Thursday, December 11, 2008

Network refugee

Due to the shutdown of the ventilation in the lab, the other grad students and I have been forced to move into the lounge. Although there are network ports at each desk and lab bench, there are none in the lounge. Fortunately, the IT people finally got around to fixing the wireless network in the building.

Unfortunately, my PowerMac G5 (PCIx) didn't come with the optional 802.11g/BlueTooth wireless card installed (the antennas are there, but the actual daughter board is missing). Apple stopped making these some time ago and there are only a few for sale through third-parties for ~$300 each! Sonnet sells a PCI card specifically for PowerPC Macs, but it's pricey at ~$100. Fortunately, the people working on the OS x86 project have a list of PCI wireless cards that are compatible with OS X. Some require patches or driver updates, but most BroadCom based cards work correctly out of the box. I snagged a Linksys WMP54GS from NewEgg for ~$40 and it was detected as a "Third Party Wireless Card" by OS X 10.5.5. The only differences from a real AirPort card are that there is an external antenna (the G5 actually included a tiny external antenna if you bought the wireless option) and there is no 802.1x support.

Connecting to the wireless network was another matter entirely. The department has a wireless network, but it requires 802.1x authentication. The University's wireless network runs in parallel and requires a VPN connection. Until very recently, connecting required the Cisco VPN client, which, in my experience, has been nothing but terrible. It has a wretched user interface that sticks out like a sore thumb for Mac users and constantly drops connections. I was able to make it automatically connect by tweaking the University's .pcf config file, but that was a workaround at best. To add insult to injury, the client installs a kernel extension that hijacks any connection attempts by Apple's VPN client (it can be removed using an uninstall script buried in /usr/bin/). Fortunately, and much to my surprise, the recent deluge of iPhone users on campus has apparently persuaded the ITS people to configure their VPN servers to accept standard connections (although their knowledge base says otherwise). Now I'm using Apple's integrated VPN client and I'm all webbed up to netpages, but I'll never get those hours of my life back. Thanks, Cisco.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bling crib

I saw the following image of Roger Hiorns' Seizure installation over at Boing Boing and was struck by the beauty of it. The color is nice and I'm sure the artist is challenging perceptions or something, but I love the huge single crystals. I've tried to grow countless crystals for x-ray analysis with very mixed results. People tell me that growing single crystals is more of an art than a science, but one thing of which I am certain is that you need to grow them slowly. That appears to be what the artist did in this case. (It also helps that he wasn't trying to grow air-sensitive organometallic complexes.)

From the photos it appears that the artist waterproofed an apartment in an abandoned building and filled it with 80 kL of hot, saturated copper(II) sulfate (solfato di rame) solution. As the solution cooled, copper(II) sulfate pentahydrate crystallized on every surface in the room. I thought this was timely since I was playing around with copper(II) sulfate today. I dissolved it in water and added sodium carbonate to precipitate copper(II) carbonate. Then I mixed that with excess carbon and heated it in a crucible to smelt metallic copper. Maybe I'll get out the oxygen torch tomorrow and see if I can make silver from that big jar of silver chloride waste in my hood.

More photos can be found here and here.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

You deserved better, Saul

In September, this blog endorsed Saul Tigh and Laura Roslyn for president. Yesterday's defeat is the manifestation of the libelous rumours that the media has so industriously circulated. They have delivered our fleet right into the jaws of the Cylons. Perhaps the Lords have merely given us the leadership we deserve. In any case, I'm too upset to comment further.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Mystery lump

Can you guess what this is?

A) Alien face-hugger pod
B) Cow udder
C) Yam
D) Scrotum

ɔ :ɹәʍsuɐ

Friday, October 31, 2008

Dead man's party

Happy Halloween! When it came to choosing a costume this year, I considered many options. I could have been my evil, mirror-universe self, but I couldn't grow a goatee. I could also have been a mad scientist, but that wouldn't really be a costume. Ultimately I collaborated with Matt and we chose the best costumes ever: our boss.

The boss was a good sport about it. He didn't beat or fire us.
On a different note, I made up some mix tapes for Betty Jo to take to her sister's Halloween party. The totally sweet playlist follows.
Disc 1:
1Dead Man's PartyOingo Boingo
2Cry Little SisterGerard McMann
3People are Strange (Doors cover)Echo and the Bunnymen
4Bad Moon RisingCreedence Clearwater Revival
5The Devil Went Down to Georgia (Charlie Daniels Band cover)Primus
6Somebody's Watching MeRockwell
7GhostbustersRay Parker Jr.
8Don't Fear the ReaperBlue Öyster Cult
9Hungry Like The WolfDuran Duran
10Monster MashMisfits
11Pet Sematary (Single Version)The Ramones
12Psycho KillerTalking Heads
13Devil InsideINXS
14Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)David Bowie
15SuperstitionStevie Wonder
16Tombstone ShadowCreedence Clearwater Revival
17Werewolves of London (Colour of Money)Warren Zevon
18ThrillerMichael Jackson

