One Step Forward, 0.9 Steps Back

Well, I made some forward progress today, but at a maddeningly slow pace. I spent most of today dealing with thesis data problems, at my two remote sites.

First problem

Connecting by modem to my Chicago test site has been difficult (as mentioned here)--the telephone line is seriously flaky, and after uploading a new logger program a month ago, my coworkers haven't been able to connect. They connected today, and got back a data file, but, um, without the data.


Turns out that the logger program I sent a month ago was working off a version that had the "write the data to memory" commands commented out.


So that's a month of data lost. But at least a new version is uploaded now. It just pisses me off that since I have to rely on other people to download the data, it is probably not on their priority list (not being their job and all), so it ends up going for a month before I find out that there is a major flaw.


Second problem

Last Friday, we finally got into the test basement in the town south of me--the one that I bike to. I had been asking Chief Grad Student to schedule this trip since May 9, according to my email records--so 4.5 months later, he actually gets around to doing so. As I was analyzing the results and data, I realized that some of the data looks mixed up. I was clever enough to make sure we photodocumented the wiring panels on this trip, so I could go back and see how things were wired up. Not that it was pleasant--moving along, wire by wire, checking "white-blue, blue-white, white-orange, orange white..."

Incidentally, I know the unshielded twisted pair color code order by heart out to 12 pairs. Scary huh? It turns out that there were seven miswired channels, out of 78. Anyway, I identified the switched channels, repaired them in the database, finished analysis, and got this interim report out.

But I can remember while Chief Grad Student was wiring up the panel, he started saying, "Man... I'm really tired... I didn't get much sleep." I thought that was analogous for inspiring confidence to:

"Ah... this is your captain speaking. We've reached our cruising altitude of 30,000 feet; weather ahead looks pretty clear, so I've turned off the seat belt indicator for the time being. Weather in Miami is... aw, fucknuts, I shouldn't have chugged all that NyQuil... hot and humid, with a chance of afternoon thundershowers, with a high of 92. Looks like we'll be getting you to the gate right about on schedule, at 3:20..."

Anyway, writing is not progressing, besides that interim report, which I will incorporate into my thesis. Maybe I'll get a few pages in tonight.


You Know You're Trying to Punt When...

... you decide that a good use of your time is to degrease the crumb tray of your toaster oven with WD40.

[As a side note, WD40 is an awesome kitchen degreaser--I used it several times to remove baked-on grease on my range hood that withstood multiple attacks of Windex.]

Boston Itinerary

I will be in Boston from October 12 through October 17th; Thursday through part of Sunday will be taken up by a work meeting. If Boston folks are available Sunday or Monday, I'd love to see you!

Toronto, Canada (YYZ) to Boston, MA (BOS) Thursday, Oct 12
Flight Departs Arrives Class Stops
United Airlines 8536
(Operated by Air Canada) Toronto (YYZ)
Oct 12
2:00 pm Boston (BOS)
Oct 12
3:30 pm Coach Non-stop
Boston, MA (BOS) to Toronto, Canada (YYZ) Tuesday, Oct 17
Flight Departs Arrives Class Stops
United Airlines 8535
(Operated by Air Canada Jazz) Boston (BOS)
Oct 17
12:30 pm Toronto (YYZ)
Oct 17
2:10 pm Coach Non-stop

Hmm... broken

It looks like blogger is not behaving well with my browser (Opera)--it just tries to load and hangs. Sounds like a reason to migrate over to LiveJournal entirely.

Speaking of which--newest post is an f'locked rant about my thesis on LJ. For those of you not on LJ, this might be your excuse.


Parental Unit Visitation

My folks came up to visit yesterday--only one day, on a tour around Ontario--Niagara-on-the-Lake, Guelph (Huh? Guelph? It was a convenient stopping point), Toronto, Muskoka, and Rochester, NY. Surprisingly, the experience was a lot nicer and less aggravating than I expected.

Coming into my apartment, they complimented me on housekeeping skills. This was a bit surprising--I keep my place basically neat, but don't go too nuts on cleaning. Also, the kitchen and bath fill me with despair--many of the finishes look dirty, no matter how much cleaning goes into them (e.g., the peeling painted bathtub. Painted? Huh?). I guess that in comparison to my sister, my housekeeping is immaculate. For instance, the amount of hair on her bathroom floor bothers me sufficiently that I dispose of it with toilet paper when I visit. When single guys start getting skeeved out by your bathroom, you know you have a problem. Yeah, she really needs a Roomba.

