Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Moses Supposes His Toeses are Frozes

There has to be a better way for me to protect my feet. I wear wool socks, neoprene socks, and booties, but my toes still go numb after 30 minutes on a sub-freezing ride.

Better, thicker booties might do the trick, but how much of an impact will they really have?

Any suggestions?

I just don't want a repeat of today's post-ride shower, cringing as I try to massage the blood back into my little piggies.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Synchronization and Invagination (hehe, yeah)

Today was right up there on the "damn, that's cool" scale. Both in class and out of class, I got to hear some genuinely interesting stuff.

We spent about 20 minutes in Self-Assembly talking about natural synchronization and the math and physiology behind them. You have natural pace-makers, not only in your heart, but also in your central nervous system. Walking, clapping, etc... the rhythm is built in to the system that is your innards.

There's a social aspect to it, too. Cultures that clap at lower frequencies often end up with synchronous clapping, while higher-freq clapping generally stays out of phase. Think about the difference between applause at an Austrian opera house and clapping in an African tribal tattoo, as an example off the top of my head that may not really be accurate.

It's not just us. Fireflies in Malaysia have been shown to cooperate. The males attract females with their butt-lights, and to create an even brighter light, a cluster of males will light their tushes simultaneously, continuing to do so in phase in order to bring the ladies over.


I also talked with another grad student about his research. Unfortunately, the best I can do is paraphrase, but the underlying concept is pretty mind-boggling.

The gist is this: There is barely enough information in our DNA to encode one pinky's fingerprint, let alone an entire body's anatomy. DNA alone can't be responsible for turning an egg and a sperm into a person. Consider that C. Elegans, a tiny nematode, has 10,000 base pairs of functional DNA; an onion has 17,000 base pairs; a human has 19,000 base pairs.

Could this mean that the palpable, measurable aspects of our bodies can't account for our sentience? Do we have souls? Were we created by God?

Yeah, I'm not touching those last two questions.

The cerebellum is a good example of how to account for anatomical complexity. When an embryo starts forming, there are basically a few layers of cells that form a sphere. In this early developmental stage, the brain section has two layers. The DNA of the cells in these layers cause the outer layer to grow slower than the inner layer, in response to some chemical or other.

The Human Cerebellum, from Gray's Anatomy

As the inner layer of the sphere grows, it's bounded by the outer layer, and the new cells are forced to the inside. The layer buckles. This global invagination (I do love that word. It makes me feel like I'm in Junior High again) is the result of a simple DNA sequence, but it allows for the higher-level thinking that separates vertebrates from worms and bugs and whatnot.

In conclusion, INVAGINATION. Hee hee!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Jello Legs

When Coach Alessandro asked me about my season goals, my riding style, etc, we decided it would be best for me to focus on climbing and time-trialing... stuff that skinny dudes do, as opposed to sprinting.

So, days like today were inevitable. A total of 90 minutes of Light, part of a 3.5 hour ride. I got to do 3 hours of it solo. That was fun.

I'm too tired to be witty or verbose. Whatever. Dinner #2 beckons anyway.

Delicious Post-Ride Smoothie Recipe (if the Angry kid can do it, so can I)

1/2 lb frozen strawberries
1 cup frozen fruit (assorted)
2 T vanilla ice cream
2 heaping scoops Endurox (orange)
1/2 cup vanilla Soy milk
1/4 cup orange juice
1/2 cup water

blend. consume.

Oh, and check out this video... it's from World Cup 11 in Hoogerhelde, Netherlands. These are the best 'crossers in the world... and they can't stay on their bikes!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

My Man-Crushes, episode 1

Let me tell you something about my angry vegan friend.

First of all, he's not actually angry. If anything, he's a bit emo, but angry? Nah. He got that name because of this picture...
it was reinforced by this picture...

