Category Archives: Learning From the Master

Teaching, it’s what I do.

Now We’re Cooking

cook |koŏk|

verb

1 [ trans. ] prepare (food, a dish, or a meal) by combining and heating the ingredients in various ways.  • [ intrans. ] I told you I could cook | [as adj. ] ( cooked) a cooked breakfast.  • [ intrans. ] (of food) be heated so that the condition required for eating is reached .

2 something Joel is really, really bad at.

And yet I try. Last November, I bought a Brinkman’s 3-in-1 smoker, steamer, and bar-be-que. I have used it five times now, with various results. The first use was grilling a couple of steaks shortly after having bought (and cured) the grill. The second time was for the Christmas turkey. The third through fifth times were this past month, cooking for my family and a few friends.

The results were, as I said, varied. During my first attempts with the grill, I stuck to tried and true recipes I gleaned from the internet and followed religiously. The more recent attempts, however, were more experimental.

We had some friends come over and I attempted two (huge) steaks and a bit of grilled shark. I abstained from the internet and instead went for a bit of a steak sauce marinade and lots of lemon and orange juice squeezed over the meat while it was cooking. The steak was really good. The fish was ok, without being stellar.

But that’s not really important now. What’s important is why I have been trying to cook.

I’ve always been a big guy. In the last two years though my weight has gotten absolutely out of control. Cite the usual reasons – a desk job, a long commute, eating fast food in the car, not taking enough time to exercise, etc. etc. I decided that maybe if I learned to cook, I would begin eating better, possibly less, and that the activity would be good for me as well.

Prior to this my cooking experiences were less than promising. Starting with the Intro to Cooking class I took as an elective in Jr. High where I learned very little that I retained save for how much I enjoy Waldorf Salad and that my friend CJ was kind of an idiot. (It’s a whole other story.) My cooking ineptness culminated in an incident where in I almost burned down the house of the girl I was dating while trying to make her pancakes for breakfast. My cooking, in other words, all the way through high school, college, and after was pretty much limited to things that came out of cans or boxes and involved less than three steps.

In fact, according to my college roommate Chuck, anything that involved less than three steps was not technically cooking. It was merely food preparation. He had a point.

Now, for full disclosure, a good part of my wanting to learn to cook was fueled by my addiction to Top Chef. I’m incapable of watching something I think is cool and not wanting to try it. I watch Miami Ink and I want to get a tattoo. I watch Deadliest Catch and want to take a year off to go work in the Bering Sea. And when I watch Top Chef, I want to be able to cook.

I began where I always begin, the internet. YouTube in this case, looking for cooking videos that I could follow. One of the videos I came across was Gordon Ramsay bar-be-queing buffalo meat as hamburgers. The idea seeemed simple enough, and even if I couldn’t get hold of any buffalo meat, the other things Ramsay incorporated (dicing a red onion into his mince, topping the burger with buffalo mozzarella cheese) seemed like things I could do by myself.

So, while I mainlined the first two seasons of Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word, I began shopping for a grill. My wife and I had bought a house the previous August so it seemed only natural to wait until we had gotten everything unpacked before buying anything new. As anyone who has ever moved can tell you, unpacking can take years and I eventually got tired of waiting and bought a charcoal grill.

While this brought me great acclaim and several dozens of “man points” from my friends, the somewhat cumbersome and wasteful nature of charcoal grills made itself apparent and the grill sat unused for months at a time. In the meantime, several cookbooks appeared on my Amazon wishlist and remained unpurchased. Especially as my job changed suddenly and the copious free time I had had vanished in the night.

Still, learning to cook and cooking for myself, remains a goal. The cookbook I have been reading about and most want to try is The Ratio. The idea behind the book is that the professional kitchen cook or chef uses certain ratios in their cooking, even if they’re not aware that they’re doing so. Therefore, by teaching the novice cook to use these same ratios, anyone can learn to cook. Personally, this concept fits fully into my idea of geek – that anyone can learn to do anything given enough time and patience.

Two weeks ago, I managed to cook some really nice chicken on the grill for my family for dinner and did so without specific aid from the internet, merely with some tips I half remembered from watching various cooking shows. My wife was quite pleased, both that she didn’t have to cook and that the expensive grill was seeing more than one use per year. So I’m planning on trying again soon.

