Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dancing Blenny

Here's a short video I took of a Starry Blenny (Salarius ramosus) in JC's aquarium. It is also known as a Snowflake Blenny. It's a cool looking fish that blends in really well with the craggy looking rocks. You might not even notice him in the beginning. The video also shows what he's so good at... munching on algae and keeping it trimmed.

He even dances a bit to the music. Well, not really, it took me a while to get the music to match his initial movements the best I could, haha.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Eternal Footman

Carnegie Mellon researchers put up a new site the other day called Death Risk Rankings. What they've got is an interesting, albeit morbid, tool that allows you to view the statistics of dying within a year from various causes. The tool gives you some customization flexibility so that you can view the data in various ways to get a better view of the death landscape.

You'll want to go over a few of the tutorial's quickly to get a better understanding of what the output tables are saying. And, for you math/logic types, they even have a tutorial written about Simpson's Paradox.

Anyway, for Californian males (non-White, non-Black) in my age group (30-39), the data shows 777 per million deaths within a year -- the top three causes are suicide (97), transportation-related accidents (82) and heart attacks (53). Move up two age groups to the 50-59 crowd and death stats show a quintupling with 4026 per million deaths.

As I said, it's all a bit morbid, but at least now we've got a tool to give us a better guess as to when our time will come (and how).

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Celebrity Look-Alikes

I have recently begun watching the True Blood series (it's free on my HBO OnDemand). Anyway, in Season 2, they introduced this Daphne girl that I vaguely remembered from some episode of Law and Order. It was eating away at me a bit, so I dug around some on the internet.

Well, guess what? I found the person I was thinking of from that Law and Order episode, and I was shocked to see that it wasn't her. They are real look-alikes in my opinion. Neither is anyone actually famous, but the faces are probably recognizable.

The one on the left is Ashley Jones and the one on the right is Olivia d'Abo. Others might not agree, but to me, their resemblance to one another is uncanny.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Weekend Getaway: Napa Valley

The market's been rocking lately, and some of my larger positions jumped a good amount on Friday. So, the timing seemed right for a quick spur-of-the-moment trip. We decided on spending a couple days doing some wine tasting in Napa. It's a good choice since it's not too far away, and it's something that JC's never done before.

We booked a one bedroom suite at the Westin Verasa. Due to the last minute booking, there was only a $25 price difference between a normal room and the suite (there was some kind of 40% off special going on for suites). So, it seemed like a no-brainer to get the suite. Anyway, the hotel was really quite nice and there was even kitchenette with an infrared halogen stove. But, since we were only there for one night, we didn't get to try it out.

The trip consisted of two things really... food (what else is new) and wine tasting. I guess I'll start with the wine tasting.

We did our wine tasting at a handful of wineries starting with Folie à Deux. There we shared two different tasting flights and learned a bit about all the aromas and how to properly sniff the wines. It was here that we also first learned about the Vinturi Aerator, which is used to accelerate the process of 'breathing' wine -- there was a huge difference in taste between wine that was aerated compared to simple swishing. Quite a few of the wineries used the device, so it's probably pretty good at what it does.

Anyway, all the wines we tried tasted okay... some tasted better to us than others, but that's pretty much expected since it's really quite subjective, especially given that neither of us is a sophisticated wine drinker. We planned on buying a bottle from each place we visited, and so we got the first bottle for our collection.

We also did a tasting at the large Mondavi winery. I'd been there in the past, and just as before, I really liked their Fume Blanc. Their dessert wine was also quite nice.

The other wines that we tasted on our first day were from Peju Province, Louis M. Martini, and also Hill Family Estate.

One thing that we were able to taste while at the Peju winery was the differences in taste of wines that were aged for different lengths of time. They brought out a 'fresh' wine that had been aged only two or so years along with a nearly identical wine that had been aged a couple years longer, and there was a night and day difference in the taste. The wine that had been aged an additional two years was clearly the better tasting one. We picked up a bottle of the aged one, because I'm not patient enough to wait two years to experience the better tasting wine.

