Do I need to hard reboot my libido or what?

As a bit of background, I made it out to Vancouver for this work trip. Things are going quite well so far--the four other guys I'm working with are experienced, hardworking, and fun to hang out with, and we're making excellent progress on the project--in fact, we're further along on this day than any other similar previous project. In case you were curious, this local newspaper article describes the job--it's a test hut, like we have at the university.

But to move into the purpose of this post: we went out to dinner tonight in Coquitlam (the town where the jobsite is located) to a restaurant called Joey Tomato's. It seems that one of their main draws is that their serving staff is very attractive: yes, in short, hot waitresses who wear stylish outfits.

Now my coworkers were having a fun time, arguing over who should have the choice viewing spots at the table. And they are all married or have girlfriends. I, on the other hand, found it... well, more depressing than anything else. I'll full well admit that the waitresses were hot and very stylish. And yes (as I've probably stated before), I am straight, it's just that I'm very bad at it. But when I've mentioned to my friends that this type of experience depresses me, I usually get bemused or incredulous looks. Therefore, I thought I'd try to reverse-engineer and explain what's going on in my head.

For one, I guess I find it depressing that part of my brain can easily be attracted by features on such a vapid basis, while actually talking to these women would quite likely be painful. To wit, here is a Harlan Ellison quote from a piece on dating services that holds some great truth:

I flipped through the loose-leaf pages. Rachel S-64. Denise S-116. Betty S-286. Past woman after woman; younger women, older women; stouter women, thinner women; innocent looking women, bold looking women, chic women, reserved women. And I understood that much as we feel compelled to play the “person in his/her own right” lip-service game, in the first burning instants that we meet someone who is a potential vessel of True Love, we are as one with the naked ape. It is always, in those first trembling moments, the aesthetic of line and curve and hollow and solid flesh that widens our eyes and raises our temperatures. The subliminal message of certain body-heats, the flush of health, the movement of a slim hand through certain-colored hair, the horizon line of a smile that speaks of far lands ready for exploration. What culturally-hip hypocrites we are: talking of wit and wisdom, of good deeds and similar interests, when our chimes ring first and loudest for the high cheekbone, the tight little ass, the strong chin or the quick flash of crossed leg. It’s nice to delude ourselves that we move in the stately pavane of the social contract, but if we listen carefully we can hear the murmurs of the veldt and the jungle near at hand.

Second, and more importantly, whenever an attractive woman that I don't know approaches and starts talking to me, part of my brain immediately responds, "Yes, yes, you're pretty. Thanks... and good for you. Now, what are you trying to get out of me?" I guess it is that I know that I'm not a player in whatever game they're playing, and don't want to be bothered/suckered with it. I guess that guys who have had more success might be able to approach these situations with a bit more of a postive attitude. However, I know full well that I flirt with all of the grace of an automotive assembly line robot, and therefore should try to avoid doing so.

Third, [the rest of my brain] finds women who are stylish in such a focused and mass-market manner very off-putting. The A|X Bags they carry make me cringe, thinking, "Well, whose rich-guy paycheck will that be coming out of in the future?..." (note: I actually needed a Google search to figure out what A|X stands for, and it's not A pipe X).

Anyway, apologies if this is incoherent rambling; going to this restaurant involved several rounds of drinks. An edit or addendum may be in order in the next few days.


Gather 'round yon formwork, all....

This was a post that I meant to write at the end of last week, but have been too slammed/stressed to do it justice.

I needed some fresh poured concrete to get my term research project up and running; fortunately, the professor directed me to one of his students who was doing a big pour (~2 yards)--the six test cylinders I needed would be less than what they threw away. So I stopped by the structures casting lab on the day of the pour. Of course, the mix truck was late--remember, it only shows up on time if you're frantically finishing off your formwork.

One neat thing is that whenever a grad student in this lab has a pour, the rest of the group shows up to lend a hand--kinda like a barn raising. The group gets together and works hard for a morning, and then the guy running the experiment buys lunch or coffee or something. It was just neat to see.

So I got my samples, and one of the students who is in my concrete durability class helped me prep them (I have a six-pack of beer in my office fridge to give him next time I see him). Then the lab tech yelled, "Hey K., can you give Han a hand screeding?" Of course, when put into that situation, you grab the other end of the concrete screed and pitch in. I spent maybe a half hour there, shovelling off excess concrete, cleaning up, and generally helping--seemed like the least I could do. It was fun to be useful. Also, it was kinda funny to see all of these big brained professors, PhDs, and doctoral and masters' candidates shovelling and troweling concrete in lab coats. It was a nice bit of reassurance that yes, a bit of real work does get done at Universities.

