A Theory of Toaster Ovens and Toast

I returned the horrible, no good, piece of crap that DeLonghi was shilling as a toaster oven. Thankfully, I had no hassles upon return at Linens and Things with my receipt and the two month old toaster oven under my arm. I was prepared to start shouting at them, but tried the pleasant approach first and I didn't even have to explain how disappointed I was in the DeLonghi's cooking and toasting performance. That was about $80 back in my wallet and its ~$40 replacement (Farberware) is a credit to small appliances everywhere.

While I'm on the subject, there seems to be a trend in the toaster over business to ever larger and fancier machines. It's not uncommon to see small countertop convection ovens (or even convection / microwave ovens) sold as "toaster" ovens. One of the selling points on my former DeLonghi was that it could cook a whole 12" pizza - a premade convenience that I do occasionally indulge in, though had I taken a ruler to the Trader Joe's refrigerated pizzas I would have found that they are only about 10". The DeLonghi was big enough that the heating elements were far away from the food, making it more difficult than necessary to toast things. Additionally, the toaster oven took forever to warm up, meaning that any toast put into a cold oven would ALWAYS come out bone dry, having been turned into a Zwieback cracker - like a piece of jerky. Jerky toast - that's what I want in the morning! This was a problem from Day 1, but I thought that I'd solve it by turning the thing on for a few minutes before putting bread in for toast. If I had time to babysit first the oven and then the toast this was a minimally acceptable strategy.

However, the strategy was compromised by the third flaw of the Delonghi: I never could figure out how to get both heating elements hot and keep them that way. I only once saw the bottom element get to a dull red hot, so I don't know if it ever was fully on. Additionally, the Delonghi would spontaneously turn off the broiler (top) element once it was hot. I don't know who the genius was at DeLonghi who designed this, but I'd like to tell them that YOU CAN'T TOAST BREAD ON LOW HEAT!! I managed to steam a nice little chop into an unappetizing shade of gray using this broiler cut-out "feature". That was the last straw.

Toast should be crispy and golden/brown (caramelized) on the outside and still moist on the inside. What this means in terms of actually cooking the thing is that you want the heat to be applied rapidy (so the toaster shouldn't take a long time to warm up) and you also want a high heat (so the outside can caramelize, giving you that nice toasty flavor, while the inside, which lags behind the outside in temperature, doesn't get so hot and therefore stays moister).

The bigger toaster ovens have a design disadvantage since they necessarily position the heating elements far from your toast. Since there's a 1/r^2 dependence on the thermal energy reaching your food, a small change in distance could result in much less toasting and much more drying. This is why "bagel width toasters" suck for regular bread - the heating elements are close to the wide bagel, but too far away from thinner bread for ideal toasting. The smaller toaster ovens appear to solve the "too far" problem in the tried and true American fashion by applying more power, which they can do because they have heating elements that can handle a higher heat output without self-destructing. (My new Farberware toaster oven has coil inside quartz or glass heating elements and is rated 1200 Watts. I've frequently seen high power consumption on the larger toaster ovens as a selling point - up to 1550 Watts. But there's only so far you can take that before customers complain that their circuit breakers trip when they use the coffee brewer at the same time as the toaster oven. I would guess that toasters, as opposed to toaster ovens, are limited by their size and price points to lower ouput flat heating elements typically made from NiChrome wire and I would also guess that they run at proportionately lower power. A brief survey of toasters on sale at Amazon.com shows that what must be the Cadillac of toasters - the 10 pound, four slice, model FEP4B toaster from Krups - has a power rating of 1500 Watts. I imagine this is the high water mark, since most don't bother to mention it.) In any case, I seem to have determined experimentally what the optimum size for a toaster oven is, and most small toaster ovens will make the grade. Bigger is better only up to the point where the thermal energy you can get to your toast doesn't diminish too much.

EDIT1: In my in-box this PM,

"My DeLonghi oven died. I have to return it. I hope I can find the receipt. It just stopped working when I was cooking in it. I hope you like your Farberware one better.

[Who purchased her identical oven only a short time before I did.]

Weekend Doings

Made trip to the South Gate Transfer Station (aka "the dump"). This is an essential place to get acquainted with for all do-it-yourselfers. I had a truck load of concrete, stucco, wood and plaster and it cost about $25.00 to get rid of it. The drawback was that when I arrived (10 AM on Saturday) the line was an hour long to actually get to the place where you could unload. Perhaps I should load in the PM the night before and get there at opening?

I worked on the front yard because I'm sensitive to the long-suffering neighbors who lived with my seasonal grass for so long. Moved some sprinklers, raked, got the border just how I wanted it, topped the new part of the garden area with wood chips. I'll probably have more sprinkler head changes to make, but the "grass" area (aka yarrow, aka achillea millefolium, aka "a substance that resembles grass from a distance") is more or less ready for the 2 oz of seed that I purchased at the Payne Foundation. Target sowing date: January?

