Dec. 20, 2007

“Furnish” Episode of Big Ideas for a Small Planet

Some coworkers and I went to Gloria’s last night for a going-away party for Garrett since he’ll be working for himself in the New Year. The food was super tasty as always — this wasn't the first time that I had been to Gloria’s and it was a great time.

There was a large-ish flat-panel TV on one of the walls near us and, interestingly enough, it wasn’t tuned into a sports or news broadcast (not that there's anything wrong with that). Instead, it happened to be tuned into a program about furniture making (including what appeared to be a segment featuring some Herman Miller products). And, given that a good chunk of the people at our table have more than a passing interest in productivity pr0n, several of us (myself included) found the show to be a pleasant background accompaniment to our regular conversation.

A few of us eventually tried to figure out what the show was (with the idea that we might be able to catch a re-airing of it later). Confoundingly, though, the channel-identifier which bookended the commercials carried the logos of both Universal HD and The Sundance Channel. After a bit of poking around the web (and a few dead-ends), I think I’ve figured out which show it was. It appears to have been the “Furnish” episode of Big Ideas for a Small Planet which airs on Universal HD under the banner “Sundance Channel on Universal HD” (yeah, your guess is as good as mine on that one).

The “Big Ideas for a Small Planet” page at UniversalHD.com describes it as an “original documentary series from Sundance Channel [which] focuses on environmental topics with features on forward-thinking designers, green products and alternative ideas that may transform our everyday lives.”. More specifically, here’s what’s listed for the “Furnish” episode:

In this episode, a leading furniture company explores the goal of making all new products 100% sustainable; two designers use leftover scrap wood to create recycled furniture; and a Philadelphia-based firm shows off their innovative and stylish home-product designs.

The good news, I suppose, is that we now know what the show was. The bad news, at least for now, is that I checked my TiVo for soon-to-air episodes of the series and I didn’t see “Furnish” among any of those upcoming episodes. Still, my TiVo only keeps track of listings for the next two weeks, so it’s entirely possible that Universal HD might re-run “Furnish” in a few weeks time. (I'm tempted to add a Season Pass for the show just in case that might happen.)

Dec. 17, 2007

Blondies Recipe from America’s Test Kitchen

America's Test Kitchen - Blondies

The Dallas Camera Club has a potluck holiday party each year and, after thinking about it for a bit, I decided to make some blondies for this year’s party. (Blondies, in case you’re not familiar with them, are like brownies but without the chocolate; they’re a bar cookie which generally have a butterscotch-type flavor.) Well, to be sure, that I kinda had in mind was something like the Sheila’s Dream Bars from Potbelly Sandwiches. To be honest, I’m not even sure if Sheila's Dream Bars qualify and blondies, but that was my best guess — they're moist and dense bar cookies (in the way that a good brownie would be) with oats and chocolate chunks.

As a side note, I’m apparently not the only one looking for something analogous to Sheila's Dream Bars. One guy even wrote to Potbelly to ask for the recipe (but was politely declined). I also came across an attempt at a clone recipe at AllRecipes. Interestingly enough, one reviewer “was trying to duplicate the very addictive Sheila's Dream Bars from Potbelly” and went on to say that “these are EXACTLY what I was looking for” while another reviewer said that they’re “not even close to Sheila’s Dream Bars at Potbelly Sandwich Shoppe”. Great. How’s that for indecisiveness?

Since I didn't really want to take a chance on a recipe which was a toss-up between being “exactly” or “not even close” to what I was looking for, I turned to America’s Test Kitchen to get their take. (America’s Test Kitchen is a half-hour cooking show on PBS. Made by the same group that publishes Cook’s Illustrated magazine, the two groups are known for testing dozens of variants on a recipe before selecting their favorite which they then publish.)

I had recently picked up a couple DVD box sets of past seasons from the show and so I flipped through those to see if there was a blondie recipe. As it turns out, there was (it was from the 2005 season, for those curious). And, pleasantly enough, the recipe wasn’t too complicated either; with the exception of the chocolate chips or pecans, you might even have most of the other ingredients in your cupboard already (flour, eggs, sugar, and so on). The recipe also called for melted butter, so there wasn’t even a need for a mixer — only a spatula to fold some ingredients together.

Next up: the recipe; after that, I’ve included some comments on how they turned out.

