Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bootable USB Flash Drive

Reposting these instructions on making a bootable flash drive.

  • On a command prompt, run diskpart.
  • list disk
  • select disk 2 (Replacing 2 with the correct number!)
  • clean
  • create partition primary
  • select partition 1
  • active
  • format fs=fat32 quick (Note that fs=ntfs will NOT be bootable!)
  • assign
  • exit
  • robocopy /MIR [source drive] [destination flash drive]

In short, you create an active, primary partition on the drive (and you have to do this in diskpart, because the Windows UI doesn't support it) and then you copy the files from your Windows installation media to the drive. And here I always thought that this was something difficult!

Windows 7 Media Center

I upgraded my Media Center box to Windows 7 Beta build 7000. Most everything is working; the native Clear-QAM support is most welcome! My channels actually say 5.1 instead of 1868. Good stuff. A little polish on the UI is also welcome. (I did have to manually change a registry flag that didn't upgrade automatically.)

The only issue I am having is with—surprise, surprise—the NVidia drivers. HDCP isn't working (solved with AnyDVD HD), switching resolutions is flaky and resizing the desktop (to correct overscan) isn't working. Oh, and that's with Vista drivers because the Windows 7 drivers crashed the system and had to be rolled back. But...I'm excited enough about testing it to deal with it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

ShowMeCables.com

I have to post a rave about the customer service at ShowMeCables.com.

A while back, I decided to make a Y-adapter so that I could use an iPhone headset with my computer, which has the traditional separate mic and headphone jacks.

A few weeks ago, I got an email through my web contact form from John at ShowMeCables.com. He asked me if I knew why he was seeing so much web traffic from my domain. I told him about the adapter I had put together and shared links, and said that a post I had made on a forum had really led to it being noticed.

He replied and said he understood what I was trying to accomplish. He said that he would have one of the guys in his custom cable division whip me up a prototype and he'd send it to me. All he asked in return was that I let him know if it met my expectations.

A few days later I got a fedex with the connector. It was well made with durable-feeling construction. The best part was the handwritten-in-sharpie "mic" and "headphone" labels on the connectors. They sent me the very first prototype! I love it!

So to anyone looking for any custom cable connectors, do me a favor and check out ShowMeCables.com. If you have interest in the specific adapter, you can order it directly here. In fact, the adapter pictured there (at least as of now) is the actual unit they sent to me.

Is that customer service worth raving about, or what??

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Redoing my books for simplicity

I just completely restructured my personal finance books. I decided that it had become too much work to maintain them, yet I still feel a need to maintain them. So I restructured the hierarchy to be much shallower: no more Expenses:Transport:Car:Gas, now it's just Expenses:Transport, and it rolls up all of the sub-categories like taxis and public transit. In short, I collapsed probably 150 expense accounts into 10. Okay, I'm lying—there are many more than ten, but only for critical and automated transactions, like the tax line-items in my pay checks. But as far as day-to-day categories, where I have to put all of the transactions when I import my credit card and bank statement, there are only about ten.

This is quite a departure from my past. I remember a year ago deciding that I needed to create sub-accounts under Expenses:Gifts Given for Christmas, Birthdays and Weddings. But you know how many times I actually cared about those numbers? Zero. So today I collapsed them back together. And I collapsed, and collapsed and collapsed my accounts. The most interesting are Expenses:Living (lifestyle-related expenses and unaccounted-for cash) which includes sub-categories for Groceries and Personal Care (which includes clothes, haircuts and fitness club dues, though not as sub-accounts). There is also Expenses:Goodies, which I loosely define as "wants:" gadgets, movies, or books. Expenses:Housing is another important key account for improving and maintaining my household (could be toilet paper from Walgreens or paint for the bedroom), as well as sub-accounts for mortgage interest (kept as an account for tax purposes).

In addition, I restructured my hierarchy so that they are no longer sorted by account type (used to be Accounts:Bank:Savings, Accounts:Bank:Checking, Liabilities:Loans:Mortgage, Liabilities:Credit Cards:Diners Club, etc). Now they are sorted by how I want to aggregate the information. So now I have, Floating:Cash, Floating:Checking, and Floating:Credit Cards. That way I can look at the Floating level in the hierarchy and see if I have enough money in my Checking account to cover the credit card bill, or if I need to transfer money from Stable:Savings (a regular occurrence, because I keep checking as lean as possible so that I can earn better interest in Savings).

Phew, this is a wordy post that means little to anyone but me. Why are you still reading? I hope that this makes my life a little bit simpler and removes a little bit of stress. I also hope that it helps me, how shall I say, less resistant to dealing with my books and keeping them up-to-date and accurate. But not too accurate, because that's why I landed here in the first place! :)

Sweet Maria's Coffee Pairings

If you enjoy higher-end cups of coffee, check out the Sweet Maria's Roasted Coffee Pairings. The roastmaster selects two coffees to specifically show some difference in style, processing or flavor, etc. At $30 (delivered) for 2lbs of coffee, the price is pretty fair for the market.

This morning I enjoyed a few cups each of Ethiopian and Indonesian lots. They are detailed in the roastmaster's blog post, Fruity or Fruited? Both coffees exhibit clear fruity notes, though the Indonesian is more tropical and bright/acidic, while the Ethiopian is more muted and hints at fermented grapes. But don't take my word for it—get in on their next roasting!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Programmable Thermostat

I finally, after living here for over two years, decided to install a programmable thermostat.

So I ordered one, and found that the labels on the wires didn't match up. After pulling out the manual and wiring diagrams for the furnace, I realized that I have a two-stage heat pump furnace (heat pump with an auxiliary heat source). The thermostat only supported single-stage heat. Oops. I only wired it up to the aux heat source, so if I kept it I would be running in the less efficient mode all the time. So I pulled off the new thermostat and put the old one back on.

