Friday, May 30, 2008

Low Cost High Output Aquarium Lighting

I've recently gotten into the aquarium hobby. I started off by buying a 30 gallon tank & stand w/ everything including 3 fish off of craigslist for $40. I then decided that it would be fun to have some real plants with the fish but later found out that you need much more light than what you would normally get with those standard perfecto light hoods. After checking out how expensive the more powerful lights were I figured it would cheaper and cooler to make your own supped up light hood.

Light Bulbs

I used those spiral compact flourescent bulbs you get at the Home Depot. I got a 4 pack of the n:Vision daylight 14 watt bulbs for about $10 since they fit nicely in the original perfecto brand hood. The "daylight" variety is important because plants only absorb certain spectrums (ie colors) of light found at both the low (reddish) and high (blueish) end of the spectrum. The "daylight"'s include more of the blue spectrum which is especially good since that part of the spectrum can penetrate deeper into the water to the plants at the bottom of the tank.

Light Bar

The light sockets were $1.50 a piece and made of porcelain (which I found can easily break if dropped). These didn't come with any bracket to enable you to mount the socket to anything, so I had to fabricate some out of aluminum angle iron. The brackets were mounted to an inch and a half wide piece of steel bar stock. I drilled the bar stock in precisely the same locations as the plastic standoffs on the original plastic hood. This allowed me to secure the bar to the hood while leaving a gap for wiring between the bar stock and the hood. The bar stock was also drilled with larger holes to allow the wires from the socket to be routed through. I used rubber grommets in those holes to prevent the wires from getting rubbed against the hole edges. I removed the original switch and wired everything in parallel using water resistant twist ties. I also painted the interior of the hood with flat white paint which should reflect more of the light back down into the tank and reduce the heat.
Note: to drill bar stock and brackets I had to use a drill press and some cutting oil to keep the bits from wearing out prematurely.


Since the lights did produce a lot of heat, I drilled several holes in the plastic hood for ventilation. That still wasn't good enough so I added a 12 volt PC fan, by using a AC-DC transformer from radio shack (one of those wall warts) and wired it to a 5 watt 100 Ohm rheostat that I got from Jamesco (a local electronic supplier). To make it nice, I mounted a female DC socket in the middle and wired everything to it. The rheostat (at the bottom) lets me control the speed of the fan (by varying the resistance) so that it doesn't get too loud. The fan is mounted on the top and I used some rubber plumbing washers as standoffs to minimize the vibrations transmitted to the hood.


I also added a moonlight, by attaching a blue cold cathode light kit used by PC-modders. Since they run off of 12 volts, I just wired it in parallel to the DC fan (excluding the rheostat). The light and fan stays on even when the main lights are off. They provide a soft light that some believe mimic the light coming from the moon which might encourage the fish to breed.

Total Cost
Overall I estimate that I spent about $70 for this project. The largest cost was the AC-DC transformer at $26 and the cold cathode light kit at $10. If you take those out the cost is around $35. This gives me 56 watts of power (just under the 2 watts/gal target that I wanted). The best part is when the bulbs wear out, it only costs about $10 to replace all of them.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Awase Miso Soup Recipe

I can't take full credit for this since, its mostly wife's recipe, but hopefully I can show you some techniques to make a real awase miso shiru otherwise known as blended (red & white) miso soup.

Ingredients (1 serving size):
1 heaping Tbsp awase miso paste
1/2 green onion sprig
1/3 pkg soft or silken tofu
1 cup dashi (recipe below)

Red miso is a specialty in my wife's hometown of Nagoya, Japan. It has a much deeper more salty flavor than the more common shiro miso or white miso which is a little sweeter. If you blend them together, you get the best of both worlds. Luckily, the Japanese have already thought of this and sells a blended version known as awase miso. Of course if you can't find it at your local asian food market, you can always buy them separately and mix them yourself. Don't worry, this stuff is packed with salt so it will practically last forever.

Dashi is another major component of this and almost all other Japanese soups. Dashi is a broth made from either fish or a type of seaweed known as konbu. Typically, it is made bonito flakes, which are the shavings of a dried fish that you can buy at most asian food stores. To make it, you bring water close to a boil, add a bunch of flakes, let it steep for a few minutes then scoop out the flakes. We like the taste of bonito flakes, but its a pain to scoop them out so we buy bonito flakes prepackaged in tea bags (see photo on the left). Just like when making dashi with just the flakes, you should bring the water up to just before boiling before adding the bonito package. You must also keep the water from boiling while you steep the bonito flakes. If you let the water boil, the dashi will become bitter. Once your dashi gets a nice golden color and you can smell the ocean in it, you can remove the package and your dashi is done! You can also make a larger amount than needed and freeze the leftover dashi in a plastic container. My wife likes to freeze it in ice cube trays, but I think that will just make the rest of the food in the fridge smell fishy, hehe.
Once you have good dashi the rest is easy. Simply dissolve the red miso paste into the dashi. I find it helpful to use two spoons to smash the miso while submerged in the dashi. Its okay for there to be some bits that don't seem to dissolve. You must taste the soup as you are adding miso to ensure you have the right amount of saltiness. You will want it to be a little extra salty to compensate for the bland tofu you will be adding. Next dice your tofu into quarter inch size cubes and add them to the soup. Be sure to keep the soup from boiling after adding tofu or else your tofu will get tougher. Then serve in a miso soup bowl (something my wife requires), but if you don't have one, any bowl you don't mind sipping directly from will do. Finally, garnish with the finely chopped green onion.
Hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Super Quick Chicken Arrabbiata Recipe

