Crab Mac and Cheese

Its Christmas and its crab season here on the West Coast.  And that means crab macaroni and cheese.  Crazy I know.  It is worth the time and effort to make your own bechamel sauce.  If you don’t have a Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking, this will be a good time to pick up your copy.




Ideally you want a dutch oven in which you can saute your onions and transfer to the oven for end cooking and to get a nice crust.

Boil water for a pound of pasta.  Macaroni or a wider noodle that your sauce can stick to.

Chop 1 large onion and saute in Tbl of butter in dutch oven.  Chop two cloves of garlic and add to saute on medium low heat.  Don’t overbrown.  Add 3/4 cup of white wine.  Turn up the heat and reduce the liquid, again without discoloring the onions.  This is kind of like an onion braise.

Drain the pasta.  The pasta should be al dente; it will be cooked longer in the oven.

Bechamel as follows:  Make a rouxby combing 2 parts melted butter and 3 parts flour in a saucepan, whisking until lumps are eliminated.  Do this on low heat to avoid scorching the butter.  The heating is necessary to eliminate the flour taste from the bechamel.  This takes approximately 3 minutes.  The ratio is the important thing; I used 2 Tbl butter to 3 Tbl flour here.  Add 2 cups of whole milk.  Julia says to heat the milk, and not to contradict the great lady, but I haven’t found this to make a great deal of difference.  The milk is added in small amounts, eyeballing it adding first about 3 Tbl, the next time 6 Tbl, the next double that amount to a total of 2 cups, each time whisking until the mixture is smooth and uniform.  The result will look like milk.  Now turn up the heat to medium high; as the liquid heats it will thicken.  Add salt and white pepper to taste.  I prefer the white pepper for color.  Add an 1/8 tsp of nutmeg or grate real nutmeg to cover the top of the bechamel before stirring it in.

Now add cheese.  About 8 ounces of sharp cheddar.  Vermont cheddar is superlative.  You can grate it or simply cut into small pieces to melt in the bechamel.  Vintage Cabot in the purple wax is amazing.  Catamount is an excellent cheddar from Cabot, with an interesting taste, slightly sweeter than standard cheddar.

Add pasta into the onion/garlic mixture and combine.  Add the cheesy bechamel sauce and stir until uniform.  Chop sage approximately 2 Tbl and add this as well.  Cover and cook in oven at 325 for one hour while you go to couples counseling with your wife.

Shelling fresh cooked Dungeness crab is labor intensive but worth it.  I added the meat I got out of one three pound crab to the mac and cheese, stirring into the mixture and allowing it to equilibrate in temperature.  For Dungeness crab about 20% is meat, the rest shell.

The 2011 Winter Campout


The 2011 has come and gone without much from McChoppin, but not before we had another winter campout. The 2011 Winter Campout: it was significantly different than all previous years. Never had we had a tent; this year but only did we have a tent but it was a large canvas tent. Now we normally don’t bring a tent, not because they are hard to carry, but because we are slightly crazy. But this tent, compared to most, isn’t exactly that portable. No matter, because another change for this year was that instead of hiking into public woods to miles, we camped at the Slickman’s new property in NH. The hike in, although it was uphill, was all of 100 ft . Having a tent and not having to hike in totally changed the whole dynamic. Not only did this mean that we weren’t cold and miserable all the time, just some of the time, but also it meant we had a lot more time. A whole lot more time. In years past when it would get dark at 4:30, we would be cold, miserable and in the dark. So by 6 you’d be in your sleeping bag, still cold and miserable, but less so. Not this year! This year with the tent and some Deitz lanterns so we could happily stay up well into the evening.

So what did we do all that time? Well, we black smithed, hand hewed a timber, and built a lime rick. Again, since we didn’t have to hike in miles and we could bring whatever we wanted. That meant a stove, a forge, and more axes than ever came along. Oh, and a duffel bag full of savaged sea shells for the lime rick. So we set out to forge square nails, hew a timber with a board axe, and make lime from shells. Considering this was our first attempt at any of these projects, I think we did fairly well. The timber still needs some work, but Lee did make a couple good nails and we had something that looked like lime in the end. And the best part? They’ll all end up being used in Lee’s timber framed house that he is building on the land!

Also this year we were much better stocked in general. For food we had buffalo steak medallions and beef sirloin tips in addition to old staples like oysters, kipper, cheddar and pickled beets. Somehow everyone forgot to bring a can opener, so the cans of beans proved useless. We also had a case of the Slickman’s homebrew, which somehow got polished off, in addition to two bottles of whiskey. The Scotch, Scapa, was the favorite and this year we had a special vessel in which to drink it, a Robin Wood quaich. As some of you know, Robin Wood has inspired many a McChoppin’ project, so this was a special treat indeed. We raised the quaich to you, Robin.


With the different format, it did mean that there wasn’t much use for me to take data, like GPS or temperature. Although if I had been taking the temperature with the datalogger we could have known exactly how hot it got in the tent the first night after dumping in too much coal in the stove and waking up to it being cherry-red hot. It felt like 90 degrees, but alas, we won’t know exactly. However, I did make this video and took some photos in the spirit of Frank Hurley:

2011 Winter Campout

What will the 2012 Winter Campout hold? Can we go back to no tents and being cold and miserable constantly? I hope we do at some point, but who knows? Maybe next year we can secure ourselves an open wooden boat, a la James Caird, and have a winter campout on an island. Now that sounds like a Shackleton adventure.

