Thursday, February 28, 2008

Outside My Comfort Zone

I've been in Biomedical Engineering long enough to be fluent in a broad range of disciplines. Motor Control, being the field to which I've dedicated my life, is fun to play with, and I rather enjoy verbal sparring with my colleagues and my superiors alike. I can also keep up with Will's pattern recognition jargon, although our coffee-shop brainstorming often forces me to pull out a Bioimaging-to-English dictionary.

When it comes to the Chemistries and the Biochemistries and the Cell Biologies, I am a tourist. I wear socks under my sandals, have a camera around my neck, and limit my interaction with the natives to "Please where is bathroom?"

I don't dare venture down to the Molecular level. They speak gibberish and gobbledygook at the Molecular level, and a Biomechanist like me who wanders down their back alleys is likely to be mugged, beaten, and left for incompetent.

Their tools have names like "Medium Energy Ion Scattering" and "Electron Energy Loss Spectroscopy", and their subjects have names like "Ga(2-x)Gd(x)O(3) mixed oxides" and "amorphous-Si/Gd(2)O3/cyrstalline-Si". In contrast, my people have tools like "gripper" and "sleeve" and subjects like "Frank" and "Joe".

This morning I had coffee with Norman, whose lab is in the Nanophysics building. Norman walked me through his research, from pre-existing technologies to his improvements to his application for improving biosensor specificity. Next time you don't get Anthrax, you can thank Norman.

Let me explain what "Nano" means. The largest cells in the human body are the ova, the eggs in a woman's ovaries, which are the size of the period at the end of this sentence. They are 100-200 micrometers in diameter, between a tenth and a fifth of a millimeter, and are visible to the naked eye. Norm works with antibodies that are 10 nm in size... and this number was hard to find, because nobody even bothers to describe size, instead listing the mass of the molecule's atoms.

You could fit more than 10,000 antibody molecules, end to end, across an ovum. If the antibody was the size of a penny, you could arrange them, end to end, into a stack the height of the Empire State Building. Twice. And have enough money left over to buy a Specialized Tarmac Expert.

Norman will never see his work. The most powerful microscopes imaginable wouldn't help. The smallest wavelength of visible light is 400 times the size of an antibody. Yes. Light is actually too big to handle these antibodies. To measure the molecules, nanophysicists have to - delicately - shake 'em and see how they rattle. Or something along those lines.

I work with elbows and hands, and I'm thankful for that.

Common Sense

I was so excited to ride with Mark today. We were going to reconnoiter the crit and road courses for this weekend's race, and I was going to make sure I know how to handle my new bike (I'm pretty sure, but it's always nice to get some confirmation).

Mother Nature, it seems, had other ideas. 19 degrees (F), feels like 6, with winds gusting over 20 mph.

Cooler heads prevailed, and I'll be doing a trainer ride this evening. I remain disappointed, because the trainer is a cruel and boring mistress.

Every time I think of how cold it is, though, the disappointment wanes. This is the sort of cold that cuts through your gloves and socks, that bites at your face and brings your core temperature down now matter how many layers you wear. If I'd ridden today, I would've spent 30 minutes under a blanket with my hands in my armpits (or, if necessary, my crotch) trying to remember to breathe.

Good call, me and Mark.

A Man's Creed

Penned by Anonymous, and first recited to me by Paul Wineman (about whom I can't say enough good things), this poem has been stuck in my head for years. Talking with Rob again brought it back to the surface, I guess.

A Man's Creed

Let me live, oh mighty master,
Such a life as men should know,
Tasting triumph and disaster,
Joy, but not too much of woe.
Let me run the gamut over,
Let me fight and love and laugh,
And when I'm beneath the clover,
Let this be my epitaph:

Here lies one who took his chances
In this busy world of men,
Battled luck and circumstances,
Fought and fell and fought again,
Won sometimes, but did no crowing,
Lost sometimes, but did not wail,
Took his beatings and kept going,
And never let his courage fail.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Founders' Day

I have no idea how to write this. The Founders' Day weekend was a series of profoundly moving experiences, densely packed into 48 hours. I slept too little, drank too much, and was overwhelmed with nostalgia.

Upon arriving in Cleveland, tired and hungry from the ridiculous drive, I went with Rob, Prem, and Congo to the Winking Lizard, a restaurant boasting an absurdly wide beer selection. We knew that some of the other alums were already there, but we had no idea that we'd be greeted by dozens of our friends, many of whom I hadn't seen in 3 or 4 years.

Since the English language lacks the adjectives to describe the utter joy and the obnoxious loudness of this reunion, I will instead use Swahili:
It was click-click-nwe-click

I hopped a bus back to ye olde Fraternity house with Brendan, delightfully buzzed and looking forward to a good night's sleep. The beer-soaked, bass-bumping, black-lit party to which I returned was an acceptable alternative.

