Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas Lights

Right after Christmas Eve dinner, we drove to Deer Field to have a look at the community's famed Christmas lights for the first time.

Blocks and blocks homes were decorated with colorful lights from roof top to curb side with exceptions here and there.
Many lights were decorative, many others obviously had religious stories behind them, and Santa Clause's sleigh flying in the sky was quite common. A few of them actually running across street from one house to another, or running toward the top of a light post.

More extravagant ones include music controlled lights - one house's Christmas light was actually a part of a evening show of a local radio station. Another family's lights change with music on another local radio station,.On top of that they had a few robot Santa singing and dancing with the music in the front yard with one live person!

A truly over the top Christmas light decoration was at a house near the community's club. The house was draped with light curtains in the front, in addition to lights on the trees, in the yard and a light tunnel to the front door. They must have to pay thousands of dollars in December to put on the spectacular show.

The traffic got heavier as the night went on  - we drove a round a few blocks, and at the most popular areas around club house, we were fortunate to park our car at the club house and walked around to enjoys the lights without sitting in the traffic.

A more luxury way to enjoy the light show was to ride a horse drawn carriage, which was available to spectators. One can find more information at the community's website.

It is a worthwhile visit to the Christmas Light show in a community setting.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Mystery of Water - by Nicholas

Water. The most abundant compound on Earth, covering over 70% of the Earth’s surface. The only substance on Earth naturally occurring in all 3 states of matter; solid, liquid, and gas. Essential for human life.  And an anomaly. Expanding when frozen solid, but also when boiled. Yet water does not need to be such a mystery.
Almost all liquids will expand when they are heated. Ice-cold water however does just the opposite. Water at the temperature of melting ice contracts when it is heated until it reaches 4⁰ C. Then, the water starts to expand, and the expansion continues until it reaches its boiling point, 100⁰ C. Why does it do this? We know that most objects expand when heated, because of increased molecular motion. This causes molecules to ‘jiggle’ faster, and they tend to move farther apart. Water is no different. Most other liquids contract when frozen, but water is an exception. This has to do with the odd crystal structure of ice. The crystals of most solids are structured so that the solid state occupies less volume than the liquid state. Ice, however, has open-structured crystals. When water freezes, it forms a sort of crystalline lattice, and because of water’s unique angular shape, the crystals that result have take up more volume than in its liquid form. After ice is heated to 4⁰ C, the crystal’s structure collapses causing the volume of the water to decrease. However the perpetual jiggling apart caused by heating will eventually overcome the decrease in volume, and the volume will increase.
This can, in turn be used to explain other phenomenon. For example, have you ever wondered why a lake freezes from the top to the bottom? Why doesn’t it all freeze at once? Does hot water not rise? Well, liquid water has a density maximum at about 4C. Therefore, as water cools at the top of the lake, the 4-degree water falls to the bottom, displacing slightly colder but less dense water. Therefore the lowest levels of water in a large lake never reach freezing and such bodies of water freeze from the top down, with it first freezing at the surface, then lower, and lower, and lower. In this way oceans will never completely freeze, as it would take forever to get the whole ocean to 4⁰ C, and the huge concentration of salt makes the freezing point less than 0⁰ C.

Water is not as confusing as it seems. With an inquisitive mind and a good amount of curiosity, you can uncover many more so called ‘secrets’ of water.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Last Sunday

It was a sunny and pleasant Sunday. I thought that everyone should come out to enjoy it. Since the fallen leaves had piled up in our yard, I asked the whole family to come out and help me rake up leaves.

Everyone came out, including Grandpa. Nicholas, Justin and I took turns to rake the yard, and everyone participated in loading the leaves into two compost bags, two trash bags, and one trash can. Within half an hour we were done. We enjoyed the fresh air and moved some muscles from the light labor.

In the afternoon, while I was working on my computer, I suddenly noticed that I did not have my wedding ring on my finger! Where could it be?? I never take my wedding ring off my finger. So it could not have been misplaced.

Thinking back my day - the only time the ring could have slipped out of my finger was during yard work, when I took off the gloves I wore to let Nicholas have them. The ring might somehow have slipped out and fell into the grass. I went out to the front yard looking, seeing leaves scattered on the ground. This was going to be difficult, like finding needle in a hay stack. Perhaps the ring fell into piles of leaves and went in the composite bag with the leaves?

