Long Distance Moving – Round 2

Last year when we moved from Austin, Texas to Columbus, Ohio I wrote a blog on just how broken long distance moving is in the United States currently. See: Broken Economics of Long Distance Moving

Well, as it turns out, we only ended up staying a year and are now back in Austin. On the return trip, we learned a few things. That is, we had a chance to take action on some of the lessons learned from the first move and make some headway on the problem.

Minimalist Furniture

When we arrived in Ohio we knew already that my new job was somewhat unstable. That is, it seemed to have some potential to grow into a really interesting job, but the initial assignment was risky and was only a contract position. As such, we made the sensible decision to avoid investing in any heavy traditional furniture – with the thought that we would invest more once the job stabilized.

We had a second floor apartment with no elevator and my rule was: “only things that I can carry up the stairs safely by myself” This restriction was a combination of weight and size/awkwardness. For example, when I went to Best Buy to get a television, I went down the row of boxes, pulled them out, and picked them up until I was comfortable that I would be able to carry the box up the stairs. We ended up with a 32″ Samsung LCD TV – not something to get the buddies around to watch the Super Bowl, but adequate for our purposes.

Sofas and beds were more difficult. For a sofa, we found a futon sofa-bed at Walmart for about $135. The staff helped us load the big box into the back of Tomoko’s Honda Fit. When we got back to the apartment, I carefully cut the box open while it was still in the car, and carried the two halves up the stairs one-at-a-time.

We started with a queen size inflatable bed from Walmart. It was sort of OK – a bit hard while sleeping, but spongy when you needed to sit on it to put on your socks. It gave out about 6 months in. We replaced it with two of the same Walmart futon sofa-bed units. Snapped down into the flat position and placed next to each other, these were just the size of a king size mattress and we used a set of king size sheets on them. They were a bit hard, but we managed to sleep on them without incident for another six months.

picture shows a beat-up, but sturdy blue chair of the type used by school districts

Blue Chair from New Uses


Tables were all folding card tables of various shapes from Walmart. One problem was that the Walmart folding chairs had a very poor design for the hinge. Shift slightly in your seat and the chair would collapse…

…which took us to Tomoko’s favorite place: New Uses in Dublin, Ohio. Here we found a pair of incredibly ugly blue steel chairs that had apparently survived thirty years or so in some school district’s multipurpose auditorium. After scraping the dried chewing gum off of the bottoms, these served us well.

Getting Rid of the Furniture

Once it was clear that we were relocating back to Austin, Tomoko went into high-gear working the Columbus-area Japanese community on Facebook to find homes for all of the furniture we had acquired. She managed to get rid of absolutely everything except the two ugly blue chairs. On the last day, as we moved out, we placed these in the area of the apartment garbage compacter. They were gone within an hour.

Cars Continue to be a Problem

Our intent was to ship the cars and fly back to Austin. However, again it was problematic. We tried uShip but the results were not satisfactory. The uShip concept sounds really appealing – wonderful, high-tech, Austin internet company coordinates the shipping universe making it all painless. Unfortunately, the idea is better than the reality. The problem is that while uShip provides a glitzy internet front end, the underlying shippers are at the low end of our society’s skills/status ladder. Their communication skills are awful. Eventually we simply gave up and decided to drive our two cars back to Austin – not very fun, and not very cheap either, but a more predictable/reliable alternative than shipping them.

Books by Media Mail

OK, so we were driving the cars, but we have rather small cars. We still needed to reduce the bulk as much as possible. Here is where we started scoring some bulls eyes. Books? We packed six 12″ square cardboard boxes full of books and took them to the Post Office. As long as you put nothing at all except books in the boxes, the rate is really cheap. Not only that, these days the Post Office even provides tracking numbers for media mail. Total cost for shipping our books: $67.50

If you want to try this yourself:

  1. Use small boxes. Books are really heavy. You really don’t want boxes larger than around 12″x12″x12″ That size box will weigh 18-20 pounds when you fill it with books.
  2. Pay for strong boxes. We used the cheap normal shipping boxes from Walmart. None of them made it without tearing. We didn’t lose any books, but we could have. If I do this again, I will look for sturdier, more expensive boxes.

Fedex Ground

picture shows Tomoko and 8 boxes

Sending 8 Boxes from the Dublin, Ohio Fedex Store


Everything else – one television, one computer monitor, and six boxes of other stuff – we sent by Fedex Ground. Fedex has the option of shipping directly to a Fedex store rather than your home. Fedex will hold the items at the store for 5 business days. We chose this option. You do have to look carefully, however, to make sure that the “Fedex Location” you are choosing is actually a full-blown Fedex Office location and not just a drop box or a kiosk in a grocery store.

picture shows Fedex employee handing us a box

Picking up the 8th Box in Austin, Texas


Fedex Ground was a great deal. Total cost for 8 boxes was $327. One thing in our experience did catch us by surprise: we expected Fedex Ground to be slow, but it wasn’t slow at all. Our stuff was in Austin with 36 hours. That was a little bit of a surprise because we had planned our own drive for four days. The approach still ended up working fine. We picked up our boxes in Austin the evening of the 4th business day.

Summary

There are still two intractable problems:

  1. Shipping cars is a mess.
  2. Shipping heavy furniture is a mess.

Other than these two problems, however, the Post Office and Fedex are pound-for-pound very competitive with any long distance moving service and they both offer superior service, tracking, reliability, and accountability. As it was, we spent less than $400 on the combination of the two. In retrospect, we probably could have shipped every bit of the rest of everything we took with us in the cars for another $500-$600.

