Archive for May, 2006

Can a BGE cook a great steak?

Wednesday, May 31st, 2006

Today — well, yesterday — is (was) Steak Day!

Coincidentally, Amie (old friend. makes cool art.) asked:

Ok, here’s a big question. You’ve touted the BGE as being fabulous for slow cooking. How is it for obviously faster fare like burgers and steak? It is overkill or perfection?

All of this drove me to drop a few grass fed filet mignons on the BGE.

To answer the question: Yes, the BGE can do a damned fine steak. However, it is different than a traditional grill. You can certainly get the BGE to any high temperature necessary to put a char on the outside of the steak, but I typically find that char doesn’t really add flavor to steak.

It is important to keep in mind that searing a steak at the beginning of grilling does nothing to actually keep the juices in. No, really. An excerpt from Alton Brown’s Good Eats (thanks to Ben for finding the quote!):

Most reliable roast recipes suggest a two-tiered cooking approach. First you sear the meat over high heat in order to create a golden brown and delicious crust. Then you drop the temperature so that the roast can finish low and slow. Now this is a fine philosophy and yet fatally flawed because the higher the heat involved the more proteins in the meat are damaged therefore the more juices lost. So if we give it all this high heat at the very beginning, we’re going to have more juice lost through the cooking process. So I say flip it. We’re going to start the roast at a balmy 200 degrees until it reaches a certain internal temp then we’ll put the spurs to it. In the meantime we’ll take a little time to prep and maybe check on the fire extinguisher.

With the Egg, grill at a low temp until the internal temperature of the meat hits 110 or 120. Then crank open all the vents and let the egg heat up — way up — for the finishing few minutes of the steak. The internal temperature should hit about 125 to 130 at removal time. Let it sit for a few minutes under a foil tent.

End result will be a steak that is succulent/juicy, yet with a bit of crisp on the outside. Rare to medium-rare.

If you really want distinguished grill marks, I would suggest grilling at a lower temperature, then pulling the steaks to rest in foil for 10 minutes while you crank the temperature in the BGE by opening all the vents. Pull the steaks from the foil and very briefly slap ’em on the grill, flipping ’em once to char each side. Not for me, but I fully acknowledge the religion surrounding charred meats.

Read the rest of this entry »

Community Garden

Tuesday, May 30th, 2006
Roger Looking for Bugs in Garden

Our garden plot in the community garden is doing quite well. The pepper plants are taking hold, we have lots of nasturtiums and california poppies, the beans have started to climb, and the tomato plants look like they are about to explode.

I took a bunch of shots of flowers in the community garden.

The entire series is available on Flickr.

Roger loves to spend time in the garden. He destroys snails, slugs, and bad bugs while capturing lady bug larva and other good bugs from “no man’s land” and moving them to our plot. In the picture at left, he is looking for bugs on our neighbor’s ditch lilies.

Poppy Head

Unfortunately, this will be the last season that the community garden in my neighborhood exists. Through a series of very shady events, the school system has closed down a couple of schools and decided to move 500 students into an already overflowing school next to the garden. They are going to reclaim the space for temporary buildings.

We are considering legal action because of how the whole thing has been executed. So far, I haven’t talked to anyone that thinks that the school’s move is good for the students or faculty and, worse, there is significant evidence that there are certain members of the school board that have acted in a highly questionable fashion.

As it stands, the students will lose as they are packed even more tightly into the facilities. The teachers and staff lose as they are shuffled into positions with less resources. The community loses both the community garden and by increasing traffic and noise.

So far, I have yet to talk to anyone who thinks the school’s move is either a good idea or an effective way to cut costs.

Windows sucks even when you don’t use it.

Monday, May 29th, 2006

I haven’t been a Windows users since about 1998 or so when I was forced to do some WebObjects development on a Windows box. The thorough lack of design, consistency and style is torturous even in the minutes-at-a-time that I’m forced to sit in front of a windows box.

Yet, even as a Mac user (or Linux user for a bit in the mid-90s), Windows still sucks. Windows sucks so bad that it is tainting everything else that must co-exist with it in the marketplace.

