Emerald Reverie

Gwmngilfen's blog - Tech, cooking, walking and other randomness from the heart of Scotland

New Project! Home Automation

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(This is part 1 of my home automation blog series. See the automation category for the whole set)

Okay, okay, I said I’d blog more frequently and now it’s been over a year. Yikes, sorry, and other generic excuses. However, I do have a more exciting line of blog articles coming up! You see, I’ve been getting into home automation…

Meta-cooking; or Why I Never Post Recipes

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I love to cook. This is not a secret - it’s pretty much impossible not to hear me talk about food at some point during any time spent with me. It’s probably my main hobby (at least, I do it almost every day, which means gaming is the only competitor on a frequency basis). But, despite having a blog, a website and social media, I do not post recipes.

This confuses people - many times I have explained the core of a recipe to someone, to have them ask if I’d posted it anywhere. It’s taken a while for me to really isolate the reasons why I don’t do this, and when I was done, I thought it made interesting reading. You be the judge :)

When is a recipe not a recipe

Firstly, there’s the question of what a recipe is, and crucially, what is instead a technique. Consider the humble roast chicken - the recipe goes like this:

  • Take a chicken
  • Stuff it
  • Roast it

That’s it. But let’s go into more detail. First, “take a chicken”; well, I don’t know how many people you’re feeding, so get one that’s the right size for you. Second, “stuff it” depends on what flavours you want. I could wax lyrical here, but pretty much anything works so long as it won’t dry out the meat - so no bread-based things. Classic is simply butter & tarragon under the skin, but I’ve also used black pudding & kalvados, pate, etc, etc. So, this is something for personal taste. And finally, “roast it” - and here we come to the difference between a recipe and a technique. Roasting a bird is a technique - regardless of the flavour combinations, or even the type of bird, the roasting is always the same. It’s a matter of weight, heat, and time.

One of my personal food heroes, Glynn Christian likes to point out how recipes have changed over time. Until comparatively recently, they assumed a huge amount of knowledge on the part of the cook. A recipe for bread and butter pudding from the 18th century was simply a sentence. Only in the latter half of the 20th century did recipes books suddenly start to try to cover all the techniques as well (usually badly or incompletely). This is failure in the making.

Environmentally friendly

Secondly, as if following a recipe without understanding the techniques invlolved isn’t engineering failure enough, we come to the question of environment and history. Part of the reason why old cook books are so terse is that they are not meant to be followed by other people. They’re an memory aid, a note in a margin about what the cook did last time, a record of the past. Taking those notes and following them blindly risks a host of issues; how much cinnamon works for your taste buds? How much fresher or drier are your dried herbs? What’s the calibration of your oven like? How about the humidity? It is no surprise that recipes inevitably acquire comments of “tasted awful” or “too much pepper” or “collapsed when I took it out of the oven” if these things are not considered. Again, this is a question of technique, but also ingredient knowledge.

So you begin to see that the reason I don’t post recipes is because they would not be as effective in your kitchen, with your tools and your environment. I would rather give you the core of the idea, and let you take it from there - probably in ways I hadn’t thought of.

Science to the rescue!

However, what I can do, here in this post, is show you how I learn something new - and it’s based on science! Now that’s slightly misleading, as cooking is at least as much art as science, but there are concepts we can borrow.

The first is the idea of systematic review. This is a concept in science where we take a large collection of studies on a particular topic, and analyse them together to see if we can make conclusions that couldn’t be made on the individual studies themselves (see Bad Science if you want to know more).

Happily, the internet is full of recipe sites these days (a secondary reason why I don’t post them myself). When I want to learn something new, I go and download a decent number of versions of the dish in question (usually around 5, although not all are from the web - I do have a lot of cookbooks :P). Comparing these side-by-side allows me to extract what are the techniques in play, what is the core of the dish, and what is simply garnish or embellishment in each case. I walk away with a better understanding of what I want to create, as well as some starting ideas for directions to take it in. I also know the varying quantities involved in the ingredients, which helps me adjust for my own kitchen.

Sadly, even with the best research in the world, things don’t always come out perfect first time - in fact that’s fairly rare. So we come to scientific thinking point 2 - reproducibility. In cooking, mastering the dish, getting it right when you have a different environment to work in, requires that you have made it a bunch of times. It’s simply not possible to master a dish in one try - that was a fluke. When it happens we get a false sense of security, and we try it at a friends house, and wonder why it didn’t work. We learn to cook by making the same (or similar) things a hundred times, not making a hundred things once each.

If this line of thinking intrigues you, then I ancourage you to pick up a copy of How To Cook Without Recipes as a starting point. It’s a fabulous book, and one I go back to again and again to remind myself of various things.

Happy cooking!

Expanding My Cooking Horizons, Not My Waistline

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I’m overweight. There’s no getting away from this fact, I have the data to prove it.

The problem here is not (mainly) one of excercise. I have a standing desk. I like walking. I have a small child. These (especially the last) make for a fairly active lifestyle - I have no shortage of opportunites to get my heart rate up. Nor do I eat (very) unhealthily - we cook every night, so there’s not an abundance of bad food in the house.

