Mrs Beeton’s @ G David Booksellers

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

[[The beginning of this entry was mostly written on Saturday the 22nd and any temporally relative statements should be interpreted from that basis.]]

Mrs Beeton's Household Managment

Earlier today we wandered St. John’s before dropping the car back at the hotel. We caught a bus back into the town centre and had some time to kill before our next leg of travel took us to our evening destination, so we found ourselves wandering the streets again. It was still a miserable day, with the weather swinging between wind, snow, rain, and mixtures of the three. On one occasion as the wind picked up and the snow started coming in parallel to the ground we stepped into a narrow passage near the market square for shelter. A short way along we noticed the display window of a bookshop, it looked cosy and warm so in we went! At first it seemed a very usual sort of place, as little bookshops go, shelves tightly populated with myriad books from the pristine, through “slightly foxed,” to those that seemed to be on their way to compost. Then we turned the corner, phwoar! Rows of leather bound volumes, many in sets, several shelves behind glass. A veritable book heaven! I carefully examined some of my favourites, the few classics that I know well, such as Byron and Shakespeare. It was then that I saw Mrs Beeton, phwoar!

We’re talking the classic encyclopaedia of English cookery (inclusive of much of the “bad” English cookery the world knows), Mrs Beeton’s Household Management, complete with thousands (literally) of recipes. This 9.5cm thick, 2kg tome is occasionally referred to by culinary authors and I’ve always wondered at the passing asides with accompanying introductions such as “the great Mrs Beeton.” Though somewhat dated the content is a great historic reflection on English cooking. Some things, especially treatment of meats, are worth paying more attention to than others, but more about that later when I’ve had a chance to read more of the book. There were three copies of the “new edition” on the shelves, as well as a few lesser Mrs Beeton’s volumes covering only a subset of food and recipes. The new edition is introduced with a declaration that much has changed “especially since the War” and that these changes necessitated the release of this updated volume. We’re talking the Great War by the way, that’s the first “world” war. The editions available were all early 1900s printings, and are self-described as having “nearly twice the number of pages [and being] four times the size of its modest ancestor.”

I carefully located the Jugged Hare recipe, which doesn’t include blood, then turned to the section on preparing the hare. This is the sort of book we’re talking about, it covers everything from the moment the hare is brought in from the shoot to eating it. It’s supposedly an omnibus of all things a good housewife should know, not just food, but also cleaning, organising social occasions, and managing the servants! Perhaps a touch schizophrenic in this case, for how many women with servants need to worry about preparing a hare? Personally my interest is just in the British food lore of yesteryear, I’m only a so-so housewife.

I examined all three copies, including one kept behind glass. It turned out that the latter was only 10 quid more than one of the others and I preferred the look of the other. The man managing the collection said the one I preferred was better bound anyway, and the leather certainly did seem more robust (and should have a little neutral boot polish gently rubbed into it every few years.) The main issue (and thus reason for the price difference) was that the better cover was not the original cover, it’d been re-bound at some point in its life but it was definitely an edition from the 1920s or 30s (alas, books of those days didn’t always include convenient printing dates to aid in dating them.) Carried along by the moment and pushed in the back by the heady aroma of old books I bought it. It cost £130, extravagant no? But, to try to place it in some financial context: I recently attempted to buy a new video card for my PC, just a middle of the road one, and that would have cost the same amount. (I failed to buy the card, it was broken so I sent it back to Amazon and gave up on the whole idea.) This book is far more interesting, long-lived, and useful than some crummy piece of computer junk – a bargain even!

I eagerly look forward to having the time to selectively read my acquisition. For the next while though she’s just going to have to rub shoulders with the other, maybe less well-bred, books on my cooking shelf.

Later

[[This part is written one week after the above.]]
Colour Plate: Game

Colour Plate: Game

The book is excellent, amusing, and informative. The aura of Mrs Beeton is one of a middle-aged to “certain aged” matriarch, with a lifetime of practice and experience in managing her household. How else could she write such a book and gain such a reputation? The truth is surprising, the real Mrs Beeton was in her early twenties when the book was written and was dead by 28! The latter, “new,” edition was extensively expanded and edited by other authors, particularly a “Mr C Herman Senn, M.B.E., F.R.H.S., assisted by some of the most famous chefs and teachers of the culinary arts.” (These latter “famous” contributors remain unnamed!) The original Mrs Beeton, it seems, has been superseded by an entirely different personality built on the expectations of readers. The fact is that “Mrs Beeton” is the book, the original author is inconsequential.

In all the book should be regarded as an encyclopaedia of its day, a gathering of knowledge. It seems likely that the original Mrs Beeton “borrowed” most of her content from other sources anyway. The first edition (written in Victorian times) was actually a collection of supplements she’d written over 2 years for a magazine published by her husband, so is likely to be a far different to the “new edition” I have (instilled with Edwardian sensibilities.) (Next project: get a copy of the first edition… or maybe not, they’re typically more than £1000!) I’ve picked up various facts like these while researching the book, the main goal being to date my copy. The information I can correlate between my copy and descriptions I can find online dates my copy to being published between 1923 to the mid-30s – this matches the date approximated by the guy at the store, reassuring.

What of the content? Some of it is highly worth testing out while other recipes are probably only of value as amusements, and would probably be illegal to carry out anyway! Take “Black Swan, Roasted or Baked” from the “Typical Australian Dishes” section for example! “Parrot Pie,” ingredients: “1 dozen paraquets” — “Wallaby, Jugged,” “In winter the animal may hang for some days, as a hare, which it resembles.” A wallaby resembles a hare? Barely. There’s also “Bandicoot and tomatoes.” There’s a recipe for “Pukaki, Jugged” but I have no idea what a Pukaki is and Google doesn’t help unless Mrs Beeton’s actually does mean we should stew an 18th century Maori chief! There’s also a set of pumpkin recipes that I really can’t place as “Australian.”

Much of the Australian content is amusing and it’d be hard to say if it is wrong or not without first catching and cooking a black swan or a wallaby. Next time I’m back home the wildlife better watch out… Also of note, the very brief Jewish section includes a recipe for stewed steak that includes “½ an oz. of butter or fat” and I’m pretty certain the butter would be verboten in this case (meat + dairy.) And these observations come from perusing just a couple of small and specific sections of the book.

Turning to the section on vegetables is a great reflection on the basis for the stereotypical English treatment of the poor old things. It’s also put some perspective on just how much has changed between then and now. The section devoted to vegetable recipes is only about 75 pages long. Here’s a list of “little known vegetables:” sorrel, scorzonera, sweet potato, maize (indian corn), yams, egg-plants, and custard apples. What an esoteric collection! Of course, sorrel, sweet potato, maize, egg-plants, and custard apples are everyday supermarket items now. Maize is now “corn,” but in those days “corn” was a generic term for grains (i.e. a modern reflection on this is that “cornflour” is actually made from wheat and not what we know as corn these days.) In the UK the “egg-plant” is known as the “aubergine,” I suspect its modern popularity in English cooking must mostly stem from French cuisine to have resulted in this name-change (in Australia eggplant is the common name.) Scorzonera is rare and better known as black salsify, I myself would not have recognised the name 6 months ago, and yams are known but hardly everyday. The vegetable section is also revealing in what it does not mention. No celeriac or swede at all for example!

How about cooking vegetables? Ah, mushy English vegetables. On boiling vegetables: “young vegetables with tender fibres will, as a rule, cook in about 20 minutes, whereas those fully mature, and consequently containing a relatively larger amount of fibrous substance, will average no less than 40 minutes.” I’m sure vegetables have been bred to be more tender in the last 80 years, but I can’t believe that 20 minutes for “young vegetables” was ever a good idea! For a case in point this is from the “Asparagus, Boiled” recipe: “boil gently for about 20 minutes.” Even though the asparagus was bundled into bunches of 20 I can hardly imagine 20 minutes resulting in much more than sloppy mush! Maybe in this case the vegetables of the day were tougher?