What to do now? Searching the ring in the bags? Looking for a small ring in a big bag of leaves? Grandma said go looking for it. Grandpa said that would be too hard, and it was not too expensive to replace it.

The ring is our 10 year wedding anniversary band - I didn't want to give up on it without trying. So I went to the back yard, unload the leaves from a bag onto the drive way - screening the leaves one fistful at a time. Nicholas came out to help, grandpa came out as well.

It was tedious and tiring. We went through only half bag of the leaves in 10 minutes. What about burning the leaves? It might be faster. I located a large flower pot and use it as a burning pit. Unfortunately the leaves were damp or wet, they wouldn't burn well and produced huge smokes. I put some papers in as pilot, and the flame suddenly grew - the plastic pot itself was on fire! At that moment, Lily was smoked out of the house. She grabbed a bucket and doused the fire right away. She also noticed that we'd been searching the wrong bag. The ring was more likely to be in the other bag, the one Nicholas and I packed.
packed, unpacked, repacked the Home Depot bags

I continued to check through the remaining leaves in the first bag on the drive way, seemingly a futile effort. Not giving up just yet, Lily said, "since you did the first bag already, why not go through the second bag of leaves anyway?"  She poured leaves from the second bag on the drive way, started looking through leaves for the ring. Grandpa went to help her as I was about  finishing up the first pile.

Lily unloaded the second bag of leaves and started to put leaves back in handful at a time. Grandpa started from the other end, spreading the leaves and looking for the ring. After repacking two thirds of the leaves back in the bag, Lily was about to give up. Suddenly we heard a small sound of metal clinking. My ring appeared on the driveway concrete right by Grandpa's foot. He chuckled, and we were ecstatic!

The lost and found ring
I wiped clean the ring and put it back on.

How could one find a tiny ring in a mountain of leaves ?

I guess that desire and determination to try to find it, meticulously looking, a lot of patience, and our good luck combined made it happen.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Iced Foliage

The expected ice storm arrived at North Texas at midnight of Thursday as the forecast said .

It was 6:30 am or so Friday morning. Lily alerted me that she heard periodic "ta", "ta" sound from attic. I went up and found that the sound was from a turbine on the northern side of the roof. Fortunately I could reach the turbine from beams right beneath it in the attic and identified the root cause of the sound - the friction between the wind turbine and ice build up around a support leg of the turbine. First try of using a screw driver to break the ice was not successful. After breakfast, I gave it another try via light shocks - tapping the screw driver with a hammer - the chunk of ice was broken in a matter of a few seconds and the noise was gone.

Around 10 am, I decided to take a break from work (at home) and go enjoying the outdoor a little bit. 

Fully equipped with winter clothing, Lily and I went out. It was windy and cold, and sleet was still falling. The most creepy thing was the sound of cracking from ice on tree branches. Right at the door, icicles dripped from bushes. Looking around, there were bright colors in this wintry weather. The tree in our front yard still had plenty of leaves with various colors, there were three bright orange persimmons on ice covered branches in a neighbor's yard, and the red stop sign at the T intersection by our yard got goatees! Further away, there were a few down trees at neighbors' houses, and more bright colors in the white winter land. We only walked along our block.  It was cold but refreshing. We enjoyed walking in the hybrid of autumn and winter.

icicles on bushes 
Not a typical winter scene
Ice Coated Persimmons
Frozen Fruits
Brightened Ice
fallen trees in a neighbor's yard and a brave driver
Bent by the weight of ice
Side walk 
Enjoying the cold!
Stop sign with a Goatee 

Sunday, December 1, 2013


A question posted on LinkedIn Caltech group prompted me to write this post. The question was "In the spirit of Thanksgiving, are there any professors that you'd like to thank for making an impact on your life?" 

Two professors at Caltech have had profound impact on my life and career - my thesis adviser Jim and my postdoctoral mentor WolfgangWith trust, Jim trained me to be an independent, self reliant researcher and thinker, which is a benefit of a life time.  Wolfgang's  impact on my life and career was more direct, and equally lasting.

I joined Wolfgang's group at the most difficult time of my life - I could not find a job after graduation from Caltech, not even a postdoctoral position. Lily and I were separated because I had to take a visiting associate position thousands miles away. After about 4  months at the visiting associate position, Wolfgang had a postdoctoral position open. I applied. He telephone interviewed me and visited with professors who taught me at Caltech. Then he offered me the position. This offer was a lifeline to me and Lily. It was also a big boost to my self confidence. It was a critical turning point of my life and career.