Survived all right... (and an architecture rant)

So I finished my paper at 11 PM last night, and put together the presentation by 2 AM. Then I got up at 7 AM to rehearse, and delivered it in class today.

It went ok. In fact, I would say that it went pretty well... one of the other people in class who is noticeably clueful complimented me on it, and I had a more-interesting-than-usual dialog with the professor in the Q&A portion. I was even considering writing a blog post titled, "0WnZ0RRR!!" in my post-presentation elation, but I figure that would be tempting fate to hand me my ass with a side order of curly fries on the midterm.

Anyway, if you are curious, I did my presentation on the damage on the precast exterior panels of the University of Waterloo's Math and Computer Building (1968). A great little snippet from the news article from the opening of the building: "It contains Canada's fastest computer: an IBM 360 Series, Model 75." Which is equivalent to what--an old iPod?--nowadays, perhaps?

In case you were still curious, my best judgement was that it is showing map pattern cracking due to alkali-aggregate reaction, and that there are (repaired) popouts which were due to freeze thaw damage. Yeah, didn't think you were that interested, either.

So yes, I went through all that work and stress for 5% of the course grade. I knew that fact going in, but it felt like this was the right amount of work for what was being asked.

I have wondered for a while if this building was somehow related to Boston City Hall (1969)--it has a similar top-heavy concrete big-ass-cube architecture, which appears to put a priority on pitching boiling oil on invaders. As a matter of fact, completely different firms were involved (Kallman, McKinnell, Knowles in Boston vs. Webb, Zerafa, Menkes & Matthews in Waterloo). However, I found out that they all drew from Le Corbusier's Convent of La Tourette (1960). Go ahead and take a look at that link, then come back.

<RANT>Holy crap those architects were a bunch of unimaginative hacks. "Hey, let's just copy Corbu, it'll be great! Well, we'll make it like his, but, y'know, like, bigger."</RANT>

Another interesting fact learned on Wikipedia this evening: the architectural movement of Brutalism (all these buildings fall in that category) was not named for, well, its obvious literal meaning (and its effect on viewers and end-users of the building). Instead, it comes from the French béton brut, or raw concrete. Unfortunately, one thing that I learned from my case study: just because it is made of concrete doesn't mean you can just leave it outside and expect it to last forever with no maintenance. A lot of these architectural movements (Modernism, International Style) seem a lot like old clothing from a misspent youth that you're embarassed to admit you have in your closet ("You have one of those! Wow! Like... groovy, dude!")

Anyway, I just have to finish setting up my experiment so it can run on its own, help chief grad student do final prep for our trip, and then I'm off to Vancouver on Thursday morning. I received some great Vancouver restaurant and bar recommendations from Jofish and Jess; if anyone else has suggestions, let me know!


Your know you're an addict when...

You not only listen to WBUR (Boston area NPR station) over the web while living in another country, but you continue listening through the pledge drive. It's up there with drinking decaf coffee for the flavor (I do sometimes drink decaf, but it is usually more of a social thing--i.e., having a mug in front of me with everyone else at the coffee shop table. I have come to realize that too much coffee late in the day makes me irritable). Yeah--"I only drink it socially... I can stop anytime I want to..."

Yes, I know I should act like a native and start listening to the CBC (which I sometimes do in the morning). I guess listening to WBUR and reading the New York Times help me feel a bit more like I can take a chunk of home with me (as does IMing friends on a regular basis).

An interesting snippet in the hurricane Wilma coverage: a Florida resident commented that he was not planning on evacuating: instead, he was going to 'hunker down' in his trailer home. Oh no. That's a bit like realizing somebody is shooting at you, and taking cover behind a pile of fluffy goose down pillows.

As a random aside, there was an interesting article on the environmental impact of gold mining in the New York Times today ("Behind Gold's Glitter: Torn Lands and Pointed Questions"). One thing that I've wondered is why the hell they use cyanide to mine gold. It turns out that the process, called heap leaching, is low-cost enough that it is often the only profitable way to extract gold from low-concentration ores. Also, according to the article, 80%+ of gold production goes to jewelery, which surprised me: I was guessing that all the gold in the electronics I own might be comparable to the gold content of my brass rat. Then again, I'm definitely a non-representative consumer.


