Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Adventuremobile!

For a few years now, B, our friend Kurt, and I have been daydreaming about buying a van or a minivan or something like that that we could use as an RV. For opposite reasons our family cars are not the best for family trips. B's car is too rugged, smells like bowls of sunbaked yogurt, has a temperamental disposition and is unreliably climate controlled. My car is too sleek, too sporty and too cramped for our giant "child." I've tried to camp in it and it's a losing battle...and I'm only about five feet tall.

On those days where I've read the entire Internet, I'll switch over to the list that Craig made and scroll through the cheap and big offerings in the auto section. Sometimes I'll find something interesting, but the stars have never aligned where I've had motive and opportunity.


About a month ago I had the perfect storm of motive: two lackadaisically reliable family autos, tempting camping weather, one huge road trip on the horizon and one cramped balloon recovery in the books.  I also had opportunity in the form of a small chunk of savings that was earmarked for something fun and travel related that had finally snowballed into a reasonable amount of money.

Another issue that kept us from taking the plunge earlier was a stalemate. B wanted a truck. I didn't think a truck was practical because it was open in the back. I wanted a mini-van. B didn't think a minivan was rugged enough to tow with and it'd be madness to make a mini-van a 4 x 4. We went back and forth like this for a few years until, this time, B came over to the dark side and admitted that he'd consider a Honda Odyssey!

Carpe DMV and all that...I started looking for some mini-vans to test drive and then, one fateful day, I found a Honda Pilot for less than Kelly Blue Book value. I swooped on it. Back in the day my brother bought a Honda Pilot and B and I both kinda lusted after it. It has three rows of seats, is four wheel drive, and most importantly is part of the Honda family. I set up a test drive. B said, "Should I go by the bank?" Yes. Yes you should. Unless it was a crap pile on casters...I was gonna buy that thing.

(This is how I make decisions. Years of subtle research and mulling over and then overnight we own three cars like I'm LeBron James or something. )

Another awesome thing about this decision? I was a little worried about having car insurance on three cars but when we renegotiated our insurance with our broker, Travis, it turned out that we actually saved quite a bit of money! Bonus!

Behold the Adventuremobile in all of her glory:

The people who sold her to us were very sweet but they did not come from the Hoover School of Car Maintenance  so as soon as she was street legal I took her to Auto Patron and got the entire thing shampooed. If you live near Hillsborough, NC you should take your car to Auto Patron! The carpet is nice and fluffy now, but before, it looked like every time they finished a chocolate milkshake they just threw it over their shoulder into the back seat. I basically apologized to the manager when I drove up in it. Now it's delightful and it smells like a fancy old man!

Driving the Adventuremobile is very different from driving my race car. It has an awesome vantage point of the road and handles more like a truck. It's a bit like driving around in a living room. Passenging is even better. I can fling myself into all sorts of unladylike pretzels and ride in style.

My bestie bought a vinyl cutter and has opened an ETSY shop where we make t-shirts and stickers.  It is the MOST FUN.  I've commissioned a bunch of stuff already such as:

Ahhhh! I love it so much! It's like she pulled it out of my head. Which she basically did because I was like, "Make it exactly like this only better."

She made another one, that was also awesome in a 1970's Dodge Charger kinda way, but I knew it was going to be pink so I chose this one at the 11th hour. (Which was really 11 minutes. See also: I stay makin' calls with the quickness.)

Then there's this one, which came to me as if in a dream while I was at a stoplight:

You can already buy that one in the store. It's phenomenal. The multicolored ones take a lot of patience and skill to assemble but Phippsy is very talented. Please support her cottage industry.

Today I realized yet another bonus of the Adventuremobile...the on-board entertainment package features a DVD player, a CD player and...a TAPE DECK.

For the last 16 years I've had two cassette tapes in my underpants drawer, my drawers drawer if-you-will, that I have refused to part with during every Kon Mari-esque purge. Just the sight of them in all of their vestigial glory was enough to "spark joy" so I kept them.

The first one is, "Shut Up and Listen to Majosha" by Majosha. This was Ben Fold's band when he was at UNCG with my brother. My brother gave me the tape a million years ago, and even if it's unlikely to become a collector's item, it still held a hipster-y, "I knew of them before they were cool." appeal. 
Heck, I knew about them before I was cool. When this album came out all of my clothes had cows on them. (And my favorite shirt had cows wearing red Converse high tops which I wore with my red Converse high tops.)

