Thursday, July 31, 2008
A bit more info: My last post, about how I'd lost my contract at the South Pole, wasn't exactly fresh news. I found out that I'd lost my summer contract almost a month ago, and have spent the last month e-mailing everyone and anyone I could to try and find another job. I wasn't having much luck, but didn't feel like posting about it there and then, as . . . well, maybe that if I didn't tell the world about it, it wouldn't be true? Or that I didn't want to admit to myself that I might actually have to go back to the states for the summer? Can't say for sure. But I wasn't having much luck with the trying to find another contract. There were a lot of other people who'd lost their jobs, and Pole had to accept a lot of the over-hires from McMurdo who had more ice time. No matter who I spoke with, it was just about the same story; they were hired up, or I (legitimately) wasn't qualified for the positions they still had open.
My posting was, more then anything, almost an admittance of defeat of sorts, admitting to the rest of the world that my plans for an ice life weren't working out exactly how I'd hoped they would.
But being, as I've said I am, the lowest rung on the ladder here, I wasn't privy to some of the string-pulling that people have been doing back in Denver. They'd already hired someone for my position over the summer, as they really don't like keeping people at Palmer for more then six months if they can avoid it. But, unbenownst to me, that person had backed out of their contract. And some people (both in Denver and here on station) were pulling whatever strings they could, on my behalf.
This evening, I got an e-mail from HR asking me if I'd like to sign a new contract, as a Utility Technician's Helper, for the Austral Summer at Palmer Station.
I had to re-read the short e-mail a couple of times before it actually sunk in.
Summers here are . . . unique, fantastic, and awesome in all ways. Wildlife comes back in full force, WAY more so then the occasional seal of penguin we see now. The penguins come back in hoards, taking over all the islands and making little penguin babies (which at some point you get to go out and play with), seals make little seal babies, and whales will often sleep in the harbor (you can hear them breathing, I'm told, from half a mile away). And while it gets pretty rainy, it's mostly quite mild, sometimes gets up to like 50 degrees. And because the sun is up the better part of 18-20 hours per day, and there's no sea ice, you can go boating almost whenever you want.
There's also, I'm told, a fairly active tourist season here. Cruise ships stop by a lot, as do private boats. Some people regard them as a big pain in the ass, but I'm looking forward to it. Often the ships will let the station people come on board for a day or so, have a little mini vacation of sorts.
Anyway, right now I'm still all hyped up and bouncing off the walls about this. I'll try to write more later once the dates are finalized and I have a bit more info.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
I might not have a contract for the 08-09 Austral summer.
Long story short, the NSF, National Science Foundation, the people who pay for all the research stations and things down here, is $17 million dollars short on next fiscal year's budget, mostly due to fuel costs. Because of that, a bunch of things have been cut, some large science projects have been downsized and construction projects put on hold or canceled. That means that they over-hired for staffing, and had to cancel a bunch of contracts.
My contract was one of those.
I've been e-mailing everyone that I can, trying to find a position, any position, that's still open, but this late in the game, so soon before the summer, it looks very unlikely. Most other divisions also had to cut people they had initially hired, and even if they didn't have to cut staff, they're hired up for both primary and alternate positions.
So I might have to come home at the end of this contract, at or around the beginning of October.
At which point, I'll have absolutely no idea what to do with myself. I'm not going back to my old job, I don't want anything to do with my old life. I'm done with that. But I've only been a carp helper here (read = not high pay), and there's no way I've made enough money to support myself, even living like a dirty dirty hippy in a tent somewhere, for much more then a few months.
So, yeah. I don't know what to do.
(And I would like to point out that while the NSF can't get another $17 million to cover it's rising costs, we're still okay with spending $720 million PER DAY[!!!!!!] on the Iraq war)
Monday, July 28, 2008
When you're pointed directly at the sun, a bit of flare is hard to avoid. Still, I think this came out neat. The wind has picked up a lot, and is blowing a lot of the fresh snow off the glacier to the north, creating this cool fog-like effect.
Maybe if I try to get pictures up soon after I post them, I'll avoid this massive backlog of images that I'm often stuck with.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
The last couple weeks here have been beautiful. This high pressure system has hovered over us almost constantly, giving flat seas and almost no wind. We had ten days solid of sub-10mph winds, and a lot of days where it never got above 5mph. Barely a breeze. It's really the wind that saps the heat from you, way more then the cold. I've been working outside for hours on end in jeans and a couple of shirts, when it's been 15f air temp, and been just fine because the air was so still (the fact that I was carrying heavy things from one place to another helped too).