Disc 2:

1This Is Halloween (Danny Elfman cover)Marilyn Manson
2Bad ThingsJace Everett
4Sympathy For The DevilGuns N' Roses
5HellSquirrel Nut Zippers
6When You're EvilVoltaire
7Bark At The MoonOzzy Osbourne
8Devil's Got a Holda MeColour
9Highway To HellAC/DC
10Murder By NumbersThe Police
11Dead Fish on the BanksThe Goodnight Loving
12Chase the DevilMax Romeo
13Pretend that we're deadL7
14Possum KingdomToadies
15We Must Bury YouKatatonia
16Only To Haunt YouThe Von Bondies
17Red Right HandNick Cave And The Bad Seeds
18Magic DanceDavid Bowie

Disc 3:
1Satan Is My MasterBen Folds Five
2Psycho TherapySkid Row
3I Put A Spell On YouCreedence Clearwater Revival
4The Boogie MonsterGnarls Barkley
5Living Dead GirlRob Zombie
7HalloweenDave Matthews Band
8Hells BellsAC/DC
9Beetle-SnakeDanny Elfman
10Soul DraculaHot Blood
11Weird ScienceOingo Boingo
12Satan Is My MotorCake
13Taste Of BloodMazzy Star
14Mary AnneGWAR
15Walking With A Ghost In Paris (Tegan & Sara vs. Mylo)Party Ben
16AbracadabrSteve Miller Band
17Black Magic WomanSantana
18Oogie Boogie's SongDanny Elfman
19Gonna Kill UGWAR

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Over the rainbow

I was in the lab yesterday drying and distilling some triethylamine for one of my projects. On a whim, I used a crystalizing dish full of copper shot instead of a heating mantle, oil bath, or sand bath. The resulting rainbow of copper brought a little joy into my day. Perhaps there is a lesson about grad school to be learned here... nah.

The rainbow resulted from the different rates of oxidation across the temperature gradient in the dish (~300 °C to 80 °C). There is a more thorough explanation for the phenomina in "Optical characterization of thin thermal oxide films on copper by ellipsometry" Derin, H.; Kantarli, K. Appl. Phys. A 2002, 75, 391–395, DOI: 10.1007/s003390100989

A copper oxide film grown thermally on a copper surface can be distinguished by the color of reflected light from the
copper oxide–copper film system. If the film grown on copper is cuprous oxide (Cu2O), the observed color changes from purple to blue, green, yellow and red depending on oxide thickness. However, cupric oxide (CuO) grown on a copper surface is black... The reflectance spectra in the visible region for the thick copper film and copper oxide–copper structures, for different oxide thicknesses, are shown in Fig. 8. The reflectance minimum that begins to show itself after the first oxidation time shifts towards long wavelengths as the thickness of oxide film increases. The observed colors of these samples changed from green to yellow for the oxide thicknesses given in Fig. 8. These colors arise from the reflectance drop passing a minimum at wavelengths between 4000 and 6000 Å in the reflectance spectrum of the Cu2O–Cu system. If the oxide films were CuO, the reflectance value would be zero for all wavelengths in the visible and therefore all samples of different oxide thickness would be black... The reflectance minima observed in Fig. 8 arise from the destructive interference of rays reflected from the air–copper oxide and copper oxide–copper interfaces.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Professional Development

You might be asking yourself, "Why haven't there been any new posts from that skeptical chemist?" Well, the answer is professional development. Every year, the Department of Chemistry hosts a recruiting event, Sponsors' Day, where the senior graduate students are invited to present posters and résumés for the consideration of invited recruiters. This year, Sponsors' Day lined up with the University's annual career fair. Between the two, the blog had to go on the back burner. Sorry.

The career fair was, as always, a cattle call. All of the employers were looking for engineers or undergrads and I got the feeling that I had educated myself out of the job market. In any case, the winner for coolest employer must have been the Aberdeen Proving Ground. During the description of their work, the recruiter said "blow up" at least four times while standing in front of a video of stuff blowing up. How awesome is that?

Sponsors' Day consisted of me standing next to my poster for three hours while trying to avoid blinding sunlight. The only people that stopped to hear my spiel were two recruiters that had already signed up to interview me. I wondered if I could have saved myself the trouble of making a poster and slept in that day. In the end, it all went pretty well. Nobody noticed that I had written "Colymerization" in my poster title, and I got five screening interviews with some good employers.

