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MIT student blogger Laura N. '09

Nerdy adventures on the West Coast by Laura N. '09

Q: What changes when you transplant a few MIT students 3,000 miles? A: Not much.

One of the things that I find most interesting about MIT, but hardest to document on my blog, is the sheer nerdiness of most everyday conversations. I can’t tell you how often I find myself having in-depth and scientifically rigorous discussions about random topics and thinking “oh man, I should totally blog this.” Unfortunately, the topics are usually so ordinary that I often forget all about them before I get the chance to immortalize them on the internet.

So, what’s it like when 4 MIT students visit 2 MIT alums (including a former blogger) for a week on the west coast? Pretty much the same kind of nerdy conversations, only this time I have photographic documentation to jog my memory. So without further ado, I bring you the nerdy adventures of Laura, Rick, Adelaide and Mason….West Coast edition.

Thankfully, a lot of the more famous things about San Francisco lend themselves really nicely to outbursts of nerdiness. Exhibit A: the cable cars.

Do you know how cable cars work? One of the very first things we did on our trip was find out all about them at the Cable Car Museum. (Free admission! If you’re ever looking for something to do in San Fran, look no further!)

Basically there are heavy steel cables which run underground all along the entire route of the cable car. To move forward, the cars actually latch on to the cables and get pulled along for the ride (kind of like the lift you use when you go snowtubing). To stop, they just let go of the cable, and stop moving. Well the cable car museum is actually located at the central location through which all of the cables are routed. Translation: lots of heavy machinery. Adelaide and I (who are both mechanical engineering majors) were practically drooling.


(Wow, am I pasty white or what???)

Another one of the very first things we did in San Fran was visit In-N-Out Burger.

This isn’t exactly nerdy, but was nonetheless an important part of our west coast experience. The food was okay, but in all of our opinions a little overrated and not nearly as good as UBurger, the In-N-Out spinoff located near MIT’s campus.

The In-N-Out place is on Fisherman’s Wharf, which is basically the super-touristy area. There are some neat things though, like this cool museum of old-timey mechanical scenes. You know, the sort of thing where you put in a quarter (well, or a nickel at the time) and there are some figures that move around or something. By far the best thing about this museum was the following sign tacked to the back door of the place.

Throughout our travels around the city, we took a lot of public transportation. We noticed that the bus benches have this weird design- each bench is several individual seats which normally flip up unless you hold them down with your weight by sitting in them. (They’re a lot like the seats in movie theaters, except without armrests in between them.) We couldn’t figure out why this was. We discussed the possible rationale behind the design- maybe it used less material, or allowed them to stay relatively dry after rains because the water would slide off instead of pool in the middle. We finally decided that it was that it was made that way to discourage people from sleeping on them, but we couldn’t see exactly how. I was skeptical that it would be that much more uncomfortable than sleeping on a regular bench (which isn’t exactly comfy to begin with). Well, this was one of those things that can only be settled experimentally.

Conclusion: it was not comfortable. I know it might look like I’m smiling and enjoying myself in that picture, but really I’m laughing because I can’t figure out how to get up without falling off. Maybe it operates as a deterrent- you try sleeping on the bench once, but only once…

Of course, no trip to San Francisco would be complete without a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.


Adelaide ’09, Mason ’10, Sam ’07, and me posing in front of the bridge.

And no walk across the bridge would be complete without discussions of the design, the general concept of suspension bridges (you really can feel it move with the traffic), the importance of considering environmental factors (see: Tacoma Narrows), and the shape of the steel cables. (Did you know that uniform loading of a hyperbolic cosine stretches the curve into a simple parabola? This is one of those things I know, but do not understand, and could never explain.)


Then we hiked around the rocky shore (I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean before) around sunset.

Mason is really into breakdancing. Extreme breakdancing, apparently.

I’m not Yan, but I can take pretty pictures sometimes…



We spent one day in nearby Oakland, where Ruth ’07 works. While there, I had to snap a photo of the following:

Again, not nerdy, but remember, I <3 Madrid. Sigh. Nostalgia.