Ingredients:

  • Vegetable cooking spray
  • 1 1/2 cups (7 1/2) ounces unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup white chocolate chips
  • 1 cup pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped (These can be toasted by putting them on a pan and placing them in a 350° oven for 5-7 mins.)

Directions:

  1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 13- by 9-inch baking pan with 2 pieces of foil. Coat the foil-lined pan with vegetable cooking spray.

  2. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together. Set aside.

  3. In a medium bowl, whisk the melted butter and brown sugar together until combined. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix well. Using a rubber spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the egg mixture until just combined. Do not overmix.

  4. Fold in the semisweet and white chocolate chips and the nuts, and turn the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula.

  5. Bake until the top is shiny and cracked and feels firm to the touch, for 22 to 25 minutes. Place the pan on a rack and let cool completely (about an hour). Cut into 1 1/2- by 2-inch bars.

Makes 36 bars.

I’m generally pleased with how these blondies turned out — they’re tasty and I have few worries about having any left over at the end of the holiday party. Still, I’m not sure they exactly matched how I thought they’d turn out (more on that in a bit). In preparation for writing this post, I took a notebook with me to the kitchen and jotted down a few thoughts as I ate one of the blondies:

  • Aroma: Right out of the oven (or out of the RubberMaid cookie container), these have a pleasant butterscotch aroma.

  • Texture: Their texture, for the post part, is quite good. They tend to break apart easily in your mouth without being fragile enough to crumble apart in your hands.

  • Density: This is one of the few gripes that I had — these have a density quite similar to a cake-style brownie. Now, if that's your bag, you're all set. For me, though, I tend to prefer more of a gooey brownie and I think that type of texture would have been my preference here.

  • Other notes: The flavor white chocolate chips came through quite well. That’s all well and good, but I think I would have preferred if the semisweet chocolate chips could have taken a more prominent role. In fairness, some rejiggering of the ratio between white chocolate and semisweet chocolate chips could probably take care of this. (Or, if you really like white chocolate, the recipe could probably remain unchanged.)

In all, I think I’d give these blondies about a 7/10. They’re quite good and, for all I know, they might represent the Canonical Blondie Taste™. I think it just happened to work out that I was making a recipe for something which the recipe might not have been aiming for.

Nov. 28, 2007

Thanksgiving 2007 Photos

Dad on the Stairs

My parents moved to a new house in the Charlotte, NC area over the summer (more specifically, to Cornelius, NC) and I went to visit them over Thanksgiving. Naturally, I took my camera along and I’ve posted my shots from the trip.

In addition to my usual camera gear, I also took along my WhiBal white balance card and it worked a treat. In particular with the turkey preparation scenes within the kitchen, the lighting was an amalgamation at best — there was cloudy-sky natural light coming through the windows, a few overhead CFLs and the occasional splash of incandescent light from the adjacent rooms. I’m not sure any sane person would have known how to manually set his or her camera’s white balance to properly account for that, but it was a complete non-issue with the WhiBal. Such a handy gadget, that.

Nov. 26, 2007

Getting Multi-Safari to Work on Leopard 10.5.1

If you’ve upgraded to Leopard but still need to test a site in an older versions of Safari, you can do so through Multi-Safari. Much along the lines of the stand-alone versions of IE that are out there, these packages allow you to run older versions of Safari.

Interestingly enough, though Multi-Safari worked fine under the retail version of Leopard, it stopped working under OS X 10.5.1, offering the error “You cannot use the application ‘Safari 2.0.4’ with this version of Mac OS X.”. Fortunately, the maintainer of the Multi-Safari project, Michel Fortin, looked into it; and, within his blog entry describing the issue, some of the commenters chimed in with their own suggestions.

In particular, Thomas Aylott deduced that “Apple has specifically blocked all versions of Safari < 3 from running on Leopard 10.5.1” (d’oh!), but figured out a workaround by tweaking some of the package internals. To Thomas’ credit, he also compiled a fixed-and-ready-to-download version of Safari 2.0.4. I’ve tried it on my own machine and it works great.

