Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Samsung Smartphone Iris Scanner


Introduction

I have a new smartphone that can use biometric technology—specifically, an iris scanner—to authenticate me (i.e., to unlock itself). Though I was initially thrilled at the space-age modernity and ease of this feature, I ultimately decided not to continue using it, for a reason that may surprise you.


Why biometrics?

Biometric authentication might seem to some like a solution looking for a problem. Why not just use a password or PIN to unlock a phone or other device? Actually, static passwords are pretty fallible. People are lazy and choose really lame passwords. It’s also possible to intercept them; both my daughters managed to learn my smartphone’s PIN by looking over my shoulder.

But that’s not actually the biggest problem with traditional authentication. After all, security can be increased by using two factors, e.g., a static PIN or password plus a token or app that generates a new password every minute. But this process is annoying. To securely connect my work PC requires a complicated password to unlock it, followed by VPN authentication involving a numeric user ID, an 8-digit static PIN, and a 6-digit constantly changing PIN that I need to get from my phone, which (until recently) required that I unlock it with yet another 6-digit PIN. That’s 42 keystrokes total.

Meanwhile, throughout the day I’m typing this or that other username and password to reach various resources; I have well over 100 different logins to keep track of. Most of the time, the password field you type into doesn’t show you what you’re typing—just asterisks. This leads to typos, of course, so you have to start over. If you’re at a café, this makes sense, but don’t most of us work in an office or at home 90% of the time? Why not show the password by default and have an optional “mask” button for public spaces?

This is where fingerprint readers, facial recognition, and iris scanning can really help. They’re faster and easier, removing an annoyingly repetitive behavior.

Samsung optical recognition

My new Samsung Galaxy S9+ phone has three ways of optically authenticating the user. It can use facial recognition (i.e., using the front-facing camera to see if it’s my face); it can use an infrared scanner to inspect my irises and compare them to the baseline image I stored in the phone; or it can use both. In practice, the facial recognition isn’t considered secure enough for sensitive applications. The combined method is also pointless, because the phone tries the less rigorous facial recognition method first, thus dispensing with the secure iris scan most of the time. In practice, only the iris scanner by itself makes any sense.

So, does the iris scanning work? There are two definitions of “work.” First, the phone needs to easily perform the test and unlock itself, without any false negatives (i.e., failing to recognize my irises). On top of this, the authentication has to actually be secure (i.e., avoid being circumvented by a malicious actor).

At first blush, the iris scan seems great. You swipe up from the bottom of the touch-screen to tell the phone to scan you; then, a fraction of a second later, your phone is unlocked. It’s like magic, and far easier than the six-digit PIN I had to type on my old phone. (That was actually seven taps total: the PIN and then—pointlessly—having to tap Enter.)

As far as whether the technology really is secure, that’s harder to ascertain because it’s like proving a negative. But honestly, I don’t care if it’s completely foolproof. For me, the security needs to meet exactly two standards: 1) my employer’s IT department trusts it; and 2) Google Pay trusts it. I don’t see that there’s that much real risk involved here. After all, what are the odds that a malicious actor will gain physical access to my phone? Negligible. And if someone did, well, I’d kick his ass! (Meanwhile, if I were to lose my phone, one quick phone call to corporate IT would have it wiped clean—i.e., “bricked”—within minutes.)

That said, this is a full-service blog so I’ll share what my cursory Internet research turned up. Yes, somebody has already hacked this technology. They used a digital camera with an infrared light, captured a photo of somebody’s irises, printed it out, and then put a contact lens over the iris in the printout to create the right curvature. One article called this “alarmingly easy” but is it, really? I don’t typically let strangers take a photo of my irises in infrared mode from three feet away without my consent. Meanwhile, let’s not forget that this methodology still requires that the malicious actor get physical access to my phone. How’s he gonna do that? And what exactly does he hope to get off my phone … my beer photos?

Anybody who fixates on security measures involving physical access is missing the point. This is not how hackers operate. Let me explain how they actually do their thing. Recently I was sitting in a doctor’s office reading Readers Digest and came across an “article” (i.e., thinly veiled ad) for a free app that gives emergency first responders a way to get pertinent info off your phone if they find you unconscious in a ditch. They will want to find out if you have any medical conditions, and have a way to contact your family members to let them know you’ve been in an accident. Without a screen lock this is pretty easy—they just call the last number you dialed, or sift through your contacts. But with a screen lock, things get harder. The app described by the Reader’s Digest article makes your medical information and emergency contacts available when your phone is still locked. Pretty cool, right?

Well, no, as it turns out. I downloaded the app and read the privacy policy. (If you never do this, you might consider starting, particularly when the creator of an app isn’t Google or Apple.) I discovered that this software monitors and reports all your browsing activity, even when you’re not using the app! In other words, it’s egregiously violating your privacy (which is why it’s offered for free). That’s the real risk, folks … not somebody stealing your phone and using it.

(By the way, if you want to make your emergency info available to first responders via your locked phone, check the website of your phone manufacturer. My old Motorola phones supported this natively, as does my Samsung.)