We ended up not buying anything from the Martini place only because those wines were more expensive, and we weren't sure we could justify the cost given our ability to appreciate them. At some point we did hear that the Ghost Block wine that was carried at the Martini location was excellent. We even saw that it was sometimes served at formal dinners at the White House. Maybe I'll drop by BevMo some time to see if they carry it so that I can see what's so awesome about it.

We did try a few wines at the Hill Family Estate shop in Yountville when we were out walking around waiting for our seats at a nearby restaurant. One of them we both liked, so we picked up a bottle.

Earlier this morning we tasted some of the sparkling wines at Domaine Chandon, and we also visited the Tuscan castle replica at Castello di Amorosa, which is a winery owned by the same guy that owns the famous V. Sattui winery. Although the castle is newly built (opened to the public in 2007), the building materials were mostly authentic to keep things truer to form. We took a tasting tour there that took us into the deeper levels of the castle and showed us their wine making and barrel aging processes. It was interesting and educational, but there was one annoying thing... there was this one lady in our tour group that kept asking the most inane questions and just wouldn't shut up. She was trying so incredibly hard to sound intelligent and sophisticated, but it was a gigantic failure.

Anyway, we had originally planned on having a nice picnic lunch at V. Sattui, but our plans changed and we ended up having a wonderful meal at étoile, a restaurant at the Domaine Chandon winery. So, I guess it's time to share with you food pics.

For lunch, we went with their Garden Heirloom Tomato Tasting Menu. After starting us off with some bread and sea salt sprinkled butter, they gave us an amuse—— oyster on the half shell topped with a tomato—— and some complimentary sparkling wine.

The first course that followed was absolutely fabulous. I really mean it. It was so incredibly good that I don't even know how to describe what my taste buds were feeling when I put the first forkful into my mouth. It was a tuna and hiramasa carpaccio topped with coriander flowers, heart of palm shavings, and tomatoes. They also poured some tomato water over all of it, and I just have to say, "Wow!" I think that I could eat that every day for a month without growing tired of it. The flavors were complex and it was just so creative. Kudos to the chef on this one.

The main course was a roasted beef tenderloin that was cooked to perfection. The dish came with short rib rillettes that tasted pretty good, but not something I'd seek out explicitly. There was also some marrow that was coined, which tasted just fine when it wasn't eaten in isolation. However, eating the marrow by itself wasn't really to my liking, and I generally enjoy the taste of marrow. Still, the dish was very good.

For dessert, they brought out a balsamic vinegar ice cream with caramelized tomatoes. Additionally, there were cocoa nibs and some cinnamon basil. This was very different. It's not like anything I've had before. It was delicious, but at the same time it was just weird (in a good way). You have to wonder how this sort of dessert gets created in the first place. Both the appetizer and the dessert were really creative with seriously different flavors that worked well together. Having eaten the three courses, I really felt like this might be what an 'Iron Chef style' meal would be like if tomatoes were the focus ingredient.

After dessert, they gave us shaved ice with wine as a palate cleanser. Nothing too special, but it was nice and did the trick.

I highly recommend this restaurant if you're ever in the area. The outdoor seating is really nice offers a nice view of the winery's grounds.

Last night, we ate at Ad Hoc, a Thomas Keller restaurant, which originally was a temporary establishment that grew so popular that they made it a permanent one. The one thing that you have to know about this place is that their menu changes daily, and there aren't any choices for you. Every single person gets the exact same prix fixe, except you do get to pick and choose your wines and beverages.

Also, it's probably a good idea to make reservations. We ended up waiting about an hour to be seated at the bar, because we didn't make any -- we really didn't want to force a schedule on ourselves.

Here was our night's menu.

Here's the Bibb Lettuce salad. Apparently, the salad's ingredients were all fresh from the garden, and I must say that you can definitely taste the freshness. It was an excellent and refreshing start to our meal... just look at it.

