Initially, some people asked me about an RSS feed to my blog; I thought I had turned on the setting, but they said it didn't work. Under the 'Site Feed' tab, I have set "Publish Site Feed" to "Yes", and the "Site Feed URL" is http://bats22.blogspot.com/atom.xml

Reading today's New York Times might shed some light on this, for those of you who care, in this article:

Most blogging services offer similar ways to set up R.S.S. In TypePad, for example, navigate to Edit Configuration, click on Publicity & Syndication.


TypePad, Blogger and several other blogging services also offer a blog-specific syndication format called Atom. Setting it up on your site is similar to setting up R.S.S. feeds.

Not quite sure what that means; hope it helps anyone who is interested.


Another 'Oh DUH' moment

I recently had a duh moment while cooking dinner. I've owned my rice cooker (aka RiceBot) for many years--it was a present from my mom, and I've used it for every Chinese/Japanese rice meal that I've made since (for short-grain rice). It's really good actually--it has a slow or fast cook mode (depending on how much time you have); you can set it up on a timer; and it keeps the rice warm after cooking. It even has incredibly clever features like a retractable cord reel, a lid that collects condensate into a drainable reservoir, and a holder for the rice paddle. It's shaped like a spare brain carrying case.

Incidentally, I ran across an amusing web page mocking lower-end rice cookers, with descriptions like, "The glass-lid style of rice cooker you see at left, which we estimate as 95% of what you'll find in American stores, is practically an ancient relic throughout Asia. These cookers are a bit cheaper, but they don't have a proper ventilation system to capture and maintain moisture, so unless you serve the rice immediately after it's cooked it dries out."

But back to my story: it only occurred to me now that I could use RiceBot to cook other types (e.g., basmati). That's what I did while making dinner tonight. Yeah, it works really well. Duh.

Tonight's dinner, incidentally, was chicken madras (from a sauce mix), and cauliflower with potatoes (phool gobi aur aloo ki bhaji, from Madhur Jaffrey's cookbook).

In other news, stress levels are not as bad as I thought they would be. My prof said over lunch, "We're cancelling class next week, so why don't you present your work to date in class today?" (yeah, stress level spike), but it went just fine. Also, the hundreds of sensors we need for this trip are well underway--a result of spending Sunday to midnight in the lab. While assembling sensors, I remarked to my coworkers, "Shit... there must be a sweatshop somewhere that we could exploit for this friggin' work." Then I looked around at my surroundings: windowless lab space, no fire escape, a bunch of poorly-paid grad students hunched over soldering irons doing piece-work. Hmmm...

Anyway, happy 2/22!


And then, the busy season returns to the Serengeti

The above should be prefaced with, "in the voice of a nature documentary announcer." It has definitely become the part of the semester with much less free time, when I can no longer do useful-but-not-time-critical work in lab. In less than two weeks, my first major project is due (computer modeling, with paper and presentation). In that time span, three days are completely burned by visitors from a Firm that Sponsors Our Research. Also, the day the project is due, a bunch of us are leaving on a week-long consulting trip, so we need to also schedule in equipment preparation time for the trip (building several hundred sensors). It doesn't look like it will be a fun period. So of course, I'm blogging about it rather than working; same pattern as last semester.

Anyway, the picture below is meant to demonstrate that the middle-school-inspired sixties and seventies architecture of UW can be made slightly more palatable by hiding it behind trees and covering it up with snow.

Of course, it also demonstrates the re-frozen slush that is now common on many walking surfaces.

Tool tool tool.


In Celebration of the Stupid Holiday

I don't know about you, but those diamond ads really rub me the wrong way. I've always wanted to make a spoof of them, but I've found that somebody has already done a great job. The above ad is one of the least offensive of the batch. Another rather clever one was:

The Beatles Lied:
You can buy love.

They get much ruder than these... if anyone's interested, I can forward them.

