February 26, 2009

Who Will Be the Least Mediocre Chef?

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 12:58 am

This was the weakest finale we’ve ever seen from Top Chef. As I predicted, Carla faltered and Hosea surged. As I did not predict, Stefan stayed in his slump. Both Carla and Stefan severely under-performed their potential (with Carla getting caught up in Casey’s all-powerful finale-hexing vortex), while Hosea was at the top of his game. Sadly, the top of Hosea’s game looked like a competent but pretty uninspiring meal, making him a contender for the all-time worst Top Chef (he and Ilan need to have a douche-off).

In the end, it really wasn’t even close. As much as the judges hemmed and hawed, and as much as Toby Young tried to make the presence or absence of dessert a deciding factor, you just have to look at the dish count (or at Fabio’s sad, resigned, European face) to see it couldn’t have turned out otherwise:

  • Carla: 2 good dishes, 2 bad dishes (the beef and the cheese course)
  • Hosea: 3 good dishes, 1 mediocre dish (the crudo)
  • Stefan: 2 good dishes, 1 mediocre dish (dessert), 1 bad dish (the carpaccio)

The only way you could make this come out another way is to double or triple count the best dish of the night (Stefan’s squab), or to weigh the full-season record of the contestants (Stefan’s 4 Elimination wins and 4 Quickfires vs. Hosea’s 2 and 1).

It is nevertheless gratifying to point out that Stefan went out on one of the original, bedrock rules: never make dessert. This goes double in the context of a three-course meal (“Did you really think that dessert was one of your three best dishes?”). It goes triple in the finale (“Is that the dish you wanted as your last impression on the judges this season?”). If Stefan had made just one more savory course—and it hadn’t sucked—the judges almost certainly would have given him the prize.

So, how did I do this season? Of 6 testable predictions over the course of the season, I got 2 right (ouch). They were Arriane’s elimination and Carla’s meltdown tonight. The successful Arriane prediction sent me off on a power trip: I repeatedly tried and failed to predict Leah’s demise.

Of 13 eliminations, 6 were clear-cut rule violations, 4 of them among the original Six Commandments. That’s not counting any Rule #0 violations or Radhika’s dismissal in Restaurant Wars (which was arguably but unprovably covered by Rule #10). That does count Eugene’s and Danny’s eliminations under Rule #8 (which, to be fair,  is kind of a catch-all for “don’t make an ass out of yourself at Judges’ Table”). That’s not bad, but I’d like to see some improvement next season. I will have to carefully study the outlier eliminations and come up with some more refined principle than “don’t make bad food.”

Favorite line of the night: Stefan on Marcel: “He’s a bit of a twat, but who’s not?”


February 25, 2009

This Message Brought to You By Diet Coke

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 9:03 am

Spokes-Colicchio Is Thirsty For Liquidity

February 22, 2009

Will There Be a Slaughtering?

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 4:16 pm

Giddy Colicchio

This game might not be Stefan’s to lose anymore. Wha’ happened?

First, Stefan had the misfortune to make gumbo and beignets, setting himself up for a head-to-head comparison with Hosea and Carla. It looks pretty bad when other contestants make better versions of both of your dishes. (Hosea had also obviously studied and refined a knock-out gumbo recipe, which he tailored to the tasted of the local judges. That’s the kind of clever gamesmanship you would usually expect from Stefan, while Hosea looked on, washed some green beans, and whined about Europe.)

"This is not a butt rubbing competition... There will be a slaughtering."

"This is not a butt rubbing competition... There will be a slaughtering."

