Thermal Mass is Whomping on my Ass

Apologies for a building-geek post, but I'm currently sweltering in my 89° F (32° C) apartment, and wanted to write something to keep my mind off it, by explaining the science of why I'm sweating in shorts and flip flops. Oh, and the power has gone out too, so no fan. And no dinner. And worst of all, no network. Oh, life is teh sux0r right now.

By explaining my lack of thermal comfort, I don't know if it really helps me to know what happening while not being able to do much about it. I guess it's the feeling that a crash test researcher would have while getting T-boned: Well, looks like I'm about to get hit by a mid-size SUV, which puts the bumper at approximately head level. This will likely result in vehicle intrusion into the passenger compartment: given the lack of airbags on this vehicle, I would estimate a 90%+ chance of serious skull fracture or brain injury. Shit.

Thermal mass is often considered a good thing in energy efficient passive solar design--for instance, see this web page from the California Energy Commission. In short, you can store solar energy collected during the day (either in your floors and walls, or an engineered solution like collection rocks, concrete, or water), and release it at night.

During the summer, thermal mass keeps the hottest part of the day from getting into the building. But remember what I wrote above about releasing heat at night? Yeah--my apartment is the second floor of an uninsulated brick building, so when it gets down to a reasonable temperature at night, the building is still dumping heat from the peak of the day. For instance, it's now midnight, and 77° F (25° C) outside, and 85° F (29° C) inside. And I've been running a pair of fans to flush out my place since about 9 PM, but there's a lot of energy stored in that brickwork. Night flushing used to work fine in my old apartment in Cambridge: wood frame construction with insulation; not as much thermal mass in the interior plaster, plus the insulation isolates the mass from the day's heat.

For the technically minded, thermal mass provides damping of the incoming signal, as well as a phase shift (maybe ~16 hours in my house).

You can see the behavior in the graph below ("next slide please.") The red plot is my apartment's temperature, and the orange is the outside temperature. I caught both times when I was away (and the windows were all sealed up: 6/3-6/9, and 6/14-6/22), as well as when I was around and flushing out the place at night. You can tell when I was around: the red (interior temperature) gets more 'spiky' from the fan use. As you can see, night flushing drops the temperature by 2-4° C at night, but it's still nowhere near how cool it is outside. Also, in the colder period of 6/15-6/22, you can see how well the house holds on to heat.

Apologies for the use of a JPEG for line art; it seems like this photo uploading software doesn't support PNGs or GIFs.

Fuck it. I'm putting up my tent outside.


Dear Diary...

I've started cutting myself again. I know my parents and the doctors have all warned me about it and how bad it is, but I just feel so much better... so much more alive after doing it. I can't believe that I did it in such an obvious spot though... I'll have to start wearing those long gloves again...

Sorry... I just got a moderate cut after slipping on some rocks while hiking. I saw the location and just couldn't resist the temptation to channel a disturbed adolescent girl.

I Like Big (hali)Butts...

A group of nine of us went on a fishing trip from Seward, as I mentioned previously. We originally intended to just fish for halibut, but we ended up in a really good spot, and caught the limit (2 per person) by noon. This was followed by rockfish jigging--again catching the limit (4 per person): people were constantly reeling up and down, they were being caught that fast. This was followed by ocean salmon fishing (21 for the boat). Not a bad day, which also included seeing a humpback whale, sea lions basking on the rocks, a bald eagle, and a pod of orcas (not to mention Alaska's beautiful coastal scenery). So in case it isn't obvious, I thoroughly recommend these guys (Alaska Northern Outfitters); see if Ezra is available to captain the boat.

Incidentally, according to a book I glanced through (entirely and obsessively about halibut) the etymology is not from hali=holy + but=flounder (i.e., a flounder rare enough that you would only eat it on holy days). Instead, the beginning portion is meant to denote a "hole," which is the halibut's preferred habitat (a sinkhole in the ocean floor). Yeah, yours in useless trivia...

So anyway, this website describes the act of 'Abu Grhaibing' somebody (as 'the new bunny ears')--i.e., replicating Lyndie When she's not disgracing her country in ways that will have international repercussions for decades, she enjoys smoking and getting pregnant in military jail. England's infamous position of pointing at Iraqi prisoners (SNL's joke, not mine). There was a much funnier website that I can't find now, which includes photoshopped images of imperial stormtroopers and teletubbies Abu Ghraibing each other, but I can't find it now. So anyway, given the opportunity (including somebody I could bum a cigarette from), I had to take it:


Northern Exposure

Yes, I know the show was set in the fictional rural village of Cicely, AK, not Anchorage. And that it was actually filmed in Washington state.

