Tuesday, February 28, 2006

USPS sucks rocks.

What can I say? The US Postal Service has to be the most inept "business" I've ever encountered.

I moved to California last year, for 5 months. I knew I was coming back to Pittsburgh, so I ordered a Temporary Change Of Address of mail from Pittsburgh to California, set to expire on December 31, 2005. Simple, eh?

Fast forward, 5 months. I'm beginning to move back to Pittsburgh, and I want to make sure that mail goes smoothly. So I talk to the post office. They say to submit a new change-of-address form, just to be safe. The Temporary Change Of Address should expire just fine, but there's no harm in being safe, they told me.

When I get home, it is clear that I'm not getting mail. So I submit a new change-of-address form, and submit it. This time, online. I have to pay a dollar. But I'm not getting mail. It's worth it, I think.

A week or two later, it's clear I'm still not getting mail. I have friends and family telling me that their letters and postcards are bouncing. I go to the Squirrel Hill post office. They tell me, that even though I live in Squirrel Hill, they don't deliver my mail. I have to call the East Liberty office. They give me their number, and I call and complain. The next day, I have a letter in my mailbox. Relief.

A week or two later, it's a little clear that I'm still not getting mail. Nothing has come since that solitary letter. A credit card company tells me that their mail isn't getting through. I send myself a letter. Four or five days later, my letter bounces. Now, I enter a world of hurt...

I go online, trying to find the phone number of the Squirrel Hill post office. The USPS.gov site has a fancy "Post Office Locator" tool, but the phone number it gives? Some automated 1-800-beastie that has no connection to my local post office. It takes 30 to 60 minutes to settle on the 800-number, and navigate to find my post office's number. Don't forget, that I'm trying to get the phone number of my post office, which doesn't even handle my mail. I call them, just to get the second number I need to call. I then complain. They promise that it will be fixed. The next day...A letter in my mailbox.

A week or two later, and again, nothing more is in my mailbox except for that one solitary letter. What on earth could be going on? Stupid me, I lost the phone number of my post office since I called them last time. I have to go through the automated-800-number-of-death to find the phone number again. This time, I tell my story to three people. Eventually, I get reconnected to somebody who says that they are my actual mail carrier...

The story that I am told is that despite my Change-Of-Address forms, and the fact that my first Change-Of-Address was temporary, the carrier was given no notice that I was back in town.
That's right. Even though he knew to deliver mail to me two or three days in the past two months when I complained, he still thought I was in California. He said that most people just move away from Pittsburgh, and don't ever come back. He figured I was just like them. I am pretty much speechless. He goes on for 5 minutes telling me and retelling his story, like I will, if he says it enough times, maybe even believe him.

Well, it seems that now I am finally getting mail again. It's a little bit convenient, I must admit. I still haven't gotten anything interesting...and I still expect it to stop again at any moment....but it's otherwise convenient. The entire process took 1 month and 27 days. Nearly two months to get my mail delivery working again, after 5 calls and 3 Change Of Address forms were submitted. How inept can the system be?

And I notice that, through all this, the USPS has decided to up their rates once more. Yep. Their service was so good that it simply had to be worth more than it was before. *sigh*

Putting my mouthpiece where my mouth is...

Just before I left California, I encountered some Saxophone Trauma. I dropped my mouthpiece on the ground, and a chunk flew off of the front. The chunk was never to be seen again, leaving me with a severely sick-looking mouthpiece.

Looking around online, at sites such as wwbw.com, mouthpieces will run somewhere in the neighborhood of 80$. For a piece of plastic. Well, a piece of hard rubber. I disbelieve that the consumer isn't being reamed on this purchase. I found a cheaper 20$ mouthpiece at the local music store, but I was concerned it would be what they know as "crap."

So, I put off my mouthpiece purchase for a while, and moved back to Pittsburgh. Then I got an idea (I figured you'd notice by now, but I'm slow.): I can repair my mouthpiece with epoxy! So I bought myself a tube of Loctite epoxy at Target for about 5$.

I got home, mixed it together, and applied a huge gob to the front of the mouthpiece. At the end of the week, the epoxy still wasn't hard. I couldn't understand. But I had a suspicion that the two epoxy fluids didn't mix in the right proportion, so I tried again. This time: SUCCESS. The epoxy got hard within 24 hours. I applied about two coats of epoxy, which was able to fill in the hole.

The next step was to sand down the epoxy to make it look like a mouthpiece again. It was a little bit tricky, and it still might not be perfect, but I'm pretty astounded at how much it looks like a mouthpiece again. The front corner is clear and a bit scratched up (from the sandpaper), but the form is just about right.

I'm so happy and proud of my little repairwork! There may be some issues with hitting some really high notes, but I might be able to work through them, at least for now. Now I just have to learn how to play the saxophone!

Dance on that foot, boy. Dance!

Since I am procrastinating for a few minutes instead of working on a paper I'm writing, I figured now is a good time for a blog update.

I should mention that our little blues dance weekend was a Stellar Success. It was a blast, and I can't wait for the next one :)

I should also mention that when you hurt your foot, like I hurt mine, you probably shouldn't go dancing on it all weekend long a week later. And if you do do that, against my advice, it's probably best not to go dancing on it again the next weekend. And if you are some kind of sick sado-masochist, and you have ignored both of my warnings, you will learn that your foot will continue to be hurting 3-4 weeks after the original injury. I'm just sayin.

