Friday, November 30, 2012

Busy busy busy

Sorry if you happened to look at this blog and saw countless versions of the previous "Busy" post.

One of the joys of working at the South Pole is that occasionally the Internet connection is ABYSMALLY slow. This morning was one of those times.

I wrote up a quick blog post and then tried to submit it to, and it kept saying the post could not be published. I tried intermittently throughout the morning, always getting the same result.

Just before the satellite connection to the Internet went away, my wife sent me a message asking if I knew I'd published many copies of the same post to my blog.

At that point there wasn't really anything I could do except wait for the next satellite pass to clean up the mess.

Things should be back to normal now. Sorry if you happened to catch the flood of posts!


I've been frantically busy for the last couple of days because I'm leaving in three days(!). I'm trying to get a bit of software working before I leave so that people coming down here in January will be able to do their jobs. After a couple of bleak days with no progress, I had a glimmer of hope yesterday when something finally worked. Now I just need to make it work BETTER. So instead of a coherent post, here are a couple of random bits:
Blaise demonstrating the importance of color coordinating one's outfit while doing a massive switchover of all the network gear in a computer cluster.
The South Pole Traverse (which I wrote about last week) made it to the Pole on Thursday, dropped off some fuel, then kept on going to a camp a few days' drive away from the Pole. I was in the middle of working and didn't want to keep a $100,000,000 detector idle just so I could take pictures, but I did manage to slip away to take one shot as the convoy approached. Those three murky blots on the horizon have been driving for a month to bring us huge amounts of fuel.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Working out

Because I spend a lot of time sitting, I try to use the elliptical machine every other day. It's not much different at the South Pole.
The major difference is that the South Pole workout area is a bit more cluttered. Aside from the elliptical they've got just about everything a normal gym would have: multiple bikes and treadmills, a stair-stepper, a rowing machine, free weights, and machines, etc. The only difference is that it's jammed into about a third of the space a normal gym would use.
I think I mentioned it before, but this is my view while I'm working out. In case you can't make it out, that's the outdoor "smoking deck". I can usually see one or two people out for their smoke break during my 40 minutes, and occasionally there will be a group of people chatting and smoking while I'm sweating away.
My favorite thing about this gym is the "Race to McMurdo" chart. Each winter some of the winter-overs sign up for this "race". Each time they work out, they mark off the number of miles they covered.
By the end of the winter, some of them will have "run" all the way to McMurdo!

I need to go now, the South Pole Traverse vehicles are driving into the station as I type this!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


There was a briefing today in B2 (the big room where I work) from one of the waste management women, discussing how to handle just about any type of garbage.

The most important thing to remember on Antarctica is there's an international treaty which says we're supposed to leave no trace of our being here. That means we can't just have a big pile of garbage at the edge of the base. Everything gets flown back to McMurdo, where it's loaded onto a ship and taken back to California to be recycled, burned, buried, etc.

There are more than a dozen possible categories of recycling. For instance, crushable paper or wrappers go in "Paper Towels", corrugated cardboard goes in "Cardboard", non-corrugated cardboard (like cereal boxes) goes in "Mixed Paper". There are labels on all the bins with examples of what does and does not go in each. There are recycling areas spread all over the station so you're usually not more than 20 feet away from one.

There are waste lines outside for larger items. This is also where we bring the bags of stuff once the indoor bins are full. One thing they emphasize in multiple ways is "No loose styrofoam peanuts!". Once those things get loose outside they're almost as difficult to recapture as they are to see in an all-white environment!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving dinner and Jacob's departure

As I've mentioned, this was my first South Pole holiday. That's me in the lower right corner, facing away from the camera. The two guys standing on either side of the picture are our winter-overs, Felipe (on the left) and Blaise (on the right). I'm leaving in 7 days, but they're here for 11 more months!

The dinner was great, three kinds of turkey (roasted, smoked, and deep-fried), a couple of different kinds of stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and three different pies (pumpkin, pecan, and apple). As you can see, there was also wine, though we're limited to one of the 6 or so different wines available from the store. I know I had a great time!

Jacob, the guy in the blue and white hat, just left today. He and I met up in L.A. and traveled to the Pole together, along with Ralf, the guy in gray just beyond Jacob. Jacob's plane came in with some cargo and a handful of D.V.s (Distinguished Visitors), people from the National Science Foundation who are touring the South Pole to look at the various science projects then heading back this evening.

