Thursday, December 15, 2011

Calorie counting is the only diet method you ever really need to know

Caveat emptor. This is only my experience, but in my uncredentialed and completely unqualified opinion, it's probably applicable to most otherwise healthy people.

Before Thanksgiving 2010, I was listening this "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe" podcast, and mentioned among the stories was one called The Twinkie Diet about this nutritionist who held a premise that challenges most of the weight-loss industry's fad diets-du-jour: that you can lose weight on any diet, because it is calories that count. To drive home the point, he set for himself the challenge of losing significant weight on a diet consisting almost entirely of convenience store junk food. Two months and many cans of pop, packets of Doritos, and Twinkie wrappers later he'd done it, down 27 pounds.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Notes from Happy Harry's 2011 Oktoberfest Beer Tasting

Jane and I thoroughly enjoyed the Oktoberfest beer tasting, yesterday at Happy Harry's. Some surprising newcomers impressed me greatly, and I found fault with one of my ol' standby favorites this year.


Empyrean, Grand Teton, Crow Peak, Spaten

I am on a drug. It's called Charlie Sheen (a/k/a not winning).

North Coast, Lucky Bucket

I never met an Oktoberfest marzen I didn't like--until this year. I encountered a few breweries that tried mixing styles: marzen + IPA. Eww. Why the hell? Par exemple:

Widmer Okto Festival
New Belgium Hoptoberfest

I just don't understand why you'd wreck a good marzen by making it excessively hop-y and bitter like an IPA. I can get IPAs anytime, but Oktoberfest marzen is almost always seasonal.

Notably absent from the tasting and the stockroom was celebrated German brewer Hacker-Pschorr, whose Oktoberfest has been my personal favorite, par excellence, since I first tried it some years ago. I think this makes it the third season in a row where Hacker-Pschorr was absent as a taste-able or even stocked offering up here in the north. A shame.

To my chagrin, my go-to trusted 2nd to Hacker's Okto, Spaten Oktoberfest, shocked me with disappointment. My instant reaction was, "hey, something's missing here, something's off."

Spaten has always been available at all the tastings I've attended, and have produced a most excellent Oktoberfest in past years (just behind Hacker). But not this time. I'm so surprised by this that I'm going to assume that the case out of which we were served got excessively hot or something. It was not bad, but well, lacking. Thankfully, Spaten redeemed themselves in fine style with their classic Munich Lager, just delicious!

In the middle I tasted serviceable Oktoberfest offerings from Shiner and Schell. I consider them reasonable seconds when your first choices in an Oktoberfest are unavailable.

In the high-tier, I tasted very good offerings from Sam Adams and Boulevard. I haven't exactly cared for Boulevard's other beers. I tend to avoid them like I do Sierra Nevada. They do good work, it's just my taste preference. However, Boulevard Bob's Oktoberfest was excellent. I would personally put it above Sam Adam's offering, which itself has always been "a Good Decision" (sm).

This year's pinnacle for me was an offering from a label new to the Red River Valley: Empyrean Aries Marzen - Oktoberfest. Empyrean Brewing hails from Lincoln, NE, and has never had distribution into my area before. I'd never heard of them. At this tasting, they were prospecting the market.

Aries Marzen was smooth, golden, and very well balanced. It also had a unique sensation I'd never experienced in an Oktoberfest before: a gentle field-ripe wheat flavor. In farm country, then the sun's low in August and the temperature's coming down, you can stand beside the ripened ready-to-harvest wheat fields and almost taste a certain wholesomeness in the air. To me, growing up close-by to such places, this is memorable. The essence of farm country at harvest time has been masterfully brewed into this product, it's just amazing! Well done Empyrean!

Also served were a number of Empyrean's other brews, all great, including their Burning Skye Scottish Ale. I didn't expect to enjoy this one, as my only other experience with a scotch-style ale was McEwan's, and I found the syrupy taste of the unfermented sugars objectionable. This was much better, still sweet, but not sickly-so. I could get into it, whereas I don't think I can normally with this style.