We had lunch at my favorite local bakery, which was an exasperating 'yes, my folks are nuts' moment. I told them the choices (chicken pesto, eggplant feta, or portabello pizza; or ham, tuna, or turkey melt sandwiches). This apparently saturated their decision-making capabilities, and they told me to decide. I ordered a sandwich for myself, and two varieties of pizza for them, so they could split and sample them.

After struggling to split the pieces for a few minutes ("Um, mom, they're already cut... you don't need to slice it..."), mom gave dad a piece of chicken pizza. Dad picked it up, then noticed it had green peppers on it; he dislikes them enough that he gave it back. The eggplant pizza went back to his plate. Then mom picked off the green peppers for him. Another pizza swap. As dad ate it, he decided it was too spicy for him (he finds a hotness level that I can't even detect inedible). Swapped back again. I ended up taking home the remainder of the chicken pizza.

This was followed by a tour of campus (photo in front of test house above). We had dinner at Hannah's--a very nice restaurant a short walk away. Their lamb sirloin with shiitake mushrooms and fingerling potatoes--very tasty.

Dinner conversations were less forced than I had expected--maybe the wine helped. I found some surprising common ground to discuss with dad--shipping containers. He was in the flavor and fragrance import/export business, so his career covered the rise of shipping containers to their dominant position in the industry. We ended up talking about the ins and outs of sending product--the problem that he ran into was small volume/high value cargos that needed freezing or refrigeration--too small to fill a container economically, but a break-bulk refrigerated section was no longer available. So as is typical with guy interaction, talking about 'stuff' is a safe way to communicate.

Mom was surprisingly frank and straightforward about efforts to set me up with daughers of her Japanese friends. She told me about one prospect, and the fact that she didn't think it was a good match. I tried to brush things off in a noncommittal manner. I also asked whether mom was trying to do the same for my sister. She sighed, and replied that some flexibility is required for a relationship to function, and she doesn't think T. really has that ability.

Incidentally, I found out that my sister pays my folks $100 month for the food that mom brings to her each week--she doesn't cook for herself; she relies on these care packages from home for dinner. Even though it makes it more equitable, for some reason, it makes it feel a bit more pathetic.

On another tangent, I talked a fair amount about the weddings I have been to recently, and the children of various friends. I wonder if it was partly a subliminal desire to taunt my parents--"This is what other people's kids do--they date, live together, get married, have kids, things like that. I'm friends with lots of those people. So far, I haven't managed to do any of that. Just want to remind you of that."


The Good, the Bad, and the Moldy

According to freetranslation.com, that translates to Il Buono, il brutto, l'ammuffito

On Monday, the whole group got together to disassemble and inspect the insides of the test walls that have run for a full year at our exposure facility. It was work that I had planned for months now, and it was good to get it done; it was also quite informative and interesting, at least to building geeks.

So we pulled apart our six walls. About half of them were growing mold--don't worry, that's a good thing, and what we expected. It provides us ammunition for demonstrating, "See! A polyethylene vapor barrier can completely screw you over!"

In case you're curious, the idea behind a poly vapor barrier is that it keeps the moisture in your interior humid air in the winter from moving by diffusion (i.e., through a solid material like drywall), touching the back side of the exterior plywood/OSB, and condensing, causing damage. The problem is that it cuts off diffusion all year round--so if moisture gets in, it can't dry to the inside. We would recommend something that stops most of the moisture in the winter, but still allows drying in the summer.

This moldy wall was caused by a different problem--mostly due to running high relative humidity in the winter:


In other words, if you see moisture condensing on the inside of your window during the winter, just think what might be going on inside your walls.

Anyway, my throat still feels scratchy from either the airborne fiberglass particles or a reaction to the mold spores. Yuck.

Although I'm glad we got this work done, it is stressing me out that I have three non-thesis-related things to finish as a result (data update, disassembly report, update to some graphs). It was somewhat expected, but it's pushing me even further behind.

The fact that my parents are visiting tomorrow doesn't stress me out--I figure it might be a bit uncomfortable and annoying at times, but possibly a bit fun. It does annoy me that I will be burning a whole day though. And that I'm leaving for a week-long work trip next Wednesday. Argh.

Another 'Duh' Moment

All of my houseguests know how much my shower sucks, and my passionate hatred for it. It is a kluge put together by the former tenant, attaching one of those hose spray/massage showerheads to an old clawfoot spigot. Unfortunately, it means that any adjustment in temperature takes a slow count of ten to get through the hose, and that the pressure fluctuates wildly--every so often, the shower decides to turn to a trickle of cold water.

It only occurred to me recently that I could fit a low flow showerhead to the fitting. I don't know how many of you realize this, but a low flow head actually does a good job of making pathetic water pressure bearable.

