Home Pizza update

I’ve been watching pizza videos on YouTube, primarily because I am a little obsessed with pizza. It’s my favorite food, and I love going to pizzerias or making it at home.

There’s a pizzeria in NYC called Una Pizza Napoletana. It’s run by Anthony Mangieri, a man who appears to be totally devoted to pizza. He had a popular pizzeria in NYC by the same name years ago, but moved to San Francisco for a few years. Now he’s back.

He has two pieces of advice for home pizza cooks: whatever recipe you are using, cut the yeast in half and increase the hydration (water content). So I did.

I added a half ounce of water to my recipe and cut the yeast from 2 tsp to 1 tsp. The dough was still manageable, not too sticky. The pizza crust had lovely air bubbles in the crust (not the giant ones, nice medium/small bubbles from the edge to the middle) and a great taste.

Next time I am going to cut back on the Vital Wheat Gluten, either cut it out altogether or reduce to 1 tsp. Let’s see if that makes it even more tender and crispy. I might add a little more water and see how that goes.

I really don’t know why making pizza gives me so much pleasure. I have to put up the dough at least 4 hours before I begin preparing the pies, whereas I can go to a pizzeria and be eating lunch 20 minutes after I leave my house. But there is something about making it yourself, the way you like it. And the satisfaction of preparing a meal that my whole family enjoys. Whatever the reason, I just like doing it.

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KitchenAid Precision Gooseneck Digital Electric Kettle

kettle

Until recently we made coffee and tea by boiling water in a pot and pouring it into whatever device we needed to brew a beverage (Aeropress, french press, tea filter, etc.)

We bought the KitchenAid Precision kettle over the holidays and we love it, although it’s an expensive kettle. Most electric kettles simply boil water. Fancier ones have presets for different tea types or for coffee (ex. 180 degrees, 190 degrees, 200 degrees, 212 degrees).

The KitchenAid Precision kettle lets you set the exact temperature you want via plus and minus buttons on the base. You can also tell the base to hold at a specific temperature. The hold function works for a bit but eventually shuts off for safety. The goose-neck spout lets you pour precisely where you want. There are three setting so you can choose how quickly water that pours from the spout. The heating element works via induction, so it’s not hot to the touch after you take the kettle off.

We love this kettle. We’ve used it every day since we bought it. It’s very expensive (between $120 and $130) depending on where you buy it, which makes it about 3x more expensive than a basic electric kettle. We wouldn’t have bought it, but we were given a gift for the holidays. I’m glad we have it though, and assuming we get a reasonable lifespan out of it I’d buy another when/if this one breaks.

Echo Wall Clock

wall clock

Bought this Echo wall clock a month ago for our kitchen.

  1. It’s cheap, only $30 (unavailable as of 1/21/19, with no indication from Amazon when it will be back in stock). But it looks cheap as well. There is no plastic or glass face cover, so if it’s in your kitchen it will likely accumulate grime after awhile. If you have a $100,000 kitchen you aren’t going to want this. But for the average person it doesn’t look too bad.
  2. It doesn’t do much. It tells time, it’s in sync with an Echo device so the time is always correct, it shows the time left on your timer(s), it has a dot that glows orange when you have a notification. That’s it.

But we are glad we have it. Before we bought the clock we never used the Echo’s timer function because the Echo doesn’t have a screen. We couldn’t see how much time was left on the timers without asking Alexa. Now we can tell at a glance by looking at the clock.

It’s light-weight and easy to hang on a wall. It was simple to pair with our kitchen Echo via Bluetooth. Overall we are very happy with it.

 

Instant Pot Ultra – Sous Vide

I bought an Instant Pot Ultra. The new IP looks very nice, has a blue lit-up screen instead of the old LED read-out and is controlled by a knob and two buttons. They changed the “Manual” setting to “Pressure Cooking”, which is bound to confuse people.

There is a new setting called Ultra, where you can set every setting to your preference: cook time, temperature, pressure on/off, pressure level, delay, and keep-warm on/off. What’s so special about that? I don’t know yet. The only thing that came to mind was Sous Vide.

Sous Vide is a cooking method that brings “low and slow” into the kitchen. You place your food in a plastic bag with the air removed and immerse it in water set to a cooking temperature equal to the temp. of the final product. In other words, if you want steak cooked to 135 degrees, then put it in a sous vide water bath set to 135 degrees, and leave it there for however long it takes to cook the food perfectly.