While my wife is away visiting family in Japan, I've had to go back to my bachelor days of preparing quick meals for myself. As a foodie, I needed something more gourmet than a tv dinner so I'll share one of my secrets to an easy gourmet meal in just a few minutes. The key to this recipe is Trader Joe's pre-packaged and frozen pastas. You can just heat it in a saucepan and serve. By not having to boil water to cook dry and making sauce from scratch, you save lots of time. If you don't have a Trader Joes in your area, just find any frozen pasta that you like and use a single serving portion of it.

Prep/Cook Time: 15 minutes
Servings: 1 (multiply ingredients by the number of servings)

1 breast from a Rotisserie Chicken (Costco)
1/2 pkg Trader Joes Arrabbiata Pasta
1/2 stalk of green onion (chopped)
1/2 bell pepper (sliced)
pecorino romano cheese to taste (Trader Joes, grated at home)
1 Tbls vegetable oil

Heat oil in a saucepan over medium heat. While waiting, slice bell peppers (cut to the size of the pasta noodles) and add to the pan. While that cooks, dice chicken breast into bite sized pieces and add to pan. Cook until chicken is completely heated through. Add frozen pasta and a few tablespoons of water. Cook until all pasta sauce is completely melted. Add more water if the sauce seems too thick. Right before plating, add half the green onions and give the pasta a stir. After plating, grate pecorino cheese and sprinkle the rest of the green onion on top as garnish.


Zucchini and/or squash cut into sticks can be added with or instead of the bell peppers. Just keep the total quantity of vegetables relatively the same. Also good is quartered artichoke hearts which you can find canned or jarred. Instead of chicken, you can try canned tuna in oil (not water). Be sure to drain the oil from the tuna. For garnish, you can use parsley or Italian flat-leaf parsley, but reduce the amount you use. In general, this is a good dish for using up any vegetables you may have.

FYI, that really is a picture of this dish.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Anime for the Masses, Appleseed: Ex Machina

I've seen my fair share of anime to understand why it hasn't become mainstream in American society. A large part of it has to do with changing people's preconceived notion that anime is a genre, when in fact it is more of a medium. We would never lump Casablanca, and The Three Stooges in a "Silver Screen" genre so it makes little sense to lump all animations together also. Although, there are sub-genres (i.e. fighting robots), which are unique to anime, upon closer inspection, all genres from horror to romance is represented in anime.

Anime as a Style
Anime is a medium, but to the confusion of many, it also represents a style much like how Film noir is tightly coupled to black and white film. The anime-style may include features like characters with large eyes and barbie-doll like body proportions, highly detailed technological objects, and excessive blood and violence. While these features may not be present in all anime, they are in enough of them to present an unhealthy stereotype for the mainstream American viewer.

Being an export of Japan, the stories told in anime often have Japanese cultural influences which do not always translate to American audiences. This is not so much an issue with anime as it is a result of writing stories for the Japanese market. Couple this with a healthy American entertainment industry where the audience never has to understand a foreign concept and you can see what an uphill battle it would be to get anime into the mainstream.

Crossing the cultural divide
Appleseed: Ex Machina is a wonderful film that is able to blend a style of anime into something not just palatable, but beautiful to Americans. The use of 3D computer graphics is akin to the many video game cutscenes we are used to seeing, but the use of cell shading for the characters' faces brings home this film's anime roots. The characters' eyes have been shrunken, while a prodigious use of motion capture really increases our sense of realism. Best of all, a talented team of American voice actors were given free reign to modify the script to suit American audiences. Never before have I wanted to listen to the "dubbed" version of an anime movie. However, I can't really call this dubbing as it is more of a transformation through dialog. Many of the lines of the movie has been completely changed to conform to American sensibilities.

It's all in the Woo
The biggest draw for Americans, may be John Woo's contribution to this film. Although Woo is known for his action, it is his combination of symbolism, character nuances, and cinematography
that makes him irreplaceable. When watching this movie, you really get a sense that this is much more than an action flick. You see the emotion connection between the characters without having it thrown in your face. All in all Woo is the final key in making this not just a good Japanese or American movie, but a great movie in general.

Here's the trailer: