Archive for January 2010

Friar Versus The Anti-Christ

January 16, 2010

Ahhh…the Anti-Chirst. 

Who’d have thought such a simple assembly of Plexiglas and copper could be so devious and evil?  

If you saw it, you woudlnt’ think there was much to it.  

It  was basically a long rectangular-shaped pipe with two copper pieces embedded in two of the opposite walls. 

The purpose of the Anti-Christ was to measure the rates of mass transfer under conditions of forced and natural convection with applied thermal gradients.   

In English, this meant pumping  some acidic copper solution through it, and applying  a voltage across the copper plates.  This would cause some copper to deposit the negatively-charged plate.   

You’d measure the rate of copper deposition as a function of fast the solution was flowing through the pipe, and how hot you decided to make one of the copper plates.

This was my thesis project for my Masters’ degree..

Sounds simple, yes?  


The Anti-Christ made my existence miserable for the better part of two years.  


CHAPTER ONE:   The Early Battles

I wasn’t responsible for the Anti-Christ’s  creation.  It was already there when I started my degree.   

It was a piece of crap and leaked like a sonnavabitch.   I inherited it and it was my job to make it work.

Imagine trying to measure flow-rates, temperatures, voltage, and current simultaneously,  in a way that had never been done before.   From scratch, with 1987 technology.  

With an absentee supervisor who didnt’ give a flying fox-fart about what you did, and who had very little funding to buy any decent equipment.

I can’t begin to tell you the long nights, evenings, weekends I spent scrounging parts, salvaging, begging, borrowing or stealing.   Patching, fixing, drilling, repairing.    Assembling computer boards, thermocouples, flow-meters, writing code and patching leaks with epoxy. 

The anti-Christ fought back.   Acid leaked.  Electrical connections corroded.   Clothes got ruined.   Instruments failed. 

I accidentally destroyed a $1000 immersion heater when it fell in a bucket of water. 

I distinctly remember the acrid yellow smoke when I tried to plug it in again.

Meanwhile my useless-as-tits-on-bull supervisor, Perfessor Finster, was off to Japan or God knows where.   Several months would go by before he’d literally set foot in the lab.  

Sorry about the water heater, though.

(Well, not really.)



I was still fighting the AntiChrist.   I had yet to generate a single data point that could go in my thesis.  

And I was starting to shit bricks, because eventually my funding would run out, and I’d be sent home.   

So I put in the extra time, and worked to the point of exhaustion,  putting in late nights and weekends.  

 And I started to make stupid mistakes.    Looking back, some days, it would have been better to just STAY HOME.

Like the time I heard what sounded like a sudden CLAP! and saw smoke pouring from a power supply.    

In my sleep-deprived state, I had hooked up an input to an output, and had inadvertently fried the $4000  sucker.

This was $4000 in 1987 dollars, mind you.

Sheepishly hiding the destroyed instrument in the basement,  I managed to salvage/borrow another cheaper one, and continued to forge ahead.

I dont’ think Perfesser Finster ever found out, to this day.   

But the Anti-Christ hissed with delight.

It was winning.


CHAPTER THREE:  Now it gets Personal  

After 18 months, just to make things interesting, I decided to go skiing and tear my knee ligament.    

It took over 6 weeks of lying on the couch and physio to recover form the surgery.  

It was not an easy time.  But I was a good little worker bee, and I returned to work as soon as I could.

At that point, the Anti-Christ turned on me.    The bastard.

One afternoon, a hose-clamp blew, and 50 liters of acid spilled all over the lab.  

 I had to neutralize the mess with an acid spill-kit and spent the next few weeks cleaning up the lab.   Bending on my hands and knees, barely off crutches, and my atrophied leg held in place with knee-brace.

For years afterward, you could still see the footprints of my sneakers in the cement floor, where the acid had etched it.

Looking back, this was not one of the happier moments of my life.

Oh, by the way: still no data points.


Chapter Four:   The Perfesser Intervenes

I was now down to just a few months left, before my funding got cut off.  

I basically spent most of my waking hours in the lab, trying my best to get all the widgets and gizmos working at the same time, before they fell apart or corroded with the acid.

So one day, the Perfessor finally decided to grant me an audience, and showed up in person.   

He asked what the problem is, why can’t I get the experiments to run?   

Nothing works, I told him.

Show me, he said.

So I did…I hooked up the connections, and, for the first time, in TWENTY MONTHS…the strip chart recorder jiggled, and I actually MEASURE something. 

For crying out loud.

It figures.

The ONE day this boson finally shows up, now everything works hunky-dory, like it’s supposed to? 