Most of the home sous vide devices are stick shaped immersion products, designed to accurately heat and circulate a container of water. Circulation is important to keep the water at a uniform temperature.

The Ultra doesn’t work that way – it keeps the water at that temperature via the heating element underneath the pot. It’s not as accurate as a sous vide device.

But isn’t that par for the course with the Instant Pot. It does a lot of things, but many of them (like rice cooking) turn out better on dedicated devices.

In any event, I am hoping the Ultra will do sous vide “good enough”. I tried it out with a chicken breast and after 1.5 hours the center was under-cooked. I am not sure it was fully defrosted though. The portions that were cooked were juicy and delicious. I should have left it in for 2 hours, or made sure it was fully defrosted before cooking it. There will be some trial and error before I get it right.

Right now I am cooking a london broil. It was defrosted, and will be sitting in the Ultra for about 6 hours. I’ll report back on how it came out. London Broil is one of my least favorite cuts of meat, because it’s often so tough. I hope sous vide can get it tender.

When the sous vide process is done, the meat is supposed to be perfectly cooked, but not browned at all. The final step is to sear it on both sides to make it look nice and brown and appetizing. Otherwise it’s cooked, but it just looks like dead meat.

4 more hours to go.

 

 

Sonos vs. Amazon

Sonos is under competitive attack by Amazon. There isn’t any other way to look at it. That’s scary enough, but Sonos also relies on Amazon to provide the primary new innovation to its speakers: voice control via Alexa. I’ve addressed this issue before, but lately it’s gotten worse, with Sonos shut out of the new Amazon/Apple agreement and the release of new Echo hardware.

Sonos has two speakers with a watered down version of Alexa (“Alexa-lite”). The Sonos One and the Beam have Alexa-lite. The other Sonos speakers use Alexa via an Echo Skill, which is also watered down compared to the real Alexa built into Amazon’s Echos.

Here are Amazon’s restrictions on Sonos:

  1. “When starting music on Sonos using an Amazon Echo device, you must specify the name of the speaker you wish to control. For example, you must say, “Alexa, play Lorde in the living room.” This is temporary as we work to refine the Alexa on Sonos beta experience and is not required for Sonos One and Beam users. For control commands like “next,” “pause” or “resume,” you do not need to use the room name.” This restriction has been temporary since the Sonos skill released a year ago.
  2. “You cannot yet request playback of music from Sonos services, playlists and personal libraries.” Sonos has been shut out of the new Amazon/Apple agreement re: Apple Music. Alexa voice control of Apple Music will not playback on a Sonos speaker.
  3. “You cannot yet use your voice to group rooms together. Please use the Sonos app for grouping.”
  4. “Each time an Alexa input device hears the wake word (“Alexa”), the volume will be lowered on all Sonos speakers in the home so the question can be heard and you can understand the response.”
  5. “Sonos One and Beam do not support the following Alexa features: Drop In, Calling and Messaging, as well as setting reminders and receiving notifications.”
  6. “Sonos One and Beam do not yet support eBooks.”
  7. Alexa routines are not supported for any Sonos speaker.

The above are software restrictions that Amazon imposes on Sonos, but not on its own Echo speakers. Yet Sonos placed its future in Amazon’s hands by relying on Alexa for voice control.

Amazon is also attacking Sonos with hardware:

  1. Amazon released the Echo Plus, with superior sound quality to any other Echo. Reportedly sound quality is not as good as a Sonos One, but decent.
  2. Amazon released Echo Sub to improve the sound quality of its speakers. The subwoofer works with all Echo speakers.
  3. Amazon released the Echo Link, which competes with the Sonos Connect.
  4. Amazon released the Echo Input, which also competes with the Sonos Connect, but lo-fi.
  5. Amazon will shortly release the Echo Link Amp, which competes with the Sonos Connect Amp.

All the products above are substantially lower in cost than Sonos. Some Echo speakers have hardware features that the Alexa-lite Sonos speakers lack, like bluetooth and a zigbee hub. The Echos are capable of multi-room playback, which has been Sonos’ signature feature.

The only advantage Sonos has over Echo is sound quality, which is not insignificant. Sound is the reason people buy speakers. But Sonos doesn’t have a monopoly on sound quality. There’s no reason Amazon couldn’t sell better sounding speakers in the future.

Plus, given the enormous price differences between Sonos and Echo, many customers will opt for “good enough” and buy Echos, especially if they also get the full Alexa experience rather than Sonos’ Alexa-lite.