My current bit of torture is related to DVI/USB capable KVM switch. It seems that Windows ’98 (and, possibly, later versions) can’t deal with a DVI based video connection dropping away. So the various KVM hardware manufactures decided that their little boxes would advertise an 800×600@60hz monitor on any port that is not connected through to the monitor.

Mac OS X sees this really lo-res display as you switch away from your machine and promptly resizes and moves all windows to at least be accessible from the piddly 480,000 pixel desktop.

Of course, upon switching back to the system, the windows are all moved about and sizes have changed.

Boo. That sucks. Worse, some video cards are playing the same games. End result; we all — even Linux and more “modern” Windows users — suffer because a very popular version of Windows was broken.

The only true “workaround” is to buy a really, really, stupid KVM switch. One that does not try to emulate any kind of a video display for the “switched away” computers.

The real solution, of course, is for the KVM switch manufacturers (and video card manufacturers) to fix their hardware. If I disconnect a monitor running at 1680×1050, why the hell do they think that pretending to be an 800×600 monitor is useful?

Update: Getting some good recommendations in the comments. I specifically have an IOGear 4 port DVI switch. It appears to be a repackaged ATEN 4 port product. Model number 1764 or 1762, depending on # of ports. Otherwise awesome product. For those with recommendations, two questions:

(1) Can you switch from the keyboard with some kind of hot key sequence?

(2) You are absolutely sure that the box does not advertise some stupid resolution to machines that are not connected through to a monitor?

Smoked Ribs

Monday, May 29th, 2006
Cooked Ribs

Ribs. For meat eaters, “Ribs” typically evokes an immediate mouth watering reaction. Good ribs are a divine eating experience. Tender, juicy, meat that carries a flavor that explodes in your mouth. On the other hand, average ribs suck and badly prepared ribs are an absolute torture of abrasive, chewy, dryness.

As my previous grilling recipes have indicated, I like precision in my cooking. I use at least two probe thermometers throughout, one for the meat and one to monitor the ambient cooking temperature.

Ribs don’t work like that. With most meats, the time at which it is “safe to eat” is about the same time that it is “done”. Once a steak’s internal temperature hits about 120 degrees, you take it off and tent it in foil to achieve a perfect medium rare to rare steak. Any longer? Medium. Much longer than that? A shingle…

With ribs, the longer you cook ’em, the more tender they get as the connective tissues break down. The challenge is to keep ’em moist throughout the cooking process.

Hence my fear. Here is a food for which no amount of temperature probes or timers is going to help. Beyond controlling the cooking temperature, there are very few variables beyond initial preparation. Since cooking with the BGE is all about not peeking or opening the egg, there is the potential for many hours of imagining all the ways this could go wrong.

Picnic Table

Nothing ventured, nothing gained… we invited a handful of friends willing to be my guinea pigs and I went for it. Christine set a beautiful table and made her famous baked beans with bacon on top.

After a bunch of research via Google, I decided to go for a puritan approach of only using a dry rub and smoking the ribs for a very long time at a low temperature. This excellent article provided much of the foundation for what follows.

I started with about 18 lbs of spare ribs — 5 racks between 3 and 4 lbs each. A ridiculous amount of pork. At $1.99/lbs, why not?

I used something pretty close to Alton Brown’s Dry Rub, scoring the fat and rubbing down both sides of the ribs with a thick coat. The ribs were then refrigerated for about 5 hours.

Actually, my rub went quickly far afield of alton’s as I didn’t have some of the ingredients. I started with 2 cups of brown sugar and maintained ratios from there. I didn’t have cayenne pepper, so I used a mixture of dried hot peppers from my parents — scotch bonnet, serano, and several others. I ran out of Old Bay and didn’t have onion powder, so I used extra thyme, finely ground fresh onion, and dried orange/lemon peel.

While the ribs absorbed the spices, I soaked hickory chips in red wine, apple cider, and bourbon. These soaked for several hours. Once the BGE was lit with several handfuls of chips on top, I drained the liquid off the chips and placed it in a metal container nestled in the coals — maybe about 1/3rd of a gallon or so — as an additional source of moisture.

