A Nice Day Out

Yesterday we finally caught a break with the weather--it was a warm sunny day (high of 14 C/58 F!!!). My advisor and I had a meeting in Toronto in the morning; he headed straight to the airport after that, so I took the opportunity to hang out in town and wander about.

I've come to realize that cities are the places that I feel comfortable and at home in. Walking around places where parking lots do not dominate the landscape, and population density is high enough to support lots of good restaurants. I browsed record shops, and spent the afternoon at a coffee shop, writing postcards and working on thesis on my laptop.

Incidentally, the top photo shows the streetcar right-of way tracks they are building on St. Clair Avenue. Traffic was pretty bad getting through there on the way to the meeting, but walking back along the as-yet empty streetcar tracks was nice.

If you will indulge some geekery: they are still laying track in parts of the line; for some reason, they are using ridiculously long sections of track--I would guess several hundred foot lengths--that they are dragging/sliding down the street behind construction machinery:

The part you see in the picture was less than half of it, if not a smaller fraction.

It was pretty cool, but I really don't understand how this makes sense. I thought that they would typically take shorter lengths of track and weld them in place. Maybe they have a stationary automated welder, and join shorter lengths of track? It's not like they can transport multi-hundred foot lengths down city streets on a flatbed... maybe they're hot rolling it in Hamilton, and dragging it in a straight line to Toronto on the streets. ;)

Anyway, the evening was dinner in Chinatown (at Swatow), followed by catching a jazz trio at The Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Bar. Even though the place has all the ambiance of an American Legion banquet hall, the group (The Peter Hill Ensemble) was worth listening to. There was definitely a moment of, "I'm sitting listening to a cool jazz group, drinking a beer, in an awesome city. This rocks."

Caught the bus back to KW, and was home by 11:30 at night.

Sadly, there were several culinary disappointments that day. I found that Steam Whistle (a local brew, made right at the base of the CN Tower) is pretty underwhelming. The carrot cake at the coffee shop was noticeably aged. And the noodles at Swatow were pretty run of the mill (although their fried stuffed tofu was excellent).

But in sum, a good way to spend the day.


Theese Sleep Eat Drink Dream

Yes, I know that's now how you would reformulate "thesis" into a verb, but I needed to differentiate it from "these."

I'm chugging along on thesis; it's a frustratingly slow exercise, day in and day out. I am not working incredibly long hours on it--it feels like I only have a certain number of productive hours in me over a day, and the rest gets swallowed up by idle time, staring blankly at the screen, web surfing, and, say, cleaning the toaster oven. And some days end of being almost total write-offs.

But it often feels like it's all I'm doing. It's just getting a bit repetitive to wake up every day, walk from my bedroom into the kitchen, power up the laptop, and pick up from the previous night's work. I guess it doesn't help that it is generally cold, dark, cloudy, rainy, and soul-sucking outside now:

Cloudy. 60 percent chance of rain showers or wet flurries early this evening. Rain beginning this evening except snow over higher terrain. Rainfall amount 10 to 15 mm. Low plus 4. 80 percent chance of suckage.

I have gotten through a pretty big milestone though: I have finished my introduction/background/literature review section. This was probably by far the most excruciating chapter: by collating other people's information, it's a constant back-and-forth between write two paragraphs... recheck reference... . From now on, I'm going to be writing about my work, which--hey--I actually know a fair amount about. I've been writing appendices of secondary research projects concurrently; considering how fast that writing went, I think the future chapters are going to be a lot less painful.

So that's the good news. The bad news is that I am now officially seven weeks behind my orginal schedule, and have seven weeks left. I really don't think that finishing by the December 15th deadline is possible. I need to go talk to the department secretary, to make sure that my exit strategy of leaving for Boston in January will work out like I am planning.

Unfortunately, speaking of exit strategies and the Powell Doctrine, I unfortunately think my thesis is suffering from mission creep. Recent masters' theses from my research group have been on the order of 150 pages, including appendices, references, filler, and meat by-products. I already have about 60 pages of background and literature search, and 30 pages of appendices, and I have not yet started writing about my actual experiments. I don't think I'm padding my work: all I was basically doing was writing down the necessary background, in the detail I thought I was appropriate. Then again, my advisor was a serious overachiever and had a 400 page master's, so he did not have any complaints about the scope of my work.

I think that finishing at the end of February or so will work out well. I need to earmark the first two weeks of January to writing a conference paper (due on the 15th). Then, hopefully, a brief celebration at Jofish's party in Ithaca. Then back to packing and getting out of the country before my study permit runs out. Possibly a trip to Chicago in that mix, to decommission my field experiment.


