Ceci n'est pas une pipe bomb

Oops. Now that I've drawn the attention of the FBI and CSIS, I should make clear, "Um, this has nothing to do with pipe bombs--it's just a piece of equipment that I built that looks kinda dangerous. The title is meant as an homage to the surreal artist Rene Magritt..uh wha?... body cavity search? Um..."

Anyway, I continued my search for an immersion heater through this past weekend; I am now up to nine stores (list below) while still failing to find it (US analog to Canadian stores in parentheses):

Home Hardware (=local Ace Hardware store)
Zeller's (=K-Mart, maybe?)
Gizmos (=Lechters, Kitchen Etc.)
The Bay (=JC Penny's, Macy's)
Canadian Tire (=Sui Generis--it's a pretty cool Canadian thing)
KW Surplus (=a local overstock, military surplus, and nasty crap store)
Adventure Guide (=local outdoor sports store)
Staples (=duh, yeah)
Home Depot (=Big Orange 0wwwwnz j0000!)

However, while wandering the aisles of KW Surplus, between the racks of the worst-of-made-in-China tools and Israeli gas masks, I saw a bin of 85 watt curling irons. $2.95 CAD each, eh? Hmm.

Of course, the label clearly states SHOCK HAZARD DO NOT IMMERSE. So, a dismantling and a length of soldered copper pipe later, we had:

Plugged it in, and it got hot (drawing 150 W, according to my watt meter). Put it into the reservoir, it started drawing power, and then... nothing. Removed and tested it, and the heater coil had fried itself (infinite resistance). Crap. Must have had some type of thermal protection fusible link.

It just frustrates me that this is NOT THAT FUCKING HARD of a problem. All I want to do is get 100-200 W of electrical resistance heat from a plug directly into some water.

Well, next step is trying to break the fishtank heater.


How to Burn a Day (and then some)

I feel like I have been wasting time this whole week so far, and particularly today, and it's really frustrating. At the conference on Sunday, one of my colleagues mentioned that he accidentally booked an extra day on travel that he could not change; I suggested that he come visit us at the University and see our facilities. He took me up on the offer, so I spent most of today being a tour guide.

He's a hell of a nice guy, and I'm glad he came out to visit, but it felt like I friggin' well burned the day with next to nothing to show for it. Left at 9 to meet him at the bus terminal to bring him to the University; spent most of the day (except for a few hours entering spreadsheet data wrapping up the semester) with him, then went out for dinner and beers, lasting to about 9.

I feel like I'm completely spinning my wheels; this really annoys me because I was envisioning that this week, after finishing off the semester, I could get back into research work and start slamming things out that have been on my list for weeks.

I wasted yesterday afternoon at several stores looking for an immersion heater (little plug-in heater you put in a coffee mug to heat up some water, if you don't have a kettle); I intended to use it for the lab. No luck, and it seems possible that they're not sold in this country (e.g., see this product recall). In case you care, all I friggin' need is a 100-200 W immersible heating element, to make this thing work. The fish tank heater that I'm using is limited to a low temperature, and is therefore not useful to me; I'm trying to figure out if I can break the controls in the correct manner without shattering the glass enclosure. Grr.

Anyway, I'm sure I'll feel better about this week tomorrow. We've been having a return to cold weather this past week (overnight lows below freezing). I need to apologize to any of the locals; I think it's my fault--I bought a pair of shorts on Saturday; I guess the fates were not pleased.


I Have No Life

The title of this post is actually quite misleading: I've been having a pretty good time the past couple of days, now that classes are done. The whole grad group bailed at 3:30 on Friday to drink beer and celebrate the end of term. I went to a cookout on Saturday evening, and will be hanging out with Dan and Daniel tonight. However, it was my reaction to what I did yesterday:

On Sunday, I voluntarily spent most of the day at a work-related conference: the ASTM Symposium on Heat-Air-Moisture Transport: Measurements on Building Materials. Nothing like watching PowerPoint presentations at 9 PM on a Sunday night to make you feel like a loser.

