A Quick Materials Science Rant

I was reading the coverage of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge overpass collapse, and listening to the story on NPR. Basically, a gasoline tanker truck took an overpass too fast, overturned, caught on fire, and collapsed the overpass. Now, everything coming from the Bay Bridge and heading to the east (highway 24 out through the tunnel) and southeast (highway 580 in Oakland and out to Livermore) now has to be routed through surface streets. As Perlick wrote:

Obviously, I'm not there, but I wrote Christy last night and said I'm not moving back til that's fixed because that's the ramp that goes from the Bay Bridge to my place in Oakland. Pretty ridiculously spectacular pictures, though. Who needs terrorists when you have a bonehead truck driver with a tank of fuel?

But here's my pet peeve--all of coverage talks about the steel "melting" in a fire--this was also true for a lot of the World Trade Center attack coverage. The steel doesn't melt (i.e., turn to a liquid). When it heats up, it softens and loses its structural integrity--it basically turns to taffy. So the structure pulls apart either from its dead load (i.e., its own weight) or live load (stuff on it). That's why fireproofing is so important for steel structures, and part of the reason the World Trade Center towers went down was that the airplane impact blew the fireproofing off the structure. It just annoys me that some of the most erudite news outlets get this wrong.

There's a big difference between steel and wood behavior in a fire. As mentioned above, steel softens and deforms. In contrast, wood chars on the outside, which insulates the remaining wood, and often keeps it from collapsing. There's a classic photo used in architecture and engineering textbooks, showing a steel beam that had collapsed like a wet noodle, draping over a wooden beam at a right angle, that is still in place (Google Images hasn't turned it up yet). I'm not saying that this is always the case (depends on the intensity and length of the fire, size of the members, etc.); also, I'm definitely not saying we want to build skyscrapers out of wood.

There. Got my morning materials science ranting out of the way.


A Few Nice Domestic Days

After the stress of the conference and giving presentations on minimal notice, I took the subway to the airport, and hopped a bus to see Leper & Elizabeth in Oberlin. I've been there a bunch of times, so I just got off the bus and wandered over to their place by mid-afternoon.

Incidentally, they are part of my network of people that I can crash with in case of airport strandings. I have CLE, JFK/LGA/EWR (Perlick, sister, parents), BWI (Squanto), DEN (Beemer), SFO/OAK/SJC (Bay Area Folks.*), DCA/IAD (Beef & Laurel) and MSP (psycho security guard) taken care of. Anybody have friends to crash with near Chicago or Detroit (ORD/MDW or DTW)?

Anyway, I finally got to meet young Miss Zenobia! She is even more cute in person than the pictures would indicate, if that can be believed. We all had a great couple of quiet domestic days--everybody needed to get some work done during the week, and then we all had dinner together. Many, many thanks to Rob and Elizabeth for their wonderful hospitality. I made omelettes this morning and did a few dishes, but I don't think that quite repays it.

Incidentally, I have always had a hard time overcoming my fear of babies--my levels are initially high, and then decline over time--see my description of previous experiences. However, Miss Z. has a winning laugh and charm, and is more than happy to play with the various bouncing balls, or the fuzzy-blue-ball-that-rolls-all-over-you game:

I think that I have to analyze any popularity I have with the under-two crowd with this quote from a Salon article on the place of fat guys in society ("Fat guys kick ass", 1999):

...Western culture's belief that thin is better is a rejection not only of common sense but also of basic human instinct. Children and animals (the most anthropologically pure subjects available) love fat guys. Watch the baby's face light up when it sees a fat guy. Watch the dog beg for a fat guy's attention. They understand.

Heh. It's definitely fun being a visiting uncle.

Anyway, a few busy days in town, then off to Canada on Thursday!


...But We Could Move to Cleveland! (1)

(1) Note that this does not reflect any intention on my part to move to Cleveland. It is a reference the pun sequence from the 1989 tEp Crock Opera, which had the US Presidents, in order, including Grover Cleveland twice.

I spent most of this week at a conference in Cleveland, held at the Tower City Center, which was formerly Cleveland Union Terminal. As you can see, it is a gorgeous old train station from the 1930's. In case this is useful information to anyone, "Union Station" (as seen in Washington DC, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Chicago) was the name used for stations that were built/shared by several rail companies together.

It was incredibly convenient to get to the hotel, which is right downtown--a single seat subway ride from the airport to the lower level of this building. It is embarassing that Boston airport access is as half-assed as it is: cities with better access include Chicago, Atlanta, Washington DC (at least to Reagan National), San Francisco (at least to SFO).

