Welcoming a new RA…

As of this summer, we have a new RA named Adam. He is a pretty awesome guy, and he’ll be covering both Blacker and Ricketts.

We have a history of welcoming our incoming RAs in interesting ways. We do small scale pranks often, but it’s particularly special when we get to use them to introduce new people to our way of life. The summer before my frosh year the RA apartment was filled floor to ceiling entirely with balloons the week before the new RA moved in. Two years ago when our current RAs, Dustin and Katya, moved in, we hung their front door two stories up in the courtyard.

This summer, we may have gone a wee bit overboard. Here are a few of the slight modifications we made to Adam’s new apartment…

The handles on the fridge may be a bit counter intuitive.

The door between the living room/kitchen area and bedroom is locked, but has a specialty passageway just for Adam.

All the taps in the apartment were switched so hot goes to cold and cold goes to hot. In addition, we did something particularly devilish to the bathtub. Usually the handle for the tap faces down when the water is off, and you move the handle up counter-clockwise through cold to hot. In our modified system, the handle starts out facing up when the water is off, and you can turn the knob one way to get hot water, and the other way to get cold. Those are the only two temperatures available… the cold and hot streams cannot be mixed, as the water turns off in between. A bit subtle perhaps, but probably makes for a very confusing bathing experience.

The bathroom was also specially fitted with this personal surveillance device…

…and a special friend, reading the LA Express.

Finally, what may well be the most annoying prank involved the doors to the apartment. Doors in the South Hovses have small interior latches which you need access to in order to open the door from inside. Adam’s apartment has one door that opens to Blacker and one that opens to Ricketts. For the Blacker door, we built a small, very irritating aluminum box that blocked off the locking mechanism on the inside. So if the door is shut, it cannot be opened from within unless you can remove the box. For the Ricketts door, we changed the combination, so it cannot be opened from outside unless you know the new combo. From the outside, it takes quite a bit of time to get from the Ricketts side of the apartment to the Blacker side, involving going down, then up a flight of stairs. Hence, an irritating unidirectional apartment!

Adam has moved in now, and I think had quite a bit of fun discovering our modifications.

Quite a lot of work for a few good laughs, but I think it was well worth it, and I hope Adam did too ūüôā


The two most famous projects that occur each year are Interhovse and Ditch Day, which every house participates in. However, lots of moles also like to also work on smaller-scale projects throughout the year. Here is a (very small) sampling of cool projects that I remember from last year:

  • Hellride
This annual tradition, peculiar to Blacker Hovse, is probably the most construction-intensive Blacker event after Interhovse and Ditch Day. In it, the frosh attempt to play Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” (which is strictly banned at Caltech except for 7am during finals week, or if it is played as part as Wagner’s entire cycle of four operas: The Ring of the Nibelung) for as long as possible as the upperclassmen attempt to shut it off. This is traditionally done by barricading the speakers in the all-frosh alley Hell (thus the name Hellride). There have been stories of moles going so far to shut off The Ride as destroying walls, breaking down doors, and once even shooting the speakers when they were mounted at the top of a palm tree.
After several clandestine meetings in the ASCIT screening room, we decided to take the traditional route and hold Hellride in Hell, since this had not been done very much after the renovation of the South Hovses primarily due to fear of excessive damages. After deciding on Hell (specifically, Robb’s room), we made Hell “frosh-only” by closing off the entrances with black plastic, and then started collecting materials as Robb emptied out his room. Among these materials was lots of tires and concrete:

The plan was to replace Robb’s door with a reinforced concrete block, with pieces of tire bolted to the front to absorb much of the inevitable sledgehammer blows. In this picture, about 1/3 of the block had been poured:

We also needed to barricade the window. This was to be accomplished with 4x4s and concrete. Here’s the form for the window defense; concrete was to be poured in later:

At this point, after several weeks of planning and gathering materials, we were less than a week from the event. However, the morning after these pictures were taken, a Housing employee walked through Hell and, suspicious that Robb’s entrance was covered with black plastic and a sign that said “Frosh Only”, peeked behind. Needless to say, when Housing found out that the room had been emptied of everything (including the door and window) except construction materials, 4x4s on the window, and a partially poured door barricade, they weren’t very happy. They told Brad, the hovse president, that if it wasn’t restored to its original condition within a couple of days we would be paying for it. So sadly, our Hellride was shut down by Housing. But we still held a makeshift Hellride that night, which was still pretty fun even though The Ride only lasted a couple of seconds.