At another table I was introduced to Pilsner Urquell, the famous Czech lager whose claim to fame is to have invented the pilsner style. I am not a beer expert, but I love learning, and so I was pleased to learn that this beer has much in common with Oktoberfest marzen, a cousin style in the bottom-fermenting lager family. I've always seen this stuff around at the better stores, but never tried any. I'm glad I did this time! I found much similarity between the flavors in Pilsner Urquell and Empyrean's Aries Oktoberfest. What's better for me, who wishes Oktoberfest seasonals were available year-round, is that Pilsner Urquell is available year-round. Jane commented she found something slightly off-putting about the aroma of this beer, but hastened to add that the flavor was very nice. I didn't notice an off aroma myself, but this beer had a the same or stronger character of field-fresh wheat as the Aries, which might cause a strange nose in a warm glass at anything warmer than refrigerator temp.

Talking to the table servers, I guess the company distributing Empyrean also handle some other labels I've not seen before in the RRV. Crow Peak Brewing hails from close-by in Spearfish, SD. _Why haven't I see your stuff up here?_ Their IPA was on offer, in a can, and I must say it was my favorite IPA of the tasting, and there were many to choose from. It's exceptionally balanced with no single flavor lording it over the others. It's hop-y, it's bitter as any IPA will be, but also refreshing, easy to drink, not thin and watery, but full bodied, but not harsh. A fine brew. I hope I see more.

The biggest looser, however, was another of this new distributor's tables featuring the Lucky Bucket and North Coast labels. I surely hope something went wrong, horribly horribly wrong, with the transportation of these beers, because they were all skunky and sour. Wall of shame:

North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (gosh I had high hopes for this, dashed)
North Coast Red Seal Ale
North Coast Acme IPA
Lucky Bucket Lager
Lucky Bucket IPA
Lucky Bucket Certified Evil Ale (and it was...dagnabbit)

If you can't cheaply get a taste to see if it was just our stock that was wrecked, then I'd say move on, nothing to feel good about here. A shame, as absolutely everything else this distributor brought to the tasting, Empyrean, Grand Teton, and Crow Peak, were wonderful!

I recommend:
  • Tallgrass IPA
  • Tallgrass Buffalo Sweat
  • Redhook Wit
  • Spaten Munich Lager (the Oktoberfest is still good, but on probation)
  • Guinness Foreign Extra
  • Empyrean Chaco Canyon Honey Gold
  • Empyrean Burning Skye Scottish Ale
  • Empyrean Third Stone Brown
  • Empyrean Dark Side Vanilla Porter
  • Empyrean Aries Marzen Oktoberfest (Andrew's all-show winner!)
  • Crow Peak IPA
  • Grand Teton Sweetgrass Pale Ale
  • Grand Teton Bitch Creek ESB
  • Grand Teton Black Cauldron Imperial Stout
  • Boulevard Bob's 47 Oktoberfest
  • Sam Adams Octoberfest
  • Pilsner Urquell (do try if you liked Empyrean Aries Marzen)

I recommend against:
  • Molson Canadian
  • New Belgium Belgo
  • New Belgium Hoptoberfest
  • Lucky Bucket Certified Evil Ale
  • Lucky Bucket IPA
  • Lucky Bucket Lager
  • North Coast Acme IPA
  • North Coast Red Seal Ale
  • North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout
  • Manger's Irish Cider
  • Manger's Pear Cider
  • Widmer Okto Festival
  • Boulder Kinda Blue
  • Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat (if this is your thing, try Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin instead)
  • Shock Top Raspberry Wheat

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Getting a replay on my ReplayTV

In 2003 I purchased a ReplayTV DVR unit after watching an interesting show on the now defunct TechTV network about DVRs and hacks available for the ReplayTV units.

The ReplayTV has a lot of faults, but the technology was quite new for the time, and its execution was better (in some respects) than the generation one Tivo DVR units. Generic ReplayTV systems made their way into numerous cable and satellite system customer premise equipment, becoming the basis for early DVR receiver/decoder offerings for these systems.

