Monday, January 31, 2005

More joys of cooking

After a couple weeks with the new Wolf gas stove, I'm noticing that the stovetop and the surrounding countertop rarely need to be cleaned. Remembering the ordeal of scraping burnt spots off the old electric stove's glass cooktop, and trying to get grease off the glass control panel on a daily basis, I wondered what was going on. It's not just that the Wolf is easy to clean--it's that it isn't getting dirty.

The answer, I realized, was that because I can now control burner temperature precisely, foods aren't bubbling over or spattering. I find I enjoy cooking much more now that it doesn't involve trashing the place.

Spinning my wheels with Sears

Sears' web site service allows me to get all the way to the page where you pay for the parts you are ordering--and then it stalls out. This has been going on for years. I keep thinking they'll fix it, trying to order online, but ending up calling the parts ordering number. As I did last week when I needed new wheels for our vacuum cleaner.

Today a confirmation letter arrived in the mail saying that they'd shipped the new wheels January 25. The confirmation letter arrived January 31. The wheels, sent via DHL, did not.

Using the DHL tracking number in the confirmation letter, I discovered that DHL has no record of my package.

I then called the "order status" phone number provided in the Sears confirmation letter. I listened to the long menu of things, none of which were "order status." I asked for Customer Service, and she cheerfully transferred me to Parts. Parts cheerfully said she need to transfer me to Customer Relations (apparently different from Customer Service). Didn't get to find out, because her transfer disconnected me. I got a message telling me to please re-dial the 1-800 number.

I then called back to the main number and was placed on hold multiple times listening to a hideously cheerful voice chirping "Sears. Good life, great price." Finally got through to Parts again, and was again transferred to Customer Relations, which informed me that the DHL tracking procedure outlined in the confirmation letter "never works." And that they have no idea where my wheels are, but will get back to me.

Sears. "Good life, great price." Good grief.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

A question of identity

Suspicious about what might be lurking across the street from your house?

Here's the National Arbor Day Foundation's guide to tree identification. Hone your tree ID skills with their interactive Flash animation exercises.

Friday, January 28, 2005

It says "don't forget the mskrtthy"?

Sad, but true. For most of us, writing in cursive is becoming an amusing affectation.

What's it all about: TiVO

Wondering what TiVO is all about, and why some people would rather give up caffeine than their TiVO box? THEZORG offers his usual clear explanation.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Dialog with an iPod

7 a.m., somewhere in the air over Southwest Washington state, with a bright orange dawn flaming in the East, and the gray summit of what must be Rainier poking up out of a dark, choppy sea of clouds.

This is the early morning flight from Seattle to San Jose and various stops beyond. It's one of the Southwest planes with the cozy leather seats, and there are very few passengers on this first leg of the trip. So I get a set of three seats, sit in the middle with my laptop, and put down the tray tables on either side for tea on the left and the mouse on the right. No phones to ring, no cats to worry about. And the iPod is shuffling through 3,000 songs, opening with a Fats Waller classic, then introducing me to a lively folk-rock tune--shades of Dylan, Clapton, and Roger McGuinn--"Looking Up in Heaven" by Paul Westerberg (from the latest Wired CD), and seguing with surprising smoothness into Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

I'm using Apple's new Pages software to put together a booklet for my 50th birthday party. It is sufficiently reminiscent of early PageMaker to keep me very happy.

It seems that the iPod has quite a sense of humor. Now it's playing "Progress," Jim Page's biting lampoon of new technology, including headphones. (Radical folksinger Page, who is a Seattle neighbor and a Northwest Folklife Festival acquaintance, reminds me quite a bit of Steve Jobs. Can you imagine a discussion between the two of them? I'd love to host it. Menu: vegetarian.)

OK, the iPod is beyond brilliant. It's followed Page with Tom Lehrer' howl-inducing sendup of self-righteous protest singers, "The Folk Song Army." Now that's a segue worth of my all-time favorite folk DJ, WYBC's Dave Mix.

I'd just mentioned Clapton, so the iPod apparently sensed that and has followed Lehrer with Clapton's slinky acoustic version of "Layla."

