Brandon's Notepad

April 9, 2020

April 9, 2020: Clipper Guards, Wheel Alignment, Capillary Action

Clipper Guards

With all of the hair salons temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are resorting to having their hair cut at home. This is something that many of us haven’t experienced or even attempted for decades. Clippers make the job much easier, especially for the boys, who often opt for a short buzz in the back if not all the way around. Of course, this coupled with the current health situation has led to a sudden shortage of clippers on the retail market. Ours will arrive eventually. In researching the options, I paid special attention to the accessories, and the guards most of all. These are the plastic combs that attach to the head of the clippers that keep the blades a constant distance from the scalp, resulting in a uniform cut (i.e. no uneven patches were the clippers got too close!). For a long time, my default request was a #3 cut, scissors on top. But what exactly does “#3” mean and is it the same for all clippers? As it turns out, the guard sizes are more-or-less standardized. The most common interval is 1/8-inch increments, so a #1 guard is 1/8-inch, #2 is 1/4-inch, and so on. Most clipper sets will include guards up to and including the 1-inch #8. There is some variation between manufacturers. Out of curiosity, I did a search for European clipper guards, and it appears that the same English/Imperial increments are used, but an approximate length in millimeters is presented to differentiate them. An eighth of an inch is approximately (but not exactly) 3mm, so the first eight guards are listed as 3, 6, 10, 13, 16, 19, 22, and 25mm.

Wheel Alignment

True story. I recently put my car in for an oil change and a few other minor services, including an alignment. When the report came back at the end of the visit, it said that one of the angles (caster/camber/toe; I don’t recall which it was now) was off by 0.25°. I decided to test the service rep a bit and asked him if that was a lot. I could tell immediately that I caught him off guard, because he asked to see the report, uttered a long “ummmmm”, and looked around the room (I assume) for a nearby mechanic. After a short pause, he pointed to the 0.25° pre-alignment metric and with confidence said, “You know what a 45° angle looks like, right? This is about half that, so yeah, that was pretty big.” I just nodded, thanked him, and drove away amazed that I had managed to get around town for so long without doing donuts up and down the road.

Capillary Action

Here is a neat experiment for the kids. Place six juice glasses on the counter or table arranged in a circle (or hexagon?) as close together as possible. Fill every other glass with water (i.e. empty, full, empty, full…etc.) all to the same level, about three-quarters full. In the three glasses containing water, add a few drops of food coloring (different colors; red, yellow, and blue are good choices) and stir well. Now take six napkins or paper towel squares, roll or fold each, and bend in the middle. Drape the napkins over the rims of the glasses such that one end of each napkin is in a glass with colored water and the other end is in one of the empty glasses adjacent to it. When finished, the six glasses should be “chained” together with the napkins. Now wait. Eventually you will see water gathering in the bottom of the empty glasses. The colors will mix, proving that some of the water is coming from the glass on the left and some from the glass on the right. If you took my advice on using the three primary colors (red, yellow and blue), then the glasses that started off empty will contain the secondary colors (orange, green and purple). This transfer of water will continue until equilibrium is reached and all of the glasses contain the same amount. This effect, called capillary action (and a few other names) is caused by a combination of surface tension and adhesive forces. [Note: the adult version of this experiment works as follows. Brew a cup of coffee. Place a napkin – or better yet, a super-absorbent paper towel – on top of the cup because a fly is loose in the house. Get distracted with some other vital task, like checking your blog stats or killing the fly. When the center of the napkin or towel eventually absorbs enough steam from the coffee, it will sink into the cup and a few minutes later, coffee will have transferred from the cup to the place mat and/or the super-absorbent and now super-stained table cloth.]

 

April 7, 2020

April 7, 2020: COVID-19 Dashboards, SafeYouTube

COVID-19 Dashboards

I doubt that anyone reading this is unaware of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the effect it has had on the world over the past few months. I really didn’t want to blog about it at all, but it’s really hard to ignore, so here we are. The following are a couple of dashboards I’ve been using to monitor the spread of the disease.

nCoV2019.live – This has been my go-to dashboard from the beginning of the pandemic. It was created by a very enterprising high school student in Washington State by the name of Avi Schiffmann. I like it because it looks nice on mobile and breaks down the statistics not only by country/region, but also by State (so I can keep an eye on Texas, of course). There is also a recovery and fatality rate shown for each section, which I think were added recently.

covid19dashboards.com – This site has a lot of graphs to play with. You can look at growth by state, projected mortality rates, all sorts of stuff. And on many charts, you can highlight specific states and see how they are faring against the national average. The “Deaths per Capita” is the chart I’ve been watching the closest.

