Technology rocks!

My Voice over IP phone just arrived today; incredibly simple setup, and it works great! I got the Packet8 Freedom Unlimited Plan--I think it's unlimited minutes. For some reason, I thought I ordered a 500 minute per month plan, but then again, I tried signing up with two other carriers (Vonage and Lingo/Primus) that had problems sending stuff up to Canada. Looking at the Packet8 website, it seems like they don't even offer a 500 minute plan, so I guess it's unlimited.

Voice quality seems fine... but then again, I haven't tried calling at peak network load times (~5-7 PM, I think?). Leper has pointed out that VoIP takes advantage of the lowered expectations of the public, given the voice and connection quality of cell phones ("Wow... I've barely dropped any calls with this VoIP thing! This is great!").

This phone has caller ID, call waiting, 3-way conference calling, and call forwarding, but I have yet to play with these features.

Anyway, the best news: it's a 617 (Massachusetts/US) number! Take my old home number (as a 7 digit number), and subtract 469,161 from it. So those of you with unlimited US plans--now you can call me for cheap.


If I had a $1000000

In case anyone had any question about the Barenaked Ladies being a Canadian band--here is a genuine Canadian box of Kraft Dinner (a.k.a. "Kraft Macaroni and Cheese" south of the border).

We wouldn't have to eat Kraft Dinner
But we would eat Kraft Dinner
Of course we would, we’d just eat more
And buy really expensive ketchups with it
That’s right, all the fanciest dijon ketchups


Photo from the basement project

Here's a progress photo from the basement work, laying down the OSB flooring on top of the dimple mat. Some of our steel stud work is visible in the background; the basement was had steel stud and pink batt insulation walls installed (not the best way to do it, but the homeowner didn't want to tear them down and redo them for sure).


A stud of steel studs

Spent Saturday helping a close friend of Chief Grad Student finish out his basement: it was actually a lot of fun--once again tuning up my construction chops, and I got to take lots of my tools out for a spin. More importantly, I got to expand my circle of friends up here in Waterloo. Nothing like drinking beer while using power tools with a bunch of guys... although nobody actually used the phrase (famous last words) of "Hey, hold my beer and watch this."


The homeowner was finishing off the basement into a family room and an office; he needed to expand because he and his wife are having their second kid. We managed to convince him that putting carpeting directly on the concrete was a Very Bad Idea--i.e. a mold farm (for basics of renovating a basement, see my the large PDF file at BSC's website: http://www.buildingscience.com/resources/foundations/renovating_your_basement.pdf). One of the ideas that was kicked around was DRIcore, which is a 2'x2' panel used to finish basements floors--a dimpled piece of polyethylene (creating an air gap) laminated to a piece of OSB (oriented strand board). It seems like a not too bad solution, until you look at the price tag--something like $6 (Canadian) per 2x2 sheet. Yeah, that means a 32 square feet--4x8 area--is ~$50 in materials. Yikes. We figured out that we could create the same basic product by laying SuperSeal Dimpled Membrane, laying OSB on top of that, and fastening it down to the concrete with Tapcon masonry screws for about 1/4 of the price. Of course, this requires having the expertise to attach things to concrete (and admittedly, we did manage to melt three or four carbide tipped hammer drill bits in the course of laying down the floor). But man... the DRIcore guys must be seriously raking in the money.

Next, we started framing up the basement walls. For this, we used steel framing (as commonly seen in commercial construction). It goes together really fast--a random web primer on steel stud framing can be found here. Hence the title of this posting--we kicked some ass today.

WARNING: I do not recommend steel studs for exterior walls--non load-bearing interior partition walls (like we were building here) are fine though. The problem with steel studs on the outside is that they are incredibly thermally conductive--think about picking up a wooden vs. metal spoon sitting in a hot pot. So all that insulation you put into your stud bays is gets bypassed by your steel framing. An incredibly graphic demonstration was a problem house I heard about in Las Vegas--the homeowners were smokers, and the entire house was framed with steel studs (inside and out) as an experiment by the unnamed large production homebuilder. However, due to the reduced temperature at the steel stud on the inside of the wall (during the winter), the smoke particles would plate out preferentially there (for some basics on this phenomenon, see BSC's website). As a result, you could see the location of every single stud and rafter, due to the soot stripes on the walls and ceiling. Mmm. Yummy.