Staying on the acoustic English folk/blues theme, the next tune is the late, legendary Nick Drake's "Fruit Tree." Backed by classical musicians, it's a pretty lush piece of music. The sun's up, just emerging from a curtain of clouds, and illuminating a landscape of Oregon's mountains and rivers.

The iPod goes for Handel's "Oh Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion," with much mention of mountains. I'm getting no work done, but having a marvelous time.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

What is your Starbucks density?

Calculate the number of Starbucks within a 5-mile radius of your address.

Our Starbucks density out here in far Western Ballard: 44.

Off to San Jose for the day tomorrow. I was supposed to go there Tuesday, and I certainly tried, but the plane sat at the gate for 2 hours while they tried to repair something. I gave up, got off, and rescheduled the trip. Then I drove home from the airport and was at my desk by 9:30 a.m.--the same time I usually start the workday.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Madcap mysteries

My taste in mysteries runs the gamut from the coyest "cozies" to the nastiest noir. As long as the writer has a flair for words and dialogue, and more than a glint of humor, I'm likely to enjoy the book.

Charlotte MacLeod, who died this week at age 82, was a delightful writer and one of the grand dames of the American cozy. After a career as a business excutive, MacLeod began writing fiction in her 40s. She said she preferred to write in her bathrobe so she wouldn't be tempted to leave the house on errands.

Her Peter Shandy series set in New England (The Corpse in Oozak's Pond, Rest You Merry, Something in the Water, and more) fully exploited the rich all the possibilities of the academic mystery. MacLeod's books are available at your local used bookstore or through Amazon.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Wolf is in the kitchen

I waited four years for this, so figured it wouldn't hurt to wait four days before blogging about it: The Wolf gas has arrived.

It cooks just as well--even better--than the vintage O'Keefe & Merritt gas stove we left behind at the original Shady Rest. There are no fancy timing devices or self-cleaning controls. The chef is expected to be, if not in the kitchen, at least on the premises.

I tested the oven immediately Monday evening (after burning it in for a hour) with a batch of brownies. Instead of the gooey interior and burnt exterior the KitchenAid had been serving up for the past three years, we got a pan of evenly done cake-style brownies. Tuesday night I stuffed a chicken with herbs (a recipe from The Naked Chef) and roasted it in a pan full of root vegetables. The result: crispy skin, moist meat, thoroughly roasted veggies--everything we'd been missing.

The Wolf burners are at once very powerful and extremely fine-tuned. I used the chicken leftovers to make a soup, trying out the low and simmer settings, and it was again impressive. If you look at the picture, you'll see traditional burners on the left and what are called S-grates in the center and on the right. Another set of S-grates are on order, so eventually the stovetop will be one even surface, and easy to move pans around on. At some point, I may splurge and order the wok grate.

Because this is the small 30-inch model Wolf, there aren't any fancy French burners, griddles, or warming drawers. But the oven does turn out to have convection, which is recommended for baking bread. To find out more about Wolf stoves, check out their site. It even has a picture of my stove on the homepage! And a QuickTime manicotti demo using their dual fuel model.

So that's the deal. It's a tough, dependable stove, and, yes, I'll be taking dinner reservations soon--after I finish dusting off my cookbooks.

Feline detente

Betaille, our elderly Himalayan/Abyssinian cat, is not given to impetuous actions. Every night she examines her dinner as if it were some strange, potentially poisonous, alien footstuff, rather than the same brand and flavor of cat food she ate for lunch. Each time we open the door for her to come in the house, she stops at the threshold and peers around, just in case we acquired a pitbull while she was out in the yard.

This has been going on for 15 years.

For the past four years, Betaille has been putting on a great show of being afraid of the big deaf white cat, Sheba. They eat in the same room, sleep in the same room (one on the bed, the other under it), yet day after day, Betaille refuses to come in the house if she can see Sheba.

For the past few months, Betaille has been hopping up on my desk to let me know she wants food, or to be let out. Recently, she's actually sat down on the desk and allowed me to pet her. She eyes the fleece cat bed on the desk, but refuses all invitations to get in it. Tonight she finally walked over and stood in it. Then slowly, slowly sat down. And finally curled up, purring.