 The problem with optical scanning

So the Samsung iris scan looks pretty good, right? If so why this post? Well, as is so often the case, the honeymoon was brief.

A few days into my use of the iris scan authentication, I started having some problems. Usually the scan was almost instant, but then I challenged it in several ways. I used it while wearing contact lenses, then glasses, then sunglasses. With the first two, the phone had to work a little harder to get a good scan, but eventually worked. With sunglasses—no dice.

Still no big deal, right? But over time, seemingly as I myself got tired, this phone seemed to be working harder and harder to authenticate me. Things got worse in the evening, perhaps due to low ambient light and/or my increasingly dilated pupils. Instead of just flickering, the screen was putting two circles on the screen for me to align my eyes with. I couldn’t get a screenshot of this, but here’s how Samsung depicts it:


Still not a big deal, but not instant and automatic either. It had me doing a little bit of work, and I don’t like doing a little bit of work. I’m a Californian, man! I don’t have time for instant gratification! Moreover, I had the distinct sense that having this red light shining in my eyes was starting to cause discomfort.

Could this discomfort be in my head? Absolutely! Try this thought exercise: do you feel a little bit of an itch right now, on your head? Just a little? Doesn’t it kind of feel like something is crawling on it? Weren’t you sitting under a tree earlier? Isn’t this the season for spiders? Isn’t it entirely possible that one dropped down into your hair? There’s a little itch—admit it. You have to scratch now, don’t you? I do, and I’m the perpetrator of this ruse! (Don’t you feel a yawn coming on, too?)

The point is, any fear of side effects with this technology can start to niggle, and a little fear isn’t unreasonable. A government facility employing iris scans would screen you once every few days or weeks. But phones? We unlock these devices many dozens of times a day. I don’t think it’s irrational to wonder if frequent iris scanning might cause a cumulative problem. After all, this use of the technology is totally new.

I’m clearly not the first person to wonder if this is safe. Consider the second Google autocomplete suggestion that appeared when I typed “samsung iris scanner”:


As luck would have it, I had the opportunity to talk to a Samsung engineer about the safety of this feature. (Never mind how.) I should point out that our conversation was basically off the record. (I didn’t present myself as a blogger, because I don’t enjoy having people laugh in my face.) I also want to be clear that this guy didn’t utter a single sentence that would incriminate Samsung in any way. Everything he said indicated an essential trust in this technology.

At the same time, there were some nonverbal cues indicating that perhaps he’s not entirely confident that there’s zero risk here. This wasn’t just my interpretation … several others witnessing the exchange chuckled out loud a couple times. Due to the very essence of nonverbal communication, I cannot explain exactly how he hedged. Perhaps the most tangible detail I can convey is this cryptic statement he made, in response to my question about the high number of scans these phones are doing: “Everything in moderation, including moderation, right?”

(It was a great tech-geek conversation, by the way. The oddest thing he said was, “You can remove your irises!” I pictured a gory self-surgery for a moment before realizing he meant I could remove the stored benchmark image and try again. The idea is, if I had captured the baseline iris scan in bright daylight, then the authentication scans would also work best in bright daylight. You can experiment with different lighting conditions to capture the best sample, which will make scans work in the widest variety of conditions. The phone has an almost comically named “Manage Irises” menu for this.)

In the final analysis, I didn’t find any legitimate reason to act on my concerns … I recognize them as knee-jerk reactions, more paranoid than rational. There’s just not enough there to suggest a safety problem with this authentication method. But there’s a less slippery aspect to it that ultimately did cause me to abandon it anyway. Look at this photo:


What do you notice about that photo, particularly in contrast to the one before it? The guy in the photo looks pretty tired, doesn’t he? The Samsung photo is much nicer. The woman—surely a model—has really nice smiling blue eyes. If I looked like her, I might actually enjoy iris scans. Hell, I’d probably even snap selfies! I might even use Instagram! But the reality is much different. Unlocking my phone, particularly during the evenings after a hard day, became downright demoralizing. Here’s what I found myself looking at:


Look at those bags under my eyes! It’s depressing! I also don’t have any eyebrows left. Where the hell did they go? I used to have eyebrows. In fact, I had very nice eyebrows. I think they were my best feature—and now they’re gone … at some point they just straight-up vacated. Another ravage of age. And the above photo doesn’t even capture the expression my eyes would betray during these scans … it was one of confusion and frustration, which are decidedly unflattering.

I’m not kidding here: these iris scans were making me feel old and lost. Haven’t these damn phones, with their social media and their selfies, done enough to undermine our self esteem, without reminding us, through this new form of scrutiny, how tired and doddering so many of us have become?

The solution

Happily, there was an elegant solution to my quandary: I switched to the fingerprint reader. I’d initially refused to consider this technology because I cannot stand it on my iPad Air. That device’s fingerprint reader has always enraged me. It works about one in ten times. Typically I try the it three times in a row to no avail, and then the iPad gives up and makes me type my password. So it’s actually adding effort and frustration, the net result being I almost never use my iPad for anything. It just sits in a drawer.

