Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bike Pants (Redux)

A quick link to those who still aren't convinced about bike helmets (probably no one I know). Be forewarned, there's a pic that's not for the faint of stomach.

And now... the bike pants. It seems that the advice I've gotten has fallen into two pretty distinct categories. The first, in which are all of the women in my life, warns me to stay far far away from biking knickers. My dear sister reports that she was rolling on the floor laughing out lout (ROFLOL in web lingo) when she thought about me wearing them. On the other hand, several of my engineering-type biker buddies think they're cool, especially with the hand made, organic sheep pedigree that the particular pair I showed held.

So I'll admit that the pair I showcased was a little clingy and hales from last century, but how about these, recently purchased by a buddy of mine who was gracious enough to model them for me and send pictures (with his head conveniently out of the picture). Could those of you in the "far far away" camp possibly endorse something more like this? At least while I'm still in school? At night?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

When the bike is not optional

I discovered something today related to commuting by bike. I stayed home with the girls this morning so that Hannah could take Ian to an appointment, and our plan was for me to bike over with the girls in tow and pick up Ian to bring him home while Hannah went to a different appointment. The first part of the journey was no trouble, a pleasure in fact.
We were set up in our bike train configuration as shown in the beautiful pic, with Eliza on the tag-along trailer and Caroline in the enclosed trailer. A cool, partly sunny day with a pleasant breeze. What could be better?
We picked up Ian and headed to a nearby park for some outdoor fun. When it was time to leave, though, it became apparent that Caroline was not such a great trailer-mate, especially with her sister. I had been counting on Ian to be able to help some with the uphill portions of the ride home, but he was much better able to handle the antics of his tired, hungry, cranky two-year-old sister, so it became necessary to install him in the trailer and let Eliza ride the tag-along.
Thus began a 40 minute ride home with wailing toddler and 45 lbs of extra dead-weight to pull home up hill. All of a sudden it was not so pleasant anymore, and the prospect of the 5km jaunt home was not so enticing. The problem was that there was not really a choice anymore. Ian and Eliza did their very best (a noble effort) to distract, entertain, and encourage Caroline, but she was not to be consoled. Needless to say, I did make it home eventually, but I was pretty wiped out, physically and emotionally from the ride.
I probably could have made it a lot easier on everyone by bringing snacks along, which is much more of a parenting issue than a biking one, but conditions were less forgiving of my shortcoming. This brings up another point: It's a lot easier to feel good and conscientious about bike commuting when you are actually leaving a car behind that you could have taken but chose not to. But when there's three kids to tow with one not happy about it, it ain't necessarily so. After some lunch and with Momma home, we all felt better, and I was able to hop back on the bike and ride in to school (felt totally different) and even enjoy the ride despite worn out legs. I guess the moral of the story is that relying absolutely on pedal power takes more planning than I did today.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Such a Week

Ever since finals finished last December, I've been working like crazy to try to get ready for a paper manuscript that was due January 15th. I took two or three days off around Christmas and New Year's Day to spend some time with the family, but all in all, my "break" consisted of a lot of lonely days in the lab, the building abandoned by all but the most desperate graduate students, with a spicy mix of urgency and guilt churning around inside. Urgency because I needed to get good data for the paper so I can publish so I can graduate so I can get a job in academia so I can work really hard ... never mind, I'm going to terminate that line of thought for the present moment. Guilt because my poor dear wife was home alone going crazy taking care of three wonderful, bright, energetic children and wishing I was there to be with her to help out and spend time together. Spicy when I start feeling angry about graduate student abuse... You get the idea.
When January 15th rolled around and I still didn't have good data ready, My Advisor got us an extension until the end of the month (next Tuesday, if my reckoning is right). This high lights one of the downsides of graduate school and doctoral research: previously, with classes especially, if a deadline got too tight, there was always the option of what I called "academic euthanasia." I could always just quit with a good effort and accept a few points off in exchange for release from the torturous finishing effort that has always been such a challenge for me. Now, that is not an option. I don't really have a choice about finishing up this project. The stakes are higher and the scope is much bigger.
Thus, this week found me spending long days in the lab trying to tweak this and modify that in an attempt to get things right so that the plots will come out just right. When my advisor left yesterday after 5PM with the announcement "well, I have to go," i was (mutually, I think) at a peak of frustration and without a clear idea of how to go on.
Last night, we had the home meeting at our house, and I was somewhat recharged afterward, but this morning was a long frustration, too. Eventually, I was on my own for a several hours, and I decided to make a few command decisions. When Prof cam back in around 3:30, I was well on my way to a solution, and when I left at 5:45, I had usable data in hand. Phew!
There's still the slightest chance that there will still be a problem that I'll have to fix tomorrow, and the paper still has to be written, but I have the exhausted satisfaction of knowing that I have done all that I could. And Frankly, I'm Wiped Out. I'm going to bed.
PS. That's Thumper up there.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Convergent Rose

