Another Social Weekend (and Movies Too!)

An enjoyably busy weekend... but with one day of downtime, so it worked out very nicely (see Caring for Your Introvert, if you haven't already). Also, two movies, both at second run theaters--places I would rather give money to. Apologies that I don't say much for reviewing the movies, but I'm running out of steam.


Friday afternoon at work wrapped up well--we got a drawing set assembled on time, so we popped open the bottle of Chimay that I had brought in. Incidentally--snow!

This was followed by dinner and drinks with a lovely, delightful, and brilliant lady--don't freak out though--not a date, it was inkandpen (one of Jofish's circle of friends, as well one of his former housemates, who is quite married). She was doing research at the Harvard archives, so I was happy to get together and spring for dinner at Redbones and drinks at Christopher's.

Incidentally, I consider buying meals for grad students to be a vital part of keeping the karma tank refilled. Furthermore, if work is going to occasionally piss me off, it feels redeeming to using my salary in this manner.


...was my down day--laundry, groceries, catching up on paperwork. But I watched the Frontline documentary The Rules of Engagement, about the Haditha story in Iraq, and then went out to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly--based on the book by the former editor of Elle who had a massive stroke, and was completely paralyzed except for one eyelid. And he dictated that entire book with somebody transcribing from eyelid blinks. That kind of paralysis is something that has been in the nightmares of my mind as the ultimate of horrors, but the film is touching, well made, and definitely worth watching. In case you were curious about the title, it describes the contradiction of being trapped away from the rest of humanity with the thinnest means of communication (like being in a diving bell), while his imagination could still run free.


When Leper suggested brunch at Johnny D's, I was embarassed to realize that despite several years living a few blocks away, I'd never been there.

I have to say that it is definitely a great spot to get together for a bustling and tasty brunch--just get there early; we had a fair wait despite getting there at 10:22 AM. Leper, Rawhide, Paul & Debbie, T-Stop & Violet, and I had a coffee (not mimosa/bloody Mary)-centric brunch.

This was followed by puttering around Harvard Square, including getting watch batteries replaced at Alpha Omega. I must be out of it, but I had no idea that the owner had fled the country around Christmas, and that the company went bankrupt, with $7 million in inventory missing--the stores are having going-out-of-business sales. After wandering through the store and looking at the contents of the showcases, I'm quite glad that I have no deep-seated need to spend ridiculous amounts of money on luxury goods like $260 cufflinks, or watches over $200 (e.g., $27,000 watch... but at 30% off, only $19,000! Such a deal!). I think the only way I'd voluntarily carry a $3000+ piece of hardware with me on an everyday basis was if I needed a pacemaker.

However, it was amusing to see this piece of hardware--"Electronic Rotating Winding System for Self-Winding Wristwatches"--down to $3900, from $6495!

I guess I'm not their target audience (even though I own a self-winding watch), since my thoughts were first, "Why?", and then, "Couldn't I rig up something with a junker microwave with a turntable instead?" Huh... that sounds like a ridiculous instructable.

Movie #2 was that afternoon--There Will Be Blood, with Leper. Breaking news--it won best actor for Daniel Day-Lewis. Very good, albeit disturbing. I've seen almost all of Paul Thomas Anderson's films (5, including this one)--a period piece seems like a break for him, but he does it well. I'd heard good things about the score (by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead)--it really added tremendously to the film, often very ominous, with many Penderecki-like timbres.

The evening wrapped up with dinner at T & Jessie's, and taking the bus home. A damn fine weekend.


Reading Material

I spent most of today (9 AM to 6 PM) travelling home... although I thought that I might get some work done, I ended up catching up on several magazines' worth of reading during the trip. First, Perlick left an issue of The Economist when he last visited. I can't imagine subscribing to it--just reading the "Huh... that sounds interesting.." articles took me several hours of flight time. Remember that a new one shows up every week.

One article covered rising food costs due to the ethanol boom (among other factors). An amazing statistic: In other words, the demands of America's ethanol programme alone account for over half the world's unmet need for cereals. Without that programme, food prices would not be rising anything like as quickly as they have been. According to the World Bank, the grain needed to fill up an SUV would feed a person for a year. Yow.... I knew that ethanol was a ridiculous boondoggle, but that's even worse than I thought.

