Archive for August, 2009

Back to Engineering

My blog has been rather stagnant lately, and for that I do apologize. I cannot make any promises that updates will be lengthy, or regular, over course of this semester. Instead of reading to the end to discover my point, I will come right out and say it. If you are considering taking a break from school, don’t. While my break was a bit different from most others, it was still a break. In the past eight years, I have seen few reasons to really engage my brain. Leaving the University of Texas at Arlington, and my mechanical engineering studies, essentially sent me into a period of mentally lethargic existence that lasted nearly a decade.

After a year, and an enjoyable one at that, of studying journalism at Texas State University I decided I had rested my mind long enough. This is not to say there are not great minds in the field of journalism, or that I have turned my back on clear communication. I was simply not challenged by that course of study. At some point during the spring of 2009, I came to the conclusion that I ought to finish what I started in the fall of 2001. Applications went out, and I ultimately decided to resume my mechanical engineering studies at the University of Houston.

August 24, 2009, was my first day back in engineering school. I have started back where most do, with calculus. Chemistry is on the table as well, but I’ve always found general chemistry to be very clear and simple. Calculus has beaten me before, but it will not beat me again. Such a long wait between my last meeting with Newton’s language for describing physics and the present day put me at something of a disadvantage to my much younger peers. Fortunately, I have seen this before and have the discipline to recognize when I need assistance. The tutoring center at UofH has been quite useful already.

One of the most immediate things I noticed was that now there are quite a few women going after engineering degrees. I only needed a single finger to count the number of women in any of my engineering classes at UTA. There are dozens of women in my chemistry for engineers class. That change is, of course, quite welcome.

Another pleasant note is that I rather like the campus at UofH. Before actually attending UofH, I never really took the time to walk around campus. There is a lot of diversity here, and the atmosphere is not at all displeasing. Sure, I wish it had a crystal clear river flowing through campus, but you cannot win them all. While I do, in general, hate Houston I do not see the lack of things I wish to do as a necessarily bad thing. Combine a campus on which I have no problem spending time with a city I prefer to avoid, and I am left with a pretty good recipe for academic success.

Ducks in the Rain

Yesterday, I took a trip down to Hermann Park to let a friend test out my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS zoom lens. The weather was typical for Houston in August, hotter than Hades. Then I noticed a rather large, rather dark, and rather ominous cloud. Rain was on the way. Houston needs the rain, so no complaints on that front. Anyway, as we worked our way back to my truck I snapped a few photos of some ducks in the rain.

Ducks enjoying a rainstorm in Houstons Hermann Park

Ducks enjoying a rainstorm in Houston's Hermann Park

from another angle

from another angle

Shooting Paper

Usually, when I shoot paper I am not using a camera. That combination of words is not generally something with which I associate reproduction and cameras, but rather something I tend to associate with destruction and firearms. Today I took a different approach to help my Mom out with some products she’d just completed to put in scrapbook she made for a new Eagle Scout.

I thought back to one of the very first things I ever attempted once I discovered the Strobist blog and bought my very first hotshoe strobe with a coiled hotshoe to Vivitar sync cable. That attempt was not very successful, but was meant to show how shooting light across a piece of paper would reveal texture not typically seen by casting shadows with the imperfections of the page and depressions left by the writing process. Back in those days I lacked light stands, or any real understanding of how light works. Today, things would be a bit different.

Since I knew I wanted to capture the detail of any smaller text on these pages, I set my base exposure at around f/8 as my aperture. I did not want to have to turn the strobes to full blast for anything to save on recycle time as I’d be shooting many pages, so I ran my ISO up to 200. I also ran at full sync to kill the ambient light. Once that was all said and done, I built the exposure. I knew I wanted a good even exposure across the page, and without a light tent or a softbox I could hang over top I used the next best thing – the ceiling. I also knew I wanted to have depth, as a flat exposure from the top would be just that – flat. The next bit I just played with, but it worked well so I stuck with it. I put two lights on the same stand. One on top in the normal position, bounced into a white umbrella to give me some soft texture across the page, and another super clamped to the legs of the stand, gridded, and aimed right at paper level directly across the page for hard texture.

The setup looked a little something like this:

The lighting setup for shooting paper and maintaining texture.

The lighting setup for shooting paper and maintaining texture.

With an end result of this:

The final result

The final result

First impressions of the FJR

Having owned the FJR for a little more than two weeks I figure it’s about time to write out my initial impressions of what may well be the perfect sport-touring motorcycle. I’ve yet to get it out in the really twisty stuff, but plans for a few mega-rides are in the works. My confidence is high that these rides will be even more fun than they were on the SV. At the very least, my back and knees will not be begging for mercy at the end of the day.

First thing first. The FJR is just one good looking machine. Yamaha did it right when they styled this motorcycle. It still maintains a sporty look even with the hard cases mounted, not really letting on that it has two comfortable seats and a cockpit that easily accommodates both aggressive and upright riding positions. It’s just one good looking motorcycle. I’m going to post a bad photo to illustrate, and eventually I’ll get around to taking a real photo of the bike.