(c)2005 Tim Diller
Here's that little piece of artwork I was trying to scan the other day. I did it in pen and ink in February 2005, shortly after deciding to leave Michelin and return to school. Infer what you like about eclipses, distant horizons, shattered thoughts, clarity of line, blah blah blah. You're probably right. I've got another one that's mostly finished that's been in progress since shortly after I finished this one. Look for that one shortly before I make another major life change.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Nothing's Quite so Frustrating

Is there anything more frustrating than a computer printer?
I will grant you, dear Printer-Lover, that it is indeed amazing what the modern printer can do in terms of photos, printouts, color copies, etc. But there are times when I feel deeply scammed by the printer makers' strategy for selling ink. I've had two ink jet printers that lock down the entire device when one of the ink cartridges is low. Right now, in fact, there is an HP PSC 750 sitting on my desk which is capable of printing, copying, and scanning. But because the color ink got too low, I am unable to do anything with it. At all. Not scan, not print in black and white, which is the cartridge I just replaced. Now my hands are tied until I come up with the $35 for the color cartridge. Grrr!
I can only mutter threats and post a rant to my blog. I had planned to scan some nice artwork to post to please your eyes and provoke deep peace-inducing thoughts. Instead, I'm stirring up the anger I'm sure that you, too, have felt toward the makers of ink-jet scammers, I mean printers. Grrr again!
We have the same situation at home with the Epson Stylus Photo 820, whose black cartridges cost $26 and color cartridges cost $22. What's up with that? Don't tell me that it costs more to make a single color black ink cartridge than it does to make a five color cartridge. This printer, too will lock down and refuse to operate if either of the cartridges is out. We only paid $50 for the printer in the first place. It makes a heck of a lot more sense to go buy a new printer! Believe me it won't be an Epson. Grrr yet again!
Apparently, Kodak offers a printer with cheaper ink, but I don't know about its lock-down policy. I'm tempted to try it with $10 black ink refills and $15 color refills. Has anybody ever had a printer that did not do this?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Poseurs All?

This commentary on an electric bike fad in Europe kind of speaks to me. Check it out at Pinch-Flat news. Does my previous post qualify me or disqualify me for dismissal by the Euro coolies as a poseur? I'm clipless but haven't donned Lycra in ages. Hmmm...