Another article talked about the subprime mortage crisis. I have heard on various Marketplace episodes that the "pig through the python" of ARM resets will be occurring in 2008, but this was the first time I saw the actual data:

Day-umn. So if you thought 2007 was bad, just wait until 2008. I'm definitely planning on sitting back and seeing what happens before considering buying property.

I also recently got a pointed to an Atlantic Monthly article from 1990, "The Roots of Muslim Rage," by Bernard Lewis (a professor and policy advisor for the neocons; "perhaps the most significant intellectual influence behind the invasion of Iraq"). If it's behind a subscriber link, let me know and I'll email it.

The tag line to the article is "Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified." The following paragraph (specifically the last half) made me wince:

We should not exaggerate the dimensions of the problem. The Muslim world is far from unanimous in its rejection of the West, nor have the Muslim regions of the Third World been the most passionate and the most extreme in their hostility. There are still significant numbers, in some quarters perhaps a majority, of Muslims with whom we share certain basic cultural and moral, social and political, beliefs and aspirations; there is still an imposing Western presence—cultural, economic, diplomatic—in Muslim lands, some of which are Western allies. Certainly nowhere in the Muslim world, in the Middle East or elsewhere, has American policy suffered disasters or encountered problems comparable to those in Southeast Asia or Central America. There is no Cuba, no Vietnam, in the Muslim world, and no place where American forces are involved as combatants or even as "advisers." But there is a Libya, an Iran, and a Lebanon, and a surge of hatred that distresses, alarms, and above all baffles Americans.

Huh. Pity that...


Weather Delays

I did not relish the idea of travelling today during freezing rain storms at YKF. Dan and I checked flight information before we left the house--the outbound (DTW-YKF) leg of my flight was actually airborne, so I thought that was a promising sign.

After a white-knuckle skidding drive, Dan dropped me off at the airport. I breezed through checkin and security, and started reading while waiting for the flight.

Around the time the flight was supposed to be leaving, a gate agent announced that the flight was cancelled--the outbound leg got to the airspace over YKF, but didn't attempt a landing (not sure if the diverted or just went back). I rebooked for tomorrow--there is another flight today, but I'm not sure I wanted to stay at an airport for four more hours, in the hopes that the weather improves enough for the flight to come in.

I caught a cab back to Dan's, and he made a lovely lunch (tuna melts with a mesclun salad). I guess there's some upside.

Off to meet with my former advisor to talk about work projects!


Another Fantastic Visit to Canada

Apologies for a quite voluminous blog post, but I've had an extremely full past few days--flying up to Canada to receive my Iron Ring (Canadian Engineering Ring), seeing many K-W friends, and enjoying Dan's hospitality. I have split it up by day for greater digestability.

Travelling home tomorrow... assuming the weather is cooperative.

Thursday (i.e., the Evil Goddamn Holiday)

I traveled up on frequent flyer miles, so my only reasonable option was getting up godawful early (4 AM) to catch a 6 AM flight. I owe JMD another dinner out for the ride to Logan. The flight it self went smoothly; better yet, R. came to pick me up at the airport! We grabbed lunch at my favorite bakery, and caught up over wood-fired oven pizza, coffee, and baked goods.

On the way to the University, we stopped by the gourmet food store; I couldn't resist the tiny marzipan pig I found on the shelf.

R. tossed some chocolate in her basket... but when we got to the register, I insisted on paying for both of us:

"I'm sorry, R., but can't let a woman buy herself chocolates on Valentine's Day."

Yes, my silly chivalrous gesture.

We went to the University, stopped by the old research test hut, and checked out R.'s research (and I provided some advice).

That evening, however, was a much anticipated dinner at Dan & Daniel's place--I was very fortunate that they despise this holiday as much as I do, and were glad to throw a dinner party for me and a few more friends. Dan put together a wonderful menu:

Problems with Men
A Valentine's Day dinner by dan

14 February 2008

Men have:
cheesy senses of humour
goat cheese
bad breath
roast garlic

They also have:
jealous natures
green salad

They inevitably turn out to be:
Jamaican jerked chicken
red beans and rice

And they're:
always getting into fights
blood orange crêpes Suzette

Crêpes Suzette fire step below:

There's something delightful about the fact that having Valentine's Day dinner with two gay couples was one of the nicest celebrations I have ever had of the Evil Holiday. The hospitality and humor pushed away any of the usual subtext of February 14th--i.e., "We're celebrating couples--and if you're single, you suck!" It's great to have wonderful friends.

