Bats still says 'Math is hard'

Just handed in an assignment today that I've been stressing over for about the past two weeks.. basically, since it was handed out. The majority of the stress was that over that time, I've been travelling for ten days (SF Bay Area and Chicago), and most of the time after the first trip was taken up preparing for the work in the second one. In essence, we were given two weeks, and I pretty much had a day and a half to do it.

Starting the assignment was pretty bad. As in "I am way out of my league and have no clue how to get started on this" bad. (i.e., how the hell do you derivatives on summations?). A couple of attempts at beating on the problem resulted in wasted ink, slain trees, zero progress, and a full-fledged panic attack. Kinda made me wonder why I decided that this going back to school thing was a good idea.

However, being old and bitter, I've found that cleverness and lack of scruples has crept in as compensation. Looking at the Horrible Problem, I figured that we were being asked to prove the formulas for the least squares curve fit. I Googled "least squares derivation"--which magically provided this page on Wolfram's website on Least Squares Fitting, which had the whole derivation spelled out. Google to the rescue, baby. This might be considered an example of how the web is making us collectively dumber, because it feels like there's less need to store information locally (read: brain), but that's a discussion for another time.

Also, while beating on other parts of the problem set, I stumbled across Calc101.com, which has a basic solver in a web interface (powered by WebMathematica). It was pretty useful, and I have the feeling I'm going to be relying on it whenever math comes up, along with my CRC.

Despite these crutches, the whole experience was pretty unpleasant. All those familiar feelings from undergrad days--looking at dizzying pages of the textbook, knowing "the answer is in here somewhere, but I'm too stupid and/or lazy to extract it."

On the other hand, I actually got enough of a grasp of some of the other problems to help out the other members of my grad group. I even had an "ah, that's the trick" moment that I shared with the others to help them solve the problem.

Well, hopefully I'll be able to budget time out more reasonably for the next assignment. November will be a beat-down (need to complete another assignment, a lab or two, and the term research project/report/presentation). But at least this means that I essentially have all of December off--see all you Boston folks then!

Six pounds of margarine

Pray tell, what does one actually do with 6 pounds... oh, excuse me... 2.72 kg... of margarine? It looks like some type of industrial packaging--"The bearing lubricant is stored in disposable 6 lb containers, where it can be pre-loaded into the mechanism during operation. It has proven to be effective in severe operations caused by moisture or high temperatures." I saw this at the grocery store, and was deeply disturbed by it.


For what it's worth

For those of you who have been bugging me about getting an absentee ballot since I am up in Canada: I'm popping this in the mail tomorrow morning (from Chicago--a 4 day work trip, via my advisor's and chief grad student's consulting comapny).

Yes, I know due to the inane setup of the electoral college and my being a Massachusetts resident/expatriate, my vote is completely irrelevant. It still gives me some satisfaction to know that, to paraphrase a friend, I did my part to "poke George W. Bush in the eye with a sharp stick."


Paying penance to the airline gods

If I have faith in any deity or deities, it would be the fickle and capricious gods that tally up, cash out, or demolish the karma points for travel on commercial airlines. My recent experience was that they are jealous and wrathful gods as well. I actually spent a month (September) without a single airline flight--this is extremely novel, given my previous work experiences (1-2 flights a month). I knew that I was spending too much time at airports when I was washing my hands at home, and ended up waving my hands under the faucet waiting for the electric eye to turn on the tap. They were waiting for me to come back after straying from the fold.

So... what went wrong on this trip? Let’s see:

Outbound: 2004-10-14 YYZ-SFO UAL 8517/AC 755 16:35-19:05

(to paraphrase, if U cn rd this, U fly 2 mch).

Being a code-share between United and Air Canada, I had the choice while driving on the airport access road: Terminal 1 or Terminal 2. Took a guess; parked the car; got inside: I guessed wrong. Took the shuttle bus over to the other terminal carrying my three bags; cleared check-in in about 10 minutes. Customs, on the other hand, took the better part of an hour--they actually had to expedite me out to get me onto my flight in time. The cross-country flight was overbooked; every seat filled.

