Steeling my resolve

January 18th, 2014

I tend to collect obsessions as I get older. Many of them involve cooking. One that has evolved over the years is pizza making. I started making my own pizza dough over 5 years ago, but I have slowly refined the recipe to settle on one that is fairly reliable.

Making pizza at home is great because not only can you tailor it to your personal tastes (I find many pizzerias too greasy), but you can guarantee that the pizza will be fresh.

My general approach is to make the dough one to two days in advance and let it’s flavor mature in the refrigerator for a couple days before using it. I add a simple sauce, Maplebrook Farm mozzarella, and a few toppings.

For the past several years I cooked the pizza on a stone in my maxed out oven, giving it at least an hour to warm up. This has worked very well, and improved even further once I added convection. The pizza cooks in about 6 minutes, and the results are great, though the crust has never been as crispy as I would like.

Recently, I discovered the Baking Steel, a quarter inch thick, 15 pound behemoth that replaces the stone. The idea is that steel transfers heat to the dough better than stone. To my surprise it worked rather well. I’m still experimenting, but it definitely added a crispness that I was missing before. Next up is trying the elusive Neapolitan style, which has never worked well for me in the past.

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Rumored iPhone 5S Specs

July 17th, 2013

Rumored iPhone 5S production shots & specs: IGZO display, Fingerprint, NFC, 12MP cam | 9to5Mac

Specs for the iPhone 5S from this same leak include NFC reader (which was taken out of the iPhone 5 late in production we’ve heard), a Fingerprint Reader (which may or may not be causing production delays), Sharp 4-inch 1136×640 (and maybe LG) IGZO display for power savings and better image quality and new 12 megapixel backside camera with dual LED flash.

The lingering question has been what Apple can add to the iPhone to make it more appealing without changing the form factor. These adjustments sound believable. The most compelling sounds like the fingerprint reader, presuming it could be used in lieu of a passcode. The real question is how well it works. The NFC addition is intriguing. The question is what Apple would use it for. Historically, Apple doesn’t add features it doesn’t have a use for.

X4

May 22nd, 2013

2014 BMW X4 Rendered – News – Car and Driver

Ask BMW executives their favorite success story among the company’s current products, and they’re likely to say “X6.” Combining the disadvantages of an SUV, a coupe, and a performance car, the X6 has nevertheless been a smash hit.

I’m a fan of BMWs, but I can’t stand the X6. It looks horrendous. The X4 may be a small improvement, but what’s the point of this? It’s an uglier, more expensive X3 with less useful space.

Breaking (and fixing) Bread

March 19th, 2013

Like what seems like half the population, I bought a bread machine years ago after graduating from college. It seemed like a great idea. Everyone likes fresh bread, and it’s so convenient! But inevitably, the bread machine always ends up in storage unused. The slice or two seems so rewarding, but it’s not quite great, and eventually we’re faced with a half-finshed loaf sitting on the counter. A few days old, it lacks that fresh-bread appeal. The allure fades.

A few years ago, realizing that technology always marches forward, I concluded that bread machines must have come a long way. With a young child in my house regularly consuming bread, perhaps it was time to give it another chance. After scanning Amazon reviews, it seemed the Zojirushi BB-HAC10 would fit the bill. As before, the first few loaves came out reasonably well baked, but lackluster. The pattern began to repeat itself and the bread maker returned to the basement.

Zojirushi BB-HAC10

In recent years, I’ve searched for a way to make decent sandwich bread that my kindergartener would eat (and that my wife and I would also enjoy). After many attempts, I finally was able to produce a pillowy white bread that was easy to eat and went great with sandwiches. It tasted great, but took a lot of time to prepare, and careful planning to ensure I had enough time for the various rising steps.

What if, I wondered, my prior failures with the Zojirushi were not due to the machine, but just the lack of a good recipe. The results speak for themselves: we haven’t bought a loaf of bread in months and the Z is in near constant use. The 1 pound loaves finish quickly, but that ensures that the bread is always relatively fresh.

Super Soft White Bread

Super Soft White Bread

In a bowl, mix:

  • 280 g bread flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1.5 tablespoons dry milk powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon butter, cut into small pieces

In a separate bowl or mixing cup, combine

  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 egg, beaten

Take out the bread pan from the machine. Add in the liquid mixture, then the flour mixture. In a small well in the flour, add:

  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast

Return the pan to the machine, set the crust control to “light” and start the machine. I’ve also set the machine to delay so it will be ready in the morning. There are warnings about doing this with egg-based recipes, but I’m still alive (hey, the bread’s cooked!).