As for the vegan thing... it turns out he is actually vegan. This has resulted in such hilarity as:
  • being told, by a very earnest fan, "you're fast for a vegan"
  • HardtailJay and Ted convincing SmilinKyle that this vegan eats bacon
  • violent reactions from omnivores who read the recipes on his blog
This dude is enlightened. You can't read that many books and not be. Maybe that's why he's a vegan; All of that reading has elevated him to some higher plane - you know, spiritually - where the animals and peoples and also animal byproducts frolic together. He really does read ungodly amounts of literature, though, and it comes through in conversation.

Sometimes I feel dumb when all I can do is respond "you Kant expect me to believe that!" Then I decide it's clever, not dumb, and I move on.

Have I mentioned that this guy basically runs the Rutgers team?

Also, through the powers of clean living, daily bicycle-pedaling, and possibly devil worship, my boy has lost about 100 lbs. That's 42% of an angry vegan. Photographic evidence:




You may be wondering, "who is this magical, manly man?"

I'll tell you who he isn't. He's not the wolverine.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Clean Saddle, Clean Slate

I've owned the same road bike since 2004. It is my first road bike. It is a 1993 Trek 1000. Only, now it's not.

It was named Tsav, hebrew for Turtle, because the frame was green, and we were slow.
Now it is named Dag, hebrew for Fish, because it is silver and spry.

Yes, both my 'cross bikes (Ze'ev and Carish) and my MTB (Levyatan) were similarly named.

Over the years, I've invested in the bike, usually replacing broken items. Apart from a new chain, cassette, etc (the usual suspects of periodic replacement), Tsav's transition to Dag has been a slow but almost complete rebirth, including a new:

Frame (2001 titanium Mongoose (rebadged TiSport), nude and unbadged)
Fork (not sure, something carbon... came with the frame)
Brifters (9sp Tiagra... high roller, right?)
Pedals (Crank Bros Quattro)
Brake (front only)

So the only leftovers are the wheels, rear brake, seatpost, handlebars, and saddle.

Let me tell you about that saddle. It is old. I don't even know how old, because it came with the bike when I bought it. It felt alright, so I didn't question it. Then again, I'd never ridden road before, so I had no basis of comparison.

Now that I have a coach, my weekly mileage has gone way up, and it has become clear that I needed a new saddle. Well, I also need wheels whose spokes aren't rusted to the rim, race-worthy tires, and more bibshorts... but trust me, I really needed a new saddle.

I bought the Specialized Alias; not the highest end, but definitely not what I'd been riding on.

Some people get baptized. Some people have epiphanies. I bought a new saddle.

Words cannot describe the difference between pre-Alias and post-Alias riding. Dag is now a completely new bike. The fit is the same, but the ride feels so much more forgiving, so much more powerful... It's as if Dag herself has been rejuvenated. She feels livelier, like being ridden is no longer a struggle, but a game.

Or maybe it's just that the old saddle was a piece of crap, and now my ass doesn't hurt so much.

Out with the old...

...and in with the new

Tomorrow's Doctors

Biomedical Engineering undergrads, especially at Rutgers, use their degree as a stepping-stone to medical school. I have to give a quick attendance quiz to the undergrads for whom I'm TAing.

Today's question was:
Name the two pathologies discussed in the lab manual.

Today's answers were:
Asthma and Emphysema

a significant number of the students wrote:
Inspiration and Expiration

This means that it's possible that someday, your doctor will consider BREATHING to be a DISEASE STATE.

I plan on never, ever getting sick.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Public Service Announcement... for reals

New Jersey Transit has a sweet deal this week. Free transit for the college kiddies.
It expires on the 28th.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Preparing Future Suckas

"Preparing Future Faculty is recommended for all Ph.D. students", says the Graduate Handbook. It makes sense; why should everyone from K-12 be taught by teachers with Masters degrees in education, but college students should be taught by untrained geeks who love their fields?

I was looking forward to learning how to teach... after all, it's what I want to do someday (following the grand traditions of everyone from MegA and AngryMark to Ralf and Andy). I wanted to learn about the Socratic method, and about opposing schools of thought like ... well, I don't know what schools oppose Socrates, because I never learned any of that stuff.