The 2010 Winter Campout

On December 27th when most of Northeast was reeling from the major nor’easter snowstorm, the Slickman, Dan the Man, and I embarked on the 7th annual winter campout. Herein lies the detailed account of the events.

Although preparations for the winter campout always start many months in advance, the finals steps of the preparation commenced directly after I got back from dropping off the lady friend at the Burlington International Airport after her original flight out of Boston was canceled. I rendezvoused with the Slickman at his parent’s house and we went shopping for victuals at Hannafords. After procuring all the necessary provisions we went back to the Slickman’s and prepared them, which basically involved rewrapping everything in waxpaper or cloth bags. After all the fare was properly packaged for the winter campout we drank some Laphroaig and watched part II of Shackleton1. Eventually Dan the Man returned from “date night” with the StedMuffin and hastily packed his gear for the campout. By this point it was snowing mightily outside so I bowed out for the night and returned to my parents’ house for some rest before the big day. It was after midnight by the time I went to bed.

The next morning I awoke at 7:30 AM. I probably had not woken up before 11 AM during the entire visit, with the exception of Christmas, which I only begrudging did after attempting to convince my eight year old nephew that since everyone wanted me up at 9 AM I should get to sleep in until 10 AM at least. This trickery did not work long. Anyways, being that the annual winter campout is more important than any other holiday to me, I was up and out of bed early. This was noted by my family. I was ready by 8:15 and by 9 o’clock I was back at the Slickman’s where we all assembled and were ready to go.

Ready to go

On account of the fact that neither Dan, Lee nor I had a car in Vermont, we had to rely on the kindness of the McColgan boys’ father Bill to provide us with transportation. Yeah, we got a ride from Lee’s dad. Highschoolesque. This also meant that it had to be somewhere close, somewhere from which we could walk back, either at the scheduled end of the campout2 or when we had met with some catastrophe. We decided on Bald Mountain in the Aiken State Forest due to its proximity to the McColgan house and due to the fact that we had had a successful winter campout there a few years back.

View WC 2010 in a larger map

The start of the hike

The hike in was 2600 meters (1.6 miles) and lasted about one and half hours. We had an average speed of about 0.47 meters per second (just over a mile per hour). During that hike we ascended Bald Mountain with an average grade of about 10%. I left the Garmin on for a while after the hike in was over with, so there are a few hours of data showing us milling around the campsite, mostly building shelter and collecting firewood. During this time my average speed is much lower, but apparently I walked the equivalent of nearly another 2500 meters in 3.5 hours.

Distance covered vs. time; the hike in only took about 1:30 and the rest is around the camp

Hiking in

Metrics vs. distance; the hike in was about 2600 meters

Metrics vs. time

The average temperature of the winter campout was about -9 degrees Celsius (15 degrees Fahrenheit). The lowest temperature was -15.5 C (4.1 F) which happened between 2:40 and 5:45 during the early morning of the first overnight. Overall the winter campout had some very good weather. Cold, but not too cold. But the most important thing was that it was the first winter campout in several years without any rain. Crucially, this made starting and maintaining a fire much easier. This year we also had the benefit of homemade camping bellows that were the Slickman’s brilliant idea. This allowed you to stoke the fire without getting blacklung from breathing in more smoke than a carton of Lucky Strikes. So we got a toasty fire going in no time. Indeed the two spikes in temperature shown in the chart is the result of the datalogger’s proximity to the fire on two different occasions.

Temperature plot of the winter campout; the lowest temperature was about 4 degrees F

The campfire started like a champ this year

The Slickman using the camping bellows

As I mentioned previously, a lot of our time was taken up in collecting and chopping firewood. There was plenty of good, dry, dead wood in the area of the campsite; harvesting and chopping it into manageable pieces for the fire made for good work. Especially with my trusty Roselli ax. That ax chops at least twice as fast as Lee’s larger Estwing ax.

Wrestling with firewood

Dan with the Estwing tossing a log

The Roselli ax

We took turns collecting firewood and making our shelters. We do not bring tents with us on the winter campout, so we rely on the woods to provide us with materials for building. Here is my finished shelter. It was a tight fit, but overall a good place to bed down for the night.

My 2010 shelter; one of the smallest I’ve ever made

By the time the shelters were done and we had collected a decent amount of wood, daylight was over. Then the good part started: dinner. After cooking up some oysters, bacon, and kippers around the fire, we settled in to smoke some fragrant pipeleaf out of our handcarved briar burl pipes, each replete with the visage of our own favorite arctic explorer.

