Monday, July 30, 2007

From a friend

As I'm sitting here, driving a telescope lookint at stars, I got a few emails. They really make you feel privileged. At times, it really makes you wonder why you get to spend your time the way you do. A friend of mine, and his thoughts on his situation:

I think it's important that people who only see what's on TV about this place get some real answers. Actually the news is getting better about this place lately. Anyways, Iraqi civilians, for the most part they like us. The only real fuss we get from them is when we tear their power lines down with our huge route clearance truck. We do our best to not do it, but sometimes there's no choice. If a particular city has recently been cleared of Al Qaeda, when we go through, there are tons of people on the streets and they wave to us, so it's a mostly positive experience. If we go into a city with a bad enemy situation, where IED and direct fire attacks are imminent, the city/village will either be a "ghost town", or if there were people on the streets, they will scatter at the first site of us. They just don't want to be around when a fire fight breaks out or when there's an IED attack. The insurgents will shoot at us with automatic AK 47's, PKC's which is just a mid sized belt fed machine gun that fires a 7.62 mm (diameter) round, and they also use RPGs. The IED's we've seen lately are large metal containers or cylinders like propane tanks, oxygen and acetylene tanks, etc. So, it's a very large explosion, and any people/soldiers in the open within a couple hundred meters would likely be injured. Then, you have us, with .50 caliber machine guns, 7.62 belt fed machine guns, 5.56 machine guns, M4's (new M16) on the smaller end, and 25mm high explosive rounds in the Bradley fighting vehicles, & 120mm tank rounds on the larger scale which, in pretty much every fire fight where they're present, get used. So with all that lead and explosives flying around and blowing up, nobody wants to be around, especially innocent civilians.

There was one day in particular where I had to take my platoon on a route clearance mission (which is what we do daily) up through the middle of Old Baquba (eastern Baquba proper) prior to the big mission which pushed most of the insurgents out of there. So we knew there was Al Qaeda there, people got attacked in this area all the time, including small arms, RPG, and IED's. When we rounded the corner to turn into the city, the main street was filled with people, pedestrians and cars, shops open, etc. I'd say there was between 300 and 500 people in a 3-4 block distance on this one main road. As soon as they saw us, everyone started running, literally sprinting, jumping in cars, squeeling the tires, pulling their stuff for sale off of the streets and slamming shop doors closed. In 30 seconds, everyone was gone, complete "ghost town". That's always an indicator that something's going to happen. So sure enough, we get a couple blocks into the city and boom, a huge IED detonates near one of my vehicles, but it was pretty far off..they missed, so nobody got hurt. But the people knew it was there and didn't want to have any part of it.

Now when we go through there, since the big operation, there are lots of people on the streets and when we drive in they mostly ignore us until we're right next to them and then they'll wave. That's it. If you actually get out of the vehicles and walk through the cities, most of the civilians will beg from you, especially the children, but adults will too. They mostly ask for food, water, and money, but if you hold a conversation with someone for longer than 2 minutes, they will look at your gear and start asking for whatever they can see...your watch, a flashlight, sunglasses, whatever...anything they can get. At first you kind of feel bad, then you get annoyed, then you pretty much ignore them. Now I just wave, say hi, and if they start asking for stuff I pretend they're not there. Overall I think they feel safe when we're around, at least if they don't think a firefight or IED attack is about to happen. They are thankful that we push out Al Qaeda from their cities because the insurgents try to enforce strict islamic law on the civilians wherever they are, strict female clothing standards, no smoking, etc, and nobody wants that, but if they break those "laws", there are harsh and rediculous punishments to include torture and execution. The civilians also know that even with all of the huge guns we have pointing all over the place when we come through, that we won't shoot anyone without a reason, so they're really not worried about us killing innocent civilians, which is more than what they can say about the insurgents. Their only concern with us shooting is being caught in the cross fire.

