Adventures in Calphalon: Continued

After my disappointment with Calphalon's customer service (see my previous post), I decided I still needed a 10" nonstick omelette pan. Although I was a bit reluctant to give Calphalon my business, I figured buying off of eBay gave them less benefit. So I managed to win one for $60 (unused store display)--Froogle tells me retail prices are in the $110 range. Go eBay!

Anyway, the first step, of course, was the omelette test:

Oh yeah... perfect. It's nice to have a working omelette pan again. I think JMD said she'd buy the lighter warranty pan, so I'm only in the hole ~$30.

As a side note, I'm going to be a lot more cautious in the future in terms of heat levels that I apply to nonstick--both due to the volatilization of the PTFE coating, as well as the fact that I think it really beats up the coating (and probably reduced the lifespan on my previous pan). For instance, see the care and feeding directions.

As a final note, I wanted to do a comparison of Calphalon's product lines: Calphalon One (what I just bought off of eBay) vs. Calphalon Contemporary Nonstick (what they sent me on warranty).

First of all, the former is a much beefier pan--solid cast or forged aluminum handle, vs. hollow steel. I think the edge detailing on the former is a lot better (flared).

Also, there's a kitchen scale here--how handy!

The Calphalon One is a 33% heavier pan: 2 lbs 13 oz, vs. 2 lbs 2 oz. The metal is obviously much thicker.

Well, I've made all the major kitchen purchases I need to for a while now; my list is pretty much wrapped up. However, I will probably shift gears to tool geekery--my list includes an air compressor, air tools, maybe a welder...


Bike ta Work, ya Bastids!

Since May is Bike to Work Month, I thought I'd write about my bike commuting, even though the month is almost over.

I've been largely biking to the office for the past month; 9 out of 10 trips this week were done via cycle. The title of the post comes from my occasionally bitter reaction to my coworkers. Out of the five of us at the Somerville office, three drive in every day--and they live in Somerville, Allston, and Winter Hill respectively. Grr. I bike, or take the bus when the weather is too sloppy. As for my final coworker: he is a hard-core cyclist who bikes in from Sudbury, rain or shine. Yow.

In general, I have to say I am pretty fortunate to be in a life situation where I can bike in to the office, the town is set up reasonably well for it, and I have the luxury of hopping on the bus if the return trip looks sloppy. I'll admit to being a fair-weather bike commuter.

I have tried several routes (Arlington Center to a location just outside Porter Square). I think it's about the right length of a ride to do day-in and day-out, although a longer ride (e.g., half hour) might be nice at times. The options I have tried are:

Minuteman bike trail to Elm 4.05 miles
Straight run down Mass Ave 3.13 miles
Broadway to Elm 3.23 miles

The Minuteman trail ride is the nicest, for the most part, in terms of traffic and scenery. However, the Mass Ave route cuts off 10 minutes relative to the Minuteman Trail--it's not just the length, but dealing with various jogs, curb cuts, dodging pedestrians, etc., compared to just bombing straight down the road. However, when I'm biking in Boston traffic, it always feels like my life is getting statistically shorter as I'm riding. The Broadway route works, but traffic is not arguably that much better than Mass Ave.

To wrap up, a few equipment notes:

I recently bought myself a long-sleeve jersey--it is breathable, reflective, and day-glo yellow (i.e., "don't run me over yellow"). However, I sometimes worry that it makes me look marginally more hard-core than I actually am; as a reference point, I'm a toe clip kinda guy--not clipless pedals. Also, given that bicycle clothing is cut for physically fit people, I worry that the jacket makes me look like a giant fluorescent sweet potato. On that note, I will point out that I wear baggy bike shorts--every day that I go out and nobody has to see my butt in spandex, I make the world a more beautiful place.

I consider the following items important for bike commuting: lights (both front & rear--reflectors are not enough), a bell (it can get tiring to keep yelling, "On your left," and also, you sometimes want to give a quick 'ding' while passing a pedestrian, to let them know you're coming), a rear view mirror, and a fender (only put on the rear one for now--we'll see how successfully it prevents "butt stripe").


