Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Good Ol' (Chinese) Home Cookin'

Relying again on an iPhone app for guidance, I took on the task of preparing sweet and sour pork a couple of weekends ago. I originally got the inspiration a when I found a recipe that used pre-made sweet and sour sauce. I figured it would be a relatively quick and easy way to make a dish that I like. When I finally committed to make it, I left the family playing at the pool while I went to the store with the list of ingredients in my pocket. I thought.

Once at the store, I whipped out the iPhone. Unfortunately, none of the recipies I could find used pre-made sauce. The family was counting on me for dinner, so I found myself committed to doing it the hard way.

Cooking from scratch demands a lot of the kitchen's measuring cups, mixing bowls and stove space, but it is also remarkably liberating. Having control over every ingredient from its raw form to final plating is very satisfying, especially when it goes together well. That doesn't always happen. I've made casseroles that didn't quite gel, cakes that didn't quite stand straight, and entrees that just didn't taste as good (or look as appetizing) as the cookbook made them seem. Frustratingly, I would have nobody to blame but myself. When it all comes together correctly, though, it is a beautiful thing.

The sweet and sour pork was a beautiful thing.

The most unusual part was deep frying the pork. Finally, a legitimate use for the dutch oven, a dish I love for its solid appearance of utility that I have never actually used much at all. That is the part of the process that I need more practice with to keep the meat more tender and the coating more tasty, but it wasn't bad for a first effort. The sauce was interesting, because it was a vague watery mix of vegetables, pineapple syrup and vinegar (who thought up that combination?) until the very end when a small amount of corn starch is introduced. In a magical instant - poof! - sweet and sour sauce is conjured up. And it was every bit as tasty as any I have had in a restaurant (and far superior to Panda Express).

It took a lot of dishes and a bunch of time, but it was a complete success. Even the kids liked it, which is quite an achievement. I'm now two-for-two with recipes from the iPhone.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Justification For War

A trade war, anyway. The Chinese government is in a huff about the U.S. government's institution of 25% import duties on Chinese-made automobile tires. China complains that the imposition of substantial tariffs amounts to protectionism, and has launched its own review of U.S. exports to China.

The Administration apparently imposed a lesser tariff than was recommended by U.S. International Trade Commission. Setting aside the political ramifications and posturing, both internationally and domestic, here is one reason to support the move: Chinese tires are garbage. In this recent tire test, the Chinese tires fared far worse than their competitors. Some revealing analytical notes from the article:

Consistently finishing last in all of the performance categories, the Ling Longs’ dry autocross performance was so far behind the other tires’ that we had to round its score up to zero to keep it from being negative.

Things got worse in the wet, where slip-and-slide behavior required a conservative effort to stay between the cones. The Ling Longs were a full five seconds off the autocross pace and needed 22 more feet—1.5 3-series car-lengths—to stop from 50 mph than did the best Hankooks.

On the street loop, we were irritated by a low-speed drone ...

... even though they cost half the price of many competing tires, they scored less than half the points of even the eighth-place tire. To us, that doesn’t qualify as a value ...

(I have read tire reviews like this one for years. Even though magazines like Car and Driver are generally thought to be under the considerable influence of the automakers they cover (and advertise), I trust the integrity of the blind testing methodology of tire tests like this one. It is not a perfect system, and may not be sufficiently rigorous to measure up to academic standards for true blind testing, but for the limited purpose for which these sorts of tests are offered - a direct, largely objective comparison between similar consumer goods - I think the tests provide useful information.)

There is something to be said for allowing the marketplace to discover this on its own and make the appropriate and inevitable corrections to the market share of the Chinese producers. However, China's ability and intention to manufacture products at a substantially lower sales price that its competitors, coupled with dramatically worse performance, gives plausible justification for imposing punitive tariffs. The decades-old jokes about substandard quality of products made in China (jokes that even my seven-year-old son makes, without parroting his parents) are amusing when referring to household knicknacks. The situation becomes a whole lot less amunsing when your family's safety depends on the products in question. As China climbs the ladder of the global consumer products market, producing tires and entire cars for sale outside of its own borders, China will have to learn, one way or another, to bring its products up to basic standards of quality that, frankly, they don't reach yet. (Go here for a review of a new Chinese-made car's utter failure during a European crash test.)