Movie Review – Ghost in the Shell


Had a great time watching Ghost in the Shell last night.

As the movie begins, a female patient is being wheeled into surgery. Her brain is harvested and placed in the metal cranium of a robot that then undergoes a series of immersions to build up the humanoid skin and tissue. The new cyborg (Scarlett Johansson) coughing and struggling to breath as she is gently coaxed by her creator Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) to relax and begin breathing.

A year later, the new cyborg goes by the name “Major” and is a key member of an elite and secretive anti-terrorist squad. From there the action-packed plot thickens as things are not what they seem…

This movie was great fun! Very interesting story. Great acting by both American and Japanese actors. This version is a remake of a classic Japanese animation movie of the same name. Of course, Japan, the Japanese people, the Japanese language, and the Japanese culture are a huge part of my personal life which may give this film a resonance for me that will not be felt by other viewers. Interestingly, it is shot heavily in Hong Kong rather than Japan – another locale that is intertwined all throughout my personal life. Needless to say, I loved it!

More generally, however, the movie and Scarlett Johansson’s outstanding performance bear a striking resemblance to her previous performance in the unrelated Lucy

For some reason, Scarlett Johansson keeps showing up in these magnificent Asia-themed science fiction action thrillers – and I love every one.

On a deeper note, Ghost in the Shell also shares a thought-provoking and creepy theme about the theft of body and the mind struggling to reassert itself with the more recent and likewise unrelated Get Out

Actually, all three of these are great entertainment. Creepy, interesting, extremely well written, wonderful acting. Great entertainment all around!

Dave’s Streamlined Martini Procedure

In the last five years, I have developed a steady stream of visitors who come to look at my Dave’s Dirty Martini Procedure post. However, since developing that procedure, my technique has evolved on two fronts:

  1. Shaking vs Stirring – There is a reason that James Bond famously says “Shaken, Not Stirred”. Up until the 1960s, Martinis were stirred, not shaken. The reasoning was that shaking would “bruise” the gin and also that stirring lent a beguiling jewel-like clarity to the cocktail.
  2. Utensil Clean-Up – My original approach left an annoying mess to cleanup. Cocktail shakers are not very dishwasher-friendly. The can can go in the washer as a sort of glass. Depending on the model, however, there may not be a secure place to place the strainer and the lid almost never has a natural home in the dishwasher.

Over time, I have streamlined my procedure to minimize the cleanup mess and switch from shaking to stirring.

Utensils

photo shows a mixing glass, a small disk with two toothpicks, and a martini glass

Utensils

  • Spoon – We are going to get a lot of mileage out of the spoon.
  • Small Dish – The dish is actually optional. However, I like to prepare the olives and put them on a dish of some sort. You can use the lid of the olive jar, but I found that I prefer to put away all the ingredients before doing the final assembly of the martini so I can immediately pick it up and enjoy it while it is cold, without leaving behind a mess that needs to be cleaned up later.
  • Toothpicks – I use ordinary wooden toothpicks from the supermarket. You can find all sorts of fancy reusable toothpicks at your local high-end liquor store, but such fancy toothpicks need to be cleaned and are not dishwasher-friendly. I stick with the old-fashioned wooden toothpicks and simply discard them after I am done drinking my martini.
  • Glass for Mixing – A pint glass from your local pub is the ideal size and shape. However, it is handy to have something with some sort of pattern on the mixing glass so that you can dispense with the measuring shot glass. More on that in a minute.
  • Martini Glass – Of course, you will need a martini glass. Recently we moved to Ohio in a bit of a hurry for a job and brought almost nothing with us. I was irritated to find that local department stores did not have ordinary, straight-up martini glasses. However, I found two of these nice, simple glasses at the local Goodwill store.

Ingredients

I have clear favorites for each of the three ingredients. However, I also like variety. As such, I continue to sample with different alternative products.

Photo shows a bottle of vermouth, a bottle of gin, and a jar of olives

Ingredients

  • Gin – My clear favorite is Bombay Sapphire, followed by Tanqueray. However, recently I enjoyed a bottle of Central Ohio craft gin from Watershed Distillery. Initially I was surprised by the rather sweet flavor. Ohioans have a powerful sweet tooth. In fact, it little too sweet for me. However, adding a dash of bitters balanced it out and delivered an interesting, complex flavor.
  • Dry Vermouth – My favorite continues to be Noilly Pratt. I have not yet encountered a nice, U.S. produced vermouth. I purchased a bottle of cheap, U.S. Vermouth and basically had to pour it out. I have heard that there is a budding craft vermouth industry somewhere, but I have not noticed anything interesting on the liquor store shelves in Ohio yet. Note: for beginners it is important to note that you want dry vermouth, not sweet vermouth. Dry and sweet are not the same, and a martini inadvertently made with sweet vermouth will be undrinkable.
  • Olives – Usually I am pleased by the olives in the martinis at most fancy hotel bars. However, at such bars, the bartenders are usually fishing the olives out of a gallon-sized jar. Such giant jars of olives are impractical for home consumption. I have found it to be difficult to get consistently high-quality olives in smaller jars. The one exception is the Divina brand. These are usually available at Whole Foods. Occasionally I will try olives stuffed with blue cheese or feta cheese, but I mostly stick to the sweet pepper stuffed olives.