SafeYouTube

Distance education is a new and interesting challenge, as many parents around the world are now discovering, especially when there is a variety of solutions and technologies being utilized with little or no consistency. Instructional videos have been my biggest peeve so far. Some teachers upload MOV files directly from their phones to Google Classroom, but most upload them to YouTube…which, unfortunately, we block as part of our parental-control regimen. He had to loosen controls for a while and hope for the best.

Thankfully, one of the teachers started publishing links to her videos using SafeYouTube.net. The great news is that anyone can generate links, even parents. Just visit the site and paste the URL to any YouTube video and a new link will be generated for you. Not only does the new page exclude all of the excess page elements, like search capabilities, related/suggested videos and comments, but the viewer doesn’t get blocked (at least not with our setup, but I cannot guarantee it will work perfectly for everyone without some additional configuration).

I had been toying with the idea of writing some sort of proxy server that would cache requested videos and present them in a similar fashion, but now there’s no need. The site has an API too, so I may end up creating a self-service function that will save me from having to generate links by hand. They will only be able to generate links using YouTube URLs they already have.

Sharing & Feedback

I have found the resources covered in this post to be incredibly helpful, so please, share this post with your friends. If you have questions or comments about the items above, please leave them in the comment section below or feel free to send them to me via Twitter (@brandonsnotepad). Thanks!

February 12, 2020

Pecan Coffee: Cameron’s Toasted Southern Pecan K-Cups

Filed under: Coffee,Food & Drink — Brandon @ 9:48 am
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To follow-up to the Cameron’s Toasted Southern Pecan ground coffee, I picked up a box of the K-Cups for the Keurig in the breakroom. As I’ve stated in other posts, I don’t expect much from K-Cups, but in this case I was completely blown away! The results were equivalent if not better than with the ground coffee. I can’t help but believe that this was due in part to the use of the Cameron’s EcoPod, which boasts a paper lid and compostable ring and filter instead of a plastic cup. The other part is just good coffee. To Cameron’s, the Keurig space isn’t a place to skimp on quality.

If that weren’t enough, I must relate what happened when I brewed a cup on the way out one evening. As I crossed the short walkway between the building and the parking garage, I was stopped by one of the executives. He asked me what kind of coffee I was drinking. I happily shared the name of the brand and flavor. He told me that the smell was amazing and he was surprised how well it lingered in the air. Now, it was a bit cool out and the air was moist, which accounts for why the aroma carried so well, but compliment on the smell can only be attributed to the quality of the coffee itself. Good job, Cameron’s!

February 10, 2020

Pecan Coffee: Cameron’s Toasted Southern Pecan

Filed under: Coffee,Food & Drink — Brandon @ 7:14 pm
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On a mildly-chilly day in mid-December, I broke out the trusty Melitta cup-top and a #2 filter and opened a new bag of Cameron’s Toasted Southern Pecan. I wasn’t expecting to try this one next, but I needed to replace my grinder at work and this one was already ground, so, why not?

Prior to this challenge, I didn’t know this brand at all. The company website states that it was founded in 1978 and was subsequently acquired in 1993. It is headquartered in Shakopee, Minnesota, a small suburb of Minneapolis. Maybe the branding changed recently or maybe it has taken this long for their coffees to reach the shelves in Texas, I don’t really know, but I don’t recall ever seeing it before. At this time, I can find it readily at Albertsons and Sprouts Farmers Market.

First impressions? The packaging is very nice. I like the style of the branding, especially the clipart-style steam lion emanating from the cup on the logo. The creamy white and bright red color scheme works well. The only element that doesn’t appear to be SVG is the photograph of the two pecan halves next to the flavor name on the front, but it works well in breaking up the composition and even adds pop.

Medium-light colored grounds confirm that the roast is indeed ‘light’ as labeled. The scent of the grounds was good when the bag was first opened, but nothing about it really screamed pecan. It became more rich when I broke up the brick that had formed in the bag. After that, it was impossible to escape the aroma.

Once brewed, the smell is nothing short of awesome! It doesn’t quite fill the room or anything, but it was there. It’s sweet and creamy smell, not stark or overpowering. The color is a beautiful reddish-brown, and not thin at all! One of my coffee mugs has speckles on the inside that can no longer be seen if more than a quarter-inch below the surface with this coffee. It feels full in the mouth and it goes down easy with no perceptible difference in aftertaste. I think it lives up to the motto “Always smooth, never bitter”. Very clean finish. Seriously, no bitter coffee face! I could easily drink this at my desk all day.

February 3, 2020

Pecan Coffee: Sprouts Toasted Pecan Coffee

Filed under: Coffee,Food & Drink — Brandon @ 5:38 pm
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We shop at Sprouts Farmers Market all the time! It is our primary grocery store and our primary source of coffee at home. The beans in the bulk dispensers is normally $10.99 per pound, but it is often on sale for $7 to $9, and the organic is often, but not always, the same price as the regular. Each store typically has three pump dispensers with different roasts/flavors for free taste-testing samples, though larger cups are available for a very reasonable price (I think it’s 99¢). This pecan coffee was regularly available as a sample in November and December and was inspiration for this tasting challenge.

