This was a fantastic week. Why? I'll tell you, briefly.

This was IT Week: a celebration of all that is science, engineering, and geek. And IT Week begins with the Library's Quiz Bowl Competition.

EWB got together a team: Eric O'Hara (Chemical Engineering and Chemistry), Myself (Physics and Philosophy—Minors: Computer Science, Mathematics), Scott Miller (Civil Engineering—Environmental Focus), Jon Fraatz (Aerospace Engineering and Communications). We called ourselves the nEWBs.

The way quiz bowl works is that you sit at a table with another team. Everyone holds a button. A question is read. When you know the answer you buzz in and utter silence befalls the room and its inhabitants: you must answer alone and unaided. If you answer wrong your team is disappointed and the other team gets a free shot. If you answer correctly (for 10 points) your team gets a shot at 30 points worth of bonus material, leaving the other team to scrap up those things you get wrong. It's a little nerve-racking.

But we absolutely crushed the first team.

The second round was played in the marble-floored, wood-paneled Arthur Upson room. It's got a good feel to it. And then our opponents walk in. And I recognise them. They are all physicists.

CandyBars!

Two years before, back in 02008, I'd competed in this same competition as part of the Higgs Bosons team with David Christle, David Fake, and Jusko Hausauer—all physicists. We took third place to the Bob Saget team and the Red Wagon team. Who were these people who beat us, you ask? Physicists. Simply put, physicists are very bad-ass. And here we were facing a whole team of them. Oh yes, and these people came from the teams of physicists who had won last year.

And the game was close. We won by only twenty points.

At some point in the middle of the game a question began with something about the Gombe Streams and Scott, next to me, began to have a little seizure. He knew the answer, but couldn't think of it. Luckily, his seizure triggered my memory: Jane Goodall. Without the seizure, I'd have never thought of it. That's teamwork: sympathetic seizuring.

We crushed the next team. And then, who did we find, but a whole team of doctoral Geophysicists! The Gondwana Liberation Front.

It was a tough game, but we won it as well.

It was a double-elimination match, so we went to supper while the consolation bracket duked it out.

The final game was at 7:30, a two-some hour break for us. And the room was packed. We started slow and didn't recover, losing the first game. Jusko told me later that he'd walked in for a part of that round when we were doing well and thought we were kicking-butt… until they read the scores, that is.

But it was double-elimination, so we got a second chance. And during the break between rounds, I discovered where they'd hidden the CandyBars I'd been munching on all day. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm. As the Kristine Fowler, head librarian of Mathematics and Theoretical Statistics, read the first question, I felt glucose coursing through my veins and was suddenly focused. Alert. A Lert. Ready.

We were tied after five points. At ten points we were slightly ahead. By the last question, we were a little behind. We needed that question.

And the question began with a phrase including the words "Pulpy Tissue". Just a day or two before, Max and Martha, two of my housemates at the coop, and I, had watched a terrible movie called eXistenZ. A 01999 body horror/scifi film, it won some critical acclaim, but was painfulpainful to watch. In the first few minutes of the film, the female lead gets shot. Later, the male lead pulls the bullet out of her and, with a look of fascinated horror, says, "It's a tooth! It's a human tooth!"

And now, hearing the question as in slow motion, I heard myself saying, in my mind, "It's a tooth! It's a human tooth!" And now my mouth began to say it as well, but another part of my mind kicked in, "No! It's just a tooth!" So, in reality, my finger jerked my buzzer. The light went off, and there was a longish pause as these parts of my brain fought with each other. My team and the audience, looking on, were in horror: it was too early in the question to have buzzed. And then the words finally came out. And it was a tooth! (Though not a human one.) We swept the bonus points and won the championship.

And that's why it pays to watch stupid movies with your friends.

And, you know what? Without the our team's diversified knowledge base: chemistry, sports, pop culture, I don't think we could have won. After all, we did beat the physicists; therefore, EWB must be even more BA than physics.


Last week I dropped by a used gear sale, and ended up buying a tree climbing kit. I felt bad, spending that money, so I hoped that it'd be worth it. This week, Jusko and I took it on several test drives.

The system's remarkably slick. A throw bag and a thin line get your thick rope up in the tree, and some tugging here and there gets a leather friction-sleeve in place. A figure-8 on a bight followed by an in-line figure-8 followed by a Blake's 5/3 hitch followed by a stopping figure-8 completes the system. Should it become necessary to lower someone from the tree the in-line figure-8 identifies the safe place to the cut the rope.

Day number one saw us walking down by the river looking for a tree. The one we eventually chose was a little ways off the trail up a hillside. A hillside which turned out to be covered with slick leaves and mud to the point where it would have been safer to climb it with the rope on! And, of course, when we got the tree, there wasn't a reasonable way to climb it. We needed a novice tree and, continuing the messy climb, we found it in a big, wide-open park. While we took turns trying to loop a good branch (and to communicate which branch we were trying to loop: we lacked the words and methodology to describe trees) and tugging at knots, a homeless guy stared at us, muttering the whole while. But we didn't draw a crowd, which was a fear I'd had about trying it during daylight. One's first attempts at setting up a system shouldn't be the subject of public scrutiny: it increases the chances that something will go wrong. By the time we had everything set up we each had only enough time to shoot up and down once. But it wouldn't be the last time…

The next day, Kathur and Jusko found me at my office in St. Paul. It was hard to focus on flow accumulation algorithms with them there, so we all went outside and found a tree. This time, with a day of practice under our harnesses, things went quicker. Bryan K., one of the COA people, walked by and got sucked in… and up.