Sept. 8, 2007

Dallas Camera Club Scavenger Hunt Photos

Looking up at a traffic light at Griffin Street

The Dallas Camera Club holds a photo scavenger hunt each year — sometimes it’s in downtown Dallas while other times it’s elsewhere in the metroplex. (It’s confined to a general geographic area each year to help level the playing field.) Indeed, this year’s scavenger hunt was held downtown on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago. Here’s what was on this year’s list:

  • Reflections — it hadn’t rained recently, so street-reflections weren’t really in the cards, but there were other reflective things to find.
  • Geometric or Repeating Patterns — this was pretty tough, but I think I found a shot for this.
  • Looking Up — we just had to find a shot that looked upward, which might seem easy, but doing so artistically took some figuring.
  • Humanity — this one covered people, which might seem like a slam-dunk, but was actually tough since downtown Dallas is a bit deserted on a Sunday morning.
  • Texas or US Icons — I guess this primarily encompassed Texas or US flags, though I would imagine that other Texas- or US-themed items would qualify as well.

Anyhow, I’ve posted my scavenger hunt photos. I was pleased to be able to get a shot in each category, but that doesn't mean that I've “won” — the club hands out awards for the scavenger hunt based on the number of categories completed and the quality of those shots. The awards haven’t been announced yet, so I’m looking forward to seeing how those turn out.

June 25, 2007

NBC Not Broadcasting Wimbledon in HD?!

TVPredictions.com is reporting that neither NBC nor ESPN will be broadcasting Wimbledon in HD. Are we still living in 2001?

NBC and ESPN both said this morning that they will not broadcast the 2007 Wimbledon Tennis Championship in High-Definition.

Adam Freifeld, a spokesman for NBC Sports, told TVPredictions.com today that NBC would not show Wimbledon in HD. He did not elaborate on the reasons behind the decision. […]

It’s as if NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker just doesn’t care. Well, actually, he said as much himself, commenting that “I’m not overly concerned about it at this point [...] if viewers will be less interested in unscripted programming that’s not in HD when the rest of the programming is in HD.”

June 11, 2007

I Haven’t Seen The Last Sopranos Episode Yet

If you get HBO (or even if you don’t), you're probably aware that the final episode of the mob drama The Sopranos aired last night. Though I get HBO, I decided at the beginning of the season to wait until the DVDs come out — that way, I can watch them at whichever pace I’d like.

As you might guess, I’m caught up all the way through the penultimate season; it’s only the recent episodes that I haven’t seen yet. So, if you happen to have seen the last season, and particularly the last episode, I would appreciate if you could avoid spoiling any bits for me :).

May 2, 2007

The WhiBal Is a Sweet White Balance Card

WhiBal Before and After Example with Aaron and Jeremy

I’ve really been enjoying my new camera (a Nikon D80) since buying it in January. And other than the occasional blown highlights, I find that it usually takes pictures just as I’ve intended.

One helpful tip which I picked up from my brother (who also has a D80) is to manually set the white balance in each new shooting environment (such as incandescent, fluorescent, sunlight, or others). I don’t mean to imply that the D80 is bad at guesstimating a scene’s white balance on its own, but it’s an easy setting and often makes a real difference. (The D80’s white balance settings are covered on p.58 of the US-English manual, for what it’s worth.)

If you’re into photography, you may already be familiar with gray cards — a uniformly gray rectangle that can be used to fine-tune a shot’s exposure. A seemingly related device — but one which serves a completely different purpose — is a white balance card. These are also typically rectangles and they're usually gray. Rather than an exposure tool, however, white balance cards are used to provide a white-balance reference point within images (I’ll explain).

If you’ve ever played around with your camera’s white balance settings (or even if you’ve stuck with your camera’s automatic white balance mode), you’ve probably run across the occasional shot which ended up with the wrong white balance — one common symptom is Caucasian skin looking a bit yellowish or even orange-tinged. This happens because the light within the scene may not have been “white” in the first place; for instance, light during a sunset of very often reddish or orange. And even though the human eye can quickly adapt to varying colors of light, cameras aren’t always so lucky.

This is where a white balance card comes in. A white balance card is calibrated to a specific shade of gray; so, when it comes time to color-correct a photo, you can tell your image editor (such as Photoshop) to “adjust this photo’s color until the point under my eyedropper matches this certain shade of gray”. And if that sounds complicated, it’s really not — Adobe Bridge (a sister app to Adobe Photoshop) has an eyedropper that’s preconfigured for just this purpose. I’ve had a WhiBal white balance card for the past few months and I’ve been impressed by how easy it’s been to get perfect white balance in my shots.