The irony is that the fearsome Sheba is asleep on her fuzzy mat behind the computer, just two feet away from Betaille. They're pretending they don't see each other.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

I can't decide!

Why the luxury of too many choices can make us crazy, and dissatisfied: A great interview by Mark Hurst of Good Experience with psychologist Barry Schwartz.

Shopzilla to the rescue

I've been shopping online for more than a decade and have had very few bad experiences with it. Of course, I'm cautious. Today I was looking for a high-quality, all-elastic cat collar for Kaylee, who gets herself out of her cheaper-brand elastic collar about three times a day.

The brand I wanted, which Sheba is wearing, is Coastal (their Licorice Strip is the all-elastic collar). The problem was that the big name-online pet stores are pushing a different brand of all-elastic collar, one which doesn't impress me much.

It took but a moment to find listings for the Coastal collar using Google. However, you can't buy from Coastal's wholesale site, and the retail sites that came up in the search just didn't inspire confidence. No Bizrate rating. No PayPal payment option. No physical store associated with the online operation. Hmmmm.

I went to Bizrate and discovered their new Shopzilla search. Turns out that one one of the major online pet supply stores did, indeed, stock the Coastal collar. For a whopping $6.99 per collar, when everyone else had been charging $2.49. Hmmmm...a $4.50 per item convenience fee for shopping a secure site? Since I was buying 8 collars (stocking up on supplies for the whole herd) this made a quite difference.

Going back to Shopzilla, I found, which not only had the Bizrate association but would also let me pay by PayPal so I wasn't surrendering my credit card info to them. One more nice thing about order form has a notes section so I could ask them to send me a red collar (instead of a raspberry one) if they had red in stock.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Kitties rock!

The kittens are immortalized by (If you're a do-it-yourself type, check out this tutorial.)

Squish, squish

Yesterday Seattle logged a spirit-dampening two inches of rain in 24 hours (though nowhere near our October 20, 2003, record of just over 5 inches.) Today the temperature reached 60 degrees on our front porch and the sun nearly came out at noon. Three hours later it was pouring again. A confused African daisy is blooming in the backyard, just inches from where gooey mess where the nasturtium froze to death last week. Is this confused, or what?

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Environmentalism and the environment

Environmentalism and the environment--are they even related?

In a spate of recent articles, nicely analzyed by Katherine Mieszkowki in Salon ("Dead movement walking?") environmentalists admit that their efforts have had precious little effect on stopping massive degradation of the global and national environment. The causes, including econonomic development of the third world and rapacious greed on the part of the the United States, are well documented, but no one seems to know how to get governments or voters to take action.

The situation for environmentalists is much like that confronting the Democratic Party. Should they become more passionate, radical, and focused, or should they continue their current, ineffective, strategy of trying to appeal to middle-of-the-roaders--who show no compunctions about screwing them and siding with the conservatives on every key issue.

The difference between the environmentalists and the Democrats is that the environmentalists are willing to admit they've got a problem. If you aren't a Salon subscriber and can't access Mieszkowki's article, check out the website of Michael Shellenberger and the recent comments of Sierra Club president Carl Pope. The Salon article also allows you to download PDFs of some other insightful speeches. This might be the time to subscribe to Salon Premium ($35 a year includes some great benefits including free audio books and free mp3s).

Friday, January 14, 2005

Three cheers for MarkSpace

I arrived at Macworld this morning and realized that my Treo 600, fully charged and receiving a signal, was nevertheless unusable. The screen was dead. What to do?

Palm does not have a presence at Macworld this year, but MarkSpace does. (MarkSpace is the company whose product the Missing Sync bridges the gaps that exist between Apple's iSync, Palm Desktop software, and the huge variety of PDAs.)

I had used the Missing Sync in the days when I had a Sony Clie, and had just heard yesterday about cool new features that make Missing Sync a must-have for the Treo and other Palm Desktop devices.