Instead, this course turned out to be Slave Labor 501 (as opposed to 101... 'cause this is grad level servitude). Our "training" is actually spending a week as a TA in the general BME (that's Biomedical Engineering) undergrad lab. We spent all fall semester "preparing" for that week.

Find yourself a communications major (I choose Brigadier General Handloff) and ask them about the pitfalls of group meetings. Specifically, things like groupthink, soliciting volunteers, sharing responsibility, and so on. That's what the ass-hat running this course did. Our 1.5 hour meetings should've lasted 5 minutes. I've relearned how to doodle.

Even worse have been the assignments. Instead of saying "when we meet next week, please revise the model lab report", we got emails as late as the midnight before class to the same effect. No, Professor Ass-Hat, I will not be able to accomplish this menial task, which would take me 10 minutes, in the next 12 hours. I need to sleep for most of it, and the rest of the time will be spent doing anything but set the precedent of being at your beck and call. It's too bad you didn't ask me yesterday, if not last week.

Of course nobody would do the work he wanted us to do, and of course there were no consequences. Fortunately, since he delegated this responsibility to everyone, we could all hide behind each other.

If you can't tell, this week is my week to TA, and I'm THRILLED. Yes, I've known this was coming for months now, but the magnitude of it is only now sinking in.

What doesn't help is that because Prof. AH forgot to upload the revised Lab Writeup I sent him, there are now 2 versions of the Writeup available on the interwebs. Oh, and he would like me to prepare a 1-page summary of what I'd like from the students in their lab report (I want a LAB REPORT, damnit! Didn't they learn this stuff freshman year? How complicated could it be?). And to prepare a few powerpoint slides to introduce the lab (the students are being lectured about the lab by a tenured professor tomorrow morning... what the hell else am I supposed to contribute?).

Everything I listed in the above paragraph was sent to me via email, THIS AFTERNOON.

Now, there are TAs who do this week-in and week-out. Who am I to complain about dealing with a bunch of weinerkids (©Handloff) for a week? Well, in my defense, TAs are paid to TA. Their continuing presence at grad school is contingent on TAing. Their performance is rewarded by money for tuition and food.

I get a credit. Worse, I get a credit that I don't even need. Coincidentally, the first class meeting, in which I was informed of the nature of the class, was 1 week after the drop/add period closed. How convenient.

If this is what being faculty is all about, I'm going to industry. Starting salary there is almost 2x as much, anyway.

Oh, hell, who am I kidding? I'm not going to industry. Damn it...

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Gedanken Experiment - Backseat Driving

I officially met Kate and Kate, the reigning Queens of ECCC 'cross, at the Casters race in Rhode Island. They asked how long the drive back was... my answer was 4 hours. "I thought it'd be faster," said Kate.

Please note that I dug pretty deep during that race, and pretty much had no ability to process the details of later conversations. Fortunately, both Kates are named Kate, so my story isn't inaccurate. Convenient, eh?

Anyway, I explained that I drive a bit like a grandmother. "Funny, most bike racers drive like they race". Well, duh, that's why I brake on descents, corner like a ming vase, and handle like I'm riding a tricycle.

So I'm not a great driver (at least not in the speed and aggressiveness department). I'm definitely not a great passenger, either. When being driven by certain people (not the least of whom is HermesJenks), I do the whole panicky passenger thing... gripping the door, stomping on an imaginary brake pedal, not breathing.

Certainly, this must annoy the drivers. I wonder, then, if my behavior is based on my own inherent discomfort with high speeds, or if it's something that everyone does, but at different scales.


We take 10 people. Each of them sits in a simulator, not unlike arcade games like Cruisin USA... maybe one that's slightly more realistic.

They run 10 trials on the same course. After each trial, subjects are asked a few questions, like "What was your comfort level", "How well did you drive", all on a 1-10 basis.

