Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sunrise at the South Pole!

It has been way too long since my last post. Part of the reason is that I have been waiting on some media get get posted online. Last month, I was invited to remotely participate in a radio program (Inside the Black Box) on WREK radio, the Georgia Tech radio station. I spent some time talking about the science I am a part of down here at the South Pole and then I spent some time talking about life here.  I was hoping that the audio from the program would be posted soon, but unfortunately, it still isn't up. As soon as it gets posted online, I will post a link, but in the mean time, I figured it was about time to give another update. To be completely honest and open, there is another reason I haven't posted. It turns out that being in such an isolated place as this does sometimes get to you a little bit. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but there have been more than a few days that I have felt like I was walking around in a haze with little to no motivation to do anything more than what was required. Don't get me wrong, I have tried to stay active in the community for the most part, and of course, Martin and I have kept the detector as our top priority, but really, I have watched more of The Simpsons in the past couple months than I really care to admit!  That being said, the past couple of months started out kinda slow, but now we are getting ready to open the station for summer, so things have started to get busy.  Not to mention there is an IceCube Collaboration meeting coming up, so there have been a few requests from the north for extra calibration data and work on the detector. The activity on station the past week or so is kind of helping jar me back into reality a bit.

In general, though, station life is still going well. There have been lots of activities to get involved in over the past couple of months. There was a wine class Martin and I participated in.  We did a programming class that I helped teach.  There was an eight-ball tournament and even a beer pong tournament. I didn't really participate in either of those, but several others did.  We have had several movie nights with new movies when we can get them and some classics for those interested in older movies, and everything in between. The biggest event lately has been sunrise. We have had several months of darkness and very recently, the sun started to rise above the horizon here.  We only get one sunset and one sunrise a year at the South Pole, but they last for days at a time! That being said one of the big events down here is the Sunrise Dinner. We all got together over this last weekend and had another big wonderful meal prepared by our amazing cooks on site.  Before the meal, they raffled off the flags that have sit around the ceremonial South Pole marker for the past year.  Earlier in the day they removed the old ones and put up new ones. Sadly, I didn't win one of the flags, but I am very happy for those who did.  Afterwards, a couple of us snuck out to have some sunrise cigars. It was a great night.

The sun starting to rise at the South Pole early last week!

One aspect of the sunrise that I will mention for you ham radio nerds is that now the propagation on 20m and 40m has greatly improved. During the long winter, I was able to make very few contacts.  In just a couple weeks now, I have made over 350 contacts with people from the north! One goal that I am trying to hit is to make over a thousand contacts starting two weeks ago before I leave the station. For all those other hams interested, I am generally on 20m at around 14.243 MHz when the band is open. If 20m is closed and 40m is open, I will hang around 7.178 MHz or 7.182 MHz. I am trying to get on the radio around sunset or sunrise stateside, mostly but not limited to the weekends. Oh, and I have spent a little time with the fine folks on the Reddit Ham Radio IRC channel answer lots of questions about the South Pole, so this is a shout out to them!

Now that we are so close to station opening, things have really started to get busy. There has been a ton of prep on the station itself including increased cleaning duties around station, for starters. But the really big thing is that most of us are getting ready to leave and eventually head home. For many of us, this means some kind of traveling. I've heard that some people have even started packing, but that is kinda funny to me as we still have over a month left! I personally have been working on my travel plans.  Right now, my plans are to spend a couple weeks in New Zealand, followed by travel to Australia, South East Asia, India, then hit Egypt, Morocco, and the Namibia area in Africa before actually getting home in mid February. It turns out, it will be about 3 months of travel, but this is an opportunity I can't pass up! I've already booked a dive trip in Australia and am looking into a camping trip in Namibia! I almost have all my flight plans in order, and over the next couple of weeks, I will be taking care of Visa issues.

So far I am still loving my time down here, but I am definitely ready for warmer conditions with grass and trees and oxygen (we're at around 10,000ft).  As I have said before many times, though.... I know I am going to miss this amazing place when I leave!

A photo from earlier this year showing the Ceremonial South Pole Marker and some of the flags that were passed out to winterover at the Sunrise Diner!

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Ham Radio at the South Pole!