The dark horse employer was VWR, which was recruiting PhDs for management and sales positions. I'll admit that the thought of giving up research has occurred to me (and pretty much every PhD candidate that I know), but I'm not sure that I want to give up all this fame and fortune just yet. Seriously though, I imagine that getting back into research or academics would be difficult after a couple of years if I decided that I didn't like management.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Chipmunks' Labor Day Special

While on my way to the Berkey Creamery with Eden, Lisa, and Richard on Monday, we came across a baby chipmunk on the sidewalk. Thinking it was lost, I put it back in the bushes for its mother to find. Unfortunately, we found two more right around the corner, one of which had an open wound. They were old enough that they had their fur and were able to scoot around on the sidewalk, but their eyes weren't open enough to see where they were going. They had all the elements of cuteness: fuzzy, helpless, and tiny with baby proportions! We concluded that their mother had died and they had been driven out by thirst so we gathered them up in my hat and took them to Centre Wildlife Care. My hopes aren't high for the injured one, but I'm sure Robyn and her crew will do their best.

Three orphaned chipmunks in my hat. The wounded one is in the upper-right.

Richard spoke with Robyn and she said that two of the chipmunks died the first day and the third died unexpectedly a few days later. She said that was surprising since they had good luck with baby chipmunks in the past. So it goes.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Tigh for president

Now that the presidential candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties have been finalized, I would like to take a moment to officially announce The Skeptical Chemist's endorsement of a candidate: Saul Tigh.

Looking at the tough issues that face our nation, I feel that Tigh's experience as a veteran of the Cylon war and leader of the fleet makes him the most qualified candidate. I'm confident that the people will agree and elect Tigh in spite of the main-stream media's libelous attempts to assassinate his character by suggesting that he might be a secret Cylon.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

It's always smelly in Philadelphia.

I presented at ACS and all I got was this lousy cold. Well, there was some other stuff too. If you've never been to one, the ACS national meeting consists of thousands of chemists descending on a city to give and attend presentations. More importantly, it's a week of paid vacation in a major city funded through grants where people get to hobnob and peek at their competitors' newest work.

Philadelphia seems like a nice enough city (at least in the heart of the city). The maze of one-way streets was confusing when I tried to drive around and there were spots throughout the area that smelled of raw sewage, but other than that I enjoyed exploring the place.

I presented a poster on my most recent publication in Organometallics this year and everything went smoothly despite the printing SNAFU. I also caught up with Dr. Hepel from Potsdam and found out that she and Dr. Walker will be hosting a regional meeting in 2010. I'll have to go if I'm in the Northeast.

When I wasn't at a meeting session, I was sleeping or eating. I ate at three really good restaurants: Soho Pizza (Market and 2nd), Delilah's (Oprah and Bobby Flay claim that it serves the world's best macaroni and cheese), and Olympic Gyro (Terminal Market). If only there was a place around here where I could get really good pizza, macaroni and cheese, or gyros, I would be so happy. Instead I'm faced with spongy crusts, "world famous" slop (you know who you are), and pre-formed meats. My most adventurous meal was at the Chung King (Arch and 9th). Three of the Chinese students from my group took three of the Americans out for authentic Chinese food instead of that syrupy stuff we usually eat. The menu was almost entirely in Chinese except for unhelpful descriptions of dishes like "chicken." There was also a single page at the back of the menu titled "American Chinese Food" that included anything that Americans would recognize. We ate what was described as dry pot chicken, cumin lamb, hollow stem, and some kind of spicy fish and cabbage dish. They were all delicious and have pretty much ruined American Chinese for for me. At some point, probably while eating the chicken, I accidentally ate what I think was a Szechwan pepper. At first I thought I had eaten lemon grass, but then half of my mouth and tongue went numb. Beef with broccoli never did that! I also ate at one bad restaurant, Crown Chicken. It was late and we were desperate. It reminded me of Cluckin' Bell from Grand Theft Auto. They serve food that only a drunk could love.

Although I didn't get to the Liberty Bell, Constitution [Center/Independence] Hall, or the courthouse [Philadelphia Museum of Art] steps to reenact that scene from Rocky, I did spend a few hours at the Mütter Museum. It was a wonderful collection of medical instruments, wax models and preserved specimens. They had bones showing all manner of injury, deformity, and disease as well as truly horrifying tumors and birth defects. There was even a piece of John Wilkes Booth. If you're at all interested in medicine or history, I would recommend it highly.

While I was riding one of the surprisingly slow ACS shuttle busses, it hit another car and stopped by a blocked street. On that street were a couple of police cars and a large number of onlookers dressed in business suits. Suddenly the people started pointing up at the buildings, people went running across the road and the cars sped around while a cop roped off the road. I got off of the bus to get a better look. It turns out it was a movie shoot. The cars were labelled NYPD and there was a crane and boom operators standing near the center of attention. I've heard of Philadelphia being substituted for New York in movies before. I'm really curious which movie they were filming. I imagine that it is an action/monster/superhero film set in modern New York City.