Dan and the Slickman enjoying some pipeleaf in their own hand carved pipes

The Curbman and his pipe

The following day we slept late. You never really want to get out of the sleeping bag, especially after a cold night like the one we had the first night, but it wasn’t too bad McChoppinites. However a good bit of the day was gone once we got up. After yours truly suffered mightily in the first half of the day when I thought I had lost my ax for good3, things went along just fine. The Slickman spent a good portion of the day building a dam on the creek near the campsite so that we could collect some clear water4. Dan and I mostly gathered more wood. We also got a vistor: a man and his three dogs showed up on the trail. But being that the days are particularly short in the winter in Vermont, the sun started setting fairly soon, and our day was ending. We got a couple of good group photographs in the last of the light.

The Slickman and one of the dog vistors

The last of the daylight on day two of the winter campout

This is my favorite photograph of them all

The second night was more of the same, only not as cold. Finished the oysters off as we did with the Whistle Pig rye whiskey. Lee carved a spoon by firelight. And in the dark of winter’s night I took a few long exposure photographs.

The Slickman carving a spoon by firelight

The woods late at night

The final morning we got up and broke camp. We brewed some coffee, and I threw all the rest of the bacon into Lee’s frying pan. After having that as a breakfast and clearing the firepit it was a brief hike through a ravine to the road and then about three miles to back to the McColgans’ house.

Bacon and coffee

The Slickman cooking the last of the bacon

The short hike back to the road and the end of the winter campout

After that we got Steadmuffin to give us a ride up the hill to Sugar & Spice where got a slightly more refined second breakfast and I made some awkward comments to the waitstaff. But that is a story for another time.

The author would like to thank the women peripherally involved in the winter campout and dedicate this post to them. The ones that have to listen to us talk about it all year. The ones that help us sew sleeping bags, the ones that help us make camping bellows, the ones that support our purchases of used faux fur mittens that smell of cigarettes, and especially the women that more than likely worry about us when we are out there in the woods doing our McChoppin’ things, even if it is mayhaps unfounded.

1 The part that actually involves them on the ice.
2 Winter campouts do not actually have scheduled ends.
3 Being without an ax during the winter campout is tantamount to ED. Both make you feel like less of a man and cause you to mutter “this never happens.” Both involve wooden shafts, but maybe I’m taking the analogy too far?
4 Clear water might be a bit of an over statement. Let’s just say it wasn’t frozen water. Do you have idea how many times you need to fill a kettle with snow to get a full kettle once the snow has melted? Yeah, neither do I.

Your Tires have Holes in them


So I’ve had bikes on the brain lately. I finally got my bike back from Iowa on Monday1, and while I was waiting for it to arrive, I purchased a bunch of new bike stuff. Nothing like RAGBRAI to make you want to pimp your bike out. Anyways, one of the things I purchased was a Garmin Edge 705.

Now, I never thought I’d purchase a dedicated GPS unit; I have an iPhone and that turns out to be more than enough GPS for me. But the Edge is a whole lot more than just GPS. It’s a bike computer! Or, as Petey would say, it’s a bikeputer. Which is to say it’s a cool sensor system with which to collect data whilst I ride my bike. As you should already know, I like the idea of collecting data automagically whilst doing activities. Indeed, I have plans a-brewing already about taking the Edge with me winter camping. Old Timey? No, but with the Lascar, I will have time, temperature, elevation, heart rate, and location data to do all sorts of things with! This of course will mean more graphs.

Back to the Edge, it clearly does a lot of stuff, and I want to learn about all of it so that I can fully exploit it’s sensing and reporting capabilities. So where to turn to learn more about it? The instruction manual? No, the intertubes of course! In short order I had found DC Rainmaker, who clearly has already learned almost everything there is to know about all of the Garmin sport computers.

DC Rainmaker has a lot of great information. Like how to get free maps for Garmin units. Tips on how organize your data screens. Even a piece about how to ski with GPS. But the thing that really got me going was in this post about using CO2 cartridges to inflate a bike tire after fixing a flat. At the end of it he tells you to that if you fill a tire with CO2 from a cartridge on the roadside, when you get home you should deflate the tire and refill it with normal atmospheric air. He then offers a link to a forum discussion in which someone explains the scientific reason why this is so.

First, I have almost no experience with this, having only ever filled a bike tire once with CO2 from a cartridge. So when I read that I was a little surprised. I think DC Rainmaker is correct. I think that a tire filled with pure CO2 will deflate faster than a normally filled tire. But I totally disagree with the “scientific” explanation. Let’s examine the original forum post.

First, note the comment from humble_biker. It’s hilarious. Magically expanding and shrinking carbon dioxide makes me laugh. It’s as if humble_biker has learned just enough chemistry to know the word “molecule” without actually knowing what a molecule is. If intended to be funny, a great joke and a tip of the hat to you, humble_biker.

All right, on to the given “scientific” explanation from khuon. First, it’s not much better of an explanation than the one proposed by the non scientist. However, this one is not funny because it uses math. Because khuon included multiple boldface equations I can only conclude he was being completely serious. This is further shown with the final statement:

Note – Writing equations with vBcodes sucks!

Pointing out how hard it is to markup equations is not a punchline my friend.