I purchased the nearly $400 unlimited service activation (required to get access to electronic programming quide data, without which a DVR becomes little more useful than a traditional VCR), figuring I would own the unit more than two years, the time necessary to earn back the money spent on the month-by-month service option.

Overall, it's been a really good experience. The unit fulfilled its promise to change the way we watch TV. It did that instantly. At my house, we were chained to the TV schedule. A VCR alleviated some of this, but programming it successfully required error-prone transcription of a paper or web schedule. Even then, you only had 2-7 hours of recording time to work with, assuming you start a new tape.

VCR technology was game-changing for its time, and DVRs like the ReplayTV re-revolutionized the TV viewing experience, allowing one to watch-pause-instant replay live TV. Traditional VCR-like functions of recording individual shows were made an order of magnitude simpler by integrating a guide grid into the unit's user interface. No more scanning a paper or web table and manually entering times. Scroll to your show with the on-screen guide and press record. Done.

The DVR further revolutionized TV by harnessing the power of database-driven scheduling of recordings. The ReplayTV and Tivo units diverge slightly in this area, and some regard the Tivo as being stronger in this regard. But, the ReplayTV is pretty decent at this too, allowing for variable-priority theme channels, which attempt to record shows on supplied criteria, giving way to other such themes you set at higher priority (record Scrubs, unless Mythbusters is on, then record that instead), and giving way once more to specific individual or repeated-timeslot recordings you specify.

I was able to pore over a generic TV lineup at the beginning of a season, and setup this database to essentially automate our TV watching. After a few days, the ReplayTV started to fill up with a library of constantly updating shows of my interest. I stopped watching TV and began watching the ReplayTV. I was unchained from broadcasters' schedules. If there was first-run programming coming on which I was desperate to see that night, I made sure to wait at least ten to fifteen minutes into the show before starting to watch the recording as it was being made. This way, I could watch the show from start to finish without waiting during commercial breaks (advertisers note: I often found myself entranced by some commercials, and never skipped them, even though the skip button was always under my thumb).

While groundbreaking tech for 2003 on, here in 2011, much has advanced. Were it not for some specific hackability of my model unit, I would have lost the use of my ReplayTV within the first two years. Its original hard drive failed rather alarmingly quickly, and a replacement drive I installed myself failed after several years in service. In both cases, thanks to backups I made of the unit's software, I was able to return the unit to service after replacing the drive and its factory software.

My ReplayTV unit was designed before HDTV standards were solidified, and almost no providers were offering HD programming. Today, over-the-air TV has transitioned to digital broadcast, and most broadcasters have adopted an all HD format. I am a cable customer, and my provider, in addition to having a standard-def. lineup, over the last few years has made continual improvements such that essentially the entire lineup is available also on HD channels further up the "dial." There are also plenty of the earlier special-purpose HD channels which originated from day-one as an HD only offering (when HD was still new and quasi-experimental), and have no SD equivalent.

Anyone who has bought a TV set in the past few years has purchased an HD model, with QAM digital tuners able to get the OTA broadcast and in increasingly-many cases even new digital cable programming without the aid of a special receiver.

I am still using a quite serviceable SD tube-type analog TV. And ReplayTV, designed for the analog SD TV world, is becoming increasingly irrelevant in this universe of digitally delivered HDTV. However, if you don't mind the SD, this legacy equipment still works great when paired with a receiver from my cable provider.

I was saddened then to hear the news that after many years of near-trouble-free operation of my ReplayTV, the corporate entities behind it were going to finally switch off the internet servers delivering the electronic program guide data that make the DVRs so useful. Forever.

After July 31, all ReplayTV units still functioning out there will lose guide data, and will (gracefully, we all hope) fall back to functionality equivalent to a VCR, just with random-access digital storage.