Biking in the Rain

It's a cold, drizzly day here in Austin. It's also M.L.K. Jr. Day at UT. There are a few consequences of these facts: there are no classes, and the University is almost empty, but I'm a grad student with a publication deadline, so what does that matter? It also means I get to ride my bike through the rain!
At first you may think I'm being sarcastic, and you might be partially correct. But there is in fact a small part of me that like to bike in the rain. Two of the big problems with biking in the rain don't matter today: It's hard on a bike, but I've got my driveshaft bike (I promise to blog about it soon; I'm writing a review), which, with full wheel fenders and no chain, is relatively immune to the rain; also, it's a big bummer to have damp jeans while sitting in class; it makes me self conscious and uncomfortable. So, I haven't gotten rid of the wet jeans discomfort yet, but with nobody else around to care, I can sit at my desk for a minute with a mug of hot coffee, dry off, and procrastinate briefly while writing to the blog.
So those are the reasons not to hate biking through the rain on this particular day, but why on earth would I like it? Well, for one, there is the man against the elements aspect. I spend so much time inside under fluorescent lighting, staring at pixels, or sniffining diesel fumes or solder smoke, that Nature is Balm to me. This is closely related to, but pathetically short of, the same sort of joy that mountain climbers find in surviving a blizzard while perched precariously to the side of a mountain, 14,000 ft up. If this makes sense to you, then you understand me perfectly, but if you don't, then let it remain a mystery. Better yet, go climb Long's Peak in Colorado. Then you'll know what I mean.
The other motivation for riding in the rain appeals to the engineer in me. I've some time and effort perfecting my ride against just such a situation, although I usually frame it to myself and others as a hedge against getting caught in rain. That is, it starts raining once I've already committed to my ride. In any case, I've got this new bike that I may have mentioned before. It's got fenders and no chain to get messed up by rain and road grime. I've got a whole system of clothing layers including fleece vest and waterproof shell. I've lined my backpack with Tyvek to protect the water-critical elements like my laptop and notes. (Note to any other bike commuters out there: Fedex Sleeves are made of Tyvek and work really well for this kind of thing. Big bonus is that they're free!) So I have all these elements assembled into a system, and I like to see the whole thing work. Engineers know a certain joy of ownership, a sort of shallow reflection of parenthood, of our creations, and we like to put them to the test and see what the failure points are so we can refine them. I like watching how the fenders catch the water and keep it off me and the bike. I like watching how the tire treads disperse water (I used to work at Michelin, BTW). I like staying warm and dry underneath the rain shell, etc.
So this brings me to the wet jeans issue. There's just no way around it. They're a big bummer. So I've got to do something about that. I read about these wool pants that are designed for bikers. The biker- nerd- engineer in me thinks they're great, but I've long ago learned not to trust my own sense of style in this sort of thing. So I'm going to post the question to any readers I might have. Especially, if you are not into biking answer me this: Should I save up and buy them for a rainy day? Or should I stay far, far, away and just learn to take the bus? Click the link, check them out, take the poll, let me know.
P.S. My wife gets the final say.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Good News Indeed!

Folks, it's a red-letter day for the Diller Family: Netflix just announced a change to their plan, and now instant viewing is unlimited on our $10/month account. Now we'll never sleep because we can watch as many reruns of The Office as we want! Woo Hoo!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Eagle of the Ninth: A Review

Hannah or I have been reading with Ian from a chapter book most every night for the last couple of years. I have enjoyed reading The Hobbit, Treasure Island, the Chronicles of Narnia, and the Three Investigators with him, and Hannah has tackled, among others, A Door in the Wall, Shadow Spinner, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Toulane, and The Tale of Desperaux.
Well recently, we finished reading Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth, and I think this has been among my favorite books. IMHO, it's unfortunate that this is so often labeled under "Junior Classics" or some other such moniker, because the writing and thematic content is so much better and so much deeper than a lot of other adult fare that I've choked down. This book, while having enough action and strength of plot to keep a busy seven year old engaged, is also a fine piece of literature that is thoroughly enjoyable to a more discriminating reader.
The story is set in the early second century, A.D. amid a tense period in Roman-Briton relations. The Roman Empire had recently retreated behind Hadrian's wall, and the province of Valentia was abandoned to the tribes. When Marcus, our protagonist, is assigned to command a garrison on the frontier, he is thrown into the midst of the cultural conflict. With the backdrop of his father's legacy and under the shadow of disgrace cast by the lost Ninth Hispania legion his father commanded, the burden on Marcus to succeed in the Legions in heavy on him. His developing relationship with a local hunter foreshadows many of the themes developed later throughout the narrative: the cultural tension between Roman and Briton, the need for redemption and purpose, and the freedom and danger of the wild, free North. These themes are developed at length through his relationships with Esca a slave-gladiator, a wolf cub, and Cottia a local girl, each of whom affects him profoundly and transforms him significantly. His first encounter with the locals eventually deals Marcus a crippling wound which takes him out of the Legions and into a dark period of restlessness and uncertainty which ultimately lead him on a quest to recover the lost Eagle of the Ninth Legion. While historically, we know the end result of his quest, and this removes some of the tension from certain scenes, the journey is exciting, complex, and beautiful all at once.
Sutcliff uses a lot of imagery and displays sometimes stunning word choice. One of my favorites finds Marcus and Esca alone in the wilds of Caledonia:
It was an evening coloured like a dove's breast; a little wind feathered the shining water, and far out on the dreaming brightness many scattered islands seemed to float lightly as sleeping sea-birds.
Several times, I had to stop and reread a section to savor the words. Out loud. To Ian (who was rolling his eye's I'm sure). Actually, he really got into it, and we had a lot of fun looking up some of the historical places and discussing the plot together. There was a brief exception to the enjoyment at the end when he was channeling the kid in The Princess Bride, bemoaning the possibility of a kiss, but if he rereads it in the future, it will no doubt be a different book for him then, and he may change his mind about that part. In any case, I'm sure I'll reread this book, and I highly recommend it to any who appreciate good writing and a good story.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Quiet Times With Thumper