The porterhouse steak was a shared dish and cooked very much to my liking. I know that JC prefers her meat a little less rare, but it was obvious that she loved it seeing as she ate all of her pieces without any complaint at all. The side of beans was also really fresh tasting having come straight out of their garden as well.

Following the main course, they gave us a plate with Cypress Grove Chevre's Truffle Tremor goat cheese. The plate also came with some mirabelle plums and Palladin bread (named after the late famous chef, Jean-Louis Palladin). We both like cheese a lot, and so it's no surprise that we both loved this cheese plate. I think it's also fair to say that we both felt the subtle sweetness of the plums worked quite well with the cheese. [On a completely different note, I bought this marble cheese slicer recently, and I must say that it's been a wonderful purchase so far.]

The dessert was a fairly simple tart. It was a sweet meringue that had been molded and cut into a bowl shape, which was filled with a layer of pastry cream and topped with fresh mixed berries and sauteed strawberries. It wasn't super special, but it was good.

We were both very pleased with our meal here, and again, I'd recommend it. But, as stated earlier, the menus change daily and you don't have a choice in what you get, so make sure to check the menu ahead of time.

Well, that's all I've got time for, so I'll end this with a pic of the wine we ended up picking up on our trip.

I think this will last us a while... we rarely have wine with our meals. Then again, maybe we should start having wine with our meals more often. I've never been much of a wine drinker, but I do think that wine is slowly growing on me, for better or worse.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Kill A Watt and Electricity Usage

Last month, our electricity bill skyrocketed due to greatly increased air conditioning usage. As you all know, the marginal cost of the electricity increases the more you use. Now that I think about it, it seems a bit strange because in almost any other case, it's the other way around; the more you buy the lower the unit cost. Anyway, I digress.

This is how PG&E prices power in our area (for a 32 day billing cycle):

Baseline Usage 387.20000 kWh @ $0.11531
101-130% of Baseline @ $0.13109
131-200% of Baseline @ $0.25974
201-300% of Baseline @ $0.37866
Over 300% of Baseline @ $0.44098

As you can see once you get over 200% of the rather low baseline, you really get hurt with rates that are 3-4x the initial baseline rate.

Well, we ran a few experiments where we didn't use any AC and checked the meters, and we learned that we were still consuming a lot of power. For example, we consumed 10 kWh overnight (11pm to 9am) with no AC running. This figure is roughly the 12.1 kWh designated as daily baseline usage. In other words, we were being pretty dumb about our energy use, and it probably wasn't limited just to stuff running passively.

I went out and picked up Kill A Watt, which was only $15 at Fry's Electronics. This little device is pretty neat. You pretty much plug stuff into it, and it tells you how much electricity is being consumed. It also keeps running track of kWh over time, which is useful for those devices/appliances that have variable power consumption.

Some interesting things that I noticed and don't really understand...

1) Our mini-fridge (aka the beer fridge) uses 0 when it isn't actively trying to cool down. During its cool-down phase, it draws 75 W. This phase only happened 4 times over a 2 hour period or so. A total of 0.06 kWh were used after 2 hours in the evening. It probably uses more during the day as it's hotter.

2) A cell phone charger without charging anything draws 3 W. Computer charger without a computer plugged in draws around 4-5 W. A sub-woofer that is not in use draws 13 W.

3) Computers (not laptops/notebooks) use a crapload when not in standby. My computer setup with an external hard drive, LCD monitor, cable modem, router, and speakers draws 200-250 during normal use. It is only when the hard drives really start going that the 250 peak is reached.

When in standby mode with the monitor going into energy saving mode, the power draw drops to under 30 W, if I turn off the external hard drive and the speakers.

4) Halogen lamps are evil. I always knew that they used up a lot of power, but I have always used one in the office because of how much light they produced. Not any more. The halogen lamp draws a whopping 300 W. We swapped it out for a different torchiere lamp that uses only 25 W. It's not as bright, but there's no way it makes sense for us to use the halogen, especially since the office is used a lot with JC working from home.