Once, lawsuits were an effective tool to force manufacturers to improve the quality of their products. Like them or not, consumer-interest legislation had an undeniable effect on the design of consumer goods, most of it positive in the area of safety. I would not want to be the next person to attempt to sue a Chinese company for negligent design or manufacturing, however. As a practical matter, the tort system simply will not be effective against Chinese interests for the relatively near future. A trade war may be the best, first method to force Chinese manufacturers to understand how products must be made for Western consumption.

Returning Safely To Earth

Maybe it's a little geeky, but I absolutely love this footage of the space shuttle Discovery's landing last week. I like any footage of shuttle landings. Chunky though it is, I find something deeply aesthetically satisfying about the form of the shuttle, particularly as it returns its considerable bulk delicately to the earth.

I think the whole scene is beautiful, but would be terrifying if airplanes landed this way. The video, while nicely focused on the orbiter, fails to convey how quickly the ship falls out of the sky. I wonder how the average mission specialist, who is not a combat or test pilot experienced with odd angles of attack in an aircraft, copes with the steep descent. The aggressive dive is intimidating enough, especially since much of the crew has no view out of the shuttle, but they are also feeling gravity again for the first time in a couple of weeks. That must be a gut-churning white knuckle ride for a few minutes.

Unless something changes, we will only be treated to six more of these landings before the whole fleet is mothballed (and we place our manned space flight cababilities in Russian hands until the Orion program is ready in 2015 or later). The shuttle can't fly forever; I just wish it were to be succeeded by another sleek flying craft rather than a tin can that will freefall into the ocean.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Higher Fidelity

I first bought a 35 mm SLR camera around the dawn of the digital photography age. At the time, digital cameras were large, clunky devices that were capable of taking photographs of only marginal quality. The march of time saw digital cameras shrink in size and increase dramatically in capability. We are now to the point that the camera on my phone takes excellent photographs under ordinary conditions.

I knew that the digital revolution would make its way to the SLR format (although I'm not sure I believed it would take over the film world so comprehensively). I expected that someday I would get a digital SLR once the technology became inexpensive enough to bring the products down in price to the level of ordinary consumers. That happened faster than I expected as well. After conferring with a colleague who is an accomplished photographer/hobbyist, I made the move to a Canon DSLR:

Costco was our friend here, enabling us to get the camera (with a throw-in small zoom lens) cheaper than even Amazon. We got the camera just in time for first-day-of-school photos and, most importantly, soccer season.

With the instant and costless response of the digital image, a budding photographer can experiment and learn how to take better pictures without the cost and delay of film development. After the first day of soccer games, I've already ordered a quality (on a budget) zoom lens:

I'm looking forward to playing with this very nice machine.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Numerology

The universe can be a quirky place sometimes. It is not entirely surprising that yesterday, on 09/09/09, someone had a baby at 9:09. What is a little spooky is that child weighed in at ... yes, 9 pounds, 9 ounces.

Even though he was born in Wisconsin, maybe he will grow up to be a Niners fan.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Number 9

If it seems like the Beatles are in the news lately all out of proportion to the attention that would normally be paid to a band that broke up almost 40 years ago, there are some reasons. The Beatles' original tapes have been remastered and will be released today. Early reviews are very positive. I'm not a fan of the way music and movie companies release old products with marginal updates to cynically rake in a few more dollars for the same old recording. The Beatles and their record labels pioneered the practice, but the word is that the new Beatles releases may be worth the money. Given the relatively primitive technology at their disposal at the time of the recordings, and the band's efforts to push the boundaries of that technology, the newly remastered recordings are reputed to bring out details in the performances that have not been heard before.

Also released today is the Rock Band Beatles game. This is a must-have for anyone who enjoys the fake-instrument game. (Let me repeat: "must-have." I happen to enjoy the fake-instrument game. Christmas is coming ... who's paying attention?)

Why release on September 9? "Revolution No. 9," one of the Beatles' most famously drug-addled compositions, ends with a loop of a man saying "number nine." Add that to the calendar quirk of 09/09/09 (one of the rare calendar quirks that Europeans and Americans share), and there is no other day that these Beatles releases could have happened.