October 25, 2009

Laurine’s at the Back of the Line When It Comes To Gettin’ Ahead

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 6:13 pm

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: this week didn’t go well for me. After two consecutive front-of-the-house Restaurant Wars eliminations, I am going to have to retract my claims about the front-of-the-house advantage. While Radhika may have been the exception that proves the rule (she went home because she was the team leader and the team failed), Laurine finished the rule off once and for all. She went home instead of Michael, who under-seasoned his char and made bland asparagus. She went home instead of Jennifer, who made two bad dishes, one of which Tom said was “a disaster.” And she went home instead of Kevin, who sent out unevenly cooked, too-rare lamb. (Granted, the lamb dish was technically Laurine’s, and Tom tried to make a lot of the fact that Laurine had promised she would keep an eye on the dish and make sure it passed muster. But still it’s hard to fault Laurine for a poorly cooked dish when it was Kevin who was working the grill.) The reason that Laurine went home this week, instead of any of her teammates, is that she did a terrible job working the front of the house, failing to expedite dishes, forgetting to explain dishes as they arrived, and just generally being frazzled and unhelpful in a too-obvious way. I didn’t think it was possible, but there you have it.

Predictions: Damn you, Laurine, for not going home last week or the week before. And damn you, Robin, for pulling your act together and putting out a delightful pear pithivier. My record has sunk to a pitiful 3 for 9. I’m going to stick with Robin for next week, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Eli finally shoots himself in the foot.

"I am very happy about this whole situation."

"I am very happy about this whole situation."

Random observations

  • The tag-team Quickfire was by far the coolest challenge Top Chef has ever done.
  • Was Padma being a bitch or what? Was there any point in asking for salt for her asparagus except to mess with the Laurine and Mike’s heads?
  • I love that Toby Young is a man who can’t do without dessert.
  • Robin couldn’t help but complain about Mike V. at Judge’s Table, even as the Judges were complimenting her dish. Can’t she see how big his heart is?
  • Since Jennifer was the obvious second choice for elimination, and Kevin the third, one might be tempted to speculate the producers put a thumb on the scale in favor of the top contenders. Far be it from me to suggest such a thing. But one might be tempted.

October 18, 2009

You’re Not My Mom! You Can’t Tell Me What It’s About!

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 10:46 pm

Another poor showing at Judges’ Table this week. Robin ran smack into the face of Rule E, saying she stood behind her dish when she should have been abandoning (er, critiquing) it. Ash went the “I had a much better dish in my head” route and seemed to put far to much stock in how well Charlie Palmer appreciated it in his head.(It was kind of a Rule D⁻¹ violation: don’t change your plan and then expect to get credit for the original plan.) Laurine opened her mouth and revealed that she didn’t know the difference between a rillettes and cat food. Any one of them could have gone home and it wouldn’t have been a surprise. But in the end it was salt before texture: Ash had failed at something so simple as to be unforgiveable.

Predictions: On the one hand, I want to stick with Laurine so that she doesn’t slip past me. On the other hand, it looks as if she’s working the front of the house in Restaurant Wars next week and that means there’s no chance she’ll go home, so long as she avoids the Radhika Trap. And it looks as if Robin, who is obviously the weakest chef left standing (she’s been in the bottom less often than Laurine, but she’s also never been in the top), is going to get herself in trouble next week. Restaurant Wars is always a good candidate for a surprise elimination, but I’m going to play it safe and assume Robin’s luck will run out.

Random observations

  • My comments about Robin above aside, I think its obvious that Eli was being a total jerk and owed her an apology. His evident pride in having “stepped up” to her was incredibly immature (and the other contestants undoubtedly would have told him so directly if they all didn’t also have a chip on their shoulders about her). Eli is such an arrogant tool that I really enjoyed watching Michael and Bryan get under his skin. It was simple schoolyard stuff (“That was flirting… Did you get to second base?”), but amazingly effective. The Voltaggio’s obviously know how to deconstruct a male ego.
  • "Dude, seriously, can you stop? You are pissing me off."

    "Dude, seriously, can you stop? You are pissing me off."

  • I think we can all agree that “the difference between a shaved armpit and a hairy armpit” was the good Toby Young.

October 12, 2009

HTPC update

Filed under: HTPC, Tech — Chris @ 7:43 pm

I’ve spent some more time on the HTPC project over the last week, taking into consideration advice I got from my last post, and looking more carefully at the cost and requirements of a DIY system.

Stephen pointed me toward the “digital media player” category, like the Apple TV or the Roku Digital Video Player. These only solve half the problem: they get digital video onto your TV, but they provide little or no storage space for your media. We are badly in need of storage space (like I said, the Mac that holds our iTunes is close to dying). The natural storage solution for a media player is network-attached storage, like the Apple Time Capsule, but then you’re probably losing money—and certainly flexibility and upgradability—compared to a more integrated approach.