Rantlet: Literature Review

Apologies if you're seeing a triple posting; it seems like blogger is misbehaving. They really want me to switch over entirely to LJ, don't they?

I am currently slogging through the literature search section of my thesis, and there's a chunk that is so frustrating that I have to rant about it.

I'm covering some unpublished research by a scientist at a school in the Midwest; the experiments themselves are basically good--they are on internally insulated basement walls, which is the topic of my thesis. It is a large body of research with multiple experiments, so it can't be ignored. Some of the experimental protocols are a bit annoying and show inadequate understanding of what is physically occurring.

But moving into results: the author did not bother to cull data into specific plots which show relevant points. Instead, she dumps complete sets of data into close-to-unreadable graphs--I guess if its unpublished, you don't need to do that step of filtering it down the six or eight graphs that actually back up your conclusions. It would have beeen far more useful, actually, if she had just dumped raw data as CSVs on the web.

The most painful part, however, is the interpretation of the data. Although this person is obviously smart, she has no background in the building science field, otherwise she would not be trying to explain things in terms that she is making up. Worse, some of her science is just plain, dead, obviously wrong; there are phenomena that have long been known in the literature that she seems clueless about. Some of her explanations feel as jarring and antiquated as going to a physics or combustion engineering conference, and hearing results being explained in terms of the ether or phlogiston. Agh.

I think this is a clear problem with non-published/peer reviewed papers.

What makes this all painful is that there are some useful results to cull out of the information she is presenting, but it takes some serious digging to tease out the useful bits (Okay, which way did that wall panel face? Dig dig dig. Okay, that makes sense now. What was the outdoor temperature then? Hrm... that's not in the report... weatherunderground.com search, dig dig dig.)

One thing everyone should find scary is that person is working on that state's building code recommendations. She is actually responsible, it seems, for an insulation detail that has failed all over the state. I wonder if people will connect the dots soon.

I'm trying to be a bit restrained in my criticism while reviewing this literature, but it's pretty friggin' hard. I do have some worries that this might turn into a pissing match if she reads my work, even though I'm confident that I'm right, and I would have the backing of just about everyone I respect in the field.

Well, back to writing.


You Know You're Not Fully Awake in the Morning When...

Aw, goddamnit.

Well, I guess that's one way to get pulp-free orange juice.


Help! Send parentheses!

And nines!

To explain: the keyboard on my laptop has gotten frotzed... probably the result of eating most of my meals while sitting at it at the kitchen table. It was actually very worrying at first--the PgDn key got stuck, so that every time I clicked into a window, it zoomed to the bottom of the page, pretty much rendering the machine unusable.

Now, it boots up and states STUCK KEY: the nine/open parenthesis key is the problem. I thought I was being entirely clever, using dental floss to pop off the key cap straight up, instead of using a screwdriver. Cleaned it out with compressed air, tweezers, and isopropanol. But it's still stuck. Grr.

So for now, I'm doing workarounds, like copying & pasting previously typed characters, or plugging in an external keyboard. It's really annoying in Excel, because functions are entered in the form: =FUNCTION(variable).

Anybody have a good line on keyboard remapping software? I almost never use the backslash/pipe key (\/|).. I was thinking I could swap them with a remap.


In case you were holding your breath...

...the Green Line Extension isn't going to be here for a while, according to the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership's Website; information out of a meeting on October 16th:

- The Single Environmental Impact Review is targeted to be approved to proceed in May 2007
- Preliminary design will be complete November 2008
- Final design will be complete May 2011
- Construction will start November 2011
- Green Line service will open December 2014

Service is over eight years away, assuming things stay on schedule. Seems like a pretty long time for a system where, as far as I know, there is an existing right of way with tracks on it, for at least part of the length. But hey, I didn't expect that this would get done in anything close to a reasonable amount of time.


Another Boston Visit (Fun portion)

After wrapping up the meetings in Boston, I caught a ride into town with Bird and Jen; we spent the afternoon hanging out in Harvard Square, with U5, Rebecca, Brendan, and JMD. After a late lunch at Border Cafe, we did some of those things that make me oh-so-happy to be back on these little visits.
  • Puttered around Tower Records--I don't know how many of you have heard the news, but they are going into bankruptcy (again), and are closing their stores--including Harvard Square. Yikes. Even though they apparently elevated their prices to make money on their going out of business (15-20% off) sale, I suckered myself into buying the 3-disc set of Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961--he's probably among my favorite jazz artists. Incidentally, I always thought that Bird's dad looked a lot like Bill Evans--do some Google Image searching.