Where this book may have some interest for the modern day cook, rather than food historian, is in traditional treatments of various meats. Especially the more involved recipes and the stews (plainer “perfect roast” cooking has gained much from modern thinking, and oven technology, but Mrs Beeton does seem to have some agreement with even Hugh on some simple roasts – such as Snipe and Woodcock.) Several of the 40ish rabbit recipes are certainly worth some attention, as well as the 12 hare recipes and those for other game. The many offal/extremities recipes are warrant investigation as well (“Lamb’s Head and Pluck”), and even a decent proportion of the more everyday meat recipes.

If, in the future, I manage to try out a recipe or two from Mrs Beeton’s Household Management I’ll be sure to write it up. Perhaps this’ll mark the beginning of a collection of historic books on food, but that might be a bit too expensive. ‘Till then, try not to overcook your poor old vegetables or bake any protected wildlife.

C++0x lambda

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

I just read Herb Sutter’s C++0x lambda/closure teaser post. It’s intriguing, although I cringe at the new syntax. I’ll be mulling over this somewhat and waiting to see what else is said about it by the Internet’s hoard of people more qualified than I… though, of course, Herb Sutter may be the most qualified out there! No doubt I’ll eventually be convinced the new features are wonderful. For now I’m going to hope the technical brilliance of the ISO C++ committee has given birth to something beautiful – and in this instance Herb Sutter hasn’t done a good job of marketing it to numpties like me. (Then again, exception specifications got into the standard as well and it seems that even the people responsible for them would like to disown them now.)

In the “Write collection to console” example I have trouble seeing how the lambda version is obviously better. I look at the three examples and think to myself “huh, what’s the point?” The fact is that the for loop is clear, the for_each lambda version just makes it a little more terse. How about:

    #include <boost/foreach.hpp>
    ...
    BOOST_FOREACH(const Widget & widget, w) {
        cout << widget << " ";
    }

More readable than all Herb’s examples? Possibly. Herb Sutter makes a note that the final lambda-using example is the only one he typed up correctly before doing a complier-run. Maybe this could be related to the fact he’s probably been steeped in the specification of the lambda features lately?

The “Find element with Weight() > 100″ example is a better one, aside from the grotesqueness of the lambda syntax. This []( has a face that only a mother could love:

    find_if( w.begin(), w.end(),
        []( const Widget& w ) -> bool { w.Weight() > 100; } ); 

Herb dares us to have a go with binders, here’s what I knock up for boost::bind:

    std::find_if(w.begin(), w.end(), boost::bind(std::greater(), boost::bind(&Widget::Weight, _1), 100));

This is a typical “bind class member return value to function (functor) argument” usage, I see (and use) it a lot. Though for the “>” case there’s an even more terse solution:

    std::find_if(w.begin(), w.end(), boost::bind(&Widget::Weight, _1) > 100);

I don’t particularly think one syntax is more readable or obvious than the other, but I’m used to reading uses of bind. Truth be told however, Herb’s functor example is easily the clearest at point-of-use. Is the clarity not worth the small clutter of having the GreaterThan functor implementation lying around somewhere (and entirely re-usable.) Herb has perhaps not chosen the best example here. Something just a little more complex could make the lambda version seem a lot better than the bind version, though such complexity would just make the overhead of writing the functor less of a concern (and the non-reusable lambda code seem more of a bad idea.)

[[Note: Since I wrote the above, on Saturday, a lively discussion has popped up in the comments on Herb Sutter’s post. In there he explains two strong disadvantages of the binder approach: 1) recognisable function syntax is lost with binders, 2) errors in binders generate some of the most horrible C++ template-spew error messages you can get out of compliers. That latter part is certainly a pain, it takes a few weeks of working with, and making mistakes with, binders before you can weed useful information out of those errors. Though they’re usually down to just a couple of syntax mistakes and you can check for them first and correct without needing to decipher the errors in 80%, or more, of cases. The other common problem I find with boost::bind is passing object arguments and forgetting boost::ref, an error you’d be much less likely to make with the function-declaration style of the lambda syntax.]]

The final “Most algorithms are loops” example is more compelling. But again, the example used doesn’t seem a great win over boost::bind. And both lambdas and binders seem a less maintainable route than functors. [[Note: See previous note for positive points of the lambda syntax over binders that also apply here.]]

It seems to me that the lambda syntax may offer a more robust and maintainable replacement for binders and, in extension, be a better way to “turn things into functors.” That is certainly a worthy achievement in itself. For simple cases the lambda syntax can provide an “it’s all in front of you” clarity to improve the readability of algorithms. For more complex cases I see it being used in lazy ways and giving the world some knotty code maintenance nightmares in the name of the quick hack. Stick to functors is my leaning at the moment, or use functions combined with the lambda syntax as a replacement for binders, if you must. It’s early days yet though, these are some first simple examples and the standard is still in progress. [[Note: insights from the “Beautiful Code” blog. Note that the non-standard solution to his .begin()/.end() pattern dislike is BOOST_FOREACH, it’d be nice to see something like that go into the standard.]

It’s great to see non-trivial new features going into C++, I look forward to reading what the experts have to say about it all! It’s worth noting that the items mentioned by Herb are just the most buzz-word friendly ones, an act of marketing no doubt. I suggest exploring the “Other approved features” that he links to, there’s some interesting ones in there. I’m most immediately intrigued by N2555, N2559, N2540, and N2535 – unfortunately I don’t have time to consider them in detail.

Sat, Sun, & Mon: St. John’s, Mills, Ales

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

We stuck close to Cambridge on Saturday and Sunday, wandering the town and driving the fens. On the latter, the history of the landscape is intriguing. Once the whole area was boggy wetland and many of the historic sites and towns were considered islands, as only the higher and drier areas were originally settled. Through the centuries the landscape has been transformed into fertile pastures that are usually not under water, aside from the occasional flood. Ditches and dykes criss-cross the landscape. I hope to learn more about it all some day, for now here’s what we did…

Saturday: St. John’s College, Hemp, Books, and Ale

We decided that we must visit at least one of the colleges while we’re here. In the end one is as far as we got, and that one was St. John’s since it was the first we found that was accepting visitors. As a tourist you pay £2.80 to enter, this gives you a guidance pamphlet with interesting notes and, I guess, peace of mind (you could probably just wander through as there is a regular traffic of locals and students – also, you could just wander in from the backs.) Thanks mainly to the more interesting points highlighted by the pamphlet the wander through the college was a worthwhile experience. Most of the more obvious questions that came to mind were answered by the terse document, and many less obvious points of interest were highlighted. Especially amusing are details in the chapel’s large western stained glass window.

Our examination of the college took us well into the afternoon, taking more than two hours in total. We’d started out late that day, sleet and heavy wind keeping us inside-looking-out. After St. John’s we headed towards the car and bought ourselves hempen scarves from a hemp stall at the market, Kat also picked up an oversized “baker boy” hat she liked from another seller. Our next adventure was to take us out of town and involved ale, so we dropped the car back at the hotel and caught a bus back in. We’d settled on driving that morning and paying an exorbitant parking fee, just to avoid some of the weather. In the end the parking, for three hours I think, was £8 – the taxi would have been the same each way so driving was cheaper. I’m glad we didn’t try driving into town in the afternoon though, it was near to 15:00 when we drove out and we noticed all the parking spots were full and there were traffic queues leading for a couple of miles out of the town centre! The way out was clear thankfully.

