Supermileage Vehicle Competition Builds Super Character

“Gangster metal fab” and a “ghetto look” set the tone as unassuming team members who had managed side projects throughout the year stepped up and delivered. Breaking out a football and Frisbee, downplaying endangered species rescue, noticing other cars’ idiosyncracies but always turning the lens back on themselves (why did our windshield look that way?!), this team built a supermileage vehicle from scratch and made it run.

Society of Automotive Engineers Collegiate Competition
Marshall MI

When the joke is on you….

Team Members en route to  Registration, Day 1
Zoom-Mass Team Members en route to Registration, Day 1

It might be because of the Canadians (in this case, definitely not the Cubans – nor the Russians!) Or perhaps it’s about J.R?  This story is definitely about a Hobbit and some douchebags, including a few who didn’t come along for the ride. It involves bolts, assorted bodies, and those who actually go to bed at a time calculated backwards from when they want to rise.  (This may or may not be cultural.)

There was a poker game, lake slime, and roadkill. Variable sleep. Some drinks.

“You’re not working now!”
“I kinda am!”

The government was involved (paperwork trouble at the border), as was private business (as sponsors) and charity. No problematic moments (technically speaking) were observed, although there were multiple small- and large-group dynamics. No interpretations were censored. Soul-searching intercultural conversation was initiated.

On the return drive from Coldwater to Detroit’s airport, Dr. J.R. noticed more live deer than the eight carcasses we’d seen going. (Not to mention the four indeterminate raccoon-sized remains, and Lola’s addition of multiple blood-stained splotches sans corporeal evidence.)

Site, Scene, and Sponsor of the Supermileage Vehicle Competition
Site, Scene, and Sponsor of the Supermileage Vehicle Competition

“Our luck must be changing,” he said, but in fact the team had already managed multiple misfortunes without casualty.

“I wanna see an SMV crash.”

Our driver endured several mishaps including a crash that should have shaken her to the bone. However, Ruta did not hesitate for a second to put herself back out on the track.  In the end, the dreaded DNF (racing version) was avoided, despite periodic speculation about a DNR. The first day’s amazing achievement of being third to pass inspection faded into ancient history as the team teetered on the edge of doom throughout the second day, confronting everything that could possibly go wrong.

“Mass-prepared as usual.”

Competition Day was interrupted by a thunderstorm before any of the twenty-seven supermileage vehicles touched the track. For the UMass College of Engineering’s 2011 SMV Team, the storm was prelude to a serious crash followed in relentless succession by two flat tires,

alignment and other tools
alignment tools

another thunderstorm, and a second crash. The single successful Zoom-Mass SMV run (six laps around a specified high performance testing track) was accomplished at the very end of a wet and chilly day; the uncomfortable weather enhancing the potential for gloom to crush the team’s spirit.. Although the judges were willing to hold the track open just long enough to allow a second run because “we like UMass so much,” “good karma” intervened to drop the damaged left front wheel off the car at the starting line, just before Ruta began to hurtle again around the track.

“Oh man it stopped raining already?”

Charlie’s quip on the first day (pre-inspection) was echoed by Nick on the second: “At least it’s just drizzling.” The downpour, thunder, and lightning had been predicted for afternoon: every team was rushing to get their vehicles running in advance of the weather.  The forced pause allowed the Zoom-Mass SMV Team some extra fine-tuning of the brakes and more precise wheel alignment.

Balancing: Team Members walked the track during practice laps, discovering & saving an endangered baby bird. "There's only three left!".
Balancing: Team Members walked the track during practice laps, discovering & saving an endangered baby bird."There's only three left!"

Then came the first attempt. After four successful test laps the previous day (during which the non-driving members of the team reunited a baby whooping crane with its parents), it was a shock to see Ruta and the car returning in the back of one of the rescue pickups.  Forty mile per hour post-thunderstorm gusts had ripped the windshield loose. Designed to withstand normal specified engineering tolerances, the extreme doubling of force gyred the windshield off its latches and under the left tire, sending the car into a 30 mph donut spin, and shearing off the bolt holding the left wheel to the axle as the car skidded to a screeching stop.

