Monday, December 13, 2010

Last Day of Class

I got home not too long ago from my last class of this quarter. I still have finals, but I'm done with classes.

I don't think I ever wrote about what I'm doing. I had a physics class, a math class, and an engineering class.

The physics class was the last quarter (third?) of first-year physics, for people majoring in sciences or engineering fields. This quarter covered wave phenomena, mainly. That includes mechanical waves, sound waves, and light. It also included geometric optics, relativity, and an introduction to modern physics. We proved that light is a wave, and then that it was a particle. Relativity is pretty wild. The short explanation is that within all frames of reference, the laws of physics are the same. However, the speed of light is also the same in all frames of reference. What that means is that something that is, for example, 10 meters long in one frame might be only 6 meters long in another, so that it takes a ray of light the same distance within either frame to get from one end to the other.

Math was linear algebra. I wasn't looking forward to it - I've heard it's like bookkeeping, or it's really hard, etc. etc. However, it turns out to be the part of math concerned with solving systems of simultaneous equations, which is something that comes up a lot in physics and especially this quarter's engineering course. It's also the part of math that's able to describe things like the Fibonacci Sequence, and find the value of arbitrary numbers in the sequence without having to find previous values. Finally, it has yet another set of ways to solve dot products and cross products - it's kind of like the Swiss Army Knife of vector math. It's also the first math course I've taken that actually uses imaginary numbers, and has a use for the way they interact with real numbers.

My engineering class was Statics. I was excited coming into it because it's the engineering class from which all others emanate, in a way. It did require some use of calculus and involved some simultaneous equations, but a lot of the problems were quite simple, probably even simplified, and I felt like we spent a very long time going through the material. It was nice to have a course that wasn't that difficult, but I'd been expecting more. All the homework for the class was online, which drives me nuts. I found the information needed for the problems was somewhat scattered in the way many of them were presented, and many of the problems had a series of blanks for each part that needed to be answered, implying a certain order in attacking the problem. That irritated me, since the orders often didn't agree with how I found I wanted to approach the problems, and I didn't like the implication that the solutions were linear.

So far, I'm getting really good grades in all my classes. I just got an exam back from linear algebra with a score of 50/50, so that made me happy. Hopefully this will get the attention of the UW Engineering admissions department, because if I don't get in there, I'll have to really reevaluate my plans. I'm going to be starting my application there shortly, since I'll have almost all of my prerequisites out of the way, and ready to go on a transcript to show them how awesome I am.

I'm going to put the "rawk" back in "rocket science."

Next quarter, I have Dynamics and Mechanics of Materials. So I'll have a bit more background for obsessing about bike stuff.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Busy, but Uneventful

I haven't been posting lately. I've been busy. I built a new wheel after the previous blog's incident, but never made it to another race. I promised myself I'd go to the MFG Cyclocross Series Woodland Park Grand Prix, but worked until the early morning the night before, so I decided not to. I took pictures, though.

They vary, and I stood at several different points along the course. This was at a corner following a descent.


We're having a bit of a weather episode right now. I took my camera with me when I went to school on Monday, and took some pictures on the way home. This is a view across the lake from which Greenlake takes its name.

snow day 008

There are some other pictures in that set as well.

Mostly, I've been busy with school. I'm in the middle of a project that ended up more mathematical than I meant it to be. That'll get its own entry.

Monday, October 04, 2010

One of "Those" Races

Yesterday's race was definitely one of "those" races. My race day started with a pleasant breakfast, but when I went to load my 'cross bike onto my truck, I noticed that the front tire was flat. D'oh! So I found the puncture - a piece of a thorn, got that changed, and headed down to the race. By the time I got there, the start list had already been printed. Not too big a deal, apparently - I just had to make sure to e-mail the organizer after the race to remind them that I was there, so I'd show up in the results.

By the time I had all that taken care of, it was clearly too late to pre-ride. Or warm up, really. I was already starting to have visions of the beginning of my season.

The race itself ended up going okay for most of it. Crossing the finish line to start the last lap, I was sure I'd just been lapped by the lead riders, so I sat up. I noticed that everyone else around me was still going pretty hard, so I started working again. Of course I lost a couple of places.

Anyway, the course was mostly flat and relatively non-technical, although some gravel and loamy corners were a little hard to ride cleanly. However, it ran through a sand pit. On the first several laps, I was able to maintain traction and ride it. However, on the last lap, that was not to be.

I lost traction and went down in the sand. I was up fast, but someone was right on my wheel, and when I fell down, he fell on my wheel. Literally. Then either he or the guy immediately behind him fell down too, and landed heavily on my wheel. I had that sinking "broken component" feeling after the first impact. But then I had a much better idea that my race was over. Still, I grabbed my bike, ran the rest of the pit, and tried to ride away. It didn't work. I tried unhooking the rear brake, but still no love. So I threw the bike on my shoulder and started running. Then I thought, "I'm at the back of the race somewhere already, and I'm a lot slower on foot... by the time I reach the finish line, it'll be over." So I walked off the course. At least I completed enough laps to count as finishing in that strange way that this stuff is handled in 'cross.

Looking at the pic, I think the sequence of events is a little different from what I thought - I think maybe I was off and running before wiping out, then went down as a result of the guy behind me plowing into me, which is probably also when my rear wheel was destroyed. The guy behind him is the one I remember falling on it, so the first guy must have rolled out of the way between after tacoing my wheel, so that the second guy could come in and look guilty.

Anyway, this is Adella's picture of my rear wheel when I was telling my friend about it after the race.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Ruminations on Weight

I think most people who care about their bodies have been dissatisfied with their weight at one time or another. In the past, I've been underweight a couple of times. 135 is really not enough for me. My old high was when I was in college, eating at the dining hall, dancing about six hours a day, and lifting weights. I managed to get to 152. After college I was steady at 145 for a very long time. I was happy with 145. Actually, I didn't really think about it - so maybe "content" would be a better word.

Over the last couple of years, things have been shaken up a lot in my world. I had to stop eating meat for a while, moved from New York to Seattle, and then lost the job I got when I moved. With a vegetarian diet and nothing to do but ride my bike, I got down to 136. I didn't really notice it until I developed a cough that didn't go away all summer, and the doctor weighed me for an unrelated reason. I started eating meat again, traveled in Bhutan, and gained the weight back.

This winter was bad, though. I was used to eating to support a pretty high training level, and to make up for the lower energy density of most vegetarian foods. Going back to school took away a lot of time from riding my bike, and eating meat again meant that the same amount of food by volume or mass had a lot more calories.

I noticed that I wasn't as lean as I like to be, but didn't do anything about it at the time because getting underweight last year scared me. I figured if I went into the main part of the season slightly overweight, the weight loss I anticipated from stepping up my cycling would bring me to a good racing weight, rather than making me underweight. That's a nice theory, I think, but between school, working for the census, and having a much better social life than in the winter and spring of 2009, my training volume didn't increase all that much, if at all. I probably kept gaining weight, although I don't own a scale so I don't really have accurate records.


So this brings me to now, and I'm doing something I've never had to do before. I'm watching how much I eat to facilitate losing some weight. I weighed something like 167 lbs a few weeks ago. That's more than I've ever weighed. When I stand up straight, my belly isn't concave. My waist is bigger, and my pants, bought for comfort, are too tight. Finally, and more importantly to me, my race results haven't been very good. Part of that was losing a couple weeks mid-season to a medical thing, but I think a lot of it is that I'm hauling an extra twenty pounds up a hill. Usually, climbs are my office - the place I go to work. This season, they still were... but not the way they used to be. It took me an improved shift pattern and a lot more work to beat people up the hills. I don't think my class is getting faster. I think I'm getting slower.

I've eaten like an overeater since college, so it's a somewhat difficult habit for me to break. I've knocked a few hundred calories off the lunch I prepare for myself at home, and the two dinners I tend to alternate. At buffets, I'm trying to cut back to a salad and a full plate of food, rather than the two full plates I'm accustomed to. I'm also trying to be a little more aware of the choices I make when I snack. I don't really want to be hungry or starve myself, and I think that the above changes already cut a few hundred calories from my day, so I don't think I need to eliminate snacking. However, getting a jelly donut or a gigantic pastry every time I have a cup of coffee is probably not necessary. I'm trying to keep some bananas around so I have things to eat and don't get into a pattern of getting super-hungry between meals and overeating. I'm trying to recast the donuts and pastries and things as more of a treat or a reward, maybe something to eat at the tail end of a bike ride, when I need to replace a lot of calories anyway.

My Mom's scale put me at 162 this morning. So I'm making some progress. I'd like to be at 150 by January 1st, when I plan to start base training for next season, and around 145 for next season's races.

