Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Helluva Monday

On Monday morning, my Dad had a heart attack. He's okay, they released him from the hospital Wednesday morning, but it was apparently a very near thing.

At around 6:20 am, Dad wrapped up his workout at the YMCA and began cool down stretches. When he sat back up, he felt dizzy and after that the rest of the morning is a bit fuzzy for him. The staff at the YMCA told my mother that he appeared to have a seizure. They began CPR, noticed his heartbeat was incredibly erratic and got the defibrillator. They saved my father's life. Doctor's told my mother later that if my father had needed to wait any more than three minutes for the defibrillator he would almost certainly not have survived. He was rushed to the emergency room where he received two stints in a major artery that was 99.9% blocked. There's another that's 80% blocked, but they didn't want to stress the heart too much in one go. It is a wonder, the doctors say, that this attack did not occur sooner.

In all ways, except the event itself, we have been very lucky. My father just recently changed gyms. The staff at this one knew just what to do, and did it quickly. The attack occurred in an open visible space, and he was already lying down. My mother, who is a teacher, had already made her lesson plans for the week and did not need to worry about the details of turnover. The weather was pleasant for Connecticut in winter and thanks in part to the gym change (which led to a fifteen minute trip instead of an hour trip to the hospital nearest the old gym) my Mom had no trouble getting to and from the hospital. One of her friends also happened to be home and was able to help her get Dad's stuff from the locker room and to bring his car back from the gym. Both my Mom's school and my Dad's office have been very supportive.

Everyone has been surprised. Dad had no symptoms of any problems. He's had no previous heart tremors. There was no tightening in the chest, no pain, just the sudden dizziness. Dad has always been fairly active, running, biking, and swimming regularly. His coworkers thought he was the healthiest among them and are in a bit of shock (Dad's boss reportedly took a look around the conference room at the number of men over fifty and declared that the company would buy defibrillators and train people in their use). He does not drink often, and when he does it's usually red wine. There are probably some food decisions he could have made differently, but both my parents are healthy eaters. (Mom more so than Dad; he joked on Monday that the biggest drawback was that he won't be able to win any food arguments with my mother any more.) He has, however, been under a lot of stress at work recently. The biggest contributor, though, was family history. Both of his parents have had heart attacks (both have survived them), as have a variety of other relatives. With his genes, "usually eating right" isn't quite enough (a lesson my brother and I need to absorb right now). His exercise and fitness level helped him survive this one, and will mean he should recover quickly.

My brother will see him this week. I'm a bit further away, so I won't see him until their trip here in February (already planned, and now approved by medical professionals). I did however, send him a box of goodies that should keep him entertained for a while. He won't be moving much in the near future and the doctor told him not to lift anything more than 10 pounds for the time being. He told Mom that means he won't be carrying the laundry to the basement for her. Mom said she'll make sure the laundry is in small piles.

In other words, everyone is in good spirits and Dad has a pretty legitimate excuse to miss that work trip he had been dreading.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Look What I Made

In the ID program we make a lot of stuff. In an effort to broaden my repertoire of skills, and also to continue a path my Dad started me on when I was little, I took a class last semester called Wood Products and Processes. It began with basic woodworking skills and then progressed on to the use of some of the fancier machines. The place where I took this class is called the Advanced Wood Products Laboratory (AWPL). I always thought the name was sort of entertaining, largely because I associate wood products with craft fairs and that’s hardly advanced. Then I saw the equipment they get to play with.

AWPL is a full research facility and, along with machines to test the strength of various wood products, they have a full suite of production level woodworking machines. One small corner is devoted to things like tablesaws, bandsaws, planers, jointers, and the like. The rest of the shop is a little more complex. The AWPL has a deal with a machine company that works essentially like this: the company stores their new zillion dollar machines at AWPL and lets AWPL use them whenever and however they want; AWPL personnel, in return, train the company’s clients on how to use the machines. The actual machines at the AWPL change over time as existing machines are sold to the customers and new ones come in from the company. There is always at least one computer controlled router, at least one double-sided belt sander wide enough for whole sheets of plywood (not that you’d use it on plywood), and a host of other miscellaneous machines.

Our first project for the class used none of the big stuff. Indeed, I did much of my work at the architecture shop that had the twin conveniences of being next to my studio and open on weekends. The goal was to make a splined box with veneer tops and in the process learn about
jointing, planing, miters, dados, splines, veneering, basic finishes, and general assembly. Alan, our instructor, also used this as an opportunity to teach us one of his fundamental principles of wood work: “If you don’t think you’ll be able to hide it, make it stand out.” The splines on my box are deliberately obvious for this reason. If you try to hide it (very difficult) and fail, it will look like a mistake. If you emphasize it, it will look like a deliberate feature. We’ll call this The Alan Principle because I’m going to refer to it again.

The sides are poplar, the top and bottom are veneered with walnut, and the splines are made from aromatic cedar. The whole piece is finished with several layers of tung oil (three, I think, but I’m not sure). I designed it with my mother in mind and gave it to her for Christmas.