Yamaha FJR1300A

Yamaha FJR1300A

Next up I’ve got to mention the engine. Coming off a 650cc v-twin, this 1300cc inline-four is absolutely monstrous. I had a dyno-tuned Power Commander, and full exhaust on the SV650S and it put down 73hp and 45 lb-ft of torque. The FJR doubles the horsepower and more than doubles the torque. What it does not do, is double the weight, so this thing moves at warp speed when you crack the throttle open. While I’m a staunch advocate of riding like a sane person on public roads, and don’t appreciate people that treat public roads like their own personal racetrack, I’ll have to put the power into perspective a bit. On the SV were I to find myself stuck behind slow moving trucks on a two-lane highway, not a safe place to be on a motorcycle given the large solid objects these vehicles tend to launch towards you, I’d simply click down into third gear and launch around them. Usually this would see me go from 50mph to maybe 90mph before the pass was complete. Having piloted the SV over 24,000 miles, this had pretty much become a matter of reflex. I did it on the FJR, and was going more than twice the posted speed limit before I passed the second RV.

That point brings me to another praise of the FJR. Doing over 120mph was not unsettling in any way until I noticed that’s how fast I was going. There were no shakes. There was no buffeting. The FJR was just gobbling up pavement like that’s exactly what it was designed to do. The FJR is not a light motorcycle by any means, but it doesn’t wear you out. Balance is pretty superb, and even u-turns are quite easy (with a passenger too). Now, it doesn’t balance as amazing at low speed as say the GL1800 does, but it also doesn’t have as low a center-of-gravity. In any case, the FJR handles well at every speed I’ve brought its way. The bike just feels solid at any speed. I like that, I like that a lot.

Now that I’ve gone through many of my likes (there are more, but I’m already getting long-winded) I’ll hit up a few minor dislikes.

Yamaha, this is a motorcycle with a 200+ mile-per-tank range. You’ve seen fit to equip it with an adjustable windscreen, factory hard cases with soft liner bags, and an adjustable driver’s seat. You even gave us a nice little glove box with a 12V outlet inside. In the spirt of touring, you’ve even given us the worry-free joys of shaft drive. Where in the world is the cruise control? With four throttle bodies to hold open, the spring tension on the right grip is nothing at which one should scoff. It’d be nice, for those boring bits of road, to have a cruise control from the factory. If liability is the concern, limit the top speed at which the cruise control will function. Aftermarket solutions are available, but future FJR’s ought to just have it straight from the factory.

Heat is really my only other complaint, and come the “winter” months (I’m from Texas, people) this might not even be a complaint. Riding down the highway when the air temp gauge reads 104°F makes my ankles feel like they’re being cooked. The heat coming off the engine and exhaust is a bit ridiculous. Granted, I know there’s really not much that can be done about that issue. I’ll put up with it, but I seriously hope I never slip and touch the pipes on this machine. That would hurt quite a bit.

All in all, I love this motorcycle. I bought it with 7500mi and I’ll be surprised if it has less than 15,000mi on it by this time next year.

Cash For Clunkers

Someone please explain how this is meant to jumpstart the auto-industry and/or economy. The requirements to trade-in remove affordable vehicles from the pool of available automobiles forever. Most of the vehicles that qualify for the $3500-$4500 rebate still generate fairly high levels of debt for the purchaser (and government). Since I’m pretty sure the environmental aspects of the program are a waste of breath, I’ll just question the economic.

If this is meant to help the suffering auto-industry (ie: ours), shouldn’t American manufacturers have some qualifying vehicles people are actually interested in purchasing? It doesn’t strike me as something highly beneficial to the American auto-industry to have the government subsidizing the widening of the gap between foreign and domestic auto sales. From the outside, it looks like this is doing exactly what we do not want to be doing – generating tons of debt. The government does not have money, so every dime they put up is ultimately debt. You can call it “savings” if you want, but that requires you to ignore simple things like “definitions” of “words.” As that debt is ultimately the tax-payer’s, those that use the credits really get hit twice – once on the government books, and again with their new car payment.

If the savings are meant to come from the gas pump I’m going to have to go ahead and raise my trusty BS flag. Right now my truck gets a lovely 16mpg. I don’t drive it often, but that’s because I’d rather be on my motorcycle. Assuming I drive 300mi per week, and gas is $3 per gallon, I spend about $225 a month on fuel. Now, if I did the same thing in a vehicle that gets 30mpg, I’d spend about $120 a month. Moving vehicles is sure to save me $105 per month, right? Wrong.

My truck is 12 years old, even full coverage insurance on the vehicle is less than $100 per month. With my excellent driving record, and my freedom from the under-25yr-old-males-are-insane insurance bracket, full coverage (often required for financed vehicles) on even a new subcompact is over $200 per month. The difference in insurance premiums alone just killed all but a cheeseburger’s worth of the “savings.” We’ve not even touched on the part where my truck is paid for, and a new car comes with payments.

Let’s say that by some miracle you get a car, after the $4500 rebate, for $10,000. Then lets say they give you 0% financing for 5yrs. You’re going to pay $167 per month for five years. You’re now spending $167 per month more than you were before, fuel savings or not. Even if your insurance premiums stay dead even, the payments exceed the fuel savings by over $40.

It seems that in the last few years we’ve seen several economic sectors explode in the face of rising consumer debt (and over-extension). Is the auto-industry somehow exempt from this? If you couldn’t afford the vehicle without the $4500, can you really afford it with the money? Or is that just enough to bring your payments down to the level where eating Ramen and SPAM three times a day is still possible? Did Congress consider any of the above when they authored and passed the bill? I say all of this as one that was actually interested in the program, and was close to turning the aforementioned truck in for CARS credit. Then I did the math.

Finished. I think.

It certainly seems like I’m done with the Army, at long last. My ETS date has been fixed, and the guard is cutting people (in Texas). As far as I can tell, I’m one of them, and that works for me.

In other news, I love my new FJR. Way more comfortable, and WAY faster than the SV was. Very nice.

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