Friday (Iron Ring Ceremony)

Previously on my blog, I have posted my explanation of what the Iron Ring is about, and why I wanted to receive one. Friday was the ceremony--we are instructed there that we should not reveal the details to the public, but as a general reaction, I found the ceremony to be serious and a stark contrast to the party atmosphere of the day's Iron Ring Stag celebrations.

If you'll permit a serious aside, I was quite touched by the reading of the Rudyard Kipling poem "The Sons of Martha"--a work long associated with engineers and this ceremony. The title relates a biblical story of Jesus visiting the home of the sisters Mary and Martha; the latter was rebuked for concentrating on preparations and hospitality, instead of the more spiritual Mary, who was sitting at Jesus' feet--see the top part of the linked web page above. Therefore, the engineers could be considered the "Sons of Martha"--worrying about how things will actually work and function, but therefore being subservient to the "Sons of Mary":

The sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited
that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the
careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she
was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons, world without
end, reprieve, or rest.
It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and
cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that
the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care
to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by
land and main.

It was a bit odd not knowing anyone at the ceremony--the other participants are graduating engineering classmates who have survived four years of undergrad education together. But I celebrated all right afterwards--several work/grad school colleagues took me out to dinner that evening. So behold: the Geekiest Right Hand Ever!

Incidentally, a Google search for ["iron ring" "brass rat"] yields one of my blog posts as the second entry (one of the other hits opines the following about the Brass Rat: "This must be the ugliest class and overstated ring in existence. The Canadian engineer's iron ring, by comparison is a marvel of good taste (even though technically it's a pinky ring).") Good to know that I have doubled the aesthetic challenges due to my ring selection.

I have several dorky experiments to undertake now that I'm wearing two rings--for one, finding the galvanic voltage between the two metals (gold and 300 series stainless) when I immerse both rings in seawater or lemon juice. I have already determined that the ring is austenitic (not ferritic) stainless steel--a fridge magnet won't stick to it. Basically, it means that the ring is made out of the good stuff (300 series) not the crappier stuff (400 series: "Ferritic stainless steels are highly corrosion-resistant, but less durable than austenitic grades.")


Saturday was a decompression day--St. Jacobs Farmers' Market with Dan, followed by dim sum in K-W (mmmm... dim sum... best meal ever).

We walked to and from dim sum, which had me questioning my judgement to come up to Canada in February:

I wondered whether I had just forgotten how much snow falls during the winter here, but I was informed that this winter was exceptionally bad... definitely worse than the three I personally experienced here.

That evening, my advisor took me out to dinner to celebrate, which was very nice.


Well, my flight is scheduled for 10:30 AM tomorrow morning. However, check out the big green blob on the radar map below. That storm is headed northeast, with a freezing rain warning for tomorrow morning.

I'm hoping this won't be a day of being stranded in airports, refugee-camp style with hundreds of others. Perhaps, if I luck out, they'll just cancel my first leg or something. If nothing else, I have two DVDs in my bag.

Excuse my morbid self-amusement, but to cover my bases--you might use the presence of two rings to identify my body, depending on the violence of the crash.


Biting the (Big, Orange) Hand...

I recently went to Home Depot, to pick up some parts for weatherizing my basement, and some replacement parts for my dorky homemade bicycle trailer. I was specifically looking for just six inches of braided rubber tubing:

However, when I got there, I was shocked to find that they have changed their setup--they no longer sell tubing by the foot. How dumb is that? In situations like this, I try to cause change (by complaining up the ladder), so instead of berating the salesdude, I sent the following to Corporate, via their website:

I was recently at your Somerville, MA store, trying to purchase a small amount of tubing (specifically, washing machine 5/8"; ID 3/4"; OD braided). However, I was told by the person running the plumbing aisle that you no longer sell tubing by the foot. I was very surprised at this decision, and consider it an exceptionally poor move. I don't know if you are instituting this throughout all of your stores--have you found that selling tubing by the foot results in greater theft losses, or too much time on customer service, or confusion at checkout? If possible, I would recommend you reconsider this decision. Thank you.