Rubbed Ribs Ready for Smoking

With the BGE at about 270 degrees, I placed the ribs into two rib racks connected end to end. The racks just barely fit into the BGE and the rack of ribs stretched from one side to the other, but everything just barely fit.

I brought the egg down to 200 degrees and maintained that cooking temperature until the guests were seated and ready to eat. The smells coming out of the egg were quite spectacular and keeping the early arrivers from cracking the egg was increasingly difficult.

I’m happy to say that the end result was awesome. The first picture is of the ribs fresh from the egg. Note that they are quite moist and that is without any kind of a glaze or sauce. The ribs were extremely tender and came off the bone easy, but still had a bit of structure/texture — they were not “fall off the bone” tender.

Not quite perfect yet. For one, five hours of cooking time at 200 degrees is simply not enough. Next time, I’ll go for at least seven hours.

The puritanical “dry rub only” approach worked really well. However, I believe I’ll try some kind of a glaze or basting sauce next time. I’ll likely apply it about an hour and half prior to the ribs being done to give time for the sugars to caramelize a bit.

All in all, achieving great ribs is both surprisingly easy and I have now overcome my cook-well-beyond-edible fear.

Are the majority of journalists liars or just plain stupid?

Thursday, May 25th, 2006

US idol more popular than the president

US pop show victor attracts more votes than any president

The pop idol with more votes than any president

These were the headlines I saw on various stories around the world. Seeing these immediately sparked a question in my mind.

Are these journalists as smart as your average rock or are they just sensationalist lying assholes attempting to preserve their jobs?

The whole point behind the American Idol vote-a-thon is that you dial the phone number of your favorite as many times as your fingers can handle.

While there is certainly evidence to the contrary in the last US presidential election, generally the idea of a democratic election is one person, one vote.

What the hell? Does anyone reading these articles actually believe this tripe? Believe that the numbers of participants in the two types of voting can be usefully compared?

This is a television show that has inspired an entire market of auto-dialers for voting for your favorite contestant.

I’m left with only two conclusions:

The reporters writing these stories are irresponsible, lying, authors of fiction that care nothing about journalistic integrity and everything about drawing eyeballs and/or the average reader is so bloody stupid as to be buying into this crap, thus maintaining the market for such garbage.

Either conclusion leads to a anger with clouds of doom.

Stop. Please. Just stop.

Smacbook Pro

Thursday, May 25th, 2006

Everyone is all abuzz with news of the SmacBook Pro hack. Very very cool.

I wanted to have a play with it, but Amit’s AMSTracker doesn’t appear to work on my 15″ MBP.

Fortunately, someone else hacked together a little SMS reader that does work on Intel. Unfortunately, it is a different format than what AMS emits and it only reads once and spews. Fortunately, I know my way around C and fixed it (tarball of source).

The SmacBook Pro hack uses a perl script to interpret the output of AMSTracker. Since the output is different for motion and the script is so trivial, I rewrote it in Python and used PyObjC to send the notification directly from the script. Requires Python 2.4 (or copy the subprocess module from 2.4) and PyObjC:

#! /usr/bin/python
from Foundation import *
import subprocess
import time

# assumes the motion executable is named 'motion-bin' and is CWD
pipe = subprocess.Popen(["./motion-bin"], stdin=subprocess.PIPE, stdout=subprocess.PIPE)
stdout = pipe.stdout

stable = 0
while 1:
    line = stdout.readline()
    x = int(line.split()[0])

    if abs(x) < 20:
        stable = stable + 1

    if (abs(x) > 30) and (stable > 30):
        stable = 0
        if x < 0:
            notificationName = "SwitchToPrevWorkspace"
            notificationName = "SwitchToNextWorkspace"
        print notificationName
        NSDistributedNotificationCenter.defaultCenter().postNotificationName_object_(notificationName, None)

Running the above script will print "SwitchToPrevWorkspace/SwitchToNextWorkspace" whenever you smack your machine. If the modified version of Desktop Manager is running -- it was trivial to make it build universal with the additional notification observer -- then it'll switch desktops with every smack. You'll want to configure Desktop Manager to have one row of desktops and for the animation to be a slide between desktops.