Now, you might think that my work career is not terribly exciting, given that I watch walls dry and stuff like that. But if my work were limited to "measurement of building materials" alone (as opposed to being only one component of my work, mixed with crawling through ducts, climbing around on roofs installing sensors, and telling builders, "You do it that way and you will get sued"), I would have killed myself with pinking shears long ago. But the conference covered things I ought to know more about and be current on. The presentations were a mixed bag: some good, some pointless, some painful. Some presentations got into the painful math that I will not use: the place where my field intersects partial differential equations is not where I want to be. One particularly badly-done presentation reminded me of a line from a web comic I read: "Oh no.... it's a train wreck. And the train is on fire. And it is also filled with kittens."

The underlying problem is that this was a conference by ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials): they create standards (e.g., "D168-94(2000) Standard Test Method for Coke Residue of Creosote"). The job of creating and editing standards is intrinsically tedious and minutae-oriented. One of my colleagues from a large manufacturing company, despite being an ASTM member, is a really cool person: I refer to her as 'the lovely and brilliant Dr. W.'--she did MIT undergrad in the mid-70's, got her PhD at CalTech, and does competitive ballroom dancing in her spare time. She is the editor of a standard, and she has to deal with comments like, "The ASTM style manual states that units should be stated without a hyphen blah blah." To this, she commented to me, "Somebody really needs to get those guys laid."

Some of the personalities (or lack thereof) that I ran into at the conference reminded me of that online writeup of how your favorite Lucky Charms marshmallow shape reflects your sex life ("Amazing new study shows that your favorite Lucky Charms marshmallow bit shape determines what you're like in bed!"). The final category was: Those little oat bits that aren't marshmallows at all: If you prefer the little oat bits, you probably don't like sex anyway and don't need to read this article.

Well, at least the day wasn't a total writeoff: I wandered around Chinatown in the rain, got some coconut buns, and had a big bowl of noodle soup with BBQ pork.

But the biggest failure of the evening was not getting contact information of the cute woman that I chatted with at the conference. FYI, it was lack of effort, not a case of getting shot down. Well, at least I actually talked to her, which is above par for me.


Aaaaannd... It's a Wrap

I took the final exam for my my case studies class in Toronto today. I am now done with all of the classes that I need for my master's degree. I find it difficult to keep this slightly crazed little smile off my face, even now... I am finding it hard to believe, but in a pleasant way.

Incidentally, I think I did pretty well; I was pretty confident in my answers. Also, the professor told me after the exam that he liked my class report... not bad. To be honest, since I was taking this class from my mentor's former advisor, I really wanted to excel, to do my mentor proud (i.e., "Obi-Wan has taught you well, young Jedi...")

Speaking of which: to reward myself, I stopped by Future Shop (Canadian Circuit City/Best Buy analog), and bought myself the DVD box set of Star Wars Episodes IV-VI. Yes: "I AM A GREAT BIG DORK IN CASE THERE WAS ANY QUESTION OF THAT, JUST SO YOU KNOW."

Postscript: I just finished watching Episode IV. Some people have complained to me that it doesn't stand up on later viewings, but to be honest, I still love it. It's just so thoroughly imprinted on my brain, cheesy lines and everything. The the characters that I've always loved (go Artoo!), the musical leitmotifs and cues, the atmosphere, the production design, everything... a very nice dip into nostalgia. It struck me how strongly this film has the whole Joseph-Campbell-mythic-story feel that seems to be lacking in Episodes I-III.

Anyway, I no longer have the entire opening crawl memorized though--only the first paragraph or so.


Catching Up...

The past couple of days has been a nice stretch of catching up on life and paperwork, after putting them on hold to finish my term paper.

  • Our group is mostly done moving into our new trailer/office. It's actually pretty luxurious--a lot more room than our old office, and we have windows! Inconceivable! (ours is the second from the right).

  • My taxes are done, courtesy of H&R Block--both the US and Canada returns. Also, I ended up paying less than I expected--I guess that's what happens to the portion lost to taxes when your income does a nosedive as a graduate student.
  • I have paid up tuition for next term, and completed various pieces of paperwork so that I get my stipend. That part always seemed like a scam to me--"You pay us some money, and then we pay you back your stipend." Yeah, I know, taxes, income, and all, but coming from New York, it seems like something that the Teamsters or the sanitation workers would have cooked up.
  • Did a much-needed round of laundry; the weather has gotten nice enough that they were dried on the clothesline outside--a nice feeling.
  • Took care of various hard drive backups; I think that everything important is now on at least two spindles, if not three.
  • In the continuing saga of trying to reduce my landfill output, I took out the trash today at 62 days. No great shakes--nowhere near my record. Based on this rate, I'll need another four trash bags to finish off 2006, but that doesn't count time that I will be spending away from home this summer.

