Lope to the finish

I would have called this post 'sprint to the finish,' but (1) the mental image of me sprinting is kinda painful, and (2) I think I can pull off the endgame this term without excessive self-mutilation.

Anyway, my flight back stateside is in eight days (next Sunday): before then, I have to finish a 20-page final term project report (on the high tech research that I've been writing about), and a lab report writeup. I am currently finishing data collection: all of my numbers should be in by about Wednesday (and hopefully most of the report should be written; just drop results in).

I'm worried that my data analysis section is likely to be weak. For one thing, it looks like a lot of my results are close, but not quite consistent with published literature. And I've never actually taken a statistics class (what I know has mostly come from this class, actually). However, considering that other people are doing projects that don't result in any data, I'm hoping the prof will cut me some slack--dude, I actually got an experiment up and running, with results.

At this point, it looks like I'll have time to finish and sleep (I hope; knock on wood). However, I think that fate decided things were going too well: the filling in my left lower molar has been acting up something fierce (sensitive to heat/cold/pressure), keeping me up at night. Wondering if it might be root canal time soon (or perhaps Bicon Dental Implants, who underwrite on WBUR, thus succeeding in getting their product name stuck in my head). I have a dentist appointment scheduled for Tuesday, so I'll be able to restrain myself from going after my jaw with a pair of Vise Grips.

I'm seriously looking forward to being done with this term (and to hanging out in Boston). Don't worry if you don't see more posts before I get to Boston--I'll be a tad busy.


Livin' Small

One nice thing about the lifestyle that I have right now in Waterloo is that my daily entropy output is pretty low--in fact, lower than when I was living in Boston. I have crap electric baseboard heat, but it means I can turn it on just in the room I'm in currently (so I typically have the bedroom radiator on, and rely on heat from downstairs to keep the rest of my place at a toasty 55 F).

I only took out the garbage after three weeks of accumulation, and the bag was only partially full--this was the combined effect of the recycling bin (paper, plastic, metal, etc), and the compost bin (vegetable peels, coffee grounds, anything that stinks). Sometimes, I wonder whether the landfills will be mined in the future for their mineral or plastic/hydrocarbon content--I can easily imagine that there is a higher density of, say, iron in landfills than some iron ores... need to compute that out.

I'm also very happy that I'm minimizing my car use. I have it pretty much reduced to maybe one trip a week; maybe less (and most of those trips are to the Home Depot). As a result, I fill up my gas tank once a month, instead of once a week. This is what happens when you have a well-laid out walkable environment: I can stop by the supermarket (or a variety of other stores) on the walk home from the University. I have replaced my daily 45-minute drive with a 20 minute walk (each way). Happy.

One of the apparent side effects is I think I've lost a little weight. Nothing too drastic--I'm still generally round ("Hey man, I'm in shape! Round is a shape, right? Therefore, I'm in shape!"). But I did have to install a new hole in my belt (see shot of wardrobe modification below):

For some reason, doing this reminded me way too much of that warning on steam irons: 'Never iron clothes while they are being worn'. It seemed like Bad Things could happen, as I was drilling.

Anyway, I'm on the last push to the end of the term. I get on a plane for Florida in 11 days. Woo! (Okay, admittedly, plane trips totally blow the entropy budget. Oh well.).


A Visit to the Big City

I spent Saturday afternoon and evening in Toronto--taking a break from school, classes, research, and the City of Waterloo. My actual excuse to go in was to see a concert at Massey Hall--more about that in a bit.

After getting into town, I started my usual city thing--walking, wandering, and discovering, on a misty grey afternoon. There's something magical about cities in general--the density, busy streets filled with people, subways, tall buildings. I took a break in a warm bustling independent coffee shop, had a biscotti with coffee, and wrote some postcards while watching the evening sky darken.

My wandering took me into Chinatown--the ideal spot for dinner. Grabbed a curry bun from a bakery to tide me over while deciding where to go. The sidewalks were packed with fruit & vegetable vendors--the typical sounds and smells of Chinatown. I can really see where the producers of Blade Runner got their visual ideas for their street scenes. ("A new life awaits you in the offworld colonies. A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.")

My restaurant selection was based on the crowd (packed at 6 PM), and dead animals hanging in the front window (apologies for the squeamish who like to think of meat as something that comes on styrofoam wrapped in plastic).

It was a place called Goldstone Noodle Restaurant--pretty damn good. I had noodles with pork dumplings and BBQ duck pieces: the broth was great, and the noodles had a great authentic texture to them. The duck pieces were yummy (mmmm.... subcutaneous fat...), but some of them looked like they gave the new guy a duck carcass and a band saw and let him go to town (i.e., "Man... what part of the animal is this bone from?")

But on to the concert: Death (via Perlick) pointed out that the French Canadian Genesis tribute band The Musical Box was touring (they're in San Francisco on December 5th), re-creating the live show from the Genesis concept album "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" (1974). Yes, I admit it feels a bit goofy to go to see prog-rock tribute bands recreating concerts from when I was four years old. But damn... they were good.