The second one was a triumphant mix tape crafted especially for me by the Queen of the Mixtape, Margo Shelton. Does anyone in the world have better taste than Margo Shelton? No. They do not.

Jewels, books, music...she's the touchstone. 

When I got into the Adventuremobile today I wasn't in the mood for the one cd in the car (The Dodos, "Beware of the Maniacs," worn to tatters) so I went back in to see what else was quickly available and remembered! UNDERPANTS! 

This mixtape is so good that it's worth the price of the car. I basically bought a ritzy tape deck. 

This mixtape is so good that I am slowly transcribing the track list while driving so I could make a YouTube playlist to share it with you. I'm still adding to it as I progress through it so check back! 

For your listening pleasure:

Thursday, July 7, 2016

How to Keep Deer Out of Your Garden

First, let me just say that I didn't mean to take such a long hiatus from the blog and I certainly haven't abandoned it. I like to use the blog as motivation to finish projects but sometimes that backfires and I don't finish projects OR blog. That's what happened this time.

We're 98% done with the bathroom. We're so close to being done with the bathroom that there's no reason to actually finish it. (Except for the fact that I really want to use the nicer shower...but in order to finish the shower B will have to go under the house with the snakes and that just sounds gross.) Eventually it will be done and I will post a full update about how wonderful it is.

This post is actually about gardening. Well, sort of.

A few weeks ago we went to the footh-ills to visit Pilot Mountain and stayed at the cabin we visited in the Spring. This time the gardens were in full force. The property has two stocked ponds, vegetable gardens and a huge berry patch. We spent most of the time fishing and sunning ourselves in the unseasonably cool temperatures. Fishing was amazing! As soon as we dropped in the bait, we'd hook a fish. Some of the times we managed to catch things on hooks without casting! Or without bait! I am thankful that it went so well because now B is interested in fishing with me.

The berry patch was also amazing because it had thousands of ripe berries and we were allowed to graze as we wished. Most of the berries that were ripe were varieties of raspberry or black berry. Some of the hybrids were amazing.

All of this food was just open without any kind of fencing which was remarkable because we saw so many deer out in the fields and even saw a turkey that was hanging out in the backyard. None of the tomatoes or squash showed any sign of nibbles...which is amazing to me because the deer in my yard eat everything. I asked the owner of the property how he discouraged the deer and he told me that he uses a no-fail trick that he learned from his grandparents. All he does is place a single raw egg with a hole in it in the garden and it keeps the deer away for six months! The whole season!

Well, I was skeptical. First, because it seemed too easy and if it were that easy then everyone would know about it and the entire corporate deer fencing machine would be dismantled. Also, because I lived in Mississippi long enough to be suspicious of people giving advice to nosy city folk.

Either way, eggs are cheap and the promise of a simple deer free garden solution was too much to resist so as soon as we got home I set out a sacrificial tomato plant and chucked one egg into the pot. I made sure to put it in a high deer traffic area because... SCIENCE.


After about a week I was totally sold on the egg idea and made a bunch of plans to add all of my favorite and most delicious plants to my gardens and put eggs out there! I even went to the garden center and browsed at all of the plants I never buy because I know they'll get gobbled up.

This technique worked fabulously! And no deer so much as nibbled at the plant! Foooor a few weeks and then I came out to a very small tomato plant with no upper branches.

I'm not sure if I needed to refresh the egg....or if it got all the goo rained out of it....or if someone besides a deer ate the plant. (Clearly I needed more controls on this experiment but science rules are for nerds and it's not like Bayer CropScience was funding this.)

I give this deer repellent technique two out of four stars. Maybe it would help if you already had something in place and you needed to add a little bit of oomph...but I wouldn't rely on this method for protecting your prize winning roses.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Just In Case

Just in case you are someone who reads this blog who doesn't also read my Facebook or know me in real life....

You might be interested to know that I just sent something to space! And you can read about it on my other blog at:

Friday, April 8, 2016

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Competitive Suborbital Unmanned Spaceflight Testing / High Altitude Ballooning

Friend person- "Hey Julie, how have you been? What've you been up to?"
Me- "Dude. Space balloons."

All I can think about these days is space balloons. You want to hang out? I better check I'm not  doing space balloon stuff.

I'm getting a massage? Note to self...don't forget to email Cherry Point back about the hypobaric chamber.

