The Popcorn Thesis

During a recent email thread, a friend and I were comparing our local squirrels. She put forth that her Chicago squirrels did not eat popcorn, to which I expressed my disbelief. I couldn’t imagine a squirrel turning their nose up at it. I said I would have to test that theory.

I’ll be curious whether yours will eat it. Maybe the consistency of popcorn is too close to foam packaging peanuts, and my squirrels know not to eat foam peanuts based on prior unfortunate digestive disturbances? Dunno…

Maybe that hippie organic crap stuff you try to pass off as popcorn is the problem I say! Give them good old-fashioned regular popcorn and see what happens. I did! First, start with some plain old microwave popcorn:

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Ensure it is nuked properly, and not burned:

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Leave some out with the usual offering of almonds and townhouse mini-club crackers before bed:

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The verdict? My squirrels are not food snobs. All three foods demolished by 9AM. Victory!

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(I called this a Thesis because said friend is an academic, and figured it would resonate better.)

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Fun Times, InfoSec, and No Wind in Chicago

I just returned from a brief trip to Chicago, where I attended and presented at Thotcon, as well as attended BSides Chicago.

Thursday: After a two hour delay due to “mechanical” issues, I arrived in Chicago. I am a bit surprised, as the flight crew in Denver did not give us a lot of confidence. We were told a “switch” needed to be replaced and it wasn’t switching or something. This led to them telling us that they would have to “rewind” the engine, which doesn’t seem logical. From the airport, a long and slow taxi ride made me late for the THOTCON speaker dinner at the Northdown Cafe and Taproom. This is where I found the ‘Curmudgeon’ beer pictured below. There is something very satisfying about ordering a ‘curmudgeon’ at a bar and getting a bottle. After the dinner, Space Rogue, Josh Corman, Banshee, and I went out looking for some good Blues music. We started at Kingston Mines but found the music to be too upbeat. Across the road at B.L.U.E.S. we found exactly what we were looking at. I had told my companions that I wanted a guy sitting on stage singing and playing the guitar, and it delivered. The $1.50 Jägermeister shots appealed to Space Rogue greatly.

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Friday: As happened a few times, the day began with or included a packed cab ride. The immediate surprise was the venue. The Ravenswood Event Center sounds like any other hall for a convention, but in reality is a unique space. Around the main conference room were a variety of old sports cars in immaculate condition. The third floor space reserved for speakers had high glass walls for a bright room with good views. Courtesy of THOTCON staff, the speakers could use this as a lounge for talk preparation, free booze, and a hosted lunch. I ran into Jeff Jarmoc again who delivered on his promise to bring us a jar of peanut butter for a stage prop. The picture of the Jif alongside the THOTCON wireless information was proof for Advanced Threat who doubted my presence in Chicago. Not to be outdone by Jarmoc, Banshee produced a stuffed squirrel who could enjoy the jar.

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The first keynote of the day was by Bruce Schneier, who treated the audience like a bunch of eight-year olds, going into the very basics of social contract by stretching it out 30 minutes via the speaking method of “repeat yourself using different words seventeen times”. Josh and I were both groaning throughout his presentation and I opted to take a ‘meta’ picture by photographing the event photographer. Of course, any InfoSec conference needs drama, and THOTCON’s was in the form of someone complaining about the “race card” that was being passed around. Of course, it had absolutely nothing to do with race, and everything to do with Mario Kart racing, but that didn’t matter. I thought the cards were hilarious. The other sticker that came with registration was potentially a trigger, but everyone seemed to love it as well as the shirts that said “Fork My Dongle“. Shortly before my talk, I jumped over to Track 2 to see James Arlen present on how to do a better presentation. His very brief talk was a boiled down version of a much longer workshop he gives, and it should be required viewing by anyone presenting, especially in InfoSec.

At 3:00PM, Josh Corman and I took the stage to give our “Cyberwar: Not what we were expecting” talk. With some new slides and updated material, I ran a bit longer than I should have causing Josh to hurry through the last bit. We really should have boiled it down a bit, or bribed someone for a 90 minute speaking slot. Part of the delay though, is fully on Corman’s shoulders. While I was talking, he quickly put on a squirrel mask and hopped across the stage at me. No, this was not staged. The main reason it “blue screened” me as Josh put it, is that I own one of these masks. I certainly wasn’t expecting to see it hopping across the stage at me mid-presentation. Well played Corman.

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For dinner, we headed out looking for whatever was good and close to the venue thinking we’d return quickly for the closing bits. Instead, we were lured into a long and hilarious German dinner at Laschet’s Inn. Our waitress JoJo, an “Irish-German-Texan” with a healthy southern drawl was hilarious and energetic. The group we ended up dining with, all coworkers at the National Association of Realtors®, were great hosts. They got the ‘boots’ of beer started immediately, before waves of appetizers and outstanding authentic German food. In the end, they graciously took care of the tab as well, completely shattering the image of Chicago being full of gun-toting thugs. As usual, a three hour meal about security, food, and everything between was as educational as it was fun.