Okay, now that we’ve established that khuon is not attempting comedy, let us examine exactly why his explanation fails. First, khuon gratuitously throws in the ideal gas law and does a bunch of stuff with it. But this is, as far as I can tell, only used to explain why the cylinder and the valve get cold when using a CO2 cartridge. So, our first tip-off to faulty logic: using a well known equation to explain something that is unrelated to the problem. Also, his method was pretty messy. So, nothing really wrong yet, but as any college science professor will tell you, the inelegant use of unrelated equations in a solution is a huge red flag.

(Not a huge red flag – photo by BlueGoaॐ☮)

After the ideal gas law debacle, he gets to the “real” reason tire tubes filled with only carbon dioxide deflate faster than usual:

[It is] because of how the molecules in rubber attract CO2 better than Oxygen or Nitrogen. As a result, the CO2 permeates the rubber which then swells and thus allows more molecules to escape.

All right, I know I already established that muon2 or whatever is not trying to be funny, but that just makes me laugh. It’s hilarious. It’s even more hilarious than humble_biker‘s explanation. The idea that butyl rubber somehow attracts carbon dioxide better than diatomic oxygen is just great. It’s good stuff. But there’s more! Not only does it attract the carbon dioxide in a way that it doesn’t do with diatomic oxygen or nitrogen (which I humbly submit to kligon would be sufficient), but this in turn causes the rubber to swell, which causes more CO2 to escape. I think gluon runs into even more trouble here, but I won’t get into that (if CO2 causes the tube to swell and leak air faster, shouldn’t we be filling tires with CO2 depleted air??).

I have to admit that although I found fluon‘s explanation hysterical, I am, as a card caring physicist3, extremely disturbed by the overall blatant misuse of statistical physics that went on here. Being funny is one thing. Using the ideal gas law to make people think you know what you’re talking about when you clearly do not, is another. I know that most people don’t care, but when I see a physical equation being trotted out for show before a psuedo-scientific explanation of observed phenomena, it is akin to the pain that Lynne Truss must feel when she sees a sentence with a comma-free nonrestrictive clause.

Now that I’ve thrown stones I feel I must at the very least give some explanation as to what is going on with CO2-only inflated tires. But, to do that, I think I first must explain why tires deflate at all.

Yes, tires deflate. We all know it. And it’s not just bike tires. Car tires and balloons do it too. In physics this process, the air escaping, is known as effusion.4 Effusion is a special case of diffusion. There are a lot of examples of diffusive processes, the most commonly known being osmosis, but more on osmosis later. Anyways, it is now time for my gratuitous equation to show you all that I’m serious: \frac{dN}{dt} = \frac{A}{2V}\sqrt{\frac{kT}{m}}N . This equation describes the rate of change of the number of molecules (N ) of a molecular mass (m ) within a given volume (V ) and at a certain temperature (T) that are effusing through an area (A) over a given time (t ). If you do some calculus and algebra, you get the equation N(t) = N_0 e^{-\frac{t}{\tau}} . This equation will tell you the number of molecules left after a certain time given N_0 an initial number of molecules. \tau is the characteristic time that it takes to get to a third of the initial number of molecules and \tau =  \frac{2V}{A}\sqrt{\frac{m}{kT}}. If you assume that this process happens slowly, which it should or it’s not effusion, you can assume that the temperature does not change. Then, keeping the volume fixed you can use the ideal gas law, which I will not transcribe here because we already have it courtesy of moroun, and you can write the previous equation in terms of pressure: P(t) = P_0 e^{-\frac{t}{\tau}} . This is a useful equation for understanding why tires deflate. It basically says that if we were to leave a bike tire out that is inflated to some pressure P_0, after some time t = \tau, the tire would have a pressure equal to \frac{P_0}{3}. (See figure 1) All you need to do is measure \tau and you can predict how long it will take how your bike tire to reach some lower pressure. But what else is \tau telling us? Well, remember that \tau = \frac{2V}{A}\sqrt{\frac{m}{kT}}. So, knowing the volume, molecular mass of air, and temperature, we could calculate an effective area of the microscopic holes in our rubber bike tubes. Which I will leave as an exercise to you, the reader.

Figure 1

Figure 2 shows the predicted decay of air pressure in a tire that starts out at 120 psi. Suppose we know after three days the tire pressure is 80 psi. From that information we can predict the tire’s pressure at any time.

Figure 2

And there is the rub, that your seemingly impermeable rubber tube is actually a semi-permeable membrane through which gas can pass. The thing about semi-permeable membranes is that they are not one-way. As gas leaves, some actually enters. It is just that more leaves than enters. That is more or less what statistical mechanics is all about: elegant descriptions of statistical processes such as this. All right, so why does my purely CO2-filled tire deflate faster? Well, it’s sort of like osmosis. Yeah, back to osmosis. Osmosis is a little different because it involves water. Wikipedia describes osmotic pressure thusly: “the phenomenon of osmotic pressure arises from the tendency of a pure solvent to move through a semi-permeable membrane and into a solution containing a solute to which the membrane is impermeable.” It’s probably something you remember from chemistry, that two different solutions separated by a semi-permeable membrane “want”5 to equilibrate. This manifests itself as a force, or pressure, across the membrane. Overcoming that force is how you get reverse osmosis and some people get there fresh water, but I digress.