For example, the Echo subwoofer is $130 vs. $700 for the Sonos sub. A bundle of two Echo Plus speakers and a sub is $330. Two Sonos Ones and a sub cost $1,050. The Amazon Link costs $200, while the Sonos Connect costs $350. The Amazon Link Amp will cost $300, while the Sonos Connect Amp costs $400.

Sonos sells three different TV speakers. Amazon doesn’t sell any yet. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Maybe Sonos has a strategy to defend against Amazon. But given the relative size of the two companies, and the fact that Amazon sells over its own marketplace while Sonos sells through 3rd party retailers who take a share of the profits, it’s hard to see how Sonos succeeds as an independent company.

I would love to see Amazon buy Sonos, but I don’t know if they need to.

Artificial Intelligence

I read and think about this a lot, and I am worried over what the job market will look like 25 years from now, or sooner.

There are essentially two kinds of artificial intelligence (“AI”). The first kind is the one that science fiction stories are made of: where a machine intelligence is sentient, like in the Matrix movies. I have no idea how far away we are from producing it, or how dangerous it will be. But that isn’t my primary concern.

The other kind of AI (call it AI2) is the kind that is slowly rolling out. I can see it happening day by day, as people’s jobs are replaced by machines and software. This is still the early stages. The way these things normally play out is as follows (think about how the world wide web slowly took over every aspect of our lives):

  1. No one knows it exists, no one uses it. But it’s slowly being developed.
  2. It is rolled out in certain special cases that match it’s early capabilities.
  3. Capabilities are broadened and it has more applications.
  4. The cost of implementation drops as it becomes ubiquitous
  5. It’s everywhere.

I think we are at stage 2 with respect to AI.

In NYS, we are in the process of getting rid of highway toll-takers, replacing them with EZ Pass. Eventually there will be no people working this job. Cars without EZ Pass are being photographed and AI reads the photos, recognizes license plates, turns the plate numbers into data and communicates with billing software to send a bill to the car’s owner.

More and more retail stores use self-checkout, where the machine and software read the bar codes and charge your credit card. The bar code scanning tech is not new, but the ability to simplify the process so that any customer can do it is new. By me Target, Wal-Mart, BJs, and Stop & Shop have replaced person-staffed check out lines with self-checkout. There’s usually a person or two still there to help if a customer has a problem, but they have all reduced the people on staff.

It’s not a leap of imagination to conceive of other things that can be self-serviced via AI in the future: blood samples, checking vital signs like height, weight, blood presssure, MRIs, CAT scans.

There are robotic security pods in a shopping mall near me. They have a camera and are trained to roam the mall after closing, without bumping into walls or following a track. The pods replace security personnel who did the same job. The robot’s camera broadcasts to a security booth where one or two people can watch the whole mall.

There are robotic trams in hospitals that use AI to deliver patient food or medicine. The trams have sensors that permit them to move throughout the hospital, avoiding obstacles. They call for elevators and use mapping software to navigate to the appropriate nurses stations. No people are needed – the tram is filled at the kitchen or the pharmacy and it makes its way to the nurses station without human interaction.

Again it’s not a leap of imagination to conceive of other ways that this AI can be used – like moving patients or equipment around the hospital to cut orderlies or other service staff.

There are robot fast food stores on the West Coast. One is a pizza delivery company, that uses robots to form pizzas, which are cooked in ovens on the delivery truck. Ultimately no people will be needed to prepare the pizzas. There is also a robotic hamburger store that cooks burgers with the toppings of your choice, and places it in a container. Wait time from order to finished burger is 5 minutes. People are employed, but only to fill the machine with ingredients.

Some McDonalds use kiosk screens to replace cashiers. Customers order via the screen, or their phone app, and a person brings the food to them.

Amazon is using computer algorithms to replace their purchasing staff. “Computers know what to buy and when to buy, when to offer a deal and when not to,” Neil Ackerman, a former Amazon executive who now manages the global supply chain at Johnson & Johnson, told Bloomberg. “These algorithms that take in thousands of inputs and are always running smarter than any human.”

These examples are uses of AI that do service jobs or decision-making jobs. But that describes most of the American workforce. These lost human jobs are happening slowly, but over time they amount to a lot of people. And as AI gets better and cheaper, it will be economically viable to more companies. In fact, companies risk their financial future if they DON’T implement it.