As I think I have mentioned, I am involved in amateur or ham radio. My callsign is AI4LX for the those who are interested. It is a hobby I have been involved with for a little over a decade. So when I came to the South Pole for the first time in 2015, one thing I had to do was get on the ham radio down here and make a few contacts. It turns out, if you are operating from the North, it is hard to make contact with Antarctica in general as there are so few ham radio operators here.  So to be able to operate FROM Antarctica was an amazing experience.  While I was here the first time, I even organized a contact with the Georgia Tech Amateur Radio club, of which I was the president at the time. I literally made a radio contact directly from the South Pole to Atlanta, Georgia! A friend of mine back on campus, George KJ4JZY, facilitated the contact on their end. During the contact, I had some other scientists here on station at the South Pole jump on the radio, and I talked to some of the members of the GTARC back home. George was able to make an audio recording from his end, and I put together a small video you can find here.  All in all it was a ton of fun.

That being said, one thing that I really wanted to do if I ever came back to the South Pole was to organize a ham radio test on station. It is something that has been done a few times in the past, but as it turns out, it is not an easy thing to organize.  Nonetheless, when I found out I was going to be a winterover this year, I decided it would be something I have to figure out, and thankfully, I had around a year to work out the details.  After the station closed for winter, I started a ham radio class here for the other winterovers.  It is very similar to a class that I have taught back at Georgia Tech where we go through all the material for the technician license, and then offer the exam.  So that was my plan.  I decided to have the class on Sunday afternoons for a couple of months and then try to have the exam.  This sounds like a simple plan but there are a couple of problems.  First off, you are required to have at least 3 authorized VEs or volunteer examiners to administer the exam, and I was the only one on station authorized. Well, there turns out to be a work around! In the past, they have used something like Skype to do a video conference where the additional examiners are located in the North watching. I contacted Maria, AB1FM, from the ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) VEC (Volunteer Exam Coordinator) group and explained the situation, and sure enough she was excited and willing to work with me.  We started trying to organize things, but then near the end of the class we hit our next and biggest snag.  Our "fast" satellite connection which we needed for the video conference went down due to technical problems at the relay point in Christchurch, NZ.  So, you may think, "no problem", they should have all the resources to get it up and running before too long!"  Well, that is what we thought anyway. It turns out, not so much.  It took over two months before they were able to get the parts and get the satellite up.  This was two months with extra limited Internet here at the South Pole, not just for the ham radio exams, but for anything else we wanted to do on the Internet! That meant we had to postpone the exams.  After a couple months of waiting, they finally got our satellite connection working!  Now we were ready to go... except we had another small issue.  We had to deal with vacation schedules in the North. So there was another couple weeks of waiting, which actually wasn't that bad, as it gave a few members on station a little more time to prep for the exam.

Finally last week, everything came together, and with the help of the VEs at the ARRL, I was able to administer the ham radio exams at the South Pole! We had 11 people get their license.  Of those 11, 6 got their technician, 3 got their general, and 2 got their extra. One of the reasons I became an examiner was because I hoped that one day I would be able to administer the exam here at the South Pole, so this was a small dream come true. As I understand it, this was also the largest exam session ever given down here. Since we only have 46 people on station here for the winter and there are now 12 people licensed (including myself), over 1/4 of the station has their ham radio license!  Overall it was a great experience, though it did take a little bit of work and organization get everything to come together.  I can't thank Maria, AB1FM, and the others at the ARRL enough. Without their patience and help, this would definitely not have been possible.

I hope to do another ham radio post soon with more about the equipment here and some pics. So if you are interested in ham, stay tuned for more!

The South Pole Winter 2017 Ham Radio Class showing their callsigns! Photo Credit NSF/Martin Wolf

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The South Pole Winter Games

I put this post together about a week and a half ago, but things got a little busy, so I got a little distracted and am just now getting it up. Hopefully, it isn't too late to be interesting!

