Monday, March 31, 2008

A day in the dark

Due to some work being done on a glycol loop down in the power plant, we had to practice some pretty extreme energy conservation measures. This pretty much meant that I spent the bulk of the day in the lab in the dark. It was actually pretty nice, and even led to me playing my harmonica for a couple folks and singing "campfire songs" for a little bit. They finished up the work in the power plant around dinner time, so it's good to have that option of turning on the lights again if the mood moves you.

The wind was really blowing today, and there is a lot of snow moving around out there right now. It will be interesting to see how the drift upwind of the station grows over the months. They bladed it down some, but it was a good 12-15 feet tall when I got here this summer. We've still got plenty of light to see by outside, though looking out through the highly tinted windows makes it seem a lot more murky than it really is.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


Well, a second bright shiny appeared in our sky today. Jupiter finally became visible, and it was neat to see a little point of light like that again. I remember standing in Christchurch the first night back, in a narrow alleyway by the arts center behind Dux Delux, and looking up and seeing my first star in about 5 months peek through some broken clouds in the little strip of sky sandwiched between the buildings. We'll see plenty of stars in the coming months, and it will be awesome to get reacquainted with the southern constellations once again, like I got to on the tall ship sailing to Easter Island last year.

Speaking of other interesting things in the sky, if it were a bit darker we'd likely have had some seriously intense auroras the last couple days. With some newly developed sun spots there has been a lot of activity picked up on a number of my projects. The VLF has been sounding different, and that's probably for the first time I'm getting to hear a much more clear version of the auroral hiss phenomenon. I guess I'll be expected to let folks (inside) know when there are auroras in the sky to go photograph. We won't be able to see out the windows, since we put blinds up to keep our stray light from the living spaces from interfering with a lot of the sky cameras and photometers the will be studying what is going on in the heavens during the long Antarctic night.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Twilight of the Polies...isn't that the truth. I think we've moved into another phase of twilight today, as it seemed much darker outside. My UV monitoring project also transitioned into a new, scaled-back mode of data gathering since the sun is now just over 3 degrees below the level of the horizon. It will only do one scan per day for how much ultraviolet radiation is bouncing around outside until the sun gets back higher in the sky than it is currently. That will probably be sometime in late September. It's not pitch black, by any means outside, and we probably won't hit what I believe is referred to as "astronomical twilight" for another week or so. It probably doesn't look all that dark to you, but that I could go outside without wearing goggles or sunglasses is a major difference from how it is here during the blindingly bright summer.

Our rock band had its first major practice session for about 3 hours last night. It was definitely a whole lot of fun, and marked my first real act of singing in public since 8th grade back at good ol' Florence Middle School. Of course, back then I wasn't trying to sing like Freddie Mercury, so this is a little bit more exciting/challenging. I'm definitely going to wear ear plugs next time, as that was a lot of acoustic energy reflecting around not all that big a room.

Yesterday we also had a radio drill for the entire station's emergency response apparatus. My fire brigade, having done one under my tutelage earlier in the winter, did a really bang-up job. It was also nice to have it be a drill inside the station, so we didn't have to worry about freezing ourselves and our fairly temperature-sensitive gear outside.

I'm skipping a wine tasting event tonight in the galley. Stuff like that down here on the Ice just seems a little too soft and out of place for my taste. I guess I just don't feel the necessity to be pampered and pretend like I'm all high-class and cultured or something. Supper was leftover brats and taters and a World War II novel for me, and now some more guitar practice before I present this evening's installment of "From the Earth to the Moon". That is, if anybody opts to abandon their pinot noir and finger food. Undoubtedly, my experience as a DA last year biased me against this sort of social event. After all, somebody has to clean the dishes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

shrinking horizons

Today we had a nice little blast out of eastern Antarctica. The altitude there is significantly higher, like at AGAP camp where I got to work those couple days back in January, so it's necessarily colder. The cold air rushes downhill in what is called a katabatic wind, and that's when our temperatures plummet. Unfortunately, that direction generally is the one in which I have to face when walking to ARO, so though most of my body was warm on the walk out there today I still had a frigid blast coming right through the vents in my goggles. Even so, it's amazing that a -105F wind chill didn't feel colder. All that wind and the decreasing light made for some fairly low visibility earlier on in the day, which always makes it feel just a little more like what I envisioned Antarctica to be like before I got down here last year.

I was out at ARO for almost 6 hours yesterday doing a triple calibration of one of my instruments. It is an ultraviolet monitoring project, and since we've very little time with sunlight left it is in the gradual process of scaling back to a very minimal operational status for the duration of the winter. I wish I could say the same for myself... Anyhow, with the wind and cold up there yesterday it was a really short time before fingers started to get really a bit too cold for comfort. Between doing that sort of stuff every day and playing loads of guitar, my hands are having a bit rough time of it.

Did I say guitar playing? Does this mean that the band is back on for the winter? That's a big affirmative on both accounts. Mid-winter will probably be our first gig. We have 10 songs tentatively picked out for our set list, and it should be a lot of fun to be "in the band" for the first time. I'm planning on doing some lead singing as well as playing guitar, so you know it's going to be a cold place somewhere when that actually comes to pass.

Speaking of music, my brother's band Vegetable is trying to get into a battle of the bands called the Deadwood Derby back in Lawrence, Kansas. They have to get voted in by the public into one of the 6 possible slots for performers. If you'd like to hear some of their songs, just click the link to their Myspace page. You can vote online once per day until March 28th at if you want to show them some love and help get them into the contest. Your support would be awesome!

Much obliged...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

one of these the Moon

Well, Friday night the sunset dinner was quite tasty. I just had the beef tenderloin, and skipped the lobster tail, since it really doesn't appeal to me. There was a little party afterward, and the dancefloor was vastly different than this summer. I tried to find my groove, but just wasn't into it so much. Perhaps having done the 300 workout only a little while earlier had something to do with that.

Unfortunately, the sky was very overcast, so most of us probably saw the sun for the last time late Thursday night. All that is left of the fiery orb is a brighter spot on the horizon. But, today the moon really was visible and beautiful.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

farewell fair light

Well, the days go on and the sun sinks lower. It's all so gradual, but it will be so very decisively night for months on end. I guess it is exciting, but it feel more like the resolution to follow through with something weighty and important (perhaps marriage?) than a rock'em sock'em adventure.

This weekend is one of the station's 2-day weekends, and we will be having a fancy dinner and party in honor of the sunset. I don't know what all else is planned during the days, but hopefully I'll be able to participate around work. I guess the next "holiday" will likely be mid-winter in June, but I'm sure we'll find some reasons in the meantime to celebrate. The next few weeks will be pretty tough for us science techs. By about April 12 we will have to have gotten the winter-only projects (mostly cameras and other optical instruments that study what's going on in the sky) up and running. My walk to ARO and working out on the roof are going to be so very different in the dark. It's going to take some getting used to, I'm sure.

Oh boy, we just watched Platoon. I had a similar alien sensation as when I saw Rescue Dawn last year in McMurdo. To watch people moving through the jungle landscape of southeast Asia while here, particularly Pole where we don't even have soil, is so very bizarre. That there are animals and plants in such profusion as to be dangerous to health and life is about as far from the environs of the Antarctic Plateau as you can get.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Blowin' in the wind

We had some visitors arrive in the last few days. All these little puffballs of frost rolled in and got stuck everywhere. I first noticed them in the lee of some sastrugi, and it almost looked like a weird bird's nest. I guess the right kind of frost forms, just enough wind starts bits blowing, and they accumulate more as they roll along. It was a really neat little surprise to discover.

That sun just keeps creeping toward the horizon. It is remarkable how different this place starts to look when it gets a little dark. We'll still have light once the sun goes down on Saturday, but it will be an increasingly dim twilight into April.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

a bit winded

Well, I had the joy of running from ARO back to the station-a good quarter mile-when the fire alarm went off this afternoon. Luckily, most of the station was lolling around on their day off, so there were plenty of folks around, including firefighters, to respond quickly. Some battery charger just had a short and overheated or something. Anyhow, other than that it has just been a remarkably dark day, with all the same work done on my part.

In about 5 minutes I'm going to get the next couple of "From the Earth to the Moon" episodes started up in the lounge across the hall from my lab. I've been looking forward to this all week. This week I get about 11.5 hours of "weekend", from the end of work on Sunday to the beginning of work on Monday. I usually pack as much into that as possible.

Well, gotta run.

Friday, March 14, 2008


Well, we just got done playing some dodgeball. It probably has been since high school since I played last. On my inaugural return to the sport I got drilled in the face twice by the same guy within a few minutes. He was packing the heat with a little ball a bit larger than a grapefruit, really easy to throw hard, and seemed to laugh a lot about how he couldn't manage to throw it below waist height. Yeah, got me laughing real hard. Nothing like having your ear ringing to accentuate a nice evening of sport and competition. Sorry for the vitriol, it has to come out sometime.

The temperature stayed in the mid -80Fs today, with wind chills down to -120F. But, it didn't feel all that bad. Actually, I should go stand outside for a little bit. It'd probably be like using an ice pack for 30 minutes.

I'm starting to now try and get a grip on how to run a couple of the projects that will be operating this winter, but didn't run this summer. Both are sky cameras, and I have had minimal training on both of them. I've also been going through some of our cabinets and jettisoning a lot of junk that has accumulated throughout the years.

My wall in the lab is finally getting repaired after the construction crews put in the big steel supports for the wind deflector between the station's modules. The guy doing the drywall work is actually a friend and co-worker of mine from the DA corps last year in McMurdo. There is actually a third one of us ex-DAs from last year in the carpentry crew as well.

Well, I'm going to go find something to do the rest of the evening that doesn't involve blunt trauma to my head.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

blustery hump day

Well, hump day for those that aren't working straight through to November...

The temperature and wind chill really took a dive today. It was about -66F with 14+ knot winds, which dropped the wind chill down to about -106F. Granted one doesn't go out with much skin exposed, but that moving air finds all the little bits like your nose inside your balaclava and your skin inside your goggles. Those vents just let that frigid air come right in and super-cool your face. The visibility was pretty minimal, too. You could just barely make out ARO from the elevated station, and vice versa.

The 300 workout group continues to grow, but we had some guys not participate today for whatever-lame-reason. I'm up to doing 24 of the 30 reps for each exercise, save the pull-ups. I've plateaued at 13 of those for the last couple days. We even had our first female participant this evening, which certainly wouldn't have occurred in the agoge in classical Sparta, but I heard no complaints from the guys. It's fun to see how folks are embracing this workout, despite its outwardly nerdy origins; and to think that I was the instigator... It reminds me of how many guys from my scholarship hall started coming to tae kwon do after I'd been doing it for a while as an undergrad.

There seem to be more and more recreational offerings, and I think this weekend will be pretty packed. I'm helping get a "magic movie night" set up for the drive-in in the gym. We're going to watch both "The Illusionist" and "The Prestige". Hopefully folks will turn out for both of these brilliant articles of cinematic prestidigitation. I've got a couple books of magic tricks, so maybe I can throw something simple together for the intermission. We'll see.


