Impractical Fashion

I was putting something together in the lab today and dropped a screw. I never heard the "tick" of it hitting the floor, and after a few minutes of searching, I found it in the cuff of my pants:
I guess that should tell me not to assemble things while wearing dress pants.

I used to work with liquid nitrogen. This stuff is almost always boiling (though it's extremely cold) so it splashes all over the place. One day I was wearing loafers, the kind with the stitched lip around the edge of the toe, and I looked down to see a puddle of gently bubbling LN2 on the top of my shoe. Hmm.

Truisms, 3

Never trust someone who says "trust me".

Gifts are symbols. They represent you when you're not physically there.*

Jerking off for sex is like fighting for peace. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but sometimes it helps.

A rationalist is never satisfied to be correct accidentally.

*I stole this from one of those little books next to the cash register in a bookstore.

And lastly, my personal motto:
Teach a man a fact, and you can agree with him once. Teach him to think, and you can respect his conclusions forever.

The Octopus Project at The Grog Shop

Last night I saw The Octopus Project at the Grog Shop. Well, that's not true. I saw three opening acts and left at 11PM because I had to work today. I'm a feeb, but at least I heard some live music.

The first act wasn't even named on the program. It was a one-man band who got up on stage and humped his synthesizer. He had some interesting sounds sampled, but it had no groove. I suspect that's true of almost all electronic music--the rhythm section is always on the beat, never before or behind--but this was really dry.

I seem to recall that the second act made noise. Gradually escalating levels of noise, followed by silence and applause, then starting up again. I'm not going to dignify them with a link.

The third band was a German techno group, Jeans Team, on a brief American tour. They looked ridiculous but I have to say they rocked it out. Looks like they've been together for over 10 years.

I learned about Octopus Project from eMusic. I downloaded Hello, Avalanche and I like it quite a bit. It's instrumental and mostly electronic, though the drums sound real. High energy stuff, I recommend it.

As much as I hate having to lay out cash every month ($12 for 30 songs is my current plan), eMusic has been a pretty good way to take risks in discovering music. I found Octopus Project through the "neighbor recommendations" function, where your downloads are compared to others'. That's how I got Evil Nine's album You can be special too.

Anyway, I sense another tangent coming on. More later.

Truisms, 2

Common sense feels like genius after you've done without it for a long time.

Corollary (the "Dopeler effect"): The faster a dumb idea comes at you, the smarter it seems.


When deciding what to keep and what to throw away, we would do well to remember this:

Expensive is not the same thing as valuable.


Also, here's another minor irony for today:

Analog clocks are anachronistic.

Reality TV Shows I'd Like To See

Get Lost
So You Think You Can Shoplift
American, Idle
Hell's Kuchen
The Crocodile Blunder
Query for the Straight Guy
Extreme Takeover
Pimp My Hide
The Biggest Boozer
Kathy Griffin: My Life in the D-Cups
Candide Camera
This Is Your Life, Jackass
The Molé
Meal Or No Meal

Further inspiration here. Please continue in the comments....

First World Problems

Elsewhere in the world, people spend all their energy getting enough to eat. We spend money to get exercise at gyms. This is ironic. It is also what they call a first world problem - the kind of thing that only western modernity could produce.

Road rage, invasive species, substance abuse, this is the bed we've made and we're laying in it. I think it's particularly insidious because there's a frisson of shame that comes along with fighting a battle no caveman could understand. To die in a bar fight is poetry (if only bathroom wall poetry), but to eat oneself to death is pathetic.

Watch out for them. Keep your mind clear. That's all I'm saying.

Americano at One Bratenahl Place

Americano is a restaurant which is, oddly, behind a fence with a guardhouse. There are to my knowledge no nuclear weapons there, but the guard hangs around anyway. Tell them you're there for the restaurant and they'll wave you right through.

I've had the espresso-rubbed steak twice and it was excellent both times. Surprisingly, the best thing about it was that the meat was cooked perfectly, as well as at any steak house. Too often elsewhere I get a mediocre cut of beef with fancy sauce.

We hold the blogger meetups there. Last time, a couple people ordered a mushroom-based soup that was sublime. I'm not much of a soup guy, but it was impressive.

Chef V has a blog, and he seems to be posting more often now. I hear there are plans to corner him with a videocamera. Keep your eyes open.