Samsung, on the other hand, has a great fingerprint reader. For one thing, it’s located on the back of the phone, which just makes sense. Plus, it happens to work perfectly. Furthermore, it offers a significant extra advantage: you don’t have to “wake up” the phone to use it. With the iris scanner, you have to un-snooze the phone by pressing a button on the side, and then you swipe up on the screen, point your eyes at the phone, and then it does the scan. With the fingerprint reader, even if the phone is sound asleep, you just touch the reader and the phone unlocks. I can do this in the same motion as pulling my phone out of my pocket, so it’s instantly ready to use. Moreover, the phone can store multiple fingerprints, so another trusted person (e.g., your spouse) can borrow it (e.g., you’re driving and he or she wants to navigate). I give Samsung’s fingerprint authentication an A+ … they really nailed it.

(No, Samsung didn’t give me a free phone or anything for writing this; I’d be required to disclose that if they did. So, if anyone from Samsung is reading this: you’re welcome.)

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

From the Archives - Speech for Dad’s Memorial


Introduction

I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. It’s rough. The fact of his death is compounded by the flashbacks I have of his terrible, wasting final month. Time does heal all wounds, but first they scab over which means they bleed from time to time. I’m dealing with all of that now.

Here, extracted from my archives but still warm to the touch, is the speech I wrote for my dad’s memorial service. I know it well, because I had to rehearse it, out loud, half a dozen times just to get to where I could read it out without crying. (I’m not above letting people see me tear up, but blubbering to the point of incomprehensibility does nobody any good.)

If I seem a bit less than fawning in this tribute-cum-roast, it’s because I’ve listened to memorial speeches that were so dedicated to burnishing the reputation of the dead, they lost their essential truth. To a large extent this was the case at my grandfather’s memorial, except for my cousin’s loving but honest speech, which I well recall included the statement, “He could be difficult.” That speech inspired me to write something that conveys loving feeling but hasn’t been totally declawed.

Speech for Dad’s Memorial – November 19, 2017

I was driving my dad’s old Toyota Scion the other day, and it was down to half a tank. I’d filled it up when I was out here in early October, figuring I’d do him a favor. He’d be stoked (he would say “tickled”) to climb into his car and see the fuel gauge on full. It never occurred to me, at that time, that he’d never drive this car again. Things like that drive home the point: he’s really gone.

Of course I’m going to miss my dad—but this is not entirely new territory for me. I have, in a sense, yearned for more connection my whole life. When my brothers and I were kids, it was often hard to get our dads’ attention, unless we were in trouble. As adults, we weren’t really focused on him, either. Work, our own families, and geography got in the way.

But even as kids, when we all lived under the same roof, our relationship with our dad was less a matter of mutual rapport than of us boys being kind of in awe of him. Often it seemed his amazing intellect could be a barrier. An old friend of his from Ball Aerospace sent a nice note to our “Remembering Harry” e-mail box recently, saying, “[He was] intelligent beyond all description. He formulated a way to map the non-linearities of an instrument’s measurement plane with a Zernike polynomial making it possible to linearize the pointing accuracy of a line of sight steering mirror. His idea for using the concept of a Seaman’s signaling mirror to bisect the angle between two laser beams was the basis for an entire pointing and tracking program.” Reading this was a bit like hearing my dad talk tech, back in the day: I really couldn’t follow it. Growing up, the dinner table was like some kind of science & technology forum. Much of it was pitched at my older brothers’ level, though I’m pretty sure they were lost, too.


This isn’t to say our dad wouldn’t ever meet us on our turf. One weekend morning when I was 12 or 13, several of my biking pals flaked on me. My dad surprised me by saying, “I’ll ride with you.” So we rode up Flagstaff together. I pushed as high a gear as I could, out of the saddle, rocking the bike, slogging away slowly to be macho, while dad stayed seated and spun a high cadence—an engineer’s cadence, perhaps—next to me. Of course he turned the ride into a picnic, literally. At the summit we parked our bikes and walked out to Artist’s Point, and ate the odd creations he’d packed, like bagels dressed up with sardines, dill relish, and mayonnaise, and a half grapefruit.

[Here is his beloved Trek, which he rode on this ride. I’m pretty sure my dad snapped this photo at the summit of Flagstaff, probably quite near where we had our picnic.]


On the way back down the mountain I let it all hang out—I’d mastered all the curves by bombing this descent several times a week—and halfway down I heard this incredible scream. I looked back, expecting that all was lost, but my dad was still upright, just behind me, looking totally unflustered. “Not to worry,” he said, “that sound is just my brake pads melting.” I don’t know where he found the nerve to fake it on a descent like that, other than being hell-bent on keeping up with his kid.

Another surprise from my dad came during the summer of ’94, when I took my new bride, along with my brother Bryan, on a bike ride up Mount Evans. We weren’t very well equipped for the harsh conditions up there, which would have become a big problem, except that Dad unexpectedly showed up in his car when we were about halfway up. He had a lot of warm clothing and a big thermos of hot cocoa.

[Here we are maybe halfway up, before the temperature dropped.]