Here's the fix. It removes the pressure drop of five feet of hose and the stupid massage spray head that didn't work anyway. Showers are infinitely better now.

The stupididity was that I figured this out with three or four months left to live here. Duh.

As another indicator of my short timer status: I need to buy a pack of coffee filters. A hundred-pack should last me the rest of my time here. Whoah.


Another Story About My Sister

During a recent phone call, my parents and my sister talked about the new computer they bought, to replace the failing old one. My sister pointed out that one problem for her was that it didn't have a floppy drive--"How am I going to bring files home to work on the computer here?"

After mercilessly teasing her about still using antiquated 1.44 MB magnetic storage, I suggested that she get herself a USB flash/keychain drive. She had never heard of this technology, not to mention seeing one. Admittedly, I am a great big geek and ahead of the curve, but how could you be a functional adult in a modern office and a regular reader of the New York Times, yet never have heard of them?

I accidentally let go the fact that I had a spare (as recounted in my post "Not A Paid Advertisement for Staples"). She immediately asked if she could have it. I hemmed and hawed about it--I do find it useful, and it would involve shipping it across a friggin' border to get it to her. Since then, when she asked a second time, I told her definitely no--it is too useful to have a spare hanging around, for secondary uses or in case of failure or loss.

Incidentally, did I mention that she's an attorney in New York City? Admittedly, her salary fell out of the six-digit range when she went to work for the state, but still, c'mon...

And it's not like it would be that much work for her to get one: walk 0.55 miles to the CompUSA on Broadway: [actually, if she's headed to the Columbus Circle subway stop, she's most of the way there already]

If she wants to be as pathologically cheap as I figure she is, she could spend 98 cents to buy the cheapest-ass CompUSA 16 MB USB drive. Yes, I know 16 MB sounds like a joke to all of us, but it would be 11 times more storage than what she's bringing home on a floppy.

Anybody have a useless conference swag USB key they want to mail to her for me?

Anyway, I have come to the conclusion that my sister, despite being born four years before me, is not of our generation. She is actually a 65 year old spinster with an extremely youthful appearance. It really explains some of her prissy behavior and antiquated mores to a T. ("...and those women were discussing birth control! Right there in the lunchroom! It was just... so... so... improper!")

Recipe: Red split lentils with cumin seed

Hey--a food break! Yeah, I thought about making this an instructable, but it's actually from Madhur Jaffrey's cookbook, so I'd feel bad about publishing it on a well-trafficked website like that.

When I made this recipe for the first time a few weeks ago, I asked, "Why the Belgium haven't I made this before?!?!" The tastiness:work ratio is one of the highest for any dish I've made recently. So that's the reason I need to share. You just need a chunk of time (1.5 hours for cooking lentils)--if you're at home and can put it on in the background, it's the way to go. Also, the uncooked red lentils are quite pretty, aren't they?

1 cup red split lentils (masoor dal)
4-1/3 cups water
2 thin slice of unpeeled ginger (I used 3-4)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric

Combine; bring to a boil. Simmer for 1-1/2 hours. In the last half hour, give a stir once in a while to prevent sticking.

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Add to lentils at end of cooking

3 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil (I used 1-2 T butter)
pinch of ground asafetida, optional
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Heat ghee or butter in small frying pan. Add asafetida, and cumin seeds; let sizzle for a few seconds. Add remaining spices. Add into lentils; stir to mix.

2 tablespoons cilantro

Garnish on top

Anyway, on a more frustrating note, the thesis is moving along incredibly slowly. I'm at least getting words down on paper/screen, but I am now a full week behind schedule. Also, I found out that I have to have it in one week earlier than I thought: I didn't count the Christmas holiday as a non-working break in my four-week display-and-review period. Ack. I was hoping I'd make up time this coming week, but I have an all-day work event Tuesday, and my parents are coming to visit on Wednesday, which should be a set of entertaining stories in itself.


J.ho recounting cooking red lentils and them turning into mush; this is actually the expected behavior. To wit:

>Open pot
The pot is warm and steamy; there is yellow-orangish mush inside.

>Smell mush
The mush has a spicy aroma of Indian food.

You have: the pot lid, a leaflet, and a Babel fish.

>Eat mush
The mush is salty and tasty, with cumin seed and turmeric.