To get to the best bus stop near the hotel requires a five minute stroll along a narrow path that connects the business park the hotel is in to a south-eastern suburb of Cambridge. The path is narrow, enclosed on each side by a high wire fence and shrubby bushes, and after a rail crossing passes between an army exercise yard on one side and a body of water on the other (this latter a private fishing reserve.) The suburb our bus stop is in isn’t on a route out of Cambridge so the bus got into town without any delay. We found ourselves with a little over an hour to kill before moving on to our planned train departure. In this time we found a wonderful bookshop, which I’ve written about separately (will post later this week), we also had tea and scones at “Aunties” near the market square – the latter was good but unexciting.

We caught the 17:35 service from Cambridge to Kings-Lyn and hopped off five minutes later at Waterbeach. A few minutes walking and we were at The Bridge, and found ourselves before 20 cask ales! I’ve written more about this separately (will post later.)

The ales pretty much wrapped up our day, we left The Bridge at 21:30 and thanks to incorrect advice from the barman waited at the station for 35 minutes until the 22:15 train took us back to Cambridge. (We don’t blame the barman at all, it’s our own damn fault for not making a note of the timetable!) While waiting in the cold we noticed something interesting, we heard a strange popping whumphing noise, almost like distant fireworks. It turned out that at one end of the platform was a track switch, alongside the rails near this was an enclosure full of gas cylinders, there was gas being let into an enclosure alongside the switching mechanics and this was being ignited at short intervals. Keeping it warm, and functioning, in the cold weather. In time, and on time, our ride back to Cambridge arrived. We reached the city far too late to catch a bus so, me being me, we discovered that the walk between the Cambridge Rail Station and the Holiday Inn Express only takes around 35 minutes (at a fast pace for an unladen 4’8″ person.)

Sunday: Houghton Mill, and Ale

Looking out the window this morning we saw whiteness, overnight snow had coated the landscape. We were somewhat slow in getting out and about again, not quite sure what to do. Our vague plan was to head down to the Lordship Gardens, but given the general slushiness this seemed less appealing than before. So, as a replacement, we selected Houghton Mill as it seemed a more enclosed destination.

The drive up to Houghton from Cambridge took around 30 minutes, mostly a fast zoom along the A14. Driving into the town the first thing of note is the thatched roofs, there’s even a clock tower in the town square that has a thatched-roof shelter as a base. The mill is found down a short and narrow road running from the south of the square, a wall on the right side and a bust of the most renowned head (and philanthropist) of the milling family on the left. At the end of the road you turn through a gateway on the left and see a field (and caravans) ahead, a small tearoom to the right, and further right, unmistakably, the mill and river. The field is usually green I imagine, but this day it was mainly white with a thin crust of snow. There were also two crude snowmen to be seen, looking bent and dirty – snowtramps maybe.

The mill doesn’t open its doors until 13:00 and we were early so took a quick and very cold stroll along the path that begins with the passage through the mill. They have an interesting lock around the bend, very different and much more industrial looking than those we’re used to seeing on the Grand Union canal. That’s as far as we went, as we were not properly prepared for the cold or the mud. In sunnier, and drier, times we’re keen to revisit as there are extensive walkways along the river Orse. We returned to the mill and had tea and scones in the tearoom, much better that what we’d had in Cambridge the previous day!

Just after 13:00 we entered the mill, paying a small fee to the National Trust for the privilege (and making sure we signed the forms that ensue the government adds another 25%, UK tax-payers rejoice.) The mill was excellent, well documented, and in good order. Two things of note are that the mill, in part, is functional, and that there is a hydro-generator fitted in the sluice. The latter typically generated enough power for 10 homes, which is neat. The mill was brought to working order just before the turn of the millennium, thanks to a lot of work contributed by the army (maybe airforce.) They have a photo-album on the ground floor that is worth a perusal.

Normally they have the mill working but they couldn’t on this day since the Environment Agency computer had decided that the sluices needed to be open, preventing flooding I assume, so there wouldn’t have been enough power to run the mill. This was a pity for us since it meant we couldn’t buy any flour! Maybe next time.

All in all our visit to Houghton Mill was very enjoyable. It seems to be well suited to youngsters, fitted out with many action-models of mill mechanisms, some very elaborate (turn on the tap, turn th handle, etc.) We’re considering heading back that way in summer, with a tent as there is a camping ground nearby. I’d be great if there’s somewhere you can have a small fire, imagine it: damper made with flour milled only a few hundred meters away!

We departed the mill after a couple of hours and wound our way back towards Cambridge on back-roads. Taking in views over the flat expanses of fenland, seeking out mounds marked on the OS maps (unsuccessful), and eventually finding ourselves in Histon.

Histon was added to the route because it is the home of a certain The Red Lion that comes well recommended complete with a history of CAMRA branch and national “pub of the year” wins. The reputation is deserved as far as we’re concerned! The full details are a story for another article, to come.

After a couple of halves we headed back to the hotel with take-away beer (await other article for details), popping into a place called Yu’s Chinese for dinner. This place does pretty good food, generous serves, and at a decent price. It’s on Newmarket Road just past the Perne Road roundabout on the way into Cambridge.

Bloated with Chinese we eventually arrived back at the hotel to drink our four pints of real ale, relax, and, for me, write the words before you.

Monday: Anglesey Abbey & Lode Mill

Time is short and thus my description of this day will follow suit. We drove out to Anglesey Abbey, a National Trust property about 15 minutes from Cambridge, and wandered the grounds and house (abbey nee priory.) It’s excellent and entirely worth the £9.50 entry fee. When I first came to the UK I joined the National Trust since the £20 membership fee was accounted for after only two property visits and a few uses of National Trust car-parks. However, once you’re over 25 (my word, is is really that long since I first hit this little island?) the fee more than doubles and being vehicularly-challenged it didn’t seem worth the price. Anglesey Abbey changed my (our) mind, since we expect we’ll visit at least once more this year. So two times 20 quid is 40 quid, and membership for a couple is 77 quid … £37 should be a pretty good incentive to see some more great National Trust properties. Honestly, I’ve seen quite a few in the last three years and they’ve all been excellent.

In short: the gardens alone are worth the trip, and the house is an interesting addition but less interesting than the mill. The Lode Water Mill was the second mill we saw over the weekend and like Houghton Mill it has also been restored to working order. At this mill we could actually buy flour though! We also bought some oat meal for the making of our morning porridge. The wheat (“corn” in the old speech) milled comes from a National Trust property, the nearby Wimpole Home Farm (which also supplies the wheat milled at Houghton Mill.)

The history of the property as you see it today is mostly not so ancient, and the late First Lord Fairhaven seems like a dude I’d like to meet. I’m not sure if he’d be so keen on my ignoble presence however, though he was “new nobility” so possibly less picky about such details. The most ancient part of the property is the dining hall, the structure of which actually dates back to the original monastic building that occupied the “island.”

There’s far more observations I’d like to make about this property than I have the time for. I expect to visit Anglesey Abbey in the summer, maybe I can go into further detail then.

We whiled away most of the day at the property, visited an unexciting pub, picked up some cheese and snacks on the way back, and ate in our hotel room. Here ends the day.

Of Homes and Cars

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

Not as romantic as it sounds I’m afraid. These “garden cities” (worth reading, it’s interesting) are a product of “modern” town planning ideals, sprouting from one individual in the late 1800s. The idea “took off”, so to speak, and the design principle has been re-used extensively in the US and Australia’s own Canberra is cut from the same mould as well. Good old Wikipedia has all the details, I’ll leave it at that.

