Hello Chicago, Goodbye Chicago

Just a quick writeup of my weekend in Chicago for work and a big HVAC engineering conference--a real whirlwind trip. Saturday was a flight and a meeting; Sunday was a full day of classes; and Monday was lunch with Tappan, a half-day of classes, and a flight home. It was a good trip, but I feel pretty much the-opposite-of-refreshed for this week of work.

Unlike previous trips, we were staying in Chicago, not out in exurb-land; our hotel was steps away from the CTA Red Line, and the conference was held at a gorgeous old hotel (the Palmer House Hilton).

Dinner on the first night was out in Chicago's Greektown--it's the first time I've ever seen Saganaki (Greek Flaming Cheese) lit off--I'll have to try making it sometime.

The walk from the hotel to the conference was about a mile--a beautiful but friggin' cold walk down North Michigan--about 5 F outside. Yikes. Note to my friends--if we spend some time exploring Chicago as a tourist town, my vote is Not In January/February.

Sunday's dinner was deep-dish pizza at Giordano's--Perlick's recommendation--thanks! Good call. Unfortunately, both of those nights, I was too wiped out by the end of classes/meetings to really go out and enjoy the town. Ah well--blues at Buddy Guy's Legends will have to wait for another trip.

Monday was catching up on email in the hotel lobby, and then lunch with Tappan and his friend Pete (who lived at Tep over a summer). Tappan is doing well--striving along doing the stage manager thing in Chicago-area theaters; I gave him the quick update of everyone that I run into. Incidentally, AJFBS--Tappan was really apologetic about not keeping in touch with you; I forwarded him your contact info. But thanks to Tappan for hanging out!

Lunch at Hot Doug's ("The Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium") followed--yum. Tappan also had a strong recommendation for Kuma's Corner ("home to the best burgers in Chicago, on the corner of Belmont and Francisco")--perhaps on the next trip. The afternoon was a half-day class ("Low Temperature Radiant Heating & High Temperature Radiant Cooling Systems"--really interesting, actually), and my coworker and I caught the CTA back to O'Hare.

And what's a trip like this without transit dorkery! I've been on a lot of trains, but I have to say that the doors on the CTA Blue Line are terrifyingly powerful. Did the transit authority have in their spec: "Must be able to remove limbs from people trying to hold door open"? It makes this kusssshhhhh KAWHAM!!!! noise at every stop. Did they just have spare bomb bay doors from some World War II aircraft that they got from a salvage yard?

Anyway, an uneventful trip home, and then back to the slog of a week. Having a non-fully-booked weekend is definitely the plan for Saturday.


Recent Music

I’m currently in Chicago for a big HVAC society conference; I’m planning on having lunch with Tappan while I’m in town, and hoping to catch some blues or jazz during a free evening.

But speaking of music, I recently managed to catch two live music shows in Boston. They were both cases of thinking the evening of the concert “Huh… I wonder if they still have tickets,” walking up to the box office, and seeing the show. Man… living in this town rocks (as well as working in town, so I can easily hop the subway to these places).

On Saturday, I went to see The Waiting Room, a Genesis prog-rock tribute band, at the Regent Theater (in Arlington Center, a five-minute walk from my front door). You might react, “Um, Bats, more of this imitation prog-rock-from-when-you-were-five?” (say, like the group I saw in Toronto during grad school). Well, yeah. And hey, in my defense, the lead singer of this group is 32 years old… which means he was born in 1976—after the era that the band was playing most of these songs.

They started off their set with a bunch of Peter Gabriel solo covers (ranging from Car/1977 through Up/2002). However, I have to say that playing Family Snapshot (a song ostensibly about a deranged political assassin) two days before the Obama inauguration felt a bit cringe-inducing. The lead singer could do an amazingly accurate Peter Gabriel singing voice, although sometimes it felt like he was being challenged by the range.