The lead singer did a really good impression of early Peter Gabriel's voice (including the narration which tried to make the Lamb more understandable); the Mike Rutherford-equivalent had the two-necked guitar/bass instrument going. The Phil Collins analog actually had a really close physical resemblance. The Steve Hackett equivalent sat on a stool in the front and played. This group re-created the background slide show, stage show, props, and costumes--pretty damn impressive. Although I have to admit that the 'Lamia' looks a lot like a tall paisley cooling tower.

But the music. Wow.... the music was spot-on: a note-perfect rendition of the album. Unfortunately, one of the parts I was most interested in (Tony Banks-equivalent/keyboard) was blocked by the railing--I was leaning over trying to get a better look. The lead singer seemed like he was straining a bit at the high end--not sure if he's already blown out his voice on the tour or something.

A little amusing aside: I overheard some people talking about the music: "Isn't this where side 2 started?" "Yeah, if you had it on vinyl." There were lots of people way older than me, but there were actually a fair number of younger people--I was a bit surprised.

Anyway, back in the world of school and classes: I've been expecting a big turd to drop out of the sky onto me--i.e., the last assignment and lab. The turd did arrive, but it's a bit smaller than expected. I'm pretty sure the prof realizes what he's throwing at us at the end of the semester (on top of our final projects), so he made them a bit lighter. A bit of a relief, but I'm thinking about what I need to finish in the next twelve days... yikes! Enough blogging; back to tooling.


Haven't stepped in front of a bus

Just thought I'd left folks know--I survived the lab writeup and project presentation. I even thought I did ok. I know that I'm not robust and dumb enough to pull all-nighters anymore, but Chief Grad Student and I worked until 2 AM last night, and through the afternoon to 7 PM tonight. But the bastard's done... we put that thing down. So for now, I'm planning on avoiding stepping in front of a bus anytime soon.

I even spent the evening watching a movie. Supposedly, there still will be another lab and an assignment in this class; I'm just waiting for the big turd to drop out of the sky onto us.

And to answer Christy's question: yup, that's the drawer that I screwed up. Visible in the close-up here.


Stress levels still bouncing

Have a lab and a presentation due on Thursday; spent most of today working on the lab writeup with some other grad students. Probably will do work on the presentation tonight, but will take a break to see a movie. The other grad students amused themselves saying that they should name an instrument to measure grad student stress levels the "Kohtameter" (this is funny because those little fluid-measuring float-based devices are called rotameters--we had a problem involving the partial derivative of the mass flow rate with respect to the fluid flow rate). But as you can tell by the fact that I'm posting here, it's not as bad as it could be.

Last weekend, I spent a few hours off to finally install some cabinets to make my kitchen more workable (as opposed to having 18" of counter space next to the sink). The installation went well--required a lot of shimming, as you would expect in an old house like this. But things are greatly improved--I now have 4' of counter space next to the range! Woo!

However, I had a classic "measure once cut twice" moment there:

I was installing the handles on the drawers, and trying to figure out the best way to center them. I said, "wait... I have my computer running with Excel open. I can measure the cabinet width, and figure out the placement of this 96 mm handle, no problem. ( Cabinet width - 96 mm handle center-to-center distance) / 2 = distance of first hole from edge; previous distance + 96 mm = second hole. Zipped the holes through using a brad point bit, carefully setting up a backer board to prevent blow-out at the back. Nice clean holes, looked at the back... waitasec... those aren't centered.

Crap. I entered 310 mm, not 301 mm, into Excel. The computer is your friend. Your stupid data entry errors are not. Redrilled... correctly this time... installed... putty will happen soon... or I can just leave it as a reminder to my error.

It reminds me--a lot of the time, when people have had industrial/construction accidents, they report that just before the accident, they heard a little voice saying, "Wait... this could be bad." Yeah... a similar thought went through my mind: "Just double-check the symmetry with a measurement from the other side," followed by, "nah... no worries." If you are in a construction situation and have this happen, listen to the little voice! (unless, of course, they're telling you that you should be staying at home cleaning the guns instead).

My high tech research

Now that my laptop is fixed, I can post pictures of some of my high-tech research. The sample in the foreground is on a Sartorious 12 kg/0.01 g resolution scale. The sample is a piece of wood with moisture content pins with wire leads, double-wrapped in two plastic bags and construction sheathing tape. The thing in the background is my humidity chamber--a big piece of tupperware with water on the bottom, below a grate, and a halogen lamp heating the water below it. So far nothing's melted or caught fire.


Still stressed

Another assignment due on Wednesday; I've started it, but parts of it look rough.

I spent most of Saturday and Sunday trying to get my term project up and running; took most of today to get the datalogger programmed (with extensive work from Chief Grad Student) and reading valid numbers. There's still the question of whether I can get valid data in time for my term presentation, and (more importantly) if I can do enough clever analysis on my data to demonstrate that I've learned something from this class.