I approached MarkSpace booth and threw myself on their mercy, identifying myself as a past customer and proffering my semi-dead Treo. They confirmed my suspicion that I needed to reset the Treo by poking a paperclip into the reset dimple on the back of the PDA, and they went in search of a paperclip. I realized that the stylus of the Treo might unscrew to reveal a reset pin--which it did. They stabbed it, it reset immediately, and I was in business. And I came away with a great tip: The MarkSpace folks suggested that the Treo be reset at least once a month for optimum performance.

Thank you, MarkSpace. I'll be upgrading my Missing Sync software and installing it on the Treo tomorrow.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Yum! Macworld

I'll blog about Macworld when I get back to Seattle, but just for now, some notes on food:

Last night Harold took me to a new bistro on Russian Hill called Luella. Very elegant (done in sage greens and walnut brown), not particularly pricey. Signature side dish is polenta fries. These are quite a bit larger than french fries, filled with fine polenta with such a crispy exterior that I suspect an egg batter.

Food at Macworld is the usual convention center food in the Moscone (to be avoided if you have time to leave the building for alternatives). Fortunately, there are outstanding selections next door at the Sony technology center. The noodle place now has about 300 selections of soups, stir fries, and such. The cold noodles with shredded chicken and sesame sauce remains a favorite. Today I went to the Firewood at the Sony and, instead of having their thin crust pizza, I got the appetizer sampler with dolmathes, grilled eggplant, goat-cheese stuffed peppers, and tossed mozzarella and tomatoes. A great vegetarian choice.

The show is very upscale this year; not many small vendors with weird stuff, and, unfortunately, no big MacWarehouse booths selling all the cables and memory card readers you forgot to bring with you. Lots of bags, iPod accessories, and all the big vendors for printing, photography, peripherals, and music.

My vote for most astonishing software goes to Kinoma. Through some combination of TiVO, USB add-on for the TiVo, the Mac with Kinoma's $30 software, and your Treo, you end up watching full length movies on the Treo. Arcane, but useful for plane flights. I have no doubt that this works, but am wondering how much time and effort it takes to move the video from TiVo to Treo; and if my Treo has enough memory without adding a memory stick.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Gas, water, and electric

We're at the point in the gas appliance installation project at which everything is waiting for something else. The plumber forgot to schedule the gas inspection for today, which threw everything into a cascade of dependencies. The plumbing can't be finished until the gas inspector signs off; the plumbing inspection can't be scheduled until the plumbing is completed; and the appliances can't be delivered until they can be hooked up, and nothing can be hooked up until after the not-yet-scheduled plumbing inspection. Wait, there's more: Since the gas water heater is not next to an external wall, it needed a power vent to the outside. The power vent is electric. And there's no outlet near the gas heater, so we need to install one. That means the electrician is now in the mix, as well--fortunately, he was already coming on Monday to troubleshoot some mysteriously malfunctioning switches in the garage.

So, delivery and installation of the stove and dryer have now been shifted out a week to Monday, the 17th, when I return from Macworld. Unfortunately, I'd already promised to sell the old electric dryer this coming weekend to a family on Phinney Ridge whose own dryer blew up Tuesday night. They were eager to rush over last night and pick it up, but I told them I needed a couple days to do all our laundry! Guess that's what I'll be doing this weekend.

Meanwhile the contents of the laundry room (where new water heater is being installed) is spread all over the den and the garage, and the contents of half of the pantry is in the den as well, since the power vent for the gas water heater runs through the ceiling of the pantry. The contents of our basement exterior storage area is stuffed into the garden shed. The idea is to keep all the new work visible for the inspectors--who I'm sure know that you're going to pile all the old junk back on top of it as soon as they're off the property.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

It had to happen

From John Paczkowski's lively Good Morning Silicon Valley column:

"According to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, 5 percent of Windows machines crash, on average, twice daily. So odds were that it was only a matter of time before Gates found himself standing before an audience of thousands with the infamous Blue Screen of Death behind him. And that's exactly what happened yesterday. In his annual keynote address at the International Consumer Electronics Show, Gates re-iterated Microsoft's ambitious vision of digital entertainment (sorry folks, no new products), in a presentation beset by technical gaffes ranging from a frozen digital-photo slideshow to the aforementioned BSoD.. Gates, it should be noted, handled the cockups particularly well, graciously suffering the quips of celebrity guest Conan O'Brien, with whom he shared the stage. "I don't know who's running things here," O'Brien joked during Gates' ill-starred slide show. "Who's in charge of Microsoft?" he asked, looking at Gates. "Oh."