I felt this outing had brought my dad and me closer together, and so, remembering that 22 years later, I invited him along as the “sag wagon” when I took my daughter on her first bike trip up Mount Evans in August of last year. He happily obliged, following along in his Toyota Scion, with his good friend J— [not shown since I don’t have her permission].


Dad made a picnic out of this outing, too, giving my exhausted daughter the most challenging sandwich of her young life: homemade bread, like particle board, spread thick with refried beans, ketchup, and—of course—mayonnaise.


But so much of the time during my childhood, my dad was immersed in his own thoughts. The childish ideas I tried to share just didn’t tend to grab him. He was a bit like the archetypal “absentminded professor,” often pondering a mathematical or scientific abstraction, or the workings of the natural world. I think everywhere he looked, he saw these intricate mechanisms that just begged to be studied and fathomed. I suspect his profound intellect could be isolating for him, too. A character in a Vladimir Nabokov novel wrote to his wife, “A genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do.” Was my dad keeping something in store? Hard to say, but I did find it hard to compete with whatever good solid engineering problem had taken root in his brain. Where mechanisms, science, and engineering were concerned, my dad always knew where to start, and how to proceed ... humans were always a bit trickier, and relationships could end up being the problems left unsolved.



And so, with all this in mind, I’ve been gratified to see, over the last ten or twenty years, my dad expand his comfort zone and delve deeper into messy human stuff. I’m impressed by how social he became, how wide a circle of close, loving friends he had around him in his retirement. He developed a spiritual side completely at odds with the purely scientific approach he’d had as a younger man. He also described to me his (apparently willing) participation in activities I never dreamed he’d undertake: meditation, Buddhism, singing, even dancing. Dancing—man, I’d have loved to see that.

As I grieve, I have to remind myself that memory is fickle. When I look back on that high-speed bicycle descent of Flagstaff, and my dad glued to my wheel despite his brake pads melting, I recognize this alternate side of him. Even if he didn’t always nurture it, his capacity for reaching out and expanding that comfort zone seems to have been there all along.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Fettuccine Alfredo


Introduction

I posted a while back about the who-what-where-when-why-how of hand-cranked homemade pasta. In a subsequent post I tackled the topic of a fittingly tasty sauce, Bolognese Ragù. That’s all well and good, but what about vegetarians? And what about a sauce that doesn’t take like six hours to create? I’ll cover that here. 


Who, where, and when

In terms of “who,” it would be great if I could say this is a family recipe handed down from generation to generation, over which I bonded with my dearly departed Italian grandmother. But my grandmother was Dutch, and didn’t teach me how to cook a damn thing (probably because the Dutch don’t really cook, other than fries, as far as I can tell).

To be honest, I don’t remember where I got this recipe, if I ever had one. I think I just tried stuff practically at random until I found something that worked. (The fact is, when you’re adding butter, cream, and cheese to pasta, it’s hard to end up with something you’re not willing to eat, no matter how badly you screw up.)

I’ve been making this for decades. The current incarnation dates from at least 1994, when my wife and I did a cross-country bicycle tour and this was our go-to splurge whenever we gained access to a kitchen. Needless to say this dish isn’t feasibly prepared on a little camp stove.

What

According to Wikipedia, fettuccine Alfredo is the same thing as fettuccine al burro (i.e., with butter). They go on about this Italian chef who invented the recipe by using more butter than those before him. There’s no mention of cream, which means that what most Americans call Alfredo is really a bastardization. This is fitting, because Alfredo himself was, literally, a bastard. (Note: I made that up.) Suffice to say, every recipe I’ve looked at online calls for heavy cream so it’s hard to say how authentic any of it actually is. But when it’s so heart-achingly good, who cares?

Why

Why would you eat this? Because it’s delicious, duh! The better question is, why make it yourself?

First of all, because you can—it’s not exactly easy, but it is quick. You could get it at a restaurant, but if you’re paying somebody to cook for you, why not order something like a Bolognese that’s much more labor-intensive? Also, even though this dish is quick, it can’t be made in advance—it has to be made to order—so it’s hard for restaurants to get it just right. You can actually make it better at home.

Why not buy it in a jar? Please. I just looked up the ingredients for Barilla brand jarred Alfredo. The first ingredient is water; the second is sunflower oil. There’s no butter in it at all, though there are “dairy product solids.” That’s almost as enticing as the “enzyme modified egg yolk,” the xanthan gum, and the gum arabic it also features. You also get “natural flavors” (i.e., artificial flavors). I had this sauce once and it was just as disgusting as it sounds.

Classico brand Alfredo is slightly better (on paper, at least) but still has xanthan gum, along with modified gum arabic, whey protein concentrate, and modified food starch. The first three consumer reviews listed are all one-star: “If you are putting up new wallpaper this will be handy but not for eating”; “Bland and tasteless” (both!); and “Watery bland.”

How

The fettuccine is the easy part. You can buy De Cecco, which is great stuff, or make your own according to my instructions. It should look like this:


Part of what fettuccine Alfredo is touted for is its golden color. Well, with proper pasta you’re halfway there!

