Archive for December, 2009

Memorable Holiday

28 December 2009

We arrived at 30th Street train station on Christmas Eve, to discover that our entire reservation had been cancelled because we were late for our 7:00 AM train.  This was bad news: our itinerary said our train was at 7:25 AM.  It turned out that our train had been cancelled and we had been shifted onto the earlier train, but we had not been informed (on neither of the two e-mail addresses and neither of the two phone numbers we had provided to Amtrak).  First I got yelled at by the ticket agent for my bad attitude (showing up at 7:10 for a 7:00 train) and then the only way to get to Buffalo in time for my parents to pick us up and take us all out to the Seneca reservation for dinner with my aunt and uncle and sundry cousins was to get the next train to NY, which happened to be an expensive Acela Express train.  So we had to buy a whole new itinerary for twice as much as the original ticket cost.

Upon arrival in Penn Station, I got on the phone with Amtrak, and waited on hold while Greg went to buy a breakfast sandwich, came back and ate the breakfast sandwich, went to the bathroom, and came back from the bathroom.  Finally I spoke with Lorna, who investigated, opened a case, and said I was entitled to a refund.  I would need to call back once my travel was completed (i.e. once we were back from Buffalo) and I needed to save all the ticket stubs.  I spent several minutes looking for my ticket stub from the first leg of the trip, to suddenly recall in horror that I had put it in my wallet…and I could not find my wallet!

First we went to Lost and Found (which despite the posted hours of 7:30 AM to 4:00 PM was not open), then the Baggage Claim, and finally to Customer Service, where Vivian S. determined we’d been on the 2100 train, it had terminated in NY, and had been taken to the yard.  She contacted someone who walked through the train and found the wallet.  Unfortunately, we had to go board our next train and had to leave Penn Station, so I left Vivian my phone number and she called my cell phone to tell me that she had my wallet and there was $195 in it, and she was concerned since I had written down that I had $200.  Vivian assured me that I could get my wallet on Monday the 28th, since that was when we’d be returning through Penn Station.

So I tried not to worry.  The rest of the train ride was uneventful, we arrived on time, we had a lovely Christmas.

Then on Saturday night, we tried to buy movie tickets through Fandango.  Luckily, we used our joint Visa card, and it was rejected.  Greg called the bank, and sure enough there had been hundreds of dollars charged on my card at Macy’s on the 24th.  So we cancelled the Visa, and the joint debit card too just in case, and I checked my other accounts online.  Nobody had tried to use my personal Visa or my personal debit card, so I relaxed again.  This week we should get an affidavit from our bank to sign, and our new Visa should arrive in a few days.  We used a different card to buy the movie tickets for Sunday, and I tried not to think about it anymore.

Monday morning there were no problems getting on the train to NY, and happily nobody tried to check my identification, since my driver’s license was in Penn Station.  However, our train was late coming into the station due to track-work delays and whatever else delays trains.  We pulled into Penn Station at about five minutes to 4:00, and went straight to Customer Service.  We were told that everything in the safe gets taken to Lost and Found, and I would have to come back tomorrow to get my wallet!  Remember, Lost and Found closes at 4:00.  Or maybe in fact it closes at 3:45.  We heard that too.  After some persuasion, the woman at the desk called a stationmaster (who had a lot on his hands*, as we found out during the 45 minutes we spent in Customer Service) who had handled the wallet with Vivian, counted the money, and would get it for us.  The reason it took him so long was that once Lost and Found is closed, there’s no opening it until “Bill” returns to work, as he has the only key.  Apparently stationmasters, maintenance, and janitorial staff cannot be trusted with the Lost and Found key.

Somehow, a key was found, and stationmaster Ken R. of Philadelphia returned my wallet, my $195.25 ($100 of which I put in an envelope with a thank-you card for Vivian), and put us on another Acela Express back to Philadelphia that left 10 minutes earlier than our scheduled local train.

So here I am writing this on the train, in the quiet car (ah, blessed quiet! I could hear the women behind me talking the entire way from Buffalo to New York even through the music on my earphones.  If only regular trains had quiet cars!), moving fast and looking forward to my home, my cat, and my bed.  Acela trains have comfortable seats and tables you can work at while you ride.  Unfortunately, though my computer seems to think that there is “free public wifi,” there is in fact no signal, so I am actually posting this to the blog from home (Where we arrived a good hour earlier than originally planned!)

*Other things going on in Customer Service while we waited there Monday:

The woman looking for her friend Jonathan, at first unable to figure out which train he was on, later unable to find him, and coming back a third time after paging proved unfruitful

The girl looking for a train to Ridgeway, NJ by way of Secaucus

The large family looking for bathrooms

The call over the walkie-talkies about the person having a seizure on track 5

The woman and her son who had missed their delayed train (not because they weren’t there for it, but because they were expecting a page that never came until it was too late) and couldn’t get a seat on another until Thursday

The British-sounding couple concerned about credit card fraud and their receipt (or lack thereof)

The family needing to take an elevator down to their train platform

The lost bag delivered by an employee – the same thing that happened to me happening to someone else, though they found the bag and tried to page the woman.

UPDATE: Oh, Amtrak DID inform us that the train on Christmas Eve was cancelled.  They called our home phone at about 8 AM that day.  Not exactly helpful to get that message upon returning home.

Toast, butter, eat

21 December 2009

According to my contract, I am not supposed to accept gifts from students.  However, sometimes it is really hard to say no.

On Friday, one of my students handed me a loaf in a snowflake-printed cellophane bag at the end of class.  She said “Toast it, butter it, eat it.”  How could I refuse?  The loaf turned out to be some very yummy cheese bread that is indeed excellent when toasted and buttered.

I have also, in previous years, accepted cookies and homemade apple butter.  Once after I wrote a college recommendation, the mother of a student gave me a large assortment of Godiva chocolates.  I shared those with the science department, which seemed appropriate.  The nice note she had written was about how well she felt her son was prepared for whatever science-y major he was planning to pursue, so it made sense that all the science teachers deserved credit.

A few students have given me gift cards.  Those have only come from students whom I have had a special intellectual relationship with.  Students who I expect to remember for the rest of my life as being remarkable, and whom I feel lucky to have taught.

Then there was the student whose family gave all their daughters’ teachers a huge bag of pistachios every Christmas.  That was two schools prior to the one I teach in now.  I don’t remember how many pounds of pistachios was in that bag, but I recall it taking up about 2 gallons of volume.  Seriously, this was a HUGE amount of pistachios for a single woman!  That same family also had a tradition of gifting their daughters’ teachers with Waterford crystal at the end of the school year.  I was expecting a candy dish.  I was shocked to be given a cake plate!

The best gift I have ever received from a student, however, was a note written to me by a 9th grader I taught at my previous school.  She was prone to shouting and was rude and I did not enjoy teaching her.  I tried calling home and her mom immediately started yelling at me, explaining how her daughter came home from school every day screaming about how much she hated me.  I tried the old “you have to be able to get along with all kinds of people” but that mother was having none of that.  She insisted to me that she did just fine without getting along with anybody.  Whew.  I was really glad to get off the phone with that woman.  And at the end of the year, her horrible daughter wrote me a wonderful note thanking me for treating her the same as I treated everyone in the class even though she behaved so badly towards me, and that she really appreciated that.

So parents, if you want to thank your children’s teachers or remember them this holiday, know that some of the most treasured items are the heartfelt notes from the students themselves.  I have every holiday card given me by a student.  I have kept the wallet-sized senior photos inscribed to me on the back, and the end-of-the-year thank you notes.  All the way back to my student teaching assignment, with the silly poem written by the loudest girl in the class and signed by everyone.

But if you insist on baking, I do like cheese bread!  And I like cookies, too!

yeah, it’s snowing

19 December 2009

This is kindof random, but my thoughts are wandering this morning.  And, I’ve had a hard time focusing lately.  Mentally, not optically.

I have several errands to run this morning, in the midst of a major winter storm.  Oh well.  Unfortunately, the drivers around here are TERRIBLE in snow, and also unfortunately, I have been awake since before 5 AM because I am worried about getting all the things done that I need to get done.

Happily, I can amuse myself on the internets in the meanwhile, and also get the laundry started.

I like Elliot Abrams’ weather blog on  He used to do the weather for the local “all news” AM radio station here, and now he works for Accuweather on the Northeast USA.  He really enjoys his work, and it comes out in his writing.  Here’s an excerpt from his latest:

From the mountains North Carolina to parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, there will be a deep blanket of heavy snow. Near the snow rain line (eastern Virginia to the mouth of Delaware Bay) giant marshmallow snow globs will aggregate into a pasty plaster that can topple trees as if they were toothpicks and snap electric and telephone wires as if they were telephone and electric wires. Innocent snowflakes will turn to painfully stinging missiles darts and tacks, propelled by gusting gales that scream over the seas and roar through the woods. On the roads, slush mixes with salt and road grime to form a slithery sloppy slurry that defies the windshield wipers.

Maybe we won’t have school on Monday.  The prediction is for 12″ to 20″ (30 cm to 51 cm) of snow in this region.