The one thing I got from that night (aside from a hangover) was a sense of legacy. Kids I'd never met knew me, came up and introduced themselves, offered me beer. At the rate I was meeting them, and in my sub-optimal state of mind, I had to resort to calling them all New Guy, except for Logan, who I called Trevor for some reason.

I only spent 4 years in Cleveland, for which I thank my lucky stars. Along with all the bad stuff I left behind, I also left a fraternity that I love. It's nice to feel that a part of me is still there, that I still have some ownership of the organization to which I gave so much of myself.

The next day was the official Founders' Day celebration. There will eventually be pictures on the interwebs, and I'll probably post them.

My first Founders' Day as an alumnus was a totally different experience, in that I still knew 3/4 of the active brothers and had only graduated a few months earlier. While I've visited a few times since them, running a seminar and attending big events and whatnot, I'm definitely further removed from the college experience now. This weekend made it clear that yes, I have changed (dare I say grown?), but it also reminded of the lessons I'd learned in my youth.

Hearing about the brothers who'd died in the past year, expectedly so or otherwise, and about the amazing good that brothers are doing now... this all served as a reminder (please pardon the ensuing cliche) that life is too short. The pain everyone felt, knowing that they'd lost touch with people who were no longer just a phone call away, was a sobering facet to an otherwise celebratory weekend.

I also observed the drama, the interpersonal conflicts, the jealousy and backstabbing and accidents that threatened long-lasting friendships. Truly we are all idiots. Bu then I watched freshmen deal with trouble, and I watched alumni. The late night retelling of the forgotten stories, the oral history of my generation, brought all the old epiphanies flooding back.

Life is just too damn short and fragile. It is tricky, of course, to know when to forgive and when to take a stand. It's tricky to see the difference between reconciliation and respect, contrition and condescension. We're supposed to be one big happy family, but that's not the way things work, and there are inevitabilities that must be dealt with.

I still have trouble seeing these fine lines, but at least I can finally see the difference between the reactions of 18 year olds and those of adults.

I'll close this stream-of-consciousness post with an address to my audience. Yes, I am the member of an intercollegiate Greek organization, a "Frat Boy" if you must. No, Phi Psis at Case Western Reserve University are not the guys who pissed you off at your school, nor are they John Belushi's Deltas nor Van Wilder's DIKs. Many of the best parts of who I am came from the four years I spent with those men, and I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything.

In conclusion, I'm proud to be a Phi Psi.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Duncan Robert Lowne, 1979-2007

I spent too little time with Duncan. He never came to official fraternity stuff, which in my naive little mind was what a good brother ought to do. I realize now, years too late, that my few interactions with Duncan were as formative for me as any of the customary collegiate goings-on.

In fact, my most memorable experience with him was from freshman year, an off-campus house party he'd invited me to. It was, it turned out, way off campus. My friends and I stuck out like sore thumbs, wearing fraternity hoodies in a crowd of mohawks and leather jackets with spiked shoulders. Duncan was spinning for the dance club in the attic, the second floor was a punk rock wasteland, and the kitchen was full of obscure hardcore and kegs. We didn't dare venture into the basement. I distinctly remember running from the police, circling the block, and returning to the party. The night ended with one friend passed out on my floor while the rest of us did things that I don't remember distinctly but that certainly weren't bloggable. There was poetry and vomit on the bathroom stall in the morning.

If you don't understand why all this was important, then nothing I say will suffice.

At this point, I will let my friend Ian do the writing. This was originally published in the fraternity's newsletter, and I'm reprinting it here with his okay. I do hope you'll read it.

Although we hadn't seen each other in a year or two, I was invited to Duncan's wedding back in 2002. Because he and his wife-to-be Kris were paying for the wedding themselves, they had to keep the guest list pretty trim and I was lucky to get an invitation. To cinch my spot, I volunteered to be the videographer so they could save the money. At one point, while I was standing in the fountain getting a good angle of the wedding procession, my hand slipped just a fraction of an inch. I barely noticed it at the time, but when they later watched the wedding video, sure enough I had subtly zoomed in on a bridesmaid's chest. I was pretty embarrassed but Duncan and Kris just laughed and said it was a great addition to their wedding. This fit in well with Duncan's take on things. Just a few days before, during the practice ceremony, when Duncan was supposed to take the wedding band out of his pocket and slip it on Kris's hand, instead he brought out a live hamster! I wish I was there to see the priest double over with laugher.

I also wish I was there to help with something, anything, when he was being treated for cancer this past year. Duncan Robert Lowne was my Phi Psi big brother, and (more importantly) I liked and respected him at all times, but for some reason we hadn't been keeping in touch. I first heard that he had terminal brain cancer on the phone with Brother Nick Ippolito.

I got in contact with Duncan's wife, Kris, and she sent me a backlog of emails she had been sending out to Duncan's friends to keep everyone in the loop on his treatment. I shouldn't have been surprised to see that she had been sending out these emails to literally hundreds of people. Duncan touched down not just in Cleveland, but in London, Boston, Seattle, Detroit, Rochester, Japan, you name it.