Jacob was the only outgoing passenger and there wasn't any outgoing cargo this morning, so he's flying back to McMurdo on an empty plane with 5-6 National Guardsmen. Not a bad way to end the trip!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

South Pole traverse, the sequel

The South Pole Traverse is making its way to the Pole. This is a convoy of huge tractor-like machines pulling several trailers of cargo, mostly the fuel which powers everything down here.

Normally, fuel is brought in via jets. The Traverse is a much more cost-effective way to get fuel here, but it's much slower. As you can see from the map, they started from McMurdo a few days before I got to Christchurch and won't arrive until after I've left.

This is the first of two traverses this season. I've heard that they're trying to make this a more regular thing so there will be fewer flights. Maybe someday you'll be able to watch a reality show featuring the Traverse!

(Here's a previous post I wrote on the previous Traverse in January.)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Waiting for the plane

A couple of days ago, Jacob and I had to do some work out at the IceCube Lab building (also known as the ICL.) We spent about 4 hours out there taking data from something called the Standard Candle, which involves a laser buried deep in the ice on one of the IceCube strings.

Just as we were finishing, about half an hour before they stopped serving supper, a plane landed to drop off and pick up some passengers and cargo. The runway is between the main station and the ICL, and so we wouldn't be abe to cross the runway if the plane was taking off. We waited in the ICL for a while, but the plane seemed to be taking a LONG time to load the passengers.

We finally grew impatient (and I was worried that we'd miss supper) and decided to walk back to the station. This sign is posted on the road between the station and the ICL and the beacon is a flashing light near it. As we got closer and closer to the sign, I kept waiting for the light to start flashing. After about 5 minutes we reached the sign and it hadn't started flashing!

We got a dozen steps past the sign and, of course, the beacon started flashing so we had to backtrack to the sign and stand there for 10 minutes or so while the plane taxied down the runway and flew off to McMurdo.

We got back to the station about 5 minutes after dinner finished but fortunately they hadn't taken away the food so we got to enjoy slightly dried out salmon fillets. Whew!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Even though the South Pole is technically one of the two places on Earth where time zones meet, we run on New Zealand time. McMurdo is the closest U.S. base to the South Pole and they're in the New Zealand time zone, so things are just easier if we all use that time zone. Since New Zealand is close to the start of the International Date Line, it's already Thursday here, thus the subject of this post.

Even though it's technically Thanksgiving, it's a work day. And since it's a 6 day work week here, we aren't having Thanksgiving dinner until Saturday night. I've never been at Pole during a holiday, but I hear it's kind of fancy.

As part of the preparation, I've volunteered to help peel potatoes tonight at 8PM (along with a dozen other people). There's also a pie-making session at the same time, and pub trivia is happening as well, so there'll be a sort of celebration tonight!

I'm most thankful that yesterday was laundry day (and that I was able to humidify my room with the drying clothes) and that today was shower day! Even better, I managed to completely wash myself using less than a minute of water, so I was able to do nothing but relax in the warm shower for a full minute!

I hope your Thanksgiving is as wonderful as that minute of warm water!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Twinkies and Ho-hos

The dessert today was a tribute to Hostess, hand-crafted Twinkies (yellow cupcakes with creme filling) and Ho-hos (chocolate cake topped with creme and a thick layer of chocolate on top.) I had a Ho-ho for lunch and dinner. They were sinfully delicious. As someone else observed, the best part about them was that you could feel the sugar crystals crunching as you were chewing!

Below the tasty treats, you can see the bottomless cookie container. There are usually at least 4 different kinds of cookies, so there's usually something for everyone.

I have to admit that I put on a couple of pounds the first week I was here, but I wasn't really working out. Now that I'm back to using the elliptical, I lost a pound over the last week.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Freshies and phrases

I'm just back from helping bring freshies into the station.

A flight just left, taking away some passengers but leaving us with fresh fruit and vegetables. Those things don't do well in -32 F degree weather (with windchill, -57 F) so they need to be brought into the station quickly.

To do that, a call goes out over the station-wide P.A. system asking for all available hands to report to D.Z. (Destination Zulu, one of the two main station exits). The station is raised on supports, so the entryway is a couple of stories off the ground. Volunteers form a human chain to bring boxes up the stairs into the station. Once that is done, another chain is formed to bring the boxes up another set of stairs to the galley on the second floor.

