The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Sure happy it's Thursday

I've spent the last few weeks in my off-hours beavering away at a major software project, which I hope to launch this spring. Meanwhile, I continue to beaver at my paying job, with only one exciting deployment in the last six sprints, so things are good there. I also hope to talk more about that cool software before too long.

Meanwhile, things I need to read keep stacking up:

Finally, check out the World Photography Organisation's 2021 photo contest results.

Two local stories

As the State of Illinois starts abandoning the Helmut Jahn-designed Thompson Center in Chicago's Loop, the Governor's Office announced the state has purchased PepsiCo's old building at 555 W Monroe St:

The 18-year-old structure has 430,000 square feet of office space and has green certification for energy efficiency.

More than 1,000—and potentially 1,400—of the 3,500 state workers now based in downtown Chicago eventually will relocate to the new facility, starting in April, according to Ayse Kalaycioglu, chief operating officer of the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, which manages the state’s real estate needs.

About 900 of the employees moving to 555 W. Monroe will be coming from the Thompson Center, leaving 1,300 in the structure named after the named the former governor who championed its construction and mourned its declining fortunes. But they won’t be there long, said Kalaycioglu and Deputy Gov. Dan Hynes in an interview late yesterday.

I'm sorry to hear so many people calling the Thompson Center "so old" and "dilapidated" given it opened in 1984 and sits directly across the street from the century-old City Hall. But: "In comparison, the state says the Thompson Center has $325 million in deferred maintenance needs now, a figure projected to grow to $525 million by 2026." (I took the below photo about a year after it opened.)

The other story is that seven new pizza places have recently opened in the city, and I may have to try a few of them. That square of Bill's Original Tavern Pizza at the top of the article made me hungry.

The breakfast of aliens

Via Julia Ioffe, the Guardian highlights a kitchen gadget that literally no one needs:

The Egg Master (£29.99, DecentGadget, Amazon) is a vertical grill encased in silicone housing. Ingredients poured into the plastic tube are heated by an embedded, wraparound element. When ready, food spontaneously rises from the device.

This week’s gadget describes itself as “a new way to prepare eggs”, which is accurate in the way that chopping off your legs could be described as a new way to lose weight. Let’s start with that name, its unsettling taint of S&M, an overtone consistent with the design. In hot pink and stippled black rubber, Egg Master’s exterior screams cut-price, mail-order adult toy; its funnelled hole suggests terrible uses. And it has a traffic light on it, for some reason.

“Spray non-stick agent into container”, the box advises, which definitely gets the tummy rumbling. As instructed, I crack two whole eggs into the hot tunnel, trying to ignore the gurgling sound from within. It’s impossible to see what’s going on – but it smells bad. I squint into the dark opening. A bulging yellow sac peers back at me. Minutes pass; the smell does not. Then, without warning, a flaccid, spongy log half jumps from the machine, writhing like an alien parasite in search of a host body. It’s horrifying, like a scene from The Lair of the White Worm.

I can’t look at it, let alone eat it. To stall, I consult the badly photocopied handbook, which suggests other delicious treats this baby is good for. Egg Master Egg Crackers, which is mixed-up crackers, egg and cheese; Egg Master Egg Dog; PB&J (peanut butter and jelly) Egg Master, and the tantalising Cuban Egg Master. It’s a dossier of culinary hate crimes (barbecue Pork Egg Master has two ingredients, “biscuit dough and three teaspoons of precooked pork”). Nervously, I try the sulphuric, sweating egg mess before me. The taste is … not the best. As I dry heave into the sink, I try to remember if I read about this machine in the Book of Revelation. Why is it in the world? Who created it? Maybe no one. Perhaps soon, sooner than you think, we will all bow to the Egg Master.

The video will put you off omelets, and possibly all other food, for a week.

Fridge update

The fridge that the previous residents of my house paid $4,000 for has sat quiet and warm since noon. Around 6pm I checked under the freezer drawer to see if anything had thawed out and discovered a centimeter-thick layer of ice on the bottom of the freezer. Actually, by 6pm it was more like a 5 mm layer of ice floating on 5 mm of water. Fifteen minutes and two towels later I managed to get most of the ice into the sink and most of the water out of the freezer. But wow, scraping a half-liter of rime ice from your freezer is not fun.

