windy city blues

I’m posting this from the bathroom counter in my hotel suite – it’s the spot where I seem to have the most reliable internet signal. Oh, hotel wifi.

This is my last night in Chicago, and I’m spending it relaxing in my room. I had a short trip, but I’ve already been really productive and packed a lot in. Besides, the weather is total shit right now (windy, rainy, cold) and I’m not keen on being out in it. I got here on Sunday night and went straight to my hotel, the famous Palmer House. Gorgeous lobby, a weird blend of historical and hip in public areas… and really stuffy, Victorian-decor rooms. Too much brocade and whatnot for my hotel tastes. I had a reservation for a much more bland Embassy Suites for the other two nights, and I like the space of a two-room corner suite with three sinks and two televisions and just little old me!

I wasted no time on Monday, checking out bright and early to get stuff done and see the city. I had a voucher to see Hubble 3D, so I walked to Navy Pier. I’d actually gotten a coupon for two tickets, two sodas, and a bucket of popcorn. I ended up eating popcorn for lunch because that bucket was the size of a trash can. The film was good, I had some gripes about a few science communication points, but if you can still go see it – wow. It’s visually spectacular.

I grabbed a cab to Lincoln Park and shopped for a while. Bought some makeup and got ice cream at Vosges. Curry-coconut ice cream FTW! I ate that while I walked a couple of miles through a seedy warehouse and steelworks district, headed to Wicker Park to check out some shops. Those didn’t pan out, so I walked another few miles and tried again. No dice. Walked another few miles to Humboldt Park and tried again. At this point, I was tired and hungry and realized that it was 3.5 miles back to my hotel. I kept telling myself, “One more mile and if I can’t make it any farther, I’ll catch a cab.” An hour later, I was at the hotel, my hips and ankles were on fire, and my pedometer said I’d walked just over 14 miles. Google Maps corroborates this. Ouch. Not bad for someone diagnosed with arthritis at 27, right?

I collapsed in bed last night (after grabbing some shameful Taco Bell takeout because I couldn’t be bothered to try harder than that) and had to get up at 6:30AM to get to the day’s meetings. It poured all night with 35mph gusts of wind, howling wind that woke me up repeatedly, and I decided to take a cab. My joints thanked me. But things cleared up a bit in the afternoon, and I needed to walk off some tension. I walked along the harbor for a while before cutting into the city streets, which meant I couldn’t even catch a cab if I wanted one. I barely made it the 3 miles back to the hotel. And now I’m really stiff and sore and DEFINITELY not walking much tomorrow. I like to see a city on foot, and I’ve done 10+ mile days in other cities like NYC and Boston and Seattle (where every ridiculously angled uphill block should count as three). But this was pretty intense, and entirely self-inflicted. Oops?

The gorgeous lobby ceiling at the Palmer House Hotel. $15/day... on Twitpic Back out into the city! Next stop: Lincoln Park for shopping!  on Twitpic

Saw these towers on the way to Navy Pier. I recognize them fr... on Twitpic Something besides popcorn - Vosges Naga ice cream (coconut an... on Twitpic

failure is not an option

Our launch (x2!) trip ended up being twice as long as we expected – we left early due to weather, each launch slipped by a day, and then we stayed late to avoid the post-snow airport rush. And in the end? We still had a fiasco on the flights home due to a maintenance issue with one of the planes. Yes, we dodged the impact of Clusterflake 2010 on our travel plans and ended up crammed into two middle seats because of a broken plane. And on Valentine’s Day, thoroughly ruining the surprise I’d cooked up with first class seats and replacing it with frantic phone calls. Now I’m fighting with the airline to get back the miles I spent on that gift.

I’ve posted Nick’s video from the space shuttle night launch at the start of the entry. I really can’t add much with words – it was just phenomenal. It was completely worth the sleepless nights, freezing our asses off because Florida is having a crazy cold winter, stuck in insane traffic moving 6mph (for two hours), and searching for a public restroom at 5AM with such intense desperation that I may have actually cried. TOTALLY WORTH IT. I am 100% serious.

Here's #STS130 with every bit of zooming power my camera coul... on Twitpic This is what @seyer found when she went to our house to check... on Twitpic SUCCESS!!!@#!! on Twitpic

The rocket launch was also amazing, though far less physically impressive. We did get a very unusual and special moment – which you can see in this video. Mostly, this launch was special because of my connections with the satellite and the people who have worked on it. I touched it before it went into space! Seeing it go up, surrounded by the people who made it happen, was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

the final countdown!