Subjects return a week or so later. 3 of the self-made (SELF) trials are selected at random, as are 7 of the 90 exogenous (EXO) trials. Or something like that, maybe 5 and 5. The subject sits in the same simulator, but now watches the videos, reporting on their comfort level and rating the driver. They remain naive to the identity of the driver.

If their rating of the SELF trials decreases significantly from recording to viewing, then that would suggest that passenger discomfort is the result of a lack of control. If, however, we are able to subconsciously identify our own driving, then the ratings shouldn't change much. This would suggest that discomfort is the result of what the individual perceives to be sketchy driving.

So why would I be so uncomfortable when Jenks is driving, but Jenks isn't uncomfortable when other, even crazier guys are driving? I think there's a threshold to it. If self-rating doesn't decrease when we're passengers - ie, if the discomfort is caused by "bad" driving, not passivity - then within our own comfort range, there's probably no perceptible difference between drivers. However, exceed that range (in one direction or the other), and you'll be either crapping your pants or mocking the driver (which is hurtful, by the way).

I don't know how to explain this behavior in the case where self-rating does decrease when we're passingers... the case where passenger-unease is the result of passivity. Maybe it's the same as the above, only the effect of passivity is weighted differently from individual to individual (in which case, I'm still a particularly Nervous Nancy). Or maybe there's some other explanation that lets me save face. Suggestions?

If you would like to fund this experiment, please give me grant money. My advisor and I would thank you.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Endorphin Rush

Okay, so maybe I'm not a natural at this whole bike game. My lung capacity isn't off the charts, my hematocrit is probably pretty low, and my tendons are as stretchy as aluminum dowels. I overpronate, I have a heart murmur (inefficiency!!!). Pretty much the only thing I've got going for me is the climber's build.

At least I look better shirtless than Rasmussen.

My physiology may be trying to sabotage my sporting career, but damned if it doesn't make up for it by pumping me full of endorphins. Sweet, sweet endorphins.

People talk about the runner's high. While I can't experience what my friends experience, I'm pretty sure that I get that high easier than most people. I just start working out, and BOOM I feel goooood.

Endorphins, by the way, get their name from the fact that they're basically endogenous morphine. Yes, your body produces a controlled substance. Call the DEA! Alert Dick Pound!

Back in college, I was actually convinced that I had an endorphin dependence. I was training for a marathon, but also swimming and running. Occasionally, school would get in the way and I'd go a couple of days without training... suffice it to say that I was a lot less fun to be around during those few days.

That there could be such a strong correlation between sedentariness and bitchiness was a little unnerving.

My training has been pretty much the same since then, by which I mean I train all the time, but occasionally skip a day or 4 (not anymore, though, now I'm following Coach Alessandro's plan... I swear!). I do get a little antsy, a little wound up perhaps, but nowhere near as bad as when I was an undergrad.

So clearly it's not about the endorphins, at least not in the direct, biochemical way. I don't need methadone.

Logically, the alternative is that working out is a therapeutic substitute. Some people visit a shrink, some people pop Prozac, and certainly synagogue or church serve the same purpose. I just happen to be one of those poor schmucks for whom getting my heart rate up for extended periods of time is cathartic.

When I don't ride, I just can't cope with stress as well. Life starts to get to me, and my generally jolly disposition wanes. I self-medicate by clipping back in and finding the nearest hill (no small task in central NJ).


The above has been another edition of "Don Exploring What Every Cyclist Already Knows"

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Piled Higher and Deeper

They say that American Splendor is the comic for the everyman, that Spawn is the comic for the angry goth kids, and perhaps that X-men is the comic for sideburn-aficionados. It stands to reason that someone somewhere was destined to create a comic for that underrepresented population, the graduate student.

PhD comics
, written and illustrated by Jorge Cham, fits that niche, and fits it wonderfully. Cham's ability to observe the general nature of graduate life and capture it, day after day, in a 4-panel comic strip is uncanny.

These comics need no explanation; if you know grad students, you get them. If you are a grad student, they somehow evoke both laughter and deep depression.