Yeah, first day in Alaska, and we saw a moose walking down the street in Anchorage—and not on the outskirts of town—this was in the middle of a city of 260,000. Pretty awesome. We were walking to the car, and heard somebody from a rooftop bar yell, “Hey, watch out for the moose.” I thought, “Yeah…thanks, funny drunk guy,” and then looked up and saw the moose. Pretty neat.

I was in Alaska along with most of my graduate group for a 3-day conference, and then a few days of vacationing (hiking, fishing, seeing the city, museums). It felt very odd to get on the plane without my laptop: it’s an entirely novel experience not to have that brick with me.

We had gorgeous weather in Alaska: high 60’s/low 70’s F; a few days of rain, but mostly beautiful and sunny. It was light throughout the day; the summer solstice was close to the day we left. Glad that I was up there in the summer: living with a couple of hours of light a day in winter sounds absolutely soul crushing. If I had something to gain by raising the suicide rate, I’d put on an Ibsen festival during an Alaskan winter, and offer lots of booze.

One of the highlights of the trip was the day-long fishing trip for halibut, rockfish, and salmon, but I’ll write about that later.

The other major highlight was doing a day-long hike up next to Exit Glacier, to the Harding Icefield (a description and a bunch of nice photos at this site). It is an ice field larger than Rhode Island; glaciers are the “fingers” that come off it as it passes through the mountain. Exit Glacier is retreating all right… there were the signs showing its extent in the 1800s, 1930, 1960….

The hike itself was 7.7 miles round trip, with 3000 feet of elevation gain. For a feel for the hike see this aerial photo with the trail map superimposed. What was really striking was the weather change during the climb: shorts and t-shirt at the bottom, and multiple layers, blowing wind, and snow on the ground at the top. Enjoyed a lunch looking over this huge valley filled with ice… a pretty incredible view (as an example, see this panoramic shot that somebody else took.)

Down at the bottom, we waded through ice-cold glacier runoff to see the glacier face. Yeah, that was like stepping in buckets of ice water. As some other website points out: Several signs are posted near the glacier’s face warning of the potential danger associated with getting to close, and yet several people waltz right up and stand directly below the massive chunks of ice. But unless you feel the need to risk being crushed by a calving glacier, I suggest you heed the warning signs. You can see what happens when glaciers go bad, below:


Temporary Insanity (i.e., “To PhD, or not to PhD?”)

Warning: pretty long post; not very funny.

I recently discovered that I am not completely dismissing the idea of switching from the Masters’ (MASc) program to the PhD program here at the University of Waterloo. Given my unpleasant past experiences with higher education, this was a shock to me as well. I have not yet broached subject with my advisor and chief grad student; I intend to bounce this off of them when I get back to Waterloo.