One-Time Preparation

There is one step that you will only need to do a single time that will save you a lot of fumbling in the future. Take the martini glass and fill it to a comfortable level. For me this level is about 5mm below the rim. Pour the water from the martini glass into the mixing glass. Make a note of the “martini glass full” level on the mixing glass. In my case, there is a convenient pattern of rings around the base of the glass that marks the perfect level.

Streamlined Martini Procedure

1. Place the martini glass in your freezer. The glass only needs to be in a normal household freezer for 5-10 minutes to cool down adequately.

Photo of spoon in jar containing green olives

Use the spoon to fish olives from the jar

2. Use the spoon to fish olives from the jar and skewer them on the toothpicks. I prefer larger queen olives and usually prepare two toothpicks with two olives on each toothpick. (I like olives!) Place prepared olives on the plate.

Photo shows a spoonful of the brine from the olive jar

Add one spoonful of olive brine to mixing glass

3. Scoop one spoonful of the brine from the olive jar and pour it into the mixing glass.

Photo shows a spoonful of vermouth being poured into the glass

Add one spoonful of vermouth to the mixing glass

4. Add one spoonful of vermouth to the mixing glass.

Photo shows glass filled to level of rings

Fill glass with gin to previously measured mark

5. Fill glass with gin to previously measured the mark. In my case, that means pouring gin until the level of gin is just above the rings molded into the glass.

6. Put away the vermouth, gin, and jar of olives.

Photo shows a spoon stirring ice cubes in the mixing glass

Add ice and stir

7. Remove chilled martini glass from the freezer.

8. Place prepared olives into chilled martini glass.

9. Place three or four ice cubes into mixing glass.

10. Stir with spoon for about twenty seconds.

Photo shows author using a spoon to hold back the ice cubes while pouring the stirred martini into the martini glass.

Pour stirred martini into glass

11. Pour stirred martini into martini glass, using spoon to hold back the ice cubes.

12. Quickly drop the mixing glass, the spoon, and the small plate into the dishwasher.

Photo shows completed martini in chilled glass with two skewers of olives

Finished Martini

13. Enjoy your martini with no further mess to clean up!

The Broken Economics of Long Distance Moving

Picture of packed boxes in the center of an apartment

Jilted by the Long-Distance Mover

At the end of April, I had a chance to take a leadership role with a state-of-the-art automotive infotainment software development project in the Columbus, Ohio area. I jumped at the chance. As soon as the paperwork was confirmed, Tomoko and I stuffed my Chevy Volt with some pots, pans, blankets, and bare basics for an apartment and took off. We drove North to Dallas and then headed Northeast through the wilderness to the Ohio border. Along the way, we encountered some of the most stupendously filthy restrooms on the planet – and I make that comment coming from a wealth of experience of appallingly primitive restrooms in desolate places.

The Nightmare

While we thoroughly enjoyed that delightful adventure, we decided that once in a lifetime was quite sufficient. Tomoko would fly back to Austin and spend about two months planning to move the ship the other car and the rest of our possessions from Austin to our new apartment in Dublin, Ohio. And so she did. Tomoko researched meticulously, and lined everything up around the expiration of our apartment lease on the 29th of June.

Not that it was easy. Her first calls to the major moving companies (Allied, United, Mayflower, et al) were met with the information that these exalted organizations could not be bothered to do businesses with lowly cockroaches like us. If you were not moving a small palace of at least 30,000 square feet of floor space, they did not want to waste time talking with you.

Having been rebuffed by the majors, she continued to dig and identified an outfit called Fine Line Relocation out of Dallas, that as of May 20th seemed to have at least a few happy customers…as well as a few furious and dissatisfied customers. Fine Line quoted us a flat fee of $1400 for the 1244 mile move and collected a $140 deposit with a scheduled pickup date of 6/28/2016 – the day before our scheduled final walkthrough of our apartment. Tomoko began discarding, organizing, and packing. On 6/26/2016 I flew back to Austin to help. We spent all of 6/27/2016 furiously packing…until around 5PM. At 5PM of the afternoon before the scheduled move, Fine Line called: “By the way, we aren’t coming.” After 15 minutes or so of Tomoko trying politely to get some sort of sensible plan out of the Fine Line dispatcher, I got on the phone. I was less polite. The dispatcher did not like that. She transferred us to her supervisor who tried to explain to us that it was our fault. We should simply understand that the trucking industry is just like that. Stuff happens. A heated discussion ensued with him telling me that he was refunding our $140 deposit immediately (which he did) and had no interest in doing business with idiots like us.

Tomoko standing with two movers in front of our storage unit

Tomoko with Corey Washington and Roosevelt of Two Men and a Truck

Very nice. We were stuck without a mover, with a ticking clock, during the craziest, busiest time of year. We tried all sorts of alternatives. Pods and Upack were booked solid until the end of July. Fortunately, we still had Junk Busters scheduled. The local North Austin franchise of Two Men and a Truck scrambled to get us a crew for a local move on 6/29/2016. The apartment agreed to a one-day delay. We shifted strategy. We had Junk Busters haul away almost all of our heavy furniture items. We kept only our dining table and mattress. The extremely effective crew from Two Men and a Truck moved the remaining stuff and help us repack our existing storage unit to get it all stuffed in.