Then they did a long set of old Genesis pieces, including big chunks of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, as well as Firth of Fifth, Battle of Epping Forest, Supper’s Ready. The instrumentalists were utterly amazing—dead-on renditions note for note; the keyboard player was one of the founding members of the band. Also, they did the whole Peter-Gabriel-silly-costumes bit—like the batwing head from 23-minute-long Watcher of the Skies.

On Thursday, Joshua Redman (Harvard-educated jazz saxophonist) and his double trio played at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. A review of their New York concert here.

The “double trio” was Redman playing with two bassists and two drummers; they occasionally switched out, to be just a trio with one of each. There were some fun moments of dueling bassists, and dueling drummers. A really great set; I went and bought his new album off of iTunes when I got home. Some of it was the “squeaky/sqonky jazz” that I’m not particularly a fan of, but other pieces were just lovely—like a quiet cover of the Moonlight Sonata. Yep, listed in the credits:

All compositions by Joshua Redman (Shedroff Music/EMI) except:

“Moonlight” by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Will report on the Chicago music if I get to see it.


Garnish with a Lime Wedge...

A recent New York Times article on Old Fashioneds (the drink) inspired me to get off my butt and throw a "Hellsyeah, we survived the holidays!" cocktail party this past Friday.

I realized that bartender guides are almost obsolete now, given the infinite number of resources on the intarweb--not just the recipe, but also a bunch of pedants debating the "right" way to make it! Awesome! [snark] Hell, you could probably get by with the Wikipedia cocktail index alone. Although I'd be a bit wary about serving up the Choking Hazard - equal parts Canadian whisky (preferably Canadian Club), and NyQuil cough syrup, layered in a shot glass, and topped with whipped cream. Eurgh.

Anyway, a bunch of folks came over--Bird even made it down from New Hampshire, and I got to introduce my friend R. (from grad school, now living in Boston) to a bunch of the locals. The bunch of us were around until 2 AM--it's reassuring to know that we're not all old fogies who just pack it in at midnight.

I brought my booze collection down (and thank you, Pegu Club in NYC, via Perlick, for introducing me to Michter's Bourbon), and we worked up a whole variety of drinks--they included martinis, gimlets (both gin and vodka), gin and tonics, Manhattans (both whiskey and brandy--Branhattan, perhaps?), and Old Fashioneds. Below, I am muddling the citrus peel to go into an Old Fashioned... not a bad drink at all.

Many thanks to everyone for coming, and picking up snacks and mixers. Special thanks to U5, for making a detour to pick up a few cocktail glasses. BTW--one advantage of doing a party like this in the winter is that it's really easy to pre-chill your stemware--just leave it outside on the porch!

This seems like a successful party model, and needs to be repeated. Perhaps warm-weather cocktails--Cuba Libre, Mint Juleps, and Mojitos--come summertime!


A New Winter Hobby

About a month ago, I picked up a pair of MSR Denali snowshoes on sale at REI; I finally got around to trying them out today. Man... definitely a nice way to get around; I hope I'll be doing it more often in the future.

I went out to Spy Pond--just across Mass Ave from my place.

It turns out the whole lake is frozen over solidly, so I walked the perimeter; pretty neat stuff.

It took a few tests to get the snowshoes fitted properly (so my toe cleared the opening, allowing pivoting). I sank a bit more into the snow than I expected (might need to try out floatation tails), but the toe crampon digs in nicely--you can get around pretty darn well. I tried a few techniques I read about--climbing hills using sidestepping, or doing switchbacks. Managed not to wipe out and roll down the hill or anything. And wandering along the lake [ka-shuk] [ka-shuk] [ka-shuk] [ka-shuk] [ka-shuk] was a great way to spend the afternoon. Legs are a bit sore, but in a good way.

Multiple groups had cleared out skating areas on the ice, shoveling enough to have a pickup hockey game. One group even brought out a pair of snowblowers, to clear off some space.

There were also folks ice fishing on the pond. Huh... no idea they did that around here.

If the snow holds up, maybe I'll try the Middlesex Fells next weekend.


