November 22, 2009

How Do You Measure a Chef’s Worth? Just By The Pleasure He Gives Here On Earth

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 11:16 pm

This week was a preview of how I expect the rest of the season to play out. Kevin made the smart Rule B play, sticking with simple, clean flavors over elaborate presentations. He risked being dismissed as an underachiever. But in truth it’s rare for a chef to go home for making delicious food that’s not “ambitious” enough. Indeed, Kevin has exactly the kind of approach the Judges like: not overly fussy, focused on flavor, and “soulful.” The Voltaggios are more technically proficient, but more likely to try something risky or conceptual that falls short on flavor. (Top Chef contestants need to spend more time studying Tom Collichio’s Diet Coke commercial—he is not a big fan of conceptual cookery.)

Predictions: I’m putting all my chips on Kevin to win. If you need more convincing, with this episode Kevin clinched the record as the all-time winningest Top Chef contestant, with 5 Elimination wins and 4 Quickfire wins (one, the blind-fold relay, as a team member). He’s won nearly half of the Elimination Challenges he’s participated in (recall he was excused from the Joël Robuchon challenge for his Quickfire win). He’s only been in the bottom once, in Restaurant Wars (that great inverter of Top Chef fortune). In comparison, Stephanie (Season 4) had 5 Elimination wins, including her Season win, and only 1 Quickfire win. Stefan (Season 5) had 4 Elimination wins and 4 Quickfire wins. (Let’s hope that Kevin doesn’t imitate his home stretch performance.)

I am fond of Jennifer, but she obviously has a problem performing under pressure. I expect her to go home next week.


November 21, 2009

HTPC Project: The Build

Filed under: HTPC, Tech — Chris @ 3:15 pm

The HTPC is purchased, assembled, and installed. Our cable service has been cancelled and we are streaming the Project Runway finale even as I write this. This is the first in a series of posts I’ll write about the whole process of putting the thing together. Today, I’m going to focus on the hardware components and the process of assembling the PC.

Here is the final list of the components I actually purchased.

  • Motherboard: ASUS M3N78-VM Micro-ATX (includes on-board GeForce 8200 graphics, VIA VT1708B sound, and Realtek 8211CL Ethernet) Price: $75
  • CPU: AMD Athlon 64 X2 5200 2.7GHz 65W Dual-Core Price: $61
  • Heat sink: Thermaltake CL-P0296 18dBA CPU Cooler Price: $30
  • Memory: Patriot Viper 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR2 800 SDRAM Price: $82
  • Case: Antec Fusion Remote Black (includes remote control) Price: $140
  • Power supply: Antec EarthWatts EA380 380W Price: $45
  • Hard drive: Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200rpm Price: $80
  • Optical drive: Sony Optiarc AD-7240S-0B SATA DVD+RW Price: $28
  • Keyboard: IOGEAR GKM561R Wireless Keyboard with Trackball Price: $55

There are only minor differences from my preliminary list. I upgraded to 4GB RAM, because I just felt like I ought to. I added a power supply, because I was under the misapprehension that the Fusion case included one and it didn’t (this mistake set back the project by a full week). I added a heat sink, because the stock CPU fan is annoyingly loud at peak (although peaks should be rare under normal usage). And I swapped the Samsung IDE DVD+RW drive for a Sony SATA drive (see below).

The total cost, including tax and shipping (but excluding the re-stocking and re-shipping fees for a few mis-steps, about which more below) was $630.

The assembly went remarkably smoothly, about two hours total. Here’s the pile of parts, ready to be assembled into a computer:

Pile of Stuff

And here’s the empty case, ready to be filled with cool stuff:

Empty Case

The case is surprisingly big and heavy, about the size of a regular desktop PC or a stereo receiver. Here’s the case full of cool stuff:

Full Case
Notice that the Fusion case has a “three chamber” design, where the power supply, the motherboard, and the hard disks are isolated from one another to improve cooling. The hard drives are mounted in funny brackets with silicon grommets to reduce the noise from vibration.

The only real problems I had with the build were:

  • I initially wired up the system power incorrectly, leading to a few minutes of genuine sinking-heart panic when I first pressed the power button and was met with silence. The problem was my utter failure to correctly read this pin diagrams (the connections run in parallel, not across):

    This took about 10 seconds to fix, once I realized my mistake.

  • The motherboard was a little snug in its compartment, leaving the IDE port difficult to access, especially after everything else was hooked up. With a bit of determination and dexterous fingers, I probably could have gotten the DVD drive plugged in, but instead I took a hit on the re-stocking fee and ordered a SATA replacement drive. (SATA is better anyway, right? For some reason?)
  • I didn’t notice in the pile of miscellaneous cables I had amassed or read the case manual closely enough to look for the 24-pin power cable extension with a special dongle for hooking up the front panel LCD screen (which also serves at the remote control’s IR receiver). This led to a fair amount of frustration and wasted time trying to get the LCD screen and remote control to work, as you might imagine. I only figured this out after an 11th hour Google search had not turned up an off-hand comment in a user review by “RG”at This took about 2 minutes to fix once I realized my mistake.
  • The first heat sink I bought did not fit in the case; it was too tall. It did not even occur to me to check the dimensions before ordering—I just chose the cheapest quiet cooler I could find.

Here’s the finished HTPC, nestled on it’s shelf with the stereo receiver:

HTPC, completed

Note that the LCD display is lit but displaying no useful information. More on that next post.

November 15, 2009

The Quiver of a 17th Century Courtesan’s Inner Thigh

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 11:15 pm

First off, I apologize for two weeks without Top Chef blogging. Let’s just say the demands of reality interfered with reality television.

This week, Robin’s luck finally ran out. She ran afoul of Rules A, B, and D: she made a dessert, she attempted to use a technique she had no experience with, and she blundered on as the plan fell apart. She showed up at Judges’ Table hoping to get credit for what she intended, rather than what she served.

The Elimination looked close though: Jennifer put out an inedible protein and Eli had put out a dish that was inedible, period. It’s pretty incredible to think Eli did not get eliminated when he served a dish that got the following reviews:

Tom: “The dish was a failure. Texturally, it completely failed.”

Padma: “I really didn’t like the flavors in that dish. I personally would never want to eat that again.”

Nigella: “I’d rather eat sawdust… I had to bring every ounce of my upbringing to bear to not spitting the bit I had back into the cup.”

"I don't like it at all."

"I don't like it at all."

You have to figure the Judges’ were just ready to be rid of Robin.

Predictions: Can I just pretend I predicted Robin for this week? I have a bad feeling all the fight has gone out of Jennifer, but I’m going to stick to my and everybody else’s guns and predict the top four will be Brian, Jennifer, Kevin, and Michael. (Note: One of these four has won every Elimination Challenge this year. That’s the most concentrated the winners have been in any season.) That means it’s Eli’s turn to go home.

Random observations

  • Kevin on Nigella: “Gordon Ramsey named a turkey after her. She’s legit.”
  • The three top dishes were, by far, less literally inspired by their casinoes than the bottom three dishes.
  • Eli on the Circus Circus casino: “It’s not like big top, elephants, giraffes… It’s, like, not a circus.”.
  • Jennifer served “shit on a shingle” in the Quickfire and “a sword in a stone” for the Elimination Challenge. She may want to consider serving things that sound appetizing.

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