One of the things that's interesting to me about this is that it shows just how large a range of weights fit within healthy. I wouldn't say I'm not healthy right now - I'm just not as lean as I'd like to be for best performance. And I'd say I'm pretty healthy at 140. I'm choosing 145 so that if I dip, I dip to 140 and not to 135. So between 140 and my recent high at 167, there's 27 lbs of variation. That's more than one of my bikes, or two theatrical lighting instruments. On me, it's a visible change, but still fairly subtle. I've imagined thirty pounds to be quite a lot of additional volume, but apparently it doesn't have to be.

I've always thought that sooner or later, my metabolism would slow to a point requiring me to put in some effort to maintain a stable weight. Now it's here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sometimes, Just Finishing is an Accomplishment

I had my first 'cross race of the season on Sunday. I've had a cough for about two weeks, and I wasn't sure if I was going to be up to racing at all last weekend, so I didn't pre-register. I noticed that, riding my bike to work, I'd be more-or-less okay once I got warmed up, so when I felt more-or-less okay on Sunday morning I decided to go through with it.

The parking lots were already full when I got to the park, so I had to mess around with that for a while before registering. Then I found that the previous group of racers were still out on the course, finally finishing their race well after 10am. Since my start was supposed to be at 10:20, I decided to forego my usual pre-ride. I thought that might happen, so I warmed up in one of the soccer fields for a while before the race. My heart went from zero to sixty incredibly quickly when I was warming up, and I felt a lot of resistance riding on the field. I'm not sure if that's mostly me or mostly that grass tends to generate a lot of rolling resistance.

For the first race of the season, the organizers placed people according to the last digit of their race numbers. I was placed on the third or fourth row. That wasn't really where I wanted to be - I already had a good idea that just finishing would be a struggle.

As I rode the course, I learned that it was almost exactly the same as last year. They'd added some more turns on the grass, but that was it. Of course, riding on flat grassy fields is pretty much the weakest aspect of my 'cross riding, but I don't think it mattered on Sunday.

Every pedal stroke came hard while I was racing, and I lost place after place after place. However, my dismount seems to be intact, and I was fine on the run-up, which was mercifully short. I probably could have ridden it easily on my mountain bike, or even on the 'cross bike if the line in wasn't blocked by a tree. As it is, I found I could ride about halfway up, but couldn't maintain momentum.

Finally, I heard the bell going across the line. The announcer was (mistakenly) calling one to go. I hadn't been lapped yet, and I was proud of that. Not too long after I crossed the start/finish line, though, the announcer corrected his mistake - two to go. I was tempted to walk off the course, but I was also determined to finish.

So I made it through the remaining two laps, and even sprinted across the line, mainly for the sake of practice.

The owner of the shop sponsoring my team was there, with his new job, so I put my bike near the booth he was manning and coughed for a while. I'm surprised I didn't also dry heave or something - I felt pretty rotten. No nausea, since I couldn't dig deep enough for that, but my asthma was definitely back in force. I collected my things, hung out for a while, and drove home.

I did manage to do the whole race at my short race effort level, so I'm happy with that. I finished in 59th place - my worst 'cross finish ever. However, I did manage to stay in the leader's lap, so that's a small victory. My bike also worked flawlessly during the race, which made me happy - that was one of the reasons I went.

I'm hoping that all this means that when I go to my next race, having had some time to rest and get over my cough, I'll actually be fast enough to be in the race, and not just on the course. I'm glad I did it, though - I did not want to start the series by missing the first race.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Summer Summary

So it's been a little while. I've been very busy. I've been working for the Census since April, and I started summer quarter in July, taking two classes - a full load, since summer is a shorter quarter but the classes have the same number of hours. I also did my last 'A' races of the mountain bike season, a few criteriums, and one or two Wednesday Night Worlds races.

To be good at anything, a person has to make choices. I don't like to say sacrifice, because that calls to mind people who make pointedly stupid choices to show their devotion to a goal, rather than more reasonable choices to further their achievement of that goal. At this stage in my life, the things I want to be good at are my relationship with my favorite person, school, and riding bikes, more-or-less in that order. I also need to, more-or-less, support myself. I have a sponsorship as a student right now, which is what makes it possible for me to do a full load.

This quarter's classes were Java Programming and Electrical Circuits. Java programming ended up being mostly review for me, and I actually took it sort-of by accident. It was offered under both a computer science and an engineering course number, and I signed up for it with the engineering number, because it's on my list of prerequisites. It'd been a long time since I'd taken a programming class, and I thought it might cover material more specific to engineering, and that I might learn something. Since my previous classes were in C and this was in Java, I actually did learn some - object oriented programming is a fairly different way of looking at a program than C. One of the particularly difficult aspects of C programming is storing a set of pieces of data of different types. Java makes those sets of data the basic element of the language, and very easy to code. Any procedures used to manipulate the data structure are built into it. So something that could take hours to code and debug in C can be thrown together in several minutes in Java, and it's a language written to be idiot-resistant, so debugging is usually no big deal. I got a 4.0 in the class, and because I'm "that guy" and took the opportunity to pick up some extra credit on the last programming project but only lost half a point over the whole quarter, I think I actually got more than 100%.

Electrical Circuits was a much harder course. In the context of school and electrical engineering, a circuit might refer to an actual, physical set of electrical elements or the mathematical model used to predict its behavior. The math was occasionally difficult, with a lot of algebra, up until capacitors and inductors were introduced. Without a capacitor or an inductor, a circuit is basically a static entity. If there's something like a switch involved, the circuit is considered to change instantly from one state to the other.

Inductors and capacitors have time-variable behavior. If a circuit has only an inductor or capacitor, a source, and no other elements, they follow somewhat complicated exponential growth or decay formulae, but nothing too bad. The last chapter we covered in the course concerned circuits with a resistor, inductor, capacitor and usually a source. When there are multiple elements in the circuit, or the source is also time-variable, sometimes all one can really figure out is a rate of change, or a voltage or current based on something else in the circuit. The behavior of such a circuit is described by a second order differential equation. Second order differential equations are difficult because they combine calculus and some fairly difficult algebra and often trig. The math itself didn't hurt my brain as much this time around, but deriving the differential equation from the circuit diagram is not always easy.

Between school work and working for the Census, I didn't have a lot of time to hang out with my favorite person or ride my bike. So while I think I'm a bit healthier than last year, when I got too skinny, my fitness level is definitely not as high. I think my places have declined slightly from last season, especially in my early-season races. I've had a great time with Adella though, including celebrating our first anniversary of seeing each other, which is a pretty big first for me. We also celebrated her birthday together, which was pretty great.

So what about mountain biking? Since my last post, I've done two races: the Padden Mountain Pedal and the White River Revival. I was exactly in the middle of the pack at White River. It has a huge fire road climb followed by a singletrack descent. There are three different laps in the sport class race - a starting lap, including a low, relatively flat area with loamy soil, the long lap, which has the full-length climb and descent and the low singletrack, and a short lap, with a shorter version of the climb and descent and the singletrack again. I've decided that climbs are my office, but I have a really hard time carrying speed on soft-surfaced, technical singletrack, and lost places there. I also fell off the downhill side of the descent on my first lap, and it took me some time to extricate myself, during which several people passed me. Since the first lap has the biggest climb, I would have had to reel them back in on the singletrack, which wasn't happening.

I felt pretty good at Padden and didn't make any major mistakes, but I didn't do particularly well either. Other riders were just faster. Padden has much more technical climbing than any of the other races I did this season, and that reduces the advantage I get from a race with a lot of elevation gain - it's like being at a stand-up desk in the corner of a warehouse instead of in my high-design ergonomic chair in my corner office. I can still go to work, but I was doing more grunting and mashing and even some running, and a lot less of my new climbing pattern - spinning for a while in my little chain ring (or even my middle one now and then) and then shifting to the next larger ring and getting out of the saddle to use those muscles and let the other ones recover.

I think that being better at mountain bike racing, even within my class, requires a larger time commitment than I'm willing to make right now, although this season also got badly derailed when I had to get my biopsy - I had a great race at the Ski to Sea, and I think I was having a great race until I flatted my tire at the Whidbey Island Mudder. I've just gotten my 'cross bike prepared for this Fall's racing, and I've been trying yet again to reincorporate running into my general array of working out. If I can get myself back on track to where I'm doing an interval workout once or twice a week, running once or twice a week, and taking no more than two days a week completely off my bike, I think I should be able to race hard this season.

So it's been quite a summer.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bavarian Bike and Brews Fest

I think that one of the most important parts of a race is getting to the starting line. Not just getting to the starting line, but getting to the starting line warmed up, ready, and in time to have a good starting position if it's a race that goes into singletrack early.

I overslept on the morning of this race. I decided breakfast wasn't negotiable and got out of the house later than I'd have liked to. When I got to Leavenworth, I went to two wrong places to try to pick up my race packet before going to the course. So by the time I got my number twist-tied onto my bike, my wave was already on its way up the starting climb and I still hadn't warmed up.