Letchworth isn’t too bad, it lacks the quaintness of Hitchin but dreams and reality are often separated by chasms more vast. We had a look at a place in Letchworth today, and all-in-all are in favour of it. We do have a little more research to do but know that the crime rate is low, similar to Rickmansworth, much lower than Northwood, and far lower than more central London locations we’ve considered. Train-wise there is a pretty fast service into Kings Cross that takes 35 minutes, so it’d probably suit Kathlene OK. Recreation-wise the train gets to Cambridge in 35 to 45 minutes and Hitchin in only 5. I don’t know if Letchworth itself has much entertainment for us, but there’s a largish shopping area (far larger than Ricky) with the usual High Street shops and even a cinema (not that we ever go to the cinema, maybe twice in the last 2 years.)
The particular place we looked at is a little the worse for wear, but isn’t terrible. Our place in Wollstonecraft was of similar age and deterioration, but at least this place isn’t mouldy. We’ve been living in an apartment that was built only 6 years ago, so our perspective has changed in this respect. The place is a middle-terrace house (neighbours through both side walls) and has three upstairs bedrooms, two of a good size and one of a reasonable office size. The potential office room is quirky, painted in sky blue and adorned with a Winnie the Pooh character strip and appliqués. Most importantly, the back yard is large and the stove is gas. We’re told the landlord is an easygoing guy and happy to let tenants paint and decorate the place! Not sure what I think about doing my own painting, not when I don’t own the place myself. There’s a little maintenance work required, but this is apparently “in progress” (mainly just two cupboard doors that need to be reattached and a fridge that needs to be disposed of.)

The trek to the station is probably a 15 minute walk, and would be less than 5 on a bike. The area in general lacks the “natural” beauty found around Rickmansworth though and we’d certainly feel more compelled to go for a car. By fortunate coincidence the young lady who drove us to the place has a Mini! It’s a Cooper and she’s had it for 3 years and had no problems. Generally very happy about the car and very positive about her experience with it. I have little to complain about as far as our Mini went over the long weekend. Five days with quite a bit of driving and only 20 quid of diesel required to top the tank up. Speedy, responsive, corners well, and much roomier than expected. My primary practical complaint is that the left-foot rest is too close to the clutch, even after 5 days of driving I kept getting my foot caught on the rest when depressing the clutch – very frustrating. The second complaint is about the far-left-and-up reverse position, on several occasions I went to shift from 3rd to 2nd and found myself too far to the left to pull down to second. The third complaint is that having the tacho dead-ahead through the steering wheel and the (huge) speedo in the centre console doesn’t work for me. I never look at the tacho, I’d rather have the speedo in front of me. The latter two I’d get used to pretty quickly, not sure about the first though.

With a car getting into the town centre would take only a couple of minutes, and Hitchin town centre would be less than 10 minutes away. It’d also be a safer way to get Kat to and from the station if the hour is late. The property has no lock-up garage, but the low crime rate seems reassuring (no bars on any windows down the street is always a good sign.) The socio-economic profile of this part of Letchworth is a strange one, fairly low-income (high welfare), jobs in retail and skilled labour, married, both working, children. Not us, in other words. So the Internet tells us anyway. Also, property prices are bordering on the affordable – which is intriguing. It all adds up to “what’s wrong with this place.” In August 2007 there was a shooting, one car full of young fucktards attacking another – supposedly not gang-related and remarked upon by most sources in the area as highly unusual. All persons involved were arrested, a bus blocked their cars in and the police were on the scene very quickly. Still… not a good story.

The reason we’re looking at Letchworth and considering the particular place we inspected is one of bad timing. We visited 6 letting offices and in all were told the same story, since January letting demand has soared with no rise in supply. Places in Hitchin (and also Letchworth) tend to go within half a week. The offices say it’s “one of those times,” conversely they’re not selling anything at the moment either. It’s interesting to note that it turns out that most agencies run a letting office as a hedge against property market fluctuations, letting isn’t as lucrative but it becomes busier in times when buying (and maintaining mortgage payments) is difficult.

In the end the pluses:

  • Large back-yard in a roughish state (yes, that’s what I want.)
  • Off-street parking (i.e. English-style concrete front-yard.)
  • Loads of space with three bedrooms, a large living room, and a reasonably sized kitchen.
  • Quiet area, in a corner of the town not on any direct through-routes (we’re told the neighbours are elderly.)
  • Rent is so much less than what we currently pay that the difference would cover most of the monthly cost of a new car (and we’d be paying a lot more if we moved within Ricky.)
  • Of Letchworth:
    • Good sized shopping district.
    • Large Morrisons (supposedly a good thing in the supermarket stakes.)
    • A Cannons (5 minute bike ride away), chain-gym usually equipped with too much cardio crap and no squat-rack but also cheap (if you’re with PruHealth.)
    • It’s fairly green and leafy, if not close-by any good nature reserves or woodlands.
    • Good train connections to places that are great to visit and work (i.e. Cambridge & London.)
    • Linked directly to King’s Cross, so also simple to get to Eurostar (less than 2 hours to Paris maybe?)
    • Bus connections to both Luton and Stansted airports, which aren’t far away.

Minuses:

  • Needs some work (but not much.)
  • Not very close to station (we’ve been spoilt living a sub-minute walk to the local station.)
  • No lock-up parking, in the case we decide to get a car.
  • Of Letchworth:
    • Modern and lacking character (but near to places with loads.)
    • Possible youth crime issues, despite low crime rate?
    • Hard to get to Heathrow (we use BA more often than not when flying, but that could change.)
    • Distant from Watford, although in the same county (we’re keen to keep up with Watford-LUG.)
    • No good nearby woodlands or reserves that we can see, what small woods there are appear to be on private land.
    • The name of the place, despite the “Garden City,” makes me think it’s full of old men in trench-coats.

We have a lot to mull over in the next couple of days. We don’t have a deposit down, so knowing our luck and given the demand we’d want to decide it’s a goer sooner rather than later if we’re to go that way.

I’ve mostly finished other summaries and write-ups of our visit to Cambridge. But now it is time to get dug back into work! I’ll probably dribble the rest out over the next week. I’ve also got some text down for the Hare salad and casserole entries… all to come in the fullness of time.

Ah, the complexities of life.

Charging a Motorola Motofone F3

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

After a recent trip I seem to have left the charger for my mobile behind. I Googled for charger specifications but had no luck, so for the record: You can charge the Motofone F3 with 4.5v DC pin-positive. I have no idea if this is the actual output of the official charger, all I know is that it works. It’s easy to do if you have a multi-voltage power supply and a good collection of plugs for it! The supply I used was 500mA, which should be way above requirements in any case.

I was meaning to give a review of this phone model some time, but I doubt I’ll ever do it. In short: argh! That shouldn’t be surprising though, this is an ultra-simple phone. The only interesting feature is the E-Ink display, which is excellent – you can honestly read the display outdoors at night without turning on the backlight! That’s the only positive though, I though a dead-simple phone would be liberating but it really is just a pain in the backside. Keep in mind that I went from a fully-kitted out PDA phone (Motorola A1000) to the F3, about as huge a leap as you could make. (As far as I can see there are few PDA phones available even now that are compellingly better than the A1000, a phone from 2003 IIRC, in any feature other than battery life, and I’ve looked into this a fair bit as I’ve been trying to find an A1000 replacement – I await the release of Android handsets! I was almost tempted to get a Neo 1973 but no-3G was no-go for me.)

The main draw-back of the F3, aside from the lack of web and all those other modern features, is that it uses the SIM card for all data storage. This means the number of SMS messages it can store and the number of address records is tiny. The address records are also really simple, the usual for SIM storage. And, of course, there’s no computer interface (no USB, no blue-tooth, there’s a contact-pad that may be promising but that isn’t “out of the box.”)

The big plus of the F3 is that it is only 15 quid– I spend more than that a week on coffee. It’s the ideal travelling phone, robust and cheap. On the robustness front, I dropped a 30kg dumbbell on it (from only about 4 inches high, and by mistake!) and all it suffered was a minor dent near the screen.

I think that the potential of future models in this line is huge… but I’ll be going back to a feature-bloat model soon, I hope.

