Friday, July 25, 2008

Cooking Advice

I'm not a big cooking guy. Perhaps I have my moments, but in general, I wouldn't put cooking among my top skill sets.

Today I was making a batch of Rice Crispy Treats. As everyone knows, there's not a lot to it. I melted the butter, then melted the marshmallows, then poured in the cereal. I stired the whole thing and then put it in a pan. Then I went to get some wax paper to push it in the pan.

We had no wax paper.

At first glance I thought, "Mey, I'll just push it in with the spoon."

This was extremely ineffective. The gooey treat kept sticking to the spoon and pulling OUT of the pan. Then I thought that I'd just use my hands, except that I've learned since being married that other people don't like to have their food touched with bare, unwashed hands. I was in a horrible situation in that I basically had a whole tray of Rice Crispy treats that would just go to waste unless I innovated. My alter ego, MattGyver sprung into action.

I first found a piece of sturdy cardstock photoprinter paper. I folded it in half and covered it tightly with a pair of my wife's pantyhose (sorry Jenn!). Then I found a blue crayon and tore off the paper wrapper so I could maximize the surface contact area. I frantically rubbed the blue crayon onto the pantyhose covered paper, which absorbed a considerable amount of this (non-toxic!) wax. This paper / leggings / crayon contraption had nearly identical properties to wax paper. I pressed the Rice Crispy treats into the pan, and there was no sticking at all!

The problem, of course, is that the rice crispys were now... Smurf Cripys. Oops.

Now for those of you that are laughing at my failed prototype, you have to understand that I'm an engineer. An engineer with a sense of humor... who made that last part up. I did find a creative solution, but it was much less glamorous.

Real Solution: I had an empty bag of Rice Crispys cereal. This bag has a similar material property to wax paper - I used the bag to press the rice crispy treats into the pan without having it stick! I was amazed. I feel like this was a food hacking trick that I discovered all by myself, and this whole adventure fits exceptionally well into a blog like mine.

A Friend Quoted in Business Week

So every once in a while you'll have a friend get 15 seconds of fame in a local paper or on the nightly news. Not too often do you see it in the national media.

As I was reading my copy of Business Week that arrived today, there was the article, Cash for Trash. I saw a quote by a friend of mine.
"They're Not Picky Eaters"

Wes Bolson
, as quoted in the August 4th issue of Business Week, page 42, referring to the bacteria his company, Coskata, uses to digest carbon monoxide and hydrogen from wood trimmings and 'hurricane debris' and excrete ethanol.
Link to the exact page if you're too lazy to read the whole thing.

Very neat!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Talk About Your Salary?

I usually look to Ken Rockwell for camera advice, but sometimes he goes a little off topic.

I found his latest post, Talk About Your Salary to be VERY interesting.

His proposal is this: Talk with your coworkers about how much you are paid. While your boss can't tell you how much you get paid, what's the problem with knowing how much your coworkers get paid. This is the only real tool you have to negotiate salary effectively. Worst case, you find out that you're the highest paid. Best case, you have a coworker who does less work than you who is paid more and you can leverage that at an annual review. The only loser is your employer.

I think this is a really interesting topic and especially important for people in their twenties. Right out of school you're essentially useless and unskilled, but after a few years you have some skill sets that have been invested in you by your employer. If you're merely getting cost of living increases in total compensation, and the new hires are getting their base raised at a similar annual amount, it's possible that a newly hired coworker could be getting paid just as much or more than you. Yikes!

The real question is, how do you break the salary taboo culture? Are their implications here that Ken and I have missed?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Oh fellow blogging friends, how do I stalk thee?

If you blog at all, you'll see that I pretty much comment on just about every post you make. You might think I'm so in love with your blog that I must check it every 3 minutes. While I do love your blog, I'm not quite that obsessive.

Unless you've been living under an virtual internet rock for the past few years, you've probably heard of something called RSS feeds.

RSS feeds are a web feed format that are formatted in a very specific way. Most blogging websites provide RSS feeds for their users automatically. You probably see links for them all over the place on the internet. Finding these feeds has never been a problem, it's finding a useful tool to aggregate these posts that has been my problem. For many of my more tech-savvy friends, you'll laugh that it took me until 2008 to fully embrace RSS. Sorry!

Google Reader does a great job for me. If you use Firefox you can get a sweet little Google reader plug-in that displays the number of unread posts in the lower corner of your browser like this:

One click will get you a full displayed page of everything you haven't read.

If you want to be able to organize these a bit more, you can organize these feeds into folders and then have them displayed on custom Google page.

You can also set up RSS feeds to work on sites like Craigslist and ebay, so you can watch for things of interest, if that's your type of thing.