Calphalon Customer Service: Underwhelmed

I'm afraid this post falls into the "ultra-self indulgent" category--complaining about the customer service for high-end cooking gear. Especially after seeing the Mark Bittman Minimalist (New York Times) article on how to equip your kitchen adequately for $200 (it involves restaurant supply stores, plastic handle knives, and restaurant-style pots & pans; see note below). But there's some information in this post that I hope others might find useful and informative. Also, it's always fun to engage in kitchen geekery.

I have owned a bunch of Calphalon Commercial Nonstick pans starting in 2004, but recently, I noticed that the oldest one that received the most use (10" omelette pan) has lost much of its nonstickiness. I was surprised to research that Calphalon has a lifetime warranty on their products--it seems like a poor business decision to implement for nonstick pans. I sent in an email inquiry, and received this response:

Thank you for contacting Calphalon. The sticking that you are experiencing is generally due to a residue that has formed on your non-stick surface. In order for the pan to perform correctly, please try to clean the surface with Soft Scrub brand cleaner and a blue Scotch Brite pad. When finished, please follow up with your normal hand washing. If this cleaning method does not restore the non-stick ability to the cookware, we would recommend sending your item in for warranty evaluation.

Huh.. interesting. Using a blue scrubby? On Teflon? Eek... it goes against all of my nonstick instincts. Okay, here it goes...

Scrub scrub scrub...


The omelette test showed some improvement, but that nonstick mojo has definitely departed:

So... into the mail it went. A few weeks later, I received a new Contemporary Nonstick 10 Inch Omelette Pan. I immediately noticed the difference in heft--nowhere near the metal thickness of my old pan; it felt close to big-box-generic-nonstick weight levels. It's probably a decent pan, but nowhere near what I sent in.

I wrote them a moderately irate email:

Unfortunately, I have to say that I am not very satisfied with this replacement. Picking up the pan, the difference in weight (thickness of the aluminum) is very clear; it seems like a cheaper and lower quality pan than what I sent in.

To be specific, an online search (on froogle.com) for a Calphalon Contemporary Nonstick 10" Omelette Pan gives results of $30-40, including major retailers such as Amazon.com and Linens n Things. In contrast, I have the receipt for my smaller 8" Calphalon Commercial Nonstick Omelette Pan from 2004, for $45 ($48 in 2006 dollars), so I am sure I paid more for a 10" Commercial Nonstick Omelette Pan.

I have to admit that I was reluctant to send this complaint, but to be honest, if I had known the replacement item in advance, I would have sent my original pan to a recoating service. I assume that my original pan has been recycled or is otherwise not returnable; please let me know if it can be returned. I can mail the replacement pan back to you if this would simplify the process; I have not used it yet.

I'd like to suggest that in the future, you let customers know what the replacement item will be, so they can choose this item, or perhaps a prorated refund of their original purchase.

To my surprise, I actually got a phone call back from Calphalon customer service. He claimed that the Calphalon Contemporary Nonstick line is a replacement for the Commercial Nonstick line, and that the $30 is a "promotional" price, compared to a MSRP of $70. I have doubts about this, considering that the 10" & 12" combo is $50 at Amazon. But I didn't think there was much point to pursuing this any further.

It's worth checking out that Calphalon has four nonstick product lines now: the Contemporary Nonstick (what I got) is their second-from-top line. I have a Calphalon One (top line) Chef's Pan (via eBay); it seems close in heft to my old Commercial Nonstick. I have to wonder if the reason behind the multiple products lines was a business decision along the lines of: "We have the liability of how many nonstick pans out there with lifetime warranties? Aw crap... who the hell made that decision?! How do we minimize the damage?"

In the future, I'd be interested in trying out one of the nonstick pan recoating services like FryPan Man ("Saving our landfills, one discarded pan at a time!")--Leper had some pans that he sent in for recoating, and they were pretty nice.