Made it to Florida without incident. Nick and I didn’t sleep on Thursday night, since we had to leave for the airport by 3AM. It was… painful. We had a bit of panic at BWI because their long-term parking shuttle only picks up every 30 minutes during off-hours. And we’d just missed one when we parked. So we paid $1 to exit long-term parking (goddammit) and drove to the (50% more expensive) daily parking instead. And barely missed a bus there. But at least that bus came every 15 minutes. There may have been teary-eyed hyperventilating when it looked like we might miss our flight because of a parking lot.

We took two exceptionally full flights to get here. Baltimore to Houston was overbooked like whoa because everyone was trying to escape the snowpocalypse or snowmageddon or snosamabinladen or whatever you want to call it. Houston to Tampa was overbooked because of the Super Bowl, and the plane was filled with rowdy Saints fans yelling WHO DAT constantly. You can imagine my delight. I got upgraded on both flights, and Nick got upgraded on the second one. His first first class flight ever! Being with me has finally paid off. One of the flights had new DirecTV service and I watched some excellent programming: NASA TV coverage of the upcoming shuttle flight, several episodes of “My Super Sweet Sixteen” (WTF is wrong with those families?!), and Monster Jam. I love me some monster trucks#!@!!! Live TV at 6AM is pretty much all infomercials and news. Who wants to pay $6 for that? I watched because it was freeeeeeeee.

We avoided the snowstorm (ZOMG THREE FEET OF SNOW!??) and made it into Tampa for a crazy thunderstorm and tornado warnings. Sweet. But it’s cleared up nicely today and the shuttle launch looks like it’ll happen about 12 hours from now. We’ll drive across the state in a couple of hours and it hasn’t quite sunk in that I’M GOING TO SEE THE SHUTTLE LAUNCH AND IT’S GOING TO BE RIGHT ACROSS THE WATER AND A NIGHT LAUNCH WILL NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN AND SQUEEEEEEEE@#!@#$!@#$!121#!@#$!#@!!

*breathe*

Za druzhbu myezhdu narodami!

We rang in the new year at a bizarre party hosted by one of Nick’s oldest friends – a Russia-themed party complete with spiced vodka, pirozhki, and (of course) borscht. Half of the partygoers came in costume, which was hilarious. Because we didn’t realize we’d be going until the day before, we settled for a pair of theme-appropriate t-shirts. We watched a pair of surreal 1960s films about Snegurochka, the Russian fairy tale of the Snow Maiden. And we toasted at midnight with Sovetskoye Shampanskoye, a “champagne” that has earned the reputation of being “drinkable.” A ringing endorsement. I might dispute that.

So it’s 2010. Yeah.

nature is an asshole

A month ago, we discovered that our backyard had grown a fair amount of poison ivy. So we poisoned it right back. It wilted and shriveled and left behind a bunch of (still poisonous) dead brown vines. But it kept growing back! WTF? Well, it turns out that the BIG LUSH GREEN TREE behind the poison ivy? IT IS A GIANT POISON IVY TREE. Like seriously, a whole poison ivy shrubbery that’s 6 feet tall and 15 feet wide and 5 feet deep. You do the math – that’s a fuckton of poison ivy. I think it’s actually growing on a real tree, which would also explain my confusion. The leaves are bigger and darker than the little vines I’m used to, so I didn’t believe my dad when he said it might also be poisonous. But after staring at it from the bedroom window every morning and seeing leaves of three (oh noes) and reading poison ivy identification guides… yeah, it is.

Now, I don’t spend much time in the yard. And this lush copse of noxiousness isn’t in a place that I regularly go. But this shit spreads like crazy, and we still have to mow that portion of the lawn (which will get toxic oils all over the lawnmower, a common means of transfer to skin). So we have to get rid of it. I am not a big fan of herbicides, but it sounds like a good spray of RoundUp is the only thing that really kills it and goes to the roots to keep it dead. The RoundUp also kills anything else it touches, so it’s killing a bunch of grass in the area. Other people might see this as a downside, but I don’t really like grass. So that’s win-win. It’s headed into two neighbors’ yards, so we sprayed with care… hopefully if we poison the roots it’ll shrivel everywhere.