Wolfgang is well known for being strict with students and postdoctoral associates. I like him that way because he is strict and fair - he tells you what he thinks with no sugar coating. With my performance at his group he provided me many opportunities such as writing proposal for usage of San Diego Super Computer,  teaching classes in his place, supervising his graduate students and working on consulting projects,  in addition to research. All those opportunities helped me to grow professionally - as an independent researcher, a good presenter, and a good communicator. 

Working closely with Wolfgang, I got a chance to learn how he, a world class researcher and engineer, approaches research and engineering problems. His detailed explanation of his research proposal significantly improved my comprehension of what research was, how one came up new ideas to work on. I was frequently intrigued by his insights to a test or analysis when graduate students presented their findings. I tried to emulate him and I believe that I have found my own ways to gain insights and intuitions on engineering problems. 

Another life long benefit from the close association with him is that I am not intimidated technically by anybody in my field or beyond: I enjoy and appreciate insightful, elegant or otherwise excellent research work, and criticize inferior, incorrect work no matter whose work they are.

Without Wolfgang's help, guidance and mentoring, I would not have been where I am today.

I am thankful!  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Intelligence Squared - by Lily

5pm Sunday. Nicholas finished his piano lesson, packed up his books, and we headed to the car. I turned on the engine, and as usual my radio was on NPR. A new program caught our attention, it was Intelligence2 US debate, and the issue at debate was “For a better future, live in a red state”. The “for” side started out with a list of statistical numbers and analysis. The minute we got home, both of us rushed inside and turned on the radio. Soon, Allan joined us as well listening attentively. Once in a while we nodded in agreement or interjected a comment. It was quite a unique scene with us huddling around the old fashioned radio in this digital world.

The debate is in traditional Oxford style. Both sides, for and against, first lay out their arguments, then answer questions from audience or opponents, with a moderator. The audience vote on the statement before the debate, then vote again after the debate. The side that gains more vote through debate wins. The debaters are professors, policy makers, analyst, etc. We all really enjoy those well-thought out arguments and well-prepared data-based analysis. We appreciate looking at the same issue from totally different angles. And of course the topics are interesting as well.

After 2 weeks in a row listening to the program, I looked it up online. It turned out this program started in 2006 with live debate held at the Kaufman center in New York. It premiered on PBS earlier this year. I’m so glad we finally caught it on NPR.  There’s definitely more to check out,

Notes by Allan: 

1) NPR's broadcast of the debate lags the real debate by a few weeks 

3) The first debate we listened was on "break up the big banks"

4) In these two debates I listened to, there was a clear undertone of "liberal" idea vs. "conservative" idea, that is what made the debate interesting.  But it is really about debate technique,  about debater's knowledge on the topic, and more importantly about catching opponents' weakness, elaborating one's position logically. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Early Autumn

One cold front after another keeps coming to North Texas. Mornings and days have turned to be pleasantly cool. Leaves have started changing colors here and there. Weather wise, the best time of the year at North Texas has arrived. In a week or so, it will be the most beautiful time of the year scenery wise.

Due to various schedule conflict, we have not been out to enjoy nature as a family since coming back from Acadia this summer. I persuaded the whole family for a quick outing at Oak point park on the Saturday after noon last week, to enjoy a cool day outdoor.  It was a bit early then to see foliage, and Oak Point was not a good place for scenery at this time of the year. The prairie there  is at its best  in late spring, and early summer. But I did see signs of autumn  - a bright yellow color here, a dark red color there. Along the biking trail near Parker road, a few people were picking fallen Pecans.

 In fact our neighborhood and surrounding area is a good place for foliage viewing. I recorded the splendor of autumn every year since 2008:

Nicholas and I went out a few times in 2009 to record the colors of autumn, Of course it is more than foliage for us to enjoy in the autumn, there are fruits hanging on the trees, there are families of wild life in the ponds, a recollection of the fall of 2008 in a post showed vivid pictures of that autumn. In 2010, I focused on the harvest of the year; and in 2011, the foliage was as good as ever, but what most special that autumn was that Cheetahs - Nicholas' soccer team - reached championship game in our city's youth soccer league for the first time. Last year, Lily and I walked in the streets of our neighborhood to capture foliage in the yards.