Final note--that Mark Bittman Minimalist article mentioned above is now subscriber-only; let me know if you want the PDF. It's a pretty good read--after, all those fancy restaurant meals are probably prepped by guys with $10 plastic-handled knives. Bittman wrapped up the article with "The Inessentials: you can live without these 10 kitchen items":

BREAD MACHINE -- You can buy mediocre bread easily enough, or make the real thing without much practice.
MICROWAVE -- If you do a lot of reheating or fast (and damaging) defrosting, you may want one. But essential? No. And think about that counter space!
STAND MIXER -- Unless you're a baking fanatic, it takes up too much room to justify it. A good whisk or a crummy handheld mixer will do fine.
BONING/FILLETING KNIVES -- Really? You're a butcher now? Or a fishmonger? If so, go ahead, by all means. But I haven't used my boning knife in years. (It's pretty, though.)
WOK -- Counterproductive without a good wok station equipped with a high-B.T.U. burner. (There's a nice setup at Bowery Restaurant Supply for $1,400 if you have the cash and the space.)
STOCKPOT -- The pot you use for boiling pasta will suffice, until you start making gallons of stock at a time.
PRESSURE COOKER -- It's useful, but do you need one? No.
ANYTHING MADE OF COPPER -- More trouble than it's worth, unless you have a pine-paneled wall you want to decorate.
RICE COOKER -- Yes, if you eat rice twice daily. Otherwise, no.
COUNTERTOP CONVECTION OVEN, ROTISSERIE, OR ''ROASTER'' -- Only if you're a sucker for latenight cooking infomercials.

I've been living with a stripped-down kitchen setup for four months; I think I can respond to most of these with some authority. I agree with most of these points, but disagree with:

Microwave: essential for leftovers, and I use it often for quickly cooking vegetables to incorporate into dishes (broccoli, califlower, potatoes). And I have pontificated that having a microwave on a kitchen counter is a painful waste of space.

Rice cooker: I love my ricebot, and consider it a massive timesaver--it is "fire and forget" ricemaking, even if I cook rice once or twice a week. Probably an Asian thing--every household has one.

But I have to admit he's right on boning knives--I own a very nice Wusthof Trident boning knife, and I can't remember the last time I used it.


Old School, Yo

During my recent trip to school, I stopped by the campus store to pick up some "identity swag," or whatever they call logo-wear. Yeah, that's right, went to Canada, took some classes, got the t-shirt. Also, I actually decided to buy (and apply) a car window sticker:

I think that part of the reason for getting this sticker was it is likely to be pretty rare here in MA; it might end up being a random conversation starter at times ("Hey, are you Canadian?"). For instance, on days when I wore a UW shirt, I've had several people ask me about it: one was an optometrist who knew about the department by reputation; the others were alums working in the U.S.

You might notice the distinct lack of the MIT sticker. That is quite intentional. First of all, it seems very off-putting/braggish to me, as well as way too common in these neighborhoods. But also, I still harbor enough bitterness towards the 'Tute that I don't think I'd ever put one on. For instance, I seriously considered using this quote from 1984 under my yearbook photo:

What happens to you here is for ever. Understand that in advance. We shall crush you down to the point from which there is no coming back. Things will happen to you from which you could not recover, if you lived a thousand years. Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.

[Part of me wishes I did, for sheer orneriness. However, I'm glad I didn't--there were plenty of professors who were great counter-examples to the soul-crushingness of the 'Tute.]

Note that despite my biterness towards the Institvte, yes, I do wear a brass rat. I don't consider this a "I'm proud to be an alum from this wonderful place" indicator. If anything, it would be closer to an ex-con's prison tattoos: "You had that piece of my life, but you didn't break me."

Hrm... perhaps I should have this spiel ready the next time I get a fundraising call...


Electrical Use Geekery

Given my profession, my geekery in measuring my electrical use is probably no surprise to my friends. However, I realized it might be good to spread some of my knowledge to my readers, who are both geeky enough that they might want to know how much power they're using, as well as environmentally conscious enough to do something about it. If you have friends who would benefit, please feel free to forward this link along. And if anyone hasn't seen it yet, I wrote up a primer on house energy efficiency a few years ago.

"To measure is to know."

"If you can not measure it, you can not improve it."