Honda Fit in the middle of Jollyville Rd behind a tractor trailer

Honda Fit Being Loaded

That got us out of our apartment. The remaining problem was getting our car shipped to Ohio. Tomoko had carefully made a reservation with a company called Ship a Car Direct It all looked very clear and official and was arranged for 6/30/2016. On 6/28/2016, having heard nothing further from Ship a Car Direct she called them. They had no idea who was coming or when but told her “not to worry”. Naturally, that information made her worry more. The next day, the information improved somewhat. We were given the name of a company in Ohio that had a truck driving around Texas picking up cars. The truck finally showed up on 7/1/2016 (one day late). The driver was very friendly and polite. However, we had to get a cashiers check for the shipping fee. No credit cards or personal checks accepted.

The Economics

After the Honda Fit was loaded, I received a follow-up call from Two Men and a Truck. I gave their guys a good review and asked about long distance moving. That question led to me being transferred to their local long-distance moving guy who spent quite a bit of time with me explaining the ins and outs of the industry. It goes something like this:

  1. They definitely do provide long distance moving. They will have a crew come pack your belongings, and drive them across the country for you. The same crew will unpack at the destination – which does wonders for accountability, effectiveness, etc… That same crew will then drive the truck back. There are some variations, but this is the basic deluxe plan.
  2. In order to understand the price, we have to understand that there are two seasons: “Summer” and “Not Summer”.
  3. During the Summer season, the company can keep their trucks 100% busy with local moves. During this season, they book each truck for $150/hour perhaps 8 hours per day.
  4. Having a truck drive long distance to deliver a customer’s shipment to a distant state represents an opportunity loss compared to the business that the truck could have been doing in local moves during the trip.
  5. For a 1244 mile move, they would expect:
    • 1 day to pack
    • 2 days to drive
    • 1 day to unpack
    • 2 days to drive the truck back
  6. That makes 6 days.
  7. The opportunity cost of having the truck unavailable for local moves for 6 days is cost = 6 * 8 * 150 = $7200
  8. Add to that the wear-and-tear and gasoline costs of about $1/mile. The total distance is 1244 * 2 = 2488 miles. On the other hand, the truck would have driven a little locally…so add $2400 for the mileage cost for the truck.
  9. Round it out with 5 days of hotel and meal costs for the crew
  10. and you are at $10k

Indeed, this number was in the ballpark quoted by all more serious movers that we contacted, with some wanting as much as $15k. If you move during “Not Summer” the price comes down a little because the opportunity cost is lower. If you are lucky enough that the mover can find another customer to share the truck, and it is during “Not Summer” you might get down into the range of $5k.

So what was going on with Fine Line‘s $1400 price quote? Basically, they are opportunistically hoping to find a truck driving back empty in the correct general direction. Apparently, the industry rule of thumb is that the driver/owner will be happy to have the $1/mile running cost of the truck. Naturally, these empty trucks are very hard to schedule accurately. Basically, the morning before the move, Fine Line sends someone out to stand next to the nearest freeway exit with a cardboard sign reading “LOOKING FOR EMPTY TRUCK HEADED TOWARD OHIO”. As we discovered, this process is really unpredictable. Also, there is no guarantee that the (randomly selected) truck that picks your stuff up will be the same truck that delivers it. Your stuff may get trans-loaded multiple times. It may spend several weeks sitting in someone’s warehouse, next to the bales of cannabis waiting for the next leg transportation.

Apparently, there are also a lot of games with the estimates. One common trick seems to be the seemingly convenient over-the-phone estimate, during which they low ball the weight estimate. Once the truckers pick up your stuff, they take it somewhere and weigh it and discover – Surprise! – your stuff is three times heavier than they had guessed. At that point, they hold your stuff for ransom and triple the price.

What to Do?

At these prices, shipping heavy furniture makes no economic sense at all. Unless you are fabulously wealthy and have exotic antiques, you can definitely buy an entirely new set of furniture for less than it will cost to ship an existing set. The long-distance guy at Two Men and a Truck was laughing a little telling me about customers who wanted him to ship furniture **TO** North Carolina. North Carolina is the furniture manufacturing center of the universe. Shipping heavy furniture across the country into the heart of furniture manufacturing is really silly.

One of the other interesting things we did is stop at the local Fedex Office store and ask about ground shipping rates. A 20lb box from Austin to Dublin, OH would be about $50, depending on shape and a few other things. In other words, the Fedex Ground rate on that route would be roughly $2.50/pound. On the other hand, the “Not Summer” quote we discussed above was about $7000 for about 2000 lbs of stuff – also in the vicinity of $2.50/pound. Hmmm….

The other thing we have noticed is that there seems to be almost no market for used furniture. In theory, one can advertise furniture on Craigslist. In practice, we have had mixed success getting rid of stuff this way, even when we gave it away free. The problem is worse if you are in a second floor apartment. Almost no one on Craigslist will come get heavy furniture from a second floor apartment. Buying furniture is really easy. Getting rid of it is really difficult.

What about renting? 30 years ago when I was single, I rented furniture for an apartment from CORT Furniture Rental for an apartment for a year. It was great. Painless to acquire. Painless to dispose of. CORT is still around. From my preliminary check, I can minimally equip our apartment with the key heavy furniture pieces from CORT for around $200-$300 per month. This is the direction I am headed in currently.