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Saturday: We began the day at a ‘Recovery Breakfast’ organized by SecBarbie, at the Little Goat Cafe. From here most of us used the Zack Fasel cab service to get to the Abbey Pub for BSides Chicago. I had reservations going into this, as a ‘pub’ sounds like a small cramped venue for a bigger BSides conference. Upon arrival, I quickly noted how it was a perfect venue. Several rooms segregated to avoid noise issues, an upstairs overlooking the main speaking room for the CTF setup, and two bars to deliver libations all day long. Shortly after arriving, Space Rogue, Josh Corman, and I offered to do an impromptu ‘talk’ (a research project really) to gauge how alternate sources of information such as Twitter, IRC, or vendor press releases were picked up by more mainstream media. I will be writing a blog on the conclusion of that in a few days, stay tuned. After a great day at BSides, Josh and I headed to L2O Restaurant for an epic dinner.

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Sunday: After a leisurely morning and sleeping in, William Knowles took me to Lou Malnati’s for some authentic deep dish pizza, before a ride to the airport. Fortunately there were no delays due to sequester or switchy thingies this time. While I am not a fan of travel, this ended up being a great trip with good friends, new and old. THOTCON’s reputation for being a great con is well deserved, and the organizers are great. A special thanks to Nicholas Percoco for the outstanding hospitality given to THOTCON speakers.

Fine Dining, A Learning Experience

I have had my share of good meals, and truly enjoy them. I tend to go out of my way to eat a nice meal every so often. Locally, it generally means a meal at one of the three Richard Sandoval restaurants he has in town. In Vegas, it may mean one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. These are certainly nice places with accomplished chefs. Until this weekend, I considered them fine dining.

That changed with a trip to L2O in Chicago by Josh Corman and myself. Operated by chef Matthew Kirkley, he describes the dining experience as “… exploring the intricacies of fish and shellfish in artful compositions enhanced by the best ingredients available from land and sea.” The name L2O stands for “Lake to Ocean“. Last year, he earned 1 Michelin Star for his restaurant, and gained 2 stars this year. It is important to note that while Gordon Ramsay has been awarded 15 stars and currently holds 14, it does not mean that any came from his work at the restaurants I ate at. So dinner at L2O was significantly different.

The first and most important difference in this meal is that it is a tasting menu. You basically order one of two things; the Prix Fixe menu, or the Tasting menu. Rather than an appetizer, main course, and dessert like a traditional restaurant, you are given a variety of courses selected by the chef. For our dinner, the tasting menu included three courses that were not on the menu. Further, we opted for the wine pairing for our menu. Another major difference is that the meal is as much about presentation and ritual as it is about the food. The staff play an elaborate dance of formal movements, coordinated delivery, and scripted descriptions. Last, while I enjoy wine from time to time, I cannot emphasize the value of a sommelier putting together a pairing specific to the dish. Instead of relying solely on taste, they also play to the texture of a wine as much as the flavor profile.

In the spirit of truly enjoying our evening, we opted not to be like the stuffy people we saw around us (including one couple that was obviously in the middle of a loveless and emotionless marriage). While the restaurant “suggests” jackets for gentleman, I quickly lost mine when I noticed the guy next to us was only wearing an Izod and jeans. In addition to novice questions about the meal, I found myself throwing a wrench in their timing and delivery almost every course. Josh equated my questions and comments to a Denial of Service attack against their routine, but for sport. The banter Josh and I delivered certainly entertained the staff as much as it did us.

The (enhanced) menu we had is listed below, including the items that were not listed on the web page. The first few courses made us wonder if we’d leave the restaurant with a full stomach. By the end, especially with wine pairings and bread, we were both waddling like penguins.

  1. [amuse-bouche, not on menu]
  2. mussel tart, lemon, parsley
  3. geoduck clam, manila clam, lime
  4. langoustine, osetra caviar, cauliflower, poppyseed, meyer lemon
  5. nootka sound oyster, green apple, noilly prat, celery
  6. crab chip, old bay
  7. maine lobster, foie gras torchon, turnip, clementine vinaigrette
  8. crispy bass, escargot, pearl onion, chartreuse butter
  9. turbot, grilled squid, guanciale chips, scallion
  10. stuffed quail, sunchoke, smoked cherry, 23-flavor gastrique
  11. [Champagne granata, not on menu]
  12. lime parfait, avocado, tarragon, cara cara orange
  13. chocolate crémeux, lemon curd, brioche, olive oil
  14. [sweet snackies, not on menu]

While amuse-bouche is not technically a course, it is also something I wasn’t familiar with. Josh had to educate me on the term. This was called “Fruits of the Sea” and each was a melon ball container that had a distinct center, such as salmon for one. The first course officially on the menu was the mussel tart with lemon and parsley. Served on a cup of tiny intricate sea shells, Josh was quick to remind me not to eat them. In the low light, they did look like snacks. Third, we had Geoduck clam and Manila clam with a hint of lime. I don’t recall the exact method of preparation but it did not have the consistency of a clam at all. Fourth, we had langoustine, Osetra caviar, cauliflower, poppyseed, with meyer lemon. The picture below shows the cauliflower was dehydrated and mostly for show, but it still added to the flavor. As best I can recall, this was my first time having caviar, and I found it quite nice. It was not salty or potent as has been described to me in the past.