Inbound: 2004-10-19 SFO-YVR UAL 1136/AC 5175 13:05-15:18

Another code share between United and Air Canada--figured this one was a no brainer--drop me off where I was picked up, right? Wrong. Another shuttle bus to a different terminal. FYI--I took a closer look at my Expedia itinerary--it does have terminal number information on it. Need to start including yet another piece of information in my travel plans.

This flight was delayed by 1.5 hours. This meant that my connection (Vancouver to Toronto) would not make it. At the Vancouver connection, I was so preoccupied with getting onto the next flight out that I didn't claim my luggage from customs before clearing. Also, I suppose part of the reason I spaced it was that it's an entirely novel set of actions for single-airline connections to involve reclaiming and then rechecking my luggage. Called the United baggage office for 15 minutes of continuous ringing before having them bring my bags out.

Then I had about 5-6 hours to kill in an airport--looks like I was going to be eating two of my meals today in airports. That's actually not my record--I once had breakfast, lunch, and dinner over the course of a PDX-SEA-ORD-BOS trip.

Admittedly, I made the best out of the time being stuck. I got wireless access waiting both at SFO and YVR, and caught up with a few people via IM. Found a pretty nice Japanese retaurant in Vancouver airport, and caught the Yankees-Red Sox Game 6 in the bar.

Final leg was the redeye from Vancouver to Toronto:

Inbound: 2004-10-19 YVR-YYZ AC 156 22:45-06:00

The airline gods are pinpoint in their malicious accuracy. All that I wanted to do on that return flight was pop a sleeping pill and try to get five hours of restless uncomfortable sleep before driving home. Surprise: I was stuck in the row before the exit row--the one that doesn't recline. And the row was full. Man... don't piss off the airline gods.

The photo above demonstrates that I was on the left-hand side window seat.

All that I can hope is that the airline gods are sated with the punishments they have doled out--I have 48 hours on the ground before getting back on a plane again (to Chicago). I believe that this flight put me over the top for Elite status on United for next year--I think they made sure I earned it.

I ♥ Independent Coffeehouses

Went down to grab some coffee at the independent coffeehouse down the street from Perlick's swinging bachelor pad (on Piedmont Ave in Oakland). It's across from a Starbuck's--always heartening to see the independent more full than the Starbucks.

Anyway, here are the coffee insulators they have at hand... I just had to share.

Had a great time visiting the Bay Area folks and seeing Crack and Joslyn get married. I have two or three piled-up entries to file, once I'm a bit caught up on schoolwork. I had to deal with the pain of a functioning high speed connection at Perlick's with NO GODDAMN WIRELESS ACCESS POINT OR WIRED HUB, which made me solve the problem by using dialup (this entry is being written from Vancouver Airport).

Anyway. More later.


California Trip (Crack and Joslyn's Wedding)

Well, I've been putting off writing this blog entry for about two weeks--nothing earth shattering--I just didn't get around to writing up my thoughts about my California trip.

Note: if you're not a Tep (or don't care about the Teps you've lost track of), go ahead and skip the next few paragraphs--just an update of who was there and what they're up to.

First I found it great to catch up with a bunch of Teps, including many that I have not seen in ages--just a set of different circles, that type of thing. The locals who were there included Quincy, Death, Perlick, Spooner and his wife Kate, and Ed Kohler and his boyfriend. Ed is a young professor at UCLA; he is unfortunately doing the commuter relationship, coming up to the Bay Area every weekend. Out of towners included Roadkill and his wife Margo, Ronco, Logger and his wife Constance, Ariel, Hardpack (doing a groomsman gig here), wife Milena and baby Oscar, and Rugburn and his girlfriend Linsey. Logger is doing stuff in real estate finance consulting (don't remember his exact name for it) in New York City. Rugburn is down in Florida (moved to be with his girlfriend, who is going to grad school down there), and is working in some kind of bank/high finance job. Apologies if I missed somebody here... I'm just reconstructing from my vague memories and the photos.