The really problem here is our current wobbly-as-jello economy in which there seems to be no such thing as a “permanent” job. We are now thinking carefully about how to play this game in which the constant turbulence in the economy forces us to move every year. It looks something like this:

  1. Ruthlessly eliminate the last vestiges of paper-based anything. We just closed our safe deposit box. We will be moving our wills to a cloud-based specialty service soon.
  2. Rent any piece of furniture heavier than 20 lbs. The rental service delivers and installs it. When it is time to move to the next spot, the rental service comes and takes it away.
  3. Buy smaller furniture pieces locally, as cheaply as possible. Walmart has amazing stuff in this category. I just purchased two very nice LED desk lamps for $7 each at Walmart.
  4. Rent a storage locker somewhere and never move it. This becomes your “home”. Ship precious memory stuff to that locker and keep it there. At the start of each temporary assignment, select a few small sentimental items from the museum (your storage locker) and ship them UPS or Fedex to the new apartment to enjoy and give a little warmth to the environment.
  5. Move things like clothing around in 20lb boxes. Ship them by UPS, Fedex, or USPS. The cost is about the same as the moving company would charge and you will have full electronic tracking and better control of delivery.
  6. Ship cars, but be prepared to have a several day window in which they get picked up. Rent cars while permanent cars are being transported.
  7. Make judicious use of the two luggage pieces that most airlines will allow for a reasonable baggage fee.

Overall, the challenge here is to simply have a lot less stuff. That is, we have to get used to having a lot less stuff until the miracle occurs in which we end up with the $4m or so currently needed to be basically financially independent in the United States. Until that time, we have to be on a very agile footing and ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Bring Your Own Izakaya – Texas Saké Co

Yuki Tacata standing next to Tomoko behind the counter

Yuki Tacata with Tomoko Hetherington at Texas Saké Co

Friday night we had a wonderful time at Texas Saké Co. This was the closest thing I remember having in the United States to the authentic Japanese Izakaya experience.

It has been about a year since Adam Blumenshein and Tim Klatt relaunched Texas Saké Co with Jeff Bell as the toji (head brewer). Since that time, Jeff has completely revamped the Saké production approach and come up with a new distinctive label for their bottles. Both are great improvements!

Recently Yuki Tacata has joined Jeff as an employee (perhaps *THE* employee?) helping all around with the production and marketing of the product. Yuki is currently operating their tasting room Friday and Saturday evenings from 5:30PM. She doesn’t have much in the way of food other than a few pretzels, but guests are welcome to bring their own. The Saké itself is delicious and very reasonably priced. Last Friday she was serving a Junmai (clear) as well as a Nigori (unfiltered) as well as a special raw Saké – all of which were wonderful.

Some Assembly Required

Of course, you can simply go and enjoy the Saké in the authentic, cozy, Izakaya atmosphere. However, I DO like to have a little bit to eat while imbibing, so some preparation was in order.

Whole Foods

Bag of Japanese edamame crisps by Calbee

Calbee Snapea Crisps

First stop was Whole Foods.

Of course, the very quintessential snack for drinking in Japan is Edamame – steamed and salted soy been pods. These are slightly cumbersome to prepare and transport. Fortunately, Whole Foods sells Snapea Crisps by Calbee – a Japanese snack manufacturer. These are essentially edamame in a crispy snack format. Perfect!

Package of Beef Jerky with Sesame Ginger flavor

Sesame Ginger Beef Jerky

The next classic Japanese drinking food is Surume or salted, dried, shredded squid. Surume is not so easy to come by and also happens to be one of the few Japanese foods I have never quite warmed up to. For me surume is vaguely reminiscent of chewing on shreds of used truck tires which have an overpowering fishy flavor. At Whole Foods, I was able to find a perfect substitute: Sesame Ginger Beef Jerky. Chewy. Salty. With a pleasantly Asian-Fusion flavor.

Asahi Imports

White car parked in front of Asahi Imports

Asahi Imports has Hand-Made Onigiri

Next stop: Asahi Imports …. which has wonderful handmade Onigiri – triangular Japanese rice balls. …which were unfortunately, all sold out. <:-( Oh, no.

D K Sushi & Seoul Asian Food Market

Car in front of D K Sushi

DK Sushi is not a Market Anymore

Idea! We will stop by D K Sushi & Seoul Asian Food Market and pick something up! We used to visit this market all the time when our kids were first born. Unfortunately, the market part seems to have disappeared and the current establishment seems to be a sushi-themed karaoke lounge – not what we were looking for.

Tactical Retreat – KFC

At this point we cut our loses and went through the drive-thru lane of a nearby KFC. Not fabulous, but the chicken fingers sort of worked. Next time, we will have to work a little harder at preparing the onigiri at home.

Ready to Drink

Tomoko Hetherington in front of Texas Saké

Arriving at Texas Saké Company

Fortunately, the minor SNAFU with onigiri that turned into KFC chicken fingers did not impact the rest of the evening at all. The tasting room is in the rear of the building. When we arrived, one other couple was there and another regular dropped by. It was very sociable.

two glasses of sake with a plate of snacks

Calbee Pea Snacks and Sesame Ginger Jerky

Picture shows Yuki taking bottles of sake from the refrigerator

Yuki Tacata Serving Sake

All in all it was a delightful evening! We will definitely be back, albeit with home-made onigiri for the occasion.

Biscuits for Thanksgiving

In years past, we were part of a large communal Thanksgiving celebration that rotated between the houses of several families each year. For these events, I always enjoyed baking one or even two fruit pies. However, time has progressed. Children have grown up and moved away. Careers have changed. We moved from a large house to a cozy apartment. This year’s Thanksgiving was just three people.

