A Few Nice Dinners

A few nice dinners I have been out to in the past few weeks. Two Fridays ago was Hammersley's Bistro in the South End with Bird and Jen. Despite living in Boston for over a decade, I've never been there. We split the wilted radicchio with orange, apple, almond and date salad (pomegranate-yogurt dressing); I had the eastern halibut and Wellfleet clams with giant white beans, bacon braised greens and black trumpet mushrooms. Jen had one of the Hammersley's standards: roast chicken with garlic, lemon and parsley, shown below:

Apologies for the quality of the cell phone photo--for all you can tell, it might as well be a burn victim autopsy. With a parsley garnish.

Anyway, it was a really nice evening out. I love exploring restaurants--I drive a 15 year old car, have a rent that's far below the recommended 25-30% of income limit, rarely take a vacation with real expenses (vs. crashing at friends' places and camping), and I live far below my means in other ways. But nice dinners out are one place where I'm totally willing to splurge, once in a while.

Last night (Friday) was Asmara (Ethiopian in Central Square) with Bird, JMD, and Speedbump, who was in town for a conference. More for my own memory, we had three awesome dishes: Gored Gored (Raw beef!! And butter! Awesome! Cubes of tenderloin tips served raw or very rare in Awaze and butter dip; awaze is a spicy sauce made with different kinds of herbs), Yemisik 'Wot'-Bersen (lentils in a hot or mild sauce--really yummy), and Gomen 'Wot' Tesbhiamli (collard greens or kale with potatoes in a mild sauce; it was actually spinach that night). Incidentally, in my google searching, a highly rated Ethiopian place in the Bay Area (South Bay, San Jose) was Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant--next trip, perhaps.

Anyway, speaking on random crap on the web, in my search for images of Gored gored, I ended up at a website called Dr. Danger: Unlike many other 'extreme sports' sites which report on activities from the sidelines, at DoctorDanger.com we actively participate in sports and then do our best to give you a true reflection of what the sport is really like and provide useful information such as how to get started, links to schools, tips on how to survive and so on.

They had a section on running with the bulls in Pamplona, showing what life threatening injuries are likely. Damn... seems a bit nutty to me--"Why yes, I want to run on the street with out-of-control hydraulic-press-power-levels attached to sharp pointy things!" Based on the injury locations, it seems like doing the competition with a prison stab vest and a helmet might be a good idea, if they don't slow you down too much.

Anyway, I really love being in town--I can just skip out Friday evening, and meet up in half an hour in the city. I just figure I'm lucky, here.


Um... has this been a problem??

I just got myself a new toy that I have had on my "buy when I have an income" list for ages now--a NAS (network attached storage) box. After extensive research (well, actually, just checking out what got top ratings at various online reviews), I went with a Buffalo Technology LinkStation Pro™--I got the 500 GB gigabit ethernet model for $280 at Amazon. Man... Moore's law kicks some serious ass.

Anyway, as I unpacked it, a photocopied warning card was in the documentation:

Um... has this been a problem they've been experiencing regularly? Oy...

Anyway, it seems to totally work, right out of the box. I'm always amazed when stuff like this happens with computer equipment. It's pretty quiet--it's sitting in the living room shelf; it makes a bit more noise when the drive is being accessed, but not much. Also, I've run SyncToy from all three of my machines, to back up and synchronize files to the latest versions--it seems pretty damn slick (another case of, "Wow... crap... it worked!")

However, I had to solve some network problems before connecting my new laptop to the NAS. It could see the internet and shared iTunes folders, but not shared files on other Windows machines. It turns out that Norton Internet Security (firewall) was the culprit, in case this fact is useful to anyone else Googling for these problems (keywords: Windows XP, workgroup, file sharing, firewall, Norton, broken-ass). This took several iterations and much annoyance to figure out. Man... I really hate "I'm-going-to-be-smarter-than-you-nyaa-nyaa"-ware.



Don't know if any of the non-Boston crowd has any interest in what the snow that came in yesterday looks like, but here's a series of shots from my office window, over the course of the day.

Spent some time shoveling this morning--it's pretty dense wet stuff, with an icy crust (it turned to sleet/freezing rain late last night). However, temperatures are hovering a bit above freezing during the day, so combined with the limited solar gain (dammit, why doesn't wunderground.com have solar radiation in W/m^2?!), the streets, cleared sidewalks, and cars are clearing off pretty well.

