Monday, April 28, 2008

Scotland: 3 birds, one stone

I have some sort of strange affliction that frequently causes me to try to cram as many things as possible into a trip. It usually turns what could have been a fun and relaxing vacation into a hectic, stressful mess. This time was an exception and a refreshing change of pace. I left Berlin Saturday morning and landed in Glasgow in less than 2 hours. Bird #1: Supposedly, I am of Scottish descent, therefore Scotland was on my list of places to see before I die.

Bird #2: A good friend of mine from high school, Erin, moved to Scotland about 7 years ago. Erin and her husband, Richard, live on the west coast of Scotland in a village called West Kilbride. It's a really beautiful place. I took this picture just around the corner from their house. You can see the coast and one of the many small islands. We had amazing weather and it was the perfect (needed) change of scenery for me. I hadn't seen Erin since about a year before she moved away, so we had lots to catch up on. She's a musician (check out her MySpace page) and it was fun getting to know Richard. I love it when people I care about end up with cool people. We had a great time. On Saturday they took me for a walk on the coast, we had dinner in a little local pub (I had hagus and tried some fish and chips), and afterwards we watched Nacho Libre..."eets da best!"

On Sunday, we drove to nearby Fairlie and wandered through a sheep farm. There are no trespassing laws in Scotland, so it's common for people to hike wherever they want. Richard and Erin said that the weather was only that nice a few days out of the year, so I guess my timing was pretty good. It must have been 70 degrees and I even got a little sunburn. Here's another picture I took on our hike. Afterwards, we went to a BBQ at their friends' house and then it was time for Bird #3: Andrew Bird...

Andrew Bird is one of the greatest musicians on the planet (and possibly in outer space if they have songs there). He plays violin, guitar, other instruments, whistles, sings, often doing three of these at the same time. He performed a solo show in a little tiny venue (maybe 250 people) in Glasgow Sunday night. Erin, Richard, and I got there early and took over one of the few small tables up against the stage. Meg, John Smith, and I had seen Andrew Bird perform with his band last fall and this was quite the contrast. This time Bird played songs that he'd recorded just last week for his upcoming album, some old favorites, and even a song with lyrics derived from a letter that his friend found on the street. If you have small children, you may already know him as Dr. Stringz from Noggin Television, otherwise, check out Mr. Bird right here. The song is about the cycle of life...or more specifically the 26 chickens that he couldn't protect from raccoons on his farm and the sparrows that make nests in his chimney with the feathers they left behind.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hair of the Dog

I Learned something pretty interesting while talking to Mike (one of the staff members of our CTA lab) last Friday. I think most everyone has heard the expression "hair of the dog that bit you," but in the event that it's new to you it means treating a hangover by drinking more of what got you the hangover in the first place. I don't think I know of anyone who's ever actually done this intentionally, and it definitely never happened to me or anyone I know during either the 2006 or 2007 VT football season. Anyway, the science behind HOTD makes for a rather compelling argument:

When you drink, enzymes in your body (ie: dehydrogenase) break down the alcohol. The enzymes will first break down ethanol (if it is available) because it is easier. Then they go after the more complicated higher (aka "fusel") alcohols. The byproducts that result from the breakdown of these higher alcohols are quite toxic. These toxins are responsible for your hangover. This is why expensive liquor (has been distilled more times and therefore has a greater percentage of pure ethanol) generally has more mercy on your body than the stuff that we drank in college.

So, if your body has broken down all of the ethanol and has moved on to the higher alcohols, you can add more ethanol to your system and the enzymes will switch back to breaking down ethanol instead. If you can keep the enzymes busy with ethanol, more of the fusel alcohols escape metabolism and are excreted unchanged in the breath, sweat and urine. This is also why a woman who drank anti-freeze was prescribed whiskey, and why when 3 kids drank anti-freeze, only one of them survived. He lived because he had polished off half a bottle of whiskey prior to ingesting the anti-freeze. So the moral of the story is never drink anti-freeze or cheap liquor, and always drink in moderation (unless of course you just accidentally drank anti-freeze).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Did I mention that I hate computers?

I'd post some pictures, but I don't have any. In fact, I don't have any files anymore. I bought a Dell Inspiron 1501 with Vista Home Basic before I departed for Germany. It will be the last Dell (and Microsoft) product that I buy. I've had a lot of operating system issues with the machine and on Monday my user profile became corrupt for the second time. The first time it was fixed by a Dell rep who connected to my machine remotely, found my files and fixed the problem. Pretty cool. This time after many hours working with Dell reps remotely, they could not fix the problem and as a result of the many other issues that I was having, they urged me to do a factory image restore (reformat the hard drive).