We're at the grocery store? Got to get some clearance, vegan, Space Cookies.

But what is this?!!? What the heck is a space balloon?

Back in August I swore that this year I was going to do some heavy duty laurel resting at work and just cruise through. I've had some really work for the last....ever...and it seemed like a good idea to just stop volunteering for extra stuff and see what life is like for a normal college instructor.

And then my boss was like, "Hey. We have an opportunity for a grant where someone will lead a bunch of students so they can launch something into spa...."  and I'd torn the application from her hand and filled it out before she could say, "...ace."

My whole life I've been enamored with NASA. My parents were the type of parents to take us to Space Centers to see all the launch pads. I saw Apollo 13 in the theater on vacation. We went to the 3D IMAX space movies and I remember exactly were I was when the Challenger exploded.

I've read a ton of books about astronauts, astronaut wives and thwarted female astronauts.

I had one of the biggest honors of my life when I had the opportunity to work with Stennis Space Center as part of the Mississippi Space Commerce Initiative.

Some people love space exploration for the things we learn about the solar system, the Moon or other planets. I love it for what we learn about the Earth! This is why I've always been drawn to satellite cartography (photogrammetry and remote sensing) and GPS.

So what is this space balloon project?

We're part of a challenge given to a handful of North Carolina community colleges to launch a weather balloon into near space. As part of this grant we've been given a $20,000 budget and a packet of non-negotiable requirements.

For starters, our balloon must be carrying a required payload of materials. Many hobbyists and school kids have launched balloons like ours. (Apparently it's a thing! Yes, I know Duke has done it. I don't care!) It's a big challenge on its own but ours is a challenge wrapped in a challenge with a creamy marshmallow center that is going to expand and then violently contract.

Our entire thing, warts and all, can only weigh 2.5 kg.

 It can't have any (planned) ejectables or pyrotechnics. All of the parachute and balloon lines must be less than 50 lb test. The thing needs to fall between 15-25 feet per second. (Ugh. Math.) But we're also competing for highest flight, best photo and best scientific experiment.

At minimum on board we need to have an:

  1.  Arduino Uno - this is a tiny "computer" that can have sensors wired to it.
  2. Triple Axis Accelerometer- this records speed and directional data, it's triple axis because it does x,y coordinates but also elevation change.
  3. Barometric, UV index and temperature sensors 
  4. A hacked Canon Powershot 
  5. A Big Red Bee Beeline radio tracker, 70 cm @ 100 mW  and Beeline GPS tracker, 2 meter- These are finicky GPS doodads.

All of the above business might seem easy-peasy at first blush. Get all of those weird thingies, cram them into a tiny box and send them to space. SO SIMPLE! HOW IS THIS EVEN FUN?

But man, oh man, you are the wrongest about that. I was once in your shoes, I know how you feel, but I also know how I feel now and that is T-I-R-E-D. Each one of those innocent looking bullet points is its own special little Pandora's box of thwart.

That tiny computer? It needs to be programmed, soldered and you're going to need to be some sort of technical whiz to make it go. The sensors? Each one needs its own set of code or else it's just the tiniest paperweight you've ever seen. (Very ineffective.) The Canon needs to not only be hacked to take photos by itself, it needs to be placed very carefully in the hull so you don't accidentally fling  $500 into the ether or take pictures of the inside of a styrofoam cooler for two hours. It needs to be able to survive space, a vacuum, very high temperatures, very low temperatures, static, being sling-shotted around during burst and possibly a water landing. So make sure to pick the right one of any of the 7 million Canon's available.

The Big Red Bee GPS? If you can figure out how to work it (insurmountable) then you have to figure out how to USE it and that's gonna require that you get a HAM Radio license (Read a book. Take a test!), learn how to use the radios and then you have to choose the right antenna....and THEN you have to put that thing together. (Spoiler alert: It has 200 pieces! Most of which are little rods with minutely different lengths. They are not labeled. ENJOY! PS you forgot to buy an eensy booger that makes the thing go.)

What is the tether made out of? How do you inflate the balloon? Which chute do you want? What's your chute ring made out of? Heck, what is all of this stuff going to be sitting in that is going to be light enough to meet your goals but sturdy enough to go to SPACE????

It's not rocket science. Rocket science has more credible literature and is easier to research. This you make up as you go along.

We're also adding a GoPro and a greenhouse gas collection experiment. (And vegan space cookies.)