As far as security goes, it changes from area to area and city to city. Where I am, Baquba, a few months ago was the worst city in Iraq. There were places, and a lot of them, where you just couldn't go because you were going to get nailed with a huge IED, and then a slew of follow on RPG and machine gun attacks. And that was being done by Al Qaeda, who are the hard core sunni insurgents. There are a number of other, smaller underground type sunni insurgent groups, but none of which really take the strict islamic law to the extent that Al Qaeda does. Then there's the Shia insurgent groups, which aren't as predominant in my area of operation, but the most common one is Jashe Al-Mahdi, or Mahdi Army, which are Muqtada Al-Sadr's guys. They are the ones that usually use the EFP's, the deadly IED's you've probably seen on the news. We've only been hit by a couple of them, and it was outside of the city, a while back. Anyways, that's kind of the layout of the insurgent groups we deal with here

That leads into my opinion on the security issue. Before we got here, or right when we got here, the majority of attacks in the Diyala province were number one on local nationals, then in second, the Iraqi security forces, then last, coalition forces. But right at the same time we were getting here, there was a bunch of varialbes that all lined up in favor of an insurgency in the making. So the number of active hostile insurgents here grew drastically, as did that attacks on local nationals, ISF (Iraqi Securit Forces), and CF (Coalition Forces). There was a really bad spell of sectarian violence where entire villages were being displaced, particularly Shia villages. Al Qaeda would go in, kill a few people, burn a few houses, and tell the rest to leave or they would suffer the same punishment. Then Al Qaeda would turn that village into their engagement areas for ISF and CF, as well as their safe havens, IED factories, car bomb factories, and cache locations where they would stockpile weapons and munitions. Now, also when I first got here, my Batallion of approx 800 soldiers was the only BN for the entire Diyala province, which was not nearly enough to control all of the cities that the insurgents had taken over. Our leadership also took a different approach on dealing with the insurgency than the units we replace, which was, go after them. Which resulted in a flip of who the attacks were on. In just one or two months, the highest number of attacks were on us, then in second ISF, and in third local nationals. SO we had already had an effect of at least shifting their attention, which helped the innocent civilians who were being killed. So we got our asses handed to us for a few months, until we finally got enough combat power here to control it. (Troop surge, yes, it's working) Now it's relaxed significantly, IED attacks are way down, direct fire attacks are way down, body's found are way down, etc. But we didn't kill a whole lot of insurgents when we came through with the big operation that cleared the city. I mean, we killed a few, but I think most of them ran out of the city, or put down their weapons and blended into the local population to fight another day.

Another major variable in this huge complicated equation is the competency of the Iraqi security forces, being the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police. The current Iraqi army is one of the first armies to have been established and trained the entire time in contact (being shot at). They've taken some very heavy casualties in the process. Now that we have this place secured a little better, the ISF can get on their feet a little better. They're a little better equipped, every operation we conduct has an ISF counterpart to it, so they're getting better training, and the hiring/firing process is significantly reducing the level of corruption in their organizations. So, they are much better now than they were when we got here. But, are they ready to take the city of Baquba and the surrounding areas (Diyala province) on their own yet? Hell no. We couldn't even do it with almost 1000 american soldiers, all equipped with tanks, bradley fighting vehicles, attack helecoptors, artillary and a bunch of other technology that the ISF will never see. So, I think we need to be here for a while longer while we continue to increase the quality number of soldiers in the ISF, better equip them, and better train them. The best/quickest way to do that, is when there's a decent level of security, not when they're getting their asses kicked daily.

If we leave today, the insurgents with collapse back into the city and the resulting violence would be devastating, the whole thing would look like a supernova. The iraqi army and iraqi police forces would get killed and many would be threatened into working for the insurgents. And all of the civilians that have been helping us find insurgents, IED's and cache's would be tied up, blindfolded and shot in the back of the head twice if the insurgents were feeling nice. Otherwise they would get tossed into a torture chamber (which we've found a few) and get their nuts zapped with a car battery while their eyeballs were cut out of their head, and they were beaten with an 1" diameter 18" long piece of metal cable. So, that's my personal opinion on the whole deal based off of what I've seen here in the last 10 months. Other areas aren't so bad, and others are possibly worse. I can't really speak for the entire country of Iraq, but I don't think it is a hell of a lot different than this place.

Accepted for Publication!

I just had my 4-page ApJ letter accepted. Woo hoo!! In the sciences, the peer-review process can be helpful, but it can also be a nightmare. I had 4 revisions, mostly benign, to this short letter. I've heard of some people having papers rejected only because the paper disagreed with or disproved something the referee was working on - silence your competition right?