Here’s the key:

As soon as the bread is done, remove it from the pan immediately and brush with about 1/2 tablespoon of melted butter, then wrap with a kitchen towel until the bread cools. Don’t try to cut into the bread while warm…it’s difficult and still tastes excellent when cool.

Perfect Pancakes

February 24th, 2013

Pancakes are one of my favorite comfort foods, but they can be surprisingly challenging to get right. After years of tweaking and searching for light, fluffy, tender pancakes, I’ve settled on the following recipe. This makes about 4-5 large pancakes.

Preheat a griddle to 300 degrees (if you don’t have a range with a built-in griddle, an electric griddle works well).

Add to a medium bowl:

  • 140 g unbleached all purpose flour (a low protein brand, like Gold Medal, works well)
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon (optional)
  • 4 tbsp (1/4 cup) powdered buttermilk)

Whisk the dry ingredients well and set aside

In a large measuring cup (~ 2 cup) add:

  • 250 ml warm water
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled slightly

Mix all the wet ingredients well (e.g. with a fork).

Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the dry ingredients and whisk until just combined. There should be no large clumps of powder, but some small clumps are okay. Do not over-mix. Let the batter rest for about 10 minutes before cooking.

Cook the pancakes on the griddle, about 2-3 minutes per side. Flip the pancakes the first time when you bubbles burst and leave a hole in the top. The second side is usually done when it looks the same color as the first.

Serve with real maple syrup.

Adventures with Siri

January 23rd, 2013

I’ve been a fan of Siri since her introduction, but she has not been without her quirks. Until this fall, she would sometimes respond quickly, sometimes take her time, sometimes have remarkable accuracy, and sometimes fail completely. In the past few months, however, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in both accuracy and response times, to the point where I’ve not hesitated to employ her for routine jobs.

During a recent family trip, we were searching for decent cupcakes and settled on a bakery we had never been to before. As my wife struggled to guide me with directions, I decided to call upon an old friend. Despite the fact that we were in the car, and Siri would use the somewhat suboptimal Bluetooth microphone setup the car dealer had installed, I thought I’d give it a go.

“Navigate to Sugar Bakery.”

Siri was on it. This was a real test of maligned services – both Siri and Apple Maps at the same time! Surely we’d end up somewhere exotic. Perhaps the Ngorongoro crater? No, the pair did an impressive job, sending is right to the destination.

Upon exiting the bakery, we realized we had more than enough cupcakes to go around, and decided to share the wealth with my parents, who live relatively close by.

“Navigate to my parent’s house.”

Not a problem for Siri. So far, I was quite impressed. As we were driving, my son announced that he wanted to listen to some music, so I asked Siri to help us out.

“Play the album Strangeland.”

Within seconds, it was playing. Miraculous. Who needs flying cars when you have this kind of power.

It occurred to me that we hadn’t actually told my parents we would be coming. Since my parents were raised in a country once occupied by the British, certain customs carried over from the UK, including the habit of having afternoon tea. It was this occasion for which the cupcakes were destined.

Me: “Text my mother: we are coming for tea.”

Siri: “Here’s your message: ‘We are coming freaky.’”

That won’t do, let’s try this again.

Me: “Text my mother: we are coming for tea.”

Siri: “Here’s your message: ‘We are coming 4G.’”

This doesn’t even make sense. I’m beginning to get embarrassed.

Me: “Text my mother: we are coming for tea.”

Siri: “Here’s your message: ‘We are coming for me.’”

As of this writing, Apple stock is down 10% in after hours trading.

Do we need WiGig?

January 14th, 2013

Fastest Wi-Fi ever is almost ready for real-world use | Ars Technica

Wilocity is one of the main proponents of the even faster WiGig (or “wireless gigabit”), which can theoretically hit speeds of up to 7Gbps, with the downside of using frequencies that are easily blocked by walls. Even thin cubicle walls may block signals, Wilocity acknowledged.

I have 5 Ghz 802.11n throughout my home, but I never reach anywhere close to the theoretical maximums because the signal is easily blocked by walls. I don’t see the appeal of faster Wifi if you basically have to be in a line of sight with the router. More than speed improvements, we need resilience to physical obstacles and interference.

New iPads in the works?

January 11th, 2013

Analyst claims both ‘thinner and lighter’ full-sized iPad and ‘similar’ iPad mini launching in March | 9to5Mac

Analyst Brian White of Topeka Capital claims that Apple is gearing up to launch revisions to both the iPad with 9.7-inch Retina display and the iPad mini this coming March.

An update to the Mini so soon after its release sounds a bit crazy. My sense is that, if there’s any truth to this, we’ll see a relatively minor tweak – slightly enhanced internals, but no major difference.