No the issue here is one of pleasure. I love food. I love to cook, and I love to eat, and so when I cook, I make too much, and then I eat anyway. While calories fell out of fashion in the dieting fad world, they still matter. Whether it’s too many calories of healthy food, or too many of high-salt, high-sugar bad food - either way, it’s still too many.

So this year, I plan to fix it. Weight loss is a notoriously hard-to-keep New Year’s resolution, but… I have a plan! Like all good plans, it has several parts

Consumption

The first part, and it’s obvious, is what I eat, and how much. I’ve already said we eat fairly healthily, but there’s room for improvement, especially in terms of pure calorie count.

For christmas this year, I was given a copy of Thug Kitchen[probably NSFW!], which is a vegan cookbook like no other. Let’s be clear - I have no intention of going vegan, or even vegetarian. I love meat entirely too much for that, I mean, bacon alone, c’mon… But we do all consume far more meat than we used to - what’s missing is interesting ways to cook veggie dishes. On this point, this book is a godsend.

I’m already sticking to making at least one evening meal a week from this book (I was particularly blown away with the Black Bean & Sweet Potato Enchiladas), but it also has a great section on quick food and munchies. Now, given that I really struggle to eat well at lunch time (working from home with a bakery 3 doors away is bad for that…), this is huge. Things like Spiced Chickpea and Tahini Wraps can be made in 20min, and is a filling hot lunch that is way less bad for me than a sausage roll and a fudge doughnut.

I’ve never been a breakfast person, and now that we can finally consign the “eat breakfast to lose weight” thing to the bin, I don’t need to be piling on the calories there.

So that’s effectively a “5-2” kind of thing for evenings, decently healthy lunches, and no breakfast (well, maybe a slice of granary toast, on occaison). A good start.

Tracking

Of course, there’s no use in setting a goal with no way to know if you’ve reached it. I’ve actually been tracking weight loss for some years via a Google Docs speadsheet, but that got tiresome. So, I hacked up a quick Sinatra tracking app to help me out.

The basic idea is simple. The front page has a handy input box for me to put in my weight from my phone whenever I have time in a morning to weigh myself. Clearly, this isn’t every day, but so long as it’s at least a couple of times a week, we can extract trends.

From there, I store the data in a small sqlite3 db, and calculate moving 7-day and 30-day averages. The 7-day is useful to indicate early shifts in trends, so I can catch myself if I start to slip, but the 30-day is the real measure of the goal. If that is trending down, then that’s good. If not, then I’ve been at least slightly naughty for at least a month.

The app also includes a predicted completion date based on the moving averages. These are very crudely calculated, but again, it’s just an indicator - if that date starts to get significantly further away, I need to reign myself in. It’s also a way to ensure I’m not too drastic - as drastic changes to lifestyle rarely stick. That completion date doesn’t need to be next month…

Attitude

I think you have to keep a light attitude to weight, or it becomes a risk of crushing despair when it doesn’t work. I’ve been steadily losing weight since 2013, but recently I hit a plateau, and would like to shift the last 10kg. That’s all it is. No big deal, no drama, just something to keep an eye on.

The 30 day average and completion dates help me turn a blind eye to the occaisonal takeaway or large slab of cake - these things are part of life, and should be enjoyed from time to time.

In other words - everything in moderation, including moderation itself.

I Aten’t Dead!

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Well, that was rather a longer break than I anticipated. Life can get you life that. One minute you’re blogging away regularly, and then suddenly it’s been 2 years since you last wrote anything. Bummer.

Still, “I aten’t dead”, as Granny Weatherwax used to say. As a child of Lancashire, I know exactly the sort of person Terry Pratchet was sending up with Esme - my own grandmother could be like that sometimes. I’m sad to think that I’ll not see another book about the Lancre witches, but at least I can re-read the ones I have.

So yes, I’m still here, although I’ll be impressed if anyone still has this feed on their RSS reader (let me know if you do!). One of my goals for this year is to get blogging again, but the issue with a mainly technical blog is that there’s a large amount of testing the content to ensure it works from scratch. That slows down posting things.

To counter that, I plan to widen my scope, rather than my time-to-post. I’m aiming for a post every two weeks, minimum, but it’ll be on whatever is currently in my head. Expect tech, gaming, cooking, politics, and a host of other random musings. I’ll do my best to use categories correctly so you can get the feeds for the stuff you like ;)

Thanks for sticking with me - or welcome, if you’re new to the blog. I hope there’s material here for all comers, so let me know what you enjoy in the comments of each post.

Tracks/Openshift Update

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Lukáš Zapletal has just pointed out to me that on Openshift, you can use environment variables to access the Postgresql username, password, and so on. The main blog post has just been updated to reflect the much easier setup instructions. Thanks Lukáš!

Building a Todo System With Tracks, Openshift, Postgresql, and Mailgun

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Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on my own personal take on Getting Things Done. When I started working from home a little over a year ago, I knew I needed to be productive in the absence of people looking over my shoulder. I also wanted to be better at dealing with the stuff I personally wanted to achieve.

It’s taken a year of tweaking, but I’m going to share with you the system I’ve built, and as you’d expect from me, it’s all open. Let’s get started.

When Is a Desk Not a Desk?

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Sounds like the start of a really bad joke, doesn’t it? Fortunately, this is not a post full of bad puns (well, any more than normal) but about the changes I’ve made to my home office this last week or two.