Hitchin, Stevenage, & Cambourne

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

Our goal on Friday was to explore a couple of towns on the train line between Cambridge and London. This we did, then we also had a look at a business park cum housing estate (or vice-versa?) outside Cambridge.

I failed to mention in my previous notes that I’ve forgotten the camera. We tossed around the idea of driving down to Ricky to pick it up but decided not to bother, it’d probably have been a 1.5 hour round trip from Stevenage. No photos! Quite liberating actually.

Hitchin

Hitchin, our first destination, won us over quickly. Old village architecture, a permanent market area, and an interesting collection of shops in the town centre. The market was quiet and had a collection of pretty dodgy stuff in the guise of “antiques”, however there were also decent looking fruit, vegetables, and meat. Given that it was Good Friday I guess, and hope, that it may have been quieter than usual. To bolster my hope far fewer stalls were occupied than not. But it may be possible that the market is past its heyday, which would be sad.

On walking the winding streets of Hitchin what stood out was the classic white-walled, black-beamed facades. These were even more remarkable since in many cases one end of the first floor was a foot or more higher than the other! I have to imagine that for modern use the core of the buildings has been rebuilt and only the extremely characterful shell of the original building remains. I’d not be surprised to find red brick out the back.

The town centre boasts all the usual High Street brands, ho hum. There is also a brilliant deli with an excellent selection of cheese and the butcher looked good (in addition to two butchers in the market area.) There’s also, surprisingly and amazingly, the best catering store I’ve ever seen in the UK!

The physical features of the town centre are a large square, used part-time for parking and otherwise for reasons unknown. The market area is elsewhere, down a passage from the main square. And on one side is the imposing edifice of the church, seeming much patched together and patched up over the centuries. The church is buffered by the usual graveyard an pleasant grassed grounds. Running to the east of the church is the tamed river Hiz, this bisects the town and runs under the market. I expect this river is actually a remnant, transformed to a channel (or drainage ditch) and now mostly subterranean. The name, Hiz, is pronounced Hitch – thus the name of the town. I’d expect it is better phrased as “pronounced Hitch in antiquity” since the modern phonetic pronunciation must surely be more common now.

We’ll probably pop along to Hitchin once more on the way home, to test out the accessibility by train.

Stevenage

The drive into Stevenage from Hitchin was short and we found ourselves on the main street of the Stevenage “Old Town” in less than 10 minutes. The street was OK but kind of devoid of life, it also seemed to not have any produce stores at all. We wandered the street but weren’t impressed.

We got back into the car and followed the signs to the Stevenage “town centre.” What a travesty of “new town” design, what a hideous beast they’ve built. This is a cold, dank, shell of a town center. A veritable zombie, no doubt actually consuming the brains of any unfortunate enough to inhabit the area.

We did note that Stevenage seems to have excellent provision for cycling. There is, what appears to be, a dedicated road network for cyclists (and walkers.) There’s also a large central parkland that is quite pleasant. However nothing we saw in Stevenage made up for the soulless horror of the so-called “town centre.”

It would seem that our interest in Stevenage is probably now damaged beyond repair.

Cambourne

Heading back to Cambridge we chose a route via an area named Cambourne, our interest in this being derived from the fact that it is supposed to be a hive of high-tech businesses. The actual business park in Cambourne seems small, but there is clearly room for it to expand, and massively (roads leading off into fields, and the like.) The buildings are all shiny, glassy, and new looking. The landscaping is elegant and involves a lot of water, always a points-winner in my book. In typical English “you are being watched” style there are CCTV cameras all over the place too, quite horrible in my opinion.

An interesting note is that along with the business park it seems a whole suburb has been built where I was expecting only business buildings. There seems to be far too great a capacity to serve just the small collection of commercial buildings in Cambourne so I wonder what area the population is supposed to serve. As far as the “town” goes, what we saw didn’t impress us, the place looked bleak. No character, no cafés, just a supermarket, a “fish and chicken” shop, an uninspiring pub, and a flock of real-estate vultures.

Cambourne is about a 20 minute drive from central Cambridge, and it took us 40 minutes to get up there from Hitchin. So the other thing about it is that it isn’t even really close to anywhere. The main road connections other than Cambridge seem to be St. Neot, and Royston, but both seem rather small so probably have little use for a population “overflow” town. There are bus services to Cambridge it seems, but there’s no train line in the area. Most interesting, for a high-tech business park, is that it must take 1.5 hours or more to get there from London. Maybe close access to Cambridge is enough though, I really don’t know.

The only think I can say for certain about Cambourne is that I wouldn’t want to live there… older, characterful, English towns are more my style. It does seem a pleasant working environment however.

I wrote the above paragraphs yesterday. I have two amusing notes to now add over lunch on Saturday. Last night we popped into an Indian place for dinner and by chance we overheard the two couples sitting next to us briefly discussing Cambourne. One of the men was a flight instructor and the other his pupil, the instructor was discussing the “mushrooming” of Cambourne with a note of certain horror in his voice. There was a clear agreement that the place seemed rather strange and difficult to understand, the only positive point voiced was “they have a Morrisons.” Morrisons is one of the smaller supermarket chains, not all that exciting I think.

The second note is that in one of this morning’s Cambridge newspapers there was an article on how these new housing estates are depressive. Cambourne was dubbed “Glumbourne” and the news was that they had to set up a specialist psych unit there to deal with the higher than average rates of depression. The theory, apparently a controversial one, is that these “new towns” are devoid of social structures and networks that many people are dependant on as an integral part of their happiness. In my opinion it could also be a case of the place looking terrible, being isolated, and having no cultural interest.

To Cambridge! Drizzle, Fishy Chats, and Horseshoes

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

I’ll attempt to make brief daily notes about our long, long, long weekend in Cambridge (and surrounds.) The alternative is to have grand designs on restaurant reviews, photographic mapping, and all sorts … which I ultimately never have time to complete.

We got up as if it were a work day this morning, out of bed at 06:00 and ready for the train by 07:00. A 07:15 from Rickmansworth got us to Kings Cross just before 08:00, just enough time to buy tickets from a machine and pop onto the 08:15 Cambridge express. We got a tiny bit lost in Kings Cross station and didn’t have time for a coffee, not even a quick-n-bad one, so I found myself arriving in Cambridge just after 09:00 and uncaffeinated. The trip was certainly speedy, 45 minutes all up and a good first exposure to train travel between London and Cambridge.

The first thing we realised on exiting the train was that it was damn cold, slightly damp, and windy. Typical English joy. Websites are predicting a minumum of -5 this weekend with possible snow. Spring! Anyway, we hopped onto a bus that took us to Cambridge Car and Van Rental on Newmarket Road, they’re directly opposite the National/Alamo car hire branch. (A vendor of cars that I’ll never use again since the branch in Watford ripped me off claiming I’d returned the car short on fuel even though they’d checked it in my presence when I dropped it off and ticked everything off. The branch claimed the charge wasn’t on their books, the head office said it was the branch’s responsibility, after several unfulfilled promises of action I gave up since the 20 quid wasn’t worth it. Abysmal customer service means they’ll never get any business from me again. Anyway…) We picked up our little red Mini Cooper D and hit the road for a 2 minute drive to a shopping-centre car-park to get our bearings. Then 5 minutes to dump the car at the hotel (too early for check-in) and a drizzly wander and bus ride into Cambridge centre.

In town we did my usual first-day thing and just wandered the streets, though the weather had us bouncing in and out of cafés (none good, mostly chains.) We browsed the permanent market found, sensibly, at Market Square. Wandered past the fronts of the main colleges and down a few narrow and intriguing alleys. Did a loop around the back of the colleges, crossing the Cam twice and spying a few rained-upon tourists taking punt-tours (I guess they’d taken a punt on the weather clearing a little … not their morning.)

