Moscow Mule, revisited

Last night I made a Moscow Mule according to the recipe I posted recently. Actually, I made three of them at once, which is a convenient way to experiment.

Squeezing two large limes gave me about 4oz of lime juice, so I combined that with 4oz of vodka and a 12oz can of Vernors. Perfect. A dash of Angostura in the first glass was welcome, so I put it in the others too. However, it was very tart. Maybe Vernors is less sweet than other ginger ales. I added a bit under half an ounce of simple syrup to each glass and liked the result.

My guests were pleased - or at least they drank them without complaining!

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Classic cocktails

I saw a great cocktail list a few weeks ago, and it struck me that it had all my favorites on it, despite the fact that there were only ten drinks or so. It was labeled "Classic Cocktails". They were all old-school mixed drinks--not sugary or stuffed with decorative fruit or branded with flavored vodka.

(I am a bit of a purist. I think almost all flavored vodkas are dumb. I also hate flavored coffee, but that's because it makes me want to retch. Flavored vodka just reminds me of the "schnapps" fad. You might as well just go to a bar wearing a T-shirt that says "Ooh I'm so drunk!")

The restaurant, by the way, was Le Bistro, in Corvallis, Oregon. The service was excellent, the food interesting and well-executed, and the wine list extensive and quite reasonably priced. We were in Corvallis to tour the wineries of Willamette Valley.

Their list featured the Sazerac, Sidecar, Negroni, Manhattan, Martini, Old Fashioned, and a few others. I immediately felt at home because the Negroni was the first professional classic cocktail I ever loved: it's gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. Maybe I've developed more of a palate for bitter things as I've aged. I never thought I'd finish a bottle of Campari, but now I have. Here are a few more of my favorites.

The Americano: 1 oz Campari, 2 oz sweet vermouth, ice, and soda in a tall glass, topped with a twist of lemon peel. I often bring the proportions of Campari and vermouth closer to 1:1. It's basically a milder version of the Negroni, and as such, it works better as a digestif.

First Avenue: 1 1/2 oz oloroso Sherry, 1/2 oz Cointreau, 3/4 oz soda, 1/4 oz Campari. This has several of my favorite things in it. I could go on and on about Sherry. It's Spain's version of Port, a high-alcohol wine. It typically has a very nutty taste and, unlike port, is often quite tart. Oloroso is less tart than most of the other varieties. It's also hard to find, but $20 or more will get you a decent bottle. I love to sip sherry and eat toasted almonds. This drink is an excellent vehicle for it.

Moscow Mule: technically this is equal parts vodka and lime juice, then three parts ginger beer and a dash of Angostura bitters. I plan to try it this way soon. I've been basically mixing vodka and Vernors and calling it a moscow mule, but I'll be happy to be corrected. By the way, Vernors makes Canada Dry, Schweppes, and Seagrams taste like water. And if you want to take it to another level, the Ginger People's Ginger Beer makes Vernor's taste like water. Seriously, it kicks ass. I once tried putting vodka in it, but it was completely unpalatable.

Single crystals and other reasons my job rocks

The post about metal rings got me thinking about my job. As a materials scientist, I get to melt stuff. A friend once told me "you don't have to scratch a chemist very deep to find a pyromaniac." It's no coincidence he was a chemist. Melting stuff is fun. No, it's not fun, it's AWESOME.

The other day I mentioned that tungsten has the highest melting point of any pure metal. I once had the great privilege to handle several single crystals of tungsten, each the size of a thick toothpick. Here's where I school you a little.

The metals you see around you every day are crystalline, just like diamonds. The difference is that jewelry gemstones are single crystals, whereas metal crystals are small and so well bonded together that you don't notice them. In a crystal, all the atoms are lined up in three dimensions, packed in closely like freshly racked billiard balls. By contrast, in a glassy material, the atoms are positioned randomly.

You can make single crystals of many materials by a technique called Czochralski growth, where basically you melt a bowl of the material, bring a cold "seed crystal" down in contact with its surface, and slowly pull upwards while keeping the seed cool. The molten material will solidify onto the seed in perfect alignment with the atoms that are already there. This is how the computer industry makes silicon "boules" twelve inches in diameter, later to be made into microprocessors.