Sunday, March 9, 2008

mad skills

Well, if there's one thing in life that I can apparently do well, it's the dishes. My humble introduction to the U.S. Antarctic Program had me washing dishes, scrubbing pots and pans, making powdered beverages, scrubbing floor drains, wiping tables, etc. This was just-now-two summers ago, mostly in McMurdo Station. I applied for 29 other jobs, but apparently a freshly Master's-degreed aerospace engineer wasn't someone most departments were interested in hiring. Eventually the Food Services department in McMurdo came through while I was up in Montana working at Glacier National Park as a bellman in on of the lovely lodges there in that gorgeous place. One of my most highly recurring images that comes to mind of the beauty of the rest of the world while I'm on the Ice is that vista that unfolded before my bleary eyes after sleeping out on the beach at Lake McDonald, and waking up to a beautiful sunrise over the glacier carved valley on up to the Continental Divide. It was quite breathtaking, to say the least.

But, I digress. Yesterday was the first of my several days in the capacity back as a temporary dining attendant (DA, a.k.a. dishwasher) this winter. We don't have enough people on station to justify dedicated, full-time DAs through the winter, so pretty much the entire station population takes turns on a daily basis. I think it is actually something that should happen during the summer. It definitely gives people a vastly more vivid appreciation of what those hard-working folks in the blue shirts go through 6 days a week during the summer. Anyhow, with 5 months of DA-dom under my belt and only 60 people on station, it was a pretty easy task for me. Yes, you have to hustle, but I pretty much was on cruise control most of the day. In the afternoon I had to step out briefly to take care of some of my science checks (that sure wasn't the case last year), and after I got off work at 8 o'clock in the evening I had to run out to ARO to finish up the last of the checks for the day. Given that I'd started work at 5:45 that morning to take care of some other science and fire-related tasks, it made for a very long day.

It was remarkably darker, despite little cloud cover, yesterday evening on my walk out to ARO, and it continues to seem significantly less bright outside today. The sunlight is taking on a much more golden tint, and there is far less of that blinding white glare that was omnipresent all summer. The shadows are stretching and the temperatures are back down as cold as we've seen yet. This is in part because the sky has been extremely clear-a wonderful deepening blue as nightfall approaches.

Today has been very quiet and sedate. This evening I reserved one of the TV lounges to present the first two parts of the HBO series "From the Earth to the Moon". For me it is pretty cool getting to watch something like that down here on one of my biggest gambits to become an astronaut, save for persevering through two aerospace degrees at the University of Kansas. This environment is such a good analog to the rigors and challenges of space flight, and I hope that it will grab some hiring managers' attention when they see that I've done science and been the fire chief at the South Pole for over a year. July 1 of this year is the next deadline for astronaut candidate applications. Mine was completed and submitted some time ago, and I surely would be thrilled to get any sort of positive feedback while still in this wonderful place that, by the way, has less telecommunications connection with the rest of the planet than the International Space Station or the Space Shuttle. There is a Shuttle launch scheduled for Tuesday, and it will be interesting to follow, as I remember working on some of the requirements for this new Japanese lab "Kibo" while I was interning with Boeing back during my last summer as an undergrad.

I wonder how you say "from the dish sink to the stars" in Latin? I'm sure it would sound a tad more erudite.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

a bit of wind, snow, & sun

So, as writing my previous post I kept hearing a whistling sound. It turns out that the wind has come up to just under 22 knots and is blowing a lot of snow around outside. The lower-angle light made for some pretty memorable scenery, so here are a few pictures in near-real-time for conditions outside as I post this:

message received

Well, the fire brigade's communications drill that I wrote up went off quite well today. We only had a few points of improvement to work on afterwards, and I think that the folks that got to participate reasonably enjoyed it. I wrote the drill in a way so that not only the communications were reviewed, but the whole flow of our personnel and the tactics we will use to do search, attack, ventilation, and exposures (SAVE) for a fire scene were presented in a pretty straight-forward manner. I think the next training we'll work on will be the information we need to give to the Trauma Team when we turn a patient over to them, and then also training for what our firefighters should do if they are trapped inside an emergency scene and have to issue a May-Day call.