New Facebook Layout

So facebook decided to change their layout. They're rolling it out over time. You may not be updated yet, but soon will be.

Want to see a preview?

Enjoy... or loathe.

Quixtar / Amway

So, I'm going to make this quick, just to ensure that none of my colleagues, friends or family ever get sucked into the blatant scam of Quixtar, previously known as Amway.

I see ads now on Fox News just talking about the millions of people who are "independent business owners" as a part of Quixtar.

Quixtar is a manufacturer of health and beauty products. These are then sold to individual IBOs like John and Suzzie, at a discount. Theoretically, John or Suzzie would then sell these items at full price to other people and make the difference in margin. Selling Price - Cost - Other Expenses = Profit. Very simple!

Except, unfortunately, this isn't how Quixtar works for the vast majority of participants. In most cases, you have a friend of a friend who approaches you about a "business opportunity." You are told that you won't need to sell anything, and you can fire your boss in 2-5 years if you work hard.

The Quixtar way actually promotes consuming items (buying more granola bars, soap, makeup for yourself) and then finding others to buy and consume their own items. How does this make anyone money, you ask? For every individual your recruit, you get a fraction of their sales, and a fraction of the sales they make. The more people you recruit, and the more your recruits recruit, the higher your income bracket.

To make matters worse, to keep you hooked in, you'll have weekly or semi-monthly meeting to encourage you to stick with it. You may need to drive 30 miles or more to get to these meeting. Once there, you'll be pressed to buy "positive thinking" CDs to keep sticking with the business. Often times the cost of gas, time and these tapes suck any profits you might otherwise make from your recruits below you.

So if this doesn't sound particularly appealing, it's because it isn't. You don't need to take my word for it: Quixtar Income Link


  • The average bonus and cash payments earned by a Diamond IBO in 2005 were $146,995.*
  • The average bonus and cash payments earned by an Emerald in 2005 were $72,241.*
  • The average bonus and cash payments earned by a Q12 Platinum, an IBO who qualifies at the Platinum level all 12 months of the year, were $47,472.*

The Average Monthly Gross Income for “Active” IBOs was $115.

*The following are approximate percentages of Direct Fulfillment IBOs of record in North America who achieved the illustrated levels of success in the calendar year ending August 31, 2005: Diamond .0120%; Emerald .0320%; Q-12 Platinum .1683%.

In other words, people do not make money with Quixtar unless you're one of the king pins at the top. The average person makes less than $1380 a year. You could get a part time job and earn that much in a month or two waiting tables!

Stay away!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Second Amendment

With the elections fast approaching, many issues are coming forward, as is typical. Most of the talk is about the economy and the war in Iraq. The far conservative right is still as passionate as ever about overturning Roe vs. Wade while the far liberal left wants to make sure that you can marry anybody you choose.

The 2nd amendment is a topic that hasn't received a lot of attention recently, since the other issues always seem to be more pressing... you only see people worry about gun violence when someone they know is personally affected or everything else in the country is going well.

To set the record straight, I've always been pro- gun rights. My logic has been pretty simple, even though I don't own a firearm:
If you outlaw owning a gun, the only people who will own guns are criminals, the exact same people who you don't want to own guns. The only people who will now not have guns are law abiding citizens.

I am also troubled about a created society where only the government is allowed to have guns. This seems... problematic if taken to extremes.

However, Burt Constable an article in the Daily Herald that made me pause and think about gun rights in our country. Even in junior high I would read the comics, plus Burt's article. He always has something short and to the point, and he made me think. I consider him to be a little left leaning, but you can't fault someone for having one leg a little shorter than the other.

One of the more powerful questions he asked was, "What causes more fatalities in our country, alcohol related car crashes, or suicide by gunshot?" I venture to guess that most people would say drunk driving. But when the question comes to "by how much?" I would be tempted to say maybe 2 or the 3 people die each year due to drunk driving for every person killed by suicide with a gun.

Turns out I would not only be wrong about the order of magnitude, but by which side I picked as well. As it turns out, the numbers are very close, leaning more towards gun related suicides. As Burt states, roughly 31,000 people are killed by guns each year.
Suicides are responsible for 55.4 percent of gun deaths in the U.S., while homicides account for 40.2 percent, according to the most-recent (2005) statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicides by gun have outnumbered gun homicides and gun accidents in 20 of the last 25 years.

For those of you rightfully concerned about drunken driving, more people take their own lives with guns than die in alcohol-related crashes.
I didn't believe the last sentence. I fact checked, and to my surprise Burt is right.

Here's something even more startling (sorry for the math) 100-55.4-40.2 = 95.4 percent of gun deaths are either murder or suicide. Giving the benefit of the doubt that the remaining number are shootings related to self defense or law enforcement, it implies that 22 out of every 23 shootings is for "something bad". I can't fully reason in my mind that the 1 of 23 is actually "something good" as someone is still dying.

