Sunday, August 23, 2015

This summer we moved into our "new" house in Gainesville's historic Duckpond neighborhood. We loved the neighborhood, and the fact that it allowed all of us the option of a walk/bus/stroller/short car ride commute to work. When we found a house we liked, we took a deep breath, and jumped into a fixer-upper adventure. Naively, we thought that we'd make it our big summer project, and then we'll be all set. So far, we managed to get some things out of the way, and make a giant list of to-do items that sits on the fridge. About two new items get added to the list every day, and we are able to successfully take approximately one out each weekend...

April-May 2015: The house had tile, carpet, and vinyl flooring everywhere. We had that ripped out, and discovered beautiful hardwood everywhere (almost!). Barring a few repairs, the pictures on the right hand side are the original (1926) floors that were hidden for 20-30 years from what we hear (left hand side is the house as it looked in April). The coolest thing about this was seeing the under-structure of the house where the floors were ripped out, and learning how wood floors are constructed. (Click on the picture to enlarge.)
June 2015: While we had professionals working on the flooring inside the house, we decided to tackle the outdoor porch ourselves. The porch was a lovely screened in area, but the floor was covered with ancient, worn out, green artificial turf. We expected that we'd find concrete underneath, and so we searched for what to do with it, how to finish it, the various stains we could get etc. Then we spent a couple of hours pulling it out. It came out quicker than we'd expected (we'd thought we'd have to spend the whole day). We were amateurs about it though, and didn't cut the carpet into strips as we pulled it out, and so we were left struggling with a huge heavy dirty piece with nowhere to dispose of it (more on that later). Amateur luck came to the rescue, and we found clay tile underneath! So we spent the rest of the afternoon with the floor scraper. There's still glue left, but to our eyes, it looks better than the shiniest tile work you can find today.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I recently read a book by Robert M. Pirsig, called "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". It was a nice read, which is surprising, since the subject is philosophy. The presentation is in the form of a story - the narrator is taking a long motorcycle ride in the northern US, from the Dakotas to the Pacific Ocean, on a motorcycle, with his troubled 12 year old son.

The book is ambitious. The author attempts to free those ancient grounds occupied by such heavy questions as the role of technology versus art, the struggle of the rational over the emotional, and the limits of religion and science.

There is some commentary in the book about "failure in technology". A couple of paragraphs really reached into my mind and lit a candle.I thought I'd share it with you.

Let's say you were repairing a motorcycle and you were fairly experienced at it. All you have left to do is replace a rusty screw on a cover plate (it's not important what that is). After you do this, you have a whole day planned where you are going to ride your motorbike on a beautiful, scenic road in great weather.

But let's say the screw is stuck. You have some skills, but none of them get the screw out. You try twisting the screwdriver hard, but you only tear the screw slot.

Excerpt: "Your mind was already thinking ahead to what you would do when the cover plate was off, so it takes a little time to realize that this irritating minor annoyance isn't just irritating and minor. You're stuck...This isn't a rare scene in science and technology. This is the commonest scene of all...Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It's a miserable experience emotionally. You're losing time. You're incompetent. You don't know what you are doing..What you're up against is the great unknown, the void of all Western thought."

Pirsig continues by saying the only way to get out of this stuckness is to embrace it; to care about this little, inconsequential screw the way you would care about something important.

"Normally screws are so cheap and small and simple you think of them as unimportant. But now as your awareness becomes stronger, you realize that this one screw is neither small nor unimportant. Right now this screw is worth exactly the selling price of the motorcycle."

This happens so often in my life! When you are doing research, you have a conversation with your team or your boss, about the ultimate goal, and it's always sexy. Later, at your desk, it's the little things that kill you. Installing some compiler that give you errors. Drivers, drivers, drivers. You don't have the right version of something. Batteries are dead. The software license is expired. 

The stress one gets from being stuck on these things, day after day, is difficult to communicate. People who have done similar work in science and technology can understand the pain. It is truly crushing. I found the words in this book say what I feel during those times. The rest of the book is as good. If you get a chance, read it. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Quercus virginiana

One of the trees that I really like in Texas is the southern live oak. Its a lovely tree, even though it is usually quite small and fairly short. The acorns are like aerodynamic darts. The best thing about live oaks is that they are evergreen. I've been to some pretty campuses in Texas that have rows of these great trees.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


I reviewed the movie Lincoln here. Happy new year!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Pollution as space travel

I've read a series of articles recently that covered a lot of ground, but the basic message from all of them was that the planet is doomed. We've burnt too much fossil fuel, and we are on track to burn even more in the coming decades, with unknown consequences for the climate. Industrial pollution of our oceans and rivers is on the rise. Lets not over talk about our forests and jungles, which keep coming under pressure. More and more evidence is coming in that the Earth has reached the tipping point.

I don't lose hope because I've come to an interesting realization (which critics will call a rationalization) of our destructive course. I believe that as life on the planet gets worse, a variety of stop-gap technological solutions will emerge. These might be as simple as air filter masks or as complex as continent wide geographical sensor networks that alert us to future negative changes in the environment. These tech-solutions will not solve the problem of our damaged earth. Only using less stuff will do that, and I think humans are incapable of using less resources without a stick forcing them to do so.

But eventually, our planet will be so messed up that this repertoire of tech-solutions will form version 1.0 of the tools that are necessary to live on a dangerous planet. Essentially, life on earth will get uncomfortable enough for us to seriously consider living on other planets. If this happens, then it would be analogous to a womb - while it is warm and comfortable at first, eventually you come out and suffer the problems of the real world. Earth is a womb, and the universe is the real world. Maybe pollution is just the first step of space travel. If so, it would be the mother of all silver linings.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fermenting yoghurt with wireless router

E makes her own yoghurt, and, in the Northeast, she used to get it fermented by keeping the mixture in the oven, with the oven turned off. The pilot light in the oven kept the insides warm. However, in Texas, the ovens are all electric and they don't have the attractive property of doubling as a fermentation receptacle. E has solved this problem in a unique way, by placing the yoghurt on our wireless router. The excess heat from the router is never super-hot, and turns out to be as warm as the inside of an oven. Its green, since we are recycling the heat, and has no effect on our connectivity.

I recommend it, as the yoghurt is tasty!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Matlab Casino

I'm trying to increase updates by including short posts with no proofreading. Like this one. I realized I invented the phrase "Matlab Casino" to refer to when people hack endlessly at Matlab hoping to get a result. When I get sucked into it, I lose track of any high level strategy (such as, why are we doing this again?) and keep changing random magic numbers hoping for an awesome result to appear.

It never works.