Cheng-Hong suggested a (hacked?) Playstation 3, essentially as a digital media player with the added benefit of Blu-ray movies and games. The built-in storage on a Playstation is both over-priced and scant, so this suffers from the same problems as above.

Manu sent me a link to this HDMI HTPC Howto, which I will place in my reference pile alongside the Linux HTPC Howto and Engadget’s budget HTPC project. This Howto reminds me that one must be careful setting up a system with HDMI if a goal is to play Blu-ray movies: to satisfy the DRM, every link in the chain from the player to the television must be “fully protected.” It seems this can be a particular problem with audio, though I have no intention to set up 8-channel sound in our living room any time soon.

I found this wishlist blog post helpful, especially his suggestion to use a cheap, low-power, single-core processor for video processing. Looking at this (somewhat outdated) CPU benchmark, I had convinced myself the best “bang for the buck” was probably a AMD Phenom X4 quad-core CPU, which would have plenty of extra capacity to do HD transcoding if it comes to that. The trouble is that quad-core CPUs run at 95-125W, compared to as little as 45W for a single-core, and keeping things as cool as possible is essential for a nice, quiet living room PC.

This highlights a more general question. I can go “low end,” with a smaller case, a slower/cooler CPU, and less room for expansion, and just accept that if I, say, decide I really want to record HDTV off an antenna that I’ll have to reinvest in more expensive equipment; or I can spend a bit more to have some expansion capacity, and maybe buy a bit more HTPC than I really need. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet. I’m going to worry on it for a few weeks.

Here’s a very tentative first draft “shopping list” for a DIY HTPC. Prices given are what I see online as of the time of publishing, not including tax and shipping.

  • Motherboard: ASUS M3N78-VM Micro-ATX (includes on-board graphics, sound, and networking; does not include FireWire) Price: $75 (Note that the set “AMD Micro-ATX motherboards with on-board NVIDIA graphics AND HDMI AND FireWire” appears to be uninhabited.)
  • CPU: AMD Athlon 64 X2 5200 2.7GHz 65W Dual-Core Price: $60
  • Memory: Wintec AMPX 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 800 SDRAM Price: $30 (I’m pretty shocked at how expensive RAM is. I expected 4GB for this price.)
  • Hard drive: Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200rpm Price: $80 (I will probably also scavenge a two-year-old 400GB drive from the G4.)
  • Optical drive: Samsung SH-S222A DVD+RW Price: $30
  • Case: Antec Fusion (includes power supply and remote control) Price: $140 [CORRECTION: The Antec Fusion Remote does not include a power supply]
  • Keyboard: IOGEAR GKM561R Wireless Keyboard with Trackball Price: $55

These components meet all my minimum requirements at a total price of $470 (or, to put it another way, about six months of Time Warner cable). An HDTV tuner card would add $80-100. A Blu-ray player would add $30-90. A Windows license to make the Blu-ray player fully functional would add $100 (at least. There’s too many damn versions to know for sure).

(Aside: I’m a bit confused how Engadget’s 3-month-old “budget” HTPC managed to cost nearly $1000. They included 2 HDTV tuners and a Blu-ray player, a quad-core CPU, and “couldn’t resist” upgrading to non-integrated sound and video cards (couldn’t resist how, exactly?). All that, plus a Windows license, adds up to an extra $580. The only parts that seem the least bit necessary are the tuner cards and the Blu-ray player, and they contribute less than half of the cost. Seems to me they featherbedded it because $750 isn’t a good headline price point.)

October 9, 2009

Ash Turns the Color of an Avocado When Mike V. Drives Down the Street in His El Dorado

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 8:11 pm

Gosh, this week featured one of the loopiest Judges’ Tables in a long time. First, we had Ash’s bizarre sycophantic praise of Michael—which had the doubly unhelpful effect of making Ash look dispensible while emphasizing that Michael was almost entirely responsible for a failed dish—followed by Ashley’s exhausted failure to give the judges a single reason to let her stay. On a first viewing, I thought it was strange that the judges focused on Ashley and let Eli off the hook. On a rewatch, it’s clear that Ashley, in staying loyal to her teammate, took the bulk of the blame for both the undercooked prawns and the over-salted gnocchi. Probably, per Rule C, the undercooked prawns were enough to send her home. Throw in a sprinkle of Rules D and E and she was done for.

Predictions: I’m going to stick with Laurine for next week. There’s just as good a chance of it being Ash or Robin, but I’ll feel stupid if I switch.