This is all ridiculous, considering that on Wednesday, I was walking around with my sleeves rolled up (high of 68 F/20 C). Climate instability? What climate instability? [smirk]

Cooking Lessons

Even though I have pretty much taken over the kitchen here at JMD's place, she does cook some of the time. She made crock pot potroast on Thursday, and we had it on Friday. She wanted a few suggestions on how to make a gravy from the pan drippings/juice, and I instructed her how to make a basic pan gravy. Fat + flour + heat = roux--therefore, I present to you, roux by DeRoo!

Dinner was yummy... and there are leftovers too!


Back on the Job

This post was meant as an update after my first week back at work, but my weekend was occupied with software installs and biking to Micro Center. Photo-filled and long-winded post ensues.

So I'm back working full time now! Just to answer the first question on everyone's mind: no, the thesis isn't done yet. It's actually ridiculously close now--I need to finish a few more pages of conclusions and the abstract. But I pretty much haven't a block of time for that in the past week plus. I'm really glad that I gave myself February to grind through most of the writing.

Anyway, the job itself is going well. I got back into the groove of things pretty quickly, and I'm getting a pile of assignments. It's on the borderline of "Yay, I'm useful!" and "Uh oh, this is going to kick my ass very quickly." I already mentioned one of the field investigations I ran; I'll talk about the other below.

The office is in a great location--just outside of Porter Square. I know it's goofy, but it makes me happy to have this view of the city out my window.

It makes me immensely happy that I can just walk five minutes, and be at Anna's Taqueria, or Porter Exchange (udon for lunch below):

Dude! Curry udon with tempura shrimp for lunch! Awesome! This is especially true because our old office out on 495 had a choice of the pizza/sub shop that you had to drive to, and, um, well, that was about it. Hey, if folks want to do drinks after work around Porter (or anywhere in Red Line land), let me know! I haven't been to Christopher's since I've come back.

The commute is a vast improvement from the 495 office as well. A quick ride on the bus plus walking, or a short bike ride (partially on the Minuteman Trail). I managed to avoid getting doored today, riding on Elm through Davis.

My office itself is super nice; it's a room in a newly renovated house--I managed to set it up in the first few days. Furnishings provided by Pol Pottery Barn.

I also set up the Executive Sandbox that was a present from JMD. And my new business card case from A is in my desk. My friends are awesome.

Anyway, back to the other field investigation I've been on recently: it was out on 495, pretty near U5 and Rebecca's place, so I went there for dinner after the job. The logistics worked out very nicely--another thing that makes me happy about being back in town. Actually, it worked very well both socially and work-wise: I set up some measurement equipment to run at the site overnight, and collected it in the morning (after crashing out at U5 & Rebecca's). A funny anecdote though: I started describing the building to them, and U5 asked, "Is there a restaurant and a furniture store there?" "Well, yeah." "We just had dinner there the other night." Wacky. I'm glad to report that I got to wander through the kitchen during my investigation, and there was nothing at all to cause alarm.

Every once in a while, I realize, as I'm walking around the streets and catch a glimpse of the Hancock or the Pru: "I'm back in Boston! Really! Woo!" And I get to head to a conference down at the Seaport World Trade Center tomorrow--bus to Red Line to walk (or perhaps Silver Line). Too cool.


A Gig on the Cape

I've been meaning to post an update on how returning to work has been going (overall: pretty good)--I have a large draft that I haven't finshed yet. In the meanwhile, here is a quick story on the job I did yesterday.

My former employer has put me right back to work after returning last Monday. I did a field investigation last Tuesday, and I had another one yesterday, down on the Cape. Believe it or not, in all the time I've lived in MA, I've never actually been down to the Cape.

First was the 2.5 hour drive down there, via I-93, Route 3, and Route 6. This was I-93 into Boston during rush hour... stop and go traffic, but I'm guessing that the Big Dig made conditions a little less miserable than before. As a side note: why do people slog through highway traffic every day?? It's not like the presence of traffic is a surprise or anything. I know that I couldn't deal with sitting in this on a daily basis. Ugh.. gotta have those lawns, or good schools, or whatever is appealing out there in SprawlAmerica. Oh well. What was especially disturbing was to see how empty the HOV/carpool lane was: two or more occupants. Holy cow... so all of these schlubs who are driving in the bulk of traffic are driving alone? Remember, When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden. This seems like a major argument for European-price-level gasoline.

