Cold Weather Grilling

Our two grills, shortly after lighting.Well, it’s officially winter break: it’s sleeting outside, I’m putting off wrapping gifts, and I’m at my parents house with very little to do.  I had a pretty decent semester, and my one class (Advanced WWW Technologies) is now complete, so I can focus full time on my master’s work.  In a sort of neat twist, however, my course-long project was to build a graphical front-end for my the software I’m building (currently named λ (lambda) — discussed in the preceding post as well).  That user-interface is now complete, and at some point I’ll post up a link to the server I have which runs λ.  That day is not today, however.  Today is a day for discussing winter grilling.

I know a lot of people aren’t big fans of winter, which bums me out, because it’s my second favorite season (the top slot goes to Fall).  I understand a lot of the complaints — being cold is lame, you’re not on summer vacation, and it’s not very pleasant outside so your ability to do fun stuff is restricted.  While all of these are valid, one particular fun activity, grilling, has not ceased just because it’s below freezing outside.

During the summer, my roommate(s) and I got into the habit of grilling every week on Sunday.  We’ve continued this tradition as the months progressed, and are planning on trucking through the winter.  We have a cookbook on simple grilling recipes, and they’re really pretty good — a recent weekend’s menu was chipotle-peach glazed chicken and buttered new potatoes, for example.  Grilling in inclemency takes a bit more effort than your standard Memorial Day weenie roast; there are in fact several unique factors to consider.

First, there’s wind / rain / snow which can slow down your fire when it’s first getting lit.  Second, there’s the fact that it’s considerably colder outside — note that both this and the first factor can be remedied by adding more charcoal briquettes (propane is lame) to get stuff up to the appropriate temperature.  Third, you have to wear more clothing while lighting the fire and tending the grill, and this clothing gets smoky.  This happens during the summer, too, but I have a lot more t-shirts than I have hoodies and coats.

There is one definite advantage to grilling in the winter, however, and that’s that no one else is using their equipment.  When our friends retired their grills for the season, they donated / loaned some of their equipment to us, so we now have a smaller, secondary grill we use for heating up our side dish while the proverbial “big meat” roasts on the main grill.

Climbing Manhattan Hill

Me on top of Manhattan HillSo yesterday my buddy Matt came into town.  He's from Lincoln, so we don't get to hang out as often as we used to, but neither of us have class on Thursdays, so everything sort of worked out.  We didn't have any big plans, so it was a lot of video games, barbecue, and just hanging out.  We did go visit one of Manhattan's landmarks though, the giant "MANHATTAN" letters on the aptly-named Manhattan hill.

The letters are made of concrete and painted white (and are more than visible on google maps) but have recently been covered in purple cloth for some reason.  I've heard it's part of a fundraiser, but I don't know any details.  I originally thought the letters were only reachable from the bottom of the hill, so we ended up climbing up some short but pretty steep trails.  Once we got to the letters, however, we found that you can get to them from the parking lot / picnic area at the top of the hill really easily.  Whoops.

There were some other really interesting areas, like what appears to the foundation of an old building (a large, smooth concrete surface) which is now covered in paintballs and broken glass.  It's inaccessible by road, so I imagine it's been a while since it was used for anything legitimate.  It did have a neat devil face painted on a concrete post though.

All in all, it was fun to see Matt again and visit the huge letters in person.  I may have to start exploring more places around Manhattan — it's a really nice time of year for it.

The devil-painted concrete post.

Halloween!

My jack-o-lantern during the day

It was recently Halloween, which means in addition to my normal fall regimen of sleeping through football games, I carved a pumpkin and bought candy for local children. It had been a long time since I'd made even a basic Jack-O'-Lantern (like 15 years) but it turns out that if your design consists almost entirely of straight lines, it all comes back pretty quickly. I got pretty fortunate with the pumpkin selection — I bought the pictured squash at about 5.00pm on Halloween.

Though everything is officially over, I'm not ready to give it up quite yet. Our house only had two groups of trick-or-treaters, so there's a ton of candy left, and the smallest package of tea lights Target was selling was a 100 pack, so there's lots more of those too. I suppose I could save all of them, but when you move houses / apartments almost yearly, stuff like tea lights get forgotten pretty easily.

Since it isn't Halloween without a scary movie, my roommates and I sat down to watch a vampire movie called Let the Right One In. I really hate scary movies, but I was told by my brother (who recommended the film) that it was "Art-House Horror" and not actually all that scary. I'd have to agree — there were scary parts, but it wasn't ever really too much.  The film was very good, though it's subtitled, so if you hate that you'll want to stay away.  Then again, if you're the type of person who hates subtitles, art-house anything probably isn't your style ;)

My jack-o-lantern during the night

I reviewed a paper!

The Springer logoSo, I just reviewed my first academic paper.  I'm not sure how much I'm allowed to say about it (since it's both pre-release and not my own work) and I can't link to it, but I will say that it was fascinating.  It also was one of those unique experiences where you know you'll be repeating it countless times over the remainder of your life — but as this time is identifiably the first, there is considerable wracking of nerves.