  • Quadcopter
Russell (a frosh) was working on a quadcopter throughout last year, which he recently completed.
  • Rcandy rockets
Some of us decided that a cool project would be to make homemade rockets. Around this same time, Russell was building a quadcopter, and so our ultimate goal was to be able to launch these rockets from the quadcopter. But we needed to finish the project in time for our annual camping trip in the desert, since it wasn’t really courtyard-safe. The propellant was made from a mixture of approximately 65% KNO3 (oxidizer) and 35% sucrose (fuel). Due to the large sucrose content, the propellant is affectionately referred to as rcandy, short for rocket candy. Unfortunately, the project ran into more hurdles than expected, and when we tried to launch one during the camping trip the rocket’s nozzle blew off, resulting in the rocket burning up its fuel on the ground for a few seconds before exploding. We picked up the project again this summer.
Here’s the rocket exploding:

  • Exploding CDs
We were trying to launch CDs by spinning them on a dremel, and then flicking them off. While we weren’t able to make them actually fly, we did discover that if a CD with extremely high rotational velocity touches the ground, it explodes. Probably not the safest of endeavors, but incredibly entertaining.
  • Pressurized water cannon
A pressurized water cannon. Built before my time.

Hot Tub Party!

Every summer we put together our homemade hot tub in the courtyard. We fill it with hot water from as many janitorial sinks as we can reach with available hoses, and voila, instant party.

This summer we decided to utilize our gazebo left over from Interhovse. Somehow our hot tub pieces magically fit inside the gazebo, with only minor modification necessary. Classiest hot tub ever.


Last summer we had a surprisingly good setup where we pumped water from the hot tub through a hose that led to a set of refrigerator coils on the fireplace in the lounge. This heated the water, which was subsequently cycled back into the hot tub.

There were a few logistical difficulties, such as when one of the hoses popped off the coil and just started spewing water into the lounge. A bunch of us were sitting in the courtyard at the time, and someone walked out of the lounge and asked “is there any particular reason the lounge is being flooded?” Cue everyone freaking out and rushing inside to carry all the now-soggy furniture out of harm’s way. (We even managed to save the rug; thank goodness, it really tied the room together.)

Unfortunately we seem to have misplaced our refrigerator coils, so no automatic heating this year. But I do think the gazebo is an upgrade.

For ages, people have been talking about building a slide from a second story balcony into the hot tub. Maybe next year.

Adventures in Santa Monica

Hi, my name is Liz, and Marissa is forcing me to add this line at gunpoint. I’m a senior, a ChE, and hoping to graduate without horrible gunshot-related trauma.

Contrary to popular belief, techers do¬†get (far) off campus on occasion. On this rare and happy event, we tend to roam, and on this particular day decided to head to the world-famous Umami Burger. This decision was partially prompted by a desire to visit some of our friends working at Google: Santa Monica, who we’d heard were at Umami Burger around then and could hopefully be visited with. Packing six into a cherry-red ’05 Toyota Matrix we set off hungry and confused.

Our first mistake was thinking there was only one¬†Umami Burger. Protip – there are two, and they’re in entirely opposite directions. After calling our friends at the Googleplex, and driving for almost twenty minutes, we realized we were heading towards the wrong Umami Burger.

Forty minutes later…

Our friends from the Googleplex were long¬†gone – likely reclining on their $10,000 couch (protip: when the president of the college is throwing out furniture, even if it’s ugly, take it – it may be secretly worth 10+K). The evening was beginning to grow cool, and the sky that shade of purple-pink rarely found outside of highly processed food. After missing the parking lot the first time, we parked and talked to the maitre ‘d… and found out we had to wait another 40 minutes for a table. But we were at Umami Burger, so we swallowed the bitter taste of denied hunger and did what any reasonable person would do, and went to the beach.

There were parrots:

The little girl holding the parrots looked somewhat scared.

The sunset was rather pretty, though:

Unfortunately, we’d been given a ‘low’ estimate of wait time of about 25 minutes, and it took us 12 minutes to get to the beach. After taking a few photos, and staring longingly at the amusement park rides, we headed back to Umami Burger.

Between the walking and the near two-hour wait for food (from when we left Blacker Hovse), we were all¬†thoroughly¬†hungry… and despite the average $12 pricetag of a small burger, we threw caution to the wind and all ordered two burgers and¬†a side.

The burgers were branded:

And the sides were fairly sized. The cups, despite looking hard-sided and glass-like, were actually plastic and relatively easy to distort and push all the water out of. I learned this the hard way.