Beyond this, I have to confess: fettuccine Alfredo is a bit tricky (as opposed to my Bolognese, which takes forever but which is so easy a rhesus monkey could probably make it, and I wish it were legal to keep them as pets because I’d consider getting one just for this purpose). Some batches of Alfredo come out great, but others not so much. I once made it for my dad, and it was a lousy batch—the sauce separated and got greasy—but he pronounced it “excellent.” (A sucker for saturated fats, I guess.)

The hardest thing is figuring out how much butter to use. I originally started with a stick of butter and a pint of cream, just as a shock-and-awe kind of brute-force approach. That wasn’t very good. I’ve gradually dialed back the butter, but haven’t figured out exactly how much should go in. The idea is to permeate the sauce with as much fat as possible without it getting greasy. Perhaps I’ll tinker with the butter quantity and update this post, if I can remember (and if my heart and arteries hold out long enough). For now, start with 2 or 3 tablespoons.

The other difficult part is melting in a maximum amount of Romano and Parmesan cheese without the sauce clumping up. The cheese needs to meld perfectly with the cream and butter, and this isn’t a perfect science. I think the trick, as is so often the case, is not to cut any corners. This means grating the cheese with a zester.

A zester? Yep. The hard cheese needs to be grated as fine as snowflakes. (Note that the powdery stuff you get in the green cardboard can melts beautifully, but tastes terrible—because it is. Totally off-limits here.) Below are three type of graters you might use (along with some recommended ingredients):


The one on the far right is a classic, though I don’t know why. It grates the cheese too coarsely, so it doesn’t melt well enough (and meanwhile that curved surface just makes things awkward, increasing the chance that you’ll grate part of a finger or thumb into the sauce). The Zyliss grater on the left is efficient, and injury-proof (other than carpal tunnel I guess), but it still doesn’t grate the cheese fine enough. I used my Zyliss recently for a batch of Alfredo and wasn’t thrilled with the results. What you really want is that one in back, the zester. And for absolutely best results you probably want to grate it right over the pasta in the pan instead of into a bowl. You’ll need strong hands for this. (Tip: be a professional bicycle mechanic for at least ten years before you turn to cooking. This will give you the strength you need, and the psychological mettle. It is said that “bicycle mechanic bleed on the inside.”)

Use equal parts Romano and Parmesan. Once grated, they should be finer than what’s shown here (which was grated with the Zyliss):


The other tricky thing is to get the right about of nutmeg. I don’t know the precise amount because I don’t measure it with a teaspoon. How could I, when I grate it right into the sauce? This is a much more aromatic form of nutmeg than what you get in a jar (though honestly it might be the height of culinary affectation to insist on it).


If you use too little nutmeg, you won’t taste it at all so why did you bother with that fancy tool shown above? But if you use too much, it’s too strong and dominates the sauce. I’ve definitely screwed up entire batches this way, which is a shame when each plate of this food probably knocks a few months off your life.

The final challenge is the peas. You don’t have to add peas, but it imparts a nice bit of color, and just a touch of sweetness to offset the saltiness of all that cheese. If you add too many peas, that reduces the decadence and overwhelms the subtle flavors. Also, if you overcook the peas they’re mushy and only the English can get away with that. A final pitfall is if it turns out you grabbed that bag of frozen peas somebody had used to ice a knee every night for a week, so they’re powdery and inedible.

Okay, so here’s what you do. Get the pasta water boiling, salt it, throw in the pasta, and in a very large copper-bottomed pan (a paella pan works great), melt the butter (not too much!) and add the heavy cream. (Use organic—it tastes better. And find some without any thickener.) Salt and pepper that a bit. Add the nutmeg (not too much!). Now—wait! Stop! Don’t add the peas yet!

When the pasta is almost done (it should be just this side of al dente since it will continue to soften a bit from here), strain it and add it to the butter & cream. Stir that all around. You should be surprised at how thin and watery this mixture seems.


Okay, now add the frozen peas. Stir well. Don’t worry, they’ll be cooked by the end. Perfectly, as it turns out. Now sprinkle a thin, even layer of grated zested cheese on there. It should look like this just  before you put the lid on.


You want this on just the lowest heat. You know what? I used to use an ad hoc double boiler by putting the pan atop the pasta pot (with the burner off, but plenty of heat radiating up from the water because you’ve used a pot with a built-in colander insert). This works great. (Why did I stop doing this? Because I forgot about it, until I unearthed the below photo.)


(Why the pink tinge in the above photo? I can’t remember. Maybe that batch had salmon in it.)

Next, wait two or three minutes—with the lid on—until that cheese has basically melted, then mix it in. It will, ideally, blend right in with the cream without clumping.


Now repeat this step with another layer of cheese. You might repeat it several more times. How many? Depends on how thin your layer of cheese is (the thinner the better) and how finely grated the cheese is. When the sauce is on the verge of not even being creamy anymore, it’s time to stop. Here’s the finished product:


(No, it doesn't change color. I was monkeying with my camera flash.)

