The Accidental Groomsman

So a little less than three weeks ago, I got email from ocschwar...

To: bats22
Subject: hey Bats, could we talk over the phone today?

I could really use a favor from you. I'm at 617 XXX-XXXX

Thanks, man.

Well, it turned out that his brother, who is a bush pilot in Australia, couldn't get time off to come up to O & E's wedding. Therefore, he asked me to be an emergency fill-in groomsman. Wow... well, I definitely have experience doing this--by my count, I've been in wedding parties (best man, groomsman, usher) seven times. Enough that I've developed variations on my groomsman spiel:

"Hello, I'm K, and I'll be your groomsman this evening. Tonight's specials are men in rented clothing, ugly lime-green dresses, and bows on the butt. In case of church depressurization, oxygen masks will fall from the overhead compartment. In case of water landing, the hymnal in front of you can be used as a floatation device..."

Always a groomsman, never a groom, eh? So I had no problems saying yes to this one--I can stand up and be a set decoration with the best of them!

So the wedding was this Saturday--actually, a weekend of activity: rehearsal and picnic on Friday, and a brunch event on Sunday. It was quite a nice time--a very nice full-on wedding with the works, and O & E looked spectacularly happy:

Also, it was fun doing the groomsman gig--you realize that you're acting as the groom's body man for the day ("Here's where you need to be. Are you fed? I'll relay that message. Is your tie straight?"). We had a Reservoir-Dogs style group walk down the infinite corridor, heading towards the ceremony at the MIT Chapel.

The bride & groom made sure to get a few amusing shots for the album--both of them logging into Athena on the way over to the reception. Also, it was fun to see the reactions of the various MIT people wandering around the 'Tute.

There were few Teps at the wedding (Sequoia was best man, and Rawhide, Terri, & family were there). However, we still did manage to pull off Hava Nagila--no casualties. The reception was held at the MIT Faculty Club, which has a spectacular view over the Charles (right on Mem Drive). The private room where we decompressed is pretty nice--all old oak paneling, including full-on quartermatch veneer.

Mazel tov all around!


DC Adventures

I spent most of this week (Monday through Saturday) in DC--both for work (meetings with the government masters who run my company's big contract) and visiting Beef & Laurel/seeing DC. Ah, the city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm (John F. Kennedy). Another busy-busy blog post--feel free to read it and check out the photos if you have the time.

The meetings were held, as you would expect, in the big government buildings in the middle of town. That area felt very much like the architecture of intimidation--repetitive geometric concrete buildings, big empty, unshielded plazas, nothing built for the human scale. Think of an entire part of a city set up with the aesthetics of Boston's Government Center, and you'll have a good mental image of the place. You can occasionally find an overhang where you can drip off in the sweltering shade.

While walking around streets and riding the Metro (subway), I realized precisely how to look like a native instead of a tourist: wear a suit or business casual clothes (no shorts), and then wear a neck lanyard with an ID badge. Seems like everybody on the subway and the streets is on their way to some key-card-access office building. Incidentally, I found that my BlackBerry wants to type "lanyard" as "labtard." I think this is a neologism that needs greater use.

Speaking of the Metro, the design of the stations is pretty nice--the waffle pattern on the sides of the tube are not only structural (deeper waffles on top than sides), but they also somewhat echo the vaulted ceiling of DC's Union Station. Also, the high ceilings and subdued lighting provide a pretty neat ambiance--very different from the low rabbit-warren/watch-your-head/cut-and-cover tunnels of the New York City system.

Evenings were spent getting dinner in Georgetown, which was a short walk from our hotel. It's a great little neighborhood... but probably too expensive for mortals to actually live in. One nice accidental find was Vietnam Georgetown--they had a great softshell crab with ginger and scallion sauce (Yum yum... crunch crunch crunch...).

Walking back to my hotel, I decided to wander over one block and take the parallel route back. I ended up running into the Chesapeake and Ohio canal, an abandoned-then-restored 1800's 184-miles long canal that once ran from West Virginia into Georgetown (mostly bringing down coal), which is now a National Park and trail. Geez... I walk a block off of the main drag, and infrastructure dorkery finds me! See! It's not just my fault! It seems like it would be a fun trip someday, to bike or hike the entire length.