Our process does not involve water but gas molecules and to explain it you need a different physical quantity know as partial pressure. Partial pressure is the portion a particular molecule contributes to the total pressure. For instance, if you have a 50/50 mixture of O2 and CO2, than 50% of the pressure is provided by the O2 and 50% is provided by the CO2. The partial pressure of the CO2 is 50% of the total pressure. Easy right? The thing about partial pressure is that it’s a lot like normal pressure and it too wants to equilibrate. So let’s go back to our 120 psi bike tire sitting out in a 15 psi atmosphere. The partial pressure of the CO2 in the atmosphere is almost nothing. The partial pressure of the CO2 in our tire is 135 psia.6 So the difference is these pressures is also roughly 135 psi.

Now here is the tricky part and I’m going to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what to do with the partial pressure. I’m tempted to just use that in our equation. If you do that, then our equation says that given two of the same tires filled to the same pressure, but only one with pure CO2, after the characteristic time \tau the CO2 tire has a 27% lower pressure. So let’s say we start with two 120 psi tires, one filled with a CO2 cartridge and one with ambient air, and that normally after 3 days our air-filled tire is at 80 psi. All that seems reasonable to me. This predicts that our CO2 only tire should be at 75 psi or about 7% lower pressure (figure 3). This, to me, seems like not a big deal. So, either I’m not using partial pressure correctly in the equation, or an entirely different equation is needed. Clearly an experiment is warranted.

Figure 3

The important thing to note is that the CO2-only tire deflates faster than an air filled tire because the partial pressure of CO2 in the bike tire is driving diffusion. This predicts that any single gas filled tire would deflate faster than normal, even an oxygen or nitrogen filled tire, albeit more slowly than the carbon dioxide only tire. I do not recommend it, but if you were to fill a bike tire with oxygen gas it would deflate to a given pressure sometime in between the time it would take an air filled tire and a carbon dioxide filled tire.

Not only does this show I’m serious, but that I’m way more serious because it’s a differential equation. Incidentally, there is another law, Graham’s law that relates how fast a gas effuses to its molecular weight. This is clearly not driving the CO2 diffusion in our tire because the CO2 has a higher molecular weight than air and therefore Graham’s law predicts a slower effusion.

1I wrote this six months ago, but I’m just posting it now…
2It was at this point I got tired of writing khoun . And then it became fun. I’m sorry, khoun , if you ever read this, for having some fun at your expense.
3I actually don’t have a card. But I do have a diploma and it says something about physics on it.
4In the case of car tires I’m not actually sure it’s effusion, due to the fact that car tires deflate so slowly. More likely, the driving phenomenon is straight up diffusion, with a little bit of effusion thrown in for good measure.
5Not that molecules ever “want” to do anything, they just “do stuff.” And they “do stuff” in a very predictable way, which is really fortunate for us, the users of physics.
6Psi stands for pounds-per-inch-square and it’s a relative measure of the pressure. In this case, it’s relative to the atmosphere. Psia is pounds-per-inch-square-absolute. It’s a measure of the absolute pressure. Atmospheric pressure is about 15 psia.

Am I Marc Johns?

McChoppinites, you may already know, but I love the work of the original post-it note comic artist Marc Johns. But I am starting to have a sneaking suspicion why this is: I might be Marc Johns.

All right, I should probably start at the beginning. I first heard of Marc Johns through a friend and her blog a few years back. She mentioned a Marc Johns drawing, now made famous by Digg or something, of a scheming bunny.

I immediately liked the drawing. It spoke to that part of my childhood that was strongly influenced by watching “Pinky and the Brain” and the slightly subconscious connection that I made with understanding science and having some kind of real power. And well, it was funny.

So I started paying attention to Marc.

And then I saw this:

This was not too long after the Slickman, Dan the Man, and I had just finished carving the visages of our favorite arctic explorers into briar burl pipes. That is, we had pipes with faces on them. Bearded faces. And, to top it off, the Slickman and I had just begun getting into old-timey shaving , you know, the kind with a safety razor and brush. The timing was great; I promptly bought a copy of the print and got it framed. It was my first Marc Johns purchase.

And then there were more pipes and more beards. And then mustaches. And mason jars. And even a print about cocktails! All things I was interested in. It was great. This Marc Johns fellow was into all the same stuff as me! So I got more prints. And I got friends prints. I even had a loosely inspired Marc Johns birthday party.

And then there was this:

I’ve already mentioned this particular sticky note artwork in a post before. What I didn’t really mention was that I’ve broken my femur and that I semi-regularly carve long wooden spoons.

The metal rod that was in my femur, next to a long wooden spoon that I carved.

I was now starting to think that this was getting a little weird, mayhaps too coincidental. But none the less I bought the original of the sticky note, along with a few more of pipes and such.

Then, just a few months back I got an email from Marc Johns about some of his new drawings for sale. It was late at night, and admittedly I had had a couple of cocktails. I bought a new drawing, but it wasn’t until the next day I saw this one:

I’m not even going to say anything about it. I’m just going to submit this picture of me from Bay2Breakers 2009:

This, dear McChoppinites, was pretty odd. Although I’m not sure which was more unsettling, that I had missed purchasing the original of Marc Johns “fish costume” or that Marc Johns had drawn a fish costume.