This evening I watched "Full Metal Jacket" for the first time in probably 8 or 9 years. It was just as gut-wrenchingly intense as ever. For a movie made in the 1987it had some very apropos comments by the characters that struck pointed chords given the conflicts in which our country is currently engaged. I guess the whole nature of war, violence, and the motivations people find to keep relatively sane-or not so sane-in such a time and place of madness don't change that much with the years. Mortality is mortality. There is no escaping it, and the same atavistic fears about what is beyond death's veil that gripped our ancestors in ages past still grip us, despite all the "advancements" and distractions our modern culture provides. It's not that we can hope to escape this end, but rather it is the way in which we meet it and when, which are the real crux of the issue. We still fear the darkness waiting outside the flickering light of our small fire.

I think I am exceptionally lucky to be in a place where there is no war, where I have plenty to eat and clean water to drink, where I'm not threatened by those around me, where I have rights that are observed and protected, and where the only real violence that can be visited upon me is that from the natural environment outside our few warm little structures that protect us from the elements.

Peace to you all.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Planting the flag(s)

Well, a good portion of my afternoon was spent tromping around outside shuttling and planting a bunch of bamboo flags out into the Clean Air Sector. I have a variety of riometers, very low frequency receivers, and other odds and ends that are the business end of a good number of the science projects that I support. By the time I hit the end of the line I was making a round-trip of a mile, so it was actually a great change of pace (pardon the pun) to get in so much foot time. You can't really stray all that far here, and one of the things I'm sure I'll do when I get back to NZ is to just start walking in one direction and not stop for quite a while. Well, I might just have to stop for friendly dogs, movie theaters, Greek restaurants, and pretty girls.

The legions of Spartans-in-training keeps growing. I know of two more guys that will be joining us in doing the 300 workout. Hopefully everybody will stick with it. It'd be great to perpetuate this much exercise over the winter. It would also be a great excuse to take some theme-specific hero shots out at the Pole, and I'm talking about photographs not drinks when I say "shots". Anyhow, I may start getting back into some tae kwon do on the off days just to vary things up and keep active. People kid us about being Spartan warriors and all that, but I think they're just too shy or timid to come and give it a try themselves. Still, if people keep joining up we'll have a regular agoge here in not too long.

Heading to the gym today I was defamed, insulted, and appalled when somebody (the villain will go un-named) blurted out that I have "elephant calves". Now, I don't know about you, but elephants don't really have much contour change along their legs. They're like big, thick tree trunks. So, telling somebody that their lower legs look like an elephant's is essentially like saying that they have cankles, which isn't very flattering. I've got my strapping father to thank for those "elephant calves", and anyhow I knew what this anonymous person meant, but had to give them grief about it anyway.

Anything less would be uncivilized!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

thermodynamics reminder

Metal has a higher conductivity for heat than, say, air. Thus, when holding a drill with a big steel auger bit for making holes to set flags (navigational aids to be used in the dark of winter), take care that your hands are properly insulated. I froze my hands pretty quickly this morning when I was setting up some bamboo-poled flags to help me find the vault for one of my magnetometers, should any work on the equipment be necessary on it this winter. I've been saving my pair of mittens for winter, and I guess for activities like this I'm going to have to start using them as they're so very much warmer than gloves. I've still got a really long flag line to erect out beyond ARO to a bunch of the antennas for my space science experiments, so that will probably take a few trips with the drill and a whole mess of flags. It's better to put in a bit of work now to set up the infrastructure that will help keep me from wandering off into the pitch black void of the Antarctic plateau this winter.

I got to do some training today for another of the emergency response teams (Team 1: Hasty Response Team). I went through fire extinguisher operation and inspection with them, as well as covering the role of Accountability Officer that one of their number must fill at an emergency response. This person checks the firefighters in and out of the safety perimeter, getting names, time of entry/exit, and the air pressure when they enter the scene. This helps us keep track of who is in the scene for how long, which can help mitigate danger to the firefighters from unnecessarily running out of air while still in an IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) environment. I guess I'll be giving the same training to the entire station at the next all-hands meeting, so it's probably good I've had practice in reciting the litany of do's and don'ts a couple times in the last week.