Tbe last day of meetings ended at noon--I had that delightfully freeing feeling of, "Yes! My time is my own again!" Especially because I had to give a presentation that morning that was being used for a peer review evaluation of my company (which basically went well).

I hopped the Metro up to Chinatown; I was curious about DC's Chinatown, because it was described as a dying area (see In Chinatowns, All Sojourners Can Feel Hua):

You can spot a dying Chinatown: vestigial restaurants, but no doctors' offices, no barbershops, no funeral parlors, no businesses required by daily living. Outside New York and San Francisco, many urban Chinatowns have dwindled to Chinastreets, or even Chinablocks, as the population centers have shifted to the suburbs. Washington's Chinatown is superficially preserved: the storefronts, including Starbucks and Subway, must display Chinese names. The Hooters sign says "Owl Restaurant" in Chinese.

I have to say that I agree with this assessment--the stack of Chinese restaurants was barely a block long, and very few people on the street were actually Asian. Not a very fair exercise, given that my reference cases are New York (both in Manhattan and Flushing, Queens), San Francisco (both SF and Oakland Chinatowns), Boston, Toronto, and Vancouver. Other sources also described the movement of Chinese, after a few generations, out to the suburbs--"yellow flight," perhaps? However, I managed to stumble to a well-rated place (Chinatown Express) where they make the noodles fresh on site; the guy was doing the whole stretch-spin-fold-repeat thing in the window. Good (but not great) food--if I'm ever back, I'll have to try some other dishes.

A few blocks from Chinatown was the National Building Museum, which is the renovated Pension Building (provided funds to Civil War-era veterans and their survivors). A really great space to see; the building is mostly a hollow atrium, and the available collections were only on the first floor at the perimeter, so it was pretty easy to check it out in an afternoon.

One exhibit that took up most of my time was the exhibit Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. I knew that he was an iconic architect, but I didn't realize just how many iconic structures are his: at MIT, the chapel and Kresge auditorium. The rest of the list includes the St. Louis Gateway Arch, Washington Dulles Airport (IAD), the TWA Terminal at JFK in New York, the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (part of Lincoln Center), and furniture designs such as the tulip chair--all examples of "Oh sure, I know that that one!"

As much as I harsh on modernism, Saarinen aesthetics were pretty spectacular--they really create this 1960's-Jetsons-here's-our-cool-future aesthetic that gives me nostalgia for an era before my time. Also, unlike--say Gehry--his style is not a snap to pin down: sure he made swoopy concrete shells like Dulles and TWA, but he also made rectilinear/almost cubist works as well.

One interest footnote in this exhibition was in the biographical materials. He started out in a firm working with his father and his brother in law; after his father died, he was in charge. Saarinen made stereotypical I'm-a-great-artist business decisions--e.g., he burned through all of the commission money for one design, but didn't think it was "done," so he had the firm spend the next year still working on it, out of pocket. This behavior drove the brother in law nuts (who was trying to run the business end, I believe), and he eventually left the firm. However, in the end, history remembers Saarinen, not the brother in law. Perhaps a bit of a cautionary tale, or a depressing example that those who actually make the numbers work out are not important.

I met up with Beef & Laurel and crashed with them for a few days--they're both doing well, living in Alexandria, and they now have a pair of pet rabbits.

They took Friday off to go to the Air & Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center--it's the new annex to the Air & Space Museum (the one on the National Mall) located near Dulles Airport; it is basically a large hangar with the overflow collection, including an SR-71 Blackbird, the space shuttle Enterprise, the Enola Gay (B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima), a Concorde, and the JSF/X-35 VTOL prototype.

It has a delightfully unpolished appearance in parts--it's obviously a dressed-up hangar, complete with huge hangar doors at each end, to bring in new pieces to the collection--a bit like a "grandpa's attic" of aeronautical history. For instance, various aircraft parts tucked into the corner with a cordon around it and no caption.

Beef and I totally geeked out... it was awesome to hang out with somebody who also finds cutaway radial piston engines fascinating (BTW--check out that Wikipedia link; they have an animated GIF of a 5-cylinder radial; it looks like a starfish trying to boogie).