Wherever he went, people gravitated towards him. I think it's because he spent more time asking new friends about their lives than talking about his own. He was a semi-pro violinist, he raced the police with a car he modified himself, he built robots and sound systems and lofts, he juggled and did martial arts and spoke a dozen languages, he spun music and started a record label (you can still see the "DJ Rathumos" and "Lethargic Records" stickers all over Cleveland), he researched brain functions and could walk on giant wooden cable spools and ... and he lived seven months with the knowledge that he was about to die.

Duncan faced it head-on, and decided on some last things he wanted to do before he passed away, and went about doing them. Along the way, he made it a point of helping his wife and family and friends through it all. He was always thinking of everyone else, and cheering people up with his English-style dry humor. One of his friends sewed him a "Fuck Cancer" pillow that I imagine made him laugh every time he looked at it. He even wanted something fun for his funeral. In an email, he said "... as for a funeral, absolutely NO people wearing black listening to sad organ music, etc. A series of parties is more my style. Maybe get people to spin a few sets. Upbeat attire too, please; no ties or suits! Jean, t-shirts, whatever's comfortable for everyone." So when the time came, his wife Kris traveled the world and organized parties in every city where Duncan had lived, which was quite a lot.

When I found out about the cancer, it took me a week before I got over my anxiety over contacting him. After all, what could I say? -- "Hello Duncan! I heard about the terminal cancer, that's a real bummer!" -- Nope. I racked my brain. I thought about what I'd want to hear if the same thing were happening to me, and I finally wrote him to remind him of some stories I remembered from our friendship, and also some new adventures I'd been in that I knew he would find amusing. He wrote back to say that he had been trying to find me earlier to tell me about all this... and he loved the stories and wanted me to send more... and he apologized but this was all he could type... because due to the cancer his motor skills left him at about two words per minute on the keyboard. I emailed more stories and sent a care package with a lavender neck massage pillow, some new music I thought he'd like, some tea, and a loaf of my best banana bread.

He passed away in England, just a few days before my gift arrived, leaving Kris to open it for nobody. What we should all remember, especially those that read this and have no idea who the hell I'm talking about because they never had the privilege to meet Duncan, is that this is the way to go. Surrounded by friends and his wife Kris and people that really loved him, having done every god-damned thing he could possibly cram into his life before the curtains started closing, he put every bit of energy into making the last days count. If only all of us could do that, every day. Right? This is why I'm so fucking proud of him, and I hope I can do the same when my time comes.

I am absolutely positive Duncan would have wanted me to end this little article with a Latin phrase that we can all take to heart. Te audire no possum, musa sapientum fixa est in aure. Translation: I can't hear you, I have a banana in my ear.

We love you, Duncan.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

White Knuckles

I knew I'd have to drive to Cleveland on Friday, and I knew it was going to snow. I had no idea, though, how epic Friday would be.

The day started on the wrong foot with the pulsating headache that can only follow a night involving tequila. My tolerance to beer has increased over the months, and the post-beer hangovers are pretty mild. Tequila, on the other hand, has been beverage non grata since 2004... for a damn good reason.

Due to extenuating circumstances beyond my control, I had a shot of tequila on Thursday night. One was all it took to put me in a spot of bother on Friday morning. In a din of pounding temples and less-than-pleased stomach noises, I looked out the window and saw the half-foot of snow on the ground.

"Oh hell no," I said to no one in particular.

The ensuing three hours were a nightmare, and a repetitive one at that. Every lane change had my tires losing grip amid the inches of slush that hadn't been cleared by traffic, a rapid onset of spin first in one direction and then the other. Worse was when a truck would change lanes in front of me, launching so much slush at my windshield that I'd be blind until the next pass of the wiper, which never came soon enough.

Worst of all was when we'd come across the snow plows, which were trying in vain to clear the slush. In those conditions, braking to match their speed did little to slow you, but instead was pretty good at inducing a hair-raising slide. Given that even following the plows, the slush was dangerously deep, I have to wonder what good they were actually accomplishing after the first dose of salt that morning.

Cars were spinning out all around me. 18-wheelers jack-knifed, and overconfident SUV pilots made fast acquaintances with the guard rails. The radio reported that North Jersey cops responded to over 150 accidents that morning, most of which were single-car.

I didn't crash. My heart pounded through my chest and my system was running low on adrenaline before I reached Hazleton, but I didn't crash.

For what it's worth, I attribute this success to bike racing. Quite frequently, I would brake for no apparent reason, have time to wonder "why did I just brake?", and then someone six cars ahead of me would brake, causing a chaotic chain reaction to which I'd already reacted.

See, Mom and Dad? A palpable (or nearly so) benefit of bike racing.