Second, Stefan gave the appearance of being cocky and arrogant. And, probably, he is cocky and arrogant. But I think there’s another factor at work: Stefan strives for an air of sprezzatura. It’s not enough to defeat and humble his opponents; he has to make it look easy. But the judges, especially Tom, don’t want to see that. They subscribe to this very American idea that you need to work hard and sweat or else you’re not doing it right. Stefan hasn’t yet had Hung’s insight: if you want to win this competition, you need to shamelessly flatter the judges’ prejudices. If your temperament and world-view clash with that of the judges, suck it up and tell them what they want to hear. In Hung’s case, this was that technically flawless French-Asian fusion cuisine was a reflection of his heart and soul, that he cooked with the blood, sweat, and tears of the immigrant experience. In Stefan’s case, he needs to reassure the judges that he cares more deeply about the food than about humiliating his competitors, that he spends every last second of his allotted cooking time obsessed with achieving perfection (smoke breaks are not OK).

"If it works out, it works out. If not, fine."

"If it works out, it works out. If not, fine."

Predictions. The Top Chef finale often features a reversal of fortune, where a contestant who is on a hot streak chokes (Richard, Casey) and/or a contestant who has been floundering exceeds expectations (Lisa, Dale, Ilan). Given that, Stefan’s missteps might have been a blessing (weakness is strength!), Carla might falter, and Hosea might surge. I’m picking Stefan, with Hosea as first runner up (this is not an official designation, but the judges usually make it clear who came in second and who came in third). Sorry Carla, but I just have a bad feeling about your chances—it won’t stop me from offering you a cheerful “Hootie hoo!” should we ever cross paths.

February 20, 2009

…And They (Might) Have a Plan

Filed under: Battlestar Galactica — Chris @ 10:37 am

At the risk of vanishing down a geek-trivia rathole here, I’d like to discuss one little problem I have with the state of Battlestar Galactica circa episode 4.17, “No Exit” (I actually had a fairly big problem with the inartful, anti-dramatic bullet-in-the-brain infodump, but that has been adequately covered elsewhere). The problem is thus: it is very hard to see how it could possibly be that the Cylons ever had a plan.

You see, way back when I first discovered BSG in the middle of the second season—before I had gone back and watched the miniseries or really understood exactly what was going on—the first thing that really grabbed me was the title sequence, which featured the following text:

The Cylons were created by man.

They rebelled.

They evolved.

There are many copies.

And they have a plan.

That just kicks ass. It perfectly encapsulates the appeal of the show in those first two seasons, the way that it captured a post-9/11 zeitgeist. The twelve colonies had suffered a devastating sneak attack. They had no ability to distinguish friend from foe. They didn’t know where or when the next attack would come. And there was a certainty that there would be a next attack. Moreover, that the Cylons had a plan. The trap might spring at any moment.

After New Caprica, whatever plan the Cylons might have had seemed to have been set aside. Once the Final Five were revealed, it became clear that there were no more sleeper agents waiting in the wings and that the Cylons were every bit as clueless as the humans about their origins and destiny.

The only remaining thread to be woven in was the last Cylon, Ellen. (Or, as it turns out, the last two, Ellen and Daniel.) Maybe Ellen was part of the plan?¹

Wrong. Ellen sat out the whole “plan” phase of history, living on Caprica, married to Tigh, having no idea she was a Cylon.

So let’s recap. The plan was to: annihilate the vast majority of the human race in a nuclear holocaust; allow a small cohort to escape; chase the survivors through the universe, launching small-bore attacks here and there; allow the survivors to colonize a new planet and get complacent; occupy the new colony; allow the survivors to escape; then chase them some more.

Good plan!

Now, it’s possible the plan involved the presence of the Final Five in the fleet and that part of the plan was for Cavil to have Ellen present at the moment of his ultimate victory, so that she might understand how profoundly she had been defeated. In that case, Cavil is just a Bond villain. That plan is stupid.

We’ll see what happens. On the whole, I’m pleased with the mythological developments of this season (though I honestly don’t care about them that much). BSG is on track to wrap up without completely disgracing itself. But it’s hard to see how they’ll cap things off without leaving the plan in tatters.

P.S. There’s a BSG movie special coming out in June called… The Plan. As Balki said to Larry: “That spackle must be amazing stuff!”

¹ Daniel does not seem to have been part of the plan. I predict that Daniel will not figure in to the end of BSG. That thread will be picked up in Caprica.