I wasn't given a ton of guidance from the professor who gave the paper to me, which wasn't a problem but did leave some basic formatting questions, e.g.: Should my review be a typeset pdf or a plain text email?  Was there any standard format to be used?  I got most of this ironed out and submitted my second draft earlier today.  I'm not sure how much of my review will be used / submitted back to the paper's authors.  I've been lead to think all of it, but I haven't heard for certain.

Reading a non-peer reviewed (or at least not previously reviewed) paper was itself an odd experience.  I'm so used to reading published papers (indeed, I think this is the first non-published paper I've read, save for those internal to my office) that the format itself lends quite a bit of credence to the subject, and at first I found the idea of criticizing the paper somewhat daunting.  Here was a manuscript, identical at first glance to those I had read before, with all the requisite figures and formulas, and I was supposed to go poking holes in the arguments and thoughts of its authors.  I had plenty of feedback eventually, but it certainly took a while to get going.

The image to the right is the logo of Springer Science+Business Media (the publisher of a number of academic journals) and was retrieved from http://www.nanonets.org/.

My new picnic table

The picnic table, under constructionI moved into a new house in May, out from my single bedroom apartment.  I now have a lot more space, both inside and outside and my house includes a sort of back patio area which is perfect for grilling, but neither I nor my roommate had any outdoor seating.  Inspired by this post by my friend Nick, we decided to make a picnic table.

Unfortunately, recycled wood is sort of difficult to come by in Manhattan, except when it's ground up and mixed with plastic chips.  This makes it weather really well, but it won't support any sort of load, which made it pretty unfit for our purposes.  I ended up using untreated lumber, and built the table according to these plans.  It's really sturdy (it uses 16 3/8" bolts and a pound of deck screws) and while it wasn't quite as cheap as Nick's table ($75 before any paint) it should last a very, very long time.  The instructions detail how to build it, so I won't go in depth on what we did there.  I will say that it was a ton of measuring (duh) and that using a small t-square (in addition to a tape measure) helped a lot.

So, now that the table was built, it needed to get painted so it could withstand the elements.  I ended up using Behr's Barn & Fence paint because it's oil based and super-tough.  After applying a couple coats of boring white to the table, my roommate and I realized that we had a perfect canvas for being somewhat creative.  Unfortunately, as a computer scientist and mechanical engineer, neither of us were very artistically inclined.  We decided to use other people's art instead — logos, to be specific — to commemorate specific events.  So far the only event immortalized on our picnic table was the release of Fedora 13.  This week was Reddit's birthday, so we should be applying the friendly orangered-eyed alien soon.  The logos are about five inches square, and though the fedora speech bubble looks sort of lonely now, hopefully by next May we'll have a bunch of cool designs.  If nothing else, it will be an excellent conversation piece.

The completed picnic table

Custom symbols in LaTeX

The custom symbols I made.I'm writing a report which will eventually become the introduction to my Master's thesis.  It's on existing medical workflow technologies, including Little-JIL.  I wrote the rough draft back in January, and am now hammering away on making the revisions my advisor suggested (try and ignore the several month turnaround :D).  Little-JIL has a number of custom symbols which he wanted referenced in the text of the document (rather than as figures).

I initially tried to create these symbols as characters in a custom font.  I downloaded FontForge, built some .svg templates in Inkscape, and tried to get everything modified so it looked right.  Unfortunately, I know nothing about making fonts, and FontForge, while powerful, is somewhat daunting to use.  I had errors ranging from improper em-widths to open paths (?). I managed to get a sort of basic version of my symbols built and fontified, and they looked decent for a rough draft.

Getting certain characters to render in a specific font was less than straightforward, however, and I realized that I would have to include my custom font with the source of my report to anyone who wanted to make edits.  I then decided to try inlining drawings of the symbols — since graphics can be scaled arbitrarily in LaTeX, if I made them very small, perhaps it wouldn't look too shabby.  It would certainly be easier to include them, and I already had a set of custom graphics that had to be used in compilation of the final document anyway.  Plus, I already had scalable versions of both symbols, so it would be easy to try it out.

Much to my surprise, it turned out really, really well.  The graphics blend in well, and shouldn't even stick out as custom unless the reader knows what she's looking for.

Colbert Hills executive course

Summertime has arrived, which means it's golf time.  There's a top-notch golf course here in Manhattan called Colbert Hills (designed by Jim Colbert)which I've been playing on recently.  I'm not really good enough to hold my own on the main course (though I was part of a scramble team out there) so I've been playing more on the "Executive Course."  It's a nine hole, all par three course which is designed to be played pretty quickly.  It's super cheap ($6 for students, $10 for an all-day pass) and maintained at the quality level of the rest of the course.  It's still sort of punishing, too, because straying very far from the green / fairway lands you in four foot tall native grass.  It's a neat course, and a neat concept — I wish more courses had smaller, cheaper versions that could be played after work.  While playing 18 holes is fun, it's also sort of a time commitment that is better suited for a Saturday than a Tuesday.

The third hole of the Colbert Hills executive (par three) course