At this point your scalp may be starting to sweat as you contemplate the possibility of twelve-inch diamonds. Relax: there is no such thing as molten diamond. It goes straight from solid to gas, like moth balls and dry ice. There's a similar problem with tungsten: the only kind of bowl you can melt tungsten in would be either diamond (expensive) or, well, cold tungsten. Instead, they use a different technique. They make a rod of ordinary tungsten, and then melt a little section in the middle. They move this molten section slowly along the length of the rod, and usually eventually one of the solidifying crystals will get bigger until it fills the whole width of the rod. This is quite difficult at 6200 degrees Fahrenheit.

In my current job, I use a similar technique--a quartz tube with a moving heater around it and an alloy inside--to make nearly perfect crystals of my material. There are usually at least two or three crystals at any point along the length of the thing, but still: it's a two pound metal crystal, an inch around and eight inches long. It gives me a gut thrill every time I handle one, and I think of the perfect crystalline order of tens of millions of atoms standing in a line.

It's a coincidence, probably, that these objects are shaped like metallurgical phallic symbols. Alloy furnaces are the hairy ball sacks of materials science. It's complete command over nature, a triumph of empirical rationalism, and it gives me a hardon once in a while.

That might seem perverse, but I think it's common. Accountants and MBAs get a hardon for large sums of money. Engineers, for metals and big power and, well, big engines. Military guys, for big weapons, probably. HU-AH.

Other amazing things I have held in my hands: a fist-sized chunk of "machinable tungsten" (really tungsten powder cemented together with rhenium) which was astonishingly heavy; a fuel injector plunger coated with "near-frictionless carbon", which provides a sliding friction coefficient of 0.001 in dry air; a four-inch-wide disc of boron carbide, one of the hardest materials known; and more.

Meet Uncle Tungsten's hard-living brother, Tungsten Carbide

I have a new ring that I like to play with and show to people. I wanted tungsten but I ended up with tungsten carbide. Read on.

For many years I wore two rings--a plain silver band on my right hand and my plain platinum wedding band on my left. I'm a materials scientist by trade, so occasionally I would pass these around at conferences and challenge people to identify the metals.

People are used to the relative heft of aluminum and steel; steel is three times as dense as aluminum. Materials scientists play with a lot of different metals, but one of them thought the silver ring was aluminum and the platinum ring was steel, simply because of their weights. (Never mind how absurd it would be to wear aluminum and steel rings. Materials scientists sometimes come up short in the social graces.) Platinum is indeed twice as dense as silver. But the thing is, silver is even denser than steel. Platinum is seriously heavy stuff. Lacking a known reference, the weigh-it-in-your-hand judgement can be way off.

A year or two ago I started seeing rings with dark gray inlaid bands. I found out this was tungsten - and immediately wanted it. In addition to being almost as dense as platinum, tungsten has the highest melting point of any pure metal. (So when spontaneous human combustion catches up with me, they'll be able to salvage my jewelry.)

This month I got my chance. It was near my birthday, and my wife brought me to a jewelry store to show me a diamond ring. Which, it turned out, cost half what my car did. But they also had a heap of plain metal bands. One was polished and dark grey - not just a tungsten inset, but all tungsten. Happy birthday to me! When I got it home I happened to see writing inside it and found that it's really tungsten carbide, but I don't feel too badly about that. Tungsten carbide is the material used to cut other metals: it makes up machine tool cutting bits that reach 1000 degrees C and suffer tremendous forces. These tools (and probably my ring) are actually tungsten carbide powder cemented together with about 5 volume percent cobalt, but I'm not complaining. So my new ring is essentially unscratchable. I'm unlikely to grab anything harder than it is.

I'm no longer wearing the silver band, though maybe I should be. There were other interesting rings in that heap, and I'm tempted to start wearing a metallurgical display case on my hands. The titanium rings were super-light (density less than half that of silver) and actually rather pretty. Some had a rainbow oxide treatment. Titanium is a great lightweight structural metal (turbine engine blades, etc) but it gives a lousy friction and wear surface. So I'm OK with tungsten carbide for the time being.


I bought a bike.

The exercise bike in my basement was leading up to this, but I didn't like the idea of spending $400 for a new entry-level road bike. Craigslist came to the rescue. Someone had one they'd paid $450 for but weren't using. The frame fit me. It was in good repair and even looked halfway decent. They wanted $170 but the tires were shot, so I offered $150 and they accepted. Ta-daa!

Then came replacing my ancient helmet, spandex shorts, gloves, etc. After all that plus the tires, I was set back another $100. But I expected that. I even got out my old Thule trunk-mount bike rack. I'd lost the manual, and the thing was so old the manual wasn't online, but after a couple days I figured out how to mount it, so now my wife and I can ride together.