My presentation went very well--I had done a good amount of prep for it, and had the patter down pretty smoothly; I gave it on Tuesday and figured I could relax and sit in on sessions for the rest of the conference.

However, on Wednesday, the conference organizer got a hold of me, and eventually cajoled/guilted/browbeat me into helping fill in a half hour session for a speaker who went missing. Aw crap. So I bailed from the sessions and spent most of the rest of the day stressing, worrying, and pondering what to speak about. As a break, I took a walk out around Cleveland, walking across The Detroit-Superior Bridge, over the flatlands. It was a rainy gray day, but perfect weather for contemplating the urban landscape there. It kind of said to me, "yes, this city was great, at least once." There was some neat public art on the bridge.

I got back to my room, had a quick dinner, and stressed about/created the presentation through midnight.

I started off my presentation with some humor that I hoped would ease the mood, based on the fact that this was a kluged-together session (from three of us) on the last day of the conference:

"Reason 2: Hangovers. Look, I saw you guys down at the bar yesterday. If you're hung over, please... grab some orange juice and an Advil, and just head back to bed. I've been in the same place... it's just not worth it."

Barely a smile of a response from one or two people. Swell. Note that this is an audience of building energy efficiency contractors and folks like that, so it is not like they would be offended by suggested they might have higher priorities than increasing their knowledge in conference classes.

However, the presentation went well overall--it didn't seem to be disastrously simplistic or basic, as I feared it might be. But I think I'll try to avoid being suckered into doing this again.

I then took a trip out to see the project that my company did a bunch of years ago--a set of energy-efficient townhouses in a marginal neighborhood near a mass transit stop, which was intended to bring some neighborhood vitalization. The buildings are great (20 units), and the walk to the station is perfect--400 yards from a station that is two stops away from downtown.

My understanding is that the area is definitely better than 4 years ago, but in my eyes, I was a bit disappointed that it hasn't shown more change. The kinda sketchy looking corner bodega (where I bought "loosie" AA batteries, because they didn't have full packs), the occasional bombed-out houses. Most of the houses around our development have not changed for the better; one of them was on sale for "$20,000 or best offer." Just imagine a single-family house, 400 yards away from the best subway line, in Boston as a comparison. Craziness, but it goes to show just how down-on-its-luck Cleveland is.

This made me a bit sad: I saw some beautiful old architecture in town, as well as good public transit and public art--a few indicators that I will find a city appealing. The bones are good, and there are folks with good intentions pushing things in the right direction. But I just feel a bit of pessimism--is the economic engine (i.e., that lets Boston and New York City be what they are) there? I guess it's just that the damage from the 1960s/1970s suburban white flight is so entrenched (as per many of the Midwestern cities), that the damage will take ages to undo.

[EDIT: Clarification & additional detail from the Wikipedia article. Ouch.]: Cleveland was hit hard in the 1960s and early 1970s by white flight and suburbanization, further exacerbated by the busing-based desegregation of Cleveland schools required by the United States Supreme Court. Although busing ended in the 1990s, Cleveland continued to slide into poverty, reaching a nadir in 2004 when it was named the poorest major city in the United States. Cleveland was again rated the poorest major city in the U.S. in 2006, with a poverty rate of 32.4 percent.

To wrap up, just a shot of an interminable string of coal freight cars, rolling on tracks parallel to the subway line. I figure that this is the Northeast's electricity and carbon emissions, in physically manifested form.


Zero-Effort Hummus

I have made hummus only once in the past (back in the 90's, actually)--it was an annoyingly involved process, especially because I cooked the chick peas from dried, and the resulting dip resembled garbanzo Play-Doh (and for those of you who ate too much Play-Doh as a kid, no, that's not meant as a positive description).

I was browsing in Rodney's Bookstore (used bookstore in Central Square), and came across a copy of Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen. One of the recipes is his low-effort hummus--so simple, he doesn't even give a real recipe there (toss a can of chick peas into the food processor, add some of this, some of that, spin it up, good to go). I made it, and I think my reaction is that I'll probably never bother buying hummus again. The basic recipe is available online at the Food Network website.

I substituted tahini (i.e., the real stuff) instead of peanut butter, and I used less olive oil. And I just threw in a splash of bottled lemon juice instead of lemon + zest. But I was pretty impressed--definitely garlicky (perhaps a bit too much bite, if you're trying to be civilized).