Last week, I went to the school's health clinic to get my foot checked out, since it was still hurting. They confirmed my internet-diagnosis that the foot/toe was probably broken, or, at least, really badly bruised up. Apparently, it doesn't really matter which, since the treatment is basically the same --- just tape or wrap the foot, and then baby it until it feels better. Many people get x-rays to confirm the break. Apparently, this is just because they are rich and doctors think that giving them a picture of their shattered toes will ease their mental anguish.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Dance Weekend

This weekend, we're having a weekend full of Blues dance workshops here in Pittsburgh. Since I've only recently returned from California, I wasn't much involved in the planning of this weekend, so I'll just be going as a patron, rather than an organizer.

As these weekends get closer, they always fill me with a sort of odd combination of excitement and dread. Lots of people are going to be coming in to dance from out of town, we'll get to dance with one another all weekend long, and we'll all learn to be better dancers. But still, there are always potential down-sides to these weekends, since they're always so busy. You have to put the rest of your life on hold, which is often a good thing, but has its drawbacks.

One of my drawbacks this weekend is that I will apparently be nursing an injured foot. Over the past weekend, I stupidly stubbed the entire left side of my foot into a doorjam. It still hurts a wee bit to walk on it. And yet, my plan is to dance all weekend long, as long as the pain does not overwhelm me. I think I just like to worry.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Hershey's Special Dark Cocoa

Hershey's. They don't often get good reviews in the world of fancy chocolate. Lots of Europeans taste Hershey's chocolate, and say "God, that's sour and tastes like puke!" --- This "sourness" is due to Hershey's process of making milk chocolate, which involves evaporating skim milk under heat, allowing the milk to slightly ferment and produce acids. It is unclear to me whether the average American (e.g. me) can really pick out this sour-flavor in a blind taste test. And there are countless other food snobs that think that Hershey's is too mass-produced, or too cheap to be good chocolate. I don't particularly share in those pretenses. I think that Hershey's can produce good chocolate. (As a disclaimer, I also suspect that some of their chocolate products may indeed be low-quality mass-produced crap --- they probably need all kinds in their lineup).

Which brings us to Hershey's Special Dark Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder. It's available at the Giant Eagle next to their regular cocoa powder, for a 3.99 rather than 3.75 per 8 ounce canister. Thus, its price-class is "inexpensive." I had to pick some up.

Looking at the nutritional information on the side of the box, it seems that it is, for all intensive purposes, nutritionally identical to their regular cocoa powder. The same fat content. The same sugar content. The same number of calories per serving. Etc. The only difference is the ingredients. The regular cocoa powder reads "Cocoa." The Special Dark reads "Cocoa processed with Alkali." This makes me think that their manufacturing process for both is identical, except for the alkalinization step in the dutched version.

Following my cocoa powder ritual, I made some hot cocoa with this stuff. The first surprise was how black the resulting hot cocoa was. Black as tar. Not the lovely brown shade of the Van Houten cocoa, for instance. It's hard to look at this stuff and think "this is cocoa." But, being the adventuresome lad I am, I was able to ignore, and perhaps, even savor the color. My first tasting notes would say that the flavor is much harsher than that of the Van Houten. Not the lovely, round mouthfeel, but more of an "ashy" bite. Overall, the flavor wasn't really bad, and could, in fact, be desirous, but it was a little unexpected. I will have to try further experimentation with this powder, and I will provide updates here as I do so.

Update. I have thought about this for a while, and I have made a second batch of hot cocoa. It has occured to me that Special Dark's flavor is remeniscent of the chocolate in an Oreo cookie. The Great InterWeb confirms that the Oreo flavor comes from cocoa which has been "dutched to death." After some tinkering and experimentation, I've decided that I like the Special Dark in a hot cocoa which has less cocoa and more milk than I'm normally accustomed to. It still, however, is not as good as my precious Van Houten for hot cocoa. If you're making Oreo cookies, however, go with the Special Dark.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Cocoa Powder

I like Cocoa Powder. I use it to make hot cocoas and mochas and other chocolatey baked goods at home. I'm also one of those wannabe chocolate snobs, so I like to get new brands of cocoa powder to compare and contrast against one another. My goal is to find The Best Cocoa Powder Ever.

I am posting this now because I have just tried a new cocoa powder: Van Houten dutched cocoa. I got a box on a whim at Pittsburgh's The Chocolate Mousse chocolate boutique.

My cocoa/mocha recipe looks much like this: Put 1-2 tablespoons of cocoa into a cup. Add a tablespoon or two of sugar. Add from half to a whole teaspoon of corn starch. Add a tablespoon or so of milk. Stir that up until it's fairly smooth, and then microwave it until it's a little warm, and then stir it again until it's very smooth. Then add (a cup?) more milk, stir, and microwave until it's piping hot.

After having the cocoa base, you can doctor it as you desire --- add a teaspoon to a tablespoon of a mild mexican chili powder, add a cup of coffee, add vanilla, add cinnamon, etc.

Back to my main point. This Van Houten cocoa is simply AMAZING. It's the cleanest, most pleasant cocoa powder I've injested yet --- much better than Hershey's, Droste, Lake Champlain, etc. I have yet to try some brands, such as Callebaut and Valrhona, and Hershey's new Special Dark cocoa, but this Van Houten is in the middle price-range, and simply amazing. There is no reason not to have a box of it at home.

On a historical side note, apparently Van Houten is the founder of the cocoa Dutching process, which he originated back in 1828 or so. It's the same year that Andrew Jackson was elected to the presidency, a year which I remember due to my impressive high-school social studies teacher. That, and the fact that the year is encoded twice in the irrational base of the natural logarithm, 2.718281828459...I have to respect a universe that gives homage to the creation of Dutched cocoa in its fundamental, underlying mathematical constants.

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