More Infrared Dorkery!

I couldn't resist the siren call of the infrared camera... okay, actually, my former advisor asked me to pick up some examples of certain phenomena on the infrared for a class he's teaching. Doing it on a cold night is ideal, because there is a greater temperature difference, thus creating more contrast in the IR shots. Also, IR photos during the day show hot surfaces that are heated by the sun, as opposed to heat leaking out of builings. So this is what I spent my Saturday night doing--wandering around in the cold looking at Harvard's buildings, and managing not to get arrested ("... yes, officer, it's an infrared camera, which... uh, no sir, I'm not carrying any weapons.... uh...") And yes, remarkably, I'm still single [smirk]. There were a few shots interesting enough to share.

Do you remember the screwed-up Harvard building (Fogg Museum) that I mentioned in September? Well, I wandered by there on this walk. Remember that it was failing because of air leakage, and condensation inside the walls. This is the optical shot:

And the infrared:

Huh... that would appear to be an air leak, probably behind the cladding, coming from the top corner of the window.

Here's the Maxwell-Dworkin building--funded by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and named after their respective mothers.

And guess what--windows (specifically, curtain walls) leak heat like crazy! Who knew?! (admittedly, they probably blast heat at the glass, to prevent condensation).

I randomly ran into Rugburn and Lindsey in Harvard Square--they found the IR camera to be a neat toy as well--here's a portrait of Rugs.

And a subway grate--yep, there's a reason why the homeless sleep on them.

I then stopped by Herrel's ice cream, and used a $5000 precision instrument to demonstrate--why yes--ice cream is actually cold.

Then I took the bus home, and couldn't resist taking a few shots around the house. I had the lights off, and wandered into the living room to get a shot of the radiator, when... whaaa?

Turned on the light... oh, hey there, Clyde-o.

Yeah, a fun Saturday for me.


Black Friday

.... where Bats continues to find that he is Not Like the Rest of This Country.

I figure that everyone has heard/read about the trampling death of a Wal-Mart employee on Long Island on Black Friday (Times Coverage: here) One of the more astute step-back-and-meta-analyze articles had the great title of A Shopping Guernica Captures the Moment:

It was a tragedy, yet it did not feel like an accident. All those people were there, lined up in the cold and darkness, because of sophisticated marketing forces that have produced this day now called Black Friday. They were engaging in early-morning shopping as contact sport. American business has long excelled at creating a sense of shortage amid abundance, an anxiety that one must act now or miss out.

In a sense, the American economy has become a kind of piñata — lots of treats in there, but no guarantee that you will get any, making people prone to frenzy and sending some home bruised.

It seemed fitting then, in a tragic way, that the holiday season began with violence fueled by desperation; with a mob making a frantic reach for things they wanted badly, knowing they might go home empty-handed.

Another article (All Eyes on Holiday Shopping Turnout in Bleak Economy) states:

While tussles, and even broken bones, are common when the doors open on Black Friday, this is apparently the first time someone has been killed in the stampede. And for some consumer psychologists, the mad scramble was a sign of the times.

“I think it ties into a sort of fear and panic of not having enough,” said Joe Priester, a professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California and a former president of the Society for Consumer Psychology. A herd mentality, he said, can lead individuals to feel anonymous — so much so that they are quite capable of trampling someone. “Fear combined with the group mentality?” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all.”

To be honest, this episode reminds me of one thing that I heard--in economic downturns, racism, xenophobia, and violence increase--think of it as atavistic tribalism, circling the wagons in tighter, and blaming "others" and "outsiders." Hitler exploited it quite successfully in Weimar Germany. Stay tuned to see if that pans out.

Since we're talking about buying stuff, I would be remiss if I didn't mention my post from last Christmas: Just in Time for the Holidays... (The Story of Stuff). A worthwhile 20-minute web video, if you didn't catch it last time.

One striking aspect of the Black Friday coverage is how much it makes me feel Outside of the Mainstream of American Consumers. Such as housewives cutting back from their multi-thousand-dollar Christmas shopping sprees (multiple thousand?! wow):

"I've been doing this for 17 years. This year, it feels smaller," said Tracey Darwish, 37, who was waiting in line at the Wal-Mart in Columbus to buy "Madden NFL '09," the football video game for PlayStation 2, for $39, marked down from $59.

