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!