And alllllll this stuff? It all requires batteries. And those batteries need to be space batteries.....and space batteries are heavy AND ALL THE SUDDEN 2.5 KG SEEMS LIKE CRAZY TALK AND YOU'RE WALKING AROUND HOME DEPOT PICKING UP TINY PLASTIC WASHERS AND THINKING, "I DON'T KNOW. THIS SEEMS HEAVY."


So yeah, it's all a bit more challenging than it sounds. On top of just getting this all up and running we have to:
Manage the amazing budget
Complete a Critical Design Review presentation
Have two site visits (for us they were conference calls)
Complete a Launch Readiness Review
Compile a project manual and create a scientific poster
File a report after the fact

But I'm not worried...I am busy...but I am not worried...because I have the most incredible team that Chance and Fate (Yes. Proper nouns.) could have possibly brought together.

I would not have even considered this project if I hadn't been accidentally introduced to this guy about a year ago:

He is the Student Team Lead for the project and he is our, "Houston." No one at DTCC knows more about space stuff. He runs our meetings (9pm Wednesdays and at least two hours every Sunday) and sends out meticulous minutes. He schedules, orders, budgets, intimidates, plans, wrangles, nerd-herds and occasionally coerces.

With all of those sensors and software that needs to be written you're going to need someone who knows how to program. How about a programming genius? This guy programs apps for fun when he's bored.

I am totally blown away by his dedication to the project and the miracles he's been able to perform. But you can see he has a lot of wires on that breadboard and for that you're going to need someone who knows about electronics.

Bonus points if that person can weld, solder and roll their eyes at you because it's all SO easy to him.

If you're going through all the trouble of wiring and programming all of the required sensors, and the team doing it is making it seem like (eating) a piece of (space) cake....then you should probably send some science stuff to space besides space cookies.

So wouldn't it be marvelous if you had a competent, highly organized and motivated future environmental scientist on the team? Possibly one who could handle that poster and binder in her sleep?

And/or someone to hack the bloody Canon and wrestle two GoPros so we can have some sort of non-cellphone based evidence that we did all of this work?

OK, so this balloon goes up-up-up into the sky and then it reaches a certain height and bursts. Then it spazzes out and spins for a while before it straightens out into a nice plummet. Eventually it hits enough atmosphere to engage the parachute and gently, softly, carefully glides to where you've been waiting for it for the last few hours.




Super wrong.

Perhaps, the wrongest.

The thing is going to drift around....perhaps for miles....perhaps to other cities....perhaps into the if you have any hope of recovering your precious electronic cargo you'd better have a GPS expert.

OK, if you don't have a GPS expert, or if you have one who isn't allowed to help too much, you should at least get someone clever who is eager to learn and has a good sense of humor about it.

And when you find your needle in a haystack in a stack of haystacks, it's all going to be smashed to smithereens (if you even managed to get it off the ground in the first place) if you don't have a solid hull. For that you're going to need an engineer.

And we have the best engineer so you're out of luck

Seriously though, I am in awe at my team that I have accidentally assembled. With this much talent....the only thing you need is someone to bring snacks to the meeting...and that's all I do. 

As you can see this project is bigger, better and badder than it sounds. Ghana just started their own space agency and they are doing the exact same work we are doing! Working on this project has been such an incredible opportunity and I can't believe how much I've learned about space and engineering already.  

We have now completed the design and build phase and we're finally starting the fun testing phase. (Time to try our best to torture and destroy everything we've been working on since September on purpose!)

Our Launch Readiness Review is in a few weeks, and our launch is in early April from Catawba Valley Community College. 

Wish us luck!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Some new hits-dinnerwise.

We've had a few wins in the dinner department lately.

  • This Sunday Sauce was a big hit with my beef eating dudes. I didn't put wine in it but I did put carrots in it. I also used stew beef instead of pricey short ribs. They ate seconds.

  • We had these slow cooker burritos with black beans instead of pintos. We've been eating a lot of meals out of the slow cooker, in case you couldn't tell, because my semester is crazy! I seem to prefer the meals where you add something not slow cooked at the end to round it out. 

  • BUT I did learn that you can make meatloaf and baked potatoes in the slow cooker at the same time. That's kind of revolutionary because you have to eat those things together and they both take for-reaking-ever to cook. I didn't even chop up the potatoes...I just cut slits in em.