NASA’s ‘frozen smoke’ named lightest solid

imageCooked up in a NASA laboratory, a gel that is 99.8 percent air has been designated the least dense solid in the world by Guinness World Records.

Aerogel, one of the world’s lightest solids, can withstand a direct blast of 1kg of dynamite and protect against heat from a blowtorch at more than 1,300C.

The substance, described as “frozen smoke” for its hazy blue appearance, is a new variety of a silicon-based material designed to collect particles in deep space.

http://archives.cnn.com/2002/TECH/space/05/09/record.gel/

Barbeque: Smoked Pork

This weekend I smoked a 7 pound pork shoulder.  This to me is just about the most perfect lazy daddy meal for the weekend barbeque.  It was good, it was fairly easy, and best of all, we have left overs so I’ve got my lunch all set for the next couple of days.

The equipment:

imageI use an electric water smoker.  I know that BBQ purists would be horrified as all the cooking shows I’ve seen talk about how the best smoking is done with charcoal.  But let me tell you, my electric smoker plus a handful of hardwood hickory chunks gets the job done, and I can pretty much set it and forget about it for several hours on end (This is especially important for us dads with 3 year olds where we’d rather spend time tending our daughters than a hunk of meat).

image This weekend, we couldn’t find the hickory chunks, so my wife bought several hickory logs from the local butcher’s market where she got the meat and I used the electric chop saw to cut up my own chunks.

The last piece of equipment that I highly recommend would be heavy duty tinfoil.  This should be used after the meat has been smoked for about 6-8 hours.  At that point, you’re pretty much going to get all the smokey flavor you want into the cooked meat and the tinfoil helps lock in the juices so your meat doesn’t dry out. 

The meat:

image  Since my wife always teases me about how I go into professor mode, I’ll try to keep this brief, but I do want to point out that the origins of southern barbeque came from when the settlers brought pigs to the United States.  These pigs were ideal to live in the southern climates whereas  many of the cattle were ill-suited for survival.  Because of this, you’ll find that most traditional southern dishes involve pork product more often than other meats (except of course fried chicken).  Thus pork became the meat of the South.  I’ve been told by friends that when people talk about true barbeque in the south, they mean pork and everything else is just grilled meat.

imageThe pork shoulder is the entire front leg and shoulder of a hog. In your grocery store you will usually find this divided into two cuts, the Boston butt and the picnic.

The Boston butt has less bone than the picnic and both cuts will weigh about 6 to 8 pounds. If you can’t find a whole pork shoulder at your local store you can get either or both of these cuts and have just what you need. The picnic can come with or without the bone.  When cooking, I’ve found that the meat nearest the bone is the sweetest because of the extra flavoring and so I generally try to find a cut with the bone in.

We go to an actual butcher shop called Hottinger Family Meats, they’ve got a great selection and the meats are relatively hormone free.  I haven’t done the research on their meat source but my wife has and so it’s a pretty safe bet that there’s not a lot of chemicals involved in raising these pigs.

The rub:

You can apply a rub to add flavor.

image If you choose to add a rub, do so liberally.  We’ve generally had a lot of good luck with a paprika/brown sugar based dry rub that we make from the spices in our cabinet.  I’d recommend you play with the recipe until you get it to a flavor that you enjoy.  a good base to start with is the following:

  • ¼ cup smoked paprika
  • 3 tablespoons coarse salt
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 3 tablespoon light brown sugar

Remember that you are trying to flavor a large piece of meat. To apply, take the pork shoulder or section, trim unnecessary fat and skin, rinse with cool water and pat dry. Take the rub and work it into the meat. Make sure that every part is evenly covered. Pork shoulders can have a very uneven surface with lots of folds and indentations so work it over well.  Once you’ve got the meat covered in the rub, you’ll want to wrap it back up in plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge for a couple hours (I recommend preparing the meat the night before so it’s all ready to go in the morning as you stumble out of bed to get the smoker going). 

The smoking:

Under normal conditions you should plan on smoking for about 1-1/2 hours per pound.  Low and slow is good, but realize that a ten-pound pork shoulder can take 15 hours to finish, so you’ll want to plan your day out to figure out when you’ll be eating dinner the night before.  We started smoking our 7 pounder around 6:30 AM and were ready to eat around 6:00 PM (10 hours cooking, 1 hour resting, and half an hour pulling it apart and getting everything else ready).

image If it becomes difficult to maintain the temperature or you want to speed up the cooking time to get it to the table at a reasonable hour, you can always move it to the oven to finish cooking. If you do transfer the meat to the oven (and we have),  set the temperature in 250-275 range, this will speed up cooking as smoking is generally done in the 210-235 range.   However, make sure you wrap the pork tightly in foil to hold in the moisture. Many people, even competition cooks, will smoke their pork roasts unwrapped for half the overall cooking time and then wrap.