So JMD--no excuses about not having the recipe now! You can make a batch of roasted red pepper hummus. The tahini's in the fridge.

Granted, It's Probably Not Their First Language...

... but still, you think they'd spell a common Chinese soup correctly:

It just gave me images of "the world's cruelest soup"!

[edit: well, apparently, Wikipedia thinks of this spelling as "commonly written as."]

Interesting... I didn't really think it out, but there are three common meanings within the definition of wanton, according to M-W.com. No wonder I was wondering whether or not I was using it correctly--I have used all three versions, but had never thought about it explicitly.

[Anyway, the menu was from the restaurant where a bunch of us celebrated Marketa's 29th birthday. Happy birthday, Marketa!]


Catching up on the Favorites

I'm still catching up on visiting some of my favorite Boston-area restaurants, now that I live here.

First of all, I found myself in Harvard Square recently around dinnertime. Bartley's. Duh. Oh yeah.

Later on this week, I got email from Ronco:

hey, bats. i heard that you live in arlington, now.
you ever go to blue ribbon? we should get together
and eat some bbq.

Oh yeah. Blue Ribbon BBQ's Kansas City Burnt Ends and collard greens.

Just a few nice reminders that living here rocks. Who's up for Mary Chung's sometime?

Bulk Barn Catsitting

For a few days this weekend, I was catsitting five--yes, count 'em, five cats. I have been looking after JMD's four cats while she is vacationing in the British Virgin Islands with Cailah this week. Beazus, Clyde, and Maizy are shown in the pic below; Lovey is doing time in solitary in JMD's room.

The fifth cat was the landlords' cat; they went away for the weekend, and asked me to feed & play with their 2-year old black cat. Relatively nice, but didn't trust new people enough to be petted.

Anyway, the landlords evidently went down to NYC for the weekend, because as a thank you, they dropped off a cinnamon babka from Zabar's! Man... I can't think of something more awesome for an admitted foodie who grew up in New York (even if it was admittedly Long Island)....

Yum yum yum. Yes... I'll share... if I have to...

Hit the Road, Bats

I have a chunk of travel lined up for the next two weeks--I'm spending Monday through Sunday of next week in Cleveland:

I'm presenting at a conference on Tuesday, and then staying for a few more days of the conference. Then, Thursday-Saturday, I'm hanging out with Leper & Elizabeth, and I get to meet young Miss Zenobia! Yay!

Then at the tail end of the week after that (Thursday-Sunday), I am flying up to UW on frequent flyer miles, in order to give my thesis presentation. As I mentioned before, it's just a 1-hour presentation, not a defense, so it's not that stressful. Also, I'll be able to collect current data from ongoing projects, hang out with the grad group, see other K-W folks, and drink beer (probably, but not necessarily in that order).


Ass State: Whupped

Just wrapped up a very long week in Fort Myers for work. Do you remember the worst attic ever (described in previous posts)? The one I that made me say: when somebody as short as me can no longer sit up to work in the attic, it is TOO DAMN SHORT. At least until we start hiring building science midgets to do these jobs.

Well, that's where I was all of this week.

First, I got to see a brush fire that closed down I-75 right by the airport:

It was actually a bit surreal--you could see the huge plume of smoke from miles away. Closer up, you could see flames licking out from the treeline, and the news helicopters pacing the length of the fire... it felt like a scene out of Apocalypse Now: "What the hell do you know about surfing? You're from goddamned New Jersey. Major, I want that tree line burnt off!" (Hi R.! I'm guessing you find this comparison annoying...)

Anyway, back to the attic. Like I said, I can't even sit upright at the peak. And this time, we had to wrestle a 140-pound HVAC unit up through the hatch (involved three guys, skidding it up an extension ladder, and a safety line made from nylon strapping), and then maneuver it into position and hang it from the rafters, all while while lying on our sides. It involved 2x4s, levers, and some risk to body parts.

Is it just me, or does this attic make my ass look fat?

This shot demonstrates one of the big problems--it wasn't a problem to get to a given point in the attic, but it was often hard to reach the thing you're working on, and/or see it. Especially if you're using an arm to support your body weight while leaning down.

I'd like to call the next photo "building proctology."

We really didn’t get to see much of the town or local character. For one, we were working our typical 12-hour field days, sitting down to dinner at 8 or 9 at night. On the one night we left at a reasonable hour, I looked up a promising restaurant in a New York Times travel article. I made reservations, and we drove into town... only to find a parking lot next to a funeral home. Important travel advisory: make sure restaurant hasn't moved two towns away, even though their phone number is the same. Bummer.