Of course, the downside to the stillness is the ocean has started to freeze over, making boating problematic. But it hasn't been cold enough to actually solidify, just form sheets of pancake ice. It's pretty thin, thin enough to push through in a zodiac as long as you go slow. And the last couple of weekends we've gone out boating, to find . .
And yes, I know the framing on these could be a bit better, and the focus is often a bit off. And I know the color really needs to be fixed on a lot of them as well. Keep in mind that I was shooting at hand-held at 400mm on a crop-sensor camera (Equivalent to a 600mm field of view to those of you used to 35mm SLR cameras), while trying to steady myself in the bow of a zodiac at full speed. The stabilization in the lens helps a lot, but at these focal lengths, just keeping the damn subjects in frame is hard, let alone make sure the auto-focus points are on birds for the split-second they're out of the water. And it was pretty dim out, fully overcast for a lot of these, so I had the aperture all the way open, resulting in a DOF of only a couple feet.
I took close to a thousand shots, and the majority of them are out of focus, or are of the splash from where the bird just was. Thank god for digital.
That's sort of what they do when they're just in the water and hanging out, trying to figure out where to plop off to next. Just poking their heads up, looking around, probably wondering why those strange orange creatures in a big noisy black iceberg keep following them around (which we'd never ever do. That would be in violation of the Antarctic Treaty!)
Dunno what was up with this guy. Maybe he was like, the Brendan of the flock? He was way off on his own while the rest of them were off hanging out off frame. Maybe he was just enjoying the view. Or he was being all emo because the other penguins just didn't understand him.
This was the rest of the flock. Flock is the right word, right? They are birds, after all. Those are fur seals in the backround. Fur seals eat fish, not penguins, so they tend to be pretty amicable to each other. If those were leopard seals, you wouldn't see any other land-based animals within sight of them.
These look a LOT better with the color fixed. But I've already uploaded them, and going back and deleting them, editing the group, the re-uploading is just like . . . too much work. So if you want to know how good the picture could look, throw it into pshop and do the "auto color" thing. Looks holy crap better.
Just a wider shot of the same flock
Just for the record? Penguins really are that adorable and goofy in real life.
We'd cruised around the island a bit, and came back later to find that the flock had moved up to the ridgeline. Better view, I guess.
A Blue-Eyed Petral, I think their name is.
Antarctic Tern, I think.
So, yeah. Uh, those are birds. We've got a lot of them down here. I feel like I should put something witty or insightful here, but right now, I'm just tired, and glad that I finally got this post up, that I've been meaning to do for like two weeks.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
HOW THE HECK DID I MISS THIS?!!?!
Monday, July 21, 2008
I mean, I never even got around to doing the posts about the big events here, the weird parties we have had and such. I mean, there's the smaller ones, like when we celebrated Sinko Di Mayo, and the larger, more official celebrations, such as the solstice. This winter has been pretty active, I'm told, there's a lot of science going on here this winter, which is rare.
We actually just got another couple groups of beakers on station, so we're back up to 36 people, and the people who don't have much ice time (like me) have to have room mates again. I moved back in with my previous room mate, because at least we already know that we work well together. And this time we got a room in GWR instead of Bio, which is a bit more convenient.
That's also sort of why I haven't been posting many pictures, even though I PROMISE that I've been taking a lot. It's just that the task of sorting through them, picking the good ones, tweaking them if they need it, then uploading and integrating them into a post, it . . . well it all gets really time consuming.
And while it's not like I'm SHORT on time, it does go by pretty quickly. Work starts at 7:30am every day, and goes until 5:30, Saturdays included. And if there's a catastrophe of some sort, or if the boat is coming in at a funny hour, you can bet you'll be working past those hours. Like this most recent weekend when the drain pipes under the aquarium building decided to freeze, and burst. You can bet that I was the one crawling around under that building for 11 hours that day getting that shit fixed (to be fair, most of the FEMC crew was there with me, and the plumber that got here the day before everything broke really had his trial by fire).