<Dork> ...and then the wing pops up, so you can change the angle of attack for carrier catapult launches... </Dork>

It seems like a portion of the building, however, could be thought of as the museum of seriously bad ideas. For instance, the Focke-Achgelis Fa 330 A, a "rotary-wing kite"--it looks like a one-man helicopter, except, um, there's no motor.

The idea was that a World War II U-Boat would surface, put this thing together on the deck, and launch it like a paraglider, reeling it out behind it while cruising on the surface. The pilot would then act as a long-range observer/lookout. I just have mental images of the U-Boat crash diving with the dude in the kite still attached, or cutting him loose, sitting in a lawnchair-like-whirlygig, losing speed over the North Atlantic (what's German for "Uh oh"?).

Also, there were several examples of "This aircraft will make air travel cheap enough that there will be a helicopter in every garage!" Yeah... still waiting for that one, guys.

The Boeing 707 on display prompted one of us to wag, "...and this is where Boeing came up with the innovation of the Middle Seat."

Another item that goes off that scale straight into ZOMFG insane: repairing high-tension power lines while they are still "hot" (i.e., entergized and carrying electricity, thus reducing downtime), from a platform on the side of a helicopter.

The helicopter comes in, hovers next to the line, the worker touches a shorting rod to bring the helicopter to the same voltage (up to 230,000 V), and then the worker crosses over to the line to do repairs. Like I said, ZOMFG. Here's a video of workers doing these repairs, to give you an idea what it looks like.

The collection also included the utterly mundane: "Timer-Stopwatch: Astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle use these devices to time experiment procedures, exercise periods, and other activities."

Um, dude. It's a kitchen timer. "Timer-Stopwatch: Bats in his kitchen use these devices to time a roast or cake, and other activities."

I'd strongly recommend a trip to this museum (if you are sufficiently geeky), if you are coming to DC, or you can schedule a long layover at IAD (a bus runs the ~2 miles between the two).

Overall, a fantastic trip. Yay for micro-vacations!


New Heights of Hardware Dorkery

As way of background, check out my "Brain Transplant" hardware dorkery post from May--this post is continued work in making that broken Pentium 4 laptop work as a media player machine. While testing it out, I found that one hinderance to using it for this purpose was that the CPU cooling fan would noisily jet into action every few minutes--not something you want in your living room, as you're trying to listen to music.

Therefore, at the end of the post, I threatened to attach a desktop CPU cooling fan to the bottom of the laptop, like a supercharger sticking out of the hood of a hot rod. Yeah... I made good on the threat.

I was at Micro Center a while back, and saw an Asus Silent Square cooler in the clearance bin... just had to get it. After several fits and starts, I managed to modify the mounting brackets enough to attach it to the laptop's motherboard. Ugly hacks were required, like threading plastic standoffs with a 1/4-20 tap, and using washers as spacers.

You know things are bad when you have the laptop clamped into a workbench, and saws are involved. I powered the CPU fan was powered by a variable 3-12V DC wall wart transformer.

So... it was time to give it a shot. Cooling fan started: check. Laptop power: check. Huh... the thermostatically controlled fan is starting to make really bad noise... but it's making it through startup so far. Man... the fan is really thrashing... I wonder what the CPU temperature is? [Starts CPU monitor]: WHAT?! 85 C?!! (185 F) [Machine promptly dies].


Didn't see any magic smoke, if it got let out, though.

After dejectedly ignoring it for a few days, I took the fan off... turns out that the mounting bolts kept the cooler's plate from hitting the CPU's heat sink. Crap! Yep... the machine was bricked.

Well, fortunately, you can get a used Pentium 4 2.6 GHz processor off of eBay for about $20. Back up and running. Take two:

Modified mounting bracket: check. CPU fan power: check. Laptop power: [whirrrrrr]

Awesome! Check out the previous performance--temps were bouncing between 45-50 C. Now, it mostly stays below 40 C. Schweet.

I have to say, though, that this pretty much spells the end of this machine being used for any portable purpose:

This shot also makes me look like I'm doing my level best to expose my 'nads to Čerenkov radiation.

