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.