The beans are matte, not shiny, indicating a shorter roast, the pecan flavor is present but not overpowering, and the taste of the coffee is good overall. It definitely doesn’t possess a chemical quality, but is much more natural-tasting than other flavored coffees. The only downside is that the aftertaste lingers, leaving the back of tongue dry. All of this makes it a really good “everyday” coffee, but it also means that there is nothing great to note about it. There is nothing that makes it stand out as an excellent pecan coffee.

January 31, 2020

Texas Pecan Coffee Challenge Extended

Filed under: Coffee,Food & Drink — Brandon @ 10:18 pm
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As usual, the best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry, or at least that’s Steinbeck’s take on life and in this case it has turned out to be true. I did get to taste quite a few of the pecan coffees before the end of the year, but I found no time to write about them as I had hoped. I felt very rushed and thought it would be better to spend a little more time getting to know each coffee than originally allotted. What’s more, there were a few surprises along the way that required some sorting out. Please watch for new posts next week for the next set of reviews.

December 17, 2019

Pecan Coffee: Green Mountain K-Cups

Filed under: Coffee,Food & Drink — Brandon @ 11:59 pm
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We switched to Keurig machines at work years ago. They are handy, efficient, and require less work for the day porters to maintain. The company supplies a variety of K-Cups, usually about 8 different kinds of coffee/tea at each coffee station. Most of the coffee is Starbucks brand and the remainder is typically Green Mountain. Based on this experience, I’ve learned to never expect much from the K-Cups in general, and much less from the Green Mountain selections (Dark Magic may be the one exception).

I managed to find two pecan coffees made by Green Mountain in K-Cup format: “Southern Pecan” and “Maple Pecan”. The Southern Pecan is a standard flavor available at the grocery store all year. The maple variety, however, is marked “Limited Edition” and was stocked with other seasonal foods, so I expect it will be unavailable in a month or so. I bought both on sale for approximately $7 for a 12-cup box.

Given my low expectations, I decided that I couldn’t judge these coffees too harshly, so my basis for evaluation is whether or not these are good enough to (a) buy my own coffee and bring it to work and/or (b) recommend that they swap out one of the existing selections for one of these (even if only temporarily for the seasonal maple variety).

One might expect to get one regular-sized cup of coffee from one K-Cup, so I brewed both of the coffees at the largest (10oz) setting. Both turned out to be very thin! The pecan scent is present, but the cup has to be close to the nose to be perceptible. The maple pecan has a slight syrup smell and taste, but it doesn’t add much over the southern pecan. Both are pretty much lifeless. So, I brewed another set at the smallest (4oz) setting, which made both a bit overpowering. Definitely too much maple! I added some milk (last resort) and that helped some, but I have become accustomed to taking my coffee black and adding cream and sugar just hides the taste of the coffee.

The verdict? Would I drink these regularly at work? No, definitely not, especially considering that they are competing with free Starbucks coffee. I will be leaving the leftover K-Cups in the breakroom for others to try.

December 16, 2019

Pecan Coffee: The Quick Fix Options

Filed under: Coffee,Food & Drink — Brandon @ 3:50 pm
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I’ve been busy for the last week collecting samples for my pecan coffee challenge. In the meantime, I thought it would be good to check on the availability of a few “quick fix” options for those on the go. I started looking around for pecan coffee at the big-name coffee shops and convenience stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and here is what I found.

A word of warning, this review is probably not for the real coffee aficionados out there, especially the ones that snub anything that isn’t natural, non-flavored whole beans roasted within the last 72 hours and packaged in a brown paper bag (delivered by drone in the pitch-black night of a new moon, etc., etc.). This post is for the busy people who yearn for pecan coffee but have no time to grind and brew for themselves. I’ll be covering the better options soon enough in subsequent posts.

The elephant in the room is obviously Starbucks, so we’ll address that one first. They do not have a pecan coffee on the regular menu, but they did offer a Fall seasonal Maple Pecan Latte in both 2017 and 2018. This was not a flavored coffee bean! It was an espresso-based drink sweetened with their Maple Pecan Sauce. The page for that drink is no longer available on the Starbucks website, but it can be found here on the Wayback Machine. The ingredients list clearly shows that no pecans are used in the sauce unless they are included in the “Natural Flavors”.

Next up is Dunkin’ Donuts. The only references I could find to pecan coffee at Dunkin’ online were for the Butter Pecan Swirl and Maple Pecan Swirl iced coffee drinks. Just to be sure, I called about a dozen Dunkin’ Donuts locations and asked if they have regular pecan coffee on the menu. The answer was no. I’m not really interested in their iced coffees for the purposes of this challenge, which doesn’t really matter, because they are seasonal drinks and not currently in the stores at the moment anyway.