Anyway, one fun toy I got to use to attach the bottom track to the concrete floor was my powder actuated tool--basically it's a nailgun that uses .22 blanks to power nails through concrete or steel. Incidentally this tool was a gift from my dear and close friend Psycho Security Guard. It's incredibly useful--did you know that they were originally invented in the 1920's for shipyard repairs, to repair battleship plate--see The ABCs of PATs. Another random web finding: "Although studguns came on the market in the United States in the late 1940s as construction tools, they were originally developed and patented in England during World War I by Robert Temple, who was attempting to adopt firearms technology to constructing devices for attaching lines with lighted floats to the hulls of submerged enemy submarines, which could theoretically then be spotted on the surface."

It was a little scary to use sometimes--e.g., you're hammering away on the trigger, trying to figure out why it's not firing, and you open up the tool to see that the cartridge has not set properly, and you've crushed it in half without it detonating. (my solution: gingerly pick up misfire with pliers, place in trash).

Between the bunch of us (4-6 people, depending on time of day), we got the floor laid down and fastened, and all of the walls built (for the home office, family room, bathroom, storage area, and mechanical room). It was a very long day (worked until about 9 PM), but very satisfying to see it all put together--and the homeowners were incredibly grateful to have all of our help.


A day in the life: the Climate Chamber

Just to give you an a day in the life of my graduate work, here is a piece of equipment we use: it's a climate chamber--you put a test wall between two insulated open-ended boxes, and control the temperature and humidity profile to match the conditions you want your test wall to see.

We have very little official lab space; we're borrowing some lab space from another group (read: they haven't actively kicked us out yet). But given the appearance of our test apparatus, we've gotten nasty email messages saying, "Hey... you have a packing crate sitting in the lab--were you planning on opening it up soon?"

Incidentally "BEG" stands for "Building Engineering Group"--they are my dawgs, yo.

Next to our climate chamber, there is a "constructed wetland"--basically using bioremediation/filtering to remove pollutants--a couple of stepped plant beds with water running through them. Given the big grow lights over them in this windowless high-bay lab, it looks for all the world like a big-ass pot farm. Hey... maybe it will take negative attention away from our group--we're only growing mold in our experiments.

This is my graduate group. Back row has chief grad student, my advisor, the guy who left for Australia, and Mr. Code. Front row has me, Harem Master, and the guy we never see.


Yikes! It's fall!

This is along the path that runs next to the University. Yep.. it's September... it's starting to look like fall. Right now, the walk to the University is great... but I'm wondering if I'll need insulated overalls and boots come February. Wait for the photos around then.


The Grand Tour (Bagels, Toilets, and Russian Tanks)

Started out today with a bit of a walk around town (heading to buy office supplies). On the way, I saw a cardboard sign on the side of a car for bagels (arrow pointing down alleyway between two industrial buildings). Bagels? Wow... I wasn't expecting that--pleasantly surprising to see an actual bagel store. It turns out it was a tiny operation, just a bakery really, where they also sell on three days of the week. Very casual--the baker let me know, "Yeah, just grab some bagels and pay; there's change on the coffee maker!" Weird.

Anyway, the bagels were excellent... I was worried I would be stuck having friggin' goyische dinner rolls with a hole for the next two years. [later added note] In fact, some UW prof who has lived in New York and Israel wrote a letter to the local paper about the bakery.

So... when are people coming up here for a coffee and bagel hour?!

I guess I shouldn't be all that surprised--did some web research on Jewish populations in various countries:

United States 5,800,000 288296153 2.0%
Canada 360,000 31805954 1.1%

However, having lived in New York and Boston (#1 and #8 world Jewish cities, respectively), I consider myself pretty lucky to have decent bagels here. Toronto's #12, FYI.

During the walk home, on the street, I spotted a few shards of a toilet that was being thrown out in the trash... I could recognize some parts of the flush mechanism. Then more pieces. Then the replacement wax ring package. Then chunks of the seat, no bigger than 2" in any dimension. Stopped, and turned around--it was a debris field about 40 feet long, running down the street. I wondered if somebody did a hit and run on the toilet at the side of the road. Or if somebody had a really hard time getting the thing out of the house, and took out his aggressions on it. I could just imagine the FDR (flush data recorder): "At 1351 hours, there was a noise and overpressure signal consistent with an explosion in the fill tank. Recording stopped shortly after that time."

After that, my advisor took me on a grand tour of Many Useful Stores in the area that sell mechanical parts useful to our research (read: bearings, wheels, motors, fans, tools, and an immense amounts of other useless junk).