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Fifth on the list was a Nootka Sound oyster with green apple, Noilly Prat, and celery. The combination of the two shells were well done and remind me that I need to broaden my horizon on oysters. The sixth course brought us absolute joy. Not only for that tasting, but for the rest of the night. It also gave us tremendous respect for the chef. The menu listed a simple item; a crab chip dusted with Old Bay seasoning. The two crab chips were a reflection of chef Matthew Kirkley’s roots as he grew up in Maryland. What wine do you pair with crab chips? None. Instead, Kirkley insisted that it be paired with a Pabst Blue Ribbon. Yes, a good old fashion cheap PBR. While the sommeliers, both of them employed by the restaurant, seemed a bit offended and would have opted for wine, the one serving us most of the night admitted that she agreed on the pairing. After giving her much grief, she laughed and agreed to pose for a picture as well. Josh and I both appreciated that in addition to honoring his roots, he was clearly thumbing his nose at pomp and pretense.

For the seventh, we had maine lobster, foie gras torchon, turnip, with clementine vinaigrette gelee (close-up picture). Despite seeing it on TV and in articles, this was also the first time I had foie gras. The eighth course was a dish of crispy bass, escargot, pearl onion, with chartreuse butter (close-up picture). The escargot was the third new food for me that evening.

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For number nine, we had turbot topped with grilled squid, guanciale chips, and scallions (close-up picture). The tenth course was a stuffed quail with sunchoke, smoked cherry, and a “23-flavor gastrique”. The presenter told us it was “23 flavors” and that we could “think about it”. Josh Corman immediately chimed in, “Dr. Pepper!” For those not familiar, Dr. Pepper has a reputation for its 23 mysterious flavors. Tasting one of the three dark dots pictured below (or close-up picture) certainly brought the flavor to mind. Josh commented that by not giving answers and just teasing the guests, it becomes a treat for the observant. He equated it with hidden Easter eggs within the menu. The eleventh course was a frothy Champagne granita, not listed on the menu. At this point, our sommelier brought out a second can of PBR on a small silver platter, so we could enjoy a nice cheap-beer break. This was an amusing touch and showed us that she was having as much fun as we were.

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Twelth on the list was a lime parfait with avocado, tarragon, and Cara cara navel orange. Despite the appearance, this was not an overly sweet dish and was a good lead-in to the next two dessert courses. Next up, the thirteenth course was a chocolate crémeux with lemon curd, brioche, and olive oil (close-up picture). This was perhaps the most rewarding course; not because of the wonderful dessert, but due to the banter and harassment. Upon seating, we were asked if we had food allergies or dietary restrictions. We said no, because as a diabetic I carry my insulin and take it according to the food I eat. Hours later, the last server who delivered this was not told of any restrictions obviously. After setting it in front of me, the conversation went like this:

Brian: “Does this have any sugar in it?” (said with a straight face)
Staff: “Heh heh, just a bit!”
Brian: “No really, I am a type 1 diabetic. Does this have any sugar in it?”
Staff: “Uh… heh heh, no you aren’t!” (clearly a bit nervous at this point)
Brian: “Yes, I really am, does this have sugar in it?” (I asked as I showed her the insulin kit)

With this, she covered her mouth, stepped back and looked as if she was going to pass out. I quickly reassured her that while I am, I was expecting the dessert and it wasn’t a problem. Josh is pretty sure she may have had a small heart attack. Anyway, the fourteenth and final course was a mix of macaroons, fresh caramel, exotic gum drops, and some other sugary delight that was also served with previous courses.

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At several points of the dinner, Josh noted that despite the differences in our professions, we could see some kinship with the chef as do those of us who take our trade so seriously. Hard work, pursuit of excellence, attention to detail, with a good dose of some hidden humor.

With this, we were done. We sat down a bit after 5:45P and walked out of the restaurant just shy of 9:45P. Yes, a 4-hour dinner and night of entertainment. For me, a dinner like this rarely comes along, and I am glad I took the opportunity to experience it. The final touch? One of the staff that had been helping us all night escorted us out to ensure we got a cab and thanked us for dining with them. Overall, and incredible experience.

This post and the extensive details are dedicated to my mom, who would have really enjoyed it, and wishes she could have been there.