Category Archives: Products

The Japanese Have an Edge

My friend Mat just got a sweet new Japanese knife. For the uninitiated, shopping for Japanese knives is intimidating because of the huge range of steel choices, blade shapes and tapers, handle types and manufacturing methods. But for us geeks, researching and deliberating over product minutiae is a hobby in itself, and the more esoteric the product category the better!

I did my research and shopping over five years ago, and these are the pieces I bought:

Japanese knives

From top to bottom we have a Nenox S1 Gyuto (240mm), a Suisin Yanagi (appx. 9.5″ blade), a Suisin Deba (8″), and a Bunmei Deba (5.25″). As you can see, the collection I’ve assembled covers a wide range of functionality- a chef’s knife, a precision slicer, a heavy duty chopper capable of going through bone, and a small general purpose chopper.

Technically I don’t consider the Nenox or the Bunmei to be real Japanese knives; they are really kind of half-Japanese (like Mat, haha). You can tell just by looking at the Nenox that its design, both in blade shape and handle, is that of a western-style chef’s knife. But it is hand made in Japan and its super fine edge appears to be single-sided, as Japanese knives traditionally are. I’m also pretty sure I’ve seen Iron Chef Morimoto with at least one Nenox in his knife kit, so there you go.

The Bunmei is half-Japanese the other way, i.e. its appearance is completely traditional Japanese but it is produced by the same manufacturer and using the same molybdenum/vanadium steel as the ultra-contemporary Global knives you see at your local department store. Since the molybdenum/vanadium steel is more durable, it is a good choice for this knife since the small deba is meant to be a chopping knife that takes a lot of abuse. Think of it as a small knife with a lot of heft, intended for chopping herbs or making ground meat or fish for tartare. That sort of thing requires a vertical chopping action (as opposed to a slicing motion), and consequently you’re repeatedly banging the edge onto your cutting board so a more durable steel is preferable for that application. I would say that the small deba is the most used and abused knife in daily use because I prefer to use a small cutting board whenever possible (for easier cleanup) and when chopping veggies, the little deba is the ideal tool. Where it really is without peer is when it comes to chopping herbs, especially parsely. The heft of the deba allows you to really bang through it and chop things up finely and swiftly. The big slicing/rocking motion you have to use with a chef’s knife just feels less efficient.

If the small deba is the most utilitarian blade type, I would say that the yanagi is least useful since it is primarily a slicer, and for anything you want to slice you can usually just take a chef’s knife to it all the same. The only real advantage I’ve found in using a yanagi is when working with a whole fish fillet, like a side of salmon. With a yanagi, you can run the blade gently over the inner surface of the fillet to feel if there are any pin bones left. You just don’t get that sort of feedback from a big clumsy ol’ chef’s knife. After you’ve used a yanagi to prep fish once, you’ll know what I mean. Trying to go back to a chef’s knife for that task will make you feel about as deft as a village blacksmith. This is probably why the yanagi is ubiquitous amongst sushi chefs.

The large deba is good for butchering where you may need to go through bone and cartilage. This may seem an odd task for Japanese knives which are known to have more delicate edges than their western counterparts, but have a look at the knife from this angle:

Suisin Large Deba

That spine is about 5/16″ thick. The only thing in your knife drawer with that kind of heft would be your meat cleaver and it would not have anything close to the razor edge of this bad boy. This tool is a beast that can also handle precision work.

Anyway, if you’re interested in learning more about Japanese knives, Mat highly recommends the book An Edge in the Kitchen: The Ultimate Guide to Kitchen Knives — How to Buy Them, Keep Them Razor Sharp, and Use Them Like a Pro. There’s so much to learn about this fascinating subject. So you want a cool hobby? Forget stamps, collect Japanese knives!