The larger iPad is due for a form factor update. One thing that’s striking about the iPad 3 (and its replacement) is how they are actually heavier and thicker than the iPad 2. It’s noticeable, even without using them side-by-side. A focus on weight reduction makes a lot of sense. One big appeal of the Mini is the weight advantage. It’s debatable how much of an advantage the smaller size is per se – neither one can easily fit in a pocket.

iWatch, do you?

December 27th, 2012

As everyone waits for the long-fabled Apple television set, a new, and more viable, rumor has emerged. Today, the blogs lit up with discussion of a potential Apple watch. Just as telephony makes up only a small part of the iPhone’s functionality, this project isn’t about a venture into time-telling devices, but rather an move into wearable computers.

What’s the problem that wearable computers solve? Watch wearing has almost certainly been decimated in the wake of accelerated smartphone adoption. Why wear a time-telling contraption on your wrist, when one in your pocket keeps perfect time and can do much more? The problem is that every time you need to check the time, or a text, or an alert, you must rifle through pockets (or purse, or wherever your smartphone lives) to glance at your phone. A wrist-based screen requires just a flick of the wrist.

Today’s watches don’t do enough – they just tell time. Yet a watch-sized screen is too limiting for the range of activities we now demand of our devices. However, low-power short range wireless technologies like the now-ubiquitous Bluetooth 4.0 offer the potential for the best of both worlds. The brains remain in the smartphone, which remains the main device for composing messages, viewing complex information, or other demanding tasks. For quick viewing of information such as short messages or, gasp, the time, the key bits could be wirelessly relayed to the low-power screen.

Watches are not the only option for wearable computing. Google’s Glass project puts the information right in front of the user’s face in the form of high-tech glasses. While this has some advantages, so many of us already have our faces buried in screens as it is. Glass requires you to wear another screen constantly on your face and has a greater potential of being disruptive. Where else could we place a wearable screen? There are few logical options other than the wrist. Unlike Google’s Glass, the watch can be checked as much, or as little, as the user wants.

The category is a no-brainer, but the execution is critical. It’s easy to make a bad watch. It’s exceedingly difficult to create a new category of device that no one realizes they need. But this is exactly the kind of transformation that Apple has been so good at in the past.

Minified and Retinized

October 20th, 2012

Tuesday is the next big Apple launch, and despite Apple’s usual proclivity for minimizing the number of products released at a single event, it looks like this will be a busy day.

The 7.85″ iPad is the most certain of these products. I agree with the general consensus that the no-brainer name for this device is the iPad Mini: it differentiates it from the full-sized iPad without resorting to numbers (e.g. ’8-inch iPad’). Gruber has a penchant for iPad Air, but it seems off to me: the iPad is already thin and light. It seems awkward to emphasize this further in the smaller iPad, even if it will be thinner and lighter. The specs seem pretty well known: a non-retina 1024 x 768 screen, allowing compatibility with existing iPad apps. This places the Mini at the same pixel density as the iPhone 3GS, but since iPads are generally held further from the face than iPhones, it will effectively look sharper. Because of the smaller overall screen size, the sharpness will be between that of the iPad 2 and The New iPad (aka iPad 3). Given the pressure to have an inexpensive product to compete with the growing number of small tablets (e.g. Kindle Fire and Nexus 7), a retina screen (which, at this screen size, would require a higher dot pitch than the current reitna iPad) is unlikely to be financially feasible this year.

A refresh to the current full-sized iPad with a Lightning connector also seems likely: Apple needs to make a transition to this new connector, and the sooner they can do this, the better. I also expect we’ll see the iPad 2 killed off as the Mini becomes the new entry-level device.

A new retina 13″ MacBook Pro is also expected. No big surprises: essentially the same machine as the 15″ MacBook Pro, only smaller. I expect a 2560 x 1600 resolution (1280×800 effective pixels), no DVD drive, and SSD-only storage. The 13″ MBP has been a strange machine in the line-up since the 13″ MacBook Air became a mainstream device. Why buy a bulkier, heavier machine with a lower screen resolution (1280×800 vs the MBA’s 1440 x 900)? In the past, one reason was that the MBP offered a DVD drive while the MBA did not. This is becoming less of an issue now and the retina MBP further blurs the lines between these two machines. The weights will be closer, and the storage options will be the same. Why not just introduce a retina MBA and kill off the 13″ Pro? My sense is that the Air form factor just can’t handle the requirements of a retina screen (the power, the screen thickness, and the necessary GPU).

The rumored Mac Mini update is decidedly unexciting. The real question is whether or not there’s a substantial iMac update in store. I think it’s still too optimistic to think a retina iMac would be possible at this stage. I expect that any updated iMacs will essentially be spec-bumped models. No new enclosure, no significant hardware changes other than USB3.