The gradual cool down this fall should bring another splendid autumn. 

(pictures below were taken last week at Oak point park and nature prereserves)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Health care exchange, NSA, smart cars and local election

Affordable Care Law continues to be in the news. Now the focal point is bad software for Healthcare Exchange, which was supposedly to be the easiest part for the implementation of the law. Besides all the politics involved, the one question I had was how the programming contractors were chosen. Were technical experts involved in evaluating the contractors competency? Were there multiple bids for the contracts? .... all the routine check points in a business transactions. Too frequently management/administrators who know nothing about a specific technology are easily fooled by fancy presentations.

National Security Agency (NSA)'s monitoring of communication is in the headline news. I was not surprised that intelligent agency spying on foreign countries, terrorists and related people. What surprised me was that the government spy on heads of governments of long time alleys. There was report that  some state department official claimed the spying helped to make some decisions at UN. If this was true, what did it imply? incompetency of state department? opportunist policy, impatience, instant gratification - just to know the other side's decision ahead of time?

Smart Cars are not really in national news, but in commercials at national news time.  Sensor technology that help drivers to complete difficult tasks such as parallel parking, detection of cars in blind spots, are really beneficial. Technology that help drivers to prevent accidents due to fatigue, inattention, is good in some It sense, but really bad technology. A fatigued person should not drive. A driver should pay attention to the road ahead. It encourages bad behavior and habit. What it really does is to groom a population that relies on machine or others for their own behavior. It makes people dumb, make dumb dumber.  I used to be able to remember a route after driving once on it, and remember route on a map. Due to relying on GPS, I lost this ability. How many times does GPS make you to make wrong turns?

Our local election this year will determine the tax increase for city's school district, and several propositions to amend state constitution. Local elections impact our daily life. This election, it is about school funding, and future water supply to  Texas' fast growing population. The fact is, if we don't vote, those who voted will make the decision for us. We voted this afternoon. In addition I sent email to community crime watch list to remind my neighbors to vote.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Random Thoughts: Affordable Care Act and etc

What I heard from media and government propaganda about the Affordable Care Act, was that it "will reduce the cost of medical care" when the 50 million (16.9% of the population) uninsured are enrolled in medical issuance,  which made sense to me. So I am not opposed to the new law.

However, what is not publicized is the cost to the 83.1% insured people. I got the cold truth today when I enrolled for my 2014 benefits - my deductible jumped by 20% and my premium increased by the same amount. I had not had deductible change for some time, and the premium is much larger that the increase from 2012 to 2013. According to USA Today, a family had their medical insurance from Dallas public school increased by 30% for the cheapest plan available. Their medical insurance cost was nearly 20% of the employee's pay!

Even though I still see the benefit of forcing everyone to have medical insurance, I am not mad any more at the extremists in congress who caused recent government shutdown in the name of defunct the law.

For a difficult change such as this health carer reform, the government should have provided a full picture of the consequence of the change, letting citizens know the long term benefits the change will bring as well as pains associated with it. Otherwise when it hurts, those who might be able to tolerate the pain if they knew that it was coming, will not tolerate the pain, and become an opponent of the change. With mounting glitches in the new system, and acute pains to some in the 83.1% of the insured, the opposition to the affordable care act will grow - this time it will not only be those who oppose it for ideological reasons, but also those for economical reasons such as those like the aforementioned family in the USA Today's story.

At the open enrollment time, we should have positive answers to the following questions:

1) do you have your annual physical exams?
2) do you have your teeth cleaned twice a year?
3) do you have eye exam at least every two years?
3) do you buy life insurance to protect yourself and your family?

Take action to protect yourself and your family!!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Acadia Miscellaneous

In addition to adventures, one thing we looked forward to when visiting Acadia was to have fresh lobsters at great price. After a couple tries, we realized that we should not expect low price lobsters at Bar Harbor or any other small towns adjacent to Acadia. We did have quite a few lobster dinners - the lobsters were delicious but at price comparable to that at Texas.

At the rocky shore, tidal pools are places to check out the world under water at low tide time.

There are also many in land glacier ponds in Acadia National Park, the main ones are Jordan pond and Eagle Lake, Echo Lake and Long pond which provides totally different vistas than the shorelines.