I felt pretty good about my review - we are saying that the current (and only) explanation for my data doesn't fit for at least a few of the targets. We then proposed something pretty new - optical pumping. The referee did require that our discussion go into a bit of detail about this, but he/she was pretty open-minded about the whole thing. It could have been a lot more painful than it was. There were some substantial improvements too just from having to argue coherently against somebody from the other camp. Good stuff.... Since there's really only a handful of people who do this type of work, one group really, I'm sure I'd know the person if they identified themselves. I'm also sure that there will be a letter or paper in the coming months from that other group that argues that our model is crap. Maybe it is. Only more long, painful nights (like tonight) at the telescope can say.....

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A day off on the summit

The last day or two has been interesting. I don't know why exactly, but there's been a lot on my mind. Random social stuff as well as personal things. I spent some time yesterday and today either at the crater lookouts, hiking down to a rock outcrop, or out on the Mees catwalk (full moon with incredible views). It's been nice having some solitary time, but good company would have been nice too. There's only so much you can do internally, even though the beauty of this place can keep you occupied for days.... I did get a bit of work stuff done, and that's been exciting - the giant pile of data I've collected over the last year is finally starting to make sense and show some neat things. The last few weeks I've really realized how close graduation is, and how I have a "hard but feasable" path for the next year. Now all I have to do is code, plot, and write like crazy....

Here's some HDR shots I took this morning - the channel was really clear. 200-300 images stacked and red-filtered.

Mauna Loa
Kohala & Mauna Kea
The Hamakua coastline
An enhanced zoom-in of the Waipio/Pololu cliffs. They look so small.....

Friday, July 27, 2007

On Maui, Wet, Scared

Ok, I'm not really that scared, but I am on Maui and the humitidy is 100%. I'm supposed to be observing Thurs, Fri, Mon, Tues, but tonight looks like a complete wash-out. I did get a bit of time around sunset. Good thing I have so much data that it doesn't really matter at this point. The mildly frightening thing is these plots....... None of them are straight lines...... And if things were nice and easy, they would be. Damn.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Flying Home

After a couple hours sleep, I left for the airport. I got to fly over Yosemite on the way from Chicago to SFO finally. It's amazing how disconnected you can feel when you're busy and away. This conference has been really intense in many ways. Listening to talks day-in and day-out is always exhausting when they're not in your field and you have to struggle to understand what's going on. I was part of the organizers for this conference in a small but signifigant way. I was in charge of the poster rooms - layout, setup, roster, etc, and I helped Karen with lots of little things. That kept me moving boards around, dealing with people's issues, and skipping lunches a few times to change layouts. It wasn't bad, but it did add to the intensity. I think the best part was getting to know Inge Loes ten Kate, the Dutch "Scandanavian". Don't worry - I didn't know how to pronounce it right the first time either. I gave up a lot of sleep getting to know her. We did something most nights and it made the time go by really quickly. She's was the one other person to present something engineer-ish, so we had some good shop-talk too. She's at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center outside DC building what I'd say is an electrified, mars-atmosphere-like chamber so she can simulate the effect of lighting on mars. I also got to meet lots of different grad students as part of the AbGradCon thing the first few days. It made it easier to find good people to hang with, and most dinners were big groups of us. It's pretty amazing how you can get so adjusted to a routine or a different way of life over 10 days - and then 5am hits, you're in a taxi, on an airplane, staring out a window for ages, finally left exhausted, half-way around the world, back to your home you haven't seen much in the last year. It's quite a shock. I leave again Thursday for Haleakala and another 7 days on the mountain, then I'm done! What a trip this last year has been.....

Jose helping me finish up the posters.
The eastern front of the sierra nevada.
Half-dome from above.

The eastern side of Owens Valley.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Halophiles & Salt Flats

The conference put on this salt-flat/bio-bay tour for the day after the conference. We drove 4 hours to the south west side of the island where there's some microbio people studying salt-loving organisms in the lagoons and salt-manufacturing ponds. There's some unique niches there. The really salty water is turned pink by the halophiles in it (archea & rodopsin?). You'd think the salt would kill off a lot of things, but the community is really diverse. Lots of different genetic material there, aparently comperable to normal lagoons. There's also microbial mats in some of the puddles and streams. There's layered communities of goop (bacteria?) that work together to live in the bottom of the pond. The top layer likes light and can deal with oxygen. Underneath, there's anaerobic (non-oxygen) species that smell like sulfur. I think the bubbles contain the oxygen produced during photosynthesis. Interesting to think that all the oxygen in our atmosphere came from the breathings of bacteria like these a few billion years ago. Really neat stuff. There's also salt-sweating mango trees that live in the sand near the lagoon. Most of the puddles in the road had salt crystals growing on them or in them. The family that uses the lagoons to produce salt piles up the crystals out in the open. It was really neat to see a giant pile of salt.