Okay, sure things were getting weird. I mean, it’s not like everyone thinks of wooden spoons, pipes with faces, femurs, and fish costumes, right? Or mayhaps they do? I was unsure.

And then, just last week, I saw my first ever photo of Marc. Apparently Kate Donnelly interviewed Marc and his desk for her project. In the piece there was a picture of Marc, at his desk:

Marc Johns probably drawing something totally awesome

Or wait. Is that me? ?

Me pretending to draw a coffee bean

It was shocking. It’s as if I have I super-hero alter-ego. Is Marc Johns Superman to my Clark Kent? Am I mild mannered rocket scientist by day and a pen slinging super-comic artist by night? The irony of my super-hero alter-ego being a comic writer is not lost on me, by the way. Here it is in analogy form

Marc Johns:Curbman :: Batman:Bruce Wayne

If so, I had no idea. More importantly though, if it is true, which aspect of my life will Marc Johns draw next? Something coffee related? Maybe it will have something to do with a sleeping bag? Or sweetbreads? Sweetbreads are pretty funny, so I could see that. And that is the genius of Marc, McChoppinites. He takes those boring, pedestrian, plebeian aspects of my life and turns them into something awesome. He made a diamond-encrusted rocket! I never thought of that, and I pretty much think about rockets all day. And he clearly comes up with better applications for lasers than I ever have, and I’ve actually seen first hand lasers vaporize holes through steel plates.

So Marc, if you are my super-hero alter-ego, that’s cool. Keep up the good work. And McChoppinites, if you like the work of Marc Johns I recommend you buy a print or original drawing. He even writes a little personal note with every shipment he sends out. Or I do. Or something. And by supporting Marc Johns, you may be supporting me, somehow. Mayhaps. Although I suspect If Marc is my alter-ego he has an alter-ego bank account where he stashes all his major profits from being a totally awesome comic artist. But then again, mayhaps I’ll find it someday?

RAGBRAI’s Potter Hill

I got back yesterday from Iowa after participating in the 38th addition of RAGBRAI. For those of you who don’t know what RAGBRAI is, the one sentence explanation is that it is part state fair and part Bay to Breakers1 executed on bicycles across the state of Iowa. It’s a lot of fun. I did a couple of days of last year’s RAGBRAI, and this year our group did four of the seven days, starting in Clear Lake and finishing in Dubuque.

Most of the four days was fairly uneventful bike riding covering some 220 miles, with the exception of a major storm system on the start of my third day (RAGBRAI day 6) and almost wiping out on one of Iowa’s less well maintained roadways. However, the last day held something a little special for everyone this year: Potter’s Hill. I had heard rumor and conjecture about some “monster” or “killer” hill, but it wasn’t until heading down a large hill into the lovely town of Graf that I realized the legend of the hill might hold some weight. You could really open it up going downhill into town; a couple of people told me that their bike computers recorded them going 45 miles per hour. It occurred to me there was likely a similar slope on the other side of the valley, only we’d have to go up it. It turns out Iowa isn’t as flat as it’s made out to be. But still, riding through the valley town I didn’t think too much of what was to come. And then we turned the corner out of town, and I saw what could only be the “monster” hill: Potter’s. It was obvious because everyone, and I mean everyone, was walking up it. I was shocked. There were literally a thousand people walking their bicycles up. I’d seen people walk bikes up hills in RAGBRAI before, but not like this.

Being that I live in California, I’ve been on some hills and although imposing I thought Potter’s Hill was doable. So I gritted my teeth and shifted some gears. The rest of my group dropped off, but I just shifted lower, and when there was no where lower to go, I got out of the saddle and grinded it out. It was made significantly more difficult by the masses of people walking bikes and three vehicles going up the hill in left lane. But I kept thinking that I could do hills in Cali and this couldn’t be as difficult. In fact, I was thinking of one hill in particular that I ride sometimes after work, Moody Road in Los Altos. It’s a fairly difficult climb, much longer, and seems to evoke a sense of awe in the local cyclists. So as I was weaving through walkers, dodging am RV, breathing hard, and cursing like a sailor, I kept thinking if I can do Moody I can do this. Moody Road had beat me a few times, but I wasn’t going to let some hill in Iowa beat me.

So I did it.

But I also didn’t see anyone else do it. I honestly passed a thousand people all walking their bikes up this hill. Now granted, I know other people must have done it, (I am fairly certain that a old man with a ZZ Top beard and only one arm who passed me on a later hill must have been able to do Potter’s), but I did not see any of them. And granted this was probably at one o’clock in the afternoon, towards the back of the RAGBRAI pack and not with the more serious cyclists who probably uniformly cranked it out earlier in the day. But still, to not see anyone climb the hill was shocking, and as I’ve had time to let it sink in, only more so. It lead me to wonder: how hard is Potter’s Hill?

Now, I’m fairly new to this whole cycling business. It’s been exactly a year, since last RAGBRAI, that I starting biking again after what I can only think has been a 16 year hiatus, having stopped sometime in junior high. So my actual experience on a bike is pretty limited. In the last year I’ve purchased a bike2 and done some riding around the Bay Area, but it hasn’t been as much riding as I had hoped. My only real world experience for a point of comparison is Moody Road. So that’s the comparison I’m going to make.