On the annoying side, I can’t get my regular car, the Prius, into the driveway without overhanging the sidewalk.  I disconnected the transmission in the car I am converting to electric while the car was in “PARK” and now I can’t move it.  (One of several learning experiences I have had so far with this project.)  The engine is half-disassembled, there is no battery, and the car is still really heavy and the tires have a decent coefficient of friction with the ground.  But I will have to park the Prius in the driveway anyway, before the plows come by.  Here you can see the 7 AM situation:

snow so far, 7 AM

Some friends suggested that I ask the Car Talk guys how to move the immovable Honda farther up the driveway.  Their idea is beginning to sound more attractive, though mostly I think Tom and Ray will laugh at me a lot.

Again, sorry for the disjointed post, I’m going to stop now and go do laundry.  I hope you are in a situation where you can ENJOY the snow!


8 December 2009

I did an experiment this morning.  I usually have my first-year students drop a piece of plastic called a “picket fence” through a photogate to measure the acceleration of gravity.  The “picket fence” is a piece of clear acrylic plastic with some evenly-spaced black stripes on it.  The photogate is a black plastic bracket in a rectangular C-shape with an infrared LED on one part of the “C” and an infrared detector on the opposite side of the “C” so that the detector always “sees” the LED unless there is some object blocking the path.  There is a similar device in your TV remote control and TV set.  The LED is in the remote control and the detector is in your TV.  If something opaque is between the remote control and the TV, the TV won’t respond to the commands from the remote.

Anyway, for a number of years I have had difficulty with this experiment.  For some kids, it would not work, and for some kids it would.  I tried restarting the software that reads the photogate, switching picket fences, switching computers, switching photogates.   It seemed like the problems were random.  Yesterday, I tried out the experiment to make sure it would work.  No problem.  I tried to demonstrate the procedure this morning to my first class of the day.  It failed.  ACK!

I sent the kids on a break (we had two periods of class in a row, so this was usual) and switched out photogates again.  It worked!  Our oldest photogates are the ones that work!  I quickly found all the oldest photogates (just enough for the number of groups I have) and my students did the lab successfully.  Meanwhile, I did my own experiment.

I discovered that the newer photogates can’t “see” through my picket fences, in the clear spots.  Not when  I put the picket fence (clear area) next to the LED, not when I put it next to the sensor, and not when I held the photogate in the middle and slowly rotated it to see if there was a better angle for transmission.  Admittedly, I made these picket fences myself, and they are not perfect.  But why this problem?  Is it the type of plastic?  Is the plastic too thick?  Do the LEDs in the newer photogates emit a different wavelength of infrared light than the older ones?  Or is the beam less intense?  My next investigation will involve my digital camera (digital cameras can detect infrared – try looking in the LCD display while pointing the camera at your remote control and hit some of the remote control buttons.  If the remote control is functional, you should see the flashes of the infrared LED).

So a weird thing is, I have a small TV in my office, and sometimes it turns itself on when I turn on the overhead light, which is a fluorescent fixture.  Why does my TV respond to the light turning on?  It only happens sometimes – maybe once a month.  I turn on the light in the office most days, so it is only 1/20 to 1/30 of the times I turn on the light.



5 December 2009

Today, 10 red weather balloons are being launched by DARPA from various points around the country.  Spotting one can win you real money.  But MIT is turning it into a social networking experiment.  So if you click on my link to join and you find a balloon, not only would you get money for spotting the balloon but I would get money for recruiting you and the person who recruited me also would get money.  If you recruit someone who locates a balloon, same deal.

So, what the heck.  I’m on the sofa today (I have a sinus infection and missed two days of school, plus I missed another day for the cold that welcomed the bacteria into my sinuses) but I have friends on facebook and random people who click on my blog, so here I go.  Go look for red balloons!  It will be interesting if someone in my network finds one!

Here’s the link to join my network:

Here’s what MIT has to say:

Explanation of the project:

As you might have heard, DARPA has announced a network challenge in the vein of the DARPA grand challenge.

In this challenge, participants are tasked with finding 10 red weather balloons distributed throughout the continental US for 8 hours on December 5. The idea is to get this to be a crowdsourcing kind of activity, where people will use social media tools to solve this problem.

Our group, the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team, based out of the MIT Media Lab, has created a system where you get money not just for finding balloons, but for getting people to join the hunt who find the balloons, or for getting people who get people who find balloons, etc. Here’s an image of the structure:

First you have to sign up, which you can do here Then you can send invitations to others to join through your own unique URL, crediting you with recruiting them.

While our team is interested in winning the contest, we are also interested in studying information diffusion in social networks. Does Twitter spread information faster than blogs? Is your blog effective at spreading information?

Once you sign up, you can track you impact using a link such as

and you can spread your influence using a link such as

We could use your help in getting out the word.  If you sign up you will be able to see the impact that you have on getting out the word in real time!

Win money, help science, and help charity!

Kind regards,

The MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team