In this photo you can see the shot being reset. The NYPD cars are being driven back to their starting points near the camera crane under the red lights. The onlookers are in business suits and the cop is collecting the police tape that he'll use to frantically clock off the intersection. More extras will run from the buildings at right, which are the center of attention. City hall is visible in the background.

There are some much better photos of the movie shoot here. It would seem that it is a Bollywood film being shot by Yash Raj Films (the biggest movie studio in India ). The movie is being directed by Kabir Khan and will star Katrina Kaif, John Ibrahim, and Nitin Mukesh. Sadly, it probably isn't Dhoom 3.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Hot pockets... of oil

I was at the grocery store a while ago and I spotted these Pillsbury Toaster Scrambles Pastries: Cheese, Egg & Bacon. I thought to myself, "Wow! Cheese, eggs and bacon from my toaster. Hell yeah!" The back of the box even proclaims "Real Breakfast! Real easy! Real fast!" How could I go wrong?

There a couple of things to notice about the packaging. First, the package shouts "PASTRIES" in tiny letters under "Scramble" in an oddly passive-aggressive way. Why is this? Did someone in the focus group look at the box and open it only to be horrified that it didn't contain scrambled toasters? Second, the box screams "MADE WITH REAL SCRAMBLED EGGS & BACON" and proudly displays eggs and bacon to drive home the point. But what about cheese? A quick look at the ingredients shows the following:

Enriched flour (...), water, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, soybean oil, palm oil, cooked bacon (...), eggs, cream cheese (...), egg yolk, glycerin, corn starch. Contains 1% or less of salt, sodium caseinate, dry yeast, sodium phosphate, dextrose, cheddar cheese (...), egg white with sodium lauryl sulfate, dried whey, maltodextrin, lactose, nonfat dry milk, lactic acid, modified corn starch, citric acid, titanium dioxide, spice, sodium stearoyl lactylate, autolyzed yeast extract, guar gum, mono and diglycerides, potassium sorbate and TBHQ (preservatives), dipotassium phosphate, xanthan gum, enzyme modified parmesan cheese (...), natural flavor. Colored with yellow 5 and yellow 6.

Cream cheese is the ninth ingredient (not counting the many constituents of flour and bacon) and 1% or less of cheddar cheese. In fact, these little guys contain three times more oil than eggs or cheese. They also contain less cheddar cheese than glycerine or trans-fat. The most interesting ingreedient on the list is sodium lauryl sulfate, which is an emulsifier/foaming agent that suppresses the tongue's sweet receptors and makes orange juice taste nasty after brushing your teeth. I'm all for better living through chemistry, but yuck. Also, sodium caseinate and autolyzed yeast extract are sources of MSG.

But how do they taste? In a word, disappointing. The first bite was pretty good and did taste like bacon and eggs. It reminded me of an Egg McMuffin. However, by the end of each pastry, I was feeling pretty grossed out by the slimy, greasy consistency of the filling. After eating five of these little guys (over five days), I never want to eat another.

Friday, August 15, 2008

No poster for you. Next!

Today I was trying to print a poster for the ACS meeting in Philadelphia and I learned a couple of things about how the HP DesignJet 600ps handles errors.

First of all, the department has a lousy print queue for this shared machine. It's connected (via the network) to a Windows machine and shared via Windows Printer Sharing. It requires a username/password so that users can be billed. However, it does not work with Apple machines even though a large fraction of the users have them. Also, there is no way to see if a job has been queued or check your status in the queue or cancel a pending job. It is truly fire-and-forget.

Anyway, I queued my print job at 11:30 AM and waited four hours for my turn. The printer ran out of paper about three inches from the end of my poster. Damn. The printer was fed a new roll of paper and began reprinting the job. However, after about four inches, it stopped mid-stroke and spit out the sliver of poster. I don't get it.

I waited another four hours in the queue for a second copy. Again, only inches from the end, the printer ran out of magenta ink. Instead of prompting me for ink and waiting for a fresh cartridge, the printer spat out my incomplete poster. How is that in any way appropriate?

By this time it was 8:30 PM and there was no way to get into the supplies cabinet so I went home. Fortunately, I have an old version of the poster than I can take with me. I'm guessing that when I get back from Philadelphia a pristine copy of my poster and bills for three posters will be waiting for me.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

My day as a (dead) bee keeper

On my way to work this morning I noticed scores of dead and dying bees on the sidewalks. I might not have noticed on any other day, but today I walked past the elms near Old Main. I was rather concerned since colony collapse disorder is in the news and I had never seen so many bees. I contacted Maryann Frazier, the Entomology department's Senior Extension Associate (person that works with the public). I noted that I had seen elm spraying warnings on some trees yesterday and that might be the cause. She was also concerned and asked me to collect samples of the bees for pesticide analysis.