    But the fall of Tower reminds me of the long tail effect on bricks and mortar retailers--it seems a bit inevitable, given that Amazon can easily stock so much more. The only thing Tower really had going for it is instant gratification purchasing (also available on iTunes), and a way to putter around for an afternoon with friends.

  • Drinks at 1369 Coffee House--it seems like almost every time I come to Boston, I randomly meet somebody I know. This time, I was walking out with my drink, and heard, "Hey Bats, what are you doing here?" Turns out that Geeta was there--she splits her time between Boston and New York now. Amusingly, I ran into her in another city I don't live in, on my Bay Area trip in August. These little meetings make me happy.

  • The next day, coffee and postcards at the Starbuck's in Arlington. My usual travel activity.

  • Hung out for the day with A; she and Guy had just gotten back from a wedding in Denmark (!), and she was springing their cat Miu from the joint (i.e., kitty kennel).

  • Dinner with A and Guy over in Watertown. A also got me a belated birthday package, which included a selection of really strange Chinese candy (e.g., corn flavored gummies. Yeah, corn.), all wrapped up in a recycled Amazon box:

    I love having amusing and creative friends. Well, here's hoping that this process works out...


More OXO Cleaning Product Geekery

So do you remember how I fixed my OXO sponge-on-a-stick with two stainless steel screws? Well, it seems like it was one repair too many: the whole wand assembly broke off in use. Dammit!

Given the difficulty I have had finding these products in Canada, I took a detour during this Boston trip to a Bed Bath and Beyond. Man, they're kinda scary, in that big-box-store does fluffy kitchen & bath accoutrements way. Behold: the Wall of OXO (cue theme music):

I'm happy to report that the replacements work fine. They improved the sponge-to-wand attachment mechanism; it is a tapered dovetail slot, with lots of bearing area on each side. Like they say, it's so not dumb now.

Heh. To Boston and home again, in the framework of kitchen sundries.


Another Boston Visit (Work portion)

I got to enjoy a visit Boston on the company dime yet again--we had a company-wide meeting this past week, and folks flew in from all over. This, incidentally, is a shot of the harbor islands on the way in--the lighthouse at the bottom is Graves Light; it seems like it's barely above the surface of the water.

The meetings were pretty low-key; us folks from out of town stayed at the bosses' house, which is this lovely restored farmhouse with lots of bedrooms. It was pretty much like staying at a bed and breakfast... folks would pad down in the morning in their slippers, power up laptops, and we'd start talking over coffee in the kitchen.

The first day was the official meeting, and the second day was more casual--just a core group of people who work together and are pretty good friends. The bosses made dinner every evening--including osso bucco and risotto on night two. Yummy! I put in my share, making omelettes the next morning (smoked salmon, sauteed onions, and brie--pretty decent combination).

Anyway, I ended up not being nearly as stressed about thesis work as I thought I would be/ought to be during this trip. For one, I actually did get a bit of work done, after hours, making use of the large collection of references around the office library. Second, I got to sit down with my former boss and talk about the history of basement insulation--incredibly useful for my thesis. Basically, I had questions along the lines of "...when did you first start seeing insulated basements in production housing?" or "... when did the problems first start showing up?" or "... how did this construction detail originate?"

He was the perfect person to answer them: "... well, insulating basements pretty much started in Canada on a wide scale during the R-2000 program, which I set up the technical guidelines for..." ".... this guy introduced that detail on his home improvement TV show, and it pretty much got adopted throughout the country. We discussed it in this technical meeting for the Canadian homebuilders in..." He has a long history in this field, and knows all the back stories. As a consultant to production builders, he was the one they would be calling up in a panic, "Help help! Our basement walls are growing mold and our customers are suing us!" It was a lot of history that, as far as I know, isn't actually recorded anywhere.

Will He Ever Return...

Those of you who are Boston locals know all about this, but the MBTA is currently transitioning to the Charlie Card--electronic fare collection cards. Yes, Boston is finally joining 20th century--considering that New York City has had electronic fare collection since, oh, 1994 or so.

Unfortunately, the MBTA is introducing the cards in a very painful way--piecemeal throughout the system, so that you are only allowed to buy a CharlieCard at the entrance station, and on the return trip, the station does not take it (so you need to buy a token). I know that Perlick, U5 & Co, and I have all experienced this stupidity firsthand. In contrast, the Not Dumb thing that New York City did was to keep legacy token access open for a while (looks like almost 10 years) before they phased them out. I guess that's pretty necessary if you're converting the system over the course of three years (from 1994 through 1997).