“Some crazy things happened” [J.R.]

Dr J.R summarized the team character: “Our response to adversity was great.”

The second attempt was delayed by the first flat tire. Seeking a correctly-sized inner tube added texture to the sense of tragicomedy. Ruta finally got the car around the track a lap and a half before another flat forced her to pull over for a second salvage ride in the rescue pickup (baby powder, it turns out, is essential equipment). One of the guys laughed, “They haven’t even seen us on the track, that’s how fast we are!” Dry humor peppered the team’s steady, focused response.

Ruta held up half the team. Photo by Jimmy Hsu.
Ruta held up half the team. Photo by Jimmy Hsu.

Those who were good

Optimizing air pressure
Optimizing air pressure

at the required tasks simply buckled down and worked out solutions. No one questioned or hesitated when asked to get this or do that. Ruta herself never blinked: she got back in a vehicle damaged from the crash, with a known design weakness – that had been repaired but not re-engineered due to the constraint of available time. There was a single brief flare of frustration from a team member naming an obvious oversight – which was respectfully acknowledged (later) by the responsible party. “Oh yea, about that…” Otherwise no one displayed their upset: team members took every obstacle in stride. “In the end,” Matt explained, “we all want the same thing.”

“In the zone” [J.R.]

“The time has come,” pronounced Andrew.

“I’m feeling good about this one,” said Charlie.

Trying to work the rub out
Trying to work the rub out

“This is when the praying starts, “ offered J.R as the Zoom-Mass SMV rolled out onto the track “held together with Bondo and duct tape” for the third attempt.  The Team did not hit their mileage target, but this “Apollo 13 of SMV” finished despite extensive damage to the aerodynamics of the body, including a persistently rubbing tire.

Adjusting the safety/escape latches on the windshield
Adjusting the safety/escape latches on the windshield

“Gangster metal fab” and a “ghetto look” set the tone as unassuming team members who had managed side projects throughout the year stepped up and delivered. Breaking out a football and Frisbee, downplaying endangered species rescue, noticing other cars’ idiosyncracies but always turning the lens back on themselves (why did our windshield look that way?!), this team built a supermileage vehicle from scratch and made it run.

Here’s to the Team!

“A free Corona for the first person to hit their call button,” announced a flight attendant on my Southwest flight home.

Ya'all are great!
Ya'all are great!

modeling homogenous relaxation

The art is to manage the rate and speed (measured by a non-dimensional number – one of those deeply held math secrets engineers bandy about like social scientists bartering philosophical theories). The particular number in this case (that describes nothing in the physical world) is quite effected by the slightest change in temperature. Changes in temperature affect the rate and there’s a whole bunch of modeling that needs to be done to get this whole puppy optimized. Or something like that.

Theoretical and Computational Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
College of Engineering
University of Massachusetts Amherst
13 December 2010

diagram of flash boilingDr Kshitij Neroorkar’s defense was so smoothly delivered you’d have thought he’d done this a thousand times already. Who knows? Simulation of Flash-Boiling in GDI Injections with Gasoline-Ethanol Fuel Blends might be the kind of hard science topic where 1000 experiments are needed before you get to defend the phd! Being the lone, non-family-member representative of the social sciences present, “How much did you understand?” was the question-du-jour, post-defense. Here comes the test, huh? At least enough to recognize that Dr Neroorkar’s subject matter seemed very similar to Dr Shivasubramanian Golapakrishnan’s dissertation topic, which I distorted metaphorically in a previous blogentry: Language is a Fluid.  A big thanks, btw, to Dr Blair Perot, who read and questioned the two-way utility of my analogy:

“Since I understand the fluids, this analogy certainly helps me understand what is important to linguists. I am less sure about if it will help the other way around. Does it really help linguists understand/describe linguistics better to think in terms of fluids?” (I like how he cuts right to the chase!)