For three people, I decided to do something a little simpler: biscuits.

That is, I have been tinkering with baking powder biscuits for more than ten years. However, I had not made any biscuits since 2009. Time to dig the recipe spreadsheet out of the archive and try again. Here is this year’s version:

Ingredients

  • All purpose flour – 3 cups (300g)
  • Quick cooking oats – 3/4 cup (75g)
  • Baking powder – 3 tablespoons (40g)
  • Baking soda – 1/2 teaspoon (3g)
  • Sugar – 3/4 teaspoon (4g)
  • Salt – 3/4 teaspoon (4g)
  • Unsalted butter – 3/8 cup (75g)
  • Crisco vegetable shortening – 3/8 cup (75g)
  • Low fat buttermilk – 1 cup (225ml)
  • Additional cold water – as needed, about 1/4 to 3/4 cup (50-150ml)

Utensils

  • Cookie sheet – a professional aluminum “half sheet” available from your nearest restaurant supply store works much better than a consumer-grade tin sheet.
  • Mixing bowl – that you can put in the freezer
  • Medium plastic bowl or similar for weighing on the scale
  • Cutting board – that you can put in the freezer
  • Flour sifter
  • Postal scale – I have a nice Japanese one that reads out in grams, much more accurate than U.S. scales that read only in ounces
  • Measuring cups
  • Measuring spoons
  • Large wooden or plastic spoon for mixing
  • Biscuit cutter 2.5 inch (6cm)
  • Plastic wrap
  • Timer
  • Oven mits
  • Rack for cooling
  • Spatula to move biscuits from hot cookie sheet to rack

Key Points

  1. Use a postal scale to weigh the flour, oats, butter, shortening. The ratio is tricky and using a volume measure for flour is very unreliable. The volume of the flour can vary widely depending on the humidity, whether it has been sifted, and so on.
  2. It is hard to get the amount of liquid just right. How much liquid the dough needs will also vary from day-to-day depending on humidity, temperature, the phase of the moon, and so on.
  3. The goal is similar to that of a pie-crust. We want to make little balls of shortening that are covered in flour and do NOT dissolve into a wet mush. When we put the biscuits in the oven, these should fluff into “flakes” or at least that is the idea.
  4. One method of keeping the little shortening balls intact is to get them very cold just before the final prep of the dough. It also helps to have the working surface really cold. Finally, you want to handle the dough very quickly and briefly. Otherwise, your hands will warm it up, melting these little balls.
  5. For those not used to weighing things on a postal scale, put the plastic bowl on the scale before you turn it on. That way, the scale will calibrate itself to “0” including the weight of the plastic bowl. This technique makes it very easy to measure ingredients and then use the plastic bowl to dump them into the mixing bowl.

Preparation

Starting two hours before meal time:

1 – Weigh flour into sifter.

2 – Measure baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar into sifter.

3 – Sift together.

4 – Mix the oats into the bowl and stir together.

5 – Put some of the mix back into the plastic bowl, put it back onto the scale, turn the scale off and on again to calibrate.

Picture shows bowl on postal scale with some flour mix and vegetable shortening

Weigh Crisco into Some of the Flour

6 – Scoop the vegetable shortening into this mix using a spoon until you have measured 75 grams.

7 – Dump the mix and vegetable shortening into the bowl.

8 – Calibrate the scale again.

9 – Trim one stick of unsalted butter until it weighs 75 grams.

Shows intact and unwrapped stick of butter sitting in flour mix in bowl

Put Butter and Crisco into Flour Mix and Allow to Soften

10 – Unwrap and drop the stick of butter into the bowl with the vegetable shortening and dry ingredients.

11 – Allow the mix to sit on the counter for about 30 minutes until the butter is fully softened.

Continuing 90 minutes before meal time:

Shows crumbly flour mixture

After Cutting in Shortening, Mix Will Look Like This

12 – Use a knife to cut shortening up into smaller chunks. Then use fork to press these against the sides of the bowl, turning and repeating until the mixture has the texture of cornmeal.

13 – Cover with plastic wrap.

shows bowl and cutting board in freezer

Bowl and Cutting Board Into Freezer

14 – Place cutting board and bowl into freezer.

15 – Turn on oven to “bake” and 450°F (230°C) and allow to preheat.

16 – Allow cutting board and mix to chill for 45 to 60 minutes.

17 – Remove bowl from freezer.

18 – Add buttermilk, 1/3 of a cup at a time. Stir lightly to spread moisture. Do not over-mix.

Shows that dough is still too dry to come together

Not Moist Enough After Adding One Cup of Buttermilk

shows dough now sticky enough to form a ball

Moist Enough After Adding a Total of 1/2 Cup of Additional Water

19 – Assess dough. Is there enough moisture that this dough will stick together? You don’t want a cake batter. You want a level of stickiness that just barely picks up the flour mix.

20 – If necessary, carefully add more cold water, 1/4 cup at a time until the dough is just sticky enough.

shows a ball in the bowl

Form a Ball in the Bowl

21 – Form a ball of dough in the bowl. Don’t over-work it. Just squeeze and pat it together until a ball forms.

Shows crumbly dough patted into a rough square on cutting board

Pat Dough Flat

22 – Remove cutting board from freezer. Sprinkle lightly with flour. Pat dough ball into a square about an inch (2.5cm) thick.

23 – Lightly oil the cooking sheet.