The seating at Umami Burger is sort of bench/cafeteria¬†style, at least in the outdoors section, and we were seated nearby another group of students from UCLA. We chatted for a little while about work (and what the hell we were doing at Caltech over the summer), about SCIENCE (to normal people we apparently all sound like physics geniuses), and about… work. Finally, the check came.

Yup. That’s close to 30 dollars a head (tip was already included). But the food was delicious (and very full of umami), so we dug deep into our pockets and then headed out for our next adventure – dessert! We’d passed by a Bloomingdales earlier, and decided that the frozen yogurt shop named 40 Carrots¬†was too strangely named to resist. So, with 20 minutes until the department store closed, we all headed inside, looking entirely out-of-place amongst the stylish women’s clothing and overpriced handbags.

While coming in at nearly 5 dollars a cup (we’d given up on ‘reasonable pricing’ after making our orders at Umami Burger), the frozen yogurt was delicious. They had chocolate, banana, coffee, and some other flavors that were less important – the yogurt was sufficiently tart without being too sour, and tasted like the flavor, rather than over-sweetened crap. We also got some strange looks… from the manequins. Don’t ask.

With our stomachs filled with yogurt and meat, we piled back into our car for the long haul back to Pasadena.


Open scene: A quiet weekday evening in Blacker Hovse. 

The South Hovse complex fire alarm goes off. All the Moles file out onto the lawn by the Athenaeum.

Enter Security Guard.
Security Guard: No one here is in trouble, I just need some information about what happened here before we can turn the fire alarm off.

Utter silence. Crickets chirp.

Exeunt Security Guard.

Blacker RA, Dustin: (sighing) Well, I’ve never seen a group Prisoner’s Dilemma go so well.

End Scene.

A Backcountry Adventure

Lots of Moles enjoy doing outdoorsy things — we have a yearly Hovse camping trip in the desert, a yearly ski trip in the Sierra Nevadas, and plenty of outings that people organize throughout the year.

Caltech is in a great place if you like this sort of thing — Pasadena is nestled right against the foothills of the San Gabriels, and there are even trailheads within walking distance of campus (and certainly within biking distance)! There’s a nice variety too. One weekend this February I was walking on the beach in Malibu (about an hour’s drive from campus), and the next weekend I was skiing at China Peak with the Hovse! If you want to go a bit further away, Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Yosemite and Big Sur are all beautiful and definitely reachable from here if you have a car and a few days off.

Anyway, this weekend I went backpacking with four other Moles: Brad (the Hovse President and a rising senior like me), Rae (a rising junior) and Ben and Kurt (who both graduated this June).

From left to right: Kurt, Rae, Ben and Brad

We started at Heaton Flat, in the mountains a bit northeast of Pasadena, and followed a trail that went along the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. We knew there were a number of trail camps along the path, so we figured we’d hike until we got tired and set up camp. However, as always seems to be the case, there were a few difficulties that made sure we got our fair share of adventure.

First of all, it was hot. Ridiculously, absurdly, ungodly hot. It was so hot that Ben drank something like 11 liters of water on the first day (although he also biked to the trailhead while the rest of us drove) and that a block of cheese we brought changed its phase of matter by the end of the day. We had forgot Gatorade powder, so instead we ate straight salt (and it tasted delicious! one way to tell when you are running low on electrolytes). Luckily we were never far from the river, so we did quite a lot of swimming and splashing to keep cool.

In addition, the trail was incredibly poorly marked and our map was not very detailed, so it was quite a challenge to figure out where we were and where we needed to go on the way in. As we lost and regained the trail, we ended up fording the stream something like 10 times and scrambling up a lot of hills and through thick brush. As it got later in the day, no one we passed seemed to know where the trail camps were, despite them being labeled on our map.

So we trucked on, through beautiful canyons and countryside…

…and over a strange bridge called “The Bridge to Nowhere” (although not the one in Alaska) that looked like it belonged on a highway somewhere, not on a poorly marked, eroded trail!

There is a bungee jumping outfit that operates on the bridge on Saturdays and Sundays (and is apparently the only legal place to bungee jump in California), but we passed by too late on Sunday to get to try.

By the time we got to the bridge, it was getting close to 6, and we were hot and tired and had no idea where the first campsite was. But we kept along the river, along a section called “the Narrows,” aptly named as the canyon closes in here and the water moves quite a bit faster. Soon after the bridge our trail disappeared and we ended up just wading straight upstream. Luckily, we spotted a clearing on a hill above the river, which happened to be the first campsite we were looking for. It was a beautiful spot, with a view of the canyon cliffs and the river. We set up camp, ate a well deserved dinner and went to bed as soon as it got dark.