The drive was, without question, the most harrowing experience I've ever had in a car or any other moving vehicle - two wheeled, four wheeled, airborne, whatever. I reached Cleveland in a haze, absolutely exhausted and still somewhat shaken. In comparison, the ride home was blessedly easy, the only challenge being a self-imposed limitation on bathroom breaks.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Civic Literacy

Nobody likes taking those "Which Star Wars Character are You?" or "Which Mixed Drink are You?" quizzes on the internet, and yet every blog and every Facebook profile seems to have them.

Neptunus Lex posted a link to a 10 minute Civic Literacy quiz, and because it was meant to be informative rather than cute - challenging rather than flattering - I took the quiz.

I'm pleased to report that I passed. Moreover, with an 82%, I got a B! And that's before the curve!

While I'm embarrassed at some of the questions I missed (turns out I suck at "American Government and Political Thought"), the fact is that I haven't taken American History, or any other history (with the exception of the History of Science, which wasn't much help) since my Junior year of high school. I think a B is pretty damn good.

Okay, now your turn.

Best Supporting Actor

I made my acting debut (D is for Dope was a documentary and doesn't count) in Will's latest installment of the Fights with Aaron series. My role was Don, the rough-around-the-edges trainer with a heart of gold and a penchant for wool hats.

For your consideration:
I Heard You Had Back Surgery

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Oh Noes!

Accompanying Messrs. Angry and NumberOne on coffee-seeking forays into New Jersey's seedy Ivy underbelly, Sally and I rode 120 miles this weekend. These were taxing adventures, and awesome.

On Saturday morning, before any of this frozen-toed silliness even began, my Sally was white as the driven snow, pure as the leaf of the lotus blossom.

By Sunday afternoon, she'd been sullied and debased. Sally was deflowered, and her snow-white had, not coincidentally, turned slush-brown.
My flair for the artistic resurfaced towards the end of Sunday's ride, and my canvas was my bike. Sally's paint scheme was already dashing, that much is certain, but it lacked a certain panache. The finishing touches added some Rutgers red (scarlet, actually) to the top tube, and I daresay it's brilliant.

In the process, I got some on my face, too.
It's not like it's unprecedented. It is, however, always surprising.

Update: I've reread that first post about my new bike. At the end, I wrote "It is my prediction that these will be ruined by April." The bar-tape didn't last 3 days. Totally worth it.

Open Mic

Will invited me to join him and his colleague at an Open Mic night at the West End coffee shop. Being in New Brunswick, or rather being in not-Piscataway, West End is a haven for the tight black clothing, chain smoking, unemployed-but-Daddy-funded type. It is the quintessential college town coffee shop, and perfect as a getaway for the stressed out engineering grad.

The Open Mic performers were good. While my universe remains intact and my mind was left un-blown, the self-expression was refreshing. I found myself wanting to write. Words were floating and interconnecting in my busy little brain, and that can't even be attributed to caffeine - I was drinking a decaf Americano!

What's odd is that I wasn't thinking in verse. Usually, when inspired by some artistic medium, my thoughts immediately take the form of that medium. Last night, though, listening to original songs of the folksy acoustic genre, I was thinking in prose.

I blame that on the blog.

My thoughts all tended to the same theme: a counter-revolution, an acrid response to the self-pitying lamentations of the post-beatniks. Get a job, you hippies.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Gedanken Experiment - Alphabetization

All math and no psychology make Don a dull boy. Not that I'm a psychologist or anything silly like that, but I've taken enough grad courses in the Cognitive Psych department to have developed an appreciation for my epistemologically talented colleagues. Anyway, it's nice to have a common ground with the Humanities kids during our lofty discourses at Ivy League coffee shops.

Along with the torrent of Dynamical Systems, Hidden Markov Models, and Mean Shift Algorithms with which I've been grappling, the not-so-small matter of earning my paycheck has also been demanding my attention. I am a TA, and there are homeworks to grade!

Where there is grading, there is alphabetization. Where there is alphabetization, there is boredom. Soul-numbing boredom. Somewhat inevitably, this led me to our latest installation of Gedanken Experiments.

We all know how alphabetization works. There is a surprisingly long Wikipedia article about it, because there are nuances add complexity if you care to deal with them. However, in essence, alphabetization is a simple sorting process that follows very simple rules.

I wonder, though, if we approach this sorting in a less straightforward manner. Do we subconsciously preprocess the words? Do we put letters into fractions of the alphabet? Most of all, is there any way to tease this information out of some experiment?

I contend that yes, although this is purely conjecture. In fact, a quick lit review reveals that no work has ever been done on this in the entire history of psychology, which is surely impossible. Or maybe I'm just that innovative. Feel free to scoop me on this one, kids.

Let's assume that we tend to divide the alphabet into groups. Let's say that those groups are A-I, J-P, S-Z. If, in the middle of a sorting task, we come across the name Franklin, then we will first put that name into the 1st group, after which we find its proper location within that group. The end result is the proper ordering of all of the items, but this subconscious strategy might speed the process up, maybe.