Luckily for me, the race organizers had a way to deal with this. They started me with the Clydesdales, about fourteen minutes after my wave, then placed me in my class according to my time. That meant I was essentially doing a time-trial, just with more closely-spaced riders on the course. Apparently a couple of other riders weren't in the right waves either that day, for one reason or another.

The course follows the Freund Canyon Loop. The organizers say it's 8.6 miles, with 1800' of climbing. I did two laps. It's basically a very long climb on either a fire road or generally non-technical singletrack and then an equally long descent back to the start/finish area. I'd been going back and forth on a strategy for this race - obviously if I bonked on the climb during the second lap, it would really hurt my time. On the other hand, if I saved too much, I still wouldn't have a time machine with which to travel back half an hour and tell my previous self to ride faster.

The climb was long. Mostly it wasn't very technical - it just went up and up and up. There were a few sections of singletrack benched out of the side of the mountain that were more difficult, especially when they were also steep, and there were 3' tall roller things built along the top part of the loop that were difficult to get up if I was already climbing, including one that made me dismount on the second lap.

Starting from pretty far back in the race was interesting. I was behind some of the women's fields, but ahead of some of the older men's fields and the juniors. I spent a lot of the race catching and passing women, before chasing into my own field. I also got caught by a couple of really competitive older guys and juniors, and some of the women blew right by me on the descent. I think cyclists who are douches on the road should have to actually enter a few races, so that some women or 14-year-old boys can show them what "fast" really means.

The descent was pretty incredible. It's the first XC race I've attended that incorporated a wall ride. There were a ton of berms and a couple of deep stream crossings. By the time I got to the bottom, I felt like my right calf muscle was going to explode, but I'm just as goofy-footed on a mountain bike as I am on a snowboard - switching leading feet feels incredibly awkward to me.

I promised myself I'd climb like it was going out of style on the second lap, but didn't end up working as hard as I meant to. I've been meaning to alternate sitting and standing on really long climbs, like the one on that course, but I didn't shift up enough times when I stood up to be in the pedals. Next time, I'll try a different shifting technique and see if it works better. I also lost focus for a little while in some of the high singletrack, and then caught myself riding at a more reasonable pace than the situation really merited.

At the end of the descent the second time, I was supposed to turn right and go through the finishing gate, but I turned left as I had on previous laps. Something felt wrong - no racers lying on the ground and panting - so I asked someone and found my way back to the finish line. I doubt I lost more than a minute doing that, though.

A lot of people say a mountain bike race is a lot like a time trial - you ride at the highest pace you can sustain for a period of time, and then see how your time stacks up. I disagree. If I'd started with my class, I'd have tried to stay in with one of the faster groups. I might have blown up sometime during the race and done much worse, and I might have stayed focused and done a little better. Time trialists don't really know how the other riders are doing, but in a cross-country race, at least within my own little piece of the course, I do. The winner of a mountain bike race will have the shortest time, but many of us are racing each other, not the clock. I think that's huge.

Ultimately, I did alright. I was 14th out of 31 finishers and 36 who entered. The 12th and 13th guy both came in within a minute of my time, so I can't help wondering what the results would have been like if I was together enough to show up on time. I guess my result shows that while I may sometimes do my best to screw myself up, all the training has a lot to do with it too.

I'm skipping this weekend's race. It's very far away and a long ride I went on yesterday afternoon was my first non-commute ride since my biopsy. So my next "real" race will be either 7/10 or 7/18, and then my XC racing season will be done.

It's been an odd season. Mechanical problems, not many races, and not as much time to train as I'd like to have all contributed to making it a bit of a sophomore slump. I was busy because I'm in school again, working toward a goal that I think will really improve my life, so it's worth it. But I'm going to plan next year more conservatively, and I think I'm going to choose just one CX series this Fall and maybe even skip a few if I start getting into "workathon" mode about something I do for fun.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Whidbey Island Mudder

I never got around to posting about my race on 5/23. I went to the Whidbey Island Mudder. It was pretty dry, just as it was when I did it last year. When I was racing last year, my big project was just to try to finish races without bonking. I wasn't always successful, but I think I expanded my aerobic capacity a lot. By the end of the season, completing a two hour race was no longer a problem for me, so this year's project is to be a lot less conservative about pacing myself. At Wednesday Night Worlds earlier in May, I did a race in which I spent the whole time at a much higher effort level than what I've considered myself able to sustain for that long in the past, and that was a real breakthrough for me.

So I decided to do Whidbey the same way. I was going to place myself in the first or second row at the start, race at that level of effort, and not worry about whether or not I was going to blow up. I didn't end up giving myself a great start, but since the course starts with a fairly long stretch of wide singletrack with easy passing, I don't think that was really a problem. Then I rode my bike really really hard for two and a half laps. Even once I noticed that my rear wheel was getting a little squirrelly...

Turned out I got a puncture. The tip of a thorn poked a hole in my tube. In the past, I've operated under the theory that if I got a flat tire, my race would be over whether or not I brought spare tubes, etc. All that stuff adds some weight and I think I can feel a difference in the handling of my bike with the tubes strapped on, so I've typically left my tools in the car when I race.

It's been almost a month since that race, and since then I've done the mountain bike leg in the Ski to Sea and another Indie Series race. While I was very disappointed with my result at Whidbey - I like finishing things - I think I still made progress as a racer that day. When I raced at the Ski to Sea, I rode the way I rode at Whidbey, and I got a result that I'm very happy with.

There are a lot of things that I enjoy about mountain bike racing. One of my favorite aspects, though, is that I feel it gives me a challenge to rise to - in trying to be a better mountain biker than the guy in front of me or the guy sitting on my wheel, I'm trying to be a better mountain biker in general. If I get to the point that trying to be faster than the other guys in my class doesn't make me better, there are two more classes I can upgrade to. If I get to the point that trying to be the fastest guy in the Open class doesn't require me to improve... then I guess I'll have some things to say to Julien Absalon. I'm dissappointed that a race that I thought was going well got cut short when I flatted my tire, but I think I still got to be a better mountain biker.

And I've taken my tire changing stuff with me for the two races since then.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dude! You Stabbed Me!

In general, I tend to think I'm a very health person. If I sleep and eat adequately, I have a good energy level, feel healthy, don't get any weird symptoms, etc.

Doctors seem to think differently. I've been getting some weird results on liver function tests for a couple of years now, basically since when I got health insurance while I was living in New York and decided that I should make them pay out some of my money to a doctor. One of the more stressful weeks in my life was in between when my doctor told me, "You have hepatitis!" and when the tests for the A, B and C viruses came back (negative.) Ever since then, when I walk into a doctor's office, the doctor sees a pin cushion.

My liver doesn't look quite right on an ultrasound either, and since I'm not fat, barely drink, and have stopped using anti-inflammatories, it's kind of a mystery. So my doctor decided she wanted a chunk of it. Actually, two chunks.

Yesterday's festivity was giving up those two chunks of liver. I went to the hospital at 9:45am, having not eaten since 1:30am. I wasn't really bothered by that... yet. There, I got to change into a hospital gown and a pair of those awesome grippy socks that hospitals have. Then someone who claimed to work as a bagger at the Safeway across the street took a blood sample, the nurse started an IV, and Adella and I waited for whatever the next thing was. Adella is totally awesome for coming with me. While we waited, I modeled the hospital gown, which is totally sexy. Pictures are linked to from my Facebook.

I knew I was going to be doing a lot of waiting, so I brought my physics and chemistry notebooks, my laptop and my giant calculator. I considered finishing my physics assignment while we waited, but decided that that would just ensure that I got taken wherever I was going for the biopsy and would have to waste a lot of timing figuring out what, exactly, I'd just proven when I got back.

After a while, a guy showed up to wheel me down to radiology, where the biopsy would actually take place. It was to be an ultrasound-guided biopsy, and I guess out of me, the biopsy kit and the ultrasound machine, the ultrasound machine was the least portable. He offered to take the stairs, but then went via the elevator. I practiced my royal wave, to the amusement of hospital staff who are good sports for pretending not to have seen it before.

A nurse asked me to confirm my name. Then a radiologist, or at least a radiology technician, smeared a bunch of teal colored stuff on my abdomen and got out the ultrasound machine. They wanted to make sure not to hit any big veins. A physician assistant showed up to do the biopsy. I've always said I'd rather have a physician assistant or nurse practitioner who thinks it's kind of cool to get to do them than a doctor who's totally over it if it's not life-threatening. The PA stuck me with a needle with lidocaine and injected some at a couple of different depths. That was quite painful, especially at one depth that he said was the perineum, and often quite painful. Thanks...