I papered and screened around the French door in preparation for stucco. Now the cat (and the neighborhood cats) don't have free ruin of the house (I'm leaving the typo on purpose). My son helped pound nails on this one when he got home. Juli helped too. Still more to do on this.

Cub Scout uniform purchased for my son for next weekend's camping trip ($120!!!! for all the acoutrements).

Saw Mark and Martha and decided with Mark to try to get out to a place where we can purchase fresh apple juice to make into hard cider. Mark has previous success with this, I have previous failure.


Coverdell vs. 529 Educational Savings Plan

I suspect that there's something the T. Rowe Prices and TD Waterhouses of the world don't want us to know because I'm having trouble decyphering the institution-speak when I look into these education savings plans on their web sites. There seems to be a distinct lack of information / misinformation on some aspects of educational savings plans, and it's bugging me.

I suspect that because the big institutional investors want your unthinking business, they tend to talk up the 529 plans, which appear to be mostly poor-performing mutual funds. They get your money, skim their vig off the top, and give you some crappy return. The Coverdell plan is far better for someone who believes they can beat the average market return (minus load) that the 529 plans typically offer. The gotcha is that the Coverdell plan is limited to $2000 in annual contributions (and parental income is capped for eligibiltiy, though sadly I don't earn enough to have that apply). The 529 plan offers what is in practice unlimited annual contributions and no cap on parental income levels. Both types of funds grow without taxes on earnings, but the Coverdell has the advantage in terms of the breadth of the expenses that can be paid out of it: It can be used for many school-related expenses even in grades K-12, whereas the types of expenses that qualify for the 529 are more limited. To me it seems that the information readily available at the big institutional investors has a built in bias to herd the unsuspecting towards the 529 plans. Clearly, that type of investing situation is set up to favor the big institutional investors (at your expense).

On the other hand, either type of educational savings plan is better than any other legal alternative, so at some point you need to make a decision.

Here are the questions to which I have not yet found answers: (EDIT1 - I have answers now, indicated below, courtesy of a web site that is not affiliated with a big institution.)

  1. Can one have both a Coverdell (which one would use up to the contribution limit each year) as well as a 529 (which one would settle for as a second best investment)? I suspect the answer is yes, but no one seems to discuss this option since from the big institution's point of view. From the 16th stroy corner office, it's far better to effortlessly make 3% annually off the top of a giant, no-brains, mutual fund than to make $12.99 only once when the Coverdell owner makes a trade. Answer: Yes. As of 2002 you can have both.
  2. Can a child contribute to his own Coverdell (in addition to the parental input of $2000)? If yes, then this suggests that there is a way around the contribution limit. Answer: No. See this web page. Total contributions are always capped at $2k, but the child can contribute his or her own money to avoid parental income caps.
EDIT2: It's clear that the very best invesment strategy is a Coverdell until it's maxed (which you will invest prudently in the market), then the remainder of what you can afford in a 529. I'll be doing this soon.

EDIT3: Hot on the heels of writing this, I received my every-so-often glossy magazine from T. Rowe Price where they did lay out some information on both Coverdell ESA and 529 plans. However, I don't recall mention that you can captain your own ship with the Coverdell plan nor that you can use both plans.


weekend doings

Saturday the usual Farmers' Market trip for the last of the summer stone fruits and more of autumn's goodness in the form of persimmons and pomegranate. A friend once told me that the word "pomegranate" comes from the French "pomme au granite" (apple of granite) but tracking this down today has him at odds with Websters, who say, "Etymology: Middle English poumgrenet, from Anglo-French pome garnette, literally, seedy fruit"

A trip to the Theodore Payne Foundation had me spending $172.35 at their native plant sale -- 15% off for members, 10% off for the general public. I became a member for $30 and I think I'll be money ahead over the year, plus they were giving away a decent book on caring for natives in the garden. At a 30% marginal tax rate I save $10 by deducting the membership fee from taxes and another ~$8 on my purchases with the additional 5% member discount. So far I'm not making money after spending the $30 membership fee. In fact, I'd be money ahead today if I had just used the 10% general public discount and not joined, but I think I'll be able to use the membership throughout the year. In any event, it supports a good cause.

The plants I purchased will be used in front and back of my house as I described earlier. I overheard that the really dedicated native plant lovers were at the Payne Foundation the weekend before, knowing that their nursery was full of the rarest and most desirable plants, and they happy to pay full price. This might explain why I didn't get any of the California Bush Poppy or one of the ceanothus cultivars that I wanted. I also missed out on a particular Cal fuschia ("Route 66"), but later found a source for seed.

Hiking on Sunday was on a paved trail along the west fork of the San Gabriel River out of Azusa. It sounds sterile to describe it as "out of Azusa", but it was really quite wonderful.