Have got.   

To be.


Shitting Me.

Unconvinced, Perfessor Finster looked at me like I was some kind of idiot, and left the room. 


Chapter Five:   The Final Battle

Well, now that all the planets and stars and karma were aligned,  and the Anti-Christ was up and running,  it was time to start some experiments. 

And of course, I didn’t know if the Anti-Christ would run for one day, or one week,  so I treated every day like it was the last.

One of the first things I did was a marathon session, working around the clock, for 22 hours straight, running the Anti-Christ into the ground. 

I generated about half entire data on that one day.

The next month was a blur.  I continued the same pattern:  Waking at 10:00 AM.   Arriving at the lab at noon, and working till past midnight.    Over and over, ad infinitum.  It was my year without a summer.

But slowly, I was generating enough data points.   Though it was a race against time.

You see, the Anti-Christ was not pleased, and it putting up one final fight.   

 The hot acid was taking its toll.   Sealed leaked.   Thermocouples corroded.   Things were threatening to fall apart…but this time, for good.

There would be no second chance, there would be rebuilding and fixing  things.

Not to mention that once I had the data, I only had just two months to analyze it, and write a master’s thesis and submit it.

Who would win? 

Me, or the Anti-Christ?

It was going to be close…


Chapther Six:  Aftermath

Fast-forward, a year later. 

I was in the parking lot in back of the Engineering building, it was a bright sunny day.   And I was holding the Anti-Christ in my hand.

Yes…I had won the battle.  

It had almost killed me, but I had completed my experiments, and everything had held together.   Just barely.   

I had submitted my thesis on time, defended it, and now the hard-cover bound copy was sitting in the library.   

I was working for the University again.     But not as a lowly grad student, but as a Research Engineer with another Professor.   With a three-year contract,  a decent full-time salary and benefits.

And one of my first jobs was to clean out my old lab with all of Perfesser Finster’s junk,  because that’s where our new Research Center would be located. 

 Funny how Life’s like that, sometimes.

Of course, Perfesser Finster (who was no longer my boss)  was telling me to hold onto the Anti-Christ, and store it somewhere safe.    Because  he might want to use it again.

Hah!   That piece of scrap?

As IF…!

No.   I had something else in mind.

Hefting the Anti-Christ in my hands to judge its weight, I tossed it into the air. 

For a split second, it hung there, ten feet above me.  

I can still see the shiny Plexiglas reflecting the sun, like dozens of diamond-like gems against the azure sky.

And then, gravity took it’s toll, and the Anti-Christ accelerated to the pavement.

I watched with pure, unadulterated glee as it went  


…into a million little pieces.


It’s always good, when you get closure. .





Silence by Head-Lamp

January 13, 2010

There’s something special about going cross-country skiing at night.   Leaving your warm, comfortable house, getting away from the TV, putting on your skis, turning your headlamp, and going trekking off into the cold dark woods.

It’s almost a little frightening,  going off into the bush by yourself at night (What the hell am I doing?)   But it’s also kind of exhilarating.

Besides,  I know the trails well enough by now not to get lost.  At the very worst, if something happens,  I might have to spend an uncomfortable night, before another skier discovers me the next morning.   After all, I’m just outside town.  It’s a calculated risk I’m willing to take.

But tonight, I have the whole place to myself.  There’s only one other car at the trailhead.  Only one other fanatic, who shares my stupidity passion for the outdoors.   I probably won’t even see them.

As I forge on through the forest, the only sounds are the swishing of my skis, and the chunk!  chunk! chunk! of my pole plants.  My whole universe is the 50-foot beam of light in front of me.

The trees appear ahead, glide by silstently, and disappear into the darkness.  It’s a steady rhythm, as I gobble up distance, and go deeper and deeper into the woods.

Chunk!  Chunk!  Chunk! The further I go, the further the day’s stress gets behind me.    All the bullshit,  project deadlines, office politics,  household all falls away from me.

The forest is quiet this time of year.   It’s so different.     Everything is dead and sleeping.  No bugs.  No birds.  No frogs.  No yammering, chattering squirrels.

But I’m not alone.   The carpet of snow is littered with critter tracks.   Foxes.  Deer.  Maybe the odd wolf, even.

Suddenly my reverie is interupted.  There’s a flash of brown ahead, and it momentarily scares the Be-Jesus out of me.   Then I realize it’s just a rabbit.

Wabbit twacks,  I tell myself.  Haw-haw-haw.

I now reach my favorite point in the trail.   The section by the river, the furthest away from the trailhead.   The opposite shore has nothing.  No houses, roads, towns, nothing, for 30 kilometers in either direction.