So on Sunday we drove to the northernmost point of the Tow Path along the Cuyahoga, and began riding south. After a half mile or so I noticed an odd bumping. After a mile I realized it was my valve stem hitting the road - my tire was flat. Serves me right for replacing the tires but not the inner tubes. We walked back to the car.

I got some replacement inner tubes. I dug out my old Zefal frame pump. I'm gonna toss my bike in the back of my car and go to that trailhead after work. You'll see.

Tasmanian Devil in a pickup truck

The story about the August 15 beating of Jon Brittain in Ohio City's gay district reminded me of something that happened to me a few weeks ago. I work a few blocks from there, and I think this is no coincidence.

I returned to work after a lunch out with my wife, parked across the street from my building, and saw that a nearby light was red, so I jogged across the road. Then I noticed a pickup had gone through the light. Nobody else moved ... the light was still red ... he hadn't come from the cross street. I glared at the truck as I crossed the street. When he got to me he slowed down and said, 'you got a problem?' I said, 'you just ran a red light, asshole.' Since he had stopped in my path, I walked around the back of his truck. Then he got out. Huh? 'Why, are you a cop?' he yelled. He didn't wait for me to answer. What came out of his mouth after that was an escalating stream of vile insults and threats. Bewildered, I think I called him an asshole again and ran. After all, this encounter took place in the middle of another intersection, and I didn't want to get hit by a car while I was trying not to get in a fight with a dumpy sixtysomething white dude wearing a wifebeater. I went back to my desk and tried to work despite the adrenaline rush.

For a few hours I wondered what would motivate someone to pick a fight with a random stranger in broad daylight. A blue collar bender? Bad divorce? He already had a body in the bed of his pickup and wanted some bruises of his own to make it look like he'd killed them in self-defense? It didn't make sense.

The next day I thought about what he'd looked like, and what I had looked like at the time. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and I didn't have my briefcase or nametag. I'm a skinny young-looking guy and I was on foot a few blocks from the gay district. He looked like a member of the generation and social class of Americans for whom open homophobia is common. So there you have it.

The attack on Jon Brittain appears to have been opportunistic, not a hate crime. But I couldn't help being reminded of my experience. I almost bought a house in that neighborhood. I drive by it every day, at the end of my commute. On the one hand, I'd have a much smaller carbon footprint if I walked to work, but on the other hand, justified or not, I have concerns about my personal safety.

Ravioli Puttanesque

The only original recipe I ever made up out of thin air: Ravioli Puttanesque.

Fresh cheese-filled ravioli or tortellini from the refrigerator case, 1 package
Three small very ripe tomatoes, chopped coarse
Fresh basil, chopped coarse
Olives - kalamata and provencal - a handful of each, pitted and chopped medium coarse
Fresh mushrooms, not white, preferably crimini or some kind of assortment
Fresh garlic, chopped fine
A little chicken stock, maybe 1/3-1/2 cup
Parmesan, the real thing, grated
Chop up everything. Sautee the garlic in olive oil until it's fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms and sautee until they soften a little--not too hot or too long, because garlic gets bitter when it's burnt. Add the tomatoes, basil, olives, and stock. Heat this until it's just warm; don't boil it or the tomatoes will fall apart.
Meanwhile, boil the pasta according to the package directions, which will probably be about 3 minutes.
Serve the sauce on the pasta and top it with the Parmesan. The liquid in the sauce will be thin and there will just be a little bit on the bottom of each pasta bowl to keep the rest wet.
Some bread on the side is nice. The wine should be a light red, preferably more Old World-style and austere rather than a fruit bomb.

This recipe is really nothing like Puttanesca, or 'Roman whore's pasta', which consists entirely of canned food. No. I came up with this recipe while we were wandering through a wine store with a bottle we wanted to try, but not knowing what we could eat with it. So I made it up.

More generally, this points out that most of what we think of as creativity is really appropriation. As we go through our lives, we see things and realize they would have a different meaning in some other context. That leap is creative, even though arguably nothing new is being created. I cook three or four times a week (my wife also cooks) but this is the only recipe I've ever dreamed up from scratch. Does that mean that my other 199 recipes aren't creative? It's the little improvisations, the accomodations we have to do to adapt a recipe to our kitchen, that are the expressions of our creativity.