The Crescent Rod shower curtain is installed and it's really quite an improvement. I'm so glad someone is innovating in bathroom design. How long did it take to figure out that curved is better? The hideous bathroom curtains are gone.

On the down side, I still have a gaping hole in the side of my house and we had abotu 0.1" rain last Friday night. During the worst of it, I was building dams with wet newspaper to keep the water away (a result of no gutters and a paved porch area that actually slopes towards the house). This could have been prevented, but my trips to Home Deport and Lowes earlier in the week to get guttering resulted in nada because they now only carry the white guttering. The rest of my house is guttered in the brown that H.D. used to carry! I was told I could special order the brown at H.D. :(


Real F-you Money

"...a very presentable net worth of $10 million, $20 million, or even $50 million, sadly, leaves one flying commercial. Hedge-fund money, by contrast, can put you into exhilarating conversations about the advantages of owning a Gulfstream versus a Falcon."


The previous brought to you by JRCC, which has had a precipitous price drop to about $13 from around $40 in the early part of this year. It was around then that Pirate Capital, an activist hedge fund, invested heavily in JRCC. A look into the background of the players turned up the amusing link.

Among Pirate Capital's comments on JRCC

"...management's failure to articulate to the investment community a cohesive operational and financial strategy, together with its demonstrated inability to meet earnings consensus. This financial underperformance has led the rating agencies to lower credit ratings on the Company's senior notes to a precarious CCC+/B3. We attribute these missteps to CEO Peter Socha's lack of operating experience within the coal industry and to the Company's lack of a CFO."

"We are outraged that the Board of Directors (the "Board") has sat silent in the wake of the Company's gross mismanagement, while receiving egregious compensation packages under the Company's 2004 Equity Incentive Plan. Additionally, we continue to be discouraged with the Company's archaic corporate governance policies..."


Weekend Progress / Stock Market Synergies / To Do

A worker, Warren, and I recovered about 350 bricks from the neighbor's yard. I'll use them as a small border around my back yard lawn or elsewhere on the property. We got a couple extra sprinklers in the front and the "lawn" border relocated to a better place. Good effort for one day's work. The doors had been shaved in their previous home. Even if I knew that was a bad thing before, then I know it doubly now. This explains in part why they were so poorly fit in their original jambs. Warren almost worked magic and got them hanging just right with very few tweaks. I will need to do a little gap filling with a small wedge of wood and some sanding and painting to make the tops align.

The doors are all rehung on nice solid brass hinges. It turned out that the "lifetime finish guarantee" Schlage hinges that I had weren't so confidence inspiring and we used some Brainerd brand hinges that Warren had around. He only had 5, however, and we couldn't find more at Home Depot or at the local mom and pop hardware store. During an online search Sunday night for the missing 6th hinge (now installed, plus 6 more for the next French door) I found out that Lowes carries Brainerd hinges. Strangely, this wasn't too easy to do with the obvious Google searches - I had trouble finding the Brainerd web site. Once found, it became apparent that Brainerd is owned by a holding company called Masco. Masco also owns many other medium to medium high end brands of home improvement supplies such as Hansgrohe, Liberty, and Delta. The interesting part about learning this that seeing that Masco is trading at about $27 with a ~13 P/E. It seems to have fallen along with the housing builder stocks, but is that really a fair valuation?

Immediate Path Forward:
wire new outlets / switches (add audio?)
paper and mesh screen house
haul trash to dump
get rev 1.0 of the front yard ready (grade, reposition sprinkler?, plant, mulch)
gutter porch
grade lawn away from porch
secure threshold and seal
secure door jambs to framing permanently
install new door hardware
sand, prime, gap fill, and paint doors

Near Future Path Forward:
stucco house
plaster interior
paint house exterior (area of repair?)
get bids for electrical service upgrade

"Here we are, two PhDs working on our own houses. I thought I was getting a PhD so that I could hire someone else to work on my house. Turns out the plumber makes more than I do." - WM


Edible Estates

More on the lawn issue, which I mentioned earlier and even earlier. I had heard about this, but hadn't bothered to track it down. A friend, knowing of my interest, sent me a link in an email to this:


Which led to this:

and this


Ford Ranger

Here's what the new Ford Ranger will look like. It has the "Edge" trim package (Who is the marketing genius who thought that name up?), which is basically a factory lift kit (on a 2WD truck) coupled with amenities like power windows. I have to admit I like the lift, but it's so totally unnecessary. Fortunately I can blame the previous owner for the choice. This is pretty much what I was looking for, though I wanted a 2002 or 2003. I'm paying proportionately more, of course, but I'm not paying the asking price either. Nor am I kidding myself that I got a great deal. I figure that I'm paying for pedigree (Carfax gave it a clean bill of health - the one previous owner had it serviced almost exactly every 3k miles and it's being sold by a local Ford dealer of some repute) and convenience (it's what I want and I didn't traipse all over LA to find it).