The South Pole is one of the most isolated places in the world... especially during the long winter season. I have talked some in the past about the things we do to keep ourselves occupied here. We read, play games, play musical instruments, study. and hang out in our free time. We have had a handful of classes on astronomy, ham radio, and even now a programming class. We celebrate holidays like back home, and even a few holidays that are unique to the South Pole or Antarctica in general. I say all that to say that last week, we had an amazing time here on station. It started on July 3rd with the opening of the South Pole Winter Games. Over the course of the week, there were all sorts of competitions and tournaments many members of the station competed in for actual medals.  Sure, the gold medal isn't really made of gold, but the medals were put together by our machinist on station, and etched with "SPWG" as a reminder of the challenges endured and overcome over this glorious week of competition!

There were many "traditional" types of games including:

  • Vertical Tower (Beer can) Sprint (Something like 80 steps at -70F in full cold weather gear)
  • Individual Sled Pull (From the geographic pole to the ceremonial.. 150 yards?)
  • Group Sled Pull (From the geographic pole to the ceremonial.. 150 yards?)
  • Treadmill 10k (one guy did this in full fire gear... I have no idea why)
  • Volleyball

A few less traditional games:

  • Ping Pong
  • Eight ball

And a few games that were a little more on the nerdy side of things:

  • Settler's of Catan
  • Supreme Commander
  • Rubick's Cube
  • Photography Contest (for pictures taken during the games)

Being the amazing athlete that I am... not, I only participated in volleyball and the Rubick's Cube competition. I only joined in volleyball as kind of a joke. The station physician's assistant and I decided to put together a team that would play just for fun and with absolutely no hope of winning. In all honesty, neither one of us really cared that much about it, and we figured we could find a third person for our team who was the same. Sadly for him, that person ended up being Martin. He was there when we formed the team, and I don't think he realized how little Catherine or I really cared about the game, but he wanted to join us. I think he would have done much better with a team that cared more, but he was a good sport, and I think all three of us had fun. I just want to caution you, if you see any supposed pictures of me in the tournament with pigtails and my shirt tied up over my belly, they are all fake.  Don't look at them. We don't need those kinds of fake pictures of me being absolutely ridiculous making their way around the interwebs! At any rate, the volleyball tournament went as I expected for us... we lost miserably, but we had some great fun during the game.

Most of the games took place throughout the week in evenings after the people on station finished with their daily work.  There were a few games on Sunday after the opening ceremonies and a few games on the last Sunday before the closing ceremony. In fact both of the competitions I participated in were on the last day. The volleyball tournament and the Rubick's Cube. As I said, we lost the volleyball tournament pretty bad.  The Rubick's Cube competition went much better. If you haven't figured it out, I am a bit of a nerd.  As a nerd, when I got on station last year, I thought to myself, "Now that I have some free time, what can I learn to do that would really impress the ladies?" The solution was obvious! It was time to learn the Rubick's Cube! I know, ladies, I just get more and more impressive with every passing day. Anyway, over the last several months, it has become a mindless thing I do with my hands just to pass time time when watching videos or watching the detector. I have a cube that I have solved over and over again.  So, when this competition was announced, I thought I might actually have a chance at a medal. Unfortunately, there is another guy on station who has been solving cubes much longer than I have, and he even taught me the first few steps on how to solve a Rubick's cube.  Suffice it to say that in general, he is faster than I am. That being said, sometimes you get lucky. On the last day of the games, right before the closing ceremonies, we had the Rubick's cube competition. I went first, convinced that I was in line for a silver medal. I took the cube, and got on the platform in front of about half the station and went to work as fast as I could. I ended up solving the cube in 1 minute and 3 seconds!  Not bad.  They then took the cube and mixed it up again, and handed it to Ryan, the sure favorite for gold. He stepped up on to the podium and quickly started to work the cube, but something happened! He made a mistake! It's not that uncommon to get a little distracted or to mix things up when trying to solve a Rubick's Cub; it just slows you down a bit, and he ended up falling just far enough behind that he finished in something like 1 minute 16 seconds! Somehow, things had come together, and now I was one of the lucky few to win a gold medal at the amazing South Pole Winter Games! A third person took the stand and I think had a time of a little over 10 minutes, but that is still pretty impressive to me given that a year ago I had no idea how to solve a Rubick's Cube at all.