24 – Cut biscuits with the biscuit cutter, twisting slightly to separate each one.

shows 13 biscuits touching each other on cookie sheet

Place Biscuits Touching on Cookie Sheet

25 – Place biscuits touching each other on the cookie sheet. Placing them this way will encourage them to expand upward rather than outward.

26 – Press the scraps of dough together, pat back to a smaller square and continue cutting. Don’t worry if there are small gaps in the dough. These actually make the biscuits more interesting.

27 – Take the last tiny scraps of dough and push them into the biscuit cutter to form one last biscuit.

28 – Using your thumb, press a small dimple into the center of each biscuit. This dimple will prevent the biscuit from crowning (forming a domed top).

Finished Biscuits After 15 Minutes in Oven

Finished Biscuits After 15 Minutes in Oven

29 – Place cookie sheet in oven.

30 – Set timer for 15 minutes.

31 – Bake until golden brown on the top. Remove from oven.

32 – Use spatula to transfer biscuits to rack for cooling.

Finished Biscuit with Butter and Jam

Finished Biscuit with Butter and Jam

Critique

The biscuits look and smell great. However, for my taste they are a little dry. I would like them to be a little softer and more like the unspeakably artificial biscuits that you get in a little cardboard tube at the grocery store. I realize that those instant biscuits contain all kinds of frightening chemical ingredients…but I like them. As a next step, I may cut the cooking time slightly. I may also experiment with adding an egg to the dough.

Sources

  • http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/tech/recipes/bread/biscuits-1/Chap1.html
  • Alton Brown “Good Eats” seen on 27 May 2004
  • GQ Magazine August 2004 issue page 66 on 10/9/2005

Asatte Press Book on Sale at Kinokuniya

Asatte Press Book on Sale at Kinokunia Books in San Francisco

Asatte Press Book on Sale at Kinokunia Books in San Francisco

Recently we have had a major win for Asatte Press. This photo shows our new book on sale at Kinokuniya Books in San Francisco. We are thrilled! For the Japanese speaking world, Kinokuniya Books is the equivalent of Barnes and Noble. Even better, they found two other books with very similar topics and similar covers to put ours next to. From a book marketing point of view, it doesn’t get any better than this!

BURUSHITTO! Bullshit! - Front Cover

BURUSHITTO! Bullshit! – Front Cover

The title of the book is “ブルシット! Bullshit!” and is the first book by Tomoko Hetherington. The book covers the rich variety of less-than-polite expressions related to the word “shit” that Tomoko learned from her three bilingual children. The bull on the front of the book is saying something to the effect of: “Totally wrong. This here is HORSEshit.”

BURUSHITTO! Bullshit! - Rear Cover

BURUSHITTO! Bullshit! – Rear Cover

On the rear of the book, we can see the same bull (from the other end) saying: “Nope. No bovine manure here.”

In order to avoid confusing readers of our technical and engineering books, we created a separate imprint “Texas Hirame” (which happens to be Tomoko’s blogging pen name) and are marketing the book under that alias. This kind of thing is done all of the time. Most major publishing companies have dozens of different imprints targeted at specific markets.

Better Get Your Boots On, The Shit is Getting Deep

Better Get Your Boots On, The Shit is Getting Deep

The cover artwork was done by Tomoko herself as were the numerous illustrations in the book. Here we see a helpful illustration for the expression: “Better get your boots on. The shit is getting deep.”

This is Horseshit

This is Horseshit

Shit from several different major animals (bull, horse, chicken, bat, ape) is introduced and the nuances of each type of shit are discussed in some detail.

Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle

Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle

Other expressions that describe various types of difficult situations are clarified as well.

The book is offered in print from Amazon.com. It is also available in Kindle and iBooks versions on Amazon.com and iTunes respectively.

The iBooks version also includes a number of convenient embedded audio segments. For example:

Provides Japanese speakers with a convenient audio example that they can practice with and emulate until they can smoothly make sarcastic remarks about dim colleagues discovering the obvious.

Links to all of the major stores are available here: TexasHirame.com

Chevy Volt Key Fob Battery Replacement

So, recently my 2014 Chevy Volt has begun honking at me at random times. Since this is a relatively new phenomenon, my guess is that the key fob battery is getting low. That is, as the radio gets weaker, the car may be having difficulty deciding whether I am inside or outside of the car. In any case, I use my key fob actively (remotely locking and unlocking) almost every day and it is reasonable to expect that the battery would need replacing after a year and a half.

The owner’s manual does provide instructions on how to replace this battery, but they are brief. The owner’s manual does not provide any diagrams and it is not visually obvious looking at the key fob where the battery compartment is. So… I have posted a few photos here in case anyone else is looking for guidance.

picture of a pack of two batteries

Replacement battery is CR 2032

The battery is a CR 2032, available in a pack of two at Walgreens for $7-8. Going forward, I will put this on my annual calendar and replace batteries in both key fobs once per year.

picture shows key fob with blade extended

First, extend the key blade

First, extend the key blade.

picture shows key fob with cover removed.

Flip key fob over and pop off lower half of case

Flip the key fob over so the buttons are facing down. You can pop the lower half of the rear of the case off by pressing up on one side. Once the case is open, remove the old battery and replace it. The manual cautions that you should be careful not to touch the internal circuits with your finger as static electricity from your body could damage the electronics.

Note that some brands of batteries have a paper sticker on one side. If your new battery comes with such a sticker, be sure to remove the sticker before inserting the battery into the key fob.