In addition, I finished my portion of grading final exams for the class I'm TAing. Overall, I thought being a TA was a positive experience--I sure learned the material in more excruciating detail than I ever would otherwise--it's a nice confidence booster, if I ever need to pull out the 'basic science' aspects in practicing building science. Definitely increased my awareness and appreciation for good teaching, and good course administration.

Hokay. Final on Thursday. Back to tooling.


As also seen on Slashdot...

poems in
Fibonacci form.
See this New York Times article.


Whew... One Down

Well, a big stressor for this past semester is now in the can: I submitted the final paper for my case studies class this afternoon. If I maintain my sanity (i.e., never go for a PhD), this is the last term paper I will ever submit. This was despite my best efforts to not pull it off--I decided, "Oh, I'm ahead of schedule, so I'll deal with grading over the weekend instead." Also, as if on cue, my implant tooth started acting up on Sunday--apparently, the chip has opened up a trap for infection underneath. Swell. So to speak.

As always with work like this, it came annoyingly down to the wire: draft was finished by midnight; after giving up on proofreading at 2 AM ("Spellcheck is schoolin' my ass at this point..."), I got up at 6 to finish proofing and printing.

The project was pretty cool--it is a perfect example of why I came to grad school. It's a topic that I have been interested in for a while (when you renovate an old factory into loft apartments and insulate it, how likely is it that you will spall all the bricks to hell and destroy the building?). It gave me the chance to research the literature in detail, write up a case study on a building my former boss renovated, run a bunch of simulations, and learn techniques that will be useful later in my careeer.

So 228 megabytes of one-dimensional hygrothermal of simulation later, I can say that yes, you are increasing risks of damaging your wall. But way more important than that: make sure the wall doesn't get wet from bulk rainwater, by keeping it as sheltered as possible, and not doing dumb things like this (referring article is here).

Anyway, in a week, I will be done with all the classes I need for my master's. Wow. Celebration is definitely in order after that.

Durability Impact of Interior Insulation of Massive Masonry Structures: A Literature Review and Case Study

Over the past several decades, there has been a trend to reuse and rehabilitate existing commercial building stock for current use; many of these structures are uninsulated massive masonry construction. A common example is the renovation of factory, warehouse, and industrial buildings into residential loft apartments. With this change in use, however, comes a need to bring the building up to current expectations of comfort and energy efficiency. This implies the need for thermal insulation of the building enclosure.

However, there is a strong concern that the addition of insulation will reduce the durability of the structure by reducing heat flow through the wall, resulting in colder temperatures through the thickness of the masonry. This would result in higher chances of freeze-thaw damage due to both lower temperatures and greater wetness of the masonry (from the reduced drying potential).


Some Concrete Amusement...

Dan gave me some ribbing about taking an entire course on concrete durability during the fall term ("Sounds about as exciting as watching walls dry.... oh wait...").

So when I got email today from the Portland Cement Association's Concrete Technology E-Briefing list that I'm subscribed to... hey, stop laughing. Yeah, you, cutitthellout. Anyway, as I was saying, there was an abstract that I thought might amuse the folks who find concrete + high technology to be a bit incongruous:

Virtual Cement and Concrete Testing Laboratory Wins Supercomputer Time

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md. have been awarded more than 1,000,000 hours of NASA supercomputer time to study concrete mixing. The VCCTL (Virtual Cement and Concrete Testing Laboratory) team will use the time to study the complex interactions of cement and aggregate particles of fresh concrete in order to better understand concrete rheology.

All that I can say is: holy crap I'm glad I don't work in that theoretical aspect of this field. Also, just think of the relative reactions to what you do:

"I run supercomputer simulations on climate patterns at NCDC." = Ok, he must be a cool high-powered geek like Beemer.

"I run supercomputer simulations on mixing concrete at NIST." = WTF, over? The lab couldn't spring for a concrete mixer so you could observe it for real?

Edit: Incidentally, I have to assume that hours of supercomputing time ≠ hours of real time, otherwise, they got awarded 114 years of time, which sounds entirely less than useful (i.e., "Tell us the answer, o Deep Thought"). I'm sure a member of my audience can explain this--does this assume a certain fixed amount of parallel processing, or what?