Thumper is my engine. Let me explain. (Channeling Dwight Schrute, here)
This is the time of year when all of the students on campus are home with their families, enjoying well deserved and much needed time off, checking things off their life to-do lists, earning extra money, blah blah blah. Except the PhD students. For us this is the time of year when we indulge in secret relationships with our test rigs! Break? Who wants a break? I get to spend my time with Thumper!
My morning: Feed hens; make breakfast; shower; dress; pack lunch; leave. I had to hurry and check in on my friend.
Thumper lives in a lab in the basement of the Mechanical Engineering Building. He is a single cylinder diesel engine that I have trussed up with all kinds of measurement devices so that I can study sensors to measure particulate matter in diesel engine exhaust. Thumper is my friend, and he needs me.
There's a lot of problem solving to do with all those measurement devices, since they're almost all scratch built. Therefore, I spend a lot of time fixing things. Today for instance, I had to rebuild a charge amp, which involves replacing three chips in a circuit and recalibrating; then, after I accidentally switched on the 1000V power supply prematurely, I had to rebuild the charge amp again, and rebuild the sensor. Then I had to figure out why Thumper's tachometer wasn't working right and fix that. That's actually a software problem, and I was well on the way to a solution when the computer randomly crashed, taking my program with it. After that it was time to get outside for a little fresh air and sunshine. Before long I was missing Thumper too much, so I returned to the dark safety of my test cell.
Time flies when you're having fun, and, before I knew it, 4:00 had rolled around and it was time to figure out when I was going to leave for the day. I would have liked to leave by 4:30 so I could pick up Ian from Tae Kwon Do, but there was Thumper, so innocent, so needy of my attention. I just couldn't leave! After resoldering a connection, debugging a software glitch, and taking a couple of test runs to make sure everything was set, I was finally done, but it was almost 6:00. I tore myself away with great reluctance, making sure the door was securely locked so Thumper would be safe and secure overnight.
Well I'd better get to bed now. I promised him I'd come in bright and early in the morning. I'm looking forward to another beautiful day together tomorrow.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Into the Wild Blue Wonder

So I'm going to take a crack at the blogging thing. I've actually been toying with the idea for a long time and finally got around to it tonight after a mild revelation. I was out back watching my three beautiful children play on their tire swing. Ian, my oldest, was going crazy with a new name he made up for his youngest disciple, er, I mean sister. "Chubby Grum-Grum!" he shouted at the top of his seven-year-old lungs. Not long afterward, he brought out a pair of underwear for her to put on as a hat, which she thought was just great! Not long afterward, sister number one was asking for a pair and chiming in with her version "Chubby gwum gwum!" Then it finally dawned on me. I'm guilty way the heck too often, of taking myself way too seriously. I don't know why that motivated me to finally start a blog, but for some reason, it occurred to me that one big hurdle has been to think of an appropriate name. The fact is I've been in serious danger of taking myself too seriously and spending more time that I should toying around with variations on a theme of "Biking for World Peace" or "Angry Biker Grad."
Hence "Chubby Grum Grum" in honor of my otherwise beautifully named Caroline Sophia, lest I lose perspective.

Now let's see if I can post three times a week...