The lagoons with the salt pile (white)
Bacterial mats in the "stream"

How we got oxygen
salt crystals
bigger salt crystals

After the halophiles, we went to a nearby lighthouse and beach to kill a few hours. The water was pretty salty and I actually floated, feet and all. Jana took some funny pictures of Karen and I that I hope to get soon.... After this, we went to dinner and then to a bioluminescent bay. We took a boat out to a lagoon where there's a concentration of dynoflagelites. You can move your hand through the water and watch these things glow green around your hand. It looks somewhat like you're glowing. Or maybe that jeebus is near. The bus ride back was interesting - I was half-asleep but talking the whole time. I'm amazed I wasn't more incoherent. It felt like I almost fell asleep mid sentence a few times.

Why faculty bring along graduate students.....

Friday, July 20, 2007

Contact Night

This was the last day of the conference. The SETI talks were entertaining as usual. It's seen as a fringe topic, but it's really interesting the way most people present it. I really like Seth and Jill - the senior SETI folks. There's a neat new interferrometer being built in northern cali called the ATA. I'm always impressed by what the radio people can do. Radio people amplify light waves instead of counting photons like us optical people. They're on the older side of the quantum "wave-particle duality"... With recievers instead of CCD's, you can automatically get wavelength, polarization and phase information from the signal coming off the reciever. In many ways, radio telescopes are way more advanced - they almost always do interferrometric spectro-polarimetry. They're typically arrays (interferrometers) that simultaneously record many wavelengths (spectro-) and wave directions (-polarimetry). At least, that's what it seems like. The conference closed by showing Contact and having a "discussion session" before. There were lots of neat stories about Carl Sagan's life and little things about how the movie related to the actual SETI program. Hollywood hijacked the ending, but I always enjoyed the issues the movie made me think about. There was an interesting talk by an outreach guy earlier in the day. He had spent a month teaching "astrobiology" to monks in India. They were really responsive to western science, enjoyed physics and astronomy, but they didn't really seem too excited about life on other planets. We're all one, and life is part of the universe. They weren't too interested in finding life elsewhere because it is assumed be there, and we're all part of it anyways. Interesting perspective. "If it is just us, seems like an awful waste of space".

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Walking Around

Inge and I decided to walk to Old San Juan for the evening. The hotel is only 2 miles or so from the nice, old part of town. Aparently, lots of night life and touristy stuff goes on down there. We walked down the main hotel-beach-strip and caught the sunset from a lookout in front of a Moorish church. The colors were awesome. It felt a little desolate on the sidewalk. Everybody was driving. There were a few runners, but only a couple people out. I would have expected it to be a little busier. Old San Juan was pretty chill. We had dinner on a terrace out in a little square. Good food, good night.

Work I Did Here

I thought I would take a moment to justify my existence. At least my existence in Puerto Rico. For those who just see the pictures, I'm sure you're convinced that I go around the world to look at mountains and play on beaches. Well, you're somewhat right. But I actually do work things while I go most places. This whole conference is about getting the astro's, bio's, geo's and chemists (NAI), as well as SETI and education people together like this to talk about what we're all finding and how it relates to life on Earth.

The work I did was to present two posters on my work. Posters are usually a quick summary of what you've done over the last year to decade. Since I've been working for 3 years now, I've had time to do two projects. I built an instrument, which is unworthy of a poster to most scientists (not engineers). I have used it on Deep Impact and on young stars, which is worthy of a poster to most scientists. It's more like a networking/newscasting gathering. Nobody has time to read papers. At best they read abstracts. You put an abstract on a website and invite people to come to a hotel in an interesting place in exchange for suffering through hours of talks and abstract reading while everybody shares their last few years compressed in 15 minutes. I got to give a talk (pdf here) at the AbGradCon part too. Aparently it went ok.

Deep Impact poster:

Young stars poster:

Here's some neat things that I learned:

Todd took some bugs in Alaska and tried to freeze them. Normally, at minus 70C or 120 degreez below freezing in Fahrenheit, they would be rock solid. But these bugs have antifreeze blood and did just fine. Neat. Antifreeze blood.