Next, they got out the actual biopsy kit. I didn't get a great look at it, but I think it's about the size of a meat thermometer, although I think the part they actually stab me with is smaller. Anyway, I couldn't feel that because of the local anesthetic. My doctor wanted two samples, so they stuck me twice. I think in court, that's considered aggravated or something... I think I felt it when the PA actually pressed the button, although the sound was more shocking than the actual sensation. Biopsy thingies are really loud.

After that, it was pretty much over. The nurse showed me the two little chunks of liver - they looked like red, flexible leads for a mechanical pencil. It's slightly disturbing to see things that are formerly parts of my body separated from my body, and in a jar of some sort of solution. The guy who was supposed to wheel me back to my room wasn't there, so the nurse took me back up instead. I asked him if he could make the bed bunny hop. I'm very clever.

On the way out of the room in Radiology where they actually did the procedure, my side and my shoulder started to hurt. The PA had told me about the shoulder pain beforehand, which is good, because it doesn't make intuitive sense and it's pretty intense. Apparently, the swelling from my liver puts pressure on my diaphragm and diaphragm pain gets referred to my shoulder, behind the collar bone. I asked if that was why intense aerobic efforts hurt there, and he said it was. It was cool to learn something new about the way my body works (or protests working.)

By the time we got to Extended Observation, where I was sort-of checked in, my side and especially shoulder were quite painful. I thought that the nurse had been told to give me something, but that may not have been communicated. I also thought I was supposed to be flat on my back for an hour, then get lunch, but the nurse showed up with lunch almost right away. I was pretty hungry, so I decided not to worry too much about that one. It was still a really bad ham sandwich, although the tomato soup was excellent. I also managed to get the pain pill.

I'm not sure what it was; I assume Oxycodone because that's the prescription they wrote me. I think it made me a bit loopy, but I wanted to make sure to let my parents know that nothing bad had happened, or at least no worse than anticipated. Getting stabbed in the liver is kind of bad, I think. So I made a couple of incoherent phone calls, Adella made fun of me, and I took a nap. Apparently I told the nurse several times that yes, it hurt, and someone had stabbed me in the liver. I still think that's funny.

A couple hours later, I got discharged. I put my clothes on and Adella and I went back to her place, where I spent the rest of the day watching Avatar: The Last Airbender and lying on the couch. Eventually, I did get to that physics assignment, and derived a formula that was consistent with the one in the book for the case covered by the book's formula and internally consistent with itself for the case not covered by the book. Integral Calculus is hard...

At the moment, I'm not supposed to lift more than five pounds or exercise. I also haven't had any shoulder pain today - that pretty much went away after yesterday. My side still hurts, though, and I've got a bit of a dent where they did the biopsy.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Ski to Sea, First Good Race of the Season

A week ago, I raced in the Ski to Sea. The Ski to Sea is a funny race. It's a seven-stage relay race incorporating cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, running, road cycling, canoeing, mountain biking and kayaking. I rode in the mountain bike leg.

Teams in the ski-to-sea vary from very competitive teams, with the top competitors completing the race in under six hours, to less competitive teams, with times over ten hours. The team I was racing on was just trying to finish, and I know that finishing before the cutoff time was a pretty big personal accomplishment for at least one of my teammates. All the mountain bikers had to attend a pre-race meeting at 11:30, but I couldn't start until my teammates on the previous leg could pass me the timing chip. I ended up spending a very long time hanging out at the transition as a result, so I got to see some of the cool costumes on some of the less competitive teams.

The race organizers had a spotter stationed at a bridge a little way up the river. He'd radio an announcer at the staging area with the team numbers for the canoes that passed under the bridge. At that point, the mountain biker had seven minutes to get organized to help the canoeists get the canoe out of the water and under a banner and then start his leg. The fastest teams seemed to take a lot less time than that, and then the mountain biker and two exhausted-looking canoeists would run under the flag, and the mountain biker would leap onto his bike and ride away. The fast teams had canoeists who compete as canoeists regularly, a sport I didn't realize was even contested seriously. Competitive male canoeists look a lot like male gymnasts.

As the hours wore on, the canoeists looked less and less like gymnasts or anything else, and the costumes got better and better. More beer was evident. The mountain bikers who'd showed up dressed in spandex and riding cross country racing bikes were mostly gone - they were mainly on teams where everyone else was more competitive too. The ones who were left were starting by straddling their bikes, putting one foot on a pedal, putting the other foot on a pedal, and wobbling off. Of course there were still some Epics and other exotic racing bikes present - anyone who can stomach the price for a racing bike can own one. I keep telling myself it doesn't bother me...

I got a call a little before 2pm to let me know that our canoe was in the water, so I rode around and warmed up, bumped into a friend, and then hid in the car with my favorite person for a while when it started raining. I had a power bar, drank some water, and went to the bathroom more times than I care to admit. I stiffened up a little again, because it had been a while since my warmup. And then around 3:30, the announcer called my team and I leapt into action. Of course, I had seven minutes to do about a minute's worth of leaping, so it was slightly silly to hurry, but I didn't want to be in the wrong place when my team showed.

The canoe showed up at the steep little scrap of beach where the transition was happening that day. The exact launch and transition spots for the canoe leg are subject to the vagaries of the river, and aren't selected until shortly before the race. I helped my teammates get it up the steep part and then jogged under the banner with them while I stuffed the timing chip under my shirt. Then I was in race mode. I ran over the timing gate, grabbed my bike from Adella (the mountain bike racer was allowed to have an assistant hold his bike for him, but not push him,) did a flying mount, and spent the next hour and four minutes riding as hard as I could remotely sustain. Adella saw me a few times because the course wrapped around the park where the transition took place and traffic for cars was quite slow.

The mountain bike course for the Ski to Sea is in a somewhat inopportune location. It starts in Hovander Park, near Ferndale, and runs fourteen miles to Squalicum Harbor, at the edge of Bellingham. There's a total of 250' of climbing, and while there are a couple of parks with trail systems along the way, a lot of the course ran through parking lots, over the little scraps of vegetation between them, through vacant lots, and through unused fields. Near the end, it even ran along a rail line. There's a little park next to the harbor where the organizers decided to make it more spectator-friendly, so it ran up and down a speedbump of a hill four times, made a spiral in some mud, ran over another embankment, and then finally went onto the road and through some parking lots to the transition point for the kayaker. I didn't quite have a perfect race, but I was very close, and that made me very happy - aside from one practice race that went well, it'd been a frustrating season up to that point.

From the results, I passed 36 people. I was afraid I was going to feel like "that guy" for riding fast in that group, but then I decided that it's called a race, everyone who signed up knew they were signing up for a race, and the people at the front were even more serious about going fast than I am. I thought of it more like a time trial against the people who'd raced earlier in the day, although I'd be lying if I claimed not to get some satisfaction moving my team up the rankings by all those places.

Our kayaker took it from there. I think I managed to beat her to the finish line in Fairhaven, but the kayak course involved a lot of buoys, to make it more time consuming, while I rode via the most direct route.

It was raining a little again, so people weren't spending much time at the finish line festivities. But I got to tell everyone on the team that it was an honor to get to race with them. I'm quite proud of my teammates. For some, it was their first time competing in their respective sport. And while I think I'm cool for passing 36 people, our best rank of the day was in the morning, after our runner passed 51.

Each competitor was ranked within their own leg by split time as well as the teams getting overall rankings, so I know how I fit against the other mountain bikers. There were 464 teams in the race and 95 in our division (Recreational mixed-gender;) I ranked 116th for the race overall and 14th in our division. Just because I like to look at this stuff, my time would have put me mid-pack in the Competitive Open division. You can find full results on the Ski to Sea web site. Our team was team 407.

Monday, May 17, 2010


I went for a ride on Sunday with one of my teammates for the Ski to Sea. She's going to be doing the road cycling leg of the race in two weeks but she's only been cycling for a few months and was a bit nervous about being able to complete the leg.

We parked in Kendall, a small town in the dip in the leg's elevation profile, and headed east along SR-542. The road cycling leg of the race will start near the Mt. Baker ski resort at the top of 542, descend into Kendall, and then go over a low pass and through some farmland to Everson, a town on the Nooksack river.

Based on Alair's experience riding bikes and nervousness about the leg, I thought that some good goals for the ride would be to make sure her bike fit her more-or-less alright and was in safe mechanical shape, and then see if I could teach her anything about technique. It takes months to develop aerobic capacity and the race is on the 30th. Technique, however, can be improved in a couple hours and an improvement in technique has the potential to improve someone's power output and enjoyment of cycling tremendously. Another goal was to do the hardest climb on the route.

The first thing we worked on was bike fit. Some adjustments to saddle and handlebar position made the bike a lot more comfortable for Alair. She'd figured out the major adjustment, but forty miles later, the subtleties can be pretty important.