Keurig Platinum

One of the only things I miss about working in a big office is the endless supply of free coffee. The thought of that first cup of coffee in the morning is what motivated me to get out of bed on time most days, especially during the winter. Now that I spend more time at home every day, I’ve been forced to put a little more thought into my personal coffee practices. Being a single guy without a chronic caffeine addiction, I really only drink one, maybe two cups in a morning, so brewing a full pot of coffee was usually just plain wasteful. Using my french press was ok, but having to muck with a separate coffee grinder and the subsequent cleanup of the press was just a total hassle. So what was my solution? Redeeming some AmEx Rewards points for this baby:

Keurig Platinum

It’s the Keurig Platinum (also cryptically known as the B70 I think, not to be confused with the B60 or B50, though I couldn’t tell you the difference between any of them). This machine uses the same single-serving coffee pods that we used in the old office, so I was already familiar with some of the coffee selections. While there are several different coffee companies licensed to produce these “K-cup” pods, the most common are the ones produced by Green Mountain, and that’s fine by me since they offer a couple of varieties I’ve been really happy with. For the my taste, the only pods worth buying are the ones labeled “Extra Bold”, meaning they are packed with extra grinds so that they produce a stronger cup of coffee. Of these, my favorites are their “Dark Magic” and “Espresso Blend”. But recently I’ve stumbled upon one that I like even more- Newman’s Own Special Blend. It’s apparently a blend of both dark and light roasts which yields a nicely balanced cup o’ joe. Enough dark roast to provide that rich flavor I look for in coffee, while tempered enough to be really easy drinking. No harshness or bitterness, so opting to have an extra cup doesn’t feel like it would be just too much. While it’s not necessarily a sensationally delicious cup of coffee, for everyday drinking, it is pretty darn good.

The best thing about the Keurig is that its reservoir is easy to fill and it heats up in no time flat. It has a timed auto on/off timer feature, but since it heats up to brewing temp in about 2 minutes anyway, that feature seems rather unnecessary. How many people will get out of bed at exactly the same time every day, and of those people, how many will be so caffeine deprived that they need their shot of coffee in under 2 minutes? If you are that much of a coffee junkie, I suggest you keep this machine on your nightstand and just turn it on at the same time you hit snooze on your alarm clock. You might consider checking into rehab while you’re at it. I should point out that you can get pods other than coffee too. There are an assortment of teas which are ok, but particularly nice is the choice of hot cocoa. You know, some mornings you just want the sugar more than the caffeine. But regardless of which pod I choose each day, it’s clear that this Keurig Platinum has become an integral part of my morning routine. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my second cup…

Wacky Snacks are Big in Japan

I was only joking in my last post when I suggested that junk food companies like Frito Lay could learn a little something from Japanese cuisine. Well apparently the joke was on me as I stumbled upon these two unusual snack items at my local Japanese grocery store:

Japanese Snack Bags

On the left, Japanese chicken wing flavored snacks, and on the right, uni puffs! I know, I know, Doritos (made by Frito Lay) has a buffalo wing flavor now, so the wing flavor isn’t that much of a stretch, but still, Japanese-wing flavored, that’s intriguing! And sea urchin in a puff? Who can resist that? Let’s open the bags and take a closer look shall we?

Japanese Snacks On A Plate

As you can see, the wing snacks are shaped kind of like Cheetos (made by Frito Lay). The texture is the same too. But the flavor, wow, it’s something else altogether. In a good way. The predominant flavor is that of sansho pepper, and the salty notes come from flavors something like a cross between soy sauce, msg, and onion powder. But it’s those high notes of sansho pepper that make it addictive. Ok, and maybe the msg too (although it’s not listed in the ingredients, I really can’t believe there isn’t any in there). In any case, it’s a tasty treat and certainly worth buying again.

I had high hopes for the sea urchin puffs too, what with all those sexy close-up pics of uni on the packaging. But alas they were a letdown. They’re basically corn puffs and other than their uniformly large, wide C-shapes, they are identical to Puffed Cheez Doodles. Seriously, absolutely identical in texture and flavor. I bet if you snuck a bag of these into little Johnny’s lunchbox, he would just think you bought some generic cheesy puffs from the wholesale club instead of getting the name brand stuff. I tried hard to pick up on any slight trace of sea urchin flavor on my palate, but there just wasn’t any to be found from these. Too bad.