*** You have died ***


Concert Review: Matt Haimovitz

A while back, I heard an NPR story on the cellist Matt Haimovitz: Cellist Channels Bela Bartok... Led Zeppelin, Too. He has a good sense of current music and reaching people in our age cohort: Cellist Matt Haimovitz has a knack for showing up in odd places. In 2002, he gave the first-ever classical music performance at New York's legendary punk rock club, CBGB. More recently, he visited all 50 states for his "Anthem" tour, performing Bach at venues such as Austin's Cactus Cafe, and The Palms in Davis, Calif. He and his string quartet did a pretty cool acoustic version of Zeppelin's Kashmir; I liked it enough that I bought it from iTunes. So I was surprised to find that he was playing at the local chamber music society, doing solo cello. I knew that despite being behind on work, I couldn't pass up this opportunity.

He played several Bach cello suites--I'm quite familiar with them, and really love them. He interspersed some 20th century music as well--Ligeti's Sonata for cello (for my records, two movements: I. Dialogo: Adagio, Rubato, Cantabile II. Capriccio: Presto Con Slancio). He also played two new commissions from Pulitzer prize-winning contemporary composers: Lewis Spratlin and Paul Moravec (no, I don't know them either--and I call myself a music geek. Sheesh.).

In the modern pieces, there were several great 'how does he do that?' moments--such as extended glissando slides on strings. Also, he bowed a melody on a high string, while simultaneously playing ostinato pizzicato arpeggios on the remaining strings (sorry... that was full of music jargon; let me know if you need translation).

I decided that I wanted to support contemporary music enough that I bought one of Haimovitz's CDs at the concert: Après Moi, le Deluge, a post Katrina lament for solo cello and a cappella choir. Poet Eleanor Wilner captures the havoc and despair of the Katrina aftermath, using Noah and his ark as a political allegory to make a provocative, critical statement. The work was commissioned by cellist Matt Haimovitz as part of his "Buck the Concerto" series. I'll give it a listen sometime today.

There were some amusing and incongruous moments. For instance, the local chamber music society seems to be somebody's house; it feels like you're intruding into their living room, with improvised seating made out of LP record shelves. The decor of the music room was decidedly Brady Bunch 1970's chic. Also, there was an older audience member who fell asleep during the recital, and started whistling/snoring--loudly--throughout.

Another thing that bothered me was the demographics of the audience--despite Haimovitz's youthful appeal, only a small fraction (less than 25%, maybe 10%) were in the thirtysomething or younger range. I know the graying of the classical music audience has long been a concern. I've seen it (but to a lesser degree) in New York and at the BSO; but it was even more striking with this audience. I finished Richard Florida's Rise of the Creative Class: Perlick's review here, which summarizes the book better than I will. Florida pointed out that younger 'creative class' audiences tend to reject structured and passive audience events, such classical music concerts or sports games. Instead, they prefer more interactive experiences, such as walking down the street and popping in and out of music clubs to sample what's going on. It does not bode well for 'big classical music' as an institution--I know people have been forecasting this for a while, but I wonder and worry what direction it will take.


Quickly! To the DorkMobile!

[cue theme music]

At long last, I have completed my bicycle trailer! It has been in the works for ages; I have been slowly collecting parts, assembling them when I get them, and waiting for inspiration to strike on tricky details. I spent about a half hour to assemble the final pieces, and went out for a test spin this afternoon. I have to say that I'm surprised and happy how it turned out--I rode it down the street with a bunch of tools in back: nothing broke, flew off, or otherwise caused a disastrous crash. (Note: this was an occasion when the expression '...and then the wheels came off...' is more than a figurative risk).

As an added bonus, the cart is made entirely of junk bicycle parts and pieces from Home Depot (except for two items); no welding was required.

To give credit where it is due, some of the inspiration for the coupling mechanism came from The BicycleR Evolution designs--including my use of an air hose quick connect. I will make it into an Instructable when I am happy with the design, and have some more guilt-free time.


My High Tech Research: Continued

One of the common tests used in my field is an ASTM E 96 Test ("Standard Test Methods for Water Vapor Transmission of Materials"). Vapor (er, vapour, here in Canada) permeance is basically how "breathable" a material is to water vapor--i.e., why Gore-Tex works, and using a plastic garbage bag as a raincoat sucks. Pemeance is measured in the most annoying units ever: the U.S. version (Perms) is grains / foot2*hour*inch Hg, while the metric version (Metric Perms) is nanograms / meter2*second*Pascal. The units of in Hg (inches of mercury) or Pa is the water vapor pressure difference across the material you're measuring. Ack.

So I'm running one of these tests myself, for the first time. What does this test look like? Well, something like this:

Yes, in fact, the test specimens are foil taped to off-brand tupperware (read: impermeable sample container) with openings cut through the lid; the lid is sealed to the container with foil tape. But hey--my results so far are pretty good.