-Sir William Thompson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)

I have been logging my electrical use (via the power bills) for a long time--the graph below covers my time in Cambridge (1998-2004), before I moved up to Canada. The yellow bars are the monthly use (in kWh; electricity was about 11-12 cents per kWh); the blue dots & lines are cooling degree days (CDD)--an indicator of how hot each month was in total. As you can see, there is some summertime spiking when my roommate ran an air conditioner. These bills are for a third-story two-bedroom apartment in a triple-decker that was ~1200 sf; occupancy was two people.

(click on image to expand)

A few interesting patterns can be noted. The big drop from ~500 to ~300 kWh/month (late 2001) occurred when I changed roommates: the old one had several desktop computers running 24/7. Also, he worked from home, so the AC ran for good parts of the summer. The other noticeable drop (from ~300 to ~200 kWh/month) matched up to my replacing the old fridge with a new Energy Star rated model--see this Home Energy Magazine article on the economic benefits of replacing an old inefficient fridge before the end of its service life. The fridge power use dropped to ~300 kWh/year, from ~1200 kWh/year.

FYI, the electrical use in my new place (two people in a duplex) is in the 200-250 kWh/month range. I have not yet worked on doing full-bore CFL replacements yet.

[Edit]: As an additional data point, my electrical use in my apartment in Canada was ~400 kWh/month; that was just me living by myself. However, it is important to note that the hot water tank there was electrical, as well as an electric stove, and an electric clothes dryer--all of those would add major amounts of load to that total (actually, I'm surprised it wasn't higher). Space heating was electrical baseboard radiators, so that further mixed all of the end-uses together.

This leads into the next topic--toys to measure electrical use. I've worked with some research/utility submetering grade logging equipment for electrical consumption, but there are lots of consumer-level products that are really useful.

One is the Kill-a-Watt (about $30)--I own one, and have loaned it out on occasion. You plug it into the wall outlet, and attach a load to it. It measures immediate wattage, as well as kWh summed over time (it records the amount of time since it was plugged in).

I had some fun using this to measure computer power consumption. My laptop machine ran about 30 watts, on average--after all, battery life/power consumption is a huge design constraint. In comparison, a desktop machine that I measured (CPU box only) consumed ~75 watts. And that doesn't include a monitor: a CRT would run 150 watts (awake)/30 watts (asleep), or an LCD at 30–65 watts awake (numbers from this Google Answers page). That's part of the reason why one of my colleagues who designed an ultra-low energy building pushed the use of laptop machines to his clients.

Another electrical concern is "vampire" or "phantom" loads--electronics such as VCRs and cable boxes consume power in standby mode, and unfortunately, there is no incentive for manufacturers to minimize this number. As a result, the amount of standby power can vary a lot--minimal in a well-designed product, and substantial in other ones. So that's an item to measure.

Another device we have been working with is T.E.D. ("The Energy Detective") ($140). You connect it up inside the circuit breaker panel (either on the power mains, or an individual circuit that you want to measure--e.g., the air conditioner).

Then, you plug in the display unit anywhere in the house, and it will receive a signal from the unit in the panel over the electrical lines, and display power use. It also has some simple logging capacity, and it can set off alarms for various criteria ("Danger danger! Monthly power bill going over $200!")

We were checking out our instantaneous usage at the office--it was pretty fun for us energy geeks. We were normally running around 600 watts (for five of us, all running laptops, LCD monitors, etc.), and you could see the effect when other loads kicked in--such as the printer (~1000 watts) or the toaster oven. And when the AC kicks in--up to 2200 watts it goes.

Incidentally, if there are any locals who want to install a TED, but don't feel comfortable mucking around inside the electrical panel, let me know if you're going to get one, and I'll see if I can swing by to help pop it in. Also, the folks at TED put up a few helpful power savings tips on their website--they appear to better than the usual run of the mill items.

There is also a product called Watts Up ($100-200), but I have never played with it.

All told, you might ask why I am doing all this measurement, when we're talking about a $40/month electrical bill. Well, one reason is the difference between "site" and "source" power. Each unit of electricity that is delivered at your house ("site") requires about three times that amount of energy at the power plant ("source")--the process of burning coal/oil/etc. to make juice is about 30% efficient. This is partially reflected in the $/energy unit price. Also, 50% of electricity in the US comes from coal-burning power plants (see this Energy Information Agency table). As noted in another EIA document, "coal combustion emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy as does the combustion of natural gas, whereas the amount from crude oil combustion falls between coal and natural gas." I don't have good numbers on just how much of a typical person's carbon footprint is due to electrical use, and I know that airplane flights are totally overwhelming [note], but electricity is probably not insignificant.