Arguments for attempting to become ‘Dr. Bats’:
  • Opportunity: I doubt I will ever take this type of break from my working career again—it is unlikely I would return to the work force and then voluntarily surrender my income to go back to graduate school a second time. So if I was ever planning to get a PhD, this is the most sane time in my life to do so—especially given my lack of a mortgage or personal attachments. I’ve already made the “base investment” of how much I’ve already disrupted my life— leaving my job; moving out of Boston; moving my stuff to New York; establishing a new residence in Canada; building a kitchen that I can deal with.
  • Confluence of research projects: it turns out that there are two other field monitoring sites that will nicely complement the project that I am using for my thesis (interior basement insulation setups). I don’t think that I could do that experimental setup or collected data justice in the remaining 1.5 years I have left for a Master’s degree. It does seem like serendipity is telling me I should do this.
  • Logistics: In terms of how much more time I’d have to spend here, it’s not too crazy: I can switch over from the MASc program to the PhD program directly. My required number of classes goes up from four classes to seven, and two are done. Not sure how many years it will take: my best bet is four or five (total), but might be quicker if I push harder.
  • Finances: In terms of expenses and tuition, I’m ok—my parents are gladly funding my grad school career. Considering my sister did two Masters’ degrees and a law degree, I think it’s fair, even with my taking six years to finish MIT. Admittedly, this means a few more years with my overall assets increasing at, oh, whatever rate the stock market is doing.
  • Learning experience: I’ve realized that my time at UW is from half to one-third over: I’ve finished half my required classes, and have been here for 2 of my 6 semesters. I’ve learned a fair amount, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve gained that large of a fraction of my ‘knowledge goal.’ Also, I have heard some disparaging things about Master’s theses: my advisor jokingly described it as “writing down a few random thoughts.” Despite the hyperbole, there’s some truth to it: some Master’s theses seemed a little underwhelming. I’d like to differentiate myself from that crowd. Whether that’s by doing a kick-ass MASc or a PhD is another question.
  • Position in the lab: chief grad student once described that ideally, there should be a PhD student in every graduate group providing some longer-term leadership and guidance. I wouldn’t mind doing that role for a few years—it seems like my advisor is way too busy to deal with the day-to-day running of the group and its research activities.
  • Outside influences: It seems like everybody would be ecstatic if I went for the PhD: my former boss/mentor, my advisor, chief grad student, and my mom. When I was originally headed to UW, my mentor pulled me aside and told me that it would really help my advisor to graduate a PhD student from his group, since he has not done one yet. He told me that it would need to be really kick-ass, and that he thought I was the one to do it. I was very flattered by his assessment… but I’m not quite sure I’m up to the task.
  • Career: Although I have few direct reasons for needing a doctorate to advance my career (see below), I have to admit that it definitely wouldn’t hurt.
  • One-liners: Since my thesis is going to be on interior basement insulation, I will be able to say that, loosely, I got a doctorate in knowing my ass from a hole in the ground.
  • Social/happiness: I’ve gotten used to life in Waterloo—like I said, it’s home, at least for now. Walking around uptown feels comfortable and reassuring. As I have said before, my social life is mostly limited to the people in my grad group. However, I have to admit that it’s a tight group, and it’s cool to be in this intellectual environment that is focused on building science. In opposition though, my rosy outlook might be unduly influenced by the lack of classes and the fact that my breath isn’t freezing in my moustache when I’m outside. Conversely, I seem to get to visit Boston, the Bay Area, and other friends relatively often.

And the non-damaged (anti-PhD) portion of my brain comes back with:
  • Opportunity: Just because it is a “now or never” situation, I shouldn’t forget that “never” is still a viable option.
  • Classes: I live in fear of classes, despite the fact that I’ve done well so far, and the second semester didn’t kick my ass nearly as badly as the first one. I worry about the difficulty of future classes (“Finite element? Holy crap… that involves math again, doesn’t it?”), as well as whether or not I can find useful and appropriate ones. Building Science is lumped into Civil Engineering, but there’s not a huge overlap. I wouldn’t have any reason to take a water resources, structural, or soils class; I’m already going outside of UW (to the University of Toronto) to find classes that will develop me in my field.
  • Thesis: Without even worrying about the daunting task of writing a PhD dissertation, I worry whether my project is even conceptually good enough: does/will it actually break new ground and add anything useful to the field?
  • Can I do it? I’m not just talking about smartness, but the motivation and willingness to work that hard and passionately for that long on a given topic. For instance, instead of spending my idle time reading Case Study 2: Design Guidelines for Internally Insulated Basement Walls, I’m agonizing over a blog post. My undergrad life at MIT was a case study of facing a monstrous workload with minimal motivation: “Just why am I going through all this pain?” (thus my dropping out, and taking six years to finish).
  • Comprehensives: I’m terrified at the very concept. I would need to take them by my fourth semester; I am not sure just what they would cover. If they are going to be on a broad range of Civil Engineering topics (e.g., structural), there’s no way I’m going to do it.
  • Social: One of the biggest kickers is that I will be away from Boston (and my circle of friends) for a few more years than planned. Whenever I come back, I remember what it is like to be part of a vibrant and active social circle.
  • Ivory tower ossification: I am worried about spending even more time out of the work force. It’s not just the income factor, but also missing out on field work, working on real buildings, interacting with builders, developing contacts, etc. Admittedly, my group is well connected to the real world—they run a consulting company, and I have done several monitoring projects as a subcontractor while at school.
  • The need: in career terms, I don’t have any specific goals that require getting a doctorate. I have no interest in going into academia; expert witness work sounds like a quick path to a lucrative burnout. I doubt I would try to run a national laboratory, or be a sole independent consultant (which I could do with or without a doctorate). Admittedly, it certainly wouldn’t hurt my career--PhDs still eminently employable as practicing engineers in this field (as opposed to being priced out of the market). But if you asked me what my career ambition is, I’d answer, “retire young, get a truck full of tools, and drive it around the country fixing my friends’ houses.”
  • The want: As I mentioned in “Outside influences,” going for a PhD would make a lot of people happy, but will it make me happy? Is this getting me somewhere I want to be? Am I passionate about this? Do I want it enough that I could keep up years of “laser-like focus” on finishing a thesis?
  • Babes: My advisor informs me “chicks dig it.” Sounds like a load of crap to me. On the other hand, my guy PhD friends have managed to marry some seriously amazing and lovely women. Don’t think it’s causal relationship, though.