Unfortunately, the stupid plant is still toxic for a long time after it dies. The oils don’t wash away easily, so dead poison ivy has to be handled like live poison ivy. So we’ll have to bundle up in old clothes and clear away the vines when the herbicide has taken effect on the stupid poison ivy tree. Someday, the world will be safe again.

in which my cats are totally spoiled

When Cricket came into our lives as an obnoxious 28-ounce ball of fur and claws, Nick and I saw this as a good time to overhaul our cats’ diets. Our adult cats were overweight from free-feeding on dry kibble, and we had to figure out how to feed Cricket a kitten diet without the ladies stealing it from him. So we did a bunch of research (I recommend this book on cat nutrition quite highly) and decided to switch to an all-ages canned diet that we could feed in controlled portions at mealtimes. This has worked well for over a year for both Nukumi and Cricket – they eat Innova twice each day. Jackal doesn’t like any of the affordable canned cat diets, so she’s on measured portions of kibble (we’re still working on that one). All three cats are reasonably sized now, and we worked out a whole strategy for feeding the cats separately. Solving that problem was an exercise in logic and combinatorics.

At first, all I changed was food – but I also like to feed the kitties some treats each day, for doing tricks or being good or looking cute or whatever. Most of the cat treats at the pet store are terrible concoctions of grain and corn syrup and other garbage. You’re only supposed to give a few treats per day, but they can quickly make up a significant percentage of their daily intake. So I used up (or tossed out) all of the junk food in the cat room and looked for good healthy cat treats. I look for treats that are purely meat or fish – there is no reason an obligate carnivore needs treats made of cranberries, spinach, cheese, or other non-meats. It’s easier to find these 100% meat treats for dogs, but they are equally fine for cats as long as they also eat a balanced diet with appropriate taurine and other nutrient levels. I have a few staple treats I stock up on:

  • Pooch Passions Freeze Dried Chicken Liver Treats – Yup, freeze dried liver. These smell pretty strongly of… liver, I guess. I break these into smaller bits and sprinkle any crumbs on their food.
  • Vitakitty – This is dehydrated chicken breast (almost like jerky in texture) with added Vitamin E. These also come in a Happy Hips version with added Glucosamine and Chondroitin.
  • Pure Bites Chicken Breast – This chicken breast is freeze dried, and I break up the big chunks into smaller slivers. The cats go nuts over this!
  • WildSide Salmon Cat Treats – I use these more sparingly, since they are more expensive and cats don’t really need a bunch of fish in their diets. But Jackal would kill someone for these, so I keep them in there.
  • Hare Today Dehydrated Ground Rabbit – This stuff is ground whole rabbits (bones and organs and all), dehydrated into a solid jerky. The supplier sells a lot of frozen and fresh rabbit for people who make their own foods. I’m not into that (yet) but I like this dried stuff, and so do the kitties.

We store a mixture of these treats in a tin with a few food-safe pouches of silica gel to keep everything dry. I buy most of the treats in bulk and just break up more treats when things are getting low in the tin. We do still have one non-meat treat that I keep in there, and I haven’t decided when or if to drop it – these Milky Flake-ums are a household favorite, and they have a lot of vitamin content along with the cereal and crap. I’m not sure if we’ll keep buying those. Cricket may riot.

Nick’s mom also got us hooked on a particularly weird and creepy treat – dehydrated rabbit ears. Look at the picture in that link, if you have a strong stomach. They’re… bunny ears. Cricket is the top consumer of these, and he drags them around like prey and growls as he consumes them. We’ve also tried the dehydrated rabbit feet, but these were a little too creepy. They look a lot like cat feet, and stepping on one was frightening as fuck. Cricket also ate these, bones and all. Crunch crunch swallow!

Yes, I’ve turned into one of those crunchy granola holistic cat ladies. Shut up.

sad face

Caps got trampled tonight by arch-rival Penguins. They were outplayed, outworked, outskated, outshot, out… just about outeverythinged. Some sketchiness in the penalty calls (or lack thereof), and twice Capitals players were literally ridden like ponies. There must be a rule against that. But whatever. It’s been a long ride, and now there’s five warm Maryland months without hockey. I spent a preposterous amount of money to get seats to tonight’s final game, and surprised my brother with them. Club level, very fancy, and we still were glad to be there even as the Caps completely sucked beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Oh, and I got kicked in the arm by a guy who fell down the stairs, which may have been the least painful moment of the entire evening, even though I already have a lump and a bruise forming. The psychological pain of the game will last longer.