[note]: I sometimes wonder if we might be the generation that saw cheap air travel and massive international mobility arise, and then go away when the energy costs get too high. I also wonder if we might be the last generation to have sushi-grade tuna before the fisheries collapse, but that's a whole other topic.


A Fun Evening (Even if it was vegan!)

A busy few days at work; finished off a government contract deliverable that has been trying to give me ulcers for the past few weeks. A social highlight of the week was on Thursday--alethia_juturna was in town, and a few of us went out to dinner in Allston.

D. suggested dinner at Grasshopper Vegetarian Restaurant in Allston--it's the place that Crusher & Cat had their rehearsal dinner. I have to say, once again, that being back in town rocks--on a weekday afternoon, I could bail out from work, hop on my bike, and meet folks for a social event across the river, 3 miles away.

There were four of us at dinner--D., mollfrey, and NathanW. I'm not sure if I had met Nathan before (he's MIT/pikan), but there was a snippet that quickly made me realize: "Ok, same tribe as me... everything's cool"--D. was talking about Buddha's Delight in Chinatown (another vegan restaurant), and how the view out the window on the neon streetscape was very Blade Runner. I instinctually replied, "A new life awaits you on the off-world colonies." Nathan answered, "...a chance to begin again, in a golden land of opportunity and adventure." Heh.

Anyway, the food was very good--I know some of you are offended by faux meat, but I had no complaints. One of the highlights was the "Sweet and Sour Chicken Fingers with pineapple, celery and onions"--deep fried battered faux meat--the batter totally reminded me of corn dogs. And the Curry Coconut Vermi-noodles were very tasty as well--with or without faux meat. After eating there, I feel a strange compulsion to try their "vegi-squid" someday, despite my fear of what the product might be.

The reason D. was in town (I'm hoping I'm not stealing her thunder or breaking confidentiality here) was that the local public TV station is doing a web video series to try to interest high schoolers, in particular girls, in science & engineering; the series is being sponsored by the major engineering societies. One of their goals is to demonstrate that engineers don't spent all their time sitting in an office, working on equations. I can't imagine a more perfect and cooler candidate than D. for demonstrating this. They filmed her giving a hands-on demo to high schoolers on the ins and outs of water treatment, making them schlep jugs of water from the reservoir to gain some appreciation of the process. This dinner came at the end of a 9-hour day of shooting--yow.

The dinner conversation made it a delightfully fun evening--a long, free-wheeling, multi-subject conversation that covered everything from catching up with everyone, to US politics, to "...just how do you know him?"--i.e., figuring out the social connections ("Well, he dated X, who I had dated before, and..."), to comparing cell phone dorkiness.

Ok... time to tear myself away from the computer and go enjoy the weather outside today!


Some Travel Notes

On this trip back up to UW, I flew on frequent flyer miles (net cost: $40.59), to the small local airport. There is a flight that runs several times a day from that airport to Detroit (DTW), so my flight was BOS-DTW-YKF. There are several nice reasons to use this airport. First, on the US-to-Canada leg, you clear customs at the YKF (small airport) end, so there's a grand lineup of.. well, 20 people, tops. It usually goes pretty fast, and it's not that stressful. It just seems like the Toronto customs folks are seriously ornery, while the ones at this smaller airport aren't as vicious. Second, it's only a 20 minute ride from town, so it's not much of an imposition to get a ride from friends or colleagues (compared to YYZ, over an hour away). Third, checking in is a total breeze--you could literally show up 15 minutes before the flight and still make it--it appears there's only one flight at a time there. It is also fun to land at this small airport, where the ground-based navigational aids are sitting next to farmer's silos.