Consider the photo at the top of this post, for instance. If you’ve seen my shots from this year’s SXSW, you may recognize it as one of my shots from the Helvetica screening. As it turns out, I had been taking some shots outside earlier in the day and, as it was cloudy at the time, I had my white balance set to “cloudy” — when it came time for the screening, though, I forgot to change it back to a more appropriate white balance setting (d’oh!). However, because I had taken a few WhiBal shots while I was there, none of that mattered. It’s like having a bottomless stack of “Get Out of Jail Free” cards when it comes to white balance.

I consider photography one of my hobbies, but I’m not one for frivolous baubles. Having said that, I make an exception for my WhiBal. It’s easy to carry around and the benefits are really there. And if you don’t quite have your head wrapped around this “white balance thing”, not to worry — the WhiBal site has section with videos that go over white balance and an example workflow with a WhiBal. I don’t have any affiliation with this company — I’m just a really satisfied customer.

April 19, 2007

Kinesis Foot Switches for Macs

I’ve occasionally pondered whether there might be a benefit to getting some foot pedals / foot switches for my Kinesis keyboard. Since reading the Pragmatic Programmers’ TextMate book, however, I’ve realized that many of my editor’s handiest functions are meta key-based (that is, key combinations which involve Command, Option and Ctrl). And, while I’m entirely pleased with my Kinesis, its layout does make it slightly less convenient to hit some of the meta keys (as compared with a regular “rectangular” keyboard).

So, I decided to look into the feasibility of getting foot switches and came across this post on Ask MetaFilter which specifically asks about foot switches for Macs. Unfortunately, I learned that, while Kinesis offers USB-based foot switches, OS X has a limitation whereby input from one USB device can't modify the input from another USB device. Put another way, meta-keys can’t be assigned to Kinesis’ USB foot switches if you’re using a Mac (d'oh!)

After some additional searching, however, I found a couple posts about a fellow that used Kinesis foot switches on his Mac. (Wha?) Well, as it turns out, USB foot switches still don’t work on Macs (for meta keys), but Kinesis also offers a version of their foot switches which connect directly to a port on back of their keyboards (bypassing the OS entirely):

I have two Kinesis single-action foot switches. If you use a Mac, you have to buy one of the foot switches that plug directly into the Kinesis keyboard and not the USB foot switches. Apple won’t let one USB device modify the input of a separate USB keyboard or mouse. I have one foot switch acting as Ctrl and the other acting as Alt/Meta. I’ve heard different stories from different people — people tend to either love or hate foot switches. I find that they are really convenient when I'm doing “heads down” work in Emacs. They took a bit of getting used to initially, but when I use them, they offload an awful lot of the effort of working in Emacs to my feet. […]

I was pleased to learn that the meta key thing could work out after all. And, after mulling it over a bit, I’ve decided to give it a shot — I’ve ordered two of Kinesis’ single-action foot switches. Once they arrive, though, I’ll still have to decide which key to map to which foot. At the moment, I’m leaning toward assigning Ctrl to my left foot and Option to my right foot (since that would mirror the left-to-right arrangement of the default Mac keyboard).

Update 2007-05-03: I ended up assigning Option to my left foot and Ctrl to my right foot. — as Allan Odgaard mentioned in his screencast on Text Transformations (in HTML), “Ctrl-Shift are the modifiers we always use for Bundle items”. Since Bundles are the primary key-consuming resource in TextMate and, arguably, its most useful feature, I figured I’d bind the Bundle-related modifier (Ctrl) to the stronger of my two feet. (I’m right-handed, so I guess that makes me right-footed too?)

April 17, 2007

Some Notes on Virginia Tech

As you’ve no doubt heard, there was a tragic shooting at Virginia Tech yesterday. However, I also went to Virginia Tech which makes this is a little bit weird for me. During some semesters I’d walk by Ambler-Johnston Hall every day. And it doesn’t help when I find myself realizing where news photos were taken before I read their captions.

If I may ask a favor, I’d rather not talk about this with other people right now (in case it were to come up in conversation). I think I just need to deal with this on my own time.