I guess I have problems with the diamond ads for many reasons. Among them, the blatant manipulativeness, grotesque sentimentality, the clear materialism (of money buying love), the way that the commercial/advertising mind has done a good job of actually making this into reality, and the general sliminess of the diamond industry (completely artificial pricing created by industry--the fact that DeBeers is so monopolistic that they cannot operate in the US, because they would get nailed by antitrust regulations).

Enh. My two cents for the stupid holiday. Unfortunately, I don't count any single people among my social circle up here at school, so there's no option to have a "Luv Sux" dinner replacement (kudos to Bradley for hosting the dinners over the years, and best regards to all of you in the Bay Area who are going this year. Yeah, that means you, Perlick).


Believe or not, it works.

I got laundry (washing machine only) up and running today, despite my best efforts to eit myself repeatedly. My basic plan was to extend the drain hose so that it would reach the sink, and put together a hose that would connect the cold port of the washing machine to the faucet. I can control wash temperature by changing the hot/cold mix at the faucets.

So I was all set to get started on this: I had bought all the required connections. I finished the drain hose (larger hose in the photo--friction fit the corrugated washer hose into a 1-1/4" ID hose with a hose clamp), then started on the feed hose. Hmm. It was then that I realized that I had bought male and female hose connections, like a garden hose. However, laundry hose is female at both ends. Gah. Bats being stupid event #1.

This morning, I made an early run to Big Orange (Home Despot) for the correct hose connector. Got it assembled and connected to the faucet, and opened up the taps. This was quickly followed by my yelling, "CRAP!" and trying to control the arterial-style spurting at the faucet connection. One disassembly and reassembly with teflon tape later, it worked. Bats being dumb #2.

So with this connection ready, I fired up the laundry machine. I heard dripping from the back of the machine. Dripping from the back of the machine is a Very Bad Sound. Crap. It turns out that although I connected only to the cold line, and turned on the machine to cold, the solenoid valve that controls the hot line doesn't seal completely--therefore, the water leaks out the open port when the machine is run. This required a trip to get a garden hose cap. Man, this was taking way too long (especially because the first hardware store was out). Dumbness #3.

Well, the least I can say that with this project, I am well on my way to truly becoming a "hoser." (sorry)

Anyway, after three hardware store runs today and much swearing, I now have a load of laundry drying in the kitchen. You should all count yourself lucky that for most of you, doing laundry does not involve a 5-gallon bucket, teflon tape, and a pair of Channellocks.

Hardly sucks at all

With reference to my previous post about the kitchen ("Sucks less"), I have to say that the completed shelf "hardly sucks at all," to use a long-standing Tepism.

On the shelf, I have put the basic ingredients (oils, salt, pepper), CD player (gotta have tunes), coffee accessories, toaster oven, sexy Shun knives, cutting boards, the most-often used utensils (yeah, I'm a sucker for OXO), cereal, recipie box (thanks Jean!), and cookbook holder on it. The electrical quad box and fluorescent light fixture are attached to the bottom. So far, it all works pretty well.

For the woodworking/tool-oriented among you (danger: geekery alert!), here are some details on the assembly. All of the 1x2 maple edging is attached with a biscuit joiner and glue. I would have done something more elegant at the corners, like miter joints instead of butt joints, but my compound miter saw is in New York. I built it so that it can be disassembled for moving: the vertical joints are a combination of a dry-fit biscuit and screws, and the flat piece against the wall is attached with biscuits and pocket hole screws from behind. The finish is Minwax stain and satin polyurethane (3 coats), finished off with paste wax. I would have preferred to use an oil-poly finish (such as Sam Maloof's version, sold at Rockler), which gives a much more natural/less plasticky texture to the surface--a lot more like an oil finish, but with more protection. However, this shelf is going up right next to the range (with no range hood--dumb, dumb, dumb), so it needs all the protection it can get.

The one thing I would do differently is make the spacing between the two shelves a bit smaller--I don't have anything on the lower shelf that requires the space, and it makes the top shelf that much more difficult to reach. However, I can change it, since the cabinet is made to be disassembled.

