed the act.Our group was made up of Jaisha, Stephanie, and I, and we called our act "An American Tribute to Spanish Culture." Stephanie and I wore red shirts, and Jaisha wore yellow (colors of the Spanish flag), and we danced to the refrain of a couple of popular Spanish songs. There's a video out there somewhere, and if I get a hold of it, I'll try to post it. (Here it is!)After the talent show, people were ready for one more night out. We decided to all head to Almoda Bar, which has karaoke upstairs and dancing downstairs. It turned out to be my last night out dancing in Barcelona, and I had a really great time!

Figueres and Cadaqués

On Wednesday, we took our third and final roadtrip for the summer. This time we went a bit farther north than the previous two days - first to Figueres and then to Cadaqués. The group included Brice, Me, Laurent, Sandrine, and Pol.
The morning actually started with a meeting, so we first attended that and watched the run-through of the final presentation for our team. The trouble with meetings is that they tend to spur additional meetings, and Pol and Sandrine got pulled into a long discussion about their section of the report.

In the meantime, I headed back and met up with Laurent and Brice. The plan for the Figueres trip was to see the Dali Museum. They were worried that we might have trouble getting there before closing (it was already 1:30pm and we hadn't left), so the plan changed so we would leave now, and Pol and Sandrine take the train and meet us as soon as they could.

For some reason there was no radio in the car, so Laurent, Brice and I decided to sing instead. They knew a bunch of French folk songs, and I tried to remember a few American ones.

Figueres is a cute town a few hours north of Barcelona. The main thing to see, as I mentioned before, is the Dali Museum. It was actually put together by Dali himself, and is a pretty crazy place. We spent two and half hours seeing everything. There are a lot of cool exhibits, like this one of Mae West, which only looks like a portrait from a particular angle.Pol and Sandrine arrived around 6pm, and actually were able to get into the museum. They did the express tour, and only took about 45 minutes.

When we were all finished with the museum, we headed to Cadaqués, the town on the sea where Dali had lived. Cadaqués is a really beautiful place. We walked around a bit, and found a cute restaurant up on a hill called La Sirena (the mermaid). We ate dinner there - I had sea bass - I'm a great seafood eater now. On the walk home, you could see tons of stars, which I absolutely love. Though walking while looking straight up is a bit of a challenge.

The drive home started with a dark, winding road through the mountains, for which I stayed wide awake, watching the road ahead for any signs of oncoming traffic. But after we made it onto the highway, I was out like a light. Everyone else was about the same, so that poor Brice, who had taken over the driving for the way home, had to chauffeur a car full of sleeping people back to Barcelona.

Cala Llevado (near Tossa de Mar)

Since Jaisha couldn't make it to Tossa on Monday, and others wanted to go also, people decided to rent a car and go again. This time the group was comprised of Jaisha, Laurent, Brice, Pol, and Me. Anna joined us later by taking the train out.

Our planned destination was Tossa de Mar, but on the way, Jaisha suggested we stop at Cala Llevado - a small place just before Tossa. One of her friends was from the area and suggested just catching the view from here. Cala Llevado has a camping area where you can park, and from there you can climb down a pretty steep hill to a beach surrounded by cliffs, trees, and rocks.Once we got there and saw it, we decided to just stay. There was a restaurant on the beach there, so we could even stay for lunch.

As soon as we got there, the guys decided they were ready to swim. (Jaisha, being responsible, had brought her team's report with her, and was editing that on the beach.) I decided to join the swimming group. There were some giant inflatable intertubes way out in the sea, and we decided to swim out and see what they were. It was a pretty long swim, but really fun, except for one scary incident. I was swimming along happily, chatting, and enjoying the water, and then Brice says "Hey, Mariel, watch out for that jellyfish," and I responded by flailing and trying to move away from the dark splotch in the water. (Laurent swears that I somehow moved about a meter in under a second.) The jellyfish was only a couple centimeters from me when Brice warned me (thanks for all the warning, guys...) so I actually did touch it (Yuck!!!) - but luckily I didn't get stung.