After all the main competitions were over and we had passed out most of the medals, we finished with the photo contest. Applicants submitted a set of three photos. Adam ended up winning with a couple of amazing pictures and one that was truly glorious and magnificent, and I hope it never makes it to the Internet. I mean not because it was me looking and acting ridiculous or anything... Then the ceremony ended with the national anthem played on the electric guitar a la Jimi Hendrix. It turned out to be a really fun day.  Annnnnnd then there was an Acopian power supply failure out at the ICL and I had to go out and fix it.  You'd think that now that I am a South Pole Winter Games gold medal winner, I wouldn't have to deal with such trivial things, but alas, it is a harsh continent! So am I supposed to go to Disney World when I get home now?  Do they have special accommodations for gold medalists like me?

Below are a few pictures I was able to pull together. I hope you enjoy!

I won gold in the Rubik's Cube competition!

Here I am with my fancy new gold medal!

The medals before they were distributed

The IceCube Lab in the Moonlight!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

More Aurora and Night Sky Pics from the South Pole!

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was going to try to get into a little night sky and aurora photography while down here at the South Pole. This was largely inspired by my friends and colleagues Martin and Robert who have done some amazing photography down here.  Well, really, it was inspired by them and my mom who kept bugging me to get my own pics.  In fairness it is nice to finally have a few of my own... So, I guess thanks Mom!  There are also a handful of others who are also taking some amazing pics, and hopefully in a future post I can link to some of their work as well.  In the mean time, I have put together a quick blog post with a few of my pics from a couple days ago. I went out to get a some photos of the Milky Way and the Large Magellanic Cloud, mostly because at the time it was finally clear and there weren't even any noticeable auroras out. I was actually talking to another person on station, Hunter who is another of our great photographers, and until recently he has been trying to get pictures of the Milky Way, but for him the aurora kept getting in the way!  I am a little less picky and don't mind the aurora, but thought I would take advantage of the clear skies to get in a few more traditional night sky shots.  It took me a few tries to really get the images I was trying to get, as you will see if you look at the full album linked to below.  Eventually, however, I got a few really good photos of the Milky Way and the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds.

As it turns out, however, you can't go very long without those "pesky" auroras showing back up down here! After taking a few of the more traditional pictures, I ended up getting a ton of aurora shots.  It was actually surprising how bright some of the aurora were after it had been so clear! They were also very dynamic, so I was able to get a ton of different shots all within a relatively short amount of time. I am still experimenting with the photography so that is why some pictures are brighter than others.  I also don't do any post-editing which could bring out some of the colors a little better. I might do this in the future, but for now, the pictures are a little more raw.

The photos below are a small selection of the full set with a little bit of commentary.  The full album is located at

The Milky Way with the Large Magellanic Cloud in the upper left corner!

The Large Magellanic Cloud (center-ish) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (upper-left-ish).

Me, auroras, and the Milky Way!

I really like the structure of this one.

This one looks like a bird to me... maybe a phoenix!

Aurora under the Milky way!

The flag line leading to the dark sector is lit up with auroras!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Midwinter at the South Pole

First, let me apologize for my lack of posts lately. Over the past couple of weeks, I have tried a few times to put together a new blog post.  Unfortunately, I have had a bit of writers block. The truth is life here on station has mostly become rather routine.  There are a few things that happen here or there to stir things up, but for the most part, we live our lives just like we would back home. We get up. We do whatever work we have to do for the day, and then we find some form of entertainment to keep us occupied for the rest of the time. It is pretty normal, really, aside from the fact that there are only 46 of us living and working together in one of the most remote and isolated environments in the world, with some of the most spectacular views of the night sky I have ever seen... but still... It's totally normal.

That being said, every so often, there is a big event that breaks the monotony.  In fact, We just celebrated a major milestone. This last weekend, we celebrated Midwinter. I suppose it is not that unique of an event in some senses. I am sure there are a handful of people and places that celebrate this time of year, but here we treat it like a proper holiday. We have a special dinner where almost everyone on station helps out with the meal and preparation.  We come together to party and socialize and just have a good time. It also marks the last major event before sunrise.  We are now at the halfway point of our long dark winter.  In a few months, the sun will start to rise again, and we will start preparing for our trips home, wherever that will be.  Many of us are planning on traveling a bit before we go back to whatever could be considered our normal lives. It is an exciting time, but it also means that our time together will be coming to an end soon. We will be leaving this amazing place that has been a home to us for the past several months and moving on to the next part of our lives. We will be re-entering a world that has happily gone on without us for some time. We will be strangers trying to fit back into an old mold we long abandoned, or at least it feels that way. Soon, the night will move to dawn and then full day light, and we will no longer see the auroras and the stars that have often inspired us.  Leaving this place will be a major change.  To some it will be more welcome than others, but I think for most of us it will be at least a little bittersweet.