One experiment that could test this hypothesis is the sorting of some number of words - 52, for argument's sake. We can choose 26 of those words so that each of the 26 letters of the alphabet is represented, producing a uniform distribution across the alphabet. We can then choose the remaining 26 words to be uniformly distributed (U), or we can create a condition in which they are clustered (C). Subjects would be timed as they sort.

If it turns out that our assumption is correct, that the process of alphabetization involves a categorical preprocessing, then the U condition should produce similar times over repeated trials (within, not across, subjects), while the C conditions should be slower - or faster! - depending on the location of the clusters.

Let me explain that last statement. If the clusters are located in the center of our natural groupings - for example, if the clusters are around F and U and the groups are A-I, J-P, and S-Z - then this should be slower than the uniform distribution. The preprocessing won't help, because the clusters are far away from the borders between groups.

On the other hand, if the clusters are located at the borders - for example, if the clusters are around I and P - then the preprocessing will have an effect on the grouping, and alphabetization would be facilitated. This should be much faster.

The experiment would have to be run dozens of times, varying the number and location of the clusters. It would take forever, and it would piss off your subjects. Worst of all, I hardly think this could be a smoking gun, even if it produces results as expected... I can already think of a handful of objections to my claims as proposed above.

If you do end up running this experiment, please let me know what you find. You can just leave a comment here, or you can contact me at:

YouWastedYourTime [at] theninjadon [dot] awesome

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Conversation with a Late Night DJ

I've long considered Milky Manchester a friend... in fact, I was going to write a man-crush post about him before someone scooped me.

He's good people, but I've never really been sure of his musical taste. His Karaoke performances over the past 18 months have covered such a wide variety of genres that it's hard to guess what he actually likes.

Recently, I was made aware of Milky's radio show, airing every Sunday night on The Core (90.3 FM, more commonly known as RLC-WVPH Piscataway). Listening to the webcasts, it has come to my attention that his taste in music is fantastic.

I highly recommend Milky's show, Interstellar Overdrive, to anyone who has ever listened to music, or ever plans to.

Well, wait. I cannot, in good conscience, make that recommendation without also telling this cautionary tale:

It is fun to chat with Milky during his broadcast, via the station's request Instant Messaging technology. It is also fun to make requests, as its very title encourages us (the audience) to do. I've taken the liberty of publishing the transcript of our most recent conversation, entirely without Milky's permission, because goddammit this is a travesty:

TheNinjaDon: i am thoroughly enjoying the set thus far. please continue with the rocking!
C O R E requests: thank you kind listener
TheNinjaDon: also, if possible, a little Night Ranger never hurt anyone
C O R E requests: it's possible night ranger kicked someones ass at some point, but doubtful
TheNinjaDon: when played properly, Sister Christian can cause permanent damage to the eardrums and cochlea
TheNinjaDon: but that's not intentional
C O R E requests: i was gonna play night ranger next but I dont have any

I'm sorry, but

Althought I suppose it's not a fail if you aren't mindlessly obsessed with Night Ranger's "Sister Christian". In which case, tune in next Sunday!

Second Annual Functional Test

Once again, Coach Alessandro wanted me to run a Functional Test to see where my threshold is, so that he can make me ride painfully close to it for extended periods of time.

Last year, my second ever post was a description of that test. I thought it'd be nice to post the results again, if for no reason other than periodicity.

Note that I ran a different protocol this time. While last year I steadily increased my speed, then looked for a plateau in the heart rate recording, this year was simple. For 20 minutes, I rode as hard as I could.

So there you have it. For about 20 minutes, my heart rate hovered around the high 170s. I know that I couldn't have gone any harder, because if you look closely at the last 5 minutes, you'll see a tell-tale increase in the heart rate... I cracked like an egg.

While the heart rate shows that I was working hard, it really doesn't tell how fit (or unfit) I am. Since I don't have a fancy-shmancy power meter, you'll just have to trust me when I tell you that I averaged 700 Watts for those 20 minutes. Hooray for me!

I finished the interval with dead legs, burning lungs, and a pool of sweat under me. My nose and cheeks had gone numb. It was a good workout.

Ride, Sally, Ride

I have a new bicycle. Technically, it is a Specialized Tarmac Expert, but that just seems too formal for my taste. Her name is Sally, after a song that would never have crossed my mind if not for a coincidental Karaoke performane. And I quote:

All you want to do is ride around, Sally
Ride, Sally, ride

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Sally...

She's not so bad from behind, either

Willis got the exact same bike, albeit a size larger. His photos, which were posted in the timely manner one expects from a responsible blogger, are well-focused and artistic.

I'm not going for artistic, because the visual arts are not my forte. Instead, playing to my strengths, I've decided to write about the noteworthy features of the bike, so that the uninitiated might appreciate the pictures of Sally just as thoroughy as my lusting cyclist friends.

I'm generally not the sort who cares about the aesthetics of my toys, but damn, this bike is pretty. The paint scheme is gorgeous, as you've already seen. While I have no idea whose uniforms might match the dark blue and bright red - certainly not Rutgers' black and scarlet motif - I have a purple mountain bike and am colorblind, so this is pretty low on the list of priorities.