O'Brien later says of his Vegas experiences with Gates, "I got so drunk that I woke up with a hooker, Bill got so drunk he woke up with an Apple computer."

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Surreal car accident

Tonight I agreed against my better judgment to have coffee with an old friend who took leave of his senses several years ago and hasn't been back to visit them since.

Zorg can't abide this guy in the house, so I told him we'd go out to Tully's. My friend putted up to our house at 7:30 p.m. in his ancient heap. When I offered to drive in my car--actually, in the loaner car from the repair shop where my own car is being serviced--he agreed because his passenger seat was filled with junk.

We drove into downtown Ballard and were cruising down NW 56th Street when he yelled "look out"--just as a Toyota exiting a bank parking lot across the street merged into my driver's side door with a horrible crunch. The woman driving the Toyota was very apologetic. She said it was her fault, and that she'd never even seen our car. We exchanged information, and I called 911 and was told to come in and fill out an accident report if the damage was more than $500. A pedestrian witness came forward to give me his business card.

Finally, we got back in the car and I headed for a more official parking place. My friend continued jabbering about making a mint selling things on eBay, just as if nothing had happened. We went into Tully's and he continued to yak away, pausing only when I said I wanted to call Zorg to tell him about the accident. I left a message, and we were back on the eBay scheme. Eventually I dragged him out of Tully's, back to the car, and back to my house, where he practically followed me up the front steps. Fortunately, my cell phone rang. It was Zorg, who had spotted us from the window of his darkened study, and was calling to rescue me.

I've always suspected, and am now convinced, that pervasive, low-grade trouble follows my friend around. God knows he exhausted his allotment of karma some years back. His current scheme involves selling all his possessions and moving to another country this spring.

Bon voyage.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Of course, Mr. President

Many thanks to dean of online writing Crawford Kilian for pointing out AlterNet's "P.U.-litzer Prizes" for media malfeasance in 2004. Most of the awards underline prominent reporters' and editors' confusion over the difference between their job descriptions and those of the White House PR flacks.

If that's too depressing, check out another link from Crawford: Anne's Pepper's slideshow on editing for the web.

All your pfeffernusse belong to us

An MIT researcher urges educators to bring foreign language education into the digital age, using digital audio devices and sophisticated computer games like The Sims.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

What's happening with Social Security?

Talk about depressing. Here's a blogger who is following the deepening Social Security mess.

Amazon splurge

To reward myself for finally cleaning the garage/workshop, I blew all my Amazon gift certificates on a new cordless Panasonic drill/driver (and finally tossed the dead Makita, which was pretty feeble even in its prime).

The garage cleanup is part of the preparation for having the plumber on site to run pipes to bring the new gas line to a new dryer, a new hot water heater, and a new stove. Unfortunately, the gas hot water heater can't go where the electric hot water heater has been; gas hot water heaters need to be vented to the outside, either through a chimney (we don't have one in the center of the house) or a nearby wall (the current heater isn't near a wall). So the new hot water heater is going into the laundry room, and some things from the laundry room are going into the garage and pantry. Sigh.

It's not all out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new, though. This week the 1990 Honda Civic goes to the legendary High Road Automotive for a complete overhaul (though their sign says "Honda and Acura" their website says they do Toyota, Lexus and Subaru as well). What's so special about High Road? They are AAA approved, have a 5-star environmental rating from the county, and focus on preventive care for older vehicles. Check out what Car Talk readers have to say about them.

When I asked them if my 1990 Honda Civic stationwagon with 70K miles was worth preserving, they pointed to their three loaner cars: two are Honda Civic stationwagons even more ancient than mine.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Smarter than we are

Reuters reports that no wild animals have been found dead in the wake of the tsunami. Is it possible that they knew what was coming, and got to higher ground?