Anyway, we got our job done, it looks like we're collecting good data and have space conditioning control. We rewarded ourselves on Friday with a 4:30 AM wakeup, to catch sunrise from the airplane.

Yeah. Time for a weekend.


Movie Review/Reaction: Children of Men

Just saw Children of Men last night; I'm not going to spend a lot of time going over the plot or better-known details of the film; I just had a few reactions that I wanted to blog about. Here's the Wikipedia summary, for those of you who prefer not to look at long reviews before seeing a movie, or those who can't be bothered to check the IMDB entry:

The film is set in a dystopian 2027, in which two decades of global infertility have left the entire human race with less than a century before extinction. The resulting widespread societal collapse has led to terrorism, environmental destruction, and the creation of millions of refugees. In Britain, where the film is set, the government is creating a new social order based on the persecution of illegal immigrants. Humanity's best hope seemingly lies with the secretive Human Project, a group working to save the human species. When a pregnant West African refugee named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) surfaces, civil servant Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is convinced to transport her, mankind's newly found future, to an awaiting rendezvous with the Human Project, while keeping her safe from Britain's oppressive crackdown on immigrants.

The creation of this 20-years-ahead dystopia is what had me enthralled for much of the film (Not to dismiss the characters, plot, or cinematography, of course. Or Julianne Moore. Rawr).

The first half of the film is filled with scenes establishing this future world. For instance, BBC news broadcasts ("the siege of Seattle has entered its 1000th day"), the commuter trains with metal grating over the windows, to protect against indigents throwing stones. The presence of black-clad armored police on every street corner, with their casual brutality--a police dog lunges at the protagonist as he is walking by refugee detention cages in the city, and the dog handler yells, "Just keep moving! Stop looking!"

The British government has turned a seaside town into an illegal immigrant (refugee) camp/internment center; there are scene of Islamic youths walking through the streets, chanting Allahu akbar while firing their AK-47s into the air. As Manohla Dargis' New York Times review put it, It imagines the unthinkable: What if instead of containing Iraq, the world has become Iraq, a universal battleground of military control, security zones, refugee camps and warring tribal identities?.

The hyperrealistic urban warfare scenes at the end of the film cemented that idea in my mind--bloody, house to house, room-by-room fighting, with many civilian casualties, because, well, they're in the crossfire. It seems like the evolution of what might come in the future--Mogadishu, Grozny, Fallujah...

Also, this is the first time I've ever heard King Crimson used in a movie soundtrack. Although it seems odd to use late 60's prog rock in a film set in a future distopia, something about In the Court of the Crimson King matched the mood of tired decay. The scene was set in Britain's "repository for rescued arts,"--Picasso's Guernica and Michelangelo's David are squirreled away in this ultramodern gallery that nobody is allowed to visit, to be saved for... perhaps nobody.

The soundtrack also features a piece commissioned from John Tavener ("Fragments of a Prayer").

Anyway, if you can see it, it's a strong recommendation. For Boston locals, I saw it at the Arlington Capitol; it appears the DVD has been released, and is available on NetFlix.

[Final side note: other recent film views at the Capitol were Pan's Labyrinth and Letters from Iwo Jima--both strong recommendations, although they didn't inspire this type of blog post.]


A Restaurant Find

Sometimes, serendipity rocks.

After dealing with the Apple emergency purchase trip, it was pretty much lunchtime. I haven't spent much time near the Boston World Trade Center, so I didn't have any nearby "standards." A few doors down from the convention center (but before Anthony's Pier 4) there was a generic seafood restaurant on the docks (pretty unremarkable; ate there last time). Huh... Chinese food next to that. Worth a shot, I guess.

Okay, so you have a decent view of the water, and a nice deck when the weather gets nicer. Whadaya got for food?

Awesome. Salt and pepper shrimp, with shells: unshelled (but deveined) shrimp with light spicy batter (sichuan peppercorns), fried, and served on a bed of lettuce and slivered jalapenos. Seriously tasty. You eat them shells and all, like soft shell crab.

This is actually the first time I've had them--many thanks to Dan, for pointing out this dish! I don't think I would have picked it out without his opinion.

So in case you're down in that area: it's the Eastern Pier II (a review from Hidden Boston here).

Now that's a bit creepy...

I did an emergency run to the Apple Store at the CambridgeSide Galleria today--a long story; see the f'locked LJ post. But as I was paying for the item, after handing over my credit card, the sales rep asked for ID. I said, "..uh, sure," and showed him my driver's license.