Now’s the scary part: plate it and hope it turned out. 
  • A so-so batch will be well worth eating, and everybody will want seconds, but it might be under-creamy, or greasy, or perhaps just a bit meh (which would be the result of too little cheese). If you over-nutmegged it, this is when you’ll curse silently. Someone might pronounce it “excellent” but you’ll know better.
  • On the other hand, if it’s a good batch, you’ll actually hear people’s eyes rolling back in their heads, unless this is drowned out by all the yummy-noises and actual whimpers of pleasure.
You might think the difference is how hungry people are, but I don’t think this is the case. Once, at my annual bike team pasta party, I whipped up a batch of Alfredo long after the Bolognese was gone, and a few friends standing around the stove—who had declared themselves stuffed already—decided to have “just a taste.” So I served some up, right there at the stove, and they ate it while standing. “Oh, shit—give me more of that!” one of them said. The others also demanded seconds. Nobody was “tasting” anymore. We all kept macking on the Alfredo until it was completely gone. By this time others had gathered around to see what all the commotion (and, frankly, profanity) was about, but they were too late. It was a truly glorious batch.

Counterpoint

I really need to point out that this dish is very, very bad for you. Refined starch, three kinds of saturated fat, only the smallest smattering of peas (which health nuts will tell you aren’t nearly as salubrious as leafy greens) … isn’t this totally irresponsible? Well, yeah. That’s practically the point. (If you’re not comfortable with this, maybe you should become a cyclist.)

Can you make Alfredo healthier, by adding broccoli, or using half-and-half, or making it a side dish? Yeah, you could, if you want to bring your joyless, priggish discipline to yet one more aspect of your puritanical life, you gastronomic prude.

What about salmon? Okay, now we’re talking … that’s actually pretty good (see the first photo in this post). I’ve thrown in smoked salmon, at the very end, to great effect. (No, don’t use canned. But farmed is totally fine.)

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

More Beer Pix - the H.B. Albert Memorial Beck’sts


Introduction

It was a little sad for me that, when researching my recent aquaculture post, I couldn’t consult my dad. It would have been a great conversation topic, and those weren’t always easy to come by. I say “weren’t” because my dad died last year. I’m now bumping into various anniversaries: of our last non-medical visit; of the unsuccessful surgery that was the beginning of the end; of the end itself; and, of the aftermath.

Now, I don’t cope with these anniversaries, nor did I cope with these events, by drinking beer. But, looking back, I can see the role that Beck’sting played in being supported through the gradual dénouement. Read on for some bittersweet memories, bitter beers, and fetching photos.

A note on the captions and other comments: throughout this post, I’ve included the initials of the Beck’ster and anybody who commented on his Beck’st. Where you see one letter only (e.g., “E—”) that’s somebody’s spouse, etc. And if you don’t know about Beck’sting, click here. For a follow-up gallery of Beck’sts click here.

Last time we hung out with Dad in a non-convalescent capacity– June 18, 2017

[All four brothers took the old man out for a Father’s Day dinner. We were together in Washington state for my nephew’s wedding. My dad, already in the throes of a losing battle with cancer, had made a heroic solo road trip—which we all knew would be his last—so he could attend.]

DA: This is a Boundary Bay Scotch Ale. You can tell H— is very impressed with my exquisite taste.


PCS: H— is looking dapper! Did you get him to drink a few brewskis?

DA: Very funny. I think he’s consumed a grand total of half a beer during his lifetime. He does look pretty baked in this photo, though. (Of course he’s not.)

BA: Well... it is a good picture of your Scotch Ale, Dana, but I’ve seen better of Dad! He was actually pretty chill for the time together, which was great.

Helping out post-surgery – September 6, 2017

PCS: Funkwerks Saison! Chillin’ with Dana....Gondo! [Gondo = Café Gondolier, a Boulder favorite.]


DA: Funkwerks Saison! Very good, out of Fort Collins. Chillin’ with Pete at the Gondo!


DW: I bet that Funkwerks is a hella lot better than the Mirror Pond that’s sitting in my fridge, which I have on good authority is meh.

JL: Gondo Bext! Double Gondo Bext! That’s got to be worth 50 points! Maybe more! How many plates of spag will Dana eat tonight? And why aren’t you there are on all you can eat night???? Or is Wednesday all you can eat night…? I thought it was Tuesday. What are you doing out there Dana????

DA: We missed spag spesh night by one night! So we had garlic twists, one plate of spag, and shared a pizza. Good times! I am in town helping my dad out after a major surgery. At least that’s my excuse. I am really here for the spag!

DA [later than evening]: This is one of my very favorite beers: the Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA. Isn’t it amazing that the Gondo, an iconic restaurant from our childhoods, is now serving us brilliant adult beverages?


JL: Yes, you are correct.

DW: Great Bex’ts. What’s on tap for tomorrow...some 180 mile mega ride with 22,000’ of climbing? After a few of those awesome looking beers and the twisted, elated, conspiring expressions you both have, I’m sure that’s what you were planning. On the other hand, did you guys put your phones down and talk to each other, or just kept checking your social media accounts with a nod, grunt or response that had nothing to do with the question asked from the other? Both are totally acceptable, BTW.