I feel like I'm really paying (with accrued interest) for not working nearly as hard earlier in the term (where it wasn't obvious, say, how many assignments would be due, and how badly they would be piled up in the last few weeks of the term). Although the course has been taught well, and contains a lot of useful material, the tail-end loading pisses me off in a big way.

I was hitting a real bad spot today--as in questioning what the hell I'm doing here at school. As in "Hey... if I get hit by a bus, I don't need to finish this term, right? That might be nicer that what I'm going through now." (yeah, so in that sense, it's a lot like undergrad days).

As one of my beloved commentors wrote: But it was rough there for a while. There's now a sign above the inside of my office door saying "SUCCESS IN GRADUATE SCHOOL IS NOT CRYING IN PUBLIC". Oh yeah. About how I feel.

I've also found it useful to titrate to control stress--when I start to get too jittery and nervous to actually concentrate on studying, I've started to pour a glass of port. Seems helpful.

And for what it's worth, it's making me feel better to kvetch like this.

As a side note, does anyone know about correlations between room temperature and depresssion/emotional mood? I'm cheap, and my apartment has (expensive) electric heat, so I'm trying to limit my house heating to whatever room I'm in. Unfortunately, this means I'm keeping the computer room at 52 F right now. Yes, like I said, I'm cheap.


My research (high tech, eh?)

My current term research project (yes, I've started adopting the Canadian PROE-ject pronunciation to avoid standing out) involves ziploc bags, heat lamps, drying ovens, and a scale with a 0.01 gram resolution. No, my research is not, "Throughput Optimization of Methamphetamine Production in an Improvised Laboratory Setting."

It actually has to do with work on measuring moisture content of wood as a function of electrical resistance--it's a well known technique; I'm just trying to refine a subset of the work; maybe calculate some coefficients for wood species that haven't been tested. For interest to the extra-geeky, people have spent time working on really high-tech methods to determine wood moisture content, including gamma ray attenuation, nuclear magnetic resonance, and time domain reflectometry. I've even seen a presentation on these methods: the bottom line was, "well, it's really cool-looking technology, but it doesn't work that well." So much for a particle accelerator for my lab.

This brings me to the point that the research materials I'm using are pretty darn low tech--ziploc bags, construction tape, telephone wire, drying oven, tupperware containers. Also, there are no lab supply stores that sell "research grade 2x4s"--you just have to cut out your samples from a stud. Most of the time, I find this setup pretty cool.. but it's occasionally depressing when I think of all the toys people in other fields get to play with.

Grr.. annoyed though. The software I use to upload photos to my blog is only on my laptop, which is currently having its brain replaced. So sad. I'll put something up later.

Arg. I should be tooling.


Election 2004 and grad school

Well, I noticed that none of my other friends who blog have posted anything about the election results. It makes perfect sense--it's just too bloody depressing.

But for whatever its worth, a great big thank you to Jen for helping turn out the Kerry vote in NH, and to Leper, Schmooz, and Perlick for their efforts in Oberlin, Ohio.

As for my academic career plan--Master's vs. Phd--I had made the comment earlier that part of it would weigh on how this election turned out. Well, even though the popular vote is pushing me towards staying in Canada, my ass has a strong mandate for a Master's only. Reasons:

1. For a PhD, I'll have to take double the number of classes I'm taking now for my Master's--which is a nice light load of 4 classes over 2 years. I'm learning that classes and scary math still kick my ass, so I'm really not psyched to do twice my current goal. Also, given my specialization, there is the problem of finding enough applicable courses to take--I'm going to be taking one of my courses cross-registered at the University of Toronto. Incidentally, that course is taught by the advisor to my former mentor/boss in Boston, so I'm looking forward to it.

2. I miss having an income. Or at least an income significantly greater than a grad student's. I just found out my laptop has a dead motherboard ($700 replacement cost). Ouch. While I'm getting some nice outside income by working for my advisor's consulting company, it's not quite the same. I'm not actually hurting financially, by any means... it just doesn't feel nearly as cushioned as before.

3. I've relearned the fact that to me, school feels like continuous pressure--a lot more so than a job. There's always something here to take home and work on; more reading to catch up on; research that isn't getting done while you go and do posts on your blog. With my old job, when I did stuff on weekends, it always felt like an occasional 'above and beyond' effort that was duly rewarded, while in school, it's just plain necessary.

4. I miss Boston, and all of you folks there. I miss being able to wander down two floors to Bird and Grendel's, to suggest an expedition for beer or dinner. I miss (well I'm going to miss) frying a turkey at Thanksgiving at Unit 5 and Rebecca's. I miss the kick-ass kitchen with the sexy black Kitchen-Aid range at the Pemberton Street apartment. I miss running into the random collections and combinations of friends who would show up at various events--coffee hours, dinners, power lunches or dinners. I miss you guys--individually (you know who you are) and collectively. I miss being able to tell my marginally entertaining stories in person. So... yeah, I'd like to come back to Boston.