Death did a really nice job taking loads of pictures at the festivities beforehand and the wedding itself.

Okay. Safe now. Game on.

The ceremony and reception happened at the Marines' Memorial Club and Hotel--a very classy place, right in San Francisco--great view from the 11th floor, where the wedding was going on--check out this shot. The bride and groom wrote their vows--feels a bit trite to attempt to describe them, but they were wonderfully affecting and hearfelt.

And they got big points for using Screamin' Jay Hawkins "I Put a Spell on You" as the recessional music.

The bride and groom had asked me to play the piano that was in the lounge, between the ceremony and the start of the actual reception dinner. I was glad to oblige (though worried about how my piano chops hold up under stress). It went ok... started out with jazz standards and big band era stuff... Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller. Pretty soon, I figured nobody was listening that closely--I was just background music for conversations, so I started to relax a bit. I eventually played a relatively sedate version of Tom Lehrer's Masochism Tango. You can check out the shot of me at the piano in the lounge, with my gin and tonic.

While I was in town, I had a great afternoon hanging out with Lucky and Karthiga, and their young baby, Jayshan. What a total cutie. I actually got to hold him for a little while--I'm gradually overcoming my nervousness and aversion around babies... I think... perhaps. Enh... I have lots of friends who just had or are having children--I think I'm being realistic to admit early that this is part of my long slow slide into irrelevance in the greater scheme of life.

Lucky was laid off from his last job, and was job hunting while we were visiting, but he has since found a new one working for a company called Crossbow. Karthiga is now a licensed real estate agent--so any of you who need to buy or sell in the Bay Area, be sure to give her a call.

There was also a hot cocoa over at Christy and U-Boat's place, but Christy has already taken care of writing about that.

Overall--a wonderful trip. Many thanks to everyone's hospitality (Especially Perlick! Yay Perlick's swanky bachelor pad in Piedmont! Which unfortunately doesn't have a coffee maker.) and taking the time to hang out! I'm sure I'll be commuting back for another visit to the Bay Area pretty soon.


Batman Says 'Math is Hard'

All of a sudden, the one class I’m taking seems like it will be getting hard real fast. The class is “Thermofluid Systems: Experiments and Testing”—so far, it has been interesting, taught from a real-world perspective, and applicable to my current experimental work. There were a few times where he put up a few integrals (e.g., Gaussian distribution, to determine 95% certainty of results), but it was conceptual and easy to understand (Yes. Area under the curve. Got it.)

Then, we went into how to determine experimental error when you are combining measurements from multiple instruments (each with a different degree of uncertainty) to determine a “computed” value, such as the form of the power coefficient of a centribugal pump:

Cp = f (p, w, D, W shaft) = W shaft / pw3D5


Cp is the power coefficient
p (actually rho) is fluid density
w (actually omega) is rotational velocity
D is diameter
W shaft is power input to shaft

This involves solving partial differential equations for each of variables in order to determine overall cumulative error.

That’s when I realized I needed to change my underwear.

You see, I took 18.03 (differential equations, for the non-MIT readers here) my freshman year on pass/fail. Yes, I passed. But this should not be taken as any indicator of (a) a firm grasp of the concepts (b) ability to solve problems of any significance, or (c) the slightest recall of any of it. Also, you have to realize that I haven’t taken a math class since the eighties. (yes… the second half of freshman year was 1989).

So… anybody have recommendations for a math solver program? Something relatively quick to learn? .

To make things even more interesting, my schedule has changed from “mostly open, get stuff done in lab,” to two back-to-back trips (San Francisco and Chicago), with 48 hours on the ground before Assignment #1 is due.

So that’s why I’m tooling on a Friday night on vacation in the Bay Area.



Once again, another fun weekend, courtesy of Chief Grad Student. Oktoberfest is actually a big thing here in the K-W area: it was largely settled by German immigrants, and Kitchener used to be called "Berlin" before World War I provoked a rather forced name change.