For the record, the uni puffs are made by a company called Meiji. Nice try, Meiji. If not for the bait-and-switch feeling I got from expecting to taste uni, I might have enjoyed them for what they are- pretty good cheesy puffs. Oh well. At least those Jap-wing snacks were good. And who makes those? Well, see for yourself:

Frito Lay JP

Getting Shafted (in a good way)

It seems that every year the lull of winter and the anticipation of golf season stirs in me a desire to buy new clubs. I’m no Eliot Spitzer, but I have definitely been known to give in to my indulgent urges as evidenced by my storage room full of clubs from years past. In the last two years my new clubs have been drivers and why should this year be any different, right? Yep, I went and got a new driver last Friday. Jones had the best reaction to the news of my latest acquisition, “Damn, you probably own as many drivers as you have irons now!”

Ah, but this year I finally did it the right way- I got fitted the way the pros do. It was something I’ve wanted to do but always found reasons to chicken out. My apprehension is due in large part to the same reason why I don’t take golf lessons- I know the detailed mechanics of a textbook golf swing, I know that my swing doesn’t match that profile, and I get really annoyed with people telling me things that I already know. I have no doubt that the best way to a scratch handicap is to build a fundamentally sound swing, but I also know that a conventional swing has too many aspects that don’t feel right to me now and would require too much time for me to adopt. When you only play once a week if you’re lucky, the prospect of sacrificing several months of golf to undo old habits to adopt new ones with no guarantee of sustainability is not very attractive. If only I had taken lessons when I first picked up the game, those technically correct swing positions would probably feel normal to me now, but alas, my swing now is what it is. And what it is, is an admittedly sloppy mix of an Azinger-esque ultra-strong grip, an unseemly re-grip as my trigger move, leading into an inside takeaway, up to an abbreviated backswing, followed by a too-quick transition to the downswing and finishing with an impact position marked by an exaggerated forward shaft lean. Nice, huh?

But that’s exactly the swing I took with me into The Complete Golfer last week. The process started by my filling out a short questionnaire asking me to describe my ball flight, average yardages, etc. The pro doing my fitting, Andy, had a self-deprecating humor that put me at ease as he reviewed my answers and asked me a few more questions before leading me to one of the hitting bays. Even though I was there for a wood fitting, he let me hit a few warm-up shots with an iron just to get loose. Since I hadn’t swung a club since last autumn, I definitely needed it.

When I was ready to begin, Andy affixed a wireless transmitter to my left wrist connected via a wire to the club I was about to swing. He explained that this club’s shaft had sensors which would measure how my swing loads the shaft at different points and the transmitter would relay that info to the computer in the corner. A few swings with that and he had enough data to pick a particular clubhead/shaft combo as a starting point for the fitting process.

So it was time to start hitting some drivers. But first Andy explained how we’d be evaluating things. We were using Callaway Tour i balls which were most similar to the HX Tours that I normally play, but these were marked with three dots of different colors. On the ground next to the hitting mat was a rectangular box which I was told was a high speed camera. The lens opening was aimed less than two inches ahead of where I was to tee the ball up, and I needed to make sure the colored dots on the ball faced the camera. The sound of impact would trigger the camera to take two shots consecutively so we would have an actual visual picture of the moment after impact to go along with the more conventional numeric and computer generated data (e.g. ball speed, launch angle, spin rate, carry and roll distances, etc).