8 nozzle plumes merge

The site of Dr Neroorkar’s study is in the nozzle part of a fuel-injection system, so its a pretty small physical space.  Inside that wee tunnel all kinds of things are going on, one of them being flash-boiling: the violent explosion of liquid into steam (a gas). The better this explosion is controlled, the more usable energy one gets, but it is tricky to maximize the energy potential because, well, all kinds of things are going on! There’s a pressure drop where the fluid enters, certain processes that generate the growth of nucleation bubbles which start out teeny-tiny and expand until  they touch each other, and then these bubbles bursting into spray in a process called atomization. The art is to manage the rate and speed (measured by a non-dimensional number – one of those deeply held math secrets engineers bandy about like social scientists bartering philosophical theories). The particular number in this case (that describes nothing in the physical world) is quite effected by the slightest change in temperature. Changes in temperature affect the rate and there’s a whole bunch of modeling that needs to be done to get this whole puppy optimized.  Or something like that.

“Then we do some mathematical tricks”

HRM modelTurns out that with 8-hole injectors, the plumes of vapor generated from each hole merge in a way that needs to be taken into account, and this hasn’t actually been done before, or not so well/thoroughly or otherwise unequivocally established through parametric study. What is the difference, someone asked, from what Dr Gopalakrishnan did before? “Shiva didn’t couple them.”  Couple what? The nuances were definitely over my head here, but the two of them did use the same HRM model, which (as Dr Neroorker explained to me later) “assumes the liquid-vapor mixture is one substance, not separate.” Treating the fluid-gas mix as homogeneous rather than heterogeneous (as explained here right at my level) enables an epistemological framework in which the system will relax to equilibrium if given enough time. There are (apparently) problems with the assumptions of cavitation, and the degree of superheat figures in some crucial way, not to mention the influence of specific geometry (90% symmetric) and the composition of the periodic boundary conditions (sounds an awful lot like “context” to me).

I like the idea of "swirl injection" (the colors aren't bad, either).
I like the idea of "swirl injection" (the colors aren't bad, either).

Somehow, Dr Neroorkar put all that together in the first validated 3D simulation showing the geometry region, the residence time dominated region, and the vaporization time dominated region, and got a volatility distribution curve showing stuff that matters. With important limitations of course: laminar flows, empirical time scales relevant to one fluid not others, so on and so forth.


The best part (of course) was the celebration, where I got to pretend to blend in with the relaxing homogenous crowd of Indians (“convenience store not casino” as distinguished by Russell Peters) at Sneha & Kshitij’s cozy apartment. Except for Nidhi (who delivered all her laugh lines in Hindi so I couldn’t understand them), everyone stepped up to being blogged. Partha gave in pretty easy: “We aren’t cited that often.” I had a great conversation with Vikram, who informed me that “helium is helium,” and Upen, “Math is not context-dependent.” Bhooshan mildly admitted that there “are not so many more fundamental reactions to discover [in chemistry]”, which Upen amended, “until they are discovered!” I would have followed up on these topics except Ruchita chimed in, ” This is not the conversation I want to be having!” Oh alrighty then!

cutting the cakeSandeep, meanwhile, was focused: “Where is the biryani?” Pritish arrived a little late and took awhile to catch up, “She’s gonna use my name somewhere?” You know I was amused when Sneha told us “people used to think I was a boy.” And did I ever learn some gossip about somebody’s Victoria’s Secret!

The meal was awesome, the company grand, and the event momentous. Kshitij himself did the honors on the decadent chocolate mousse cake, announcing: “My job is done.”

Language is a fluid (Part 1)

Theoretical and Computational Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
College of Engineering
UMass Amherst

A few days before his defense, the very-soon-to-be-Dr. Shiva promised to make his phd defense as incomprehensible to a non-engineer as possible. He was teasing me, but it opens space for me to play with representing his work not only on its own terms, as I have tried to do with other friend's dissertations. In this "Part 1" post, I've selected items from Dr. Shivasubramanian Gopalakrishnan's defense that enable me to play with fluid dynamics as an analogy for language-based communication dynamics. My not-so-hidden-agenda is to attempt a translation between disciplines that might serve as an impetus to potential collaborations for addressing cross-disciplinary problems (the global type, interwoven across institutional fields, such as climate-change, grinding poverty, and widespread starvation, to name a few).