Argh (creativity too low for better title right now)

I should be writing a report (due Tuesday) instead of blogging, but I am in a ‘want-to-throw-up stressed’ phase right now, and I’m hoping that writing this will get it out of my system just a bit.

I found a quote from one of the South Park creators that sums up how I feel about classes:

Trey Parker has a confession to make. "I've started confiding in people, other artists mostly, that I hate making 'South Park' and I always have," he said during a recent visit to New York. He continued: "It's super stressful. I'm always miserable. I want to kill myself every week."

It's the conflict of being completely stressed out by something that one does pretty well. I've gotten good marks so far, but I've also gotten crushingly depressed and panic-ridden during the terms I was taking classes. You might notice that my musings on exploring a PhD were during the summer, when I could just do research instead of take classes. Research on its own is a fun challenge; research for a class project with a deadline is a continuous experience of, "Oh my god, I have to get this running or else I will be trying to write a report with two days’ worth of... or no... data."

I have stressed about class deadlines for a very long time. I remember a (probably) third or fourth-grade experience, when I put off my project (making a contour map of the US with paper mache) to the last minute. My mother and I worked on it late into the night; I don't think it was a third-grade all-nighter, but it was pretty late compared to what I was used to. This also demonstrated the 'externally applied motivation' that I mentioned in my previous book comment.

One reason for my stress is that I have experienced horrible school failures, so I can’t just calm myself saying, "Don’t worry; problems like that don’t actually happen to me." I have walked into tests where I looked at the problems, one by one, realized I could not answer a single one, and wrote a note that I was dropping the class on the back. I have gotten tests back where they gave me 2-3 'sympathy points’ for each 25-point question--i.e., "Well, here’s a point for writing something down, even if it is a load of crap."

I think several things are making me feel this way right now. I just spent a few hours in lab, expecting all the pieces I have been working on to come together and start collecting data. Instead, I was stuck there until 9, and I am still getting nothing for data. Also, not having dinner through all of that didn't help. Finally, the weather went from this (shorts weather) at the beginning of the month, to the soul-destroying, grey, overcast, rainy, cold crap we've been getting for the past week or so.

And great... daylight savings ends in a week... Well, I just have to survive a month and half of the term after that.

Well, I think the food is starting to kick in... I'm feeling a little better now. Still, I wanted to be 80% done with my report tonight, and it’s already 11 PM. Suck.


No Bats, We Really Don't Need to See Your Teeth Again...

I am hoping that this will be pretty much the end of a long saga. My dentist applied the replacement implant crown today. He cemented the heck out of it, so we're all figuring we'll avoid the 'fall out of jaw and head south' problem (although it was kinda cool to say, "I got beat up so bad that I was crapping out teeth....")

Yes, the implant is definitely smaller and flatter than the molar that used to be there. However, my bite now feels right, as opposed to the previous failed installation, which felt like biting down on an olive pit with every bite.

Stress stress stress

Y'know how I've been saying that I really need to get moving this semester, and buckle down and tool hard? But that in the meanwhile, I would go to the occasional movie or do some pleasure reading instead of tooling? Well, it's finally caught up with me. Yesterday, I took a closer look at my calendar, and realized that I had 7 days to get my research project for the semester up and running. Otherwise, with the trips I have stacked on top of each other, I only have two weeks in town before it is due. Two weeks is about half of what I need to complete the research itself, not to even think about writing it up. Arrgh... there were so many other smaller jobs around the lab that were easier to tackle than starting to chip away at the 'big research project' monolith. Oh yeah, and in these seven days, I need to also finish up a letter report and presentation.

Just like my last fall semester, work trips are causing major amounts of stress. I think I'm really not cut out for this school thing. Even though everything will likely work out, visions of total disaster are constantly there.

Whine. Nobody understands me. What color should I dye my hair?

On the lighter side, I picked up a gift for my advisor while browsing at the Lego store a few weekends ago. His nickname among the group is Enzo (as in Enzo Ferrari, "in charge of a finely tuned machine" [snarf]). So I thought that the Duplo Ferrari F1 Race Car was just the thing for him.

I like knowing one's advisor well enough to tell him, "And I thought this was ideally suited for you--it's a Ferrari, you can put on the stickers by yourself, and there are no small parts to be a choking hazard!" (he has this occasionally spazzy behavior that makes the last item seem like a valid concern).