Sounds like the final version of the CharlieCard will be RFID-based--sounds pretty cool. Although magnetic stripe technology seems to be perfecly reasonable (NYC MetroCard, Bay Area BART, Washington DC Metro). Also, they are going to be taking the card on Commuter Rail by 2007, which will be useful for me, if I need to bike/train out to the main office in Westford once in a while.

The Wikipedia article and a Weekly Dig article list of some of the rejected names for the card:

One of the rejected names for the farecard system was "The Fare Cod", a pun on both the way locals might pronounce "Card" and the fish that was once integral to the Massachusetts economy, and also a reference to other transit cards named for ocean animals, such as London's Oyster and Hong Kong's Octopus. Another rejected name was T'Go card with the T being the symbol for the MBTA.

...“CharlieCard” is probably a better name than all the suggestions we came up with - the “StopPissingOnMyLegCard,” the “WhereTheHellIsThatTrainIt'sBeenAnHourCard,” the “TheIntercomKeepsSayingDowntownCrossingOverAndOverAgainCard” and of course, the “WhyIsTheHeatOnFullBlastInMayCard.”


More Ways to Amuse Yourself in an Airplane...

I did the flight from YYZ to BOS this afternoon--travels went smoothly, except for getting stuck in a traffic jam due to a boat coming off somebody's trailer on the 401.

Anyway, the Air Canada planes that make this flight have these fancy in-flight entertainment centers--you can select which movie you want to watch, TV shows, music, etc.:

Anyway... hey, wait.. that's a USB port next to that...

I wonder if it has power? Hey... I guess it does!

After doing some research on the intarweb, it seems that the plan is for USB to become the new power/charging standard on board planes. However, after doing some more web research, I couldn't find anything set up to actually charge your laptop. Probably would work for small peripherals that draw power from USB.

Anyway, I wondered what might happen if you hooked up your laptop to that USB port... would it recognize it as a peripheral?

Uh oh... it's trying the generic driver instead... agh... it's not an nVidia video card... stop stop!

It also gave me the idea of sitting down next to a relatively gullible looking person on an aiplane, plugging in my laptop to this USB port, starting up Microsoft flight simulator, and start to pretend to fly the plane. Then crash my machine, slap my laptop shut, and start to look really worried...

Either that, or start up the simulator, look at my seatmate, and say, "So hey, I guess you're the copilot today!... man... these airline cutbacks are getting out of hand..."


Snowninja just posted a pretty amusing comment on my instructable on hooking up a washing machine to a kitchen sink.

No, go and read it. It's funny. Ok, well, I thought it was funny. And the remainder of the post won't make sense without reading it.

On a slightly related note, I thought of one redeeming reason to try to get hooked up in my remaining few months up here--I can come back to Boston singing about "My Girlfriend, Who Lives In Canada..." (and yeah, I'll probably have the same amount of credibility there as Rod in Avenue Q).


Happy Thanksgiving, Eh?

I guess I'm behind on posting, but I might as well get one in before skipping town.

This Monday was Canadian Thanksgiving: I was invited over to the Dans' place for dinner--it was very nice to be adopted for the holidays here. Also, their friend persephoneplace joined us. It was a lovely dinner--Dan roasted up a free-range chicken (yeah, you can definitely tell the difference in flavor), cornbread stuffing, green beans, cranberries. Also, I brought oven-roasted potatoes and parsnips, and brussel sprouts with bacon and onion:

I'm embarassed to admit that I only bothered looking up why Canadian Thanksgiving is so much earlier this year: cold climate -> earlier harvest -> earlier Thanksgiving (oversimplification, but basically true). I have to say it works better as a holiday date--US Thanksgiving is a bit too close to Christmas to work well for travelling, being just a month before.

So I took home plenty of leftovers to lunch on for the next few days. In other random updates:
  • Thesis work is going, um, not as disastrously as possible, but still incredibly slowly. I am likening it to siege-of-Stalingrad levels of progress: "... well, with a full day of work, I managed to output a page and a half." Grr. Well, at least I'm getting close to the end of this stupid background section ("Can you say quagmire, boys and girls? I knew you could."). I can't hope that I will actually achieve blitzkrieg speeds in future sections, but it will probably be better.

  • I showed off my apartment to one of the new members of the grad group--she has expressed interest in taking it over when I leave town. The prospect makes me happy--that my efforts to make the place a bit nicer would be appreciated by somebody I know.

  • I'm flying to Boston tomorrow! (Thursday). I'll be at meetings at my old company on Friday through Sunday, I think; I'll keep everyone posted when I get freed up. I fly out on Tuesday. Hope I'll see you!