“Modeling of Thermal Non-Equilibrium in Superheated Injector Flows”

Dr Gopalakrishnan’s area of specialization is non-equilibrium phase change operations. The basic phase change he studied for his dissertation involves the change of liquid fuel into gas vapor in automobile and aircraft fuel. There are a whole ton of things that need to happen in order for a fuel to provide adequate power to an engine so that a car or plane can travel, and a fair number of things that can go wrong in the attempt, such as flash boiling and vapor lock. The engineers know all about these problems, but I had to do a bit of research. A liquid boils, for instance, not only as a function of temperature, but also as a function of pressure. Suppose one thought of a linguistic flash boil as the interaction of

    a) a word’s definition (its ‘temperature’) and

    b) the context in which the word is uttered (the environmental ‘pressure’).

Right word, right context: everybody happy.
Right word, wrong context: problem!
Wrong word, right context: just a goof.
Wrong word, wrong context:
potential domestic disturbance or international incident!

Suppose we were able to slow down social interaction to 2000 frames per second (like this water droplet) in order to perceive how a single word enters language (and thus communication) as a whole?  Most people tend not to think much about the language we use unless/until something goes wrong, and then our energies focus upon repair. If we could cultivate more consciousness about how (for instance) individual word choices merge with larger pools of language use, then we might be able to diagnose discourse patterns and even design ways of communicating that work more efficiently in developing and implementing ideas that solve real-world problems.

In terms of the analogy I’m proposing here, Snapshot 2009-11-17 18-22-14how or when do words conserve mass and momentum without changing the substance or direction of established discourse or social patterns?  When and how might particular words conform to the dictates of conservation while also accomplishing an alteration in substantive conditions that generates new forms of dialogue?

Vapor lock is not such a problem for cars anymore, but it remains a challenge for aircraft. Both issues involve the liquid becoming gas too soon. With flash boiling, part of the liquid fuel – but not all of it – superheats, leading to a two-phase (and thus inefficient) distribution of energy. With vapor lock, the bulk of the liquid vaporizes before practical use – also due to combinations of pressure and temperature. Vapor lock can cause a severe drop or even a complete stall in power. Not what you want to happen at high altitude! Nor in a conversation that you wish to proceed smoothly, for whatever reasons.

Suppose you need to talk with someone who uses a different language than you. A phase change is necessary for communication to occur. Suppose an interpreter (professionally trained, fluent in both languages) is available to transform the ‘fuel’ provided by your language into ‘power’ in the other language? This would be a phase change, yes? Keep in mind that in scientific categorization, liquids and gasses are both fluids – they belong to the same medium. Similarly, English and Turkish, Spanish and Hindi, Malaysian Sign Language and Langue des Signes Française are all examples of the medium of language. The question of efficiency in fluid phase change is comparable to the question of comprehension in interpretation: the challenge is to identify the relevant factors and manipulate the conditions so that the interaction occurs with the least loss. In fluid heat exchange, one considers the

  1. rate of downstream atomization, the
  2. starting point of the phase change – its location within the nozzle, the
  3. extent to which dispersion continues outside of the nozzle, the
  4. endpoint of phase change, and (finally) the
  5. overall emission characteristics: a comprehensive image, if you will, of what is happening when, where, and how that involves all interacting elements and environmental conditions.


One can surmise that in addition to the environmental conditions of temperature and pressure, timing is crucial for effective fluid dynamic engineering! Time comes first in the list above (rate), requiring us to imagine the complicated system in four dimensions. Temporality is also one of the more obvious constituents of interpretation, as people using interpreters to communicate across language differences often express concern with the amount of time required for the interpreter to process the ‘injection’ before manifesting ’emissions’. In aircraft, the particular mechanism that Dr Gopalakrishnan studied involved using the fuel system itself “as a heat sink to increase engine performance.”