After a couple of hours of this wandering and espresso-hopping we found ourselves at the Fitzwilliam Museum, a welcome refuge. The Fitzwilliam is, it seems, a museum worth either devoting either a whole day to (very tiring), or several visits. We only explored the Egyptian collection in detail before skimming over the more modern ancients and the ceramics collection. A couple of hours was enough to take in the Egyptian rooms in some detail and give Greece and Rome a reasonable treatment too. On the way out we took in a little of the porcelain, pottery, far east, and armoury collections and they’d be worth revisiting.

Now it was about 16:00 and we were both rather hungry! I was suggesting we grab something quick at a sandwich bar, but the Kat spied fish. The wander from the museum back to the main bus stops leads you past Loch Fyne, a purveyor of fishy delights (so you’re lead to believe, they’re actually one of a largish chain of seafood restaurants based around the Loch Fyne branding.) There are two sides to the Loch Fyne story, and I’ll start with the food – it wasn’t false marketing, they are rather good. While we didn’t try the “Probably the best Fish & Chips in Cambridge” we did go their Thai Mussel Pot, it was well done though a few of the shell dwellers were on the gritty side. We also had a second course each. Kat went for a Dressed Crab, this simple dish met with her approval – and it’s reassuring to know your crab isn’t rude. I had char-grilled lightly smoked salmon with a shellfish, mushroom, and whisky sauce (a creamy reduction), very rich and highly recommended. I must admit though that my meal was really a bit much for lunch (even at 16:30) and this was of some concern since I’d booked a table in a restaurant for 19:30! Oops!

The second side to the Loch Fyne story isn’t at all fishy. Shortly after we were seated an older gentleman was seated quite near us. He was eating alone and overheard us chatting about the food and gave us some suggestions, it seems he’s a regular and knew the menu well. Anyway, we got to talking and had a far ranging discussion over our meals, it was quite joyous. My life seriously lacks good discussions. It turns out the chap is an architect, both professionally and academically – he’s responsible for a lot of design around the University, especially music venues. He has his own firm (in partnership) and also teaches at Cambridge. He’s travelled a lot, seems to know a great many notable people (probably hard not to after a lifetime in Cambridge, and I suspect he has a titled, or at least highly moneyed, family background.) The discussion ranged from architecture, of course, to business, economics, politics, and sociology. Covering the near, Cambridge’s history and place in British politics and economics, to the far, far-east economics & sociology, and problems in Africa. This chance encounter alone has raised my interest in Cambridge phenomenally, and after less than a day in the city.

Our architect had a lot of advice to offer about Cambridge too, and brought the direct Cambridge to Liverpool Street Station rail link to my attention and the news that higher speed links are planned for it. This could bring living in (or nearer to) Cambridge into the realm of possibility, since Kat’s work (and the City in general) is a short walk from Liverpool Street Station. He also had a lot of advice on where to eat (by chance we’d wandered into one of the best as far as he was concerned), where to stay, what to see, and even where to buy a house (as if we could afford that!)

Eventually we had to move on, we said our goodbyes and best wishes then headed for the buses. First we caught the wrong bus and rode a full loop of its route, a little interesting but mostly a waste of time. We eventually got back to the hotel at around 19:00, checked in, then jumped in the car to head out for dinner.

Dinner was at a place nearby that was recommended by a friend: The Three Horseshoes in Madingly. It’s a small pub up the front and a restaurant out the back and is only about a 5 to 10 minute drive from central Cambridge. The recommendation was a good one, we enjoyed our dinner (as hard as it was to squeeze it in on top of lunch.) The hour grows late so I’ll have to rush this, though I think the place deserves a more detailed treatment. First I had a carpaccio of seared peppered tuna – quite brilliant. Kat had mozzarella, with asparagus and rocket – each component near perfect, though a very large amount of mozzarella for an “antipasti.” For a main I had char grilled veal liver on a warm legume salad – the liver was juicy and pink (and I verified in advance that it was British veal), very good but quite a large serve. Kat had Gnocchi alla Romana – these were quite unlike “normal” gnocchi and Kat seemed unimpressed, though that could mainly be down to their overzealous salting (crystals of sea salt on top, probably a bit too much really, and Kat likes salty food.) Since they make their own desserts we had to give something a go, and that was the pannacotta with prunes in grappa. Divine pannacotta! I’m a bit indifferent to the prunes. We ventured espresso, it was good but too long, the usual story – I suspect that these quite decent restaurants in England get good coffee and good machines but then go and make espresso as it is expected to be by the English (too long by far.)

All in all it’s been a good day.

CentOS 5.1 netinstall Woes

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

On attempting to install CentOS 5.1 using the “netinstall” ISO I had an annoying problem. Not long into the install process I was met with something like:

The file pam_krb5-2.2.14-1.i386.rpm cannot be opened.  This is due
to a missing file, a corrupt package or corrupt media.  Please
verify your installation source.

...

The options provided to either “Retry” or “Reboot” (default).

But I’m using netinstall, how can it be corrupt?! My netinstall source was UK Mirror Service which should be pretty reliable I’d expect. Anyway, I persisted in hitting “Retry” and eventually it seems it got pam_krb5-2.2.14-1.i386.rpm downloaded OK. Then a few seconds later I hit the same problem with rcs-5.7-30.1.i386.rpm, a few “Retry“s later the problem moves onto another package. This problem occurred for:

  • pam_krb5-2.2.14-1.i386.rpm
  • rcs-5.7-30.1.i386.rpm
  • libICE-1.0.1-2.1.i386.rpm
  • mintetty-1.07-5.2.2.i386.rpm
  • sqlite-3.3.6-2.i386.rpm

I have no idea why this happened.

The message is: If you get the above error trying to do a CentOS “netinstall” just keep hitting “Retry” (even if it repeatedly fails on the same package.)

Have Phorm?

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

“Have form?” That’s the phrase that popped into mind when I first saw the name of this new “Phorm” company that’s recently found itself on the uncomfortable side of Internet privacy debates. I don’t know if the phrase is all that common, but if you grew up watching The Bill you probably know what I’m taking about, I think it’s Pommie police slang. Anyway, back to Phorm, It turns out they do have “form” … they even changed their name over it, from “121Media.” Under their earlier moniker they distributed something called “PeopleOnPage” which was widely proclaimed to be “spyware” (though some, including Phorm, debate that it is really just “adware” – I’ve made no attempt to determine whether I think it is one or the other myself, though based on the removal instructions it seems somewhat benign at least.)

What’s the story now? It turns out that they dumped the so-called spyware in favour of moving the spying to ISPs. (They have an “ain’t we good” story about how they bravely dumped the adware business, risking the potential wrath of their shareholders.) What’s more they’ve already signed on all the major UK providers, and have even run live integration tests! This leaked out recently and has caused quite a stir, first with The Register and now it’s even hit the mainstream news (thanks somewhat to The Netfather, Berners-Lee, expressing concern about it.) Phorm are also chasing deals in the US (not that people in the US have any privacy left to loose) and I’m sure Australia will be on the list too (and then the world! Murwahahahaarrr!)

Phorm’s executive did a pretty open and revealing interview with The Register, and on the face of it the technology seems pretty “privacy safe.” But a) would you really believe it’ll be flawless? And b) what’s the guarantee it’ll stay that way? The idea is that keywords are extracted from the URLs you request (i.e. search string) and the response data, this is filtered to remove “sensitive” content (sure, I bet that is really reliable – though if you’re sending sensitive data over a non-HTTPS connection you get what you deserve.) These keywords are used to categorise the browsing session, then ad delivery is tuned for this categorisation. I’m unclear as to whether they’re going to inject ads into pages (ick!) or if the information will only be used to tune ads on pages that use Phorm as an ad source.