I am drowning my sorrows (and hunger) with a wee-hours carb frenzy.

an angry scarf

Stories about pet hair yarn (sometimes called “chatangora” or “chiengora”) have been popping up online for a few years now. There are a handful of small business that will take bags of pet fur and turn it into yarn – and some will even do the knitting for you! I started thinking about this service tonight as I brushed all three cats and created a giant ball of tabby fluff.

It’s interesting to see how many people online find the idea of cat yarn repulsive. A lot of comments on the articles about it boil down to “gross,” “icky,” or just plain “yuck.” The criticism usually falls into specific camps: fear of allergies, worries about cleanliness, and general hatred of cats. I can’t really counter the third one. But I’m tickled by comments about cat yarn being a “lawsuit waiting to happen” for allergy sufferers, or people panicked about flea treatments or biological contaminants on the fur. A pet living in a controlled environment should be cleaner than the average farmed animal used to create wool or other animal fibers. The fur is washed thoroughly before being turned into yarn, which should remove the majority of allergens and other potential contaminants. Seriously, if you’re willing to wear wool – or touch just about anything in the world around you – why is cat yarn so disgusting?

Then there are a bunch of people freaking out that cat yarn will create a larger market for cat farming and “sweater mills.” So while the process of creating this yarn is humane, it could encourage others to abuse and kill cats for large-scale production. OMG PETA STOP THE MEAN KNITTING CAT LOVERS##@!!! I don’t think I’m buying this complaint, either. This yarn-making is a novelty for pet owners who want to wear their own cats’ fur. There’s no general demand for cat fur sweaters. So unless someone’s going to steal my cats, brush them a lot, and sell me back the fur… no.

I suppose I can best identify with the people who find the whole idea a little weird. It’s novel, yes, but I’ve mostly seen a lot of drab, lumpy, bland stuff made of pet fur. My tabbies would produce a brownish-grey yarn, not a particularly pretty color. I guess it could be dyed, but that seems to defeat the purpose. So besides being able to tell people that I’m wearing my cats, it’s probably not worth it to me. I guess the biggest advantage to wearing clothes made of my cats’ fur would be that their hair would no longer show up on my clothing.

procrastination, schmocrastination

Nick took the video with his digital camera, thus the quality. It was originally sideways. Royalty-free music is teh awesome.

high-flying adventure!

Don't pull!

I had a totally amazing weekend. I begged off a business trip (sacrilege!) and flew to Houston for an event hosted by Continental Airlines for some of their geekiest and most loyal customers. This is the fourth time they have invited a few hundred people to their headquarters in Texas for two days of interaction, entertainment, and awesome surprises.

At registration, we were asked to rank a series of tours (such as flight simulator, maintenance, test kitchen, etc.). Emilie and I decided to mark the “Mystery Tour” as our top pick, and we got it! They were very tight-lipped about what this tour could be until we got on the bus on Saturday morning. The employee host opened an envelope (labeled “top secret”) and told us, “This morning, you will be taking Flight 9920 from Houston… to Houston.” At first, I assumed this was a joke – perhaps a ground tour on a plane, or a tour of a plane, or a bus trip. But no – they drove us to a hangar and we boarded a 757 for an aerial tour of Texas!!

Flight 9920 was a chartered flight exclusive to the event, and normal commercial policies did not apply. After the plane reached 3000 feet, they brought out champagne and we got up in the aisles to mingle and look out the windows. I’m not sure anyone turned off their cell phones. And – perhaps the most exciting part – they opened up the cockpit for much of the flight! We got to talk to the pilots, sit in the jump seat, and see what it’s like to be at the front of a 757 (quiet and a little lonely, I’d say). A champagne toast at 10000 feet, outside the cockpit? Priceless. It was hard to believe this really happened! And now I’m totally spoiled… our flight back had neither champagne nor an open cockpit.

The theme of the weekend was “Fun & Games,” and Continental executed every aspect of the event perfectly. There were game shows and prizes at each reception. Food and drink was exceptional, and everyone left with some goodies – porcelain cups and saucers from their BusinessFirst collection, BusinessFirst pillows and blankets (much nicer than the ones they use for domestic flights), toiletries, etc. It was an event clearly designed to boost loyalty and revenue among frequent flyers, and I’m sure it worked. Some photos are posted here.