542 East is surprisingly mellow around Kendall - I expected it to have a pretty continuous grade with some stiff climbs mixed in, but the river it follows seems to have done most of its descending by the time it gets to where we were. Alair remarked on the beauty of the area. I don't mind riding my bike in the city and around Seattle, but really getting out into the countryside is definitely something special. The peace and privacy I used to feel when I rode in the Santa Cruz mountains are one of the things that got me into road cycling.

After working on fit, I wanted to address some technique stuff. We worked on gear selection some during the first hour of the ride, and I think that was helpful. I also showed Alair how to climb and descend out of the saddle, things I think everyone on a bike needs to be able to do effectively, and one-footed and really fast pedaling exercises. I think that a lot of cycling technique is very intuitive once the rider has been exposed to the correct way to do it, but some things just don't occur to people. I can't imagine descending something steep and not putting my pedals in 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock and getting low over the top tube, but when I first started riding off-road, someone had to tell me to do that too. Watch a triathlon and you'll see a lot of people who can ride 150 miles before breakfast and still don't descend well.

By the time we were doing goofy pedaling exercises, we'd already turned around and were heading west toward Kendall again. I was hoping to keep the ride to somewhere around three hours, so we turned around after heading east for about an hour. It felt like it took significantly less time to get back to Kendall from the furthest point of our ride, but I didn't confirm that with a stopwatch or anything. We rolled through Kendall and then headed up SR-547 toward North Pass Road, which is reputed to be a very difficult climb.

I can say a couple of things. North Pass Road is very beautiful. It has rolling terrain and some climbing sections really are a bit steep. But nothing is long, there are harder climbs inside the city limits in Seattle, and the people who whine about how difficult it is might have an easier time if they rode their bikes more often. Anyway, Alair didn't have to stop on any of the climbs. She actually may not have stopped until we started descending something big enough that I thought we might have reached the top and stopped her myself.

I'm quite proud of how the ride went. Alair brought a ton of grit and determination, and I'm sure she'd have been able to finish the ride based on that alone on race day. However, I think that I've helped her arrive at a more comfortable bike fit, more comfort with her shifters and how to use them to get the bike to help her, better descending technique and a little better pedaling technique. I can't make someone else faster, but maybe I hope I've been able to remove a few of the obstacles that were preventing her from expressing the faster cyclist she already was. I like to think I made the sport a bit more fun for her too.

I think cycling has the potential to be a fun and joyful activity for most people. I think that the first steps in helping someone become stronger cyclist, especially for someone just starting out or getting back into it are to make sure they're not fighting the bike - it needs to work, and fit, and any really bad technique issues should be addressed. Everything else is details.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Shopping for a Beater Bike

A coworker of mine mentioned today that she was thinking about getting a bike, as an alternative to waiting for the bus. I think it's silly to wait forty minutes to go six miles, and it would be great for her to do that. Which brings up the problem of what to buy and where to buy it.

I'm a big fan of the $100 beater bike model for getting from A to B, running errands, etc. etc. I have a $100 road bike; one of my roommates has a hybrid he got for even less, and I think it's great to have something that does a job perfectly well and that I can leave locked outside. I can also do stuff like mount a rack and a set of full fenders on it and keep my "good" bikes set up in a more dedicated sporting trim.

When I shopped for a beater bike this time, I ended up buying one from a guy down in Tukwila. I shopped for it on Craig's List, looking for frames close to my preferred size, because the trip to Tukwila was enough of a pain that I didn't want to have to make multiple trips and test-ride multiple bikes if I could avoid it. I wouldn't recommend shopping on Craig's List to someone who doesn't know their size for that reason. To my mind, that person needs to ride a bunch of different bikes and choose their favorite. That means a shop, or at least someone who buys and sells a lot of used bikes.

Unfortunately, shopping for a used bike anywhere is problematic. There are a few places here in Seattle, though, so maybe I'll make a list for her and let that be my evangelism for bike commuting for the month.

Friday, April 23, 2010

T-one month

I've had a pretty rocky start to my racing season this year. I've been to three 'B' races and finished two, and one 'C' race. I've already blogged about the two I finished - in one, I didn't ride hard enough in the first lap and it took me the entire race to catch up to the people in my class, and the second followed too intense a week and too little sleep, and I never found my rhythm. How well I did despite that in those races was encouraging, though.

Last weekend, I didn't even finish. I'd been having some trouble with my suspension fork and thought I might need to rebuild it. I let all the pressure out and ran it through its stroke a few times, and decided it was fine but that I'd pumped it up to too high a pressure. So I returned to my old pressures and went racing. Of course, I was no longer accustomed to some of the bad manners it sometimes exhibits at lower pressures - it lets the bike nosedive in dips, so riding braking bumps can be really difficult. I'm not that good at flat, technical terrain under the best of circumstances, so I had trouble keeping the rubber side down. About two thirds of the way through the first lap, I wiped out on a braking bump badly enough to wrench my handlebars around and pop my saddle off the rails. While people offered me the use of their saddle, it took a few minutes to fix my handlebars and would have taken some more time to swap saddles with someone else. I figured my race was already too far ahead of me to get back into it, and I wouldn't want to accept someone else's saddle and effectively end his. I finished the lap, and then walked off the course and cheered from the turn at the parking lot.

I'd been hoping to have one really good finish before the main part of my season, but it's a little late for that now. There are a few races between now and the Indie Series season opener, but one's in Eastern Washington, and another's on one of the islands in the sound and has a really high race fee, so I'm not going to do either. However, Wednesday Night Worlds started last week, so I have those to go to on Wednesdays, and not racing means I've got four weekends to use however I want to.

A bad carpenter blames his tools and there's no magic suspension fork that will make me a better rider. So I plan to keep going mountain biking on at least one of the weekend days, and I plan to put a little extra emphasis on flat, technical terrain, either by riding in flattish areas more, by revisiting Soaring Eagle, or by lapping the flat trails in areas with more pitch. I may even try to do some speed work on singletrack. Going to as many Wednesdays as I can should help a lot too.

I may also try to do one high intensity road ride each week. It can sometimes be hard to maintain a consistent, high level of intensity on a mountain bike, especially since I'm less motivated to do that to myself when I'm not racing.

If I'm riding a little more smoothly when the Indie Series starts up in a month and I've been doing some speed work, I should be ready to ride really hard, keep the rubber side down, and have some really awesome races. Now I just need for them to get the last couple venues they're promising and have a strong season...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Racing Plans for 2010

This year's plan, at least through the summer, is to go to the last BuDu Racing race, most or all of the Indie Series races, a lot of Wednesday Night Worlds races and the Ski to Sea in Bellingham. I might also try criterium racing if I have a week that I can't make it to a Wednesday but my Thursday night is free. I have a perfectly good road racing bike and I think it might be fun.

Last year, I planned to race Beginner and ended up racing Sport all season. I generally came in mid-pack, and I was pretty happy with that. This year is not last year. I'd like to get into the top 5 some time this season. I'm also doing a lot more with my life at the moment, so fitting in training time will be more challenging. I had a nagging cough mid-season that lost me a couple races last year, and I dropped down to 135 lbs for a while. This year, I want to keep my weight no lower than 140 lbs, which I think will be healthier for me.

I'm also going to be doing the Ski to Sea this year, racing the mountain bike leg. It's 14 miles and I don't have a great sense of what the terrain will be like. In years past, people have contested it on slick tires, and with aero bars on their bikes. The organizers are claiming that this year it'll be on much more rugged trails, so that a mountain bike will be the best way to do it, not just the equipment mandated by the rules.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Bad Day Racing beats a Good Day...

I never quite found my rhythm in Sunday's race. There were a lot of reasons for it not to be my day, but one of the things that I like about racing is that what counts is what happens in between when someone says "go" or blows a whistle and when I roll across the finish line.

On Sunday, I started somewhat tentatively again. I didn't have time for a warmup or pre-ride when I got to the venue, so I didn't fight for a holeshot. The course started by crossing some fields and entering a flat, forested area. I maintained contact for a while, but I wasn't feeling great and I got slowed down by riders ahead having trouble with obstacles a couple of times in the forest.

After passing through the flat part of the woods, there was a stiff fire road climb. Normally, climbs are my friend, but even my lowest gear felt too high, and I lost a couple places. I tried climbing out of the saddle, but found I couldn't keep my rear wheel hooked up.

I lost another on the next big climb, then finally came into territory familiar to me from cyclocross races.

During the second lap, the leading riders from some of the other starts started catching me, and I got passed quite a lot. I felt out of breathe and my legs felt slow and heavy. I finished the lap convinced I had to be at the back of the pack for my class. I also finished feeling a lot better than I often do after these races. I notice that when I'm in good form, I can push myself a lot harder and while I have more fun racing and get better finishes, I also feel a lot more destroyed afterwards.

