Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An engineer's basement and hammock

I didn't ask to take photos, since I'd never been there before and hadn't actually met the people before showing up. Suffice it to say that my friend's friend G (who is also a mechanical engineer) has a large, finished basement below his house, which I had the privilege of seeing after G and his wife (at my friend's urging) invited me, a complete stranger, to dinner at their home.

I helped G's wife prepare some homemade pizza, an effort which consisted largely of chopping and arranging an assortment of veggies. I figured it was the least I could do for someone who had volunteered to serve a friend-of-a-friend dinner and it gave me something to talk about, since I arrived at least an hour before my friend did. The evening that followed was well worth making a bit of awkward-at-first conversation and chopping some veggies, though.

G and his wife have a small but busy vegetable garden tucked in along the sides of their house and a hammock on a frame in the small area out back. G decided, once we'd all arrived, that the four of us should have a hammock swinging contest. My friend, G, and I are all mechanical engineers; G's wife has had a bit more practice being in hammocks than the rest of us.

The object of the hammock contest was to lay in the hammock with one knee elevated and to swing that knee back and forth in the right rhythm to get the hammock going in the least amount of time. "Going" had no terribly precise definition, so I can't say who exactly won, though G seemed to do pretty well. I made a decent showing (suggesting as a rogue entry the use of a windbreaker as a sail), as did G's wife. My friend flailed wildly and still didn't really manage to get swinging. Now, to a mechanical engineer, a hammock is a pendulum and a swinging hammock with a person in it is a simple harmonic oscillator. Most six-year-olds can swing a swing. A mechanical engineer will tell you that they're doing it by driving it 90 degrees out of phase. Yes, we also do other things for fun.

After dinner, we checked out the basement, with some unwarranted apologies about the mess (basements are supposed to be messy!). It does contain a piano and some trappings of a spare bedroom, but mostly it contains a machine shop and lab full of tools and parts to play with. G likes to build model planes of various types, but I'd argue that the most impressive are the small ones made from slender balsa wood rods, a homemade propeller, and thin iridescent sheets of capacitor dielectric, which is both lightweight and relatively strong. With a loose but well-wound rubber band over two opposing hooks and more space than even this basement permitted, they will stay aloft for a remarkably long time, perhaps several minites. Other model planes there were more sophisticated, but these were stunning in their simplicity.

G also likes to invent things. One simple doodad he demonstrated was for combing their long-haired, shedding cat. The cat doesn't like the vacuum cleaner noise, but will tolerate this device. It consisted of a bit of window screen over a box with a large (about 6" square) computer fan in it. The fan holds wads of hair combed off the cat neatly against the window screen for easy cleanup when the combing is done.

I'm glad I got to see the place and meet G, even under unusual circumstances. I may need to rethink the project and tinkering spaces in my own home.


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15 January, 2013 09:06  

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