Surprisingly, I got email back the next day:

We are sorry that we were not able to meet your expectations. As a good will gesture, we would like to send you a $20 gift card to restore your faith in the Home Depot. We value you as a customer and want you to continue shopping with us.

And the day after that... wow, the promised $20 gift card:

As much as I despise Big Orange's politics, I have to say they have consistently had their stuff together. If you don't know about HD's politics, I was going to point at the BuyBlue website, but sadly, it appears to be defunct. They are massive donors to the Republican party... Lowes has much lower total political contributions, for reference.

I have heard the line, "Good product, good price, good service--choose two out of three." To be honest, I'm fine with half of one, all of the second, and little of the third--that's about what I'm looking for.

I don't expect a highly-trained sales staff, or a bunch of guys I can sit around and schmooz with. The guys working the aisles are sometimes really good, but I have run into woefully incompetent folks working checkout. So I'm fine with using the no-technophobes-allowed self-checkout when the cashiers aren't trained well enough to correctly enter a lookup code that I have copied down for them.

I know that "good product" is pushing it--many manufacturers (e.g., Delta Faucet) have their "Home Depot/big box" line, which is a cut below their usual product, because they know that the big boxes will totally burn them on pricing. But, for instance, a DeWalt 18V cordless drill is still a DeWalt 18V cordless drill.

However, after spending my undergrad years shopping at Somerville Lumber, I have to say that I reveled in the fact that Home Depot drove them out of business. Given the number of times that I asked for help at Slum Lum and got the response, "Oh, I don't work in lumbah," I am glad that economic Darwinism had its expected effect.

The local hardware store is good for some things, but the breadth and stock of Home Depot makes the two stores completely different animals--and I'm not about to go on two shopping runs. Lowe's is a possible alternative, except for the fact that there are three Home Depots closer than the nearest Lowe's, and I've been consistently disappointed with the stock at the latter ("Dammit, this product should be in this aisle somewhere!").

So I guess this has ended up as a cross between a rant and an apologia for the Big Orange Box. I'll admit I have a bit of a soft spot for Big Orange, due to how much of my life I spend there. For instance, on just about every work trip, we end up on an evening run there after work to buy supplies for the next day. Thus, I refer to the Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express we're staying at as, "Our home away from Home Depot." Go figure.


Theater Review: Copenhagen

As a self-reward and recovery for the expected horrible meeting on Thursday, I got a pair of tickts to the American Repertory Theater's production of Copenhagen. Note that if any locals are interested, the run ends this Sunday. I invited along Judy (former landlady when Bird, Grendel, and I lived in North Cambridge).

Man... I really need to get to the theater more often--especially the ART, which is one subway stop down the street from work. I'm embarrassed that I don't do it more often, but there you go. (Speaking of which--anyone interested in seeing Avenue Q when it comes to Boston in mid-March?

This play is a fictionalized version of the meeting of the physicists Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr (his mentor) in occupied Denmark in 1941, dealing with the morality of scientists creating nuclear weapons. Heisenberg was working for the Germans--was he trying to develop nuclear weapons for the Reich, or was he secretly trying to sabotage the efforts? Or was he unable to? Or was he too afraid to say that he could do so, fearing the consequences if he failed?

It is told Rashomon-style, running through what might have been said, what motivations were, in various iterations. I'm not doing a synopsis, but you can check out the various ART pages about the play.

As one quick point, it was interesting to hear names that I know from textbook theorems, proofs, and famous experiments as background characters--"...and then Pauli got on the train, to ask me if I had changed my mind..."

Coming from a technical background, when playwrights and artists go nuts using relativity/wave-particle duality/the uncertainty principle as a dramatic or literary device, it sometimes makes me wince a little bit. Admittedly, this play handled it reasonably well. But my mind kept on wandering to one of those 'Trivia' items for various movies, e.g, Reservoir Dogs--The film contains 272 uses of the word "fuck". I was wondering just how many times the word "uncertainty" was said throughout the play.