I was then pretty surprised to find my email address on the receipt. Whoah.

Actually, I think the source is pretty obvious. I've never bought any hardware or software from Apple, but I have an account on iTunes, using the credit card I paid with. They didn't match me on my address--I still have my old address on the front of my license.

They even emailed me an PDF of the receipt. Man. Those Apple guys do have their stuff together, don't they?


God Damn Thing Took Damn Well Long Enough

A piece of good news for everyone: I have finally finished off a complete thesis draft. And no, despite today's date, this is the real truth.

I have been hung up on finishing the conclusions section, introduction, and abstract for about the four past weeks--when I returned to full-time employment, my progress rate went down precipitously. Of course, I made a chunk of negative progress when I realized, "Man... I really need to run a few more simulations to address this question I brought up in the conclusions," and therefore added an additional 4 pages to the hygrothermal modeling chapter. Argh.

Anyway, I was previously just eking out a few pages over weekends, typically a few hours at the end of Sunday. I realized last weekend that this was a sure plan for disaster, so this past week, I did a final push--no TV, fucking around, or anything but making dinner after getting home from work: just buckling down and writing.

So the current page count is at 283. Good friggin grief.

However, the wickets left to negotiate before I am done are still significant:
  • I have to get my advisor's edits to the thesis, and incorporate them. Editing a 283 page document is likely to be painful (although not as painful as writing it). My advisor also unfortunately has another student who is at least as long-winded as me--he submitted a 150 page chapter a few months ago. And I think he's trying to finish this semester.
  • I need to submit the draft for review by my three readers (my advisor, and two other people); they will have some edits.
  • Incorporate these thesis edits
  • Give a presentation of my thesis, back up at school. Note that this is not actually a defense, like PhD theses--as far as I know, it is not a pass/fail item. It seems like these are typically only attended by your advisor and some other folks in the group.
  • Complete various set of paperwork over long distance, including submitting printed copies for binding.
However, they're doable, and I have the benefit of a graduate group that takes care of their own pretty well (in terms of dealing with stuff up in Canada). But in the meanwhile, I'm friggin' glad the draft's done. Time for a beer.

Dorkery Alert! (GPS)

I spent a chunk of yesterday playing with a new toy--I finally had time to walk around with my Garmin GPS 12 global positioning system, making sure I could pick up satellite signal with this unit.

I've always thought the concept of GPS was incredibly cool--a military-run system of navigation satellites that is free for the use of civilians. Also, an interesting read in the Wikipedia article is SA (selective availability): at the origin of GPS, the military intentionally introduced error to the civilian-available (unencoded) signal of ~30 m, so that the enemy couldn't use it during wartime. However, during Gulf War I, the military didn't have enough GPS units, so they had to buy civilian models ("Sergeant! Take two men and do a run to REI! Here's my credit card!"), and the military turned off this feature. Since around 2000, the military has turned off SA permanently, due to pressure from the FAA (i.e., so they could rely on GPS, instead of navigation systems that they have to maintain), and other users.

Another cool tidbit: the GPS system corrects for relativistic effects! Whoah.

Incidentally, this reminds me of a New York Times story I read a while ago. During the response to Katrina, there was a huge clusterfuck because of all of the disparate navigation systems in use. The military used GPS, but some other agency (FEMA? Coast Guard?) used a different navigation system. And to make it more complicated, the 911 dispatchers were purely dependent on street addresses, and couldn't translate to latitude/longitude or UTM (universal transverse mercator--one of the grid systems used by the military).

Anyway, that afternoon, I walked up the Minuteman Trail, while continuously monitoring my speed, bearing (track), position, and altitude:

But wait, it gets even dorkier than that! This walk was a grocery run. So picture me walking back home with a backpack stuffed with groceries (including a box of cereal strapped to the outside); one hand was holding the GPS, and the other carrying a 24-pack of Charmin. Yeah, even going to the grocery store is an adventure with Bats, eh?

It took me a little while to figure out that the default time signal shows Zulu time (Greenwich Mean Time) ("no, it's not 8 PM now"), instead of local. But you can add in your local time zone offset no problem.

Before you beat me up based on my previous post mentioning consumption/buying habits, this is a factory refurbished unit I got for under $100 from REI's Online Outlet Store, and it's been on my list of "stuff I'll get when I have an income" since I started grad school.

And in case you were worried about my using a factory refurbished GPS out in the wild somewhere, I have no plans to use this for life & death applications or anything. My backwoods camping has always been on marked trails.