But by the time 5:30 rolls around, all you want to do is eat dinner and sit still for a while. So I'll generally eat quickly, then head up to the lounge and bar, hang out with people for a while, and then head to the gym around 8pm. By the time I'm done working out, and showering and things, it's getting late and I'm tired. Even writing this post took a bit of effort, and my eyelids are closing.
I will be trying to write more in the future. I owe a bunch of people e-mails, I know. I can promise a deluge of penguin pictures in the next couple of days, though.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Today, I'm making what works out to around $6/hr to spend four hours elbow-deep in the most rancid slime you can imagine.
When the grease trap for the kitchen drains is clogged and needs to be emptied out, guess who gets that job? That's right, the "Carpenter's Helper". Otherwise known as the lowest notch on the totem pole. Me.
Imagine the smell of a McDonalds dumpster on a hot, sticky day. Now seal it up, let it sit for six months, and run hot water through it a few times a day. Complete with bits of rotting vegetables and meat and whatever else gets stuck in there. You get the idea.
Eric, one of our cooks, describes the smell as "sick puppies". When Sean (who took those pictures) walked into the room to do something unrelated, his comment was "What the F*CK". When Diane, our other cook, heard that I was going to be cleaning the grease trap, she just got sort of quiet and said "Oh . . . poor guy". Paul, one of our sysadmins, made the suggestion of smearing some Tiger Balm on my upper lip, which actually did a VERY good job of masking the smell. After a few minutes, my smeller was fairly numbed and I couldn't smell much of anything.
It was so gross I couldn't do much besides just laugh as I was scraping this smelly goop out with a putty knife.
Anyway, after that, I deserved some candy. I think I was hunting for another Twix bar. Again, picture taken by Sean, who seems to get a kick out of following me around with the camera to document all the stupid or unpleasant things that I do.
Now, another random picture of me putting my scrawniness to good use; changing a ballast for a flourecent light in a ceiling crawlspace that was obviously designed by people who never had to actually work on what they built. You know the Hazard Course in the video game "Half-Life" where you have to go over one pipe, then under the next, then over the next, and sorta snake your way between two others? That's what it was like, sort of, but you have to keep yourself braced up above the surface you're crawling on so as not to mess up any of the valves or motor controls for the glycol heat system or sprinkler system.
So, in conclusion, I'm very happy down here.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Thursday, July 10, 2008
But given where I am, and where I hope to be for the next five years or so, having those additional higher-level skills would probably prove to be more and more useful, so I've been tinkering with the idea of spending a lot of money for a bit of paper that says I know how to work one of these magical internet boxes.
The most useful, and most common certification is the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer). In the states, the courses for these usually run between $6,000-$8,000, take a couple months, and cover the things needed to set up, run, and manage medium to large size networks (Active Directory, domain controllers, Exchange, etc).
But, of course, like everything else, it's cheaper overseas. The network guy who's currently here got his training through a company in India, that offers all-inclusive packages in all aspects of the M$ certs. And the freaking part is that they're all VERY cheap, in US terms. And by all-inclusive, the only thing that you have to pay for is getting your butt to New Deli. Everything else, accomodation, food, transport, local guides and translators, etc is provided.
There's a few variables involved in the cost, mostly how long you want the courses to be (they have fast-track classes which are shorter, but assume more previous knowledge), and which location you want to use (Deli is the cheapest, but is hot and in the middle of a big dirty city, while Shaimi is a few bucks more, but is located up in the foothills of the Himalayas). But even with the most expensive options, the courses are MUCH cheaper then in the USA. A few of our IT people here have gotten their certs with a specific company over there, and have nothing by praise for them, not only in how well they treat you, but in the quality of the classes and instructors.
So, two options:
-Spend $6000 or so for a 6-week(ish) course in Chicago to get my MCSE cert
-Spend $3000-$4000 for a 50-day all-inclusive course in India, in Shimia. located in the foothills of the Himalayan mountians, or in the beach resort town of Goa, to get my MCSE cert.
. . . GEE, I WONDER WHAT THE BETTER OPTION IS?!?
Even if I was still in the states, figuring in airfare, it would still be cheaper to go to India. But given that I'll hopefully be ending my next contract in New Zealand, I should be able to use my travel credit from Raytheon for a huge chunk of the flying, and my frequent flyer miles should fill in the rest. At maximum, I might need to shell our a few hundred bucks in airfare.