I can't even guess how long condensation has been pooling there. Obviously there's something else wrong with the freezer. And I have a working hypothesis.

According to the repair guys, if the freezer thermostat gets too frosty, it won't trigger the defrosting heaters that remove condensation from the freezer. The heaters being off would also allow the condensation drain to freeze shut, so even if they did turn on, the water might not have anywhere to go. And the reason this happens with the windows open could be simply that the warmer outside air contains more moisture, which causes more condensation, freezing the thermostat, and starting the downward spiral of events culminating in me fantasizing about dropping the whole unit onto the KitchenAid design offices from a helicopter.

Modern "conveniences" (personal and annoyed)

For the third time in a year, my refrigerator—a KitchenAid KRMF706ESS01, which came with my house and which cost the previous owners north of $3,500—iced up and stopped working. By "stopped working" I mean that the refrigerator section leveled off at 6°C and the freezer part at -4°C and wouldn't get cooler. By "iced up" I mean that the thermostats controlling the fridge and freezer sections ice over, preventing them from accurately sensing temperatures. Apparently this model has a problem with this issue.

The damage isn't so bad. I'll be throwing away some bread, some unopened lox which spent more than 12 hours at an unsafe temperature, and perhaps a frozen dinner or two. I make sure that my home-cooked leftovers go into sealed Ball jars at 70°C or hotter, so they're fine for weeks at refrigerator temperatures. And it's 2°C outside today, though that may go up to 10°C tomorrow. I may lose a bottle of cream and possibly some lunch meat, but the cheese will survive.

The repair guys who stopped by a while ago said they see this all the time with computer-controlled refrigerators. In fact, one of them came by in April and replaced the freezer thermostat, so he didn't seem surprised at all to see me again. His partner, an older guy who has seen everything, told me flat out that newer refrigerators break a lot sooner than older ones, because of their computer controls.

It's also not the last time the thing started behaving badly. In June, and again in September, when I spent days in a row with the windows open, the freezer would go up to maybe -10°C for a day before going back down to its normal -18°C. Or the ice maker would stop working. Or the water line would freeze up. But it almost always self-corrected, until this weekend.

Consumer Reports gives this model 5/5 for temperature control and 3/5 for predicted reliability. (Only LG gets 4/5 for predicted reliability, so maybe the old guy was right.) In fact, the reviews for this model don't inspire confidence. "Best use: to meet a repairman." "The dealer from whom I purchased it said he is getting an ever increasing number of service calls on it." "We have had a repair man in our house at least 5 times to fix it. If it wasn't the ice maker broken, it was the compressor, then the thermostat." I'd have to agree. If I have any more problems with this fridge after today's 24-hour defrost cycle, then I'm going to take it out back and shoot it. A new LG side-by-side fridge that has a lower chance of breaking and costs significantly less might be the answer I'm looking for. I just don't want to spend the money.

I recognize this as a problem that most people throughout history would have welcomed, given that refrigeration only goes back about 150 years. It's still frustrating as fuck. But I'm happy not to eat mammoth jerky for six months straight.

Mixed news on Tuesday morning

Today's news stories comprise a mixed bag:

Finally, a little sweetness for a cold December day: Whisky Advocate has a recipe for bourbon balls that I hope someone will try and share with me. I'll even supply the bourbon.

Dark and grey in Chicago

December 7th is usually the day when the sun sets earliest in the Northern Hemisphere. In Chicago this evening, that meant 16:20, a few minutes ago. We get back to 16:30 on New Year's Eve and 17:00 not until January 27th. We didn't see the sun today at all, though.

So in the dark gloaming, I will (a) try to get my 10,000 steps for the day, and (b) try to find some fresh-ish basil for dinner.

Got the beef stew 98% right

...but the 2% doesn't really hurt it.