Armed with two Ziploc bags and some old SEM sample tweezers, I retraced my steps and collected all the dead and dying bees I could find. The first thing that struck me when I started looking was the scope of the problem. Many varieties of insects were laying on their backs, struggling weakly to move. Bumblebees were the most affected by far, but I also collected assorted wasps, june bugs, lady beetles, assorted flies, cicadas (which might have been dying of natural causes) and even a cockroach. After about an hour of searching, the bee bag was filled to half capacity with buzzing, twitching casualties. I would estimate over a hundred. The other bag was a quarter full of miscellaneous writhing, clicking victims. I got quite a few stares and inquiries about why I was walking around campus with open bags full of live, stinging insects. It was a little fun to play bug hunter for a day, but the plight of the bees was thoroughly depressing.

I observed the density of bee corpses around campus and found that under the elm trees near Ritenour and McAllister there were dozens of bees and other insects. The area under the elms near Old Main were similarly affected. However, where there were no elms, along College Ave. and Shortlidge Road, there were only a handful of bodies. The exception on Shortlidge Road was a single elm next to the Grange building which had a spraying warning sign and dying bees including one that fell from the tree while I was collecting them. The smoking gun.

I froze the specimens and reported my findings to Maryann when she came to pick them up. She contacted the arborists and it seems that the elms had been sprayed with a pesticide that she described as being harsh on bees. She promised to contact me when this is all sorted out.

As sad as it is to see so many dead bees, I can understand the University's decision to use the pesticides on the elms. The bee and other insect populations will recover, but the elms are among the last of their kind. If Dutch elm disease or Elm yellows disease kill those trees, there are none to replace them. So the next time you enjoy some honey, stop for a second and pour one out for your home-bees. (I apologize for both the pun and the trivialization of gang violence).

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Landlord of the lost

My landlord has pissed me off again. So I'm going to do the most effective thing possible in this situation and rant about it on the internet. This will show him a thing or two!

This afternoon (Saturday), I returned from the store and found my landlord's truck parked across two reserved spaced including my own. This wouldn't be a big deal except that he always parks his truck like that while he's working. I guess the huge spot in front of his workshop isn't convenient enough for him. Anyway, I went upstairs and opened my door to hear the sound of my window falling out of its frame. The two pull-tabs that allow it to be tilted out for cleaning had snapped off again. I have had to have every tab in every window replaced twice in the time that I have lived here. The tabs are made of plastic and are surprisingly brittle, but they are easy to replace and there is an unlimited supply of replacements since the windows came with a lifetime warranty. Since I had just seen his truck, I called my landlord, let's call him Bill, in the hopes of getting a quick fix. The call went to voicemail so I just hung up. A few minutes later I get a call back from Bill that went something like this.

Me: Hey, Bill. Are you in the building? I saw your truck outside.
Bill: Nah, I just had to leave my truck there and have somebody pick me up.
Me: Ok, well, my window just fell out of it's frame and I need some more of those window tabs.
Bill: (In an exasperated tone) You broke another set of those tabs?
Me: I guess I did. Could you or someone else come over on monday and take a look at it?
Bill: What time is good for you?
Me: I don't need to be here for it so anytime is fine.
Bill: (Sarcastically) Maybe I could send someone over at like 8 am. Where do you live?
Me: [gives address]
Then he hung up. I think he was drunk.

I was taken aback by the exasperated tone of his voice that doesn't really come through in the transcript. Like I'm such a huge burden in his life. This is business. We have a deal. I wish I had thought of a witty reply at the time like, "Maybe they wouldn't break so often if you bought windows that didn't suck." or "I figured you were here on an emergency call since you parked in my spot." I really need to work on snappy replies. I thought that I would take a picture of his truck in my spot for this post, but he had driven off in the half hour since I had gotten home. Was he drinking in the basement the whole time or is he some kind of landlord ninja? My money is on the former.

I doubt he'll remember my request. Getting the last window fixed took a year. Before that, I went two years without heat because he was too inept to fix the boiler and too cheap to hire someone who could. At one point, he told me to open the oven and use the broiler to heat the house. Before that, he waited so long to replace the washers in our drippy sink that the problem went from a drip to a trickle to a stream of scalding hot water. My bathroom was perpetually filled with steam and the trap on the sink rotted out. Even with all of that, every year he jacks up the rent and gives asinine excuses so that he can put a $200,000 expansion on his house and go big game hunting in Australia. My favorite excuse was when he said we should pay more than our neighbors because two people use more heat.