Year End Finances

Among the anal-retentive things that I do, I check my credit card activity online regularly, and dump the output to an Excel spreadsheet. Hey--don't knock it--I found out fraudulent activity on one of my credit cards ("Womens' Accessories" at "Underworld" in Montreal) the day after the transaction posted.

As a result, I can figure out what I have spent money on this past year (using formulas like =SUMIF($F$181:$F$755,"=Auto",$C$181:$C$755)). So what did I find out?

Well, the coolest thing I figured out: I spent more money on good booze than on gasoline this past year. Yeah. I'm happy on both counts.

(i.e., I'd rather give my money to Scotch distillers, Guinness and local breweries than Exxon-Mobil and the House of Saud).

And in both cases, each total was less than one month's rent. And my rent is pretty cheap.

Note that this is not meant as some type of Look at my carbon footprint, bay-bee statement--I still take commercial flights for work and for fun travel, so that blows the budget. I assume that there's significant embodied energy in my Scotch collection--but they again, we're talking about something under 10 gallons--less than a car tankful. I don't think we can map it to the embodied energy of ethanol used for fuel--they don't distill booze to that level of purity (my collection is mostly 80-150 proof/40-75% EtOH). Also, my budget includes (non-distilled) beer.

But speaking of work--I got about $14,000 in frequent flyer miles due to reimbursed work expenses. Yeah.

Other items of interest in 2008: spent about 2x rent on tools--a bit of a splurge this past year. Also, about 1x rent in donations--WBUR, WGBH, NRDC, MassBike, the Obama campaign.

But overall, in terms of year end finances, as for my investments... oy.

Cornstarch Packing Peanuts!

I believed that I have reached new levels of utter minutae by blogging about packing peanuts--but hey, hitting new lows was an amusing enough reason to post this.

About a week ago, I tossed a batch of biodegradable cornstarch-based packing peanuts into the compost bin. I went to empty out the kitchen scraps this morning, and saw the remains of the peanuts:

Oh weird--they shrank? They didn't dissolve? I guess things are pretty much a block of frozen kitchen scraps in the bin now... check it out--the same shape, but about the diameter of a pencil:

Fortunately, the intarweb is an incredible font of useless information, written by people with, well, even less of a life than me. One useful clue came from the website for Puffy Stuff--a different biodegradable packing peanut:

Puffy Stuff is an all-natural packing peanut. It has a high density for rugged durability, and won't shrink in humid conditions. Puffy Stuff exceeds wheat starch, corn starch and polystyrene in all labratory tests.

Huh... not corn starch? A quick search of the MSDS revealed that it is PROTEIN BASED LOOSEFILL PACKAGING MATERIAL

So anyway, humidity-based shrinkage makes sense... the humidity under the cover of the compost bin is probably close to 100%.

Anyway, my further searches brought me to a website that briefly recounts the origin of biodegradable packing peanuts:

These cornstarch packing peanuts are the work of food engineer Bill Stoll. He grew up in a small Iowa farming town and attributes his creativity to this upbringing. "Farmers," he recalls, "could fix anything."

In 1992, near the end of his career, Bill Stoll had lunch in a St. Paul restaurant with a client whose company used popcorn for packaging. The owner was looking for a way to pop bigger batches and he wanted to pick Stoll's mind. This question made Stoll recall sounds he'd heard as a kid. In a factory he'd seen cereal being prepared in huge pressure cookers. When the clamp holding the top was knocked away by a sledge hammer, the lid flew open and the grain exploded as if from a cannon. Stoll knew that a similar method is used to make puffed snack food. So he came up with the idea of making something like corn curls for packaging. The result: biodegradable packing peanuts.

Heh. Cool stuff.

Incidentally, based on previous personal research, I can verify that they're pretty flavorless--mostly bland, but with a hint of bitter. However, I keep wondering... hrm... perhaps with a bit of salt, and synethetic orange cheeze powder... perhaps it could be a tasty snack...