I happened to end up at the top of the outdoor stairway where I would a box, turn and walk a few steps to the next person then continue turning until I was facing the stairs again, ready to grab another box. I was relieved when the last box came through because I was getting a little dizzy!

As for my favorite phrase today, it comes from my daughter who was not amused with a discussion in one of her classes recently, referring to some of her classmates as "bunkum spitting blockheads". She gets her misanthropy from me :-)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

To infinity...

As a computer geek, much of my work can be done from the comfort of the station. Being down here is more about me being available when things go wrong, and about having reliable uninterrupted access to the computers here.
Occasionally I need to do work at the IceCube Lab, which is a 15-20 minute walk from the station. It's sort of on the edge of the safe zone. Some WIPAC people are travelling even further out to build a new experiment, but most people here don't go to the ICL.
Here's a picture of the station from the ICL. While we were trudging out to the ICL in our heavy coats, pants, and boots, we were passed by someone out for a run! Our previous winterover Carlos was a marathoner who would frequently go for one or two hour runs in the middle of the Antarctic winter.
Here's a view of what's beyond the ICL. That windmill is generating power for ARA, the experiment I mentioned above.

Friday, November 16, 2012


As the saying goes down here, "Antarctica is a harsh continent". That expression is the explanation for everything from frostbite on your nose to dropping your cookie on the floor.

However, it's a particularly harsh continent for Internet-addicted computer nerds like me. We're limited to 6-8 hours of internet access per day.

It's almost impossible to string cables from the coast to the South Pole, and fixing the cables when they break would be treacherous. Therefore our only alternative is through satellite connections.

Because we're at the absolute bottom of the world, there are few satellites that come into view, and those only stray down this far occasionally. Thus we get a block of time from 6:30AM to around 1PM, then a couple of short hour-long bursts of Internet.

Yesterday, that smallish window of Internet was closed even further, because the computer that handles satellite communications crashed in the middle of the night and the tech guys didn't get it working again until around 9:30.

That's why I wasted most of my Internet time yesterday doing work (with a bit of web-surfing) rather than doing important stuff like blog posts. Sorry!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Snowmobiles and cargo

I was really busy most of the day, fixing software and getting quick training on using the snowmobiles. I'll almost certainly never use a snowmobile (though I have in the past), but I need the quick half-hour training just in case.

One of the novel experiences for this trip was landing at the Pole and then watching the crew push the cargo pallets out the back of the still-moving plane. Here are a few shots of that maneuver. If you look carefully you can see my lime-green suitcase on the luggage pallet at the bottom of the last picture!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Dreaming of large beers

Yesterday we said goodbye to Sven and Carlos, the outgoing winter-overs. Sven is kneeling on the ground and Carlos is between Felipe on the left and Blaise on the right.

The flight which took Sven and Carlos away after five WIPAC people got off. WIPAC is the umbrella organization for a group of Antarctic physics projects, and this year people at the Pole are either from the IceCube or ARA (Askaryan Radio Array) WIPAC projects.

Next week, 5 more people will arrive, and 3 more on the 27th. After that, I don't care because I'll be leaving before the next set of passengers arrives :-)

Yesterday I managed to write a software utility that I've wanted for YEARS. It's something that will help me figure out exactly what went wrong after the DAQ software has failed. Unfortunately, I generally only think about this while we're in the middle of an emergency when I don't have time to write this tool. As I've written before, the best thing about working at the South Pole is that it allows me to focus on work without most of the distractions of day-to-day life.

I used the new tool to analyse the data from a test run of the next release of the DAQ software, the Capital release. Each release of the DAQ software has a name, and the current theme is "Wisconsin Microbreweries". We're currently running Ale_Asylum, the release being evaluated is Capital, and new development is happening as part of Furthermore.

Now it's time for me to get back to work -- or maybe just daydreaming about having a beer!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Settling in

I've now spent almost 2 days at the Pole, so I'm almost fully adjusted. Because it's a low-oxygen environment, I try to take it easy the first few days and avoid any strenuous physical activity -- which is not a huge change since I also try to do that back home :-)

Yesterday, my first full day, I did go out to the ceremonial Pole marker, maybe a 5 minute walk, for a Veteran's Day ceremony. All the station's military veterans were there and one man gave a brief speech, then we adjourned to the galley for a Missing Man ceremony and cake.

Our winter-overs, who have been here without a break since January or February, graciously delayed their departure a day so that we Northerners could talk to them. Today I spent an hour talking with them about detector operations, listing all the problems they had or improvements they might like. Fortunately, not ALL their complains were about my software!