We swam back to a different beach than the one where we'd come in, so we thought we'd walk up and over the rocks to get back. Unfortunately, this plan failed miserably, and we ended up walking up and down the rocky path in our bare feet. On the way up we talked about how nice the swim was and how great the views were. On the way down we mostly discussed who's idea it had been to walk up this way.We ended up swimming back to our beach - this time I was more on alert for jellyfish. Anna was going to arrive on the train soon, so Laurent and Brice went to go pick her up. I laid on the beach and chatted with Jaisha while Pol napped.

When Anna, Laurent, and Brice returned, we decided to have lunch at the restaurant on the beach. Lunch was very nice - all the food was really well made.After lunch, Pol and I really wanted to go kayaking again, and we convinced Brice and Anna to join us. While people were still getting things together, I went to rent the kayaks. I was very proud to be able to do it in Spanish (Neccesito alquilar dos kayaks para cuatro personas, por favor), to which the person responded in Spanish with the price, and I paid. Then she turned to one of the guys near the kayaks and said, "Hey, grab two of those kayaks for these people," in a British accent. Ah well.

As we were walking to the kayak, one of the guys saw that we were bringing a cell phone, and told us we'd better leave that on the beach. We explained that we had no watch and no way to know when our hour would be up. He said to just estimate, and that he'd whistle if it was getting late. (Which is kind of crazy, because you kayak pretty far away, and a whistle isn't going to be audible...)

Anyway, this time Pol and I were much more hardcore (he had a blister at the end!) and we ended up losing Brice and Anna, who preferred to float, chat, and swim. The water was a bit choppy, making the kayaking even more exciting. The coastline is really made up of a bunch of half-cresent shapes, so as soon as you get around one ridge, you can see another one in the distance. Curiousity kept us going from ridge to ridge, until Pol asked, "Is that the castle?" (Meaning the castle we'd been to the day before at Tossa.) To which I replied, "No." A few minutes later, as we got a bit closer, we reallized it definitely was the castle. We had kayaked to Tossa. We kayaked all the way up to the front of the castle to ask some people for the time, and then decided we'd better head back.When we got back, Anna and Brice were already back on the beach. I guess Pol and I have pretty poor time estimation skills, because they told us we were gone for an hour and a half or more. But it was really fun - I couldn't believe we made it all the way to Tossa.

After that it was time for a fun, if slightly crouded, ride back to Barcelona.

Tossa de Mar

The last week of ISU became the week of day trips for me, and it started on Monday with a trip to Tossa de Mar.Sonny and Paul had been completing a diving course in Tossa over the weekend and needed to return for one more day of lessons and testing. Since there were only two of them in the car, they had three empty spaces. We found out at dinner that Jaisha was planning on going, and Pol and I said we'd love to go too.

On Monday morning, it turned out that Jaisha couldn't make it, but Sonny, Paul, Pol, and I headed out around 10am.

Tossa is about an hour and a half north of Barcelona - it's a small town on the ocean on Costa Brava. Costa Brava is really different from the beaches south of Barcelona. Instead of being sandy and staying shallow for a long time, everything is very rocky and it gets deep very quickly.When we got there, Paul and Sonny went off to the diving center, and Pol and I went for a nap on the beach. It was a little bit cloudy, which was perfect, because direct sun in the Spanish summer is really intense. The nap was followed by a swim - I couldn't believe how clear the water was, even when we were very deep.
After swimming, we decided to rent a kayak. We were a bit lazy with kayaking, and just explored around one ridge. Whenever the sun would come out, we'd set our paddles down and just lay in the kayak, floating in the Mediterranean, until the sun went behind the clouds again. It was very relaxing, though, and we saw some very pretty views.

After lunch at a cute pizzeria, we headed off to the castle for some hiking. We walked up to the top where the faro (lighthouse) was, and took our time wandering around and seeing the views from the various lookouts.When we made our way back to the bottom, we got some icecream, and then sat on a rock overlooking the water as we waited for Sonny and Paul to return from their last dive.It was such a beautiful day, and so relaxing and fun, I think this trip was one of my favorites of the entire summer.