The next project made use of the computer-numeric-controlled routers (cnc). It was an attempt to familiarize us with the cnc so we were not allowed to do any other kind of machining. The entire piece had to be tab-in-slot or slot-in-slot construction, no screws, bolts, or any other addons, and needed to come from a single 2 foot by 4 foot sheet of wood. I made a cord-hider to deal with the rat nests under my computer and behind my entertainment setup. It’s made of half-inch birch plywood, again finished with several coats of tung oil.

The final project was a full piece of furniture, meant to be a flatpack, knockdown piece. In other words, it needs to be able to ship flat (the actual requirements were “fit flat in the trunk of a car”) and to be easy for the customer to assemble and disassemble. Ikea is the prime example of this, but much higher quality furniture is possible. I made this as a gift for Sarah and worked with her (with some inspiration from Jo) to come up with the basic design. After which, I kicked her out of the design process so there would be at least some surprise.

I used walnut plywood for the sides and top, and poplar plywood for all the horizontal surfaces and the inlays. The top opening is for glasses. You cannot see it in the pictures, but there are channels built into the top piece to hang stemware. It’s also tall enough for pints or other glasses to stand upright in the opening. The second opening contains a series of grooves that will each hold a wine bottle. They’re subtle but secure. The cabinet portion is tall enough to hold a variety of other bottles.

For the finish, I was getting a bit tired of tung oil. I made about twenty four samples of possible finishes using various dyes, stains, and topcoat layers. I showed them to Sarah and she picked… the tung oil. This time, though, there’s also a few layers of high-durability polyurethane on top of that to protect the wood from spills (alcohol does terrible things to most wood finishes) and other damage. There are blue highlights around the edges of the inlays, inside the wine bottle grooves, and inside the stemware channels. The inlays are deliberately raised away from the face, another application of the Alan Principle.

I also used the lasercutter to add two personal inscriptions inside the doors: one for myself,

and one for Sarah

(I only wish this had occurred to me earlier so I could have done the same with Mom’s card box).

For more creations by my classmates, check out the AWPL Gallery Page. I did pretty well in this class, but some of my classmates were amazing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this class and definitely got a lot out of it. Not the least of which is access to the cnc router and the rest of the AWPL equipment any time I need it. If you've got a project for me, let me know.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Johnny Lee!

Johnny Lee is awesome. More awesome possibly than even I am. That's pretty awesome. Want proof? Watch the video below.

I spotted this on one of the design blogs I read (Core77, if you must know - their writeup on the video is a nice compliment). I sort of skimmed past it, but the name caught by attention and I backtracked. It was indeed my friend from UVa! I was very excited to see someone I know. Then I watched the video. Then I shared the video with every person in my class, probably twice. Then I read his website, checked out his projects, and browsed his photos. A day later, one of my professors passed around a copy of Make magazine during a discussion and there, on page 84, was Johnny's $14 steady cam. I'll say it again, Johnny Lee is awesome.

Who is Johnny Lee? Many of my readers know him, or have met him even if they don't remember it. I went to UVa with him, we were both in the Rodman Scholars together and shared a number of classes. Even before he got there, he had already patented a 360 degree camera and continued to awe the Rodmans from that point forward (a pretty impressive group themselves). Watch carefully at the minute mark in the video above and you'll spot the electric cello he designed and built in a group project our freshman year. He's at Carnegie Mellon now, pursuing his doctorate (it doesn't stand a chance). Aside from being incredibly intelligent, he's also one of the nicest people I know (and I know a lot of nice people). I'm delighted and excited for him that he's doing so well.

With this video, it's entirely possible he just revolutionized video gaming. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Men are from Delta Halo

Video gaming is still a predominantly male pastime. In my social group, this is certainly the case. Most of the girls play one or two games, but the guys spend a far greater amount of time at it. As Penrock and I have recently discussed, this is having a curious effect on the paths of communication within our group. The girls call and email each other periodically, but the boys play together over Xbox Live on a more regular basis. Significant information is flowing through that channel faster than through the women's channel. Xbox Live has served host to such important announcements as a pregnancy, a new house, two new jobs, and an engagement (not all for the same couple).

The trouble with this particular communication channel is that it has men on either side, and as far as their wives and girlfriends are concerned, they're not conveying enough details. It is unclear as yet whether this is because the men are distracted by gunfire during the conversation, or if it's because as guys, we just don't think to ask. Regardless of the reason, it's driving the girls crazy. We get the big news first, but are completely unable to answer their questions about it when we relay it to them. The guys cannot tell them when the baby is due, what the fiance's name is, when the move will be happening, or who the new job is with..

So it's not the boradest band of communication. It does at least serve as a prompt for the ladies to call each other and retrieve further information.

I suspect this is a similar phenomenon to that experienced with poker games, sports nights, and other regular traditionally male gatherings. The difference here is that this network, thanks to Xbox Live, exists across hundreds of miles.

Hmm, maybe I better get one of those Xbx360 things for myself. It might be prudent.