Here's what the dealer had to say
2004 Ford Ranger Edge Supercab
Sale Price: $15,988
Mileage: 37,690
Exterior Color: Gray
Engine: 3.0L V6
Transmission: Automatic

The Crescent Rod

I recently purchased one of these things. It's a curved shower curtain rod. The goal is to give you a bit more elbow room as compared to a straight rod. It's a good idea. The puchase price was a bit steep: $40, but I was pleased with the apparent durability of the parts: they are a thick walled tube for the rod and nicely cast wall mounts with cleanly machined screw threads and a tough looking white painted finish (well, so far, since I haven't yet used the thing). I ran into one hitch, however. This isn't a spring loaded rod - it's an exact fit. My walls were a few inches too far apart. Luckily you can call the company on an 800 number and order an extension for free in just a few hassle-free minutes. My extension is on the way!

Correction: That's a white powder coated finish, not paint. Bright stainless and brushed stainless are also advertised. In the store I assumed those SS finishes were plated chrome and avoided them since I anticipated rust. If they are SS, then maybe I should have bought one of them. I wonder how they plated stainless - that's not a process I've heard of before. Chrome, yes. Stainless, no.

Weekend Home Repair Plans

Warren will be up on Saturday at 6:30 AM and we'll rehang those French doors. We'll be done by 3:00. This is motivated by the condition of the current jambs: they are cracked in several places and don't fit the doors well. That was fine for getting the house buttoned up two weeks ago when we first hung them, but not confidence inspiring for the long term. The cracks are a strange condition for prehung doors, but perhaps it explains why they were at the Habitat for Humanity resale shop. Maybe they were never hung correctly in their previous installation.

I should plan some other activities. Rough chronological list

  • Wed night: Make plans for moving the gas lines - kind of done. Need more research, measurements
  • Thurs night: educate self on electrical wiring (not done), plan Friday purchases (done)
  • Fri: grade front yard to my liking, make purchases
  1. additional small junction box that I can run thinwall out of later for switched light farther out in yard
  2. 4" hinges with round corners
  3. 2 gang box extension with screw tabs
  4. short circuit protection for outdoor plugs
  5. PVC fittings as needed for sprinklers (4 way cross, risers, tees, elbows)
  6. wood preservative
  7. disposable tray for soaking wooden stakes
  8. 5/16" line to tie down dump loads
  9. tarp to cover dump loads

  • rehang doors
  • dig bricks - (inflate tire on wheel barrow, inform Carol we'll be taking her bricks)
  • move garden border in front yard (lay out new border, soak stakes in preservative)
  • trench front yard for additional sprinklers - (layout new sprinklers)
  • install sprinklers - (inventory supplies and purchase as needed)
  • trench for backyard lawn edging footing - (mark where I want it)
  • take out cotoneaster
  • low expanding sealant

Sunday?: flash, paper, and screen house to prep for stucco


  • put in garage attic vent
  • scout Seers Lumber as potential glulam supplier and general hardware store
  • make a dump run since the trash man refused to pick up my construction debris.
  • hire out installation of a new electrical box due to requirement to have permit in order to drop the power. Do this after I've installed the French doors completely and before I start on the interior wall teardown. Really should have done this FIRST, since inspector might spot work already done.


Today's DARPA Grand Chalenge email

From the DARPA press release, my emphasis added:
DARPA has established a two-track (track A and track B) system for teams to qualify and compete in the Urban Challenge in order to help accelerate autonomous development. The track A teams will receive from DARPA up to $1 million in technology development funds. Teams must achieve key technical milestones to receive the funds. The track A teams announced today are Autonomous Solutions, Young Ward, Utah; California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.; Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.; Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.; The Golem Group LLC, Santa Monica, Calif., Honeywell Aerospace Advanced Technology, Minneapolis, Minn.; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.; Oshkosh Truck Corp., Oshkosh, Wis.; Raytheon, Tucson, Ariz.; Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.; and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.

“We received more than 60 proposals from across the U.S. and the world, representing a broad array of backgrounds and technical approaches,” said Dr. Norman Whitaker, DARPA’s Urban Challenge program manager. “We look forward to working with the track A teams and the teams that submit applications under the track B opportunity as we move towards next year’s Urban Challenge.”
The top three teams that complete the 60-mile course in less than six hours will receive trophies.

I guess the Track A teams have their prize money up front and the Track B teams are in it for trophies and glory. This meshes nicely with the idea that I was discussing the other day that the real prize is having your name associated with a winner. Still, it doesn't feel the same to not be racing for $1 million.

EDIT: Apparently the AP thinks there's a 2 million prize for the winner.