DA [the next day]: LOL. I meant to ignore Pete and Max by immersing myself in online dialogues but I don’t have enough virtual friends to make that work! We’re going to do some kind of mega-ride. I might go for some bonus miles by riding to Golden to meet Peter. Kind of depends on how comfortable the saddle is on my rental bike. I am kind of hurting this morning ... can’t tell if it’s the beer, the overeating, or the stress of being a ... CAREGIVER. (Say that reverently, with a pregnant pause for effect beforehand.)

Helping with skilled nursing facility, then hospice – October 17-26, 2018

DA: Maxin’ out with Bryan and Max at the Gondolier in Boulder. This is a Modus Hoperandi IPA from Ska Brewing in Durango. It’s 6.8 IBU and 88 IBUs but surprisingly smooth and darn good!


JL: Bryan looks angry for a guy with a nice looking full pint of beer in front of him — what did you say to him?? Or maybe he’s just hangry because they haven’t delivered the spag yet. And what brought you guys to Boulder? Weren’t you just there?

BA: Here’s the view from the other side of the table. The spag spesh is a nice reprieve from all the action here in Boulder.


DW: Dana looks equally angry. I hope you guys had more than one IPA.

DA: We are here visiting my dad who is very sick. As in very, very sick ... we are on the way back from the airport having just fetched Geoff [who flew in from Holland]. Sorry to be a downer.

JL: Oh man, I’m really sorry to hear this. There was a part of me that was wondering if something bad was up with your first email, but then I “perished the thought.” You and the brothers are there, and that’s good. My thoughts are with you guys.

DA: Thanks John. I thought about saying something earlier but I didn’t want to taint a perfectly good Beck’st. Things are headed pretty swiftly in the inevitable direction....

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DA: At Uncle Max’s pimpin’ new bachelor pad. Dan, note that even though the New Belgium Trippel specifically recommends stemware, I served these in a proper (and non-carcinogenic) pint glass.


DA (continued): Here’s another. New Belgium Trippel, Crystal Brewing Blood Orange Kolsch, Great Divide Colette.


JL: The perspective appears to be from someone who has already had a few too many… For me, I’m having this odd “IPL” [India Pale Lager] from Jack’s Abby. It’s “cleaner” than an IPA I would say. Slightly more refreshing, but still very flavorful. It might become my new favorite beer. Oh, and it’s in a can, which is my preferred container for beer in the summer/warmer months. Many breweries around here are putting more of their beers in cans. It’s “cool.”


October 27, 2017

[I sent this Beck’st just a few hours after my dad’s death, which is described here. I snapped this photo at the Dushanbe Teahouse, a restaurant my dad raved about but which we somehow never managed to visit together. It was weird to be dining in such a swanky place while our dad was laid out stiff somewhere, but I guess life goes on. As if to underscore this point, at the Teahouse we happened to run into the hospice nurse who’d been at our childhood home with us, and even in the room with us, when our father died. I didn’t feel like addressing these surreal feelings in my Beck’st—much less typing a lot with two thumbs during dinner—so I kept my Beck’st short and sweet.]

DA: A local beer from Avery Brewing Company, the White Rascal Belgian style white, at the Dushanbe Teahouse in Boulder. Delicious! I hired a model to pose in the background. Huh huh, no. That’s my niece R—.


PCS: That’s good times! Cheers to the memories.

BA: Good times indeed. As much as I’m relieved that the late night amateur nursing care, the [heinous] ostomy odors and the gut-wrenching pain of it all are (more or less) behind me, I’m really going to miss the rich, wonderful times with these brothers. I can’t imagine what it would be like going through something like this alone. We had some good Beck’sts, that’s for sure. The food at this tea house was really good, as was the tea I had. Who could have known?

Memorial trip – November 16-18, 2017

DA: This is a Mojo IPA from Boulder Brewing. Pretty yum! Note the reflection of my checkered napkin, and of course Evil Uncle Bryan in the background. We are in Boulder for my dad’s upcoming memorial.


BA: Too bad your phone has such a tiny lens with such a small aperture, otherwise you’d be able to blur out the background a bit better! Still, good times, all things considered.

DA: Actually, I was thinking the main flaw with this photo is that you’re so bald.

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DA: Liquid Mechanic Belgian IPA, post-memorial. [Pete gave me a lift to the memorial “after-party,” held at a friend’s house in a suburb outside Boulder, and when we drove by the Liquid Mechanic brewery Pete made an executive decision and swung into the parking lot. He’d wanted to try this place, and this seemed the perfect opportunity. The memorial had gone just fine, but so many complete strangers approached me afterward and talked my ear off—all on the subject of a dead man who’d been my father—I was feeling pretty damn overwhelmed. This glorious beer and a little peace and quiet were exactly what I needed.]


DW: You guys look quite dapper in your sports coats. That beer looks pretty darn tasty too. Sorry about your dad, Dana. I hope this bex’t will make you laugh a bit. This is my GWAR bex’t.