However, there are things I have learned about myself in the attempts so far:

  1. The fun is in trying, most times I could care less about the final result. In fact, I’m usually planning the next assault while still enjoying the fruits of my labor.
  2. It may take me six months or a year to get around to it, but I will get to it and try it eventually. Whether this is cooking or learning javascript, it will happen someday.
  3. I have to do it myself. Give me all the advice you want, it won’t make sense until I have royally cocked it up all on my own. That’s when your advice will make sense, now that I know how not to do it.

Where I go from here, I’m not actually sure, but I’m looking forward to giving it a go.

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Filed under Learning From the Master, Left From Seattle, True Thoughts on True Life

Essential iPhone Apps (‘Cause Everyone Else is Doing It)

It’s June. That means I’ve had my iPhone for about four months and it has already become extremely hard to live without. In fact, I have no intention of trying to live without it. Not only does it sit in my pocket for most of the day, it recharges right next to my bed every evening. In short, you can have my iPhone when you pry it out of my cold, internet deprived, hands.

On the other hand, one of the single best things about the iPhone is the Apple App Store. And what could be better than sharing out a list of my favorite apps?

So here’s my list of favorite apps, in no particular order. Rather, these are the ones that I use on a regular basis; these are the apps I go to as primary functions in my phone.

Bloom – Brian Eno’s ambient music maker is a fantastic bit of stress relief kit. The interface is simple, clean, and, if I may say so, pretty. When launched, the app gives the user a blank field of pastel color. Touching the screen will produce a chime or bell, whose pitch and tone vary with where on the screen the user has touched. Generally, the pitch is lower at the bottom of the screen and higher at the top, with tone density going from heavy to light when going from right to left on the screen. Once a sound is produced it repeats itself, along with any others produced in short loops creating ambient, atonal rhythms from the touches the user has made. And the loops can be quite beautiful, and totally relaxing in a very zen way. I find it works beautifully as stress relief during a hard day. If I can find just five minutes along to play with Bloom, things seem much more workable.

Tweetie – A very functional Twitter client, this is probably the one app I use more than any other. (Yes, I am a Twitter fiend.) What I like about this particular client as opposed to the dozens of others available is the interface. I found it very easy to become used to, almost to the point of preferring it to actually using my computer.

Google – How anyone can live without Google at this point is completely beyond me. In addition to gMail, I am a fervent devotee of both Google Reader and Google Docs and I can get all three of those services through the Google app.

Kanji – As anyone who has studied Japanese can tell you, Kanji are one of the hardest aspects of becoming proficient in the language. This app is quite simple, but brilliantly designed. The visual interface is based on Tuttle’s Kanji Cards, with each screen focusing on one kanji. Touching the screen brings up additional information, including the various readings and words that use that character. There is an option in the top right to mark wether or not the kanji has been memorized or not. (It is also uncheckable in case the user has forgotten a kanji or two.) The other great aspect of this app is the organization of the “cards” based on JLPT level or Japanese school grade level. This is just a must have app for anyone who’s studying the language.

Kotoba – Another app I use everyday for studying, Kotoba is, simply, a very good dictionary for Japanese to English and vice versa.

BBC NewsReader – The Beeb’s app is different from other news apps in that it keeps a running update of the stories already loaded into the phone. Everytime you start the app, it begins downloading both recent information and updates to previous downloads. This makes loading pictures and older stories much faster on slow networks. The app breaks the news into three broad categories – Magazine, UK, and Americas. Within that, the user can define what kind of news they’re most interested in. The one thing I’m not quite happy with, especially in comparison to the two other news apps on my list, is that tapping on a story takes you to a BBC page that has to be resized before it could be considered remotely readable. However, for quick access to news that has a perspective different from the U.S. one, this app is a must.

New York Times – The NY Times has received a lot of (deserved) praise for their iPhone app. It serves as a prime example of how newspapers can remake themselves for the web and, in this case, the mobile web. The home screen breaks the paper down into its familiar sections – World, U.S., Politics, etc. From there, users have the option to scroll through stories in a given section or to choose the Latest, Popular, or Saved stories. And it’s this last option that really sets the app apart. The ability to save stories for later reading (as well as being able to e-mai them) adds a necessary functionality that recognizes that being mobile does not mean always having all the time you’d like to read up on the news. Further, the stories are automatically formated for the iPhone screen so that resizing before reading is not necessary.

New York Times Crossword – This is easily the most expensive app on my list. At roughly 10 bucks you have to love crosswords to make this worth the money. What’s more, you have to love the NY Times Crossword as there are cheaper (lesser) apps available in the iTunes app store. However, on the plus side, this is the same puzzle that appears in the daily paper. Players can submit their answers to an online database and find out if they have gotten all the cells correct or not. The controls are intuitive and easy to use; the screen uses a keyboard to input characters, but allows finger gestures for resizing the puzzles and for moving around the puzzle area. The puzzles start at a relatively easy level on Monday and get progressively harder throughout the week. For myself, this is my favorite lunchtime application. I find that nothing wakes my brain up as taking thirty minutes to play through a puzzle before heading back into the classroom.

Doodle Jump – You know those games that take 10 seconds to learn but can eat up hours on end being played? Well, the iPhone has a lot of them and Doodle Jump is my favorite. The object is very simple. Maneuver your Doodle through a series of obstacles to see how high you can take him. The game functions by giving your character an automatic bounce off of platforms; the only control the player has is to move the Doodle from side to side by turning your wrist and taking advantage of the iPhone’s motion sensors. Great fun.

Brushes – This is the newest on my list of must have applications. I picked it up earlier this week after seeing the story where the cover of New Yorker magazine had been made with it. Not only was it a cool cover but the idea that this could be done on an iPhone was pretty spectacular.

CameraBag – While the iPhone camera is not the best cameraphone available, apps like CameraBag make it a lot of fun. I won’t say too much about it here as I have already written about it and posted photos I took using the app on this blog.

Text – I live in Japan. Japan is somewhat notorious for preferring phone based e-mail to text messaging. In fact, my last three phones did not have texting software on them at all. So having a phone that can finally text, combined with Softbank’s data plan which lets users text each other for free, is really, really, cool. Having texting available means I feel like I can finally keep up with services like Twitter and the now, sadly defunct, I Want Sandy, in the manner for which they were designed.

Stanza – People are still skeptical about the value of ebooks but this app should push at least a few people decidedly into the “for” column. Stanza works with several different online services to download books to the phone, where they can be read offline, one screen at a time. I’ve found that the small screen makes books feel longer than they are, but, on the other hand, that the rapid pace with which the screen changes makes them just fly by. In short, while this is not my favorite way to read, it is an acceptable and convenient way to read.

WordPress – Obviously, I’m a blogger. Not quite as heavy a blogger as I once was, but I do still enjoy keeping a blog up and running for those occasions when I want to say something that won’t fit into 140 characters. That’s where WordPress’ iPhone app comes in. It has a nice, clean design that makes it easy to log in and update any blogs you have hosted on WP. This is kind of a no brainer for anyone who has both an iPhone and a WP blog.

Wolfram Alpha – One of the best features of the iPhone / Safari combo, in my opinion, is the ability to put a bookmark on the home screen of the phone. What this means is that when I want to search for something on Wolfram Alpha, I do not need to open up Safari and scroll through my bookmarks. Rather I just touch one icon and there’s WA, ready for input. And while I’m not a heavy WA user (not yet anyway) I have been curious about the service and wanting to try it out. So, while the individual site may change, eventually, the capacity to keep it right on my homescreen won’t and that is something that I just love about the iPhone.

MLB.com’s At Bat – I’m not much of a sports fan. I enjoy watching the games but I don’t really keep up with the statistics or even the player rosters too much. But I love baseball. I love the romanticism and history associated with the game and I do try to keep up with at least the Padres every season. At Bat makes it much, much easier to do so. The app provides schedules, play by play, recaps, standings, stats, photos, live game coverage, and soon, live video streaming of games. The only downside is that those clever bastards at MLB.com have decided to charge by the season, rather than a one time fee. Still, as a way to follow baseball that doesn’t require you to be in front of your t.v. at a set time or wading through tons of newsfeeds, this is the app to get.

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Filed under All the Baby's Linkage, Attack of the Robot Monsters, Learning From the Master, Toad Web, True Thoughts on True Life

Wolfram Alpha

wolframalpha.pngWolfram Alpha has been around for a few weeks now, having debuted to a squawking chorus of voices. The initial reports from Mashable and Lifehacker sounded intriguing and promising but the talk on podcasts like TWiT and the virtual water cooler that is Twitter was more confused than relevatory. The single most coherent and reasoned explanation of / musings on was on Buildings and Food (a great site anyway).

The first question most people had was, what is Wolfram Alpha? The answer is that it is a knowledge computation engine, whatever that means. From the website:

“Wolfram|Alpha aims to bring expert-level knowledge and capabilities to the broadest possible range of people—spanning all professions and education levels. Our goal is to accept completely free-form input, and to serve as a knowledge engine that generates powerful results and presents them with maximum clarity.”

Wolfram Alpha was designed by mathematician Stephen Wolfram; the database/search functions are based on the programing language Mathematica which he also designed, way back when.

Taking the play-with-it-until-it-breaks approach exemplified by Gina Trappiani’s original Lifehacker post, here are the things I learned via WA.

I am 33 years, 10 months, and 8 days old today.

I live 5663 miles from my mother’s house, which itself, is 243.4 miles from where I went to university.

My name, Joel, has some interesting data attached to it: there are currently 222,373 people sharing my name. It was most popular as a birth name during 1979 / 1980.

joel.png

By comparing my first and middle names, we learn that my middle name is much more popular as a given name than is my first name.

Arizona became a state 97 years ago. Its highest point is Humphrey’s Peak at 3850 meters, while its lowest is the Colorado River at just 21 meters.

The average lifespan of American men vs. Japanese women is 75.92 years to 85.59 years, meaning that my wife is going to outlive me by ten years. But we already knew that.

lifeexpectancy.png

There are also a number of things I couldn’t find. For example….

A search for the average rate of oxygen consumption used by SCUBA Divers at one atmosphere resulted in this:

oxygen.png

Searching for the average lifespan of labrador retrievers brought back no results at all, only a suggestion to search on the word “dogs.”

Searching for “ the average number of e-mail addresses of teenagers” likewise brought back no meaningful results.

And finally, there are the Easter Eggs (which I found via this post, and this follow-up post on Mashable):

In the meantime, WA has released it’s first update, which has a few changes to the system, namely updating the linguistic structures recognized so that more queries will be returned. (Again, Mashable has the full list.)

In the meantime, Google has its new Google Squared, and Microsoft has launched Bing, both of which aim to change and modify how we search the web.

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Filed under All the Baby's Linkage, Attack of the Robot Monsters, Learning From the Master, Toad Web

Docile Whale

Here’s one of those little things that amuses me far more than it should: my wife gave me this notebook to use at work. She said, “It’s friendly. The children will like it.” And it is and they do.

But I like it because of its friendly and charming little poem. Across the top it says: “I’m feeling much better. I live as I please. I like the natural flow of time. How are you?”

Well, I’m just great, thanks for asking! You docile whale you.

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Filed under Learning From the Master, The Language We Speak, The Languages We Don't Speak So Well, True Thoughts on True Life

LOLing

During episode 105 of Californication, the protagonist, Hank Moody as played by David Duchovny, sets off on a beautiful diatribe about the decline of the English language through blogspeak while appearing on the Henry Rollins show.

It’s a great speech in a great episode of a great show. So, great, right?

The trouble is, it’s based on a false premise: Hank’s rant is based on the idea that there is a correct way of speaking English and that blogspeak is nowhere near it. In fact, English is a beautiful, complicated language that succeeds because of the ease with which it can be altered, manipulated, re-purposed, and re-worked.

So, first things first. Moody (or, more realistically, the show writer) gets wound up by his girlfriend using LOL in actual conversation. He cites this as an example of the decline of the English language through the use of blogging and other technologies. He goes on to state that we are all only psuedo-communicating because of this; we are not really communicating using the full glory of the English language.

And, again, I call bullshit.

English was spread around the world through a complicated web of colonialism, commercialism, capitalism, religious and democratic evangelism, and simple pragmatism. But then, so was Spanish. And French.