To quote chief grad student: "Groups often work better if there's a healthy amount of disrespect for the leadership. Then again, our group has probably gone way beyond the healthy range."


Blue Twizzlers?

Why, this might look like nice big piece of tasty candy. But don't be fooled! It is actually a piece of epoxy-coated post-tensioning strand steel. Show 'n tell in this class (Durability Design of New Concrete Infrastructure) is fun. Other items passed around today were reinforcing bars for concrete made of glass-, aramid- (Kevlar), and carbon fiber-reinforced plastic. Wild stuff.

The professor actually covered some cool stuff today--a crash course in how pre-tensioned and post tensioned concrete work, to bring up the non-structural civil engineering guys up to speed. In that link above, check out Figure 1.9--it's a pretty wild construction technique. They first make a central column. Then they build the bridge deck out as a cantilever on both sides, alternating to keep it in balance, until it meets the cantilever deck coming from the adjacent column. Pretty wild stuff.

Also, in reading some course material, I found out something cool. Have you ever driven by bridge highway overpasses at night, and there's a big enclosure or tarp around the median, and there's this godawful hissing racket coming out of it? I always wondered what that was--are they sandblasting? heating? Well, my best guess now is that they are steam curing the concrete--making it set up faster, to put it back in service. Yeah, geek geek geek.

In very unfortunate news, it appears that the authentic New York style bagel shop that I mentioned earlier is closing down. Dammit. No way I'm staying for a PhD now. [grin]

Definitely starting to worry about the term now. Presentation and assignment due a week from now. Then a week plus trip to Vancouver for work (consulting work with my advisor). Well, it's technically not work, since I'm not getting paid for it--long story--but overall, I don't mind going. Except for the fact that I have a midterm a three days after gettting back. Then a three day trip to Richmond (another consulting trip). And two weeks after that, it goes into end of term (final project and final exam). Good news, though, is that I will be back in Boston by December 16th at the latest--hopefully a few days before that.

Oh, and a small victory this evening--I was poking around the Jazz Real Book that I own, and found out they have Linus and Lucy (i.e., the Peanuts theme, by Vince Guaraldi). I had noodled it out before, but looking at the book chording, I could figure out, "Dammit! That's why that chord never sounded quite right!" It made me happy.


HAWT or Not?

Why actually, this is a HAWT--horizontal axis wind turbine, as opposed to a vertical axis wind turbine.

Sorry... I spent most of today at a wind power seminar given by this guy Paul Gipe--he has done just about everything, from climbing up towers to build and service homemade turbines to working on wind turbine policy with power companies and governments. He came across as very experienced and a bit of a grump, but that totally makes sense and is a bit refreshing in the field of, "Oh, this renewable power source will save the earth," optimism--he tempers it with a lot of real experience.

For instance, in regards to bird kills from wind turbines: he fully admits that it is a real problem--for instance, Altamont Pass kills a bunch of raptors each year; he recommended better consultation with ornithologists in future developments; but the two sides can be resolved, hopefully.

He also ran through a lot of the failed branches in the evoluation of the technology--for instance, you seldom see those vertical axis wind turbines in Altamont Pass running--that's because the technology sucked, and as he put it, they "haven't been stamped into beer cans," as they should be. They are less efficient than HAWTs, for instance. Second, although the gearing is at the bottom, which is supposed to improve maintenance, there is a top bearing which gets a whole lot of vibration and wear, thus still requiring a crane for maintenance. Third, they are instrinsically lower (to the ground) than HAWTs: wind velocity rises rapidly with altitude (and power generation is a cubic relationship to the velocity), thus lowering their power collection ability.

Overall, it made me very optimistic about wind power as a large-scale resource (e.g., the way that Europe is moving a lot of its generation to wind: 36,000 MW capacity vs. 7,000 MW in North America). However, one of the reasons I went to the seminar was because I'm thinking, in the back of my mind, that someday it might be neat to have an off-grid house with PVs and a windmill. Gipe was not terribly enthusiastic about the current generation of small/homeowner/hobbyist wind turbines--he described it as a field full of "charlatans, scams, and flakes," as well as pointing out that the technology in these small scale turbines is twenty years behind the technology used in large-scale generation. The field is full of overzealous claims and crackpot inventors. The reliability of the technology, as you would expect, is not great, and a seriously large turbine is needed for a house-load sized load. Also, having to do maintenance up on a 100 foot tower does not sound fun. Overall, it made me a lot cooler on the idea...