Even More Shipping Container Geekery

With props to Jess for pointing out the story to me:

A Swiss company that makes messenger bags out of used truck tarps built their new store out of a tower of shipping containers. It's a bit more interesting than the usual "we turned shipping containers into livable space/houses" story--the glass endcaps, the diagonal bracing, the welded steel access stairs, and the bloody scale of the thing (at least eight containers high).

Story here.

Freitag is a Swiss company that uses recycled truck tarps to create a popular line of messenger bags; the company's brand blends a green sensibility with an ample dose of raw urban grit. True to form, then, Freitag's new flagship store in Zurich was built entirely of recycled shipping containers, stacked 26 meters (86 feet) high.

Note that I'm responsible for the "Don Pardo Calrissian" comment on that page (seems like they assign random names to anonmymous commenters), which also has a link to Freitag's Flickr's site.

It gives me design ideas for the shipping-container-based auxilliary space that I'd like to build someday in industrial-loft-land. An observation deck on the top would rock. If it ever happens, you're all invited over for G&Ts up there.


Kitten Redux

Hrm... the original uploaded kitten photo seems to be 404; let's see if this one shows up.


Is a Day Off Okay?

Just got back from my Georgia trip yesterday afternoon. I'm in a full-blown cold now--coughing, congestion, chills, joint aches. Taking over the counter crap for it. I added up my hours for this seven-day trip; 68 hours including air travel; 55 hours without. I'm pretty wiped out.

The trees are changing colors, and today was a thunderstormy/rainy grey day. I'd actually find quite pretty, if I were in the right state of mind. However, it is a reminder to me of the approach of fall and encroaching deadlines.

No thesis work got done on this trip. Not only am I behind on that, but there's follow-up work from this trip, as well as more work in the project-that-is-not-my-thesis. I have eight days on the ground, then off to Boston for a meeting.

I'm getting worried about whether it is realistic to finish by the December 15th deadline, and playing out the resulting disaster scenarios. I need to leave Canada by the end of January 2007; I can continue to write from Boston or wherever I end up. I think I'll need to pay tuition (at least part time) for another semester, and probably some more extension paperwork. I'm really not looking forward to this.

I took today mostly easy--woke up late, got some work done, took a walk down to the bakery. I think I'll take a day off on Saturday. Off to lab, now.


A Factory Tour; Restaurant Recommendation

Monday was a pretty light day at the jobsite--we took the afternoon off to tour the client's factory--they are a manufacturer of OSB, or oriented strand board (colloquially known as chipboard or waferboard). It was an amazingly cool tour--they bring in truckloads of trees at one end, and pallets of OSB get sent out on flatbeds on the other side. The scale of the operation is what makes it so amazing--it's like those scenes in the Star Wars or Alien series, with small people walking among these gargantuan prehistoric-looking machines--"This is not a place built for the human scale." Mountains of wood in the yard, five-story high heat pressing machines, dual tree debarking units... we walked around on catwalks hanging off the sides of the machines' structures. They didn't let us take cameras into the factory, but this is what it looks like from above:

The stacks of wood are the brown squares at the right; compare that scale to the cars in the parking lot. The yellow thing at the lower right is an overhead gantry crane that rolls back and forth over the pile with a grapple--it's like the world's largest claw vending machine/toy crane machine.

Our final dinner was at a place called Five and Ten--it turns out that the head chef is the brother of an English professor at the university I go to. It was incredibly good--I strongly recommend it if you find yourself in Athens. They serve carefully selected and matched cheese/fruit (or other accompaniment) platters--I really need to see if I can find some cave-aged Gruyere around here.

As a side note, a stray kitten wandered over to the test hut and decided to stay. A real cutie, but I couldn't take her home... hope they find a place for her all right--she was very friendly.


A Quick Update

Still on the road on a trip for my advisor's consulting company; day 5 of the trip now; flying back on Tuesday. We've been working straight through--pretty bloody tired at this point; 8 hours is a short day when doing field work. Not getting any thesis work done after hours.

This was a pretty sunrise, from the window of the plane at YYZ. It was unfortunate that I had to get up at 4 AM to see it. And then be functional that day.

Some of the tiredness comes from the work itself--after a day standing on a ladder wearing steel toed boots, I really wished that the hotel had a hot tub.

But also, a lot of the tiredness comes from going out to dinner after work, sometimes with the client. Saturday night was an egregious example--I was definitely coming down with a cold at that point. We got to the restaurant at 7:30, and were waiting in the bar having drinks for 45 minutes before somebody even thought about getting appetizers. At this point, I finished my orange juice and bailed to get takeout Indian food.

Actually, it was the perfect antidote for too much socializing: some saag paneer, watching an episode of Good Eats on my laptop, and in bed by 10 PM.

Two more days, then back home.