Featurephilia: the dull throb of consumerism

Do you remember ever getting a new computer and exploring every menu option, port, and drive, just because you were excited to find out what it could do? Have you ever noticed that your phone's printed manual is heavier than your phone itself?

My phone plays music. It is not, however, an iPod. So when a friend gave me an extended mix to listen to while driving, I wanted a way to note which songs I liked. But my phone has no "favorites" or "stars" function. I felt frustrated by this, and then I immediately felt the absurdity of the situation. What vanishingly tiny fraction of my wellbeing is represented by the ability to grade the quality of my entertainment options while moving at 70mph?

I think Moore's Law has accustomed us to having every electronic feature we need, and about three times as many that we don't need. And by "need" I mean the geek definition, which is roughly "remembered and used at least once after the first week of ownership". When we actually want a feature that isn't there, we feel slightly shocked and indignant.

But a music player's favorites function is completely unnecessary. Food is necessary; shelter and safety are necessities. Music is just nice. Having so much music that you can't remember which songs you liked is really an embarrassment of riches. A first world problem.

At this point maybe I should launch into an anti-consumerist tirade, or postulate that this excess spoils us for simple pleasures. But I'm tired. I've been ground down to a nub of enamel, bone, and tattered flesh by forces I can't even name. Maybe it's all the attention I pay to unnecessary things.

Bad Idea Baby Names


Remy St.-John de la Fucktard

A joke I may have misremembered

A woman gave birth to twins but, due to complications, was unconscious after delivery. Unfortunately, state law required that all newborns be given a name, by a relative on the premises, within 24 hours of birth, or the hospital would provide names for them. Names like "23AFF7." The woman's husband was away on a business trip, so the only relative available was his not-very-bright brother. The woman called her anxious husband when she awoke. "Great news honey! We have a little girl and a little boy!" "Wonderful! What did my brother name the girl?" "Laniece." "That's not too bad. What about the boy?" "Dude."

Wino Jackpot

Yesterday I bought six cases of wine. That probably sounds insane, but there are several other insane facts that make this perfectly reasonable:
(a) I already had about 100 bottles in the house.
(b) We'll drink it.
(c) I got it for 40% off retail prices, from a restaurant that's going out of business.

I won't name the restaurant, as I'm sure they'd rather not meet every stubbly, panting bargain-hunter within fifty miles, but I'm deeply grateful for the opportunity. I even asked about the shelving.

How did I end up with 100 bottles of wine? Alice and I take wine vacations. Two years ago we had our anniversary in Sonoma. This year, Alice joined me at a conference in Oregon, and we stocked up on pinot noir. Next year's conference is near Alsace, France.

I love to pair food and wine. It's one of those things where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. By contrast, I spoke with some wine afficionados recently who said they only drink red wine. I can respect that preference, but what do they drink with tilapia? Ginger ale? I was a little sad when I realized that they probably only drink wine by itself, not with food. Well, to each his own.

Cooking to impress chicks: salsa and guacamole

Women love to see a guy in the kitchen, chopping away. Here's a recipe that will make you look seriously talented. It also tastes awesome and it's good for you. It takes some time, but you can use that time to showcase yourself, in the kitchen, chopping away while your lady sips margaritas and looks on lovingly.

Three medium very ripe tomatoes (soft)
Two avocados (not hard, should yield to firm pressure)
Cilantro (about a cup, finely chopped)
Green onions, at least one bunch. Thinly slice all the white parts and some of the green parts.
Two fresh jalapenos, finely diced, with or without seeds depending on how hot you want it
Olive oil
Lime juice, preferably fresh, but bottled is OK

Core and then finely chop the tomatoes.
Mix tomatoes with half the cilantro, half the onions, half the jalapenos, and some salt and lime juice. Adjust proportions to taste. As the salsa sits, some of the liquid will come out of the tomatoes; stir it up occasionally.

Fresh Guacamole
Peel and seed the avocados. Mash them, making them not completely smooth; I chop them up first to make it easier and then use a fork to mash them. Taste them, then add olive oil and keep tasting until you like it. I often add one or two tablespoons. Mix in the rest of the cilantro, onions, and jalapenos, then add salt to taste.


I once worked in a building full of lubrication scientists. All the door hinges squeaked.

I now work in a building full of heat transfer engineers. The lunch refrigerator freezes everything.