My computer came with a program called Dell Data Safe, which automatically backs up some of your files weekly to a shack in West Virginia with a telephone line and a Commodore 64. Since Data Safe had run and "successfully" backed up my files Monday morning, I figured hey, no problem. Let's start over with a fresh machine, get Vista's new service pack 1 (which I am still unable to get even though I have all prerequisite updates???), restore my files and get on with life. Of course this meant losing several very important programs, like my financial software, for which the install disks are back home in VA, but if figured I could make do for a little while...especially if it meant wasting less time with Dell support. Well, it turns out that Data Safe is not so #@%&!`* safe. I've logged nearly 30 hours of time that I didn't have this week online with Dell support trying to retrieve my data. Most of it is lost for good. Personal files, business files, school documents, all of my pictures from Germany, the whole 9 yards. By the way, Dell takes no responsibility for data backed up to Data Safe.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Die Sonne scheint heute

There was this strange ball of light in the sky today that made everything really bright and dried up most of the puddles. No rain, snow, or hail fell from the sky, which was also unusual. According to people who talk about the weather, April 2007 was the warmest month in Berlin. An average of something like 27 C. I'd guess that so far the April '08 average is more like 7 C. Today was so nice, I just walked around my neighborhood until my feet hurt. I know what you're thinking...Oh great, he's run out of material and has sunken to a new low in which he just discusses the weather.

I went back to the Fundburo on Tuesday, but they didn't have my hat. I'm starting to come to terms with it being lost forever, but occasionally still scan heads on the street for it and think about what I might say and/or do if I ever see some asshole wearing it.

We completed our 2nd module yesterday, which means we are two-thirds finished, and things are feeling pretty good. I took advantage of a great opportunity yesterday by analyzing some water from the new brewery in Roanoke. I had the owners send me a sample and Katrin let me do some analyzes in the lab before my regular CTA Friday lab. It made for a long day, but was great practice and of course good to have more results ("1 value is no value." -Katrin) for our water parameters so that we can treat it appropriately once I get back. I hope to discuss the results with Dr. Ahrens sometime next week. Ahrens is the resident water expert and he teaches our water and waste water classes. I think my extra practice will also be a big help when it comes time for the 8 hour practical portion of the CTA lab exam at the end of the course. This picture isn't from my water analysis, but it was one of the better looking CTA lab pictures I could find. I think Lane took it.

Last night, we ran into Ingo (our economics professor) at a bar and he was telling me that VLB is considering offering an e-learning chemistry course prior to the normal program for those coming here with little-to-no chemistry background. I think this would be a great improvement to the program. Definitely ask about this if you are considering attending the course in the future.

Finally, you should check out John Lane's report on something really crazy that we saw the other day in a cemetery (especially if you are planing to die in or have your remains sent to Berlin).

OK wait, one more thing...I added a poll on that section over there on the right. It's under the LinkedIn profile button and above the links section. (sorry, I know that's confusing) I'd really appreciate it if you took a couple of seconds to fill it out. You can check multiple boxes. Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Eat While You Can.

It's taken months, but I've finally got most of the Germans in my house (and some not in my house) saying "hey." Up until recently, they used to always say "hello" (pronounced ha-lo), but I'm changing them - one at a time. Sure, I've made an impact, but it's not like the mark John Lane has left. He's added an entire new word to the dictionary. Don't believe me? It's true, look here. Felipe's got some great ones too, but nothing in the dictionary just yet. Last weekend he took a few of us to a Brazilian restaurant (since he's Brazilian). He said it was, "Eat while you can." Expecting to be timed (perhaps by the actual soup nazi from Seinfeld), having to fend off attackers who would try to steel my food, or maybe even just impatient waitresses who might try to clear away my plate before I finished, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that none of these were true. It was, in fact, all-you-can-eat. We did that and then some, which naturally led to a discussion about Roman banquets and how the attendees would stuff themselves until they had to use our favorite new addition to the dictionary so they could continue eating. I like to eat, but I can't imagine ever wanting to do that.

p.s. Do you think this obligates me to take everyone out to an American restaurant?

After our exam yesterday, we worked off some steam in the hop garden. Two new plants went in the ground, wire was strung, weeding completed, and Felipe put a hurt'n on some wild hop plants (verboten), but that's a whole other story. The weather was Berlin (aka miserable) but we had a few beers, so it all evened out. Here's a great shot of Sheng, Xiaohong "Joy" from China taking pictures and John Lane drinking while everyone else worked. Oh yeah, you're probably wondering about that first picture...It's from today's Simatic S7 course. We were playing with RTD's (Resistance Temperature Detector), not burning down the automation lab.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

I go New York!

The following is an account of my actual experience obtaining a visa/residence permit to stay in Germany until June 9th.