Little things make this bike special. That the stock cable housing matches the matte aluminum derailleurs is a nice touch, for example

The whole drivetrain is pretty, actually, which is rare. Drivetrains get splattered with grease and grit, chipped by mishandled tools and loose pebbles, and are effectively treated as an afterthought by most designers. Not Sally.Notice the strategically placed Specialized logo, the stylized S. Tucked away in Sally's nether-regions, this is the branding equivalent of a small butterfly tattoo on a thigh or butt-cheek, as opposed to most bikes' tramp stamps.

Racers care a lot about the mechanical properties of a bike in the vertical and lateral directions (more on that later), but nobody ever talks about fore-aft behavior. Therefore, I conclude that the bowed top-tube is completely worthless.Damned if that little bit of arch doesn't make her look a whole lot meaner, though, right? Catlike and ready to pounce. Ride, Sally, ride.

Nice segue, right?

There are certain things that bikes are supposed to be able to do, and Sally can do 'em! Namely, these fine instruments of self-propulsion are meant to be stiff laterally yet compliant vertically... the duplicity of that entendre was not lost on my friends over at Feel It Robot, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

When racing a bike, you want to put as much power as possible into that little patch of rubber that touches the pavement (or dirt, or wood if you're a badass trackie). You've worked hard to squeeze every last ounce (gram?) of energy out of your muscles, and you don't want that effort wasted on flexing the frame of the bike back and forth.

Having spent the past two years racing on a soft titanium bike (the Fish) with outdated components, I've gotten used to a certain amount of flex in the lateral direction. It was an inefficient system, but I didn't mind.

Now that I've got Sally, I realize just how much power I was wasting. The contrast to the Fish is stark... Sally seems to positively leaps forward at the first twitch of a sprint.

First and foremost, it is significant that this is my first carbon fiber road bike. Carbon fiber is stiff as hell, but also light. That's an immediate advantage over titanium.

By taking advantage of carbon fiber's molding process, Specialized made a bike that is, for lack of a better term, stupid-stiff. They did it with the oversized bottom bracket.Or should I say, BOTTOM BRACKET.

The thing with a superstiff frame is that every little rough patch in the road gets transmitted directly from your wheels to your arms, your legs, and your ass. This is undesirable.

Like a stereotypical Japanese housewife (I don't know, I'm just basing this on movies), Sally is quite compliant. The seatpost has a rubber insert, a patented Specialized technology, to absorb all of the high frequency chatter from the road.The bigger bumps get absorbed by the frame itself. The wishbone-shaped tubes in the rear section of the bike act like a suspension, and they flex just enough to allow a long ride on an otherwise rigid bike.Weight Weenie
I am not a weight weenie. I'm actually trying to gain weight (oh man, I'm going to catch hell for that one!), and I really don't care how much the non-rotating parts of the bike weigh.

Don't get me wrong, Sally is light. She's freaking heroin-chic light. Not anorexic like the sort you'll find with the pros or the wealthy Cat 5s, but light.

Some weight-shaving gimmicks are just ridiculous, though, and I'm not too proud to point them out. For example, the pedals I bought have titanium springs. I bought them because they were on sale (and red!), so the weight savings didn't cost any extra, but come on!
On the other hand, pedals rotate, so lighter is better, right? So the same is true of the drilled cogs of the cassette (sorry, the picture isn't great, just take my word for it)

Again, at least they rotate! Not like the hollow-railed, razor-sharp saddleor the carbon fiber spacers
If those are rotating, you have crashed and have bigger things to worry about.

Oh, I almost forgot. If you are prone to dropping your chain, and if you are concerned about the paint, and if you are a weight weenie, then rest assured, this carbon fiber patch will solve all of your problems!
Some final thoughts:
I opted to buy a compact crankset, because some quick math shows that a 50x11 is actually bigger than the 52x12 I'd been using! That probably makes no sense to half of you, and is totally obvious to the other half. Well, it was news to me! Will got the 52, because "you know what's even bigger than 50x11? 52x11." True story.

Also, it is oh-so-cool to have white equipment. Maybe it's because of James Bond's infamous dinner jacket, or maybe it's because the Euro-pros have insane sponsorships that replace dirty stuff for free - or maybe they've got mechanics (burly Belgians named Gust, usually) who clean everything meticulously.

Sally is festooned with white livery. It's on the paint scheme, and it's on the components. The saddle is white
and so are the handlebars

It is my prediction that these will be ruined by April.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mild Insomnia

With a whole lot of things on my mind - the majority of which are of mathematics beyond my grasp, and the remainder of which are not really blogworthy - I found myself zoning out in front of the TV. 100% zombie-fied. My guitar was a few yards away, but I couldn't drag myself over to play with it. The blog was in sore need of a post(something substantial, not this quasi-introspective double-speak), but I couldn't get myself to type. I am a couch potato tonight.