Our bank's stock is worth less than two dollars a share.

When I was in college, one of the course catalogs was printed with "MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERISTY" on the cover.

My heroes: Wile E. Coyote

Wile E. Coyote had a major influence on my decision to become an engineer.

He had a very DIY ethic. He kept getting those crates of hardware from Acme and building machines to help him eat the roadrunner. My favorite might be the catapult cartoon, where the intractable machine smashes him (instead of the roadrunner) in at least a half-dozen ways. I'm laughing just thinking about it, and I haven't seen it in decades.

It's a brilliant commentary on physics--Wile standing there scratching his head, and the rock just sliding off the giant flyswatter onto him, or the rock standing absolutely still while the whole wooden frame flips over and smacks him--and it probably bent my young mind into a deep skepticism against expecting things to behave in a certain way.

If I got a tattoo (I'm the last surviving GenXer without one), it would be Wile. Maybe the picture above, with the subtitle "ENGINEER".

What do you like in a car, and how can you get it for cheap?

The recent series of posts about the Mazda's suspension got me thinking. A lot of people are kind of allergic to customization. Consumerism teaches us that we define ourselves to the world by what we choose to buy: our car, clothes, personal electronics, etc. To customize anything is unnecessary and gauche in this view.

But there's a whole segment of society for whom personal style *is* customization. Here in Cleveland, probably half the cars I see are lowered or have huge rims or wide exhausts. In fact, a lot of them are 1970s-1980s Detroit iron, beautifully restored and then modified. Children understand this. If you gave a child a laptop, they would cover it with stickers. They put tassels on their bicycles.

I have slightly unusual tastes in cars. I like tight handling. Really tight. I think the best handling car I ever had was a 1993 Civic, which weighed 2300 pounds. I could get handling like that today if I bought a Subaru Impreza WRX, a Mazdaspeed3, or, moving upscale, a Porsche Boxster or a BMW M3. The problem with all those cars is that they have way more horsepower than I need or want. I know myself well enough to know that having a faster car would just make me more of an asshole. Also, these cars cost a lot to buy and to insure.

Certain lines of cars are sold with a wide range of prices and performance levels. I've already mentioned the Mazda3, Impreza, and BMW 3 series. The Mitsubishi Lancer qualifies, as does the Civic. There are plenty others. So I can pick a car for appearance, features, and price, and then customize the suspension so it feels the way I want it to. Putting WRX shocks, springs, and wheels on an Impreza would get me a terrific all-season car (I could even put winter tires on the smaller Impreza rims) for much less than an actual WRX.

Do you like straight-line power? Get an Impreza and put the WRX engine in it. Or a Civic ... there's been a huge community of Civic modders out there for years. Do you like comfort? Find a Cadillac DeVille with high miles and a small engine, have the shock absorbers replaced with new stock parts, and check the reviews at Tire Rack for the most comfortable tires that will fit it.

You can have what you want. You don't have to pay to have it delivered in a package full of stuff you don't care about. With time and research, you can make it suit your tastes.

Go cheap or personalize it?

The mechanic said he had trouble finding replacement shock absorbers for my Mazda, but he could get them from the dealer and do all four corners for about $850. This is not completely insane (my fear was $1500 for the front alone) even considering that the dealer is charging a huge markup for the parts.

I can replace all four shocks/struts (a strut is basically a shock absorber plus its housing, in cases where they come as a kit). The OEM parts are about $300. I could get better shocks for sportier handling. There are a couple of third-party offerings, for example from Koni, for about $600 and up. I could also get the parts they put into the Mazdaspeed3 for $500. The speed3 is a hot car with great handling, though I certainly don't need the horsepower.

Wait a minute ... they're going to take the suspension off the car ... and then put it all back on with some new parts ... why not change out more parts ... and get the car I really want ... a mazdaspeed3 with less power and cheaper insurance. Various third-party springs are $200 for the set....

Money is tight and I'm a practical guy. I've been described as the king of self-denial. But the things I've posted in this blog, about the new way I'm trying to run my life, they tell me that I should make it my own. Maybe if I do, I'll keep the car longer - the fastest way to waste money on cars is to get a different one every two years. I am strongly tempted.

Bikepsycho, strike 3

I was strapping on my helmet when the bike tire blew. It sounded like a gunshot.

Truly, I am cursed with respect to all aspects of transportation.