The remnants are everywhere, most prominent, even to layman's eyes, is the balance rock on  South Bubble

There are many small things that add to Acadia's beauty, such as a hovering seagull over the boulders, the sound of bell on a buoy propagating over the Frenchman bay , white sail boats by harbors, sea birds on a pier, .....

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Sea Kayaking in Frenchman Bay

In the morning of our 3rd day at Acadia, we went sea kayaking - a first time for our family as a whole. Justin and I had our first sea kayaking during our Alaska trip 4 years ago.

We usually kayak in a sit-on-top style kayak on lakes. So when we were asked to put on kayak skirts, the rest of the family was surprised and curious. I told them that for "professional" kayaking, kayaker sits in the hull, the skirt, snapped onto the hull opening, will prevent water getting into the hull and the paddler from getting wet. With skirt attached to kayak, it is a bit dangerous if roll over occurs since the kayaker might not be able to free himself.   So the first thing after putting on the skirts, the group of 4 families had a safety lesson, primarily how to free oneself when roll over occurs.

First time in a kayak skirt

A shuttle transported the group to the sand  bar at Bar Harbor for launching. It was a sunny beautiful day. The light breeze over the Frenchman bay made it very pleasant. The 13 tourists with the kayak guide paddle seven tandem kayaks toward the bar island.

paddling toward bar island
As we approached the island, we turned left to paddle along the island shore to see wild life and scenery. The shore of the bar island has a sandy beach.On the way to porcupine island, we passed an unnamed sand with a dozen or sea gulls resting on it, and lot of sea weed surround it.   The shore of porcupine island is more typical of Acadia, rocky, no beach, a lot sea birds flapping around or rest on water or rocks.  On the island, there is an active bald eagle nest, the baby eagle, which was in fact totally black at this stage of its life. Lily and Justin saw the eagle nest and baby eagle with the help of the guide. Nicholas and I were a bit too far away from the guide at the time to hear him.
paddling along the bar island
sea gulls on a unnamed sand bar
Shore of porcupine island

A schooner passed by
 When we returned to the sand bar at Bar Harbor, it disappeared from view already due to high tide. In fact the tide was still rising p. In the 10 - 15 minutes time after we disembarked from the kayaks, the sea level rose a couple more inches.

Lily and I 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Biking in Acadia

Acadia has extensive bike trails on the so called carriage road in the center of the park. The trails are mostly covered by crushed small rocks, and they are hilly but not really very steep - good for recreational use. In addition, a good portion of the trails is shaded which makes biking more enjoyable on a hot summer day.

Jordan pond 

We went to biking on the 4th day of our stay at Acadia. It was a cloudy day as forecast. The cloud was low, and the sky was grey - one could not see the beauty of Acadia at all. We rent bikes at Bar Harbor Bicycles.  Following the suggestions of a clerk at the bicycle store, we did not use the park shuttle to get into to the park, we biked to the trail head directly instead. It was less than a mile away from the store.

on a downhill slope

It was an relatively easy trail for Justin, Nicholas could more or less stay with his older brother with some efforts. It was, however, strenuous for Lily and I, especially those long ascending slopes. I was the slowest biker in our family. The boys had to wait for us, especially me, at the top of every long ascending slope. With the hard work to overcome each long ascending slope , we were rewarded by easy high speed ride on a long downhill slope.  

taking break at a small trail side water fall

The bike trails hugged  quite a few glacier lakes, such as Eagle Lake, Jordan pond. We could check lily flowers, beavers dam more closely during our breaks on the trails.

Lily pond

beaver's dam

About half way through our planed biking ride, we reached Jordan pond,  we dined at Jordan House - the best restaurant in national park service system, for lunch. The timing was almost perfect, we waited for only 5 minutes or so before being seated at our table in the usually very crowded restaurant.  The service was excellent, the food was great, and all of us loved the famed popover bread.  
our rented bikes outside Jordan house

As we embarked on our return trip, the cloud turned into mist. It was a perfect weather for strenuous biking.  We completed the total of 20 mile hilly bike trails in about 6 hours including breaks. We returned to hotel early,  ~ 4:30pm. After showering, Lily and I watched two episodes of "Get out alive with Bear Grylls" on computer, the boys played games.

It was a great biking day from start to end!