Tonight I finally got back in the band room and practice real guitar for the first time since I found out that my friend/guitar teacher had to change to the night shift and probably wouldn't be in the band. It took only a little bit to get the fingers to remember the movements, so that's good that muscle memory has already set in pretty solidly for the songs that I've been practicing.

That sun just keeps on falling lower to the horizon, and the shadows just keep on stretching out. It's going to be quite something to "see" this place in the dark after so many months of light.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Spartan casualties

Yesterday evening was supposed to be the official beginning of our small group's following of the 300 workout. Sadly, but not totally unexpectedly, 3 of the original 5 guys didn't show up. We picked up another person for their first time, and I'll be interested to see how sore-if at all-he is this morning. I now wish I'd insisted that these guys follow through with their proposal to have a $100 buy-in, and that each missed workout cost you $10. I think I could have picked up a bit of cash that way, but oh well. I'm in the workout for the long run.

I just found out that an astronaut named Steve Hawley is going to be joining my alma mater as a faculty member of the University of Kansas. That almost puts the thought of returning for another degree in my head, but I'm not sure if I'm really up for a PhD at this point in my life. It's a moot point until November, so I'll put that thought on the back burner for the time being. It is also down to just less four months until the deadline for the astronaut applications comes due, and it would be awesome to get any sort of positive feedback from NASA while I'm still here at Pole. That could be a great morale booster while in the blackest pits of winter night.

Our weekly station cleaning tasks (called affectionately: House Mouse) included moving in a bunch of bedding from outside and getting it in the laundry machines. As it came out of the dryers we moved it into the berthing wing I lived in during the summer, which is now closed and not heated for the winter. You wouldn't believe how cold those sheets and blankets were that had been sitting outside for days on end. And, you certainly wouldn't want to have been jumping between them with any expectation of getting any sleep. Rather, you'd just be going numb with frostbite extremely quickly.

Here's a pic of the downwind side of the Dome from back on the day of the new station dedication. Watching the guys take down the flag was vaguely reminiscent of Iwo Jima/Mt. Suribachi in my mind at the time. I actually feel like standing directly outside the Dome makes it seem smaller than when you're inside it, but that may just be because it slopes away from you and most of it isn't really visible.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Quiet Sunday

Just another average day of work for me today while many enjoyed the down time of a lazy Sunday at South Pole. I did get to do all the checks for a different project so that the other tech could take it a little easier after having to get up at 3:30 a.m. to do some work for a different experiment out in the Dark Sector. It was a nice little challenge to follow the manual and work out what I needed to do. I'd been trained to do the most minimum of checks at the beginning of the summer when I was working as both the Cusp and Aurora Techs, but we never had time to get into this detail. Other than that, today was fairly unremarkable as far as work went.

It was pretty interesting how getting temperatures back up into the -50s F felt significantly warmer than in the mid -60s F. Relativity can be interesting that way, but we'll be getting the more painful side of the coin with temps down at what our wind chills have been all too soon, and for months and months on end.

The regular Sunday horror movie was a real stinker tonight. "The Haunting" was a terrible remake of a good movie from a great book ("The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson). Thankfully I slept through most of it. The movie had Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) special effects in the same year that they did "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace" and "The Mummy", both of which were bigger ticket movies with loads of CGI. "The Haunting", in my opinion, relied way too much on special effects that weren't of the highest of caliber, due to these other obligations ILM had. Why go so heavy handed on the CGI in the first place? The original didn't need all that to still be a much creepier piece of cinema. I guess understatement and subtlety are endangered species when it comes to weaving most mainstream tales on the silver screen these days, particularly in the horror genre.