We also visited UCBerkeley and checked out their mechanical engineering building which, by the way, was awesome. It just had all the personality of a building designed by architects and taken over by mechanical engineers who rearranged it in their own personal way. It’s just an awesome building with…engineering spilling out all over the place. It was fantastic. Adelaide and I wandered around snapping pictures of the UCBerkeley equivalents of MIT classes.

“Hey look, there’s a whiteboard filled with 2.003.”

“Oh, that’s the 2.002 room.”

“Oh, check it out, 2.671!”

I even found their very own Formula SAE team.

(Once upon a time, I was on MIT’s team.)

Walking to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) stop, we saw something amazing across the street, and had to check it out.

“The Other Change of Hobbit: a science fiction and fantasy bookstore.” Look at how excited we all are! We spent awhile browsing the shelves, discussing some of our favorites. Adelaide was looking for the V for Vendetta comic and didn’t see it in their small graphic novel section, so she asked the clerk. “No, we don’t have it. We’ve stopped stocking a lot of graphic novels now that comic book place opened up just next door.” All of our ears pricked up. Comic book store? 20 feet away? How had we missed that? Well, now we had something to do for the next 30 minutes as well. Adelaide got her book, and I had to politely turn down a random customer who recommended something about elephants when I pondered aloud what to buy. (I ended up not buying anything. I’ve only recently started reading comics so I’m still not sure exactly what I like and don’t like.) Well, wouldn’t you know, two doors down from the comic book store was a Half-Price Books, where I was able to add a few new titles to my personal library- Eragon (which I’ve wanted to read since forever and was on clearance for only $1), The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia McKillip (an author I’ve been curious about for awhile), and Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. Yeah, it’s a book for 13-year-olds. I adore young adult fiction, and am not ashamed to admit it. (Except for Twilight. Don’t even get me started on that drivel.)

Later in the week we visited AT&T park, which is also not nerdy but ohmygodIlovebaseball so I have to share some pictures.

Look, it’s me, and I’m STANDING ON A MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL FIELD. So cool. This might even be cooler than the cable car museum. It’s hard to say, really.

Rick and Adelaide hang out in the dugout.

Nearly every single person on the tour stopped to take a photo of this sign, posted in the clubhouse.

On our last day in town, Sam ’07 took us to the concrete slides, a hidden secret of the Castro district. It’s sort of crazy, but there’s this tiny park with nothing in it but these huge slides made of concrete, built into the naturally steep landscape. They’re actually incredibly intimidating. (Not going to lie: I was legitimately scared the first time.) I don’t know who designed these things for children, but they were crazy. You have to go down them on pieces of scrap cardboard that people leave around the park to keep yourself from ruining your jeans.

I’m moving so fast it’s a blur. Or someone just took a lousy picture.

Rick always obliges by making ridiculous faces whenever I snap photos of him. (This one was probably involuntary, though.)

Adelaide and I enjoying our ride.

Whatever, I’m not an adult.

The thing we immediately noticed about the slides was that the left slide appeared to go much faster than the right. We pondered this for awhile until we realized that even two people of relatively equal weight going down at the same time was not a useful experiment- because they were using slightly different pieces of cardboard. We quickly designed a series of tests to determine the true culprit behind the difference, taking into consideration the slides, the riders, and their cardboard. We tentatively concluded that the left slide was in fact slightly faster, but that varying the cardboard used had a greater effect on speed than switching slides. Of course, these were very rough experiments completed without real tools. We discussed how we could improve upon our experimental design, and concluded that we would need to blindfold the riders so they wouldn’t alter their behavior based on which slide they were on and use simple light sensors to determine when a single “ride” started on stopped, to ensure that all trails included the same physical length by eliminating human error, reflex time, and bias. The conversation concluded with me saying the sentence, “And that’s how you design a double-blind research study.” Then we brushed our hands together and went for some drinks at a nearby bar. (Actually. Those last 2 sentences were 100% true.)