All in all it’s somewhat interesting, but ads are ads and my ad filter means I never see the things anyway. How about this “you are being watched” aspect then? Frankly, it surprises me that anyone would think they can expect much privacy in their online wanderings. Every page you visit has embedded ads from a small handful of providers, do you think they don’t track some sort of “profile” and can track your transitions between the pages of their vast number of clients? (Check your cookies sometime and note the likes of “adclick”, and probably even things like “sextracker”!) Note that this sort of cookie technique will make even something like tor fairly useless in hiding your online “profile.”

What’s most amusing is that Phorm claim is be creating a revolution in privacy? Golly, I wish I had the time to research further into exactly how they explain that one. “Doesn’t store any personally identifiable information,” we’ve heard that before and even when it’s said in good conscience it can turn out to be far more identifiable than expected (remember the AOL search queries release that gave enough information for reporter to track someone to their home?) They seem to claim to not store any information at all, which sounds hopeful and would be good … but it doesn’t seem like much of a revolution! I think they may have been better off being open about things but not going to far as to put on the mangle of Internet freedom fighters, this just makes them a juicy target.

Anyway, if you do want some privacy, with caveats that I don’t have time to go into, then:

  1. Use tor
  2. Disable cookies

It’s fun to see how much of the web doesn’t work without cookies though! Or you could make them “always ask”, and find out how annoying that is. It could be nice to disallow cookies for any site other than the one displayed in your URL-bar (i.e. disallow for iframes, popups too would make sense), I don’t know if there’s a browser plugin for this though (sounds like we might need one.)

Personally, I mostly gave up on the “ad tracking” privacy issue a long time ago. I don’t expect that noisy privacy advocates, or even legislation, will change things much. Much like many other online security issues it is the very nature and design of the Internet that makes these things possible; want to redesign the whole Internet? Anyone? (Yes, I know people are trying, etc.) When it comes to the legal enforcement of these things it always seems to break apart at international borders, little surprise there. Finally, the tighter control schemes that may have some effect get the privacy advocates screaming as well! I.e. moving monitoring, ads (i.e. Phorm), security, and similar measures to the ISP – net neutrality anyone? And why is some random ISP any more trustworthy than doubleclick anyway?

All that said, I do personally bounce all my web browsing through a foreign end-point (but I don’t bother with tor) and I use a cookie blacklist. (The bounce is mainly because proxying via a machine somewhere in Europe, using an SSH port-forward, is actually faster than direct browsing over my Talk Talk connection. Yes, it’s insane.) Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any privacy to be had or expected when it comes to the “web”, as sad as that seems. That said, you can and should expect that data sent to sites (via HTTPS) is kept safe and secure – when this expectation is broken, then is it worth raising all kinds of hell!

It’s a wild world out there on the ‘net … it allows the bad guys to do bad, but also allows the good guys to do good, and, really, this is the way I like it. Some are a kind of geek equivalent to cowboys and know how to look after themselves, everyone else? Easy targets… who we should try to protect and educate.

[For the record: Personally, I don’t like the Phorn idea and I’d prefer them to be shown the door and thoroughly booted out of ISPs. But, realistically, I don’t think this would improve (or degrade) anyone’s privacy. I’m not so keen on the “we own our browsing” history argument from the privacy advocates though. Everything seems to turn to ownership eventually, I suspect this is one of the great problems with the way humans see the world. Things, even the metaphysical, must belong to someone.]

Marketing Weekends

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

Weekend Angst

I get a bit upset when I have what I consider a “zero productivity” weekend. This is one of those weekends, so now I’ll try and band-aid the mental wound with these inadequate words.

On the topic of productivity, first in line to qualify is having written some code, something I spend some time doing on many weekends. Usually this ends up being something related to work, which doesn’t bother me at all. In a way it is my attempt to ease the feeling of “behindness” that almost all software developers seem to suffer from. (AFAIC if your work and your lifestyle don’t fit together “synergisticly” you’re probably in the wrong game.) Not having done any such work this weekend hurts more than usual since I ended up taking unscheduled leave on Friday, by the time I’d lost more than half the day to unforeseen complications there was little hope of rescuing it. I could, maybe I should, be doing something about that now, I’m already feeling bad about it.

Next most common, after work-code, is code related to an entry on this site. I usually have 3 “in development” entries sitting around waiting for some time, typically only 1 of these will see the light of day though as the time it takes to write such entries often wears out the original inspiration. That’s one of the problems of course, to really achieve something takes time. Technical writing more so than other things as it is in my nature to try and be as complete as possible, if there’s code I’ll have usually ensured it compiles and runs at every stage, if it’s more general I’ll get lost chasing things into every nook and cranny — but I’ll get things wrong despite all this.

A third sort of code is “random project” code, but I’m less good at getting into these as I just never have a long enough run of time available to really get stuck in and achieve something… there’s a whole list of Django playing I want/need to do. That’s the advantage of playing at a little technical writing, it may take hours … but it doesn’t usually take days. I’ve downloaded the Android SDK three times now and have all kinds of ideas bubbling around for that, but where’s the time?

After code and related technical writing on my “productivity check-list” is any other writing. These here words count, and it’s my last-ditch effort to have done something this weekend that I can consider productive. Admittedly it isn’t a very good effort, but it’ll have to do. It always strikes me as unusual that I do spend so much time writing (OK, typing) since transforming thoughts into words and those words into sentences really isn’t one of my skills. When it comes to writing I’m generally inadequate and slow (there goes more time!) At times it really pains me, maybe this is why I do it, a form of psychological masochism. People who write well garner my greatest respect, and there’s no guilty pleasure quite like reading their words. So here I am, aping their efforts, much like an orang-utan who’s grown up to think itself human.

The final things I consider properly productive are cooking, especially experimentally, and exploring. However both of these don’t really blossom into flowers of accomplishment until I’ve written about them. They can be considered guilty pleasures for which a certain atonement can be gained through the act of documentation. (Much like code in a certain respect: there’s a lot of fun to be had in the quick hacks that get things working but then comes the “cleanup”, which is rarely much fun.) When it comes to cooking the atonement will often take twice as long as the sin, this, I guess, is only proper.

I introduced this entry saying that this weekend has not been a productive one, in fact last weekend was rather abysmal as well. I did get the roast hare entry out at least, but I didn’t get much else done (my backlog is depressingly huge and may be in need of a purgative dose of rm.) I’m not at all comfortable with these “documentary of my life” types of entries, it is truly bloggy laden with all the derogatory connotations of pulp. But there you go I guess, now that I’ve offloaded this small chip of angst in far too many words I’ll continue with some true bloggishness. I’ll try to keep the rest short at least.

Last Weekend: Chicken, Markets, and Minis…

We kicked off our weekend by picking up a little free-range organic chicken from our favourite local butcher, Hamblings. Mr (or, maybe, Miss) Chicken went into the fridge and we wandered up to the only real farmers’ market that seems to happen in these parts. The market takes place at the Rose & Crown, Ricky’s best, but unfortunately distant (30 minute walk), pub. The market tends to be on the smaller side, but it’s better than nothing. As an added bonus the Rose serves good food and has good beer.

Market Produce

Market Produce

At the market we picked up a small selection of veggies to go with the dinner, some onions, beetroot, white carrots, and a swede. All but the latter were roasted, the beetroot first peeled, rubbed with olive oil, wrapped in foil and in the oven at 170°C for 90 minutes then left in while the chicken roasted – truly the best way to do a beetroot I believe. The swede turned out to be quite a revelation! Not something I’ve ever bought in fact, very foolish of me. Anyway, chopped it up and boiled it in loads of water (along with 3 little new potatoes I had lying around) to which I’d added a tablespoon of balsamic, a tablespoon of sugar, and a chicken stock cube. When the swede and potatoes were soft I passed them through the medium disc on the food mill. I stirred though a good knob of butter and half a tablespoon of balsamic. A most excellent substitute for dreary old mashed potato!