At least I wasn't, you know, on it at the time, going 20mph around a curve. I broke my collarbone that way one time. But this is the third innertube this bike has destroyed, each time forcing me to drive home from the trailhead without exercise. I'm not a superstitious man, but after the embarrassment of bringing Alice the first two times, I thought if I snuck up on the occasion instead of planning it, Fate would be caught by surprise and not thwart me.

That didn't work, but you'd forgive me for imagining that Mercury or some other classical deity has got it in for me. Do you know anyone who, in twenty years of driving:
* has been in four collisions in 36 months, none of which were his fault,
* has suffered seven tire blowouts while moving,
* has required three suspension repairs on two cars in 24 months,
* has suffered repeated warped brake rotors on one car and repeated siezed calipers on another, and
* Once had a car's exhaust system fall off while he was in it, having a conversation about trading it in?

If you do know such a person, please comment. I'd love to feel like someone's got it worse.

My Alarm Clock Loves Me

My alarm clock waits with bated breath for permission to sing to me. Its big hoarse voice rings with joy and it sinks back, spent, when I press "snooze".

My phone cheerfully informs me, be-doop, that I have unplugged it. The microwave reassures me by acknowledging every keystroke, and heralds my oatmeal with the pride of a job well done. I fail to retrieve the bowl, and after a long moment it plaintively asks, beep, if I am displeased with it. My phone calls out a cascading melody on the occasion of another successful hotsync.

I turn on all the alerts, asking that the phone keep me abreast of network conditions and text messages. Scooping the basement litterbox, the thinness of the ether there is communicated to my left leg by chimes and vibrations. With every incoming email, my laptop sends a resounding chord through the kitchen speakers. I smile, and the Toshiba trembles with excitement. Thank you for letting me speak, master!

I have a slow leak in one rear tire, and Red chimes an urgent appeal to me from his tire pressure management system. He is worried about me. About himself, too, but he would gladly be mashed into a steel and aluminum cube to protect me, if he had to. I peel the square of black electrical tape off the speedometer to reveal the yellow exclamation point, and spend a moment fine tuning every control and adjustment on the dashboard. Even the clock, which blinks in surprise at being awakened.

I plug my phone into its FM transmitter and the transmitter into the cigarette lighter, and I turn on the radio. Red's speakers gasp, and a symphony of electronic joy springs forth, gladdening circuits all the way from a flash memory card to eight voice coils quivering in union. We love you! Thank you for letting us serve you today!

Bad Car Karma, round 2

A few days ago the back end of my car began making a BONK noise when I went over potholes. Sigh. The mechanic says that the springs attach to the frame through a big block of rubber, which absorbs vibration; on my car, one of the rubber blocks is broken. So when the wheel goes down into a pothole, the spring momentarily falls away from the frame, then clangs back into place.

A couple months ago I spent $900 to have my front wheel bearings replaced.

A year and a half ago I spent $1500 to have the rear axles of my last car, which was AWD, replaced.

I am looking for a smoother commute. So far my choices are (1) eight miles each way at good speed, over roads that do $1000 worth of damage to my car every nine months. Or (2) twenty miles each way on a smooth highway. Or (3) ten miles each way on smooth surface streets, with a stoplight every block and police cameras that issue tickets automatically.

Did I neglect to mention that my wife cracked an alloy wheel recently?

And did I mention that the front end of my car bounces like a basketball after every bump, because the shock absorbers are worn out? I've been resolutely ignoring that.

Cleveland: rocks.

Pencil and paper vs. computers

BoingBoing doesn't exactly need a shout-out from me, but this post is timely. Could it be that challenging yourself by working without assistance makes you smarter and, yes, faster in the long run?

As a child my main toys were paper and pencils. Colored pencils, yes, but you get the idea. We were poor, and I didn't have many of the kinds of toys that played with themselves. Now I'm a scientist. Anecdote, perhaps, but still.

Even today I find that I get lost when I'm out driving to places where I've been a half-dozen times ... if I'd been using directions or Alice had been telling me which way to go. If I have to work out the route myself once or twice, on the fly, I remember it. And as an added bonus, I remember the landmarks better instead of just driving past them looking for the next scheduled turn.

Sometimes we become slaves to our crutches.

Intermittent Fasting for the soul

Intermittent Fasting...

