Articles in the general category

Non-stick tortilla technique

I have never had much success with tortilla making, generally finding the fragile masa would stick to everything and tear easily. However I was listening to the Cook's Illustrated podcast where they mentioned that cooking a pizza on a stone with silicone-paper makes no difference over doing it on the stone directly. For some reason I had just never thought of cooking it with the silicone-paper on; I'd always frustrated myself trying to separate the pressed tortilla in various ways.

So here's my technique:

  1. Mix the masa as on the packet; 2 cups to 2-half cups water
  2. Leave for 20 minutes or so
  3. Use plastic-wrap on the top of the tortilla press
  4. Cut a silicone-paper square for the bottom
  5. Ball the masa and press
  6. Now the plastic-wrap will peel easily off the top of the uncooked tortilla
  7. Take the silcone-paper and put the tortilla down on the pan/hotplate
  8. Give a slight press with the spatula around the edges
  9. After about 20 seconds, the silicone-paper should peel off the tortilla fairly easily.
  10. repeat!

I've tried mixing in suet, oil and copha and none of them are worth the extra calories over just plain masa in my opinion and don't help with sticking anyway. Enjoy!

Converting an American propane appliance to Australian gas bottles

Here's something I just spent too much time figuring out...

If you have an Australian "gas" or "LPG bottle"; the type you'd pick-up at any "service" or "petrol" station in Australia, it has a female POL connector. I'm not sure what POL stands for; possibly related to some company who made connectors long ago and it became standard.

If you have an American "propane" device such as a grill, turkey fryer or smoker, or indeed something that plugs into a "propane bottle" you would pick-up at a "gas station" -- it will have a "Type 1", "ACME", "ACME Type 1", "QCC", "QCC1" or "QCC Type 1" connector (each seems to be an interchangeable term for the other). The appliance side of this has a big (usually black) plastic nut that is apparently safer or something.

Once you have figured this out, you can buy something like the "Grillpro Model 11051 Universal Fit Propane Tank Adapter" and I can attest, based upon empirical evidence, that things will "just work". Of course your other choice might be just to replace the regulator, hoses, etc.; however if everything seems super-glued together the adapter is much easier.

In other empirical evidence you won't find anywhere else on the internet : the Vizio M3D550KD LCD television works just fine on 240V, despite not being rated for it on the back.

Comcast self-setup with Netgear routers

I just got a Zoom 5341 modem to replace a very sketchy old Motorola model and so far it seems to work fine.

However, the Comcast self-install switch process was not seamless. After you plug your new modem in the process starts fine, capturing your session and prompting you for your account. However at the next step it prompts you to download the Windows or Mac only client, directing you to an address http://cdn/....

It is at this point you can get stuck if you're behind a Netgear router (I have a WNDR3700) and probably others. The simple problem is that, for whatever reason, the factory firmware in this router does not pass on the domain search suffix through its inbuilt DHCP client. Without that, cdn doesn't resolve to anything, so you can't download the self-help tool and you're effectively stuck at a "can not find this page" screen. If you google at this point you can find many people who have hit this problem, and various information from erroneous suggestions that you've been hacked (?) to most people just giving up and moving into Comcast phone support hell.

Assuming you now don't have internet access, you can complete the process with a quick swizzle. Somebody might be able to correct me on this, but I don't think you want to run the self-install tool from an actual computer plugged directly into the modem if you have a router in the picture, because the wrong MAC address will get registered. So, your best solution is to turn everything off, plug your computer directly into the modem, turn it on, get an address, download the tool, turn everything off, plug the router back-in to the modem and then run the self install tool. At this point, everything just worked fine for me.

Netgear should probably fix this by correctly passing through the domain search suffixes in their routers. Comcast should probably fix this by doing some sort of geo-ip lookup to give clients a fully-qualified address in that webpage to download the tool even if their router is broken (or really, does downloading that file really require a content-delivery network?). You can probably fix this by running Openwrt on your router before you start.

Otherwise, the Zoom modem and the Netgear WNDR3700 seem to make a very nice combination which I would reccommend.

Cook's Illustrated v Food52 Cookie Challenge

I saw Christopher Kimball, doyen of the Cook's Illustrated empire, at our local bookstore a while ago and, as one of my old professors would say, he was "good value".