Also, the last portion of the seminar ended up being a three-person discussion between a few audience members and the speaker--"What do you think of this turbine? What about the power rating curve on this one?" Despite this annoyance, and the length of the talk, it was pretty interesting to go.


Thanksgiving, Canadian Style

This past weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving--for all my friends south of the border, it is basically like American Thanksgiving (family get-together, turkey, stuffing, pies, tryptophan, gluttony) except a month earlier and without the celebration of the slaughter of indigenous peoples. I was fortunate to be invited to Thanksgiving with the family of N., a friend and colleague of Jofish at Cornell who is from Waterloo; they both road tripped up for the weekend (In case you clicked on the link, she's the one in the red bustier/corset/thingy. Yeah. Yowza.)

Anyway, I am (quite amusingly) classified as an 'International Student' (being from that country south of here), so I end up on the mailing list for "Improving your conversational English," and "Workshop with the U.S. Consulate Representative." I brought a copy of this email to share with the family at dinner (delivered in most stilted and enunciated 'speaking-to-foreigners' English):

If you are invited to share a meal with a Canadian student or their family, take advantage of this opportunity! You'll get a chance to visit a local home and to experience a cultural tradition. The family will be preparing all the food, but often when Canadians are invited out for dinner, they bring a small gift, such as flowers or a small plant or a small box of chocolates. If you had a small gift from your home country, that would certainly be appropriate.

I was debating what gifts I should bring... it was a tossup between a vial of acid rain, or a smuggled handgun.

The family was an absolute hoot to hang out with--if my family were that open and fun, I would look forward to heading back to New York. The meal was great... all of the classics, especially stuffing that includes the giblets! Yay! The evening progressed into a game of bite the bag, um, but without the shotgunning beers after each round. It was something that my 24 inch inseam came in handy for.

Another thing Jofish and I did this weekend was hit the St. Jacob's Farmer's Market; it is a combination open-air weekend farmer's market, flea market, and food stands. For some reason, this flea market struck me as joyously cut-rate, as opposed to depressingly seedy, as most flea markets do. I had a good time watching Jofish haggle with the Middle Eastern guy selling socks out of an unmarked van:

"Twelve dollars? You are taking food out of the mouth of my children! No, not possible, not at that price..."

There is also an astoundingly soulless outlet mall as part of the complex. Jofish and I found the Lego outlet store, where we found the Lego 2005 Advent Calendar. No, I am not making this up.

Having an out of town visitor and a local guide gave me the opportunity to hit Waterloo bars that I have never been to. I am ashamed to admit that this was my first time at both the Jane Bond or Ethel's Lounge. Both of them get strong recommendations.

Monday was officially a day off, but we both had work to finish off, so we headed to a place with coffee and wireless access, and set up shop. I managed to get my abstract done; Jofish did something more worthwhile with his time: his ultracool LiveJournal word vs. mood correlation engine. He described the guts as a vector in 5000 dimensional space; after that, I kinda lost track.

Of course, I got to see Jofish in full-on programming-in-the-zone mode, including taking two minutes to respond to verbal stimuli, and having occasional cursing fits at his machine.

We spent Jofish's final evening in town killing off a few bottles; I'm afraid that it did some violence to my liver and GI tract (well, let it be said that a chorizo burrito with hot sauce is best enjoyed only once).

Jofish made it out of the ordeal with no apparent damage; I on the other hand struggled to keep down a piece of buttered toast, and barely survived a 9 AM three-hour class.

However, despite the negative experience of hangovers, I think that 'getting a good drunk on' with good friends is a cathartic (um... poor word choice) experience that should be done occasionally; perhaps once a year or so. It might be a zero sum game--you pay for the fun of the previous evening, with interest--but life at the dead average level without local maxima and minima is pretty friggin' dull.


Dental failure

You might notice that this picture of my mouth looks different from the one in the post below. No, it's not an older photo. Somehow, it appears that the porcelain crown/implant cover cracked and/or fell off. I don't remember feeling this happen at all--quite possibly happened in the night. I'm somewhat annoyed.

I think that the crown that was cemented in was a piece of porcelain with a metal sleeve inside it; it seems to me that the cemented metal sleeve is still on the post in my mouth. I'm actually not sure whether the metal-to-porcelain bond failed, or the porcelain itself cracked to the point that it detached.