As I try to analyze my motives, I can’t figure out if I really want to do it, and am trying to force myself into the decision not to, or vice versa. It would all be easier if somehow the decision were “made for me” in some way—e.g., an obvious reason to defer going back to the work force for a few more years, a definite pressing need for a doctorate to advance, or dating somebody who is finishing in four or five years (okay, I didn’t say anything about the likelihood of these reasons). Many decisions and directions in my life have been made through serendipity, such as finding the job at my old company, and thus the direction for my career. Going to graduate school in the first place was close to serendipitous: some excellent opportunities simply presented themselves, and I took advantage of them.

Road trip

I'm currently wrapping up a two-week-plus road trip around the east coast; I'm in Cambridge right now, and will be heading back to Waterloo, via Ithaca, starting tomorrow. Total distance, according to Microsoft MapPoint, is 1770 miles (2850 km). Highlights of the trip included:

  • Picking up my old high school friend Psycho Security Guard at Toronto airport, and driving to Montreal to hang out for a day. The trip included lunch at Ben's Deli, wandering around Mount Royal Park (with spectacular overview of the city), exploring Plateau Mont Royal (hipsterland type of neighborhood), taking the metro down to the old town section, exploring the old locks on the St. Lawrence seaway, having dinner, going out drinking, and having poutine (fries, cheese curd, and hot gravy--perfect drunk food) at 3 AM.
  • Going to the wedding of the other high school friend in our circle, Air Force Guy (who is now an IP lawyer in New York City). A big Chinese-American wedding--huge families on both sides. I noticed that Psycho Security Guard was the only round-eye at our table.
  • Going to a Tep wedding (Crusher and Cat) the next day--as an amazing coincidence, both weddings were the same weekend, but different days, in the same town. Convenient, eh? The wedding was lovely; it was great to see a bunch of Teps there. I played a bit of piano for the ceremony. The bride and groom actually asked for "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the playlist (post-recessional), but I didn't get a chance to play it.
  • Went over to Tep while I was in Boston, and gave a “house clue tour” to the undergraduates. Basically, a brain dump of the accumulated knowledge of the physical plant of the house: “Here’s the sprinkler shutoff. You can’t turn it off without setting off the alarm. This is the place in the range hood where the condensed grease collectsarrrgh ewwww yuk spilled it.”
  • Driving down to see my folks, while I was within 300 miles of them. It was good to see them, but it was depressing to realize that by hanging out with them, they can even make a place as interesting and vibrant as New York City dull. But there we were, in my sister’s apartment, watching The Matrix on TBS. Sarah Vowell had a great line about family get-togethers as being introverts as a group—that describes my folks pretty well, too. I think dad spent most of the weekend watching Yankee games. I also realized that my lack of conversational skill comes from my family; dinner conversations are a painfully stilted series of: Question. Answer. Long pause. Question. Answer. Etc.
  • I visited four Frederick Law Olmstead parks/landscape designs on this trip. Walked around Mount Royal park in Montreal, followed by Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and Crusher and Cat’s wedding at Stonehurst (Waltham, MA; Robert Paine Estate: architecture by H.H. Richardson and landscaping by Olmstead). And of course, in New York, Central Park, for a total of four. Incidentally, Central Park was Olmstead’s first landscape work—he was a journalist (with no formal landscape training) before that. Talk about a rookie home run. This is what I get for watching Ric Burns documentaries.

So, I’ll be back home in a few days. Just in time to leave again, for Alaska (conference in Seward, followed by hiking and a halibut fishing trip). I know I’m not invoking much sympathy here, but I really need to start getting work done this summer.