The Ghost in the Machine

Posted On March 10, 2008

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There already weren’t enough hours in the day, and now we’ve lost one! I wish I could have a penny for every minute I’ve spent trying to get some of these pieces of equipment to work. I’m fine with working 15 hours a day when it produces results – or at least result in unique problems identified and solved! – but when I spend countless hours on an inexplicable (and probably minor) computer/electronics issues, it all gets a bit much.

I had an alternate title for this blog entry, The Not Ready For Prime Time Equipment. But that’s not entirely true, for one thing, and I suspect there are other forces at work, for another.

Helen and I have several new pieces of equipment obtained specifically for this campaign. A cryogenic shipping container, with a temperature logger, pH and salinity meters, and a microscope camera (DinoCam), as well as the frost flower surface area measurement apparatus I built and all its parts… turbopump, capacitance manometer, and so on. ALL potential points of failure! And then there is the equipment that has been used reliably on other field campaigns by other British Antarctic Survey scientists: helikites (balloons), Rokkaku kites, winches, meteorological and ozone sondes, etc. And THEN there is THE LAPTOP. I am beginning to suspect that this last is the source of all evil … or at least the weakest link in our whole campaign. This is what is called a “Pool” computer, meaning that it is available for professional use by all members of staff. I think the kindest thing I can say about this particular beast is that it is perhaps better suited to the low demand life of conference travel than to field use. The fact that its monitor can’t be seen in even normal daylight (never mind blinding snow glare) and it has one of those nifty little mouse pads that require bare hands, isn’t even the worst of it! This computer takes longer to restart than it takes me to drive to work and back. Heck, I could walk there in less time! When you, the rest of the equipment, and the thing you are trying to observe are at the mercy of the elements, ten minutes feels like a lifetime!

Thanks to our old friend, Dr. Murphy, we can count on balloons to pop, kites to land in trees, wires, ropes and antennas to break, vacuum seals to leak, fuses to blow, all sorts of things to simply refuse to be reliably calibrated, and in general, inanimate objects to behave erratically, temperamentally, and in a generally vexing fashion, But NOTHING is as frustrating as a faulty, and hideously slow computer!!!

The DinoCam, which Helen bought from a mailorder company for our use in taking high magnification images of frost flowers, worked beautifully at her desk… well, at least the second one did. It is a small handheld microscope, with integral LED lights, that can take images at magnifications ranging from 50 to 250X.  It works only when plugged into a (cooperating) computer. Here, when I plug it into (either of) the laptop’s USB port(s), it is recognized about two out of forty times. And one of those two times, the recognition is apparently something of a shock  – “YIKES! NOT the DINOCAM again!” – as it causes the whole laptop monitor to go fuzzy, and the computer has to be entirely restarted.

This morning Helen and I woke at dawn, fought to get the skidoos started, packed up all our safety and science gear, and picked our way over about five miles of sea ice to the other side of the Bill of Portland Island to photograph natural frost flowers with the DinoCam before the sun was fully up (when it is too bright to do so). I had prestarted the laptop, gotten the DinoCam working, and packed the whole thing, in Standby mode, carefully in a foam lined suitcase with a hot water bottle. When we finally reached our destination, cracks opening in the bay west of the island, I set it all up carefully up, using my coat draped over it as a darkroom, only to find the laptop had lost contact with the DinoCam. Suffice it to say I couldn’t stand being coatless and gloveless long enough to get it working. Darn nearly froze trying.


The other pieces of equipment which require the laptop are the meteorological and ozone sondes we fly on the kites and balloons. The ozone sonde talks to the met sonde, the met sonde has a transmitter, and at the ground we have a receiver which we hook up to the laptop via a USB port (via a serial to USB converter). After a few weeks of reinforcing the met sondes’ battery leads (they kept snapping at -30C), reinforcing the temperature probe (very delicate), and finally stabilizing the power to the sonde by wiring up two 9V batteries instead of just one….I have decided that an evil spirit inhabits the laptop. We start the computer and the sonde software, power up the sonde, establish a connection, and send the whole thing skyward… and 99% of the time, somewhere in the first 100 meters, it just stops working. Sometimes if we start to bring the kite back down, data suddenly starts coming in again. (We’ve tried improving the antenna or documenting a cutoff distance to no avail.) Sometimes the sonde sends a few bad data points, or skips a few, and then rights itself. Sometimes, by restarting the laptop, we are miraculously able to re-establish a connection to the still-transmitting sonde. And sometimes no amount of cursing, praying and general hair pulling will make it work.  Today was one of those days. A fine clear day, strong winds from the South, kite flying well, up went the sonde, we started to receive data, … then, nothing. We brought it down, and it worked again. We sent it up, and it stopped. We repeated this routine. We restarted all components, together and individually. We tried a different antenna. We tried using the entire truck as an antenna. You name it, we’ve tried it!!!

I am beginning to think it is the USB port on the laptop. We will next try using Helen’s quite a bit older pool computer for these tasks. I’ve been compiling a list of “Lessons Learned” from this campaign, and #1 is …


I sat outside last night and watched the Northern Lights dance across the sky. It began with a glowing arc, then gauze curtains falling … the drama begins. Then bold strokes of color marched across the sky, starting slowly like a processions of souls walking through a distant mist, then picking up speed like green sand being spilled poured from a scoop. They formed everchanging swoops, swirls, and sheets of color. It was quite magical, even for someone as pragmatic as I. It made me think of ghosts, or spirits.



I’m not alone in my frustration, of course, we all have a mix of old and new apparatus, equipment we know well, and that which falls outside of our existing area of expertise … and some parts which just seem plagued by mysterious failures. The Power God  has been the nemesis of most of our colleagues. The University of York bought a brand new generator for this campaign, and shipped it all the way here by sea last summer. Its an enormous thing, bigger than my Nissan, and very impressive. Yet the folks relying on it have had a series of minor and not so minor electrical shortages, outages, and glitches. Then, for the past two days the generator was mysteriously losing oil pressure. Last night, when we went up to the site to do a few things, it stopped entirely. One of my esteemed colleagues tried three times to restart it. On the third try, it blew a piston. Right through the engine casing.


There was a ghost in that machine. I think it got out!


2 Responses to “The Ghost in the Machine”

  1. Jack Thomson

    What a wonderful account of Murphy’s Law and how frustrating it is. Rachel, your writing and descriptions are superb—your adjectives and phrasing a magnificent and you should continue to write as much as you can, given the circumstances. Everything you write is fascinating and makes me hope you will expand on the subject of that paragraph. For example, I am intrigued by the frost flower measuring device you designed and built and will demand a description when you return. Keep up your wonderful writing when you can.

  2. Sis

    I can’t discern my laptop’s screen when I’m sitting in a meeting with my back to a window… Read: low light. So I feel your argh. Maybe you could get Anita to work the mouse?

    I’m agog at the northern lights! Gorgeous!

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