I often read how AI won’t take away people’s jobs, it will work alongside people to help them do their jobs better. I throw up a little whenever I hear that. I don’t know if people say that because they are stupid or lying.

THE PURPOSE OF AI2 IS TO DO JOBS BETTER OR CHEAPER THAN PEOPLE. OF COURSE IT’S GOING TO TAKE PEOPLE’S JOBS. THAT’S WHY IT EXISTS.

The other thing I read is that AI is similar to other labor saving technology that came before – the machine age, mass production, computers. People worried what would happen to jobs, but new innovation created new companies, who hired more people not less. So AI will generate jobs for people, not create massive unemployment. Right?

NO.

There’s no doubt that computers reduced the need for people to do old-style jobs, and also created new industries that created new jobs for people. The reason people were needed is that computers couldn’t think. They couldn’t make decisions, react to change, communicate with human customers.

But AI CAN do all those things. If not today, within most of our lifetimes. In some cases AI is already doing it. Google recently gave a demonstration of AI making appointments for people, indistinguishable from a real human interaction. Decision making is no longer the unique province of human beings. Reacting to change may still require human beings for the moment.

The way I see it, companies are going to implement AI where the cost benefit is greatest – that means low wage jobs where there are many employees (i.e. McDonalds) or high wage jobs that involve tasks that AI can replicate (expertise or decision making).

Take the medical industry for example. One of the most important jobs a doctor has is diagnosis. Without a proper diagnosis a patient will not recover, and if an improper diagnosis is made the patient may come to further harm. Health care costs are enormous as are malpractice insurance premiums. So there is substantial incentive to replace high-cost, high-risk human doctors with AI.

“Pathology as it is practiced now is very subjective,” said Michael Snyder, PhD, Professor and Chair of Genetics at Stanford University.

“Two highly skilled pathologists assessing the same slide will agree only about 60 percent of the time. This approach replaces the subjectivity with sophisticated, quantitative measurements that we feel are likely to improve patient outcomes.”

The process has begun to train AI to read radiology images. A computer can read and access thousands or millions of radiology images, many more than a human doctor will ever see in her lifetime. The diagnosis that results from AI will, at some point, be more reliable than a doctor. The article I linked above says the same nonsense about how AI will augment doctors. Maybe initially, but ultimately fewer doctors will be needed.

I am certainly not opposed to AI that improves diagnosis and reduces health care costs. I am not opposed to doing any job better, more efficiently, more accurately and cheaper with AI. But it’s clear that fewer people will be needed.

This is not a pleasant analogy, but think about the machine age. For 10,000 years humans used animals to move heavy objects. They were used for transportation, communication, farming, production. Around 1800 we started to use machines instead – the steam engine, the internal combustion engine. It revolutionized every aspect of life.

Within 130 years, no one considered using animals for anything other than recreation. I am sure in the early years engineers made conscious decisions about whether to use oxen or a machine to get a job done. But by the 20th century there was no reason to ever consider oxen at all.

Where we are today with AI2 is about where we were in the early 1800s during the machine age. The transition has started. And this time it won’t take 130 years. More like 30, is my guess.

Will AI technology create new industries and new jobs? Absolutely. Who will fill those jobs? Companies will hire the best workers they can find, just like now. Except going forward the best workers will be AI, not people. The jobs will be engineered specifically for AI. Human workers will be as unlikely to be considered in the design decisions as horses or oxen.

Today companies do not hire as many people as possible. Just the opposite. They hire people when they have no choice. They hire as few people as possible. If they can improve the workflow and get rid of “overhead” (aka people), they do. We accept that as the normal way companies operate. So it’s reasonable to conclude that companies will do the same in the future, when AI vs. people becomes a viable decision.

Think about what a pain in the butt people are to a company:

  1. They can’t work 24 hour days. They don’t even work 8 hours on an 8 hour shift – they need lunch, bathroom breaks, they socialize with each other. Companies are lucky to get 6 hours of work from an 8 hour shift.
  2. People require benefits. If a job needs to be done 24 hours a day, it requires 3 people, all of whom need benefits. And benefits, such as healthcare, get more expensive every year while the people don’t get more productive. Hiring one person may mean that you have to pay for benefits for their entire family.
  3. People need downtime – they don’t work weekends, they need vacation, they take sick days.
  4. People are inconsistent – no two people are the same, so their work production is not the same. If a job is complex, people are likely to be better at some parts than others. People have differing moods from day to day, or from hour to hour, which affects their job performance.
  5. People need training. They have a learning curve and may not be at peak performance for months or years.
  6. People need space – they require a clean, healthy, stable work environment. They need to work within a reasonable distance from their home. They need air conditioning and heat. They need supplies, a desk, a computer, a building.
  7. People need levels of management. Most companies are structured like a pyramid, with layers of managers below the CEO, who manage people but do not produce anything themselves.
  8. Most large companies have a human resources division that is staffed with people whose function is to deal with issues caused by employees – harassment, procedural issues, performance reviews, hiring, firing, etc.
  9. Companies are taxed for each employee they pay – they have to match the payroll taxes withheld from salaries, pay for unemployment insurance. They need a payroll department to process payroll and file payroll tax forms.

I am sure I am missing some other negatives, but given the above it’s obvious that every company will want to reduce staff with AI if it can.

  1. AI can be anywhere. It doesn’t need to be near a workforce pool. It can be located wherever power is cheapest.
  2. It works 24/7.
  3. Once you’ve trained it to do a task it does it exactly the same every time, and can be replicated easily. If you need 10 AI devices all you have to do is program one, and then copy it endlessly with no additional training or learning curve.
  4. There are no payroll taxes, no benefits, no OSHA issues, no harassment claims, no lunch breaks, no bathroom breaks, no vacation pay, no sick leave, no weekends off, no managerial levels, no human resources department.

Given the above, if you were starting a new company and AI could perform the work needed, why would you ever hire people? So I do not believe anyone who tells me that AI will merely augment human workers, or that new jobs will be available to people once AI takes our old ones.

So where does that leave us? No place good.

Humanity acts as if it doesn’t matter how many people exist on the planet. World population was 4.4 billion in 1980 and 7.4 billion now. That’s obviously wrong from a global warming perspective, but it’s also wrong from a productivity perspective. With AI taking away jobs, what will people do instead? The goal is to have full employment. But if the number of human jobs is cut in half, then we need half as many people.

I really don’t want to think about what that will mean. I’ve heard scientists say that there will be a minimum income provided by the government. But that doesn’t sound like the US government to me. Corporations are not going to agree to pay taxes to hand money to people with nothing to do.

I don’t know what the solution is, and I can’t think of an outcome that doesn’t involve a lot of suffering.

 

 

 

Apple Photo Wall Calendars

My last reason to open up the old Macbook Pro was an annual photo calendar I made for my mom-in-law. We’ve been making calendars for her for more than a decade, and the Apple calendars were beautiful, reasonably priced and easy to make.

This year, in the midst of record profitability, Apple decided not to make the calendars any more. I am not sure whether calendars made money or lost money for Apple, but really did it make any difference? It had to be a tiny fraction of their overall business, but it was a nice feature of the Mac software.

They stopped making them in September 2018, and I will miss it. I’m trying a calendar from VistaPrint instead. I’ll update this post when I get it. (see below)

Apple still makes great products, and they are the leader in customer service, security, privacy and do a lot of good to make life easier for their users. But lately they are getting a reputation for squeezing every dime out of their customers.

I recognize any company’s need to cancel products that lose money, or are a distraction. It’s the only way to stay financially healthy. But it makes no sense to me that the calendar option in their Photos app made any difference to Apple. It had to be outsourced, they weren’t printing them internally. They should have kept it.

Update:

Got the VistaPrint calendar. Fantastic. In some ways better than Apple. The calendar portion is not as nice, but the pictures look better. VistaPrint had an option to upgrade to higher quality glossy paper and it makes a huge difference.

The process of making the calendar was just as easy as Apple’s. There are a variety of formats, from a single picture to multiple pictures for each month. If there were multiple pictures in a month VistaPrint puts a border around them, Apple printed them right next to each other. I like Apple’s way better, but it’s a personal preference.

The calendar automatically has popular holidays printed on it, and you can add custom holidays/birthdays/etc. very easily. The VistaPrint calendar is bigger than the old Apple version. Apple’s was 10.5×13. VistaPrint’s is 11.5×14.5. It came quickly – I ordered it on 12/14/18 and it arrived 12/20/18. It was well protected by double packaging.

VistaPrint always offers additional items whenever an order is placed, which I usually ignore. But this time I agreed to add a $5 mousepad to match the calendar’s cover page. The mousepad quality was so-so, not very vivid. I’m sure my mom-in-law will enjoy it anyway.