My result was actually better than I thought. 8th place again, but in a field of 12, placing me in the middle third. I was 85 seconds behind the guy in front of me, and about three and a half minutes back of the 4th-6th place riders. In a race lasting a little under an hour, 85 seconds is not a lot of time.

In a sense, I haven't learned anything new from this race. That made it pretty frustrating. But when the results were posted, I was reminded of something I noticed last season - just because I'm not feeling that good subjectively or I didn't get to pre-ride and warm up doesn't mean that my performance will degrade as much as it feels like it should. If a bad day puts me in a bad mid-pack spot, a good day can probably put me in a good mid-pack spot, maybe a better one than what I was able to do last season. I was glancing over some old blog posts and saw that I finished the season wanting to crack the top 5 in an Indie Series race. I'd say that's a good goal to work on this season, since I never quite did it last season.

I get another chance this weekend. So I'll try to get a lot of sleep this week, race hard tonight, get to the venue with time to pre-ride and warm up, and then race at high intensity right from the start and keep it going until I cross the finish line. I'd like at least one good finish before the Indie Series races start up.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Back to School

I started taking classes at North Seattle Community College a few days into January this year. I took some classes when I was in New York, but they were more vocational; this time felt different. Anyway, I did pretty well throughout the quarter but finals still made me nervous. They were all more-or-less comprehensive, and I didn't realize quite how much material each of my classes covered until I started reviewing.

Physics I is part of a three-part series, but it's actually a logical selection of material. The focus is on Newtonian physics, and apart from a look at gravity, it all takes place in the inertial frame and deals with things sized somewhere in between a pea and an ocean liner. That made the final relatively easy to study for, since there was very little material that we studied early in the course and then stopped using. Of course, actually taking my physics final was a little but of a "worst case" experience for me - I forgot to take my book, and then brought out my old test notes page instead of the new one I made. It can't have been that bad, since I still got a 4.0 in that class.

Chemistry was a harder final to prepare for. That course covered a lot of material, and it didn't necessarily build in a logical way. So I had some reviewing to do. However, multiple-guess tests are never that difficult for me. I got a 4.0 in that class too.

My math class is my token sub-4.0 grade, a 3.6. I don't quite know what that means, but I'm satisfied with it. Differential Equations are very difficult. I think that calculus takes a much higher degree of problem solving ability than anything that comes before, and differential equations reincorporate a lot of more difficult parts of algebra too. I don't know how I did on the final itself, but I messed myself up a little in how I studied for it.

At the end of the course, we studied the Laplace Transform. It's difficult, but it's seductively close to being a "magic bullet" that solves all differential equations problems. A lot of the harder stuff from earlier in the course can't be solved with it, though, and a lot of that showed up on the final. Another problem I had was that my teacher said that all problem solving methods would be either our choice or sometimes required to be the Laplace Transform. However, there were a few that were written as requiring different techniques, from earlier in the course, that I hadn't used in weeks. I can't have done that badly, but it was a terrifying test.

So one quarter down, and I've got a pretty good GPA started. This quarter, I'm taking more chemistry and more physics and unfortunately couldn't fit in a third course - the only one at NSCC this spring that I need and have the prerequisites to take is linear algebra, and it conflicted with physics on Fridays. Of course, physics has a lab on Friday and linear algebra has a quiz, so I can't skip either course.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Better Finish Than I Thought (still a bad place)

I had an interesting race today. I think it showed some things I'm not so good at, some things I'm good at, and some things I've improved on since last year.

I didn't get an especially good start. Since the race was posted at 50 minutes, the start is very important, and the course I was racing on today, in Soaring Eagle County Park, is almost entirely on singletrack. The Sport class started in waves, as always. My age group is 19-29 men; today we started after the 30-39 men, the 40+ men and the single speed men.

Anyway, pretty early on in the first lap I bumped into something and came out of my pedal. Two of the juniors had chased onto the 19-29 group, so when I got underway again I was behind them. The rest of the 19-29 guys opened up a gap on the juniors, but by then we'd already run into the back of the three classes that started before us. The juniors were doing a pretty good job of chasing onto other guys and then passing them, and they were riding very close together and at a pretty good clip, so I didn't try to pass them. I finished the first lap still following them, and then passed them on the short fire road section at the beginning of the course. I never saw them again.

I spent the rest of the race more-or-less alone. I'd chase onto someone, catch my breath a little bit, and then pass him. Riders were closely spaced enough that I usually started catching glimpses of the next guy right away, and I'd close the gap and repeat. It can be hard to tell the difference between a 30-39 rider and a 19-29 rider from behind, so I had no idea if I was still behind the rest of my field, or if I'd worked my way into it. I knew I was going at about the fastest pace I could sustain for an hour, and I was afraid I was going faster and might bonk at some point.

That was the second lap of the race through about the first half of the fourth lap. In the second half of the lap, there are some creek crossings and steep, loose ascents, including one I've never been able to ride up.

I was in that climbing/descending section when I chased onto the last older guy I passed. He was just losing his place on the wheel of two guys in my class, so I ended up a little bit behind them when I passed him, and I'd just managed to get ahead of them when we got to the run-up. There was already a guy pushing his bike up it when we got there, and I abandoned any idea of trying to get it done on the bike when I saw him. I dismounted and ran past him, then didn't manage to clip in but did kick my pedals on the remount. I missed them again on a couple more attempts, the two guys I'd passed just before the run-up and the guy on the run-up passed me, and then I managed to get back in. There are no more climbs before the fire road finish, which is a gradual climb, and the trail is particularly tight and twisty, so I spent the rest of the singletrack following them.

The turn onto the fire road is very difficult. It's a very sharp right-hand turn, and the fire road is paved with gravel, so the traction's not very good. Just to make it more interesting, there's a big rock at the outside of the turn, with a narrow slot to the left and another rock, then an irrigation ditch. There are three ways to make the turn. I opted for the tightest, slowest line, going through the big gap.

The last time, I clipped out and dabbed when I made the turn, then had trouble re-finding my pedal and getting back in. I still made the turn a little faster than the guy ahead of me, who took the outside line and had some trouble with it, so I got up and hammered until we crossed the line. I may have had about half a bike length on him; our times are recorded as 1 second apart. When the results went up, I was 8th out of 9 riders in my class completing the race. A tenth guy started but didn't finish. I didn't realize the two other guys in our little group of four were also in my age group, although there's nothing I'd have done differently if I knew.

I think that the two biggest factors preventing me from getting a better place in this race (and I would only have had to do the race 11 seconds faster to finish two places better, or 24 seconds to do three places better) were that I didn't start aggressively enough and that I lost time on minor technical errors. One problem that I think contributed to making some of those mistakes and also made them cost me more, was that my pedals were worn out, and not retaining my foot as well as they should.

On the positive side, I spent laps two through four going really fast, and I managed to keep my pace up for that whole period. My finishing time was 1:29:20, a lot longer than the posted 50 minute race time on the announcement. It would appear that I've been overthinking my longer races a little, and can actually spend an hour and a half at what I thought was my one hour pace. On the other hand, I did do the first lap at the juniors' pace, working through traffic. I don't know how much time I lost following them, but I had to have been going faster than the three guys I chased onto at the end for the balance of the race, or I would never have seen them again.

I also managed to keep the rubber side down for the entire race and even capitalize on the mistakes of others a few times. I wiped out in some races last year, so that's an accomplishment for me even on a relatively easy course.

I've installed my spare pedals pedals, so now I need to keep spending the training time I have on the weekends riding trails instead of roads, and start more aggressively whenever I go racing.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Frame of Reference

I think I drew this picture when I was trying to solve the problem, and I thought, when I got my test back, "This is a great example of using primarily visual thinking to solve a physics problem." The problem was to figure out the speed of a point 'B' located at the front of the rim, where I was trying to show the vector for velocity. The rim is on a bicycle that's traveling at 10 m/s; the wheels are rolling without slipping.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Physics, Visually

One of the things I enjoy about Newtonian Physics is that it's all about concrete, relatively human-scale phenomena - things that I can draw. I get a kick out of trying to put a little fun and realism in the sketches I make in my physics homework of the problems, almost all of which I start by drawing or diagramming.

A lot of intelligent people I know are intimidated or "don't get" higher math, but I think that the operations themselves are nothing those people couldn't do. I think the problem is the abstraction of describing things with numbers instead of as themselves. I think that a lot of physics can be done in a numberless, if somewhat tedious, way, using Euclidean geometry - until non-conservative forces like friction and air resistance are allowed to screw everything up, it's all about vector math and vector math is all about line segments and similar triangles. Most physics problems happen over time, something that can sometimes be problematic to describe well in words but often translates well to a series of pictures.

So I wondered if I could express Newtonian Physics in the format of a comic book, and it got me sketching. The following are attempts at Newton's three laws.