Also, I had the nice experience of finding that my previous work is paying off. The Coke fridge that I turned into a temperature/humidity controlled chamber (story behind it here) is performing bang-on.

I have to babysit this experiment: I go in twice a day (typically morning and then after dinner). It's a bit annoying, but will only be a few more days.


Already Behind Schedule

Apologies for my recent absence; also I apologize in advance for this post--it is probably an extended self-indulgent wallow in thesis worries.

This Friday, I missed my first self-imposed deadline for completing thesis chapters. Admittedly, I have built in some slack to my schedule, but it feels like a stressfully inauspicious start. I've been suffering from really low productivity for the past two weeks; it is all very frustrating. I can't seem to make myself work. It doesn't help that these are the most annoying chapters--background and literature search.

Another whammy was meeting with my advisor, to go over my thesis plan: he pointed out that it's quite unlikely I will have time to do the full scope of simulations that I had planned. That was a bit of an unpleasant surprise to me. Yes, I realize that even without any simulation, it will be better than some Master's theses that have come out of this group, but I still have a lot of pride of ownership here.

I originally wanted to take a break around Thanksgiving to visit Boston, but I'm wondering if I will be able to spare the time for that. I already have a week earmarked for a trip for my advisor's consulting company at the end of the month. I'm also beating myself up for not putting more thesis work in over this summer.... but seeing people in Boston, Denver, and San Francisco was definitely worth it.

I am back to the emotional state I feel during classes--stressed and guilt-ridden about watching an hour of TV, reading for fun, thinking of ways to finish off my bicycle cargo cart, or, um, blogging. I oscillate between being relaxed and extremely worried; it makes me question my psychological stability... er... continue to question, I guess. I don't know if I can take this continuously for another four months. I considered drinking heavily last night, but after the first shot of vodka, I just figured it wasn't worth the effort.

I realize that I should concentrate on being productive during the week, then have some designated relaxation time over the weekend. Instead, I am currently being unproductive most of the week (at least on thesis writing, as opposed to research), and then trying to catch up by working (unproductively) through the weekend.

I feel particularly glum about the situation for probably for two reasons. First there's a pronounced mismatch with the environment around me right now. It is the beginning of term, so people are pretty relaxed and having a good time. I run into weekend partyers, barhopping down the street, while I am headed back and forth to lab, and stressing about writing (or not writing, in this case). Second, the weather has turned cooler, which I generally like, but it adds to the seasonal shift towards winter and deadlines.

However, on a more optimistic note, if I can buckle down and finish off this chapter by the end of this week, I'm pretty sure I can get the next chapter done faster, and then I'll be back on schedule.



At Christy and U-Boat's prompting, I have set up an Instructables account (bats22), and put up the laptop thing on the site (located here).

I'm also dorky enough that I posted my connection setup for my laundry machine as well (located here).

Man... what a cool site. I could waste immense amounts of time browsing through the projects there. And thanks for the roasted tomato recipe, Christy! They're cooking right now.

Of course, I should be thesing instead. Grr.

At least I can wear my Instructables t-shirt without feeling like a poseur, now.


DorkCo Contest Winner!!

Do you put your laptop on it?


You got it. Did the Kevlar hint give it away too much?

The next hint I was going to give was, "When I reveal the identity, you will probably say, 'Wow, that's really dorky.'"

The insulation layer alone wouldn't be enough--I'd worry about heat buildup of the laptop. Thus the dimple mat, to provide some ventilation air space below the computer. I was thinking of adhesive to hold the parts together at first, but the temporary rubber bands worked fine.

Anyway, a New York Times cartoon by Harry Campbell about the recent Dell and Apple stories made me laugh:


So anyway, Christy, next time I'm in the Bay Area, I'll whip up some dinner at Tortuga. Or alternately, once I'm back in Boston, you guys have an excuse to come visit!


New From DorkCo: Contest

In an effort to make my blog more interactive, it's the "figure out what it is" contest!

It's made out of 1.5" of extruded polystyrene (XPS) foam board, Cosella Doerken dimple mat (stuff you use to waterproof basements), and rubber bands. People should feel free to ask questions in the comments. Whoever identifies it correctly, um, I dunno... I'll make you dinner next time I'm in the same town as you--howzzat?

No purchase necessary. Purchases will not improve chances of winning. No person may enter any contest more than once using multiple email addresses. All entries must be received before the heat death of the universe.

Dan and Daniel are not allowed to enter, because they played the game last night. If I talked to you about this thing in the past, please don't give it away.