Above are the profiles of the two hills. I got both Potter’s Hill and Moody Rd off of MapMyRide and replotted them together. It is probably a good rough estimate of the real profiles. As you can see Potter’s Hill is clearly more difficult than Moody. They both climb about the same altitude, but Potter’s does it in about a third of the distance. The average gradient of Potter’s over the entire climb looks to be ~7.5%3 where as Moody’s average gradient is ~3%. With even finer resolution, it gets more pronounced. I used an 500 ft interval to calculate something closer to an “instantaneous” gradient:

I’m not entirely sure about the 23% point, but MapMyRide has that section at 19%. Suffice it to say, the middle of the Potter’s Hill climb was very very difficult, if only briefly. Much more difficult than Moody Road overall.

But how does it compare to the real deal, what the pros ride? How does it compare to say, the 2010 edition of the Tour de France? A cursory look at the Tour’s website revealed to me that most category 4 climbs4 on this year’s Tour were more difficult than both climbs. In fact, by my no-means-complete survey of the climbs, they all seem to be just barely more difficult than Moody and longer than Potter’s. But one jumped out as seeming to be less difficult than RAGBRAI’s climb: Stage 3 went from Wanze to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut with only one categorized climb, a category 4 climb that was 1.4 km long with an average gradient of 3.4%. So there is a chance that if Potter’s Hill climb was included in the Tour that it would be categorized. Granted it’s certainly not the Col du Tourmalet, but still a categorized climb is supposedly a challenge even for professionals, a rare thing. So yeah, tip of the old cap to you Iowa, you really are not that flat. Only mostly flat, with some rare steep parts.

So why am I talking about this on McChoppin’? After all, as the Slickman is quick to point out, riding a carbon fiber racing bike isn’t exactly old timey. But McChoppin’ is also about pushing yourself to the limits. And I think I pushed myself beyond what I had previous thought my limits were on Potter’s Hill. That feels really good. Thanks RAGBRAI for throwing a serious challenge into an otherwise low-key bicycling event. I know not everyone enjoyed it, but I honestly think more people could have done it with the right mindset. I know for a lot of people on RAGBRAI the challenge may just be to do one day out of the whole week, but hopefully at least a few other people did Potter’s Hill who might not have otherwise met the challenge. I’m left with the thought that if I could do Potter’s only because I was thinking the entire time that it wasn’t as bad as Moody, what else do I have in me? What else can I do? And that’s what McChoppin’ is all about. And besides, it’s my damn blog, and I’ll write about whatever the hell I want.

1If you don’t know what Bay to Breakers is, I’m not sure what to tell you
2Which by the way, has as it’s lowest gearing a 39×23 ratio for a gain ratio of 3.3
3RAGBRAI has it at ~6.5%, so I’m told
4Category 4 climbs are the least difficult of the categorized climbs. Category 1 and hors catégorie are the most difficult. When included in the Tour, the Col du Tourmalet has been a HC climb since 1980.

Make Your Own Your Sleeping Bag

Do it. Make One.

I did and it worked smashingly.

And I definitely have the best looking sleeping bag of anyone I know.

Who do you know with a striped worsted wool mummy bag? Make one of your own and get the envy of your camping buddies.

Shackleton and the Quest for the Holy Grail

McChoppinites, I’ve returned! To talk once more talk about my hero Shackleton.

One of the perks of working in a research environment is I get to hear about other people’s interesting research, and, way before it’s on NPR. Today I got to hear about Dr. Stephen Rock’s, a professor from Stanford’s Aeronautics & Astronautics Department. He came to tell us about robotic submersibles, which is totally awesome. Sure underwater robots are very topical right now, but he actually wasn’t there to talk about turning off the well head of Deepwater Horizon. He was there to talk about icebergs!

As it turns out, the place to go to find icebergs is the Antarctic, of course. Specifically the Weddell Sea. What else is in the Weddell Sea? Oh right, Elephant Island! That’s right, Shackleton!

Dr. Rock is interested in developing technology that would autonomous map an iceberg to allow an unmanned craft to collect ocean samples at specific points relative to said iceberg. Interesting stuff to me, but I realize it might not be exactly McChoppin’ material. But that’s not what I want to talk about. See, Dr. Rock was doing a technology demonstration for a future program that is driven by the needs of oceanographers and marine biologists that want to study the ecology of the sea around an iceberg. More importantly, he was doing this work on an icebreaker in the Weddell sea with a bunch of biologists who actively study icebergs. So while he was gathering this data for the proof of concept, they were studying the icebergs. One of the things that the biologists are concerned about is better tracking of the icebergs. See, they wanted to put a GPS device on the iceberg. But the ship can only get so close to the iceberg; icebergs being dangerous and all.1 So how do you you get a GPS transponder onto an iceberg? Well, their idea was to shoot it onto the iceberg. But not with a gun or cannon. Their idea was to shoot it on with a water balloon-style launcher. Being that are good scientists and wanting to test their device first, they decided on a test shot. What did they test it with? A coconut, of course.