So this is all done just in time for the part of the semester when I really have to start tooling. Grr. Oh well.


Yay! Laundry!

Events finally coincided so that chief grad student could bring over his old washer and dryer for me to use, since he has bought a totally hot horizontal-axis (i.e., more energy efficient) LG washer and dryer. They're here! I can stop going to the laundromat! Yaay! (I was really annoyed at the idea of laundry as being a 'scheduled' event--going to the laundromat--as opposed to a 'background task' that could be done while working on other things around the house).

Anyway, the washing machine was a bear and a half to get up the narrow steep stairs to my apartment. There's actually a big chunk of concrete ballast in the base that can't easily be removed. Fortunately, we were collectively clever enough to rig up nylon tiedown straps with loops as carrying straps kinda like this.

Next, I need to do some plumbing and electrical work to connect them up: sink tap to hose adapter supply, plus extending the drain hose, a temporary dryer exhaust, and a scary 10 gauge pigtail plug off the range.

Man. These suckers are really big--they change around the feel of the kitchen a lot. I guess it's a good chunk of additional horizontal counter space. I'm not sure what will happen with them when I move back stateside--I guess it all depends where I end up (with or without laundry).

Weather report (with apologies to Irving Berlin)

The snow is snowing
The wind is blowing
But I can weather the storm
Why do I care how much it may storm
I've got my love to keep me warm

Aw, crap. I knew I forgot to take care of something last term.

Hm. "I've got Waterloo North Hydro to keep me warm" doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?


Sucks less

As I mentioned in my earlier post about my kitchen, I've been working on improvements. I just finished installing a set of large (24"x24") drawers in the cabinets I set up earlier.

I think of kitchen design in terms of efficient layouts: it's a workshop, but for food. It should feel like an air traffic control station, with everything at your fingertips. The core idea is reducing unnecessary steps around the kitchen. Therefore, a correct layout compacts vital items to within arm's reach; less-often used items can be de-prioritized (placed on further away shelves, pantry, etc). Also, things should be located where they will be used: pots and utensils by the stove; plates where you serve, etc. All this seems pretty obvious to me, but I often see kitchens that painfully demonstrate otherwise (e.g., "Mom... you make coffee every day, and it's not like the coffee maker has moved in the past fifteen years... so why do you have the filters in the cabinet ten feet away?").

The down side of a "power area" kitchen (like I had at Pemberton Street) is that it's difficult for more than one person to work there--if it's within arm's reach of one person, he/she will probably be in the way of the other person trying to reach those vital items.

For the past five months (wow, it's been that long already?), it's been incredibly painful to work in a kitchen that fails this layout test miserably: I had to step away from the "power area"/work station (countertop by the range, where I spend most of my prep time) in order to use the toaster oven or microwave, get pots or pans, grab salt and pepper, get a ziploc baggie, or use tupperware.

But now, witness the power of this fully armed and operational work station!

Okay, so it's not that big of a deal. But at least it now holds all my pots and pans, roasting pans, prep bowls, spices, aluminum foil/baggies/wrap, and most-used tupperware. Plus, I think it looks pretty decent.

The upper door hides two drawers: I realized that the lower drawer doesn't hold anything that requires the full 15" height, so there was room to add another short drawer. Yes, I do have to open the middle one to get at the top one, but I can live with that.

The bottom two drawers are on 22" (oh yeah!) full extension slides. The drawers are made of 1/2" Baltic birch plywood (joined with #0 biscuit plates and finish screws), with a 1/4" masonite bottom dadoed into the sides. All that without my table saw or compound miter saw. Yeah, I miss the tools I left behind in New York. Some people carry photos of family with them; I have snapshots of my table saw.