February 16, 2009

Using an iPod Nano on Linux

Filed under: Linux — Chris @ 6:43 pm

I recently bought an iPod Nano and I’m pleased to report it works just fine with Ubuntu 8.10 (aka Intrepid) and Amarok. I’m able to sync MP3s and podcasts (including video podcasts). I’m even able to transcode videos to MP4 and copy them over by hand. The only hitch is certain special menu entries like “Videos -> TV Shows” that seem to be controlled by iTunes and are, in my case, sadly depopulated. (This isn’t a Linux-specific issue. I was never able to get Audible audiobooks into the top-level “Audiobooks” menu on my old iPod. That was on a Mac, using iTunes. I’m thinking Apple wants to nudge you towards the iTunes Store.)

The instructions here and here are for the most part sufficient, but I thought I’d try to update and boil them down to a few easy steps, if only to increase the overall quality of Google searches for “ipod linux”. The instructions below are for Amarok, but should be easily adapted to Rhythmbox or gtkpod.

[UPDATE] These instructions are for a FAT32-formatted iPod, which includes any brand-new iPod which has not previously been connected to a Mac. I don’t recommend trying to use an HFS+-formatted iPod on Linux. The support for HFS+ is flaky and the filesystem tends to get corrupted frequently. (This may mainly be a problem with going back and forth between Mac and Linux, but there’s no good reason to use HFS+ unless you are going back and forth.) [/UPDATE]

  1. You will need to install libgpod and Amarok. Unfortunately, the version of libgpod in the stable repositories of Ubuntu, Debian, and Red Hat (v0.6.0) doesn’t support the newer (4G) Nanos. The only real consequence of this is a lack of per-track cover art (“Cover Flow” works fine), so you may be tempted to ignore it. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to backport v0.7.0 to Intrepid. Unfortunately, you also need to rebuild Amarok/Rhythmbox/gtkpod/whatever against the new library (the Jaunty repo has the right version of libgpod, but not the rebuilt version of Amarok). Fortunately, I did this all for you, and you can grab a versions of libgpod and Amarok that support 4G Nanos on Intrepid from my PPA (click on “Follow these instructions” to add the PPA as an APT repository, or just download the .debs and use gdbi or dpkg).[UPDATE] Hardy packages are available here. Jaunty packages are here (Note: you have to use an unofficial Amarok 1.4 package, because Amarok 2.0 doesn’t support iPods at all (don’t ask)). The official Jaunty repos now have an updated version of gtkpod, but  not Rhythmbox AFAICT.  [/UPDATE]
  2. The iPod’s track database is encrypted, so you’ll have to help your computer decode it. Find its serial number using
    sudo lsusb -v | grep -i 'Serial.*[0-9A-Z]\{16\}'

    This will output something like

      iSerial                 3 000A27001DE47C90

    Copy-and-paste the 16 hex digits into /media/IPOD/iPod_Control/Device/SysInfo like so:

    FirewireGuid: 000A27001DE47C90

    (If your iPod isn’t mounted at /media/IPOD, use mount and look for an entry for /dev/sdb1, sdb2, or sdc1.)

  3. Now, you can go into “Settings -> Configure Amarok… -> Media Devices” and add your iPod. It should be automatically detected.
  4. If you click on “Devices” on the left-hand side of the Amarok window, you should see your iPod. Click on the iPod button and set your iPod model. Wikipedia has a handy illustrated table if you don’t happen to know which G your model belongs to (current on-sale models are the 6G Classic, 4G Nano, and 3G Shuffle).
  5. You can connect, you can sync (“Transfer”), and you can disconnect. You may have to fiddle with the “Post-disconnect command” in the “Media Device Configuration.” This one works for me:
    gnome-eject -n -p /media/IPOD

    If the iPod is still mounted after disconnection (i.e., the iPod screen still says “Connected”), you can use

    sudo eject /dev/sdb1

    (or sdc1, or whatever. You may accidentally eject a different USB device.)

[UPDATE 4/17/2009] I’m giving up on Amarok for managing my Nano: it stopped working with videos and I can’t figure out why.