Darwish said that in the past she would "spend thousands of dollars on Black Friday" - even withdrawing money from her retirement account. But after losing her job as a medical assistant in August, her routine has changed. "My son told me this year all he wanted was 'Madden '09,"' she said. "Other than that, 'Save your money, Mom,' he told me."

Or this excerpt from TV Sales Becoming Litmus Test for U.S. Economy:

Yet resistance remains for many consumers, like Bayani Deluna Jr., 35, who stood last week at a San Francisco-area Best Buy looking longingly at a 32-inch Sony television. Mr. Deluna, who worked as a parking valet until a few weeks ago when he went on disability, is waiting for the $600 price to drop.

“If it comes down to $450, I’d buy it,” he said. “And I’m sure the price is going to come down.”

Unemployed parking valets buying 32 inch LCDs?!? Wow. I guess I am odd for agonizing for two years (at a good job) before convincing myself to buy an LCD TV. But then again, I actually have a positive savings rate.

Another semi-related item--a James Howard Kunstler graph showing the per-capita square feet of retail space by country:

So bringing this post back down to earth--yes, I admit it--I went and bought stuff on Friday (biked 7 miles each way to REI to buy snowshoes on sale--an activity that I would like to get into). And I will be doing some final Christmas shopping. Actually, it was half an hour on Amazon and ThinkGeek; done now. But not a multi-thousand dollar spree, thanks.


Another Fun Thanksgiving

Not much to report--another fun Thanksgiving out at U5 & Rebecca's. Lots of folks attending: U5, Rebecca, Cailah, Brendan, JMD, Tom & Marilyn (Schmooz's and Rebecca's folks), Leela, Paul & Debbie, Morton & Sarah, Holly & Ken (friends of R.'s), Elmo, Blake, & Vinay (EvilCorp folks), and me. Kinda like last year--but that's meant in a good way. This year's photos posted to Flickr here.

Of course, the usual deep-frying of the turkey was involved. We introduced new Teps to the disturbing image of bubbling oil forming a fountain out of the turkey's neck opening.

Also--organizing large meals with a white board. Yay!

It was great to see everyone there. Hope all of you had a happy (and, if possible, low-stress) Thanksgiving!


Infrared Camera Dorkery

A commonly used instrument in my field is the infrared camera--it measures the heat emitted from objects to create an image that shows how hot surfaces are--i.e., "Predator-cam" (for those of you familiar with 1980's Arnold Schwartzenneger movies). We recently bought one (from FLIR), and I got to take it for a test spin--man, I know I'm a great big dork, but it's a whole lot of fun.

For instance, here's an interior shot of one of our offices--there's a ceiling heating duct (or register) in front of the windows.

And with the heating system on, you can totally see the two "plumes" of heated air impinging on the wall and window.

This front shot of our office shows the relative heat loss--note, as I have previously ranted about that the windows the places where lots of heat is leaking out.

But also, you'll notice that there's a bright bar at the tops of the second floor windows--at least the middle and right hand ones. I took a closer look in that office... turns out, huh, the carpenters left off any weatherstripping from the tops of those two windows.

Wow--pretty useful! Fixed now.

Also, I had to try out a self-portrait--it turns out that infrared is reflected quite well in a mirror. I call this one, "Go ahead, make my day."

Yeah. Dorkery. Yeah.


A Neat (Boston) Day Off

After finishing a painful three-week slog at work, I decided to take Friday off, and hang out in/explore Boston--specifically parts that I have not managed to hit to date. Photos from my wanderings are posted to Flickr.

I had heard about "the best sticky buns in Boston" from a food network show, at Flour Bakery, in the Fort Point Channel area. The owner is a Harvard applied math grad who decided to bail on management consulting to open up a bakery... cool stuff. I decided that this was stop number one. A great location--perfect bustling atmosphere, and their pastries were terrific. Unfortunately, their sticky buns were sold out for the day.