The play is drawn so that Heisenberg is a sympathetic figure... it's impossible to know what he really intended, but it was a moral situation that I can hope none of us are ever forced into. His recounting of Germany as a shattered country during his childhood (at the end of World War I) and as an adult (after World War II, recounting trying to get food for his starving family) are affecting. As a character, he has an intense rapid fire delivery that matches the character that I would expect would be, with underlying layers of coiled emotions.

I found the set design pretty interesting:

David Reynoso knows that the set for Copenhagen will ruffle feathers. Dominated by an immense metallic sculpture, the design evokes the fear of the atomic bomb’s development and the whimsical designs of Alexander Calder. Surfing YouTube one afternoon, Reynoso hit upon his design’s impetus: footage of Poi, a form of juggling from New Zealand where balls on strings represent atomic particles in motion. Because the sculpture is formed from phosphorescent tubing, lighting designer Ken Helvig can fill it with small LED lights. The result is an overhead cyclorama: color and light float across Reynoso’s atomic framework, glowing downward on actors and audience alike.

As one aside for the real geeks in the audience, in one scene, Bohr and Heisenberg are discussing results from cloud chamber experiments. In the meanwhile, the overhead display send similar tracks of light zooming around the framework.

The play was very long (2-1/2 hours, with 15 minute intermission), and I thought the beginning of the second act dragged a little bit. But overall, it was thoroughly worthwhile to see.

Even better yet, after the play, Judy ran into some friends (Julie and Stu), and we all went out for drinks and snacks at Casablanca--a great way to wrap up an evening, especially on a 'school night' (getting home around midnight). All good.

Pew Research: the Land-line-less

I heard a snippet on NPR this morning summarizing a report from the Pew Research Center--The Impact Of “Cell-Onlys” On Public Opinion Polling: Ways of Coping with a Growing Population Segment

Being one of those who have ditched the land line in favor of only a mobile phone, I was somewhat interested. Also, many of my friends fall into this category as well. I guess every animal is fascinated by a mirror, eh? According to a Pew 2006 survey roughly 7%-9% of the general public had ditched the land line at that date (see graph above).

Note that I spent my entire time in Canada with a VoIP line, and only ditched it after returning to the US and realizing that I barely used it.

The Pew Research Center was interested because they needed to figure out how badly their polls are skewed by the fact that they couldn't call people with only mobile phones. It is not illegal to poll people on a mobile phone--it is only illegal to use an automated dialer (which makes it a much slower process). Yay!--another reason to ditch the land line.

Of course, this difference would tend to remove younger people from the polling population: As the cell-only population has grown, telephone surveys by Pew and other organizations that rely on landline samples have experienced a sharp decline in the percentage of younger respondents interviewed in their samples. ... This decline is consistent with the fact that the cell-only population is heavily tilted toward young people.

As further detail: Nearly half of the cell-only respondents in the survey (48%) are under age 30. This compares with just 14% in the landline sample (people reached on a landline) and 21% in the population as a whole, according to government statistics. Other characteristics associated with age are also distinctive in the cell-only population. Nearly three-in-ten (29%) cell-only respondents are married, compared with 57% in the landline sample. And only 24% say they own their own home; in the landline sample, 71% do so. The cell-only population also includes a higher proportion of minorities, especially Hispanics (14% vs. 6% among landline users).

However, the 2008 study found that if you control for demographic factors, the replies of the cell phone and non-cell phone populations are close to the same: When data from both samples are combined and weighted to match the U.S. population on key demographic measures, the results are virtually identical to those from the landline survey alone. Across more than 100 political and attitudinal questions on the surveys, including cell phone interviews does not change the results by more than two points in the vast majority of comparisons, and in only one comparison is the difference as large as 4 points.


cell-only Americans are somewhat less likely to rely on newspapers and network evening news for campaign information, but more apt to get campaign news from the internet, late night comedy shows, and to use social networking sites. Not surprisingly, these behaviors are characteristic of younger respondents in general - whether cell-only or not - and the blended results for none of these measures change by no more than two percentage points.

I assume the fraction of mobile-only is going to top out sometime, but I wonder where it will max out.