This message brought to you by 30 Rock

Filed under: TV — Chris @ 12:29 pm

The Vulture worries over the integrity of televised comedy:

In last night’s 30 Rock — a show that, as our own Emily Nussbaum has already pointed out, has shown itself to be more than willing to work advertisers’ messages into its plotlines — Jack Donaghy and his spicy Latina lover, Elisa, not only found themselves effusively praising McFlurrys (“the world’s greatest dessert”), but the plot was also tailored in such a way that the two wound up spending their Valentine’s Day in an actual McDonald’s restaurant. So, the question is this: Did this seemingly blatant instance of product integration breach any sort of lines of television ethics?

Short answer: no. I hate commercials. I ruthlessly DVR, mute, and channel-flip them away. I install AdBlock Plus unbidden on the computers of my friends and family. But I’m having a hard time coming up with a reason why this business should upset me.

If 30 Rock were a news program, or even a satire, with a mission to “afflict the comfortable”, then I might give a shit. But it’s a sitcom and its only duty is to be funny. As it turns out, the McFlurry business was funny. I could see how that meta-joke (“isn’t it funny how we are talking like shills for this product when we are in fact characters who are not shills for a product played by actors who are in fact shills for a product, and we’re all so ambivalent about it?”) could grow old—and it’s hard to see how it could ever work on a lesser, less self-referential show, which is strange and ironic—but it’s working for me, for now.

Now, excuse me, I’m going to go buy a McFlurry (“the world’s greatest dessert”).

The (Still) Raw and the (Over)cooked

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 12:29 am

I think the universe is trying to tell me something. Just when I had lost my faith in Leah’s ability to fail, she finally gets the ax. And to really add a special zest, she goes home the same week that Stefan screws up.

In the end, the judges had a choice between two travesties: (1) send home the most talented chef, who anyone can see stands head and shoulders above the remaining competitors, or (2) send home the chef who didn’t overcook her fish. Overcooking (aka “disrespecting”) a protein is a Top Chef cardinal sin, which ordinarily trumps any lapse of technique or seasoning. Not without reason: I’m sure I would take watery egg and a thin Hollandaise over medium-to-well-done salmon any day (but don’t go by me, I never order eggs Benedict). In this case, I can’t help but think the judges took past performance into account in sending home the weaker chef.

It’s also possible that Leah’s eggs were worse than they were portrayed in the broadcast. Something like this seems to have occurred with Jeff’s elimination over Fabio in the Super Bowl episode. It seemed as if Fabio’s overcooked venison was an open-and-shut eliminator. But the secondary sources say that Jeff’s ceviche dish was just really, really bad. I can certainly imagine Stefan’s spinach being tastier than any single thing on Leah’s plate (but again, don’t go by me, not an eggs Benedict guy).

You will. Respect. Your. Proteins.

You will. Respect. Your. Proteins.

Predictions: I’m going with Hosea or Fabio (or, if it’s a double elimination, Hosea and Fabio). Neither one has a chance in hell of winning. After a rough patch there around Restaurant Wars, Carla is firing on all pistons. I think she might have a shot at this thing.



February 11, 2009

A Battlestar Galactica Prediction

Filed under: Battlestar Galactica, Not Tech — Chris @ 8:06 pm

H and Zohar came up with a theory about the mythology of Battlestar Galactica that I won’t share in full because it’s too complicated (it involved flowcharts), but from which I would like to enter into the record the following predictions (which are due to H and Zohar, and not me):

  • Starbuck is a pseudo-Cylon, reverse-engineered from or secretly devised by some of the “Final Five” (aka Earth Cylons) as a colonial super-soldier. All of the people who would have known this (except maybe some version of Ellen) were killed in the attack on the Colonies.
  • Starbuck’s Earth Cylon biological roots will account for the fact that she was downloaded by some still-active resurrection center on Earth. (Or maybe Earth Cylon resurrection technology is advanced enough to download anything and everything, which would account for the “resurrection” of Starbuck’s Viper.)