He did, however, have a bit of a rant about the internet and how random websites just did not produce recipes that could compare to the meticulous testing that a Cook's Illustrated recipe went through. I was interested to see this come to a head on Slate where Cook's Illustrated has put their recipes up against food52.com for a head-to-head battle.

So yesterday, my wife and I took up the challenge. We resolved to follow both recipes meticulously, which I believe we achieved after a trip for ingredients.

Neither was particularly easier or harder than the other -- the Cook's Illustrated had a lot of fiddling with spices, while the food52.com one required creaming the butter and sugar.

Both came out pretty much as you would expect, although the Cook's Illustrated ones were a little flat. The recipe does say to be careful to not overwork the dough; it may be partially user error.

We were split. I liked the Cook's Illustrated one better, as the spices really were quite mellow and very enjoyable with a cup of coffee. My wife tended towards the plainer food52.com ones, but she is a big fan of a plain sugar cookie.

The ultimate test, however, was leaving both of them on the bench at work with a request to vote. The winner was clear -- 10 votes for Cook's Illustrated and only 3 for food52.com.

So, maybe Kimball has a point. Either way, when there's cookies, everyone's a winner!

Some photos of the results:

Building a quiet, cool media/house server

After getting sick of having to underclock my existing home server to get it to remain up for any period of time, along with the horrendous noise, I finally found the time and budget to rebuild.

My goals were:

  • Quiet enough to have in the living room
  • Cool enough to live inside the TV cabinet with little ventilation
  • Large, redundant storage
  • Powerful enough to re-encode video
  • As power efficient as possible

In the end I went with

  • Antec NSK 1380
  • Asus AT3N7A-I motherboard with a dual-core Atom 330 CPU and Nvidia chipset
  • 4GB of RAM (for which I am still waiting for the mail-in rebate, as usual!)
  • 1 Western Digital Green 1TB SATA disk
  • 1 Samsung Ecogreen 1TB SATA disk
  • 30GB Patriot SATA SSD
  • Recycled DVD writer + PCI IDE card

The case is really awesome. Very easy to access, and the fan is extremley quiet. It very cleverly holds 3 full-size hard-disks; two mounted vertically on either side, and one horizontally in the middle. The final space is for a DVD -- after that it's pretty cramped inside! It makes claims it is a very efficient power supply.

It has a very bright blue LED on the front, and the face-plate over the DVD looks nice but the button doesn't quite reach the eject button on my drive, so it's software eject only. All over, definitely recommend.

The motherboard is fairly good. One annoying thing is that it only has 3 SATA ports -- I think it's reasonable to want to have a primary drive, two mirrored large disks plus a DVD for a nice little media server. It also has no parallel-IDE, which is reasonable these days. However, if you wanted to install a wireless card you'd be out of luck if you also wanted to put in another SATA card, as it only has one PCI slot. There are plenty of USB ports for a USB wireless card, however. It also comes with two SATA cables, which isn't mentioned anywhere I could see (hopefully this saves you a trip back to Fry's to return your extra cables :).

The CPU fan is a little on the loud side, as mentioned in some other forums. It is also located right where the power supply cables come down in this case, making for a fairly tight fit.

Here's a lspci for those interested in such things

00:00.0 Host bridge: nVidia Corporation MCP79 Host Bridge (rev b1)
00:00.1 RAM memory: nVidia Corporation MCP79 Memory Controller (rev b1)
00:03.0 ISA bridge: nVidia Corporation MCP79 LPC Bridge (rev b2)
00:03.1 RAM memory: nVidia Corporation MCP79 Memory Controller (rev b1)
00:03.2 SMBus: nVidia Corporation MCP79 SMBus (rev b1)
00:03.3 RAM memory: nVidia Corporation MCP79 Memory Controller (rev b1)
00:03.5 Co-processor: nVidia Corporation MCP79 Co-processor (rev b1)
00:04.0 USB Controller: nVidia Corporation MCP79 OHCI USB 1.1 Controller (rev b1)
00:04.1 USB Controller: nVidia Corporation MCP79 EHCI USB 2.0 Controller (rev b1)
00:06.0 USB Controller: nVidia Corporation MCP79 OHCI USB 1.1 Controller (rev b1)
00:06.1 USB Controller: nVidia Corporation MCP79 EHCI USB 2.0 Controller (rev b1)
00:08.0 Audio device: nVidia Corporation MCP79 High Definition Audio (rev b1)
00:09.0 PCI bridge: nVidia Corporation MCP79 PCI Bridge (rev b1)
00:0b.0 IDE interface: nVidia Corporation MCP79 SATA Controller (rev b1)
00:10.0 PCI bridge: nVidia Corporation MCP79 PCI Express Bridge (rev b1)
00:15.0 PCI bridge: nVidia Corporation MCP79 PCI Express Bridge (rev b1)
01:05.0 RAID bus controller: Silicon Image, Inc. PCI0680 Ultra ATA-133 Host Controller (rev 02)
02:00.0 VGA compatible controller: nVidia Corporation ION VGA (rev b1)
03:00.0 Ethernet controller: Realtek Semiconductor Co., Ltd. RTL8111/8168B PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet controller (rev 03)