5) Fish tank filter draws 11 W, and the fish tank light uses 17 W. This means that if you keep your light on all day (which I used to do a lot, because I'd forget to shut it off at night), then over 5% of the daily baseline is being consumed by the fish tank. So, now I'm trying to remember to turn off the fish tank light at night, which is probably better for them anyway.

I've got a lot more stuff to test, but at least now I feel that I've gotten a better handle of what devices and appliances are costing us what.

And, in case it's not obvious, I really do recommend the Kill A Watt product. It really does work as advertised. My only complaint is that it's a bit large so sometimes you'll have to unplug other things in order to test something.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lake Tahoe and a Big Bear

So, I was over in Tahoe over the weekend. It was all pretty standard until I (along with my sister and JC) encountered a ferocious sounding bear. Lucky for us, it wasn't like we were in the middle of the woods or anything. I was basically walking up and down a rather long stretch of stairs that led up to our condo mostly to prove a point about being able to do it. Anyway, I was walking rather slowly to conserve energy. All this time, both JC and my sister were complaining to me about how slow I was moving.

After a few minutes, they got a bit more excited and said I needed to pick up my pace and go up quickly since there was a bear. I assumed it was a joke, and I kept going up at my slow pace. That is until I saw a bear making a really mean sounding growl. The bear was seriously large... I'd guess it was at least 400lbs, but who knows for sure. That scared the crap out of me, and I bolted up the stairs. In doing so, I scared the bear off. I guess it assumed I was charging it since I was moving in its direction just upwards.

Well, I guess that's the most interesting part of the trip. We did rent a couple of Seadoos and rode around in the water some, which was a lot of fun. And, I suppose I did see some giant ants over at the nearby Fallen Leaf Lake. Here's a picture and a video of one of them.

Link to Video

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

XBox360 Back Online

Well, I'll be damned. The operation was successful... the X-Clamp fix worked. I spent about $15-20 or so to get everything I needed, and I have a good amount of random stuff left over. I did spend about 6-8 hours of my own time (mostly reading and going to get parts). Anyway, at this point the unit is completely working, and so now I'll just have to see if the fix sticks or not.

In any case, I'm pretty stoked. I was originally thinking it was maybe 3-to-1 against, but maybe I'm just a bad XBox360 repair handicapper. Anyway, I am going to have a celebratory beer now.


Seeing as how my XBox is still working after over an hour of play, I figure I should put up the link to the repair instructions I followed. I did have to make some minor modifications (i.e. I did not follow the instructions 100%, but it was in areas where I used my best judgment given the parts I was able to find -- for example, I was unable to find 1mm thick nylon washers).

Llama's X-Clamp Fix

Monday, August 03, 2009

XBox 360 Dissection

Well, I learned today that the 3-year "Red Ring of Death" warranty on the XBox360 has expired. So, there wasn't any reason that I shouldn't at least try to fix the problem myself, if it was indeed repairable. I read up a bit on what the typical issues are that cause the problem, and it seems that it is almost always related to the the GPU. Either its overheating or there are some cold solder joints.

In any case, in order to fix the potential issues, you've got to open up the unit and do things to it. The fix that I am trying is the "X-Clamp" fix, where you end up replacing these X-clamp things that hold the heatsinks in place. Part way through the step-by-step repair instructions that I was reading, I realized that I needed some stuff that I didn't have. So, tomorrow I'm going to have to buy some washers, thermal paste, and thermal paste remover.

Here are a few pictures of the current state of my piece of crap XBox 360.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Red Ring of Death Revisited

Just over two years ago my XBox360 died the infamous Red Ring of Death.  Today, on a breezy Saturday night, it has suffered the same fate.  This is so lame.

The first time it happened, my system was conveniently a few months outside of the warranty window.  After paying for repairs, Microsoft extended its warranty due to the prevalence of the problem, and I was able to get a refund.

What's going to happen now?  I have no idea.  I guess I'm going to have to call up their support.  It will suck if I end up getting stuck with the bill.  This is ridiculous.  My old school Nintendo still functions as far as I know.  And, I think that our old Colecovision still works too.

Anyway, I am just ranting.