My 90 days were just about up, but after hearing horror stories of the time commitment and process from many of my classmates, I waited until the absolute last possible day to get my visa. My Canadian housemate, Erica, had done the same so we left the house early Monday morning and arrived at the Abteilung Auslaenderangelegenheiten (no, I am not making up that word) at about 6:40am, twenty minutes before they opened. Erica had tried to go on her own the previous week and was turned away as they were already full. They told her to come back Monday at 6:30am. When we got there at 6:40am, a line of at least 50 people had already formed. When they finally opened the doors, many people behind us started cutting in line and forcing their way in. Once corralled into an actual line inside, the smell of nations filled the room. It's really amazing the fragrances that people choose to have represent themselves. As you might imagine from an earlier post, this process involves waiting for a waiting number. Once you get to the first agent, they issue you said waiting number and a waiting room number.

If the first room had the smell of all nations, then our waiting room had the food of all nations (and I'm not talking about the grocery store in Cville). First it was tuna. Then a very strong bread smell, Indian food, and some things that I just can't classify. The smells weren't all food and from time to time the strong stench of pull-over coming from the hallway would infiltrate the waiting room. After a few minutes, everything seemed routine - another big digital board that would beep and flash when a new number was ready to be served, then you were off to the corresponding room.

After around 20 minutes the board began to display only "F01" and finally went blank. It was broken. After some time someone would occasionally come to the room and shout the numbers. Once the number is called, you get the form (Couldn't they have given this out earlier?). The form was very long, very confusing, and very repetitive, with lots of bad translations. They clearly don't want anyone to be here. Eventually, they call your number again and you take your form and all of your documents (passport, registration with the city, bank statement showing that you have at least $588 Euros a month to live on, letter from school saying why you are here, proof of health insurance, and photos) and turn them in. My photos were rejected because I had a very slight smile. She said, "Kein Zaehne." (no teeth) and told me to get new photos from the machine upstairs.

I go to the elevator and get in. It goes down instead of up. Then it breaks. Everyone gets out in the basement (which is chained off because we're not allowed to be in it). I climb over the chains and up to the floor with the 7 euro (rip off) photo machine. There's a huge line and the machine is slow. I get the photos and take them to the lady. After maybe a half hour of waiting, my number is called again and I go to the corresponding room. In this room, a different lady gives me a plastic card which I have to take to a different floor and use a machine to add cash to the card so I can go back to her and pay her 50 euros to get my passport back which now has the fancy page pictured above. At 9:40am, three hours later, the whole thing is over with and I can officially stay in Germany. I'm not sure that I want to anymore.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Comments On

At the request of my classmates and some yahoos back home (who I really hope keep it clean) I have finally enabled comments.

So you're telling me there's a chance?

Another long week. There seems to be less and less free time each week, and we're getting ready to start the final module which means even more special lectures and longer days in class. Two exams next week, brewing during the weekend, another big paper due shortly afterwards, and then another brewing weekend. I'm trying to fit in work for the Roanoke brewery in the gaps. It's been pretty stressful lately, but it's going to pay off in the end. We just started our Sensory Analysis class and it's quite interesting/fun. Currently, we're identifying our individual stimulus, recognition, and difference thresholds. I think this training is going to be very valuable. Our chemistry professor teaches sensory analysis too, and he's finally started to write a little bigger and use a black marker (rather than unreadable green or red), which means I can actually follow some things now. Speaking of boards, Thomas developed a new (and rather unorthodox) technique for cleaning the dry erase board.

We got a brief glimpse of some nice weather and then it went back to cold and rainy Berlin. It seems to hail at least once a day at my house and if it's not already raining, it almost always begins doing so within 30 minutes after I get home. It's actually pretty good luck on my end that it seems to wait for me to get inside a lot. In the bad luck department, I lost my favorite hat running for the subway on Tuesday. I went to the Fundburo (BVG lost and found) yesterday to look for it. They didn't have it, but man was that place impressive...Hundreds, if not thousands, of lost hats, gloves, coats, whatever, all tagged and organized by when and in which part of the...well, massive mass transit system they were found. They told me to come back next week and based on the scale and organization of this operation, I think I will. "...So you're telling me there's a chance?"

John Lane finally cut his hair and beard. The results from the microbiological analysis of his beard will be posted on his blog (my links section) a week from Wednesday. Also, on Monday I had to extend my visa to stay here in Germany (they said I could stay), but that's a whole other blog entry. The BVG threatened to strike again on Monday and then didn't at the last minute, so we all had to wake up an hour early for no reason. If you're thinking of visiting Berlin, don't come until this strike nonsense is officially finished - it is terribly inconvenient.