Even better, though, are the comics that are really specific to what grad students experience. The ones that make you say "oh man, I have been there! That has happened to me!". This is especially true when the timing works out such that the circumstances of the comic occur simultaneously with the corresponding real-life events. These comics really sting.

my first assignment in the lab was to clean it up

the quals talk started in march, and i died a little

i, too, was excited to start writing up my work... for the first 5 minutes or so

red ink hurts... it just cuts at you

yeah, this still happens

Knowing that other people are also going through this crap somehow makes it more tolerable. Now if only someone would make a comic for the cyclists. Oh wait! There's Frazz!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

More Chaos

Will and Aaron just staged a sit in (unsuccessfully) in my room. Jenks has a blog. Karaoke night is now on Wednesday.

is nothing sacred?!?

Self Assembly

The long and short of it is this: I am the luckiest guy in the world. For one thing, after bouncing from sport to sport, I found one that really does it for me. Bike racing. If you didn't know.

But also, I think I've really found my niche in the academic world. Being a grad student, being in my lab, taking my classes... these things make me genuinely happy.

Hand in hand with deriving happiness from course- and lab-work goes geekiness. I am a closet geek, and I'm rather prone to complete geek-outs. I have a subscription to Science, and the book on my nightstand is Biomimetics. More often than not, the books I read for fun have homework problems at the end of each chapter.

So I needed to sign up for a course this semester. I only have one requirement left, a Life Science course, and I really don't want to take any Life Science classes being offered this spring. My only two mildly-useful alternates were Statistics and Neural Networks, I had a bit of a dilemma... both of those seem like a lot of work for very little payout.

Then Andrew told me about Self Assembly in BioEngineering. I signed up immediately, because it's being taught by Shinbrot, one of my favorite professors. Risky, I know, but the title seemed vaguely interesting, and I really like Doc Shins' teaching style. Today was the first class, and I was pleasantly surprised.

My entire post-bacc career has been about chasing the "ooh, that's cool" response. I call it the "cool-factor". Granted, the stuff that I call "cool" is generally anything but. The Fonz would not approve. Still, I get great pleasure from learning how to solve the great mysteries of the human body (like why do Meg's knees want to fall apart?)

Self Assembly is going to be cool. There are fantastic patterns that spontaneously form in nature, from chemotaxis in Dictyostelium to bifurcation and chaos in population growth. Many of them can be explained and explored with math. Lots and lots of ugly math.

If I can wade through the math, I'm going to really enjoy this class. This, of course, is like saying "If I can survive the 3 mile swim to shore, I'm going to really enjoy the view of the ship". It will be a bit of work, but unlike (shudder) Statistics, there will actually be a payout.

The Fonz thinks it's cool

Monday, January 15, 2007

My Achy-Breaky Heart

First of all, let me make it clear that I do my best not to stereotype, pigeon-hole, or assume anything about any groups of people. Far be it from me to presume that a small sample could be representative of the whole group. Far be it from me to be so conceited as to believe that I could observe a large enough sample to be able to adequately represent the group.

(and now, the inevitable "But,")

But boy oh boy, I do despise rednecks.

Having just finished a roadtrip through the South, I can certainly say that the Southerners I encountered are fantastically warm, open people. I don't think there was a particularly different percentage of intelligent people or of dumbasses than you'd find in the Northeast. Their accents are charming and contagious, and their generally cheerful demeanor beats the hell out of the ubiquitous Northern cool-guy cynicism.

Their music, though, just doesn't lend them any credibility as intelligent people. While I'm admittedly painting with an impossibly large brush, I would contend that intelligent people want to be intellectually challenged by their entertainment, whether movies, television, books, or songs. My (thankfully) limited sampling of country music did not challenge my intellect, but rather my tolerance for discomfort.

This discomfort was revisited last night, as the men of
Hardtail for Life Shanghai-ed me to a country line dancing bar. I had fun, because Jay and Mike are always good company, but the music was a constant, unyielding obstacle to good times.