I'm proud enough about my stew today, and full on three bowls of it, that I wanted to jot down the recipe. If you hate metric measurements, it hardly matters if the proportions are about right. Even then, it's a stew, not an angel food cake; it's resilient.

Ingredients

The rendered fat from the bacon I cooked for breakfast
1 kg stew beef, cubed
500 g small yellow and red potatoes, cubed
400 g pre-chopped mirepoix from Trader Joe's
250 g whole white mushrooms, rinsed
100 g sliced mushrooms I needed to use up, rinsed
250 g sliced carrots I needed to use up
850 mL (one carton) beef bone broth
250 mL full-bodied wine
50 g (or so) pancetta cubes I needed to use up
3 small shallots, halved
1 medium garlic head, peeled (yielded about 15 cloves), larger cloves sliced in half
Herbs & spices: bay leaves, parley, sage, rosemary, thyme, plus smaller amounts of chipotle and ancho powder
50 mL of all-purpose flour
Less salt than you'd think (see below)

The ingredients exclusive of the wine cost about $20. I used a $15 bottle of wine, knowing that only one glass of it would go into the stew, but you could get good results with 3-buck-Chuck. Just make sure the wine has some heft. The Bordeaux I used was 80% merlot, 15% cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, and it may not have had enough body.

Procedure

I poured most of the bacon fat into my Instant Pot and set it to sauté, then re-heated the bacon fat that remained on my skillet. Half of the beef went into the Pot to brown along with the pancetta, the rest went on the skillet. Once the beef was seared and had mopped up the bacon fat, it all went into the Pot and I set the Pot to slow cook, normal temperature.

Everything else except the flour now went into the Pot. It turned out I was a little low on liquid so I added about 500 mL of water—which turned out to be about 400 mL more than I needed.

Then it stewed for 7½ hours, though I did stir and taste it about once an hour.

With 30 minutes to go, I took about 100 mL of the broth out and mixed it with the flour in a measuring cup, then dumped the slurry into the Pot and stirred it up. I also cancelled the slow cook timer, then re-started it on High for 30 minutes.

Note that I put in way, way less salt than I would ever serve to other people. Salt is tricky; you need enough so that you can anticipate the finished product, but you don't want to over-salt, which is far too easy to do accidentally. So if anyone reading this gets a container to take home, keep your salt handy.

Improvements

I think I used too much rosemary, as the needles got in the way of enjoying the final stew. As I mentioned above, I also didn't need to add a full 500 mL of water; 100 mL would have done fine, or perhaps no extra water at all. The mushrooms and potatoes have so much volume to them that all the bone broth and wine didn't cover them completely, prompting me to add liquid. But I should have remembered that the alliums and mushrooms would release liquid during cooking, more than making up the deficit. Less initial liquid would have given me a thicker stew.

I also might consider sautéing the onions, shallots, and garlic before adding the seared beef. It's a tough call with slow cooking. The caramelization can add a lot to the flavor, but they'll be in the pot for 8 hours, so it might be overkill.

And I'll pick a nit about my wine choice. The Bordeaux had a lot of body and paired perfectly with the finished product. But next time, I might use a full-bodied cabernet or even a shiraz. Either that or dial the chipotle and ancho down to almost nothing.

But wow, this was one of my best efforts yet. Soo tasty, so much umami, so much depth of flavor, and so much chunky beefy and potato-y goodness, I ate three bowls of it. And now I have about 5 liters of it in Ball jars and sealed plastic containers on my counter.

I also got to drink the rest of the wine, which paired quite well with the stew.

Sure Happy It's Thursday

So many things to read at lunchtime today:

Finally, a year ago today I made some predictions about what could happen in the 2020 election. Turns out, "Option C" is true, and we're still waiting to see on a few others.

Sure Happy It's Tuesday

After finishing a sprint review, it's nice to reset for a few minutes. So after working through lunch I have some time to catch up on these news stories:

Finally, mathematician and humorist Tom Lehrer has waived most of the copyright protections around his music and lyrics, effectively putting the corpus of his work into the public domain. He says: "Most of the music written by Tom Lehrer will be added gradually later with further disclaimers." People have until the end of 2024 to download the materials he has released.