I'm tired, but it doesn't feel like bedtime yet. That is, I don't have that urge to crawl into bed. If anything, I find myself restless, bored, unsettled ... to borrow a phrase from that infamous sing-along, all I want to do tonight is take a midnight train going anywhere.

Finally it hit me. To easy my troubled mind, I need to self-medicate with good 80s music, with the kicking backbeats and primal screams that brought an end to the smooth music of the late 70s. I need to listen to a duet between Mr. Kenny Loggins and Sir Steve Perry.

Aaaah. Much better. Goodnight, sweet blogosphere.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Capella

I saw an a capella concert last night, and it was cute. A capella is always pleasant, it can't help but be pleasant. I think it's because their arrangements have to pay so much attention to harmony.

Over the years, it's become apparent that I have a condition called Harmony-Induced chills. If I hear even a two-part harmony done well, there's a good chance that I'll get a chill down my spine. It's a nice feeling, and a capella groups evoke it more often than not.

The effect a harmony can have on the performance of a song is profound. Without a harmony, you're basically just listening to highly-coordinated karaoke. In fact, one person singing the melody over a group sounds plain and amateur, but even two people singing a third apart can induce the chills.

For some reason, though, a capella groups all have this inexplicable fixation with beat-boxing. The group last night explained it away by saying "a drum beat can completely change the way a song sounds", and they were right: beat-boxing makes the song sound ridiculous. Especially if you're even whiter than me, which is tough to do.

To wit: No beat-box = totally sweet. Beat-box = unnecessary.

For future reference, please abstain from beat-boxing unless you are one of the following:

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Someday his biographer will use this quote

"I have a feeling it won't work,
because nothing ever works in science"
about his sorting algorithm
3rd hour of staring at scribbled equations
PJ's Coffee in Highland Park, NJ
February 2, 2008

Real Men have velcro shoes

After a month of riding with broken shoes, followed by two weeks of forced rest when my knee rebelled, my new shoes came in. Thanks to the team's sweet new Specialized sponsorship, these aren't just any shoes. These are, hands down, the best cycling shoes I've ever owned.

If you're not a cyclist, I can probably save you a lot of headache by simply saying: They are very good shoes and they look good too. Enjoy the pretty pictures.

So, here they are, my beautiful new toys! The Specialized BG Pro Carbon Road Shoe and the Specialized BG Pro Carbon MTB Shoe. The names may not be creative, but the shoes more than make up for it.
Let's start with the road shoe. I've already been using Specialized's Body Geometry (BG) shoes, albeit the Comp make (two or three notches below the Pro Carbon), for three years. This gives me a unique basis for comparison, since I'm not new to the BG feel - that is, the shaped insoles in the BG shoes that wedge the feet into a more "neutral", allegedly-better position. I'm a fan.

The first thing about the Pro Carbons that strikes me is the carbon. This is probably old news to most of you, but I've never ridden with carbon-fiber soles before. They're AMAZING. So stiff, so comfortable! It begs the question, how much power have I been losing with my loosey-goosey plastic Comps?

The MTB shoes are similarly designed, and once again, the stiff carbon-fiber soles just blow me away. Lord knows it's my handling skills than limit my performance on the MTB, not my power output, but this upgrade can't hurt!

Actually, maybe it can hurt. I do a lot of passing on foot during MTB races, on those stupid-steep climbs where one person bobbles and causes everyone behind him to dismount. It's the same thing in cyclocross, where barriers and runups are my bread and butter. My old, low-end MTB shoes were so flexy that running was a cinch; the Pro Carbons, on the other hand, are so stiff that I wonder if I'll be able to run as fast.

I guess I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. Besides, if I really cared about running, I'd probably still be a runner or something. Running is stupid. Two legs good, two wheels better.

My favorite aspect of both shoes is the adjustability. Specialized calls it the X-Link, which feels just comic-booky enough. If Wolverine raced bicycles, he'd use these shoes. Not only can you adjust the baseline tension of the ratcheting mechanism, you can also set the fore-aft location of the strap.
This is huge. HUGE. Since the Pro Carbons don't come in half-sizes, I had to get a larger shoe than I've been using. They fit well, but not perfectly... until I adjusted the straps a few millimeters towards my ankle. Smooth like butter.

So I've been riding pain-free all week, including 2 quad-busting hours on the Single Speed in the deep, peanut-buttery mud. It's good to be back on the bike, I'll tell you what.

Is there anything quite so satisfying as the shiny newness of a shiny new shoe?
Then again, there's something to be said for ruining that bling with some mucky adventure.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Actual Adventure

or "After the Party it's the After Party"...

It turns out I spoke too soon when I said that I wouldn't be able to attend the fashion show after party. We got put on the guest list in the very last minute, and by god we attended.

There are a half-dozen good anecdotes from last night, none of which I can blog about, as per The Rules of the Blog. Use your imagination... you probably won't be too far off.

Things like this don't happen too often in a Ph.D. student's life. I can't think of any better term for it than "adventure".

