Moving to Tumblr

So, maintaining a blog is a pain, so I am moving my regular blog over to tumblr's platform. Eventually I will be converting this site to be a source for longer articles, projects and other content not suitable to a blog, but for now, you can find my new home at: blog.decultured.com

Baked Jalapeno Poppers - Christmas Appetizer

Holidays in my family are often centered around a meal, and they are always done pot-luck style. I look forward to those events, since I love to cook and it gives me an opportunity to prepare things that are impractical to make in small batches at home. A recent trend of mine has been to take dishes that are common at potluck gatherings and make them better, and for Christmas this year I chose to prepare Jalapeno poppers, but a little differently.

Since I have been working diligently towards weight-loss (to much success!), I decided to bake them rather than deep-fry, and use lower fat neufchâtel cheese in place of the traditional cream cheese. Additionally, I added a variety of ingredients to the filling to make it more interesting. As a final change, I made two batched, one with Jalapenos and one with mini-bell peppers, so there was a less spicy variant for family members with less heat-tolerance.

To start, I made a mixture of andouille and chorizo sausages, pickled red onions, chopped almonds, garlic and shredded radish and mixed it with the neufchâtel cheese. I chilled that while halving the peppers and cleaning out the seeds and veins. Next, I stuffed the peppers with the filling.

Just before cooking, I dredged them in egg and rolled them in panko bread crumbs that were mixed with some paprika and cayenne pepper. Finally, I baked them in the oven at around 350 degrees for about 20 minutes and then browned them for a bit under the broiler on high.

I served them with a raspberry chipotle sauce I picked up at Whole Foods. I sadly don't have any pictured of the final product, but they were a big hit, and several people asked me for the recipe.

Caterpillar and Chrysalis

There is a beautiful caterpillar on my parsley plant out on my porch, and a chrysalis from a similar one a few inches away on my sage plant. Here are a couple photos:

Rocky Mountain National Park

I recently drove to Colorado for the second time this year. The official purpose of the trip was to visit SparkFun for their Exciting Xbee classes over the weekend, but I could not resist spending a couple days in the mountains while there. Rocky Mountain National Park is absolutely beautiful this time of year, and the weather could not have been better. I brought along my Canon Rebel T2i, and was fortunate beyond describing to see many incredible things to view and take photos of. Some came out quite well, and I narrowed down the 1000+ I took over the trip to a handful of the best. Some are embedded here in small forms, but you can view the full gallery at this link.

 

Amazing Homemade Pizza at the Office

Homemade pizza with Star Trek pizza cutter at the office

Homemade pizza with Star Trek pizza cutter at the office

Recently, one of my co-workers (dividesbyzer0 on reddit) brought his pizza oven to the office. We provided ingredients, he brought in the dough and home-made sauce, and 4 pizzas were made in total. I have rarely ever had pizza that good, and the results turned out looking as amazing as they tasted.

A few good local beers and some ciabatta rolls rounded out the best workplace lunch I have ever had.

Here are several photos I took of the event:

Home-made pizza sauce and homemade hand-tossed dough

Home-made pizza sauce and homemade hand-tossed dough, some of the best I have ever had

Toppings all added, looks amazing already

Toppings all added, looks amazing already

Sliding the pizza off the peel and into the oven

Sliding the pizza off the peel and into the oven

The finished pizza, tastes even better than it looks

The finished pizza, tastes even better than it looks

Ciabatta rolls with parmesan and fresh oregano

Ciabatta rolls with parmesan and fresh oregano as a side

SparkFun – Introduction to Arduino

Using Shift Registers to control multiple LEDs - SparkFun Introduction to Arduino class

Using Shift Registers to control multiple LEDs

I recently drove to Boulder, CO to attend SparkFun Electronics’ inaugural Introduction to Arduino Class. I have been interested in Arduino development for a while, and jumped at the opportunity to participate in this great learning experience run by one of the best known companies in the hobby electronics field. Besides proving a thorough introduction to te Arduino development platform, the class provided a great starter kit of components, and an in depth tour of SparkFun’s facilities. The experience was fantastic, and very worth the long drive through Kansas.

Spark Fun Arduino Class - Students assemble!

About 30-40 people attended the class

The class was run for most of the day Saturday, and covered all of the basics of working with the Arduino platform. SparkFun provided a good array of materials to go with the class, including a binder full of information, tutorials, documentation, and background information to keep us going after the class. We were all also provided with their Arduino inventors kit: one of their famous red boxes containing an Arduino Uno, a nice holder and breadboard station to work on, and a host of sensors, buttons, LEDs and other components to experiment with.

The first arduino project - a single blinking LED

The first arduino project - a single blinking LED

We started the class by installing the software needed to our laptops, and connecting a few components to complete our first working prototype: a singe red LED that would blink in any pattern we programmed it for. It was a simple beginning, but impressive nonetheless. It took only a few minutes, and was a great demonstration of how easy the Arduino platform is to work with. From there, we moved on to more complex circuits. We learned how to read both analog and digital input from sensors and buttons. We explored outputs though digital, analog (well PWM, or pulse width modulation), and serial communicatons. We worked with servos, speakers, and motors. We learned the basics of ICs by building a circuit using a shift register to control many outputs with only few inputs. It was a whirlwind class, and by the time it was over I felt I had solid grasp of the platform and those few topics I had not yet learned I now know where to look to figure them out on my own.