It actually works quite well, though it'll occasionally slide the wrong direction. Blame the math (or lack thereof).

And, of course, the above demonstrates how trivial it would be to make various physical gestures control other aspects of your machine. Since I don't actually use multiple desktops, I replaced the notification stuff with a call out to applescript to play the next track in iTunes.

I can't take any credit for any of this. I just glued together a slightly different set of parts to make it all work on my MacBook Pro. While it works really well, it is far from totally useful. It busy-reads from the motion sensor, spewing new values every few milliseconds. As a result, leaving this thing running eats battery life while chewing up a bunch of CPU.

Fun toy, though.

So you wanna buy a Big Green Egg?

Thursday, May 25th, 2006

Update: Now beyond six years and this is one of the most popular articles on my site! Glad it has helped so many. I upgraded the gasket and fire grate in my BGE and it is well worth doing so.

Update: After more than a year of Big Green Egg ownership, I have learned a few things. Article corrected, updated, and otherwise edited. Thanks to MacDude (Jeff Hoover) for reminding me to go back and look at this.

Big Green Egg & Pizza Peel

As anyone who reads this weblog knows, I’m having an absolute blast with my Big Green Egg. A number of folks have expressed interest in purchasing an Egg and were curious what suggestions I might have. So, here goes…

The Big Green Egg is effectively a ceramic oven with a firebox below the cooking surface. It has top and bottom vents, both of which can be adjusted to control both temperature, humidity and smoke concentrations.

The big advantage to a ceramic cooker vs. a gas or metal kettle grill is that you have amazing control over the temperature while burning fuel surprisingly efficiently. The ceramic acts as a heat ballast and the BGE is both super efficient and extremely temperature stable. Because of the design, it also tends to use burn less fuel, drawing less air and, hence, loses less moisture during the cooking process. While this also means less smoke production, the smoke tends to stay in the cooking area longer and at lower temperatures.

Kamado also makes similar cookers; more expensive but likely worth it if tiles are your thing (the amazon reviews are very negative, but not exactly a huge sample size). If I had known about the Kamado prior to getting the BGE, I would still go with the BGE for reasons of practicality. The Kamado is beautiful, no doubt, but the BGE is simply much more practical when dropped into a table. Primo makes ceramic cookers with a very similar design to the BGE. I like the oval shape, but I don’t like that their marketing materials imply competitor’s do not have certain features or capabilities that they clearly do.

The BGE comes in several sizes. I have a large BGE that features a 18″ cooking surface, stands 30 inches high, 21 inches wide and weighs around 140 lbs (yes. 140 lbs. It is hard to move). The large and extra large eggs have spring assisted lid lifters. While it can kill you if you don’t follow the assembly instructions, it ensures smooth operation while in use.

Smoked Turkey -- Half Way Done

To give an idea of how large of a grilling surface 18″ really is, the large egg just fits a 21 lbs turkey standing upright. It could fit a larger bird that isn’t propped on a can of Fosters, but not much larger. I have successfully cooked 40 lbs of pork butt and a 27+ pound turkey, but it was cramped. It is also large enough to handle a whole 8.5 lbs salmon with head and tail removed.

The key to success with a BGE is patience and never opening the lid during cooking unless you have to apply a baste or adjust something. Seriously. You should never have to open it to check for “done” unless visual inspection is the only way to tell. A properly tuned BGE will happily maintain a particular temperature for hours as long as you don’t open the lid. As soon as you open the lid, the inrush of air will cause the fire to rapidly change profile, typically getting a lot hotter and changing the burn pattern such that you are going to have to retune the vents to whatever temperature you need.

Or get a Stoker. Which brings us to the list of the accessories you will need…. Read the rest of this entry »

Almost bought, but deleted: Super Collapse! 3

Thursday, May 25th, 2006

I was checking out MacUpdate today and noticed that Super Collapse! 3 had been released. I like puzzle games and SC2 was quite the nice little bit of distraction for a while.