DW (continued): This is a Tropical and Juicy from The Hop Concepts in San Diego. This IPA blew me away. It was delicious and a total surprise. We stopped in Sacramento on our way down to Ventura for Thanksgiving. No shortage of breweries in Downtown Sac. We tried Fieldwork, but there was no room and not an ideal arrangement for two 15-year-olds. My kids were very hangry and not amused with my need to get to a brewery. “What’s wrong with Denny’s?” I think I heard. We walked over to something called “Burgers and Brew.” The name is a bit hokey, but it had good ratings and a great selection of craft beer. There was a huge line next to the restaurant with a lot of metal heads, hanging on from the 90’s. The reason? Next to Burgers and Brew was the night club “Ace of Spades” and that’s where GWAR was playing. One unfortunate thing about Bend (and most of Oregon, except PDX) is a lack of ethnic diversity. Hanging out in Sac for awhile was nice for that, and the cultural experience of metal heads was a whole new level of diversity that my kids were pretty blown away with. I played them a YT video of GWAR in all their glory.

DA: Wow, cool Beck’sts! I confess that a) I didn’t know Fieldwork had expanded from Berkeley to other locales like Sac, and b) I had to look up “GWAR.” I asked E— if she’d heard of GWAR and she replied, “I’ve heard of guar gum.” Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the crowd as much as the Tropical and Juicy IPA. I love the idea of ageing metal-heads (or “metallists” as we used to call them in high school). I have managed to turn [my daughter] A— on to Metallica. That’s not so hard though, since they’re tot’ly wicked. BTW, my brother Max made a new year’s resolution a few years back (one of many) which was “no more classic rock people.”

Follow-up Boulder trip, cleaning out Dad’s house – March 5-6, 2018

DA: Here’s another Boulder Beck’st with Uncle Peter, Uncle Bryan, and Evil Uncle Max. The beers in the glasses are a Belgian style from Upslope Brewing, a local place. Gorgeous beer. Note the pasta dough—fresh pasta is imminent and nothing goes better with beer except maybe friends and brothers. Fortunately we’ve hit the trifecta! Note also the also local (Denver) Great Divide Titan IPA, a solid choice. Good times!


JL: You guys are all looking good. Real good. However, that “pasta dough” as you call it looks more like an alien tumor. Yikes.

Road trip Beck’st – March 7, 2018

DA: Bryan and I are at the Nevada Hotel in Ely. Our room came with free breakfast at Denny’s and free Budweisers at the bar. I reckon these are about 8-oz. beers and maybe 3.2% ABV. They were slightly better than nothing and the company was top-notch.


JL: I must have missed something. Why are you in the middle of nowhere Nevada????

BA: ROAD TRIP! We were driving Dana’s new car to Cali. He inherited Dad’s Toyota Scion XB, in case you hadn’t heard… So we were havin’ a Bud. It was nothing special but I must confess, it was better than I thought it would be. (That was my first Bud ever.)

Real estate closure – March 10, 2018

DA: Here are Bryan and I celebrating the closing of a major real estate transaction: selling our father’s house. (I finished the paperwork during the Boulder trip but of course it wasn’t really done until the wire transfer came through.) This is at Fieldwork, which is not only the best brewery in NorCal but happens to be walking distance from my house. Bryan has a Belgian “table beer” of some kind and I have got a Radlands IPA. Both very tasty!


DA (continued): I’m not sure this is technically a selfie. We used the self-timer, which predates the selfie by many decades, innit? 

Life goes on – April 12, 2018

DA: I’m up to 174 pounds but the wife says I’m still too scrawny to cuddle, so here I am Beck’sting again. Solo-Beck’sting, no less, in clear violation of my only-drink-with-friends rule. E— put her foot down about that, on the grounds that the only way for me to fill back out after the all-too-effective South Beach Diet is thru regular consumption of beer. Hence the flurry of Beck’sts lately. Don’t worry, though: I can quit anytime I want. In the background there is my new car. Dad called it the Toaster (or “Towster” to be precise) but it’s my car now and I am calling it Boxtro. Bryan can provide the etymology. The beer is an East Brothers Pilsner. It’s okay—paying my rent at this coffee shop is all. They don’t serve Lagunitas IPA here anymore which is a bummer.


PCS: Beck’staholic!

BA: Boxtro was some kind of stuffed animal, though I’m not remembering too well just what kind of animal it was, a bear, I guess, but it seems it had smooth skin rather than hair or fur. I have a memory of someone squirting toothpaste on Boxtro’s head, which proved very difficult to remove. I’m not sure how the name came about. It was Max’s pet, was it not? The car’s looking good!

DA: Boxtro was a teddy bear, and you’re right, he had oddly smooth fur, like a bed sheet. You, Geoff, and Max were huddled around the bear, and I watched with fascination as one of you meticulously drew a figure-8 in Crest on the bear’s head. Max seemed oddly cool with this, perhaps because it was so gratifying to be participating in a group activity with his cool older brothers.

The car is just fine, but E— is begging me to get some hubcaps. Where the hell did Dad put them, after he had the rims spray-painted? I should have asked him when I had the chance…

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