So why has English become the default international language? Why is English the second language favored by almost every country of the globe? The answer lies in English’s inherent adaptability. New words can be created by advertising agencies (Xerox, Kodak) or borrowed from other languages (plaza, garage), or stolen outright to be re-purposed for something new (robot, soda). Additionally, Greek and Latin roots make for dozens of synonyms and antonyms thereby almost guaranteeing that there is at least one word people feel comfortable using.

Further, the grammar of English is robust enough that there are several alternative ways of expressing the same or similar thoughts, allowing speakers of other languages the luxury of finding the way that best works with their thinking patterns. (This is why language teachers can identify students native languages from the mistakes made in English.)

Couple this with the fact that English has no academy while France and Spain do; English has no established authority to tell us what the correct form of expression is. So, while Americans may say, “I don’t have any cash on me.” the English can say “I haven’t got any cash on me.” and both expressions are correct. This extends to vocabulary as well, as I pointed out above.

Last, think about slang and natural expression. None of us, and I do mean none, speak slang or expression free. We all use idioms and metaphorical language on a daily basis to help express ideas or communicate thoughts from one person to another. And vocabulary developed on the internet, used with appropriate grammar is no different from using an established idiom from the 17th century.

All of this taken together gives us, as I said, a robust, changeable language that is not constricted by the need to prove what is correct or what is right. As long as listeners can understand clearly what is being meant by the speaker, it is correct and proper English, no matter where it comes from.

I’m done ranting now. Thanks for reading.

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Filed under Learning From the Master, The Language We Speak

Legos

Lego Digital Designer.pngLast weekend, my friend’s little boy came around for an afternoon while my friend played rugby. The boy and I played Nintendo for a while (Super Mario Galaxy, MarioKart 64, and Pokemon Snap for those who care) and then we started in on the Legos.

We were soon joined by my friend and the three of us sat and played with the Legos for an hour or so, making spaceships and then blowing up each others ships. The child won, of course, but it’s amazing how much my friend and I enjoy playing Legos with him.

Ok, I’ll say it: I love Legos. I always have and can guess that I always will. They were my favorite toy as a child and, as I related above, I still enjoy tinkering with them.

But I don’t have any. I don’t have kids and my niece and nephew live too far away for me to justify buying tons to keep in my house. More than that, I can never make myself buy any for me. There are just too many other things vying for my paycheck that are (marginally) more important. Like healthcare. And rent.

Enter my find of the week – Lego Digital Designer. The Designer is a piece of software designed by Lego that lets you build, virtually, in the computer, anything you could build in the real world using Lego blocks. Admittedly, the program can not provide the same visceral, tactile thrill of putting things together with your hands, but it’s a good substitute for when there are no blocks available.

So, if you’re like me, a childless thirty-something with no nieces or nephews in close enough proximity to spoil and you have a jones for the toys of your childhood, check out the builder. It’s not the real thing, but it’s close.

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Life in the Big Wide World

A friend recently asked how living in Japan was going.  I answered that it was good and I gave him the same answer I give everyone.  I said that life was good.  Mayumi and I are doing well; we’re planning a vacation soon and house hunting on the weekends.  I’m pondering career options.  We’re semi-seriously talking about buying a dog.  The usual.

And I realized that none of that had anything to do with living in Japan.  It was all just…living.

None of the issues I’m dealing with at the moment are exclusive to this country.  There is an argument to be made, I suppose, that house hunting in Seattle or Berlin must be different from house hunting here, but I’m not buying it.  Those differences must be superficial at best because the desire to have a safe and secure haven, to have a home is a universal constant, isn’t it?  As are the desires for a family, for a job one enjoys, possibly even for children, or at least a dog to obey one’s every command.

What is shocking, to me, is that I don’t know when that changed.  When this life I have ceased to be an adventure, living in a foreign land, pretending it was any more or less bizarre than anywhere else I’ve been and became a more grown-up adventure, navigating the future with others welfare entwined with my own.  With responsibilities beyond paying my tab at the bar and ideas beyond plotting the next boys night out.

And yes, I know it has been happening gradually, for the last five years, if not longer.  And yes, I know I have noticed it and forgotten and noticed and commented on this a few times over those five if not longer years.  But I have never had it encapsulated in such a way before.

I no longer live in Japan.  I just live my life.  In Japan.

And I’m ok with that.

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