Romeo Dallaire Speech

I intended to write this post last week, but it's taken some time to digest. I saw General Romeo Dallaire give a speech at the university; if you are not familiar with him, he was the Canadian general who was the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the genocide in 1993-1994. His mission was hamstrung by a lack of support from the UN and member states; he managed to save many lives through his actions, but the fact that he was powerless to stop the wider genocide resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, and a suicide attempt. He has since started to recover, and gives lectures on his experiences.

I have been consistently following the Rwanda story: a pretty comprehensive documentary was the PBS Frontline episode "Ghosts of Rwanda". Several video segments are available on the web: if you have a fast connection and 40 minutes to spare, I'd strongly recommend you watch it. I also have the full episode on VHS.

One particularly galling sequence was video of a White House spokeswoman at a press conference, desperately trying to sidestep calling the situation in Rwanda a 'genocide,' despite pressure from reporters. Basically, the UN and member states are required to react to something recognized as a genocide; she soft-pedaled around it, saying "acts of genocide may have occurred…" thereby keeping the US uninvolved. Note that Rwanda unfolded soon after Mogadishu, so the Clinton White House was desperately trying to avoid military involvement in Africa.

The local art house theater showed the film Shake Hands with the Devil, a documentary showing Dallaire's return to Rwanda after the genocide, based on his book. Also, they showed the fictionalized Hotel Rwanda. Both are strong recommendations.

But back to the lecture: I was a bit thrown at the beginning, since I was expecting a speech specifically on the genocide and the UN response. Instead, he spoke on "The New Leadership: A Humanistic Approach." It was meant to apply to the broader audience of graduate students who will be moving into leadership positions in their fields and the country.

One of his core points was that good leadership sees upcoming trends and shapes their organization to influence and meet them, as opposed to reacting to them and only realizing that change is happening at the same time as their subordinates. Specifically, he was referring to the state of the military in the 1990's, which required a shift from the cold war mindset to the murkier world of peacekeeping missions and nation building.

He told an anecdote also cited in a web article ("The General and the Genocide"):

"Thirty years ago when I joined the army, if somebody mentioned human rights, we immediately equated them with communists," Dallaire now says. The former career officer has come to believe that, along with the ability to attack and kill, soldiers must learn peacekeeping, negotiation, and human rights preservation. That belief is reflected in the war stories he chooses to tell. Rather than tales of derring-do, he offers anecdotes that plumb the moral ambiguities of modern soldiering.

"A young officer is entering a village," Dallaire recounts. "The village has been wiped out except for a few women and children still alive [in a ditch filled with bodies]. There is 30 percent AIDS in that area. There is blood all over that place, no rubber gloves. Does the platoon commander order his troops to get in there, into the ditch risking AIDS, and help?" The question, it turns out, is not an exercise in armchair ethics. "When I asked the platoon commanders, those from 23 of the 26 nations that sent forces said they would order their troops to keep marching. Commanders from three nations- Holland, Ghana, and Canada-were saved the complexity of the question because by the time they turned around their troops were already in the ditch."

One quote that stuck in my mind was that he stated that humanitarian missions are highest calling for a military force. It echoes what has gone through my mind: what would be a military situation/political cause that I would be willing to risk my life for? Definitely not Iraq. But the peacekeeping deployment to the Balkans to stop that unfolding horror story?—yes, I think so.

Speaking of Iraq, Dallaire had an interestingly nuanced viewpoint on the situation. To paraphrase, he believed that it was a mistake to have invaded in that manner, and was glad that Canada had nothing to do with it. But the world was letting Iraqi people down in terms of the humanitarian crisis resulting from invasion.

He also spoke out against use of paid mercenaries, as used in Iraq (see yet another Frontline documentary) and other hot spots. He didn't even use the common euphemism of "private military contractor," favored by governments and the press. His biggest objection is that they are not accountable to the rule of law, in terms of humanitarian abuses. This viewpoint would not be surprising coming from left-leaning journalists and politicians, but coming from a retired general, it had some added weight and authority.

Overall, I don't know whether his viewpoints are an extreme for the Canadian military, or if they might be held by a fair portion of the forces. But after seeing him speak, I have to say that if I were Canadian, I would be proud to be one.