IHOP and Waffle House seemed like good candidates, but no luck at either. Of the two, I thought that IHOP would be more likely to carry it, so again, I called a few of the restaurants and got several confirmations that they don’t offer it now, nor have they ever. If you find yourself there and are really hard up for a cup, I suppose (judiciously) using their butter pecan syrup as a sweetener might work in a pinch.

7-Eleven is always a good standby for coffee. The company does take their coffee seriously and they do sell a solid product with extra marks for variety and consistency. Yes, they have Texas Pecan coffee! And yes, it’s good! And very affordable! Now, please be aware that all of these factors (consistency, taste, price, etc.) are not accidental. Some dislike 7-Eleven coffee because it tastes engineered, or in other words, it doesn’t taste like real coffee. There are far more who obviously don’t care. All they know is that it tastes good, has a great price point, and doesn’t require standing in a long queue or drive-thru.

QuikTrip (QT) gas stations offer a huge variety of drinks, hot and cold. Ignoring the instant coffee makers (that also dispense various hot chocolates), each store sports about 6 to 8 self-service hot-coffee machines that brew from traditional coffee grounds. Typically, these contain different roasts plus decaf options, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a flavored coffee, probably because that aspect is covered by the “Flavor Center” creamer dispensers. So, no pecan there either.

RaceTrac is QT’s closest competitor in the gas station food market, and their store layout is now almost identical. I hadn’t been in one for a few years, so I dropped by today to find more self-service coffee dispensers (that appear to grind beans on the spot as well), none of which contained pecan coffee.

The only place other than 7-Eleven where I found pecan coffee to go was at the coffee bar at (H-E-B) Central Market. They usually have about half a dozen roasts or flavors to choose from in metal thermal pump-style carafes. They serve Texas Coffee Traders brand coffee and their site reveals that all of their flavored offerings are based on light roast beans from Latin America and that the flavoring is done “in-house” which I assume means in Auston where the company is headquartered. Incidentally, it goes for $13.50 per pound online at the time of this writing.

So there we have it, two big-name stores that regularly serve pecan coffee “to go” in the DFW area. If you happen to know of any place that serves it that I missed, please let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

December 6, 2019

Texas Pecan Coffee Challenge

Filed under: Coffee,Food & Drink — Brandon @ 5:21 pm
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Nothing says “Autumn” to me like a hot mug of pecan coffee. Yes, pumpkin spice has been all the rage in recent years thanks to a certain big-name coffee shop chain, but pecan coffee became a signature taste of the Southern United States long before that. Besides the baseline “Texas”, “Georgia” and “Southern” pecan coffees, there are variants such as butter, cinnamon, caramel, praline, bourbon and rum. I typically steer away from flavored coffees, but pecan coffee is a standing exception to that rule.

This year, the cravings started just before Thanksgiving with a grocery store sample. I thought it would be nice to have some at home during the upcoming holidays, but the question was, which one? I immediately pulled out my phone and started looking for options, but with so many to choose from, I just couldn’t decide. I wanted to try them all! And why not? It sounded like a fun challenge: to try as many as I could before the end of the year. So far, I have found about ten different brands that I could reasonably sample in that amount of time without breaking the bank.

In accepting this challenge, I have also decided to revitalize my Tea & Coffee Journal concept. For over half a decade, I kept a series of journals on my blog primarily containing reviews of various coffees and teas. I stopped this practice several years ago because it was too difficult to maintain in the format I was using and my plans for elaborate taste tests were starting to exceed my capacity in terms of both time and budget. Something that was started for fun was turning into a real chore, so I had to walk away from it for a time.  Now that I have set up a proper site for this sort of content, I can blog more freely about my hot beverage experiences and then aggregate the posts in an annual digest there.

On that note, if you would like to read more about this little adventure as it unfolds, please follow me here on WordPress, and/or on Twitter, and leave any pecan coffee recommendations you may have in the comments section below.

December 2, 2019

Happy New (Liturgical) Year!

Filed under: Catholic,Christianity,Religion — Brandon @ 1:48 pm
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Happy New Year! Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, marking the beginning of the 2019–2020 liturgical year. The sermon at Mass was filled with the typical reminders that we ought to spent the next few weeks reflecting on our lives and preparing our hearts for the coming of Jesus in the nativity, something we are urged to do every year at this time. It dawned on me that, in a way, we are making New Year’s resolutions, committing to changes in our lives that should in someway improve the condition of our souls. How is this really different than making New Year’s resolutions on January 1st? So often we resolve to exercise more, eat less, set aside time to read, spend more time with family, etc. Should we not make similar promises at the beginning of Advent to read more scripture, pray more often, and volunteer to help others?

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