If I could hate him to death, I would. But, until I develop super powers, I can at least savor the Schadenfreude that I get knowing that living his life is a never-ending punishment. He's a spineless, miserable, little man who spends all of his time escaping from his wife. I've seen him in the basement drinking late at night. To add insult to his injury, he can't even take solace in the success of the business since it isn't his. He married into the family business and serves at the pleasure of his mother-in-law. She and her husband built the business and she has run a tight ship. Bill has been her bitch for as long as he has worked here. It is only in the last two years that he has risen up to co-manager. I'm sure that it hurts him deeply to live under the thumb of two women that he can't stand. Delicious.

Bill didn't remember to fix my windows. He also called about another matter and was incoherent when I called him back. He hung up on me that time too. Shocking.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reapers of the Park (part 1 of 2)

On last last Friday (July 18th), Eden and I drove to Niagara Falls, ON for a meatspace get-together with her gaming guild, The Reapers. Although I'm not a member, I was able to use my connections to secure one of the highly coveted invitations.

The drive to Canada was uneventful except for when we got lost. Not once or twice, but three times. Two of those times I can blame on Google Maps' overly simplified directions, but the third had something to do with an adult novelty shop and a construction site. Having lost only an hour, we passed through what I hope was the worst part of Buffalo and over the Peace bridge into Canada. We were a bit concerned that things might have changed in the eight years since we last crossed the border and that we would have a hard time explaining the cooler packed with dry ice. However, the Canadian border guards were still as cool as before, even when I fumbled the standard questions.

We met up with the gang and headed to Clifton Hill and the falls. Niagara Falls is the quintessential tourist trap. Core attractions ringed with eateries and souvenir shops and surrounded by a sea of motels. I couldn't seem to find the Wonderfalls store although I'm sure it must have been there somewhere. I did, however, see a liberal sprinkling of Cuban cigar outlets, gentlemen's clubs, adult novelty shops and massage parlors. The place really speaks volumes about the American tourists' interests. As sketchy as this all was, I only found one element distasteful. A street performer was there, all clad in gold with a golden Elvis mask. He was neither an Elvis impersonator nor a human statue, but he was doing a steady business exchanging golden beads and photo opportunities for donations. Have some pride in your work, man! We walked through the carnival that is Clifton Hill and took in the fireworks over the falls before turning in for the night.

On Saturday, we readied ourselves for the full Niagara Falls experience with a free continental breakfast and the raspberry pie that I had secreted across the border packed in dry ice (thanks to Ben and Chris for helping with the berry harvest). We started with the tropical butterfly conservatory. It was surprisingly impressive. I had expected to see some pretty butterflies, but I had never before seen butterflies of such size or number. After an accidental stroll through the botanical gardens in the rain, we refueled with some of Lisa's delicious poppyseed muffins. I'm sure they looked great before being smashed in our packs. I also briefly considered the scenario of being drug tested at the border. I'm sure it would have ended with a cavity search.

Our hunger satiated, we then headed to the falls to ride the Maid of the Mist. The idea of riding a boat near the falls to get sprayed with water from Lake Erie seemed a little corny, but the experience exceeded my expectations. When the falls are consuming your full field of vision, the magnitude of the spectacle is overwhelming. As we were pelted with stinging droplets, we debated whether it was advantageous or not to have glasses.

Finally, we did the walk behind the falls. Although not as impressive as the Maid of the Mist, it was still a sight worth seeing. I was a bit disappointed with the portals behind the falls. Somehow, a window onto a wall of grey water wasn't as exciting as I had hoped, but what should I have expected to see behind a gigantic wall of water if not a wall of water?

We wrapped up the day with dinner at Tim Horton's and washed off the stinking residue of Lake Erie before hanging around and grilling some burgers. Eating at Timmy Ho's might not be the apex of fine dining, but I was pretty stoked to finally try an icon of Canadian culture. I thought it was totally sweet to get soup and a donut served on real plates and a silver platter. Overall, I had a great day at the falls. I got to meet up with old friends, eat pie for breakfast and see a natural wonder. I passed on the Cuban cigars.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Good riddance to Cereality™

I read in the Daily Collegian that Cereality, the cereal bar, is closing up shop in State College. I was filled with a great sense of Schadenfreude upon hearing of their misfortune. I assure you that my spiteful feelings are not due to Cereality's cutesy image or laughable prices. In fact, my scorn is due entirely to the companies use of their asinine business process patent applications to hinder their competitors. In my opinion, they are symptomatic of the US patent system.