Congratulations, Burt. I dislike guns more than I did before. But what in the world do we do about it? My logic and concerns still apply.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Digital Photography Thoughts

A few months ago Jenn began to research digital cameras, specifically digital SLR cameras. Both of Jenn's folks are talented photographers, as was her dad's father. Her father is actually a photographer by trade. The Fliehler family does photography well.

I am not an artist. I am an engineer. I love technology, so that aspect of photography was mildly interesting, but I just sort of let Jenn do the research and figure it out. I thought that Jenn getting back into photography she left behind in high school would help her scratch the creative itch she has because she's no longer doing theater like she did a lot in college (and a bit after college).

When we were buying our camera at Calumet Photo, I didn't even really pick up the camera - I hadn't touched a camera that wasn't a point and shoot for about 15 years and was totally uncomfortable with the whole thing.

Gradually though, I've been really pretty impressed with the camera and have learned a lot about photography, since going from nothing to something is a pretty long way! I thought I'd share some of this, since many people I know own digital cameras, but could get a lot more mileage out of them if they knew a little more.

We ended up getting a Nikon D80 digital SLR camera and a pair of lens, an 18-55mm and a 55-200mm. Note that one of my favorite online authors, Ken Rockwell, (guy from link above) gave a lot of interesting commentary of the position of the camera relative to the rest of the Nikon lineup, but I still think we have a great camera. My favorite article of Ken's is The Megapixel Myth. Asking how many megapixels a camera has is a n00b question in judging the quality of a camera. Don't go there!

One of the things that frustrates me most is having blurry images. I feel like I took so many photographs that came out blurry, most of the time this was due to the fact that my hand was moving while the camera was taking the picture. However, there was other times no matter how still I stood, I'd still get blurry images because the shutter was open for a long time and I just couldn't hold still enough.

There are three components that determines the exposure of a photograph.
  1. Shutter Speed: (length of time light is exposed to the image sensor)
  2. Aperture Size: Size of the opening through the lens allowing the light to shine through.
  3. ISO Value: The responsiveness of the sensor.
(As a quick engineering note, I didn't fully realize the massive range of light quantity in the every day. For instance, light outside on a sunny day might be thousands of times brighter than light indoors. I knew it was a lot brighter, but I didn't appreciate that the quantity of light was so many orders of magnitude larger. Impressive!)

So here's the short story:

Speed + Size + ISO = Exposure
(Amount of time shutter is open, size of the hole allowing light in, responsiveness of sensor)

If my hands are too jiggly at a certain shutter speed and I get blurry photos, I can decrease the amount of time my shutter is open (making it open and close faster). However, then I'm only allowing less light in. My photo will be dark (under exposed)! Ugh!

Most cameras in "Auto" mode already have the aperture all the way open (small number), so in order to get away with making your shutter be open for less time, you need to find the ISO setting on your camera. Many cameras have this buried away in it, and it just might be your best friend next time you're inside at a party and want to take pictures without an obnoxious flash.

A higher ISO value lets your camera decrease the amount of time your shutter is open, and still correctly expose the photograph (not too dark or light). A typical high quality ISO value might be 100, while the other end of the spectrum is say something like an ISO value of 1600. Every time you double your ISO value, you can decrease the amount of time your shutter is open, giving you less blurry pictures due to hand jiggle. However, there is a compromise: you end up with more and more speckling (noise) on your photos as you increase the ISO value. However, I'd much rather have a slightly speckled photo than one which is blurry! This noise can be reduced in photo editing software.

Excellent, free photo editing software (though sometimes a memory hog) is Gimp. The editing tools are much like photoshop which let you do a lot touch up really well. Since my friends seem to be split 50-50 on Mac and PCs these days (oh the humanity!) I'll give both links.


However, I generally hate editing photos, so I'd rather get it right in the camera and be done!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Running of the Bulls!

Every year there are short stories you'll hear on the news or read in the newspaper about the Running of the Bulls. The most famous running of the bulls is the nine-day festival of San Fermín in Pamplona.

What we typically see is a video clip of the running of the bulls, then a daily count of the number of people who were injured or killed. (Deaths are relatively rare, the last person killed was Chicago native
Matthew Tassio, in 1995.) This is typically followed by a sound bite of someone saying, "The Running of the Bulls is SO dangerous, I don't even know why it's allowed. Every year you hear about some people getting hurt or killed. They should illegalize it."

I know for sure that if there was an annual tradition every July in the United States where people were hurt doing the same dangerous thing time and time again, we'd outlaw it right away! Especially if the number of people injured wasn't in the dozens like Spain, but thousands.