The chicken was rubbed down in plenty (100g) of butter that’d been mixed with loads of finely chopped lemon thyme and oregano. Blasted in a 210° oven for 20 minutes, wined (into the pan, not over the chicken), turned down to 180°C and left for a further 30 minutes, then rested in the open oven for another 20 minutes. Divine! One roast dinner, chicken for an omelette the next morning, more carcass pickings for a roll each later in the day, and the carcass into the freezer for a future stock. (Despite all this I still consider the weekend to be a failure for productivity, I’m insane? Probably.)

Roast Chicken

Roast Chicken

Most of the rest of the weekend was spent in a state of near-catatonic worry and stress over moving, transport, and the future. I don’t think I achieved much at all on any of these fronts, except maybe that I kind of like the convertible Mini Cooper model. We may give in an get a car you see, especially if we move somewhere less connected than Ricky (heh, that’d almost be difficult.) There’s so much difficulty in the whole car thing though, first of all: they cost so much; secondly: fuel, insurance, and maintenance mean they just keep on costing. One debate: to get an older and cheaper but less efficient car; or a new, expensive, and sub-100gm/km car (no Mini quite makes this grade though, but they’re close enough AFAIC.)

It’ll probably never happen, I’m just too adverse to spending money. Another of my insanities.

Almost forgot something. At the market we tried and enjoyed several delicacies from Fat Man Chilli and had a chat with the men themselves about growing chillies in the UK (versus Australia). We came away with a bottle of green chilli sauce (coriander, ginger) and a jar of chilli, apple, and calvaos jelly. We also picked up two bottles of scrumpy windfall-apple cider from Millwhites Cider, we later wished we’d picked up a few more bottles!

This Weekend: Real Ale, Bags, and These Very Words…

The current weekend breaks down to two significant occurrences. On Saturday we finally made our way to the Land of Liberty, Peace & Plenty. It is truly a sin that we haven’t been there before! It takes a little longer to get to than the Rose & Crown and is much closer to Chorleywood than Ricky so I’m calling it the area’s best pub (and the Rose & Crown can retain its title of “Ricky’s Best Pub”.) You don’t have to take my word for this though, they were a finalist for the CAMRA pub of the year, and are the Watford branch pub of the year (for the third year running.) Six real ales on tap, I managed to squeeze three in (including a very good stout that wasn’t on tap yet). Kat had just one, but that’s because she tried the Perry and a half of a cloudy Scrumpy (both very good.)

I want to write much more about this, but time runs short. It’s a great pub and goes on the “reasons to stay in this area” list that’s causing me much stress at the moment. We also planned to drop out to Wendover to visit their farmers market, but the 30 minute train ride, horrible weather, and £16 train fare were a total turn-off. A pity, since we could have grabbed some more of that cider there. There’s something wrong with the economics of paying that much to travel somewhere by train when it costs a fraction of that for someone with a car and in the end you’re probably going to come back with less than 16 quid’s worth of goods!

The second significant occurrence for this weekend was today’s trip into London. We popped along to Spitalfield market. This market really didn’t excite me much, the best thing about it I guess is that it runs on Sunday when most other things aren’t open. That said, we did achieve the goal that prompted us to make the trip: bags! Given my continual resistance to spending money I live with things beyond even the point that they fall apart, I’ll go ages without something once it has died. I’ve needed a decent satchel for a long while, I’ve been using a black enviro-bag with Supré branding for the last year (it’s a good thing the brand isn’t recognised here of I’d probably have been mobbed and beaten to death by skin heads (if you pay attention to UK news it appears that getting beaten to death by skinheads|gangs|chavs|whathaveyou isn’t uncommon here.)) Meanwhile Kat’s preferred bags have all fallen apart (and Kat has much the same problem I have when it comes to buying things.) Some catalyst was required to push us over our spending hang-ups.

The catalyst, most geeky, was BoingBoing. A short while ago they posted a link to Stabo because they were making some funky trousers made from old army tents. While the trousers were interesting I found the bags on their site more alluring, fairly rough but robust looking items. In the flesh the bags are as good as they looked, they certainly seem tough and have a rough sort of charm that appeals to me. So I now have a bag, it happens to fit my largish laptop quite well too. Stabo make these (and other goods) themselves, here in the UK (up in Cambridgeshire) and try to source materials sustainably and locally. Kat wasn’t as keen on the Stabo bags (a little heavy, and maybe a little too uncomplicated;) and the other stall with leather bags that interested us had unfortunately used rather smelly leather (cheap leather I assume, it smelt a little like a tannery – if you’ve never smelt a tannery be thankful.) Kat did find herself something she liked though, a roomy canvas job that seems quite sturdy.

Bags

Bags

Next Weekend: Life, the M25, and everything…

There’s a saying about Londoners, it’s: The Universe doesn’t end at the M25. The M25 is a motorway around the whole of greater London, it probably takes 2 hours to do the full ring (in the unlikely case that the traffic is flowing fairly well the whole way around.) We’re inside the M25, barely, and funnily enough when it comes to moving this bituminous border seems a force-field of almost impregnable strength.

I may be breaking the barrier down however. On and off I’ve been researching non-Ricky living alternatives, and my latest “find” is Stevenage. This is well outside the aforementioned edge-of-the-world but is, in a way, closer to London city than we are. The train from Stevenage to Kings Cross takes nearly 25 or 30 minutes, so Kat could probably get to work from there faster than she does at the moment (40 minutes to Kings Cross, then onward a few stations.)

What else has Stevenage got going got it? It’s on the Cambridge line, 45 minutes to Cambridge. Even though it’s overground rather than the tube the travel cost will only be a little more than getting from Ricky to the City. It has a pub that has won the CAMRA “North Herts pub of the year” award two years running, Our Mutual Friend (can’t find a website.) They have a farmers market, I don’t know if it is more often than monthly but monthly is the best we get here anyway. It looks like there’s a lot of green-space around the place.

There’s possible negatives too. Though the train trip is fast it doesn’t look like we’d be able to live anywhere near the station (it isn’t in a residential area.) It could be even more of a late-night-drunken-chav town than Ricky (possible?) While it all looks very green it doesn’t look particularly forested.

Too many questions, so we resolved to take a more direct approach. We’ll be spending next weekend (the whole long weekend) in Cambridge. To add to the “tasting things” aspect I’ve arranged to hire a Mini Cooper D(iesel) for the whole weekend too. So we’ll be exploring Stevenage, Cambridge, and surrounds for four (or more) days. It’ll be fun! Though I’ll be stressing the whole time about the lack of productivity, se la vie. It’d be nice if the weather wasn’t so horrible next weekend, but I expect it’ll suck.

I’ll be trying to relax a bit over the long weekend, but I expect it won’t help much. We’ve given our notice for May 5th, a date that’ll be upon us like a speeding Kenworth. That’s life for you though… incessantly being run down by semi-trailers.

(I’ve spent more than two hours writing these silly notes… I knew I’d feel bad about it in the end and I do. sigh)

Reflection

It is perhaps somewhat disingenuous to suggest I’ve had an idle weekend. We’ve been up around 09:00 both days, explored and enjoyed a highly rated local pub with excellent real ales, done our shopping, taken a trip into London, explored a previously unvisited market, bought ourselves entirely utilitarian goods, done a little cleaning, organised a “weekend break” in Cambridge, and I’ve read half a book of collected and annotated H.P. Lovecraft stories, and cooked three meals including 14 serves of cauliflower soup that’ll last us a couple of weeks. breath Still, I feel a deep sense of failure, in my mind the weekend has been one devoid of desirable achievement.

(Yet I continue to waste my time on these words! It’s a curious and nostalgic dilemma, the feeling is much like that of University-era procrastination — doing things other than the things we know we should be doing.)