We got an early start the next morning, and headed out at much quicker pace — it helped that the sun was still rising and that we knew where we were going (we only had to cross the stream 3 times this time)! We stopped for a long break to swim, and then headed home.

I had an awesome trip, and I hope to have many more expeditions this summer. If you’re looking for adventure, you’ll find it here!

A Courtyard Inventory

Blacker Courtyard has a habitual tendency to accumulate bizarre things. From half-finished weekend projects to Interhovse and Ditch Day remnants to the spoils of dumpster diving adventures, there are always interesting gadgets to play with.

From my vantage point on our swingy couch, here are a few of the interesting things I can see lying around…

* a stolen street sign nailed to a tree

* a slightly charred 55 gallon oil drum

* a table saw

* a drill press

* a large tank of LN2

* a large wooden spool, for spool-walking purposes

* a gazebo, complete with benches and creeping grapevines

* pieces of our dismantled 1976 Ford Cobra II Mustang (fondly nicknamed “Old Kentucky Shark”)

* a meat smoker

* an old tire filled with mysterious liquid labeled “Do Not Touch”

* several bags of sand

* a recently repaired ice machine

* 6 feet of coiled copper tubing

* tupperware labeled “Not For Food”

* a pressurized water cannon

* a blast shield

* a motorcycle donated by a creepy alum (that we lost the key to and some frosh
subsequently hotwired)

* an arc welder

* a copy of the “Principles of Modern Chemistry” textbook that is partially sawed
in half

* two milk jugs of hydrochloric acid

… yeah, I don’t know either. But life around here is certainly interesting.

An Overture to Summertime

So far the living has been pretty easy around here since term ended. If you stroll around the Hovse, you might find Moles making liquid nitrogen Dippin’ Dots in the courtyard, watching movies in the Library, having inexplicably odd conversations in the Lounge or experimenting in alley kitchens. You may very likely get sucked into a Gravity Well, a Caltech phenomenon where a group of people gather to talk, and it is much harder to leave the conversation than it was to enter it! (As a new student here, you will quickly learn that Gravity Wells make excellent procrastination tools!)

We have something like 45 Moles staying over the summer, plus a number of summer students from other schools that come to do SURFs here. So the Hovse is quite lively during the evenings and weekends! It’s pretty great to get a lot of interesting Caltech people together without any problem sets or exams to worry about. Things can get pretty crazy during term, so it is nice to kick back during the summer.

That being said, it’s not just crazy during term because of the schoolwork. As a Hovse we have a lot of really awesome things that happen during the year. Allow me to acquaint you with one of our most exciting traditions… Interhovse!

During first term we built Big Interhovse, an event where all the four South Hovse courtyards have simultaneous themed parties with lots of construction and decoration. Our theme was Action Movie Climax. Naturally, we built a model of the Golden Gate Bridge for our dance floor, with 40 foot towers that extended well above the roofs of the Hovse…

The courtyard was also complete with a two-story Godzilla attacking a nuclear powerplant…

… and a 1976 Ford Cobra II Mustang that we got for free off Craigslist, carried into the courtyard and subsequently crashed into a tree!
We also painted a really cool floor-to-ceiling mural in the lounge for the party. In this picture you can also see a giant shark that we made for the courtyard and construction of a conical panel of monitors that went in the lounge for our evil villain lair.
All in all it was a pretty ridiculous party.
We also built Little Interhovse third term this year, which was a bit more small scale. Our theme was “Eccentric Millionaire Mansion” — we constructed a second story in the lounge with curved ballroom staircases. One part of the ground floor was turned into a secret room accessible only through a rotating bookcase.
One of the more interesting pieces for the party was a paper mache dragon head (creepy taxidermy eyes and all!) that was mounted at the top of our ballroom staircases.
The courtyard was a classy garden party with paper lanterns and a homemade gazebo.

It also ended up being a great party.

We’ve had a lot of neat Interhovse themes while I’ve been a student here — in addition to the two this year, I’ve also helped build a Doctor Seuss themed party and Epic Interhovse, which was based on the Siege of Troy, complete with a two-story wooden Trojan horse.
Building Interhovse is great fun because you get to work with the whole Hovse, and watch unbelievably cool projects come into being. What will we build next year? I don’t know, you’ll have to come see!