Once the battery has been replaced, carefully put the cover back on and squeeze it gently with your fingers to snap it back into the closed position.

Valentine’s Day

vase of pink roses with some blue garnish

Pink Roses

Our son Tye has been working part time as a waiter at a restaurant here in Austin for the last few years while he finishes his computer science degree. That restaurant asked Tye to work on Saturday which was Valentine’s Day. We thought “Great! We’ll come in for dinner!” but he warned us off, explaining that the restaurant would be packed, food preparation would be necessarily slow, and that everyone would be pretty stressed.

Given Tye’s input, we decided to do a nice meal at home instead. The start for the day was some nice pink roses from a local grocery store – much cheaper than a formal bouquet from a florist and very pleasant in a laid-back sort of way.

Dinner – Bacon-Wrapped Fillet Steaks

picture shows a dining table, two plates, two glasses of champagne, a lit candle.

Dinner, Bacon-Wrapped Fillet

Tomoko was in charge of dinner, which was as shown:

  1. Petite bacon-wrapped fillet steaks on a bed of fresh greens
  2. Grilled portabello mushrooms in a sort of pureed pepper bisque
  3. A bottle of New Zealand champagne that we had received as a gift

As usual, we had a small candle on the table for atmosphere.

Start with a Toast

Picture shows Tomoko holding two glasses of Champagne

Toasting with New Zealand Champagne

Of course, drinking Champagne calls for a toast.
Strictly speaking, this beverage should be called “New Zealand Champagne-style Sparkling Wine” or something awkward like that. The Europeans are very touchy about their geographical trademarks.
That having been said, I liked this one better than the real French champagne which I generally find too sour for my taste. Likewise, I don’t like the Italian products either because they tend to be too sweet. The German products produced in the Rhine region around and in Mainz are wonderful – sparkling wine made with Riesling grapes. Unfortunately, the production quantities are quite small and they more or less impossible to get in the United States. This New Zealand product was similar to the German ones: not sour; fruity, but not overpoweringly sweet.

After-Dinner Snacks

Picture shows a cutting board with cheese, salumi, crackers, and Spanish Almonts

Cheese and Salumi

I was in charge of the less healthy after-dinner snacks. You really can’t re-cork a bottle of champagne… we would be needing something to help us finish the bottle. The salumi was from the local grocery store, nice, but not expensive. The cheese was my favorite Dutch Leyden caraway cheese. I also found some very nice Spanish almonds at Costco. Spanish almonds are very tasty, but they are also usually outrageously expensive. These were very nice and moderately priced.

Strawberries and Japanese Television

Bowl of strawberries

Strawberries

We finished the evening eating strawberries (Tomoko’s department again) and watching two episodes of a Japanese television mini-series called “Ghostwriter” on Viki TV – an interesting operation that gets television shows from around the world and crowd-sources the creation of subtitles for them. Recently they have been monetizing the site slightly by showing a few commercials before each episode. However, once it starts they don’t interrupt the actual program. This mini-series has one of my favorite Japanese actresses: Nakatani Miki playing an aging star author (think J.K. Rowling) who is suffering from writer’s block and gets into a complicated relationship with an ambitious young female novelist. It was a lot of fun – a nice way to finish the New Zealand champagne and end the evening.

Superbowl XLIX – Top 5 Commercials

Great game! Amazing finish. Here are my picks for the best (and worst) commercials.

The Top 5 Commercials of Superbowl XLIX

#1 – Acacados from Mexico


This was my favorite! Really fun, original idea, not sponsored by a multi-$10b manufacturing behemoth.

#2 – Fiat Blue Pill


Fiat commercials are always a lot of fun!

#3 – Clash of the Clans Liam Neeson


Liam Neeson satirizing himself!

#4 – Doritos Middle Seat


Not that I (ah-hem) have ever tried to psych out who might sit in the seat next to me…

#5 – Budweiser Lost Dog


Really pretty. This seems to have been Tomoko Hetherington’s pick for number 1.

Buzzkill Commercials

What was new this year was a series of commercials put out by various organizations that just couldn’t tolerate the idea that America might **GASP*** be ENJOYING ITSELF during the Superbowl. These self-appointed guardians of public morality felt the need to bludgeon everyone with extremely heavy-handed buzzkill messages designed to stifle all of that inordinate merriment and shame everyone into reaching for their checkbooks to donate to something or another. Here are three annoyingly heavy-handed commercials that aired during the Superbowl:

#X – Nationwide Dead Children Commercial


What arrogance. Preventable accidents are an important topic, but there is a time and a place for everything and the middle of the national enjoyment festival is neither the time nor the place to browbeat the public with this sort of guilt message.

#Y – Like a Girl Commercial


Attention all men. Line up to be flogged…

NO MORE’s Domestic Violence Advertisement


Any men who did not get flogged for the previous commercial, line up for a flogging for this one. In the early 1990s I had several years of experience as a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician and got to see the domestic violence issue live and in person. It is not nearly as neat and clear-cut as this sort of advocacy group would have you believe. In fact, the most severe domestic violence injuries (and deaths) in the little community I was serving during the time I was there turned out to be those inflicted on men by their furious girlfriends. One guy in particular enjoyed dancing with the wrong woman at a bar and ended up needing to be flown back to Austin for 180+ stitches courtesy of his jealous girlfriend. In any event, domestic violence is a serious issue, but the Superbowl is neither the right time, nor the right place to browbeat America’s men with such a heavy-handed commercial.