The die-hard user community has been working tirelessly toward an alternative solution to deliver guide data after this date, and with ReplayTVs corporate stewards offering some modicum of help (or at least not standing in the way), appear to have forged a likely workable path forward.

Your home PC, with special software, will stand-in for the outgoing ReplayTV guide data servers. It will get its guide data for a minor fee paid to a non-profit company with a mission to promote open-source DVR technology.

Last night I endeavored to set this software up on my home PC and give it a test. After a lengthy series of hiccups and other not-insurmountable minor gotchas and snags, I was ultimately able to start my own server, and get my ReplayTV DVR to accept it. The server ingests schedule data from a third-party (right now I am testing it with software known as an XMLTV scraper, which reformats publicly available TV listings into a format which this server software can ingest), and offers it to my ReplayTV upon request.

The result? So far, it's working beautifully! I have cut-ties 100% from the corporate-sponsored ReplayTV guide data servers, and have every expectation that after July 31, I ought to continue to be able to run this way.

The server need not run continuously, but often enough to keep the ReplayTV DVR's schedule database populated as far into the future as data availability and convenience dictate. On the server-side, the experimental XMLTV scraper doesn't download much data, but requires a good 15-20 minutes to assemble and reformat it, making it the slowest and weakest link in this chain.

During this testing-phase, I imagine initiating a manual update about once-or-twice a week, given this. After July 31st, assuming everything continues to work, I will likely buy a cheap subscription to the third-party data service, replacing a 20min free scrape with a cheap download lasting only seconds.

One problem likely solved, but still uncertain, is the ability of this home surrogate-server software to set the time-of-day clock in the ReplayTV units. I believe this has been solved, based on an experiment I did.

As part of its nightly network connection, the ReplayTV units use the NTP protocol to reset their clocks by polling an NTP server also maintained by ReplayTV's corporate stewards. You wouldn't want this clock to become off, or the DVRs idea of the current time would yield partly or completely missed recordings.

The community forums speculated that the NTP time updates were cryptographically signed with a key maintained in the corporate servers, and the DVRs would not accept unsigned NTP time replies. I don't know if this is the case or not, but I did notice that the home surrogate-server software came preconfigured with the address of the ReplayTV corporate NTP server, but that this was changeable.

I updated the configuration to point my server at my favorite NTP source:, a domain-name that reverses (in the load-balancing mechanism of DNS) to any of a number of publicly available NTP servers aimed at covering the continent.

The server software accepted this address without complaint, appeared to use it in the logs, and offered the time derived from it to my ReplayTV DVR, which likewise "appeared" to accept it (there's no easy way to tell, except to enter a hidden code to get the unit to display its clock onscreen, which had previously been 5 seconds off, but is now less than one second offset from my radio-controlled wall clock).

So I have every reason to be optimistic that after July 31st, I will be able to continue enjoying my ReplayTV experience in all its 2003 analog standard-definition shininess!

In the future, I expect that once my existing SD TV goes, I will modernize my whole viewing experience. I expect to become a Roku box customer, perhaps even playing with the idea of ditching my cable-TV subscription in favor of a combination of OTA digital signals and a more expensive, but higher-bandwidth cable-internet offering with a Netflix account riding on top. To be the best, the Roku or similar solution would need to be able to ingest OTA HDTV signals in addition to having connectivity with my home network to play media stored their or stream content from the internet. That way I get full DVR-style flexibility with local broadcast content too!

Until that heady future, I'll enjoy a replay of the future circa 2003, and continue enjoying my ReplayTV, faithfully (more or less) recording content for presentation on my analog TV!

(My analog TV is a 32" model from Sharp. I bought it in 2000, and it's still bright and saturated, undistorted and color accurate. I've been astonished how many newer-model tube-type analog TVs have degraded to unsuitable picture quality after far fewer years in service! It's only problem is a stuck relay, which prevents it from being turned off occasionally. I have to get up and pull its plug, but other than that, it's still going strong. In fact, it's outlasted a couple of Sony Trinitron models my folks have owned!)