The company that I'm looking to go with is http://www.koenig-solutions.com/ , Raytheon uses them for most of the training they give to full-time staff, and the people here who have been there say it's absolutely amazing.
So, yeah. Sorry for this disjointed post, but I think I'm going to India early next year.
Monday, July 7, 2008
-Eric, current station manager
The usual addage is that you don't come to Antarctica for the money, and if you compare the weekly wages on a dollar-for-dollar basis, that's pretty true. The general rule is you will make about 1/2 to 2/3 here as compared to what you could make in the USA doing roughly the same work (especially given that we work 54+ hours per week, that would factor in a lot of overtime)
But that's not really the whole picture. True, if you have a family, a house, mortgage, possessions, a solid life with roots put down back in the states, it would be very hard to support that with your average Antarctic salary.
The flipside is that most people here DON'T have roots down anywhere. And since everything sans booze is provided for free to you down here, you're not spending any money while you're here to support yourself. The most that some people have to pay is a fee for a storage locker back stateside, if that. So the vast majority, if not all, of the money that you make here just goes right into your bank account, where it just sits there and collects dust.
Which means that at the end of your contract, most people are just dumped into South America or New Zealand with a big wad of cash . . . and absolutely no obligations, commitments, or responsibilities to anyone, anywhere. Some might call that the pinnacle of success.
On the other hand, we also have no job, no home, no safety net, and for most of us, no possessions but a couple of duffel bags of long underwear and sweatshirts.
I guess if that's a success or failure depends on your outlook on life.
Sunday, July 6, 2008
Guess I shouldn't have even tried talking at the camera when I was outside. I think I was just saying stuff about how I was walking from Bio-Lab to GWR, or something like that. But yes, before I went outside, I did say 50mph SUSTAINED winds, gusting up to 65mph. It's like standing in front of an industrial fan, or in back huge jet engine. A very cold jet engine. I mean, we've had strong winds in Chicago and stuff, but there's enough trees and buildings and things around that at least for the first ten or fifteen feet above the ground, while there are some strong gusts, it's pretty sporadic and spontaneous. This is anything but, it's just an unrelenting force that is trying desperately to push everything that's not tied down into the ocean. It's completely different then any wind I'd been in before.
Contrary to popular assumption, though, it's not actually THAT cold here. And especially when compared to the other stations, this is downright balmy. Palmer Station is north of the Antarctic circle, and being on the ocean and very close to the water currents coming down from South America helps keep the temperatures relatively mild. Most days have a high of about 25 degrees so far, and it doesn't often drop down that much at night. We've had a few days were it's flirted with single digits, but not many, and a few where it's risen above freezing. There are plenty of states in the USA that get much colder temperatures then we do.
What we DO get, though, is a hell of a lot of snow, and even more wind. It feels like a belt sander on your face when you're outside, especially when the wind is coming in off the glacier across the bay, as you get all the frozen sea spray ground into your skin.
I generally spend at least a few hours a day outside in this sort of weather. It does suck, I will say that, but . . . well it's not as bad as you would think, but I can't say exactly why. Being dressed properly helps a lot. I can't really explain it, though, exactly what it's like. I mean, yes, it's windy as hell, pretty cold, and the snow is blinding and harsh and you really dread going outside in it . . . But then you just go do it anyway, because . . . well, it's got to get done, and if you don't, no one else will. So you either bitch about it, and then do it, or save some time and skip the bitching, and get right to doing it.
(and I KNOW my dad is probably gloating like crazy and remembering all the times when I was growing up that he had to put up with an hour of my complaining about having to do a fifteen-minute chore)
Earlier today, when I was doing station rounds, I was walking from the boathouse to GWR, and having a hard time of it. I was shuffling up the road in a 50mph+ headwind, leaning over into it to an absurd angle, with ice forming on my glasses and snow drifts taller then my waist, getting pelted in the face by snow and frozen sea spray, trying to hang into the clipboard and my bag of tools while holding up an arm to sheild my face a bit from the wind . . . when it hit me.
. . . this is awesome. I'm in Antarctica.
Saturday, July 5, 2008
I'm not sure how this happened, or when. but a couple of nights ago, I took the lens off my shelf to show someone, and upon taking off the lens cap, saw one of the scariest things ever.
The few of you who are photo nerds reading this know exactly what that lens is, and exactly how expensive it is. For those of you who don't know? It's a lot. Many, many many dollars.