I know there are issues with the controller of the Patriot SSD, which would probably worry me for a general purpose machine. However for the primary disk of a server machine I'm not too fussed. The silence is golden and cool-running and low power consumption really helps too. I wouldn't really say it seems that blazing fast. It comes with a handy mount so it fits in a full-size hard-disk slot. Hard to beat for the price.

One concession I made to avoid excessive writes was mounting /tmp on tmpfs; this is where it's nice to have 4GB of RAM. Handbrake seems to do a lot of work in /tmp for example.

The two green hard-disks (software mirrored) are also inaudible. I'm hoping different brands should at least not fail at the same time. I'm not sure if they're auto-spinning down, but you can't really tell if they're on or not, even under load.

Even when running flat-out re-encoding a DVD in the enclosed cabinet with minimal airflow the CPU temperature hasn't gone above 60C; normal CPU temp is around 40C. Performance is adequate -- running PlayOn in a VMware workstation XP VM almost works.

It's kind of hard to take photos inside a case, but here's an attempt:

Debian unstable installed without issues (except for some weird bug with the boot hanging for 60 seconds due to the RTL driver). It is also very strange installing from USB to an SSD — no noise!

An open letter to Harvey Norman, Norwest, Castle Hill

I usually find blog rants useless, but sometimes something is just so annoying one is sufficiently inspired. Today I went with my parents to buy them a Tivo at Harvey Norman, Norwest, Castle Hill, NSW, Australia. I am a big Tivo fan; the interface is good and it "just works". I don't mind paying for (or in this recommending paying for) good products.

After selecting the Tivo model, I asked for a HDMI cable. The salesman made a series of questions about what sort of HD TV it was being plugged into; I quickly sensed this as a probe to see what sort of suckers we were, and requested just a "normal" cable.

At this point, he insisted on a $130 (you guessed it) Monster cable, and had the audacity to say that we didn't need one of the really expensive cables because our TV wasn't good enough! I openly expressed my concern, but the annoying high-pressure sales pitch had just begun. The amount of, frankly, crap that he spewed about 4-bit this, 10-bit that, legislating of labels, DA signal levels, mythical customers who regretted buying the cheap cables and who knows what else was to the point of being comical if it weren't so insistent and said with such seeming authority.

There is only one thing that matters - if the cable has passed the functional requirements for being certified to have the distinctive HDMI logo plastered on it. From the HDMI FAQ:

  1. What testing is required?

Prior to mass producing or distributing any Licensed Product or component that claims compliance with the HDMI Specification (or allowing someone else to do such activities), each Adopter must test a representative sample for HDMI compliance. First, the Adopter must self test as specified in the then-current HDMI Compliance Test Specification. The HDMI Compliance Test Specification provides a suite of testing procedures, and establishes certain minimum requirements specifying how each HDMI Adopter should test Licensed Products for conformance to the HDMI Specification.

Now, I can understand that if you buy any old HDMI cable off Ebay for $1, it may be a knock-off that uses the HDMI logo illegally. But there is no way that the certified $50 Philips cable (still very over-priced, but at least not insane, and discounted to $35) performs any differently to some overpriced Monster model certified to exactly the same standard.

The thing that annoyed me most was his analogy to buying a tyre. He stated that "if you walked up to a tyre salesman and I said don't want the Pirelli's, just put the cheap-o tires on my Ferrari" I'd be insane, and thus by extension of that logic I was insane for not buying a Monster cable for my great new Tivo.