This weekend for Midwinter, we had a ton going on. It started on Saturday with Martin and I doing our dishpit duty and then was followed by our weekly house mouse responsibilities where we had to clean up in the gym.  After that we had an all hands meeting where everyone on station came together to take a Midwinter group photo. Almost all of the stations in Antarctica take one of these pictures and pass them around to each other for a Midwinter celebration greeting.  We did ours in the gym and had a bit of a theme.  We almost all either dressed up in our work outfits or had something to represent the work we do down here.  A few people wore some sports memorabilia or something else to represent what is important to them. Martin and I wore our IceCube hats and stood next to one of our display DOMs. It turned out to be a pretty good picture.  Later in the evening, there was a traditional viewing of The Shining.  Sadly, I missed this because my sleep schedule is all sorts of messed up.  I had to stay up for something like 21 hours just to make it to the group picture, so I slept through The Shining. The next day was also quite busy.  I woke early, since I went to bed so early, and then had a breakfast of leftovers followed by a shower. As I have said, we only get two showers a week, so this was a treat.  Later we had our Midwinter brunch. Then there was an epic facial hair contest where many great beards and mustaches were presented.  Unfortunately , I didn't win, but I came very close.  After that, I volunteered to spend more time in the dishpit while Martin volunteered to help clean up and organize for the dinner.

After my time in the dishpit, I decided to check outside to see what was happening with the auroras.  The past couple of weeks the moon has been up, so it has been harder to see the auroras, but now that the moon has set they have been much more noticeable. In fact,the auroras yesterday were too bright to pass up! So, I grabbed my camera and headed outside where it was roughly -98F with a wind chill of -140F, and got some amazing pictures... as quickly as I possibly could so I didn't have to stay too long out in the cold! Then a couple hours later, dinner started with socializing, cocktails, and appetizers.  A few of the guys got together and made us some old fashioneds with the only bitters that happened to be on station.  They turned out great!  It so happened that while we were socializing before dinner, the temperature finally dropped ever so briefly below -100F for the first time this season.  Everyone was watching the monitors when it happened and most were fairly excited. Finally, we had an amazing dinner that was put together by our amazing galley staff. After all that, there was a murder mystery game that many people played, but I was again so tired and full, I went to my room and passed out.

Overall, the past couple of days have been a ton of fun. Sadly, I didn't get the chance to participate in every activity, but I did get involved enough to have a really good time.  Not to mention, I got some decent aurora pictures.  I am still really enjoying my time down here, and I am looking forward to my last few months here.

Below, I have selected a few pictures from the past couple of days. For more pictures, check out the full album in links below.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Aurora and time lapse photography from the South Pole!

The past couple of weeks have been busy and exciting here at the South Pole.  There has been a great deal of activity with the detector, but also, the moon has set, which means that the aurora are visible again. The moon is so bright that when it is up it obscures all but the brightest of aurora and even those aren't as exciting when you try to view them under a full moon.  Now that the moon has set and it has gotten dark, many of the photographers on station have broken out their cameras again and there will be more photos flooding their various social media accounts!

Before we get into the aurora, it is worth noting that IceCube had some big happenings last week. We generally run our detector configuration a year at a time.  It's not that there is a big difference from one year to the next most of the time, but it is a way we can break our data and filtering up into more manageable segments.  Most of our offline analyses are actually done a year at a time or with collections of "years" of data.  Last week, we transitioned from our 2016 physics run to our 2017 physics run.  This marks another year of successful data collection by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory! Martin and I assisted some of the scientists and technicians in the North in the transition.  This process involves updating some software on the detector, and in this case, we actually retired an older system in favor of a newer and hopefully more robust one. Overall the transition went well, and we are excited to be starting another year of particle astrophysics research with one of the greatest experiments ever built... not that I am in any way biased or anything!