And no, I didn't want to, um, inspect output for evidence that the crown ended up there.

However, I had a wonderful Canadian Thanksgiving, and I'm having a great time while Jofish is visiting; I will write about it soon.


Ultra-low bandwidth data transfer

My group is doing research on basement wall systems in a house in Kitchener (town south of Waterloo). We typically set up a telephone modem or network connection to dataloggers to remotely retrieve our data, but in this case, we just installed a computer extension cable to the outside, so we can stand in the side yard and download to a laptop.

I have been very big on limiting my car use; I managed to go 96 days between filling up on gas this summer. I can walk to the University, bike everywhere else, and save my car for Home Depot runs. So I suggested to my advisor that I could take care of downloads via bicycle trips, with the use of software that connects from a Palm to the datalogger. He replied:

Date: Tue, 13 Sep 2005 03:56:20 -0400
From: Building Engineering Group Advisor
To: KU
Subject: Re: Itinerary for Return

RE: Rather than a piece of electronics, may I offer you my mechanical device: a car. This allows you to use a laptop, save an hour round trip, and protect your back and your laptop. Just an offer.

My answer was:

I have heard of this 'car' device you speak of--and some very smart people have told me that these devices are responsible for a good portion of North America's imported fuel consumption [grin].

Seriously, I enjoy the bike ride, and that ride is about the scale I would do for fun/exercise (less than a commute back from Westford). I'm planning on doing it for download trips until the weather turns really crappy; it's just a question of whether I'm doing it with a light piece of computing power or a heavier piece.

So with last nice stretch of good weather we're having (highs ~75 F), I went ahead and did the ride down there with my laptop.

I have to admit that it is probably a lot less time effective than a remote download from a desktop. But a lot more fun. We'll see how far into the winter this lasts--I might need to invest in studded tires.

In the meanwhile, does anyone have an old Palm PC (Palm OS Version 3.3 or later) that they have retired and put in a box, and want to sell for cheap? A pocket PC might work too.

I also had the guys putting down asphalt driveways asking me what I was doing--they said they were wondering if I was hacking into this house's bank account or something. I let them know that it was a lot less interesting than that. But they got me to rake out some asphalt for them--seemed like a nice break.

In other news, I finally got my, um, implant (yeah, dental) put in:

It is taking some getting used to... I'd gotten accustomed to not having a tooth back there. Also, the crown is a little high, so biting down hard on that side hurts my upper teeth a bit.

Also, Jofish is supposed to be coming to visit me this weekend! Woohoo! My first visitor! This weekend is Canadian Thanksgiving, for all of my south-of-the-border friends.


Great weather, weekend update, and the Powell Doctrine

The weather took a brief detour into Indian Summer these past two days (after several days of fall coat weather). I took advantage of the weather to head out on a bike ride (out to Kitchener airport, incidentally; ~10 miles each way). On the way, I realized that the lite-rock radio station CHYM-FM just won't leave me alone:

Other than that, I had a relatively frustrating meeting with chief grad student and my advisor earlier that day, so it was good to take out my agressions by dry heaving around the countryside. First, we agreed to meet for breakfast on Sunday to talk about plans for the Vancouver Test Hut we are doing at the end of this month. They decided to move it to Sunday afternoon but didn't bother telling me, so I spent the morning in 'idling' mode after leaving messages and waiting. Second, we spent a lot of the meeting discussing things that I didn't need to be there for (future of the graduate group/recruiting new talent, finances of this job), or that should have been dealt with weeks ago (selection of walls for the test hut). The bottom line was that we finished up around 5 PM, while I was expecting to be done a little after brunch. I got a bike ride in, but it pretty much blew away the time I had slated for school reading today.

It would have been a good opportunity to broach the PhD topic with them, but to be honest, I am getting less and less enthusiastic about the idea. Even with it floating around my mind, I still have not been struck by the, "Yes, this is really the opportunity I need to take" bug. Instead, I have just been hearing internal echoes of, "I don't know if this is a good idea, Yogi." I guess that one thing I like about limiting myself to a Master's is that it is a demonstration of the Powell Doctrine in a graduate school setting: have a clear goal and exit strategy, use overwhelming force (in my case, one course a semester), and I know that I can sustain the commitment of one more year or so. Part of me definitely makes the association: "PhD = quagmire."