I had no idea that Titan, Saturn's moon, was thought to be mostly ice with just a bit of rock. It makes sense, lots of those outer moons are, I was just a little retarded.

Europe consists of Italy and uninhabited forest land. Period.

Spores of various things can dehydrate and even crystalize, be stored for hours to millenia, and then be thawed/hydrated back to life. They physically turn into dead crystalline junk, only to be revived. Like the people who drown in cold water and are awakened hours later at the hospital, just fine. No joke.

Apparently, the major cost 0ver-runs in the big NASA space missions are caused by the aerospace companies like Ball Aerospace or Boeing or Northrop-Grumman. They are contracted to make parts for these missions, but for one reason or another, take months to years longer than they said they would, sometimes for more money. Take the new James-Web scope that will replace Hubble. Apparently, homeland security has higher priority or more pull with aerospace companies, so they bumped the mirror making by nearly a year to do some military stuff.

There are 20 amino acids that make up our DNA. The A,T,C,G's make an alphabet of 20 molecules (that's highly redundant) with 1 that says start reading, and 1 that says stop.

The older, experienced faculty/scientists can't keep their talks on time any better than grad students. 7/18 grad students went over time and ended up rushing thier conclusions. 13/28 speakers in the main talks went over time, and every session ended 15-30 minutes late. The funny thing was that some of the more aggressive moderators would stand up after the speakers time was up. The would move progressivly closer to the podium, checking their watches and staring at the speaker. The speaker would slowly inch away from the podium and add "quickly", "in conclusion", "moving along" or other suggestive modifiers to their talks to try to gain a few more minutes of airtime. Also - people love to monologue, and also to be heard. Normally, after a talk, people ask questions. Certain others make "comments". Essentially, they take the microphone and start talking for 5 more minutes about how something they know influences things. Some can be quite timely. Others love hearing themselves speak.

Here's some of Avi's pics of the AbGradCon talks:

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Almost everybody went on a tour of Arecibo today. This is a 1000ft wide radio dish that's used to mainly do astronomical, ionospheric, planetary, and seti work. I thought the coolest part was the asteroid imaging they did using this thing as a giant radar. People use this thing as a transmitter and blast a bunch of energy towards an asteroid then use the reflected wave to make a map of an asteroid. The video's Mike showed are fabulous. Check jpl echos too. Also, somebody gave a talk about using binary pulsars to test/confirm relitivity and gravitational waves. Pretty cool. I was amazed how accurately they could measure things.

Same flowers as in Hawaii.....

They installed a new secondary and tertiary "mirror" to correct for the too-simple spherical shape of the dish. The sphere is accurate to 2mm, and it's made of simple metal mesh......

The dish w/ reciever

Inge thinking about ET.

El radar..... and el swiss software engineer con Inge grabbing el mirror.

The Caves.....

The first part of our tour day was spent in the caves. It was pretty cool - giant underground rivers and karst lanscape.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Day Off

The conference has been really interesting, but there's only so much sitting and listening that I can tolerate. Inge and I skipped the morning session and went to the beach. There is a little park on the north side where you can actually play in the waves. The water here is somehow..... sticky. It's confusing, but none of the astrobiogeochemists here have a good answer for me. We then went down to the protected beach and hunted some lizards with Tarik.

The "beach"


The conference has been mostly like this - sitting, watching, listening, snoozing...... At least, the grey-beards do a lot of snoozing. The younger ones play on their laptops.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Night in Old San Juan

Today was the first day of the gradstudent/post-doc session - we all got our own miniconference at the beginning. My talk was 2nd. It's neat because grads & post-docs aren't scared to ask basic questions - they don't have ego's and reputations to protect yet. Since there's a bunch of astro's, geo's, bio's and chemists, all working as astrobiogeochemists at this conference, we can get really basic. The AbGradCon talks went well. I hope to update pics soon - I have to track down one of the guys who took pictures. Afterwards we all went to a big dinner and I got to meet some neat people. A smaller group of us went down to the old city. It felt really carribbean. We went to an older bar to play pool and kill some time - since it was only midnight and this place runs on latin time, nobody starts partying till 1 or 2am. We then walked down a ways to the place with the angels. It was a ton of fun. A small drum/horn group played for a little while, in between the dj's. Faik got to dance with an angel, and Inge & Irene won the pole/podium dance contest. I was the promoter! Go astrobiogeochemists!