The first stop was Tractor Supply Company (the farm supply store)--if you're looking for a 500 gallon plastic tank, well, they have them sitting in the parking lot right outside. Everything from farm machinery tires to tow straps, animal antibiotics, electric generators, V-belts and pulleys... pretty impressive to check out.

The next stop, mostly for amusement value, was the KW Surplus Store--as noted on their website, "Our Russian Tank is an easy way to spot our store while travelling on Victoria Street!!" (yes... they have a Russian T-54 parked out front). Immense amounts of overruns, crappy Chinese tools, obsolete computer equipment, paintball accessories, bins of plastic pieces--many things that are probably useless to most people, but probably incredibly useful to a select few people.

We had a brief stop at the University of Waterloo's new Architecture School (new campus--the department has been around for a while). It's a gorgeous location, right on the Grand River running through the middle of Cambridge, Ontario, located in a renovated silk mill. The bridges and riverwalk have an incredibly European feel to them--see Page 3 of the website--I have to head back there and hang out sometime.

Last stop was Victoria Auto--not only automotive parts, but tools, welding equipment, vacuum cleaner guts, random automotive body parts, a big box of assorted mufflers... yet another entertaining and useful store.

I'll have to come up with some projects to make use of this wealth of knowledge... but shall I use my powers for good or for evil? Muahaha.


Okay, maybe not *that* incompetent

Had a very nice dinner tonight with a bunch of folks visiting from A Company That Sponsors Our Research. It was a good and fun enough time that I think it countered the negative feelings I had leaving yesterday's grad picnic.

First of all, there was the good food aspect. There is an excellent wine bar/restaurant that is about a 45 second walk from my front door. I had the Peppered Beef And Gorgonzola Salad--quite excellent. I was considering dessert, but decided on an after-dinner Drambuie instead. Good thing the place is within staggering distance.

Second was the company. The better part of my graduate group (advisor and students) and folks from the CTSOR went out for dinner. The head of their group is a fellow graduate of the Institute, so in my camaraderie, I typically refer to her as "the lovely and brilliant Dr. W."** She brought along three people from her group, and it was a fun time. There were good conversations; funny stories were told on all sides; multiple bottles of wine were dispatched.

Overall, an excellent evening. But I'll fill you in on the hangover report tomorrow... or maybe later...

** Yeah, if she was looking for a Toronto-area boy toy--well--I'd gladly go ahead and... um, probably do a lousy job of it.

This is Solé (the wine bar/restaurant that's about 45 seconds from my front door). The building is the former Seagram's machine shop (there's a big Seagram's barrel factory/warehouse next door, which has been turned into lofts and high-tech offices. There's an outdoor patio, which will be useful for, oh, maybe another week or so.


Social Incompetence

Y'know, you figure that at the advanced age of 34, I would have gotten over a whole lot of the social interaction psychoses that have been haunting me my whole life. But no.. much like a nautilus, closing off compartments of his life behind him (or a slug, leaving a trail), they're still there.

We had a department-wide first-year graduate student picnic Tuesday evening; unfortunately, it appears that all of the cliques have pretty much formed already. I had no interest in trying to break into, say, the circled conversational group of soils group, or the table of the mainland Chinese clique. It appears that they were well formed, communicating, and having a basically good time. Instead, I stayed with my nice "safe" group of two other people (in my group) who were there at the picnic. It was actually entertaining enough hanging out with them.. it was just the voice inside my head reminding me, "Yes, you're supposed to be mingling, but you're too socially incompetent to so do," that bothered me.

[Well, then again, there was that first-year with the dyed red highlights that I noticed sitting by herself... enh.. probably a bad idea overall.]

However, I did entertain myself in small ways. It was a potluck picnic: I brought a tupperware full of Roast eggplant with balsamic vinegar that I made--hey--it went pretty fast too. Of course, if you've been in Canada, you might have noticed the requirements for bilingual information, so on my tupperware, below the English label, there was, "Aubergine rôti avec vinaigre balsamique." Merci beaucoup, Madame Desbonnet, may you rest in peace.


Gettin' it together

Well, I've gradually been taking care of things/doing things that make this area feel a bit more like home... well a new home, at least. To wit, I have:

Gotten a student ID card (Yikes. I'm a student. Really.)