Of course, on the downside, it means that every flight out of here will be a connection. If you can fly direct via YYZ, this small airport is a lose. But if you're connecting anyway, it doesn't matter that much. It seems like it is often not price competitive--there's enough competition out of a big airport like Toronto that prices are driven down, but YKF is a one-airline shop. Also, on the Canada-to-US leg, you clear customs at the DTW connection. This usually works out well (finished in 10 minutes on this last trip). But I've also seen the cavernous waiting gallery filled with passengers, when multiple overseas 747s must have offloaded. The only way I made my connection that they expedited our flight past everyone else.

I'm hoping I'll make it up here reasonably often... but I'm not sure if that will be the case when I am done with school.

As a second travel note: sometimes being short is really useful: I'm standing up here, underneath the overhead bins (on an A320, I think). Even on stupid seat pitch airlines, I am not actually bumping my knees against the seat in front of me.

One of the few savings graces, I suppose.

Third note: I probably heard one of the better excuses for a delay in pushing back on my flight home--they were waiting for a human organ transplant to make it on the plane. Only was about 10 minutes of delay; not a big deal.


Bats in Canada, Briefly.

Wow... it's been a long but mostly enjoyable couple of days. Looking at the past four weeks, I have been on the road for 16 days (including the Florida trip and the Cleveland & Oberlin trip). I should be getting some rest instead of blogging, but I figure I needed to update everyone.

Anyway, this current trip to UW was for my thesis presentation and to submit paper copies to my readers. As a Master's student, I don't have to do a defense (i.e., not pass/fail)--just a presentation. I printed out several copies of my thesis (all bloody 300 pages of it...ugh), and got on a plane to Canada.

I stressed about the presentation for several days leading up to it--making PowerPoint slides until midnight before a 7:15 AM flight, tuning them on the plane, downloading some final data from my field site during the day, up to midnight editing more slides, and then adding some final tweaks the morning of the meeting.

And as per my usual pattern, I stressed a lot, worked hard, and the results were pretty good. Whew. I'm glad it's over. The wickets I have left are: incorporate the edits from my three readers when I get their comments back in three weeks, and fill out the last of the paperwork. So it is pretty close at this point.

After the presentation, it was high time to celebrate. First, a few beers with my colleagues in the group:

During the trip to the grad student pub, I had a bizzare small world moment. R. mentioned that she knew another MIT student who came to the grad house regularly, and he happened to be there that day. She introduced me to him--"Hi, I'm K," I said. To which he replied, "Yeah, you're Batman, I know--I'm Hooligan."

Holy crap.

For those who don't know him, he's another tEp (from after my time)--if it places it, he was Edgar's Junior Lab partner. He's at the right in the photo--he looks completely different without shaggy hair, doesn't he? If you're curious, he's doing quantum computing over at UW.

Anyway, much beer was consumed, followed by dinner with a pitcher of sangria. Followed by hanging out at R's place (i.e., my former apartment), and polishing off a bottle of wine.

This in turn was followed by an invitation to a "Crips & Bloods" party--just some friends of friends throwing a wacky theme party. Everyone dressed up the part of gangstas (well, as best as a bunch of white suburban Canadian grad students can), put on their do-rags, tattoo'd "THUG LIFE" in magic marker on their bellies, and drank fo'ties out of brown paper bags. Why yes, ethnically insensitive, but still pretty amusing.

Of course, I had to put on my part of the Mexican gangsta:

Yo yo vato! Qué onda, you badass chollo motherfucker?

One funny moment at the party: somebody came up to me to ask, "Uh... how much Spanish do you actually speak?" At that point I dropped the sunglasses (-> Asian), and replied, "Um.. not much, really."

I managed to drag myself home to Dan & Daniel's (where I was crashing) by 2 AM.

Spent the next day and a half hanging out with Dan & Daniel--including a trip to St. Jacob's Farmer's Market (picked up a few bottles of Ontario maple syrup as gifts):

And we have a lovely evening out seeing the Da Capo Chamber Choir (20th Century, mostly a capella music. Many thanks for your kind company and hospitality, guys!

Overall, it was wonderful seeing everyone that I did up in KW, and wandering the town again, however briefly. On the negative side, I had to burn two vacation days to take this trip, yet I feel even more tired this week. Argh.

Anyway, I am looking forward to a weekend of just puttering around the house... perhaps something as adventurous as an IKEA run.