Recently Art of Manliness posted a guest post describing, among other things, "intermittent fasting". As a paraphrase of the idea, I'll quote from Mike O'Donnell's post on AofM:
Integrate your own periods of feast and famine. What does that mean? Maybe you need to take some days off with lighter eating through out the day (less calories). Or you could also fast some days skipping breakfast or longer, but always eating at some point later in the day (this is called IF, or intermittent fasting). It’s also important to add in the feast part and have larger meals (like at dinner) when you have the famine part, as it’s not about starvation. Whatever you choose, your body best responds to a continually changing environment. Optimally you want your largest meals in the hours after your main resistance training workouts for the week, when your body is primed to maximally take in nutrients. Remember if you want to lose weight it still boils down to insulin control and calorie deficit, not how many meals you eat.
Mike is talking about the relationship between (1) how much and when you eat and (2) your weight and muscle capability. If you fast intermittently, you keep your metabolism flexible in terms of what it does with the calories you take in. If you vary your exercise similarly (not mentioned in the above quote), your muscles will be able to do a wider variety of things.

This makes some sense to me. I started working out for the first time this year, and I've gradually added exercises and watched my body get used to the old ones. At first my legs would feel worked-out any day I did a cardio routine on the bike trainer. Now they don't, even if my heartrate gets to the same level it used to. But if I change from the nearly constant resistance of the cardio program to the rapidly changing resistance of the "hills" program on the bike, it kicks my ass. At least for now.

...For the Soul

For a long time I've been pondering how to keep myself flexible on a personal level - my relationships, my interests and habits. After a long period without change, I realized there were problems, and I abandoned all my habits. I changed everything, frantically. I've been searching for a middle ground. I think that intermittently stressing myself may be the answer.

I think it works with people's brains. If you get out of school and then never take any kind of formal training or classwork, you'll lose your mental flexibility. It will become more difficult for you to solve problems, even problems that aren't far outside your established learning. If you do push yourself a little, even with something like a personal hobby that requires you to figure things out, you'll do better.

I think--I hope--that it works for relationships too. I've let myself be way too lazy. I've stuck with the same old friends, and even failed to do my part to keep up those friendships. I have to build new friendships to remind myself how it works, what it needs, why it's important, why it's fun. I've stuck with the same old habits and activities, and let myself stay in a comfort zone that didn't challenge me. Those old activities just became rituals; they lost their luster and I didn't even notice. I need new pastimes, new interests. Something as simple as taking a different route to work can force me to be more present, to be more aware of my surroundings. It's less safe, but that's the point.

Welcome to my future past. There is no plan. I want to live, and life is risk. Everything in moderation--including moderation.

Tortilla Soup

Tortilla soup is a hearty tomato-based vegetarian dish with a kick. The source of this recipe is lost in the mists of time. Maybe it fell out of a library book or I found it stuck to my shoe or something. Anyway, I didn't make it up, but a large part of being able to cook is being able to pick a gem out of the mountain of recipes we see. I've made only minor modifications.

Olive oil
6 6" corn tortillas, cut into 1/4" strips
8 scallions, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
3 cups chicken broth
3 large ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 8oz. can tomato sauce
1/2 cup (or more) chopped cilantro
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp salt
Corn kernels, 1-2 ears worth, cut off the ears
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
Finely shredded cheese (optional)

Sautee the garlic, jalapenos, and green onions until fragrant and soft, maybe a minute or two. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, chicken stock, cilantro, cumin, salt, and corn. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, heat a couple tablespoons olive oil at a time in a frying pan and fry the tortilla strips. Be careful not to smoke the oil. When each batch is crispy, lay it on a couple layers of paper towel. You will use a fair amount of oil to get them crispy without burning them.

Once the soup is done simmering, add the lime juice and stir. Ladle into bowls and top with tortilla strips. If you like, you can also top the soup with finely shredded cheese, maybe cheddar. Not too much or you'll get "french onion soup syndrome" where you have to cut through the cheese layer to get to the soup.

Jalapenos freeze well, so you can have them "fresh" (not pickled or canned) all year long. Here's how to do it. Wash your jalapenos, cut off the stems, and halve them. Dip the halves in water and place them, cut side down and not touching, on a foil covered cookie sheet. Put them in the freezer. When done, they'll release easily from the foil; put them in baggies and keep them in the freezer.