Located and navigated the local bike path (which is unfortunately pretty lame: relatively short, doesn’t go anywhere useful, way too many grade crossings and curb hops to get up a good head of steam). The roads around here actually suck for biking (no shoulder, occasional sidewalk to use, bumping up and down, etc--at least I'm getting practice hopping curbs).

Found and shopped at the local Home Depot (very important). Another Canadian weirdness thing: all of the Phillips head screws have been replaced with Robertson (i.e., square) drive! It rocks--Robertsons are infinitely less likely to cam out than Phillips, which were *invented* to intentionally strip out and not damage the tool: http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a3_290b.html (and for US sales of square drive screws, try http://www.mcfeelys.com/faq.asp). Another reason to possibly stay up here .

Found and shopped at the local Asian food store (Yayy alien Asian pickled vegetables!--e.g., "purple? purple pickles?")

Went to the local art-house cinema; movie calendar is on the fridge. Looking forward to seeing "Maria Full of Grace," to pick up pointers on muling cocaine hidden in my GI tract. Um.. okay... maybe not.

Gotten a library card, so I can geek out with videos like “Sam Maloof: Woodworking Profile,” and “The Secrets World of Airports.” Also, can borrow CDs and DVDs (e.g., Ken Burns Jazz) for vigorous copyright violations.

Obtained a fast network connection at home--very important. Things feel much better... I'm typing away here in my living room on my laptop via wireless. Things are... well.. back to normal. To be honest, it's like the scene in Sweeney Todd, when he is reunited with his silver-handled razors after fifteen years of being in an Australian prison colony: "At last, my right arm is complete!"



Furniture Shopping

After getting all of my boxes unpacked and furniture assembled, I realized that my living room layout really needs another table (to hold up a reading lamp next to my chair). I take pride in having gotten rid of my milk crates years ago (considering I’ve been out of school for ten years, it would be pretty embarrassing for it to be otherwise).

So… I realized that I needed to do what many guys dread: Go Buy Furniture (despite having left various pieces behind in New York and Cambridge). The other constraint is that I actually have an aesthetic plan for that room (kinda modernist direction: black cloth, black laminate, maple/birch wood, and steel)—made the job more of a challenge.

First stop was a Canadian chain home furnishings store (“HomeSense”)—they leaned more towards frilly, brown wood, furniture—stuff that would work in your grandmother’s living room. I then swung by the local Home Depot (in the adjacent strip mall)—thought they might have some random black steel grille end table.. no dice. Although I did consider that a 3” steel pipe with a flange and some plywood might work… but probably not the thing for that room.

Next, I went to a Pier One that I passed by on the way. I have to say that if I walk into a store, and the first thing I notice is how it smells, I probably won’t buy stuff there (okay, there’s the porn shop, but.. oh wait.. never mind). Anyway, the smell at Pier One is, no doubt, the scent that Pier One Corporate sends out to all the branches: you must make your store smell like this overpowering mix of scented candles. And as I expected, it was, again, brown frilly stuff. Did a rapid circuit of the store and exited.

Finally, in desperation, I stopped by the “Décor and Fabric Superstore,” in hopes that they might have furniture. A limited selection (again, brown frilly stuff)—and after a minute in the store, I realized that I actually was the *only* man in the entire place (okay, at least it wasn’t as bad as the creepy feeling I got when I went into a Victoria’s Secret—-but that’s another story). In the “Décor and Fabric Superstore,” I felt any semblance of heterosexuality rapidly draining from my body. I knew I had to get out of there before words escaped from my mouth like, “Darling, this chenille just has a FABulous drape, doesn’t it?”

Incidentally, for those of you who haven’t seen it, there was an article in the Globe and Mail about the “Just Gay Enough” Man (“The perfect guy: smart, manly, makes great cookies.”) Very amusing (and insightful).

Anyway. An Ikea run will be conducted soon (two equidistant Ikeas in the Greater Toronto Area). Yes, you can make fun of me turning into Edward Norton’s character in “Fight Club.” In the meanwhile, I’m using a 22 gallon Rubbermaid container as my end table. So there.


Notorious P.I.G.

One of the people who used to be with my advisor’s group grew up on a pig farm; his family still runs it. He’s also one of the guys I’ve been working with over the past year—-he was on trips to New Zealand, Charleston, and Kansas City. So we all decided it would be a fun day trip to head out there for a tour.