I knew I wanted a sense of motion in the picture, so I drew foreshortened arrows on a trajectory that would take the hockey puck out of the page and send it whizzing past the viewer. A lot of physics is less apparent in the real world because things like friction and air resistance screw it all up. A small object on ice experiences negligible friction and air resistance, so it's under those circumstances that one might see an object in motion tending to stay in motion. It's a mark of Newton's genius that he realized that that's the rule and overturned the previous idea that continuous application of force was needed to keep an object in motion.

In this panel, we see a tug boat pulling a barge. The tug exerts constant force, and the change in the barge's velocity is proportional to the force and happens in the same amount for any given period of time. As the amount of time approaches zero, the change in velocity becomes the rate of change, acceleration. It's actually quite difficult to find a "clean" example of this in real life. For example, the tug boat and the barge are in an environment in which the faster they go, the more counterforce is exerted against them by the water. At some point, they'll reach a speed at which the counterforce from drag and turbulence is equal to the force that the tug boat can develop. I suspect that the tug boat's propeller also develops less force as the speed of the water around it rises, but I haven't studied fluids yet.

Another example of this phenomenon is what happens when a stagehand leans against a heavy box with good casters. (I realize the good casters part almost never happens, but bear with me.) The box will begin to move. If the stagehand continues to lean on it, the box will accelerate. If the stagehand tries to keep up with the box while maintaining the same angle of lean, he'll continue to exert about the same force, the box will keep accelerating, and sooner or later he'll fall into the orchestra pit. I thought that tug boats might be more relatable than road cases, though.

Finally, this is Newton's Third Law. I was trying to think of a concrete example for a while, and nothing was coming. Then I realized that the calf stretch where you push against a wall has three matched pairs of external forces on the body of the person, here dressed as a superhero, doing the stretch. The wall pushes back with a force equal to the push, first of all. Otherwise either the person would fly backwards or put his hands through the wall. That push has to originate somewhere. That somewhere is his feet, pushing back against the ground. The ground pushes forward with static friction. Finally, the superhero has weight, pressing down into the ground. The ground pushes back with an equal force. That equal force is called the "Normal Force," denoted 'N.'

It occurred to me after the fact that I didn't really express that the forces in those pairs are equal. If I were to actually do this, I think I'd just use the little slashes used in Euclidean geometry.

I realize there are a lot of other people who've already had this same idea. I drew some inspiration from a proof my teacher did of something to do with elastic collisions. He proved it entirely with Euclidean geometry - aside from letters naming the line segments, there was no text and there were no numbers. I also had a friend turn me on to xkcd recently.

I've also heard there's a book that already sort-of does this, Larry Gonick's The Cartoon Guide to Physics. I've never seen it myself, and now I have to.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Something to be Jealous Of

Depending on how effusive I'm feeling when you ask me about it, I'll often say that I love mountain biking, or that off-road cycling is my first love in cycling or something like that. When I was in college, in Santa Cruz, it was easy to love mountain biking. Like a girl I saw every day, the Santa Cruz mountains were there whenever I had a moment to hop on my little red Schwinn and throw some dirt around. I had no idea how lucky I was.

Here in Seattle, I can ride mountain bikes fairly easily if I'm willing to drive for a while. But I can also walk out my front door and ride my road bike, so it's a lot harder to love mountain biking than it was when I was at Santa Cruz. I don't do it nearly as often as I probably would if I could ride my bike for a few minutes and hit some trails and I didn't feel I needed to ride for a certain amount of time to make it worth the trouble. So my love for mountain biking is a little more theoretical than concrete lately, and certainly no threat to any of the humans I care about.

Yesterday was different. I've been trying to get some sort of group ride going for a while, and that's meant that my teammates are hearing, probably more often than they'd care to, that I'm looking for people to ride with me. So two of them invited me on one of their rides. We did the Grand Ridge trail to the Duthie Hill bike park and back. Grand Ridge has about 1100' of climbing over about 7 miles of trail (according to the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance web site.) I'm not quite sure how they're counting, but it's a steep climb in, over a ridgeline, down into a valley, and out to Duthie Hill. It's a net gain, but the descents turn into climbs on the way out, and it's a physically very demanding route. I've done it a few times in the past, but I haven't had time to do the whole thing since the very first time I rode it, later in the spring when the ground was dryer. It was a lot harder yesterday. In the northbound direction, the trailhead is on a gravel service road. The first half mile or so climbs about 500', and that's the easier option. Last time I rode it, it was almost like riding a sidewalk because of all the gravel that's gone into hardening the surface on that part of the lower loop, but all that's been buried under a layer of autumn leaves and then rained on - now it's mud, with slick rocks and roots sprinkled in for variety.

After that, the trail rolls but trends upwards and has frequent small stream crossings and erosion bars. It's not too technical but does require some attention. Steep mud climbs are difficult because it's easier for me to maintain the power output to do a steep climb if I'm out of the saddle, depending on the climb, but it takes a lot of finesse to keep the rear wheel hooked up that way and it's usually easier to climb seated if the traction's poor. Anyway, it took me a while to find my rhythm. After it crosses a road at about 1000', the forest gets a little less dense and becomes very beautiful. There's a new bridge and a boardwalk in one of the two bogs, but the other still has hub-deep mud puddles and requires a lot of hiking. After my first time doing that system, I didn't bother to work my way through it until today, but since Duthie Hill is on the other side and that's where we were going, we picked our way through.

Duthie Hill is new and under construction by local mountain bike groups. It's really quite inspirational - it doesn't have a ton of elevation change, but there's enough for some flowlines and to make the cross-country trails tricky. There are lots of very well-banked turns, log rides, and stunts for those inclined. My friends and I took a lap around the cross-country trails there, which are deceptively long given the size of the park, and then headed back to Grand Ridge.

I felt like a million bucks before we started the climb out of the larger bog, and then discovered that actually I was quite tired and it's really hard to ride mud tired. I caught up with my friends again at the bottom of Grand Ridge, where one of them was changing a flat, after guessing (correctly) that they'd take the difficult option at one of the forks. Once we were on the service road I felt pretty good again, but I think I was several gears lower than I had been in the morning. The rest of the day was spent on lunch, a nap, hosing down my bike, and deciding that I was too tired to figure out how to fix my front shifter. This coming weekend is my first race, but if the world is designed for my pleasure, I'll fit in another ride like yesterday's on the 27th...

Sunday, February 07, 2010

"That Guy"

I think that part of maturing is realizing the areas in which I am "That Guy." Who "That Guy" is varies, but people from at least some points of view will hate him. He might be "That Guy" who drives around and commutes in the city in a powerful sports car or a jacked up truck, or "That Guy" who runs out of gas on the freeway during rush hour or "That Guy" holds up the line at the supermarket checkout counter to go through every item on his receipt because he suspects the checker is trying to cheat him. I think that, at least from time to time, we are all "That Guy." And none of us want to be.

I've always been good at school, and there were a lot of classes in high school and undergrad that I could do well in with almost no effort. I don't think I was that good at concealing that, so in school I was "that guy" who doesn't have to work that hard but still screws up the curve. I even made a deal with my high school physics teacher in which I did only the problems with stars from each assigned homework section, rather than the assigned problems. The starred problems were, of course, the hard ones, but I was "that guy."

In undergrad, for the first few times in my life, there were exceptions. A couple of times, I couldn't just sit down and write the week's computer program in two hours, and lost points because of it. Most of the time I got away with it, though, and I was "that guy" who came to class once a week to get the homework assignment. In pyjamas. And while I managed to pass first-year calculus with about a 50% attendance rate, Multivariable Calculus defeated me.

One of the other aspects of growing up is failing at things. I don't think any of us likes to fail, but anyone who likes a challenge and attaches value to succeeding at something difficult will fail at something sooner or later, and probably more often when they find the level of challenge appropriate to their talents. Depending on one's attitude, a failure can become a learning opportunity facilitating success on the second, or third, or nth attempt. I was "That Guy" all through high school, and while I may not always have done well at all of my classes, I never did poorly at something I tried to be good at. That's true of college too, but I've had to admit that I blew it on Multivariable Calculus. If I'd tried to pass Multivariable, I might still have failed or at least had a hard time at it, but I might also have succeeded. If I was ready to work hard at an academic subject.

Part of falling in love with dance, for me, was that I wasn't "That Guy." Dance was a lot of work for me, and that made it much more compelling than anything else that I'd done. There were other things that I loved about it, but it was the first thing I've tried to be good at and not had come easily. Ultimately I couldn't make a career out of it and drifted into stagecraft and back into being "That Guy," more-or-less. When I took some courses to round out my knowledge, I was "That Guy" who remembered enough trig to understand rigging math (not a high bar, IMHO.) On electrics calls, I got used to being "That Guy" who could calculate Watts, Volts and Amps. There's a neat mnemonic for that - "West Virginia" abbreviated W.VA for Watts = Volts * Amps. I was always apologizing for being "That Guy" though. If someone commented on my ability to solve (easy) math problems, remember knots, use a ratchet strap, figure out weird ways to assemble disparate pieces of theatrical lighting equipment, etc., I'd shrug and act like it was a slightly shameful thing, maybe imply that I'd worked at learning my knots.