Remember though, leave the pork in the smoker for at least 6 hours if you want to get that good smokey flavor – and the lower and slower you cook your meat the more tender it will be when it reaches the dinner table.

imageOnce the meat reaches an internal temperature between 180 F to 190 F it is done cooking and must rest before pulling.  Technically you can serve pork once the internal temperature reaches 165 – but you miss out on all that breaking down of collagen and connective tissue that makes the barbeque so darn tender and juicy.

 

Typically you can pull the meat easily once the internal temperature reaches 190 degrees F, but you don’t want to go above this and the higher the temperature goes the greater the chance it will dry out.

Once the pork is cooked remove it from the smoker (or oven) and let it sit for about an hour. This will cool it down enough for pulling. As you pull the meat apart, place it in a pot on a low temperature to keep it warm.   You want it to be loose in the bun and easy to eat. Now if the pork is smoked right it won’t be chewy in the least.

The finishing sauce:

The traditional sauce for pulled pork is what is commonly called a finishing sauce.  We’ve served finishing sauces based on a vinegar recipe, but I’m tempted to go with a thicker tomato base next time just for a little contrast (Or maybe even whip out the teriyaki sauce that I’m such a huge fan of).  I could recommend half a dozen different finishing sauces, but I’ll leave this up to you as people’s taste are so varied on the subject.   I may post some links to some outstanding finishing sauces that I like later, but I honestly love the taste of the pork without the finishing sauce too.  After spending 10-15 hours prepping and smoking this meat, why cover the flavors?

The sandwich:

image You don’t need fancy or flavorful bread for this sandwich. All the bread does is give you something to hold onto while you’re eating the meat.  So put those onion rolls, poppy kaisers and Hawaiian rolls away (Actually, the Hawaiian rolls with a teriyaki finishing sauce might be interesting if you’re going for a luau theme – but it’s not “Southern”) .  For our family, we generally use the 3 inch by 3 inch buns you can get from WinCo Foods bakery.   Cheap, good and we can get 24 rolls for $2.99.

I’ll generally use only a few condiments, including cheese (again, WinCo carries a great garlic Monterey jack cheese) the vinegar finishing sauce, cole slaw and sometimes mayonnaise.

Enjoy:

You’ve “worked hard” all day preparing this meal.  Make sure to invite a few friends over, have them bring the kids and the adults can all hang out in the backyard with a beer or two while the kids play (We actually made espresso/mocha/lattes  with our new portable espresso maker from REI, but that’s a post for another time).

Sub-Prime Mortgage Market

imageI’ve been involved with the sub-prime mortgage industry for about 10 years, and recently got out of the industry right before the big fall.  With all the press that has been going on recently, how could I not chime in with my 2 cents.

There was a recent article on Yahoo talking about GreenPoint mortgage closing its doors and in it they said:

As the nation’s housing market has cooled, the mortgage lending industry has struggled with a dramatic rise in mortgage defaults and foreclosures. Many homebuyers have been forced into default or foreclosure because they haven’t been able to sell their homes or end up owing more than their home is worth.

I wasn’t a broker or an underwriter or an agent; I was and continue to be a computer programmer.  Which means I was responsible for building the systems and programs that helped fund the millions of mortgages that are now defaulting.  What has been truly amazing is just how quickly things are falling down around everyone’s ears.

During my employment at various mortgage companies, I was in a unique position of not only building the various systems, but since we had to know the entire life cycle of a loan because we were often building these system and modifying them on the fly, I actually took time to study and understand how mortgages work from origination to selling on the secondary market.  In fact, for a while, I taught a weekly “Lunch and Learn” course that we called “Mortgage Industry 101″ that lasted for 12 weeks at a time.  What I couldn’t believe was how little even the employees understood about anything outside of their department.  I shudder to think about the lack of understanding that our customers had when getting a loan and all the implications and obligations they were committing themselves to.

The basics of the loan lifecycle go like this:

  1. Client applies for a loan
  2. Underwriter approves the loan
  3. Mortgage company funds the loan
  4. Mortgage company sells the Client’s note to an investor
  5. Servicing company collects payment from client and sends money to investor
  6. Mortgage company uses proceeds for sale to investor to fund another loan

 

So, how do people make money in the industry?  Here is a very simplified example…

  • imageThe mortgage company has overhead and expenses, lets say it costs them $3,000 for every $100,000 they loan.  So to create a $100,000 loan, it costs the mortgage company a total of $103,000 (This is called origination cost at 103%)
  • Investors generally buy the loan for a premium, let’s say 105%, so It would cost $105,000 for an investor to buy the above loan.  The mortgage company has now made $2,000 (This is sometimes referred to as the spread or gravy)
  • The servicing company will then collect payments from the borrower on behalf of the investor and take a small percentage of the payment to cover their own expenses (generally .5% of the payment)
  • The investor receives the payments of principle plus interest for the life of the loan.  Obviously the higher the rate, the more money the investor makes.  And if the borrower refinances then the investor is paid off and must go out and buy more loans to fill their income portfolio.

Now, there are various tweaks to the above scenarios – mortgage companies will charge origination fees, tack on prepayment penalties, lower interest rates by having the borrower pay points, but the above scenario for the most part holds true for the vast majority of loans out there. 