But our time was cut short by yet another IT Week event: Thi Beta Phi trivia night.

We arrived just as it was starting and formed a team. I was having a good time of it until the person started reading the questions; their voice was terribly familiar. It was my roommate from sophomore year: Adam. We'd started the year with a sort of ambivalence which I think morphed into loathing on his part and total indifference on mine and unsettlement on mine. Our conversations, always brief, ceased altogether by a few months in. Afterwards, when we'd moved out, I would greet him when we bumped into each other on campus; he never responded or acknowledged that he'd heard.

As the game went on, I realised that I had a number of unresolved issues that his voice was bringing to light. Issues that I'd have preferred stay buried: I think this is the only person I've ever met with whom I've had this sort of problem, and it perplexes me.

As a consolation, we won the trivia night as well.


Random Guy, Myself, Scott, Jusko, Aarti, Aarti's roommate

And then had to run to the bridge-building contest, the goal of which was to use K'NEX to support as much weight as possible over a two-foot span with a twenty-minute build period. With a group full of engineers, including several civil engineers (bridge design is a specialty in that profession), we were set. And it was amazing to watch them put that knowledge to use! We had a design in about five minutes and then engaged in a mad dash to complete it. In that dash, I learned an important lesson: it's good to have a project manager. Twelve hands trying to put pieces on the same small bridge just doesn't work.

This isn't something you learn in physics. They loaded the bridge with every available book and then started borrowing them. At the begin I was filled with nervousness after just two book and then they just kept stacking 'em; Jusko, having designed and understood it, was in no way phased. I was very impressed. After the competition, Scott sat on the bridge and it held, briefly, before one of the pieces physically snapped in half. We figure if his weight had been better distributed (butts are bony), it would have held.

Other bridges were not designed as well…

Later on that evening, Jusko, Kathur, and I took a walk down to Minnehaha Falls.

The falls are beautiful and appear so much higher when they're not frozen! But the falls weren't the reason I wanted to walk there: the woods hide dark and winding trails. Following these, we discovered that the Mississippi was flooded and climbing up the creek. The trail changed from a highway-of-a-path to a boardwalk to slippery hill-sides and root-grabbing to tussock-jumping. A long ways back we came upon a fire and a group of fisherman who told us you could see the fish, if only you peeked in the stream. While we watched, one of them, on the far side of the creek, pulled one out. "It's four feet long!", he cried. "We're not that far away!", Kathur replied. The water closed in and the trail disappeared. We scrambled up the hillside and then back down to explore creeping incinerator ruins, caves, and washed out bridges.

The next day found us back in the trees.

There is a method you can use, once in the tree, to ascend higher. Being that it takes a while to get up, we decided to forgo the safety note that we'd been using (Justko didn't initially trust the system as much as I did), and get both of us in the tree at once. I went first, tying off to a limb, and Jusko followed.

There followed forty minutes of passing stuff back and forth trying to refine our technique for getting a rope higher up. During this time, Alim walked by. She was playing the zombie game and hunting down humans (we later heard that she'd made more kills than anyone else). Looking up, she said she wasn't at all surprsied to see us there; we took this as a compliment. Finally, we got things down and each tried a succession of throws which either missed or got snagged on the plethora of mini-branches surrounding us in the canopy. My last throw made a glorious arc up and over the branch we wanted, and then got tangled around a little clump of shoots growing on it.

So we never did make it higher. Jusko was still connected to the system and descended first. We pulled it back up and I transfered over. There's a moment, just before you step off a branch 30 feet in the air where you doubt. You've checked the knots. You know the rope is strong enough to hold up a car. You know that your harness could hold a room full of people, though it would be quite uncomfortable. And still, you step off. Is it because your faith in your system is greater than your doubt? Because the doubts are only superficial? Is it because you have faith in some power greater than your system? Perhaps you have no faith and take the pluge anyway because you must? I can't say, but the fear of pluging runs deep, and the world hangs for a small moment as you step away.

And then you're hanging safely, of course, in three-space.

Afterwards, we go to the St. Paul rock wall and I climb my first 5.11a there. Half-way up, I'm hanging from both arms, one foot pushing against a peanut-shaped bulge too high up to be really useful. Pull-up with both arms, lock your position with the right one, reach with the left, grab a higher hold, do a chin-up. Left foot moves through space, finds a higher hold near your centerline; right foot is floating. Transfer the left-hand to something more stable. Your balance abruptly changes, you're swinging towards your left. Right foot swings behind you, finds one of the old hand holds. Breath a moment, continue. Jusko said it was "poetry in motion". Later on the next week, I refined it and no longer swung; my climbing instructor said it was beautiful.

And it felt that way.

There's a down night during which I try to work, and then the last night we pick up Beth and go to visit Jade at Bootleggers. Where's Bootleggers? No one knows, but I say I have a feeling about it, and that's enough for the driver… and the feeling gets us there. The inside is a swirl of alcohol, loud music, skimpy clothing, and dancing. I feel somewhat out of place. Upstairs, Jade mixes a few drinks for us, and we all shout-chat for a while. Pizza Luce's forms a sort of recess, after which we return and dance. I am reminded of a rule I have which has served me well:

Never leave home without earplugs.

We leave as the night waxes late and, the next day, Jusko's gone and I'm back to work.




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