Not only do I get to work on such an amazing experiment, but I am also very happy to say that I get to live an amazing environment.  Mostly, I don't spend a great deal of time outside, but when I do, there are times that I am treated to one of the most amazing light shows I have ever seen.  Martin and I had to do some repairs the other day out at the IceCube Lab.  Just as a reminder, this is a 3/4 of mile walk away in temperatures that lately range from around -70F to -80F with wind chills well below -100F.  While out there, Martin set up his camera to do a short time lapse (available soon for the public?).  He got some amazing shots, including one of the stills below.  After we had finished our work, we headed back, but the aurora were so amazing, we stopped several times to admire them.  Martin even tried to get a few more shots in before his camera froze. I have included one below that he took of me in front of the aurora.  For those interested in more of his photography, here again is a link to his flikr account:

Here in the near future, I think I am going to try my hand at a little bit of aurora photography. I don't know that I will be able to get anywhere near as good as Martin is, but maybe I can get a few good shots in here or there.

Besides Martin, there are also a few other people on station who have gone out several times to get aurora shots.  One in particular is Robert Schwarz.  Robert has spent more time at the South Pole than any other person ever.  He is currently working on his 13th winter at pole, and is planning to come back next year for one more winter.  Over the years, he has developed a skill at photographing aurora this includes a great deal of time lapse photography as well. He has a few websites with many pictures and his time lapses posted. I encourage you to check them out.

Between Martin and Robert and several of the others who I will try to link to in the future, we have an amazing group of photographers down here! They have done an amazing job of capturing the beauty that we get to see down here on a fairly regular basis, barring light pollution from the moon!

Other than that, things have mostly been going as usual. I am still working on learning French, and I think I am about to start on Russian. I have been practicing more on the violin, and I am starting to think about trying to memorize a few specific pieces I have been working on. I was trying to read a science paper a day, but that has slowed down a bit over the past week.  I am hoping to get a little more focused on that over the next week or so and maybe do some extra reading to get caught up. That being said, I am sure I know why you are all really reading this blog, so here are the pictures!

Martin snapped this picture of me (James) in front of some aurora and the South Pole Telescope (SPT) on our way back from fixing hardware problems at the ICL - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Martin laying down in front of the ceremonial South Pole and the station, looking at the stars and aurora - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Martin standing in front of the station with aurora in the background - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Aurora over the South Pole Telescope (SPT) - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Aurora over the station - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Aurora over the station observation deck - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

The IceCube Lab in the starlight - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

The moon over the South Pole station - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Martin out in front of some aurora - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Martin got this pic of our station physician assistant taking pictures of aurora... How meta!

This is a shot of our station physician watching the aurora - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Another aurora shot with the Milky Way in the background - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

A shot of the Large Magellenic Cloud from the South Pole - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Martin and James posed for a picture in front of the ICL to send to the IceCube Collaboration during their most recent meeting - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

16 Hour DarkSector Sky Time-Lapse at South Pole
16 Hour Dark Sector Time Lapse at the South Pole (you may need to click on this one to really see it) - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Pizza Night at the South Pole

In general I love being down here at the South Pole, but I suppose in fairness I am a pretty positive person, and I try to focus on the positive and look past some of the negative things that happen, not just here, but in my life back home as well. The reality is, however, that not everything here is perfect. The fact that we are limited to 2 two minute showers a week is one thing that comes to mind immediately.  Somewhat off topic, but the first thing I am going to do when I get back to Christchurch when I get off the ice is check into my hotel and take an hour long shower, or maybe two... It will be glorious! But I digress...  I generally avoid the more negative things that happen on my blog, because honestly, they are usually small and not worth talking about.  That being said the past couple of month or so has had a few annoying things happen.