Random observations

  • Kevin’s “High Stakes Quickfire” choice this week was a no-brainer. At minimum, his chance of making it through this round was 9 out of 10. In reality, his chance of making a worse dish than Ash and Ashley and Eli and Laurine and Mike and Robin all at the same time was very, very close to zero. At minimum, his chances of winning the $100,000 grand prize at this point are 1 in 10. In reality, his chances of winning are more like 1 in 5 (roughly equal with Bryan, Jennifer, and Michael, with a 25% wildcard factor) and aren’t going to change much until some of the heavy hitters get axed. In addition, the marginal value of being eliminated in Episode 7 versus Episode 8 is neglible. Kevin is already going to benefit a great deal from his run on the show, no matter how much farther he goes.
  • I really miss the Tom Colicchio kitchen walkthroughs in the first half of the season.
  • Mike is lucky to not have faced a Rule F elimination this week. Who do you think would have gone home if that tuna and scallops dish had fallen short, when he had consciously and none-too-subtly marginalized Robin through the whole process?
  • The only thing more important to me than winning this competition is my visceral hatred of womankind.

    The only thing more important to me than winning this competition is my visceral hatred of womankind.

  • To Tyler Florence, on behalf of every Top Chef viewer in the world: of course you can take “the power went off” as an excuse. It’s, like, the best excuse ever.
  • Also in re Mr Florence: Is it the fate of all young attractive male food celebrities to pork out and make everybody sad?

October 3, 2009

An HTPC project/bleg

Filed under: HTPC, Tech — Chris @ 1:59 pm

The time has come for new audio-visual technology in our home. The 8-year-old PowerMac G4 that stores our iTunes Library has reached the outer limits of its useful life. Our cable box is an aggravating piece of junk. Our DVD player takes about thirty seconds to decide whether it wants to open its tray, or close it, or open it then quickly close it again before you can do anything with it.

The time has come for one box to rule them all. This one box will be expected to:

  • Store all of our music and photos.
  • Provide entertainment in the form of moving pictures. This could include:
    1. Playing digital videos, including DVD movies and streaming content, on our TV. (required)
    2. Playing Blu-Ray movies. (optional)
    3. Recording standard- or high-definition TV broadcasts from an antenna or cable. (very optional, quite probably unnecessary)
  • Be upgradeable, so I don’t bitterly regret decisions made about storage, memory, or other hardware in the future.

Based on these requirements, it would seem that we need a Home Theater PC. That is, a computer with:

  • A case that will fit comfortably on top of the stereo receiver.
  • A hard disk big enough to hold our entire music library (preferably in FLAC for the music ripped from CDs) and some reasonable amount of hi-def video (say 30 hours). Our music library is currently about 90 GB, as medium-to-high quality MP3s. I figure I need a terabyte or more.
  • A DVD or Blu-Ray player.
  • HDTV-quality video output (HDMI, I guess).
  • Decent 3.0-5.1 channel audio output (digital coax or optical)
  • An IR receiver for use with a remote control and/or wireless keyboard and mouse.
  • A clever cooling system so that it doesn’t make an infernal racket in the living room.

Since we don’t want to use Windows software or Mac hardware, it will evidently have to run Linux. This poses the following difficulties:

  • Playing Blu-Ray movies is not currently possible on Linux, due to DRM restrictions. This is the case even if you paid for the Blu-Ray disc in the first place.
  • Recording non-free HDTV programming (e.g., pay cable) is not currently possible on Linux (or even on any device that was not specifically made for the purpose by some giant corporation), due to DRM restrictions. This is the case even if you paid for the programming in the first place.

I’m willing to compromise on both of these points. I have no reason to believe that either won’t become technically possible in the future (though probably not legally).

From my research online, I haven’t been able to find anybody who will build me such a computer without installing Windows on it. The alternatives seem to be to (1) build my own box from scratch, buying the case, motherboard, CPU, etc. separately and assembling them myself, or (2) pay a premium of several hundred dollars for a pre-built computer running Windows and install Linux on it.

I don’t mind paying a premium to have an expert assemble my computer, but the portion of the premium in (2) that goes towards paying Microsoft monopoly rents galls me.

I’m willing to pursue (1), but it seems like a really big hassle. I’ve never built a PC from scratch before and there are a million choices for any given component. I’m a bit paralyzed by the fear that I will make some epically bad choices.

Talk to me people. Does anybody know of an outfit that will sell me a pre-built Linux HTPC? How about a bare-bones OS-less HTPC “starter kit”, e.g., a case with the power supply, motherboard, CPU, and heat sink pre-installed and the various ports pre-wired? (I can handle RAM and disk drives, no problem.) Any advice on building my own?

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