The investigation went pretty well. I lucked out, because it was a gorgeous day for this trip (sunny, high in the 50s). Since the site was right on the beach, I had to take a 15 minute break on the way out to go wading in the ocean:

In case you're wondering, the water was really cold. Note quite freezing temperatures, but I could only take 30 seconds to a minute in the water at a stretch--check out these water temperatures around Cape Cod. It reminds me of those stories about how boaters have an X minute survival window after falling overboard in these waters. Yes, coastal Californians should feel free to gloat right now.

The drive back up was uneventful, except for the fact that I handled three cell phone calls on the hands-free headset on the way. I've gotten used to being an unimportant grad student, who does not need to be reached all that urgently. Yeez... I must be turning important again or something ;).

Anyway, off to work. Biking in to the office today! Woot!


BatBook III !!!

Actually, this is a combination of talking about my new machine, and some ranting about Windows.

I started to set up my new laptop machine over this weekend; it is the third one to bear the BatBook moniker. Fortunately, BatBook II (my 4-1/2 year old laptop) has held out long enough to finish what I needed to do this week; my new machine arrived on Monday, but it's taken me to the weekend to have a chunk of time to deal with software installation & setup.

I've installed Windows 2000 multiple times (including rebuilds on several machines)--part of the pain is to unbreak all of the stupid default settings in both Windows and Office. One thing that has always annoyed me is any of the adaptive menus--i.e., place the most recently used applications (in XP) or commands (in Office) at the top. I am very visually oriented, so I want Format -> Change Case... in the same place I am used to. To me, this system is analogous to somebody "helping" you in the kitchen, and while cleaning up, piling everything you used that day in the top drawer.

I realized what this system is really for. My judgement, when I am feeling less charitable than average, is that it is for people who are too incompetent, lazy, or uninterested to organize their desktop and/or Start Menu in an efficient manner. I know that I can look at my applications and figure out which ones will be used the most often, with some concessions to basic organization (all of certain types of applications go together, etc). I've never understood how people could not modify the way that the Start menu is normally configured by software installations. E.g., all applications are installed inside hierarchical folders, therefore, in terms of number of levels, something used as often as Adobe Acrobat would have the same number of steps down the tree structure as "Uninstall MumblyFelch Pro" or "Readme File for DoofusWare 2.0"

And don't get me started on software that automatically installs its icon on the desktop. Get your stupid-ass icon off of my screen, you self-important arrogant piece of shit installer.

Fortunately, you can turn off these features. And that's what I've been doing. Also, for Windows users who don't have this installed, I strongly recommend TweakUI (as in Tweak User Interface)--it's a Microsoft Power Toy. I especially recommend disabling AutoRun--I hate the way inserting a Flash drive pops up a new window (what do you want me to do?). Also, disabling the path that RootKit CDs work is a plus. I am also planning on playing with SyncToy, which seems like a promising way to keep files on multiple machines synchronized... I'll let you know.

The other step I had to do was to transfer my files over. I wasn't looking forward to moving tens of gigs over a network. Fortunately, I have an external laptop IDE drive enclosure, so I could just pop out the hard drive of my old machine, connect it to my new laptop, and shuffle the files over. I love it when stuff like this actually works. In terms of bitrate, USB 2.0 >> 802.11g.

Adolescent Lettuce

No real significance here; I was just wandering through Whole Foods one day, and got a chuckle out of the produce:

Am I the only one who has a mental image of some lettuce giving an eyeroll--Ughh... daad, like, I don't hang out with Belgian Endive anymore... he is, like, so lame.. that pale freak. Me and Kale are heading to the mall later... no, we're just, like, hanging out...


New Lapto.... oh

My laptop computer has been limping along for a while, which is not bad considering that I've had it since September 2002 (holy crap... 4.5 years old... ancient for a computer.) I have chronicled the problems and part replacements on my blog; see "The Laptop of Theseus." However, it is currently on its last legs--it does not power up consistently now--I hit the power switch, I hear the startup fan kick on, but I don't get the "beep" or the BIOS screen. I can sometimes get it to start up if I unplug it and torque the case a bit, so I have just been leaving it powered up full time now.