Around me are century-old white pine that the loggers somehow missed, mast-straight, towering majestically overhead like quiet sentinels.  I turn my headlamp off, and just listen.

I remember the game my Mom taught us a game when we were kids.  She’d tell us to be quiet, and ask us how many different sounds could we identify.

Right now,  two.    The occasional (barely audible) hum of cars on the highway, a few miles away.    And the tree next to me is cracking.

But in-between, for long intervals, there is silence.   No wind.   No movement.  Nothing.

It’s so quiet, it’s deafening.  My ears are almost ringing.

It’s The Silence.

And I empty my mind, and let The Silence enter my head, into every pore of my body, into the depths of my very soul.

This is what I came for.   To hear The Silence.

Forget inspirational quotes, self-help videos, or webinars.   Forget Life Coaching,  Zen habits,  religion, church, whatever…

This is what it’s all about for me…getting in touch with nature, and listening to The  Silence.

Some people get this.  Some don’t.

I pity those who don’t.

I stand there for a few minutes, soaking it in.     Because that’s all you really need, actually.

Satisfied, I turn on my lamp, and head back.

Chunk!  Chunk!  Chunk!

30 minutes later, I’m back at the trailhead, drenched in sweat, hungry and tired.

But at least my batteries have been re-charged.   For at least the next few days.

Back to reality, back to streetlights, electricity,  heated homes, Twitter, and  TV.

Sigh. Till next time.

Meanwhile, I wonder who Simon will yell at tonight on American Idol?

Ski Watercolor

January 12, 2010

Last Easter, I was skiing at Jay Peak, Vermont.   I was on top of the hill, just getting off the tramway, and I saw this ski patroller just below me.

I liked the composition:  he seemed to be standing in the right place at the right time, so I took the photo.

As you can see, there was no snow down in the valley below.   This was toward the end of the ski season.    But Jay Peak is a big enough mountain, that it tends to have it’s own weather system.  I remember that day alternating between warm sun, and freezing blustery snow squalls.  It was still quite wintery on top.

Anyway, today I decided to do something different, so I painted the ski hill.

As you can see, I deliberately put in the sky and left out the valley.   I did this so that the hill didn’t get lost in the dark background.  Plus it also helps emphasize the mountain itself.

Also,  the drawing is mostly white…which meant I had to leave a lot of the sheet blank. With winter scenes, the secret is knowing what NOT to paint.

Viking Schussing

January 9, 2010

Realistic New Years’ Resolutions I Can Keep

January 4, 2010

In 2010, I resolve to inhale oxygen, and exhale carbon dioxide.

I will sustain a metabolism, and maintain a body temperature of 98.6F, to the extent that I am able.

I will humor my Mom, and will (occasionally) eat a salad if she puts one in front of me.

At least once this year, I will catch at a cold which will turn into a chest infection, requiring me to take antibiotics and puffers.  (Why ruin a perfect 20-year record?)

I will tell myself that I’ll lose weight, but then I’ll slack off and not achieve my goal,  thereby disappointing myself and others who say I need to be thinner.

I will exert a gravitational force on the Sun and the planets.    (Hey, every bit of mass counts!)

I will try to be more open-minded towards Vegans, and will reluctantly agree that they have a right to their opinion…sometimes.

I will continue to encourage dogs to get all wound up and hyper whenever I play with them.

The same applies for my screaming free-range nephews.

I will accept my caffeine addiction for what it is, and continue to drink coffee.   (There are other vices in my life that need taking care of first, that have higher priority.)

I will refuse to listen to any blogs, Tweets, or E-books that suggest how I can improve my life.    Just to be a dick.

As much as it pains me, I will not take up yoga this year.  Or the next.

I promise to never exceed the speed of light.   Ever.

If I ever start to take Twitter or Blogo-Land seriously, I promise to jam a sharp pencil up my nose and give myself a frontal lobotomy.

I promise to be myself, and in the process, continue to annoy many people.   More than once.

I will give up Lima Beans for Lent.

I will not take part in any exercise where I push my body to its utmost physical limits, thereby maintaining my Black Sheep status with my Uber-athletic family.

In my own small way, by just existing and generating heat, I will contribute to increasing the overall entropy of the Universe.

I will perform my job efficiently, using logic and common sense, thus ensuring I never be considered for a management position.

I will continue to drink beer with Brett on Thursday nights,  as long as his wife/kids continue to allow it.

I promise to continue blogging.  If and when I feel like it.   When the mood arises.   Maybe.