This analogy is completely flawed and really just dishonest. A Ferrari is much more powerful and goes much faster than a standard car. It is plausible it needs a better engineered tyre to perform adequately given the additional stresses it undergoes. A Tivo doesn't put out any more or any less bits than any other HDMI certified equipment, no matter what you do. If the cable is certified as getting all the bits to the other end under whatever environmental conditions specified by the HDMI people, then it's going to work for the 99% of people with normal requirements.

Nobody wants to make a significant investment in a piece of audio-visual equipment and feel they are getting something that isn't optimal. Harvey Norman's use of this understandable consumer sentiment to sell ridiculously over-priced cables that do nothing is extremely disappointing.

I'm sure the commissions on these things encourage this behaviour, so it is useless expecting the retailer or individual sales assistant to change their policy to recommend reasonably priced cables. However, it is really Tivo and other manufacturers who get the raw end of this deal; a $130 cable is over 20% of the price the actual Tivo! That is surely affecting people's purchasing decisions.

If Tivo and others included a certified HDMI cable with their device, as they do with component cables, and had "Certified HDMI 1.3 cable included" plastered on the box, it would be a harder sell to explain why the manufacturer would bother shipping a certified cable that is supposedly insufficient, and consumers would hopefully avoid the very distasteful high-pressure theatrics I was subjected to today.

Update: I have removed my description of the individual salesman in the title. Singling someone out invites ad hominem attacks and I have no interest in providing a forum for or perpetuating any such thing.

If it's one salesman, it's a thousand. To reiterate my main point, manufacturers must surely be annoyed that they participate in price wars with each other only to have their margins taken by a gold-plated optical cable company. I believe it is really up to them to get the information into their own market so it can operate efficiently.

Distance to 1 million people

On a recent trip up the Oregon coast, a friendly doorman at our hotel in Portland was inquiring about our trip. When we mentioned we passed through Bandon, OR, he quipped that Bandon was the place furthest from a city of one million people in the USA. I guess a normal person would just think "oh, that's interesting" and move on, but it has been plaguing me ever since.

Firstly, I had to find what cities in the USA had more than 1 million people. Luckily Wolfram Alpha gives the answer:

  • Chicago,Illinois
  • Dallas,Texas
  • Houston,Texas
  • Los Angeles,California
  • New York, New York
  • Philadelphia,Pennsylvania
  • Phoenix,Arizona
  • San Antonio,Texas
  • San Diego,California

(I certainly wouldn't have guessed that list!) From there my plan was to find the bounding box of the continental USA; luckily Wikipedia has the raw data for that. Combined with the latitude and longitude of the cities above, I had the raw data.

I couldn't figure out any way better than a simple brute-force of testing every degree and minute of latitude and longitude within the bounding box and calculating the distance to the closest large city; the theory being that from one particular point you would have to travel further than any other to reach a city of 1 million people. Luckily, that is short work for a modern processor, and hopefully the result would be a point somewhere around Bandon. I'd already become acquainted with the great circle and measuring distances when I did Tinymap, so a quick python program evolved.

However, it turns out that the program picks the far south-east corner of the bounding box. Thanks to the shape of the USA, that is way out over the ocean somewhere. I can't figure out a way to get an outline of the USA to test if a given point is inside the border or not, but all is not lost.

I modified the program to output the the distance to the closest large city along with the location to a log file, and then imported it into gnuplot to make a heat-map. The hardest part was finding an equirectangular outline of the USA to place the heat-map over, rather than a much more common Mercator projection; Wikimedia to the rescue!

I actually surprised myself at how well the two lined up when, after a little work with Gimp, I overlayed them (big)

Distance to a city of 1 million people (km)

From this, I can see that Bandon, about a third of the way up the Oregon coast, is a pretty good candidate. However, probably not the best; I get the feeling the real point that is the furthest from any city of 1 million people is actually somewhere in the central-middle of Montana.

However, we can also fiddle the program slightly to disprove the point about Bandon. The numbers show the closest large city to Bandon is LA, at ~1141km. Taking another point we suspect to be more remote; the closest large city to Portland (where we met the doorman) is also LA at ~1329km. So to reach the closest large city you have to travel further from Portland than Bandon, so Bandon is not the furthest place in the USA from a city of one million people. Myth busted!