The next piece (almost done) is a wall shelf over the cabinet. I really should be tooling, but this kitchen has been bothering me every time I use it: I actually bought all the pieces last semester, but didn't have any time to work on it. I think it helps my psychological health to walk into the kitchen each morning and think, "Yes. I'm making forward progress. The kitchen is set up right." (However, you could definitely question my psychological health with the fact that I open and close the drawers for satisfaction almost every time I walk by the cabinet).

In case I haven't made this statement enough times, my ideal retirement will be to load up a truck with my tools and drive around the country fixing up the houses of my friends. I figure my plan is to exchange work for beer and crash space. I got to do a half hour of kitchen improvement while visiting Jofish; I get a real kick out of this stuff. This plan assumes that I make it to a healthy and financially sound retirement, and I'm in a situation where I can pick up roots and roam the country. But hey, based on my social life, looks like I can pull of the latter for sure.

But it kinda makes me wonder--am I looking forward to retirement a lot more than a productive and illustrious career, and am I an exception or pretty common? I don't honestly care about "having an impact on the industry," or having my name referenced due to this or that paper. I pretty much want to keep my head down, make a decent living, not get too stressed out, and have nice breaks and vacations to enjoy life with friends. Don't get me wrong--I find work fulfilling and interesting, and on good days I walk out saying, "Yeah, I kicked some ass there." But I also find solving problems by building things by hand very fulfilling and interesting, and I also walk away saying, "Yeah, I kicked ass."

Back when I was suffering through my undergrad days, I thought it was unfortunate that given my intelligence and high school grades, it was assumed I would head to college to be an engineer/scientist/insert-high-brainpower-job-here. It was never considered that the fact that I liked to fix and tinker with things might mean I like to fix and tinker with things, rather than solve differential equations about them.

However, apparently, I care enough about this field of study to go to graduate school for it. Funny that.


Ugly Fishie R.I.P.

I'm sad to announce the passing of my pet catfish, a.k.a. "Ugly fishie," or "Xi Ugly."

What, you had a fish?

Yeah, I've had a catfish of some sort since 1998, when I adopted Leper and Elizabeth's alpha and beta uglies (bumblebee catfish). After they died, Jean got me a new one (promptly named 'Xi Ugly'). I've found pet catfish to be very cute, but in a totally non-interactive way: they mostly sat inside their hiding spot, came out to grab food pellets, and went back to hiding.

If it just sits around, how did you know it was dead?

Well, I had to wait a few days to figure it out. First few days, I just figured it wasn't too hungry. By the time it was floating belly up in the tank, I figured it wasn't "just resting" (nor "pining for the fjords").

Are you sad about it?

Enh. Like I said, it was probably the least interactive pet I've ever had. Always a bit sad when something living dies (especially when you've hauled it across a border), but it probably had a level of consciousness below a mouse, which I have no compunction on killing. Fishie's getting the big flush this afternoon.

What killed it?

Beats me. Wasn't the cold--I was checking tank temperatures; it was reasonable. Last water change was about the same schedule as I've had for a while; I was feeding it every night like I always have. No obvious external physical symptoms.

Are you getting another fish?

Nah. Fishie was the only thing that required dealing with when I left town for a week at a time. Now I can just shut down the heat, lock the doors, and be on my way.

So... anybody want a 10-gallon aquarium? Complete with gravel/pumps/filters/etc?


Environmentalism (with thanks to David Suzuki)

I have problems when I want to write a post that covers a lot of ground, which results in my writing and rewriting notes and not getting anything up. For instance, I'm working on a post with My Thoughts on the Differences Between MIT and UW, but it's only 30% done, and it will probably be months before I get it out. So my apologies in advance if this entry comes out a little scattered.

With that in mind, I wanted share some thoughts after seeing a speech by David Suzuki, who is a well-known Canadian scientist/broadcaster/environmental activist. One of the bios on the web describes him as "one of the world’s most effective popularizers of science, alongside Carl Sagan and Jacques Cousteau." He spoke at the University of Waterloo to help kick off the One-Tonne Challenge, a Canadian government effort to help reduce greenhouse gasses/energy use.