Anyway, it works! I'm using S-video out to feed the TV, and I'll probably pick up the small LCD monitor from New York next time I visit my parents.

To conclude, there was an apt quote in a New York Times article on Maker Faire a while ago:

“We are grabbing technology, ripping the back off of it and reaching our hands in where we are not supposed to be,” says Shannon O’Hare, who has brought his three-story Victorian mansion on wheels, one of the most prominent examples of the anachronistic style known as steampunk, to the Faire. He is holding forth in a vintage British military uniform and pith helmet, and is gesturing with a hand that holds a sloshing tankard of ale.

“We’ve been told by corporate America that we cannot fix the things we own,” says Mr. O’Hare, who goes by Major Catastrophe and works as a fabricator for the stage and businesses. “All we can do is buy their stuff and like it.” Cars have become too complex to work on under a shade tree, and people have no idea what is inside their cellphones and cameras. “All this technology, and it’s not ours. It’s somebody else’s,” Mr. O’Hare says. “ Make is about taking that back off and making it yours.”


Ithaca Trip Infrastructure Dorkery

Yes, more infrastructure dorkery, from the highway on the road trip to and from Ithaca. On I-88, between Albany and Binghamton, near Exit 22, I have noticed some large mine and industrial works off the highway. The picture below doesn't do it justice--it seems like they've basically carved out a hole in the side of a small mountain.

I've been curious what this was for a while, and I finally got around to researching it on this trip. It turns out that it is an abandoned limestone mine--to make cement (the active ingredient in concrete), you basically take limestone, grind it up, and bake it really hot (Wikipedia description here). That step pretty much is the "activation energy" to create a product that has the magical property that you mix with water to form new rocks.

A few aerial shots from Google Maps:

I-88 at the bottom of the first shot. Yeah, it's really annoying to drive to the part of the map where the world goes a lot more fuzzy and low-resolution.

Apparently, there were plans to renovate it into a museum or something, according to this 2003 article:

Renovation work is commencing on the historic Howe's Cave limestone quarry and the surrounding community of Schoharie County, New York. The centerpiece of the project is Cave House, built in 1865. Once a hotel that was said to rival the finest Catskills' resorts, Cave House later housed the offices, from the 1880s until the about three decades ago, of Howe's Cave Lime & Cement, Helderberg Cement, North American Cement, and Nazareth, Pa.-based Penn-Dixie Cement.

Currently, the facility is being re-created as the Cave House Museum of Mining and Geology, with work expected to take four to five years. The facility also will serve as a visitors center and include classrooms for guest lecturers, exhibits and artifacts.

However, as far as I can tell, this museum doesn't exist on the internet... so it probably doesn't exist. Ah well. Howe's Cave, however, is a tourist attraction.


Another Delightful Ithaca Weekend

Over the long July 4th weekend, Jofish threw a party (at Perlick’s instigation), and a few of us (including Perlick, Indy, and a friend of Caitlin's who lives in Boston) road tripped out to Ithaca. It was an absolutely perfect long weekend—a road trip with two others out and back, a party in Jofish’s back yard, a visit to Ithaca Farmer’s Market, lounging around a pool for an afternoon, drinks at Felicia’s Atomic Lounge, brunch at Hal’s, coffee at Gimme, and a batch of postcards in the mail. Not much commentary in this post--but it was great seeing everyone there!

The backyard shindig went on from, oh, 2 PMish to 2 AM or so. Ask Jofish about his beer sling. He's quite proud of it.

Despite many trips to Ithaca, I've never actually gone to their Farmer's Market. All good--perfect weather for it.

On the way to the market--a tandem recumbent! Cool!

A pool party that afternoon at a Friend of Jofish's (because, well, he just knows people):

The canonical Ithaca visit always ends with brunch before hitting the road. The only question is: DeWitt or Hal's.

Followed by hanging out in the park, drinking coffee, and writing postcards.

I left this trip feeling a little bit wistful--Ithaca has been a refuge that I've escaped to for a while--between grad school semesters, on trips back and forth from Waterloo to Boston. However, Jofish is leaving in November, and many others of that group are leaving within a year or two. Being in graduate school kinda makes that happen, eh?