Today I'll do my weekly single load of laundry and tomorrow I'll work out for 20 minutes or so and then take my first 2-minute shower since leaving Christchurch!

Friday, November 09, 2012

Touch and Go

It's been an exciting couple of days!

The flight from Christchurch to Antarctica was totally unremarkable. The excitement began once we reached McMurdo (the base on the coast of Antarctica, gateway to the South Pole).

When we landed, we were informed that we needed to "bag drag" (check in our bags and get weighed with all our carry-on luggage) that evening. At check-in, they said we were a backup flight, so we'd only fly if weather was bad at the main location. That meant that even though we were unlikely to go, we still had to walk up the hill to the departure building at 6:45AM.

McMurdo isn't a BAD place to be. There are hikes, wildlife (seals, skua, and occasional penguins), 24-hour internet (the South Pole only has Internet a few hours each day). The downside is that it's a transition point so it's difficult to settle down, and there are a lot of people there so rooms are shared. Since I got to my room last, I was left with the top bunk.

This morning, we showed up and as predicted, the main flight went instead of ours. However, there was another flight at 8:45AM, so we still had another chance to go -- but again it was unlikely.

At 8:45AM, all the Pole-bound people were heckling the other flight's passengers in a friendly way as we waited for news of the flight's destination. When the coordinator finally came out and told the main flight's passengers to get ready to go, all the Pole people moaned and groaned our way out of the building, resigned to spend another weekend in McMurdo.

Jacob (another IceCuber making his first trip to the Pole) and I dropped our gear off in our rooms and headed over to Crary. This building has wireless internet access, but is only open during business hours so we needed to get keycards. While they were getting our cards ready we went downstairs to the "touch tank" where there are a bunch of native marine animals in a tank which (duh!) you can touch! (Here's a blog post from someone who visited the touch tank just last month.)

Jacob and I were just getting ready to take some pictures when the keycard guy found us and told us that the main flight was cancelled after all and that we needed to get back to the departure building as quickly as possible because the plane was now headed to the South Pole!

After a mad dash, we all assembled at the plane and, wonder of wonders, the plane took off!

At this point I started to get a LITTLE optimistic. However, in the last week at least two planes flying to the South Pole were forced to turn back due to weather or mechanical issues, so it wasn't a sure thing that we'd make it. This time, however, things worked out perfectly, and I'm typing this a hundred feet or so from the South Pole!

(It's been a big day so I didn't have a chance to unload my camera. I'll have pictures tomorrow!)

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Book ends

After about 35 hours of travel, I made it back to Christchurch! The trip started out with a slight delay on Monday. President Obama did a quick campaign stop in Madison on Monday and happened to finish just as I was on my way to the airport. As I was getting ticketed, the runways were locked down as the President (and, almost as important, Bruce Springsteen :-)) arrived. I made it to my gate just as the stairs were being moved away from the plane and got to watch Air Force One take off!
The only really stressful part of the trip happened while I was squeezed into the middle seat on the L.A. to Sydney flight. A couple of hours after they'd turned off the lights I managed to drop my glasses on the floor. Because of the seat in front of me and the people on either side of me, I couldn't reach the floor. I spent about an hour intermittently trying different methods to reach my glasses and finally managed to extend one of the earpieces and grab it with the tips of my fingers. It probably seems mundane, but the thought of spending a month squinting at a screen made the effort seem like something out of an action movie. Today I need to go try on my extreme weather gear and get ready for (I hope) tomorrow's flight. P.S. As for the bookend, I got to my hotel room yesterday evening, turned on my WiFi, and within ~10 minutes my daughter Skyped me that Obama had won. So the trip almost literally began and ended with Obama!

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Once more with feeling

Less than 10 months after I left, I'm heading back to the South Pole! On my first trip in 2006, I left on the last plane before the station closed. This trip I'll arrive a couple of weeks after the first plane of the season so I'll get to see another side of life there. This season my main tasks are to debrief the current winter-overs (Carlos Pobes and Sven Lidstrom) who have been at the South Pole since February, help out the new winter overs who will be beginning their year, and run the flashers (which I'll explain in a later post.) I'm scheduled to be on-ice between Nov. 10 and Dec 4, so I'll get to experience my first South Pole holiday on Thanksgiving. I've got a 5 hour layover in Los Angeles while waiting for the flight to Sydney, Australia so perhaps I'll write more while I'm stuck there.