I have to say that he is a truly amazing speaker--for an hour and a half, with no slides or visuals, he just talked, and had the entire sold-out theater enthralled. He certainly got my attention on a bunch of topics. For instance, I have been on the fence on GMOs (genetically modified organisms; e.g., BT/transgenic crops)--it was my understanding that this technology might displace the need for nastier technologies (pesticides), and enable no-till agriculture--see this Atlantic Monthly article "Will Frankenfood Save the Planet?". Suzuki's qualifications on the topic are pretty strong--he's a geneticist by training (PhD/Professor). He pointed out the lack of understanding of the complex natural systems--for instance, we had no idea that bioaccumulation of DDT up the food chain occurred before seeing the problems actually occur (i.e., Rachel Carson's Silent Spring), and warned strongly against proliferation of GMO technologies. He said (paraphrasing), "Any scientist that tells you there are no risks is either willfully lying or stupendously idiotic." He doesn't have me totally convinced to his side, but I'm definitely leaning that way.

I am currently reading one of his books that I grabbed from the library (From Naked Ape to Superspecies: A Personal Perspective on Humanity and the Global Eco-Crisis). A very informative read; if any of you have a chance to read his stuff, he is a prolific author. He has an interesting way of backing up ideas which seem to be "crunchy-granola" thoughts with a measure of logic and scientific rigor.

During his speech, he stated that he gets asked over and over, "Okay Suzuki, you've convinced me. But what can I do?" He said he spoke to the people at the foundation that he heads, and they came up with the "Nature Challenge" ("top 10 ways you can conserve nature"). His response was, "What, is that it?" I agree--they do seem relatively small and insignificant on the scale of things... but worth checking out.

In regards to these challenge steps, I am proud to say that none of my friends drive SUVs, to the best of my knowledge (item 6) (with exceptions for "cute-utes" like the the Honda CR-V--unibody car chassis based, relatively high mileage). Suzuki pulled no punches in his speech--he said, "If you drive an SUV, you can't tell me that you give a damn about the environment." During my time working with production home builders, it was pretty heartening to see the ones who really "got it," (in environmental terms) and didn't drive the typical contractor F-150 pickup--because they didn't friggin' well need to. (i.e., one drove a VW Golf, another drove a tricked-out Subaru WRX).

I am very happy to both be living near my work (item 8) and rarely using my car (item 7)--once or twice a week, at most. I was actually eating a lot of vegetarian lunches (item 4) back in Boston (I could keep veggie pucks in the freezer for sandwiches), but I've fallen off the wagon on that front. I'm a huge fan of mass transit, when I can get it (i.e., in Boston)--item 9.

And I guess what I'm doing right now (sharing with family and friends) counts towards item 10.

Items 1 and 2 are particularly close to my heart, and something that I can speak on with some measure of authority: energy efficient homes. The graduate work that I do is pushing towards reducing building energy use and increasing building durability (i.e., it's pathetic to have the first one while you are harming the latter, which is often the case)--see my graduate group's website. It's also what my job was all about, before coming to UW. But during my seven years working with production home builders trying to increase the efficiency of their housing stock under the Department of Energy Building America Program, I have to say that I have been immensely frustrated with the economic system which provides almost no incentive for builders to increase their efficiency.