I spent a few hours taking a conference call there. Unfortunately, it noisy enough that I had to step outside to talk on the call. But overall, sitting with a cup of coffee in a high-end bakery and then wandering around Boston is definitely the right (or least painful) way to do conference calls.

This was follow by--guess--more eating! Lunch at The Barking Crab--a Boston institution that I've never gone to. After a crabcake on a bun, it came across to me as a clam shack's decor with a Boston seafood menu and prices... but still worth going to (especially if the tent portion is open during the summer). Unfortunately, the Chinese restaurant with awesome salt & pepper shrimp has closed... bummer.

Next, I went to visit the ICA (Institute for Contemporary Arts)--for all my time living in Boston, and I've never been there, even with their new building circa 2006 (their old building was actually in the Back Bay). The building is pretty neat--a tremendous cantilevered top floor, overlooking the water.

And here's the view out of that space--fortunately, they use it as hallway instead of exhibit space.

Also, as much as I make fun of architects who use too much glass, I had to admit that this space really works. I was surprised to find that at least they actually used double glazing--I was expecting to find a single layer of structural glazing (i.e., even less insulating value). Although there's an entire bank of heaters hidden in the floor in front of the windows, to blast enough hot air to keep condensation from sweating all over the glass.

As for the art collection itself--they have both a permanent collection, and a changing exhibit. All of the exhibits are on the top floor--it is a small enough collection that you can do this museum in an afternoon, as opposed to MoMA or MFA-style "Ack... we spent the whole day doing a marathon session, and we barely made a dent!" A wide mix of painting, photography, sculpture, and media arts.

The rotating exhibit was works by the sculptor Tara Donovan--be sure to check out the slide show of her work from that page. Her work is delightfully inventive and great to look at--she uses common mass-produced items (plastic cups, paper plates, toothpicks, mylar tape, soda straws) in repeating patterns to create large organic-looking installation pieces that make you look, pause, step closer, and then smile when you realize what the components are. For instance, a room-sized landscape terrain of undulating hills... and when you step closer, you see that it's made out of translucent plastic cups.

So for both reasons, the ICA is a strong recommendation--if you're local, be sure to go see it!

Later afternoon plans included writing postcards at 1369 while sipping a cup of hot cider, killing time in Harvard Square at various shops, and pizza at Upper crust--yeah, definitely worth its Zagat mention. This was followed by a forgettable production of Sondheim's Assassins by a student company. But overall, not a bad way to spend a Friday.


Linky Goodness

Here's a grab bag of a few links that I wanted to write about, but didn't have motivation to wrap a whole post around. I know, I should be writing something about the election right now, but hey. Also, the stupid Electoral College basically makes my vote not count for anything.

Actually--relevant to that topic, in today's New York Times, there was an op-ed quantifying what a given vote is worth in different states, due to the Electoral College distortion: In the Electoral College, the combined effect of these two distortions is a mockery of the principle of “one person, one vote.” While each of Florida’s 27 electoral delegates represents almost 480,000 eligible voters, each of the three delegates from Wyoming represents only 135,000 eligible voters. That makes a voter casting a presidential ballot in Wyoming three and a half times more influential than a voter in Florida. A map showing the effect is shown below.

There were two recent episodes of This American Life that covered the recent turmoil in the financial markets--I'm guessing many of you have already listened to them. But if not, they were shows on what actually caused the subprime mortgage crisis ("The Giant Pool of Money"), and a show on the financial crisis itself ("Another Frightening Show About the Economy")

The Giant Pool of Money was described as follows: This American Life producer Alex Blumberg teams up with NPR's Adam Davidson for the entire hour to tell the story—the surprisingly entertaining story—of how the U.S. got itself into a housing crisis. They talk to people who were actually working in the housing, banking, finance and mortgage industries, about what they thought during the boom times, and why the bust happened. And they explain that a lot of it has to do with the giant global pool of money.

Another Frightening Show About the Economy, included the best description I've heard of credit default swaps, and why they ended up being so dangerous. The show also described a possible scenario of the bailout as the taxpayers ending up as the "...proud owners of $700 billion of crap..."