Also, it was pretty nice that the train ride was free.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Almost Adventure

I was informed last night that a friend, who shall remain anonymous, had almost scored us tickets to the after-party of some fashion show in New York City. Almost, but not quite.


The best part, they added, would have been that NJ Transit is free for students this week.

No, my friend, that would not have been the best part.

Thoughts on Superbowl XLII

It's a few days late, but I've finally written a post about this weekend's Superbowl... or, as Mark called it, SportsBowl Roman Numerals.

Superbowls, like beer and bike rides, are best enjoyed in groups. The experience is that much better when you are with friends who share your snarky sense of humor, to better appreciate the good and mock the bad... and by bad, I mean horrible. Luckily, I got to watch the game with Willis and Milky, and we had just the right ratio of nachos, pizza, and high-A.B.V. beer.

It was great, but I couldn't help but pine for Super Sundays in the fraternity house at the ol' alma mater. It was a more innocent time, each year boasting a dozen pizzas, couches set up as stadium seating, and beer flowing - and tasting - like water. Buying squares in the Pool wasn't about winning money, it was about winning... this resulted in desperate cries towards the end of every quarter, calling for a Hail Mary at the end of the 1st or a field goal on 2nd down.

Understand, this was a group that would set up a "coin-toss" bracket during March Madness just to make the losing gamblers feel even worse. Sports were important. Our Browns never made the Super Bowl while I was an undergrad, nor did they make it past the Wildcard round, but we could at least root against the "bad guys"... usually the Pats.

Fortunately, this Superbowl was amazing. You already know that, so I'll spare you my reaction... except to say that you should watch this video before the NFL issues a cease and desist on this one too.

I wonder what they're going to call it? Will it fit the naming convention of "The Catch", "The Play", "The Drive", etc? J.A. Adande called it "Slip and Grip"... I hope that name doesn't stick.

I will also bite my tongue when it comes to the much-anticipated Superbowl ads. Everyone has already said whatever it is that I might say. Maybe I'll just wonder out loud, are the commercial writers part of the WGA? Because surely they could do better than Ling Ling the Blatantly Stereotypical Panda. For goodness' sake.

If you get nothing else out of this blog post, friends, I hope you'll at least join me in wondering: What ever happened to the FOX Football Robot? That was, in my opinion, the most compelling storyline ever to intermittently appear during sporting events.

There was the unexpected appearance of the Terminator. There was the delightful character arc consisting entirely of violent conflict. There was even a surprise twist to turn the tide in the Football Robot's favor... but then what? Could not the Terminator triumph over a gang of SportsBots? They're programmed to do calisthenics and signal touchdowns; the Terminator is programmed to destroy.

Dammit, I want closure.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Feel-Good Friday

Due to my utter failure in the lab today (not to worry, failure is just another step on the road to success), I was in a bad mood. The hangover didn't help. Nor did the canceled dinner plans, the interminable rain, the series of increasingly obnoxious emails, and the fact that I still can't ride my f'ing bicycles.

Then I saw a post on Mike Cody's blog. He wrote vaguely enough that I really have no clue what he's hinting at, but he did put up a link to a photographer's album, entitled Excessive Consumption. Don't worry, it's not a bunch of fat people.

Now, I don't feel like debating, or even considering, the implications of a title like "Excessive Consumption". I just like the pretty pictures.

One in particular stuck out. It's the mound of sand and gravel in New Orleans. Observe:
photo by Chris Jordan

Even by itself, it's pretty. Somebody dumped sand somewhere and made a pretty thing. Fine. That such aesthetically pleasing structures are naturally occurring phenomena is cognitively pleasing in and of itself... and that, to me, is the bigger picture.

Here's where it gets really cool: This sort of behavior exists across scales, at least in the gross sense. One of my professors, Shinbrot) investigated them and put the writeup on his website. They're called "rounded hillocks", or so the paper claims.

In a controlled experiment, dripping sand onto a rotating disk, you can produce the same rounded hillocks. Shinbrot controlled the conditions to produce hillocks of a particular depth, but the similarity is evident.
Shinbrot's Figure 5d

These hillocks are millimeters wide, but without the scale, they're all but indistinguishable from the hillocks in the sand pile from Chris Jordan's photo.

But wait! There's more!

Shinbrot's Figure 5c

Hillocks on Mars, hundreds and hundreds of meters wide. It boggles the mind, this similarity across scale, and the fact that we find it so aesthetically pleasing (an admittedly subjective statement) across all of these scales.

For the explanation, and also for more pretty pictures, you can check out the paper. There's lots of math, though. Don't say I didn't warn you.

One more neat-o picture, this one of a car lot in Tacoma.
photo by Chris Jordan

It brings to mind a James Kunstler quote, talking about how suburban design makes humans miserable: "If you stand on the apron of the Walmart over here and try to look at the Target over [there], you can't see it because of the curvature of the Earth. That's nature's way of telling you that you're doing a poor job of defining space."