The good news? It was just the $30 UV Haze filter that was shattered. It did it's job and protected the lens itself from any damage. It had evidently taken a hell of a hit, as the filter was slightly bent out of shape, and was now jammed onto the front of the lens SO tightly that I had to use a large pair of channel locks and a bench vise to get it off.
So the lens itself is fine, and after taking the filter off to find the lens glass unscathed, I'm feeling a lot better myself.
Friday, July 4, 2008
-Unknown, someone from McMurdo
Asking people here "Where are you from?" will often get you a confused look, or at best, a sort of glance off into space and the start of a complicated answer. A lot of people here are no longer 'from' anywhere, in the typical sense of the word. Often, the best answer you can get is "Well, I have a storage locker in
It's not that we're the rejects of the world. We've just rejected the world.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
So instead of trying to recap all the events of the last few weeks, I'll just do another silly post not about specific events, but more about this place in general.
So, I present, Antarctic Slang. You've probably heard me use these terms before, or if not, you will.
PA - Punta Aranus. The town at the southern tip of South America that we fly into, and where we board the LMG for the ride to PS.
LMG - The R/V Lawrence M. Gould. The icebreaker ship that ferries us back and forth from PA to PS, as well as doing sciency stuff in the Antarctic peninsuala region
PS - Palmer Station. Where I live.
Bio - One of the two main buildings that makes up Palmer Station. It has half of the dorm rooms, the kitchen, gally, admin offices, IT stuff, and all the science labs
GWR - The other main building on station. It stands for, creatively enough, Garage, Warehouse, Recreation. This building has the other half of the dorms, the bar, lounge, garage, powerplant, storage warehouse, and logistics offices. As well as our little medical clinic.
Toasty - A specific sort of craziness brought on by being on ice too long. I'll do a post on this later
The Ice - Antarctica. Whenever someone says "heading to the ice" they mean they're going to Antarctica, or when they mention their "ice time", it's how many months they've spent in Antarctica
Cheech - Christchurch, New Zealand (CHC). This is the jumping-off point for the C-130 and C-17 cargo planes that keep McMurdo and Pole supplied and functioning.
Beaker - A scientist. Technically, the politically correct term for all the various science people and NSF people is "Grantees". But the only time they're actually called that is in the official correspondences. Supposedly, the term originated in McMurdo, as sort of a negative title. And while it's sort of a sketchy term to use over there, here it's more a term of endearment, or it's just easier to say "Yeah, he/she's with the beakers" rather then "They came down with, or are assisting the grantees". Or "Yeah, put that over in the beaker milvan" rather then "Put that in the grantee storage locker". Basically, 90% of the non-raytheon people here are either beakers or with the beakers. At the other stations that have a lot more people, there's more slang nicknames for other people based on their job (Wastie, fuelie, etc), but we don't really have enough seperation of responsibilities at a station as small as Palmer to have nicknames for individual departments.
NSF - National Science Foundation. They pay for all this.
GASH - The after-dinner kitchen cleanup. I did a post on this a while ago. Stands for either "Gally And Scullery Help", or "Garbage And Sh*t".
Milvan - One of the large shipping containers that we use to store stuff in around station
Backyard - The area of jagged rocks and small hills in between the station and the base of the glacier behind the station.
FSM - Flying Spaghetti Monster. The most-worshiped deity of Palmer Station. (If you are a fellow Pastafarian, you'll find this funny. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, smile and nod and move on)
PQ - Physical Qualification. A single term to describe the wide varitiy of medical and psych testing we're required to undergo before deploying to the ice. You generally need to re-PQ every year.
Coffee - Expresso with a shot of Baily's Irish Cream. Very popular morning drink here, especially with the beakers.
Mac-town - McMurdo Station, the largest station in Antarctica, and the jumping off point for many of the other bases on the other side of the continent. Population of up to 1200 summer/125-250 winter. South and a little west of New Zealand.
Pole - South Pole Station.
Herc - A C-130 Hercules cargo plane. We don't have an airfield here at Palmer, but they use 'em on the other side of the continent.
Fingie - FNG. Flippin' New Guy.
Ice Shock - When you get back to the rest of the world and realize that no matter how insane Antarctica is, the real world is FAR nuttier, and that you can no longer function in it.