I think the only question left unanswered here is: what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen Antarctic Swallow?

iceberg coconut(photo badly Gimpped together from egvvnd and tim ellis)

1 For anyone who doesn’t know about icebergs we are talking about an iceberg 40 km long and 20 km wide… dangerous? yes!

As It Turns Out, I Don’t Know how to Load film

I had previously promised that I would write a post about the winter campout after I got photos from it developed. Just before going back East for the holidays I had discovered this laying about.

Pentax K1000(photo by

Well, I had not used a film camera in a long time and I had never used a manual camera ever, but I did not let that deter me. I got some film and read a bit about it; I figured I was all set and at least some of the pictures would come out okay. So I took the damn thing camping. Unfortunately, I failed to learn how to properly load the film. So not a single photo was taken. I guess I am not Frank Hurley.

Since that time I have learned how to load the film properly. I am happy to report that the camera is fully functional and despite with my total lack of photography skill it takes rather good pictures. So, I am excited about using it a bit more, you know, learn a few things about film speed, aperture, and what not. Eventually I would like to get a good digital camera. I’m rather excited to find out that camera companies are making models that are not quite SLR’s1 or point-and-shoots. It sounds like the candidate name for these cameras are Interchangeable Lens Compacts. I really like the one by Olympus, the PEN EP-1, but that will probably have to wait. In the meanwhile I’ll continue to cut my teeth on the Pentax. The thing is a beast and besides its old-timey appeal, it will be able to take the abuse of winter camping better than any digital camera will, I suspect.

1Not only do digital SLR’s look ridiculous, it is an awkward marriage of old manual camera technology with the new digital. I’m sure people out there will argue a bit, but I can not see any reason to have a reflex mirror lens system in a digital camera. I’m actually surprised it has taken the camera industry this long to realize that people would want camera system that essentially acts like an old manual SLR without looking like, or even being, one.

Taking your temperature

How many times have you come back from winter camping and in the process of relating your story been forced to say things like “Well, it was cold. It was 10 degrees in the valley, so I’m sure it was below zero up on the mountaintop, where we were.” It is not so satisfying, is it? Wouldn’t you like something a little more exact? But, considering the demands of the winter campout, you don’t exactly want to bring a mercury-type thermometer and have to write down the temperature at intervals. Especially when the most interesting time to take the temperature is probably in the middle of the night, when you have much more important things to do, like stay in your sleeping bag.

Well, even if you have never been troubled by this problem, I have been. After this past winter’s campout, I was pretty disappointed that the best I could do for the answer to the “How cold was it?” question was say: “Well, my dad said it was 2 degrees outside his house down in the valley when he woke up.” I wanted to know exactly how cold was it overnight where we where. I think it was colder, but how do I know? Also, I only had one temperature point to go off of: 2 degrees. What about the rest of the time? We were out there for two days. From my days of undergraduate physics I know that dataloggers exist and I suspected that there existed one that would meet my needs, which was a simple device that would automatically record the temperature at intervals and save it to later be downloaded to a computer. I recently found one such device: the Lascar EL USB-2. Indeed I think that it meets and exceeds all of the requirements that I could come up with.

The Lascar Easy Logger USB 2 is a small digital datalogger that records not only temperature, but also, as a bonus, relative humidity.1 The temperature range that it covers is from -31 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the range I would normally expect to encounter whilst camping. It is waterproof and has a very compact, minimal design with no buttons, so it should be durable enough to withstand the trials of winter camping. It has a long battery life of one year and it can store 16,382 measurements. At measurement intervals of one minute this means it will record for almost eleven and a half days. It is operated entirely through a computer interface which is very straight forward. There, one can set the measurement interval (every 10 seconds up to a half day intervals at specific intervals), the time when it will start (immediately or some preset time), and various alarms (like high or low temperature alarms; I don’t yet think I have much use for this functionality). So, basically you plug the thing into your computer’s USB port, do a quick setup, and go off recording. When you are done, you plug it back in and it the software will display a nice graph. I took it to Tahoe with me over the weekend.

You can click on the image to enlarge it. I annotated a few major portions of the graph. The first night I left the datalogger outside in my truck. The temperature in the truck seems to have steadily declined until reaching an “overnight” low, which occurred some time around 8 o’clock in the morning and was 34 degrees. The second night I had it inside our cabin. Again the low occurred at 8 in the morning and it was 58 degrees. My girlfriend had decided it was necessary to use a number of blankets whose combined loft easily exceeded the sleeping bag I used during winter camping. At some point in the middle of the second night I woke up rather overheated and threw off almost all of them. I can clearly point to the graph and show her now that since it was above 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the cabin we clearly did not need so much covering. Such are the dangers of winter cabining, I suppose.

1 Lascar has a model, the EL USB-1, which takes only temperature but is otherwise the same. It is cheaper, but I thought having relative humidity might be interesting. One could investigate the effects of humidity on your camping experience, but that is probably subjective at best. Temperature is probably the most interesting feature for logging camping conditions and so if one is more concerned about the cost than I was, I recommend the EL-1 for providing your camping datalogging needs.