Except when I put the old one back on, it wouldn't turn on. Crap. I tried resetting all the breakers, but nothing. I could see where the AC voltage came into the furnace, went through a transformer, powered the control circuit board, and wires went off to the wall to the thermostat. But I couldn't figure it out. I went to bed and gave up on it.

The next day, I had a few conversations with some handy people in my life. Between those conversations and a Google search, I found that there would likely be a fuse on the circuit board. That evening, sure enough, once I stopped looking at the circuit board as a black box, I saw a fuse. I didn't have a replacement, so a paper clip closed the circuit and I had heat again! (I am lucky that I live on a middle floor and so am not going to be terribly cold without heat.) Lesson learned: turn off the breaker when messing with wiring!

Today I went to Radio Shack and found a replacement fuse. And did some research to find a compatible thermostat, the Honeywell RTH7600D. And also found that the local Home Depot had the thermostat I wanted in stock—right now. So I walked down there and bought it and installed it. It was the last one they had on the shelf.

Now I am very, very excited that tomorrow morning, before I wake up, the furnace will click on and warm the place up. This instead of me getting up and out of bed, quickly hitting the UP button on the thermostat a few times and then quickly hopping back in bed for another thirty minutes.

Oh, and I replaced the air filter, too. I managed to not break anything while I was doing that.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Anthony Bourdain

Quotes from Kitchen Confidential:

"Saving for well-done" is a time-honored tradition dating back to cuisine's earliest days. ... What happens when the chef finds a tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin that's been pushed repeatedly to the back of the pile? He can throw it out, but that's a total loss. He can feed it to the family, which is the same as throwing it out. Or he can "save for well-done"—serve it to some rube who prefers his meat or fish incinerated into a flavorless, leathery hunk of carbon, who won't be able to tell if what he's eating is food or flotsam. Ordinarily, a proud chef would hate this customer, hold him in contempt for destroying his fine food. But not in this case. The dumb bastard is paying for the privilege of eating his garbage! What's not to like?

Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Packing Peanuts

I was cleaning up some old packaging (as well as taking down the Christmas tree) when I noticed that this box full of packing peanuts had a note in it that the peanuts were made of cornstarch. Intrigued, I got one wet and it melted away. So I dumped the whole box in the sink and stirred it in hot water until they dissolved. They washed right away. I wonder if I could thicken a sauce with them, too?

The quest for the perfect cup of coffee

I enjoy coffee, and am stuck on the quest for the perfect cup. There are so many variables: the quality and temperature of the water, the origin and processing of the coffee beans, the freshness of the coffee roast, the freshness of the coffee grind, the evenness of the grind, the time the grounds spend in the hot water. And of course, how those variables are combined: in an espresso machine, in a French press, in an automatic drip machine or—in my latest and best experiment—a vacuum pot.

French presses have two main flaws: they make too muddy of a cup, and they are prone to over-extraction (if the coffee and hot water are in contact for too long, the beans are over-extracted and bitter compounds are released—most cheap coffee we drink in America is made from too little coffee brewed for too long, resulting in a weak and bitter cup) as you tend to press the plunger and drink off of the still-extracting, slowly-bittering brew as you go (you can fix that by pouring the pot into a thermos immediately after plunging, but who does that?). That just leaves the muddy cup issue.

Most automatic drip machines (the typical American way of drinking coffee) don't get the water to the proper temperature and/or dump the water unevenly on the grounds and/or let the water and grounds commingle for the wrong amount of time and/or lose some of the flavorful oils to the paper filter. The fact is, once you surrender control of so many variables to an "automatic" process, you also surrender the ultimate quality of the final product.

To fix the drawbacks of the auto-drip process, I have been, for the past year or two, using a manual pour-over process. With a filter cone, a permanent gold filter and a tea kettle, you can make a damn good cup of coffee. But the gold filter does leave a little mud in the very last cup.

And then of course there is espresso—the magnifying-glass-on-your-flaws method of brewing coffee. Using a very fine grind, densely packed, being extracted by hot water forced through it under high pressure, the slightest flaw (such as an uneven tamp of the grounds) can produce a worthless shot of espresso. But with such high demands comes a high reward: a perfect shot of espresso is a dense and intense bit of coffee flavor. Like a beautiful piece of dark chocolate, there is nothing quite like it.

Today I tried out the latest method of making coffee: a manual vacuum pot. (I have since stopped using the automatic vacuum pot as I didn't like surrendering control to the automatic process.) My latest and greatest coffee gadget is a Yama 20oz stove-top coffee siphon. I also picked up a used Cory glass rod filter (search on eBay for it; it's a contraption from 1933 that'll run you $5) so that I would never have to replace the cloth filter that came with the Yama.

Vacuum pots are probably the "coolest" way to brew coffee. As boiling water causes steam pressure to build in the bottom chamber, water is forced up the tube into the top chamber, where it is now slightly below boiling temperature; when removed from heat, the decreasing temperature in the bottom creates a vacuum, pulling the coffee from the top back down and filtering it (search YouTube for an example video). Vacuum pots produce an exceptionally clean cup of coffee—even though it's just the friction of a glass rod resting in a tube holding back the grounds. The pressure from the vacuum actually packs the grounds together and pulls the liquid through it, further filtering out the fine sediment.

All things considered, this new brewer has amazing potential. I need some practice to tweak the variables that I control (size of grind, amount of grind, and extraction time), but the beautifully clean cup of coffee and the simplicity of operation will keep me happy for a while...at least until the next cool gadget comes along!