I've actually been out on a pig farm before. I did a summer nerd camp in Iowa between sophomore and senior years in high school (BBIWAF); a friend of mine was from a family of pig farmers. Got to see a young pig get castrated (necessary to make the meat taste decent)--pretty traumatic for a high school city boy ("Man... they're only held in with... and you can use a razor blade to... gahhh..").

The first thing, of course, that anyone would notice is the smell. You get used to it, but putting that many animals in a space results in, well, a lot of shit. The way that this is dealt with in modern pig barns is to make the floor a grate (plastic at this farm--easier to pressure wash), and have a holding tank under the whole floor (~8' deep) to catch the effluent. The effluent is then periodically pumped out to a holding tank (lagoon?), pumped into tanker trucks, and spread on the farm as fertilizer for crops (which are then fed to the pigs)--pretty cool recycling, huh? The reason for storing the waste under the pig barns is to keep it from getting excessively diluted by rain--makes it less effective as fertilizer.

[Side note--I wonder if the undergrad Teps would want a bathroom set up like the pig barns here, with the grate floor? Nobody has to worry about 'missing' or leaving the seat up, right? Cleanup just involves a pressure washer. Plus, it makes fertilizer!]

There were about a dozen cats at the barns--rodent control, figuring all the animal feed they have lying around. There was one gray tabby that had some unusually matted hair--I wondered what she had fallen into. Then I saw her lie down next to the pig pens; the pigs came up and started licking her, through the bars. She seemed to like it--maybe she learned from an early age that was how she could get groomed. Wacky interspecies relationships.

There was another cat that, according to my host, went missing for a while--nobody could find her. Then, one day during a rainstorm, somebody looked out on the effluent holding tank, and saw something moving on a floating raft of... uh.. whatever. Yeah.. that cat was referred to as "shit cat" from then on.

The farmer was running an experiment, figuring out ideal ways to get rid of pig carcasses (occasionally they catch disease and die, grow old, etc). He had some rig for composting them with a whole lot of straw and some other tricks. It could reduce a ~300 lb sow to mostly skin and bones in a few months. Moral of the story--don't piss off pig farmers: they can get rid of the bodies.

Even though we were wearing coveralls and overshoes for the whole visit, after getting home, I noticed that my clothing was still permeated a bit with that distinct smell of the farm. Enh... laundry works fine, but I have a lot of respect for people who do that every day. A reminder that there are a lot of hard ways to make a living.


These are the folks who made it to the farm tour: from left to right, me, chief grad student, my advisor, and the guy who grew up on the farm. I realize that if I wear a jumpsuit, I look way too much like North Korea's Kim Jong Il.

Silo at the pig farm; the small dots on top of the silo are the other people in the group who came on the visit.


Culture Shock?

U5 asked me if I’d encountered any culture shock incidents while up here in Canada. To be honest, I’ve not really had many issues--it's just little tweaks that keep me on my toes. It's a washroom, not a bathroom. Thinking in metric (or using the –tiny- numbers on the speedometer when I’m driving). Paper currency with more colors than green and black. The one- and two-dollar coins (loonies and toonies!— they’re so Not A Dumb Idea.). Some people actually do use “eh” as a question indicator. But it's amazing how much of the "country user interface" is identical (e.g., stop signs are completely the same). It's like an exceptionally good software emulation of the United States. Oops… I think Canadians might take offense….er… offence?… at that .

I did have a culture shock moment in the shower though. I was washing my hair with my bottle of Pert, turned to the other side, and saw the French label was "Pret." That's French for "ready," in case you didn't already know that. My reaction was, "what the hell... why do they feel the need to change the name of their product?... please, stop the madness..."

Then I had a chance to look at my Cassell's French-English dictionary: perte (n.f.)--loss, waste, wastefulness, ruin, fall, doom. Hmmm.... probably not a product I want to be rubbing into my hair in the morning. Good thing marketing caught that one. Aha... one of my favorite mistranslated product stories:


Ford also had bad luck in Brazil, when their car, the Pinto, flopped. The company later found out that "Pinto" was Brazilian slang for "tiny male genitals" ("small male appendage"). Ford finally pried all the nameplates off their Pintos and substituted the name "Corcel," which means horse.

Argh... in other news, I'm just 2438 miles away from United Elite status for 2004. I'll be flying to SFO in October for Crack’s wedding. Mileage YYZ-SFO: 2259 miles. Grr. Looks like I'll be gunning for a connecting flight, *just* for mileage. It makes my brain hurt.