Here is why this is breaking down so quickly now…  The investors (also called the secondary market) don’t have the money to buy anymore loans because they are not getting paid.  Without that money from the investors, the mortgage companies can’t fund any more loans, and even if they could they don’t have anyone to sell them to.

So, in effect, the mortgage companies are manufacturing loans, but nobody out there is buying them.  Even if the Fed continues to lower their rates so the mortgage companies will borrow from them, investors don’t want to buy them and be left holding the bag when the borrowers can’t pay.

 

hands bound with contract in graspAnd here’s the thing that kills me.  Many of the borrowers went into the loans knowing they couldn’t pay the mortgage.  They aren’t defaulting through some great hardship like losing their job or a natural disaster.  They took these teaser rates at 2% and were expecting to refinance before the big payments came up.  But if the investors aren’t buying these products, the mortgage companies aren’t going to be making these kinds of loans, and many borrowers are now stuck with the high payments that they originally agreed to 3 or 4 years ago when they signed the loan docs.  And without banks willing to refinance them and support their (IMHO stupid) decision, they’ll lose their house that they couldn’t really afford anyway.

 

imageSo, the big question is… When does the federal government step in and declare a state of emergency, bail everyone out and reward them for their stupidity and greed, and we end up looking back on the “great mortgage crisis” of 2007 the same way we we’re looking back at the Savings and Loan scandals from the ’90s?

 

With a couple of quick lessons in living below your means and a sustainable lifestyle, I doubt these borrowers would now be in danger of losing their homes and I doubt the mortgage companies would have had to lay off 40,000 people so far this year.

Raising Chickens

I recently purchased chickens as a project for my daughter and I to raise as a way of teaching her a bit about how food goes from the farm to the dinner table. We’re not planning on using them for meat, but the thought of having fresh eggs was intriguing enough to at least start a small flock and see how it goes.

The first thing I did was contact the city and see what kind of regulations they had for backyard farm animals. The city office was very helpful and sent me the 3 pages of regulations – assuming I’ve read them correctly, I can have up to 14 chickens but no roosters. So the next step was then to get some chickens.

I went down to the Pomona Feed Store and they had a great selection and the staff was very helpful. Which was great because I had only done the basic research on what it would take to raise a chicken from a couple of websites that i found from googling the subject.

We ended up getting 4 types of chickens, and we are starting off with one of each to see how we like the various breeds.

  •   Plymouth Barred Rock
  • Americana

They also had several coops for sale for between $200-$400, but being somewhat handy with a saw and a hammer, I ended up building my own – total cost for a 4×4 coop ended up and just under $175 and two weekends of trial and error.

So now we have the coop and the birds. They’ve been in the backyard about 4 weeks now and are roughly 8 inches high, it seems like they grow by leaps and bounds every day. My daughter is totally in love with these feathered friends and she’s already named two of them. The red is named Ariel and the black barred rock is named Flounder (Yes, she is into the Disney film ‘Little Mermaid’)

Some of the sites I’ve used for my research include

And the bible that I’ve pretty much gone by is called Chickens in Your Backyard : A Beginner’s Guide.

One good piece of advice to people out there who are thinking of raising chickens – do the research, but at some point, you’ve got to take the plunge. I did a ton of research, designed about 5 different types of chicken coops and various schedules, and then realized almost 6 months had gone by and I still wasn’t even sure if I was going to like raising chickens, so I took the plunge, bought the chickens, then built the coop while the chicks were still in their box under a heat lamp. My daughter and I are having a blast with these great animals!

OpenCourseWare Initiative

I recently learned about this initiative from a co-worker. As a constant advocate of continuous learning, I am always looking for new avenues of learning that i can do in my spare time. I have really been on the lookout for not only myself, but my daughter as well. Even though she is only three, my wife and I have decided to homeschool her. What this means to me personally is that I get to have an active hand in helping my daughter not only as a father and a mentor, but also share in the joy of learning as she discovers the world around her. What this also means is that I need to learn this stuff too so that I can one day teach it to her. I am a college graduate, but as they say, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

The OpenCourseware Consortium web page lists several colleges in the US that participate in this program, including the following:

Now, being a Southern California local, I was especially interested in UCI, and found a really great course on the Fundamentals of Personal Financial Planning The coursework looks like it’s about 25 to 30 hours, and covers everything from taxes, insurance, investing, retirement and estate planning (I am especially interested in the estate planning since my father is an attorney who specializes in this field). The course description is as follows:

This course is not intended to replace the professional financial planner, but to help to make the general public better consumers of financial planning advice. The course was created to help those who cannot afford extensive planning assistance better understand how to define and reach their financial goals. It provides basic understanding so informed decisions can be made. The course can also be seen as a reference for individual topics that are part of personal financial planning.

Financial planning, in the broadest sense, is an effort to manage all aspects of a person / family’s financial affairs. Classically that begins with planning family spending and extends through risk management (insurance), taxes, wealth accumulation, investing, and wealth distribution (retirement and estate planning).