Paralleling the practical application of a heat sink with interpretation, the question of efficiency involves the extent to which an interpreter dissipates the hot air, absorbing or otherwise deflecting excess energy that distorts the equilibrium of the relational exchange. This cooling effect of the interpreter is not intended to minimize an interlocutor’s intended meaning (a common concern), but rather, to enable the potential energy (one could say, the understanding) to be most efficiently utilized in whatever power application (voice – Blommaert: ‘the capacity for semiotic mobility’ (p. 69)) is called for: a sudden increase in speed (e.g., for emphasis), or a gradual drop in tone (perhaps to shift a debate from argumentation to persuasion).

Dr Gopalakrishnan’s work zeroed in (among other things) on the relationship between pressure and enthalpy. In terms of vaporization, enthalpy is “the energy required to transform a given quantity of a substance into a gas.” For some reason (unknown), the energy required by interpreters to transform language through a similar phase change operation seems expected not to change the substance. Liquid should not become gas! (Despite that they are still both fluids.) Put another way, the diction (discrete word choice) seems expected not to change despite the phase shift from one language to another!  This is akin to expecting, with fuel, that the molecules of the resulting gas would remain exactly the same as the molecules of the original liquid: in which case, no energy would be produced at all, as there would have been no reaction.

Based on everyday experience, language “is incompressible” (as Dr Schmidt teased when I posed my analogy to him), yet – ironically? – there seems to be widespread social conditioning about languages that presumes an interpreter is magically able to perform phase changes (interpreting from one type of language/medium to another type of language/medium) without effects from environmental conditions. Occupational health and safety evaluations, not to mention professional lore and training, reveal that communicators in a cross-language interaction do need to consider

a) the capacity of the interpreter to store extra heat/energy (technically, thermal inertia) generated by interlocutors and

b) the potential for long-term damage to interpreters (and thus, the communication system) by constraints imposed by conditions of ‘social temperature’ and ‘social pressure’ (which can show up, in fluid dynamic terms, as cavitation).

Often, when the complex realities of language-to-language interpretation are surfaced, the fallback position is to eliminate the need for interpretation. “Get everyone using the same language.” Instead, I want to suggest that there are tremendous benefits to embracing the need for interpretation as an opportunity for highlighting precisely those areas and moments of greatest difference and thus of challenge. When communication appears to fail or feels inadequate, this can be taken as an indicator to those involved that the interaction potential has shifted from a single/shared perspective to a fuller range of views – which, if utilized, may suggest greater/deeper capacities and efficiencies.

One of Dr Gopalakrishnan’s innovations was to apply two different sets of equations to the problem of fuel injection efficiency. Shiva'sLISA2By coupling mechanisms that perform distinct tasks in different domains, Dr Gopalakrishnan was able to generate new knowledge about the overall process which will likely lead to improvements in efficiency. In a similar spirit, I seek to draw on (admittedly limited) paradigmatic knowledge from engineering about fluids with paradigmatic knowledge from the humanities about language. This task necessarily involves translation between the two disciplinary languages. To be successful, co-learners will have to want to make the effort to move beyond disciplinary monolingualism. I hope the compelling problems of our time provide sufficient motivation for trying to bridge the segregation.

In a way, interpreters are always trying to apply “two different sets of equations” to the problem of efficient communication. These are the ‘equations’ of culture and language particular to each communicator. The unique aspect of interpreting (as a complex system involving the rapid combination of distinct tasks across domains with an ever-changing mix of elements), is that the people involved also have power to interpret – and re-interpret – the conditions. Unlike fluid dynamics, where the ‘temperature’ and ‘pressure’ are given factors of the environment (fixed, stable, presumedly controlled/controllable), individuals in a communication process can always choose to maintain or change the context: to alleviate or increase the pressure, to drop or raise the temperature, to decide that any word – ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ even if it generates vapor lock or superheating – can be worked with and turned to productive use. This takes effort, of course, and requires collaboration – therein lies the rub!

Coming up in Part 2: the challenge to traditional models of superheating fluids that only consider instability-based modes of breakup, the question of size vs quantity, and void fractions.