Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sharing Alone

Growing up, music was a way to share yourself with others.  That moment when your favorite song came on the radio was an unexpected gift. If you saw someone else get excited by the same song, it was a moment of magic.

With the advent of cassette tapes, much energy was put into capturing tunes from records or radio, and meticulous attention put into mix tapes. Where there is magic, there is always a human drive to capture it and harness it and share it and be the magician. That is what we do, and how we shape the world around us.

There were few things more liberating than a drive with friends with the perfect mix tape blaring. After the randomness of radio, the freedom of setting the soundtrack for your own life was a new kind of magic, made more so because you were sharing that life with those you cared about.

Things began to change with the Walkman. The magic became personal, and part of who are.  Your own private soundtrack followed you wherever you went. You were never without that extra emotional dimension. As much energy went into deciding what tapes to take with you for the day/weekend as went into deciding what clothes to wear or where to meet your friends.

The sight of someone walking with those iconic headphones became common, and we all knew that they were in a happy personal place. Very occasionally, you'd hear some bleed through or someone would share their headphones, and it felt like an intimate view into a private place.

The boom box was brief detour into again public sharing of music, but the socially indiscriminate nature of it made it a fleeting thing. It is one thing to share music you love with friends, it is yet another to have some idiot you don't know blasting distorted tunes you don't care for.

The CD Walkman was a gift the tech gods delivered from the top of Mt Fuji. How could all that magic fit into something so small and so light?  It heralded the ever so brief revival of the Album as the unit of music consumption, and a brief return to the artist being the curator of the experience, but it was an evolutionary dead end.

The iPod then changed everything again. All your music, always with you, in whatever order you want, just for you. iTunes and Napster liberated you from your friends, radio, or the music store to score your tunes. Like the kings of old, if you saw something you liked, you just reached out and took it for your own. 

iTunes and Napster also made the album irrelevant again. All that mattered was your music, your songs, and your mood. The soundtrack of your life was now a realtime mix, limited only by the depth of your library, and your skill in wielding it. White ear buds were the new talisman, invoking the power of the new gods from Cupertino.

Even though the iPod was intrinsically opaque to the world around you, everyone wanted one, and envied those that had one already. Once they started to become ubiquitous, there was an unusual importance given to your choice of iPod style and color. Did you have one of the big ones with 60GB, or one of the cool Nano's? Neat, I love the red ones! What cause are they for again?

The emergence of the iPhone took much of that away. The magic of the iPhone is that this plain piece of glass becomes anything you want it to be. Having one was/is an expression of profound self-empowerment. However, once everyone has one, how do you express to others who you are? How can they infer the secrets hidden in the soundtrack of you or your TXT stream?  

The explosion of designer headphones (Bob Marley headphones made of sustainable leather and FSC certified beech wood?  Really?) is a symptom of the much broader need to share who you are, not just be empowered to express who you are. The ubiquitousness and perfect abstractness of the iPhone have removed its power as a talisman. What will be the new talisman for the physical world that can match the power of what's happening in the social and mobile worlds?

Nothing Like A Warm Bath

For a couple years, I was amazed how some restaurants could serve the most tender, moist, and most perfectly cooked meats.  These were "WOW!" moments.  Who were these super beings in the kitchen?

Later on I learned about the cooking technique called sous vide, where chefs use immersion water baths at percisely controlled temperatures to cook food to percise temperature targets.  Foods are cooked in vacuum sealed bags, so they stay moist and can be waiting in their bath as long as necessary until it is time to serve.

Over the past couple years, some sous vide machines have come out that are targeted for the home chef.  I've been eyeing them and waiting to jump in, but it just didn't feel right: do I really want a large dedicated appliance in the kitchen always reminding me that a real chef wouldn't need such a toy?  Isn't the bread machine bad enough?

These holidays, it was time to man up and take the plunge.

I picked up a PID temperature controller from Fresh Meals Solutions, and Macgyver'ed it into our slow cooker.  A temperature probe in the water bath is used to regulate turning power on and off to the slow cooker.  Slow cooker has plenty of room for a gallon of water and several vacuum sealed bags.

Rather than going for the hard core vacuum sealers, I went low brow with the zip loc vacuum freezer bags.  We've had a lot of luck using these for long term storage in the freezer.  The internet crowd seems happy for them for cooking as well.  I just didn't see that much of an advantage to the home sealing units, and the commercial grade ones were way over kill.

A couple ebooks with temperature and time tables for various proteins on the iPad and we were good to go.

Getting up and going was drop dead simple.  The SousVideMagic 1500HD came preconfigured for degrees F, and the default tuning was plenty good enough for my set up.  Our slow cooker brought the gallon of water up to the target temperature at about a degree a minute, and after about a 1/2 a degree of overshoot, was rock solid there.


This was a VERY inexpesive way to get into sous vide cooking.  The PID controller was a cheap $150, and the zip loc bags an even cheaper $10.  We already had the slow cooker so we were good to go.  The alternative was $400-500 for the dedicated units, or $800 for the professional grade PID controller/circulator plus more for a vacuum sealer.

The results are VERY good, and the convenience can't be beat.  Definitely worth experimenting with.

Couple caveats.

My set up does not have any sort of circulator, so I rely on convection in the slow cooker to keep temperatures even.  This is mitigated by the big thick ceramic insert that my slow cooker uses that buffers temperature changes.  The optimal set up would be a larger container with a water circulator to get the 0.1 degree control.  I'm a long way from benefiting for that level of precision.  If/when it becomes an issue, I'll upgrade the set up.

The vacuum of the zip loc is not serious enough to get the vacuum flavor injection that gourmands favor so much.  It will keep the food from floating and give you good thermal contact, but flavorings will not be driven into your proteins like you get with the high end commercial sealers.

The slow cooker is great for a family of four, but it is way too small for a dinner party where you have many to cook for.  If/when we get serious enough to cook this way for guests, I'll probably spring for either a large capacity rice cooker, or a big lexan tub with some sort of water circulator (I'm guessing the later for space/storage considerations).