The Cereality patent applications (11/119,336; 11/518,374 and 11/078,686) describe systems that will seem very familiar to anyone that has ever been to a college dining hall. Some of my favorite claims include:
4. The quick-serve restaurant of claim 1 wherein the carry-out containers include leak-proof, paperboard containers.
6. The quick-serve restaurant of claim 1, further comprising a self-serve milk station configured to dispense at least two different types of milk.
11. The quick-serve restaurant of claim 1, further comprising at least one viewing screen configured to show animated cartoon features for viewing by the customers.
Of course, there is one claim that seems genuinely novel:
12. The quick-serve restaurant of claim 1, further comprising a cereal bar maker for making cereal bars containing customer-selected ingredients.
but, as far as I can tell, that isn't the one being used to intimidate competitors.

Ultimately, I think that their expansion will be hampered by a weak business model as shown in the Collegian article. They're leasing retail space just like any other restaurant, but their product is strongly perceived as a breakfast-only food. Also, once the novelty wears off, who is going to pay restaurant prices for a bowl of cereal? Unlike a traditional restaurant, it seems that it would be trivial for any person to reproduce their products at home.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Isn't it ironic?

One of my pet peeves is the abuse of the term "ironic." Sometimes I'm not even sure if I or anyone else really knows exactly what irony is. However, when I saw this article in The Record from Mahwah, New Jersey, I was hopeful that we could all just get along.

"A malfunctioning smoke detector started a fire Thursday in a Franklin Crossings condominium, police said... "

Of course, the beautiful thing about the English language is that if people misuse a word enough, it takes on that new meaning. It's a self-correcting system.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Dark dungeons

For the past few weeks, I've been listening to a weekly podcast from Wizards of the Coast in which Scott Kurtz, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (writer/artist for PvP, Tycho Erasmus Brahe of Penny Arcade, and John "Gabe" Gabriel of Penny Arcade, respectively) play a game D&D with a professional dungeon master using the new fourth edition rules. Scott and Jerry haven't played in a long time and it's Mike's first D&D game, but the DM is a total pro and leads them along smoothly. I'm having a lot of fun listening to them cracking jokes while they learn to crack skulls in the new rule set. It's almost enough to make me want to break out my dice and play again. I had some good times playing D&D back in college, but things got weird and I gave it up. I guess it all depends on finding a good group to game with.

The first six segments are online now and the last two should be up in the next two weeks. There's some salty language, so these may not be safe for work.

Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3
Episode 4
Episode 5
Episode 6
Episode 7
Episode 8

Friday, July 04, 2008

Blood, sweat and tarts

Today, the fourth of July, can mean only one thing: wild raspberry picking. Eden and I spent three hours in Walnut Springs Park picking delicious black raspberries. The wet spring weather has led to an excellent berry season and today's weather was perfect for picking: cool and overcast. So while the rest of America scarfed beer and hot dogs, we were neck-deep in thorns and brush. By the end of the day, we had collected two liters of berries and turned one of them into a delicious pie. We plan to go back in the next two weeks as the rest of the berries ripen and our arms heal.

Sweeps week

July sweeps week is upon us, but with a difference this year. Our home was picked as a Nielsen ratings home. It's a bit like television jury duty and a wonderful opportunity for me to keep obsessively detailed records about a trivial task! Seriously, I enjoy this sort of thing. I used to keep spreadsheets of all my income and spending down to the change that I found on the street. I eventually gave that up when the resulting graphs started making me depressed. Hooray for grad school?

The Nielsen people sent us $30, cash, to keep a log for each television and record who, when and what was watched. It even has a column to mark if the television is on with nobody watching it. They've been super serious about making sure that we fill out this little book. Before it arrived, I got a post card telling me that it was about to arrive. Then, after it arrived, I got a post card reminding me to start recording on Thursday. Then, on Thursday, I got a call from a representative reminding me to start recording. I'm starting to wonder if they'll send some hired goons over to check on my progress.

My only reservation about the system is that it doesn't really reflect the way that I watch a lot of programming. There is an akward way to note that a show was time-shifted with a VCR or DVR so long as recording and viewing take place within the week of interest. However, there is no way to indicate that I watched a show if I didn't get it from the local cable/broadcast provider. For example, if I was a huge fan of American Gladiators and wanted to also watch Gladiators UK and Gladiators Australia I would have to download it from the BitTorrent network. There is no way to indicate that I'm trying to watch shows that are not available from my local provider. The same thing applies if I were to use BitTorrent instead as a DVR. Also, the instructions say that I shouldn't write down any shows that I watch using a computer with a tuner card, but that I should write down when I use my television as a computer monitor. All this strikes me as asinine and leads me to believe that Nielsen is in some way responsible for the schizophrenic/ignorant/anachronistic approach that big media is taking when dealing with the internet. For example, Viacom is letting people watch the Daily Show and South Park for free on their website while simultaneously suing YouTube for one billion dollars for not screening out those same clips. Madness.