Both of these shows were very worthwhile, and worth an hour of your time each.

Another totally random web link was from the Edmunds.com website: Confessions of a Car Salesman:

What really goes on in the back rooms of car dealerships across America?

What does the car salesman do when he leaves you sitting in a sales office and goes to talk with his boss?

What are the tricks salespeople use to increase their profit and how can consumers protect themselves from overpaying?


We hired Chandler Phillips, a veteran journalist, to go undercover by working at two new car dealerships in the Los Angeles area. First, he would work at a high-volume, high-pressure dealership selling Japanese cars. Then, he'd change over to a smaller car lot that sold domestic cars at "no haggle" prices.

It's a very long read, but I found it worthwhile and illuminating. My reaction after reading the story (besides unfettered disgust), is that I'm glad I'm not in the market for the car, and I hope that I won't be for a very long time. My sixteen-year old Subaru is still working fine (knock on wood), and I'm hoping that with low annual mileage and good maintenance, I'll keep it rolling for a while yet. Yes, I know--"Bad consumer! Not helping the economy!" Actually, thinking about it, my entirely nuclear family has not bought a new car since 1986.

Hey--supposedly, Toyota will come out with a plug-in hybrid by 2010... maybe I'll think about buying a few years after that. Incidentally, for those of you who aren't familiar with the energy balance--plug in hybrids actually make energy sense, even though generating electricity is a ~30% efficient process. This is because the internal combustion process is so bloody inefficient--around 15% or less, according to this web page--that powering a car off the grid actually makes sense. Frightening, eh?

My final bit of linkiness is an article written by a colleague of mine in the energy efficiency field (Henry Gifford) who is incredibly intelligent, ornery, and outspoken. He is a boiler mechanic/energy efficiency geek who is a stone-cold genius--he teaches calculus to high school students in his free time.

Anyway, the article he wrote is about LEED buildings--the acronym stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design; it is the de facto green building rating system out there for both commercial and residential (LEED-H) buildings. The folks who run the program (USGBC--US Green Building Council) put out a study in 2007 that showed that LEED buildings on average consume 25-30% less energy than standard buildings.

However, my colleague did back-calculations on USGBC's data--and showed that LEED buildings use 29% more energy than a comparable sample--as described in his article (PDF download). This article has been causing all types of sturm and drang in our community, so you can see USGBC's response, and my colleague's rebuttal, on the website.

Some of Henry's points: USGBC decided to compare to the median instead of the mean (to limit the effect of outliers); it compared against a sample of all buildings (instead of recent vintage buildings, which are more comparable to the LEED population). Also, the only sample of energy-use data they had to work from was from LEED buildings that volunteered their bills--which, as he puts it, "is a little like making generalizations about drivers’ blood alcohol levels from the results of people who volunteer for a roadside breathalyzer test."

I'm not too surprised that some of the LEED buildings have pathetic performance--for a case study, see this story about Seattle's new city hall from 2005 ("Seattle's new City Hall is an energy hog: Higher utility bills take the glow off its 'green' designation"). The new LEED building is smaller, but uses more energy than the old city hall. You take one look at a photo of the building--hey, duh, the new one is a great big glass box. Oy.

Here was another pet peeve "duh" that Henry pointed out (and I ranted about recently)--putting expensive photovoltaic panels on the side of a building--and then even worse, a bunch are blocked by mechanical equipment. As he puts it:

The choice to not install the panels on angled brackets on the roof, where they would produce more electricity but would not be visible from the street, made the installation a colossal waste of perfectly good solar panels. Despite this, the building is held up as an example of an “environmental friendly” building. The owners made many other efforts to improve the building, but the solar panels get most of
the attention. Like any such building, the designers were under pressure to make the image of being “green” a priority over actual energy efficiency.

One of Henry's best ideas: when a building gets a LEED rating, the plaque needs to go on the building with removable screws. The first few years of energy bills need to be analyzed--if it's not meeting its targets, the rating comes down. It'll never fly, but it's a boatload more realistic on Actually Making a Difference.