First of all, nationwide production home builders make their big money not from houses, but really from land speculation: they figure out which locations will be the new hot markets, grab the land, build houses on it, and hopefully make a profit. I figure they are mostly happy if they build houses that sell at a decent margin, that don't have too many warranty callbacks, and don't get them into a class action lawsuit. The builder has little incentive to push the envelope into energy efficiency. First of all, homebuilding is one of the most technology phobic fields around--i.e., "we fear change." If it requires new materials, new supply chain items, or new thought processes or subcontractor interactions, they will typically be pretty leery (although they can be convinced). Second, it is an incredibly low margin field: they are often loath to put in a $200 upgrade item. My understanding is that houses often sell at a mostly fixed price point--consumers are making decision based on calculations like, "In this neighborhood, builder X sells at $x per square foot, while builder y is at $y per square foot." This makes it hard to sell the idea that, "well, you can pass the cost on to the selling price by demonstrating that it is a superior home." Third, they do not see any direct benefit from energy efficient homes. The consumer sees the reduced energy bills, not the builder. Yes, there is the marketing niche where they can become known as the efficient home builder--Jim Sargent in Texas is one guy we've been working with who is building spectacularly good efficient houses, and he has a long waiting list of customers. And my company worked on an home energy bill guarantee program, which would provide a marketing boost for production builders who worked with us. But in the direct sense, the money is not directly going into the builders' pockets.

I would love to be proved wrong, but it seems like consumer demand and/or knowledge is just not high enough to push the majority of production homebuilding towards greater efficiency. I don't think market forces alone can possibly create the transformation that we would all like to see. Well, unless we get $2/therm natural gas prices... which would make my job a whole lot easier ;), and make me laugh at people heating their 5000 sf ego-monument suburban mansions. In the meanwhile, a tax credit for houses reaching a certain efficiency level is a good start. Or, as usual, California leads the way on progressive lawmaking, having a statewide home efficiency requirement (Title 24)--which could certainly be a lot more stringent, but is a good start (a big shout out to Judy's sweetie John).

Okay, end production homebuilding rant.

Anyway, I know that I'm writing to an audience of people with a similar mindset. There were a bunch of topics that David Suzuki touched on that made me say, "oh yeah, sure, I know about that." However, I realize that I naturally gravitate towards reading a lot of these items--if I see an Atlantic or National Geographic with an article on the end of oil or something, I typically grab it up and read it. I just wanted to mention my suggested reading on these topics, and see whether most of my readers were pretty conversant on these topics. There are loads of topics, but here's what's off the top of my head:

Global warming--a great resource was a joint Nova/Frontline documentary "What's Up With the Weather?"; National Geographic devoted a good portion of their December 2004 issue to the topic. Bottom line: atmospheric CO2 is definitely greater than it has ever been, and can be distinctly linked to the industrial revolution. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. The only thing that is questionable is what the end result will be--i.e,. how much warming. The climate models are too sensitive to initial inputs and assumptions to really give any definitive answer, despite NCAR's best efforts (Hi Beemer!).

The peak of oil production (M. King Hubbert and all that), combined with the rise of China's consumption, due to a billion-person population trying to match first-world standards of living.

United States' ridiculously high standard of living/level of consumption with respect to the rest of the world (6% of the world population consuming 30% of the world's resources.)

Internalities and externalities (language used in economics), and the fact that purchase prices do not necessarily reflect the true environmental cost of produced items (for instance, see this David Suzuki column).

To be honest, I really do think it is quite possible that the world will start sucking more and more (due to the confluence of various environmental disasters) during our lifetimes, and that we all might be watching the slow horrible slide. Of course, the people who will get clobbered the most by climate change will be the third world--compared with the first world, which has the economic and technological resources to counter it (read: dikes and bigger air conditioners. smirk). I sometimes want to do everything that I can to "fight the good fight" on these issues. And I will probably do what I can in my little piece of it, trying to get better, more efficient houses built.

But all my experience in my 34 years has taught me that the vast majority of the population is too self-entitled, self-interested, resistant to change/happy with the status quo, oblivious and unresponsive to science, shortsighted, worshipful of "the economy" as a divine force, and convinced that "it can't happen to them" that it's mostly a hopeless effort. Since I have no plan to have children, my basic hopes are to ride out the rest of my life, see if I can pull my retirement money out of the market before things go to shit, and hole up in a nice off-grid house for my retirement (with a collection of single malts to pass the time, and a large stockpile of ammunition as insurance). Enh... crap... maybe it's not that bad. Let's see what I think in the morning.