So, of course, I downloaded it immediately.

The Readme looked promising:

Simply drag the Super Collapse! 3 icon to any folder on your hard disk. Once it has finished copying, installation is complete.

Goody! They did it right! None of this admin required installer package crap. Drag-n-drop installs as it should be!

Silly dialog box.

I was about to be punished for my optimism. First launch yielded the dialog seen at right.

Wha? Why the hell would the game need administrative privileges on first launch? Perchance to drop some turd in a random admin-only directory?

Sure enough. That is exactly what the app was doing. There is no reason or excuse for this behavior. I don’t care why it is doing this (though I suspect it is likely related to licensing) and cannot think of any reason why said turd file — if it really can’t be avoided — can’t simply be dropped somewhere in the user’s home directory. Say, ~/Library/Application Support/GameHouse/Super Collapse! 3 or a similar directory under ~/Library/Caches?

I had a play once I figured out exactly how to undo whatever silliness the app was going to splat upon my filesystem.

Absolutely brilliant update to this classic game. Graphics and presentation are beautiful and sound is well done, too. I like the updates to the game play, from new styles of levels to the whole story line style flow from level to level. Neat power ups and a whole “store” concept thrown in, too. There is enough play variation — from brain teaser style puzzle to spastic monkey against the clock — that any puzzle game fan will likely find something of interest.

All in all, a great puzzle game that I would have bought if it hadn’t been for the above silliness. Instead, into the trash it goes.

Xcode 2.3 is now available.

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

Xcode 2.3 is now available.

Beyond fixing a boatload of bugs and numerous performance improvements, Xcode 2.3 adds DWARF as a native symbol format. DWARF yields a significantly higher fidelity debugging experience, especially for complex C++ code, while also reducing the memory requirements of the linker.

Full release notes available on Apple’s developer tools web site.

Xcode 2.3 also includes a new distributed build subsystem called Dedicated Network Builds. The preferences pane is a bit fragile — don’t poke at it too hard — but the underlying technology is some neat stuff.

While DistCC remains as the solution of choice for ad-hoc builds on small networks, Dedicated Network Builds [DNB] focuses on accelerating large projects where a farm of machines can be dedicated as builders. In particular, DNB shines with large C++ projects.

Behind the scenes, DNB distributes compilation jobs from your local machine — the recruiter — to the builder machines — the volunteers — using a set of daemons to connect everything together. On the recruiter, a daemon monitors the filesystem to ensure that changes made to the filesystem will cause the remote volunteer caches to be invalidated in an appropriately minimalist fashion.

The volunteers execute the jobs against a mirrored copy of the recruiter’s local filesystem, source, headers, compiler and all. As such, the only dependency between your local machine and the builders is that they are both the same architecture (ppc or i386) and they are running very close to the same version of Mac OS X (i.e. 10.4.5 will be compatible with 10.4.6, but not 10.3.9).

A great deal of effort went into ensuring that cache management wouldn’t swamp the recruiter’s network connection. There is still a hefty cache warmup hit, but the volunteers have the ability to resolve cache misses amongst themselves as well as resolving cache misses against their own local filesystem, when possible.

As one can imagine, there is considerably more to this technology than is described above.


Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006
Videator Icon

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I played with Andrew Stone’s new app.

Version 1.0 shipped last night and it is quite incredibly cool.

Videator is a real time & recorded video playground. Like Imaginator offers easy to use access to the full power of Core Image, Videator offers the same easy access to Core Video.

It is tons of fun to play with. Kids totally dig it. At the next BBQ, I’m going to hook my MacBook Pro (Videator / Core Video obviously uses a ton of horsepower to do the raw video decoding, encoding, effects, and playback) and point the iSight into the room. The app even features a party mode.

I was hoping to have time to throw together a sample Videator document with a bunch of my flower pics. Time is not something I have had a surplus of over the past few months. I have been rather busy with Xcode 2.3, which shipped this morning.