SparkFun's world headquarters in Boulder, CO

SparkFun's world headquarters in Boulder, Colorado

After the class, SparkFun invited those students who were interested in a tour of their offices and facilities. They recently expanded to fill the entire two story office building they occupied, and despite some construction, it was an impressive and inspiring workspace. Obviously populated by a diverse group of hackers and makers, projects in various states of completion were scattered throughout the offices and work areas. SparkFun encourages its employees to experiment and build personal projects, and the results are a host of varied, inventive and interesting creations filling any available workspace in the building. Those projects did more to demonstrate the culture of sparkfun and the personalities of the employees than any of the kitsch, posters, and expensively designed offices I have seen anywhere else.

A LED tetris game and the famous tweeting beer keg from SparkFun

A LED tetris game and the famous tweeting kegerator

A multiplayer Tron game console built with LED displays

A multiplayer Tron game console built with LED displays

A huge NES controller coffee table built by sparkfun

Sparkfun's famous massive NES controller

Where SparkFun films their video podcasts and take product photos

Where SparkFun films their video podcasts

Posters made by employees for SparkFun's CEO

Posters made by employees for SparkFun's CEO

The tour continued downstairs into the warehouse and assembly rooms. SparkFun assembles many of their own boards and components, and does most of the work by hand. They use solder stenciling stations to prepare pre-printed boards for the pick and place machines, after which they put the assembled though massive ovens which dry the components and flow the solder into place. Finished components are individually tested using custom test boards that run each completed component through a series of tests to ensure proper assembly and programming. SparkFun claims to be the only company to use such an extensive quality control process. For a small company, it is an impressive operation.

Touring the sparkfun warehouse in boulder, co

Touring the sparkfun warehouse

The sparkfun assembly and testing floor

The sparkfun assembly and testing floor

Sparkfun workstation for assembly of components

One of the workstations

A soldering station at Sparkfun's headquarters

A soldering station

a pick in place machine

One of SparkFun's Pick and Place machines

I built an arcade cabinet for my brother

I built this arcade cabinet as a christmas gift for my brother. After everything he has done to help me this past year, I knew I had to give him an epic gift, so this is what I came up with. The desktop based design turned out great, and makes it easy to sit in front of it for long gaming sessions. I spent most of my free time in early December working on it, and it came out great!

I built it in my garage from my own plans I designed in Google SketchUp. It uses an old Dell 1907FP lcd monitor as the screen and competition grade controls I bought from Ultimarc online. The top marquee has a fluorescent light behind it that lights up the acrylic and paper image in front of it. The rest is built mostly from MDF and finished with textured spray-paint and t-molding. It works as a peripheral right now, connecting through USB to an external computer, but we have a ATOM based small computer on order that I will mount inside so it will be self-contained and only require a power connection.

The project was fun and a great learning experience, and I felt it was a worthy gift for my brother.

I am posting a full guide on how I made it with more pics here.

NaNoWriMo – I won!

A few years ago I learned about NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, from a post written by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing. Ever since then, I have wanted to participate in the mad challenge of writing a complete novel, of at least 50,000 words in only a month’s time. But for several years, life got in the way. Either I would forget about NaNoWriMo until it was much too late to join, or intense work deadlines or other plans kept me from participating. Last month, however, I decided that this year I had to participate, and I had to win.

I used to consider myself a writer. Ten years ago it was my dream to write for a living, to pen novels that would be read by millions. But as I followed the varied paths my life wandered down, I lost that dream and found new ones. I don’t regret that; I love where life has taken me and am fond of my current career choices. But still, somewhere in me is a part of my old self begging for the chance to write again.

Writing is a very freeing and remarkably calming past time. It is a chance to purge a mind of ideas that have been floating around and clogging thoughts while screaming for attention. It can be enlightening as well, since the act of committing ideas to paper, or in this case a digital document, forces a writer to make decisions, solidify half formed ideas, and explore flashes of inspiration to their fullest conclusion. It is a very narcissistic form of meditation. Writers are forced to look deep inside themselves to find and clarify the ideas that they will commit to the page. For someone like me, who’s chosen job path in life focuses on mental exercise, solving problems, and constantly exploring new ideas, writing is a great way to clear the mind and free it from the stresses of work.

NaNoWriMo reminded me of that calming effect writing could have. Not that the month was easy, many days I did not want to write, or I felt like I was too busy to write. Other days writing felt like a chore, an unwanted task that made every word I typed feel like I had to force it out. But even on those days, even when I had trouble focusing, or felt like quitting, even then when I finished my writing I felt a wave of calm. My mind would be clear, I would be at ease, and I felt a great sense of accomplishment. NaNoWriMo was not easy, but it was fun, it was enlightening, and I am so very glad that I signed up.

I finished my novel at just over the required fifty thousand words, reaching a total of 50,339 a few days before the deadline. It is done. But, since the novel was penned in such a short time, there are plot holes, rambling parts that make little sense, forced dialogue, cliched phrasing, and flat characters. I am not sure I ever want anyone to read the thing in its ugly rushed state, but that was not the point. I took the challenge, I fought my apprehensions and fears, and came through a winner. I hit fifty thousand words. I wrote a complete novel. I won. And it feels great!