Nielsen also has a rating program for the record companies. Don't even get me started on those monsters.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Farewell to Beaver and Steve

One of my favorite web comics, James Turner's The Unfeasible Adventures of Beaver and Steve, has come to an end of sorts. It's been put on indefinite hiatus while James works on Super Animal Adventure Squad, which probably means that we won't be seeing any more of our mismatched heroes.

I really enjoyed having the wholesome adventures of Beaver and Steve as a part of my regular web comic reading ritual. The strip was written as a series of short stores without much continuity, so it's definitely still worth a read if you have some time. There are even merch and books available.

Traveling chemistry show

On Friday, I woke up at 2:30 AM and drove to Cleveland for the PINO 2008 conference at Case Western Reserve University. Rong and Shikchya from my lab also made the trip. I presented a poster on my latest manuscript, "Copolymerization of ethene with functional styrenes, methyl vinyl ketone and vinylcyclohexane using a (phosphine-sulfonate)palladium(II) catalyst" Organometallics 2007, in press, DOI: 10.1021/om800237r

Despite my handsome poster and sharp suit, there really wasn't much interest in my research. Out of approximately ninety attendees, only three stopped to ask me about my project. Either my work is really boring or the people there weren't really interested in catalysis. Bradley Coltrain from Kodak was super nice and complimented my work, which made me feel a little better. Ultimately, the conference amounted to me driving for eight hours and standing around in a hot suit. I think that my poster needs some zazz before the ACS conference in Philadelphia.

I had never been to Ohio before and had heard nothing but rust-belt horror stories. I was pleasantly surprised by Cleveland. It looked like a pretty hip town. Even the run-down part around Lee Street didn't look too bad. Sadly, I didn't have the time or energy to take Matt's suggestion that I go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have my photo taken next to a sculpture of Bootsy Collins.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Office 2008 12.1.1 update

It looks like the boys down at Microsoft's MBU may have addressed the maddening bug that I mentioned in Lisa's blog, Nocerosity. The bug's description is pretty vague, but one can hope.

Spaces between words are preserved.
This update fixes an issue that causes spaces between words to be lost when you open a document that was created in or saved by Word 2008 for Mac or by Microsoft Office Word 2007.

This cropped up when the boss and I were passing a Word document back and forth between Word 2008 and Word 2007. I got the revised manuscript back and random paragraphs had been marked as German and lots of spaces were missing. Not every paragraph was affected and none of the contractions made sense, even in German. Most of the errors were numbers being contracted with words, even when separated by punctuation. For example "J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2006" was changed to "J. Am. Chem. Soc.2006". However, the contraction didn't always occur under the same circumstances. Also, the spelling and grammar checking didn't flag the errors so it could easily have gone undetected if I didn't proof read it again. The error also affected the cover letter that he wrote on his own computer.

As if that wasn't bad enough, all of this was after Office 2008 Service Pack 1 caused Word to crash every time I opened the manuscript. The solution to that was to open the document in Office 2007 and re-save it. This sort of file corruption shenanigans has persuaded me to write my thesis in LaTeX.

In the mean time, I'd like to know why I get this error when I try to paste an image from Word to PowerPoint.

Monday, June 23, 2008

I wonder why the wonder falls on me

When I was reading today's PVP strip from Scott Kurtz, I noticed that the characters were standing in front of the Wonderfalls store at Niagra Falls. I sent an email to Scott and he confirmed that it was a reference to the show.

If you haven't seen Wonderfalls, you should. It's available through NetFlix. It was funny, well acted and smartly written. Although it only ran for one season, the writers managed to wrap the plot up in a satisfying way before it was cancelled.

First post!

Not too long ago, it dawned upon me that I was, quite possibly, the last person on the Earth that didn't have one of these fancy new Internet web logs. I said to myself, "Dave, if children, dogs and viral marketing campaigns all have their own blogs, why don't you?" It seemed like a sound argument, so I set to work on the most important part of any Internet endeavor: a good name. I considered Web 2.0 names like Daveulator, Dave-O-Matic and, but they just weren't catchy enough. So I did what all great writers do and tried to borrow an idea. My first thought was of Robert Boyle's seminal text, The Sceptical Chymist. I am both a chemist and skeptical so I thought it would be an excellent choice. However, that name was already taken and I though that the full title, The Sceptical Chymist or Chymico-Physical Doubts & Paradoxes, would make for a very long URL. Then it dawned upon me that whereas Robert Boyle is a very old, dead chymist, I am a modern chemist and I should, therefore, use a more modern spelling. Thus, I arrived at the title you see today.

As you might have guessed by now, I have no thoughts of merit to post. Nor do I have any plans for this web log's future scope or direction. Oops.

Finally, I swear that this will be only time that I ever sully the internet with the words, "first post." However, it seemed appropriate in this context. I can't make the same promise about other Internet memes which may infect me at some future date.