Anyway, I've always believed that my ideal career will exist somewhere near the intersection of what I love and what I'm good at. So I'm done being embarrassed about being "That Guy," whether it's being able to solve physics problems, knowing way too much about the sizes of bike parts for different applications, or not finding it difficult to remember how to tie a clove hitch. One of the results I hope to achieve in doing my current project is to find myself a context in which we are all "That Guy" and none of us are - where it takes vector calculus and differential equations to make us say "math is hard" (Zach, you seem to remain "That Guy" then too, and I hate you. :P) and we can all find some problems that are hard to solve and build some really cool stuff. After all, if everyone has a context in which they are "That Guy," then everyone has to have a context in which they aren't. For now, my classmates will just have to put up with me; I can only raise the mean by one point anyway.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Calculus Makes It Simpler. Really.

Zach's been giving me crap about using calculus to solve a problem that can be handled with algebra. I'd argue that solving it with algebra requires knowing formulas derived using calculus but he does have a point. Calculus is kind of like the hammer drill of math - it can accomplish tasks other tools can't, but it's a little silly to do drywall with it.

The problem is a proof of an equation to find the acceleration of gravity based on an experiment in which an object is thrown or fired straight up in a tube that's been evacuated of air. That's important because it means that the only force that should act on the object is its own weight, so it should accelerate at exactly the acceleration of gravity. The formula is given below. The problem is to prove it using only the distance between a high and low mark in the tube and the time between crossings of the low mark and crossings of the high mark.

The first thing I did was draw a coordinate system on the original problem.

I made the origin the time at which the object first crosses the lower line. Then the upper line is at height 'H', simplifying the math some. I also figured out pretty quickly that using parts of Δt would get old really fast, so I labeled the points t1 t2, t3 and t4. Then I spent the next couple days banging my head against it and trying to figure out velocity at various points. I eventually realized that I was looking at the wrong side of the curve by starting at the origin and working to the right. I know that the velocity at the point t2 is 0. Since the only force acting on the object is gravity, the velocity v(t) becomes a nice, clean function starting at t2. v(t3) is easily calculated based on the difference in time from t2 to t3 and the acceleration of gravity. v(t4) is easily calculated the same way, and that's when I had my flash of inspiration - I don't need velocity at all!

Because there's no initial velocity to worry about if I ignore everything to the left of t2, which should be a mirror image of everything to the right because this is a constant acceleration problem, if I start at t2 and right down everything I know, I can easily solve the problem. I know that the ball travels the distance H during the time from t3 to t4, and I know the equation describing its vertical position as a function of time. I actually solved the problem using the coordinate system above, but I'm going to give the solution based on the system below because it's even prettier.

If the origin is right in the middle of the graph, v(0)=0, which is great because now I can do a bunch of stuff without having to add a constant or do weirder math than I really need to. Also, because the graph is an even function that's symmetrical about t=0 when it's set up this way, I know that the point at which the ball crosses H, previously labeled t3, is ΔtU/2 and the point at which it crosses the lower mark, at height 0, is ΔtL/2. Now I can set it up as an integral.

You'll notice that I ended up getting the sign backwards at the end of the problem. The reason this happened is that I was looking at up as the positive direction. If the acceleration of gravity is seen as a constant with a positive value, down needs to be the positive direction.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Two Weeks Down

And I'm pretty fully into it... I've turned in my first assignments in math and physics, done my first quiz in chemistry, and I did my first in-class math test this morning. I did something with every problem and finished most of them, so hopefully there's a curve and I did well compared to my classmates. I'm a little annoyed at myself for not recognizing the derivative of inverse tangent when it came up - I recognized the equation as being something special, but couldn't remember what it was.

I'm most of the way through the physics homework I have due next week. The only problem I'm hung up on is a proof of an equation for finding the acceleration of gravity from an experiment in which a ball is thrown upward in a tube that's been evacuated of air. It passes two marks, separated by a known distance, on the way up and down, and the times it takes to pass the lower mark twice and the upper mark twice are recorded. I believe that the information to find the acceleration of gravity is in there, but I'm having a hell of a time figuring out how to express it without needing to know the initial velocity, or maybe the height at which the ball stops moving before traveling down again.

Differential equations, though, are another level of hard. I'm probably going to spend tomorrow afternoon in the library again, where I can borrow the text book and read and re-read the chapters and example problems. I should get that book next week. I guess if I had to choose one book not to have a copy of, it would be physics - everything so far is a review of high school physics, although the class does move faster, and I can photocopy the homework assignments from a classmate's book until I get mine.

The whole unemployment thing continues. It's as confusing as differential equations, but the money at stake is in a short-term rather than long-term time frame.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

2010: Already Better Than 2009

I think most of my readers already know I'm planning on a career change, starting with going back to school. I want to study mechanical engineering, and before I can apply for Master's programs, I need to do a lot of prerequisites in math, basic sciences and engineering.

I've just finished my first week at North Seattle Community College. I was nervous about it because while I've done this sort of thing before - I earned my certificate in lighting technology at the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn - I expect the coursework to be more demanding this time around. Anyway, it was fine.

The courses I'm taking this quarter are General Chemistry, Engineering Physics and Differential Equations. So far, Chemistry and Physics are no big deal. The math class is significantly more challenging.

General Chemistry is an on campus/online hybrid course. That means I only go to class on campus twice a week, although since it meets for two hours both times it's pretty close to the same hard commitment as my other classes. I've already done some of the online coursework. It's sort of like taking a very long standardized test, and relatively easy. I also remember a surprising amount of high school chemistry, which is something I was nervous about.

Engineering Physics is the upper-level physics class, and I think anyone studying science would take it too. The first quarter is all mechanics. So far, it hasn't dealt with calculus, but the problems we've done have all been either vector addition and multiplication or constant acceleration problems. I think that where this class will diverge from my high school physics class is that using calculus, it should be possible to solve problems involving changing acceleration. The next quarter deals with electricity and magnetism, something my physics class didn't get to, and the third deals with wave phenomena, sound and optics.

Math is the Big Deal this quarter, though. I've never had trouble with any other class, but calculus and higher math require my full attention. I was actually pretty nervous about this one going in because I only got through differential calculus in college before I lost interest and while I passed the second quarter of my calculus class, technically completing first-year calculus, I did it by cramming hard for a few days before the exam and then doing a lot of operations by rote. When I decided that I was going to try for a Master's in Engineering, rather than doing a second bachelor's, I bought the text book for calculus at NSCC and started reviewing, starting with algebra (seriously.) Trig I remembered better but still spent some time reviewing.

Differential calculus was a lot easier than I remembered it when I did it at my own pace, and before I started solidifying my schedule and figured out I didn't have time, I also did a lot of proofs, which I think was good. Incidentally, I suspect "my own pace" was still faster than when I did it at UCSC. Of course, the holidays interfered with my study of integral calculus and I didn't get as far as I'd hoped, so I felt a little lost looking at the first few differential equations this quarter and the entrance exam scared me a lot - there are several approaches to integration, starting with taking anti-derivatives, basically the opposite of differential calculus, and then taking a hard left turn into Weird. I'd already studied substitution, but the entrance exam also included differentiation by parts and partial fractions, which I'd never heard of.

Differentiation by parts is tricky and used quite a lot in differential equations so far. For those who remember their differential calculus, it's basically the converse of the Product Law. For those who don't... I'm not going to restate the entire body of calculus here.

Partial Fractions are difficult, but not all that weird. The commutative property applies to integration, which means that if I want to integrate a ratio of two polynomials and I can't apply a simpler rule, I can separate the equation into bite-sized pieces which are hopefully easier to solve. In order to do that, I need to factor the denominator, not necessarily an easy task, and then express the numerator as the sum of multiples of factors of the denominator. The really difficult part is figuring out the coefficients for the new, smaller pieces of numerator. To do that, I need to set up a system of equations and solve for each power of the independent variable. Yeow. The process looks pretty obvious doing it in the opposite direction (adding together the different pieces) and anyone who took algebra in high school has probably done that more times than they care to remember, but nothing in integral calculus is done the easy way.

Anyway, I've survived, my brain hasn't melted, I've handed in my entrance exam, and I've even done the reading and some of the problems due next week. I've also ordered my text books, which I found at substantially lower prices than list on, and I'm feeling pretty positive. Math will be my redheaded stepchild. Or at least my familiar.