So I teed up a ball and hit a few shots with the first club/shaft combo. We then looked at the computer to see the results. Ball speed was poor, only about 112mph, spin rate was nice and low, trajectory was erratic and the photos showed why- I de-loft the club with so much forward press at impact that I am often presenting the top of the clubhead to the ball instead of the face. At that point the owner John Ioris popped in to have a look at my swing. After a few more hits, he asked if I intended to take lessons anytime in the near future. I said no because I just don’t have the time to devote to the game to unlearn my habits. And that’s when he replied with the one thing that convinced me I had definitely come to the right place- “That’s exactly the right answer for a lot of people. Ok we can fit you to your current swing.” Just what I wanted to hear.

So then the merry-go-round of shaft/head combos began. Andy would give me a club, I’d hit enough balls to get a consistent grouping of data to know exactly how that particular setup suited me, then he’d make adjustments. He was able to swap shafts onto different clubheads in mere seconds, and the only thing he didn’t have in his fitting arsenal was shorter shafts, so he just instructed me to choke up a bit on every club. The computer data was irrefutable and it was pretty surprising to see how the same swing would produce such markedly different grouping patterns. He could literally predict what the readings would look like as we switched shafts. It was very cool and very fun.

The biggest thing that I learned was that contrary to the conventional wisdom that says if you suck as a golfer you should probably be playing a more flexible shaft, I actually needed a much stiffer shaft. The analogy that Andy gave me was that of dropping a stone in a pond. If there were just one stone, it’s energy would dissipate through the water in perfectly even ripples. That’s the equivalent of what a shaft takes on in a perfectly on-plane swing. In the case of my swing which has a whole lot of excessive and improper movements, it would be like dropping many stones into the pond at once, with each stone’s ripple running into that of the others. That kind of clashing of forces is what my swing is exerting on a golf shaft, and therefore, the best performing shaft for me would be something stiff enough to resist all that chaotic energy.

So thru the science of proper club fitting, Andy handed me a setup that brought my ball speed up into the 140’s, a 15 degree launch angle and retained the hallmark of my swing- the super low spin. The results showed a consistent carry of 230 and a good 20 yards of roll. Not bad, and really quite surprising to me that a shaft can make a 30mph ball speed difference. Incredible. So anyway, here’s my final setup- a Srixon Z-RW head, 11.5 degrees (to counter my de-lofting tendencies), a stiff (M4) Accra AXIV XT70 shaft cut to 44 3/4″, some lead tape added to the back of the head to make up the weight difference from the cut shaft, all resulting in a D3 swing weight:

Srixon Z-RW

Accra XT70

Now if only it would get warm enough to play golf around here!

The Lasik Experience

Last year at this time, I put a few grand into my Flexible Spending Account for 2007 because I intended to finally get my laser eye surgery done. Well, after a year of procrastinating and basically being too chicken to follow through on it, I finally had the operation last Saturday. This is my recap on how things have gone and what I think of the whole process.

I first went in for a consultation two weeks earlier which consisted of watching an informational video on a portable dvd player, a complete battery of eye exams done by a technician, and then meeting with a doctor that reviewed the results of the tests and scans and discussed my treatment options with me. It turned out that my pupils were too small to get a good enough set of measurements to benefit from custom wavefront lasik, so traditional lasik was the choice for me. That’s both good and bad. Good that it’s a less expensive procedure, but bad in that custom wavefront supposedly provides enhanced correction of specific visual artifacts such as glare, halos and contrast issues. Oh well, at least I wasn’t getting upsold into a more expensive treatment that wouldn’t benefit me.

I could have scheduled my actual surgery just a week later, but Sterl was in town that weekend so I decided to push back a week. The day of, my friend Kerri drove me over there because I obviously wouldn’t be able to drive myself home after the procedure. They told me during the consultation to tell whomever was driving that they’d have to kill about 3 hours from the time they dropped me off until they picked me up. Well, it actually turned out to be more like 20 minutes!