In other nerdy exploits, my friend Sarah ’09 (who is majoring in CMS and looking to get a job in the gaming industry next year) has introduced me to the wonders of XBox Live. I’ve always said I had a gamer somewhere inside, and I was just glad she hadn’t come out yet because I knew once I started playing games I’d never stop. I was totally right. Thankfully I still don’t own any consoles more recent than N64 (which is at home, anyway) so I have to rely on Sarah for my gaming fix. But I’ve still played way more hours of Halo in the past 3 weeks than could possibly be healthy. I’m not all that great yet (it takes practice, ok?) but I’m no longer an utter embarrassment. But I’ll totally admit, my favorite part of playing online (where you can match up with gamers from all over the place to play larger games) is the reactions Sarah and I get when people realize that we’re female. As soon as any of us says something, we get, “Hey wait, are you a girl?” (followed by half a dozen friend requests). My usual response to this is something along the lines of, “What? Girls don’t play Halo. I mean, is that even be allowed?”

This gaming has led to an even further increase in nerdiness. Sometimes I can’t resist doing something stupid, then saying “I did it for the lulz,” and whenever and someone informs the team, “There’s a guy in our base,” I really can’t stop myself from saying “Is he killing all our dudes?”

On that note, this video is a year old, but I have to share. For an utterly epic YouTube experience, check out the utterly awesome Sauza ’11 singing at the annual Conner 2 talent show. (Video courtesy of Snively. If you don’t get all the jokes, don’t worry, there are a handful of C2 inside jokes scattered around.) Enjoy.

17 responses to “Nerdy adventures on the West Coast”

  1. A random comment — did you forget to add some pictures/did some not load correctly?
    Some of your comments would ordinarily necessitate pictures immediately following them, and there are none. raspberry

    Case in point:
    “I’m moving so fast it’s a blur. Or someone just took a lousy picture.

    Rick always obliges by making ridiculous faces whenever I snap photos of him. (This one was probably involuntary, though.)”

    Or they just won’t load for me. Haha.

  2. Labib ('14?) says:

    This was a really good post. It was interesting to discover that the Tacoma Narrows bridge actually collapsed because of aeroelastic flutter and not because of resonance as our Physics teacher told us.
    I made her read the Wiki article after that.

    PS – I don’t like twilight either.

  3. Laura says:

    @ mit … ’16?: The photos are there. They just come before the text describing them. I’m not sure why you can’t see them… =/

  4. Liz '13 says:

    Awesome post! I especially love the name of the fantasy/science fiction book store (yeah, i’m a ringer).

  5. Richard '13 says:

    Seems like you had a blast!
    That seems to be the debate! Between UBurger and In-n-Out. I love In-n-Out, personally, but I have yet to have UBurger. Always the same debate. Which is better? The world.. may never know.

  6. Sean'14? says:

    Great Post! Very amusing smile

  7. Julio ('14?) says:

    It’s funny that you mentioned that the Golden Gate forms a simple parabola. About a month ago, my math teacher gave us a problem in which we had to use the measurements that he provided us, about the Golden Gate. With those measurements, we had to find out the distance between the towers, and the height between the street and the cables at their lowest point.

    I guess that when I get to see the Golden Gate, I’ll remember about all these math formulas and stuff XD.

    PS: Twilight also disgusts me raspberry.

    ~Julio (’14?)

  8. Jared '10 says:

    Laura, as a bona fide fanatic of the magical entity that is In-N-Out Burger, I have to say I am disappointed with your stated preference of burger establishment.

    tongue laugh

    -Jared (from California)

  9. Adelaide '09 says:

    This is awesome.

    Reading this made me all smiley. You win, Laura. smile

  10. Connie '12 says:

    Oh man! My house is a few blocks away from Cafe Madrid!!!

  11. Alex '13 says:

    In-N-Out has absolutely the best hamburgers in the world. Uburger must then be ambrosia?…

  12. Justin E '13 says:

    yay for hyperbolic cosine! (I just learned what that was yesterday lol)

  13. Kiwi says:

    @ MIT 16
    It might be your computer/internet conection. I was having the same problem earlier (only three of the pictures were showing up). Hit refresh a couple times.

  14. Sam says:

    In-N-Out : UBurger :: Spider-Man 2 : Spider-Man 3

  15. THANK YOU! Someone else who doesn’t like Twilight! grin