One of the big Oktoberfest arenas is the Concordia Club--most of the year, it's a German social club, but during Oktoberfest, they set up a tent that can hold around 4000 people, sell loads of beer, sausage, and cabbage rolls, and have some blasting live music.

I've never been to an Oktoberfest before, but after this first one, I realize that it's conceptually similar to Saint Patrick's Day. It's an annual opportunity to use one's heritage (or, ahem, somebody else's heritage) to get seriously plastered (signal to drink is the crowd yelling in unison, "Eins! Zwei! Drei! G'suffa!"). Hey--I see no problem with that at all; there's never a reason to deny anyone an excuse to drink. I'm just afraid that if there was ever a Japanese heritage drinking holiday, it would celebrate just-in-time delivery and corporate loyalty.

They were selling all sorts of souvenirs--buttons, t-shirts, Austrian hats with feathers, and lederhosen. Hey--I was considering lederhosen, but I was wondering--when else would leather shorts honestly come in handy? Nah... I don't think I'm going to try answering that question. My apologies if you ended up with the mental image of me in dressed in lederhosen from this discussion.

But back on the music, it was a bit disconcerting to hear the Black Forest Band (a.k.a. "Canada's Premier Polka Band"--see photo above) belting out pretty credible versions of "I'm Walkin' on Sunshine" and "Brown Eyed Girl." Not the polka version à la Weird Al, but straight up.

As for the morning-after hangover report: no worries. Lots of rehydration, some fruit juice, and a few Tylenol got me functional in the morning without a problem.


Hanging out in Canada

One quintessential Ontario summer activity is "going up to the cottage"--lots of families seem to have a summer house/lake house up in the more empty/rural parts of Ontario. I spent this weekend hanging out with Chief Grad Student at his family's cottage--about five hours away, in Sharbot Lake. As usual, a construction project was involved--repairing a skylight leak. Of course, skylights are typically installed in roofs--and this one was at an 8.5:12 pitch, which is relatively steep--about the point where you don't want to just trust traction of your shoes.

This was, of course, an opportunity to break out the climbing gear that I insisted work buy me after too many hours gripping roof trusses while trying to splice sensor wire connections. Especially considering how little I enjoy heights. Hey--I consider it a pretty rational phobia. Quick quiz: which is going to cause the most damage: (a) speaking in public (b) wide open spaces (c) enclosed spaces, or (d) 9.8 meters per second squared?

We tied off to a tree on the opposite side of the roof, running the rope over the ridge of the roof. The slightly scary part was getting the rope over the ridge (involved my tying off to a bunk bed, running the rope out through the skylight, crawling out through the skylight, and shimmying up the roof to toss the second rope over). Basically, I was a fair height above the tie-off point while doing this. Given the slack in the rope and its springiness, if I fell, I think I might have gone off the roof and done a Wile E. Coyote-style "splat-bounce-sproing-splat-bounce-sproing".

Of course, after getting work done, it was time to play--tie off the rope to a high branch, climb up an extension ladder, and rappel down the line. That was cool stuff.

The view from the roof was gorgeous. Autumn in Ontario. Oh yeah.

Anybody want to chip in to buy a lake house in western Mass or New Hampshire someday after I'm back stateside?


These boots are made for walkin'

Sometimes, you feel down, and there's just one way to cure it: going out shoe shopping! Nothing like a brand new pair of steel toe work boots to make a boy feel pretty. Not only that, but they also withstand impacts of 93 foot-pounds and have a puncture-resistant steel sole!

Well, crap. I guess I've now lost any credibility for my heterosexuality with this post, especially with the Nancy Sinatra reference.

Incidentally, the brand name of these boots are Dakota--yeah, like my name with a Duh on the front. That's the line I've been typically used to let people know how to pronounce my name ("Like North Dakota without the North Duh.") However, I wonder if that would cause more confusion than edification among Canadians, considering it's not, um, in their country (but it does border it). Then again, I'm guessing Canadian knowledge of US states is a lot greater than US knowledge of Canadian provinces. I wonder if anyone has done studies on what fraction of the US population can locate Canada on a world map?