They told me they had just finished the previous operations early so there was no wait at all for me. So I signed the requisite paperwork, received instruction on what I would have to do for the next two weeks, and then they led me to the the operating room. It was a big glass-walled room with several different laser stations. They configured the Bausch and Lomb one for my particular procedure, then told me to lay down on the table alongside it. I was handed a nubby rubber squishy toy, the kind a toddler would play with, and told that some people like to have something to squeeze if they get tense during the operation. I really didn’t need it, and it turned out to be more of an annoyance because I was holding it with both hands on my belly and after a couple minutes I didn’t feel like holding it anymore. Anyway, onto the surgery…

After a few squirts of anesthetic eyedrops, they started with my right eye, taping my eyelashes down, first the upper lid then the lower. Then they used a speculum-like device that got under the eyelids and spread them apart wide. Down came a round metal ring onto my eyeball, not painful or even irritating at all since the anesthetic eyedrops must have been working. Then a smaller ring or tubelike thing was inserted inside the first one. But the doctor didn’t like the fit. He sent an assistant to go find a smaller one. Would have been a perfect opportunity for a slant-eyed China-man joke, but the stoic doc just told me that I have “small orbits”.

It took a few minutes for the assistant to find and sterilize the smaller ring, but that was the only delay in the entire process. The ring was inserted, some sort of cap was then placed on top, and the doctor called for suction. A machine whirred as my vision went dim and then completely dark. The doctor said this was the part where he cuts the flap and is the most important step so I should try not to squirm or squeeze. That was easy since my eye felt like it was in a vacuum and I couldn’t move it if I tried, plus it all happened in like 3 seconds. There was a slight feeling of something being done to the surface of my eye, but hardly noticeable. The pressure was then released, the cap removed and I could see again, staring up at a red lighted dot and a green one. Then came the surreal part. A metal wire-like implement came in and lifted up the corneal flap. It was like the doctor was effortlessly lifting an ultra clear window shade off of my eye. He then called for the first blast of laster. The red dot and green dot suddenly became thousands of red and green dots like a planetarium show. That lasted all of about 2 seconds. Then the second blast was immediately called for and the same 2 second light show ensued. Then some swabbing of my eyeball, the corneal window shade brought back over, some eyedrops and more swabbing, and then he removed the ring, then the speculum and voila, it was done. Onto the same quick and painless procedure for the next eye and then I was done. Start to finish, only about 20 minutes!

After the surgery, I was instructed to take a 3 hour nap and then use the antibiotic prescription eyedrops 4 times a day for a week and to sleep wearing the big ass sunglasses they provided so that I wouldn’t accidentally touch my eyes in my sleep. Not the most convenient thing in the world, but not horrible either. So everything was blurry for that first night, but I awoke the next morning perfectly able to see and even drive. Which was good, because they wanted me to come in that morning at 9am just to make sure the flap was still seated properly after my first night of sleep. I drove over to my appointment with no problems whatsoever. The doctor took a look and said my flaps were doing fine and scheduled my next followup for two weeks later when the healing should have stabilized somewhat at which time they’ll assess my improvement in visual accuity.

So far, I can say that my right eye is perfect. My left however, while way better than it used to be, is not as sharp as my right. They say that 5-10% of patients have to end up getting followup adjustments (which are free), and even though it’s been less than a week since my surgery, I’m starting to think I will be one of those. I mean, I went through this process, I don’t want to settle for just ok vision, I want it to be perfect. In any event, I’ll definitively see how my eyes are at my followup appointment next week.

For now, it’s pretty amazing to be able to see, drive, cook, play poker and basically just do whatever I normally do, all without glasses. And for those of you wondering or contemplating the surgery, I can tell you that I had no pain, no burning or even sensitivity to light that they said might occur. My eyes literally felt completely normal in less than 24 hours. The lubricating eyedrops I’m supposed to keep using are the only annoying thing about this whole process. Because the drops are so viscous, it’s like dropping gel onto my eyes and makes everything blurry until my eyes can dry themselves back out. My eyes don’t even feel the least bit dry, but since I was instructed to used the drops every couple hours even if I don’t feel like I need them, I’ve been sticking to the program. Oh well, it’s just a small annoyance, and the thrill of being able to see everything certainly makes up for it!