Incidentally, I find it completely tragic that our current involvement in Iraq runs counter to the Powell Doctrine in every way, that we are seeing the problems that could have been predicted as a result of not heeding it, and that General Powell was the mouthpiece that the administration used to make the case for the war. Sorry... enough politics for now.

Bats expounds on: earth bermed houses

I got a comment from Spider on my blog entry on home energy efficiency; my reply quickly became too large to fit into comments, so I decided to make an independent post of this discussion. She wrote:

Eli and I are slo-oo-owly getting closer to building a house. One of the technical biggies that we're planning on is semi-underground construction. (Our preferred site is backed into a south-facing hillside.) Can you point me at any good references for that sort of construction? We're paranoid about getting it watertight (duh!) and aren't quite sure what the other big bugaboos might be.

-Spider (hoping it's doable after all)

First of all--hi Spider! Hi Eli! Awesome that you're thinking of building from scratch.

Second, I wanted to give the great big caveat that I have no experience with earth bermed construction per se--I've heard plenty about it, but most of the work that I did with my old company was trying to make conventional house construction more energy efficient. I do not have any actual books or authorities to recommend in this field. That being said, there's a lot of the basic science and engineering of below grade structures involved in these bermed houses; my thesis topic is on interior insulation of basement walls, so I have gotten some knowledge of this field inflicted on me.

You are very wise to be very worried about water problems--one of my coworkers stated in regards to the questionable wisdom of finishing basements, "I find it amazing that people will dig a hole in the ground and not expect it to fill with water." His basic conclusion was not that it shouldn't be done--it was that it can be done right, but that it adds time and expense.

On a slightly philosphical side, you shouldn't be thinking in terms of "waterproofing"--remember, submarines are about as waterproof as you get (a few inches of HY80 plate steel), but they still have bilge pumps. Instead, you want to intercept the groundwater coming in, and drain it out before it can do any damage. Running drainpipes to daylight (i.e., make your house high enough in elevation that water drains downhill) is an excellent idea, as opposed to relying on sump pumps. I have not paid the gravity bill in years, and they still haven't shut it off.

The wall system I would recommend is (from inside to outside): your concrete wall, some type of liquid-applied dampproofing (black goopy stuff), insulation (e.g., extruded polystyrene--blue, pink, or green board), and a "dimple mat," which is a plastic product that creates an air space behind it that water can drain down through. My graduate advisor has worked with the company Cosella Dorken; a similar product out there is Platon. I have a sample photo of the apartment building that my advisor is building here in town; it has all of those elements.

As for the roof, there is a lot of technology out there on green roofs, i.e., putting vegetation on the roof to reduce heat gain via plant transpiration and increase insulation--its a hot item among environmental builders. There is developed technology for keeping dirt on the roof but not allowing water through. At the very least, this gives you another term to try Googling. Incidentally, my advisor is doing with his apartment building as well--we got to tour the building the day they were hoisting flats of plant growth medium to the roof.

As further construction notes, the wall insulation should extend all the way down to the bottom. Although there is a pretty small delta T across the bottom of the wall (probably 50 F vs. 70 F inside), most climates have a danger that deep ground temperature (50 F) could be below the dew point temperature of the air in the house. As a result, water could condense on the inside of the concrete walls, possibly damaging the finishes, causing mold, etc. Also, the insulation reduces moisture movement from the soil (along with the dimple mat and the dampproofing)--remember, that deep ground will be around 100% relative humidity year round.

If you are doing radiant floor heating, you need insulation underneath the slab (e.g., 3" of white beadboard expanded polystyrene), as per this report by my advisor and chief grad student.

Don't forget that this house will be quite airtight, having concrete walls on three sides and a concrete ceiling. Therefore, you will need a mechanical ventilation system, as per my original energy efficiency web post.

In terms of web resources on earth bermed houses, one link I found was "The Underground (earth bermed and sheltered) Home Web Site"; unfortunately, it has lots of broken links. But one of the more interesting sites I found through that link was Home Sweet Earth Home.

I also want to perhaps temper your enthusiasm for earth bermed houses with a few thoughts. If you took conventional construction, removed the windows on all sides except for the south, insulated the heck out of the walls and ceiling, and airtightened, you might end up with similar performance to an earth bermed house. I still think its an awesome idea--I'm glad that people are enthusiastic about these high-performing houses, and are willing to put the work into them. But I wanted to point out that there are many facets to improving energy efficiency levels.

Anyway, best of luck with the hobbit hole! (I assume the house will be named 'the Shire' or something similar, right?).