Fortunately, I am returning to work with my former employer, and they are generous enough to buy me a new machine. So I ordered a new Fujitsu--I decided to stick with them, since my advisor and chief grad students have had no problems with theirs, and more importantly, I decided to get the three year extended warranty. I placed the order on the web on Monday. On Friday at 10 PM, I got confirmation that it had shipped. Yay! I figured it would be here in a few days, so I checked the tracking info:

Oh. Yikes. I had no idea they were shipping all the way from Japan. Oh well... I guess I'll see it whenever it shows up.

Incidentally, they included a free ZEN Nano 512MB MP3 player with the order (it was either that or an inkjet printer/scanner). Any idea for a good use for it? I already have an (old-school ghetto 10 GB) iPod, a 1 GB media card on my BlackBerry Pearl, and many CDRs of MP3s for my car stereo. Huh... no FM tuner, which would have been useful for listening to WBUR on the bus. Oh well.


A Little Home Civil Engineering Project

As I was working this morning, I heard JMD exclaim from downstairs, "Aw, crap!" Picture = 1K words, so to save space:

Yeah... basement flood time--lots of rain today (not freezing rain--once again, I'm thankful for the balmy east coast climate). The flooding wasn't too bad--it was contained to a portion of the basement, and everything we have down there is up on pallets or in plastic bins. But it was pretty cool to check out the spot where you could see water actively trickling out of a hole in the wall:

As a digression, since I'm interested in this topic:

Lesson 1: Basements flood.

As one of my coworkers once put it, "Why does it surprise anyone that you build a hole in the ground, and it fills with water?" Also, according to an insurance industry anecdote I've heard, 50% of basements flood to a depth of 1" or more over their lifetime. So that's why you should take measures (like pallets & Rubbermaid) when storing things in the basement. If you want to build a media room or library in the basement, there's a whole slew of work that I'd want to do before feeling even slightly comfortable with the concept (sump pit with backup pump, possibly exterior drainage mat if it can be retrofitted, or alternately an interior footing drain connected to a sump). If anyone's interested, I have some scanned articles I can email out on this topic.

Incidentally, cardboard boxes on concrete floor=total death. Even without floods, the concrete slab (if there is no polyethylene sheet of plastic under the slab) is likely to have some water coming through it at a slow rate. For instance, when you lift up a piece of rubber mat from a floor slab, and see a damp spot underneath--that's what's going on. In addition, a cardboard box functions as thermal insulation, creating a cold spot underneath--therefore, a greater likelihood of condensation. Another reason to keep everything up on pallets (air space -> no longer insulating).

Lesson 2: Basement Flood Prevention

If you have a basement flood, the first and obvious thing is to walk around the house while it is raining, and see where the rainwater is going. That's how to solve the majority of these problems. Disconnected or missing gutters and downspouts, water pooling around the base of the wall, ground graded towards the house instead of away, improperly drained window wells, melting snow--all of these can dump huge amounts of water into the basement. Philosophically, think of the ground as a roof extending out around your house, shedding water off it--if you have a leak through your roof, the wall's probably going to get wet.

I'd like to emphasize that finding and stopping these bulk water problems is the first and most important step. I don't think that any magic paint or sealant is worthwhile until you exhaust these big problems--they're not going to stand a chance against this much water.

In our case, the flood was being caused by the load of ice at the side of the house--water was pooling within/underneath it. It didn't help that we had a nice rainwater concentrator (read: downspout) right near there. FYI, the leak was located in line with the left hand side of the window.

So, using that lesson of "water runs downhill" (man... I knew that Civil Engineering Master's education would come in handy sometime), I realized that I had to cut a canal through the ice downhill to the driveway. By the time I had uncovered the bottom of the splash block, there was about 2" of standing water pooled there. Time to excavate...

I felt like I was chopping out a tiny version of the Gaillard Cut, but without the malaria (argh... how much further to Gatún Lake?). A scraper bar worked pretty well for chopping, although I think a pick axe would have made the job easier. Also, at the end of the exercise, I had enough impact shocks to my hand I felt like I couldn't really use my thumb for a few hours.

And hey--it worked! After the system started draining, I went downstairs, and water was no longer trickling out of the hole. The water is now soaking into the concrete.. my shop vac is in storage, and I figure nothing is really going to be hurt by the amount of water that's left.