I would simply observe the following: isn’t it interesting that the tribes of humanity number 13 while the Cylon models number only 12?

[UPDATE, post episode 4.17, “No Exit”] A point for me, I think, on the numerological prediction. Of course, anybody who can count to eight has been wondering what happened to seven since Season 2, at least.

February 7, 2009

Four or Five Good Dishes, No Bad Dishes

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 8:32 pm

I love how, every season, the contestants get sent off to do something that seems like it will be fun and, every season, it turns out to be an Elimination Challenge switcheroo, but, every season, they walk right into it without suspecting a thing. Think of Season 3’s “Guilty Pleasures”, when the contestants thought they were going dancing, only to have to man a late-night grease truck outside the nightclub (and poor Casey, almost losing her mind at having to cook in heels and a low-cut shirt). This week, we had dipshit Hosea:

“I’m really pumped. I’m about to sit down with Eric Ripert and Tom Colicchio and have a feast. This is such an honor.”

Yeah, I’m sure Eric and Tom just want to sit back and kick it with you, hear what you have to say about hooking up with girls and then treating them like garbage, your secrets for over-cooking fish and the like… That’s the ticket.

When will these people learn?

And thus we were introduced to a really interesting and, it seems to me, relatively easy Elimination Challenge—each contestant must duplicate a dish from the menu of Le Bernardin—which results in a premature departure for Jamie.

After the last two weeks’ upsets, I think it’s time to formalize the following rule (which has always been implicit), lest the entire rulebook come under attack:

Rule #0: Don’t make the worst dish. This one seems obvious—and it is!—but I have to admit that it continually catches me off-guard. It is better to do nothing, to take no responsibility, to have no ideas, passion, direction, or plan, than to put out a straight-up bad dish. Week after week, inferior, clueless chefs turning out mediocre, uninspired food edge out more-talented chefs who make one big mistake. This is the number one cause of fan frustration and conspiracy theories. Just ask: Jamie (tonight), Jeff (last week), Andrew (Season 4), Tre (Season 3).

This week is a perfect illustration of the principle: Leah had no idea what she was doing. She didn’t have the sophistication or technique to reverse-engineer the recipe. At Judges’ Table, she more-or-less admitted that she had no idea how to properly prepare her dish and asked Eric Ripert to tell her how it should be done (his answer, add some lemon and dilute the sauce, didn’t sound like rocket science). Given another chance, she would have turned out the same bad food. On the other hand, Jamie knew exactly what she was doing, but made a careless error: she over-salted and over-reduced the celery sauce (Ripert: “The celery is really hardcore”). Given another chance, she probably would have nailed it.

So, who goes home? Jamie. Her dish was inedible.

I might also add:

Rule #12: Don’t dis Eric Ripert.

Hurt Eric Ripert

Jamie: "That wasn't my favorite dish that we had over lunch."

Predictions: By all rights, Leah is the weakest contender. But I have lost my faith that it is her destiny to go home. It’s too late in the season, there’s too much variability and March Madness-style caprice in the format. Hell, before last week, I would have put Jeff and Jamie in the Top 4. And just this week, Fabio broke the Sidekick Curse (anybody who talks on the Sidekick in the first five minutes of an episode is dead meat). Only a fool would make predictions under these circumstances.

One thing is for sure, though: Stefan is heavily favored to take home the crown. He is on track to have the winningest record in Top Chef history. He has 4 Elimination wins and 4 Quickfire wins, with 3 episodes left to go. Stephanie won a total of 5 Eliminations (including her season win) and 1 Quickfire. And Stephanie was up against Richard, who won 4 and 2. Stefan has more wins than his two nearest competitors combined (Hosea won 2 and 1,  Carla 2 and 0). Leah (0 and 3) and Fabio (1 and 0) have the potential to match Lisa (1 and 0) as the least distinguished contestants ever to reach the finale.

February 6, 2009

One more, for Carla

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 11:40 am

Perplexed Colicchio

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