My mom

Sometimes, my mom is really cute. In a totally awesome way, mind you. I bought and set up a computer for her a while back, to get her to started on email and the web. She has been working at teaching herself Windows, and is taking some kind of an adult education class locally. In a message today:

Until recently, I did not know that my computer had "Games" and "Paint". I'll find out how to play Freecell, Minesweeper and Pinball. While I was playing Solitaire the other night, someone patted my right arm gently. It was Miko. She came upstairs without making any noise!

Yeah, Miko's the kitten that I think has turned into the 'surrogate grandchild.' Yeah, as Beemer put it, "Kawaii neko desu!"

Another day around the city

I spent the afternoon in Toronto after my weekly class today; weather was excellent (clear and sunny, not too cold). Had lunch in Chinatown, at a restaurant called Swatow: it won a spot in a Best of Toronto List (for independent Chinese restaurant). Incidentally, based on articles I read, Swatow is a region of China, between Fukien and Canton, and blends the cuisines of those places.

It was definitely good--I had their fried noodles with pork ribs, onions, and green peppers. I need to go back sometime.

As I was walking out of Chinatown, I was surrounded by the crowds, sights, and sounds of the place--a guy sitting on a stool on the sidewalk, playing that Chinese two-string violin, an old lady pedaling home her groceries on her tricycle. The soundtrack in my head was definitely playing Blade Runner excerpts ("A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure...")

Afterwards, I headed towards the water, and walked around the base of the CN Tower, and the old railroad roundhouse (now renovated into a brewery; some neat photos of the building here). The brewery rents out their gallery as an event room--seems like a neat place to have a shindig. Walked back up to the bus station, and caught a painfully-stuck-in-rush-hour-traffic bus home.

Ok, back to work.


Nah, Not Busy Enough... Right.

In addition to this being the end of the term, on top of my term paper, final exam, and grading a final assignment and final exam, the powers-that-be decided that this would be a swell time to make everybody in my wing move out so that they could start asbestos remediation in the building. Thanks guys.

Well, moving out and getting packed up into boxes wasn't too painful; our group is large enough (five people; four were around) that we not only moved our office: we also dealt with our advisor's office. He is a natural accumulator of crap: our office (five guys) was packed into 20 boxes; we had to put his stuff in over 40. Also, he managed to schedule himself so that he was headed out to the airport by about noon today (the day we needed to be done with the move)--I think we pretty much saved his butt on this count. I basically assumed today would be a write-off; pretty much the case.

While they are doing asbestos remediation, they are putting my group into temporary portable housing units--yes, trailers--I ain't straight outta Compton I'm straight out the trailer... Over this summer, I'm really tempted to get a photo of myself with the trailer in the background, holding up a big sign saying, "FEMA, WHERE WERE YOU?!?" or something like that.

Work on the final project is moving along well. My sin of not knowing a current programming language has come to bite me in the ass: I'm using Excel spreadsheets with on two years' worth of hourly data with formulae like:


Yeah, Mr. Computer sprains its brain whenever I open the spreadsheet.

As a final random note: I have a container of saffron that I brought up from the states. I realized that I have not been using it: I've had the underlying mindset that saffron is really expensive, so I shouldn't 'waste' it when I'm just cooking a meal for myself. While cooking up a batch of basmati tonight, I said, "What the hell am I thinking!? If I keep doing this, I'll have an expensive box of red flavorless dust!" Also, the container I have is only $5--burning through it is not a big deal.

So--if any of you come over for dinner, I can make Indian food. With basmati rice. With saffron.


I hate it when I'm stupid

My net connection went down this afternoon--"Agh! My external brain has been disconnected!" I did my usual reset routine--power cycled (in turn) the cable modem, the router, and my VoIP box. Nothing. Tried it again. Still nothing.

Decided to head out for lunch, and see if it would come back up after that. Went out for a nice half hour walk to my favorite bakery, and had some of their tasty chicken pesto pizza. Walked back directly upwind into the snow (!) that decided to have a very special return engagement.

After getting in and drying off, I checked connectivity. Still nothing. Looked at the router.

"Hrm. What's that cable doing on the floor?"

Reconnected uplink. Duh.

[As a note, the reason why the cable came loose was that I was mucking about with my VoIP box; I just didn't do the logical check of physical connectivity first.]