The first big annoyance has been the Internet. We normally have three scheduled satellite passes that provide Internet for everyone on station.  The first is normally the fastest. However, even at its fastest it is slower than what most people have at home.  It is far too slow to stream most video reliably, especially when all 46 of us are fighting for bandwidth.  So Netflix is definitely not happening, but on a good day, it is usually good enough to handle your general browsing needs, well, for the 3 hours it is up.  Under the right circumstance, it could be used for a Skype video call, which is kind of important for me right now, but we'll get to that in a bit. The next satellite pass is significantly slower.  It can take several minutes to load pages if you are trying to browse the web.  There are even times when you will try to access pages, but they continually time out and just won't load.  Sometimes you can't even get through to your email. Funnily, this satellite is called "Skynet". If this was the sentient network that would try to take over the world (as from Terminator), then I wouldn't be too worried about it!  This satellite lasts a little bit longer, around 5 or 6 hours, but again it is barely usable.  The last satellite pass is somewhere in the middle. Mostly it will load pages, but it still takes time.  When I am on it, I still have pages that time out, but usually it works if you are patient. This pass lasts around 3 or 4 hours.

The point of all this is that we have limited Internet access here.  Things are slow, but lately it has been worse.  Our fast satellite has been down for the past week and was already not working properly the weeks before that.  In fairness, I don't suppose I can complain too much about that as I have slept through that pass over the past month or so, but I just finished my ham radio class here and I can't give the exam without that satellite.  We have to have proctors watching from the North, and that is the satellite that has the best chance of getting a Skype video call through at the right time. Hopefully, these problems will be resolved soon, but sometimes, I get the impression that we here at the South Pole are not a high priority for the satellite people up North.

The second big annoyance has been the kitchen work.  Since I have had some questions about how the food situation is here, I will elaborate a little on that first. The majority of the time, we get our food from our cafeteria, or galley as we call it.  There are three meals prepared six days a week, and a small spread for brunch on Sunday.  If you work nights or are like me and for some unexplainable reason end up on a night shift, there is a leftover refrigerator that is usually stocked with food for consumption after hours. The leftover fridge is also the source of food on the one day of the week the galley staff doesn't work, Sunday, unless someone else on station volunteers to cook for everyone.  The food is provided for us so we don't actually have to buy anything.  The exception is junk food.  If you want beef jerky, candy, coke or something else like that you mostly have to get that from our station store, but I think that will have to be a post for another time. Even still, there is always coffee, cookies, and chips out in the galley for anyone to have if they get the munchies in the middle of the day or night.

A little over a month ago, some of the maintenance crew started a planned overhaul of the kitchen, and it went on for about three weeks.  They had to do this during the winter as there are only 46 of us here now vs. the 150 or so people here during the summer. Normally, I really enjoy our food here.  We have some pretty good cooks here and they do an amazing job with the limited resources we have.  Keep in mind, most of our food is frozen during the winter, and much of it has been here for a while. The milk is powdered.  It's hard to find green olives.  There is rarely ketchup and almost never mayonnaise.  The very few fresh vegetables come from our small green house (thank goodness for greenhouse tomatoes!). That being said, for those three weeks, much of our food was cooked on our emergency stove and in some industrial microwaves. For the most part, the food was OK, but it definitely lost some quality. There were more than a few days when people would opt out of the main course and stick to the side dishes, as the frozen meat cooked in a microwave rarely came out quite as well as we would like.

There are a couple of reasons I bring all this up.  The first is that I have had a few people ask about the food situation here.  The second, and actually bigger reason, is to say that the kitchen work ended a week or so ago, and last Saturday, the logistics working group volunteered to make pizza for everyone.  It was probably the best pizza I have had in a LONG time. They mentioned that they were going to cook for everyone earlier in the week, and everyone was extremely excited when Saturday evening arrived, and pizza was had by all! I have to confess, I have been thinking about trying to exercise and get in better shape while I am here, but on that night... I ate so much I made myself a little sick.  It was great!

The truth is I don't really feel like I have much to complain about.  Things are not perfect here, but there are places and people who have it far worse. I do miss my family sometimes. I miss regular long hot showers. I miss humidity.  I miss deep fried buffalo wings and green olives, and probably a thousand other things here and there, but the truth is, I am still really enjoying my time here. I am living and working with a great group of people in an awe inspiring place, and I can step outside at almost any time I would like and have an amazing view of the night sky from one of the most exotic places in the world.  In truth, I will be ready to leave in six months and get back to warmer climates, again with long showers, but the truth is I know it won't be long before I am missing this amazing place, and the wonderful community we have made here.