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about:

"But don't tell my heart, my achy breaky heart
I just don't think it'd understand
And if you tell my heart, my achy breaky heart
He might blow up and kill this man
--"Achy Breaky Heart", Billy Ray Cyrus

I submit that this song was actually written by a 5th grader.

Now, there is a version of this song that has recently grown in popularity in the world of alternative rock. In the interest of fairness I'll post it as well:

"If you talk too much my head will explode (x7) "
--"If You Talk Too Much (My Head Will Explode)", People in Planes

Let's allow that one to speak for itself.

Finally, we'll look at Radiohead. Thom York is my hero. He took a similar idea and, rather than just write it down as he might say it to a 10 year old, he let it ferment into something subtle, illustrative, and thought-provoking:

"Karma police, arrest this man
He talks in maths
He buzzes like a fridge
He's like a detuned radio

--"Karma Police", Radiohead

I could certainly give other examples, with a little more research (eg, contrasting "No Shirt No Shoes No Problem" with just about any other song about vacations). Moreover, I'm sure that anyone who slept through a liberal arts major could tear my argument apart, portraying modern music as a shameful anticlimax to the poetry of decades (and centuries) past.

I don't care. I hate country music and the rednecks who make it.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Functional Test

After yesterday's unintentionally long bike ride, it probably would've been prudent to take it easy today. Then again, I am not often accused of being particularly prudential. Besides, Coach Alessandro wants to know what my Functional Threshold (FT) is.

For those who don't know, your heart functions in zones. It'll stay in a zone until something physiological changes (for example, you demand too much muscle activation, and the oxygen supply can't keep up with the demand) and the heart needs to jump into the next zone. In order to design a user-specific training plan, a coach needs to know how hard he can push you before you leave the "this hurts, but I'm okay" zone and enter the "I'm going to pop like a mucous-filled baloon" zone.

To find the threshold (FT) between these zones, Mike and I got together to run the Conconi test. Essentially, this is the same as a stress-test, like you'd see on House or Scrubs... with the big difference being that we're not at risk of heart failure, but we're inflicting this torture on ourselves. We start riding easy, increasing speed every minute and recording heart rate until you can't ride any more. Where your heart plateaus is where your threshold is; even though you're working harder and harder, your heart really doesn't want to beat any faster, lest it get into the aforementioned "mucous-filled baloon explosion" zone.

Unfortunately, Mike's test got screwed up by the tension on his trainer. Basically, he couldn't get enough resistance to actually induce "failure", so we never got a plateau... plus now there's shredded rubber all over my couch.

Me, I definitely reached failure. After seeing Mike's tire-destroying, 43 minute suffer-fest, I cranked my trainer's resistance way up. That definitely did the trick. Within 17 minutes, I went KABOOM.

For those keeping score, my FT is 178 bpm. And now you know. Oh, and I plotted my results via Matlab, because I might as well do something useful with years of Post-Bacc education (right, Mark?)

Next time, on Unnecessary Self-Torture: Don beats himself with nunchuks, and Mike covers himself in honey and then lies down on an ant-hill.

Inaugural Post

Using Facebook, I've tested the waters of the blogosphere to see if it's good for me. It would seem that my ramblings were palatable to most of the people who read them, or at least that nobody was so bored or offended as to complain to me.

So I've created TheNinjaDon. Its name is based on my nickname... Appropriately enough, the name was given to me by two independent groups: the BMEs gave me the name for my ability to program in Matlab (yes, I'm that cool), and the Cycling Team gave me the name because I always seem to suddenly *poof* appear in the front group during 'cross practice.

Maybe I don't like this nickname... the cycling-specific version implies that I'm a terrible starter. Normally, I'd say that's true, but by god I got the holeshot at Nittany Cross! It was sweet, wish you could've seen it.

The plan for this blog is for a wide breadth of posts. Some will, of course, be about bike racing, but I'll try to limit those. Others will cover experiments that I wish I could run, observations about everyday stuff, and perhaps some making fun of Mark